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5/04: Karl Ockert of BridgePort Brewing

Karl Ockert is one of those people who have been around almost since the beginning, even though heís maybe not as well known as Fritz Maytag, or Ken Grossman, Paul Shipman, or the Widmers. Thatís because Karlís been down in the brewhouse at BridgePort that whole time Ė well, actually, for most of the time. BridgePort celebrated their 20th anniversary in April of 2004, and while Karl was the brewmaster 20 years ago, and is the brewmaster again today, he wasnít there the whole time. He took a five-year "odyssey," as he called it, that took him to Anheuser-Buschís Newark, NJ brewery and through a couple less-than-successful brewpubs before he wound up back at BridgePort, reporting to a new owner, Carlos Alvarez of The Gambrinus Company.

He talks here about why he got into such an unsteady field as microbrewing, how BridgePort survived, what the relationship with Gambrinus has meant, and his views on extreme beers. Heís no iconoclast, but he will tell you what he thinks.

 

Weíll set the way-back machine; youíve been in craft brewing since before people started calling it craft brewing. Whyíd you get into it, and how?

I was going to school at Humboldt State University in 1979, and in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. A career in natural resources, at that time, did not look very promising. I was taking chemistry, microbiology, and those kind of sciences, I always liked sciences. I saw an article about this guy named Donald Brewson who did the Fox & Firkin, you know, the different Firkin pubs? I was homebrewing at the time, and I was so impressed with the idea of having a brewery right there in the pub, making beer for the pub: what a great idea.

I really loved homebrewing, so I was looking at that. I was at a crossroads. I was talking to my wife about what I wanted to do with my life, and career, and all that stuff, and got the idea that maybe I ought to do something that I liked. Thereís a hell of a concept. So I talked to people Ė there was no Internet then, of course, so there was no way of Googling brewing schools Ė read books, made calls, and found that there was a program down at UC Davis.

So I transferred down to Davis and started taking classes. When I got out of school it was 1983, and Sierra Nevada had been up and going for a couple of years, but they were still pretty rough around the edges, the beer was pretty rough. There was New Albion Brewery, DuBru, and some other small ones that just arenít around any more. Mendocino was there, they actually bought their little brewhouse from New Albion, thatís right. And there were a couple other little ones, there was Anchor Steam, the really different beer out there. But the really good beers out there were Watneyís Red Barrel, Guinness, BassÖthose were the exotic beers. The landscapeís changed a bit.

Yeah, thereís a lot more of it!

It was nice in those days, though, because when we started this thing I pretty much knew everybody that was in the business. Because there was only about ten of us! Of course, now I donít even know everybody in town.

Youíve got kind of an odd town, there.

Yeah, all these McMenamin brewpubs and stuff.

Anyway, that was it. Reading that one article kind of prompted me to think that you could actually do something with this business that would be kind of different. I guess I was always thinking that it would be a fun thing to do, even though in 1979 there wasnít really much going on.

You got your degree, then, and you went where?

I got a BS in Fermentation Sciences out of Davis in 1983. There was no extension class back then, just the full-on program. That was good, because I think people look at what I do and say, you know, you could just about teach anybody to make beer. I think to a certain degree that you could teach anybody to cook, too, but does that mean theyíre a chef? I believe a chef knows a bit more about why heís doing things the way heís doing them. And I think thatís the difference with getting the academic background. I understand the biochemistry and the microbiology involved in making beer. I understand how to hook up hoses and turn pumps on, too, but that partís easy. Itís the why of doing things that was pretty valuable to pick up at Davis, and in working at other places through the years, different ways of doing things.

Where did you get your first job?

Here at BridgePort. I hired on with Dick Ponzi as a winemaker in 1983. Mainly he wanted me to work with him because he was interested in building a brewery. We spent 1983 planning the brewery out, trying to find equipment, and whatnot. In 1984 we leased the building and started getting baling wire, and the band-aids, and the duct tape out and putting the brewery together. When I look at some of the early photosÖFor one thing, Iím about 65 lbs. lighter. Thereís two of the old me sitting in this chair. The stuff we had was pretty awful. It was like brewing with sticks and rocks. Pretty primitive. But it worked! Amazingly enough, the beer was pretty good. It was a bit rough.

