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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.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Little Beast Grows Up with Pub, Larger Production Space

It's fun to watch the trajectory of breweries. Just over a year ago, Little Beast Brewing had set up shop in Beaverton. Fast forward to this past May, when they opened a pub in southeast Portland. Now there's a larger production space in the works. Times flies.

As many who follow along here know, Little Beast commenced operations in early 2017 at the former Bannon's Brewing in Beaverton. It was a convenient turnkey arrangement, allowing them to get up and running without having to invest in a brewery or renovate a space.

But co-founders Chuck Porter and Brenda Crow knew the arrangement in Beaverton would be temporary. They wanted a tasting room in Portland. As the brand gained traction, they searched the city core for a viable space.

They eventually found and negotiated a lease for the former Lompoc Hedge House on Southeast Division, which closed in late 2017. The Hedge House is located in a bustling area, just as they wanted. Getting the space ready took longer than they planned before opening in May. 

The reception on Division has been positive, Crow says. Some walk in thinking it's still the Hedge House. They're surprised. But most of them stay. Porter and Crow actually hoped to find a space that had previously been a pub or bar with existing clientele. It's working out for them.

The pub, officially the Little Beast Barrel House and Beer Garden, is a cozy indoor space alongside a spacious beer garden patio that will be user-friendly throughout the year. The tap list features the mixed fermentation, barrel-aged beers Porter is known for through his work at Logsdon and, now, Little Beast. Really fantastic stuff.

Although most of his beers cater to a geek crowd, Porter won't make the mistake of assuming all patrons want his specialty stuff. He plans to offer standards like IPA to satisfy the wishes of the non-geek masses. Several of the 14 taps were occupied by mainstream guest beers on my visits.

Besides draft options, patrons can choose from a selection of Little Beast bottles, available to-go or consume on premise with no corkage fee. That's an amazing deal because these are some of the best beers you'll find anywhere. No corkage is a nice bonus.

Crow, who has an extensive culinary background, worked with chef Tyler Auton to develop a menu that includes a mix of cheeses, meats, dips, sandwiches and salads. Items are designed to pair well with the Belgian-influenced beers. It's a work in progress and will evolve with the seasons.

While the pub gains momentum, Porter is busy planning to shift beer production from Beaverton to the former Drinking Horse Brewing space in Clackamas. The move will increase brewing and barrel space from 1,300 to 5,700 square feet, a big deal when you're dealing with a lot of barrels.

The move won't happen overnight. Porter recently acquired a brewhouse, which will take time to install. Then there's the regulatory hurdles. For now, they continue to brew in Beaverton while staging materials in Clackamas, where Porter hopes to begin brewing in a few months.

A juicy, not-so-well known factoid is that Porter will install a Coolship in the new brewery. He installed the Coolship at Logsdon years ago and brewed the first batch on it, so he knows what he's doing. It'll be interesting to see what comes of that project.

For me, an interesting aspect of Little Beast is the approach Porter and Crow are taking to building the business. They're on a deliberate course and have no interest in chasing rapid growth or massive expansion. I hear this a lot in craft beer, but I have a feeling they mean what they say.

We’re a family company, Crow says. It’s just the two of us. We’re far more interested in making and selling quality products than we are in rapid growth. In fact, I don’t believe in grow, grow, grow. I think it’s important to grow thoughtfully and that’s our goal.

Despite that mission, the ground is shifting beneath them as a result of the pub. Previously, outside distribution was their profit center. Crow ran sales. Now that the pub is their profit center, the old rationale has flipped. Crow finds herself functioning as general manager of the pub.

They'll continue to self-distribute outside the pub, but the footprint won't expand beyond Oregon and western Washington. Even at that, Crow doesn't have the time to manage sales. They'll probably have to hire someone to assume the sales role in the near future. Growing pains.

For hours and more information, visit the Little Beast website.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

At Last, Deschutes Opens a Pub at PDX

Thirty years after opening its doors in Bend, Deschutes Brewing marked the grand opening of a pub at Portland International Airport with snacks, toasts and a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday.

The opening coincides with the 30th anniversary of the airport's Clocktower (located in the pre-security area). On Friday, there was a free beer tasting featuring some of the brews available at the airport. The tasting was part of a series of events planned this summer to honor the Clocktower.

Deschutes founder Gary Fish was on hand for the ribbon cutting. He spoke briefly to a small crowd of accidental tourists, media folks and officials connected to the brewery, the airport or the concessionaire company that operates essentially all of the businesses at PDX.

This is the second Deschutes location in Portland, following the opening of the brewpub in the Pearl District by 10 years. Fish highlighted the reasons why he and others at Deschutes Brewing have always regarded Portland as its most important market.

"Portland is the most important beer city in America," he said. "It has the largest craft beer market share of any city in the country, and it's our single largest, most important market. We focused on Portland almost from the beginning and the pubs here are a continuation of that effort."

