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Friday, February 26, 2016

Tenth Anniversary Blogging: All Beer is Local

Ten years ago, when I started this blog, the world of beer was largely local.  Five years later, it had exploded, and "craft beer" was starting to pierce the national consciousness. That was the moment I had started traipsing around the country and world, and my own experience was one of an expanding beer consciousness. The world of beer was vast and international!

But it was in the midst of all that expanding that I stumbled across a basic truth about beer. No matter how industrial and macro and global beer appears to be, it is and will always be local.

I'm not really sure how I ever missed this. Even in the pre-craft days, living in the Northwest meant breathing Blitz, Rainier, and Oly air. As late as 1977--the year after Jack McAuliffe founded New Albion--you could have a major motion picture premised on bootlegging a truckload of Colorado beer to Georgia. National brands are still, in their way, local; it's why AB scattered 20 plants across North America. Beer is heavy (read: expensive to distribute) and perishable, and local breweries have a built-in advantage over national ones. But even more to the point; beer is local because that's where we enjoy it.

Photo, Steve Morgan
I can't overstate how timely the Oregon Beer Awards were--and I don't mean that in the obvious way. There was a moment when Bud Clark stood up to introduce an award. By now, Bud's name is lost to all but those fans of transgressive 1970s photography, but in Portland, he is a legend. A tavern owner, he ran for and became mayor in the 1980s, winning re-election after a hugely successful first term. That he was a tavern owner earned him the kind of love only Portland could give him. When he came onto the stage, he got the night's only standing ovation. And this is for a guy who hasn't been mayor for 26 years.

Beer is knitted into the fabric of a community that way. I've had the really good fortune of having been able to cover this city's (and state's) beer for nearly twenty years, more than half of them here at this crazy blogspot address. Local beer culture is a weird pastiche of institutions, oral history, and lived experience. We carry bubbles of reality around with us as we walk into pubs and drink beers, adding to them with every new beer we try. Twenty years of writing locally--and 29 of drinking locally--has allowed all of this to seep pretty deeply into my being. By now, my bubble is as big as a city block.

It's been an incredible pleasure to witness Portland's beer culture. It has mostly been composed of the activities of people who make and sell the beer but there are times--like blog anniversaries--when I allow myself the pleasure of imagining that this blog has made a tiny but perhaps visible contribution to that culture. Even if it hasn't, the opportunity to observe it closely, these ten pretty-long years, has been pure pleasure.

Tomorrow's the actual anniversary, but count this as the real blog marking the occasion. Thanks for the memories, everyone--

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What's the Half Life ...

...on alcoholic sodas?
NEW YORK (February 25, 2016) – Today, Anheuser-Busch announced the upcoming launch of Best Damn Cherry Cola, the second national offering from Best Damn Brewing Co. Hitting shelves March 7, Best Damn Cherry Cola is aged on whole cherries after brewing for a flavorful, harder take on the timeless taste of cherry cola.

“Best Damn Cherry Cola continues to build our portfolio of bold, approachable and down-to earth beers,” said Rashmi Patel, vice president, share of throat, Anheuser-Busch. “We named our Cherry Cola mission, “Put a Cherry on Tap,” and our brewmasters have outdone themselves with this new brew: a delicious combination of cherry, caramel and cola notes.”

Anheuser-Busch launched Best Damn Brewing Co.—a brand platform with the mission to bring you the Best Damn thing you’ve had all day—in December 2015 with its first nationally available brew, Best Damn Root Beer. Best Damn Brewing Co. exists within the portfolio of Anheuser-Busch brands and leverages the talent of its brewmasters and its state-of-the-art brewing facilities across the U.S. to deliver great-tasting brews.
Where do you place the over/under on the Best Damn portfolio--two years? Eighteen months? I think I'd actually be surprised if this product survives to 2017. A year ago I'd never heard of Not Your Father's Root Beer and was blissfully unaware of the tsunami of dreck that was about to overtake us. But what comes in must go out. If we bear up for a few more months, this too shall pass.

Update. Another press release came across the transom after the one above and I am much more impressed with it.
On Sunday, March 6, join Hopworks Urban Brewery and Jack Jewsbury for the release of Captain Jack’s Lucky 13 Championship IPA! This limited NW Style IPA is collaboration with Jack, a member of our favorite soccer club and post-match patron of our brewpub. Jack will be at the pub to share a pint with fans after the first soccer match of the season.

The beer is a tribute to Portland's first soccer Championship. “Lucky 13” references Jack’s jersey number and his thirteenth year in the league.
Very cool. Now, who's going to get a Lillard Triple IPA going?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Oregon Beer Award Winners Tell Us A Lot

Last night the inaugural Portland Beer Awards were announced in what aspired to be an Oscars-like ceremony. Inaugural anythings are always a little tentative, and if this tradition survives it might one day be a hot ticket among even those who don't have beers in contention. But the ceremony is the least of matters--it turns out the winning beers were the real story. As the second award was announced, I realized something rare and unusual was unfolding.

The Oregon Beer Awards were a competition solely among Beaver State breweries, judged solely by Oregonians, and assessed blind, without the hype or peer pressure about which brewery currently has the most juice. The rare and unusual element was this: the winning beers are very good examples of the way locals appreciate beer. National and international competitions have a smoothing effect; with the Oregon Beer Awards, you get a concentrating effect as the feedback of culture works its mojo. Most of the judges were brewers who drink each others' beer, share tips and recipes with each other, and who have, over decades, co-authored the Oregon palate. It's the difference between having American beer geeks judge Belgian beers and having Belgians judge them. The winners weren't just Oregon beers, they were the Oregonianist of beers.

I have very poor photos of all the winners. This was the least poor.

