Washington County politicians to transform Newport saloon to brewpub

From Republican to publican. That’s the latest entry on the résumés of Autumn and Derrick Lehrke, Washington County’s busy political power couple.
Autumn Lehrke, a county commissioner, and husband Derrick Lehrke, a Cottage Grove City Council member, are the new owners of a 1950s-era Newport bar that they intend to turn into the county’s first brewpub. 
The Red Rock Saloon, which sits on 21st Street near U.S. 61, has been a local watering hole for decades. The sizeable building features a large L-shaped bar, an area for entertainment, a game room and an eight-lane bowling alley. 
“This is straight out of the ’50s and we’re trying to update it and give it a facelift,” Autumn Lehrke said during a recent visit to the bar. They’ve been cleaning like crazy in recent weeks. The liquor and beer stock has been expanded. The bowling lanes have been buffed and prepped for use. The game room is getting an overhaul. And the contractors will be onsite soon to tackle the first major renovation: the bathrooms. 
The Lehrkes want to retain as much of the building’s original charm — and as many of its patrons — as possible. 
“Customers have been most concerned about still being able to get a cheap beer. They were worried. What were we going to do, come in here and turn it into a franchise?” Derrick Lehrke said. “But we want it to be a place where people can come in from all walks of life and just hang out.” 
In addition to the cosmetic upgrades, customers will notice two major changes: brewing equipment in the windows of the bowling alley and a new sign out front. 
The saloon will be renamed Opinion Brewing Co. 
The name stems from the couple’s political interests, but cleverly fits with their plan for creating and naming the beers they’ll brew onsite. 
“We plan on doing test batches,” Autumn Lehrke said. “We value people’s opinions, so we’ll ask what they think. We want this to be a community bar.” 
Though the brewery equipment has not yet been installed, the Lehrkes hope to have it in and operational by summer. 
They plan to have a “scaled-down brewery,” Derrick Lehrke said, operating a three-barrel system with four fermenters. 
They’ll sell their own beer and other local brews on tap, with more than 20 beers likely available. 
This will be the couple’s first foray into large-batch brewing. They’ve been home-brewing for about four years and decided last year to join the swelling craft beer movement by opening their own brewery. 
They looked at properties in Cottage Grove, where they live, and nearby Hastings. They even considered building from scratch on land they already own. 
“We were basically using this place to compare (market value) because we weren’t really thinking of a bar, just a brewery,” Derrick Lehrke said of the Red Rock Saloon property. 
Autumn Lehrke added, “We knew we needed distribution access, which this has because of the highway. … And we thought, maybe we should rethink the brewery idea and do a brewpub.” 
The pieces fell into place and the saloon’s previous owners closed the doors in December. The Lehrkes closed on the purchase March 7 and reopened the business. They paid about $250,000 for the property and expect to put in the same amount in renovations. 
They’ve spent their waking hours at the bar, on top of their already busy lives. 
The couple already owns a property development company and rental properties. And they’ve been active in the Washington County political arena since bursting onto the scene in 2010. 
Autumn Lehrke, 32, is in her first term as a county commissioner and plans to seek re-election this fall. Derrick Lehrke, 34, is in his first term as a Cottage Grove city council member and in 2012 ran unsuccessfully as a GOP contender for the state House 54A seat. 
Despite the demands of their schedules, the Lehrkes insist on investing sweat equity into the brewpub. 
“In our other business we buy foreclosed homes and fix them up, and this is basically the same thing,” Autumn Lehrke said. “We do a lot of the work ourselves. … There’s a lot to do. We’re dividing and conquering.” 
They have grand visions for the future: the potential to add a restaurant, to host beer enthusiast events, to bring in live entertainment and to donate part of their profits to local charities. 
They’ll remain hands-on owners and managers for the foreseeable future. 
“At some point, I just want to be a customer,” Derrick Lehrke said.
Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at 651-228-5162. Follow her at twitter.com/LizMohr.

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