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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Flying the Unfriendly Beer Skies

Despite the growing popularity of craft beers, you don't have to look far to see how the macros continue their efforts to program people into accepting lousy beer. The evidence is everywhere...on TV, on store shelves, on billboards.

The principle is pretty simple. If you bombard people with enough messages associating your beer with good times, you won't have to worry about making decent beer. Anheuser-Busch (InBev) and MillerCoors have been taking this philosophy to the bank for years, and are official proof that this strategy is alive and well.

So it really shouldn't surprise anyone that the reach of the beer conglomerates extends to the airlines. If you want to drink a decent beer while you're in the air, you'll probably have to smuggle it aboard. Terrorist.

Elevating my spirits with this beer list is problematic

First, let me say that I've warmed up to Southwest Airlines. I've gotten used to the cattle call otherwise known as boarding. I actually like the no frills aspects of the airline. They are obviously one of the more efficient air carriers out there. I have nothing against them...well, almost nothing.

A flight to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving gave me a chance to see the current drink offerings on Southwest. That's the booze portion of the in-flight menu you see above. Not a pretty sight. Five bucks for a Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Michelob Ultra, Corona or Heineken! Yikes! Standards are obviously pretty low here. 

To me this is just another barrier that needs to be broken down. There's no excuse for any airline to be offering such a shameful list of beers. I'm not suggesting that Southwest should be pouring Pliny the Elder, but it seems to me they could offer a decent pale ale and maybe even something a little darker. A couple of craft choices would be cool.

You hate to assume anything, but my guess is Southwest and other airlines offer what they do because that's what big beer wants them to offer as part of programming. I mean, how can you possibly fly anywhere without the chance to bolster your experience by consuming a tasty Bud Light? Mission impossible. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fire on the Mountain Beers by Design

I want to follow-up on my earlier post about the new Fire on the Mountain location on NE 57th and Freemont. The place has been open for about a month and they are now pouring several beers produced in-house. You can jet back to my earlier piece here if you wish.

A quick review: the FOTM brewing facility was put together with assistance from Craig Nicholls, well-known in the local beer community via his time at Alameda, Roots and as organizer of the North American Organic Beer Festival. Ben Nehrling was hired to run the brewing operation. Nehrling previously worked at McMenamin's Kennedy School. Enough said.

I tripped on up the FOTM the other day, eager to check out the brews. The place has been packed to the gills for much of its first month. Knowing that, I got there in the late afternoon just in time to find a spot in the bar area. Tasters up!

The FOTM lineup: NW Pale, Wheat, IPA, Amber
Another quick preface: FOTM previously announced they would be offering 4-5 house beers to go with what has historically been a strong guest selection. Besides the four beers I tasted, they expect to release Wonderin' Rye this week. I'm told they also have a stout and a lager waiting in the wings.

Moving right along, there is nothing earth shattering here. The four taster beers are all very clean and pleasantly unoffensive. They have very little bold character. The Eleven (brewed on 11/11/11) is a very drinkable pale. X-tinguisher Wheat has a nice citrus character courtesy of the Sorachi Ace hops. Shocks of Sheba IPA (inspired by KBOO's reggae program) is an organic IPA with middling character. Hoosier Amber has nice layers of malt and a smooth finish.

It would be easy to pan these beers as completely inadequate. But hold on. Step back and consider the big picture here. Fire on the Mountain is mostly about food. And they serve up a lot of spicy food. They are best known for their wings, which are served with a variety of mostly hot sauces. Spicy is the name of the game here. 

After I tasted of the four beers and made brief notes, I suggested to myself that the beers were perhaps designed to go with the food. Luckily, I had some hot wings on the way to verify that thought. Sure enough, the beers, particularly the pale and the wheat, went well with the spicy wings.  

Plenty of high octane beer choices

I wanted to get closer to the bottom of this, so I sent FOTM an email asking for some explanation. I made no reference at all to the opinion I had formed regarding the beer and the food. Ben Nehrling responded in kind: 
We serve a lot of spicy food so I am trying to brew some ales and lagers that help cut the heat and refresh your palate. In terms of viewing the recipes as starting points, we have only brewed ten batches of beer so we had to start somewhere.
There you have it. If you're headed out to any of the FOTM locations for a beer, the IPA and the amber offer the most character. Or you can choose from one of the many guest beers. On my trip the guest taps were staffed by Oakshire, Double Mountain, Amnesia, Sierra Nevada and Mt. Hood Brewing. Plenty of high octane beer power if that's what you're after. Did I mention they also have Rainier?

My final thoughts are these: I suspect the FOTM beers will evolve with time and eventually have more character than these opening salvos. But I don't expect these beers to compete with the big players in the styles. If they're going make an award winning beer, it will probably be a pale or wheat beer. That could happen. When you drink these beers, keep in mind what they're all about.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beer in Wine Country: Russian River Brewing

Getting back to my post-Thanksgiving Day tour of California, the second stop was Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa. As noted in the previous installment, Bear Republic was the first stop. Russian River was the inevitable second stop, since it is located between Bear and Lagunitas.

I had high expectations for Russian River. As most beer fans know, they produce some excellent beers, including Pliny the Elder, Blind Pig IPA, Damnation and others. There was probably no way my expectations for this place could have been met.

Line out the door sends ominous signals

First, Santa Rosa. The city was bustling, with lots of traffics and people everywhere. If you're fixing on visiting Russian River, it's pretty easy to find. But the availability of parking is not good and the street parking is not cheap. We were lucky to get a place not far from the pub. That's where our luck ran out.

The place was packed to the gills. It isn't a huge space to begin with, and the hype surrounding this place is evidently bringing in the masses. After waiting in line for a few minutes, a snarky little "greeter" told us it would be about 40 minutes for a table. Terrific.

The beer board was packed with options...like the bar

While my travel companions waited in the outdoor seating area, I looked over the beer menu on the board above the bar. All the usual stuff was there and more. The folks at Russian River, like brewers in Oregon and elsewhere, are engaged in barrel aging and sour beer production. This was news to me. But I digress.

I hung out in the four-deep mosh pit by the bar hoping to get the attention of a bartender. Finally, one asked me what he could do for me. Since I knew there was no seating and this was going to wind up being a quick stop, I ordered the base taster tray...Aud Blonde, O.V.L. Stout, Porter, Russian River IPA, Blind Pig IPA and Pliny. The mistake soon became apparent.

The standard beers were all pretty good. Russian River hasn't made a name for itself with its porter or stout, but those beers were fine. It's the IPA swell that RR has been riding to fame and (I guess) fortune. All the IPAs in the taster tray were good. Pliny has been a favorite of mine, although I'm starting to think it's a bit over-hyped.

The basic taster tray...snarky comments included

The thing is, I should have ordered some of the specialty beers they were featuring. The list was tantalizing. Had things been a little less frenetic around the bar, I likely would have tried to order some combination of barrel-aged and standard beers. Oh well...life goes on.

Russian River makes some fantastic beers. No doubt about it. But my sense is they've had a little too much success and received a little too much hype for their own good. That might help explain the snotty, snarky comments and slow service.

