One Brewery’s Mission to Protect the Wilderness

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Portland brewery Base Camp mixes refreshing ales with a passion for the great outdoors in an effort to save them.

Ross Putnam, co-founder at Portland’s Base Camp Brewing Company, knew what to expect when he joined the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) for an overland trip to the Owyhee Canyonlands in November 2015. Comprising of more than 2 million acres of wilderness in Oregon’s rugged southeastern corner, the Owyhee is known for stunning red rock formations, craggy canyons, and—lacking paved roads, cell phone reception, and small towns in much of it—an endless sense of isolation. “The land is unforgiving,” Putnam says. “This is a true wilderness area, and you better be ready for it. It’s not like you can call AAA.”

Ross Putnam

The threat of rain cast a pall as the trip wound down. Even a brief drizzle, lasting no longer than one’s morning shower, could wash out gravel roads and leave the crew stranded for days. Running low on supplies, the group made a deal: “If we start to hear some rain, it doesn’t matter what time it is. We’re getting out,” Putnam recalls. “If you get stuck out there, you’re walking 30 miles to get help.”

The rain never came; instead, Putnam remained awake, admiring one of the darkest night skies in the continental United States and watching what he calls “the most amazing star show of all-time.”

He channeled that awe into Owyhee Canyonlands Wild Ale—a beer developed in partnership with ONDA in an effort to help protect the area—for Base Camp Brewing Company, the company he started with three longtime friends. Since its launch in November 2012, Base Camp has become known for its devotion to the outdoors, a rotating lineup of eclectic beers, and innovative fundraising efforts with regional conservation organizations.

"Getting outside has always been a huge part of our lives. Being able to dovetail that in with a larger company seemed like a no-brainer."

Base Camp began to take shape in 2010 when owner and brewmaster Justin Fay, a former brewer at Klamath Basin Brewing in Klamath Falls, approached longtime friends Putnam (now sales and distribution manager and co-founder), Joey Dallas (now marketing director and co-founder), and Krister Balme (also sales and distribution manager and co-founder) about starting a brewery in Portland. Between their upbringings in rural settings and the brewery’s new home in outdoors-minded Portland, the Base Camp brain trust knew that nature would appeal to thirsty patrons. “Getting outside has always been a huge part of our lives,” Dallas says. “Being able to dovetail that in with a larger company seemed like a no-brainer.”

Roughly two years after that first meeting, Base Camp opened its doors in Southeast Portland on November 2, 2012.

The Base Camp cofounders designed their brewpub with an obsessive attention to detail that took two years to imagine and, today, makes a visit to the brewery feel like a day at summer camp. A weathered blue canoe hangs over the bar, the byproduct of an ill-fated trip down the Wilson River several years ago. Innumerable outdoor action shots (many taken from snow-covered slopes) stand behind the brewery’s carabiner-covered tap handles, and the basalt rocks propping up many of the brewpub’s tables come from Putnam’s family’s quarry in southern Oregon. S’more Stout, one of Base Camp’s signature beers, is garnished with a marshmallow, “roasted” by a handheld torch just before serving. Many of the wood tabletops, which are covered in Oregon topo maps, come from a family friend who engages in sustainable, salvage wood milling.

As the sun sets, fiber optic lights start to twinkle in the ceiling. Dallas spent dozens of hours plotting the display so that the lights replicate the starry sky Portlanders see each night. “It’s these details that are a chance for us to push ourselves and do something fun," says Dallas. "Why not put some thought into it, rather than just gloss?”

Perspective ?

A photo posted by Stephanie (@s_triana) on

Base Camp has hosted community events and raised money for several outdoor causes since its inception, but one of the brewery’s most successful outreach efforts to date is the Location Series. Base Camp’s Location Series launched in early 2014 with the release of Smith Rock Red Lager, designed to honor Central Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park. The lager’s red-orange hue resembled the park’s sheer rock walls, and its aroma of sage and juniper brought to mind the region’s desert surroundings.

In the beer, Dallas saw more than a refreshing lager. “This is a chance for us to do something similar with all of our favorite places in the great outdoors,” he says.

"Whatever your stance is on nickel mining, water conservation, whatever it is, this is in our state. This is happening."

The next beer in the series, Chetco Saison, was inspired by the Chetco River in southwestern Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Base Camp partnered with Northwest Rafting Company and environmental group KS Wild to promote the beer and spotlight ongoing conservation efforts in the remote region. “For us, it was the first step into the political realm,” Putnam says. “We didn’t want to push our political beliefs on anyone else, but we wanted to cast a light on a particular area. Whatever your stance is on nickel mining, water conservation, whatever it is, this is in our state. This is happening.”

If Base Camp’s Chetco Saison was a tentative step into the political realm, its partnership with ONDA represented a running leap. ONDA, along with other advocates, has worked in recent years to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands from potential mining establishments, sparking land-use battles between environmental organizations and residents who worry that protection may upend their way of life.

Base Camp released Owyhee Canyonlands Wild Ale in the summer of 2016, its inspiration showing up in every step of the brewing process. The brewery fermented the ale with wild yeast as a nod to the “wild” nature of the Owyhee. Brewers paid tribute to the region’s endless seas of sagebrush by adding a sage after fermenting, and the beer’s hue—an autumn-esque mix of red, orange, and yellow—reflecting the Owyhee’s desert landscape and rugged rock formations. Base Camp donated $1 from every bottle sold to ONDA and held an event to highlight the organization’s efforts.

Base Camp's Location Series raised $4,800 for partner organizations in 2015, and the brewery donated $2,200 to ONDA in 2016—$1 per bottle of Owyhee Canyonlands Wild Ale sold. Dallas anticipates that Base Camp will brew one or two Location Series beers in 2017.

As the Location Series continues, Putnam knows Base Camp is part of a conversation effort that grows with every pull of the tap handle and each step into the Oregon wilderness. “What we do actually does matter,” he says. “The voice we have as individuals and businesses, they do mean something. It’s a matter of focusing that energy and figuring out what’s really worth putting time and effort into.”

Photos courtesy of Base Camp Brewing Co.

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