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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Craft Beer's Infected New World

Charles Coury was Oregon's first craft brewer. Most who stop by here know the name. Coury launched Cartwright Brewing in 1980, anticipating the coming revolution in beer. But his brewery lasted less than two years. It might be a different story today, for reasons I'll get to.

It's tough for modern beer fans to appreciate what Cartwright was up against. Brewpubs weren't legal in Oregon until 1985. So Coury couldn't sell his beer directly to customers. Instead, he sold to taverns, bars, restaurants and a few stores. It's hard to fathom.

Of the craft breweries that opened prior to brewpubs being legalized (Cartwright, Bridgeport and Widmer), only Cartwright opted to sell bottled beer. Coury evidently believed packaged beer would be the key to his success. But it didn't work out that way.

If you aren't aware, Coury was a winemaker who got interested in brewing. His brewery in Southeast Portland was quite primitive and, having come from wine, so was his attention to sanitation. He didn't have a heat exchanger, which meant boiled wort was cooled and fermented in open containers. Not good.

There's no mystery as to why Cartwright failed: The beer was often infected and not good. It was difficult to build much of a following when people consuming the beer wound up with contorted, unhappy faces. Infected beer has a way of doing that. Or did back then.

The impact of Coury's experiment on wannabe pro brewers was dramatic. First, they came to see the importance of well-made beer and believed it could be brewed if you built a brewery designed for that task. Second, they concluded bottling was a fools errand and were determined to avoid it.

Dick Ponzi, a friend and supporter of Coury, liked the craft beer concept and took on the challenge of making good beer. A winemaker with an engineering background, Ponzi built his brewery in an abandoned rope factory on Northwest Marshall. Along with his wife, Nancy, and brewer Karl Ockert, Ponzi founded Bridgeport Brewing in late 1984.

Kurt and Rob Widmer plotted a similar course. They put together their brewery on Northwest Lovejoy, determined to produce a quality product. The Widmers were experienced homebrewers, but their beer got a lot better when they went pro. By the time they opened in April 1985, they had tweaked their system and recipes to produce good beer.

In fact, the early craft brewers weren't interested in designer hops, specialty malts or frilly recipes designed to create buzz. They wanted to make good beer that was a step up from the macro garbage most people were drinking at the time. Which they did. And that's pretty much the way things stayed for the next 30 or so years.

Within the last 5-10 years, a shift began to occur. Blame younger drinkers, if you want. They became bored with traditional fare and started chasing experimental styles, up to and including sour beer, which is essentially infected beer. Icing on the cake is the recent Oregonian list of top local pilsners, upon which the top beer is said to be possibly infected.

You appreciate the irony, right? Infected, sour beer drove Charles Coury from business 34 years ago. Today, sour beer is all the rage. Apparently, Coury wasn't so much a bad brewer as he was a generation or so ahead of his time. Irony and timing are everything.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Heathens Build Brand, Eye Expansion

Sunny Monday was a perfect day for a quick road trip and a stopover at Heathen Brewing in Vancouver. I'd been up there several times before, most recently over a year ago. A revisit is always fun because you see progress. Heathen continues to expand its portfolio and reach.

You may recall that Heathen resides in a residential garage in rural/suburban Vancouver. Yeah, it's a little odd. Founder/owner Sunny Parsons lives in the adjacent home and has a short work commute. The area around the brewery, once heavily wooded, has been cleared and stuffed with McMansions. Progress, some might say.

A lot has changed since my initial visit in 2013. They were pretty small back then. Parsons and brewer Rodney Stryker did everything. But they made a name for the place with Transgression IPA, winner of the Battle of the Brews competition at the 2013 Oregon Brewers Festival. Since then, they've added employees. Stryker has been directing the brewing operation for more than a year.

Snooping around the brewery, I spied many more beers pouring. They've dramatically expanded the list and it covers a wide spectrum of styles. They're making a lot more beer, as well. The garage, once fairly open, is packed with fermenters. And they have five larger fermenters outside. Rodney said they have more than 200 barrels worth of fermentation space.

