Bridgeport Brewing is Oregon’s oldest brewery. Though it is now owned by Texas-based Gambrinus Company, the brewery is credited with creating the first Portland IPA that opened minds and palates. These days every beer maker has an IPA, and even Bridgeport’s best-selling Hop Czar double IPA needed freshening up to stay relevant. Bridgeport, like many other older breweries, has gone through many beer lineup changes in recent times by retiring classic beers like Blue Heron Pale Ale and its English-style ESB. Some would argue the new year-round beers haven’t made a splash either, but the company’s IPAs continue to do well, including the new Citra hop version of Hop Czar and the Trilogy anniversary pale ale series. Still, Bridgeport doesn’t seem to have a solid year-round lineup and has yet to have a summer seasonal last for long. What better time to catch up with Bridgeport Brewing’s Brewmaster, Jeff Edgerton, on the state of Bridgeport and his thoughts on the industry.
Q: How long have you been professionally brewing and where?
Jeff Edgerton: I started working at Blitz-Weinhard Brewing in 1989 as a lab tech, so 25 years in the industry.
Q: Were you a homebrewer before? How did you first get a job in the industry? JE: I’ve always loved beer, but never actually got into home brewing. I grew up in Canby, about 25 miles south of Portland with hop fields all around me. The big regionals were Blitz, Rainier, Olympia, Lucky. My dad always had Blitz stubbies around the house, so I grew up around it. When I received my degree in Microbiology at OSU, I spent a year in the food industry while sending resume after resume to Blitz. It was a natural fit for a guy with my background that loved beer. But the jobs at Blitz were pretty hard to get, so it took about a year before I was called. Once I was hired I took advantage of every opportunity to learn about brewing science: classes, seminars, Master Brewers Association, American Society for Brewing Chemists, etc. The brewers at Blitz were an incredible source of knowledge for me as well and were very proud of their work there.
Q: Bridgeport is Portland’s oldest existing brewery. Has it also undergone some of the largest changes?
JE: It is the oldest brewery now, but has had very conservative growth compared to some of the others in town. We started in one corner of our current building brewing malty, not hoppy, craft ales. We expanded into pizza by the slice to go with the beer, and gradually expanded through the building so that we take up about 75% of this building now and have a capacity of around 70,000 bbls/year. We are currently brewing around 50,000 bbls. While we still do many things by hand, we have embraced technology in many things, especially our packaging dept. I call our brewhouse a “semi-automatic” system as some processes are automated, but many are still very dependent on my talented brewing staff. Q: It seems like in the last handful of years Bridgeport has sort of struggled with the lineup of beers. Beers like your ESB and Blue Heron were beloved, but probably not the greatest sellers anymore. Still, their replacements haven’t seemed to catch on, either. Is it difficult to figure out what the consumer wants?JE: It is a very competitive beer market out there with many breweries making great beer. The market is such that it’s difficult for any brewery to have only one flagship beer that they can make for years on end. Not every beer is a hit, but we’ve had great response to our newest entries and are looking forward to bringing more new tastes to the consumer. Q: For a while it seemed like Bridgeport was sort of the classic, old school, English tradition-based American brewer, but now not as much. How would you describe the brewery and do you think the style or the beers are morphing in any way?
JE: Again, you can’t sit back on your laurels and expect to keep up with the pack in US craft brewing. I would describe us a hops-driven American craft brewery with a British-Style infusion brewhouse. I’ve never been what I call a “style guy,” so I don’t let classic styles hem us in. We brew beers that we think will taste good, be interesting, and that people will enjoy to drink. Once we have a recipe then we decide what the style is.
Q: Has the rise of younger, fast-growing breweries like Ninkasi and 10 Barrel made it more difficult to keep up? JE: Ninkasi and 10 Barrel are outstanding breweries making outstanding beer. They certainly have the attention of the craft brew scene and are tough competitors.
Q: Do you pay attention to trends in the craft brewing industry or do you consider the brewery a little above them? For instance, brewing sour/wild ales and big barrel-aged beers is all the rage right now, and I think Bridgeport has sort of dipped its toes in with Old Knucklehead and Stumptown Tart, but not really gone in all the way. Do you see yourself doing that ever?
JE: We do watch trends and, as you said, have dabbled in some sours and a little more with oak-aged beers. It’s a huge commitment to jump into these styles and if we did it, I want to do it right. It’s not on the chalkboard at the moment, but I never say never.
Q: A lot of breweries are doing variations on IPA’s now with Rye IPA, Cascadian Dark Ales, White IPAs, and Session IPAs taking off in popularity. Are you interested or do you have any plans to brew something in these categories? JE: These are great styles and we do have a few things on the drawing board that will explore these styles. Q: What is your favorite kind of beer and are there any styles you would personally like to brew? JE: I go all over the board with no particular favorite, but I am enjoying the current trend towards lower ABV dry-hopped pales. I like all styles. As for beers to make, it’s a ton of fun to make a beer like our Imperial Red IPA that we made last fall as the first of our Mettle and Mash series. We do this series as a “brewer’s choice” for recipes and brew small batches (50 bbls) so we use it as a chance to experiment. Great fun. Q: What do you think is the best and worst trend in the beer industry right now? JE: Best trend: lower alcohol. Imperials and doubles have their place, but I really think that the sessionable ale promotes more of the social aspect of beer.
Worst trend: I’m not sure if it’s a “worst” trend, but I’m very concerned about the explosion of the growler craze. Most places doing growlers are very conscienscious about cleaning, maintenance, and proper filling, but I think that the potential exists for the consumer to get carefully brewed beer sold to them in less than ideal condition. This could reflect badly on brewers who do a great job making the beer. It’s just a concern. Q: What new beers should Bridgeport fans be excited about and looking out for in the near future? JE: We are currently working on Trilogy 3 and a third beer in the Hop Czar series. It’s a little early to let the cat out of the bag on styles, but I think that consumers will enjoy the new offerings. We are circling back with our Hop Harvest Fresh Hop beer to an ale style this year that was very popular a few years back. For those people who haven’t been to the Hillsboro Hops stadium or don’t come to our pub, Longball Golden Ale (an extra pale summer brew made with Meridian hops) will be available on store shelves as a 22 oz offering.