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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Odd Things

Odd Thing #1: Biggest Breweries List
Each year, the Brewers Association releases lists of the biggest US breweries--and today they put out the 2014 lists. The first one contains all breweries, the second one "craft breweries." But that second one is becoming increasingly bizarre and baroque. Let's just compare/contrast:
  • Craft Brewers Alliance, an association of three independent craft breweries with a minority stake by Anheuser-Busch, is not on the list.
  • The Belgian conglomerate Duvel Moortgat, owner of Boulevard and Ommegang, Gambrinus, an importer that owns a menagerie of beer companies, and North American Breweries, owned by--not making this up--Cerveceria Costa Rica, a subsidiary of Florida Ice and Farm Company, are all on the list.
  • Yuengling and August Schell are on the list--after years of being excluded.
  • Boston Beer, a giant company that makes Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard, is on the list.
The "craft brewers list" is nothing of the kind: it's a "Brewers Association list." I hope journalists completely ignore it when they talk about relative size and refer only to the list of all breweries. It's the only one that has any meaning whatsoever.

Odd Thing #2: Powdered Alcohol
A bill in the Oregon state legislature would ban powdered alcohol, which was recently approved by the FDA.  Apparently this is a thing, powedered alcohol. The company that brought it to market, is vigorously (but in my view not entirely effectively) fighting back. Their arguments include: 1) if you ban it, people will want it more; 2) once the black market gets going, you'll lose control of it; 3) don't waste precious government money fighting the black market!; 4) Alcohol is... well, this argument is so nakedly self-serving it deserves a quote in full.  "Alcohol misuse and abuse is a real problem. People can abuse any product and there's no controlling what a person does with a product. What's the solution? We know that you can't legislate behavior so banning Palcohol is not the solution. We have to educate people on the responsible use of alcohol."

I have no opinion on the matter except that the Palcohol company needs to hire a decent political strategist and communications director immediately.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

American Wild Ales Evolve

This past weekend, Ezra Johnson-Greenough mounted the third Farmhouse and Wild Ale Fest in Portland, and I finally managed to attend. I expected to find great beer from the growing cadre of breweries devoted to funk (Jester King, Crooked Stave, De Garde, and others). What I didn't expect was to find a similarity across the beers that pointed to distinctly American provenance. When we think of "American," what springs to mind are hops. This vein of brewing is so prominent that American IPAs are brewed all over the world now, from Prague to Mexico City to Auckland.

American wild ales, by contrast, aren't even well-known in the US. But if the beers at that fest are any indication--and I think they were a pretty good cross-section of what's available--wild ales may be more distinctively American than IPAs. (When you sit down to a Matuška IPA in Prague, you realize how well other breweries have learned to imitate them.) Two other countries have a solid tradition of wild ales, and they're instructive for the ways they contrast American wilds.

Belgium, of course, is the standard-bearer for the category.* Belgium kept the traditions of spontaneous fermentation, mixed fermentation, and wood-aging alive, and it's hard to imagine there being any wild ales had lambics, tart flanders ales, and assorted oddball beers died out before the current revival. Belgian wilds have two distinctive features--complexity and balance--that make them unique. This comes partly from spontaneous fermentation, but more from the varied ecosystems that inhabit the old wooden foeders in places like Brussels and Roselare. Take gueuze, which for my money is the world's most accomplished style. Not only does it come from lambic, which is the product of a zoo of wild creatures, but also different vintages of lambic. The old blends are dry, austere, and still, the medium blends richer with yeast compounds, the young blends still lively and sweet. A gueuze is tart but not overly so; the flavors are so nuanced and varied that you can fall into a meditation as you experience them. Beers like Rodenbach are more tart--aged, unblended Rodenbach is very sour--but they also have tons of layers. You'll find rich esters, rounded, balancing sweet notes, that characteristic balsamic note, and on and on.

Italy has, like the US, really taken to wild ales, too, but they have an entirely different orientation. Most of Italy's breweries are in the North, in wine country, and this influence is profound on the beers. Wild ales there are lightly acidic but never puckeringly sour. (I used to include a sour-o-meter when I did reviews, and rarely would an Italian ale go past two on that chart.) Balance is the hallmark of all Italian beers, though unlike German beers, in Italy they may be extremely complex and full of flavor--just never too much. My suspicion is that this has to do with cuisine; the beer is meant to go with food, and as such it's meant to remain in harmony with food. As a result, you find few face-melting palate-wreckers.

The US? The wild ales do very often approach face-melting intensity, but even more notable is how certain notes dominate. It may be an exceedingly dry quality from Brett or sharp sour, but they are mostly not brewed for subtlety.  They often seem to lack complexity for this reason; it's difficult to maintain complexity when one quality dominates.  (There are exceptions. Block 15 continues to make the best wild ales I've tasted in the US. They are balanced, complex, and extremely approachable. Like gueuze, I think most of Block 15's wilds would be as welcome by sourheads as by novices or those who don't normally like sours. That's a real trick.)  This may all be inexperience.  Wild ales are an art, and a very advanced one. Belgians have had centuries to gauge the effects of oxygen and age on beer and to learn how to blend--knowledge that comes slowly at best.