The pub is a nice addition to the offerings at PDX. It's located in Concourse D in the space previously occupied by Rogue. In reimagining the look, they created a visually open and bright space. This is the kind of place travelers will appreciate. Success is likely to come pretty easy.

That was less the case back to 2008, when the Pearl District brewpub opened. It was a sketchy time. The Great Recession was in full force and the pub struggled initially. But it did well enough to survive and has flourished in a community that embraces the Deschutes brand.

To me, Deschutes is one of Oregon's most iconic brands, maybe the most iconic in beer terms. Most of the state's early craft breweries are no longer locally owned or they've jumped the track in other ways. Yet Deschutes stayed the course, always featuring quality beer, food and service. While remaining independent.

The story is nicely told in Jon Abernathy's fine book, Bend Beer: A History of Brewing in Central Oregon. In fact, Fish wound up in Bend more or less by accident. He wanted to open a brewery in Northern California. Competition and cost caused him to look elsewhere. His parents, fresh from a trip to Central Oregon, suggested he give the area a look. He liked what he saw.

You might think the rest is history, but there you'd be wrong. Despite the current size and reach of Deschutes Brewing, the operation in Bend was not a slam dunk success. There were growing pains early on and business was not always good.

"You could shoot a gun off in [the pub] a lot of nights and nobody would notice," Fish is quoted as saying in Abernathy's book. Some nights he sent employees home and ran the pub alone things were so slow. Fish chuckled and verified the accuracy of those comments on Friday.

Why did Deschutes finally open a pub at PDX? That's an interesting question. Fish described it as a long term project. Okay. As one of the most prominent craft beer brands in the state, I suspect Deschutes could and maybe should have established a presence at the airport long ago. Why now?

The answer is likely related to the overall state of craft beer. Large craft breweries like Deschutes are losing market share, particularly in distant markets. They helped create a demand that is today being increasingly filled by small, local breweries. Ironic turn of events, for sure.

As a result, larger breweries are turning inward and intensifying marketing efforts closer to home. We're seeing this in Portland with Widmer, Bridgeport and Portland Brewing, each of which is putting significant effort into reconnecting with local fans via specialty beers and events.

Deschutes situation is a bit different because they never really abandoned the specialty beers so many fans are chasing these days. For them, the airport pub will serve as a great marketing piece, a way to connect with and make an impression on travelers who are coming and going.

It seems like a smart move to me. I look forward to visiting the next time I'm in Concourse D.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

CBA Leverages Local Focus with Cisco in Portsmouth

As the Craft Brew Alliance taxis down the runway toward an eventual buyout by Anheuser-Busch, it continues efforts to reposition its brands as local. The most recent version of this trend is in Portsmouth, N.H., where the former Redhook pub is being rebranded as Cisco Brewing.

Recall what the CBA is doing elsewhere. In Portland, it shuttered the underperforming Gasthaus Pub late last year and replaced it with a tasting room featuring specialty beers. In Seattle, it opened the upscale Redhook Brewlab pub in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. They're also expanding Kona's brewing capacity in Hawaii.

The decision to end the Deadhook, I mean Redhook, run in Portsmouth makes good sense in the current craft beer climate. Redhook was once a brand with a national following. But the exploding brewery count has made local beer available everywhere and flipped the rules. Like a lot of regional and national brands, Redhook has been a loser in that scenario.

Cisco, based on nearby Nantucket Island, is a better bet in Portsmouth. It's a recognized local brand in the area and offers significant growth potential. They intend to lean heavily on an island theme in the reimagined pub. The CBA brass have learned via Kona, the crown jewel in their portfolio, that the island theme and connection to place is good for brand building.

If you're wondering how Cisco teamed up with the CBA, it's not complicated. The companies signed into a partnership arrangement several years ago. The CBA has no ownership stake in Cisco, although stories announcing the deal back in 2015 reported a 25 percent stake was being discussed. That never happened. Maybe it will now.

Anyway, the partnership gave Cisco access to the Portsmouth brewery, which likely had growing unused capacity as Redhook (and CBA) brands declined in appeal. The situation called for the CBA to do something to fill the capacity void and Cisco appeared to be a great choice. In a sense, Cisco is sliding into the space as Redhook slides out. The rebranded pub will make that official.

Cisco's core brands, including Whale's Tale Pale Ale and Grey Lady, have been brewed in Portsmouth since 2015. Having the capacity to brew and package those beers in large quantities helped fuel growth and expand the Cisco footprint. The portfolio continues on that path with the addition of Madaquet IPA and the newly launched grapefruit Gripah IPA.

The transition in Portsmouth, underway as we speak, evidently won't result in lost jobs. The current staff will retain their current roles with the rebranding. To support a smooth transformation, Cisco is conducting a branding "boot camp" for current Portsmouth staff this week. They have some fairly grandiose plans for this place.

