Oregon craft brewer takes its ‘first concrete step into Virginia’

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“We just want excellent beer,” says Michael LaLonde, the president and CEO of Deschutes Brewery.

Just a few hours before the June opening of Deschutes Brewery’s Roanoke tasting room, President and CEO Michael LaLonde was explaining the difference between the eighth-largest craft brewery in the country and international conglomerates such as Constellation Brands and Anheuser-Busch InBev. “Our success doesn’t start with billions,” he says.

The Bend, Ore-based brewery is making Roanoke its East Coast beachhead, with plans to begin shipping 190,000 barrels of beer from the Star City as far west as Kansas early in 2021. Deschutes beer has been in Roanoke stores for a while now. The company also has held two street pub events in the city, raising about $148,000 for local nonprofits. LaLonde, however, calls the tasting room just off the Downtown Market “our first concrete step into Virginia.”

Defining craft beer is increasingly complicated because large brewers are buying craft breweries. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, last year acquired Virginia’s largest craft brewer, Devil’s Backbone.

“I personally think ‘craft’ is a pretty powerful term, and I think it should mean something,” says Deschutes founder Gary Fish. But Fish seems unconcerned about the behemoths chasing his customers.

“Our goals are accomplished if we do what we know how to do as well as we know how to do it,” Fish says. “Competition is strictly about us. It’s not about the other guy. It’s about how well we do what we know how to do. If we do that, we’ll get our share of the market. They’ll get their share, everybody will succeed and, quite frankly, the consumer will benefit the most.”

Craft beer is traditionally a competitive yet cooperative market. Some Roanoke brewers, for instance, collaborated with Deschutes to create a beer served at the most recent Roanoke street pub.

“We just want excellent beer,” LaLonde says. “We want the entire craft beer community to be at that kind of level.”

Fish and his family own most of the company he founded nearly 30 years ago, but employees own about 8 percent.

The company’s mantra, LaLonde says, is “Do your best. Next time, do it better.”

So far, the formula seems to be working. “I’ve found that when you have an impact on a company,” LaLonde says, “it’s a better place to work.”

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