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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Summer Festivals Beat Each Other Up

The first time I attended the Oregon Brewers Festival in 1991, it was a revelation. Drinking good beer while mingling with folks in a great outdoor setting was an unknown experience in those days. It felt rather odd and at the same time pretty cool.

For years and years, the OBF was the only significant show in town. If you missed the festival experience for whatever reason, as I did when I was out of town in 1992, you were stuck waiting until the following year. Not much happening in-between.

Fast forward to modern times and things have changed dramatically. There are now numerous festivals crammed into the calendar. If you can't or don't want to be a rock star brewer, the next best option is apparently to have your own beer festival.

I blame Art Larrance and the Oregon Brewers Festival. Because if the OBF hadn't set the stage, then created and refined the template for what a beer festival should be, we probably wouldn't have all of these events popping up, competing against one another. But never mind.

The proliferation of festivals, a fact of life, has now reached the point where they threaten one another's well-being. There simply isn't enough room on the calendar to accommodate everyone, particularly during the peak summer season. As a result, events are piling on top of one another, inhabiting the same dates.

This weekend is a perfect example. We've got multiple events vying for the time, attention and dollars of beer fans. I attended Brewfest in the Park. It wasn't necessarily an easy decision. Competing events include the Portland International Beer Festival, Kriekfest out at Solera in Parkdale, and a host of worthy smaller events.

How Brewfest in the Park (formerly the Organic Beer Festival) and PIB wound up on the same weekend is sordid story. A couple of years ago, PIB unilaterally took the Organic Fest's June dates. The Organic folks caved and moved their event to August, a change that didn't work out for them. This year, Brewfest organizers decided to reclaim their original dates, putting them up against PIB. The PIB folks aren't happy. But who started this? Ezra has some answers here. Bigly!

It was evident during my Friday afternoon stay at Brewfest that having multiple events in the same calendar space is having an impact. There was never much of a crowd and it was never remotely busy. You might attribute some of that to changing dates. Fine. But I've never seen so few people at any large Portland festival, at least not in recent times. Nope.


It occurred to me that poorly attended fests are the coming reality unless there's more collaboration and cooperation among the festivals...a laughable notion. There's money to be made and everyone thinks their festival can win the war for patrons. So they'll carry on. I doubt we'll see any significant cooperation until attendance at individual fests bottoms out.

With respect to Brewfest, the updated layout of trailers and shade tents seemed pretty decent. I had as many mediocre beers as I had good ones, but I'm a snob and I didn't taste everything on the menu. I didn't miss the lack of live music. But I did miss being able to easily find drinkable water between beers, which should never be an issue. No excuse, folks.

What's the future of Brewfest? Even if this winds up being a lousy attendance year, which seems likely, the event will carry on. Switching dates is always a concern, even if competition isn't. These folks are connected to the OBF and know how to run festivals. They will be back, I'm sure.

I'm less sure how competing events are going to share space on the short summer calendar. So crowded. Maybe event organizers will eventually be forced to consider dates on the fringes of summer. I have no sense at all of how or if this is going to be resolved.

But something has to give.🍻


Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Future of Blogging in a Social Media World

I've said it before. When I started writing this blog six years ago, I had no idea where it would lead. Every year about this time, I like to consider where I've been and where I think I'm going. Is this still a worthwhile project or is it time to call it a day?

The beer world has changed dramatically since 2011. Here at home, Portland's brewery count had started to rise during the great recession, but it was less than 50 in 2011. By the end of 2016, there were 70 breweries here, 105 in the metro area, 261 in the state.

That general theme repeated itself, more or less, around the country. There were roughly 2,400 breweries in the United States at the end of 2012. By the end of 2016, the count passed 5,200. That's an historic explosion. We've never had more breweries in this country.

I had no inkling of what was coming when I started, I launched this blog largely because I had nothing better to do. Laid off in the crash of 2008-2009 and with nothing going on two years later, I figured beer was something I could spend some time with while keeping my writing and research skills (such as they are) reasonably sharp.

I honestly expected to return to corporate work. That didn't happen. Instead, writing the blog drew me deeper into the beer culture here. That would eventually lead to Portland Beer, published in 2013, and to a variety of articles for local and national publications in more recent times.

A lot of what I wrote here the first couple of years is fairly embarrassing to read now. That's because, in my effort to build a wad of content, I wrote previews and reviews of stuff that wasn't worthy of the time or effort. When you've got nothing going on, that's the rabbit hole you fall into.

Although the total number of posts here is about to pass 500, the great bulk of that content was written during the early years. In recent times, my output has slowed down considerably. If I post more than once a week these days, it's a miracle.

That isn't necessarily because I'm bored or lazy. Fact is, the beer media landscape has morphed. I don't know how many beer-centric blogs are out there today, but most of them are less relevant now than they were a few years ago.

