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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Little Beast Grows Up with Pub, Larger Production Space

It's fun to watch the trajectory of breweries. Just over a year ago, Little Beast Brewing had set up shop in Beaverton. Fast forward to this past May, when they opened a pub in southeast Portland. Now there's a larger production space in the works. Times flies.

As many who follow along here know, Little Beast commenced operations in early 2017 at the former Bannon's Brewing in Beaverton. It was a convenient turnkey arrangement, allowing them to get up and running without having to invest in a brewery or renovate a space.

But co-founders Chuck Porter and Brenda Crow knew the arrangement in Beaverton would be temporary. They wanted a tasting room in Portland. As the brand gained traction, they searched the city core for a viable space.

They eventually found and negotiated a lease for the former Lompoc Hedge House on Southeast Division, which closed in late 2017. The Hedge House is located in a bustling area, just as they wanted. Getting the space ready took longer than they planned before opening in May. 

The reception on Division has been positive, Crow says. Some walk in thinking it's still the Hedge House. They're surprised. But most of them stay. Porter and Crow actually hoped to find a space that had previously been a pub or bar with existing clientele. It's working out for them.

The pub, officially the Little Beast Barrel House and Beer Garden, is a cozy indoor space alongside a spacious beer garden patio that will be user-friendly throughout the year. The tap list features the mixed fermentation, barrel-aged beers Porter is known for through his work at Logsdon and, now, Little Beast. Really fantastic stuff.

Although most of his beers cater to a geek crowd, Porter won't make the mistake of assuming all patrons want his specialty stuff. He plans to offer standards like IPA to satisfy the wishes of the non-geek masses. Several of the 14 taps were occupied by mainstream guest beers on my visits.

Besides draft options, patrons can choose from a selection of Little Beast bottles, available to-go or consume on premise with no corkage fee. That's an amazing deal because these are some of the best beers you'll find anywhere. No corkage is a nice bonus.

Crow, who has an extensive culinary background, worked with chef Tyler Auton to develop a menu that includes a mix of cheeses, meats, dips, sandwiches and salads. Items are designed to pair well with the Belgian-influenced beers. It's a work in progress and will evolve with the seasons.

While the pub gains momentum, Porter is busy planning to shift beer production from Beaverton to the former Drinking Horse Brewing space in Clackamas. The move will increase brewing and barrel space from 1,300 to 5,700 square feet, a big deal when you're dealing with a lot of barrels.

The move won't happen overnight. Porter recently acquired a brewhouse, which will take time to install. Then there's the regulatory hurdles. For now, they continue to brew in Beaverton while staging materials in Clackamas, where Porter hopes to begin brewing in a few months.

A juicy, not-so-well known factoid is that Porter will install a Coolship in the new brewery. He installed the Coolship at Logsdon years ago and brewed the first batch on it, so he knows what he's doing. It'll be interesting to see what comes of that project.

For me, an interesting aspect of Little Beast is the approach Porter and Crow are taking to building the business. They're on a deliberate course and have no interest in chasing rapid growth or massive expansion. I hear this a lot in craft beer, but I have a feeling they mean what they say.

We’re a family company, Crow says. It’s just the two of us. We’re far more interested in making and selling quality products than we are in rapid growth. In fact, I don’t believe in grow, grow, grow. I think it’s important to grow thoughtfully and that’s our goal.

Despite that mission, the ground is shifting beneath them as a result of the pub. Previously, outside distribution was their profit center. Crow ran sales. Now that the pub is their profit center, the old rationale has flipped. Crow finds herself functioning as general manager of the pub.

They'll continue to self-distribute outside the pub, but the footprint won't expand beyond Oregon and western Washington. Even at that, Crow doesn't have the time to manage sales. They'll probably have to hire someone to assume the sales role in the near future. Growing pains.

For hours and more information, visit the Little Beast website.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

At Last, Deschutes Opens a Pub at PDX

Thirty years after opening its doors in Bend, Deschutes Brewing marked the grand opening of a pub at Portland International Airport with snacks, toasts and a ribbon cutting ceremony on Friday.

