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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Upright's Ingenious, Creative Approach

In a market flooded with breweries that can't wait to get bigger so they can brew and sell more and more beer, Alex Ganum's little brewery in the basement of the Leftbank Project Building represents an alternative approach to beer and marketing.

The brewery graciously provided members of the media with one of those intimate excursions in tasting the other night. We worked our way through a couple of upcoming bottle releases while a relaxed Ganum talked about what they were doing with each beer. 

In case you don't know, Upright specializes in Farmhouse-style beers with a Northwest twist. Ganum and his staff are experts at creating barrel-aged brews that incorporate assorted regional fruit and other delights. The results are often mesmerizing. 

Of course, Farmhouse beers are not the only thing they do. Ganum also likes to embark on some fairly quirky projects. Several years ago, he brewed an interpretation of Bud Light. No joke. Unlike the original, Upright's version was rather tasty. Their Engelberg Pilsner was named Beer of the Year in the 2015 Willamette Week Beer Guide. They get pilsner.

Despite the fact that they make great beer, Upright is largely an undiscovered destination. I don't believe the place is underrated, as a recent blog poll suggested. Underrated and unknown are different issues. People just don't know much about Upright, the direct result Ganum's chosen path: limited production, limited distribution and limited taproom hours. You get what you play for.

If you look at OLCC stats, which are strictly a rough guide to what's selling (we've been through this before), Upright sold 924 barrels in Oregon during 2013. They then sold 874 barrels in 2014. Final numbers for 2015 aren't yet published, but when they are Upright will be about where it has been for the last two years. Production is more or less static.

That's a nice strategy if you can pull it off. Upright has done so by creating a premium product that is reasonably priced and sought after. Like boutique wineries, they sell a lot of bottles out of their tasting room. In the case of the upcoming releases, Ganum said he expects to sell more than 50 percent of the production direct to patrons. 

When you pursue this business model and you're comfortable with the work and satisfied with the money you're making, you don't need to mess around with expansion and debt. It also means you don't need to sell out to private equity or Anheuser-Bush. You're only concern is to continue making great beer that people want to buy and drink. Pretty sweet. 

Oh, I should mention the upcoming releases, Heart's Beat and Shades. Descriptions (with minor edits) from the press release: 
Hearts' Beat was brewed first using Chelan cherries from the Baird Family Orchards. These are dark and intense, so the plan was to showcase the fruit. To achieve that, we started with our usual process of using a very basic grist with aged hops for minimal bitterness, then ran the wort directly into eight casks that contained over 100 pounds of fruit in each. A blend of two different brettanomyces strains with some lactobacillus was added and the barrels sat for a year before blending and bottle conditioning, which began in July 2015. The high tannin level lends the beer a distinct edge that holds up well against the acidity, and the amount of fruit makes the beer drink much like a cherry wine, a character that is enhanced at cellar temp over typical beer serving temperature. The Hearts' Beat is not intended to mimic Belgian Kriek or any defined style, but rather to follow in the path of Fantasia as a beer combining elements of Belgian lambics, saisons and our own whims.

Shades also uses cherries from Baird, although in this case we're talking Rainiers, which don't alter the color of the beer. This is deceiving because it's loaded with fruit flavor, again employing more than 100 pounds per cask, although this blend only comprised six barrels. We used two different lots of cherries, one notably sweet and the other tart, and inoculated the casks with three different brettanomyces strains. The beer was aged and conditioned just like the Hearts' Beat, but we pushed the brett to produce a funkier aromatic profile with a bit more acidity. 
Both beers are named after a Charles Mingus composition from the album "The Black Saint and Sinner Lady." They are set to be released together as soon as we finish the labels, with most allocated to the brewery tasting room.
Upright also expects to release annual renditions of Fantasia, Fatali Four and Billy Mountain in the near future. Each will feature a new label for the first time since their initial release.

Things are good at Upright.

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