There is one development that is quite promising: hoppy wild ales. It also follows a classic pattern of the way styles mutate and develop. Americans know hops inside and out. We know how to coax all kinds of different flavors out of them, and when we brew beers, we always keep one eye on how hops will inflect the other flavors. (For decades, this was considered a naive fault of Americans, that we couldn't brew anything without over-hopping it.) Because Americans are so good with hops, they naturally started seeing how those citrusy, fruity flavors would harmonize with sour ales (which have native citrusy, fruity flavors themselves).  Americans can use hops to add spice, zest, aroma, and flavor, and they can do it precisely. When they add hops to wild ales, they're adding that depth and complexity I miss with the extremely acidic or dry beers. 

In Belgium and Italy, the complexity comes through fermentation. In the US, wild ales may one day get theirs from hops. It's a good trend, one that makes American wilds distinctive, and one that may actually expand the appeal of wild ales beyond a purely niche audience.

*And let's not get too anal about our definitions. Wild ales are not a style, but a broad family that includes any beers made with Brettanomyces, pediococcus, lactobacillus, or other wild yeasts and bacteria--whether or not they were spontaneously-fermented or pitched.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Report on Latir (Neomexicanus) Hops

Last fall, Stan Hieronymus alerted us to a new commercially-available strain of native North American hops. It is one of the most interesting developments in the beer world in recent memory, and so when a few of these precious gems came on the market, I invested in a strain called "Latir." I finally got around to brewing with them, and I have a report on what they taste like, but let's back up and refer back to Stan for a little background:

The genus Humulus likely originated in Mongolia at least six million years ago. A European type diverged from that Asian group more than one million years ago; a North American group migrated from the Asian continent approximately 500,000 years later. Five botanical varieties of lupulus exist: cordifolius (found in Eastern Asia, Japan), lupuldoides (Eastern and north-central North America), lupulus (Europe, Asia, Africa; later introduced to North America), neomexicanus (Western North America), and pubescens (primarily Midwestern United States).

Varieties European brewers identified early on as outstanding, such as Saaz and Spalt, were Humuplus lupulus. When the first settlers arrived in North American they brewed beer with hops (Humulus lupuldoides) they found growing wild, but also used hops (lupulus) they brought from Europe. Not surprisingly, native and imported hops cross-bred naturally. As recently as 1971, Cluster — one of the hops that resulted — accounted for nearly 80 percent of U.S. hop acreage.
(If that doesn't sate your appetite, there's more here.)  The people selling these hops are monks, and owing to the iron law of supply and demand, I ended up paying a mint for my 3.5 ounces. No worries--I'm happy to pay the price to be an early adopter. What's significant about the pricing part of the story is that it dictated which variety I chose--Latir, the highest-alpha variety (7.2%) they had left. I figured it would be just enough to single-hop a batch and see what they smelled and tasted like.

(For those who care, I made a basic pale ale with two-row, wheat, and a dab of caramel, fermented with American Ale II. I essentially divided the pack in thirds and added them at 60 minutes, 30 minutes, and 5 minutes.)


Latir Hops
Different groups have used different methods to try to taxonomize the aromas and flavors in hops (there are various wheels and graphs out there). I'd like to contribute to this philosophical tradition by adding a system that divides hops into either "high" or "low" varieties. In my experience, different hops either have bright, light, "high" notes (think Hallertauer, East Kent Goldings, Cascade) or are heavy, resinous, sticky and "low" (CTZ, Centennial, Summit).  I point out this dichotomy because typical flavor and aroma elements (citrus, pine, fruit) may be found in hops of either high or low type. What flavor alone fails to account for is this high/low distinction.

All of this is relevant because I have rarely encountered a hop as low as Latir. It is an amazing variety. The aroma is extremely dense and resinous--and strong. It will easily fill up the space between two drinkers as they sip a pint. It's a strongly herbal hop, and I mean that partly in the Jamaican sense. But Sally pointed out that what first struck me as marijuana was actually much closer to sage. It also has quite a bit of orange in it, though more marmalade than fresh fruit. I picked up some grassiness as well. The flavors seem very American.

In a single-hop beer, Latir overwhelms--though I suspect there are a number of people who would love its intensity. But it has so much character, it would be wonderful in a supporting role, along with some "high" varieties to lighten and brighten the beer up. It's an IPA hop--too big and brassy to play a bit part in more mildly-hopped styles--and in that way seems very contemporary.

I wasn't expecting much.  Just because a hop comes from wild strains doesn't mean it will be any good, and the grass-roots background of these hops made me wonder if they would have been hybridized into anything approaching a commercial palate.  But these are badass hops, and I would happily use them regularly if they were available. (Though probably not at $5 an ounce.)  All in all, a most exciting find.

Update. By amazing coincidence, this arrived in the mailbox about two hours after my post went live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Secrets of Book Publishing

A note. Many people have taken this post to be a harsh indictment of publishers, particularly Workman. That wasn't my intent. I am very grateful and indebted to Workman for giving me a chance on this book, and they have been great partners in making it a far better product than I could ever have managed on my own. I offer the criticism in the same spirit I would in a book or beer review--a critique of mistakes made. In this case, those mistakes have directly affected me and those who have been waiting for this book (including a lot of breweries and informants who made it possible). I felt I owed it to them to reveal exactly why it's been taking so long.


