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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An Honorary Satori (Plus Other 2015 Highlights)

Back when this blog started, 3,633 days ago*, I used to do a year-end award for the best new beer released that calendar year. I managed to keep it alive through 2011, when the sheer force of new releases overwhelmed me. In 2012 I gave a sort-of Satori to Occidental Brewing for excellence in lager beer, and general overall awesomeness. Since then the Satori has been dark...

Until now.

It's certainly not that things have gotten easier. It's now so impossible to keep up with beers--so much so that the New School declared Occidental, my 2012 Satori winner, the second-most "most underrated brewery."  The winner, absurdly, was my 2009 Satori winner, Upright Brewing. Apparently we can not only not keep up with new breweries, what to speak of new beers, but now we're losing track of beloved existing breweries. But I digress.

This year I wanted to make special note of a new brewery here in town that should quickly jump to the top tier of must-see stops on a visit to Beervana. That brewery is Culmination, which opened over the summer. I haven't seen such a confident and sure-footed debut of a new brewery since--well, probably since Upright. Brewer Tomas Sluiter had toiled for years at Old Market Brewery, making beer for folks who had fairly pedestrian tastes. For special events, he was sometimes given the green light to make something to age in a barrel, or ferment with wild yeast, but I don't think too many people expected him to be harboring such ambitious goals.

All that time making golden ales and porters gave Sluiter the time to envision a truly adventuresome lineup, and when Culmination launched, it had an impressive array of yeast-forward beers designed to please palates. I've never seen fewer than three saisons on tap, in all colors of the beer rainbow. There's usually at least one wild ale on tap, and generally a spiced ale or two. Of course, he also dabbles a bit in hops, and it's here where he made perhaps the biggest impression. His regular IPA is in fact fairly irregular--and has become my favorite hoppy ale in the city. Euphoric IPA is made with Brettanomcyes (the chalkboard inevitably says "Brett IPA," and I bet half the people ask--"who's Brett?"), but most people would be unaware of the yeast's contribution. In the manner of modern IPAs, it's incredibly tropical, with layers of fruity flavors and clouds of citrusy aroma. The strain of Brett he uses accentuates this, but you don't have to know it's there. What you find is a deeply pleasurable, approachable beer. The Satori is typically given to a beer, so consider Euphoric IPA this year's winner.

I've been very impressed with his saisons, as well, and the black saison is a perfect winter beer. He also has a penchant for dark ales--no longer particularly popular, but personal faves of mine--and treats like the recent chocolate stout were good, old-school fun. From top to bottom, the beer list has been impressive.

Culmination has been getting a lot of press as one of the best new breweries this year, which is an accurate but understated compliment. Culmination is one of the best breweries in Portland, and if you haven't checked it out, do so at your earliest convenience.

A lot else happened in 2015, and here are a few of the highlights

Kurt Widmer
At some point I hope to have a proper post up about the influence of one-half of the titular Widmer Brothers. Kurt announced that he was going to retire this year, concluding a 31-year run with the brewery he founded. It opened within months of BridgePort in 1984, and quickly became a part of the fabric of the city. Despite those 31 years, Kurt is still relatively young, and I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement, with our many, many thanks.

Honest Pints
For a very brief moment, it looked like honest pints might become the law of Oregon. Didn't happen.

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
Traveling around the country was a useful perspective-giving exercise. I learned many things, but one was relevant to Oregon. Basically, no one beyond a buffer of a state or two away has ever tried Oregon beer. Rogue is very like the only beer a, say Wisconsinite, will ever have encountered. This I knew. What I did not know is that Deschutes has begun pushing ever further out, and in many of the more beer districts, riding the success of Fresh Squeezed IPA. I saw it on tap throughout the Midwest. Here in Oregon, we have gotten used to these fruit-juice IPAs (the "fresh squeezed" of the title). We are still a few years ahead of other states, and so this is a radical beer in far-flung markets. Not surprisingly, people rave about it. It's the kind of beer that hints at the huge potential of hops to go beyond bitterness. It's a great beer and a great ambassador for Oregon.

Oregon legalized it. Almost nothing changed.

Kettle Souring
Rarely does a brewing technique deserve special attention at year-end best-ofs. But this year we must acknowledge the debt the brewing industry owes to kettle souring, that process of acidifying a wort with a lactic fermentation and then using the soured mash in beers like gose, Berliner weisse, and dry-hopped sours. All three of those styles were hugely popular in 2015--gose grew the fastest of any style, Berliner weisse the third-fastest--and follow a trend led by brewers here. In April, Gigantic's Ben Love, The Commons' Sean Burke, and Breakside's Ben Edmunds gave a talk on the process at the Craft Brewers Conference, illustrative of how well-established the practice has become here. It's a great, natural way for breweries to use lactic acid to acidify beers exactly the degree they wish. You can tinge a saison with crispness or make a Berliner weisse screamingly tart--and everything in between. Expect this to become a universal, common practice in the US in the next decade.

Some Guy Released a Book
You may have heard about it. 

You couldn't end a round-up of the year's activities without noting the trend toward consolidation within the craft-brewing segment. Just a quick glance at a list of the largest U.S. breweries demonstrates what's happened. The three largest US beer companies are still makers mainly of mass market lagers, but half of the next eight—all one-time craft breweries—are partially or entirely owned by large multinational beer companies. To add a cherry on top, Reuters recently reported that employee-owned New Belgium was courting a buy-out suitor. (Which goes to show that employee-owned companies may be especially vulnerable to buy-outs; earlier in the year, Oregon's employee-owned Full Sail sold out to a private equity firm.)

None of which should really bother us. I would expect that consolidation will continue to proceed apace. Anheuser-Busch InBev's strategy is to create a network of "craft" brands that it can use to create a national all-ABI family of products. That will streamline business at both the wholesale and retail levels. But there's little reason to think that it will damage the market or make good, experimental beers harder to find. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, big companies are going to be emulating the craft brands, trying to make the edgy, experimental beers that craft drinkers want. Remember the old cliche, which fits the moment perfectly: Bud couldn't beat 'em, so they joined (or bought) 'em.

