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Friday, November 30, 2012

My Holiday Ale Fest Snapshot

The Holiday Ale Festival has commenced its annual run at Pioneer Courthouse Square and will continue through the weekend. It's the 17th rendition and this festival has come a long way since the days of claustrophobia-inducing white tents.

Anyone remotely familiar with the HAF knows it's best to attend during daylight weekday hours. That's because it can get pretty packed evenings and on the weekend. There was a pleasant buzz in the air when I stopped by Thursday afternoon...busier than expected, but no problem getting around and no beer lines to speak of.

A view without lines
I'll give a quick rundown of my favorite beers in a second. First, a word about the most-often heard grump under the tents...the $30 entry fee. I'm sympathetic to the view that the price of admission is a bit steep. On the other hand, organizers have no problem packing the available space for the better part of five days.

I asked one fellow drinker why he bothered to attend if he was so adamantly opposed to the price. I mean, why not let festival organizers know of your displeasure by not attending? His answer: "I come because this is one of my favorite festivals and I don't want to miss it." So there you have it. People pay the price because they feel it's a worthwhile value.

Celebrate (good) Beer! Sounds like a fine idea
The layout is essentially identical to what it has been in recent years. You enter in the same place and the beers are in the same spots. They've truly maxed out the available space here with the Sky Bar, Side Bar and Main Bar. Part of the charm of the HAF is the downtown venue, and it isn't going anywhere, despite the limited space.

The Beers
A few general comments on the beers. The Standard Release line-up is Oregon-dominant...32 of the 44 beers in the program are Oregon made. California is second with six. You can add half a beer to both states, if you wish, thanks to the Bison/Logsdon collaboration. On the styles front, stouts account for 11 of 44 beers. Also, no fewer than 11 beers are barrel-aged.

Beer friends Heather and Angelo
Firestone Walker's Wild Merkin was the first beer I tasted. This is a complex beer and maybe that wasn't a great idea. Oh well. I found it to be mildly sour with subtle bourbon notes. It's a nicely balanced presentation on the whole.

I wasn't really seeking a hop bomb, given this is a winter festival, but Breakside's India Passion Elixir is a fine beer, probably my favorite. This is a collaboration between Breakside and Lompoc. Sure it's hoppy, but the hops are not out of balance. I suspect the addition of honey for increased body is what makes this beer. Other opinions may differ.

Perfunctory shot
Lompoc's Franc'ly Brewdolf, the beer I tasted a couple of weeks ago at a media preview, was a whole lot more mature and pleasing this time around. I found it a more creamy than malty, but it's certainly a worthwhile effort.

Boysen, a dark Belgian ale from The Commons, was almost exactly as advertised...a heavy (malty) low end is leveled out somewhat by chocolate and boysenberries on top. I was expecting it to be a little brighter, but it's a nice beer.

Deschutes' Lost Mirror Mirror 09, one of the Limited Released beers tapped Thursday afternoon, is amazing. This oak-aged specimen is possibly the smoothest, fullest barley wine I've tasted. It was certainly worth the double-token price. Too bad it was limited.

Another fantastic barley wine is Lagunitas' Old Gnarley Wine (2010). This one is on the Standard Release list. I've had this beer in a bottle and found it quite good. But additional aging smooths this beer out nicely, I think. Sweet caramel flavors are supported by a great body. Terrific.

The standard tree shot
I had hoped to taste Snow Cave, the Crux Fermentation Project beer. Alas, it had not arrived as of Thursday evening. There was a sign near the entry saying they expected to have it Friday.

So those are my highlights. Several of the beers on my original tasting list didn't quite live up to my expectations. They weren't necessarily bad, just not what I thought they would be. Opinions tend to differ on these things, so I leave it to you to taste away.

If you need more information, there's plenty on the HAF site here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Ale Festival Hit List

It's that time of year. Time for the 17th Annual Holiday Ale Festival, which runs Wednesday through Sunday  in Pioneer Courthouse Square. I talked about some of the general event specs earlier (here) and there are plenty of other folks talking about it in blogland.

My main purpose here is to list a few of the beers I will be hunting for at the festival. Not that my opinion should really matter. Fact is, there will be a ton of great beers at the HAF, which is a destination winter beer event. Beer fans have come to expect a long list of unique and exceptional beers, because that's what the festival delivers.

