Brewing Wild Ales in the Basement – A visit to Block 15 Brewing

Corvallis, Oregon is one of America’s quintessential college towns. It’s bounded by the Willamette River to the east and the highest peak in the Coastal Mountain range to the west. The Pacific Coast, the Cascade Mountains and Portland are all within two hours driving distance. It has the kind of natural beauty and geographic diversity that you can’t find in Ohio. Unlike Eugene, home to the rival Oregon Ducks, Corvallis is clean, leans conservative (in the classical definition of that term), and a bit sleepy when the undergraduates are out of town [1]. Corvallis was also my home from 1991–1996; formative years that cultured a love, some would say obsession, for craft beer. Those were early years for breweries like Deschutes, Rogue, Bridgeport, and Widmer, all of which were widely available in the Willamette Valley at the time. Coming from the Southeast Idaho, where the beer selection didn’t extend beyond macro lagers, Corvallis was a beery wonderland.

Corvallis has some impressive, if unconventional, beer credentials. It’s home to the USDA hop breeding program, the birthplace of Cascade hops (among others), and one of the oldest fermentation science programs in the country at Oregon State University. Yet in terms of breweries Corvallis didn’t have much to speak of until relatively recently. In my days there was only the tiny Oregon Trail Brewery, housed in the quirky Old World Deli on 2nd Street. They made a tasty witbier, but were a nanobrewery before anyone used that term. Corvallis had a McMenamins brewpub downtown, but then again so did dozens of other Oregon cities. It wasn’t until 2008 when Nick and Kristen Arzner opened Block 15 Brewing that Corvallis could claim to have a brewery that warranted the attention of beer lovers from other parts of the Beaver State.

Last October I journeyed back to Corvallis for a meeting at Oregon State University. It was a perfect opportunity to take a closer look at Block 15. Jeff Alworth (author of The Beer Bible, Secrets of the Master Brewers, The Widmer Way, the Beervana Blog and Podcast) put me in touch with owner Nick Arzner, who was kind enough to take some time out of a busy Thursday afternoon to show me around his brewery.

After a lunch with Jeff at the now defunct Burnside Brewing in Portland, I got in my rental car and headed south on I-5, arriving in Corvallis 90 minutes later. It was a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon. As I arrived Nick was just finishing up brewing a batch of beer at the downtown brewpub. He tells me they’ve brewed nearly 2000 batches at the brewpub. That they’ve reached this number in a decade tells you that it didn’t take long for Block 15 to catch on in Corvallis. He asks if I would like some liquid refreshment while we talk. Jeff spoke highly of their pilsner, Gloria, and he’s a man who knows his way around a pilsner. I’m a sucker for an authentic pilsner and this one’s worth seeking out. We grab a couple of seats near a window that looks out at the Dairy Queen that occupies the opposite corner of 3rd and Jefferson, and I ask Nick if he can bring me up to speed on Block 15.

The Origin Story

Nick was born in Eugene and grew up in Albany, but left the Willamette Valley in his teens for the Midwest, attending high school in Bloomington, Indiana. In 1998 around the time I moved to Ohio, he came back to Corvallis with his wife who chose to continue her college education at Oregon State University. After growing accustomed to the likes of Upland Brewing in Bloomington he was surprised to find that Corvallis didn’t have a more active brewing scene. The seeds of what would become Block 15 were planted then, as he looked to combine his experience in the restaurant industry with a serious homebrewing hobby. It took almost a decade for that dream to become a reality, but in 2008 Nick and Kristen signed the lease on a retail space in downtown Corvallis that became the Block 15 Brewpub.

Nick told me from the beginning that he didn’t want to open another brewpub serving the same six beers – pale ale, IPA, amber, blonde, porter/stout, and a seasonal. That might sound far fetched to readers who have no memory of late 20th century breweries, but that would have described many places 10-20 years ago (those have now been replaced by places serving six different varieties of IPA). One factor leading to the relative homogeneity of brewpub offerings was the widespread practice of using the same house yeast strain for every beer. Inspired in part by a visit to Dragonmead Brewing outside of Detroit, where they had 50 beers on tap, Nick realized that a brewpub could color outside the lines. Early on he committed to have a Belgian-style beer on tap, starting with a dubbel, Specular Reflections, a beer that is still part of the Block 15 lineup. Before long they were juggling a half-dozen yeast strains and offering a double digit number of house beers on tap at any given time.

