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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Revolution in Beer and Food Has Benefits

One of the most significant forces behind the ultimate success of the craft beer movement is the paradigm shift in tastes that began to occur in the early 1960s. The shift in tastes powered an interest in better food and better drink, thus leading in a roundabout way to what we have today.

In my book on Portland Beer, I suggest that Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, is a significant indicator of emerging attitudes. Child's book was probably more a reflection of what was happening than an actual driver of change. But you get the idea.

The underlying reasons for the shift in tastes have been documented in a number of places over the years. A generation of Americans raised on the bland, processed cuisine of the post-WWII era began to search for better options. That quest eventually drove a revolution in food and beer.

The movement was not monolithic or instantaneous. Some parts of the country were slow to catch on or never quite did. Regardless, it took years to see where things were headed. Culinary values that embraced local ingredients and artisan preparation were the first to emerge.

Today's vibrant restaurant scene owes its existence to changes in tastes that were set in motion so long ago. The movement has produced collateral benefits, such as artisan farming and farmers markets. Small scale, community-oriented farmers have benefited in a big way. And they continue to do so.

The link between what happened in food and what would happen in brewing was imported beer. People like Fritz Magtag, Kurt Widmer and others (including the late Don Younger) noticed that folks enjoying a fine meal at home or in a restaurant didn't mind paying a premium price for a good imported beer. They saw opportunity.

As the craft beer revolution was getting underway 35 years ago, one of the problems early brewers faced was that the industry was built around gigantic factory breweries and industrial lagers. Hops and barley production was geared around the needs of large, not small breweries. Mass production was the bottom line. Quality ingredients were not the priority.

In much the same way that the culinary movement helped revive local farms and food production, craft brewing has transformed the hops and barley industry. The proliferation of craft breweries has opened up opportunities for growers who produce specialty hops and grains needed to brew the complex beers of today. This is happening in a lot of places, not just Oregon.

What's good about this? Similar to the culinary movement, craft beer has enabled smaller producers in small communities to shine. You don't have to be a mega grower to meet the needs of craft brewers. What you need to do is produce a high quality product. Even the large growers have had to take note and adjust their thinking and approaches.

Honestly, there are plenty of things about craft beer that aren't quite right. Pretentiousness, sexism and greed, for starters. But the industry has traversed a path that has helped revive small producers and, in turn, small communities. You can't argue with that.

Friday, May 22, 2015

David Letterman: The Un-Corona

David Letterman walked into the pages  of history Wednesday night, ending a 33-year run. The final Late Show ran 20 minutes long and included a montage of historical images shown over the top of the Foo Fighters playing Everlong. It was nicely done.

Letterman, you may recall, was heir apparent to the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired on almost the same day in May 1992. But NBC somehow stumbled onto Jay Leno, instead. That snub pushed Letterman to CBS, where he spent the last 22 years doing the Late Show and becoming a cultural icon.

To me, Letterman is the last of the great late night hosts, in the mold as his idol, Carson, He didn't gush over celebrity guests and, instead, could make them fairly uncomfortable. In fact, he's the last late night host who guests respected. That's not the case with any of the current late night hacks, who fawn over guests in between mindless skits. Perhaps Colbert will be different.

Letterman's show wasn't a talk show, exactly, He mixed talk with quirky forays into comedy that tickled the funny bones of viewers. This was particularly true during his time on NBC and in the early days at CBS, when he had something to prove and worked hard to do so.

Despite the effort, Letterman only briefly gained the top spot on late night ratings and that was very early on in his CBS tenure. Why? Partly because the Tonight Show always enjoyed residual popularity from the Carson era and partly because, well, NBC is a better network with better local affiliates than CBS.

Of course, the Late Show had been in decline in recent years. Letterman seemed to lose interest. Still, I couldn't help thinking, as he closed up shop, that he was under-appreciated and that we will not see the likes of him again. Late night TV isn't what it once was, for sure. Viewers are more apt to watch late night highlights on their DVR or computer than they are to watch live. The landscape has morphed. It's hard to see anyone sticking around for 33 years and 6,000+ shows. Like Dave.

If there's a beer equivalent to Letterman, I don't know what it is. One beer it definitely isn't is Corona, Where Letterman failed to win the ratings war despite usually producing a superior product, Corona has become a popular, fast-growing brand despite being not very good.

Corona's parent, Constellation, reported that sales were up 16 percent in early 2015. And growing. This comes at a time when consumers are turning away from premium lagers in favor of more hearty craft beers. There's also the fact that Corona gets very low marks on sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate. Descriptions of the beer's flavor profile are not flattering.

