Eleven years ago, the woodsy town of Oakridge, Oregon got a new reputation. Ted Sobel, fresh out of a career in computers and sore-footed from a long, inspiring walk in England opened the first cask-only brewery in the state, Brewers Union Local 180. Shortly after its opening, another fresh face – one John Crane – set foot in Brewers Union for the first time, and had some epiphanies of his own. Eleven years later, Crane takes the keys from Sobel and rechristens the pub The 3 Legged Crane Pub & Brewhouse.
“People are excited about what’s going on,” says Crane of the change in ownership. Oakridge and nearby Westfir residents have packed the pub on weekend nights for live music, and a craft fair in December drew artisans from Eugene for a locally-produced showcase. The official “Passing of the Paddle” from Sobel to Crane is scheduled for Saturday, January 18th at 7pm. The official ownership change came on January 1, 2020.
John Crane made my wallet. In fact, that’s how we met. With its six embossed stripes and “Pik” pocket, it’s a piece of my physical existence that fits me, and will certainly outlive me. This tall man with long, tightly braided hair, bold monochromatic tattoos, and amplified smile, I thought, was very creative, very intuitive. I noticed his leather-bound notebook, in which he carved runes of his own design. There are some people who, once you’ve entered their sphere, show up again and again without advance notice, with whom you text via brain waves: “I’ll be at the pub today…” … “Me too.”
Brewers Union carves an alternate reality in Oakridge. With its homey snugs, country pub-type bar, pool table complete with wall hazards and short stick, and the best fish ‘n chips in Oregon, and with enough Imperial pints of smooth, malty beer on the right grey day, one might begin to question their geographical situation.
My first visit was on a bus trip with my homebrew club on a sunny day in February of 2010. It was my first experience with real ale, and I drank them all, Imperial pints every one, their swiggable smoothness no match for inhibition. I have returned at least once per year since, often still dripping sweat from, say, a 19 mile round trip hike up Maiden Peak I was told would be 16 miles, which is still a slog, but was worth it for the company, the view, and the guarantee of beer, fish, chips, and the deep-seated sofa in the front living room.
Ted and the brewery aged together and, each finding the other in need of fresh surrounds, ultimately parted ways at the right time; he now spends his time at the pub on the right side of the bar. John, who’d learnt the ropes there before tending the counter at Falling Sky, and then spent a long stint as assistant brewer with Plank Town (that’s the short story), had wanted to buy Brewers Union for a while – perhaps over a year – but had also mulled over the idea of starting a brewery in West Eugene or East Springfield. But, like Dorothy, whose trans-dimensional sojourn brought her right back home, the prospect of a bespoke pub and eventual finagling of funds to purchase said pub proved the better decision.
With Brewers Union as his template, Crane has already begun patching and painting over, rearranging the brewery and knocking out walls and GASP brewing draught beer and hazy beer, and will soon brew lager beer to please and appease the – oh yeah, did I mention that Oakridge is in the middle of the woods and not on an urban street corner where a guaranteed percentage of passersby want to drink real ale? – locals.
He’s set on using the existing brewing system, with its output of 3 barrels per batch. The original two fermentors are very simple rectangular tanks – not a racking arm to be found – that are dedicated open fermentors; the lids do not seal. This is an anomaly in the U.S. and most of the world, where gasketed manways keep a tight seal on the tanks. Aside from the obvious risk of contamination, which Sobel *mostly* avoided, open fermentation in a vessel of that shape – wider than it is deep – reduces pressure on the yeast, allowing them to perform expressive maneuvers during their active time. In a nutshell, open fermentation results in more estery (fruity, like apple, grape, banana) beer.
Open fermentation should not be confused with spontaneous fermentation; that’s a totally different thing. An additional benefit to open fermentation is the ability to “top crop,” to collect the healthy yeast that forms a foamy layer on top of the fermenting beer during fermentation, called krausen (KROY-zin). This sort of yeast selection and propagation is known to be a highly effective way of keeping a yeast strain from mutating too much. One other U.S. brewery that I know of, Arcadia Brewing in Battle Creek, Michigan, has top cropped its yeast for over 1,000 generations. It started with Ringwood yeast, named for a brewery in England, but the strain is now certainly different than when it was first pitched. This sort of intensive management forces the brewer to use their senses and pay close attention, similar to the care of a sourdough culture.
Crane has also acquired a Grundy tank, an old school fermentor that looks kind of like a deep sea diving helmet, and had it modified into a horizontal lagering tank. Thus The 3 Legged Crane flaps off in a new direction. Crane is dedicated to sessionable beers like bitters, lagers, and pale ales. “A 7% IPA isn’t reasonable to have two in an hour; then you’re over the legal limit. I’m a crowdpleaser, but I’m going to have something that I want to drink, which is sub-5%.” He’s speaking the Brit’s language, where bitters range from 3.5-5% abv; more than one in a session is standard.
Another intensive part of producing cask beer is called “cellarmanship,” a real term for real ale caretakers. From getting the carbonation right (that is, low, but not too low) by conditioning, to proper handling and tapping procedures, the cellarman can make good ale bad if he or she is not paying attention. Crane has his own way (as any proper brewer/cellarman will), and makes use of a room adjacent to the kitchen’s cold storage that has had a hole cut between the two; thus, cellar temperatures are easily achieved.
Thus far, Crane has produced several batches of his own beer, with plenty more on the way. His scheme has been to run concurrent cask and draught versions of most brews. Essentially, this adds up to double the number of unique beers, since cask conditioning and service through a beer engine make the beer different enough.
My picks of the litter, during a visit in December with my own #pubchild were the Fizzbier, named Yell-ooooo (though another local brewery already tapped this college town gambit), and ESB. The Fizzbier is, indeed, yellow. On cask it bears the hallmarks of an English summer ale with mild fruity esters and a restrained bitterness. The ESB has an extra toasty malt profile that suggests a pinch of roasted grain, and is a superb mealtime treat. The Lovely Little Porter, like many dark beers, needed a bit more time to rest and smooth out, but showed promise… Golden Promise?… and was great with the fish & chips. Beyond the pale, as it were, a stronger stout lurks in a whiskey barrel from Deep Woods distillery, just down the street.
Beyond the tangible, the The 3 Legged Crane is not so much a naughty joke as a family reference. John’s wife owns Bree’s Way, a mystical shop near the UO campus. Their offspring is an original #pubchild, a creative, sparkly person whom I’ve observed navigating adult situations better than many adults. And now the family extends, as it does in small businesses, to the staff, who will have a different perspective on the beer because of who’s brewing it and talking about it, and John is an affective person, you feel his vibe. Ted’s vision of an English brewpub in the Oregon country, through so many small batches of lovely ale, created an experience that can’t be replicated. Now, the old informs the new; may they evolve harmoniously!