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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Brands Matter

Falling down on the job here.  Two posts at All About Beer to note.  The first one concerns the importance of brands.
Let’s try a thought experiment. I’ll offer the name of a brewery and you notice the first few things that spring to mind. Ready? Sierra Nevada. Unless you’re really not into beer—and then, why are you reading this?—something should have popped into your head. OK, here’s another: Dogfish Head. Or here, try this juicy one: Lagunitas.

We have strangely complex relationships with breweries. The mention of a name produces a tangle of impressions, memories, opinions, prejudices and emotions. Unlike many product companies—soap makers, snack food companies, pharmaceutical firms—breweries inspire feelings. You’ve had a lot more meaningful experiences with a beer in your hand than, say, doing laundry.
The second tied into the first, springing up when owners sold Elsyian to AB InBev.  What kind of challenges to a brand do new owners pose?  Especially when part of your brand is "corporate beer sucks?"
It’s hard enough for small breweries to make the leap from beloved little-guy to corporate property without suffering some brand damage. For Elysian, a brewery where the brand relied heavily on that small, outsider status, the leap will be a good deal higher.
Read 'em if you missed 'em.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Good for the Brain: Xanthohumol and THC

File this under "random."  From the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry comes this finding about an element in hops:
One compound found in hops, called xanthohumol, has gotten the attention of researchers for its potential benefits, including antioxidation, cardiovascular protection and anticancer properties. Fang's team decided to test xanthohumol's effects on brain cells.  In lab tests, the researchers found that the compound could protect neuronal cells and potentially help slow the development of brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
(The pdf--where you can read sentences like " this cytoprotection is mediated by the induction of endogenous antioxidant defense 522 molecules, which relies on the α, β 2unsaturated ketone structure in Xn and the transcr iption 523 factor Nrf2 in PC12 cells as removal of such chemic al structure or knockdown of Nrf2 524 abolishes the protection"--is here.)

But speaking of Alzheimer's, I recently came across the results of an even more remarkable study (bold mine):
“THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function,” stated study lead author Chuanhai Cao, PhD and a neuroscientist at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute and the USF College of Pharmacy.
What that means is not only does THC guard against plaque buildup in the brain, but by "enhancing mitochondrial function," it may even reverse the process. And for what it's worth, this follows other (proper, peer-reviewed) research that found similar results.

So make sure that older loved one in your life has an IPA and tasty THC edible for dinner--it's good for the brain.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Consolidation Dialectic (or Why Buy-Outs Do Sort of Suck)

A funny thing happened on the way Elysian's public flogging.  There I was, bracing for another round of "Judas" called collectively from the internet.  If 10 Barrel Brewing, a nice outfit but certainly nothing like the beating heart of Bend, could generate a week's worth of existential angst, then authentically beloved Elysian would surely cause Facebook to crash.  Instead, a somewhat large group went immediately on AB InBev defense--or made something like the "meh" argument.  I saw comments like this everywhere, but I'll single out the estimable Jordan St. John, who wrote one of the more entertaining versions on my blog Facebook page.
People buy the narrative of small underdog companies vs large companies and they are intended to do so because it plays on their innate acceptance of binary narrative even though it is patently not the reality of the situation which includes thousands of parts moving independently in a finite market.

Go look at the language in the comments of various websites who have reported this and tell me that the sudden hatred of Elysian on the part of long time loyalists is a rational reaction to the potential that the beer may shift in quality two years from now. It simply isn't. The craft beer narrative of the hero's quest and the idea that the "underdogs" must be the hero because there is an empire that they are up against is collapsing because the lines muddy when faced with what has always been a generational industry. It's the reaction to a hulk hogan heel turn or Anakin turning to the dark side. It's not the reaction to a potential quality shift that may or may not happen eventually.
You don't want AB InBev to own this brewery.  Really.
This leaves us in an interesting place.  The default position holds that buy-outs are bad for diversity, bad for the bought-out brewery, and bad for beer.  But there's a second sentiment, like Jordan's, which argues that it's all business and who cares who owns a brewery so long as the beer is good.  Can these views be reconciled?  In philosophy and logic, there's a concept known as "dialectic," which indicates a train of reasoning that flushes out bad thinking and gets at the truth.  There are many different versions of dialectics (it goes back to the Greeks), and it seems like we need one to interpret consolidation.  Allow me.

