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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Shelter from the Sports Storm

The start of another NFL season seems like a good time to consider the impact of the 24-hour sports cycle, gone bonkers at the moment thanks to the Ray Rice media circus. The fact is, it is increasingly difficult to find a bar, pub or tavern that hasn't jumped on the sports bandwagon with large TVs and related promotions.

Don't misunderstand. I enjoy televised sports as much as the next person. I'll often go where I know I can watch a game while drinking a tasty malt beverage. But there are limits to what I will tolerate when it comes to non-stop buzz.

Fortunately, not everyone has joined the sports stampede. There are still a few places that have a retrograde view of what a pub is or ought to be about. Belmont Station is a good example. They offer great beer in a space void of TVs, which opens up the opportunity for conversation uninterrupted by visual distractions. Imagine that.

Looking back, the proliferation of sports-themed joints linked to craft beer is a relatively recent phenomenon. As far back as the 1970s, lots of watering holes had small TVs, often behind the bar, that were switched on to track live games and scores. That's a far cry from the non-stop barrage of giant screen banality we see today.

The thing is, sports TV did not play a significant role in the early development of brewpubs and breweries, most of which chose a more traditional pub approach. That rationale has been turned on its head today, as a long list of places has caved to the sports craze.

Part of what's driving this reality is the glut of sports programming looping around the clock on countless channels. If you go back 10-15 years, there weren't all that many options for live games and you didn't have multiple ESPNs and other channels endlessly hawking highlights.

My guess is owners and managers hop on the bandwagon because they'd rather not risk alienating the crowd that craves sports and entertainment. Shrinking attention spans mesmerized by non-stop moving images are a factor in this, for sure, but never mind. Marshall McLuhan isn't in the house.

I always wonder what differentiates places like Belmont Station from the countless joints that feature a barrage of sports programming. What mindset causes them to go against the flow? I put that question to Belmont Station co-owner, Lisa Morrison.

The philosophy she and partner Carl Singmaster share is pretty simple, she says:
We want to offer a place where the art of conversation can mingle with the enjoyment of a fine beverage. We have so many technological distractions in our lives. Our goal is to offer a spot that can take you away from that for a while and bring people together. And if you want to watch a game or whatever, you can do that on any number of personal devices. We even provide complementary WiFi. 
On any given day, you'll find people hanging out in the bier cafe, occupying tables on the sidewalk out front or sitting in the more recent addition in the rear. They're enjoying beer and conversation, usually. You occasionally see people staring at a laptop, tablet or phone, but mostly there's just a lot of talking and social drinking.

There's every reason to believe the sports craze will continue to infiltrate places that are new or haven't yet jumped on the bandwagon. Places like Belmont Station are the increasingly rare alternative, for those who want a more traditional experience. It's too bad there aren't more of them.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Inevitable Morphing of Craft Beer

Jeff Alworth's recent post on the morphing of craft beer drew a flurry of comments to his blog's Facebook page. Strangely enough, there was (when I last looked) only one comment on the actual blog, perhaps a sign that social media has overtaken blogs as the place people go to vent.

Jeff was referring to the fact that a growing number of craft brands are starting to look a lot like mass market brands. At the same time, mass market brewers are creating crafty brands and doing all they can to emulate craft brands. Thus, you have a sort of morphing or blurring on both ends of the spectrum. Interesting times.

It seems to me this transformation was predictable. There are plenty of antecedent examples in other industries. The beer industry is by all accounts an odd one, but it isn't all that much different than many others.

The allegory that works well for me is the American auto industry. Following World War II, that industry dominated our economy. American vehicles were sold here and abroad. This was largely due to the fact that our industrial base had not been shattered by bombing or incursion during the war. But never mind.

By the 1960s, if not sooner, other countries wanted a piece of the action. Germany and Japan, losers in the war, were probably the most aggressive. English cars were out there, too, always saddled with electrical and mechanical problems.The challenge for Germany and Japan was to compete in an industry owned by the United States. They were going to have to earn their way.

