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Monday, April 30, 2018

Public Coast Brewing: A Dream Realized in Cannon Beach

The allure of craft beer sucks people in. They get the bug in their system and can't get rid of it. That's a partial explanation for the more than 6,000 breweries in the United States today. It's also why Public Coast Brewing opened in Cannon Beach.

Founder Ryan Snyder caught the craft beer bug three decades ago while living in Las Vegas and working at Holy Cow (now Big Dogs) Brewing. Craft beer was still in its infancy at the time, but Snyder got hooked and became determined to one day open his own brewery. 

Snyder, not a native of Oregon or Cannon Beach, moved here in the 1990s and joined his wife's family business. The family owns and operates a cluster of Cannon Beach properties, including the Surfsand Resort, the Stephanie Inn and the Wayfarer Restaurant. 

In 2004, they purchased Clark’s Restaurant, at the northern edge of Cannon Beach. Snyder coveted the location because he saw it as the ideal place for the brewery he dreamed of. But the dream was not realized overnight. The place was first known as the Lumberyard Rotisserie and Grill. 

"When we purchased the building, it was to build a brewery," Snyder told me in an email. "That was part of the original plan with the Lumberyard, which would have ultimately been a taproom and grill that served handcrafted beer. In 2016, we decided to make the transition and Public Coast became a reality."

Snyder (left) and Leroux in the brewery
The Public Coast story and philosophy were part of a by-invitation media outing last week. A small group of folks who cover Oregon beer happenings were invited to Cannon Beach to tour the brewery, sample the beers and hear all about the place. Events like this don't crop up very often. I hadn't seen the place and knew little about it. I accepted.

The beer objective at Public Coast is balanced, drinkable brews that cater to mainstream drinkers. Snyder is a fan of the styles that defined craft beer over several decades. Beer geeks aren't the target, although Public Coast does have a barrel program and some borderline trendy beers, such as a hazy IPA. The food menu also features simplicity...burgers, salads, fish and chips, etc. 

For his brewmaster, Snyder chose Will Leroux, a renaissance man and self-described forager, farmer and beekeeper. Leroux trained as a chef and got interested in homebrewing. He had a talent for crafting flavors, but no professional brewing experience prior to joining Public Coast. Fred Bowman, founding brewer at Portland Brewing back in the day, has provided assistance. 

There's a method to Snyder's madness, if you will. The culture of Cannon Beach was curated from within, not from outside, he contends. That's why he was determined to open a brewery, not a taproom focused on beers produced outsider the area. Handcrafted products cultivated from within the community and immediate vicinity are the central theme in his vision.

What that translates to in beer terms is some decent, if fairly basic beers. I enjoyed '67 Blonde Ale (winner of a Gold Medal in the 2018 Oregon Beer Awards), Northwest Red Ale and Oswald IPA. The Lager 321 had a fruity finish that didn't belong. The Imperial IPA (8.9%) was nakedly boozy and lacked backbone. The hazy IPA was decent, if unexciting compared to many I've had. 

Public Coast beer is not widely available. Snyder wisely realizes the pub is his profit center and has no intention of distributing his beer aggressively outside Cannon Beach. However, his marketing brain understands that drawing visitors to Public Coast will be easier if he creates some brand recognition away from the coast.

With that in mind, Public Coast has a canning program and is doing limited distribution of cans and draft in and around Portland, from whence a majority of Cannon Beach visitors embark. If you want to chase the beers down, there's a map with locations here. In a tasting, we found some disparity between draft and canned, generally, but not always, in favor of draft. But never mind.

Of course, Public Coast isn't the only brewing show in town. Bill's Tavern is the old-timer, having been at fixture for years. Pelican Brewing, which also has locations in Pacific City and Tillamook, opened its Cannon Beach brewpub in 2016. The competitive scenario is fairly typical of what we're seeing in craft beer, as the brewery count climbs. 

Strangely enough, Snyder doesn't view Pelican or Bill's Tavern as direct competitors. Say what? He sees them as restaurants that serve beer, while Public Coast is a brewery and casual meeting place with a limited food menu. He thinks that's an important differentiating factor.

That's a tough one. These places are all breweries that offer food. The primary discernible difference is that Public Coast doesn't offer table service. Nope. All orders are taken at the food counter or bar. Patrons take their beer or similar beverage with them and pick up food when it's ready, after being summoned. 

Some visitors may like this casual approach to service, but it seems out of place to me. Cannon Beach's economy is driven by tourism and a clientele that expects quality and service. It isn't cheap or grubby here. Fast food doesn't have a presence. Is that the niche Public Coast wishes to occupy here? I don't think so.

