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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Kauai's Craft Beer Challenge

Kauai is an amazing place. People come here for the great weather, the surfing, the snorkeling, the golf and a range of other activities. Some people even come here just to relax in the warmth, if you can imagine that. What people obviously don't come here for is the beer.

A bit of background. I've been to Kauai many times over the years. It's gotten easier in recent times because there's a place to stay. That place is in Poipu, on the south side of the island in the rain shadow. It's usually dry here, while it pours on most of the island. Oh, in case you don't know, Kauai is the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands.

The bar at Brennecke's Beach Broiler 
Frankly speaking, the beer selection has never been great here. In the old days, we would wander down to Brennecke's Beach Broiler (an open air bar and restaurant) which overlooks the city beach and suck down whatever we could find after a day of fun in the sun. Steinlager was a favorite, and eventually so was Kona's Fire Rock Pale Ale and Longboard Lager.

Despite the craft beer revolution that's overtaking America, Kona is now the only beer you can regularly find on tap in bars and restaurants around Poipu. They serve several Kona beers at Brennecke's and at the Honu Beach Bar at the Marriott Waiohai Beach Club. Across the street at Keoki's Paradise (bar and restaurant) they have a greater selection of mostly Kona beers, as well as Blue Moon and some other Coors products. The grocery stores offer more of the same.

Look, the Kona beers aren't bad. They're clean and highly drinkable. But they really aren't very exciting next to what I'm used to finding in Portland and on the West Coast, generally. And let's face it, good craft beer isn't that hard to find in a growing number of American towns and cities. So why not here?

Back up. There is exactly one craft brewery on the island of Kauai today....Kauai Island Brewing in Port Allen. They've been open since July and I've written about this place before. But I had never been there until today. I'll have a more complete look at the place in the next day or so. The question remains, why aren't there more breweries here?

The beach at Marriott's Waiohai Beach Club
Some might say it's a problem of demand. Kauai's 2011 population was estimated at just over 67,000. These folks are spread around the island. Of course, you have to also consider the transient tourist population. More than 1 million people visited Kauai in 2011 (stats), the bulk of them from the US mainland, mostly from the West Coast. These are people who know about good beer. One craft brewery for more than a million people? Nah, demand isn't the issue.

The issue almost certainly revolves around cost. A lot of small businesses don't survive long here. I've seen this in action. The area seems to be increasingly dominated by big corporate players who can afford to buy or lease property and don't mind high state taxes and exorbitant utility costs. And let's not forget the importance of being able to weather recurrent downturns in tourism. Small businesses have a very difficult time in this economic scenario.

One of many spectacular views
When it comes to breweries, the problem is magnified because Hawaii's beer excise tax ranks fourth in the country, behind Alaska, Alabama and Georgia, at 93 cents a gallon. Compare this to the beer crazy states of Oregon and Colorado, where the rate is 8 cents per gallon. So you have all the standard business factors, plus the high excise tax. A perfect storm!

In case you're wondering how Kona Brewing has flourished in the scenario I've just described, part of the answer is here. I may return to this issue in the upcoming post about Kauai Island Brewing.

Cheers from Poipu.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Brewing Consistency and Plausible Deniability

One of the great challenges in brewing is batch quality and consistency. I know this from personal homebrewing experience...although I have to admit my most serious issue along these lines is and always has been sanitation. But never mind.

Talk to Kurt and Rob Widmer about consistency. In the days when their brewing operation was tiny, they worked overtime to attain consistency across multiple batches. It wasn't easy. Batches that didn't measure up were tossed...no questions asked. Because they refused to damage their fledgling brand with rotten beer.

One of my labels from back in the infected day
That wasn't quite the case with the ill-fated Cartwright, Portland's first craft brewery back in 1980. Founder Charles Coury came from the wine industry and used those sanitation values. Fermentation often occurred in open containers. Thus, Cartwright's beer was inconsistent and sometimes infected. That didn't go over very well and the brewery closed in 1982. Little did Coury know he was 30 years ahead of his time...sour beers being wildly popular today.

Consistency and quality are less of an issue today. Brewers have figured out how to make consistent, quality beers. Large regional breweries that have plants in several locations around the country manage to produce beers that are essentially the same.

If you ask the Widmer boys about that, they like to bring up the macro brewers. The big boys, they say, have quality control dialed in to the point where different batches of Bud, for example, look and taste the same regardless of where they are brewed. Don't laugh. Differences in very light beers are more easily detected than similar differences in darker, fuller craft beers.

Yeah, that's infected
With consistency issues largely a thing of the past in competent breweries, it makes me especially curious when a well-known, popular beer undergoes a drastic change. I'm not talking about a brand AB InBev has gobbled up and is systematically destroying by cheaping out ingredients and production values in a factory brewery. Nope. I'm talking about an independent craft brand with full control of its quality and consistency.

Look, I realize brewers sometimes get pushed into a corner due to changing market conditions or altered ingredients. Or maybe a brewer decides a beer needs to change...the way Boneyard decided to dial down the ABV in RPM and Hop Venom over the last year. That change was totally above board. Tony Lawrence outlined what he was going to do and did it.

But what are we supposed to make of a situation where a beer with a great reputation suddenly undergoes a fairly dramatic change (according to numerous fans) and the brewer denies using different ingredients or doing anything different in the brewing process?

Listen, I honestly don't think there's a good explanation. Because it doesn't make sense. I'm mostly at a loss. What the hell do you think is going on?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Behind the Blogging Ethics Conundrum

There was a bit of buzz the other week related to an article that appeared in the December issue of Beeradvocate. The article presented some opposing views on what constitutes appropriate ethical standards on the part of people who blog about beer.

This isn't a very glamorous topic for those who aren't somehow invested in blogs, whether as writers or consumers of content. But it actually is a big deal, because the people who read blogs deserve to know what drives the people who write them.

Let me take you back to the the bad old days before the web. In those days, getting information of any kind out to a larger audience typically meant getting published in print. And that generally meant following certain journalistic standards. Sources and facts were often checked and editors were always on the lookout for anything that smelled of possible conflict of interest. Wait...those were the bad old days?

This arrangement has been turned on its head by the emergence of digital technology. Sure, there are online publications that continue to follow established journalistic standards. But anyone can be a self-appointed expert and publish a website, blog or social media page. The barriers and filters that existed when print dominated have broken down in the face of decentralized digital publishing.

In the case of beer blogs, the lack of institutionalized barriers has turned the medium into a veritable free-for-all. Authors cover what they want and often say nothing about what they're getting in return. So you have a blog heavily promoting an event or product whose success will benefit the author of the blog. Yet the connection is not disclosed. It happens all the time, and it happens because a lot of bloggers think it's okay.

