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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.


  1. There is a great site called:

    if you ever want to get nostalgic looking back through old labels.

  2. @ DA Beers,
    Thanks for the link. Nice art / cleaver stuff.

    My favorite beer art are the labels / poster of
    - Laughing Dog Brewing Co.
    - Beer Valley Brewing Co.
    Zoom in on the 'Highway to Ale' wagon driver at:

    I had the name of the Laughing Dog artist; but, alas, it is misplaced.

  3. "All in all, a brand in coherence."

    Really? I have a hard time even finding a "brand" with this brewery. I really doubt that changing label design and beer names every few years creates any brand identity in the long run. Your first two breweries are still run by their founders. It must be tough to keep the boat going in one direction when you change captains as many times as this company has.

  4. Anon, "brand" is just that. If I were going to do a post on brewery identity, I'd be doing something a little different. And it's worth noting that Christian Ettinger was barely able to legally drink MacTarnahan's the first time it was offered commercially.

    How brands survive different captains will become--sadly, I'm afraid--a more common prospect in the years ahead. Eventually, even the youngsters like Christian will retire; what will become of their breweries then? It's a little grim to think about, but a pint helps ease the pain.