expr:class='"loading" + data:blog.mobileClass'>

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Reinventing the CBA's Redheaded Stepchild

For a number of  years, many beer-centric folks wondered what the Craft Brew Alliance would to with Redhook, it's redheaded stepchild. Redhook was thrashed like a rented mule and abandoned in a dusty ditch long ago. What now? Well, they actually have a plan to resurrect it.

Founded in 1981, Redhook is the oldest existing craft brewery in the Northwest. I use the term "craft" loosely because Redhook is part of the CBA, roughly a third owned by Anheuser-Busch. Along with Widmer and Kona, Redhook doesn't meet the Brewers Association craft standard.

In fact, Redhook was the first Northwest brand to fashion a partnership with big beer. That happened in 1994, when it sold a 25 percent interest to AB. Under the terms of the deal, Redhook maintained control of its marketing and advertising, but gained access to the AB distribution network.

The results were stellar. Redhook built a large brewery in Woodinville and another in Portsmouth, N.H. in the wake of the deal. Boosted production and access to the AB network helped Redhook increase sales from 93.7 million to 226 million cases between 1994 and 2002. Serious stuff.

Redhook's experience was not lost on Kurt and Rob Widmer, who had solid beers, but no access to wide distribution or cash that could be used to enhance their brand. Around the time they figured out how to package their iconic Hefeweizen in bottles, the Widmers sold a 31 percent interest to Anheuser-Busch. That was 1997. Within five years, Widmer sales increased 20 percent.

The rest of the story is well-known. Widmer and Redhook, already paramours of Anheuser-Busch, merged in 2008, forming the Craft Brewers Alliance. Two years later, the CBA, which had been brewing Kona beer on contract for at least several years, acquired Kona. A few years later, the name was shortened to Craft Brew Alliance (BREW on the NYSE).

There are differences of opinion over what happened to Redhook. Mine is that, once it became part of the CBA, Redhook was overshadowed by Widmer and, soon enough, Kona. With sloppy, inattentive brand management, Redhook drifted into sub-craft status, relegated to sharing shelf space with the likes of Pyramid, Portland Brewing and other derelict brands.

While there may be different explanations for the decline, the numbers cannot be disputed. Redhook sales have been tanking for years, a drag on the entire CBA portfolio. In recent times, Widmer has also gone flat. Kona is the only darling in the group, still chugging along nicely, a big fat target for AB acquisition.

After the CBA's Portland facility was updated and upgraded, most of Woodinville's production gradually moved here. To its credit, the CBA hoped to sell the Woodinville brewery to Pabst. That deal fell through when Pabst saw its revenues take a dump. Today, the old brewery is shuttered, awaiting a suitor, (apparently) overvalued on the CBA balance sheet.

But all may not be lost. The CBA is hoping to refurbish the Redhook brand. Talk about big projects. The plan revolves around a fancy new brewpub in Seattle's swanky Capitol Hill neighborhood. It serves up specialty beers brewed on a small system, alongside what appears to be an upscale pub menu.

This isn't a terrible idea. Going small has possibilities. Brewlab, the name of the new pub, will feature two banks of 16 taps. Beers will be produced on an in-house 8 bbl system, with a focus on small batch, experimental brews. That sounds pretty good.

There will be several special edition packaged beers in six-packs and draft form. Distribution will be limited to the Northwest. They also plan to release variety packs of selected special edition beers to a broader audience. Care to guess where these beers will be brewed? Not in Seattle. But never mind.

This plan lines up with what's happening in craft beer, as long as Redhook doesn't attempt to conquer distant markets. Between taprooms and new breweries, the winning focus at the moment is hyper local. It's gotten extremely difficult to build strong regional and national brands because small local breweries are gulping up market share from larger brands.

Whether the CBA can succeed with the Redhook plan is an open question. With the exception of Kona, which rides a strong connection to place, the CBA has not proven itself to be particularly adept at brand building, similar to its inept part owner, Anheuser-Busch.

But we shall see. You never know. It might work out for them if their goal is limited. If there's any kind of overreach, it'll likely be a disaster.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What's Beer Got to Do With it?

I met Laura 25 years ago. She was a not quite halfway through her career in healthcare at the time. She reached thousands of people by way of her work in various hospitals, as an educator at OHSU and, more recently, as a Nurse Practitioner in the Legacy System. Today she retired, after 42 years of service.

At OBF 2017
Our paths crossed and eventually merged thanks largely to a common obsession with racquetball. This is not a made up story. We were addicted to the sport. During most of our first 10 years together, regular weekly play and tournaments dominated our annual schedules. It was quite insane.

What we came to regard as our "need for speed" also coaxed us into other risky activities. A shared interest in snow skiing led to annual outings on Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood. During a trip to Kauai in 1996, we developed a boogie boarding fetish that lasted many years.

Outings were not without peril and occasional anguish. Both of us were "spin-cycled"into the sand on the beaches of Poipu numerous times while boogie boarding. But the worst occurred on Mt Bachelor in March 2008. While skiing in chopped up powder after a stressful night searching for a marauding black dog, Laura caught an edge on a snowboard rut and mangled her knee. She was unable to stand. The Ski Patrol was summoned.

She had suffered a torn ACL and meniscus damage. The trip back to Portland was painful. Soon enough, the damage was surgically repaired. She eventually returned to the slopes wearing a rigid brace. It was tough to have such limited mobility and she was tentative. I don't think she ever recovered emotionally. Getting injured like that was something she'd never experienced, didn't expect. It knocked her for a loop.

With puppy Biscuit in 2009
That 2008 incident foreshadowed the end of our "calm years." In early 2009, Laura's father passed away, more or less unexpectedly. Returning from his memorial, I was laid off, an event that had lasting consequences. Shortly thereafter, the second of our first pair of Labs passed away. Soon enough, I learned my own father had cancer. He passed away in November. It's fair to say 2009 was not a very good year.

From that point on, Laura carried the load in our household. With my career in disarray, she kept us afloat by paying the bulk of the bills while at the same time planning for her impending retirement and contributing to the college funds of her two grandchildren. Somehow, some way, she succeeded. The house was paid off a year ago. The college funds grew. We survived.

Unlike my uneven career in marketing communications and writing, Laura's career in healthcare featured a gradual, upward trajectory. During the Clinton years, she opted to get her NP certification because she believed primary care would be the wave of the future. If memory serves, we both thought primary care would become somewhat universal and well-funded.

At Waimea Brewing, 2009
Things clearly didn't work out the way we figured. Laura rolled with the punches for 22 years in several scenarios. She's seen a lot of change. Technology now plays a far greater role than it once did. But the end result is that providing care has gotten more difficult, not easier. That's largely due to the way the insurance industry works, but never mind.

These last few months of work have been bittersweet. As she gradually approached her final day in the office, Laura exchanged hugs and tears with patients, some of whom she had been seeing for a number of years. She'll undoubtedly be missed by those patients, and also by the colleagues she worked with so closely during this final chapter at Legacy. She'll miss those interactions more than she knows, but it may take some time for that to sink in.

Even though she's retiring, Laura's efforts in the healthcare area won't end. She'll maintain her license for a while, maybe do volunteer work somewhere. She doesn't plan to consider work as a healthcare provider similar to what she's done for more than two decades. "That's a mission impossible scenario," she says. "Too messy."

Retirement dinner at Oxpdx
As with all things, there is irony. One of Laura's specialties over the years has been diabetes care. That experience will come in handy because we recently learned our youngest Lab, Biscuit, born on Valentine's Day 2009, is diabetic. So even though Laura is retiring from the office, she'll still be providing care. The irony is not lost on either of us.

What's beer got to do with it? Very little. Laura prefers wine and does not share my geeky interest in beer. But she encouraged it by giving me homebrewing equipment for my birthday in 1995. I brewed for years and we shared a lot of that beer. We also frequented the Oregon Brewers Festival as drinkers and volunteers for more than a decade. Today, only I chase beer.