However, it turns out there are rules governing blogs. The Federal Trade Commission places blogging  in the same category as endorsements and testimonials. In 2009, the FTC finally revised its Guides Concerning the Use of  Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising [link], last updated in 1980. Why did it take so long? I have no idea and it makes no sense. The pertinent passage from the web reads as follows:
The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. [italics added]
Returning to the Beeradvocate article, one of the people mentioned is Brady Walen. Before he assumed the role of Marketing Communications Manager at the Craft Brew Alliance last year, Brady was a beer marketing consultant and wrote The Daily Pull blog. As soon as he took the position at the CBA, he quit consulting and blogging. Why? Because he didn't want to have his credibility brought into question over any possible conflict of interest.

Ashley Routson was also mentioned in the article. Ashley works for Bison Brewing and is widely known in the beer community as The Beer Wench. Her main blog, DrinkWithTheWench.com, is well known and largely promotional. What she does is promote craft beer in a broad way by talking up beers, events, brewers and more. Even though she works for a brewery, Ashley doesn't see any conflict of interest in what she does.

Who's right? You can make the argument that both are. Brady didn't have to quit blogging when he went to work for the CBA (assuming it wasn't a condition of his employment). He chose to stop because he didn't think he would be able to write what he wanted without constant questions about propriety. Ashley isn't worried about conflict of interest because, even though she works for one brand, she promotes numerous craft brands...and says so on her site.

The point is, blogging isn't a free-for-all. You can't legally accept free beer and related goodies in exchange for covering an event or product without disclosing that connection. In a small way, this is comparable to the record industry payola scandal of the Fifties...when it came out that disc jockeys promoted records based on which record labels paid them.

What are the penalties for violating FTC Guides? Hard to say, really. The FTC website says they aren't really monitoring blogs and reported violations are evidently reviewed on a case-by-case basis (more here). I suppose that means any kind of penalty would have to suit the size of the violation. Who knows what that means in the case of a blogger who receives a few free beers in exchange for coverage.

But disclosure is something bloggers should be aware of and attentive to. In practice, it isn't that hard to disclose incentives or trinkets received in exchange for coverage of an event, product or whatever. It really shouldn't be a matter of following some government agency rule ...it's something we owe our readers from a purely ethical standpoint.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Palouse Falls Brewing to Close; Future Uncertain

Despite the fact that craft breweries continue to proliferate around the country and we don't hear much about closures, bad things sometimes do happen...breweries do close. And it often doesn't have anything to do with crappy beer.

One of the breweries I visited several times on my travels to Eastern Washington is Palouse Falls Brewing in Pullman. This business has been operated by the husband and wife team of Jeff and Linda Green for several years. They are great people, highly respected in the community. Unfortunately, they have decided to close the brewery on Dec. 22.

I learned of the impending closure of PFBC on Facebook. You can search for their Facebook page and read the announcement there if you wish. As I write this, there's nothing on the brewery website and the only news coverage I found is behind a subscription firewall on the local newspaper in Pullman. No thanks.

The details surrounding the closure of Palouse Falls Brewing, according to the owners, are these: They learned last spring that they would not be allowed to exercise an option to purchase the property on which the brewery stands...property which needs improvements for the business to move forward. Knowing of the property situation, they recently accepted an offer to sell their existing brewing equipment as a package. You suspect the first circumstance led to the second.

A curious part of the announcement, confirmed in an email from Jeff Green, is they hope to find a new location in the area and reopen. They would then need to purchase the building and acquire new brewing equipment. A lot people in the Pullman area, as well as WSU alumni who often visit, are hoping Palouse Falls Brewing gets a second life. And maybe it will.

The Trifecta
Craft beer fans always wonder about situations like this. We know craft beer has a lot of momentum and brewery failures seem to be rare. Yet it does happen. When it does happen, it's interesting to look at what may have led to the demise. Sometimes you have to read between the lines and look a little deeper. Sometimes not.

The first significant thing to know about PFBC is that Jeff and Linda did not come from a brewing background. Before opening the brewery, Jeff spent 20 years in manufacturing. Linda worked in various administrative and management positions. Neither had brewing experience. The brewery idea came to them as they looked for a viable business opportunity.

The second item rolls out of the first: The Greens never brewed any beer in Pullman. Nope. After an initial source didn't work out, they contracted with Northern Lights Brewing of Spokane (now No-Li Brewing) to provide brewed wort. The finished worts were shipped to Pullman in large plastic vats, transferred to tanks for fermentation and eventually filtered, conditioned and kegged for consumption. This is effectively contract brewing...where you perform the final steps.

Finally, the original concept was a production brewery and taproom with no attached pub or restaurant. The plan was to use a small percentage of the available production capacity to build a following for several brands. They hoped to eventually create enough demand to distribute in kegs and bottles around the region and beyond. A bold plan.

What happened
The fact that the Greens didn't come from a brewing background almost certainly affected their business plan. Launching a production brewery in an area where demand for craft beer is years behind what it is in Portland and Seattle may not have been a great idea. Success in this type of venture requires volume via wide distribution that might take years to build.

Their lack of brewing knowledge did not affect the beers, which were fine. Crimson Pride, a medium-bodied red ale with a balanced flavor, aroma and bitterness, is arguably their flagship beer. It has been regularly available on tap in many locations around Pullman. The other beers were quite drinkable, as well.

However, you have to wonder about the economics of paying someone else to do the bulk of the brewing work. This is especially true when you are already paying for a large production space that is being used for only part of the process. The Greens did a lot of the post-brewing production work in Pullman themselves, so they didn't have a lot of employee overhead. Nonetheless, you have to wonder how the overall arrangement penciled out.

Finally, a production brewery and taproom runs counter to the brewpub model that has been so successful in many places. The reason the brewpub model works is the pub provides an additional revenue stream. If all you have is a brewery and a taproom, you're relying on sales volume in those channels to support your operation. There's also the fact that food is an additional draw for people who aren't going to come in just for your beer. Sure there's additional overhead, but it seems to pencil out for many of these businesses.

It's worth noting that Pullman's other brewery, Paradise Creek Brewing, is a brewpub. I visited when I was there in September and they have a spectacular space (my story here). I don't know how they're doing in terms of profitability, but they have some interesting beers, a few of which are being distributed in kegs and bottles. Their brewing system is fairly small and the marketing plan limited.

