“They All Want a Beer” – Growing Beer, Malt & Hops in Walla Walla

When traveling with a small child, prepare to stop. Stop for diaper changes, stop for strangers who want to coo over, and even hold, your child. Stop for beer. Driving to a place like Walla Walla from Eugene used to require 20 minutes of packing, but the amount of potential necessities on a road trip is inversely proportional to the size of your young’un. Therefore, packed to the brim with various fabrics, my wife and I set off at 5:40am on a Monday morning for Land Camp (more on that later). We skirted Portland traffic and began the meander, against the wind, through geologic history up the Columbia River. 

Only on the third and final day in Walla Walla was I given a sure clue to the rural wine destination’s success in the malt and hops department: “After a day of drinking wine, they all want a beer.” 

Walla Walla.
It’s one of those places, like Timbuktu or Kalamazoo, referenced colloquially in the U.S. as a remote place (which it is), perhaps a silly place (not necessarily). Walla Walla Sweets sounds like the name of a blind blues pianist; really, they are the tender, fattened alliums that, the way the spuds further east branded Boise, gave the town its original agro-industrial cred (aside: you’d think the Washington-Idaho border would be pierogi heaven). Its doubled alliteration makes it easy to remember, though after a visit the actual place is hard to forget.

There is no interstate nearby, and so the gaudy big box crudscape of the American Highway Offramp is absent, thankfully, in the approach to Walla Walla’s well-preserved downtown. Bookended by Walla Walla University on the west and liberal-arts mecca Whitman College on the east, the town’s center boasts wide streets and turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is) architecture. The street level storefronts remain solidly independent, with plenty of winery tasting rooms, upscale eateries, bars, and cool shops. Hot Poop is a must-visit for anyone interested in rare vinyl and rad guitars, or who want to step back into the 90s, when music had a physical presence in our lives.

Hot Poop record & instrument shop in downtown Walla Walla. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Small Ag
The beer scene has been pretty quiet until recently, but has received a boost by the appearance of both a malt company, Mainstem Malt, and a hop grower, Walla Walla Hops, both of which have been enthusiastically received by the brewers and are a fresh source of farm-to-glass tourist fodder. 

Walla Walla Hops planted its first rhizomes on one acre on the south end of Walla Walla in 2018. With excellent soil and advice from Yakima’s finest, those first-year bines yielded 120 pounds of dried hops, and produced the first ever fresh hop beer in Walla Walla. 

Erin Aycock and Jeremy Petty, two of three co-founders of Walla Walla Hops. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Co-owners Jeremy Petty, his wife Erin Aycock, and Nick Morgan caught some skepticism when they told the local brewers they were going to grow hops; apparently, the brewers had heard that before and never seen a single flower. When they threw a party at the hop yard, the brewers were immediately on board. 

This year, the hop yard is doubling in size. The poles are hand-felled local timber. Jeremy built a small, propane-heated oast as well. They bought a small hammer mill and pelletizer. They plan to integrate a Wolf hop harvester this year so they don’t have to pluck all the hops by hand. 

There are currently 11 varieties growing tall, including one labeled “Wild.” The story goes that when Prohibition hit, brewers drove up into the hills and tossed their hop rhizomes out there; those grew until they became a bootlegger’s landmark. Petty planted a row of the rhizomes, and the result is a low-alpha hop with a “spicy” profile; Aycock said they don’t plan on doing any genetic testing, in order to keep its mystique. 

The kid’s first hop yard! At Walla Walla Hops.

Since Walla Walla Hops is new and not connected to hop breeders, they won’t be growing any of the proprietary hop varieties like Citra or Mosaic. Instead, they asked the local brewers what they would like to use from the catalog of open-source hops. Classic varieties like Cascade, Centennial, Magnum, and Tettnang will be harvested, and brewers were allowed to pick a row for themselves. 

Petty has a degree in Oenology and ran a winery for nearly a decade, so he knows the marketing value of locale. It was he who is quoted in the introduction; Petty knows wine drinkers. So do the wine tourist businesses and city officials; already, tour companies are offering beer experiences along with the wine, and arrange visits to Walla Walla Hops. Already, a bine-to-glass experience is possible. 

