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Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Sweeping History of Southern Oregon Beer

Southern Oregon Beer: A Pioneering History by Phil Busse
Foreword by Jim Mills (founder of Caldera Brewing)
The History Press/American Palate, 128 pages

Unlike Portland, Bend or Hood River, Southern Oregon isn't apt to appear high on the list of places beer nerds dream of visiting. The relative remoteness of the area surely figures into that. Regardless, there's good beer and a good story there.

Phil Busse's new book tracks the Southern Oregon beer story from frontier to contemporary times. It's part of the History Press series focused on American beer cities and regions. Portland Beer shares the same publisher.

It turns out the Southern Oregon story is quite different than what happened in Portland. The reason is largely the result of geography. While Portland was a bustling port with products moving in and out by the mid-19th century, Southern Oregon was isolated until the arrival of the railroads in the latter part of the century. In that way, it's trajectory more closely parallels Bend than it does Portland.

As a result of its isolation, Southern Oregon's early breweries were small and self-contained. Unlike Henry Weinhard, who was shipping beer up and down the coast and to the Far East during the second half of the 19th century, Southern Oregon's breweries served a local clientele. They had no access to outside markets.

Unknown to many today, the dominant town during that time was Jacksonville. Busse recounts Jacksonville's brewing history, led by several German immigrants, against its frontier veneer. There are some fascinating characters involved in that story. Jacksonville's stature faded after it was bypassed by the railroad. which cut a straight line from Grants Pass to Ashland. Medford was born in between, eventually to become the area's largest city.

The coming of the railroad invited national brands to the table throughout Oregon. That reality had a negative impart on Southern Oregon's small breweries. Busse notes that the brewery count was winding down years before Oregon implemented statewide prohibition (ahead of the country) in 1916. The national brands, particularly Anheuser-Busch, were the primary reason.

Busse spends a lot of time talking about the people who drove the region's beer industry during the pre-prohibition era...Veit Schutz, Joseph Wetterer and John Gottlieb Mehl, founders of the region's earliest breweries, but largely unknown outside this book. There are also a several women included in the coverage...Fredericka Wetterer, Mary Mehl and Marie Kienlen. All became prominent beer industry icons. There was, in fact, a semblance of equality on the frontier.

Prohibition all but destroyed brewing in Southern Oregon, as it did across the country. Most of the area's breweries closed. A Weinhard-owned facility in Medford got by making ice. There was a bizarre attempt to keep going on the part of Grants Pass Brewing, which manufactured denatured alcohol (legal for industrial use) and sodas. However, the soda turned out to be a ruse, as the brewery continued to make beer until it ran into trouble.

During the Prohibition era, Southern Oregon enjoyed great success as a producer of hops. It's an interesting concept, covered nicely here. The market for hops in the United States had collapsed. But World War I had destroyed agriculture in much of Europe. Hops acreage in Southern Oregon increased dramatically and the region joined the rest of the state in selling hops to European customers. There was, of course, no prohibition in Europe.

Beer was becoming the haven of the national brands by the time Prohibition ended in 1933. The situation got worse with the coming of World War II. By the end of the war, advances in packaging, refrigeration and shipping extended the reach of big beer. Despite increased per capita beer consumption, the brewery count was in steep decline. By 1947, there were only two breweries operating in Oregon: Blitz-Weinhard in Portland and Sick's Brewing in Salem.

The contemporary story of Southern Oregon beer is essentially focused on Rogue, Caldera and the smaller places that popped up in the area over time. Busse reviews the circumstances that set the stage for the success of the Rogue and Caldera and they helped fuel the beer culture there...things like the legalization of homebrewing in 1978 and passage of Oregon's Brewpub Bill in 1985.

The Brewpub Bill story is a retelling of what I reported in Portland Beer, which is listed in the brief bibliography. Prior to the publication of my book in 2013, everyone had the story exactly wrong. Even the main players thought the Brewpub legislation passed as part of a bill that let Coors into Oregon. I discovered that was not the case, that brewpubs were made legal as part of legislation that addressed liquor licenses at bed and breakfast establishments. There's no attribution in the text, but it's clear enough that this has become the accepted version of the story. 

There are some silly errors in this book For example, the author describes the Burt Reynolds character in Smokey and the Bandit as a "truck driver trying to smuggle a load of Coors across state lines from Texas to Georgia." In fact, the Bandit was a truck driver. But he was driving interference for the truck carrying the beer in the movie. The truck driver was the Snowman, played to the hilt by Jerry Reed. It's a small, immaterial and amusing misstep.

A more serious concern is the lack of an index. That's annoying in a book like this because you can't easily access details. Even a rudimentary index would be better than nothing. This may not have been Busse's decision; it's quite possible that the penny pinching publisher didn't want the extra pages. Perhaps some of the non-historical photos could have been dispensed with. Very shoddy.

In the end, this is pretty good book. Busse does a nice job detailing Southern Oregon's beer past. There's enough detail, in terms of names, dates and places, to make your head spin. In a good way. I think the book will have strong appeal with anyone interested in Southern Oregon history. I'm not so sure about beer fans interested in the history of iconic beer cities. But who knows.

Finally, I should note that I don't know Phil Busse. I met and spoke to him briefly at a book launch event at Powell's last week. He's a longtime Oregon journalist who has extensive experience with alternative weeklies. He helped found the Rogue Valley Messenger in 2014. Other than the Powell's event, I don't know what plans he has to support the book release.