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Monday, October 05, 2009

Deschutes Backlash?

It is axiomatic that the bigger you are, the bigger target you are. Small breweries struggle to get attention and press--and of course, consumers. Yet they don't have to put up with familiar charges that they've gone downhill or sold out. (Which is not to say that breweries of a certain size don't, in fact, sell out.)

The latest grumbling targets Deschutes. Reviewing Hop Trip, Lew Bryson walked away disappointed:
Hop Trip is okay, competent, but it falls far short of two beers from Deschutes I enjoyed tremendously in recent months: Twilight and Red Chair. Fresh, clean, competent, but ultimately disappointing. I really expected more from this one.
It sparked a couple rather sharp comments (from at least one Oregonian) about the lauded Bend institution:

"Deschutes is a shadow of its former greatness. Every once in awhile I try one just to check, and I'm always disappointed."

"The fact that Deschutes beers still get even obligatory lip service from anyone who considers themselves beer savvy is utterly confounding to me. Fact: They're boring, and when something like beer that, last I checked, is supposed to be fun is boring, well, it sucks.

"It says a lot about the current state of craft brewing and its acolytes that anyone still gives [Deschutes] more than a passing thought. You want good beer to be the standard? Demand passion and vision from your breweries. Don't settle for this horseshit."

"There's nothing wrong with competent. The world frankly needs more competent, including the craft brew industry (which, while not plagued with the technical problems of a decade ago, still has a lot of poorly conceived and uninteresting beer out there). But competent's a step back for a brewery that was once great. Some of the transition may undoubtedly be my palate drift, but I don't think you can chalk it up wholly to that. It's not like I run around saying Sierra is a shadow of its former self, after all."
It's interesting that I noticed this post today, just minutes after seeing Deschutes boast about how much press it got in October. (I am partly to blame.) These two facts are no doubt connected.

It is easy to relate to little breweries. You visit them regularly, get to know the staff, feel like they're part of the community. Maybe you know the brewer and take a special pride in his beer. We related to little breweries--good ones, anyway--as "us." We identify with them. When little breweries grow, however, they become less personal. The staff changes and they become more like faceless businesses, less personal, less members of the community. Slowly they become "them."

Oregon breweries have done a great job of trying to stay connected to people as they grow. Widmer eschewed this connection early on and has spent 15 years trying to re-establish it. Full Sail and Deschutes have self-consciously tried to remain local breweries down the block, acccessible, personable. Rogue has a quirky approach, asking you to join their community, rather than vice versa--but still with the recognition that personal connection is important.

Have we reached the moment where Deschutes no longer feels local and part of "us?" These comments are quite agressively harsh. Sort of like a spurned friend. They seem to have less to do with the actual products Deschutes has put out in the past couple years--surely one of the most innovative and aggressive line-ups in the country--than some kind of other violation. So what's up?

Do these comments represent your views? Anyone else care to take a crack at what's going on here?

Update: Bill posts his thoughts, too. Looks like there's a backlash to the backlash. Deschutes supporters are rallying! (Isn't it a delight to live in a state where people are so passionate about their beer. You could even call it ... Beervana.)


  1. For what it's worth, I find the comments totally mystifying. Here's a list of the regular bottled beer and seasonal/specialty beers (which excludes all the pub-originals they offer):

    Two IPAs (Red Chair, Inversion)
    An imperial IPA (Hop Henge)
    A fresh hop beer (Hop Trip)
    An organic amber (green Lakes)
    A stout (Obsidian)
    A porter (Black Butte)
    Two pales (Mirror Pond, Twilight)
    A golden (Cascade)
    A ESB (Bachelor)
    A red (Cinder Cone)
    A brown (Buzzsaw)
    A winter ale (Jubelale)
    Two insane black ales (Abyss, Black Butte Anniversary)
    An Oud Bruin (Dissident)
    and a barleywine (Mirror Mirror)

    It's a brewery that has the skill to brew the best session ales in the state as well as some of the most-lauded specialty big beers available. Disappointing? I just don't get it.

