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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Riverport Brewing Builds Momentum in the Old Hometown

I first heard about Riverport Brewing Company at the Oregon Brewers Festival a couple of years back. They were pouring Blonde Moment, a decent summer beer. But it wasn't the beer that initially perked my interest. Nope. I was intrigued because this brewery is located in Clarkston, Washington, my hometown.

Hard to miss the snappy branding
Clarkston is located in the southeastern corner of Washington state, across the river from Lewiston, Idaho...at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. Spokane is about 100 miles north. Clarkston is easy enough to locate with Google Maps, for those who aren't using an iPhone 5 and Apple's disastrous Maps app (Steve Jobs would be so proud).

Looking south on the Valley from the Lewiston grade
Back in the day, Clarkston was a town of roughly 6,000, small enough that I actually knew most everyone in my high school class. I was surprised to discover the official population comes in at only 7,200 as of 2010. That seems odd since there are clearly many more people there now. Old friends say the figure is lower than it should be because most of the population growth has happened outside the city limits and nothing has been annexed. Alrighty, then.

The main seating area is pleasingly open
As I mentioned the other day, there was no such thing as good beer when I lived in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. We subsisted on a steady diet of Lucky Lager, with the occasional Budweiser or Coors thrown in to spice things up. The Valley is still wildly behind the times in a lot of ways, but beer is no longer one of them.

The bar features a retro projection TV 
Riverport Brewing was born in 2010, the brainchild of two couples who decided to get into the craft beer business. When I visited on a brilliant afternoon last week, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Marv Eveland, brewer and co-owner. Marv kindly showed me around, answered questions and gave me insights into what they are doing at Riverport.

In contrast to some of the hipster-focused breweries in Portland, Riverport is an adult-owned and operated business. Refreshing. The partners have slowly and deliberately built this operation from the ground up and they continue to do much of the work here. They have apparently done what they've done without taking on much if any debt, which is good given the seemingly unsustainable flood of new breweries coming online.

Newly acquired kegs will help satisfy draft accounts
The physical space at Riverport is quite comfy. On warm days, there are three garage doors that roll open to reveal a patio and spectacular view of the hill to the north, officially marked with a big white "C," which was refreshed on a yearly basis by Clarkston High School seniors when I was in school. I can't say what the arrangement is these days, but the "C" is looking a little washed out.

Back door scenery on a warm day
Riverport is building its brand via draft channels. Marv said their beers can be found at pubs and taverns in and around the Valley. You won't find these beers beyond that area until brewing capacity is increased. They have a 7 bbl brewing system and three 15 bbl fermenters. More fermenters and kegs are part of the plan and they have the space needed to make that happen thanks to a recent addition. Bottles and wider distribution are probably a ways off.

The good looking taster tray
My taster tray beer line-up included: Blonde Moment, River Rat Red, Cedar Rock Pale, Bullseye PA, Grand Ronde Rye and Seven Devils IPA. You need to have grown up or spent time in this area to fully appreciate the creative nature of these names. Anyway, the beers are well-executed and clean. My favorite was Bullseye PA, which is loaded with hop aroma and flavor, though not especially bitter. Blonde Moment, light and crisp, is a perfect beer for a hot summer day.

Marv and his high tech pilot system
Marv uses a small pilot system to experiment with new recipes. You aren't going to find anything trendy here...indeed, the breweries in this area are several years behind what's happening in Portland. They have no barrel-aging program or sour beers at Riverport. Instead, they are focused on brewing quality standards and seasonals that please local pallets. That strategy appears to be working out well.

If you find yourself driving through Clarkston, a stop at Riverport is certainly in order. Keep in mind, however, that they have no food here...aside from complementary popcorn. You are free to bring in your own food or order something from one of the nearly foodie spots. Very user-friendly here. It's great to see Riverport tapping into and expanding the beer scene in the old hometown.

Note: In case you're wondering, I'll soon be posting thoughts on the other breweries I visited on my recent trip. They include Laht Neppur (Waitsburg), Palouse Falls and Paradise Creek (Pullman) and Ice Harbor (Tri-Cities). Coming soon.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Craft Beer Sword Swings on the Palouse

Nothing like a road trip to the other side of the beer world to give you some perspective on what we have in Portland. By "other side of the beer world," l'm talking about eastern Washington...which is where I grew up and went to college. The Inland Empire, as it were.

