If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yet Another Thing for You to Join on Facebook

I finally got around to creating a Facebook page for this blog this morning. I know you're already all members of 6,329 Facebook pages (each) and probably have 6,329 requests to join others. All I can say in my own defense is that, should you join this page, you will be flushed with a sense of wonder and possibility, if not amazement. This sensation, like all things on Facebook, will be fleeting, lasting no more than 1.2 seconds. Still, wonder and possibility are fine things no matter how long they last.

So go join the page already.

Oh, and there's a nice photo of some of the Portland bloggers taken at last year's FredFest. That's the real draw.
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How Many Breweries Can a City Support?

A couple days ago, Ben Edmunds wrote an intriguing piece over at The New School. His thesis: Portland has reached the saturation point for new breweries and we may be due for a shakeout.
A look at the 2008 Brewers’ Association statistics is telling (the 2009 ones should be released in the next New Brewer). Compared to the previous year, the number of barrels produced by Portland-based brewpubs grew by over 16%, a strong number that far outpaced the national average for craft beer growth. But, during the same year, at least eight of the city’s brewpubs (Old Market, Roots, both Lucky Labs, Kennedy School, The Mash Tun, Tugboat, and Rock Bottom) saw dwindling production and contracted. What exactly happened? A fair share of the responsibility for the growth of the market and the shrinking of some businesses belongs to Hopworks and Deschutes, both of which opened in the middle of 2008. While none of the new slew of breweries portends to make as big a splash on the market as either HUB or Deschutes, the numbers don’t lie: one brewery’s gain means another one’s loss. And while the spirit of collaboration runs high amongst craft brewers, competition will be the new reality in a market where supply already outpaces demand.
I'll go this far: there is a point of saturation. It's possible we've already reached it, too. But there's a big difference between a point of saturation--equilibrium--and the apocalypse Ben fears.

Let's run a few numbers. According to the Brewers Guild, Oregonians consumed 2.72 million barrels of beer in 2008. Oregon breweries produced 912,000 barrels, 327,000 of which was sold here. These numbers don't tell the whole picture--we consumed craft beer from other states and countries, too. In fact, Portland consumes more beer than any other city. As far as craft beer is concerned, it's a very big market.

For a shakeout to suddenly strike the city, those numbers would have to drop, not plateau. Ben mentions that something on the order of ten new breweries are open or will be opening soon. If every one brewed 500 barrels (a robust start), that would add 5,000 barrels into the city's supply. But that's less than 5% of all the good beer sold in Portland. If the market didn't grow at all, it's hard to imagine anything too dire resulting from this modest infusion.

But forget raw numbers. The issue has less to do with economics than culture. Portland is such a good brewpub town because residents prize neighborhoods. They want coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and pubs they can walk to. This ethos creates the environment for dozens of brewpubs to flourish. Would St. Louis support 40 brewpubs? Would New York City? Probably not, but it's not because there aren't enough people or even enough people drinking good beer. The patterns of consumption and local culture in other cities differ. Portlanders will support their local, and as a consequence, they can support a lot of breweries.

Brewpubs are among the safest businesses in Portland, but they're not foolproof. We've seen brewery failures since Cartwright's time, and we'll continue to see them. Poor beer and bad business decisions will kill a brewpub, even in Beervana. (Anyone remember all the way back to the pre-Rogue incarnation of the Green Dragon?) Yet the neighborhood brewpub is still a solid bet for breweries devoted to making good beer.

For a shake-out to hit Portland, something more disturbing would have to happen--we'd have to experience a change in culture. Of course, that could happen eventually. Cities change, people move to the suburbs, they change the way they socialize. But that's a very slow process, and not one in evidence. (In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite as this desire for a local neighborhood reaches further and further into the suburbs.)

One more Portland-specific observation and then I'll quit rattling on. Back in the 80s and 90s, brewpubs tended to open on shoestrings. Owners cobbled together used equipment and found less-than-central locations. If they thought about branding and image at all, it was only cursorily, and usually after the fact. Now when a brewpub prepares to open, it has a name and logo and lives virtually for weeks or months online. These new places are well-financed, sport brand-new brewhouses, and are located in the center of neighborhoods. All of this allows them to shoot out of the gate in a way that wasn't possible 20 years ago. The risk of starting a brewery now is actually lower than it was back in the day.

Breweries will fail. Some will be over-leveraged and have overly optimistic business plans and will fail. But in ten years, Portland will have more breweries than it has today and Portlanders will consume more good beer than they do now. No apocalypse is imminent.
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brewers for Boobs

I have pretty much forsaken trying to keep up on beer events around town--there's just too many. (Both Brewpublic, which has a left-column "events calendar," and the Brewers Guild do a great job, anyway.) However! One of the things I most appreciate is brewer generosity, so I wanted to highlight a very worthy event coming up just two days.
Brewers for Boobs!
Thursday, April 1st
7:00 pm - 10 pm
EastBurn Annex, 1800 E. Burnside

It's a Brew-off with Laurelwood, Lompoc, Hopworks, Full Sail, and Everybody's Brewing. Join us for a tasting of each beer and vote on your favorite. Five tastes for $5.00 and all proceeds go to the American Cancer Society and the fight against breast cancer. The winning brew will be announced at the Strides against Breast Cancer walk with over 5000 participants. Stick around after the competition for local band Sugarcane at 10pm!
In case you didn't read closely, 100% of the proceeds go to the American Cancer Society. Kudos to EastBurn and the participating breweries. Very cool.
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Epistemology, Indian Pale Beer, and the Mutability of Style

Unless you have an open mind and are willing to abandon cherished notions, don't talk IPA with Martyn Cornell. If you trot out that old chestnuts that India pales were brewed strong and hoppy to survive the long trip to the subcontinent, that Hodgson's invented the style and started the practice, and that it was the only style of beer shipped there, Cornell will offer a tart 3,700-word rebuttal (and, incidentally, just one in a series):
This is a truly historic document: the first known use of the expression India Pale Ale. It comes from an advertisement in the Liverpool Mercury newspaper published January 30 1835, a remarkably long time after pale ale started being sold in India... The Liverpool Mercury ad has several points to note, apart from the first use of the phrase India Pale Ale, quite possibly a century or more after pale ale was first exported to India.
(Life is funny. Someone, somewhere started shipping tiny amounts of beer from Britain to what is now India as much as 40 years before a bunch of irritable separatists caused trouble in another colony across the North Atlantic. Little could anyone have imagined that nearly 300 years later a rather different style of beer would be brewed in that colony and take the country by storm. Of all the beer styles that have come and gone in the intervening centuries, would anyone have given odds that "IPAs" would be the favorite style of the brewing renaissance in 2010?)

Martyn's complaint has always seemed to have less to do with beer than epistemology. He seems irritated not that a pale, hoppy, strong ale might have been shipped to India by Hodgson's in the early 1700s (to be drunk by, say, one of my favorite Indologists, the romantic William Jones), but that such an idea should be accepted as fact, when even a blind man can see that the evidence just doesn't support it. Fair enough.