So, back to the ceremony. The second award was in the wheat category, and some obvious suspects were getting announced: Occidental's stellar Hefeweizen for bronze, Fort George's dry, sophisticated Quick Wit for the silver. And the gold? Widmer Hefeweizen, the wheat beer we were all weaned on. You hear a lot of talk about how this brewery or that brewery has slipped or changed, but in the quiet of a blind judging, you just have the beer. There was a kind of delicious appropriateness that Widmer's old flagship, perhaps the most discussed beer in Oregon's craft beer history, would steam to victory. What else so well defines what we Oregonians think of as wheat beer?

When John Harris won the gold for Capella Porter at his new joint, Ecliptic, it was another echo from the past. I have no doubt he's enjoyed winning medals at national competitions, but there's something special about getting the nod from your friends and peers. John choked up just slightly and said, "So, I used to brew a beer called Black Butte Porter..." He let the sentence just hang there, knowing that most of us would realize that he had been the brewer who originally brewed that other, incredibly important Oregon beer (or at least adapted it). He created the palate among Oregonians for porter, and now he was back to collect a reward from people who had learned his lessons well.

As expected, the night also featured regular mention of some of the younger guys, too (Breakside, pFriem, The Commons, and Buoy had great nights). They, of course, are part of this ongoing lineage, plowing the collective wisdom and preferences back into their beers. I started drinking Oregon beer in 1987, and I've been drinking it ever since. I've never really known how to communicate to non-Oregonians what Oregon beer is--why Widmer Hefeweizen, The Commons Urban Farmhouse, and Breakside IPA are all indicative of it--but now I don't need to: they can just look at the winners of the OBA.

I'll post the winners below the jump, and do have a look at them all. The winning beers represent just 8% of all the beers selected--and often in these competitions, the difference between first and third amounts to the preferences of one or two judges. These are all really good, really Oregonian beers.

Monday, February 22, 2016

10-Year Anniversary: Blogs Then and Now

Ten years ago this week, I started writing this blog as a fun diversion. If you will excuse an old man some navel-gazing, I'm going to throw up a few posts this week observing those ten years and how they changed beer, blogging, and me. (Aware that navel-gazing is innately repellent to those not in possession of said navel, I will try to make these reminisces relevant and interesting for everyone.)

Opening day at Hopworks Urban Brewery, one of the dozens
that have opened in Portland since I started blogging.

Ten years ago, as the Bush administration's second term was beginning to take on serious water, I was working as a researcher for Portland State University and most of my serious blogging time was spent on politics. Bloggers are far more sensitive to the attractions of their own minds than writers working for newspapers or magazines, so their interests and obsessions dot their output. Public policy was far more a feature of the early years on this blog, particularly with my focus on the beer tax and honest pints. (And I know from feedback at the time that the former was not an interest of readers.) It was almost entirely a blog about Oregon beer, and I spent most of my time talking about specific beer and breweries. Now things are ... different.

Blogs Then and Now
During that first five-year bloc (2006-2010), both beer and the media were going through a substantial change. When I started blogging, American craft breweries--basically the only category I was covering--numbered 1,400 and brewed around six million barrels of beer. There are now three times as many breweries and they're making around 25 million barrels of beer. That's obviously a huge change, but the change in media is even more profound. Twitter was founded a month after this blog and Facebook was still a college site. Blogs were still in their brief heyday as the alternative to legacy media but also occupied a quasi social-media role as convener of discussions. Everything existed on a far smaller scale then. I was blogging about a smaller beer world for a small, almost entirely local group for whom blogs were the main source of chat and discussion.

Looking backward, we can see that blogs were a transitional medium between legacy news media and social media. In the world of beer, that was especially important. A few newspapers still kept reporters on the beer beat, but they had in large part quit covering beer. Blogs were an avenue for what we might call "regular news": bloggers were where you went for information about events and new beer and breweries. We also provided a proto-social media function, offering opinion and discussion.

Social media changed the way beer news flows, but not entirely as I expected. It does some things far better than blogs, but--critically--it does some things far, far worse. People no longer go the blogs for discussion. They were never a great medium for that anyway; without a relationship to other commenters, the discussions were often rude or snide, and they often didn't go anywhere. With Facebook, we select our discussion partners in advance, so the discussions are more cordial and usually lead somewhere. But social media is a terrible place to post longer pieces, especially ones that you want to have lasting valence in the conversation of beer. Something goes on Twitter or Facebook, and it's gone in hours, lost in the miasma of words. Social media does a great job of recreating a virtual water cool; it's crap at recreating a virtual newspaper.

So over time blog content has begun to shift. Those who are doing durable, interesting stuff (current faves are folks like Boak and Bailey, Bryan Roth, Kendall Jones, and Good Beer Hunting) are getting eyeballs because we're not finding this on social media. (We are also enjoying a new golden age in professional media, though this time in the form of magazines like All About Beer, BeerAdvocate, and Draft Magazine.) Social media, desperate for something to discuss, devours good pieces. Three or four years ago, traffic here was nosediving, and I thought social media would destroy blogging. Now my traffic is far higher than its ever been, and it's clear the symbiosis between blogs and social media feeds each. It has meant that content has had to change, though. Longer pieces, more thoughtful pieces, analytical pieces--these are what people now go to blogs for.

The Blogger Then and Now
Of course, even if the medium had stayed the same, the blogger would have changed. At the start of 2010, I left Portland State and began writing books. I also began writing more articles and a year and a half ago began a roughly weekly blog at All About Beer. It's an estimate and may overstate things by 5-10%, but in this second half-decade of blogging, I wrote roughly half a million words. That's the stuff I got paid for and excludes everything on this blog. If your only connection to my writing comes through this blog, you might consider the last couple years a serious collapse in quality and frequency. I devoted less attention and less of my best ideas to this blog. (The people paying me got my best stuff.) But overall, the changes were mostly positive and, going forward, I think they'll start to appear here again.