One of the goals they set early on was to have a pub, and they realized that goal last July with the opening of the Feral Public House in downtown Vancouver. It's an important addition because the brewery/tasting room is small and remote. The Feral House is the brewery's "best customer," I was told, consuming several dozen kegs a week.

The big surprise on my last visit was the barrel program housed in a facility near the brewery. This is Stryker's pet project and it has grown significantly. Heathen's barrel house is now home to more than 120 barrels of beer aging in wine and spirits barrels. At Rodney's suggestion, we conducted pH testing (wink) of several barrels. The program seems to be coming along nicely.

Heathen's beers are distributed by Maletis Beverage in Vancouver and by Point Blank in Portland. It isn't that hard to find their beer in bottleshops, beer bars and specialty stores on both sides of the river. Grocery and convenience stores are another matter. Current volume simply isn't sufficient to support ongoing sales in those outlets.

"The worse thing we could do right now is make the jump to stores like Fred Meyer and Safeway and then not be able to keep the shelf space filled," Stryker said. "That's a bad scenario in the short run, but it would hurt us more in the long run because buyers remember that kind of thing."

Which takes us back to the brewery, which will produce something like 2,500 barrels this year. That's a decent number, but the place is apparently woefully inefficient and takes a lot of time and effort to brew. And there's a lot of waste. Plans for a production brewery have been in the works for several years and will likely come to fruition at some point.

"I think we could probably max out at around 5,000 barrels a year where we are," Stryker said. "But I hope it doesn't come to that. We'll be in a much better position to support our growth when we have a production brewery. It's a huge investment, but something that will happen."

As documented in various publications, the Vancouver/Clark County beer scene has improved dramatically in recent times. What was once a bad joke has turned into something pretty cool. Heathen is part of that, one of a growing number of breweries that are putting Vancouver on the beer map. It was a long time coming, but seeing the progress is fun.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Record Store Day 2016: Beer To Drink Music To

It seems like there's a day for everything these days. It was Siblings Day last week. Then National Dog Day and Jackie Robinson Day. A lot of special days. Well, today is Record Store Day, and it has special meaning for a lot of us beyond the great promotion it is for independent record stores.

In case you aren't aware, Record Store Day was conceived in 2007 as a way to celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture surrounding nearly 1400 independently owned record stores in the US and thousands more around the world. The first Record Store Day took place on April 19, 2008. Today there participating stores on every continent except Antarctica. Pretty cool.

Over the years, a growing number of special vinyl and CD releases have coincided with Record Store Day. There have been in-store performances, meet & greets with bands, DJs, giveaways and much more. It's a way to honor and recognize the unique culture of the independent record store and the role they play and have played in the culture of their communities.

For me, the independent record store is important icon. My first real job was in a record store during college. The owner hired me because he kept seeing me in his stores and figured I might as well help out. He mainly needed someone to provide lunch relief and support during the afternoon rush. That was me. 

I would later manage two of the owner's three Budget Tapes & Records stores, spending more than six years in the business. This was during the heyday of record stores in the late 1970s into the early 1980s. These were important gathering places, often crowded with patrons searching for the latest thing. It was a cultural phenomenon.

Watching All Things Must Pass, a Showtime documentary that explores the history of Tower Records, I was carried back to the time when record stores were far more than just stores. Unless you lived through that era, roughly the late sixties through the late nineties, I think it's difficult to appreciate what places like Tower meant to the evolving pop culture.

It eventually occurred that I had no future in the record business. Unless you owned a store or, more likely, several stores, there wasn't any money in it. But it was always a fun business, watching the good and bad tastes of music fans in action and being part of the buzz connected to the business. I left for graduate school in late 1983, a move that more or less paid off. I guess.

The independent record store has experienced a sort of renaissance in recent times. Part of that, I think, is a reaction to the perceived cheapness of the digital age. Listening to music on your phone, iPod or computer doesn't provide the same experience as listening to a quality LP or CD on a good system. Some folks have chosen the better listening experience, which is good for record stores.

For me, breweries and beer bars are the closest approximation of the iconic record store in today's world. People frequent these places to expand their knowledge and participate in the social experience of craft beer. It's a pretty close parallel to what the record store meant to folks a generation or so ago.

