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Monday, September 24, 2018

Oregon's GABF Connection, 2018

I didn't make the trip to Denver and the Great American Beer Festival this year. Last year was my first. I'll go again. Maybe next year. Regardless, it's always interesting to watch what transpires in the medal ceremony, some of which I watched via streaming. Surprises and trends.

If you're looking for summaries, look elsewhere. The complete results are posted on the GABF site and are sortable by state, beer, medal, etc. You can also find local and state coverage on The New School and Beervana blogs.

The first surprise for me was Omission Pale Ale winning a gold medal in Classic English Style Pale Ale category. What's odd about it? Omission is a gluten-reduced beer winning in a standard category. The lager version of Omission won gold in a standard category two years ago, so maybe the Pale winning shouldn't be considered a giant surprise. Still.

Another surprise was MacTarnahan's Amber Ale winning silver the same category. This beer is ancient. I used to drink a lot of it back in the dark ages. I don't consider it a pale ale, but nevermind. MacTarnahan's has won before in this category, but not lately. I sampled a bottle of it earlier this year and it seemed pretty solid. Anyway, good news for Portland Brewing.

It wasn't a surprise, but it was good to see pFriem do well. The brewery won medals for its Pilsner and Druif, a mixed culture specialty beer. More importantly, perhaps, pFriem was named Mid Size Brewery of the Year. Anyone who's been to the pub in Hood River or had their beer in any form knows this award is well-deserved.

Finally, one of Oregon's prime medal suspects faltered this year. Breakside won four medals in 2017, three in 2016. It's IPA won a gold in 2014. But no medals this year. This despite the fact that the brewing program there appears to be as solid as ever. Go figure.

Medal Explosion
With the number of breweries across the country rising almost exponentially, GABF competition has has added new medal categories regularly. There were 160 total medals awarded in 2000. The number ballooned to 239 in 2010. This year, 306 medals were awarded.

It isn't that hard to figure out why. The brewery count is approaching 7,000. We have a growing number of styles and substyles represented in the marketplace. A good way to to keep everyone interested and focused is to increase the number of available medals. Viola!

Just over 2,400 breweries entered the beer competition this year. The only state not represented was Mississippi. We don't know the number of breweries per state. That's info the Brewers Association doesn't release in my experience. We do know that about 8,500 entries were evaluated by 239 judges from around the world. That's a crazy amount of beer to taste.

Oregon's Count
With the brewery count expanding everywhere, I wondered what might be happening to Oregon's share of the awarded medals at GABF. The website provides a handy way to look back at past years and determine how many total medals were awarded and how many Oregon won.

I took a look at the medal count every third year over the last 12 years Why 12? I don't know. It made sense for the task. I wanted to see if there was any kind of obvious trend without plotting every year. Anyway, I looked at 2018, 2015, 2012, 2009 and 2006.

You can see by way of the graphic what's happened. In 2018, Oregon won roughly 7 percent of  the awarded medals. That was about the same as 2015 and 2006, but down from the better than 9 percent won in 2009 and 2012.

Looking at every year 2006-2018, the lowest medal count was 11 in 2007. The highest was 25 in 2013. So Oregon breweries are winning an average of about 20 medals a year, while the number of awarded medals is increasing.

Is there any kind of notable trend? Not really. The medal count has bounced around a bit. I'm going to guess a rate of around 7 percent will begin to look like the new norm due to the growing number of breweries, better techniques and improved beer quality. But that's strictly a guess.

Just for fun, I looked at a few states that have seen significant increases in brewery count from where they were in 2006. Texas and Florida are in that boat. Between them, they won just four medals in 2006. This year, Texas and Florida combined to win 25 medals. Big change.

There's also California, which has more breweries (more than 900 by the end of 2017) than any other state and has always done well at GABF. California won 16 percent of the awarded GABF medals in 2009, 24 percent in 2015 and 23 percent in 2018...a case of the rich getting richer.