Part of the reason is craft beer grew up. It's big business that attracts the attention of mainstream media outlets, including TV and radio. While those outlets may not carry significant weight with serious beer fans, they have a reach with the general public that very few blogs can match.

The more important development of recent years is the emerging power and reach of social media, primarily in the form of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Because of the way social media feeds mingle with user interests, it has become the preeminent marketing tool of craft beer.

That's a bit of an oversimplification, actually. Because social media alone probably wouldn't have become the phenom it has had it not been such a perfect complement to the smartphone and event marketing, which together form the promotional backbone of today's craft beer industry.

It's almost unfathomable in our present circumstance, but people once visited breweries and pubs randomly and drank whatever was available. New beers were released without fanfare. Tap takeovers were unknown. And there were only a few significant festivals. How quaint.

Today, fans are herded to countless tap takeovers, release parties and makeshift festivals. Ever wonder how that works? It's simple. Events are hyped on social media. All a beer-chasing millennial has to do is pull out her phone to find out when and where things are happening. Viola!

That's a far cry from the days when breweries and promoters depended on blogs to preview events and beers. They weren't getting coverage from mainstream media and social media hadn't evolved to the point where it could be relied on. Blogs were an inefficient way to get the word out, but they filled the void. No more.

This blog has never been particularly heavy on promotional content. There are events and breweries I've supported, but that hasn't been a priority. That's fortuitous because blogs as a promotional vehicle are dead. Yep. The action has shifted almost completely to social media, a virtually clearing house for event marketing.

Returning to the original question regarding the future of this (actually any) blog, the key is clearly going to be original, objective content. That's certainly been the focus here for the last couple of years and will continue to be going forward. There is no other viable path.

Having (finally) returned to marginally lucrative corporate work, I can write whatever I want here and not be concerned about it ever making a cent. I'm not sure how often I'll be posting. As anyone who does this knows, worthwhile content does not write itself. It takes time and effort.

For those who have stopped by regularly or occasionally during the past six years, accept my thanks. I don't know how long I'll continue to do this. For now, it remains challenging and reasonably fun. 🍻

Monday, June 12, 2017

Drinking for the Boys in Green and Gold

Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. I had never been to a Portland Timbers match and I honestly had no real interest in changing that. Nope. I watched as breweries, pubs, taverns and other businesses jumped on the Timbers bandwagon. Never bought in.

But along came a smarty pants, busy body friend who likes soccer. She couldn't understand why I hadn't been to a game. "What's wrong with you? It's fun! You should go to a game. Will you go to a game with me?"

Against my better judgment, I agreed. Tickets were acquired and we waited for game day, which was Saturday. Watching the weather all week, it looked like we'd be drenched. Didn't happen.

A lot of advice was passed out along the way. I was supposed to look up and learn the songs and chants. On game day, I was advised to leave my newbie scarf at home and wear one she would provide. "And don't you dare wear blue," color of the visiting bums from Dallas.

I never realized the extent to which the area around Providence Park has become a sort of pregame festing area for fans. It's tailgating without the parking lot mess and open grills. Bars and foodie joints near the stadium were fairly well packed in the hours before the game.

Our first pregame stop was a dive bar where we met up with (her) friends, a flock of pool playing millennials. The joint reminded me of busted up places where I drank illegally when I was in high school back in the dark ages. Except no draft beer. Only cans and bottles in this dump. Not many choices, either. My first (and only) beer was a Rainier. Nasty, inauspicious start.

Shortly, most of the group departed for the stadium. They had acquired wristbands earlier and were off to claim their places in the Army. Our tickets were in the same area, but on the reserved side. We had time for more beer, thank goodness. Where to? We wound up at the Civic Taproom, which was packed. One beer and we headed to Uno Mas for some pre-match food. And more beer.

After that, we made our way into the Stadium and found our seats. Also more beer. There were some decent options, honestly. But maybe more beer wasn't such a great idea in retrospect. We kept drinking and it crept up on us by the end of the night. No one was driving, fortunately

The pregame shenanigans inside the stadium were both funny and charming. Timbers fans holding up keys and chanting for the visiting bums to go home. Good stuff. Then the National Anthem and the twisting and twirling of scarfs at the end of each line. That was endearing. I might go back just for that.

Between the chanting, drinking and chatting back and forth, I'm not sure how much of the game my millennial friends caught. One of the great things about soccer is the nonstop action...well, nonstop until someone flops and they have stoppage. But constant action is a drag on social time. My friends didn't seem to be having it, chatting each other up incessantly.

At the half, we moved over to where (her) friends were sitting in the Army, a few rows from the front. There's a lot of noise, pageantry and action there. My pal suggested that I grab a flag and wave it around. She provided brief instruction. It was all good until I nearly conked a nearby fan on the head. That was more or less it for the flag.

