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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Do the Monster Mash

It may not pay very well, but writing about beer does have its occasional benefits. I'm talking about media-only previews that happen from time-to-time at some of the best places imaginable. You don't have to have no stinkin' badge to get in, but you do have to be invited. These outings, usually sponsored by a brewery, give folks on both sides of the beer community a chance to mingle, taste and talk beer.

Tuesday's event was held at Lompoc's Sidebar, located on North Williams next door to their Fifth Quadrant pub and brewery. The drink menu featured a list of beers that will be pouring at the Monster Mash Release Party on Friday. I'm quite sure we tasted some beers that won't be available Friday, but I digress. More on the beers shortly.

Fechter (right) shares the floor the Head Brewer, Dave Fleming
The Story
The Lompoc (officially, New Old Lompoc) story is rich. The place started out as a tavern in Northwest Portland in 1992. In 1996, the then-owners teamed up with homebrewer Jerry Fechter and started making beer. Fechter subsequently took over the business in 2000, teaming up with iconic Portland beer geek Don Younger. 

Searching for a partner, Fechter reasoned that he needed someone who was established and well-known in the beer community, someone who could make Lompoc more reputable. He found exactly the right person in Don Younger, who made significant contributions to the business over the years. There's a void now that Younger is gone, but Fechter is carrying on and the business seems to be on pretty solid ground.

Lompoc has expanded rapidly and now has five locations: New Old Lompoc (the original) on NW 23rd; the Hedge House on SE Division; the Oaks Bottom House on SE Bybee: and the Fifth Quadrant and nearby Sidebar on North Williams. The main production brewery next to the Sidebar has been expanded several times, but they still have a hard time keeping up with demand. If you're going to have a problem in this economy, I guess that's a good one.

Brewer dude, Bryan Kielty, shows me some barrels
The ambiance at the Sidebar is terrific, super comfortable. Lompoc's barrel aging program is instantly evident, as barrels line several walls. These aren't just for show, kids. These are the real deal, each one containing some concoction that will eventually be released. Barrel-aged beers are gaining popularity because they tend to be richer and smoother than beers aged in steel tanks. It's wise to be doing this.

The Beers
Getting to the beers, the starter was Steaming California. I arrived a little early and had a chance to enjoy one of these with John Foyston, the longtime beer guru at The Oregonian. I can't speak for John, but Steaming California is a nicely balanced beer. It has a light body and is just slightly bitter. They use lager yeast to make this stuff, but they ferment it at ale temperatures. That's where "steaming" comes from.

We tasted a couple of complex beers next. Flamingo is a pale ale fermented in Cabernet Franc barrels with 35 pounds of sour cherries. This beer is a couple of years old. It's fairly light and slightly tart. Good stuff. Mon Cheri is a Belgian-style golden brewed in 2008. It's mildly fruity and spicy, but smooth as glass. Yummy.

Next was Bierz Brown, the first creation of Lompoc's newest brewer, Irena Bierzynski (yeah, that's her real name). The beer is a dark brown ale called Bierz Brown. Go figure. This beer has a strong chocolate flavor and a malty body. Great fall beer. What's next, Irena?

Irena lifts a glass to toast her first beer creation at Lompoc
The star of the show was Monster Mash, an imperial porter with exceptionally strong chocolate and roast flavors. They say it has a hint of red fruit flavor, and maybe it does. I carted two bottles of this stuff home and had a glass tonight. The bottled version was apparently aged in barrels, likely for a short period, which definitely adds to the character. I'm not a huge fan of this style, but this beer is excellent. My advice: get some! They'll have it on tap at the pubs for a while and it will be distributed in bombers.

We finished out the tasting flight with C-Note Imperial Pale Ale, which is Lompoc's flagship beer. This stuff is brewed with seven "C" hops (Crystal, Cluster, Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Columbus and Challenger) and anyone who knows of such things knows that those are some of the best hops on the planet. This beer has 100 IBUs and packs a nice punch. But flavor and aroma are what makes the wheel go around with this fine beer.

Special thanks to Jerry for hosting this event and also to Chris Crabb, who organized things and made life easy for the beer geek media types. The official Monster Mash Release Party is this Friday at the Sidebar. Good times, for sure.

Monday, September 26, 2011

California Cup and a Saraveza Tasting

As I've said in previous posts, the pace of beer-related happenings in Portland is crazy. We've just completed a summer in which invitations to special events flooded my inbox virtually every day. It was enough to make my head spin. Perhaps you've seen the Exorcist?

In principal, all special events represent an opportunity for beer enthusiasts of all persuasions to mingle and experience good beer. Some events are highly organized and worthwhile; others not so much. It seems to me the various breweries and pubs that hold these events get out of them what they put into them.
The taster plate gets Mark going

What's up with all this chatter? Clearly, the various beer-biz entities hope to promote their brand via special events. Which is fine.

