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Monday, September 17, 2018

Lompoc Tavern Closure a Sign of the Times

The news that Lompoc Tavern will soon close arrived Friday afternoon. I wasn't surprised. It has become increasingly difficult in recent years for established pubs and breweries to compete with a sea of newcomers that tend to have greater appeal among young drinkers.

In the press release announcing the closure, owner Jerry Fechter talked about the challenge of operating pubs in various parts of the city and said it's time to sharpen the organization's focus on the pubs they have left...Fifth Quadrant, Oaks Bottom and Side Bar.

"We're embracing this as an opportunity to invest more time and attention on the remaining pubs and brewery, and making them the best they can be.”

This is the second Lompoc pub to close within the last year. The Hedge House on Southeast Division closed late last year and is now home to Little Beast. Lompoc had been a major player in the Portland market for many years, but its status is apparently waning.

Recall that Lompoc Tavern is the descendent of the original Old Lompoc Tavern, founded in 1993. Fechter, who moved to Oregon from Ohio in 1989, got hooked on craft beer and homebrewing in the early 1990s. He wanted a brewing job, but couldn't find one.

"McMenamins wouldn’t hire me," he told me in 2013. "I never got hired."

He wound up working at Old Lompoc Tavern and they got interested in brewing in-house. He started brewing there in late 1996, marked as the beginning of Lompoc. The initial results were sketchy.

"The first batch of beer was called Erstfest," Fechter remembered. "It wasn't good, but that's how I got started."

Several years later, Fechter negotiated with the owners to buy the place. They worked out a deal that included all the appropriate numbers. At the point where everyone was supposed to sign, the owners backed out, saying they wanted more money. Fechter would need a partner.

"That’s how I got partnered with Don Younger," he said. "Don and I met and chatted over several months on barstools in various places and eventually combined to buy the place. We renamed it New Old Lompoc."

I never met Don Younger, who was a partner is several of the Lompoc ventures. He passed away in 2011, as I was starting to cover Portland's beer scene. But conversations with Fechter suggest to me that the partnership worked fairly well. Don was the wacky elder statesmen who knew the business; Jerry was the eager apprentice who took it all in, though they weren't always in sync.

"I didn’t know how influential Don was until I started talking to him," Fechter told me. "He knew everyone and had been involved in craft beer from the start. Don was a character, always coming up with creative and crazy ideas." Fechter has an archive of stories.

After Younger passed away, New Old Lompoc came under Fechter's control. But things were changing dramatically in the area. The building owner soon decided to demolish it and build something that's a better fit for the trendy Northwest neighborhood.

When it reopened in 2013, the Lompoc Tavern had been reconfigured to fit a smaller space. The antiquated little brewery was gone, which helps explain the name change. Changes in the industry were also putting pressure on Lompoc.

Portland's brewery count started spiraling dramatically upward around 2009. By the time Lompoc Tavern opened, the city had more than twice as many breweries as it featured only a few years earlier. Competition in the beer and pub business was stiffening.

The press release says the crowd that supported New Old Lompoc found other places to go during construction and never returned when Lompoc Tavern opened. It also suggests business declined because a number of jobs moved out of the neighborhood.

My own version is that a lot of options started popping up in the area. Breakside Slabtown, just a short walk from Lompoc Tavern, undoubtedly sucked business away after it opened in 2017. Other new places harmonize better with what the millennial crowd is looking for.

Lompoc Tavern's final day will be Wednesday, Sept. 26. The lease is being taken over by Tap & Table, which currently has a location on Southeast Ankeny St. There will almost certainly be a gathering of regulars and friends on that last day. Note to self.

There are those who will shrug at the demise of Lompoc Tavern. For them, it's a relic of a bygone era. That's one way to look at it. Another view is that a slice of Portland's craft brewing history is being displaced. There's an instructive tale here for established pubs and breweries.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thwarted in Portland, Ferment Opens in Hood River

Two years after plans to open in Portland fell by the wayside, Dan and Jennifer Peterson opened Ferment Brewing on Hood River's busy waterfront. The brewery and pub, which is just a hop and a skip from pFriem Brewing, opened in early August.

The Petersons originally planned to open their brewery in Portland’s Yard (Death Star) Building, near the east end of the Burnside Bridge. But those plans failed to materialize and they moved onward (and upward) to Hood River.

You suspect they're fine with the location. Dan Peterson was formerly head brewer at pFriem (2013-2015) and Full Sail (2010-2013). A microbiologist by education, he started his career at Brooklyn Brewing in New York, where he worked from 2003 to 2010.

“The concept here is a little different than pFriem,” he said. “I like traditional beers brewed with ingredients from the places where they originated. Whether it’s English, German, Czech or whatever, we strive to use ingredients native to those areas.”

Ferment's 20-bbl brewhouse was fabricated by Specific Mechanical Systems of British Columbia. They initially had two 20-bbl fermenters, and have added two more of the same size within the last week. The brewery is simple, old school.

“There isn’t a lot of automation here,” Peterson said. “I like simple controls and a hands-on feel in the brewery. To me, a big part of craft brewing is someone mindfully taking part in the brewing process. That was the concept with this setup.”