When you look at this situation, you have to think the CBA sees a reflection of Kona in Cisco. Nantucket and Portsmouth aren't exactly tropical destinations, as is obviously the case with Kona. But Cisco's connection to Nantucket represents the kind thematic branding angle that has supported Kona's rise, as it did with Corona, for example.

The change in Portsmouth is a smart business move on the part of the CBA. It's stuck chasing the local theme that's dominating today's industry, and Cisco represents great potential. Pursuing that strategy fits perfectly with maximizing profits, which means the CBA will get a higher price per share in the coming AB buyout.

On the off chance that the expected buyout fails to materialize, well, further development of the local theme will serve as a rear guard action to keep the CBA viable on its own. You may question their motives, but don't make the mistake of thinking these are dumb people.

They aren't.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

About that Relentless Beer Events Calendar

Not that long ago, a few of us wondered what would happen with what was turning into a tightly packed calendar of beer events. This was at a time when there were perhaps 10 events happening in a busy week and we thought it was getting a little crazy. How naive we were.

We now know, obviously, that we were seeing the leading edge of the event madness that has effectively taken over craft beer. So many events dot the contemporary calendar that beer fans are forced to choose which one (or ones) they want to attend on a particular day.

Take Portland Beer Week, which is currently underway. Figuring out how many events are attached to PBW would be a neat trick. Because the calendar is packed with small and large events of all kinds, many occupying the same spaces in time.

We aren't the only ones with a beer week, by the way. Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Eugene and countless other cities have them, too. Beer weeks have become popular due to the fact that events are how craft beer is marketed in the frenzied social media age.

Don't misunderstand. There were most definitely beer events in prehistoric, analog times. You'd learn about them on the radio, in the newspaper or maybe on a poster. You'd make plans to attend. There wasn't a lot of fussing around involved because there weren't a lot of choices.

That approach has been largely blown away in our present context. Most of us learn of upcoming beer events on social media. If we're "interested" or "going," we get reminders as the event approaches. We also see which of our social media friends are "interested" or "going."

The event crescendo that has taken over craft beer could not have happened without two things: a young adult demographic that's enchanted with craft beer while at the same time addicted to social media for activity planning and communication. Boom.

The current reality is such a monumental change from the past that it's impossible to know where it leads. There's a chance next-generation drinkers may reject craft beer and/or social media. One generation's treasure is another's trash, after all.

For the time being, though, social media and craft beer are joined at the hip. If you want to build a following for a brewery, taproom, pub, etc., a decent social media presence is mandatory. Succeeding without that presence is a risky proposition.

Of course, not all craft beer fans bow down to the events calendar. Many still drink beer the old fashioned way in neighborhood pubs and taverns. But promotional events attract industry groupies and others who magnify the buzz that helps drive the success of brands and businesses.

It isn't even clear that well-organized events are all that important. Plenty of them promise a lot and deliver little more than a chance for someone to make money. Some Portland Beer Week events actually include an educational angle, but that approach isn't typical most of the time.

Regardless, the notion that event madness might somehow subside is pretty quaint at this point. The industry is where it is for good reason and it isn't going back to the ways of yesteryear unless there's some kind of dramatic shift or dislocation.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Change Left Slot – Sprint Right Option

If you're old enough, you remember exactly where you were when you heard President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. You probably also remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969 or when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. For me, "The Catch" is one of those moments.

I don't recall what macro swill I was drinking at the time, so never mind. But I certainly recall watching Dwight Clark leap to catch the Joe Montana pass that gave San Francisco the lead and soon enough a victory in the NFC Championship game. The date was Jan. 10, 1982.

"The Catch" became instant legend around the Bay Area and in football circles. It was also a watershed moment for the NFL. Dallas had been the dominant NFC team during the 1970s. This game signaled a shift, as San Francisco would displace the Cowboys and go on to win four Super Bowls during the 1980s.

I bring this story up, of course, because Clark passed away yesterday at the age of 61. Far too young. He was struck down by ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which evidently afflicts several hundred thousand people worldwide each year. Obviously, top athletes are not immune to this dreadful disease.

On that January day, I watched the game impatiently, uncomfortably in my Lewiston, Idaho apartment. Dallas had been so good for so long that a 49ers victory seemed improbable, despite the impressive play of Montana and company that year. For the record, I had become a nervous Niners fan after attending some games at Kezar Stadium as a kid. I watched Dallas beat some good 49ers teams in the playoffs during the early seventies. The memories made me queasy.

There were several lead changes during the game. San Francisco grabbed an early lead, but Dallas led 17-14 at the half. The 49ers jumped ahead 21-17 in the third quarter. Still, with a few minutes remaining in the game, the Cowboys led 26-21. That's when Montana went to work and led the Niners on the drive that culminated in "The Catch."

Reaching third and three at the Dallas 6-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock, Montana called a timeout. An animated sideline discussion with coach Bill Walsh ensued. The called play, Change Left Slot – Sprint Right Option, was intended to be a quick pass to Freddie Solomon, who had scored on the same play earlier.

