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Monday, October 28, 2019

Lompoc and the Legacy Brewery Hex

Finishing up a week in Hawaii, I got a message suggesting that Lompoc Brewing was about to close. Two or three inquiries later, I learned it was all a vicious rumor, apparently started by irresponsible, fake news journalists and suspected communists.

A day later, the vicious rumor turned out to be true. Jerry Fechter was calling it a day and closing the Fifth Quadrant Brewpub, along with Sidebar. The Oaks Bottom Pub will carry on with Fechter at the helm, but it will remain a pub with no brewing and no connection to Lompoc. 

Fechter's collection of pubs had shrunk from five a few years ago to just three in recent times. Hedge House on Southeast Division closed two years ago and now houses Little Beast. Lompoc Tavern, formerly New Old Lompoc where the adventure started in 1996, closed in September 2018. 

When I was putting the final touches on Portland Beer in 2013, I included Lompoc on my list of the city's significant beer businesses. Laurelwood and Lucky Lab were the other two...the list being focused mainly on the multi-pub footprint of the three entities. 

These are all what we currently refer to as legacy breweries. I'm not exactly sure how to define "legacy brewery." Is that a five-year-old brewery? 10 years old? 20 years old? Or does it just need to be a brewery that has failed to keep up with the twists and turns of the market? You tell me.

The Lompoc story is fairly well-known. Fechter, a transplant from Ohio and wannabe brewer, worked at Old Lompoc Brewing in Northwest Portland for several years in the early 1990s. When he saw an opening, Fechter inquired about buying the business. During a round of golf.

Soon enough, the owners came back with a number. Fechter thought he could manage it, but realized he would need an investment partner to pull off the purchase and make needed improvements. That's when legendary Portland publican, Don Younger, entered the picture.

Don Younger tribute beer in 2013
Fechter and Younger mixed blackout drinking with business over a period of several months. They eventually hammered out an agreement whereby Younger became a partner in the business, but stayed mostly in the background while Fechter managed day-to-day operations.

It turned out to be a good match. Old Lompoc was renamed New Old Lompoc to signify the change in ownership and did well. Fechter and Younger later opened the Fifth Quadrant, Sidebar and Hedge House. Fechter also partnered with the late Jim Parker on Oaks Bottom Public House. After Parker exited and Younger passed away (in 2011), Fechter became sole owner of the businesses. 

As the list of brewery/brewpub failures grew over the past few years, many were left wondering which brewery might be next. After seeing Lompoc Tavern and Hedge House close, I added Lompoc to my "Most Likely to Fail" list. There was nothing diabolical about it. I always liked Jerry, who is one of the more jovial people you'll ever meet.

In recent years, I had several conversations with Fechter and with Mike De Kalb of Laurelwood about the difficulty faced by older, so-called legacy breweries. Probably the biggest challenge is that the people who follow craft beer tend to be attracted by shiny new breweries and beers.

Sidebar entry 2014
In the saturated beer market that is Portland, fads and trends are king. Customer loyalty is zero. Drinkers bounce from pub to pub and beer to beer with little thought, seeking the newest thing. That's why you rarely see a non-rotating tap at beer bars and pubs. Bad for business.

This is surely truer in a place like Portland, which is overrun with breweries and pubs, than it is in a rural setting like, say, Baker City or Yakima. The sheer glut of beer-centric businesses in Portland make it an increasingly difficult place to stay viable and relevant.

Add to overcrowding and fierce competition the fact that craft beer market growth is static or in gradual decline. That's bad news for everyone, including breweries that opened more recently, as they, too, will get old and be forced to deal with the challenges Fechter and De Kalb faced.

Laurelwood worked hard over the past decade to build brand recognition outside Portland. That's likely why, as things got tough, De Kalb was able to sell Laurelwood's intellectual property to Legacy Breweries, parent of Ninkasi. Laurelwood's core brands have value in regional distribution.

Lompoc was not in a similar situation. Its brands never gained the kind of following that would have attracted Legacy or a similar entity. Fechter had his collection of pubs and that was where he was going to live or die in an increasingly trendy, difficult market. We know things didn't work out.

I don't think Lompoc failed due to bad beer. Sure, their standards came off as a little flat next to the fancy stuff many breweries are pushing out in wrapped cans. But you could always find more interesting stuff on tap in the Lompoc pubs.

C-Note was a favorite of mine
What went wrong? It wasn't the food and service, which I always found decent. I suppose the beer could have been more exciting and certainly more visible in beer bars and taprooms, though that would have been difficult as competition stiffened. At the end of the day, I think Lompoc mostly fell victim to being old and less cool in a saturated sea of newness.

The last day is Tuesday, Oct. 29, when the Fifth Quadrant and Sidebar close for good. Fechter will hold a "garage sale” next Saturday, Nov. 2, at Sidebar from Noon to 5 p.m. Vintage Lompoc bottles, schwag, glassware and more will be for sale.

Fechter's trajectory? Untied from the Lompoc brand, he'll be free to build the tap list he could never have built at Lompoc. With no brewing, he'll focus strictly on the pub part of the business. Things may work out fine for him, though I doubt he's pleased with how it happened.

Farewell, Lompoc. Thanks for the memories.

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