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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Not Everything is About the Beer

You take your chances and you take your lumps. It's an old adage and one that has nothing to do with beer or alcohol, except maybe as it applies to overconsumption. In my context, it applies to making certain choices that have now more or less caught up with me.

Younger knees (with Burleson)
I'll have my left knee replaced before the end of the year. Because choices do have consequences. I'll probably get a partial replacement. They'll insert implants on the medial (inside) of my knee. The rest of the knee is apparently okay, meaning I'm not in line for the somewhat more invasive full knee replacement. Small favors.

How did I get here? This isn't the result of a specific injury or accident. I got here because I consciously chose to abuse my body over the course of some 40 years, give or take. Beer was only indirectly involved, icing on the cake.

I started down the road of abuse while in high school, where I chose to play football for four years. We didn't have many big kids in Clarkston, but I was certainly undersized. I never suffered a serious injury and had only a few concussions. That I know of.

Like most kids, I didn't know what I was doing in high school. Besides football, I was involved in a lot of recreational sports...basketball, baseball, golf, snow and water skiing. But I didn't know what it meant to be physically active as a high school graduate. No clue, really.

At some point during my first year of college, I got hooked on tennis. Blame Jimmy Connors, if you want. I had played in junior high, got bored, didn't try very hard, quit. The American tennis boom of early 1970s got me interested again and I got serious about playing regularly.

Honestly, I wasn't very good during those years. I could win intramural matches, but wasn't nearly good enough to be part of the team at Washington State. I kept working at it. Not long after I graduated, I was competing and occasionally winning in tournaments.

After several years of playing tennis and working in the record biz, I entered graduate school. At that point, I was good enough to beat some players on the WSU team. Not that it mattered; I had no eligibility and wasn't in school for tennis. I was getting trained so I could one day write about beer.

Looking back, I doubt tennis caused significant damage to my knees. Young knees, which mine were at the time, are well lubricated. Normal wear and tear, nothing more. But tennis was hard on my shoulder and shoulder problems caused me to consider other options.

I eventually switched to racquetball. It seemed reasonable. Less shoulder stress. Plus, Pullman's climate isn't friendly to outdoor tennis for much of the year and the indoor facilities were lousy at the time. Racquetball was popular enough that it was easy to find a decent game. Courts were always available.

The transition to racquetball was not smooth. I had the basic skills needed, but my swing was all wrong (too stiff) and my footwork (from tennis) was a mess. I also didn't understand the game. It took several years to learn the nuances across a wide spectrum of situations.

When I left Pullman for Portland in 1989, I wasn't a very good player. But I kept at it, finding a club where I could get regular games. I made a lot of friends. Pretty soon I was good enough to compete at the A+ level and win more than I lost. I played tournaments in Oregon for 20 years.

Most of that probably wasn't a terrible idea. There are definite health benefits to playing a game that causes you to exert and sweat. But it's easy to fool yourself into thinking the benefits outweigh the risks. Ego enters the picture and cons you into thinking you're not at risk. You are.

Racquetball is hard on knees. I had meniscus tears in both knees repaired via arthroscopic surgeries in 2006. Maybe I should have quit playing then. Old knees are not well-lubricated and can't take the pounding dished out by games like racquetball. My surgeon said playing was fine, but advised me to go easy. Which I did, partially by playing fewer tournaments.

Five years ago, I felt nagging pain in my left knee. I initially thought it was tendinitis, but it refused to heal. I saw an orthopedist at Rebound. X-rays revealed deterioration of the articular cartilage on the medial side in both knees. It would get worse, he told me. I'd eventually need to have the left knee replaced. And maybe the right.

If beer played a role in that diagnosis, it was in the 15 or so pounds I gained after I started writing about it in 2011. Every pound adds stress to the knees and my knees were already significantly damaged. But beer was late to the project of wrecking my knees and deserves little credit.

American healthcare is a mess, of course, The 2006 scope surgeries were fairly straightforward and cost me almost nothing. The system has since gotten better at delaying, denying and charging more for care. I'm jumping through multiple hoops to get this surgery and it will cost thousands of dollars, at least, in the end. Hopefully, I'll regain full use of that knee.

This story almost makes me wonder if the choices I made were wise. My worn out knees are the result of regular activity that put a lot of pressure on them. If I hadn't played those games, my knees might feel better. But I suspect some other body part or parts would have malfunctioned by now if I hadn't played.

I guess I'll have another beer and reconsider past choices. I don't regret the years I spent playing sports that were risky. Doing so kept me generally healthier than most of my contemporaries. But getting old isn't a spectator sport, no matter how you cut it.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Notes from the Portland Craft Beer Festival

As with almost everything else connected to beer, we continue to see an evolution in beer festival format. Organizers are working to satisfy shifts in preferences that have as much to do with event amenities as with beer. Craft beer's growing mainstream status is part of that.

The Portland Craft Beer Festival is a good example, I think, of what's happening. I'd heard good things about it, but had no personal point of reference because I'd never attended. That changed last week.

