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Thursday, August 4, 2022

Downsized OBF Lurches Toward Uncertain Future

After a two year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Oregon Brewers Festival returned to Waterfront Park this past weekend. This is undoubtedly the most important festival in the history of Oregon craft beer. It's always on my calendar, despite the fact that many of my compadres no longer consider it relevant.

Declining attendance in recent years has helped reinforce the notion that the event is, in fact, irrelevant. But OBF remains the largest beer festival in Oregon, one of the largest in the country. Even with declining attendance, an event like that isn't really irrelevant...until numbers drop to the point where the event is simply canceled. 

I was interested to see what changes organizers would make this year, particularly given the two year pandemic hiatus. They implemented some fairly dramatic changes to address drooping attendance in 2019. This year turned out to be more of the same, although the changes weren't all positive in my mind.

Reduced Days
They cut the festival down to three days this year...Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Many will recall that the fest was four days in 2018 and 2019, after being five for several years. Abandoning Sunday again, as they had done in 2019, was a good call; Sunday had notoriously dreadful attendance for years before it was finally dropped. Wednesday was dropped this year to get the event down to three days, I assume due to attendance woes. No complaints.

The Venue
One of the big changes in 2019 was switching the southside beer taps to the river side of the park, thus opening up the shaded area on the westside of the park for seating. In past years, trailers were situated in the shaded area. 

The 2019 setup was repeated this year. In fact, organizers liked the arrangement so much they eliminated the northside beer taps altogether and moved the entire beer portion of the event to the southside. Yup. The festival grounds were cut roughly in half this year. 

I suppose it was inevitable that the footprint of the festival grounds would be squeezed, given the issues with attendance. But it felt a little odd walking into what had been the central compound and seeing open space where tents and trailers had always been on the northside. 

I wondered how the vendors in that central area were doing. There was definitely less foot traffic there, with the vast majority of people augured in on the southside under the tents or in the shade. Perhaps those vendors paid less for the privilege of being there this year. One can only hope.

Moving the entire beer portion of the event to the southside had it's pluses and minuses. The tents in front of the trailers were larger this year, providing more shade. But the extreme heat and number of bodies under those tents made it rather uncomfortable there. You really needed to vacate the tents once you had a beer, though many did not. The lines weren't bad Thursday afternoon. I'm glad I wasn't around to see what it was like in the evening hours.

When I was looking for a beer at one point, I was surprised to find I couldn't see the beer names until I was close to the taps. As a result, people were often confused about which line to be in. At first I thought the larger tents were responsible, but that wasn't it. In 2019, they had large signs immediately behind each pouring station identifying the beer being poured. Those signs were visible and readable from a good distance. But this year's signs were cheap and small, and they were hung so high that you couldn't see the beer name until you got close. That was not ideal. It's hard to imagine why no one caught it when they were setting up. 

Another change this year was no music of any kind. For most its history, OBF had a stage with bands/solo artists playing live music. You could chill with a beer and listen if you pleased. In 2019, they switched to a DJ setup that pumped music around the grounds. That was an annoying change, as the music was often muddled or too loud. Anyway, problem solved this year: No music or stage. 

Finally, I was surprised to find several rows of standup tables in the common area just north of the beer tents. With the heat and direct sunlight, these tables were uninhabitable during afternoon hours. I stood at one to jot down some notes at one point and didn't return. Tables with umbrellas would have been better, given the heatwave everyone knew would be part of the festival.

The Beers
They were pouring 42 beers and two ciders according to the event program. I saw a bit of bitching and moaning about the beer selection on social media. I looked at the list in advance and didn't think much of it. But I found some pretty good beers in the 15-20 I tasted, along with the usual losers. The list leaned toward light and hoppy, which surely disappointed folks looking for more options.

After holding the line on cost for many years, they moved to a $2 taster (most beers) this year. No one should have been surprised, as prices on everything have skyrocketed since the pandemic. OBF taster size has varied over the years. In 2019, the taster line was 3 ounces. This year, it was 4. The larger tasting size probably allowed some patrons to feel less aggravated by the price increase. Fifty cents for an ounce of beer is a premium price, but it would have been worse if they'd stayed at a 3 ounce taste.

You could get a full glass of beer or cider if you were so inclined. That would set you back three tickets or $6. The glass, billed at 12 ounces and exactly the same size and form factor as 2019, overflows at less than 12 ounces. So a full glass of beer or cider with any head at all is going to be 10-11 ounces. Do the math if you wonder how much worse of a deal that is than a 4 ounce taster. 

As was the case in 2019, there was a printed program this year. They had a mobile app in 2018, but reviews were mixed. I was one of those who actually liked the mobile app and was disappointed to see it go away. But the fact that the 2022 beer list was roughly half of what it was in recent years meant the printed program worked fine. I suspect it's here to stay, unless something dramatic happens.

The Glass and Token Switch
It's become pretty common for beer fests to charge exorbitant prices for "customized" tasting vessels. These plastic glasses aren't special or fancy. OBF has been charging $10 for the tasting glass in recent years. Unless someone shows me an invoice proving otherwise, I assume these glasses cost much less than a dollar apiece. So the glass is nearly pure profit for this and every event that follows the blueprint. The fact that OBF isn't alone in this fleecing doesn't make it okay. 

After using wooden tokens for virtually the entire history of the event, organizers switched to paper tickets this year. They were $2 each to align with taster cost. Most beer centric events have gone to some kind of paper ticket. They're undoubtedly cheaper and easier to manage than wooden tokens. I always liked the charm of tokens, which I found easy to keep track of in a pocket. Oh, well.

The transition from tokens to paper tickets presented an opportunity for organizers to make what I consider to be a dumb unforced error. OBF had always honored tokens acquired at past events. You could simply use old tokens as if they were newly purchased. It was a nice policy. But not this year. With the switch to tickets, past tokens had to be exchanged for paper tickets.

Organizers initially said they would trade tokens for tickets, one to one. That would have been a nice gesture to fans who held onto tokens, getting a $2 ticket for each $1 token. But organizers reneged, saying the initial communication was a mistake. Having botched that communication, doubled the price of a taster and downsized the event across the board, organizers might have been wise to suck up whatever loss they would have incurred in exchange for a little goodwill. No deal.

One thing to keep in mind with respect to tickets: I'm guessing the ones from 2022 won't be honored at any future event, as was the case with tokens. There's a financial benefit to not honoring tickets from past events and it mirrors the reason retailers like gift certificates, knowing full well some or many will never be redeemed: Pure profit! That probably isn't the only reason tokens are being dumped, but it's almost certainly one of them.

OBF 22 felt to me like a dumbed down experience at a higher price. For many years I considered the event to be a decent bargain in terms of time and money. But they've altered its character to the extent that, in its current form, it doesn't represent the value it once did. At least in my mind.

I suppose this year's event could be an aberration. The pandemic created a lot of challenges for beer fests and similar events. Plus, OBF organizers have been struggling for several years to come up with ways to reverse sliding attendance. Maybe this year was a perfect storm.  

My guess, though, is this was a glimpse into the future. OBF once appealed to a wide swath of people. Attendance was growing rapidly for so many years that the event expanded to five days. Some of us thought it would eventually consume an entire week. Instead, the event is imploding, forced to downsize while boosting prices. That isn't a winning strategy.