Honestly, I don't know what her retirement holds. She has far too much energy to sit around and do nothing. Gardening, reading and sudoku won't be enough. This I know. I worry that she'll drive me nuts as I attempt to work in my basement office. She worries that I'll run off with one of my millennial beer friends. The reality is, we'll work things out just as we always have.

So congratulations on your retirement, my dear. It's certainly well-deserved. Time to start enjoying everything you worked so hard to attain for all these years.

Now, how about let's grab a beer? 🍻

Postscript: A quick shoutout to the folks at Ox Restaurant, Laura's chosen dinner venue. After a great dinner that included a bottle of wine and several entrees, as well as the ice cream shown above, we were told our dinner check had been taken care of. Our server had learned of Laura's retirement during the course of our meal. Needless to say, we left a large tip.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Fall and Rise of Anchor Brewing

Last week's announcement that Japanese brewer Sapporo will acquire San Francisco's Anchor Brewing was met with frowns around the industry. It's not easy to see an ironic brewery sold to outside interests. But Anchor's future is likely brighter than it was. Trust me.

Many saw the $85 million purchase price, made public by Sapporo, as being on the low end compared to other deals that have gone down in recent years. It's true that Anchor is an iconic brand with a lengthy history and heritage. But all things are not equal.

The reality is, things have not gone especially well for Anchor in recent times. Over the course of the last two years, sales have tanked... down to 1.75 million cases, according to industry sources. That's 100,000 bbls less than experts thought they were selling. Numbers like that tend to make a brand less attractive to potential buyers.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, really. Anchor is a brand that's become less and less relevant over the years. While upstart breweries entered the market with progressive new approaches and marketing ploys, Anchor was largely content with the status quo, making no significant effort to roll with industry changes.

Still, the hollowing out of the brand was not all Anchor's fault. Growth in the number of breweries has put a lot of established brands in a bind. As discussed here last week. many legacy brands have tanked as small new local breweries opened in areas previously not served or drastically underserved. Anchor was and is certainly a victim of that scenario.

There's more, of course. Recall that Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio, who purchased Anchor from Fritz Magtag in 2010, came from the spirits world (Skyy vodka). They had a grandiose vision of what Anchor might become in those heady days. Craft's growth swell in recent years may have sucked them into thinking they could pull it off. But craft numbers started to slide.

One of their nutty ideas was an ambitious expansion project on Pier 48, a collaboration with the San Francisco Giants baseball club. That project died on the vine when it became apparent that impossibly expensive seismic upgrades would be required. Greggor and Foglio looked at their faltering beer revenue stream and balked.

As Anchor Brewing slowed, the spirits business flourished. Makes sense, since the guys running the show get spirits. Today, the distillery is about 30 percent larger by revenue than the brewery, Greggor told Brewbound. They wisely decided not to compromise the growing spirits business by continuing to invest in Anchor, a losing proposition. Needless to say, Anchor Distilling is not part of the sale to Sapporo and will eventually relocate once the deal is finalized.

Everyone wonders what will happen to Anchor. The brewery is evidently antiquated and operating at just 55-60 percent of capacity, according to various reports. There's no urgent need to expand production, though the facility certainly needs an update. And the integrity of the brand could use some investment and attention, for sure.

In Sapporo, Anchor may have lucked into an owner with an understanding of beer, an appreciation of heritage and the deep pockets required to revitalize the brand. Sapporo will invest in the existing brewery and expects to open a new taproom across the street. In fact, Sapporo may be the perfect steward of the iconic brand it apparently coveted for some time.

As with many stories, there is irony in this one. You have go back to immediately after Fritz Magtag recklessly bought a majority interest in Anchor. Dark days. The brewery was dilapidated and the beer was poor. Although some credit Anchor with being our first craft brewery, that part of its history was yet to come.

Hitting the streets to hawk his beer, Maytag encountered angry publicans and restaurant owners who gave him an earful. Many had personally experienced Anchor's sour, defective product. Most assumed the brewery had ceased to exist years earlier, so horrible its beer was.

Unlike those who came along a little later, Maytag did not have a homebrewing background. He educated himself on better brewing practices in an effort to save his floundering company. But his realization that local restaurant patrons were purchasing a lot of expensive imports is what drove his motivation to make better beer and what it should be. Others would eventually follow.

So Anchor has essentially come full circle. Its craft history is indelibly inked to imports, for better or worse. And now it is owned by an import brand that appears committed to maintaining its heritage and refurbishing its tarnished brand.

We don't yet know how this is going to work out. But Anchor may be in better hands now than it has been in recent memory. The news could be a lot worse. Trust me. 🍻


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

When Your Legacy Brand Tanks

One of my industry friends just sent me a spreadsheet comparing OLCC taxable barrels reports for May 2017 and May 2016. I don't have a lot of confidence in these numbers. Why? Because the amount of missing information from month to month is often difficult to figure.

Here's an example, before I move on. Due to some kind of accounting or data collection issue, numbers for the Craft Brew Alliance (Widmer, Kona, Redhook, etc) have almost completely vanished from the monthly reports. That's a giant hole. Thus, my lack of confidence.

Anyway, the comparative numbers in this spreadsheet are shocking. We know craft growth is slowing. That's been a beer news item for the last year or so. What the numbers essentially show is that many older breweries are losing big while a few newcomers show solid growth.

I'll forgo the specifics in favor of generalizations. Deschutes and Full Sail were both down, Deschutes significantly. Locally, Portland Brewing and Bridgeport continue to drift into obscurity. Breweries showing notable growth include Breakside, Silver Moon, Crux, Block 15 and pFriem. No surprise.

More to the point of this piece, several of Portland's smaller legacy brands show scary declines. Lompoc Fifth Quadrant was down 14 percent. Alameda Brewing was down 18 percent. Lucky Labrador was down nearly 12 percent. Not good.

What's happening to the larger breweries we understand. As new, local breweries open in previously underserved areas, they siphon share from national and regional breweries. There's not much the big guys can do about that dynamic. Consumers seem to like local beer. Hard to blame them.

Established local brands are also losing share to upstarts, remote and local, that offer shiny new beer options and approaches. Essentially, many older local breweries are having a hard time competing for market share in markets they once dominated.

The reasons aren't as simple as you might think. It's easy to assign blame. I hear some failing local breweries blame their distributors. With so many craft brands entering the market, established breweries feel like they've been abandoned in favor of what's new and shiny.

Distributors are convenient whipping boys. It's true that they've taken on lots of new craft brands. Craft is where the action is. But they've also invested in the people and infrastructure needed to float everyone's boat. They really don't want anyone to fail. Blaming them is a slippery slope.

In fact, many established brands simply haven't worked to stay relevant. They were slow to adopt creative brewing approaches and higher quality standards. They refused to refresh tired, woefully outdated brand identities. And they failed to support brand health via focused social media campaigns and boots on the ground.

When you look at the most successful brands in this market, you see much of what the declining local breweries lack. You see beer that is typically solid across a wide spectrum. You see thoughtful branding and coordinated social media efforts. And, yeah, many of them have reps who work to keep brands fresh in the minds of consumers.

The reality is, the ground has shifted. There was a time when a brewery or brewpub could get by with decent beer. They didn't have to put much effort into chasing eclectic beer styles or enhanced quality because there wasn't much competition and beer palates weren't very sophisticated. Simpler times.

Those days are gone. Modern beer consumers demand more. Owners of older local breweries that are losing market share might do well to look in the mirror and evaluate what they're doing to stay relevant in a market that's getting more competitive by the day. It ain't easy.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Oregon Brewers Festival Experience at 30

Today's news that Tugboat Brewing will soon cease operations was met with inverted smiles in the beer community. Few are bemoaning the loss of Tugboat beer, which could be dicey at its best. They bemoan the loss of the experience. Tugboat was, more than anything, an experience.

Traversing the grounds of Tom McCall Waterfront Park this afternoon, I couldn't help think the same thing about the Oregon Brewers Festival, celebrating 30 years. Beer may be the main focus of the OBF, but the event is about much more than that. It's about sharing beer and conversation with friends and strangers in a unique place.