Snyder admits counter service hasn't exactly been a hit with customers. Some don't get it, aren't used to seeing it, maybe. Look, Snyder is no dummy. He and his family invested a lot in getting this place up and running. If the lack of table serve becomes a significant problem, I trust he'll make the necessary adjustment. This place is his dream, after all.

If you're headed to the coast, check the Public Coast website for hours. They're currently open Thursday through Monday, noon to 9 p.m. I have no idea if those hours change during the busy summer season. Check ahead for best results.

Note: My trip to Cannon Beach, including beers, dinner and overnight accommodations, was provided by Public Coast Brewing. Thanks to Ryan Snyder, Will Leroux, the staff at Surfsand Resort and the folks at Lawrence PR for the invitation. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

At pFriem, Reasoned Priorities Drive Success

Since it opened in August 2012, pFriem Family Brewers has built a reputation as one of Oregon's most prolific breweries. Whether you're talking about the best specialty beers, best mainstream beers or best brewpub experience, pFriem seems always to be in the conversation.

Friday evening, pFriem invited a group of media geeks out to the Hood River pub to provide a sort of progress report and hint of what's to come. We enjoyed beers, food and toured the brewery and barrel room. Later, we listened to Josh Pfriem and his associates discuss what they're up to.

Opportunities to casually mingle with industry stars like this don't come crop up all that often. When they do, you almost always expect some kind of major announcement. In this case, some of us wondered if maybe they would announce plans to open a pub in Portland. Or maybe they were launching a few of their beers in cans, the hottest industry trend at the moment, next to hazy IPA. Inquiring minds.

It turns out there are no immediate plans to open a pub in Portland. There isn't any rush because pFriem's Hood River location is already quite popular with Portland consumers. According to Josh Pfriem, something like 70 percent of their Hood River clientele comes from Portland. That's a fascinating statistic, frankly speaking. It means pFriem is a destination.

Think about that for a second. If pFriem were to open at pub in Portland, which would present a number of challenges and risks, the business in Hood River would take a hit. If people from the city are happy coming to you, why should you assume the risk of coming to them? At this point, given the state of the industry, it just doesn't make sense.

The question about cans yielded a similar response. Although they're seriously looking at getting some of their beers in cans, that's not the top priority. We see a number of breweries aggressively moving to cans, yet pFriem is hanging back, content to invest in other areas. My guess is we'll see two or three pFriem beers in cans within a year or so. Time will tell.

One of the most interesting factoids we collected Friday evening is what's driving pFriem's priorities. Josh revealed that their best selling beer is...the Pilsner. Close behind is the IPA. Those two beers account for about 70 percent of their sales. Keeping those pipelines full is a top priority. As such they are expanding fermentation capacity and improving other efficiencies in the brewery. Makes sense.

Of course, pFriem's specialty beer program is well known. It includes a list of mostly spectacular beers. They had just released barrel-aged Nectarine Golden Ale on draft in the pub and we tasted it from bottles after dinner. The beer is a major home run, I think, and will be released to the public this week. Don't miss it.

To advance their barrel and specialty program, pFriem will soon install a Coolship. That will allow them to tap the local, airborne fauna, such as De Garde does in Tillamook and Logsdon has done in Hood River. This is a significant step and I look forward to seeing the results. Just keep in mind that these beers take several years to curate. Patience recommended.

If all goes as planned, pFriem will increase its annual production from 15K barrels in 2017 to 19K barrels this year. Those numbers mean sustained growth in an industry that's getting more competitive virtually by the minute. Staying in that kind of growth mode is becoming increasingly elusive and requires meticulous attention to detail, to say nothing of expertise.

The big story here, it seems to me, is that pFriem has somehow managed to reach and satisfy casual craft beer fans and beer geeks. There aren't many breweries in Oregon or elsewhere that have successfully walked that tightrope. It isn't easy. Pfriem has done it with smarts, integrity and, yeah, probably a little luck. Sometimes, you make you own luck, my dad always said.

These next few years are going to be challenging and interesting at the same time. The cowboy era in craft beer is coming to a close. Success from here on out is going to require the kind of deliberate, well-reasoned approach pFriem has taken and is taking.

I suspect it's going to work out for them. We shall see.

Note: Special thanks to Josh Pfriem, Rudy Kellner, head brewer Gavin Lord, marketing guru Michelle Humphrey, and the other amazing staff who contributed to a splendid evening.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Surfing the Vancouver Spring Brewfest

Quick road trips are good for the soul. Even better when beer is involved. That's why I accepted an invitation to the Vancouver Spring Brewfest last week. All-in-all, it was a pleasant experience, maybe a little less wonky than some similarly sized Portland festivals.

