expr:class='"loading" + data:blog.mobileClass'>

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Bridgeport Brewing: Anatomy of a Disaster

The idea to establish what became Bridgeport Brewing had its roots in the failure of the late Charles Coury's Cartwright Brewing. The ill-fated Cartwright, founded in 1980, was Oregon's first new brewery since Prohibition. It failed within two years due to sketchy, typically undrinkable beer.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi with Karl Ockert, 1984.
There's a chance Coury was simply 30 or so years ahead of his time. His infected beers might have gotten some traction in modern times, as sour beers gained a following. Or maybe not.

"Coury was his own worst enemy, the late Fred Eckhardt once said. "The last jolt was that his final batch was actually good beer, but it wasn't his fault. It was called Deliverance Ale and it had gotten infected just right so that it tasted like a Belgian ale, although he hadn't meant it to."

Nonetheless, a lot of people watched Cartwright, hoping it would succeed. The list included Dick Ponzi, a friend of Coury and a fellow winemaker. Ponzi knew a little bit about brewing and saw that Coury had the wrong equipment and used poor processes. He helped out with money and advice, but it was all for naught.

Ponzi believed there was a way to make good beer. He wasn't the only one. Portland's other founding brewers, including Kurt and Rob Widmer, Mike and Brian McMenamin and the threesome (Art Larrance, Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin) that comprised the original Portland Brewing, saw possibility and were inspired to do better.

For Ponzi, the idea of starting a brewery surfaced in a serious way during the summer of 1983. He had just hired Karl Ockert, a recent graduate of the fermentation science program at Cal Davis, as an assistant winemaker. Ockert had conveniently taken the beer portion of the fermentation program on a whim, thinking it might help him stay employed...though there were  few brewing jobs at the time.

From Ockert's first day on the job, Ponzi talked incessantly about starting a brewery. Ockert, ostensibly hired to help with winemaking, was amused, but also engaged and enthusiastic. Before long, the two had conjured up a plan to build a makeshift brewery.

Ockert (far left) and brewing staff (circa 1989).
Of course, no one was making small brewing systems in those days. Ponzi and Ockert, like Portland's other founding brewers, were stuck using old dairy equipment and whatever they could beg, borrow or steal. They had a small advantage coming from wine, where stainless steel tanks were in regular use. For them, building a brewery was largely a matter of plumbing and welding.

What was initially known as Columbia River Brewing opened in November 1984 on Northwest Marshall. The Ponzis (Dick and his wife, Nancy) arranged to lease about 6,000 square feet in the building for $600 a month. From an interview with the Ponzis conducted in 2013:
We approached [building owner] Roger Madden when we were looking to open a place. We wanted something with some character. We told Roger we just wanted a small space. He asked what we wanted to do. We said we were opening a brewery. He busted a gut laughing. He said, “How much space do you want?” So I laid out what we wanted and it wound up being $600 a month for something like 6,000 sq ft. The lease was written up and signed on the back of an envelope. Roger thought we were nuts.
Columbia River Brewing was a smash hit when it opened. The crowd that evening nearly drank the brewery dry. The first beer was Bridgeport Ale. Early beers included Bridgeport Stout, Blue Heron Pale Ale, Golden Ale, Pintail ESB, Coho Pacific Light Ale, Rose City Ale and Old Knucklehead Barleywine.

Prior to passage of the Brewpub Bill in June 1985, breweries could not sell beer directly to consumers. Instead, they had to go around to taverns, bars and restaurants and do tastings, hoping to win tap handles. Ockert tells great stories about brewing all day, then spending evenings doing tastings. That changed with passage of the Brewpub Bill.

Columbia River Brewing opened its pub in March 1986, the second brewpub in Oregon (McMenamin's Hillsdale pub was the first). It was not an instant success. They had no idea what to do for food. Cooking and prep facilities were limited in a space they really hadn't envisioned as a brewpub. Nancy Ponzi offered these comments in 2013:
We had some odd food choices…pickled eggs, pretzels, beer nuts, just crap. We had no kitchen so there wasn’t much we could do. We hired some people who helped develop the pizza recipe. We tried different things. We didn’t think we could make dough at first. Then we found a way to make dough that worked. And we perfected it…a three day process. It became legendary. We didn’t have a wood oven. We look back on that experience and realize the pizza was a stroke of genius. We used fresh, quality ingredients and it went over really well. There was almost no waste because we wrapped up everything that was left. No dishes because we used baskets and paper. We didn’t have to hire a bunch of help because we didn’t have table service
It was a combination of the beer, the pizza and the neo-grubby ambiance that established Bridgeport's pub as the standard against which others were measured. The area around the pub featured streets that were unpaved, pothole-riddled and virtually impassable in many vehicles. You'd park your car, open the door and step into a foot-deep crater. Charming.

When did they transition the name from Columbia River to Bridgeport Brewing? From the outset, all the beers had carried the Bridgeport name. When the pub opened, it was named the Bridgeport Brewpub. Soon thereafter, they moved away from the Columbia River name and it was eventually dropped. Today, few remember that it ever existed.