The brewpub was successful almost immediately. They brought in Steve van Rossem (now at Plank Town Brewing in Springfield, OR) from McMenamins to concentrate on the everyday beers, while Nick researched and experimented on more exotic styles. Within a couple of years they were putting imperial stouts in Pappy van WInkle bourbon barrels [2] and had installed a coolship in the basement.

Block 15 Taphandles
With 17 house beers on tap there’s something for everyone to enjoy at Block 15.

Brewing Wild Ales in the Basement

Block 15 has been brewing wild ales, including spontaneously fermented Lambic-style beers, since 2010. Sours have grown in popularity considerably over the past few years, but back in 2010 there weren’t many breweries in that game—Russian River, Lost Abbey, Upland, Jolly Pumpkin, and a few others. The centerpiece of the unpredictable art of spontaneous fermentation is the coolship, a wide, shallow metal holding tank where the hot wort is left to cool while exposed to the ambient air. At the Lambic breweries near Brussels, and every American brewery I’ve previously visited (Allagash, Little Fish, de Garde), the coolship is located in a room where the windows can be opened to let the cool night air drift in, inoculating the wort with wild yeast and bacteria. Lambic brewing champion Frank Boon is quoted on the Beervana podcast as saying that historically English breweries were sited on hilltops to minimize the influence of airborne microflora, while Lambic brewers preferred to site their breweries in river valleys to achieve the exact opposite. Running entirely counter to this bit of conventional wisdom, the coolship at Block 15 is located in a windowless basement.

About halfway through my interview we head down into the basement to see first-hand where the wild ales are made. Low ceilings, cramped quarters, small interconnected rooms, and the complete lack of sunlight are very reminiscent of the venerable Barley’s Brewing back in Columbus. The first room we encounter contains the 7 bbl brewhouse where both clean and sour beers start their life. A full-size Belgian flag hangs over the door to the walk-in cooler. Nick tells me that before they opened the production facility in south Corvallis they were brewing 1200 bbl per year on this system, but now they’ve scaled back to 600-700 bbl. When they make wort for one of the spontaneously fermented beers they use a traditional turbid mash. Those are long brew days he tells me, three shirt days.

Block 15 Basement Brewhouse
Brewing in the basement.

Next, we make our way into what I’ll call the coolship room. The stainless steel coolship, which holds 7 bbl (~220 gallons) of wort is not as shallow as other examples I’ve seen. There are dozens of oak barrels laying on their side to the right of the coolship. A stuffed deer head, mounted on the wall above the barrels, overlooks the entire process. I ask Nick if there are any tricks to making spontaneously fermented beers in a windowless basement. He scoffs at the notion that the desirable bugs come from anywhere other than the exposed surfaces of the brewery (walls, rafters, ceilings, etc.) and the barrels where the beer is fermented. He tells me that over the years they’ve doused all of the exposed wood in this room with some of their favorite wild ales to nudge natural selection in the right direction.

When you don’t depend on the outside air as a source of wild yeast, you don’t have to limit your brewing to a specific time of day or even of the year. After filling the coolship they leave the hot wort to cool, exposed to the air, for roughly 24 hours, before putting the beer in oak barrels. Each 7 bbl batch produces enough wort to fill three oak barrels. Block 15 makes blended beers in the vein of a Lambic gueuze both with and without fruit. All the fruited beers are made from fresh, locally sourced whole fruit. Following a tip he received from Pierre Tilquin, Nick has been experimenting with a procedure that involves “over fruiting the shit out of a young beer” and blending it with the older unfruited beer to get just the right level of fruitiness. Nick pulls a sample out of one of the barrels and we try a small sip of a kriek that’s been fermenting for about a year. It’s dry, tart, vinous, with a hint of almond from the pits of the cherries. I didn’t get that kind of treatment when I visited Cantillon.

Block 15 Coolship
The coolship.

From there we enter yet another room. In this one, oak barrels stacked two-high take up just about every inch of floor space, leaving just enough room to walk between them. Block 15 has an extensive barrel program, with barrels of all types for different beers, but the wild ales are aged in used wine barrels. Oregon has an well established wine industry so these are easy to come by. According to Nick the wineries are happy to trade empty wine barrels for filled containers of beer.

