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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Craft Beer Continues Blistering Growth in Portland

Maybe one of the worst kept secrets in beer is that Portland is the top craft beer market in the country. This has been the case for many years and, but the numbers continue paint a pretty crazy picture, based on IRI (Information Resources, Inc.) stats I've been looking at in a couple of industry publications.

During 2015, the craft segment grew 11 percent and ended with a 44 share (dollar volume) in Portland grocery stores. The next closest segment was Domestic Premium, which lost more than 1 percent to finish at just under 20 share.

Keep in mind that IRI expanded the definition of craft to include Blue Moon, Shock Top and Leinunkugel for 2015. Those brands were flat and combined for less than 3 percent of craft dollar share for the year, which means fake craft brands aren't contributing much to overall craft growth here, as expected.

You might think growth in the craft segment is being driven by the large breweries, places like Deschutes, Widmer, Portland Brewing, Bridgeport, New Belgium, etc. But that's not the case. In fact, the big guys collectively lost more than 1.5 percent dollar share for the year, led by Gambrinus/Bridgeport at -14 percent. This isn't your grandpa's craft beer market.

It turns out a few up-and-coming breweries showed the biggest percentage growth for 2015. Hop Valley led the pack, up 86 percent and accounting for nearly 2 percent of the market in dollars. I have no idea which specific brands drove that growth, but I suspect it has a lot to do with releasing more options in price-friendly six-packs of bottles and cans. Hop Valley's dollar growth ($1.7 million) led the entire market.

Of course, there's more. A host of mostly smaller breweries combined to overcome what the larger breweries lost, a trend started several years ago. Be careful about reading too much into the graph below. Why? Because Ninkasi's 10 percent growth and Sierra Nevada's 21 percent growth represent a lot more volume (in beer and dollars) than the big growth numbers posted by Breakside, Three Creeks, etc. The graph is best seen as a rough visual aid.

We've known for a while that Portland is an increasingly brutal market for macro lagers. It's actually worse than it looks because IRI is based on retail sales and does not include beer sold in taverns, pubs, restaurants or independent convenience stores. If all beer sold in Portland were part of IRI, craft's market share would easily exceed 60 percent in dollars. Well, that's what I've been told by people who know about such things.

There's not much more to say, except let the beatdown continue.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The 2016 Plan: No Quitters at Anheuser-Busch

Like 'em or hate 'em, you have to give the folks at Anheuser-Busch credit. They've been called anti-competitive sociopaths and delusional sycophants. But one thing you never hear them called is quitters. They don't know the meaning of the word.

I've been reading various reports on the AB strategy for the coming year and it is mesmerizing. The guys evidently believe there's no such thing as a dead end brand that can't be returned to viability via truckloads of cash and retread marketing schemes. Never mind the actual product.

The big idea, as usual, is gaining market share, something AB hasn't done since 2008. There's a pile of PR schlock behind that goal. Some of the themes include "investing in the future" and "strengthening relationships." Just the kinds of things you expect to hear from talking heads in a woebegone organization.

Of course, growth is tough when you've got a bunch of brands in freefall. AB has been losing share in the premium segment for years, and the decline is redlining with young drinkers who are uninterested in the products and largely unreachable via traditional advertising channels. It's a serious problem.

That reality is driving investment in the so-called High End, which expanded with the acquisition of several craft breweries in 2015. Expect a continuation of that theme in 2016, as spending will reach a new, unspecified high. The High End segment likely represents the best chance they have to offset declines through the rest of their portfolio.

Their goal with the High End segment is aggressive. They hope to double whatever the growth rate is in craft beer. If craft hits 20 percent growth this year, AB wants the High End to reach 40 percent. It's probably unrealistic, but that's what happens when you're desperate to grow your numbers and your new product pipeline is vacant.

They do have winners in the High End. Goose Island IPA, now brewed in factories everywhere, had a big year in 2015. AB wants it to be the #1 IPA in the land this year. Its other craft minions, including 10 Barrel, Elysian and Blue Point, also did well. Then there's Stella Artois, which was up 20 percent and will receive additional investment in an effort to double volume within a few years.

Along the lines of refusing to quit on flat-lining brands, the suits are determined to revive the fortunes of Shock Top, their very own fake craft brand. They are upping the ante considerably, spending more out of the gate than they did all of last year. Among other things, that money will buy Shock Top a Super Bowl spot. You won't want to miss it. Trust me.

The best I've saved for last. Bud Light, which has been in steady decline in recent years, will get the biggest investment ever. The guys simply refuse to quit on their pet brand. Instead, they'll leverage their connection with the NFL, including several Super Bowl ads and team cans. Some cities will even get NBA cans, apparently. Because everyone knows the road to improved brand identity and credibility is paved with fancy new packaging.