About my beer list. There are two tiers of beers at the HAF... Standard Release and Limited Release. All the beers on my list are from the Standard Release list. In case you wonder why, it's because the Limited Release beers will only be available during specific windows of time, not necessarily times I intend to be down there.

Although I will almost certainly taste Deschutes' Lost Mirror Mirror Thursday afternoon, I'm not putting it on my hit list because its availability is so limited. If you want to plan your trip according to Limited Release beers, the list with tap times is here.

Should you wish to get acquainted with the complete list of Standard beers, here's where you can find it. As I write this, the location of the beers in the tents is still TBD. That will likely be shored up by the time the festival opens on Wednesday.

My Hit List (A-Z)
10 Barrel Brewing Frosty's Revenge (7% ABV; 40 IBUs) Belgian Ale
This is a Belgian Christmas Ale, based on a milk stout, with notes of molasses, toasted bread and raisins. Belgian Abbey yeast, with its essence of candied fruit, likely forms the character of this beer. Hops deliver hints of pine and bubblegum, they say. Sounds interesting.

Bayern Brewing Eisbock (13% ABV; 34 IBUs) German Ale
This beer started out as Bayern's award winning Doppelbock, and I'm a big fan of that style. They use a freezing process that lowers the temperature of the beer in the aging tank to the point that some of the water in the beer freezes. Several transfers from tank to tank extract the ice, resulting in a smooth, higher alcohol beer. I'll be interested to how smooth it is and how well the malt backbone keeps the alcohol in the background.

Bison Brewing Organic Cocoa Bretta (7%  ABV; 26 IBUs) Stout
This is organic collaboration combines Bison's award winning Chocolate Stout and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales' Bretta. The stout was brewed with cocoa, multiple yeasts, finished with strains of Brettanoymces, and then keg conditioned with pear juice. I've had both of the base beers. I'm interested to taste the combo and see how the Bretta alters Bison's very chocolate stout.

Breakside Brewery India Passion Elixir (8.7 % ABV; 80 IBUs) Red Ale
This winter hop bomb is a collaboration between Breakside's Jacob Leonard and Bryan Keilty of Lompoc. They used flaked rye and dark wheat for malts. For hops, they turned to Willamette and Centennial. They rounded the beer out with a bit of honey for more body. This was one of the beers I didn't get to taste at Lompoc's Holiday Beer preview.

Crux Fermentation Project Snow Cave (11% ABV; 20 IBUs) Winter Ale 
Crux is one of the newer breweries in Bend and a very impressive operation. Snow Cave evidently doesn't stay within normal style guidelines. Instead, it gives a nod to all winter beer styles. Starting with a heavy dose of wheat malt and ending with a touch of chocolate, this high gravity interpretation of a winter warmer will keep you cozy in the harshest of winters. I can't wait!

Firestone Walker Brewing Wild Merkin (8.5% ABV: 8.5%; no IBU given) Blend
Last year, FW's Velvet Merkin was possibly the most popular beer at the HAF. This time around the Firestone folks have collaborated with the Holiday Ale Festival. In code, that means head HAF organizer Preston Weesner had significant input. It's a blend of one-year-old Bourbon barrel-aged Velvet Merkin that was blended with a touch of young Gueuze from Firestone's sour program. The result is a lighter, brighter, but still barrel-forward Merkin. Sounds excellent.

Gilgamesh Brewing Blitz 'N' Prancer (9% ABV; 6 IBUs) Belgian Ale
A spiced Belgian-style ale was brewed in the spirit of holiday breads. Dark roasted malts and large quantities of molasses make a robust and slightly sweet body. Light hopping and spicing from vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg create a festive finish. I'm interested to see if the spices can overcome the alcohol in this one.

Lompoc Brewing Franc'ly Brewdolph (7.6 % ABV; no IBU given) Belgian Ale 
If you read this blog at all, you know I'm interested in this beer because when I tasted it at Lompoc's recent Holiday preview, it was freshly blended from barrels, under-carbonated and not ready for prime time. It's a Belgian red ale brewed in October 2011 using Belgian Ardennes yeast, then aged for a year in Cabernet Franc barrels. The resulting beer is malty and creamy, they say. I'm interested to see what the finished product tastes like.