That's not to say there aren't plenty of good beers being poured this week. (I'll get to a short list of my favorites below.) But beer merely provides the grist that fuels the nonstop conversations happening in the park...the heart and soul of the event.

It's hard for me to count the number of friends I saw and talked to for the first time in a while. Many, though not all, of these are beer media or industry-connected folks. You might think we see each other all the time. It just ain't so.

I suspect beer has become a bigger part of the conversations in our current context. Eclectic craft beer is more of a fad than it was in the early days, when festival attendees were mainly looking for something a little different than the macro swill they were finding in stores of the time. We've jumped the proverbial shark from those quaint days.

Running into John Foyston, longtime Oregonian beer writer, we talked about the wide range of styles available. The list has morphed wildly over the years and it's gotten increasingly crazy in recent times as style guidelines have collapsed. That's a good and bad thing, I think, but never mind.

There are 91 beers available at the main trailers and a bunch more in the Specialty Tent. I won't say anything about the Specialty Tent beers because I don't know how long any of them will be on. Some of my favorites from the standards included:

Tigers in Tiny Spaces, Cloudburst Brewing, Seattle.
Hazy pale ale with notes of grapefruit and peaches. 5.6% ABV

Dragon's Milk: Thai Curry, New Holland Brewing, Holland Michigan
A bourbon barrel-aged stout with hints of curry, ginger and coconut. Wannabe drunks will be lining up for fills of this one late. 11% ABV

Heirloom Saison, Upright Brewing, Portland
Features a barrage of late kettle addition hops in a blended, barrel-aged sour beer. The young and old beers produce an interesting mix of dank and bright notes. 6.9% ABV

Avant Garde, The Lost Abbey, San Diego
A Farmhouse Ale with minimal sweetness, subtle hop presence and aromas of fresh fruit. Light, crisp and refreshing. 7% ABV

Cal Estupido, Ex Novo Brewing, Portland
Chasing the growing popularity of Mexican Lagers, this beer is flavored with lime and sea salt. If served slightly warm, as was the case on my first try, it will remind you of drinking a too-warm lager with a slice of lime on a beach somewhere. It's better when served cold. 5% ABV

Easy Beaver, Belching Beaver Brewery, Oceanside, California
Described as an "easy drinking session IPA for those wearing orange and black. True balance means Duck fans will love it, too." Works for me. 4% ABV

As always, there were beers I didn't care for. Hopworks' Kiwi Sparkle & Pop had some off flavors and metallic character. Laht Neppur's Strawberry Concoction was a hot, fruity mess. Neither is worth the tasting effort, though results and opinions may vary.

The event itself seemed to be running smoothly. I arrived just before the gates opened at 11:30 a.m. and saw lines at each entry. The bike corral, located at the South end of the park, was mostly empty. By the time I got my bike gear organized and headed into the festival, the lines were gone. Lines to buy tokens and get beer seemed short.

Of course, all that may all be out the window later in the week, when things get busier than they are on Wednesday. My advice is get to the park early and leave before the work day ends and cubical dwellers scurry in to catch up with people who've been drinking all afternoon. A word to the wise.

Finally, a quick thanks to my friend and occasional collaborator for hanging out and chatting me through the afternoon. The good news? We somehow drank less than we did at a Timbers match in June. Hard to believe, I know. 🍻

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

OBF to Feature Specialty Tent, Larger Sample Pour

The Oregon Brewers Festival, our longest running and biggest beer party, returns to Tom McCall Waterfront Park next week. Roughly 80,000 expected attendees will be treated to some new and old wrinkles at the 30th annual event, which runs July 26-30.

They'll pour beer from 91 independent craft breweries this year. That's up from 88 in 2016. Progress, I suppose. Yeah, the focus on "independent" means the baby Buds are locked out, so you won't see anything from 10 Barrel, Elysian, Goose Island, etc. Poor pumpkins.

Styles are all over the place. The media materials claim more than two dozen styles will be represented at the event. I can't vouch for the accuracy of that claim. But we aren't talking about an IPA-dominated fest this year. There are plenty of choices. The main festival list is here.

 A new twist this year is the so-called Specialty Tent, where they will feature more than 90 rare and experimental beers. This used to be called the Buzz Tent. Beers are going to cost more here, double or triple tokens, and quality is going to be hit and miss. Trust me on that point.

The Specialty Tent is replacing the International Tent, which organizers launched three years ago. I spent time in that tent in each of the last three years, with mixed results. The cost of bringing the beers and brewers in for the event apparently got to be too much.

"We'll bring the international beers back when we can figure out how to get them here fresher and more economically," Art Larrance told me. "The combined cost of the beer and shipping was difficult to recoup through sales. The cost became unmanageable."

Another change this year is the mug. No, they aren't going back to glass. This year's plastic mug (I haven't seen the real thing or a photo) apparently holds 14 ounces. Recent mugs evidently held 12 ounces. The larger size means a full mug of beer will set you back five tokens this year. It had been four tokens for quite a while.

"Due to the larger mug and increased keg prices, we feel justified in the first price increase in many, many years," Larrance said. "There's still no cost to attend the festival and no minimum purchase package, such as we see with many events."

There's a bigger surprise lurking.

Several years ago, the OBF went to a 3 oz sample. Yeah, that mark on your glass or mug has been 3 ounces since 2013, in case you didn't know. Larrance tells me this year's sample size is 4 ounces. What? And it will still cost a single token! Huh? If you think that's a surprise, you aren't alone.


Forget the mug price. Full pours aren't that common at this event. Samples are the rage. But every time they pour a sample this year, it'll be an ounce more than it's been in recent years. And they're worried about increasing keg prices? Strange, eh?

One thing the 4 ounce sample will do, assuming it's legit, is it will encourage attendees to get that size. It's too good a deal to pass up. Well, too good until the evening brofest lines reach the point where a full beer is required. Then you're going to suck it up and plop down five tokens. Admit it.

If you're wondering where OBF pours have been over the years, I did some research using my mug collection back in 2013, when they first went to the 3 oz sample. If you're so inclined, the link to that story is here.

It's almost hard to fathom, but the OBF isn't just about beer. The event also features live music, food vendors, craft booths, homebrew demonstrations and souvenir sales. It has evolved into a sort of mini-trade show surrounded by beer. Not a horrible idea.

When the first Oregon Brewers Festival materialized in 1988, there was nothing like it in the country. Organizers wanted a way to showcase Oregon craft beer, which was in its infancy, in a pleasant, outdoor setting. The idea caught on and evolved into something really no one anticipated.

Looking ahead to next week, I see a calendar full of smaller beer events around town. These events ride the wave of craft beer's popularity, a wave the OBF was instrumental in creating. They now compete with the OBF for patrons. If you don't see the irony, it might be time to stop drinking.

There's a ton of information on the event site here. Definitely give it a look before you head to the park. It looks like the weather is going to cooperate nicely. I'll return to this space next Thursday or Friday with a report on the actual event. Happy festing! 🍻

Note: This post has been edited to reflect what Chris says in the comments below. The smallest pour the OBF has offered is 3 ounces, which has been the case since 2013. I incorrectly said it was a 2 oz pour in recent years. I trusted my memory when I should have looked at my own research. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Challenge of Writing About Bad Beer

Is it the job of beer writers to expose bad beer? That question was posed the other day on the Beervana blog. It's a fair question. Because many who write about beer are hesitant to report on what's bad or not very good. Is that okay?

It's not hard to understand why many writers don't like to criticize. We tend to become immersed in the industry. In many cases, we know the brewers, the owners, the marketing folks. It's tougher to beat up a beer when you know and like the people who made it. Simple human nature.

There's more. A lot of writers are reluctant to report on bad beer because they fear doing so will cut their access to the few perks we get for this work...occasional beer mail and complementary event access. It's unfortunate, but positive coverage is generally expected. Or you may wind up blacklisted.

