A growing number of Portland's flagship breweries are settling down in the city's populous western suburbs, a trend that's accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even those that aren't building brick-and-mortar locations have found a booming market for their beer on the shelves of Washington County supermarkets and convenience stores, and via home delivery from DoorDash-style services.
It's a big change from just a decade or so ago, when Alan Taylor, brewmaster for Portland's Ascendant and Zoiglhaus Breweries, first visited Hillsboro to scout a location for Zoiglhaus. At the time, there were just three active breweries in Hillsboro (Vertigo, Ambacht, and McMenamins' Cornelius Pass) and only two in neighboring Beaverton (Cascade Brewing founder Art Larrance’s Raccoon Lodge, which was later known as the Lodge at Cascade Brewing, and an offshoot of McMinnville’s Golden Valley Brewery.) Suburban beer snobs had to schlep into Portland to sample most of the city’s beers.
“We'd talk to property owners, we'd show them our business plan and we'd show them our capital, and they'd say, 'Oh, I don't want to cut a trench drain, I don't want to do this to my facility, I don't want to do that,'” Taylor says. “We'd say, 'Look what's going on in Portland: There's a bunch of incredibly wonderful things happening because people are putting these brewpubs in.' They just didn't want to do it at that time, but now they'd be more open to it.”
Nat West, the namesake founder of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider, closed his North Portland taproom just before the shutdown. He decided to keep his bar staff employed by turning them into delivery drivers. Portland breweries including Little Beast, Baerlic, and Gigantic had already begun shuttling beer around the city, but West, a former computer programmer, took it a step further. He built an e-commerce site, bought Facebook ads, tapped his 2,500-customer mailing list, and sent his cider (plus suds from other customers, including Old Town Beer and Pizza) as far west as Forest Grove.
“We started bringing in customers outside of our mailing list who had never engaged with the brand before,” West says. “We were adding new customers, a dozen a day, and I put more money into ads aimed at people 21 and over in a certain radius.”
With no minimum purchase price, no fees, same-day service, and an expansive delivery radius, West says Reverend Nat’s sold more cider in the service’s first six weeks than Columbia Distributing—which puts that cider in restaurants, stores, and other retail locations. Though western deliveries eventually shrunk back to Hillsboro, Milne says West’s service sold more Old Town Beer than the brewery’s partners at Maletis distribution. Both plan to continue the service as long as possible, with West noting he’s both doubled his mailing list and culled enough data to show distributors and grocers where they should sell his product.
“It's basically direct-to-consumer self-distribution,” says Adam Milne, the owner of Old Town Beer and Pizza. “There are a lot of people who love Portland beer who are maybe not right in downtown Portland. You can get beer delivered like milk in the old days.”
The big city to burbs beer pipeline flows both ways. In the past, Beaverton breweries including Cascade and Little Beast have expanded to Portland, or decamped entirely. However, expansion in the burbs was on its way even pre-pandemic. One milestone: North Portland brewer Ex Novo's decision in 2018 to put an outpost near the Beaverton Central Max station.
What followed was a full-on influx of Portland businesses. The same year, much of Downtown Portland’s Alder food cart pod migrated just a few blocks away after the BG Food Cartel cart pod opened. After Ex Novo’s arrival in early 2019, Portland businesses including Big’s Chicken, Afuri Izakaya, and Loyal Legion became Ex Novo’s neighbors… again. When the pandemic hit, Ex Novo not only had a position closer to west side customers, but a way to deliver them both beer and pizza.
“It didn't make up for what we would have done in the dining room, but it kept revenue coming in, and the Beaverton location has been able to stay afloat (with the help of some PPP funds of course),” Ex Novo founder Joel Gregory says. “Having a cooler full of our packaged beer, and we packaged so much beer this year, also helped with that direct-to-customer sale that is so important to us.”
Meanwhile, just up Cedar Hills Boulevard in Beaverton’s Cedar Mill neighborhood, Portland’s rapidly expanding Great Notion Brewing opened a taproom in February 2020 just before the pandemic shutdown. It helped that the surrounding cedar-wood-and-metal Timberline Center just looked like a Great Notion location and that Great Notion would share a parking lot with both a Market of Choice and the extraordinarily popular Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya. But Great Notion founder Paul Reiter knows there’s far more in those hills beyond noodles and bougie soaps.
