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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections, Recollections, Predictions

The beer year that was has been a popular topic the last few days. Media outlets and blogs get a kick out of cataloging each passing year. I suppose it's okay to pile on.

The highlight of my 2013 beer year was publication of Portland Beer, which appeared in September. The book explores Portland's beer history and has done reasonably well. By that, I mean hundreds of copies sold...and not just in Portland. I suspect a thousand more copies will sell in the next year or so. My hope is they will also be read (see below).

Having a book out there means I get a lot of interesting questions. Such as, "What's your favorite beer?" The honest answer is I don't have one for this or any year. My favorite beer depends on the time of year and my mood. Fred Eckhardt has said his favorite beer is often the one in front of him...or his next free one. I can relate to that.

"Well, if you don't have a favorite beer, what's your favorite brewery?" they ask. Again, I have no set answer. There are so many great breweries within mere miles of my house that my favorite one often depends on my state of mind. Some places I like to visit while biking in the summer. Others I prefer to visit during the winter. Next question.

Brewery trends
Despite the continuing rash of new brewery openings across the country (the Brewers Association says 500 opened this year), things were relatively quiet in Portland. Breakside opened a production facility and taproom in Milwaukie and Ecliptic opened in Northeast Portland. There were expansion projects at The Commons and Migration. But it was generally a quiet year on the brewery front.

What does that mean? After the dramatic expansion that occurred from 2009 to 2012 (40 percent of our current breweries opened during that time), it was logical that things would slow down. Have we reached a saturation point? I honestly think there's plenty of room for brewpubs that have small breweries and decent food in underserved areas. I think there is less room for production breweries because retail shelf space is limited and the competition for it will eventually get tight. We'll see.

By the way, if I were handing out an award for Portland's best brewery of 2013, it would go to Breakside. Some of their beers I really don't like and I don't care that they produced 100 beers for the year. But I'm really impressed with the creative specialty beers they've developed to go with terrific standards (like IPA and Pils) you can buy in almost any grocery store for a pittance. I love many of our local breweries, but Breakside has impressed me more than anyone else this year.

The Taproom Blitz
It's difficult to know how many taprooms and growler fill stations opened around town in 2013. Two of my favorites are the Imperial Bottleshop and Taproom on Division and Tin Bucket on North Williams. These places feature great beer choices and staffs that love to talk about beer. Another thing they have in common is lousy parking situations. But never mind.

While brewery growth may be slowing down, I suspect many more taprooms will be opening. Why? Because taprooms fit in almost perfectly with a beer culture that increasingly demands extensive choices and specialty beers. Breweries typically offer a short list of their own beers. Taprooms often offer 30 or more beers from numerous breweries. They fit well with the promiscuous, portfolio-driven craft beer crowd of the moment.

The Social Media Trap
It's no secret that social media has largely taken over for blogs as sources of beer information. A lot of people want snippets of information and aren't interested in reading lengthy blog posts or articles in media for more extensive information. Context and detail isn't worth much these days, it seems. Reading is becoming a lost art.

If you want to know why, pull out your smartphone. Seriously. The fact is, attention spans have been in decline for many years; the advent and proliferation of the smartphone has blown them up. Why? Because the smartphone is a terrific platform for sharing brief snippets of information, but a lousy one for sharing detailed content.

There's every reason to believe the smartphone and tablet computer are helping drive the impending collapse of media as we have known it for 100 years. Newspapers are firing or downsizing reporters, not hiring them. TV and radio stations are doing the same thing. Investigative reporting? What's that? Content is increasingly light, fluffy and tailored to the minimal attention span. There's a substantial risk in that approach, which I'll leave alone for now.

This social media trend will likely accelerate in 2014. More and more folks are going to be getting their guidance from Twitter, Facebook, etc. Nonetheless, I do believe there's a place for informed, relevant blog content. As the mainstream media falls apart, blogs will take up some of the slack. I'm not talking about blogs that are nothing more than industry shills..and there are lots of them. I'm talking about objective blogs with original content.

The Risks
The indicators of volume and dollar growth suggest the craft beer industry is in pretty good shape and will be for the foreseeable future. Consumer tastes may eventually undergo some kind of massive shift away from beer, but that seems unlikely for now. Nonetheless, there are risks.

Price escalation and gentrification are an emerging problem. As discussed the other day, the growing number of specialty beers sold at exorbitant prices is unprecedented. A few years ago, such beers were rare. Now they're everywhere. There are now lots of spendy beer events and clubs. This trend is largely driven by consumer demand, but it will have a limit. What that limit is no one knows. Yet.

There are also demographic concerns (graphic). Craft beer consumption is strongest in the 26-49 demographic. On either side of that age group, it drops. The 65+ age group is quite weak...not really an issue. But a 5 percent share for the 21-25 age group? Yikes! I doubt that number is accurate in Oregon, but still. I suspect these folks are still figuring out their tastes. Gender (heavy for males) and ethnic (heavy for white) carry additional risks and make you wonder where this is headed. Time will tell.

Well, 2013 is history. Time to move on. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Emerging Gentrification of Craft Beer

There's nothing new about stratification in the beer industry. It dates as least as far back as the 1950s, when heavy advertising split macro brews into premium and popularly-priced brands. The beers weren't much different. What was different was how much and how premium brands were advertised.

Premium (as well as super premium) macro categories have been decimated by the rise of craft beer. Brands like Michelob, Budweiser and other standards are in virtual free fall. Popular brands aren't doing any better. This has been well-documented in many places. The macros sell a lot of light beer these days and that's about it.

