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Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Escalating Obsession with Rarity

With the passing of Thanksgiving, we have more or less officially entered the holiday season. It can be an awkward time of year. But we also know it's a time when many fine beverages will be consumed and shared. Something to look forward to.

What folks will be drinking and sharing is another matter. As Aaron Goldfarb's a recent article in Punch suggests, tastes are increasingly driven by rarity and extreme presentations. We have reached the point where a beer isn't likely to be considered great unless it's rare and racy.

This aligns with what we've seen in recent years, as rare, high-priced beers have established a strong presence in beer shops and many premium grocery stores. Total beer inventories have been rising, but a lot of old standards we used to know and love are gone, displaced by specialty beers.

That trend is a good reflection of the actual beer world. Fans chase rare and crazy stuff and want to be seen drinking it. They aren't going to show up at a bottleshare or similar gathering packing something that's readily available and moderately priced. Perish the thought.

In effect, we've achieved stratification in beer. That may not have been inevitable, but it was the logical result of the growing popularity of craft beer and the rise of super fans in recent years. While the brewery count was exploding, so was the demand for special beers. Examples include barrel-aged, fruit-infused, wild and even ultra hoppy beers.

Meanwhile, many of yesterday's best beers are forgotten. Even if they're still good and highly drinkable, they're too common and made in breweries that are far too big. As Goldfarb says, "There’s nothing 'cool' about [those beers] —no remote brewery to travel to, no can release to line up for, no rarely-seen, iconoclastic brewer to idolize."

Retailers have contributed to what's happening and it's hard to blame them. If you're a retailer, your prime directive is to maximize return per square foot. It's easier to do that with high priced specialty beers than it is if you're selling mainstream craft beer in any form. Breweries have jumped on the bandwagon, as well, offering specialty beers via spendy fan clubs.

Festivals have piled on, too. They strive to offer as many one-off, arguably rare and often extreme beers as they can. Organizers fully realize potential patrons are more likely to attend and pay premium admission prices if they think they're getting something unique, as opposed to tastes of broken down standards.

I tend to look for historic parallels in these trends and there's a feasible one here. As I was reminded while watching the Soundbreaking series on OPB, 45 rpm singles became highly unfashionable once LPs became the artistic standard in the late 1960s. I think we're seeing something similar to that in craft beer, as speciality beers push old, uncool standards into the background.

The trend is supported by a lot of the data we're seeing, data that generally shows many older, larger breweries losing momentum while many newer, smaller breweries gain share. Some of that is probably more closely related to the image new places are selling than the beer, but never mind. Rare and arguably innovative is the current cool.

Where does this lead? I have no idea and I don't think anyone else does, either. Some say beer is simply becoming more like wine. Maybe so. But there's also a chance this is an unsustainable, generational fad that won't last. We shall see.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lompoc Rolls With Changes at 20

Lompoc Brewing is turning 20. In case you aren't aware, Lompoc was one of the second wave of craft breweries that launched here in the mid-1990s. While some are no longer around, Lompoc has rolled with the punches and continues to carve out a successful path.

Jerry Fechter and Bryan Keilty
They'll be celebrating two decades in December with Zwanzig Fest, a week-long lineup of special events at Lompoc’s five pubs (Zwanzig means 20 in German). Several local brewers and writers, including yours truly, helped brew their anniversary beer, Zwanzig, a bitter Märzen ale.

Purests know authentic Märzen is a lager, not an ale. Never mind. This particular beer is a tip of the hat to Lompoc's first beer, Erst Ale. It will be pale orange in color with a mildly malty body. Eight hop additions ought to give it plenty of aroma, flavor and bitterness.

If craft beer newbies aren't particularly familiar with Lompoc, there's a reason. Which is that, despite operating out of several locations, they have been somewhat obscured by Portland's brewery explosion. When owner Jerry Fechter opened New Old Lompoc in late 1996, there were only a handful of competing breweries.

The story is fairly well-known and is briefly retold in Portland Beer. Fechter had worked at Old Lompoc Brewing in Northwest Portland for several years. The beers were decent, but he felt the food should be better. The lease was always an issue. When the owners negotiated a three-year renewal, Fechter saw an opening and inquired about buying the business during a round of golf.