A fortuitous discovery in Pullman
As I may have documented in past posts, I was raised on a steady diet of shitty macro. Not really a unique story, I know. I readily admit Lucky Lager was our most popular beer choice in high school...it was cheap and easy to get. Coors and Budweiser were delicacies.

Things weren't much better during my college and grad school years in Pullman, the great tundra...or Palouse Country, if you prefer. By the mid-to-late 1980s, you could find Bert Grant's beers and the occasional Hale's Ale around town. The craft beer movement was taking off in Seattle and Portland, but change was slow in the hinterlands.

The Coug decor, such as it is
One of the last places I would ever expect to find good beer is The Coug, WSU's on-campus watering hole since 1932. Some might describe it as a dump...and maybe it is, but at least it's our dump. For years, The Coug served up a menu of tepid beers, often at bargain prices. Natty Light remains a big seller here for students wanting to get buzzed on the cheap.

Like taverns around the Northwest, craft beers have become a force at The Coug. They now offer more craft beers than crappy macro beers. They've got beers from Elysian, Widmer, Flying Bike and others. I was interested Swashbuckler Ale, a beer that celebrates the hopes of the current football season.

A few of The Coug's tap handles
Swashbuckler is a reference to Mike Leach, WSU's first-year head football coach, and his book Swing Your Sword. Leach has leaned on the pirate motif in some of his quotable comments over the years and the label has stuck. Now the beer.

Harmon Brewing in Tacoma, owned by third generation Cougar, Patrick Nagel, brews Swashbuckler Ale. Nagel apparently hoped to ride the wave of enthusiasm surrounding the hiring of Leach by brewing and marketing this beer. (He beat several other breweries to the punch, by the way.) The more complete story behind the beer is here. Interesting stuff.

The Coug...serving WSU for 80 years
Swashbuckler, the beer, is damn good. I think it's closer to a red than a pale. It features a nice balance of hop aroma, flavor and backbone. You'll only find it in draft form at a short list of places in Pullman and on the westside. Harmon hopes to bottle it someday, but don't hold your breath. If you see this beer on tap somewhere, I recommend giving it a try.

Returning to my original thought at the top, the eastern Washington brewing scene is changing. I've visited several places on this trip and have several more to go. The area is still years behind what's happening in Portland, but what's happening here is positive. I'll discuss some of the specifics over the next few posts. Meanwhile, the research continues...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

OBF's Economic Footprint: A Deeper Look

Here's a mind-altering thought: The Oregon Brewers Festival brings a significant amount of money into the Portland economy. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million in 2012, according to stats released this week by OBF organizers and Eastern Oregon University Political Science Professor, Jeff Dense.

Prof. Dense gave an informal presentation at the Cascade Barrel House Tuesday evening. No PowerPoint slides, whiteboards or microphones...just a group of beer geeks standing among the barrels drinking fine Cascade beers and listening to Dense talk about the data. Wait...he was also drinking a beer.

The US map...pins included
I'll comment on some of the more significant findings, but first you need to know how the data was mined. Dense and a small group of students from EOU surveyed 680 festival attendees. It was a short written survey that took only a few minutes to complete. Questions focused mainly on demographics...age, gender, hometown, etc. Obviously, they asked people to estimate what they spent on the festival. Folks who took the survey got a token for their effort.

Armed with the raw data, Dense used a software program to estimate the economic impact of the festival. What the program essentially did is take the data from the 680 surveys and extrapolate what it means given 80,000 people actually attended the festival. Like any survey representing a small slice of an overall group, there's a margin of error...plus or minus 4 percent, they say.

A third of OBF attendees were women in 2012
A few of the most interesting findings:
  • The majority of attendees (70.2%) came from OUTSIDE the Portland metro area.
  • More than half of OBF attendees (52.1%) were there for the first time. 
  • The largest age demographic (30.2%) was 21-29. Next largest age demo: 50+ (26%).
  • Women made up a third of all attendees.
  • Attendees spent an average of $649.
  • Attendees came from 39 states and 11 countries. Washington, California and Canada were the top responses.
  • About a third of attendees participated in beer tourism as part of the festival. Deschutes Brewing (9.3%) and Cascade Barrel House (9.1%) were the most popular destinations.
The Rub
Quite a few people in blogland have simply posted this information without questioning its validity. As a friend of mine likes to say, journalists have become stenographers in our time. I know, I know...bloggers aren't necessarily journalists, but you get the idea. Asking a lot of questions can get you into trouble. So most simply don't. But the buck has to stop somewhere. Might as well be here.

