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

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Treachery of "Grab Some Buds!"

Watching the World Series over the past week, I was amused and annoyed by the relentless "Grab Some Buds" ads. FOX managed to beat baseball fans over the heads with these ads, including one instance in which a display ad was shown over the top of a fly-over by military jets. I don't know what FOX was thinking with that one; however, I know exactly what Budweiser and its parent AB InBev were thinking.

See, the "Grab Some Buds" campaign is all about countering the well-documented free fall of the Anheuser-Busch portfolio in America. The campaign specifically targets younger beer drinkers who consume massive amounts of beer...and apparently less and less Budweiser all the time.

There's an interesting article about the failings of AB InBev out on Bloomberg Businessweek titled, The Plot to Destroy America's Beer. A good part of the article talks about what has happened to Budweiser and other brands that have been taken over by the international beverage giant.

Actually, AB InBev isn't just about destroying American beers like Budweiser. Nope. AB InBev is in the business of buying up brands throughout the world and running them into the ground...while making huge profits. They currently own more than 200 brands and are looking for more to buy.

Need some examples of AB InBev's business philosophy? Sure thing.

Beck's is one. The brand was acquired by InBev in 2001. Based in Bremen, Germany, Beck's exported 60 percent of its production to the United States at the time. After InBev gobbled up (via hostile takeover) Anheuser-Busch in 2008, it moved production of Beck's to the US. The recipe was cheaped out and consumers noticed. The Beck's brand has been tanking.

This Beck is not part of AB InBev
Then there's Rolling Rock, a once-respected national brand from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Anheuser-Busch purchased Rolling Rock from InBev in 2006, then promptly shut down the Latrobe plant and moved production to New Jersey. Of course, Rolling Rock returned to the InBev portfolio when it absorbed AB in 2008. Rolling Rock? The onetime premium brand is now found on budget shelves and AB InBev has been trying to unload it.

Honestly, consolidation of the US beer industry was a fact of life long before AB InBev came along...and it's well-documented. What AB InBev has done is apply the approach to the world beer market. In case you didn't know, AB InBev is huge. It is the largest global brewer with around 18 percent share worldwide. Inside the United States, the conglomerate controls 48 percent of the market, although that share is in peril as sales within its family of brands tank. Despite the declining sales virtually across the board, AB InBev profits are up and its stock price has quadrupled since 2008. CEO stock option bonuses have been huge.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what AB InBev is doing: it behaves like a giant private equity firm. It goes out and purchases respected brands the world over. Then it cuts costs...usually by shutting down original breweries and laying off workers. Then it moves production to factory breweries and bumps up production using cheaper ingredients and labor.

In the case of Budweiser, InBev didn't shut down brewing operations when it acquired the company. Instead, it engaged in massive cost cutting, laying off 1,400 employees and selling assets valued at more than $9 billion. InBev also initiated the use of cheaper grains and hops, thinner bottles, labels and packaging. Meanwhile, prices go up, lining corporate coffers and executive pockets.

The "Grab Some Buds" campaign is an effort to counter some portion of the market share AB InBev has lost and continues to lose...losses attributable to the growing popularity of higher quality craft beer and the declining quality of AB InBev's increasingly mundane macro product line.

It's quite a cynical approach, really. These people are perfectly fine spending lavishly on advertising designed to shore up their damaged brands via sneaky imagery. But spending to produce quality products isn't considered. The ad campaign is a bet that young adults who haven't tried their beers in recent years can be conned into checking them out again...and possibly coming over to the dark side.

I guess this is the only move they've got since quality and integrity don't fit in with their financial goals. It's like J.R. Ewing famously said on the old Dallas TV show: "Once you give up your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake." Ain't it the truth!

So when you see the "Grab Some Buds" ads, do yourself and the world of real beer a big favor: Don't!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Craft Beer Education a Two-Way Street

As craft beer strives to take its proper place next to wine and spirits in the restaurant world, it's pretty clear there is a massive knowledge gap. I'll get to some specifics in a moment. What you need to know, if you don't already, is that ignorance relative to craft beer has hindered its acceptance across the board.

