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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Art Larrance at 70: Still Going Strong

In much the same way that you don't know what you're going to get in the NFL draft, we didn't know what we had when Art Larrance co-founded Portland Brewing in 1986. Nearly three decades later, his place in Oregon brewing history is more or less assured. He turns 70 today. Yet he carries on with gusto.

Larrance's was a player even before the advent of Portland Brewing via the Brewpub Bill. The bill, officially SB 813, was passed in 1985 and brought the emerging craft movement out of the shadows. Brewpubs were crucial because they provided a great place for early craft breweries to display their wares.

All of the founding brewers pushed for the Brewpub legislation, but it was Larrance (as legend has it) who introduced the idea to Rep. Tom Mason in the shower at Multnomah Athletic Club. Mason, a Portland Democrat, introduced the bill in the Oregon House and helped get it passed.

Then came the Oregon Brewers Festival. Larrance got involved when Portland Brewing was asked to provide beer for a blues festival in Waterfront Park in 1987. The success of that outing led to the inaugural OBF in 1988, supported by all of the four founding craft breweries. A few years later, Larrance assumed full control of the event.

The story might well have ended there had fate not intervened. Needing to expand their operation, Portland Brewing raised capital through the sale of common stock. As a result of those sales, they lost control of the business. This happened around the time they moved to the Northwest industrial area in 1993. Larrance was soon shown the door.

Never underestimate the power of, "I'll show you." Larrance soon incorporated as Cascade Brewing. He opened the Raccoon Lodge in 1998, one of the first breweries on Portland's underserved westside. While the Raccoon Lodge provided an option for craft beer fans "over there," it was slow to attract beer fans from the east side of the river. An Eastside location was needed.

After a long search, Larrance found the space on Southeast Belmont that today houses the Cascade Brewing Barrel House. The Barrel House, which opened in 2010, features blended sour beers pioneered by Larrance and collaborators Ron Gansberg and Preston Weesner as an alternative to the "hops arms race." The beers have been wildly successful.

As Larrance celebrates seven decades, the Tart Fruit Fest is happening at the Barrel House this week. It's just a coincidence, I'm told. The event runs through Sunday and features some of the beers Cascade has become famous for: Figaro, Blueberry, Bourbonic Plague, Kriek, Strawberry and more. Non-sour fans will have options, too, including Portland Ale and Cascade IPA.

With all he has going on, you might expect Larrance to relax and take it somewhat easy. Hardly. At a birthday gathering the other day, he told me he's letting some of his collectible beer memorabilia go at long last. His collection of labels, signs and related materials dating back more than 100 years is substantial. But he has other things on his mind these days.

Most prominently, he is building on the success of the sour movement with an expanded production facility off Highway 217. The climate-controlled space will quadruple the available room for blending and aging, from 5,000 to over 22,000 square feet. There will be no pub at the production facility. However, the Barrel House will eventually be renovated and expanded into a much larger pub.

Happy 70th, Art! Keep the new chapters coming.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Brewvana Sharpens Game for 2014 and Beyond

Coming up on three years since she launched Brewvana Brewery Tours, Ashley Rose Salvitti is finally feeling like she has her "poops in a group." That's another way of saying she's feeling really good about where her organization is headed for 2014. If you aren't aware, Brewvana provides unique tours of Oregon's beer landscape.

"Getting our act together has given me the time to learn more about travel and tourism here, and the huge business potential," Ashley said. "There really isn't another city like Portland with so many small brewers. We're unique."

Ashley, who fled North Carolina seeking a better beer life in Oregon, launched Brewvana in April 2011. She was working at Hopworks at the time. She ran all the tours and did the marketing and admin work from her tiny apartment. Those were the days...may they never return.

Arguably the most important thing anyone needs to know about Brewvana is that its leader has seemingly boundless energy. Ashley can talk about anything beer-related for hours. Along the way, she'll tell you about stuff she really enjoys: "I like to sip a good beer really fast." Sipping is clearly overrated.

