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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Big Beer Makes a Big Move

Each year, General Distribution's Jim Fick closely tracks the sales of Oregon beer in Oregon, and he very graciously forwards me the spreadsheet with the numbers. Frustratingly, the OLCC, which tracks these numbers, has gotten fairly lax and the figures aren't terribly reliable. One obvious example is that they somehow don't capture CBA's sales (Widmer/Redhook/Kona)--one of the two largest breweries in the state. Some of their other numbers are suspect as well. Given these troubles, I figured 2015 would be the last year I commented on these, but there are a couple things that leap out so profoundly I can't help but comment on them. Actually, commenting may not even be necessary--just look at these two graphs.


To put precise numbers to these--excluding GoodLife, for which the OLCC had no numbers in 2015--the two beer companies owned by multinational corporations grew 18,161 barrels in 2016, and the other top ten breweries grew 10,851. Combined. And even that sort of understates matters. Have a look at the top gainers in 2016:

ABI and MillerCoors account for 40% of all gains among the ten breweries growing the fastest. There is probably a lot of context one could provide to explain why these two brands grew so much (discounting, distribution, etc), but the fact is they did. Oregon has one of the most parochial markets in the country, and they still posted these remarkable increases. Two of the top five best-selling brands in the state are owned by companies in Wisconsin Chicago and Leuven, Belgium.

Things change. Who knows if this is a stable trend and whether 10 Barrel and Hop Valley will continue to grow--or even keep their share (look what happened to BridgePort). But for the moment they're selling like hotcakes, and I doubt there's a brewer in the state who's not unsettled by this development.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Troubles With Travel

If you were to name the four or five hottest breweries right now, measured in beer geek coolness points, Boston's Trillium Brewing would have to be on that list. They are makers of many different types of beer, but are famous for being one of the charter members of the New England IPA movement, with all the requisite rarity and excitement. Well, despite having failed to find any of their rare offerings when I was back in New England in November, I got to try my first can when friend-of-the-blog Mason Astley spent his hard-earned time and money securing Fort Point Pale Ale and sending one my way.

I was very excited about this because, while I think there's no special style* to be found here, I have been mighty impressed by the work New Englanders have been doing with hops. Places like Maine Beer Co, Bissell Brothers, and Hill Farmstead understand our little friend, Humulus lupulus. Maybe not uniquely (I could point to a few guys around here who have passing familiarity), but decidedly. And by all accounts--including Mason's--Fort Point is one of their best beers. (Not that these things matter too much, but it is a top-ten pale as rated by BeerAdvocates).

So it was to my surprise and disappointment to discover this waiting for me:
So murky as to be dark pouring out. Very much a pond water rather than Orange Julius cloudy. Poor head, gone in 30 seconds. Aroma is orange passionfruit with a hint of sweat underneath. Flavor is fairly sharp bitterness with a rindlike astringency. Mouthfeel is fluffy to gritty. The tropical notes present far more on the nose than palate. Very little malt character. Slight burnt rubber aftertaste. 
Those are not the tasting notes of a world-beater. Those are not even the tasting notes of a particularly good beer. I sent them to Mason last week and he was surprised and chagrined--this was not the beer he knew. There's no accounting for taste and I could just be missing the subtle genius of this beer. I don't think that's what's going on here; I believe were Mason to have tried this beer, he would more or less agree with the notes. So what's going on?

Beer is inherently unstable. Brewers tease chemical compounds into an arrangement that will not last. They begin interacting with each other and that particularly nefarious enemy oxygen will begin to stale the flavors. This happens in all beers, but not at the same rate. Some beers are incredibly fragile, ready to collapse like a house of cards into a pile of decomposing, once-brilliant flavors. Among the most delicate elements are hop flavors and aromas, which are driven by volatile compounds that begin degrading immediately even in the best circumstances. Send a beer across country, where it may be subjected to temperature fluctuation and agitation--two accelerants to degredation--and even a relatively young can might well end up like the one I received.

This is an important cautionary tale about modern IPAs. So much of the hop character comes not from the more stable iso-alpha acids formed during longer boiling, but volatile compounds in the oil. We know how evanescent those flavors and aromas can be from observation, but I don't know how much study has been done on trying to stabilize them in the package. Moreover, we're in a realm of brewing that is out in front of the science. When we were in Corvallis last week, hops researcher Tom Shellhammer mentioned that perceived bitterness and astringency may also come from other sources (polyphenols?--I can't find the passage from our interview) than iso-alpha acids. How do these astringent elements change with time, agitation, and heat? I was picking up sharp, prickly notes that had a quality of astringency, like citrus rind. Was that present in the brewery-fresh version?

The category we now call IPA is hugely broad, and at one side of the spectrum can be made so that it's pretty shelf-stable. But on the other side--the side that tickles the beer geeks' fancy--it's not clear that this is the case. What happens when a brewery like Trillium scales up and has the capacity to start sending their beer around the Northeast? Can they find a way to package the freshness so that it lasts even 30 days? I have my doubts. And interestingly, I kind of hope it's not possible to stabilize this. If breweries have to sell their beer at the source to ensure these flavors and aromas survive, that means people will have to continue to patronize them there. That means I won't be getting any brewery-fresh Trillium in Oregon, but I can live with that if it encourages a market for hundreds of small breweries nationwide serving fresh beer.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Beer There: Olde Mecklenburg (Charlotte, NC)

Periodically--too infrequently, if you want my opinion--a friend of the blog will feel inspired to send me beer from their distant location. When breweries send me beer, I make no promises to review or ever even comment on them (though I will drink them; I'm not a halfwit), but when a person spends hard-earned cash to purchase and send beer from a brewery, my hard and fast rule is: always review them.