Peterson also believes in low ABV beers. All of Ferment’s Signature Series beers clock in at 6% ABV or less. The Premium series of bottle-conditioned and barrel-aged beers will include an expanding selection of higher ABV product as the brewery gets up to production speed.

During the time when they were hoping to open in Portland, Ferment was brewing at Zoiglhaus and Pints. That arrangement continued as they located the space in Hood River and began the construction process. That allowed them to work on recipe development and have a full set of beers available when they opened.

The Signature Series beers include: Czech Lager (5%), ESB (5.4%), India Pale Ale (5.8%), Dry Stout (4.5%), Biere De Garde Ale (5.8%) and White River Saison (5%). My favorites from the list were the Czech Lager and the ESB. But tastes will differ.

The building itself provides a unique presentation. The restaurant and taproom area is bathed in natural light and features a community-centric atmosphere with picnic-style tables and benches. Patrons can look down on the brewery below while sipping on a beer or enjoying a meal. Or they can see what's going on out on the Columbia or in Waterfront Park.

“It was a fun challenge to make a brewery work in this space,” Jennifer Peterson said. “We have a lot of windows all around and garage doors on the main floor. We made it all work by situating the brewery in the middle. Views of the brewery and surroundings were a definite consideration.”

An outdoor patio just west of the taproom is shared community space between the tenants in the building. It also features splendid views and Ferment is hoping the space will be available to beer sipping patrons. However, they had not acquired the necessary permit in early September.

The Peterson’s have modest goals when it comes to growth and distribution of their product, believing they’re better off selling their beer to patrons in Hood River than exporting a lot of volume in packaged form to a hyper-competitive marketplace. It doesn't make business sense.

“Once we're fully up and running, we’ll push a limited supply of beer out into distribution,” Dan said. “We’ll use 500 ml bottles for our packaged product. I’m not interested in chasing trends. I like the feel of glass. No liner to worry about. Beer poured from bottle to glass is elegant.”

Ferment’s food menu, like the tap list, features eclectic options and isn’t limited to a particular style or ethnicity. Locally-sourced produce and meats are the backbone. Jennifer Peterson, former part-owner of the now defunct Pine Street Kitchen in Hood River, was instrumental in developing the approach to food.

"We wanted to create a menu that would pair with a wide variety of beers,” she said. “The approach to food needed to mirror the approach to beer and I think we’ve done that. It is, of course, a work in progress that will evolve and roll with the seasons moving forward.”

One of Ferment’s pet projects is kombucha. While they were refining beer recipes and waiting for a space to materialize, they played around with kombucha. The result was several tea-based recipes that lean on simple, natural ingredients. Three brands are available on draft and in packaged form.

“We kind of fell in love with it,” Jennifer said. “We eventually decided to incorporate it since it falls into the ‘fermented’ category. It has great health benefits and tastes pretty good, too.”

For more information, visit Ferment’s website.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Promoting the Making of Flawed Craft Beer

It is certainly a truism that not all craft beer is good. There may be no better way to evaluate that statement than to have a bottleshare where people show up with random bottles, cans and even growlers. That was my Saturday. So much suspect beer.

That point was nicely made in a recent article by John Holl in the LA Times. In the article, Holl describes some of the negative experiences he's had with craft beer. Like the can of hazy IPA that exploded in his living room. Also skunky aromas, popcorn smell, etc.

Holl notes that he is often labeled a whiner when he brings up shortcomings in craft beer. That's part of the cultural worship surrounding the rising popularity of craft beer. Hardcore fans and geeks sometimes have a hard time admitting bad things happen in their pet industry.

Of course, a lot of us tend to look past the quality issue. Craft brewers make beer in hundreds of styles and (theoretically) thousands of flavor profiles. That fact has conned craft fans into thinking flavor equals quality. That isn't necessarily the case.

The big brewers are partly responsible for those attitudes. Budweiser, Miller and others reduced beer down to almost nothing in terms of flavor. Along the way, they became sticklers about quality, developing sophisticated systems to ensure that their beer is consistently tasteless wherever it is made. They had to...off flavors are easily detectable in the swill they make.

I'm not a fan of big beer or it's tasteless product. But I'm also not a fan of some of the garbage I tasted at my party on Saturday. We sampled beers that were corked, oxidized, under and over carbonated. We tried beers with floaters, beers that were too thin for their style or way too sweet. Ye gods.

You start asking yourself how there can be so much shitty beer. I'm quite sure some of the beers in question were old or, at least, not as fresh as you might like. You don't how it was stored or transported. Fine. But that still leaves a more than ample of amount of bad beer.

My question is simple: Now that craft beer has attained celebrity status, where can average fans find out what's good and what sucks? The collapse of print media has left a coverage void. Blogs might have filled it for a time, but blogs are losing steam. Where's the objective coverage?

There are obviously sources like Untappd and others that provide ratings based on aggregate input from many reviewers. The problem is, most average consumers don't use those apps or sites. Where's the informative mainstream coverage?

The answer is there isn't much of it. Instead, an escalating amount of craft beer promotion is happening on social media. Attractive, often scantily clad young female promoters are an emerging theme, particularly on Instagram. There's rarely any objective context involved, but this is one of the big new ways consumers learn out about beers and beer events.