What kind of beers were you making?

We started out making ales. BridgePort Ale was sort of this, kind of like a Scottish ale, very dark, very malty, sweet. I really liked drinking McEwanís Export at that time, and Belhaven, those were my two favorite beers. So I was making beer like that, and thatís what the original BridgePort Ale was. Funny enough, I was asked to come up with a 20th anniversary beer, and I said, well, how about trying to base something on that original beer? So we went back to the original notes, and just introduced one we call Ropewalk. Did you get a chance to try it?

Yes, Jaime Jurado at Gambrinus sent me a couple. Nice beer.

Itís a lot more refined than the old BridgePort Ale was.

But thatís the same idea?

Yeah, malt-driven, very drinkable. This is probably, gravity-wise, a little lighter-bodied, but the alcohol levelís about the same, about 4.5%. Itís a nice session beer. I was real impressed on my trip to the UK. I never really understood how the pub culture and the cask ale breweries kind of work hand in hand. These guys are making beers at 3.8% alcohol that actually taste good, so that the people in the pubs can drink four or five pints and not have it shellac them. So when we were doing the Ropewalk, I said, letís keep the alcohol down to a reasonable level so you actually drink a couple of pints and not feel like youíre wobbling out the door. It seems to make sense.

A lot of brewers donít seem to get that.

[laughs] They were asking me over in the UK whatís the ABV range you brew in? Well, our best-selling beer, the IPA, is 5.5%. To them, thatís like malt liquor.

They must have thought you were a madman!

Right, "My God, we could never sell a beer like that over here! You could only drink that by the half pint!"

Now, what kind of places did you sell that original BridgePort Ale to, or was it strictly in-house?

There was no in-house, we didnít have a pub back then. So we went to Jakeís Crawfish, a couple of places. The Ponzis had ins with several high-end places around town because of the wine business, but we all knew we had to get into the taverns, that theyíd have to be selling beer for us. The Horse Brass put it on immediately, Jakeís Crawfish put it on immediately; a couple of places that still have us on have been customers for twenty years now. Those guys, there was a half dozen or a dozen at first, and they were taking every thing we could make.

Portland must have already had some kind of beer thing going. Yes, no?

Itís always had a pretty good tavern culture, a beer culture. Draftís always been about 25-30% of the sales here, because ofÖI donít know, because it rains a lot! The rain washes them off the streets and back in the taverns where they belong. We had Blitz-Weinhard in town, so we had a hometown brewery. Itís always been a pretty good beer town, and there were quite a few bars that had specialty beers on, what there was. Which was Watneyís, Bass, and Anchor; that was about it. They had the exotic ones, and we got into those places.

We got the brewpub law. The Ponzis, Fred [Bowman] from Portland, and the Widmers got together and spearheaded the brewpub bill, I think in 1985 or 1986. We opened the pub in 1986.

Was that the original plan, to get something like that through?

Yeah, we originally figured to get a pub running. In fact, the whole thing was, I think, in the Ponziís mind, going to be a very small operation and stay that way. They really didnít see this as getting very big. And unfortunately, it was managed that way for a long time. We missed a lot of opportunities Ė we chose not to take a lot of opportunities that would have made us a lot bigger a lot faster. But their background, being from a small winery was, you have this small operation, you keep it manageable, and you charge enough money that it makes it worthwhile doing. That was the original idea, but people just wanted more, more, more.

The beer business is very different from the wine business. The wine business is very vintage-oriented, you come out with your vintage, do 3,000 cases, you charge, who knows, all of a sudden your wineís $60 a bottle or whatever, and you can make it worthwhile that way. In the beer business, you just canít do that. You have to keep these particular price-points, and it becomes very volume-driven. Thatís one of the big differences. I tell people that the wine business and the beer business have a lot in common: theyíre both liquid, and theyíre both alcohol. But thatís where the similarities stop. There is almost nothing in common with wine and beer after that.

