Ben Engler, co-founder and brewer at Occidental Brewing in northeast Portland, got into the beer biz the way a lot of people do—after working a stint at Tacoma brewpub Engine House No. 9 and getting laid off from his job in Seattle, he didn't have much else to try.
"I was bouncing around, looking for something to do," Engler told the Source during a tasting event held last week at White Water Taphouse. "My uncle homebrewed for a long time, and I somehow convinced him to do this, that this could be a viable lifestyle. He really knew how to brew German styles; that's where his expertise was."
Thus, upon opening four years ago, Occidental became one of Oregon's few lager-specific breweries. Their line, which first showed up in cans around Bend a couple years ago, includes all the standbys made in Germany over the past millennium—a light Kölsch, a copper-colored and somewhat fruity altbier, and a dark and malty dunkel. (More recently, they've released a beer or two in bottles, including their strong Lucubrator doppelbock.)
"It wasn't that we thought we'd be all German starting on day one," Engler explained. "But when we started thinking about our business plan, it made sense as a way to stand out."
How does a brewery making such traditional styles stand out, though, in the land of barrel-aged this and wild-fermented that? As Engler puts it, their sense of tradition in beer is precisely what makes them stick out.
"There's resistance, of course," he said. "People unfamiliar with us will come in the brewery and ask for an IPA, and obviously I have to disappoint them, but almost always we find a beer that they enjoy. A lot of people aren't familiar with the styles at all, so a lot of education is involved."
Several Occidental beers remain on tap at White Water and around town. If you haven't tried them yet, Engler recommends grabbing the Kölsch first, either on tap or in their trademark yellow cans.
"It's just a great everyday beer," he said. "We like to say that we make beer-flavored beer; we don't put a bunch of stuff in it. It's a great intro to German beer if you aren't familiar with it—often lower in alcohol, but very clean and some subtle hop character."