The strategy they used, brilliant in its simplicity, was to attack the American industry where it was weakest. American cars were big, inefficient, expensive and, in many cases, not very well-designed or built. Germany and Japan exploited these shortcoming with cars that were small, efficient and inexpensive. Build quality got better as time moved along.

Despite the fact that many of their early cars weren't much to look at, the Japanese and German automakers established themselves in the market because they offered good value. You could buy one of their cars for significantly less than you would pay for a comparable American car and it cost you less to maintain and operate.

At the time, a lot of people figured the foreign brands would stick to small cars and leave the large car market to the Americans. But that's not what happened. Instead, the established foreign brands moved beyond the small car segment and went after the core market with larger cars that were often a better value than their American counterparts.

The point is, foreign automakers morphed their products and strategy once they gained a foothold. There was also some morphing on the part of American automakers, who introduced smaller, more efficient cars, most of which weren't very well made. Eventually, competition did force US automakers to improve quality standards.

What does any of this have to do with the morphing of craft beer? Read on.

When the original craft brewers came on the scene in the early 1980s, it would have been impossible for them to enter the market with lagers. No one would have paid any attention. They needed to build a niche where the status quo was weakest. Lo and behold, craft brewers produced beer with flavor and character, a veritable vacant lot for the mass market beers.

Today, the craft beer industry is well-established. There are more than 3,000 operating breweries. Market share is growing, but still a relatively small piece of the overall beer pie. Craft brewers are essentially competing against each other for a small, albeit growing, portion of the market. This is eerily similar to what was happening in the auto industry by the 1970s.

Until now, craft brewers largely ignored the mass market. No more. Today, a few craft brands are going after the core market with products and marketing tactics that look a lot like the macro brands. So we see craft lagers with creative ad campaigns. This was inevitable and we'll probably see more of it....just as the mass market brands will continue to launch crafty beers.

Of course, the parallel to what happened in the car industry is not exact. Craft brewers have always pushed a premium product whereas the foreign car companies were initially selling what amounted to a budget or value product. Nonetheless, they shared the strategy of going after dominant industries at their weakest point, then morphed once established. By the way, this strategy isn't a well-kept secret. It's been applied many times over the years in many industries.

Where do we go from here? The reality is the number of craft breweries is growing faster than craft volume growth. While there will always be room for specialty and mainstream craft beers, the largest untapped chunk of the market is the macro segment. It seems likely this is where craft brewers will increasingly roam as we move forward.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kauai Beer Company: Supplemental

The current (August/September) issue of BeerAdvocate includes a piece I wrote about the Kauai Beer Company based on my May visit. There's almost no such thing as instant gratification in the world of publishing. This article was written and submitted in June. These things take a little time.

You may wish to seek out a copy of BA if you're interested in Kauai beer (sorry, there's no online version of the story). Due to the nature of print, a lot of dangling details didn't make it into the article. So I can share a few of those details here, where space isn't limited and the only editor that matters is me.

Owner Jim Guerber is the driving force behind the KBC. He has been brewing beer since around the time homebrewing became legal in 1978. Not on Kauai, though. Jim was raised and attended schools in Pennsylvania. He passed through New York, Southern California and Northern California on his way to Kauai, where he arrived around 1996.

How was he able to move around with apparent ease? Because Jim and his wife founded a software company, Signature Systems. It was no problem moving to NoCal or Kauai because they simply took the business with them. Jim's wife passed away several years ago, but he still runs the company with his son, Justin, also KBC's lead brewer.

Jim operated an elaborate brewing setup in his home for many years. He was making so much beer that he eventually starting providing it to benefits and other causes. KBC's flagship brew, Black Limousine, was born when a brewing friend suggested a blend of Steinlager and Guinness. It worked and that beer has a strong following today.