I admit complicity. I sometimes post photos of beers that turn out to be flawed. Fortunately, my social media following and influence is small. Those with thousands of followers have a lot of impact with similar posts. Keep in mind that many of these folks are either paid industry shills or want to be.

When I think of all the flawed and borderline craft beer out there, I can't help but wonder if social media promotion, which tends to give brewers a pass, isn't partially responsible. Its promotional power is a boon for breweries, but it does nothing to push consistency and quality.

How does this get fixed? I have no idea.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Craft Beer's Revolving Door

For quite some time, I've been perplexed about a theme I've seen playing out in my local pub. When I first started showing up 10 or so years ago, I saw the same faces for years at a time. There was very little turnover in the bar or the attached bottleshop.

That scenario has flipped in recent times. Faces come and go with increased frequency. Why have things changed so dramatically? Why have we gone from a situation where people stuck around for years to one in which they often come and go in a year or less?

The answer, of course, is opportunity. Craft beer was a modest growth industry until about 10 years ago. Nationwide, we had 1,521 craft breweries and brewpubs in 2008. By late 2017, that number had ballooned to 6,266. And that's not counting the many craft beer-focused taprooms and bars.

The consequence of the exponential growth is a corresponding increase in opportunity. These businesses don't run themselves. Many of the best opportunities are skilled positions in breweries, equipment manufacturing, etc. But the list extends to all corners of the industry.

That essentially means there's a lot of horizontal and upward mobility in craft beer. We regularly see brewers jumping from place to place...or starting their own gig. We see keg washers moving on to become assistant brewers and, sometimes, head brewers. Wild times.

In the case of my local, most of the folks who come and go stay within the craft beer space. Some have gone on to work for distributors or become brand reps or even assistant brewers. They use their acquired knowledge and experience to leverage a better role.

There's great incentive to move on if you work in retail. It isn't like being a bartender, where tips can make up for a crappy hourly wage. That's not the case with the folks who work in bottleships or craft-centric retail stores. The hourly wage in those place is low.

How low? Starting pay at my bottleshop is $12/hour. Not close to a living wage. Keep in mind that doing the job well requires significant beer knowledge and expertise. Customers constantly ask for advice and bottleshop folks need to be able to make informed suggestions.

What these folks soon find out is that their knowledge is worth more somewhere else. Prior to the craft explosion, there wasn't much opportunity in craft beer. People were stuck. Today, folks who work in retail can and do make the jump to better situations. Thus, the revolving door.

On a related note, Jeff Alworth is currently researching a piece that will explore brewer pay. Brewers are some of the best-paid people in craft beer, but I won't be surprised to learn that, as a group, they are underpaid in relation to their value. That's why so many open their own breweries.

Look for Jeff's piece in the next week or so. Should be solid stuff.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Craft Beer's Illinois Problem

In its infancy, craft beer was a virtual blip. A nothing. Without passage of the Brewpub Bill in 1985, Oregon's craft beer industry would have certainly remained small and insignificant. It simply could not have flourished in a scenario where breweries could not sell directly to customers.

One of the reasons the Brewpub Bill passed is that beer distributors and retailers, who weren't interested in craft beer at the time, decided to not oppose it. They figured it wouldn't hurt to let these cowboys chase their dreams and that craft beer might someday make them money. Little did they know.

The ability to sell directly to customers was crucial to the industry establishing a strong identity here. It led to the emergence of taprooms and pubs where a brewery's beer could be featured. That formula, more or less, has been used to boost the fortunes of craft beer across the country.

Fast forward to last week, when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill allowing licensed breweries producing up to 120,000 barrels of beer annually to purchase beer or cider from wholesalers or other breweries to sell in their taprooms. Great news, right?

The signing drew quick criticism from several restaurant and bar owners in Chicago. They view the law as a blurring of the lines between taprooms and bars. The effect of the law, they say, is that the only difference between taprooms and bars will be a bar's ability to sell wine and liquor. They aren't pleased.

“Taprooms are going from a place to grab a pint after a tour to enticing a customer to spend the whole evening there,” one owner told Brewbound. “To me, that’s why we have brewpub licenses. If you want to be a full service, one-stop shop to the consumer, then you should be subject to the same laws and zoning rules as the rest of us.”

Owners essentially object to the different zoning rules that breweries, which are considered manufacturing outlets, are subject to. As well, beer brewed on site carries a much higher profit margin than anything bars and restaurants sell. Remember, bars and restaurants buy almost everything they sell through distributors at a much higher price point. It's the law.

“We don’t think it’s cool that breweries with taprooms act as bars,” an owner told Brewbound.

From the craft beer side, I've seen several condescending comments in various places. The consensus seems to be that adding guest beers and ciders to taproom lists is fine and something that needs to happen due to the overwhelming popularity and girth of craft beer.

Part of the argument is that brewpubs and taprooms typically want to sell their own beer first and guest beer or cider second. True enough. One brewery owner told Brewbound that the new law was necessary so he could bring in and sell collaboration beers brewed at other breweries.