As for the match, the Timbers scored two goals right in front of us. The first one I saw vaguely as I was headed out the tunnel for a restroom break. My friend was headed back in with...more beer. Perfect. The second goal happened as we watched from the Army. Brilliant. Confetti blast off. Dallas had some shots on goal, but never got much going. Timbers 2, Dallas 0.

Here's where we might have been smart. Having consumed a fair amount of beer over the course of several hours, maybe more beer wasn't the best idea. But the postgame celebration was on and, anyway, getting transit out of there right after a game can be dicey. We headed over to the Kingston for...more beer. Pure genius.

An hour later, someone suggested we stumble over to the nearby Mazatlan. Why not? After all, "We're still standing." So the collective somehow traversed the street, entered the bar and occupied a table. Amazing. That positioned us to place orders for...more beer. Fortunately, snacks were involved. Wise. And karaoke. Not wise, but highly amusing.

It was half past midnight when we (finally) requested a Lyft out of there. Kind of surprising how quickly the driver materialized. She was nice, clearly had some experience carting drunk folks around in the early morning hours. By now, the rain that was supposed to have arrived earlier was pinging down softly, a symbolic end to a perfect evening.

There's something persuasive about these Timbers games. The nonstop action is a pleasure to behold and maybe what honest sport is all about. The players are fit and coordinated. The lack of timeouts means fans aren't constantly barraged with obnoxious ads. And, of course, the fan participation. It's an appealing combination.

I now realize that experiencing a Timbers match in person is the key to getting interested. Watching on TV just doesn't do the experience justice. So I thank my kind (and awkward) millennial friend for dragging me out to the park and her friends for putting up with me. Good folks, they are.

With all that said, I recognize future games, if there are any, will require different beer rules. Hours of nonstop drinking Saturday evening tend to make for a bit of a pudgy Sunday. There's possibly a better way to do this.⚽

Monday, June 5, 2017

Fruit Beer Fest Returns to Burnside

The Portland Fruit Beer Festival, now in its seventh year, returns to its original home at Burnside Brewing this weekend, June 9-11. Organizers expect to pour more than thirty beers and ciders made exclusively for the festival, our premier fruit-oriented beer event.

They're returning to Burnside after a one-year stint at the North Park Blocks. Why? Well, there were additional costs involved in holding the event downtown. When the weather was uncooperative, the attendance necessary to justify those costs didn't materialize. Thus, the return to Burnside.

It's a reasonable move. The Burnside campus is centrally located, with easy access from all quadrants of the city. One of the reasons for the Park Blocks experiment is limited space at Burnside. That venue was packed to the gills and overly congested during several past Fruit Beer Fests.

To address crowding concerns, organizers say they'll spread the beer stations out and provide more shade and seating than in past years at Burnside. They'll also have a smaller, satellite venue across the street. It'll be a neat trick if they're able to reduce the crowding issues, and I hope they can.

When I first realized fruit infused beers were gaining favor a few years a back, I was mesmerized. It's not something I was exposed to growing up, a time when macro lagers were king. I wondered if fruit beers weren't maybe some kind of strange fad connected to the growth of craft beer.

Of course, that isn't really the case. Fruit has been used in brewing for centuries. As local author and blogger, Jeff Alworth, told me, "Except for lager-brewers in Bavaria, basically no one in the history of civilization ever thought using just grain was somehow proper."

What's happened in modern American craft beer is that tastes have expanded to embrace practices employed for centuries and abandoned during the macro lager era. Fruit is part of that and the Fruit Beer Festival has helped build interest in fruit-centric beers, a positive thing.

The beer and brewery list for this event is extensive. I arrived late to the media preview and tasted only a few of the beers. That isn't all that big of a deal since they weren't sampling the entire festival portfolio. You can view the list of standard beers and ciders on the event site here.

In addition to the standards, there will be 3-4 rotating taps dedicated to rare beers outside the regular lineup. Those beers will rotate at various times during the weekend and most will cost additional tickets. There will be special tappings from Firestone Walker, Great Notion Brewing, Crux Fermentation Project, Cascade Brewing, pFriem Family Brewers, de Garde and others.

Festival days and hours:
Friday, June 9: 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Sat. June 10: 11:00 a.m to  9:00 p.m.
Sun. June 11: 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Advance tickets are available online here, with a small added service charge. Buying in advance may save you time getting into the event venue, though I can't guarantee that. Oh, you have two ticket options, basically a choice between a fancy and plain Jane glass. Up to you.

As always, you can get updated info via the event's social media channels: @FruitBeerFest on Twitter and Instagram, search Portland Fruit Beer Festival on Facebook. 🍻

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Summer, Baseball and 3-Way IPA

A sample pack of this year's 3-Way IPA arrived on my doorstep the other day. The FedEx dude didn't even bother to collect my signature. No matter. I quickly schlepped the contents of the package to my beer fridge for chilling.

