The Year In Beer…20 Years Ago

Kurt Widmer and one of Widmer's first runs of bottles. (image courtesy of Widmer Brothers Brewing)
Kurt Widmer on the bottling line facing a very good problem: after years of declaring that Widmer was only ever going to sell draft beer, they decided to try their flagship Hefeweizen in bottles — and immediately fell behind in production because the new package was so popular. Instead of selling the planned for 80,000 cases in the first month, they sold 200,000… (image courtesy of Widmer Brothers Brewing)

My back pages No. 2: because the lastest/greatest is all very well, but it’s also important to remember how — and who — got us here...from December 1996:

Figuring the founding of BridgePort as the beginning, craft brewing in Oregon turned 12 this year and shows no signs of fizzing out.

On the contrary, what was once a chummy fraternity of brewers laboring over brew vessels scrounged from dairies and nuclear plants now is a bunch of breweries ranging from micro to regional, competing for market share and shelf space, though still with a civility that the rest of the business world could usefully emulate.

This year saw upsizing and downsizing, new product roll-outs, mergers, moves, festivals and — lest we lose sight of the point — absolute lakes of good beer. This IS NOT a list of the 10 best local beers; that’s a minefield best traversed by experts such as Michael Jackson or Fred Eckhardt. Such a list would miss the culture that’s grown up around good beer and its enjoyment. Instead, here are some of the highlights of the year in beer.

RUNAWAY ROLL-OUT: When the Widmer brothers bottled Hefeweizen last May, Oregon and Washington beer fans responded by drinking every bottle the new $20 million brewery could turn out. They reckoned to sell 82,000 cases in the first month, but the real number was more than 200,000 cases. Meanwhile, the rest of the West went thirsty and the Widmers are doubling the capacity of the new brewery to 300,000 barrels a year.

BEST BOTTLE: Those Rogues down in Newport are pioneering both the use of screened bottles and glow-in-the-dark ink. Beginning with Halloween’s Dead Guy Ale and continuing with Mogul Ale, Rogue Ales Brewery’s is the beer you won’t lose in the dark. It’d be a gimmick if they didn’t put such darn good beer in the bottles — Smoke Ale recently won Rogue another gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

BEST SEMINAR TOPIC: At the 1997 Craft-Brewers Conference in Seattle, Miller Brewing’s David Ryder will speak on “The Complex Factors That Contribute to Beer Foam Dynamics.”

BEST VIBE: It all depends where you want to be. Fancy a bit of Old London? Then it’s the Horse Brass Pub, for you, lad. Portland Brewing’s Taproom has a straight ahead Germanic feel. Both the Lucky Lab and the Bridgeport are former industrial spaces now relaxing with a pint of the best, but the most Portlandy feeling pub — define it as comfortably unpretentious — is the tiny Tugboat. It’s got good beers (try the Czech Bitter), great homemade salsa and feels like a real part of the community.

MOST OVER-THE-TOP-MARKETING CAMPAIGN: Elvira slinking across the label of Elvira’s Night Brew, contract-brewed in Minnesota. It’s billed as — wink, wink — “full-bodied and robust” and is proof that smaller brewers can stoop to the low advertising standards of the mega-brewers. Bad Frog, from Michigan is runner-up with a big green bus emblazoned with the Bad Frog logo — a frog flipping the bird — and the motto “He just don’t care.”

Karl Ockert and his BridgePort IPA. (image courtesy of BridgePort Brewing)
A young Karl Ockert with one of the the gold medals won by BridgePort IPA, the beer that devised by Aussie Phil Sexton to celebrate Oregon’s bounty of Willamette Valley hops and perfected by Ockert and crew. Karl is now with Deschutes Brewery and IPAs show some signs of catching on in Portland, he said wryly… (image courtesy of BridgePort Brewing)

MY FAVORITE BEER: BridgePort India Pale Ale, with Full Sail’s India Pale Ale a close second. Both are hopped to a fare-thee-well, as tradition demands. Hops-heads rejoice. Moreover, BridgePort’s IPA and companion Porter signal a welcome turn away from the competent but unexciting “fish-and-bird” beers such as Pintail and Blue Heron.

BEST BEER EVENT: The Oregon Brewers Festival certainly is the biggest, drawing 75,000 people to Tom McCall Waterfront Park this year. They had their choice of about 80 craft brews from around the country, plus lots of good beer food and brilliant August weather. Re-seed the lawns to get rid of the partying-in-a-gravel-pit effect next year and it’s a winner.

BEST BOOKS: “Beer for Dummies” by Marty Nachel and Steve Ettlinger. The title is unfortunate, but this volume will teach you enough to brew your own beer, or knowledgeably enjoy other beers. For a beery history of Portland pubs, you can’t beat Paul Pintarich’s “History by the Glass,” from Bianco Publishing.

GOLDEN LAGERS: Saxer Brewing in Lake Oswego — the only all-lager craft brewer in the state — this year became the first U.S. craft brewer to win a gold medal in each of three years at the Great American Beer Festival. Many other Oregon craft and home brewers won medals this year; if you brewers care to fax in your successes, we’ll run the list in a future edition.

BEST TREND: The fine-food-and-good-beer movement, which aims to make beer as vital an ingredient as wine in the best kitchens. Full Sail has collaborated with regional chefs to develop recipes, which use craft-brewed beers as ingredients and accompaniment. Close runner up is the increasing number of excellent brewmaster dinners at local reastaurants.

MY FAVORITE BEER, PT. II: Hair of the Dog’s Adam, the beer to have when you’re just having one. Based on an ancient recipe from Dortmund, Germany, Adam is wonderfully assertive, smoky and complex. Michael Jackson — the one with the glass, not the glove — agrees and has included the tiny Southeast Portland brewery in a new Beer Hunter CD-ROM. Meanwhile, the brewery’s Golden Rose took gold in the 1996 World Beer Championships.

MENTIONED IN DISPATCHES: National authors continue to take note of Oregon brewers. This year, Stephen Snyder’s “Beer Companion” includes Portland Brewing, Rogue Ales and Full Sail among the august company of about 100 of the world’s best breweries, and “Beer for Dummies” lists the Rogue Ales Brewery and Public House in Ashland as one of the 10 best spots in America.