Landlord Roger Madden's likeness graced the label of
the first bottling of Old Knucklehead in 1989.
Anyone who experienced Bridgeport during its first decade can attest to the success story the Ponzis and Ockert created. It was a great place to go for consistent pizza and great beer and was often packed to the gills. As noted, the place became a sort of standard against which future brewpubs would be measured.

By 1995, the Ponzi's realized they needed to invest to modernize and expand the brewery if they were going to stay competitive in a market that was getting more competitive. But they had tired of the beer business for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that they preferred the wine business. So they took the best of several offers and sold the business.

The sale to Texas-based Gambrinus, announced in October 1995, stunned Portland beer fans and others who knew and loved Bridgeport. Although it would take a while for the consequences of the sale to become clear, everyone needs to understand that Bridgeport no longer existed. All the decisions made subsequent to the sale were made in Texas, not Oregon.

This is where the current story picks up. At the direction of founder Carlos Alvarez, Gambrinus embarked on a strategy of making Bridgeport a national or semi-national brand. To attain that goal, Gambrinus thought it needed to strip away Bridgeport's Portland-centric identity. Doing so meant dropping some of the iconic beer names and making them more generic. Later, the pub underwent a dramatic remodel, rendering it significantly more trendy and upscale.

Some questioned the strategy. But Alvarez had experience in brand building. Gambrinus made its mark selling Grupo Modelo (Corona) to the eastern US and Texas beginning in 1986. A few years later, it acquired Spoetzl Brewing of Shiner, Texas and built Shiner Bock into a solid brand. Could Bridgeport be next? Inquiring minds wondered.

As some have noted, the disaster to come was obscured somewhat by the dramatic success of Bridgeport IPA, which appeared in 1996. Bridgeport brewers had been tinkering with an IPA recipe prior to the sale. On cue, Ockert returned from several years in exile (working for Anheuser-Busch and on other projects).

Ockert's contribution to the IPA was arguably crucial. He had experience running wort through dry hops at the end of the boil and suggested that approach with the IPA. It resulted in a beer that was low in bitterness, high in flavor and aroma. Bridgeport IPA eventually won several GABF gold medals and countless fans. Bridgeport didn't invent IPA, but it helped make it mainstream.

Of course, the IPA wasn't enough. The effort to mold Bridgeport into national brand flopped. The pub renovation, completed in 2006, shocked many Portlanders, who saw it as a monumental blunder. With much of its local identity stripped away and the beer portfolio in disrepair, Bridgeport's downward spiral ensued. This can be seen in the sales decline that began nearly a decade ago.

Faced with the failure of their national initiative, Alvarez invented a revisionist narrative based on what one might call "alternative facts." The basic contention, an appeal to the IPA craze, was that Bridgeport had always been about hops, always been focused on hoppy styles. It was a totally bogus claim that hit with a thud. The downward spiral accelerated.

The recent increase in the brewery count in Portland and beyond dealt Bridgeport another blow. Alvarez was slow to appreciate what the tsunami of small, local breweries meant. While beer fans were seeking innovative beers from small breweries, Bridgeport continued down the road of producing generic styles that sought broad appeal. Oops.

Finally seeing its mistake, Gambrinus launched an innovation program at Bridgeport. This happened within the last two years, very late in game. Reliable sources say the innovation program produces some great beers. I don't doubt it. But the effort was five years late. The beers had little effect because the brand had collapsed and the desired audience had given up on Bridgeport.

You simply cannot underestimate the impact of strategic bungling and detached management. Alvarez took a valuable brand and collapsed its value entirely. As announced the other day, the brewery has stopped production. Since no one has come forward to purchase any of the brands, they will soon vanish. The brewery will be sold. And when the pub closes on March 10, Bridgeport will be nothing more than a memory.

Let's be clear: This disaster is not the fault of the brewery workers who've been let go or the pub workers who soon will be. They were pawns, pushed and bullied around for years by people who supposedly knew what they were doing. The blame for this mess rests squarely on Carlos Alvarez and the bunglers at Gambrinus.

So long, Bridgeport. Happy trails. You were once loved by many.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Transcendent pFriem to Expand Footprint, Production

While much of the beer world is mired in flat or negative growth, there are a few big winners out there. Such is the case with pFriem Family Brewers, which just announced plans that will expand production capacity dramatically.

Details of the expansion were announced at several events this past weekend in Hood River. Since they opened in 2012, pFriem has been gradually increasing the size of its leased space in the Halyard Building on the waterfront in Hood River. Finally, they had to look elsewhere.

Increasing demand for pFriem beer is the reason for the expansion. That's a nice problem to have in this market, where more and more established breweries appear to be at risk. pFriem has actually been a glaring exception. Its annual Oregon production numbers show steady upward growth since it opened in 2012.