As far as I'm concerned, if I'm looking for condescending attitudes and snarky commentary, I'll go wine tasting. If you're planning a trip to Russian River Brewing, my advice is to visit when the place isn't teeming with yuppies. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Digital Stocking Stuffer

This blog has only been around for about six months. I should have been writing it a long time ago, but somehow never did. The blog was born in connection with what I then assumed to be a larger project: a book focused on Portland's craft beer culture.

The concept behind the book was to provide a reference for casual beer fans. My rationale was simple: A lot of people who go out beer tasting in Portland, whether they come from far away or live in the city, need a guide that provides more than just a list of breweries and where they are. I ran into lots of people who needed something like this while I was working on the book.

For sale on Amazon, iBooks and other sites

My little book is not War and Peace. It would come in at somewhere around 100 pages in print. It features a brief history of the Oregon beer industry and how craft brewing started here. It then explores most of the brewpubs and pubs in the city, broken down by quadrant. Maps and photos are included. There are no formal beer reviews, beyond a general mention of what the destinations typically have on tap.

Beervana Rising can be purchased through the various online vendors, including Amazon and Apple iBooks. The price is right: $4.99. The eBook concept fits in with the idea that people who buy the book can take it with them on their phone, eReader, laptop or tablet computer while pub hopping. Pretty cool!

They say ePublishing is the wave of the present and future. I suspect it is. But I also recognize the importance of getting a get a print version of Beervana Rising out there. That may coincide with a second edition or I may get it done sooner. We'll see.

For now, the digital version is out there. It's a great value. If you have an iPad or iPhone, I recommend making the most of your reading experience by buying the book through iBooks. You can certainly read it using the Kindle app, but the experience is richer from the iBooks app. The price is the same.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nothing Common About The Commons

We keep seeing new breweries pop up around Portland. I sometimes wonder how all these places are going to fare, but you can't dwell on it. It seems the common dream of most brewers is to at some point open a brewery or pub. And so it is.

The Commons Brewery is conveniently located in what beer geeks refer to as the Beermuda Triangle. The Triangle comprises much of Southeast Portland, and includes Hair of the Dog, Cascade Brewing Barrel House, The Green Dragon, Lucky Labrador, Hopworks, Coalition and several others. If you're keeping track at home, you can safely add The Commons to that list.

Double taster tray treat (artistic element added)

This place is the brainchild of Mike Wright, who initially launched the brewery in the comfort of his Southeast Portland garage. Soon thereafter, he decided to shoot the moon and expand his nano brewing setup to a 7 bbl operation in a space large enough to brew and conduct barrel fermentation.

The new facility has been operational for a few months, and only recently opened its doors for tastings. A tasting room and brewery is what you'll find here. Wright says he has no designs on turning this location into a brewpub. He hopes to see his beers distributed in draft and bottled form. Some Commons beers have already been poured at pubs around town. The bottling effort will take some time.

Mike Wright handles the colorful tasters with ease

In contrast to most breweries and pubs, the Commons does not feature what I would describe as typical Portland beer fare. There's no IPA on the beer menu. No imperial IPA, either. They also don't offer a stout or a porter. What they produce is a line of Belgian-influenced beers that are designed to, as they put it, "enhance social interaction."

The board shows two standard, year-round beers, along with a couple of seasonal offerings. Then there's the Beetje (pronounced bee-cha) Series. Beetje is a Flemish word, meaning little or little bit. The term refers to small batch beers that are produced at the Commons using predominantly organic ingredients. Four Beetje beers graced the board when I stopped by.

The beer board with plywood motif

Tasting Spree
I opted for the double-fisted tasting experience: Eight wildly colorful beers in exquisite glass ware...and every one of them pretty good. I had several favorites, although opinions will certainly differ.

Urban Farmhouse Ale (5.3% | 27 IBU) This is the lightest of the beers on the board, brilliant gold in color. I am not a huge fan of this style, which is often over-carbonated and too yeasty/fruity for my taste. But this is a great beer. I would love to have one of these in the heat of the summer, though it tasted pretty good on a freezin' Friday evening. Light and refreshing with a subtle floral nose. When bottling eventually gets underway, this will be evidently the first beer to go that route.

Little Brother (8.7% | 21 IBU) One of two seasonal offerings, Little Brother is a strong Belgian ale aged in bourbon barrels.  The barrel aging adds some nice character to this beer...not over-the-top like you find with some bourbon barrel-aged beers. Little Brother is reminiscent of a light barley wine, with lots of chocolate and caramel notes. This is the biggest beer made here, although not that big compared to some of the monsters you find around town.

Barrel treatment in progress

Barrel 1 (6.8% | 21 IBU) This is a tart pale ale aged in pinot barrels. I'm a big fan of the sour beers available at the nearby Cascade Barrel House. Those beers only lose me when they get too sour. Barrel 1 is conservatively sour. It's a lovely beer, pleasantly tart and full of flavor. I look forward to seeing this beer available in a bottle.

Some notes
If you're heading over to check out The Commons, please note that tasting days and hours are limited. They are currently open Friday and Saturday evenings. That may change as things ramp up, so check their website, Facebook page or give them a call to verify.

Unlike some of the smaller tasting spots, The Commons DOES take credit and debit cards...in case you're strapped for cash and need a great beer. Indeed, the checkout system is pretty cool.

It probably goes with saying, but these beers are going to respond well to a bit of secondary fermentation in a bottle. It's a style thing. When the bottling part of the operation gets going and Commons beers are available that way, they will be prized purchases. In my opinion.

Finally, there is very limited bar space here, along with a few barrels. You will very likely find yourself walking around exploring the brewery while sipping the beer. No worries. Mike was mingling with the tasters while I was there and he's happy to share what's happening with the beers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Beer in Wine Country: Bear Republic

As I may have alluded to earlier, I spent the day after Thanksgiving touring California wine country. Not for the wine, though. Part of the plan in spending T-Day down there was to soak up some of the local suds.

Vineyards everywhere. Good beer must be close

My top targets were Bear Republic, Russian River and Lagunitas. This was determined to some extent by the map. From where we were staying in Winters (not far from Davis), the map seemed to suggest my primary targets were not all that far apart. The trip in from Winters took longer than I thought it would.

Bear Republic Brewing, the northern-most of the target breweries in Healdsburg, wound up being the first stop on account of when they opened. Lagunitas was the more logical first stop, but they wouldn't be open when we got to Petaluma, according to their website. It turned out they opened earlier than advertised that day. Silly me for believing what I saw on the web.

Lovely fall colors on display at Healdsburg's city park

Healdsburg is a very cool place. Lots of shops up and down the main street area. We arrived 15 minutes or so before Bear Republic opened. I loitered in front of the pub for a few minutes and took some pictures, then stalked across the street to a park where leaves were falling in the face of Christmas decorations.

The Bear Republic pub is a nice space, with high ceilings, a long bar and plenty of table seating. They have a patio area that undoubtedly fills up nicely in the warmer weather. It was enclosed with the kind of clear vinyl you see around Portland during the cooler months...which is to say most of the year.

