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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Portland Beer Book Targets Broad Audience

Many who read this blog know my book, Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana, was published this week. There hasn't been any coverage in the mainstream media to this point, but the book seems to be doing reasonably well out of the gate. It's available online and in local bookstores.

I'm not here to review the book. That's a task for some of my beer writing friends and others in the media. I have no idea what they will say or when they will say it. I also have no intention of trying to sway anyone's opinion in any direction. The book is what it is.

Original cover photo sans book details
The idea for this project first occurred to me 10 or so years ago, when I was considering what had transpired in Portland to that point. Since arriving in 1989, I had observed the evolution of beer here. I thought it was a story worth telling, but had no thought that I would be the one telling it..

The 2007 OPB documentary, Beervana, reinforced my thoughts. Written and produced by Beth Harrington, Beervana provides a short but sweet video snapshot of Portland's beer history. This is "must see" TV and you can view it here if you haven't seen it. Good stuff.

My opportunity to write Portland's beer history presented itself a few years later. I had worked in corporate communications and marketing for many years prior to the crash of 2008. For someone of my experience and age, that work effectively evaporated in the downturn. By 2010-11, I was looking for a way to use my talents outside the corporate setting. That led to freelance writing, this blog and, eventually, the book project.

Portland in the 1890s
My initial stabs at Portland's beer story took the form of successive eBooks. Those books were heavy on contemporary content and contained only minimal history. The eBooks did not do especially well, though they were good exercises. Both are now unpublished, if you're wondering.

About the time I published the second of the eBooks, I began talks with The History Press about the possibility of writing a print version of Portland's beer history. They had, in fact, been looking for someone to write that story. I had no idea. I only knew they had an expanding line of books on American beer cities. I submitted a proposal to write the Portland book and we eventually agreed on the details. The project was on.

Oregon's first craft brewery, Cartwright, lived here
Portland Beer is, by design, written for a general audience. The publisher wanted a book that would appeal to a wide range of people interested in Portland and beer. The result is a book of around 160 pages including a color insert. Some might quibble with that. A book written for the beer geek crowd would likely be twice that length. But the prospective geek audience would be much smaller. Thus, the publisher's dictum.

The scope of the project required me to make certain decisions in terms of emphasis. Readers will discover that roughly half the book is devoted to what happened here after 1980. That merely reflects my bias that most readers want to know more about the craft period. Regardless, the earlier period gets its due. There are plenty of interesting story lines.

As I was going about the business of researching and writing the book, I ran into some interesting twists and turns. Some key people were reluctant to talk because they didn't know me. Fortunately, I had friends and acquaintances who vouched for my project and helped connect me with most of the people I wanted interview. I could not have written the book without that assistance.

Cover final
There were also some surprises along the way. This is the first book of its kind on Portland, which means it cannot be considered revisionist history. Yet some of what I report runs counter to prevailing wisdom. Probably the biggest surprise relates to passage of the Brewpub Bill in 1985. For whatever reason, previous versions of how that happened were routinely wrong. I tracked the true story using legislative documents.

For anyone interested, there is a release party for the book this Saturday, Sept. 28, at The Commons Brewery in Southeast Portland. I will be there from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. selling and signing books. This 21-and-over event is open to the public. Please join us if you're so inclined. It should be a good time with plenty of conversation.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

West Highland Brewing Takes Gradual, Less Hoppy Road

West Highland Brewing. I first saw the name at the Oregon Brewers Festival in July. I wondered if they had invited a Scottish brewery. I soon realized the place isn't in Scotland at all. Nope. The brewery is located up in the Couv...as in Vancouver. It's another example of the good things happening up there. What's up with the name? I'll get to that in a moment.

Brewers/owners Sam and Don
West Highland is a small 1 bbl brewery operated by Don Stewart and Sam Simms. Like another up-and-coming Vancouver brewery, Heathen, West Highland is located in a residential garage. It's not fancy. The West Highland space is actually quite a bit smaller than the one Heathen calls home. But it gets the job done...for now.

I've been vaguely acquainted with Don Stewart for a number of years. We worked as part of volunteer teams at several Oregon Brewers Festivals dating back to the mid-1990s. Later, we worked for the same Vancouver company for a short time. Don was there only briefly and we mostly lost touch after he left, more than 10 years ago.