That's it for 2015. Onward to 2016 . . .
*Look for special 10th anniversary blogging in the new year.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Good Beers 2015

This past year was an odd one for me--a good portion of the best beers I tasted came from breweries beyond Oregon. I spent six weeks on the road, traveling to 24 cities in 18 states (plus DC), and managed to drink a beer or four at each stop. What I enjoyed is illustrative of what's available in American craft brewing right now. We can't really hope to keep abreast of the beer scene anymore, with upwards of a hundred thousand different brands being made last year. (Rough math: if the 3,800 breweries last year made an average of 26.3 different brands--which sounds about right--we had 100k beers in 2015.) The best we can do is sample and hope to have found a few big winners. Here are mine.
  • Block 15 [forgotten name] saison. One of my first events was at Block 15, at their new Taproom outside of town. It's a great facility and they pour a nice selection of the kind of beers I think of when I think of Block 15--saisons, sours, barrel-aged beers. I had a couple beers that evening, including a summery saison that was kissed by Brettanomcyes. Delicate, fresh, tropical, and it drank way underneath its heft. I was reminded why I think this is one of Oregon's best breweries.
  • Russian River Beatification. In Corte Madera, I had a wonderful event at Book Passage, in which the bookstore had four beers available for tasting. My event became that tasting, which included a porter, two IPAs, and Russian River's Beatification--the batch that hadn't even been released to the public yet. About halfway into the first beer--Russian River--I realized I could talk about the beer from the point of view of what the dominant ingredient contributed, and people were wowed to learn how much yeast can do for a beer. 
  • Fremont Interurban. The Book Larder in Seattle arranged to have growlers of Fremont Brewing. I am ashamed to say I'd never had Interurban IPA. Vivid, Northwestern, sessionable--a great beer.

  • A typical blackboard, this one at Ale Yeah! in Decatur, GA (note gose).

  • Revolution What the Helles. I made a special trip out to Revolution when I was in Chicago, and on the whole I was underwhelmed. (Top to bottom, Goose Island, where my event was, had more accomplished and daring beer.) But they had a helles that saved the day. It wasn't particularly authentic, but it was just perfectly made in terms of balance and pleasure.
  • Urban Chestnut [forgotten name] corn lager. This was an evocation of a classic American pale lager made with corn, and it showed how well corn works when people are trying to make a good beer with it. Supremely crisp, but with a hint of sweetness, all of which made for a perfect platform for zingy little hops. 
  • Schlafly Lemon Basil Gose. Gose was the big surprise on my trip: I would estimate that at least 75% of my stops had one on tap. My fave, and perhaps my favorite beer on the trip was Schlafly's gose, which had a perfect savory-tart-sweet balance point. It was in so many ways not like beer--it was like a beery Gatorade on a hot day--and yet I couldn't imagine anyone not liking it. I loved it.
  • Other Half Brett IPA. I managed to get half a glass of this elixir as the keg blew, and it was one of the highlights of the trip. Other Half is the beer geek's choice in the Empire state, and they really had this beer dialed in; it was all sticky tropical fruit and deep aromatics. I suspect no one knows what the "brett" meant, but I bet they love this beer. 
  • Hidden Springs Berliner Weisse. Tampa, Florida, unexpectedly had a fantastic beer scene. My event was at Hidden Springs Ale Works, which was just a few months old. Nevertheless, the brewery had already dialed everything in. The IPA could have come straight from Portland, but what really caught my eye was the tropical-fruit Berliner (there was more than one fruit and I forget which ones). Even in November, when I visited, the city was 85 degrees. What you want is something like this that can both impress with its intensity, but also slake a mighty thirst.
  • Ardent Single Hop IPA. In Richmond, VA, I did another guided tasting at Ardent Craft Ales, a wonderful newish brewery there. As I was talking, I got off on an IPA jag (I was supposed to be talking about saison) and the brewery folks ran back and got tasters of an IPA so people could see what I was talking about. They brought out one of their single-hop IPAs (they did a long series), and I think it was with El Dorado. Whatever the reality, it was a perfect example of the (new) American penchant for late- and dry-hopping beers to tease out insanely intense flavors and aromas. 
  • Fullsteam Wild Sacch beer. In Durham, NC, the Fullsteam Brewery is trying to isolate a wild Saccharomyces strain to use as a house yeast. We generally think of Brett when we're thinking wild, but standard Sacch start out that way, too. The beer they had made was a session ale that had something of a saison and something of a kellerbier in it. Crisp but slightly funky, hazy, and rustic. 
  • Atlas Brew Works Home Rule Lager. Maybe it was just because I was tired and that point a bit sick, but my last stop, which I enjoyed with my brother- and sister-in-law, really hit the spot. Lightly sweet, a bit cakey, and laced with just enough herbal hopping to keep it interesting, Atlas was a perfect final beer for the trip.
I also had great beer at Boulder, New Belgium, Goose Island, Yazoo, Magnolia, and at various pubs in Brooklyn (things got a bit away from me there), but those are the ones that really stood out. It has become pretty easy to find good beer in this country of ours. You no longer have to be in a town like Portland to do it.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thanks For a Lovely Year

Yesterday as I was idly scanning through Twitter while attempting to endure the assault of pre-movie ads at a Regal Cinema*, I came across this little gem:

It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that my book would be playing a bit role in people's Christmas mornings across America or--more meaningfully--that people would actually be excited to receive it. As so often this year--as I trotted around the country hawking my book, as I read (mostly positive) reviews, as I received well-wishes from friends and family--I found myself flush with gratitude.

Writing is not a solo endeavor. It is an act of communication, and isn't whole or complete until someone reads the written words. The meaning exists in trust between reader and writer, and both contribute to that meaning. Once a sentence is put to paper, it begins a life that will only be complete when someone else reads it and it becomes transmuted in her mind. The writer never has the final word; the reader does. The text then goes on to live a separate life outside the control of the author. Whether a book becomes beloved, reviled, or ignored is entirely dependent on public, in the thinking and discussing and considering done in the months or years after publication.

I had two books out this year, and one of them has managed to begin living its separate life. (Cider Made Simple--though I think a book equal in quality if not scope to the Beer Bible--may end up in the "ignored" camp.) The gratitude comes because I see all those lovely readers out there giving it that life.

Thanks thanks thanks thanks--it's been a special year.

*I've basically scrubbed Regal from my life, except on Christmas day, when it's generally the best/only theater option available. Christmas-day movies are, for this Buddhist, a tradition going back two decades.This year it was Star Wars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

About Those Ads

Okay, so it looks like I won't be using Google ads on the site. Apparently the content of this blog is too scandalous for the tender souls in Mountain View:
We did not approve your application for the reasons listed below

Drugs, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, beer or tobacco: Google believes strongly in the freedom of expression and offers broad access to content across the web without censoring search results. However, Google policy does not permit the placement of Google ads on sites promoting illicit drugs, prescription drugs, drug paraphernalia, sales of hard alcohol, tobacco, or tobacco-related products. We've found that your site contains content of this nature.
What's ironic is that moments after I started using Google ads, I considered dumping them because one appeared that advertised "Find sexy Thai women" or something, which seemed pretty tawdry. So, for the near future, this gorgeous blog will be unsullied by ads. I'll try to figure something else out eventually. (If you're interested in advertising here, shoot me an email.)