Why does it take so long for books to go from ideas to paper and ink?  We live in an age of advanced digital tools that make it easy for even amateurs to produce professional-looking books. Why then do publishers still proceed as if it's 1958?  Good questions all.

Roughly five years ago, I changed professions.  I scrapped a reliable paycheck as a researcher at the local university for the very unreliable prospect of writing a book (or books). In conventional terms, the period has been a success: I signed four contracts, completed three manuscripts and am at work on a fourth--but in that time I've published zero real books. (The Beer Tasting Toolkit was a funny little side project that included a 6,000-word pamphlet, so it's not exactly a book, though it did actually make it out into the world.)  Why it took so long is--to me, anyway--a fairly fascinating story; for those of you who started asking about The Beer Bible years ago, it may help answer the question of why it's taken so damn long.

The Pitch/Playing Footsie
Publishing a book is expensive and risky; the large majority of books never earn back their advance. As such, publishers adopt a wise policy of skepticism toward any books pitched to them. In order to convince them to publish a book, it's nearly mandatory to have an agent (who, more than anything else in the pitching process, is the person who vouches for you). To get an agent or a book contract, it is absolutely mandatory to have a proposal. This is a document that not only describes the project (including sample chapters), but outlines who the audience is, what the competing books are, what the market is, and how you're going to sell it. It's as much a business plan as literary document.

In my case, I put together a proposal for what was essentially Lisa Morrison's Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest. That proposal was good enough to find me an agent and then, when my agent pitched the book to publishers, good enough to attract the attention of Workman Publishing. They had been thinking to do a companion to The Wine Bible and were looking for the right author.  The Beer Bible was a far better project than the one I was pitching, so I immediately agreed. Over the course of the next year, I submitted a prospective table of contents and then sample chapters, and finally, because those pieces weren't reassuring enough, a full proposal. (Which was weird, since it was Workman's project.) 

At the publisher's, a book will typically begin with an acquisitions editor or, in the case of The Beer Bible, the editor who would be overseeing the project. That person must convince other people at the publishing house that the book (or author) is both right for the company and a decent financial prospect. It works its way up the ladder until someone decision-making authority green lights the project. Joy!

In the graph above, you can see the different amounts of time it took for this phase (in gray).  It took a full year for The Beer Bible.  My first contact with Workman was March 2010, and I got conditional approval a year later. Around the same time, I was approached by Chronicle Books about doing The Beer Tasting Toolkit, which was also based on an earlier wine version of the same thing. As with Workman, editors at Chronicle were judging me, not the book.  Cider Made Simple was also Chronicle's idea, and they pitched it to me exactly three days before the manuscript for The Beer Bible was due. Since we'd already worked together, there wasn't a lot of footsie on that one.

The current project, which I'll describe sometime soon, was the first book I pitched that actually got accepted. Since  it wasn't a publisher's idea first, my agent spent quite a long time trying to coax Workman and then Storey into signing me. That one took nine months.

When a publisher offers you a book, they outline the basic contours of what will become the contract. This is a pre-negotiation that usually happens quickly. (Either you will work for the advance they're offering or not, and while there's wiggle room there, it's immediately evident whether the deal is going to be adequate.)  This is another great moment to have an agent. Book contracts aren't especially difficult to understand, but their implications are. If you don't understand the subtle ramifications of legalese (rules by which you'll have to live for years or decades), you can find yourself in trouble down the road. Once you've settled on the contours of the agreement, you can begin work on the book while your agent and the publisher hash out the details. Since contracting usually takes a couple months or more, it's time you do not want to waste.

This is the one phase that went pretty much like I expected it to.  The contract contains the due date for the manuscript, and they expect you to turn it in by then. (In the graph, the writing portion is in blue, and the diamond corresponds to the due date.) I've found that while you're writing a book, editors pay no attention to you and it can even be hard to get a response to questions along the way. Don't take up book-writing if you need someone to help you manage your time. Workman gave me two years to write The Beer Bible and Chronicle a year to write Cider Made Simple. I'm proud to say I've never missed a deadline.

There's a pretty big moment after you've completed the manuscript where the publisher formally accepts it. This means they believe it's up to minimum snuff--and it's when they release the rest of the advance. It usually takes a month or two.