The Future of PFBC
If and when Palouse Falls Brewing does reopen, Jeff says it will be in a smaller location with a downsized brewing system. They own the various recipes and brands and would apparently do their own brewing from start to finish in a new location. The distribution plan would be pared down to a more realistic regional target. No word on whether food would be part of any new operation, but you suspect not.

It seems to me the revised plan is the kind of thing that might work. Starting out small and building a following is strategy that has worked well for a number of Portland breweries. Why not in Pullman? There are a lot of people pulling for the Greens to succeed, as much because they are great folks as for their beers. Hopefully, things work out.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Widmer Moves Forward with Reinvented Approach

I probably sipped my first glass of Widmer Hefeweizen while I was a graduate student in the great tundra of the Palouse, otherwise known as Washington State University. This was in the late Eighties and there were maybe one or two pubs in town where you could find decent beer.

The Widmer story is fairly well known. The brothers, Kurt and Rob, built the business from the ground up, with a sizable assist from their dad, Ray. You see, Ray could fix anything...a nice skill to have when your brewery is made up primarily of scavenged dairy equipment held together by baling twine. Things weren't very sophisticated in those days and the Widmers weren't the only ones who built a brewery from junk.

Kurt and Rob back in the day
But the business was a success and they eventually grew up and out of their original digs on Northwest Lovejoy. Seeking a larger space, they looked at numerous locations before getting hooked on an abandoned building on Russell Street. This was not a good area in those days and nearly everyone advised them against taking up residence there. But the price was right ($1) and they made the leap.

A few million bucks in renovations and improvements later, they went on to even greater success at the Russell St. location. The brewing operation has expanded dramatically into one of the largest regional craft breweries in the country. Today, Widmer is part of the Craft Brew Alliance, which includes the Kona, Redhook and Omission (gluten-free beer) brands.

They've produced many great beers over the years, but it's an accepted fact that Hefeweizen built their brand. The brothers tapped into the broad appeal of Hef when they partnered with Anheuser-Busch in 1997. That deal provided access to the AB distribution network, thus putting Hefeweizen on store shelves throughout most of the country. A major home run.

I had a chance to chat with the brothers the other week as part of a project that's a little bigger than this blog...more on that down the line. I was surprised to find them sharing a very plain office at the street level on Russell. This is a long-term arrangement. I don't know how they manage it, honestly, but working in close proximity has probably benefited the business over the years.

Back to the flagship beer, Hefeweizen. If you follow the beer industry at all, you may know the beer that essentially built the Widmer brand has been dropping market share in recent years. It's the result of more competition in the wheat beer segment (from Blue Moon and others) and a growing flood of craft beer choices, generally.

The lagging performance of Hefeweizen has forced the organization to rethink and alter its approach. You see this represented in the Rotator IPA series, the Series 924 beers and the increasing number of experimental and seasonal beers. An active creativity is driving the business into the future these days.

I was recently invited down to taste some of the new (and old) concoctions. A tasting trip to the Gasthaus is always a worthwhile treat, even more so when you have the benefit of a guide...in this case brewer Ben Dobler. Ben came to Widmer in 1996 after three years at Bridgeport. He is well-immersed in the experimental, pilot brewing program.

Tasting in progress
The current lineup of Widmer beers has some interesting twists. Of course, there's a seasonal aspect to it and you won't find everything on the list in the pub. A few of my highlights below.

X Wheat is unfiltered wheat beer brewed from a recipe used in the early days of Hefeweizen. Tasted next to the current version, X-Wheat is clearly a bolder interpretation of the style. It seems the current Hef has been softened up somewhat over the years to gain (my guess) wider appeal. I really liked the X Wheat.

Series 924 Milk Stout has a rich chocolate flavor and is ultra smooth with a vaguely sweet finish...apparently the result of adding milk sugar. I'm not normally a stout fan, but this is a good one. Milk Stout has limited availability so you'll have to get it soon.

Brrrr Seasonal Ale is Widmer's standard winter beer, available in bottles and on tap. A lot of people get fooled by this beer, thinking it's a dark winter beer. That's not what it is at all. Instead, Brrr is a mildly sweet, mildly hoppy red ale. At 7.2%, it isn't exactly light. But Brrr is balanced and highly drinkable.

Alchemy Project: Barrel Aged Brrrrrbon '12 is essentially Brrr aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. This is the third year of this beer. Bourbon aroma and flavor is very upfront and pretty hard to miss in this one. I think it could use some cellaring. This is a big beer (9.2%) and it will surely be better in a year or two than it is now...though it isn't bad now.

Nelson Imperial IPA is one of the year-round Series 924 beers. It packs a pretty serious hop punch (70 IBU) balanced out to some extent by a subtly sweet malt background. I've liked this beer since it was released because it's consistently clean and flavorful. There are other Imperial IPAs I like better, but Nelson is a solid standby.

They were featuring several New Zealand Hop beers...Pacific Gem, Pacifica and Southern Cross. Ben described these as experimental brews made to test the characteristics of the hops. None of these beers was great, though Southern Cross wasn't bad. They're far more important as a symbol of Widmer's commitment to trying new approaches and ingredients.

In the overall scheme of things, I'd say the challenge posed by the threat to Hefeweizen has made Widmer better. They cruised along for many years on the strength of Hef's financials. I don't want to say they weren't creating anything interesting during that time, but they have most definitely turned their game up a notch in the last few years. It's good to see.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Holiday Ale Fest Snapshot

The Holiday Ale Festival has commenced its annual run at Pioneer Courthouse Square and will continue through the weekend. It's the 17th rendition and this festival has come a long way since the days of claustrophobia-inducing white tents.

Anyone remotely familiar with the HAF knows it's best to attend during daylight weekday hours. That's because it can get pretty packed evenings and on the weekend. There was a pleasant buzz in the air when I stopped by Thursday afternoon...busier than expected, but no problem getting around and no beer lines to speak of.

A view without lines
I'll give a quick rundown of my favorite beers in a second. First, a word about the most-often heard grump under the tents...the $30 entry fee. I'm sympathetic to the view that the price of admission is a bit steep. On the other hand, organizers have no problem packing the available space for the better part of five days.

I asked one fellow drinker why he bothered to attend if he was so adamantly opposed to the price. I mean, why not let festival organizers know of your displeasure by not attending? His answer: "I come because this is one of my favorite festivals and I don't want to miss it." So there you have it. People pay the price because they feel it's a worthwhile value.

Celebrate (good) Beer! Sounds like a fine idea
The layout is essentially identical to what it has been in recent years. You enter in the same place and the beers are in the same spots. They've truly maxed out the available space here with the Sky Bar, Side Bar and Main Bar. Part of the charm of the HAF is the downtown venue, and it isn't going anywhere, despite the limited space.