How has Corona managed to be a prolific brand at a time when it makes so little sense? Simple. They've used sun, sand, babes and lime wedges to build a brand image that positions Corona as a high end product and status symbol. Some consumers drink it because it makes them feel like they're on vacation. Sales are through the roof.

This has to one of the greatest cons of all time. You have to appreciate the irony, if nothing else.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

McNally's Taproom Talk Tonight

I'll be giving a short presentation and selling copies of my book on Portland's beer history tonight at McNally's Taproom in Hillsboro. It's probably a little late in the game to do this, given the book was published 18 or so months ago. But what the hell.

The program begins at 7 p.m. and I plan to speak for 30-40 minutes, backed by a slide show with photos and talking points. The theme? How Portland became the leading craft beer city in the world. After that, I'll open it up to questions and, finally, anyone who wants to purchase a signed copy of my book can do so.

Honestly, this is much more of an educational opportunity than a sales event. The book has done reasonably well through online booksellers and traditional bookstores. My own sales efforts at various pubs and events have been less successful, for sure. Such is the nature of books on history.

Jim McNally is the owner out there. I first met Jim at a beer collectors event where I was selling my book in late 2013. At the time, he was in the process of opening a taproom in Southeast Portland. That plan changed after several growler fill stations opened in the area. He decided underserved Hillsboro was a better bet. Good thinking.

I haven't been out to McNally's, but I understand the place is doing well. They've got 20 or so taps and a pretty solid list. I'm not naive enough to think people from the downtown core will venture out to Hillsboro, but I hope locals will stop by.

Looking forward to an evening of great beer talk.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ethereal Meads Leans on the Work of Bees

Sometimes it appears to me that the rising tide of craft beer has helped float an increasing variety of boats. By that, I mean we continue to see a proliferation of new and creative styles, to go with the reappearance of long-forgotten ones. Mead might well be part of that.

On my Thursday evening beer tasting stop I ran into the folks from Ethereal Meads at Belmont Station. They were doing a tasting of their two current meads, Autumn Mist and Ruby Sunset. It was great spending a few minutes talking to Meadmaster, Gary Gross, and his wife, Shirley.

Ethereal is located in rural Battle Ground, where Gary has been tinkering with and refining his mead making processes for a number of years. Friends and acquaintances who sampled his creations eventually suggested he sell the stuff. Then he won a gold medal for one of his meads in an international competition. He took the plunge.

Autumn Mist and Ruby Sunset are available by the 500 ml bottle and also on tap here and there around the area. You can buy it here and drink it here, according to the Ethereal website. Container fills are available by appointment...contact info is on the website.

In the tasting, I preferred Autumn Mist, which is a brilliant golden color. It contains apple juice and some subtle spices and is nicely balanced. The award-winning Ruby Sunset is darker in color and utilizes cranberries to balance the sweetness provided by the honey and strawberries. Ruby Sunset is good, but a little sweet for my taste.

Mead is something of an enigma, I think. It's one of the oldest alcoholic drinks, yet has a small following. A former work colleague of mine made a pretty good mead...I have no idea how. Too many commercial meads are cloyingly sweet and not what I'm looking for. Autumn Mist is decidedly different. It's reminiscent of a dry cider or a drier white wine. Opinions will obviously differ.

There are probably a lot of ways Gross can go with his meads. He talked about experimenting with dry-hopping, barrel-aging and other approaches that might produce interesting results. He doesn't seem to be in a big hurry to rock the boat because what he has is pretty good. His main focus for now is increasing production and building a larger following.

Expanding will be done carefully while staying committed to quality and local ingredients. Fresh fruit is easy to come by and the honey is sourced in the Willamette Valley. Sustainable farming and beekeeping are important concepts, and Ethereal supports organizations that work to protect the environment.

Of course, most of the real work involved in making mead is done by bees. Gross buys honey in 50 gallon drums and says it takes the life's work of 86 bees to produce a 6 ounce glass of mead. Each of those bees evidently flies 100 miles or more in search of nectar during its life.

And some people say you can't learn anything on beer tasting junkets.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Adventures in Computing and the Blue Moon Mess

Returning from a week in Hawaii can be disorienting. It was a bit worse for me this time due to technical issues. The old Windows desktop that houses virtually all of my work documents crashed permanently when I started it after arriving home last Tuesday night.

No need to dwell on the details, but there is an ironic backstory. Prior to leaving for Hawaii, I backed up everything on the Macbook Pro that travels with me. Computers can be temperamental travelers and I didn't want to lose anything.  Good thinking, huh?

