A career in beer

Karl Ockert’s résumé:

• 2011-2015: Karl Ockert Brewing Services LLC, consulting brewmaster, owner

• 2010-2014: Master Brewers Association of the Americas, technical director

• 1996-2010: BridgePort Brewing Co., Portland, brewmaster, plant manager

• 1994-1996: Enginehouse Brewery, Tacoma, and Powerhouse Brewpub, Puyallup, both in Washington, partner, brewmaster

• 1993-1994: Willamette Valley Brewing Co., Portland, brewmaster, plant manager

• 1992-1993: Anheuser-Busch Breweries, Newark, New Jersey, brewing supervisor

• 1990-1991: Independent brewing consultant in Oregon, Colorado and Idaho

• 1983-1990: BridgePort Brewing Co., Portland, brewmaster and plant manager

Source: www.ockertbrewserv.com

Karl Ockert becomes director of brewing operations Aug. 3 at Deschutes Brewery, another move by the Bend-based craft brewer to improve its operation as it charts its expansion by 2017 to the East Coast.

Ockert, 55, was present at the creation of craft brewing in Oregon. Fresh out of the University of California, Davis, he helped start BridgePort Brewing Co. in Portland in 1984 with Dick and Nancy Ponzi. BridgePort was sold 12 years later to The Gambrinus Co., of San Antonio, Texas, for an undisclosed sum. Ockert left BridgePort in 1990, but reprised his role there as brewmaster and plant manager for the new owners from 1996 to 2010.

Deschutes Brewery has been busier this year than rafting guides on its namesake river. It installed a new, faster bottling line, broke ground on a 57,423-square-foot expansion and upgrade of its warehouse on Shevlin-Hixon Drive and introduced its products to customers in Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and suburban Detroit.

Deschutes Brewery, the seventh-largest craft brewer in the U.S., is a familiar label in 29 states and Canada, but it plans no further incursions into new territory while the new brewery project is underway, company President Michael LaLonde said Thursday.

Ockert’s joining the brewery complements its plans to establish itself in the eastern U.S., but his job description encompasses a wide range of responsibilities.

“The first thing he’ll do is get to know us better, our personnel, our equipment,” said LaLonde. “With the technical skills he has, he’ll find numerous ways to add value to the operation.”

LaLonde and brewery founder and CEO Gary Fish were in North Carolina and Virginia last week, on the hunt for a brewery site. The company has reportedly scouted locations in Greenville, South Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina. Fish was silent on which location, if any, has the edge.

“We are still fully engaged in the process,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve given ourselves to the end of the year to make a decision. It’s an exciting process to be part of, but there’s nothing to announce at this point.”

Ockert will be part of the design and planning of the new brewery. It’s a role he knows well, both hands-on and as a consultant.

His résumé lists him as brewmaster, partner, plant manager or some combination of those roles at three breweries in Oregon and Washington other than Deschutes and BridgePort, and he did a turn as a brewing supervisor for Anheuser-Busch in Newark, New Jersey, from 1992 to 1993.

For four years, he served as technical director for the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and for three years he worked as a consultant for his own firm, Karl Ockert Brewing Services LLC.

“He’s a bright, very talented brewer, a humble guy,” Fish said. “We think he’s exactly the right kind of person we think will help us achieve the goals we set for ourselves.”

Ockert sat down at the brewery at SW Colorado and SW Simpson avenues to field questions. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What will be your job description at Deschutes Brewery?

A: I don’t know if there is a simple explanation, but, essentially, my job is to help lead the different brewery operations for Deschutes that they have currently: this main brewery, the original brewpub-brewery operation on Bond (Street, in downtown Bend) and the one in Portland. And then to assist in the design and installation, startup and gettin’ goin’ of the East Coast facility that they’re working on. They’ve got an incredibly talented group of people here already. And just try to help them out, give them a new set of eyes and 30-odd years of experience to draw from.

Q: You spent some time with Anheuser-Busch in New Jersey?

A: I spent about 1½ years at the Anheuser-Busch Newark, New Jersey, plant, which, if you want to go from a cultural extreme, working with craft microbrewers, college kids in Portland, Oregon, and then having a crew of two dozen New Jersey Teamsters that you’re trying to boss around and get along with and not end up getting your tires slashed or your window broken, that was certainly a juxtaposition.

Q: Based on your experience with Anheuser, what’s your take on its recent acquisition of craft breweries and how does it change the landscape, particularly with Deschutes Brewery itself planning an expansion?

A: Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting turn. I really didn’t see the acquisition of a brewery the size of 10 Barrel (Brewing Co.) coming or Elysian (Brewing Co.), either. I think what they’re trying to do is enter the market kind of through the backdoor. I think what’s it’s going to do, it’s going to challenge the market, you know. Brewing is like anything else; it’s dynamic; it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It’s going to challenge the people who are doing what they’re doing to kick up their game and deliver good value, good quality, consistently good beer.

Q: What’s the difference in your estimation, culturally, in the business of making beer itself between East Coast and Oregon?

A: There is a ubiquitous commonality of craft brewers to have fun with it, to explore new avenues in beer. On the East Coast, they’re a little behind the West Coast. Strangely, they’ve always been a little bit behind. They’re sort of discovering IPAs right now. Oregon is the epicenter of beer innovation, has been (for) quite a while.

Q: How significant is it that the Brewers Association amended the definition of a craft brewer and allowed Yuengling to be labeled a craft brewer (and the nation’s largest craft brewer)? What does that tell you, anything?