There's a nice article about this situation by Andrew Sparhawk on craftbeer.com. That article leans on an article by Garrett Oliver (of Brooklyn Brewery) on foodandwine.com. The basic premise of the two articles is this: restaurateurs are hurting the growth and acceptance of craft beer because they are not training staff on how to present and serve it properly.
So many choices

Below is a short list of the areas in which Oliver says restaurants are epic failures:

Craft beer know-nothings. Servers are likely to know something about wine, but craft beer isn't part of their lexicon. Thus, they are unable to give patrons sound advice in terms of beers and possible food pairings. I've experienced this many times in some of Portland's best restaurants...servers who are clueless about good beer.

Inappropriate or dirty glassware. In case you didn't know, all beers weren't meant to be served in a shaker pint glass. Restaurants often have a bounty of different glass types for wine, but beer is served in whatever they have available. They make this situation worse by using glasses that sometimes aren't "beer clean," which means clean enough so residual detergents don't mess with the beer in the glass.

Good beer served too cold. Craft beer is not meant be served at near-freezing temperatures. Yet that's how many restaurants serve it. This is likely a remnant of the days when shitty macro beer was the only game in town. Crappy beer must be served cold to disguise dreadful flavors. Craft beer demands a different approach, one most establishments haven't quite figured out...although they generally do understand the concept when it comes to wine.
The Hole
These problems, if that's what they are, are the result of ignorance...and not necessarily willful ignorance. As with all things, the cure for ignorance is education and training. That's what Sparhawk suggests and he is exactly right, although I don't think he has the full picture.

Look, the chances of good beer being mistreated in a restaurant scenario are high. But that's not the end of the story. The fact is, good beer is often mistreated by breweries and brewpubs. I see it all the time and it is a marvel to behold. I also see brewers and brewery employees damaging their own brands. A few examples? Why not.

I saw a tasting display at a local grocery store. I walked over and struck up a conversation with the young guy pouring samples. I quickly discovered he had no clue whatsoever about the beers he was pouring or about beer styles in general. I figured he must be a shill for the store or maybe a distributor rookie. Nope. He told me he worked for the brewery. In marketing. Seriously? Ye gods!

On my trip to area pubs, I sometimes go with family or friends. When I do, I usually don't sit at the bar, where beer descriptions are usually pretty good. I don't know how many times I've seen the server come to the table and offer useless, inept descriptions of the house beers. It's instantly clear the person hasn't tasted or been trained or educated on the beers. How bad is that in a brewpub?

I attended a beer release party a few weeks ago. The brewery shall go nameless because they embarrassed themselves through willful idiotic behavior. If you're going to promote and hold a release party, at least take the time to do it right. For starters, don't dress like slobs and spend some time mingling with patrons. You really aren't a rock star! If you want to act like one, save it for the brewery floor.
Fixing the Hole
Obviously, education and training are needed in many areas. The buck has to stop somewhere and my view is breweries and brewpubs must lead the way. I mean, if leaders in the beer industry aren't willing to invest in educating and training their employees, why should restaurants care about making a similar investment? It isn't going to happen.

The Brewers Association, comprised mostly of brewers and industry people, has a good education program. As Sparhawk says in his article, some restaurants now require new employees to pass a basic beer knowledge course on craftbeer.com. Some of those folks may even eventually earn a Cicerone certification, which comes in three levels and essentially verifies expertise in craft beer.

Let's talk about the Cicerone certification. There aren't all that many people walking around with a Cicerone badges of any kind and even even fewer in the top tiers. That's largely because there are written and tasting (top two tiers) tests to pass...and they aren't all that easy. So it makes sense that having a Cicerone certification would be valued in the industry, right? Well, actually...no. 

The reality is a Cicerone certification probably won't help you get an industry job, not in Portland, anyway. How do I know? I know someone who jumped through the hoops to become a Certified Cicerone (second level) a while ago. Looking for work, that person has been flatly told by numerous breweries and pubs that a Cicerone certification means nothing to them. In other words, they really do not value beer education.

Let me end with this: The craft beer industry cannot have it both ways. Appropriate beer education will never be valued outside the industry if it isn't valued within the industry. As long as breweries and pubs undermine their credibility by employing inexpensive, uneducated, often inept staff, craft beer will struggle to take its rightful place next to wine and spirits in the restaurant industry and beyond.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Make Your Holiday Ale Festival Plans Now

We've turned the corner into fall, which means we have mostly exited the outdoor festival season in Portland. That doesn't mean there aren't any outdoor events, but most of what's coming up is small compared to summer. The exception, of course, is the Holiday Ale Festival.

I was temped to wait a few weeks to talk about the HAF, which doesn't happen until the end of November. However, the venue and the growing popularity of the event mean now is a good time to start thinking about your plans for the festival.

