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Breweries That Closed

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The doors of the bottle chiller at the Hawthorne Hophouse are plastered with the names of Oregon breweries. Big and small. There’s BridgePort and Ambacht. There’s Beetje, which has morphed into The Commons. And there’s Wakonda and 4th Street, which are no more. The reality is, for every handful of new breweries that open in Oregon, another one falls by the wayside. As such, if the well-designed doors of a taphouse become a tad outdated after just a few years, even, say, a book about Oregon Breweries can read a bit like an obituary even after just a few weeks.

Ostensibly this is a story about breweries you’ve likely never tasted beer from or possibly heard of–such as Bull Ridge or Blue House–but what good is reading an obit for someone you’ve never met or read about unless you can put their life in context? So before we start to eulogize the not-really-dearly departed, let’s consider this a living wake. Drink up.

As with the human population, where the birth rate exceeds the mortality rate, same goes for the number of breweries. At the end of the 1980s there were under 2.8 million Oregonians. Today: over 3.9 million. Brewery-wise, 14 of the places making fresh beer in Oregon from those days remain among us—Widmer, BridgePort, Full Sail, Deschutes, Rogue, various McMenamins pubs, and I’d say don’t forget Oregon Trail Brewing, but most of us would have to know it ever was or still exists in Corvallis to have forgotten it in the first place (it’s perennially for sale.) And alongside those guys, nearly 200 more have joined ‘em.

At the tail end of 2014, there are 216 breweries operating in Oregon. I know that because ever since I started writing the above-hyperlinked guidebook, Oregon Breweries (now one month old), I’ve been tracking each and every one, including breweries in planning. Soon there will be more. And also soon, some will go away.

First, a word about that number of 216. The Oregon Breweries Guild’s updated numbers as of December 16, 2014, state that there are 185 brewing companies operating 226 brewing facilities. To clarify, a brewing company can operate more than one brewing facility. By my count we’re up to 190 brewing companies (or “brewing concerns”), nine of which operate more than one brewery that you can visit. I count all 17 McMenamins brewpubs individually and both the Breakside pub and production facility, but not included in that 216 count are the Widmer Bros. and Ninkasi pilot breweries. Capisce?

short-snout-logoWhile 30 new breweries opened in Oregon in 2014 on top of the 36 noobs from the class of 2013, roughly a baker’s dozen shuttered during the last two years, too. On this webmag recently, Aaron Brussat wrote an excellent story on Rogue’s Track Town Brewery that finally ran out of steam in Eugene. But I say “roughly” because I pulled the entry on Amnesia Brewing from my book, even though it really just left Oregon and moved across the river to Washougal, Washington. Milwaukie’s original brewery before Breakside invaded, Short Snout, still claims to have a pulse according to brewer Brian Van Ornum, who launched the backyard nano after a small, successful Kickstarter campaign. But good luck finding the single keg he seemingly sells every other month. In fact, not being able to sell beer is rarely the problem that fells a brewery.

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Ever enjoy a Beachcomber Cream Ale from Wakonda Brewing in Florence? Of course you haven’t. For one, the brewery is deceased, and for two, you never go to Florence even though it’s on the coast halfway between Newport and Coos Bay. But your lack of patronage in particular is not why Wakonda closed up shop. The brewer, Perry Ames, now works at Viking Braggot Brewery in Eugene, but he seemed nonplussed that Wakonda’s owners couldn’t keep that ship sailing, and not just because fewer than 9,000 people live in Florence. (A thousand fewer people live in Hood River and it supports several such enterprises.) The indication was that they were just not good businesspeople.

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Closer to Portland, Forest Grove’s Off the Rail Brewing Co. powered down early 2013 after a dozen years of brewing up Black Sabbath-inspired beers. The War Pigs Wheat and Over the Mountain Stout indicated what was blaring in the Dan and Antoinette Bragdon’s 12-barrel brewhouse. Dan’s brews had some steady taps but, as Antoinette once told me, “We kept to ourselves.” They were phantoms of the local beer scene and in the end, the Bragdons didn’t point to lagging sales but said it was a “personal decision; it wasn’t business.”

