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 As such, if the well-designed doors of a taphouse become a tad outdated after just a few years, even, say, a book about Oregon Breweries can read a bit like an obituary even after just a few weeks.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?
While 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.