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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Oregon Brewers Festival Rolls on at 29

It's a bit hard to fathom. The Oregon Brewers Festival is celebrating 29 years. Some 80,000 craft beer lovers will descend on Waterfront Park to enjoy five days of fancy suds and sun. For the unknowing, the festival runs Wednesday through Sunday, July 27-31.

The beer landscape has warped since that first OBF in 1988. Back then, there were seven craft breweries in Oregon. Today, Portland has 65 breweries and there are 30 more in the metro area. The state is home to nearly 250 breweries. The country will soon have 4,300. Shazam!

As the brewery count has climbed, so too has the festival count. Hundreds of "festivals" now dot the Portland calendar. I don't even want to consider how many events populate the state and national calendar. A calculator might be helpful, if you want to do that.

But the Oregon Brewers Festival is one of the oldest and largest in the country. It is, quite simply, the event that provided much of the form modern events have copied. Sure, there are differences in size and shape, but the basic form mostly starts and ends with the OBF.

For many years, the OBF was the only serious show in town. We didn't have umpteen beer festivals a week. We didn't have specialty beers coming out of our ears. We also didn't have social media, which has helped magnify the event crush. Craft beer was mostly a novelty in that bygone era. That's obviously changed.

The OBF has rolled with the punches to some extent. They've rearranged the grounds to allow for easier movement under the tents and (they hope) near the taps. The International Beer Garden is a recent addition, designed to showcase what's happening around the world. This year's IBG will feature 25 beers from Japan, Germany and The Netherlands.

Of course, significantly altering the culture of an event of this size is tough...like turning an aircraft carrier around. Some geek types see the OBF as less relevant these days. These are the folks who chase rare specialty beers and gum up social media with their commentaries. I prefer to see OBF as a constant, a place where you can enjoy good beer in a great venue. Also a salute to the past.

They'll pour 88 beers from independent craft breweries this year. Independent has become an increasingly important OBF theme in light of buyouts by Anheuser-Busch and others. When you look at the event program, you won't see beers from 10 Barrel or Elysian or Goose Island, all fully owned by AB. You also won't see beers from Ballast Point, fully owned by Constellation Brands, or Lagunitas, half owned by Heineken. Good philosophy, I think.

The glass/mug is changing again this year. For the first 25 years, the fest used murky, white plastic mugs. In 2013, they switched to a glass glass to avoid odors from off-gassing and to allow better views of the beer. The glass lasted just two years (although I do have a nice collection at home for tasting parties, thanks to Art Larrance).

Due to some "problems" downtown, Portland Police and Portland Parks banned glass from all parks. So the OBF switched to a clear plastic glass last year. Not bad. This year they're bringing back a mug, now in clear styrene plastic. If this mug is more substantial than last year's flimsy plastic glass, it will be a nice win for everyone.

I'm not going to comment on the beers. The list is plain enough to see on the website and what you drink will depend largely on what you like in a beer. There are plenty of styles to go around this year on a list that isn't dominated by IPAs. I expect to seek out darker, sour and barrel-aged beers, but that's subject to change.

You know the rest of the story. The festival features live music, food booths, craft vendors, a craft soda garden and homebrew demonstrations. It doesn't cost a penny to enter and roam the grounds, but you'll have to buy a mug ($7) and tokens ($1 each) if you want to sample beers. It remains one of the better festival values, I think.

In case I haven't provided enough info here. there's always the event website here, as well as the various social media feeds on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I have not received word regarding the presence of Pokemon species in Waterfront Park, but I'm sure they're around.

Happy hunting!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Don't be Alarmed: The Beer Wars are Heating Up

Perhaps you've seen Anat Baron's terrific documentary, Beer Wars, which does a nice job exploring big beer's efforts to undermine craft beer. Perhaps you get it. Or maybe you to live in an alternative fantasy world, where big beer isn't a threat to craft brewers.