Editing, Layout, Publishing
This is easily the most mysterious part of the process. When you buy a book, very little of what you're paying for is the physical expense of ink and paper. It's paying the writer along with the salaries of copy-editors, photo-editors, content editors, layout people, publicity people, and salespeople.Once you deliver the manuscript, they swing into action to turn it into a polished, attractive, tangible object.  In roughly chronological order, here's what they do.
  • Content editing. An editor goes through the entire manuscript and helps you sort out the pieces that don't make sense, or are draggy, redundant, and so on. At Workman, they used three editors and went over every sentence with a microscope. I had to battle one editor who didn't like my voice and wanted to rewrite most of my prose (which would have been bizarre in just a third of the manuscript).  At Chronicle, they used an incredibly light hand and only adjusted confusing parts. I'm not sure which is better, actually. The central benefit of a published book--as opposed to self-published--is good editing. Writers have collaborators who can help them get to the place they were shooting for. Although it took weeks more of time, I didn't hate Workman's strong hand.
  • Copy editing. Grammar, punctuation, and continuity. At Workman, they use freelance copy editors, and the woman they assigned to me was spectacular. She was super detail-oriented and seemed to get stressed by ambiguity, which was reflected in her anxious comments. I would love to run everything I write through her.
  • Layout and design. This is where professionals make a book look like a book (and one of the obvious ways in which amateurs self-publishing their own material reveal themselves). I tried to offer very little in the way of strong preference here because, honestly, I know bupkis about layout and design. This is a big part of what sells books, and that's a publisher's business, not an author's. Nevertheless, some of the different cover designs Workman considered are suggestive of the amount of time it took to settle on one they like. (They advance chronologically left to right, and I think the one on the far right is the final.)
  •  Print layouts and galleys. As the book is in various stages of editing, the layout people begin to plug the text into the format the book will take. This includes page design, font selection, colors, and art.  Publishers have a strong vision of what they want to do here. Workman, for example, wanted me to snap a bunch of pictures on my travels, preferring the narratively-specific (but photographically limited) quality they'd bring. Chronicle, by contrast, decided to do illustrations rather than photos in Cider Made Simple. Once the layout is coming along, they do various digital and print versions, including what's called a print or bound galley--sort of a rough draft of what the thing will look like. This is the copy that goes out to booksellers and reviewers in advance of publication.
For reasons completely inexplicable to me, the process takes far longer than it should. If you asked an ad agency to publish a book, they'd be able to turn it around in less than six months. The publishing pipeline takes a long time, and this is one factor. Publishers release catalogs they use to secure contracts from booksellers, and these go out months in advance.  But they also just fart around and miss deadlines. I submitted The Beer Tasting Toolkit manuscript in December of 2010, and Chronicle sat on it until Feb 2012.

With The Beer Bible, it was far more egregious. They received the manuscript on May 1, 2013 and accepted it on July 19.  The contract stipulated that the would release it within 18 months, and they told me they expected to release it in Fall 2014. As far as I can tell, they sat on it for an entire year and did absolutely nothing. We began to wrangle when I realized what was happening, and things got very tense. (According to the contract, if Workman didn't publish the book within 18 months--a date we passed in January--I could take the advance and the book and walk. It nearly came to that.)

The bound galley arrived yesterday.

It illustrates the structural imbalance of the publisher-author relationship.  The publisher has quite a bit of power over the work of the author; the author has no power over the work of the publisher (or, often, any idea what the publisher is even doing). The author needs his book on the market in order to earn his living (and is therefore motivated by deadlines); publishing employees get a paycheck either way. The author is one person; the publisher is many people. As this process has unfolded, I have had very little influence over events, so when Workman blew by their own deadline, there wasn't a ton I could do. To illustrate just how incredibly incompetent they were in managing their own affairs: I will have managed to write and publish an entire book in the space of time it took them merely to publish the Beer Bible.  Put another way, it took me 24 months to write the 230,000-word book; it will have taken Workman 27 months to get it inside paper covers.

Eventually books do get published. In the fall, I'll be doing some kind of book tour to support The Beer Bible (and maybe Cider Made Simple, though Chronicle hasn't responded to my inquiries about that.)  A writer starts earning royalties once a book earns back its advance, and that can take months to years to accomplish. So publication is actually just another middle state in the whole process.

Freelance writers have to pick their poison--books or articles. It's possible to do both--Stan Hieronymus seems to pull it off--but juggling the two is a challenge. I still think book writing was a good choice for me. I managed to get decent enough advances to make the books worthwhile and I have the expectation there will be royalties down the road. I also work better in long form. With books, you have pretty much carte blanche over voice and content. But, as I now understand, the process is more convoluted and opaque than necessary, and takes far longer than it should. So we'll see. After this current project is complete, I may go sniffing around Portland State University to see if they still need researchers.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Honest Pint Act Rises From the Dead

I don't have the time to do this justice--reporting on it by calling sponsors, etc--but I got a tip that the Honest Pint Act is back on the docket at the Oregon legislature. You will recall that back during my tenure as half-assed champion of honest pints in 2009, the Oregon legislature actually took up a bill to make it law. (Yes, I know you don't recall; humor me.)  I testified in Salem, it made it out of committee on a (barely) bipartisan vote, and ... died on the floor.  That bill, almost verbatim, is back:

House Bill 3413 
Sponsored by Representative HELM; Representatives BARNHART, WITT

Allows holder of full on-premises sales license or limited on-premises sales license to obtain verification of capacity of pint glasses used at licensed premises for draft malt beverages. Allows holder to obtain display sticker from Oregon Liquor Control Commission if glasses at premises hold pint of malt beverage under standard conditions.
Briefly, what it does is this: a restaurant or pub can request someone from the state come and do a random sampling of their glassware. If they hold at least 16 ounces "when dispensed under standard conditions established by the director" (I think that language is to allow for headspace), they get a decal certifying that they're purveyors of an honest pint.  (Seriously, "honest pint" is in the language of the bill.)  There's a fee to apply for certification, and although it is not explicit, that is probably the way the law pays for itself. It expires after two years, and then you have to re-up. The one change I see is in section 2, which previously assigned oversight to the Department of Human Services.

