PORTLAND, Ore. (The Tribune) — Lisa Morrison remembers when a customer came into her bar during a recent remodel and asked if he could take a patio set home.
She told him it was free, to please take it.
She couldn’t resist asking why he wanted it.
“He had proposed to his girlfriend at that very table,” says Morrison, owner of Belmont Station in Southeast Portland, which bills itself as Portland’s premiere beer destination.
“That’s what’s so special about beer. It’s not just a beverage. It’s our social lubricant,” she said. “Especially in Portland, it’s a thread of our community that is so important.”
Morrison has been watching the beer scene in Portland since the 1990s, as one of the first beer columnists, then blogger for beergoddess.com, then host of the radio and podcast show “Beer O’Clock!” and author and co-author of several books about Portland and Pacific Northwest craft brews.
She’s also a founder of Oregon Craft Beer Month, Portland Beer Week (see sidebar) and other events.
Just a few years ago, Portland was home to about 30 breweries; now it’s grown to 53, more than any other city in the world. As the Rose City’s craft beer industry turns 30 this year, Portland brewers, bartenders and beer enthusiasts are celebrating with festivals, special releases, food pairings and plenty of other events. All in the name of education, of course.
There’s also a lot of reflection on how far the craft brew industry has come, and where it might be headed next.
“A lot of us really didn’t know what the heck we were doing back then,” says Ben Dobler, brewing innovation manager for the Craft Brew Alliance, which includes Widmer Brothers Brewing, Redhook Brewery, Kona Brewing Co., Omission (Widmer’s gluten-free beer) and Square Mile, a cider brand that launched in Portland last year.
“Now we’re spoiled,” Dobler adds. “We have expectations. New breweries that open up can’t make mediocre beer. It has to be top-notch, because others have set the bar pretty high.”
Portland not only reigns supreme in number of brewpubs, but is the country’s largest market for India Pale Ale, which has grown to be the largest category in the craft brew market. Craft brews are still just 7% of all beer sold.
Portland is the only city that has since 2010 consistently purchased more craft beer than the big domestic brands, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors.
Nearly half of all beer consumed in Oregon is brewed in Oregon. Statewide, craft brewing is a $2.83 billion industry, employing 29,000 people. In 2012, Oregon’s breweries made 1.3 million barrels of beer, up 11 percent from 2011.
Beer enthusiasts point to the magical combination of forces that have converged in the past three decades to make the craft beer revolution what it is today: the local bounty of hop and fruit farms; pioneering entrepreneurs; and a public that constantly pushes innovation.
Add to that Portland’s rich history of tavern and pub culture, and the fact that with beer industry consolidations over the past 30 years, there aren’t any major breweries in the Northwest anymore.
When it comes to supporting local products, “I think maybe Oregon has always been stronger, in relation to other places,” says Brian Butenschoen, executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild. “It’s a strong part of the ethos.”
Blazing a beer trail
Two breweries celebrate their big 3-0 this year. BridgePort Brewing and Widmer Brothers both opened their brewpubs in 1984, after helping to change Oregon law to allow brewpubs to operate in the state.
McMenamins opened its first pub in Hillsdale in 1983, followed by a brewery at that location two years later.
Now all three are household names: BridgePort was the first craft brewer to bring the hops-heavy, European-style India Pale Ale to market in the United States; Widmer created the nation’s first unfiltered wheat beer, Hefeweizen, and specializes in German-style lagers; and McMenamins is known for its funky ambience and assortment of brews at their 50 urban and suburban locations in Oregon and Washington.
Last Thursday, BridgePort’s founders gathered for a 30th anniversary brewpub breakfast to honor their humble beginnings and survey the road ahead.
“It was us against the world,” said Dick Ponzi, who founded Ponzi Vineyards with his wife, Nancy, in 1969. Many don’t know that the Ponzis also were BridgePort’s founders, having used their engineering background to design and fabricate the first craft-brewing system in the state. They had just blazed a trail in the wine industry, and sought to do the same with beer.
In the 1970s, the Willamette Valley was a region people didn’t understand, and pinot noir was “just a fancy name,” Ponzi says. Although the process of beer-making was different from wine-making, “these two industries really helped each other,” he says.
Beer at the time was light yellow and fizzy. The craft brew they were making was full of flavor from local hops, with a higher alcohol content, darker in color and complex.
It required educating the public and distributors about why they should try it, why it was a better beer, and why it cost more. “We knew this beer did not taste like a cool, refreshing beverage,” Ponzi says.
There was another problem: Oregon law at the time didn’t allow the sale of food at a brewery, and they knew they had to serve food to pay the bills.
The Ponzis, Widmer brothers and McMenamins lobbied for a bill in the Oregon Legislature for pubs to be considered as tasting rooms, like the wineries had been allowed.
“The bill had been tabled,” Ponzi says. “We looked at each other — what does that mean? It means it’s dead.”
Luckily, they worked with another lobbyist to tag their plan onto another bill, which was signed into law in 1985. “Within weeks that changed a lot,” Ponzi says. “This pub became an important component of how the industry has grown. … We’ve learned pizza and beer are a fantastic combination.”
Fast forward to the present, and BridgePort is releasing its Trilogy series of three beers — one past, one present, and one future. The latter is slated to be released in the fall after a group of Oregon State University students collaborate to develop it.
