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Monday, August 31, 2015

OLCC Evolves with Plan to Add Portland Outlets

The OLCC announced last week that it intends to expand the number of liquor outlets in the Portland area. Demand for spirits is growing and Portland is woefully underserved in terms of store numbers. There's also the train wreck in Washington to consider.

Green front liquor store, circa early 1950s. (OLCC photo)
If you didn't see the news release, you can read it here. To summarize, the OLCC is looking to add up to 17 liquor outlets in the Portland area. It currently operates 248 liquor stores across the state, but has only 68 in the metro area. The exploding population here means one store per 26,000 people, the OLCC says. Not nearly enough.

They're calling this a "recruitment" and use of the term "outlet" is not accidental. The OLCC is desperate enough to get these places up and running that it is willing to consider "innovative" approaches that would improve convenience for customers. It will be interesting to see what form these outlets take.

For those interested in applying for a license, the news release contains a handy cheat sheet of zip codes that are significantly underserved...places with large populations and no liquor outlets. Citizens in Gaston, Fairview, Hillsboro, North Plains, for example, do not have easy access to liquor.

In case you're wondering, the OLCC hasn't always been quite as motivated to make liquor readily available. In fact, the agency was once a whole lot more concerned with restricting access to booze. It was a mindset that came straight out of the 1920s.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, states were given the power to regulate alcohol sales within their borders. In Oregon, the legislature passed the Liquor Control Act, which created the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and gave the state the exclusive right to sell hard liquor. Beer and wine were to be handled differently.

Under the arrangement, liquor was sold via state-run, "green front" grocery stores that were open limited hours, (typically noon to 8:00 p.m.) and days. Taverns, restaurants, bars and clubs were also licensed by the OLCC, but they were not authorized to sell booze. Huh?

It's a forgotten detail, but you could not walk into a restaurant or bar and order hard liquor of any kind for many years. Instead, you bought a bottle at a state store, brought it to the establishment and had it checked in. The bartender would label the bottle and pour your drinks from it for a fee. Bar hoppers often drove from bar to bar with open liquor containers. Seriously.

Needless to say, the law helped foster vibrant bootlegging. Given the limits of the state stores, it was much easier to buy booze from bootleggers when you needed it. And they were everywhere...cab drivers, bartenders, club owners, waiters, pimps, bell hops, etc. When there's money to be made, entrepreneurs will jump at the chance.

State investigators worked undercover to chase down and arrest bootleggers. Almost like Prohibition. The efforts of several agents are nicely documented in: "Enforcing Oregon's State Alcohol Monopoly," in the Spring 2014 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly. The exploits of these agents, who functioned with limited resources, are fairly entertaining.

After 20 years of inane policy, things changed in 1953, when Oregon voters passed the "liquor-by-the-drink" law. Oregonians could finally walk into a bar or restaurant and order hard liquor. The state maintained it's booze-selling monopoly, but now sold to licensed establishments which then sold drinks to patrons. This put a damper on the bootleg trade and the need to investigate it.

It's instructive to consider the evolutionary curve of the OLCC. In the immediate aftermath of Prohibition, it was focused on restricting access to liquor by making the stuff difficult to get. Voters reigned in that effort with the "liquor-by-the-drink law" and the agency has become increasingly interested in making access to booze more convenient in recent times.

One can easily argue the OLCC's current efforts are driven by fear and self-preservation. The state does not want to lose its monopoly on liquor sales. It does not want a repeat of the privatization law that passed in Washington state. So the OLCC is working to make consumers happy.

And that isn't a bad thing, unless you think Prohibition was a good idea that worked.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Yellow Beer's Passing Presents Challenges

When it was released in late 1970, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass served notice that he was moving on from The Beatles. The album was a coming out party for Harrison, and it made a solid statement along those lines. He had arrived, a mystic with a future.

Fast forward 45 years and we find ourselves witnessing the All Things Must Pass mantra applied to beer, fizzie yellow beer, that is. Much of the beer world is moving on. And the consequences of that transition are a sight to behold.

The collapse of yellow beer is creating challenges for everyone in the business. This isn't exactly breaking news. The situation is well-documented in industry news and newsletters. There's a lot of consternation out there.

Control is a big issue. Not so long ago, big beer and distributors controlled what stores, bars and restaurants sold. Choices were limited to mass lagers and related sludge. Take it or leave it. That arrangement was fine with the suits running things, forget the retailer and consumer.