I first thought today's post would explore the Beer Institute's recent announcement that members will implement a voluntary statement of serving facts on their products. Then came today's news that the Colorado Brewers Guild has changed its bylaws, stripping big beer breweries of voting privileges. Daily double.

Both developments are shots across the bows of opposing sides in the evolving struggle for the hearts, minds and wallets of American beer consumers. That battle didn't start with Anheuser-Busch's acquisition of craft breweries and it won't end with this week's skirmishes. Not by a longshot.

Beer Institute
On its face, the Beer Institute's decision on voluntary product labeling might seem like a good-hearted, well-meaning move. I mean, a lot of beer drinkers probably do want to know how many calories and carbs are in what they're guzzling or sipping. And making ABV readily available on labels can't be a bad thing.

Before you jump to the conclusion that members of the Beer Institute are good guys wearing white hats, you may want to look a little deeper. You may want to ask, for instance, "Who belongs to the Beer Institute?' Alternatively, "What are these folks up to?" Hey, nice start.

It turns out the Beer Institute is dominated by big beer. While there are certainly craft brewers on the member list, the organization is run mainly for the benefit of its largest and most affluent members. Those would be Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Constellation Brands, etc.

What are they up to? It's simple. They want to put craft brewers in a bind. Keep in mind that we're talking about product labeling. Don't confuse that with the FDA mandate that restaurants and bars post nutrition, ABV and related info on the beers they serve. Those rules will come into play in 2017. Labeling is different.

Big beer knows craft brewers typically offer a barrage of seasonals and specialty beers. It would like to put a crimp on that. It knows the cost of collecting the requisite data and putting it on product labels would be substantial and prohibitive. It also knows craft brands are typically higher in calories and alcohol than the low level swill sold by most BI members.

Clearly, the thrust of this move is to make craft brewers look bad or limit what they sell. I leave it to you to decide who wears the white hats and black hats in this skirmish.

Colorado Guild
The train wreck in Colorado has been in motion since Anheuser-Busch acquired Breckenridge Brewery in late 2015. A lot of independent brewers took exception to Breckenridge continuing to play a role in Guild. In fact, 14 brewers (including the four largest) defected and eventually started Craft Beer Colorado, an alternative trade group.

This week's vote is an effort to hold the original Colorado Brewers Guild together. In effect, the membership voted to change the bylaws such that large breweries have no voting rights or power on committers or the board of directors. The big guys can continue to be members, but they will have no input in decisions.

The Guild hopes this will lead to a reconciliation with the breweries that left, and maybe it will. But it seems the breweries that bolted did so because they wanted a stronger legislative presence and more responsive leadership, in general. So we shall see how it works out.

In fact, I've wondered if the situation in Colorado might have fallout in Oregon. I'm aware of one effort to form an alternative guild here, primarily because some feel the Oregon Brewers Guild doesn't serve their interests. Messages sent to the Oregon Brewers Guild asking for comment went unanswered, which wasn't really surprising. Oh well.

Anyway, the beer wars are ramping up and will likely continue to do so. There will be no truce in this war. Big beer is tired of losing market share and will resort to any available means to slow down craft brewers. That includes legislation, buyouts and whatever else they think of.

These are wild times.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Friends and Enemies: Beervana Buzz at 5

This blog launched five years ago with a piece about the upcoming Oregon Brewers Festival. At the time, I certainly didn't know where it would lead or how long it would last. I only knew I had more to say about beer and the beer scene than I could ever get published via traditional media.

I chose to write about beer after several beer-centric articles published in digital form drew a fair amount of attention. I could have chosen another topic. But I had a history with beer dating back 20-plus years and it was something I knew I wouldn't mind spending some time with.

To be honest, I thought the blog would help me maintain and maybe expand my writing, research and project management skills. I used those skills extensively in the marketing communications work I did 1993-2009. I thought keeping those skills up might help me return to that work. If not that, maybe it would help me get a gig where I could use those skills.

