Q/A WITH KATHLEEN ROOEN OF OBELISK BEER CO.

Kathleen Rooen is one of the North Coast’s leading craft brewing advocates – and it all comes naturally. While not a brewer, her knowledge of beer styles and how they’re made is impressive. And she’s always willing to share her wisdom with a radiant smile.

Over the past 10 years, Rooen has poured countless beers – first at Fort George Brewery, then Astoria Brewing and, for the past 18 months, Obelisk Beer Co. At Obelisk, she’s helped turn the Bond Street taproom into a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. 

Married with two young daughters, Rooen comes from pioneer stock. Her roots are several generations deep in southeast Oregon, where she was raised in tiny Lakeview. She visited Astoria with her future husband in 2014 and decided on a whim to apply for a job at Fort George. She’s been a force in the city’s vibrant beer scene ever since.

We sat down with her recently for a chat.

Q: You’re one of the North Coast’s most experienced beertenders today, but when you started at Fort George you knew next to nothing about beer. Looking back, what was that experience like?

A: It started with my husband and I eating lunch upstairs and having beers. I remember having the Working Girl Porter – the first beer I ever had at Fort George. Two women were serving and I thought, I could do this job. They’re cool.

Basically, I just applied right then and there and didn’t even get back home to Portland before they called and hired me. So, I just up and moved.

It was summer, and Fort George was really starting to get busy – booming, really. I’d been a server before, so that part was fine. I had that down. … At that time, we would do tasting trays of all 13 beers and we’d have to do a spiel. You could really rattle it off if you had it memorized. So, I just kind of started that way – by memorizing the beers and the beer styles.

One day, I remember someone on the team could tell I was frustrated, telling me: “It’s okay, you don’t need to know everything [about beer] like so-and-so.” … We had the tools, though. We had the menus, the tasting notes. If someone had an expert question, we also had the [Lovell] taproom. That was a place to send them, like, “You really want to know about beer? Those guys are full of knowledge.”

Fort George was fun. It was really hard, but we were a team and that’s the most fun part. That’s how I got to know all my friends here, and we’re all still really close.

Kathleen Rooen in her happy place: the Obelisk Beer taproom.

Q: You were still working at Fort George when the pandemic hit, forcing the brewpub to close. How difficult was that?

A: At that time, I was only working part-time. The main focus for me was my children. I had a 1-year-old and was early-on pregnant – two, three months. 

The fact that this happened was almost a silver lining. It’s really hard to say, but it was. I’m so thankful that I was given the opportunity to stay home with my children for almost two years.

My husband Scott got to work from home, so we were all together all the time and very supportive of each other. 

Q: When pubs reopened, you joined Astoria Brewing, charged with helping revive a long-ignored downtown taproom on 12th Street. How did that go for you?

A: Sometimes I just follow signs in life, if you will. … [Astoria Brewing general manager] Brad [Kenoyer] called me out of the blue. I went in just working a couple of days a week and it went from there.

The company saw how well we were bringing attention to the space and bringing it back to craft beer and gave Brad the autonomy to even make bigger changes. The craft beer part of it had fallen through the cracks, and I think we brought it back. It was exciting.

Q: What made you want to join Obelisk when it opened in November 2022?

A: I knew [co-owners] Dave [Coyne] and Nathan [Lampson] from working at Fort George. I remember Dave drawing the logo at the taproom, the little whispers here and there. I was always very intrigued, mostly because I know that Dave makes really great beer.

I do love taproom-style venues. I love the community involvement. That’s why I was really interested. 

Q: It seems that the best beertenders don’t just serve customers. They also promote the brewery and its beer, and craft brewing in general. Is that how you see it?

A: I think that’s important. Absolutely. You’re running the show. I don’t have any food to offer. There’s a reason why people are here, and it’s for beer. So, it’s about why we’re different from other places in town, other places in Oregon.

Q: You’ve read a lot of books about beer, and you’ve talked about beer-making with many talented brewers. How would you rate your knowledge now?

A: Oh, gosh. I don’t think I know. I’m not as big an encyclopedia as some people, but I’m very good at knowing what I have in front of me. 

Right now, it’s about hops. There are so many different hop varieties, and now hop oils and cryogenically frozen hops. It’s so crazy. I’m just trying to keep up with what’s present. The historical part of beer – I try not to keep that in my head.

Q: Have you dabbled in brewing? Does that interest you?

A: At Fort George, we did a Pink Boots beer, which was very exciting. I got to see the process, and it really did help expand my beer knowledge, which was very cool. I did that several times, where I got to pick a style and help brew it. It’s so much more than just throwing hops in the tank.

But I have no interest in brewing. It entails so much more than I can compute in my brain. It’s physically and emotionally challenging. The stress of making something and having it turn out really good.

Q: Obelisk recently was named Best New Brewery at the Oregon Beer Awards. You deserve a good share of the credit for creating such a welcoming vibe. How did you react to the news?

A: Yay! I was really excited. I was at Bridge & Tunnel because they were streaming it live and there were a few other beer people there, from Fort George and Pelican. 

We won that award and we all cheered. It’s just cool. It’s well-deserved, and it’s not just me, it’s a team. And that’s why I love my job. 

A skilled beertender at work.

Q: You always greet people walking in the door warmly. You’ve called the taprooms where you’ve worked “my living room” and the customers “your guests.” Why is that mindset important?

A: It has to do with customer service and selling the brand. Selling yourself, in a way. You want people to be happy when they’re here. You want people to have a good time. It’s a show, honestly.

I’ve served beer to regulars for 10 years. They know my highs and lows, and I can be myself with them. And then turn quickly and say to someone new, “Hi, welcome to Obelisk.” 

Q: When customers can’t decide what beer to try, you often ask them, “What beer don’t you like?” Tell me why that approach works.

A: You can tell if someone’s a beer person or not. I can read minds, I guess. [Laughs] They’re usually in and out. For the others, you just start narrowing it down. Eliminate what they don’t like first and go from there. 

Q: I’ve got to ask: What’s your favorite beer style?

A: I’m really getting into pilsners. Hoppy pilsners. We’re calling them West Coast pilsners these days.

Q:  What part of the job do you enjoy the most?

A: This. Talking to people. I love connecting people, making them feel good. I have a group who come in on Tuesdays and this is their thing that they do and look forward to.

They want to come here because of me, too, and I love that.

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