Of course, beer and music are otherwise connected. You can't walk into a brewery or beer bar without hearing someone's soundtrack. The folks at Dogfish Head Brewing say music has been an important part of their mantra since the beginning. So I suppose it's fitting that, for the second year, they have produced the Official Beer of Record Store Day. It's called Beer To Drink Music To, a Belgian-style Tripel made with ingredients inspired by some of their favorite tunes.

It's not clear to me how many places will have Beer To Drink Music To. The list of possible locations in the Portland area is here. I do know Belmont Station is pouring it today and that you'll receive a cool Dogfish Head/Record Store Day pint glass with each purchase of the Tripel, The promotion starts at noon and continues until they run run out of glasses. Even if you're overloaded with glassware like me, this is one you may want to have.

There is, of course, a long list of Oregon record stores participating in Record Store Day festivities. You probably won't find beer in those scenarios, but they will have some cool promotions. As the disclaimer above the list says, not all of the listed stores are part of the various promotions. If you want to know for sure, call the store before you walk, bike or drive. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Profiteers and the Liquor Privatization Scam

If you pay much attention to alcohol and politics, you probably know big box grocers are again floating liquor privatization in Oregon. They've been chomping at the bit to get hard liquor into grocery stores for many years, and so far they've failed. And will likely fail again.

The current initiative would end state sale and distribution of spirits and allow beer and wine retailers to sell them. Under current law, spirits are sold exclusively by state-authorized retailers, while beer and wine is sold through grocery and convenience stores.

In fact, seeing the privatization effort ramping up, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission allowed liquor stores to sell beer and wine in addition to spirits beginning in 2014. But it wasn't enough to pacify grocers, who desperately want access to liquor profits.

The latest development is that the Oregon Supreme Court certified the measure, Initiative 71, for the 2016 ballot. That doesn't mean the bill is guaranteed to appear on the ballot. It simply means supporters can begin collecting the 88,000 signatures they will need by July to get the initiative on the ballot.

Ironically, the Court refused to allow initiative sponsors to revise the title and take out the portion that says it would "eliminate liquor revenue." Voters tend to be wary of language like that and sponsors wanted it taken out for obvious reasons.

The elephant in the living room with this bill, even if you happen to favor privatization, is that it would eliminate $200 million a year in revenue that goes to the state. Sponsors of the bill hoped to keep that issue in the shadows, hidden from voters. It didn't work.

If the initiative makes the ballot and is passed by voters, the Oregon legislature would be on the hook to fill a gaping revenue hole. It could recover the money in a variety of ways, but it might not be pretty. Under pressure from the grocery lobby, legislators might decide to shift some of the tax burden away from liquor.

Today, Oregon has the second highest liquor tax in the country at $22.72 per gallon. Only Washington is higher, at 35.22 per gallon. Coincidentally, Oregon has one of the lowest taxes on beer at $2.60 per barrel or about 8 cents per gallon. Some think it should be higher. Would the legislature opt to increase the beer tax as part of a plan to recoup the lost revenue?

When privatization came to Washington several years ago, liquor prices actually increased due to additional fees levied on top of the existing tax. It wasn't supposed to work out that way. We don't know what would happen in Oregon. Initiative 71, as written, is likely fatally flawed because it doesn't address the revenue issue.

Of course, revenue isn't the only problem.

One of the favored arguments of grocers is that privatization improves selection. That hasn't exactly been the case in Washington. While there are three times as many stores selling booze as there were in 2011, most focus on top brands at the expense of small guys, including craft distillers, who have largely been squeezed out in the rush to stock fast-movers.

Another argument is convenience. A serious flaw in the Washington law is the requirement that stores selling liquor meet a square footage requirement, a nod to the big box stores who bankrolled the legislation. Oregon's bill takes a different tact, making it illegal for gas station convenience stores to sell booze...unless they're attached to a large retail store (think Costco or Fred Meyer). That's convenient for large retailers, not consumers.

Costco, which spent $20 million to get the Washington law passed and now refuses to discuss its implications, hasn't jumped on the Oregon bill. That's likely because it knows the bill is so flawed supporters will have a tough time collecting the signatures needed to get it on the ballot. But the money floodgates will open if the measure does somehow make the ballot. Trust me on that.

