In an alternate universe, Ruse Brewing could have opened five years before it did.
About 2011, its two co-owners and brewers, Shaun Kalis and Devin Benware, were employed by the same Portland, Oregon, brewpub within just a month of each other. But it would take another half decade and a few brewing jobs in between before the pair met, working together at Culmination Brewing.
“We’d heard each others’ names so often,” Kalis says. “When we finally met, it was like ‘Oh, you’re Devin!’ ‘Oh, you’re Shaun!’”
The pair quickly made up for lost time, discovering a mutual work ethic and appreciation for Brett-focused farmhouse beers. They launched Ruse in late 2015 under an alternating-proprietorship agreement with Culmination, eventually staking claim on their own taproom space in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Southeast Portland that opened in July 2018.
But once Kalis and Benware eventually debuted the brewery they’d imagined for so long, what customers wanted most from them wasn’t what they’d initially set out to brew. Ruse’s first four releases were all barrel-aged, Brett-forward saisons, but just a few years later, IPAs and lagers dominate the taplist.
“We didn’t package anything hoppy or in a can until we opened this place last year,” Benware says. A 2018 gold-medal win in the Hazy Hoppy Beers category of the Oregon Beer Awards—over Great Notion Brewing and Oakshire Brewing—only fanned the IPA flames.
Kalis says the shift wasn’t intended to steal focus from barrel-aged farmhouse styles, but Ruse couldn’t ignore Oregon’s seemingly unslakable thirst for both West Coast and hazy IPAs. If the brewery has a saison and an IPA on draft at the same time, he says the IPA outsells the saison ten to one.
“That’s our whole model; that’s why we’re a smaller brewery. We have a 10- barrel system, so if all of a sudden, things are a different trend, we can switch,” Benware says. “We don’t really have flagships out there. We brew whatever people want, to a certain extent.”
They honed some of that instinct at Culmination, where a five-barrel, five-vessel system afforded brewers opportunities to brew a rainbow of styles, then gauge the customers’ reactions in the taproom.
“We learned a lot about what was selling. For example, we brewed a mild, and all the brewers were drinking it, but there are only so many brewers in town,” Benware says. “We learned we had to brew what people were drinking. We learned a lot about business from them because they’re a start-up, too.”
But the pair emphasizes that brewing what customers are excited about doesn’t mean chasing every trend. To stay grounded, Kalis and Benware remain meticulous about ingredient selection, refusing to use fruit extracts and working with hops breeders to troubleshoot diacetyl issues arising from dry hopping with experimental varieties. They also have to trust their collective gut as a compass to steer them through the changing beer tides.
“We brewed a brut IPA and were tasting some around that time, and we were like ‘This isn’t really something for us,’” Benware says.
Flexibility and humility have enabled the duo to expand the styles Ruse brews without losing its identity or letting quality slip. Even their most celebrated beers are never immune to tweaks and changes. That gold-medal-winning IPA, Papyrus Iris, has changed “maybe 1 percent here and there” as the brewers pursue the best possible recipe for it.
“We don’t just say, ‘We make only these kinds of beers.’ You can’t do that in this day and age,” Kalis says. “So it just comes down to ingredients. We really pay attention to quality as much as possible.”
Though the brewery’s off-the-beaten-path location means its taproom attracts mostly regulars who live in the neighborhood, those regulars certainly don’t expect—or order—the same beers every visit. Rather than asking about the beer they enjoyed three weeks ago, regulars are more likely to order whatever the most recently tapped keg is. Ruse typically has about two new beers on each week.
“Sometimes you go to a concert, and everyone wants to hear a band’s old album. It’s nice that our customers want to try our new stuff all the time and aren’t like, ‘Where’s that last beer you had?’” Benware says. “It means we’re doing something right.”
To keep fresh ideas flowing, Kalis and Benware aren’t afraid to mine the wealth of neighboring breweries for advice and inspiration. They rely on trusted fellow brewers, their tight-knit taproom staff, and beer-geek regulars to keep them up to speed on new styles and attention-worthy breweries. Benware mentions an IPA he recently tried from Bellingham, Washington-based Structures Brewing that he admits set off a chain of “aha!” moments.
“Sometimes we’ll try a beer, and I’ll be like ‘Oh my god.’ It’s almost frustrating how good it is,” he says. “Then the second question is: ‘Alright, how do we do that now?’ It’s about questioning and trying.”
They approach these questions with a lack of ego that spurs constant refinement of their processes and ingredients. They’ve recently dropped their whirlpool temperature when dry hopping IPAs and pale ales to extract more flavor, for example, and upped the timeline for lagers to seven weeks, which they say has made a huge impact on the quality of those beers.
While it’s tempting to push the pedal to the floor while the brewery enjoys early success, Ruse is more interested in small improvements, both to the beers and the taproom. A new 20-barrel tank added in June will be the last production expansion for at least six months, enabling Kalis, Benware, and Ruse’s third brewer and Ecliptic Brewing vet Luc Goovaerts, to remain hands-on in the brewhouse every day. They both say the office is their least-favorite place in the brewery.
“We really only go in there when the WiFi’s down,” Benware says. “We’d rather sit in the walk-in cooler when it’s really hot, just have a beer in there.” They’d much prefer to be on the brew deck, which overlooks the airy, minimalist taproom that is the focus of all their energies. Though Ruse is often busy brewing with or at other breweries—recent collaborators include The Ale Apothecary (Bend, Oregon), Cellarmaker Brewing Company (San Francisco, California), Modern Times Beer (San Diego, California), and Great Notion Brewing—the small taproom is the brewery’s beating heart. It often hosts notable live-music acts, mostly friends who drop in for jam sessions, which Kalis sometimes joins. Ruse is toying with the idea of reconfiguring the taproom a bit to accommodate a small stage or lighting kit. One day, Kalis and Benware hope to open a second location with an actual music venue. For now, though, the goal is to keep a steady pace, refining recipes and searching for the next beer that keeps customers intrigued enough to return the next week.
“Coming up with new recipes is always tough,” Kalis says. “But, oh god, then there’s naming beers!”
Photos by Leslie Montgomery. Pictured in top photo: Shaun Kalis, Luc Goovaerts, and Devin Benware in the Ruse Brewing brewhouse and cellar.