The Ponzis did have a winemakerís perspective; did they see BridgePort as a long-haul thing?

All of us saw it as a big experiment initially. I was certainly hopeful, I worked my ass off trying to make sure that it was going to be an experiment that succeeded. There was a group of us that really worked hard and put a lot into it.

Did you think, back then, that youíd see 20 years?

You know, I was 23, and I was more worried about what I was doing next Friday night! I did think it would survive. I really thought that specialty brewing, interesting beers would survive, just because brewing is as old as mankind. I thought, this is something that could catch on. We had some bumpy years, where maybe some new brewery would start up and weíd have to re-compete for taps, stuff like that. Every day is still like that. Thereís no guarantees in this business at all, still. But the idea is pretty well implanted now, and I really thought it would be. Whether I could survive it or not, I donít know, that was a question mark.

Why did BridgePort make it when a lot of breweries didnít?

The fact that we broke trail so long ago helped us. Unfortunately, as I said, the Ponzis didnít view it as a growth business for a long time, we chose not to take some opportunities that would have made us even more entrenched. But there were people like the people that ran Pyramid, who just got burned out, they just couldnít hold on long enough to see it fruit out. They sold. But a lot of people just burned out. The people who werenít really good at operating their businesses are having problems, people who canít focus on a good business plan are having problems. Itís not quite as easy being an amateur in this business as it used to be.

The west coast is very competitive, thereís a lot of good beer out here, and you canít get away with selling weird, quirky stuff and make it. There are still some breweries that are pushing that envelope. I donít think theyíre really seeing a lot of growth, though. Theyíve got their little niche, there. Iíd put Rogue in that category. They donít cater to a bigger volume, theyíre catering to more like super-hoppy beers, or super-malty beers, or super-alcohol beers. Which is fine, itís great, but itís not going to get them into a place where theyíre really going to grow, because itís not a very approachable beer. I guess thatís probably where we are, riding that line between wanting to make a beer that has real commercial viability, but is still an interesting beer that people would expect from us. Thereís a line there to walk. Our best-selling beer has 50 IBU in it, thatís certainly not a pedestrian beer. But itís also commercially successful.

Did you think the IPA was going to be the beer that would catch on?

No, we thought it was going to be a niche beer that we would probably brew twice or three times a year. No one in their right mind thought it would Ė look, it bucks the trends. Itís not the Fat Tire model, thatís for sure. When Fat Tire came in this market, it really didnít affect us a lot, because our beer is a wholly different scenario.

Iím looking at you, Iím looking at Deschutes with a porter, for Godís sakeÖwhy do things like that happen? Why do they catch on, why do they get traction?

Thatís the $64,000 question. Those beers have got a chemistry and appeal, between the beer and the packaging, itís got to attract the customer to try it, and then make them say, wow, that really does something for me.

Do you think that a certain amount of itís timing, hitting the market at the right time?

Definitely. I sent some of the IPA and our other beers over to a brewer in Austria, and to a brewer at St. Austell [in the UK]. They thought the other beers were interesting, but when they got to the IPA, they said, wow, this is really amazing. And thatís kind of the way itís been, all the way through. Weíre lucky that way. The harder we work, the luckier we get!

I met the head brewer at St. Austell, a guy named Roger Ryman at the Brewing Institute judging in 2002. Heís an interesting guy. Heís my age, does what I do, he went to Herriot-Watt. And I met another guy named Axel Keesbie, whoís the brewmaster at a brewery in Austria. The three of us could be interchanged in the different breweries. Weíre essentially the same age, same build: brewmaster clones. It was a lot of fun hanging out with those guys, like looking at yourself from the outside.

Tell me more about that competition. Why did you enter that one?