After the tour I grab a seat at the bar for a bit more research. They’ve got 17 beers on tap, spanning a wide variety of styles as promised – multiple IPAs, a fresh hop beer, two lagers, two stouts, a fruited wheat beer, a red ale, and a Belgian dubbel. There’s a nitro tap and a beer engine. This is a place that aspires to do many things and doesn’t believe in cutting corners on any of them. Despite the plethora of options, once again the choice is easy, the spontaneously fermented Turbulent Consequences Cassis (black currant). Like the Lambic beers it aspires to, this beer is tart with a complex acidity that stops short of bracing. Bright fruit flavors pop, both from a year in contact with black currants and from the esters formed from the Brettanomyces-driven reactions between alcohols and carboxylic acids. It’s simultaneously elegant and approachable. I guess Nick is right, you don’t need windows and night breezes to make first rate wild ales.

Block 15 Barrels
Barrels of beer occupy seemingly every inch of available space in the maze of interconnected rooms below the brewpub.

South Corvallis Expansion

Five years ago the Arzners opened Caves, a upscale gastropub located next to the brewpub. Caves pairs fine dining with great beers, including but not limited to Block 15 beers. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in Oregon. Nearly three years ago they opened a production facility in south Corvallis, not far from where I used to live. Corvallis is no Oakland or Detroit, marijuana may be legal but graffiti is rare. There are no neighborhoods where I would feel unsafe walking alone at night, but if you were pressed to name a working-class neighborhood you’d have to say south Corvallis [3].

The production facility is housed in a large metal building near highway 99. Undeveloped fields lie to the west, with the Coastal Mountains as a backdrop. It features a 20 bbl brewhouse and a variety of fermenters in sizes that range from 20 to 80 bbls. Last year they produced 6500 bbls, which allows their beer to be distributed throughout the Willamette Valley and beyond. Block 15 self-distributes, and not over a small range either. With 7 full time employees working on sales and distribution you can find their beers in retail outlets from Seattle to Southern Oregon. When I asked Nick what factors drove them to self-distribute he tells me that it just makes sense for a mid-size brewery. That may be true, but I have a hunch that maintaining control over as many aspects of the business as possible is part of his DNA.

Block 15 South Corvallis Brewery
A side view of the production facility and taproom in South Corvallis.

On my second night in Corvallis I decide to check out the spacious taproom at the production facility. Over the course of two sampler trays I try their acclaimed DIPA (Sticky Hands), a hazy NE IPA (Fluffhead), and a fresh hop IPA (Amarillo Fresh Hop). They are all as good as advertised, with Fluffhead nudging out the others for my favorite. I run into Kurt Stevens, a friend, homebrewer and beer lover from Seattle, who is in town for the same meeting that brought me here. Kurt tells me that whenever he comes down to Corvallis, he always brings home a case of Sticky Hands for his friends. He adds, it never lasts very long.

For the second sampler tray I go for less conventional offerings. I’m enamored with the Berliner Weiss, which has a subtle but delicious Brett kiss at the finish. I’m intrigued by the enigma of Bruxwood, the only Brett lager I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know what to expect, but it turns out to be so good I’m thinking of trying that style as a homebrewer. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but the best beer might just be the Pumpkin Pie beer on nitro.

Block 15 Menu Board
The menu board at the South Corvallis taproom on the day I visited.

Closing Thoughts

I walked away from Block 15 extremely impressed. Nick Arzner’s taste in beer is obviously as promiscuous as the most avid beer geek, and when he and the team at Block 15 set their mind to perfect a style they don’t mess around. They may not be a household name outside of Oregon, but in my humble opinion they are one of the most interesting and accomplished breweries in the Pacific Northwest. With their emphasis on controlled growth and a commitment to quality over hype I’m optimistic that I will be able to look forward to creative beer and good food whenever I’m lucky enough to return to Corvallis, and that’s no small thing.

Endnotes

[1] With an enrollment of 25,000 students Oregon State University is a dominant force in a city whose population just tops 50,000 full time residents.

[2] He tells me Buffalo Trace would give away for free back in those days. He just had to arrange transportation to Oregon.

[3] An even better answer would be Albany, but technically that’s not Corvallis.

Block 15 Cooper

Block 15 Barrel Room Door
This door opens into the barrel room. Those who have been to Cantillon will recognize the saying on barrel lid.

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