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The Soul of Craft Beer: A Brief History (Part 1)

How craft beer got started. Where is it now and can it survive?

GREY Journal

“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Benjamin Franklin

With an impressive one million barrels of craft beer produced each year it’s no wonder why Portland has been called “Craft Beer Central”. What gave this amazing city its title goes beyond the amount produced. Craft beer has been said to have been born here. The people responsible? A husband and wife who’s passion was wine making.

With more and more craft breweries being bought out by “Big Beer” we need to know what is really at stake if we let this art silently get swallowed up. I wanted to know how craft brew began, how it fits into our communities, and see if it really is possible for larger companies like AB InBev to produce craft brew.

Craft beer makers tasting beer at brewery
Craft beer makers tasting beer at brewery

No Way it Could Work, Could it?

Richard Ponzi and his wife Nancy were in the Pearl District looking at an old run down rope factory. As the owner showed them the property, Richard and Nancy told her about what they wanted to do with it: they were going to turn it into a brewery. She laughed at them. It made no sense to her, but she was willing to let them rent and wouldn’t stop them from trying.

In 1984 Bridgeport opened their doors for business. No one had any way to know that this was the brewery that was going to change the entire industry.

The Aerospace Engineer

Dick Ponzi is his Oregon winery
Dick Ponzi is his Oregon winery

Growing up in Michigan with an Italian family there was a lot of emphasis on meals and, of course, wine. Richard Ponzi learned at a young age how to make homemade wine with his family and to appreciate it at a level few of us can comprehend.

Richard finished high school and enrolled in college to study mechanical engineering. After graduating in 1959 he moved to California to go to work for an aerospace company as a structural design engineer. He would design, fabricate and build all sorts of equipment and went on to found Seroc Corporation to process building materials.

This experience served Richard well in later years when he designed the very first craft brewing system in the state of Oregon. Quite a few of his systems are still in use today in cellars and breweries around the country.

Craft Reborn

The Flagship of Bridgeport
Bridgeport Blue Heron IPA craft beer
Bridgeport Blue Heron IPA. Photo courtesy of JustBeer

The Blue Heron is the state bird of Oregon, but in 1987 it took on a new meaning. Bridgeport released what was to become their flagship brew, Blue Heron IPA. A combination of American and British style pale ale that has been described as having a caramel undertone with a smooth, hoppy taste.

Blue Heron was second only to their Bridgeport IPA which was released almost ten years later, in 1996. This was a bittersweet moment for the Ponzi’s. Bridgeport IPA was the beer that took the industry by storm and is credited with birthing a new generation of beer. It was also the year that Bridgeport was bought out by big beer: The Gambrinus Company.

Some feel that this was the first blood drawn in the war that was yet to come.

Can the Underdogs of Beer Survive?

It may not seem like much of a problem, big companies are always buying the small ones. True, but what is going to happen to the soul of that which we have become so fond? What happens when craft beer is simply mass produced in some remote location with hardly a glance from a factory worker to make sure the temperature is acceptable? Is that even craft beer anymore? 

I wanted to know what role these breweries play in a community face-to-face and I am going to show you an inside look at one very historic brewery right here in Portland. After that, you can decide for yourself. Who are you going to root for?

RELATED: Craft Beer, Pizza, and a Ghost (Part 2)

What do you think of the history of craft beer? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.

Jonathan Loppnow
Jonathan Loppnow is an avid outdoorsman, martial artist, and beer lover. Writing has been a passion of his for years. He grew up in California and now lives in Portland, Oregon.

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