Laht Neppur Brewing
August 16, 2011 - 2:24 PM--by Kendall Jones, Washington Beer Blog--
Twenty-something miles east of Walla Walla, where State Route 12 meets State Route 124, amid shimmering hills of golden wheat sits the town of Waitsburg. The population is 1,200 but you’re hard-pressed to believe so many people call this place home. Main Street, where you find the vast majority of the businesses, stretches a mere three blocks. Sleepy, dreamy, and seemingly trapped in time, this lovely little hamlet cannot help but make you smile. Obey the speed limit, which is 15 MPH in places, to avoid an unwanted encounter with Deputy Barney Fife. Drive slowly to avoid startling the laughing children of Waitsburg who still play carefree along the innocent streets, running unwarily and unchaperoned down pristine sidewalks to an impossibly cute city park where a squeaky marry-go-round chased by a barking dog provides the perfect soundtrack to another perfect summer day. Relax in knowing that this is life as it once was in America; rejoice in knowing that it still can be.
On the eastern edge of Waitsburg’s business district you will find Laht Neppur Brewing serving great craft beer to a constant stream of local customers and passers-by, providing further proof that good beer exists in even the most unlikely places.
But exactly how does a 21st century craft brewery spring up in the middle of a 1940s Frank Capra movie? To find out, I sat down and shared a couple of pints with Court Ruppenthal, the Brewmaster and owner of Laht Neppur Brewing.
About ten years ago Court Ruppenthal decided that he needed a change. He lived in Vancouver, Washington, where he owned a business and generally enjoyed life in the greater-Portland area. Among other hobbies, he brewed beer in his spare time and shared his love of beer with friends and family. Court got an itching to try his hand at professional winemaking and decided to enroll in the Enology and Viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College. (Laht Neppur is a winery as well as a brewery.)
He left his wife behind in Vancouver (temporarily) and moved east to learn a new trade. As Court Ruppenthal tells it, he and his classmates regularly sat around in his garage after class enjoying his homebrew. They learned about wine by day and drank beer by night. A couple of things became clear to Ruppenthal and his pals. First, the beer was pretty damn good. Second, Walla Walla was replete with wineries but was starving for a craft brewery.
A Matter of Semantics
Court Ruppenthal decided that in addition to making wine he wanted to brew beer professionally. He put together a plan to do both but quickly discovered that there were some hoops to jump through. It seems the Feds don’t like it when a brewery makes wine and vice-versa. Ruppenthal eventually straightened things out with the authorities. In short, they don’t do it at the same time. When they’re brewing beer Laht Neppur is a brewery and when they’re making wine Laht Neppur is a winery, but it is never both. Semantics.
Laht Neppur opened for business in 2006. Ruppenthal bought his brewing equipment from a defunct Ohio brewery: a 3.5-barrel brewhouse with 7-barrel fermenters. The brewery sits behind a waist-high gate off to one side of the bar. The tasting room features pizzas and peanuts, with plenty of evidence of the latter scattered on the floor. This is a casual place where road-weary travelers share the bar with local farmers; where local business people mingle with the occasional, adventurous beer gipsy like myself.
Like most of the breweries I visit in Washington, Laht Neppur is pretty much operating at capacity. There are plans to expand operations to meet the ever-growing demand. Ruppenthal is even considering opening a second brewery south of the state line in nearby Milton-Freewater, OR. But that's a story for a different day.
Pints and beer-to-go are the main attraction at the Laht Neppur taproom. During my visit I saw plenty of growlers headed out the door. I even heard rumors of good-old Party Pigs. Ruppenthal rolled his eyes when he mentioned those antiquated devices.
Getting the Beers
Honestly, I never asked him why he settled in Waitsburg instead of Walla Walla or his hometown of Vancouver. The thought never crossed my mind. The town is just so inviting and quaint that I didn't even think to ask. If you visit, you’ll see what I mean. Why not Waitsburg? That would be a better question.
Most people on the west side of the Cascade Mountains have rarely, if ever, sampled any of Laht Neppur’s beers. For the most part, you have to travel to Walla Walla. Otherwise, look for Laht Neppur at Spokane Oktoberfest and other festivals on the east side of the state.
If you happen to visit Walla Walla, but lack the verve to make the trip just a bit farther up the road to Waitsburg, be sure to visit the Laht Neppur Ale House. Located downtown, this is perhaps the best place to enjoy good beer in Walla Walla. The Ale House offers quite a large space, with plenty of bench-style seating and a nice sized bar. Pizza and pulled pork sandwiches accompany the complete array of Laht Neppur beers. Saturday nights usually feature live music.
There is a sort of Irish pub vibe to the Ale House, whether it is real or imagined. And speaking of the whole Irish thing, I asked Court Ruppenthal about the name. Like the Ale House, I imagined something Irish about the brewery’s name.
“Laht Neppur?” he says. “Well, we like to say it is an old Gaelic term meaning Drink to Life."
"At least the word Laht does actually mean life, or something, in Irish... Or something,” he says sarcastically.
Laht Neppur? Ruppenthal eventually explains the real origin of the name. I consider myself a wordsmith and feel a bit silly. Read it backwards.
Laht Neppur Brewing Company
444 Preston Avenue
Waitsburg, WA 99361
Laht Neppur Ale House
53 South Spokane Street
Walla Walla, WA 99362