When I discovered West Highland and realized Don was involved, I wasn't surprised. I knew he was an avid home-brewer going back many years. He hooked up with the much younger Simms by chance. It turns out Sam was dating Don's daughter and observed Don's home brewing activities. Sam eventually asked if he could join in. That was in 2010. They got their business license and first customer a year later.

I had heard that West Highland beers have drawn mixed reviews. I'm sure that's true and I'm pretty sure I know why: They simply refuse to get caught up in the ongoing hops arms race. None of their beers are particularly beefy in terms of IBUs.

The bittering hops
"Neither of us are fans of super hoppy beers," Stewart said. "Our goal has always been  to produce quality, well-balanced beers for people who, like us, don't care for hoppy beers. That's our niche and we've been fairly successful with it so far."

Of course, that kind of thinking tends to cause consternation with the hophead crowd...and it's a big crowd despite the growing popularity of fruit beers, sour beers, etc. There are still a lot of people out there who want hoppy and nothing else. They probably aren't going to appreciate West Highland beers.

A good example of West Highland's approach is Mango Moon Ale, their entry at the 2013 OBF: It clocked in a 6.6% ABV and 18 IBU. Mango Moon was on my tasting list, but my notes are sketchy. My pigeon shorthand describes it as "mildly tart without much aroma and with minimal mango character." Nonetheless, this beer was named top fruit beer at the festival. So much for my scribbled thoughts..

Fermentation time
They do not have a functional tasting room in their garage brewery. The taps they have there mostly  to provide tastes to prospective draft customers. And vagrant beer scribes.That's about it. They had two beers on when I visited: Michel's Brown Porter and Fire Hydrant IPA.

The Porter is named for a friend and Steinbart's employee who helped Don develop the recipe. This beer doesn't have the color of a typical Porter...it's much lighter. They call it a "gateway" dark beer, and I suppose that's a good description. This is their best selling beer, likely because it appeals to a wide range of customer pallets. It tastes pretty good without being overbearing in any direction.

The fashionable logo
Fire Hydrant IPA is not your typical Northwest IPA. It leans on late addition hops and full leaf dry-hopping (Citra on both counts) for aroma and flavor. The beer clocks in at 65 IBU and 6.5-7.0% ABV. The IBU number seems generous. I realize these values can be kind of nebulous, but I didn't detect 65 IBUs. Oh well. It's a nice effort on the whole.

West Highland has some other beers, including a Scottish Ale I was hoping to taste. They make it solely for the Vancouver Pizza Company. It's a bigger beer and takes more time to brew, and they didn't have it to taste. Mango Moon is obviously another standard, and I would have given it another try if they hadn't been out. Sam had a decent cider on tap, but he says that's for in-house consumption only.

Thanks largely to the popular success of Mango Moon at the OBF, West Highland has been invited to the Holiday Ale Festival. Sam and Don were talking about the beer, which will likely be called Holiday Spiced Ale. Supplying kegs to festivals can be a challenge for these guys due to their limited capacity. But they made it work for the OBF and they say they can accommodate the HAF, as well.

Gavin watches for visitors
The overall approach here is confident, but cautious. Don and Sam intend to expand their brewing capacity as demand for their beer grows. They have no thought of borrowing money to finance a larger operation. It's pay as you go. They use plastic fermenters because the cost is a fraction of what stainless steel fermenters cost. You worry about scratches with plastic, so they use a spray system that cleans and sanitizes without rubbing or scrubbing.

West Highland is essentially a step up from homebrewing. They have more capacity than most home brewers and they are developing a list of draft customers. A lot of people started out this way. If things go well, these guys will likely have a 5 bbl system in a year. There's even a chance they may bottle for retail sale in the next year or so.

For now, their beers are Vancouver only and can be found in several places, including Blind Onion Pizza, Cascade Bar and Grill, Jake's Bar & Grill, Kiggins Theater, Pizza Schmizza and Vancouver Pizza. There will surely be additional locations pouring West Highland beer soon. Interest is high.