The Commons Brewery Boysen (10.5% ABV; 25 IBUs) Belgian Ale
Any beer from The Commons is worth a try and this one sounds terrific. It's a dark, strong, malt forward Belgian ale with dark fruits added during maturation. Chocolate notes create a foundation for the boysenberries and yeast esters to ride on. Could be amazing!

Widmer Brothers Brewing Brrrbon Vanilla (10.5% ABV; 78 IBUs) IPA
This is a revved up version of Brrrr, one of Widmer's winter seasonals. It's barrel-aged with hints of vanilla, dark chocolate and caramel. They say it has a deep complexity and balance. I honestly think standard Brrrr is a fairly bland winter beer, but the barrel-aged versions are a substantial upgrade. This will be fun.

So that's my list. I'll undoubtedly be tasting other beers along the way, but this is a nice start. I'll post my thoughts on these beers and other finds before the weekend. It's going to be a fun festival. Hope you have a chance to get down there! Please go to the HAF website here to buy advance tickets and/or check event details.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lompoc Carries on Nicely with Holiday Beers

Lompoc Brewing held its annual Holiday Beer preview last week. It was particularly interesting this year for reasons that go somewhat beyond the beers. The reality is, they've been through some changes at Lompoc Brewing in the last year. Yet they carry on.

They lost the Old Lompoc brewpub on Northwest 23rd. This was the original location, converted to a brewery in 1996 and subsequently purchased by Jerry Fechter and the late Don Younger in 2000. They renamed the business New Old Lompoc. The old pub/brewery resided in a building that was demolished last spring to make way for a new structure that will house apartments, retail shops and parking. Progress takes no prisoners in Northwest Portland.

Holiday beers to seek out in stores
Demise of New Old Lompoc reduced Lompoc's portfolio to four locations: The Fifth Quadrant (headquarters and brewery) and Sidebar (tasting room) on N. Williams; the Hedge House pub on SE Division; and the Oaks Bottom Public House in the Westmoreland neighborhood.

It won't stay that way for long. Fechter has signed a lease to open a pub in the new building in Northwest. This will be a pub only, as installing a brewery in the new space would have been beyond problematic. All beer production has shifted to the Fifth Quadrant. Honestly, though, the bulk of brewing has been done there for several years, as the NOL brewery was small and rather antiquated.

There were human losses, as well. Brewers Dave Fleming and Zach Beckwith departed during the year. Fleming, head brewer for several years, left to take a position in hops sales (my story here). I've heard murmurs that he's back brewing somewhere, but I can't confirm. Beckwith initially left to help launch Pints Urban Taproom in the Pearl (my write-up here) and later moved to Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters.

Tools of the tasting trade
With the departures of Fleming and Beckwith, Bryan Keilty took over as Lompoc's head brewer. Keilty had managed Lompoc's production and barrel aging program for several years. His stable mates now include Irena Bierzynski (my story here) and new addition Josh Merrick. It's a good group as long as Jerry stays out of the way. Just kidding...sorta.

The also went through a minor rebranding involving beer labels (my story). Lompoc, which distributes about two-thirds of the beer it brews to commercial accounts (in 22 oz bottles and kegs) in Oregon and Washington, felt the old labels were slightly threadbare. Updated labels began appearing in the spring and continued through recent releases of Monster Mash Imperial Porter and LSD (Lompoc Special Draft). I like the new look.

Holiday Brews
There are seven beers on the Lompoc holiday list this year. If you keep track of these things at home, that's two less than the usual nine. The official reason for the change is the demise of the Old Lompoc brewery, which did poke a small hole in production. Anyway, seven holiday beers is probably enough. All of these will be officially released on Nov. 27.

Jolly Bock (7.3% ABV) was the first beer on the tasting itinerary. The beer, a lager, is nice and malty with a deep amber color. It came straight from the brite tank so the beer will likely change a bit prior to its official release at the end of the month. This is a draft-only offering.

The blurry pour...
Next came 8 Malty Nights (6.5% ABV). This chocolate rye beer is smooth and features a smooth, mildly sweet finish. It's a bit stronger in aroma than it is in flavor, but I really liked this beer. You'll be seeing it on store shelves soon....grab some while you can.

