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Friday, February 26, 2010

An Oregon Trail Back East

The New York Times will publish a fluffy piece in it Sunday edition--already available online--that celebrates the experience of traveling to a brerwery. (Yes, one has the sense that New York is a good two decades behind the west coast in beer appreciation, but that's a different post.) In it, writer John Holl surveys some breweries, and does his best to make it a national article. He mentions a little brewery from New Hampshire and then throws in three others a national readership may have heard of: Boston Beer, Dogfish Head, and Rogue. If you spend much time reading national stories about craft beer, the one Oregon name that pops up again and again is Rogue. Why? Because you can buy Rogue everywhere.

Craft brewing remains a mostly local--or at most, regional--phenomenon. This is its great virtue. Almost without exception, the best beer is fresh and untraveled. The more one loads a keg or case in and out of trucks, the longer it spends sitting on shelves or under a pub's bar, the more it degrades. Oregon brewers have always had the luxury of having a vast customer base right here in its back yard. Why worry about setting up relationships with distributors in the Midwest and East when you can sell all you brew right here? Local brewers know the market, know what Northwesterners like, and know how to sell beer here. So, I get that as a business decision, a local brewery probably won't see the upside in shipping to far-flung locations.

But as a shameless fan of Oregon beer, it's frustrating. We sit in the richest vein of craft brewing in the world, and almost no one outside of the West realizes it. Our breweries produce some of the finest beers in the world, yet these beers, because they are distributed only locally, are never mentioned outside the region. Why would they be? Why would a New Yorker care that Cascade Apricot Ale--to select just one example--is one of the best beers in the world when they have no chance of ever tasting it? For newspapers, there's no editorial reason to mention obscure little beers brewed 3,000 miles away--they want to discuss products available to their readers.

I have no idea what can be done to remedy the situation, except to hope that eventually some of our beers begin a trek to other parts of the country. Everyone knows that Oregon pinots are among the best. New Yorkers can buy them at their local wine stores. I wish they could buy a sampling of Oregon beers, too. Then they'd realize there's more here than just Rogue. I can dream.


  1. "Why would a New Yorker care that Cascade Apricot Ale--to select just one example--is one of the best beers in the world when they have no chance of ever tasting it?"

    Well, as luck would ahve it, Cascade has begun distributing to several states on the other side of the Rockies. I don't remember the full list, but I'm pretty sure NY, PA, GA, and possibly MI were on the list. Perhaps someone else will chime in with a full list.

  2. Jeff- Do you really believe that beer geeks outside of the Northwest do not realize that it is a VERY special region for craft beer?
    Try telling a beer geek from Portland that you are from Chicago and you're likely to hear something like 'Oh Bell's and Old Style then, right?"
    BTW, NYC is no slouch as a beer town.

  3. Chris--very cool. Maybe my dream is closer than I know.

    Dave, I do believe that. I married a lovely, well-educated woman from New England. I lured her out to the west coast eventually, and once I asked--what did you think of Oregon before you came? "I didn't think of it," she said. Her family is the same way. I am pretty convinced that Oregonians' sense of our status is far inflated. That includes beer geeks (what to speak of casual good-beer fans), because there's just very little Oregon beer outside the west.

  4. It's not just for editorial reasons that Oregon beers aren't mentioned frequently—it's physically hard to get them! I've been lucky to receive review samples for my column from Cascade (mentioned here) and other Oregon breweries, but getting samples is a huge headache. It would help if brewers reached out to me—sometimes just tracking down an email address that reaches a real person can be slow going, and by the time they write back, my deadline has passed.

    Of course, less stringent distribution laws would help, but many small brewers are not looking to expand their distribution.

    I do want to say that Northwesters also don't have access to all of the midwest/east coast brews, and might discount how good many of them are.

  5. Ouch! My ears are ringing from all your obnoxious horn blowing!

    "Yes, one has the sense that New York is a good two decades behind the west coast in beer appreciation."

    Really? Here's some quasi updated number of breweries per state:

    New York - 101 breweries
    Oregon - 98
    Florida - 91

    Looks like New York is at least neck-n-neck when it comes to number of breweries. Even Florida is creeping up Oregon's ass.

    I seem to remember one of the first craft beers I ever drank was a Sam Adams, also from the east coast.

    Who's behind the times? Might want to read another Oregon local:

    "Why would a New Yorker care that Cascade Apricot Ale--to select just one example--is one of the best beers in the world when they have no chance of ever tasting it?"

    They wouldn't care! We have some great beers right in our own backyard! Allagash, Dogfish, Ommergang, etc. Some Fruity apricot girlie beer verses a Curieax from Allagash? Fogetaboutit! A New Yorker can drink a Yoo Hoo if they want something fruity.

    You like them fruity drinks Mr Hornblower?

    Don't make 'us guys' come out there and have a little talk with 'yous guys.' Capice?

