Re-establishing a Legacy: A Conversation with Ryan Pappe & Portland Brewing
Interviewed June 9, 2016
At Portland Brewing Co.
It's no secret Portland is an American mecca of craft beer, with over 60 breweries within the city limits, and dozens more in the surrounding 'burbs. In fact, Oregon is so passionate about their craft beer, it's the only state in the union where small brewery consumption outpaces big beer—and over 60% of their draft beer is brewed within its borders.
While many cities are only (relatively) recently experiencing the craft boom, Portland's history is rich, featuring a handful of breweries claiming a quarter-century-plus of experience. One such operation is none other than the aptly named Portland Brewing, having opened its doors in 1986. Yet–due to multiple ownership changes over the last decade and a half, 'safer' beer styles, and some dual-brand confusion–they are fighting for relevancy in an increasingly crowded market.
And leading the charge for change is Portland Brewing's Brewmaster, Ryan Pappe. We caught up with Ryan, on a rainy Northwest brew day in June, to discuss how they are working to reestablish themselves as a truly local brewery, in a city experiencing its own cultural changes.
With so much beer in Portland, where do you head to get a beer around town?
Ah man–breweries, beer bars, there're plenty of cool places. All of the above. I don't get out as much as I should. It's actually an aspect of my job that I'm bad at, getting out and drinking other people's beer...just keeping up. I have ready access, but spend probably too much time here. On my route home, Roscoe's is probably my closest beer bar. They have roughly 25 taps, a couple of casks, and a couple on nitro.
Is there another Portland brewery that you really admire–maybe with what they are doing right now?
I like Gigantic. Part of that is that I know the guys over there pretty well. And the guy who gave me my first job works there. But it's also really awesome–they don't repeat beers outside of their IPA. It's a fine IPA, but what they do so well are all the one-offs. Plus for each one, they work with a different artist for the label. Their beer releases are almost like gallery showings.
I also like Breakside, they do a lot of great stuff. A newer brewery a little off the radar is 54° 40' across the river in Washougal, Washington. Bolt [Minister] is about the nicest guy you could meet. He actually worked here for about two months, and then got poached. I don't hold it against him. He makes solid beers.
In a community with so many breweries, do you see talent poaching happen a lot?
It's musical chairs. Especially in production breweries. Most people don't get into brewing saying, "I want to make someone else's beer the rest of my life." I like this job because you get to know people, and then they go off and do interesting things. I know people who have gone to the East Coast—we just had a brewer leave and go to Charleston to start a place. I wouldn't have known anyone in Charleston otherwise, but now I have that contact.
You did something similar, correct? You moved to Cleveland?
I did move to Cleveland. I got into homebrewing and figured I wanted to be a brewer. I moved sight unseen to Cleveland, which is a very different place than Portland...
Where did you work in Cleveland?
Rock Bottom. At the time they had two different shops within the company, one was a Rock Bottom and one was a 'Chop House,' an upscale steakhouse. Both breweries were under capacity. My buddy worked for Rock Bottom here and never wanted to leave the area. He kept turning places down, until they told him, "Take this job in Cleveland, or you are going to the next opening no matter where it is." He ended up going to Cleveland. They went through a few assistants there, then he called me up. He took me up on my boast that I would move anywhere for my first job.
Are you originally from Portland?
I'm from southern Oregon, then moved up to the 'big' city. Many of the people you meet here are not from Portland–which is absolutely fine. It's a wonderful place, so I understand people moving here. As I get older, I take more and more pride being 'from' here.
I've been here a while now. I grew up downstate and went to college in Salem, just an hour south. I didn't really get into beer until I graduated college. All of my brewing education was from suffering through it, figuring it out the hard way.
What was the beer that first opened your eyes to this world?
I would have to say Deschutes Black Butte Porter. I remember my 21st birthday, senior year of college, I was living in this weird loft space and downstairs was a bar. I skipped my morning class and went down and had lunch with two pints of Black Butte Porter. Those were my first two legal beers. Then, I went to chemistry class.
