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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Look Back at 2014: Wild Times

No sooner had the wrapping paper hit the floor on Christmas Day then the best of 2014 lists started piling up. The Oregonian's year in review insert, including John Foyston's Year in Beer column, arrived the day after Christmas. You don't want to let these lists linger...you might get scooped.

It was undoubtedly a crazy year for beer in Portland and Oregon. We saw a number of new breweries, taprooms and beer-centric businesses open their doors. Production and market share continued to grow. The shift away from traditional styles carried on, as did the non-stop blitz of so-called "special events." These are crazy times for craft beer, or whatever you prefer to call it.

Interesting Trend
We've seen a huge number of breweries and beer-centric businesses open during the past few years. The great bulk of those places had local origins. That is now changing with the coming of places like Fat Heads and Yard House, whose corporate origins lie outside Oregon.

Some have described this as a symptom of a maturing industry, and maybe that's what it is. But Oregon's craft beer industry is home grown for the most part and I have had a hard time seeing much value in carpetbaggers who roll into town from out of state and set up shop.
Then I spent some time talking to Josh Grgas at The Commons recent anniversary party. He suggested that perhaps it isn't such a bad idea to have places like Fat Heads and Yard House opening here. Why? Because places that brew or serve good beer are good for the beer culture...they increase competition and put the squeeze on places that don't do a good job with beer.

My guess is we will see more beer-centric businesses, some of them carpetbaggers, opening in Portland. We are the top craft beer market in the country and there is opportunity here for places that do it right. Those that produce or serve marginal beer will either do a better job or close. I suppose that isn't a bad thing, although I fear we will eventually reach a saturation point where it's tough for anyone to make a profit. But never mind.

Best Brewery
The question I get most often is, "What's your favorite brewery?" It isn't an unfair question. But the reality for me is I spend less time in breweries than I once did. I tend to favor taprooms where I can sample a wide range of beers. No offense to breweries, where I have many friends and frienenemies, but taprooms are a better fit for me these days..

When I think about a "best brewery" I look for quality, creativity and variety. Under Ben Edmunds' direction, Breakside Brewing has produced some really nice seasonals and specialty beers (Passionfruit Sour Ale, Salted Caramel Stout and La Tormenta) to go with their terrific standards (Pilsner, IPA, etc.) They poured it on this year, winning GABF medals with both their IPAs.

So Breakside gets my vote for top brewery this year. Opinions will differ.

Best Beer
To be considered as my beer of the year, a beer needs to have wide enough distribution that it can be found in stores and/or pubs. Beers with extremely limited production that aren't generally available to the public aren't considered here. I could cite many examples, but I won't.

My choice as beer of the year is 3-Way IPA, a collaboration between Fort George, Block 15 and Boneyard Beer. The beer combined a burst of hop aroma and flavor with a twinge of bitterness. As many who read this may know, 3-Way IPA is a summer seasonal and annual collaboration organized by Fort George. It's available on draft and in cans June through September.

The demand for this year's version of 3-Way was off-the-hook and there was great disappointment when the supply ran dry. Numbers from Fort George confirm that 2014 3-Way outsold the 2013 version by a wide margin. There will be two new breweries in the mix in 2015. Regardless of who they are, we can only hope the beer is as good as it was in 2014.

Rogue of the Year
I'm borrowing the 'Rogue" theme from Willamette Week. Some might like it if I fingered WW beer scribe Martin Cizmar for his story on Dean's Scene, which led in a roundabout way to the place being closed for a time. But the issues that resulted in the OLCC effectively shutting down Dean's Scene were the owner's fault, not Cizmar's. So he's out.

My Rogue for 2014 (or any other year) is a company that has refused to consider making good beer. Instead, it has diligently worked to keep craft beer off store shelves and away from tavern and restaurant taps. It has created fake craft brands and used predatory pricing to bully craft beer. Now, faced with steep declines in demand for its own faltering brands, the company has resorted to buying craft brands. That company, of course, is Anheuser-Busch.

Many in Oregon were appalled when they heard Anheuser-Busch had purchased Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing. It was okay to be appalled, but not surprised. Anheuser-Busch has been less about beer and more about logistics and marketing for quite a while. They specialize in supply chain efficiencies and marketing campaigns. Good beer isn't in their DNA, which means they have to go out and buy it. Thus, the deal to purchase 10 Barrel. And before that, Goose Island. There will be others.

There are those who say these buyouts are not a bad thing, that Goose Island and 10 Barrel are going to be just fine under the AB wing. Maybe so. But craft beer in its purest and arguably best form is small, independent and local. I cannot help worry that partnering up with a company whose primary areas of expertise are cost cutting and predatory marketing is perhaps not a good omen for the industry. We shall see.

Onward and Upward
I hesitate to make predictions for the coming year in beer. We will undoubtedly see a continuation of the craziness that has characterized the Oregon beer scene in recent years. That means more breweries, more taprooms, more beer-centric businesses and many more events to support it all. I have no idea where this train is headed, but it's interesting and fun to watch the evolution.

Wherever your journey takes you, be sure to enjoy some good beers along the way.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Holiday Leftovers and the Return to Brighter Days

As we make our way toward the end of 2014, there will be many folks talking about stats from the year that was. Next week, I'll reveal my choices for best Oregon beer, brewer and brewery of 2014. Those items would obviously carry a lot more weight if they appeared in Willamette Week or The Oregonian. Oh well.

For now, I want to recognize some folks who kindly sent me complementary samples of their beer or invited me to events where I was able to taste beer and sometimes food. Most of us who write about beer sooner or later receive free beer and event invitations. It's a tough situation.

I pick and choose what I write about here. I don't write a lot of promotional stuff. And sometimes I'm not very nice if I think something sucks. That has gotten me blacklisted by several breweries, who no longer send press releases, beer or invitations. Being thin-skinned is a sad thing, I think.

But there are folks who have made a concerted effort to be generous and helpful and never got mentioned here. I can't be accountable to write about everything that comes my way. However, I always intended to write about the following folks. I just ran out of time. Until now.

For quite a while now, McMenamins has been working to improve and expand their line of beers. I wrote about their barrel-aging program in October 2013, a week or so after sampling the beers at the Crystal (Ballroom) Brewery. Good stuff and a sign of good things to come.

A few months ago, I spent part of an afternoon with Drew Phillips, a brewer at the Crystal Brewery. We talked about beers and brewing nonstop. And, of course, we tasted some of the beers they were working on. Interesting stuff.

Just in time for the holiday season, I received a bottle of their winter seasonal, Kris Kringle. It's a rich beer, laden with chocolate malt flavors and beefed up with five hop varieties. It's a fantastic beer, one of the better winter warmers I've had this year. I think it benefits from a bit of residual sweetness, which smooths out the hoppiness. If you see Kris Kringle, give it a try.