That's all well and good. But it seems to me that the bar owners have a legitimate beef. We seem to have lost sight of why taprooms and brewpubs were set up in the first place, which was to allow brewers to display and sell their own products directly to consumers.

If the original taproom/brewpub concept had included the right to sell a variety of beers to consumers like a bar or tavern does, the restaurant and bar industry may well have opposed changes in the law and derailed legislation everywhere. That didn't happen.

Now that craft beer has attained star status, it has the power to push for changes that may put other businesses at a disadvantage. The situation in Illinois is one example of that. It's really not okay. No one likes a bully, especially one that ought to know better.

Friday, August 17, 2018

De Garde and Oregon's Coolship Fetish

It's not much of a secret that increased competition has brewers looking for ways to produce unique beers that distinguish and differentiate their portfolios. One result of that reality is a growing interest in spontaneous fermentation and coolships.

Trevor Rogers and his coolships
Breweries currently immersed in spontaneous fermentation include
Allegory, de Garde, Logsdon. Block 15, Ale Apothecary, Flat Tail, McMenamin’s Edgefield and Wolf Tree. The list of those planning to install coolships soon include pFriem, Von Ebert East and Little Beast.

“The concept of spontaneous fermentation is exciting for brewers because it brings ‘local’ into the brewery on a whole new level,” local writer and author Jeff Alworth told me. "There's something incredibly seductive about the local-ness of spontaneous fermentation."

That's because microflora can vary widely from place to place, even in a small area. Jeff related a story in which buckets of cooling wort were left out overnight in Forest Park., all within reasonably close proximity. The buckets were then pitched into larger batches and left to ferment.

“The amazing thing is they all tasted different,” he said. “Even a couple hundred feet is enough to get a different mix of microbes. It’s crazy. I think yeast is on the frontier of experimentation, and spontaneous fermentation is basically yeast-foraging. It has a lot of appeal.”

Part of that appeal may be the risky nature of the approach. Spontaneous fermentation can be done almost anywhere, but the results can be wildly unpredictable. Some places have characters floating around in the air that aren’t conducive to producing good beer. Success is a roll of the dice.

The entire concept caused my friend and occasional co-conspirator to pitch the idea of exploring what's happening with coolships. An article to be published in the September issue of the Oregon Beer Growler details our findings.

What we found, generally, is that approaches vary. You might think breweries using coolships have done meticulous research on what's floating around in the air where they live. You might think there's some standard in terms of what a coolship looks like or the material it's made of. Not exactly so. Read the OBG story for more on all that.

My own corner of the story involves de Garde. I wrote about them for BeerAdvocate in 2015. Their operation was small, but growing rapidly at the time. They moved from their original location (on Blimp Blvd.) to a space in downtown Tillamook in late 2017. Time to revisit.

How de Garde wound up in Tillamook is a story that's been documented many times in many places. Co-founder and brewer Trevor Rogers collected and evaluated wild yeast cultures from several areas on the Oregon coast before making a decision.                          .

“I liked the yeast and bacterial combinations in several areas,” Rogers says. “One place I liked had a lower concentration of bugs in the air, which produced sluggish fermentation and occasional bad batches. I eventually decided the microflora around Tillamook was ideal.”

Anyway, I drove down there last week to take a look at the new space. It's quite impressive, with a vast tasting room and a compact brewery behind and above it. There's significantly less brewing and barrel storage space here than at the old place, but improved efficiencies mean they produce just as much beer. They have two operational coolships of more or less standard shape and depth.

Rogers had wanted a larger coolship to take full advantage of the new brewing space. But it wound up being cheaper and easier to simply build a second coolship that's essentially identical to the original one. They sit side-by-side in the brewery.

Beer nerds will recall that the original de Garde brewery had a garage door that opened to expose cooling wort to outside air. It worked fine most of the time, but Rogers felt they needed to improve the consistency of microbe flow.

"We found outside wind patterns had a big effect on what was coming in," he said. "Sometimes we got a lot of bugs, sometimes not. The new space was designed to fix that. It has a high capacity fan with air ducting that allows a regular flow of outside air into the coolship area."

The result is they don’t have days where there’s a high or low flow of bugs. It's more even now. Rogers knows a lot inoculants come from inside the brewery, the reason a lot of old wood was kept when the building was renovated. But he believes it's important to replenish the inside area.

I don't know that de Garde's approach is the best one out there. They've built a solid niche in the spontaneous fermentation space and they sell a ton of beer directly to patrons from their tasting room. Others want a piece of that action and either are or soon will be navigating that space.

"I think it’s great that people are experimenting," Rogers said. "We don’t yet know the full potential of our area. We targeted the coast, but that’s not to say that great beer can’t be made in other areas. A lot of exploration remains to be done."

The coolship fetish is a real thing. And catching.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The King of Crap

Anheuser-Busch isn't a craft beer company. It's famous mostly for brewing up swill that's barely fit for consumption and conjuring up brands that have shelf lives of roughly a nanosecond. Ironically, now comes news that AB is on the verge of becoming the king of craft beer.

That news was reported most prominently by Josh Noel in the Chicago Tribune. Noel, you may recall, is the author of "Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out," released earlier this summer. The book explores the transformation of Goose Island Brewing to Gooseweiser. It's great reading and recommended.