In actual fact,  we've arrived at the point where craft beer is itself undergoing stratification...or gentrification, if you will. This transformation is nothing like what happened with the macro brands. It is not driven by advertising. The craft beer industry was not built on TV or in magazines.

Gentrification is an interesting concept, I think. It typically refers to shifts that happen in urban communities when wealthy residents take up residence and displace poorer ones. In a beer terms, gentrification is the growing presence of increasingly expensive products, exclusive events or access and special services.

This trend is happening for several reasons and it has consequences for some, which I'll get to. But first some examples of what I'm talking about.

Not that long ago, you could walk into your favorite bottleshop and be pressed to find more than a few $10 bottles of beer. Try that today. You'll have no trouble finding bottles priced at $10 or more. In fact, you'll find plenty of $20 bottles, largely unheard of a few years ago. This reality is supported by Brewers Association numbers, which show that craft beer dollar growth exceeded volume growth by 2 percent in 2011 and 2012. Any bets on 2013?

Another form of gentrification is VIP access at brewery events and festivals. It's similar to flying: There's first class and coach. Take a look around. Most of our local festivals offer some form of VIP entry, in which the badge holder gets access to exclusive beers, a chance to mingle with brewers, beer and food pairings or something similar. For a price.

Then there are the new beer clubs. There have been beer clubs for many years, but they mainly offered standard issue craft beer. The newer clubs are much more focused on exclusive beers and related items. For a couple hundred bucks, you get yearly access to barrel-aged beers that will never be sold at retail, invitations to special events, brewery schwag and more.

Many will argue the trend is merely a sign of a maturing industry. It's quite nice that craft breweries can now sell their best beer at a wine prices. That never would have been possible in the early years, when one of the biggest hurdles for craft brewers was that their beer cost a bit more than the macros. My how things have changed. Today, frenzied fans will pay seemingly any price for access to special beers.

Of course, some people are being left behind. The price is too high. Beer is historically a drink of the common man. But the growing demand for specialty beers and special access is pushing the market in that direction, squeezing out cheaper products as well as those less able to deal with escalating prices. This situation has existed in wine for years, but is quite new to beer.
You might say what's happening with craft beer reflects our time and place. We live in a society that is increasingly stratified, where those with money lead a different existence from those who aren't as well off. The gentrification of craft beer is just a small part of that. But it is part of it. Where will it lead? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Breakside Spreads Wings with Special Releases, Club

By pretty much any measure, Breakside Brewing has been a huge success since it opened its doors in 2010. The pub on Northeast Dekum is routinely packed. Success there led them to ramp up their game with a production brewery in Milwaukie, which opened in early 2013.

They continue to expand their brand with the announcement of  several special releases this Saturday, Dec. 21. One of these beers, and I'll get to the list, is the 100th release of the year. They are also establishing a beer club, the Cellar Reserve Club, which fans can sign up for beginning Saturday.

Back up a bit. The original brewery on Dekum is a 3 bbl setup, essentially a nano-brewery. The limitations of that brewery were probably apparent from day one. Even as the beers gained a following, they lacked the capacity to brew more. A production brewery was the answer, and it presented itself in the form of a 30 bbl system in a 7,000-square foot facility in industrial Milwaukie. They have 24 taps in the tasting room.

The change in output is amazing to behold. For all of 2012, Breakside produced 670 barrels of beer and was ranked 64th on the OLCC's Taxable Barrels Report. Then came the new brewery. By the end of September 2013, the most recent month for which production numbers are available, Breakside had produced 2,281 barrels and ranked 20th on the OLCC list. That's what a production brewery will do for you.

The brewing machine
Of course, there's more. The added capacity enabled Breakside to get bottles in stores. They worked closely with their distributor, Maletis, to choose beers that would have wide retail appeal. Breakside IPA is one of the best out there at the price. Having a solid line of bottles in stores has strengthened their brand. The production brewery helped make that happen.

They have room for expansion in the new place and it also provides ample space for barrel-aging. As you may know, lack of available space is the main reason breweries that want to start a barrel program don't. Breakside's barrel program, limited before, is in fine form now.

The old brewery on Dekum is now free to produce experimental beers at will. In fact, the 100 beers brewed during 2013 surely could not have happened if the old nano brewery had been engaged in production and specialty brewing. Again, a large, efficient production facility is nice to have when experimental beers are your thing.

Space to grow into
This Saturday they are releasing four special beers, three in bottles and one on draft, at the Milwaukie brewery. They are launching the Cellar Reserve Club, as well. Times are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The bottled beers are all barrel-aged and the draft beer will knock your socks off. Below is the list of bottles.

  • Aquavit Barrel-Aged Braggot - Honey ale aged for eight months in a Krogstad Aquavit barrel. The end product (10.2% ABV) features notes of anise and carrway, along with mild oak. 
  • Bourbon Woody - A blend of 80 percent English old ale aged in bourbon barrels for seven months and 20 percent freshly brewed English strong ale. This winds up being a robust beer (just 10% ABV) with strong bourbon notes and a beefy body.
  • Beaujolais avec Brett - A strong sour ale fermented with wild yeast, this is a brilliant violet color in a glass. It is bottle-conditioned with Brett for added complexity and clocks in at 8.2% ABV.

The draft beer, anointed Breakside's 100th beer of 2013, is a brilliant effort known as Safe Word Triple IPA. We (beer media folks) tasted this out of a tank last week and it was fabulous with minimal carbonation. It will only get better. They used seven pounds of hops per barrel in making this beer. It packs a punch at 11% ABV and 140 IBU (a crazy number, I know). But this isn't a bitter beer. Nope. It smells like a hop drying room and hop flavor is bold. No self-respecting hophead will want to miss this beer. Again, it's draft only.