A: Breweries like Yuengling or Shiner or Straub, or some of these old regional guys, they’ve kind of overlapped in size, and they’re making not only just their premium lager beer, their mainstream lager beer, but they’re also making different beer. Like Straub, for instance, makes an IPL, India pale lager; they make some really nice Kölsch and an Oktoberfest and a bock beer, really beautiful beers, and, to me, they are craft beers. Yuengling is doing some of the same stuff; they’ve been making porters for years. They’re making other beers and kind of branching out. To me, that’s craft. I think the definitional lines get a little blurry sometimes.

Q: Can you explain your route to Deschutes Brewery and your connection to Michael LaLonde and Gary Fish?

A: I started BridgePort with the Ponzis in 1984, and I actually sold Gary a couple of our beer tanks that we didn’t need anymore when he was building his brewery in ’88 or ’89. So I’ve known Gary for quite a while; we’ve worked together on some legislative issues over the years. I left BridgePort on my second tour of duty there in 2010 to take a position with the Master Brewers Association (of the Americas), one of the largest professional brewers associations in the world. I did a lot of work on education and training, put some books together on packaging and beer and brewing. Then I left them last fall and focused on my consulting business, which was doing quite well and was approached to try out for this job. I just really liked Deschutes. I’ve always thought that they know what they’re doing. They’ve kept the spirit of the craft breweries, of what I think of craft brewing, specialty brewing, alive. I know a lot of these folks already, besides Gary, a lot of folks on the brewery side, the packaging side. And (they are) just a very forward thinking, very collaborative group to work with. It was just too good to pass along.

Q: How much appeal is there in helping establish a brewery on the East Coast for them?

A: That was a big part of it, too. You know brewers in general, … part of the thing that gives ’em all goosebumps is building a new brewery from scratch, from a greenfield site, and that sounds like what’s going to happen, and that certainly is a big appeal for me at this stage in my career, to get something designed, built, get all the bugs ironed out and up and running.

Q: The beer itself, do you have anything in mind for a new product or tweaking anything going on currently at Deschutes Brewery?

A: No, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I love the new Pinedrops (IPA) and Fresh Squeezed (IPA) that came out of their innovation program. To me, I’m kind of looking forward to working with those. Their brewing is built on four things: There’s the chemistry, microbiology, the engineering and the magic. And you know you can get those first three and you can really crank out some great beer, but that magic part is the part where you come up with some really great, fun stuff that people enjoy, and they’ve got a wonderful program for that. So, I’m not looking at tweaking; I’m not going to step in here and tweak anything. I’m looking at helping them to develop new beers, new directions, explore new flavor boundaries in beer, keep moving forward.

Q: Does it occur to you that there’s a bubble in craft brewing, that is, an overpopulation of brewers in the marketplace?

A: In 1983, we were planning BridgePort, and I got wind there was another guy that was going to be building a brewery, Kurt Widmer. And I thought, we are totally screwed; there is no way Portland is going to support more than one of these breweries. And now there’s close to 65 or 70 breweries in the city limits. So when I hear that there’s a bubble, I generally think that as far as brewpubs go, a brewpub is a bar with a brewery in it, and I don’t think that will ever, you can never saturate that. As long as there’s a bar, you can certainly put a brewery in the back.

As far as production breweries go, I think … the competition is going to get stronger. I think the fact that there’s more locales, that it’s spread to (the) Midwest and the East, it’s becoming more popular there, I think there’s going to be more competition to get shelf space, to get distribution. I think … people that have a really sound business model and … can operate their breweries efficiently and produce consistently wonderful beer and continue with innovations, are going to do well.

We saw the whole mid-’90s when people got into it for all the wrong reasons, and if that happens people are going … to fall away. But I don’t see people going back to abandoning their lattes and drinking instant coffee, and I don’t see people abandoning artisan breads and going back to eating Wonder Bread. The horse is out of the barn.

Q: What do you hear directly from consumers about what they want? You mentioned IPLs, but what else do they want?

A: I think the thing you hear the most when you go to bars, what’s new? They want something new; they want to try new flavors, and they’re kind of spoiled that way in a way. The United States went from being the laughingstock of the brewing world to being the envy of the brewing world. American brewers are making anything they want, and there’s a market out there for it. So people want to try different things, and it challenges the brewers to come up with a constant stream of new products and new flavors.

Q: It seems anything goes, really.

A: I think brewers all, the people who work in the breweries, all have respect for each other. It’s the people that are out there selling that really have to do the hand-to-hand combat part of it. Some of my best friends are Anheuser-Busch brewers, MillerCoors brewers, Molson Coors brewers; they’re great folks and they’re doing what they love to do and we’re doing what we love to do and we’re all doing what we love to do, just make beer. And they make great beer. There’s no place for an off-flavor to hide in Budweiser. It has to be made really well.

Q: What beer do you like?

A: If you look in my recycle container, you’ll see (Deschutes) Black Butte Porter, (Deschutes) River Ale, BridgePort IPA, Guinness cans, Hamm’s, Bitburger. I like all kinds of beers, and if I had to pin it down I’m kind of on a porter kick right now. I really like malty, toffee, caramel-flavored beers. And I also really like Bavarian hefeweizens. I love that clovey, spicy banana you get with the German hefeweizen, and those are about as opposite as you can get.

Q: Any breweries in Bend that you like?

A: Crux. I really like Crux, although I’ve known (founder) Larry Sidor a really long time. And I think they do a great job. I have to admit I’m not as familiar with the other breweries; I’ve only had their beers a couple of times in the past. They’re hard to get where I am, Lake Oswego. Ale Apothecary, I’m interested in trying his beers. The DNA of beer in Bend, so much of it comes from Deschutes, so I am quite sure that I’ll like many of the beers that are out there; there’s so much relation to the brewery here and they do such a super job, so I know those people are well-trained and talented people.

— Reporter: 541-617-7815, jditzler@bendbulletin.com

10343814