Lompoc Brewing has been producing great beers for a long time and currently operates five locations. Their standards include C-Note IPA, Proletariat Red, Kick Axe Pale Ale, LSD (Lompoc Special Draft) and others. They also produce seasonals like, Brewdolph, 8 Malty Nights, Blitzen and C-Son's Greetings. Great stuff.

They recently added Pamplemousse Citrus IPA to their list of year-round standards. I received a sample of this stuff, including a fresh grapefruit. The beer is a medium-bodied IPA that leans on four different hops for flavor and aroma. A twist of grapefruit juice adds a note of tart citrus. Try it.

Besides the beer, Lompoc recently opened the remodeled Sidebar next to the Fifth Quadrant Brewery and Pub on North Williams. Sidebar is one of the most unique beer spots in the city. It tends to feature the rarer Lompoc beers on draft and they sell bottles, as well. The new Sidebar has a glass roll-up door that lightens the place up nicely. Smart move.

Gerald and Lucille McAleese opened Kells Irish Pub on Southwest Second Avenue in 1990. Gerald, originally from Belfast, had opened the first Kell's pub in Seattle's Pike Place Market in 1983. His vision was an Irish pub without plastic shamrocks and other fake junk. The success of the Seattle pub convinced Gerald and Lucille to expand to Portland. They added a San Francisco location in 1996.

The McAleeses wanted to add a brewery to their business for many years, but simply didn't have space to do so. They finally located a second Portland location on NW 21st Avenue, where they opened Kells Brewpub in 2012. The locally-fabbed 10-bbl brewhouse and multiple fermenters is operated by head brewer Dave Fleming, well-known around town, and Garrett McAleese, son of Gerald and Lucille.

They are brewing up some nice beers at Kells Brewpub. Kells Irish Red Ale is a favorite. At a recent media event there, they were pouring several interesting beers, including an Irish Lager, IPA, a fresh hop ale and an Irish Stout. In early November, Kells announced that they have opened a taproom at the Moda Center, a partnership with the Blazers. Pretty sweet.

Well, that's it for now. Onward through the holidays. The days are getting longer, folks. Warmer, brighter days are dead ahead.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BTU Brasserie: Alternative to Traditional Brewpubs

When it opened last summer on Northeast Sandy Blvd, BTU Brasserie was a much-anticipated addition to a strip that is dominated by Asian-themed eateries. Combining Chinese cuisine with a brewery is a pretty unique concept and one that may have traction with folks bored with standard brewpub fare.

Frankly, I believe offering an alternative to traditional pub fare is a great idea and one that makes a lot of sense around here. Food, whether better or just different, is a great way to differentiate yourself in a city xthat is virtually overrun by brewpubs and craft-centric restaurants.

In the case of BTU Brasserie, the folks running things have significant experience on the culinary side. Co-owner Nate Yovu served as head chef at Burnside Brewing and also has training and experience as a brewer. One of his partners, Chris Bogart, has a strong culinary background and also worked at Burnside. Nate's brother, Jay, has homebrewing experience and assists with the brewing program.

It's certainly fair to say these guys have a greater depth of experience with food than they do with beer. That's probably what accounts for the beers being what they are. And what they are isn't bad. But I believe there's a difference between brewers who brew for standalone drinkers and those who brew mainly to enrich or complement a restaurant menu.

For example, Fire on the Mountain brews beers that are largely designed to fit with the hot & spicy food they serve. So they have some beers that are intended to put out the fire, so to speak. That isn't all they have, but it is a definite focus. These beers aren't often seen outside FOTM locations.

An alternative example is Laurelwood, which features mostly standard pub fare and brews a variety of beers. Some of those beers cater to non-beer geek patrons. But Laurelwood also brews standalone beers like Workhorse, that bring people into their pubs and are regularly poured at various watering holes around town.

The Beers
When I walked into BTU last summer, they were in the middle of renovating the space. A brand new 7-bbl brewhouse was in place, though it appeared they were a month or more from opening. When I returned a couple of months ago, they had only two of their beers on tap. I resolved to come back later when they were up to speed with the brewing.

Having recently received word that they were now pouring seven beers, I resolved to stop in. Early Saturday evening proved the perfect fit.

First things first. The cost of a seven beer taster flight at BTU is just $7. And these are solid 4 oz pours, so nothing to shake your fist at. This is a good deal and what you should expect to pay for this much beer. Too many places jack up prices to discourage taster flights, which are admittedly a bit of a pain is the ass.

BTU's flagship brew (from the beer menu) is BTU Lager, an amusing little beer that clocks in at 5.5% and 22 IBU. It's brewed with Chinese short grain rice and filtered. This beer is clear, clean and crisp. It also lacks significant character. If it hadn't been under-carbonated, I might have mistaken it for Coors Light. I suspect it's their flagship because it goes well with the food.

Rusty's Red is another one of their popular beers, at 5.8% and 52 IBU. It's billed as a generously hopped American Red Ale. It seemed coarsely bitter to me. Maybe it could use a little residual sweetness. Out For a Rip IPA fell into the same category. Its numbers, 6.4% and 55 IBU, aren't big compared to other IPAs out there. But it struck me as being intensely bitter with almost no hop aroma or flavor. It reminded me of the IPAs I made 15 years ago as a home brewer, in which all or most of the hops went into the boil. Those days are gone and I think these beers need some work.

It gets better. Dark Helmut Schwarzbier (6.3%, 28 IBU) is a nice representation of the style. It's smooth and mildly roasty. The name may not fit with the Asian theme, but the beer works perfectly with some of the food. There's also Sandy Blonde (5.4%, 25 IBU), a golden ale featuring Cascade hops, that works well. Polaris Wheat (5.4%, 34 IBU), named for the Polaris hop, is a mildly bitter rendition of the style. I think it probably pairs nicely with some of the spicier dishes here.

The outlier on the beer list is Joulupukki Festive Bock (5.8%, 16 IBU), a holiday beer spiced with pumpkin, peppercorns, fresh ginger, star anise, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander. The spicy character of Joulupukki is pretty subtle and gets more pronounced as it warms up. I'm not sure where it fits in with the theme or the food, but it's worth trying.

It seems to me the BTU folks have succeeded in producing beers that complement the food experience there. The owners, I suspect, are still in the process of figuring out their brewing system and tweaking recipes. The beers will evolve. They will get better and there will be even more variety going forward.

There was talk early on of distributing kegs. As it stands, there isn't  a BTU beer that would have much traction in a taproom, pub or growler fill station. These aren't standalone beers. If I were going to pick one to market outside the restaurant, it would be the Schwarzbier. Why? Because it's a well-made beer and there aren't a lot of competing dark lagers out there. Just saying.

The bottom line with BTU Brasserie is this: It isn't a place you're going to go strictly to have a beer, although it may well become a beer destination down the road. For now, it's a place you're going to go to have lunch or dinner and a beer. Because it seems to work really well on that level.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Texas Messes with its Craft Breweries

About 30 years ago, the state of Texas invented its "Don't Mess With Texas" slogan. If you aren't aware, it was part of an anti-litter campaign targeting 18-35 year-old males, thought to be the state's worst litterbugs. The idea worked, reducing litter substantially between 1986 and 1990.