Honestly, OBF may be approaching obsolescence. The vision at the outset was to provide a platform for craft brewers to showcase their wares. People didn't know much about craft beer in those days and OBF helped change that. That brought the industry into the mainstream. Today, you can find great beer at an endless number of bars, restaurants, taprooms and breweries. 

You might say OBF is victim of a success story it helped author. With great craft beer available everywhere, people don't get as excited about an oversized, awkward event. And the downsizing and price boosting that occurred this year probably aren't a good omen for the future.  

Friday, April 8, 2022

Precious Things Offers Stunning, Welcoming Experience

Reliving the quaint past of craft beer can be interesting...and instructive. Cash laden investors and hedge funds hadn’t yet entered the scene. Early craft brewers were stuck cobbling together makeshift breweries with their personal savings and borrowed money. Craft beer hadn’t yet arrived. 

On a recent trip to Spokane, I entered a worm hole that took me back to yesteryear. The area is home to a robust craft beer movement that’s probably a decade or so behind Portland in its evolution. There are a lot of small breweries catering to a growing audience of fans. 

My travels took me to Precious Things Fermentation Project, located in rural Spokane on the property of Jeff and Candace Clark. There, the Clarks have fashioned a unique experience with a collection of nice beers and a small taproom that has a ton of charm. You can't make this stuff up.

“We’ve been fans of craft beer for as long as we’ve been of drinking age…maybe longer,” Jeff said. “We’ve always been attracted to the camaraderie. It’s impossible to count the number of long lasting and close friendships we’ve made because of craft beer.”

The Clarks got totally hooked on craft beer while they were living in Portland, 2010-2015. Those years were instrumental in what they’re doing now, they say. It was then that they learned how to brew and started collecting the memorabilia that is now featured in their taproom. 

“The vision for what became Precious Things occurred to us about five years ago,” Jeff said. We had a bar set up in our garage, first in Oregon and then in Spokane. People would stop by and drink our homebrew and commercial beers. We had a tip jar, but it always seemed to wind up empty.”

While they enjoyed the experience of having people over and drinking good beer, the cost became unmanageable. They eventually decided to go into business for real and actually become part of the industry they had come to respect and love. 

“It’s ironic,” Candace said. “Many of the people who used to come to our place and drink for free now come here and pay to drink. And they leave tips. They could've saved money by just putting a little dough in the tip jar in the first place.”

Precious Things has a nice list of beers, but it operates on a tiny system. Even by the standards of the early craft brewers, it’s amazing that they get by with what they’re using. Of course, there are reasons for everything.

“Our system is incredibly small,” Jeff said. “You might say it's stupidly small. We still brew on two Grainfather systems we purchased years ago and brewed on before we moved here. Our plan when we moved here was to build a 2-barrel system. But the property won’t allow it.”

The issue with the property is it has a septic system and drain field. There’s no sewer in the area. Water disposal isn’t a huge problem, but disposal of solid waste (yeast and trub) is. The tiny system they have now doesn’t present much of a problem. Anything larger is a problem.

“We continue to use our Grainfathers, and we invested in four small conical fermenters and a glycol chiller to control their temperatures,” said Jeff. “We’ve managed to be open on Saturdays for two years doing this. For the last year, we've had an arrangement with Bellwether Brewing allowing us to brew on their pilot system and enjoy access to dry and cold storage.”

They do plan to expand the brewing system, though the taproom will stay exactly as it is. 

“We’re hoping to build a 3.5-barrel brewhouse here,” Jeff said. “The new building would allow us to move out of Bellwether and brew everything here. We’d also have more cold storage, as well as room to expand our barrel program." 

That plan hasn’t come to fruition because they haven’t been able to find a builder willing to do the work. Home construction in the Spokane area is off the hook crazy.

I had not searched out images of the taproom prior to my visit. It’s housed in what was once a garage. I expected a grubby space and was stunned by the aesthetics when I walked in. The place was packed and the visuals transported me to another place. While I enjoyed a few beers, Jeff and Candace poured beer and mingled with patrons. A most welcoming place.

“The aesthetic of our taproom has been influenced by places we love in Portland and beyond,” Candace said. “Places like Horse Brass Pub, Saraveza and Belmont Station, as well as the Cat's Eye Pub in Baltimore and the Delirium Café in Brussels. We really love to drink beer at places that have a lot of things to look at.”

For the Clarks, the overriding mission has always been to create a community of craft beer drinkers. That mission appears to have been largely accomplished in the two years they’ve been open. The busy taproom was evidence enough of that. 

“We love learning about beer, talking about beer, brewing beer, and of course drinking beer,” Jeff said. “We make beer for people we like and people we want to meet. If you love any of those things (learning, talking, brewing, drinking), then we make beer for you!”

If you find yourself in the Spokane area, a trip to Precious Things is definitely recommended. They don't currently have a website, but you can find them on Facebook and Instagram.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Blitz and Me: Life With a Sneaky, Hungry Dog

One thing you know or should know when you own a dog is that, sooner or later, they're going to break your heart. They aren't built to last as long as humans, so they leave this life before we do. We suffer that reality because of the loyalty and comradery we get in between. 

Blitz joined us in March 2007, nicknamed Chewy (after the Star Wars character) due to his occasional verbalizations. He was our third Lab, replacing Bert, who passed away at the end of 2006. I'd been around Labs my entire life and never had one live past the age of 12. I had no idea Blitz would wind up being the genetic champion of them all, living to the ripe old age of 15. 

Just because he lived a long life doesn't mean he was an ideal dog. In fact, Blitz was very often a bad dog. As a puppy, he was prone to mischief and destruction. If left unattended, he would chew up shoes, shred toiler paper rolls and otherwise dismantle almost anything that was left out and fit in his mouth. He had to be crated when left unattended until he was more than 2 years of age.

Later on, Blitz became a sneaky, stealthy and refined counter surfer. He swiped slices of pizza, hamburgers, pastries and all kinds of other things. In one instance, Laura had baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies. They were cooling on the counter when Blitz passed by. He somehow managed to gobble up all but one or two cookies from the sheet. 

Then there was the time we were having dinner out and he scoped out a bar of baking chocolate on the counter. There was nothing left but tiny flakes of wrapper when we returned. But Blitz suffered no ill-effects. Research suggested it would have taken 10 or more similar bars of the chocolate to do any harm. Iron gut on a large dog.

A lot of Blitz' missteps were surely driven by food. He was always hungry, even when he had just been fed. There was something in his DNA that commanded him to eat and then eat some more. It's quite possible he lived as long as he did because he was driven to eat and hadn't yet eaten enough. 

One of the most disastrous Blitz events occurred in 2008. We were on a ski weekend in Sunriver. Blitz convinced me he needed to go outside at 1:00 a.m. His much older stablemate, Bruno, followed. They did not return. We then spent the early morning hours hunting for them, without success. Eventually, they turned up at the condo. Blitz had led Bruno on a marauding spree, hunting for garbage. Later that morning, on short sleep, Laura tore an ACL on the mountain.

With Biscuit, 2010
Years later, we had another trip to Sunriver planned. The night before we were to leave, Blitz disappeared on our walk in Rose City Park. That wasn't unusual. He often ran away to chase coyotes or go for a swim in the water hazard at Rose City Golf Course. He also frequented nearby homeless camps looking for food. Normally, he would come back or I would corral him. Not this time. He finally turned up 18 hours later, seeking shelter from a passing thunderstorm in a garage more than a mile from the park. How he made it there we didn't want to know. We picked him up.