Clark and Solomon were primary receivers, but Solomon was apparently the first option. When he slipped at the snap, the play's timing was blown. A strong Dallas rush flushed Montana deeper to the right than the play intended. Meanwhile, Clark slipped through the Dallas secondary and ran parallel to Montana deep in the endzone.

Many have speculated over the years that the backpedaling Montana intended to throw the ball away on the play. The throw was very high; I assumed it was a throwaway. But Montana knew where Clark was supposed to be. Joe was knocked to the ground and didn't see Clark make a superhuman leap and grab the ball with his fingertips. He only saw the receiver's feet come down.

There was an instant of momentarily disbelief inside Candlestick Park. I had a similar feeling at home. But the play was good and, after the extra point, San Francisco led 28-27. It's a forgotten detail, but the game wasn't over. There were 51 seconds on the clock and Dallas needed only a field goal to win. It didn't happen, but there were some nervous moments.

For longsuffering 49ers fans, the win was like the curtains opening on a bright, sunny day or a dense fog quickly lifting. After years of futility, the team had broken through. And they would be a dynasty for the next decade. That's why many fans, including myself, remember "The Catch" so fondly. I only wish I could recall what I was drinking at the time. Something bad, for sure.

Dwight Clark went on to help win two Super Bowls in San Francisco before retiring after the 1987 season. He later served in front office roles for the 49ers and Browns. Years later, Clark said he never tired of talking about or seeing the big play.

"I see that catch every day," he said. "I may sit and think about that moment a couple of times a year, and how awesome it was to be a part of that play and to be a part of the 49ers in the '80s."

As improbable as "The Catch" seemed, it pales next to yesterday's announcement that Clark passed away at such a relatively young age. He announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS last year, but news of his death is still a shock. He was a modern warrior, though apparently a gentle one.

We thank you for the memories, Mr. Clark. RIP

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Hopworks Retains Balanced Vision at 10

I first met Christian Ettinger about 15 years ago. He was head brewer at the original Laurelwood at the time. I stopped in to get a corny keg filled and we chatted informally. Several years later, he left to found Hopworks, which opened in 2008. I've interviewed him several times since. It's always an education.

On the occasion of Hopworks' 10th anniversary, I talked to Ettinger about where they've been and where they're headed. He's proud of the business they've built and the sustainable model they've followed since day one. He looks forward to the next 10 years.

"We folded the European balance of food and family and beer together at Hopworks and it's been a success. We have three pubs with another one coming on at the airport. I'm happy with where we are and looking forward to what's coming."

Ettinger can't decide which of the three pubs is his favorite, whether the original in Southeast Portland, the Bike Bar on North Williams or the Vancouver location. It figures.

"I think they balance and reinforce each other," he says. "The pubs are our best sampling point. People have a good experience there and it makes them more likely to pull our beer off a store shelf. The taprooms are a bit of a chore because they have food. I think food is important, but it isn’t completely necessary. It’s just what I believe in."

They're holding a few events to celebrate a decade in business, if you're wondering. The first of those, a retrospective event for family and friends, happened on Earth Day. Coming up in August, they'll host a Salmon-Safe IPA fest on the 25th, followed by a Dark Beer Festival in November.

"The IPA fest is going to be fun," Ettinger said. "We invited 20 breweries to imagine what IPA will look like in 10 years. Hazies kind of came out of nowhere. Now there's Brut IPA. That's today. It's going to be interesting to see what kind of vision these folks have for the future."

Of course, Hopworks has its own collection of standards and seasonals, including the recently released Totally Chill Hazy IPA (can shown above). The beer is available around town and fits in perfectly with the raging haze craze, like it or not.

The viability of the original Hopworks' concept was anything but assured. The flagship pub is located in an area many did not think ideal. There were a lot of rundown and seedy businesses nearby. It was a gamble purchasing the building and making a sizable investment in renovating it.

"Powell Blvd was probably not the most obvious place for a brewpub," Ettinger admits. "Strip clubs, check cashing businesses and convenience stores. But 45,000 cars cruise by here every day. And Eastbound traffic makes a right-hand turn into our parking lot. It's worked out nicely."

A big reason Hopworks wound up on Powell is that Ettinger was determined to purchase a building for his brewery and pub. He wanted plenty of space to grow into and didn't want to get stuck with a lease that could be pulled or increased. The place on Powell looked good to him.

"Maintaining our independence was another important factor," he said. "We had some goals with respect to sustainability and social responsibility that weren't necessarily conducive to quick profits. I figured the key to achieving those goals was independence."

Protecting that independence meant tapping into friends and family for financing early on. There was never any outside control connected to that. After a few years, early investors were paid back and Ettinger has moved on to traditional financing in recent times.

"One of the reasons our growth curve has been fairly gradual is we didn't get caught up in taking on substantial debt to expand. Sure we could have grown faster. But 30 percent growth, which you see a lot, is scary. I'm more comfortable with 10-15 percent, which is about where we are."

