Our grandparents' history can embed itself into our subconscious in ways we're not aware of, and into our bloodstream in ways that modern genetics still can't understand. I know this because it happened to me. I have somehow become my grandmother – for better or worse – despite the fact that I never met her. And I would venture to guess that this sort of anachronistic phenomena may, at least in part, have something to do with Mazama Brewing as we know it today. Mazama's head brewer, James Winther, absorbed the passion and dedication of his grandfather and took it a step further - uprooting himself from New York City and fleeing to a small town in Oregon to study fermentation science. Winther now stands on the cutting edge of a craft beer renaissance.

“Rheingold Beer was once a top New York brew guzzled regularly by a loyal cadre of workingmen who would just as soon have eaten nails as drink another beer maker's suds," Wikipedia quotes the New York Times as saying. Winther's grandfather was one of these loyal workingmen – both loyal to the beer itself, but also dedicated to the brewery – working over twenty years at Rheingold as a cellar hand and in distribution.

The German-American Liebmann brothers opened Rheingold Brewing in Brooklyn, New York in 1883, during the early American beer industry boom, and managed to carve out a significant place in beer history. With the help of a young advertising executive named Robert Wechsler, the Miss Rheingold Contest was created, deemed “...one of the most popular promotional campaigns ever” by the New York Times. When the campaign was launched in 1941, the Chilean-born actress and tennis player, Jinx Falkenburg, was declared Miss Rheingold – the stunning face of Rheingold beer. The following year, the public was asked to vote for the next Miss Rheingold and by 1952, the contest drew approximately 25 million votes. Rheingold Brewing rose from sixth place to number one in the New York market in less than a decade.

Ahead of the times, Rheingold celebrated the diversity of their loyal consumers by featuring people of color in their ads, and as most other advertisers succumbed to apprehension when Nat King Cole became the first black TV show host, Rheingold was the first to sign up as a regional sponsor. Rheingold survived the anti-German sentiment and a boycott against German beers during World War II, the Great Depression, and Prohibition, but by 1976 had succumbed to the oppressive competition of Anheuser Busch, Miller, and Schlitz. It was around this time that Winther's grandfather lost his job of twenty years.

PictureJames Winther of Mazama Brewing
It was a different generation and a different industrial and social climate back then. Fast forward to today: craft beer still struggles against the same competition of Big Beer but is rapidly gaining ground while SAB-Miller and AB-Inbev falter, their flavor profiles and advertising gimmicks lost in the past. Now is a time when the grandsons (and granddaughters) of men who toiled in early American breweries gain significant recognition as head brewers in small craft breweries.

Winther was only ninteen years old when his friend asked him to help brew a batch of beer in the dorm basement of Stoneybrook University, using grain processed through a Dunkin Donuts coffee grinder. That first batch was terrible, but the young men persevered and their brewing skills improved. Eventually, however – as a result of their basement shenanigans - the university tightened the rules, restricting the possession of beer (for those of legal drinking age) to one gallon or less and banning brewing altogether.

It's easier to imagine Winther – an intelligent, enthusiastic thirty-one year old with smiling eyes which peer out from a head full of fur – on a 1969 commune than in the military. But with a military family history, ROTC in the ninth grade transitioned (post-Stoneybrook) to the army with an assignment to the psychological warfare unit of Psychological Operations. After only three months into the assignment, however, Winther injured his back lifting a grenade launcher – which abruptly ended what he thought would be a military career.

There was one way in which Winther stood apart from other men in the army – a prognosticating whisper of his future destiny. All through basic training, he continued to brew fermented concoctions in his canteen using honey packets, grapes and bits of rye bread - not unlike the earliest known beers of ancient Sumeria and Egypt.

After being forced out of the army, Winther worked for two years at Shoreline Beverage, a huge Long Island bottle shop, which marked his transition to a new career in Beer. Then in 2007, at the age of 24, Winther left New York City for the first time ever – bound for Oregon State University, to attend one of the only two fermentation science programs in the country at that time. After this, he volunteered as an intern with McMinnamin's and was later hired at their Edgefield location. Winther had worked at Edgefield for about a year when Jeff and Kathy Tobin reached out to the OSU alumni list in search of a head brewer for their new brewery. Winther applied for the position and has been with Mazama Brewing, the Tobins' brainchild, since the first tanks were installed.

Opening in 2013, Mazama hasn't been around long. The craft beer community has begun to take notice recently, however, as they begin to hone in on their process, producing increasingly better beer. The first Mazama beer that gained a lot of attention among beer geeks was their Peach Sour Sunrise. Released late in 2013, the brew is a sour version of their Belgian Blonde, aged on peach puree. The result is a subtle but distinctly present peach flavor and a perfect balance of sweetness and tartness.

PictureJinx Falkenburg, the first Miss Rheingold
Mazama's primary goal according to Winther is to “...strive to make authentic beers in the Belgian and American spirit of brewing, such that our Belgian beers could be mistaken for something fresh from a Belgian brewery”. For serious beer drinkers, freshness matters – particularly with lighter beers which are prone to developing off-flavors as they age - or as they make a journey across the world to get to the West coast of the U.S.. But while Mazama's focus is on brewing traditional styles, they are also not opposed to experimentation and adding local touches where they can.

Mazama's commitment to quality shows in their almost O.C.D. approach, each potential beer going through an extensive vetting process before it even hits the brewery. The process is as follows: a group of people (including Winther, the Head of QC, and the brewery owners) will get together to write down their recipe ideas, then they're each expected to argue their case, which includes justifying the use of each ingredient in the recipe. If any of these recipes pass the first phase, testing will then begin on a ten-gallon system – the Tobins' old homebrew system – where the beer will be brewed three or four different times to perfect the recipe before it continues on to the final phase - to the full, twenty-barrel brewing system.

Like many craft breweries right now, Mazama has already started to expand their brewing capacity and will soon distribute to Washington and Southern Oregon. They have about a dozen or more barrel-aging projects going on right now, including a Belgian-style Quad and a Belgian-style Blonde aged in ginger mead barrels. They also have plans to do some 100% Brettanomyces-fermented beers as well as a lot more blending - which is likely to turn out some really nice wild ales and sours.

Mazama Brewing and Running Man Distributing will be hosting a beer-paired dinner on Monday, November 17th at the Bad Habit Room in Portland, Oregon. Jerrod Knight of Little Bird and, formerly, Wildwood will be the chef that evening.

If you're interested in trying one of Mazama's beers and you're in the Portland area, both the Mazama Grande Cru, Belgian-style Blonde aged in port barrels and refermented with peaches, and the Mosaic Eruption IPA are on tap at Scout Beer Garden (Good Food Here food cart pod at SE Belmont Street and SE 43rd Avenue).



Jan Baer
11/16/2014 7:46am

Love this article, but you forgot to mention that Mr. Winther is one of the nicest people you can find.

11/16/2014 9:08am

I agree! A nice man who makes amazing beer. Skål, James!

11/17/2014 3:09pm

Thank you so much for your comments! I agree - Winther is a gem among other great people in the Oregon craft beer scene, and a great brewer to boot! Cheers!

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09/22/2015 7:11am

James Winther was a great American brewer and makes very nice beer. He was well known brewer and a nice person. Beer brand introduced by him named Mazama is now expanding on a wide scale and is among the most trusted among people all over the world.

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