Once Upon a Time, Beer in Oregon ‘Wasn’t Great’
It’s Craft Beer Month in Oregon. With 214 breweries and brewpubs for a state of about 3.8 million people, Oregon remains undoubtedly one of the nation’s, if not the world’s, most enviable spots for beer variety.
It was not always like that. In fact, Oregon as a Valhalla of independently owned breweries making small batches of beer from traditional ingredients stumbled out of the gate.
Here’s what happened. In the spring of 1980, Charles and Shirley Coury, who had owned a vineyard for 13 years in Forest Grove, opened a brewery on SE Main Street in nearby Portland. Their Cartwright Brewing Co.—“Cartwright” was Shirley’s maiden name—first offered 150 cases of a mild, English-style ale called Cartwright Portland retailing for $1 a bottle.
It was not a hit with consumers, nor were subsequent batches. “The beer wasn’t great and the bottling was downright poor,” according to one account. Cartwright folded in 1981. Whatever its failures as a manufacturer, the brewery as an idea proved a profound success.
First, it whetted the appetite of Oregonians for traditionally made, small-batch beer. In fact, Cartwright was the first “craft” brewery not only in the Beaver State but in the entire Pacific Northwest, a culinary beachhead beyond Northern California, where the trend was born. Locals, including Portland’s Fred Eckhardt, who would go on to write the first regular newspaper coverage of American “craft” beer, were paying attention.
Second, the Courys’ brief brewery represented the first real excursion of the wine world into small-batch brewing (the pair were pioneers in Oregon Pinot Noir in particular). There had been an even shorter-lived toe-dip a few years before in the San Francisco Bay Area by a vintner named Rich Dye; though little trace of any influence of his California Steam Brewery remains beyond tales of its legal wrangling with San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co., holder of the “steam beer” trademark.
Both of Cartwright’s milestones—the kickoff of “craft” brewing in the Pacific Northwest and the intersection of that brewing, for better or worse, with wine—would reverberate well after the brewery’s last little lamented bottles disappeared from Oregon shelves.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.