The future looms large for Walla Walla Hops. Aside from the additional new acre on the property, they have an opportunity to start test-planting hops on one acre of a 1,200-acre parcel nearby. That would be a boon, and help fulfill the calls coming in from brewers and homebrew stores. 

Phil Neumann at the site of Mainstem Malt’s upcoming malting facility. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Mainstem Malt, founded by Phil Neumann, has gone through the ringer since it was established in 2015. The initial source of financing fell through, and the business operated on $100,000 total between 2015 and 2018. In August 2016, Neumann “spent two weeks on an alfalfa combine” contemplating his future. In spring 2017 he got his first customer: Copperworks Distillery in Seattle, followed by Seattle’s Westland Distillery in spring of 2018. “They kind of saved the business,” says Neumann. With renewed energy and some creative thinking, he pressed on with his vision of creating a malting company that could operate in multiple locations, emphasizing locale and growing year as key flavor markers in the finished product. 

In 2018, he and his wife took a scouting trip to Alaska. He’d touched base with the distiller at Amalga in Juneau over Instagram after seeing a photograph of him malting feed barley on the distillery floor; there was some troubleshooting to do. On the trip they received a warm welcome from folks on all sides of the barley spectrum, from distillers and brewers to farmers and the agriculture department at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

The Alaskans were looking for ways to increase the value of their grain, and Neumann was able to offer advice based on his passion. One of the initial results of the visit was a lead investor, an oncologist who lives in Anchorage and Seattle, and already owns a stake in an Alaskan distillery. Neumann is looking for a diversity of stakeholders in Mainstem, who can be actively involved and provide a deep knowledge and resource base moving forward.

Mainstem Malt is one of around 50 craft maltsters in the United States. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Currently, Neumann works with seven farmers in the region who grow Genie barley on Salmon-Safe certified land. About a third of the barley is malted at Linc Malting in Spokane; the other two-thirds at Skagit Valley Malt. Last year, Neumann signed a lease with the Port of Walla Walla to gradually expand into a 200,000 square-foot building, formerly the Crown Cork & Seal factory. The Port envisions the area, about a mile from downtown, as an industrial pedestrian zone, with production businesses having storefronts, much like Seattle’s Ballard district.

The building is undergoing repair as Mainstem begins to move in. Eventually, three two-vessel maltings will be installed. The street-facing corner of the building will be transformed into a taproom featuring beer brewed with Mainstem’s malt, and eventually with beer brewed on a small pilot system. Right now, aside from a bunch of pallets of raw grain ready to ship and some bagged malt in the area where the maltings will go, the front office is the only space inhabited by Mainstem.

Mainstem aims to produce around 8,000 tons of malt a year; it sounds like a lot, but at 11 tons per batch it will be operating continuously for most of the year. Neumann wants to grow beyond small-batch malt to hit mid-scale efficiencies. That middle ground will still keep a close relationship with the farmers and allow for innovation, as he puts it. 

Malt production includes a range of base malts and a couple wheat malts, from flaxen Pilsner to ruddy Vienna (and a lovely alder-smoked Vienna) on the color wheel. They are distinguished by crop year, location, barley variety and malt type on the labels. Neumann doesn’t plan to produce much beyond base malt, as further processing (into crystal malt, for example) reduces the impact of the grain’s terroir. The 2017 harvest lineup includes two different barley varieties, Lyon and Full Pint (bred at OSU), that were grown at Goschie Farms in the Willamette Valley.

Mainstem malt has been used by brewers and distillers from Alaska to Colorado, though most are concentrated in Washington and Oregon. This year’s Washington Beer Awards saw Mainstem malt used in beer from Crossbuck Brewing in Walla Walla, and Yachats Brewing earned 1st and 3rd places at the Brewshed Brewfests in Portland and Eugene.

More on Mainstem Malt’s story has been covered by local writer Catie Joyce-Bulay here.