The Windows box wasn't going anywhere and didn't get the same treatment. I suppose that's why it promptly took a dump on my return. I'll recover what's currently lost because it was a system failure, not a hard drive crash. Still, it made for a less than productive week. Stupidity can lead to that.

There were some interesting items in the news during my time in Hawaii and last week. The world of craft beer is forever spinning like a top and increasingly in the news, it seems.

One of the week's big stories was that MillerCoors is being sued in California for using "deceptive and misleading advertising and unfair business practices." It's a class action lawsuit based around the experiences of some dude who bought Blue Moon for years, assuming it was a craft beer. No joke.

The dude, Evan Parent, thought Blue Moon was a craft beer based on language on the packaging and ads he had seen. There's also the fact that he was finding Blue Moon on store shelves in the craft beer section and assumed that's what it was. Sounds like a solid case, huh?

As most who stop by here know, Blue Moon isn't craft beer. The "artfully crafted" words on the packaging and the ads that position Blue Moon as a super premium beer are just a rouse. Blue Moon is better than your average "Brewed the Hard Way" macro, but it doesn't measure up as a craft beer. Same goes for Shock Top and other pretend craft brands.
This lawsuit may well be settled out of court, with the class (folks who bought Blue Moon during some specified period of time) getting a piddly reimbursement and the lawyers collecting a bundle. But there's also a good chance the case will simply go up in flames. Because it has problems.

For starters, truth in advertising. By design, advertising uses words and images to create impressions that may not be true. "Ford Has a Better Idea." Remember that one? There are zillions of others. If the lawyers manage to pry open this pandora's box, better get ready for a lawsuit binge that extends far beyond the beer industry.

Of course, it may be fairly argued that retailers and distributors conspired to trick Parent and other consumers by placing Blue Moon among craft brands on store shelves. That would tend to give unknowing beer shoppers the impression that Blue Moon belongs in that category.

That argument runs into trouble when you realize there is no viable definition of craft beer. Oh sure, there's the Brewers Association definition...less than 6 million barrels brewed per year, not substantially owned by an alcohol beverage company, uses traditional brewing practices. But that definition is really more about marketing and spin than reality.

If this case goes to trial, it will be interesting to hear the Brewers Association explain why the definition of craft brewer is a moving target that continues to change. Do they keep increasing the production number to keep Sam Adams in the club? Did they add "innovative methods" to the brewing requirements so they could include breweries that otherwise wouldn't have been considered craft, thereby expanding craft's market share? Inquiring legal minds will want answers.

This case is going to open up cans of worms all over the place, and a lot of industry folks would rather those cans stay sealed. But only if it makes it to trial...and there's just about zero chance of that happening.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ruminations from Paradise

It's been a tough week for me, suffering through some blustery days on Kauai, which is the oldest and western-most of the major Hawaiian islands, if you didn't know. I've been here many times and each trip has its own persona. This time it's unsettled weather.

Being away from Portland has its advantages, and not just when it comes to the weather...which is far better here even though we've seen more rain, wind and gray than usual. Being removed from Portland's beer culture is a bit of a shock, but also instructive.

As I've documented on past trips, there are two craft breweries on Kauai and they both produce decent beer. Beyond that, you find Kona and Maui beers in bars and stores. Some of the Kona brands are unknown on the mainland, but mostly we're talking about standards like Fire Rock Pale Ale, Big Wave Golden Ale, Longboard Lager, etc.

I was thinking about beating up the Kauai beer scene, which is easy to do when you compare it to Portland or almost anywhere in Oregon. But that's way too easy. And, anyway, I've talked about Kauai's beer desert before. Thankfully, I got some help from back home, in the form of a feud involving Portland and Salem over beer. Only in Oregon.

The skirmish started when Willamette Week's Martin Cizmar toured Salem breweries and proceeded to beat up a bunch of their beers in a review. I consider Martin to be a friend, but I have no skin in his reviews. Sometimes we agree on beers and breweries, sometimes not.

I suspect Salem already had a bit of an inferiority complex, being so near Portland. So I wasn't surprised to see someone take exception to Cizmar's comments. That someone is Victor Panichkul, who writes about beer, wine and food for the Statesman Journal. Panichkul delivered a rebuttal which mostly emphasized the quainter aspects of living in Salem. And Cizmar's incompetence.

That wasn't the end of it. News of the feud was picked up by OPB and subsequently by NPR. Perfect. There were some spirited comments on social media, partisans from each side blasting the knowledge and integrity of the other. You can't make this stuff up.

Look, I have no opinion on Salem's breweries or beers. Most of the breweries I know only vaguely. Until I experience the beers personally, I won't take a position. But I do know it's the right and responsibility of beer writers to critique beers, breweries, etc.

