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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Boneyard Builds Unique Brand

Bend's Boneyard Brewing has turned a lot of heads among Portland's craft beer fans since it opened in April 2010. The brand that built a reputation primarily on a couple of excellent IPAs is moving onward and upward.

The quasi-elegance of the Boneyard brand

There's no pretentiousness here. When you pull up in front of Boneyard, located in a mixed residential/industrial neighborhood in Northwest Bend, you are greeted by a rustic, ornamental motorcycle. Brewdog, X, is casually vigilant near the warehouse door. This is old school.

Walking up to the door, I was greeted by co-owner and head brewer Tony Lawrence. This was strictly by chance. I didn't call in advance to arrange a tour or interview. I was pleased to meet Lawrence, then amazed when he spent more than an hour showing me the place and telling me about Boneyard.

Beerlogist checks his production notebook

Lawrence, who formerly worked at Deschutes Brewing and Firestone Walker, announces himself as a beerologist, saying it more accurately describes his role. There are several brewers on the payroll at Boneyard and they were hard at work as I walked around with the boss. The 20 bbl brewhouse and collection of fermenters are packed into the available space.

The Boneyard tag itself is interesting. Bend beer fans will probably recall that this place was originally to be called Brewtal Brewing (according to the initial story in The Bulletin). The name morphed into Boneyard Brewing prior to the opening in April 2010. There are reasons for everything.

An example of Boneyard's make-it-here approach

"Boneyard is a name that makes sense for us," Lawrence said, "because beer isn't the only thing we make here. We make a lot of the stuff used in the operation. We can weld and we make our own tap handles, among other things. Recycling discarded stuff from the proverbial boneyard for use in and around the brewery is something we strive for."

As for the beer, Boneyard has a serious problem: They simply cannot make enough beer in the current facility to keep up with demand. They have risen quickly on the OLCC's sales list, coming in at #20 on the Year-to-Date Taxable Barrels sales report for October 2011 (the reports are always two months behind, Lawrence said).

They will soon add three additional fermenters to the mix. That will increase output somewhat, perhaps to the point where Boneyard can begin to seriously think about actively pursuing distribution by 16 oz. can. That plan has been on the drawing board from early on. They even own a $35,000 canning machine...which sits idle.

Canned RPM IPA will eventually happen

"I had hoped to be doing some distribution by can by now," Lawrence said. "But we're barely able to keep up with draft distribution (just the Northwest for now) and there's no way I want to alienate our distributors by launching the canning project and shorting our draft supply. We'll get to canning when we're ready."

It seems likely they won't be ready until next summer at the soonest. Lawrence said Boneyard recently signed a lease on a new building which will house a 50 bbl brewhouse, with plenty of space for fermenters and growth.

"The reality is we just don't have enough room in the present building to house the kind of brewing facility we need to be able to build out the brand," Lawrence said. "The new space, once we get it up to speed, will allow us to supply the draft and retail distribution channels...I hope."

The current brewing operation...too small

When retail distribution comes, RPM IPA in 4-packs of 16 oz. cans will be the first beer to appear on shelves. It will be available primarily at bottle shops and perhaps at grocery stores like Whole Foods and New Seasons. Lawrence isn't ruling out distribution by bottle and says a 750 ml bottle is possible.

"Canning is the road we plan to go down, and we're set up for it," he said. "But never say never with respect to bottles. I see successful breweries doing draft, cans and bottles. You never know. We don't want to rule anything out."

The Boneyard tasting room, located at the brewery, is small and friendly. Beer fans headed to or through Bend absolutely must stop by. The motif fits in well with the uniqueness of the Boneyard brand. Generous tastes will cost you $1 a piece, well worth it.

On my visit, they were pouring RPM IPA, Skunk Ape IRA, Femme Fatale, Backbone and Diablo Rojo Red in the tasting room. All were quite good. I also tasted Hop Venom from a fermenter, which was a little green, as well and several other beers in the backroom. Fun times.

The Boneyard tasting board

Lawrence, the perfectionist, claimed the RPM was a little off. He said a new batch of hops was somewhat green and had shifted the taste in an unfavorable way. Honestly, I thought it tasted fine. RPM has a great aroma and some of the citrus and pine notes that make it a viable competitor for Pliny the Elder.

One final note on Hop Venom and RPM: Lawrence said he is in the process of dialing both of these beers down a bit in terms of ABV. RPM, currently 7.5%, is being dialed down to about 7%. Hop Venom will go from 10% to 8.8%. This is part of an effort to improve the drinkability of both beers.

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