Five Amazing Years in Beervana

I first started writing about beer for Willamette Week in 1997 (I think), which was just about the grimmest time in American craft brewing. All through the 80s and early 90s, breweries were notching shocking growth. In 1987, Full Sail was bottling beer by hand--the homebrew method--and the receptionist was labeling it in her spare time. A decade later, they had expanded to a massive plant capable of kicking out 250,000 barrels. The Widmers had moved across the river from their original, small location. McTarnahan's (née Portland) had also moved, but in the other direction, further Northwest. Then the market plateaued, and lots of breweries that had expanded on the assumption of 20% growth were in deep trouble. Star, Peak, Saxer, and Nor'Wester all died during the years I was writing for Willamette Week. Even Henry Weinhard's plant closed--and I still have a scar from that psychic wound.

In a kind of nice mirroring, when I came back to beer writing in 2006 with this blog, things had flipped. In a 2006 press release, the Oregon Brewers Guild touted 16% growth in 2005. The next five years, even though they include the worst recession in seven decades, continued apace. We don't have numbers for 2010, but growth continued at 15% through 2009--the heart of the collapsing economy.

Oregon produced 683,000 barrels in 2005 and 1,050,000 in 2009--54% growth. If the market expanded even by a relatively modest 10% in 2010, that would put five-year growth of production at an astounding 69%. Those are numbers like we were seeing twenty years ago.

It's a little harder to calculate new breweries. Much of the growth happened as breweries opened new outposts--Lompoc, Lucky Lab, the McMenamins, and Laurelwood all expanded substantially over the past five years. In terms of new brewing companies, Heater Allen sort of kicked off the half-decade trend of nanobrewing. Should we count some of the newer breweries that have produced little or no beer for commercial production? In any case, using the classic "visual inspection" method, I count 28 new breweries since I started writing Beervana. Portland, predictably, had the biggest growth in terms of numbers (12), but the story of 2006-2011 is the rise of the Willamette Valley. Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Block 15 have all established themselves as brewing leaders, and Brewers Union, despite minuscule production, has brought quite a bit of attention to cask ales.

(By comparison, there were about 1,400 craft breweries in the US in 2006, and there are still only 1,640. That's healthy growth--17%--but not exactly eye-popping.)

The other huge trend in terms of growth was the arrival of the good-beer pub. Consider that in 2005, your best options for a good beer were a brewpub or the Horse Brass. The beer bar, where you could find a range of regional and international specialty beers, was pretty obscure. In the past five years, the city has added: Apex, Bailey's, Beermongers, Belmont Station, Concordia Ale House, Green Dragon, Hawthorne Hophouse, the Hop and Vine, Plew's Brews, Roscoe's, Saraveza, and the Victory Bar. You can now find more local specialty beer and rare international beer in one building than you could in most of the city just a few years ago. Amazing!

In a separate post, I'll discuss some of the trends we saw in the past five years, but let's rest for a moment and consider the numbers. If you were a beer geek, the last five years was arguably the best period in craft brewing history. What a fortunate time to be blogging.