Covered Bridge Brewery wins US Open awards for cider

January 19 - In the 1990s, there was a wave of Irish pubs and craft breweries emerging across America. The venues featured high ornate ceilings, a long bar and local culture that was centered around a family friendly social atmosphere with hearty food and authentic drinks. The first alluring impressions of these microbreweries seemed to last, keeping crowds thirsting for more and inspiring some patrons to create their own operation.

Nate Sampson, co-owner and brewmaster of Covered Bridge Brewery has his first samplings of Guinness and other draught beers during this era. Sampson remembers going into a “brew pub” in Austin, Texas, operated by Waterloo Brewing Co., an early craft brewery, and began asking the bartender questions about the beers offered. The barkeep referred him to the brewer, and Sampson wasted no time picking his brain for tips about how to get started.

The brewer suggested homebrewing. This sparked an epiphany for Sampson, who was then referred to Austin Homebrew, a local homebrewing supply shop. That evening, he picked up the necessary materials and ingredients needed to create his first brew at home.

It’s a process he's been doing ever since.

After moving to Oregon in 1995, Sampson finally began to produce commercially with Rogue Ales Public House in Eugene after being scouted at a Newport brewers festival in 2005 — and sampled his home brews at the event.

“I think it was a couple months later at the Sasquatch Brew Festival,” Samspon recalled, “where the manager came through the crowd and said, ‘I've been looking for you.’ Then, pretty much the next morning was the interview. We brewed a batch of beer at the Rogue Ales in Eugene and then from there, they're like, ‘Hey, this is your job if you want it.’ It just kind of sprouted from there.”

Hard Knocks Brewing opened on Main Street in Cottage Grove in 2014. Chrissy Chapman, the co-owner of Covered Bridge Brewery was a former employee, bartending, and peering across the tracks, envisioning a brewery on the corner Hwy 99 and Main Street — site of a former car dealership that had been closed for years.

After the sudden closure of Hard Knocks, Chapman recalls Thanksgiving of 2016. While her partner Sampson was in Texas with family, bidding at an auction to acquire all of the equipment inside Hard Knocks. They won the sell off. The two were also hoping to make a deal for the building as well but, when that plan didn’t transpire, they sold all of the equipment and switched gears.

Chapman found out that the building she really wanted on the corner of Hwy 99 and Main belonged to a friend and for sale. “So, I asked her if we could look at it. She brought us here and we walked around and then we made an offer,” said Chapman, who knew immediately that she wanted the location. With the offer accepted, after months of renovations, the brewery finally opened its doors on June 16, 2020, three months into the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Covered Bridge Brewery focused on staying open during the pandemic by offering an outdoor beer garden with food trucks and hosting events such as Quality Trivia with Elliot Martinez, comedy shows and musical performances. They also formed partnerships with various pop-up and regular food trucks that operated on and off their property. All the while, navigating through each and every shift in mandates during the state of emergency.

Although the resilience of Covered Bridge Brewery during the last two years is evident, unfortunately the same cannot be said about other businesses that suffered through the economic challenges of the pandemic and its aftermath.

In conversation about the closure of other area businesses like Buster’s Cafe, the Koffee Kup, Grill N’ Chill and Urban Kitchen, Chapman was tipped off by Scott Burgwin that the Lucky Taco school bus parked near his business at the Coast Fork Farm Stand was for sale; the owner, Arturo, was ready to retire.

“I came back to [Sampson] and said, “What do you think about getting a bus as our kitchen?” Chapman told The Sentinel that they had already looked at turning a conference room inside the brewery into a kitchen to fill the void of restaurants closing, but the costs to build a small kitchen was prohibitive at the moment — and not necessarily an improvement due to its potential size.

Sampson and Chapman agreed that it wasn’t a half bad idea. So, Chapman returned to Art’s school bus the next day and asked to see the inside. She was impressed with the size of the interior of the bus and was satisfied with the appliances on hand. After securing some financing, the Covered Bridge Brewery bought the bus at the beginning of the year and is now ready to serve the public.

The food the brewery plans to serve is familiar fare that customers have been accustomed to since they opened, including burgers, pretzels, wasabi fries, along with other sides and salads to be added in the future. In addition, they will offer a simple kids menu.

“Pub grub,” as Chapman puts it.

And it’s worthwhile to note that after two-and-a-half years in business, the Covered Bridge Brewery now serves as a destination spot for several of their flagship beers, like Mosby Vienna Cream Ale, seasonal products like their Ol’ Coal Stoker Winter Ale, and their varieties of house-made hard-seltzers and sodas.

But it's the award-winning ciders that the Brewery has created in the last few years that are starting to adorn the walls of the bar with medals. Most recently, their Nectarine Cider won the bronze in the Fruit Cider competition at the 2022 U.S. Open Cider Championship. Covered Bridge Brewery also won the bronze in 2021 and gold in 2020 for its Arse Dagger Apple Cider in the same national championship.

At the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition in 2022, the Covered Bridge Brewery won silver for its apple cider in the Modern Cider-Sweet category, as well as gold for its strawberry cider in the Fruit Cider category. Sampson started adding ciders to offer customers a gluten free and beer alternative — all have which have become top sellers at the brewery.

“This is the big one,” Sampson said, noting their win at the Great Lakes competition. “This one is worldwide.”

Chapman added, “It's like the Great American Beer Festival for cider and the GABF is one of the largest beer festival competitions.”

Sampson now has barrel aged barley wine, commemorating his 100th batch of beer brewed in the current system at the brewery. “So, in about six months, I'll taste it, see where it's at and see if it's time for that to come out.”

He was given a stock of honey, which he used to brew his first batch of mead. “It's gon’na be like a six-and-a-half percent session mead,” Sampson told The Sentinel. “I kind of call it honey seltzer, really. So that should be coming up here in a few weeks.”

The Covered Bridge Brewery is located at 926 E Main St. in Cottage Grove, and is open Wednesday through Sunday beginning at 11 a.m. They can also be found on Facebook or online at: