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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Laurelwood Hits Hoppy Trifecta

As I may have documented in one or two posts over the last few weeks, I took a little time away from bigger craft beers for the first month of the year. No, I did not resort to Bud Light. I simply looked for low ABV craft beers...and found several good ones.

My time away was not helpful to the content of this blog because I was not doing much beer tasting or traveling. Of course, I'm leaving out a minor drinking spree at Base Camp, but that happened at the end of the month. I'm only now getting back up to speed, if that's what you call it.

I stopped at Laurelwood's Sandy Pub for the first time in a month the other day. I discovered a Trifecta of perfection...or near perfection.

First, Workhorse finally seems to have returned to what it was before they started bottling it for distribution again. You will recall that this beer was taken out of distribution for nearly a year while they dealt with hops contracts. I thought the interim, draft-only Workhorse was mostly faithful to the original recipe. Along with many others, I did not think the most recent version, the one they started bottling and kegging for distribution several months ago, was true to the original.

The current beer has the same cloudy, amber appearance that I'm accustomed to. The aroma and flavor profile seems pretty close to what I remember. I think this beer has been restored. For the record, the folks at Laurelwood always contended Workhorse never changed. Take that however you wish.

Workhorse (the beer) is tasting good
Second, they are currently pouring (Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos couldn't say for how long) a massive hop bomb (a Double IPA) called Megafauna. This is on the seasonal board and clocks in at a restful 9.5 ABV and 140 IBU. The IBU number is debatable, given the way these things are measured. Here's what Vasili had to say about the IBUs:
140 IBUs is a calculation. We have no way to verify [the number] without expensive lab equipment. Basically, if you jack up the late hop additions, you get the flavor profile, but it throws off the calculations for utilization. It's that way with almost all 100+ IBU beers. Hop oil solubility is a tenuous, hydrophobic relationship, so these numbers can be hard to pin down. Every time you touch the beer, it looses IBUs (as well as aroma). Yeast robs a lot of bitterness. It clings to tank walls, etc. IBU has become a shorthand for people to talk about hoppiness, which is a much more complex subject. IBU doesn't reflect hop aroma or flavor at all and we would be better off or more accurate to disentangle these terms.
Anyway, I thought this was a pretty fantastic beer the first time I tasted it. It is not especially bitter, relying more on very dense aroma and flavor. My guess is massive late hop additions dialed aroma and flavor to the point that they cover up (to some extent) bitterness and alcohol. When I tasted Megafauna for a second time on Tuesday evening, the aroma and flavor didn't seem quite as dramatic. Perhaps my palette was off a bit. Or, just as likely, the tenuous aspect of hop oil solubility are at work. Regardless, this is a beer worth trying as long as it's on.

The Seasonal Board
Finally, there was Portland Pale Project #9, also known as Pony Pale or Petite Workhorse. As noted, this is one of Laurelwood's rotating Portland Pale Project beers and it is excellent. It's almost a session beer at 5.8% ABV, but has aromas and flavors strongly reminiscent of Workhorse. Indeed, this is Workhorse in a dialed down package. Vasili's comments:
Petite Workhorse is exactly right. It is a beer we have been thinking about for a good while. We all love Workhorse, but it's a strong one [7.5%], thus stopping us from drinking as much as we want to. Problem solved! Brewer Shane Watterson took the lead on reformulating Workhorse for a Pale version and, with some conversation, that's what we came up with.
I definitely prefer to call this beer Petite Workhorse because that's exactly what it is. I tasted it again Wednesday evening (out of a growler) and had the same response as I did initially. If anything, hop aroma and flavor are more pronounced than in standard Workhorse. This is a terrific beer and one I would like to see added to the standards list here. I wonder...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscar Sunday on the Brewvana Bus

I can't say I'm a big fan of the Academy Awards. I enjoy watching a good movie as much as the next person, but the televised awards show has gotten dreadfully bad. This year's edition was another new low, it seems to me. But never mind.

Of course, distractions can be a welcome thing and spending Sunday afternoon on the Brewvana bus was nearly perfect as distractions go. There were four tour stops, each illuminating in its own way.

You know Brewvana Tours if you hang out in or on the fringe of the Portland beer scene. The little magic buses (Angel and Rose) can be seen carting beer fans between breweries and events in Beervana and beyond. These guys are your ticket to discovering the local and state beer scene.

Sunday's tour kicked off at Buckman Botanical Brewery, located inside the Green Dragon. Head  (and only brewer) Brewer Danny Connors showed us the ropes of his little brewery and explained what he's up to. He essentially uses minimal hops in the creation of his beers...and mostly in the boil for mild bitterness. To achieve flavor and aroma, he uses a variety of things other than hops at the end of the boil...orange peel, ginger, apple juice, etc.

Inside the botanical brewery
We tasted several Buckman beers. They are a fairly interesting lot, all vaguely experimental. The consensus seemed to favor the Ginger Ale...not quite the same as the Canada Dry version. The ones with apple and orange were also pretty good. These beers aren't going to be your thing if you like hoppy, but I suggest beer cocktail connoisseurs take note. The Buckman tasting concluded with Brutal IPA, a Rogue standard and palette cleanser.

Our next stop was Amnesia Brewing on Mississippi. There wasn't quite enough sun for the outdoor area to be packed the way it will be once the warm weather returns, but it was busy enough. We worked our way through several pitchers...Dusty Trail Pale Ale, ESB, Porter and Desolation IPA. All good beers I've had a time or two before.

Our guide Nikki talks Amnesia
On the subject of Amnesia, their website says the new production brewery and tasting room in Washougal is now open. There was some suggestion on the bus that they were not yet open, but a quick call to Washougal verified that they are indeed open up there. Time for a short road trip, it seems.

Next up was Rogue Hall, in the heart of Portland State University. I'd never been to this place before. It's pleasantly warm and friendly. Lunch was served here and it was really good. Beer tasters were already on the table when we walked in and included Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout, Dead Guy Ale, Hazelnut Brown Ale and PSU IPA.

Tasting the plank
I think palettes, including my own, were pretty mangled at this point. And the food didn't really help. I did like the stout, which was on nitro and damn smooth. Otherwise, the beers seemed to run together...and that normally would not be the case.

Our final stop was Hair of the Dog Brewing. The Dog's old world big ales may not have been exactly what we needed on our last stop, but this place is always fun to visit. We were served tasters of Greg, Fred, Adam and Blue Dot IPA. Each of these beers is terrific in its own way, although I'm not sure they go together very well as a tasting flight. But never mind.

Dog day Oscar afternoon
All in all, it was a fun little tour and a good time was had by all riders. The Brewvana folks have a variety of tours to choose from and there's something for everyone. Trust me on that. As they like to say, Hop on the Bus!

Full disclosure: From time to time, Brewvana offers complimentary rides to members of the beer media. That was the case on this tour. Thanks for the ride, kids!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oregon Brewers Festival Tacks with the Times

Hard to believe it's only February and we're already starting to think and talk about the Oregon Brewers Festival...which doesn't happen until late July. Such is life here in Beervana, where there is no beer off season or Spring Training.
End of an error...I mean era

The first warning shot across the bow was fired this past week in the form of a press release announcing the usual festival specs. Lots of beers. Check. Standard venue. Check. Destination event. Check.

There are a couple of surprises for people this year, one of them quite a big one in my view. Coming right up.

Another Day
First, they've added a Wednesday (Noon to 9 p.m.) shift to the schedule. This isn't a huge surprise because the OBF has outgrown its time and place. Remember, this was a two-day event early on. When it first expanded to three days (in 1990), taps didn't open until 4 p.m. on Friday. That was soon rectified and the festival eventually expanded to four days in 2005. Now it's time to grow once more.

South Tent, Thursday 3 pm
Give Art Larrance and OBF organizers some credit here. They know patrons get frustrated when crowds restrict access to the beer. There hasn't been any serious thought of changing the venue... Waterfront Park is too perfect. So their options were to expand the space or extend the number of days. More space was going to be a problem, so they added a day.

This change is not without risk. While nobody is talking about it, the extra day means additional cost. Larrance will be leasing the park for an additional day; he'll need additional staffing; he'll need more volunteers to man taps and sell tokens. If you think volunteers are free, you're sadly out of touch. They're getting paid with shirts and beer...which cost money.

By adding the extra day, they are gambling that attendance will increase. Maybe not instantly, but eventually. They've been stable at 80,000 or so the last few years. Perhaps we'll see 90,000 by 2014 and 100,000 a year or two later. The risk is this: If attendance doesn't expand, they will be sitting on essentially the same revenue and more cost.

South Tent, Friday 4 pm
You might argue they will extract more revenue from the existing crowd once people have an easier time getting to the beers they want to try. Fair enough. But it's hard to see how spreading the same 80,000 out over five days is going to add up financially. Attendance will have to increase to make up for the extra costs. I think it will, but we'll see what happens.

A New Tasting Glass
The second change, far bigger in my mind, involves the traditional plastic mug...which is out for 2013. I don't know what they used the first few years, but the plastic mug has been a icon at the OBF for the 23 or so years that I've been attending (and I've got a pile of them). Now it's out, to be replaced by a 12 oz tasting glass.

Last call?
There had been some conversation about the mug in recent years. Some of this came from the environmental standpoint. This specific mug is not particularly recyclable. Even if used mugs were tossed into recycle bins, chances are they wound up in a landfill. Not the best.

The other angle here, and the one that apparently turned the tide, has to do with taste. Plastic is an imperfect material in which to serve beer. Why? Because the smell of the plastic can mingle with the aroma and flavor of the beer. I suspect that's especially true in the late July Oregon heat, when heated mugs can give off nasty odors. "Off-gassing" is the descriptive term. They evidently received a number of complaints about this in 2012, which helped end the plastic mug era.

Seeking a better choice, the OBF brass considered a cornstarch cup similar to what Craig Nicholls uses for the North American Organic Brewers Festival. These are supposed to be highly recyclable and there's no danger of odors because petroleum products aren't used to make them.
Glass artwork
Well, it turns out the cornstarch cups are creating a stir at local compost facilities. They evidently don't decompose easily. Thus, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the city will continue to accept these things for recycling. So they probably aren't a great environmental option after all.

Glass is a great option because it's easily recyclable and glass doesn't mess with beer. But glass wasn't initially considered because OBF organizers were under the impression that it was banned in Waterfront Park. After seeing glass used at other festivals in city parks in recent years, the OBF asked and discovered there was no such ban. Viola! A solution.

Always a welcome July sight
So the OBF is going with a 12 oz glass for 2013. (Word is, Nicholls will also switch to glass for the NAOBF). They haven't chosen the actual glass because they're still reviewing bids, so the artwork that will go on the glass is all I can show. But you will be drinking out of a glass in late July, that much is certain.

A couple of comments about the new glass:

First, glass is a great idea. It's better for the environment and for the beer drinker than plastic. I doubt they'll see much of a problem with breakage because the ground is soft in the park. That's less the case at the Holiday Ale Festival, held on the cement at Pioneer Courthouse Square, but never mind.

Finally, pricing...you'll pay $7 for your tasting glass at the 2013 OBF. These things surely won't cost a fraction of that. It was $6 for a cheap plastic mug last year, so silly pricing is nothing new. Indeed, one of the unfortunate results of craft beer's success is the escalating cost of festival attendance. Once upon a time, festivals were all about getting people to come out and taste the beer. Those days are gone and the days of making money are here.

The Oregon Brewers Festival is still one of the better festival values around. Beer prices aren't ridiculous and you aren't forced to buy a high-priced tasting package just to enter the grounds. But the price of the tasting vessel is problematic and a sign of the times.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Killer Burgers, Brews and Relationships

When you're building your business around relationships, there's a pretty good chance good beer will fit into the equation somehow. That's exactly the case at Killer Burger, a locally-owned burger outfit that has grown from one to four locations since launching in 2010.

