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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Origins of Beervana

You have to give the folks over at the Willamette Week credit. After many years of poo-pooing their beer coverage, they're getting serious again. Their 2013 Beer Guide, released last week, is a solid piece of evidence along those lines.

The Guide contains some nicely written content and photos from the local beer scene. Lots of knowledgeable, talented people contributed. They're billing this thing as their first Beer Guide in over a decade...which I suppose sounds better than saying it's the first in nearly 20 years. Because 1994 is when the last one appeared. More on that shortly.

The reality is, WW was once a great source of beer information. They published a weekly column on beer, written for several (if not many) years by William Abernathy. Later, Jeff Alworth, whose Beervana is perhaps the oldest Portland beer blog, took over the beer writing post. But the column was splitting time with wine during most (maybe all) of his run there and was headed downhill.

Not to get into a deep discussion of the 2013 Beer Guide, but it's worth picking up if you haven't already. I suspect copies can be found in pubs around town. A lot of people have quibbled about the Top 10 list, but such lists always attract attention for what is and isn't included. Nature of the beast, if you will. Pick up a copy and see for yourself.

Perhaps just as important as the recent Beer Guide is that WW has made available the original 1994 Beervana insert on their website. You can download the PDF and discover what the beer culture was like in those days. We've come light years.

I remember reading the insert from cover to cover several times back in the day. I always intended to keep it, but I suppose a dog must have eaten my copy at some point. So I had to look at it on microfilm last summer as part of book research. Not very handy. Now I've got a PDF on the computer. Very handy.

Beyond the interesting, funny stuff in the 1994 piece, it is apparently also where the descriptor "Beervana" came from. Read Martin Cizmar's explanation here for more details. I can't vouch for the accuracy of this claim because I wasn't there. But it sounds right...and we did start calling this crazy place Beervana in the mid-90s.

The 1994 Guide appeared at a good time. The craft beer movement in Portland was more than 10 years old and it seemed stable and here to stay. It's entertaining and quaint to see what was happening and what the writers were thinking. The old ads are fun, too. I recommend downloading this piece of Beervana history. It's not like you have to pay for it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An Idea Whose Time is Right

Since I started writing this blog a couple of years back, I've made occasional reference to the risks associated with the rapid expansion of craft brewing in Portland. You tend not to make a lot of friends when you bring these unpleasant issues up, but someone has to do it.

A friend in the know recently told me we now have 61 operating breweries in town. Is that too many? If it isn't too many, how many is too many? Does anyone have a clue?

Listen, I'm not the only one concerned about this. I've talked to plenty of brewery and pub owners who privately worry about their financial futures in a crowded marketplace. It turns out there actually is more to staying in business than creating new and interesting beers. Go figure. In fact, Andy Crouch made reference to the increasing importance of good business planning in a recent Beer Advocate column. 

Now comes news that Portland State University gets it. The school is launching a Certificate program as part of its Professional Development Center that will educate brewers and pub owners (prospects and existing) on the business aspects of the industry. Kudos to my friend John Foyston, who first reported news of this program in yesterday's Oregonian. I urge you to read John's article here, because it contains all the details.

The Business of Craft Brewing Certificate is, at least for the moment, a standalone program that can be taken in live and online scenarios. This effectively means anyone can sign up for the classes. You need not be in a degree trajectory, although PSU students apparently can receive credit toward a degree.

The leader of the instructional group is Mellie Pullman, who has a lengthy background in beer and business dating to the mid-80s. There are four segments at the moment: Basic Business for Craft Breweries; Craft Beverage Business Management; Strategic Craft Beverage Marketing; and Finance and Accounting for the Craft Brewery. 

Why is this an important development? Because many people who get involved in commercial brewing have formal brewing training, but no formal business training. That means there are people out there wandering in a proverbial minefield of the unknown. PSU's new program provides an opportunity for those folks to improve their knowledge base and chances of success.

This is an idea whose time is right.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Money Changes Everything

There's been a lot of chatter on the blogs this week related to the Brewers Association stats for 2012. The numbers present a pretty little picture for craft beer, exactly the way the Brewers Association and craft beer fans like it.

When it comes to statistics and damn lies, people tend to get fixated on the wildest numbers out there. That would be the total number of operating breweries, which reached 2403 in 2012, including 409 opening and 43 closings. As some have pointed out, the number is largely meaningless. Brewery numbers are increasing because craft beer is a good business to be in. When will we reach the point where there are too many breweries? No one knows and few are openly talking about it. Nothing new there.