This is the 17th year for the Holiday Ale Festival, on tap Nov. 28 through Dec. 2 at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. No need to be thinking about the beer list at this point. I'll post a list of target beers closer to the actual event, as will others. Just know that organizer Preston Weesner always features a lot of unique, typically big beers at this festival. This year isn't going to be any different. Trust me.

The size of the venue is the reason you should plan your trip times carefully. They expect around 17,000 people to visit the festival during its Wednesday-through-Sunday run (check the event website for times). Even though this is an outdoor festival, it's held underneath clear, heated tents. You don't have to worry about getting cold, but it can get a little cramped.

The view is spectacular as dusk turns to night
Festival organizers gave out clear attendance advice in the press release announcing the event: "The recommended days of attendance are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday." There's a cryptic message here, and the message is Friday and Saturday are going to be jammed. A word to the wise.

In my mind, the HAF is one of the best events on the Portland beer calendar. The beer list is generally spectacular and a venue that was once dark and dingy has been transformed by the arrival of clear tents. Hanging out under these tents while sampling great beers is a fine experience for beer fans. If you take some time to mingle, you'll likely meet folks who've come from out of town and out of state to attend the festival. That's the power of a great beer event.

Like all the other festivals, there's a cost associated with the HAF. They make it fairly simple by selling you a $30 package that includes a festival mug and 10 tasting tickets (no wooden tokens here) at the door. If you want a slightly better deal, go to the event website and purchase a package in advance. The price is the same, but you get 12 tickets instead of 10. Additional tickets once you're inside are $1. Remember, some (perhaps many) of these beers will require double tickets for a taste.

A word about pricing. The cost of attending this festival has risen steadily in recently years. Last year, the base package cost $25 and included a mug and 8 tickets. So you were essentially paying $17 for the mug. This year you're paying $20 for a mug if you buy a package at the door. Few connected to the beer community are going to openly say so, but I think the price is a bit excessive.

Light weekday afternoon crowd in 2011
There are all kinds of arguments for why they have to charge more for this festival. They have to pay for the venue, the tents, the lighting, scaffolding and they've got to heat the tents. Plus, these beers cost more. Look...if you have to charge double or triple tickets for rare beers, fine. It makes sense. But charging $20 for a plastic mug strikes me as being over-the-top.

Of course, it doesn't matter what I think. Even though there will be some bitching about cost, the event will be packed every day. Organizers have found that increasing the price has virtually no negative effect on attendance...which they wouldn't mind limiting, anyway. So the cost continues to escalate. This thinking may eventually catch up with them, but it hasn't yet.

One final thing to consider is the Holiday Ale Festival is a 21-and-over event. If you show up with the kids, you'll have to lock them in the car because they won't be allowed under the tents. I'm kidding about locking the kids in the car...and, frankly, I hope you aren't driving at all if you're tasting these big beers. A better plan would be to take MAX (which has stops right next to Pioneer Courthouse Square), the bus or get a designated driver.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hillsboro Hops into Minor League Baseball

There was a fitting and ironic announcement out of Hillsboro this morning. Strangely enough, it had nothing at all to do with all the high tech junk they've got going on out there. Baseball was the theme. And beer.

You may recall the recently departed Portland Beavers of the AAA Pacific Coast League. They left Portland a couple of years back to make way for the Timbers soccer club. I don't care for soccer, but the Timbers have been a success story here, attracting good crowds and quite a lot of media buzz...even though they've been dismal this year.

Of course, the soccer transition miffed a lot of baseball fans. See, Portland has a rich and lengthy history with baseball dating back to the 19th century. Many baseball fans simply failed to appreciate the move to soccer.

This is all about demographics, in my mind. Portland, particularly at its core, has become a young city in recent times. Droves of 20-somethings moved here to retire, as the saying goes. Soccer is a better fit than baseball for that community. Portland Beavers games were not well attended in the years leading up to their departure. Timbers games, though there are fewer of them, draw large, boisterous crowds.

I always suspected baseball would return to this area. The question was where. Would we build a stadium somewhere and try to attract another AAA team or, heaven forbid, try to bring Major League Baseball to town? Actually...no.

Enter the city of Hillsboro. And the Yakima Bears, Single-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks who play in the Northwest League. A few months back, the city and the Bears came to an agreement that will bring the team to Hillsboro next summer. The city's part of the deal is a $15 million investment in a 4500-seat baseball stadium/complex. The team's part of the deal is to show up come June.

