Legends of Beer
by Lisa Morrison
Founder of Portland Brewing
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Fred Bowman, cofounder of Portland/MacTarnahan's Brewing in Portland, Ore., has been a passionate member of the craft-brewing movement since before Portland opened the doors of its original brewpub in early 1986.
It's been a long time since those days when Bowman was fabricating "gizmos" to make the equipment for the small brewery. But Bowman loves the craft-beer movement so much that he says he doesn't think he will ever retire. Why would he? He gets to do stuff a lot of people think about doing after they retire.
With several new brews being launched under the Portland and MacTarnahan's labels, including the reintroduction of Portland Ale, the original flagship beer designed by Bowman; Grand Lux, a Belgian-style tripel; the 2003 release of the popular Benchmark Old Ale; and a limited release of Black Watch Cream Porter aged in bourbon barrels, we decided now was a good time to chat with Bowman and learn a bit more about him.
Lisa Morrison: Tell me a little bit about your first experiences with beer.
Fred Bowman: My mother had a very European attitude about alcohol. When I was pretty young, too young to be drinking legally, she said, "I don't want you drinking away from the house, but you can have it here if you like." She allowed me to have beer and wine at home. I always thought this was pretty courageous of her.
So I had tried beer before I left home (after high school) to go to Europe. My friends and I drove across the country and took a German freighter to Europe. We had some German beer on the boat, but it was not really anything that different from what I had tasted at home.
We got off the boat and walked about two blocks, and, of course, hit the first bar we came across [laughs]. So, my first legal drink was a pint of Guinness. And that was very different from what I was used to back home. Guinness is still my favorite light beer [laughs].
I was gone from home for seven months, so I got to try a lot of different beers in different countries. I had lots of opportunities to experiment with food and drink during that trip, and I think that was probably what made me so interested in beer: I experienced the variety that I wouldn't have had the chance to experience had I stayed here [in the States] at that time.
LM: So, how did you move from being a plain ol' beer geek to founding a brewery?
FB: About 1980, Jim Goodwin, a guy with whom I had been friends since I was nine years old, came over to my house one day with a book, which I still have, by a guy named Dave Line, called Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy.
We started experimenting at my house. On our first two tries, the results were uneven. We mixed them with Rainier Ale so they were drinkable [laughs].
But the third try -- I will never forget -- was a recipe for something called Bishop's Tipple. It was a strong ale and fairly sweet. It came out really good. I remember sitting in the kitchen; we took a little sip and grinned at each other. We drank a little more, and pretty soon we were slapping each other on the back. We were absolutely giddy, beyond what the alcohol could've done at that point.
We continued to homebrew to have something to drink. What we wanted wasn't available in 1980-81.
Then another mutual friend who also was homebrewing started hanging around: Art Larrance. He used to come over and help us drink what we were producing. About that time, somebody sent me a copy of a weekly newspaper from Seattle. It was all about small breweries -- Redhook in Seattle and Grant's in Yakima and a few other small breweries in the Northwest.
We started talking about how this [beer movement] was really happening, and we got pretty serious about it. We spent about a year looking into it. Art was very enthusiastic about it. But I was saying, "You know, it's not that easy. We can make homebrew, but when you're doing commercial brewing, you have to be more consistent. So either I need to go away to school for a year or two and get some education, or we need to hire someone who has the experience and education, or maybe we can get a consulting agreement with someone."
That last was the course we chose. I spent an afternoon with Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada. He was very charitable to spend as much time with me as he did. I talked to him about consulting, and he was agreeable to it. We had also talked to Bert Grant, and he was agreeable to it. For geographical reasons, we decided to get involved with Bert.
We struggled with how to finance a brewery. A friend got me in contact with a securities attorney named Del Weaver. We had gotten so much advice from so many different people. Del was the first person who said, "Well, you can do it this way, and these are the advantages, or you can do it this way, and these are the advantages." He spelled out some options and added, "You know, what you are trying to do here has a considerable amount of romance to it. I think if we put together a little stock offering to Oregon buyers -- it's not that difficult to do -- people would want to get involved for the romance of it, not really caring whether they would make a million dollars or anything." We incorporated in '83, and it was probably early '84 when we got to this point. In the meantime, we were still sourcing materials and gathering information.
LM: And you were doing all this in addition to your real jobs and your real lives, right?
FB: Well, yeah. I was lucky because I had recently started working for a friend of mine as a mechanic. That was a godsend, because he allowed me to be as flexible as necessary to work for him while trying to start a business. If I needed to take time off during the day, I could.
