The New School continues November “Interview Month” with another guest article by Wayfinder Beer’s brewmaster Kevin Davey, who interviewed legendary brewer and consultant Karl Ockert. Ockert was the founding brewmaster at Bridgeport Brewing, Oregon’s oldest still operating brewery, a pioneer of only Oregon’s status as a beer capitol of the world, and an instrumental actor in helping to legalize brewpubs in the state. Ockert became the Technical Director of Master Brewers Association of the Americas in 2010 and then took on the Brewmaster position at Deschutes Brewery from 2015 to February 2018; he now works as a brewery consultant. If you missed our last guest interview, do check out Fort George co-founder Jack Harris interviewing Gigantic Brewing’s Van Havig here.
The following is Kevin Davey’s interview with Ockert, as written and transcribed by Davey.
Kevin: First off, Karl, I wanted to interview you mainly because I was really interested in the “Karl Ockert origin story.” You seem to have accomplished a ton in your brewing career. Can you tell me how you got into brewing? What was your first job and so on?
Karl: Sure thing. My mom was Czech and used to make wine and beer when I was growing up. She would take me to pick peaches, pears, and apples in Hillsboro, which we would then make into wine. It was a bit like forced labor but actually I enjoyed it. We would go to Steinbarts for winemaking and brewing supplies when it was located on SE 7th and Sandy. We would buy PBR malt extract, old brown hops, and a packet of dry Red Star yeast and turn it into somewhat consumable beer. My parents weren’t big drinkers, but both came from European families, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to have a sip of beer or wine with dinner.
Karl Ockert in Tasmania in field of Galaxy hops, 2017
Kevin: Pick fruit in Hillsboro?
Karl: Yup, back before Intel. Then it was full of fruit orchards.
Karl: Yeah, so I really like biology and chemistry and was a pretty good student. I ended up taking a year off after high school and hitchhiked across the US to Florida. The drinking age was 18 then, so I got to taste a lot of the old regional beers as I traveled. I came back home, went to a community college and learned to weld, then took my first trip to the UK with my girlfriend (now wife) who is from Northern Ireland. My first pint in the UK was a Guinness; still my comfort beer. Then headed down to Humboldt State University in California to study forestry. Of course, I did some homebrewing there in college. Eventually that led me to UC Davis to study fermentation science from Michael Lewis, and I graduated in ‘83.
Kevin: Any notable colleagues from that year?
Karl: Dan Carey and I kept in touch. After school he worked at a brewery in Montana before opening New Glarus in Wisconsin. Keeping in touch in the early 80’s was hard. Remember, we didn’t have fax machines or email, let alone cell phones. We used to write letters and try to catch each other on the landline phone when we could. It was good to learn from each other during our early careers.
Kevin: When did Bridgeport start?
Karl: Dick Ponzi and I hatched the plan to open a brewery over a few Grant’s Scottish Ales in 1983. I was working for Ponzi vineyards at the time. We started one of the first craft breweries in Oregon, Bridgeport, in November of ’84. I think the Widmer guys were right around the same time, like ’85. I ran it until 1990. I took a job in Newark, New Jersey, at the AB plant there.
Kevin: Why leave Bridgeport for AB?
Karl: Well, Dick did not want to expand BridgePort, which was cutting orders because we couldn’t keep up. I had some kids by then and wanted to both earn and learn more.
Kevin: That’s reasonable.
Karl: It was really hard work. I worked the craziest rotating shift schedule ever devised. Seven days on Swing, two days off, seven days on Day, two days off, then seven on Nights with three days off. Turnover was so bad that it usually just turned into 7 twelve hour shifts in a row. It really beat me up, but I learned a ton about brewing. It was like I got my bachelor’s degree from UC Davis, but got my “Master’s degree” at AB. Newark AB is a 9 million barrel per year brewery. We released about 173,000 bbls of beer to packaging per week.
Kevin: Per week? That’s what we did at Firestone per year.
Karl: These plants can make a lot of beer.
I lasted about 1.5 years and then came back to Oregon to open Nor’wester in ‘93. Fellow UCD grad Jeff Humes and I designed that brewhouse, and I gotta say, I am really proud of the design. It was a great brewery to work on. I ended up leaving that project to open another brewery in Tacoma, Engine House No. 9. Rogue bought that brewhouse after Nor’Wester closed. Then they grew out of it and some brewery in Canada bought it. I was at Ordnance Brewery in Boardmand a few weeks ago, and guess what? There’s the old Nor’Wester brewhouse! Still happily knocking out brews.
After opening Engine House No. 9 with a partner, we built another brewpub in Puyallup called the Powerhouse, but some issues with the partner soured our deal and I went back to Bridgeport in ’96. I worked there for 14.5 years before leaving to become the MBAA technical director in 2010.
Kevin: That’s when I met you. I had just started brewing at Chuckanut and was attending meetings. I also read the three engineering books that you edited when I was at Siebel.
Karl: That was my favorite job. I really like being a teacher, editing the technical quarterly, setting up the engineering class, etc. They ended up eliminating the position after four years, so I had to move on again. That led me to working as the Brewing Director for Deschutes until I “retired” last April. I’m still consulting. I don’t think I’ll ever quit the beer business.
Kevin: Sounds like it’s hard to walk away from something you’re so passionate about. What do you think was your greatest accomplishment?
Karl: It’s been really great to just be one of the pioneers in craft beer. To be there at the beginning of a revolution is awesome. There was a time when you’d see only one, maybe two, draft beers on at a bar. It was usually Bud or Blitz. Now you expect to see at least ten draft beers and most of them are local craft brews. Incredible. Just walking down the beer aisle in the grocery store I am amazed at the selection. I feel proud to be a part of it. We’re members of the most fun community of people out there.
Kevin: Any personal accomplishments?
Karl: Um, I’d say being a part of making Bridgeport IPA. They (the team at the time) were already moving forward with it when I got back in ‘96. It seemed pretty revolutionary to put a 50BU beer in a 12oz bottle then. Everyone thought no one would drink it!
That and being a part of working with our colleagues in the business. Writing and editing books, putting together conferences and classes. I just really enjoy the people part of beer and the role I have been fortunate enough to play.
Kevin: What do you see on the horizon?
Karl: The state of the hop market. I’m about to give a talk about the state of hops at the MBAA District North West conference. Lots of extra hops out there on contracts that the breweries cannot afford. Regional-sized craft brewery sales are down. They’re getting squeezed on both ends right now. Craft is on the radar. AB is buying up breweries and creating confusion in the market, and meanwhile lots of smaller breweries have been popping up. I fear a rationalization of the business on the supplier, brewery, and distribution ends is in process. But people will always love good beer. I am confident the industry will right itself and press on in even more interesting directions. I hope to be there.
Kevin: Thanks for everything, Karl.
Karl Ockert circa 1984, photo from Ockert