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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Big and Old Craft Brewers Grapple With Sour Times

You've heard the bad news. Craft growth is slowing. Heads are spinning trying to figure out how to jumpstart an apparently sagging industry. Places are closing their doors or begging to be graciously bought out by big beer. Gloom and doom.

Except maybe things aren't quite what we've been led to think they are. It's true that overall craft growth is slowing, down to something like 5.5 percent year to date. Also more failures. What many don't realize is that big craft dragging the rest of the industry down. Yup.

If you exclude the imploding sales of brands like Blue Moon, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada from the picture, you discover craft dollar sales are up more than 11 percent on the year. Including those players puts growth at just over 5 percent.

Those are national numbers, but the picture in Oregon isn't much different. Deschutes, our top brewery by volume, experienced an 18 percent decline in sales June 2016 to June 2017. Full Sail, Rogue, Portland Brewing and Bridgeport are all down. Widmer, if it's production showed up in OLCC stats, would certainly show the same trajectory.

In actual fact, the trend goes beyond a turn away from big craft. We see it in industry stats due to its impact on big craft, but it is affecting established craft breweries widely. Once respected local brands are seeing declining numbers as consumer tastes shift to what's new and shiny.

That's not something you can verify with national stats. But there's plenty of evidence in Oregon stats. For the same June to June period mentioned above, a number of older local breweries, including Lompoc (-12 percent) Laurelwood (-15 percent), Double Mountain (-8 percent) and Alameda (-20 percent), are losing ground.

Over that same period, you see significant growth for relative newbies Pfriem (+55 percent), Crux (+127 percent), Ecliptic (+81 percent), Block 15 (+63 percent), Sunriver (+54 percent), Buoy (+38 percent) and Breakside ((+22 percent). Several established breweries, including Pelican and Silver Moon, show solid growth, clearly outliers among the older set.

"Younger drinkers increasingly view legacy brands as stodgy or uncool," says Andy Crouch in this month's BeerAdvocate magazine. "A new disruptive wave of young brewers, keen on brewing to their own tune, entered the marketplace with little care or respect or concern for their elders."

The result is that older craft brands large and small are being displaced. Craft beer has become a part of pop culture among the younger generation, which views established brands like Deschutes, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Sam Adams as ancient and irrelevant. It's similar to disrespecting the music of a prior generation because it's old. You know the drill.

One could easily argue that small, local brands have more flexibility in addressing the current trend than big craft. After all, it's easier to alter the course of a small boat than that of an ocean liner. In beer terms, changing course means embracing trendy styles like hazy IPA and refreshing a antiquated brand identity with local consumers. It's not easy, but not impossible.

Big craft is in a more awkward position. We're talking in about beer portfolios that are well-known across countless markets and in many cases hopelessly outdated. It's not that easy to erase embedded brand identities and rebuild cool with the young audience that's driving craft beer's growth.

There's desperation out there, as outlined in Crouch's column. New Belgium released a disastrous line of fruit flavored IPAs and plans to extend the Fat Tire line with a Belgian-style white ale. Yummy. Sam Adams is hawking a line of alcoholic seltzers. Embarrassing.

Price is one area where big craft might attack. They're big enough that they could reduce retail prices in an effort to win back business. But reducing prices is more likely to further damage already imploding brands. And you aren't going to win over millennials who regard you as out of touch with discounting. Is there a Plan B?

For a while I've wondered if big craft will follow the example of big beer and start buying up smaller breweries. There's been some of that already. Green Flash bought Alpine a while back. New Belgium recently bought San Francisco's Magnolia Brewing. Should we expect to see more deals like that down the road? I haven't a clue.

The only thing I do know is these are tough times to be a legacy craft brewer.



Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Commons: When Things Go Wrong

When Portland Beer was published back in 2013, I held the release party at The Commons original location on Southeast Stephens. That place had become a regular stop on my travels and I knew Mike, Josh, Sean and Travis well. Despite dreadful weather, the party was a success.

Following several years of solid success, the collective decided to move to a significantly larger space where they could increase production and seating capacity. I don't recall anyone in the beer community questioning that decision. It seemed to make sense, given their apparent trajectory.

Of course, we now know things didn't work out. When news broke that The Commons would close and relinquish its space to San Diego's Modern Times Beer, the hyenas began howling about why this had come to pass. Poor planning, poor execution, poor strategy. Pick your poison.

But these situations are rarely as cut and dried as some would have us believe. In the case of The Commons, I suspect there are variety of explanations for the calamity. And not all of those explanations are readily visible, even to folks in the beer community.

I first sensed that things were not quite right when I visited The Commons soon after they opened on Belmont in 2015. The main pub area had an unfinished feel. A satellite seating area upstairs was off limits to the public due to fire code. Without expensive sprinklers, the area was unusable.

During a visit several months later, it was clear to me that the building did not have sufficient ventilation. I eventually learned they couldn't put commercial rooftop units on the building without reinforcing the infrastructure, a monumentally expensive undertaking.