1.  AB InBev is not evil, it's just a company.
It's true.  AB InBev is a large company that (like small breweries) sells beer. Beer companies are morally neutral entities, and what they do is sell widgets.  To associate moral value with any brewery is to make the argument that there is a higher way to sell beer, and that's obviously not defensible. 

2.  Little breweries are not virtuous; like multinational conglomerates, they're just companies.
For reasons I shouldn't have to enumerate, I love beer.  But the notion that little companies are doing something categorically different than multinational conglomerates by making and selling beer is absurd.  They're breweries.  Smart people have decided to quit the idea that there's craft beer and then some other, lesser category.  There's beer and then there's, well, beer.  It's all made in breweries of malt, hops, water, and yeast (and increasingly, other things).  Companies that make this substance sell it on open markets.  Some are big companies, some are wee. 

3.  You can't judge the quality of beer by the size of the brewery
Fans of American craft beer take it as gospel that big companies make "crap" and little breweries make good beer.  This is not true.  Big breweries make beer that millions buy.  It may not be the beer I love, but that doesn't make it crap.  In many cases, mass market lagers are the cleanest and most consistent beers on the market.  One of the common stories told back in the 1980s was that big breweries used "additives" and chemicals to their beer--it was one of the arguments in favor of small-scale brewing.  I dunno, maybe some did (I'm no historian).  But as far as I can tell now, that's total hogwash.  Oh, and plenty of little breweries make pond water.  Like, literally.  I'm pretty sure I recall finding a pollywog in an ESB once.  Little breweries make plenty of crap.

4.  Big companies have a lot of power in the marketplace and don't love competition.
You have to be willfully forgetful to acquit Anheuser-Busch of being a malignant force in beer diversity in the 21st century.  There were 700 breweries following Prohibition, and A-B (and other giants) ran almost all of them out of business by 1980, when there were only 80 breweries left.  They did this by being bigger and more efficient, sure, but they also used bare-knuckle business tactics to dominate distribution, rig local laws in their favor, and buy out everyone they couldn't drive out.  Given a choice between competing against a few other companies in a stable market and competing against a hugely fragmented competition in a volatile market, they would--they have--chosen the latter.

5.  Local breweries keep traditions alive.
Companies are people.  Here in Portland, I know the majority of brewers in the city.  They're my neighbors and members of my community.  They employ my neighbors and other members of my community.  That alone is reason enough to at least be prejudiced toward local breweries, but there's a much more important reason.  Beer is one of the most varied products on earth, and that diversity comes from the preferences of locals who, say, favor dark ales in Dusseldorf and light lagers in Munich. There was a mass extinction following the Second World War when cheap, commodified beer displaced more expensive local styles.  Dozens of funky, interesting types of beer vanished from the earth.  Here's Frank Boon telling Belgium's story (from an interview I did with him):
“Forty years ago, this was a time when breweries were closing and all the local styles were disappearing.  Everywhere in Belgium.  Louvain white disappeared, Peeterman disappeared, [ascot beers?] disappeared.  In the 1950s and 1960s they switched to cheaper and technically better beer.  In every village and small town, brewers said the only thing we can do is sell the brewery.  There is no future for small breweries.  If gueuze had disappeared in the 1960s, nobody would ever have imagined to make such a beer.  It’s an absolutely crazy way to make beer.” 
There are cases in which the existence of one or two single breweries--Dupont, Schneider, Schlenkerla and Spezial--kept a beer alive.  These are never multinational conglomerates, but family breweries keeping traditions alive.  The more breweries there are--particularly funky little breweries that can make a living by selling niche beer--the more diversity that will survive.  Sometimes people denigrate the support for local breweries as mere sentimentality, but the consequences for losing them are not insignificant.