Texas being what it is, the slogan morphed into a sort of cultural phenomenon. Bigheaded Texans plastered "Don't Mess With Texas" stickers on their homes and cars. The tourism industry latched onto the slogan and sold branded trinkets to millions of visitors, despite the Transportation Department's efforts to enforce trademark rights. That's Texas for  you. Love it or leave it.

They've got a new kind of mess in Texas these days and it involves craft beer. Back in 2013, the Lege (that's Molly Ivins-speak) passed Senate Bill 639, which made it illegal for breweries to accept payment for the right to distribute their beer in specific areas or territories in the state.

In effect, the law forced brewers who wanted to sell their beer in areas beyond their own reach to give distributors the right to do so in exchange for, well, nothing. And there's more. Distributors who acquired the right to a particular beer in a particular area were free to sell those rights to another distributor for a profit. You gotta love Texas, huh?

It's pretty apparent that SB 639 was pushed through the Lege on behalf of the state's beer distributors, who didn't feel quite right about paying for the right to distribute any beer. But the state's growing craft beer community has been put in a serious bind by the legislation.

So earlier this week three Texas breweries sued the state, saying SB 639 violates the state Constitution because it requires them to give away their distribution rights for nothing. And allows distributors to profit through the sale of those rights, something they didn't pay for or earn.

The effect of the law, the brewers say, has been to slow their growth. How so? Because they are unwilling to give up their territorial rights for nothing, they have refused to sign any new distribution agreements. That leaves them self-distributing, which they can't effectively do throughout the state. Growth has been put on hold.

I'm not in the business so I don't know how these things work. But a distributor friend gave me the lowdown on how distribution agreements work in Oregon. If you want to distribute a brewery's beer, you negotiate an arrangement. In some cases, particularly with remote breweries, a distributor may pay nothing or very little. In the case of a brewery whose brand is sought by more than one distributor, the price may include marketing dollars per case or keg for some specified period of time.

We'll see what happens with the Texas lawsuit, filed by Live Oak Brewing of Austin, Peticolas Brewing of Dallas and Revolver Brewing of Granbury. These guys would all like to be expanding their production and distribution, but are unwilling to do so due to unfriendly, unfair laws in the state.

As Molly Ivins said some time ago, "All anyone needs to enjoy the Texas Lege is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people." For the time being, insensitively and stupidity are threatening the growth and well-being of the craft beer industry in the state.

Stop messing with craft beer, Texas!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Idaho Continues Efforts to Limit Anheuser-Busch

There's all kinds of good news in the world of craft beer. Today's Year in Beer report from the Brewers Association has all the details. The grey cloud hanging over the good news is Anheuser-Busch, which is buying up distributorships and mucking up the three-tier system wherever it can.

I've reported on the ongoing antics of AB in the past. Doing so has earned me a place on their list of undesirables. When the suits from AB and 10 Barrel were in town hoping to drum up some positive press for the acquisition, I failed to make the list of potential "friendlies."  Shucks, I suppose you can't blame them.

Forget the 10 Barrel deal for just a second. There are going to be more deals like it in coming months and years. If we truly are opening 1.5 new breweries a day in this country (that's a Brewers Association stat), there are going to be a lot of buyouts and consolidations coming down the pike. But never mind.

Last spring, I reported that Idaho was considering legislation that would block Anheuser-Busch's stated desire to acquire distributorships within the state. Such acquisitions are a clear violation of the three-tier laws that came into existence following Prohibition. Unfortunately, a lot of state laws have loopholes that have enabled AB to come in and buy distributors. Oregon, by the way, is one of those states. Idaho is one of a few states that decided to do something about it.

With the passage of House Bill 524 in late March, Idaho amended its laws to state that only brewers producing less than 30,000 barrels annually can hold a retail, wholesale (self-distribution) or brewpub license within the state. The intent of this amendment, which is slightly more detailed than this, is to prevent big beer from owning distributorships, retail outlets or pubs within the state. It effectively reinforces the three-tier system.

Now comes word that Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors are asking state courts to review the language of the law (Title 23) and verify that only brewers producing less than 30,000 barrels may enjoy the privileges as stated in the law. This comes on the heels of the 10 Barrel deal. If you aren't aware, 10 Barrel brews 40,000 barrels a year, owns a brewpub in Boise and is, of course, now fully owned by Anheuser-Busch (which produced 122 million barrels in 2013).

Some folks are wondering if the move by the Beer and Wine Distributors is directed specifically at Anheuser-Busch and 10 Barrel. Hmmm. That's a touchy question. But it's pretty obvious that the Distributors are testing the water to see if the barrel limit, signed into the state code well before the recent acquisition of 10 Barrel, will stick.

This ought to be interesting. For if the courts somehow rule that the 30,000 barrel limit is not a binding part of the law, it will mean passing laws designed to slow the encroachment of Anheuser-Busch and other big brands is an ineffective means of addressing this problem. Then what?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Holiday Ale Festival Off and Running in Portland's Living Room

It was a festive crowd at Wednesday's opening day of the 2014 Holiday Ale Festival. As usual, there were a lot of beer geeks in attendance, sucking up the beers and yakking about the good, the bad and the ugly. Just another day in beer paradise, you know.

I actually managed to sample 20 or so beers during the six or so hours I was there, including most from my own hit list. I was fortunate to hang out with folks who were tasting different beers, which allowed me to taste more beers than would have been possible on my own. For those coming down in ensuing days, that's a great approach. These are big beers, mostly.

Before I get to my beer picks, I want to briefly mention a couple of issues.

First, there are quite a few double and triple ticket beers at this event. And the signage doesn't always clearly identify them. Organizers dropped the ball on this. Hopefully, it will be fixed by the weekend, when things get crazy.

Second, why does this festival continue to use the pin-up girl motif for branding and promotion? I really don't get it and I'm not alone. I didn't hear much discussion of this during my visit, but several beer people I know said they found it offensive and wouldn't attend the event. When will this festival move on? Inquiring minds wonder.

The Beers
Of the beers on my hit list from the other day, there were a couple of "must try" favorites and a few duds. This is always the case at the HAF, I suspect because many of these beers were made specifically for this event. One-off beers are hit and miss. You knew that.

The pick of the litter from my list was 13 Virtues Barrel-Aged Max Stout, which features a well-balanced combination of barrel notes and malty complexity. This beer comes in at 10.5 percent, but is smooth as glass. It was pouring in the Skybar. Don't miss it.

Some people were surprised by McMenamin's entry, Lord of Misrule, a rum barrel-aged stout. The surprise is getting old. The fact is, these guys have bumped up their game. It's the consequence of being based in Oregon, where there are so many great beers. McMenamin's brewers have always had latitude to create interesting beers. Today, they have more freedom when it comes to spending what it takes to create those beers. Lord of Misrule features a nice blend of cocoa, coffee and a very mellow presence of habanero peppers in the finish. Great stuff.