The Hollywood storefront
Killer Burger is an interesting and instructive contrast to the brewpub arrangement. They were determined to build relationships with customers by producing great burgers. Beer came into the picture as a means of building even greater passion for the KB brand. With brewpubs, the scenario is generally reversed, with beer being first.

Today, the four Killer Burger locations all sport a selection of craft beers. The number varies by location. Hollywood and Sellwood each have five taps; Bingen has 12; Vancouver 10. The selection is determined by a Beer Manager at each location. Seriously.

Killer Beer Managers have the enviable responsibility of working with distributors and brewers to determine the best selection of beers for their location. This is an arduous task, often requiring extensive tasting and evaluation. Fortunately, someone has to do this difficult work, which also happens to be a lot of fun.

Hollywood tap handles
I can't speak for all the locations, but the original Hollywood Killer Burger has a nice tap selection. Beers include Double Mountain Kolsch, two Ninkasi beers, Terminal Gravity Fest and the house brew, Bloodshed Red. This in what is billed primarily as a burger joint.

If you're wondering, Bloodshed Red is brewed from a recipe developed by Killer Burger and currently brewed for them by Sasquatch Brewing in Southwest Portland. The beer is a medium bodied red ale that clocks in at 5.8% ABV. Yep, it goes well with most burgers.

The real deal burger
Just to emphasize the point that beer is an important part of the deal here, they offer growlers and growler fills. Post-shift beers are also part of the plan for Killer Crew members here. They even like the idea of an eventual location that houses a brewery, though they say it likely wouldn't resemble a pub.

Did I mention the great burgers? These are old fashioned burgers you won't find in any fast food chain or brewpub. They seriously have the burger thing down. Every Killer burger is 1/3 pound of 100% ground beef and comes with fries and all the trimmings.

The KB Growler
The business itself is owned by two couples...Mark and Robin McCrary and TJ and April Southard. The idea to start Killer Burger occurred to them while Mark and TJ were eating burgers made with roasted Pueblo chilies (that burger is on the the menu today as the Jose Mendoza). Mark and TJ had prior food service experience and decided it might be a good idea to open a restaurant.

Although Killer Burger has been on a fast growth trajectory for a family-owned business and more locations are likely, they will expand only as fast as infrastructure allows. They like to promote  store managers and leaders from within, and they place a high value on the team concept.

Anyone who appreciates classic burgers and good beer will enjoy Killer Burger. This place is also a fine example of the continuing expansion of craft beer into places where you once wouldn't expect to find it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

March Party On at Expanded Double Mountain

A trip through the Gorge on my way back to Portland from points East finally gave me an opportunity to visit Double Mountain Brewing. I stopped by one day last summer and found the place shuttered. Turns out they were in the midst of a major renovation/expansion that tripled the size of their space. Next up: their 6th Anniversary Party in March.

These guys are hardly a secret. They've been around since 2007. Double Mountain beers are well known in Oregon, having been available on draft for quite a few years. It's only been in the last six or so months that we started seeing bottles in stores...thanks to last year's expansion.

What happened here is a nice success story. Co-founders Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux met many moons ago while working at Full Sail Brewing. Different career paths intervened before they eventually came up with the idea of starting their own brewery. It turned out to be a great idea.

Fast forward several years and the business was bursting at the seams, out of space in its original location. Even with offsite storage, they didn't have enough seating and were in dire need of more room for production activities. Their options were find another, larger space, or acquire more space where they were.
The North Bar
As it turned out, they were able to stay put by negotiating a deal to buy space in essentially the same building. This is the kind of thing you can do when you have a successful brewery and a solid business plan. Not just anyone could swing something like this.

When they launched the new configuration last summer, Double Mountain had gained an additional 5,000 sq ft. A portion of that space, about 25 percent, is dedicated to expanded seating and a live music area. The rest of the new space is being used for production (bottling, packaging, etc.)

The Garage
The new space works well. You enter the original pub, which apparently looks pretty much as it always has. Take a right turn (through a hole punched in the wall) and you enter The Garage, where there's extensive seating, as well as a stage in the distance. The so-called North Bar looks out on this immense area. It was mostly empty when I visited, but it is a visually appealing space.