They intend to make some investments that will help drive future growth. In the pub, they're expanding the number of booths to make people more comfortable. They'll also introduce more vegetarian menu options. The brewery will get more efficient, not bigger.

"We'll bring in a system that extracts fermentables from any grain," Ettinger said. "It's not cheap, but it will allow us to produce wort in substantially less time, with less energy and water consumption. Plus, we get 20 percent more out of the malts we use. It will be a great upgrade."

Many will recall that Hopworks was an early adopter of aluminum cans. That may be seen as part of an innovative mindset, but Ettinger doesn't see it quite that way.

"Sure, we adopted cans early," he says. "We saw cans emerging as the most popular beverage container in the world. It may have been somewhat innovative in craft beer, which wasn't putting a lot of beer in cans when we started. Ultimately, it’s the beer that matters, not the packaging, though I do think the environmental footprint of cans is somewhat less than bottles."

The ultra-competitive market has Ettinger contemplating reasonable goals for beer production volumes. Does Hopworks need to substantially increase annual barrelage to stay relevant or is a moderate approach more realistic and ideal?

"We could simply choose to produce 14K of the best and most efficient barrels possible," Ettinger said. "That's about where we are now. I mean, 30K barrels is a neat target, but I'm not sure we need to get there anytime soon. Our focus on sustainability and social responsibility is more important."

That focus has sharpened as a result of becoming a B Corporation three years ago. Early on, the approach to sustainability and social responsibility was fairly basic. They had a green building, focused on organic sourcing and featured a variety of environmental efficiencies.

"When we became a B Corp, we found we weren't doing some things," Ettinger said. "We've had to tighten things up in some areas. We had to look more seriously at our governance and the work/life balance of employees. In some ways, things are simpler now."

As with any business, there have been twists and turns. Hopworks started out quite small and has made the transition to a much larger operation with countless employees and a reach that extends well beyond the Portland area.

"There are always challenges," Ettinger says. "I love coming to work. Building the team may be the most rewarding thing. As we've grown, the team has changed at each level. You discover you need people with expertise in different areas as you grow. For instance, we didn't think about the details of distribution in the early days. Now we have to."

I've not always been the biggest fan of Hopworks beers, which have evolved and improved. But I've always appreciated their mission. Maybe the most unique thing about Ettinger is that he's always thinking, always trying to figure out ways to do things smarter, more efficiently.

It's a vision thing. The next 10 years are sure to be interesting.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Review: Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out

I first caught wind of Josh Noel's book months ago. It peaked my interest because I've followed the antics of Anheuser-Busch in craft beer space for many years. You know this if you stop by here occasionally. I preordered the book on Amazon and it arrived just prior to last week's trip to Kauai. Perfect timing.

The book is not yet in full release. That evidently happens on June 1. It looks like Amazon is still handling it as a preorder, though, as I say, the copy I ordered months ago arrived in my mailbox about two weeks ago. Whatever.

First, I don't know Josh Noel and was not interviewed for his book. One of my blog posts from several years ago is referenced, but that's it. My friend, Jeff Alworth, received an advance copy a while ago and told me it was great reading. He was right, a rarity. (I kid.) Read Jeff's review here.

Noel, who writes about beer and travel for the Chicago Tribune, interviewed seemingly hundreds of people and consulted a pile of print, electronic and related sources while prepping for the book. As with all such projects, the research likely took significantly longer than the actual writing. Situation normal.

I don't want to give too much of the book away. Please support the author by purchasing a copy. The tale is essentially divided into two parts. Most of the first half of the book focuses on how John and Greg Hall (father and son) built Goose Island Brewing into a highly respected craft brand. The second half covers the aftermath of Goose Island's sale to Anheuser-Busch in 2011.

It's clear early on that John and Greg Hall are polar opposites. John is the steady, conservative hand steering the company; Greg is the wildly creative, undisciplined and unstable force who invented a great line of beers, including Bourbon County Stout, a beer that transformed the way we think about barrel beer in this country.

By 2010 or so, Goose Island was at a crossroads. It simply could not keep up with the demand for its mainstream beers, while also maintaining production of its high end specialty beers. They needed money in some form to expand. John Hall, 45 when he launched the brewery, was nearly 70. Thinking about the next 10 or 20 years wasn't in the cards.

There was no succession plan at Goose Island. While many employees and outsiders assumed Greg Hall would eventually take control of the company, that was not the plan. Some will consider Greg to be the tragic figure in this story. In fact, it's fairly clear that he was was not suited by temperament to run the company. He was strictly a creative guy.

The result of that reality is that John Hall elected to sell a controlling share in Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch. Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance, which owned a 42 percent share in Goose, eventually sold its share for $16 million in cash, plus reduced distribution fees worth millions more (the CBA was a third owned by AB at the time).

