Brewmaster at BridgePort Brewing Co.

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 28, Issue 6
January 1, 2008 By Julie Johnson

You’re practically synonymous with BridgePort Brewing Co. Haven’t you been with the company since the very beginning?

Yes, I basically built it. I got out of UC Davis with a BS in Fermentation Sciences in 1983 in June, and I hired on with Dick Ponzi at Ponzi Vineyards in July. The very first time I talked to him about the winery job, the conversation was all about building a small brewery. So we were hatching the plan in the summer of 1983. We rented the building in, I think, April of ‘84 and built the brewery out of baling wire and old dairy tanks, little bits and pieces. We started making our first brews in October and started selling beer November

You are Portland’s first micro?

Yes, we’re the oldest brewery in Oregon now, actually.

Did you know in college this was what you wanted to do?

I took wine classes at Davis because I had an interest in it, but my passion has always been brewing. That’s why I went to Davis to study. I was at Humboldt State University studying natural sciences, natural resources, then I changed gears and followed what I like to do. It was an epiphany: you look at what you want to do with your life, and think “Gee, what is it I like to do? Hmmm, I’ll have to ponder this over another homebrew”

Those were early days. How did you know that brewing professionally on a small scale was even an option?

My mom was from Czechoslovakia and she grew up making wine and beer at home and I helped out in those early days. Then I started homebrewing on my own when I left the house. I remember I cut out an article about a guy named David Bruce, who was doing all the Fox and Firkin brewing pubs, and I thought, “That’s pretty cool, making the beer and selling it right there at the pub. What a great idea.” So I had that article taped to the fridge for a long time when I was at Humboldt and it was a kind of inspiration.

When I initially went into the Davis program, it was with the idea that I’d end up working in one of the many regional breweries up in the Pacific Northwest. I tried to get a job with Rainier, and with Blitz and Olympia, but these guys were all busy consolidating and closing down. Nobody was hiring at that point.

I pretty quickly met up with Dick Ponzi and we started hatching plans for a small brewery, and that was more interesting to me in the end.

So, instead of joining the dying regionals, you ended up founding what’s now the oldest of the new wave of breweries.

Yeah, I tell people I couldn’t get a job with Blitz, so I had to start my own brewery.

You took a break away from Bridgeport for a while.

Yes, I left in 1990 and did a short stint with Anheuser-Busch in Newark.

What did you learn during your time with A-B?

It was very interesting. It taught me a lot of brewing discipline. It was as close to military service as I’ve ever come. Frankly, I might have stayed longer, but they had us on a ridiculous rotational shift that was going to take years off my life.

Then one night I was at a weak moment and someone called and asked if I wanted to get in on the ground floor being a brewmaster for the Nor’Wester and Willamette Valley Brewing Co. with Jim Bernau.

So I packed up the family and came back to Portland. I worked there for about a year, became a little disillusioned and got an offer help to start a couple of brewpubs in Tacoma. So I built a couple of breweries and two small pubs up there.

Then I heard that Carlos Alvarez had bought BridgePort from the Ponzis, and he was ready to spend some money on it, which was sort of a new thing for BridgePort. I called him up, and they said yeah, we’d love to have you, so here I am.

So you landed where you really wanted to be.

Yes, it took me a little while. I had to work through a couple of duds on the way there, but then I came back home. I like being at Bridgeport. It’s a very comfortable existence for me here: we work hard, we have a great crew, good backing. We’re surrounded by construction out here: it used to be the old warehouse district, and now it’s the Pearl District. We’re surrounded by 16-story condominiums and grocery stores.

Can you afford to stay?

That’s a good question. We’ve put a lot of money into our pub renovation to fit into the area, so I think we’ll be here for a good bit yet.

Your beers always strike me as very English in their profile. You’re in a setting where the beers are edgier. Do you fell more of a connection with English tradition or with the West Coast?

A little of both. You’re right, we probably try to follow more traditional styles, that whole thing about “moreishness” in a pint, its balance. I like to drink a beer that has a complexity of flavor, that doesn’t just come and smack you in the head. Our mantra here is “all about balance.”

Having said that, when we came out with our IPA in 1996, they thought we were crazy; we had a beer that was 50 BUs. Oh my God, no one’s going to drink that. That’s turned out to be our most popular beer. Maybe by today’s standards, 50 BUs is a pretty tame IPA. To me it has that same sense of balance, it’s a very drinkable IPA. It’s actually a benchmark among English brewers: they compare their beers to our IPA, which is very flattering.

But I’ll bet they find it too strong.

Well, they do! They think it’s huge. It’s 5.5% alcohol. That’s like a barleywine. They’re used to drinking 3.8% beer, and the 50 BUs is humongous. But they’re starting to come over here to buy American hops, and that’s because of beers like Bridgeport and Sierra Nevada.

Guess you’d better hang onto your hops right now.

Yeah, In fact, I have a group of friends who come over from England to Yakima each year, and they were really scraping this year, with the price of hops, I’m not sure they could get everything they need.