As many who stop by here know, 3-Way IPA is an annual collaboration between Fort George Brewing and two rotating breweries. This year's rotating team consists of Portland's Great Notion Brewing and Seattle's Reuben's Brews, both well-known for their mastery of IPA.

There's a lot of gibberish in the press materials regarding the forging of long-lasting friendships, exchange of knowledge and so forth. Please. These brewers get together to produce a great IPA while drinking a lot of the same. Let's not make this too complicated.

I don't intend to take a deep dive into how this year's recipe was formulated. Suffice it to say that the team wanted to brew a juicy, hazy IPA. It's just another sign of the haze craze times in which we live. No one knows how long it'll last. And it doesn't matter since these beers are best enjoyed fresh.

After some discussion and, you suspect, a fair amount of drinking, the brewers decided the hops additions would include Azacca, X331 (now Strata), Mosaic and Citra. If you travel the beer bar circuit, you may have tasted one or more of the multiple Beta test batches. The ones I tasted were pretty good. Collaborators tasted, took notes, made refinements.

This beer is nothing like what it's been in past years. I'm still partial to the 2014 3-Way, a mildly hazy hop bomb produced with Boneyard and Block 15. That, of course, was before beer fans went bonkers for hazy, fruity beers. The new 3-Way chases that theme bigly with opaque golden color and bursting juicy flavor. I'm not a huge fan of the haze, but I like this beer a lot.

As has been the case for the past few years, the release of 3-Way IPA serves as a signal that summer is here...or almost here since you never know the timing of summer's arrival in the Northwest. It will be available in cans and on draft throughout most of the Northwest as of June 1st. How long it lasts will depend on demand. It is a limited seasonal, after all.

There was a release party in Astoria last week. Forget about that. Below are dates for official Seattle and Portland release parties, but I think there will be additional opportunities to hang with these folks. Check social media boards for info.

Portland 3-Way IPA Release Party
When: Friday, June 9, 6:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Alberta Street Pub, 1036 NE Alberta St.
What: Join Fort George, Reuben’s, and Great Notion as they kick-start Portland Beer Week. Live music from Boys II Gentlemen, plus plenty of taps from the collaborators including 3-Way IPA.
How: No cover. Robot costumes are optional, but highly recommended.

Seattle 3-Way IPA Release Party
When: Saturday, June 10, 5:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Reuben’s Brews, 5010 14th Ave. NW
What: Reuben’s hosts the 3-Way IPA festivities. They’ll have plenty of Great Notion and Fort George on tap along with 3-Way IPA. Live music mix from DJ Draft Punk.
How: No cover with a chance of a laser light show.
🍻

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Art of Subtle Subjugation

Anheuser-Busch's recent acquisition of Wicked Weed Brewing led to a deluge of blog posts and articles on the dangers of craft brewery buyouts. What started out as a slow stream of acquisitions some years ago has now accelerated. The subtle subjugation of craft is underway.

The big fellas only grudgingly decided to start buying up craft breweries. Why? For years, they assumed craft was a fad that would go away. They figured it would never put much of a dent in their market share and they assumed that dent would be temporary.

They changed their tune only when forced to. Craft brewers put them in a bind. The suits at AB watched their sales volumes take a beating at the hands of independent brewers who had the audacity to make beer with flavor and character. Imagine the nerve of these people.

As the numbers started to skew against them, the big guys developed a strategy to save their own skins. It was a multi-level plan and included the creation of the fake craft brand Shock Top, as well as what has been a carefully imagined acquisition strategy.

Shock Top flopped with serious craft fans. It's had some success as a gateway craft brand with uneducated drinkers, though MillerCoors' fake craft brand, Blue Moon, has been far more successful in creating an actual niche between premium macro and authentic craft.

The acquisition strategy was slow to materialize. You can see the vision by looking at the acquisition map. The geographic symmetry is obvious. They have breweries in Oregon, Washington, California, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Arizona and Texas. That's no accident.

There's still plenty of dirt where they don't yet have craft ownership. They'll likely address that slowly going forward. For now, they own craft breweries in some of the most high profile craft beer states. The geography positions those breweries to compete with independent craft on a local, regional and, yes, national basis.

Of course, we've been concerned about AB's acquisitions for years. The Wicked Week deal may have broken the proverbial camel's back with industry observers. A lot of the chatter involves speculation about how AB will behave in the marketplace in the days ahead.

It's almost comical. Many wonder if AB is serious about squashing independent brewers. Will they use their massive distribution network to cut shelf access? Will they flood the market with High End product and start a price war? Will they limit access to affordable raw materials? Will they use brewpubs to build local brand identities and confuse what craft is and isn't?

