This is one in a series of occasional 7 Sips interviews, where we sit down for a pint and seven questions with someone active in the local craft beer community. Today we catch up with Orlison’s Bernie Duenwald, a former barley grower and salesman for Great Western Malting who launched an all-lager brewery called Golden Hills in Airway Heights in 2009. Rebranded as Orlison in July 2013 behind new investors, it has boosted production and distribution throughout the Northwest, with ambitious goals for bigger growth.
Q: OK, I’ll start you off with an easy one – why lagers?
A: That’s probably my favorite question. First of all, when I started the concept for this brewery, which was eight years ago, there were a lot of good ales around already, but there was a real dearth of lager breweries. To take the plunge financially, to enter the brewing industry at that time, I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do ales, there were too many good ales in the Northwest already. The goal over time was to be a production brewery with sizable sales, not just a brewpub or something local, but something that had potential to grow. And on top of that, I’ve always had a bias toward lagers, because they’re more drinkable. One of the hurdles we’ve found with lagers is that way too many people out there think they have to be watery and light, like the mainstream lagers. We’re living proof that’s not the case. You can take any flavor combination you’re looking at in the different ale-style beers and ferment them with lager yeast at (cooler) lager temperatures and you get a different beer. … Take Underground as an example, it’s got all the characteristics and the flavor profile of a true American stout style, it has all that at the front end but at the back end it just kind of goes away, it’s easier to drink. It’s crisper and drier. Lagers can be various things, but there’s a very, very innate tendency for lagers to be crisper and drier and ales to be sweeter and fruitier.
Q: You were a barley grower and a malt salesman before opening the brewery. How do you think that’s influenced you as a brewer?
A: Well, I think the biggest thing – and I challenge you to find another brewmaster at a brewery operating in the U.S. that actually started out as a farmer growing malting barley – but a lot of the smaller breweries around today are very, very hop-centric. We understand the importance of hops, and we don’t slight them, but we’re way more malt-centric with our beers. I have the advantage of having a really deep understanding of the contribution you’re going to get in the beer from the malt side of the equation, and I think that helps us put out beers that are pretty interesting. Brunette is a prime example – it has five different malts in it, and you get a sense of all five of them. Some of the beers in the marketplace you’re going to notice that basically, although they may have several malts involved, there’s going to be one that’s fairly predominant and that’s the only one you really get a sense of.
Q: Did you expect when you started out that things would be like they are today?
A: Oh, no, I thought we would have grown a lot faster (laughs). What I didn’t understand was the importance of the marketing piece. I was of the opinion, and other people agreed with me, that I was making very good beers, and that they would attract a following, and we’d get sales, and things would move forward. When that didn’t work and some other people got involved we actually did some more market research and discovered that you can make very, very good beers and if you don’t have the right marketing to go along with it you’re probably not going anywhere. On the other hand, you can make some pretty so-so beers and if you have the right marketing, you can do real well. If you can have good beers and good marketing, then the world is your oyster.
Q: What’s the first craft beer that you remember trying?
A: Probably Redhook’s ESB. I don’t know, it’s close – I had a sister in Yakima, and I might have had some of Bert Grant’s fairly early on, too. I’ve been through so many beers now it’s hard to remember. I can tell you the first beer I ever had, when I was 11 years old, and that’s when my dad let me have a sip of the Oly he was drinking. … One of my favorites early on that Karl Ockert developed at Bridgeport was their Blue Heron Pale Ale. They don’t push out as much as some other breweries so it’s a little harder to find that but it’s still a very, very good beer.
Q: If you could be drinking any beer right now, other than something you make, what would it be?
A: San Miguel’s Pale Pilsner. While I was working for the malting company I sold malt to San Miguel, and when I say San Miguel’s Pale Pilsner, I mean drinking it in the Philippines. They don’t have any contract brewed anywhere in North America. You see them occasionally, but they’re imported, and they’ve got too much age on them. In the Philippines, that was a very good beer. It’s not an all-malt beer, it’s a lighter lager, but it had enough hop character to make it interesting.
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A: Maybe it’s why my beers aren’t necessarily run-of-the-mill – I like cultural diversity, in people, that’s one of the reasons why traveling for business over the years, if I had the opportunity to be in the Philippines or Vietnam or in Japan or in Korea or in Guatemala or in Peru, Russia, I enjoyed learning about other people from other cultures. When I travel, I’m not a linguist, I’m really lousy at learning languages, but most places I went I learned enough to order a beer and say please. In Russia, it’s “Pivo, pozhaluysta.” It’s a toss-up between that and, there’s not many kids from Reardan with an Ivy League education (from Darmouth). That was pretty fun. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. … They like a diverse student population, a wide range of people to enhance the educational experience, and one of the things I think helped me get in was I was creative enough when filling out the form that says father’s occupation, instead of just putting farmer, I put sharecropper. Because that’s what he was, he didn’t own any land, it was all leased land on a sharecrop basis, he was a sharecropper. And when I farmed, I was also a sharecropper, because I didn’t own any land.
Q: What would be your definition of success for Orlison?
A: I see two parts to that. The first one I think we’ve already succeeded at, and that is to come up with interesting lagers that have consistent quality and have that recognized in the marketplace. As I talk to industry people, bar owners that have been around for a long time, that I know understand beer quality, I think we’ve nailed that, we’ve demonstrated over almost six years now of beer in the market that we’re doing that part. Then the second piece of are we successful is having enough volume to be profitable, and that’s a bigger number today than it was when I started because I didn’t factor in enough for marketing and other things that you need to spend money on. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. And personally, this is my retirement program, so if it actually generates some income for me in retirement that would be good.