The significant part of this arrangement involves the name...the team announced today that it will be called the Hillsboro Hops. This is a reference and a tip-of-the-hat to the area's fast-growing craft beer industry. Of course, there are good and bad hops in baseball. And Oregon does grow some of the hops used to make our fabulous beers.

The ironic part of the story is this: Yakima is the largest hops growing region in the US. And yet the team that played there from 2001 to 2012 was called the Bears. Now it moves to Oregon, where we are better-known for what we make with hops than for growing them, and the name changes to Hops. I like it, but I can't put the irony out of my mind.

No matter. I'm looking forward to seeing the Hops in action...while enjoying a few of those terrific beers.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Stenographers and Bubbles

It's a big week for craft beer. Some 50,000 beer fans have descended on Denver for the Great American Beer Festival. These fortunate folks will be sampling more than 2,700 beers from 578 breweries. The great bulk of the participating breweries are small. But make no mistake: craft beer is big business these days.

Corresponding with the GABF kickoff, there was a story on the CNBC website yesterday. The story, No Bubble for Craft Beer, is essentially an interview with Charlie Papazian, founder and president of the Brewers Association. Papazian talks about craft beer's rising star in recent years and flatly says there is "no [craft beer] bubble," despite concerns expressed by some in the industry.

Is there a craft beer bubble?
Look, I love that fact that we've seen the growth we've seen. There are more than 2,000 operating breweries in this country today, more than we've had since breweries were small and strictly local. The number of great beers out there continues to multiply. Terrific, right!

Still, I am increasingly uncomfortable with what passes for journalism in the digital age. We continue to see an erosion in the basic principle of objectivity. People with significant job titles or responsibilities are afforded a level of reverence that simply isn't in line with objective reporting. Journalists are stenographers.

In this case, what was Papazian supposed to say? Please recall this is a guy who virtually launched the craft beer movement in this country. Was he supposed to say the industry is at risk because recent growth has, in fact, been too rapid? Of course he wasn't going say that. Because saying so would be very bad PR.

Mid-2012 brewery count
And, yet, there it was. An article that presented one point of view...that of the person being interviewed. Perhaps the author might have considered digging a little deeper or talking to someone who is concerned that a bubble may be forming. What happened to objectivity?

Please understand, I don't always expect objectivity. I have friends who simply repost press releases and related promotional info on their blogs. They generally aren't getting paid for their effort. Even though I frankly think every press release should be evaluated, I have zero problem with citizen journalists whose blogs are primarily (and blindly) promotional.

That is not the case when it comes to supposedly reputable publications, whether online or traditional. People who get paid to function as journalists ought to be held to a higher standard.

Do I think there's a craft beer bubble forming? I'm not sure. But I hear a lot of brewers talking about it. Here's one question I would have asked Papazian or someone else had I been writing the story: "Are you concerned that even if there isn't a nationwide bubble, there may be bubbles forming in areas where the brewery count is especially high?"

Sadly, stenography is not journalism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ramifestations in the Hilterland: Ice Harbor Brewing

The final stop on my recent trip to the hilterlands (a Molly Ivins reference...we could sure use her humor this political season) of eastern Washington was Ice Harbor Brewing in Kennewick. I had hoped to also visit White Bluffs Brewing in nearby Richland, but the timing of my trip and their limited hours put the kibosh on that plan. Next time, hopefully.

The big board at Ice Harbor Brewing
I've recently seen some snarky comments in reference to the breweries and beers of  the inland Northwest. These were Facebook comments made by self-anointed craft beer experts. These experts have a limited knowledge of beer and the beer business and a low opinion of rural sod busters who apparently ought to be making moonshine, not beer.

I'm tempted to go off on a rant about the many rural-based breweries that produce great beer, but that's probably best left for another day. I'll leave it at this: A brewery does not have to reside in the state of Multnomah in order for it to produce good beer. Brewing systems may be smaller and less sophisticated in the hilterlands, but there are many good beers there...even if they aren't always poured in the fanciest, trendiest, hippest (think hipster) joints. Good beer has no shame, wherever it lives.

Salvaged dairy equipment 
Ice Harbor Brewing is not a new kid on the block. The brewery was established in 1996 in a building on Benton Street that was formerly a grain mill. In recent years, they opened a marina location on Clover Island on the Columbia River. All of the brewing is done at the Benton St. location, which is also a brewpub and homebrewing supply store.

