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News / Business / Clark County Business

Barrels of craft beer flow from Backwoods Brewing

Carson brewery in the Columbia River Gorge sees business boom after brothers open Portland pub

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: December 22, 2019, 6:05am
3 Photos
Co-owners of Backwoods Brewing, Tom Waters, left, and Steve Waters stand inside their production facility in Stevenson. The brewery has seen a large amount of growth since it opened in 2012.
Co-owners of Backwoods Brewing, Tom Waters, left, and Steve Waters stand inside their production facility in Stevenson. The brewery has seen a large amount of growth since it opened in 2012. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CARSON — It’s been over a year since Backwoods Brewing, a family brewery in the Columbia River Gorge town of Carson extended a foot into downtown Portland to open its second pub.

In hindsight, although the company dealt with growing pains, co-owner and CEO Steve Waters said the move brought stability to the company.

“The Portland location has helped the company feel a lot more secure,” Waters said. “If we hadn’t opened a second pub, we’d be really struggling as a company.”

The brewery is now one of the biggest in Southwest Washington, and it’s rolling out about 6,000 barrels a year with a staff of about 80, Waters said. It’s seeing five times the annual revenue of its first year in 2012, which shows that Backwoods is another example of the growing brewery scene in the Pacific Northwest.

For the future, Backwoods will probably open another location, too, Waters said.

At Backwoods’ production facility in Stevenson, Steve Waters, 32, and his brother Tom Waters, 33, co-owner and brewer, stand near the massive steel tanks that help produce the more than 15 beers the company has on tap at any given time.

The beer made in Stevenson is shipped to the Carson taproom, at 1162 Wind River Highway, about 5 miles upstream. Backwoods ships its beer to the Portland pub, but due to state laws, it must sell its beer to a distributor and buy it back after crossing the border.

That cuts about $60 off the bottom line of each barrel, he said.

“The first time I cut a check to (the distributor) for our own beer, I was like, man, this hurts,” Steve Waters said.

But for the most part, the expansion to Portland was worth it, he said.

The success has prompted the company to expand more, but this time into the catering business: Waters said Backwoods will soon be offering a traveling smoker that can go to various events in the Gorge. Backwoods beer, of course, will be on tap from a truck, too.

“The Gorge has a lot of weddings and big events,” Steve said. “I think having a Backwoods cart rolling around, smoking pizzas, smoking meat and serving beers out of the truck, too — I think people would be really excited about that,” he said.

Next year, Backwoods also will be distributing a rotating IPA that will swap every two months on the shelves of local grocery stores and the taps in pubs and bottle shops around Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Harnessing the Gorge’s appeal

Some of Backwoods’ success is due to its association with the Gorge, which has seen a boom in popularity with Portland and beyond, Waters said.

“We are lucky that we happened to time opening of this brewery right around the time that the Columbia River Gorge just picked up hugely in popularity,” Waters said.

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Waters said Backwoods uses its spot in the Gorge in its marketing to associate drinkers with Carson’s log-town feeling.

“We do that a lot in our advertising and marketing,” he said. “It’s because it’s who we are.”

Steve and Tom Waters grew up in Carson and Stevenson. Their dad, Jim Waters, started Backwoods in Carson in 2012. Before becoming brewers, Jim Waters and his wife, Debbie, owned a grocery store in Carson, and they filled some of the building’s empty space with a brewery to make their home-brew recipes.

Carson “was super rural back then,” Steve said. “Now it’s the hip, tourist place to go. Now people specifically take trips down the Columbia River Gorge every summer. But back then it was not very discovered.”

Steve, Tom and their brother, Kevin Waters, left Carson, but all three came back to join the company as it grew in popularity.

Tom and his wife moved back to Carson after he graduated from Eastern Washington University in Cheney, and he helped run the brewery and make the beer. He also designed the logo on a sheet of graph paper that’s now framed and hangs on the wall of the Stevenson facility.

Steve came back with an accounting degree from the University of Portland and years of experience at Moss Adams.

Steve said Backwoods has seen year-over-year growth, allowing the business to open the Stevenson production facility in 2016. After the Portland location opened last year, they were both surprised to see the Carson location’s revenue nearly matching the Portland location’s.

That could be in part because the Portland location serves as a sort of billboard for customers to make the trip to Carson, Steve said, where they can experience the feeling of being in the backwoods themselves.

“We thought we were the best-kept secret of the Gorge,” Steve said. “We didn’t want to be a secret anymore.”