Yes, It’s the Water.
The concept of a “brewshed,” not being an alternative to a “man cave” or whatever, has to do with what’s left in the wake of an empty pint; various inputs ranging from plastic packaging to carbon dioxide emissions to water usage that reach as far back into the beer’s heritage as the tiller that planted the barley seeds. It’s no secret that beer production uses a LOT of water. The measurement of water usage typically starts in the brewery (“it takes x gallons of water to make y gallons of beer”), but that does not take into account the amount of water it takes to irrigate barley and hops, malt the grains, or produce the yeast. That’s a lot more: roughly 180 pints of water per pint of beer. 45 gallons of irrigation water. Per pint. 

I promised at the outset to revisit Land Camp, and will tie it in to beer momentarily. Full disclosure: my wife works for an environmental nonprofit, a land trust that protects vital watershed areas in Lane County. Land Camp is a conference of land trusts in Washington and Oregon. 

Eric Steen, Land Camp co-organizer, facilitates the discussion. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Land Camp this year was co-organized by Eric Steen. Steen is best known as the founder of Beers Made by Walking, which connects brewers to specific locations with an emphasis on native consumable plants and appreciating a sense of place; the resulting beer fests of varying sizes have featured the widest array of uniquely conceived beers I’ve seen. To have Steen, the former marketing director for Hopworks Urban Brewery, behind Land Camp makes sense, especially since he finagled a talk, called “Everyone Loves Beer: How Beer and Place Intersect in the PNW,” into the Land Camp lineup, which consisted mainly of in-depth topical lectures. 

Everyone Loves Beer was a panel discussion that included Mik McKee from the Western Rivers Conservancy, Phil Neumann from Mainstem Malt, and two OSU barley breeding students working with Pat Hayes on his epic quest for terroir in barley. McKee gave an overview of a plot of land along Thirtymile Creek, a tributary of the John Day River in Oregon, where he planted a test crop of barley. Part of the test was experimenting with no-till cultivation, as well as no herbicide use because of the land’s proximity to the river. The other part of the test, McKee found out, was getting the barley crop off of the land and into the hands of maltsters.

Prelude to a beer flight for barley nerds. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Along with the talk were five beers. Three were test batches of individual barley varieties grown on Western Rivers Conservancy land, malted and brewed at OSU in its fancy new brewery. The beer was brewed to be neutral; lager yeast and a light dose of Czech Saaz hops. Tasting closely, the beers were quite different. One was drier, with a grainy tannic astringency and crisp finish; another had flavors of graham and white bread. Because these were brewed with barley grown on the same land in the same year, it can be asserted that the different varieties did, in fact, display a certain amount of terroir in the beer. Score one for OSU! 

OK, The Beer
At this point you may be shouting “Get on with it!” and glancing around for something else to read. So yeah, what about the beer??

Rather than being able to paint a romantic subterranean portrait of soil composition, wherein the grape’s taproot delves leagues to lap up the finest minerals, I get to talk about a community that appears to be mature, encouraging, cooperative, and excited to be there. And about how Walla Walla beer is generally hitting high on the quality index. 

Unless you live in Walla Walla or the Tri-Cities, you’re unlikely to find Walla Walla beer anywhere. You must go there. Only one of the breweries, Water Buffalo Brewery, packages its beer, and doesn’t distribute very far; soon, the Tri-Cities Grocery Outlet will be its furthest export. Everywhere we went, we spoke with (or grinned and drooled at) whoever greeted us⁠—bartender, co-owner, brewer⁠—and were drawn to the neighborly attitude of Walla Walla’s beer scene. Nobody sees the other’s garden as more lush; in fact, they share seeds and cultivation tips. The area’s agrarian context follows through in the kind-but-not-gregarious temperament of its resident beerfolk; there is very little trash talk, and what I heard was justified upon examination.

Here is the rundown, in the order in which we (#brussatsprout) and I visited them.