Soon enough, the owners came back with a number. It was a number Fechter thought he could manage. But as he looked at what needed to be done to move in the direction he wanted, it became apparent that an investor would be needed. Enter legendary publican, Don Younger.

"I had enjoyed beers with Don," Fechter recalls, "but I didn't really know him. A guy at Belmont Station, then next to the Horse Brass on Southeast Belmont, told me Don might be interested in my project. He spoke to Don. The next day, my phone rang. It was Younger."

The call led to a couple months of drinking and discussion, trying to figure out how a partnership might work. Eventually, they hammered out an agreement. Younger became a partner in the business, but stayed mostly in the background while Fechter managed day-to-day operations.

"We knew the food needed to be better," Fechter recalls. "That meant a hood and an improved kitchen. We also realized there was unutilized space in back where we could put a patio. So we built a nice patio, which was busy and a hidden gem in Northwest Portland for many years.

By the time Younger passed away in 2011, he and Fechter had opened additional locations...the Fifth Quadrant, Sidebar and Hedge House. Fechter had also partnered with publican Jim Parker on Oaks Bottom Public House. Today, Fechter operates those locations, as well as Lompoc Tavern, which replaced the original Lompoc pub on Northwest 23rd after it was demolished.

The pub and beer business is a more challenging enterprise these days. You can't get by with a few standard beers and an occasional seasonal. You need seasonals and specialty beers all the time to keep up with all the new places coming online. Head brewer Bryan Keilty is constantly working to develop unique recipes and approaches.

"We know relevance is a challenge with so many new breweries opening," Keilty says. "The attraction of new places isn't new and it doesn't bother us. It just means we need to stay on top of our menu and work to build and maintain a solid beer lineup. That's our focus."

Packaged product is another matter. Lompoc has a handful of bottled beers in distribution via Maletis Beverage. That was strictly 22 oz bombers until last summer, when they launched C-Note and Pampelmousse IPA in 12 oz six-packs. Cans of something may be on the way.

"The strategy with bottles is marketing, getting our name in front of consumers," Fechter says. "That's the main reason we do packaged product. When we saw bomber sales slowing, we launched six-packs. The next step might be cans, but distribution will never be a big part of what we do."

Fechter's thinking is well-informed. He knows the best margin on his beer is in his pubs. Why play the distribution game where the profit per bottle, gallon or keg is small? With retail space getting crowded, some regional and national craft brands are getting squeezed. Meanwhile, a lot of smaller breweries are doing fine. Small and local is a good place to be.

After 20 years in an increasingly competitive business, it's clear enough that Fechter and his team have figured out how to successfully navigate changing times. Congrats on the milestone, folks. See you at Zwanzig Fest.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Myth of Poor Craft Growth

As I mentioned in last week's piece, and as many who follow the industry know, it's not been a stellar year for beer. We've been seeing some pretty low growth numbers since before summer and there's no clear evidence that things have improved. But it's not all gloom and doom.

Oregon Barrel Volume Growth
A big part of what's happening in the overall industry is that light beer is imploding. Bud Light sales were down 4% for Q3 (July-September). Bud Light is just one of many premium and sub-premium brands losing steam. That lost volume is a huge drag on the industry as a whole. Thus, the funk.

The craft segment is also underperforming, with single digit growth on the year. That wouldn't cause alarm if growth in recent years hadn't been in high double digits. When you're accustomed to year-over-year growth numbers like that, slower growth causes concern and, in some quarters, panic.

Despite the sluggish growth year, things probably aren't as dire for craft beer as some of us have been led to believe. We may be approaching saturation in some areas, but the overall health of the industry is pretty good.

The above chart shows some Oregon breweries that are doing quite well here. As with the negative numbers chart below, these are August 2015 to August 2016 OLCC numbers, provided by a helpful assistant who does quarterly spreadsheets. My disclaimer, as always, is that OLCC numbers are hopelessly incomplete and useful only as a guide to trends.

The list is comprised mostly of newer breweries formed within the last 10 years. These are brands that have flourished in recent times. Their beers have won awards and fans. Even 10 Barrel, which has unfair advantages over independent craft brewers, has produced some notable beers and continues to attract a following despite its ownership situation.