More recently, I learned they had brewed an IPA. Say what? That came as a shock to me because I knew it was something Head Brewer Sean Burke never wanted to do. Soon enough came news that Burke himself had bounced from the company. I guessed the IPA wasn't his idea.

The early intel told me the guys were overextended and at risk. Sure, businesses often function at a basic level when they're new or making a big transition. You put some things off until you have a cash flow. But appropriate ventilation and seating are requirements, not luxuries.

Then came the seemingly endless construction in the area. Several nearby buildings were leveled to make way for condos or apartments. An area that was busy and congested before the construction became increasingly problematic in terms of access and parking. Bad for business.

There are those who believe they needed a full kitchen and pub food to make the space viable. That was never part of the plan. The Cheese Annex, operated out of a tiny kitchen on a lease basis by Steve Jones (Cheese Bar), was a makeshift arrangement with limited offerings.

The food argument segues into another facet of The Commons masterplan. Until late in the game, they did not offer mainstream beers. So offering mainstream pub fare probably wouldn't have done much for them. They certainly knew this, which is why a kitchen was never part of the plan.

Not offering mainstream beers may have been a fatal error once they moved to the larger space. I took non-geek friends and family to The Commons on several occasions. There was nothing for them on the beer menu. Food choices wouldn't have mattered. They wanted to go elsewhere.

There's an argument floating around that The Commons should have jacked up prices to make their beers seem more special, such as Cascade, Hair of the Dog and others do. The idea is that they might have changed the perception of their beers by charging more.

The problem is, the beers probably could not have fetched significantly higher prices. That's not to say they weren't and aren't pretty great. Are they in the same league as the fruit-infused, barrel-aged stuff offered at high price points by others? I'm not so sure.

There are unknowns. Owner Mike Wright evidently got divorced a while back. We don't know what effect that had on the business or its cash flow. It's also true that craft beer is slowing and many brewers are showing flat or declining sales. Did that play into what happened? Hmmm.

By all accounts, The Commons was highly successful in its original location. The space was smallish, but friendly and homey. Wright didn't own the building, but the overhead had to have been low. Enjoying their eccentric beers while perusing the brewery had a definite cool factor.

Everything flipped in the move to Belmont. They got more production space, but expenses increased dramatically and the new place never lived up to the charm of the old one. Which left them stuck with a boutique product in a much larger space with much higher overhead.

To make a go of it there, they needed to sell a whole lot more of their beer or cater to a more general audience. That would have meant mainstream beers and food. Except for the 11th hour foray into IPA, they did none of those things.

People sometimes become rigid in business. Overconfidence, ego or lack of capital are some of the reasons. I don't know what happened at The Commons. But a new space with significantly higher overhead likely required a different approach than the one they had used on Stephens.

The cautionary tale, for anyone who cares, is that taking on significant debt in an industry prone to shifting tastes and fickle patrons is a risky business. If you're going to go down that path, build some flexibility into your plan so you don't find yourself in a financial rabbit hole.

It isn't clear what will happen to The Commons. Beginning in January, Modern Times will lease the space from Wright, presumably shielding him from the monthly mortgage. Once the dust clears, he may decide to reinvent the business in a smaller venue similar to the old place.

A lot of people would like that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

For Anheuser-Busch, One Good Deed is About it

Our frenemies at Anheuser-Busch are in the news. Seems they delayed beer production this week so they could can water for hurricane victims in Houston. Good PR. Too bad that's not the only coverage they're getting. Because, like always, they've been up to no good.

Earlier this month, Henri Reuchlin, Chairman of the European Beer Consumers Union, which represents consumer groups in Europe and monitors the activities of big beer, sent a letter to ABI CEO Carlos Brito requesting assurances regarding the beer giant's global intentions.

Reuchlin's letter rakes ABI over the coals nicely, describing a litany of abuses and underhanded practices. "All of these examples suggest the policies currently being adopted by your company tend mostly to work to the disadvantage of consumers, or at best to pay the consumer little regard," he concludes.

Not exactly news, eh? If you follow along here, you probably know about Anheuser-Busch's illegal and anti-competitive practices in this country. They're getting pinched by regulators on a regular basis, forcing them to come up with creative defenses. And pay fines.

A little over a year ago, the good folks at AB were caught violating Washington state pay-to-play rules at a couple of concert venues in Seattle. What they did was pay exclusive promotional fees in order to secure placement for their own products, while blocking competitors.

The result was a relative slap on the wrist in the form of a $150,000 fine. A spokesperson for the company subsequently said they didn't agree with the allegations and were working with the State Liquor Control Board to figure it all out. Right.

A few months later, in September, the US Securities and Exchange Commission hit AB with a $6 million fine for bribery. The SEC found the company made illegal payments to officials in India to boost sales and production. The company also tampered with a whistleblowing employee, entering into an agreement prohibiting the person from communicating with the SEC about violations.

In fact, despite employee complaints and SEC directives, Anheuser-Busch failed to establish internal controls to detect and prevent improper payments. Instead, transactions involving promoters simply weren't monitored or recorded properly. Hmmm. Why do you suppose they would do that?