A Holiday-Buying Spree

Wow. The world's largest brewery has, in just five days, added three new breweries to its craft portfolio. Last Friday it was Arizona's Four Peaks. Yesterday we learned that AB InBev had snapped up London's Camden Town Brewery. Today it was Colorado's Breckenridge:

Anheuser-Busch has made a play for a piece of Colorado's craft brew market, snapping up Breckenridge Brewery for an undisclosed sum, officials announced Tuesday.

Breckenridge, which sells its beers to 35 states, is on track to produce 70,000 barrels of beer in 2015. Earlier this year, Breckenridge departed its downtown-area Denver digs for a 12-acre brewery and restaurant in Littleton. The 25-year-old company is Colorado's sixth largest craft brewer by barrels produced, according to The Brewers Association data.
We were playing a little game on Facebook of trying to guess which brewery would go next. It's possible someone might have rung in with Breckenridge (one commenter was on the right track with Avery and Great Divide), but the damn thing happened too fast for a robust sample to gather. I will leave you with the newly-updated map of the Little Buds and their national distribution:

Various comments/questions. (1) Interesting that ABI seems to be focused on blue states (a fact made more obvious by my use of an electoral college calculator to generate these maps)--does this mean North Carolina or Florida is more likely to be the first southern state than, say, Georgia? (2) Some enterprising young journalist (Bryan Roth?) should look to see what the distribution ramifications are in these states. I continue to believe that's a huge part of this equation. (3) Which brewery is next, and (4) how many breweries do you expect ABI to buy stateside before it feels it has collected enough to make a big push into the craft segment?

Monday, December 21, 2015

New for 2016: Ads!

On December 1, I turned in the manuscript for another book. It was an opportunity to think about the next book ... or not. In the near term, I'm going to look for other options, which means I need to earn pennies where I can. I have tinkered with ads once in the past, but abandoned them because we are talking pennies--and because they junk up a blog. Beggers writers can't be too choosy though, so for the near future, you'll be seeing these delightful opportunities featured on the blog. I highly encourage you to click through and explore them to see if, for example, QuickBooks or hipster eyeglasses are right for you. Or at the very least, forgive me for this transgression.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Four Peaks Down

And so it goes.
Anheuser-Busch InBev is buying Arizona's largest craft brewer and brewpub owner, Four Peaks Brewing Co. Founded in 1996, Four Peaks produced 70,000 barrels of beer this year. Financial terms of the sale set to close in the first quarter of 2016 were not disclosed. Four Peaks is the sixth brewer to join A-B's craft and imports portfolio, The High End. The other craft brewers A-B has acquired in recent years are: Goose Island Beer Co., Blue Point Brewing Company, 10 Barrel Brewing, Elysian Brewing Company and Golden Road Brewing. 
At this point, the only game worth playing is guessing (1) what AB's ultimate strategy is, and (2) which states they'll target next. Here's the current state-by-state map of Bud Micros (Little Buds?)--and you can see that Four Peaks marks ABI's first foray into a red state. I do find it interesting that their focus has been on the West Coast.

I wonder if this has to do with distribution complexity. Do these states have more distributors? If so, it would make sense that Bud is using the Little Buds to coax their distributors into dropping independent craft breweries. Any theories?

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Reinheitsgebot RIP?

I am currently finishing up a print article for All About Beer on the subject of Reinheitsgebot--which as many of you know, turns 500 next year. By one of those strange coincidences of the universe, Stone brewing yesterday released its first Berlin-brewed beer. I don't want to step on the thesis of my article, but all this did get me thinking. As I talk to German and German-American brewers about the legacy and significance of Reinheitsgebot in its native land, everyone seems to agree that something's gotta give.

There is a current of change running through the center of the beer industry that is not only changing the way beer is made (in small batches to be sold locally), but the kinds of beer (vivid flavors in place of blander, industrial ones). Germany has been somewhat immune to these forces, both because it already had a robust network of local, small-batch breweries and because Germans have long been proud of the quality and superiority of their beer--thanks largely to the marketing success of Reinheitsgebot. But it hasn't been entirely immune, and small breweries have been opening and making what other countries call "craft beer," often in styles not native to Germany. The introduction of Stone beer will only accelerate the process.

None of this spells the death-knell of Reinheitsgebot necessarily. I've spoken with brewers who feel that it's due for an upgrade for the 21st century. The notion of "purity" isn't impossible to police, but the definition may need tweaking; brewers aren't using henbane quite as much as they used to, and cherries and coriander seem fairly wholesome. There may be some wiggle room. In any case, I guess the upshot of all this is that at exactly the moment we're celebrating this wonderful, weird artifact from the early 16th century, there may be some hard discussions about how much longer it should be embedded in the German tax code.

No doubt we'll come around to this topic again soon enough--

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Two a Day

As I traipsed around the country on my book tour, I found myself regularly saying something like, "there are 3,500 breweries in the country"--usually by way of an excuse for why I hadn't tried a certain spectacular local beer. It turns out I was 644 breweries off. Today the Brewers Association pegged the figure at 4,144. If you're wondering why they've chosen the odd timing of early December to make this announcement, it has to do with a certain historical precedent:
As of the end of November, there are now 4,144 breweries in the country, topping the historic high of 4,131 breweries in 1873.
That official figure from 1873 is somewhat fishy (record-keeping wasn't quite as precise during the Grant administration), but it's good enough for press releasing. The more important stat is in a bullet list within the release, and helps explain how I could be off by so much when I talked about brewery figures:
Brewery openings now exceed two a day.
I was apparently using a figure that was grossly out-of-date: ten months. Is it sustainable? Are we in the midst of a bubble? Questions for another day. For the moment, just rest in that two-a-day stat; the emotional truth of it is startling.

Me, I'm off to the Holiday Ale Fest.

Monday, November 30, 2015

When I Climbed the Mountain

The writing life is filled with peaks and valleys. I've been bumping along at high altitude lately, but no time was more exhilarating than the day I woke up in Tampa, Florida after a book event, got on a plane for Atlanta, was picked up at the airport and zipped downtown to CNN. I was there to do the spot you see below--two and a half minutes of very fluffy commentary on winter ales and "light beers." (When asked to do light beers, I selected session IPAs, which was my own subversive contribution.)

At CNN, they take your pic and give you a lanyard and then you go through a pretty serious security screening. The spot we did took maybe an hour, and I got to joke around with Coy Wire, a former NFL player who hosted the piece (a down-to-earth, self-effacing guy), and a couple of producers they roped in to taste the beer. Afterward, I was shuttled to Decatur for another Beer Bible event, and I was on a 10 pm flight to Nashville for the next book event. For one marvelous day, I felt like quite a big shot.

Anyway, there it is, my 2.5 minutes of fame on national TV. The piece ran several times yesterday, and now I have it for posterity.