Some people say the guys at AB don't have a sense of humor. But that can't be true. When you stubbornly hang onto flagging brands and your only winning strategy is buying up your competition because you don't have any new ideas of your own, you better have a sense of humor.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

OSU Hops and Brewing Archive Gets Eckhardt Papers

Somewhat lost in the hubbub over the various festivals and events happening these past few days was a press release posted on Oregon State University's website. The release announced that the papers of the late Fred Eckhardt have been acquired by OSU's Hops and Brewing Archives.

Eckhardt's contributions to the craft beer movement in Oregon and beyond are well-known. As the release notes, he was an advocate, critic, mentor, educator, historian and more. He is quite rightfully considered one of the founding fathers of craft beer in this country.

The papers apparently document Mr. Eckhardt's travels from the 1970s through the 1990s, the period in which he established himself as the dean of American beer writers. He spent considerable time visiting brewers and publishing his thoughts in articles and in several notable books. It isn't a stretch to say he pushed brewers to be more aggressively creative than they might otherwise have been.

Adding Eckhardt's papers to the Hops and Brewing Archives means they will be available to researchers studying the formative years of the craft beer movement. This is significant because, as I discovered while researching Portland Beer, the early breweries did a poor job of recording their histories. It's hard to blame them. They didn't know what was going to happen.

The papers of Fred Eckhardt will surely provide insight into what was going on behind the scenes in the early craft breweries. Hopefully, his gift will encourage others who have studied this history to share their materials. The materials I assembled while researching my book, including interviews, photos, news clippings and more, already live in the OSU Archives.

For the unknowing, the Hops and Brewing Archives were established in 2013. It's mission is to preserve the history of hops growing and craft beer. This is apparently the first archive of its kind in the country. That make sense, I guess, given the proximity to hops growing and great beer.

There's more information on the Hops and Brewing Archives website here. Besides research materials, they are actively collecting items connected to early breweries...things like labels, signage, promotional items, etc. These folks are doing great work and deserve whatever help we, as writers, authors, brewers, etc., can give them.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Expect Millennials to Continue Drinking Heavily

Looking through the flood of beer-related emails in my inbox, I was amused to see a story announcing the possible end of craft beer. Hey, I realize click bait is a fact of life these days, and I make a conscious effort to steer away from those links. But this was too good to ignore.

The crux of the story is that the millennial generation is moderating its consumption of beer and other alcoholic drinks. This news comes via a poll of 5,000 drinkers, age 21-35, in the UK, US, Mexico, Brazil and the Netherlands. 75 percent of these folks say they moderate their alcohol consumption most of the time because it improves their quality of life.

Heineken has actually launched a "Moderate Drinkers Wanted" campaign designed to tap the supposedly shifting millennial values. You may have seen the ads, which have been airing during sporting events and similar programming. Heineken apparently thinks the good citizen motif is worth something.

The whole thing comes as a huge surprise to me. Most of my experience mingling with these folks at festivals, bars and such is that they exert little self control when it comes to drinking. Maybe the poll sample wasn't large enough to be representative. Or maybe Oregon millennials weren't polled.

Of course, if millennials really are throttling back on alcohol consumption, it's bad news for craft beer. Because these folks are probably the biggest driver of the crazy, off-the-hook growth we've seen over the course of the last few years. The industry desperately needs them!

The reason these folks have pushed growth is they are aggressively promiscuous drinkers, constantly searching for new flavors, innovative styles and bizarre interpretations of almost anything drinkable. You might say they'll try anything once. Or twice.

It's really hard to imagine a scenario in which millennials seriously cut back on their drinking. These folks may be fickle and probably are more prone to shifts in attitude and habit than prior generations. But there are a lot of things driving their drinking.

Such as the fact that many American millennials have been saddled with tremendous education debt. Many don't and won't own a house or car. Due to unfunded liabilities in public and private retirement funds, millennials will be asked to finance the retirement of the baby boom generation while working shitty jobs in a downsized economy. And don't forget the trampled environment and corrupt political system they're inheriting.

These kids have got a tough road ahead and it's going to drive them to drink. The only real danger to craft beer is that millennials will shift to hard liquor. They're going to need it.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hanging with the Kings of Oregon Craft Beer

One of the great things about being on the fringe of the craft beer industry is you occasionally get exposed to something you might not otherwise have experienced. When it happens, you sometimes realize you had a gap in your knowledge base.

I've been consuming craft beer for about 30 years. For 15 or so of those years, I brewed my own beer, which was sometimes pretty good. My tastes have expanded to include a wide range of styles in recent years.

