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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

P's and Q's Market Flexes Craft Beer Muscle

Finding good beer in this town has probably never been so easy. You can roll into a convenience store and find a decent selection of craft beer these days. So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when I stopped at P's and Q's Market on Northeast Dekum. They are flexing the craft beer muscle.

P's and Q's is located a couple of blocks east of Breakside Brewing and the Oregon Public House. It's an up-and-coming area, but there are no stores anywhere close. Of course, up until recently, no one in their right mind would have wanted to open a store in the area. Things are changing, though, as the Dekum strip transitions. Condos and gentrification are on the way, you suspect. But never mind.

The building, previously occupied by a church, a restaurant and a TV repair shop, was in serious disrepair when owners Emily Anderson and Paul Davis took over. They raised money from the neighborhood and friends via Kickstarter and renovated the place. The result of their effort is an appealing, comfortable space.

What you need to know about P's and Q's is the place is not a pub or bar. It isn't even a bottleshop. It's a restaurant serving mostly sandwiches and salads, with an attached market that features fresh local produce and meats, as well as bulk and standard foods. They also have three taps and a nice selection of bottles for the allotted space.

Emily said Paul is responsible for the beer. "He's a guru," she offered. They were pouring Occidental Pilsner, Stone IPA and a cider when I stopped in. They don't have a lot of space for bottles, but they make up for it with a good selection of crafts and imports. Rainier pounders, too.

P's and Q's is another great example of how small businesses continue to find new ways to use craft beer as a leverage point. There was a time when a place like this would not have bothered to carry bottled beer in any quantity. Draft beer would have been out of the question. Those days are clearly gone.

If you decide to head up, over or down to P's and Q's for lunch, dinner or just a beer (they also have wine), be advised you cannot currently drink at the tables on the sidewalk out front. They've applied for a sidewalk cafe liquor license and will likely have it soon...just not yet. Inside is quite nice, anyway.

Monday, August 26, 2013

ER Stats and the Ethics of High Octane Beer

A lot of beer-centric folks read last week's New York Times article, "Beers Implicated in Emergency Room Visits." The story outlines the results of a study done over the course of a year at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The study identified beer brands consumed most often by folks who later wound up in the ER as a result of car accidents, homicides, drownings, falls, etc.

Standard inner city high-ABV line-up
The five most commonly implicated brands are Budweiser, Bud Light, Bud Ice, Steel Reserve and Colt 45. By the way, this isn't the first study on alcohol and the ER. There have been many studies over the years showing a definite relationship. The unique thing about this one is it revealed brand names.

Most of the folks I talked to shrugged over the results. I get it. Bud and Bud Light are among the most popular beers in America. Not really a surprise seeing them on a list like this...lots of people drink them (sad to say). It's the other beers on the list that perked my interest.

See, Bud Ice, Colt 45 and Steel Reserve are malt liquors. They have higher alcohol content than beer, from 5.5% to just over 8%. Even those stats are deceiving. There are flavored versions of Colt 45 that pack over 12% ABV. That's not all. The other bad news is that these beers often come packaged in super-sized bottles and cans. Perfect.

The 12% heart of the matter
There's some missing data in the story. It says four malt liquors account for nearly half the beer consumption of ER visitors. The fourth brand isn't named. but never mind. Those same beers account for less than 3 percent of consumption in the general population. That to me is a shocking statistic. You have only a small percentage of people consuming this crap and yet it is well-represented in the ER.

The thing is, we all know where these beers are primarily sold: at inner city convenience stores in areas inhabited by poor people. These beers are a cheap drunk. For a couple of bucks, you can get an oversize can or bottle of this hootch and get seriously hammered. Which too often leads to trouble.

I don't know what the ER stats would reveal for Portland...we are not Baltimore. But I can say big ABV beers are readily available in small stores around Portland, particularly in poorer areas. How do I know? Because one of my contract jobs takes me to these stores on a regular basis and I am mystified by what I see: coolers loaded with high octane crap beer.

Hospital stats aside, I wonder about the ethics of selling products like this. You aren't going to see a lot of this stuff moving from standard or higher end grocery stores. It's the little guys in the crappy areas that move the bulk of this junk. I know at least one beer distributor who is somewhat embarrassed by that reality. But business is business, you know.

Don't get me wrong. I hear the counter argument. "People need to take some responsibility for what they consume." I understand the distributors and stores are merely giving people what they want. "Someone else will do it if we don't," is their answer. That's all fine and well. But the ethical issue isn't going away. It isn't okay to sell this poison.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Risk in the "Post-Craft Era"

My recent trip to central Oregon and then Jeff Alworth's post on the dangerous number of breweries there got me thinking about state of craft beer. When you add up what's been happening in Bend and around the state and country, I think you have to conclude the very nature of craft beer has fundamentally changed. The question is, what does that mean?
Already targeting markets outside Bend

If you think back to the beginnings of the craft era, virtually all of the breweries started off small and catered to a local clientele. This was in keeping with what beer had been about for most of the pre-Prohibition period in the United States. Cities and towns had breweries that served locals. There were national brands that shipped beer to remote markets as early as the 1870s, but beer was mostly a local affair. Craft beer followed that model early on.

