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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kauai Beer Company: Supplemental

The current (August/September) issue of BeerAdvocate includes a piece I wrote about the Kauai Beer Company based on my May visit. There's almost no such thing as instant gratification in the world of publishing. This article was written and submitted in June. These things take a little time.

You may wish to seek out a copy of BA if you're interested in Kauai beer (sorry, there's no online version of the story). Due to the nature of print, a lot of dangling details didn't make it into the article. So I can share a few of those details here, where space isn't limited and the only editor that matters is me.

Owner Jim Guerber is the driving force behind the KBC. He has been brewing beer since around the time homebrewing became legal in 1978. Not on Kauai, though. Jim was raised and attended schools in Pennsylvania. He passed through New York, Southern California and Northern California on his way to Kauai, where he arrived around 1996.

How was he able to move around with apparent ease? Because Jim and his wife founded a software company, Signature Systems. It was no problem moving to NoCal or Kauai because they simply took the business with them. Jim's wife passed away several years ago, but he still runs the company with his son, Justin, also KBC's lead brewer.

Jim operated an elaborate brewing setup in his home for many years. He was making so much beer that he eventually starting providing it to benefits and other causes. KBC's flagship brew, Black Limousine, was born when a brewing friend suggested a blend of Steinlager and Guinness. It worked and that beer has a strong following today.

Finding a location for the brewery was one of the first challenges for Jim after he founded the company in 2011. He looked at warehouses and commercial spaces, and had his eye on a building previously occupied by a brewery. But the landlord had issues with the previous tenant and didn't want another brewery there. Breweries aren't always the best renters, apparently.

Jim eventually discovered and purchased the building where KBC now operates in Lihue, Kauai's county seat. It's a nice arrangement because there's no landlord to raise the rent or block necessary changes. When the brewery and tasting room opened last September, it was functional and that's about it. Even now, the space is in a constant state of evolution.

It's worth nothing that KBC is not located in a fancy, upscale area. Like a lot of craft breweries dating back to the beginning, it lives in an old industrial area that time seemingly forgot. In fact, the KBC is one of a few businesses that is helping revitalize downtown Lihue after decades of decay set in motion by the collapse of the sugarcane industry.

What they've done in a year here is impressive, given the circumstances. I won't go into details that are part of the article, but the bottom line is that operating a brewery anywhere in Hawaii is expensive and complicated. Jim are his crew are constantly looking for creative ways to manage costs and navigate Kauai's red tape.

The evolution of KBC beers is an obvious point of interest. On my first visit in October 2013, lagers dominated the board. And nicely done lagers are a perfect fit in the tropics. Lihue Lager, their co-flagship with Black Limo, is a tasty beer with light tropical notes. It's quite popular.

By the time I returned in May, the beer list had morphed and featured an IPA and other ales. "Customers asked for those beers," Jim told me, "and we enjoy brewing beers our customers want." There's also the fact that growing demand for the beer means they need to make it faster, which means lagers are a bit more problematic.

Food was part of the KBC plan from the beginning. Jim envisioned an onsite kitchen and an island-influenced pub menu. But food took a backseat as they were getting the word out about the beer and building a clientele. The only food in sight back in October was a pot of chili. They were only open two days a week at the time.

That's changing. The first thing they did on the food front was bring in food carts every Thursday evening. Truck Stop Thursday, as it is called, has been a huge success. The next step was to staff the kitchen and begin serving food on Friday...Finally Friday, they call it. They are in the process of expanding in-house food to Saturdays and will build the rest of the week out from there.

What's happening here is crazy. They are attracting crowds to a space in a constant state of evolution, that still isn't open normal days and hours. And they are doing it with virtually no conventional advertising. They use social media to promote ongoing and special events and they have done a bit radio. Nonetheless, people flock to this place, starved for good beer and simple, tasty food.

Guerber is optimistic about what they've accomplished and where the business is headed. "I knew from experience that it would take more time and money than I imagined to get this place going. But we've put together a good team and our hard work and patience is being rewarded. The future is bright."

With all that said, now would be a great time for you to read the BeerAdvocate article.

Monday, August 25, 2014

New Beer Policies Hit Some College Football Stadiums

Beer in college football stadiums? It once seemed like a far-fetched idea. Yet, with the season about to start, there's been a lot of chatter about schools that are serving beer or preparing to serve beer inside their football stadiums. There are arguments on both sides, but I think this is generally a decent idea.

I started going to football games when people still wore suits and ties to games. The dark ages. My first game was at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Later, there were lots of high school, college and pro games. You could only get a beer at the pro games. That's changing finally.

