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Friday, March 17, 2017

Belmont Station Preps for 20th Birthday Bash

Portland’s original bottleshop and beer bar is hitting the ripe old age of 20. Nearly drinking age. They’re celebrating with a 20/20 theme…20 days of events for 20 years, April 1-20.

The fun gets started on Saturday, April 1, at the Horse Brass, where Belmont Station got its start in 1997. The Brass will have a collection of special beers on tap when it opens at 11 a.m. Some of those beers will have been made with help from Belmont Station staff. Fancy that.

Guests ought to have a decent buzz going by 1 p.m., when they will march up 45th Street to the current location. There will be several bottle releases and more special beers on tap. The parade will include noisemakers, bubbles, signage and typical parade fare, though no floats.

“Twenty years is a nice milestone,” majority owner Lisa Morrison told me. “Besides being a celebration for patrons, we’re honoring the contributions of people who made and continue to make Belmont Station what it is today. People like Joy Campbell, Don Younger and Carl Singmaster, not to mention our awesome staff, past and present.”

Another featured event, mini-Puckerfest, is set for April 7-9. They’ll be pouring at least eight sour beers at all times during the weekend. A number of special beers from well-known breweries will be released, including one from de Garde called, “The Station.”

“As part of mini-Puckerfest, we’ll be doing another Battle of the Blends competition,” Morrison said. “Two teams made up of Belmont staff produced blends with Cascade Brewing. Patrons will vote on their favorite for the insufferable bragging rights.”

The weekend of April 14-16 is mini-Bigger Badder Blacker fest, featuring a Deschutes night with an Abyss variant, Black Butte 25-28 and a vintage bottle sale, plus other offerings through the weekend from Ninkasi, Fort George and more.

Next up is the annual Samuel Smith's Salute on Tuesday, April 18. Tom Bowers of Merchant du Vin will showcase the iconic brewery and its place in modern craft beer culture. There will be bottles pouring at the bar and Tom will lead the annual Samuel Smith salute during the course of the evening.

The party finishes up on April 20, with Lagunitas tapping Waldo Special Ale at 4:19 p.m. (so it can be in your glass at 4:20). Sixpoint will contribute their Puff to the party (including Puff rolling papers) and Laurelwood will have a special 4/20-themed IPA.

Old-timers will recall that Belmont Station was the only place of its kind when it opened next to the Horse Brass. Campbell and Younger launched the small store largely because Horse Brass patrons kept asking to purchase imported beers and other specialty items. They caved.

“We were just slightly more than an afterthought next to the Horse Brass,” says Chris Ormand, who spent a decade at the Station before joining General Distributing last year. “We sold novelties, specialty food and off-beat videos, most of it imported from the UK. And beer.”

They stocked some 400 bottles in those days. It’s hard to fathom given present circumstances, but each bottle was displayed with a price tag. The actual beer was stored in large walk-in coolers. Customers would jot down a list of what they wanted and give it to the clerk, who would round up the beers.

The beer selection has exploded, obviously. Modern Belmont Station carries some 1,500 beers, ciders and meads in bottles and cans, and also features 23 rotating taps pouring some of the best beer in the city. It’s a Cheers bar for many locals (myself included), as well as a destination for tourists.

“There truly was nothing like Belmont Station when Joy and Don launched it 20 years ago,” Morrison says. “It was a big deal when my business partner, Carl Singmaster, joined as co-owner, moved it to the current location and added the beer bar.”

Belmont Station is generally regarded as the best bottleshop and beer bar in Portland. They were again recognized at the Oregon Beer Awards as our Best Beer Bar and Bottleshop. But Morrison takes the high road.

“I guess we are looked at as setting the standard for what a bottle shop and beer bar should be,” she said. “That’s something we strive for. I like to think we’re respected for our knowledgeable service, our friendly and cozy atmosphere and the fact that we've been consistent through the years.”