In fact, one of the reasons craft beer caught on is that it was locally brewed in small batches. This was true of craft breweries everywhere. The thing is, the early craft brewers couldn't afford to advertise to get customers. Their marketing plan was going out to taverns and bars where locals were cheerfully sipping industrial lager and getting them to try craft beer.

One of the reasons people were willing to give craft beer a shot is it was local. There were underlying reasons for this, which I won't get into here. The point is, people were willing to try beers that were more expensive, new and completely different largely because they were local.

Good Life has lots of room to expand
Obviously, the local approach was not the only angle. It was not the approach Full Sail (initially Hood River Brewing) took. Full Sail was the first Oregon craft brewery to bottle and was highly focused on sales outside its local market from the beginning. But most Oregon breweries didn't start that way; most focused on local customers.

Things have shifted today. More and more breweries are producing a lot of beer and working to sell it in markets outside their local area. This is possible in large part because of what has happened to craft beer in recent years. It is has become a respected commodity. Today's beer fans are more interested in beer that is unique and good than beer that is local. And they know what good beer is. Thus, you can have a brewery like San Diego's Ballast Point or Tillamook's De Garde enter the Portland market and do very well because the beer is good.

Aggressive plans outside Bend
We are clearly living in a changed world. Someone used the phrase "post-craft era" on Facebook. I think that's exactly right. The rules that applied in 1985 and 1995 don't readily apply today because craft beer is an established entity held in reasonably high esteem. This has enabled breweries to focus more on getting a quality product out to a wide range of markets and less on building a local following.

It seems to me Bend exemplifies the "post-craft era." With something like 20 breweries and counting, Bend has more breweries than the local population can realistically support..and don't bother assuming transient tourists are a big factor in overall consumption. Places like Deschutes, 10 Barrel, Good Life, Crux and Boneyard sell a lot of beer outside Bend. Which is great. And the reality is, they have to.

The problem with Bend in the "post-craft era" is this: There are a growing number of breweries from all over competing for customers outside their local markets. We can agree the craft beer market is growing and that Bend makes a good product. But at some point we are going to reach the point where regional markets become saturated and there won't be room for everyone who wants to be there.

What then?

It seems to me breweries concentrated in areas with relatively small local populations are at risk in that scenario. For them, there may be little to fall back on. Bend may be the ultimate example of a place where significant risk exists, though it is likely not alone.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mountain Jug Flips Sunriver Beer Landscape

Sunriver is a great example of what's happened to craft beer during the last few years. Not so long ago, you had to drive into Bend to find good beer...there's obviously lots of it there. There was nothing decent in Sunriver. My how things have changed.

I spent a few days marauding around central Oregon last week. Nothing like a short road trip to beer country. I did the obligatory Bend tour...with stops at Boneyard, Good Life, Silver Moon and Worthy. I'll maybe get around to talking about those visits in a day or two. Sunriver is what's on my mind.

They finally have a beer destination in the resort community. The Mountain Jug opened back in March and it's the kind of place you're apt to visit often during any stay in Sunriver. Thankfully, the Jug is not located in the carnival that is Sunriver Village.  Nope. It lives in the Sunriver Business Park, which is just off South Century Drive (as you're headed toward Mt. Bachelor). Good omen.

The proprietor is Mark Cornett. It's a strong beer name. As I sipped a beer and talked to him, he told me his wife, Tonya, convinced him to leave construction and open The Mountain Jug, a combination bottleshop and taproom. Most beer fans know Tonya as the brewmaster at Bend Brewing for many years before moving to 10 Barrel Brewing a short while back. Go figure.

This place is quite charming. It has the look and feel of a log cabin on the inside, with several nooks where you can sip on your beer away from the flow. They have 12 rotating taps, but you won't find anything from Portland or Hood River here. They serve only central Oregon beers here. They were pouring beers from Boneyard, Good Life, Silver Moon, Worthy, Deschutes, Crux, Cascade Lakes and Three Creeks when I happened by. Nothing to hate on the list.

There's more. Keeping with the low key nature of the place, there's a turntable surrounded by boxes of vinyl on one wall. Mark worked his way through some classics while I was sipping on a couple of pints and yakking with some locals. His beer duties were interrupted every 20 minutes or so while he flipped the LP or picked something new. I suggested plugging in an iPod and just letting the turntable run. That drew a laugh and a smile, but I don't think it's happening.

I can help thinking the Mountain Jug is a great idea. There have been so many times over the years when I've wished there was a place to go after a day of skiing, hiking or whatever. There are an almost endless list of outdoor activities to make you thirsty around Sunriver. Now there's a place where you can find great beers on tap and a nice selection of bottles. It was steady, not crowded while I was there. I can see this place being pretty jammed during peak season. I doubt Mark and Tonya will mind.

