Chug, Chug, Toot, Toot:
Quaff We Go
Story and photos By Rick Bliss
For patrons of Western Pacific Brewing and Dining in Oroville, the trains moving slowly by on the tracks outside have special significance. For one thing, happy hour is declared whenever a train goes by, so the drinks are temporarily half price. For another, the building they occupy was once the passenger depot for the Western Pacific Railroad. The building was converted to a restaurant seven years after the last of the Western Pacific’s famous California Zephyr passenger trains left the station in 1970, and at that point honored its history by retaining the name The Depot. Now, it’s Western Pacific Brewing and Dining, a restaurant and microbrewery, thanks to the vision of David Deakins, one of the current owners. Today, patrons enjoy a fine meal and a delicious glass of beer where passengers once waited to board the trains headed up the Feather River Canyon to Nevada and Salt Lake City.
It’s hard to quaff a beer there without feeling the lure of the tracks. Owner Deakins certainly feels it. Having lived in Oroville since 1955, he watched many a Zephyr move through town. Deakins, along with his father and Gary Quilici, who now makes wine in Oroville, owned The Depot restaurant. When his father died and Quilici decided to devote full time to winemaking, Deakins paired with Jim Gowan to plan extensive renovations for the building’s transformation into a microbrewery. “It’s a great building,” Deakins will tell you. “I wanted to make it better.”
Deakins’ passion for railroad lore shows up in the names of the brews, for example, Keddie Red Ale. This full-bodied amber ale is named after Arthur Keddie, a surveyor who emigrated from Scotland and settled in Quincy in the early 1860s. As one of his first jobs, he surveyed a road over Beckwourth Pass and down the Feather River to Oroville. The route Keddie found had a grade so gentle that he felt that it was just too good for a mere road, and he began to dream of building a railroad. He interested several influential people in this prospect, but the proposed route through the Feather River canyon competed with Central Pacific Railroad’s route out of Sacramento and over the Donner Pass. The Feather River route had much to recommend it: its gentle grade would make railroad operations less expensive, plus Beckwourth Pass is nearly 2000 feet lower than Donner, with less snow and much easier winter travel. Keddie organized a work crew and began building his line out of Oroville in the spring of 1869, but later that spring, the Central Pacific route became the western part of the transcontinental railroad when its tracks were joined to those of the Union Pacific by the driving of the famous golden spike at Promontory, Utah. With the only route east, the Central Pacific exploited its monopoly by price-gouging competitors out of business then charging prices that nearly ruined customers. The manipulations of Collis P. Huntington, the most nefarious of the Central Pacific’s investors, along with the political ineptitude of Keddie’s own supporters suspended his work. Some of the Central Pacific’s iniquitous story is told in Frank Norris’s muckraking novel The Octopus: A California Story.
Backlash to the robber barons of the Central Pacific line motivated several efforts to revive the Feather River route. Resources to successfully undertake construction were finally found and building of the roadbed through the Feather River canyon was resumed in 1905 and completed in 1909 at a spot just south of where Highway 70 hits Highway 89, a spot named, appropriately enough, Keddie. Passenger service up the Feather River canyon began on August 22, 1910. That first train was greeted at every stop by one astonishing welcome after another, with huge cheering crowds dressed in their finest clothes turning out for the celebrations. In Quincy, 68-year-old Arthur Keddie addressed the celebratory crowd and nearly broke down in tears at seeing the fruition of his dream.
Perhaps when Western Pacific Brewing and Dining opened in February of 2009, a similar celebratory spirit christened Keddie’s Red Ale. It’s easy to understand David Deakins’ identification with Keddie’s persistence and passion, and Deakins confirms it. Of all the building’s history with both the railroad and his family, Deakins says, “That’s the reason I couldn’t turn loose of the building.” Deakins engaged with Jim Gowan, brewing consultant to craft brew start-ups and graduate of the American Brewers Guild Academy, who refurbished a former depot storeroom into the brew space. Jim had worked at several new breweries—Lockdown Brewing Company (“Home of the Folsom Prison Brews”), Sacramento Brewing Company, Gold Hill Vineyard and Brewery in Coloma and the Auburn Alehouse. All of these are craft alehouses, and most, sadly, have closed their doors during this economy. At Western Pacific Brewing and Dining, the brewery Gowan designed is beautifully compact to fit the small storeroom space, scaled to the needs of the restaurant, yet capable of producing a wide variety of ales.
