Eugene’s newest brewpub, Drop Bear Brewery, is open for business in the former Eugene haunt Turtle’s Bar & Grill at 2690 Willamette St. David and Lorraine Lehane, the new owners, have renovated the dining area and are in the process of turning a back bar area into a 7-barrel brew house. Beerstone caught up with David before the new year to talk story and brews.
“So this is our crazy idea of retirement,” David says. “We decided to start a brewery – we just had to decide where.” The Australian couple had properties in Tennessee, Michigan, and Oregon; their son also lives in the state. “We looked in Bend, Hood River, and Portland. When we came to Eugene, we thought it was cool. It feels similar to Melbourne with its proximity to the ocean and mountains. Even though Melbourne is larger by a long shot, Eugene is a coffee, food, and beer town too.”
David is a retired mining executive who has homebrewed “forever” and traveled the world for work. He and Lorraine, who spent their formative years in Melbourne, have also flipped houses and been publicans in Perth, Australia. When they left Australia, “the micro scene was just starting to grow. ‘Fancy’ was finding Guinness on tap.”
Several pints and years past all that, David’s got a firm grip on his classic styles, and is eyeing a few spare taps to get weird. Not to be pigeonholed, the taplist currently offers a Scottish ale, Hazy IPA, smoked porter, coffee stout, two saisons, and a German-style pilsner among others; all I tried were right proper, impressive for the first turns of a brand new brew-op.
Drop Bear is already offering its beer on tap thanks to an agreement with Portland’s Culmination Brewing. Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter is a consultant for Drop Bear, and is hosting Drop Bear’s fermenters at Culmination, filled with David’s recipes, until the brewery in Eugene is installed and operational.
In addition, David has a 1-barrel electric brewing system from SS Brewtech that he’s running pilot batches on down here; several are on tap already. Eventually, the brewery will have several stacked 7-barrel fermenters and a double fermenter and brite tank. The pilot system will be used for yeast propagation and experimental brews. It’s also been a valuable tool for David to scale his recipes to full-size batches. The brewery space is currently under construction, hence no shiny photos. The system should be installed this spring.
The Breaky on the Run coffee stout, infused with a custom blend from Slow Joe Coffee Roaster, was soothingly creamy, and thankfully lacked the distracting green pepper flavor of many coffee beers. A black lager, fresh and just released on the brewery’s “Insiders” tap, was certainly in “keller” mode with a bit of yeast haze, but felt cleanly fermented. David copped to fermenting it with London ale yeast, which I nearly don’t believe; remind me to try it again. For experimental brews, David hinted (rather strongly) that he’s interested in making a beer using Vegemite (well, why not?), and a stout with powdered coconut milk to “veganize” a sweet stout.
The Insiders bit is the brewery’s membership club; free to join, and you get early access to new brews and earn points towards future discounts and other perks TBD as the business evolves. The brewery will also have a private event space overlooking the brewery, and David hopes to offer custom brew days on the pilot system to businesses for team building activities.
Drop Bear is already enmeshed in the local beer scene; it’s participating in the KLCC Brewfest, collaborating with ColdFire and Viking Braggot company on an IPA.
It took a year of looking to luck into the Turtles building; it was nearly sold to another buyer. They closed on the sale in early 2022. The revamped main dining room is open and airy. A nook between the main and a smaller seating space has a shuffleboard table and a couple of couches for lounging. A drop-down screen and projector will be used sparingly for sports games; the Lehanes want to encourage community interaction by reducing the distraction that comes from a sports bar-style pub.
Food service is a sort of hybrid; you can sit at a table and there are “table captains” to greet and deliver food (as opposed to counter service). There is bar service, and ordering can be done in person or online through a system that sounded robust; I did not take it for a test drive. In a separate tangent from this brewery specifically, the way we dine out has gone through the ringer, and the augmentations can be confusing. If you want to have a good time, do your best to roll with it.
The Lehanes are funding the business themselves, and are making conscious decisions about the pace of progress. So far, the restaurant is focusing on developing its pizza program and recently introduced shareable menu items. They chose to open before having the brewery installed for simple economic reasons, and are using a rather smart “baby steps” approach, rather than going full throttle into a new venture in an industry that was virtually sliced in half, production-wise, by the pandemic.
The intentional methods behind the business spread to the beer and food as well. Ingredients are sourced as locally and ethically as possible. Malt and hops are sourced from the state as much as possible; the pizza dough is made from organic 00 flour, and the menu, including the pizza, is rife with vegan options. They also have a full liquor license, so look out for cocktails in the near future.
Excellent review, Aaron. I see those pints at the Stein helped the words flow. Good to hear that cocktails are on the future menu–something missing from most brew pubs.