As one of Oregon’s congressmen, Peter DeFazio has made a name for himself representing the mid valley’s progressive nature by often speaking his mind in congressional sessions, whether it be for his party or against it. Outside of the trenches, though, DeFazio founded the Small Brewers Caucus, where he teamed up with Greg Walden and famed homebrewing advocate Charlie Papazian to make sure brewers’ rights were protected. In a time where graduated barrel taxes and FDA regulations on spent grain are the heated topics in the brewing industry, DeFazio thought to give members of the FDA a tour of a brewery and the brewing process to show that it is an industry that cannot thrive with bacteria. Shortly after, the FDA backed off and although nothing is settled, it looks as if spent grain can continue going toward cows and farms.
I was able to catch the congressman for 15 minutes just before midterm elections to talk a little bit about the work he has been doing for Eugene, Oregon, and the country’s craft brewing world.
Branden Andersen: So you founded the Small Brewers Caucus a couple of years ago…
Peter DeFazio: You know, it’s been more than a couple of years. I think it’s been about 10, but I would have to go back and check. I co-founded it with Greg Walden, representative of southern and eastern Oregon, and we both have a common love of beer and both were recognizing that it’s a growing and important industry. Greg is still a member but no longer a co-chair.
Beer has always been a bi-partisan group—I like to say to people that it may be the last bi-partisan thing in Washington is beer, and maybe if we all got together and drank good beer we could agree on more things. But, we’re now one of the largest caucuses in congress at roughly 130 or something like that, and usually a couple of times a year we have an event in Washington D.C. in conjunction with beer wholesalers or the beer institute. Often Charlie Papazian will come back and we’ll do a seminar before the event, which attracts most of the staff. But, we get some staff to come to the seminar, and sometimes we’ve packed the room. Charlie or other members of the organization come to talk about craft beer and brewing, and sometimes the presentations are more political: we’ve talked about our graduated barrel tax or this year and one of the big issues has been spent grain and educating people on that. So we do that a couple of times a year and afterwards we have a reception–usually with craft brewers from around the country–and I’m happy to say it’s one of the most popular receptions on an annual basis on Capitol Hill.
BA: I can only imagine. So you mentioned Charlie Papazian. As both a homebrewer and someone working in the brewing industry, I recognize the AHA and the Brewers Association has that pull in fighting for the rights of brewers and homebrewers. Are you guys the intermediary between those two groups and congress?
PD: Yeah, we work with basically those two organizations and others to deal with federal issues. Like I said, our top priority for some time has been graduated barrel tax. We have a great study out of, I believe MIT, that shows if we graduated the tax, how much more investment capital would be made available for brewers so they could grow more quickly. I mean, a lot of times people get started and are doing well, but finding capital for the next step can be hard. So, if there’s a graduated tax, they could reinvest some of their own funds and move quickly.
I say to people every time you drink American craft brewed beer, you’re chipping away at the American trade deficit, which is a huge issue in this country. We’ve exported so many jobs and we’re borrowing so much money from around the world. But with craft beer, they aren’t foreign-owned, whereas the largest brewers are now all foreign-owned. This is a great thing that we have these options, and so we work on growing the industry, work on more specific things—the issue of spent grain has been a big deal this year. We don’t have a final deal yet, but we backed them off.
BA: What’s the beer like out East compared to what you’ve had in the Pacific Northwest?
PD: There has been a renaissance. Eight to ten years ago, D.C. was a total beer desert, and then we started having regional breweries like Dogfish Head and others. Now it’s become a hotbed, though nothing like Portland or Bend. But, for the East Coast, you don’t have to go very far and hunt around to get some good local craft beer. And, a couple of the Oregon brews are out there—Widmer is in D.C., Rogue is in D.C…
PD: Yup, Deschutes.
BA: Beer is becoming more of a culture and identity over here on the west coast. But, from what I understand, it’s happening nationwide. Seeing things over there, how much does craft beer look like a part of peoples’ lives? Or are you still seeing the In-Bev, Miller-Coors crowd?
PD: We’ve got a lot further to go to penetrate the market back there. I live on the D.C. waterfront on a boat, and within walking distance of my boat is a brewery called Bluejacket started by a guy who had a place called Church-Key, which was famous for having like 100 craft brews on tap. He decided he wanted to start his own place and got some investors and started a brewery in a historic structure at the old Navy yard. It is packed every night. So, there is an unmet demand on the East Coast for people who want good beer, and in his (Bluejacket Brewing’s) case, good beer and good food.
BA: Always good to hear. I know you were on Matt Laslo’s show Bills and Brews, and you brought a couple of Eugene beers on the show (Ninkasi‘s Total Domination IPA, Hop Valley‘s Proxima IPA and Oakshire‘s Watershed IPA). What is the beer you reach for? Can you narrow it down to a style, or all the way down to a specific beer?
PD: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I was the first guest on his show. But I can’t name a brewery because there are so many good ones. Just last night I was in Coos Bay and had a debate with my crazy opponent, which was very trying, and went on for 90 minutes, and there’s a new, local brewery there called 7 Devils. I said to the staff, “It’s going to be so great to go to 7 Devils,” and all bad news, it was Monday and they are closed on Mondays. Well, the owners of 7 Devils were in the audience and when they heard that I needed a beer, they said they would open. So, we went over there and last night, they were by far my favorite. Look, I’m a hoppy guy. So, IPAs or session ales if I’m watching the alcohol content. In the winter, I’ll do some more porters, stouts, or heavier winter ales. But, for the warm months or in warmer climates, IPAs are my go-to.
BA: Out here it means a lot for people that craft beer has become a part of our lives and our communities. It’s been great as people to see a congressman from Oregon fight for that thing that yeah, might be a little kitschy, but regardless is a huge part of our livelihood out here. What does that mean for you to be representing so many breweries and so many brewing professionals in a state that means a lot to the brewing world?
PD: I’ve got to say it’s one of the most gratifying parts of my job. Down here in my district we fight endlessly over forest policy, and I’m trying to find a reasonable middle ground on that where we preserve the old growth but yet harvest younger and put people to work. I don’t have to fight anyone to put people to work in the craft beer industry, and there’s very little controversy surrounding it. People who drink beer are friendly. Most anywhere I go—I was out in Eastern Oregon and walked into Terminal Gravity one day and everybody stopped talking. I thought, “Wow, I’m way out here in Eastern Oregon…” and one guy finally said, “Hey! Don’t worry, we’re friendly. We’re probably the only Democrats in this county. We love ya!” So it’s a nice little part of the job. So much of the job has no progress and endless fighting for years on end—this is the least productive Congress in history. But, we’ve done a couple of good things for brewing as we mentioned earlier. So, it’s actually a place where I can go to have a little job satisfaction, too. It’s wonderful.