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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Oregon's Brewpub Bill at 30: What Almost Never Was

Thirty years ago today, Oregon's beer landscape was forever changed. The thing that fueled the coming change was the Brewpub Bill, which was altogether under-appreciated at the time, except among the folks who pushed for its passage.

In fact, the modern craft beer industry in Oregon owes its existence to the Brewpub Bill, otherwise known as SB 813. Without the law, craft beer would have been confined to the shadows and margins of taverns and bars. Brewpubs changed the game completely.

Please recall that Oregon had only two craft breweries in 1985...Bridgeport (then known as Columbia River Brewing) and Widmer. The existing law prevented them from selling any beer directly to customers. They could self-distribute to bars and taverns or go through a distributor. But distributors weren't remotely interested in craft beer in those days. Thus, the challenge.

The people who made the Brewpub Bill happen went on to become the pioneers of craft beer here. They conceived the idea, helped write the bill and lobbied for its passage. You may recognize a name or two: Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Karl Ockert, Kurt and Rob Widmer, Mike and Brian McMenamin, Art Larrance and Fred Bowman. These folks paved the way for everyone who came later.

Researching my book on Portland's beer history, I discovered the pioneers did not accurately recall how the Brewpub legislation became law. The original bill introduced in the Oregon House ran into opposition in the Senate and stalled. Its language was later inserted into another bill, SB 813, that became law. But no one knew how that happened. It's quite a story.

There was very little media coverage of the bill's passage. When the Oregonian listed the significant legislative achievements of the 1985 session, SB 813 (which addressed liquor licenses in bed & breakfasts) received no mention. Yet the law helped jump-start what would evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry. Pretty funny, I think.

For the intensely curious, the Brewpub Bill gets full coverage in my book, which you can buy by following the link at the upper right on this page. Or you can check it out at the library, which has many copies. A Cliffs Notes version of the story appears in today's Willamette Week, with thanks to Martin Cizmar. It's a great place to start if you want to know more.

My parting comment is this: It's important for craft beer fans to know this history and to understand the debt owed a small group of entrepreneurs who made the Brewpub Bill happen. Cheers to 30 fantastic years and counting, folks!

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