What better way to build up hype leading up to Zwicklemania* than a rash of industry closings, yeah? While I’m sure it’s not what the Oregon Brewers Guild had in mind, as the saying goes, the show must go on. But the timing is ominous at best.
About two weeks after the announcement of Widmer closing their pub/tasting room for good this time (they pulled out the kitchen in a remodel and shortened hours/changed menus etc about a year ago), this past week has seen a couple brutal blows to the Portland beer scene. The past week has seen two breweries and a taproom/growler station close, and while there are of course other issues at play, the recurring theme with all three of these (that I see) is really expensive real estate.
Early last week, amidst the snow and ice, Burnside Brewing announced it was closing for the day due to bad weather, and never reopened. A post on Reddit shared what appeared to be an internal email telling everyone the business was closing and they may not even get their last paychecks. At that point rumors started flying, including a picture of an eviction notice posted on the door that implied the business hadn’t paid rent in 3 months. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any official announcement. The Burnside website still looks as if they are open and the last post on the facebook page is the “Tomorrow we’re going be closed for a Snow Day” post. Based on comments I’ve read online and conversations I’ve had with people in the industry it sounds like their landlord is seeing dollar signs from condo towers and owns a sweet patch of East Burnside real estate. Obviously those are unsubstantiated, so take it with a grain of salt, but that’s what I’m hearing from the grapevine. There may have been forgiveness and patience for late payments in the past and that patience may have run out. Giving Burnside the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t doing anything shady (and that will be my assumption until I hear otherwise) it seems almost like a gamblers desperation. The thought that “Just one more good weekend and we’ll make it!” And time simply ran out. I’ve also heard whispers they may reopen somewhere else and may not be completely out of the game just yet, but time will tell in that case.
This Monday, a post appeared on BeerAdvocate that the Growler Guys location on SE 8th (between Belmont and Morrison) was closing. In this case, the reason was absolutely cut and dry. At the end of their 5 year lease they were offered a chance to renew at a “significant increase” in rent. They don’t say how much, and honestly that’s no one’s business, but I just so happen to have lived in the same apartment for 5 years and in that time my rent has increased about 50% (1.5 times what it started at). Those were incremental increases that I was able to absorb, if it had all come at once I’m not so sure I would have been able to. Based on the location (inner SE) and being a commercial property I wouldn’t be shocked if the increase was double (or more). The area where they are located has changed dramatically in 5 years. A couple apartment towers have gone in, Market of Choice opened a store there along with Shilling Cider House across the street. Rogue rebranded and renovated the old Green Dragon into the Rogue Eastside Pub and Pilot Brewery and The Commons gave way to a Portland outpost for California brewery Modern Times.
The very next day, a bombshell hit that, to quote Jeff Alworth, was “shocking but hardly surprising”. In a statement from owner Gambrinus, it was announced that Bridgeport Brewing was closing after 35 years. One of the literal godfathers of the Portland craft beer movement, the first to open in 1984 (after fledgling Cartwright Brewing failed) and followed in short order by Widmer, McMenamins and Portland Brewing. Jeff’s post about it gives a lot of background info over on the Beervana Blog. Most of us knew Bridgeport was struggling. Two years ago they laid off half their brew staff, shortened/cut pub hours and took other cost cutting measures. I assumed they were dead at that point, but then they introduced new labels and a couple new products that looked like they *might* just make a comeback, but alas it wasn’t to be. According to Jeff’s blog post, their highest volume was 27k BBL(beer barrels =~ 31 gallons), which in all honesty is a lot smaller than I thought. I’ve always thought about Bridgeport as one of the “Big Three” along with Widmer and Portland Brewing at 100k+ bbls. But even so, their volume the last couple years had been around 6000 barrels, or less than 1/3 of capacity. One thing I’ve learned in my short time in the beer industry is that empty tanks are really, really expensive. You still have to maintain them, clean them, keep them hooked up to glycol and CO2, but with the opportunity cost of not making something in them you can sell. This quote from Jeff Alworth says it all; “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.”
I’ve lived in Portland for almost 6 years. Just long enough to get that “Dammit people need to stop moving here!” vibe even as a transplant myself. I’m not foolish enough to think that any of this change will stop. Portland is growing the same way all cities grow. In fits and starts, some of it good, some bad, some controlled, some rabid. I’ve watched it in Charlotte and Atlanta growing up and heard about it in Seattle and San Francisco. These things happen, life goes on. It’s simply how shit works. The only thing about it that makes me sad is I see these neighborhoods that are really funky and cool, like Hawthorne or Division or the Goat Blocks and a lot of people visit those places because it has shops, cafes, theaters etc. Eventually, people don’t want to visit there, they want to live there. But what happens when you need to build apartments? You tear down the shops, cafes, theaters etc. After a while, a bunch of people live there but all the hip, cool shit that got people to move there is gone. As the original group of residents move out and new ones move in no one knows what made it cool anymore, it’s just a “place to live”. All three of these closures reek of “We’re in a super hip cool spot, but now it’s so hip and cool we can’t afford to stay here anymore.” That’s the part that sucks. Artists make a place cool, but then you kick out the artists so the yuppies can live there and be “cool” but then it’s not cool anymore.
Note: Literally as I was writing this, a post on Facebook claims that Scout Brewing is now closed. There’s no information beyond “Scout Brewing may have poured it’s last pint”. I don’t know anything about Scout and never went there, but I have seen their location on Division (see hip neighborhood comments above). They opened a place with a built in food cart pod. Seems like a good idea yeah? Based on the Facebook comments it sounds like they were contract brewing elsewhere before they opened their own place, and I don’t think the Division spot has been open very long, so maybe this is more of a thing that was doomed from the start? 30% of all new restaurants close within a year or so I’ve heard. Some stuff just literally never makes it off the ground.
*Zwicklemania is Oregon’s annual brewery open house. One day a year breweries open their doors offering tours, tastings, beer specials etc, a lot of it free and open to the public. Often breweries will offer a taste of beer directly from a fermentation tank. Zwickle (or Zwickel) is the name of a sample port on a beer tank (named for the company that makes a type of them, same as how “BandAid” and “Coke” just became universal). Germany even has a type of young, unfiltered beer called “Zwickelbier”.