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Thursday, August 4, 2022

Downsized OBF Lurches Toward Uncertain Future

After a two year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Oregon Brewers Festival returned to Waterfront Park this past weekend. This is undoubtedly the most important festival in the history of Oregon craft beer. It's always on my calendar, despite the fact that many of my compadres no longer consider it relevant.

Declining attendance in recent years has helped reinforce the notion that the event is, in fact, irrelevant. But OBF remains the largest beer festival in Oregon, one of the largest in the country. Even with declining attendance, an event like that isn't really irrelevant...until numbers drop to the point where the event is simply canceled. 

I was interested to see what changes organizers would make this year, particularly given the two year pandemic hiatus. They implemented some fairly dramatic changes to address drooping attendance in 2019. This year turned out to be more of the same, although the changes weren't all positive in my mind.

Reduced Days
They cut the festival down to three days this year...Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Many will recall that the fest was four days in 2018 and 2019, after being five for several years. Abandoning Sunday again, as they had done in 2019, was a good call; Sunday had notoriously dreadful attendance for years before it was finally dropped. Wednesday was dropped this year to get the event down to three days, I assume due to attendance woes. No complaints.

The Venue
One of the big changes in 2019 was switching the southside beer taps to the river side of the park, thus opening up the shaded area on the westside of the park for seating. In past years, trailers were situated in the shaded area. 

The 2019 setup was repeated this year. In fact, organizers liked the arrangement so much they eliminated the northside beer taps altogether and moved the entire beer portion of the event to the southside. Yup. The festival grounds were cut roughly in half this year. 

I suppose it was inevitable that the footprint of the festival grounds would be squeezed, given the issues with attendance. But it felt a little odd walking into what had been the central compound and seeing open space where tents and trailers had always been on the northside. 

I wondered how the vendors in that central area were doing. There was definitely less foot traffic there, with the vast majority of people augured in on the southside under the tents or in the shade. Perhaps those vendors paid less for the privilege of being there this year. One can only hope.

Moving the entire beer portion of the event to the southside had it's pluses and minuses. The tents in front of the trailers were larger this year, providing more shade. But the extreme heat and number of bodies under those tents made it rather uncomfortable there. You really needed to vacate the tents once you had a beer, though many did not. The lines weren't bad Thursday afternoon. I'm glad I wasn't around to see what it was like in the evening hours.

When I was looking for a beer at one point, I was surprised to find I couldn't see the beer names until I was close to the taps. As a result, people were often confused about which line to be in. At first I thought the larger tents were responsible, but that wasn't it. In 2019, they had large signs immediately behind each pouring station identifying the beer being poured. Those signs were visible and readable from a good distance. But this year's signs were cheap and small, and they were hung so high that you couldn't see the beer name until you got close. That was not ideal. It's hard to imagine why no one caught it when they were setting up. 

Another change this year was no music of any kind. For most its history, OBF had a stage with bands/solo artists playing live music. You could chill with a beer and listen if you pleased. In 2019, they switched to a DJ setup that pumped music around the grounds. That was an annoying change, as the music was often muddled or too loud. Anyway, problem solved this year: No music or stage. 

Finally, I was surprised to find several rows of standup tables in the common area just north of the beer tents. With the heat and direct sunlight, these tables were uninhabitable during afternoon hours. I stood at one to jot down some notes at one point and didn't return. Tables with umbrellas would have been better, given the heatwave everyone knew would be part of the festival.

The Beers
They were pouring 42 beers and two ciders according to the event program. I saw a bit of bitching and moaning about the beer selection on social media. I looked at the list in advance and didn't think much of it. But I found some pretty good beers in the 15-20 I tasted, along with the usual losers. The list leaned toward light and hoppy, which surely disappointed folks looking for more options.

After holding the line on cost for many years, they moved to a $2 taster (most beers) this year. No one should have been surprised, as prices on everything have skyrocketed since the pandemic. OBF taster size has varied over the years. In 2019, the taster line was 3 ounces. This year, it was 4. The larger tasting size probably allowed some patrons to feel less aggravated by the price increase. Fifty cents for an ounce of beer is a premium price, but it would have been worse if they'd stayed at a 3 ounce taste.