This is the fourth rendition of the Spring Brewfest. I attended the summer version of this event a few years ago, but had only a sketchy notion of an established spring event. It seems organizers have been diligently working to further develop Vancouver's craft beer culture.

The venue seemed odd...a postage stamp. Looking through some of the media coverage, I learned previous Spring Brewfests were held in a larger space at the Vancouver Landing. That space was unavailable this year due to construction.

That precipitated the move to the brick plaza at the southeast corner of Esther Short Park. The summer festival, which consumes more space and features things like live music, is held in the main park. But the city apparently doesn't allow events of any kind on the park grass until May. So the Spring fest wound up occupying a tight space.

I visited in the early afternoon. It wasn't particularly busy for the first hour. But things were getting a little cramped by the time I made my exit a couple of hours later. Even then, getting a beer was no problem. There were no deep lines such as you see at many Portland events, just wads of people in groups mucking up the paths to the beers.

This event is billed as a showcase of local beers, meads and ciders, and most of what they were pouring was local. But a fair number of beers were from outside the local area...Bend, Ashland, Seattle, Enterprise. That's mostly just an observation. Knowledgeable craft beer fans want to drink local beer. There was plenty of that here, as well as some stuff that wasn't quite as local.

Without a wing person to share tastes with, I didn't come close to sampling the entire beer list. Good thing, obviously. I did seek out hazy IPAs and my favorite from those I tasted was Heathen's 50 Shades Hazier, bursting with hops aroma and flavor. Grab a pint if you see this one. No glitter beers in sight, thankfully.

The same old rule apparently applies when it comes to enticing Portland fans outside the city for beer. They don't come. I would normally see a lot of industry-connected friends at an event like this one. I ran into one such person. This was a Vancouver/Clark County crowd, which organizers likely expected, even if they hoped a few brave souls would cross the Columbia. Not happening.

Honestly, it's great to see craft beer continuing to spread its wings on the other side of the Columbia. Well-attended events like this one are a nice example of that. Craft's trajectory may have seemed inevitable here, but there have been quite a few stops and starts over the years.

It appears Vancouver and Clark County is in a solid groove now. Beer quality is improving, breweries and taprooms are opening. The area is no longer starved for good beer. Stars aligning.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Social Media and the Demise of Print

Last week's announcement that the Celebrator Beer News will cease print production was a shot across the bow of traditional beer publications everywhere. It was also a reminder that social media is the heir apparent of print and digital in the beer world. Not necessarily a good thing.

The Celebrator, founded in 1988, helped push the craft beer movement along in its formative years. As others have noted, you had to search for beer-related stories and information for many years. That changed with the explosion of the industry within the last 10-15 years.

That growth spurt spawned another one: There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of print and digital outlets dedicated to covering the craft beer scene. I'm obviously including the numerous blogs, like this one, that cover beer in a variety of ways.

There's certainly redundancy in a lot of this coverage. You read about a brewery or beer or brewer in one place and soon see a similar story somewhere else. As long as there was an audience hungry for information and anxious to read it, redundancy probably wasn't such a bad thing.

Of course, we all know print is in death throes. Newspapers and magazines are having a terrible time. The ones that have a good digital platform still have readers, but the ad revenue model of print has never transferred very well to the digital format. It's a financial calamity, actually.

The larger problem for print and digital outlets is that a lot of people don't read anymore. Blame technology, blame laziness. Whatever. The reality is that people prefer their information in small chunks. We're dreadfully uninformed as a result, but we don't seem to mind. Drink up!

The Celebrator, which may or may not survive in digital-only form, isn't the only beer-centric publication on thin ice. Beer Advocate, a magazine I've written for in the past, announced a while back that it was moving from monthly (10 issues a year, I think) to quarterly publication. I'm sure there are others we aren't yet aware of.

Print is being driven to extinction at least partially due to the growing power and influence of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram mesh almost perfectly with shortening attention spans and the evolving consumer preference for smaller chunks of information.

Social media is not a great fit for some businesses. The med-tech company I consult for is a perfect example. It hasn't yet figured out how to effectively use social media to leverage sales or customer relationships. I recommended serious exploration of that strategy 10 years ago. True story.

Beer-centric businesses, on the other hand, quickly saw the potential of social media. They realized young beer consumers are highly driven by social media. Attracting that crowd meant devising events and activities that could be promoted via those channels. That's what release parties, tastings, tap takeovers, festivals, launch parties, etc., are all about. You knew, right?