There's more. This past March, AB reached a $400,000 settlement with regulators in California after an investigation revealed AB-owned wholesalers had been illegally providing refrigerators, television sets and draft systems to Southern California retailers. They knew the law and simply failed to abide by it. Business as usual.

More recently, regulators in Massachusetts charged Anheuser-Busch with illegally giving away nearly $1 million worth of equipment in the form of branded refrigerators, draft towers and coolers to hundreds of retailers in 2014 and 2015. The charges came as a result of a 14-month investigation into pay-to-play practices in the state.

The best part of this story is AB isn't even denying the charges, It says it did provide the equipment to retailers and believes it did so legally. Say what? Yep. The company is challenging the state's definition of illegal gifts.

It turns out Massachusetts bans brewers and wholesalers from providing retailers with anything of “substantial value” as a means of gaining influence. The problem is, “substantial value” isn’t defined, leaving open a door through which AB is driving a semi. Imagine the hubris.

Anheuser-Busch contends it had no idea that the coolers and other merchandise exceeded the "substantial value" threshold. Keep in mind we're talking about items valued at from hundreds to several thousand dollars each. Who knew these things were of "substantial value?"

These are the people we're dealing with. They want to dominate the industry and aren't especially concerned with how they do it. If there's a law blocking their objective, they're apt to work around it and worry about the consequences later. It's who they are.

And if you're buying any of their products, you're helping finance this kind of behavior. There's a simple solution: Don't buy any of their shit. End of story.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reinventing the CBA's Redheaded Stepchild

For a number of  years, many beer-centric folks wondered what the Craft Brew Alliance would to with Redhook, it's redheaded stepchild. Redhook was thrashed like a rented mule and abandoned in a dusty ditch long ago. What now? Well, they actually have a plan to resurrect it.

Founded in 1981, Redhook is the oldest existing craft brewery in the Northwest. I use the term "craft" loosely because Redhook is part of the CBA, roughly a third owned by Anheuser-Busch. Along with Widmer and Kona, Redhook doesn't meet the Brewers Association craft standard.

In fact, Redhook was the first Northwest brand to fashion a partnership with big beer. That happened in 1994, when it sold a 25 percent interest to AB. Under the terms of the deal, Redhook maintained control of its marketing and advertising, but gained access to the AB distribution network.

The results were stellar. Redhook built a large brewery in Woodinville and another in Portsmouth, N.H. in the wake of the deal. Boosted production and access to the AB network helped Redhook increase sales from 93.7 million to 226 million cases between 1994 and 2002. Serious stuff.

Redhook's experience was not lost on Kurt and Rob Widmer, who had solid beers, but no access to wide distribution or cash that could be used to enhance their brand. Around the time they figured out how to package their iconic Hefeweizen in bottles, the Widmers sold a 31 percent interest to Anheuser-Busch. That was 1997. Within five years, Widmer sales increased 20 percent.

The rest of the story is well-known. Widmer and Redhook, already paramours of Anheuser-Busch, merged in 2008, forming the Craft Brewers Alliance. Two years later, the CBA, which had been brewing Kona beer on contract for at least several years, acquired Kona. A few years later, the name was shortened to Craft Brew Alliance (BREW on the NYSE).

There are differences of opinion over what happened to Redhook. Mine is that, once it became part of the CBA, Redhook was overshadowed by Widmer and, soon enough, Kona. With sloppy, inattentive brand management, Redhook drifted into sub-craft status, relegated to sharing shelf space with the likes of Pyramid, Portland Brewing and other derelict brands.

While there may be different explanations for the decline, the numbers cannot be disputed. Redhook sales have been tanking for years, a drag on the entire CBA portfolio. In recent times, Widmer has also gone flat. Kona is the only darling in the group, still chugging along nicely, a big fat target for AB acquisition.

After the CBA's Portland facility was updated and upgraded, most of Woodinville's production gradually moved here. To its credit, the CBA hoped to sell the Woodinville brewery to Pabst. That deal fell through when Pabst saw its revenues take a dump. Today, the old brewery is shuttered, awaiting a suitor, (apparently) overvalued on the CBA balance sheet.

But all may not be lost. The CBA is hoping to refurbish the Redhook brand. Talk about big projects. The plan revolves around a fancy new brewpub in Seattle's swanky Capitol Hill neighborhood. It serves up specialty beers brewed on a small system, alongside what appears to be an upscale pub menu.

This isn't a terrible idea. Going small has possibilities. Brewlab, the name of the new pub, will feature two banks of 16 taps. Beers will be produced on an in-house 8 bbl system, with a focus on small batch, experimental brews. That sounds pretty good.

There will be several special edition packaged beers in six-packs and draft form. Distribution will be limited to the Northwest. They also plan to release variety packs of selected special edition beers to a broader audience. Care to guess where these beers will be brewed? Not in Seattle. But never mind.

This plan lines up with what's happening in craft beer, as long as Redhook doesn't attempt to conquer distant markets. Between taprooms and new breweries, the winning focus at the moment is hyper local. It's gotten extremely difficult to build strong regional and national brands because small local breweries are gulping up market share from larger brands.