Here's a thought: If you plan to use special events or beer releases in this way, make sure they are well-organized and don't have an event every day or every week. Otherwise, there is nothing special about what you're doing.

California Cup 
I traveled over to Concordia Ale House the other night. My neighbor, Mark Hall, has been a regular supporter of the various beer brawls they hold over there and I got involved a while ago. It's always fun. The California Cup is a competition between California IPAs. These were all standard IPAs...not imperials.

They bring you a plate of 12 tasters. You have no idea what beers your are tasting. After you taste the beers, you vote for your favorite. They once had people voting for their top two or three, which must have created some tabulation issues...kinda like during a presidential election. Anyway, they now have you vote for only the beer you like the most.

These IPAs were initially a bit too cold to evaluate. But they started to open up like little bottles of fine wine as they warmed up.

It became apparent right away that one of the beers, #5, had something wrong with it. We all agreed it did not taste right. Because I have some expertise when it comes to making bad, infected beers, I concluded this was likely a bad keg. It turned out to be Bison Organic IPA. I've had this beer before from a bottle and it did not taste like this.

Little piggy #5 was not consumed
My top beers from the plate were #1 (Nectar IPA), #2 (Firestone Union Jack), #6 Green Flash West Coast IPA) and #8 (Mad River Jamaica Sunset IPA). I narrowed my choices down to a couple of finalists (#2 and #8), then selected #2. In fact, all of us at the table chose that beer. We also identified it as Firestone Union Jack. Go figure.

Here's a link to list of the competing beers on Concordia's site: California Cup I'm not sure how long those will be posted, so hop over there soon if you want to take a look.

One of the really cool places in Portland is Saraveza, which is a pub in North Portland. This place has a very heavy Midwestern theme, as internalized and visualized by owner Sarah Pederson.

Check out the walls. They are covered with memorabilia honoring the Green Bay Packers and Midwest macro-beer brands Schlitz, Blatz, Miller, Schmidt, Hamms, Pabst Blue Ribbon, etc. And there's more.

A piece of Americana

This place absolutely must be visited after dark. I'm serious. I showed up one sunny summer afternoon and didn't fully get what this place is all about. Stop by in the evening to fully appreciate the motif.

They were doing a special tasting of Epic beers the night I visited. Epic is a Salt Lake City brewery and they produce some pretty damn fine beers. The Epic dude was going around pouring tastes and they had a couple of Epic beers on tap.

Sarah is a trained brewer who decided to pursue the pub side of the business after stints at Hair of the Dog and Lompoc. She was featured in the recent film, The Love of Beer, along with several other important Oregon women in beer.

Cheesehead Sarah with the dude from Epic
Saraveza has a great selection of beers. They've got a nine rotating taps that routinely showcase some of the best beer around. Then you have the coolers, filled with beers from Oregon and the world. People who live up that way now have a perfect place to find excellent beer.

Talk to Sarah if you get a chance. She has a very levelheaded attitude about Saraveza's place in the beer community and where special events like the Epic tasting fit in.

"I hope we have a good reputation," she said. "Events like this [Epic] tasting are there to provide extra value for our customers. If we attract a few new people to the pub by doing something like this, that's great."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where are the New Planned Breweries? Here's the Answer

A little while ago I was talking about the growth of the craft beer industry and questioning its future health. My concern was based on the number of planned new breweries in mid-2011. The precise number was, at the time, 725. That number has since been revised to 756. That's up from 389 in 2010. Seriously shocking.

Recognizing there are currently 1,740 operating US breweries, the 756 would represent a 43 percent increase. Of course, these numbers are somewhat nebulous. Some of the planned breweries will never open; many won't open in 2011. A planned brewery is just that, until it opens for business.

Nonetheless, I think it is reasonable to be concerned that overly rapid growth could result in market saturation with respect to craft beer, or whatever you want to call quality beer these days. (There is an ongoing discussion about the meaning of "craft" on the Beervana blog. Join in if you dare.)

It occurred to me that the impact of the new planned breweries is really only an issue if they are in areas where there are already a lot of breweries. If there are 100 new breweries coming to Oregon, that probably isn't a good thing. If they are coming to the light blue areas on the chart below, states where there are few craft breweries per million people, that's good news. These areas are woefully under-served.

I couldn't find the data I needed on the web. So I asked the Brewers Association for a little assistance. Frankly speaking, those guys are amazing. It took a week or so, but they came through. The numbers are quite clear and show almost exactly what you would like them to show if you like the idea of growth in under-served areas (the light blue dudes on the chart).

In the chart below, the whole pie represents all 756 planned new breweries. Now look at the legend, which matches a color to areas based on per-capita breweries per million people. The slices show percentages of new planned breweries in each of those areas.