After that little excursion, Blitz was leashed on his evening walks so he couldn't run away. It wasn't until he turned 13 and no longer had the ability to get away that I let him off leash during those outings. He could still get around just fine at that point, just didn't have the footspeed needed to easily escape. 

Bunk and Blitz, 2020
Blitz wasn't the most athletic Lab we've had, but he was undoubtedly the healthiest. He rarely had physical issues and his trips to the vet were sporadic and routine. Even in his old age, he continued to demand regular walks and ate his meals enthusiastically. People often asked what we were doing to enhance his longevity. Nothing. Blitz got the same treatment as all the other dogs. He simply had better genetic luck.

He was also pretty lucky when it came to stablemates. The first was Bruno, a kind and patient boy Blitz knew during the first two years of his life. Bruno tolerated Blitz, that's about it. Then came Biscuit, Blitz' younger sister. Despite occasional spats, they got along well during her 10 years. Finally, Bunk showed up not long after Blitz turned 13. He never liked crazy Bunk, although she liked and leaned on him. 

Young Blitz with Bruno, 2007

Blitz passed away last week. His decline was slow and long, and we knew he was nearing the end. We miss him dearly, even though caring for him had become arduous. Frankly speaking, I never had the kind of relationship with Blitz that I had with Biscuit. She wantonly hung out with me constantly. Blitz was always aloof and cool to close contact. But he was a good boy in his own way.

Godspeed, sweet boy. You will be missed by many. 💔

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Iconic Hair of the Dog Will Close Next Summer

The first time we poured beer at the Oregon Brewers Festival in the mid-1990s, my wife and I hoped to pour Hair of the Dog. We didn't get the gig and I don't recall why we wanted to pour Hair of the Dog beer. We surely had it somewhere, but I don't remember the details.

Fred Eckhardt shares a moment with Sprints. (Matt Wiater photo)
Hair of the Dog beers were always different. Even in the early days when Alan Sprints wasn't yet making the barrel-aged monsters he would become internationally famous for, the beers were unique. I suspect that was largely because they were made by hand on a small system. 

Sprints founded Hair of the Dog Brewing in late 1993. He had come to Portland years earlier to study at the Western Culinary Institute. He got hooked on brewing and honed his craft via the Oregon Brew Crew, an organization he led for a time. He also worked at Widmer for several years prior to launching Hair of the Dog. 

For 17 years, Sprints operated Hair of the Dog out of a warehouse in Southeast Portland. It was far off the beaten path and perhaps somewhat difficult to find for some. Sprints finally decided to upgrade. The result is the brewery and pub that opened on Southeast Yamhill in 2010.

Despite his time at Widmer, Sprints is essentially a home brewer who started a brewery. He steadfastly held onto the notion of brewing beer in small batches. He has used a tiny 4-bbl brewing system to produce his beers since the beginning.  

When I interviewed him for Portland Beer in 2013, Sprints told me his goal had always been simple: "l try to make beers I like, hoping others will enjoy them." His primary influences, he said, were the imports from Europe, especially Belgium, he drank as a young man. His second inspiration was provided by the early west coast craft brewers...Mendocino, Anchor and Sierra Nevada.  

Of course, Sprints would come to be heavily influenced and inspired by iconic beer historian and writer, Fred Eckhardt. An early Hair of the Dog beer, Adam (originally called Adambier), is a style that had ceased to exist until it was resurrected by Sprints. The idea for Adam occurred to Sprints when he heard Eckhardt speaking about beer styles that had fallen into extinction. 

Sprints and Eckhardt developed a cordial friendship and Sprints subsequently honored Eckhardt's contributions by adding Fred to his beer list. Then there was Fred Fest, a popular celebration of craft beer held yearly at Hair of the Dog on Eckhardt's birthday. That was generally a tough ticket. The future of Fred Fest would appear to be uncertain with HOD closing, though the 2022 event is set for May. 

Beyond the old world beers he resurrected, Sprints was a pioneer of barrel-aged beers and also of using local fruit in barrels. The idea of aging beer in spirit and wine barrels has become standard practice in modern craft brewing, but that wasn't always the case. Sprints was at the forefront of that movement.

“It’s nice to know my head was in the right place with barrel aging and that I was ahead of the curve,” Sprints said in 2013. “Aging Beers in wood is a challenge and can be good for your image.”

Hair of the Dog beers, because they have always been handmade, have had a tendency to vary in quality. A well-known flaw is under-carbonation, although there are others. Once upon a time, I bought a case of "bald" Fred, billed as a flat beer that would carbonate in time. But the beer failed to acquire any significant level of carbonation after years of cellaring. So it was used in stews and chilis with terrific results. 

Despite occasionally uneven beers. Hair of the Dog has been a beacon that attracted craft beer fans from around the world. When the brewery moved to inner Southeast, the appeal grew and it was regularly mentioned as a required destination for beer tourists visiting Portland. And it isn't uncommon to meet people from around the country and world while enjoying beers there. 

The impending closure of the brewery and pub is a blow to the local craft beer scene. Not because Hair of the Dog is an essential part of the current scene, but because of it's standing for so many years and because of the fact that Sprints influenced so many who came after him. Portland's beer scene was inoculated with Sprints' idealism long ago...and those ideals have spread.

When he closes up shop next summer, Sprints will retain the Hair of the Dog brand. That makes sense mostly because he IS the brand. Sprints will be officially retired, but he'll have control over what he decides to do with the brand. It will be interesting to see what that is. The pub and brewery will be sold, once he finds a buyer.

Godspeed, Alan Sprints. Your contributions to craft beer won't be forgotten.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Henry's Private Reserve: The Final PDX Bottling at 22

When Miller closed the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery in 1999, many of the brands that had been brewed in Portland moved to the Miller-owned plant in Olympia. That included Henry's Private Reserve, which was launched in 1976 and was arguably Oregon's first craft or near-craft beer.

Private Reserve had become legendary long before production moved out of state. As I've said before, I don't think the quality of the beer suffered when it was brewed in Olympia starting in 1999 or when it moved to Hood River in 2003. Quality did go to hell when production moved to Colorado in 2013. It's a common theme with acquired brands.

Fans of the beer here in Portland were sad to see the old brewery close. Some of them stocked up on that last bottling of Private Reserve, brewed at the end of August 1999. One of the loons who collected some of that final bottling is a dog friend of mine. It turns out the pandemic and a puppy have shifted my friends list from beer bars and breweries to dog parks. That's where I met Brian. 

When the brewery closed in 1999, Brian bought a six pack of Private Reserve. He stashed the beer in his basement, where it sat on a shelf at cellar temperature for the last 22 years and change. When he mentioned that he had the beer, I asked if he'd be willing to share a bottle. He hedged. Then, on New Year's Eve, a small bag showed up at my door. Inside, a bottle of Private Reserve bottling #140. 

I knew the bottle came from the final run of Private Reserve because that information was published at the time in The Oregonian. My research for Portland Beer turned up that tidbit. Another not-so-well known fact is that Private Reserve was not the final beer packaged in Portland. It turns out 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor made up the last production run here. 

As discussed earlier, Private Reserve vintages started with #1. The initial beer was packaged in longneck bottles and shipped in wooden crates. The crates were gone quickly, replaced with cardboard. The longneck bottles stuck around for a time, but were eventually replaced with a standard bottle such as we see with #140 and #13. Also, vintage #13 included only a few cases...for the same reason that many buildings don't have 13th floors, I suppose. 