Please. This is a giant corporation that has no scruples whatsoever. They're constantly in court over some bullying tactic. The big boys have not enjoyed watching their numbers dive as craft thrives. They will use any tool at their disposal to protect and improve their position in the industry and put craft brewers in their place

That "place" is on the fringe of the industry, removed from the most lucrative profit channels. The effort to squeeze retail distribution and undercut craft on price is already well-underway. That's just the start. They have other anti-competitive measures in the hopper or on the drawing board.

AB isn't necessarily in a big hurry. With craft breweries in their pocket, they're content to ride the wave for now, assuring industry watchers and gullible beer fans that all is well and nothing will change. It's a brilliant sleight of hand, part of the art of subtle subjugation.🍻


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Portland Beer Week Features Events Blitzkrieg

Portland Beer Week returns for 2017, its seventh year, with a veritable blitzkrieg of events, as well as some new twists. The 11-day fest runs June 8-18. It's coming up faster than you think.

This year’s official beer is Hop Berry IPA, brewed with marionberries by Culmination Brewing. It will be available on draft and in limited edition bottles at Whole Foods Markets and other beer-centric retailers in the Portland area.

Although beer is its main focus, Portland Beer Week extends that theme. It features numerous activities that happen alongside opportunities to enjoy great beer. The event is effectively a celebration of Portland’s beer, food and arts culture rolled into one.

“Our goal is to showcase the world of beer in the greatest beer city on earth,” event founder and czar, Ezra Johnson-Greenough, told me. “We do that through brewer’s dinners, tastings, educational seminars, festivals, games and more.”

One of the big additions (actually an expansion, since there was a kickoff event last year) this year is the Kickoff Party on June 8th. There will be breweries, along with food and merchandise vendors. The party is being held in the Exchange Ballroom and on the Cascade Rooftop (top of the Exchange Building), which features spectacular views of the city.

“I’m really excited that folks like the Oregon Cheese Guild are joining us and our collaborative beer and food project vendors like Salt & Straw Ice Cream and Blue Star Donuts,” Johnson-Greenough said. “Kickoff attendees can sample spirits, chocolate, jerky, hop candy we’ll have beer schwag, too.”
 
Another addition this year is the Dinner Series, which features a handful of collaborations between top local breweries and chefs. Organizers have built the schedule so they don’t have dinners piling up on the same date.

“I’m looking forward to Firestone Walker at Hair of the Dog, Culmination Brewing at The Woodsman, Block 15 & Ruse at an Imperial Session pop-up dinner and Modern Times at Pizza Jerk,” Johnson-Greenough said.

Returning this year is the Seminar Series, presented by Oregon State University and the HR Group. Several seminars will explore subjects like beer industry branding, starting and building a brewery from Nano to production, sustainability in brewing, barrel-aging beers and sour and wild ales.

The beer event schedule jumps into action shortly after the Kickoff Party with the Fruit Beer Festival at Burnside Brewing, June 9-11. Billed as a premiere showcase for fruit beers, the event also features local vendors, food, DJ's and non-alcoholic drinks. It's the marquee event of Portland Beer Week.

“We’re back to Burnside after last year’s experiment in the Park Blocks,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re spreading the beer stations out and the venue will have more shade and seating than in previous years at Burnside. We’ll also have more help at check-in to speed entry.”

The Fruit Beer Fest and fruit beers, generally, have gained favor in recent times. It's a little perplexing because  fruit beers run counter to tradition in this country, tradition being infested mainly with light beers made with malted grains. 

Local writer/blogger/author Jeff Alworth (Beervana, The Beer Bible) gave me this quote regarding the historical relationship between fruit and beer:
Fruit has been used since the Sumerians and Egyptians. As far as I know, every culture on earth has used fruit. Beer was, until fairly recently, a product of the farm, and farmers dumped whatever they had in it, including fruit. Medieval accounts list things like tree bark, hen bane, eggs, beans, honey, chimney soot and ashes as ingredients. Except for lager-brewers in Bavaria, basically no one in the history of civilization ever thought using just grain was somehow "proper."
So what's happening in American craft beer is that we are expanding our tastes to include ingredients that have been used for centuries. The Fruit Beer Festival has helped with that. And, of course, the official Portland Beer Week beer, mentioned earlier, is made with fruit. Symmetry.


The next big event of Portland Beer Week is Masters of IPA, an invitational showcasing America's best brewers of IPA's and hoppy beers. It moves to a larger venue with a curated selection, glassware and meet the brewers’ sessions on Friday, June 16th at Ecliptic Brewing.

The annual Rye Beer Fest, in its sixth year, returns with a new date and venue, moving to the Happy Valley Station indoor/outdoor food cart pod and taproom on Saturday June 17th. The all-age fest will pour more than 20 rye beers and have 18 food carts.