According to recent reports, 21 schools around the country will sell beer to fans in their stadiums this year. Just a few years ago, less than half that many schools had such policies. Of course, there are still holdouts. The entire Southeastern Conference and the California State University system have policies banning alcohol from general seating areas in stadiums.

By the way, the NCAA doesn't dictate alcohol policy, leaving decisions up to schools and conferences. Which is odd when you think about it because you can't buy a beer at any NCAA championship event. While most bowl games sell beer, you can't buy a beer at any March Madness venue. Verboten!

The move by some schools to allow beer in their football stadiums (and basketball arenas in some cases) is driven partly by revenue hunger. Fans have been tailgating before and after games for decades. Schools watched them enter stadiums hopelessly tanked and wondered if there might be a way to create a better experience while making a little money.

Moving beer inside stadiums proved to be a viable option. When they did this at West Virginia several years ago, people laughed and said it would be a disaster. This was, after all, a place that had serious problems with drunken, misbehaving fans. Instead of a disaster, alcohol-related incidents dropped sharply. And beer sales produced more than $500,000 a year in revenue.

There are those who argue that selling alcohol inside college stadiums sets a bad example for impressionable kids, who may wind up thinking the only way to have fun is to drink. They say that's not the message colleges and universities should be conveying.

The thing is, this is already the message being conveyed. Does anyone think kids aren't around during pre-game tailgating? Is there someone who thinks the kiddies aren't seeing everything that goes on?

Honestly, the real problem with pre-game partying in all its forms is that fans tend to drink way too much, knowing they won't be able to get a beer once they enter the stadium. So you wind up with people who are too drunk to behave. And they don't.

The rationale for serving beer inside stadiums is to keep fans from guzzling that last beer or two or three before coming in. There's also the fact that alcohol consumption can be more easily monitored inside the stadium than in the parking lot.

Look, I've attended games at all the Northwest schools. I've seen some horrible behavior by fans who were hammered well before they came through the gates. I think selling beer inside stadiums might help encourage a semblance of moderation outside. That can't be a bad thing.

A final note on the revenue concept...there's a secondary angle. While schools certainly hope to make a few bucks on beer, they also realize they're competing against high-def TV for fans. Some schools that have initiated beer sales at games have seen attendance go up. What some are calling an "enhanced fan experience" actually attracts people to games and keeps them there. What a concept.

There's no word on what kind of beer fans are apt to find in stadiums. My guess is most venues will serve predominantly light lagers. Not the best. But you gotta start somewhere.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Careful, man...There's a Craft Beverage Here!

Sometimes there's a man...I won't say a hero 'cause what's a hero? But sometimes there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. That man is Brendan Jones, founder of The Big Legrowski in the Pearl District.

The name and theme of this joint is based on a certain movie of a similar name, whose main character is The Dude. Jones, a big fan of the movie, is working hard to make sure his choices of decorative pieces fit the theme. A rug that will tie the room together is reportedly on the way.

The Big Legrowski opened in early August. Since then, it's been "steadily slow," Jones says. One reason business hasn't yet picked up is the space on Couch isn't well marked. There's a sign on the sidewalk that's easily obscured by parked cars and pedestrians. But Jones isn't a sap. He has a neon sign on order and it should make the place a lot easier to find.

Jones, an Aussie by birth, is in Portland because he married his special lady friend, who happens to be American. They tried living in Australia for a while, before deciding to give the US a shot. It's a complicated case...a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.

The Big Legrowski isn't just about growlers, although they are available in 64 and 32 oz. sizes. Jones also offers beer by the pint or 3 oz taster. Tasters are a buck each for most beers, and the first one is free. Prices for pints and growlers depend on the beer, though the average is $10-13 for growlers, $6-8 for grenades. Customers will be able to smile knowing they aren't getting gypped.

There's nothing to eat here at the moment, save a few bags of potato chips. Jones hopes to offer simple snacks at some point, or he may have a menu of items provided by a nearby cafe. We just don't know how this is going to work out.

This isn't a huge place and I can easily see it getting packed as business picks up. The tap list (14 beers and a cider) is occupied by some nice stuff...Barley Brown's Pallet Jack, Priem Blonde IPA, Upright Seven, Laurelwood Workhorse, Double Mountain Kolsch, etc. These are all solid, well-known beers. I suspect the list will evolve to include more specialty beers down the road. And that's cool.

I suppose you have to wonder if the Pearl community will support The Big Legrowski. People from other parts of town aren't going to trek here to drink or get beer to go. Jones will depend on Northwest Portlanders to support his business. He may be out of his element, but I bet not.