Finding a location for the brewery was one of the first challenges for Jim after he founded the company in 2011. He looked at warehouses and commercial spaces, and had his eye on a building previously occupied by a brewery. But the landlord had issues with the previous tenant and didn't want another brewery there. Breweries aren't always the best renters, apparently.

Jim eventually discovered and purchased the building where KBC now operates in Lihue, Kauai's county seat. It's a nice arrangement because there's no landlord to raise the rent or block necessary changes. When the brewery and tasting room opened last September, it was functional and that's about it. Even now, the space is in a constant state of evolution.

It's worth nothing that KBC is not located in a fancy, upscale area. Like a lot of craft breweries dating back to the beginning, it lives in an old industrial area that time seemingly forgot. In fact, the KBC is one of a few businesses that is helping revitalize downtown Lihue after decades of decay set in motion by the collapse of the sugarcane industry.

What they've done in a year here is impressive, given the circumstances. I won't go into details that are part of the article, but the bottom line is that operating a brewery anywhere in Hawaii is expensive and complicated. Jim are his crew are constantly looking for creative ways to manage costs and navigate Kauai's red tape.

The evolution of KBC beers is an obvious point of interest. On my first visit in October 2013, lagers dominated the board. And nicely done lagers are a perfect fit in the tropics. Lihue Lager, their co-flagship with Black Limo, is a tasty beer with light tropical notes. It's quite popular.

By the time I returned in May, the beer list had morphed and featured an IPA and other ales. "Customers asked for those beers," Jim told me, "and we enjoy brewing beers our customers want." There's also the fact that growing demand for the beer means they need to make it faster, which means lagers are a bit more problematic.

Food was part of the KBC plan from the beginning. Jim envisioned an onsite kitchen and an island-influenced pub menu. But food took a backseat as they were getting the word out about the beer and building a clientele. The only food in sight back in October was a pot of chili. They were only open two days a week at the time.

That's changing. The first thing they did on the food front was bring in food carts every Thursday evening. Truck Stop Thursday, as it is called, has been a huge success. The next step was to staff the kitchen and begin serving food on Friday...Finally Friday, they call it. They are in the process of expanding in-house food to Saturdays and will build the rest of the week out from there.

What's happening here is crazy. They are attracting crowds to a space in a constant state of evolution, that still isn't open normal days and hours. And they are doing it with virtually no conventional advertising. They use social media to promote ongoing and special events and they have done a bit radio. Nonetheless, people flock to this place, starved for good beer and simple, tasty food.

Guerber is optimistic about what they've accomplished and where the business is headed. "I knew from experience that it would take more time and money than I imagined to get this place going. But we've put together a good team and our hard work and patience is being rewarded. The future is bright."

With all that said, now would be a great time for you to read the BeerAdvocate article.

Monday, August 25, 2014

New Beer Policies Hit Some College Football Stadiums

Beer in college football stadiums? It once seemed like a far-fetched idea. Yet, with the season about to start, there's been a lot of chatter about schools that are serving beer or preparing to serve beer inside their football stadiums. There are arguments on both sides, but I think this is generally a decent idea.

I started going to football games when people still wore suits and ties to games. The dark ages. My first game was at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Later, there were lots of high school, college and pro games. You could only get a beer at the pro games. That's changing finally.

According to recent reports, 21 schools around the country will sell beer to fans in their stadiums this year. Just a few years ago, less than half that many schools had such policies. Of course, there are still holdouts. The entire Southeastern Conference and the California State University system have policies banning alcohol from general seating areas in stadiums.

By the way, the NCAA doesn't dictate alcohol policy, leaving decisions up to schools and conferences. Which is odd when you think about it because you can't buy a beer at any NCAA championship event. While most bowl games sell beer, you can't buy a beer at any March Madness venue. Verboten!