The heart of the king of craft story is that industry newsletter Beer Marketer’s Insights just reported that AB surpassed Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada in 2018 to become the nation’s top craft beer company in dollar sales. It's a fairly shocking development because AB had no presence in the craft beer space as recently as 10 years ago. Now this.

There's a catch, though. AB's standing is based on IRI data, which tracks sales in grocery, big box, drug and convenience stores. If you factor in draft and liquor store sales, Boston Beer is still ahead of Anheuser-Busch in volume and dollar sales. But the changing of the guard is inevitable and will happen in the next year or so, evidently.

Anheuser-Busch obviously didn't put itself in the position it's in via organic growth. These dunces made countless attempts to enter the craft space over the years and the best they could come up with was the dreadful Shock Top. Culturally, AB's mantra has always been to brew tepid sludge and shove it down consumer throats by way of its massive distribution network and hard core advertising.

Instead of continuing to pursue a failed strategy, AB changed course and started buying up craft breweries, the first of which was Goose Island in 2011. Today, they have 10 former craft breweries more or less scattered around the country, including Wicked Weed, 10 Barrel, Devil's Backbone, Elysian, Golden Road, Four Peaks, Breckenridge, Karbach and Blue Point.

As documented in Noel's book, the acquisition of Goose Island did not get off to a promising start. Anheuser-Busch had been absorbed by InBev prior to the buyout and the Brazilians running the show had no idea how to manage a craft brewery. They bungled marketing efforts, bullied employees and made a mess of things.

But Goose Island provided a nice learning platform. As Anheuser-Busch bought more craft breweries, its experience at Goose was significant. Lo and behold, it turned out the Brazilians were pretty good learners. They've modified and refined their approach with the acquired brands. To a significant extent, they actually know what they're doing now.

Many were skeptical of what would happen with the acquisitions. But the strategy has been a huge success. The acquired brands continue to act like local and regional players close to home, while some of their most marketable brands are brewed in giant factory breweries and peddled via the AB network in remote markets, helping make up for disastrous declines of Bud and Bud Light.

One of the reasons the strategy has been such a big success is a lack of transparency on the part of Anheuser-Busch and a lack of knowledge on the part of consumers. People who buy their beer in grocery and convenience stores typically don't have as much brand knowledge as folks who frequent beer bars and related craft beer outlets. AB does nothing to help with honest labeling.
Hoping to make it easier for consumers to identify independent beer, the Brewers Association, a trade group representing independent brewers, last summer unveiled a logo that signifies independent status. Adopted by more than 3,600 breweries, the logo isn't available to the Baby Buds or breweries that have been acquired by Constellation, MillerCoors or Heineken.

There are differing opinions on the threat posed by AB's impending dominance of the craft segment. Some highly knowledgeable people in and around the industry have no problem with the Anheuser-Busch game plan, which includes brewing some of the former craft beers in giant factory breweries and using mafia-like distribution tactics to bully retailers and independent brewers.

Needless to say, I do have a problem with AB's strategy. Don't get caught up in the local strategy, in which a brewery, such as Portland's 10 Barrel, makes great beer. That's a diversion. The larger plan is to attain a position of dominance nationally with factory-made beer and strong-armed distribution tactics. Once that's accomplished, the former craft beers will be dumbed down further.

The fact is, the people at AB have never given a shit about good beer. They care only about money. And they'd like to get back to collecting that money with the tasteless swill they're so famous for. Anheuser-Busch truly is the King of Crap, not craft.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

After the Thrill is Gone: OBF 2018

Once upon a time, the Oregon Brewers Festival got top billing on my annual calendar. I tracked the dates carefully and would enter them way in advance to make sure nothing got in the way. My first OBF was in 1991 and I've missed only one since, in 1992.

The excitement has admittedly worn off a bit in recent years, for me and others. I think there are a number of reasons for that, and I'll get to some of them here. Anyway, I attended this year's event Thursday afternoon, with a somewhat ambivalent attitude.

I arrived fashionably late. There was no wingperson to meet or group to hang out with this year. So no rush. Arriving a little late allowed me to miss the hullabaloo that accompanies the parade and awkward opening ceremonies, both of which I've experienced more often than I care to think about.

Between the lines
Getting into the park was quick and easy. One of the advantages of declining attendance is the long lines of past years are largely gone. It may also be that organizers have streamlined the entry process. Security staff check your ID and give you a wristband. Done.

The switch to a four-day event left me wondering what kind of crowd to expect. It was fairly light, even by late afternoon, when it would have been wildly crowded in past years. A few of the most popular beers had lines, but there was no line or only a short line for many.

One of the things I always look for is a long beer line caused by ineffective trailer management. You know how it works. You see one person serving a long line while nearby pourers stand idly next to swill that isn't moving. Mesmerizing. I saw it in action on Thursday for one of the popular beers. Thankfully, there were two people pouring by the time I reached the front of the line.

I didn't hear any complaining, but I'm sure some people bemoaned the absent Specialty Tent, a fixture for a number of years under different names. True to what Art Larrance told me two weeks ago, the area that would have been occupied by the Specialty Tent was filled with tables. It's a nicely shaded area where people can enjoy beer and conversation. Good call.