The front of the Bear

By the way, they appear to have a substantial production facility just north of the pub. There's no way they could support the demands of the pub and their distribution with the brewery in the pub building. There's a brew kettle and mash tun near the bar. They are mostly for show, I'd say, though it looks like they are being used, probably for small batches.

We sat down at a table and ordered a taster tray that included pretty much everything they had available...the standard house ales and the seasonals. It was lunchtime and food was in order. The menu choices are typical of what you find in most pubs, though there are some higher end items.

Formal labels keep confusion to a minimum

Most of the standard Bear Republic beers are well known to me. Red Rocket and Hop Rod Rye are old favs and I've brewed clones of each more than once. XP Pale Ale is a nice light ale, prefect for warm weather. Racer 5 is a serviceable IPA, although it has become somewhat pedestrian due to the hops arms race we've seen over the last few years.

All of the beers from the standard list were excellent. Peter Brown, a brown ale I was not familiar with, was quite nice. I'm not a stout fan, but Big Bear Black was excellent. The rest were true to form. In short, the house beers, which also enjoy pretty wide distribution, seem to be pretty refined. No surprise there. They've had plenty of time to tweak and refine these recipes through the years.

The Bear's old-style bar was bustling

The seasonal beers were disappointing by comparison. I liked Tartare, a low alcohol, vaguely sour beer based on the Berliner Weisse style. Cher Ami, a fruity, spicy Belgian-style ale wasn't bad. Mach 10, a double IPA (100+ IBUs and 9.2% ABV) I've had on draft in Portland, features a megaton blast of hops. Indeed, none of these beers were bad. They just seemed unfinished next to the standards. It makes sense, somehow.

The food was just okay. Soggy fish in the fish and chips. Fries that weren't especially hot when they arrived. A bland burger. I don't like to form an opinion about a pub's food based on a single visit. These guys had just opened and were getting ready for a busy lunch. I'll cut them some slack for now.

When I look at Bear Republic, it's very similar in feel to some of my favorite places in Portland. It's probably a little larger, which makes some sense. The most important point is that the standard beers are really terrific. I'll have some thoughts on that in future posts.

Next up: Russian River Brewing

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Geeking Out of Beer Festivals

On the heels of last week's Holiday Ale Festival, I started thinking about what beer festivals are all about these days. My thoughts on this issue are not solely focused on the HAF, although it may be one of the best examples of the "geeking out" approach.

I'm pretty sure my line of thinking will offend some of my friends and fellow bloggers...fellow beer geeks, if you will. Might as well jump right in with an unflattering photo.

First, the Holiday Ale Festival. A rudimentary look at the beer list reveals that very few of these beers are available to the general public. Not in a bottle, seldom in a pub. Why? Because many of these are limited release beers, some made specifically for this festival. Rare is what they want here.

The HAF has been going down this road for years. Preston Weesner has actively encouraged (pushed may be a better word) breweries to create special beers for this festival. Go back 10 years and you would certainly find more mainstream winter beers in the mix. You know. Beers you could actually buy somewhere.

Of course, we beer geeks love the idea of going to a festival and tasting something no one can get anywhere else. Even if it's just a tweaked version of something we can get in a bottle or on draft. We like the experience of seeing what brewers can do when they have a blank canvas. We actually encourage brewers to extend themselves in sometimes crazy directions. We are geeks, after all.

Back in the day, festivals tended to focus on "gateway" beers. Gateway beers are beers that can introduce non-geeks to a craft line or style. The definition of a gateway beer has certainly changed over the course of the last 10-15 years. But the festival culture, and I'm not just talking about the HAF, seems increasingly to be moving away from the gateway concept.

So where does this leave the casual beer fan? Does the casual beer fan come to a beer festival to experience rare and eclectic beers? Have the pallets of casual beer fans in Oregon advanced to the point where they like the the idea of attending festivals where mostly unworldly beers are served?

The question is, are we geeking out our beer festivals? If we are, is it a good thing? Comments welcome.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Under the Clear Tents: HAF 2011

 After a bit of travail, caused by a power outage that disabled MAX and forced me to ride a bus in the general direction of downtown, I enjoyed several hours at the Holiday Ale Festival Thursday afternoon and evening. Beer fests are always a good time. Why would this one be any different? Hint: It's not.

The Clear Tents
Let me first discuss the venue. Everyone knows Pioneer Courthouse Square is miniature compared to Waterfront Park, which plays host to the gigantic Oregon Brewers Festival. There isn't a lot of space here and organizers have to efficiently use every square inch. They do a good job.

The clear tents lend a spectacular ambiance

Clear vinyl tents are a terrific innovation for his festival. In the old days, it felt a bit claustrophobic under the tents. You couldn't see in or out. Now, we enjoy lots of ambient light (daylight hours) and you can admire the surrounding cityscape, not to mention the nicely lit holiday tree nearby.

The Cost
In my preview post, I discussed the cost of attendance. You pay $25 at the door for a tasting mug and tokens. You also get a program, which is good news. There are some good reasons why the cost is what it is. Winter festivals cost more than summer festivals, for one. Read my prior post here if you want more info.

I honestly believe one of the intended outcomes of charging higher admission is reduced attendance. This has everything to do with the available space. Nothing more. I've seen this place so crowded you couldn't move an inch, to get a beer or otherwise. They'd like to thin it down a bit, I think.

Non-existent lines for most of my stay = treat

The strategy seems to be working. I arrived down there much later than I hoped, around 3 p.m., thanks to the MAX snafu. There were no lines of any kind, for beers or to get in. Even at 5:00 o'clock you could still move around and get a beer with relative ease. When I left around 6:30, it was getting busy. But this was far later than I expected. I'll be interested to see what my fellow bloggers say about the weekend crowds.

The Brews
There are a lot of good beers here. If you're reading this, you'd probably like to know which ones are the best. First, I did not taste every beer. I know because I was able to walk out of the place and onto the MAX. Second, beer opinions are all over the map. I'm already seeing differing opinions on HAF beers from people who know what they're tasting. Opinions will differ. Period.

I tasted around 15 beers and most of them were pretty good...because I chose them from a list before I arrived. Some styles I'm not fond of, and I intentionally kept them off my tasting list. Something like Chocolate Mint Stout isn't going to make my tasting list, although I see it did make Ezra's list over on the New School blog.

The volunteer elves are doing their usual great job

If you're looking for a breakdown of HAF beer types by style, you won't find it here. I tend not be all that interested in stuff like that. However, you can find that list over on the Beervana blog. Jeff produces this list for the most significant Portland beer festivals and his stuff is always top notch. Go there if you want these details, I command you.

Don't Miss
There was a lot of pre-fest buzz over the Firestone Walker Barrel-Aged Velvet Merkin. This is a fantastic beer, loaded with character yet balanced to the hilt. This is a stout and I generally don't care for stouts. But I particularly enjoyed the chocolate and vanilla notes. This beer is just excellent and should not be missed.

I visited Bear Republic Brewing just last week, tasting almost everything they had. But they didn't have Old Saint Chongo, apparently made for this festival. This is described as winter chocolate wheat ale. Sounds funky, huh? I thought it was pretty good. Nicely balanced chocolate character throughout. And mellow.

Good times? You betcha!