  2. I think some of it is boredom. Personally, I tend to drink 22 oz. bombers more often than 12 oz. bottles because the 22 oz. bottles is where most of the special stuff gets bottled these days. Mirror Pond, Black Butte Porter, and other stuff available year 'round gets glossed over by yours truly because I've had them so many times. But if I'm at a party and I see bottles of Deschutes' everyday stuff in the cooler, I won't think twice about cracking one open. They make consistently solid beer.

    I don't understand the backlash, either. Even if you omit the stuff that Deschutes has available all the time in 12 oz. bottles, they brew a lot of high-quality beer. The Dissident, The Abyss, Black Butte XXI, Mirror, Mirror, Red Chair (which I like less than Inversion, but that's neither here nor there), Hop Trip, Hop Henge, and Twilight and Jubelale in 12 oz. bottles are all excellent--and some even world-class--beers. And that's ignoring the one-offs you can find in the Bend and Portland pubs that never gets bottled.

  3. I'm really confounded by these comments. Deschutes is one of the few large breweries I actually admire. They produce a good quantity of seasonals and laudable Reserve Series in addition to those aforementioned 'competant' year round offerings.

    My typical talking point with Deschutes revolves around geography. There's a lot of places I could live where I'd pine considerably for, say, a Black Butte Porter.

  4. average Joe consumer2:30 PM, October 05, 2009

    "I just don't get it."

    What beers on this list stand out as unique from any other big microbrewery? Dissident and Abyss! Other than those, nothing. All these beers are commonplace in the current American beer world. How many IPA, Pales, Porters, Browns and so on are found in any average American Brew pub or brewery? Sam Adams has all these covered and more. So does Sierra Nevada and many others across this country.

    "The fact that Deschutes beers still get even obligatory lip service from anyone who considers themselves beer savvy is utterly confounding to me."

    Of course, the majority of these beers are banal. They don't stand out or exceed anybodies expectations.

    The beer savvy are just like any other consumer, they search for something new, different and exciting.

    Are Deschutes beers bad? No, just mundane.

    Want an example? How about Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Mo.? The heartland of America has a beer list that exceeds Deschutes beer line up in interest, not quantity. They are gaining International recognition for there efforts on there Smokestack series. Even their standards go slightly beyond the norm.

    Their beer line up:

    Wheat, IPA, Porter, Pale, Brown, Stout, Irish Red, Maibock, Wit, Munich Lager and A Holiday brew.

    Smokestack series: Double IPA, Saison, Tripel and Quadrupel.

    This is a brewery in the heartland of America that's not even close to calling themselves Beervana. They're just making some interesting beer.

  5. It's always dangerous to assume things about people you've never met, but it sure sounds like the "horse sh**" comment must have come from someone who really has only experienced Deschutes at the grocery store, where $8.50 is a little much to ask sometimes for such "familiar" beers as Mirror Pond and BBP. As many people have already mentioned, the Pub Exclusive beers are nearly 100% amazing; every time I look at the Portland menu I wish I lived within walking distance of the pub because I feel like I could drink any one of those beers all evening long, which would call for many more evenings than I have to spare... boring is the last word that comes to mind here!

  6. One other point I'd make is about Deschutes' "mundane" beers. It's true that many of these are brewed in familiar styles, but at least three are world-class: Bachelor Bitter (a John Harris creation now only available on tap), Buzzsaw Brown and Black Butte Porter.

    Familiarity breeds contempt. No doubt they yawn at Budvar in Prague. I mean, it's had the same damn recipe for over a hundred years! What a snoozer.

    Or, you could say that to brew a decent bitter, brown porter, and brown ale is a tall order--keeping them lively, mutlilayered, and rich is no easy task--and is the reason so few others are worth mentioning.

    Some of Deschutes' oldest and most "mundane" beers are their best.

  7. does average Joe consumer happen to have the same IP address as dr wort?

    Deschutes is solid and they make great beer. not every brewery has to innovate all the time. Roots is about as innovate as they get and word is they're not doing so well.

    Obsidian Stout is still one of the best, reasonably priced stouts on the market.

  8. willamette wanker2:54 PM, October 05, 2009

    "No doubt they yawn at Budvar in Prague."

