Friday, August 15, 2008

Around the bend is a family business

Express Staff Writer

Chris Harding sits amongst his kegs of brew. Photo by Dev Khalsa

Tucked into a dale along the Big Wood River is an area known as River Bend. In the early 1990s Chris Harding bought a junked-up doublewide trailer there, and a decade later built a house on the site to suit a burgeoning family. Today the sunny, open home is also headquarters for his home micro-brewing business, aptly named River Bend Brewery.

A biologist by training, Harding began his life in the valley as a carpenter. For 12 years he combined that work with a little home brewing. He grew hops out back, and kept things small.

"Like all home brewers I started feeling that to grow I should go commercial," he said.

Unlike others, he actually turned that musing into reality. In 1999, Harding sold his first keg, after spending two years obtaining licensing and tags.

The brewery he fashioned out of the doublewide's old bedrooms sits behind the home he shares with his wife Jamie, a teacher, and daughters Charley, 4, and Clara, 7.

"I remained a part-time carpenter until the whole thing got on its feet," he said. "But after being a carpenter and building these silly things—(a gazebo with a pizza oven, for instance)—I just couldn't deal with it anymore. So that was more incentive (to start a business)."

"Now I make beer and watch kids," he said with a laugh. "The commute is great. It's a five-second walk. I make 150 barrels a year, 300 kegs, or a keg a day as we say around here. I brew every two weeks in limited batches. It's been steady for five years."

Harding is a bootstrap Idaho entrepreneur; after brewing from scratch, he distributes River Bend's beers himself. The secret to this one-man operation's success is Harding's attention to detail.

"I clean the tap lines regularly to maintain freshness and quality," he said. "My well water is fantastic. I use British malt, which helps a lot. It has a lot of character."

The malt he uses tastes like the powdered malt into which we used to dip ice cream cones on hot summer beach days. From this he predominately produces a nicely balanced amber called Round the Bend Ale. As well, Harding produces Big Wood Bitter, Pica Pica Porter and Mare's Stout.

The beer is only available on tap at an assortment of establishments that range from Galena to Bellevue.

Harding uses traditional open fermentation, and brews in stainless steel tanks. Each batch takes about two weeks in the two fermenters, including the final dry hopping process.

"During slack I can brew ahead a bit," he said. "I'm totally maxed out now. I've had to turn down customers, but I'm going to explore expanding when Charley is in school. I could double my output."

Despite Harding's modest output he is generous to the community, often donating kegs to various fundraising events.

"I have a lot of beer but I don't have a lot of money, so that's what I donate."

For years, those kegs have gone to events supporting Citizens for Smart Growth, the Wood River Land Trust, and Mountain Rides.

Though his mother bought him his first rudimentary home-brewing equipment, his father had a huge impact.

"Dad was a serious entrepreneur," Harding said. "He started a computer billing service for doctors in the Bay Area. He was just utilizing the technology. It was impressive. I must come by the entrepreneurial spirit genetically."

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