Don't believe it? Please. Several years ago I made negative comments about a beer on social media. Almost immediately I was harangued for those comments by a brewery rep, even though what I said was common knowledge in the beer media community. My mistake? Mentioning it publicly.

Shortly thereafter, lines of communication with that brewery, as well as sporadic beer mail, stopped. And that's how things have remained in the years since. When they hold an event, the only way I get invited is if an unknowing PR person floats me an invitation. That has actually happened once or twice...comical.

Another reason some are reluctant to expose bad beer is they double as promoters or hope to work in the industry. They don't want to rock the boat. Then there are the writers who provide apparently objective coverage of breweries, beers and events they have a financial interest in. Have they crossed an ethical line? I think so. Opinions differ.

The reality is, there are hoards of industry shills who specialize in providing glowing coverage of beers, breweries, events, etc. Some do it for money, some do it for pleasure. For the most part, I know who these people are and I know what to expect from them. But the average consumer mostly doesn't know, which is a problem.

My view is that beer writers have a responsibility to provide objective coverage of the good, the bad and the ugly. That means occasionally exposing beers that are obviously flawed or poorly executed. Believe me, there's plenty of bad beer out there. I've had beer bar buyers quietly tell me how much sketchy beer they taste on the road to selecting what to buy and pour.

Is objectivity tougher in our current climate? I think it is, in part due to the breakdown of style guidelines. It's easy enough to identify a flawed pilsner or pale ale. It gets tougher when you're evaluating a beer that's a mix of styles and flavors. That's where personal preference tends to enter the fray and objective coverage shouldn't be driven by that.

Beer writers who aren't willing to report on the good, the bad and the not very good aren't very objective. That can mean a lot of things. But it almost certainly suggests a connection (or desired connection) to the industry that is a bit too cozy. 🍻

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Alice Waters' Link to Independent Craft Brewers

It's been interesting to see and hear the chatter surrounding the Independent Craft Brewer Seal the Brewers Association recently released. Naturally, the best response of all came from Anheuser-Busch and its butt-hurt High End. Bunch of crybabies.

These charlatans want fans to believe AB and the High End are no threat to independent brewers, that they're basically operating the same way. The shoddy video they put together had High End brewers looking like robots reading from a hastily prepared, poorly imagined script.

The goal of that subterfuge is to confuse what craft beer is and where it came from. AB would like that history rewritten or simply forgotten. In fact, a great many modern craft beer fans have no idea how the movement came to be. Which makes Anheuser Busch's job a whole lot easier.

I was forced to consider that question when I was wrapping up Portland Beer in 2013.  You're stuck making an effort to track the roots of what happened here if you're writing that history. I absorbed a lot of opinions, written and verbal, while formulating conclusions.

It's a complex story with many threads. For me, the most persuasive one is that craft beer is a descendant of a paradigm shift in tastes that emerged as part of the 1960's counterculture. A small group of Americans rejected over-commercialized, tasteless food and instead sought locally produced foods with flavor and character. The movement would eventually spread from food to wine, beer, coffee and more. And it is still evolving.

As I say in the book, a strong argument can be made that the center of that movement was the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides being a hotbed of activism during the Sixties era, the Bay Area is also geographically situated in the middle of rich agriculture. The shift in tastes and demands helped convert some of that agriculture from large commercial farms to smaller artisan producers.

One of the key visionaries in the movement was (and is) Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971. Her original idea was that the restaurant would serve as a place where she could entertain friends with similar values. The Chez Panisse mantra was to offer high quality, locally sourced ingredients on its menu. Waters and her team developed a network of local farmers and artisans from which to acquire those ingredients for the restaurant.


At the center of Waters' value set was a complete rejection of large scale, commercialized food production. She had come to realize, at least partially while studying in France, that freshly prepared local ingredients were far richer in character and flavor than most of what she had known in the United States. It was that concept she brought to Chez Panisse and her future efforts promoting organic food production.

The outlines of the movement Waters was instrumental in starting were embraced on the west coast. Seattle and Portland eventually became bastions of a culinary renaissance, which has spread widely in more recent times. As noted above, the movement includes food, wine, coffee and, yes, beer. Homebrewing, from which many early commercial craft brewers came, was an offshoot of what Waters and others started.

When you think back to the people who launched the craft beer movement, most had two guiding principles: First, they rejected the tasteless, mass produced swill that was being sloughed off on consumers by big beer; second, they intended to use quality ingredients and artisan techniques to create beers with flavor and character. Those basic values have been carried forward.

So it's amusing to hear the High End brewers yabber on about quality and how they're doing exactly the same thing independent craft brewers are doing. Not so. They're now part of an organization whose values are completely at odds with those of independent brewers. Big beer bought these breweries to leverage the brands, not because they believe in the underlying values.

Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and independent craft brewers have it right. Big beer and the High End have it oh-so wrong. Don't listen to the crybabies.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Amazon's Potentially Disruptive Acquisition of Whole Foods

News that Amazon expects to buy premium grocer Whole Foods for $13.7 billion sent shock waves through the grocery industry. On the day the deal was announced, chain grocery stocks took a serious dump, Amazon stock shot upward, enough to pay for the deal, apparently.

Amazon's play is certainly grocery, where it has been trying to gain a foothold for a while. It has advanced IT and delivery systems, but lacked the needed distribution network in perishables. That changes with the acquisition of Whole Foods' 440 retail stores and 11 distribution centers.

While the grocery network (Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, Costco, etc,) is petrified of what Amazon might do, there's been consternation in beer, as well. Some worry that Amazon may connive to circumvent three tier laws or use its girth to bust things up in other ways.

Keep in mind the deal is subject to regulatory review by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission. Realistically, though, it's tough to see a scenario in which it doesn't get waved through with flying colors. It's a do-nothing regulatory climate at the moment and regulatory agencies are running scared.

Assuming it is approved, Amazon's Whole Foods gambit will benefit local and regional craft brands more than big beer, at least in the short run. That's because Whole Foods has never done much with the big macro brands. It serves an affluent, persnickety clientele that doesn't drink as much swill as the general population.

The focus on smaller, decentralized craft brands would represent a significant reversal of current trends, a more worrisome matter for distributors than anyone else. Current stats suggest online beer sales have been dominated by big beer, which, as noted, isn't represented at Whole Foods.

A shift to craft online represents a big deal when your're talking about so many retail outlets and distribution hubs. The majority of these outlets are licensed for beer and Amazon's reach is huge, including 80 million Prime subscribers and a presence in every major US market. Online beer sales and delivery just got a whole (haha) lot easier.

From the distributor standpoint, the good news is Amazon will buy beer from local wholesalers for now. So it's still within the three-tier loop, The bad news, given Amazon's tendency to vertically integrate everything it touches, is they may attempt to bully state laws and get wholesale licenses for their stores and distribution centers. Box office poison for distributors.

The more serious threat, I think, is that Amazon may leverage the Whole Foods private label into beer. What's to stop Amazon from building a giant brewery and developing a line of private label beer brands it can sell online and in stores? It would then be supplier, wholesaler and retailer, a potentially scary scenario.

Statistics suggest that e-commerce accounts for about 50 percent of sales in some product categories. But only about 1 percent of US beer sales happen online. What will happen now that behemoth and master disrupter Amazon is entering the fray?

Like watching a train derailment in slow motion, this ought to be fun. Grab a beer. 🍺

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Summer Festivals Beat Each Other Up

The first time I attended the Oregon Brewers Festival in 1991, it was a revelation. Drinking good beer while mingling with folks in a great outdoor setting was an unknown experience in those days. It felt rather odd and at the same time pretty cool.

For years and years, the OBF was the only significant show in town. If you missed the festival experience for whatever reason, as I did when I was out of town in 1992, you were stuck waiting until the following year. Not much happening in-between.

Fast forward to modern times and things have changed dramatically. There are now numerous festivals crammed into the calendar. If you can't or don't want to be a rock star brewer, the next best option is apparently to have your own beer festival.