To the west of the North Bar is the brewing area. If you walk to the end of the hallway and look to the right, you can see the new production area through double doors. As important as the added seating is in The Garage, the production area is the heart and soul of the expansion because it allowed them to add a bottling line and automate kegging.

The production area
Double Mountain bottles started appearing in stores late last summer. The plan from day one was to distribute the year-round beers...Kolsch, Vaporizer, IRA and Hot Lava. A few seasonals have appeared, as well, such as the winter ale, Fa La La La La.

These bottles are easy to spot because they are an odd shape and size. Wanting to take a different path than their competition, Swihart and Devereux opted for 16.9 oz. hand grenade bottles. These things are apparently popular in Europe. They are also refillable, a nice touch from a green perspective.
The original pub
To me, the bottles are an oddity. They look funny on store shelves. I realize a visually unique presence was part of the plan, but I can't help thinking these things look out of place...kind of like Base Camp's 22 oz. aluminum bottles. I also wonder how many of these bottles make it back to the brewery for refilling. I bet not many, but perhaps I'm wrong. There's info on return locations here.

As for the beers, I won't spend a lot of time talking about the standards. Double Mountain's year-round beers are generally well-executed and they've developed a solid following in draft and bottled form. I'm not a big fan of the bottled versions because I think the beer loses something in translation. But it's as good as other bottled products out there.

Mild-mannered exterior
A trip to the brewery is essential to fully appreciate what these guys are up to. Someone recently told me I could expect to find fantastic beers that will never be seen outside the Hood River headquarters. Sure enough.

Double Mountain operates a 20 bbl system that features hand-me-down parts from many established breweries. I didn't count fermenters, but they obviously have more than a few. Otherwise, they would have trouble keeping up with demand.

Time to hit the road, Jack
One of the cool things about their brewing setup is they are able to produce small 6 bbl batches using just the bottom of their kettle. I don't get the specifics of how that works, but never mind. Guess where those specialty batches typically wind up? If you guessed the Hood River taproom, you're a winner.

I stayed mostly clear of the standards on my visit, because I know those beers. The exception was the Kolsch, which I wanted to taste fresh. My tasting tray also included Ain't That Purdy (German-style Hefeweizen), Little Red Pils, Project 48 (Double IPA), and White Rider of Conquest (Belgian-style blonde). These beers are all well-executed. The Kolsch may have been my favorite or maybe it was White Rider or Ain't That Purdy. Tough choices.

Double Mountain is ramping up for their 6th Anniversary Party on Saturday, March 16th, featuring Helles Belles, an all-girl AC/DC cover band. They'll be putting up a giant tent and they expect to offer two dozen unique beer choices, some from the brewers' reserve stash. Sounds like an excellent time for a trip up the Gorge.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Behind the Move to Block AB/InBev

As most who follow the beer world know, the big boys at AB/InBev (InBev or InBud, for short) are attempting to acquire Mexico-based Grupo Modelo. The sordid story behind this takeover reminds me of the old Merle Travis tune, Sixteen Tons, where coal miners owe their soul to the company store. But never mind.

InBud, which has owned a 50 percent stake in Modelo for a number of years, announced in June that it intends to purchase the remaining 50 percent. There are a variety of reasons they want complete control of Modelo, which I'll get to. First a little review.

Size and brands
AB/InBev is the largest brewing company worldwide. It sells more than 200 brands, including Becks, Bass, Goose Island, Kokanee, Labatt, Lowenbrau, Michelob, Natural Light, Rolling Rock, Spaten, as well as the portfolio of Budweiser brands. It also distributes a number of craft brands, including Widmer, Kona, Redhook and Ninkasi.

Modelo is the sixth largest brewing company in the world. Corona, its best-selling beer, is first in Mexico and in the top five worldwide. Corona has been the top selling import in the United States since 1997, when it replaced the faltering Heineken. Modelo markets a number of brands, some only in Mexico. Export brands include Corona, Pacifico and Modelo. The company imports and sells the Budweiser brands into Mexico. 

