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Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery begins distribution in the First State this month

Like most professional brewers, Ben Kehs started out as an amateur with a home- brewing kit. It didn’t take him long to realize he had an unexpected passion for creating beer, and eventually he turned his hobby into a career.

Based in Bend, Oregon, Deschutes Brewery sells more than 225,000 barrels a year and is available in 33 states with the addition of Delaware this month. Photo provided.

Kehs, who went to Penn State to earn a degree as an information technician, started following that less-followed road from his home outside of Philadelphia to Massachusetts to his current home in Bend, Oregon, where he is a brewer and barrel master for Deschutes Brewery, one of the oldest and most successful breweries in the Northwest.

Deschutes Brewery — named after the Deschutes River, which runs through Bend — was founded in 1988 by Gary Fish, who initially opened a small brew pub and, as his creations became more and more popular in the Northwest, eventually built a separate brewing facility to handle the growing demand, as well as another pub in Portland.

In its first year, Deschutes Public House sold 310 barrels of beer. Today, Deschutes Brewery sells more than 225,000 barrels a year and entering March was available in 32 states. This month, Delaware makes it 33 as distribution has begun throughout the state via Standard Distributing.

The first beer Deschutes brewed is still one of its best sellers — Jubelale, a winter ale. Some of its other popular brands include Neon Daydream summer ale, Chasin’ Freshies IPA, Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond pale ale and Fresh Squeezed IPA.

Deschutes’ master brewer, Ben Kehs, says competition in the craft-beer industry forces one to “stay on your toes;” however, he appreciates “the creativity that comes from so many people doing this now.” Photo provided.

For more information on Deschutes Brewery and its beers, go to DeschutesBrewery.com.

Kehs has worked for Deshutes since 2004 after a short stint at Berkshire Brewery in South Deerfield, Mass. He also applied for a job at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton and didn’t get it, which was disappointing, but Kehs also said he has “many fond memories of going to Rehoboth Beach as a kid.”

Kehs sat down for a long-distance interview with Out & About Magazine to discuss his career and the brewery he now calls home.

O&A: You went to college to be an IT. When and how did you veer into becoming a brewer?

Kehs: “When I was at Penn State there were bars there that served craft beers and imported beers and I became fascinated with the different kinds of beer out there, and that led me to home brewing. But even before that I was fascinated with science — in school I loved biology and I loved chemistry — and while getting started with home brewing I realized I was still passionate about science, and home brewing gave me that general process control and being able to craft something that you literally made. And to have that end product was really appealing to me. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a professional brewer.”

O&A: How did you end up in Oregon?

Kehs: “First, I took a master brewing course at Cal-Davis and that really gave me a more professional setting for brewing and made me more of a student of the process. Then I got a job at Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield, Mass., and I worked there for six months before I was hired by Deschutes and moved to the Northwest.”

O&A: Speaking of the Northwest, that seems to be the cradle of craft beer brewing. Why is that?

Kehs: “I think it started with Sierra Nevada [established in 1979 in northern California] and that helped pave the way back in the 1980s. The Northwest consumes more craft beer per capita than any other part of the country, but I don’t know if that’s a chicken-and-egg situation — if it was consumers that drove the demand for all the breweries or the presence of all these breweries that made people more open to trying different things. But you can definitely feel it in the area — craft beer is very much established here and has been for years.”

O&A: Deschutes has been around longer than most craft breweries. What has been the key to its success?

Kehs: “I think that’s very much rooted in Gary’s vision as a brew pub being a place for people to get together. When Gary started this in 1988, he didn’t have plans for expansion and he wasn’t realty looking beyond the pub. He liked the town, and his main goal has always been to provide a place where people can get together. With the timing of everything in the late ‘80s, he pretty quickly saw there was a demand for his beer. That’s when he made the decision to start a new production facility, and in 1993 we broke ground on the [brewery] building we’re in now.”

Named for the Deschutes River, which runs through Bend, Deschutes Brewery is one of the oldest and most successful craft breweries in the Northwest. Photo provided

O&A: Something all craft breweries have to deal with is the incredible growth of the industry, which has led to an oversaturation of the market. How does Deschutes deal with that problem?

Kehs: “It’s a challenge and something we have to be aware of — if you go to the store you see hundreds of different bottles on the shelves, and it’s hard for the consumer not to get fatigued. It’s harder than ever to tell your story and stand out. So, we definitely talk about saturation and what’s going to happen in the future and how we’ll respond to that. Personally, I appreciate the creativity that come from so many people doing this now, with more and more people involved and the innovation that comes from that. It forces you to stay on your toes and stay current and push boundaries that we didn’t have to push before. So, in that regard it’s really exciting, but I know it’s a challenge on the sales side of things.”

O&A: Does the fact that Deschutes has been doing this for more than 32 years help you deal with that newer competition?

Kehs: “I think it’s helpful for sure to have that name recognition. People can see that Deschutes name and even if they’ve never tried a particular beer before, they know it’s a risk worth taking because they expect a quality product. So, that has definitely been helpful for us.”

O&A: The Covid pandemic has really blindsided the hospitality industry. How has Deschutes coped with that?

Kehs: “A portion of our business is draft beer, and that pretty much evaporated. So, we had to keep a really close eye on inventory and stay on top of what’s going on, because the last thing we wanted to do was overproduce and then things shut down and we wind up with a bunch of beer that has to be dumped. So, we’re looking forward to the next couple of months, for sure, with the vaccines rolling out and Oregon in the process of reopening after being shut down over the winter.”

O&A: What does the future look like for Deschutes Brewery?

Kehs: “First of all, we’ll continue to look inward to our core values and what is important to our customers. And regardless of the volume [of beer produced] or what fashions or styles there will be or what market changes are going to bring, just leaning back to Gary’s vision. If we are able to celebrate culture beer and bring people together, that will definitely be our guiding point.”

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