The bar area...24 taps
Finally, the Cellar Reserve Club. Breakside is not the first brewery to start a club, although the idea has far more in common with wine than beer. Anyway, Breakside's club is limited to 80 members for now. For $200, you get a couple of exclusive glasses, a t-shirt, invitations to special release events in July and December, free entry into Breakside's anniversary party in May, and two bottles of five special release beers. Oh, you'll also have the option of continuing your membership for 2015. It seems likely the 80 memberships will go fast, so get out to the brewery on Saturday if you want in.

I suspect there are a lot of breweries that would like to be in Breakside's position. They've built a solid reputation via careful planning and attention to detail. Brewmaster Ben Edmunds has one of the most creative minds in Oregon brewing, and has been instrumental in producing beers that people are drawn to. They're spreading their wings and the future is bright at Breakside.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Concentrated, Instant Beer: Sign of the Apocalypse?

The growing popularity of craft beer has spawned all kinds of wacky concepts and gadgets. Perceived potential demand is the reason. Makers of these products figure beer geeks will buy them. And why not? Geeks buy everything else associated with craft beer.

Enter concentrated, instant beer. The company behind it, Pat's Backcountry Beverages, thinks backpackers and other outdoorsy geeks will buy in. Maybe they're right. Or maybe this is just another sign of the apocalypse.

When I first heard about this stuff, I thought it was dehydrated beer. I thought this because I associate dehydrated food with outdoor excursions...courtesy of many backpacking trips with my dad back in the day. Dehydrated food saved a lot of weight in our packs. So would dehydrated beer. But that's not what Pat's is selling.

Backcountry Beverages uses a patented brewing process to produce a concentrated brew that is nearly waterless. The end user mixes the concentrate with water and carbonates it in a proprietary container. The process takes just a few minutes. Viola! Fresh beer.

Pat's offers two styles of concentrated beer:1919 Pale Rail (5.2%) and Black Hops (6.2%). Officially, these can't be called beers. They are technically "distilled adult beverages." It figures. You can bump up the ABV by adding less than the standard amount (16 oz) of water (you can't water recipes down due to the size of the carbonating bottle). See how it works here.

Forget about whether you have to have a beer in a remote spot. Admit the idea of sipping a beer while on safari, particularly on a hot day, is tempting. With this setup, you needn't bother packing around heavy bottles or cans. Pat's concentrated brew packs weigh almost nothing and the plastic carbonation vessel doesn't weigh much, either. And there no empties to schlep out.

Cost won't break the bank. A four-pack of concentrate is $9.99. The carbonating mixes are 50 cents each and you need one per 16 ounce brew. The carbonation container, which can be used many times, is $29.95. So not a huge investment involved in setting yourself up to make instant beer.

The thing you wonder about is quality. We enjoy craft beer because it's better than macro sludge. Does concentrated, instant beer make the flavor grade or does it have too much in common with crappy beer or instant coffee? I don't know...haven't taste it. One review says the stuff is reminiscent of homebrew, with a hint of sourness. Not a glowing recommendation.

Like a lot of things, the success of instant beer will depend on the quality of the product. People who enjoy the outdoors and want to have a beer on their excursions may give it a try. But they won't keep coming back if the product doesn't meet the craft beer standard. Not if they're true craft beer fans. So we'll see.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

7 Seas Brewing: Gig Harbor's Rising Star

One of my industry friends recently said this: "If Washington is the cradle of the craft beer movement, Oregon is the nursery." His rationale is that Bert Grant and Redhook were established before Oregon had much going on. But Oregon quickly displaced Washington once it got moving.

That allegory is not entirely accurate. Anchor and New Albion, both in Northern California, predated anything in Washington. These places provided the idealistic fodder that led to craft breweries subsequently being pieced together in Washington and Oregon. That's my view, anyway.

By the time I left the rolling hills of the Palouse for Portland in 1989, Oregon's craft movement was well-established and growing. Breweries were popping up in Washington, as well, but it always appeared to me that Oregon was leading the charge.

Fast forward to present day Western Washington. Seattle has emerged as a robust craft beer market. Sales are strong in numerous channels. Across the water from the Emerald City lies the Olympic Peninsula, where residents wear galoshes most of the year. It's a little sleepy. I know. I have soaking wet family out there.
Taking flight
It was largely thanks to those family connections that I discovered 7 Seas Brewing in 2009. The place opened shop in 2008 and occupied a quaint space in a funky part of Gig Harbor. I made it a point to stop in whenever I risked the elements and traveled up there.

The original 7 Seas location featured a miniature tasting room, the kind of place where you sometimes needed a shoehorn to get a beer. Through a glass window, you could watch brewing operations. Beer choices, in my experience, were limited to three or four. Capacity was clearly an issue.

The innerds
Space-challenged almost from the beginning, 7 Seas moved to larger, more lavish digs in 2012. Production shifted in March. The taproom followed in December. They brought along their old 8.5 bbl brewing system, now used for experimental and pilot batches. Production brewing moved to a 25 bbl system. Nice setup.

Just as importantly, the new location is a virtual Spruce Goose next to the old place. There is a glut of space for tasting and conversation. For the two or three days of decent weather they get every year, they have a patio area outside. Mixed nuts are complementary, but there are no TVs in sight. I'm told that's by design. I think they should fix that, but never mind.

Part of the brewing operation
I should mention that these folks have been selling their beer at retail since very early on. Many stores in the area carry 7 Seas beers. They package in 4-packs of 16 oz cans, a decision driven by the well-known benefits of canning. For folks who still think canned beer sucks, this ain't your grand-pappy's can or beer.

