Portland's BridgePort Brewery Has Closed After 35 Years
News out this morning from Gambrinus is both unsurprising and absolutely shocking:
BridgePort was founded 35 years ago by winemakers Dick and Nancy Ponzi, getting to market just ahead of Widmer Brewing. It was Oregon’s second craft brewery, following the debut of short-lived Cartwright Brewing five years earlier, but the first one to survive. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, no brewery was more closely associated with the city of Portland than BridgePort. Its original flagship, Blue Heron, featured the city bird, and the homey, wood-paneled pizza pub was Stumptown’s rec room. In 1996 it launched IPA, sending Oregon into the realm of “juiciness” a decade and a half before that concept would filter into the general public.
Unfortunately, that was the year the Ponzis sold the brewery to Gambrinus, a Texas-based Corona importer that had absolutely no idea what to do with the most Portlandish brewery in Portlandia. For the next decade it wouldn’t matter, because IPA sold itself. A decade later, in 2006, that wonderful pub was renovated into something only a Texan could love. At the 30th anniversary five years ago, Gambrinus owner Carlos Alvarez favorably compared the generic sleekness of the new pub to a Chili’s while criticizing the idiosyncracies of small breweries. (This was the era when Gambrinus also shocked locals by pulling a trademark on the word “Beervana.”)
It’s safe to say Alvarez never got Portland as he grossly mishandled one of its most valuable assets, but there’s a lot of evidence that he never understood craft beer, either. Gambrinus managed to kill off Pete’s Wicked, another acquisition, in 2011. What it managed to do with BridgePort was nothing short of miraculous for a brewery so poised for growth and stability. Ten years ago, it was the third best-selling brewery in Oregon, and would crest two years later at 27,500 barrels. This year it is on pace to make 6,500 barrels and is the 21st-largest brewery.
The last decade plus has been marked by an endless series of forgettable beers. (Raise your hand if you remember Supris. How about Dark Rain? Smooth Ryed? Fallen Friar, Beertown Brown?) The number of reinventions and pivots were legion. All the while, the brewery kept milking the IPA brand until it had fallen into irrelevance. Without a stable identity, relying on a dying flagship, and inhabiting an increasingly dated, unlovable space in the increasingly valuable Pearl District, BridgePort’s volumes dropped precipitously. It is shocking that a brewery that once defined Beervana could have fallen this far, but it’s not surprising that Gambrinus is finally shutting up shop. The former rope factory in the Pearl is valuable real estate, and operating a moribund industrial business out of there hasn’t made sense for at least five years.
This will hurt the soul of many Portlanders. Even if BridgePort wasn’t locally owned, even if it wasn’t making interesting beer, and even if the pub had been turned into a wannabe Chili’s, it was still the oldest and perhaps most important brewery in the state. Exactly 20 years ago, we lost a monument to Oregon beer when Miller shut down the old Henry Weinhard brewery that anchored downtown. We will lose the most important remaining emblem of our brewing history when BridgePort shutters its doors thirteen blocks north of Weinhard’s.
We do still have a month to go pay our respects, but this is a sad day in Beervana.