In the current version, it falls to the Oregon Health Authority. I have no great confidence that the bill has any shot of becoming a law, but it's cool to dream.  Pay for an honest pint, receive an honest pint.  Seems like a damn fine idea to me.

Oh, this is a cool blast from the past (can't believe it's still cached somewhere):

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Beer Flavors Are Not That Subtle

There's a new ad by Anheuser-Busch floating through cyberspace that attempts to slyly suggest that Budweiser, served blind, would be accepted by drinkers even in enclaves as upscale and hipstery as Brooklyn:

In order to accept this facsimile of reality, you must believe a few things that are logically problematic:
  1. Anheuser-Busch is showing you an accurate reflection of what happened in that pub, not a heavily-edited version.  (Assuming, and some won't, that you think these are patrons and not actors in the first place.)
  2. Telling people you are serving them a "special beer" will allow them to appreciate Budweiser with what Buddhists call "beginner's mind" and give it a chance to impress on its own merits.
  3. People offered Budweiser blind would be shocked and amazed to learn what it was.
The most unbelievable thing, though, is the subtext Bud expects us to accept. The ad is structured to suggest that these are sophisticated drinkers who would normally be ordering Dogfish Head, Sixpoint, or Brooklyn Brewery's beers, and that merely recontectualizing Bud is enough to put it in their camp.  Absurd.  Yes, it's true that blind tasters have mistaken cheap plonk for good wine; people have even mistaken white wine for red wine.  Anyone who has done a blind tasting has come to terms with their own sensory frailties.  But those frailties are exposed when we are offered relatively subtle differences. Budweiser is not subtly different than an IPA or even a pale ale. It's not like trying to pick out cheap wine from expensive; it's like distinguishing chocolate ice cream from vanilla.

What? It's a Bud? I'm shocked!

Although it was excoriated by good-beer fans, I thought Bud's Super Bowl ad was a successful bit of counter-programming directly squarely at the people who were still accessible to Anheuser-Busch.  This ad will convince no one. People looking for an excuse to drink the beer they enjoy will not find it in the reactions of the Brooklynites in this ad. (Brooklyn, and maybe Portland and San Francisco, are punchlines for people who drink Bud, not cultural guides.)  It obviously won't convince people who have already discovered the delights of ales and more robust lagers.  It's an ad with no constituency and it pretty much insults everyone who watches it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The World's Most Secretive Brewery

Today's post on All About Beer is a special holiday feature.  You can attempt to guess the brewery in question:
“We do have a legendary process and there is element of mystery behind it—and you’re not going to get that out of me.”
I do have one addendum.  This is a brewery that rejected my entreaties to see the inside (the real inside, where they actually make the beer) and I wrote, "If you do much research, you discover that this has been true for a while—no one has seemed to so much as glimpsed a mash tun for years."  It turns out that's not entirely true--Brian Yaeger has been inside.  I'll have to get him drunk and find out what he knows.

Follow-up. I had forgotten this report from Martyn Cornell of a visit to the brewery organized by the European Beer Bloggers Conference (including illicitly-snapped pics of Brewhouse #4).  Nothing there makes me regret calling Guinness the world's most secretive brewery.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Growth in the Craft Beer Segment *Accelerating*

I am slammed today and don't have the time to add a lot to the latest numbers put out by the Brewers Association. They're just pretty staggering:
  • Craft* now has an 11% share of the beer market's total volume and 19% of the dollars.
  • That's growth of 18% over last year's totals to 22 million barrels (the segment only hit 10 million in 2010).
  • There are nearly 3,500 breweries, up from around 2,900 last year.
  • So called "microbreweries" now outnumber brewpubs, which at the very least ought to give new entrants pause (though only 46 breweries closed last year, amazingly enough).
These numbers really help drive home the logic of consolidation and acquisitions. There is a ton of money in beer ($20 billion in the craft segment alone)--figures that make future purchases inevitable.  (And which will, paradoxically, make these numbers mean less and less as companies like 10 Barrel and Elysian are pruned from the rolls.)

*As defined by the Brewers Association.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Who's the Villain?

Update 1.  Innovation has posted their response to Bell's response.
Update 2.  A nice piece at MiBiz covering the fracas (h/t Alan).  More here, here, here, and here.

Let's spend a few paragraphs considering events of the past 24 hours.  It illuminates a few things about business, trademark law, and the folly of over-personalizing the two.  First, the local paper in Asheville, NC put out a sloppy report accusing big, bad 'ol Bell's of bullying local concern Innovation Brewing.
Bell's has filed a federal action against Innovation over the use of its name. Bell's says its unregistered advertising slogan "bottling innovation since 1985" could lead to confusion with customers. While the slogan is used on bumper stickers, it's not present on any of the brewery's beer packaging....