It occurs to me that Blitz-Weinhard used the batch numbers for a time and then dropped them. They were making a lot of the stuff and constantly changing the label became a pain. That's intel I gathered during the book project, but I can't find a reference to back it up. It may have been something someone told me and I didn't record. 

I don't know what constituted a batch of Private Reserve. Could there have been 140 batches brewed during the 23 years the beer was produced at the Portland brewery? Maybe, probably. And even it they weren't using batch numbers on labels for a period of time, I suppose it's possible they were tracking batches and that the final batch was, in fact, #140. If there's another explanation, I don't know what it is. Please contact me if you do.

The bottle I was given had a twist-off cap. I recall that the Private Reserve I was drinking in the eighties and nineties came in bottles with twist caps. I know the early vintages had standard crown caps because I've seen and handed some of those bottles. There are also pictures on the internet showing bottles without the threads needed for a twist-off cap. 

I suspected the twist-off cap was a bad omen in terms of what I would find inside the bottle. I used twist-off caps a few times when I was a home brewer, with dreadful results. I also had the experience of tasting old vintages of Sierra Nevada Celebration several years ago. The beer in the twist-off bottles was invariably damaged. The beer housed under standard crown caps fared better.

There was no pressure released when I removed the cap. In fact, the cap was seemingly welded to the bottle and I had to grip it with a towel to get it off. The bottle had been refrigerated for a week or so before I opened it, so it poured cold and clear. But there was no carbonation. And the color was off, significantly darker than it should have been. I instantly knew the beer was gone.

Most who have homebrewed know the flavor of malt extract syrup. My bottle of Private Reserve tasted like watered down malt extract syrup. No hops character at all, which I anticipated. Oxidation had destroyed this beer, returning it to its base form. The twist-off cap was probably the main culprit, though maybe a standard crown cap wouldn't have made a difference. I don't know.

Tasting old beer vintages can be fun. But it's seldom rewarding in my experience. Nonetheless, thanks to Brian for sharing a bottle of Private Reserve from the final production run in Portland. I'll keep the bottle in my collection. I hope to disappear memories of the beer from my palate.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Henry Weinhard Story Comes to a Close

Last week's announcement that Molson Coors (MillerCoors in the US) will discontinue production of Blitz-Weinhard brands effectively closes the book on Portland's most iconic brewing entity. The brands being discontinued are Old English 1200 (originally 800) Malt Liquor and Henry's Private Reserve. 

The Blitz-Weinhard story dates to 1856, when Henry Weinhard arrived in the Portland area and began to build a brewing empire. His first stop was Vancouver, but he soon crossed over into Portland and his brewery became a regional power within a decade or so. In fact, the existence of a notable brewing empire created a sort of aura that craft brewers benefited from as Blitz-Weinhard began to fade in the late 20th century. People were ready and willing to try local beers.

The demise of the Weinhard brands comes as no surprise. Both were launched in the 1970s, a time when BW was losing share to national brands. Fifty years later, the industry is in a completely different place, with craft beers, light beers and seltzers slugging it out for market dominance. Molson Coors simply saw no place for the awkward, ancient brands. 

How the ancient brands came about is an interesting story. Bill and Fred Wessinger, great grandsons of Henry Weinhard, were attempting to lead the company through the challenging seventies, a time when consolidation and pressure from invasive national brands put Blitz-Weinhard in a tenuous spot. Business was decent, but the brothers could see a time when they'd be out of business if they didn't do something. 

The strategy they landed on is one craft brewers would ride to success nearly a decade later. In effect they invented the idea of going after segments of the market that big beer had abandoned or never really entered. Old English 800 and Private Reserve were the result.

Ironically, it was the success of Old English Malt Liquor that gave them the idea for Private Reserve. Malt liquor was an area that had been entered and largely abandoned by the national brands. The entry of Old English 800 was a big hit in the Northwest and even in a few markets outside it.

As they looked at the slipping volume of the mainstream Blitz brand, the Wessingers decided against fighting a losing battle for a shrinking share of the industrial lager segment. It would have been impossible to compete with the advertising assault being carried out by the national brands. They opted to enter the super premium market. Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve was the result.

The super premium market was, in those days, occupied by the likes of Michelob and Lowenbrau, along with imports if you could find them. The Wessingers reasoned that the segment could be exploited with the right product. Private Reserve proved them right.

When launched in 1976, Private Reserve had some unique attributes: First, it was based on a 19th century recipe and (purportedly) brewed strictly with malted barley, hops and water. That was a shot at the adjunct-heavy lagers of the day. Second, it was initially packaged in longneck bottles that were popular in bars and restaurants, but not generally sold in stores. Third, bottle labels carried batch numbers for many years, suggesting limited production. Finally, (cases of) bottles were packaged in wooden crates, a practice that didn't last long, but suggested something special.

Make no mistake, Private Reserve was a good beer. It was arguably Oregon's first craft or semi-craft beer. More importantly, it suggested the idea of using quality ingredients to make beer that was cleaner and with more sophisticated flavor profiles than what was being offered by the industrial lagers of the day. 

Private Reserve built a solid following in the Northwest and eventually in California. Along with Old English 800, it helped revive Blitz' flagging fortunes. By 1977, Private Reserve and Old English Malt Liquor accounted for 40 percent of BW's total sales. Growth of the two brands continued, but it wasn't enough to offset what they were losing in their mainstream brands. 

By 1978, the Wessingers were looking for a partner to expand their production and distribution footprint beyond the West Coast. That's apparently how the conversations with Pabst commenced. The deal to sell was announced at a press conference on Jan. 31, 1979. The Wessingers continued to manage the Portland facility and the Blitz portfolio, though they had sold to Pabst. 

On the heels of the success of Private Reserve, the Wessingers planned to launch a second super premium beer, Henry Weinhard's Blue Boar Irish-Style Pale Ale. The beer wasn't an ale, but nevermind. Pabst was cool on the idea. Instead, it wanted to expand the reach of Old English 800 Malt Liquor, which it evidently saw as easy money. And that's what happened. 

The marriage to Pabst was somewhat dysfunctional and lasted only three years. Anyone who conducted a cursory review of Pabst's situation at the time of the sale should have seen reason for concern. Company profits declined from $21 million to $11 million, 1977-1978. Barrel sales declined by 600,000, more than Blitz produced. Pabst was hemorrhaging cash.

Nonetheless, Private Reserve continued to do well. After Blitz was acquired by G. Heileman in 1982, the outlook improved. It turned out G. Heileman liked the idea of specialty products that could compete in space vacated by the national brands. It signed off on the idea of a successor to Private Reserve. But it wasn't Blue Boar. Instead, it was Private Reserve Dark. 

"We've noticed that the discerning beer consumer has displayed a growing interest in various types of beers, particularly imported dark lagers in the last two or three years," Fred Wessinger told The Oregonian. Kurt Widmer, in the midst of launching Widmer with his brother and father, was thinking almost exactly the same thing. 

Private Reserve Dark was released in 1983 and did reasonably well. The Irish Ale was launched two years later and also did well. By that time, Blitz' standard lager had imploded and accounted for a fraction of sales. The company was almost completely dependent on the premium brands for cash flow at that point. 

The arrangement with G. Heileman lasted until 1996 and it's a bizarre story. Heileman came under the control of Alan Bond, an Australian businessman who supposedly wanted to build a brewing empire, in 1987. Bond financed the acquisition with junk bonds, thus saddling Heileman with $800 million in debt. The company was forced into bankruptcy in 1991. 