We put together the stock options and got licensed to sell the stock ourselves. So we were basically on the "friends and family" plan, selling stock to friends and neighbors. Well, we ran out of friends and neighbors before we raised the $125,000 we needed.
About this time, the MacTarnahans were in Yakima, Wash., attending some horse-related event. Mac had been a teetotaler for about 40 years, but he was always very proud of his Scottish heritage. The MacTarnahans discovered Grant's with its Scottish theme and were all enthusiastic about that. They wanted to get involved. They talked to Bert, who said he had enough investors. "But there's a couple of guys in Portland. Why don't you talk to them?" Bert suggested.
So the MacTarnahans came and knocked on our door and put us over the top [for financing]. They remain to this day the most incredible supporters of the brewery.
It wasn't legal to have a pub at that point. So along with the Ponzis [BridgePort], the Widmers and the McMenamins, we went to Salem to make it legal to have a pub at a brewery╩-- my first foray into politics. At the time, you could give away all the beer you wanted; you just couldn't sell it at your brewery. We said, "Look, the wineries can do this. Why can't we?" We managed to get the law changed to allow brewpubs in '85. The Ponzis got BridgePort going, the McMenamins got the Hillsdale pub going, and we got ours going right after that.
LM: It seems like there has always been a dichotomy between what the wine industry is allowed to do and what the beer industry is allowed to do.
FB: Yeah, the wine industry has always had an easier time of it. Wine has a religious connection that exists for beer in other countries but not here. It was always legal to make wine at home. And in 1979 President Carter signed a law making it legal to brew beer at home. A lot of people don't know that.
LM: That's probably not what Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for [laughs]!
FB: No, but he should have [laughs]. When homebrewing did become legal, it became easier to make good beer, to get the information and the materials. But somehow wine has always had a better public image than beer.
LM: That's something you and many other people in the industry are working to change. How do you think that effort is coming along?
FB: I think we are making progress. It's kind of funny. In the '50s, wine here in the Northwest was not very good. So wine has come a long way too. But I think with the advent of the craft breweries, the image of beer has changed considerably in this country.
LM: Back to the history of Portland Brewing. You got legislation to get the pub going. You were brewing over at the little pub on 14th and Flanders in Northwest Portland. How did you get from there to this much larger facility?
FB: Timing had something to do with it. We were pretty successful over there [at the old location], and we realized in fairly short order that we had really underestimated the market.
It's so funny now -- we were wringing our hands when we found out there were two other entities doing what we were doing: the Widmers and the Ponzis. We worried that there wouldn't be enough market for all of us. We all three even started in the same neighborhood. There were two very practical reasons for that. The neighborhood was a multi-use zone, so you could have retail sales of your beer and manufacturing at the same place. And since a brewery (Blitz-Weinhard) was already in the neighborhood, you didn't need a conditional-use permit. If it were anyplace else in town, you would have to have a conditional-use permit to have a brewery.
We were so shortsighted. The market seemed so small╩-- and look at all three of us now. We are all 10 to 20 times larger than we were then, and certainly there is a lot of competition from outside and within the state.
Actually, I think the fact that we all hit the market within a year and a few months of each other, and the fact that we were all so close in proximity to each other, made the whole thing grow a lot faster than it would've otherwise. There were that many more people out there knocking on doors. We were all making good beer, too. So everybody built the image at the same time, and this made it easier for all of us to grow.
But we quickly outgrew our location. We considered staying in the Pearl District, but it was going to be difficult. When we had moved in there, it was an old warehouse district with little else going on. We had to find a space to accommodate our growth and our needs.
LM: How else have you evolved?
FB: When we started, all of us, we had to design something and have it built for us, or else find something that was made for another purpose and change it to work for us. Every little innovation came as an inspiration from someone else's work along the way.
LM: You all were a bunch of scrappers.
FB: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. We always had to find something with an original purpose that we could fit into our needs. The plate cooler we had, for example, was not designed for a brewery but for a dairy; it was a milk cooler. Nobody made equipment for small breweries back then.
LM: There were no catalogs to look at when you all first got started!
FB: That's right. JV Northwest is the local brewery supplier. They know how to make brewery equipment. But in those days, although they had made some winery equipment, they didn't know anything about making breweries. So we had to design what we wanted and take it to them to have them fabricate it.
LM: You said earlier that when you first contemplated doing this, you considered taking time off to get an education about building and operating a small brewery. You didn't go that route, but it sounds like you got your education after all.
FB: Oh, yeah. The education goes on and on. I don't ever visit another brewery without learning something. That's what keeps it interesting and fun.