What I took away from Martyn's dissertation was something related, and it seems to be the thing that almost inevitably emerges when you look into the history of a beer style: they change. Especially here in the new world, where we're new to beer, we like to fix things in place: a Belgian wit is a summery wheat ale spiced with coriander, orange peel, and (at the brewer's discretion) other spices. It should be brewed near about 5% alcohol. This is its nature.

Fixing a style's nature is very satisfying: it allows us to understand the vocabulary of flavors. But it's worth noting that style is a moving target. I am nearly through Stan Hieronymus' Brewing With Wheat, and discovered this little nugget about those wits:
Because the white beer style disappeared before Pierre Celis revived it in the town of Hoegaarden, most drinkers--in Belgium, in America, and around the world--tend to think what he brewed defines the style. History shows otherwise...

The beers were refreshing, both brewed and consumed at a time when summer brewing was the exception. They were made with winter barley (high in protein) and raw wheat, which, considering the season, meant they would have been infected. According to the author Adolphe Frentz, that proved to be an asset because it allowed the white beers to compete against the bieres de garde and Bavarian lagers not yet mature enough to drink.

In 1948 brewing scientist Jen De Clerck found all three [extant examples from the time] always heavily infected with Lactobacillus and sometimes with Pediococcus.
Beer styles writhe and mutate, and in order to make sense of them, we allow our memory to become fixed. Isn't this the way of things? It's good that folks like Martyn and Stan remind us that what we think we know isn't the same thing as what is. A bit liberating, really.

And I wonder, in three hundred years, what will humans be brewing, and what kind of wild misconceptions will they hold about what we brewed now, at the dawn of the 21st Century?
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Monday, March 29, 2010

Upright's Amazing Apparent Attenuation

Last night, Upright held a press event at the brewery to celebrate their first anniversary and launch of two celebratory beers. (Reviews to come.) Press events, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, generally follow a pretty standard script: a pour of beer upon arrival, a tour of the brewery and subsequent pours, and all the while Q&A as things progress. I find that the questions generally elicit the most fascinating information, and so it was last night, when Upright's Alex Ganum talked about how finicky his yeast is.

Alex uses a French farmhouse yeast strain, and these are notoriously difficult to work with. The most famous, and famously difficult, is Dupont's, which requires high fermentation temperatures (over 85 degrees; regular yeasts do better below 70) and then craps out before it's fully done, requiring a brewery to nurture and coax it along for days or weeks. Alex's isn't as bad, but it bears some of these hallmarks. He ferments it in the mid-70s, and then has to wait while it meanders along--sometimes for three weeks in the open primary fermenters. Other yeasts would take less than a week. But even then, the fun's not over. Once it goes into the tank, the beer keeps evolving.

Alex knew the yeast was efficient even a year ago when I first visited the brewery; it's attenuation was on of the attractions. After a year of working with the beer, though, he's started to realize that it may be too much of a good thing. Because those yeasts keep munching, he can't bottle or keg for a long while without worry of foamy pints or explosive bottles. He prevailed on the Widmers to do a lab analysis for him (which they happily did, and gratis, contrary to the suspicion some hold that they wish to crush the competition) and the results were shocking. Upright's beer was reaching levels of attenuation in the mid-90s, sometimes as high as 97%.

What is attenuation, and why is this remarkable? Let's start with the science. Here's White Labs, a commercial brewers yeast company:
Yeast consume the sugar in wort, and turn that sugar into CO2, alcohol, and flavor compounds. When yeast finish the fermentation process, they shut down, clump together, and fall to the bottom of the fermentor, or "flocculate." When yeast flocculate, it is easy to see that fermentation is done. But how can the brewer be sure? What if the flocculation is minimal, and yeast and CO2 stay in solution. How does the brewer really know when fermentation is done? The answer: by testing the degree of attenuation. Apparent attenuation percentage is the percentage of sugars that yeast consume. Attenuation varies between different strains. The fermentation conditions and gravity of a particular beer will cause the attenuation to vary, hence each strain of brewers yeast has a characteristic attenuation range. The range for brewers yeast is typically between 65-85%.
Typical ale yeasts are comparatively inefficient. The kinds of beers most appreciated in Beervana will have an attenuation of around 70%, give or take. Lager strains are roughly the same. Most Belgian strains--wild yeast excepted--are more attenuative, but still, few get out of the high 70s. So, a beer with an apparent attenuation of 97% would have almost no residual sugars.

Alex's yeast is the Energizer bunny--it just keeps going. As a homebrewer and craft beer fan, I find this charming. So farmhousey! But I imagine it's driving Upright crazy. For one thing, it costs a lot of money to let beer just sit in a tank. If it takes a beer twice as long to finish fermenting, a brewery can only produce half as much beer per tank. Beyond that, Upright can't risk letting any beer but the most bone-dry out of the brewery for fear that it will continue to ferment in kegs and bottles. From a business perspective, you want predictable and fast, not idiosyncratic and farmhousey. Charming is not a prized characteristic in the behavior of yeasts.

On the other hand, the yeast produces some amazing beer. The Four Play, in particular, really benefits from this strain, for reasons I'll mention in my future review. Most beers with this kind of attenuation would taste thin and bone dry, but somehow the production of esters counteracts the dryness. And how the beer remains creamy and silky--never thin--is a mystery to me. Chemists out there, please weigh in.

When Alex founded Upright, he wanted the beer to be marked by the character of the yeast and the qualities of farmhouse brewing--local ingredients, handmade beer, idiosyncratic styles, and a flavorful rusticity. A year in and he and co-brewer Gerritt Ill have managed to pull this off. I wonder if sometimes they feel this yeast is punishing them for their success. Ah brewing!
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Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Saison (A Few Words on Farmhouse Ales)

Goose Island's Matilda has got me thinking. American breweries are constantly experimenting with styles, trying to figure out when one's moment is right. It isn't always obvious. Tastes don't evolve linearly, light to dark, sweet to bitter, or small to big. Styles just pop up and find a constituency. Belgian wits, coffee stouts, red ales--all have had their moment. Yet in the US, Belgian styles (wits excepted) have never seemed to make it over the hump--no matter how much beer geeks and breweries love them.

I wonder--could farmhouse ales be the ones to break through?* I had a pint of Laurelwood's saison last night and considered the idea. The problem is, many Belgian beers are challenging. Even leaving aside the sour ales, the others have a reputation for being--well, often when I offer someone a Belgian of which I'm fond, they take an exploratory sip, give a hesitant nod, and agree, "Yes, it's a Belgian." I know then that I'll be (happily) drinking the rest of the bottle by myself.

(I've seen the same look on the faces of visitors who've just taken a pull on one of our radioactively hoppy local beers.)

Farmhouse ales, though, are really approachable. Take Laurelwood's saison. Brewed with wheat and oats, it is a gentle 5.2% alcohol and sports a mere 12 IBUs. Yet what depth! I don't know which yeast Chad used or how he made the beer (typically saisons need warmth and age), but he produced a beer with a lush yeast character--spicy, dry, and warm. You'd think that 12 IBUs would leave a beer treacly, and although the beer is on the sweet side, it seems to emerge from the esters--as you swallow the beer, it dries up on your tongue, leaving a quenching, clean finish. Saison yeasts tend to be very efficient. They gobble most available sugars, but produce sweet-tasting compounds in the process--the best of both worlds. It could be that I'm too far out in the weeds of weird styles to know what Joe Craftbeer likes, but I can't imagine anyone finding Laurelwood's saison challenging.

