Nov 1, 2017

The Central Eastside Offers Imbibing, History — Sense of Place

There’s a good reason older, historical buildings are popular with breweries, distilleries and urban wineries. They not only provide the perfect opportunity to create unique spaces for customers, they provide a sense of authenticity and craftsmanship, all traits a part of Portland’s past and present culture.

It's embedded in the walls and the building’s history. Each structure has a story to tell customers as they imbibe. And we love a good story.  As we explore the neighborhood we call home from 9-5, we take a deeper look at the history of some of our favorite watering holes and the history behind them.

The Cluster Effect

Older, mostly brick buildings, mostly warehouses, are typically located in former industrial neighborhoods in cities across the country. These structures are now back in vogue for their urban spaces, walkable neighborhoods and clustered businesses.

Portland’s Central Eastside is one of those industrial neighborhoods.

Architecture aside, there are other factors at play driving the explosion of beverage makers in the Central Eastside. Establishments tend to cluster within cities, with many communities welcoming them as a way to boost tourism and economic development.

This in turn has launched the emergence of “brewery districts,” as well as increased foot traffic from locals and visitors looking to sample a variety of beers and spirits. These breweries and distillers aren’t competing per se. Just the opposite, in fact — they complement each other and have had great success in places like the Ballard Brewery District in Seattle, Bend’s Ale Trail, and the Whiteaker neighborhood in Eugene.

A Deeper History

An exposed cobblestone here, a ghost sign there. You can still see remnants of the past in the Central Eastside. It’s not hard to imagine what the neighborhood was like 100 years ago.

When Nathaniel K. West, the developer of the building where Bit House Saloon sits today, arrived in “East Portland,” it was an independent municipality. Visitors got here from the other side of the Willamette by boat or canoe. Thirsty travelers venturing to the wilder east side were often thirsty. A “bit” or two would buy a jigger of whiskey.

“West aided public enterprises that advanced city interests—including construction of the first bridge to cross the river—and was esteemed a worthy citizen and efficient builder of the city,” said Brandi Williams, General Manager, Bit House Saloon.

Built in 1892, the building where Bit House now sits is one of the oldest surviving structures in the Central Eastside. It’s no accident that the look and feel of the original saloon uses old bourbon and Oregon wine barrel staves. Brick and brass still run throughout and the chandeliers from the old East Bank Saloon still hang overhead as a nod to what once was.

“This space has always been a refuge for the weary traveler, hard workin’ man or woman passing by. We feel strongly connected to our roots and the ethos that brings,” said Williams.

More Than Brick Buildings

Many of the buildings across the Central Eastside were originally built for distributing produce or manufacturing and creating goods. That legacy lives on with many newer, artisanal craft businesses. House Spirits, a manufacturer of gin, vodka, aquavit, liqueur and whiskey, needed a spot that would easily allow trucks full of Northwest-grown barley to gain access to their grain silo, but also have a patio for people to sit back and enjoy a cocktail.

“The Central Eastside provided the perfect place because it has that mix of practical industrial use and is still central enough for drinkers and tourists of Portland to come visit us,” said Kelly Woodcock, Partner & Director, Retail and Hospitality House Spirits.

They’ve also embraced the local trend, and produce their Westward Whiskey from grain to glass, right in the building. They get Northwest-grown barley delivered, mill it, brew it, distill it and age it.

“I can't think of a better spot,” said Woodcock.

Location Matters

Talk to most fledgling brewers in Portland and the first barrier they seem to hit is finding that perfect location. Either priced out or not finding the right kind of space, many head out to the suburbs or pull back on their plans.

For Baerlic Brewing, they chose the Central Eastside for its equal parts proximity to where the action is — that magic cluster of other similar businesses — and the availability of flexible real estate and zoning allowances for their business model. It gave them the “ability to have a manufacturing facility and a retail business without breaking the bank,” said Baerlic’s Rik Hall, CEO/Custodial Engineer.

For other businesses it can boil down to the neighborhood’s vibe. “I've always loved industrial neighborhoods,” said Owner David Speer, Ambonnay, a sparkling wine and champagne bar in the former B&O Warehouse (the 1920s mustard building you can’t miss).

“Before my building was renovated, there were a lot of wine distributors housed in the building. When the space became available, I jumped at the chance to be back in the building that was a part of my early days in the wine business here in Portland,” said Speer.

The legacy of produce and grains, manufacturing and production, and a booming industrial area all live on in the Central Eastside. After years of lying dormant, its comeback is strong and the neighborhood is thriving more than ever.  We’re excited to see where it heads into the next decade and beyond.