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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Considering BridgePort at 30

Last week, the folks from Gambrinus organized a day-long retrospective of BridgePort Brewing.  It seemed partly to be for the benefit of the eight or ten media folks, and partly for members of the management who may not know the story of the last three decades.  The agenda called for speeches from some of the historical figures and a trip down to Goschie Farms to see where BridgePort sources most of its hops.  The idea was to focus on the brewery's hugely influential IPA and use that as a launchpad for visualizing the future.  We were meant to walk away thinking about BridgePort as the brewery of hops, past and future.  Instead, I was left with a much different impression. 

The Past
BridgePort is now Oregon's oldest brewery.  Perhaps more importantly, it was the first brewery to successfully fuse its identity and Portland's, owning the unofficial city beer, Blue Heron.  Its line of beers, including Pintail and Coho Pacific, were the most Oregonian of the early beers, and BridgePort banked a ton of local cred.  In 1989, they introduced Old Knucklehead Barleywine, with a different local beer legend on each year's label.  They also had the ur-brewpub, a an old rope warehouse lined with worn wood that helped define modern pub style.  When people took their relatives out for a quintessential Portland experience, they went to BridgePort.  (For a great history of this period, I direct you to Pete Dunlop's fantastic 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
But this was also the moment the Ponzis decided to get out of the beer business and focus on their first love, wine.  They sold the brewery to Carlos Alvarez and his Gambrinus Company. Gambrinus was a nine-year old Corona importer that had purchased the Spoetzl Brewery (Shiner) in 1989.  It began the period when BridgePort began shedding its Portland-ness.  They dumped all the old beers (a backlash convinced them to bring back a retooled version of Blue Heron), replacing them with generic style-named beers: ESB, Porter, and so on.  A decade after he bought the brewery, Alvarez decided to do a complete renovation, and out went the old warehouse and in came a sterile, generic restaurant that got poor reviews from old-timers.

The Present
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. 

Alvarez clearly doesn't realize he's sanded off those edges.  He trademarked the word Beervana and has tried to associate the brewery with the Portlandia vibe in the recent "Keep Portland Beered" campaign.  No brewery is less weird than BridgePort, though, and the notion that a brewery would try to trademark "Beervana" is a miscalculation only a non-native would make.  Gambrinus removed the actual markers of localness that we would recognize and replaced them with slogans.

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. 

The Future
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.

Phil Sexton
Gambrinus is fortunate to have Jeff Edgerton making the beer, even if he appears to be on a very short leash, recipe-wise.*  Jeff is a talented brewer who manages to bring character and individuality into his beers.  The Citra Hop Czar and especially Trilogy 1 were both exceptional beers.  There's every reason to believe the brewery will continue to put out great beers.  Alvarez may not get Portland, but he gets good beer, and lets his brewers make a quality product.

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.

5 comments:

Evan said...

One of your best columns yet, Jeff.

Tracy Thomas said...

Thanks for this very nice analysis of Bridgeport's evolution. Having moved to Portland in 1997, perhaps I missed the most "Portlandy" period of Bridgeport's history, but I recall how comfortable that old pub was. I can't count the number of times I went there. I can count the number of times I've been there since the remodel on one hand (maybe two, barely - I go back periodically because I'm convinced it can't be as bad as I remember, but then I am reminded that it is). You do a great job capturing the discomfort I've felt with Bridge port over the years, especially since the pub remodel. As for generic and corporate breweries being the future, I'm not so sure. They may be the future for some parts of the country, but Portland and Oregon have our quirks. It feels like a brewery that can keep its local personality while growing and upping their game at production quality will be a sure winner.

Frank White said...

Actually I think you've been charitable here. The sum of Bridgeport's moves over the last twenty years leaves me with a simple attitude towards them: "Kiss My Ass". I couldn't care less about that brand. Even when the place was cool, the beers were often suspect, in that American-trying-to-be-British way. Good bye, BridgePort. Might as well move to Phoenix or something.

darlene smith said...

Very interesting article and I did read it all.

Patrick J Ryan said...

Whenever somebody associated with the beer world in Texas expands into other states, especially distributors, I hesitate. Texas has some of the strangest beer regulations in the nation.

I'm not at all surprised that IPAs promise the most revenues. That's the way of the craft beer market, as even the Economist reports it to be.

I hope that Alvarez manages to allow more innovation and market experimentation locally in the future. Stone is doing it with the Stochasticity Project. If he will allow it, BridgePort could easily make some pale ales or some kind of English bitter to appeal to Oregonians.

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