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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hipster Apocalypse Now

Perhaps you've heard of Mason's Brewing Company. They're a small Maine brewery that produces around 2,500 barrels a year. If you keep up with the beer news, you likely know they're currently a target of Anheuser-Busch and its ill-tempered offspring, 10 Barrel.

Mason's recently received a letter demanding they stop using the name, "Hipster Apocalypse" on their flagship IPA. 10 Barrel claims Mason's would be "capitalizing on the goodwill created by Apocalypse IPA," which has been brewed since 2009.

Owner Chris Morley was in the process of filing for a trademark on Hipster Apocalypse when 10 Barrel cried wolf. He says he plans to challenge the demand and is willing to spend a boatload of money if that's what it takes.

Sad to say, that's likely exactly what will be required. Because Morley isn't fighting 10 Barrel. That company ceased to exist when it was consumed by Anheuser-Busch in 2014. Today, 10 Barrel exists only as a captive brand of a behemoth that doesn't mind throwing its weight around the beer industry.

Morley rightfully notes that this is another great example of a thuggish corporation pushing a little guy around. For sure. A quick Untapped search revealed that “Apocalypse” isn’t an uncommon name in the beer world. Morley evidently pulled up more than 10 other beers across the country with “Apocalypse” in the name. Go figure.

The thing is, squabbles over beer names are becoming pretty common in this industry. It's a symptom of the fact that the brewery count keeps rising and creative beer names keep bumping into one another. Larger breweries typically send out cease and desist letters when they feel the need to bully smaller breweries that don't have the cash to lawyer up.

In this case, the suits at Anheuser-Busch hope to bully Mason's into using another name for their IPA. Mason's has only a small distribution footprint in Maine and Massachusetts, according to industry reports, but AB plans to dominate that area (and more) with Apocalypse IPA and prefers not to endure competition from any brand of a similar name.

Seriously, though, if anyone is going to be damaged here, it's Mason's. Because Hipster Apocalypse is produced in relatively small batches in a small brewery. And the packaging features cool, vibrant branding. Meanwhile, 10 Barrel Apocalypse IPA is produced in giant factory breweries and has bland, generic branding.

I don't know how much money Morley is willing to spend to defend Hipster Apocalypse. It probably won't be enough because Anheuser-Busch can spend whatever it wants and drag the case out forever if it goes to court. That's when the financial risk becomes too great for a small operation.

The sad thing is, bullies win too often in business. But maybe not this time.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Second Profession Brewing: Portland's Newest Brewery

There's a new brewery in Portland. Big surprise, eh? Second Profession Brewing is now open on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, taking over the space formerly occupied by BTU Brasserie. Owner Charlie Goman, a homebrewer with Wisconsin roots, hopes to build a following on the German/Northwest gastropub model.

Charlie Goman
The pub recently reopened under the Second Profession (I'll get to the name) banner and is operating on a limited beer and food menu for the next couple of weeks. They'll hold a grand opening bash Oct. 27-29. In the meantime, they're in soft launch mode, open Wednesday through Sunday, 4:00 to 10:00 p.m.

You may recall the defunct BTU, which operated for a couple of years as a brewpub with Chinese-style food. The food was better than the beer, but the owners were never quite able to successfully meld the business' two identities and the place floundered. Awkward.

Goman had been interested in starting a brewery for several years when he stumbled on the mothballed BTU space. He was bored with his career in copier sales and IT-related work. A whiteboard wish session suggested a future in brewing. A sign on the BTU door said, "Closed for Spring Cleaning," but the place was closed permanently and up for sale.

Goman jumped in, seeing a potentially great location with a brewery already installed. It's no small thing for a brewer to find an arrangement like this. It's similar to what happened with Charles Porter, who was able to access a turnkey brewery for Little Beast Brewing in Beaverton, relieving him of the expense of building a brewery from scratch.

For his part, Goman "loves beer" and "hopes to provide a unique experience" at Second Profession. If you haven't heard something like that a gazillion or so times, you probably haven't been around Portland's craft beer scene very long. Standard schtick. But it might just work out for him.

The revised pub layout is pretty much as it was in the BTU era. It's a bit brighter now, with white walls and modern-themed, German folk artwork. The brewery, a 7 -bbl system, has been cleaned up and tuned up with the assistance of brewery consultant, Marc Martin. It's ready to roll.

Three beers poured at a recent media preview included a Rye-IPA, a Pale and a Farmhouse Ale. All seemed decent enough. More styles are in the works,, including lagers, which were part of BTU's failed plan. The brewery's horizontal lager tanks are designed to make them and lagers will be a nice fit for gastropub fare.