    Sounds like some locals have that same feeling about Deschutes.

    "Some of Deschutes' oldest and most "mundane" beers are their best."

    That appears to be the problem. The mundane best doesn't quite cut the mustard with the ever evolving beer savvy sect.

  9. average Joe consumer2:56 PM, October 05, 2009

    Who's Dr Wort?

  10. I don't think there's a backlash. First off, I'm immediately suspicious that two of the commenters in Lew's post resolve to "Profile Not Available" pages, and when their comments instantly make the "Troll sense" tingle, I wouldn't put much stock in any "backlash" from that angle.

    Jeff France's comments are more concrete, though still entirely his personal opinion, which is fine (this whole blogging this is predicated on personal opinion!)--but again, I'd hardly classify as a backlash. I'm harsh on beers and breweries sometimes too, but I don't consider myself a "backlash". :)

    But I think the "palate drift" comment has some merit. I don't think Deschutes' beers have changed and more than I think Full Sail Amber Ale has changed--I think it's more that our own tastes and experiences have changed instead. When I first tried Full Sail Amber, eons ago, I thought it was wonderful, the pinnacle of the American Amber malty style. In the years since, it has never re-captured that impression for me. It's not the beer; it's me.

    And then there are many more breweries out there now than 10, 15 years ago; and a lot of these are putting out great, innovative, different beers, and yes, up against a "regular" pale ale like Mirror Pond, it can seem like Mirror Pond/Deschutes is falling behind. (Overlooking all the various Reserves and unique beers Deschutes has been producing, of course.)

    But, to each his own. I personally wouldn't call out Boulevard Brewing as exceeding Deschutes, but again, it's all opinion.

  11. "Wheat, IPA, Porter, Pale, Brown, Stout, Irish Red, Maibock, Wit, Munich Lager and A Holiday brew. "

    Does this lineup sound much more exciting then the one Jeff posted above?

    Scores Per Ratebeer:

    Deschutes Porter: 3.65
    Boulevard Porter: 3.64

    Deschutes Pale: 3.45
    Boulevard Pale: 3.24

    Deschutes IPA: 3.51
    Boulevard IPA: 3.58

    Deschutes Pils: 3.31
    Boulevard Pils: 2.96

    Deschutes Stout: 3.77
    Boulevard Stout: 3.12

    Deshutes Imp Stout: 4.16
    Boulevard Imp Stout: 3.89

  12. Damn, I was going to make exactly this same post on It's Pub Night, but got bogged down in work.

    I don't get it either (obviously, having reacted to the "shadow of former greatness" comment over on Lew's blog).

    One commenter (at Lew's) compared Deschutes to Miller High Life?!? Oh come on. Another one implies that Sierra Nevada has retained their greatness, while Deschutes has slipped from greatness to mere competence. Everyone has an opinion, but I find Deschutes offerings to be much more exciting than SN's, as competent as SN may be.

    And Boulevard? I've had their beer a few times over the decades, and I'm glad they're there, but I wouldn't say they're leaving Deschutes in the dust just yet.

  13. "Who's Dr Wort?"

    Is exactly what Dr. Wort would say.

    Go read some older Beervana posts.

  14. Wow. I realize this is a beer blog for those lucky enough to live in the Northwest, but as an unfortunate denizen of Southern California, I doth protest.

    I guarantee you there are few outside of Oregon who are even familiar with Deschutes. I say this due to the frequent number of times I've either looked or asked for a Black Butte, Mirrorpond, Inversion, etc., and been met with either a blank stare or a Beevis-like joke about Black Butte.

    Trust me, you don't know how good you got it till you move away. San Diego is the only city even trying anything interesting down here - beerwise, that is - and many of Deschutes' products would compete quite well against anything from there.

    Just sayin', try and keep things in perspective. From where I'm sitting, Deschutes still seems like a refreshing, even exotic, brewery...

  15. @Jake Smith

    "I say this due to the frequent number of times I've either looked or asked for a Black Butte, Mirrorpond, Inversion, etc., and been met with either a blank stare or a Beevis-like joke about Black Butte."