But the transformation of craft beer into an economic force has turned the tables. Today's market is increasingly driven by what retailers and consumers want. Don't get me wrong. There are still parts of the country, particularly rural areas, where yellow beer is hanging on. Even there, its days are numbered. Make no mistake.

The effects of the altered landscape are plain to see. Consumers, especially young ones, are looking for something, anything new and cool. They've turned almost completely away from mass market beers and are even abandoning established craft brands. It's a 31 flavors mentality.

Retailers respond to what consumers want, not what the big daddy brewers and distributors want them to sell. So we've seen a shift toward new and novelty brands as a means of maintaining the interest of consumers who have shrinking attention spans. Peach Apricot Saison, anyone?

It's fair to wonder where the preference for trendy leads. When new breweries are popular specifically because they're new and older breweries are shunned specifically because they aren't, some might say consumers have lost their way. But that's a topic for another day.


Distributors are caught in the middle. They can't rely on the crap they used to sell because it has limited traction with retailers and consumers, regardless of how hard they push. They've been co-opted into the craft revolution. Some have been more proactive and done a better job with that than others. It's a work in progress, clearly.

Big beer's response has been predictable. We've watched them market fake craft brands like Blue Moon and Shock Top to confuse and confound consumers. They've launched bizarre hybrid products in an effort to stop the bleeding and bring young consumers back into the fold. These forays have achieved limited success, at best.

In the case of Anheuser-Busch, which traditionally leveraged its position via supply chain efficiencies and cutthroat marketing tactics, we've seen them acquire craft brands 10 Barrel, Goose Island and Elysian as part of an effort to "partner" with craft beer.

The more shocking AB ploy is its effort to vertically integrate in some states (like Oregon) by owning brewers, distributors and retailers. The three-tier system is supposed to block such tactics, but the laws aren't airtight everywhere. Wherever it can, AB is bullying branch and non-branch distributors into focusing on AB products, stuff that doesn't have much appeal.

It's hard to see where this leads. The trend toward the trendy in craft beer is problematic in my mind. Fads usually don't have a lot of staying power and this has the look of a fad. Still, the era of yellow beer is passing. That reality is going to challenge traditional assumptions and sensibilities going forward. Wild times in beer.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer of '75 at the Rathskeller Inn

They say summer memories are the best. I know some of mine are. Maybe that's because summer is when we experience the bulk of our great adventures when we're growing up. Then again, maybe it's a whole lot more complicated than that. I digress.

Forty years ago this month, I was finishing up a summer-long stint as a bartender at the Rathskeller Inn in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. This was my first and only bar job. I was only 19 and had just completed my freshmen year at Eastern Washington University. The job was strictly a summer gig. I planned to return to school at Washington State University in the fall.

How could I work as a bartender at that age? Because the legal drinking age in Idaho at the time was 19. That was a handy law during high school, when it was easy enough to pass for legal. Not that I ever abused the law. Perish the thought. But some of my friends did. The legal age was raised to 21 in 1987, under pressure from the Feds.

For its part, the Rathskeller Inn was a North Idaho institution by 1975. It opened in 1962 and became a wildly popular destination for young adults of that era. "Rats," as it was affectionately known, was a beer and dance hall that featured live music on weekends. The place attracted quite a few big name Northwest bands, including Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Cascades.

The luster was fading a bit by 1975. We had big, boisterous crowds some weekends, but it was sometimes pretty dead. Thanks largely to the drinking age, carloads of kids rumbled over from Spokane, about 25 miles west. We also got a fair number of Canadians, who were sometimes confused by American money that lacked colors to help distinguish the value of bills.

Of course, there were locals, too. In those days, Coeur d'Alene's economy was based on mining and timber. It was a quaint town, not a tourist trap like it is now. There was a lumber mill in the area now occupied by The Resort Golf Course. If you got lucky, you might snag an escaped log to use for burling practice at Sanders Beach. I did on many occasions.

The Rathskeller clientele was not too particular about its beer...standard operating procedure at the time. We mostly served pitchers of Lucky Lager and Budweiser. My bartending partner and I got to where we could pour four pitchers at a time when it got busy and thirsts were heavy. I really have no specific recollection of how we did it, only that we did.