Franc'ly Brewdolph (7.6% ABV) is a red ale brewed with special Belgian yeast, then aged for a year in Cabernet Franc barrels. This beer will be served at the upcoming Holiday Ale Festival, where it will certainly taste different than it did last week. Why? Because the beer had only just come from the barrels and been blended. It was flat and over-oaked. Carbonation will certainly change the character of this brew, possibly bringing fruit notes to the forefront. I recommend giving it a try if you see it.

C-Sons Greetings (8% ABV) is a bigger version of Lompoc's popular C-Note Imperial Pale Ale. They use more than seven "C" hops for bittering and dry-hopping, so it's a serious hop bomb. The aroma is fantastic, as are the piney, citrus flavors. There was wide agreement among tasters that this is an excellent beer. I found it to be slightly tamer from the bottle than from draft, but that's to be expected. It's terrific stuff and I've already seen it in stores. Git some!

Old Tavern Rat (9.4% ABV) is barley wine that was aged almost a year. Caramel and toffee sweetness balance out a fairly hoppy beer. This beer is only available on draft and there's no barrel-aged version of Old Tavern Rat this year...look for it in 2013.

Keilty pours while Fechter (background) yaks
The final beer was Bourbon Barrel Aged Wee Heavy (7.5% ABV), which spent nine months in bourbon barrels. They used dark, smokey malts, along with 50 pounds of molasses, to make this beer. It's dark, smokey and complex. A fairly strong bourbon aroma overlays a beer that possesses a mildly sweet body and a smooth, dry finish. Quite good.

The seventh beer on Lompoc's holiday list is Blitzen (4.6%), a golden ale infused with cinnamon, glove, lemon zest and fresh ginger. Sounds pretty good. But the beer was still in the fermenter, so we didn't get to taste it. Unhappy face.

Finally, Lompoc will have a second beer at the Holiday Ale Festival, this one a collaboration with Breakside Brewing called Breakside India Passion Elixir. It's described as a "winter hop bomb," so you may want to seek it out at the festival if that's your thing.

As noted above, these beers will be launched to the public at Lompoc's Holiday Release Party at Sidebar on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 4 to 10 p.m. You'll want to go with the taster tray...trust me on that. Just to show they're user-friendly, the folks at Lompoc will be offering complimentary appetizers.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Base Camp Takes Unprecedented Path

Base Camp Brewing is possibly the newest kid on the brewing block here in Portland. I say possibly because they opened a couple of weeks ago and something newer may have already opened. That's the nature of things in the brewing community here.

You may wonder why Base Camp is located where it is over on Southeast Oak. Why would they open a production brewery and tasting room in a bombed out part of the city? Think I'm kidding? Go over there and note the number of dilapidated, crumbing buildings. And homeless campers.

Colorful outside visuals
I suspect the location was chosen for a logical reason, which I'll get to. First, you need to know this place is the brainchild of owner and brewer Justin Fey, who previously worked at Klamath Falls Brewing and Pyramid Brewing. Justin is a smart guy. When he was in school at Oregon State University, he bailed on Pre-Med to study Fermentation Science. Brilliant. Really.

The Base Camp model is virtually unprecedented in Portland. Most places start small. Not Fey. He bought a vacant building in inner Southeast fully intending to install a 20 bbl production brewery there. He then put together a team that helped make it happen. No one, to my knowledge, has ever started out like this here. The closest approximation is Gigantic, which has less brewing capacity and is located far from the city's inner core.

Base Camp's brewing capacity is an interesting story. Fey purchased the entire brewing system from Nicolet Brewing of Florence, Wis. He and his team then traveled there, disassembled the system, loaded it on trucks and brought it back to Portland. They subsequently refurbished and reassembled the pieces. Seriously.
Warm visuals in the tasting room

I never saw the building prior to Base Camp being open, but pictures over on The New School blog tell the story. The space surely housed some kind of early 20th century industrial enterprise. The ceilings are high, the space cavern-like. Yeah, it's almost ideal for a production brewery.

They've dressed the space up nicely with artwork, salvage wood tables, track lighting and fixtures. It's quite comfortable inside. There's also an outside area with a fire pit on the west side of the building...which gets some action now and will surely be very popular when the weather cooperates. It could use a cover in winter, but I don't know if that's in the cards.

Back to the brewery. The 20 bbl system is augmented by a generous complement of 60 and 30 bbl fermenters, as well as two large lagering tanks. That kind of fermentation space is rare in established craft breweries, let alone newbies. The lagering tanks, well, they aren't common at all. These tanks give Base Camp a lot of production flexibility and help explain their beer list.