Whether the CBA can succeed with the Redhook plan is an open question. With the exception of Kona, which rides a strong connection to place, the CBA has not proven itself to be particularly adept at brand building, similar to its inept part owner, Anheuser-Busch.

But we shall see. You never know. It might work out for them if their goal is limited. If there's any kind of overreach, it'll likely be a disaster.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What's Beer Got to Do With it?

I met Laura 25 years ago. She was a not quite halfway through her career in healthcare at the time. She reached thousands of people by way of her work in various hospitals, as an educator at OHSU and, more recently, as a Nurse Practitioner in the Legacy System. Today she retired, after 42 years of service.

At OBF 2017
Our paths crossed and eventually merged thanks largely to a common obsession with racquetball. This is not a made up story. We were addicted to the sport. During most of our first 10 years together, regular weekly play and tournaments dominated our annual schedules. It was quite insane.

What we came to regard as our "need for speed" also coaxed us into other risky activities. A shared interest in snow skiing led to annual outings on Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood. During a trip to Kauai in 1996, we developed a boogie boarding fetish that lasted many years.

Outings were not without peril and occasional anguish. Both of us were "spin-cycled"into the sand on the beaches of Poipu numerous times while boogie boarding. But the worst occurred on Mt Bachelor in March 2008. While skiing in chopped up powder after a stressful night searching for a marauding black dog, Laura caught an edge on a snowboard rut and mangled her knee. She was unable to stand. The Ski Patrol was summoned.

She had suffered a torn ACL and meniscus damage. The trip back to Portland was painful. Soon enough, the damage was surgically repaired. She eventually returned to the slopes wearing a rigid brace. It was tough to have such limited mobility and she was tentative. I don't think she ever recovered emotionally. Getting injured like that was something she'd never experienced, didn't expect. It knocked her for a loop.

With puppy Biscuit in 2009
That 2008 incident foreshadowed the end of our "calm years." In early 2009, Laura's father passed away, more or less unexpectedly. Returning from his memorial, I was laid off, an event that had lasting consequences. Shortly thereafter, the second of our first pair of Labs passed away. Soon enough, I learned my own father had cancer. He passed away in November. It's fair to say 2009 was not a very good year.

From that point on, Laura carried the load in our household. With my career in disarray, she kept us afloat by paying the bulk of the bills while at the same time planning for her impending retirement and contributing to the college funds of her two grandchildren. Somehow, some way, she succeeded. The house was paid off a year ago. The college funds grew. We survived.

Unlike my uneven career in marketing communications and writing, Laura's career in healthcare featured a gradual, upward trajectory. During the Clinton years, she opted to get her NP certification because she believed primary care would be the wave of the future. If memory serves, we both thought primary care would become somewhat universal and well-funded.

At Waimea Brewing, 2009
Things clearly didn't work out the way we figured. Laura rolled with the punches for 22 years in several scenarios. She's seen a lot of change. Technology now plays a far greater role than it once did. But the end result is that providing care has gotten more difficult, not easier. That's largely due to the way the insurance industry works, but never mind.

These last few months of work have been bittersweet. As she gradually approached her final day in the office, Laura exchanged hugs and tears with patients, some of whom she had been seeing for a number of years. She'll undoubtedly be missed by those patients, and also by the colleagues she worked with so closely during this final chapter at Legacy. She'll miss those interactions more than she knows, but it may take some time for that to sink in.

Even though she's retiring, Laura's efforts in the healthcare area won't end. She'll maintain her license for a while, maybe do volunteer work somewhere. She doesn't plan to consider work as a healthcare provider similar to what she's done for more than two decades. "That's a mission impossible scenario," she says. "Too messy."

Retirement dinner at Oxpdx
As with all things, there is irony. One of Laura's specialties over the years has been diabetes care. That experience will come in handy because we recently learned our youngest Lab, Biscuit, born on Valentine's Day 2009, is diabetic. So even though Laura is retiring from the office, she'll still be providing care. The irony is not lost on either of us.

What's beer got to do with it? Very little. Laura prefers wine and does not share my geeky interest in beer. But she encouraged it by giving me homebrewing equipment for my birthday in 1995. I brewed for years and we shared a lot of that beer. We also frequented the Oregon Brewers Festival as drinkers and volunteers for more than a decade. Today, only I chase beer.

Honestly, I don't know what her retirement holds. She has far too much energy to sit around and do nothing. Gardening, reading and sudoku won't be enough. This I know. I worry that she'll drive me nuts as I attempt to work in my basement office. She worries that I'll run off with one of my millennial beer friends. The reality is, we'll work things out just as we always have.

So congratulations on your retirement, my dear. It's certainly well-deserved. Time to start enjoying everything you worked so hard to attain for all these years.