You could get a full glass of beer or cider if you were so inclined. That would set you back three tickets or $6. The glass, billed at 12 ounces and exactly the same size and form factor as 2019, overflows at less than 12 ounces. So a full glass of beer or cider with any head at all is going to be 10-11 ounces. Do the math if you wonder how much worse of a deal that is than a 4 ounce taster. 

As was the case in 2019, there was a printed program this year. They had a mobile app in 2018, but reviews were mixed. I was one of those who actually liked the mobile app and was disappointed to see it go away. But the fact that the 2022 beer list was roughly half of what it was in recent years meant the printed program worked fine. I suspect it's here to stay, unless something dramatic happens.

The Glass and Token Switch
It's become pretty common for beer fests to charge exorbitant prices for "customized" tasting vessels. These plastic glasses aren't special or fancy. OBF has been charging $10 for the tasting glass in recent years. Unless someone shows me an invoice proving otherwise, I assume these glasses cost much less than a dollar apiece. So the glass is nearly pure profit for this and every event that follows the blueprint. The fact that OBF isn't alone in this fleecing doesn't make it okay. 

After using wooden tokens for virtually the entire history of the event, organizers switched to paper tickets this year. They were $2 each to align with taster cost. Most beer centric events have gone to some kind of paper ticket. They're undoubtedly cheaper and easier to manage than wooden tokens. I always liked the charm of tokens, which I found easy to keep track of in a pocket. Oh, well.

The transition from tokens to paper tickets presented an opportunity for organizers to make what I consider to be a dumb unforced error. OBF had always honored tokens acquired at past events. You could simply use old tokens as if they were newly purchased. It was a nice policy. But not this year. With the switch to tickets, past tokens had to be exchanged for paper tickets.

Organizers initially said they would trade tokens for tickets, one to one. That would have been a nice gesture to fans who held onto tokens, getting a $2 ticket for each $1 token. But organizers reneged, saying the initial communication was a mistake. Having botched that communication, doubled the price of a taster and downsized the event across the board, organizers might have been wise to suck up whatever loss they would have incurred in exchange for a little goodwill. No deal.

One thing to keep in mind with respect to tickets: I'm guessing the ones from 2022 won't be honored at any future event, as was the case with tokens. There's a financial benefit to not honoring tickets from past events and it mirrors the reason retailers like gift certificates, knowing full well some or many will never be redeemed: Pure profit! That probably isn't the only reason tokens are being dumped, but it's almost certainly one of them.

OBF 22 felt to me like a dumbed down experience at a higher price. For many years I considered the event to be a decent bargain in terms of time and money. But they've altered its character to the extent that, in its current form, it doesn't represent the value it once did. At least in my mind.

I suppose this year's event could be an aberration. The pandemic created a lot of challenges for beer fests and similar events. Plus, OBF organizers have been struggling for several years to come up with ways to reverse sliding attendance. Maybe this year was a perfect storm.  

My guess, though, is this was a glimpse into the future. OBF once appealed to a wide swath of people. Attendance was growing rapidly for so many years that the event expanded to five days. Some of us thought it would eventually consume an entire week. Instead, the event is imploding, forced to downsize while boosting prices. That isn't a winning strategy.

Honestly, OBF may be approaching obsolescence. The vision at the outset was to provide a platform for craft brewers to showcase their wares. People didn't know much about craft beer in those days and OBF helped change that. That brought the industry into the mainstream. Today, you can find great beer at an endless number of bars, restaurants, taprooms and breweries. 

You might say OBF is victim of a success story it helped author. With great craft beer available everywhere, people don't get as excited about an oversized, awkward event. And the downsizing and price boosting that occurred this year probably aren't a good omen for the future.  

Friday, April 8, 2022

Precious Things Offers Stunning, Welcoming Experience

Reliving the quaint past of craft beer can be interesting...and instructive. Cash laden investors and hedge funds hadn’t yet entered the scene. Early craft brewers were stuck cobbling together makeshift breweries with their personal savings and borrowed money. Craft beer hadn’t yet arrived. 