Nonetheless, the future of Second Profession will likely be determined by food, not beer. Why? Because the clientele in this area is more likely to be driven here by food than by beer, regardless of how good the beer may be. Goman intends to offer what I see as stripped down German comfort food. We're talking brats, warm potato salad, garlic fries and a variety of greens. Simple stuff.

This clearly isn't going to be as upscale as Stammtisch or Prost, which is fine for the area and this space. Keep in mind there is no more Gustav's or Rhinelander down the street. That building was demolished months ago. Choices are somewhat limited in this corridor. A place that offers a simplified comfort food menu alongside decent beer has an opportunity to do well.

A potential obstacle is the oddly shaped and visually awkward space. I suspect it was a problem BTU struggled with. The place just looks odd when you walk in, with the bar jutting out into the seating area. To me, the layout is better-suited to a casual pub than a more formal restaurant. So it could work out here. If patrons come, the relatively small size of the space may become an issue. That's a problem Goman would like to have, but we'll have to see how it goes.

The name has been the subject of a social media thread and blog post. It is not particularly well-imagined in my mind. Goman's description of how he came up with it makes good sense...he sees the place as his second career or profession. It's personal. But Second Profession has little pizzazz. It's not a name that conjures up much excitement. Nope.

Of course, it could be worse. As someone on social media commented, the place might have been called Oldest Profession Brewing. That's going to happen one of these days, as the industry gets edgier and edgier. You heard it here first.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Denver's House of Sky: GABF '17

Published in 1978, Ivan Doig's This House of Sky presents a memoir of his life growing up in the Big Sky country of Montana. I was reminded of the book title as I traipsed around Denver last weekend. Denver isn't Montana, obviously, but even in the downtown area, you have the sensation of a very broad horizon.

It took some time for me to fully absorb my experience at the Great American Beer Festival. I was warned upfront that the event is huge and unwieldy, so that part wasn't unexpected. But some aspects of the festival I didn't anticipate.

The Drinking
Having attended the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland a couple of  years ago, I figured GABF to be more of a giant trade show focused on beer than strictly a beer festival. I was correct. Although there was plenty of beer in the Convention Hall, there were also countless vendors showing off a variety of mostly beer-related wares. Trade show.

I attended Friday evening and Saturday afternoon drinking sessions. The Thursday evening session was out because I wasn't arriving in Denver until too late. My initial plan, on the advice of folks "in the know," was to attend only the early Saturday session. I wound up there Friday evening because I had nothing better to do.

In fact, the Friday session was less of a mess than Saturday afternoon. The crush of beer fans after the Saturday morning awards ceremony created near-gridlock conditions. Getting to medal winners or specific beers you wanted to taste often proved difficult due to congestion. There were just too many bodies in too little space, evidently not a new problem for this event.

What could they do to make it a little less of a shit show? It seems to me they either have to reduce the number of tickets sold or increase the amount of floor space. Because the layout isn't the problem. I do think it's unfortunate that there is very little sitting space, but that sort of fits with the GABF being more of a trade show than an actual festival.

The Awards
I wasn't sure what to expect at the Saturday morning awards ceremony. They eventually handed out medals in 99 style categories, plus the awards for breweries the year in several sizes. I'd watched the GABF awards before via streaming and still had no idea how they would handle the girth of the competition in a realistic amount of time.

Things got off to an awkward start when a large contingent of folks couldn't enter the ballroom because there wasn't enough seating. A number of these folks were hungover or still drunk from a night of imbibing. But never mind. Some stayed in the outer concourse, where the awards presentation could be seen on a screen. Others came in and stood or sat on the edges of the room. Not ideal.

The 99 categories have some redundancy. Follow this link and sort by style if you want to get a feel for that. It's over-the-top to me. But I get it. The Brewers Association wants to keep everyone interested even as the brewery count skyrockets. To do that, they spread the love by adding style categories. There were 12 in 1987, 34 in 1994, 70 in 2006. You get the idea.

It reminds me of my tournament racquetball career. In the old days, you played A, B, C, D or Open. Maybe there was a Masters division. Later, tournament directors added A/B, B/C and a hoard of age group divisions. More people got medals, which kept them playing and coming back. But tournaments became unmanageable. Craft beer appears headed down a similar path.

Navigate to the Beervana site if you want more detailed info on entries by state and winning percentages. There's no reason for me to redo or rethink what Jeff has already done. His piece is based on numbers the Brewers Association grudgingly provided and that were incomplete. There's a bizarre aura of secrecy permeating this organization, unfortunately.

Oregon's big winner was Sunriver Brewing, which collected gold medals for Cinder Beast Red and Fuzztail Hefeweizen, as well as Small Brewery of the Year. Breakside, as usual, entered the fray with four bronze medals, including a bigly one in the IPA category, which had 408 entries. Sort the winners list by state if you want the complete story.

