Sometimes Trent Dolyniuk says he looks like hell these days, but I can tell you his Mac Daddy—his signature dish of pulled pork betwixt two fried slabs of mac and cheese—tastes like heaven. Being diagnosed with, and treated for, terminal cancer has a way of doing that to you. Born in Portland in 1964, Dolyniuk got his classical training at the Horst Mager Culinary Institute. It was Portland’s precursor to Le Cordon Bleu. He is the co-owner of Columbia County Brewing in Saint Helens—no farther from Portland than hiking Multnomah Falls or wine tasting in Newberg, but without the traffic—and the founder of Blackbird Catering where he gave himself the title of “reprobate chef and BBQ monk.” Though his doctors say Dolyniuk will die in about 20 months, he says the brewery run by his wife and kids will live on.
Oregon welcomed 34 new breweries in 2016, but said goodbye to 10. That roughly three-to-one ratio has held true for the last few years and will likely continue for 2017. When a brewery closes, it’s usually not an indicator of the health of the industry on the whole, but the result of something personal. Life happens. People get bored, divorced, sick. Nothing gold can stay. Even as a beer writer myself, this is my last column for the Merc. I love everything Portland has to offer, not the least of which is its beer community, but my family is moving. You may miss me... but probably not as much as we’ll all miss Dolyniuk.
“I was given 25 months five months ago,” Dolyniuk says. “I’m lucky. I’d push my expiration date back if I could, but it’s been an awakening.” He’s nearly finished undergoing chemo, but while his doc says his esophageal tumors have diminished by about 10 percent, he quips about personally being reduced by 30 percent. “It’s great to be at a weight I should be, however I cannot recommend the methodology. The irony is not lost on me,” jokes Dolyniuk between dabbing away green snot caused by his treatment and blue language caused by his avuncular personality. “A chef who can’t eat is hysterical.”
Certainly there’s nothing hysterical about it and it’s not even vaguely bemusing like Beethoven’s deafness. If you love barbecue, Dolyniuk’s is the edible equivalent of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. Dolyniuk’s three kids (Samantha, Alina, and Tyger) and his wife of 30 years, Kelly, work at the brewpub. His son-in-law Ed Rosenlund is the brewer. A pipefitter by trade, Rosenlund built their seven-barrel system.
The beer’s good. It wouldn’t make Portland’s top tier, but it’s not Portland. They only aspire to be the best brewery in Columbia County. They succeed as the only brewery in the county. (Okay, that’s not true. There’s a new nano up there called Running Dogs!) The crowd favorite is Redwood, a malty red ale. Yes, there’s Hard Hat IPA. It’s popular, but the one with the best story would be Aldern Smoked Pale Ale. Of course Dolyniuk plans on building a distinct smoker for foraged Columbia County alder wood because he doesn’t want animal proteins atomized into the beer. What’s more, he never uses fruitwood—apple or cherry—because, he says, it gets sprayed and he doesn’t want those chemicals atomized into his meat.
And while the sauces at Columbia County Brewing are crazy-good, Dolyniuk has since “moved toward Northwest-adapted Texas style. Minimalist.” I budge and ask the difference. “I like having the meat tell the story.”
“It’s not about the cancer. It’s not about the beer. It’s about the food. It’s acknowledging that we all have an expiration date, but we don’t know when it’s gonna be.”
For his part, Dolyniuk is happy to tell his story. Any story. All stories. He just shared his recipe for his Mac Daddy on his blog, TheTerminalChef.com, along with TMI stuff about his treatments (or how to perfectly prepare chicken). “Secret recipes are stupid to me,” he says. “It’s about technique. And technique takes time.”
So what happens to Columbia County Brewing? It will live on. It’s always been about Columbia County itself. The brewery should carry on, but the restaurant won’t. Dolyniuk would like to see the family business move to a retail space nearby. He launched a brewpub so he could cook. For his last months, he says, “It’s not about the cancer. It’s not about the beer. It’s about the food. It’s acknowledging that we all have an expiration date, but we don’t know when it’s gonna be.” Because he has an idea of his date’s proximity he deems himself “lucky.” The old adage is that you can’t take it with you. The brewpub’s policy has always been no take-out orders; if you want Dolyniuk’s food you gotta eat it in his house (though the huge portions necessitate doggy bags). But they do sell growlers, so....
There’s another adage, or at least a polka song, that in heaven there is no beer. But for me, Portland is heaven, and there’s certainly beer. And where I’m going, there’ll be beer. When one brewpub closes its doors, another three open.