If you happen to live in the area or be in the area, you should stop in and give this place a try. The concept Jones invented and implemented is pretty damned ingenious. I take comfort in that, knowin' Jones is out there takin' 'er easy for all us beer fans. I sure hope his place does well.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On the Road to Summerland

There hasn't been much to read here for a week or so. I spent last week on a short, busy junket that included stops in Ashland, the Sacramento area and San Francisco. There's enough material to produce a several posts, so I'll try to stick to the highlights. Of course beer was involved.

Our first stop was in Ashland, where we planned to see The Great Society, the second of two plays that look at the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The first play, All the Way, which covered LBJ's presidency up until his landslide victory in 1964, received numerous awards. After premiering in Ashland in 2012, it eventually made its way to Broadway in March 2014.

We stopped at Caldera Brewing Taproom for a quick beer a couple of hours before the play. There weren't many souls in the pub...they were outside on the patio. I was surprised at the relatively small size of the pub. Many beers were sampled. I particularly liked Mogli, a barrel-aged Imperial Porter brewed in memory of a departed black Lab. They were also pouring Citra Pale Ale, a seasonal loaded with hops aroma and flavor.

Getting back to the play, The Great Society picks up in the early stages of Johnson's second term. As he works to expand his domestic agenda, he gets caught in a trap of his own making...Vietnam. As many will recall, the war undermined Johnson's domestic efforts and destroyed his presidency. He refused to run for reelection in 1968, broken and depressed. That's the Cliff Notes version.

I didn't see the first play, but my sense is it is the better of the two by a wide margin. The Great Society combines great production values and acting with a bloated script that veers off course multiple times. Not bad, but also not great. In case you're wondering, they do have a small selection of craft beer and cider available inside Angus Bowmer Theater...sold during intermissions only.

The next day, it was on to Winters, Calif. for a family visit. There's one brewery in Winters, which I'll get to. On my last visit, someone had suggested a trip to Track 7 in Sacramento, which is about a half hour away in decent traffic. Because they are only open evening hours during the week and a weekend trip was impossible, we traveled there in thick traffic and it took nearly an hour. Oh well.

Track 7 has been open for several years and is following the example provided by many newer breweries in California and Oregon. They have a taproom and rotating food trucks...a common theme these days. It's clearly working for them because the place was packed and people were snapping up beers and ordering food like crazy.

There isn't a bad beer here, but I didn't find anything very memorable either. I had seen some positive comments on Panic IPA, and it's a decent beer. But it lacks the depth of flavor and aroma you expect in a top notch IPA. Motherland, a triple-IPA, was woefully out of balance. Probably the best beer we tasted was Sedusa, a nice Wheat IPA.

As I say, patrons were snapping this stuff up. It occurred to me that this is an underserved area. California has a ton of breweries, more than any other state. But it also has a lot of people and the breweries aren't necessarily spread evenly according to population.So you wind up with grey areas. Another brewery recently opened in Sacramento and I suspect there are more to come.

The highlight of the trip came on Friday, when we traveled (by ferry) to AT&T Park to watch the Giants play the Phillies. My wife was raised a Giants fan in the Bay Area and attended games at Candlestick as a kid. But she had never visited AT&T Park. Two World Series titles later, she gets to cross that bucket list item off. As for me, I am an adopted Giants fan.

It's hard to describe the majesty of this ballpark. The views you see on TV don't do the place justice. We entered the park as the Giants were finishing batting practice and took in the afternoon sights. Sailboats zigged and zagged in the adjacent bay. The grounds are immaculate and the fixtures amazing. Is there a better place for baseball? I doubt it.

Prior to the game, we stopped at 21st Amendment Brewery, which is located blocks from the ballpark. The place was packing in with Giants fans three hours before game time and we were lucky to find seats at the bar. The beers were not impressive. An extra light pale ale was dreadfully out of balance and too bitter. A seasonal IPA suffered similar shortcomings. Still a pretty cool place.

Over at AT&T Park, the beer selection was not too exciting. I found beers by Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada without much trouble. But most of the beer stations were infested with a nasty line of Anheuser-Busch products. There's a reason AT&T Park did poorly (17 out of 30) in a survey of baseball stadiums and the quality of craft beer they serve. Seattle is the top dog, if you didn't know.

The Giants lost the Friday night game to Philly in extra innings and it was quite cold in the ballpark by the end. Remember to pack a ski jacket and long pants if you plan to attend a night game down there. Or attend a day game...that's definitely what we'll do next time.

Closing out the trip, I visited Berryessa Brewing in Winters on Sunday. I'd been to Berryessa before (the story is here). They have expanded their outdoor seating and now have rotating food trucks to supplement the beer. As noted above, it's a common theme.

Berryessa's beers are fairly accomplished. The terrific Double Tap IPA tasted on my initial trip was not available, replaced by Mini-Double Tap. MDT wasn't bad, but certainly no substitute for the original. They were pouring a couple of nice pale ales, as well as a Belgian. The beer list leaned heavily toward lighter beers...not a bad idea given the brutal summer heat in Winters.