Keep in mind that many of the events happening during the 20/20 festival are still being finalized. Check the Belmont Station website for updated details as the celebration gets closer.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Squeamish Market Breaks Buyout Momentum

Here we are nearly three months into 2017 and not a single notable US craft brewery has been bought by big beer. That's not the scenario many predicted. After several years of intense activity, many expected to see more buyouts this year. Nope. What the hell?

A good part of what's going on can be traced to the dramatic craft slowdown that occurred in mainstream outlets during 2016 and is continuing into 2017. The other day I talked about why the slowdown isn't as serious as the data suggests. That logic still holds.

Indeed, it's clear that craft growth is happening in smaller outlets that aren't tracked by IRI or Nielsen. Beer bars, breweries, taprooms, growler stations and related outlets have multiplied like rabbits in recent years and are stealing a lot of volume from mainstream stores.

And collapsing sales in mainstream grocery and convenience stores are a serious issue for potential craft suitors. Missed sales projections by large and small brands and an imploding category have deal makers like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors on edge. They're afraid to pull the trigger.

Fear of a sagging market isn't the only reason checkbooks aren't opening. The big box slowdown means it's now a buyer's market out there. Deals that were being negotiated or contemplated are dead or being reevaluated. Paying too much for something that tanks is a risky career move.

The uncertainty extends to other buyers. Private equity is in the same boat as AB and MC. They see a soft market that looks increasingly risky. Reports suggest some of the more recent private equity acquisitions haven't panned out very well. Craft is no longer an investment darling.

Another bad hombre is debt. The industry is swimming in it. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors both have it, thanks largely to MegaBrew. They'd like to pay it down before they take on any more. Brewers have debt problems, too. Many borrowed to finance expansion when things were booming. Now they're stuck. They can't afford to sell at the prices suitors are offering or might offer. Debt is a double-edged sword in a sketchy market.

Consider the case of Speakeasy Brewing, which just closed. They've been around 20 years. They took on debt to expand. But the growth they expected failed to materialize. They were badly over-leveraged and sought capital to keep going. Lenders wouldn't play ball in this market and they were forced to close. This may be a common theme until things stabilize.

As far as the big boys go, they're moving from acquisition to consolidation, focused on the craft brands they have. The High End is putting a lot of effort into getting its beers in grocery sets around the country. That's going to be the status quo for awhile and it's going to impact small brewer access to shelves in large stores and national chains.

The flip-side of that effort is a place like the recently opened Breakside brewpub in Slabtown. Breakside has built a solid reputation with great beers. It distributes fairly widely. But the Dekum pub is tiny and the Milwaukie facility is for production. Breakside wanted a stronger presence in the local market. So it invested a lot on a marquee location that will achieve just that.

My newest (anonymous) industry friend predicts we're moving toward a system that is both hyper-local and hyper-national. He sees the High End and related MC brands eventually dominating national chains, while smaller breweries, like Breakside, dominate local pubs and such. He may be onto something. We shall see.

As for buyouts, don't expect to see many for awhile. The indicators are too negative. Breweries that took on debt expecting high growth or a big buyout are in deep trouble.

Monday, March 6, 2017

About Craft Beer's 'Big Funk'

Craft beer is in a bit of a funk. That subject has been discussed widely, of late, including here. The numbers are quite shocking, honestly. But there may be an explanation that doesn't spell imminent doom for the industry.

It's no secret that 2016 was a shitty year for craft beer. For the first time in a long time, growth lagged badly. That was the theme carried forth by Dan Wandel of IRI in his year-in-review presentation for the Brewers Association. Craft beer growth "slowed suddenly and substantially," Wandel said.