The most significant numbers have to do with production and dollar volume. For the first time in recent years, overall beer production increased in 2012...by 1 percent. Craft brewery production grew to 13.2 million barrels (up from 11.5 million) and craft share of overall volume grew to 6.5 percent, up from 5.7 percent in 2011. Not bad.

Of course, it's all about money. Craft beer's share of the retail market grew to $10.2 billion, a 17 percent increase over 2011. The total value of the retail beer market was $99 billion. While money may not be everything, it's arguably the most important stat here. Why? Keep reading.

There are two gigantic factors driving the growth of craft in the retail market.

First, the market penetration of more expensive craft beer is driving its dollar share upward. There's more. Craft brewers are releasing a growing number of premium products...bottles that sell for $10-20 or more. Don't believe me? Check out your local bottle shop or premium grocery store. The number of high end beer products has increased dramatically over the last few years and is a marvel to behold. Sales of high value products help increase retail market share.

Second, and just as important, the macro brands are engaged in significant discounting to stay in the game. I suspect this isn't happening in all regions of the country, but it is certainly happening in areas (like Portland) where craft beer has a large following and growing reach. Craft beer prices are stable and edging up. Macro shelves are increasingly lined with discount tags. The big boys are losing retail share because they cannot compete with better beer without discounting.

Just to close that loop, the discounting strategy is a bad omen for the macros. The number of people who will consider their products at any price is moving in the wrong direction. Better education and greater exposure to good beer suggests the macros will have an increasingly tough time attracting customers, even with discounting.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Messin' With Montana's Strange Alcohol Laws

If you follow trends in the craft beer industry, you know Montana has done pretty well. They have 38 breweries in a state that isn't very populated. Those breweries create something like 450 jobs and bring some $50 million a year into the state economy. Not bad for an industry operating under some of the most antiquated alcohol laws this side of the old Confederacy.

Montana's current laws are beyond a joke. There are no brewpubs in Montana. Illegal. You can operate a brewery with a sampling room (the Montana term for what we typically think of as a tasting room). But you can't serve food. And you can only be open from 10 a.m to 8 p.m. If you run a sampling room, you're welcome to sell your beer...but only 48 oz per day, per person.

You wonder how they've done so well over there. Nothing to do with the laws, obviously.

Now comes news that the Montana Tavern Association hopes to further restrict how craft brewers operate in Montana. The MTA is pushing legislation that would eliminate all food (even snacks) in sampling rooms and require brewers to sell 60 percent of their beer to wholesalers, leaving 40 percent for them to sell via sampling rooms.

The apparent motivation for the tavern owners is the increasing share of business that is going to craft brewers. Sampling rooms have apparently become something more than that, with pool tables, live music, etc. Some places even serve food....getting around the law by having two separate businesses under that same roof. Nothing we haven't seen before in a variety of places.

This competition has tavern owners up in arms and determined to get some of their business back. To do so, they don't mind crippling one of the only bright spots in Montana's sunken economy. They can't compete so they wish to kill the goose that lays golden eggs. Ye gods!

The Montana Brewers Association obviously opposes further restrictions on how they operate. Fortunately, there's quite a bit of chatter in the media over how dreadful the tavern owners' ideas are. Word is getting out that this would be bad news for the state's economy. And craft beer fans.

Looking back with a bit of perspective, it's fairly clear that the 1985 Brewpub Bill (officially SB 813) kicked open a door that launched a revolution in Oregon. Once you can sell your beer in a restaurant/pub situation, all kinds of people get exposed to good beer in a comfortable setting. These things are part of our culture now, and a mature craft beer industry pours several billion dollars into the state economy annually. Pretty nice.

Not to get too far afield, but it may be instructive to note that not everyone thought brewpubs in Oregon were a good idea at first. The beer distributors and wholesalers initially opposed the legislation...thinking it would hurt their business. They eventually relented and today craft beer has brought them new profits.

You have to hope the good folks who run Montana don't mess things up further. If they want to see craft beer truly explode, they ought to relax the laws, not make them more restrictive. As for the downtrodden tavern owners, they simply need to find new ways to be competitive. Times have changed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Got a Mouse in Yer Beer, eh?