  6. At least Minnesota will know more about us:

    No matter how flirtatious the NYT may be with Oregon and Portland in particular, it is still, and should be, a paper with a focus on New York and the east. I know. It's our national paper, but not in the way that the Guardian is for England.

    As for availability of Oregon brews elsewhere, I am reminded of the "Coors" phenomenon. Without betraying my age too clearly, there was a time when Coors was unavailable where I lived in the east. I can recall bringing back two cases of it in a suitcase from a trip to Denver. I was the envy of all my friends who cherished the opportunity to drink what was then a near mythical thing. Of course, it was no better beer then than now, but it had the cachet of being unavailable. And, we desired it all the more as a result.

    I suspect success at home, the limitations of 3-tier distribution and the high capital costs of locating facilities thousands of miles from the home brewery account for the east's unfortunate lack of access to our fine beers. Capice?

  7. Avete qualcosa da dire?

  8. Just for the record, top 10 states for number of breweries from the Brewers Association (

    221 California
    103 Colorado
    100 Washington
    93 Oregon
    75 Pennsylvania
    70 Michigan
    66 Wisconsin
    56 New York
    42 Ohio
    41 Illinois

  9. Maggie, point taken. It's a chicken and egg thing. More, my guess is that few publications in NY know about, say, Upright, one of the more interesting new breweries we have here. So they wouldn't even know to look.

  10. At the risk of being repetitively redundant . . . I am wintering in SWFla. On arrival in Dec., I surveyed the craft beer availability. Two points.

    __Oregon Craft Beer Brands__
    03 Oregon craft beer brands can be found:
    - Full Sail
    - Rouge
    - Widmer Bros.
    [However, Widmer beers available are brewed at the Redhook Brewing Co., near Portsmouth, NH, via the Craft Brewers Alliance. (as are Redhook and Kona beers)]

    __Florida Craft Beer Brands__
    My joke is 'there is a drought of craft beer in Florida'. I found 11 craft beer brands; 03 are brewed by the same company [Florida Beer Co.], 03 are contract brewed elsewhere. The actual Florida breweries include:
    1. Bold City Brewery, Jacksonville
    2. Cigar City Brewing, Tampa
    3. Dunedin Brewery, Dunedin
    4. Florida Beer Co., Melbourne
    5. Saint Somewhere Brewing Co., Tarpon Springs
    The three 'Florida Beer Co.' beers I have had are . . . pedestrian.

    I have found some very nice bottled beers from Georgia, Maine, New Hampshire, New York

  11. Chuck, I think your numbers are faulty, and Dor and Bob seem to have better numbers. Moreover, NY has 19.4 million people, Oregon just 3.8. So per-capita, NY has 1 brewery for every 346,000 people; Oregon 1 for every 41,000. So careful about those stats--sometimes they can work against you.

    Two other things. One, quoting Doc Wort on the nature of Oregon beer is, as locals know, a somewhat dicey prospect. Two, you cite Allagash (from Portland Maine) and Dogfish Head (Delaware) as the pride of NY. Fair enough, but I therefore also claim Elysian and Russian River.

    Oh, and I think the Cascade Apricot Ale--as locals, again, know--would be something the good folks at Allagash and Ommegang would most appreciate. It's a girly fruit beer in the way Cantillion Rosé de Gambrinus is a "fruity drink."

    In other words, you may be doing a lot to prove my point--though I am as always delighted to see locals promote their own beer. That's the true spirit of craft brewing.

  12. I believe you are right in saying that NY is behind the beer geek times, despite the state's large number of breweries.
    I also agree with your reasons for enjoying local portland beer, and for pdx breweries keeping their suds in the state (or thereabouts), and would not suggest they begin nationwide campaigns to emulate Rogue.

    I think the dream you speak of is not the saturation of america with oregon beers but a revival of local breweries across the land! One of the magical things about pdx is that every neighborhood has it's own brewery and pub (at the very least).
    I would argue that one great, community-inspired brewery in a town is a tremendous value (ex. Great Lakes Brewing Co in Cleveland), perhaps more valuable than having the most breweries per capita...
    anyway, I'm thinking here of small european towns, each with its own style of brew. why not emulate that model? either way, it's down with homogeneous, bland beer!

  13. Jeff -
    Thanks for mentioning the NYT piece.

    I didn't mention Rogue simply because it's all we folks from the New York Area know, but because they have a hops farm and let people stay there. This wasn't a review of beer or even beer styles this article was a way to let people know that they can get more from beer than simply a taste.

    This is a trend that brewers are embracing and if I can help spread the word to the millions of people who wouldn't otherwise make breweries a part of their vacation plans than I feel like this article helps.

    I'm sure there are places that I missed where people can get a deeper experience with their beer. Such is the world of newspapers.

    The article was about tourism, not Cascade Apricot Ale. When it comes to travel, Rogue stands out. That's why I mentioned them. Plus, the beer is pretty good too.


    John Holl