Today we have three beers sent from Daniel Warner, who lives in the far Carolinas (I use the plural because while I believe he lives in South, he regularly drifts to North). Daniel and I have developed an e-bromance over our shared love of German and Czech beers, and one of his go-to breweries is Charlotte's Olde Mecklenburg. They make not a single IPA or cucumber sour; in fact, the only beer not drawn from the German oeuvre is a Baltic porter--which is not much of a heresy as those things go. This is interesting if not quite unheard of--our own Occidental and Heater Allen follow the same prescription. What is unusual is their success with this model:
"OMB started to build a dedicated following that’s never really stopped growing. Today, in a new, larger space that features a spectacular eight-acre German-style Biergarten, a state-of-the-art 60-barrel Brewery (largest locally owned craft brewhouse in the state), and a dine-in Brauhaus."
That says ... something about North Carolina, though I'm not sure what. Even Urban Chestnut has conceded hoppy ales to their customers, and St Louis is about as lager-friendly as you're going to find. And to add further intrigue to this mystery, their flagship beer is an altbier. What in the blue hell? North Carolinians, I do not get you.

All right, enough with the anthropology--let's move on to the beer.

Copper (altbier)
The flagship, I hate to say, would not be mistaken for a Düsseldorf alt. It looks like one: its a gorgeous beer, with a deep copper and perfect clarity that seems to make it almost glow from the inside. But in flavor profile, it's distinctly American, with a slightly syrupy caramel note offset by rather sharp hopping. In Düsseldorf, the alts are characterized by a downy softness and even in the hoppy Uerige, the bitterness is rounded and lacking bite. The real key to a altbier is a minerality that I believe comes from hardened water; Daniel obscurely believes this to be a function of the yeast (feel free to debate that in comments); whatever, it ain't here. It's a nice beer, but a bit too bimodal for me--thick caramel offset by sharp hops, rather than a harmony between the two.

Capt Jack Pilsner
This is an interesting and unusual pilsner. It has a surprisingly sweet malt note up front, and this is balanced by pretty assertive hopping. I don't recognize the malt, which is more candylike and less grainy than is common. It is perfectly clear again--I'm beginning to get a sense of the house preference here--and pale as January sunlight. Olde Mecklenburg gives zero info about their beer, so I'm left to guess at the last element--a touch of diacetyl. I would guess this is an intentional homage to Plzeň, and it is both nicely integrated and subtle. But that's only a guess. Definitely a cool little beer and unusual, which is what you want with a style that can seem generic if handled badly.

Hornet's Nest (hefeweizen)
One should always save the best for last--and this was my fave of the three. I forgot to rouse the yeast and it had of course settled, so I got just a haziness rather than dense cloudiness. (User error.) I was also surprised at the low level of effervescence, which is far lower than the Bavarian examples. These are quibbles, however--it's a wonderful beer. Very spicy and almost absent banana, which is my preference. I speculated that they don't use the Weihenstephan yeast, which produces banana like a Panamanian jungle, but Daniel replied that he believes they ferment very cold, which would suppress ester production (the banana comes from isoamyl acetate. The spice is, additionally, intriguing in its complexity. There's definitely clove there, but black pepper and something that reminds me of apple tannin. It has the soft, fluffy mouthfeel you want and expect. It is, over all, a wonderful beer and my fave of the lot.

Based on photos, the place looks like a spectacular, very German, beer hall and it will be my first stop if I ever make it to Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Understanding Hop Aromas and Flavors

We have a very special episode of the Beervana Podcast for you this week, and I want to tease it by quoting from a section of the interview. Patrick and I visited the labs and brewery of Tom Shellhammer, who is a professor of fermentation science at Oregon State University and one of the world's leading hops researchers. Before we did the interview, he took us around his labs, stopping at one point in front of stacks of small bottles containing aroma compounds found in hops. He uses these in classwork as a way of giving students a pure, condensed version of these aromas. We took a whiff of the "stone fruit" and "catty" bottles.

As we spoke about the catty scent, Tom referenced a class of compounds that have started to get more attention--thiols. These are sulfur-containing aroma compounds in hop oil that are responsible for both the deeply tropical aromas in many recent hop varieties, but also aromas some of us find objectionable (sweat, onion, garlic). Here's Tom, in a quick-and-dirty transcript from the podcast:
Thiols are a class of chemical compounds that have sulfur in them. So that sulfur part is what makes the compound a thiol. Not that all sulfur compounds are thiols, but a thiol has sulfur in it; that's the key component to that. Myrcene and linalool don't have sulfur in them. Myrcene is a hydrocarbon. [Describes the chemical structure.] Linalool is an oxygenated version of that, so it's got an oxygen component in it that does things to its functionality and its solubility. Hydrocarbons as a class tend to be more woodsy, herbal, and somewhat floral. They oxygenated versions of these things like linalool and geraniol tend to be floral and fruity. And then we move to this thiol class.

The hydrocarbons make up to 75 to 90% of the hop oil, the oxygenated fraction makes up almost the rest, and then less than 1% are these sulfur compounds. Tiny, tiny amount. But the thing about them that make them so important is the aroma-detection thresholds of these things are three to four, maybe five, orders of magnitude lower than these other compounds. With myrcene, you need about 300-500 parts per billion. Sounds like a small amount, but not quite a part per million. And the thiols, their aroma thresholds are parts per trillion. A little goes a long way with a thiol.

The thiol compounds can be stinky like onions and garlic but they can also be potent tropical fruity, citrusy, but also animal-y, stinky, sweaty/BO. 
One of the reasons some people absolutely love hops like Summit and Nelson Sauvin is because they're getting the fruit. But I am apparently hyper-sensitive to thiols, and I get the onion and sweat.

