Pioneer Saloon & Lassen Ale Works
● By Jon Lewis
The AlechemistOctober 2014
Story and photos by Jon Lewis
By all accounts, the Pioneer was a dive bar, a hole-in-the-wall joint that had seen better days.
Today, those better days are back and the historic watering hole is now the place to be in Susanville, thanks to the efforts and vision of coowner Erik Jefferts and his partners.
Technically, it still qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall joint, and that’s because there are three bullet holes in the wall above the 36-foot-long bar. They’re silent reminders of the saloon’s rambunctious past.
The wall itself, painted with the brands and names of prominent Lassen County ranching families, is another reminder that cowboys and ranchers rank pretty high among the Pioneer’s customer base. Of note is the PX brand and Bing Crosby’s name; lore has it the fabled crooner stopped in for a libation and bribed a bartender to include his name and the brand from his Elko, Nev., ranch.
Across from the bullet holes and brands, however, is the main reason the Pioneer is a contemporary hot spot: the gleaming tanks that comprise the Lassen Ale Works brewhouse.
Both the craft brewery and the latest incarnation of the Pioneer Saloon came to life on Memorial Day 2012, following about six months of topto- bottom renovations. “It had been run into the ground,” Jefferts says of the saloon, which was established in 1862 and over the years has housed a bank, barbershop, pool hall and tobacconist shop.
Jefferts and his wife, Margaret Liddiard, partnered with Julie Howard and Mark Pfenning to purchase the Pioneer and turn it into a brewpub. The foursome discovered the Pioneer while visiting from Seattle, fell in love with its western vibe and history, and saw its potential as a social hub for Susanville.
Lynda Jackson, a Susanville resident since 1989, welcomes the newold Pioneer. “What was missing was a place to meet friends and this place fills that bill,” she says. “It’s a great setting and great atmosphere, and I like it because you see people from all walks of life.”
“They took an old divey situation and enhanced all the positive features,” says Jackson’s friend, Phil Nemir. “They have good taste, good food, nice lighting… and it’s a good place to get a good beer. It’s a great addition to the community.”
“We tried to honor the tradition,” Jefferts says of the renovations. However, there was one custom they were more than happy to change: the vintage neon sign on Main Street that had burned out to the degree that only the “E” and “R” remained illuminated. “The joke was, if you came in after 9 pm, you were going to the ER,” Jefferts says.
Another sign from the old days remains inside, a banner above the swinging doors leading to the dining room that says “Boys Under 21 Not Allowed in the Billiard Room.” Jefferts says it dates back to the days when the dining room was one of the last licensed limited-stakes card rooms in the state.
“I can’t count the number of stories I’ve heard of ranches changing hands three times in a night,” Jefferts says. The saloon and restaurant remain a 21-and-older establishment, thanks to the liquor license that came with the business. “There wasn’t much food service before we came along,” Jefferts says. “We’re working on changing it.”
The Pioneer Saloon’s food offerings rival the Lassen Ale Works beers for popularity. The full menu includes the popular Bizz Johnson Blonde Fish & Chips, steak, salmon, seafood, soups and sandwiches. Liddiard manages the restaurant while Jefferts oversees the brewing operation.
Jefferts got his start in craft brewing in 1988 at the Big Time Brewery and Alehouse, Seattle’s first brewpub. He worked with Reid Martin, whose brother, John, is a craft brewing pioneer who established Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley in 1986. Jefferts worked at two other Seattle breweries before moving to Colorado to begin working with John Hickenlooper, who now serves as the state’s governor.
Jefferts helped Hickenlooper in the transformation of a three-story, turn-of-the-century building into the thriving Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs. “The cool thing about working with Hickenlooper was his whole MO was using brewpubs to save these old buildings. It became kind of an incubator and sparked brewpubs in other places throughout the Midwest. It’s kind of what we did here, on a much smaller scale.”
Lassen Ale Works features a 10-barrel brewhouse and enough fermentation tanks and storage space to produce 1,500 barrels a year, or the equivalent of 3,000 kegs. Jefferts describes his brewing philosophy as “more on the traditionalist side of things” and admits a preference for hoppy beers “but there is room for others. We do a lot of lagers and Belgian styles. I do like our malty beers too." Favorites on tap include Eagle Lake IPA, Volcanic Double IPA, Uptown Brown Ale, Pioneer Porter, Bizz Johnson Blonde, Almanor Amber, Rooptown Red and Devil’s Corral Imperial Stout. Seasonal offerings include Springbock, Oktoberfest, Saison d’ Etre, Thompson Peak Pilsner and Barrel Aged Off the Scale Barleywine.
Jefferts said the growth in craft brewing in the last five years has been unprecedented and he credits a greater level of expertise among brewers and a higher degree of sophistication among customers, which poses a bit of a dilemma: “If you don’t make consistently good beers, people will go away.”
So far, there’s little evidence of anybody going away from the Pioneer Saloon.
Pioneer Saloon & Lassen Ale Works
724 Main St., Susanville
(530) 257-7666 • www.lassenaleworks.com