A few of the specific changes:
  • I'm more knowledgeable. I joke sometimes that when I was hired to write The Beer Bible I wasn't qualified. It's not a joke, though--I wasn't, really. (I'd have hired Stan Hieronymus or Randy Mosher.) Writing that book was like getting a graduate course in beerology. I lived and breathed beer for two years, studying, traveling, touring and discussing, and thinking about beer basically nonstop. If bloggers didn't have a warts-and-all approach, I'd delete most of my archives because I've learned how much I didn't know when I wrote them.
  • My palate has changed. Admittedly, this was already underway, but I was far less focused on mild, low-alcohol beers before I swam in them in (particularly) Britain, Germany, and the Czech Republic. I still drink IPAs and American sours, but far less than I used to. I write less about them, too.
  • The blog is more international. Again, as a result of travel, I got to see inside some of the world's great breweries. It made me more Europe-focused at exactly the time Americans were moving away from imports. 
  • The audience has changed. Thanks to the two preceding bullets, I started getting readers from around the world, not just around the state. Although I am still relatively small fry as a voice in the beer world, writing books has exposed me to a larger audience. In 2008, the average reader of this blog was a Portland beer geek. He was probably a he, probably a homebrewer, and quite likely another blogger. I used shorthand a lot when I wrote because the audience wasn't so diverse. (Indeed, that probably reinforced who came to the site.) Now people find me from all over. I'm sure the majority are still quite knowledgeable, but there's a substantial and group who are new to beer. It means I don't write like I'm talking to friends nor do I assume the reader knows what technical terms are.
  • I'm spread more thinly. I don't have as much time to devote to this blog. My goal is to post 15-20 times a month, which would be a step up over the 12 I averaged over the past two years (but well below the 1.5 posts a day I averaged in 2009). I could write more if I padded the blog with fluff pieces, but I'm also hoping to improve the quality. I do think my posts are, compared to 2008, more accurate. People don't care anymore if you're posting two or three posts a week instead of ten, so long as they're good and substantive. I endeavor to make them so.
Peering into the past is a misleading endeavor. The near-past looks a lot more like the present than it really was. You have to start going back two or three decades in your mind's eye, to a time when the world looked like a quaintly odd place of giant cell phones, squarish cars, and weird fashion. There you find radical differences, like the absence of the internet. But a decade? Seems basically the same. But memories lie. The granular details of life--using our smart phones to mediate so many different experiences, staying connected through social media, unplugging from television--most of us weren't doing these things a decade ago.

We have that same myopia when we look forward a decade. It'll basically look the same, we figure, except for a few minor improvements here or there. That's almost certainly wrong. I fully expect to have a car service that ferries me around in a self-driving smart car. It will take me to and from pubs, and on the way I'll be able to use my neural implant to chat with friends via Mindbook. That will be handy, since another 327 breweries will have opened in Portland by then. The cool thing is, I'll be able to use that time more profitably, likesay by blogging while in transit.

See you there--

Friday, February 19, 2016

An Impressive Debut: The Oregon Beer Awards

Oregon Beer Awards
Revolution Hall (1300 SE Stark St, # 110)
Tuesday, Feb 23, 5:30pm
$15 tickets include beer and snacks | Full details

For decades, Americans have been trying to judge their beers. The Great American Beer Festival dates back, amazingly, to 1982. Homebrew competitions predate that by four years. As the decades have piled up, so have the competitions, and there are now so many of them they're like white noise playing in the background. So many breweries have won so many awards that nobody pays much attention to them anymore. Given the history, I wouldn't blame you if you tuned out the latest awards ceremony, which will happen at Portland's Revolution Hall in four days' time. But for once, you shouldn't. The Oregon Beer Awards are something truly new and different, and they may change the way we think about this whole judging business.


A Philosophical Change
Why would you judge beers in the first place? To try to identify and laud the best ones, right? This seems intuitive enough, but the way these competitions have evolved has undermined this simple goal. When we think of "best," what pops into our minds are those beers that really rocked our worlds. We've all had the experience of trying a beer and thinking, "Holy crap, this thing is amazing." It's the experience that has given beer all this energy and excitement. But in trying to set up the formal structure for judging beers, competitions have created rigid style categories with very narrow criteria. Because beers vary so much, they've addressed this by adding ever more styles to the competitions. What you end up with are beers that "test" well in these rigid categories. Any beer that does not conform to the model has no place at competitions.

Recognizing this, the OBA founders have radically simplified everything. (Those founders, incidentally, are brewer Ben Edmunds, Willamette Week arts and culture editor Martin Cizmar, and blogger Ezra Johnson-Greenough.) There are only fourteen categories. (The GABF has 92.) This is the first year they've done this with judging, and my guess is that they'll be tweaked slightly in future years, but you can understand their basic logic when you see the list:
  • Pils/helles/kolsch
  • Wheat/wit/weizen
  • Stout/porter
  • "Classic styles" (browns, reds, ambers, etc.)
  • Belgian beer
  • Sessionable hoppy beers (6% and lower)
  • IPA (6.1% to 7.4%)
  • Strong hoppy beers (7.5% and higher)
  • Dark hoppy beers
  • Flavored beers
  • Fruit and field beers
  • Sour and wild beers
  • Barrel-aged beers
  • Experimental beers
The notion here is to trim the categories enough that you're not comparing beers of radically different type, but leave plenty of space for what in other competitions would be "nonconfroming beers." It is a decidedly American list, which is appropriate to the entries. You could have a category for English styles, but they are now so rare it just doesn't make sense. The organizers made their orientation about what they were looking for explicit:
"In general, it is not our goal to reward or eliminate beers on a technicality. In all categories, the ideal is a harmonious and delicious beer which exemplifies the category as it exists in today’s beer culture. Harmoniousness includes technical criteria such as color and carbonation as well as more qualitative elements like finesse, moreishness/drinkability, and balance."
They're really trying to find beers that spark that "holy crap!" moment.

Qualified Judges/Good Competition Design

The competition took place over two days. Seventy-eight breweries entered 525 beers across the 14 categories. On day one, judges tasted flights of all the beers (usually around ten per flight) and selected three to advance. The 64 judges were an impressive group of professionals. Most were brewers--a who's who from around the state--but there were also distributors, hop growers, pub owners, and writers. I was one of the lucky judges on day one, but had to miss the second day. On day two there were prelim rounds and finals rounds.