Portland Beer Week’s official finale, Snackdown, returns for a second year on Sunday, June 18th, noon to 4 p.m. Presented by Gigantic Brewing and taking place in The Evergreen ballroom above Loyal Legion, it features more brewer and chef pairings.

“I expect another great year,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re reaching out to tourists and casual beer fans in our marketing efforts and it seems like we’re getting more of those folks. Attendance has been increasing every year and I’m confident it will again.”

Stalk Portland Beer Week’s social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updated news and information. Advance tickets for most events are available online.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Shock and Awe in Craft Beer

Last week was not a great one for craft beer industry news. Despite all the good stuff going on, it does occasionally seem like the industry is under siege. Things figure to get more complicated and convoluted as we move forward. We aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Wicked Weed
The first bad news was the sale of North Carolina-based Wicked Weed to Anheuser-Busch. Some, (I include myself), assumed the big boys would stay fairly quiet on the acquisition front after MegaBrew was finalized and given apparent volatility in the industry. Not so.

Wicked Weed is evidently a bit of an odd duck. They've grown fast since opening in 2012 and expect to produce 40,000 barrels this year. They package 85 or so beers annually and their flagship is an IPA (Pernicious), But sours make up 40 percent of their dollar sales. Yup.

Wicked does something like 35 percent of its sales in North Carolina, and also distributes to a handful of other states, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Colorado and parts of Texas. They will certainly expand that footprint as they extend capacity and gradually get immersed in the AB network.

There's a bit of an alignment smash-up coming, say industry sources. It turns out most of Wicked Weed's distribution network, including in North Carolina, is non-AB. That has the makings of a nice little disaster as AB works to align Wicked with its network. Good stuff.

Heineken and Lagunitas
The announcement that Heineken has fully acquired Lagunitas wasn't a huge surprise. Things have evidently gone pretty well since Heineken became 50 percent owner in the company back in 2015. This is the consummation of that momentum.

When considering the deal, it pays to ignore anything Lagunitas founder Tony Magee says or has said. When the original deal was announced two years ago, Magee said he would never sell the whole company to Heineken. So much for that. And Magee's credibility.

The new arrangement is mainly an international play. According to industry sources, Lagunitas will continue to operate as a separate business entity in the US. Magee will stay on as head of the company and will serve in an advisory role on Heineken's global team.

What's going to happen is Heineken will ramp up the expansion of Lagunitas into new markets around the world. That business has grown dramatically during the past year and has huge untapped potential. That's what motivated Heineken to pull the trigger on full acquisition.

Some craft beer geeks won't look at Lagunitas quite the same going forward. But the reality is, Heineken isn't in the same league as Anheuser-Busch, particularly in the US. It doesn't operate a vast distribution network here or have a collection of craft breweries. No comparison, really.

Craft Brew Alliance
Our friends at the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance announced their Q1 results late last week. There was good and bad news.

The good news is that Kona was up 14 percent for the quarter, and continues to drag the company forward. CEO Andy Thomas also said Widmer is growing again in its home market, though overall shipments of both Widmer and Redhook were down.

The biggest bombshell was news that the agreement with Pabst to contract brew and eventually purchase the Woodinville brewery has been terminated. That means the brewery will close and be put up for sale within a couple of months.

Realistically, there wasn't much of a chance the purchase was ever going to happen. It's an antiquated brewery and was/is overvalued on the CBA balance sheet. Selling it will be a chore because the buyer, assuming one steps up, will also have to invest in making the place usable.

Of course, Pabst's position has become tenuous. It brewed mostly Rainier Mountain Ale in Woodinville. But the launch of that brand was botched out of the gate and expected volumes never materialized. Brewing capacity wasn't being used. Then Pabst got itself ensnared in lawsuits over distributor terminations (covered here last week) in Washington. A nice little mess.

The Woodinville closure means more CBA employees will be laid off or re-purposed within the company. Reports put the number at about a dozen. That's on top of the 15-20 who were laid off last year due to lower than expected Pabst volumes and declining production of CBA brands there.

In fact, most of the CBA's Woodinville production moved to the more efficient brewery in Portland. That rush to efficiency and greater profits is a slipper slope. The CBA will soon move some production to AB's Fort Collins plant to improve efficiency. That will mainly affect City Brewing in Memphis, but a reliable source tells me layoffs in Portland are imminent. We shall see.

On the heels of the CBA's Q1 report and the sale of Wicked Weed, there was renewed speculation on the possibility of AB completing a full purchase of the CBA. As noted above, the Wicked Weed sale has some people thinking more deals are in the wind. And maybe they are. Or not.

As discussed here numerous times, Anheuser-Busch covets Kona, but has no interest in Widmer or Redhook. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the CBA strips Kona from its portfolio and sells it to AB separately. So it looks to me like the CBA will at some point be purchased and become a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch, with Kona as the crown jewel.