The 10 bbl brewing system at Ice Harbor is old school, fabricated from recycled dairy equipment. Lest you laugh, please recall that a lot of early craft brewers, including Kurt and Rob Widmer, used recycled dairy equipment to get their brands off the ground. What they have at Ice Harbor isn't fancy, but it works just fine, thanks.

Four modern fermenters keep things moving
Supplying their pubs and distribution channels, which I'll get to momentarily, would be nary impossible if not for the four 30 bbl fermenters on the brewery floor. They also have a flat, 1000 gal. tank used exclusively for dry-hopping...they believe a flat tank improves hop absorption over a conical tank, where hops settle and must be stirred up. Makes sense.

Back to distribution...beyond the two locations, Ice Harbor distributes its beer by the keg and bottle primarily in the Tri-Cities area. They were selling 12 and 22 oz bottles at the pub and those can evidently be found in local stores. An industry friend says Ice Harbor is looking to have its beer distributed in Portland and possibly Seattle in the near future, which would up the ante, for sure.

Specifically for dry-hopping
In a strange twist, Ice Harbor owns a small 12 oz bottling line. I had never seen one before... it looks much like the mobile setup that does 22 oz bottles, except it uses smaller bottles. The problem with the 12 oz system is it is quite inefficient...you spend a lot of time bottling not very much beer. They will likely want to enter the larger urban markets in 22 oz bottles or 16 oz cans, and you suspect they will be using a mobile arrangement to make that happen, at least initially.

Brewing capacity won't be a huge issue until extended distribution takes hold. If and when that happens, they will likely want to install a larger brewhouse and maybe a more fermenters. Fortunately, they have a bit of space in this location to update and expand their brewing capacity. This runs contrary to most places I've been to in recent times.

Take a look down the bar
There is a wee bit of Back to the Future here. When I walked in and sat down at the bar, 70's classic rock was playing on the sound system. The surroundings are quaint and somewhat dated. It was lunchtime and the place was mostly empty, although folks started shuffling in soon after I arrived. I'm not saying you won't hear old classic rock or find quaint surroundings in Portland; however, this felt a little retro...but not in a bad way. I almost looked around to see if I could spot my dad as a young man. McFly!

They were serving up a nice list of beers. I ordered up a tray of tasters that included Tangerine Hefeweizen, Columbia Kolsch, Runaway Red, Nut Brown Ale, Harvest Pale Ale and IPA. The gal at the bar gave me separate, smaller samples of their Fresh Hop IPA and Fresh Hop Double Red. Rural charm.

The tasting tray
The Tangerine Hef reminded me vaguely of the Peach Hef I'd recently tasted at Laht Neppur. The tangerine version is mildly tart with a hint of something Belgian...I suppose the combination of yeast, wheat and fruit. Not bad, though I must say the Peach Hef from Waitsburg is a bit more refined.

The most accomplished beer on the plate was the IPA, which featured a perfect balance of malt backbone and hops. This beer is reminiscent of Boneyard RPM, nicely dry-hopped to maximize piney, pineapple notes in aroma and flavor. Of the beers I tasted, the IPA is the one I would definitely bring to Portland.

Spinning wheel determines the price of your next beer
Of the two fresh hop beers, I much-preferred the Red, which had some interesting hop flavors and aromas without being overbearing. This beer was vaguely similar to Laurelwood's Fresh Hop Red, although the Ice Harbor version has a thinner, less assertive core upon which the fresh hop laminate resides. It occurs to me that I prefer fresh hop reds because they do a better job of concealing earthy, leafy, compost-like fresh hop flavors than a pale or IPA.

They were not pouring their imperial IPA, Hop Warrior, when I stopped in. Hop Warrior isn't huge by IIPA standards at just over 8 %, and not much bigger than their standard IPA, which comes in at 6.8%, I bought a bottle of each to take home and eventually got around to tasting them. Hop Warrior is a bigger hop bomb than the standard, but these are both nice beers that could attract interest in urban markets. In my opinion.

Tap handles mark the territory
This is certainly a spot worth checking out if you happen to be on the road between Portland/Seattle and the hilterlands of eastern Washington. If you do make it in, be sure to listen for a passing train (the tracks are close), which will cause the barkeep to spin the wheel mounted on the wall at one end of the bar. This is an apparent reference to Wheel of Fortune, only in this case where the wheel winds up determines the cost of your next beer. Cool stuff!