The world map...shot Friday evening
If there's a problem with the results, it likely starts with the finding that 70+ percent of attendees came from outside the area. For that to be true, something like 56,000 festival attendees had to have come from outside the Portland area. That leaves roughly 24,000 from within the area. Such numbers aren't impossible, but they seem improbable. If they are wrong, the financial impact is almost certainly overstated. More on why shortly.

How could the 70 percent figure be askew? The answer may involve when and where the data was collected. Survey folks evidently set up shop in front of the Buzz Tent, near the big US and World maps...where people can place a pin to show where they came from. Surveys were reportedly done in the early afternoon each day...a good way to avoid having inebriated people clumsily filling out forms.

The big question: How many came from afar?
Let's look at the where. Would you be more likely meet up with a certain type of attendee in the map area? Is it possible people from outside the area would be more likely to come here (to put a pin on the map or check on where others had come from) than Portland-area residents? I'll let you decide.

Then there's the when. Would collecting data in the early afternoon skew the survey results? Would someone from outside the area, someone who came here specifically to attend the festival, be more or less likely to arrive early than someone who lives nearby? Again, you get to decide.

Returning to the stated financial impact, consider the $649 average for a moment. That number depends on a large number of attendees coming from outside the area. Why? Because people who live closer spent a lot less than visitors from afar. The $649 average is a direct result of the finding that 70 percent of festival goers came from outside the area, forcing them to spend money on lodging, food and travel.

Look, we all know the Oregon Brewers Festival brings significant economic benefits to the Portland area. There's no argument there and we love it. Craft beer fans hope the numbers in Prof. Dense's analysis are right. It would be terrific if $30 million is the number. But you have to be realistic and you have to wonder.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In Search of the Holy (Fresh Hop) Ale

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I tend not to be a huge fan of fresh hop beers. I like the creative aspect and I once made my own fresh hop beers. That was back when I grew hops on the side of the house and home-brewed every other week. And before aphids ravaged my hops plants.

The problem with fresh hop beers is most of them don't have a lot of character. I suppose this is exactly what makes them special. When you use whole hops that haven't been compressed and dried, you wind up with beers that are typically juicier and brighter. More flavor or aroma? Not in my experience. But that's my opinion.

The side view glamour shot
It doesn't much matter what I think because the brewing community has jumped on the fresh hop bandwagon. A few years ago, your typical craft brewery might produce a single fresh hop beer this time of year. They'd pour that beer for a few weeks and that would be it. Craziness in craft beer being what it is, most places are now brewing several fresh hop beers and releasing them on a staggered schedule.

There's a lot of denial out there regarding fresh hop beers. Brewers are happy to talk about the creative appeal and uniqueness of these beers. That's well and good. In practice, though, breweries are forced to have a fresh hop beer. Why? Because everyone else does. When your best friends jump off a cliff, you're obligated to follow, right? Indeed.

Despite my ragged opinion of fresh hop beers, I ran into a very nice one at Laurelwood yesterday. It wasn't Fresh Hop Workhorse, which I found to be thin and a mere shadow of its standard self. It also wasn't the fresh hop version of their terrific Pilsner. Instead, it was Fresh Hop Red, which they started pouring on Monday at the Sandy location.

A nicely bronzed head caps this fine beer
Fresh Hop Red is a modified version of Laurelwood's well-known and respected Free Range Red. They add fresh Cascade Hops harvested at Crosby Hop Farms in Woodburn for the fresh hop effect. This is a terrific beer...with a well-balanced hop and malt character. I suppose you could argue that some of the more volatile aromas and flavors imparted by the fresh hops are subdued by the chewy backbone of this beer. No matter...it's not to be missed.

Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos says he hopes to keep the Fresh Hop Red on for a couple of weeks. This in contrast to Laurelwood's prior fresh hops beers (Workhorse and Pils), which lasted only about a week each before running dry. Get down there and give Fresh Hop Red a try.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mission Accomplished in Central Oregon

Last weekend's junket to Central Oregon wasn't strictly a beer trip, but it nonetheless provided me with an opportunity to check up on a few places. Boneyard Beer was the first place I went and you've already read that post, right? Of course. There's more.