Portland's Count
Taking this exercise a step further, I looked at what's happened to Portland's share of Oregon medals over the same period. Portland has been a leader in the craft beer renaissance, but Oregon has a growing number of breweries (281 at the end of 2017) and a lot of them are winning GABF medals. What do the stats say?

The answer is that Portland's share of GABF medals appears to be in gradual decline. Portland brewers won 42 percent of the state's medals in 2006. This year, the share dropped to 31 percent. Similar numbers pop up for 2012 and 2015. The decline looks worse if you include 2003 (which I did in the graph), when Portland won 57 percent of the state's GABF medals.

What does it all mean? It mostly means the craft revolution is expanding. The cities and states where the movement began and flourished have helped spread the word through the sharing of appropriate techniques and best practices. Craft beer is being assimilated.

The end result is that GABF medals are being won all over the country. Also known as good news for the industry.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Lompoc Tavern Closure a Sign of the Times

The news that Lompoc Tavern will soon close arrived Friday afternoon. I wasn't surprised. It has become increasingly difficult in recent years for established pubs and breweries to compete with a sea of newcomers that tend to have greater appeal among young drinkers.

In the press release announcing the closure, owner Jerry Fechter talked about the challenge of operating pubs in various parts of the city and said it's time to sharpen the organization's focus on the pubs they have left...Fifth Quadrant, Oaks Bottom and Side Bar.

"We're embracing this as an opportunity to invest more time and attention on the remaining pubs and brewery, and making them the best they can be.”

This is the second Lompoc pub to close within the last year. The Hedge House on Southeast Division closed late last year and is now home to Little Beast. Lompoc had been a major player in the Portland market for many years, but its status is apparently waning.

Recall that Lompoc Tavern is the descendent of the original Old Lompoc Tavern, founded in 1993. Fechter, who moved to Oregon from Ohio in 1989, got hooked on craft beer and homebrewing in the early 1990s. He wanted a brewing job, but couldn't find one.

"McMenamins wouldn’t hire me," he told me in 2013. "I never got hired."

He wound up working at Old Lompoc Tavern and they got interested in brewing in-house. He started brewing there in late 1996, marked as the beginning of Lompoc. The initial results were sketchy.

"The first batch of beer was called Erstfest," Fechter remembered. "It wasn't good, but that's how I got started."

Several years later, Fechter negotiated with the owners to buy the place. They worked out a deal that included all the appropriate numbers. At the point where everyone was supposed to sign, the owners backed out, saying they wanted more money. Fechter would need a partner.

"That’s how I got partnered with Don Younger," he said. "Don and I met and chatted over several months on barstools in various places and eventually combined to buy the place. We renamed it New Old Lompoc."

I never met Don Younger, who was a partner is several of the Lompoc ventures. He passed away in 2011, as I was starting to cover Portland's beer scene. But conversations with Fechter suggest to me that the partnership worked fairly well. Don was the wacky elder statesmen who knew the business; Jerry was the eager apprentice who took it all in, though they weren't always in sync.

"I didn’t know how influential Don was until I started talking to him," Fechter told me. "He knew everyone and had been involved in craft beer from the start. Don was a character, always coming up with creative and crazy ideas." Fechter has an archive of stories.

After Younger passed away, New Old Lompoc came under Fechter's control. But things were changing dramatically in the area. The building owner soon decided to demolish it and build something that's a better fit for the trendy Northwest neighborhood.

When it reopened in 2013, the Lompoc Tavern had been reconfigured to fit a smaller space. The antiquated little brewery was gone, which helps explain the name change. Changes in the industry were also putting pressure on Lompoc.

Portland's brewery count started spiraling dramatically upward around 2009. By the time Lompoc Tavern opened, the city had more than twice as many breweries as it featured only a few years earlier. Competition in the beer and pub business was stiffening.

The press release says the crowd that supported New Old Lompoc found other places to go during construction and never returned when Lompoc Tavern opened. It also suggests business declined because a number of jobs moved out of the neighborhood.

