Portland Beer--a book that should be on the shelf of every Oregonian.)
In 1996, the brewery released IPA, a beer that predicted where the market would be headed a decade and a half later--toward mid-bitterness hoppy beers saturated with flavor and aroma. It was not the first American IPA, but it was the most influential here in Portland. Hops had been gaining among the geeky fringe but hadn't yet burst into the mainstream. BridgePort's hazy, sunny IPA became a sensation and fixed expectations for what the Portland style should be. (It's one reason why pedants distinguish Pacific NW IPAs from San Diego IPAs.)
|(l-r) Carlos Alvarez, Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Phil Sexton,|
and Jeff Edgerton
All of this has mystified me for the better part of two decades. Why take a a brewery with so much local brand capital and slowly leach it off for little appreciable gain? After having met Carlos Alvarez, I think I have an answer. The guys in Texas have no interest in keeping the Portland weird in BridgePort.
Before the official program started last week, I chatted a bit with Alvarez, who emphasized the difference between a regional brewery and small, idiosyncratic brewpubs. He likened it to the difference between a Chili's and the corner Ma and Pa restaurant. This isn't an uncommon view--larger breweries often highlight with pride how they focus on quality control and consistency. It was only later, as Alvarez addressed us in his speech, that I began to consider the restaurant example he used in that metaphor. As he spoke, he talked a lot about his own journey, from his experience as the son of Corona distributor in Mexico to his arrival in Texas. BridgePort became a part of the narrative of his life. In fact, he talked more about and old fish warehouse nearby and how he wanted to make fish tacos instead of pizza at the pub. It was a running joke, but it was instructive. Alvarez wasn't interested in finding out what made Portland tick so he could keep BridgePort at the front of the local zeitgeist; he wanted to rid it of all that.
Craft brewers have spent three decades talking about the virtues of local beer. It's baked into the cake of the American craft identity, so much so that any brewery that's tainted by the wrong owners is drummed out of the club. That's a dubious benefit of localness, but this isn't: local breweries are attuned to the mores and preferences of their customers. When they exist at the community level, their hyper-local focus can appear almost inexplicable to outsiders. You see this in Cologne, Brussels, and Bamberg--and you see it in Portland and Oregon. The breweries that attend to locals sell more beer to locals, and the ones who sand off the cultural edges to sell to a wider market (Rogue, BridgePort), sell less beer to locals.
In 2006, BridgePort sold the 3rd most beer in Oregon, with just under 24,000 barrels. Last year they sold 176 fewer barrels in Oregon than they did in that year. They have since been supplanted by Ninkasi, Portland Brewing, and Full Sail, and 10 Barrel will likely overtake them in coming years. Alvarez told me that BridgePort is available in 20 states, and maybe the de-Portlandizing of BridgePort helps sell beer in Texas. It seems pretty clearly like a miscalculation here, though.
Despite all that, BridgePort has identified its remaining key asset: IPA. In our tour last week, the brewery brought in Phil Sexton, the Australian brewer who created the original recipe. They are laser-focused on this heritage (so much so that the mention of Karl Ockert, the founding brewer who helmed BridgePort for twenty years, was verboten), and this year will release something like seven or eight different hoppy ales--the large majority of their line.
I've rattled on so long now that I doubt many of you are still with me. I'll wrap it up by saying that I think the odd place BridgePort occupies in the beer world will eventually look a lot less odd. It's a brewery of the future, more corporate and generic, less tied to place. It's not a bad brewery by any stretch--indeed, it's a very good brewery--but it's not very distinctive. Alvarez spoke glowingly of Chili's, and whether you think of that as fortunate or not, that appears to be the model for BridgePort's future.
* When he was describing the development of Trilogy 3, which is a collaboration with the students at OSU, he mentioned that he has veto over the final beer. And from the back of the crowd, Alvarez shouted that he had a second veto. The interjection had enough pepper on it that there weren't many chuckles--he didn't appear to be joking.