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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 It's nearly impossible to collect it all and, when you do, it begins to fall out of date instantly.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?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

From Cartwright to Session IPA in 272 Words

I'm a bit short for blogging time this week, though there is a remarkable post over at Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive that will feature prominently in (hopefully very near) future posts. A trove of documents reveals what the state of brewing was like in the late Carter administration as Chuck Coury struggled to make one of America's first microbreweries a viable enterprise.

Original Cartwright site.
I don't want to step on that blogging too much, but suffice it to say that what brewers and drinkers understood then--a long time by one measure, but well within living memory--was shockingly primitive. That article contrasts nicely with a piece that provoked a lot of debate on the nature of Session IPAs. In that post, Londoner Mark Dredge argues that there's nothing sessionable about this style. Unsurprisingly, his British commenters all offer their hear-hears (as did Alan, in a thread that sadly took place on Facebook). I'll leave aside for a moment my strong dissent of Mark's point--"sessionable" may be a British word, but which flavors Americans choose for their sessions is not under British oversight*--but what's striking is the distance between Cartwright and Session IPA.

We've gone from a time when Americans neither knew how to brew beer nor what most beer tasted like to a time where we argue about "sessionability" and "session IPAs"--two concepts that would have been abstruse to the point of gibberish just 36 years ago. I have a decent shot at being alive in another 36 years, and it's hard to even imagine what world we might inhabit then.

*Okay, I didn't entirely leave it aside.

Monday, January 25, 2016

But the Horse Has Already Left the Barn...

...and lived a full life and passed into the next. But Coors, discovering the door ajar, is racing to close it.

Latest marketing push uses "Whatever your mountain, climb on" to lure back diverse crowd of consumers curious about craft brews
The campaign opens with a panoramic shot of hiker scaling a snow-covered peak, which is followed by a "Rocky"-style montage of boxers, bull riders, runners, climbers and welders.

"Our mountains make us who we are, your mountains make you who you are," the ad says, winding up with "whatever your mountain, climb on."

It's a far cry from hot babes and cold beer.

The new comprehensive marketing campaign from MillerCoors, the Chicago-based joint venture of Denver-based Molson Coors and SABMiller, targets women, consumers with diverse ethnic backgrounds and adults aged 35-44, hoping to draw customers back to the venerable brand.

On the positive side: at least now they're aware they have a problem. On the negative side: they've skeezily objectified women for 35 years.