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Monday, March 10, 2014

Bridgeport Marks Milestone with '30 Years Proud' Campaign

Portland's oldest operating brewery traces its origins to this time thirty years ago. It was then that owners Dick and Nancy Ponzi were preparing to take possession of their space in the old rope factory on Northwest Marshall. The brewery and pub remains there today.

Bridgeport Grand Opening, November 1984
To celebrate three decades, Bridgeport launched 30 Years Proud, a yearlong campaign that will feature special beers that lean on their brewing experience and renewed creativity. I'll get around to talking about the beers in a bit. First, a little more about the early days, which are generally under-appreciated.

The catalyst for what was originally Columbia River Brewing was the failed Cartwright Brewing, which opened in 1980 and lasted just two years. Charles Coury, founder of Cartwright, was a winemaker, like the Ponzis. Unfortunately, sanitation values from wine didn't translate well in beer-making. Coury's beers were too often infected and not very good.

The Ponzis, who were friends with Coury, appreciated what he was doing and thought it could be done better. Dick Ponzi took on the idea of making good beer as a challenge. During the summer of 1983, the Ponzis hired Karl Ockert, a recent graduate of the fermentation program at Cal-Davis. The brewing program there was fairly new at the time, and not all students bothered with it. Ockert did because he figured it might help him get a job. Bingo.

The old rope factory in early 1984
"Almost from the day I started, we schemed non-stop about putting together a brewery," Ockert recalled. "You couldn't buy small batch brewing equipment in this country in those days, so we had to learn how to make it. I learned how to weld and plum. Our first mash tun was a square dairy tank."

Construction of the brewery commenced in April of 1984, when they occupied their space in the old rope factory. It took them a few months to get things assembled and working. Test batches came in the early fall. Finally, in November, they had a grand opening and started selling beer.

"I'm sure Dick would have liked it if we had been able to sell beer earlier," said Ockert, now technical director of the Master Brewers Association of America. "It was obviously more important to get it right than to rush it out."

It's a forgotten detail, but there was no pub at Bridgeport at the outset. That wouldn't happen until after the Brewpub Bill passed in 1985. And there were no bottles in those days...Bridgeport didn't bottle until 1989. You could taste beer at the brewery, but you couldn't buy it there. The beer was initially sold through taverns, bars and restaurants. It's hard to fathom, honestly.

Why did they change the name from Columbia River to Bridgeport? All the early beer names had the Bridgeport prefix...Bridgeport Ale, Bridgeport Stout, etc. When they opened the brewpub in early 1986, they called it Bridgeport. Columbia River was eventually dropped.

If you weren't around to witness it, Bridgeport's Brewpub was a beehive of activity throughout the late eighties and nineties, despite streets with gigantic potholes that were virtually impassable at times. They perfected a recipe for pizza and the beer was always pretty good. It was a home run.

The Ponzis had tired of the beer business by the time they sold Bridgeport to Gambrinus in 1995. The brewpub had been highly successful, but they recognized the need to increase production and invest in marketing if they wanted to stay relevant. They accepted an offer they couldn't refuse and went back to concentrating on wine full time.

Under Gambrinus, production was expanded and marketing efforts got a bump. Bridgeport moved forward. The pub was renovated in 2004, largely leaving the charm of the past behind in favor of a more upscale setting suited to the trendy Pearl District. Many didn't care for the change. Yet Bridgeport continued to do well.

If you look at OLCC production numbers, you'll discover Bridgeport's annual barrel-production has declined slightly in each of the past two years. That is likely related to increased competition in the market. Regardless, it isn't the kind of thing you necessarily like to see if you're part of the business.

The decline may well help explain their partnership with the Hillsboro Hops baseball club, announced more than a year ago. Long Ball Ale is the official beer of the Hops. Getting your name in front of folks who may not know you all that well is a good thing when numbers are static or in decline. Smart marketing.

It seems likely the special beers being released as part of 30 Years Proud are also part of a renewed effort to boost recognition of the Bridgeport brand. A lot of established breweries are taking this approach in the face of intense competition from newer breweries. It makes sense.

The first of Bridgeport's Trilogy Series beers arrived a few weeks ago. These are limited edition beers to be released over the course of the year. The first is Trilogy 1, a dry-hopped pale ale. They say it's a tribute to the pioneering brewers who introduced intense hop character to consumers 30 years ago. I can buy that because I recall what was available 30 years ago and most of it wasn't good.

I really like Trilogy 1. It is reminiscent of the beers craft brewers were making in the early days, with a soft malt backbone and a silky veneer of Crystal hops. Like a lot of beers from the old days, Trilogy is fairly light at 5.2% ABV and 40 IBU. You can drink a lot of this stuff...feel free to do so. A word to the wise: If you hunt bodacious modern day IPAs, you'll find Trilogy 1 lacking.

Then there's the recently released Citra Dry-Hopped IPA. This brew is the first in what they're calling the Hop Czar IPA Series. There will be three hop-forward beers in the series, to be released sequentially during 2014.

They're building on the success of Hop Czar Imperial IPA with these beers. Hop Czar was first released in 2008 as a limited edition beer. It subsequently became Bridgeport's flagship, riding the popularity of hoppy, aromatic IPAs. Hop Czar is going away for now, but may return as a seasonal, modified or not.

I did not particularly care for the Citra Dry-Hopped IPA. It clocks in at 6.5% ABV and 60 IBU, and seems lighter than those numbers. The beer isn't at all bitter, but I expected a bigger blast of flavor and aroma. Lighter IPAs often lack the malt substance and residual sweetness needed to hold onto hop character. That seems the case with this beer, though opinions will surely differ.

It's going to be an interesting year for Bridgeport. The craft beer marketplace is growing and evolving. Staying relevant in an ocean of fish who want to eat you is an ongoing challenge for established breweries. Bridgeport's 30 Years Proud campaign suggests they understand the lay of the land and are moving to protect and build on their position.


  1. I can say I am not impressed with Trilogy 1

  2. Not a surprise. People who like supercharged IPAs are unlikely to enjoy Trilogy 1.


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