This podcast, I'm pleased to say, is filled with gems like this. (It's part one of our visit down there. Next week we go to the test brewery at OSU and join the head brewer there, Jeff Clawson. Hop talk continues as we sample beer students made in the brewery.)  Definitely give it a listen:

Finally, if this all seems irresistible to you (and how can it not??), Tom and Jeff Clawson are leading a two-day course in Portland for those of you who'd like access to some of the content he presents in his coursework, but who don't have the time or money to take a class in Corvallis.
Our Origins of Beer Flavors and Styles workshop is an experiential sensory course that will guide you through the brewing process from raw materials to finished beer. Through hands-on instruction, participants will learn how the main raw materials used in brewing process (malt, water, hops, and yeast) impact beer flavor and aroma. Participants will work through standards and exercises with the goal of highlighting how each of these materials impacts beer flavor. Guiding tastings, focused with a historical lens, will also walk participants through on how these raw materials have impacted beer styles historically overtime. Over this two-day course, participants will evaluate 8 beer styles and over 35 beers.

Friday, March 17 - Saturday, March 18, 2017
If memory serves, a part of the class will involve those little glass vials of hop aromas. Soon you, too, will be able to distinguish thiols, hydrocarbons, and oxygenated hydrocarbons from one another. Follow this link to register.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Doomed Are We?

Raptor of death.

Pete Dunlop has an excellent but alarming post in which he warns:
AB is quietly implementing a plan designed to bury independent craft brewers. And they might just pull it off...

You might not know it, but the High End kicked ass in 2016, a pretty lousy year for craft beer. The High End's growth rate hit 32 percent, easily trumping the craft segment's single digit growth. Bigly. Every High End brand grew and they're all showing continued growth into 2017.
High End is of course ABI's portfolio of erstwhile American craft breweries (Goose Island, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Breckenridge, et al).  His post led to a spirited debate on Facebook in which two camps formed: 1) we are so screwed, and 2) don't overreact; it's not as bad as it looks. Since you know me as a man of subtle and restrained opinion, I will refrain from identifying my own camp. Rather, I'd like to point out a few variables to consider as you decide which team you'd like to join.

The Emergence of Craft Tiers
 Until pretty recently, when you went to the grocery store all the beer in the craft segment (hereafter "craft beer" for brevity) was about the same price. Some sixers might be on periodic discount, but this was a retailer decision. Not too long ago, we saw the emergence of an upper tier of beer that was noticeably more expensive and shortly thereafter, a tier of cheaper craft. This was inevitable, as brewers began to segment and find sales in different pockets of the craft segment.

Guess where ABI's High End products mostly live? Sure, Goose Island still has a giant barrel program, but they're all about mainstreaming Goose IPA as the national mass market IPA. They do this through the efficiencies of their giant plants and distribution network, and they use it to drive down costs. The margins get thinner and thinner, but that's okay so long as the volume's going up. But most craft brewers will stick to the middle tier or gravitate to the upper tier. I've already talked about "mass craft," and when we look at Pete's numbers, we're seeing an explosion within that segment.

Retailers Follow Customers
There are no end of stories about the ways in which big companies attempt to pervert the market. In the 90s, Bud initiated a power play against craft beer by demanding its distributors only sell their products--something it toyed with again recently. Pay-to-play rumors are ubiquitous, and more than a few turn out to be real. Most recently, I have heard a rumor this week that Kroger, which owns a substantial amount of Portland's grocery outlets, was going to start radically paring back their 22-ounce offerings, apparently a sop to ABI.

I have no doubt that ABI will use its increasing might to control things at the distribution and retail level--they've done it in the past, and it is a great way to increase market share. There are many legal mechanisms for this kind of thing, which is exactly why we have antitrust laws. But here's the thing: retailers service customers, not manufacturers. Big breweries will try to limit the offerings on the shelves, but retailers aren't going to sacrifice business just to please a big partner. In competitive markets like Oregon's, it would be bad business indeed for a grocery chain to limit the sale of locals in favor of a giant section that includes Goose Island, Devil's Backbone, and Four Peaks. The reason AB's distributor-loyalty program collapsed in the 90s was because customers wanted variety and Bud couldn't provide it. 

Don't Over-value Current Trends
Humans can't help themselves. We over-value current trends. If you Google "craft beer sales" and limit the search to 2013, you find article after article trumpeting the unstoppable juggernaut that is craft beer. (Sample title: "Craft beer sales to triple within 10-year period, says research group.") In those heady years, everyone was writing the obituary of ABI.

Today we're seeing similar numbers from the High End (32% growth!), and our minds begin to accept that as a stable trend. Likewise, we hear that some of the bigger craft breweries had years of stagnation or decline, and that also seems stable. Never mind that craft grew at something like 7% overall, which is a much more impressive figure, given the size of the segment, than the High End's growth spurt on its much-smaller base.  Indeed, you'd sort of expect ABI's brands to get quite a jump-start given 1) that many of them were relatively small to start with, 2) ABI has a nationwide network and the might of the biggest beer company in the world, and 3) ABI appears willing to exchange profit for growth, at least in the short term.


On Facebook, I argued pretty strongly for one of the camps (doomed vs not doomed). The truth is neither I nor anyone else can see into the future. Pete thinks the market is headed in the direction of mass craft, and that the number of drinkers who want high-quality locally-made beer is going to lose out. I'd bet against it, but I wouldn't bet much. 