Now, how about let's grab a beer? 🍻

Postscript: A quick shoutout to the folks at Ox Restaurant, Laura's chosen dinner venue. After a great dinner that included a bottle of wine and several entrees, as well as the ice cream shown above, we were told our dinner check had been taken care of. Our server had learned of Laura's retirement during the course of our meal. Needless to say, we left a large tip.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Fall and Rise of Anchor Brewing

Last week's announcement that Japanese brewer Sapporo will acquire San Francisco's Anchor Brewing was met with frowns around the industry. It's not easy to see an ironic brewery sold to outside interests. But Anchor's future is likely brighter than it was. Trust me.

Many saw the $85 million purchase price, made public by Sapporo, as being on the low end compared to other deals that have gone down in recent years. It's true that Anchor is an iconic brand with a lengthy history and heritage. But all things are not equal.

The reality is, things have not gone especially well for Anchor in recent times. Over the course of the last two years, sales have tanked... down to 1.75 million cases, according to industry sources. That's 100,000 bbls less than experts thought they were selling. Numbers like that tend to make a brand less attractive to potential buyers.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, really. Anchor is a brand that's become less and less relevant over the years. While upstart breweries entered the market with progressive new approaches and marketing ploys, Anchor was largely content with the status quo, making no significant effort to roll with industry changes.

Still, the hollowing out of the brand was not all Anchor's fault. Growth in the number of breweries has put a lot of established brands in a bind. As discussed here last week. many legacy brands have tanked as small new local breweries opened in areas previously not served or drastically underserved. Anchor was and is certainly a victim of that scenario.

There's more, of course. Recall that Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio, who purchased Anchor from Fritz Magtag in 2010, came from the spirits world (Skyy vodka). They had a grandiose vision of what Anchor might become in those heady days. Craft's growth swell in recent years may have sucked them into thinking they could pull it off. But craft numbers started to slide.

One of their nutty ideas was an ambitious expansion project on Pier 48, a collaboration with the San Francisco Giants baseball club. That project died on the vine when it became apparent that impossibly expensive seismic upgrades would be required. Greggor and Foglio looked at their faltering beer revenue stream and balked.

As Anchor Brewing slowed, the spirits business flourished. Makes sense, since the guys running the show get spirits. Today, the distillery is about 30 percent larger by revenue than the brewery, Greggor told Brewbound. They wisely decided not to compromise the growing spirits business by continuing to invest in Anchor, a losing proposition. Needless to say, Anchor Distilling is not part of the sale to Sapporo and will eventually relocate once the deal is finalized.

Everyone wonders what will happen to Anchor. The brewery is evidently antiquated and operating at just 55-60 percent of capacity, according to various reports. There's no urgent need to expand production, though the facility certainly needs an update. And the integrity of the brand could use some investment and attention, for sure.

In Sapporo, Anchor may have lucked into an owner with an understanding of beer, an appreciation of heritage and the deep pockets required to revitalize the brand. Sapporo will invest in the existing brewery and expects to open a new taproom across the street. In fact, Sapporo may be the perfect steward of the iconic brand it apparently coveted for some time.

As with many stories, there is irony in this one. You have go back to immediately after Fritz Magtag recklessly bought a majority interest in Anchor. Dark days. The brewery was dilapidated and the beer was poor. Although some credit Anchor with being our first craft brewery, that part of its history was yet to come.

Hitting the streets to hawk his beer, Maytag encountered angry publicans and restaurant owners who gave him an earful. Many had personally experienced Anchor's sour, defective product. Most assumed the brewery had ceased to exist years earlier, so horrible its beer was.

Unlike those who came along a little later, Maytag did not have a homebrewing background. He educated himself on better brewing practices in an effort to save his floundering company. But his realization that local restaurant patrons were purchasing a lot of expensive imports is what drove his motivation to make better beer and what it should be. Others would eventually follow.

So Anchor has essentially come full circle. Its craft history is indelibly inked to imports, for better or worse. And now it is owned by an import brand that appears committed to maintaining its heritage and refurbishing its tarnished brand.

We don't yet know how this is going to work out. But Anchor may be in better hands now than it has been in recent memory. The news could be a lot worse. Trust me. 🍻


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

When Your Legacy Brand Tanks

One of my industry friends just sent me a spreadsheet comparing OLCC taxable barrels reports for May 2017 and May 2016. I don't have a lot of confidence in these numbers. Why? Because the amount of missing information from month to month is often difficult to figure.

Here's an example, before I move on. Due to some kind of accounting or data collection issue, numbers for the Craft Brew Alliance (Widmer, Kona, Redhook, etc) have almost completely vanished from the monthly reports. That's a giant hole. Thus, my lack of confidence.

Anyway, the comparative numbers in this spreadsheet are shocking. We know craft growth is slowing. That's been a beer news item for the last year or so. What the numbers essentially show is that many older breweries are losing big while a few newcomers show solid growth.

I'll forgo the specifics in favor of generalizations. Deschutes and Full Sail were both down, Deschutes significantly. Locally, Portland Brewing and Bridgeport continue to drift into obscurity. Breweries showing notable growth include Breakside, Silver Moon, Crux, Block 15 and pFriem. No surprise.

More to the point of this piece, several of Portland's smaller legacy brands show scary declines. Lompoc Fifth Quadrant was down 14 percent. Alameda Brewing was down 18 percent. Lucky Labrador was down nearly 12 percent. Not good.