Brewvana's first employee came onboard in late 2011. They moved into an actual office in 2012 and Ashley left Hopworks to focus on her own business full time. Big steps. The ability to separate work from home was a big deal. After a slow start in 2013, things eventually righted themselves. Business nearly doubled over 2012.

"Having a physical space and a set of business procedures really helped get the business moving last year,"Ashley said. "And that allowed me to invest some time in researching marketing angles. I spent time with Travel Oregon and Travel Portland. It's been informative and fun."

Getting wrapped up
Perhaps the biggest thing to come out of those relationships is that Ashley heads to New York with Travel Portland in March. She's part of a group of beer and other folks going to the Big Apple to mingle with media people. The goal is to share the Portland experience...the beer part of it in Ashley's case.

"This trip came out of the blue and it's going to be amazing," Ashley said. "I've had to pinch myself a few times to make sure it isn't a dream."

There's plenty more brewing at Brewvana. The most visible change is the new-look buses. Angel and Rosie have been wrapped with high resolution graphics that tell the Brewvana story visually. The wraps were financed largely through an Indiegogo fundraiser and partly by sponsor dollars. The message is clear: "This could be you having a great time on the Brewvana bus."

"Nothing against the original graphics, but we really needed to convey a stronger sense of what it feels like to be on a tour," said Ashley. "That's the concept behind the pictures of people having fun with great beer in a great beer environment. It's a contagious message and the response has been totally positive."

Fearless Brewvana leader at APEX in 2012
One of the things they expect to do more of in 2014 is custom tours. Regularly scheduled tours will still be part of the game, but custom tours for larger groups are the better revenue model. That will be the main focus. As an example, there's a potential weeklong tour of Oregon breweries for a group of 30 in September. That would be a huge step in the direction Ashley wants to go if it happens.

"Doing larger tours is all about relationships," she said. "We've worked hard to establish relationships with the breweries, and we're now focused on building similar relationships with organizations that will help bring group tours. It's not something you can do overnight, but we've made good progress in the last year or so."

In case you're wondering, Brewvana is not directly supported by the beer industry. They typically get discounted prices on beer, which would be available to any tour group. Sponsor dollars come from six breweries: Laurelwood, Widmer, Ninkasi, Coalition, Base Camp and Hopworks. That's it. They work with breweries to provide a great experience for tour patrons, but there is no linkage.

On tour February 2013
What is the future of Brewvana beyond 2014? It's hard to say. It could wind up being a concept that gets licensed to other Oregon cities. Not exactly as a franchise, but something like that. The one thing we know for sure is that more and more people are coming to Oregon to experience the beer scene. That means opportunity for Brewvana.

The thing is, these kids really do know how to run a great tour. I've been on two of them and both were terrific experiences. If you haven't been, I recommend it. Given what they do and how they do it, the sky may well be the limit for Ms. Salvitti and Brewvana.

They do seem to have their "poops in a group."

Brewvana good times!

Photos kindly provided by ASF Shoots where noted

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Never Mind The Bollocks: It's Craft Beer!

There is a certain snobby aura that has shrouded craft beer in recent times. It was not much in evidence in the early days. I believe it descended around the time beer turned into a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to something people simply consumed for enjoyment or as part of some activity. The exact timing is, as they say, a little sketchy.

It's true, you know. Once upon a time people mostly drank beer just for fun. There's still some of that today, but beer has moved on to the point where it is now a self-fulfilling, self-contained activity. People drink beer to drink beer. And an entire industry has grown up around that basic ideal.

Where it gets a little messy (and snobby) is in the blind assumptions a lot of us tend to make about craft beer. We may well have reached the point where we take beer too seriously. Could it be possible?

For anyone looking for consider the possibility that we've gone too far, a good place to start is the recent book: The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer: A Rant in Nine Acts. Fair warning: You may not want to read this book if you think craft beer is a panacea. It beats up many common notions.