Still, I do think nearly all of the analysis is a reaction to current trends. So far, we have seen no brand in the craft segment grow over a couple million barrels (I think that's roughly where Blue Moon is, but they're pretty secretive about those numbers). It's easy to grow at 50% or even 100% when you're making 100,000 barrels of beer. But where's the ceiling? If I squint hard enough, I can see a world in which Goose IPA stops all comers in their tracks. But that takes an awful lot of squinting. I wouldn't bury craft just yet.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oregon Breweries Get Political

Yesterday, the President of the United States stood before the press and told them: "We got 306 because people came out and voted like they've never seen before so that's the way it goes. I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan." This was for an election in which he received fewer votes than his opponent that happened three months ago. This kind of disconnect with reality has provoked heretofore apolitical entities into action--including a group of Portland beer fans who formed into a group called the Beer Party PDX. On Monday, they host their inaugural initiative:
The Beer Party PDX Launch Event takes place on Monday, February 20 at participating businesses. 100% of the revenue from purchased kegs will go to the ACLU. Participating bars include Bailey’s Taproom, Bazi Bierbrasserie, Beer Mongers, Belmont Station, Imperial, Lombard House, Roscoe’s, Saraveza, The Thirsty Sasquatch, The Upper Lip, Tin Bucket, and Uptown Market. Participating breweries include Baerlic, Base Camp, Bull Run Cider, Burnside, Cider Riot!, Coalition, Crooked Fence, Culmination, Double Mountain, Heater Allen, Machine House, Matchless, Montavilla, New Belgium, Ninkasi, Pfriem, Ruse, The Commons, Three Magnets, Uptown Market, and Vertigo.  
Since Trump's election, the once safely-sequestered world of politics has been aerosolized and released into the environment, where it touches everything. I guess it will have to be a running theme here on the blog, since every week seems to bring another example of the way in which breweries have entered the political fray. As recently as a few months ago, this wouldn't have seemed like a realm breweries would eagerly enter--partisan politics divides, which means shrinking your potential customer base. But as unprecedented as a President who flagrantly lies about an election we all just witnessed, so is the reaction against him. With Beer Party PDX, we're seeing the contours of how they're trying to take a stand without falling down a partisan tunnel.

As far as I can tell, nowhere does the group use the words "Trump," "Republicans," or "Democrats." Instead, it's mission is "to organize members of the PDX beer community in order to effectively protect and promote basic civil rights including voter access, freedom of speech, and equal rights." In regulating political speech, the courts have regularly allowed nonprofits to organize around specific issues but not partisan candidates. It's a line we've come to recognize as separating the inner and outer core of political action. Beer Party PDX's issues are clearly political; they're not partisan. A brewery can far more easily join the political conversation when the discussion revolves around speech, ballot access, and civil rights rather than the President himself.

It's also worth noting that smaller breweries have greater latitude here. Donald Trump managed just 17% of the vote in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. A small brewery with no plans to sell much outside the cities in Oregon doesn't have a lot to lose by speaking out. Larger breweries like Deschutes, Craft Brewers Alliance, and Rogue, which have distribution in many red states, may be more cautious--though it's therefore impressive to see New Belgium and Ninkasi take the plunge and join this event. Not every brewery has leadership with clear political preferences, but among those that do, more and more are speaking out. It's really a remarkable moment.

I'm starting a new label, "The Trump Effect," for these kinds of posts--I have a hunch this is far from the last one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How to Tank Spectacularly in the New Market

Update. By some cosmic serendipity, Patrick and I went to Corvallis yesterday to record an interview with Tom Shellhammer--a hops researcher and professor in the Fermentation Sciences program at OSU. As we were touring their test brewery, he mentioned how supportive BridgePort has been, and that Carlos Alvarez had cut them a check for $100,000 to support their projects. This doesn't change any of my analysis below, but it certainly adds an important layer to the BridgePort story.

(l-r) John Foyston, Dick Ponzi, Carlos Alvarez
Over at Willamette Week, Matthew Korfhage has an article about Oregon's tightening beer market. The story is an Oregonized version of one we've seen applied to the national market a number of times over the past couple years. Thumbnail: in a tightening market, it's harder for the biggest players to maintain their barrelage even while small and mid-sized breweries continue to post big numbers. This is, in fact, what you'd expect in a mature market and it's not particularly surprising. Korfhage's case-in-point in the article is BridgePort, which is busy imploding before our eyes--but I think this illustrates a different lesson: in a tightening market, a brewery can no longer make a series of stupid decisions and expect to avoid tanking spectacularly.

We have to go back a ways to tell the story. BridgePort is Oregon's oldest extant brewery, and was for the first 20 years of its existence synonymous with the city of Portland. Its flagship beer was named after the city's beloved bird (Blue Heron), it had one of the best pubs in the city--a pilgrimage site for beer travelers. It cemented its connection through things like Old Knucklehead, a barleywine that featured a prominent local beer guy on the label. And then, in 1996, the brewery released its IPA, a beer that changed the course of brewing in Oregon. BridgePort was, ten years ago, one of our healthiest; it sold 24,000 barrels in Oregon, making it the third-largest seller in the state.

But it was about that time that the consequences of a decision made a decade earlier started to become evident. In 1995, Gambrinus, a Texas-based Corona importer, bought BridgePort. It took owner Carlos Alvarez a while before he started tinkering heavily with the direction of his Portland acquisition, but the first real danger sign came when he renovated the pub, turning it into a generically upscale restaurant and destroying one of the company's chief assets.