In the wake of the buyout, Noel shifts to covering multiple facets of what transpired. The Brazilians running Anheuser-Busch (absorbed by InBev prior to the Goose Island deal) had no idea how to operate a craft brewery. They bullied employees, bungled marketing tactics and generally mangled the Goose Island brand.

But Goose Island served as a sort of test case. As Anheuser-Busch bought more craft breweries, its experience at Goose was significant. The cautionary tale for craft beer fans is that the Brazilians have been 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.

It seems to me that Noel's views on big beer vs craft are readily apparent. But you'll have to read the book and judge for yourself. If you care about the beer industry and the future of craft beer, you'll enjoy this book. Please buy of copy at your local independent bookstore or online, if you must. It's well-worth the investment.

One area where Noel jumps the track along the way is in describing Portland's early craft beer history:
By 1984 the city of fewer than four hundred thousand was home to a handful of breweries, including what would briefly become three of the nation's ten largest: Portland Brewing Co., Full Sail Brewing Co., and Widmer Brothers Brewing. Widmer, in particular, generated buzz with its odd choice of a flagship: hefeweizen...
Actually, Portland had only one operational brewery at the end of 1984. That was Bridgeport Brewing, known at the time as Columbia River Brewing. Portland Brewing didn't open until March 1986. Full Sail (originally Hood River Brewing) didn't open until 1987, and not in Portland; Widmer was prepping to open in 1984 and eventually did in April 1985. But Hefeweizen was not the Widmer Brothers intended flagship. That honor belonged to Altbier, which proved to be a hard sell. Hefeweizen became the Widmer flagship largely by accident a year or two after they officially opened.

Regardless of that misstep, Noel has put together an excellent book that will be of interest to craft beer fans and industry observers. I regard it as essential reading.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Beer on Kauai: 40 Years Later

My first trip to Kauai was 40 years ago. It's shocking to realize that. I was about to start my senior year of college and my mom talked me into joining her. She had been here several times prior to that 1978 trip and knew the lay of the land. The place had an unfinished look in those days; it's a little different today.

I wasn't particularly interested in the beer scene in 1978. Tennis was my addiction. For beer, about all you could find was standard issue macro brew. Kauai and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands did have Primo, a novelty we coveted at home mostly because we couldn't get it there.

If you're wondering, Primo is still around. Production on Oahu ended shortly after my first trip and the brand hopped from Schlitz to Stroh to Pabst, which currently owns it, in the intervening years. But it's still out there somewhere. It isn't worth the trouble, if you're thinking of looking for it. No.

My second trip to Kauai came in 1996. This was just four years after Hurricane Iniki turned the island upside down, and things were still a little sketchy. I had started homebrewing around that time, so I was more interested in the beer scene. We drank a lot of Kona Fire Rock Pale Ale on that trip. There were some imports, as well. The scene was mostly unchanged when I returned in 2001.

There have been a string of Kauai trips since. I've lost track of how many. At some point, I discovered decent beer at Waimea Brewing. That place, located next to the Plantation Cottages in Waimea and billed as the Westernmost Brewpub in the World, moved to Port Allen and became Kauai Island Brewing in 2012. It continues to attract locals and tourists.

Kauai Beer Company opened in 2013 in Lihue. I visited the brewery not long after it opened. The place was a shell, basically a tasting room. Owner and co-founder Jim Guerber, an avid homebrewer, got mixed up in craft beer when friends kept telling him his beer was too good to stay a secret. Owner of a software company, he didn't need the money or the headache. But he liked good beer. He took the plunge.

The transformation of KBC since 2013 is amazing. From basically nothing, they now have a variety of beers on tap and a full kitchen. They are open for lunch and dinner and they continue to do a Thursday evening promotion with local food trucks. The place was buzzing when I stopped in at lunchtime the other day.

I wrote about KBC for BeerAdvocate in 2014. They have a copy of the article framed and mounted in the pub. I've seen Guerber at beer events here and there. He was mingling with patrons when I visited the other day and I didn't speak to him. But I tapped him on the shoulder as I was leaving. He opened his arms wide and spun around like Vanna White, as if to say, "Look what we've built!"

It's true. KBC has gone from nothing to something. They've done it in what remains a craft beer desert. Most bars and restaurants in the resort areas are dominated by Kona and macro. The beer selection in grocery stores is shameful, dominated by AB swill. My beer of choice here is Maui Brewing's Bikini Blonde. It fits nicely with the tropical weather and Maui is independent.

I don't know how many small breweries Kauai could support. The emerging strong preference for local beer on the mainland may not translate here. Some (heavy) styles don't really jive with the climate and the full-time population (around 72,000) may not have caught the craft beer bug like people have at home. Maybe two craft breweries is enough here.

Regardless, it's great to see independent breweries doing well. I'm especially impressed with what they've done at Kauai Beer Company because they started with not much more than a plan and built it out from there. Plus, I watched the transformation, intermittently.