Now look at the chart below. These are the breweries showing the largest negative numbers over the same period. Three of the five are older, established breweries. The developing trend in Oregon is that younger, vibrant brands are taking share from long-established ones. Why? Likely because consumers, when they have a choice, prefer beer made in newer, typically smaller breweries.

Oregon Barrel Volume Decline
The same trend appears to be gaining traction around the country. Small, local breweries are opening everywhere..the craft brewery count is now around 4,500. A lot of the new kids are taking share from established craft breweries, as well as from big beer. We are seeing this trend documented in IRI losses for older craft brands and big beer.

So why are craft growth numbers sluggish this year? Probably because small brewery volumes aren't being fully captured in IRI stats. Why? Because an increasing amount of beer is being sold in breweries or at growler fill stations, pubs, beer beers and others places outside IRI view. It will take improved data collection to see the full extent of what's happening.

For now, don't get too caught up in the notion that craft growth is faltering. A saturation point is coming. But we're not there, yet.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Looking for Scapegoats in a Flat Growth Year

In a year when beer volumes are flat or declining across the board, everyone is looking for answers. But particularly Anheuser-Busch, which is spending millions on advertising and craft brewery buyouts in an effort to stem a rising tide of losses. Unsuccessfully.

AB, which today announced that it is acquiring Texas-based Karbach Brewing, earlier reported that Bud Light had the worst quarter of the year, with sales down nearly 4%. Overall AB shipments were down 2.5% for Q3. These are significant hits.

AB isn't alone. Many brands are taking a beating this year, including some craft brands. In Oregon, a year-to-year comparison of OLCC stats shows significant declines for several well-known breweries (see chart below). The Craft Brew Alliance, whose numbers strangely aren't part of OLCC stats, just reported that Widmer and Redhook are both down over 20 percent for the third quarter. Yikes!

But never mind what's happening in craft beer. The craft marketplace is getting increasingly crowded and complicated. That's a separate discussion. Anyway, what's happening to big beer is far more interesting and entertaining. Because, aside from buying up craft breweries, their game plan hasn't changed that much. And it isn't working.

One of AB's biggest bets this and every year is the NFL. The reality of our times, which features DVRs and plentiful viewing options, is that live sports programming is the last vestige of TV advertising. And the NFL has been the king of live sports for decades. Anheuser-Busch has been tapping that lifeline with ad dollars for years, and continues to do so.

This year, AB's "Official Beer Sponsor" arrangement allowed it to release team-themed Bud Light cans for 28 of the 32 teams. You've seen these things in stores, of course. Here in the Northwest, we're mostly seeing Seahawks cans. Elsewhere, cans are similarly market-appropriate.

OLCC Stats
August 2015-August 2016 (taxable barrels)
But the cans campaign isn't panning out. In fact, it's apparently working in reverse because Bud Light is in virtual free fall right now. That naturally conjures up questions about why. When you spend big bucks on sponsorships and marketing campaigns, you expect results.

It turns out NFL ratings, like Bud Light numbers, are in the tank. Overall NFL ratings are down 12 percent for the season.  Ratings for Monday Night Football, sporting a new play-by-play guy thanks to the exit of Mike Tirico, are down 24 percent. ESPN, which aires MNF, lost more than 600,000 subscribers in October, its worst month on record.

What's up with ratings? It depends on who you ask. Some suspects are poor play, crappy games, too many ads, player antics, election year noise, national anthem protests, etc. The most persuasive argument for me is that younger fans who play fantasy football track player stats on their smartphones don't get their NFL fix the traditional way...and don't show up in ratings.

Exactly how lower NFL ratings and beer consumption are related is unclear. If folks of beer drinking age aren't watching games on the tube, there may be some correlation between slumping ratings and the decline in Bud Light sales. But everyone needs to stop and recall that a number of established brands with no connection to the NFL are facing challenges this year.

In a flat year, it's tough to see what's driving things. AB's team can campaign may get better traction through the end of the year. It was just getting underway in Q3. Bud Light numbers and NFL ratings may also bounce back as we enter the holidays and the stretch run of the season.

So there's no need to look for scapegoats, yet. We'll get there.