Three years later, Heileman was purchased by a private equity firm, which sold it to Stroh in 1996. But Stroh itself was soon in financial distress, losing several million dollars per quarter by 1998. The hammer fell in early 1999, when Stroh announced it would sell some of its brands. The Blitz-Weinhard portfolio was sold to Miller.

Production of Blitz' super premium brands continued at the Portland brewery until it closed in August, 1999. It then moved to Olympia in Tumwater, which was a larger and more modern brewery. When Miller closed the Olympia brewery in 2003, production of the Private Reserve brands moved to Full Sail in Hood River on a contract basis. Ten years later, production shifted to Colorado. 

There's no mention of Private Reserve Dark or Blue Boar in the stuff I've seen announcing the end of Private Reserve. But I assume production of the entire family is ending. Private Reserve was surely the best selling of the three brands and MillerCoors has no use to the other two given that reality. 

As I said earlier, this development is no surprise. These beers had a good run and they provided a sort of bridge to the craft movement that started in the early Eighties. If you weren't quite ready for craft beer during that era, any one of the Henry's beers could help you get there. There's no doubt in my mind that those brands helped lure a lot of beer fans to craft.

I drank all of these beers in the early days. For me, the quality remained solid through the Nineties. I think it was even okay after production moved to Olympia and Hood River. But quality slid down a rabbit hole in recent times. The last time I took a chance on Private Reserve, it was a hot mess. That wasn't a surprise. Once big brewers latch onto brands and shift production to giant factory breweries, quality invariably declines. 

Given the state of the industry and where the Private Reserve family fit into the contemporary scheme of things, these beers aren't going to be missed. They were as irrelevant as any of the various industrial lagers, which is what they had essentially become. But the retirement of these brands does bring closure to the Weinhard story. And what a story it is.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

End of the Road for Portland Brewing

In the olden days of craft beer, one of the first beers that interested me was Bert Grant's Scottish Ale. It was available in Pullman, where I was in graduate school and also one of the few craft beers you could get in a bottle at the time. There weren't that many around and most were draft only.

Of course, that Scottish Ale was one of the beers Portland Brewing began producing for the Portland market when it opened in March 1986. Contract brewing the Bert Grant beers helped get Portland Brewing off the ground. It gave them a reliable cash flow and, just as important, allowed them to tap into Grant's brewing expertise. 

When Grant increased the size of his brewery in Yakima, Portland Brewing lost the contract to brew his beers for this market. But the Grant beers lived on under different names with slightly tweaked recipes (note that Grant wasn't so sure about the tweaking). The Scottish Ale later morphed into McTarnahan's (the original spelling) Amber Ale, the brewery's most popular beer. 

If you're keeping track, Portland Brewing was the last of Portland's founding breweries to open. It was preceded by the short-lived Cartwright, Bridgeport, McMenamins and Widmer. Of those, only McMenamin's survives in more or less its original form. Cartwright lasted two years, Bridgeport closed in 2019 and Widmer (part of the Craft Brew Alliance) recently sold to Anheuser-Busch. 

We learned last week that Portland Brewing will cease operations in early February. The reasons apparently have nothing to do with the raging pandemic, which has caused widespread disaster in craft beer. That makes sense. Portland Brewing closed its pub two years ago and they were strictly production brewing here since. So its demise has more to do with the state of the industry than the pandemic.

High school buddies Art Larrance, Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin founded Portland Brewing  The original pub on Northwest Flanders (most recently occupied by the now defunct Rogue) instantly became a popular watering hole and night spot. The space was too small virtually from the start and the brewery eventually moved to industrial Northwest in 1993. The problems began there. 

To finance the significantly larger pub and brewery, the founders sold common stock, They had done that since virtually the beginning and there were many smalltime investors who enjoyed owning part of something exciting. Benefits included a free daily pint. But not all investors were small. Local legend Mac MacTarnahan was a major investor. He gained majority ownership soon after the brewery opened in the new place. By 1998, the MacTarnahan name was used on all branding. 

A few years later, Mac was in failing health and so was the company. The MacTarnahan family, tired of pumping cash into a sinking proposition, sold Portland Brewing to Seattle-based Pyramid in 2004. Minority shareholders, including the founders, were shocked and disgruntled when they received pennies on the dollar for their shares while the MacTarnahan family sucked up the bulk of the proceeds. All's fair in war and business.

The real fun started in 2008, when Pyramid was acquired by Magic Hat. Magic Hat itself was acquired by North American Breweries in 2010. Then Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm (FIFCO) bought North American Breweries in 2012. Sensing the error of the MacTarnahan's branding, the parent company changed the name back to Portland Brewing in 2013.

I always assumed the ownership changes and remoteness led to a muddled strategic vision. That judgment may have been incorrect. It's apparent looking at Oregon numbers (graph courtesy of Jeff Alworth) that Portland/Pyramid was growing its business in the immediate aftermath of the ownership turmoil. During a time when the craft brewery count was escalating rapidly and smaller breweries were beginning to lead the industry, Portland/Pyramid was apparently doing just fine.

The size of the brewery likely made that possible. When the founders moved to industrial Northwest, they installed a 130-barrel brewery. It was a costly leap of faith. They thought they would be brewing large batches of standards like MacTarnahan's for the pub and for distribution. The brewery could efficiently produce a variety of different beers in large quantities. Indeed, the size of the brewery is likely what attracted Pyramid and the other buyers. 

As the brewery count exploded and small batch, experimental beers captured the hearts and minds of craft drinkers in more recent times, Portland Brewing's large brewery became an anchor, not an asset. If they wanted to brew something, they had to make a lot of it. I'm guessing that's why they never really competed for drinkers looking for small batch beers. Instead, they relied on beers that sold well in grocery and c-stores, often at sub premium prices.   

Even though things were going relatively well in 2015, North American Breweries wanted more...or possibly realized what was coming. They hired Robert Rentsch as general manager of Portland Brewing/Pyramid. It was a newly created role and Rentsch seemed like a good fit. He had a solid brand building background at the Craft Brew Alliance, where he worked on the national expansion of Kona and helped launch Omission. 

I talked to Rentsch at the pub one afternoon over a beer. He hadn't been on the job long and wasn't sure or wouldn't say how he was going to attack it. The press release announcing his hiring was vague. It talked about creating a localized, community-based approach and building on the heritage of Portland Brewing and Pyramid. But that kind of approach wasn't really in Rentsch's wheelhouse. He had been successful expanding the reach of brands regionally and nationally. 

But I figured he was a smart guy and he'd find a way to make things work. Things clearly didn't go as he hoped. The brewery saw a decline in barrelage each year after 2014, until it finally hit the skids completely in 2020. When I visited the pub for a corporate event in the summer of 2017, I could tell that things were not going well. It was no surprise when the pub closed in late 2018. 

The impending closure of the brewery evidently means Portland Brewing's brands will soon be history. Production of FIFCO brands will move to New York and shipping beers from there to Oregon probably isn't in the cards. I suspect only MacTarnahan's would have any commercial value and perhaps someone here will gobble it up if and when the trademark lapses. That's what happened when Portland Brewing let the Portland Ale trademark lapse. Art Larrance snapped it up and started brewing it at Cascade. Could that happen with MacTarnahan's? Time will tell.