There was no craft beer, Coeur d'Alene eventually had T.W. Fischer's (founded 1987), which became Coeur d'Alene Brewing around 2000 and operated until it lost its lease in 2010. If you wanted to get fancy in 1975, you would order long-neck bottles of Coors or Bud. Big shots did that. Visiting "connoisseurs" from Canada often complained about the "shitty" American swill and ordered red beer, aka beer mixed with tomato juice. In retrospect, that wasn't such a bad idea.

One of my vivid memories is of our bouncer, a borderline psychopath who would get on the PA at closing time and bark: "Time to pick it up and pack it out. On your feet and into the street!" He wasn't above brandishing a small pistol to get the desired results. Typically, he announced his arrival at after hours parties by firing a shot or two into the air. Memorable stuff.

But there were positive vibes, too. The Rathskeller, in 1975, was run by Jackie George. Her mother Anna founded the business and later opened a second Rathskeller in Moscow, Idaho. Anna passed away in 1990. The thing is, Anna and her daughters, Jackie and Lolita, ran these businesses for many years. In a male-dominated industry, they were light years ahead of their time.

The soundtrack of that summer remains indelibly etched in my sonic memory. When live music wasn't playing in the hall, the jukebox was. And we all had our own records for late night listening. Some of the albums: Steely Dan's Katy Lied; Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks; Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic; the Eagles' One of These Nights.

When I left the Rathskeller at the end of the summer, it was tough saying goodbye to the folks I had worked with. I was invited to work at the Rathskeller in Moscow, about 10 miles from WSU. Somehow I never followed up on that. I guess I figured the late nights wouldn't mix very well with school work. As if school work was a huge priority. Oh well.

Looking through what I can find online, it appears Coeur d'Alene's Rathskeller closed in 1982. Times had changed. State Line, Idaho, much closer to Spokane, had cleaned up and improved its night life. But for much of the 20 years between 1962 and 1982, the Rathskeller Inn had been the destination of choice. Not to mention my first exposure to the beer industry.

It seems like a lifetime ago...because it was.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Memories of Mr. Eckhardt

The tributes to Fred Eckhardt are pouring in today, a day after we lost one of the more iconic figures of the craft beer era. I don't really have a lot to add. I knew him only vaguely. You'll be best off reading things written by John Foyston, Lisa Morrison or Jeff Alworth.

My first encounter with Mr. Eckhardt occurred on a warm Friday afternoon at the Oregon Brewers Festival. The year is uncertain. Late 1990s, I think. Fred was walking the grounds, tasting beers and taking notes. I knew who he was and asked him how he was doing. I don't remember his exact words, but it was along the lines of,  "Isn't this is a great place to be today?" Sure was.

Except for occasional sightings, I did not speak to him again until I started writing about beer in 2011. I have a very pleasant memory of a town hall-type presentation Mr. Eckhardt and John Foyston gave at the Beer Bloggers Conference here in Portland. They were at the top of their games and the talk was funny, interesting, informative. Bill Night has posted some memorable quotes here.

A year or so later, I was fortunate to spend a half hour or so talking to Fred about his experiences in the Marine Corps. This was prior to an event at the Mission Theater. I can't even remember the particulars of the conversation, but I do remember that he knew how to tell a story with depth and humor.

I attempted to interview Fred as part of the research for Portland Beer in early 2013. Art Larrance had let him know what I was working on and told him it was okay to talk to me. When I finally did connect with him, he begged off. He said his memory of the old days wasn't very good and suggested I speak to someone who might have more accurate recollections.

Most of the Eckhardt quotes I eventually did use in my book were lifted from a 2010 History Pub program sponsored by McMenamin's at the Bagdad Theater. Mr. Eckhardt was in fine form that evening, offering his thoughts on prohibition homebrew and much more. There are only a few private copies of that low budget video out there. But it's worth seeing.

One of the most dependable resources for me, as I looked back on the early craft period here, were the columns written by Mr. Eckhardt for The Oregonian starting in 1984. Those columns are rich in detail and insight. For many years, they provided a sort of guide to what was happening for beer fans and brewers. They can be searched online via the Multnomah County Library.

When you consider everything this man did to help push the development of the craft beer industry in Oregon and beyond, you can't help wondering where we go from here. Fortunately, Mr. Eckhardt's efforts helped launch a generation of beer writers and authors. It goes without saying that none of us possess the style, the wit and the depth of character he did. How could we?

Prior to this year's FredFest, someone suggested to me that this might be the last one due to Fred's declining health. Of course, that will not be the case. FredFest will carry on as a way to honor this great man and what he meant to so many. A 2016 date has already been set.