What's happening to the larger breweries we understand. As new, local breweries open in previously underserved areas, they siphon share from national and regional breweries. There's not much the big guys can do about that dynamic. Consumers seem to like local beer. Hard to blame them.

Established local brands are also losing share to upstarts, remote and local, that offer shiny new beer options and approaches. Essentially, many older local breweries are having a hard time competing for market share in markets they once dominated.

The reasons aren't as simple as you might think. It's easy to assign blame. I hear some failing local breweries blame their distributors. With so many craft brands entering the market, established breweries feel like they've been abandoned in favor of what's new and shiny.

Distributors are convenient whipping boys. It's true that they've taken on lots of new craft brands. Craft is where the action is. But they've also invested in the people and infrastructure needed to float everyone's boat. They really don't want anyone to fail. Blaming them is a slippery slope.

In fact, many established brands simply haven't worked to stay relevant. They were slow to adopt creative brewing approaches and higher quality standards. They refused to refresh tired, woefully outdated brand identities. And they failed to support brand health via focused social media campaigns and boots on the ground.

When you look at the most successful brands in this market, you see much of what the declining local breweries lack. You see beer that is typically solid across a wide spectrum. You see thoughtful branding and coordinated social media efforts. And, yeah, many of them have reps who work to keep brands fresh in the minds of consumers.

The reality is, the ground has shifted. There was a time when a brewery or brewpub could get by with decent beer. They didn't have to put much effort into chasing eclectic beer styles or enhanced quality because there wasn't much competition and beer palates weren't very sophisticated. Simpler times.

Those days are gone. Modern beer consumers demand more. Owners of older local breweries that are losing market share might do well to look in the mirror and evaluate what they're doing to stay relevant in a market that's getting more competitive by the day. It ain't easy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Oregon Brewers Festival Experience at 30

Today's news that Tugboat Brewing will soon cease operations was met with inverted smiles in the beer community. Few are bemoaning the loss of Tugboat beer, which could be dicey at its best. They bemoan the loss of the experience. Tugboat was, more than anything, an experience.

Traversing the grounds of Tom McCall Waterfront Park this afternoon, I couldn't help think the same thing about the Oregon Brewers Festival, celebrating 30 years. Beer may be the main focus of the OBF, but the event is about much more than that. It's about sharing beer and conversation with friends and strangers in a unique place.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of good beers being poured this week. (I'll get to a short list of my favorites below.) But beer merely provides the grist that fuels the nonstop conversations happening in the park...the heart and soul of the event.

It's hard for me to count the number of friends I saw and talked to for the first time in a while. Many, though not all, of these are beer media or industry-connected folks. You might think we see each other all the time. It just ain't so.

I suspect beer has become a bigger part of the conversations in our current context. Eclectic craft beer is more of a fad than it was in the early days, when festival attendees were mainly looking for something a little different than the macro swill they were finding in stores of the time. We've jumped the proverbial shark from those quaint days.

Running into John Foyston, longtime Oregonian beer writer, we talked about the wide range of styles available. The list has morphed wildly over the years and it's gotten increasingly crazy in recent times as style guidelines have collapsed. That's a good and bad thing, I think, but never mind.

There are 91 beers available at the main trailers and a bunch more in the Specialty Tent. I won't say anything about the Specialty Tent beers because I don't know how long any of them will be on. Some of my favorites from the standards included:

Tigers in Tiny Spaces, Cloudburst Brewing, Seattle.
Hazy pale ale with notes of grapefruit and peaches. 5.6% ABV

Dragon's Milk: Thai Curry, New Holland Brewing, Holland Michigan
A bourbon barrel-aged stout with hints of curry, ginger and coconut. Wannabe drunks will be lining up for fills of this one late. 11% ABV

Heirloom Saison, Upright Brewing, Portland
Features a barrage of late kettle addition hops in a blended, barrel-aged sour beer. The young and old beers produce an interesting mix of dank and bright notes. 6.9% ABV

Avant Garde, The Lost Abbey, San Diego
A Farmhouse Ale with minimal sweetness, subtle hop presence and aromas of fresh fruit. Light, crisp and refreshing. 7% ABV

Cal Estupido, Ex Novo Brewing, Portland
Chasing the growing popularity of Mexican Lagers, this beer is flavored with lime and sea salt. If served slightly warm, as was the case on my first try, it will remind you of drinking a too-warm lager with a slice of lime on a beach somewhere. It's better when served cold. 5% ABV

Easy Beaver, Belching Beaver Brewery, Oceanside, California
Described as an "easy drinking session IPA for those wearing orange and black. True balance means Duck fans will love it, too." Works for me. 4% ABV

As always, there were beers I didn't care for. Hopworks' Kiwi Sparkle & Pop had some off flavors and metallic character. Laht Neppur's Strawberry Concoction was a hot, fruity mess. Neither is worth the tasting effort, though results and opinions may vary.

