Walla Walla has long enjoyed a reputation for fine wines, but its history with beer goes back even further. One of the oldest breweries in the Northwest was started in downtown Walla Walla around the 1860s (the exact date is disputed).
It took over a hundred years for Walla Walla to have its first modern brewery when Mill Creek Brewpub opened in 1997, shaking the little city free from the grip of the big-three breweries that dominated the nation after Prohibition.
Gary Johnson, a Walla Walla native and longtime restaurateur, started the Brewpub with home-brewing friend Jack Riehl after discovering a love of craft beer. In its 20-year history, the producer, under the name Big House Brewing, has had three head brewers, staying consistent with four standard offerings plus a rotating seasonal.
Fast-forward to today, and you might say the Valley’s brewing scene is, along with the rest of the nation, undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Eight more breweries hit the scene in the last decade, and another is in the works.
Burwood Brewing Company, opened in 2014 at the incubator complex at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, is the largest of the new players, and is slated to move to a larger facility this spring, nearly doubling its size.
Head brewer and owner David Marshall brings over 20 years of experience in the wine-and-beer industry. He was master brewer at Pyramid Breweries in Seattle before moving to Walla Walla with his wife and co-owner, Jennifer, who also has experience in the industry. It’s this background, plus a passion for the craft — and the many trips to Germany Marshall spent studying his favorite style of beer — that give Burwood’s brews their depth of flavor.
Burwood’s focus is on German-style beers, “with some continental European beers thrown in when I can,” David Marshall says. Some American-style brews, like IPA, sneak into the rotation as well. Find his fine-crafted offerings at Burwood’s laid back taproom, or in restaurants around town and other cities east of the Cascades.
Another brewery with a European bent can be found across the Oregon state line in Milton-Freewater. Down a dirt drive, overlooking the Blue Mountains, is Dragon’s Gate Brewing, opened in 2011 by owners/brewers Adam and Jen Gregory. This seven-barrel brewery focuses on farmhouse-style Belgian beers. Its four core brews and rotating seasonals incorporate hops from their own garden and the Yakima area, Belgian-grown grains and unique strains of yeast.
“I love yeast. Each style has very distinct flavors,” Adam Gregory says of the seven strains he uses in his brews. He’s working on starting his own wild-yeast program and has been experimenting with spontaneous fermentation and barrel-aging.
Find his brews each Saturday, with a legion of local followers, in the small medieval-themed taproom beside two full suits of armor, or in Walla Walla at The Ox & Cart and Olive Marketplace and Café. You can taste Dragon’s Gate’s beers in some unexpected ways too — including in cheeses by Walla Walla Cheese Company and paired with chocolates from Petits Noirs for Valentine’s Day.
Nosdunk Brewing Company, opened in 2012 and among the smaller local breweries, makes seasonally focused clean beers that represent six classic styles. Brewer Eric Knudson’s benchmark for quality is determining whether his wife will like it.
It’s best to check their Facebook page to find out where this preparing-for-retirement project is on tap. Expect to see more offerings available in bottles, and perhaps a tasting room, in their future.
Driving east, beer fans can continue to get their craft on at two out-of-Walla Walla breweries. Laht Neppur Brewing Co. has operated in Waitsburg since 2006 (with a stint in a downtown Walla Walla taproom), running the gamut of styles from Peach Hefeweizen to Oatmeal Porter. And Mike Spring brews in Dayton at Chief Spring’s Fire and Irons Brew Pub and Pizzeria. You’ll find classic styles and new favorites at both establishments, along with pizza and other pub-menu standards.
Newest to the game are Old Opera Brewing Co., near College Place, and Quirk Brewing, in the Airport District, both of which opened in December 2016. Old Opera, which once planned to locate in Milton-Freewater’s vintage opera house, is a nano-brewery operated by home brewer-turned-pro Edd Keudell as his answer to extracting himself from the corporate world.
While a stay-at-home dad, Quirk owner Troy Robinson got into home-brewing as an obvious complement to his interest in cooking. He earned his brewer’s wings as Mill Creek’s head brewer for seven years before taking off on his own with wife and co-owner Casey Monahan. They have a cozy taproom replete with repurposed wood tables, board games and 14 taps, aiming to provide an eclectic smorgasbord for beer-lovers.
Quirk’s goal is to feature something new with every visit — “maybe something you haven’t heard of or tasted before,” Robinson says. They also brew kid-friendly beverages like root beer and ginger lemonade.
Water Buffalo Brewing opened its partially solar-powered brewery in 2013 near College Place, with mostly English- and Belgian-style ales and a focus on local ingredients. Brewer/owner Michael Rossi doesn’t shy away from putting his own take on traditional styles and is always tweaking his recipes, playing around with different yeasts and fermentation temperatures.
Find Rossi’s unique brews on tap around town and in his taproom by appointment; (don’t forget to ask what song pairs best with each brew).
Suppers, a new beer festival, and room to grow
Water Buffalo will be February’s featured brewer at The Ox & Cart’s monthly Supper Club, where attendees can learn what foods pair well with Highland Peak, a strong smoky scotch ale; Snowy Blues, a winter warmer brewed with juniper berries; Steve French, a light saison; and Sweet Soca, a “tropical” stout.
The Ox & Cart’s popular Supper Club events highlight area brewers in four-course beer-and-food pairings. With traditional combinations (such as dark beer and dark chocolate) and more surprising ones (such as Burwood’s Dunkel Ale with chicken and waffles and a maple-cardamon-brown-butter sauce), the meals are a family-style celebration of local brews and local food.
“It’s a play off something Walla Walla is known for — wine pairing dinners — and exposes local craft beer and explores what’s going on with it,” restaurant owner and beverage director Tabitha Crenshaw says.
If you want to try your own beer-and-food pairings at home, most local breweries have growler fills available for purchase. Tabitha’s top recommendation for pairings is to pick something you actually like to drink, then try to mirror the flavors of the brew in the food you prepare.
“Consider whether the beer is bitter or malty,” Burwood’s David Marshall advises. “For example, really spicy foods go well with malty beers; and hoppy beers, like IPAs, go well with oily foods. The hops cut through the fat really well, but hops accentuate heat, like tannins in red wine.”
Another great opportunity to check out breweries from the Valley and region will be the inaugural Walla Walla Beer Festival on Feb. 11. The event will be held throughout downtown, with breweries offering samples of their beers in local businesses; proceeds will go to Camp Fire Walla Walla.
Not only is the Valley becoming a hub for breweries, but for local ingredients as well. Home brewers and professionals can source local specialty malts (the germinated grains that provide the main ingredient in beer) from Mainstem Malts in Walla Walla.
Mainstem, opened in late 2016, serves as the link between grain growers and craft brewers by providing sustainably farmed, salmon-safe malts with a focus on innovative water conservation. Look for its products for home brewing at Grapeland Supply in Walla Walla, and soon in regional craft beers.
Just a few hours away, the Yakima Valley provides most of the hops in Walla Walla brews (along with about 75 percent of the nation’s supply).
Like their winemaking counterparts, Walla Walla’s brewers tend to be a friendly, welcoming lot, happy to see new additions and offer advice.
“Walla Walla has embraced the local beer scene and there is plenty of growth left in the market,” says Nosdunk’s Eric Knudson. “The craft beer drinkers in Walla Walla are amazing people.”