The appeal of social media transcends its ability to reach youthful beer consumers. It allows beer-centric business to reach customers and potential customers more quickly, easily and cheaply than ever before. That's a big part of why traditional beer publications are struggling...they simply can't deliver what a decent social media presence can.

What's the downside? The demise of traditional outlets means there will be less objective, informative reporting out there. Social media, a platform designed for short form promotion, is open to groupies and hucksters who sometimes have an interest in what they're promoting without that interest being apparent or acknowledged.

I readily admit that conflicts of interest can be present in any form of media. Some beer blogs are nothing more than promotional vehicles for brands willing to hand out free beer and swag. Social media, because it's available to virtually anyone with a following without regard to expertise or conflicts of interest, merely takes the concern for objectivity to another level.

But this is the course we've chosen, for better or worse. And maybe it'll work out fine. Maybe it won't matter that social media coverage is skimpy on detail and too often subject to conflicts of interest. Maybe.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Goose Island's Awkward Stab at Relevance

Goose Island Brewing was established in 1988. It was a proud craft brand for more than two decades, respected in its hometown of Chicago and beyond. In 2011, it was consumed by Anheuser-Busch, a buyout that wasn't exactly welcomed by craft beer fans. Of course, there were many more buyouts to come.

For several years, Goose Island rode the wave of craft popularity. Heavily discounted kegs of Goose IPA sucked up tap handles in bars everywhere. Never mind that the great bulk of that beer was and is brewed in AB factory breweries or partner breweries. Goose was hot.

It's all gone sour, of course, Goose brands have been taking a dive in grocery and retail stores around the country. The only brand in growth mode is Goose IPA, up 29 percent last year. That number, mainly the result of discounting, is a fraction of the rate at which the IPA was growing several years ago.

Goose Island is caught in the same downward spiral we're seeing with many of the regional craft breweries. These folks are struggling, in good part because smaller, local brewers are better at innovation and producing what contemporary beer fans want. You need to be creative and nimble. Large breweries aren't.

Big beer failed to see the shift in tastes coming. When they started buying up craft breweries, they expected to dominate the marketplace via mass production and distribution of formerly independent brands. They've actually had some success with that. AB's High End portfolio has done well, largely due to the power of distribution and discounting.

But the number of small local breweries cropping up all over the map is a stick in big beer's spokes. The little guys have momentum. They're closely connected to their markets and many of them specialize in small batch, experimental beers that tap the hearts, minds and taste buds of local and regional consumers. This is the state of the industry, like it or not.

Adjusting to the changed reality is proving a steep challenge for big beer, which includes regional craft and the Baby Buds. Even though Goose Island has well-known specialty brands, its national status renders those brands less relevant to consumers. Its mainstream beers, widely considered to be pedestrian and out of touch, face declining appeal.

Addressing that challenge isn't as simple as installing a small batch brewery and making small batch beers. That's the easy part. The larger challenge is winning back status and credibility. That's tough. And breweries the size of Goose Island aren't that nimble, despite being bankrolled by their masters in St. Louis, Belgium or wherever.

Nonetheless, Goose Island hopes to remake its image. First thing on the agenda was a canning machine. You may have noticed that innovation beers often tend to come in 16-ounce cans these days. Goose noticed. It bought a tiny canning line and hopes to exploit the can fad by rolling out small batch, experimental beers in its home market. Blanks with label wraps, anyone?

There's also help on the way for Goose Island's specialty beers, including Matilda and Sofie, which are underperforming as consumers chase local options. They'll likely revamp the packaging with new bottles and labels. Because when beers aren't selling, it's almost always the packaging. Who was it that warned us about breweries that sell packaging, not beer? Hmmm.

It's worth mentioning that returning to local roots is a popular theme in big craft at the moment. It's popular because it's about the only option they have. Consider the case of Widmer, still waiting for a fat AB buyout check. It closed the Gasthaus Pub suddenly late last fall and promptly opened a taphouse featuring experimental, small batch beers. Shocking, eh?

Like Goose Island, Widmer has watched its brands collapse across a wide range of geography. Both would like craft fans to forget their national aspirations and connections to big beer. Both want to be seen as being all about experimentation and innovation. Both see building credibility at home as a means of lifting their struggling mainstream portfolios everywhere.

But it's hard to imagine Goose Island's mainstream beers rebounding nationally. Or Widmer's. The sheer number of small, local breweries has altered the landscape pretty much for good. Efforts to reclaim and build on local relevance look mostly like awkward stabs in the dark.