True to the Brew

Freebridge Ended a Century-Long Brewery Drought in The Dalles

Story and photos by Rodger Nichols

Freebridge Brewing Co. owners Steve Light and Laurie Petroff-Light turned a brewing hobby into a growing business.

Some states enacted their own prohibitions prior to the 18th Amendment. Oregon, Washington, and Idaho went dry January 1, 1916.

August Buchler, who operated Columbia Brewery at the base of Brewery Grade in The Dalles, was quoted at the time saying, “The first of January will be the last of August.”

He did not outlive his business long, dying the following year.

It took a full century before another brewery surfaced in The Dalles. Freebridge Brewing Co. opened to the public on January 6, 2016.

The company takes its name from history. Several private toll bridges had been built over the Deschutes River. In 1887, Wasco County built a free bridge to encourage trade.

The bridge was destroyed in 1914. Initial reports blamed fire and a windstorm, but there is suspicion it might have been dynamited by the competition.

Freebridge founders Steve Light and Laurie Petroff-Light were initially hobby home brewers, with no thought of going into the brewery business.

After college, Steve moved to Oregon from Michigan in 1991 and fell in love with the country. Laurie is a fifth-generation Oregon resident. Her great-grandmother Matilda Hendricks, walked west on the Oregon Trail as a young girl, likely crossing Freebridge. The family farms wheat and runs cattle on its ranch in the Fifteen Mile Creek valley.

The couple made several stops along the way to becoming brewery owners. Laurie graduated from Southern Oregon State, worked in aerospace in Seattle, sold jewelry and high-end plumbing, and ran ski shops. While managing a ski shop in Bend, she met Steve.

“He came in as a technician and boot fitter,” Laurie says. “We were really good friends for three years before any dating was even thought about. But I think it kind of caught us both off guard and here we are.”

Steve was an independent driftboat guide on the Deschutes River for 20 years.

“It’s hard to be an employee after you’ve been your own boss,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to wrap up my guiding career with incredibly wonderful people, but I knew it was time to close that chapter.”

Steve got a brewing education from Institute of Brewing and Distilling through Oregon State University Cascades. The couple put together a business plan with help from the local small business development center and started rounding up financing.

It was not a simple process. One of the bureaucratic hoops they had to jump through was a Tax and Trade Bureau requirement that applicants either own or lease a facility before they can apply for a brewing license.

“We had leased the Mint building in The Dalles for nearly eight months,” Steve says. “We were in danger of running low on cash when we discovered our application was just sitting on someone’s desk.”

They contacted then-Rep. Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden.

“Both of those men contacted the TTB for us,” Steve says. “Within days, we had our paperwork.”

Slow brewpub sales led Steve and Laurie to begin custom canning with mobile cannery lines. After filling the cans, a machine on the lower right attaches labels.

Pent-up demand for a local brewery was apparent at the grand opening, as lines wrapped around the block. First customers had the choice of three varieties: Hillside Helles Lager, Freebridge Pale Ale, and Muleskinner Stout.

The lager and stout remain popular permanent fixtures, while a succession of pale ale and India pale ale variants have their fans. The number of beers on tap has grown to include Scandalous Pale Ale, Pulpit Rock Pilsner, “The Dirty” Juicy IPA, and Oneonta Amber Ale.

One of the most popular is a hybrid Steve and Laurie named Chilly Willie after their 13-year-old cow dog.

“It has all the characteristics of a pilsner,” Steve says. “It’s a pilsner malt bill fermented with a lager yeast. The difference is that it’s really hoppy. It looks like you’re drinking crystal clear pilsner with a brilliant white head on it until you lay your nose across the top of that glass and get that aroma. It really bridges the gap between the ardent lager drinker and the ardent IPA drinker. There’s that beautiful middle room in there that I think a lot of drinkers would love to fall into.”

Although the business has had great support locally, in retrospect, 2016 might not have been the perfect time to open a brewery in The Dalles.

“The first five years of us being open were completely unpredictable,” Laurie says. “We had the worst snow in 50 years and the worst fire season in 100 years that completely closed the Gorge for weeks. And then came the pandemic.”

The setbacks pushed the company to adjust its business model. With a big batch of brewed beer and the slow brewpub sales, leaving beer to go bad, the next move was to bottle and can it.

Freebridge employs custom canners with mobile cannery lines. Their next step is to buy their own canning line to bring everything in-house.

Steve and Laurie say a lot of credit for their success goes to their employees. “We’ve had a lot of really good people come through the doors to help us get here,” Steve says. “We’re blessed with one of the best teams we’ve ever had right now. We’ve got momentum again. If we get to stay open, we’re feeling very optimistic about the future.”

Owning their own business gives the couple a lot of flexibility to work with local groups.

“We are brewing a beer for the Pink Boots Society this month, which will be a collaboration with the Gorge Roller Derby team,” Steve says. “It will be released on March 8, which is National Women’s Day.

“We’re really proud to be part of it and couldn’t have picked a better organization to partner with. They’re very philanthropic. They’re just wonderful human beings, and we’re all very excited about producing this beer.”