Heat was certainly an issue. As is generally the case, it was less comfortable under the tents than in areas shaded by trees. Watching the fest pass by at one point on the south side, I couldn't help but notice a dust plume hovering over the lingering crowd. There's not much grass in the park this year, which means the festival is built on dry sand. That isn't unusual, but it's not the best.

One thing I don't understand is how this event gets away with not making water readily available. Sure, there are mug rinsing stations scattered around. That water is drinkable, I guess. You can bring water in, which I did. Otherwise, you're stuck buying bottled water at $2 a pop (that's the price I saw). It seems to me they ought to do a better job with water.

The App
As mentioned in my preview piece, there was no printed program this year. Knowing that, I installed the OBF app on my phone several days ahead of the event. I played around with it a bit to make sure I vaguely knew how it worked. Check.

Once on festival grounds, I opened the app. I had marked a list of beers I intended to try. When I selected a beer, I found information about it and could see which trailer it was on. After I tasted the beer, I could make some notes in the app. Another benefit was alerts on beers that were tapped out and special activities.

I saw some grumbling about the app on social media and within the app. It isn't perfect. But it provided exactly what I hoped: info about the beers, their location and a way to easily enter notes without a program and pen. No, my phone battery (not a new phone) didn't go dead. This was a first-gen app that will surely get better. Good first stab, I think.

The Beers
During the run-up to the event, one of the organizers said they were showcasing "the beers of the world," or some such gibberish. Stylistically, maybe, because a lot of styles are represented. But these are almost exclusively local or Northwest interpretations. More than 60 of the 80 beers poured this year came from Oregon and Washington. Check the list.

With so many beers pouring, there were certainly some good ones to go with the fluff. My favorite may have been Old Town's Green Tea Lemonade, which incorporates a blend of green tea and lemon. It was a perfect fit for the hot day, though I have to say beers blended with tea are typically not my cup of tea (hehe).

Upright's Berliner Weisse was brilliant, naturally. I also liked pFriem's Mango Milkshake IPA, a hazy hop bomb, and Fort George's It Takes Two to Mango, another hazy hop bomb reminiscent of the current 3-Way IPA. There were lines for these and other hazies on Thursday. The pFriem blew Thursday through Sunday, a clear crowd favorite, apparently.

Listing beers that didn't impress is always a tricky. Everyone has an opinion. One of the beers a lot of people liked was Belching Beaver's Orange Vanilla Milkshake IPA. I thought it was sweet, cloying and tasted of a popsicle stick. Easily the worst beer I tasted was Widmer's Lemonic Possession. It had an unpleasant aroma and the flavor was no better. Something went very wrong, clearly.

What Now?
We obviously don't yet know what total OBF attendance will be this year. Those numbers will be announced in coming weeks. Based on what I saw Thursday, what I've heard from friends and what the heat did to weekend numbers, I won't be surprised to learn that overall attendance declined again this year. They were hoping for 70,000. Did they get 60,000?

During the 28 years I've been attending the Oregon Brewers Festival, it never occurred to me that the event might at some point become obsolete. This is, after all, an event that helped push the evolution of craft beer in Oregon and provided a loose template for the countless festivals that currently crowd the annual calendar.

But the landscape has changed dramatically. The OBF approach, which appealed to older fans who don't get out as much as they once did, doesn't seem to resonate with the younger crowd that currently drives the craft beer culture in this city. As I've said here before, one might easily argue that the Oregon Brewers Festival is a victim of its own success.

The OBF's open-ended mission has always been to promote craft beer in Portland and Oregon. That mission has been largely accomplished. Finding great craft beer in this city and state is easier than ever. In fact, there's so much good beer around that giant events like OBF have become less important to those who seek those beers and experiences.

Is there a viable path forward? My guess is this event needs to be significantly reimagined. It may need to get smaller, become more intimate and specialized, the opposite of the Oktoberfest-style event it has always been. Current organizers have been making relatively small changes in an effort to stay relevant. I fear they will have to do much more. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Whistle Punked in Spokane

Compared to the Portland beer scene, which is spinning wildly out of control with breweries and pubs opening seemingly every week, the scene in Spokane is relatively calm. Nonetheless, there's a quality craft beer culture on the rise there.

Craig Hanson
Last week's trip to the Inland Empire to visit family included several brewery stops. Each of them was impressive in it's own way, but the one that continues to stand out in my mind is Whistle Punk, located in a unique basement space in downtown Spokane. 

Co-owner Craig Hanson, who doubles as the longtime wrestling coach at East Valley High School, was behind the bar and happily chatted me and others up on the Whistle Punk story. As always seems to be the case, there were some interesting twists and turns involved in getting the place up and running.

"I got involved in brewing when I was a college student in the eighties," Hanson recalled. "It was a cheap way to make beer. Later on, my son [co-owner] Matt got interested. Pretty soon, friends started asking us to supply beer for weddings and other special occasions. We obliged."