With respect to the name, it's pretty easy to figure out if you look at their logo or visit the garage brewery. The face on the logo is a West Highland Terrier. There was a pair of Westies hanging out in the garage area while brewing operations were in progress...Gavin and Fiona. The dogs keep a watchful eye out for beer seeking interlopers.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lucky Lab and DoveLewis Present Dogtoberfest '13

Once upon a time, the Lucky Labrador's Dogtoberfest was a quaint little affair that attracted a few Portlanders who wanted to quaff a pint or two while getting their mutt washed. Somewhere back in time, 1996 is my best guess, we showed up with our grubby Labs. They didn't enjoy getting washed, but we enjoyed the beer and festivities.

Blitz at the beach is usually a mess
Fast forward to this weekend and it's time to drag your dirty mutt down to the Lucky Lab for the latest edition of Dogtoberfest. Things have evolved. The event is now a benefit for the DoveLewis Blood Bank, which gets all the proceeds. Whether you own a mutt or not, it's fairly easy to see this is a worthwhile cause.

Unlike the old days, when things were sort of topsy-turvy, they're organized now. Volunteers will be plenty happy to scrub the grit and grime from your canine compatriot. I'm pretty sure my current Labs, Blitz and Biscuit, would be less than enthusiastic about such treatment. But they would be all for the benefit concept. Suggested donation is $10 per dog. Donate more if you wish.

My old friend Beau often needed a good rinse
As with past Dogtoberfests, there will be live music and the you'll find the usual great beer and food in the pub. I just visited Lab HQ the other night and I have to say Ludwig's Alt is tasting great. Some of the other usual suspects include Super Dog IPA and Konig's Kolsh. If you prefer something darker, and they've got that, too.

Dogtoberfest '13 is happening this Saturday, Sept. 21, from 11 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Lucky Lab Brewpub. The Lab is located at 915 SE Hawthorne. There's more information on the DoveLewis event page here. I'm sure a good time will be had by all...or most.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Growling About California's Growler Law

Most Oregonians don't pay a lot of attention to beer laws in other states. Why bother? We have some of the most flexible laws in the country when it comes to craft beer. Laws in other states often seem stupefying by comparison when we hear about them.

California is a fine example of that. And it isn't even part of the old Confederacy.

Growlers from my collection
There's a short piece in the September issue of Beeradvocate that discusses what's happened with growler laws in California. It's terrific stuff if you have a sense of humor. And don't live in California.

The California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control has decided that breweries may fill generic growlers or branded growlers from other breweries as long as the contents are then appropriately labeled and there is no inaccurate information visible on the container.

The generic
Think about that for a moment. It essentially means you cannot take a branded growler into another brewery and have it filled. Why? Because even if the contents are somehow labeled by the providing brewery, there would still be inaccurate information in the form of opposing branding on the container.

I have no idea what happens if a brewery happens to violate this law...if it's wrist slap or something more serious. But the result of the law is clear enough: breweries are inclined to fill non-branded growlers. That way, they avoid the possibility of contradictory information on the container..

That's not the end of it, either. Some breweries have chosen to take this arrangement a step further by saying they will fill only their own growlers. Such is the case with Russian River Brewing, which issued a statement pointing to the superior quality of their growler on several counts and the need to fill only that container. This contradicted the brewery's previous position, but never mind.

The champion
Look, I'm not exactly sure who this law is supposed to protect. It can't be consumers of the beer, who typically know what they're buying, and are now faced with needing to have a collection of non-branded growlers or growlers specific to breweries they frequent. Maybe the glass industry is the winner here.

With respect to Russian River, I can almost sympathize. They don't want to bother with the labeling issue. Filling only Russian River growlers avoids that problem completely. I get it. But I don't understand the garbage about having a superior growler. All growlers have their issues with ease of filling, seal, sanitation, etc. There is no such thing as a perfect growler, new or used.

I won't even take a position on the pluses and minuses of dispensing beer in growlers. The various issues connected with that have been well-reviewed in the past. Sometimes getting beer to go in a growler makes good sense. Sometimes not. Growlers can definitely affect the quality of the beer.

Mixing brands not possible in California
To close the loop on this story, consider what California's law would mean in Oregon. I routinely take growlers from Boneyard and Lucky Labrador to Laurelwood for fills. My Laurelwood growlers have been filled at numerous places. That could not happen in California. The law makes it problematic. What a mess.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Laurelwood Steers Toward Robust Seasonal Board

Since they announced that the Craft Brew Alliance will be brewing some of their widely distributed beers back in June, I kept expecting to see more choices on the seasonal board at Laurelwood. That had not really been the case. Until now.