I never seriously considered the possibility that the blog could make money. That's a tough nut to crack unless you get a ton of traffic. If making money had been my goal, the site would be much more of a promotional vehicle. That was never a possibility. We have enough promoters and industry shills writing blogs and print articles as if they're objective journalists. They aren't.

The price of writing mostly objective content is you make enemies. The articles that have generated the most traffic here have invariably dealt with the shadier side of the industry. Anheuser-Busch and its owned craft breweries have been a popular target. Several of those pieces have drawn more than 20,000 page views. And counting. The enemy count has risen, as well.

Some of the articles I enjoyed writing the most include personal reflections of what it was like in the pre-craft era. This week's piece on Lucky Lager was a fun one to write. Last summer's piece on my experience as a bartender at Coeur d'Alene's Rathskeller Inn during the summer of 1975 was another one I had fun with. There are others.

Writing about beer is mostly a fancy hobby. If you're good, you might actually get paid for that work. Jeff Alworth does. Brian Yaeger does. I've written articles for BeerAdvocate and for various print and digital media outlets. The blog certainly helped me get that work. It also helped me get the contract to write Portland Beer, published in 2013.

But that work is not as lucrative or accessible as many imagine. It was clear to me some time ago that the blog and the freelancing are not a viable career. Neither are they a way back to my former career path. There's no reason to delve into the details, except to say employers aren't remotely interested in people my age. Experience and skill set aren't really a factor.

Of course, there was always the possibility of beer industry work. That was never much of a motivating theme, though I have floated resumes or applied for a handful of industry jobs. Nothing came of those opportunities. In the cases where I was interviewed, I always learned I just wasn't quite the right fit. Nothing personal, you know.

Looking back on five  years, I'm mostly satisfied with the variety and quality of coverage I've provided here. There have been highlights and lowlights, for sure, and I've learned a lot about beer and the beer industry along the way. I've also made a lot of friends to go with more than a few enemies in the beer community. Many more friends than enemies makes it worthwhile.

Still, the reality is the reasons I originally created the blog have evaporated. There's simply no reason to continue on with it if the goal is some sort of professional upside. That's a fantasy. I've essentially passed the point where many blogs begin to fade from sight without notice. I've seen it happen countless times.

I don't have a crystal ball and I know the future is uncertain. I won't stop writing, but my efforts along those lines will likely take on a lower priority as I focus on something with a greater potential upside. I'll have more to say about that in due time.

For now, accept my thanks for stopping by from time to time over the course of the last five years. Without readers, this site is nowhere.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

When Lucky Lager Was Fab

A chance conversation with one of my beer sluth friends got me thinking back to the good old days, when men were men and beer was tasteless and clear. As I've mentioned once or twice in these pages, my beer life is long. I consumed my first beer more than a half century ago.

That was possible because I had parents who thought a bit of drinking was fine and dandy, so long as it was controlled and done at home. Even after they divorced, they continued with that policy. I was always free to enjoy a beer or two, regardless of where I was staying.

By the time I reached high school, I knew a bit about beer. Many of my friends, who had been forbidden to drink a drop, were hungry to catch up as fast as they could. It was somewhat curious and amusing to see them chasing after beer and other forbidden alcoholic fruits with gusto.

Lucky Lager, for better or for worse, was the beer of choice. At the time, it was brewed in Vancouver, but no one in remote, rural eastern Washington had a clue about that, and wouldn't have cared in any case. Lucky was everywhere. And people liked it for some strange reason.

One of the more comical experiences in my beer file happened early in high school. A good friend somehow got himself hired to load beer delivery trucks at a small distributor in Clarkston. He was all of 16 and naturally needed help loading those trucks. Lucky for him, he had friends willing to lend a hand.

The brands available through this distributor included Lucky Lager, Budweiser, Schmidt, Buckhorn and a few others. There was no Bud Light in those days...that came later. But there was Michelob, widely regarded as a sort of gold standard, and the distributor had it.

