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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bill Coors and Oregon's Brewpub Bill

When Bill Coors passed away last week, there was an outpouring of sympathy around the beer industry. The dude was 102 and lived a long life, which included an incredible four decades as the head of Coors Brewing. We are unlikely to see Bill's equal anytime soon.

Maybe that's good news. As Jeff Alworth outlined yesterday, this guy was much more than a bold entrepreneur who introduced the aluminum can and transformed Coors into a national brand. Bill Coors was a racist who held unpopular views on organized labor, women's rights and more.

It's largely forgotten, but Coors' politics nearly derailed Oregon's Brewpub legislation in 1985. The story is briefly documented in Portland Beer and has been retold in various places since the book was published in 2013.

Briefly, Portland's founding brewers were attempting to change the law so they could sell beer directly to patrons in a pub setting. At the time, breweries (only Widmer and Bridgeport were open) could only sell their beer in taverns, bars and restaurants.

That situation was a carryover from the end of Prohibition in 1933. Breweries were prime targets for punitive laws because they had owned saloons, distributors and retailers in the bad old days. Corruption was rampant. When Prohibition ended, states were charged with establishing laws to ensure that scenario didn’t repeat itself.

Oregon’s three-tier system, similar to many states, required breweries to sell their wares to taverns, bars and retailers through independent distributors. Or they could sell directly to those outlets, a time-consuming and logistically awkward proposition.

The founding brewers, including the Widmers, Dick and Nancy Ponzi and Karl Ockert (Bridgeport), Mike and Brian McMenamin, and the gents who would launch Portland Brewing, figured brewpubs would be the key to their success. They were working to get the appropriate legislation passed.

At the same time, Coors was trying to tap the Oregon market. For decades, its beer had been available in a limited number of states, creating a sort of cult-like status, as depicted in the movie, Smokey and the Bandit. By 1985, Coors was distributed in 43 states, but it wanted to be in all 50.

Coors ran into a snag: Oregon had a 50-year-old statute forbidding the sale of unpasteurized beer, which was officially considered unhealthy. Coors beer was cold filtered, not pasteurized. Ironically, Oregon’s goofy pasteurization law applied only to packaged beer sold in stores. Taverns, bars and restaurants were free to sell unpasteurized beer in any form.

Given that virtually all draft (and craft) beer is unpasteurized, Oregon's crazy law seems pretty comical in retrospect. Nonetheless, it was the law. In fact, Coors was selling its beer in some Oregon bars and restaurants by 1984, hoping to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the law.

The pasteurization law became a dynamic issue in 1985 largely due to Coors' politics. Under the leadership of Bill Coors, the company abused workers and was belligerently anti-union. Some of his racist, homophobic remarks were quoted in the New York Times and other newspapers. Coors was not very popular in Oregon.

That was bad timing for the folks pursuing brewpub legislation because their effort got entangled with Coors' effort to fully enter the Oregon market. Senate Bill 45 combined language allowing brewpubs and Coors in Oregon. That bill passed the House 45-14 in early June and was expected to be passed by the Senate.

It didn't happen. Several key members of the Senate still objected to Coors in Oregon. They were willing to use the pasteurization law to keep Coors out of Oregon because they didn't like its politics. The measure was defeated 16-14. Brewpubs were the unfortunate victim.

When I was interviewing the founding brewers for Portland Beer, they all thought the brewpub legislation had passed in the same bill that allowed Coors into Oregon. Not quite.

As it turned out, an ally of the brewpub legislation, Rep. Verner Anderson of Roseburg, had inserted the brewpub language into SB 813, which addressed the granting of liquor licenses to bed and breakfast establishments. In effect, there were two separate bills with the brewpub language in the legislative pipeline by early June. SB 45 failed.

Since the brewpub language was amended to SB 813 after it had already cleared both the House and Senate, it need only go through Conference Committee for review. In a five-minute meeting on the afternoon of June 17, the bill was unanimously approved. It headed to Governor Vic Atiyeh’s desk, where he signed it into law on July 13.

No thanks to the politics of Bill Coors, brewpubs became legal in Oregon. McMenamins launched the state's first brewpub a few months later. They would eventually help fuel a revolution in how Oregonians think about and consume beer, a revolution that continues to this day.

What happened to Coors? Although it looked like Coors would once again be banned from Oregon stores, events intervened. In Portland, Circuit Court Judge Bill Snouffer ruled the state’s goofy pasteurization law unconstitutional on June 12. He found that “neither the safety nor the health of the people of the state is jeopardized by the consumption of unpasteurized beer.”

This ruling came down hours after the Senate voted down SB 45. No one was quite sure what would happen next. Some wondered if the OLCC would appeal Snouffer’s ruling. Didn’t happen. In the end, the legislature passed SB 50, a rewritten bill allowing Coors into Oregon, on June 19.

Coors soon became available in stores around the state, for better or for worse.

1 comment:

  1. It's an amazing story, and one of those "strange bedfellows" accounts you see in politics all the time. I'm also struck how quickly Oregonians were to play protectionist politics. You absolutely wouldn't see that today, no matter how much a company was loathed. Great recap--thanks.


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