When Darron Welch was a University of Oregon history major clicking away at the typewriter keys, writing his senior thesis on prohibition in Oregon, he couldn’t have known what the bygone era would mean for his future. Welch had already fallen in love with beer during his gap year in Germany, but the meticulous researcher still had years of fine tuning ahead of him before he would become the brewmaster who created Kiwanda Cream Ale, the internationally-acclaimed flagship brew at Pelican Brewing Company that was inspired by the pre-prohibition era ale.
Flash forward past more travels, including the time he met his future wife while they were studying abroad in Hungary, and his brief career buildings organs (the kind that play music), and Welch was still the same beer- loving guy. The guy who, as a minor, convinced his dad to buy him homebrewing supplies so he could at least try to replicate the robust flavors he developed a taste for while abroad.
“The Kiwanda is my interpretation of the All-American beer,” said Welch of the cream ale, one of only two beer styles truly homegrown on U.S. soil. “With immigration to this country came light lager transitions, a cold storage ale and lager combo. Then so much tradition and heritage was lost during prohibition. Out of that time came this homogenization of beer that lasted until the ’80s and early ’90s.”
It is some combination of his predilection for history and a nearly reverential dedication to process that have turned the soft-spoken Welch into the decorated darling of the craft beer industry the world over, with a combined seven “Brewer of Year” awards from the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival. This year alone he has led the brewery to seventeen international honors. This marks the third-time Pelican was named Champion Medium International Brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards, which is the largest annual competition of its kind in the world that judges both draught and packaged beer. Add this year’s decorations to the brewery’s 300-plus awards over two decades and it’s tough not to take notice of the froth coming out of the Oregon Coast.
In 1996, Welch was ready to move back to Oregon after having dipped his toes in the Midwest brewing industry. At the same time a couple on the Pacific Coast, Jeff Schons and Mary Jones, was brushing some sand off a vacant oceanfront pizza joint in Pacific City and hatching a plan for Oregon’s only beachside brewpub. The perfect storm came together when Welch saw the couple’s handwritten advertisement for a brewer on a corkboard at a small Oregon brewing conference that year. “I got the gig and became a partner in Pelican with them a few years later,” said Welch, now 49.
Tucked in a mid-coastal plot of land not touched by Highway 101, Pacific City was the type of town one had to discover. Maybe you heard about it from a surfer friend. Perhaps you navigated to the green swath of southern Tillamook County looking for Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area—the cream ale’s eponymous forest begins just past the sand dunes visible from Pelican’s flagship pub—using the hair-thin lines of a crinkled map.
Today, Pacific City is a summer tourism hotbed, even though the hamlet’s year-round population barely reaches four digits. Vacation homes and cars packed full of families craving salty air have continued to crop up around the successful brewery and its perch overlooking Haystack Rock. With consistent growth and demand for its products, Pelican sales are up more than 500 percent from 3,500 barrels in 2013 to 16,000 barrels in 2016. For comparison, the designation “microbrewery” is reserved for breweries producing less than 15,000 barrels of beer annually. The company doubled its brewing and bottling capacity with an expansion at its Tillamook facility in 2013 and opened a new brewpub in Cannon Beach this year. All three locations have brewing capacity with similar water flavor profiles and all three Oregon Coast sites brew the iconic Kiwanda Cream Ale.
Welch said he appreciates his twenty-plus years of coastal living during his regular commute. It takes about forty-five minutes to drive from his home in Neskowin, just south of Pacific City, where he and his wife are raising their two teenage sons, to the Tillamook facility where Welch leads the brew team, which brews in 14,000 square feet of high tech mastery. Glistening chrome tanks reflected in Welch’s glasses as we toured the facility. “The bottling line machinery does 165 bottles a minute…” he said, walking the warehouse floor while summarizing the scene with measured surety. “Here, this equipment helps us achieve optimal pitching… Over here is where we manage attenuation levels… This is the Hopinator.”
It took a bit of probing before Welch confessed his role in the high-tech tank’s creation. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in his quest to brew the perfect beer, Welch found a company, Portland’s Metalcraft Fabrication, to collaborate on the development of the Hopinator—a two-story R2D2- like apparatus that creates optimal aroma and flavor stability during dry hopping. The machine’s oxygen management efficiency yields better flavor profiles than the standard process and uses up to 30 percent less hops, in addition to being safer for brewers to use and more sanitary.
While many people look at Welch and see a beer savant, Welch sees himself as precision oriented. “We couldn’t have gotten to where we are today with just my mindset. It’s important for me to coach and persuade the team to create assertive yet balanced flavors,” he said. “I design processes so that we can achieve exactness in our flavor profiles.”
And designed and coached, he has. Welch’s sparse square of an office has just a few photos hung on one wall, next to pinned up documents and chicken- scratch technical notes. In each image, Welch stands next to one of his young brewers who has gone on to achieve brewing success elsewhere: Travis Zeilstra of Wyoming’s Black Tooth Brewing; Jason Schoneman, who started Steel Toe Brewing in Minnesota; Portland’s Gigantic Brewing co-owner and brewmaster Ben Love.
“Pelican was my first real brewing job,” said Love. “Darron taught me how to brew and gave me the skills and a strong foundation for how to make incredible beer. Working with him set me on the path that lead to the opening of Gigantic.”
Most of Welch’s brewers have been recruited from outside of Tillamook County, but the majority of Pelican’s staff are locals, even if there are more cows than people in the county. “There is a mechanical aptitude in this agriculture-based community,” said Welch. “We are deeply tied to the coast as a company.”
Welch described the Tillamook taproom and brewing facility and the new Cannon Beach brewpub as natural steps in the brewery’s evolution that stay true to the brand. Seasonal brews such as Captain of the Coast (yes, that new release has already won an award) complement year-round staples such as Tsunami Stout and, of course, the crown jewel: Kiwanda Cream Ale.
Welch brought the cream ale back to prominence and Pelican gets to be the arbiter of its identity in modern history. Easy-going yet exacting, just like its brewmaster, Kiwanda Cream rides in on a wave of floral aromas, then hits the shore with a touch of malty sweetness that is finished by a creamy tang.
“Craft brewing, right now, is living history,” said Welch, differentiating the flavorful brews made by him and his peers from the generic, mass-produced lagers made by the Coors and the Buds of the world. “People will look back on this time in brewing as the rebirth of an American craft. It’s creative, disruptive. It’s upending what we know about beer. Our mission is complete when a standard lager accounts for less than 25 percent of the beer industry.”
Today’s market share for craft brewers is 12.3 percent and counting, according to the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. This share has more than doubled in just half a decade. While Welch’s mission won’t be fulfilled tomorrow, his continued contribution to the field is sure to make history.