I blame Art Larrance and the Oregon Brewers Festival. Because if the OBF hadn't set the stage, then created and refined the template for what a beer festival should be, we probably wouldn't have all of these events popping up, competing against one another. But never mind.

The proliferation of festivals, a fact of life, has now reached the point where they threaten one another's well-being. There simply isn't enough room on the calendar to accommodate everyone, particularly during the peak summer season. As a result, events are piling on top of one another, inhabiting the same dates.

This weekend is a perfect example. We've got multiple events vying for the time, attention and dollars of beer fans. I attended Brewfest in the Park. It wasn't necessarily an easy decision. Competing events include the Portland International Beer Festival, Kriekfest out at Solera in Parkdale, and a host of worthy smaller events.

How Brewfest in the Park (formerly the Organic Beer Festival) and PIB wound up on the same weekend is sordid story. A couple of years ago, PIB unilaterally took the Organic Fest's June dates. The Organic folks caved and moved their event to August, a change that didn't work out for them. This year, Brewfest organizers decided to reclaim their original dates, putting them up against PIB. The PIB folks aren't happy. But who started this? Ezra has some answers here. Bigly!

It was evident during my Friday afternoon stay at Brewfest that having multiple events in the same calendar space is having an impact. There was never much of a crowd and it was never remotely busy. You might attribute some of that to changing dates. Fine. But I've never seen so few people at any large Portland festival, at least not in recent times. Nope.


It occurred to me that poorly attended fests are the coming reality unless there's more collaboration and cooperation among the festivals...a laughable notion. There's money to be made and everyone thinks their festival can win the war for patrons. So they'll carry on. I doubt we'll see any significant cooperation until attendance at individual fests bottoms out.

With respect to Brewfest, the updated layout of trailers and shade tents seemed pretty decent. I had as many mediocre beers as I had good ones, but I'm a snob and I didn't taste everything on the menu. I didn't miss the lack of live music. But I did miss being able to easily find drinkable water between beers, which should never be an issue. No excuse, folks.

What's the future of Brewfest? Even if this winds up being a lousy attendance year, which seems likely, the event will carry on. Switching dates is always a concern, even if competition isn't. These folks are connected to the OBF and know how to run festivals. They will be back, I'm sure.

I'm less sure how competing events are going to share space on the short summer calendar. So crowded. Maybe event organizers will eventually be forced to consider dates on the fringes of summer. I have no sense at all of how or if this is going to be resolved.

But something has to give.🍻


Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Future of Blogging in a Social Media World

I've said it before. When I started writing this blog six years ago, I had no idea where it would lead. Every year about this time, I like to consider where I've been and where I think I'm going. Is this still a worthwhile project or is it time to call it a day?

The beer world has changed dramatically since 2011. Here at home, Portland's brewery count had started to rise during the great recession, but it was less than 50 in 2011. By the end of 2016, there were 70 breweries here, 105 in the metro area, 261 in the state.

That general theme repeated itself, more or less, around the country. There were roughly 2,400 breweries in the United States at the end of 2012. By the end of 2016, the count passed 5,200. That's an historic explosion. We've never had more breweries in this country.

I had no inkling of what was coming when I started, I launched this blog largely because I had nothing better to do. Laid off in the crash of 2008-2009 and with nothing going on two years later, I figured beer was something I could spend some time with while keeping my writing and research skills (such as they are) reasonably sharp.

I honestly expected to return to corporate work. That didn't happen. Instead, writing the blog drew me deeper into the beer culture here. That would eventually lead to Portland Beer, published in 2013, and to a variety of articles for local and national publications in more recent times.

A lot of what I wrote here the first couple of years is fairly embarrassing to read now. That's because, in my effort to build a wad of content, I wrote previews and reviews of stuff that wasn't worthy of the time or effort. When you've got nothing going on, that's the rabbit hole you fall into.

Although the total number of posts here is about to pass 500, the great bulk of that content was written during the early years. In recent times, my output has slowed down considerably. If I post more than once a week these days, it's a miracle.

That isn't necessarily because I'm bored or lazy. Fact is, the beer media landscape has morphed. I don't know how many beer-centric blogs are out there today, but most of them are less relevant now than they were a few years ago.

Part of the reason is craft beer grew up. It's big business that attracts the attention of mainstream media outlets, including TV and radio. While those outlets may not carry significant weight with serious beer fans, they have a reach with the general public that very few blogs can match.

The more important development of recent years is the emerging power and reach of social media, primarily in the form of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Because of the way social media feeds mingle with user interests, it has become the preeminent marketing tool of craft beer.

That's a bit of an oversimplification, actually. Because social media alone probably wouldn't have become the phenom it has had it not been such a perfect complement to the smartphone and event marketing, which together form the promotional backbone of today's craft beer industry.

It's almost unfathomable in our present circumstance, but people once visited breweries and pubs randomly and drank whatever was available. New beers were released without fanfare. Tap takeovers were unknown. And there were only a few significant festivals. How quaint.

Today, fans are herded to countless tap takeovers, release parties and makeshift festivals. Ever wonder how that works? It's simple. Events are hyped on social media. All a beer-chasing millennial has to do is pull out her phone to find out when and where things are happening. Viola!

That's a far cry from the days when breweries and promoters depended on blogs to preview events and beers. They weren't getting coverage from mainstream media and social media hadn't evolved to the point where it could be relied on. Blogs were an inefficient way to get the word out, but they filled the void. No more.

This blog has never been particularly heavy on promotional content. There are events and breweries I've supported, but that hasn't been a priority. That's fortuitous because blogs as a promotional vehicle are dead. Yep. The action has shifted almost completely to social media, a virtually clearing house for event marketing.

Returning to the original question regarding the future of this (actually any) blog, the key is clearly going to be original, objective content. That's certainly been the focus here for the last couple of years and will continue to be going forward. There is no other viable path.

Having (finally) returned to marginally lucrative corporate work, I can write whatever I want here and not be concerned about it ever making a cent. I'm not sure how often I'll be posting. As anyone who does this knows, worthwhile content does not write itself. It takes time and effort.

For those who have stopped by regularly or occasionally during the past six years, accept my thanks. I don't know how long I'll continue to do this. For now, it remains challenging and reasonably fun. 🍻

Monday, June 12, 2017

Drinking for the Boys in Green and Gold

Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. I had never been to a Portland Timbers match and I honestly had no real interest in changing that. Nope. I watched as breweries, pubs, taverns and other businesses jumped on the Timbers bandwagon. Never bought in.

But along came a smarty pants, busy body friend who likes soccer. She couldn't understand why I hadn't been to a game. "What's wrong with you? It's fun! You should go to a game. Will you go to a game with me?"

Against my better judgment, I agreed. Tickets were acquired and we waited for game day, which was Saturday. Watching the weather all week, it looked like we'd be drenched. Didn't happen.

A lot of advice was passed out along the way. I was supposed to look up and learn the songs and chants. On game day, I was advised to leave my newbie scarf at home and wear one she would provide. "And don't you dare wear blue," color of the visiting bums from Dallas.

I never realized the extent to which the area around Providence Park has become a sort of pregame festing area for fans. It's tailgating without the parking lot mess and open grills. Bars and foodie joints near the stadium were fairly well packed in the hours before the game.

Our first pregame stop was a dive bar where we met up with (her) friends, a flock of pool playing millennials. The joint reminded me of busted up places where I drank illegally when I was in high school back in the dark ages. Except no draft beer. Only cans and bottles in this dump. Not many choices, either. My first (and only) beer was a Rainier. Nasty, inauspicious start.

Shortly, most of the group departed for the stadium. They had acquired wristbands earlier and were off to claim their places in the Army. Our tickets were in the same area, but on the reserved side. We had time for more beer, thank goodness. Where to? We wound up at the Civic Taproom, which was packed. One beer and we headed to Uno Mas for some pre-match food. And more beer.