AB/InBev controls 39 percent of the U.S. market. Modello, largely via its ownership of Corona, has a 7 percent share in the U.S. Should the acquisition of Modelo be completed, InBev would control 46 percent of the U.S. market. Combined with the 26 percent controlled by competitor MillerCoors, the two global beer behemoths would control 72 percent of the American beer market. Now we're talking company store.

Driving the acquisition
There are several reasons InBev wishes to fully acquire Modelo.
  1. The craft beer spurt of recent years has put AB/InBev in a bind. There are more than 2,200 craft brewers in the U.S. today and they are steadily gaining market share (although they control less than 10 percent). At the same time, Budweiser shipments are in decline. For the first nine months of 2012, shipments fell 6 percent by volume.
  2. Modelo has been putting a beating on Bud and Bud Light in some markets, threatening to push the AB brands out of the premium category. They've done this with pricing... keeping the price of Corona low has enticed people to buy it instead of Bud or Bud Light. This is difficult to understand, given the 50 percent stake AB/InBev has in Modelo, until you understand how Modelo markets its beers in this country.
  3. The Modelo portfolio is sold in the U.S. by Crown Imports, a 50-50 venture between Modelo and Constellation Brands (while Modelo is part-owned by AB/InBev, Constellation is completely independent). In effect, this arrangement means that AB/InBev does not control the price of Modelo brands in the United States, a growing problem for them.
InBev's full acquisition of Modelo would boost its market share 7 percent instantly, shoring up its appearance vs. craft and import brands. Just as important, they would theoretically gain control of pricing for Modelo brands in the United States, allowing them to extract greater profit via increased prices. This is arguably the backbone of the buyout and also its greatest risk

The DOJ suit
The Department of Justice has sued to block AB/InBev's acquisition of Modelo. The basis of the DOJ case is that the acquisition of Modelo represents a threat to competition and would lead to fewer beer choices and higher prices. The DOJ is concerned that a 46 percent share of the market is too large. They also worry that once InBev has control of Modelo, it will undermine the Constellation/Crown arrangement and impose price increases in the name of protecting AB brands.

The corporate lawyers at InBev will construct supple arguments with respect to the DOJ challenge. They will say they do not intend to use greater market share to thwart the growth of craft brands; they will argue there is no real relationship between Corona pricing and Budweiser's declining volume; finally, they will say they intend to bust up the Crown arrangement by selling Modelo's interest to Constellation, thus creating an independent distribution company for the Modelo portfolio. 

Unfortunately for InBev, internal documents collected by the DOJ reveal they are up to something other than what they say. It's quite common for gigantic entities like AB/InBev to claim they are doing one thing while actually doing just the opposite. The privileges of power and money are nearly absolute in this country.

Although they officially say they have no ax to grind with the growth of craft beer and imports, the evidence in one internal document suggests otherwise: "We must slow the volume trend of High End Segment and cannot let the industry transform."

While they publicly say there is no relationship between Corona pricing and Budweiser's dropping market share, documents say otherwise: "Because of aggressive pricing of the Modelo brands, AB's Bud and Bud Light brands have reported heavy share losses to Modelo's Corona and Modelo Especial Brands [in California]." Also, "While the relative price [of AB brands] to MC [MillerCoors] has remained stable, the lack of price increase in Corona is increasing pressure in Premium."

Finally, while the idea of an independent Constellation sounds great, internal documents suggest a potential problem: Modelo and Crown historically pushed for more aggressive pricing than Constellation. With Modelo/Crown out of the picture, the DOJ believes Constellation will likely follow InBev's lead on pricing, probably to the disadvantage of consumers.

The Big Picture
You have to hope the DOJ wins this case. Because InBev's acquisition of Modelo is a bad deal for American beer consumers. It is intended to further their dominant position and limit access to competing brands wherever possible. They may talk about letting the market sort things out, but they routinely use their power to make sure their products dominate in stores, restaurants, bars, etc. These guys wear black hats and they need to be stopped.