To finally get off the ramble, here's the upshot.  Like Jordan says, it's best to avoid thinking of these things in moralistic terms. It's clarifying to recognize that beer is beer. However, that doesn't mean that one beer is as good or valuable as the next.  In the aggregate, we want a market where lots of breweries are competing to make the best beer.  Recent history has shown that consolidation isn't good for good beer.  Each brewery is a node in the diversity of the ecosystem--and some are more important than others.  10 Barrel?  Meh.  I'm not sure that they were really doing anything to increase biodiversity.  But Elysian, which was early on the scene with botanicals, which helped launch (God help us) the annual pumpkin frenzy, and which could make beers like this, had its own, unique flavor.  Those kinds of breweries are important, and it's perfectly reasonable to lament their absorption into a multinational conglomerate.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Anheuser-Busch's Purchases Elysian

Another one down:
St. LOUIS and SEATTLE (January 23, 2015) – Anheuser-Busch today announced it has agreed to purchase Elysian Brewing Company, based in Seattle, Washington....

Joe Bisacca, Elysian ‎CEO and co-founder [...] will continue with Elysian along with his partners, Dick Cantwell and David Buhler. “After a lot of hard work, we’ve grown from one Seattle brewpub to four pub locations and a production brewery. With the support of Anheuser-Busch, we will build on past successes and share our beers with more beer lovers moving forward.”
Wow.  Weeks ago, when AB snatched 10 Barrel, I observed that their strategy appeared to revolve around finding independent breweries with impeccable cred, and they could hardly have done better than Elysian.  It's long been my favorite Washington brewery, and it's always my first stop when I hit Seattle.  It has always seemed the most Seattle of the Seattle breweries--an extemporaneous brewery that could be equal parts gritty and urbane and credibly support local sports teams or indie bands.  Elysian always seemed to be right where Seattle was a the time.

Will this change?  I'm normally agnostic about ownership structures, but as a fan, this is at least a little alarming.  But as I've been saying for years now: welcome to the big new world of craft brewing.

 Update. Why does this rattle me--admittedly not a local, but local-adjacent?  A big part of Elysian's allure was how well they represented Seattle and the heartbeat of the city. Just because a brewery is local doesn't mean it can channel the local mores, culture, and zeitgeist. Elysian could and did--which is a big part of why they were so good. Can they still do that as a division of AB? In the short term, almost certainly. But I fear we've lost a little bit of what made Seattle Seattle.  Or put another way:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Beer Is Not Very Funny

The Onion's Clickhole is the latest to try to wring a smile by poking fun at beer.  But even the Onion can't do it.  It's a quiz to find out if you're really a beer snob, but the answers are strained and boring:
  • I have a private mix of the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic where the line “Finish your whiskey or beer” is altered so that the word “whiskey” is bleeped out.
  • One time, I was pretty sure I heard a statue say “Miller High Life,” so I had to blow up the statue with a bomb.
  • Etc.
The one mildly amusing thing is that you must check every box to be called a snob--even all but one gets you "moderate" standing.  But beer's just not funny.  The key to comedy is surprise, and beer geekery is way still too obscure.  No one gets the in-jokes.  It's why celebrity comedy and observational comedy are always popular--you know the crowd is going to get it. 

We'll know beer has arrived when Stephen Colbert tells a gose joke and your father chuckles.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Experts Versus Hive Mind

As my weekly blogging over at All About Beer becomes a routinized thing, I'll alert you to posts more rarely.  However, you might be interested in today's post, which addresses the issue of expert opinion versus the wisdom of hive mind.  In terms of beer evaluation and review, I argue that we don't want to throw the former out entirely.
It is characteristic of this moment in American history that we hold experts in contempt and valorize the global hive mind. Critics are vanishing faster than tropical reefs, and we now rely on sites like Yelp and Good Reads and Amazon to tell us what to buy or read or patronize. There are many reasons why these sites have made us better consumers and, in some cases, better-educated. But the hive mind has a tendency to elevate mass opinion and codify conventional wisdom (even when that “wisdom” is grossly errant). The phenomenon is so pernicious it can even infect non-crowd-sourced information. If you trusted BeerAdvocate with the authority to decide on Burton Bridge’s Olde Expensive, you’d have been sent down a blind alley.
In making the argument, I pivot off the words of local beer luminary Bill Schneller, so go have a look and see what you think. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dive Bar Challenge: 'Reel M' In Tavern