The event itself seemed to be running smoothly. I arrived just before the gates opened at 11:30 a.m. and saw lines at each entry. The bike corral, located at the South end of the park, was mostly empty. By the time I got my bike gear organized and headed into the festival, the lines were gone. Lines to buy tokens and get beer seemed short.

Of course, all that may all be out the window later in the week, when things get busier than they are on Wednesday. My advice is get to the park early and leave before the work day ends and cubical dwellers scurry in to catch up with people who've been drinking all afternoon. A word to the wise.

Finally, a quick thanks to my friend and occasional collaborator for hanging out and chatting me through the afternoon. The good news? We somehow drank less than we did at a Timbers match in June. Hard to believe, I know. 🍻

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

OBF to Feature Specialty Tent, Larger Sample Pour

The Oregon Brewers Festival, our longest running and biggest beer party, returns to Tom McCall Waterfront Park next week. Roughly 80,000 expected attendees will be treated to some new and old wrinkles at the 30th annual event, which runs July 26-30.

They'll pour beer from 91 independent craft breweries this year. That's up from 88 in 2016. Progress, I suppose. Yeah, the focus on "independent" means the baby Buds are locked out, so you won't see anything from 10 Barrel, Elysian, Goose Island, etc. Poor pumpkins.

Styles are all over the place. The media materials claim more than two dozen styles will be represented at the event. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that claim. But we aren't talking about an IPA-dominated fest this year. There are plenty of choices. The main festival list is here.

 A new twist this year is the so-called Specialty Tent, where they will feature more than 90 rare and experimental beers. This used to be called the Buzz Tent. Beers are going to cost more here, double or triple tokens, and quality is going to be hit and miss. Trust me on that point.

The Specialty Tent is replacing the International Tent, which organizers launched three years ago. I spent time in that tent in each of the last three years, with mixed results. The cost of bringing the beers and brewers in for the event apparently got to be too much.

"We'll bring the international beers back when we can figure out how to get them here fresher and more economically," Art Larrance told me. "The combined cost of the beer and shipping was difficult to recoup through sales. The cost became unmanageable."

Another change this year is the mug. No, they aren't going back to glass. This year's plastic mug (I haven't seen the real thing or a photo) apparently holds 14 ounces. Recent mugs evidently held 12 ounces. The larger size means a full mug of beer will set you back five tokens this year. It had been four tokens for quite a while.

"Due to the larger mug and increased keg prices, we feel justified in the first price increase in many, many years," Larrance said. "There's still no cost to attend the festival and no minimum purchase package, such as we see with many events."

There's a bigger surprise lurking.

Several years ago, the OBF went to a 3 oz sample. Yeah, that mark on your glass or mug has been 3 ounces since 2013, in case you didn't know. Larrance tells me this year's sample size is 4 ounces. What? And it will still cost a single token! Huh? If you think that's a surprise, you aren't alone.


Forget the mug price. Full pours aren't that common at this event. Samples are the rage. But every time they pour a sample this year, it'll be an ounce more than it's been in recent years. And they're worried about increasing keg prices? Strange, eh?

One thing the 4 ounce sample will do, assuming it's legit, is it will encourage attendees to get that size. It's too good a deal to pass up. Well, too good until the evening brofest lines reach the point where a full beer is required. Then you're going to suck it up and plop down five tokens. Admit it.

If you're wondering where OBF pours have been over the years, I did some research using my mug collection back in 2013, when they first went to the 3 oz sample. If you're so inclined, the link to that story is here.

It's almost hard to fathom, but the OBF isn't just about beer. The event also features live music, food vendors, craft booths, homebrew demonstrations and souvenir sales. It has evolved into a sort of mini-trade show surrounded by beer. Not a horrible idea.

When the first Oregon Brewers Festival materialized in 1988, there was nothing like it in the country. Organizers wanted a way to showcase Oregon craft beer, which was in its infancy, in a pleasant, outdoor setting. The idea caught on and evolved into something really no one anticipated.

Looking ahead to next week, I see a calendar full of smaller beer events around town. These events ride the wave of craft beer's popularity, a wave the OBF was instrumental in creating. They now compete with the OBF for patrons. If you don't see the irony, it might be time to stop drinking.

There's a ton of information on the event site here. Definitely give it a look before you head to the park. It looks like the weather is going to cooperate nicely. I'll return to this space next Thursday or Friday with a report on the actual event. Happy festing! 🍻

Note: This post has been edited to reflect what Chris says in the comments below. The smallest pour the OBF has offered is 3 ounces, which has been the case since 2013. I incorrectly said it was a 2 oz pour in recent years. I trusted my memory when I should have looked at my own research. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Challenge of Writing About Bad Beer

Is it the job of beer writers to expose bad beer? That question was posed the other day on the Beervana blog. It's a fair question. Because many who write about beer are hesitant to report on what's bad or not very good. Is that okay?

It's not hard to understand why many writers don't like to criticize. We tend to become immersed in the industry. In many cases, we know the brewers, the owners, the marketing folks. It's tougher to beat up a beer when you know and like the people who made it. Simple human nature.