There are certainly folks who believe the state needs to get out of the liquor business, that private enterprise is always the best solution. But there are reasons liquor is state-controlled in a number of states, and the OLCC does a decent job here. Do you really believe things will be better when more than a thousand stores, bars and taverns are selling booze to go? Think about that.

Finally, the privatization effort won't end here, regardless of what happens. Like the robber barons of the 19th century, the folks behind this effort are obsessed with transferring public monies to private pockets. They care nothing about selection, price or convenience. All these profiteers care about is money. And they will continue to push privatization until they eventually get it passed.

This is, after all, America. And money is king.

Update 4/27/16: Grocers have dropped their privatization bid. They will surely be back with a better bill in a future election cycle, but for now they're done.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Laurelwood Launches Workhorse 12-packs

Freshly into its production brewing arrangement at Full Sail in Hood River, Laurelwood Brewing is releasing Workhorse IPA in 12-packs of bottles. The new packaging will soon appear on shelves at Fred Meyer, Safeway and other retail outlets in Oregon and Washington.

The move marks another step in the ongoing evolution of the popular Workhorse, first brewed in 2006. It was released in 22 oz bottles a year later, then won the National IPA Championship in 2009. A highly successful six-pack release followed in 2013.

"The 12-pack launch is based largely on the success we've seen with the six-packs," Laurelwood co-founder and owner Mike De Kalb told me via email.

"We decided the time was right for 12-packs. It really has nothing to do with moving our production to Hood River. The plan was in motion before we exited our arrangement with the CBA and now we're implementing it."

The Workhorse 12-packs will be a year-round offering, available alongside six-packs of Workhorse and Free Range Red. There's also Red Elephant in 12 oz cans, which have limited availability, and seasonal offerings in six-packs, as well as a variety of 22 oz bombers.

"We'll roll with this lineup for a while and see how it goes, De Kalb said. "At this point, we don't have any plans for additional 12-packs of bottles or cans in any form. I think our packaged lineup is solid."

With competition for shelf space intensifying, now is a perfect time to get Workhorse out there in 12-packs. The move puts a fresh face on the Workhorse brand and promotes the perception that Laurelwood is continuing to evolve and expand options for consumers. Smart business.

About Laurelwood Brewing
Laurelwood is a family owned brewery whose beers have won national and international awards. Its handcrafted brews can be found on draft and in bottles and cans throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia, and Japan.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Yachats Brewing Will Help Transform a Sleepy Coastal Town

Last week's junket to the Oregon Coast produced flashbacks of a similar trip 47 years earlier. That 1969 trip included stays in Seaside and Cannon Beach, both of which were a whole lot less developed than they are today.

The first stop this time was Pacific City, where I hadn't been in almost 20 years. The place has grown up substantially in the interim. But it occurred to me that the Pelican Brewpub continues to serve as a sort of hub for the tourist crowd, just as it did before. Hang onto that thought.

Down Highway 101 some 70 miles is Yachats (pronounced Ya-Hots), a small and unassuming coastal community. It features a collection of h/motels and a handful of obviously independently-owned businesses in the quaint "downtown" core. It looks something like Seaside did 47 years ago.

To say Yachats is underdeveloped is something of an understatement. I assume the collapse of the timber industry and the slow arrival of tourism is the explanation. Located where it is, Yachats has largely escaped the gaze of developers and their ilk. But you can see that changing.

One of the things that will almost certainly help promote Yachats as a destination is the brewery that opened last summer. Yachats Brewing is located inside the Yachats Farmstore, which specializes in locally grown, organic produce, meats and more.

The Farmstore, founded in 2012, is the brainchild of Nathan and Cicely Bernard. Part of their plan from the outset was to install a 10 barrel brewery. Since last summer, their beers have been produced on a tiny 20 gallon system using (I'm told) carboys for fermentation. Hard to believe.

When I stopped in last week, only two Yachats beers were on, a nice pilsner and a Tripel that seemed a little off. Several guest taps filled out the lineup. They are apparently close to having their 10 barrel system operational, whereupon they will add additional taps for house beers. The gent manning the bar said they will probably always have some guest taps. We'll see about that.