This is the fifth year of the festival, which is held at comfy Fields Park in Northwest Portland. The Park is a significant selling point. It's of modest size, but located in a populated area that has great transit access. Getting there is easy and The Fields actually feels like a park, with thick green grass, great views.

Organizers are creative with the layout and it works well. The taps are positioned in the middle of the park under a tent. There are taps along the length of the tent on each side, allowing patrons to approach from both sides. It's an efficient use of the space consumed.

With the beer in the middle, there's ample room for tables with and without umbrellas a short distance from the beer tent. A variety of vendors and marketing demos are set up around the fringes of the park. Perhaps best of all, the layout allows for a large gaming area, which was set up for multiple lanes of corn hole. The venue didn't feel packed, despite a pretty good crowd.

This isn't an overly expensive event. For $30 (a little less online), you got a glass and 10 tickets. Each ticket yielded a 4 oz taste, unless you splurged on a full glass for tour tickets. Those first 10 beers might not be a great deal; but the next ones are because additional tickets are a buck, which translates to a $4 pint (four tastes). That's virtually unheard of at contemporary beer festivals.

They were pouring more than 100 beers, ciders and wines during this event. The beers were a mix of standards and one-offs. I was sharing tastes and sampled around 25 of them. There were far more misses than hits and most of the best beers were standards from known breweries. Several beers I tasted had obvious and significant defects. Not good.

I'm not sure beer quality is all that big a deal at an event like this. In some ways, it reminded me of what festivals were like 15-20 years ago, when patrons were more interested in drinking interesting beers in a unique setting than they were in obsessing over those beers. At some point, we crossed a bridge into bizarro geekdom. This, to me, seemed like a step back in the direction of sanity.

One thing I never thought I'd see at a beer festival is a gaming area. But the young crowd wants that and festivals are responding. This wasn't the first time I'd seen a corn hole being played at a beer event, but this was certainly the largest use of space. I was tempted to regard this as a generational shift in preferences, but it isn't that. When I was younger, we always played games in bars and taverns. Gaming at beer fests simply means craft beer is attracting the mainstream audience that wants that experience while drinking a few beers.

There was no live music. Instead, they provided some sort of piped in music playing on not huge speakers near the gaming area. I'm a fan of live music at these events, but the reason fests are moving away from it is that patrons don't pay attention. A little buzz in the background is all they want. You'll see a similar approach at the Oregon Brewers Festival in a few weeks.

What organizers have done is put together an event with wide appeal. They chose a relatively intimate venue in an easily accessible location. They designed a layout that provides easy access to beer and space for seating and gaming. And by not catering to the geek crowd that chases rare and expensive beers, they've made the festival attractive to a mainstream audience that just wants to have a few beers while enjoying the scene.

There are some things that need to be fixed. The lack of readily available drinking water is at the top of my list. Beer consistency could definitely be better. But all-in-all, the Portland Craft Beer Festival is a nice example of what a modern beer festival should be.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Portland's Provincial Past is Slipping Away

People look at Portland's craft beer scene and they wonder how it happened here. Well, that used to be a popular question. It was certainly a question posed to a lot of people when I was doing interviews for Portland Beer a few years back.

There is no simple answer. However, one of the things almost everyone mentioned in some way was that Portland is highly provincial. If you look up provincial, you'll find some interesting definitions. "Narrow minded," being one of them.

What these folks were saying about Portland is that people here have tended to value local products over things imported from other areas. There's also an implied nod to do-it-yourself values. Historically, this was a blue collar city where residents learned to do things for themselves. That general notion has carried forward.

When it comes to craft beer, virtually all of the founding brewers, and many who stepped into the scene later, started out as homebrewers. That's related to the strong DIY culture that dates back more than a century to the city's blue collar past.

As homebrewing transitioned to pro brewing back in the 1980s, a benefit of provincial attitudes was that people were willing to try local craft beers. It didn't matter that they were happily sipping or guzzing their macro lager. They were willing to try the early craft beers at least partially because they were local. The looming shadow of Henry Weinhard undoubtedly contributed to that mindset. Anyway, it turned out that, in a lot of cases, consumers liked what they tasted.

One of the other interesting effects of provincialism, as it pertains to Portland's affection for craft beer, is that brands from outside the area have had a tough time attaining traction here. Countless times you'd see a brand appear in a big splash, only to be gone in less than a year. This was true as recently as a few years ago.

But things have changed. One sign of that is our attitude toward Washington beers. Not so long ago, Washington beers had no standing in Portland. Oregon beer was popular in Seattle and elsewhere, but Washington beers had no clout here. That's not so today. A number of Washington brands have gained a foothold here, including Fremont, Georgetown, Chuckanut and others.

We see further breakdown of provincial Portland in the form of carpetbaggers from out of state (or country) who have or will soon open pubs. There's a big difference in commitment, by the way, between selling your beer in stores or bars and opening a pub or brewpub.
  • San Diego-based Modern Times opened in the former Commons space on Southeast Belmont and has gained a solid, apparently lasting following. 
  • Denmark-based Mikkeller recently opened in the vacated Burnside Brewing space and seems to be doing well, despite mediocre beer and overpriced everything. Proof positive that P.T. Barnum was right. 
  • There's word that Iceland-based KEX Brewing will set up shop in Portland. KEX beers will be featured at a hotel and restaurant being built on Northeast Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Obviously, out-of-state chains aren't new here. Colorado-based Rock Bottom has been around for many years. California-based BJ's Brewhouse at one time had several Portland-area locations and contributed some amazing brewers to our scene. Pittsburgh-based Fatheads earned a sold following when it opened in 2014 and has continued to do well since rebranding as Von Ebert Brewing.