Knowledge and hands-on experience can lead you to think you know something about good beer. I have no trouble identifying what I like and don't like in beer. Finding off-flavors and obvious flaws isn't a huge problem.

But I never realized how little I knew about beer until I spent a day judging beers with professional brewers and industry-connected folks this past Saturday. It was like wandering in a minefield.

The judging was organized by Willamette Week as part of 2016 Oregon Beer Awards. Something like 50 folks spent two days evaluating more than 500 Oregon beers in a bunch of categories. Winners will be announced at the Oregon Beer Awards in late February.

For my part, I was involved in evaluating more than 50 beers in five categories. You might think that's a lot of beer and maybe it is. But sampling is done from small cups and judges almost never drink all the beer from any cup. Contrary to what some think, this isn't a drunk fest.

The way it worked is teams of five or six judges convened at tables to evaluate a group of beers of a particular style. Each table had a team captain, someone with significant prior experience in beer judging. Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi, Darron Welch of Pelican and Tonya Cornett of 10 Barrel-Bend led teams I was part of.

You know you're in trouble when you look around the table during sampling and see pros making extensive notes on most beers. In front of me, I've got a few thoughts scribbled down, mostly related to flavor profile, obvious flaws, bitterness, color, etc. Uh oh.

As the discussion starts, the pros are talking about flaws, some of them very minor, and where they likely came from. What? "The stale character of this beer is likely the result of old malt." Seriously? "That one has a slight veggie profile, probably due to hops stems in the boil." Say what? "I detect a hint of barf in that one." Yuckers.

You eventually work your way through the group of beers, identifying the ones with disqualifying flaws and those that are competing to move to the next round of judging. In the end, the group reaches a consensus on the top three. Compromise happens. This ain't Congress.

Reflecting on the experience, it occurred to me that this was a little like graduate school. When I reached graduate school eons ago, I figured my undergraduate program prepared me well. Wrong. The grad school learning curve was super steep, just like Saturday.

How the pros are able to surmise the origins of good and bad profiles in beer is beyond me. It's pretty amazing to see that in action. I have to say I have a renewed respect for these folks.

Big thanks to Breakside's Ben Edmunds for directing the competition and to Willamette Week's Steph Barnhart for organizing. A fine time was had by all, or most.

As noted, winners will be announced at the OBA ceremony in February. Be there.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

CBA Shows True Colors with Pabst Deal

Back in November, I reported that Laurelwood was shifting its contract brewing from the CBA's Woodinville, Wash. facility to Full Sail in Hood River. Laurelwood will be just fine brewing large scale packaged product at Full Sail. But it wasn't their choice to make the change.

The way it apparently came down is the Craft Brew Alliance told Laurelwood it wanted out of the contract. It was a little puzzling. This had been a good arrangement for both parties. Why end it? Well, sometimes you need to see the full picture. And it was revealed this week.

On Monday, the CBA announced it has entered into an agreement by which Pabst will begin brewing a subsidiary brand, Rainier Mountain Ale, at the Woodinville brewery this spring. Further, Pabst has the option of purchasing the brewery outright at any time in the next three years.

For its part, Pabst is pleased as punch that they will be brewing a Rainier brand in its home state. It makes for a nice story, if nothing else. They will apparently revive several archived Rainier brands. Mountain Ale, to be packaged in iconic 16 oz bottles, will be first. Pabst's portfolio is loaded with crap brands, most of which are brewed by MillerCoors. That isn't going to change. Even standard Rainier won't be brewed in Woodinville. Pity.

Pabst was able to negotiate a deal for the Woodinville brewery because the CBA no longer needs it. Expansion and modernization at the Portland brewery, which will be capable of producing 750,000 barrels annually, means (as one source put it) the CBA will soon have a very efficient brewery in Portland and a very inefficient one in Woodinville.

Rumors had been circulating that the Woodinville facility was for sale. The CBA brass surely preferred sale to closure, and the arrangement with Pabst is a step in that direction. Moreover, it buys time for the CBA to fully shift production to Portland while Pabst gets comfortable in Woodinville. Sale of the brewery seems imminent within the three year timeline.

In case you're wondering, the Woodinville facility, better known as Redhook Brewery, was built in 1994. It has a capacity of around 200,000 barrels a year and has brewed Widmer and Redhook beers, as well as contract brands, like Laurelwood. This is where Widmer brewed all of its hoppier brands, a result of the fact that the Portland brewery was unable to handle those beers. But never mind.

The CBA is striving to consolidate production and increase efficiencies wherever possible. Shifting Northwest production to Portland is part of that. They're also leveraging a partnership with Blues City in Memphis, which brews Kona brands for the eastern market and allows them to contract brew non-owned brands at their Portsmouth, N.H. brewery. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.

