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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Look Back at 2014: Wild Times

No sooner had the wrapping paper hit the floor on Christmas Day then the best of 2014 lists started piling up. The Oregonian's year in review insert, including John Foyston's Year in Beer column, arrived the day after Christmas. You don't want to let these lists linger...you might get scooped.

It was undoubtedly a crazy year for beer in Portland and Oregon. We saw a number of new breweries, taprooms and beer-centric businesses open their doors. Production and market share continued to grow. The shift away from traditional styles carried on, as did the non-stop blitz of so-called "special events." These are crazy times for craft beer, or whatever you prefer to call it.

Interesting Trend
We've seen a huge number of breweries and beer-centric businesses open during the past few years. The great bulk of those places had local origins. That is now changing with the coming of places like Fat Heads and Yard House, whose corporate origins lie outside Oregon.

Some have described this as a symptom of a maturing industry, and maybe that's what it is. But Oregon's craft beer industry is home grown for the most part and I have had a hard time seeing much value in carpetbaggers who roll into town from out of state and set up shop.
Then I spent some time talking to Josh Grgas at The Commons recent anniversary party. He suggested that perhaps it isn't such a bad idea to have places like Fat Heads and Yard House opening here. Why? Because places that brew or serve good beer are good for the beer culture...they increase competition and put the squeeze on places that don't do a good job with beer.

My guess is we will see more beer-centric businesses, some of them carpetbaggers, opening in Portland. We are the top craft beer market in the country and there is opportunity here for places that do it right. Those that produce or serve marginal beer will either do a better job or close. I suppose that isn't a bad thing, although I fear we will eventually reach a saturation point where it's tough for anyone to make a profit. But never mind.

Best Brewery
The question I get most often is, "What's your favorite brewery?" It isn't an unfair question. But the reality for me is I spend less time in breweries than I once did. I tend to favor taprooms where I can sample a wide range of beers. No offense to breweries, where I have many friends and frienenemies, but taprooms are a better fit for me these days..

When I think about a "best brewery" I look for quality, creativity and variety. Under Ben Edmunds' direction, Breakside Brewing has produced some really nice seasonals and specialty beers (Passionfruit Sour Ale, Salted Caramel Stout and La Tormenta) to go with their terrific standards (Pilsner, IPA, etc.) They poured it on this year, winning GABF medals with both their IPAs.

So Breakside gets my vote for top brewery this year. Opinions will differ.

Best Beer
To be considered as my beer of the year, a beer needs to have wide enough distribution that it can be found in stores and/or pubs. Beers with extremely limited production that aren't generally available to the public aren't considered here. I could cite many examples, but I won't.

My choice as beer of the year is 3-Way IPA, a collaboration between Fort George, Block 15 and Boneyard Beer. The beer combined a burst of hop aroma and flavor with a twinge of bitterness. As many who read this may know, 3-Way IPA is a summer seasonal and annual collaboration organized by Fort George. It's available on draft and in cans June through September.

The demand for this year's version of 3-Way was off-the-hook and there was great disappointment when the supply ran dry. Numbers from Fort George confirm that 2014 3-Way outsold the 2013 version by a wide margin. There will be two new breweries in the mix in 2015. Regardless of who they are, we can only hope the beer is as good as it was in 2014.

Rogue of the Year
I'm borrowing the 'Rogue" theme from Willamette Week. Some might like it if I fingered WW beer scribe Martin Cizmar for his story on Dean's Scene, which led in a roundabout way to the place being closed for a time. But the issues that resulted in the OLCC effectively shutting down Dean's Scene were the owner's fault, not Cizmar's. So he's out.

My Rogue for 2014 (or any other year) is a company that has refused to consider making good beer. Instead, it has diligently worked to keep craft beer off store shelves and away from tavern and restaurant taps. It has created fake craft brands and used predatory pricing to bully craft beer. Now, faced with steep declines in demand for its own faltering brands, the company has resorted to buying craft brands. That company, of course, is Anheuser-Busch.

Many in Oregon were appalled when they heard Anheuser-Busch had purchased Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing. It was okay to be appalled, but not surprised. Anheuser-Busch has been less about beer and more about logistics and marketing for quite a while. They specialize in supply chain efficiencies and marketing campaigns. Good beer isn't in their DNA, which means they have to go out and buy it. Thus, the deal to purchase 10 Barrel. And before that, Goose Island. There will be others.