But it seems to me that we've moved into uncharted territory. The growing acceptance of out-of-state beer bars, pubs and brands means more of them will be showing up here, that provincial barriers are breaking down, at least as they apply to beer.

Why would that be the case? There are probably several reasons. I suspect the most significant one is that we've seen and are continuing to see an influx of people from around the country and world. They have little connection to Portland, except that they now live here, and they are far more accepting of outside brands than Portlanders were 10 or 20 years ago. In effect, we're losing some of our ancient heritage as we become more diverse.

This was probably inevitable, given migration, and maybe it isn't such a bad thing. It's unlikely to be reversed, so best get used to the idea.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Edgefield to Tap 2nd Annual Brewfest

It's the season of outdoor festivals in Oregon. The summer calendar is packed with events. So packed that beer fans will have to make choices. Next week's Edgefield Brewfest presents an interesting possibility due to the setting and the long tap list.

First, the list. They'll be pouring more than 100 Northwest beers and ciders. I tasted through a few of the offerings at a poorly attended media preview Monday afternoon. People who attend this event will have access to some great beers and ciders.

Besides the well-known breweries listed on the event webpage, every McMenamin's brewery will be represented at the event. That's a first and it's interesting because most of these breweries are tiny and the beer they produce is served across only one or two pubs. McMenamin's ciders, some really interesting ones, will also be poured.

Beyond the beers and ciders, there's the venue. Pay no mind to the bland photo above, shot when no one was around. The fest will be held in the amphitheater where Edgefield Concerts happen. That's a sizable area where folks can set up chairs of blankets near the taps. They'll have food nearby and music on several stages through the afternoon.

To me, a significant point of interest is Edgefield itself. It's a sprawling property where there's something for pretty much everyone. One can easily get lost or disoriented roaming the grounds, seeing the different buildings, soaking up some of the history.

This was once the County Poor Farm, opened in 1911. It was a place for destitute folks to live and work. The farm ultimately consumed 345 acres. On it, they raised hogs and chickens, grew produce, operated dairy and a meatpacking plant.  That rendition of the property ended in 1964.

Soon thereafter, the main building was named Edgefield Manor and became a public nursing home. It stayed that way until 1982, when the nursing home closed and the property was abandoned. The area fell into disrepair, as vagrants and vandals trashed structures. By 1985, Multnomah County was planning to demolish everything and sell the land. 

The Troutdale Historical Society intervened, claiming the buildings were historic and should be saved. The bleeding hearts delayed demolition for nearly five years, at which point Mike and Brian McMenamin bought the property. They were going try the hotel business. 

Their first order of business was to find the seventy-odd buildings on the property, many of which were covered by blackberry thickets. They planted a vineyard and established Edgefield Winery that first year. The old cannery turned out to be a great spot for a 20-bbl brewery, which has been expanded in more recent times. Edgefield has become a destination.

Apologies for the walk through history. The point is, Edgefield is an interesting place with a rich history. And it's located only minutes from the heart of the city, making it easily accessible to city slickers who need a bit of country respite from time to time. 

The upcoming Edgefield Brewfest, happening Saturday, June 29th, is a great chance to appreciate an historic property while enjoying good beer and cider. Visit the event site for more information and to buy advance tickets. It's sure to be a pleasant day in the sun and shade. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Barrel-Aging Programs Buck Trendy Industry

One of the realities of modern craft beer is fads and trends. There are so many breweries that it's tough to get noticed. In that scenario, a lot of consumers are fixated on what's new and shiny. Maybe this was the inevitable result of a maturing industry. Maybe.

You see the theme playing out in beer bars, bottleshops, taprooms and pubs. Customers who pass through those doors commonly ask for the newest thing, whether it's a fruit infused hazy, a kombucha pilsner or some other strange one-off.

Most brewers, whether they like it or not, have little choice in the matter. If they want to stay in business, they've got to play the game. That means spending an exorbitant amount of time focused on developing fancy new beers and the packaging that sells them. 

What suffers is the work that once went into refining beers over a period of months and years. When you're focused on keeping abreast of the coolest new trend, you don't invest the time or energy in messing around with what we once knew as reliable standards. 

It's not so hard to see why flagship beers are an endangered species. There are still quite a few of them around, but they don't have the appeal or command the sales numbers they once did. A big part of the reason established craft breweries are suffering is that people don't buy flagships anymore. That stuff is old hat, not cool. 

All of this vaguely became part of the discussion at Thursday evening's Barrel-Aged Beer and Whiskey Seminar at House Spirits/Westward Whiskey in Southeast Portland. It was one of four seminars held as part of Portland Beer Week. Breakside's Ben Edmunds led a group discussion that included Matt Lincecum, founder of Seattle's Fremont Brewing, Daniel Hynes, manager of Breakside's barrel program, and Andrew Tice of House Spirits. 