In actual fact, there isn't close to enough criticism in this industry. I see too many writers and bloggers pandering to breweries and festival organizers hoping to keep the free beer and event passes flowing. It shouldn't work that way, but ethics and beer writing often don't mesh.

So go ahead and bash Cizmar's putdown of Salem's breweries. Given some of the snide comments in the piece, maybe he deserves it. I'm not defending his comments or opinions. But he has a responsibility to report what he thinks, even if you or I don't agree.

Those of us who cover the beer scene ought to be reporting the bad, as well as the good we experience. Otherwise, our stuff is just so much promotional hooey not worth writing. And we aren't serving the people who are out there looking for information.

Home soon, Portland. The Labs are waiting.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dodging Dollars at the Craft Brewers Conference

Getting a bead on what transpired during the just-concluded Craft Brewers Conference in Portland is a tough assignment. That's what happens when you're part of a week long drunk fest that includes seminars and speeches. Hey, that vaguely reminds me of my undergraduate days at Washington State.

For my part, I spent parts of a couple of days at the Convention Center, which was often packed to the gills--despite the fact that many attendees chose to pursue "activities" in other parts of town. My event itinerary included fewer imbibing stops than most, I'm more than sure.

The Brewers Association, the non-profit trade group that represents small and independent brewers, tossed around some impressive factoids. More than 11,000 industry pros attended this shindig, including 600 exhibitors and 175 or so presenters. The Tuesday night Welcome Reception at Memorial Coliseum drew an estimated 8,500 folks. Some may have realized along the way that it was easier to find beer at this conference than it was to find water. But never mind.

The Craft Brewers Conference was last held in Portland in 2001. A lot has morphed in the interim. At the time, there were fewer than 1,500 operating craft breweries in the country. Portland was home to 24 of them. The convention was self-contained in a single downtown hotel, which is hard to imagine considering what has happened.

Fast forward 14 years. There were 3,418 craft breweries at the end of 2014, 58 within the city of Portland. Another 2,000 are in planning nationwide, an elusive number that is forever arching skyward. There's more. Craft beer accounted for nearly $20 billion in sales last year, out of roughly $110 billion in total beer sales. Staggering numbers.

It was impressive to hear Brewers Association royalty talk about the health of the industry and its future prospects. Charlie Papazian, president of the organization, talked about the importance of integrity and staying true to who you are. Gary Fish, founder of Deschutes Brewing and chair of the BA Board of Directors, reviewed some of the industry's current legislative efforts and challenges.

The presentations and educational seminars were nicely done and full of positive vibe. Out on the trade show floor, there was another not-so-subtle vibe. I attended several large medical trade shows in my former life. There were a lot of high rollers at those shows because healthcare is big business. I got the same kind of feeling at CBC...the smell of money was everywhere.

I don't know what I expected. Not exactly this. Exhibitors were hawking all manner of things, but what jumped out at me was the high-tech brewing and packaging equipment. There were obviously folks showing tanks, kegs, signage, schwag, hops, etc. The high-tech stuff struck a chord with me because it isn't cheap and there was a lot of it.

The booths showing high end stuff weren't vacant by any means. These exhibitors were here because there's business to be had. You would never have seen this kind of thing 10-15 years ago. Keep in mind the equipment didn't exist. There were few prospective customers because craft brewers didn't have access to the cash needed to buy the stuff. Bankers were leery of breweries, which were considered long shots likely to fail.

What changed is craft beer has become a huge growth industry, now perceived as a sound, even wise investment. So you have banks and private equity firms searching for ways to get in the game. And don't forget the ever-present and ominous shadow of Anheuser-Busch. There are oceans of capital available to today's breweries. That will continue to be the case until something changes dramatically.

The unanswered question and elephant in the living room is this: How will all this money affect craft beer? Most craft breweries are small, brewing up to 1,000 barrels a year. They have strong local and regional identities and are passionate about what they do. What's going to happen when money enters the picture and blurs ownership and identity? Some, perhaps many, will say this is simply part of a maturing industry. Maybe. But the emerging scenario is unprecedented in the annals of the industry. So we'll have to wait and see what it brings.

Most of the folks who descended on Portland and drank it nearly dry have skedaddled home. The city is returning to normal, whatever that is. Whether the CBC will return to Portland is an open question. I heard many people saying the city isn't equipped to handle a convention of this size. The availability of hotel rooms near the Convention Center is a huge issue, though not the only one.

A connected source told me the Craft Brewers Conference will return to Portland only if it somehow shrinks in size. That seems pretty implausible at the moment, given the direction and momentum of things. But I suppose you never know.