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Just over a year ago, I covered the loss of Salem’s Pale Horse Brewing on this site. The Clack brothers pointed fingers in a few directions, but if I may be indelicate, the owners were actual senior citizens and the world of craft brewing is a young person’s industry. Simply producing the product isn’t enough to sell said product. Same goes for other recent demises around Oregon. Despite penning entries for Oregon Breweries on Redmond’s Phat Matt’s Brewing, La Grande’s Mt. Emily Alehouse, Gresham’s 4th Street Brewery, and Baker City’s Bull Ridge Brewpub, I had written them briefly, not really getting a sense that they contributed much to the state’s beer community or their respective local communities. The last one, Bull Ridge, just played out like a car crash on Facebook. Forget that Baker City is a very small town and already home to one of Oregon’s best in Barley Brown’s (aka Baker City Brewing), but when you have a local commenting on your wall that your “attitude could be a big part of the business failure. This is a community that is tight and bashing people only makes more enemies,” you were never long for that town.

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It can easily be argued that since La Grande and Gresham had no other brewpubs, the ones in those communities should’ve been guaranteed success. Maybe it’s just me, but having visited them both, I felt no sense of loss upon learning of their closures except for the time and effort spent visiting and writing about them.

I’m always immediately dismissive whenever someone brings up the word “saturation.” Even with 216 breweries and counting, when six new ones open for every one that fails—most recently I hear from New School’s publisher that includes Brew Wërks in Bend—clearly demand outpaces supply. We’re seeing more restaurants add in-house brewing such as with RiverBend in Bend, BTU Brasserie in Portland, and even biker/lesbian dive bars like JD’s in Grants Pass (the beer’s surprisingly decent).

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But that plan doesn’t always work. The Blue House Mediterranean restaurant in Vernonia tried it by becoming Blue House Café and Brewery, but that petered out pretty quickly, which is where we ended up with Captured By Porches Brewing (for who knows how much longer, I must posit). In Southwest Portland, Barristadors had a nanobrewery going out of the broom closet for a little bit and they properly were licensed by the OLCC, but came under fire for not being licensed by the TTB, so it’s extra fitting that it’s now known as Angelfire Coffee. And remember how Dalo’s Kitchen was Portland’s Ethiopian brewpub for a blink of an eye?

Ultimately, Oregon is a highly mature beer market. Portland, as we all know, has more breweries than any other city in the world and yet they keep coming and all the new folks gotta do is make pretty good beer and locals will support them. If the owners realize that half of the beer business is the word “business” and come correct with both clean, skillful beer as well as acumen, then our arms are wide open no matter what part of town you plop down in. Eight breweries within easy walking distance of each other in inner southeast? Sweet, but there’s room for more. Another out of town based brewing company wants to open up near downtown? The Pearl is your oyster. Having said that, since this is a story about when breweries die, it’ll be interesting to see if the new 10 Barrel brewpub really will be DOA or will print its own money like its A-B overlords are banking on.

When a new brewery appears on tap or arrives on shelves, do you automatically try their new offerings? Or do you have your favorites and just think we have more than a sufficient amount of companies making beer here and how many different IPAs do we even really need? Think you know which breweries are next to end up on the chopping block? Leave your guesses in the comments even if it’s just wishful thinking since you’re one of the 50 folks currently looking to source a used 7, 10, or 20-barrel system.

Brian Yaeger is the author of Oregon Breweries and Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer and is frequently published by All About Beer, Draft Magazine, CraftBeer.com, CRAFT and of course The New School. Yaeger has appeared on NPR's Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal, Martha Stewart Living Radio, and The Brewing Network. He earned a Master in Professional Writing (with a thesis on beer) from the University of Southern California. He runs Inn Beervana Bed & Beer in Portland along with his wife Half Pint, son IPYae, and dog Dunkel. Follow him on Twitter at @Yaeger and @OregonBreweries and, begrudgingly, on Instagram at @OregonBreweries.

7 Comments

  1. Mark Reber

    January 2, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Folks have been debating and predicting the saturated craft beer market for some time. It’s not happening. I’m not sure why. I won’t consider the market saturated until I have a couple of actual breweries, not just pub branches of some brewery, within an easy walking distance of my home. Upright and Ex Novo, I love you, but I need something two blocks away, not twenty. If my sensibilities are anything like others, we will continue to see a net gain in breweries.