Barrel-aged beers definitely have a place in the trendiness of craft beer. They're rare and usually expensive, prerequisites for capturing the imagination of craft fans who sneer at stuff that's easy to find and cheaper. That $20 four-pack of hazy IPA isn't as good as an established IPA that sells for $12 a six-pack. But never mind. It's new and rare and spendy. Gotta have it. 

A big difference between the flood of trendy stuff being dumped on the market is that barrel-aged beers are hard to make. They require meticulous planning, time and expertise to pull off well. Even then, they sometimes bomb. Expensive equipment and a nice facility are great, but you simply cannot make these beers easily. Putting beer in a barrel can produce great or dreadful results. 

Some of the considerations involved include the type and quality of barrels used, sugar content of the beer, type of yeast, aging time, temperature, monitoring while aging to evaluate progress, knowing whether to blend vintages and so on. Barrel-aged beers are a highly artisan endeavor, requiring skills and knowledge acquired over many years. They also require a lot of patience. 

Contrast that with your average trendy beer, often a half-baked concept. They can be highly creative, but usually aren't very refined. They're here today, gone tomorrow, so they never really have a chance to mature. Barrel beers can also be creative, even half-baked, but they usually aren't a one-and-done proposition and actually do grow up in a lot of cases.

It wasn't so long ago that brewers focused on producing a few flagship beers to sell in their pubs and maybe in packaged form. There weren't a lot of choices, which meant the primary differentiating factor was the quality and evolution of the beers. We've lost a bit of that in the frenzy over what's new and trendy, I think.

But I take pleasure in knowing there are barrel aging programs out there that have something in common with the focus on quality that once dominated this industry. Maybe we'll at some point return to a situation where that's the industry norm, not the exception. Maybe.

Note: Special thanks to Ezra Johnson-Greenough, who offered me a place in the seminar and encouraged me to attend. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Portland Beer Week: The Educational Seminars

One of the most amusing things I experience on my beer travels is beer fans who know little or nothing about the beers they are drinking, the breweries where the beers were made or the processes involved in making them. What these folks need is a little education.

There are a variety of ways to get education, including brewery tours, homebrew clubs, etc. Some festivals include an element of education, often on how the brewing process works. Portland Beer Week has featured educational seminars for several years. That effort continues in 2019.

"I love making education part of Portland Beer Week," event organizer, Ezra Johnson-Greenough, told me by email. "It's always fun to learn more and hear brewers and other experts bounce thoughts and ideas off each other. I also think it helps make Beer Week more than just a drinking exercise."

Portland Beer Week is, of course, mainly a drinking exercise. Ten days worth of drinking and partying, June 7-19. Check out the calendar. Each day is packed with excursions into the bowels of the local craft beer scene. Don't drink too much!

The educational piece is represented by a series of seminars spaced more or less evenly during the first week. They are:

Future of the Craft
Sunday, June 9th, 7-9 pm
Migration Brewing, 2828 NE Glisan St.
This seminar will consider the state of the industry, which is being bounced around by changing consumer demand, increasing competition, flat or declining growth, hostile distribution systems, corporate buyouts and even cannabis. Where does the industry go from here?

Panelists will include Tony Roberts (co-director of the Oregon Brewers Guild), Sam Holloway (Crafting A Strategy), Ben Edmunds (Breakside Brewery), Ben Parsons (Baerlic Brewing) and Jason Notte Flint (beer biz writer).

"I designed this seminar to create a discussion/debate that I would personally like to hear," Johnson-Greenough said. "It should be lively."

Tickets are $12 and include a Migration beer. Get them here.

The Branding Bunch: Here's a Story
Tuesday, June 11th 5:30-8 pm
Function PDX, 919 Northwest 23rd Ave
A look at brewery branding and storytelling, as practiced by industry marketing pros. Get insight from designers and brand managers on how to develop your brand's story from social media to point-of-sale.

Panelists will include: Briana Romancier (Coates Kokes & Pelican Brewing Co.), Jeremy Backer (Level Beer & Ex Novo), Michelle Humphrey (pFriem Family Brewers), Ashley Jhaveri & Chrispy (ZZEPPELIN). Moderated by Michael Perozzo.

"This particular seminar is really about how breweries are learning to leverage their unique stories into a brand, and then how to communicate that effectively through social media and branding," Johnson-Greenough said. "Michael will do a great job guiding the discussion."

TIckets are $12 and include a drink ticket for a Baerlic Brewing beer at the bar. Buy them here.

Barrel-Aged Beer and Whiskey Seminar
Thursday, June 13th, 5:30-8 pm
House Spirits Distillery, 65 SE Washington St
House Spirits and Westward Whiskey present the annual Barrel-Aged Beer Seminar, which veers into whiskey, its similarity to beer and how integral it is in barrel-aged beer production. Attendees will get an inside look at the process from whiskey wash to barrel-aging.