Hopworks seems to always have a decent entry here. Kronan the Barbarian was popular last year. This year's beer, The Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest, is a revved-up version of their winter seasonal, Abominable Winter Ale. The Incredible packs serious barrel character, which is more or less balanced on a malty background with a vaguely hoppy finish. Very nice, indeed.

When you reach the point where you must cleanse your pallet due to (perhaps) too many barrel-aged beverages, look no further than Firestone Walker's Luponic Distortion. Hopheads will be pleased with the citrus notes courtesy of Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Amarillo, Chinook and Simcoe hops.

If you want to see what others are thinking, Jeff Alworth is usually reliable. So are Sanjay and Kris. And there's always The New School. You can also follow posts listed at the upper left column here.

One thing to keep in mind as you go about your tasting at this event is that most of these beers are too cold when they hit your mug. Let them warm up a bit. That's what allows big beers to reveal their true character. This isn't the Oregon Brewers Festival. The beer in your mug will need a few minutes to warm up.

Book Beat
If you get bored with the beer or don't have anyone to hang out with, stop by Brian Yaeger's table (near the Small Bar) and buy a copy of his new book, Oregon Breweries. He'll even autograph it! Brian was there selling books and chatting with beer fans on Wednesday and will be back today and Sunday. He may join Jon Abernathy, who will be there Friday afternoon selling and signing his new book on Central Oregon beer. Even if you don't want a book, stop and say hello.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Commons Gathers Around Third Anniversary

Times flies when you're having fun. And they've been having fun while making good beer at The Commons since 2011. They're holding a party to celebrate their success this coming Saturday, Dec. 6, at the brewery on SE Stephens.

When Mike Wright decided to start this place three years ago, he had no idea how successful his little business would be. Today, The Commons has earned widespread respect for its line of Belgian-influenced beers, some of which have won medals at the World Beer Cup and GABF. Their beer is widely available at stores, restaurants and finer watering holes in Portland and beyond.

There are those who think opening a brewery is the secret to great wealth and adoration. But building a brand in the hyper-competitive craft beer marketplace is an arduous task, even if you have great beer. Wright and his compatriots, Josh Grgas, Sean Burke, Travis Sandoval and others, have leaned on their expertise and a lot of hard work to make The Commons what it is.

Wright at the 2012 celebration
This year's anniversary celebration will be the last in the brewery on Stephens. As most who read this know, Wright and Co. have been diligently working on a new and significantly larger space on SE 7th and Belmont. They hope to be open there by the spring, though they are realistic enough to know these things don't always happen the way you plan.

There will be no bottleshare this year. That had a been a prominent and well-attended event the past two years, and will return once they are in their new space. It seems the current landlord is uncomfortable with use of the common areas in the building. That's unfortunate, but somehow understandable given the appeal of these events.

Regardless, the beer list for their Third Anniversary is really fantastic.

Opening Taplist
  • Urban Farmhouse: The flagship saison has been on tap #1 since the day the brewery opened.
  • Buckwheat Grissette: Belgian table beer with Buckwheat and Brettanomyces.
  • Trillium: Blended farmhouse ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis, Brettanomyces Lambicus and house grown cultures.
  • 3rd Anniversary Stout: Imperial Stout featuring 10 different malts aged in Bourbon barrels previously used for Bourbon Little Brother and Brotherly Love. 
  • 2014 Bourbon Little Brother: Sneak preview of their popular winter bottle seasonal. Belgian Dark Strong Ale partially aged in Bourbon barrels. 
  • 2014 Maybelle: Farmhouse ale aged in wine barrels with BSI’s Brettanomyces Bruxellensis variant Drei.
  • Putin from the Wood: Baltic Porter aged in Bourbon barrels.
  • Pils: Northern German Style with Perle and Spalt hops.  
5:00 PM Taplist
  • Gin Enkel: Possibly the last keg of one of their most popular beers. Belgian table beer with spelt and rye aged in fresh Old Tom Gin barrels with apricots. 
  • Dark Czar: One off Baltic Porter/Imperial Stout blended with Stumptown Guatemala Finca el Injerto coffee and vanilla beans.
  • …plus a special to be announced keg from a friendly Midwest brewery. 

The party gets underway at 2:00 p.m. and will run through 9:00 p.m. or so. Obviously, this isn't the only beer event in the city this weekend, but it will be a good one. You aren't going to have a better opportunity to Gather Around Great Beer, a slight modification of The Commons tagline. Come toast the success of this humble brewery.

Celebrating three years

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Holiday Ale Fest Returns for 19th Year

They say Pioneer Courthouse Square is Portland's living room. Assuming that's the case, Portland's living room will welcome back the Holiday Ale Festival next Wednesday through Sunday. This is the event's 19th year, if you're counting.

There aren't really a lot of secrets with respect to this festival. It routinely features bold beers. These aren't run of the mill beers.The great bulk of what you'll find pouring here is made specifically for the event. They have a way of getting some great stuff. We're talking high octane ales, barleywines, barrel-aged beers, etc. Perfect for winter.

As most know, the HAF is housed under clear, heated tents. The weather may turn out to be perfectly dreadful outside, but it will be warm and toasty under the tents. So you won't need to wear your favorite ski outfit to be comfortable. Views of the city skyline and the holiday tree add to the festive appeal of this event.

Another interesting thing about the HAF is it seems to attract people from all over the place. I've mentioned this in previous posts, but it's worth mentioning again. I can't count how many times I have met people who are from faraway places. They come for this event and for all that is Portland.

Because things tend to get a little nuts during prime time, organizers again say the best days to taste are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. The first two days are good because a lot of working stiffs can't get down there until the evening, if at all. Folks who show up on Friday or Saturday will likely have to deal with some lines, although it usually doesn't get too wild until mid-afternoon.

There are plenty of details available on the event website here. For example, you can pre-purchase a tasting package there. The beer list is there. A couple of significant factoids to keep in mind: This is a 21 and over event and the kiddies are not welcome.

As for recommended beers, I'm quite sure everyone can manufacturer their own hit list from the online program. If you want to know what the experts are tasting, there are plenty of online and print sources you can consult. As for myself, these are a few of the brews I hope to try:

13 Virtues Brewing Co.
Barrel-Aged MAX Stout
Imperial Stout
10.5% ABV, 70 IBU
Aged in both Eastside Distillery and Bull Run Distillery Whiskey barrels for three to four months, supposedly offers the complexity of oak and vanilla notes and textured layers of deep, dark secrets. I'm sold.

Firestone Walker Brewing
Luponic Distortion 
Double IPA
8.5% ABV, 75 IBU
A complex blended IPA boasting huge citrus notes by the crafty use of Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Amarillo, Chinook and Simcoe hops. Sounds worthy.