The Beers
A few general comments on the beers. The Standard Release line-up is Oregon-dominant...32 of the 44 beers in the program are Oregon made. California is second with six. You can add half a beer to both states, if you wish, thanks to the Bison/Logsdon collaboration. On the styles front, stouts account for 11 of 44 beers. Also, no fewer than 11 beers are barrel-aged.

Beer friends Heather and Angelo
Firestone Walker's Wild Merkin was the first beer I tasted. This is a complex beer and maybe that wasn't a great idea. Oh well. I found it to be mildly sour with subtle bourbon notes. It's a nicely balanced presentation on the whole.

I wasn't really seeking a hop bomb, given this is a winter festival, but Breakside's India Passion Elixir is a fine beer, probably my favorite. This is a collaboration between Breakside and Lompoc. Sure it's hoppy, but the hops are not out of balance. I suspect the addition of honey for increased body is what makes this beer. Other opinions may differ.

Perfunctory shot
Lompoc's Franc'ly Brewdolf, the beer I tasted a couple of weeks ago at a media preview, was a whole lot more mature and pleasing this time around. I found it a more creamy than malty, but it's certainly a worthwhile effort.

Boysen, a dark Belgian ale from The Commons, was almost exactly as advertised...a heavy (malty) low end is leveled out somewhat by chocolate and boysenberries on top. I was expecting it to be a little brighter, but it's a nice beer.

Deschutes' Lost Mirror Mirror 09, one of the Limited Released beers tapped Thursday afternoon, is amazing. This oak-aged specimen is possibly the smoothest, fullest barley wine I've tasted. It was certainly worth the double-token price. Too bad it was limited.

Another fantastic barley wine is Lagunitas' Old Gnarley Wine (2010). This one is on the Standard Release list. I've had this beer in a bottle and found it quite good. But additional aging smooths this beer out nicely, I think. Sweet caramel flavors are supported by a great body. Terrific.

The standard tree shot
I had hoped to taste Snow Cave, the Crux Fermentation Project beer. Alas, it had not arrived as of Thursday evening. There was a sign near the entry saying they expected to have it Friday.

So those are my highlights. Several of the beers on my original tasting list didn't quite live up to my expectations. They weren't necessarily bad, just not what I thought they would be. Opinions tend to differ on these things, so I leave it to you to taste away.

If you need more information, there's plenty on the HAF site here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Ale Festival Hit List

It's that time of year. Time for the 17th Annual Holiday Ale Festival, which runs Wednesday through Sunday  in Pioneer Courthouse Square. I talked about some of the general event specs earlier (here) and there are plenty of other folks talking about it in blogland.

My main purpose here is to list a few of the beers I will be hunting for at the festival. Not that my opinion should really matter. Fact is, there will be a ton of great beers at the HAF, which is a destination winter beer event. Beer fans have come to expect a long list of unique and exceptional beers, because that's what the festival delivers.

About my beer list. There are two tiers of beers at the HAF... Standard Release and Limited Release. All the beers on my list are from the Standard Release list. In case you wonder why, it's because the Limited Release beers will only be available during specific windows of time, not necessarily times I intend to be down there.

Although I will almost certainly taste Deschutes' Lost Mirror Mirror Thursday afternoon, I'm not putting it on my hit list because its availability is so limited. If you want to plan your trip according to Limited Release beers, the list with tap times is here.

Should you wish to get acquainted with the complete list of Standard beers, here's where you can find it. As I write this, the location of the beers in the tents is still TBD. That will likely be shored up by the time the festival opens on Wednesday.

My Hit List (A-Z)
10 Barrel Brewing Frosty's Revenge (7% ABV; 40 IBUs) Belgian Ale
This is a Belgian Christmas Ale, based on a milk stout, with notes of molasses, toasted bread and raisins. Belgian Abbey yeast, with its essence of candied fruit, likely forms the character of this beer. Hops deliver hints of pine and bubblegum, they say. Sounds interesting.

Bayern Brewing Eisbock (13% ABV; 34 IBUs) German Ale
This beer started out as Bayern's award winning Doppelbock, and I'm a big fan of that style. They use a freezing process that lowers the temperature of the beer in the aging tank to the point that some of the water in the beer freezes. Several transfers from tank to tank extract the ice, resulting in a smooth, higher alcohol beer. I'll be interested to how smooth it is and how well the malt backbone keeps the alcohol in the background.

Bison Brewing Organic Cocoa Bretta (7%  ABV; 26 IBUs) Stout
This is organic collaboration combines Bison's award winning Chocolate Stout and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales' Bretta. The stout was brewed with cocoa, multiple yeasts, finished with strains of Brettanoymces, and then keg conditioned with pear juice. I've had both of the base beers. I'm interested to taste the combo and see how the Bretta alters Bison's very chocolate stout.

Breakside Brewery India Passion Elixir (8.7 % ABV; 80 IBUs) Red Ale
This winter hop bomb is a collaboration between Breakside's Jacob Leonard and Bryan Keilty of Lompoc. They used flaked rye and dark wheat for malts. For hops, they turned to Willamette and Centennial. They rounded the beer out with a bit of honey for more body. This was one of the beers I didn't get to taste at Lompoc's Holiday Beer preview.

Crux Fermentation Project Snow Cave (11% ABV; 20 IBUs) Winter Ale 
Crux is one of the newer breweries in Bend and a very impressive operation. Snow Cave evidently doesn't stay within normal style guidelines. Instead, it gives a nod to all winter beer styles. Starting with a heavy dose of wheat malt and ending with a touch of chocolate, this high gravity interpretation of a winter warmer will keep you cozy in the harshest of winters. I can't wait!

Firestone Walker Brewing Wild Merkin (8.5% ABV: 8.5%; no IBU given) Blend
Last year, FW's Velvet Merkin was possibly the most popular beer at the HAF. This time around the Firestone folks have collaborated with the Holiday Ale Festival. In code, that means head HAF organizer Preston Weesner had significant input. It's a blend of one-year-old Bourbon barrel-aged Velvet Merkin that was blended with a touch of young Gueuze from Firestone's sour program. The result is a lighter, brighter, but still barrel-forward Merkin. Sounds excellent.

Gilgamesh Brewing Blitz 'N' Prancer (9% ABV; 6 IBUs) Belgian Ale
A spiced Belgian-style ale was brewed in the spirit of holiday breads. Dark roasted malts and large quantities of molasses make a robust and slightly sweet body. Light hopping and spicing from vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg create a festive finish. I'm interested to see if the spices can overcome the alcohol in this one.