Lagunitas Brewing was another target last week. I loved that place and will get around to writing about it in due time. I've always liked Old Gnarly Wine...the version you can get in a 22 oz. bomber. The HAF version is just what I expected...nicely hopped and full of flavor. At 10.6% ABV, you better be careful with this one.

Elysian's Bye Bye Frost is another great one. This is a strong pale ale and the hop character is pretty intense at 80 IBUs, but balanced out via lots malts. It's dry-hopped with Amarillos, which provide an excellent aroma. Oh, another huge beer at 10.6% ABV. Watch it.

Near Hits and Misses
There were several beers that came close to the mark. Deschutes Super Jubel was really good, smoother and better-balanced than the current bottled vintage. Coalition's Lost Glove was right there, very tasty with a nice hop punch. Lompoc's Cherry Christmas is good, but I thought it had a little less punch than when I tasted it several weeks ago at the Sidebar. Perhaps my pallet was overwhelmed by all the megatron beers.

The only beer I thought was seriously bad and poured out was Mjolnir Imperial IPA from Fearless. The program describes this beer as "a constant work in progress." Maybe they're between tweaks. I found it to be void of flavor or body and completely unable to disguise 100 IBUs. I like big IPAs, but not this one. As noted above, opinions may differ on this beer.

As always, thanks to Chris Crabb for her efforts in making this event the success it is...and for helping out all the pretend media folks like me. Big kudos to Preston Weesner, who does such a great job of bringing in rare and unique beers.

Happy Holiday Ale Festival!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Retail Beer Marketing 102

I apologize for interrupting everyone's chain of thought. This is, after all, Holiday Ale Festival week. This tiny post is sandwiched between my HAF preview and the upcoming post-tasting report. I want to get this out before too much time passes.

On a junket to California for Thanksgiving, I was fortunate to spend a day visiting some prize beer destinations. More on those visitations in coming days...the Holiday Ale Festival is the current priority and focus.

Retail Beer Marketing 102: Defining the product

First off, let me say I think many retailers in Portland and Oregon do a pretty good job of marketing bottled (and canned) craft beer. This includes some of the better bottle shops (Belmont Station, Saraveza and Beermongers come to mind and there are certainly others), as well as the big box guys like Freddy Meyer, Whole Foods and New Seasons.

However, whilst I was in California I observed something I have not seen here in Portland. Actually, that's not quite true. I see it in Portland all the time...in the wine section at some grocery stores and in wine shops. The wine stewards post ratings from industry publications near great wines. What a novel idea!

This should be happening with beer here. Posting beer ratings from a respected publication like Beeradvocate is a terrific educational piece and marketing tool. Some people are stuck in the macro habit because they don't know what craft beer to buy. Help them out! Post ratings and style information.

If I were a beer steward or ran a bottle shop, I would seriously start posting beer ratings. Because putting great beer on the shelves isn't enough. There's more to be done. You obviously can't post for every beer without creating a mess in the display case. But it can be done. Enough said.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Tap: Holiday Ale Festival

The holiday season is here, which means it's time to prepare for what is possibly the best winter beer festival in the West, if not the country. Yep, the Holiday Ale Festival returns to Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square on Wednesday and will run through Sunday. The event will attract more than 15,000 beer fans.

For the uninitiated, the Holiday Ale Festival is a yearly fixture. The festival is in its16th year and routinely features rare, sometimes one-off beers that you can't find anywhere. Organizer Preston Weesner, who you can sometimes find toiling away at Cascade Barrel House, often works directly with brewers to fashion interesting, often barrel-aged beers that have become increasingly popular in recent years.

It all happens under the clear tents in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Don't worry about the freezing weather. The tents are heated and quite comfortable. You can drop off your coat and hat at the door for a small fee, which winds up a donation to the Children's Cancer Association.

There will be 50 or so potent winter ales at the 2011 Holiday Ale Festival. It's hard to know where to start the tasting...and with a lot of these beers coming in at 8-10 percent ABV, tasting is the suggested best practice. If you overdo it with these beers, you won't be walking out of here.

Beer tasting mission
A few of the beers I plan to taste (descriptions from HAF program):

  • Deschutes Brewing Super Jubel 10% ABV • 65 IBU This winter ale was made with the same recipe as Jubelale, only with an increased amount of malt to create a stronger beer with even more hops for the most festive time of the year.
  • Firestone Walker Brewing Bourbon Barrel Aged Velvet Merkin
    8.6% ABV • 33 IBU This small batch traditional oatmeal stout is brewed with 15 percent oats, 31 percent Maris Otter malt and a portion of roasted barley and hopped with US-grown Fuggles. The combination produces a smooth and creamy mouth-feel, accompanied by a mild bitterness and a roasted caramel fi nish. This batch was aged in 100 percent Bourbon barrels
  • Lompoc Brewing Cherry Christmas 5.6% ABV • 26 IBU Cherry Christmas is a blend of four di erent beers: Golden Ale fermented in stainless steel with sour cherries; Golden Ale fermented in Port barrels with sour cherries; Brown Ale inoculated with a lambic blend yeast ale aged in Merlot barrels for four years; and a two-year-old Gueze.
  • Stone Brewing Ruination IPA DDH w/Apollo Hops & American Oak Chips
    7.7% ABV • 100 IBU This is an imperial IPA, double dry-hopped with Apollo hops, known for their citrus notes, with an emphasis on orange, resin and spice. This was followed by adding American oak chips for a creamy, vanilla finish.
  • Laurelwood Brewing  Bonaparte's Retreat Corsican Christmas Ale
    8.2% ABV • 48 IBU This Corsican Christmas Ale is a strong and malty winter beer featuring roasted chestnuts. The toasted nut character comes paired with a malt sweetness resulting in a strong, fortifying beer. Chestnuts are the national nut of Corsica, second only to Napoleon Bonaparte.
There's a list of standard festival beers here.

What is costs
I've heard rumblings about the cost of attending the Holiday Ale Festival. To get in you pay $25 for a mug and 8 tokens. This seemed a bit steep, so I asked festival organizers point blank to explain. Please remember, the Oregon Brewers Festival, the granddaddy of Oregon beer festivals, for years charged $5 for a mug and $1 per tasting token. The mug price has gone up slightly in recent years, but token prices remain the same.

These are the things to consider (per HAF organizers):
  • Many Holiday Ale Festival beers were made specially for this event, or are vintage or rare kegs you likely won’t find on tap anywhere else in town. They are extremely expensive to make: a keg of a barrel-aged winter beer made specifically for an event costs a great deal more than a mass produced product or a lighter, summer beer. Winter beers tend to use heaping helpings of specialty malts and spices for an extra richness in texture - leading to higher alcohol content and increased costs. We have purchased at a premium all the beers that you are tasting; they are not donated or discounted.
  • Aside from the beer, there are a lot of extra costs associated with a winter festival that don't  exist in the summer, including heating, lighting, scaffolding & tenting. 
I would add that increasing the price for this festival will have virtually no impact on attendance. This venue is uniquely small and a lot of us hope the new pricing cuts down the crowds a bit. I don't see it happening. People always seem able to find money for good beer. As a result, the tents are often packed all hours. Get there early if you want the best shot at tasting your beers of choice.

