Organizers of the Selfie Fest Road Show gathered with brewers at Untapped in Portland in June. The series of events is being held to highlight smaller breweries who self-distribute. Pictured, from left to right: Rik Hall, Baerlic Brewing; David Lederfine, Awesome Ales; Jim Parker, Selfie Fest organizer; Ben Parsons, Baerlic; Alex Kraft, Feckin Irish Brewing. Photo by Jim McLaren
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Traffic on North Interstate Avenue in Portland was crawling through a light drizzle when a guy on a Vespa motor scooter jumped the curb and squeaked to a stop on the sidewalk in front of Untapped, a self-described “craft beer fill house.” Sliding off the scooter, he pried the helmet from his head and headed for the door. Once inside he stood back from the bar and began scanning the big board menu hovering over 38 tap handles. He wasn’t paying any attention to the two guys sitting at a high-top table talking to a writer. And he wasn’t there for the Selfie Fest either.
Ben Parsons and Rik Hall are both wearing short-billed, black bicycle caps with Baerlic Brewing Co. logos. They’re the owners and they know something most people ignore: Oregon’s craft beer explosion is not just about making beer. It’s also about DISTRIBUTING beer.
“It’s a really big story,” Hall says, “but it’s one people don’t really focus on. They see a beer, they like it, they drink it, regardless of who distributes it.” While Parsons nods in agreement, Hall continues, “to us, self-distributing is part of the craft of beer.”
Self-distributing? Part of the craft of beer? Get comfortable and let me explain. Once Oregon craft brewers learned how to make good beer, their next problem was how to get it to you. Under the old three-tier distribution system, beer went from brewery to distributor to retailer and then you. Like most economically productive systems, this one was efficient, but also stifling.
Distributors often tried to influence what a brewer made because, they claimed, they knew best what would sell. The brewers listened because the law did not allow them to go out and fight for the limited space on store shelves or in taverns with limited tap handles.
In 2001 things began to change with a strong lobbying push for a series of bills defining who could distribute beer. Jim Parker, former executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild explains, “The first nod went to breweries with very small production, up 500 barrels a year. The next session the limit was pushed to 1,000 barrels. The law now allows self-distribution for breweries making up to 7,500 barrels per year.”
The self-distribution law has democratized the beer industry. Big distributors still sell the most beer, but smaller breweries with hustle can work their way into places like Untapped. Owner Lisa McArthur says the benefit is that “their beer doesn’t get lost in the portfolio of the big distributor reps. It’s nice that they [small brewers] come in and tell me about their beer. And it’s nice dealing directly with the breweries. You get to know them, you kind of get to know the brewery’s personality … so yeah I like getting to know them.”
This past March, the Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom took a chance on something else coming from a small brewery — the Selfie Fest Road Show. It was Jim Parker’s idea to draw attention to small beermakers who build their business on a foundation of self-distribution. Parker works for Baerlic Brewing, a five-person operation.
“They make the beer, they sell the beer, they pick up the empties,” Parker says by way of explaining long hours and a weak social life, “in that way people will begin to think about the small, independent breweries doing everything by themselves.”
The Selfie Fest, which went to the Uptown Market in April but was canceled in May before resurfacing in June at Untapped, is designed as a tap takeover by several breweries at the same time. Alex Kraft of Feckin Irish Brewing Company favors the concept.
“It’s cool to have these beers together. It’s not the easiest way to go, but in the long run it can help small brewers who want to go their own way. In the long run it can help a brewery — being self-distributed, you don’t have to brew a specific thing because the distributors told you we want you to make this particular style. Half of the fun of brewing is just trying something out.” Kraft doubts a large distributor would have taken a chance on Feckin’s Top o’ the Feckin Mornin’ porter. Now it’s a mainstay of what the 3-year-old brewery sells.
About that point during the interview, a few people wandered into Untapped. They’d gotten off work, survived traffic jams and were looking to relax. But because this was not a standard meet-the-brewer event or tap takeover, they didn’t seem aware of what was going on — the Selfie Fest.
Ben Parsons says social media hasn’t caught up with a selfie that isn’t about taking a picture. “This is an uphill battle because most people just don’t understand distribution. It is a very complicated thing. But I would argue that the beer industry is more about distribution, about power and quantity. We’re trying to celebrate the revolution”.