Of the 756 planned breweries, 55 percent (417) are located in the two areas with the lowest per-capita number of breweries. The percentage increases to 63 percent if we look at the three most under-served areas, states with fewer than 10 breweries per million people. I think that's good news.

On the other side of the coin, only 12 percent (92, to be exact) of the new planned breweries are located in the areas with the greatest concentration of existing breweries. Since these are the places where market saturation could be a concern, the concern seems misplaced for now.

I will be pulling some additional interesting, revealing factoids from the Brewers Association data in future posts. Meanwhile, a special thanks to Andy Sparhawk at the Brewers Association, who mined this data.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Laurelfest Overcomes Weather Snub

Young fans enjoyed the band
The fresh hop beer season is on and many breweries held festivals this past weekend. Too bad the weather didn't cooperate. Temperatures in the 60s with rain and wind don't generally attract the masses this time of year. In December, sure.

Over at Laurelwood, they celebrated fresh hop season and 10 years in business with Laurelfest 2011. That's right, they opened at the old Hollywood location 10 years ago. Laurelfest was happening at the Sandy headquarters and at the new Battleground location Saturday afternoon and evening.

Laurelfest featured live music, special grilled foods and they were pouring beers in the outdoor area. When I arrived, there was a band playing and a decent number of bundled-up folks hanging out under a tent behind the pub. True to Laurelwood's demographics, there were several families under the tent. Those are future patrons, for sure.

They were pouring two beers outside: Gearhead IPA and a special Laurelfest beer.

Gearhead is a recent release and will soon replace Workhorse for a short while. Gearhead, which I'd already tasted, is a good standard IPA. It doesn't have the floral character of IBUs or Workhorse, but it's a good beer. When it comes back on, Workhorse will likely be re-positioned as an imperial IPA, giving Laurelwood two IPAs to choose from.

Fresh hopped Laurelfest Lager

I was surprised to discover the Laurelfest beer was a lager. Of course, you can add fresh hops to any beer and get good results. Over at Lompoc, they were recently pouring a fresh hop red made in 2007. You can't tell me fresh hop beers don't age well. Anyway, Laurelfest Lager didn't have quite the hop aroma I was hoping for, but it had a nice character. I'd like to see more of it.

Despite weather that put a damper on things, attendance at Laurelfest was decent. Still, let's hope the weather in coming weeks cooperates as the fall fests keep on rolling.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fifteenth Ave Hophouse Looking Good

Spacious outdoor seating adds to the experience
We've seen a lot of new breweries and pubs opening their doors in recent times. I particularly enjoy seeing the new pubs and tap houses that bring in quality beers from around the region and beyond. These places don't brew so their only loyalty is to great beer.

The Fifteenth Avenue Hophouse (cross street is NE Brazee) opened a few weeks ago and is just now gaining momentum. This place is connected to the Hawthorne Hophouse (41st and SE Hawthorne). I visited the Hawthorne location over the summer and was impressed by the beer selection and vibe.

The Fifteenth Avenue location is follows the same line of thought. They have more taps here, 33 in all. Most of these taps pour beer, but a few pour cider and wine. There are no bottles of any kind here, which swerves away from the recent trend of pubs doubling as bottle shops.

Like its brethren on Hawthorne, Fifteenth Avenue has a pleasant ambiance. There is a spacious, comfy outdoor seating area. The interior is quasi-plush, in keeping with the general theme of the surrounding Irvington neighborhood. They had a gent playing acoustic guitar and singing when I visited, adding to the vibe.

Expect great beers here. They were pouring beers from Ninkasi, Nectar, Oakshire, Boneyard and Natian, among others. I tried Red Nectar from Nectar brewing, on the barkeep's advice. Wow. This is a perfectly matched mix of malt and hop flavor, aroma and bitterness. I wasn't surprised to learn Firestone Walker makes this beer or that it won a Gold Medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival in the American Amber category. Great stuff.

They are still in the process of getting their menu completely up-to-speed. Fifteenth Avenue apparently has a larger kitchen than the Hawthorne location and they expect to serve some higher end fare to go with the standard pub menu we all know and love.

They had some issues getting this place open due to opposition in the neighborhood. But it  isn't a strip club and it isn't a tavern, either. The low key ambiance goes perfectly with the surrounding area. I suspect the Fifteenth Avenue Hophouse will do well.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Here's to the Losers

Reading the weekend Google craft beer alerts is sometimes a treat. You never know when something interesting or surprising is going to pop you straight between the eyes. Such was the case today.

If you spend any amount of time looking at or thinking about beer, you probably know craft beer market share is up and macro-brew market share is in decline. What you may not know is that some of America's most popular traditional beers are in virtual free fall. Of the 30 most popular brands, 8 saw their sales decline 30 percent or more between 2006 and 2010. That is staggering.