On a recent trip to Spokane, I entered a worm hole that took me back to yesteryear. The area is home to a robust craft beer movement that’s probably a decade or so behind Portland in its evolution. There are a lot of small breweries catering to a growing audience of fans. 

My travels took me to Precious Things Fermentation Project, located in rural Spokane on the property of Jeff and Candace Clark. There, the Clarks have fashioned a unique experience with a collection of nice beers and a small taproom that has a ton of charm. You can't make this stuff up.

“We’ve been fans of craft beer for as long as we’ve been of drinking age…maybe longer,” Jeff said. “We’ve always been attracted to the camaraderie. It’s impossible to count the number of long lasting and close friendships we’ve made because of craft beer.”

The Clarks got totally hooked on craft beer while they were living in Portland, 2010-2015. Those years were instrumental in what they’re doing now, they say. It was then that they learned how to brew and started collecting the memorabilia that is now featured in their taproom. 

“The vision for what became Precious Things occurred to us about five years ago,” Jeff said. We had a bar set up in our garage, first in Oregon and then in Spokane. People would stop by and drink our homebrew and commercial beers. We had a tip jar, but it always seemed to wind up empty.”

While they enjoyed the experience of having people over and drinking good beer, the cost became unmanageable. They eventually decided to go into business for real and actually become part of the industry they had come to respect and love. 

“It’s ironic,” Candace said. “Many of the people who used to come to our place and drink for free now come here and pay to drink. And they leave tips. They could've saved money by just putting a little dough in the tip jar in the first place.”

Precious Things has a nice list of beers, but it operates on a tiny system. Even by the standards of the early craft brewers, it’s amazing that they get by with what they’re using. Of course, there are reasons for everything.

“Our system is incredibly small,” Jeff said. “You might say it's stupidly small. We still brew on two Grainfather systems we purchased years ago and brewed on before we moved here. Our plan when we moved here was to build a 2-barrel system. But the property won’t allow it.”

The issue with the property is it has a septic system and drain field. There’s no sewer in the area. Water disposal isn’t a huge problem, but disposal of solid waste (yeast and trub) is. The tiny system they have now doesn’t present much of a problem. Anything larger is a problem.

“We continue to use our Grainfathers, and we invested in four small conical fermenters and a glycol chiller to control their temperatures,” said Jeff. “We’ve managed to be open on Saturdays for two years doing this. For the last year, we've had an arrangement with Bellwether Brewing allowing us to brew on their pilot system and enjoy access to dry and cold storage.”

They do plan to expand the brewing system, though the taproom will stay exactly as it is. 

“We’re hoping to build a 3.5-barrel brewhouse here,” Jeff said. “The new building would allow us to move out of Bellwether and brew everything here. We’d also have more cold storage, as well as room to expand our barrel program." 

That plan hasn’t come to fruition because they haven’t been able to find a builder willing to do the work. Home construction in the Spokane area is off the hook crazy.

I had not searched out images of the taproom prior to my visit. It’s housed in what was once a garage. I expected a grubby space and was stunned by the aesthetics when I walked in. The place was packed and the visuals transported me to another place. While I enjoyed a few beers, Jeff and Candace poured beer and mingled with patrons. A most welcoming place.

“The aesthetic of our taproom has been influenced by places we love in Portland and beyond,” Candace said. “Places like Horse Brass Pub, Saraveza and Belmont Station, as well as the Cat's Eye Pub in Baltimore and the Delirium Café in Brussels. We really love to drink beer at places that have a lot of things to look at.”

For the Clarks, the overriding mission has always been to create a community of craft beer drinkers. That mission appears to have been largely accomplished in the two years they’ve been open. The busy taproom was evidence enough of that. 

“We love learning about beer, talking about beer, brewing beer, and of course drinking beer,” Jeff said. “We make beer for people we like and people we want to meet. If you love any of those things (learning, talking, brewing, drinking), then we make beer for you!”