Beyond that, the class of beers is almost infinitely variable. Bières de garde can be sweet, saisons can be very hoppy, either style can be of mild strength or quite robust. The available yeast strains are quite versatile (Dupont's finicky version does pose challenges, however)--as Upright's range demonstrates.

Part of the issue is cultural: Belgian beers seem alien to Americans. Yet don't farmhouse ales fit neatly into the Northwest's farmer's-market fed food culture? As is our preference, farmhouse ales focus on the natural, local, and traditional. I don't expect to see actual fams start brewing, but getting local ingredients, organic ones, and adding local spices and flavors--that's already happening in most breweries. Why not the style that really celebrates local and handmade? Finally, farmhouse ales are among the best styles for pairing with food--and don't beg for traditional pub fare like stouts and pale ales.

In a few weeks, the Oregon Brewers Guild will sponsor the annual Cheers to Belgian Beers festival, wherein Oregon breweries make their own styles of beer from a single yeast strain. The past couple years have been rough--the yeasts were neither approachable nor versatile. But this year, the yeast is a saison strain. Perhaps at least one or two knock-your-socks-off stellar beers makes an appearance. If so, it will be a great chance to test my theory about their potentially broad appeal.

One can hope!
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*I like the phrase "farmhouse" better than the more specific "saison" or "bière de garde." Since the styles have few parameters, using these names doesn't much help in describing a beer. And French words are just generally a bad way to try to sell things in America. "Farmhouse," though--there's a word we can all rally around.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Honest Pints in Burbank

A guy named Tony Yanow is opening a new pub in Burbank that sounds like it was transported directly from Southeast Portland. Great beer, great food, sustainable, and vegan-friendly. (The vegan sausages are even imported from the NW!) The planned opening is April 4.

Tony did the measuring backward, and he will send me one from an obvious place in the pub once the pub is open, so for now the two photos I have are provisional. But he wanted to promote honest pints for his opening, and so we're bending the rules a bit to get him certified before the place opens. If you're down in Southern California, stop in and have a pint. Looks like a cool place.

Tony's Darts Away
Certified Purveyor of and Honest Pint
1710 W. Magnolia Blvd
Burbank, CA 91506
818-253-1710
website

Goose Island Matilda

Goose Island is, in craft brewing terms, an old-timer. Good beer arrived later to the Midwest, so when Goose Island set up shop in Chicago in 1988, it was a pioneer. Despite its early founding, it was hampered by Midwest palates that still considered Grain Belt a decent beer. I was dimly aware of it when I arrived in Wisconsin a few years later, but the Badger state breweries were already leading the way (New Glarus and Sprecher were standouts). A friend of mine referred to Goose Island's beer as "swamp water."

Things have changed. Chicago's beer palate has grown up, and Goose Island has become a brewery associated--at least nationally--with its Belgian and barrel-aged offerings. Bourbon County Stout has been available on the West Coast for awhile, and now Goose Island is rolling out their Belgian line. This is an interesting moment in the development of craft beer. For years breweries just toyed with Belgian styles, but now a few are actively seeking a market for them--in front of demand, as far as I can tell. Consumers still seem enamored of big, burly American ales (hoppy or black and barrel aged); Belgian styles still command only a niche audience. Yet with this expansion of their Belgians, Goose Island is gambling that the niche will grow and that they'll be first in line. A trend to watch.

First up is Matilda, which the brewery was kind enough to send my way.

Inspired by Orval
Although the brewery calls it a "Belgian style pale ale," Orval is the inspiration for Matilda. If you recall, a legend animates the Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval. The story holds that a young countess was sitting beside a spring near where the monastery is located. Her wedding ring fell off; distraught, she prayed until a trout appeared, ring in mouth. The countess' name? Matilda.

If the monastery's name is an homage to this legend, then Goose Island's Matilda is an homage to Orval. Their version, like Orval's, is made with pale and caramel malts, is both fairly hoppy (32 IBU) and similarly-hopped (both use Styrian Goldings, Goose Island substituting Saaz for Hersbrucker), and both use sugar to enhance the alcohol without adding body. Orval, famously, employs multiple yeast strains--a regular ale yeast in primary fermentation, and then a blend of yeasts for secondary that includes brettanomyces. And apparently, so does Matilda. Or did, anyway--more on that presently. Owing to the brett, Orval has variable strength depending on age--6-7%. Matilda is 7%.

Tasting Notes
As you can see from the photo, Matilda approximates Orval in color as well--though it's less orange and more copper. The head on my pour wasn't tall and fluffy like this, though--I got just a skiff. The nose is alcoholic and a touch phenolic, with a slight clove note and just a (pleasant) hint of sulfur. It is much as one would expect from a fortified Belgian.

I was surprised at how thin the body was. The sweetish sugar-alcohol note is contrasted nicely by a very dry finish. There's a bit of spice on the palate, but not a lot. With beers like this, I hope for some layered complexity, but Matilda is straightforward: gentle, alcoholic, dry.

All of this comes with a caveat. If the brewery still uses brettanomcyes, it hasn't had a chance to express itself in this young 2010 vintage. I found absolutely no evidence in my bottle. This may well be intentional: young Orval is principally hoppy and wet; but once the brett starts to munch sugars in the bottle, it matures until it is bone dry, lemony, austere. Perhaps Matilda is designed to change with age, too.

Because Matilda is inspired by and apparently modeled on Orval, it's impossible not to compare the two, and this is not to Goose Island's advantage. Orval is easily one of the best beers in the world (I'd put it in the top five). Matilda, while pleasant and enjoyable, is not particularly distinctive. It seems a bit like what it is--an early example of a transplanted style being brewed in a new country. A respectable outing, but not a home run.

Stats
Malts: Pale, caramel
Hops: Styrian Goldings, Saaz
ABV: 7%
Availability: Newly available on the West Coast. 12-ounce 4-pack $11-14.
Rating: B-


Postscript
I don't actually get (or solicit) much in the way of promotional samples. I know from reading Jon's blog that breweries regularly include wowza packaging when they send these to reviewers. Cardboad boxes, okay. Even wooden boxes, not surprisng. But check out Goose Island's packaging. It's a wooden box, but the wood is cut thin and rolled like parchment, sealed with a leather strap. Two photos below try to capture it. Packaging is usually meant to send certain messages about brand or product, but damned if I know what to make of this.




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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Visit to the Lucky Lab

I met Sally for an honest pint at the Lucky Lab last night--it being about equidistant from our house and her office and also sunbathed and festooned with dogs. In short, about the finest place to drink a beer on a sunny afternoon. The one drawback to the Lab, historically, has been the beer. There was a definite house effect: unbalanced bitterness and a kind of muddy flavor profile. With some beers, you knew they were hoppy, but weren't sure what else was supposed to be going on.

This seems to be changing. Sally had a malty brown last night, clean and bright, and I had a pale, also crisp and clean. (They have two pales on tap now. One is a bit more malt-accented and darker, the other a crisper, lighter, more summery beer. Owing to the sunshine and warmth, I went with the summer version.