Lompoc Brewing Franc'ly Brewdolph (7.6 % ABV; no IBU given) Belgian Ale 
If you read this blog at all, you know I'm interested in this beer because when I tasted it at Lompoc's recent Holiday preview, it was freshly blended from barrels, under-carbonated and not ready for prime time. It's a Belgian red ale brewed in October 2011 using Belgian Ardennes yeast, then aged for a year in Cabernet Franc barrels. The resulting beer is malty and creamy, they say. I'm interested to see what the finished product tastes like.

The Commons Brewery Boysen (10.5% ABV; 25 IBUs) Belgian Ale
Any beer from The Commons is worth a try and this one sounds terrific. It's a dark, strong, malt forward Belgian ale with dark fruits added during maturation. Chocolate notes create a foundation for the boysenberries and yeast esters to ride on. Could be amazing!

Widmer Brothers Brewing Brrrbon Vanilla (10.5% ABV; 78 IBUs) IPA
This is a revved up version of Brrrr, one of Widmer's winter seasonals. It's barrel-aged with hints of vanilla, dark chocolate and caramel. They say it has a deep complexity and balance. I honestly think standard Brrrr is a fairly bland winter beer, but the barrel-aged versions are a substantial upgrade. This will be fun.

So that's my list. I'll undoubtedly be tasting other beers along the way, but this is a nice start. I'll post my thoughts on these beers and other finds before the weekend. It's going to be a fun festival. Hope you have a chance to get down there! Please go to the HAF website here to buy advance tickets and/or check event details.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lompoc Carries on Nicely with Holiday Beers

Lompoc Brewing held its annual Holiday Beer preview last week. It was particularly interesting this year for reasons that go somewhat beyond the beers. The reality is, they've been through some changes at Lompoc Brewing in the last year. Yet they carry on.

They lost the Old Lompoc brewpub on Northwest 23rd. This was the original location, converted to a brewery in 1996 and subsequently purchased by Jerry Fechter and the late Don Younger in 2000. They renamed the business New Old Lompoc. The old pub/brewery resided in a building that was demolished last spring to make way for a new structure that will house apartments, retail shops and parking. Progress takes no prisoners in Northwest Portland.

Holiday beers to seek out in stores
Demise of New Old Lompoc reduced Lompoc's portfolio to four locations: The Fifth Quadrant (headquarters and brewery) and Sidebar (tasting room) on N. Williams; the Hedge House pub on SE Division; and the Oaks Bottom Public House in the Westmoreland neighborhood.

It won't stay that way for long. Fechter has signed a lease to open a pub in the new building in Northwest. This will be a pub only, as installing a brewery in the new space would have been beyond problematic. All beer production has shifted to the Fifth Quadrant. Honestly, though, the bulk of brewing has been done there for several years, as the NOL brewery was small and rather antiquated.

There were human losses, as well. Brewers Dave Fleming and Zach Beckwith departed during the year. Fleming, head brewer for several years, left to take a position in hops sales (my story here). I've heard murmurs that he's back brewing somewhere, but I can't confirm. Beckwith initially left to help launch Pints Urban Taproom in the Pearl (my write-up here) and later moved to Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters.

Tools of the tasting trade
With the departures of Fleming and Beckwith, Bryan Keilty took over as Lompoc's head brewer. Keilty had managed Lompoc's production and barrel aging program for several years. His stable mates now include Irena Bierzynski (my story here) and new addition Josh Merrick. It's a good group as long as Jerry stays out of the way. Just kidding...sorta.

The also went through a minor rebranding involving beer labels (my story). Lompoc, which distributes about two-thirds of the beer it brews to commercial accounts (in 22 oz bottles and kegs) in Oregon and Washington, felt the old labels were slightly threadbare. Updated labels began appearing in the spring and continued through recent releases of Monster Mash Imperial Porter and LSD (Lompoc Special Draft). I like the new look.

Holiday Brews
There are seven beers on the Lompoc holiday list this year. If you keep track of these things at home, that's two less than the usual nine. The official reason for the change is the demise of the Old Lompoc brewery, which did poke a small hole in production. Anyway, seven holiday beers is probably enough. All of these will be officially released on Nov. 27.

Jolly Bock (7.3% ABV) was the first beer on the tasting itinerary. The beer, a lager, is nice and malty with a deep amber color. It came straight from the brite tank so the beer will likely change a bit prior to its official release at the end of the month. This is a draft-only offering.

The blurry pour...
Next came 8 Malty Nights (6.5% ABV). This chocolate rye beer is smooth and features a smooth, mildly sweet finish. It's a bit stronger in aroma than it is in flavor, but I really liked this beer. You'll be seeing it on store shelves soon....grab some while you can.

Franc'ly Brewdolph (7.6% ABV) is a red ale brewed with special Belgian yeast, then aged for a year in Cabernet Franc barrels. This beer will be served at the upcoming Holiday Ale Festival, where it will certainly taste different than it did last week. Why? Because the beer had only just come from the barrels and been blended. It was flat and over-oaked. Carbonation will certainly change the character of this brew, possibly bringing fruit notes to the forefront. I recommend giving it a try if you see it.

C-Sons Greetings (8% ABV) is a bigger version of Lompoc's popular C-Note Imperial Pale Ale. They use more than seven "C" hops for bittering and dry-hopping, so it's a serious hop bomb. The aroma is fantastic, as are the piney, citrus flavors. There was wide agreement among tasters that this is an excellent beer. I found it to be slightly tamer from the bottle than from draft, but that's to be expected. It's terrific stuff and I've already seen it in stores. Git some!

Old Tavern Rat (9.4% ABV) is barley wine that was aged almost a year. Caramel and toffee sweetness balance out a fairly hoppy beer. This beer is only available on draft and there's no barrel-aged version of Old Tavern Rat this year...look for it in 2013.

Keilty pours while Fechter (background) yaks
The final beer was Bourbon Barrel Aged Wee Heavy (7.5% ABV), which spent nine months in bourbon barrels. They used dark, smokey malts, along with 50 pounds of molasses, to make this beer. It's dark, smokey and complex. A fairly strong bourbon aroma overlays a beer that possesses a mildly sweet body and a smooth, dry finish. Quite good.

The seventh beer on Lompoc's holiday list is Blitzen (4.6%), a golden ale infused with cinnamon, glove, lemon zest and fresh ginger. Sounds pretty good. But the beer was still in the fermenter, so we didn't get to taste it. Unhappy face.