If you find yourself in the Spokane area, a trip to Precious Things is definitely recommended. They don't currently have a website, but you can find them on Facebook and Instagram.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Blitz and Me: Life With a Sneaky, Hungry Dog

One thing you know or should know when you own a dog is that, sooner or later, they're going to break your heart. They aren't built to last as long as humans, so they leave this life before we do. We suffer that reality because of the loyalty and comradery we get in between. 

Blitz joined us in March 2007, nicknamed Chewy (after the Star Wars character) due to his occasional verbalizations. He was our third Lab, replacing Bert, who passed away at the end of 2006. I'd been around Labs my entire life and never had one live past the age of 12. I had no idea Blitz would wind up being the genetic champion of them all, living to the ripe old age of 15. 

Just because he lived a long life doesn't mean he was an ideal dog. In fact, Blitz was very often a bad dog. As a puppy, he was prone to mischief and destruction. If left unattended, he would chew up shoes, shred toiler paper rolls and otherwise dismantle almost anything that was left out and fit in his mouth. He had to be crated when left unattended until he was more than 2 years of age.

Later on, Blitz became a sneaky, stealthy and refined counter surfer. He swiped slices of pizza, hamburgers, pastries and all kinds of other things. In one instance, Laura had baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies. They were cooling on the counter when Blitz passed by. He somehow managed to gobble up all but one or two cookies from the sheet. 

Then there was the time we were having dinner out and he scoped out a bar of baking chocolate on the counter. There was nothing left but tiny flakes of wrapper when we returned. But Blitz suffered no ill-effects. Research suggested it would have taken 10 or more similar bars of the chocolate to do any harm. Iron gut on a large dog.

A lot of Blitz' missteps were surely driven by food. He was always hungry, even when he had just been fed. There was something in his DNA that commanded him to eat and then eat some more. It's quite possible he lived as long as he did because he was driven to eat and hadn't yet eaten enough. 

One of the most disastrous Blitz events occurred in 2008. We were on a ski weekend in Sunriver. Blitz convinced me he needed to go outside at 1:00 a.m. His much older stablemate, Bruno, followed. They did not return. We then spent the early morning hours hunting for them, without success. Eventually, they turned up at the condo. Blitz had led Bruno on a marauding spree, hunting for garbage. Later that morning, on short sleep, Laura tore an ACL on the mountain.

With Biscuit, 2010
Years later, we had another trip to Sunriver planned. The night before we were to leave, Blitz disappeared on our walk in Rose City Park. That wasn't unusual. He often ran away to chase coyotes or go for a swim in the water hazard at Rose City Golf Course. He also frequented nearby homeless camps looking for food. Normally, he would come back or I would corral him. Not this time. He finally turned up 18 hours later, seeking shelter from a passing thunderstorm in a garage more than a mile from the park. How he made it there we didn't want to know. We picked him up.

After that little excursion, Blitz was leashed on his evening walks so he couldn't run away. It wasn't until he turned 13 and no longer had the ability to get away that I let him off leash during those outings. He could still get around just fine at that point, just didn't have the footspeed needed to easily escape. 

Bunk and Blitz, 2020
Blitz wasn't the most athletic Lab we've had, but he was undoubtedly the healthiest. He rarely had physical issues and his trips to the vet were sporadic and routine. Even in his old age, he continued to demand regular walks and ate his meals enthusiastically. People often asked what we were doing to enhance his longevity. Nothing. Blitz got the same treatment as all the other dogs. He simply had better genetic luck.

He was also pretty lucky when it came to stablemates. The first was Bruno, a kind and patient boy Blitz knew during the first two years of his life. Bruno tolerated Blitz, that's about it. Then came Biscuit, Blitz' younger sister. Despite occasional spats, they got along well during her 10 years. Finally, Bunk showed up not long after Blitz turned 13. He never liked crazy Bunk, although she liked and leaned on him. 

Young Blitz with Bruno, 2007

Blitz passed away last week. His decline was slow and long, and we knew he was nearing the end. We miss him dearly, even though caring for him had become arduous. Frankly speaking, I never had the kind of relationship with Blitz that I had with Biscuit. She wantonly hung out with me constantly. Blitz was always aloof and cool to close contact. But he was a good boy in his own way.