Well, Jaime [Jurado, Director of Brewing Operations at Gambrinus Company,] had some experience with it. Itís a very old competition that dates back to the 1880s. It was originally done just for the brewers to see among themselves what was going on out there in the industry. They made it international after a while.

Itís what they call "lumpers" as opposed to "spreaders." Itís a lumper competition. You have "Ale" and then three different alcohol levels.

Itís really very different from what weíre used to in America.

Yeah. They donít really care about styles. Itís either ale, or itís a dark beer, or itís a lager. It almost pays more attention to how itís dispensed. It could be a cask beer, or a keg beer, or a bottled or canned beer; what they call Ďsmall pack.í So you have these different categories. That kind of hurts it in a way; there arenít many medals awarded, like in the WBC where thereís lots and lots and lots, or the Australian competition where just about everyone wins a medal. Itís judged byÖyour company has to have won a medal in the competition before, and send a senior technical person to be a judge. You canít judge your own brewery, obviously. So you have people that have been in the brewing industry forÖthe head brewer from Marstonís was there, the head brewer from Hook Norton, guys from Carlsberg-Tetley, Coors-Bass, from Heineken and Pilsner Urquell, all these guys from all over the world were in this room, 25 brewmasters judging beers.

And itís judged not just as being a way out there beer, not judging for one-off beers. Theyíre judging for beers that are really well-made and have got good commercial viability. The cutting thing, believe it or not, is not a scorecard, itís Ďis this a beer that you or your customers would keep drinking for the evening, does it have that moreishness?í I judged cask-conditioned beers, a whole room full of firkins.

What makes it an interesting competition is that youíre being judged by your peers, very well-trained, very experienced people, and youíre being judged as a beer that they think is a really good beer that could go out there and do well in a pub. That separates it a bit from the GABF, where it seems that the beers that stick out the most win the medals. Thatís okay, but really, are you going to drink a pint of a 9%, 85 IBU beer? Maybe you can struggle through one pint, but are you going to have another one? And another one? I donít think so. If you do, youíre going to spend most of the next day on the couch.

Have the medals helped the beers?

Yeah, they really helped launch the IPA for us in 2000. We won a gold medal, and then we won the trophy for the whole ale category. Thatís the first time an American brewery has ever done that. We just got nominated again for another medal, weíll find out what we got in May. Itís really fun, you go to this huge building that looks like a cathedral, itís the Guildhall in central London. It was built in the 1300s, it was where all the guilds met, back when London was a medieval city. Itís just beautiful: stone walls, stained glass, statues, the coats of arms of the different guilds. They have a huge luncheon, and then announce the medals. Itís awe-inspiring, really. Good one to be in. And some other American breweries are represented: Sierra Nevada, Rogueís picked up a couple, Fish Brewingís won for some organic ales.

I saw that a lot in the judging, the judges were really interested in the beers that were obviously American. Theyíre still too frightened to make those beers over there, because they donít think their customer base will like them. Itís kind of ironic; theyíll take a drink of something, an IPA, and say, "Wow, this is really an incredible beer!"

So Iíd say, "Well, would you ever consider making something like that at your brewery, maybe as a seasonal?"

"Oh, no, weíd never make it here. Our customers wouldnít like it."

"But you like it!"

"Well, yeah, I love it! But our customers wouldnít like it." Self-fulfilled prophecy.

You got out of craft-brewing for a while, you worked for Anheuser-Busch at their Newark, NJ facility. Why did you get out, why did you come back?

Well, Newark is a 9 million barrel a year brewery. I learned a lot being there. They had me working as a supervisor, working this incredible seven day-a-week rotating shift schedule that was designed to take years off your life. It just wasnít a fun job.

Was it for the money, or were you looking for a career change?

A lot of the UC Davis people work at A-B. In fact, the guy who was my teaching assistant, he was working on a masterís when I was there, is now the number two guy in brewing at Anheuser-Busch, he reports directly to August Busch. Thatís how I got in, the Davis connection. It was something I felt I had to try to do. I gave it a good try, and I learned a lot, and the people were all good; I donít fault anything like that. It just wasnít for me. Thereís no creativity there, youíre really just managing production in a brewery thatís making an awe-inspiring amount of beer. Thatís pretty cool, it was even kind of fun for a while, but after a year and a half of that, the blush was off the rose.