They were selling so much beer by 2013 that they figured they ought to get a license. At that point, the original name, Hanson Brothers Brewing, resulted in a trademark dispute with the Hanson Brothers singers. Rather than fight it, the brewing Hansons took the path of least resistance and changed their name to Whistle Punk, an old logging term that refers to the guy who blew the whistle on a steam donkey (look it up).

"The name and branding have been well-received," Matt Hanson said. "We get guys here who've been in the logging industry and they know what a whistle punk is. They like it. And it seems to have wide appeal with a lot of our patrons."

With the name in hand, the Hansons began selling kegs to a few key outlets in 2015. The objective was to collect feedback on the beers and build some name recognition. Mission accomplished. But they knew selling beer out of their own space was the future. That's become the Holy Grail of craft brewers in recent times.

In May 2017, they landed in a charming downtown space which formerly housed the Brooklyn Nights lounge. It's a sunken space bathed in brick and rock walls. As with many pubs and breweries, exposed wooden beams complete the visual picture. Tables and chairs of various heights provide apparently ample seating. Nice digs.

No beer is produced  here. The Hansons brew on a tiny 2-bbl system located in nearby Newman Lake, then transfer the beer to the tasting room. Fresh, small batch beers rotate through on a regular basis. Although they will soon upgrade to a 7-bbl system, their goals aren't changing.

"We really like being taproom-focused," Matt Hanson said. "Moving to a larger system will allow us to do a little outside distribution and participate in some festivals, which is tough now. But we'll continue to make a great product and sell most of it in our taproom. That's our profit center."

As for the beers, everything in my flight was solid. Coast to Coast IPA is a juicy hazy with a bit of bitterness. Good stuff. Another one I liked was the Espresso Milk Stout, which is aged on bourbon-soaked vanilla beans and blended with cold brew. This beer is 7.1% ABV, but drinks a lot softer and lighter than that, thanks to the lactose. There's also Spruce Tip Pilsner, a terrific beer.

The beer scene in Spokane remains well-behind what's happening in Portland and Seattle. That, I believe, is because Millennials have flocked to the larger cities and are driving the craziness there. But Spokane is on the upswing, catching up nicely, doing things right.

Whistle Punk visitors can check the current tap list on their website. It's constantly changing and they update it regularly. I advise verifying their open hours the same way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

OBF Rolls With the Changes in 2018

Thirty years after it helped launch a revolution, the Oregon Brewers Festival returns to Portland's Waterfront Park next week, opening on Thursday, July 26th. This will be the 31st rendition and organizers are rolling with the punches of an increasingly competitive market.

It's not really a secret that OBF has navigated shark-infested waters of late. With so many competing events jamming the calendar, beer fans have a lot of choices. OBF attendance has suffered a bit in that scenario. As a result, the event will shift from five to four days this year.

"Attendance peaked a few years ago," OBF director, Art Larrance, told me. "So we're going back to four days, which makes economic sense. We expect about 70,000 visitors this year, which is about what we had over five days last year. We'll see how it goes."

One of the perplexing anomalies facing the event is local indifference. Yup. Stats collected last year indicate out-of-towners accounted for nearly half of OBF attendance. That's been an emerging trend in recent years, I think. It may be that out-of-towners see the festival as a destination, while locals see it as one of many competing events.

"We'd certainly like to see better in-town attendance," Larrance said. "But we obviously know there are a number of beer-related events to choose from. There's nothing we can do about that. We just need to do the best we can at competing for the folks who do enjoy these festivals."

To quench the thirst of beer fans this year, they'll feature 80 beers from independent breweries in 10 states, The Netherlands and Mexico. As was the case last year, the Baby Buds (10-Weiser, Gooseweiser, etc) are banned. Don't feel sorry for them...they'll be fine.

The press materials say more than two dozen beer styles will be represented. Right, but a little checking reveals that 24 of the 80 beers (30 percent) will be IPAs. That's not surprising given the ongoing, mainstream demand for those beers. Also, 55 of the 80 (68 percent) are from Oregon and 23 (29 percent) are from Portland. Washington is the closest state representative with 8 entries.

This year's festival theme is, "With Beer Brings Friendship.” The "friends" this year are five breweries from Baja, California, whose beers will be pouring. This represents the rebirth of the practice of bringing in foreign brewers, launched by Larrance several years ago and abandoned last year due to logistical and cost concerns.

"We tasted these beers and met three of the five brewers at a festival in San Diego last October," Larrance said. "These are great beers and I think people will be pleasantly surprised. The guys are really excited to present their beers here."

For the first time ever, they'll be offering wines (four) and ciders (two) at the event. They've had requests for many years, Larrance acknowledged. The difference now, it seems, is organizers are actively courting folks who aren't necessarily beer fans. That's a smart business move, something you should do when attendance starts to lag.

Glass and mug styles have jumped around in recent years. This year, they're returning to the mug style they used in 2016. As always, a current year mug is required to drink. That'll cost you $7. Tokens are $1. You'll pay four tokens for a full mug (12 ounces), one token for a 3 oz taste of beer or cider. Wine will be five tokens for a 5 oz pour and tasters won't be available.