With Coy Wire on the set.

Monday, November 23, 2015

It's Hard Out There For a Publisher

This is a slightly random aside, but I wanted to draw your attention to a great post about the state of the internet over at Talking Points Memo. For those of you who don't read political blogs for fun, TPM may have escaped your notice. It's a left-of-center site that grew out of a personal blog by Josh Marshall. (As an aside to the aside, the site was my introduction to blogging. I'd never heard the word "blog" until Paul Krugman called attention to some of the work Marshall had been doing on the coded racist words of then Majority Leader Trent Lott. Within a month, I had started my first blog.) Like all news/opinion sites, it has struggled in the age of social media.
What's changed in the last 4 to 5 years is the inroads social media sites have made into the paid advertising space. Much as Craigslist virtually destroyed the classified ads business that local newspapers owned, a site like Facebook can deliver ads more efficiently and cheaply than most traditional advertisers. 
The great liberation brought about by the internet made it possible for someone like me to put my voice in front of (potentially) the whole world--a phenomenon new in the world. But if you envision the structure of media as a funnel, where the voices of the public are the wide end, and the media gatekeepers act as the narrow end, what happened with the internet--and especially, with social media--was the elimination of that narrowing. Now all people can connect with all people, which means the writer in this equation isn't very important anymore. Josh' perspective is that of he publisher, but since we can all now be publishers as well as writers, it may be a distinction without a difference. Writers and publishers are still casting around now to figure out how to make a living. Many of us develop nervous tics because it seems like our societal value is approaching zero. Though from a purely academic perspective, the changes are fascinating.

Which I suppose is about as good a place to segue to links as any. Today at All About Beer I discuss a significant epiphany I had in Miami, Florida on the subject of beer. True story.
So join me back in the Abbey Brewing pub. Most beer culture in the world right now has its roots in European brewing. Abbey reflected that—with a healthy dose of American sprinkled in. As I mentioned, Miami is loaded with culturally-specific businesses, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a European-American pub making up part of the tapestry. And yet, in that moment, I realized how much American beer culture—especially craft beer culture—carries with it this European valence.
We also have the latest Beervana Podcast up and ready to caress your ears in our dulcet tones. In this latest episode, we discuss wintry beers, touching on topics like wassail, Lamb's wool, glühkriek, bière de Noël, and of course, price elasticities. We have also slightly tweaked the format to include news and beer recommendations (an extension of the "Beer Sherpa" feature birthed here on this blog) as well as a a "mailbag" feature, in which we are attempting to draw you into the discussion. We welcome questions, comments, criticisms, witticisms--anything that inspires you. Email us at the_beerax @

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let's Make a Deal

Many of the recent craft-brewery buyouts have been like shiny objects to attract our gaze, but lacking in any real value. One buyout is mostly like the next. When Constellation purchased Ballast Point on Monday for a billion dollars, though, it was more than just clickbait. It makes us consider what things are worth, and that made us consider seriously where the beer market is headed. Constellation wasn't a pundit talking about where the market was headed--they pontificated with their dollars. All of which brings me to a question.

Constellation paid a massive premium on the assumption they can build it into a formidable national brand and get a share of the growing craft pie. So, if you had been one of the C-level executives at Constellation (CEO, CFO), would you have recommended this deal?

The way you answer the question depends on how you weight several variables: 1) where the market is headed; 2) how strong Ballast Point's brand and beers are compared to other craft breweries you'd consider buying; 3) how much the market actually favors local ownership (which is to say: will locals abandon it because it's a national brand; will non-locals embrace it in an environment of localism?); and 4) whether the Ballast Point brand can translate easily into a national brand, and 5) whether Constellation has the infrastructure to support a national brand. There may be other factors as well, some unknowable (like the way the deal was structured), but these give you an idea of the calculation.

If you think Ballast Point's brand can become one of the small number of successful craft brands, that the craft market will be much larger than it is now, and that the focus on localism is overblown, a billion dollars doesn't look like a bad bet. Well?

A spirited discussion has been going on at Facebook for a couple hours, so you might prefer to comment over there.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Point Made More Fully

Many observers believe this is further evidence of a bubble in the “craft” segment—the outrageous prices paid for breweries remind them of mortgages in 2007. Of course, that’s always possible. If the market flatlines tomorrow, Constellation will lose big on the deal. But consider: since 1990 or so, the overall beer market in the United States has remained a pretty steady 200 million barrels. (Per-capita beer consumption has declined, but the population keeps growing.) In 1990, pretty close to 100 percent of the market was mass market lagers. By 2015, the 200 million barrels of mass market lager had shrunk to about 175, and that drop-off curve gets steeper each year. They are currently hemorrhaging two or three million barrels a year, and if trends continue, that number will grow faster.

Big beer companies are well aware of these trends, and they’re asking themselves the same question: How much of the market 10 years from now will still be mass market lagers?
Read the rest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Big Beer Bets on the Future

Another week, another buyout, another yawn. Except not this time, because the topline number has startled even cynical old beer writers like me:
Corona and Modelo beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc (STZ.N) said it will buy San Diego-based craft beer maker Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits for about $1 billion to compete in the fast-growing craft beer market.
A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money. Some quickie comments as the news comes in.
The Rationale
Ballast Point is one of the strongest brands in the US. There aren't a ton of top tier brands out there, so it makes sense that Constellation paid premium dollars for it.

The Valuation
On the other hand, the brewery only made 115,000 barrels and was only the 31st largest craft brewery in the US last year. Which means Constellation paid super premium dollarsar--far in excess of the current value of the company. (No financials were disclosed on the Lagunitas deal, but reports said Petaluma's--and Chicago's--finest was also valued at $1 billion, and it brewed five times as much beer in 2014 and has far greater capacity.)
The Radical Shift in the Market
All of which leads me to this last point, which is one I think most people haven't fully digested yet. Big beer companies are betting on the steep decline of mass market lagers in the US. I constantly get asked whether we're in a bubble or not, and this should be gold-plated proof: we're not. A permanent upheaval has begun in the beer market, as mass market lagers get replaced by what we formerly called craft beer. Whomever can hoover up market share on the full-flavored ales and lagers  will be the big winner in the marketplace of 2030. And if you don't believe me, believe AB InBev, Heineken, MillerCoors, and now Constellation, who are paying way, way more for breweries than their absolute 2015 value. 
The reason is because they're betting on the future, and they're betting on "craft."

Update. I elaborate on this post at All About Beer: "Betting a Billion Dollars Against a Bubble."

