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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.

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 diabetic 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.