The Miscalculations
When I received the invitation to apply for GABF media credentials, I didn't think much of it. Only after I gave it some thought did I decide to apply. After my application was approved, I had to decide if I would actually go. A credential only gets you into the festival. The main cost is getting and staying there. Is it worth it?

A friend and fellow writer advised me that he had been to GABF twice, which he figured was one time more than required. I laughed. But I hadn't been and always wanted to go, so I started looking at airfares and hotel rates. Shortly, travel arrangements were made; later I altered them so I would have two full days in Denver. That seemed about right.

There were misques. I didn't coordinate schedules with anyone and I wasn't staying close enough to the Convention Center to randomly join in. I hoped to enjoy some events outside the festival and maybe visit some breweries. Didn't happen. When you don't know your way around, you need to hook up with a group or have a specific plan of action. Significant whiffs on my part.

Of course, it likely didn't matter. The GABF crowd, the industry part of it, anyway, is considerably younger than me. Most places were routinely packed with kids. Although I don't have anything against them, I don't really fit in. That's become more and more apparent over the course of the past year for reasons I don't need to get into here. Nothing to do about it.

Would I return to GABF? Unlikely. If I did, it would only be as part of a group of like-minded folks staying in relatively the same area with plans to attend specific events and visit a list of places. The reality is, much of the action at GABF takes place outside the Convention Center. You need to set yourself up to experience at least some of that stuff.

Regardless of my experience, I have no problem recommending GABF to anyone who hasn't gone. Denver is a terrific city and the spectacle that is GABF is worth seeing. Once, if not twice. 🍻

Monday, October 9, 2017

Gene Clanton, Mentor and Friend

I was slightly woozy Sunday evening, having just returned from a long weekend at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. I'll be posting a commentary on that experience in due time. Because something more important happened and my priorities changed.

Spooling through social media posts, I learned my old friend Gene Clanton passed away Sunday morning. I was surprised, not shocked. Gene was 83, but I knew he had moved from Pullman to North Carolina earlier this year. He had family there. I never asked, but I suspected he was ill.

I first met Gene in 1976 while an undergraduate at Washington State University. He became one of the most significant influences in my approach to thinking and writing. If you see anything you like in these pages or in the articles I write for various publications or in my book on Portland's beer history, it's largely due to Gene's influence. He did not teach me how to write. That I learned. He taught me something far more important...how to think.

He was teaching a History 210 class on the JFK assassination when we met. I was as intrigued by the topic as he was and we quickly developed a rapport. I would stop by his office to talk even after the semester ended. Two years later, I took an upper level class focused on the same topic.

We lost touch after I graduated in 1979, but renewed our connection when I entered graduate school in 1983. The History graduate program was quite small, which gave students the opportunity to become well-acquainted with professors. Having known Gene before, we took up right where we left off.

As I navigated the program, I eventually chose to work with another professor, Ed Bennett, on a diplomatic topic for my Masters. Gene was on my MA committee and never voiced a concern about that choice, though I'm sure he thought I should have delved into something more serious. It was his style not to meddle.

I finished my MA in 1986. Soon thereafter, I had to decide what to do about a PhD. I decided I would work with Gene on an unspecified Cold War topic. We had many discussions about possible research paths and scenarios. But I became wary of the projected PhD job market and realized I would probably never complete the program. Gene had to have known, but he never said a thing.

While I was bumbling on in the PhD program, I decided to circle back and get a high school teaching credential. Gene, who had taught at the high school level and knew the downside, told me what to expect, but refused to push back. When I started writing opinion pieces for the Daily Evergreen, he frequently hit me up with suggested topics. Here and there, I chose to use them.

Gene was a gentle soul, but he was not a wimp. They had a policy of reviewing the work of graduate students in the History department each semester. At the end of one semester, someone in the department issued an unfavorable review of my work. The problem was, I had only worked with Gene that semester. It was a "scandalous normality," he said. The negative comment, we knew, was political, an inappropriate reaction to my opinion writing in the Evergreen. We challenged the Director of Graduate Studies, who hid like a baby behind his desk and refused to explain.

After I left WSU at the end of 1988, my PhD plans were shelved, for good as it turned out. But I kept in touch with Gene through his retirement in 1997 and beyond. We exchanged letters, phone calls, emails and, eventually, social media banter. I visited when I was in the Palouse country and he once flew his plane to Vancouver for lunch.
Senior picture, 1952
I had a particularly poignant visit in September 2008. Gene and his wife, Jane Ann, were living in a duplex in Northwest Pullman. She was ill with some form of dementia and he was determined to care for her as long as he could. I had met Jane Ann during my graduate school years, but she didn't know me well. While Gene was off collecting some item, she whispered to me, "He's a really good guy." Of course. Jane Ann passed away in 2014 and I don't think he was ever the same.