This is good news. In the psychic terrain brewpubs occupy in my brain, the Lab only comes to mind when I'm in a sunny-hang-with-the-dogs mood. I am going to start including it in my looking-for-a-reliably-tasty-pour mood. If your mind is similarly calcified, you might drop by and test your assumptions.
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The Ratings Conundrum

Some time back, the Oregonian's main movie reviewer was a guy named Ted Mahar. His reviews were generally positive--and this was a problem. It got to be that we nick-named him "three-star Mahar" because he never really panned or gushed about a movie. Everything was, in the manner of the children of Lake Wobegon, above average. And therefore his reviews were of little use.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine castigated me for turning into a three-star Mahar. It's true--most of my ratings fall in the range of A- to C+ (here's what they mean). I plead helplessness, though: most beers here fall in that range, too. Obviously, few beers qualify for the "world class" standard ("a superlative example of the style or an exceptionally original beer"). But few fall below the standard attained by a C+ beer, either ("a well-made beer that is a fairly common example of its style or a near miss on originality").

I am, obviously, a homer, and so you have to suspect me of putting my thumb on the scale. But scan through the aggregate scores on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer--they're no better. This may be due to different factors, but the upshot's the same. With only very rare exceptions do breweries put out either badly ill-conceived recipes or beer with off-flavors. We have a problem of compression.

I'm almost to the point of abandoning ratings altogether and just letting the descriptions stand on their own. (I've actually done that more and more with recent reviews.) It's easy enough to change the scale so there are more calibrations between "common" and "world class," but that doesn't exactly resolve the problem. Worse, it exaggerates the effect of personal preference. I'd be willing to entertain some wholly novel style of ratings, though, if only I could think of one. Any suggestions? How do you make sense of subtle differences between beers?
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cheap Beer Doesn't Have to be Bad Beer

Yesterday afternoon, I was the guest on what ultimately proved to be a doomed broadcast of Savor PDX. Devlyn, the host, informed me this morning that our half-hour discussion was scuttled by digital gremlins. Ah well. However, during our discussion, we talked briefly about how being poor is no excuse for drinking bad beer. (Most of us are poor at the start of our beer-drinking careers, just at the moment when good beer may be most critical.) I mentioned that it only required you to be clever. Of course, one option is the two-dollar pint at EastBurn every Tuesday. Great beer, amazing price.

By chance, after that interview, I joined a friend at Fire on the Mountain, a wings place just a few doors down from EastBurn. As a (poor) vegetarian and someone who finds chicken wings gristly and meager, I had never had occasion to stop in. And thus did I miss an amazing deal. Six dollar pitchers! The tap list is nothing to sniff at, either: Double Mountain, Hopworks, Ninkasi, Terminal Gravity, and more.

So that takes care of Monday and Tuesday. Where would an enterprising beer drinker, long on smarts but short on cash, go on other nights? Suggestions?
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Beer Media--A Lot of Talk

Stan Hieronymus, the font of a thousand bloggy stories, launches another. The post's title ("Does Anybody Read Beer Blogs?") is rather plaintive--and possibly misleading--because he seems principally interested in a more elemental question.

I haven’t seen similar metrics for beer sites (although Martyn Cornell did something along those lines last month, limiting it to UK blogs, and 47 comments followed).... Does that mean beer blogs are particularly influential? Not compared to Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, I’d say... But what I’m really interested in is the future of a) journalism and b) beer journalism.

Look. No one reads beer blogs. Alan does the numbers, and rather generously comes to the conclusion that the pool of potential blog readers is 100,000 people. But then again, no one drinks good beer, either. With just 4.3% of the American market, beer blogs start out swimming in pretty small puddle. Start slicing and dicing that pool by people who get their beer media fix via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the MSM, and you're vying for a small slice of a small pie.

The problem with using eyeballs as a metric is that it totally misses the point. If beer bloggers wanted to reach the masses, they'd write about Miley Cyrus. But they'd rather be talking about good beer. So why do we care how many people are listening in?

An analogy. Lambics cast a long and thick shadow of the world of beer. They are so difficult to brew, tap into such a deep root of brewing history, and produce beers of such surpassing complexity that many people regard them as the summit of brewing accomplishment. (I am susceptible to the argument.) Yet almost no one drinks them. Cantillon, one of the world's leading producers, brews something on the order of 900 barrels a year. Are the accomplishments of these tiny breweries diminished because they produce so little? Do we admire Budweiser because of its vast volume?

To Stan's questions, the future is micro. Media has fractured and will stay fractured. The cool thing about this fracturing is that while audiences have dwindled, news has mushroomed. The average reader, spending 15 minutes a day cruising the beer-o-sphere, can be assured of being pretty well apprised of 95% of the news in craft brewing. Ten years ago, we waited for weekly columns or monthly magazines to alert us to beer news--and those outlets covered only a fraction of the news. And the current model is far more democratic. Brewers and their fans regularly rub elbows online to share news, stories, and opinions--no newspaper filter necessary.

In sum: we need to quit obsessing. Thanks to blogs and social media, we now have a great way to indulge our passions (be they focused on good beer, dachshunds, or Joss Whedon). Isn't that enough?
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Monday, March 22, 2010

Alan's Big Move

In a stealth campaign, Alan Sprints has noted that Hair of the Dog is on the move.
Hair of the Dog Brewing company is moving. I will be open this May and will have a tasting room with a small food menu and regular hours. The new space is very close to downtown Portland and will provide Beer lovers with a chance to taste Beers still in the experimental stage. For regular updates, check out the Hair of the Dog Brewing facebook page.
Based on activity on the Facebook page, everyone but me knew about this. There's even a video!



Other interesting facts. FredFest, a May event, is slated for the new place. Also, no Earth Day sale this year. Hat tip to the indispensable Beer News.


Update: Wily Elijah has identified the location of location of the new place: 61 SE Yamhill. Below is a screencap from Google Maps.


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Sunday, March 21, 2010

English Tied-House Rules Loosened

Fascinating:
Nik Antona, the Burton-based national director of the Campaign For Real Ale, said the Government’s ‘12-point plan’ to help the pub industry would help stem the flow of an alarming trend which sees 40 pubs close across the UK each week.

The measures, announced by pubs minister John Healey, include plans to pump cash into allowing communities to buy out struggling pubs.

Meanwhile, councils will be given new powers enabling them to intervene before pubs are demolished while pub companies will be stopped from imposing ‘restrictive covenants’ when they sell off premises, preventing competitors from continuing to run them as pubs.
Alcohol laws are very often byzantine, and I'll confess that from this great distance, I don't always grasp the subtleties. But this pub crisis has been ongoing for years, and I've been following it with interest/alarm. (For a visceral sense of loss, have a look at these photos.) Hope this is a viable solution.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Too Nice to Blog

So instead, I use that time-honored cheat, pointing you to good content elsewhere.
  • Bill offers the third installment of the Beer Price Index. Upshot? Not a lot of movement in the aggregate, but this masks interesting changes.
  • Brady Walen on why $15 ain't too much to spend on a beer ... if the conditions are right. (Starting with Pliny the Younger seems to help.)
But I know none of you are reading these fine posts. I've seen my traffic. You are fickle, fickle people. Like me, you're out in the sun breathing deeply of that insane spring air. (And sneezing.) Good for you--

The Death of BridgePort Stout

I learned last night that BridgePort plans to discontinue its venerable Black Strap Stout. In one way, I'm surprised it survived this long. When the brewery first released the beer something like a decade an a half ago, it tasted more like stout-tinged molasses. Trying to drink a whole bottle was a rugged test of will. Even when brewers dialed back the recipe, the molasses still contributed a distinctive note--and not one of my favorites. With so many stouts available, BridgePort's always got lost in the crowd--this odd duck at the end of BridgePort's line. Black Strap Stout was never a big seller, but it must have had a loyal audience to survive this long.

