So Long Henry! An Iconic Northwest Beer is No More

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Perhaps it was inevitable, Oregon struggling as it is right now—but really, no more Henry Weinhard beer, after 45 years? Portland media tell us that the iconic beer, often cited as the region’s first craft beer, has been dumped by its latest corporate owner.

So, sad, even if the suds aren’t as great as they were when the Blitz-Weinhard brewery came out with Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve in 1976. That first bottling came in a neatly fitted-out wooden case, served up as a wonderful touch of marketing and hype, as Oregon’s first craft beer. Most of us in those days drank Blitz-Weinhard in Oregon and Olympia or Rainier in Washington. Hometown brews, not distinguished by today’s taste, but popular then in local taverns.

By happenstance, I wound up with one of those wooden cases. An old newspaper buddy from Salem, Tom Wright, had defected to advertising and P.R., and he had the Weinhard account. So I got the beer; and, of course, drank it. It never occurred to me (until much later) that perhaps an unopened case would be some sort of collectors’ item. Oh, well, the story of a misbegotten life!

Like so many things from that era, Henry’s was battered by later events, as a series of national brewing chains took over the stolid old brick brewery in Northwest Portland and cheapened Private Reserve into just another mediocre beer. The brewery now has been turned into offices and condos in the Pearl District. And the beer has been relegated to history by the latest of the beer monsters, Molson Coors. Sic transit gloria.

Molson Coors CEO Gavin Hattersley told OregonLive that the company is “meaningfully streamlining and premiumizing our U.S. portfolio . . . This will improve supply chain flexibility for our more profitable priority brands, enhance our innovation efforts, enable us to better focus resources and ensure dependable and on-time shipments to our distributors,” he said, adding that Molson Coors will focus more on its fast-growing hard seltzers. “We are excited about the progress we’re making and we’re not about to stop now.” About as exciting as a beer pancake!

Until the recent explosion of craft beer in the Northwest, Henry’s Private Reserve was a popular choice, particularly in Portland, but it had been sliding further down the line as the brewery changed hands. Pete Dunlop, author of the book Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana, said that Private Reserve had survived some of the shifts to new ownerships. 

“This was the gold standard,” Dunlop told OregonLive. “If you were doing someone a favor, that was the payoff — ‘Here, here’s a 12-pack of Henry’s.’ It was a really great beer . . . It was well made, it was clean, it didn’t have a bunch of junk in it.” But in recent times, Dunlop added, “The quality has really deteriorated . . . It’s a common story when these popular brands get bought; they find ways to cut corners. We still see it when craft brands today get bought by big beer.”

Ironically, for many in the generation before fancy craft beer, the legacy of Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve is not the beer itself. The legacy is the wild and whacky television commercials created to promote the beer. They were literally the talk of the town in the hey-day of the beer. 

My favorite featured a “Schludwiller’s” truck attempting to bring a huge load of beer into Oregon from California. It was stopped by an “Oregon State trooper” who refused entry, because the California beer was not brewed with natural ingredients. The hapless truckers were told to turn back, or perhaps try Idaho. 

Willamette Week’s Sophia June in a 2017 article featured the YouTube tape, and proclaimed (perhaps with tongue-in-cheek) that “it turns out that Portland has been nativist for a long time,” referring to the anti-California bias of the commercials. Well, one does show a “trooper” charging a California driver with a misdemeanor for bringing out-of-state beer into Oregon. When the driver admits he is a developer moving into the state, he is cited for a felony. Nativist, perhaps, but wildly popular with Oregonians. That YouTube tape is still a hoot!

What I really liked in that string of 1980s commercials was a snooty auctioneer selling off an original case of Private Reserve, for $340 top bid. Now, if I had only kept that case back in 1976!

I will drink to those days with my favorite Bellingham brew, Heliotope IPA, described by its Kulshan brewers as, “a mouthwatering fusion of classic West Coast IPA characteristics, and new-school fruity, juicy hop flavor.  Apricot, tangerine and grapefruit dominate in both aroma and flavor, accented by milder notes of pineapple and black tea.”

Yes, my friends, it has come to this. 

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Floyd J. McKay, emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University, covered Pacific Northwest politics as a reporter and opinion writer for four decades, primarily in Oregon. He was commentator/news analyst at KGW-TV (King Broadcasting) from 1970 to 1987. Previously a print reporter, he returned to print and online reporting and commentary from 2004 to 2017 with the Seattle Times Op-ed page and Crosscut.com. He is the author of Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State (Oregon State University Press, 2016). He lives in Bellingham.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I drank a lot of Blitz and Henry’s when I was a Reed College student back in the ’80s. My recollection is that Blitz was piss water, albeit inoffensively so. And Henry’s was kinda mediocre as beer goes from the get go (the dark was bad, the regular Henry’s was decent but nothing special).

    By the mid-’80s, microbrewing was really taking off in Portland (the McMenamin brothers opened the Barley Mill on Hawthorne in 1983, and the Widmer brothers opened up shop in 1984, for example), so the heyday of Henry’s as some sort of superior, high end brew was short-lived, at least for me and my friends.

    I’d lost track of Henry’s long ago, and had assumed they’d stopped brewing it decades ago until I saw the announcement of its demise last week.

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