On my recent visit, I was impressed by the number of 7 Seas beers on tap. They had the standards covered, but were also pouring a collection of seasonals. This is apparently the result of having enough production capacity to mess around with unique seasonal approaches.

From the standard list, I have always liked Rude Parrot IPA and Ballz Deep Double IPA. Rude Parrot is lighter and fruitier, where Ballz Deep is mildly sweet and highly resinous. They also produce a decent pale (British Pale Ale) and amber (Cutt's). The real standout this time around was their Cascadian Dark Ale. I appreciate the fact that they don't call it Black IPA. Anyway, this is a fantastic beer with, as they say, layers of hop character balanced with a smooth, lingering malt finish. Very nice.

From the seasonal list, I was amazed by the Bridge-Toll Berliner-Weisse. (The name is a reference, I assume, to the nearby Narrows Bridge, which costs $5.25 to cross when you're headed back to civilization.) I thought Bridge-Toll was a brilliant little beer (3.9%) and perfectly tart. No one else agreed. Of course, no one else in the group was from Beervana, where we see this style a lot.

For Gig Harbor's sunny days
What's the future of 7 Seas beers? In a cordial email, co-founder Mike Runyon told me they are focused mostly on the local market. Keeping up with demand is a challenge. I suppose keeping cans on store shelves and draft accounts filled keeps them busy. They aren't really inclined to push distribution into distant cities.

"If beer lovers in a local market are enjoying all the beers a brewery has to offer, why ship the beer further," Runyon said. "As we grow and catch up with demand, we may reach a little further. We hope to distribute to Vancouver and Bellingham in the near future. Eastern Washington is another potential market. We'll see."

If you're in the area, visit 7 Seas, Gig Harbor's rising star.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holiday Ale Festival: A Cure for the Wintertime Blues

In my mind, the summertime blues don't need a cure. Summer takes care of that on its own. Wintertime is different. It demands a cure. And the Holiday Ale Festival might just be it.

I stopped by Pioneer Courthouse Square Wednesday for a tasting excursion. The beers are unique, most brewed specifically for this event. You can't possibly taste them all, so you seek out what you think might be the best of the best. Obviously, a hard afternoon's work.

I did not create a hit list of beers this year. Instead, I planned to use the guide Jeff Alworth posted on the Beervana blog the other day. That plan dissolved quickly when I realized what I really needed was a beer map of the venue. Only then could I target specific beers. So I walked around and created a makeshift map.

When you enter the festival, you'll quickly discover that the bulk of the beers are located in the Main Bar. The Side Bar (lower Southwest corner) and the Sky Bar (upper Southwest corner) have fewer beers, but you do not want to overlook those areas. There are gems everywhere.

The Wednesday crowd was a sleepy one. There were a large number of beer geek types milling around and collecting notes about the beers. It seems we (yes, I include myself in that group) like the idea of sampling beers when we know the crowds will be mostly nonexistent. There are advantages.

The most common question circulating among the crowd was an obvious one: "What is your favorite beer?" Thoughts varied. My choice for best of show was/is the Lagunitas High West Whiskey Stout. Some of my swill-guzzling friends concurred. However, none of us tasted all the beers. I probably tasted 30 beers...15 or so full tastes and just as many sips from other mugs.

Other beers I liked included Hopworks Kronan the Barbarian (heavy on the bourbon barrel, but still amazing), Stickmen The Twerking Elf (a sour with notes of cherry and dry fruit), Dick's Winter Ale (recommended for hopheads), Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin (a hoppy oatmeal stout that works) and Cascade Cherry Diesel (typically great).

I made a point to track down Lompoc's Revelry Red Ale to compare it with what I tasted a few weeks ago at their winter beer media tasting. The version at the HAF is a lighter version of the original, the result (I assume) of blending that had to be done to come up with the requisite number of kegs. I thought it was okay, but I did hear some disparaging comments. Whatever.

The festival runs through Sunday. Take public transit if you can. Get down there as early as you can to avoid lines. Beware that designated drivers will be charged $5 to enter the venue and consume root beer. Also keep in mind that food options are minimal here and water, which should be readily available given the strength of these beers, is stashed at the Northeast corner near the exit.

Final thoughts? Just one: Give your beer a chance to warm up a bit before you sample it. It's frigid outside and the beers are coming out of the taps too cold to provide an instant bead on their true character. These big beers change dramatically as they warm up. I observed opinions changing by the minute as beers warmed up. So let 'em warm up! It's a simple thing.

Happy tasting!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gather Around The Commons 2nd Anniversary Events

The Commons, one of Portland's fastest growing and renowned breweries, will celebrate its second anniversary next week with a couple of special events. If you value good beer and good times, you'll want to be there. Trust me.

First there's the bottleshare and potluck on Thursday evening, Dec. 12. If you attended this event last year, you know it was fantastic. There were countless special beers to taste. At one point, I found myself at the bar sampling a flight of Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws. That's just one example. I expect to see an even greater variety this year.

Something to keep in mind is they will expand the party area this year. The brewery space was packed to the gils last year and they have added fermenters and other equipment since. So they expect to use the common hallway, as well as the area they've expanded into behind the brewery. They used this layout for Angelo Brewpublic's benefit event a while ago and it worked well.

The bottleshare will be followed by more formal party on Friday, Dec. 2. This time around they will provide food and they will be pouring special and standard beers. This list includes Maybelle, Ortucky Common (a collaboration with De Garde Brewing), Bourbon Little Brother and more. I missed this party last year and hope to join the fun this time around.