How many times have we heard about someone finding a mouse in a bottle of beer or soda? I always figured the mouse got there one of two ways: Either the victim stuffed the mouse in there in hopes of getting a nice fat settlement check or a disgruntled employee put it there hoping to derail the company.
What are you doing in there, eh?
It turns out the mouse-in-the-bottle trick isn't a recent angle. People have been putting (finding) meesketeers in bottles for a while now. At least as far back as the 1960s, for sure. I know because I recently came across an internal Blitz-Weinhard memo from 1963 that deals with a meesketeer in a bottle.

I discovered the memo as part of research I'm doing on Portland's beer history. It's either a gem or turd, depending on how you look at it. The document outlines a complaint from a woman in Salem who purchased a bottle of Blitz-Weinhard beer for on-premise consumption and, after taking a swig, realized the beer wasn't quite up to snuff. A closer look revealed why...there was a mouse in the bottle!

I have no way of knowing what the outcome of this situation was. The document trail ends. Fred Wessinger (then president) advises Bill Blitz to get the insurance people involved, so I assume some kind of settlement was arranged. Perfect.

Of course, there are those who see opportunity in this kind of thing. Bob and Doug McKenzie made an entire movie, Strange Brew, based on the premise of getting free beer via mouse-contaminated beer. I haven't seen the film, but there are plenty of shorts on YouTube.

The brothers have it all figured out. The trick to getting a mouse in a bottle is kind of like shipbuilding in a bottle. You get a baby mouse and put him in a bottle. Then you feed him in there for a few months and before you know it...ah, you can watch the video, eh?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Whole Foods Tigard has a Better Beer Idea

Once upon a time, back when companies spent money on real marketing, Ford launched its Ford has a Better Idea campaign. This was back in the days when the media was highly centralized and Ford got a lot of mileage out of this campaign. You saw it in print, watched it on TV and heard it on the radio. It was a big deal.

It was never exactly clear to me if Ford actually had a better idea. I'm quite sure there were arguments on both sides of that question. Nonetheless, in the world of business, which includes beer, some ideas are clearly better. No, I'm not talking about light beer.

Sometimes you run across great ideas in unexpected places...in this case at the Whole Foods Market in (Bridgeport Village) Tigard. I stopped there last week as part of the wacky contract work I do. No, that work doesn't involve beer. Inside the store, I discovered something I'd been hoping to find in a grocery store for quite a while: beer taps and growlers.

Lookee here...beer
The taps are located toward the back center of the store in what is essentially a makeshift pub called Butcher's Brothers. They serve barbecue goodies and related foods, and there are six taps pouring five beers and a cider. While I was stalking the joint, I observed several sets of people enjoying food and beer. Who says a pub in a store can't work?

About the tap list. They were pouring Boneyard Hop Venom, Deschutes Red Chair, Bridgeport Smooth Rye Ale, Mac & Jacks Amber and Rogue Roguenbier Rye Ale. The cider tap was occupied by Angry Orchard of Ohio. They tell me two of the beer taps, as well as the cider tap, will rotate. They were running a $10 special on growler fills (with free glass) to help get the word out. Fills will cost more than that going forward, but prices will be competitive.

The pub inside the store
The man who helped make this beer bonanza happen is Dan Phillips, the store's beer specialist. I spent some time talking beer with him and he knows all the nooks and crannies of the business. Dan is a Florida transplant. He moved to Oregon several years ago and spent some time in the wine business. But beer was his passion and he eventually wound up at Whole Foods. Managing the beer department. I'll let him take over:
Honestly the Whole Foods gig was a chance to show that they needed a friendly foodie like me to help bring their beer set to life. It's a chance to show them what a business savvy enthusiast could do with it. I think the most shocking thing I ever heard from one of my team leaders was that they couldn't believe beer could have so much success. I was like, "Excuse me. You do know you're in Portland, right?" I have passion for it and I give it 110 percent. I love the culture, the people and, of course, the beer. Each one makes me strive harder to learn more and meet the people who have made it successful. As an east coast enthusiast who dreamed of enjoying a west coast life of beer, I have to say I'm one step closer.
Let me take a step back for just as second. This particular Whole Foods is gigantic compared to the smaller ones we have in the city. I don't want to guess the square footage. The manager on duty told me the Tigard store does a huge volume. Sure enough, it was packed with suburbanites on a late Sunday afternoon.