The demise of Portland Brewing effectively closes the book on the early craft brewing days here. For sure, McMenamin's carries on. But McMenamin's is known more for its grandiose properties and the events it hosts than it is for its beer. It's somehow fascinating to me that the big three will all have vanished on about the same 35-year timeline. Bridgeport, 1984-2019; Widmer, 1985-2019; Portland Brewing, 1986-2021. 

My memories of Portland Brewing, outside MacTarnahan's, are vague. I visited the original pub on Flanders only a handful of times after I arrived here in 1989. I spent far more time at Bridgeport during that era. My fondest memories of Portland Brewing include an Octoberfest celebration held in the area around the pub circa 1995-96 and also of going there for lunches and dinners in the 2000s. 

Besides being on the ground floor of the craft beer movement in Portland and Oregon, the most significant contribution of Portland Brewing and the other founding breweries is that they were a learning and proving ground for brewers and others who subsequently contributed to the industry's development in a variety of ways. 

So long, Portland Brewing. Thanks for the memories.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Eyes on a Better Year as 2020 Skulks into History

All things considered, the pandemic hasn't been a bad time to raise an intense Labrador puppy. I hate to think what we would have done without all the readily available time, time required to deal with Bunk's incessant need for exercise, attention and supervision. 

Of the Labs I've had in my life, Bunk is by far the craziest and most difficult to manage. And the competition isn't close. Most Labs calm down and become relatively normal around the age of two. I fear Bunk won't calm down until she's five or six or seven. Wild times ahead.

If the pandemic has been a decent time to raise a puppy, it has been a devastating time for craft beer. That's especially true of smaller breweries and related businesses that depend on foot traffic to generate direct to consumer sales. A lot of these folks have implemented creative strategies to stay afloat, but it's been a tough slog. 

Strangely enough, the pandemic has given a boost to larger, typically older breweries who were seeing catastrophic volume declines prior to 2020. They got new life because their beers have placement in retail, which is where most consumers have been forced to purchase their beer fix during the Covid mess due to the nearly complete collapse of draft.

We don't know for sure what lies ahead. A year ago, people were bitching and moaning about how bad 2019 was and looking forward to 2020. We know how that turned out. But there does appear to be a shard of light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are becoming available, though the process of getting people vaccinated is creeping along so slowly that it will take years at the current pace.

In a perfect world, we'd all like to see things return to a semblance of normalcy soon. But we're probably looking at late spring or summer, at the earliest, as the point at which most restrictions will be lifted and people can return to normal activities. Even that timetable may be overly optimistic due to the complications connected with vaccine production, distribution and inoculation.  

As far as the craft beer world goes, there are a lot of challenges that may impact a return to normalcy. Honestly, I'm not sure there can be a return to the old normal. Not in the short run, anyway. Among the challenges facing the industry:

  • Craft beer was losing momentum prior to the pandemic. That was a product of consolidation, market saturation and distribution challenges, but consumer tastes were also evolving toward seltzers and various alternatives to craft beer. While the craft bubble may not have been bursting, it was certainly losing its shape. Then came the pandemic. 

  • The overall economy has been propped up by federal and, in some cases, state help, but it's a mess. The federal response has been so woefully inadequate that there will likely be a lot of pubic sector job losses at the state and local level due to revenue shortfalls and budget cuts. That isn't going to be good news for an industry hoping to regain its mojo.

  • We don't know how many restaurants, bars and taprooms will survive to the other side, but the industry has been hobbled. There are going to be fewer places buying beer from suppliers in the new world. Also keep in mind that the likely surge in patrons when things initially open up probably won't last. Why? The unstable economy. 

  • One big unknown is how much longstanding damage the pandemic did to beer consumption patterns. In my experience, regular beer outings were usually wrapped around my workout schedule. Both of those activities have been completely disrupted by the pandemic. Will I be able to return to that kind of arrangement? Do I even want to? Lifestyles have been skewed for millions and it remains to be seen what that means going forward.

  • Work itself is going to be changed when we emerge from the pandemic. Many who once worked in offices are going to be working remotely because business discovered technology allows it to do so efficiently. That dynamic will alter human movements. How will that impact restaurants, bars and pubs? We don't know. Maybe not much. Maybe a lot.

  • Finally, breweries, beer bars and some restaurants have made it easy for consumers by packaging their beer, offering easy ordering, free delivery, etc. Doing that was a matter of survival. It's low margin business compared to selling draft. Will consumers continue to seek the comfort of online ordering and delivery? How long will it take for breweries to transition out of the desperation model? We shall see.

Notwithstanding the challenges, we're all hoping for a brighter 2021. The experiences of the past year have been unprecedented on many fronts. On the occasion of seeing 2020 in the rearview mirror, I want to extend best wishes to my friends in beer. Most of you have had a much tougher year than I have, despite my challenges with Bunk. 

Time to move onward and upward. Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 17, 2020

In the Clouds: Portland Beer and the Road Ahead

Because I am not prone to follow Twitter, I missed a notification (in May!) from Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives relating to the materials I assembled as part of my work on Portland Beer. I donated those materials to the OHBA in 2014 and they finally have the materials catalogued for use. The work was finished up by a graduate student intern and took some time.

Why I wasn't notified directly about this I don't know. But never mind. The archived materials include transcribed interviews with founding craft brewers and other industry-connected veterans, as well as pertinent newspaper articles and documents. There are also a number of photos, all protected by some form of copyright.

I had intended to share the recorded interviews, which would provide interesting oral histories down the road. But I eventually realized doing so would require a lot of tedious editing due to the nature of those conversations. So the recordings will stay with me, probably for good.

These materials may be of interest to folks researching Portland's brewing history at some point in the future. I should note that all of this stuff is digital. Although I have physical artifacts that might be included in an archive like this, I don't believe OHBA has the space to warehouse these kinds of items at this point in time. Perhaps someday.

Portland Beer was, more than anything, a labor of love. While it may not be perfect, it is the only book to date that traces the development of the brewing industry here. Prior to writing the book, I spent a couple decades observing craft beer as a consumer, homebrewer, festival attendee and volunteer. I launched this blog in 2011 partly as a means of getting further immersed in the industry.

In fact, I doubt the publisher of my book would have enlisted me to write it without the blog, which (somehow) gave me credibility I would not have otherwise enjoyed. Whether I should have taken on the book project is another matter and one I will debate with myself in the years to come. Being a beer historian and writer is cool and all, but it doesn't pay many bills.

Regardless, the book is what it is. While I may question the decision to write it, the book is a decent contribution to Portland's story. It will likely remain a part of the historical record for as long as such records are kept. Perhaps one day someone will update the story. My book may be updated at some point, though only the final chapters would need significant changes.

The blog is another matter entirely. It is a living document, requiring constant attention and effort to stay relevant. The OHBA announcement regarding the book materials mentions the blog. They evidently did a web crawl of the content here and made the results part of the archive. That's fine, but the blog isn't very active at this point. Not compared to what it was a few years ago.

Why is it less active? You have to go back to the beginning to understand. I had been laid off in the Great Recession of 2008-09. I expected to return to the marketing communications work I had done for 20 years. When there was nothing happening by 2011, I started my beer journey. I probably should have pursued realistic work outside my career path instead of starting the blog or writing the book.

At the time, I thought the blog would help keep my writing, research and technical skills sharp and make me employable. Plus, I was interested in beer and knew I would be okay spending significant time around it. I was right about the latter, wrong about the former. It became evident soon enough that I wasn't employable, not doing the work I had done before, anyway.

