I am posted at the bar of my favorite bottle shop (again) going deep into the isles to find evidence that ‘Cold IPA’, as a style, is at least as legit as Hazy NE IPAs were at some point in the distant past, before everybody had to have one in their lineup. While I don’t think there’s enough of a difference in these styles to make them stand out like ‘hazy’ IPAs, I do think they’re distinct sub-styles that will continue to remain around – and eventually be combined or generalized into something like the ‘Hazy NE’ style itself. It may be already happening – I have seen Rogue with a beer labeled as ‘Imperial Cold IPA’, and several others that are definitely crossing style boundaries, if their label assertions are to be believed.
I am also musing at the current popularity of the winter ale, and the ‘winter IPA’, which I’ve seen but cannot now trace to a specific beer (Matchless makes a ‘Fresh-kilned winter IPA’). The ‘Winter Ale’ category has been around for a while, but some IPAs that aren’t called ‘winter ales’ feature winter scenery on them, and the Rogue beer I mentioned DID feature a snowman as well as the ‘Imperial Cold IPA’ label. I am not exactly confused – I know what’s going on here – but I can’t blame other weekend beer warriors for getting some strange thoughts on the styles we’re going to be seeing ‘trend’ over the next year or whatever. Breweries have been getting so far afield of traditional style guidelines that accurately describing the type of beer in any given can has become quite a challenge. It’s easy to talk about, but otherwise successful beers have struggled to break free from the labels in the past, and any owner/operator with an eye towards marketing has had to grapple with this changing landscape.
This thought train started as a conversation on twitter (most recently, this is a topic that will never be settled), with a thread devoted to trying to predict what we’d see emerge as the year rolls on. I feel that the N/A conversation is about to boil over, with people itching to forget about ‘dry January’ and get back to feeling okay about their usual habits. Attention will move on to something else, and so I keep rotating around Portland, spending time at new and different locations (getting harder and harder to find) and drinking new and different beers, looking at taplists and scouring the boards for the next great beer. I probably have a different viewpoint than most people in the business right now, but they can cut-and-paste the corporate press releases way better than I can. And I’m sure you’ve noticed I could put in some work on the actual design of my site.
While people from elsewhere are talking about style trends on twitter, I’m looking a dozen taps at this location (in real life) with styles that range:
1) French blend cider
2) Filtered-clear hefeweizen
3) Italian style pils
4) Vienna lager
6) Rauch helles lager
7) Double hazy
10) Sour gose
11) German pils
12) Gluten-free wild fermented
13) English mild on nitro
At a glance, I know that all of these beers are true to the style they’re said to be made in. I also have enough experience to know the difference between a German and an Italian pils, or a Vienna-style lager and a ‘dopplebock’. A lot of people don’t, and really don’t care, as long as they can find something they recognize – and like – off any given beer menu. With the constant bickering over style labels and trends, a lot of energy is wasted positioning a beer before the average consumer ever sees a single example of the styles I see daily on brewery tap rails around Portland and greater Oregon. It’s worth remembering that my beloved ‘hobby’ needs to be constantly reaching new consumers, and educating them about what they can expect from beer, because it is forever expanding and needs to grow to sustain itself. We need people who know the difference between types of sour beer, believe it or not, because they’ll be excited to share this knowledge with friends the same way I spread the craft brew gospel from my bar stool every night.
While I don’t know what’s in the doors at a trendy bottle shop in, say…Chicago, I can guess it’s a lot more restrained than the things I’m fortunate enough to be able to drink every day here in Oregon. When I was in Des Moines this month, I saw lots of decent ‘top-tier’ national craft brands that have broken into the 19-oz format, sitting next to tallboys of Bud Light and Elysium Space Dust, but not a whole lot of variety beyond that. Of course, I am spoiled by the density of beers within my reach here, as every brewery has a competing blend of ‘hazies’ and ESBs and European pilsners and Mexican lagers and on and on. My favorite breweries here also manufacture CBD sodas and seltzers and hop waters and it’s an endless torrent of products to keep track of. It is tiring, honestly, but I’m not really interested in chasing the freshest beers, even if I do find myself in their vicinity. I’m looking at the people in all of this as the factor a lot of analysts will probably get wrong, but only because they’re often forgetting the folks running the bar, the kitchen, and the merch counter.
WHEN THEY KNOW WHAT IS WHAT BUT THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT IS WHAT
I am currently drinking a beer called ‘Juicy’, from Double Mountain. It is labeled ‘Clearly not juicy’ IPA, but at ummm…. At 5.6% ABV it barely qualifies as a pale ale. It is not hazy, but it is also not exactly clear, with a darker straw color to it. To me, it’s more of a dry-hopped pale, and so it will be rated poorly as an IPA, but if they’d have called it a freakin’ hoppy pale, I might have gone along with it. UGH fickle consumers AM I RIGHT?
