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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Craft Beer's Infected New World

Charles Coury was Oregon's first craft brewer. Most who stop by here know the name. Coury launched Cartwright Brewing in 1980, anticipating the coming revolution in beer. But his brewery lasted less than two years. It might be a different story today, for reasons I'll get to.

It's tough for modern beer fans to appreciate what Cartwright was up against. Brewpubs weren't legal in Oregon until 1985. So Coury couldn't sell his beer directly to customers. Instead, he sold to taverns, bars, restaurants and a few stores. It's hard to fathom.

Of the craft breweries that opened prior to brewpubs being legalized (Cartwright, Bridgeport and Widmer), only Cartwright opted to sell bottled beer. Coury evidently believed packaged beer would be the key to his success. But it didn't work out that way.

If you aren't aware, Coury was a winemaker who got interested in brewing. His brewery in Southeast Portland was quite primitive and, having come from wine, so was his attention to sanitation. He didn't have a heat exchanger, which meant boiled wort was cooled and fermented in open containers. Not good.

There's no mystery as to why Cartwright failed: The beer was often infected and not good. It was difficult to build much of a following when people consuming the beer wound up with contorted, unhappy faces. Infected beer has a way of doing that. Or did back then.

The impact of Coury's experiment on wannabe pro brewers was dramatic. First, they came to see the importance of well-made beer and believed it could be brewed if you built a brewery designed for that task. Second, they concluded bottling was a fools errand and were determined to avoid it.

Dick Ponzi, a friend and supporter of Coury, liked the craft beer concept and took on the challenge of making good beer. A winemaker with an engineering background, Ponzi built his brewery in an abandoned rope factory on Northwest Marshall. Along with his wife, Nancy, and brewer Karl Ockert, Ponzi founded Bridgeport Brewing in late 1984.

Kurt and Rob Widmer plotted a similar course. They put together their brewery on Northwest Lovejoy, determined to produce a quality product. The Widmers were experienced homebrewers, but their beer got a lot better when they went pro. By the time they opened in April 1985, they had tweaked their system and recipes to produce good beer.

In fact, the early craft brewers weren't interested in designer hops, specialty malts or frilly recipes designed to create buzz. They wanted to make good beer that was a step up from the macro garbage most people were drinking at the time. Which they did. And that's pretty much the way things stayed for the next 30 or so years.

Within the last 5-10 years, a shift began to occur. Blame younger drinkers, if you want. They became bored with traditional fare and started chasing experimental styles, up to and including sour beer, which is essentially infected beer. Icing on the cake is the recent Oregonian list of top local pilsners, upon which the top beer is said to be possibly infected.

You appreciate the irony, right? Infected, sour beer drove Charles Coury from business 34 years ago. Today, sour beer is all the rage. Apparently, Coury wasn't so much a bad brewer as he was a generation or so ahead of his time. Irony and timing are everything.

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