Oh, the blog (and to some extent the book) did open up paid writing opportunities, another objective. I've been able to write about beer for a variety of outlets. That's fun work and it can be pretty interesting. But, as with the book, it doesn't provide much of an income stream for most who pursue it. Changes in the media landscape have made that path increasingly sketchy of late.

I actually kept rolling with the blog well beyond the point where I knew it had no upside. I enjoyed it. While a lot of the early posts were fluffy and promotional, the coverage improved as my perceptions and knowledge of the industry sharpened. Part of that evolution meant the approach became more analytical and critical. That became problematic down the road.

My vision for the blog was always that it would provide thoughtful, objective coverage. I didn't want to find myself regurgitating press releases or providing promotional coverage in exchange for beers or schwag. It became increasingly clear over the years that my vision was out of step with the industry, which mostly prefers promotion to objectivity.

While my output had declined over the last couple of years, it went off the deep end at the end of 2019. First Biscuit passed away in August. Then came knee replacement surgery in late October and the recovery. Then came the pandemic. Then we acquired Bunk, a dog who has required constant supervision and attention since we brought her home at the end of March.

There's no clear path back to what I was doing before. That work requires a lot of time and effort for not much return and no upside. I don't exactly know what the future holds. I'll probably write on topics that are of interest to me in and out of beer. I've actually done some of that already with posts that are wholly personal. How much of what I do going forward will focus on beer I can't say.

Of course, I will continue to observe the industry. I've contributed to Willamette Week's Beer Guide for five or six years and will continue to do that sort of work when possible. I wish there were more opportunities for paid beer writing, but the nature of the industry and state of the media landscape have made those prospects fleeting.

So there you have it. If you were wondering why things have slowed down here, now you know. As the puppy grows up and I have more time to focus on what's going on in beer and other things, I expect to spend more time thinking and writing. But there's no timetable and really no restrictions on content.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

AB/CBA Suit Alleges Conspiracy, Collusion, Dereliction of Duty

Given the players involved and the result, a lawsuit was probably inevitable. The suit filed last week in Multnomah County court alleges that Anheuser-Busch conspired to drive down the value of the Craft Brew Alliance, allowing it to acquire the company for less than fair value. Further, the suit charges that AB was aided and abetted by CBA leadership that sherked its fiduciary duties.

The lawsuit was filed by shareholder Tim Malloy, represented by Portland law firm, Motschenbacher and Blattner. Malloy seeks class action status and a jury trial. He seeks damages of $107 million on behalf of CBA shareholders. essentially the amount shareholders were shorted when the company sold for $16.50, not $24.50.

I've followed this story for several years. I anticipated that AB would purchase the CBA for the required offer price in 2017 or 2018. They didn't. I then expected them to buy the CBA for the obligatory $24.50/share prior to the expiration of the contract last August. That didn't happen. Instead, AB jilted the CBA, opting to pay $20 million for holding the option open. About two months later, the parties announced that the sale would move forward at $16.50 per share.

The suit is a double-edged sword and worth reading if you can find it and have time...it isn't a quick read. Malloy alleges that AB, whose distribution network is responsible for 90+ percent of CBA sales, "systematically and purposefully" used its control of that network to slow the sale of CBA products as the buyout approached, artificially lowering the company’s results and stock price.

There's some interesting detail. Keep in mind that Kona is the only CBA brand AB wants. It's a unicorn brand with wide appeal. Kona sales were increasing rapidly year-over-year (+13% in 2014, +16% in 2015, +17% in 2016). But the gains reversed (+10% in 2017, +8% in 2018, +4% in 2019) as the deadline for the buyout approached.

The suit references Kona stock outs in hot markets that allegedly occurred due to AB's dictatorial focus on its fully owned brands...10 Barrel, Goose Island, Elysian, etc. That strategy isn't news. Anheuser-Busch, which owns distributors in states that allow it, has gotten into regulatory trouble for incentifying the sale of its own brands over others sold via those distributors and independents they work with. Nonetheless, it would be fairly damning if they were treating Kona like a redheaded stepchild in the runup to the CBA buyout.

The flipside of the complaint involves CBA leadership. The suit names CEO Andy Thomas and other board members and managers as defendants. Malloy alleges that they negotiated the merger on the basis of a personal financial gain rather than for the benefit of common shareholders. In effect, he believes CBA leaders insulated themselves from non-controlling shareholders and had little or no incentive to maximize the sale price.

There's more, of course. Malloy claims that the CBA's sole objective in recent years was acquisition by Anheuser-Busch. An accurate appraisal, I think. CBA leadership, he says, failed to pursue strategies that might have produced organic growth because its only plan was to offload the company to AB. When the expected buyout at what would have been a good price failed to materialize, the defendants scrambled to sell the company to AB at any price. They never considered another buyer because, again, they had always intended to sell to Anheuser-Busch.

The plaintiff acknowledges that the CBA had no choice but to negotiate with Anheuser-Busch once a deal at the contracted price didn't happen. That was the reality of AB's partial ownership (around 31 percent), its two seats on the board of directors and its control of CBA distribution. Those things made it impossible to sell to anyone but Anheuser-Busch.

Nonetheless, the suit charges that "defendants acted disloyally and in bad faith by knowingly and intentionally abdicating their fiduciary obligations to the company’s non-controlling shareholders, declining to take all reasonable steps to maximize value for all shareholders, favoring a deal with Anheuser Busch, and placing their own personal interests ahead of the Company’s shareholders."

It's hard to know where this is headed. Anheuser-Busch's acquisition of the CBA has been under regulatory review since it was announced in November. Regulators appear troubled by aspects of the deal and have asked for further documentation at least twice. In response, the Hawaii portion of Kona's business is to be sold to a (supposedly) independent group. The deal remains in limbo.

As for Malloy's suit, the defendants have not responded publicly that I'm aware of. Whether the case will go to a jury trial, as requested, remains to be seen. The text of the suit suggests that Malloy has documents supporting his allegations. The form of that evidence is not revealed in the suit. If it turns out that he has substantive proof of his charges, the suit may have traction.

If it does have traction and it does wind up in a trial situation, I suspect AB/CBA will simply settle out of court. They would have no desire to air dirty laundry connected with what is turning out to be a toxic public relations deal. And $107 million is pocket change to Anheuser-Busch.

Could the lawsuit scuttle the acquisition? Doubtful. Anheuser-Busch has wanted to add to Kona to its portfolio for many years. They got it on the cheap and won't grumble too much if they have to pay a little more to make the court case go away...particularly if it looks like they will lose.

If the deal isn't finalized for whatever reason, the CBA is in trouble. They've been burning through cash and have a maxed out credit line. They don't have the cash to do much of anything. Without the buyout or a credit line extension, the company may be bankrupt.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

LIfe Chronicles: The Case of the Artificial Knee

Long before I started thinking about craft beer, I was playing sports or enjoying some form of active recreation. You think you're indestructible. It never occurred to me that I might one day have knee problems or, perish the thought, need to have knee replacement surgery. How naive I was.

Pre-surgery: Bone-on-bone
A year ago this time, I was taking steps to deal with an arthritic left knee. Both knees had been problematic for a decade or so, the result of too much racquetball for the last 30 years; too much tennis, football and related high impact activities dating back to boyhood. Meniscus tears in both knees were repaired arthroscopically in 2006.