“I was looking for a location further West to appeal to the huge employment base of Nike and Intel, etc.,” Reiter notes. “For us, we wanted either a rad standalone location or a very cool, super hip shopping center, which is kinda the norm out in the burbs.”
That shopping center just happens to be in Beaverton’s 97229 ZIP code, arguably the wealthiest in the Portland metro area. Just below it, across 26 and right above Ex Novo’s Old Town location, is the 97225 ZIP code and its adjusted gross household income of nearly $125,000.
That fact hasn't escaped Binary Brewing, the nanobrewery started by Portland's Uptown Market, which announced its move to the Beaverton Bakery building in Old Town Beaverton earlier this year. Nor is it lost on Central Eastside taproom Loyal Legion, which intends to open a second location in the Bank of Beaverton building by summer. And the booming market is also on the radar at Breakside Brewing, which has a bit of experience with suburban locations thanks to its Milwaukie brewery. Breakside has planned a Beaverton taproom and beer garden on the opposite end of the block housing Ex Novo’s facility.
“I grew in Portland and I think the one thing we can all say is that over the last 20 to 30 years, the areas around Portland have grown significantly—in residential and commercial. There are tons of people and businesses compared to a few decades ago,” says Breakside General Manager Dan Brownhill. “With traffic the way it is and a number of large businesses being located in these surrounding cities, it makes sense to look at these areas for expansion.”
And others are looking. When Von Ebert Brewing saw the pandemic crush sales at its two Portland brewpubs, it began hosting pop-up events at By Design Pizza just across the parking lot from Great Notion’s Beaverton location. Though Von Ebert hasn’t officially announced it yet, the Caputo Group and even Von Ebert’s own website suggest a Beaverton brewpub is inevitable.
"The Beaverton area is growing rapidly for breweries, which is what led us to do these pop ups,” says Dominick Iaderaia, Von Ebert’s director of food and beverage. “Based on what we've seen from them, it seems like a promising market to explore further."
Perhaps no move made Portland brewers more palatable to the western suburbs than simply putting their beer in 12-, 16-, and 19.2-ounce cans.
Breakside’s Brownhill notes that his brewery relied heavily on draft beer when the pandemic started more than a year ago. Though Breakside was working with a mobile canning company on seasonal beers prior to COVID, the brewery pivoted to six-packs of glass bottles shortly thereafter and installed its first canning line in September 2020. That helped bolster sales during the pandemic, but also helped Breakside’s distribution partners at Maletis preserve shelf space at convenience stores and supermarkets.
“It definitely helps having a strong presence in local grocery stores and off premise accounts,” Breakside’s Brownhill says. “People are able to try a variety of our beers without having to make the trip to one of our pubs.”
For Old Town Brewing, switching to cans just a few months before the shutdown opened up more retail options. Now, in addition to supermarkets and convenience stores, Old Town now sells its Pillowfist IPA through Costco locations in the western suburbs. According to Old Town’s Milne, that partnership may increase Old Town’s overall production by 10 to 20 percent and keep its brewing staff gainfully employed.
When Ascendant Brewing shut its downtown Portland location during the pandemic, brewmaster Taylor was able to shift production to his Zoiglhaus brewery in Lents and keep the Ascendant brand alive in cans. Though he’d used mobile canning since 2018, Taylor bought a canning line in January 2020—just before COVID hit— and installed a walk-in refrigerator for immediate distribution. The installation wrapped up in August 2020, with the canning line increasing Ascendant and Zoiglhaus’ brewing capacity by 30 percent.
Though he’s reopening Ascendant and sees a day when draft sales bounce back (bringing high-margin, direct-to-brewery profits with them), Taylor notes that both his distributors at Maletis and his breweries’ expanded western footprint have kept his business alive. They’ve also kept even more western expansion as an option.
“I like the neighborhoods, I like the area, and I have friends who live over there,” he says. “We looked at a place in Orenco Station where the New Seasons is, but that didn't come through. We were just a little bit too early.”