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.