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Monday, July 6, 2015

Portland Craft Beer Hall of Fame: My Inaugural List

We are a week into Oregon Craft Beer Month. As usual, there's an ongoing barrage of beer festivals, release parties and related events. It hasn't always been this way. There was a time not so many years ago when we didn't have daily beer events, even in July. The thought takes me back.

This past weekend marked the first Portland Craft Beer Festival, held at Fields Neighborhood Park in Northwest Portland. I didn't attend. But I see they chose and announced five inaugural members of the Portland Craft Beer Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Just so we're clear, there is no physical Hall of Fame or wax busts at this point. The Hall of Fame is a paper list. I suppose we'll have a physical HOF when someone (or some group) agrees to pay to have it built. Also, I have no clue how the selection process worked. There's no information on the festival site or anywhere else that I can find.

The first five names probably aren't going to raise too many eyebrows: Henry Weinhard, Fred Eckhardt, Kurt Widmer, Rob Widmer and Don Younger. Naturally, I have my own ideas about what that list should look like. And why.

Henry Weinhard
One of the reasons Portlanders were receptive to the early craft beers is the beers were local and they had the experience of drinking local beer thanks to Blitz-Weinhard Brewing, established in 1856. Early craft brewers also benefited from the expertise of the brewers at Weinhard.

Weinhard Brewing, under the direction of Henry's great grandsons Fred and Bill Wessinger, produced what was arguably Oregon's first craft beer,..Henry's Weinhard's Private Reserve in 1976. The Wessingers came up with the idea because they saw a niche in super premium beer that had been largely abandoned by big beer. They figured Private Reserve could be successful in that niche...and they were right. Craft brewers would later build on that theme.

Fred Eckhardt
If you look through the pages of the Oregonian from the 1980s, you'll find beer-related articles by several writers. The first craft brewers were getting started and there was interest in the new industry. Fred Eckhardt became the face of the paper's beer coverage at a time when few media outlets had any interest. That coverage became a sort of guide to what what going on.

Eckhardt's reports were often packed with information that would challenge the attention spans of modern beer fans. He discussed the origins of different styles and how they were made. In fact, Eckhardt had written several books on beer and beer styles and his influence extended to brewers. Whenever he wasn't satisfied with what was going on, he would head down to a brewery and badger brewers to make something new. He became an icon and remains one to this day.

Charles Coury
How do you evaluate the impact of a failure? Tough question. Charles Coury, a winemaker, founded Cartwright Brewing in 1980. His brewery was plagued with problems. He didn't have the right equipment to succeed. Sanitation was huge a problem. Then he took on the ill-advised challenge of bottling. There aren't many who remember his beer and speak of it fondly.
Cartwright lasted less than two years, closing at the end of 1981. But there were a lot of people rooting for its success. When the brewery closed, the idea of producing a quality beer lived on in the minds of the early brewers. They realized Coury's failure was in execution, not concept. Some will argue Coury doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he was a flash in the pan. The problem with that view is this: Cartwright is where the craft revolution started here.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi
The Ponzis are the most important of Portland's original craft brewers.They founded Bridgeport Brewing (initially known as Columbia River Brewing) in 1984. In fact, Bridgeport is the only Oregon craft brewery that sold any beer in '84. Don't downplay their legacy because they sold Bridgeport to Gambrinus in 1995. Their influence was significant and long-lasting.

The Ponzis were friends of Coury and saw what he was doing, even helped him with equipment and money. After Cartwright went under, Dick Ponzi took on the challenge of making good craft beer to prove it could be done. He applied his engineering expertise to building a brewery that wasn't prone to the kinds of problems Coury experienced.

There's also the brewpub factor. Brewpubs got craft beer out of the shadows and exposed it to the masses. Of the founding brewers, the Ponzis were the most crucial to the brewpub legislation. Why? Because they had the wine tasting room experience. If you could sell wine to patrons in a tasting room setting, they reasoned, why shouldn't craft brewers be able to do the same thing? It was a strong argument and one that eventually helped get the legislation through.

Of course, the Ponzis weren't the first to open a brewpub after the Brewpub Bill passed in June 1985. But their pub on Northwest Marshall, where they served their ales alongside some pretty good pizza, set the standard by which brewpubs here were measured. Even today, I can see Bridgeport's influence in almost all of the city's better brewpubs.

So those are my inaugural members of the Portland Craft Beer Hall of Fame, based mainly on the influence they had on the movement as a whole. My nominees for next year: Mike and Brian McMenamin, Don Younger, Kurt Widmer, Karl Ockert and Art Larrance.

1 comment:

Keep it civil, please.