Reflections on Portland, America’s #2 Craft Beer City

Vince Vasquez Vince Vasquez 4 Comments

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For years, Portland, Oregon has laid claim to the largest number of breweries and brewpubs of any city in the United States. That honor will soon pass to San Diego.

Though it went unreported, sometime this spring the City of San Diego matched “beer fortified” Portland for the total number of breweries and brewpubs (60). Based upon the pending ABC licenses and planned brewery openings, I project that San Diego will surpass Portland by the end of this year. That means San Diego will be home to the largest number of breweries and brewpubs per capita (Vista), by city, and by county – an industry triple crown of sorts.

This is an incredible milestone achieved by our local brewers and industry professionals who work tirelessly to provide exceptional beer, food and service. It also underscores the local paradigm shift from industrial breweries to a retail tasting experience that is geographically closer to visitors and residents. More urban breweries and “tasting stores” mean higher profit margins for brewers via direct sales, more local sales tax revenue and more job creation.

While I know some within the craft beer community will say there’s not much meaning to this industry eclipse, and that both cities are friends, I would argue there are important questions we should ask ourselves. How aware are Portlanders of San Diego’s industry ascendance? How similar or different are we as West Coast craft beer regions? Can San Diego’s rise become something more than just the most number of breweries at any one moment in time?

As it just so happens, I had a work-related training seminar scheduled last month in Portland. I took the opportunity in my free time to conduct a mini-industry investigation, and learn as much as I could about the local craft brew scene and what industry workers thought of San Diego. I have visited Portland a few times before, but never as a craft beer tourist.

I crowdsourced recommendations from SD Beer Friends on Facebook, and from friends who live in the area. Within 72 hours I made my way to tastings at half a dozen breweries – Deschutes, Ten Barrel, BridgePort, Stormbreaker, Ecliptic, and Rogue. Many more were on the short list but were cut due to time.

I left with the clear impression that Portland’s industry shares the same open, social, collaborative spirit I find in San Diego. Many of those I spoke too were passionate and knowledgeable of their craft. There is also a distinct pride in locally-sourced ingredients – Oregon hops and barley, yeast strains grown in Portland (Imperial) and Hood River (Wyeast), and a pristine local water source. Unlike San Diego, Portland’s population is dominated by residents born in state, and that may play a role in the hyper-local consumer orientation. According to Beer Insights, craft beer has a 42% market share in Portland, compared to about 30% in San Diego.

Public transit and walkable neighborhoods made it easy to reach every brewery without a car.

What I had expected to find, perhaps naively so, was a shared celebration of the West Coast IPA, or at least what San Diegans generally know them to be – big hop aroma, citrusy, unbalanced, bitter, and that recognizable golden to light copper color. Surprisingly, Portland IPAs didn’t dominate the beer menus I found, and only a few had a similar flavor profile of a San Diego-made IPA (Hopworks IPA, Eclipse’s Orbital IPA and Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack IPA). Most local West Coast IPAs I sampled used a consistently different mix of hops, varied in color, aroma, and were largely balanced. Perhaps this is a reflection of consumer demand, or brewing with a different artist’s palette of hops, yeast, grain and water?

Perhaps regionalism dominates craft brewing, and the West Coast is nothing more than a shared geography between Portland and San Diego. The industry workers I talked with had mutual admiration and respect for San Diego, but to them we are a distant place with limited influence. There were no obvious imitations. Local patrons I spoke to generally knew about San Diego craft beer, but often struggled to name more than one brewery. Perhaps I would find the same reaction in San Diego taprooms when discussing Portland.

Still, why not aspire to expanding our relevance and influence as America’s largest beer city? Leadership is what you make of it. San Diego brewers take pride in what they do, and how they do it. Locally, we talk about “San Diego Pale Ales” and our version of West Coast IPAs, which are clearly unique, desirable products. Why not share those varietals, and our craft beer culture with the rest of the world? This is a goal that extends beyond increasing sales and distribution for San Diego – it’s about sharing what we do, and building market demand and interest in how we do it.

The German style varietals I found dominating beer menus in Texas breweries – that’s cultural influence. The omnipresence of Irish-style stouts and Irish style pubs – that’s cultural influence. Why not San Diego? Some cultural influence is exported through population migration – perhaps the Great California Diaspora will lend itself to more market demand for San Diego-style beers, or a San Diego- brewery will find their way to opening a tasting room in Portland.

Still, it is more likely that it will take a concerted effort to share the San Diego craft beer experience across the country. It makes sense then to begin that campaign in the top markets for craft brewing – Portland, Asheville, Grand Rapids, et al.

Portlanders follow their own rhythm in the world; they build, live and dream on their own axis. I encourage all San Diegans to go and visit and learn what makes The City of Roses a great place to be. As San Diego emerges as the top beer city, it’s important for local industry leaders to consider how they plan to expand their reach and relevance, and create long-term, meaningful market presence.

Vince Vasquez is a think-tank analyst based in San Diego. He has authored policy papers on San Diego’s craft brewing industry.

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Comments 4

  1. San Diego has a much better climate for beer lovers. Portland is better for drunks: cold, humid, depressing clime.

  2. SD has always had it on quality. Portlandia has nothing that stands up to Green Flash’s triple IPA.

  3. Fewer “craft” breweries means that Oregonians run less of a chance of drinking the gawd-awful hoppy crap that’s served to San Diegans.

  4. I have it on good authority that Portland’s craft beer scene is solid and walkable, which creates a different vibe. Thank God there IPA style is different, who wants nothing but clones; that’s why we don’t drink Bud anymore.

    There is great craft beer all over the country now. For example, I tasted a gem of an IPA from rural Maryland a few weeks ago, Calvert Brewing’s “Route 4 IPA”.

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