Below are a few gory details from his presentation:
  • Off-premise craft growth, double-digit 2004 to 2015 in supermarkets, dropped to 6.3 percent in 2016. That was better than the beer category as a whole (up about 3 percent), but a fairly alarming decline from recent years.
  • Though every region saw double digit growth in 2015, not one region performed as well in 2016, although the Southeast was close at 9 percent.
  • More than half of the country's top craft brewers lost share in 2016.
  • Seasonals, the second largest craft sub-category after IPA, were down 6.3 percent. They lost 2.3 share points (16.7 percent share of the craft category). Yikes!
  • New brands, which consumers are turning to, helped offset seasonal losses. But if new brands were removed from the numbers, craft would be in modest decline for the year.
  • Things aren't improving in early 2017. Craft velocity in supermarkets is the slowest its been since 2014, the worst slowdown in the history of craft tracking.
There's a lot of speculation as to why we're seeing this apparent collapse. Everyone has an opinion, obviously, and there are bad guys, trolls and whipping boys lurking. I'll get to what I think it is a reasonable explanation momentarily. For now...

Bad hombre #: Marijuana, which is is growing like crazy where it's legal and, some believe, stealing share from beer. Wandel mentioned a survey that suggests legalized marijuana is leading to decreased alcohol consumption and, eventually, a 7 percent decline in beer industry revenue.

Bad hombre #2: Canned wine. Yep. There are now more than 30 varieties of wine available in cans and, per Wandel, they're selling like mad in supermarkets. Millennials apparently love the stuff. The wine hucksters even had the gall to advertise during the Super Bowl.

Bad hombre #3: Turbulence in the industry. Something like half of the top 25 craft breweries have experienced leadership changes over the course of the last two years. Hard to know the specifics of why that's happened, but some think it has destabilized the industry to some degree.

Bad hombre #4: Unsustainable numbers. When craft growth was consistently in the teens, it was up, up and away. But many people figured that kind of growth couldn't last forever. For one, it's tough to keep putting up such numbers once you reach a certain size. It becomes impossible.

As I said, everyone has an opinion. Many in the industry are grasping for answers, desperately wondering why craft beer is in a funk. This is big business, after all, with a lot of money involved. It's easy to understand why everyone demands answers.

I have a hard time buying most of the suggested answers. Marijuana is legal in a handful of states. It's sucking significant share from craft beer? Doubtful. Canned wine? Fine. It's selling. So are spirits. There's competition. Nothing new. Leadership upheaval? Exactly how is that causing sales to bomb? The unsustainable numbers argument is the only one that makes sense.

In fact, craft beer probably isn't in as much trouble as IRI (or Nielsen) stats suggest. Independent craft brewers will face serious challenges in grocery as AB expands its High End brands into new markets and pushes smaller brands out. But that project will take some time.

What's going on is that craft growth is happening outside the view of IRI, which mainly tracks sales in large national chains. More and more beer is being sold directly to consumers in breweries, pubs and taprooms. For the most part, IRI isn't getting a whiff of those numbers.

This altered model is a result of new breweries opening around the country. Local craft beer is more readily available than ever. Consumers who once bought craft beer in supermarkets now have other options. That change is causing an apparent drag on growth due to the way IRI data is collected.

How many more breweries we can support? Who knows? It isn't infinite. I think there's still room for smaller breweries targeting mostly local clientele. Distribution in grocery isn't going to be a viable option for most small breweries due to the power and reach of big beer.

For now, don't get too excited about stories announcing doomsday scenarios for craft beer. Most of those stories are based on data that's hopelessly obsolete. The industry faces challenges, for sure, but those challenges probably aren't quite what they appear to be.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Breakside, Younger Steal OBA Show

Breakside Brewing and Don Younger dominated Tuesday evening's Oregon Beer Awards, presented in front of a packed house at Revolution Hall. The industry-centric affair, sponsored by Willamette Week, coincided with the release of the 2017 Beer Guide.

Breakside walked away with 10 medals, including four golds. It won two medals, a bronze and a gold, in the hotly contested IPA category. It's not all that surprising to see Breakside do well.Their beers are well-made and have won medals in a lot of places. But seeing them win 15 percent of the total medals awarded in 22 categories was somewhat shocking.

Jeff Alworth, who is few years younger than me and slightly less of a curmudgeon, speculates in his event recap that Breakside winning so many medals is a little awkward. It's awkward because Breakside's head brewer, Ben Edmunds, organizes the OBA judging. Yup.