I've judged beer probably a dozen times, and this was different. We were allowed to consult any style guidelines, basically to give us a sense of what we were looking for. But then the process was far less technical and more subjective. We just talked about the beers we liked and why. There were generally some beers the table quickly eliminated because they weren't especially interesting examples or had notable flaws. In other competitions, there's usually a big discussion about style adherence. Is beer X a good example of a pale ale, or is it really more of an IPA? I judged both narrow categories like kolsch as well as quite broad categories like the session hoppy beers and wild ales. Those were fascinating.

In the session hoppy ales, there was a broad selection of styles: session IPAs and hoppy pales, of course, but also an English IPA, two hoppy lagers, and a hoppy saison. There were a couple of old-school, ragged-edges hoppy beers, too. Tasting them all was disorienting at first, but then illuminating. Although they were not similar stylistically, they were all using they elements of the style they chose to frame their use of hops. Of the 60+ beers I tried that day, my overall favorite was the hoppy saison, and I hope I learn what it was at some point.


I have no idea if Willamette Week is going to want to continue this tradition, or if breweries will participate at the level they did this year. But whether the Oregon Beer Awards continue or not, this year's competition set a new standard for what these things can be. There will be only 14 gold medals announced on Tuesday, and for once I am really excited to know what they are. Winning a gold (or even a silver or bronze) should be the mark of very good beers.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Do 60% of Craft Beers Suck? (No.)

Last week, an interview with Jon Taffer created a bit of a stir when he offered his thoughts on craft beer.
I think that about 60% of craft beer basically sucks. I’ve been to a lot of the facilities. They’re not exactly clean. They’re rookie-run. The problem is that people are now looking at craft beer as an investment opportunity. They’re getting into it to make money. Many people don’t get into it for the love of making beer.

That’s why I think there’s going to be a wash out in craft beer over the next two years. Half of the craft breweries are going to disappear.  
Everyone has an opinion on where the market's headed, and comments like "60% of craft beer sucks" and "half of craft breweries are going to disappear" are sure to get clicks. They can also lead to useless semantic debates that boil down to what the meaning of "sucks" is.

A random brewery in Portland
you've probably never heard of;
it makes excellent beer.
I'd like to take it in a slightly different direction. It's possible Taffer has located a stratum of badly-executed brewpubs that I'm just not aware of, but I don't think so. My experience is exactly the opposite. I have been hugely impressed with the quality of new breweries. There have been a couple of twin developments that have helped this along. For one, brewing is now much more professional than it was a decade ago and earlier. There are thousands of trained brewers in the country, and a high percentage of them have studied brewing in school. That really raises the floor on bad beer. A professionally-trained brewer may not make exciting or innovative beer, but s/he's going to make competent beer. Brewers know the science, and they know what off-flavors taste like and where they come from.

Customers are also far more educated. They may not know the technical term ethyl acetate, but they know what a sharp, chemical flavor is and that it shouldn't be in a beer. A city of any size will have several breweries, and customers can tell which ones make the good beer. For 60% of the beer to suck, most of the customers would have to be ignorant of what good beer is, and they're not.

There are bad breweries out there. Good breweries make an occasional bad beer. And there are quite a lot of average breweries out there making beer you wouldn't describe as spectacular, but which is by no means bad. It was enlightening to travel around the country this year a little bit and get out of my Portland bubble so I could see what the real America was like. What I found is that there isn't really a Portland bubble anymore. The country has caught up with the West Coast. In fact, the consistency of American breweries is now every bit the equal of the UK, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Germany. (Even in those countries, about 20% of the breweries "suck"--about the same as in the US.)

The US beer market has a number of challenges confronting it. Bad beer isn't one of them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Coming Distribution Wars

Late last week, the Massachusetts liquor regulatory agency issued an extremely important ruling about one of the state's distributors.
[The distributor] Craft Brewers Guild spent “approximately $120,000 to pay kickbacks to 12 retail licensees throughout the Boston area, and went to great lengths to hide its knowingly unlawful conduct,” the commission wrote in a written ruling. 
The practice of paying pubs for tap handles is as old as the distribution system*, and if you scratch the surface in any market, you'll hear rumors of this happening. The Massachusetts case was precipitated by public complaints of Pretty Things--the beloved and now defunct little Boston gypsy brewery--who accused the distributor of taking bribes to supply beer at certain pubs. (More here on that story if you're interested.)

Every system has points vulnerable to corruption, and in beer, its at the distributor level. About 18 months ago, I did some (gasp!) actual reporting on this. A brewery sales rep confirmed it happens here in the Northwest: "Pay to play absolutely exists in mature markets like the northwest but it's not typically found in bars except for high volume accounts with few beer choices." The really insidious thing is that there are so many ways to for a distributor to offer inducements to a retailer. You can follow the link if you want to read about all the work-arounds, but I'll quote one just to illustrate how subtle kickbacks can be. It comes from a former brewery rep who watched a kickback happen.
A brewery was willing to pay $500 to the distributor's representative if he could move ten kegs of the brewery's beer.  This is legal.  As the promotion was about to end, the distributor had sold only eight kegs.  At the last account, he swung a deal so that he essentially dipped into the promo money and sold the two kegs to the pub for the price of one.  (The pub paid for the two up front, and the distributor shared the cost of the keg later.)  
That's the kind of corruption that's impossible to police. The Massachusetts distributor was nabbed because they were blatantly buying taps--an easier crime to identify. But given the resources of state regulatory agencies (the OLCC in Oregon's case), there's no way to be out there in pubs policing these transactions as they happen.

While none of this is new, it is especially salient at this moment in the life of the beer industry. At the top of the market, we have extreme consolidation. There are only two big players left, and they would like to merge their international activities (claiming to spin off the weaker business in the US to get past the feds' anti-monopoly concerns). At the bottom end of the market, you have intense competition for retail space.