Friday, November 13, 2015

You Can't Recycle Originality

Martyn Cornell, who surprised me by admitting he as an MBA, just reviewed the new book by BrewDog's James Watt. It's a fascinating dissection not just of the book, but the business of beer. Here's his final paragraph, which is a great place to start a discussion:
Will someone who buys Business for Punks, given luck, be able to turn themselves into the next BrewDog? Well, no, probably not, or not in the UK beer market, because as far as what BrewDog now represents, there is only room for one iconoclastic, rule-breaking, self-proclaimed punk brewery, Dickie and Watt spotted that gap in the market and filled it extremely successfully. We may well see firms start up that will be “the BrewDog of grocery retailers”, “the BrewDog of software manufacturers”, even “the BrewDog of estate agents”. But no sector, I suggest, can sustain more than one marketing guerrilla, and guerrilla marketing is what BrewDog does brilliantly and what its fans respond to enthusiastically.
I'd take this a step further. In the business of beer, it's very difficult to follow the blueprint of any successful brewery. They're all more or less singular achievements that are very difficult to replicate. Here in Oregon, Ninkasi Brewing pulled off the neat trick of going from start-up to powerhouse in just a few years. Founded in 2007, it was able to become one of the top-three breweries in just five years. Surely there are lessons in the Ninkasi approach? Let's look at how they did it.

First, founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge took advantage of a bizarre anomaly that existed as late as 2007 in Oregon: the city of Eugene, the state's second-largest, had very few breweries and none that had become the dominant local player. Second, they came of age just in the moment that IPAs were not only becoming ascendant in craft brewing, but going through a big change in form. All of Ninkasi's early beers were hoppy and captured the zeitgeist for the "new" IPAs (which have since gone through another iteration in evolution). Of course, the brewery also had great branding, a great sales force, and great beer--necessary but hardly sufficient elements for success. In other words, cribbing notes from Ninkasi wouldn't be much help to a brewery today.

Here are some of he biggest American breweries: Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas. Could you imagine trying to replicate the elements of their success? Try building an empire on an amber lager or amber ale today, as Boston Beer and New Belgium did. Lagunitas sells a certain California ethos as much as it does beer, but imagine trying to replicate it now. Sierra Nevada might be the one model a brewery could replicate, but the benchmarks--extraordinary quality standards with landmark beers and quiet consistency over the decades, looks like a daunting task.

I get that business books always take the shape of a kind of long-winded humble-brag about how an entrepreneur did something. But by the time you get to that phase of the business, the lessons are too particular to really benefit anyone coming up. There are a ton of things you have to do just as a matter of course for any business. But the secret sauce that leads to exceptional success in the marketplace is almost always a spark of originality that captures the imagination of customers. And you can't successfully recycle originality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When Giants Join Forces

Q: How many Elysians could AB InBev have purchased for the price of one SABMiller (minus MillerCoors)? A:

(Not everyone is amused.)

Saturday, November 07, 2015


A little Saturday morning chin-scratcher for you to mull. Stan links to an article about the famous "judgment of Paris" in the wine world and wonders:
What if Fritz Maytag had not bought Anchor Brewing in 1965?

What if the committee charged in 1906 with interpreting the meaning of the Pure Food and Drug Act had decided to implement some sort of legal differentiation between all malt and adjunct beer, or enacted a proposal that lager beer be required to lager at least three months? (Both were considered and rejected.)

What if the USDA had not released the Cascade hop variety in 1972?
In comments, I suggested that there is no analogue in the beer world. It's just impossible to imagine that beer would remain the one product immune to the post-industrial return to quality and diversity that came to all the other products on the grocery shelves.

But there's a side debate here--one Stan and I have been batting back and forth for years. When we look at the landscape of American brewing now, what we see is a fully-developed American idiom: hoppy ales made with neutral yeasts and base malts, accented (if at all) with just a bit of caramel malt. Whether the name on the package is IPA, double IPA, white IPA, Session IPA (etc), that national lineage is always evident. I have argued to Stan--who has steadfastly remained unconvinced--that there is basically one source for all that. So let me put it out to you, and you can line up in the Stan, Jeff, or alternative camp as befits your reading of history:
What if Ken Grossman had never made Sierra Nevada Pale? (And as a corollary: Sierra Nevada Celebration?)


Friday, October 30, 2015

The End is Nigh

In order to locate a two-month period in which blog posts were as bereft here as they were in Sept and Oct this year, you have to go back to 2006. During these past two months, I've been on a national book tour while trying to complete a book manuscript. And so blogging has suffered mightily. Fortunately for all concerned, things are finally coming to a conclusion. My mid-November, it should be back to the normal level of randomness you have all come to expect.

However, tomorrow I depart for Miami to begin the final leg of the book tour. I'm arriving early so I can enjoy a bit of sunshine and Cuban food. Thereafter follow these stops, for anyone who happens to be nearby:
What else? Well, I did manage to do a bit of serious blogging while I was on the road, and you can read about that over at All About Beer in a post I promised last week after passing through Milwaukee:
The Pabst complex is so compelling because it’s so tangible. Capitalism is a violent and sometimes jarring force, and as quickly as it graces a business with the generative power to rise from the pavement, it can strike it right back down. For 15 decades, that brewery continued to grow in lunges, expanding capacity to remain lean and efficient, to gobble up more and more of the growing market. The excitement and energy we are witnessing in brewing now is no different than the one that visited the U.S. 150 years ago when German immigrants brought their brewing expertise and inspired drinkers with lager beer. But in 1996, the same calculus that fueled that empire also led to the decision to quit the place: beer could be made more cheaply elsewhere. In a pen stroke the buildings went dark.
Read the rest here.  Finally, Patrick and I have a new Beervana Podcast on the subject of cider. It coincided with the Cider Made Simple book launch last night (with very serious thanks to Nat West, Kevin Zielinski, Abram Goldman-Armstrong, and Silas Bleakley and Kristina Nance). In this week's episode, we do a survey course on cider. (At one point in the podcast, there's an inadvertent Happy Halloween from the producer. You have to listen to hear it.)

You can also listen to it on iTunes.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wonderful Cider Event on Thursday

If you have even a passing interest in this cider phenomenon that has been on a slow boil for the past few years, I strongly encourage you to come down to Reverend Nat's this Thursday for what is going to be a spectacular evening. The headline event is the book launch for Cider Made Simple, but in fact, it's going to be a full-immersion cider experience, tickling your brain as well as your senses.