By 2013 or so, the left one was bothering me again. It was a different pain. X-rays showed narrowing space between the bones on the medial (inner) side. I was nearly bone-on-bone. The orthopedist told me I'd eventually need to have the knee replaced. I did what I could to extend the life of my natural joint, but it had gotten so bad by late 2018 that I had trouble walking my Labradors or doing much of anything.

Getting a knee replaced in American healthcare is a process. You jump through a lot of hoops along the way. When I saw my primary care doc for another issue, I mentioned the knee. She suggested I get x-rays while I was there. I don't suppose she was all that surprised when the films showed severe osteoarthritis in the knee.

The first thing they ask you in that situation is what your goal is. Are you going to be okay with limited activity and a lot of TV watching or do you want to be active? That info helps them formulate a treatment plan. In my case, I hoped to stay active. I wasn't interested in wearing a brace or being significantly limited in what I could do.

My primary care doc gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medicine, a drug that had helped quite a bit when the arthritis first appeared. It was ineffective at this point. She also referred me to orthopedics, but first I got a cortisone shot. That's one of the hoops you have to jump through before they consider more invasive treatment. Some people respond well to cortisone. In my case, the shot reduced my static (sitting) pain, but did little to reduce the pain during activity.

Not responding well to the cortisone shot put me in line for more aggressive therapy. When I saw an orthopedic doc, he reviewed my films, considered my general health and told me I looked like a good candidate for partial knee replacement. That was the case because my knee appeared to be in relatively good shape, except on the thin medial side.

If you do a little research, you'll discover partial knee replacements aren't as common as total replacements. There are a variety of reasons for that. Age is one factor. Some people wait until they're quite old and their knees are completely shot. The medial side of my knee was ruined by activity, not age, which meant the less invasive partial replacement was an option for me.

Why did I prefer a partial replacement? A number of my friends and work associates asked that question. The answer is that a partial replacement is far less invasive. You keep your ligaments, tendons and knee cap. With a total replacement, all that stuff is gone. Recovery from a partial replacement also tends to be faster. And you can always replace a partial with a total someday.

Although I was a candidate for the surgery, the orthopedic folks had to (again) remind me of less invasive options (like wearing a brace) and walk me through the risks of surgery. One of those risks is that some patients don't derive much benefit. They get the surgery and don't get the results they were hoping for. It's not a huge percentage, but it is one of the risks.

My next stop was an MRI tunnel. An MRI, they told me, would confirm for the surgeon that my knee was what they were seeing on the x-rays. What they evidently don't want to do is go into surgery without seeing the entire picture and discover problems that didn't show up on the x-rays. Surprises like that aren't very welcome in the operating room, I guess.

The MRI was fine, supporting what they were seeing in the x-rays. They felt comfortable about the surgery. This was last summer. I found they were scheduling several months out, which meant my surgery would likely happen in the fall. In the end, it was scheduled for October 30, just a few days after I was set to return from a trip to Kauai.
One day post-surgery

I had to be careful with my legs on that trip. Why? Because one of the concerns with a surgery like this is infection. All of the medical people I interacted with warbled on and on about that. They don't want you showing up for surgery with a bunch of cuts or scratches on your legs. That meant I had to be careful when I was mingling with the ocean and rocks.

The surgery itself was quick. I arrived in the morning and was quickly put into the prep area. My left leg got the sanitation treatment. Again. I got a spinal block and they gave me some medications to help post-surgery. With a partial replacement, they expect to send you home the day of the surgery. They don't want you hanging around sucking up hospital space and staff time.

My surgery took less than an hour and I woke about 45 minutes later. A nurse was massaging my feet. The spinal block hadn't worn off and my legs were fairly numb. I guess massaging the feet gets blood moving and helps bring the feeling back. They gave me some food, Pretty soon, the feeling in my legs returned and I was able to get up. They want you up and around quickly with a surgery like this to help prevent clotting. I probably overdid it. They worry about patients falling. I didn't.

The medical people expect you to have some pain after knee replacement, though they admit everyone is different. I was given over-the-counter meds and told to take them for several weeks. For pain, they game me Oxycodone and told me to take it as needed. They advise you to stay ahead of the pain. I never had much pain, but I took the Oxy for a couple of days, then stopped.

I slept in a bedroom on the main floor of the house for the first week or so. That first night, the smoke alarm in that room started chirping a low battery warning. Perfect. Rather than wake up my wife who was sleeping upstairs, I ambled downstairs (cane-assisted) and got a new battery, then stood on a chair and replaced the offender. Maybe I should have handled it another way. No harm done.

They had given me an ice machine and advised me to use it and elevate my left leg several times a day. The idea is to keep swelling down and speed healing. I followed that advice faithfully. I was given exercises I could do in or out of bed. Those exercises were similar to the ones I had done years earlier following arthroscopic surgeries and I did them as directed.

The medical people pushed me into attending physical therapy sessions. I hadn't done formal PT after my scope surgeries and was skeptical about it following knee replacement. Most people who have knee replacement need PT. No doubt about it. But I had learned to do my own and I'm disciplined enough to do the exercises religiously. The people in the PT clinic were terrific, but they didn't offer much of anything I couldn't do on my own.

Post-surgery: No bone-on-bone.
In fact, their approach was so conservative that I didn't have the desired range of motion in my new knee when I visited my orthopedic office for a follow-up two weeks post-surgery. My PA (physician assistant in orthopedics) was mystified. He gave me an exercise to remedy the issue, which worked well. The PT folks were contacted. Honestly, I don't think they knew what to do with me. Most of the people I met in PT were significantly older than me and had gotten total knee replacements. Totally different bag. I quit formal PT soon after my follow-up appointment. My PA green-lighted that.

My early recovery was fast, maybe too fast. I was driving and walking the dog within a week. I probably did too much. Then I started having odd pains in the repaired joint about six weeks out. I wondered if something had gone wrong. My PA advised me that many patients have strange pains during the recovery process, which can take six months or more. He would have been happy to see me, but I begged off, realizing what I was feeling was probably normal.

Four months after surgery, the odd pains began to fade. I passed through six months a few weeks ago and can confidently say I'll have a full recovery. I walk without pain, can even run if I want to. I know I'll ski again. Golf won't be a problem. Keep in mind that I could never have done those things again without the surgery. No chance. I don't know about racquet sports. Pickleball I will definitely play. After the pandemic ends, I'll hit the racquetball around and see how it feels. Maybe I'll play again occasionally, maybe not.

How does the knee feel? The orthopedic folks will tell you that a replaced knee will not feel like the real thing. That's definitely the case. There's a plastic spacer/pad between the two metal pieces, invisible in the x-rays. That pad simply can't mimic the natural joint cushioning. It gets a little clunky at times, but feels a whole lot better than bone-on-bone. Trust me.

Some of the people I played racquetball and tennis with over the years either have considered or will contemplate having this surgery. It's not a big deal. It was an easy decision for me because my knee hurt every minute, regardless of what I was doing. I was absolutely unable to do normal things, like go on any kind of significant walk. Now those things aren't a problem. Even an ill-mannered Labrador puppy is okay.

My thanks to Dr. Eric Bosworth and the folks at Kaiser Permanente, particularly the team at the Westside Medical Office in Hillsboro. They made my journey relatively painless and positioned me for a good outcome. Thanks also to my wife, Laura, who took care of me during my recovery and encouraged me to follow the advice of medical people. I actually complied with some of it.