Oregon, the Beaver State, is the USA’s ninth largest in area, about 5% bigger than the United Kingdom and 5% smaller than New Zealand but with a population of slightly less than 4m. In terms of population distribution, Oregon more closely resembles an Australian state. The majority of its residents (about 60%) live in its largest city (Portland).
Since 2000, Oregon has attempted to define itself as the beer capital of the USA. A National Geographic article from 2001 said as much and Thrilllist published a recent subjective list placing the state on the top of the heap. In terms of objective facts, Oregon doesn’t rank at the top by any measure. Not in the absolute number of craft breweries (4th). Not in the number of breweries per capita (2nd). Not in liters consumed per legal drinkers (5th). And not in the number of barrels of craft beer produced annually (6th).
So how is it and why is it that Oregon has, in the public’s imagination anyway, the prime seat on America’s beer throne?
Oregon can’t lay claim to the nation’s oldest breweries. Pennsylvania, New York, and Wisconsin beat Oregon to the starting line. Oregon’s first brewery, Liberty, was set up in Portland in 1852 by a German immigrant, just as many of the USA’s early breweries were.
Oregon can’t lay claim to the USA’s first craft brewery either. That distinction goes to California, when Fritz Maytag bought a controlling stake in the ailing Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. That was in 1965. At that time, Oregon’s beer scene was still wading in mediocrity. Five main breweries, all with similar styles and tastes, dominated. As the 1970’s dawned, no one could have predicted beervana, a term coined later to describe the blossoming craft beer movement in the state, was little more than a decade away.
So what happened? How did Oregon leap from blasé Pacific Northwest regional breweries like Blitz Weinhard, Rainier, and Lucky Lager to become a brewing wonder with currently 234 brewing facilities operated by 194 brewing companies in 72 cities across the state?
Let’s just say Oregon had a lot of different factors working in its favor. It just took multiple decades for these various factors to play off each other and eventually conflate into an overpowering force that has worked to Oregon’s advantage ever since.
First, there is hops, which has a long history in the state. Oregon can’t boast it was the first American state to commercially produce it. New York earned that title. By 1849, New York was the national leader in hop production, a distinction that turned out to be short-lived. A powdery mildew hops disease rampant in 1909 and Prohibition a decade later ultimately destroyed New York’s hops industry. Oregon was better suited for growing hops and began commercially producing it in 1867. Within a half century Oregon became the USA’s largest hop producer. The state of Washington now gets top hops honors, but Oregon still ranks as number two, producing 14.5% of all American hops.
A second favorable factor is Oregon State University (OSU). With hops a viable industry in the state since the 1860’s, it was natural that OSU would move into hops crop research and experimentation. OSU has been doing so as far back as 1893. The school established an Aroma Hops Breeding Program that yielded the now famous Cascade and Willamette cultivars. Students at OSU brew beer, not just drink it. The university has its own brewhouse. In 1995, the school initiated a Fermentation Sciences program to educate and train new brewers. Such a famous food science/brewing program serves to suck star beer talent into the area from the rest of the country.
Third is Portland itself, a smallish but liberal and cosmopolitan city. Between 1950 and 1980, the Portland population remained steady at about 400,000, with the population actually declining a bit between 1970 and 1980. It felt like a more intimate place than faster growing cities like Phoenix which quintupled in population during that same thirty year period. This encouraged more of a produce-and-buy-local policy.
The city always had a great bar and pub culture and more and more of these places decided to serve locally made beers, influenced by Britain’s changing pub culture in the early 1970’s. These Portland bars/pubs served locally made product they did not brew themselves. A quirk in the state laws did not allow brewing to occur at the same location as retail sales. A small group of brewers united to push a bill through the Oregon Legislature in 1985 which made it possible to produce beer and sell it in a restaurant on the same premises. That bill’s passage was the seed which later germinated into the Oregon craft beer explosion that got everyone’s attention less than two decades later.
California has more than twice the number of breweries as Oregon, but California’s breweries are scattered across the USA’s most populous state and one of its largest in size, stretching almost 1,400 km from top to bottom. Over 70% of Oregon’s breweries, on the other hand, are located less than 175 km away from Portland and more than a third are in the Portland Metro area itself. This has created a kind of world-class beer cluster, akin to the tech colonies one finds in Silicon Valley.
What Oregon can lay claim to is a collection of the USA’s most famous craft breweries sandwiched into a very small area. Breweries like Deschutes, Ninkasi, Portland, Full Sail, Bridgeport, and Rogue Ales are known by American craft beer lovers in all the fifty states and increasingly by foreigners, too. In 2014, 20% of the beer consumed in Oregon was craft beer made in Oregon and with good reason. Except for California, anyone would be hard pressed to name five famous craft breweries from any other American state.
Oregonians may not produce the most, consume the most, or earn the most on craft beer. That’s fine by them as long as you’re drinking one.