As I've mentioned in the past, the vast majority of recent growth in craft brewing has been small production breweries, not brewpubs. Those little guys may have tasting rooms, but they need to put their bottles on shelves and their kegs in pubs to thrive. There are so many players now that distributors become the gatekeepers for which beers make it to the retail space. This is what Pretty Things' Dan Paquette was complaining about: his beer wasn't making it to market. There are a lot of ways for distributors to exploit this brand oversupply by manipulating both what breweries and retailers pay.

Large companies like ABI are already making a big play to control distribution. Smaller companies are going to become desperate to get their beer to market. As more and more breweries come online and more and more consolidation happens at the top, the opportunities to cheat will grow. This is not a story that's going to dominate the blogs or newspapers, but it will be one of the most important dynamics driving what happens in beer in the coming years.

*Tiny backgrounder: in the US, we have a three-tiered system of beer sales, where a producer (the brewery) sells kegs to a middle-man, the distributor or wholesaler. The distributor then sells to retailers like pubs and grocery stores. This system was designed to protect retailers from the influence of breweries, which have outsized influence in markets like those in the UK. In the craft brewing era, many states have passed laws to allow breweries under a certain size to self-distribute.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Gigantic Kiss the Goat

Gigantic Brewing has one of the more interesting approaches to beer in America. Their regular line of year-round beer consists of exactly one brand: IPA. Everything else they make appears just once (almost all of them) or annually (Massive! is the only example I can recall of a recurring beer.) They number each new release and contract with a well-known artist to create the label. Sometimes they even have an associated musical tie-in. This would seem to violate all the rules of branding and brand-building I know: there's no consistency across either beers or labels, and each bottle is a crapshoot for their customers. If one of these beers becomes a treasured fan favorite, too bad: you'll never get to taste it again. And yet as far as I can tell the brewery is flourishing. Brewers/owners Van Havig and Ben Love are doing so well that half the time they seem to be in Tokyo or Turin promoting their latest project.

I have loved three or four of the 39 editions of this experiment and probably disliked twice that number. (The rest I enjoyed in varying degrees.) This means Gigantic is the perfect brewery for the Beer Sherpa: when a good one comes along, it's almost mandatory that I point it out.

Kiss the Goat is to this point my favorite of all the Gigantic beers. It tickles my fancy on absolutely every level. The beer itself is a titan of flavor and balance. I am often accused of favoring low-abv beers, but this is not entirely correct. I often dislike bigger beers because breweries sometimes feel that lots of booze demands florid flavors and creative indiscipline. What I really like are strong beers that keep it together and manage to lure me in for an ill-advised session with their big, bad selves. Kiss the Goat is a perfect example. Havig, who knows I have a thing for Czech beers, says it reminds him of a cerne (a Czech black lager). The brewery called it a "black doppelbock," which is a pretty good description, too. It has a spine of roastiness, but lobes of sultry malting and a gentle layer of alcohol. Because of its strength, there's a lot of all of this, but the brewers have exercised restraint, so it tastes full rather than intense and encourages you to drink the entire 22-ounce bottle. (It's 8%, just borderline strong, which means you accept the encouragement.)

But a new Gigantic beer is a multimedia release, too, and the label earns this special Sherpa attention as one of the most entertaining in recent memory. The artwork is by Portlander Jon MacNair and features a TTB-defying scene of dark happenings. It recalls the 1980s basements of my teenage youth. The soundtrack to those years was often the kind of silly metal that scared Tipper Gore--and which sounded a lot like the accompanying 7" single Sons of Huns created specially for this beer. (You might think Clyfford Still, who is quoted on the label praising the color black, is connected somehow to Aleister Crowley, but in fact he's an American abstract expressionist.) Pure sensory pleasure, from eye to ear to tongue, this fine beer supplies in spades.

You definitely want to track down a Kiss the Goat or three. This is one of the Gigantic beers we'll miss when it's gone.

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Oregonian's New Beer App

I no longer keep very close pulse of our hometown daily, The Oregonian, so I missed the news that they were putting together a beer app. I don't think I'll be sending in jaws to the floor when I report that it's ... not good. One of the biggest complaints locals have had, going back well over a decade, is the abysmal quality of OregonLive, the online site for the paper. The paper's app is actually worse. And even if the digital products were well-designed, they would be hamstrung by the fact that the paper has spent the last five years assiduously ridding itself of competent reporters. (Skip to the last paragraph is you're interested in seeing how they plan to replace them.)

On top of all that, it's really hard to make a decent beer app because of the sheer magnitude of beer information out there (beer, breweries, events). It's nearly impossible to collect it all and, when you do, it begins to fall out of date instantly. Everyone can visualize the perfect app: it contains detailed descriptions of every beer, brewery, and event, and where to find beers on tap at any given moment. The problem is implementing it, which seems basically impossible.

So what did the O do? Oregon On Tap is about as half-assed as you'd expect an Oregonian product to be. It is attractively designed, but contains a weird hodgepodge of info. There's a running feed of stories about beer, the O's pic for best beers, random info about pubs, beers, and pub crawls. Some of these are better than others--the pub crawls feature isn't terrible, though it's just an archive of stories. The pubs section reproduces a Google search in your phone. The beers section has lists by name and style (including such classics as "Helle/Bock," "Pale/Saison/Biere de Garde," and "Bitter Ale."), but doesn't give you much info on the beers or where you can find them. If you can manage a Google search, all this info is at your fingertips anyway.

It does raise the question about what the O is up to these days. Getting into other products seems like a good way to go, but this app is free and contains (at the moment) no advertising inside. They recently went through another round of buyouts, shedding what seems the last bit of institutional firepower they had. The online site continues to be infested with fragments of articles, listicles, and random clickbait--along with terrible information design.

