Gary Fish on Black Butte Porter
Gary Fish on Black Butte Porter
The story of Black Butte Porter goes back to the very beginning of the Deschutes Brewery itself.
In 1987, we originally hired Frank Appleton, a brewing consultant from Canada, to help us establish the brewing component of our planned brewpub in Bend, Oregon. In addition to designing the equipment and having it installed, he would formulate the first three beers in our line-up. Not knowing much about it in 1988, we wanted something light, medium, and dark.
Frank came up with Cascade Golden Ale, Bachelor Bitter, and Black Butte Porter. Our first brewer, John Harris, then put his hand (and considerable skill) to the formulation and Black Butte Porter was born. However, it was not until sometime later that Black Butte Porter became our ‘flagship’ beer.
After a year or so, and out of necessity to keep the brewery going, we began to explore wholesale distribution. Thinking conventionally, we began with Cascade Golden Ale and Bachelor Bitter as being most adaptable to the limited palates of 1980’s drinkers. It just seemed like lighter colored beer would make sense.
While meeting with our distributor in Portland, Oregon, Jim Kennedy, he presented us with a choice: “You need to decide what you want to be as a brewery. Now, you can sell these lighter colored beers and carve out your small but reasonable slice of the very large, light colored beer-pie, competing with everyone for that slice. Or, you can sell Black Butte Porter and, although the dark-colored beer-pie is much smaller, you can own the whole thing.”
Being a contrarian at heart, I guess the latter part of his proposition appealed to me, although we had to sacrifice quite a bit to make that happen. You see, the path of least resistance for beer sales people was certainly not through dark beer, especially when we had already developed some really popular lighter beers, like Mirror Pond Pale Ale. But we were committed.
For the next few years, we kept the brakes on Mirror Pond and limited its market exposure to ensure that Black Butte could gain a foothold in the market. (It didn’t hurt that Black Butte was winning awards at a pretty good clip in those days.)
As a result, you could say that we developed our second brand first, and actually had two flagship brands with Black Butte and Mirror Pond sharing that distinction.
Black Butte Porter has continued to evolve, although our target flavors never really changed. But with growth naturally comes change. When we built our larger production facility in 1993, we installed a 50-barrel brewery. Later, we added a German-manufactured 150 barrel brewery that was much more efficient. Getting those two breweries to brew a Black Butte Porter that tasted the same what we mad on our smaller system was quite the chore, but we’re pretty stubborn, so four years later we declared success so that the legacy (and flavor) of Black Butte Porter could continue.
Black Butte continues to be our flagship, even though beers like Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Fresh Squeezed outsell it. It’s the best-selling porter in America and a significant point of pride for our team, having successfully dispelled the misconceptions which revolve around dark beer. It is particularly successful in that regard with women and novice craft drinkers, and if we can get someone taste it, they are usually hooked!
It has also spurred spin-offs like Black Butte Anniversary, an Imperial version brewed for our company’s anniversary, barrel-aged and topping out around 11% alcohol with various added adjuncts like chocolate, chilis or coffee. We have also made a Black Butte Whiskey with the local Bendistillery, for which we make the wash from a variation on the Black Butte formula. We even make a Black Butte3, an Imperial version of Black Butte aged in barrels that were used for the whiskey.
Business consultants like to ask a question to help evaluate your business: What can you do that your competitors can’t? For me, the answer is clearly Black Butte Porter. The legend will continue. As for what we do with it next, well, stay tuned.
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.