Fort George Brewery
Santa's Dinner Jacket 
Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Red Ale
8.3% ABV
Aged in Bull Run Distillery barrels. Sipped slowly and allowed to warm, this beer tells a story of time spent in the barrel infusing this heftily hopped ale with notes of port, sherry, caramel and toffee. 

Gigantic Brewing 
Red Ryder BB Gun
Cranberry Saison
6.3% ABV, 22 IBU   
The sweet aroma of cranberries melds perfectly with spicy saison yeasts. There is just enough fruit and tartness to balance the beer's finest pilsner malt. Sounds like a live one.

Hopworks Urban Brewery
The Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest 
Barrel Aged Imperial Winter Ale 
9.0% ABV, 100 IBU
The infamous uncle of the renowned Abominable Winter Ale.This imperial version was aged in freshly emptied Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels and features notes of vanilla and spice mixed with the already delightful flavors of citrus and caramel.

McMenamins Edgefield Brewery 
Lord of Misrule   
Rum Barrel Aged Imperial Mexican Mocha Stout 
7.6% ABV,. 24 IBU
This dark and spicy imperial brew was made keeping all the joyful customs surrounding this ancient practice in mind. Brewed with cacao nibs, kilned coffee malt and habanero peppers, then aged in rum barrels post-fermentation. 

Migration Brewing 
Frankie Claus
Belgian Imperial Stout
11.8% ABV, 60 IBU  
This Imperial Belgian Chocolate Stout was brewed with French cocoa, Belgian Trappist yeast, and plenty of attitude. Frankie Claus is layered with notes of banana, cocoa, dried red fruit and toasted almonds, creating a very smooth 11.8% ABV stout with a soft, warming finish.

Portland Brewing
Bourbon Barrel-aged Imperial Stout 
Bourbon Barrel Aged Cherry Stout
10.0% ABV, 25 IBU
Brewed just for the 2014 Holiday Ale Festival, this massive brew boasts a huge backbone from seven different malts, a Northwest hop profile, and notes of roasted coffee balanced by delicious cherry flavors from an Oregon-grown sweet cherry puree.

Stone Brewing 
New Desecrator
Black Barley Wine
12.0% ABV, 100 IBU
This black barley wine has nearly the same profile as Stone Old Guardian, but surrounded by de-husked darkness. To give this demon its own flair, Stone fed it generous portions of Herkules, Amarillo, Comet, El Dorado and Pacifica hops. Coming in at 100+ IBUs, Stone says New Desecrator may just kill Santa Claus and end your holidays early. Yikes!

Of course, there will be a number of special beers tapped during the course of this event. If you want to follow that stuff, there's a mobile version of the Holiday Ale Festival website that your smartphone will automatically detect. Tune in there for on-the-fly updates on special tappings and locations, as well as other event details.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Jon Abernathy's 'Bend Beer' Earns Two Thumbs Up

Bend Beer: A History of Brewing in Central Oregon by Jon Abernathy
Foreword by Gary Fish
The History Press/American Palate, 171 pages

Bend, Oregon is widely recognized as one of the top beer cities in the country. In fact, articles published in the national media have routinely referred to it in recent times as Beer Town USA. That's based largely on the number of breweries per capita and the quality of the beer.

Jon Abernathy's new book traces the transition of Bend (and Central Oregon) from frontier homesteading to the timber boom era to recreation, tourism and, finally, beer. It's a long and winding road, with a number of fascinating stopovers along the way.

The first thing you realize is that Bend's history does not parallel that of Portland, Oregon's largest city and the place where craft beer in the state was born. Henry Weinhard Brewing had a dominant presence in Portland and the Northwest for more than a century. There was only a small brewing presence in Central Oregon until Deschutes Brewing was born in 1988. That's when Bend's beer trajectory starts to line up with Portland's.

Without many breweries to write about in the early period, Abernathy focuses mostly on the economic development of Central Oregon. The area possessed a tiny population of subsistence farmers and ranchers. Bend wasn't even incorporated until 1905, largely a result of the fact that the area was economically isolated. That changed in a big way with the arrival of the railroad in 1911, which opened to door to the timber era and dynamic growth.

Strangely enough, the coming of the railroad and the launch of the timber boom era coincided closely with state prohibition in 1916. Bend had been a haven for saloons and brothels from its early days and the temperance movement was greeted by many. But not all. One of the more fascinating stories from the prohibition period involves the role Central Oregon played in the manufacture of moonshine for the region. I won't give it away, other than to say the countryside "lit up at night."

Confiscated still
By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Bend's economy was dominated by timber. Taverns and bars opened or reopened and the beer flowed. Bond Street, the eventual home to Deschutes Brewery and Public House, once again became a bustling strip. The area's beer experience during the period following Prohibition mirrored that of the country, as the national brands moved in.

The timber era began to decline by the late 1950s, gradually replaced by recreation and tourism. Mount Bachelor (known at Bachelor Butte until 1983) led the way as a magnet for visitors from outside the area and accounted for a growing financial footprint. As the onslaught of the national brands intensified during the post-World War II era, Central Oregon aligned with the rest of the state in supporting regional brands Olympia and Blitz-Weinhard.

Deschutes under construction. 1988.
Gary Fish was operating a restaurant in Utah and watching the craft movement expand in the mid-1980s. He looked at the brewpub model and saw something he liked. Northern California is where he wanted to establish a brewery, but high real estate prices and competition proved problematic. His parents, having visited Central Oregon, suggested he take a look at Bend.

Deschutes Brewery opened in June 1988, less than a year after Fish visited the area to check things out. Abernathy documents several interesting points here. First, there were others who had plans to open a brewery in Bend around this time. None succeeded. Second, Deschutes was not an instant success by any means. They were problems with employees, customers and infected beer. These were uncertain times.

Collection of Jubelale bottles
"You could shoot a gun off in here a lot of nights and nobody would notice," Fish is quoted as saying. Some nights he sent employees home and ran the place alone business was so slow. That's a hard concept to fathom today, given what Deschutes has become.

Most of the second half of the book deals with Bend after Deschutes. Abernathy rolls through the successes and growing pains at Deschutes and traces the history of breweries that came later: Silver Moon, Cascade Lakes, Bend Brewing, 10 Barrel, etc. The names and travels of countless brewers, many of whom passed through Deschutes and other places on their way to their own gigs, are tracked.

Bend Brewing
Because it happened after the book was published, Anheuser-Busch's purchase of 10 Barrel Brewing is not covered. That's probably just as well. Any future edition of this book will certainly address that deal and the not-so-friendly response to it. For now, interested folks will have to be satisfied with news reports and blog coverage.

As many who read this surely know, I wrote the history of Portland beer. The Bend book shares the same publisher and, as you can see, the same cookie cutter cover layout. I have never met Jon Abernathy, but we had several online conversations regarding his project. Still, no one told me I had to like his book or recommend it. Bend's story is really quite different than Portland's for reasons that are readily apparent as you read the book.