There's more. A lot of writers are reluctant to report on bad beer because they fear doing so will cut their access to the few perks we get for this work...occasional beer mail and complementary event access. It's unfortunate, but positive coverage is generally expected. Or you may wind up blacklisted.

Don't believe it? Please. Several years ago I made negative comments about a beer on social media. Almost immediately I was harangued for those comments by a brewery rep, even though what I said was common knowledge in the beer media community. My mistake? Mentioning it publicly.

Shortly thereafter, lines of communication with that brewery, as well as sporadic beer mail, stopped. And that's how things have remained in the years since. When they hold an event, the only way I get invited is if an unknowing PR person floats me an invitation. That has actually happened once or twice...comical.

Another reason some are reluctant to expose bad beer is they double as promoters or hope to work in the industry. They don't want to rock the boat. Then there are the writers who provide apparently objective coverage of breweries, beers and events they have a financial interest in. Have they crossed an ethical line? I think so. Opinions differ.

The reality is, there are hoards of industry shills who specialize in providing glowing coverage of beers, breweries, events, etc. Some do it for money, some do it for pleasure. For the most part, I know who these people are and I know what to expect from them. But the average consumer mostly doesn't know, which is a problem.

My view is that beer writers have a responsibility to provide objective coverage of the good, the bad and the ugly. That means occasionally exposing beers that are obviously flawed or poorly executed. Believe me, there's plenty of bad beer out there. I've had beer bar buyers quietly tell me how much sketchy beer they taste on the road to selecting what to buy and pour.

Is objectivity tougher in our current climate? I think it is, in part due to the breakdown of style guidelines. It's easy enough to identify a flawed pilsner or pale ale. It gets tougher when you're evaluating a beer that's a mix of styles and flavors. That's where personal preference tends to enter the fray and objective coverage shouldn't be driven by that.

Beer writers who aren't willing to report on the good, the bad and the not very good aren't very objective. That can mean a lot of things. But it almost certainly suggests a connection (or desired connection) to the industry that is a bit too cozy. 🍻

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Alice Waters' Link to Independent Craft Brewers

It's been interesting to see and hear the chatter surrounding the Independent Craft Brewer Seal the Brewers Association recently released. Naturally, the best response of all came from Anheuser-Busch and its butt-hurt High End. Bunch of crybabies.

These charlatans want fans to believe AB and the High End are no threat to independent brewers, that they're basically operating the same way. The shoddy video they put together had High End brewers looking like robots reading from a hastily prepared, poorly imagined script.

The goal of that subterfuge is to confuse what craft beer is and where it came from. AB would like that history rewritten or simply forgotten. In fact, a great many modern craft beer fans have no idea how the movement came to be. Which makes Anheuser Busch's job a whole lot easier.

I was forced to consider that question when I was wrapping up Portland Beer in 2013.  You're stuck making an effort to track the roots of what happened here if you're writing that history. I absorbed a lot of opinions, written and verbal, while formulating conclusions.

It's a complex story with many threads. For me, the most persuasive one is that craft beer is a descendant of a paradigm shift in tastes that emerged as part of the 1960's counterculture. A small group of Americans rejected over-commercialized, tasteless food and instead sought locally produced foods with flavor and character. The movement would eventually spread from food to wine, beer, coffee and more. And it is still evolving.

As I say in the book, a strong argument can be made that the center of that movement was the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides being a hotbed of activism during the Sixties era, the Bay Area is also geographically situated in the middle of rich agriculture. The shift in tastes and demands helped convert some of that agriculture from large commercial farms to smaller artisan producers.

One of the key visionaries in the movement was (and is) Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971. Her original idea was that the restaurant would serve as a place where she could entertain friends with similar values. The Chez Panisse mantra was to offer high quality, locally sourced ingredients on its menu. Waters and her team developed a network of local farmers and artisans from which to acquire those ingredients for the restaurant.


At the center of Waters' value set was a complete rejection of large scale, commercialized food production. She had come to realize, at least partially while studying in France, that freshly prepared local ingredients were far richer in character and flavor than most of what she had known in the United States. It was that concept she brought to Chez Panisse and her future efforts promoting organic food production.

The outlines of the movement Waters was instrumental in starting were embraced on the west coast. Seattle and Portland eventually became bastions of a culinary renaissance, which has spread widely in more recent times. As noted above, the movement includes food, wine, coffee and, yes, beer. Homebrewing, from which many early commercial craft brewers came, was an offshoot of what Waters and others started.

When you think back to the people who launched the craft beer movement, most had two guiding principles: First, they rejected the tasteless, mass produced swill that was being sloughed off on consumers by big beer; second, they intended to use quality ingredients and artisan techniques to create beers with flavor and character. Those basic values have been carried forward.

So it's amusing to hear the High End brewers yabber on about quality and how they're doing exactly the same thing independent craft brewers are doing. Not so. They're now part of an organization whose values are completely at odds with those of independent brewers. Big beer bought these breweries to leverage the brands, not because they believe in the underlying values.

Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and independent craft brewers have it right. Big beer and the High End have it oh-so wrong. Don't listen to the crybabies.