Godspeed, sweet boy. You will be missed by many. 💔

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Iconic Hair of the Dog Will Close Next Summer

The first time we poured beer at the Oregon Brewers Festival in the mid-1990s, my wife and I hoped to pour Hair of the Dog. We didn't get the gig and I don't recall why we wanted to pour Hair of the Dog beer. We surely had it somewhere, but I don't remember the details.

Fred Eckhardt shares a moment with Sprints. (Matt Wiater photo)
Hair of the Dog beers were always different. Even in the early days when Alan Sprints wasn't yet making the barrel-aged monsters he would become internationally famous for, the beers were unique. I suspect that was largely because they were made by hand on a small system. 

Sprints founded Hair of the Dog Brewing in late 1993. He had come to Portland years earlier to study at the Western Culinary Institute. He got hooked on brewing and honed his craft via the Oregon Brew Crew, an organization he led for a time. He also worked at Widmer for several years prior to launching Hair of the Dog. 

For 17 years, Sprints operated Hair of the Dog out of a warehouse in Southeast Portland. It was far off the beaten path and perhaps somewhat difficult to find for some. Sprints finally decided to upgrade. The result is the brewery and pub that opened on Southeast Yamhill in 2010.

Despite his time at Widmer, Sprints is essentially a home brewer who started a brewery. He steadfastly held onto the notion of brewing beer in small batches. He has used a tiny 4-bbl brewing system to produce his beers since the beginning.  

When I interviewed him for Portland Beer in 2013, Sprints told me his goal had always been simple: "l try to make beers I like, hoping others will enjoy them." His primary influences, he said, were the imports from Europe, especially Belgium, he drank as a young man. His second inspiration was provided by the early west coast craft brewers...Mendocino, Anchor and Sierra Nevada.  

Of course, Sprints would come to be heavily influenced and inspired by iconic beer historian and writer, Fred Eckhardt. An early Hair of the Dog beer, Adam (originally called Adambier), is a style that had ceased to exist until it was resurrected by Sprints. The idea for Adam occurred to Sprints when he heard Eckhardt speaking about beer styles that had fallen into extinction. 

Sprints and Eckhardt developed a cordial friendship and Sprints subsequently honored Eckhardt's contributions by adding Fred to his beer list. Then there was Fred Fest, a popular celebration of craft beer held yearly at Hair of the Dog on Eckhardt's birthday. That was generally a tough ticket. The future of Fred Fest would appear to be uncertain with HOD closing, though the 2022 event is set for May. 

Beyond the old world beers he resurrected, Sprints was a pioneer of barrel-aged beers and also of using local fruit in barrels. The idea of aging beer in spirit and wine barrels has become standard practice in modern craft brewing, but that wasn't always the case. Sprints was at the forefront of that movement.

“It’s nice to know my head was in the right place with barrel aging and that I was ahead of the curve,” Sprints said in 2013. “Aging Beers in wood is a challenge and can be good for your image.”

Hair of the Dog beers, because they have always been handmade, have had a tendency to vary in quality. A well-known flaw is under-carbonation, although there are others. Once upon a time, I bought a case of "bald" Fred, billed as a flat beer that would carbonate in time. But the beer failed to acquire any significant level of carbonation after years of cellaring. So it was used in stews and chilis with terrific results. 

Despite occasionally uneven beers. Hair of the Dog has been a beacon that attracted craft beer fans from around the world. When the brewery moved to inner Southeast, the appeal grew and it was regularly mentioned as a required destination for beer tourists visiting Portland. And it isn't uncommon to meet people from around the country and world while enjoying beers there. 

The impending closure of the brewery and pub is a blow to the local craft beer scene. Not because Hair of the Dog is an essential part of the current scene, but because of it's standing for so many years and because of the fact that Sprints influenced so many who came after him. Portland's beer scene was inoculated with Sprints' idealism long ago...and those ideals have spread.

When he closes up shop next summer, Sprints will retain the Hair of the Dog brand. That makes sense mostly because he IS the brand. Sprints will be officially retired, but he'll have control over what he decides to do with the brand. It will be interesting to see what that is. The pub and brewery will be sold, once he finds a buyer.