After that, we made our way into the Stadium and found our seats. Also more beer. There were some decent options, honestly. But maybe more beer wasn't such a great idea in retrospect. We kept drinking and it crept up on us by the end of the night. No one was driving, fortunately

The pregame shenanigans inside the stadium were both funny and charming. Timbers fans holding up keys and chanting for the visiting bums to go home. Good stuff. Then the National Anthem and the twisting and twirling of scarfs at the end of each line. That was endearing. I might go back just for that.

Between the chanting, drinking and chatting back and forth, I'm not sure how much of the game my millennial friends caught. One of the great things about soccer is the nonstop action...well, nonstop until someone flops and they have stoppage. But constant action is a drag on social time. My friends didn't seem to be having it, chatting each other up incessantly.

At the half, we moved over to where (her) friends were sitting in the Army, a few rows from the front. There's a lot of noise, pageantry and action there. My pal suggested that I grab a flag and wave it around. She provided brief instruction. It was all good until I nearly conked a nearby fan on the head. That was more or less it for the flag.

As for the match, the Timbers scored two goals right in front of us. The first one I saw vaguely as I was headed out the tunnel for a restroom break. My friend was headed back in with...more beer. Perfect. The second goal happened as we watched from the Army. Brilliant. Confetti blast off. Dallas had some shots on goal, but never got much going. Timbers 2, Dallas 0.

Here's where we might have been smart. Having consumed a fair amount of beer over the course of several hours, maybe more beer wasn't the best idea. But the postgame celebration was on and, anyway, getting transit out of there right after a game can be dicey. We headed over to the Kingston for...more beer. Pure genius.

An hour later, someone suggested we stumble over to the nearby Mazatlan. Why not? After all, "We're still standing." So the collective somehow traversed the street, entered the bar and occupied a table. Amazing. That positioned us to place orders for...more beer. Fortunately, snacks were involved. Wise. And karaoke. Not wise, but highly amusing.

It was half past midnight when we (finally) requested a Lyft out of there. Kind of surprising how quickly the driver materialized. She was nice, clearly had some experience carting drunk folks around in the early morning hours. By now, the rain that was supposed to have arrived earlier was pinging down softly, symbolic end to a perfect evening.

There's something innocuous about these Timbers games. The nonstop action is a pleasure to behold and maybe what honest sport is all about. The players are fit and agile. The lack of timeouts means fans aren't constantly barraged with obnoxious ads. And, of course, the fan participation. It's an appealing combination of good stuff.

I now realize that experiencing a Timbers match in person is the key to getting interested. Watching on TV just doesn't do the experience justice. So I thank my kind (and awkward) millennial friend for dragging me out to the park and her friends for putting up with me. Good folks, they are.

With all that said, I recognize future games, if there are any, will require different beer rules. Hours of nonstop drinking Saturday evening tend to make for a bit of a pudgy Sunday. There's possibly a better way to do this.⚽

Monday, June 5, 2017

Fruit Beer Fest Returns to Burnside

The Portland Fruit Beer Festival, now in its seventh year, returns to its original home at Burnside Brewing this weekend, June 9-11. Organizers expect to pour more than thirty beers and ciders made exclusively for the festival, our premier fruit-oriented beer event.

They're returning to Burnside after a one-year stint at the North Park Blocks. Why? Well, there were additional costs involved in holding the event downtown. When the weather was uncooperative, the attendance necessary to justify those costs didn't materialize. Thus, the return to Burnside.

It's a reasonable move. The Burnside campus is centrally located, with easy access from all quadrants of the city. One of the reasons for the Park Blocks experiment is limited space at Burnside. That venue was packed to the gills and overly congested during several past Fruit Beer Fests.

To address crowding concerns, organizers say they'll spread the beer stations out and provide more shade and seating than in past years at Burnside. They'll also have a smaller, satellite venue across the street. It'll be a neat trick if they're able to reduce the crowding issues, and I hope they can.

When I first realized fruit infused beers were gaining favor a few years a back, I was mesmerized. It's not something I was exposed to growing up, a time when macro lagers were king. I wondered if fruit beers weren't maybe some kind of strange fad connected to the growth of craft beer.

Of course, that isn't really the case. Fruit has been used in brewing for centuries. As local author and blogger, Jeff Alworth, told me, "Except for lager-brewers in Bavaria, basically no one in the history of civilization ever thought using just grain was somehow proper."

What's happened in modern American craft beer is that tastes have expanded to embrace practices employed for centuries and abandoned during the macro lager era. Fruit is part of that and the Fruit Beer Festival has helped build interest in fruit-centric beers, a positive thing.

The beer and brewery list for this event is extensive. I arrived late to the media preview and tasted only a few of the beers. That isn't all that big of a deal since they weren't sampling the entire festival portfolio. You can view the list of standard beers and ciders on the event site here.

In addition to the standards, there will be 3-4 rotating taps dedicated to rare beers outside the regular lineup. Those beers will rotate at various times during the weekend and most will cost additional tickets. There will be special tappings from Firestone Walker, Great Notion Brewing, Crux Fermentation Project, Cascade Brewing, pFriem Family Brewers, de Garde and others.

Festival days and hours:
Friday, June 9: 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Sat. June 10: 11:00 a.m to  9:00 p.m.
Sun. June 11: 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Advance tickets are available online here, with a small added service charge. Buying in advance may save you time getting into the event venue, though I can't guarantee that. Oh, you have two ticket options, basically a choice between a fancy and plain Jane glass. Up to you.

As always, you can get updated info via the event's social media channels: @FruitBeerFest on Twitter and Instagram, search Portland Fruit Beer Festival on Facebook. 🍻

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Summer, Baseball and 3-Way IPA

A sample pack of this year's 3-Way IPA arrived on my doorstep the other day. The FedEx dude didn't even bother to collect my signature. No matter. I quickly schlepped the contents of the package to my beer fridge for chilling.

As many who stop by here know, 3-Way IPA is an annual collaboration between Fort George Brewing and two rotating breweries. This year's rotating team consists of Portland's Great Notion Brewing and Seattle's Reuben's Brews, both well-known for their mastery of IPA.

There's a lot of gibberish in the press materials regarding the forging of long-lasting friendships, exchange of knowledge and so forth. Please. These brewers get together to produce a great IPA while drinking a lot of the same. Let's not make this too complicated.

I don't intend to take a deep dive into how this year's recipe was formulated. Suffice it to say that the team wanted to brew a juicy, hazy IPA. It's just another sign of the haze craze times in which we live. No one knows how long it'll last. And it doesn't matter since these beers are best enjoyed fresh.

After some discussion and, you suspect, a fair amount of drinking, the brewers decided the hops additions would include Azacca, X331 (now Strata), Mosaic and Citra. If you travel the beer bar circuit, you may have tasted one or more of the multiple Beta test batches. The ones I tasted were pretty good. Collaborators tasted, took notes, made refinements.

This beer is nothing like what it's been in past years. I'm still partial to the 2014 3-Way, a mildly hazy hop bomb produced with Boneyard and Block 15. That, of course, was before beer fans went bonkers for hazy, fruity beers. The new 3-Way chases that theme bigly with opaque golden color and bursting juicy flavor. I'm not a huge fan of the haze, but I like this beer a lot.

As has been the case for the past few years, the release of 3-Way IPA serves as a signal that summer is here...or almost here since you never know the timing of summer's arrival in the Northwest. It will be available in cans and on draft throughout most of the Northwest as of June 1st. How long it lasts will depend on demand. It is a limited seasonal, after all.

There was a release party in Astoria last week. Forget about that. Below are dates for official Seattle and Portland release parties, but I think there will be additional opportunities to hang with these folks. Check social media boards for info.

Portland 3-Way IPA Release Party
When: Friday, June 9, 6:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Alberta Street Pub, 1036 NE Alberta St.
What: Join Fort George, Reuben’s, and Great Notion as they kick-start Portland Beer Week. Live music from Boys II Gentlemen, plus plenty of taps from the collaborators including 3-Way IPA.
How: No cover. Robot costumes are optional, but highly recommended.

