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Regulars mourn as Deschutes pours its last beer in Roanoke before closing tasting room

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A cowbell rang out across the bar.

“Last call!” bartender Johnny Camacho yelled to the packed room. The crowd at the Deschutes Brewery tasting room in Roanoke boomed with a drawn out “no” as Camacho jumped onto the counter.

He said he would miss his regulars and the tight-knit community they fostered, but for now, it was time to say goodbye. Camacho climbed down to applause and customers began to flood the bar with last minute beer orders, T-shirts, hats, stickers and six-packs to go.

New Year’s Eve marked the last day for the Deschutes tasting room on the corner of Market Street and Church Avenue.

Deschutes announced in 2016 it purchased a 49-acre site in Roanoke, where it planned to build a $95 million brewing facility that would employ 108 people. They opened the tasting room in 2017 downtown to familiarize the community with the brand and help build a following.

The announcement drew much fanfare from Roanokers, who were proud to beat out other East Coast cities as host to the Oregon-based brewery.

But a few years later, the craft beer industry grew more competitive. Thousands of breweries opened between Deschutes’ announcement and its expected groundbreaking in 2019. Industry experts said customers grew loyal to small, hyper-local brands over national chains.

Deschutes delayed its plans to build the facility and in October, announced it would close the tasting room downtown. CEO Michael LaLonde wrote a letter to the community announcing the news and said the pandemic reduced traffic to the brewery. The Roanoke location only brought in 30% of the business it did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deschutes’ choice to build its facility in Roanoke injected a vote of confidence and pride in the city, but people have questioned whether its departure will do the opposite.

Camacho, the pub marketing coordinator, was one of the initial hires at the tasting room. He said the idea that Roanoke can’t support a venture like Deschutes is too cynical.

“I’m bullish on the future of Roanoke,” Camacho said. “The writing’s on the wall between economic development and the rise in local arts and culture, Roanoke is headed on a distinctively upward trajectory. To me, Deschutes picking Roanoke to establish an East Coast footprint was representative of that. I remain incredibly optimistic about the future.”

Kyle Inman, a Deschutes regular, drew the common comparison between Roanoke and Asheville. Roanoke had been a finalist as Sierra Nevada looked for a site for an East Coast brewery, but they chose Asheville. The same thing happened with California-based Stone Brewing.

Inman, a North Carolina native, said he moved to Roanoke in 1983 and the city seems ready to compete for new ventures like Deschutes.

“I hate the fact that we have this Asheville diminished sort of impression of ourselves,” Inman said. “There’s no reason for that. It would please me to no end to pick up the embers and go after each and every thing that’s as cool as this place has been. At least this showed some folks what was possible. This should be one element of a greater, grander, outdoor-oriented, vital, vivid technicolor Roanoke.”

The loss of Deschutes isn’t the end, but it will leave a hard-to-fill dent in the community, Inman said.

Deschutes became a gathering place for a host of locals, the cycling community and an Appalachian music jam. As the bar closed for the last time Friday night, dozens of customers came up to Camacho and his co-workers to say goodbye, ask them what they planned to do next and thank them for the community they helped build.

For Camacho, Deschutes was the place where everyone knew his name, as the saying goes.

“I come in here and I work, but on my days off you’re just as likely to find me on the other side of the bar,” he said. “Not because there aren’t other options, but because I genuinely love what this place represents.”

As the time dwindled closer to 6 p.m., people started to drink a little more slowly as they made their last purchases and closed their tabs.

Inman went to the bar to order his last Fresh Haze IPA, along with three growlers to go.

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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