His next step was to begin tinkering with the beer lineup (only one beer, IPA, survives from a decade ago). This was inevitable and smart, and most breweries have followed a similar course. But BridgePort's approach was haphazard and bizarre.* They killed off brands like Old Knucklehead and Blue Heron that had strong niche followings. They introduced a series of random beers that had no native connection to BridgePort's identity. Some were good (Hop Czar), some not (Cafe Negro) (seriously, that was one of their great ideas). They let the IPA languish. The approach seemed to be: let's release whatever's a year out of fashion and hope to catch the dregs of a wave. 

How's that working out? Here's their Oregon sales numbers, via the OLCC:

Three years ago, Alvarez and his executives came up to Portland for a dog and pony show celebrating the 30th anniversary. It was without a doubt the weirdest event I've ever been to. Alvarez was aggressively out of touch with Portland and seemed to go out of his way to emphasize that we were doing it wrong. The restaurant chain Chili's came in for a lot of praise, and that seems to be the model he's attempted to place on BridgePort. He was happy to trademark the word "Beervana" and promulgate the slogan "keep Portland beered," but he seems to dislike anything actually weird. I doubt "Portlandia" occupies a lot of space on the Alvarez TiVo.

In my review of the newly renovated pub back in 2006, I wrote this, rather more hopefully than subsequent events warranted:
But it is not a classic, nor does it reflect anything intrinsic about the brewery or Portland. Styles will change and so, presumably, will the brewery. In ten or fifteen years, as aesthetics have changed, it will have the dog-earred, slightly embarrassing aspect trendy restaurants inevitably acquire. And then Gambrinus can update it. I hope, for the sake of the brewery and the city, that the company recognizes the beauty and history resident in the massive beams that still span the old warehouse and restore some of the old Portland funkiness. That may seem a long wait, but hey--I recall the brewery of 1991, and it doesn't seem that long ago. The beams will still be there.
It turns out that wasn't a one-off; it was a signal of the future direction. And indeed, the pub hasn't aged well.

Craft breweries have to connect to their local market to succeed. There are a few rare exceptions--Rogue sells 84% of its beer outside the state--but even breweries like Widmer and Deschutes depend enormously on local sales. The Texas-based ownership of BridgePort has not just neglected its home market, but seems actively antagonistic to it. Until recently, it was possible for BridgePort to bumble along and still hang onto its local volume, which was basically flat from 2006-2013. But mature markets are not kind to bumblers. Why is anyone going to gamble on a six-pack of ORA (Oatmeal Red Ale) when there are twenty other much safer bets at the store? They're not. The numbers starkly demonstrate this point.

Ten years ago, BridgePort was one of Oregon's best and best-selling breweries. It had the kind of credibility you can't manufacture. It was indelibly connected to the city and seemed to be one of the most stable, reliable breweries in the country. Today it teeters on the edge of failure. If we were running a dead pool now, it would be at or near the top. It's main function now seems to be as a cautionary tale about how not to run your brewery.

*Based on conversations with people inside the brewery and direct observation of the way Alvarez treats his employees, I think this comes entirely from San Antonio. I have long admired the work people do at the brewery, who have to turn out quality products in spite of the terrible leadership from above. My criticism is for the decision-makers, not the brewers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine Sherpa: Love Potion #9

No beer sounds better on paper than a fruit stout--and that's where I first encountered the idea. It appeared in the recipes section of Charlie Papazian's classic Complete Joy of Homebrewing (in print since 1976!), and seemed so obvious. What goes better with cherry than chocolate? Alas, no beer more often fails to live up to our expectations than a fruited stout. I have had maybe five in the last twenty years that were good, but none that fully lived up to the simple obviousness of the concept--until now.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Block 15 has released a seductive treat equal to its billing. Love Potion #9 is a raspberry rather than cherry stout, and melts like a chocolate truffle on the tongue. The challenge to this style is finding the balance, of ratcheting back the flavors so they don't overwhelm each other. The effect of the beer should be decadence; brewers almost always shoot too high, though, finding excess instead. Love Potion succeeds because the intense, silken dark chocolate that floods the mouth is immediately followed by the slightly tart berry. That acidity is key; it adds structure and restraint to the various sweet notes swirling around. The beer is, for its style, dry; another key to success. As you can see, I had a pint, and never did the berry-and-chocolate sweetness begin to collect on my palate. Each sip was an infusion of intensity but never excess, allowing my senses to revisit the sensation of a liquid truffle over and over again. It is almost impossible to imagine that I would not only drink a whole pint of this stuff, but consider going in for a second. But there it was.

This is the beer I imagined when I read about it all those years ago.

"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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Drive Down the Coast

The view from The Horn in Depoe Bay

The Oregon Coast is slowly filling out its compliment of breweries. In the near future, it should be possible to drive Highway 101 from Astoria all the way to Brookings and get a beer from a brewery in every town along the way. I have driven a chunk of that coast this winter (by far the best time to visit the Oregon Coast) and visited three new or newish breweries. Below are my findings.

Public Coast Brewing, Cannon Beach
Twenty-six miles south of Astoria, you come into Cannon Beach, and one of the first structures you pass is Public Coast, a brewery named for Oregon's law that prohibits private ownership of beaches. It's in a building once occupied by the Lumberyard restaurant, and it follows that place's general vibe and approach, which is to say, upscale mainstream. It's a beautiful space, keyed by the presence of the fermenters and bright tanks that seem to peer in from the brewery. Their height lends an air of grandeur to things.

Public Coast is owned by Ryan Snyder, whose background is in resorts. That's the feel you get here. There's a ton of wood, and the pub goes from cozy and shadowy on one side to bright and sunny on the other, spilling out into a large patio scattered with tables. It is nevertheless a bit faceless, and TVs flicker with sports. The menu is similar, featuring basically burgers and fish and chips. They are muy expensive--I got the most stripped-down cheeseburger with fries and it set me back $15; they can range up to $18 sans fries. They're also fairly average. (The five dollar onion rings are well below average--avoid.) It's not bad food, but nothing to make a special trip for.