I'll begin by talking about the book and giving an overview of cider's terrain, including European archetypes as well as modern American expressions. I will be aided in this endeavor by four of the best cider-makers in America who will be in-house with their ciders as examples of this terrain:
  • Kevin Zielinski of EZ Orchards, who will have a traditional French-style cidre for us to try.
  • Abram Goldman-Armstrong of Cider Riot!, who will have an English-style cider.
  • Silas Bleakley of Rack and Cloth, who will be bringing an example of what I call a "modernist" American-style cider in Cider Made Simple.
  • And of course, the host, Nat West, who will have more than one example of what I call "experimental" ciders in the book.
During the program, these four gents will describe their ciders and discuss American cider-making. It should be an incredibly enlightening evening, and having this kind of expertise on hand, along with this range of ciders, is extremely rare. Whether or not you want to buy a copy of the book, do yourself a favor and come on by for some great cider and cider discussion.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Scenes of Mergers Past

I'm about to be booted from my Chicago hotel room, so I don't have time to explore this theme in detail, but I wanted to put a bookmark on something. Yesterday I spent a couple hours walking around (and photographing--more on that later, too) the derelict Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee. I keep hearing about how it's been redeveloped or under redevelopment, but basically the giant buildings--blocks and blocks of them--are gutted and idle, like a quickly-abandoned Soviet city. And it was quickly abandoned, 20 years ago, when the owners shifted production to a different facility, turning Pabst into a contract brew.

Each time I speak on my book tour, someone asks the same question: what's going to happen with the future of beer, with consolidation and so on? Wandering around that complex is a nice meditation on at least one potential future--and a likely one, at least for many of these quickly-growing young breweries. Capitalism is a violent and sometimes jarring force, and as quickly as it graces a business with the generative force to rise from the pavement, it can strike it right back down. The excitement and energy we are witnessing in brewing now is no different than the one that visited the US 150 years ago, and thinking it is a permanent, stable state is belied by the lessons of history. Anyway more on that soon. Meanwhile a couple of pictures to tide you over.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Beer Bible in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Chicago

Next week I have the great pleasure to visit three great beer cities on the book tour, and if you're in or near any of them, consider checking them out. They all look to be special events.

Monday, October 19 at 7pm
Sugar Maple Bar, Milwaukee

I am especially excited to be returning to the Badger State, where from 1992-1995 I spent three glorious years studying Buddhism and drinking beer. Wisconsin is something like Oregon in that locals drink so much of the beer that a lot of breweries don't distribute very far outside the state (notably New Glarus). The Sugar Maple has an amazing taplist, and I'm psyched to slurp down some local specialties. I believe I'll be doing my standard talk and answering questions before signing books. Look for me in my motion-W hat, Packer fans.

Tuesday, October 20 at 6:30pm
Goose Island Taproom, Chicago

This is going to be a cool event. Goose's Brett Porter will be on hand as I do the usual talk and Q&A, and I hope we can coax him into a bit of Q&A about Goose Island and his activities as well. I've known Brett since the 1990s when he was at Portland Brewing, and this will be a homecoming of sorts, too. Note that the event is in the new taproom, which adds allure and sparkle.

Wednesday, October 21 at 7pm
Urban Chestnut (Grove Brewery and Bierhall location)

This is another one of those events I've been looking forward to since the tour was scheduled. At this very special stop, I'll be doing a tag-team conversation with Stan Hieronymus. Stan was a source of support and guidance as I was writing the book, and we have developed a friendship over the past five years. When we get talkin' beer, it's generally a geeky, fun time. You can't miss this one--I can definitely promise, because Stan, at least, is awesome.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Do We Call the Brewery "Widmer Brother" Now?

Just starting to see reports that Kurt Widmer plans to retire at the end of the year. The most shocking part of this news is that he's 63 years old. That must mean I'm ... 47! Good lord--time is a cruel taskmaster.

I'm sure we'll hear more in due course, but I see no reason to do anything but offer Kurt and Widmer Brothers the best on the news. Few people have meant more to Oregon beer than Kurt and Rob, and I don't think anyone begrudges them some time to go relax and enjoy. I'll leave you with a rare photo of Kurt pulling a pint last year after the Gasthaus reno. He was actually pouring my pint. Thanks, Kurt!


Blogging has been spotty at best around these parts, and I'm afraid that's likely to continue. I just finished up a ten-day leg on my Beer Bible book tour, and I'm home for six before setting off again. (If you want incredibly fragmentary, context-free micro-reports of my observations, you can always follow along on Twitter. How's that for a sales pitch?) The one piece I almost posted here last week instead went to All About Beer. So if you want to see what I discovered in lower Manhattan, that's the best I got.

More ... sometime.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

On Beer Pricing

Michael Kiser has a provocative post at Good Beer Hunting. It's a long piece and he makes a number of points, but the thrust is basically this:
I’m arguing for a greater tolerance among consumers and retailers toward the costs associated with certain beers, or the revenue opportunities they legitimately represent for those breweries in a wider spectrum of considerations. Otherwise, this industry you’re claiming you have passion for and want to see grow is being held back by your own narrow idea of “what beer costs."

I think there's some basic economic misunderstandings along the way--which (plug alert!)--you can learn about in our latest Beervana Podcast. But that's not my major concern. For me, the problem is that Micheal's looking at the consumers, not the breweries.

Somehow these guys stay in business.
Pricing is an interesting issue, and customers would do well to understand that some beers necessarily cost more than others to make. But here's where Michael and I part ways: the beer industry should not depend on the kindness of customers to keep them afloat. They are not charities we need to support with our dollars. And indeed, to do so perverts the market and keeps weaker (and less scrupulous) players in the game.

I'd point people to Oregon as a great rebuttal to his thesis. Here breweries must compete on both price and quality. Our supply is insane. Breweries that overcharge or make mediocre products don't sell a lot of beer. (Rogue is basically the only brewery that overcharges, and their Oregon sales have been in decline for years.) We have natural ceilings on what breweries can charge for standard and specialty beers, both in pubs and on the grocery shelves. Specialty beers can't fetch more than about $15 (in a very few rare cases slightly more) without getting stuck on shelves--and breweries in other states where super-premium pricing in the norm avoid Oregon. Why would we pay $30 for a wild ale from Allagash when we have Block 15, De Garde, Solera, Logsdon, and Cascade here at home?

Here's a good example. Josh Pfriem recently released his first batch of barrel-aged beers, and he sold cork-and-cage bottles (12 ounce), for under $10. The quality was spectacular. He priced the beer to earn a profit. And in this market, he needed to: as good as his Flanders-style beers are, he couldn't have charged much more for them. And yet Josh seems to believe he can make a profit this way, shocker of shockers. When I toured the brewery this summer, he took me to his barrel rooms (he has two), where all manner of wildlings lay ripening. Josh has spared no expense at the brewery--he even has a centrifuge, which I've never seen in a brewery that small--and is busy expanding the barrel-age program. And he can make a nice profit doing it. You could also look to Belgium, where the lambic-makers somehow manage to put together spectacular gueuzes (blends of vintage lambic, portions of which are aged three years) that they can ship to the US and sell for under $20.