Is your degree in chemistry?
No, hah! I was a theater major. I was really gearing up to be one of the many homeless people in Portland. After college I went to Europe and backpacked for two months–which was really drinking for two months. When I got back here, it was the first time in my life since junior high that I had time for a hobby. So I bought a homebrewing book and started brewing in the basement.
And now, I wouldn't be able to afford to live in that neighborhood. At the time there was nothing. Now there're multiple beer bars, bottle shops, and hip restaurants. The thing about Portland now–you don't have to pick a brewery, just pick a neighborhood and you'll find half a dozen places within a ten block radius.
Do you think that's a good thing for craft beer in Portland, having so many options?
It's a challenging thing. Especially in a place as saturated as Portland. But, people are still opening up breweries all the time...and doing well.
Have any closed?
Some. But when they close, it's usually really obvious the beer wasn't up to snuff, or they didn't realize how much work it was to run a business. It's expensive. It used to be that you could buy used equipment, and get in cheap. Now, you may as well buy new equipment because it's not much more expensive.
Is there a perception here of, "Oh, god. Not another brewery."
I don't know if I can speak for the whole city. We have a very educated beer base and therefore everyone is going to want to try whatever's new. No one is going to close within their first few months. It's after that, when everyone has had your beer—are they going to want to keep coming back?
I love beer history. And despite the growth of craft, we've only just beaten the per capita breweries that existed before Prohibition. That means we can support a lot more. Every neighborhood in the country should have a brewery. The problem we're seeing in Portland is people are starting out and putting in 15- and 30-barrel breweries and trying to get in grocery stores. Our shelves are already crazy full of good beer.
That is certainly where things will level off–there is only so much shelf and tap space, but there'll always be room for that corner brewpub.
Portland–I don't know how we lucked into it–has a bar culture. People go and drink on tap. It rains all the time, and if you're not out hiking, what else are you going to go do?
In your little free time, what are you doing around the city?
I bought a house a year ago, so now my free time is cutting hedges and figuring out where to put a garden bed. Probably more than anything though, I go to soccer games. That's where I do most of my drinking.
How did you end up back in Oregon, after working in Ohio?
I was in Cleveland for a year and a half. If I'd stayed at Rock Bottom, I would have moved somewhere else train further, spend a year there, and then move somewhere else to run a brewery...
Did you not enjoy that structured path?
No, it was a great company. I know they've had some ownership changes, just like we have had here. But really, it came down to my wife and I being from the Northwest. After Rock Bottom, I spent a year at Dick's Brewing in Centralia, Washington–halfway between here and Seattle. After that, we had a kid and left to come back to Portland.
Speaking of ownership change, Portland Brewing has seen some change of hands. What is it like working for a brewery "conglomeration?"
In the time I've been here, this is our third set of owners. I came in right after Magic Hat bought us [via Pyramid Breweries] and became "IBU," Independent Brewers United. That was an investment group, and after a couple years they wanted their money back. So they sold us to a different investment group. And two years later, they sold again. Our current ownership is FIFCO (Florida Ice & Farm Co.)–which is a Costa Rican company– but on the other hand they make the beer, Imperial, and have been doing it for over 100 years. They have a history with beer that the previous owners did not.
It's all very weird. I don't know why this is true, but in Portland, when Portland Brewing sold to Pyramid in 2004, we were written off and have been off the radar since. But in all that time, none of those owners changed what we brewed, or came in and said you need to make this or that. What has changed is how much of a sales team we have, what kind of marketing push we got...and that's the one thing that's proving to be beneficial.
What are you doing as a brewer to put Portland Brewing back in the conversation?