Sunriver Brewing
When I heard there was a brewpub opening in Sunriver, it struck me as a no-brainer. In all the years we've been going down there for winter sports and occasional summer fun, there was never a go-to place for good beer in the Village. A local brewpub would change that.

Yeah, the logo is similar to Deschutes
It turns out plans for Sunriver Brewing have been in the works for a couple of years. However, the owners revealed almost nothing (earlier story) about brewing capacity, brewers, beer styles, etc. As I like to say, there are reasons for everything and the reasons for stealth in this case become fairly apparent with a visit.

First, let me just say this is an attractive space...high ceilings, very open, nice bar, comfortable seating inside and out. It's in a great location, right behind the almost always buzzing grocery store. The space is not gigantic, but will certainly suffice in all but the busiest times.

The waiting fermenters...
What you need to know is there is NO brewery here. There are two fermenters occupying an area of the pub and looking quite ornamental. I don't know if this is where they intend to eventually install a brewery. If it is, the brewery will be very small, indeed. It seems to me they would be well-advised to forget about on-site brewing and use the space they have for seating. Outside seating will be implausible for much of the year.

Our very cordial server told me the house beers are being produced in Redmond at the moment. It's a straight-forward list: IPA, Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Stout. They were out of the pale. The others were decent, if not memorable beers. They will surely build the list out as time goes by. There was a nice selection of guest beers, including Hop Venom. That list will almost certainly rotate.

Outdoor seating will be less popular come November
You can view the menu and pricing on the Sunriver Brewing website. Like most brewpubs, this place will appeal to adults and families. It's unlikely to be much of a young adult drinking hangout. Whether they ever make beer here is immaterial. This is a nice addition to the options in Sunriver, which haven't been great over the years.

Little Woody Fest
I have to admit the Little Woody Barrel-Aged Beer and Whiskey Festival was not on my radar screen as the Sunriver trip unfolded. But I immediately planned to drop in when I realized it was happening and the times were convenient.

This was apparently the second rendition of this festival, focused mainly on barrel-aged beers...of which I am a fan. I didn't bother with the whiskey...I'm sure it was fine stuff, just not my bag. The festival was held primarily in the parking lot next to the Deschutes Historical Society building. The Society received a portion of the proceeds from event organizers, which is terrific.

It was a perfect beer drinking day in Bend
Beyond the beer and whiskey, there was live music, food vendors and promotional booths. There was even a sports area where college football was showing on a fairly large TV. Beer people think of everything!

There were apparently 14 breweries here, including Oakshire, Deschutes, Ninkasi, Boneyard, Block 15, Three Creeks, Bend Brewing and others. Most featured two beers. I was surprised to find that every beer required 2-4 tasting tokens. Given the rarity of the beers, I guess it made sense. However, some of these beers were not a great value at 3 or 4 tokens for a four ounce taste. Sorry.

Tasting notes:
Block 15 (Corvallis) brought a fantastic Framboise. It was light, crisp and slightly sour. This is a beer you could drink a lot of on a warm summer day.

Boneyard's Experimental IPA, aged in bourbon barrels for 11 months, was interesting. I was surprised to find it had a touch of sour. Hop aroma and flavor were in the background. I suspect people either loved or hated this beer.

Smiling faces were the order of the day 
Deschutes Plum Line Sour, infected with Brettanomyces and Lambicus and aged in oak casks, was brilliant...light and prefect for a warm day.

Three Creeks brought a tweaked version of its popular Hoodoo Voodoo IPA...called Deja Voodoo. Aged in Pinot Noir barrels for nine months, this beer combined strong oak notes with subtle fruit character. Lost in there somewhere was the hoppy aroma and flavor of standard Hoodoo Voodoo. Not bad, though.

Sometimes it's quite fun to see how the other half lives. This is the first festival I've been to outside Portland...where you could not possibly hold such an event in such a small space. The execution here was mostly pretty good. Check it out next year if you can.

Crux Fermentation Project
The Crux was definitely not on my planned itinerary, but Saturday's trip to Little Woody opened up an opportunity to see other sights. At the festival, I ran into Ezra Johnson (The New School blog). He had come over on the Brewvana bus from Portland and wanted to visit CFP. I tagged along because I had transportation.