The accommodating patio at Big House Brewpub. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Big House Brewpub
At the end of a long drive through arid country, the most important orders of business are beer and food. After checking into our Airbnb on the west side of town, we drove over to the shady Whitman campus and walked a few blocks to Big House Brewpub. Formerly the Mill Creek Brewery, the new owners and brewer are reportedly trying to bring this classic brewpub up to speed. 

If you’ve been to a Rogue brewpub, or Golden Valley in McMinnville, or any of the English brown-bar-type brewpubs around the country, you’ve been to Big House. Our visit, on a Monday, coincided with a large reservation of other Land Campers out on the patio; the staff was not prepared, though they did an excellent job on the fly. 

My first order, a hazy IPA ($3 shaker pints during happy hour!), was just the thing; neither overbitter nor sweet, with a refreshing juicy punch in the finish. We ordered from the straight-up pub menu; my burger was perfectly cooked to order and substantial, along with tots tossed in a house spice mix that must include dried lime powder or citric acid – zesty! The second beer, a Belgian-style blonde, was the unfortunate victim of a common flaw (diacetyl) and left me unsatisfied.

Of course, some do go both ways. Some historic preservation at Crossbuck Brewing. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Crossbuck Brewing
If you’re carrying a 4-month-old in a front carrier, it takes about 15 minutes to walk from downtown Walla Walla to the old train depot, where Crossbuck Brewing makes its shiny home. The interior of the building has been completely redone (or at least cleaned). Half of the building is the schmancy Walla Walla Steak Co., which cooks food for Crossbuck customers as well. The brewery taproom side is bright, modern, airy, and decked out with white tiling. The taplist is written in chalk on the original train schedule board. A few big screens show sports games. The brewery is visible through windows behind the bar, and there is plenty of indoor and outdoor seating.

The Brewer’s Choice flight at Crossbuck Brewing. Photo by Aaron Brussat

It was between rushes on a weekday, so the kid and I were nearly alone and received excellent, accommodating service of a flight. The beer menu has a “brewer’s pick” for a flight, so that’s naturally what I got. The kölsch (of course the brewer would pick the kölsch) was just right. In fact, everything else on the flight was good, even the milk stout; a standard-strength, otherwise unadulterated milk stout is a fair rarity these days, and Crossbuck’s displayed four-legged balance.

To tie into previous content, Crossbuck brewed a beer using Mainstem malt and Walla Walla hops specifically for Land Camp. Later on at the conference’s picnic dinner, I would enjoy several plastic cups full of this delicious pale ale, and feel just terrific in the morning.

Rossi, the one-man show at Water Buffalo Brewery, with a flight of his colorful beers. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Water Buffalo Brewery
Like a good intrepid beer writer, I made contact with the only brewery in town that requires an appointment. That’s because it’s on the owner/brewer’s property. I was greeted by dogs barking in the house, and a delighted pregnant woman (the mother of a future brewer) showing me past the garden and chickens in the backyard to the purpose-built garage. On the outside, it’s nothing special except for the solar hot water heater (great idea!). On the inside, it’s a homebrewer’s paradise. Not being super organized myself, I felt right at home. 

Rossi (he goes by his last name) is a practical, even-keeled CDL driver who runs his own routes, sometimes delivering flowers to Sacramento. He’s scaled back the drive time, though, in favor of the 2-barrel brewery, which he’d just upgraded with several 4-barrel jacketed unitanks. The brewery was first licensed in 2012, which makes it one of the older breweries in town.

The beer lineup is pretty classic, with a couple Belgian styles in the mix. Coal Miner Porter and Watershed Wheat were both spot on, and refreshing in their own ways. The witbier was just right, nice and wheaty without too much spice. Rossi uses locally grown raw wheat in that, and likes to tinker with some of his base malts for other beers, toasting them in-house to his preference. The tripel was unusual, as it had the strength and color of a quad. A tasty quad. 

A selection of Water Buffalo’s swing-top bottled beer can be found at The Thief in downtown Walla Walla. This place is primarily a cool wine bar, but has a nice selection of beer. Most is stored at room temp, but there is a fridge behind the bar as well with beer to drink in-house or to go.