These things happen. Beers come and go. (And who knows--maybe the stout will enjoy a revival.) In any case, go grab a pint if you want to have a final taste before it passes this world.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Elsewhere in the World

Two things happened today that require us to set aside our focus on beer. The first is that Alex Chilton has died. He will be less familiar to most folks than names of the stars he inspired--REM, the Replacements, Wilco and more. He was famous by the time he was sixteen and singing for the Box Tops, but his real contribution was with the 70s band Big Star. RIP, Alex.

Second, one of the two best sporting events in the world kicked off today--the NCAA basketball tournament (the other is the World Cup, for similar reasons). It is especially noteworthy this year, for tomorrow my alma mater Wisconsin begins their inevitable march to the title. The other games may be interesting, too.

So, for Memphis native Alex Chilton, have a shot of Jack Daniels. And in tribute to the Badgers, select your favorite beer from that famous brewing state--I recommend New Glarus' Wisconsin Belgian Red if you happen to have one handy.
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See, Now This Beer Tastes Bitter

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, last night's beer was Full Sail's latest Brewmaster's Reserve, Hop Pursuit. The night before, I had a Hop Henge (everyone who thinks there should be a moratorium on beers with the word "hop" in the title, raise your hand), which led me on a slightly protracted ramble about how hops may actually reduce the perception of bitterness. As the day wore on, my thesis seemed progressively more thin to me, but I was saved by the Hop Pursuit.

In the world of doubles and imperials, this is a bit of a throwback beer. (A throwback from, you know, 1998.) It is a modest 6%, sunflower pale, and in-your-face bitter. Some many moons back, Full Sail did a seasonal called Equinox ESB, a beer that actually set my expectations for a spring seasonal. It was vividly and greenly hoppy, resinous, almost too much. I loved it. Hop Pursuit has that same bracing quality, like a sneaker gust of wind that contains a bit of winter's bite. Yet it is only 55 IBUs. They all come through on the first swallow, and rake the tongue as they exit the mouth, leaving you smacking and smiling. It's not a particularly complex beer--biscuity sweetness in the body, just enough to support the piney, sharp hops. But it's a beer that makes you smile with recognition--this, you think, is a classic Northwest beer.

Once again, I am confronted with the prospect of rating this beer highly. I don't know any brewery that turns out so many consistently above average beers as Full Sail. Call this a B+.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When They Get Old

This has been a bit of a hobby horse of mine lately: what happens when the founding generation ages out and want to retire from brewing? They sell their baby. Case in point:
The North Bay Business Journal broke the news today that the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, now in its 23rd year, was sold to HMB Holdings, LLC. A year ago I interviewed AVBC founder Ken Allen regarding family-owned breweries and he revealed he was already in discussions to unload his brewery. “The problem is that I’m getting to be an old man,” said Allen. “I don’t have the ambition I used to have. In fact, I’ve kind of announced the brewery’s for sale. In another few months I’m going to be 70 years old and it’s getting to where I don’t like the stress anymore.”
This is huge news: Anderson Valley can lay claim to being one of the most consistently high-quality breweries in America over the past 20 years. Will HMB Holdings regard it with the same loving tenderness as Ken Allen? Let's hope so.
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Three Cheers for Green Beer

Ah, Saint Paddy's, the day we celebrate old traditions. Like the bad old days when beer was so colorless and insipid that people dyed it green. Yet now we can celebrate truly green beer. Off the top of my head, a few shout outs to:
  1. Full Sail, for using less water per gallon of beer produced than any other brewery;
  2. Roots for being Oregon's first organic brewery and sponsoring the Organic Beer Fest;
  3. New Belgium for pioneering the way on green design and recycled water;
  4. Lucky Lab and Fort George for solar-powered water heaters;
  5. Hopworks for promoting two-wheeled, people-powered transport.
I know this only scratches the surface. We should all be hoisting green beer tonight, so who'd I miss?

Update, 3:30pm. A tweet from Laurelwood:
laurelwood1 Did an interview with KGW channel 8 about "green" beer (organic, that is). On at 5 and 6! Chad #fb
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Deconstructing Hop "Bitterness"

Which is more bitter, an export stout, a pale ale, or an English barleywine? We have ways of measuring certain constituents in beer, and these translate into calibrations. To assess bitterness, brewers measure how much of a hop's alpha acids are present in the beer and produce a standard measure of bitterness ("international bitterness unit," or IBU). But of course, where flavor is concerned IBUs are relative measurements; malt sweetness dulls the clean expression of bitterness. The bigger the beer, the more hops are needed just to maintain a consistent level of perceived bitterness. So, if I told you that each of the beers had 50 IBUs, this would give you a sense of which is going to taste more bitter: the barleywine will be sweetish, the export stout dry and crisp, and the pale ale vivid in direct hop bitterness.

But you knew all this.

Last night, I was enjoying my first Hop Henge, a beer that has managed to elude me these past four years (a level of negligence that demands its own post). The bottle lists the beer at 95 IBUs, which, even in a beer with 8.8% alcohol, is a tremendous number. Yet it misleads. Hop Henge was absolutely saturated with hops, with additions that began in the grist mill (!) and continued on through dry-hopping. The effect is fascinating. While no one would say Hop Henge isn't bitter, it's rather much more--a leafy green beer so infused with hops you almost have an allergic reaction (in a good way, of course).

We know that many things affect the perception of bitterness--in addition to malts, the level of carbonation, the specific hop variety used, and yeast attenuation all play a role. Now I wonder: can hops themselves affect the perception of bitterness? In Hop Henge, Deschutes used just about every element of the hop--the acids, oils, pollen, even the inert, cellular material. As a consequence, the perception of bitterness is colored by a staggering spectrum of other flavors and aromas. By adding hops at various points throughout the brewing process and extracting more hop elements, are breweries also changing the way we perceive bittereness? I think so.