Unique aluminum bottles
Beer geeks are fully aware of why the lagering tanks are a big deal. Since not everyone is a beer geek, a bit of explanation. A prime reason most craft breweries don't produce much if any lager beer is they don't have the fermentation space. Lagers can clog up a brewery that has limited fermentation capacity. Why? Because lagers take longer to ferment...and require lower fermenting temperatures. So craft brewers have historically steered away from producing a lot of lager.

Despite the fact that Budweiser, Coors and the rest of the macro crowd has damaged the integrity of lager beer, there are many great lagers out there. A growing number of craft brewers are reviving the style and Base Camp, which produces plenty of ales, too, is part of that community. I'll be interested to see how it works out for them.

The Brews
Remember, the main goal here is distribution by bottle and keg. That's pretty much the way it is for production breweries that aren't connected to a pub or collection of pubs. Base Camp's tasting room would never come close to utilizing the brewing capacity here. And I mean never.

The tasting log
Their flagship beer is In-Tents IPL. Yup, it's an India Pale Lager. You can find it in area stores in fancy 22 oz aluminum bottles and on draft at various pubs. IPL is an interesting beer. It's dry-hopped and aged on toasted oak chips. It's closer to a red, really. I didn't detect much hop aroma of flavor, likely due to lagering. I think this beer would be better as an ale. But it's pretty good as is.

Ripstop Rye Pils had just gone on when I visited on Thursday night. This is a light colored lager with a serene rye malt backbone and a wonderful flavor and finish. RRP was the best beer I tasted and I recommend it highly. Nicely done, folks.

Out-of-Bounds Brown Ale is a bit of an odd duck. This beer is lighter than it should be for a brown. It's also heavy on the up-front hops and lacks the kind of nutty, malty depth you expect in a brown. I guess that explains the Out-of-Bounds name. This is actually a decent beer, but it's more of a hoppy winter seasonal (comparable to Full Sail's Wreck the Halls, maybe) than a standard brown.

Closer view of the bar area
I'm not much of a stout fan, but the S'more Stout is really good. It's quite smooth, yet retains plenty of toasty malt and chocolate flavors. You'll understand the naming convention if you visit Base Camp. It has to do with a marsh-mellow. And a propane torch. Cool stuff.

When you make your first trip to Base Camp, do the taster log. The presentation is nice and you'll get to experience the spectrum of what their beers are all about. You'll find something on the log that turns your crank. Trust me.

Money Talk
Returning to the issue of location, it likely ties in with how the operation was financed. There are no private investors or shareholders in Base Camp. Instead, the business is built on a bank loan Fey was able to obtain.

I can't even imagine what it must have cost to buy a building (even in this area), purchase the brewing equipment and fixtures and get the place ready for business. I'd guess a small fortune. If you're going to do that, it probably makes sense to be in a centralized location where you can draw customers from all corners of the city. So that's where they are.

Also related to the financial arrangement is the food arrangement. There's no food at Base Camp. You can order pizza from a cart that resides on the property, but it isn't technically connected. Had they wanted to be a brewpub, they likely would not have qualified for a loan. Why? Because lenders love breweries and hate restaurants (regarded as high risk) in our present economy. I'm not making this up...a well connected and successful industry source told me this a while ago.

Base Camp, like most of our local breweries, is worth a visit. Do yourself a favor and check the hours before you head over there. Evenings are good, but daytime hours are more limited.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

21st Century Freddy Meyer

It has been interesting to watch craft beer take over more and more space in grocery stores. Once upon a time, you had to go to New Seasons or Whole Foods to find a decent selection of good beer...assuming you weren't planing to hit up a bottleshop like Belmont Station.

Although premium stores and bottleshops continue to do great job with craft beer, the game has changed in recent years. You can now find a reasonable selection of great beer in grocery stores, convenience stores and small neighborhood markets. In fact, craft beer sales in these channels are expanding rapidly.

Updated bomber row
So I've been curious about Fred Meyer, which has been mostly slow to turn the craft beer corner. This is particularly true of the Hollywood West location. Here's a store situated in an area that is thirsty for craft beer and wine. They've done a terrific job with wine in this store for many years. Beer, not so much.