Special guests/panelists: Ben Edmunds (Breakside Brewery), Matt Lincecum and Matt Lincoln (Fremont Brewing) and Andrew Tice (House Spirits/Westward Whiskey).

"This is going to be really fun," Johnson-Greenough said. "Making a barrel-aged beer isn't as simple as filling a barrel with beer. Also, many don't realize how similar whiskey is to beer or that House Spirits is really a brewery first. Anyone who geeks out about this stuff you will enjoy this class."

Tickets are $35. Attendees will sample two barrel-aged beers from each brewery and single malt whiskeys from Westward. Buy tickets here.

Sour & Wild Ale Seminar: Coolship Edition
Friday, June 14th, 5:30-8 pm
Von Ebert Brewing Glendoveer, 14021 Northeast Glisan St
This annual tasting and educational event explores the process of making sour beer with wild yeasts and bacteria. The focus this year is on brewers who use coolships...open-top vessels made to cool wort (unfermented beer) out in the open where live yeast and bacteria found in the environment can make its way into the sweet wort.

Joining Von Ebert's Sean Burke: Trevor Rogers (De Garde Brewing), Shilpi Halemane (Logsdon Farmhouse Ales) and Garrison Schmidt (Block 15 Brewing).

"I'm always interested in how brewers produce so-called "sour" beers," said Johnson-Greenough.  "There are multiple methods, theories and techniques. Why is coolship beer trendy? Why are brewers increasingly drawn to local flora and fauna? I'm not sure all consumers care how their beer got to taste sour or funky, but connoisseurs of the style do."

Tickets are $35 tickets and include rare/premium beer tastings with De Garde, Logsdon and Block 15. Get them here.

I'm not generally a fan of overpriced festivals, beer dinners and related events. There are more than enough of those kinds of events around. But these educational seminars offer worthwhile content for what seems like a reasonable cost. I hope people will support these things.

As for ticket availability, I understand they will have tickets available until the last minute, unless an event sells out...which evidently isn't likely. The exception to that rule may be the Sour & Wild Ale seminar, which has been fairly popular and may sell out. A word to the wise. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

Craft Beer's Ultra-Competitive, Jelly Bean Reality

Before I launched this blog in 2011, I had observed the trajectory of craft beer dating to the 1990s. Those were quaint times, thinking back. There weren't that many breweries and, to a large extent, you mostly knew who they were and what they were good at.

That began to change after the financial crisis of 2008. It was around that time that the brewery count started to tick upward wildly. One of the stats I included in Portland Beer was that Portland's brewery count had increased 40 percent between 2009 and 2012. It continued to rise from there.

The national numbers are similar. Between 2009 and 2012, the total craft brewery count rose from 1,698 to 2,420, according to the Brewers Association. Between 2012 and 2015, the count nearly doubled, ending at 4,628. Between 2015 and 2018, another 2,718 opened. Total craft breweries at the end of 2018: 7,346.

Those stats, unless you look at the detail, obscure something significant about the structure of the current market. Between 2009 and 2018, microbrewery growth was off the hook....more than 4,000 opened during that period. Framed differently, for every microbrewery that existed in 2009, there were roughly eight by the end of 2018.

Brewpubs, which had formed the backbone of the industry for several decades, saw subdued growth by comparison. Between 2009 and 2018, around 1,500 brewpubs opened, an increase of about 150 percent. Regional brewery growth was miniscule, an increase of less than 200.

In effect, the craft beer landscape was transformed. Today's industry is dominated by small breweries that focus almost exclusively on beer. Brewers Association stats have shown that those breweries are creating the bulk of industry growth. What they share is that they rely on beer sales to stay in business.

That scenario has made differentiation the name of the game. You have to make yourself known somehow. That's one reason we're seeing packaging with wildly colorful labels and creative designs. If your packaging is dull and unengaging, consumers are less apt to notice you next to other shiny stuff on shelves.

There's also the beer itself. Differentiation means playing around with experimental ingredients and names. Where it once meant using different hops or malts, it now means almost anything. Have you tried Fudgesicle Ale? How about Fruit Loops IPA? What about Donut Lager? You simply must.

The result is that shelves in beer stores have turned into jelly bean showcases featuring wild packaging, experimental ingredients and crazy beer names. The fact is, a lot of consumers are simply looking for what's trendy and new. Anything to capture their interest.

What's hot today probably won't be hot tomorrow. Brand churn is in overdrive. If you're a brewer, you best be thinking about the next wacko beer you plan to produce and market. It better have unusual ingredients and a fancy name. The packaging better be eye-catching.

The result of the new reality is that craft beer is increasingly fad-driven and trendy. Social media has helped with that, for sure, by facilitating the spread of images and banter. The question is, do these themes add up to this being a healthy or unhealthy market? Asking for a friend.

The answer depends on your point of view, I suppose. To me, it looks like an increasingly saturated market in which many (perhaps most) of the players are desperately vying for the same customers by tossing all kinds of ideas out there and hoping something sticks, if for only a minute..

How's that going to work out? We shall see.