After 40 years, Kaua's beer scene is evolving in a positive way. Keep it up, folks.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Long Odds at Portland Brewing

Bringing a brewery back from the edge of oblivion is a tough assignment. But that's exactly what's been going on at Portland Brewing, where management has been diligently working to return the once respected brand to relevance. The odds are stacked against them.

The situation at Portland Brewing is not good. OLCC stats, which are woefully unreliable in a lot of ways, show the brewery dropped 3,700 barrels in volume last year. That translates to a 13 percent decline. Those are Oregon only, if you're wondering. Of course, Portland Brewing isn't the only loser. Bridgeport, Oregon's oldest existing brewery, suffered a 30 percent decline in volume. Yikes!

When you're trying to revive a collapsing brand, the simplest thing you can do is refresh its visuals. So you put some time and effort into redesigning the packaging and graphics. Portland Brewing has done just that, says a recent press release. It's a different look, for sure.

Part of that strategy includes applying "Portland Originals" status to MacTarnahan's, the brewery's flagship amber ale, and Portland IPA, which has been renamed Ink & Roses IPA. The idea is to connect with the brewery's ancient past, when those beers were well-regarded around the city and region. I think applying Originals status to a beer that has been renamed and redesigned (see below) is curious, but never mind.

Yesterday, I picked up bottles of MacTarnahan's and Ink & Roses. Mac's was one of my go-to beers back in the day. We once consumed a pony keg of it at a dog birthday party. The modern rendition seems fine to me. No complaints. Even the IPA, which was altered from its original form to accentuate hops flavors and aromas, was decent, if not spectacular.

The big picture strategy driving the rebranding project is to create a link between Portland Brewing and the city's iconic brewing history. They're doing that by emphasizing the brewery's place in local craft beer history and, hopefully, the industry's future.

Setting aside the packaging and the beer, the strategy is slightly disingenuous. In actual fact, Portland Brewing, like 10 Barrel, Bridgeport and others that have been absorbed by big beer, no longer exists as an independent entity. That's been Portland Brewing's fate since 2004.

A little history. Portland Brewing was founded in 1986 by buddies, Art Larrance, Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin. It was the last of Portland's four founding breweries to open. The pub on Northwest Flanders was too small virtually from the outset and the brewery eventually moved to its current location in industrial Northwest in 1993.

To finance the move and expansion, founders sold common stock. Soon after they arrived in the industrial area, the company was in financial distress. Local legend and mega investor Mac MacTarnahan soon gained control of the company. But it wasn't a picnic. By the early 2000s, Mac's health was failing and so was the company.

The MacTarnahan family, weary of financing a losing proposition, sold to Pyramid in 2004. Portland Brewing was soon rebranded as MacTarnahan's Brewing. In 2008, Pyramid was acquired by Magic Hat, which was itself acquired by North American Breweries in 2010. Then Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm bought North American Breweries in 2012. Soon thereafter, someone had the good sense to change the name back to Portland Brewing.

Layers of ownership stifled creativity and Portland Brewing drifted aimlessly. The pub stayed busy, but the beers collapsed into irrelevance. It wasn't long before bombers and six-packs of Portland Brewing beer were showing up heavily discounted in grocery and c-stores. You rarely sniffed the stuff in self-respecting bottleshops and beer bars.

That was the situation Robert Rentsch walked into in 2015. Rentsch, a successful brand builder at the Craft Brew Alliance, was hired as general manager of Portland Brewing. His task was and is to rebuild and reinvigorate the brand. When I talked to him shortly after he was hired, he didn't have a full picture of what he would do, but admitted it would be a challenge.

Frankly, I think the attempt to wrap Portland Brewing up with the city's brewing history is a mistake. It might work with drinkers who don't understand why the connection is a fraud, but it won't be enough even if it does get traction. In fact, I believe the chances of returning Portland Brewing to any kind of relevance are sketchy, at best.

The problem is the industry has changed dramatically in recent years. We're seeing craft beer become hyper local. With more than 6,000 breweries, consumers across the country have access to local beer. As a result, they're buying local and turning away from beer made in distant places. That's why regional craft breweries are struggling (see Deschutes, Green Flash, etc.)

Portland Brewing is desperately trying to recapture its local identity because it believes that identity will buy it a piece of the action. But that's largely a mirage. The people who happily stand in line to buy Great Notion beers are never going to buy or order a Portland Brewing beer. They want something local, trendy and preferably one-off...something that carries cool brand status.

For established breweries like Portland Brewing, that kind of product simply isn't very attainable. The places most able to make those kinds of beers are independent, nimble and comfortable making rotating small batches of innovative beers.

Long odds, for sure. But good luck to them.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Public Coast Brewing: A Dream Realized in Cannon Beach

The allure of craft beer sucks people in. They get the bug in their system and can't get rid of it. That's a partial explanation for the more than 6,000 breweries in the United States today. It's also why Public Coast Brewing opened in Cannon Beach.