Another thing that was a real boon to us getting started here in Portland was F.╩H. Steinbart. They were really helpful in the early days with materials and things like that. Our brewery was also really close to Wink's Hardware, which was fantastic too. When I was trying to invent some sort of gizmo, I would go down to Wink's and say, "This is what I am trying to do." And the guy would say, "Well, come on back," and he'd pull something out and say, "Will this work?" You'd look at the piece of hardware and say, "Well, that's close to what I am looking for, but not quite." And off you'd go, trying to get the right pieces together.
The other thing that was good about that first location╩-- and all three of us starting up in the same neighborhood╩-- was that we would order in bulk together and share the costs. And if you ran out of bungs, you could run up the street and borrow a "cup of bungs" from your neighbor [laughs]!
LM: Do you still find that brotherhood and support in the craft-brewing industry?
FB: Yes, but to a lesser extent. Things have gotten more competitive. We all have sales departments now. I think the sales guys butt heads from time to time. At the brewing level, it's still a brotherhood. If we get together at an event, it's still just a bunch of friends in the same industry. One of the best things about this business is the people. There's a great quote [by W. Scott Griffith]: "Wine gentrifies. Beer unifies."
LM: I like that.
FB: Yeah. And it's true. All in all, it's a pretty wonderful group. I love the people I work with here. We have a wonderful crew, and you feel good every time you come to work. People make all the difference.
LM: What do you think needs to be done for the craft-brewing industry to continue to grow?
FB: What allowed us to grow so quickly was a lot of local support. And I think for all of us to survive we need to foster that again somehow╩-- get the community behind us. We need to be involved in the community, which breweries typically are. Many are major contributors to charities and community events. People don't realize that when you buy a beer from outside your area, all you get is a beer. When you buy a local beer╩-- or anything else that is crafted locally╩-- you get something much more.
So I think it's important for us to get community support. I think it's important for us to deserve community support. We need to work to be involved in the community, and we need to produce a good, consistent product at a reasonable price.
We are introducing three new beers╩-- all low-production, specialty beers. I think it's important for brewers to have a chance to do something different. It's fun, and I think it helps build pride in the company. It also creates something more interesting for beer fans to try.
I think we've survived the period of time where people were getting into the business for the wrong reasons and maybe weren't producing the best product. I think all of us now are here because we have pride in what we're doing. We realize we need to make a profit, but we are here because we want to be.
LM: What will the next 15 years bring for you?
FB: Well, I don't know that I will retire. I want to continue what we are doing. I like it that we employ people who can buy houses and cars. That's probably the most satisfying thing for me.
I am extremely proud of the beers we have now. I think they're more interesting than they have been in a long time. I run into people who say they haven't tried a MacTarnahan's in years╩-- sort of an "I've done that" attitude. Well, about six to eight months ago, we started dry-hopping it, and we changed the profile a bit. I think it's a much more interesting beer and an especially nice beer╩-- a wonderful beer╩-- now.
We recently re-released the old Portland Ale, the original recipe I created a long time ago. Frankly, at first I was kind of disappointed in it. It was kind of light bodied, and it was hoppier than I remembered it being. I thought it was sweeter. I had to go back and remember what I had in mind when I was designing that beer. It was our first beer, introduced when we opened the pub in 1986. We were doing Grant's Scottish Ale and Imperial Stout under contract.
LM: Those were two pretty big beers to have as your first beers, especially back then. No wonder you wanted to do something lighter.
FB: Yeah, and I was trying to do something a step above Henry Weinhard's╩-- something that wasn't so dramatically different from most of the beer people were drinking at the time -- a beer for people who hadn't really entered this arena before. So when we started making it again, I had to adjust my psyche a bit. I spent the weekend drinking nothing but Portland Ale, and when the weekend was over, I recognized it for the old friend it was. And I was able to go to work on Monday and sell it. [Laughs]) I can't sell anything if I don't believe in it.
Now people are really liking it. I am gratified by the reception it has received. So it's been fun to reintroduce that one. One of the reasons we decided to go with Portland Ale again is that there is a whole new generation of beer drinkers who have been weaned on PBR, so maybe it's time for this beer to appeal to them. Maybe it has come full circle.
Bowman loves the craft-beer movement so much that he doesn't think he will ever retire. Why would he? He gets to do stuff a lot of people think about doing after they retire.
Lisa Morrison is known in her hometown of Portland, Ore., as the Beer Goddess. She writes about beer and teaches beer enlightenment classes around the Rose City.
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