Mazama’s Ace in the Hole

Over the past five years, Mazama Brewing of Corvallis has quietly developed a reputation throughout the PNW and beyond for its outstandingly flavorful beers. They’ve managed to earn themselves a stack of awards in the process, including a gold medal at the 2018 Best of Craft Beer Awards, for their delicious “Salud!” in the Vienna Lager category — among several other accolades. However, behind every great brewery is an enthusiastic and talented brewmaster, and this is no exception at Mazama. 

There, brewmaster is a title proudly held by 28-year-old Ryan McVay. McVay’s passion for brewing began at an unconventionally young age; he began brewing craft beer at 16 with his mom in their hometown of Salem. McVay then went to college for biology, but was uncertain what career he should pursue. After a short jaunt through seasonal trails crew work, he found himself missing science. 

Coincidentally, his brother-in-law had just completed the Fermentation Science Program at OSU and suggested that McVay participate in the program and make a career out of brewing. To this he responded: “Oh… you can do that?”

He could and he did. In the process, he actually became Mazama’s first employee, hired as a handyman to prepare the facility for extended operation. After that, the young grasshopper spent some time learning from beer masters in Germany, and returning with a bundle of new brewing techniques. After acquiring additional practice at Three Creeks Brewing and Gilgamesh, McVay returned to Mazama with the tools needed to take over as head brewer.

McVay entered the picture to an already formidable list of recipes, such as the top-selling Juicy IPA and Deadline Pilsner, but he’s been using the skills he’s attained to improve these recipes with every batch he brews. OSU’s fermentation program taught him an ingredients-based approach to brewing, while ze Germans schooled him on a more process-based style. He draws from both of these schools while perfecting the existing recipes. We can follow along on his journey, as each new batch hits the shelves and taproom.

“If you’re not trying something new, even on a small level, you’re missing an opportunity to get better,” says McVay.

The competitions that Mazama enters provide valuable feedback to McVay, and drive his improvements. “When you get happy with a product, you can chase your own tail trying to perfect it,” he says. “You need a critique, which for me as a brewer is the benefit of these competitions.”

McVay runs a crew of two, and gets his hands in just about every operation at the small brewery. Summer is indeed go-time at Mazama, and on any given day he could be starting or transferring a batch, filtering, carbonating, propagating yeast, and fiddling with his sour culture in the lab. Then there’s paperwork and washing kegs — or any combination of that stuff, plus more. Time management is an important part of his busy day. While describing to me the tasks that lie ahead for him, legitimate excitement can be heard in his voice and seen in his eyes; this man loves his job without question, and you can taste it in the pint.

McVay is still a bit of a home brewer at heart, and stays in touch with his roots. While he’s careful not to bring too much work home and burn himself out, he does brew the occasional batch of blackberry mead at his house. 

“It’s just different enough,” he laughs.

McVay is currently working on some summer batches with his sour culture, to be hitting taps and shelves soon. “Rasplendent,” a raspberry sour and traditional beer mix that he calls a “tart beer” is already available in their taproom at 33930 Eastgate Circle, Corvallis, and will soon be more widely distributed. This beer has the tartsy characteristic of a sour with a much higher level of drinkability, and by that I mean that it won’t make you so sleepy if you drink a bunch of it. Another tart beer called “Paradise,” which features flavors of many tropical fruits, will be in production shortly.

Mazama Buys Big River, Bar 101
McVay might just have an even larger workload in the future, because Mazama has been making moves. They have purchased the Big River Restaurant and Bar 101 on First Street in Corvallis. 

Mazama owners Jeff and Kathy Tobin are currently exploring the best way to maintain the spirit of Big River and Bar 101 while incorporating the Mazama brand. They’re hoping for a grand re-opening toward the end of the summer. The tasty Mazama beers have already been added to the tap list; Anyone can grab a pint for themselves there right now.

Ryan McVay is just one in an increasing group of young brewers who are taking the reins in the craft beer industry. Their enthusiasm and ingenuity have us feeling confident that we’ll be enjoying delicious, complex, and creative beers for years to come. Prost!

By Jay Sharpe
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