At the end of the day, some of the most interesting history is local history. For it is local history that traces the development of communities and people most clearly. Jon Abernathy does a fine job laying out and explaining the forces that shaped the transformation of Bend and Central Oregon from frontier to modern times. The brewing part of that history happens to be most prominent after 1988. Still, there is great history here.

This book will be of interest to residents, non-residents and tourists who want to know how Bend and Central Oregon became what it is today. The hoards that travel the Bend Ale Trail annually will find plenty to like here. The story is well-researched, well-constructed and expertly written. And it will occupy a seminal place in the literature of this area for years to come.

Jon has launched a series of events in support of the book. Some have already taken place and I assume they have gone well. Here in Portland, he will appear at Powell's Books on Burnside on Friday, Dec. 5.  He will partner with Brian Yaeger, whose book, Oregon Breweries, comes out next week. Both books have Facebook pages and websites with more info. I urge interested folks to learn more.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Breakside Highlights Special Releases, Library Flights

The last time I mentioned Breakside Brewing here was last December, when I said there were my brewery of the year for 2013. That comment was based mostly on the fact that they had created some truly amazing specialty beers to go with some terrific standards, like their IPA and Pilsner.

Head brewer Ben Edmunds and his team have continued to build on that theme in 2014. The production brewery in Milwaukie has enabled them to do large batches of the popular standards, which you can find almost anywhere at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, smaller batches of seasonals and funky, barrel-aged specialty beers are showing up, too. I'll get to those shortly.

Looking at OLCC numbers, and keep in mind that these are Oregon-only numbers (limited to beer made and sold here), Breakside's overall production is rising. For all of 2013, they produced 3,178 barrels. Through August of this year, they produced 3,521 barrels. If monthly trends hold, they will easily pass through 5K barrels by the end of the year. As noted, these numbers do not include out-of-state sales, which are increasing.

Of course, rising production numbers suggest a strong following. Breakside bumped up the buzz in that area by winning two medals at the 2014 GABF. Breakside IPA took gold in the American Style IPA category and Wanderlust IPA won bronze for American Strong Pale Ale. Lots of good news at Breakside.

And there's more. Edmunds and his brewing elves have made great progress, but they continue to forge ahead with the release of new specialty beers and a new rare beer tasting program at their Milwaukie Brewery and Taproom. Below the details:

La Tormenta (dry-hopped soul ale): 7% ABV, 22 IBU
An experimental ale that combines a mildly tart base with a tasty and aromatic blend of tropical, fruity hops. Notes of grapefruit and lemongrass are present. This is a fantastic beer. No wonder it's one of Breakside's most popular small batch beers of the year. It will be available on draft and in bombers. The Portland release party happens tonight (11/20) at Beermongers, where they will have a flock of Breakside beers on tap.

Imperial Red: 8% ABV, 93 IBU
This is essentially an Imperial Red IPA and has enough backbone to offer a nice alternative to standard winter beers. But it's the aroma and flavor provided by Simcoe and Amarillo hops that make this beer special, with notes of pine resin and grapefruit. Imperial Red is so smooth you won't even notice the added alcohol, so watch it. This is a draft only release and you'll find it at Breakside and select locations. It's disappearing quickly, so get it now.

Country Blonde: 7.2% ABV, 27 IBU
A wheaten saison conditioned on Gewurztraminer grapes and a blend of wild yeast and bacteria that includes three strains of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. I tasted this beer, along with Imperial Red and La Tormenta, at a Tuesday night media event. It is excellent. Country Blonde will be available only in bottles probably limited to Breakside locations.

Rare & Vintage Beer Library Flights
Getting a chance to taste older vintages of specialty beers, particularly flights, is great fun. You get to appreciate how beers have aged and evaluate sometimes quirky flavor profiles. This type of tasting has become increasingly popular in recent times.

To address that demand, Breakside is launching Rare and Vintage Beer Library Flights at their Milwaukie location starting Dec. 5. Flights will be 5 oz pours (three for $9 or $3 each). Choices will vary and only include beers not available on draft. The Library Flights program will be run Friday through Sunday. Check Breakside's social media feeds for weekly updates on beers.

Once again, Breakside is setting a high standard for great beer and business smarts. They obviously aren't the only ones doing good work here, but it seems to me things are looking especially bright at Breakside. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Risk and Reward in the 10 Barrel Buyout

When 10 Barrel Brewing agreed to be purchased by Anheuser-Busch, the founders surely evaluated the risk. In the end, they decided the benefits of selling outweighed the risks associated with potential negative consequences. That's how business decisions work.

One of the angles they certainly considered is that, by selling out to big beer, 10 Barrel would no longer be considered a craft brewery by the Brewers Association. The Brewers Association, although it is home to some odd rules, has some pretty simple guidelines when it comes to craft brewers.
  1. Small: Annual production must not exceed 6 million barrels
  2. Independent: Less than 25 percent of the brewery is owned by a large, non-craft brewer.
  3. Traditional: The majority of a brewer's volume is beer made by fermenting traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.
These guidelines have been questioned. What are "innovative brewing ingredients?" for instance. How does 6 million barrels make sense when most craft brewers produce in the thousands of barrels annually? Deschutes Brewing, one of the largest craft brewers, brewed 478,00 barrels last year. Sam Adams brewed 2.5 million barrels. What? Some say the Brewers Association has adjusted the production limit upward over the years to keep Sam Adams, the behemoth of the craft world, in. But never mind.

In 10 Barrel's case, the production limit won't be an issue anytime soon, if ever. Same goes for the traditional aspect. Where the problem occurs is ownership. Being a wholly owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch means they lose the craft label. Regardless of whether you think that's an issue, it is the reality.

So I was amused to see an article in the Bend Bulletin under the headline: "Could 10 Barrel Lose Craft Brewer Label?" Seriously? Folks, there isn't a question. The craft label is gone. Kaput. I enjoyed reading some of the comments, particularly those attributed to Van Havig, co-owner of Portland's Gigantic Brewing and a member of the Oregon Brewers Guild board of directors.

"Those people [at 10 Barrel] are craft brewers, period," Havig told the Bulletin. "It has nothing to do with who owns them." 

Actually, who owns them does matter to beer fans and the Brewers Association. But that's a nice way to spin it and a smart position for any brewer to take...just in case his or her brewery should be bought out by a beer behemoth at some point. Thinking ahead always makes sense. 

Whether the craft label matters is open to serious question. Goose Island lost its craft status when it sold out to AB in 2011. Widmer Brewing lost its craft status when it sold a roughly 30 percent stake to AB in 1997. Same goes for Blue Point Brewing, which came under AB control earlier this year.

The funny thing is, these breweries are doing fine. Widmer is a relevant national brand, distributed across the country. Goose Island is in the same boat. It's kind of early to say what will happen with Blue Point, but you suspect it will experience similar results.

