Brews to Bikes (book review)

When the news about the Stumptown sale to TSG  broke in Portland, the reaction was telling. In a place like San Francisco or Boston, the news would have been greeted with cheers that a local company made it big. In Portland, however, the news was met with many groans and promises to find another source for coffee. Not everyone was upset, of course, but it was a big shock to the city that Stumptown—Stumptown!—would become part of a larger conglomerate, ceding any control to some distant private equity firm.

To understand the reason people were upset, it helps to understand the culture of Portland. Portland is famous for its high quality of life and its weirdness, but not for having a business-friendly culture. The city has even been mocked in the show Portlandia for being a place “where young people go to retire.” Many would say that Portland has an anti-corporate mentality.

While there is some truth behind this image of the city, it is far from complete. Charles Heying, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, demonstrates this when he takes a closer look at how the creative class is adding to the Portland economy in his new book, Brews to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy. Heying compares Portland’s artisanal economy, where business owners produce unique, high-quality products in small batches or single pieces, with the typical “Fordist” (industrial) economy, where mass production is king and variations in the products are frowned upon. Heying and his team of student researchers describe how Portland’s artisans are making large contributions to the city’s economy, making it unique among cities.

The book takes an in-depth look at more artisan industries than you might have ever known existed in Portland. It describes Portland’s more famous artisan industries—beer, food (farmer’s markets to food carts), fashion (more than just flannel) and bike building, but also looks at other growing industries, like coffee, leather, music, and colored glass.  It also discusses how the artisans fit into the larger economic picture.

According to the book, one of the challenges of the artisanal economy is that customers have been conditioned for decades to mass-produced goods and to not appreciate quality or nuances in the products they buy and use. He writes:

“The attitudes of mass consumption reflect naïve optimism about a better future in which new products alleviate the drudgery of every­day tasks and new options in mobility and connectivity are made available to all. This faith in progress is created and reinforced through mass marketing techniques that set the standards for taste and fashion and create the demand and expectation for more and better products and services.”

Portland’s artisans are trying to counteract these expectations. They reject both mass production and commoditized mass consumption. For example, in the coffee chapter, Kevin Fuller, owner of Albina Press, says that the café’s baristas have to explain to customers that the café does not carry whipped cream because they do not want to mask the taste of the coffee. Fuller’s desire is to educate the customers and to show them that great coffee does not need a lot of sugar and flavors to make it drinkable. This sums up the artisanal ideal, which is about making a great product and sharing the experience with the customer.

One insight from the book is the desire of these artisans to control the quality of the products they produce. Heying tells us that many of the business owners do not want to expand quickly (or at all, in some cases) because they believe by doing so, they will lose control of their products. This attitude, which is common in Portland,  demonstrates why there was some dismay at the Stumptown sale. Portlanders are very passionate about their coffee, and they worry that as Stumptown expands, the quality will suffer. They do not want a homogenization of the experience that mirrors what they get at Starbucks.

The artisans who are profiled in this book are more interested in making great products than in becoming rich and “making it big.” The author tells us that many of Portland’s artisans do not feel the need to grow outside the local area because they feel it is important that people support local businesses. This goes against the “grow at all costs” ethos that dominates the business world, where the belief is that the business is either growing or it is dying.

Heying does not hide the fact that he considers the artisanal economy a more stable and inherently better system than the industrial economy. He decries the race to attract big-money investors and businesses to a city through tax breaks and other subsidies, arguing that this eventually hurts cities, who end up losing businesses when the subsidies run out. Heying recommends that cities looking to create economic development should try to encourage a more locally-based economy. He suggests that Portland’s artisanal economy can provide a model for such a system.

If there is to  be an artisanal movement that provides an alternative to the Fordist economy, it is likely that the movement’s spiritual center will be in Portland. However, there is a long way to go before we return to the artisanal culture from the pre-Ford era, and Heying is realistic about this in his conclusions.

The main thing missing from the book was a discussion of the artisan economy among Portland’s minority communities. While the omission does not take away from the overall message of the book, I could not help but wonder if the artisan mindset is as present on Northeast Martin Luther King Boulevard as it is on Southeast Division.

Brews to Bikes shows us that despite Portland’s reputation for lack of ambition, there is a lot of productive work happening in the city’s many small-scale production shops. The number of artisans making a living (or at least trying) in Portland is impressive. If you are interested in learning about what makes Portland’s economy function, Heying’s book provides a good overview of the city’s artisan culture. Reading the book, you see how the independent Western spirit that brought the pioneers to Oregon over a century ago still lives on in today’s artisanal economy. Young people may be coming to Portland, but they are not coming to the city to retire.