For anyone wondering, yes they have no food at the Mountain Jug. Like a lot of taprooms these days, you are welcome to bring in your own food or have something delivered. There are family-friendly tables and couches spread around to make things as comfortable as possible. The stereo is not set to play loud, so perish the thought of a rock concert atmosphere.

This place marks quite a change from the status quo of Sunriver. Finding a snooty wine bar or grubby yuppie restaurant hasn't really been a problem. But the rising tide of craft beer has changed the landscape. Now there's a charming, down-to-earth beer joint in town.

You gotta like its odds.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Heathen (s) Looking to Plunder Local Beer Scene

Stryker (left) and Parsons flank the Heathen gong
Portland's neighbors to the north were slow to catch the craft beer wave. They've seen a number of attempts to crash the party, but Clark County was mostly a laughing stock until recently. Today they sport more than a few promising breweries and there are more on the way. Times have changed.

Heathen Brewing is one of the bright new faces on Vancouver's block and it has earned a lot of attention in recent weeks. At the Oregon Brewers Festival, its Transgression IPA was voted among the top beers. In KOIN TV's Battle of the Brews, Transgression finished first. Needless to say, it's been a wild couple of weeks for the two-man show that runs Heathen.

Plenty to sample
Sunny Parsons is the owner and founder of Heathen Brewing. The brewery and tasting room (rolled into one) is located in an expanded garage next to his residence in rural Vancouver. It's a pretty down-to-earth operation. The mash tun is a salvaged buttermilk tank. They have a 10 bbl brew kettle and several fermenters, including one 20 bbl. Taps line one wall. Logo glasses, growlers and other schwag are nearby.

Sunny's partner is Rodney Stryker, who you suspect is more than a few years younger than Parsons. Because the boss still has a day job, Stryker is the one doing the vast majority of the brewing (90 percent he reckons). He keeps up with the demand for their beer by working 60 or more hours most weeks. They have been reluctant to bring on more people, though that will soon change.

A wide view of the brewery/tasting room
I met these two chatterboxes while sampling their Transgression IPA at the OBF. They were hanging out near their beer to interact with patrons. What a novel concept. Anyway, they love to talk beer and are happy to describe their brewing processes and values. They are dedicated to producing what they describe as "progressive ales for the promiscuous palate."

The newfound popularity of Heathen beers is going to make it tougher for these guys to maintain their values. They will almost certainly be forced to grow beyond their rather small and comfy space. A pub space in Hazel Del is in the works, and demand for draft beer is growing. As well, they plan to start bottling (22 oz bottles) by late fall. Parsons said the brewery will stay where it is for now. He and Stryker are well aware of the challenges associated with rapid growth and becoming a serious business.

In case you're wondering, neither of these guys has professional brewing experience. Both have strong homebrewing backgrounds. Parsons was making plans to open his brewery when he met Stryker, who was hoping to open a small brewery on his own. They agreed to combine their efforts and the result is Heathen.
Parsons happily chats with a beer fan
About the name, Parsons describes himself as a something of a wild child growing up. He was constantly in trouble and once surprised his father with a thermos full of pollywog soup. They taste just like chicken, I bet. The Heathen name and identity somehow evolved out of that. It seems to work well for them.

The brewery/taproom was a beehive when I visited, unannounced, on Saturday afternoon. There was a constant flow of beer fans rolling through tasting beers and getting growlers filled. Almost everyone wanted to talk with them about the beer. This just demonstrates how starved Vancouver has been for good beer that's local. People drove out there to get Heathen beer because it's theirs.

They were pouring a wide range of beers on Saturday. I tasted almost everything. The standouts were Blackberry Hefweizen (100 pounds of fresh blackberries were pureed and added to a 10 bbl batch during secondary fermentation) and Gold Pale Ale (a crisp, light ale that leans on Mosaic hops). Both of these beers, as well as Transcend IPA, will be poured at the upcoming Vancouver Brewfest (I should mention that Gold Pale was made for the festival and will be poured under an assumed name.)

Empties await fills on pallets outside
Some of their other beers include Promiscuous Blonde (balanced for the style), Indulge Amber (good), a standard Hefeweizen (I didn't try it), RIP Porter (near great), Son of Malice Imperial IPA (seems unfinished and needs dry-hopping) and a barrel-aged IPA that was mostly alcohol.

If you're looking for the fantastic Transgression IPA, you're mostly out of luck. It's a special beer, a seriously tweaked version of the standard Transcend IPA. Thirty-one kegs of this stuff crossed the river, 24 of which were consumed at the OBF. Heathen's distributor, Point Blank, evidently sold six kegs to various pubs around town. The remaining keg went to the Horse Brass Pub, where it still shows up on the draught list (as of Sunday evening). It really is an amazing beer.

If you're able to make a trip up, down or over to Heathen, check the calendar on their website for open days and hours. There's also a handy map there. This place isn't super hard to find, but there's road construction in the area that makes things more confusing than they need to be.

These Heathens are alright.

Stryker fills one of many growlers