The brewery produced 486 barrels that first year, barely a blip in the stats. The projected number for 2018 (the OLCC report showing the full year won't be released until March) is around 13,000. Again, we're talking about barrels produced and sold in Oregon...where pFriem sells most of its beer. Total barrelage for 2018 was nearly 19,000, a company operative told me.

Over the course of the next two years, Pfriem will increase production capacity in Hood River to more than 60,000 barrels. All non-barrel aged beers will be produced and packaged there. Expansion will involve installing a second and significantly larger brewhouse, adding additional fermentation capacity and installing a canning line.


A new facility down the road in Cascade Locks will provide space for them to expand and refine their barrel aging program, which has produced some award winning results, and to also consolidate warehousing and cold storage. For the past few years, pFriem has leased space in Hood River for warehousing and storage. That will go away once the Cascade Locks facility opens.

"The goal has been to increase our offerings, continue to boost quality and innovation and to create opportunities for our employees to further their careers and personal lives in the special communities that we are lucky to be a part of," co-founder and brewmaster, Josh Pfriem said. "We feel that we are on an exciting path to accomplishing these goals through these two interconnected expansion projects.”

Many wonder what plans pFriem has for pub expansion. The Cascade Locks facility will not have a tasting room or pub. That space will be dedicated primarily to expanding the barrel program. The good news for pFriem fans is that they are apparently considering potential pub sites, but have no imminent plans. With pFriem, these things take time.

The recently activated coolship at rest.
As we were finishing up Saturday evening, I had a quick conversation with Josh about the growth trajectory of pFriem. My perspective, free to be challenged, is that pFriem has done what they've done via an intense focus on across-the-board quality. They have a growing list of specialty and core beers that are well-made. The pub in Hood River always provides an excellent experience.

These things do not happen by accident. A lot of people enter this industry every year. There isn't a single one of them that doesn't hope to create memorable beers and unique experiences. Only a handful succeed in doing that. Yet pFriem has done so with apparent ease. It's a fantastic, evolving success story and one that doesn't seem to involve a lot of luck.

Inquiring minds are surely evaluating pFriem's success and wondering how to emulate it elsewhere. The blueprint isn't complicated. It involves an almost fanatical dedication to quality in everything they do. If you can manage that, you can emulate pFriem. So simple.



Sunday, February 3, 2019

Flagship February Targets BADD

One of the themes circulating around craft beer these days is the fixation on new and special beers. Those beers easily capture the imagination of beer fans who want something different with each order. That situation has worked to the detriment of established beers. It's a cultural phenomenon.


The blame for this movement is generally placed on millennials, who are the ones driving the contemporary craft beer bus. But we're all to some extent responsible for Beer Attention Deficit Disorder (BADD) because we've all been programmed to seek and taste new stuff.

One might argue that the interest in new beers is the result of a maturing industry. There was a time when anything not macro lager represented a huge step forward. No more. Today, there are a ton of breweries that have to differentiate themselves with unique beers. We search them out to see what's new.

The Flagship February campaign is intended to reshift our attention, if only momentarily, to some of the standards that helped launch and shape the craft industry all those years ago. Most of those iconic beers have been substantially reduced in stature (or forgotten) in the BADD era.

During the month of February, a collection of beer bars will showcase flagship brands. It's billed as an international program, but it's unclear to me how extensive the list of participating bars is. Here in Portland, Belmont Station is participating. They were pouring Deschutes Mirror Pond the other night. Majority owner Lisa Morrison told me Bridgeport IPA and Widmer Hefeweizen will soon follow.

It's worth noting that flagship beers have shifted over time with consumer tastes. In the case of Bridgeport, the original flagship (draft only) was Bridgeport Ale. After they brewed Blue Heron for an Audubon Society fundraiser in 1987, it became the flagship and remained so for a number of years. When Bridgeport IPA came along, it more closely aligned with consumer tastes and eventually became the Bridgeport flagship, a status it retains today.

The situation at Deschutes is similar. I always thought Black Butte Porter was their flagship. Or maybe Bachelor Bitter. It wasn't until later that Mirror Pond stepped to the forefront. Their flagship brand today is apparently Fresh Squeezed IPA, which has a short history. Picking Mirror Pond as the beer to pour for Flagship February seems appropriate.

Another point is that some of the flagship beers have themselves changed. Tasting Mirror Pond the other night, it seemed to have less pop than I remember. Widmer Hefeweizen is a much softer beer today than it was during the early years. How do I know? Because they brewed a handful of Hefs from different years as part of their 30th anniversary celebration in 2014. Ben Dobler, then the head of the innovation program, walked me through a highly instructive tasting.

It hardly matters that some of the flagship beers have changed a bit over time. They symbolize a simpler time in craft beer, a time when breweries had a few core beers, a couple of seasonals and that was it. The hyper competitive market of today has completely swamped the old model. Modern beer fans want something different almost every time they order.

Regardless, I know I'll be ordering flagship beers when I see them this month. It would be cool if the campaign were a big success, though I have my doubts, given the current state if the beer culture.