Love for beer brews a thriving industry

Oregon: Entrepreneurs find success with brewpubs in a state with the natural resources and loyal customers to support the industry.

March 21, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

PORTLAND, Ore. - Alex Stiles was working at someone else's brewery when, amid the grains and fermenting machines, he picked up a phone and called his friend Gary Geist.

How hard would it be, he wondered, for them to open their own brewery? Geist began calling up spreadsheets and crunching numbers on his computer at work.

The two had heard stories of breweries that had opened only to founder and fail. Still, they gave it a go, pouring their life savings into their brewery and enlisting family and friends to invest.

"If this works," they would tell each other, "we're going to be lucky dogs."

That was 10 years ago. Today, Stiles still works amid shiny tanks, brewing beer and filling customer's glasses, but now it is at his and Geist's Lucky Labrador Brew Pub on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland.

Portland is said to have more craft breweries than any other city in the world. The Lucky Labrador is one of 28 microbreweries and brewpubs in the city. There are 22 in Maryland, five of which are in Baltimore.

Oregon's microbreweries produced about 500,000 barrels, or nearly 8 percent, of the nation's estimated 6.4 million barrels of craft beer last year, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild and the Boulder, Colo.-based Institute of Brewing Studies.

"People who like good beer know that Portland is a brewing hotbed," said Paul Gatza, director of the Institute of Brewing Studies.

The right ingredients

Experts say Oregon is a popular beer-brewing state because its farms grow many of the ingredients that make for a good beer: barley, yeast and hops, the substance that gives beer its bitter taste. The state also has good water supply, and Portland's often-soggy weather makes for customers who want to stay inside and cozy up with a good beer.

Also, the state has a well-traveled populace with well-educated palates. Many residents have visited countries with good beer and know that, "beer can be much more than fizzy, yellow belch propellant," said Jim Parker, executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild.

Anywhere in Portland, a visitor is no more than 10 minutes from a freshly brewed beer, Parker said. And the pubs are as varied as the flavors of beers they brew, each with its own loyal customers.

Chris Ashburn has been a regular at BridgePort Brewing Co. for more than a decade. The 44-year-old engineer, who is originally from Baltimore County, likes the feel of the former rope factory that is now the oldest craft brewery in Oregon. He likes its ambiance, the wood beams, exposed brick walls and concrete floor.

Oh, and he likes the beer too.

"This is primarily my Cheers," Ashburn said, sipping on a pint at BridgePort on a Thursday afternoon.

Other breweries cater to their own crowds.

The Lucky Labrador is famous for its Dogtoberfest, at which dogs are soaped up and hosed down outside the brewery to raise money for a local animal hospital. Last year, the brewpub washed 600 dogs at the event. The Lucky Labrador also welcomes dogs to hang out on the front porch all year round while their owners sip a Dog Day India Pale Ale or a Black Lab Stout.

The New Old Lompoc, a rustic-looking brewpub in the northwest part of town, prides itself on being home of the "bald guy brigade." The brigade - with its own T-shirts and women's underwear - pokes fun at baldness and raises money through membership dues or by having members shave their heads for a price. The money goes to a charity that buys hairpieces for children with short- and long-term hair loss, said the brewpub's owner, Jerry Fechter.

"It's just a fun industry," Fechter said. "And you get to drink beer at all times of the day."

Well, not exactly.

For Fechter, life at the brewpub is no party. He typically works at least 10 hours a day, six days a week. From a small room in the back of the brewpub filled with barley and fermenting machines, Fechter brews nine kinds of beer including Outhouse Special Beer, an ale named after Portland's first public school teacher.

That hard work is paying off. Last year, the New Old Lompoc brewed 482 barrels of beer. Sales at the brewpub, which also include food, grew about 35 percent last year and are expected to grow 15 percent or more this year, Fechter said.

BridgePort Brewing Co., in the northwest part of town, sold 35,000 barrels of beer last year. Hair of the Dog, a brewery in the southeast part of town that sells its beer in 10 states, including Maryland, produces about 500 barrels of beer a year.

"If you make good beer in Portland you're going to sell it," Gatza said.

In Oregon, about 320 12-ounce servings of beer are sold per year for each resident 18 or older, according to the Institute of Brewing Studies. (The number of servings sold per person in Maryland is about 280.)

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