"We are very disappointed," said Nicole Dexter, who founded Innovation in 2013 with her partner Chip Owen. The two came up with the Innovation name after finding creative means of assembling their brewing system.  "Innovation is what we had to do to make everything work," Owen said. (h/t All About Beer)

 This appears to follow a familiar script: a small brewery is just trying to make their way in the world, when along comes a corporate behemoth to crush their dreams with a trademark lawsuit.  If you read further in the article, though, you get more of the picture (though obliquely).  It's actually the small guys who are trying to trademark the word "innovation," not Bell's.  After initially fumbling the response (Citizen-Times: "Bell's founder Larry Bell would not discuss the issue"), Bell's today clarified their position.  Go read the whole thing, which radically alters the story.  This is the key point, though:
We have not, and are not asking them to change their name or their logo. There is no lawsuit. We are not suing them. We have not asked them for money. We have not asked them to stop selling their beer. We are asking them to withdraw their federal trademark application.
There are a few lessons to be learned here.

Trademark Law Creates Conflict By Design
Trademark law is brutal.  The way it works is that anyone can apply for a mark on anything.  One of the stopgaps is that during the registration process, other parties have a right to contest the mark.  There are a lot of marks that, if granted, would substantially damage existing brands.  This is where we are in the "innovation" situation.  Think for a minute what trademarking "innovation" might do to other US breweries--for whom innovation is not only an article of faith, but a regular part of publicity, branding, and labeling material.

That leads to the second important part of trademark law: owners must defend their marks.  So, if Innovation does get the mark for that word, they must protect the mark.  Trademark Office: "the owner of a registration is responsible for bringing any legal action to stop a party from using an infringing mark."  This sets up a case where Innovation could easily look at Bell's use of the word innovation and slap them with a cease-and-desist letter and lawsuit threat.  If a company fails to do this, it can lose its mark if other companies can make the argument it has lapsed into the public domain.  

Trademark Disputes Are Not Personal
There are 3,000+ breweries in the United States making, conservatively, 50,000 brands of beer.  In order to protect their names and brand identities, these breweries register trademarks.  Because of the way the law is structured, this means tons and tons of disputes.  These disputes are not personal--they are the result of the way the law is written.   It creates a catch-22 for breweries on the publicity side: if you don't register your names as trademarks, someone else will, so you risk losing your entire brand identity (which is, obviously, super bad for business).  If you do register your mark, then you have to go out and police it or risk losing the mark.  When beer geeks read into this a kind of malevolence, they misunderstand the logistics of what breweries are forced to do.  Yes, there are times breweries are overly litigious and sue people needlessly--a justified cause for irritation--but mostly beer fans should not be over-personalizing disputes over trademarks. That's just how it works. It's time to let this outrage machine run out of gas.  (Not that I have even the slightest hope that will actually happen.)

Make Sure You Tell Your Story First
One amazing part of this is that Bell's did not tell their story immediately when a newspaper came calling.  I fault the paper for writing an overheated, largely misleading piece, but Larry Bell should have gotten in front of it.  Elysian made a similar blunder after deciding to sell to Anheuser-Busch.  They waited days to put out their own explanation for the story, long after they'd been torched on social media.  There's no way to fully control a story, but man, you have no chance if you don't get your version out there.  Even now, after the clarification, Bell's is still getting hammered. People are still charging Bell's with crimes they have not committed.  This is the problem when you find yourself behind a story--the "narrative" gets established, calcified, and becomes reality.  Bell's may still pull out of this, but they must now spend days or weeks in damage control mode.  


For those who think Bell's is absolutely in the wrong, let's use an analogous case: the trademark to "Beervana."  It is currently owned by Texas-based Gambrinus and used to hawk BridgePort.  There is nothing horribly sinister about that, but I think most Oregonians would agree that the word should never have been trademarked.  It should have stayed in the public domain where it was of use to all--like "innovation."  I really wish someone had intervened at the time and stopped Gambrinus the way Larry Bell is trying to stop Innovation.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Do Portlanders Line Up at Bars? John Hodgman Speculates

Okay, hive mind, I have an interesting case for you. I was listening to the latest episode of one of my three or four favorite podcasts, Judge John Hodgman, wherein he adjudicates minor disputes (with support from bailiff Jesse Thorn).  John Hodgman is known to most as the "I'm a PC" guy, though possibly also for his deranged millionaire spots on the Daily Show.  In this recent podcast he ruminated on a topic that flatly mystified--but also intrigued--me.  It touches on one of my very favorite topics, the culture of pub-going.  (I have a whole section on it in The Beer Bible.)  Here he turns to Portland, but espies something I don't really recognize:
"There's one city that I've been to in the United States, Jesse Thorn, where people line up at bars.  They form an orderly line without being asked, and the line is sacrosanct.  Can you guess what city in the United States that I've been to where this is part of the culture of the bar."

[Jesse guesses Walla Walla.]