Unbearable Nonsense is the mind-meld of Max Bahnson (author of the blog, Pivni Filosef-Beer Philosopher) and Alan McLeod (author of A Good Beer Blog). The book appeared in digital form about a month ago and was subsequently released in paperback. You can find it on Amazon and (I assume) other online outlets. I doubt you'll find it at Powell's or at the library. Maybe someday.

This book is exactly what it says it is: a rant. The authors wind their way through a series of sometimes wacky settings (time and space are manipulated with impunity) while taking shots at many of the assumptions craft beer fans hold near and dear to their hearts. I'll get to some of those shots momentarily.

First, the bad news. These gents evidently did not feel the need to proof or edit what they wrote...or have someone do a cursory copy edit. This book, and I'm referring to the digital version because that's the one I read, needed an editor. Badly. It is riddled with typos and related errors. That's unfortunate. The book should not have been released like this. Oh well.

A few juicy tidbits from the book follow...remember, these guys hammer away at some of the most closely-held assumptions in craft beer. Nothing is sacred.

On style...Some time after [Michael] Jackson came out with the concept of styles as we understand them today, the creature started to grow uncontrollably. An [sic] dumb beast fed by many different hands but mastered by none.

On beer tasting...You haven't truly appreciated a beer until someone tells you how beer is made, what's the right temperature to drink it and the right sort of glass to drink it. If you believe that, you have been living a lie. Arseholes! They are just profiteering on the assumed ignorance and lack of confidence of the average person.

On specialty beers...People believe that big, loud beers are technically more difficult to make. And I'm not speaking about people with no technical knowledge. I have argued about it with advanced homebrewers. The commercial brewer, as natural, is happy to keep that illusion going.

On pricing...What the discourse is telling us is that those extreme, experimental, weird, gimmicky beers are riskier, require more skill to make, which justifies the higher prices you will likely have to pay for them.

On historic brewing...There is an almost retarded romanticization of pre-industrial beermaking. That not only is brainless but also loaded with hypocrisy...We've somehow been led to believe that industrial is bad. That beers in the past were purer, more honest, made with love and care. When the truth is...that more often than not, they were rubbish.

On profit...We must be more responsible as consumers, more cynical towards [sic] the people who want our money. The more we see though their bollocks and call them out for over pricing, over complicating and over branding, the more seriously they will have to take us and treat us with respect.

On blogging and social media...And it didn't occur to you for a split of an effing second that [breweries] might be saying all that bollocks so you would identify with their brand, provide free labour and spread your mindless word of mouth through social media buzz? Could it be that hop bombs impair people's capacity for rational and healthy cynical thinking?

On beer...there are still way too many people taking beer too seriously. It's as if some of them have forgotten that drinking beer is supposed to be fun and not a matter of study and careful preparation - and one upsmanship. 

On glassware...You know what the best glass for drinking a beer, any beer, is? The cleanest one you have nearby.

Max and Alan could have gone a better job of making their story palatable. It's quite funny in places, but the authors sometimes get bogged down in details that are peripheral to their narrative. A good editor likely would have cut this thing down and tightened it up. Of course, there was no editor. A shame.

Regardless of those issues, this is a book beer fans should read. It pulls no punches. Hardcore craft beer fans will probably be offended by a lot of what's here. Maybe that's a good thing. No, it's definitely a good thing. There's a gigantic bubble of snobby foam around craft beer that needs to be poked.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Zwickelmania: More than just Yeasty Beer

When Zwickelmania was launched a few years ago, it was mainly a means of exposing beer fans to breweries. Pretty simple. Now that the event has grown up, it has  morphed into much more. The smart kids on the brewing block now see it as a launching pad for special events and beer releases.

The thing is, more than a few brewers had recently become less than enthusiastic about Zwickelmania. Why? Because it can tend to attract vagabonds seeking free beer and other bennies. That gets old. However, if you re-frame the event as an opportunity to market other things, it recaptures its shine.