Friday, May 24, 2019

And Now, Here They Are...The Beatles

Although I was a bit young to be much of a fan when they first appeared on the scene in the United States, I became a serious fan of the Beatles by the time I was 12 or 13. I have a ridiculous collection of singles, LPs, EPs and CDs to prove the point.

So I wanted to visit the Oregon Historical Society, where they have a Beatles exhibit showing through Nov. 12. It's an impressive exhibit, given the amount of floor space involved. They've curated a number of fascinating items from the Beatlemania period.

I should note that there's also an Oregon Beer history exhibit showing through June 9. That exhibit is packed with enticing artifacts from 200 years of Oregon beer, though I discovered errors in some of the displays and found the exhibit as a whole to be light on substance. Could be I know too much.

Staging a Beatles exhibit alongside one that delves into Oregon's craft beer revolution is instructive, intentional or not. Why? Because Beatlemania and contemporary craft beer represent cultural shifts. The demographics might not line up exactly, but the fan bases share a certain freneticism. I'll have something to say about freneticism, cultural shifts and craft beer in a future post.

I was the oldest sibling in my family, yet not old enough to understand what was happening when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964. But I vividly remember the merchandise. Kids I knew had Beatles-branded lunch boxes, pins, jewelry, games, cards, etc. Everyone wanted a piece of the Beatles, even if they knew little or nothing of the music. The lunch box is an especially strong memory, bringing back visions and smells of my grade school cafeteria.

My eastern Washington hometown and age meant there was very little chance I could have seen the Beatles live. Seattle and Portland had shows, but I was too young and too unaware to have been interested. Anyway, Seattle and Portland might as well have been the surface of the moon...entirely too far away and a little scary for a young country bumpkin.

My wife, a couple of years older than me, lived in the Bay Area and was lucky enough to see the Beatles at the Cow Palace in August 1964. It was the first stop on that tour. She went with five girlfriends and remembers it was very hard to hear the music over the shrill screaming of pre-adolescent girls, a signature feature at Beatles' shows.

The Beatles passed through the Northwest several times during the three years they toured North America. They played several shows in Seattle, but played Portland only once, two shows on August 22, 1965 at Memorial Coliseum. The OHS exhibit does a nice job of documenting that visit. For instance, they've got a show ticket and a copy of the show contract on display. The Beatles weren't all that demanding, particularly compared to what rock bands would demand down the road.

However, one of the clauses in the contract required that the audience not be segregated, a response to situations they had run into in the South. Tickets were priced at $4, $5 and $6. That top dollar ticket computes to around $50 in 2019 dollars. There were apparently a number of free pink tickets issued for the upper level nosebleed seats. About 20,000 saw the two shows.

The set list is disputed. Twist and Shout opened most shows on that tour and is listed as the opening song on a handwritten list recently published in the local press. But John Lennon was having voice problems and apparently didn't sing Twist and Shout at the afternoon show. Folks who were there remember the band doing their standard abbreviated version of the song to open the evening show.

Following the Portland show, the Beatles flew to Los Angeles and enjoyed a few days off in a rented home off Mulholland Drive. They then played two shows at the Hollywood Bowl, which were considered to be some of their best. The primitive tapes from those shows became the basis of the 1977 album, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. More recently, music from those performances was sonically enhanced and used in Ron Howard's documentary, Eight Days a Week.

The Beatles returned to the United States in 1966. By then, they had grown weary of touring and fans who screamed their way through shows. The shows had become increasingly dangerous for the boys, as crowds were huge and unmanageable. Anyway, the group wanted to further develop their writing and recording and opted to stop touring.

As most know, the final live performance happened at San Francisco's Candlestick Park in late August 1966. The Beatles, who were by all accounts an incredible live band (listen to Eight Days a Week if you don't believe it) went on to create their most popular and critically acclaimed music in the studio. They never appeared in front of a paid live audience again.

The OHS Beatles exhibit is well worth seeing. Keep in mind that Multnomah County residents have access to all exhibits free of charge. What was known as Beatlemania quieted down after The Beatles stopped touring, but it lives on in exhibits like this one.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

AB Purchase of CBA Imminent

The Craft Brew Alliance held its annual shareholder meeting Tuesday at the shuttered Widmer pub. Shareholders got to hear about the state of the company and pick up their free beer. Yeah, if you own stock, you get a free case of beer each year. You don't have to drink it.

I've been watching the CBA story for several years. If you've been following along, you probably know we're approaching the contractual deadline by which time Anheuser-Busch must make a qualifying offer to purchase the CBA. The date is August 23.

That timeline is based on a contract (actually several) signed in 2016. The details are fairly well-known. For the unaware, the agreement(s) covered contract brewing, domestic and international distribution. It also set deadlines for outright purchase at a set minimum price per share in successive years, the last of which comes in August at a minimum offer price of $24.50.

When the agreement was announced, many viewed it as a framework for a slow moving buyout. Craft beer was growing steadily. People who owned CBA stock figured to cash in. Investors on the outside, if they were paying attention, saw the chance to make some easy money.

Yet the stock price languished, staying well below the required buyout price. Yesterday, CBA stock closed at $15.33. Simple math. That's $10 less than the required 2019 offer price, which suggests the investment community isn't confident a deal will happen by August. If there was confidence, the stock price would be north of $20.