A closer view of a good idea
I suspect this is the perfect place to try the beer and growlers experiment. Folks out in suburbia don't enjoy the same beer culture we do in the city. I'm not saying Tigard is all that much of a hoof, but there are four breweries and numerous pubs within walking distance of my house. My options are almost unlimited. It's different out in the burbs.

Dan told me he spends a fair amount of time talking to customers. Some might call that education and I think that's a mistake. What he's really doing is sharing his thoughts, ideas and knowledge with people who want to know more about craft beer. Talk about a perfect fit. I'm probably not your normal customer (I have a lot of stubborn opinions), but we talked for nearly an hour.

A customer evaluates the beer wall
This is evidently the first Whole Foods store in Oregon to play around with on-premise beer sales and growlers. They plan to see how it goes. Of course, having draft beer and food opens up some interesting opportunities. Dan said they expect to offer dinners with beer pairings, and will likely invite brewers to come in and talk about their beers. What a terrific idea! If all goes well, more taps may be added down the road.

In case you're wondering, draft beer isn't the only thing they've got going at the Tigard Whole Foods. Dan has put together a very impressive beer wall. One of the cool things about Whole Foods (regardless of how you view the owner's politics) is the beer specialist/buyer essentially owns the beer section. This runs counter to the way it works at most big box stores, where a suit somewhere tells you what to carry and how to arrange the shelves.

Parting shot
Dan told me everything on his shelves is a decision. That doesn't mean he's going to ban a beer he personally doesn't care for. That would be bad business if the beer is something customers want.  Coors Light, for example. His strategy has been to gradually build a selection of fine beers as the clientele gets more sophisticated about what they're looking for.

The approach to beer at this particular store is quite fresh. I can't say I necessarily expected to find such vision here, but there it is. Everyone involved in putting this plan together deserves a lot of credit. They clearly have a better idea when it comes to beer.

Update: I'm hearing that other stores in this area are doing something like what they're doing at this Whole Foods. This is simply the first instance I've seen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bridgeport and the Hops: Sweet and Sour Deal

Perhaps you saw the press release or otherwise caught wind of the just-announced partnership between the Hillsboro Hops baseball club and Bridgeport Brewing. If you aren't in the loop about the Hops, you can find my earlier post here.

The basic facts are these: Portland has a rich history with baseball and beer. Forget the fact that the AAA Beavers were chauffeured out of town to make way for the Timbers soccer club. We have a history with baseball dating to the 19th century. Soccer is a small child by comparison.

The press release announcing the Hops' partnership with Bridgeport hit my inbox yesterday. There was a fair amount of chatter in social media land focused on what a great deal this is. That would have been completely justified if there had been a chance the Hops would enter an agreement with Budweiser or Coors. That wasn't happening.

Here's the reality: the partnership with Bridgeport is "exclusive." What do you suppose that means, sports fans? If you think it means Bridgeport will be the only craft brand poured in the stadium, you win that trip to Russia you've always wanted.

Look, I have nothing against Bridgeport. They are, as the press release says, the oldest craft brewery in Oregon. (They aren't the first, however. That honor belongs to Charles Coury's long defunct Cartwright Brewing.) Bridgeport has a decent selection of beers. Kingpin is terrific. Blue Heron is an old standby. Bridgeport IPA, invented by Karl Ockert in the days before IPA became a household name, is one of the few sessionable IPAs out there at 5.5%.

I suppose an exclusive deal between the Hops and some brewery was inevitable. "The business of America is business," as Calvin Coolidge once said. And we have to face the fact that baseball and beer are businesses that compliment each other. Alright. I get it.

It's just too bad that there couldn't have been some sort of collaborative arrangement whereby a variety of craft brands would be available at Hops games. We have so many great ones. Oh, I'm told they do expect to have a rotating guess tap, but aren't exactly sure how permanent it will be.

Macro beer lovers need not worry about the Bridgeport deal. You'll find Coors Light in the stadium. And Blue Moon. Something for everyone, they say. You gotta love that.

About that trip to Russia...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Berryessa Brewing Helps Transform Winters

A weekend trip to Northern California gave me a chance to do a bit of beer prospecting. I almost felt like a 49er from the gold rush era. Almost. This was my second trip down there in just over a year. Previously, I visited Russian River, Bear Republic and Lagunitas. This time, Berryessa Brewing.