The brewing operation is headed up by Charlie Van Meter (formerly of Sasquatch and Logsdon) and his fiance, Jenna Steward. How Van Meter wound up at Yachats is complicated and involves a connection between Nathan Bernard and former Logsdon brewer, Chuck Porter. Read about it here if you feel the need.

Once these guys are up and running at full capacity, expect to see some amazing beers here. The brewery may well develop the kind of reputation that will attract visitors to Yachats, similar to what Pelican has done in Pacific City and what we've seen in countless other places.

You have to wonder in some ways if Yachats is ready for what's coming. Not everyone who lives there (around 700 inhabitants according to US Census estimates) or visits regularly is going to be pleased with the added interest. Yachats is going to change and some won't like it.

The first problem Yachats Brewing will likely face is that the space, which is nicely done, isn't near big enough. It was barely big enough on a quiet Tuesday when they had two of their beers pouring. What's going to happen in a year when they have 10 beers and a reputation? Needing more space because you're busy selling beer isn't a bad problem, but it is a problem. Or will be.

As so often happens in craft beer, the owners will have to figure these things out as they go along. There are no free lunches and no guarantees, but this venture has the look of a winner in a place that needs this kind of presence. This brewery is a big deal for Yachats.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Lompoc Six-Packs to Hit Store Shelves

They may not get much coverage, but Lompoc Brewing is releasing beer in the six-pack format for the first time in its 20-year history. Six-packs of Pamplemousse Citrus IPA and C-Note IPA will soon appear on store shelves throughout Oregon and Washington.

Why, you may fairly ask, would they launch six-packs after so much time? The press release offers a partial explanation in the form of a quote from Lompoc owner, Jerry Fechter.

“The craft brewing market in retail stores has become flooded with 22-oz bottles. "We wanted to stand out, and provide our fans with greater options. Adding six-packs achieved both of these goals.”

It's true about 22 ounce bombers. They're everywhere. And the bomber market is increasingly occupied by newcomers and, in most bottleshops, by higher end product. Lompoc isn't a newcomer by any means and none of its general release bombers fit the high end profile. So what's the deal?

The deal is that established places like Lompoc face a steep challenge trying to stay relevant in a sea of shiny new breweries that have decent beer and massive social media games. Older breweries start to look irrelevant in that scenario, particularly in the eyes of younger drinkers.

Putting your beer in six-packs is more of a necessity than a cool option at this point. Six-packs are by far the most popular form of packaging in beer and getting six-packs of your beer on shelves is an increasingly important way to stay relevant. Old and new breweries are doing it, thanks in large part to advances in technology that make six-packs of cans and bottles economically feasible in brewpub-sized batches.

In fact, C-Note and Pamplemousse are excellent choices. They fit in nicely with the popularity of aromatic, citrus-forward IPAs. Fechter had a number of beers to choose from and surely chose these because they are exactly what consumers are looking for in 2016.

C-Note, the press release reminds, has been around for 15 years and was first brewed to celebrate the Horse Brass Pub's 25th anniversary. Why the Horse Brass? Because, if you didn't know, Fechter's partner in Lompoc was the late Don Younger, owner of the Horse Brass. Fechter has a zillion Don Younger stories and, by the way, C-Note has always been a damned good beer.

Pamplemousse is a newer kid on the block, arriving a few years ago. It's lighter in color and body than C-Note and leans on four hop varieties, along with grapefruit juice, to create a lingering bitterness highlighted by citrus notes.

These six-packs, packaged by a mobile bottler at the Fifth Quadrant Brewery, will supposedly complement, not replace, Lompoc's current lineup of bombers. We'll see about that. When Laurelwood released Workhorse and Free Range Red in six-packs, Workhorse bombers carried on, but sales of Free Range Red bombers flattened. Could something like that happen with C-Note or Pamplemousse bombers? We'll soon see.

The C-Note and Pamplemousse six-packs are now available at Lompoc's Fifth Quadrant and Sidebar. They will soon arrive at the Hedge House and Oaks Bottom in Southeast, and at the Lompoc Tavern in Northwest. In-house pricing will be $11. Grocery and bottleshop pricing may vary.