Godspeed, Alan Sprints. Your contributions to craft beer won't be forgotten.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Henry's Private Reserve: The Final PDX Bottling at 22

When Miller closed the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery in 1999, many of the brands that had been brewed in Portland moved to the Miller-owned plant in Olympia. That included Henry's Private Reserve, which was launched in 1976 and was arguably Oregon's first craft or near-craft beer.

Private Reserve had become legendary long before production moved out of state. As I've said before, I don't think the quality of the beer suffered when it was brewed in Olympia starting in 1999 or when it moved to Hood River in 2003. Quality did go to hell when production moved to Colorado in 2013. It's a common theme with acquired brands.

Fans of the beer here in Portland were sad to see the old brewery close. Some of them stocked up on that last bottling of Private Reserve, brewed at the end of August 1999. One of the loons who collected some of that final bottling is a dog friend of mine. It turns out the pandemic and a puppy have shifted my friends list from beer bars and breweries to dog parks. That's where I met Brian. 

When the brewery closed in 1999, Brian bought a six pack of Private Reserve. He stashed the beer in his basement, where it sat on a shelf at cellar temperature for the last 22 years and change. When he mentioned that he had the beer, I asked if he'd be willing to share a bottle. He hedged. Then, on New Year's Eve, a small bag showed up at my door. Inside, a bottle of Private Reserve bottling #140. 

I knew the bottle came from the final run of Private Reserve because that information was published at the time in The Oregonian. My research for Portland Beer turned up that tidbit. Another not-so-well known fact is that Private Reserve was not the final beer packaged in Portland. It turns out 40-ounce bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor made up the last production run here. 

As discussed earlier, Private Reserve vintages started with #1. The initial beer was packaged in longneck bottles and shipped in wooden crates. The crates were gone quickly, replaced with cardboard. The longneck bottles stuck around for a time, but were eventually replaced with a standard bottle such as we see with #140 and #13. Also, vintage #13 included only a few cases...for the same reason that many buildings don't have 13th floors, I suppose. 

It occurs to me that Blitz-Weinhard used the batch numbers for a time and then dropped them. They were making a lot of the stuff and constantly changing the label became a pain. That's intel I gathered during the book project, but I can't find a reference to back it up. It may have been something someone told me and I didn't record. 

I don't know what constituted a batch of Private Reserve. Could there have been 140 batches brewed during the 23 years the beer was produced at the Portland brewery? Maybe, probably. And even it they weren't using batch numbers on labels for a period of time, I suppose it's possible they were tracking batches and that the final batch was, in fact, #140. If there's another explanation, I don't know what it is. Please contact me if you do.

The bottle I was given had a twist-off cap. I recall that the Private Reserve I was drinking in the eighties and nineties came in bottles with twist caps. I know the early vintages had standard crown caps because I've seen and handed some of those bottles. There are also pictures on the internet showing bottles without the threads needed for a twist-off cap. 

I suspected the twist-off cap was a bad omen in terms of what I would find inside the bottle. I used twist-off caps a few times when I was a home brewer, with dreadful results. I also had the experience of tasting old vintages of Sierra Nevada Celebration several years ago. The beer in the twist-off bottles was invariably damaged. The beer housed under standard crown caps fared better.

There was no pressure released when I removed the cap. In fact, the cap was seemingly welded to the bottle and I had to grip it with a towel to get it off. The bottle had been refrigerated for a week or so before I opened it, so it poured cold and clear. But there was no carbonation. And the color was off, significantly darker than it should have been. I instantly knew the beer was gone.

Most who have homebrewed know the flavor of malt extract syrup. My bottle of Private Reserve tasted like watered down malt extract syrup. No hops character at all, which I anticipated. Oxidation had destroyed this beer, returning it to its base form. The twist-off cap was probably the main culprit, though maybe a standard crown cap wouldn't have made a difference. I don't know.

Tasting old beer vintages can be fun. But it's seldom rewarding in my experience. Nonetheless, thanks to Brian for sharing a bottle of Private Reserve from the final production run in Portland. I'll keep the bottle in my collection. I hope to disappear memories of the beer from my palate.