Sadly, I didn't see Gene often enough in recent years. My trips to the dry side were reduced after I was laid off in 2009. I met him at a Pullman watering hole several years ago and we had a great conversation over several craft beers (this is a beer blog, after all). One of my biggest regrets is missing a planned meetup with him last October. I misjudged my arrival time at the pub where we were to meet and he had gone. Efforts to connect by phone flamed out. Now he's gone. Damn.

Gene's published works on the Populist movement of the late 19th century, his specialty, are highly regarded in the academic community. He was a meticulous researcher and thinker, and I believe his body of work is and will remain relevant to historians investigating Populism or that period of American history. I believe Jane Ann assisted him in that work. That's how they rolled.

I never met Gene's two kids, Spencer and Kimberly. They would have been young adults during the years when I was closest to Gene. There are apparently grandchildren and great grandchildren. To the family, to the former students and colleagues he touched during a celebrated teaching career and to the friends he leaves behind in Pullman and elsewhere, we are left with only the memories.

We've lost a fine man.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Questions, Thoughts on the Road to GABF '17

I'm packing my bag for a few days in Denver and wondering what the Brewers Association will have to say about the challenges facing craft beer. The industry is still growing, but growth is slowing and there are some dank undercurrents swirling around in the background.

One challenge is the blurring of what craft beer is, a reality in the wake of buyouts that have happened over the last few of years. It used to be easy for consumers to identify and differentiate craft beer and fake craft beer.

Things have gotten more complicated as craft beer has gone mainstream. We now have a large pool of craft consumers, many of them not particularly experienced or knowledgeable, looking at shelves and tap handles with almost unlimited choices. It's easy to get lost.

Obviously, the Brewers Association has rules about what constitutes independent craft beer. But those rules are relatively unknown outside the geek crowd and, anyway, a lot of consumers couldn't care less about who owns the brewery that makes the beer they drink.

The Brewers Association's recent response to this quandary is the Independent Craft seal shown above. Qualified breweries can acquire the seal and put it on packaging, post it around their pub or brewery and use it in other ways. Some 2,000 independent craft breweries are evidently using the seal, according to this report.

Naturally, there are differences of opinion regarding the value of the seal. Some don't like the design. They wanted something fancier. Terrific. For its part, big beer complains that consumers don't care who makes their beer as long as it's quality. Dandy. And not really a surprise.

I'll be interested to hear what more the BA has to say about the seal and their continuing effort to promote independent craft beer by making it easier for consumers who care to differentiate between independent and non-independent craft. Enough said.

A far more serious issue is the slowdown that's currently in motion. I'm reading reports of significant cutbacks and restructuring of sales organizations at regional and larger craft breweries. These reports are appearing in some of the pro newsletters and are pretty reliable.

The slowdown at larger craft breweries is a symptom of the explosion in the number of breweries...more than 5,000 by the end of 2016. Craft beer, which derived fast growth largely via large regional breweries for many years, has gone local. Consumers can in many cases find the beer they want in or near their neighborhood.

I'm not sure many of us predicted that trajectory. Not that long ago, we were watching big craft brands like Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and others put up exponential growth numbers. There was no apparent end in sight. But things have shifted, driven by consumer tastes for local beer.

This development has put a squeeze on large breweries and, as discussed here recently, extends to some established, smaller breweries. One of the reports I'm reading says New Hampshire-based Smuttynose, which sold 51,000 barrels in 2015 and invested $18 million in a new brewery to support additional growth, has laid off staff and encouraged others to pursue other opportunities.

The theme at work is that large and small breweries are having a tough time selling their beer in distant markets, where we have to assume new, local breweries are soaking up share. Smuttynose is responding to that challenge by actively shrinking its distribution footprint. It isn't alone.

This situation is creating anxiety in the industry. What's going to happen to breweries that assumed debt to finance the brewery expansions that are now underutilized due to declining sales volumes? That's certainly the case with Smuttynose. What happens to that capacity? What about the debt, in cases where that's an issue?

I'm not sure the Brewers Association will have much to say about the emerging reality. It has actively encouraged the culture of new breweries, despite the fact that large regional breweries have been the primary growth drivers. Now things have shifted and some in the industry have painted themselves into corners. Not ideal.

Maybe there's a masterplan I'm unaware of. We shall see. For now, it's time to finish packing my knapsack and prep for travel. I understand the beer in Denver is lovely this time of year. 🍻