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Monday, November 19, 2007

Early NW Brewing: The Thai Restaurant Phenomenon

There's a joke in Portland that goes something like this: "Only 50 Thais live in town, but there are 100 Thai restaurants." It's an exaggeration, obviously, but the point is clear--it seems like every immigrant from Thailand is obligated to serve hungry webfeet tasty Panang curry. I mention this because it relates to the early history of brewing in Oregon and Washington. After a casual comment on my micro-macro post ("in the early 1900s, beer was good. Brewing was a regional craft, and the diversity of styles and quality mirrored that of Europe"), Stan Hieronymus objected. Consolidation was already well underway, said he, and the homogenization of beer was already well underway.

In subsequent emails, we've both agreed to do a little research and find out what was going on. I consulted the best guide I know to NW brewing history, Brewed in the Pacific Northwest by Gary and Gloria Meier, and discovered a fascinating historical pattern. Westward expansion occured at the same time of mass German immigration. And, as it happens, the earliest breweries were almost uniformly established by young brewers out to make their mark. Henry Weinhard was a just one of those young brewers, but one about which we know the most. His story is typical (from the Meier account):
Like the majority of early American brewers, Henry Weinhard learned his art in the Old Country. Born in Lindenbronn, Wurttemberg, Germany in 1830, young Weinhard completed his schooling and began an apprenticeship to the brewer's trade....

The reports he heard about America and its opportunities led Henry to believe he might do well for himself in his chose profession on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1852 the adventurous young Braumeister packed his brewing journals, notes, and recipes and emigrated to the United States.

From 1852 until 1856 Weinhard was employed by a large brewry in Cincinnati, Ohio. But he was intrigued by the far West; spurred by the reports of few breweries out there, he left Cincinnati, made his way to Philadelphia, and boarded a vessel bound for the Pacific Coast by way of the Isthmus of Panama.
In the period between 1852 and the early teens, 240 breweries were founded across Oregon and Washington, from Portland and Seattle to towns as tiny as Island City, near La Grande, and Orting, South of Tacoma. It is amazing how story after story follows an identical narrative. Again, from the Meiers:
Leonard Stenger, a brewer from Bavaria, was one of the earliest pioneer settlers in this historic Douglas County community. He farmed on his Donation Land Claim property from 1854 until 1874. With new growth and settlement in the area, he decided to rever to his training and open a brewery.
Not every brewer has a detailed history, but the names tell the story: Mehl, Ott, Miller, Braun, Roesch, Wetterer, and on and on. Even when the brewery was owned by a local, they hired a young German to run the brewery. If you were a German in Pioneer Oregon, you were apparently obligated to serve thirsty loggers tasty lagers (oof-sorry!).

Very little information exists about the styles of beer brewed, though there are a couple of references to porter, and one brewery produced weisse beer (but only for five years--after which it died). But it is a safe bet that the Northwest was, stylistically speaking, little Germany in the last decades of the 19th Century. That answers one part of the question--there was never a diversity of styles here beyond what the native Germans brewed. Whether there were multiple styles within this ouvre is not recorded.

However, a second question remains open, and I'll address it subsequently: was consolidation already underway before prohibition in 1916 (the year Oregon and Washington enacted it)? The answer isn't as straightforward as it appears.


  1. Jeff, I'll await your thoughts on consolidation, but on my first quick pass through "American Breweries II" I see only six or seven Oregon breweries that were still open in 1916.

    Would this be because of consolidation or were smaller breweries driven out of business by the arrival of national beers (or both)?

    Taking us to the more important question in my mind. Did drinkers of the region continue to drink full-flavored beers? Given that most agree the German beers at the turn of the century were more flavorful than the increasingly popular American/Bohemian/adjunct beers.

  2. Stan, from the small hints I can draw from this book, you were right about the changes in brewing being present prior to Prohibition. There's a relevant passage on the section about Olympia Brewing:

    "At all of these branch breweries, the same barley, hops, yeast and cereal adjuncts of corn and rice were used."

    Interestingly, "craft" was still a part of the Olympia credo. When he first started selling Oly in the late 1890s, Leopold Schmidt priced a barrel at $8--when the going rate was just $3.25! The product was known as Olympia Pale Export, so may already have had the the cereal grains, but was so good it command nearly three times the price per barrel. Even at that price, his beer was an instant success.

    More on the consolidation and so on in the next segment.

  3. Speaking of Thai restaurants...I do believe that Bailey's Taproom was previously a Thai restaurant...coincidence? :)