Tapping into History

November 1, 2016 - 12:00am

If Darron Welch had followed in his parents’ footsteps, he might have been a musician instead of the award-winning master brewer at Pelican Brewing Company, based on the beach in Pacific City, Oregon. His mother is a singer and pianist, and his father a multitalented band teacher.

But like many Oregon craft brewers, Welch doesn’t always stick to the script. After high school in Springfield, he followed an interest in American and world history while enrolled in the UO’s Clark Honors College. His studies and two stints abroad honed his ability to see craft beer’s place in the world, he says. “The story of the US is defined by what new people bring to our country, and our beers reflect that.”

Welch’s first visit to Germany was a gap year abroad after he graduated from high school. His interest in beer began to grow as he traveled and discovered the wide range of beers available in Europe, where the legal beer- and wine-drinking age begins at 16. “The beers had so much variety and flavor. It was a real eye-opener,” he says.

When he returned home a year later, the Presidential Scholar started college. In 1990, he returned to Europe through a study- abroad program, earning UO credit while spending a year in Szeged, Hungary, 10 miles from the then Yugoslavian border. The small town had its own brewery with a variety of lagers, although the region was better known for its wine. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and the civil war that would divide Yugoslavia in years to come had not yet started. “But you could see it coming,” he says.

Welch met his wife-to-be, Stephanie Starostka, an Oregon State University student on the same program, in Hungary. They now live south of Pacific City with their two teenage sons.

During Welch’s UO years, while he was developing home-brewing skills, Eugene spawned its first post-Prohibition craft breweries, places he would visit as funds allowed. But his real career-changing moment came after graduation, while working for a Eugene pipe organ builder. While he was helping install an instrument at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, Welch hung out at the Adler Brau brewpub nearby. One day, he asked the owner about part-time work and was rewarded with weekend keg-washing duty. After completing the organ installation, Welch worked for nearly a year at the brewery. He was hooked.

In 1995, he took his brewery experience back to Oregon, talking his way into the brewer position at Pelican when it was still in the planning stages. A few years later, he became part owner of the 15-barrel brewery. “It took me years to finally get out of washing kegs,” Welch says with a laugh. Today, semiautomatic washing machines help with the job.

If you’re waiting in line to get into Pelican’s popular Pacific City brewpub on a summer weekend, it might be hard to believe that their beer was not an immediate smash hit. But of course, the news eventually got out about the combination of oceanfront views, award-winning beers, and good food. By 2004, the brewery had four employees. Soon after, they added a banquet room, followed by expanded beer distribution. By 2013, demand for Pelican beer required the addition of a 30-barrel system in Tillamook, a facility that now has its own small taproom and kitchen. This year, Pelican’s Cannon Beach restaurant opened, with its brewery due to come online before the end of the year.

Behind the success is Welch, who says his history research and international travels have informed his beers. Among his first and most popular recipes at Pelican was Kiwanda Cream Ale, an American pre-Prohibition-style brew that has earned 21 of the more than 380 national and international medals and awards won since the brewery opened.

While he learned his technical and science skills on the job, he credits his critical thinking, research, writing, and organizing abilities to his time at the UO. “They were all part and parcel of earning a history degree,” he says.

—By Gail Oberst, BA ’84