Ample patio space with a wide view at Burwood Brewing Co. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Burwood Brewing Co.
Northeast of downtown, near the airport, is a wide, flat tract of land. From the road, it appears that the buildings were picked up from a metal roofing and siding company and dropped there by a tornado. Despite the sameness on the outside, Burwood Brewing Co. greets its visitors with splashes of color, high ceilings, and a very warm welcome. 

Founded by Jennifer and David Marshall, the 5-year-old brewery sets itself apart from the rest with its array of high-quality lagers. From pilsner to Dortmunder export to Maibock, the lagers in my flight were all worth further examination. The Marshalls met at Pyramid Brewing, where David was a brewer and Jennifer (if I recall correctly) worked in marketing. David’s experience in quality control has served Burwood well, and the view from the tasting room into the brewery gives one a clue as to why his beers are so clean. 

A flight at Burwood Brewing Co. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Burwood is also a stop on some wine tours; a bachelorette party came through, got some pints, and went out to the sizable lawn to enjoy the sun (but not until Mom insisted on holding my child; it was only fair to oblige and give my arms a break). 

Nice and cool inside Quirk Brewing’s taproom. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Quirk Brewing
Situated amid a cluster of grape processing facilities, Quirk Brewing certainly has that going for it (the quirk, that is). After hearing tales of the taco truck there, called Agapas Mexican Cravings, I was disappointed to hear, while at Burwood (thanks for the hot tip), that it was closed that day. So, I dropped the kiddo off with mama, picked up some tacos from town, and went to Quirk to keep my experience as authentic as possible.

Local tacos and a Palouse Gold lager at Quirk Brewing. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Inside the small tasting room it is dark and homey. The decor is, well, quirky. The bartender knew his patrons, and happily served me up a Palouse Gold lager to go with my tacos, which I ate alone, outside, chasing my napkins on the windy patio. The dub reggae coming over the PA augmented the whole vibe; hot breeze, cold beer, spicy tacos, and Jah.

The beer was not without its quirks; the lager went well with the tacos, but that was it; the grisette was floral and perfumey, and svelte for the style. I would return to taste more standard styles (though a glance at Untappd reveals a gun belt of grisettes), get some of those tacos, and hang out inside.

There is a third brewery in the airport district, which I was unable to visit due to time constraints – Burwood, Quirk, and MT Head have limited hours. MT Head Brewing is actually a transplant from near Tacoma. The way I heard it, the owner retired and brought the brewery with him; all reports of the beer were good. 

A bite of the Walla Walla landscape from Rooks Park. Photo by Aaron Brussat

There is plenty else to do in and around Walla Walla. Its own Pioneer Park is a grand green space that boasts an aviary with a surprising amount of pheasants; you might also spot a Mandarin drake, if you’re lucky. A few minutes’ drive east of town, Rooks Park at Bennington Lake is a nice place to take in the local flora, and has several miles of trail to walk around the lake and get some nice natural views. There are other hiking opportunities in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness; just follow Mill Creek Road east a ways.

Red Monkey and Wingman Birdz + Brewz are two local bar-restaurants that serve a good selection of craft beer. 

Milton-Freewater is not too far south of Walla Walla, and is home to Blue Mountain Cider Co. and Dragon’s Gate Brewery (which I also did not visit due to its limited hours). 

Chances are pretty good you’re getting to Walla Walla from the Columbia Gorge. On our return trip, against the wind again, we took a 20-minute detour north on Highway 97 to the burg of Goldendale. The best thing about Goldendale (not that we really explored…): Dwinell Country Ales. It’s one of those rural breweries that isn’t afraid to make wild beer, and does it well. After a flight of funk ranging from wood-aged dry-hopped sour to a funky, cherry laden bourbon barrel-aged wild beer, the clean, dry lager there is just the thing to refresh one’s palate.

The east-facing patio at Dwinell Country Ales prevents skunked beers. Photo by Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat
Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.