Read the list and weep:

#8 Budweiser -30 percent
The self-styled King of Beers...the beer with the red, white and blue labeling. Between 2006 and 2010, Bud sales dropped 30 percent. When you consider that Bud sold 18 million barrels of beer in 2010, the 30 percent represents something like 7 million barrels over five years. That's massive.

#7 Milwaukee's Best Light -34 percent
Never a very big selling beer, Milwaukee's Best Light has been squeezed out by the larger brand light beers like Bud Light and Miller Lite. Sales in 2010: 1.3 million barrels.

#6 Miller Genuine Draft -51 percent
Often referred to as MGD, this is Miller's unpasteurized, cold-filtered beer. It was introduced in 1985 and peaked at 7 million barrels sold in 1992. Sales last year: 1.8 million barrels. Astounding.

#5 Old Milwaukee -52 percent
Once a flagship of Pabst Brewing Company, Old Milwaukee has been squeezed out of the best store shelves by the power of Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, and possibly also by growing craft inventories in some areas.

#4 Milwaukee's Best -53 percent
Once sold 7 millions barrels in a year. That was in 1990. Now down to 925,000. Yikes!

#3 Bud Select -60 percent
Anheuser-Busch's big product in the low calorie beer segment with 99 calories/can. Bud Select was introduced in 2005 and has lost sales ever since.

#2 Michelob Light -64 percent
Released in 1978 to compete with the success of Miller Lite, Michelob Light never made the grade. Sales peaked in 1994 at 2 million barrels. Now down to 525,000.

#1 Michelob -72 percent
Launched as a premium alternative to imports, Michelob never did all that well. Today it is being eaten alive by the craft segment and imports. Sales for 2010: 175,000 barrels.

What does it all mean? I'm sure there are many interpretations. I see two main threads here:

For probably a variety of reasons, light beer is taking over the macro segment. You don't see Bud Light, Miller Lite or Coors Light on this list. Those beers may not be in high growth mode, but they aren't big losers like the traditional, mainstream beers. Demographics are undoubtedly driving some of this, with aging baby boomers, as well as young party animals, looking for lighter alternatives. 

The rapidly expanding craft segment (14 percent for the first half of 2011) is hitting macro market share from the high side, essentially wiping out the top and middle. People who want beer that tastes good aren't reaching for a Budweiser, Michelob or Killian's Red these days. They know better. Instead, they increasingly reach for a craft beer produced somewhere nearby. 

Where will this lead? I'd say the big guys will continue to chase the light beer segment. There's a lot of money on the table. At the same time, they will be looking to expand their craft portfolios. Anheuser-Busch has a good thing going via its ownership share in the Craft Brewers Alliance (Widmer, Redhook and Kona) and ownership of Goose Island Brewing. Coors owns the Blue Moon brand. It seems likely this trend will gain momentum as the macro industry sees its market share slide.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Laurelwood Adds to IPA line

I was surprised to find out a little while back that Laurelwood would soon be unable to keep its very popular Workhorse IPA flowing. The reason, I was told, is that they do not have enough hops to brew the beer until the new harvest comes in. 

Workhorse, for the unaware, leans heavily on five hop varieties: Simcoe, Amarillo, Cascade, Nugget and Columbus. It's a borderline imperial IPA at 7.5 ABV, with a terrific balance of aroma, flavor and bitterness.

Logo for the new IPA

To fill the coming void, Laurelwood has launched a new IPA called Gearhead. (There are also messing around with an A-Z program, which I won't cover here.) Gearhead will evidently join the brewery's list of staple beers. It's on tap in the brewpubs and will soon be available by the bottle in area stores and bottle shops. 

Gearhead is a decent beer, but it definitely lacks the floral and citrus essence of Workhorse. Although it is by no means a session beer, the ABV is lower at 6.5 percent. This is more along the lines of a standard IPA.

Laurelwood's owner, Mike De Kalb, told me via email that they intend to bring Workhorse back as soon as the appropriate hops are available. He also said he isn't quite sure how they will categorize it. Because Workhorse is "on the cusp" (DeKalb's words) of being an imperial IPA, there's a chance that's how they will position it in their line.

I wonder. Could a hops shortage really cause something so smart to happen? In my mind, positioning Workhorse as an imperial IPA is a no brainer. Laurelwood has a great stable of beers, of which Workhorse is one. But Workhorse is a wee bit heavy to be the only IPA on their board. 

Adding Gearhead to the mix is a wise move because it will allow them to very soon market a near-light IPA (Gearhead) and a big IPA (Workhorse). Many brewpubs have more than one IPA...it makes sense in this market to have more than one.

Laurelwood has made a lot of smart business moves over the years. The apparent plan to re-position Workhorse is just one more.