10 Barrel is going to be the butt of jokes among beer geeks in Oregon for a while. A short-term drop in sales volume here seems likely. A lot of people have told me they will never support 10 Barrel by buying their beer or going to the brewpub that will open in Portland next spring. Fair enough.

As a kid, I was told, "You take your chances and you take your lumps." 10 Barrel took its chances selling out to AB and is taking its lumps. I don't like this buyout or those like it one bit, but I think 10 Barrel will probably be just fine in the end.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Watered Down Beer in Seattle?

It's been a sketchy season so far for the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. They haven't exactly been blowing the competition away. Now comes news that fans are paying for watered down beer at CenturyLink Field. Very bad.

This story was first reported by KOMO TV (it's now spread to other outlets), which had operatives collect beer samples on two separate trips to CenturyLink during Sounders and Seahawks games. Samples were smuggled out of the stadium (it's illegal to do that) in small vials and subsequently evaluated by a Seattle lab.

The lab results showed that all of the six beers tested fell short of the advertised ABV. In some cases, the shortfall was minimal and within federal guidelines, which allow a discrepancy of up to .3% below the stated number. In other cases, not so much. Below, the results.

Stella Artois
5.0% stated
4.8% measured

Bud Light
4.2% stated
3.9% measured

Redhook No Equal
5.2% stated
4.8% measured

5.2 stated
4.7% measured

Bass Pale Ale
5.1% stated
4.5% measured

5% stated
4.4% measured

There's a lively discussion about this on the KOMO site. Some folks are pointing out that it's illegal to remove beer from the stadium. Very helpful. Others point out how implausible watered down beer is, given the challenges.

One of my industry friends (not with Anheuser-Busch, which owns five of the six brands tested) says the risks of watering beer, whether in the stadium or in production, far outweigh the financial benefits. There are actual laws that include some fairly stiff penalties, I guess. 

I'm not a lab technician or scientist, but I wonder if these results could have somehow been tainted by sample sizes, storage methods or time between collecting samples and evaluating them. There ought be a more formal investigation of this mess, I think.

The timing of this news isn't good. A couple of years back fans learned that large and small cups at CenturyLink held the same amount of beer. Thus, people paying $1.25 more for a large cup were getting the same amount of beer as the cheapskates who ordered the small. Stadium suits took the Fifth..."We didn't know." Of course they didn't. Needless to say, trust in stadium management has been running a little thin of late. Now the ABV controversy.

Think about this situation for a few seconds and connect the dots. Seahawks fans are going to need more, not less, alcohol to get through this year's nail-biters. If fans think stadium management is screwing them on ticket prices and beer, they'll drink more before games and smuggle in extra booze to hold them over during the games. Getting "blitzed" may take on a whole new meaning. 

This may not work out well.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

10 Barrel and the New Reality in Craft Beer

Wednesday's announcement that Anheuser-Busch is acquiring 10 Barrel Brewing of Bend drew a firestorm of commentary in social media and blog land, most of it negative. The reasons are related to how craft brands are perceived and what people think they should and shouldn't be. And who should and shouldn't own them.

When I was researching my book on Portland Beer, I asked a number of people why craft beer had taken off here. The theme that popped up routinely in responses was provincialism. In Portland and Oregon we have a history of preferring products that are produced locally by local businesses.

These attitudes originated during pioneer times and grew into a strong do-it-yourself culture through the 20th century. I think a good argument can be made that provincialism is on the wane here. You look around and see all these nationally-owned big box stores infesting the area and you realize there's nothing provincial about them.

However, provincial attitudes are entrenched when it comes to craft beer. That's probably because craft beer came along at a time, starting in the mid-1980s, when our provincial facade was beginning to crack. We've experienced massive growth since that time and a lot of things have changed. Yet we stubbornly hang on to craft beer as something small, local and artisan.

There truly is a sort of mythology driving that. Some of our breweries (Deschutes, Widmer, etc.) are huge by craft standards. And there's serious money being invested in hoards of beer-centric operations like taprooms, restaurants, growler fill stations and more. Craft beer is big business. Yet many beer fans continue to think of it differently.

There have been prior deals with big beer here. Bridgeport was sold to Gambrinus in 1995. Portland Brewing has been bought and sold several times. Widmer partnered with Anheuser-Busch in 1997, a deal in which AB gained a non-controlling interest in the company. None of these arrangements was greeted with enthusiasm when announced.

The Empire
It's hard to say what will happen with 10 Barrel. The founders got a chunk of cash, for sure, and you can't fault them for that. In the short run, I suspect they will continue to function much as they have. The beers brewed in 10 Barrel breweries will remain solid. Their specialty beer program may actually expand, as it has at Goose Island since the AB buyout a couple of years back.

Of course, AB did not enter into this deal out of the kindness of its heart...or strictly to help 10 Barrel build its brand in Oregon.They need to fill a deepening revenue hole caused by the collapse of Bud, Bud Light and other standards. Distributing craft brands around the country is part of that plan, and it means 10 Barrel beers will eventually be brewed in factory breweries, as happened with Goose Island. The quality of those beers will likely suffer.
Acquisitions are just one part of AB's effort to maintain its position in the industry. There will be more buyouts. Even so, AB cannot buy craft breweries fast enough to make up for the volume they're losing with their mainstream brands. Another piece of the action plan involves buying up distributors in some states, including Oregon, so they can use discounting and other tactics to leverage their position. There's also an effort to slow the growth of craft beer by lobbying for restrictive laws, new and existing, in some states. A rather shameful resume.

Given Anheuser-Busch's body of work, they and 10 Barrel should have expected the uproar that materialized this week. Social media, which didn't exist when the prior deals happened, magnified the beatdown that descended on them. I understand comments were deleted and people were banned from social media pages. The banter reached such a crescendo that AB and 10 Barrel reached out to "sympathetic" media outlets (sorry, no names) in hopes of creating some positive spin. Ingenious.

Honestly, I completely get the emotionally charged response to this deal due to Anheuser-Busch's unlikable corporate persona. At the same time, I think a lot of people are holding onto some fairly outdated notions about craft beer. It is no longer particularly small or particularly local or necessarily driven by idealistic values. Craft beer is big business, and getting bigger by the minute.

The buyout of 10 Barrel isn't the end or even the beginning of the end for craft beer. Not even close. However, this deal and the one for Goose Island suggest an end to roughly three decades in which craft brewers flew mostly under big beer's radar. Those days are gone forever. And the line that previously divided craft beer and big beer is blurring.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Millennials and Craft Beer in the Digital Age

It's hardly a secret that Millennials are a force to be reckoned with in modern American business. They make up an increasingly significant portion of the 25-45 age group business covets and targets. This is as true of the beer industry as any other.

The problem for business is the Millennial demographic is not receptive to traditional marketing strategies and tactics. You cannot effectively reach them via print, radio or television advertising. One might argue that's because they are fixated on computer, tablet and phone screens. But never mind.