The move by some schools to allow beer in their football stadiums (and basketball arenas in some cases) is driven partly by revenue hunger. Fans have been tailgating before and after games for decades. Schools watched them enter stadiums hopelessly tanked and wondered if there might be a way to create a better experience while making a little money.

Moving beer inside stadiums proved to be a viable option. When they did this at West Virginia several years ago, people laughed and said it would be a disaster. This was, after all, a place that had serious problems with drunken, misbehaving fans. Instead of a disaster, alcohol-related incidents dropped sharply. And beer sales produced more than $500,000 a year in revenue.

There are those who argue that selling alcohol inside college stadiums sets a bad example for impressionable kids, who may wind up thinking the only way to have fun is to drink. They say that's not the message colleges and universities should be conveying.

The thing is, this is already the message being conveyed. Does anyone think kids aren't around during pre-game tailgating? Is there someone who thinks the kiddies aren't seeing everything that goes on?

Honestly, the real problem with pre-game partying in all its forms is that fans tend to drink way too much, knowing they won't be able to get a beer once they enter the stadium. So you wind up with people who are too drunk to behave. And they don't.

The rationale for serving beer inside stadiums is to keep fans from guzzling that last beer or two or three before coming in. There's also the fact that alcohol consumption can be more easily monitored inside the stadium than in the parking lot.

Look, I've attended games at all the Northwest schools. I've seen some horrible behavior by fans who were hammered well before they came through the gates. I think selling beer inside stadiums might help encourage a semblance of moderation outside. That can't be a bad thing.

A final note on the revenue concept...there's a secondary angle. While schools certainly hope to make a few bucks on beer, they also realize they're competing against high-def TV for fans. Some schools that have initiated beer sales at games have seen attendance go up. What some are calling an "enhanced fan experience" actually attracts people to games and keeps them there. What a concept.

There's no word on what kind of beer fans are apt to find in stadiums. My guess is most venues will serve predominantly light lagers. Not the best. But you gotta start somewhere.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Careful, man...There's a Craft Beverage Here!

Sometimes there's a man...I won't say a hero 'cause what's a hero? But sometimes there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. That man is Brendan Jones, founder of The Big Legrowski in the Pearl District.

The name and theme of this joint is based on a certain movie of a similar name, whose main character is The Dude. Jones, a big fan of the movie, is working hard to make sure his choices of decorative pieces fit the theme. A rug that will tie the room together is reportedly on the way.

The Big Legrowski opened in early August. Since then, it's been "steadily slow," Jones says. One reason business hasn't yet picked up is the space on Couch isn't well marked. There's a sign on the sidewalk that's easily obscured by parked cars and pedestrians. But Jones isn't a sap. He has a neon sign on order and it should make the place a lot easier to find.

Jones, an Aussie by birth, is in Portland because he married his special lady friend, who happens to be American. They tried living in Australia for a while, before deciding to give the US a shot. It's a complicated case...a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.

The Big Legrowski isn't just about growlers, although they are available in 64 and 32 oz. sizes. Jones also offers beer by the pint or 3 oz taster. Tasters are a buck each for most beers, and the first one is free. Prices for pints and growlers depend on the beer, though the average is $10-13 for growlers, $6-8 for grenades. Customers will be able to smile knowing they aren't getting gypped.

There's nothing to eat here at the moment, save a few bags of potato chips. Jones hopes to offer simple snacks at some point, or he may have a menu of items provided by a nearby cafe. We just don't know how this is going to work out.

This isn't a huge place and I can easily see it getting packed as business picks up. The tap list (14 beers and a cider) is occupied by some nice stuff...Barley Brown's Pallet Jack, Priem Blonde IPA, Upright Seven, Laurelwood Workhorse, Double Mountain Kolsch, etc. These are all solid, well-known beers. I suspect the list will evolve to include more specialty beers down the road. And that's cool.