I'll post some tasting notes once I visit the festival. Cheers!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Canning Expands Reach of Craft

Moving away from bottles and toward cans will open up new markets for craft beer. More on exactly how that will happen momentarily. First, the explanation.

I was over at Belmont Station one day a while ago. It's always fun listening to what shoppers are talking about. One guy was telling his buddy he wouldn't buy a particular beer because it came in a can. This wasn't Rainier or Pabst, by the way. This was a craft beer...Caldera or 21st Amendment, I think.

The anti-canned beer opinion is uninformed. We aren't living in the bad old days when people thought crap beer tasted the way it did because of the can. That beer tasted like crap because that's what it was. Budweiser may have tasted slightly better in a bottle, but it was still crap.

Crap is crap, no matter how you package it

The thing is, cans are convenient. They don't break when dropped or jostled around. Cans are light.You can take canned beer hiking, fishing, skiing or golfing. Convenience is a big consideration, sometimes the most important or only consideration.

Yet bottles maintained a clear edge in the craft market. Many brewers assumed bottled product was the only thing that would sell. For years, that's the only way you could find craft beer on retail shelves.

The bottle bias is starting to breakdown. Bottles are, quite frankly, inconvenient. They break, they're heavy and they cost a lot to ship. Bottled beer takes a long time to chill. Beer in a bottle is also susceptible to light damage.

Some craft brewers are turning the corner and moving away from the bottle bias and in the direction of cans. The This change is opening up new markets previously owned by the crap macros. You can get good beer in a can while you're golfing these days. You can get it and take it hiking or fishing. You can get a good canned beer at some sporting events, venues that can't sell bottles for safety reasons.

Just a few craft beers available by the can

Beyond the convenience offered by cans, there are environmental benefits to consider, as well. Aluminum is the most recycled form of packaging worldwide. About 44 percent of an average aluminum can comes from recycled material. Obviously, cans are lighter and less costly to ship. Breakage is a non-issue. Less energy is used in the aluminum can loop than with glass.

Besides the bottle bias, another reason cans have been somewhat slow to catch on is initial cost. A small brewery can fill and distribute 22 oz. bottles fairly cheaply. Cans are another story, involving a large upfront investment.

That's changing. We've all heard about mobile bottling. Now there's mobile canning. Instead of spending several hundred thousand bucks on a canning line, small breweries can now spend between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars to get started canning, depending on the amount of beer to can and other factors.

The future of canned craft beer is now. Contrary to what some may think, it's a good thing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lompoc Shows Off Holiday Beers

The folks over at Lompoc Brewing have been toiling away preparing for the holiday season. Lucky for beer fans. Beer geek media types got a chance to sample this years holiday collection on Tuesday night at the Sidebar on North Williams. (If you haven't been to the Sidebar, plan to get over there!)

The tasting adventure begins!

Most of the beers we tasted will be featured at release party on Nov. 29 at the Sidebar. More about the beers shortly. First, a special thanks to owner Jerry Fechter and his crew for making the preview happen. The Lompoc brew crew is Dave Fleming, Bryan Keilty, Zach Beckwith and Irena Bierzynski (read my profile piece on Irena here). A great bunch of folks.

For the unknowing, it's important to note that Lompoc is not a large brewing operation. They actually have trouble supplying their regular beers to their five locations, and expanding bottle distribution. Yet they somehow found a way to produce the 10 holiday beers we previewed on Tuesday. Sometimes you wonder.

The first beer we tasted was Blitzen, a spiced golden ale originally brewed for the Holiday Ale Festival a few years back. Blitzen is a low alcohol beer (4.6% ABV), with a light malt character, a hefty cinnamon aroma and hints of lemon and ginger on the pallet. It offers are rare combination of character and drinkability. Blitzen will be Available at Lompoc pubs only, according to Fechter.

Filling tasters kept the Lompoc folks busy

Next up was Cherry Christmas, which is a blend of four different beers. The elves at Lompoc make great standard beers, but the experimental stuff is truly grand. This beer is slightly sour and reminded me of some of the beers they're producing at Cascade Brewing Barrel House. But it's fairly light at 5.6% ABV. Cherry Christmas may undergo some additional tweaks, they said, but I found it to be excellent, as is. This is Lompoc's offering at the 2011 Holiday Ale Festival, coming up in a couple of weeks.

Brewdolph is a Belgian-style red ale brewed with Ardennes yeast. It's mildly sour and fruity, with hints of clove on the pallet. This beer does of nice job of hiding its 7.7% punch. We quickly moved on to Holiday Cheer, almost certainly the darkest of the beers tasted on the evening. It's a full-bodied vanilla porter that combines a terrific chocolate bar flavor with robust vanilla notes. The elves at Lompoc tossed vanilla beans in the conditioning tank to fashion Holiday Cheer, with great success. Cheers!

The Lompoc elves, Bryan, Irena, Dave, Jerry and Zach

Jolly Bock is another of the beers that was originally made for the Holiday Ale Festival. This is a lager, deep amber in color with a rich malt flavor and spicy hop finish. Jolly Bock doesn't have the depth of character present in most of these beers, but it's a style thing.

One of Lompoc's most popular beers is C-Note Imperial Pale Ale made with the seven "C" hops (Crystal, Cluster, Cascade, Chinoook, Centennial, Columbus and Challenger). The holiday version of that beer, C-Sons Greetings, is tweaked with more malt and hops. All seven hop varieties are used in dry-hopping this beer, with magnificent results. Bourbon Barrel Aged C-Sons Greetings, aged for seven months and cellared for another month, is slightly over the top. A heavy bourbon character is present in the nose and taste. I preferred the standard C-Sons Greetings. Both of these beers come in at 8% ABV.

Old Tavern Rat is a dark barley wine, aged for nearly a year. It's named after late Don Younger, the legendary Portland publican who was a partner in the Lompoc operation for many years. Old Tavern Rat is a nicely balanced barley wine, featuring sweet caramel and hints toffee, along with a hop punch. Younger would hate this beer, Fechter admits. At 9.4%, you can't drink a lot of it and the Old Tavern Rat liked to have his paying customers drink several beers. Cheers to Don!

Foyston signs Old Tavern Rat labels

As good as the standard version is, Bourbon Barrel Aged Old Tavern Rat is another click up. Brewed nearly two years ago (December 2009), this beer was aged in barrels for 10 months and cellared for another 13 months. I wasn't sure about this beer at first, fearing bourbon overload. I turned the corner quickly. The barrel aging and cellaring has given this beer a full, yet mellow character. This stuff won't be available for long, and it will only be sold at Lompoc locations and a few bottle shops. Get some if you can. And when you do, let it quietly age for a year or two in your beer cellar. It's great now, but I think it will be even better down the road. Trust me.

A quick note on the Foyston photo above: If you go to the Sidebar, you will see a picture of Don Younger above the fireplace. John Foyston painted that picture, which was done secretly and first shown to Younger about a year ago. Younger was reportedly blown away. Sadly, he died a few months later. Anyway, the painting is the basis for the label on Old Tavern Rat in bottles. John signed labels and bottles during Tuesday night's event.