What's there to like about The Commons? Besides the great beer, these are good folks. Owner Mike Wright started the business in his garage and has since assembled a uniquely talented team that includes Sean Burke, Josh Grgas and Travis Sandoval. They are knowledgeable and friendly at the same time.

But don't take my word for any of this. Plan to stop by one or both of the brewery's anniversary events next week. You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Another State with Bizarre Beer Laws: Florida

There are all kinds of crazy beer laws on the books throughout this nutty country. These laws are largely remnants of Prohibition and its aftermath, when the three tier distribution system was established. The system was designed to avoid the abuses that helped produce Prohibition.
Legal in Florida
No state is immune, as I recently documented with California's growler laws. However, the crazier the law, the greater the chance it's on the books in a southern state. Why? Because most southern states have been slow to modernize alcohol laws over the course of the last 80 years.

The latest bizarre law comes out of Florida, which actually has an active and growing craft beer scene. When I looked at planned new breweries a couple of years back (link), Florida appeared on the list of states with significant planned growth. That's a good thing no matter how you cut it.

The strange law has to do with growlers. In Florida, you can purchase a 32 oz. growler or a gallon growler of beer. But you cannot purchase a 64 oz. growler. That would be illegal. The industry standard throughout the country is the half-gallon growler. Not in Florida, where the law says beer containers must be 32 ounces or less, or 128 ounces or more.

Legal in Florida
Look, I have my own issues with growlers. I stay away from larger ones unless I know I'll have help drinking. I can't drink a 64 oz. growler before it goes flat. A gallon growler makes no sense to me. It seems to contradict the whole notion of moderate alcohol consumption, which is what most Prohibition-era laws were designed to encourage.

Of course, growler laws aren't the only thing messed up in Florida. Another law interprets the three-tier system strictly and makes it illegal for brewers to sell beer directly to retailers. All beer that winds up in retail channels must go through distributors in Florida. That is more or less what the three-tier system demands, but many states have relaxed their laws. Oregon, for example. Not Florida.

Illegal in Florida
There are folks around the Sunshine State who are working to get the laws changed. According to news reports, some legislators are hoping to make progress in fixing the legal mess. They see craft beer as a growing, vibrant industry, and they want to embrace it...slowly. Let's hope they get these things fixed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Wham! Holiday Ale Festival 2013 is Nearly Here

Hard to believe we've once again landed at the doorstep of the holiday season. Times flies, they say. As usual, the return of the season means the Holiday Ale Festival will be on tap next week in/at/on Pioneer Courthouse Square. This is one the best beer events of the year around these parts. No kidding.

Officially, this is the 18th rendition of the HAF. It was founded in 1995 and ran a couple of years under the Winter Ale Festival banner. If you're wondering, the tents weren't clear in those days. You could not look up and see the Portland skyline or the gleaming holiday tree. Nope. What you could see was fabric. I remember feeling somewhat claustrophobic. But never mind.

After a couple of years, the festival took 1997 off. Ownership of the event subsequently changed and it was rebranded as the Holiday Ale Festival when it returned in 1998. If you're keeping track at home, one of the original founders still owns the Winter Ale Festival name, just in case he decides to bring it back someday. But these are merely details.

The 2013 HAF will launch Wednesday, Dec. 4 and continue through Sunday, Dec. 8. Wednesday kickoff is noon. The start time moves to 11 a.m. for the rest of the festival. Closing times are 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Are you ready?

As most everyone knows, the best times to be under the tents tasting beers are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, preferably in the afternoon. You might be okay crowd-wise early Friday...it will get quite crazy by late afternoon. I haven't attended on Saturday in several years, but it was a mosh pit by mid-afternoon the last time I sampled Saturday. I suggest avoiding Saturday unless it's the only possible day you can attend.

For folks who are lucky (or unlikely) enough to work downtown, the early start times offer the opportunity to go sample a few choice beers during your lunch hour. That's either a great idea or a really bad one, depending on how your office feels about you returning to work on your lips. In past years, I've seen lunch hours extending into the evening...a terrific idea if you can get away with it.

They expect to have 47 beers on tap for this year's festival. The great bulk of these beers clock in at over 8% ABV (nearly a third are over 9%!), which explains why you probably don't want to spend a lunch hour sampling. Thankfully, public transit is close at hand and organizers also do their best to accommodate designated drivers. No one should drive after drinking at the HAF.

I should mention there are beers beyond the 47 standards. As part of their specialty program, the HAF will have additional tappings of super special beers at specified times during the festival. These are limited release beers where they only have a keg or so available. I can't provide specifics on these beers because the list is not yet finalized. The web link is here once they have it dialed.

One of the things I truly love about the Holiday Ale Festival is that it attracts people from all over. In this case, "all over" means exactly that: I've met people from the east coast, from California, from Canada and Australia at this event. Don't be shy about striking up a conversation with the people around you at the HAF. You may be surprised to find out from whence they came.

There are more details. For example, you can buy advance tickets on the event website. It's a slightly better deal if you buy online, but you'll still be picking up your mug and tickets at the entry desk. Another important detail: this is a 21-and-over event. Space is limited here compared to some of our other festivals, so please leave the kiddies at home. Oh yes, the pinup art for 2013 is Angel (see above). There's a list of event facts here.

I expect to attend the festival on Wednesday, when I know all the beers will be on and it won't be particularly busy. I'll follow up my visit with a short list of beer picks here, probably on Thursday. See ya down there. Or not.

Update: Event organizers now say the venue will open at 11 a.m. all days.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Piperworks Lives in the Past with Lebowski Beer

It's hard to know how many who follow this blog are fans of The Big Lebowski. The movie was released to mostly lackluster reviews and theater attendance in 1998. It has since become a cult classic that has spawned Lebowski fests all over the place. Say what you will about the movie...it has created an ethos.