There are those who say these buyouts are not a bad thing, that Goose Island and 10 Barrel are going to be just fine under the AB wing. Maybe so. But craft beer in its purest and arguably best form is small, independent and local. I cannot help worry that partnering up with a company whose primary areas of expertise are cost cutting and predatory marketing is perhaps not a good omen for the industry. We shall see.

Onward and Upward
I hesitate to make predictions for the coming year in beer. We will undoubtedly see a continuation of the craziness that has characterized the Oregon beer scene in recent years. That means more breweries, more taprooms, more beer-centric businesses and many more events to support it all. I have no idea where this train is headed, but it's interesting and fun to watch the evolution.

Wherever your journey takes you, be sure to enjoy some good beers along the way.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Holiday Leftovers and the Return to Brighter Days

As we make our way toward the end of 2014, there will be many folks talking about stats from the year that was. Next week, I'll reveal my choices for best Oregon beer, brewer and brewery of 2014. Those items would obviously carry a lot more weight if they appeared in Willamette Week or The Oregonian. Oh well.

For now, I want to recognize some folks who kindly sent me complementary samples of their beer or invited me to events where I was able to taste beer and sometimes food. Most of us who write about beer sooner or later receive free beer and event invitations. It's a tough situation.

I pick and choose what I write about here. I don't write a lot of promotional stuff. And sometimes I'm not very nice if I think something sucks. That has gotten me blacklisted by several breweries, who no longer send press releases, beer or invitations. Being thin-skinned is a sad thing, I think.

But there are folks who have made a concerted effort to be generous and helpful and never got mentioned here. I can't be accountable to write about everything that comes my way. However, I always intended to write about the following folks. I just ran out of time. Until now.

For quite a while now, McMenamins has been working to improve and expand their line of beers. I wrote about their barrel-aging program in October 2013, a week or so after sampling the beers at the Crystal (Ballroom) Brewery. Good stuff and a sign of good things to come.

A few months ago, I spent part of an afternoon with Drew Phillips, a brewer at the Crystal Brewery. We talked about beers and brewing nonstop. And, of course, we tasted some of the beers they were working on. Interesting stuff.

Just in time for the holiday season, I received a bottle of their winter seasonal, Kris Kringle. It's a rich beer, laden with chocolate malt flavors and beefed up with five hop varieties. It's a fantastic beer, one of the better winter warmers I've had this year. I think it benefits from a bit of residual sweetness, which smooths out the hoppiness. If you see Kris Kringle, give it a try.

Lompoc Brewing has been producing great beers for a long time and currently operates five locations. Their standards include C-Note IPA, Proletariat Red, Kick Axe Pale Ale, LSD (Lompoc Special Draft) and others. They also produce seasonals like, Brewdolph, 8 Malty Nights, Blitzen and C-Son's Greetings. Great stuff.

They recently added Pamplemousse Citrus IPA to their list of year-round standards. I received a sample of this stuff, including a fresh grapefruit. The beer is a medium-bodied IPA that leans on four different hops for flavor and aroma. A twist of grapefruit juice adds a note of tart citrus. Try it.

Besides the beer, Lompoc recently opened the remodeled Sidebar next to the Fifth Quadrant Brewery and Pub on North Williams. Sidebar is one of the most unique beer spots in the city. It tends to feature the rarer Lompoc beers on draft and they sell bottles, as well. The new Sidebar has a glass roll-up door that lightens the place up nicely. Smart move.

Gerald and Lucille McAleese opened Kells Irish Pub on Southwest Second Avenue in 1990. Gerald, originally from Belfast, had opened the first Kell's pub in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1983. His vision was an Irish pub without plastic shamrocks and other fake junk. The success of the Seattle pub convinced Gerald and Lucille to expand to Portland. They added a San Francisco location in 1996.

The McAleeses wanted to add a brewery to their business for many years, but simply didn't have space to do so. They finally located a second Portland location on NW 21st Avenue, where they opened Kells Brewpub in 2012. The locally-fabbed 10-bbl brewhouse and multiple fermenters is operated by head brewer Dave Fleming, well-known around town, and Garrett McAleese, son of Gerald and Lucille.

They are brewing up some nice beers at Kells Brewpub. Kells Irish Red Ale is a favorite. At a recent media event there, they were pouring several interesting beers, including an Irish Lager, IPA, a fresh hop ale and an Irish Stout. In early November, Kells announced that they have opened a taproom at the Moda Center, a partnership with the Blazers. Pretty sweet.