2016 mug
A twist for 2018 involves the program, which they've been printing and handing out for years. (I have a morgue at home to prove it.) Not this year. Patrons will be able to pick up a sheet that lists the beers and which trailers they're on. But the printed program is being discontinued and effectively replaced by a mobile app, which can be downloaded via the App Store or Google Play.

"We think a lot of people will like the app," said Larrance. "Regardless, we've been dumping thousands of printed programs every year for the last few years...it just didn't make sense. We hope the printed list will satisfy those who don't want to bother with the app, and there's a sortable, printable list posted on the OBF website for hardcore fans."

Last year's Specialty Tent, which replaced the International Tent, which had replaced the Buzz Tent, is going away this year. The area that tent occupied is shaded and ideal for chill seating. Given the issues they're having with attendance, it apparently seemed wise to fill that area up with tables and chairs for patron seating.

Organizers are advising festival attendees to walk, bike or take public transit to the event. That's sound advice considering possible bridge closures, parking issues and impaired driving concerns. Regardless of how you get to the park, the Safe Ride Home program is once again in play. It offers reduced-cost rides with the goal of getting people home safely.

Go to the OBF website for information on event hours, Safe Ride Home, what you can and can't bring into the park and a whole lot more. This event may have lost a bit of momentum in recent years, but it remains the granddaddy of beer festivals in Oregon.

See you Thursday.

Monday, July 9, 2018

For Better or Worse: Craft Beer's McDonald's

Ray Kroc made his first visit to McDonald's in 1954. He was a milkshake mixer salesman at the time and brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald had purchased eight mixers for their San Bernardino restaurant.

Kroc was impressed with what he saw. Having visited a lot of restaurant kitchens in the years following World War II, he came to believe the McDonald brothers had the most efficient operation he had seen. The place was professional, clean, somewhat automated. To Kroc, it looked like a concept that could be expanded nationally.

There was no such thing as fast food at the time. Kroc surmised that most roadside hamburger joints were grubby havens that mostly featured inconsistent food, pay phones, jukeboxes and smoking rooms. His vision was of a chain that would appeal to the emerging suburban culture with a consistent menu, uniformed attendants and squeaky clean spaces.

Most of the rest of the story is well-known. Kroc opened the first franchised McDonald's in Illinois in 1955. He would go on to establish a fast-food empire that today spans the globe. In fact, it isn't a stretch to suggest that Kroc and McDonald's launched a worldwide fast food revolution...for better or for worse, depending on your point of view.

Watching craft beer gain a foothold national and internationally, I've occasionally wondered if there could be a craft beer version of McDonald's. Such a chain would feature consistent branding, similar building designs, common beers and food, etc. There are some pretty good reasons why this will probably never happen. Still, I wonder.

One thing we have seen and are continuing to see is craft beer chains (multiple locations) that function well locally and regionally. McMenamins is a good example here. The brothers started out in the Portland area and have expanded in Oregon and Washington. I'm not sure how far the quirky McMenamins brand can go. My guess is the regional I-5 corridor is its sweet spot.

Some brief, forgotten history. The founders of Portland Brewing (in 1986) envisioned a string of brewpubs up and down the I-5 corridor from Washington to California. It never happened, Art Larrance told me, because the company's board of directors wouldn't agree to it. Given the trajectory of Portland Brewing, that was fortuitous.

Of course, there are successful local craft beer chains beyond McMenamins. Hopworks, Laurelwood, Lompoc and Lucky Labrador have operated multiple locations for years. More recent entrants include Breakside, Migration, Von Ebert (soon) and Sasquatch. There are will be others.

It's difficult to see any of those entities being gobbled up by an investor capable of taking it national. The notable exception to that rule is 10 Barrel, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch and already has brewpubs outside Oregon (San Diego, Boise, Denver). The 10 Barrel concept was designed such that it could take up residence almost anywhere.

In fact, if there's anyone out there with the will and the means to establish a national brewpub chain, it's probably Anheuser-Busch. Of the acquired AB craft brands, 10 Barrel likely makes the most sense. Golden Road, also a generic brand without a plausible connection to place, is another possible candidate.

There's an interesting dichotomy at work here. While 10 Barrel and Golden Road have potential as national brands due to their lack of connection to place, Goose Island is thought to be a poor choice because of its strong connection to place (Chicago). And Kona, which will very likely end up the AB family of brands in the near future, is considered an excellent choice for a national pub brand because of its strong connection to place. Ironic, eh?

Anyway, the case against a national brewpub brand is strong and rests mainly on the fact that craft beer is hyper-local. Consumers around the county are seeking out unique beers made by local breweries, and there are plenty of local breweries out there. The idea of a national brewpub chain succeeding in that scenario seems sketchy, though you never know.

Maybe the closest thing we have to a national pub is exemplified by Buffalo Wild Wings, a craft beer taproom chain with pub-ish food. Buffalo Wild, established in 1982, currently has more than 1,200 locations in the U.S. They don't brew, but they do offer local beers alongside an expansive selection of national macro and craft brands.

For anyone wondering why the Brewers Association would make Buffalo Wild one of two major sponsors for this year's GABF, the answer is clear enough: Buffalo Wild is arguably the closest thing we have to a national craft beer pub chain. For better or for worse.