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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.

6 comments:

  1. You hit it right on the money. Not keeping up with the new and being relevant is the key. I see many others already headed down that path. Many Heritage brands that just did not change quick enough.

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  2. He left on his own in 1992. You might say he "exiled" himself. Anyway, the term is used playfully, euphemistically.

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  3. The IPA was a revelation and the gateway for future craft beer growth. It rounded out a catalog of balanced, well-made British style ales that made BridgePort what it was and should have remained. I loved BridgePort for the pales, the ESB, the porter, the stout, the barley wine! When those went away, I went away, and the rest of Portland did, too. Those who were there at the start abandoned ship!

    The remodel was jaw droppingly egregious and depressing. Where was Portland's pub? It saddens me that it came to this, but it is not surprising. It's simply a shame.

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  4. This used to be one of our favorite places to go. Family and friends always descended on the Brewpub. Beer, Pizza, pretzels, darts and cheer.
    I hosted multiple work parties upstairs and down. The remodel of the pub was a huge mistake. I went one time and never returned again. I even miss the large, old bank urinal in the men’s room.
    I will propose a toast this weekend to all of the good times and tasty pints. RIP Bridgeport Brewery!

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    Replies
    1. Ahhh...the dart area. That's a great memory. Yes, the pub remodel was a blunder, one of many. We visited only once after the redo and never returned as a group, though I visited a few times for special events and such. A sad ending to a once-great brand.

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Keep it civil, please.