The beer, made by erstwhile chef and homebrewer Will Leroux, is more promising. He's got a traditional slate of hoppy beers, but dabbles with experimental projects like a peach wit (perhaps his best beer) and a sour blackberry stout. I presume it's kettle-soured, and it's tart; fruity notes help soften the electric current, and soft roastiness helps offset it. I ordered a pint and quite enjoyed it. For my hoppy selection, I chose a Simcoe-hopped pale ale that had a fair amount of diacetyl, but never mind. These are above-average beers, and a good reason to stop in.

Depoe Bay or ocean view; your choice.

The Horn Public House, Depoe Bay
A horn, spouting.
A hundred and twenty miles south of Astoria you come to Depoe Bay, a rocky crescent that captures the sea in a roiling cauldron of energy. As it has smashed into the lava rock over the millennia, the sea water has carved out channels and tunnels. Sometimes a wave enters one and sends surf skyward through vents in the rock--"spouting horns" in the local vernacular. Since 1951, one of the most popular hangouts in Depoe Bay had been a restaurant called The Spouting Horn. When long-time proprietor Betty Taunton decided to retire in 2014, no one was prepared to take it over, and it closed. In homage, the new brewpub in town, located in the same building, calls itself The Horn.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Vignette #12: Michael Schnitzler (Uerige)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

Two unrelated quotes today from Michael Schnitzler, the Weihenstephan-trained owner of Hausbrauerei Uerige. To go with them, I'll show you two photos, one of Michael, and one of the brewery. It contains, as you will see, one of the more unusual anachronisms still in use in Germany.

On Altbier's Health
“In general, the altbier is in bad condition. The smaller breweries are successful, that is not a problem, but if you remove the big breweries that were far more original Düsseldorfer breweries—now Frankenheim for example is with Warsteiner, Diebels is with Anheuser-Busch, Schlösser is somewhere, nobody knows really, then altbier is [not doing well].”

“The former biggest Düsseldorf breweries, they started twenty or thirty years ago to quit brewing in the town. [Real estate] prices are so high that everyone says, come on, it’s not [worth it] to sell beer. Let’s put it out to rent. The same with Munich—it’s even worse than Düsseldorf.  So the breweries were sold to Warsteiner—Frankenheim—to Anheuser Busch; so where is the echte Düsseldorfer brauerei, the real Düsseldorf brewery? That’s the problem everywhere.“

Wooden Casks
(It is typical to find altbier served from wooden casks perched on the bar; I asked about this.)

“It is just the traditional style of presenting the beers in a nice way. We tap it manually and then we put the barrel on the bar; this is the special way we do it, but there is no fermentation; there is nothing for the taste.”  (They're lined.) He went on to tell the story of why all the casks only have red-painted metal bands when once they came in all different colors. “Now every barrel has a red ring [metal band]. A couple of years ago we had a green one, a yellow one, something like that.  Nobody knows why. The regular customers they saw the barrels with the green ring on it and said, “oh no, we cannot drink this one; the red [ones] have the best beer.”

The coolship at Uerige. They also use a baudelot chiller.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

In Defense of Clarity

I like bright beer and I cannot lie...

What humans prize is inversely proportional to what is common. Is this a need to desire what others don't have? Do we have a gene that tells us the rare is useful to survival? Whatever the reason, it's an iron law, and one we follow, in the manner of self-parody, back and forth across the decades.

Take for example the industrial age. Machines allowed us to make objects of perfect lines and proportions--by the millions. Where once we made crude cut-shank nails and left saw marks on our wood, now we make perfectly straight and measured boards and hold them together with machine-made nails that will last centuries. At first, these innovations were greeted with greed: dispensing with the evidence of the human hand was a way of transcending our own imperfection. Eventually, of course, mass-production reduced costs and made these products ubiquitous. Soon our ardor cooled. These once-perfect objects began to seem cheap and disposable. When the artisanal movement emerged as a reaction against the impersonal factory age, products again revealed the makers' hand--and made customers' eyes gleam with desire. Where once we saw imperfection, now we see character and personality.

Which brings us to brewing. The very idea of "craft beer" is a reaction against mass-produced factory stuff. There's a lot of romance involved with this (almost entirely false) dichotomy between craft and industrial, but it is powerful. The more a beer can be tied to images of barns, a sea of swaying barley stalks, and a brewer deep in a mash tun with a canoe oar, the more we can attach that romance to it. In the glass, however, a beer is a beer is a beer. Some may be good, some bad, but it's impossible to look at a glass of beer and know the size of brewery it came from.

I'm pretty sure this is where the current fetish for cloudy, hazy, milkshakey beer comes from. It's a visual cue that says: I am craft. A perfectly brilliant beer not only looks like something that comes from a factory, it is in many ways the product of decades of technical improvement. Most of what causes haze is not desirable in beer, but a lot of it was unavoidable or at least hard to remove in centuries past. Lager-brewing was prized in part because the process produced a bright beer that stood as testament to the brewer's skill. Any beer that was perfectly bright would be likely be free of infection and age. In a real way drinkers could see the quality.

Over time, though, that clarity became associated with lackluster flavor. People began to imagine that the brewer was intentionally trying to filter out anything tasty. To people drinking modern ales, a bit of haze represented the flavor a brewer left in the beer. And, if a bit of haze suggests more flavor, a beer perfectly opaque with chunks must have the most flavor, you feel me?

Patrick, overcome with lust.