In fact, it would be pretty impossible to mess with the tasting results. Beers are numbered and tasted blind. Numbers become names when the winners are chosen. Ben would have to be pretty shifty to alter the outcomes. Also pretty dishonest. I can't see it. Claims of impropriety remind me of an NFL pool I ran for many years with a friend. Whenever we won money, people complained that we were fixing the results. That was quite impossible. I had no power to modify picks or results. Such is the case with Ben Edmunds and Breakside. It just looks awkward.

Don Younger, who passed away in 2011, was honored for Lifetime Achievement. Younger, you will recall, was owner of the Horse Brass. Very early on, the Old Tavern Rat became a passionate advocate for Oregon craft beer. His energy and promotional ideas helped make Portland what it is. He is one of a handful of local icons who essentially launched the craft beer industry here.


Organizers showed a wonderful video, created by Lucas Chemotti and Ezra Johnson-Greenough. It featured comments from folks who knew Younger well...Jerry Fechter (Lompoc Brewing), Karl Ockert (founding brewer at Bridgeport Brewing), John Foyston (Oregonian for many years), Carl Singmaster (Belmont Station), Fred Bowman (co-founder of Portland Brewing) and others. It was a fabulous tribute. Follow the link above if you haven't seen the video.

With respect to the results, I'm not going to pile on and post them here. No point. You can chase them down in a variety of places, including here. There are always surprises. That's what happens when beers are judged anonymously. Some beers that are well-regarded don't do well. Some that aren't regarded at all do. That was definitely the case this year, as it was last year, the first time blind judging was used.

The event itself has grown in popularity, complete with red carpet interviews. This was the second year at Revolution Hall and it sold out for the first time. That led to some issues with folks entering the venue. I arrived fairly early and waited only a few minutes to get in. Folks who showed up later, like Jeff, got stuck in long lines and were not happy.


Organizers actually anticipated problems herding people through the door, having experienced it last year, They made a concerted effort to shepherd people into the venue via multiple lines. Somehow, it didn't work out. For some reason, Portlanders accustomed to waiting in single file lines (possibly for rare specialty beer) wanted to enter the venue that way. Doh!

Once inside, there seemed to be ample seating in the theater. I sat in the balcony area and enjoyed panoramic views. There were the usual lines for beer. Hey, these are pro drinkers. What did you expect? They didn't mess with food this year, avoiding last year's free-for-all fiasco. If you wanted or needed to eat, there was a food truck parked outside. Problem solved.

After last year's event, which packed the venue about as tight as it was Tuesday night, I wondered if organizers might consider moving to a larger venue. They're kinda stuck. They need something larger than Revolution Hall, but smaller than the Schnitz. There isn't much in-between that would work for them, I'm told. That will force them to figure out how to make Revolution Hall work.


Speaking of Revolution Hall, everyone knows the building originally housed Washington High School, right? Sitting upstairs gave me the opportunity to snoop around while sipping a beer. There's some amazing history on display in the trophy/memento cases. That part of Revolution Hall is worth a look if you're into that sort of thing. Very cool surprise.

My thanks once again to Martin Cizmar and Willamette Week, for asking me to be part of OBA judging and the 2017 Beer Guide. Special thanks to Steph Barnhart, Ezra Johnson-Greenough, Ben Edmunds and the countless volunteers (you know who you are) without whom this event would not happen. I hope to see you next year.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why Beer Won't Go the Way of Music

Forty years ago this month, I began what would end up being a seven year stint in the record business. I was in college when I started and it was the first long-term job I'd had. It was part-time for several years, then mostly full-time for the last three or so years.

Music was a commodity in those days. There was no iTunes or Amazon from which to buy music. There was no Spotify or Pandora. If you wanted a song or album, you went to the record store and bought it. Unless maybe you could borrow it from a friend to record.

In fact, record stores in those days were a lot like bottleshops. We catered to folks who enjoyed listening to music and had to buy a record or tape to do so. Today's bottleshops cater to folks who enjoy beer, which they have to physically buy and drink. Beer is very much an analog product.