I arrived down at the Sandy location, a hop and skip from home, Monday afternoon. My trip was a response to seeing the list of seasonal beers on Facebook. Who says social media doesn't work? The list included Pumpkin Ale, Pale Project #21 (Fresh Hop Pale), Deranger Imperial Red, Megafauna Imperial IPA and Fresh Hop Free Range Red. I'll get to the beers shortly.

Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos told me via email that the seasonal production isn't yet linked to the deal with the CBA. They are apparently just about ready to release Workhorse and Red (it won't be organic outside the pub) in the new packaging (six-packs), but that change hasn't yet impacted what they can do in the main brewery. Soon, though.

"We just had a bunch of projects we needed to get done, like getting our GABF entries together," Gletsos said. "Plus it's fresh hop season, so we got some of those together, as well. My goal, once we do have the CBA production in full swing, is to keep a great line-up like this on at all our pubs full time." Great news!

Pale Project #21 is a fantastic take on the fresh hop style. It has a pervasive hop aroma and flavor. Coming in at 5.9%, this is a highly drinkable beer. Like many, if not most fresh hop beers, Laurelwood brewers use standard dry hops for bittering. They added Cascades from Crosby Farms and Willamettes from Goshie Farms to the bright tank with the Pale. This succulent fresh hop beer is reminiscent of Fresh Hop Workhorse, which leans on fresh Centennial hops. FH Workhorse isn't pouring at the Sandy pub at the moment, but it has been spotted on tap around town..and there may be another rev on the way.

When we last visited fresh hop season, Fresh Hop Free Range Red was the beer I preferred here. Not so this time around. Last year, I thought the malts balanced the hop character in the Red. This year, hops character seems subdued. They evidently used Cascades alone (in the bright tank) and I might have had a hard time fingering this one for a fresh hop beer if not for the board. It isn't a bad beer by any means...just lacks the bold character of the Pale.

I really don't need to mention Deranger and Megafauna, do I? These are both terrific beers. Deranger features a monumental blend of flavor and aroma hops over the top of a solid malt backbone. It's the late addition hops that make this beer, I think, and it's a winner. Megafauna is a gigantic hop bomb packing robust citrus, tropical fruit and pine flavors. Both of these beers are to be sought wherever they appear.

The Pumpkin Ale is simply the old Stingy Jack with a new name. The name change is the consequence of someone else owning the rights to Stingy Jack. Pumpkin Ale is a generic name, not subject to patent. I suspect this beer will have a proprietary name by this time next year. No offense to the brewers, but I'm not a fan of this particular pumpkin ale. Maybe in October.

Today's seasonal board at Laurelwood is just a sign of things to come. As I said in the earlier post about the deal with the CBA, I'm looking forward to seeing what Vasili and his crew come up with once they are out from under the bulk of their production brewing duties. This will be an interesting, tasty experience.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Widmer Oktoberfest Taps into Portland's Late Summer

Perfect September weather. That's what they had for Widmer's Oktoberfest Friday and Saturday. Like a baby bear's porridge: Not too hot, not too cold...just right.

A couple of days of beers, food, games and music in ideal weather make you wonder why one of the larger outdoor festivals doesn't relocate to September. The most obvious suspect in that regard would be the National Organic Festival, whose late June digs tend to be dicey on the weather front. Oh well.

This was the 9th Annual Oktoberfest on Russell Street. They've more or less figured out how to maximize the space there. Tables with and without chairs are sprinkled around generously. Filling stations for food and brews are similarly available. There's a makeshift stage and room to roam behind the pub.

Grilling dogs for the masses
And don't forget the nod to Widmer Brothers history. The vintage Datsun pickup once used by the boys to deliver kegs and schlep hops and grains was on prominent display in the middle of things. You gotta love the attention to detail. Rob Widmer reportedly keeps the old gal alive. When we get around to putting together a craft beer museum here, the old Datsun will undoubtedly be part of it.

This was my first trip to the Widmer version of Oktoberfest in several years. I got down there Saturday afternoon, half expecting lines to get in and a wait for everything. That's not what I found. Instead, there were a few of us milling around at 3:00 p.m. waiting for the gates to open. No lines inside once we got in. I didn't stick around to see what happened Saturday night.

