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A Burst Bubble, or a "Correction?" 

What two recent shutterings tell us about Oregon's brewery scene

click to enlarge bye.jpg

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he closing of one brewery's taproom in Bend last week perhaps didn't come as a great surprise for beer fans in the city. The upcoming shuttering of a much more renowned one in Portland, meanwhile, has some industry watchers wondering if the craft beer "correction" is underway.

Craft Kitchen & Brewery opened over two years ago off Industrial Way, a sort of reboot of the Old Mill Brew Werks that paired innovative tapas-style cuisine with lovely patio views and fresh beer from their 3.5-barrel brewing system. The location was an improvement from Brew Werks' original home, but the operation was still low-key compared to the boom along the rest of Industrial, and the taproom closed last week. (Posts on Craft's Facebook page stated that the brewery will be moving to a new location, to be announced at the start of October.)

Meanwhile, The Commons Brewery announced that it'll close its southeastern Portland taproom by the end of the year, a move that—while not completely unexpected, given how the head brewer left in July—sent many beer fans reeling. The Commons itself will not fold; it still owns the warehouse-style building on SE Belmont Street that houses its brewing facility, and there is talk of producing beer elsewhere on a smaller scale. For now, its main business will be collecting rent from San Diego-based Modern Times Beer, which plans to move into the Belmont location in 2018 and open a new cafe, coffee roaster, and taproom. Modern Times has also purchased adjacent space for a new brew facility that, according to founder Jacob McKean, will let them produce 20,000 barrels per year for their Pacific Northwest audience.

Enjoy The Commons’ delicate farmhouse ales—but not for long. Photo by Kevin Gifford.
  • Enjoy The Commons’ delicate farmhouse ales—but not for long. Photo by Kevin Gifford.
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either of these announcements are of full-on closures, of course, but news of The Commons—a brewery with a huge reputation in Oregon and a hoard of beer-festival medals to prove it—facing difficulty keeping the lights on at Belmont startled many fans. Across the state, it brought up speculation that beer is facing a shakeout like the one in the 1990s, when large Portland outfits such as Saxer and Nor'Wester (whose hefeweizen was, at one time, the top-selling bottled beer in all of Oregon) were forced into a series of buyouts when growth sputtered.

"In the mid-1990s, some of Oregon's biggest and seemingly most-successful breweries collapsed very quickly," says Jeff Alworth, writer of the Beervana Blog. "Four of five of the earliest Oregon breweries would become the biggest, [and] none is wholly independent today. The sole independent from those early days is the McMenamins brewpub empire."

However, neither Alworth nor Josh Lehner of the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis see this as doomsday for craft beer growth. "Here in Oregon," Lehner said, "we're seeing four or five brewery closures per year at a 2 percent rate"—well below the 7 to 7.5 percent rate for all industries. "A handful of high-profile closure announcements are not likely indicative of big industry problems. The pace of brewery closures remains considerably low and is likely to rise in the coming years even if the industry has no significant problems."


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