“I listen to my customers” says Lisa McArthur. And while those customers might not be ready for a Selfie Fest or understand distribution systems, they unwittingly appreciate what it’s done for beer. Lisa continues, “Being a small neighborhood bar, we get a lot of repeat customers, so customer recommendations I take very seriously. I’ll throw a keg on and see how it goes.”
The sun has followed the afternoon drizzle and more people are stopping in on their way home from work. Walking away from the bar, the motor scooter jockey tucks a small growler into his messenger bag, pushes his way through the door, squeezes his head into his helmet, climbs onto his scooter and fires up the hidden engine that powers him down the street.
The next Selfie Fest stops will be at McMenamins 23rd Avenue Bottle Shop in Portland in July and then Oregon City Brewing Company in August.
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Bryce Morrow was sliding easily into his brewery project.
In five years he, his father and father-in-law went from stovetop brewers to having the first legal brewery in a home garage in Oregon.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau smiled benevolently on what Bryce was doing. His luck continued when, one day while the garage door was open, a dog-walking neighbor happened by and caught a whiff of brewing beer. The neighbor owns a barbecue joint and offered to carry some of Bryce’s beer.
Soon, Bryce and his father Craig -- both Oregon City boys — went shopping for a brewery location. They found it in an old auto showroom at the corner of 14th and Washington Streets.
While father-in-law Rajiam Pursifull was experimenting with brews -- a marionberry beer, a chocolate pale ale, a sour and, of course, the Oregon-requisite IPA — Bryce and Craig outfitted their new space for a 3-barrel brewing system and taproom. Oregon City Brewing Company opened Nov. 15, 2014.
On a concrete pad outside the taproom, below a tricky sign that seems, at first glance, to promise FREE BEER*, Bryce invited a rotating roster of food trucks to park and dish up. “People loved it,” Bryce and Craig agree. “We contacted the best food trucks that we liked in Portland. They did really well and the people, all of our customers, really love it.” Bryce wants the food for another reason. The OLCC allows parents to bring in underage children when the food trucks are on site and Bryce believes family business is key to success.
But then came the first bump in Bryce’s plans. He received a couple of cease-and-desist letters from Oregon City officials and found out why there aren’t any food trucks in Oregon City. A few years back, the city banned them from downtown.
The city will allow food trucks on the old Blue Heron mill site on the Willamette River if it is developed as is hoped. Also, the community development director has said he thinks city ordinances can be revamped to allow trucks elsewhere, but things are moving slowly. Bryce says he understands. “They’re busy and they’ve got a lot of things going. I don’t expect them to drop everything else they’re doing and take up this initiative.”
This is where good business and politics come together. Besides beer, Bryce also sells shoes. He is the CEO and co-founder of Solestruck, an online shoe company with just one brick-and-mortar store in Portland’s Pearl District. With a history, then, of giving people what they want, Bryce decided to ask Oregon City what it wants. He says an informal survey in the taproom garnered about 2,500 pro-food truck signatures in three weeks. Of course, some of the great political movements in history have begun over a beer or two and since Oregonians love to vote on things, the successful survey convinced Bryce: “We’re going to pursue putting it on the ballot in November, so it would be a voter initiative.”
Getting products, beer or shoes, to customers is what drives Bryce. After being open for just over six months, he says, “We’re going to eventually increase our capacity and we’ll upgrade our warehouse. But we want to make sure when we do that it is the right thing for us.”
Ahead of that, the brewery will soon be offering Crowlers. Bryce, smiling like a kid with a new toy, says “We have something unique coming that I’ve just ordered from Oskar Blues (a Colorado brewery), a Crowler system.” It uses a special machine to draft fill and seal a 32-ounce can in about two seconds. It keeps the beer fresh until you pull the tab and pour it out.
The Oregon City Brewing Company taproom offers more than OCB beer. Hop on a stool at the bar, look above the turntable and the shelves of vinyl records and you’ll see four big LCD screens. They are digital menus announcing 44 selections from other breweries, cider makers, wineries and even some root beer. All of it is aimed at helping people meet and fall in love with the best beer.
*And about that sign at the corner of 14th and Washington Streets -- it does say “FREE BEER” in large letters, but look closely. In smaller letters you’ll see the word “Wi-Fi” below “FREE” and the word “Great” above “BEER.”
Oregon City Brewing
[a] 1401 Washington St., Oregon City
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.