My own version is that a lot of options started popping up in the area. Breakside Slabtown, just a short walk from Lompoc Tavern, undoubtedly sucked business away after it opened in 2017. Other new places harmonize better with what the millennial crowd is looking for.

Lompoc Tavern's final day will be Wednesday, Sept. 26. The lease is being taken over by Tap & Table, which currently has a location on Southeast Ankeny St. There will almost certainly be a gathering of regulars and friends on that last day. Note to self.

There are those who will shrug at the demise of Lompoc Tavern. For them, it's a relic of a bygone era. That's one way to look at it. Another view is that a slice of Portland's craft brewing history is being displaced. There's an instructive tale here for established pubs and breweries.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thwarted in Portland, Ferment Opens in Hood River

Two years after plans to open in Portland fell by the wayside, Dan and Jennifer Peterson opened Ferment Brewing on Hood River's busy waterfront. The brewery and pub, which is just a hop and a skip from pFriem Brewing, opened in early August.

The Petersons originally planned to open their brewery in Portland’s Yard (Death Star) Building, near the east end of the Burnside Bridge. But those plans failed to materialize and they moved onward (and upward) to Hood River.

You suspect they're fine with the location. Dan Peterson was formerly head brewer at pFriem (2013-2015) and Full Sail (2010-2013). A microbiologist by education, he started his career at Brooklyn Brewing in New York, where he worked from 2003 to 2010.

“The concept here is a little different than pFriem,” he said. “I like traditional beers brewed with ingredients from the places where they originated. Whether it’s English, German, Czech or whatever, we strive to use ingredients native to those areas.”

Ferment's 20-bbl brewhouse was fabricated by Specific Mechanical Systems of British Columbia. They initially had two 20-bbl fermenters, and have added two more of the same size within the last week. The brewery is simple, old school.

“There isn’t a lot of automation here,” Peterson said. “I like simple controls and a hands-on feel in the brewery. To me, a big part of craft brewing is someone mindfully taking part in the brewing process. That was the concept with this setup.”

Peterson also believes in low ABV beers. All of Ferment’s Signature Series beers clock in at 6% ABV or less. The Premium series of bottle-conditioned and barrel-aged beers will include an expanding selection of higher ABV product as the brewery gets up to production speed.

During the time when they were hoping to open in Portland, Ferment was brewing at Zoiglhaus and Pints. That arrangement continued as they located the space in Hood River and began the construction process. That allowed them to work on recipe development and have a full set of beers available when they opened.

The Signature Series beers include: Czech Lager (5%), ESB (5.4%), India Pale Ale (5.8%), Dry Stout (4.5%), Biere De Garde Ale (5.8%) and White River Saison (5%). My favorites from the list were the Czech Lager and the ESB. But tastes will differ.

The building itself provides a unique presentation. The restaurant and taproom area is bathed in natural light and features a community-centric atmosphere with picnic-style tables and benches. Patrons can look down on the brewery below while sipping on a beer or enjoying a meal. Or they can see what's going on out on the Columbia or in Waterfront Park.

“It was a fun challenge to make a brewery work in this space,” Jennifer Peterson said. “We have a lot of windows all around and garage doors on the main floor. We made it all work by situating the brewery in the middle. Views of the brewery and surroundings were a definite consideration.”

An outdoor patio just west of the taproom is shared community space between the tenants in the building. It also features splendid views and Ferment is hoping the space will be available to beer sipping patrons. However, they had not acquired the necessary permit in early September.

The Peterson’s have modest goals when it comes to growth and distribution of their product, believing they’re better off selling their beer to patrons in Hood River than exporting a lot of volume in packaged form to a hyper-competitive marketplace. It doesn't make business sense.

“Once we're fully up and running, we’ll push a limited supply of beer out into distribution,” Dan said. “We’ll use 500 ml bottles for our packaged product. I’m not interested in chasing trends. I like the feel of glass. No liner to worry about. Beer poured from bottle to glass is elegant.”