I got that job at Budget Tapes & Records mainly because I spent too much time and money on records. The owner had stores in two cities and got used to seeing me in both. That's because I went to school in one city and lived in the other during summers and breaks. I never applied for a job. He asked me to work for him because he needed occasional part-time help in both stores.

The owner, Mike, was a crusty fellow. I came to like him, but a lot of store patrons didn't. Vinyl records in those days often had flaws that would cause skips. Mike loved to challenge and badger customers who felt they had purchased defective product. It wasn't a pretty sight. His nickname among local businesses was, "Bad." Not ideal.

On the other hand, Mike could be quite a character. He drove a fancy GMC van when I worked for him. One day he asked me what was different about his van. I couldn't say, didn't notice anything. It turned out he had gotten the GMC logo (in several places) changed to MCG, his initials. That to me was always funny.


He became a rabid basketball fan and developed a friendship with George Raveling, then the basketball coach at Washington State. Raveling would come into the store looking for rare stuff. We'd scurry to find it, which often meant special ordering it. We also curated the music played during pre-game warm-ups at home games.

Selling records and tapes was mostly a good gig. Ordering and inventory control was painful without computers, but selling was fun. If you've seen the documentary on Tower Records, you know how wild the business was during those years. The money, booze and drugs flowed.

Mike's life jumped the tracks at some point in the late seventies. He had opened a third store by that time. Soon he was divorced and candying up his nose. The pitfalls of rapid success, I guess. Several years later, he was arrested for running coke and wound up doing a stint in prison.


Around that time the record business was transitioning to digital. Compact Discs cost several times as much as vinyl in those days. Many small stores didn't have the money to play that game. Mike's stores eventually folded or were sold. Stores that survived the transition generally enjoyed good times through the nineties, as consumers converted collections to CD.

Of course, it would all come tumbling down. For all its promise, digital turned out to be box office poison for the record industry. Consumers, miffed for years by high prices, happily discovered CDs could be converted to compressed files and easily shared. The industry, long dependent on selling a commodity, collapsed.

A similar outcome isn't likely with beer, which can't be digitized. Beer will remain a commodity until someone figures out how to reduce it to a pill or computer file. That probably won't happen anytime soon, good news for the owners of beer bars and for people who like to drink beer.

Closing the loop on my story, I recently learned that my old friend and boss passed away several years ago. He had straightened up, evidently, and drove a bus for the local transit system for years. I can easily picture him driving a bus around and chatting with riders. He had the gift of gab.

We shared good times and plenty of shitty beers. Thanks for the indelible memories, Mr. Gaede.



Sunday, February 19, 2017

Beware the Coming High End Tsunami

Nikita Khrushchev infamously said, "We will bury you." That was 1956. While there is some question as to the accuracy of the translation, Khrushchev clearly intended it as a shot across the bow of the capitalist world. The Soviet Union was putting the world on record.

Our friends at Anheuser-Busch are more subtle than the blustery Khrushchev, who had a knack for making outrageous comments. AB is quietly implementing a plan designed to bury independent craft brewers. And they might just pull it off.

The so-called High End is leading the charge. As you know, Anheuser-Busch has been busy collecting craft brands over the last several years. There are 10 breweries in the High End collective at this point, with a few more likely to be assimilated.

You might not know it, but the High End kicked ass in 2016, a pretty lousy year for craft beer. The High End's growth rate hit 32 percent, easily trumping the craft segment's single digit growth. Bigly. Every High End brand grew and they're all showing continued growth into 2017.

Don't give the AB charlatans too much credit. Brand building isn't their specialty. But they've learned a thing or two about the craft world, probably by osmosis, as a result of acquisitions. And they have the supply chain, the production efficiencies and the distribution network to leverage their brands.