This post, now already five hundred words long, is not actually about taking sides. I don't dispute that there's something strangely attractive about the most cloudy beers--they're like an orange milkshake topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. (It's no wonder Bavarian weissbiers have been rolling along for four hundred years.) Rather, I'd just like to put in a plug for clarion, haze-free beers.

As a matter of aesthetics, the perfect beer is somewhere between gold and ruby, luminously vitreous, and stippled by a cascade of pinpoint bubbles. I also like darker beers that appear opaque until you hold them to the light and see that brilliance within, like light refracting through a jewel. It's a secret the brewer's hidden for the careful drinker to discover. Anyone who's brewed so much as a batch of homebrew knows that clarity is hard, and so the mind naturally wants to see it as a symbol for good process. I don't mean to praise clarity through that lens, though. A bright, coruscating beer is a gorgeous thing on its own. People who know nothing about beer can stop to appreciate its beauty. Remove beer entirely from all context--if it's bright and limpid, it's as gorgeous as a mountain lake, something anyone with eyes can appreciate.

Incidentally, that beer at the top of the post is a pilsner brewed by Grain Station out in McMinnville. I took that picture at the end of the year and have been meaning to get around to writing this post. It was such a gorgeous beer, so elegant and lovely, and it's stuck in my mind for six weeks now. (It was also very well made and tasty--sort of a hybrid Czech and German pils.) I guess my message here is not to be too blinded by lust for cloudy IPAs that you cannot stop to admire the captivating beauty of a perfectly clear beer.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Remember to Shoot Video, Breweries

(l-r) Angel Marquez, Ray Widmer, and Kurt Widmer

Over the past month, I have been interviewing people for my current project about the Widmer brothers. Their story arc spans thirty-odd years, but a good chunk of that has happened at the current facility (in different forms) on North Russell Street. As a consequence, a lot of the attention has been paid to the years just before and after the brewery was founded, in an era now preserved chiefly by memory.

One person who has emerged as a critical figure in the story is Ray Widmer, Rob and Kurt's father. He had just retired when they started the brewery, and it was really a three-man show in the early days. Rob joked that they couldn't have hired anyone because they were working so many hours that after the first day they wouldn't have come back. Of course, fathers stick with you.

The first brewery was, as they all were, a cobbled-together system of dairy equipment and castoffs from other breweries. It was not purpose-built, and so everything had to be coaxed to work properly. Ray was the genius of improvisation. He had grown up on a farm and was used to jury-rigging solutions as they arose. There are many tales of his applied ingenuity, but one I kept hearing about over and over was a keg-filling system he'd created. It was inevitably described as both effective but also as something that looked sort of crazy in a Rube-Goldberg kind of fashion. It has served in many tellings as the symbol of what Ray did for the brewery in those first years.

Ray at the keg-filler he designed.

To my delight, I have been able to see footage of video shot at the time. The whole operation is revealed--the filler, the way the swing-arm worked, the process of bunging after the keg was filled. Even better: there's Ray manning the machine. It's 30-year-old footage, and so was shot on blurry video--but you nevertheless feel like you're in the room with them.

There's an hour of raw footage from shoots over the course of the first decade or so of the brewery. It's remarkable to see the brothers as young men. As the brewery has grown, Rob and Kurt have begun collecting a gravitas that came from success; in these earlier videos you get a flavor for the more casual, humorous time they had as DIY brewers when it wasn't clear they were going to be around in a month, let alone thirty years. Listening to people reflect on those times, you can intuit some of this; on video you can see it plain as day. They are absolutely priceless.

Let that be a lesson to anyone who has a brewery today. Film it. Pull out your phone and record the routine activities that seem so unremarkable now. People tend to want to stage things or stand in front of the camera describing them. Better to get out of the way and just let the camera eavesdrop on a day in the life. Do it every few years. One day, when you're older and want to remember back, you'll find those scenes to be the most striking and revealing. You may even find people on the screen who are no longer with you. It's a wonderful way to capture a moment in time, and believe this old man--eventually they do pass, and memories grow scarcer. (And of course, transfer it to computers, hard drives, thumb drives--many places. Decades have a way of winnowing material.)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Careful When You Drag Beer Into Politics

Last week, I noted that AB InBev's Super Bowl ad contained a certain political valence. I wasn't the only one to notice. After the ad aired, it sparked an online effort to #BoycottBudweiser, along with all the usual overheated rhetoric you get with modern politics. (Amusingly, half the people protesting the ad spelled the brewery's name wrong; they probably should have just gone with "BoycottBud.")

The ad was the highest-profile of a raft of similar ads that either implicitly or explicitly promoted immigrants and/or multiculturalism. (A constant feature in advertising for decades, this only looked political because Trump was elected on an anti-immigrant platform.) All of which is perfectly predictable.

A more interesting wrinkle in the story comes via the Weekly Standard, a longtime organ of the neocon right. Today Charlotte Allen writes her own take on the ad, and it's a fascinating inversion of the populism typical of the right. She quotes from a listicle detailing the worst-rated beers on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, which is studded with ABI products.
How about Busch Light? Oh, and also Bud Light. And Busch Beer. And Bud Ice (not to be confused with Natural Ice). And Budweiser Chelada (how many of those undrinkable products are there?). All at the top of the ghastly list. Even plain old Budweiser, which isn't too awful if you're stuck somewhere with a limited dive-bar menu, doesn't rank very high.
So I ask: Are these really the kind of immigrants we want to let into our country?
Neener, neener, ABI is liberal and it's tres déclassé, darling. But this is all counter-message. Trump's followers are proud of their working-class identity, and that fits in perfectly with Bud's range of products. It's craft beer, like everything scented of hipsterism, that should be suspect. Beer is a potent and emotional product, but if you don't understand its symbolism, best to keep the politics out of things. Yet another example of how politics has crossed into the beer world, however ineptly.