There are surely reasons why beer played second fiddle at the Hollywood store. Space was likely one of them. The physical space dedicated to beer was relatively small for a store so large, limiting what they could stock. Lack of focus is another reason. This store has had a wine steward managing wine for many years and doing a fine job. That same person also managed craft beer...not an ideal arrangement.

Plenty of room for seasonal displays
Well, things have changed at the Hollywood store. The recent remodel, more or less complete, has provided roughly double the amount of space for beer. They now have a splendid selection of craft beer in 22 oz. bombers, cans and smaller bottles. They continue to carry a selection of macro sludge on one side of the aisle, but the craft side is where the action is. Plenty of it.

I cannot say what they've done about managing craft beer. I know they were looking for a beer steward a while back. Hopefully, they pulled the trigger on that because having someone with beer knowledge involved in the craft show is crucial to its ongoing success. Today's craft beer scene changes too rapidly for a wine person to successfully split duties.

Play the Game
Part of what drives the success of craft beer in bottleshops, pubs and stores is promotion of special releases and tastings via social media. It's the nature of the beast in this business. I'm not sure this approach is being used by the Kroger/Fred Meyer empire, but it definitely can be.

Jana of Powered by Yeast
Indeed, I visited the Hollywood store a couple of weeks ago after I saw a Facebook post announcing a mead tasting. This tasting was organized and hosted by Powered by Yeast, a beverage brand management company located in Portland.

Powered by Yeast is the husband and wife team of Tim and Jana Daisy-Ensign. Tim and Jana both have extensive experience in craft beer, wine and cider, and they represent a portfolio of brands that includes Fort George Brewing and Redstone Meadery.

Jana was tasting several Redstone meads, which were quite good. Events like this, when promoted via the right channels, can be a big success at the Hollywood store and beyond. Hopefully, there will be more of them happening.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Knotso Sweet Home Alabama

As I've detailed before, Alabama is not exactly what sane folks would call a progressive state. Like most of the old Confederacy, the folks down in what Lynyrd Skynyrd lovingly referred to as "the Southland" have rather archaic views of many things. Alcohol just happens to be one of them.

If you saw the recent issue of Beeradvocate or if you have any kind of online craft beer news alert set up, you probably know that Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents seized more than $5,000 worth of homebrewing supplies from Hop City Craft Beer & Wine in Birmingham in late September. Such a great story.

The way it came down is fairly straight forward. On the day ABC was supposed to issue Hop City's beer and wine license, several armed agents showed up at the store and offered to either arrest the manager or confiscate a portion of the homebrewing "contraband." Offering to arrest the manager was a nicely refined piece of southern hospitality, you have to admit.

As they prepared to drive off in a van filled with confiscated supplies, ABC agents told Hop City staff they would return the next day and confiscate the remaining contraband if it was still there. Naturally, the store owner opted to remove the offending items. Two days later, ABC granted the store's beer and wine license. Today it exists as a bottle shop and taproom without homebrewing supplies.

Living in Oregon, it's a little hard to imagine how things work in the old Confederacy. In the case of homebrewing, it's been legal in the United States since the late 1970s and is wildly popular. But Alabama (along with many other southern states) is decades behind the times, with seriously reactionary laws regulating alcohol, brewing and more. If I didn't know better, I might think these folks are still fighting the Civil War.

Hop City contends it notified ABC months ahead of it's planned opening that it intended to sell homebrewing equipment and supplies. There was no meaningful response...other than "homebrewing is illegal." But it turns out making wine at home is completely legal in Alabama. And Hop City suggested it might sell brewing supplies to nearby commercial brewers. There was no response from ABC...well, until agents with guns showed up and confiscated store merchandise.

It's hard to imagine, but the story gets even better. An attorney for ABC released this statement: "You can have sugar, you can have malt, you can have hops, you can have tubing, copper and everything else, but if you put it all together in a store and market it like it's going to be homebrewing stuff and [you] have a book about how to do it, it's a problem."

The good old days...
So it sounds like it's fine to sell all the homebrewing supplies and equipment you want, as long as you don't also tell people what it's for or sell a book that helps them connect the dots. Well, at least they're consistent when it comes to books in Alabama, which has a rich history of book banning and burning.

