Tonya Cornett

Going Pro by | Jan 2009 | Issue #24

How to win "Small Brewpub of the Year" in nine calculated steps

Photo by Sean Z. Paxton

Tonya Cornett is about to celebrate her eighth anniversary as the Bend Brewing Company’s brewmaster. She’s also the sole creative force behind the Oregon brewpub’s ever-evolving portfolio of beers. And, judging by the medals on the wall, that’s working out just fine. The 2008 World Beer Cup “Small Brewpub of the Year” winner works her seven-barrel system to capacity, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

1. Find your calling, then go all in
Good beer first found Cornett more than a decade ago, when the Indiana native was living in Fort Collins, Colo. “I had never been a really big beer drinker,” she says, and although New Belgium and Odell hadn’t exploded in popularity, “the buzz around them was huge. For the first time, I found some styles that I really liked.” She got a nonbrewing job in a small production facility to get closer to the process (“I watched a lot and I asked a lot of questions”), volunteered in a small brewpub for hands-on experience and parlayed that into a job brewing back in Indiana. After three years, Cornett decided she didn’t want to be an assistant brewer anymore. She quit, enrolled at Siebel Institute of Technology, and almost immediately afterward, landed at Bend.

2. Opportunity comes to those who eavesdrop
Why Bend? A friend of Cornett’s happened to overhear a conversation about how the pub’s brewer was leaving, and immediately volunteered Cornett for the job. “He said he knew someone who’d just come back from Germany who was a brewmaster, would the owner be interested?” The owner was. Cornett sent out a résumé—“Two weeks later, I was in Oregon with a job. It’s kind of strange how it all worked out.”

3. It’s best in the Northwest
In Indiana, Cornett recalls, “We could not sell an IPA. Pale Ale was about as bitter as it got.” And while she fell in love with Germany’s brewing tradition, she believes the country’s brewing establishment is “pretty pigeon-holed into the thinking on what makes a correct beer. If anything, I’ve found that there are many right ways, and it depends on your brewery, or which way’s right for you. We are thriving here, and there’s a lot of creativity and ingenuity here that they don’t allow themselves to have.”

4. See the job through
Cornett is Bend’s only brewer. Everything in the 1,000-barrel-a-year brewery is on her—from recipe development to keg washing. “It’s insane,” she says. “It really is. It’s a very tiny brewery—or more like a big walk-in closet.” She didn’t think she’d be working in a one-woman pub, but now, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “At Siebel, everything was targeted towards large breweries, and I thought that’s where I’d end up. When I got this job, it was so challenging to do the process from beginning to end—that’s when I realized, if I only saw a part of it, I’d really be missing out.”

5. Don’t stop till you get enough
Bend has a stable of year-round favorites, but what keeps Cornett energized is creating one new recipe after another. “That’s the focus of this pub—putting new styles in front of my regular customers, and constantly challenging them and the staff.” She adds, “I was talking to Tomme Arthur the other day, and he said, ‘Will you quit telling these reporters that you love to do recipe development?’ He said he’s getting tired of reading it, that it makes me sound like that’s all I do. It’s not all I do!” Shortly afterward, she complains about IPA monopolizing fermenter space. “I wish I could do more specialties,” she says. “It’s never enough for me.”

6. Let your beer steer itself
So how does the brewpub’s sole brewer create new beers? It starts with a ton of research—in recipe books, online and at festivals. The first batch is normally a test run. “I’ll go pretty mainstream, and the second time, I’ll decide which direction I want it to go, and I’ll exaggerate one aspect of the recipe. I try not to go on one extreme end right off the bat because I like the beer to reveal itself and decide where it wants to go.”

7. Listen up
In the absence of brewing assistants, Cornett leans on feedback from her staff and customers. She anticipated her Black Diamond Dark Lager being a one-time brew, but her staff “just went crazy over it.” They asked her to keep bringing it back. She did, and last year, it won gold at the World Beer Cup. HopHead IPA, Bend’s decorated Imperial IPA, has a similar story. It was a request from a pub regular. She brewed the beer with whatever excess hops she had in stock, and instantly struck gold. “The first time I brew a beer, I’m never happy with it. Ever. That was one of the few times that I’ve written a recipe and loved it.”

8. There are no one-offs
Each batch is a learning experience. Cornett tears her beers apart, analyzing them, deconstructing their moving parts. Characteristics from one-off batches often reappear in future recipes. She was less than satisfied with a hoppy Brown Ale, but that beer’s hop profile became the centerpiece of her new Imperial Red. “I thought, OK, this didn’t work so great here, but it might be awesome in a Red. In a Red, it would be sweeter, have more of a big backbone, rather than the lighter quaffable Brown I did it in. And, as it turns out, I was right. It’s working really well.”

9. Keep your friends close
You may have heard of the other brewery in Bend, Ore. Deschutes brews up some good beer, too. And Cornett couldn’t ask for a better neighbor. “When one of us is doing well, or two or three of us, we all benefit,” she says. They all hang out and drink and talk shop; the big brewery gave Cornett her first barrel. “We want to see each other do well. It draws attention to all of us. And who else is going to geek out on beers, other than other brewers?”