Holiday cheers!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Winter Beer Adventures: A Tasting Trio

I don't have a lot of faith in beer reviews. Palates are all over the place when it comes to good beer. One man's trash is another man's treasure. The same goes for the many female beer fans out there. Indeed, there is a rumor in beer geek circles that women have more acute tasting skills than men. It's quite possibly true.

While my interest in reviews is slim, I am very interested in comparative tastings. Here's why: Back in my college days, stereo buffs would go to the stereo store and compare the sound of speakers. You could listen to several kinds of speakers and pick the ones that suited your personal tastes. You sometimes realized speakers you thought sounded great in an apartment or room, sounded quite bad next to others of the same price.

Likewise with beer. Most of us know what we like. We assume we have finely tuned pallets that allow us to intelligently pick what we like. That's a little like taking a set of speakers home and deciding they sound great. In my experience, comparative beer tasting has sometimes made me realize beers I thought were great aren't when compared with others in the same category.

The Trio: Brrr, Wassail and Jubelale

With those thoughts in mind, I thought it might be fun to taste several Oregon winter beers. I wanted to stick with beers that are well-known and readily available in stores. I chose Widmer Brrrr, Full Sail Wassail and Deschutes Jubelale. There are certainly bigger winter beers out there, but these met my specs. (Disclaimer: Some of my blogging friends receive beer samples from breweries. Not me...not yet. I paid for these beers.)

Widmer Brrr
ABV 7.2%; 50 IBU
The color is a dark copper. Of the three beers, Brrr has the lightest color. It has a limited aroma, with vague hints of chocolate mixed with hops. The aroma becomes more evident as it warms up. Like Wassail and Jubelale, Brrr contains none of the spices people generally associate with winter beers.

I was fairly impressed with Brrr. The color forecasts a lighter body than the other two beers and that's exactly what you get. This is not a bitter beer, although a decent hop character is present. Brrr has a slightly sweet finish, which I liked. I perceived the alcohol punch early on, and it became more pronounced as the beer warmed up. Still this is a well-balanced winter beer and very drinkable.

Full Sail Wassail
ABV 7.0%; 56 IBU
Deep amber, tied with Jubelale for the darkest of the three. The aroma is milder than I expected. There are chocolate and caramel malts in there, mixed with a strong hop character. I recall earlier vintages of Wassail being particularly hoppy. The 2011 vintage seems a bit less so. The beer has a more pronounced body than the others, which disguises the alcohol nicely.

Wassail is an intense beer, with strong chocolate overtones and bold hopping. Despite the intense flavors, I found it to be quite smooth and full of flavor. These flavors will likely get better with a bit of aging. Wassail does not have the sweet finish of the Brrr. Northwest beer fans will like the hoppy character, I think.

Deschutes Jubelale
ABV 6.7%; 60 IBU
Dark amber in color, arguably the darkest of the three beers. The aroma is not particularly intense. Hints of chocolate malt and brown sugar mixed with a blast of hops. Again, there are no seasonal spices in this beer. If you detect nutmeg or cinnamon, it's in your nose. Jubelale has a medium body, about on par with Wassail.

Jubelale has been one of my favorites for many years, but the 2011 vintage seems a little off. This is a bold beer with great body and character. But it possesses an astringent, tannic quality that overwhelms the pallet. There are various reasons this could have happened, intentional or not. I'm not going to speculate. Nonetheless, it creates a serious distraction.

There is a chance the tannic element may be reduced with time. That's the case with good red wine. We have a flight of big Cabs in the wine cellar simmering, some needing many years to finish. It's possible 2011 Jubelale will be better with a bit of aging. I plan to cellar a few bottles and find out. Check back in a year or two.

Order of finish
For those keeping track at home, these are my rankings. Opinions will differ.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

There they go Again

As I've mentioned in previous posts here, the big boys in the brewing industry are desperately searching for ways to halt imploding sales of their goo. While craft beer sales are expanding at around 10-15 percent a year, the macro-brew chunk of the pie is tanking. See my earlier post on dwindling big boy segments here.

Please understand, the large brands (Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors) still own the bulk of the beer market in the US. But they are increasingly alarmed at their inability to sell anything but light beer. That's the only segment in their portfolios that isn't in free fall.

So it is that the brainiacs at InBev, the parent of Anheuser-Busch, has come up with a new marketing ploy. They will soon launch Bud Light Platinum, with hopes that it will somehow compete with craft brands by appealing to craft beer drinkers. This is truly comical.

Coming soon to a strip club near you
Bud Light Platinum weighs in at 6% ABV and 137 calories. That's almost 2% more alcohol than Bud Light (4.2%, 110 calories) and 1% more than regular Bud (5%, 145 calories). How they are squeezing only 137 calories out of a beer that delivers 6 percent alcohol is an interesting question, a taste test best left for after BLP hits the shelves.

You want to know what they're thinking, right? Sure you do. Well, here it is: The InBev marketing gurus are thinking craft beer enthusiasts are going to be attracted by more alcohol. Yep. With 137 calories, BLP is sure to have the same fizzy character as Bud and Bud Light. Just more alcohol! They think we drink craft beers because we like the higher alcohol content. Talk about delusional.

I hate to go out on a limb, but I suspect this isn't going to work out. In-Bev is going to pour millions into the ad campaign that promotes Bud Light Platinum. The result, in the short-run, will likely be more drunks at sporting events, bars and strip clubs. Which means more stupid behavior. And more accidents and traffic stops on the drive home. You get the idea.

What will these people think of next?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fire on the Mountain Opens Third PDX Location

Fire on the Mountain's newest location has opened on NE 57th Avenue and Fremont St. This is the company's third restaurant/pub, to go with locations on E. Burnside and N. Interstate. Significantly, the Fremont location is the first Fire on the Mountain location to include a brewery.

The brewing operation was put together with assistance from Craig Nicholls, who is providing consulting services to breweries in planning. Nicholls, beer fans will recall, once worked down the street at Alameda Brewing and also operated Roots Brewing in Southeast Portland for many years.

Amenities include a large patio adjacent the west entry
Ben Nehrling, previously an award-winning brewer at McMenamin's Kennedy School, will head the brewing program. In-house beers will reportedly be available by the end of November. Management expects to offer five in-house beers and the same number of rotating guest taps. The brewery will also supply other Fire on the Mountain restaurants.

On opening day (Monday, Nov. 7), the draft beer list included offerings from Fort George, Upright, Migration, Amnesia, Rogue, Double Mountain, Oakshire, Mt. Hood and Cascade Brewing. Good stuff.

The menu at the new location will be similar to the other restaurants, although owners Jordan Busch and Sara Sawicki will add New York-style pizza by the slice at the Fremont location. Typical Fire on the Mountain fare includes salads, sandwiches and hot wings served with custom sauces.

Fire on the Mountain III is located in the old R&R Market space on the corner of Fremont and 57th. The space was once occupied by a neighborhood Safeway store dating back to the 1950s. Extensive remodeling of the space and parking lot improvements pushed the opening date of FOTM III to November. Owners had hoped to open in September.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Craft Beer Pairings with Upside

One of the really cool things happening in today's beer scene is the trend toward pairing beers with food. This is the sort of thing that was once confined to the wine community. But craft beer is the new wine, with tours, events and food pairings galore.

