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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rentsch Tasked with Lifting Portland Brewing/Pyramid

One of the big challenges in craft beer today is staying relevant in a hyper-competitive marketplace. That reality has driven some breweries into the arms of big beer, hoping to tap the benefits of economies of scale. Of course, that's not an option open to all.

As I've suggested in prior posts, the need to appear relevant falls heaviest on established breweries that don't have the sex appeal of new kids on the block. It's an ironic twist of fate, I think, and also a fine example of the ADD beer culture that values and pursues anything new.

Two established Oregon breweries that have done a decent job of staying relevant with the beer crowd are Widmer and Deschutes. Even though they sell an enormous amount of beer in mainstream stores, both produce specialty and experimental beers that keep them relevant in the beer geek community. It's smart business.

The flip-side of that story is Portland Brewing, a nice example of an established brewery that has not migrated with the times. It sells a decent line of beers in grocery stores and, in fact, I would argue these beers represent some of the best values in the marketplace. But Portland Brewing and its parent/partner Pyramid have almost no standing when it comes to experimental and specialty brews. They are effectively irrelevant within the beer geek community.

Some brief history. Portland Brewing was founded in 1986 by Art Larrance, Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin. It was the last of Portland's four founding breweries to open. The pub on Northwest Flanders was too small virtually from the outset and the brewery eventually moved to its current location in industrial Northwest in 1993.

Portland Brewing experienced financial distress early on. The founders sold common stock to finance expansion. Around the time they moved to new digs, local legend and investor Mac MacTarnahan gained control of the company. Yes, their most popular beer, McTarnahan's (the original spelling) Amber Ale, was named for him.

By the early 2000s, Mac was in failing health and so was the company. The MacTarnahan family, tired of financing a losing proposition, sold to Pyramid in 2004. Portland Brewing was soon rebranded as MacTarnahan's Brewing. In 2008, Pyramid was acquired by Magic Hat, which was itself acquired by North American Breweries in 2010. Then Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm bought North American Breweries in 2012. Sensing the error of the MacTarnahan's branding, the parent company changed the name back to Portland Brewing in 2013.

Needless to say, heads have been spinning at Portland Brewing for years. The lack of ownership continuity may help explain the failure to follow industry trends and develop a portfolio beyond the standard beers. OLCC stats suggest they've been doing just fine with their beers and the pubs certainly make money. It appears no one was paying serious attention to the big picture.

Hoping to enhance recognition of the two brands, North American Breweries recently hired Robert Rentsch as general manager of Portland Brewing/Pyramid, a newly created role. Rentsch has a solid brand building background, most recently at the Craft Brew Alliance, where he drove the national expansion of Kona and helped launch Omission.

We talked over a beer the other day at the Portland pub. Rentsch has been on the job only a few weeks and isn't quite sure how he'll attack the challenge he took on because, "It seemed like the right opportunity at the right time." It's not that he was unhappy at the CBA. He just wanted to take full ownership in something, which is what this gig offers.

The press release announcing Rentsch's hiring is pretty vague. It talks about creating a localized, community-based approach and building on the heritage of Portland Brewing and Pyramid. That's all real nice, but I had to ask, "Where's the beef?"

"At this point, there isn't much to tell," Rentsch said. "I'm still evaluating things and developing a plan. I can say North American Breweries is committed to supporting the program we put together. Nothing will happen overnight, but I'm confident in the team here and our ability to build on what we have with the two brands."

It will definitely take time. They will have to create an aggressive specialty program, among other things. Portland Brewing doesn't have the means or dexterity to do that quickly. A fresh hop rendition of MacTarnahan's Ale at the pub was pretty lame. Pyramid does have a small batch series, and I've tasted a least one terrific beer from it. But that program is small and they will have to do a whole lot more in this area. To say nothing of the guerrilla marketing campaigns they will have to launch in support of the beers.

Rentsch knows he faces a big challenge. He apparently liked that about this role. In a community where new breweries open regularly and instantly attract the interest of the beer crowd, long-established brands are, he realizes, up against significant obstacles.

Whatever happens with Portland Brewing will be a work in progress. It ought to be interesting. Good luck to Rentsch and the crew there. I'll be circling back at some point.

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