The opening coincides with the 30th anniversary of the airport's Clocktower (located in the pre-security area). On Friday, there was a free beer tasting featuring some of the brews available at the airport. The tasting was part of a series of events planned this summer to honor the Clocktower.

Deschutes founder Gary Fish was on hand for the ribbon cutting. He spoke briefly to a small crowd of accidental tourists, media folks and officials connected to the brewery, the airport or the concessionaire company that operates essentially all of the businesses at PDX.

This is the second Deschutes location in Portland, following the opening of the brewpub in the Pearl District by 10 years. Fish highlighted the reasons why he and others at Deschutes Brewing have always regarded Portland as its most important market.

"Portland is the most important beer city in America," he said. "It has the largest craft beer market share of any city in the country, and it's our single largest, most important market. We focused on Portland almost from the beginning and the pubs here are a continuation of that effort."

The pub is a nice addition to the offerings at PDX. It's located in Concourse D in the space previously occupied by Rogue. In reimagining the look, they created a visually open and bright space. This is the kind of place travelers will appreciate. Success is likely to come pretty easy.

That was less the case back to 2008, when the Pearl District brewpub opened. It was a sketchy time. The Great Recession was in full force and the pub struggled initially. But it did well enough to survive and has flourished in a community that embraces the Deschutes brand.

To me, Deschutes is one of Oregon's most iconic brands, maybe the most iconic in beer terms. Most of the state's early craft breweries are no longer locally owned or they've jumped the track in other ways. Yet Deschutes stayed the course, always featuring quality beer, food and service. While remaining independent.

The story is nicely told in Jon Abernathy's fine book, Bend Beer: A History of Brewing in Central Oregon. In fact, Fish wound up in Bend more or less by accident. He wanted to open a brewery in Northern California. Competition and cost caused him to look elsewhere. His parents, fresh from a trip to Central Oregon, suggested he give the area a look. He liked what he saw.

You might think the rest is history, but there you'd be wrong. Despite the current size and reach of Deschutes Brewing, the operation in Bend was not a slam dunk success. There were growing pains early on and business was not always good.

"You could shoot a gun off in [the pub] a lot of nights and nobody would notice," Fish is quoted as saying in Abernathy's book. Some nights he sent employees home and ran the pub alone things were so slow. Fish chuckled and verified the accuracy of those comments on Friday.

Why did Deschutes finally open a pub at PDX? That's an interesting question. Fish described it as a long term project. Okay. As one of the most prominent craft beer brands in the state, I suspect Deschutes could and maybe should have established a presence at the airport long ago. Why now?

The answer is likely related to the overall state of craft beer. Large craft breweries like Deschutes are losing market share, particularly in distant markets. They helped create a demand that is today being increasingly filled by small, local breweries. Ironic turn of events, for sure.

As a result, larger breweries are turning inward and intensifying marketing efforts closer to home. We're seeing this in Portland with Widmer, Bridgeport and Portland Brewing, each of which is putting significant effort into reconnecting with local fans via specialty beers and events.

Deschutes situation is a bit different because they never really abandoned the specialty beers so many fans are chasing these days. For them, the airport pub will serve as a great marketing piece, a way to connect with and make an impression on travelers who are coming and going.

It seems like a smart move to me. I look forward to visiting the next time I'm in Concourse D.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

CBA Leverages Local Focus with Cisco in Portsmouth

As the Craft Brew Alliance taxis down the runway toward an eventual buyout by Anheuser-Busch, it continues efforts to reposition its brands as local. The most recent version of this trend is in Portsmouth, N.H., where the former Redhook pub is being rebranded as Cisco Brewing.

Recall what the CBA is doing elsewhere. In Portland, it shuttered the underperforming Gasthaus Pub late last year and replaced it with a tasting room featuring specialty beers. In Seattle, it opened the upscale Redhook Brewlab pub in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. They're also expanding Kona's brewing capacity in Hawaii.

The decision to end the Deadhook, I mean Redhook, run in Portsmouth makes good sense in the current craft beer climate. Redhook was once a brand with a national following. But the exploding brewery count has made local beer available everywhere and flipped the rules. Like a lot of regional and national brands, Redhook has been a loser in that scenario.