So when breweries around the state roll out the red carpet to welcome beer fans this Saturday, crowds will in many cases be exposed to more than just tastes of (mostly) unfinished, yeasty beer.

You may be familiar with the Festival of Dark Arts hosted by Fort George in Astoria. It's a great example of building on the buzz of Zwickelmania. They put on a serious winter party with a terrific tap list, food and live music. All you need to do is make the trip out to Astoria and you're going to have a great time. Details here.

Look vaguely familiar?
Then there's Breakside. Coming off 100 beers in 2013, these folks are releasing a new seasonal, Suburban Farmhouse, and a limited edition seasonal, Elder Statesman, to coincide with Zwickelmadness. Suburban Farmhouse, which will be draft only, is a takeoff on The Commons' Urban Farmhouse, but the two beers have little in common. Elder Statesman is a blend of two barrel-aged beers that were aged some more and then re-dry hopped. Bottles of Elder Statesmen will be available at Breakside's Milwaukie taproom Saturday.

In Eugene, Oakshire is thinking along similar lines with their Hellshire Day and Barrel-aged Beer Fest on Saturday. They are, of course, open for Zwicklemania tours (and yeasty beers) at their brewery. But the main event is the festival and release of Hellshire IV, available in wax dipped 22 oz bottles at their Public House.

Hellshire Day taplist
The fourth gen Hellshire is a blend of three beers, all matured in bourbon and brandy barrels. Very Ill Tempered Gnome is the base beer. A few beer media geeks tasted Hellshire IV at Saraveza the other day. The consensus was fantastic. They plan to sell this stuff beginning at 11 a.m. and there will be a limit for the first few hours. Get some if you can!

The Hellshire Day festival features a long list of barrel-aged beers from all over the place. Your $15 entry fee includes a commemorative Teku tasting glass and five tokens. You can buy more, of course. They will also have pizza and burgers. Four bands will provide live music. A good time will surely be had by all. I know some who are saving their livers specifically for his event. More details here.

These are just a few examples of what breweries are doing for Zwickelmania 2014. It has clearly morphed into something that goes far beyond yeasty, unfinished beer. That has to be a good thing.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Pfriem of Hood River's Brewery Crop

Hood River is a great beer destination, loaded with several prime stops. I make occasional trips out to there as part of the contract work I do. These trips don't happen often enough. When they do, I make it a point to visit a place I haven't been to. So many choices out there.

My most recent trip took me to Pfriem Family Brewing, located very near the Columbia River to the North of I-84. There's a large park across the street from the brewery and pub.  This place must be absolutely nuts in the summer, but it was freezing outside and there wasn't much happening on this day.

Pfriem has been around since in early 2012, so they are coming up on two years of operation. The beers have been showing up in Portland for a while. There was a tap takeover at Velo Cult a month or so ago. Despite a fantastic turnout, there were some beers left. Great stuff, I thought.

Josh Pfriem is the brewmaster. He has a lengthy brewing background that includes stints at Full Sail and others. His approach to brewing leans heavily on an interest in Belgian and Northwest hoppy styles. It's an unusual combination, although there is a bit of a trend in that direction. There's a lot more about Josh and his brewing notions in Ezra's 2012 interview here.

The pub setting is impressive...charming industrial, I might call it. It isn't industrial in a grubby way. It reminds me of The Commons in Portland, except that Pfriem is a full pub where The Commons is strictly a tasting room. Here, you sit within feet of the tanks and there's no barrier of any kind. Unusual. All you need to now is that Pfriem's space is spotless and inviting.

They were pouring 12 beers when I stopped by, a pretty standard number for just about any pub or tasting room these days. This represents a significant escalation from what you would have typically found a few years ago. I think there are reasons for that, which I'll get to in a future post.

