Eugene Brewers Play Musical Chairs

Eugene’s McKenzie Brewing (which operates the Steelhead brewpub on 5th Ave. in Eugene) just experienced a massive exodus, with three of its primary brewers leaving over the course of a couple weeks. Ted Fagan, who had been with the company since 2005, has left to fill a vacant head brewer position at Elk Horn Brewery. Sam Scoggin, who has twice helmed the tun at Elk Horn, split for Ancestry Brewing in November.

“I’ve been there for fourteen years, so it’ll be nice to have a breath of fresh air,” says Fagan. “There’ve been a lot of good changes at McKenzie since I’ve been there.” The nearly 30-year-old McKenzie Brewing (founded as Steelhead Brewing Co.) produces a standard lineup of beer that hasn’t changed much in the last decade. For a brief time some years ago, Fagan was given some leeway and produced several one-off beers, including a terrific doppelbock. But the standard recipes – Hopasaurus Rex Imperial IPA, Twisted Meniscus IPA, Raging Rhino Red Ale, and so forth – have received nary a tweak.

“I’m looking forward to having some freedom for new recipe development. Stephen and Colleen [Sheehan, owners of Elk Horn Brewery] want me to focus on being more competitive with the large field.” Elk Horn’s beer has received some wider accolade already, with former brewer Nate Sampson’s Lemon Pils taking a bronze medal at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival.

The Steelhead Brewery & Restaurant at 5th Ave. & Pearl in Eugene

Blue Hellenga, who spent six years at McKenzie, jumped ship for Darwin Brewing Company near Sarasota, Florida, where he will continue to brew closer to family.

Nate Sampson, whose brewing career stretches back to Rogue Track Town Ales and includes helping get Mike Hess Brewing in San Diego off the ground, was at McKenzie for a year and a half. He is in the process of starting his own brewery, Covered Bridge Brewing Group, at 926 E. Main St. in Cottage Grove. The brewery, hopefully opening February or March 2020, will double as a coffee house, as a business partner owns Laurel Mountain Coffee Roasters. The brewery’s back lot will have a biergarten with four food trucks.

The future home of Covered Bridge Brewing Group in Cottage Grove. Image: Google Street View

Jim Montgomery, part owner and head brewer at Sam Bond’s Brewing (which closed, and is re-opening soon with new owners as Gratitude Brewing), has taken up one of the empty pairs of boots at McKenzie. That leaves a couple positions open.

That’s a lot to take in for little ol’ Eugene, which hasn’t seen such a shakeup in years. Big changes at breweries have a tendency to disrupt their wavelengths (mainly in terms of quality or consistency) for a time, as new brewers get their sea legs. But new personalities bring enthusiasm and ideas to the local scene, and may encourage people to revisit breweries they may have forgotten. So… if you want to be a pro brewer, now’s a great time to get your foot in the door.

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