Motivating Factors
For those who want a better understanding of craft brewery acquisitions, there was a fine article exploring that topic last week. Author Chris Herron suggests the primary motivation has more to do with preserving macro brand equity than with wanting to be in craft beer. That's vaguely at odds with what most of us have generally assumed.

Herron's article is terrific stuff and required reading. Trust me.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Turnover and Turmoil at Pabst

There's a whole lot of crazy in the beer industry. Then you look at Pabst, which is setting new standards for crazy in the Eugene Kaspher era. Someone ought to throw together a script and turn this wacky story into a reality TV hit.

Last week, we learned that nine top level folks were shown the door. They included chief growth officer, Rich Pascucci, with the company since 2011, and chief sales officer, Bruce Muenter, there since 2010. These moves come on the heels of significant restructuring last September.

The thing is, the pattern of turnover and turmoil at Pabst is legendary, established even before Kaspher took over in 2014. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a virtual revolving door of CEOs coming and going. Great way to build confidence in your brands.

Some of the more recent moves are the result of ups and downs in the business. Since taking over, Kaspher has rolled with the punches, adding people during the rapid rise of Not Your Father's Root Beer, laying them off when the brand tanked. Shit happens.

The moves they made last week are evidently part of an effort to streamline and build the organization according to the visions of Kaspher and new CEO, Simon Thorpe. They want to eliminate redundant management responsibilities and make themselves agile.

In fact, Pabst's fortunes aren't looking so bad. After some lousy years, trends for 2017 are moving in the right direction. Overall sales are up 1.7 percent. PBR shipments were up nearly 6 percent in Q1 and regional brands Lone Star, Old Style, Stroh and Olympia all showed growth.

The Pabst portfolio, in case you're wondering, includes a boatload of legacy brands. Besides those listed above, Pabst owns Colt 45, Old Milwaukee, Old Tankard Ale, Rainier, Schlitz, Blatz, Schmidt's, St Ides and others. Fine stuff, ya know.

Anyway, things were evidently looking so good for Pabst that leaders decided to incite more turmoil. They did so by abruptly terminating three Washington wholesalers in February and transferring their brands to Columbia Distributing statewide.

The terminated distributors are Odom Corporation, Stein Distributing and Marine View Beverage. They were each sent letters terminating distribution rights without cause and directing them to transfer existing inventory to Columbia. You can't make this stuff up.

It's an unusual situation. Suppliers rarely terminate distributors without cause. Why? Because that kind of move tends to lead to lawsuits that cause messy, expensive court battles and massive payouts. You're generally wise to avoid such scenarios.

But not Pabst. The terminations are apparently part of its realignment strategy. They want to have their beer distributed exclusively by Columbia in the state. It makes sense, right? Working with a single wholesaler fits with their agenda of simplification and efficiency. Terrific.

The problem is, they're now entangled in lawsuits. The terminated distributors quickly sued Pabst in federal court seeking damages. They, the distributors, fully believe the law favors them and that they are entitled to significant financial damages.

Soon thereafter, Pabst filed a motion to dismiss. It claims Washington law allows termination without cause and, in such cases, that terminated distributors' sole financial remedy is from the successor distributor, in this case Columbia.

For its part, Columbia is playing along. It has connected with and made financial offers to the terminated distributors. It says it is willing to arbitrate with the individual distributors if acceptable terms can't be reached via negotiation.

But no settlements are imminent. Not until the court makes a ruling on the law. Is Pabst right? Are the terminated distributors right? For now, the parties are immersed in a rolling dispute over the law, with motions filed and words flying.

My guess is Pabst has stepped into a quagmire. Its pattern of impulsive behavior is simply being acted out on another stage. The legal argument Pabst is making is a supple one. Chances are, they aren't going to win, which means they'll be forced pay the terminated distributors.

Lawyers and judges will figure this out. However things turn out, the saga makes for entertaining theater. Thanks a lot, Pabst.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Little Beast Sets Up Shop in Beaverton

One of the most anticipated brewery openings in recent times became official Saturday evening. Little Beast Brewing, the creative child of Charles Porter and his wife and partner, Brenda Crow, held a launch party at OP Wurst in Southeast Portland. A fine time was had by all.

I'll get to the Little Beast details shortly. This was a significant event because Porter has a rich brewing background. He co-founded Logsdon Farmhouse Ales with David Logsdon in 2009, then abruptly departed a couple of years back. It took some time to get Little Beast off the ground. Porter lives in my neighborhood and I got vague updates on the project from time to time.

Breweries open every day. You know this. Little Beast is special because Porter doesn't make typical beers and his beers have won awards in significant competitions. His particular talent is producing mixed culture brews that lean on local produce and micro-flora. Barrel-aging and bottle conditioning are part of that, obviously.

