Strange Brews: Joel Rea and Corvallis Brewing Supply

Without looking at the beer menu, Joel Rea ordered a Widmer Brrr! – a winter ale. His blue eyes and mop of white hair went well with his fair, smooth complexion. You wouldn’t know that this man is the conduit for many future brewmasters in Oregon, and a crucial part of the craft beer industry. Being the president and owner of Corvallis Brewing Supply has its perks.

Joel Rea, 53, flunked out of Oregon State University, and proudly displays it on his social media pages. He wanted a forestry degree, which required chemistry classes. His brain didn’t “wrap around” chemistry.

“I got a letter from OSU for the Dean’s list,” he said. “It just wasn’t ‘the Dean’s List.’”

He eventually got a degree in forest technology and photography with the hope of teaching photography, but he felt disenchanted about the idea of making money from the arts. He stuck by his principles to the extent of conventional arts.

“This is like a broken record,” he said. “I graduate in something and decide I don’t want to pursue it, but I needed a job.”

At this point, he was homebrewing for three years. He would frequent Willamette Street Homebrew (now, Falling Sky), and he had his epiphany to start a brewing supply business. He had four choices in mind: Newport, Bend, Ashland, and Corvallis. He chose Corvallis, and he doesn’t regret his choice in the slightest, calling it “a good decision.”

Rea has the perfect job. When he is not tasting beer or holding beer releases, he is ordering the ingredients and equipment to make beer. After talking with Rea, he reiterated that he considers himself an artist first. His medium happens to be what founding father Benjamin Franklin called the proof of God’s love for mankind: beer.

Rea started his business in 1997, six years after the craft beer industry in the Pacific Northwest blew wide-open by the likes of Rea’s idol, Bert Grant, at Yakima Brewing Company. Grant’s Scotch Ale began the microbrewing revolution in the Pacific Northwest.

Homebrewing is a crucial part of the industry that often goes overlooked. This is the reason why people like Rea are so important to the beer culture; they help others realize their talents and their capabilities as brewers. He holds the keys to more competition, and he keeps local growers of hops, malt, wheat, and barley as suppliers.

Oregon Trail, Block 15, De Luxe, and Sky High all started from homebrewing operations.

Most microbreweries started with someone making batches of beer in their garage or basement. Samuel Adams started with its founder, Jim Koch, using an old recipe of his great-grandfather’s and making batches on his kitchen stove. Sam Calagione started Dogfishhead Brewing Co. in his basement, obsessed with the idea of making the perfect India pale ale. Jamil Zainesheff, the founder of Heretic Brewing Company, was given a Mr. Beer kit by his wife. According to a recent interview with Popular Mechanics, Zainesheff was quoted as saying his first batch of beer was “absolutely horrible.” He went to his local homebrew store, and now, his brewery distributes his beer to six countries and 13 states.  

Like rap artists who can trace their roots back to Ruthless Records and N.W.A., certain Oregon craft brewers can trace their professional lineage to Rea. He is responsible to supplying the first homebrew kits for many future head brewers across Oregon. One brewer in particular, Corey Zschoche, got his start by going to Rea’s store.

“I was enrolled at OSU in the fermentation program,” he said. “Joel definitely helped me quite a bit when I needed to build my kegerator.”

Zschoche, 31, is the head brewer at Klamath Basin Brewing Co. Through Rea’s store and expertise, Zschoche learned more about the brewing process from a knowledgeable expert. Rea helped Zschoche learn what kinds of hops, yeast and malt are needed for certain styles and tastes.

“Honestly, I don’t remember what we talked about,” he said. “All I remember is that he was big help to me when I was starting out.”

Rea makes plenty of good beer, but his favorite beer to make are Irish Dry Stouts because they are fun to brew and easy to make.

“There’s not a whole lot of ways to go wrong,” he said, “However, if something is askew… a dark malt (can) cover that. [That] always turn out well for me.”

His Irish dry stout is different than most. For St. Patrick’s Day, Rea drinks a Frankenstein concoction of sorts. It’s a combination of his oyster stout from Valentine’s Day (because we all know what oysters do) and his Irish dry stout.

“It’s a nice one-two punch,” he said, “so I always tell people I drink an Irish Oyster Stout.”

Rea knows his beer and he knows it well. Corvallis Brewing Supply has grown from a brewing supply store into a supply store and bottle shop. He wants to expand his business into a place where he can brew on-site, so people can peruse his selection of beers as they drink his homebrew.

He may have been disenchanted with making a profit from his art, but Rae is giving others the tools they need to make brilliant works of pint.

Some recommendations from Joel before you head out to pick up your own supplies?

Best Beer For the Beach – Czech Pilsner

Best Beer During a Snowy Winter – Amber Ales

Best Beer After Work – Anything

Best Beer at a Ballgame – “Not one that costs $12! I refuse to pay that much for a beer.”

By Greg Kelly