About the only strict rule we had to follow involved breakage. Any time a case or six-pack or 12-pack was broken, the remaining beer was relegated to the breakage cooler. The beer in that cooler was fair game. It could be consumed on site or taken home with permission. I'm sure it was all perfectly legal. Needless to say, there was a fair amount of breakage that summer. Dammit.

I don't recall ever loading kegs into the distributor trucks. That seems a little odd in retrospect. I suppose maybe the guy's franchise didn't include draft beer, that he was strictly providing packaged beer to stores. That seems strange, but I have no idea what his operational guidelines were. When you have teenagers loading your trucks, you can't have a lot of guidelines.

If our guy didn't have Lucky Lager in draft form, he wished he did. The stuff was wildly popular in those days. All the taverns and bars had it. If you were having a kegger at your house or on a beach up the Snake River, you could acquire a keg of Lucky for around $30. It wasn't cheap. It was inexpensive. Everything else cost more, in some cases a lot more.

A nice insult to reasonable intelligence occurred at the end of my junior year, when we held a celebratory kegger up the river. This was during the school day and organizers had done a poor job forecasting attendance. Thus, the keg ran dry early. That prompted a 25-mile trip into Lewiston, where the drinking age was 19, to purchase a keg of Lucky at a bar. Brilliant.

How we made it through high school I'll never know. But Lucky Lager's fingerprints are all over that experience. Lucky  left Vancouver (General Brewing) in 1985 and the Northwest in 2003, It's currently brewed at a factory brewery in Southern California. I haven't consumed it forever and have no plans along those lines. Nonetheless, I remember when it was fab.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

No, Craft Beer's Sky is Not Falling

Is craft beer in a funk? It is if you believe the reports that have been surfacing in 2016. The first reports came in industry publications, which spoke of slowing growth early on. More recently, the mainstream media has picked up the story.

The world has far more serious problems, but humor me for a few minutes. What's happening is that craft beer's robust growth seems to be slowing. Dollar volume growth that averaged nearly 20 percent over the last two years has slipped to something like 6 percent for 2016.

"Of course I’m troubled by it," one of my industry friends said of the numbers. "If our market has matured, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to grow. We think there's still plenty of untapped market out there, but it won't be as much of a slam dunk as it has been in recent times."

It's important to understand these slowdown numbers are coming from IRI data, which track scans mostly in chain grocery and convenience stores. Those numbers show significant declines for 15 of the top 30 craft brands in 2016. Six of the top 15 are seeing double-digit declines. Shocking, eh?

Another part of the emerging puzzle is that we now have more than 4,300 craft breweries in the United States. And there are more opening virtually every day. This certainly plays into the notion that craft beer has reached a sort of saturation point.

Other factors could be connected to what appears to be happening. Rising prices could contribute to declining demand. And they are rising. Promiscuous millennials, who will drink almost anything, may be shifting their attention to flavored hard sodas, a segment showing big growth.

As well, it may simply be the case that the craft beer industry has reached the size where 15-20 percent growth isn't sustainable any longer. That's what Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, said during the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Philly. Even the reduced growth numbers, he correctly says, would be well-received in many industries.

I've said for a long time that craft beer will eventually hit a saturation point. The rapidly expanding brewery count means we will someday reach the point where there is a glut and not enough people to drink it all. But I do not think we've reached that point.

What's likely happening is that the growing number of breweries means beer fans no longer have to depend on the major brands sold in stores. Instead, they can buy local beer directly from a brewery, bottleshop, beer bar, growler fill station, etc. The market is moving rapidly away from national brands and chain stores. Not a bad thing.

Part of bringing craft beer's picture back into focus is changing the way the market data is collected. Bart Watson has alluded to that reality several times. IRI is great at what it does. But it is blind to things sold in the places where craft beer is almost certainly seeing its strongest growth.

So, yeah, the market is changing, evolving. The idea of local beer is something a lot of places had never experienced until recently. And it's being embraced. Which means we'll have to change how we evaluate industry trends if we want to know what's actually happening on the ground.