And you were lucky enough to get back.

Yes, but not all at once. I was attracted back by Jim Bernau at the NoríWester brewery. He did a stock offering, and I thought that was going to be a really good thing. We were going to have money, and build a brewery and do it right, and this guy looked like he had a pretty good program. Then that all fell apart, it turned into a kind of pyramid scheme.

I left that, and then I was attracted to a brewpub idea up in Tacoma that looked pretty good. I was going to be part-owner of two brewpubs. That sounded pretty good, so I built these two breweries, worked seven days a week for six months getting them up and going, getting the beer going. Typical story: Iím working my rear-end off, trying to get this going, and then I find out that the guy Iím working for and the corporate attorney had moved the assets around so that all I really owned was part-interest in the name. When I found that out, I got out of there.

About that same time, Carlos Alvarez bought BridgePort. Iíd always heard good things about him, and I did my homework on it, and asked him if he had an opening, because Iíd like to come back and help out.

How did the purchase change things?

They had a staff that was here after the Ponzis sold, but they didnít really have anyone on staff who was a trained brewer, just people whoíd filled in after Iíd left five years before. There was a lot of change, and always when thereís change, there are people who embrace it, and people who are scared of it. A few of them hung on, and are still here. The first guy I hired back in 1984 just came back to work for us a month and a half ago. Great having him here. Heís my assistant up in the office. The Gambrinus plan was to try to get this place put back together again, upgrade it, expand it. Right now weíre working around the clock from Sunday night to Friday night. Weíre at 75% capacity right now.

What did Carlos Alvarez see in what was, no slight intended, essentially just another brewery in the northwest?

Good question. At that time there was a lot of interest in the Northwest. Miller was looking at buying an interest in one, but never did; A-B bought an interest in Redhook. I donít know. It was the mid-1990s and the craft brewers were going crazy, they kind of almost peaked at that time. Maybe he thought he could get in on the ground floor with one that had been around for a while, one that he could actually purchase and work with. Certainly weíve done that. It wasnít like he went in to try to buy Redhook or Widmer, one that was already on its way. He was trying to find one that needed a helping hand, and that was certainly BridgePort at that time. It was just kind of hanging on.

It was a good time to buy it, and Gambrinus was about the best thing that could have happened to this place. No fault of the Ponzis; they did what they were going to do with it, but I think they just kind of got tired of it.

What were the three most important decisions the brewery made, in retrospect? I assume going through with the sale to Gambrinus was one of them.

Yes, definitely. Iíd say deciding to put in the brewpub was a turning point for us, to get our name known. The biggest problem any new business has is overcoming the inertia of getting their product known, and having a pub where people could come down and actually see us, and see where weíre making beer, and put a face to the name; I canít say how much that helped us out, that was a big deal.

Then Iíd say the decision to expand and stay inside the building. They did that after I left. When I left, theyíd decided that they werenít going to expand. So we were locked in at that one size, and we were operating at complete capacity. It was not a fun place to work, because there was no hope that we were going to get bigger or better. They decided, about two years after I left, that they were going to expand after all, and that was a pretty big moment.

Then the other big watershed thing was the sale to Gambrinus in 1995. Gambrinus is working on faith here. Itís been very patient; they have a long-range plan for the brewery. We expanded twice already in here, to the point where we canít build anything more in this building. We canít put in any more tanks, thereís no where else for them to go. Unless we tear the building down and start over again!

Meanwhile, the Pearl District around here, weíre the last manufacturing entity in this part of town anymore. Itís all turned into condos and shops. Theyíre supposed to build a grocery store across the street. Itís getting more difficult for us to operate down here, and Iím not sure what the future holds. The pub is doing very well, and the breweryís doing very well also; itís been a good thing for us.

