Good Beer Hunting

When the Shine Wears Off — Bridgeport Closure Hints at Larger Problems for Gambrinus

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The closure of Portland, Oregon’s BridgePort Brewing Company was a surprise beer fans in the know were long expecting. Having grown into a community icon since opening in 1984, the heritage brewery was a staple for Portland beer lovers. At its height in 2011, it produced almost 51,000 barrels, showcasing itself at the time as one of the more successful regional breweries in the country.

It was all downhill from there.

BridgePort shed BBLs at a slow rate until 2015, when the wheels came off. It made about 33,700 that year, then 25,000 in 2016, then 17,500 in 2017, the last year of Brewers Association data. While 2018’s production is unknown—Brewbound reported 10,880 BBLs worth of packaged beer, but Brewers Association figures aren’t public yet—the ending is no mystery: the brewery closed in February.

The failure of the business might not seem too surprising at a time when many other long-tenured breweries have also struggled to keep up with smaller, nimbler competitors, or fast-growing companies aided by the deep pockets of multinational conglomerates. But one lingering factor does seem a bit odd. BridgePort, which was owned by the Texas-based Gambrinus Company, isn’t the only brewery in its portfolio that has suffered.

Writer and author Jeff Alworth, upon the closing of BridgePort, opined that its iconic pub had been “renovated into something only a Texan could love” in 2006, and noted that Gambrinus owner Carlos Alvarez had likened the space to a Chili's and that he “wasn't interested in finding out what made Portland tick so he could keep BridgePort at the front of the local zeitgeist.”

Whether through disconnect, misunderstanding, or mismanagement, Gambrinus’ top-down leadership hasn’t inspired great confidence over the years. The BridgePort closure was the latest in a string of bad luck for these Gambrinus-owned businesses, and it hints at potential trouble for the future, too.

In 1998, Gambrinus bought one of the more important breweries in the country, Pete’s Brewing Company, for a price of $69 million. The San Antonio, Texas-based brewery had become renowned among America’s “craft” lovers for Pete’s Wicked Ale (its flagship American Brown Ale), among others. According to reporting by Tom Acitelli, Pete’s and Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams brands were responsible for more than a third of domestic “craft” beer in the early ’90s. Pete’s was sputtering slightly at the time, and never regained its footing under new leadership. It was discontinued in early 2011 citing “rapidly declining sales volumes.

Throughout Gambrinus' history, it also acquired and lost rights to distribute Corona Extra and Moosehead brands, and now is down one more with the closure of BridgePort.

What remains today are two companies on opposite ends of the spectrum: Spoetzl Brewery, the maker of Texas’ Shiner, and Trumer Brauerei, which brews an Austrian-inspired Pilsner in California. At more than a half-million barrels, Spoetzl is one of the largest craft breweries in the country. With production of around 29,000 BBLs, Trumer is a solid regional company on the heavily saturated West Coast.

In 2004, Gambrinus partnered with the original Austrian company to sell Trumer Pils in the U.S., also creating Trumer International as a company to oversee a new Berkeley, California brewery for the brand. Based on drinker reactions, it would seem a rather inauspicious product: the beer garners average numerical ratings across sites like Untappd, BeerAdvocate, and RateBeer. In a place like California, where breweries aren’t just plentiful but offer lots of lighter, sessionable fare (along with IPAs galore), it naturally faces stiffer competition.

While five-year trends (2014–2018) for Trumer Pils look good in terms of IRI-tracked volume growth in grocery, convenience, and other stores (+23.6% for its entire footprint), last year was not kind. Year-to-year growth had been strong in Trumer's home state, but the 2017–2018 time frame saw sales drop 9.5% in California, and 10.7% in the brewery's entire distribution footprint.

Shiner has been no better, with negative growth for years. The brewery reached a peak of 605,000 BBLs reported to the Brewers Association in 2015, but lost 11.4% of production through 2017, the latest year of available data. Its IRI sales wouldn't instill any additional confidence. Across its U.S. footprint, the Shiner family of beers was down 3.3% last year and had a decrease of almost 1.6% in Texas.

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“It’s tough for me to understand their direction at this point,” Brian Brown, a writer and author who’s covered Texas beer for years, says of Shiner. “Are they just grasping at straws or do they have an actual, concrete plan is not clear to me.”

Brown’s confusion doesn’t just surround Shiner itself, but Gambrinus as a company, which declined to comment for this story.

For years, he’s seen Gambrinus as “a quiet entity” despite being one of the largest beer companies in the country. Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors, both with ownership in Texas craft breweries, aren’t afraid to bolster their brands through events or advertising, he says, pushing people toward taprooms or experiences. But Gambrinus has taken something of an opposite approach, spending $1.2 million on a 2018 Super Bowl ad or buying into a nationwide country music tour to act as its official beer. These strategies can create general awareness, but as sales decline at home and across Shiner’s distribution footprint, Brown says the moves he’s seen feel more like general efforts to see what sticks rather than a calculated approach to reverse negative trends.

After all, in a state where Shiner is so ubiquitous, what’s the need for a Super Bowl commercial?

“If you’re a Texan and you drink beer, you’ve had a Shiner,” Brown says, namechecking flagship Shiner Bock. But in recent years, the ease with which Shiner could sell—and grow—has changed. Like everywhere else, there’s more competition in Texas these days: the state’s number of breweries has more than quadrupled since 2011. Shiner Bock has been declining in Texas for three years, and Spoetzl Brewery has now begun to push a variety of brand modernization attempts—new releases that Brown says he rarely hears about after the fact.