Finally, Lompoc will have a second beer at the Holiday Ale Festival, this one a collaboration with Breakside Brewing called Breakside India Passion Elixir. It's described as a "winter hop bomb," so you may want to seek it out at the festival if that's your thing.

As noted above, these beers will be launched to the public at Lompoc's Holiday Release Party at Sidebar on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 4 to 10 p.m. You'll want to go with the taster tray...trust me on that. Just to show they're user-friendly, the folks at Lompoc will be offering complimentary appetizers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Base Camp Takes Unprecedented Path

Base Camp Brewing is possibly the newest kid on the brewing block here in Portland. I say possibly because they opened a couple of weeks ago and something newer may have already opened. That's the nature of things in the brewing community here.

You may wonder why Base Camp is located where it is over on Southeast Oak. Why would they open a production brewery and tasting room in a bombed out part of the city? Think I'm kidding? Go over there and note the number of dilapidated, crumbing buildings. And homeless campers.

Colorful outside visuals
I suspect the location was chosen for a logical reason, which I'll get to. First, you need to know this place is the brainchild of owner and brewer Justin Fey, who previously worked at Klamath Falls Brewing and Pyramid Brewing. Justin is a smart guy. When he was in school at Oregon State University, he bailed on Pre-Med to study Fermentation Science. Brilliant. Really.

The Base Camp model is virtually unprecedented in Portland. Most places start small. Not Fey. He bought a vacant building in inner Southeast fully intending to install a 20 bbl production brewery there. He then put together a team that helped make it happen. No one, to my knowledge, has ever started out like this here. The closest approximation is Gigantic, which has less brewing capacity and is located far from the city's inner core.

Base Camp's brewing capacity is an interesting story. Fey purchased the entire brewing system from Nicolet Brewing of Florence, Wis. He and his team then traveled there, disassembled the system, loaded it on trucks and brought it back to Portland. They subsequently refurbished and reassembled the pieces. Seriously.
Warm visuals in the tasting room

I never saw the building prior to Base Camp being open, but pictures over on The New School blog tell the story. The space surely housed some kind of early 20th century industrial enterprise. The ceilings are high, the space cavern-like. Yeah, it's almost ideal for a production brewery.

They've dressed the space up nicely with artwork, salvage wood tables, track lighting and fixtures. It's quite comfortable inside. There's also an outside area with a fire pit on the west side of the building...which gets some action now and will surely be very popular when the weather cooperates. It could use a cover in winter, but I don't know if that's in the cards.

Back to the brewery. The 20 bbl system is augmented by a generous complement of 60 and 30 bbl fermenters, as well as two large lagering tanks. That kind of fermentation space is rare in established craft breweries, let alone newbies. The lagering tanks, well, they aren't common at all. These tanks give Base Camp a lot of production flexibility and help explain their beer list.

Unique aluminum bottles
Beer geeks are fully aware of why the lagering tanks are a big deal. Since not everyone is a beer geek, a bit of explanation. A prime reason most craft breweries don't produce much if any lager beer is they don't have the fermentation space. Lagers can clog up a brewery that has limited fermentation capacity. Why? Because lagers take longer to ferment...and require lower fermenting temperatures. So craft brewers have historically steered away from producing a lot of lager.

Despite the fact that Budweiser, Coors and the rest of the macro crowd has damaged the integrity of lager beer, there are many great lagers out there. A growing number of craft brewers are reviving the style and Base Camp, which produces plenty of ales, too, is part of that community. I'll be interested to see how it works out for them.

The Brews
Remember, the main goal here is distribution by bottle and keg. That's pretty much the way it is for production breweries that aren't connected to a pub or collection of pubs. Base Camp's tasting room would never come close to utilizing the brewing capacity here. And I mean never.

The tasting log
Their flagship beer is In-Tents IPL. Yup, it's an India Pale Lager. You can find it in area stores in fancy 22 oz aluminum bottles and on draft at various pubs. IPL is an interesting beer. It's dry-hopped and aged on toasted oak chips. It's closer to a red, really. I didn't detect much hop aroma of flavor, likely due to lagering. I think this beer would be better as an ale. But it's pretty good as is.

Ripstop Rye Pils had just gone on when I visited on Thursday night. This is a light colored lager with a serene rye malt backbone and a wonderful flavor and finish. RRP was the best beer I tasted and I recommend it highly. Nicely done, folks.

Out-of-Bounds Brown Ale is a bit of an odd duck. This beer is lighter than it should be for a brown. It's also heavy on the up-front hops and lacks the kind of nutty, malty depth you expect in a brown. I guess that explains the Out-of-Bounds name. This is actually a decent beer, but it's more of a hoppy winter seasonal (comparable to Full Sail's Wreck the Halls, maybe) than a standard brown.

Closer view of the bar area
I'm not much of a stout fan, but the S'more Stout is really good. It's quite smooth, yet retains plenty of toasty malt and chocolate flavors. You'll understand the naming convention if you visit Base Camp. It has to do with a marsh-mellow. And a propane torch. Cool stuff.

When you make your first trip to Base Camp, do the taster log. The presentation is nice and you'll get to experience the spectrum of what their beers are all about. You'll find something on the log that turns your crank. Trust me.

Money Talk
Returning to the issue of location, it likely ties in with how the operation was financed. There are no private investors or shareholders in Base Camp. Instead, the business is built on a bank loan Fey was able to obtain.

I can't even imagine what it must have cost to buy a building (even in this area), purchase the brewing equipment and fixtures and get the place ready for business. I'd guess a small fortune. If you're going to do that, it probably makes sense to be in a centralized location where you can draw customers from all corners of the city. So that's where they are.

Also related to the financial arrangement is the food arrangement. There's no food at Base Camp. You can order pizza from a cart that resides on the property, but it isn't technically connected. Had they wanted to be a brewpub, they likely would not have qualified for a loan. Why? Because lenders love breweries and hate restaurants (regarded as high risk) in our present economy. I'm not making this up...a well connected and successful industry source told me this a while ago.

Base Camp, like most of our local breweries, is worth a visit. Do yourself a favor and check the hours before you head over there. Evenings are good, but daytime hours are more limited.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

21st Century Freddy Meyer

It has been interesting to watch craft beer take over more and more space in grocery stores. Once upon a time, you had to go to New Seasons or Whole Foods to find a decent selection of good beer...assuming you weren't planing to hit up a bottleshop like Belmont Station.

Although premium stores and bottleshops continue to do great job with craft beer, the game has changed in recent years. You can now find a reasonable selection of great beer in grocery stores, convenience stores and small neighborhood markets. In fact, craft beer sales in these channels are expanding rapidly.