  2. Richard Hurts

    January 3, 2015 at 4:52 am

    Yawn. Say what you want but craft beer is what it is all craft. Too much variance. This BLOG has no clue about anything outside of Portland. My favorite brewpub is in Gresham at the Hoppy Brewer. Thanks Steve!

    • Samurai Artist

      January 3, 2015 at 7:04 pm

      bwahahaha

  3. Oldguy

    January 3, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    “the owners were actual senior citizens and the world of craft brewing is a young person’s industry”

    Seriously? Well, if that’s “actually” the case, there are a lot of breweries that are doomed. In your opinion Brian, does that include the “actual” senior citizen brewers? You know, the folks that have “actual” brewing experience that young brewers can not possibly match for years to come….just sayin!

  4. Brian Yaeger

    January 4, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    I like to avoid online comments like I like to avoid the plague, but Ezra asked if I’d read these.
    Mark Reber: Exactly: there’s always room for more–and more hyper local–breweries.
    Dick Hurts: Hi Steve (Krause, owner of Krauski’s Brewskis a.k.a. The Hoppy Brewer). I do not ignore anything outside of Portland. That’s why there’s an entry for The Hoppy Brewer in my book Oregon Breweries, where ONLY 70 of the 192 profiles are on Portland Metro breweries like… Krauski’s Brewskis. And I think the popular definition of a brewpub is one that sells food… which, during my last visit, you do not.
    Samurai: thx.
    Oldguy: I think I knew when I was writing that line that it didn’t sound as I intended it. At least for the most part. I’m all about respecting our elders and learning from their wisdom. Heck, so most craft beer fans, I AM one. But yeah, many of the breweries established long ago that have in no way evolved or adapted are “doomed.” It’s not 1990 anymore. Heck, it’s not even 2014 anymore. You realize that of the 3300-ish breweries in America, hardly any of the men and women who do the “actual” brewing are younger than 65. But yes, in 25 years I hope to retain some relevance myself, but I’ve already ceded that it’s a young person’s industry. Cheers.

  5. Julie Blank

    January 5, 2015 at 1:47 am

    Hi Brian,
    We brought Bull Ridge to a town barely surving due to the collapse of the economy. We gave a lot of people a great paying job in an environment that people loved. We are honest and hard working people, and we chose to close the pub as small town politics were a waste of our time. Our food and beer made everyone else step up as we raised the bar. Take for instance the multitude of local establishments now copying what we did, when they had years and years to do something like this before we came along. I will not lose sleep over closing the pub, as we made a lot of friends from the adventure, and we learned a lot about our love of beer and great food. You may look at this as a bad thing, but we certainly do not. I am gathering you enjoy writing articles that are apparently one sided, except for a couple of Facebook comments from people who have been jealous of me since I moved here. People in Baker City are not to keen on individuals “not from here” being successful. It is a sad thing, but that is the reality. Cheers!

  6. mike miles

    January 6, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Would love to see a historical timeline of breweries from the very start of say the Oregon Territory to the present.
    A complete historical timeline would give an excitingly interesting understanding of the beer business. The birth, the struggles to survive, competition, economics (The Willamete Valley Hop Heaven). The German influence (I’ve heard that the first language in the Portland Public Schools was German) That beer flowed in China Town in the underground tunnels into the 1940’s where gambling proliferated and in the early days the tunnels led to the docks where a drunken Portlander would often awaken at sea a conscript to the Captain of the vessel. Or a study of beer and how it influenced the Burnside Bowery and a history of Ericksons bar. Where the itinerant workers slept on the streets with there wine and beer in the hundreds up to around 1960’s. Wherer Mushballers played against each other for kegs only to be discriminated by the City Parks bureau because of the nasty habit of playin for beer only to form outlaw leagues playin with no gloves, short base paths n leading off base–sometimes with a stubby in hand. For foriegn beer you could place your order with the right longshoreman and poof it was in your hands for a price to quaff in beer heaven. You see the study of the history is exciting and definitely created good will among the beer drinkin populace. And lest we not forget that if you were broke you could always go to the Blitz brewery for the tour with free beer at the end. A reader is left wondering about the five W’s. You know, like the cliff and Wiley Coyote—- beyond the
    cliff looking at you with his bloodshot eyes looking bewildered—-not understanding his weightlessness as to how he got to this point——-and then??????? Zzzzzzzzzzzer—ploop! The complete history is amazingly interesting me thinks. Now for a beer.

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