Why the lack of confidence. For one, the craft beer landscape looks a little sketchy. Established brands are suffering as a sea of newcomers sucks up market share. In the case of the CBA, its former flagship brands, Widmer and Redhook, are in dramatic decline and a drag on profitability. No need to delve into the details. Craft beer doesn't look like a great investment right now.

The CBA remains a buyout target only because of Kona, which continues strong growth in a fragmenting industry. Kona has been carrying the CBA for several years. It's a unicorn brand, seemingly impervious to volatility in the market. Kona lost a bit of momentum in Q1, but appears poised to rebound strongly heading into the busy summer beer season.

Virtually everything the CBA leadership has done in recent times was done to make the company a juicier buyout target for AB. The shuttering of unprofitable pubs looked awkward, but removed overhead and costly benefit packages from the ledger. Closing the Widmer tasting room, where they briefly showcased experimental beers, saved barely any money, but signaled that they were abandoning any effort to rebuild local brand status. And so on.

Those who own CBA stock have been patient. Current and former employees who hold stock quietly hope for a payday. However, those who invested because they perceived that the 2016 agreement set the stage for easy money are getting restless.

Fast forward to yesterday. That's when Boston-based Midwood Capital Management sent a public letter to CBA leadership effectively demanding that they complete a sale to Anheuser-Busch or, failing that, to an unspecified third party investor or company.

This is great stuff. It turns out Midwood Capital loaded up on CBA stock in early 2017 and today sits on about 2 percent of the outstanding shares. Needless to say, they were counting on a financial windfall and aren't happy with the downward trajectory of the stock price. They want action.

What these folks correctly realize is that CBA stock is undervalued on the public market. That's largely due to its grubby appearance. When Wall Street looks at the CBA, it sees the complete package and the complete package doesn't look all that appealing thanks to the dying brands and other drags on profitability.

What Midwood Capital also realizes, correctly it seems, is there is no way shareholder value will be maximized if the CBA stays independent (AB owns just 31 percent). They see the value of Kona, but believe fulfilling that potential will require investment and strategic know-how an independent CBA can't deliver. Again, they're surely right.

With that in mind, Midwood urges the CBA board to accept the qualifying offer if it comes. Further, it wants the board to do whatever it can to encourage AB to make a qualifying offer. If no offer comes, they want quick action to stabilize the stock price and sell the company to another suitor.

Listen, CBA leadership is bent on selling. They can't force a deal, but they want one and have been scheming for several years to make one happen. The idea of staying independent, which they've floated, is a ruse. They know what Midwood knows...that they don't have the horsepower to fully realize Kona's potential. 

For its part, Anheuser-Busch can't afford to pass on this opportunity. Letting Kona fall into the hands of someone else would be a disaster. That's partly because Kona has terrific global potential. But mostly it's because AB would be stuck honoring some pretty unpalatable contractual obligations in a scenario where it didn't own CBA/Kona. Zero chance of that happening.

The clock is ticking, obviously. Buyout details are almost certainly being finalized and a deal will be announced shortly. Expect AB's offer price to exceed the required $24.50 by a dollar or two. They don't want to look cheap. There's no running out the clock on this.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

When Print Was Fab

When I first started writing about beer-related topics nearly a decade ago, one of my goals was to eventually write for a nationally distributed publication.  I wanted to be part of that brotherhood, if that's the appropriate descriptor.

That didn't prove to be quite as easy as I hoped and imagined. There was a lot of competition for that work and not all that many outlets. Some of my earliest pitches happened before I started this blog in 2011, and well before Portland Beer was published in 2013.

Having a book opens doors that might not otherwise open and I suppose Portland Beer helped with that for me. That's not to say getting beer writing assignments was ever easy. It most certainly was not.

I had subscribed to Beer Advocate for several years by the time I submitted my first pitch. Planning a trip to Kauai, I pitched an article on the Kauai Beer Company, a new brewery there. This was early 2014. I had been to KBC in late 2013 and expected to visit again in the spring.

Then-editor Courtney Cox was interested in the story. But she was transitioning to a different role and there was a new editor taking over. She asked me to pitch the idea again in a month or so, after he had settled in. I was skeptical.

When I pitched the article again, I got a quick reply from incoming editor, Ben Keene. He was interested. I believe he had been to or had knowledge of the Kauai Beer Company, which is located in what is best-described as a "beer desert." We essentially agreed that visitors looking for a decent beer might be interested in a story on this brewery.

That's how I got started writing for Beer Advocate. I would go on to work with Ben on a small collection of articles covering de Garde, Bale Breaker and Cascade. The Cascade article, which wound up being a cover story, appeared as Portland was hosting the Craft Brewers Conference in 2015. That was pretty cool.

In my work with Ben Keene, I found him to be a demanding editor. He wasn't about to accept copy that wasn't well-refined and efficient. Instead, he would offer suggestions for how to improve the content or flow of an article. I seem to recall a fair bit of back and forth in that first article, but we got it dialed in and it presented well when published.

