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Fred's World
Year of Destiny: 1988
In 1988, the craft brewing industry (then called "microbrewing"), in its 12th year of existence, was just getting itself established nationally. The U.S. (and world) brewing industry didn't even know we existed. The Bud-Coors-Miller group was very busy dumbing down their beer, reducing the hop and barley content and the cost of production while increasing their ownership of the American beer world. Taste? Who needs that? Color? Yes, but not too much. Yellow is OK, and never mind if it reminds one of urine. Dark beer? That would be anything darker than yellow. Stout was almost unheard of. Maybe it came from Ireland; one really hadn't a clue. But the rage in those years was LIGHT beer! That was for fat people. It kept them from getting fatter.

Alcohol? Well, of course beer had alcohol: 3.2 (4% abv) or some such. If we wanted stronger beer, we could always drink malt liquor or add a jigger of vodka to our yellow beer. Malt liquor was light beer on steroids — with almost no taste. By law, any beer with more than 5% abv had to call itself "ale," "stout" or "malt liquor."

Ale? Lagers came in brown bottles; ales, such as Rainier Ale, came in green. At least, that was the case until we found out that Rainier Ale, in its pretty green bottle, was actually a 6% abv lager that HAD to be called an ale.

By 1970, there were only 73 brewing companies (operating some 133 brewing plants) in 31 states. "Experts" were predicting that by 1990 only 10 would remain. The only advantage that this earlier era offered was that most beer was actually "session" beer, with 4.8% abv or less. One could sip beer all evening. You can't do that today, as most of our craft beer has well over 5% abv.

By 1988, there were over 144 microbreweries (including 33 Canadian) in 24 states and D.C. California led the way with 27, followed by Oregon with eight, Washington with seven and New York with five.

I began writing for Portland's daily newspaper, The Oregonian, in April of 1984. I viewed my work as an educational medium for the new microbrewing industry, and I pestered our local brewers relentlessly to provide me with new beer styles so as to have an excuse to babble on in print about them. My January 1988 piece gives a picture of the microbrewing industry's modest presence in our city: "Last year [1987] was a banner year for Oregon beer lovers, although only 108 new beers (including imports) entered Portland, the lowest count since 1985. Our position as the number one American beer city is clear, with six breweries featuring a ‘brewing district’ (four breweries in a 6/10 of a mile stretch).

In 1984, I pestered our local brewers to provide me with new beer styles so as to have an excuse to babble on in print about them.

"Our 1987 Beers of the Year are Hood River Full Sail Ale, from Hood Rive, Ore., and Widmer Fest Beer. Bottled in hand-filled one-liter Italian-made Champagne bottles, they have a much wider, yet still very limited, distribution.

"Oregon dark beer of the year: BridgePort Old Knucklehead (a barley wine–style ale) is a richly flavored and very strong (7% alcohol) beer.

"Best seasonal beers: BridgePort Spring Draught, Grant's Winter Ale from Portland Brewing, and McMenamin Hillsdale Kris Kringle.

"Most maligned beer: There are many reasons why Mexican Corona beer is not on my list of favorites in any year. It comes in a clear glass bottle, for starters. Yet when a Reno wholesaler started the rumor that Corona had urine in it, many rival wholesalers picked up on this cruel affront to the Mexican brewing industry. These included some Portland wholesalers who had to have known better. Mexican beer is as well-made as any. It is absolutely impossible to contaminate beer in that fashion at any modern brewery, because the entire process is carried out in closed, and often pressurized, vessels of immense dimensions. Our fine neighbors to our south, who are plagued with poverty and raging inflation, are in need of our support, not stupid rumor-mongering."

And here's this overview of my first contribution to the Celebrator Beer News, which appeared in the April/May 1991 issue: "I am frequently asked, ‘Why the Northwest? Why do microbreweries do so well around here?’ One reason might be that Oregon and Washington have cooler, wetter weather than many other places. Both states drink a greater proportion of their beer (18 percent) on draft from ‘on-premise’ locations. Our climate is similar to that found in England, Belgium and Germany, where the drinkers also consume much of their beer in public houses of one sort or another.

"Many of our pubs are interesting and well-managed and serve a large selection of beer accompanied by good food. They are more likely to be "beer and wine" bars and less likely to serve hard liquor. In Washington and Oregon, there are fewer hard liquor or spirit outlets than are found among our southerly neighbors. This has a profound influence on our drinking habits. Oregon has a small advantage over Washington in that Oregon taverns and pubs are required to serve food, and that makes for a better atmosphere than if only "snacks" are available. Oregon and Washington pioneered wide distribution of multiple-tap bars back in the early ’80s. It is almost impossible to find a tavern in Portland or Seattle that does not have at least three to five taps, or draft beers, but increasingly it also means that even small-town bars can offer at least one micro on tap.

"This multiple-tap situation means that small microbreweries and brewpubs can be assured of success merely by producing draft beers; they can succeed in the market without having to install expensive bottling systems. On the other hand, in California, for example, folks expect to take their beer along with them when they go out. Beer is carried to the beach, the mountains and everywhere that great outdoor-loving population goes.

"Last year's total production by Northwest microbreweries was less than 100,000 barrels, an insignificant amount by most standards. Yet here in Oregon, our micros (altogether) sold almost as much draft beer as Miller. Individually, they ranked seventh, eighth and ninth in sales of draft beer in Oregon (obviously, most of it in Portland alone). This is significant, because one beer, Widmer Weizen, outsells even Budweiser in some of the places where it is available."

Today, as well as then, I can say this: If you like beer — and who doesn't — then the Pacific Northwest is a great place to find the best. Perhaps you'll agree with me when I say, in my most provincial dialect, "Our Northwest ales are among the best in the world." I urge you to go for the gutsy dark and forget the mellow yellow — live it up!

Indeed, 1988 was a year to remember, as we do here today. Here's to the Celebrator's 20th anniversary.

 

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