I regularly see social media posts for brewers dinners where beers are paired with multi-course meals. Laurelwood has one coming up soon and it will feature beers from several breweries. That's a terrific idea. Instead of being exposed to the wares of a single brewery, several breweries are on display.

Beer and cheese...a great combination.
In some respects, pairings aren't new. Fred Eckhardt, the dean of American beer writers and a local icon, has been doing beer and cheese tastings for 20 years. I believe he also has events that pair beers with chocolate, although that might just be something he does in the background so he can write-off chocolate purchases.

These are great ideas. They effectively encourage beer fans to think about what kinds of beer to serve with different dishes at home. Instead of blindly serving up a hoppy IPA with everything. we're learning that other styles may be more appropriate. That's terrific.

Thinking about the power of pairings, I conjured up images of macro-pairings I'd like to see. When we think about promoting craft beer, we often think about beer-driven events. I'm talking about events large and small, from the Oregon Brewers Festival to an Oktoberfest event held in pub parking lot of a nearby pub.

A macro-pairing I'd like to see
What about more complete pairings of craft beer with non-beer events? Look at the tailgating that goes on at large sporting events. People eat and drink outside stadiums at least partially because they don't want to pay exorbitant prices for low quality stuff inside.

I recently heard about a brewery that was doing a tasting before a college game. I believe it was in Seattle prior to the Oregon/Washington game. I don't know about the licensing and liquor control issues related to doing something like this, but it seems like a great way to expose the masses to craft beer.

Here's the thing: Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors spend millions every year to maintain their connection to big-time sports in this country. Their advertising is in your face when you enter any stadium. The beer choices inside these venues are, in most cases, controlled by the big guys. Care for a Bud Light? Outrageous.

How do you fight this? In my mind, craft breweries need to pair themselves with high profile sporting events. The way to do this in the short run is by having beer gardens where fans can experience quality beers prior to the games. I know a lot of places, including Moshofsky Center next to Autzen, already serve some craft beer alongside crappy macro-stuff. That's not enough.

This kind of thing is certainly happening on a small scale now. It would be great if it grew. That's not to say it would be easy. I can only imagine the red tape connected to setting up events like this. But the potential upside is huge.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Maximizing the Power of Social Media

I'm not sure who reads this blog. Maybe no one outside immediate friends and family. But I suspect a few fellow bloggers, media types and brewery people click in here from time to time. My guess is there aren't a lot of casual beer fans reading this or any other blog.

Most of us who write about beer, paid or unpaid, have Google alerts that provide a constant flow of information related to craft beer...grist for the mill, as it were. It's easy to set one of these alerts up and an efficient way to get regular updates on what's happening in beer land. But I digress.

Yesterday, my Google alert delivered a link to a story confirming what I already knew or suspected about craft breweries and social media: craft breweries lean heavily on social media for promotion and advertising. There's a big reason for this, which I'll get to, but there's a general point I want to make first.

Almost all businesses are trying to figure out how to use social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, blogs like this, etc.) to build their brands and increase revenue. This is happening at a time when the power and reach of traditional media (TV, radio and print) appears to be diminishing in relation to its cost.

Of course, some businesses aren't great fits for social media promotion...likely because they have a product that has zero appeal on the open market. A company that makes smart bombs, for instance, may be a poor fit for social media. You get the idea.

Craft beer is on the flip side of the coin. It's a product that is sold to the public and, more importantly, there is a growing segment of the customer base that is quite rabid about the product. This is an ideal setup for social media because rabid customers can be used to draw in additional fans via word-of-mouth advertising. In a nutshell, this is the heart of social media advertising.

Which brings me back to craft breweries. And why they are leaning on social media. They're doing it partly because they see the value; more importantly, they're doing it because they can't afford to promote and advertise in traditional ways. Budweiser and MillerCoors spend close to $1 billion a year to promote beer that is essentially undrinkable. Craft brewers have a quality product, but shallow pockets.

Why am I bringing this up? Because many craft breweries do not do social media well. They aren't alone in doing social media poorly, admittedly. One of the mistaken assumptions with respect to the social media concept is that anyone can do it. Someone who works in a small brewery and knows something about the web and computers is likely involved in running the social media program.

What's wrong with that? The problem, contrary to prevailing opinion, is that running a successful social media program requires communications skills, knowledge of the medium and planning. Back when traditional media was king, advertising messages were filtered. There's no such thing with social media. Everyone is a prospective expert.

Some of the results: disjointed posts, spelling and grammatical errors, lousy (usually dark or blurry) photos, poor quality video, too many frivolous posts or too few posts to be relevant. In short, bad social media presence. I see it every day on Facebook and Twitter, arguably the most powerful sites.

Look, I know social media is evolving and businesses, including breweries and pubs, will adapt. One of the adjustments they need to make to maximize their social media presence is go pro. They need people who can write effectively, take decent photos and think strategically when it comes to creating a coherent, branded, social media presence.

Sure there's going to be a cost. But this work is too important to be farmed out to an employee, whether it's the owner or a dishwasher, just because that person thinks he or she is an expert. It just ain't so.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beer Wars: Protect the Integrity of Independent Beer

I'm a little late to the game here, I admit. The documentary film, Beer Wars, appeared more than two years ago. I just watched it on Netflix last week. I can't say why it took so long. Sometimes these things happen.

The point of the film is quite clear. Director Anat Baron, a former bigshot with Mike's Hard Lemonade, intends to reveal how the beer industry is structured to maintain the power of the large breweries, represented primarily by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors (Miller and Coors in 2009), to the detriment of small breweries.

If you toss out a few ridiculously stupid and campy cartoon graphics, Baron does an admirable job. Some of the more important points:
  • Shows how the "three tier" beer laws (which make it illegal to brew and sell beer directly to consumers) make it difficult for craft brewers to enter the marketplace. These laws, established long ago to guard against monopolized beer markets, have been turned upside down by the large companies
  • Shows how the large companies use political influence to keep the laws as they are, very much to the benefit of the major brands.
  • Shows how the large companies have used advertising dollars (more than $800 million a year) to con consumers into thinking they are getting a well-made, tasty and refreshing product, despite the fact that macro-brews are made using inferior ingredients and automated processes. Image is everything.
Why bring this up now, two years after the fact? I mean, craft beer is continuing to gain a foothold in the marketplace, despite the stacked deck. Why should we be concerned about the message of the film?

Here's why. The continued growth of the craft industry means the big guys are increasingly trying to find ways to either squeeze or co-opt craft brands. Making distribution difficult is their first line of defense. They are also buying up small brands, closing down the breweries, firing employees and producing the beer at gigantic, automated factories. Another strategy is creating shill brands, like Green Valley Brewing of Fairfield, Calif., brewed at a huge Anheuser-Busch facility, but marketed as a small brand.