I think people who are making monster IPAs will have to think hard when they’re paying

$30 a pound.

Ropewalk is your most recent new beer, isn’t it?

No, actually, we have got a series of seasonals we’ve just came out with. We came out with Beertown Brown Ale last winter, then we went into Haymaker Extra Pale Ale, then Ebenezer, which we’ve had for a while. But those other two are pretty new, and they were well received in the market, so we’re pretty excited about those. And we’re also coming out with a series of 22-ounce big brews. We came out with Hop Harvest in bottles for the first time. We’ve been making Hop Harvest—it’s a fresh hop beer—for six years now. This year, we decided to put it out in 22 ounce bottles—and it sold out in a week. So…we’re thinking maybe we’ll make more next year.

Once again, that was a nice, balanced beer: it was 70 BUs, 7% alcohol, deceptively drinkable and people loved it. We were trying to make a big, ugly, hoppy beer, but we couldn’t quite do it.

We’re following that up with a bourbon barrel-aged Old Knucklehead, then a bourbon barrel-aged imperial porter, then we’re going to break some new ground and go for a wood-aged sour pale ale with a fruit infusion. Oregon grows a lot of marionberry, blackberry and raspberry, so we’re looking at doing some kind of berry-flavored beer.

Have you worked with fruit before?

I worked with some fruit purées and syrups when I was at Nor’wester, but BridgePort itself has never done a fruit beer. We’re in wine country here, and we’re going to buy some barrels that have been used for pinot noir. We’ll get 15 to 20 barrels, and barrel-age and referment with the fruit, and see what we come up with.

After this long in the business, is that where you look for your fun, developing new recipes?

Being able to have a series of beers, where the brewers are saying “Let’s pick what we want to do and do it,” is kind of fun. It’s a lot more of a business than it used to be, so it’s kind of cool to sit down in front of a blank slate and say, “OK, let’s design a beer.”

You are one of four breweries under the Gambrinus umbrella. Is there a relationship between the breweries, or are you pretty much autonomous, answering just to Texas?

We’re fairly autonomous. There are three brewmasters running Shiner, Trumer and Bridgeport. We all report to Jaime Jurado, the brewing director, and he reports to Carlos [Alvarez]. Carlos is very active in what we do. He’s not an absentee landlord. He’s a guy who comes in and talks to us about styles of beer he wants to see us make, or projects he wants feedback on. He’s definitely involved in the process here.

It’s got to take a lot to impress beer drinkers in Portland. Do you have a pretty picky audience here?

It’s much more sophisticated than it was. I was helping Tom Shelly at Oregon State give a introductory class on beer, wine and spirits, probably about 100 kids in there, and first of all I realized that none of them had been born when we started BridgePort. Then I realized that they’ve all grown up with a plethora of beers available. They’ve never known a time when they couldn’t find just about any style of beer, and thirty labels doing it at any one time. So, there’s a lot of new stuff on the market, and people have to pick and choose whether they want to go with something they know or take a chance with something new. Yeah, they are pickier. They’re certainly a lot more sophisticated. They know what styles they like: they know about IPAs, weizen beers, brown ales, mild ales. Whereas, 25 years ago, if it wasn’t Blitz or Blitz Dark, they didn’t know anything about it at all.

Is that a tough environment to work in?

It is, but as word gets out—and it’s all word of mouth, none of us advertise—well, a couple of people are starting to. Our market is 12% in Oregon, which is huge, but that mean there’s 88% of the market are still swallowing down Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, so there’s still a lot of room out there to run.

The more word we get out there, the more credibility we have. When Kurt Widmer started up two blocks away from us—he started selling beer in ‘85—when I heard he was starting up, I said, “How the hell is Portland going to be able to support more than one brewery? This will screw everything up. He needs to go to Seattle or down to Eugene: there’s no way people will drink more beer than that.” But what happened was he got started, other people go started, and it built credibility: it wasn’t just one crackpot trying to charge twice as much for a weird, brown flavorful beer.

You don’t want to be the only one making interesting beer. Just like you don’t want to be the only restaurant in town.

Or the only coffee shop. Today, I‘ll talk to friends and they’ll say, I’m drinking Laguintas, or this or that, they move around, That’s cool.

Do you play music in the brewhouse?

A lot of us like to play music. I play some guitar and ukulele; I’ve got a jazz guitarist and a guy that plays guitar and writes songs, and a drummer, and a guy that plays tuba. And a classical pianist, and a guy that plays bass. We really should form a band.

Usually when I ask that question, I find out what recorded music gets played in the brewhouse…

…but we could play our own. We’ve got some eclectic tastes. A guy this morning was playing something kind of warbly: it was a Velvet Underground CD with a bunch of old demos. We’ve got everything from that to classical to AC-DC, which I’ve got a little bit of a hard time with

That might turn your beer.

Yeah, you’ve got to watch that.

What do you do when you’re not making beer?

I took up guitar about five years ago. And I’ve got two kids: I’m relaxing by trying to find colleges for my twin girls. So I tour college campuses to relax.

Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson is the technical editor of All About Beer Magazine.