Cisco, based on nearby Nantucket Island, is a better bet in Portsmouth. It's a recognized local brand in the area and offers significant growth potential. They intend to lean heavily on an island theme in the reimagined pub. The CBA brass have learned via Kona, the crown jewel in their portfolio, that the island theme and connection to place is good for brand building.

If you're wondering how Cisco teamed up with the CBA, it's not complicated. The companies signed into a partnership arrangement several years ago. The CBA has no ownership stake in Cisco, although stories announcing the deal back in 2015 reported a 25 percent stake was being discussed. That never happened. Maybe it will now.

Anyway, the partnership gave Cisco access to the Portsmouth brewery, which likely had growing unused capacity as Redhook (and CBA) brands declined in appeal. The situation called for the CBA to do something to fill the capacity void and Cisco appeared to be a great choice. In a sense, Cisco is sliding into the space as Redhook slides out. The rebranded pub will make that official.

Cisco's core brands, including Whale's Tale Pale Ale and Grey Lady, have been brewed in Portsmouth since 2015. Having the capacity to brew and package those beers in large quantities helped fuel growth and expand the Cisco footprint. The portfolio continues on that path with the addition of Madaquet IPA and the newly launched grapefruit Gripah IPA.

The transition in Portsmouth, underway as we speak, evidently won't result in lost jobs. The current staff will retain their current roles with the rebranding. To support a smooth transformation, Cisco is conducting a branding "boot camp" for current Portsmouth staff this week. They have some fairly grandiose plans for this place.

When you look at this situation, you have to think the CBA sees a reflection of Kona in Cisco. Nantucket and Portsmouth aren't exactly tropical destinations, as is obviously the case with Kona. But Cisco's connection to Nantucket represents the kind thematic branding angle that has supported Kona's rise, as it did with Corona, for example.

The change in Portsmouth is a smart business move on the part of the CBA. It's stuck chasing the local theme that's dominating today's industry, and Cisco represents great potential. Pursuing that strategy fits perfectly with maximizing profits, which means the CBA will get a higher price per share in the coming AB buyout.

On the off chance that the expected buyout fails to materialize, well, further development of the local theme will serve as a rear guard action to keep the CBA viable on its own. You may question their motives, but don't make the mistake of thinking these are dumb people.

They aren't.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

About that Relentless Beer Events Calendar

Not that long ago, a few of us wondered what would happen with what was turning into a tightly packed calendar of beer events. This was at a time when there were perhaps 10 events happening in a busy week and we thought it was getting a little crazy. How naive we were.

We now know, obviously, that we were seeing the leading edge of the event madness that has effectively taken over craft beer. So many events dot the contemporary calendar that beer fans are forced to choose which one (or ones) they want to attend on a particular day.

Take Portland Beer Week, which is currently underway. Figuring out how many events are attached to PBW would be a neat trick. Because the calendar is packed with small and large events of all kinds, many occupying the same spaces in time.

We aren't the only ones with a beer week, by the way. Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Eugene and countless other cities have them, too. Beer weeks have become popular due to the fact that events are how craft beer is marketed in the frenzied social media age.

Don't misunderstand. There were most definitely beer events in prehistoric, analog times. You'd learn about them on the radio, in the newspaper or maybe on a poster. You'd make plans to attend. There wasn't a lot of fussing around involved because there weren't a lot of choices.

That approach has been largely blown away in our present context. Most of us learn of upcoming beer events on social media. If we're "interested" or "going," we get reminders as the event approaches. We also see which of our social media friends are "interested" or "going."

The event crescendo that has taken over craft beer could not have happened without two things: a young adult demographic that's enchanted with craft beer while at the same time addicted to social media for activity planning and communication. Boom.

The current reality is such a monumental change from the past that it's impossible to know where it leads. There's a chance next-generation drinkers may reject craft beer and/or social media. One generation's treasure is another's trash, after all.

For the time being, though, social media and craft beer are joined at the hip. If you want to build a following for a brewery, taproom, pub, etc., a decent social media presence is mandatory. Succeeding without that presence is a risky proposition.

Of course, not all craft beer fans bow down to the events calendar. Many still drink beer the old fashioned way in neighborhood pubs and taverns. But promotional events attract industry groupies and others who magnify the buzz that helps drive the success of brands and businesses.

