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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bridgeport's Revisionist History, Uncertain Future

Portlanders know Bridgeport Brewing. Founded in 1984, it is our oldest craft brewery. Only the failed Cartwright came before it. It became the oldest operating brewery in Oregon when Blitz-Weinhard was sold and closed in 1999. Bridgeport is celebrating 30 iconic years in 2014. Kudos all around.

There was a media event held a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the milestone. They invited a few members of the beer media, who were treated to beers, food and some presentations about where Bridgeport has been and where it is headed.

I didn't attend that event. Not invited...couldn't have attended if I had been because I was in Kauai. Fortunately, Jeff Alworth did get invited and wrote a piece describing what transpired. It was a candid, thoughtful piece. When you want good writing and perspective, the Beervana blog is a good place to find it.

A little background on Bridgeport from my own virtual archives. The brewpub was founded and operated for its first 11 years by Dick and Nancy Ponzi. They acquired the rustic space on NW Marshall and built a robust business there. Bridgeport was the first authentic brewpub experience for many Oregonians. The place reeked of local charm. Even the gigantic potholes on the nearby "streets" had it.

When the Ponzis sold Bridgeport to Gambrinus in 1995 (the deal was announced October 4), many were aghast. As Jeff noted in his piece, Bridgeport's identity was fused with the city. It was the pub and the brand against which all others were measured. How could it be owned by a company based in Texas?

The old rope factory in 1983, pre-Bridgeport
At the time of the sale, Bridgeport was at a sort of crossroads. The Ponzis knew that to stay relevant in the increasingly competitive world of craft beer they would have to expand and upgrade their facilities and invest heavily in marketing. But they had lost interest in the beer business. So they took the best of several offers and sold. You can't blame them. They preferred the wine business.

What Bridgeport truly needed to build on its strong local following was a national partner that would invest and provide distribution channels outside the area. Of course, that's not the easiest thing to arrange. Of Portland's four founding breweries, only Widmer successfully negotiated and benefited from a national partnership...via the deal it signed with Anheuser-Busch in 1997.

Gambrinus, though it didn't quite have a national presence, had the look of a company that could take the Bridgeport brand to another level. Founded by Carlos Alvarez, Gambrinus made its mark selling Grupo Modelo (think Corona) to the eastern US and Texas beginning in 1986. A few years later, it acquired Spoetzl Brewing of Shiner, Tex. and built Shiner Bock into a solid brand. Bridgeport looked to be next.

Soon after it purchased Bridgeport, Gambrinus embarked on what would turn out to be a bizarre effort to build Bridgeport up by stripping away its local identity. There was some logic to it, even if you don't agree with it. Gambrinus figured Bridgeport could only be a viable regional brand if it were less Portland-centric.

The beer names, rooted in Portland history and lore, were tossed. That created such a stir here that they eventually had to bring back some of the names. Later, Gambrinus made a another blunder when it renovated the brewpub on NW Marshall, creating an upscale restaurant. When the place opened in 2006, many fans were shocked. They wondered what happened to the simplicity and grubby comfort of the original brewpub. The fancy new place has never been fully accepted by many.

The main bar in current brewpub
The changes at Bridgeport are probably best viewed in retrospect. Many didn't see the big picture at the time. But the effort to create a brand with wider appeal had sparse traction. The regional brand Gambrinus envisioned never materialized. In effect, sacrificing Bridgeport's local identity to build something bigger was a bust.

Outcomes like this usually bring consequences in the corporate world. To save face, Alvarez might have followed the path of countless politicians and celebs...claimed impairment and checked into rehab. But that wasn't to be. Instead, Gambrinus opted to create an altered version of what Bridgeport had always been and what it will be. That, in a nutshell, is what the recent media event was all about.

The Gambrinus folks would like people to think Bridgeport is all about hops. They carted out Phil Sexton, the Aussie who developed the recipe for Bridgeport IPA, to promote the notion that Bridgeport is and always has been about hoppy beers. They transported event attendees to a nearby hops farm to visually reinforce the point.

East side of the rope factory, 1981
When I was reading Jeff's account of the event, I was stunned to discover that Karl Ockert, the founding brewer at Bridgeport who helped build the brewery and later suggested part of the approach that created the IPA, was not present or mentioned. His contribution has been completely erased from the Gambrinus version of Bridgeport's history. Amazing.

When I contacted Ockert and asked about the apparent snub, he took the high road:
It's a silly story. I am very proud that Bridgeport has seen its 30th birthday. The anniversary means a lot to those of us who were there in the very early days, or in my case before the early days. In those days, I often joked that we didn't know if we'd be around in 30 days. Now it's 30 years. Honestly, I hope the brewery can continue on for another 30 years. It's a great legacy to a special idea born in the Ponzi's kitchen in 1983.
Getting back to Bridgeport IPA, it certainly was one of the first beers of its kind. There were other hoppy beers at the time, but Bridgeport IPA suggested where craft beer was headed. Look around. Go into any brewpub, taproom or grocery store. IPA is the most popular craft beer style in the land. Bridgeport IPA did not start that revolution, but it was there at or near the start.

In contrast to the current cover story, Bridgeport never ran with the hops focus. For years and years, they brewed a standard line of beers...exactly what you would expect from a brewery trying to build a stronger regional identity via a variety of unoffensive flavors and styles.

The point is, the notion that Bridgeport was activity participating in what became a hops arms race is revisionist history. That movement was being led mostly by smaller brewers who were exploring methods of dry-hopping and other creative approaches. By pursuing a broader audience, Bridgeport turned away from the hoppy styles that were infiltrating the craft beer scene. There is great irony in that given the story they are now trying to sell.

Now that its focus has turned to hoppy styles, Bridgeport expects to release something like eight hoppy beers as part of their 30th anniversary celebration. There's also the sponsorship agreement with the Hillsboro Hops baseball club. Bridgeport brews the official beer, Long Ball Ale, and supplies most of the beer served in the ballpark. Hops are in their DNA, one way or another, it seems.

If you're wondering, they have a solid brewing staff at Bridgeport. Brewmaster Jeff Edgerton could surely produce beers that would compete with anything out there. Large breweries often have a tough time competing with the boutique beers produced in small breweries, but Bridgeport probably has the talent and the means to do so.

I was going to say Bridgeport's problem is lack of vision. But that's not right. There's a distinct vision and it emanates from Alvarez, who dictates strategy and maintains veto power over recipes under development. Unfortunately, that kind of leadership very often leads to stifled creativity...which may help explain why they have latched onto a brewing trend that started well over a decade ago and is likely to produce mostly "me too" beers. So much for innovation.

Alworth, in his piece, suggests the odd place Bridgeport occupies in the beer world may look a lot less odd in the future. He expects we will see a growing number of breweries that are "more corporate and generic, less tied to place." I'm not so sure about that. Even if it turns out to be true, I have a hard time seeing Bridgeport fitting into that kind of role with its present leadership.

Bridgeport is not a bad brewery. It remains among the top 10 Oregon breweries in production. They sell a lot of beer here. But the generic branding project flopped. And even though they're making a serious effort to reclaim their rightful place in Oregon, production has dropped in each of the past three years. That trend continues into 2014.

The reality for Bridgeport is pretty simple: Revisionist narratives and trend-jumping are no substitute for a vibrant strategy that features smarts and innovation. As things stand, the future looks a little dicey.

1 comment:

  1. Bridgeport foresaw the IPA craze, but I fear that this move predicts a move by some brewers (let's just say Sam Adams, for example) to create hoppy beers while excising ties to any one local community.


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