Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking —  During CBC, The Floodgates Open and Close Again for Portland Beer Drinkers

Jeff Alworth lives and drinks in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing professionally for over 15 years. His passion has taken him all over the world where he’s collected insight and know-how for a number of books, including “Brewing the World's Classic Styles: Advice From the Pros,” his comprehensive guide to beer, “The Beer Bible,” and soon, a wonderful introduction to another fermented cousin called “Cider Made Simple.”

After meeting up with Jeff in the Czech Republic last year, and sharing a few pints in Portland during the Craft Brewer’s Conference, I asked Jeff a curious question: “With all these smaller brands from across the country entering the Portland market for a week, what’s the lasting impact?” Jeff decided to start asking around. This is his report. 

Over 11,000 brewing industry insiders got a chance to try some of Oregon’s famous—yet famously hard-to-get—beer when the Craft Beer Conference (CBC) touched down in Portland in mid-April. Oregon has 220 breweries, but only a handful distribute beyond the Northwest. As the most entrenched craft beer market in the country, the reason is simple: Oregonians drink it all before it has a chance to leave the state. Forty percent of all beer sold in stores and sixty percent of draft is locally-made craft beer. These are the kind of numbers that make Portland a famous beer town.

But Portlanders got a rare treat, too — satellite events across the city featured beer from breweries that don’t normally distribute to Oregon like Bell’s, Three Floyds, Jester King, Surly, and Flying Dog. These events preceded the conference and continued on afterward, giving locals a chance to sample broadly from the country’s most-lauded breweries.

This raises an interesting question. The CBC was a rare, real-time experiment in choice. Thanks to a variety of barriers (not least distribution), Portlanders get barely a trickle of rare beers from far-flung locations. Perhaps one of the reasons they don’t drink out-of-state beer is because they haven’t been exposed to it. So what if you flooded the city in non-Oregon beer? Will it create a more fertile environment? (For those displaced Midwesterners who pine desperately for Bell’s and Three Floyds, this is not an idle question.)

Time will ultimately be the judge, but I contacted two of Portland’s best pubs, both of which featured tons of out-of-state beers over the course of the CBC, to get their views.

Christopher Ormand is the man who does the ordering at Belmont Station, which has the city’s best selection of bottled beer and also one of the best tap lists on the pub side. He began by explain what out-of-state breweries are up against. “I just ran a YTD sales report for you, and out of the top 50 selling beers there's only a handful like Stone Enjoy By, Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin, Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter, Southern Tier Creme Brulee, and Black Boss that aren't from Oregon.” 

The lesson is that you can sell non-Oregon beer here, he said, but it has to be exceptional. With the incredible choice Oregonians have, there’s just no point in drinking average beer from other places. He pointed out that this creates a few other challenges. For one, beer is pretty cheap in Portland. “People might buy a $10-12 bomber of IPA from the Midwest or East Coast once for the sake of saying they had it,” but with really great Oregon bombers selling for half that, they won’t buy it twice. Like everywhere, craft beer sells for more than mass market lagers, but competition keeps the margins low in Portland—which makes it hard for out-of-staters to compete.

Breweries that can find an underserved niche also have an advantage, and breweries popular with immigrants from other regions could do well, too. Ormand pointed to his CBC event featuring Bell’s with an appearance by founder Larry Bell. “Our Bell's night was a perfect illustration of that. We weren't offering anything that isn't regularly available to people in their distribution footprint, but there are so many people from the Midwest moving to Portland that we ended up with a ridiculous line of people queued up to drink ‘shelf beers’ like Two Hearted, Oberon, and Midwestern Pale.”

Jeremy Lewis owns a fantastic, slightly divey bar called Roscoe’s outside the hipster core. (It’s one of a handful of pubs that gets Pliny the Younger each year.) He pointed out that bringing in a bunch of beers from elsewhere, rather than whetting Portlanders’ appetites for further-flung beers, it will do the opposite. “I don't think CBC will have a huge impact on this. If anything, I think that it may solidify our feelings. As people try highly coveted non-Oregon beers next to local beers I often see them begin to question why the out-of-state beers are so highly sought after.” His point is based on some first-hand observations. When Pliny the Younger came to Roscoe’s earlier this spring, he put it on tap with flights of local triple IPAs, and many people were surprised to find the locals holding their own.

Indeed, it seems like Portlanders are actually getting more parochial over time, not less. Ormand looked back at sales figures for 2014 and compared it to 2015, and his sales of Oregon beer had ticked up. “Based on these number,” he said, “it appears we're becoming more locally-focused all the time.”

Lewis sees the other markets going the way of Portland — becoming less permeable, not more.  “I feel that if anything, the tides will turn,” he explains, “and many of the evolving beer cities [across the country] will begin to support their own native beers. I think this may make it more difficult for Oregon breweries to expand into and maintain market share in other markets.  I sense that there will be more regional breweries and brewpubs taking over the lion’s share of their respective local markets.”

In other words, Portland is not likely to turn into a great market for Michigan breweries, no matter how much we enjoyed Michigan beer a couple weeks ago. But then again, the rest of the country might do the same to us, making it harder for our own stand-out breweries to find soft markets outside of Oregon to sell our own beer. A usual, Portland is on the cutting edge of a much larger national trend.

Intro + photo by Michael Kiser
Words by Jeff Alworth