    You know it's pronounced "bewte" and not "butt" right? :)

  16. average Joe consumer7:49 PM, October 05, 2009

    Anon -

    ""Who's Dr Wort?"

    Is exactly what Dr. Wort would say.

    Go read some older Beervana posts."

    Thanks for your help. What a D-bag you must be!

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. (spelling edits ahoy!)

    It's a shame we really have no objective measures in the beer world. All we have are our opinions (and we all know what those are like).

    However, I suspect that if we did have a magic yardstick, Deschutes would still be rating very well. The fact that they regularly clean up at competitions (silver for plain old Mirror Pond at the GABF!) and over at BA/Ratebeer lends credence to that assumption.

    They may not be brewing with noisy, "elite" (and likely fatigued) palates in mind, but they're obviously still doing something extremely right in Bend.

  19. Commentary about how a brewery has slipped or become mundane or whatever the criticism carries with it some expectation of comparison. For example, Mirror Pond in 2002 had a more robust . . .etc. compared to 2008. Without that quantification, if one can call it that, such criticism is intellectual laziness. Jeff makes a good point to list the various beers available. At least showing that the quantity has increased and with it, in his opinion, that some of these beers have had critical success is a step in the right direction. The rest is just personal taste and opinion.

  20. Deschutes makes a great variety of beers, however they do have quality problems in the Bottle,namely oxidation.

  21. While I can kind of understand the whole, "But I've TRIED that already," mentality, it doesn't change the fact that the vast majority of the Deschutes roster ranges from 'competent' to 'really good' to 'I want to IV this stuff straight into my veins'. The only stuff I dislike is the occasional experimental brew. But that's par for the course for a lot of breweries. Some good, some not so good, and some that bring you back time and time again.

    Personally, the only problem I have with Deschutes is the $15 growler refills. Just feels a little steep by comparison to other places in town.

  22. An interesting conversation to have with friends is:

    If you could only drink beer from one brewery for the rest of your life, which one would it be?

    We always end up on Deschutes. I agree with other posters, the beer ranges from good to world class and I'm never disappointed when offered one.

  23. OK, I had to write up my own rant on this subject. Because you can never have too much ranting, right?

    Trivia question: how many Deschutes beers does the Beermongers currently stock? The answer is in my rant.

  24. I apologize upfront for the social philosophy, but here's my two cents (OK, it's more like 10 cents):

    I think Average Joe Consumer hit the nail on the head:

    "The beer savvy are just like any other consumer, they search for something new, different and exciting."

    Yes, we've been conditioned as consumers in our culture to constantly demand something "new" and "different." It has little to do with quality, but it's an unending desire for "new." It's sad because it causes us to dismiss products (in this case beers) that are thought of as commonplace, despite their excellence. In fact, some have made the argument that the idea of connoisseurship and "expertise" when it comes to mass market items, like beer, is in fact completely rooted in consumerism and consumerism's necessity to make us constantly yearn for new products and a method of differentiating them (thereby creating a sense of "new" and "different").

    There's also the point Jeff made, that larger breweries tend to decline in popularity amongst the "beer savvy" and "beer experts" for much the same reason that hipsters drop bands when they "sellout" (ie, become popular.)

    Once something is popular, it's no longer perceived as "cool" and loses the cache of exclusivity that connoisseurship demands.

    So that means that Deschutes, Widmer, Pyramid etc. have to be forsaken because their success means they can no longer feed our incessant need for the "new." It doesn't matter if they have great beers or a wide ranging product line. They're aren't "new," so we dismiss them, never realizing that "new" and "different" are completely artificial needs that we've been sold.

  25. Some of the comments just reflect obligatory craft beer elitism (too-big-to-like). I mean, Westvleteren 12 is a great beer but it is not a coincidence that "the best beer in the world" turns out to be one of the hardest beers to obtain as well.

    There is a lot of evidence in experimental psychology (especially as it pertains to wine) that people rate alcoholic beverages partly based on how rare or expensive the drink is.

    I really like Deschutes a lot. Two of my favorite session beers are Deschutes (Green Lakes and Obsidian) and this is exactly because I found them quite exceptional compared to similar beers from craft breweries.

