Lightning in a Barrel: Art Larrance, Ron Gansberg and the Origins of Cascade Brewing
Getting showered with sticky beer isn’t normally anyone’s idea of fun. But patrons at Cascade Brewing’s weekly Tap-it Tuesday celebration don’t seem to mind. Fans sign up months in advance to tap a live barrel of sour beer with a mallet and spigot. The results are often messy, always entertaining.
The beers that have shocked and awed fans and made the Cascade Barrel House a destination for locals and tourists are the collaborative offspring of owner Art Larrance and brewmaster Ron Gansberg. The Oregon natives launched their sour project in 2002 as part of a search for a beer that would define them and a determination to be different. In short, Gansberg and Larrance did not want to go with the industry flow in the early 2000s.
“We both struggled with the hops arms race,” Gansberg says. “Most of the early IPAs and hoppy Pales lacked finesse. They were just bitter. We realized the need to offer a special sensory experience, but we weren’t interested in doing it with hops.”
Success wasn’t instantaneous. It took time to perfect their product and build a following. But Cascade’s sour beers have caught on to the point that they are in the process of moving to a climate-controlled facility that will quadruple production space.
The connection between Gansberg and Larrance goes back much further than Cascade Brewing or the hops arms race. It dates to the mid-1980s, when both were part of Portland’s fledgling and tight knit beer community. “I knew Ron for many years before he joined Cascade Brewing,” Larrance recalls. “We all knew each other. He had a reputation as a creative problem solver.”
Larrance co-founded Portland Brewing, one of the city’s four original craft breweries, with two high school buddies in 1986. A realtor in his life before beer, Larrance also helped establish the Oregon Brewers Festival in 1988, an event he continues to run today. He typically stalks the grounds in a festival shirt and a colorful straw hat.
Gansberg attended school in Europe and arrived in Portland after finishing up at the University of Oregon. He was working at Bridgeport Brewing, founded by Dick and Nancy Ponzi in 1984. Possessing a strong wine background, Gansberg had been hired to help with winemaking in 1986 but quickly wound up splitting time between the Ponzi’s winery and Bridgeport.
“Ron likes to tinker with things and I quickly saw he was good at it,” says Karl Ockert, founding brewer at Bridgeport. “Pretty soon I asked him to take charge of mechanical maintenance and fabrication at the brewery. It was a great fit.”
Gansberg joined Portland Brewing in 1994, as the company was in the process of moving to a larger facility and needing help with engineering and design. By the time Gansberg arrived, Larrance had been forced out in a shuffling of management. He soon incorporated as Cascade Brewing and began planning a brewery and pub of his own. Three years later, Gansberg left Portland Brewing to help Larrance design and construct the Raccoon Lodge in west Portland.
When it opened, Gansberg ran the brewing operation on his own. The early beers—mostly standard styles—were well-executed, if not particularly exciting or memorable. “Finding a ‘magic elixir’ was on our minds before we opened the Raccoon Lodge,” says Larrance. “We imagined something on par with Widmer Hefeweizen or Deschutes Black Butte Porter, beers that had done well. But none of our beers came close to what we had in mind.”
As it turned out, the late Don Younger, a legendary publican and early promoter of the craft beer movement in Portland and beyond, delivered the swift kick Larrance needed. “Don challenged me,” Larrance says. “He liked a Blonde Bock we made and thought most of our beers were okay. But he said nothing defined us. ‘Who are you?’ he asked me. And he was right. We really didn’t know who we were at that point.”
Fortunately, Larrance and Gansberg had some ideas about what they might like to be. They knew Alan Sprints was brewing small-batch beer and selling it at a premium price at Portland’s Hair of the Dog. And they saw others doing similar things outside Oregon. “I knew we weren’t going to compete with Widmer, Deschutes and Full Sail,” Larrance says. “Distributing beer to a lot of accounts isn’t a viable business unless you’re big, and I had no intention of getting big. We needed to find a premium product.”
In a move that came to define their working relationship and pay huge dividends, Larrance gave Gansberg complete creative freedom to develop something new. It was here that barrels initially entered the picture. “Ron had the creativity we needed,” Larrance says. “He had some barrels in his cellar and came up with the idea of replicating a beer’s voyage from England to India,” Larrance remembers. “He filled some barrels with an English IPA and we treated them as if they were making the trip around the horn.”
Tasting the beer every week or two to monitor changes, they eventually gave samples to patrons and collected opinions. Although time in a barrel altered the beer slightly, it was an expensive and tedious process for not much gain. “The key thing to come out of the IPA experiment is it got us thinking about the merits of barrels and how they might be used,” Gansberg says. “Barrels meshed with the idea of doing something special, and fit with our goal of producing more beer without needing a larger brewery.”
What started as a barrel project morphed into a sour project as they considered the landscape in Oregon and what was being done elsewhere. “We knew breweries were using Brett in Europe and California,” Gansberg says. “We didn’t want to copy that. We eventually decided we would use Lactobacillus to produce Northwest-style sour beers that celebrate the area via the use of regional ingredients.”
Gansberg’s wine and brewing background contributed mightily to the direction of the sour project—he understood biology and chemistry. In a sense, Cascade’s sour beers were a culmination of all he had done in the past. Gansberg’s first experiment was a barrel-aged version of a raspberry beer. That led to the early development of what became Cascade’s flagship Kriek, based around generous quantities of local cherries. The stage was then set for beers featuring apricots, peaches, strawberries and more.
“When a beer was commissioned, it was like laying the keel of a 19th century expeditionary vessel,” Gansberg says. “Each beer was launched with great hopes and expectations. Then we would taste and modify, taste and modify.”
“A lot of egos and opinions get involved in each and every beer,” Gansberg says. “Our process has always been more chaotic than controlled, and it’s that ragged edge that seems to foster creativity. My job is to guide the process, absorb the input and make good decisions.”
As the sour program ramped up at the Raccoon Lodge, Larrance had to confront the quirky reality that people from Portland’s beer-centric eastside rarely venture west. Cascade had won GABF medals in 2008 and 2009, but its beers remained largely unknown due to the Lodge’s location. That problem was ultimately solved in 2010 with the opening of the Cascade Brewing Barrel House in southeast Portland.
“There were a lot of raised eyebrows when people learned we were moving in here,” says Gansberg. “Many didn’t think the sour concept would fly. But coming here was like the sun coming out from behind dark clouds.”
The Barrel House was an instant success and Cascade Kriek soon earned a top rating in the New York Times. That put Larrance in a new bind. With roughly 5,000 square feet of production space and 2,000 square feet of pub space it was readily apparent almost from the start that the building housing the Barrel House wouldn’t be large enough. “The Barrel House exceeded our expectations from day one,” Larrance says. “It will always be the epicenter of our business. But it isn’t big enough.”
The solution was moving production to a facility that will accommodate more than twice as many barrels, as well as a number of foeders. There will be no pub or tasting room, though an occasional special event is possible. As they complete the process of moving barrels from the Barrel House to the new facility, Larrance is working on ways to reach more domestic and international markets with Cascade’s beers. He likes what they’ve accomplished and where they’re headed.
“Our magic elixir evolved out of an idea and a lot of sweat,” Larrance says. “Ron provided the creative inspiration that got us where we are. My job all along has been to give him what he needs and stay out of the way.”
For his part, Gansberg continues to tinker with and refine the processes that have brought Cascade to where it is today, but with a keen eye on the future. “Collaborating with Art on the sour project is the highlight of my career,” he says. “My role at this point is to make sure we continue down a stable, yet creative, path. Educating the next generation here is a big part of that and a top priority for me.” ■