No brewer in Oregon to whom I've spoken has complained about price pressures. There's no danger that Oregonians are about to see their wonderful beer go extinct. But even if there were price pressures, it's not the consumer's responsibility to subsidize (or even worry about) the brewery with inflated prices. Beer is a good, honest beverage and it is quite possible to make it well and profitably. If it weren't, there wouldn't be 3,500 breweries in the US with just a handful of annual failures. As the market tightens, the best breweries will, like Josh Pfriem, learn how to continue to brew spectacular beer and sell it at a price consumers will pay. That's how markets work. Not by charity.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Your Omnibus Friday Post

I'm getting on a plane for Philadelphia today, so let's trot through these points briskly.

Southern Oregon Shooting
As everyone in ear- or eye-shot of electronic media knows, there was another mass-shooting in Roseburg yesterday. Discussion of things like beer are highlighted by this event for their triviality, and everyone in Oregon is a bit shaken this morning. Not surprised--good Lord, no--but disturbed. Our thoughts are with everyone at Umpqua Community College.

Legalized It
In one of the more bizarre coincidences, yesterday also marked formal cannabis legalization in Oregon. Anyone 21 years or older can now walk into one of the scores of dispensaries across the state and buy up to a quarter ounce of Purple Haze. It's clear we've passed into a new era, because not only did the day pass without attracting much media attention, but dispensaries reported fairly normal (if busy) days--no lines around the block. No worries, though, beer fans, this development isn't likely to blunt* the growth of your fave beverage.

How wild is your beer?
In a rare Oregon-focused post on All About Beer, I travel to Parkdale and talk to Solera's Jason Kahler about the wildest of wild ales--those that are made through natural fermentation.
If you wanted to boil the whole of modern brewing to a single goal, it’s trying to gain as much control over the biochemistry of the brewing process—starting with keeping wild yeast out of the brewery. This approach seems fundamentally contrary to brewing wild, which requires the embrace of randomness. When I visited Cantillon back in 2011, Jean Van Roy—who is equal parts poet, philosopher, and brewer—put it this way. “It’s never the same. Never. You never know what you will discover. That’s why lambic is so fun. In French we have a sentence. We say, tout est dans tout. If I translate it: everything is in everything. In this brewery, everything is playing a role in the final product. Everything.”

This is not the approach of the modern brewer; it’s something closer to an alchemist—which Kahler acknowledged. “It’s kind of magical in my head. There’s obviously hard science behind it, but I don’t understand all that science, and I don’t think you have to understand that science.”
Beervana Podcast: An Econ-focused Look at Buyouts and Mergers
When Patrick and I conceived of the podcast, we thought it would be cool to incorporate his expertise--economics--into our analysis. Beer isn't a platonic ideal--it's a product, bought and sold on the open market. So too are breweries, which lately have been selling a lot more than some people would like. We tap Patrick's wealth of knowledge to discover whether this is anything fans of good beer should be worrying about. (Plus a fun blind-tasting of some of the, err, finer products of these large breweries that are doing all the buying.) I'll like the Soundcloud feed below, but you can also get the podcast on iTunes


Monday, September 28, 2015

The Essence of Style

People who read this blog know well enough what a beer style is; it's the label on the bottle--"stout," "gose," "IPA"--that tells us what kind of beer we should expect to find inside. It's the thing we fight about when the Brewers Association releases its annual judging guidelines, the quality that helps us assess whether a beer has been well-brewed or not. But if you think more deeply about style, you will come to see that it is actually a fascinating story that comprises the origins and development of that style as inflected by national brewing tradition, cultural preferences, ingredients, and even things as seemingly unlikely as war, famine, and taxes. Other fermented beverages like cider and wine are reflections of place. Beer is a constructed beverage, more like food, and beer style is akin to the cuisines of the world: they reflect the people that brewed them.

If you went around to the countries famous for their brewing traditions and asked them to serve you a "dark beer," you'd get very different things in each country. In Dublin you'd get stout (natch). You might get a mild in England. In Belgium, they might serve you a very strong, dark ale. In the Czech Republic you'd get tmavé or černé, and in Germany you might receive a dunkel lager. If you told the story of any one of these beer styles, it would take you through all those elements I described above. Irish stouts, now 4% session beers, started out as strong, soured brown porters in London. How they migrated from one city to the other and became so radically transformed takes you through malting innovation, preference migration, the effect of taxes, and more.

In action.
I mention all of this, because it's the lead-in to a talk I've been giving at my book events for The Beer Bible. Karen MacNeil's precursor book The Wine Bible, was arranged around region, as befits a beverage dependent on terroir. My book was arranged around style, and in it you find several dozen fascinating stories about their slow development over the past five plus centuries. It makes sense for me to start at the place of style, which gives me the chance to tell some pretty entertaining stories. (Beer is chock full of entertaining stories.)

As you may know (sorry about all the social media promos), I'm in the middle of a national book tour, and I think you'd enjoy spending an hour and a half chatting beer if I happen to come through your town. (The Q&As have been fascinating, too.) I know I'm a wholly unreliable source on this, but I think we've been having quite a bit of fun at them. Beginning Saturday, I'm on the East Coast, so have a look and see if I'll be in your town.

Saturday October 3, Grey Lodge Pub, Philadelphia
4 - 5:30 pm. | Event details here

Sunday October 4, WORD Bookstore Jersey City, NJ
4 - 5:30 pm. | Event details here

Monday October 5, Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn
7-9 pm. | A ticketed event--buy tix here

Wednesday October 7, Sam Adams, Boston
6-8 pm. | Event details here

Thursday, October 8, Longfellow Books, Portland, ME
7 - 8:30 pm. | Event details here

Saturday, October 9, World Beer Festival, Durham, NC
Afternoon and evening events | Event details here

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Britain: Cask Ale v. Craft

Last night, I was at Boulder Beer for a book event, and I had an interesting chat with brewmaster David Zuckerman. He'd recently been to England and was startled by the amount of American-style ale he found. (Quick and dirty definition: stronger, many more hops.) Like me, he loves a 3.8% bitter, and was concerned that these beers are slowly being put out to pasture in favor of what the English call "craft beer." These are makers of what looks a lot like the standard American taplist, including non-English styles (which Americans love) like saisons, strong stouts, wild ales, and full-flavor lagers. They sell these, controversially, in bottles and kegs, like Americans do; there's even a term of art called the "craft keg" which has been the subject of heated debate.  All of this has injected a huge amount of excitement into the British beer market, and beer geeks in the cities regard old-school cask like something grandpa drank. So, if you're like David and me and enjoy grandpa's old cask bitter, is this cause for worry?