I ordered a taster tray that included six beers. These are four ounce pours. Since this was lunch and I was driving back to Portland afterward, a single flight was the limit. The chosen beers (shown in above photo) were Wit, Pilsner, Rye PA, CDA, Belgian Strong Dark and IPA.

These are all nice beers. The Wit (5.1% ABV, 18 IBU) is pleasantly crisp and refreshing. The Pilsner (4.9% ABV, 38 IBU) is a Northwest interpretation of the style. It's light, but fairly bold and spicy. The Rye PA (6.4% ABV, 47 IBU) is understated for a rye beer. Good, but very little zip.

The standouts for me were the IPA (7.2% ABV, 65 IBU) and the CDA (7.5% ABV, 70 IBU). The IPA has a boisterous piney aroma and a blast of grapefruit and citrus in the flavor. The CDA has complex undertones in the backbone that blend perfectly with aromas and flavors of pine and toffee. Excellent beers.

Little did I know the Belgian Strong Dark (7.5% ABV, 30 IBU) was about to be named Beer of the Year by Willamette Week. It's a nice beer and all, but it didn't suit my fancy on this day and wasn't close to my favorite beer on the tray. That's no knock on Pfriem or WW. The fact is, flavors and palates can be influenced by a wide range of factors.

As mentioned, this is a pub with a typical pub menu. It's a fairly stripped down selection of snacks, salads, sandwiches, burgers, etc. I ordered a bowl of the soup of the day, clam chowder, along with some fresh cut fries. My food arrived almost instantly, despite what appears to be a small kitchen and limited staff on duty. They are attentive.

If you're headed out to Hood River, a stop at Pfriem is definitely in order. The beer is excellent and it's a terrific spot. There's nothing particularly distinguished about the prices or the menu, but that's in keeping with the general theme of things in Hood River, which seems to be increasingly inhabited by tourists. It's tough to keep a place like this secret.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Widmer's Upheaval IPA Hits Store Shelves Monday

One of the things I learned as a child was to never judge a book by its cover. My dad taught me. The way something looks on the outside has really no connection to what it is on the inside. This rationale applies to a lot things...including beer.

Samples of Widmer's newest IPA, Upheaval, arrived on my doorstep the other day. You did not need to know there was beer in the package to know there was beer in the package. Why? Because the box was full of loose hop cones that gave off a succulent aroma. It's an aroma that reminds me of summer. And great beer. Packaging like that can sway your thinking if you let it. I tried to block it out.

I've never been a fan of beer reviews here. Sure, I'll provide of list of beers I liked from some festival. Strictly my opinion, strictly for use as guidance. I understand beer opinions are all over the place. What I like may fall flat on your pallet. And vice versa. No need to write reviews, then.

Nonetheless, Upheaval is a beer you need to know about...and should try if you like bold, flavorful IPAs. I always ask myself when I drink any beer if I would order it again. In the case of  Upheaval, my answer is a definite yes. The beer hits the mark across a pretty wide band of what I like in an IPA.

They're using a combination of 2-Row Pale, Wheat and Caramel malts. The stats say 40 percent wheat malt. Since the beer is unfiltered, the result is a brilliant copper color that is slightly hazy. ABV is 7%, about the norm for a standard IPA. Highly drinkable.

Hops are crucial in this beer, obviously. Brewers use more than two pounds of hops per barrel of Upheaval...more than any other Widmer beer. They use Alchemy for bittering; Chinook, Simcoe, Brewer's Gold, Willamette and Nelson Sauvin for aroma and flavor. They rate this beer at 85 IBU and it is fairly but not overly bitter. Aroma is not off the hook. Where you really get a blast of late addition hops is in the flavor. It's terrific.

Upheaval hasn't yet hit the market in bottled form...it's been available on draft for a few months. They're saying bottles will hit store shelves on Monday, Feb. 10. I'm looking forward to getting some more of this stuff. Widmer is kicking the year off nicely.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Who Killed Dean's Scene?