Last year's big additions to the lineup included Wicked Juicy IPA and Day Quencher Session Ale. The company’s seasonal beers are its strongest offerings after Bock in terms of volume, led by Oktoberfest and Holiday Cheer, and now feature new releases like Sea Salt & Lime and a mixed six-pack that includes two each of a Dortmunder, a Schwarzbier with cherries, and a candied pecan Porter. Scan the Spoetzl Untappd page and the latest entries include a hazy Double IPA, variants of its Wicked Juicy brand, Rosé Pale Ale, and a s'more-inspired beer.

Brown says that Texans continue to be fascinated by Shiner’s new offerings, and reviews on his website, Beer in Big D, get strong traffic, but there are rarely ever continued conversations about Shiner, let alone Gambrinus itself. With so much happening in public, it only deepens the question of what’s going on behind the scenes at Shiner or its parent company. Brown’s curiosity led him to draw the closest parallel he could for the situation: when Miller bought a controlling stake in Texas’ Celis Brewery in the mid-90s.

“When Gambrinus bought BridgePort, they were a microbrewery in what is now a craft beer stronghold,” he says. “Here, Celis [White] was one of the first craft beers in the state, and that brewery was run into the ground. It’s now finally back after a 20-year absence.”

To writer and author Jeff Alworth, interactions with Gambrinus CEO and chairman Carlos Alvarez have left him a bit perplexed. The company's hard luck with success across its brands show challenges in its business, but not for a lack of interest. He points to Alvarez's many charitable efforts to support the beer industry, including $1 million donations to UC Davis and Oregon State University. Beyond beer, there have been plenty of other major contributions, including donations to the American Red Cross and Texas Public Radio.

But none of that takes away from the odd pairing Alvarez and his company made with Portland's BridgePort Brewing.

"It was a real revelation for me to see how radically weird he was and what a bad fit for Portland he was," Alworth says, adding that a broader goal for Gambrinus was to drive the quirky Portlandia icon in the direction of the mainstream. At BridgePort's 30th anniversary party in 2014, Alworth recalls that Alvarez gave an "incredibly offensive" speech that included "semi-racist" and "horribly sexist" comments that clearly went against the progressive cultural vibe of the city.

"It was an interesting window into his personality, and by all accounts, how it really controlled everything that happened at BridgePort," Alworth adds.

Over the years, there have been a string of out-of-place decisions that could potentially indicate broader issues within Gambrinus and its companies. Alworth notes a "marketing-first" strategy that put more emphasis on ideas from leadership in Texas rather than brewers in Oregon. Such conversations led to a brief discontinuation of BridgePort’s flagship Blue Heron Ale, a Pale Ale named after Portland's official city bird. Local trends were ignored and even internal policies changed.

Toward the end of his run as founding brewmaster at BridgePort in 2010, Karl Ockert sat down with Alworth for an interview. He went to grab some beer to share during the chat.

"They had a certain ration of beers they could get and he had to negotiate," Alworth recalls of the brief interaction—he remembers Ockert had to get sign-off on the offering. "This is Karl fucking Ockert. Get him all the beer he wants. He should be able to walk up and get beer for a lifetime."

The origins of these kinds of policies and decisions are unclear, and Alworth emphasizes his impression that Gambrinus hasn’t harbored purposefully bad intentions for BridgePort or others. Everything has just always seemed a little misguided.

"[Alvarez] was a Corona importer and I think that's where his core competency lies," Alworth says. "I don't think he knows anything about those other [Gambrinus] businesses."

One exception has been Trumer Pils, he adds—working with a single brand means there’s no need to focus on anything other than the beer. Simplifying the business makes it easier for Gambrinus, he believes, unlike the difficulty of managing the aesthetic and personality of a well-established company like BridgePort.

“For decades, it was the first place you’d take anybody who came to town,” Alworth says of BridgePort. “They’d always be impressed because it would just ring true. This is beer, this is Portland, this is Beervana. But now it’s gone, so that leaves a little hole in my heart.”

So what is it, exactly, that’s going on here? Across decades, Gambrinus has had success, then failure, and more recently has seemed slow-moving to adjust. Even its website feels decades behind the times, with its early-2000s, Web-2.0 look and feel. There’s not even a way to contact the company digitally: just a phone and fax number.

Late last year, Gambrinus' longtime ad agency ended their relationship. McGarrah Jessee's marketing director told the Austin Business Journal that the agency found itself "in a position where we were unable to do the kind of work that meets our creative standards." It had worked with Gambrinus and Spoetzl on Shiner brands for 15 years.

"Recently Shiner has embarked on a new direction for the brand that presents creative challenges in how we approach brand-building," Heather Snow told the outlet. "That said, it was important to us as partners to ensure we parted ways with the wind in Shiner’s sails. To that effect, Shiner is on a positive path and we’re hopeful for their future success."

As noted in this story, Shiner has not been on a positive path in years.

While such PR-talk is to be expected, it adds yet another strange chapter to this story. Within an industry that requires ever-increasing direction and purpose, Gambrinus and its breweries seem a little rudderless, drifting alone with storms constantly approaching.

Words by Bryan Roth