"You are not far off; it is a Pacific Northwestern city known as Portland, Oregon... In Portland, you'd think, 'oh, it's because people are very polite.'  But in fact, it's because people in Portland who go to bars, especially cool bars, don't actually feel comfortable dealing with one another--in my opinion.  So, they line up in order to adhere to a social code that will make outsiders feel unwelcome and will make them feel sanctimonious and self-righteous.  And, with the added benefit of, they never have to deal with the messy human interactions like, 'oh sorry, I was here first.'  Or, 'hey, do you mind if I just get this before you because I gotta go out, or do whatever.'  Do you know what I mean?  Those minor, tiny, little negotiations that humans make with each other all the time in order to get their alcohol and do other things in life.  It feels like when people line up at a bar in Portland, that's to my mind what they're avoiding.  If there are people from Portland, Oregon who disagree with me, who feel that I am unfair, write me a letter and I'll engage with you.  Maybe I broke your rule and you're rolling your eyes.  But that's how I feel."
Hodgman is principally a liquor man (he jokes that rather than a sweet tooth, he has an "alcohol molar"), so he may be talking about upscale bars in the Pearl for all I know.  But I throw it out to you, Portland bar-goers: does this make a lick of sense to you?  I don't recall ever encountering a line in a bar.  I think it's even more unlikely that his interpretation about the meaning of these (possibly apocryphal) lines is accurate.  In my experience, Portland bars are communal and unfussy.  I'd say interaction is one of the key elements of Portland bar culture.

But it's also the case that locals are sometimes blind to manifestations of their own culture--culture that smacks visitors across the face with its weirdness.  So I'm reluctant to dismiss it out of hand; maybe I'm just missing it. I'd love your feedback in comments.  We can pass along our collective opinion to him.

Finally, a couple of notes in terms of tone.  Hodgman's comic style is sardonic, which doesn't come across so well in print.  He's also not only very familiar with Portland, but seems to consider it a dwelling of his immediate tribe (he currently lives in Brooklyn).  He therefore kids Portlanders like you do a sibling.  There's been tons of Portland content on the podcast over the years, including probably the best episode ever, Rashomom, which gave birth to the quantum "Gray House Universe" theory.  There are others like this transportation dispute (of course), and inevitably, one involving a food cart.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't spend a lot of time analyzing him. (But do listen to a podcast if you're intrigued.) I'm much more interested in getting to the bottom of this lining-up question.  Do Portlanders form lines in bars?  Where have you seen it?  And, if we do line up, any theories as to what's going on?

Monday, March 09, 2015

Dive Bar Challenge: Montavilla Station

Today we have the latest entry in our ongoing Dive Bar Challenge: Montavilla Station.  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.)

Montavilla Station, 417 SE 80th Ave
Throughout this experiment, it has been my intention to continue to work from Portland's inner beer geek core to the outer fringes of the city.  I held a vague hypothesis that the further out you went, the less likely you were to encounter local craft beer.  For the latest installment, I ventured to Montavilla, a neighborhood snuggling up against the great dividing line of 82nd Avenue.  (In Portland, 82nd has long divided the two halves of the east side in the way the Cascades divide the two halves of Oregon.  You go from Portlandia to lower-middle class suburbia in cultural terms when you cross that line.)

Montavilla Station is just a block away from Roscoe's, the good-beer bar that helped lead the renaissance of the neighborhood's tiny commercial district.  From the building's exterior, you might expect a seedy, old-Montavilla interior.  Not so.  It's a large, airy, well-lighted space with a couple of pool tables, a stage, and a well-stocked, full bar.  It also has an amazing tap list.  When I visited last Wednesday, they were pouring Barley Brown's Pallet Jack, Boneyard RPM, Double Mountain Hop Lava, and Alameda Black Bear Stout, among other, more predictable craft offerings.  And the amazing thing: on Wednesday, all craft beers ("microbrews," as the bartender styled them) are three bucks.  "Tell all your craft beer buddies, boss," he said.  We continued to chat, and someone tried to order Busch.  (He had four mass market lagers, but no Busch.)  Afterward, he told me, "This is a working class pub, boss. But we got 14 taps and they're a lot cheaper than Roscoe's." The he struck up a little tune and said, "I'm here to kick Roscoe's in the balls."

A couple regulars who were not impressed by the $3 Pallet Jack.

This is decidedly not in a hipster neighborhood, but it goes to show where the gravity is.  As Roscoe's moved into the neighborhood, their insistence on a giant taplist of obscure, strong craft beers looked like madness, but a few years later, a pub like Montavilla Station is feeling the need to get with the program.  And it means that if my thesis is correct, Montavilla is nowhere near far enough out. To Lents!

The Stats*
Breweries in ZIP code: 0 (soon to be one)
Distance from the heart of downtown: 7.2 miles
Neighborhood hipness factor (1-5): 2.5
Seediness factor (1-5): 2.5, sort of seedy
Beers on tap:  12
Mass market beers: 4
Craft beers: 8 (four IPAs, a lager, a pale, a wheat, and a stout)
Imports:  0
Ciders: 1 (Spire Mountain)
Verdict: Super crafty

*I may tune these up over time, but this seems like a good start.  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.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

What Can We Learn From 170-Year-Old Beer?

I got an email yesterday alerting me to this technical paper of analyses done on 19th century beer recovered from a shipwreck. Interestingly, they have no idea what the provenance of the ship was--nor, therefore, any idea where the beers came from.  But when they cracked two of the bottles open, this is what they found.
Bubbles of gas, presumably CO2, formed during sampling, producing a light foam. Both beers were bright golden yellow, with little haze. Both beers smelt of autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, Bakelite, burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat, with phenolic and sulfury notes. As the samples warmed to room temperature, the smell of hydrogen sulfide disappeared and that of butyric acid (particularly strong in C49) strengthened.
Hmm, those don't sound like particularly inviting qualities.  Some of this was the result of time (autolyzed yeast, goat and cheese), but I've never heard of DMS or butyric acid developing in aged beer.  Sounds to me like bad beer to begin with. 