I suppose you have to wonder if the Pearl community will support The Big Legrowski. People from other parts of town aren't going to trek here to drink or get beer to go. Jones will depend on Northwest Portlanders to support his business.He may be out of his element, but I bet not.

If you happen to live in the area or be in the area, you should stop in and give this place a try. The concept Jones invented and implemented is pretty damned ingenious. I take comfort in that, knowin' Jones is out there takin' 'er easy for all us beer fans. I sure hope his place does well.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On the Road to Summerland

There hasn't been much to read here for a week or so. I spent last week on a short, busy junket that included stops in Ashland, the Sacramento area and San Francisco. There's enough material to produce a several posts, so I'll try to stick to the highlights. Of course beer was involved.

Our first stop was in Ashland, where we planned to see The Great Society, the second of two plays that look at the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The first play, All the Way, which covered LBJ's presidency up until his landslide victory in 1964, received numerous awards. After premiering in Ashland in 2012, it eventually made its way to Broadway in March 2014.

We stopped at Caldera Brewing Taproom for a quick beer a couple of hours before the play. There weren't many souls in the pub...they were outside on the patio. I was surprised at the relatively small size of the pub. Many beers were sampled. I particularly liked Mogli, a barrel-aged Imperial Porter brewed in memory of a departed black Lab. They were also pouring Citra Pale Ale, a seasonal loaded with hops aroma and flavor.

Getting back to the play, The Great Society picks up in the early stages of Johnson's second term. As he works to expand his domestic agenda, he gets caught in a trap of his own making...Vietnam. As many will recall, the war undermined Johnson's domestic efforts and destroyed his presidency. He refused to run for reelection in 1968, broken and depressed. That's the Cliff Notes version.

I didn't see the first play, but my sense is it is the better of the two by a wide margin. The Great Society combines great production values and acting with a bloated script that veers off course multiple times. Not bad, but also not great. In case you're wondering, they do have a small selection of craft beer and cider available inside Angus Bowmer Theater...sold during intermissions only.

The next day, it was on to Winters, Calif. for a family visit. There's one brewery in Winters, which I'll get to. On my last visit, someone had suggested a trip to Track 7 in Sacramento, which is about a half hour away in decent traffic. Because they are only open evening hours during the week and a weekend trip was impossible, we traveled there in thick traffic and it took nearly an hour. Oh well.

Track 7 has been open for several years and is following the example provided by many newer breweries in California and Oregon. They have a taproom and rotating food trucks...a common theme these days. It's clearly working for them because the place was packed and people were snapping up beers and ordering food like crazy.

There isn't a bad beer here, but I didn't find anything very memorable either. I had seen some positive comments on Panic IPA, and it's a decent beer. But it lacks the depth of flavor and aroma you expect in a top notch IPA. Motherland, a triple-IPA, was woefully out of balance. Probably the best beer we tasted was Sedusa, a nice Wheat IPA.

As I say, patrons were snapping this stuff up. It occurred to me that this is an underserved area. California has a ton of breweries, more than any other state. But it also has a lot of people and the breweries aren't necessarily spread evenly according to population.So you wind up with grey areas. Another brewery recently opened in Sacramento and I suspect there are more to come.

The highlight of the trip came on Friday, when we traveled (by ferry) to AT&T Park to watch the Giants play the Phillies. My wife was raised a Giants fan in the Bay Area and attended games at Candlestick as a kid. But she had never visited AT&T Park. Two World Series titles later, she gets to cross that bucket list item off. As for me, I am an adopted Giants fan.

It's hard to describe the majesty of this ballpark. The views you see on TV don't do the place justice. We entered the park as the Giants were finishing batting practice and took in the afternoon sights. Sailboats zigged and zagged in the adjacent bay. The grounds are immaculate and the fixtures amazing. Is there a better place for baseball? I doubt it.