If you look around the internet you'll find all sorts of Lebowski schwag. Some urban achievers in a Chicago brewery, Piperworks, took this to heart and brewed a beer that pays homage to the movie.
This is pretty recent and, frankly, I'm surprised no one did it earlier. A beer connected to The Big Lebowski could really tie a brewery together.

The name of the beer is Hey, Careful Man, There's a Beverage Here! That is, of course, a famous line from the movie. The beer was brewed a few months ago and apparently released in October. Availability is limited...bottles only sold in Illinois liquor stores. They didn't want to get out of their element.

What do I know about the beer? Next to nothing...haven't tasted or seen it. It's officially a White Russian Imperial Milk Stout. At 10.5% ABV this is not a beer for lightweights. You might not ask for a refill even if Jackie Treehorn offered.

We aren't likely to see Hey, Careful Man in Oregon anytime soon, if ever. However, I have come across certain information, alright...new shit has come to light regarding this beer. All it took was a bit of web searching...in the parlance of our times.

It turns out this beer is lighter than your typical stout...most reviews describe it as dark amber. Not much head, apparently. Mildly sweet. The urban achiever brewers added lacto sugar to mimic the milk that would be present in a White Russian. Opinions are mixed.

As I say, you likely aren't going to find Hey, Careful Man, There's a Beverage Here! anywhere outside of Illinois. It was brewed once and there's no indication if it will be brewed again. The folks at Piperworks are apparently into the whole brevity thing. And that's cool.

But if you do happen to stumble across a bottle of this stuff, be sure to give notes on it. A lot of fans would like to close the file on this one.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lompoc Launches 2013 Winter Seasonal Barrage

Winter seasonals are nothing new around here. Breweries have been brewing them for years and it's part of what's expected. But no one showcases as many winter seasonals as Lompoc Brewing. Jerry Fechter and his brewers regularly provide a wide swath of holiday beers. And proud of that tradition, they are.

Not sure what Don would think of the poinsettia
There are nine Lompoc holiday beers for 2013 and eight of them were on display at a media tasting Monday night at Sidebar. This is always a fun event, as the Lompoc folks roll out the red rug for those of us who attempt to cover Portland's beer scene. Last night was no exception, held as the ghost of Don Younger looked on (courtesy of John Foyston's great painting).

The beer list is familiar....C-Sons Greetings, Old Tavern Rat, Brewdolph, etc. There is no 8 Malty Nights for 2013, which will miff some beer fans, but you can't have everything. Still, it's a nice lineup of beers. The bulk of these will be released on Dec. 3 at Lompoc locations. I'll speak to the specific details below.

One of my favorite Lompoc beers is C-Sons Greetings, an Imperial IPA brewed with seven "C" hops and packing a serious wallop in aroma and flavor. This is essentially a bigger version of their standard IPA, C-Note, and clocks in at 8% ABV. The label no longer sports Jerry's graphic likeness in a Santa hat, but you'll get over it. C-Sons Greetings will be in pubs and on store shelves soon. Look for it.

Kids explain what they're up to
We tasted two versions of Old Tavern Rat, a barleywine affectionately named after the late publican, Don Younger, who is pictured on the label. The 2013 OTR is fairly straight forward beer...big, fairly smooth, not all that complex. It clocks in at 9.4%. This beer will be poured in pubs, but there will be no bottles.

Up next beer was a bourbon barrel aged version of 2011 OTR. This beer sent my nasal passages into arrest. The press materials say this beer is 9.7%, but it seems to have sucked some serious alcohol from the barrels. I bet it's closer to 12%. Anyway, barrel-aged OTR is a little rough right now. It will surely improve with some cellaring. They will have this on draft and in bottles (very limited) at their pubs. I recommend tasting it now and getting a bottle or two for future reference.

Lompoc's beer for the upcoming Holiday Ale Festival is Revelry Red, which is their Big Bang Red aged in whiskey barrels with sour cherries for nine months, then blended with Big Bang Red aged in Port barrels for nearly a year. This beer was on double secret probation because the HAF prefers that its beers not be tasted prior to the event. No matter. This beer is fantastic...mildly sour, gently complex. There is still blending to be done, so the final result will change. Seek this beer! They will evidently hold onto some of this to be served in their pubs after the HAF.

Tools of a tasting
There are five more Lompoc winter brews worth tasting, including Cherry Christmas, Jolly Bock (lager), Brewdolph (Belgian-style red), Holiday Cheer (Vanilla Porter) and Blitzen (a spiced golden ale we didn't taste). As noted above, you'll find all of these at Lompoc locations beginning on Dec. 3. 

Special thanks to Jerry Fechter for continuing to placate us beer media folks. Similar thanks to Chris Crabb, who routinely does a great job of organizing materials for lazy, sometimes disorganized media folks. Finally, a shout out to Lompoc brewers Bryan Keilty, Irena Bierzynski (a better brewer name does not exist) and Grant Golden, who hung out to talk about their beers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Search for a Functional Brewery Guide

One of the things that's happened as the craft beer industry has exploded in recent year is that beer touring has become popular. I cannot even begin to count the number of folks I've met at various area breweries who are visiting from out-of-state or another country. It's nuts.

It goes without saying that folks who are unfamiliar with the area need some sort of guide. There are obviously formal tours, such as those offered by Brewvana and others. Even then, there's a need for guide materials of some kind...because no tour can possibly cover all the spots.