One clue to the future may be glimpsed in an offer I got a while back. The O contacted me to see if I wanted to partner with them. I took the meeting and learned that they have a plan to outsource reporting to bloggers. The notion is that they'll mirror their partner blogs' content at OregonLive. If a post catches an editor's eye, they'll place it in the print edition. Of course, for this partnership they're offering "exposure," not dollars. What is surprising is this nugget: the editor I spoke to tried to play up the fact that I would have total editorial oversight. Whatever I wrote would go up verbatim at OregonLive. What happens if it goes to the print edition, I asked? Surely you'd edit that? No. Apparently if they edit a piece and reprint it, they are legally liable as the publisher. If they reprint something from another source--with typos and potentially false info--they're not legally liable. So to recap: the Oregonian's solution to collapsing ad revenue is to become a giant blog aggregator. I suppose the price is right.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Will Drive Beer in 2025? (Hint: Not Beer)

I fell down the unnecessary rabbit hole of nomenclature yesterday when discussing the question of independence. I don't actually care what we call breweries and mentioning the name "indie brewer" was a distraction. And, as many people pointed out on social media, you can co-opt pretty much any name. "Indie music" no longer has any connection to record labels; it's a reference to genre, like country or R&B. The same thing could happen to independent brewery. (Not to mention the gray areas--and, hey, let's not mention them.)

So let me put my main point more clearly. In the past decade, a new American brewing tradition emerged, and we spent the decade getting to understand it. What really drove everything in beer was the beer.

Looking to the next decade, I think we're going to see structural issues driving beer. Until recently, beers became best-sellers by a combination of quality and timeliness and business savvy. In the next decade, I think we'll increasingly see best-selling beer driven by a combination of lower price, distributor access, and marketing support. Take an example. Last year, one of the big successes in the IPA category was Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed. It managed to capture the trend of huge juiciness (timeliness), was very expressive (quality), and was marketed cleverly (the name, mainly).

But, in a harbinger of things to come, another IPA that rose to the top was Goose Island's. It actually joined the top-five best-sellers. Now, Goose IPA has been around forever, so how did it manage to grow 260%? Because it had all the advantages of a multinational beer company. I quoted Charlie Papazian yesterday identifying these structural issues as "economic, technical, supply chain, distribution dynamic, retail dynamic"--and I'd add their unique ability to scale popular products, both on the production as well as marketing and distribution level. When ABI decides to roll out a national brand, everything is already in place to accomplish that. And they can roll it out and put it on shelves more cheaply than the local brewery can put out its own Super Tasty Citrus IPA.

Excluding Blue Moon and Shock Top, four of the top ten makers of "craft beer" are partly or completely owned by large beer companies. In ten year's time, probably only two or three of the top makers of beer within this segment is going to be independently owned. There will of course still be thousands of small breweries scattered across the country, but a large portion of the craft segment will be made by big breweries. There may still be a lot of great beers on the best-seller list, but this will be almost accidental. Like Goose IPA, large breweries will decide which products have the capacity to be major national brands, and they'll push them into all markets. And this phenomenon, not the beer itself, will be driving beer.

I'm pretty sure that's what I meant to say yesterday.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Indie Brewers

In 17 days, this here blog will celebrate it's tenth birthday. That naturally puts an old geezer like me in a nostalgic mood: ah, youth!, remember those salad days, back when I was a mere pup of 38!? It got me thinking that, in the 40-year scope of the modern American brewing revival, we really only came into modernity in the past decade. But it also gets me thinking about the future. If the past decade was the pivotal moment when American brewing came into focus both in terms of size and tradition, what then of the next decade?

I suspect it will all be about independence.

A recent blog post by Charlie Papazian brought things into focus for me. In it, he musters a hearty defense for the organization he founded and nurtured, arguing for the two, unrelated prongs that have long formed the confused mission of the Brewers Association (independence and "authenticity"). It's that second one that has never been very defensible. His post was inspired by the threat buy-outs pose to small breweries, and in restating the Brewers Association's mission, he inadvertently explains why these buyouts have been damaging. He writes of craft brewing: "It is a framework that defines a cultural view of the spirit of what it means to be craft brewer. In spirit it defines the cultural view of what a small and independent American brewer(y) is." All this business about craft and spirit and authenticity turns out to be dangerous business. It's vague and imprecise and ripe for plucking by large breweries.

An Indie brewery

But Charlie also describes something far more essential in this battle for the future. Independence is a status worth protecting. We have seen how things degrade in other countries with too much consolidation (or "rationalization," as the Brits say). Here Charlie's right on the money:

Without an organization that represents the interests of small and independent brewers their voice in the economic, technical, supply chain, distribution dynamic, retail dynamic would be totally dwarfed and overwhelmed.
This is the battleground of the next decade. The waters are already hopelessly muddled with regard to what "craft beer" is or what a "craft brewery" looks like. But an independent brewery? There's no ambiguity there. In the next decade, the vague, abstract talk of authenticity and craft will inevitably give way to the more concrete, pressing issue of independence and consolidation. Everyone will clamber to claim abstract virtues, but the marketplace will be defined by the degree of consolidation and variety. There are very good reasons to want a robust network of independent breweries competing with large, powerful interests--they're the ones Charlie listed. It's why we're seeing breweries like Yuengling and Schell now (rightly) placed on team "craft," and why the Brewers Association will focus more narrowly on independence in the future.

We have recently begun seeing this phrase "indie brewery" come into vogue. It's a good, clear term that dispenses with abstraction. Indie breweries may be big or small, and they may make good beer or bad, but you know who owns them. I anticipate using the term more often myself, and expect it to slowly creep into our regular lexicon. "Craft brewery" is meaningless. "Indie brewery?"--that's a very useful term.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Range of Cider

On Wednesday evening, Nat West started uncorking bottles of cider and perry made by Hereford cider-maker Tom Oliver ten years ago. Nat managed to score them a few years back and has had them squirreled away waiting for the right occasion. And what better occasion than the arrival of the cider-maker himself for CiderCon?