To those who were closest to this man, especially to Lisa Morrison, John Foyston and Alan Sprints, I offer my heartfelt condolences. What you have lost cannot be replaced. It will now be your job to make sure Mr. Eckhardt's contributions aren't forgotten on your watch.

Good night, sweet prince.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

NAOBF Carries on with Shift to August

When Craig Nichols launched the North American Organic Brewers Festival in 2003, the beer calendar was pretty barren. There weren't daily beer events in those days and there were only a few large events. Things have changed dramatically as the NAOBF returns for 2015. Festival dates are August 13-16.

The first thing you ought to note is the move from June, when the event was held for quite a few years, to August. Nichols suffered through some truly lousy weather in recent years, prompting the move from unpredictable June into typically dry August.

We'll see how the move works out. Bizarre weather struck the Oregon Brewers Festival last year and again this year. Meanwhile, the Fruit Beer Festival, held in June, enjoyed perfect weather both years. The weather is fickle.

It isn't mentioned in the press materials, but organizers considered moving the event from centrally located Overlook Park to a location outside the city core. Why would they do that? Because Overlook, though it is easily accessible by MAX, bus or bike, has almost no parking for folks who have to come by car.

I suspect they stayed at Overlook because a move outside the city core would have cheapened the event's mission of promoting sustainable values. A move may still happen down the road, depending on how they perceive the parking problem. There may be venues out there that would work better than Overlook.

This year's event will feature 63 organic beers, ciders, meads and braggots from 36 breweries located in the US, Canada, Germany and England. Styles are all over the place, with a smattering of everything. I have not yet built a target list, though I will be posting some favorites after I attend next Thursday. You can find the complete list of beers here.

An addition this year is the Merchant du Vin Organic Bottle Garden, which will feature bottled beers and ciders. Pinkus Müller, the world’s first certified organic brewery, will be tapping kegs of Ur-Pils and Münster Alt in the Merchant du Vin Garden at 4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Only tasters will be available and they'll cost two tokens. Hey, this stuff is rare.

For those not in the know, admission to the NAOBF is free. You'll have to buy a compostable cornstarch cup for $7 to taste beer. And you'll need some tokens at $1 apiece. One token will get you a taste of most beers; full glasses of most beers will set you back four tokens. This is pretty much the pricing structure you see at most area festivals. Nothing bizarre here.
  
One the reasons to support this event is garbage. Yep. Large events like this one generate a shitload of garbage. The NAOBF generated more than 2,000 lbs of trash in 2014. But they kept 95 percent of that out of landfills via aggressive composting and recycling efforts. They expect about 12,000 attendees this year and will probably wind up with about 100 pounds of actual garbage. Organizers would like that number to be zero. Maybe someday.

Check out the event website for more information. Looking forward to a fun event.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

At Last, Jeff Alworth's Beer Bible Hits Shelves

Around the time I was finishing up Portland Beer in 2013, Jeff Alworth was in the process of completing and submitting the manuscript for The Beer Bible, a substantially more intricate project. My book hit shelves several months later, providing nearly instant gratification. Jeff's book languished in production. Next week it arrives. At last.

There's a pretty good story behind how this project materialized and how Jeff became it's author. I'll get to some of that. For now, the important thing to know is there will be a release party for The Beer Bible on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at Belmont Station. Jeff will be there 5-7 p.m. signing copies of the book and talking about its innards.

I looked at proofs of the book a while ago, when it was still in production. The content is rich and engaging. It's just what I expected from Jeff, an accomplished researcher and writer. But I'm not here to review the book. I only want to talk about its evolution and likely impact.

Back in 2010 or so, Jeff pitched the idea of a book covering breweries around the Northwest. His publisher didn't bite. The book he hoped to write became Lisa Morrison's Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, published (by another publisher) in 2011. Some things just aren't meant to be.

In response to Jeff's pitch, Workman Publishing suggested a different approach. It turns out they had published The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil, in 2000. That book was well-received when published and a best seller. Workman looked around and noticed what was happening in craft beer. They thought a beer-centric companion to MacNeil's book might be in order.

"Wine and beer audiences are very different," Jeff says. "Wine people aren't quite sure they understand wine, so they buy books to learn more. Beer people are different. They typically think they know about beer and are less likely to buy books about it. But Workman thinks there's a good audience for The Beer Bible and I think and hope they're right."

