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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Time Travel Along the Snake River

A trip to the other side of the mountains is always a sobering mission from a beer perspective. There just isn't that much going on and there aren't nearly as many choices as there are in the city. To some extent, this is the downside of being a spoiled Portlander.

The occasion for my trip to eastern Washington was my high school class reunion. There's no need to delve into the sordid details, but I will say it's been a decade or two since I graduated. As I've mentioned here before, Lucky Lager was a go-to beer in high school. Perhaps that provides an appropriate historical reference point.

Traversing the spacious and sparsely populated hinterlands between Portland and Clarkston, Wash. is like entering a sort of time warp. The rural towns that occupy the mostly vacant space look much the same as you suspect they did 60 or 70 years ago. Main streets with general stores and diagonal parking are a dead giveaway. Time moves slowly here.

By the time you reach Clarkston, located on the Snake River across from Lewiston, you've edged forward a few decades on the time continuum. There's a Costco and a Walmart, and diagonal parking is yesterday's news. The Lewiston-Clarkston valley is a veritable mecca of modern chic compared to the dusty ag towns of the interior. But it still lives several decades in the past.

This was once and to some extent still is a proud blue collar community. It has suffered many of the same misfortunes that have hurt similar communities as decent paying manufacturing jobs have been displaced by automation or outsourced overseas. Ag and wood products are still important, but tourism in various forms appears to be fueling what amounts to an emerging service economy.

I have no idea how many of my graduating class of around 200 left the valley. Some left and later returned. I think it's safe to say most who left have done better economically than those who stayed. There are exceptions, for sure, and, anyway, this is about what you would expect to find in a place where opportunities are limited. Many leave seeking greener pastures.

As you might expect, craft beer has been slow to catch on here. Riverport Brewing, which opened several years ago in Clarkston (my 2012 story is here), produces some nice beers and has a growing following. Nonetheless, you get the sense that crap macro runs the show here. Most of my former classmates were fine drinking yellow beer during reunion festivities.

The six hour drive back to Portland gave me some time to consider the question of why my old hometown and others like it have not exactly embraced the craft beer revolution. This wasn't the first time I'd thought about this issue, but what I saw at the reunion got me thinking again.

A big part of the answer, I think, is demographics. Portland has had a strong craft beer culture for several decades. Today it is fortified and to some extent driven by young adults...Millennials from here and from all over the country. This city has gotten younger in recent times and these new residents have actively embraced the beer culture.

That scenario operates in reverse in the old hometown. There is no strong craft beer culture and no dominant young adult presence. Instead, you see a lot of those folks leaving the valley seeking greater opportunity elsewhere. As a result, you have an older culture that is somewhat stagnant and slow to embrace progress in many areas, one of which is beer.

The actual demographics generally support this theory. Portland is more than 10 times larger than Lewiston-Clarkston (609,000 vs 50,000). But size doesn't drive the beer culture. The key to that is likely the 35 percent of Portland's population that lies within the 25-44 age group. That's more than 200,000 souls of prime beer drinking age. Lewiston-Clarkston, with 26 percent of its population in that age group, has about 13,000...a huge difference.

Contrary to what some think, Clarkston was a great place to grow up. You knew your classmates and your neighbors, and you could have a lot of fun without getting into much serious trouble. There are a lot of advantages to small town living in general. One of the disadvantages is that change tends to happen slowly. And so it is with craft beer, which may never be fully embraced here.


  1. Put this in your brainpan and think about it. I was speaking with Tyler Brown earlier this week, and he mentioned some amazing stats. Barley Brown's has 55% of all draft sales in Baker City. They also command a 27% share of the draft sales in Wallowa, Union, and Baker Counties. Most of this is Pallet Jack IPA. And this is just one brewery. It shows that the large rural tracts of Eastern Oregon can be converted from Busch Light to IPA. So why are Idaho and Eastern Washington different? (Serious question. It totally baffles me.)

  2. I was wondering about Barley Brown's as I was putting this piece together. Those are impressive numbers, obviously. Like you, I have no answer. The demographics of Baker City are even worse than Lewiston-Clarkston (23 vs 26 percent) in the crucial 25-44 age group. Nearly half of the population is 45 or older and the median age is 45. None of this adds up. Some areas are more resistant to change than others, I guess, for whatever reason. It's bizarre.


Keep it civil, please.