Prior to the game, we stopped at 21st Amendment Brewery, which is located blocks from the ballpark. The place was packing in with Giants fans three hours before game time and we were lucky to find seats at the bar. The beers were not impressive. An extra light pale ale was dreadfully out of balance and too bitter. A seasonal IPA suffered similar shortcomings. Still a pretty cool place.

Over at AT&T Park, the beer selection was not too exciting. I found beers by Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada without much trouble. But most of the beer stations were infested with a nasty line of Anheuser-Busch products. There's a reason AT&T Park did poorly (17 out of 30) in a survey of baseball stadiums and the quality of craft beer they serve. Seattle is the top dog, if you didn't know.

The Giants lost the Friday night game to Philly in extra innings and it was quite cold in the ballpark by the end. Remember to pack a ski jacket and long pants if you plan to attend a night game down there. Or attend a day game...that's definitely what we'll do next time.

Closing out the trip, I visited Berryessa Brewing in Winters on Sunday. I'd been to Berryessa before (the story is here). They have expanded their outdoor seating and now have rotating food trucks to supplement the beer. As noted above, it's a common theme.

Berryessa's beers are fairly accomplished. The terrific Double Tap IPA tasted on my initial trip was not available, replaced by Mini-Double Tap. MDT wasn't bad, but certainly no substitute for the original. They were pouring a couple of nice pale ales, as well as a Belgian. The beer list leaned heavily toward lighter beers...not a bad idea given the brutal summer heat in Winters.

It was a fabulous trip, but I'm glad to be back in Oregon. During a back and forth email conversation while I was in California, an industry friend suggested that you really appreciate how good we have it here when you spend some time out of state. There are plenty of great beers in California and elsewhere, but I think he may be onto something.

The marina behind AT&T Park (postgame shot)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fort George Hits 3-Way Home Run

Like Babe Ruth's called home run in the 1932 World Series, the folks at Fort George Brewery had a pretty good idea what they were doing with this year's version of 3-Way IPA. They partnered with two of the hottest brands going, Boneyard and Block 15, and produced a huge summer hit. Coincidentally, it has also become the best-selling and highest rated beer in Fort George history. Not bad.

I introduced this year's 3-Way after tasting it back in early June. At the time, I figured it would be huge. The melting of Boneyard, Block 15 and Fort George brewing values created a hop bomb with fantastic flavor and aroma. There are a few people who like that sort of thing.

Fortunately, 3-Way hasn't been hard to find. It's been available in mainstream stores and beer specialty shops around town and on tap sporadically in a lot of places.

There have been some minor batch variations, I think. Nothing serious. A pint I had at the brewery in Astoria was the best of the bunch for me, but it's been rock solid on draft and from the can.

Production and sales numbers are pretty impressive, as well.

Last year's 3-Way IPA, a collaboration with Lompoc and Gigantic, did fairly well. Fort George ordered and filled about 50,000 cans (2,100 cases) and brewed roughly 500 barrels to meet packaged and draft demands over the summer.

Anticipating bigger things this year, they started with 87,000 cans (3,600 cases). Once the beer hit shelves in June, sales skyrocketed and it was clear they would need more. So they ordered another 50,000 cans, for a total of 137,000 (5,700 cases). By the end of August, they will have brewed more than 1,300 barrels of 3-Way for draft and cans.

Then there's the rating game, where 3-Way IPA has earned the highest marks of any Fort George beer, according to sources at the brewery. The beer gets a 96 on Beer Advocate, putting it in the World Class category. It earns another positive (4.07 our of 5) rating on Untappd. Beer fans seem to like it.

The time to seek this stuff out, if you haven't already had it or want to stock up, is now...before it's gone. The last batches of 3-Way will leave the brewery in late August or early Sept. Hopheads should be able to find it in stores and on draft through mid-September.

Once this year's 3-Way is gone, you'll have to wait until 2015. There will be a brand new version of 3-Way next summer. The folks at Fort George aren't yet sure who the collaborating breweries will be, but that information is coming soon. Something to look forward to.