Brew fans raise a glass to Walking Man

Stevenson brewpub finishes high on ratebeer.com’s national list

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If you go

What: Walking Man Brewing. Outdoor concerts are held in the beer garden on Sunday nights during the summer months, weather permitting.

Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.

Where: 240 S.W. First St., Stevenson.

Information: 509-427-5520 or www.walkingmanbrewing.com/.

It started, in a way, as a thirst quencher — a home-concocted means to get a decent glass of brew in what Bob Craig, 61, describes as the “vast beer wasteland” of his 1979 Indianapolis, Ind., hometown.

“I found out you could make your own beer and make it cheaply,” said Craig, a 20-year Stevenson resident who sports a bushy goatee and pulls his hair back into a neat ponytail.

That was the genesis of it: a hobby with drinkable perks that could be shared with friends.

Fast-forward to 1999 and Craig’s hoppy hobby became Walking Man Brewing, a Stevenson pub and brewery that filled 1,500 barrels of beer in 2009.

Now the little brewery with the beer-mug-holding walking man mascot (a sort of cross between a String Cheese Incident logo and a yield sign) has earned the accolades of the beer crowd.

Walking Man recently ranked No. 15 on ratebeer.com’s national Best Brewpubs 2010 list, beating out even Portland’s brewpubs. (Deschutes Brewery and Public House slid into the No. 48 spot on the 50-brewery list.)

Eric Helms, a spokesman for ratebeer.com, describes the site as an online beer community where members, dubbed “ratebeerians,” rank, discuss and read up on breweries across the nation. And while the forums and rankings are monitored to prevent individual users or small groups from having too much influence on overall scores, the site is open to anyone with Internet access, Helms said.

Jacob Leonard, the soft-spoken head brewer for Walking Man, said he was surprised that the brewery made the list.

“It’s good company to be in, that’s for sure,” said Leonard, sipping his brew behind the concrete-topped bar, where art-crafted wrought iron stools await the afternoon crowd.

The ranking has led to more pub orders of sample beer trays. But don’t look for expansion plans for the seven-tank brewery, an operation that’s housed in the equivalent of a one-car garage.

“We keep the city supplied with beer and send out what’s left over,” said Craig, who once owned a windsurfing business. “The minute you start expanding, you start chasing your tail.”

Most of the brewery’s beer, the stuff that isn’t poured into pub glasses, gets shipped out in kegs. In Vancouver, it’s on tap at Tommy O’s and Lapellah restaurants.

Standing near one of the beer tanks, Leonard and Craig explained the brewing process, which starts with a base of malted barley and varies from there, depending upon the type of beer desired.

Leonard opens the spout on a tank of fermenting lager, one of the brewery’s most popular summertime beers, and pours samples, which taste something like a cross between sweet tea and light beer. It’s not a small task. After the pour, he has to sanitize the lines to keep from spoiling the whole batch.

“The yeast is the brewer,” Leonard said. “We’re just the housekeepers.”

It takes two weeks to a few months for beer to transform from grain to glass; and a few months to brew up the High Road Scotch Ale, which took a gold medal in the 2005 Great American Beer Festival.

From the brewers’ standpoint, that’s a better time frame than wine, a one-shot process that can take years to ready for a glass.

“The best part of the job is handing the beer across the bar,” Leonard said.