It's easy to complain when you perceive an editor being overly picky. You're getting paid by the word and a lot of writers figure they're done when they submit an article. But I never felt that way with Ben. His suggestions were always on point. He wanted every piece of information to be clear and concise. You can't argue with that. He made me a better writer, for sure.

Anyway, most who stop by here know Beer Advocate has ceased publication. I'm not sure what will become of it. Although print is being eaten alive by digital and social media, Beer Advocate might have survived with better management. The brothers who ran it were sloppy. They relied on talents like Ben and Courtney to produce quality content, but they failed to effectively manage the financial end of the business. Well, that's my take.

I stopped pitching articles after it took six months to get paid for one. It was clear to me that they were struggling financially and that I might never be paid for future articles. Sure enough, I heard rumors of writers not being paid for work submitted long ago. Soon, BA went to quarterly publication; then they announced they were shutting things down. No surprise.

One of my writing friends suggested to me that craft beer fans in general are "post-literate." Not bad, right? Because the dramatic decline of print beer publications (Oregon Beer Growler, Celebrator News, etc.) makes sense if you believe the average fan doesn't read much...or at all.

I tend to think craft beer fans are younger, more dependent on social media and digital information streams than older craft fans, who are fading into the background as I write. The industry saw that trend and has increasingly looked to newer platforms to reach prospective customers. Fine.

The demise of Beer Advocate is especially disappointing due the people and the quality of their work. I'd like to believe there's a place for traditional beer publications. But I'm not at all sure what one looks like in an industry increasingly driven by social media and short attention spans.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

OBF Becomes a Chameleon at 32

The 2019 Oregon Brewers Festival is three months away. Once upon a time, that reality would have generated considerable interest. Once upon a time, there weren't a gazillion beer festivals crammed onto the annual calendar.

This will be the OBF's 32nd year and they've gone chameleon in an effort to reverse the declining attendance of recent years. There was a time when this event could do whatever it pleased. A lot of harebrained ideas were tried over the years. But things are different now. They've got to sharpen their game.

One of the big changes this year is that all the beers will be from Oregon. Yup. They'll be serving 101 products from 93 breweries and eight cideries. I'm guessing you'd have to go back to the very early days to find a year in which all the beers came from Oregon. This to me is a smart move. It is, after all, the Oregon Brewers Festival.

These will mostly be one-off and experimental beers made for the event, according to a press release. That's in keeping with the current rage for small batch stuff, a strategy that's in place at most successful festivals and similar events. Of course, the quality of experimental beers can be all over the place. But it hardly matters. Festival goers demand unique beers. The list is here.

Event organizers, responding to declining attendance, cut the event to four days last year...dropping Wednesday. That seemed a little odd because stats showed Sunday was the dead day. They've adjusted appropriately for 2019. Wednesday is back; Sunday is gone, gone, gone.

The popular Brewers Brunch that kicks off the festival moves to Ecliptic Brewing this year. Brunch tickets go on sale on the OBF website Wednesday morning (May 1) and cost $49. That includes brunch, two beers, a souvenir T-shirt and an OBF tasting mug.

Brunches have historically been held reasonably close to Waterfront Park. Not this year, as Ecliptic is located a good distance from the Park. That becomes an issue for the Oregon Brewers Parade, which departs Ecliptic following the brunch at 11 a.m. and hoofs it to the Waterfront. Anyone can walk in the parade, by the way. That will be interesting. It's a long walk.

Another change related to making the event more user-friendly involves comfort. One of the best spots in the Park on hot days is under the shade trees at the south end, an area typically occupied by beer trailers. Not this year. The trailers will move to the river side, leaving the shade for mingling and drinking. (The map on the website hadn't been updated when this post went live.)

You may remember that the printed program was dropped last year. They were evidently not being picked up by patrons (who don't read, anyway) and thousands wound up being recycled. Organizers launched what seemed to me to be a pretty decent smartphone app in 2018. Surprise...the printed program is back this year. No word on the app. Bizarre.

New and old features for this year include a Meet the Brewer Tent, a Brewer Dunk Tank, games, food vendors, homebrewing demonstrations, plus the Crater Lake Soda Garden offering complimentary craft soda to designated drivers and minors. Sadly, surprisingly, live music is gone, to be replaced by DJs in different parts of the park. That sounds like a hoot.

I've always argued that the Oregon Brewers Festival is a pretty good value. You enter the venue for free. To drink beer, you buy a mug and tokens. It's four tokens for a full mug of beer or cider, one token for a taste. No big, upfront charge to enjoy a few beers. The changed beer lineup might actually make this year's event more appealing to some.

But the strategies don't all mesh. The press release says attendees must purchase a $20 tasting package this year. The package includes a mug and 10 tokens, which means you're paying $10 for a throwaway plastic mug. That's not the worst deal in a city saturated with overpriced festivals and beer dinners, but it seems vaguely at odds with the goal of boosting attendance.

Some of my older friends who haven't attended OBF recently say declining attendance might get them interested again. But the biggest changes outlined for this year suggest organizers are targeting younger patrons, which makes good sense, actually. We'll see how that works out for them.

Visit the OBF website here for a rundown of festival dates, times, etc.