Polished copper mash tuns provide a nice visual
If you want to know more about the roots of the Crux Fermentation project, I recommend you take a look at Ezra's post here or Jeff Alworth's post here. Briefly, this place is the brainchild Paul Evers, Dave Wilson and former Deschutes brewmaster, Larry Sidor. It's apparent that a rather large investment went into getting this place opened. It's gorgeous and amazing at the same time.

Nothing quite like a spendy coaster
Each of the beers we tasted was nicely executed. There are clearly a lot of creative juices flowing here and this place will evidently evolve into a much larger brewing operation down the road. If you're headed to the Bend area, plan on visiting the CFP. Be advised this place is not exactly on the well-beaten path. It's located in an industrial area south of downtown and not the easiest place to find without a map or phone GPS.

Coming soon...Eastern Washington road trip and report!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Boneyard Continues to Carve Success Story

A trip to Central Oregon means listening to a little Black Sabbath. Not necessarily in the car. Black Sabbath is one of a bunch of vintage metal bands you're likely to hear on the sound system at Boneyard Brewing in Bend. Such was the case when I visited on Friday.

I had last-visited Boneyard in late December. (Here's a link back to that post if you're interested). The big takeaway from that visit was that Boneyard's popularity was growing faster than the brewery's ability to meet the demand. It's a good problem to have up to a point. They were working on plans to rectify that situation.

Keeping things REAL in the brewery... 
Beer fans may have noticed that Boneyard's RPM IPA is readily available in Portland. One of the reasons is that Boneyard added three 60 bbl fermenters in recent months. They're still working off a 20 bbl brewhouse, but the additional fermentation space has enabled them to bump monthly production from 650 to roughly 1000 barrels.

Co-owner, beerologist and head brewer, Tony Lawrence, says Boneyard is still working on plans to open a 50bbl production brewery in Bend. When we last spoke, Lawrence said he hoped that facility would be open by summer. That obviously hasn't happened, as they continue to operate out of the space on Lake Place in Bend.

A trio of new fermenters (center) have bumped up production
"We're still working on the expansion project," Lawrence said. "The investment required is more than we can manage on our own, so we're working with a bank. I hope we'll have the new space ready to go by next spring. The plan is to hit 20,000 barrels in 2013...obviously dependent on getting the production facility going."

Related to production levels is the retail distribution project. Boneyard bought a canning line and hoped to be distributing RPM in 16 oz cans long ago. Again, keeping the draft channels fully supplied is the priority and the canning program has taken a backseat. But it has not been forgotten or abandoned.

A back-up supply of beer...goes with their sense of humor
"I hope we can start doing some retail distribution in 2013," Lawrence said. "We may be looking at 12 oz cans instead of the 16 oz version because it appears 12 oz cans may be easier for us to get. I realize distributors and retailers may have issues with the various can sizes. We can't worry about that. We'll go with what makes the best sense to us when the time comes."

Something else Lawrence has been working on is dialing the alcohol content of RPM and Hop Venon down to more user-friendly levels. If you wondering, RPM was originally 7.5% ABV, while Hop Venon was 10%. The tasting room board suggested they've made progress. RPM was listed at 7%, Hop Venom at 8.9%.

A stern warning to brewery employees
"The idea in bringing the numbers down was make the beers more drinkable," Lawrence said. "I think less alcohol actually allows for more flavor...and lets people drink more of this beer. Anyway, the tasting room sign isn't exactly right. RPM is right around 6.6% and Hop Venom is probably a little less than 8.9%."

Speaking of the tasting room, they were pouring RPM, Hop Venom, Girl Beer, Diablo Rojo (all typically good) and Femme Fuego, a pepper-infused sour I didn't care for. I was hoping to see Armored Fist, (a terrific imperial Cascadian Ale) or Skunk Ape (a terrific IRA), but neither were present. Oh well. It's all about timing.

Special kegs headed to the Little Woody Fest
The basic takeaway from this visit is that things continue to go well for Boneyard. They are producing and selling more beer than ever. Indeed, they reached  #10 on the OLCC's craft beer production list for June 2012. (These numbers are always several months behind.) Boneyard was #16 in January. Movin' on up!

If the production brewery comes online as planned in the spring, Boneyard will likely be among the top five producers of craft beer in the state by the end of 2013. Not bad for a brewery that is less than three years old and hasn't sacrificed quality as it has increased production. It's also a terrific, down-to-earth place to visit...if you don't mind a little Black Sabbath with your beer.