Updated bomber row
So I've been curious about Fred Meyer, which has been mostly slow to turn the craft beer corner. This is particularly true of the Hollywood West location. Here's a store situated in an area that is thirsty for craft beer and wine. They've done a terrific job with wine in this store for many years. Beer, not so much.

There are surely reasons why beer played second fiddle at the Hollywood store. Space was likely one of them. The physical space dedicated to beer was relatively small for a store so large, limiting what they could stock. Lack of focus is another reason. This store has had a wine steward managing wine for many years and doing a fine job. That same person also managed craft beer...not an ideal arrangement.

Plenty of room for seasonal displays
Well, things have changed at the Hollywood store. The recent remodel, more or less complete, has provided roughly double the amount of space for beer. They now have a splendid selection of craft beer in 22 oz. bombers, cans and smaller bottles. They continue to carry a selection of macro sludge on one side of the aisle, but the craft side is where the action is. Plenty of it.

I cannot say what they've done about managing craft beer. I know they were looking for a beer steward a while back. Hopefully, they pulled the trigger on that because having someone with beer knowledge involved in the craft show is crucial to its ongoing success. Today's craft beer scene changes too rapidly for a wine person to successfully split duties.

Play the Game
Part of what drives the success of craft beer in bottleshops, pubs and stores is promotion of special releases and tastings via social media. It's the nature of the beast in this business. I'm not sure this approach is being used by the Kroger/Fred Meyer empire, but it definitely can be.

Jana of Powered by Yeast
Indeed, I visited the Hollywood store a couple of weeks ago after I saw a Facebook post announcing a mead tasting. This tasting was organized and hosted by Powered by Yeast, a beverage brand management company located in Portland.

Powered by Yeast is the husband and wife team of Tim and Jana Daisy-Ensign. Tim and Jana both have extensive experience in craft beer, wine and cider, and they represent a portfolio of brands that includes Fort George Brewing and Redstone Meadery.

Jana was tasting several Redstone meads, which were quite good. Events like this, when promoted via the right channels, can be a big success at the Hollywood store and beyond. Hopefully, there will be more of them happening.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Knotso Sweet Home Alabama

As I've detailed before, Alabama is not exactly what sane folks would call a progressive state. Like most of the old Confederacy, the folks down in what Lynyrd Skynyrd lovingly referred to as "the Southland" have rather archaic views of many things. Alcohol just happens to be one of them.

If you saw the recent issue of Beeradvocate or if you have any kind of online craft beer news alert set up, you probably know that Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents seized more than $5,000 worth of homebrewing supplies from Hop City Craft Beer & Wine in Birmingham in late September. Such a great story.

The way it came down is fairly straight forward. On the day ABC was supposed to issue Hop City's beer and wine license, several armed agents showed up at the store and offered to either arrest the manager or confiscate a portion of the homebrewing "contraband." Offering to arrest the manager was a nicely refined piece of southern hospitality, you have to admit.

As they prepared to drive off in a van filled with confiscated supplies, ABC agents told Hop City staff they would return the next day and confiscate the remaining contraband if it was still there. Naturally, the store owner opted to remove the offending items. Two days later, ABC granted the store's beer and wine license. Today it exists as a bottle shop and taproom without homebrewing supplies.

Living in Oregon, it's a little hard to imagine how things work in the old Confederacy. In the case of homebrewing, it's been legal in the United States since the late 1970s and is wildly popular. But Alabama (along with many other southern states) is decades behind the times, with seriously reactionary laws regulating alcohol, brewing and more. If I didn't know better, I might think these folks are still fighting the Civil War.

Hop City contends it notified ABC months ahead of it's planned opening that it intended to sell homebrewing equipment and supplies. There was no meaningful response...other than "homebrewing is illegal." But it turns out making wine at home is completely legal in Alabama. And Hop City suggested it might sell brewing supplies to nearby commercial brewers. There was no response from ABC...well, until agents with guns showed up and confiscated store merchandise.

It's hard to imagine, but the story gets even better. An attorney for ABC released this statement: "You can have sugar, you can have malt, you can have hops, you can have tubing, copper and everything else, but if you put it all together in a store and market it like it's going to be homebrewing stuff and [you] have a book about how to do it, it's a problem."

The good old days...
So it sounds like it's fine to sell all the homebrewing supplies and equipment you want, as long as you don't also tell people what it's for or sell a book that helps them connect the dots. Well, at least they're consistent when it comes to books in Alabama, which has a rich history of book banning and burning.

I do wonder if these folks will ever catch up with the rest of the country. Beyond the fact that homebrewing is the law of the land, you can't help but wonder if state agents might have better things to do than raid homebrewing supply stores. I hear meth labs are a huge problem in the Alabama. Perhaps the state could redirect its resources and do something about that. Oh...wait.

Cue the Neil Young.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Laurelwood's "Brave New World"

As some who read this blog surely know, Laurelwood's flagship location on Northeast Sandy is in my hood. So it's obviously one of my regular stops. You get to know the regulars on both sides of the bar at a place like this. It's almost a Cheers situation...a personal comfort zone.

They've been making some changes at my favorite pub. It's tough not to notice. And these changes really aren't connected to the new (very nice) pub down in Sellwood, which opened a month or so ago. Nope. They're tinkering with a bunch of things at the flagship.

For Gearhead, the end is near
I happened to run into owner Mike De Kalb the other evening and asked him about what's happening. I should probably preface this by noting that brewers are almost always to blame when changes are made, and I knew Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos had to be involved. So I asked Mike if he had possibly lost his mind and let Vasili run wild. I'm kidding here, but you get the idea.

Mike said he was giving Vasili some room to explore and implement his ideas for moving the business forward. An email to Vasili was quickly returned with some details, which I shall get to shortly.

Big Picture
The big news is that Laurelwood is paring down its list of standard beers. Pale Ale...gone (actually, different versions will rotate). Hooligan Brown Ale...gone. Gearhead IPA...very soon gone. I'll get around to the IPA implications in a minute, so hang on. What they intend to do going forward is limit their core focus to four or five beers, which will free them up to produce more seasonals and specialties.
The Sellwood pub has attracted a good following

The cool thing about the seasonals is they are a team effort. Vasili will write some of the recipes with input from his brewers and the brewers will write some of the recipes with input from Vasili. Some of the beers may be fantastic and some may not be to everyone's tastes, he said. But it should give the team more strength and versatility in the long term.