More and more, breweries are infusing their beers with hops at all stages of brewing. As they do, the measure of bitterness becomes a less valuable tool in predicting flavor than knowing the method the brewery used to hop the beer. I recall when I first began to see dry-hopping mentioned, maybe 15 years ago. It was really useful information. Perhaps its time to invent a term to suggest this use of hops from mash tun to fermenter. "All Phase" hopping, say. Anyway, yet another wrinkle in the appreciation of our favorite ingredient--and a welcome one.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Inner Rind of a Fir Tree

The good folks at Brewers Publications were kind enough to send me Stan Hieronymus' Brewing With Wheat, which debuted just a few weeks past. If you are at all interested in beer, books like this one are catnip. As Jeff Sparrow did in his excellent Wild Brews, Stan begins with a historical overview. It passes through, as all brewing histories do, the caprice of law and geography that conspired to create beer styles. As if walking a cemetery, Stan reads off the names of the dead, including, much to my fascination, a deceased style from England--in the days before England banned the use of wheat in brewing (!)--called mum. The source he quotes describes it thus:
"To produce 42 gallons of mum start with seven bushels of wheat malt, one bushel of oat malt, and one bushel of beans. Once fermentation begins thirteen flavorings are added, including three pounds of the inner rind of a fir tree; one pound each of fir and birch tree tips; three handfuls of 'Carduus Benedictus,' or blessed thistle; two handfuls of 'flowers of the Rosa Solis' or sundew; the insect eating bogplant, which has a bitter, caustic taste; elderflower; betony; wild thyme; cardamom; and pennyroyal."
A few things spring to mind:
  1. Do brewers prefer bogplant rich with insects or free thereof?
  2. Would our native firs suffice as a substitute, or possibly the cambium of the Western red cedar, said to be edible?
  3. Beans?
In seriousness, I have long wondered if we could figure a way to incorporate local ingredients into beer to create something a bit more indigenous. I'm delighted to hear about this fir-rind business, and hope to inspire an experimental brewer to get cracking. Derek?

I'll have more from Brewing With Wheat as I read on. Meantime, I have already found enough of interest to recommend it, so if you are similarly fascinated by the history and art of brewing, consider picking up a copy.
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Other Metrics: Volume Distribution, Total Volume

Last week, I pointed to numbers from the Brewers Association showing that, yet again, craft breweries grew in 2009. But you know, damn lies and statistics. I shot off an email to Brian Butenschoen, director of the Oregon Brewers Guild, to get a sense of what these numbers mean.

He said that in 2008--the last years for which he has numbers, Oregon craft breweries produced 912,000 barrels. That was 10.7% of the entire production of the annual total for that year. Cool, right? But then it occurred to me: Boston Beer brews nearly 2 million barrels. So I kept on thinking.

In 2009, craft breweries produced 9.1 million barrels of beer. That sounds like a lot, until you do the math. According to BA, there were also 1565 craft breweries in the US in '09, so that means each one produced just an average of 5,750 barrels. But as Boston Beer shows, not all breweries are near the mean. To their total, add Sierra Nevada's 700,000 or so, New Belgium's roughly 400,000, and the next few--Deschutes and Widmer among them--with a few thousand apiece, and you can probably knock 4 million of those barrels off the list. Say that leaves you with 1550 craft breweries, now producing five million barrels. That's just an average of 3,225 barrels per brewery. That ain't chopped liver, but it's pretty easy to grow at 7% when your base is three thousand barrels. (To hit that mark, you'd only have to brew 3,255 barrels the next year.)

All of which is to say, the numbers, while good, don't tell the whole story.
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Monday, March 15, 2010

Ides of March

All right, back in the saddle. Looks like, in addition to the usual brewery opening, the teams for some kind of basketball tourney were announced in my absence. Good to see life continues apace.

(Smart money's on the Wisconsin Badgers, fourth seed in the East, btw. Kentucky, pah.)

Brief Reviews: Full Sail Imperial Stout, MacTarnahan's Spine Tingler

I am falling behind again in my reviews, and so here are a couple of quickies.

Full Sail Imperial Stout
I recently picked up a 22 of Full Sail's imperial, lured partly by the price ($4). Anything under five bucks these days seems like a bargain. Full Sail divided this batch into two; the first half is what's in bottles now and the second half is sitting in 19 and 19-year-old Heaven Hill bourbon casks for later release. So this is really just a preview of coming attractions. As imperials go, it's on the small end, just 8%, and what jumped out at me was how thin the body was. Generally imperial stouts are like pudding--you spoon them down rather than sip them. This isn't a criticism, though--it makes for a very smooth, creamy beer. It's a roasty, plummy beer, fairly sweet in the middle, though the hops assert themselves in the aftertaste. If such a thing as a session imperial is possible, this is it. Eight percent may not be a lot for an imperial stout, but it's a lot for 22 ounces. Careful when you crack this one. Rating: B+

MacTarnahan's Spine Tingler
Will Belgian strongs ever in Oregon? Several breweries have tried versions of robust golden ales--Duvel style, tripels, or hybrids--and none have repeated the experiment, which I take to mean that they're not selling well. Spine Tingler is a fairly straightforward tripel, brewed with a touch of wheat and sugar. This is a beer that depends on the yeast. I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong on this, but I think I heard folks at the brewery say they went with a yeast like Unibroue. Here it produces a quite dry, sparkling beer with evident sugar alcohol and a crisp finish. Not a lot of funk, but clearly Belgian. Tripels are not actually my favorite style, so while this was a fine version, it didn't light me up. I'll be interested to see what true fans of the style think. Oh, and I don't know what it costs, because I had my pour at the brewery, gratis, when I visited. Rating: B+

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lucky Lab in the Northeast?

Although I have placed myself at some remove from the greater Beervana catchment area, satellites reach even my undisclosed location. And they send signals to my cell phone in the form of emails, on which, this morning, I heard a rumor that the Lucky Lab has added a new outpost. The rumor suggests Killingsworth and Concord. What the ...?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Brand Dissection: MacTarnahan's

American craft brewing is still mostly a first-generation industry. The owners and brewers who founded these companies still run them. In this way, the brands of craft breweries very closely resemble the personalities of the founders. The first two brand dissections, of Hopworks and Rogue, were selected for this reason. But today we consider MacTarnahan's, a brewery in arguably its third incarnation, managed by people far removed from the founders.

Company History
MacTarnahan's was founded as Portland Brewing by Fred Bowman and Art Larrance, and occupied the building now owned by Rogue at NW 14th and Flanders. They didn't start putting beer out until 1986, but were busy setting up shop earlier than that--right at the dawn of craft brewing in Portland. At that time, trying to find money for breweries was like asking someone to bet on a sure bet in the third race at Portland Meadows. Art and Fred decided to approach this by getting a little money from a lot of people, so they sold shares Portland--a decision I think dictated how the company evolved. One of those people was Mac MacTarnahan, a businessman who offered $25,000 to get things started.

To begin with, like other early breweries, things hummed along. Their first flagship was called Portland Ale, a pale that they started bottling around 1990/91. As the bottled products gained currency, they added Oregon Honey Beer and MacTarnahan's. For awhile it looked like the honey beer might become the flagship, but Mac's came into its own in the mid-90s.

Around that time, Portland joined a bunch of breweries in expansion, building the new brewery and Tap Room in the early-mid 1990s. And, like a lot of breweries, they made a bad bet and the market for good beer dipped, leaving a lot of breweries stranded. Mac stepped in in 1998 and effectively bought the brewery. From there, Portland went through a series of buy-outs and mergers, acquiring Saxer/Nor'Wester in 2000. With those brands it became the 12th-largest brewery in the US, but the moment wouldn't last. In 2004, Pyramid acquired Mac's and in 2008, Magic Hat bought Pyramid. In the 1990s, Art left Portland and went on to found the Raccoon Lodge, and Fred left active management a few years later.

