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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Portland's Original Craft Beer? Maybe

There's not been much happening on this blog, the consequence of a book project that is nearing completion, but still consuming most of my time of late. That project will soon be put to bed and I'll be providing additional details.

Bottling #13 was sold very briefly in 1978 
Meanwhile, a trip back to 1976 is in order. At the time, Blitz-Weinhard had been struggling to exist in a market increasingly dominated by big beer. Bill and Fred Wessinger, great grandsons of Henry Weinhard, were running the company and decided on a bold move.

They noticed that the big brands had largely ignored certain parts of the market. Instead of fighting a losing battle for a shrinking share of the industrial lager segment, the Wessingers opted to go after a different market. The result was Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve.

Private Reserve was marketed as a super premium beer based on a nineteenth century recipe and brewed with malted barley, hops and water. This was clearly a shot at the adjunct-heavy lagers of the day. Private Reserve was a huge success and revived Blitz-Weinhard.

Make no mistake. The original Private Reserve was a good beer, certainly a lot better than Bud, Coors, Miller and any of the other crap lagers. Some have even argued Private Reserve was Portland's original craft beer. And maybe it was. Each bottling was numbered and they blew well past 100 before they eventually stopped using numbers.

The concept of a premium product that would go after the big brands at their weakest point would be used by future craft brewers. When Kurt Widmer was researching the idea of starting a brewery, he saw the growing import segment as his niche. It made sense and it worked. But Blitz had already tested the formula.

For Blitz-Weinhard, Private Reserve turned out to be a shining moment in a sea of despair. The Wessingers saw an increasingly difficult financial road ahead and eventually sold the company, which they continued to manage, to Pabst in 1979. As most people around these parts know, the brewery went through several more buyouts before the lights went out for good in 1999.

After the old brewery was closed, the brands went their separate ways. Most of the middling brands were sold to Pabst. The premium brands, which by then included Private Reserve, Blue Boar Light Irish Style Ale and Private Reserve Dark, went to Miller. Stroh, which owned the property at the end, sold it to a developer for a king's ransom.

In my mind, Weinhard's premium beers were a shadow their former selves long before production moved, first to the old Olympia plant in Tumwater, then to Full Sail in Hood River and more recently to a plant in some unknown location. Miller is apparently intent on distributing the beers to a wider audience...what's left of them, anyway. Oh well.


  1. I don't think there's any maybe about it. The really interesting thing is that Henry's--like Ballantine--was so close to weathering the storm. Had the family hung on another decade, they would have been poised to catch the craft brewing wave. A pity. Now it's just a brand no one gives a damn about.

  2. I think the original Henry's PR was close to craft. Even if that beer was around today, it wouldn't attract much interest, but it was quite good for in its day. I think it went downhill after BW was sold. My opinion, obviously. Today, these beers are all undrinkable. Such a shame. It's hard to believe Miller hopes to market this swill more widely.

    Could Blitz-Weinhard have survived? It's a relevant question. Had they been bigger, consolidation probably would have been postponed, but it would have happened. Had they been smaller, they might have survived as a craft brewery. BW was an awkward size...too big to be a craft brewer, too small to compete with big beer. That's the rub.

  3. Ironically, when it closed it was about the size of Sierra Nevada today. But a million barrels was certainly not "micro" in 1980.

  4. It's definitely ironic, but timing can sometimes be everything. You can't look at 1979 or 1980 as the significant year. Blitz wasn't shutdown until 1999. What was Sierra Nevada's output in 1999? I could look up the answer, but I'm too lazy.


Keep it civil, please.