It was a fabulous trip, but I'm glad to be back in Oregon. During a back and forth email conversation while I was in California, an industry friend suggested that you really appreciate how good we have it here when you spend some time out of state. There are plenty of great beers in California and elsewhere, but I think he may be onto something.

The marina behind AT&T Park (postgame shot)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fort George Hits 3-Way Home Run

Like Babe Ruth's called home run in the 1932 World Series, the folks at Fort George Brewery had a pretty good idea what they were doing with this year's version of 3-Way IPA. They partnered with two of the hottest brands going, Boneyard and Block 15, and produced a huge summer hit. Coincidentally, it has also become the best-selling and highest rated beer in Fort George history. Not bad.

I introduced this year's 3-Way after tasting it back in early June. At the time, I figured it would be huge. The melting of Boneyard, Block 15 and Fort George brewing values created a hop bomb with fantastic flavor and aroma. There are a few people who like that sort of thing.

Fortunately, 3-Way hasn't been hard to find. It's been available in mainstream stores and beer specialty shops around town and on tap sporadically in a lot of places.

There have been some minor batch variations, I think. Nothing serious. A pint I had at the brewery in Astoria was the best of the bunch for me, but it's been rock solid on draft and from the can.

Production and sales numbers are pretty impressive, as well.

Last year's 3-Way IPA, a collaboration with Lompoc and Gigantic, did fairly well. Fort George ordered and filled about 50,000 cans (2,100 cases) and brewed roughly 500 barrels to meet packaged and draft demands over the summer.

Anticipating bigger things this year, they started with 87,000 cans (3,600 cases). Once the beer hit shelves in June, sales skyrocketed and it was clear they would need more. So they ordered another 50,000 cans, for a total of 137,000 (5,700 cases). By the end of August, they will have brewed more than 1,300 barrels of 3-Way for draft and cans.

Then there's the rating game, where 3-Way IPA has earned the highest marks of any Fort George beer, according to sources at the brewery. The beer gets a 96 on Beer Advocate, putting it in the World Class category. It earns another positive (4.07 our of 5) rating on Untappd. Beer fans seem to like it.

The time to seek this stuff out, if you haven't already had it or want to stock up, is now...before it's gone. The last batches of 3-Way will leave the brewery in late August or early Sept. Hopheads should be able to find it in stores and on draft through mid-September.

Once this year's 3-Way is gone, you'll have to wait until 2015. There will be a brand new version of 3-Way next summer. The folks at Fort George aren't yet sure who the collaborating breweries will be, but that information is coming soon. Something to look forward to.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The OBF at 27: Evolving with the Times

It's pretty much an accepted fact that the Oregon Brewers Festival is the crown jewel of Oregon Craft Beer Month and the granddaddy of all Oregon beer festivals. Yet I am beginning to wonder if the OBF and other events held during the wacky outdoor season aren't losing some of their luster in the face of relentless competition.

When the post-event press materials for the 2014 OBF arrive, they will almost certainly document a drop in attendance (announced attendance last year was 85,000). Numbers were down Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday seemed much less crowded than usual. I doubt they made those losses up on the weekend. Less than perfect weather the first two days was obviously an issue, but not the only one.

Here's the thing: This event was once a novelty. You could go to Waterfront Park and, in one place, taste beers you might not find anywhere in town. Even if you could find them, you wouldn't be drinking them in a festive, outdoor space. I vividly remember my first OBF, walking the grounds and marveling at the beer and the venue.

That experience is no longer a novelty here. On any given summer day in Portland, you can choose from numerous establishments that offer a multitude of unique beers on tap and outdoor seating to boot. And no lines. I don't think it's a stretch to say a growing number of people have discovered that these places offer a plausible alternative to the OBF and other summer festivals.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not grinding on the OBF, which remains a great event. In fact, one can easily argue its success is in many ways responsible for the excellent watering holes around Portland. The OBF and spin-offs of its ilk helped spread the gospel of craft beer. The result is the vibrant beer scene we have.

The reality of escalating competition is not lost on OBF organizers. Moving to a glass tasting vessel last year was part of giving festival goers a better experience (the glass will be gone next year, replaced by a Lexan cup to satisfy the city, I'm told). Adding days to spread the crowd came out of the same thinking. This year's addition of Dutch brewers gave the event an international flavor for the first time. And so on.

Given what's happening in the background, expect organizers to seek additional ways to reinvent the event in coming years. What that means is uncertain, but the tried and true formula used for 27 years will have to evolve to keep the event as relevant as it has been. Spectacular growth is creating interesting challenges in craft beer. There are worse problems to have.