Getting the contract to write the book apparently involved an odd competition between rival writers/authors who submitted versions of what chapters might look like. Eventually, Jeff earned the privilege of writing the book. He signed the contract in 2011. That's when the real fun began.


Over the course of the next two years, Jeff traveled by plane, train and automobile to more than 50 breweries in six countries. He knew his book could not be organized by growing regions, as had been the case with MacNeil's wine book. Instead, The Beer Bible is based around styles and history. There are 31 chapters dedicated to exploring and defining the world's beer styles.

"The idea was to create something that is comprehensive, yet interesting and in some sense entertaining," Jeff said."That's what MacNeil did with The Wine Bible and that's probably why it's been so successful. I took that approach and applied it to beer, to the extent possible."

In addition to the Belmont Station release, there are some other notable events listed on Jeff's blog here. There's also a 24-city tour in the works, which makes sense. The book has been trending as the top new release in the wine pairing category on Amazon. If you order the book through Powell's, you'll receive a copy signed by Jeff. He hopes to sign many in support of the promotion.


What will The Beer Bible mean for Jeff Alworth? This is a guy who has been writing about beer and other things for a long time. Is this a game-changer?

"I have no idea what the book will do for me" he said. "If it sells a third of the 500,000 copies The Wine Bible has sold, it will be immensely successful for a beer book and I'll be delighted. I can't see the future, but I do hope this book helps me get similar projects down the road."

Having seen the content, I expect the book will become an essential reference for craft beer fans, in the same way books by Fred Eckhardt and Charlie Papazian are references. The Beer Bible may also help Jeff attain a level of notoriety that few who write about beer ever do. We shall see.

Regardless of all that, the Belmont Station release party is the place to be next Tuesday. Grab a pint, meet Jeff and talk beer, get a signed copy of his book. Good times. If you can't make it on Tuesday, check out one of the other local events.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pushing and Pulling with the Clydesdales

Our old friends Anheuser-Busch have been in the news lately. Many have been wondering when the next big buyouts will happen. A lot of industry experts expect the big fellas to buy another craft brewery before the year is out. Perish the thought.

Most assume the next acquisition will happen outside the Northwest, where the buyouts of 10 Barrel and Elysian jolted craft beer fans in the area like a subduction zone quake. Those acquisitions happened for a very good reason, which is that AB brands struggle in the Northwest. Bringing (previously) popular craft brands into the AB fold was/is an effort to stop the bleeding.

California appears to be the next logical target. The Clydesdales once owned a 50 share of the lucrative Cali market. That number slipped to just over 36 percent last year, according to a recent CNBC story, and AB is desperate to reverse the negative momentum. They're probably flashing bundles of cash to prospective sellouts as we speak.

Arguably the more interesting part of the AB saga is initiatives underway with its distributors. What they want to do, as I've mentioned in past posts, is force distributors to align more fully with AB brands. They do not want these folks selling brands that aren't in the family.

Indeed, part of the reason they've brought craft brands into the mix is they want to be able to go into accounts with a book that has something for everyone. "Yellow beer not your thing? Well, we've got some decent craft brands you might like."

By the way, the suits in St. Louis are particularly aggravated by the situation in California. Why? Because more than a few AB distributors in the Golden State sell Constellation brands. That infuriates the brass, which regards Constellation as a mortal enemy. They want changes.

The way this situation translates in day-to-day life is that AB is making it clear to distributors, even anchor distributors in big markets, that their ongoing relationship will require them to divest brands that aren't part of the AB family. The suits want distributors focused on AB products. Period.

Here in Portland, AB-independent, Maletis, owns one of the best craft books in the country. If AB's alignment strategy were firmly applied, Maletis would have to sell profitable brands and replace them with brands that are, quite frankly, flat-liners here. That isn't happening. But never mind.

What's wrong with the Clydesdales? Well, the horses are fine. Trust me. But the suits in St. Louis have become paranoid. They look at eroding market share and see distributors who are failing to push their products because they're distracted and mesmerized by non-AB craft brands. The brass wants these turncoats brought into line. It's an 18th century thing.

The problem, confirmed by industry experts in various places, is that AB does not have a push problem. What they have is a pull problem. In plain terms, AB's brands have little pull with consumers, which makes them a lot harder to sell regardless of how hard you push them.

How will they work through this confusion? Stay tuned.