Well, that's it for now. Onward through the holidays. The days are getting longer, folks. Warmer, brighter days are dead ahead.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BTU Brasserie: Alternative to Traditional Brewpubs

When it opened last summer on Northeast Sandy Blvd, BTU Brasserie was a much-anticipated addition to a strip that is dominated by Asian-themed eateries. Combining Chinese cuisine with a brewery is a pretty unique concept and one that may have traction with folks bored with standard brewpub fare.

Frankly, I believe offering an alternative to traditional pub fare is a great idea and one that makes a lot of sense around here. Food, whether better or just different, is a great way to differentiate yourself in a city xthat is virtually overrun by brewpubs and craft-centric restaurants.

In the case of BTU Brasserie, the folks running things have significant experience on the culinary side. Co-owner Nate Yovu served as head chef at Burnside Brewing and also has training and experience as a brewer. One of his partners, Chris Bogart, has a strong culinary background and also worked at Burnside. Nate's brother, Jay, has homebrewing experience and assists with the brewing program.

It's certainly fair to say these guys have a greater depth of experience with food than they do with beer. That's probably what accounts for the beers being what they are. And what they are isn't bad. But I believe there's a difference between brewers who brew for standalone drinkers and those who brew mainly to enrich or complement a restaurant menu.

For example, Fire on the Mountain brews beers that are largely designed to fit with the hot & spicy food they serve. So they have some beers that are intended to put out the fire, so to speak. That isn't all they have, but it is a definite focus. These beers aren't often seen outside FOTM locations.

An alternative example is Laurelwood, which features mostly standard pub fare and brews a variety of beers. Some of those beers cater to non-beer geek patrons. But Laurelwood also brews standalone beers like Workhorse, that bring people into their pubs and are regularly poured at various watering holes around town.

The Beers
When I walked into BTU last summer, they were in the middle of renovating the space. A brand new 7-bbl brewhouse was in place, though it appeared they were a month or more from opening. When I returned a couple of months ago, they had only two of their beers on tap. I resolved to come back later when they were up to speed with the brewing.

Having recently received word that they were now pouring seven beers, I resolved to stop in. Early Saturday evening proved the perfect fit.

First things first. The cost of a seven beer taster flight at BTU is just $7. And these are solid 4 oz pours, so nothing to shake your fist at. This is a good deal and what you should expect to pay for this much beer. Too many places jack up prices to discourage taster flights, which are admittedly a bit of a pain is the ass.

BTU's flagship brew (from the beer menu) is BTU Lager, an amusing little beer that clocks in at 5.5% and 22 IBU. It's brewed with Chinese short grain rice and filtered. This beer is clear, clean and crisp. It also lacks significant character. If it hadn't been under-carbonated, I might have mistaken it for Coors Light. I suspect it's their flagship because it goes well with the food.

Rusty's Red is another one of their popular beers, at 5.8% and 52 IBU. It's billed as a generously hopped American Red Ale. It seemed coarsely bitter to me. Maybe it could use a little residual sweetness. Out For a Rip IPA fell into the same category. Its numbers, 6.4% and 55 IBU, aren't big compared to other IPAs out there. But it struck me as being intensely bitter with almost no hop aroma or flavor. It reminded me of the IPAs I made 15 years ago as a home brewer, in which all or most of the hops went into the boil. Those days are gone and I think these beers need some work.

It gets better. Dark Helmut Schwarzbier (6.3%, 28 IBU) is a nice representation of the style. It's smooth and mildly roasty. The name may not fit with the Asian theme, but the beer works perfectly with some of the food. There's also Sandy Blonde (5.4%, 25 IBU), a golden ale featuring Cascade hops, that works well. Polaris Wheat (5.4%, 34 IBU), named for the Polaris hop, is a mildly bitter rendition of the style. I think it probably pairs nicely with some of the spicier dishes here.

The outlier on the beer list is Joulupukki Festive Bock (5.8%, 16 IBU), a holiday beer spiced with pumpkin, peppercorns, fresh ginger, star anise, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander. The spicy character of Joulupukki is pretty subtle and gets more pronounced as it warms up. I'm not sure where it fits in with the theme or the food, but it's worth trying.

It seems to me the BTU folks have succeeded in producing beers that complement the food experience there. The owners, I suspect, are still in the process of figuring out their brewing system and tweaking recipes. The beers will evolve. They will get better and there will be even more variety going forward.

There was talk early on of distributing kegs. As it stands, there isn't  a BTU beer that would have much traction in a taproom, pub or growler fill station. These aren't standalone beers. If I were going to pick one to market outside the restaurant, it would be the Schwarzbier. Why? Because it's a well-made beer and there aren't a lot of competing dark lagers out there. Just saying.