In fact, the Little Beast name itself is nicely conceptualized. How so? Because it's the "little beasts" in micro-flora that ferment the farmhouse and wild ales Porter is known for. A degree in biology provides him with an understanding of yeast and bacteria, handy stuff to know if you're going to monkey around with wild and sour beers.

There's a significant and growing interest in these beers. Cascade Brewing has built an empire on its sour beers. DeGarde in Tillamonk has done well with its wild ales, as has Wolves and People out in Newberg. There's also Yachats Brewing, where Charlie Van Meter, who worked with Porter at Logsdon, is producing some uniquely unconventional beers.

Little Beast will for now operate out of the former Brannon's Pub & Brewery in Beaverton. They're occupying the brewing space there while Westgate Bourbon Bar and Taphouse operates the pub portion of the space. This is a relatively inexpensive way to get the brewery up and running and to build a following. A taproom somewhere in Portland is in the future.


Samples of Bes, a tart wheat ale, and Fera, a brett-fermented Saison, were poured at OP Wurst. Porter also shared a few bottled beers around. Everything was pretty tasty. I preferred the Bes to the Fera, but that was a tough call. Many liked the Fera.

Little Beast will offer year-around flagship and seasonal beers in draft and bottled form. Limited, exclusive stuff will evidently be sold direct via some sort of membership. I'm guessing the standards will show up intermittently in area beer bars and bottleshops. There's a tentative list of shops and bars coming and I'll update this post when/if I receive it.

I expect Little Beast to do well. They have a premium product that's somewhat unconventional and Porter is no stranger to brand building. But these are strange times in craft beer. It's getting crowded out there. Nothing comes easy. Porter and Crow know this.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Craft Beer's Frenetic, Trendy New Culture

Last week's Craft Beer Conference spewed a lot of data relating to the state of the industry. Craft segment growth slowed last year. You knew that. And the part of the segment that accounted for the bulk of the growth that occurred is the one that connects most directly with its patrons.

The facts are these: Breweries that produce less than 15,000 bbls accounted for 75 percent of the segment's growth, about 1.4 million bbls. Taprooms did nicely. Brewpubs experienced a great year, up nearly 15 percent to 1.35 million total bbls.

On the other side of the ledger, regional brewers were up just 150,000 bbls or 10 percent of segment growth. Keep in mind that regional brewers account for roughly 75 of total craft volume. In effect, these guys are having their lunch eaten largely by smaller, local breweries.

This theme has been gathering momentum for a while, related to the fact that craft breweries have been opening all over the place. Given a choice, consumers are often choosing local beer over beer produced elsewhere, at least when it comes to craft beer. Remember, craft is still only a small share of overall beer.

This isn't strictly about the quality of the beer. Nope. There's a game being played that involves brand connection. The folks who chase craft beer are driven to connect with brands. Smaller, local brands are much better-positioned to make those connections than stodgy, older breweries.

Who are the beer chasers? Mostly, though not entirely, millennials. Yep. Somewhere along the line, a swath of the millennial generation got hooked on craft beer. Their (21-35) age group is historically the largest beer consumer. But millennials have migrated to craft in droves. Don't ask me why. Maybe because it's one of the few things they can get excited about. We know their trophy cases are full. (I kid.)

The effort to reach this crowd has strategic layers. Breweries strive to project an identity that resonates with the youthful fan crowd. Identities are conceptualized accordingly. The outdoor motif seems in vogue currently. The need to stand out in an increasingly crowded market has led to packaging that carries wild graphics, bright colors and clever names. All that glitters might not be gold, but shiny things can and do attract attention.

Of course, the beer itself is also caught up in what's happening. New interpretations of existing styles, as well as newly imagined styles, are the order of the day. That's more or less how we arrived at the point where hazy IPAs and eclectic fruit and barrel beers have become the rage. Something else will come along soon enough. Trust me.

Don't forget the role of social media in pushing the envelope forward. Smartphone-addicted millennials depend on social media for news and information. That's where brand identities are amplified by some exponential factor, creating chatter that fuels the fan crowd and ignites feeding frenzies for new beers, events, brewery schwag, etc.

What this arrangement has produced is a frenetic, stifling trendiness. Brand churn is accelerating. Beers come and go relentlessly in bottleshops, taprooms and pubs. Brands we saw regularly in past years are nowhere to be found these days, replaced by brands that will themselves be gone in a proverbial flash. Change is a speeding bullet.

Some years ago, a few of us talked about event fatigue. The events calendar was exploding and it was becoming impossible to keep up. That's ancient history now. Today we have widespread industry fatigue. Even people inside the industry have a hard time keeping pace. The gimmicks and gambits used to attract interest in beers are crazy and getting crazier.

Where does this end? Good question. I'm old enough to have seen frenetic trends come and go more than a few times. I suspect the current craft craze will collapse or significantly moderate at some point. That may involve a generational shift in tastes. Or not. But it will happen.