Future craft beer museum piece
If you were hoping for a fantastic selection of unique or one-off beers, this wasn't the festival for you. They were pouring standard Widmer fare, as far as I could see. Different serving stations had different beers, but those choices were limited to things like Green & Gold, Hef, Hopside Down, Alchemy, Okto and others.

I didn't hear any bitching about the beer selection. This is an Oktoberfest celebration, not a tasting event. The festival mug/stein will hold 20 ounces of beer, a far cry from the much smaller mugs and glasses used at festivals where small tastes are the thing. This is a drinking festival, pure and simple. Get over it!

Comfortable late afternoon on Russell St.
If I were going to grump about anything, it might be the $6 (six tokens) cost of a beer. As mentioned, the mug holds 20 ounces. But the apparent fill mark was right at 16 ounces. I refilled several times and each time I got about 16 ounces of beer. I think $6 is a lot to pay for that much of these beers. You can judge for yourself.

They had a decent lineup of bands playing from the makeshift stage that looks out on what is essentially an outback storage area for empties. I didn't venture into that area on previous trips to this event...don't ask me why. They had filling stations, a token tent as well as places for people to mingle while enjoying the music. The band Melville was playing while I was there. Not bad.

Melville on the loading dock stage
It's hard to imagine a better way to spend a few hours on a perfect, late summer afternoon. Days like this are numbered as we begin our long (and hopefully slow) descent into the wet, gloomy months of winter here. Soon enough, warm weather events like this will be nothing more than pleasant memory waiting for a rerun next year.

The mug/stein fill line

No event is complete without phone ogling
Cockpit of the relic

Wall of kegs in the outback

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Boneyard's Remarkable, Unlikely Rise to Power

If you go back a few years and look at Oregon's craft beer landscape, you likely would not have picked Boneyard Beer to become a power. I mean, the visual allure of the brand and the rather small brewing space were not exactly obvious signs of future success. Yet here we are.

Interesting motif
I visited Boneyard a few weeks ago, as I usually do when I'm in Central Oregon. The small tasting room and brewery have the kind of spartan charm you have to respect when on beer safari. There was a constant flow of beer fans visiting that day. Good beer does that, regardless of the surroundings.

The reality is, Boneyard maxed out the available space in its brewery long ago. They have shoehorned in some large (60 bbl) fermenters to increase production, but it isn't enough. Plans to bottle or can have taken a backseat to keeping draft channels supplied. New draft accounts are on hold. 

Professor Lawrence in late 2011
I had hoped to speak to co-founder/beerologist Tony Lawrence during my visit. He was ever-present on previous visits, but nowhere in sight this time. Fortunately, Ezra (The New School) spoke to him recently about Boneyard's future plans. His illuminating article is here.

Many of us figured Boneyard would have a production brewery by now. In late 2011, Lawrence told me he expected to have a production facility by summer 2012. Didn't happen. When I spoke to him on Labor Day weekend 2012, he thought he would have a production facility by summer 2013. No such luck.

Thanks to Ezra's story, we now know Lawrence expects to have a vastly larger brewing facility by early 2014. Excuse me if I don't hold my breath while this comes to fruition. There are an almost unlimited number of reasons why the new place might be delayed. But never mind.

You really have to be impressed with what Lawrence and his team have done at Boneyard. They have built an empire strictly on draft beer. Boneyard occupies #8 on the list of top Oregon breweries (taxable barrels produced) for June (these lists are typically a couple of months behind). Of the top 10 breweries, Boneyard is the only one that does not distribute in a bottle or can. That is a significant stat.

Boneyard's success harkens back to the early days of craft brewing in Oregon, when the original breweries were selling draft beer alone. Botting wasn't part of anyone's plan. It was only after Full Sail demonstrated that bottles could be an effective distribution model that other breweries followed. 

The fact that underdog Boneyard has come so far, so fast without a retail presence makes you wonder what they'll do once their capacity is dramatically expanded. There is so much pent-up demand for their beer that they will surely challenge for a spot in the top five almost immediately. After that, where they go likely depends on successful distribution outside Oregon. 

Quite an unlikely ride!