That's the challenge. Especially in Portland, where whoever is the cool new brewery gets a lot of attention. As I do this longer, I start to realize the beer connoisseur who reads blogs and magazines and goes to festivals and judges beer are vocal–but they are not volume. For a brewery our size, it's the people who've been drinking [our] Mac's Amber for 20 years. Yea, they might go to festivals, but when they go home Portland Brewing is in their fridge. They are supporting us, and that's priceless. It's how we have stayed open all this time.
What's different is that we are reestablishing ourselves as the local brewery, for ourselves, first. And then we're hoping that plays out in the market as well. Over multiple ownership changes, we've lost people. But, we've now just doubled our sales force, so we have boots on the ground. When a brewery a fifth our size has five people in Portland and we had two, we weren't going to compete.
That requires some humility to acknowledge these issues.
Somebody somewhere, who has more control than I do, is finally seeing that's how it works. We are working really hard to reestablish ourselves. We have the best name you could ever ask for. We have 'Portland Brewing'...in Portland! Do we make the flashiest beers? Are we award winners? That is not what we strive for. We just won at World Beer Cup, and that's awesome. But I didn't sit down writing that recipe saying, "This is going to win an award!"
Other than sales force, what else has changed in your favor?
We have an amazing group of brewers and everyone is passionate and all about what we're doing. It's a good energy. We have this big old brewery, that wasn't designed very well and isn't easy to work in. After years of barely keeping it going, they're investing money back into equipment and it's totally improved the quality of our beer.
We have this cool new pilot system, projects working with homebrewers, and even just being a part of Portland Beer Week. We didn't have the team to do a sponsorship like that before, much less the 'cred' to be involved in such a prestigious event.
How do you lean, stylistically, as a brewer?
The nice thing about our new pilot system is when we got it last year, we immediately had this plan to do all this small batch stuff and get it out on the market. But really what I wanted that for was for R & D—playing around, trying new hops. Just making stuff that doesn't have any expectation. If I can try something out with 150l lbs of grains instead of 8,000, I sleep better at night.
What do you have brewing right now?
We're brewing Outburst, under the Pyramid Breweries brand. It's an imperial IPA and the beer we make the most of.
An imperial IPA is your most popular beer? Does that speak to the Portland market?
It speaks to our niche in the market. This was a beer that started off as a one-off and sold out so fast they made it a seasonal. At that time there wasn't a lot of positive stories to tell about Pyramid. So the fact that we had this beer that was selling great, they just wanted to make more of it, and it keeps growing. Part of it is, you can buy our imperial IPA for the same price as our 5.2% Hefeweizen.
We've been intrigued by the pricing in Portland. We've drank a ton of great beer here, for far cheaper than we can in the Midwest.
Portland is sadly changing, but it's relatively affordable compared to other big cities. Don't try and buy a house here, because that sucks. It's not as bad as New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. Portland isn't a big city. We like to feel like we are, but we're not Seattle. Seattle is a big city.
Is that a friendly competition, Portland vs. Seattle?
It depends who you ask. I love visiting Seattle and I have a lot of friends up there. When it comes to soccer though, they are hated rivals. That's only a sports thing. But at the same time, half of Portland here is wearing Seahawks gear.
What is a part of town, that if you have limited time because there is so much to see, that you would send someone to check out?
You literally can't go wrong. Until last year, all my time here was in Inner South East. Hawthorne, Division, Belmont–there are lots of cool restaurants and bars, and now more and more breweries down there. North Portland has Ecliptic and Stormbreaker and a lot more hipster places. Portland has some awesome things about it, but its lack of diversity is one of the not so cool things about it.
If we were to go over to your house, what would we find in your fridge?
Milk and orange juice. Maybe seltzer water, because it was 100 degrees last week. I like seltzer water with bitters. I also have cans of our new Pyramid Pale Ale, which I love. There's also some wine from my wife's work. Portland has amazing beer, but Oregon also has amazing wine, cider and distilleries.
But that beer. Portland has amazing beer...
Photography by Nick Costa.