"With pinot noir, we had to educate some distributors, but it wasn't bad. With beer, we had to do it over and over," Dick Ponzi says in local author Pete Dunlop's new book, Portland Beer. "We got tired of the grind."
Enter Gambrinus, the United States' 10th-largest brewing company, based in Texas and known for Shiner Bock and Trumer Pils. After taking over BridgePort's facility in the Pearl, Gambrinus kept chugging out the brand's flagship, Blue Heron, but also bet on a hoppy new horse: BridgePort IPA.
It may seem tame now, but at the time BridgePort IPA was a revelation to craft-beer fans. In Oregon, where India pale ales now account for more than a quarter of all beer sales, the label is still the category's third-best seller. This is the story of that revolutionary beer.
CARLOS ALVAREZ, PRESIDENT OF GAMBRINUS:
"In 1994, Dick was very candid in sharing his belief that BridgePort was facing major challenges in an increasingly demanding marketplace. BridgePort had several brands in the market then—Blue Heron, Pintail, Coho Pacific—but I didn't feel like any of them had the longevity to keep pace with the burgeoning craft community. Imagine how fragile we felt. We needed a signature beer and brand in order to keep pace with our peers.
"Before closing on the deal, I turned to Australian Phil Sexton, who started the craft revolution in that country. Phil sat me down at the brewery and gave me an extensive introduction to the IPA style. I could see the style was 'pushing it.'"
PHIL SEXTON, THEN AN EXECUTIVE AT GAMBRINUS:
"Originally, it was 60 IBU, but we found that to be a little high. There were some raised eyebrows about our hop bill at the time.
"There was talk about hoppier and more bitter beers, but this seemed to be disconnected from the basics: balance, harmony and drinkability. Without copying the already well-established American pale ale, we should take it to the next level, using local hops and bottle fermentation for natural preserving. I hadn't actually had an IPA, I had just read about them in old brewing texts."
At the time, the only IPAs made near Portland came from Bert Grant of Yakima Brewing and Malting, and Seattle's Redhook.
KARL OCKERT, BRIDGEPORT'S BREWMASTER FROM 1984 TO 1990, WHO RETURNED IN 1996:
"[IPA] wasn't considered a major style of beer because people, in general, weren't ready for a hop-driven, bitterness-centered beer.
"BridgePort had brewed Ross Island IPA as a seasonal, draft-only beer. That was after 1990. I never tried it. One thing that [Phil] looked at, trying to run this brewery and excite the lineup was, 'Well, we grow hops here. We should have a beer that puts those in the forefront as bitterness and flavor and aroma.'"
"We were looking for fruit esters rather than the more nutty, dry style of the English versions. Cascades and Chinooks loaned themselves very well to this, and the introduction of a hopback allowed us to extract high levels of aromatic oil without driving up the bitterness."
"It was almost like a citrusy perfume. We were like, 'Oh my God, I think we got something here.'"
The Gambrinus Company's director of brewing operations in 1997 was Jaime Jurado. He had previously been brewmaster at Stroh, once the third-largest brewery in America.
"I had worked in the UK and got to know the workings of a hopback, which is not a hopjack like at BridgePort, I gained knowledge of cask conditioning and bottle-conditioning because we did that with our cask ales, but BridgePort gave me a whole new perspective. It really was my catechism. At Stroh we did a huge amount of faux craft and contracted all-malt brewing, mostly long-lost, ephemeral brands now. I thought that was craft and BridgePort made me realize that was bullshit."
Oregonian beer writer John Foyston wrote a story about BridgePort's new ownership and its aggressive new IPA on June 7, 1996.
JOHN FOYSTON IN 1996:
"The new pale ale is even more extravagantly hopped than is normal in Northwest microbrews. Every barrel contains two pounds of five different varieties of hops. That contrasts to the more usual figure of two ounces per barrel."