I was instantly drawn to the study, but then wondered: is it really of much use? There is a trove of chemical analysis here for the nerd--esters, phenols, carbonyl compounds, hop levels and compounds, and so on.   But what does this really tell us?  The authors give incredibly detailed analysis, but the sum seems far less than the parts:
In summary, these two about 170-year-old bottles contained two different beers, one (C49) more strongly hopped than the other (A56) with the low α-acid yielding hop varieties common in the 19th century. Both beers exhibited typical profiles of yeast-derived flavor compounds and of phenolics. Present knowledge of the long-term chemical and microbiological stability of these compounds is not adequate to assess how closely the observed profiles indicate the original flavor of the beers. The flavors of these compounds were hidden by very high levels of organic acids, probably produced by bacterial spoilage. The composition of the microbial mixture used to produce these beers is unclear, but it probably did not include many strains producing the Pad1 enzyme responsible for the volatile phenols characteristic of wheat beers. Pad1 activity is common in wild yeast, and its absence suggests that the yeasts employed were domesticated rather than wild.
These kinds of analyses will probably add some knowledge in the margins.  As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a ton of study on the aging process in beers past a certain point.  (Those who pay for these studies--beer companies--have wanted to know what changes happen in the normal lifetime of a beer, not what changes happen years or decades later.)  So what we know by taking a snapshot like this comes with a pretty serious cloud of mystery.  Personally, I think there's quite a bit of evidence from the primary sources historians have lately been studying--evidence that is more relevant to the layman's understanding of beer evolution. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Oregon Beer Sales, 2014

Each month, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission releases details for the amount of Oregon-brewed beer sold in Oregon.  They are all fairly interesting if you're into sales data, but the biggie comes out in late February, when the year-end totals are released.  You can view them here in pdf.  Here are the topline numbers.  In 2013, Oregon breweries sold 490,000 barrels of beer in Oregon.  They added over 70,000 barrels in 2014 (a 14.4% increase) and sold 566,000 barrels.  According to the way the OLCC calculates these things, there are 189 breweries currently operating in Oregon.

Of course, the share of the sales goes to a very small group of breweries.  Deschutes and the Craft Brewers Alliance (Widmer, Redhook, and Kona) account for a third of all the Oregon-brewed beer sold in Oregon.  The five best-selling breweries account for half.  The top ten account for two-thirds, the bottom 179 the final third.

Below are the top 20 best-selling breweries in Oregon.  Keep in mind that this is beer sales by Oregon breweries in Oregon.  This list does not reflect the beers sales by Oregon breweries in other states, nor the sales in Oregon of beer by out-of-state breweries.  The second number (in parentheses) is the brewery's position on the 2013 list; the third number is the actual barrels sold in Oregon; and the final number is the growth or decline over 2013.  I have highlighted sharp growth in bold and decline in red.
1 (2) Redhook/Widmer/Kona - 94,731, 17.1%
2 (1) Deschutes Brewing - 89,778, 2.1%
3 (3) Ninkasi Brewing - 43,118, -6.4%
4 (4) Portland Brewing - 31,309, 8.2%
5 (7) 10 Barrel Brewing - 25,848, 60.5%
6 (5) Full Sail Brewing - 24,520, 0.7%
7 (6) Bridgeport Brewing - 21,227, -10.6%
8 (13) Hop Valley Brewing - 18,504, 175.1%
9 (8) Rogue Ales Brewery - 15,294, 5.5%
10 (9) Boneyard Beer - 14,536, 14.6%
11 (11) Hopworks Urban Brewery - 9,579, 20.6%
12 (14) Fort George Brewery - 8,744, 47.7%
13 (10) Oakshire Brewing - 7,786, -2.1%
14 (22) Worthy Brewing - 7,783, 177.0%
15 (12) Double Mountain Brewery - 7,671, 1.3%
16 (18) Caldera Brewing - 6,283, 41.6%
17 (15) Cascade Lakes Brewing - 5,968, 10.0%
18 (20) Breakside Brewery - 5,646, 77.7%
19 (17) Edgefield Brewery - 4,881, 3.9%
20 (16) Laurelwood Public House - 4,833, -8.8%
It's worth noting that CBA is a troika of three essentially separate breweries, so its appearance at the top of the list should include a mental asterisk.  Most breweries sold more beer in Oregon in 2014 than they did in 2013, but some actually fell in position on the list (Deschutes, Full Sail, Rogue, Boneyard, Double Mountain, Cascade Lakes, and Edgefield)--a result of not growing as fast as neighbors on the list.  I personally don't read much into sales declines without knowing a brewery's strategy.  If they were making moves into other markets, they may well have sold more beer in 2014.  That said, Ninkasi, BridgePort, and Laurelwood saw decent declines and can't be happy about that.  Finally, just as a random note: Portland Brewing is quietly putting up very large numbers.  They're now selling 6,000 barrels more a year in Oregon than they were two years ago.