Eric Steen has found a home at the heart of good beer and the great outdoors.
When Hopworks Urban Brewery and Patagonia Provisions announced the collaborative Long Root Ale last month, it marked more than just another good beer. The unveiling signaled a new, innovative step in Hopworks’ commitment to environmental causes while serving beer steeped in the kind of eco-conscious thinking already present in Hopworks’ hometown of Portland, Oregon.
So what made this brew different? The citrusy Long Root Ale—now available at Whole Foods Market stores and other retailers throughout Washington, Oregon, and California—was brewed with Kernza, a perennial grain grown using agricultural practices designed to improve soil health, protect farmland, and reduce water use. The partnership didn’t just represent an effort to boost sustainable farming efforts; it served as another chapter in Hopworks’ long-running relationship with important ecological causes.
There are few enthusiasts more emblematic of that nexus between great beer and the great outdoors than Eric Steen, of Portland, Oregon. Steen serves as Hopworks’ marketing manager today, but his passion for nature and craft beer has taken him from the Redwood forests of California, to the rugged British Columbia landscape, and eventually to one of the United State’s best beer cities. As the founder of the Beers Made By Walking program, Steen continually finds himself at the intersection of his own interests and Hopworks’ enthusiasm for green practices.
It’s been a long time coming.
Steen’s love of the outdoors took shape long before he could sip his first craft beer. As a teenager growing up in Northern California, Steen became enchanted with the region’s immense Redwood forests. “The Redwoods have always had a huge impact on my life,” he says. “When you see a tree that’s 2,000 years old and was around before Jesus was around, it puts things in perspective.”
“It’s ingrained in us. When we’re outdoors, there’s something that changes our souls.”
That affection only deepened as Steen grew up. “It’s developed into a real philosophy that being outdoors is something that’s really healthy for us,” he says. “We have evolved with streams, weather patterns, mountains, and animals over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. It’s ingrained in us. When we’re outdoors, there’s something that changes our souls.”
That love for the outdoors informed Steen’s decision to found Beers Made By Walking (BMBW) following a canoe trip along British Columbia’s Yukon River in 2011. Moved by the region’s natural beauty, Steen planned hikes in Colorado (where he was living at the time), invited brewers to join, and asked them to create beers inspired by what they found along the way. The hikers who took part in these nature walks learned about the edible and medicinal characteristics of plants, and gained insight into the brewing process. Participating breweries then released the beers at end-of-season parties.
BMBW has expanded to five states since that first hike, with events in 2016 bringing brewers and beer-lovers together in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and North Carolina.
Steen points to the Beers Made By Walking 2016 Festival, held during the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, as proof of how far the event has come in five years. The festival invited breweries from throughout the United States to pour beers inspired by flora, fauna, and regional landscapes; over the course of three hours, 350 attendees enjoyed ales brewed from ingredients as diverse as bee pollen, quinoa, Douglas Fir needles, and red sumac. “When I first started (BMBW), I definitely never imagined a 350-person festival,” Steen says.
Steen’s work with BMBW led directly to his position as marketing manager at Hopworks. Steen had been looking for yeast in Portland’s Forest Park for a BMBW event in 2014 when he approached Hopworks about using the ingredient in one of its beers. Brewmaster Christian Ettinger soon hired Steen to run Hopworks’ marketing efforts.
These days, Hopworks brings the outdoors to beer drinkers in numerous—albeit creative—ways. For the 2016 iteration of Portland Beer Week, Hopworks collaborated with The Commons Brewery to develop Totally Invasive, an ale using scotch broom and dandelions—both invasive plant species in the Pacific Northwest. While Portland-area drivers might know scotch broom as an ugly eyesore on highway roadsides, Hopworks harvested the plant from the Mount Hood area.
Steen appreciates that his passion for sustainability and local ingredients doesn’t fall on deaf ears at Hopworks. He cites head brewer Trever Bass as a proponent of pursuing uncommon ingredients without losing sight of environmentally-friendly business practices. (For instance, Bass brewed a beer made with salal berries, commonly found on trails throughout Forest Park, in 2014.)
The brewery, which launched in 2007, has gained acclaim throughout the environmentally-conscious Pacific Northwest for using organic grains and organic, salmon-safe hops, reducing its water use, and sourcing its ingredients from as close as possible to the Portland brewery. “We source locally because that’s just the way we like to do things,” Steen says. “If it’s within three hundred or four hundred miles [of the brewery], what about within three or four miles? What’s that beer going to look like?”
It was an ongoing effort to reshape how craft enthusiasts interact with their environment.
“There’s now historic precedence for having a beer that has strange ingredients.”
Steen believes that commitment to oddball ingredients is part of a larger trend; he points to the release of Deschutes Brewery’s Sagefight Imperial IPA as proof. Inspired by Central Oregon’s high desert, the Bend-based brewery made Sagefight with sage and juniper berries. “There’s now historic precedence for having a beer that has strange ingredients,” Steen says. “It’s a seasonal six-pack. It’s big.”
No matter the trends, Hopworks’ commitment to environmental sustainability and approach to unusual ingredients is baked into the company’s ethos. Its partnership with Patagonia Provisions on the Long Root Ale was less about a one-off collaboration than it was an ongoing effort to reshape how craft enthusiasts interact with their environment—wherever they drink beer.