Since designing the brewery, Gowan continues on as brewmaster, and all of his brews are ales. Ales ferment at a higher temperature than lagers, and their yeasts gather in froth at the top of the brew. The higher temperature results in faster fermentation and a brighter, more aggressive, hoppy flavor, often with more alcohol. The faster fermentation means less cost, because the equipment is not tied up as long, yet the flavor appeals. Recently, one of Gowan’s creations won Best Brew at the Oroville Sunrise Rotary’s annual Taste of Freedom event. He also won Best of Beer/Wine at the Butte County Fair in August. Gowan makes five distinctive brews and usually a sixth seasonal special ale, all named after Feather River canyon railroad history. In arriving at the names, Deakins and Gowan tousled a bit. Gowan researched and found over 300 enticing railroad terms, terms like pusher and burner car. Pusher is the term used for engines that push trains from behind the caboose; burner car names a boxcar covered (burned) with a masterpiece (piece) of graffiti. But Deakins wanted a closer tie to Feather River canyon railroad lore.
The 844 Oatmeal Stout is named from the engine number of the last steam locomotive built for the Union Pacific. (Union Pacific now owns the old Western Pacific lines.) Made in 1944, the engine was designed to be used primarily for passenger service and to operate safely at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, although its actual top speed has never been tested. 844 has been in active service ever since it was built, having never been retired or sold to another railroad. Union Pacific still uses 844 as its goodwill ambassador for special events and excursions several times each year. 844 makes a fit name for a sturdy brew, what the Brewery calls “a full bodied, dark ale . . . [with] a creamy head.”
Gowan’s Chilcoot IPA (India Pale Ale) is a delicious commemoration of one of the flag stops on Western Pacific’s line, the community of Chilcoot, at 5000 feet in Plumas County. The train did not regularly stop at Chilcoot, but passengers could stand on the track and wave a “flag” (such as a handkerchief) as the train approached, and the engineer would stop. Chilcoot IPA is brewed with three kinds of barley malts, and the Brewery says of the result, “This assertive, full-bodied ale packs a punch”—perhaps with the sort of aggressiveness needed to flag down a moving train!
Another ale, Pulga Pale Ale, is also named after a small, unincorporated community along the Western Pacific’s Feather River route. The town was originally named Big Bar, but there were three other towns in California with that name. The new name, Pulga, is the Spanish word for flea, from Flea Valley Creek, which empties into the Feather River nearby. Perhaps it’s the Chinook and Cascade hops that lend the ale its “great mouthfeel . . .[and] outstanding citrus, spicy character”—and that lend connection to the flea (get it? hops?). Gowan’s Belden Golden Ale, light colored and light bodied with a mild amount of hops is named after another of the stops in the canyon, where Robert Belden opened a saloon and general store during the railroad construction years. Belden Golden Ale thus could commemorate both railroad and drinking history in the canyon.
It might not do to search for such strict correspondence between the ales and Feather River railroad history. This great variety of ales is all brewed from just four ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast. Barley supplies the carbohydrate that the yeast ferments to provide itself with energy and, in the process, make alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. Gowan chooses among many different varieties of barley, hops, and yeast. There are hundreds of different strains of yeast that brewers can use to create variations in the flavor and character of the beer. A skillful brewer, Gowan has a good sense of which of these varieties will work well together to make a good brew. Gowan is also a strident advocate for hand-crafted brews, because the brewmaster puts such thought and effort into them and because smaller batches yield better beer.
However deliberate the connection between specific ales and railroad history, Western Pacific Brewing and Dining honors the railroad and its history. The large windows in the dining area and an outside patio offer an unobstructed view of the trains to satisfy—and even create—railfans. Photographs and illustrations on the walls spotlight railroading and railroad history. A one-page history greets customers in the entryway. And, when they order a sampler of Gowan’s ales, quaffers discover how beer and history meet as they read on the placemat about each brew’s namesake in Feather River canyon railroad history. And, be sure to turn that placemat over. You’ll find even more, not only about the railroad but also about the restaurant and the ancient art of brewing. It’s good reading—and the sampler’s six ales a fine accompaniment. As Gowan says, “The smaller the batch, the better the beer. And beer made on the premises . . . you can’t get better than that!”
Rick Bliss is a former engineer, retired college professor, and railfan. He has been an avid photographer and occasional writer for fifty years.