Ferment’s food menu, like the tap list, features eclectic options and isn’t limited to a particular style or ethnicity. Locally-sourced produce and meats are the backbone. Jennifer Peterson, former part-owner of the now defunct Pine Street Kitchen in Hood River, was instrumental in developing the approach to food.

"We wanted to create a menu that would pair with a wide variety of beers,” she said. “The approach to food needed to mirror the approach to beer and I think we’ve done that. It is, of course, a work in progress that will evolve and roll with the seasons moving forward.”

One of Ferment’s pet projects is kombucha. While they were refining beer recipes and waiting for a space to materialize, they played around with kombucha. The result was several tea-based recipes that lean on simple, natural ingredients. Three brands are available on draft and in packaged form.

“We kind of fell in love with it,” Jennifer said. “We eventually decided to incorporate it since it falls into the ‘fermented’ category. It has great health benefits and tastes pretty good, too.”

For more information, visit Ferment’s website.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Promoting the Making of Flawed Craft Beer

It is certainly a truism that not all craft beer is good. There may be no better way to evaluate that statement than to have a bottleshare where people show up with random bottles, cans and even growlers. That was my Saturday. So much suspect beer.

That point was nicely made in a recent article by John Holl in the LA Times. In the article, Holl describes some of the negative experiences he's had with craft beer. Like the can of hazy IPA that exploded in his living room. Also skunky aromas, popcorn smell, etc.

Holl notes that he is often labeled a whiner when he brings up shortcomings in craft beer. That's part of the cultural worship surrounding the rising popularity of craft beer. Hardcore fans and geeks sometimes have a hard time admitting bad things happen in their pet industry.

Of course, a lot of us tend to look past the quality issue. Craft brewers make beer in hundreds of styles and (theoretically) thousands of flavor profiles. That fact has conned craft fans into thinking flavor equals quality. That isn't necessarily the case.

The big brewers are partly responsible for those attitudes. Budweiser, Miller and others reduced beer down to almost nothing in terms of flavor. Along the way, they became sticklers about quality, developing sophisticated systems to ensure that their beer is consistently tasteless wherever it is made. They had to...off flavors are easily detectable in the swill they make.

I'm not a fan of big beer or it's tasteless product. But I'm also not a fan of some of the garbage I tasted at my party on Saturday. We sampled beers that were corked, oxidized, under and over carbonated. We tried beers with floaters, beers that were too thin for their style or way too sweet. Ye gods.

You start asking yourself how there can be so much shitty beer. I'm quite sure some of the beers in question were old or, at least, not as fresh as you might like. You don't how it was stored or transported. Fine. But that still leaves a more than ample of amount of bad beer.

My question is simple: Now that craft beer has attained celebrity status, where can average fans find out what's good and what sucks? The collapse of print media has left a coverage void. Blogs might have filled it for a time, but blogs are losing steam. Where's the objective coverage?

There are obviously sources like Untappd and others that provide ratings based on aggregate input from many reviewers. The problem is, most average consumers don't use those apps or sites. Where's the informative mainstream coverage?

The answer is there isn't much of it. Instead, an escalating amount of craft beer promotion is happening on social media. Attractive, often scantily clad young female promoters are an emerging theme, particularly on Instagram. There's rarely any objective context involved, but this is one of the big new ways consumers learn out about beers and beer events.

I admit complicity. I sometimes post photos of beers that turn out to be flawed. Fortunately, my social media following and influence is small. Those with thousands of followers have a lot of impact with similar posts. Keep in mind that many of these folks are either paid industry shills or want to be.

When I think of all the flawed and borderline craft beer out there, I can't help but wonder if social media promotion, which tends to give brewers a pass, isn't partially responsible. Its promotional power is a boon for breweries, but it does nothing to push consistency and quality.

How does this get fixed? I have no idea.