Currently, MacTarnahan's, Pyramid, and Magic Hat are separate shops, with separate brewers and marketing departments. Mac's was spared complete integration, ironically enough, by the facility that weakened them a decade earlier--the brand continues to have a home in the brewery built to produce MacTarnahan's, and in fact is the brewery where all of Pyramid's Northwest-bound beer is brewed, too.

Brand History
Predictably, the changes at the brewery led to similar iterations of brand identity. In the first instance, Portland Brewing highlighted its Portland identity. As it began to grow into a regional company, it downplayed the city roots (Portland Ale was scuttled fairly early on--a loss only we old-timers had the chance to lament) and got into stylistic experimentation. The company made a fantastic German-style weizen that purportedly sold well in Chicago (but not here). They also did an Irish Ale, a lager, and an Oktoberfest--all useful in moving the brand beyond the city. When Mac came on-board, the company eventually abandoned these products and introduced a new line that focused directly on Mac's Scottish heritage--along with a new name for the brewery. These labels featured tartans and names like Blackwatch and Highlander, brands that survived until very recently.

The next iteration came when the master-brewer, Alan Kornheuser, left for a year to manage Pabst operations in China. In his absence, head Brewer Brett Porter produced a series of the most distinctive beers the brewery has ever offered. They were based on beers he learned to brew at Gale's, a traditional brewery in England. For some reason, the brewery decided to go for garish, outlandish packaging in this period, culiminating in the psychedelic Bobby Dazzler.

When Kornheuser returned, the beers did, too, and the line and brand identity continued to attenuate until the re-design in 2007.

Brand Identity--Back to Square One
By the time of the re-design in 2007, MacTarnahan's was a receding brand. Pyramid has limited Mac's to sale in the Northwest, and so it made sense to return to to an identity focused on the city of Portland. Ironies abound: the brewery that abandoned the city so it could have a bigger market has returned to the city as a key branding strategy even while Portland--which has itself become branded as a beer town--is now recognizable far outside the Northwest.

The re-brand was almost like starting fresh and getting back to basics. One of the brand's strengths is age, and this is echoed everywhere in the design: the classic font, suggestive of brands 50 years ago, the faux-rubber stamp on the label that reads "Portland's Original amber ale," and the stylized images of the copper kettles from the Tap Room, which themselves look antique. The design is intended to suggest solidity and age and associate the beer with Portland.

Two other elements jump out. First is the thistle that the brewery started using when it switched to the MacTarnahan's name. This is yet another nod to the brewery's lineage and an homage to Mac MacTarnahan's wish to see his Scottishness represented. But it's also a clever way of tying the brand together, even in its 22s, which have a totally different stylistic signature. Second, the tagline on Mac's, "A distinct, well-hopped ale" is a subtle cue to beer geeks that the brewery is trying to make something other than a bland, middle-market beer.

MacTarnahan's Amber anchors the brand (and in fact, it's the only regular beer left in the line-up; the rest are seasonals and special releases), but these elements are projected through the line. When I sat down with Mike Brown, president of Pyramid, last week, I asked about the bizarre characters on their seasonals, particularly the grifter and humbug'r. It started with Slingshot, he explained. They started with the kind of punky kid "mischievous," as per the label, and asked what became of him. Thus Grifter, the seedy character on their summer brand. Stylistically, these follow Mac's in the mode of nostalgia, with comic-book colors and images. "But Grifter, really? What were you thinking there?" I wanted to know.

Mike was blunt--"To catch people's attention. We wanted it to stand out on the shelf." Essentially, the branding scheme here was exhibitionism. When these beers were coming out, I was mighty skeptical of this idea. It seemed to mock the very quality the brewery was trying to project. But Brown says it was quite successful. Apparently, within the riot of new brands, standing out has its virtue. Of course, the test will be this year, when consumers are familiar with the labels; it will be the beer that will bring them back in year two.

Finally, Mac's has a line of specialty releases in 22-ounce bottles. The themes here d, but follow deviate from the Mac's themes, but do carry over with the thistle. And they follow the jump-off-the-shelves theory. These brands are released in small runs and won't drive sales much, except to the extent that they signal to beer geeks that MacTarnahan's is a brewery that takes beer seriously. (Personally, their brewing staff, not their labels, has been more convincing to me.)

Brand Health
I don't think you'd ever see a beer called "Grifter" from a brewery that saw the beer as an extention of themselves. It's hard to imagine Mac MacTarnahan signing off on that name. This is branding in a more traditional mode--the unemotional commodification of beer. As a good-beer fan, though, I ultimately care less about the theatrics involved in selling beer than I do in the beer itself. Breweries that try to put out a good product get a pass from me if they use crass means to sell them.

In the last few years, the bigger changes with MacTarnahan's involve the introduction of an imperial stout, saison, and now a tripel. These beers have not yet scraped the sky like Dissident or Abyss in terms of accomplishment or daring, but they indicate a brand that's trying to compete with beer, not just spin. The brewery is anchored by MacTarnahan's a lovely little session, and trying to get bold with more aggressive beers. The brand identity, a mixture of the very traditional and a pulpy sensationalism, pretty well mirrors what's happening in the brewhouse. All in all, a brand in coherence.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Program Note

I will be out of town from now through Monday evening, but I have taken advantage of blogger's software to schedule posts through then. But don't be offended if I don't comment--I'll be away from a computer. Have a good weekend--

The Upside of Three Tiers

Nothing kills traffic as effectively as posts about beer distribution, but there's a case in Chicago I can't avoid. Before your eyes glaze over, read on--it's fascinating stuff!

At issue was an effort by Anheuser-Busch Inbev (ABI) to buy a local distributor in Chicago. Following Prohibition, beer companies were required to sell to distributors who in turn sell to retailers--a "three-tiered" system designed to limit brewery dominance (backgrounder here). Things were humming along on the Chicago deal until it reached the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

The seven-member Illinois board ruled that Anheuser, as a company based outside the state, can't control a distributor in Illinois.... The commission said Anheuser—which is based in Leuven, Belgium—couldn't buy the 70% of City Beverage that it doesn't currently own, or it would revoke City Beverage's license to distribute beer in Chicago. City Beverage, which distributes the bulk of Anheuser's products in the Chicago metropolitan area, is part of Detroit-based Soave Enterprises. Anheuser and Soave were close to wrapping up the deal last month before the commission expressed concerns.