Tom Oliver (left) and me.
Photo: Steven Shomler

I'd seen Tom earlier in the day, and he described these bottles, fearfully, as "the most oxidized cider in the world." In the event, they were not oxidized much at all; the flavors were deep and intense. Unlike IBUs in beer, tannins do not disappear. Cider, as a chemical solution, seems more well-suited to age than beer, too. The biochemistry changes but does not destroy the best flavors in cider. As I held it under my nose, it created the immediate impression of soil, or earth. Good, healthy soil is alive; you know it immediately by the scent. Tom's cider had that quality; the tannins were earthy and complex. Sally said, "daikon radish." Since we had the cidermaker on hand, I put my phone out and had him describe what he tasted.

"What I was anticipating was a removal of any sort of sweetness. By that I don't mean a sugar-sweetness, I mean what I call 'apple sweetness.' It's perceived for me as apple skins, but over time oxidation will remove that and turn that apple sweetness to cardboard--which has the effect, when you drink it, of there being a massive hole in the drink. What you're expecting to get--you instinctively do that [gestures] to your tongue because you're trying to find something that doesn't exist. But there's none of that.

To me, this is like a German dry sherry. It's slightly intensified and it's got that dryness which is--Germans do this dry sherry which is sort of oxidized. Hungarians do one as well that's a bit like that. It just has a lovely charm of its own. And this is--I have to say, I'm so relieved. Everyone's standing around and I don't mind them drinking this stuff now."

I have basically stopped cellaring all but a few beers I know handle age well. Nearly ever beer--and I mean all but a tiny handful--will begin pass their peak after a couple years. They might evolve into something interesting and even tasty, but they will be lesser beers than they were at birth or peak age. Cider seems to be different. I've only got an intermediate understanding of the flavors cider can and should produce, so I leave a big asterisk next to this statement. But that cider--and the perry, too, which was wonderfully balanced and lively--I could drink it all day long.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

All the Culture That's Fit to Print

Two notes for your reading and listening pleasure. In the first case, I respond to Mark Dredge's comments on the unsessionability of session IPAs. He's working from the British context, and I totally agree. However, I had to make a pitch for how these things work in the American context, which I have done here:
I have long been an American defender of European palates. I have spent many a session (and blog post) defending half-liter pours of Bavarian helles beer or imperial pints of cask bitter. Mark gives one of the best one-sentence description of the pleasures of cask ale—and helles lager: “There’s a simplicity to these beers that belies their depth and balance and makes their drinkability somehow increase as you go from pint to pint.” Totally true.
But I think it’s time I defend American palates for our European friends.

The second note is the new podcast, in which Patrick and I consider Trappist ales. Not all abbey ales, just the monastic ones. The idea came to us as we considered the lingering winter and the absence of American winter ales (which get pulled from shelves Jan 1), and which beers we--all right, I--turn to in these desperate months. If ever there was a beam of liquid sunshine on a winter's day, it was one of the Trappist ales of Belgium. Listen to it below or on iTunes. (And bonus production note: new mic!)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Welcome Ciderfolk!


The little city of Portland is fortunate to be the center of the cider world this week. CiderCon, the annual conference for cider makers, is for the first time being held outside Chicago this year--and Portland was the lucky city that got to host it. (Chicago will have highs just above freezing during the period of the conference, whereas here in Portland it will be a delightful, drizzly mid-40s!)

There are a lot of events happening around town, and cider fans should really make an effort to get out and sample because the city will never be this suffused in cider again. Here's a very handy run-down of all the events happening in Portland this week.

I'd like to do a special call out for an event happening tonight at Reverend' Nat's. The celebrated Herefordshire cider-maker Tom Oliver will be visiting at 8pm (1813 NE 2nd), and Nat will have some of his ten-year old cider (!) on hand. Tom was one of the two cidermakers I spent extensive time with in England, and whom I wrote about in Cider Made Simple. He is both a very engaging and warm person, and also one of the most erudite proponents of traditionally-made English cider. He's also probably the most accomplished perry-maker (fermented pears) in the UK. So, if you want a chance to chat about tannins, natural fermentation, and keeving in Herefordshire, this is one of the very rare chances you'll have. I will definitely not be missing it.

And go have a good, cidery week.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Why the Beer Matters

Yesterday, I discussed the beer Cartwright Brewing made when it launched an early microbrewery in Portland in 1980. It was definitely the most interesting part of the papers posted by The Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive. But there is an element that's almost as interesting. Chuck Coury, Cartwright's founder, came to the project from wine-making. He'd already seen the change that had taken place in wine, and he gave an incredibly prescient overview of where beer was heading. (Although a small handful of American microbreweries had opened within the year or two before Coury started thinking about opening his own, they were far too new and tiny to suggest that any of his predictions were imminent.)

In the review he made of his own project at the time, here's what he observed about the coming beer market:
  • "There is a market for quality domestic beer. Note the rise in import sales. Compare to the explosion in fine wines. Prohibition theory: America's beer palate is only now recovering."
  • "Not everyone will enjoy your beer. That is good."
  • Things to stress about your brewery: "Local, small-scale production. Traditional/European quality. Re: chill haze and sediment; stress positively as 'real beer.'"
Kurt Widmer at the recent
release of Hopside down.
This is exactly what happened. It's remarkable that he had this insight into the market, because it took the rest of the country more than a decade to catch up with him. For basically all of the 1980s, it was touch and go in terms of whether what he wrote above would actually come to pass. Karl Ockert once told me that when the Ponzis were looking for bank funding to open BridgePort a few years later, the banker said (paraphrasing), "Nobody opens breweries; they just shut them down." But here we are, a generation later, and it turns out there is a market for domestic beer. Not everyone like every brand, and that is good--it means we have a very rich and diverse market. He even correctly identified that elements of craft beer that would be anathema to a large industrial brewery like haze could become a marker for hand-made authenticity.

Which raises the question: why did Cartwright fail?