Now that the holidays are safely past, it's time to get back to the Dive Bar Challenge.  Recap: this series is a barometer to determine just how far good beer has seeped into the crevices of supposedly good beer cities.  I'm testing the waters here in Portland, but if enterprising bloggers elsewhere felt their cities stacked up against Beervana, we could have a friendly competition.  Either way, the idea is that good beer towns should be measured by the places you are least likely to find good beer, not the best.  (Read more here.)

Today's entrant is the oddly-punctuated 'Reel M' Inn Tavern.  It is located along the no longer scuzzy segment of Southeast Division Street, but stands testament to what once was.  (Indeed, after the inaugural Challenge, Bill Night suggested it as a "true dive"--and challenge accepted.)  At some point in the not-distant future, we'll get into the philosophical nature of the term "dive bar," but I think 'Reel M' Inn (henceforth "the Reel") passes muster.  It is the kind of place where, on a late Friday afternoon, you'll find guys drinking mass market lager and bourbon shots at the bar (two examples) while others choose rum and coke while feeding their video poker jones (one).  Another patron had a Hamm's tallboy, pulled from a case that has a wide selection of talls for the discriminating customer. The sole video game is played with a rifle. 

Its been a decade since I've been in the Reel, but it seems little changed.  Nevertheless, four of the six taps were local: Worthy IPA, Manny's Pale, Breakside Irish Stout, and something from Hop Valley. Here's your tale of the tape:

The Stats*
Breweries in ZIP code: 8
Distance from the heart of downtown: 2.6 miles
Neighborhood hipness factor (1-5): 2.5, transitioning
Seediness factor (1-5): 2, homey
Beers on tap: 6
Mass market beers: 2 (Coors Light, Pabst)
Craft beers: 4
Imports:  0
Ciders: 0
Verdict: Pretty crafty

Overall, the Reel has a lot to recommend it.  The bartender was super, and my stout was fresh and clean.  The guy next to me at the bar was friendly and welcoming.  Like so many dive bars, the music was retro, but well-curated, oscillating between louche 70s (Bowie and Steely Dan) to crunchy rock (Grateful Dead, Neil Young). It's been a decade since I've been in the Reel, but it seems little changed.  Except the beer.  Not only were two-thirds of the taps local (Worthy IPA, Manny's Pale, Breakside Irish Stout, and something from Hop Valley), but they were all high-cred local, not just gestures like Redhook and Pyramid toward a new, incomprehensible customer. The Reel is serving people who like good, local ales, and they've chosen taps to appeal to them.

*Breweries in ZIP code determined by the Oregon Brewers Guild listing.  I selected Pioneer Courthouse Square, "Portland's living room" as the heart of downtown.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Eugene, Oregon

In 1846, peripatetic New Yorker Eugene Franklin Skinner built a cabin on a rise not far from the upper portion of the Willamette River--which is, counterintuitively, two hours south of where it flows into the Columbia in Portland.  He was not special, particularly--the local Kalapuya Indians were local inhabitants and advised about where to place his cabin.  Nevertheless, it is his name--his first name, strangely--that now identifies the 44 square miles that constitute Oregon's second-largest city.  In 1872, the Oregon legislature selected Eugene as the site of the state's flagship university and, exactly 30 years after Skinner put up his cabin, the University of Oregon opened its doors.