There are a lot of things businesses have to keep in mind with Millennials and plenty of places to find that intel if that's your thing. Generally speaking, these kids identify more personally and emotionally with brands than prior generations. They demand to interact and be part of the brands they respect.

The platform that makes this stuff happen is provided by the combined emergence of the smart phone and social media, which allow good and bad experiences to be widely spread electronically in the blink of an eye. This kind of instant publicity was unheard of 10 years ago. Today it drives the success of many businesses...and Millennials are heavily immersed in it.

When it comes to beer, Millennial tastes are vague and transient. They want to experience a wide range of flavors, which means they are receptive to inventive approaches and bizarre blends, and somewhat bored by traditional styles. In short, they are regularly looking for something new and different.

That reality is forcing suppliers and retailers to radically increase the number of available choices. A reliable industry source expects the number of SKUs on the market to double within 10 years. That's a significant increase given there are already something like 10,000 SKUs out there.

These changes mean chaos for big beer, whose leadership is dominated mostly by folks who have been around for 20 or more years. Age alone isn't the issue. The more serious problem is they are stuck in an antiquated mindset. Expensive ad campaigns and traditional media are yesterday's news...they fall flat with Millennials.

Craft beer is another story. Small breweries and pubs never had the luxury of using expensive, traditional media. Building a brand identity took years. Then came social media and the smart phone. Today, craft-centric businesses are leveraging the digital space and effectively engaging with the all-important Millennial demographic. Craft brands are being built quickly, almost overnight in some cases.

In other words, the brand building shoe is now on the other foot. Being small and unable to afford expensive advertising tactics has put the little guys ahead of the big guys in the digital, Millennial age. If nothing else, you have to appreciate the irony.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Rainier Honors Past with Jubilee Can

You never know what crazy marketing concept you're going to run into in the macro world. These gigantic companies will lean on just about any angle that will help them sell beer that is, shall we say, not quite up to snuff.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I ran into a Rainier Jubilee display the other day at Fred Meyer. It looked vaguely similar to a display you might see for a seasonal craft beer. 

These are some fancy cans, for sure. They catch your eye as you shuffle by. You might expect to find a unique seasonal beverage inside them, but that's where you would be dead wrong. Because the only thing special about Rainier Jubilee is the can.

As with many things, you need to step back in time to track the origins of the Jubilee can. The Rainier Brewing Company, which exists today only as a brand owned by an international cartel, has deep roots in the Northwest dating back to 1884.

Rainier had a solid following through much of the 20th century, propelled during the latter half of the century by some seriously creative ad campaigns. Things gradually unraveled for Rainier with the full-fledged arrival of the national brands beginning in the 1960s, as was the case with most regional brands. The brewery in Seattle closed in 1999 and production moved out of state.

The original Jubilee cans appeared between 1952 and 1963, good years for Rainier. The holiday-themed cans became popular with collectors. It seems there were different themes each year and they appeal to collectors because they were produced in limited quantities. They were discontinued after 1963 and did not reappear until last year.

Ancient and collectible
The modern version of the Jubilee can emerged last October as Rainier celebrated restoration of the historic "R" atop the old brewery. There's no longer a brewery of any kind there, but never mind. This was a symbolic celebration of what Rainier once meant to Seattle. A good crowd turned out to party it up for R Day.

Fast forward to October 2014 and another R Day celebration. And a newly revised can. The artwork continues to borrow slogans, typography and themes from the past. The primary color tone switches from last year's powder blue to a hunter green motif this year. Fans of the standard Rainier can need not fear. The white cans will return after the holidays.

2013 version
Statements from Rainier officials suggest the cans are part of maintaining the integrity of the brand. And you know that's what they're doing because they aren't messing with the time-proven Rainier recipe that so many know and love.

So grab a six-pack if you must. Just know the only thing special is the can.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thunder Island Brewing a Perfect Fit in Cascade Locks

Thunder Island Brewing in Cascade Locks is an idea whose time is exactly right. They celebrated their first anniversary the other day and it was evidently a great first year. The time is right because the sleepy little town of Cascade Locks is growing up. A brewery is a nice thing to have.

I stopped in the other day on a drive out to Hood River. It wasn't a great day, but it's pretty clear to me that Thunder Island chose an ideal location. The brewery/pub sits on the edge of the Columbia River and the views from their patio are terrific.

This place opened a year ago on a two-barrel system in a renovated industrial space. Founders Dave Lipps and Dan Hynes figured the brewery and space would meet their needs for a while. As so often happens in this industry, they were wrong and soon found themselves unable to keep up with demand.

"Things were bonkers for us during the summer," the gal behind the bar told me. "We had a constant flow of people. It was beyond our expectations."

Thanks largely to the craziness, they launched a plan to transition to a seven-barrel system with several larger fermenters. They had some technical issues and a small fire tossed a monkey wrench into that plan. Beer production is limited at the moment.

I spent an hour talking to Hynes, Thunder Island's brewer. He said they would normally have three or four of their beers on. Production issues had reduced the count to one, a nice Scotch Porter once it warmed up. Guest handles were occupied by beers from Backwoods Brewing, including a terrific IRA, and some ciders.

"This definitely isn't what you're usually going to find here," Hynes said. They typically offer a Kolsch, a pale ale and an IPA to go with the Scotch Porter. Seasonal and specialty beers are also part of the mix and I'll have more to say about that in a moment.

Hynes is a young guy, and passionate about beer. He has no formal brewing training, but has bounced around the Portland beer and homebrewing scene for years and knows the ropes. He and his partner decided to open in Cascade Locks because the business community was receptive and inviting. Brilliant.

The Gorge is a destination. Multnomah Falls is just down the road. There are hiking and biking trails and all kinds of recreation  A brewery is a perfect fit here. Being located a short distance from the freeway in a protected, scenic spot makes the place easily accessible and friendly.

If you're wondering, Thunder Island Brewing is not located on Thunder Island. That would have been a nice touch, but also logistically difficult. Take a look at the map. The brewery and patio actually overlook Thunder Island, which isn't half bad.

When the place opened, they were open limited hours and had no food, outside of a food cart. Not an unusual arrangement. The food issue meant minors were not allowed in what was then a tasting room. That's been fixed. Today, they have a kitchen and decent pub menu. Hours have been expanded. Kiddos are welcome. Bingo.

They aren't strictly interested in standard beer styles. Hynes has a small barrel program in place and they had four "dinoSOUR" beers on. I sampled the beers as we talked. None of them has aged long enough be considered truly finished. But they are pretty good and worth trying if you like sour/wild beers. Obviously, the supply of these beers is limited and they won't be on long.

Travel through the Gorge is will be a little less relaxed as we move into the darker, wetter, cooler months. At Thunder Island Brewing, they will probably see fewer patrons over the winter. But add this little brewery to your bucket list of places to visit in the Gorge. You won't regret it.