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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.