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How Coors and Democratic politicians almost killed Oregon beer.

DAD AND SONS: (From left) Ray, Kurt and Rob Widmer sampling their early wares.

The law, which was passed 30 years ago today and signed into law by Vic Atiyeh, Oregon's last Republican governor, effectively created the state's craft beer industry as we know it.

"The Brewpub Bill brought craft beer out of the closet," McMenamins co-founder Mike McMenamin says. "Once we had it, the whole idea of dark, dingy taverns started to slowly disappear. It got families in there and just opened things up."

Today, the most interesting story is how close it came to not happening thanks to Joseph Coors' personal politics, a Reedie-turned-Democratic state senator from Troutdale, and the dysfunction in Salem.

Although the craft beer movement started in earnest after the legalization of home brewing in the U.S. in 1978, there wasn't a workable business model for a new small-scale brewery at first. Oregon's first brewery, Cartwright, bottled its beer and crashed in late 1981 after only two years. In Oregon, post-Prohibition anti-corruption laws meant that brewers could not sell their beer directly to consumers, which was more than a little inconvenient.

Oregon's three-tier system required breweries to pass their wares to taverns, bars and retailers either directly or through distributors. Distributors weren't interested in craft beer, which they considered a novelty. Self-distribution was the only option, and it was arduous.

In 1985, BridgePort, then known as Columbia River Brewing, and Widmer Brothers were the only operating craft breweries. Mike and Brian McMenamin, who owned pubs, and the organizers of what would become Portland Brewing were waiting in the wings.

That was about to change thanks to a handful of people, most with names still familiar to Portland beer geeks.

California and Washington already had brewpubs and hadn't seen any disasters. Dick and Nancy Ponzi, founders of BridgePort, had experience with a wine-tasting room—if you could buy wine at a wine-tasting room, they argued, why shouldn't the same rules apply to craft beer?

Everyone in the fledgling industry got behind the idea: the Ponzis, Ockert, Kurt and Rob Widmer, the McMenamins, and Art Larrance, Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin, who planned to open Portland Brewing once brewpubs became legal.

Somewhat naively, the group thought they could write a common-sense bill, waltz down to Salem and have it introduced and become law. Of course, there was more political gamesmanship involved.

According to legend, Larrance introduced the brewpub concept to Rep. Tom Mason, a Portland Democrat, in the shower at Multnomah Athletic Club. Mason agreed to look over the bill. In late January 1985, he introduced it in the Oregon House as HB 2284, an "economic development and quality of life measure."

"We pushed the idea," Dick Ponzi remembers. "We would pile into our car, go down to Salem and knock on doors. We had that experience with wine, but doing it with these guys over beer wasn't quite the same."

Things didn't go as the group had hoped.

HB 2284 flew through the House on a 56-0 vote in early March 1985. It looked like the bill would easily pass the Senate. Instead, HB 2284 became a political pawn. When the brewers' group arrived for a hearing April 11, they watched as the bill was tabled, apparently dead.

The Brewpub Bill had become entangled in two disputes: The first was whether to let Coors sell its beer in Oregon; the second involved the state's beer distributors, some of whom weren't sure they liked the idea of breweries selling their own beer.

At the time, Coors was desperately trying to tap the Oregon market. For decades, its beer had been available in a limited number of states, giving it a cult following, as depicted in the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit. Coors was distributed in 40 states by 1985, but it wanted to be in all 50.

Coors ran into two snags. First, Oregon had a 50-year-old statute forbidding the sale of unpasteurized beer, which was officially considered unhealthy. Coors beer was cold filtered, not pasteurized. Second, Coors had developed a reputation for being anti-labor and anti-environment. A lot of Oregonians didn't like Coors.

Ironically, Oregon's goofy pasteurization law applied only to packaged beer sold in stores. Taverns, bars and restaurants were free to sell unpasteurized beer, and they sold plenty of it because virtually all draft beer is unpasteurized. In fact, Coors was selling kegs of its beer in Oregon as early as 1983.

Today, that notion is comical. There was nothing in the bill to allow unpasteurized packaged beer. Craft breweries planned to sell only draft beer and had no intention of bottling—after the Cartwright debacle, they viewed it as too expensive and financially risky.

By late May, resistance to Coors and brewpubs had softened. Lobbyists for beer distributors advised lawmakers to let the legislation go through. The political obstacle posed by labor was muted.

On June 1, the bills allowing brewpubs and Coors' unpasteurized bottled beer in Oregon were combined into SB 45.

It looked to the world as if the bill would sail through. But it didn't. On June 12, SB 45 cleared the House on a 45-14 vote only to be blocked in the Senate. With only a few weeks left in the session, there were worries the bill might die.

Luckily for the brewers, the gamesmanship of parliamentary procedure was about to work in their favor.

Rep. Verner Anderson (R-Roseburg), an ally of the brewpub legislation, inserted the brewpub language into SB 813, which addressed the granting of liquor licenses to bed-and-breakfast establishments. In effect, there were two separate bills with the brewpub language in the legislative pipeline by early June.

Because the brewpub language had been added to SB 813, which had already cleared the House and Senate, it needed only to go through conference committee for review. In a five-minute meeting on the afternoon of June 17, the bill was unanimously approved. That was it. The bill headed to Atiyeh's desk, and was signed into law July 13.

Craft brewing in Oregon was forever changed.

Several months later, the McMenamins began brewing at their pub in Hillsdale, officially the first brewpub in Oregon. BridgePort soon followed suit. Portland Brewing opened in March 1986. The Widmers wound up dedicating all the space they had to beer production and didn't open a pub until 1996, several years after they moved from the Pearl District to North Russell Street.

As the state Legislature was battling over the Brewpub Bill, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Bill Snouffer ruled the state's absurd pasteurization law unconstitutional on June 12, hours after SB 45 went down, finding that "neither the safety nor the health of the people of the state is jeopardized by the consumption of unpasteurized beer.” 

Pete Dunlop is the author of Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana, which contains a more detailed account of how the Brewpub Bill became law.

WWeek 2015

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