The bottom line with BTU Brasserie is this: It isn't a place you're going to go strictly to have a beer, although it may well become a beer destination down the road. For now, it's a place you're going to go to have lunch or dinner and a beer. Because it seems to work really well on that level.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Texas Messes with its Craft Breweries

About 30 years ago, the state of Texas invented its "Don't Mess With Texas" slogan. If you aren't aware, it was part of an anti-litter campaign targeting 18-35 year-old males, thought to be the state's worst litterbugs. The idea worked, reducing litter substantially between 1986 and 1990.

Texas being what it is, the slogan morphed into a sort of cultural phenomenon. Bigheaded Texans plastered "Don't Mess With Texas" stickers on their homes and cars. The tourism industry latched onto the slogan and sold branded trinkets to millions of visitors, despite the Transportation Department's efforts to enforce trademark rights. That's Texas for  you. Love it or leave it.

They've got a new kind of mess in Texas these days and it involves craft beer. Back in 2013, the Lege (that's Molly Ivins-speak) passed Senate Bill 639, which made it illegal for breweries to accept payment for the right to distribute their beer in specific areas or territories in the state.

In effect, the law forced brewers who wanted to sell their beer in areas beyond their own reach to give distributors the right to do so in exchange for, well, nothing. And there's more. Distributors who acquired the right to a particular beer in a particular area were free to sell those rights to another distributor for a profit. You gotta love Texas, huh?

It's pretty apparent that SB 639 was pushed through the Lege on behalf of the state's beer distributors, who didn't feel quite right about paying for the right to distribute any beer. But the state's growing craft beer community has been put in a serious bind by the legislation.

So earlier this week three Texas breweries sued the state, saying SB 639 violates the state Constitution because it requires them to give away their distribution rights for nothing. And allows distributors to profit through the sale of those rights, something they didn't pay for or earn.

The effect of the law, the brewers say, has been to slow their growth. How so? Because they are unwilling to give up their territorial rights for nothing, they have refused to sign any new distribution agreements. That leaves them self-distributing, which they can't effectively do throughout the state. Growth has been put on hold.

I'm not in the business so I don't know how these things work. But a distributor friend gave me the lowdown on how distribution agreements work in Oregon. If you want to distribute a brewery's beer, you negotiate an arrangement. In some cases, particularly with remote breweries, a distributor may pay nothing or very little. In the case of a brewery whose brand is sought by more than one distributor, the price may include marketing dollars per case or keg for some specified period of time.

We'll see what happens with the Texas lawsuit, filed by Live Oak Brewing of Austin, Peticolas Brewing of Dallas and Revolver Brewing of Granbury. These guys would all like to be expanding their production and distribution, but are unwilling to do so due to unfriendly, unfair laws in the state.

As Molly Ivins said some time ago, "All anyone needs to enjoy the Texas Lege is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people." For the time being, insensitively and stupidity are threatening the growth and well-being of the craft beer industry in the state.

Stop messing with craft beer, Texas!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Idaho Continues Efforts to Limit Anheuser-Busch

There's all kinds of good news in the world of craft beer. Today's Year in Beer report from the Brewers Association has all the details. The grey cloud hanging over the good news is Anheuser-Busch, which is buying up distributorships and mucking up the three-tier system wherever it can.

I've reported on the ongoing antics of AB in the past. Doing so has earned me a place on their list of undesirables. When the suits from AB and 10 Barrel were in town hoping to drum up some positive press for the acquisition, I failed to make the list of potential "friendlies."  Shucks, I suppose you can't blame them.

Forget the 10 Barrel deal for just a second. There are going to be more deals like it in coming months and years. If we truly are opening 1.5 new breweries a day in this country (that's a Brewers Association stat), there are going to be a lot of buyouts and consolidations coming down the pike. But never mind.

Last spring, I reported that Idaho was considering legislation that would block Anheuser-Busch's stated desire to acquire distributorships within the state. Such acquisitions are a clear violation of the three-tier laws that came into existence following Prohibition. Unfortunately, a lot of state laws have loopholes that have enabled AB to come in and buy distributors. Oregon, by the way, is one of those states. Idaho is one of a few states that decided to do something about it.

With the passage of House Bill 524 in late March, Idaho amended its laws to state that only brewers producing less than 30,000 barrels annually can hold a retail, wholesale (self-distribution) or brewpub license within the state. The intent of this amendment, which is slightly more detailed than this, is to prevent big beer from owning distributorships, retail outlets or pubs within the state. It effectively reinforces the three-tier system.