By happy coincidence, London writer Pete Brown just announced the release of the latest Cask Ale Report. The story it tells is more complex than you might imagine, but it leaves me feeling hopeful. The most important piece of context in understanding British beer is recognizing that the vast, vast majority of it is mass market lager. Ales were supplanted a generation ago in their native country, and most Brits drink the same crap the rest of us do. So instead of thinking of things in terms of craft versus cask, it's worth considering ales versus lagers. Craft and cask have a lot more in common with each other than either has in common with Stella Artois and Carlsberg. According to the report, cask accounts for just 17% of sales in pubs, and if you add keg ale into the mix, it goes up to between 25-30%.

The fascinating part of the report illustrates that the lines between craft and cask aren't actually as clean as we imagine. Pete Brown:
Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:

  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer
Much as in the US, this nebulous category of "craft brewing" has been great for the beer industry. It's appealed to young people, brought a new population to beer, and helped create all those downstream positives like fests, good beer pubs, and interest among chefs and good restaurants. If you look at a company like Fuller's, you see how craft has help transform their line of beers, giving them a chance to dabble in styles the old cask fans would never have appreciated. And that in turn has helped goose sales for traditional cask breweries willing to expand their horizon.

The other thing you're seeing is cask, the dispense-system, being appropriated by craft breweries as a platform for other types of beer. Until a decade ago, "cask ale" wasn't a term that pointed only to a method of brewing and dispense, but styles. Cask meant the same five styles of beer that have been brewed for generations. Pete didn't make predictions about the future, but his report hints at evolving trends. Here in the US, we've already seen that the term "craft" is rapidly losing any meaning. If ales continue to claw back market share from mass market lagers in Britain, I suspect the distinction between craft and keg will also lose any meaning. You'll have good beer, sometimes served on keg and sometimes served on cask. And then you'll have generic mass market lagers.

Beer has been evolving since the Sumarians first made it 8,000 years ago, and it is in a moment of rapid change. Sometimes that means beloved beer styles fall by the wayside. (RIP jopenbier!) Maybe mild ale will be a casualty as British palates look for stronger, more flavor-forward ales. But I suspect there will always be a market for sessionable cask ales in English pubs.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Difficult Post

Credit: Angelo De Ieso
As many of you have seen, a few days ago the Oregonian severed its relationship with longtime beer writer John Foyston. There are two issues here, and I'd like to focus on the second, less-examined one. But first, the background. (Full disclosure: John started covering beer for the Oregonian a couple decades ago, just a bit before I started a column at Willamette Week. I've known him all that time and consider him a friend.) Here's what the O wrote on Wednesday.
In several instances over the past month, Foyston lifted passages from press releases, industry Facebook pages or brewery websites and submitted them under his byline. We also found one example where he copied verbatim an old beer review posted by a contributor to a craft beer site. 
I'll let you click through for the full details. The real issue boils down to his decision to lift descriptions about beer from BeerAdvocate. That's a very serious journalistic breach, and the Oregonian couldn't overlook it. (Whether John deserved walking papers is another matter.) John posted on Facebook about the issue, taking full responsibility and offering apologies.
I cut-and-pasted and modified some beer descriptions in an unpublished story on 25 favorite beers. Fair enough, that's a violation of journalistic ethics and I freely admit it.... No excuse. Guilty as charged. I shouldn't have done it. 
On the surface, this has the appearance of a cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, and we know the penalty for such crimes is a death sentence. So John got the ax. I'd like to leave his culpability aside, though, and discuss the Oregonian's culpability in all this. John offered no defense for his actions, but he did offer an explanation (this is the part I ellipsed out of the above quote): "Perhaps the crime is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the deadline was moved up three weeks from the end of September to right before I was leaving on a 10-day motorbike trip after Labor Day, thus eliminating the chance to reacquaint myself with beers that I hadn't had in the last year." 

No matter what you think of Foyston's actions in this episode, it's worth pointing out what has become of the Oregonian. Like so many dailies, it was owned by a media conglomerate (Newhouse) that had no idea how to handle the internet age. At first, the paper invested heavily in expensive stories that won awards (including Pulitzers), but not readers. As subscriptions, ad, and classified revenues declined, they decided to scrap in-depth stories and dump expensive senior reporters and editors. They eliminated beats that (presumably) weren't driving ads or readership, and basically quit doing local public-policy reporting. If it's happening in City Hall, for example, the O is mute about it.

In those regular purges, longtime salaried reporters were given a choice to continue along as freelancers, making a fraction of the money they made as staff reporters, or piss off completely. John decided to stay with the paper and continued covering beer. (Look under the byline; if it says "special to the Oregonian," that means the writer is freelancing.) Then, a couple years ago, the O made changes that have turned a once-worthwhile news organ into a clickbaity mess.

Anderson told his staff The Oregonian would deliver papers to subscribers on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On the remaining days, the paper would publish only a street edition, saving millions of dollars in printing costs. Anderson also announced layoffs; almost 100 of the paper’s 650 employees lost their jobs. The cuts fell disproportionately on the newsroom: As many as 49 reporters, editors, designers and photographers—nearly a quarter of the remaining news staff—will be gone by Sept. 27.
The paper adopted a new strategy based on all the worst trends of internet news.
But the kind of news Oregonians get will change. The Oregonian’s newsroom is already under enormous pressure to write stories that draw hits on the website—often at the expense of in-depth reporting that reveals what’s actually happening in the community....  Staffers say the newsroom has become obsessed with a program called, which measures real-time Web traffic, shows which stories are getting the most hits, and identifies where readers click after finishing those stories. 
In short, in order to address its own gross mismanagement, the Oregonian adopted this strategy: 1) fire expensive, experienced reporters and hire inexperienced, cheap ones; 2) demand reporters post as much content as possible, including in-progress story fragments (something something "developing the narrative" something); 3) base job evaluation on web clicks and, most importantly, 4) abandon serious (read: slow and expensive) shoe-leather reporting. They also fired editors who had oversight of story direction and who edited finished pieces.

Reporters are 100% fungible and survive one week to the next based on how well their stories seem to be moving traffic. You can imagine what kind of product this approach produces. The current version of the Oregonian is a disgrace. The online edition is an unreadable hodgepodge of unedited story fragments and repostings of clickbait from other sites. Reporters "generate content" on random stuff that happens to be going on--or something they found online. There are a few reporters doing actual journalism, but it's no surprise that when a big story breaks, it ain't the O doin' the breakin'.

This is a terrible way for John to end a much-lauded run as the central voice covering Oregon beer. He's done great work, and I have complete confidence that this episode is the outlier--which makes it all so unusual and shocking. But the guilt-pointing finger shouldn't stop at John's face: the Oregonian bears a lot of responsibility in this for creating an environment that doesn't value real news and demands writers publish early and often--no matter how crappy that "content" is. It's easy enough to can John and move along, but something's rotten at the heart of the Oregonian, and that's not going away anytime soon.