If you dig around in the literature pile at breweries and other places that have such piles, you will sometimes find brochures and other materials that are essentially guides to the local scene. There are also traditional books, like Lisa Morrison's excellent Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest. Similar books are available and there are more on the way, for better or worse.

Honestly, printed materials are not the best guide to an industry that is changing virtually by the minute. Some of the brochures I've seen do a reasonable job because they are apparently printed fairly often. Book-based guides typically contain more information, but they tend to become obsolete quickly due to the pace of change.

I've often thought there should be a better way. Information on breweries and pubs needs to be accurate and current. My conclusion is that the most useful solution to this problem is a website that provides the ability to search for breweries and includes hours, location map, etc.

Today I received an email from a guy who has put together a website that approximates what I had in mind. The site is Brew Trail and it allows the user to search breweries by state. It was created by a couple of beer geeks in Connecticut, evidently. There's no charge to use the site, although it could surely serve as an advertising platform at some point if it succeeds.

I searched Oregon breweries just for fun. The list is pretty impressive at first glance. 10 Barrel through Worthy. Looks good. However, there are problems. The recently opened Ecliptic Brewing is not on the list. Stickmen Brewing of Lake Oswego is also missing. The hours shown for The Commons are out of date by many months. These are just examples. The execution is clearly a little off.

There's also a lack of detail. It's strictly information on hours, tour availability, fees and mapping. Nothing more. For the site to be complete, its needs some basic information on the breweries and maybe the beers. Of course, that would require a lot more research, the kind of bothersome research someone has to do in person.

Nonetheless, I like the Brew Trail concept. I know of nothing else like it out there. The site may evolve into the fully functional web-based guide we need. Even if it doesn't, it is at least a weigh station on the road to that solution.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Collaboration Suggests Growing Influence of Craft Beer

I wasn't at home when the knock on the door came. It was gym night. The gent at the door presented my wife with a bottle of Norman ale and a CD by the band, NormanInto the Eventyr. I'll provide some thoughts on the beer and the music shortly. The more important message here is the growing power of craft beer.

Think back a few years to a different time. From the Sixties through most of the Nineties, there were music stores everywhere. Most music was sold in stores in those days and record stores were destinations for people interested in the newest sounds around. I spent way too much time in music stores, by the way...even worked in one for many years.

If you fast forward to present day, the role of music in pop culture has declined. The move to online music sales and piracy killed record stores. But, honestly, there are so many other entertainment choices out there today. The golden age of recorded music passed long ago.

In the case of craft beer, we may well be experiencing its golden age. The number of places featuring great beer is off the hook. In much the same way that folks were once driven to keep up with the newest in music, they are now driven to seek the latest greatest flavors in craft beer.

Looking at the Norman project, it is nominally a collaboration between Calapooia Brewing and the band. If something like this could have happened 30 years ago, the music almost certainly would have played a leading role. Today, the roles have flipped. It is the beer leading the way, propping up interest in the music.

The idea to market a CD alongside a beer coincides with the increased marketing power of craft beer. Businesses around here are using craft beer as a partner in marketing all kinds of things...bikes, food, trips, music and more. Who knows where this leads. The possibilities are endless.

With respect to the Norman beer and CD, I think the beer is somewhat bolder than the music. Calapooia has done a nice job brewing a Northwest style pale ale that has a deep, gravely character. The beer is worth a try if you happen to see it. Does it mesh with the music? I'm not so sure.

Compared to the beer, Into the Eventyr seems more refined. In my mind, it's reminiscent of the Eagles, Allman Brothers, Byrds and maybe Gram Parsons and Neil Young. Your opinion of this album will likely depend on your view of folk rock. It is well-produced and executed...polished, you might say. Beyond that, you'll have to be the judge.

I suspect we will see more collaborations like this one. And why not? It's a great idea.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Kauai Beer Company Chases Local Tastes

POIPU, KAUAI – My  travels around the Northwest and West Coast have taken me to countless places where beer styles are mostly similar what is most common in Portland. I'm talking about hoppy ales of varying color, and the occasional lager, stout and Porter.

On the bar
It's different here in the tropics. I don't want to go on a rant about how climate affects tastes in beer, but I think it definitely does. Heat and humidity alter choices. People in the tropics are far more apt to look for something lighter. I think that applies to locals and tourists.

As I've mentioned in the past, the beer choices here in Kauai are not great if you're a fan of good beer. Light Kona beers are everywhere and you can find beers from Maui Brewing and others if you dig a little. But locally produced beer for this climate is not easy to find.

Street view
Of course, Kauai Island Brewing up in Port Allen makes some decent beers. Brewer Dave Curry has been making good beers here for many years. He makes ales, and I would say some of the lighter ones are especially good fits for Kauai.

Enter Kauai Beer Company, which recently opened a tasting room in Lihue and is distributing its beers to select restaurants and bars on the island. The approach here is different. Owner Jim Guerber and his son and head brewer, Justin, believe strongly in drinkable session beers. Today, these take the form of German-influenced, tasty lagers.

Eric answers questions
The flagship beer is Black Limousine (Black Limo, for short). It's a dark lager...officially a Schwarzbier, that clocks in at 4.5% ABV and 28 IBU. You look at Black Limo and you think it's dark and maybe doesn't fit here. Then you taste it and realize the roasted flavors are smooth as silk. This beer is light as a feather, despite the color.

The co-flagship beer is Lihue Lager, a crisp and refreshing beer that is chock full of flavor you just don't find in a typical light lager. It clocks in a 4.4% ABV and 17.5 IBU...the type of beer you can drink all day with friends hanging out at the beach or pool. Lihue Lager is so popular they were out when I visited... so I tasted it from one of the tanks. Not quite ready for prime time, but still good.

