Thunder Island Brewery’s move was not entirely an uphill climb.
Owners Dave and Caroline Lipp embarked on a new building project and started a family all within the same year, operating their popular riverside brewery and pub under COVID-19 conditions as they prepared in late August to move from the original riverfront location 100 yards up to 601 N.W. WaNaPa Ave.
Parts of the brewing system itself are coming with them, for now. The 10,000-square-foot, three-story Thunder Island is located next to the old fire hall, just down from the post office and features off-street parking and access that wraps around the building.
All these preparations led up to the Labor Day soft opening. Things went well Sept. 7-9, the menu featuring small and large plates, burgers and sandwiches ranging from lemon grass chicken skewers to ginger tofu bowl to a Kimchi chicken sandwich, and beers including standards such as Easy Climb Golden Ale, and new ones such as Dual Eagle Amber and Sais-Awesome Nelson Edition.
On day one, Labor Day, some high winds and wildfire smoke (that at the time felt heavy) did not deter diners from filling the socially-distanced tables outside. The spacious L-shaped deck seats about 80 people, even with coronavirus precautions in place. Via the elevator or broad stairway overlooking the ground-floor brew house, diners find their way to the airy second-floor, with its dining room surrounding the bar, and that deck.
“Things got off to a great start,” said Dave Lipp.
But then just as things were clicking between kitchen and dining areas, last week’s historically-heavy wildfire smoke covered the Gorge and all of western Oregon and Thunder Island had to shut down, as did every Gorge establishment relying on outdoor seating.
“It’s pretty deflating. We were doing well and just getting going, staff was doing great with things, and we had to stop,” Lipp said. “It’s been tough, we feel like we will have to start over again, but we have learned a lot. We will open again.”
Thunder Island is part of a developing brew-town scene in Cascade Locks: Son of Man Cidery opened in 2018 in the port’s Herman Creek business park, sharing space with two wineries; pFriem Family Brewing built its 10,000 square-foot barrel aging facility next to Bear Mountain Forest Products; and construction is underway on Gorges Brewery, a few blocks east on WaNaPa near Marine Park, with planned opening in May or June 2021.
Gorges co-owner Willis Boyer said they are brewing in southeast Portland, adjacent to Tap and Table Restaurant, which is owned by partner Travis Preece. Tap and Table has kept operating with pod seating throughout the pandemic. In Cascade Locks, Gorges will build up to three stories and feature two dining areas in addition to the brewhouse.
Thunder Island goes three stories, with the first and second fully built out for dining and drinking with a view. A third-floor roof bar is an addition that the Lipps hope to finish out in a couple of years. The elevator goes to the third, and a second elevator and another stairwell will be added once the roof goes into service.
The Lipps plan to use the main dining for community events, trivia nights and live music and, via a large drop-down screen, movie nights.
“We’ll do Timbers games, of course,” Lipps said.
The bar and dining areas are designed to maximize views of the Columbia River and Table Rock and other Washington peaks overlooking Cascade Locks and Stevenson, as well as the dramatic south view to the Cascade foothills.
“I will show you the best seat in the house,” Lipp said. He escorts the reporter to the seat just right of center of the second-floor bar. From there, you see the perfectly framed view of the Bridge of the Gods.
“I don’t think people understood how great the views are,” to the south and north, Lipp said. “And we have so many windows inside.” Referring to the scenically-situated original location along the river, he said, “Great view during in the summer but go inside the place in winter, it kinda sucks, but here in the winter you can hang out and look at a great views.”
Through a south-facing window, even the kitchen staff enjoy a grand view of the mountains overlooking town.
At ground floor reception, Thunder Island retains a sense of its nine-year history, including the Trail Magic board: Pay for a pint, write a message on a coaster, and leave it for a Pacific Crest Trail hiker to come in and enjoy what can indeed can taste like magic after weeks on the trail. As ardent hikers and supporters of PCT (Cascade Locks is the only municipality the 2,650-mile route runs through) the Lipps started the tradition about five years ago.
“I’ve seen hikers walking by. It’s kind of cool,” he said.
In the waiting area you can read the beer selection from the same chalk board from the original brewery.
There’s beer to go in growlers, as well signs from the original brewery, and “this area has all the furniture from the original building, which is cool,” he said.
That started with just a few tables in the tiny space in the Port building. After two years in business, Lipp expanded the dining room and hand-made several tables from cedar planks, including one with a prominent knot. He bisected the plank but not the knot, using the dark disk as connector when the two table halves are pushed together for larger parties. The “knot table” will be put into use in the dining room.
Brewing is still being done at the original site in the Port of Cascade Locks-owned building overlooking the river. Head brewer Andrew Rosette will start making beer at the new site in a month or so, after some infrastructure kinks are worked out.
Lipp almost makes himself dizzy as he shows off his brew house, located to the right of the main entrance. He stands at the center and spins as he describes the custom-designed, consolidated operation:
“The grain comes in, it goes into the brewing system, and from the brewing system it comes over to the fermentation area, and after we ferment it we put it into kegs and we have a keg washer here. It cleans and then we’ll fill the kegs right there, and then it goes into the keg cooler, and from here, it pumps the beer upstairs to the dining room bar.”
Thunder Island has 240 kegs currently, but the cooler is built for many more. From it, multiple beer lines snake up the wall to the bar upstairs.
“Originally we were going to buy new equipment, but when COVID hit, we called our manufacturer and said, ‘Can we apply half our money and buy half the equipment we were going to buy?’ And they were really nice about it. We’ll bring our existing system up and the existing system is going to have basically a big hot liquor tank and it has the parts for when we eventually get the bigger system,” Lipp said.
“Everything here is designed for growth, The only thing we’ll have to replace is the brewing system, but sometimes people put in a glycol system and they have to tear it out and put in a new one, but it’s all designed to the best specifications, and some of the equipment is the only thing we’re missing.”
So the pieces are in place at Thunder Island yet the only thing etched in concrete is a sidewalk engraving at the east parking lot, memorializing the Lipp family in 2020; their 9-month-old twins, Austin and Blake, Caroline and David, and cousin Elizabeth, 19, who has been living with the Lipps and helping look after Austin and Blake.
The inscription reads “ABCDE”.