A few basic details. Berryessa is located on the outskirts of Winters, Calif. As the crow flies, Winters is about 30 miles west of Sacramento and some 65 miles northeast of San Francisco. If you're wondering, the brewery takes its name from nearby Lake Berryessa...and a rendering of the lake is part of their branding.

Wine snobs will note that the wine-rich Napa Valley is a mountain range to the west of Winters. What you'll mostly find growing in the rich farmland surrounding Winters is nuts...almond and walnut trees dominate the scenery.

Winters is a bedroom community of roughly 6,500. The largest employer here is a nut packing firm. Next in line is the school district. Many who live here don't work here. Instead, they drive to the Bay Area or to Sacramento or Davis (home of University of California at Davis and 15 miles to the east). The weather here is hot as hell in the summer, moderate and typically wet in the winter. There's a reason why this stuff is important and I'll get to it.

Sunny Friday on Berryessa's patio
Berryessa Brewing is the brainchild of Chris Miller, a well-known and respected brewer who was previously Brewmaster at Snipes Mountain Brewing in Sunnyside, Wash. Miller is fairly well-known in Portland beer circles for his ability to conjure up uniquely pleasing beers with Yakima hops...something he continues to do in his new gig.

The brewery itself is a 15 bbl system located in a building that previously housed Berryessa Gap Winery. The winery got too big for the space and moved, although they still have a tasting room in the building. Miller has previously talked about tapping into the wine barrel connection to produce barrel-aged beers and he's done some of that. On my visit, there were no barrel-aged brews on the menu. Unfortunately.

Flight tasters 
There were six beers on the board when I stopped in. I cannot say I loved each of these beers, but most of them were pretty good and at least two of them are excellent and would be well-received almost anywhere.

Common Sense Ale is exactly what the name implies: a common sense beer  you can quaff with friends for hours. The beer is light in color with a pleasant floral aroma on a mellow malt backbone.  This is an easy-drinking, refreshing beer. It's rated at 4.5% ABV and 20 IBU. My recent quest for tasty session beers was perfectly satisfied by Common Sense.

Double Tap IPA
Double Tap IPA is an aromatic hop bomb and Berryessa's most popular beer for reasons that become instantly clear. It's dusty pale in color clocks in at 8.5% and 70 IBU, but this beer isn't remotely bitter. It relies on a sticky tropical aroma and flavor and a solid malt backdrop. On an IPA map, Double Tap would appear roughly halfway between Boneyard RPM and Hop Venom. Dry-hopping is the key to this ingenious beer, as is the case with its Boneyard brethren. People were showing up in droves to get growler fills of Double Tap...which weren't available this day due to an impending weekend event and a short supply. Too bad.

On the flip side of the IPA game, they have House IPA. The ratings wheel says 6.5% ABV and 65 IBU. While Double Tap has much in common with Oregon IPAs, the House IPA is more reminiscent of what you typically find in California. It is deep copper in color and fairly bitter. Hop aroma and flavor are subdued. I did not particularly care for this beer, but perhaps I would have if I hadn't been tasting Double Tap at the same time.

Sole food option at Berryessa
You might well wonder how a town of Winters' size can be expected to support a brewery. Let it be known that Winters and Sunnyside have a lot in common. Both are rural and both are located in the middle of heavy agriculture. Both are hot and dry in the summer. As it turns out, Sunnyside is nearly three times as large (population) as Winters. But never mind.

The community of Winters won't have to support this brewery on its own. Why? First, Miller has built a name and is distributing beyond Winters. There's no word on when bottling might enter the picture, but it may happen someday. Second, Winters is becoming a destination. Residents of the Bay Area, Sacramento and elsewhere are beginning to visit or stop by to enjoy the weather, the small town charm and the artisan businesses. Winters has been mostly a well-kept secret until recently, but its status as a destination is gaining momentum and will accelerate as more lodging is built...and reliable sources tell me new hotels are coming.

The patio looks mighty inviting
One thing they do need to address here is food. The short of the operation is that pretzels are all they have to munch on. If this were Portland, there would be a food cart (or carts) selling sandwiches, burritos or teriyaki chicken bento in the parking lot. Obviously, that isn't the case. This place appears to be doing fine, but having food on premise or nearby would be a nice addition.

If you're in the neighborhood, Berryessa Brewing is worth a visit. The tasting room is only open Friday-Sunday (the hours are posted on their website), so plan your trip accordingly.