Part of it was that the market Coury envisioned wouldn't emerge for years. Sometimes visionaries suffer a first-mover disadvantage (you could say Cartwright was the MySpace of beer). But a far bigger reason was the beer. It just wasn't good. There are still lots of people around who remember it, and that's the overwhelming memory; even on Facebook people were recalling the beer with amusement as a crapshoot. Apparently there were a few good batches, but they seem to have been the minority.

When you look at the breweries that survived the 1980s, nearly all of them did so by making very good beer. But it's also true now. A glance at the largest breweries in the roughly "craft" camp (Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Craft Brewers Alliance, Lagunitas, Deschutes, Bell's) confirms that quality really helps a brewery. It's not the only thing that matters. Good branding, smart distribution, fortunate brand performance, good location--all these things can really help. Good beer alone is not sufficient to become a big brewery, either; there are thousands of small breweries worldwide, from Block 15 and Breakside to Dupont and Schlenkerla, that make world-class beer. Some breweries making great beer even fail for reasons unrelated to the beer.

But an iron rule is that without quality beer, it's very, very hard to build a successful brewery if you're competing in the "quality" category. (I'd say impossible, but wise hive mind is going to point out a case where it's happened.) Coury understood where the market was headed. Unfortunately, he charged into it with bad beer and that insight didn't do him any good.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Cartwright Brewing's Weird Steam(?) Beer

In June 1979, Fred Eckhardt reported two items in Amateur Brewer:
"PORTLAND, OR -- The Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee announced that it was acquiring the Blitz-Weinhard Company..."
"PORTLAND, OR -- The country's [missing word] (very) small brewery will produce its first brew in June, according to brewmaster Charles Coury, of Oregon's new Cartwright Brewing Company...."
Both of these things probably made very little impression on people at the time, but they augured big things to come. Henry's would be shuttered 20 years later, after it was clear Oregon had become a "craft beer" state. And although Cartwright brewing vanished after a couple years, Coury's quixotic venture would inspire others to consider the possibility of brewing their own beer. I recall Rob Widmer telling me once that he and Kurt saw the brewery and later agreed, "we could do that."

Charles Coury.
Source: Fred Eckhardt

But peering through the looking-glass from this side of history distorts things. While the scale of Cartwright must have seemed comprehensible, the actual act of brewing turned out to be a bigger trick. I have long heard about Cartwright's troubles, but the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive posted a remarkable document that explains the nature of Coury's challenges. It was an assessment of the brewery by Coury himself. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to focus on the beer itself. The business stuff is interesting, but a look at the beer Coury designed in late 1979 or 1980 tells us a lot about the state of beer then. Here's the recipe:
"The basic formula: 93% pale malt, 7% caramel malt, about 1 pound of hops per barrel (2/3 boiling--Cluster, 1/3 finishing--Cascade), typically a bottom yeast is used."
That's an odd recipe (more in a moment), but it's nothing compared to the process.
  •  He started out with a 3.5 hour mash in apparently three steps ("rests for protein reduction, saccharification, dextrine production")
  • "Lautering takes 3-4 hours" (!)
  • "The wort is boiled for 2 hours 15 minutes."
  • "It is cooled overnight by recirculating cold water in the kettle's steam jacket."
  • "The cool wort is racked and pitched the following morning."
  • The final beer was bottle-conditioned and spent a month carbonating.

It's a funny, almost frontier beer. I wonder if Coury consulted Fritz Maytag, because the recipe looks quite a bit like Anchor Steam. There's no evidence he had any lagering equipment, so it seems like he was fermenting lager yeast warm, like Steam. The hops are different (Anchor uses Northern Brewer), but with the Cluster they would definitely have an old-time American authenticity. It took the poor man over nine hours to brew one batch of beer--and that doesn't include the time spent milling grain, which he called "a tedious and difficult task." And then there's the business of leaving it to cool overnight. One of the most common descriptions of people who tried this beer was "infected," and I have an idea that nice 8-hour cooling period before pitching didn't help. This formulation and process reads a lot more like a 19th century brewery than one from the 21st century.

Cartwright Brewing. Source: Fred Eckhardt

(Other amusing tidbit. He listed "problems with the process," and included this one: "Clean-up after brewing. Shoveling the spent grains and scrubbing the equipment takes a good part of the day." You don't say? Oddly enough, the first two modern Oregon breweries were founded by winemakers. Reading between the lines, it seems like Coury hadn't bargained for how much different, and more laborious, brewing would be than wine-making.)

There's a sheet of paper among the documents from Fred Eckhardt, who was apparently taking notes on the beers Cartwright made. He describes two beers, "Original" and "New." The stats on Cartwright's original beer are these. It was brewed to just 11.2 P (1.045) and finished out at 3 P (1.012)--which would have made it a 4.4% beer--and had just 18 IBUs. The "new" beer was 12.3 P (1.049) and finished drier, 2.4 P (1.009)--a 5.4% beer. It had 40 IBUs (of rugged Clusters, no less), which even today would seem plenty bitey. I have no idea if the second beer was ever made.

Coury thought his product was quite distinctive. He compared it to "traditional/European quality" beer and thought the bottle conditioning could be spun as a positive--though he seems to have fretted it would seem strange to consumers. What's interesting is that the beer is so similar to commercial beer at the time--it's just a half step in a different direction. It's a 4.4% copper-colored steam beer with 18 IBUs. The color and fuller flavor would have been unusual, but hardly unrecognizable, to consumers in 1980.

Source: Fred Eckhardt

The Archive includes a contemporaneous article from the Eugene Register-Guard that offers a bit more insight into the beer. "[Coury] says he found century-old beer beer-making recipes in 'beautiful, old brewing textbooks' in the stacks of the Multnomah County Library in Portland." Coury also gives a specific nod to Anchor Steam. It seems history, tradition, and a desire not to get too far outside the mainstream guided the development of the beer.

Two other random facts going out. Cartwright was selling the beer for $.90-$.95 a bottle, which is $2.59 to $2.73 in today's dollars--a fairly steep price. And according to the newspaper article, he was also planning on brewing a stout. Wonder if he ever made it that far?