I do wonder if these folks will ever catch up with the rest of the country. Beyond the fact that homebrewing is the law of the land, you can't help but wonder if state agents might have better things to do than raid homebrewing supply stores. I hear meth labs are a huge problem in the Alabama. Perhaps the state could redirect its resources and do something about that. Oh...wait.

Cue the Neil Young.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Laurelwood's "Brave New World"

As some who read this blog surely know, Laurelwood's flagship location on Northeast Sandy is in my hood. So it's obviously one of my regular stops. You get to know the regulars on both sides of the bar at a place like this. It's almost a Cheers situation...a personal comfort zone.

They've been making some changes at my favorite pub. It's tough not to notice. And these changes really aren't connected to the new (very nice) pub down in Sellwood, which opened a month or so ago. Nope. They're tinkering with a bunch of things at the flagship.

For Gearhead, the end is near
I happened to run into owner Mike De Kalb the other evening and asked him about what's happening. I should probably preface this by noting that brewers are almost always to blame when changes are made, and I knew Brewmaster Vasili Gletsos had to be involved. So I asked Mike if he had possibly lost his mind and let Vasili run wild. I'm kidding here, but you get the idea.

Mike said he was giving Vasili some room to explore and implement his ideas for moving the business forward. An email to Vasili was quickly returned with some details, which I shall get to shortly.

Big Picture
The big news is that Laurelwood is paring down its list of standard beers. Pale Ale...gone (actually, different versions will rotate). Hooligan Brown Ale...gone. Gearhead IPA...very soon gone. I'll get around to the IPA implications in a minute, so hang on. What they intend to do going forward is limit their core focus to four or five beers, which will free them up to produce more seasonals and specialties.
The Sellwood pub has attracted a good following

The cool thing about the seasonals is they are a team effort. Vasili will write some of the recipes with input from his brewers and the brewers will write some of the recipes with input from Vasili. Some of the beers may be fantastic and some may not be to everyone's tastes, he said. But it should give the team more strength and versatility in the long term.

Their approach to standard beers is also evolving. Vasili believes they should always be striving to make beers the best they can. Raw materials can vary in quality and availability. Thus, he doesn't mind varying the hops or malts in a recipe if he thinks it might make a beer better. So there may be some minor variation in even the standard beers. That's not a bad thing.

The big picture changes are perfectly in line with what is happening around Portland. Today's beer fans are seeking out seasonals and specialty beers in breweries and pubs. Well-known standards no longer cut it, as they did a few years ago. You have got to keep things interesting if you want stay relevant in this business. That's where Laurelwood is headed.

The IPA Story
Gearhead is going away (already gone from their website) because they are bringing Workhorse back as their distribution IPA. A little history here. Gearhead was introduced just over a year ago when Laurelwood ran short of the aroma hops used in Workhorse...those being Amarillo and Simcoe. Gearhead is a smaller beer that uses more traditional Cascade and Centennial hops.

The new standards board above the bar
Officially, they always intended to bring Workhorse back as their standard IPA...once the hops became available again. I was never quite sure how they would do that, but it makes good sense. See, Gearhead simply isn't in the same league as Workhorse and it never gained a large following. Workhorse is an iconic beer, one that has brought Laurelwood significant recognition. The fact that some of the ingredients can be more difficult to source is just part of the bargain.

When Workhorse was on hiatus, they eventually made it available at Laurelwood pubs. But you couldn't find it in bottles or in pubs around town. My first clue that a change might be in the wind was when I discovered they were pouring Workhorse down at Blitz Ladd. Anyway, the beer will be back in full distribution soon, although I'm not sure of the specific timetable.

Back in the mix
Some people are going to miss Gearhead. Its lower alcohol (6.5% ABV) content makes it a sessionable IPA (meaning you can drink a fair amount of it and not get hammered). By the way, Gearhead will likely be brought back from time to time as a seasonal beer. Good news for fans of the beer.

Discontinuing Gearhead and paring down the list of standards is a smart move, and one they probably had to make. Why so? Because Laurelwood's production capacity is pretty maxed out. The Sandy brewery produces essentially all of the beer they sell in multiple pubs and distribute by bottle. Streamlining production makes good sense.

"With Workhorse, it's much easier for us to focus on and produce more of one beer then it is to split the fermentation capacity and everything else among two brands that are more or less the same style of beer," Vasili said.

Workhorse is certainly the right choice if you're only going to make one IPA...in my view.