Now comes word that Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors are asking state courts to review the language of the law (Title 23) and verify that only brewers producing less than 30,000 barrels may enjoy the privileges as stated in the law. This comes on the heels of the 10 Barrel deal. If you aren't aware, 10 Barrel brews 40,000 barrels a year, owns a brewpub in Boise and is, of course, now fully owned by Anheuser-Busch (which produced 122 million barrels in 2013).

Some folks are wondering if the move by the Beer and Wine Distributors is directed specifically at Anheuser-Busch and 10 Barrel. Hmmm. That's a touchy question. But it's pretty obvious that the Distributors are testing the water to see if the barrel limit, signed into the state code well before the recent acquisition of 10 Barrel, will stick.

This ought to be interesting. For if the courts somehow rule that the 30,000 barrel limit is not a binding part of the law, it will mean passing laws designed to slow the encroachment of Anheuser-Busch and other big brands is an ineffective means of addressing this problem. Then what?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Holiday Ale Festival Off and Running in Portland's Living Room

It was a festive crowd at Wednesday's opening day of the 2014 Holiday Ale Festival. As usual, there were a lot of beer geeks in attendance, sucking up the beers and yakking about the good, the bad and the ugly. Just another day in beer paradise, you know.

I actually managed to sample 20 or so beers during the six or so hours I was there, including most from my own hit list. I was fortunate to hang out with folks who were tasting different beers, which allowed me to taste more beers than would have been possible on my own. For those coming down in ensuing days, that's a great approach. These are big beers, mostly.

Before I get to my beer picks, I want to briefly mention a couple of issues.

First, there are quite a few double and triple ticket beers at this event. And the signage doesn't always clearly identify them. Organizers dropped the ball on this. Hopefully, it will be fixed by the weekend, when things get crazy.

Second, why does this festival continue to use the pin-up girl motif for branding and promotion? I really don't get it and I'm not alone. I didn't hear much discussion of this during my visit, but several beer people I know said they found it offensive and wouldn't attend the event. When will this festival move on? Inquiring minds wonder.

The Beers
Of the beers on my hit list from the other day, there were a couple of "must try" favorites and a few duds. This is always the case at the HAF, I suspect because many of these beers were made specifically for this event. One-off beers are hit and miss. You knew that.

The pick of the litter from my list was 13 Virtues Barrel-Aged Max Stout, which features a well-balanced combination of barrel notes and malty complexity. This beer comes in at 10.5 percent, but is smooth as glass. It was pouring in the Skybar. Don't miss it.

Some people were surprised by McMenamin's entry, Lord of Misrule, a rum barrel-aged stout. The surprise is getting old. The fact is, these guys have bumped up their game. It's the consequence of being based in Oregon, where there are so many great beers. McMenamin's brewers have always had latitude to create interesting beers. Today, they have more freedom when it comes to spending what it takes to create those beers. Lord of Misrule features a nice blend of cocoa, coffee and a very mellow presence of habanero peppers in the finish. Great stuff.

Hopworks seems to always have a decent entry here. Kronan the Barbarian was popular last year. This year's beer, The Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest, is a revved-up version of their winter seasonal, Abominable Winter Ale. The Incredible packs serious barrel character, which is more or less balanced on a malty background with a vaguely hoppy finish. Very nice, indeed.

When you reach the point where you must cleanse your pallet due to (perhaps) too many barrel-aged beverages, look no further than Firestone Walker's Luponic Distortion. Hopheads will be pleased with the citrus notes courtesy of Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Amarillo, Chinook and Simcoe hops.

If you want to see what others are thinking, Jeff Alworth is usually reliable. So are Sanjay and Kris. And there's always The New School. You can also follow posts listed at the upper left column here.

One thing to keep in mind as you go about your tasting at this event is that most of these beers are too cold when they hit your mug. Let them warm up a bit. That's what allows big beers to reveal their true character. This isn't the Oregon Brewers Festival. The beer in your mug will need a few minutes to warm up.

Book Beat
If you get bored with the beer or don't have anyone to hang out with, stop by Brian Yaeger's table (near the Small Bar) and buy a copy of his new book, Oregon Breweries. He'll even autograph it! Brian was there selling books and chatting with beer fans on Wednesday and will be back today and Sunday. He may join Jon Abernathy, who will be there Friday afternoon selling and signing his new book on Central Oregon beer. Even if you don't want a book, stop and say hello.