Portland is the epicenter of craft brewing in the United States, according to Wall Street Journal writer Ken Wells in his 2003 book Travels With Barley. And he’s not the only one who feels that way. In fact, it would take up more space than we have allotted to recount all the honors and accolades that have been poured on Oregon thanks to our homegrown beer industry.
Portland has always been a tavern town that moved a lot of draft, but it wasn’t until the late ’70s that the seeds of the craft-beer revolution took hold. During the hedonistic days of the Carter administration, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would allow a single person to brew up to 100 gallons of beer annually for personal consumption (200 gallons for larger households). The bill passed and homebrewing went public, graduating from the bathtubs and medical tubing of Prohibition-style basement operations or the beakers and pipettes of dorm-room setups to the carboys and hydrometers of a legitimate cottage industry.
Around these parts, winemakers like Dick Ponzi and Chuck Coury were eager to get into the game, and homebrewers, like the Oregon Brew Crew, were already good to go, having been weaned on local writer Fred Eckhardt’s A Treatise on Lager Beer (1969). "Fred’s been around the whole time," says Brian Butenschoen, executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild. "And everybody who started brewing in the breweries, from Karl Ockert (Bridgeport Brewing) to the Widmers to Fred Bowman and Art Larrance (Portland Brewing), they all had that homebrewing experience."
Mike and Brian McMenamin are credited with the state’s first true brewpub, the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House, which opened in 1985 after the state Legislature passed what came to be known as the "brewpub law," making it legal for brewers to sell directly to the public. But the young entrepreneurs took some heat when the established beer distributors dug in their heels and fought the encroachment onto their turf by any means necessary.
"As we made inroads, some of the distributors did their best to thrash us," says Kurt Widmer. "They talked about how our sanitation conditions were less than optimal. Our brewery at the time was a little bit dark and dour, but we did a great job of keeping everything clean. The piping, the hoses and the tanks, everything the beer touched we kept spotless."
Fortunately, stalwart publicans like Don Younger at the Horse Brass, Carl Simpson at the Dublin Pub and Bill McCormick at Jake’s went to bat for the rookies and helped them get a foothold. "And all the distributors’ nightmares came true," laughs Bridgeport brewmaster Karl Ockert.
So we have a confluence of beer geeks, nervy tavern owners, timely legislation and a populace with taste buds attuned to more complex beer than, uh, Bud. Anything else?
We’re the No. 2 producer of hops in the country, with Yakima Valley in Washington holding a commanding lead. We also rank a healthy No. 9 on the barley list. Great Western Malting is just across the river in Vancouver, and Wyeast in Odell, outside Hood River, is one of only a small number of yeast cultivators in the United States. "And we have mountain-fresh water," notes Jerry Fechter, co-owner of New Old Lompoc. "Just like the big guys."
And let’s not forget the weather, Eckhardt adds. "During the winter there’s nothing else to do but sit inside and drink beer."
Fortunately, summer’s upon us and it’s about beer-thirty, high time to acknowledge those local beers worthy of a second round. Here we present the Summer Beer All-Star team, a dozen profiles of brewers, publicans and the beers that made them famous. Our hoppy homage is by no means scientific or definitive, and we welcome additional input. Hopeful brewers are encouraged to lug samples over to the Portland Monthly office. Disclaimer: This team is for summer beers. Stouts and porters need not apply. Until November.