  26. average Joe consumer9:58 AM, October 06, 2009

    average Bill -

    "So that means that Deschutes, Widmer, Pyramid etc. have to be forsaken because their success."

    Don't get too crazy! Deschutes is a big brewery that makes some fine beers, so far. Pyramid and Widmer and pure corporate entities that are producing corporate beers.

  27. iggir said...

    "does average Joe consumer happen to have the same IP address as dr wort?"

    If it is Mike Winslow, he's doing a lot more writing on Jeff's comments section than he is on his own blog.

  28. here's the bottom line: i am not bored because i can drink the experimental beers at the pub, which tend to be exciting and different if not great. if all i got was the sixers and occasional 22, i'd be a little bored. but i don't think i'd be expecting deschutes to be cascade, upright, or bruery either. we need our session ales and consistent local products in addition to the crazy shit.

  29. @ Andrew Self

    Hah! Yeah, the "Beevis-like" comments usually come post-procurement when people see the bottle or the six pack. Only place that ever seems to carry any Deschutes around here is a place called "Beverages and More"... still not sure what the "More" is...

  30. Could some of the "local" backlash perhaps stem from the Portland pub's Pearl District location and the fratbag / douchehole crowd that packs the place most every night? It doesn't matter what you're drinking, it's just not a pleasant place to have a pint.

  31. With all the negative comments about Deschutes, it looks like breweries are prone to the indie music effect.

    Indie music attracts a lot of elitist fans. When a band becomes popular these fans disown it, claiming the band sold out or the music got worse. The truth is, they can't stand the idea of liking something 'mainstream'. True fans of music appreciate when a band of any genre can make some money doing what they love. I think this analogy can be applied directly to breweries.

    What a lot of people fail to realize is that like bands, breweries put out some of their best work once they get bigger. I doubt Deschutes would be cranking out things like Abyss, Mirror Mirror, etc if they when still a low barrel house. Besides, living in Oregon, Deschutes keeps us stocked with their tap-only offerings.

    Also, I can't think of a brewery in Deschutes' price range that has a more solid range of beers. The company I work for routinely sells Deschutes 6 packs in it's store for $5.77. The only other things I find in this sub-six range are a few beers from Pyramid, Widmer and New Belgium. I picked up a some Jubelale for this price last week and couldn't have been happier with my purchase. It's good to see there are some other Deschutes stalwarts.


  32. "Could some of the "local" backlash perhaps stem from the Portland pub's Pearl District location and the fratbag / douchehole crowd that packs the place most every night? It doesn't matter what you're drinking, it's just not a pleasant place to have a pint."

    I think this is true, I LOVE the Deschutes Pearl Location, but I HATE the people that exemplify the 'frat/douche' snotty persons. I know not everyone there fits this category, but when enough do, it's hard to enjoy your pint(s).

    I consider myself a beer nerd, and I very much enjoy many of Deschutes bottled beers. (Especially when I can get them for $6 a six-pack.) The Bitter, Jubel and Obsidian are currently stocked in my beer fridge. Are they the most refined and fancy brews out there, no, in my mind that's not the role of $6 six packs.

    An afternoon with friend(s) is nicely spent with a glass of Deschutes, New Belgium, Widmer or Ninkasi in hand...all 'sell outs' to "THE MAN". what, I'll still drink their beers.

    Having a portfolio that appeals to what I would call Craft Beer Knowledgeable doesn't damn a brewer(y) into I'm too elite to drink your beers status. While I sit here patiently waiting for some more Dissident.

  33. I'm a fan of Deschutes. I look for variety in my beer, but I grab a case of Mirror Pond, or Black Butte at least once a year.

    I'm a bit confused about what some of these critics are looking for in their beer. Do they literally want to drink some "gimmick" beer every day?

    I consider many of the "special beers" released by smaller breweries at $6 a bomber to be just that: gimmicks.

    "How much hops can I throw in a kettle?"

    "Can I get the ABV of my 'Double Imperial' up to 14%?"

    That hardly strikes me as craftsmanship. 75% of those are just bright flashing lights to attract morons to overpriced beer.