Monday, June 27, 2016

About that Frozen Glassware You're Using

As a youngster in rural eastern Washington, one of our favorite treats during the hot summers was a trip to A&W for an ice cold mug of root beer. I cannot say if the glasses were stored in a freezer prior to being filled and delivered by car hop to thirsty patrons. But it appeared so.

I somehow have a number of friends who apply similar serving values to craft beer. They store half a dozen mugs in their deep freeze, right next to chunks of meat stored for winter. Or maybe the mugs have a spot in the inner door.

Drinking from a frozen mug is almost certainly a carryover from the heyday of macro lager. You wanted to drink that stuff as cold and fast as possible. Drinking a warm macro beer is risky. That's when you start to pick up on aromas and flavors you'd probably rather not think about.

My athletic club, bless its pointed little head, still serves beer in frozen pitchers and glasses. That's likely because they've been doing so for 30-plus years, and because they had mostly macro beer until recent times. They carry on with the frozen approach because they aren't serving a knowledgeable clientele and don't care.

Beer geeks and educated beertenders know you don't want to drink craft beer from a frozen glass. That's why you almost never see it happening at geek tastings or in respectable beer bars. A lightly chilled glass, maybe. A frozen one, not a chance. It's a topic that's been covered in a variety of places over the years. I'm just piling on.

What's wrong with drinking good beer out of a frozen glass? It messes with the flavors, kids. The beer hits the glass, mixes with ice crystals and a portion of it freezes. There's additional foaming you don't want, as well, but the main problem is the beer gets too cold and some of the flavors are lost, muted or altered.

As Julia Hertz says in this Brewers Association video, frozen glassware is not preferred in craft beer. For all my friends and acquaintances who continue to amaze me by continuing to drink good beer from frozen glassware, fine. But you aren't tasting the beer as the brewer intended. Your move.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thinking Back to a Time Before Craft Beer

Reading an interview with Keith Richards, he asks his young interviewer when he was born. "1968," the writer says. "I can't imagine that," Keith says. "What's it like to live in a world where the Rolling Stones were always there?"

Similar logic applies to craft beer. If you were born after 1970, you likely do not recall a time without craft beer. I'm fudging the dates a little. We had craft in this country prior to 1980. There was New Albion and Anchor. There was Henry's Private Reserve, Oregon's original craft beer. But craft as a mainstream beverage was rare before the 1990s.

If you were born prior to 1970, you likely have no trouble recalling the dark ages. You entered a tavern, bar, restaurant or store and were confronted by a barrage of apparent choices. But those macro lagers had everything in common and didn't distinguish themselves in any meaningful way. They were light and tasteless.

Yet people had lengthy arguments about which was the best of the macros. And how much different they were. It's hard to believe, looking back. Some had a thing for Budweiser. If you lived where you could get it, maybe you liked Coors. Or maybe you preferred a regional brand like Oly, Rainier or Lucky Lager. It really didn't matter because the beers weren't much different.

Given that reality, advertising was the key to differentiating product. The pre-craft era might fairly be described as the golden age of beer advertising. Every brewery, usually via its ad agency, had a story to sell. Consumers identified with a brand based on how it was positioned in print, TV and radio ads. This is how it was done in the decades following World War II.

That scenario worked to the distinct advantage of big beer, which had the money to launch national and regional ad campaigns. Smaller, regional breweries, including Portland's Blitz-Weinhard, had an increasingly difficult time competing with large national brands, even in their home markets. That helped push more and more consolidation.

Of course, it would all come tumbling down. The era of huge advertising budgets and massive brewery consolidations eventually imploded. Craft beer didn't cause that to happen. But smaller, more agile craft brands, far less dependent on ad campaigns and size, have contributed mightily to the discomfort and decline of big beer since the turn of the century or so.

So three cheers for the golden days of yesteryear, when a beer was a beer was a beer. And choices were often based on things unrelated to the actual beer. May those days never return.