Derrak Smith is the youngest brewer in any of the county’s five commercial breweries, and he works in the oldest, and smallest, ale house.
Smith’s story is a unique one, even in the diverse field of ale authors in our midst.
He works alone in a four-barrel system that expanded to six tanks last year from the original four installed by his boss, Randy Orzeck, who was the first Big Horse brewer.
In a brewing tradition seen all over Europe, he is handcrafting beers one floor below the pub where it is served. Big Horse has this in common with Full Sail and Solera, where pub areas also are located directly above the tanks.
What follows is an abridged profile and interview with Smith. For the full interview, go to hoodrivernews.com.
Smith is 27, and he has a son, Jude, 4. His history at Horsefeathers goes back to when he was too young to hang out in any bar. At 16 he and friends used to sneak into the lower level of the restaurant and play pool.
At age 18, he left Hood River and lived a year in the New York City area, doing volunteer work for a religious organization he from which he — and some of his immediate family — have since severed any ties.
He lived in Hood River a while, and then moved to Portland when he was 20.
“That’s where I got introduced to beer. I didn’t think I’d like beer,” Smith said. “People would say ‘Let’s grab a beer,’ and I would say, ‘I don’t like beer. Beer is crap.’”
But gradually that changed, and he acquired a taste.
“I started getting into beer more after I started brewing,” he said.
He spent five and a half years actively home brewing, before his Big Horse predecessor, Jason Kahler, handpicked him in late 2011.
HRN: How did you get your start as a brewer?
“I was with a friend, having beer, and he said, ‘We should try making beer.’
“I said, ‘I didn’t know you could make beer.’ You go to a restaurant and you like a dish and you think, ‘I could make that at home,’ but I didn’t think about that with beer.”
Next, an ex-girlfriend got him a home beer kit.
“The girl is out of the picture,” he said. “My ex led me to drink and I never had time to thank her for it. It’s a joke but there is some truth to it.
“The first year was not very successful. I didn’t know where to get my information. I’d go online and get all contradictory information. Once I learned where to get my information that turned it around.
“My first good batch was my first, and my second batch was really good, the one after that — and the next 50 were no good.
“That’s relating it to my standards now. I guess at the time they were all right.
“I knew once you do one correctly, even if there’s a whole bunch of bad ones I knew I could do it correctly. It just takes a lot of time and studying, and trial and error.”
How many trials?
“Past 50. I mean there was even a point when I was brewing, had a batch that wasn’t taking that great. I didn’t know why it wasn’t, wasn’t sure I wanted to continue it as a hobby, and that’s when I found the right information.”
So was there a particular source? Or did you know the right places to look?
“First, I went to local Homebrewers of the Gorge, a great source because a few of them have been doing it for 15 years, have great palates, and can tell you what went wrong and how to change it.
“I started hitting all the brewers around here, including Jason (Kahler, his Big Horse predecessor), and then started looking to Jameel Zaneischef, an award-winning brewer, and books on brewing and microbiology and yeast. I didn’t understand it right away, but I would bring (beers and ideas) to the (homebrew) group, and get feedback. I did that every single week.
“About three years ago I started making good beer, or even a couple of years ago, consistently making good beer, and about two and a half ago I really started nailing it down.”