ABI is fighting back, of course. They are already allowed to own distributors in other states, and given that sales are flat or falling for macro beer, the only way to increase share is to strong-arm it from the competition. And here's where things get interesting. ABI doesn't really have a credible argument; the Illinois LCC ruled to limit this sale because it would effectively undermine the effectiveness of the three-tier system. ABI's response? Pretty much to agree:
Anheuser, the largest in the U.S. by sales, wants to own the Chicago distributor outright so it can improve its performance and make the brewer more competitive in the Windy City with MillerCoors LLC. MillerCoors, a joint venture of Molson Coors Brewing Co. and SABMiller PLC, is the nation's No. 2 brewer, but it has long led the Chicago market.
I have lots of problems with the three-tier system, which generally hurts small breweries. But where it is clearly needed is in protecting competition among players in the market. I've written about how the tied-house system in England may be one of the reasons pubs are dying off in such stark numbers. Control of the American beer market is now down to just three major players (craft breweries, in total, command just a micro 4.3% of the market), and ABI wants to take an even larger piece of the pie. Congratulations to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission--rulings like theirs will make it harder for the Belgian giant to consolidate power.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lists, Lists

A slow day today, and I've been doing other things. However, I see Stan has linked to a list of BrewDog's favorite hops. This is interesting for a couple reasons: 1) Scottish brewers have not heretofore been noted for their hop passion, and 2) half are American. Bonus points for how they associate the different hops (positively, which goes to show that Scotland is a long way from Oregon) with Lady Gaga, David Hasselhoff, Spandau Ballet, Ziggy Stardust, Tony Christie [?], and the Boss. You can decide how well these personalities align.

Next, Derek rather off-handedly selects his top ten Oregon breweries. Inclusions include Standing Stone and Big Horse, and exclusions include Full Sail, Pelican, Caldera, Ninkasi, Fort George, Widmer, Roots, Hopworks, and so on and so forth. His fave brewery? Hint: it's been open less than two years. Very bold! Personally, if you gave me a few more slots--say 35-40, I might play along. But ten? No way. You may go take issue with him there.

Update: I should add--confess--I do like Lady Gaga. But I'd call her more of a Summit than a Simcoe.

National Craft Brewing Numbers (*)

Craft brewing sales were up in 2009--a remarkable fact given how bad the economy was. This story has been circulating for a few days now (and was even reported on OPB this morning). Some of the facts, bullet-style:
  • Sales in craft beer were up 7.2% by volume and 10.3% by sales--exceeding the rate of growth in 2008;
  • Overall beer sales fell 2.2%, and sales on imports fell 9.8% (but, keep in mind that Stella Artois, Corona, and Heineken are imports, not just brands like Cantillon and Fuller's);
  • Craft breweries produced 9.1 million barrels, but still enjoy only a modest 4.3% of the total beer market.
This is of course good news--and way better than the alternative. But looking at numbers in the aggregate conceals the performance of individual breweries--and based on murmurs I heard, there was substantial volatility. We'll get a fuller report in April, and then we'll have a better sense of how things are going.

Update. As an example, Boston Beer missed its sales goals for the fourth quarter. Barrels sales dropped 14% in Q4 compared with the same quarter a year earlier. It's only one data point--but a pretty big one.
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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

BeerAdvocate's Misguided Question

This morning, BeerAdvocate tweeted that they were soliciting comments to this hypothesis:
From what the bro and I have been reading, it appears that most people feel that special release beer events have gone too far. Generally speaking, these special release day beers gain an insane amount of hype, get put on eBay before they're even released, bad distribution systems are put in place, people are waiting in lines for many hours/traveling from afar in hopes to get their hands on a bottle or taste, hoarders/campers are an issue, many walk away disappointed, etc, etc, etc. There are exceptions of course ...

So assuming that most think they've gone to far, what are some solutions? (Examples from some of the exceptions perhaps?)
In the eight plus years I've had a login at BA, I've commented on exactly four threads. So I didn't take it very seriously when Todd wrote not to post if you disagreed with the "general consensus." So I commented. And my comment was deleted. D'oh! Now I know. Anyway, since BA is clearly not the forum for dissent, I'll use my own. Here's what I wrote, and I offer it partly as Beeronomics bait.
I disagree that this is a problem. The issue is one of demand outstripping supply. If breweries wanted to put the supply and demand into equilibrium, they would either produce more beer or raise the prices. An example: for the first three years of production, Deschutes enjoyed the intense scramble for Abyss. Last year, they produced far more Abyss than in previous years. The result? Bottles are still available, months later, at local grocery stores. They'll sell the full run, but the scramble is no longer mad.

Breweries have to be a little careful not to abuse what is actually a wonderful manifestation--a constantly-growing interest in intense, specialty craft beers. If they make it too difficult or too expensive for consumers to buy their beer, they risk alienating them. But one of the main goals is to create exactly the fervent interest these specialty releases produce. The market is self-correcting, and to the extent there is a problem, it will resolve itself--to the detriment or benefit of individual breweries. In this balancing act, smart breweries will use specialty releases to bring attention to their products, which will in turn boost sales on regular releases--the bread and butter of most breweries.
Your thoughts?

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MacTarnahan's Reconsidered

Last week I went to the MacTarnahan's Taproom to chat with folks about new beers and brands. Mark Carver invited me out, and he may now be the longest-tenured guy left at Mac's. We were joined by Pyramid President Mike Brown and brewers Tom Bleigh and Vasilios Gletsos. The featured beer was Mac's Spine Tingler, a tripel that will be released within days. But the real revelation came just before I left, two hours later. Mark plopped a MacTarnahan's in front of me.

There are many cool things about writing about beer. Like sitting around drinking beer with brewers and brewery presidents. But there are some embarrassing moments, too, like the one I was about to experience. I sniffed deeply of the beer and was surprised at how vivid the hops were. Then I tasted it and was even more surprised. It was a totally different beer than the last time I tried it. "Have you changed the recipe?" I asked. "Not since we started dry-hopping it in 2001," Mark replied, mildly.

2001!?

It has apparently been that long since I've had a Mac's. (I never forget a beer--just the last time I had it.) MacTarnahan's was always a tasty beer, but understated and, as the decade of the 90s wore on, a bit underpowered as well. It went through a series of rebrands, becoming a "Scottish-style ale" for awhile (a nod to the namesake), and now calls itself a "distinct, well-hopped amber." I have always thought of the beer as perfectly characteristic for a brewery that prized consistency and drinkability above daring.

Despite the now-anachronistic name ("ambers" emerged during a phase of American craft brewing when consumers didn't know how to relate to ales. To help them along, breweries named their darker pale ales "ambers" to bridge the gap between pales and browns.) Naming tradition aside, MacTarnahan's is a pretty classic pale ale (in fact, it won gold at the GABF in that category last year).

Apparently, though, the brewers tuned it up a decade ago, and what a fine tuning it was. It's a very simple recipe, just pale and caramel malts and Cascade hops, and a modest beer at 5.1% and 32 IBUs. Dry-hopping is the key, because it takes those hops up a notch, saturating the mild recipe in lupulin goodness. As a region, we've grown to associate Cascade hops and pale ales so closely that a great many are, like MacTarnahan's, single-hop ales. With dry-hopping, Mac's wrings a bit more of the juice from them, and I found a perfumy note absent in most pales. (I had a bottle at home after I visited the brewery and I can confirm that if you really want the full monty, you need to try the beer on tap.)

One of the problems with writing about beer in the Northwest is that there are literally hundreds of new beers to try every year. I could easily try a new beer every time I went to the store or pub and never run out of options. As a result, I often fail to loop back around and try the old standards (a phenomenon I've Karl Ockert has called the "novelty curve"). It's been a long time since I've been out to the Tap Room, which is flanked by those beautiful copper vessels. If you have been similarly remiss, maybe it's time to take a trip out.
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