Were there any things that seemed terribly important at the time that turned out to be utterly inconsequential?

Oh, Iím sure there were. You know, back in the old days, the whole idea of Ďshould we buy another beer tank,í that was a big decision, itís 11 or 12 thousand dollars for a tank. So theyíd ask, are you really going to be that busy? I know youíre busy right now, but are you going to keep this busy? There always that kind of stuff. Do you really need to hire that extra person, those kinds of things. I donít know if we had a business plan in those days, just keep making the beer. We didnít have an accounting department back then, that was nice. Things have changed over the years.

What have the technical changes been in twenty years?

Well, weíve really tightened up the system. Weíve put good brewing practices in. Weíre extremely clean, weíve put automated cleaning systems in to clean tanks. Weíve got higher quality equipment all around, better training for the guys. Weíve got tighter procedures that people follow, itís not like the next guy on the shift decides to do it his way instead of the way the last guy did. Weíve got a really good lab, so we can keep good control over whatís going on. Weíve got a great German bottling line thatís very efficient and keeps the beer fresh longer. Everythingís been kicked up five or six notches over what we had as a microbrewery. Looking back on it, we were brewing with sticks and rocks. Now weíre brewing with really good quality equipment.

How much beer did you do last year?

40,125 bbls. is what we shipped, and I think weíll probably do closer to 50,000 this year, maybe more, the way things are going right now. Itís been kind of crazy. But if we can keep holding that tiger by the tail, weíll probably have 50,000.

The biggest thing you do is Old Knucklehead. Itís not anything to sneeze at, but it doesnít make it into the extreme categories the beer rating sites love.

I know Jaime keeps an ear on the chatter on the sites, and that BridgePort is called pedestrianÖI gotta say that to me a 50 BU beer thatís your best-selling beerís not pedestrian. See, my problem is that Iíve got a reference check that goes back to when Watneyís Red Barrel was an exotic beer. Iím matching myself against that, not Rogue Brutal Bitter or Hopzilla or that kind of stuff. Anybody can make those, theyíre not tough beers to make. Itís like making chili and dumping so much habaŮero in there that you canít taste it. Thereís no finesse in that.

To me, the key thing to making a good-tasting beer is respecting balance. So a person tastes that and they go, wow, that really tastes good, Iíll have another one. Thatís really where the talent is. Yeah, I could make those [extreme beers], thatís really not that tough to do. I donít know if I could sell them, because they donít sell very well, but I could certainly make them. We make our Hop Harvest beer in the fall, and itís not a very bitter beer. What it is, itís got a huge late hop addition in our hopback, and it picks up all those essential oils that normally kiln off. Itís fresh hops; theyíre off the vine in the hopjack inside of an hour. So youíve got this beer that just tastes phenomenally hoppy, but itís only 18 BUs. And people say, itís not bitter enough, itís not bitter. Well, if it was bitter enough, you wouldnít be able to enjoy the hoppiness that itís got, because your tastebuds would be wiped out with this huge amount of sticky alpha acids. Itís not that we canít make them, itís more a personal philosophy.

Old Knucklehead was pretty much a bruiser in its day, but even itís a barleywine you can drink. And thatís my opinion on big beers. Those who make Ďem, God bless Ďem, I got no argument with them, I just donít do them.

Twenty years: any regrets, anything youíd do differently?

I probably wouldnít have sold my house before I went to Newark! We made a lot of money on it, but we really liked that house. When I went on that 5-year odyssey to all those different places, I probably had regrets about each of those. I was looking for something that probably wasnít going to happen, but in the end, I guess, it played out. Iím happy with things, the way the industryís going. Iím real active in the MBAA, editing a textbook thatís going to come out this summer. Thatís whatís taking most of my time. That, and home-schooling two kids, and running a brewery at three-quarters capacity! And trying to play guitar.

Good for you. Thanks, Karl, itís been good talking to you.

Thanks, itís good talking to you.

Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: September 27, 2004