Their approach to standard beers is also evolving. Vasili believes they should always be striving to make beers the best they can. Raw materials can vary in quality and availability. Thus, he doesn't mind varying the hops or malts in a recipe if he thinks it might make a beer better. So there may be some minor variation in even the standard beers. That's not a bad thing.

The big picture changes are perfectly in line with what is happening around Portland. Today's beer fans are seeking out seasonals and specialty beers in breweries and pubs. Well-known standards no longer cut it, as they did a few years ago. You have got to keep things interesting if you want stay relevant in this business. That's where Laurelwood is headed.

The IPA Story
Gearhead is going away (already gone from their website) because they are bringing Workhorse back as their distribution IPA. A little history here. Gearhead was introduced just over a year ago when Laurelwood ran short of the aroma hops used in Workhorse...those being Amarillo and Simcoe. Gearhead is a smaller beer that uses more traditional Cascade and Centennial hops.

The new standards board above the bar
Officially, they always intended to bring Workhorse back as their standard IPA...once the hops became available again. I was never quite sure how they would do that, but it makes good sense. See, Gearhead simply isn't in the same league as Workhorse and it never gained a large following. Workhorse is an iconic beer, one that has brought Laurelwood significant recognition. The fact that some of the ingredients can be more difficult to source is just part of the bargain.

When Workhorse was on hiatus, they eventually made it available at Laurelwood pubs. But you couldn't find it in bottles or in pubs around town. My first clue that a change might be in the wind was when I discovered they were pouring Workhorse down at Blitz Ladd. Anyway, the beer will be back in full distribution soon, although I'm not sure of the specific timetable.

Back in the mix
Some people are going to miss Gearhead. Its lower alcohol (6.5% ABV) content makes it a sessionable IPA (meaning you can drink a fair amount of it and not get hammered). By the way, Gearhead will likely be brought back from time to time as a seasonal beer. Good news for fans of the beer.

Discontinuing Gearhead and paring down the list of standards is a smart move, and one they probably had to make. Why so? Because Laurelwood's production capacity is pretty maxed out. The Sandy brewery produces essentially all of the beer they sell in multiple pubs and distribute by bottle. Streamlining production makes good sense.

"With Workhorse, it's much easier for us to focus on and produce more of one beer then it is to split the fermentation capacity and everything else among two brands that are more or less the same style of beer," Vasili said.

Workhorse is certainly the right choice if you're only going to make one IPA...in my view.

The bottom line is this: Laurelwood needs a production brewery. They have expanded distribution to the point that they need more production capacity. I know Mike is working toward getting a production facility off the ground, but the timeline is uncertain. Meanwhile, they've got to feed the monkey, as it were.

Other add-ons at the Sandy pub include a beer engine and some revised signage. These are good changes, as they add to the functionality and appeal of the place.

The newly added beer engine...and operator
Part of the reasoning behind the beer engine is the house yeast...English Ale yeast. This strain is perfect for subtle English ales (duh?). So they've got a cask program in place and will be rotating different beers through. They recently had a cask version of Workhorse and then an organic version of Treehugger Porter with vanilla beans.

"The cask program gives us the opportunity to use different dry hops, or anything else we want to try," Vasili said. "I can imagine some nice beers coming out of this program. I'm looking forward to a Red dry-hopped with Cascades and Centennials, which will go on this week, as well as a stout dry-peppered with a very fruity black pepper, almost like a prune flavor with a touch of heat."

Above the bar, you'll note the board of standard beers has been revised. It now lists the beers with basic stats. No more frilly pictures, which were artsy-fartsy, but also took up a lot of space.

"The standards board had all those wonderful pictures which were nice, but becoming obsolete and conveyed no information," said Vasili. "I think our customers prefer being able to see more about the beer...and less. The new board accomplishes that, I think."

The larger board of seasonals fits in nicely
The old seasonal board near the end of the bar has been replaced with a larger one on the wall that fronts Sandy Blvd. This was a necessary change. The old board was too small to list all of the seasonal beers and sometimes difficult to read for a variety of reasons. The new board is out in the open and much easier to read and absorb quickly.

Brave New World
It seems to me the things they're doing at Laurelwood will enhance and extend the reach of their brand. Staying relevant in this beer economy means constantly evaluating where you are with your beers, your people and your facilities...and making adjustments where they make sense.

As Vasili said in closing his email: "It's a brave new world."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Open Nearly a Year, The Commons Cruises Along

The Commons Brewery in Southeast Portland opened nearly a year ago and will soon celebrate its first anniversary. I first visited early on and I stopped by several times since. My initial post on this brewery is here, if you're interested.

That's Rusticity on the left
The Commons has certainly built its brand presence around town. They conduct tastings all over the place and bottles are available at many finer stores and bottleshops. Their beers can also be found on draft in more and more places.

These are Belgian-influenced beers. As I said the first time around, they don't brew or pour your standard beers here. There's no IPA on tap. No PBR, either. You get the idea.

These guys continue to expand their line of beers. On my visit the other night, the only beer I remembered from earlier visits was the Urban Farmhouse Ale, likely their best-known beer. All of the beers on the board were low-octane. The very tart Berliner weisse came in at just 3.4% and ABV topped out at 6% for the list. It's quite amazing that beers with so much character can come in such a low alcohol form.

The board keeps getting more interesting
The beer that really grabbed me this time was Rusticity. This stuff is a collaboration between The Commons, Breakside Brewing and Upright Brewing, evidently brewed for the recent Killer Beerfest. Rusticity is fairly dark and mildly tart, with hints of cherries. It's a blend of two rye beers...a Belgian rye stout and Breakside's Six, both barrel-aged. This is a brilliant beer worth searching out if you haven't already tasted it. I suspect it's in short supply.

One of the things that's happened at The Commons as they've ratcheted up operations is there is less space available in the tasting room. Why? Because the complement of oak barrels has roughly doubled since they opened to the pubic a year ago. That's a guess. The additional barrels suggest things are going well.

Word is, they will soon be occupying some additional space in their building to store bottles, kegs, and related tools of the trade. Currently, this stuff sits out in the main hall when they're open for business and is schlepped back into the brewery/tasting room when they aren't. The additional space will surely be welcome.

More barrels...a sign of success
Given the success they've had, I was wondering when they would expand tasting room hours. Until recently, they were open Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening. That seemed a bit constrained to me, but I realize they were taking it slow. Now, they've expanded the hours to Thursday evening, 5-9 p.m. That ought to make it a little easier for folks to stop in and experience these well-crafted beers.

Finally, there's a possibility they will be putting together some sort of event to celebrate their first anniversary in early December. No word on when or what the event might look like. Watch for social media updates or check their website for information.