When he returned to BridgePort Brewing in 1986 following a stint at Anheuser-Busch, Lake Oswego resident Karl Ockert and his team began concocting a beer that used the fresh, aromatic hops growing in Oregon fields.
Some in the industry, he said, questioned whether customers would enjoy the bitter taste of this new iteration, which was inspired by analogous offerings in England. They disagreed — seeing it as a niche beer some might enjoy.
For Ockert, it's discoveries like their version of the India pale ale — which has since exploded in popularity — that make brewing so fun.
"I think it's part science, part chemistry, part microbiology, part engineering and part magic," Ockert said. "The magic comes from just taking a set of ingredients and trying new flavors and coming out with something people enjoy."
The Brewers Association, which is a national nonprofit dedicated to small and independent brewers, recently honored Ockert with the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing for his work over the years at BridgePort and role in the proliferation of microbreweries across the state and country.
"I think Oregon in general is a very friendly place for these ideas to hatch and innovate. That's what made craft brewing work so well here," Ockert said. "I'm grateful to everyone who helped me along the way — teachers at LOHS, neighbors and friends and colleagues in the area."
Ockert was first introduced to the world of brewing through his mother, who made beer and wine out of their home in Lake Oswego and served it to guests. Ockert recalled picking blackberries around the neighborhood that were used for blackberry wine as a kid, and buying syrup and hops from F.H. Steinbart Co.
After high school, Ockert received a fermentation science brewing and distilling degree from the University of California-Davis. Then, he worked for Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood. The owners wanted to start a brewery, too, which led Ockert to become the head brewer for BridgePort. Ockert found brewing more creatively gratifying than fermenting grapes, and starting a brewery seemed more practical.
"There's more to it mechanically, and I like the engineering aspect of brewing quite a bit. And you can be a lot more creative. A varietal pinot noir is pinot noir. It's great, but the vineyard does most of the work for you. You bring the grapes in, a lot of that wine character is already laid in," Ockert said. "And the idea of being part of a small brewery back in those days was alluring because you couldn't go back and buy 100 acres and start a winery, but I could be part of a small brewery pretty easily."
Around the same time BridgePort opened in the mid-1980s, Widmer Brewing and McMenamins opened their first breweries in Southwest Portland. Ockert said there was some question at the time about whether there was enough customer demand for all three microbreweries — which served more expensive beer than standard fare — but the market proved that there was. All microbrews were imported in 1980; by 2019 there were 311 breweries in Oregon, according to oregon.encyclopedia.org.
"We found that a rising tide lifts all boats. It gave us credibility," he said.
Ockert also helped lobby for legislation that opened the door for breweries to serve beer, leading to the creation of the brew pub.
At the time, he said, he didn't totally know what he was doing. But after working for Anheuser-Busch he began to become a master of the craft and to experiment with beers like the early IPAs. And he said that IPAs were immediately successful, winning awards for BridgePort and receiving ample interest from customers.
"We were pretty much it (as far as Oregon beer companies offering IPAs)," Ockert said. "I think IPAs probably saved the American hop industry, which was going downhill in a big hurry."
Ockert is tickled by the IPA becoming such a staple of the microbrewery industry and seeing the innovations that other breweries have hatched.
"It has wandered quite a bit from what we called an IPA. There are super strong ones, Belgium IPAs, black IPAs, anything vaguely hop driven is called an IPA. That's what sells the best and what customers are drawn to," Ockert said. "It's fun for me as someone who was in it for a long time."
Ockert retired after a stint at Deschutes Brewing a few years ago, but still keeps busy. He currently teaches classes at UC Davis and is working on a three-volume book on the craft of brewing, which will be published by the American Brewers Association. It's designed to help people take the next step from amateur brewing to starting professional-level operations.
"This book is aimed at people who come out of those classes, especially. It's a very accessible book on how to connect the dots and make good beer," he said.
On the side, Ockert and his neighbor still craft brews, which they serve to friends. He also enjoys simply watching people peruse an aisle and pick out a beer on the shelf.
"It's fun to watch and see how people are enjoying it," he said "It's been a big part of my life the last 40 years. I've seen a lot of innovations and a lot of changes happening."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.