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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Brewery Consolidation in the Pre-Prohibition NW

This is the second of a forensic series of posts designed to unearth a few questions about the history of brewing in the Northwest. We know that American brewing was dealt a devastating blow by Prohibition (1916 - 1933 in the NW), killing off hundreds of breweries nationwide. But what about the early 20th Century--was consolidation already underway? Was the market already winnowing out the vast majority of beer styles and headed toward the macro-lager we find today, or was it a result mainly of Prohibition?

Well, in terms of the Northwest, at least part of that answer will be hard to reconstruct. Most of the breweries founded here between 1852 and 1916 were started by immigrant Germans, so we know that the vast majority of beer brewed was lager. But given that so many of the breweries we know about (240 in all) existed for a short time and were such small operations, little record exists. The larger companies did seem to be producing mainly light lagers, and in the wonderful Brewed in the Pacific Northwest, authors Gary and Gloria Meier* do hint at changes already afoot in the lightening of lager beer: "At all of these branch breweries, the same barley, hops, yeast and cereal adjuncts of corn and rice were used." This sounds like the well-documented pre-prohibition lagers that homebrewers have been producing for more than a decade. So, while it looks like pre-prohibition beers in the Northwest were fairly uniform light lagers, this appears to be all that was ever brewed here.

But what about consolidation? Did the big fish snap up the small fish, nevermind that they were all brewing the same beer? The answer is different in Oregon and Washington, but before we delve into the particulars, it's probably good to establish some context. Brewers were among the earliest pioneers to the region. When Henry Weinhard founded his brewery in Portland, Oregon was three years from statehood, and the town had but 1200 residents. In the next few years and in the early decades of the state, other immigrants bet on other tiny little villages. Reading through the list now, you think--why would you try to start a brewery in Merganser? Weinhard looks like a shrewd businessman, but in part, he just got lucky. Poor Paul Breistenstein guessed wrong--his short lived brewery (1884-'86) existed for exactly 20% of the town's lifetime.

Thumbing through the history, breweries look like any other pioneer business--they were started on a shoestring in dubious boom towns, and like most early businesses, failed within a few years. A few guessed right and their clientele grew with the population. In a few cases, they thrived.

In Oregon, Weinhard was the king, but there were a number of local breweries that thrived. In Roseburg, for example, the local brewery survived from 1861 to 1898, when the brewer died. A second brewery opened and flourished, but the county went dry in 1808. An Oregon City brewery managed to survive 36 years and several ownership changes before being closed in 1894. These are typical. Weinhard, rather than buying up local breweries, opened storage facilities up and down the Northwest. The only Oregon brewery on record to merge with a larger concern was in Salem, where the Capital Brewery was snapped up by Leopold Schmidt of Olympia. And herein lies the difference between the two states.

Washington reads much more like a traditional story of consolidation. The first successful brewery was Rainier (then named Bay View Brewery), which survived the great Seattle fire of 1889 and brokered a deal to buy out its two major local rivals (Claussen-Sweeney and Braun) in 1892. Olympia, which didn't start brewing until 1896, expanded quickly, capitalizing in part on sales to the Yukon during the gold rush there. Within ten years, it owned Salem's Capita and Port Townsend Brewery and had established Acme in San Francisco and another plant in Bellingham. Much of the history of Washington is similar to Oregon--small breweries winking in and out of existence, and other regional breweries (Spokane, Tacoma) surviving to Prohibition (and some beyond that). Washington was settled after Oregon, and the breweries were established slightly later. It seems that they were not characterized by as much speculation as brewers arriving in Oregon before 1880.

I am left with the impression that the young Northwest brewing industry really never had a chance to develop. By the time communities had begun to be established in the 1870s and '80s, the temperance movement was already in full swing. Oregon's first effort at Prohibition came in 1887. In 1904, the state passed the "local option" rule, allowing counties to go dry if they wished. Washington's history was similar (.pdf). The anti-saloon league was active as early as the 1860s, and the "local option" was passed in 1909. By 1912, 42% of the state was dry. Both states approved prohibition in 1914, and prohibition started in '16. In the best of cases, breweries had a few decades, amid unpredictable pioneer growth, to get established. In some cases, it was just years or decades before the law shut them down.

What might have developed is unclear. While some of the early breweries were growing and snatching up market share, it's impossible to say what might have happened if not for Prohibition. And that concludes my foray into the past. Sorry to those who aren't as fascinated by this stuff as I. Regular blogging to resume.
*The Meiers are regional historians, not beer historians. However, they relied on source material from the era--local newspapers, principally--as well as beer histories, state historical societies, and the historical record of the United States Brewers' Association. There may be some detail they didn't describe (it's hard to imagine they were must focused on historical beer styles or ingredients), but their sources look fantastic.

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