BridgePort does its small-scale test brews at Oregon State, which runs one of the country’s only fermentation science programs. The students “are the future of craft brewing in the United States and the world,” says BridgePort brewmaster Jeff Edgerton.
Just across the river in North Portland, Widmer is marking its birthday with a “30 Beers for 30 Years” series, rolling out limited releases of some of their favorite brews during the past three decades.
So what’s next for craft brews?
There’s been a meteoric rise in sour beers and fruit beers, which are seen as a gateway for newer beer drinkers who aren’t into the super hoppy IPAs. But there’s no stigma for men who drink fruit beers either, says Dobler, the longtime brewer and now product innovation manager at Widmer.
In the future, he says, the growing demand for hops could bring a shift to less hoppy beers with a lower alcohol content. Then again, Dobler says, there’s no way of predicting an industry that literally changes every day.
“In Portland and Oregon, our palates are easily five years ahead of the curve,” he says. “It’s a testament to the talent pool of all of our brewers, because those (beers) aren’t easy to make.”
Local, small by choice
Most of Portland’s breweries don’t come close to the size of BridgePort, Widmer or McMenamins. Many are small by choice, even choosing to remain local when they could be selling regionally.
“We don’t really care if our beer is being drunk in New York or the Midwest,” says McKean Banzer-Lausberg, one of four co-owners of Northeast Portland’s Migration Brewing, which marked its four-year anniversary in February.
Migration is on track to produce 1,500 barrels this year (compared to 253,000 barrels shipped by Widmer last year, not including their contract brewing).
Migration sells half of its kegs and draft beers on site, and distributes the other half to about 100 restaurants, bars and shops in Portland.
They don’t work with a distributor, and don’t sell Migration outside Portland.
“As we travel around the region, there are people making that regional push, but if we’re going to move into other markets, we’d want to have a presence there, like a pub,” Banzer-Lausberg says. “We like having our finger on the pulse, from start to finish, having control of the product.”
For example, he says, if one of their kegs wasn’t being stored properly or poured right, he and his staff could handle it immediately.
But it’s more than quality control that keeps them local.
“It sounds cliché, but we consider ourselves a true Portland craft brewpub,” says Banzer-Lausberg, who met his co-founders while working at and hanging out at the Lucky Lab on Southeast Hawthorne years ago. “We enjoy this industry, and when we look at ourselves as business owners, we’re in it to make profits and be successful, but we’re really in it for the lifestyle and the people,” he adds.
With a recent addition of a 2,000-square-foot annex, which will serve as event rental and more bar and kitchen space, they’ll be able to focus more on food, expand their capacity for beers, and serve more of the community. Their total space is now 5,000 square feet, plus a 1,000-square-foot patio out front.
Migration, like many local big and small brewpubs, is looking to start a beer dinner program, collaborating with local chefs and restaurants to offer a four- or five-course meal that will focus on perfect pairings between beer and food.
Belmont Station’s Morrison spoke with hundreds of beer drinkers around the region while researching her book, “Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest.” There were places, she says, where folks said they preferred to stick to their favorite beer brand or style.
Not here. “We’re just pioneers,” she says. “We’re like, ‘That was awesome. What’s next?’”
Craft beer events coming
Portland is home to a whopping 29 beer festivals at last count, but summertime is peak season.
June 5 to 15 is Portland Beer Week, a 10-day celebration created in 2011 to “explore the boundaries and the things that make us great with fun, unique and educational events that take place all over the city with the best in restaurants, breweries, bars, retail stores, bottle shops and more,” the organizers say.
Even before Beer Week begins, there is a Cheers to Belgian Beers celebration set for May 30 (5 to 9 p.m.) and May 31 (noon to 8 p.m.) at Metalcraft Fabrication, 723 N. Tillamook St. The eighth-annual festival will celebrate 56 beers from 50 brewing companies. Tickets are $15 for a stemmed glass and five taste tickets. For more: oregoncraftbeer.org.
Here are Beer Week’s official festivals:
• The fourth annual Fruit Beer Festival is set for June 7 (11 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and June 8 (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) outside of Burnside Brewing Co., 701 E. Burnside St. It’s billed as the only one of its kind in the country, highlighting regional ciders and beers from passion fruit, peaches, cherries, rhubarb, pears, blueberries and more. Tickets are $20, which buys a 16-ounce glass and 12 drink tickets. VIP tickets are $10 more for Friday night entry. For more: fruitbeerfest.com.
• The third annual Rye Beer Festival is set for 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. June 13, at East Burn, 1800 E. Burnside St. Attendees may sample 20 rye beers with no entry fee. Two of the featured beers are special collaboration beers between Taplister, 10 Barrel Brewing Company and Hopworks Urban Brewery. All proceeds from the sale of the collaboration beers will be donated to the Children’s Cancer Association. For more: ryebeerfest.com.
• The second annual Beer and Cheese Festival is set for 1 to 5 p.m. June 15, at The Commons, 1810 S.E. 10th Ave., featuring pairings of regional brews, cheese from Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones of Cheese Bar, and light snacks from Chop Butchery and Charcuterie. Tickets are $32 and include a tasting glass and punch card, which buys 10 pairings. Visit pdxbeerweek.com.