Many who stop by here surely know of Dean's Scene. If you aren't in the know, Dean's Scene is located in the basement of a home on Northeast Fremont Street across from the Alameda Brewpub, where it operated as a speakeasy for a number of years. Owner Dean Pottle closed the joint this week after the OLCC notified him of probable violations.

The story announcing the closure of Dean's funhouse first appeared on the Willamette Week website. There's a reason. Several months ago, WW ran a story that delved into the goings on at Dean's Scene. It was a decidedly positive story written by Martin Cizmar, arts and culture editor at WW.

At the time, many beer geeks thought the story a bad idea...thinking it drew attention to a well-kept secret  that needed to stay that way. With the announcement that Dean has shut things down, those folks are piling the blame on Cizmar and WW. This is what declining attention spans do for us.

There are several points that need clarification and, apparently, explanation. Because there are details in this mess of a story that are being horrendously overlooked.

For the record, I have no loyalty to Cizmar or WW. We run in some of the same circles, but I've never met Cizmar. I exchanged emails with WW editor, Mark Zusman, Cizmar and others as part of last year's book project. That's it. In fact, I have criticized some of Cizmar's work at WW and it stuck in his craw. Even though I often disagree with his opinions, I think he's a good writer who produces entertaining stuff. But I have zero loyalty to him or WW.

Who's responsible for the closure of Dean's Scene? Definitely not Willamette Week. The original story was a great example of providing information of interest to the community. See, that's what journalists are supposed to do. Newspapers and news weeklies pay their bills by building readership that helps sell ads and subscriptions. Cizmar's story on Dean's Scene was a dialed-in fit for those objectives.

There's more. It was not Cizmar's job to investigate the legality of the operation at Dean's Scene. Or, more to the point, to evaluate the impact of the publicity. His job was to write a story that reported on what the place had to offer, good or bad. It certainly was not his job to keep Dean's Scene secret or write a negative story so the beer geek community could keep the place all to itself.

If you want to place blame, look no further than the owner of the establishment, Pottle. He agreed to be interviewed for the WW story. If he was remotely concerned that publicity might attract the interest and ire of the OLCC, he should have declined to be interviewed. Cizmar may have still written the story, but it would have been less detailed.

Another thing to consider is this: Dean's Scene is not closed permanently. In response to the OLCC notices, Pottle filed an application for a home brewers and private club license in mid-January. He closed up shop this week to prevent the possibility of OLCC action while he waits for that license. Assuming the application goes through, he will eventually reopen with some guidelines in place.

What was the OLCC's beef? A letter to Pottle dated Dec. 9 (and acquired by WW) outlines the agency's concerns in several areas. The most prominent issues involve production levels and fees.

The OLCC had discovered evidence that Pottle was brewing 30 gallons of beer every week...more than 1,500 gallons annually if extrapolated out. By the way, this fact was not revealed in Cizmar's story. It was evidently included in a TV interview Pottle did for the Esquire Network's Brew DogsThe law limits unlicensed beer production at home to 100 gallons a year (200 in a house with two adults).

Donations, required or otherwise, were the other major issue. When I visited Dean's Scene more than a year ago, a sign on the wall said "No Beer Without Donation." Cizmar's story indicated that donations were optional. Wall signage shown in a photo published with the story contradicted that statement, but never mind. It doesn't matter to the OLCC if a donation is required or optional. You cannot charge or accept a fee for beer unless you have an OLCC license. Period. Some will quibble with this requirement, but it is clearly the law.

So Pottle was in clear violation of at least two OLCC regulations. It seems to me he should have acquired the appropriate OLCC license long ago, assuming he intended to brew 30 gallons of beer per week and offset the cost of that production via donations. By operating outside legal guidelines, he was inviting scrutiny. Why shouldn't he comply with the law? Other people do.

If the Willamette Week story and the Brew Dogs piece helped bring Pottle into compliance, perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Go ahead and turn Martin Cizmar into a virtual punching bag if you want, but what happened to Dean's Scene ain't his fault.