Lihue Lager from fermenter
Helles Swells is the evil twin of Lihue Lager. They use German yeast and Hallertau hops in this one. (They use a yeast hybrid and more standard hops in Lihue Lager.) Helles Swells clocks in at 5.1% ABV, 17 IBU. It is a decidedly bolder interpretation of Lihue Lager. I could not get enough of this stuff when I was in the tasting room. So good.

Other entries include a light-bodied Oktoberfest (4.1%, 22 IBU) and the mildly hoppy, A Hoppy Accident ((5.5%, 40 IBU). These are both serviceable, drinkable beers, but Black Limo, Lihue Lager and Helles Swells are the ones to remember.

Fair warning
By all accounts, Kauai Beer Company is the brainchild of Jim Guerber, who is an accomplished brewer going back many years. His son picked up on Jim's brewing techniques and values and together they decided to launch this business. The fact that they make primarily lagers is interesting, particularly given the cost of doing so out here (refrigeration is expensive). This is the beer they think fits best here.

These guys are really just getting started. They bought and installed a used 10 bbl brewing system. Jim has three 20 bbl fermenters and there are four 10 bbl serving/brite tanks. They have eight tap handles at the moment...four for their beers and four guest taps The number of taps will likely expand, but they apparently expect to always have guest offerings. It's a perfect set-up and they have plenty of room to expand in their downtown Lihue location.

The tasters
There's barely a hint of it now, but they will eventually have food here. Also lots of TVs. The goal from the beginning was for this to be a brewpub. But Jim and Justin take the long view. They are building the business from the ground up. If things go well, they hope to have the pub part of the operation up and running by early next year.

Special thanks to Eric Burda, assistant brewer and apparent jack of all trades at KBC. Eric provided a lot of information on the beers and what whey are working to accomplish in general. As more fans appeared at the bar, he happily moved over to answer their questions, as well. This is the kind of guy every brewery needs.
The back bar
If you're headed out to Kauai and want to taste great beer, look these guys up. The place is not hard to find, but beware the hours are somewhat limited. At the moment, the tasting room is open Wednesday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. That may well change. These guys do not yet have a fully functional website, so like them on Facebook to follow what's happening there.

Monday, October 28, 2013

McMenamins Highlights Barrel-aged Beer Program

It will almost certainly come as a surprise to many beer fans that McMenamin's has a barrel-aged beer program. I had no idea until a couple of weeks ago, when I attended Inside the Barrel down at the Crystal Brewery (inside the Crystal Ballroom). More on what they're up to shortly. First, some brief history.

The early days..Mike and Brian with Hillsdale brewer, Ron Wolf
One of the generally unappreciated aspects of the McMenamin's story is that Mike and Brian have generally gone about their business quietly. They and their organization have made many positive contributions to the community. Yet they have never been particularly active in honking their own horn about any of it.

For instance, on the day they were scheduled to receive the keys to the Kennedy School in 1995, Brian saw a huge crowd and TV cameras as he approached the school. For a moment, he considered turning around and driving home. He obviously didn't and, anyway, the Kennedy School turned out to be one of their great success stories.

Looking at those successes, it seems to me the primary story revolves around their knack for acquiring and restoring unique (and often decrepit) historic properties. Beer's role has always been somewhat secondary...to attract fans. Mike and Brian liked good beer and they figured a lot of other people did, too. Time has proven them exactly right.

When I bumped into Brian prior to Inside the Barrel, he told me he sees beer in more of a leading role today. Frankly, I don't think he fully agrees with my view of where beer has fit in the McMenamin's scheme, but never mind. Inside the Barrel suggests they recognize the need to push what they're doing more fully with social media and other PR tools.

The truth is, the barrel program isn't all that new. It was launched in 2005, when Mike McMenamin asked brewers to create a bourbon barrel-aged beer for a special event they were holding at Edgefield. They've been gradually moving barrel aging forward in the years since.

These guys are well-positioned to age beer in barrels. Why? Because way back in 1998, they started a highly successful distilling program at Edgefield. They launched a second distilling facility at Cornelius Pass in 2012. This means their brewers have easy access to barrels. Many breweries don't have that luxury.

"The distilling program presented us with a unique opportunity to begin barrel-aging," said Graham Brogan, head brewer. "The ease of access to freshly dumped barrels (sometimes filled with beer the same day they are released by the distillery) combined with the creative freedom here to make barrel-aging a no brainer."

The beers they showcased at Inside the Barrel were produced at a number of McMenamin's breweries. A few examples: Whiskey Widow (Bourbon barrel-aged porter) from Concordia Brewery; Venomator Imperial IPA (Hogshead Whisky barrel-aged) from the Crystal Brewery; Night Court Barleywine (Rum barrel-aged) from the Edgefield Brewery. And others.

In fact, Inside the Barrel was a sort of pre-launch party for a hoard of events that will feature barrel-aged beer in coming weeks. There's a list of dates, beers and locations here. By the way, these beers will only be available at certain McMenamin's locations. This is standard operating procedure for these guys. They have never really distributed beyond their own walls.

As for the future of the barrel-aged beer program at McMenamins, it will likely continue to flourish. There's something about barrel-aged beer that attracts the interest of brewers and the pallets of beer consumers. Indeed, the savvy pallets of Portland beer fans are driving increased demand for premium, complex, barrel-aged beers. It's all good.

"Almost all of our breweries would like to be involved in barrel-aging," Brogan said. "The problem is, most don't have the necessary space. We are currently looking into acquiring smaller barrels so our smaller breweries can play around with barrel-aging."