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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.