It isn't even clear that well-organized events are all that important. Plenty of them promise a lot and deliver little more than a chance for someone to make money. Some Portland Beer Week events actually include an educational angle, but that approach isn't typical most of the time.

Regardless, the notion that event madness might somehow subside is pretty quaint at this point. The industry is where it is for good reason and it isn't going back to the ways of yesteryear unless there's some kind of dramatic shift or dislocation.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Change Left Slot – Sprint Right Option

If you're old enough, you remember exactly where you were when you heard President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. You probably also remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969 or when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980. For me, "The Catch" is one of those moments.

I don't recall what macro swill I was drinking at the time, so never mind. But I certainly recall watching Dwight Clark leap to catch the Joe Montana pass that gave San Francisco the lead and soon enough a victory in the NFC Championship game. The date was Jan. 10, 1982.

"The Catch" became instant legend around the Bay Area and in football circles. It was also a watershed moment for the NFL. Dallas had been the dominant NFC team during the 1970s. This game signaled a shift, as San Francisco would displace the Cowboys and go on to win four Super Bowls during the 1980s.

I bring this story up, of course, because Clark passed away yesterday at the age of 61. Far too young. He was struck down by ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, which evidently afflicts several hundred thousand people worldwide each year. Obviously, top athletes are not immune to this dreadful disease.

On that January day, I watched the game impatiently, uncomfortably in my Lewiston, Idaho apartment. Dallas had been so good for so long that a 49ers victory seemed improbable, despite the impressive play of Montana and company that year. For the record, I had become a nervous Niners fan after attending some games at Kezar Stadium as a kid. I watched Dallas beat some good 49ers teams in the playoffs during the early seventies. The memories made me queasy.

There were several lead changes during the game. San Francisco grabbed an early lead, but Dallas led 17-14 at the half. The 49ers jumped ahead 21-17 in the third quarter. Still, with a few minutes remaining in the game, the Cowboys led 26-21. That's when Montana went to work and led the Niners on the drive that culminated in "The Catch."

Reaching third and three at the Dallas 6-yard line with 58 seconds on the clock, Montana called a timeout. An animated sideline discussion with coach Bill Walsh ensued. The called play, Change Left Slot – Sprint Right Option, was intended to be a quick pass to Freddie Solomon, who had scored on the same play earlier.

Clark and Solomon were primary receivers, but Solomon was apparently the first option. When he slipped at the snap, the play's timing was blown. A strong Dallas rush flushed Montana deeper to the right than the play intended. Meanwhile, Clark slipped through the Dallas secondary and ran parallel to Montana deep in the endzone.

Many have speculated over the years that the backpedaling Montana intended to throw the ball away on the play. The throw was very high; I assumed it was a throwaway. But Montana knew where Clark was supposed to be. Joe was knocked to the ground and didn't see Clark make a superhuman leap and grab the ball with his fingertips. He only saw the receiver's feet come down.

There was an instant of momentarily disbelief inside Candlestick Park. I had a similar feeling at home. But the play was good and, after the extra point, San Francisco led 28-27. It's a forgotten detail, but the game wasn't over. There were 51 seconds on the clock and Dallas needed only a field goal to win. It didn't happen, but there were some nervous moments.

For longsuffering 49ers fans, the win was like the curtains opening on a bright, sunny day or a dense fog quickly lifting. After years of futility, the team had broken through. And they would be a dynasty for the next decade. That's why many fans, including myself, remember "The Catch" so fondly. I only wish I could recall what I was drinking at the time. Something bad, for sure.

Dwight Clark went on to help win two Super Bowls in San Francisco before retiring after the 1987 season. He later served in front office roles for the 49ers and Browns. Years later, Clark said he never tired of talking about or seeing the big play.

"I see that catch every day," he said. "I may sit and think about that moment a couple of times a year, and how awesome it was to be a part of that play and to be a part of the 49ers in the '80s."

As improbable as "The Catch" seemed, it pales next to yesterday's announcement that Clark passed away at such a relatively young age. He announced that he had been diagnosed with ALS last year, but news of his death is still a shock. He was a modern warrior, though apparently a gentle one.

We thank you for the memories, Mr. Clark. RIP