BridgePort Says Goodbye To Great Brewer

As you may have already heard from reading John Foyston’s The Beer Here column in the Oregonian, BridgePort Brewing Company‘s Brewmaster Karl Ockert has announce that he will be stepping down from his post at the end of the month. While this might be sad new for those who have worked with Ockert since BridgePort’s inception back in 1984, folks should be happy to know that Ockert will continue to be a force in the craft beer community and will still be around Beervana.

Ockert’s decision to leave BridgePort was due to an offer to become the technical director for the Master Brewers Association of the AmericasRay Klimovitz decided to retire after a long tenure in the brewing business dating back to 1970. Klimovitz served in research and development for Stroh’s corporate breweries. Ockert says “(Klimovitz) is a very knowledgeable guy.” At 78 years young, Klimovitz decided to pursue other ventures. Now, Ockert is capitalizing on an opportunity he says he can not pass on. “It isn’t something that comes up everyday,” says Ockert. “I knew that if I passed on this (position with the MBAA) that it would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life.” (MBAA). Former director

In his new role as technical director with MBAA, Ockert will be putting together classes key in education efforts relating to craft beer at a variety of levels. “We’ll try to reach out to all sectors of the brewing industry” he says. “We try to collaborate under the flag of the more you educate, share, and innovate, the more you learn.”

Beginning in 2011, Ockert plans to help implement a beer certification program designed to educate wholesalers, servers, and others a all levels of the craft beer world. Topical facets of the education will involve proper draft maintenance and the nuances of service and presentation. By providing a more rounded understanding of the complete culture of craft beer, Ockert expects positive results. His background as an educator was not only evident at his post with BridgePort, but also as a classroom teacher at Portland Community College (PCC). At PCC, he taught beer style classes. “The were usually six to seven week courses where I made a lot of friends” he says with a smile. “I was spreading the word of the gospel.” The classes he will be putting together for the MBAA will include beer server certification programs that enable not only the folks in the brewhouse, but those serving the beer to talk intelligently about the beer. “The ultimate goal is to set up a consulting business and to help brewers, smaller brewers, and get back to doing more writing” says Ockert. So what are other requirements of his new position. “Traveling. They want me to learn Spanish because I’ll be in places like South America” he adds. ” I’d love to spend longer periods of time in Europe to learn more of the Belgian, German, and U.K. cultures.” Ockert also notes that his wife is from Northern Ireland. “I like the idea of small upstart breweries like the BrewDogs of the world” he says.

When Ockert departs from his position as brewmaster, BridgePort will be in good hands. Assistant Brewmaster Jeff Edgerton will take the reigns on an interim basis, and it is looking like he’ll make the transition quite smooth. Edgerton worked in quality assurance for Blitz-Weinhard for many years before adding a dozen more years to his resume at BridgePort. “Jeff knows the plant very well” says Ockert. “He’s very dedicated, and we have a great group of people.”

Despite partaking in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the MBAA, Ockert admits he will miss elements of his job at BridgePort. “I will miss working actually making beer” he admits. “Talking with the people at BridgePort everyday who I’ve come to know quite well, I will certainly miss that.”

Ockert started his illustrious brewing career more than 25 years ago when he was hired by Richard and Nancy Ponzi, two winemakers who saw a need for craft brewing. Today, BridgePort still uses the tagline “Oregon’s Oldest Craft Brewery.” Ockert worked for seven years at the old BridgePort before leaving in 1990 to pursue other interests. In 1995 BridgePort was acquired by The Gambrinus Company, owned by Carlos Alvarez. Ockert says he wanted to get back into production brewing after a six year hiatus, and Alvarez’s vision helped make the move even easier. “He wanted to raise the bar” says Ockert of Alvarez. “I heard some good things about Carlos, and with his success running the Corona Importing Company.” Things changed right off the bat in 1996 as BridgePort  expanding its capacity from a 600 barrel a year facility to, in 2001, that of 100,000 barrels. “We replaced the whole brewhouse” Ockert says. “Mill, handling equipment, natural gas instead of steam boilers, fermenters, piping, everything.” Ockert and the crew were working nonstop seemingly around the clock to get the new brewhouse installed. In fact, he says he was involved with 35 different upgrade projects simultaneously. “We added the bottle shop, cellars; it was a fast and frenzied pace.”

Also in 1996, BridgePort developed a new beer that would forever change the face of brewing. BridgePort IPA. The idea is credited to Phil Sexton, and Australian brewer who had been working on the style for some time. “It was a fun thing working on this new style with Phil” says Ockert. “He pointed out that this is the biggest hop growing section in the world, so we should make a big, big hoppy beer. In 1996, 50 BU was huge. (The IPA) had a lot of flavor in addition to aroma. I remember when (John) Foyston came by and said ‘I can smell that from here.’ There wasn’t anyting on the market like it.”

In 2000, BridgePort won a gold medal and grand champion trophy at the London Brewing International for this innovative IPA. It was for certain that this would replace the BridgePort Ale, a mild brown ale, as the brewhouse’s flagship offering.

Since the heyday of BridgePort’s original IPA, Ockert has recognized the evolution of the American craft beer palate when it comes to hops. According to the brewer, in 2009, a judge at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Colorado wrote on a comment sheet that the beer was “Not appropriate to style. Not hoppy enough.” Ockert says that what was once labeled as an IPA is now often recognized as an American Pale Ale. He feels the palate does evolve and that our taste buds “get up to it.” With larger craft breweries such as Stone, Dogfish Head, and Ninkasi continually pushing the hops envelop, BridgePort has recognized this trend and a few years ago came out with Hop Czar, an Imperial IPA at 8% ABV and a big 85 IBUs. Due to popular demand, the Hop Czar moved from being a seasonal 22-ounce release, to a year-round offering, now available in six packs of 12-ounce bottles.

So where will the future of malt and hops take us? No one is quite certain. BridgePort will continue to produce the now classic styles of beer that people in the  might not perceive as innovative, but the world of craft beer has the first wave of craft brewers such as  Phil Sexton and Karl Ockert to thank that they were just that. Karl, you’ll be missed, but we’ll be seeing you around.