Special thanks to the folks at Ice Harbor for showing me around and making me feel right at home, in particular brewer Adam Crane. Adam subbed in nicely for Ice Harbor's fearless head of brewing, Russ Corey.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Paradise Creek Brewing Transcends Good Beer

A long time ago in what seems like another life, I spent a good many afternoons working at Budget Tapes & Records in downtown Pullman, Wash.. That job was largely a response and partial financial solution to the record buying fetish I had all the way through college. I would eventually manage two Budget stores for a time.
Street view of the Old Post Office in Pullman
Not far from the record store in those days was the Post Office. This was the late 1970s. I suspect the mail volume going through that place exceeded the building's capacity long before a new Post Office came online. Anyway, the classic structure became known as the Old Post Office and housed a video store and theater during my years as a graduate student in Pullman, 1983-88. In 2003, the building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places for Whitman County. See, Pullman has more than just frigid winter weather.

Today, the Old Post Office houses Paradise Creek Brewery, which opened its doors in 2010. I'll get to the brewing part of the operation momentarily, but it's instructive to note how the business was born.

The lobby features exquisite stone and classic architecture
Some years ago, a gent named Tom Handy bought and renovated the Old Post Office building. Handy had lived in Pullman for many years and worked in Broadcast Communications up on the hill at Washington State University. A fledgling entrepreneur, he initially opened a wine bar and restaurant in the building.

Several years later, he rented a portion of the building to a start-up winery, Merry Cellars. Handy then formed a friendship with Merry Cellars winemaker, Patrick Merry, and the two dabbled in homebrewing. Merry Cellars went on to great success and eventually moved to a larger location in Pullman. When they did, Handy jumped at the opportunity to buy brewing equipment and start brewing commercially.

The dining and bar area is top notch
I stopped by Paradise Creek not expecting much. The sign said they were closed. Strangely enough, the front doors were open. They had forgotten to lock out the riffraff! I simply walked in and started looking around, acting like I knew what I was doing. Within a few moments, I was greeted with a pleasant, "Hello, can I help you?" Of course.

The voice belonged to Scott Mackey, officially the creative director at Paradise Creek. Take a look at the website. I'm quite sure he wrote the bulk of the engaging, funny copy there. I informed Scott that I had come from Portland to investigate the rural brewing scene...that he should take me to his leader. Haha. Seriously, I gave him my blog card and introduced myself.

The copper kettles live in the basement
I'm not really clear on why owning a beer blog should open any doors...indeed, I see fewer and fewer doors opening around Portland and I suspect blogs are largely being displaced by social media (I know, I know...that's another post for another day). Surprisingly, Scott offered to show me around and let me taste the beers. Big score.

Honestly, this is one of the most visually imposing/appealing brewpubs I've seen, and I've seen a few. The old building has been tastefully renovated and retains much of the historic charm. In the lobby, I recalled standing there, waiting to buy stamps or mail a package. The dining area and bar occupies the area where mail was once sorted...and, later, where films were once shown.

Three fermenters smile away
They can have as many as 12 of their own beers on tap. I tasted several beers, including Dirty Blonde, Paradise Belgian Wit, Over the Hop IPA and Sacred Cow Milk Stout. These are all highly drinkable beers. I really enjoyed the crisp flavor and mild tartness of the Wit and the Milk Stout is smooth and full of flavor. There's an extensive list of beers on their website for the curious.

The brewing plant downstairs is home to a 7 bbl system. Three 15 bbl fermenters help them to keep up with onsite demands and limited distribution in the area. They recently started bottling several of their beers and are focused on expanding bottle and keg distribution from Pullman/Moscow and Lewiston/Clarkson into Spokane and even Seattle. We are unlikely to see Paradise Creek beers in Portland anytime soon.

Barrel-aging program in its infancy
Frankly speaking, they will almost certainly need to expand their brewing capacity to fully capitalize on distribution beyond the Palouse area. Because the space they have for brewing in this building is limited, expanding distribution probably means an off-premise production facility. Sounds like a familiar problem and Scott said they aren't exactly sure what they might do about it. Time will tell.

As with most of the places I recently visited in eastern Washington, Paradise is focused mainly on producing a solid portfolio of standard beers and seasonals. The Belgian was a big surprise and really good. They also have a Fresh Hop beer on their menu, and they have initiated as small barrel-aging program, so they are obviously aware of industry trends.

