Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Brewing History in Oregon

By all accounts, beer brewing in our state actually predates commercial hops production! In 1852, seven years before Oregon was a state, a German immigrant named Henry Saxer opened the Liberty Brewery in Portland. He was followed by Henry Weinhard, the well-known Oregon beer icon who took brewing in our state to a new level.

Though commercial success came with Weinhard, breweries dotted communities and towns all over Oregon. Many failed in early years, likely due to inexperience or poor management.

Concurrently, there was a storm brewing over behavior. People liked their drink, as well as their other vices. The story of national prohibition and the years that led up to the passage of the Volstead Act of 1919 is a familiar one: an active Temperance Movement, increased crime and corruption, black markets and speakeasies, and the destruction of local brewing industries. Oregon was dry five years before, with a 1914 Executive Order signed by Oregon Governor Oswald West announcing the passage of prohibition by ballot initiative. 

It was a long dry spell until the national repeal came through in December 1933.

Henry Weinhardt died before prohibition, but larger businesses like the Blitz-Weinhardt company survived by using their factories to make sodas, fruit drinks, or non-alcoholic near beer. This last has an interesting sidenote: it was a popular illegal practice to inject alcohol through the cork of near beer, earning the doctored form the names “needle” or “spiked” beer.

After a lengthy Prohibition and increasingly processed food on American’s tables, consumer palates were used to bland flavors. People wanted lighter lagers and Big Beer provided beers produced with malt extracts, rice syrups for sweetness, and fewer hops. In the many years following prohibition there were few choices for people who wanted something different from Schlitz or Anheuser-Busch: imports or home brewing. In Oregon, where fresh local ingredients and a “do-it-yourself” mentality prevailed, by the late 1970s some were thinking seriously about selling their tasty creations.

The 1970s and 80s were decades of positive change and renewed growth. In October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which contained an amendment that created an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use. Two years later, in 1980, the first true microbrew pub opened in Portland. Charles (Chuck) and Shirley Coury founded the Cartwright Brewing Company at 617 S.E. Main.

The Courys operated their own winery for fifteen years before turning to beermaking. The pub closed in 1981 after problems with quality. But it was when Dick and Nancy Ponzi, local winemakers, teamed up with Karl Ockert, local brewer, in 1984 to establish the BridgePort Brewing Company that things really got exciting.

That same year Kurt and Rob Widmer, tired of looking for beer they liked in the U.S., turned their hobby into their vocation and started their own brewery. The brewery officially opened in April, 1984 in an industrial section of NW Portland as the Widmer Brothers Brewing Company. Look around today and you might say that the idea of microbreweries really caught on.

The fact that we even have these “brewpubs” is thanks to that same small group wanting to share and sell their brews. In the early 80s a brewer couldn’t sell their beer directly to a customer on site where the beer was brewed; instead, it had to be sold through a distributor. They worked together to change the concept of a “brewpub,” arguing that selling beer at a brewery wasn’t different from selling wine in a tasting room. In 1985 Oregon’s brewpub law passed, allowing for the brewing and dispensing of beer on the same premises. And that same year Mike and Brian McMenamin opened Oregon’s first brewpub in SW Portland, the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House. 1986 saw the opening of the fourth microbrewery in Oregon when Art Larrance and Fred Bowman founded the Portland Brewing Company.

The next 10 years saw slow growth because banks were reluctant to fund these endeavors… And customers weren’t entirely sure they wanted to try this stuff! But the early successes of breweries like McMenamins, Bridgeport, Widmer inspired many to continue to try and by the early 1990s, the industry was exploding. However, like the fates that befell many of those early brewing pioneers, poor management and inexperience meant that many didn’t survive. Enter OSU’s Fermentation Sciences program.

Food science and studies on fermentation have long been a part of research at OSU, but since the establishment of the Fermentation Science program in 1995 OSU has been a leader in its education and training of new brewers.

The years that followed saw a new generation of craft brewers. They were trained at OSU or in the region’s larger craft breweries, and now are opening small and independent breweries in local neighborhood communities, serving unique and creative beers. Oregon is at the forefront of the movement, celebrating local food and having a big impact on the local economy. The Oregon Brewers Guild reports that the economic impact of the brewing industry in 2012 was $2.83 billion, employing 29,000 people. Even more exciting is the growth in the craft industry. In 2013 there were 154 craft brewing companies, operating 192 brewing facilities in 63 cities in Oregon. They employed 6,400 people and added 900 jobs since 2011.

Over the past 30 years the Willamette Valley has been at the epicenter of a “craft-brewing renaissance” – with Portland affectionately nicknamed “Beervana” and the “Munich on the Willamette” – and that movement links brewing work to historic styles and traditional ingredients.