Founder Ryan Snyder caught the craft beer bug three decades ago while living in Las Vegas and working at Holy Cow (now Big Dogs) Brewing. Craft beer was still in its infancy at the time, but Snyder got hooked and became determined to one day open his own brewery. 

Snyder, not a native of Oregon or Cannon Beach, moved here in the 1990s and joined his wife's family business. The family owns and operates a cluster of Cannon Beach properties, including the Surfsand Resort, the Stephanie Inn and the Wayfarer Restaurant. 

In 2004, they purchased Clark’s Restaurant, at the northern edge of Cannon Beach. Snyder coveted the location because he saw it as the ideal place for the brewery he dreamed of. But the dream was not realized overnight. The place was first known as the Lumberyard Rotisserie and Grill. 

"When we purchased the building, it was to build a brewery," Snyder told me in an email. "That was part of the original plan with the Lumberyard, which would have ultimately been a taproom and grill that served handcrafted beer. In 2016, we decided to make the transition and Public Coast became a reality."

Snyder (left) and Leroux in the brewery
The Public Coast story and philosophy were part of a by-invitation media outing last week. A small group of folks who cover Oregon beer happenings were invited to Cannon Beach to tour the brewery, sample the beers and hear all about the place. Events like this don't crop up very often. I hadn't seen the place and knew little about it. I accepted.

The beer objective at Public Coast is balanced, drinkable brews that cater to mainstream drinkers. Snyder is a fan of the styles that defined craft beer over several decades. Beer geeks aren't the target, although Public Coast does have a barrel program and some borderline trendy beers, such as a hazy IPA. The food menu also features simplicity...burgers, salads, fish and chips, etc. 

For his brewmaster, Snyder chose Will Leroux, a renaissance man and self-described forager, farmer and beekeeper. Leroux trained as a chef and got interested in homebrewing. He had a talent for crafting flavors, but no professional brewing experience prior to joining Public Coast. Fred Bowman, founding brewer at Portland Brewing back in the day, has provided assistance. 

There's a method to Snyder's madness, if you will. The culture of Cannon Beach was curated from within, not from outside, he contends. That's why he was determined to open a brewery, not a taproom focused on beers produced outsider the area. Handcrafted products cultivated from within the community and immediate vicinity are the central theme in his vision.

What that translates to in beer terms is some decent, if fairly basic beers. I enjoyed '67 Blonde Ale (winner of a Gold Medal in the 2018 Oregon Beer Awards), Northwest Red Ale and Oswald IPA. The Lager 321 had a fruity finish that didn't belong. The Imperial IPA (8.9%) was nakedly boozy and lacked backbone. The hazy IPA was decent, if unexciting compared to many I've had. 

Public Coast beer is not widely available. Snyder wisely realizes the pub is his profit center and has no intention of distributing his beer aggressively outside Cannon Beach. However, his marketing brain understands that drawing visitors to Public Coast will be easier if he creates some brand recognition away from the coast.

With that in mind, Public Coast has a canning program and is doing limited distribution of cans and draft in and around Portland, from whence a majority of Cannon Beach visitors embark. If you want to chase the beers down, there's a map with locations here. In a tasting, we found some disparity between draft and canned, generally, but not always, in favor of draft. But never mind.

Of course, Public Coast isn't the only brewing show in town. Bill's Tavern is the old-timer, having been at fixture for years. Pelican Brewing, which also has locations in Pacific City and Tillamook, opened its Cannon Beach brewpub in 2016. The competitive scenario is fairly typical of what we're seeing in craft beer, as the brewery count climbs. 

Strangely enough, Snyder doesn't view Pelican or Bill's Tavern as direct competitors. Say what? He sees them as restaurants that serve beer, while Public Coast is a brewery and casual meeting place with a limited food menu. He thinks that's an important differentiating factor.

That's a tough one. These places are all breweries that offer food. The primary discernible difference is that Public Coast doesn't offer table service. Nope. All orders are taken at the food counter or bar. Patrons take their beer or similar beverage with them and pick up food when it's ready, after being summoned. 

Some visitors may like this casual approach to service, but it seems out of place to me. Cannon Beach's economy is driven by tourism and a clientele that expects quality and service. It isn't cheap or grubby here. Fast food doesn't have a presence. Is that the niche Public Coast wishes to occupy here? I don't think so.

Snyder admits counter service hasn't exactly been a hit with customers. Some don't get it, aren't used to seeing it, maybe. Look, Snyder is no dummy. He and his family invested a lot in getting this place up and running. If the lack of table serve becomes a significant problem, I trust he'll make the necessary adjustment. This place is his dream, after all.

If you're headed to the coast, check the Public Coast website for hours. They're currently open Thursday through Monday, noon to 9 p.m. I have no idea if those hours change during the busy summer season. Check ahead for best results.

Note: My trip to Cannon Beach, including beers, dinner and overnight accommodations, was provided by Public Coast Brewing. Thanks to Ryan Snyder, Will Leroux, the staff at Surfsand Resort and the folks at Lawrence PR for the invitation.