(To further confound things, let's note that Obama was a beer drinker, though mostly a mass-market lager man, and Trump is a teetotaler. Meanwhile, over a third of the members of the Senate and House are in the small brewers caucus. The lines are so confusing!)

Friday, February 03, 2017

Four Interesting Items

Any one of these could be a full, hearty entree, but I think they'll do even better as small plates. See what you think.

My Sponsor Comes to America
For the past year, I've been delighted to welcome Guinness as a sponsor on this blog--this week we learned we could welcome them back to the US as well:
Diageo today announced its intention to build a US version of Dublin’s popular Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Baltimore County, Maryland. As currently planned, the company would build a mid-sized Guinness brewery and a Guinness visitor experience with an innovation microbrewery at the company’s existing Relay, Maryland site. This new brewing capability and consumer experience, combined with a packaging and warehousing operation, would bring the company’s investment in Relay to approximately $50 million. The new brewery would be a home for new Guinness beers created for the US market, while the iconic Guinness Stouts will continue to be brewed at St. James’s Gate in Dublin, Ireland. 
This is not the first time Guinness has come to America, but the previous experiment ended after just six years. The current effort looks like a more ambitious and risky project. Diageo has been trying to figure out for years how to use the Guinness brand as an entry point into the craft market, with notably mixed success. The challenge for any giant brewery with such a strong brand presence is figuring out 1) how to expand without weakening the core product's position, while 2) convincingly appealing to customers in an entirely new segment. Most of the big breweries have concluded it can't be done, so they've followed AB InBev's strategy of just buying breweries in the craft segment. Can Diageo convince people that Guinness means both Irish stout and fullsome, tasty craft beer? Big gamble.

October Debuts
Speaking of arrivals, we have a new entry into the pretty-darn-crowded world of beer chatter.
Today, Pitchfork is proud to announce the launch of October, a digital publication focused on beer with an editorial perspective that speaks to a new generation of beer drinkers. A destination for devotees and novices alike to read about, learn about, and share their appreciation for beer and celebrate the culture around it. The site is being launched in partnership with ZX Ventures, AB InBev’s incubator and venture capital fund that focuses on increasing awareness and excitement around beer and brewing culture.
The tie to ABI caused some sniping on social media, but the project is incredibly transparent. Read a little further and you learn that October is "overseen by Pitchfork’s creative studio and in collaboration with Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting, Eno Sarris of BeerGraphs." So far I don't see much that distinguishes the content from any other beer magazine. Kiser even has a think-piece up about where the Budweiser brand sits in the modern beer landscape, a perfect example of the way he brings insight and value to the conversation--while at the same time leaving that question of relationships with funders wide open. Still, the one knock I have on October so far is that it doesn't really seem to have a clear raison d’être that distinguishes it from, say Draft or All About Beer. Indeed, Good Beer Hunting seems to have carved out a clearer viewpoint.

New Branding
Two Oregon breweries sent me emails announcing new branding today, and they are both market improvements. I pass them along as an example of the way breweries are responding to a tightening market. In a world of jillions of brands, you can't have stale or bad packaging around. Rogue, which updates its flagship, had the former and Cascade the latter. Here's Dead Guy:

And the new Cascade.

Yeast and the New England IPA
Finally, because I'm a completist, I want to direct you to the latest Beervana Podcast, and not just out of pure self-interest. Over the past year, we have discussed on these pages and elsewhere the nature of the New England IPA. Yesterday, Patrick and I paid a visit to the Imperial Yeast labs and did a pod with the three principals there. During the course of our interview, Owen Lingley discussed this beer style (they're getting a lot of questions about it from customers) and issued a rather bold, declarative position on the style as involves yeast. You will want to listen to hear his views--and learn all about yeast, which is a subject many of us wish we knew more about.

Happy weekend, you all--

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

AB InBev Targets Trump?

AB InBev's latest entry in their "hard way" commercial series is ... interesting.

Leave aside the lame myth-making and execrable history. As a story, it's trite and embarrassing. But the text is not the point here--the subtext is. As this immigrant struggles to make his American dream come true, he confronts hostile nativists who tell him "You're not wanted here," and "Go back home." He rides the river with a black man (this is roughly the time of the Civil War). His journey ends as he founds a brewery that will one day sell the world's best-selling beer, the classic American success story--immigrants bringing their skills and talents to our country to make it a richer, more varied, and vibrant place.

Completely coincidental timing, you know.
A marketing executive at Budweiser said the ad is "super relevant today," but he also cautioned that the commercial is not meant to be taken as commentary on the current political climate in the United States.
Of course it's not.

I would love to argue that ABI is a company committed to social justice, but there's a more likely motive here. Anheuser-Busch InBev is a multinational company (its awkward name points to the three heads that still guide things from New York, Belgium, and Brazil) for whom nationalism is bad for business. Tariffs are bad for business. Blocking the free movement of employees across national borders is bad for business. Working up an ad that exalts the history of European migration to the US is a way to both criticize current protectionist policies as well as sending a gauzy, pro-immigrant message to which most Americans will respond well to. It's a warning shot and a bit of Americana served up in a frosty mug.

Still, it's yet another example of the way in which politics have become so dominant that they increasingly define everything--including a simple glass of beer. Whether the politics are naked and raw or submerged and subtle, politics saturate our consciousness. In any other era, this would be a stupid bit of nostalgia bound together by marketing gloss and revisionist history; today it's a sharp (but deniable) critique of a 12-day-old presidency. I am fascinated to see what the reaction will be. Your thoughts?