Seattle 3-Way IPA Release Party
When: Saturday, June 10, 5:00-9:00 p.m.
Where: Reuben’s Brews, 5010 14th Ave. NW
What: Reuben’s hosts the 3-Way IPA festivities. They’ll have plenty of Great Notion and Fort George on tap along with 3-Way IPA. Live music mix from DJ Draft Punk.
How: No cover with a chance of a laser light show.
🍻

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Art of Subtle Subjugation

Anheuser-Busch's recent acquisition of Wicked Weed Brewing led to a deluge of blog posts and articles on the dangers of craft brewery buyouts. What started out as a slow stream of acquisitions some years ago has now accelerated. The subtle subjugation of craft is underway.

The big fellas only grudgingly decided to start buying up craft breweries. Why? For years, they assumed craft was a fad that would go away. They figured it would never put much of a dent in their market share and they assumed that dent would be temporary.

They changed their tune only when forced to. Craft brewers put them in a bind. The suits at AB watched their sales volumes take a beating at the hands of independent brewers who had the audacity to make beer with flavor and character. Imagine the nerve of these people.

As the numbers started to skew against them, the big guys developed a strategy to save their own skins. It was a multi-level plan and included the creation of the fake craft brand Shock Top, as well as what has been a carefully imagined acquisition strategy.

Shock Top flopped with serious craft fans. It's had some success as a gateway craft brand with uneducated drinkers, though MillerCoors' fake craft brand, Blue Moon, has been far more successful in creating an actual niche between premium macro and authentic craft.

The acquisition strategy was slow to materialize. You can see the vision by looking at the acquisition map. The geographic symmetry is obvious. They have breweries in Oregon, Washington, California, North Carolina, Virginia, Illinois, New York, Colorado, Arizona and Texas. That's no accident.

There's still plenty of dirt where they don't yet have craft ownership. They'll likely address that slowly going forward. For now, they own craft breweries in some of the most high profile craft beer states. The geography positions those breweries to compete with independent craft on a local, regional and, yes, national basis.

Of course, we've been concerned about AB's acquisitions for years. The Wicked Week deal may have broken the proverbial camel's back with industry observers. A lot of the chatter involves speculation about how AB will behave in the marketplace in the days ahead.

It's almost comical. Many wonder if AB is serious about squashing independent brewers. Will they use their massive distribution network to cut shelf access? Will they flood the market with High End product and start a price war? Will they limit access to affordable raw materials? Will they use brewpubs to build local brand identities and confuse what craft is and isn't?

Please. This is a giant corporation that has no scruples whatsoever. They're constantly in court over some bullying tactic. The big boys have not enjoyed watching their numbers dive as craft thrives. They will use any tool at their disposal to protect and improve their position in the industry and put craft brewers in their place

That "place" is on the fringe of the industry, removed from the most lucrative profit channels. The effort to squeeze retail distribution and undercut craft on price is already well-underway. That's just the start. They have other anti-competitive measures in the hopper or on the drawing board.

AB isn't necessarily in a big hurry. With craft breweries in their pocket, they're content to ride the wave for now, assuring industry watchers and gullible beer fans that all is well and nothing will change. It's a brilliant sleight of hand, part of the art of subtle subjugation.🍻


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Portland Beer Week Features Events Blitzkrieg

Portland Beer Week returns for 2017, its seventh year, with a veritable blitzkrieg of events, as well as some new twists. The 11-day fest runs June 8-18. It's coming up faster than you think.

This year’s official beer is Hop Berry IPA, brewed with marionberries by Culmination Brewing. It will be available on draft and in limited edition bottles at Whole Foods Markets and other beer-centric retailers in the Portland area.

Although beer is its main focus, Portland Beer Week extends that theme. It features numerous activities that happen alongside opportunities to enjoy great beer. The event is effectively a celebration of Portland’s beer, food and arts culture rolled into one.

“Our goal is to showcase the world of beer in the greatest beer city on earth,” event founder and czar, Ezra Johnson-Greenough, told me. “We do that through brewer’s dinners, tastings, educational seminars, festivals, games and more.”

One of the big additions (actually an expansion, since there was a kickoff event last year) this year is the Kickoff Party on June 8th. There will be breweries, along with food and merchandise vendors. The party is being held in the Exchange Ballroom and on the Cascade Rooftop (top of the Exchange Building), which features spectacular views of the city.

“I’m really excited that folks like the Oregon Cheese Guild are joining us and our collaborative beer and food project vendors like Salt & Straw Ice Cream and Blue Star Donuts,” Johnson-Greenough said. “Kickoff attendees can sample spirits, chocolate, jerky, hop candy we’ll have beer schwag, too.”
 
Another addition this year is the Dinner Series, which features a handful of collaborations between top local breweries and chefs. Organizers have built the schedule so they don’t have dinners piling up on the same date.

“I’m looking forward to Firestone Walker at Hair of the Dog, Culmination Brewing at The Woodsman, Block 15 & Ruse at an Imperial Session pop-up dinner and Modern Times at Pizza Jerk,” Johnson-Greenough said.

Returning this year is the Seminar Series, presented by Oregon State University and the HR Group. Several seminars will explore subjects like beer industry branding, starting and building a brewery from Nano to production, sustainability in brewing, barrel-aging beers and sour and wild ales.

The beer event schedule jumps into action shortly after the Kickoff Party with the Fruit Beer Festival at Burnside Brewing, June 9-11. Billed as a premiere showcase for fruit beers, the event also features local vendors, food, DJ's and non-alcoholic drinks. It's the marquee event of Portland Beer Week.

“We’re back to Burnside after last year’s experiment in the Park Blocks,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re spreading the beer stations out and the venue will have more shade and seating than in previous years at Burnside. We’ll also have more help at check-in to speed entry.”

The Fruit Beer Fest and fruit beers, generally, have gained favor in recent times. It's a little perplexing because  fruit beers run counter to tradition in this country, tradition being infested mainly with light beers made with malted grains. 

Local writer/blogger/author Jeff Alworth (Beervana, The Beer Bible) gave me this quote regarding the historical relationship between fruit and beer:
Fruit has been used since the Sumerians and Egyptians. As far as I know, every culture on earth has used fruit. Beer was, until fairly recently, a product of the farm, and farmers dumped whatever they had in it, including fruit. Medieval accounts list things like tree bark, hen bane, eggs, beans, honey, chimney soot and ashes as ingredients. Except for lager-brewers in Bavaria, basically no one in the history of civilization ever thought using just grain was somehow "proper."
So what's happening in American craft beer is that we are expanding our tastes to include ingredients that have been used for centuries. The Fruit Beer Festival has helped with that. And, of course, the official Portland Beer Week beer, mentioned earlier, is made with fruit. Symmetry.


The next big event of Portland Beer Week is Masters of IPA, an invitational showcasing America's best brewers of IPA's and hoppy beers. It moves to a larger venue with a curated selection, glassware and meet the brewers’ sessions on Friday, June 16th at Ecliptic Brewing.

The annual Rye Beer Fest, in its sixth year, returns with a new date and venue, moving to the Happy Valley Station indoor/outdoor food cart pod and taproom on Saturday June 17th. The all-age fest will pour more than 20 rye beers and have 18 food carts.

Portland Beer Week’s official finale, Snackdown, returns for a second year on Sunday, June 18th, noon to 4 p.m. Presented by Gigantic Brewing and taking place in The Evergreen ballroom above Loyal Legion, it features more brewer and chef pairings.

“I expect another great year,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re reaching out to tourists and casual beer fans in our marketing efforts and it seems like we’re getting more of those folks. Attendance has been increasing every year and I’m confident it will again.”

Stalk Portland Beer Week’s social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updated news and information. Advance tickets for most events are available online.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Shock and Awe in Craft Beer

Last week was not a great one for craft beer industry news. Despite all the good stuff going on, it does occasionally seem like the industry is under siege. Things figure to get more complicated and convoluted as we move forward. We aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Wicked Weed
The first bad news was the sale of North Carolina-based Wicked Weed to Anheuser-Busch. Some, (I include myself), assumed the big boys would stay fairly quiet on the acquisition front after MegaBrew was finalized and given apparent volatility in the industry. Not so.