CEO Andy Thomas says the CBA has never worked more closely or been more closely aligned with the interests of its mentor and part-owner, Anheuser-Busch. Right. The comment makes a ton of sense when you look at what they're up to. And there's more.

Recall that CBA beers are distributed by AB around the country, an arrangement dating back nearly two decades. Now comes news that they are pushing Kona brands into Brazil via ABI subsidiary Ambev, which dominates the beer market there. In the US, the CBA is a party to AB's anti-competitive incentive program, whereby distributors receive giant bonuses for selling AB products while dumping or ignoring independent craft brands. Great stuff.

Of course, none of this matters all that much to Laurelwood, which is where I started. They've been asked to let the CBA know they'll be done in Woodinville, another way of asking when they'll be ready to go in Hood River. Time is money and the bean counters are clock watching.

No word on when the CBA will become a fully-owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Upright's Ingenious, Creative Approach

In a market flooded with breweries that can't wait to get bigger so they can brew and sell more and more beer, Alex Ganum's little brewery in the basement of the Leftbank Project Building represents an alternative approach to beer and marketing.

The brewery graciously provided members of the media with one of those intimate excursions in tasting the other night. We worked our way through a couple of upcoming bottle releases while a relaxed Ganum talked about what they were doing with each beer. 

In case you don't know, Upright specializes in Farmhouse-style beers with a Northwest twist. Ganum and his staff are experts at creating barrel-aged brews that incorporate assorted regional fruit and other delights. The results are often mesmerizing. 

Of course, Farmhouse beers are not the only thing they do. Ganum also likes to embark on some fairly quirky projects. Several years ago, he brewed an interpretation of Bud Light. No joke. Unlike the original, Upright's version was rather tasty. Their Engelberg Pilsner was named Beer of the Year in the 2015 Willamette Week Beer Guide. They get pilsner.

Despite the fact that they make great beer, Upright is largely an undiscovered destination. I don't believe the place is underrated, as a recent blog poll suggested. Underrated and unknown are different issues. People just don't know much about Upright, the direct result Ganum's chosen path: limited production, limited distribution and limited taproom hours. You get what you play for.

If you look at OLCC stats, which are strictly a rough guide to what's selling (we've been through this before), Upright sold 924 barrels in Oregon during 2013. They then sold 874 barrels in 2014. Final numbers for 2015 aren't yet published, but when they are Upright will be about where it has been for the last two years. Production is more or less static.

That's a nice strategy if you can pull it off. Upright has done so by creating a premium product that is reasonably priced and sought after. Like boutique wineries, they sell a lot of bottles out of their tasting room. In the case of the upcoming releases, Ganum said he expects to sell more than 50 percent of the production direct to patrons. 

When you pursue this business model and you're comfortable with the work and satisfied with the money you're making, you don't need to mess around with expansion and debt. It also means you don't need to sell out to private equity or Anheuser-Bush. You're only concern is to continue making great beer that people want to buy and drink. Pretty sweet. 

Oh, I should mention the upcoming releases, Heart's Beat and Shades. Descriptions (with minor edits) from the press release: 
Hearts' Beat was brewed first using Chelan cherries from the Baird Family Orchards. These are dark and intense, so the plan was to showcase the fruit. To achieve that, we started with our usual process of using a very basic grist with aged hops for minimal bitterness, then ran the wort directly into eight casks that contained over 100 pounds of fruit in each. A blend of two different brettanomyces strains with some lactobacillus was added and the barrels sat for a year before blending and bottle conditioning, which began in July 2015. The high tannin level lends the beer a distinct edge that holds up well against the acidity, and the amount of fruit makes the beer drink much like a cherry wine, a character that is enhanced at cellar temp over typical beer serving temperature. The Hearts' Beat is not intended to mimic Belgian Kriek or any defined style, but rather to follow in the path of Fantasia as a beer combining elements of Belgian lambics, saisons and our own whims.

Shades also uses cherries from Baird, although in this case we're talking Rainiers, which don't alter the color of the beer. This is deceiving because it's loaded with fruit flavor, again employing more than 100 pounds per cask, although this blend only comprised six barrels. We used two different lots of cherries, one notably sweet and the other tart, and inoculated the casks with three different brettanomyces strains. The beer was aged and conditioned just like the Hearts' Beat, but we pushed the brett to produce a funkier aromatic profile with a bit more acidity. 
Both beers are named after a Charles Mingus composition from the album "The Black Saint and Sinner Lady." They are set to be released together as soon as we finish the labels, with most allocated to the brewery tasting room.
Upright also expects to release annual renditions of Fantasia, Fatali Four and Billy Mountain in the near future. Each will feature a new label for the first time since their initial release.

Things are good at Upright.