On the other side of the glass...the brewery
I did not partake in any food. Hell, I was an uninvited visitor who happened to get in because someone forgot to lock the door! The menu leans on upscale renditions of standard pub fare. Most of the food reviews I read online were good...something to keep in mind for a future visit.

Paradise Creek has a terrific look and feel. It's clear that a significant amount of thought and effort has gone into building the brewery and business. When I worked at Budget Tapes & Records, I saw a lot of ill-conceived businesses open and fold in Pullman. "Pullman jokes," my boss called them. Well, Paradise Creek Brewing isn't one of them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Laht Neppur Mixes Great Beer with Rural Charm

Laht Neppur Brewing wound up on my radar screen for the recent trip largely on the strength of their Peach Hefeweizen, which I tasted at the Oregon Brewers Festival this summer.  I'm not normally a fan of that style, but I liked the Peach Hef. Thus, the stop in Waitsburg, home of the Laht Neppur brewery. And more good beers, I hoped.

Difficult to miss
If you're wondering, Waitsburg is out in what many refer to as "the middle of nowhere." More specifically, its roughly 30 miles northeast of Walla Walla. Folks who frequent the wine country around Walla Walla surely know of Waitsburg. And Dayton. Possibly Pomeroy. Lots of Aggies over there, producing the stuff we eat and drink here in the city.

The Laht Neppur brewery (and similarly-named winery in the same building) is located just off the main road through Waitsburg. It's tough to miss because they've managed to place a cute little sign near the side of the road a few hundred feet ahead of the spot...assuming you're headed east.

A view of the brewery/winery from the sidewalk
The short version of the Laht Neppur story is that the place was founded by Court Ruppenthal, a longtime homebrewer who came to the area to learn about wine making. Not long after arriving, Ruppenthal realized what the area really need was good beer. He reasoned that you need a lot of great beer to make good wine. Makes sense if you think about it.

So he decided to start brewing, and opened taproom in 2006. Actually, it isn't just a taproom. They have a pub menu here. Families and kids are welcome. More recently, they opened a pub in Walla Walla. Plus, they operate a beer garden where the Walla Walla Sweets (minor league baseball) play. Check their website for information on days and hours, which vary by season.

The rather small brewing operating was idle
Let me back up for just a moment. Before he decided to embark on the wine and beer adventure, Ruppenthal was living in Vancouver, enjoying the good life. The move to wine country happened because of wine, but the idea of brewing good beer here is ingenious. Why? Because the entire inland Northwest is underserved from a craft beer standpoint. Portland-area brewers who want to open their own place ought to make a note of that fact.

Oh, in case you're hoping to attach some deep meaning to the name, don't bother. Read it backwards. Got it? Good. There's some definite wit here.

The tasters
The brewing operation at Laht Neppur isn't large. They've got a 3.5 bbl brewhouse and several 7 bbl fermenters. There were at least 10 beers available on draft, and these guys recently started bottling some of their beers, so I'm guessing the brewery is operating at close to capacity. There was no activity the day I visited, which makes me suspect it was a wine making day.

My taster tray (these are 4 ounce glasses, so you need to be careful) included Backseat Blonde, Golden Ale, Peach Hef, Scotch Ale and IPA. These are all good beers. I thought the Peach Hef was a little less fruity than what I tasted at the OBF, but still pretty good. The Blonde and Golden are both nice summer beers. The best of the bunch was the Scotch Ale, super smooth with a perfect smokey malt backbone.

The peanut shells add a touch of charm
If you stop by the tasting room/pub, you'll notice it's rather homey. The decor is decidedly "early grubby," and I think that's a good thing. The floor is lined with peanut shells. They even have a land line phone with a standard ring...hadn't seen or heard that in a while. The typical patron comes from the local Ag community and you may have a chance to mingle...if you're lucky.  It's not fancy place...doesn't need or want to be.

I mentioned the bottled beers. These are 22 oz bombers of Peach Hef, Strawberry Cream Ale and Backseat Blonde. They apparently bottled the IPA and Scotch Ale days ahead of my arrival. I saw a number of growlers and bottles leaving the shop. I was told distribution is limited for now, although we may be seeing bottles on Portland shelves in the near future.

Next time you head out to wine country or other destinations east, check out Laht Neppur. They've got the beer and the charm.