Wicked Weed is evidently a bit of an odd duck. They've grown fast since opening in 2012 and expect to produce 40,000 barrels this year. They package 85 or so beers annually and their flagship is an IPA (Pernicious), But sours make up 40 percent of their dollar sales. Yup.

Wicked does something like 35 percent of its sales in North Carolina, and also distributes to a handful of other states, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Colorado and parts of Texas. They will certainly expand that footprint as they extend capacity and gradually get immersed in the AB network.

There's a bit of an alignment smash-up coming, say industry sources. It turns out most of Wicked Weed's distribution network, including in North Carolina, is non-AB. That has the makings of a nice little disaster as AB works to align Wicked with its network. Good stuff.

Heineken and Lagunitas
The announcement that Heineken has fully acquired Lagunitas wasn't a huge surprise. Things have evidently gone pretty well since Heineken became 50 percent owner in the company back in 2015. This is the consummation of that momentum.

When considering the deal, it pays to ignore anything Lagunitas founder Tony Magee says or has said. When the original deal was announced two years ago, Magee said he would never sell the whole company to Heineken. So much for that. And Magee's credibility.

The new arrangement is mainly an international play. According to industry sources, Lagunitas will continue to operate as a separate business entity in the US. Magee will stay on as head of the company and will serve in an advisory role on Heineken's global team.

What's going to happen is Heineken will ramp up the expansion of Lagunitas into new markets around the world. That business has grown dramatically during the past year and has huge untapped potential. That's what motivated Heineken to pull the trigger on full acquisition.

Some craft beer geeks won't look at Lagunitas quite the same going forward. But the reality is, Heineken isn't in the same league as Anheuser-Busch, particularly in the US. It doesn't operate a vast distribution network here or have a collection of craft breweries. No comparison, really.

Craft Brew Alliance
Our friends at the Portland-based Craft Brew Alliance announced their Q1 results late last week. There was good and bad news.

The good news is that Kona was up 14 percent for the quarter, and continues to drag the company forward. CEO Andy Thomas also said Widmer is growing again in its home market, though overall shipments of both Widmer and Redhook were down.

The biggest bombshell was news that the agreement with Pabst to contract brew and eventually purchase the Woodinville brewery has been terminated. That means the brewery will close and be put up for sale within a couple of months.

Realistically, there wasn't much of a chance the purchase was ever going to happen. It's an antiquated brewery and was/is overvalued on the CBA balance sheet. Selling it will be a chore because the buyer, assuming one steps up, will also have to invest in making the place usable.

Of course, Pabst's position has become tenuous. It brewed mostly Rainier Mountain Ale in Woodinville. But the launch of that brand was botched out of the gate and expected volumes never materialized. Brewing capacity wasn't being used. Then Pabst got itself ensnared in lawsuits over distributor terminations (covered here last week) in Washington. A nice little mess.

The Woodinville closure means more CBA employees will be laid off or re-purposed within the company. Reports put the number at about a dozen. That's on top of the 15-20 who were laid off last year due to lower than expected Pabst volumes and declining production of CBA brands there.

In fact, most of the CBA's Woodinville production moved to the more efficient brewery in Portland. That rush to efficiency and greater profits is a slipper slope. The CBA will soon move some production to AB's Fort Collins plant to improve efficiency. That will mainly affect City Brewing in Memphis, but a reliable source tells me layoffs in Portland are imminent. We shall see.

On the heels of the CBA's Q1 report and the sale of Wicked Weed, there was renewed speculation on the possibility of AB completing a full purchase of the CBA. As noted above, the Wicked Weed sale has some people thinking more deals are in the wind. And maybe they are. Or not.

As discussed here numerous times, Anheuser-Busch covets Kona, but has no interest in Widmer or Redhook. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the CBA strips Kona from its portfolio and sells it to AB separately. So it looks to me like the CBA will at some point be purchased and become a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch, with Kona as the crown jewel.

Motivating Factors
For those who want a better understanding of craft brewery acquisitions, there was a fine article exploring that topic last week. Author Chris Herron suggests the primary motivation has more to do with preserving macro brand equity than with wanting to be in craft beer. That's vaguely at odds with what most of us have generally assumed.

Herron's article is terrific stuff and required reading. Trust me.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Turnover and Turmoil at Pabst

There's a whole lot of crazy in the beer industry. Then you look at Pabst, which is setting new standards for crazy in the Eugene Kaspher era. Someone ought to throw together a script and turn this wacky story into a reality TV hit.

Last week, we learned that nine top level folks were shown the door. They included chief growth officer, Rich Pascucci, with the company since 2011, and chief sales officer, Bruce Muenter, there since 2010. These moves come on the heels of significant restructuring last September.

The thing is, the pattern of turnover and turmoil at Pabst is legendary, established even before Kaspher took over in 2014. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a virtual revolving door of CEOs coming and going. Great way to build confidence in your brands.

Some of the more recent moves are the result of ups and downs in the business. Since taking over, Kaspher has rolled with the punches, adding people during the rapid rise of Not Your Father's Root Beer, laying them off when the brand tanked. Shit happens.

The moves they made last week are evidently part of an effort to streamline and build the organization according to the visions of Kaspher and new CEO, Simon Thorpe. They want to eliminate redundant management responsibilities and make themselves agile.

In fact, Pabst's fortunes aren't looking so bad. After some lousy years, trends for 2017 are moving in the right direction. Overall sales are up 1.7 percent. PBR shipments were up nearly 6 percent in Q1 and regional brands Lone Star, Old Style, Stroh and Olympia all showed growth.

The Pabst portfolio, in case you're wondering, includes a boatload of legacy brands. Besides those listed above, Pabst owns Colt 45, Old Milwaukee, Old Tankard Ale, Rainier, Schlitz, Blatz, Schmidt's, St Ides and others. Fine stuff, ya know.

Anyway, things were evidently looking so good for Pabst that leaders decided to incite more turmoil. They did so by abruptly terminating three Washington wholesalers in February and transferring their brands to Columbia Distributing statewide.

The terminated distributors are Odom Corporation, Stein Distributing and Marine View Beverage. They were each sent letters terminating distribution rights without cause and directing them to transfer existing inventory to Columbia. You can't make this stuff up.

It's an unusual situation. Suppliers rarely terminate distributors without cause. Why? Because that kind of move tends to lead to lawsuits that cause messy, expensive court battles and massive payouts. You're generally wise to avoid such scenarios.

But not Pabst. The terminations are apparently part of its realignment strategy. They want to have their beer distributed exclusively by Columbia in the state. It makes sense, right? Working with a single wholesaler fits with their agenda of simplification and efficiency. Terrific.

The problem is, they're now entangled in lawsuits. The terminated distributors quickly sued Pabst in federal court seeking damages. They, the distributors, fully believe the law favors them and that they are entitled to significant financial damages.

Soon thereafter, Pabst filed a motion to dismiss. It claims Washington law allows termination without cause and, in such cases, that terminated distributors' sole financial remedy is from the successor distributor, in this case Columbia.

For its part, Columbia is playing along. It has connected with and made financial offers to the terminated distributors. It says it is willing to arbitrate with the individual distributors if acceptable terms can't be reached via negotiation.

But no settlements are imminent. Not until the court makes a ruling on the law. Is Pabst right? Are the terminated distributors right? For now, the parties are immersed in a rolling dispute over the law, with motions filed and words flying.

My guess is Pabst has stepped into a quagmire. Its pattern of impulsive behavior is simply being acted out on another stage. The legal argument Pabst is making is a supple one. Chances are, they aren't going to win, which means they'll be forced pay the terminated distributors.

Lawyers and judges will figure this out. However things turn out, the saga makes for entertaining theater. Thanks a lot, Pabst.