Ockert notes: "We didn't use any high-alpha hops. The highest was Cascade at 5 to 6 percent alphas. Lots of late-addition aroma hops. And 50 BU was considered pretty powerful."
"It's hard to remember Portland before the hop wars, but that time did exist. IPA was an esoteric, mostly forgotten style except for Ballantine's version [brewed from 1939 until the mid-1990s]. I only ever heard about it—never made it out to the West Coast as far as I know. And the homebrewers who made their own IPAs. But BridgePort IPA was the beer that made Portland into an IPA town, and it probably started the hop wars, too. It's still one of my favorites to this day, despite dozens of other choices."
FRED ECKHARDT, PORTLAND LEGEND, 87, THE DEAN OF BEER WRITERS:
"IPA is one of my favorite styles. If I don't get enough hops, I get two IPAs."
STAN HIERONYMUS, AUTHOR OF FOR THE LOVE OF HOPS:
"Grant's was tongue-scraping. We found more abrasive beers from small breweries and brewpubs, but IPA was definitely a niche, made by brewers—including homebrewers—out of love.
"My primary interest in 1996 was [BridgePort's] emphasis on the bottle conditioning, making it 'real ale' in the bottle. That changed the perception of hops and hop varieties. By then, our go-to IPAs were Goose Island, which was more English-influenced, and [Bell's] Two Hearted, which is unapologetically American. I had both Blind Pig Brewing Inaugural Ale DIPA and 'regular' India pale ale at the Great American Beer Festival in 1995."
Blind Pig Brewing was the short-lived but legendary brewery in Temecula, Calif., started by Vinnie Cilurzo, now of Russian River. Inaugural Ale was the prototype for Pliny the Elder, heralded as the first, and best, double IPA.
"As I recall, Inaugural Ale had a lack of balance and harsh bitterness. Russian River IPA—I don't think it was called Blind Pig IPA yet—was cleaner…less tongue-scraping hops. It felt immediately—and, in part, because of marketing—like BridgePort recognized there was a bigger market for a hoppier beer."
JERRY FECHTER, WHO FOUNDED LOMPOC BREWING IN 1996:
"I remember having a Bridgeport IPA and thinking: Wow!"
BEN LOVE, OREGON NATIVE AND CO-OWNER OF GIGANTIC BREWING:
"The first time I had BridgePort IPA must have been in '97. I was 19 and part of a group that was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. During at least one of our get-togethers the 'adults' in the group had brought BridgePort IPA. They were all excited to be drinking it. My first impression was that it was very bitter. At the time, most of the beer I drank was Weinhard's or Black Butte Porter. I didn't really understand what all the fuss was about at the time, but I distinctly remember them being stoked that there was this new hoppy beer that was being made locally, that it completely stood out from every other beer being made."
"Everyone agreed it'd be a niche beer that we wouldn't sell very much of. But it overtook Blue Heron within a matter of months. We had the market to ourselves for a while. Then it won a gold medal at the GABF the next year."
Indeed, BridgePort IPA won a gold medal in 1997—in the Classic English-Style Pale Ale category. It took silver in 1999, this time in the American-Style Pale Ale category.
"What's crazy about how bitter I thought it was then is that in today's world of hoppy IPAs, I feel like it is more along the lines of a pale ale. To me it's a great marker point in the history of American IPA."
"I'm not surprised; it's the 'supersize me' market. At the time, we felt that this was as far as we could go without moving to enigmatic beer."
"BridgePort IPA was way above the sensory scale for 1996. Moving forward, I think it will enjoy a rebirth of sorts—and will play a role with newer beer enthusiasts as they evolve their tastes and discover that there's more to great IPA than being a 'hop-delivery system.'"
"We entered it into the American-style IPA category at GABF in 2009, the last year before I retired. The judges' notes came back saying, 'Not true to style.' At the end of my stay at BridgePort, I received hate email from people saying it couldn't possibly be called an IPA because it didn't approach 100 IBUs."