They aren't standing still for 2017. Instead, they plan to triple their current volume. That's a gigantic goal and probably not remotely attainable. But they aren't just pipe dreaming. They have a plan:
  • Goose Island, the only High End brand family with a national presence, grew 27 percent last year. They expect continued fast growth. Goose IPA, up nearly 80 percent. became the #3 IPA in the land. Much of that success came via aggressive keg discounting in on-premise accounts. AB wants Goose IPA to be #1, which likely means heavy discounting in grocery, where the brand does less well. Expect them to follow-through on that.
  • Seattle-based Elysian will be the High End's next national brand. Despite damage done by the buyout, Elysian has been a big winner in its home market. The flagship, Space Dust IPA, was up over 300 percent last year and will be taken national in March. AB believes Space Dust can be a strong player nationally. Quite possibly.
  • Other High End brands will expand into new markets. Golden Road's Wolf Pup Session IPA, a fast mover, will tap 30 new markets. 10 Barrel, our Oregon-based friends, will launch Joe IPA in 28 new markets.
  • To support growth and expansion, AB is putting field reps in all High End markets and boosting investment in the home markets of their craft breweries. Each brewery will have a regional sales manager to support expansion. Why? Because AB can afford it and they've figured out that these investments are crucial to supporting growth.
  • AB is still trying to figure out what to do with some High End brands. Four Peaks will apparently venture outside Arizona and Devil's Backbone will take baby steps outside Virginia. There's nothing much happening with Blue Point, though it will get a significant brewery expansion. Karbach is so new that marketing plans are pending.
A few years ago, I figured Anheuser-Busch's effort to invade and co-opt the craft beer industry was doomed. They just didn't seem to get it. No more. With small breweries continuing to open at breakneck pace in a largely saturated and flattening market, competition is getting intense. In that scenario, the High End looks well-positioned to assume a strong, perhaps dominant position.

There's a simple, but quintessential piece of intel driving this: Anheuser-Busch has come to realize that, as craft beer has moved into the mainstream, consumers have, too. Simply put, the beer geek consumer who is fixated on high quality, local beer is increasingly in the minority.

What we appear to have today is an emerging pool of consumers who care little about where a beer is made or who makes it. That has opened the door for good beer and good value, particularly in the grocery channel. Through that door Anheuser-Busch is driving a fleet of High End semis.

There's a tsunami coming. And it's not good news for independent craft brewers.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Beer Party PDX to Hold Inaugural Fundraiser

A few weeks ago, a group of beer industry operatives met to discuss ways to support civil rights and democratic values. I wasn't at that meeting. But these amazing folks just announced that their initial fundraising event will happen on President's Day, Feb. 20.


The group, Beer Party PDX, plans to hold an ongoing series of events focused on promoting values many in the beer community support. Monday's inaugural event will benefit the American Civil Liberties Union, which is currently leading court battles on numerous fronts.

Participating beer bars include Bailey's Taproom, Bazi Bierbrasserie, Beer Mongers, Belmont Station, The Imperial Bottleshop, Lombard House, Roscoe's, Saraveza, The Thirsty Sasquatch, The Upper Lip, Tin Bucket and Uptown Market. Virtually every corner of the city is covered.

The way it works is simple. Every time patrons buy a beer that's been donated by a long list of breweries and cideries, 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the ACLU. Yep. These folks aren't kidding around. They're all in.

Folks who have donated kegs: Baerlic, Base Camp, Bull Run Cider, Burnside, Cider Riot!, Coalition, The Commons, Crooked Fence, Culmination, Double Mountain, Heater Allen, Machine House, Matchless, Montavilla, New Belgium, Ninkasi, Pfriem, Ruse, Three Magnets, Uptown Market and Vertigo. Lots of good stuff!

A little more on Beer Party PDX. It is comprised of local bar and brewery owners, brewers, business consultants and writers. As a collective, they see the need to help defend attacks on freedom of speech, the environment, voting rights, etc., things under attack in the Trump era.

Group membership isn't limited to folks from the beer community. If you have complementary values and want to get involved, visit the group Facebook page or send them an email at beerpartypdx@gmail.com. 

I'll be supporting the launch party at my local pub on Monday. I hope the event will be well-attended across the city. Look for future events on the group Facebook page and in places like this.