The bottom line is this: Laurelwood needs a production brewery. They have expanded distribution to the point that they need more production capacity. I know Mike is working toward getting a production facility off the ground, but the timeline is uncertain. Meanwhile, they've got to feed the monkey, as it were.

Other add-ons at the Sandy pub include a beer engine and some revised signage. These are good changes, as they add to the functionality and appeal of the place.

The newly added beer engine...and operator
Part of the reasoning behind the beer engine is the house yeast...English Ale yeast. This strain is perfect for subtle English ales (duh?). So they've got a cask program in place and will be rotating different beers through. They recently had a cask version of Workhorse and then an organic version of Treehugger Porter with vanilla beans.

"The cask program gives us the opportunity to use different dry hops, or anything else we want to try," Vasili said. "I can imagine some nice beers coming out of this program. I'm looking forward to a Red dry-hopped with Cascades and Centennials, which will go on this week, as well as a stout dry-peppered with a very fruity black pepper, almost like a prune flavor with a touch of heat."

Above the bar, you'll note the board of standard beers has been revised. It now lists the beers with basic stats. No more frilly pictures, which were artsy-fartsy, but also took up a lot of space.

"The standards board had all those wonderful pictures which were nice, but becoming obsolete and conveyed no information," said Vasili. "I think our customers prefer being able to see more about the beer...and less. The new board accomplishes that, I think."

The larger board of seasonals fits in nicely
The old seasonal board near the end of the bar has been replaced with a larger one on the wall that fronts Sandy Blvd. This was a necessary change. The old board was too small to list all of the seasonal beers and sometimes difficult to read for a variety of reasons. The new board is out in the open and much easier to read and absorb quickly.

Brave New World
It seems to me the things they're doing at Laurelwood will enhance and extend the reach of their brand. Staying relevant in this beer economy means constantly evaluating where you are with your beers, your people and your facilities...and making adjustments where they make sense.

As Vasili said in closing his email: "It's a brave new world."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Open Nearly a Year, The Commons Cruises Along

The Commons Brewery in Southeast Portland opened nearly a year ago and will soon celebrate its first anniversary. I first visited early on and I stopped by several times since. My initial post on this brewery is here, if you're interested.

That's Rusticity on the left
The Commons has certainly built its brand presence around town. They conduct tastings all over the place and bottles are available at many finer stores and bottleshops. Their beers can also be found on draft in more and more places.

These are Belgian-influenced beers. As I said the first time around, they don't brew or pour your standard beers here. There's no IPA on tap. No PBR, either. You get the idea.

These guys continue to expand their line of beers. On my visit the other night, the only beer I remembered from earlier visits was the Urban Farmhouse Ale, likely their best-known beer. All of the beers on the board were low-octane. The very tart Berliner weisse came in at just 3.4% and ABV topped out at 6% for the list. It's quite amazing that beers with so much character can come in such a low alcohol form.

The board keeps getting more interesting
The beer that really grabbed me this time was Rusticity. This stuff is a collaboration between The Commons, Breakside Brewing and Upright Brewing, evidently brewed for the recent Killer Beerfest. Rusticity is fairly dark and mildly tart, with hints of cherries. It's a blend of two rye beers...a Belgian rye stout and Breakside's Six, both barrel-aged. This is a brilliant beer worth searching out if you haven't already tasted it. I suspect it's in short supply.

One of the things that's happened at The Commons as they've ratcheted up operations is there is less space available in the tasting room. Why? Because the complement of oak barrels has roughly doubled since they opened to the pubic a year ago. That's a guess. The additional barrels suggest things are going well.

Word is, they will soon be occupying some additional space in their building to store bottles, kegs, and related tools of the trade. Currently, this stuff sits out in the main hall when they're open for business and is schlepped back into the brewery/tasting room when they aren't. The additional space will surely be welcome.

More barrels...a sign of success
Given the success they've had, I was wondering when they would expand tasting room hours. Until recently, they were open Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening. That seemed a bit constrained to me, but I realize they were taking it slow. Now, they've expanded the hours to Thursday evening, 5-9 p.m. That ought to make it a little easier for folks to stop in and experience these well-crafted beers.

Finally, there's a possibility they will be putting together some sort of event to celebrate their first anniversary in early December. No word on when or what the event might look like. Watch for social media updates or check their website for information.