Tonight the Ducks will battle perennial powerhouse Ohio State for a national championship.  I have no great confidence in their chances.  Oregon (the state) is spectacular at certain things, but they are never the things the rest of the country cares about. The climate of western Oregon is akin to a rainforest and produces tropical-looking verdant vistas. Consequently, people flock to sunny California.  Our beaches are arguably the prettiest in the world, bounded by spiky volcanic hills that tumble into the sea.  The water is, even in summer, icy cold, however, and so people ... flock to sunny California. 

In the world of sport, we are similarly offbeat, and this is relevant to tonight's game.  The Oregon Ducks are, without question, the most storied running university in the country and, 40 years after his death, long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine is probably still the most famous athlete from the state.  Our only two major-league professional sports teams are in basketball and soccer (where the fans are rabid). 

Oregon is nowhere near anything.  It takes ten hours to drive to San Francisco, which we think of as relatively nearby.  If you want to travel anywhere in the world except the far east--which to Oregonians is the near east--get ready for interminable flights and long layovers.  Even our weird name, which no one knows the origin of, is regularly mispronounced.  I once asked my dear spouse Sally, a New Englander, what she thought of Oregon before I convinced her to move here.  "We didn't think of Oregon.  Ever."  Okay.

Oregon likewise does not do big splashy things like win national championships.  The Blazers did win an NBA title, but it was during the 70s when the NBA was in its famous trough of popularity between the eras Cousy and Bird.  If Oregonians had wanted to win championships, they would have stayed in their hometowns of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.  (Okay, Chicago's a bad example.)  Or Columbus, Ohio--now that's a championship town.

Oregon does have great beer.  Eugene was a laggard on this front, boasting only a smattering of brewpubs for decades.  Now, with Ninkasi, Oakshire, Falling Sky, and Agrarian, the city has proven its mettle.  For those hearts who pump lime green and electric yellow and sound like the distant call of a mallard, good beer may be the best thing about tonight.  Football championships come and go, but good beer is forever.  And who knows, if the Ducks win the championship, people may actually learn how to pronounce the school's name.

Go Ducks--

Update.  As the world now knows, the 7-time national champs beat the poor Ducks like toy drum.  They are now the 8-time champs and Oregon remains a championship-free zone.  Delay the apocalypse at least one more year.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Scandal That Wasn't

Tony Magee
Last week, Guys Drinking Beer posted a most intriguing take on a $25,000 donation Lagunitas made to the election campaign of Chicago mayor Rahm Imanuel.
Lagunitas Brewing Company cut a check to Rahm Emanuel’s re-election campaign for $25,000. It certainly isn’t the brewery’s first contribution to a political candidate but is the most sizable contribution and the second time this year it’s dropped 25k on a politician.
It wasn't the only check the brewery mailed out to politicos:
In July, Lagunitas cut a $25,000 check to incumbent governor Pat Quinn (who lost to Republican Bruce Rauner). In September Lagunitas dropped over 10k on Alderman Patrick O’Connor. $9,225 of that was an individual contribution while another $1,275 was an “in kind” contribution of beer and appetizers — most likely for a fundraiser. Alderman O’Connor, who represents the 40th ward on the north side, is Mayor Emanuel’s floor leader.

And then there’s the Christmas Eve contribution of $25,000 to the mayor’s campaign. It brings the total amount contributed by Lagunitas to Chicago politicians, since July, to $60,500.
For the most part, the incident seemed to garner very little attention. Things like this were rare. Lagunitas's Tony Magee has 20,000 followers, yet when he discussed the matter on Twitter, just a few people responded.  (Mostly about how they hated Rahm, it seems.)  Given the scrutiny beer geeks give breweries, I was surprised by this.  Politics is messy and ugly.  There's always an aroma of quid pro quo about political donations--how could it be otherwise?--and that's the kind of thing beer geeks hate.

Having formally written about politics, this not only doesn't surprise me, it makes a ton of sense.  To ignore the realities of politics--which is to say the realities of public policy that affect things like zoning, distribution laws, taxation, etc--is crazy short-sighted.  And brewers have become much more politically engaged and politically savvy.  But still; I'm surprised it wasn't a bigger story.