I need to digress for a moment. There's been some argument on various blogs about the meaning of craft. My opinion is the term has little meaning today. To me, craft suggests small and perhaps handmade. But great beers are being produced by breweries that are not small. Deschutes and Widmer come to mind. There are many others. What these large craft brewers share is independence and an attention to quality ingredients and processes.

Which brings me back to the call to action of Beer Wars? To me it's this: If we want to protect the integrity and longevity of true craft brands, we need to buy the products of typically small, always independent brewers whenever and wherever possible. That usually means buying locally-produced beer because most of these brands have regional distribution at best.

Secondly, it means staying away from beer produced by the major brands, even if they are decent (Blue Moon, a Coors brand, comes to mind). Why? Because the big guys use those dollars to undermine the integrity of the true craft industry. End of story.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Women in Oregon Beer Expanded: Irena Bierzynski

Over the summer, a lot of us beer geek types saw For the Love of Beer, a movie highlighting some of Oregon's most awesome women in beer. Sarah Pederson (Saraveza) and Tonya Cornett (Bend Brewing) kind of dominated the film, although we heard from Lisa Morrison (author), Veronica Vega (Deschutes Brewing) and a few others along the way.

The field of beer and brewing, long dominated by men, is opening up to women. Nonetheless, women are still a vast minority in the industry. Of something like 50,000 craft beer employees in the United States, fewer than 600 currently belong to the Pink Boots Society, an organization of women in the industry. The fact that things are changing is good, however slow.

Another potential member of the Pink Boots Society is Irena Bierzynski, the latest addition to the group of brewers at Lompoc Brewing. Irena joined Lompoc after graduating from Lewis and Clark last spring and is immersed in learning the trade. She came to brewing in an roundabout way.

On the brewery floor...a great place to be.

"My interest in beer and brewing perked when I was 18 and on a vineyard tour," Irena said. "I had plans to become a chemist. Then and there I realized there was chemistry involved in wine making. That evolved to beer and brewing when I came to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark for obvious reasons."

Bierzynski (yeah, that's her real name) hails from Detroit. She spent her high school years in Shanghai. Her dad, an engineer who works for General Motors, was sent to China to help set up auto plants. The international school she attended had kids from around the world. It was a unique experience, she says.

Coming to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark, Irena became interested in the beer festival culture that has taken off in recent years. That led her to an increased interest in brewing. But not homebrewing.

"I had decided I wanted to brew professionally before I started homebrewing. I didn't have any formal brewing education, but I understood the chemistry of brewing thanks to my science background. It helps a lot."

Most of what Irena is doing at Lompoc is pretty basic. She's mastering the work of transferring and racking beer into kegs, cleaning tanks, working on the bottling line, taking gravities and keeping the Fifth Quadrant bar stocked. Her responsibilities will grow with time.

A batch of Bierz Brown in the tank.
"Irena volunteered to help on the bottling line last spring," said, Bryan Keilty, Lompoc Production Manager. "Based on that experience, we thought she would be an asset to the company and we asked her to join the group. She's smart, a hard worker and driven to succeed. She'll get more in-depth training on brewing as we move along."

Part of the brewing training involved coming up with a recipe for the recently released Bierz Brown. Irena developed the recipe with input from other brewers at Lompoc.

"Bierz Brown is my first," Irena said, "I think it's been fairly well-received. What's next? I'm not sure. I like the idea of making beers for particular times of year. The next beer could be a winter beer. I actually want to go light if I do a winter beer. Everybody makes dark beers in the winter. I wouldn't make a super light beer, just not a dark beer like everyone else."

Like all brewers, Irena has an ultimate goal that is similar to that of most brewers.

"I think most brewers ultimately want to run their own brewery or brewpub. That could happen someday. It's down the road. What I’m doing now is great and I'm enjoying it. Lompoc has a great team. If you ever need help with something, you get it.I'm learning so much."

Sometimes, you just need to kick back and have a beer.

What does the fledgling brewer do for fun? When she isn't enjoying one of the countless festivals around town, Irena is a hardcore hockey fan who loves the Red Wings and Winterhawks. She also enjoys live music in small venues.

"As a hockey fan, I'm a little nuts," she said. "I'm from Detroit. What do you expect? I also like concerts at the Aladdin and Roseland…small places, new music, electronic music. Arena shows don't excite me."

If you want to meet Irena, plan to attend a Lompoc release party at the Sidebar. They are always low key and friendly. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fresh Hop Shot in the Foot

Back when I was a regular  home brewer and also grew my own hops, I often used homegrown hops in my beers. I even used fresh hops a few times, typically in beers made in September or October. I don't remember the results being particularly spectacular, but it was a fun thing to do and I liked the creative concept.

While I was experimenting, so were the real brewers. I don't know which brewery produced the first fresh hop beer of note, but it seems like these beers started appearing about a decade ago. It was a trickle at first, but fresh hop beers are everywhere now.

Spendy $8 glassware
Fresh hop beers are a seasonal affair. It's not so hard to figure out why. The hops needed to make these beers are only available in the fall...and that's the way it will stay until we come up with a way to replicate hops (ala Star Trek). That makes fresh hop beers arguably special, and presents brewers with a marketing opportunity. Which they are running with.

Enter the plethora of fresh hop festivals popping up. There was one in Hood River on Oct. 1st and one in Portland this past Saturday. Those are not the only ones, I'm sure. Plus, numerous breweries are rolling out fresh hop brews with special release parties, events and fanfare. Fresh hop beers have become part of the festival scene. For better or worse.

The biggest problem with fresh hop beers: The vast majority of them aren't that great. I was beginning to form that opinion prior to visiting the Fresh Hop Festival at Oaks Park, based on prior tasting experiences around town. That opinion was confirmed at the festival, where I tasted a collection of beers I hadn't tasted before.

I'm not even going to get into the beers I tasted and thought less than stellar. They were made by breweries large and small. The common theme was a lack of depth and character. These beers had very little hop aroma or flavor. IBUs were all over the place, but most tasted obnoxiously bright...or perhaps some would say, green.

The line-up...character not included.
Look, I understand fresh hop beers are not going to taste like beers made with dried hops. The question is, can you make great beers with fresh hops? Based on recent experiences, I'm not convinced you can. I'm a fan of hoppy beers. But the fresh hop beers are mostly disappointing. Just my opinion, of course.

Festival Comments
To enter this festival, you had to buy a tasting package. They were charging $1 per ticket, with each ticket good for a 4 oz. taste. Oh, I should note that a few beers required more than one ticket. Still, that's good value, consistent with what other festivals do.

On the flip-side, you had to pay $8 for a shaker pint glass that cost them a fraction of that. Sure, I'll add the glass to my collection at home. But I didn't need to pay an exorbitant price for the privilege. It has become stylish to overcharge patrons for a tasting glass or mug as a way of making money. I wish this annoying practice would stop, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I met Nutmeg, who was getting lots of attention
The overall setup at Oaks Park was pretty good, with plenty of room under the tent and lots of tables. It was not crowded during my mid-afternoon stint and most of the numerous tables were empty. Up front, there were lines for some beers, caused mostly by the fact that they seemed to have one person pouring 6-8 beers. It wasn't much of an issue, but that arrangement would not have worked very well with a large crowd.

Next up: the pumpkin beers