So…the problem with all of the wiffle-waffle on the IPA and pale labels is that it seems to indicate a never-ending pale-beer identity crisis. When I say ‘Russian Imperial Stout’, there are very few beers that claim that style that aren’t exactly what they say they are. There can be some waffling about barrel-aged beers and how they’re labeled, but since these are also (typically) higher ABV and lower volume, they command more at retail, and so they go to that extra length to clarify to the consumer what they are. Just read the label on a bottle of BCS and you’ll know what is inside, hopefully. English milds and brown ales, Barleywines and ‘lagers’ – you know with a reasonable degree of certainty what’s going to be in that can. Meanwhile, on the IPA front, there are so many different styles that they’ve started trying to stand out by calling themselves something different, even if they aren’t measurably different from any of the other 5,000 dry-hopped hazies that came out last year. That is surely an undercount, BTW, I tend towards embellishment, but when it comes to ‘HAZY IPA’ releases, they are as endless as the different combinations of mosiac, strata and citra brewers can come up with. Everything falls under the ‘hazy’ umbrella if you look at it from far enough away.
What is a winter ale, anyways?
That is a good question. There are more than a dozen different beers in the cooler here at John’s that claim some variation of winter ale on the label. Some are claiming ‘winter IPA’ – but I can’t find the ones that initially got me going on this tangent. I avoid these beers, generally, because I don’t like the gimmicks associated with such a blatantly seasonal product. Why are these winter ales? Is it the spicing? Something about the malt bill? Do people not like these beers during the summer season? There are many questions that need to be answered here, not least among them: Are these the same beers they sell as summer IPAS, just re-packaged? The brewery would say ‘no’ but again…why all that extra effort for a beer that is only commercially viable for a few months out of the year? Why not make a robust, malt-forward, big-hop beer all year around?
Of course, the answer to that question is ‘because they want to’, but apparently there’s also a niche market to exploit – or these breweries wouldn’t be wasting their time chasing sales with pictures of goofy characters on snowboards. The whole phenomenon of seasonal brews is a relic leftover from the days of growing market share at all costs, so maybe it’s overplayed now that there is so much competition for non-seasonal shelf space. With the NA segment growing alongside the seltzer stuff, maybe breweries shouldn’t be chasing that seasonal niche anymore (but then again, how would people get their pumpkin fix every year)? It is exactly this kind of strange logic that would actually limit the development of the new styles, though, because without breweries chasing after every consumer they can get, we might not have anything but straight old-style IPAs made with English hops. Exciting alternate universe, isn’t it? It is not. I am here because brewers decided to do something new, fun or different, and I’m bickering with people I’ve never met about such esoteric topics precisely because someone (many people) wanted to do something different all those years ago.
In the course of a week I visit several of these bottle shops. I have been trying to put together some more content about them, but the process has been slow. Last week I went to a bunch of ‘east-side’ locations that are great examples of what I was describing in my last article (BATTLEROYALE) – one was a traditional ‘German’ style beer hall that has been growing steadily, pushing honest pilsners and lagers and various sub-styles therin. Another place I visited was once called ‘NWIPA’ (now Unlimited IPA) and focused on hoppier beers, but also had a small selection of bottles and cans that spanned a bunch of popular styles. The bartender (owner?) was playing classic hip-hop from a collection of vinyl records late into the night I visited, and someone was sharing a bottle of stout from Structures. I was left to chew on the hop oils that coated my tongue all night as I curled up in my truck on a nearby residential street. I was still a bit fuzzy the next morning when I hit a local café for my daily waste of time and coffee. In between all this beer drinking I do, I try to get around to ‘regular’ and popular resturaunts and food carts, anything someone recommends when I’m sipping on a triple or quadruple Belgian-style banger. This whole neighborhood had plenty of places to distract oneself at almost any time of day, and so I walked around, back to Unlimited IPA – but like all good taprooms, they weren’t open until much later in the afternoon.
So I walked a block up from there to Assembly brewing, a place where I engaged in a spirited conversation with the bartender on – wait for it – emerging drinking trends overall. This is THE CONVERSATION being had across the industry, and not just by wonky keyboard jockeys. I tried a small handful of their beers but wasn’t really excited about anything enough to stick around for long. They had plenty to choose from, but I just couldn’t get into one enough to want a repeat, and there were other places I wanted to go as well. The large, open space with roll-up doors and an outside patio area is undoubtedly on a summer afternoon, and you’ll feel right at home since the bare concrete floors and exposed wood beams gives it the atmosphere of every other brewery taproom I’ve been in this month. Sigh. I am not ranting about that, not yet. That’ll be a 10,000 word monster if I ever get around to it, since I had once thought myself to be interested in architectural design. Yes, they all try to be unique, and in so doing, they’re all painfully alike.
I moved onwards to a small taproom called Sessionable (not in the same ‘hood but a quick 10 minute drive west) that rotates a similar broad selection of styles, sometimes putting several new beers on tap on a busy weekend day. It’s in a nice little neighborhood that features Atlas Pizza and several food cart pods, with plenty of foot traffic flowing by to keep you wonder who is on the right side of the glass. The owner is often pouring behind the bar as well, so it’s an opportunity to pick his brain on the kinds of trends he’s seeing from the distro folks and how he’s looking for new beer to add to his cellar.
I rounded out my time on the east side with a stop in the neighborhood with Baerlic, Beermongers, and APEX – three verifiable beer nerd hotspots that should not be missed if you visit Portland. Baerlic has a huge variety of beers to chose from and self-distributes their cans extensively, so they’re a great working example of a brewery that had built out, expecting a high-volume restaurant to carry their brewing operation, and then jumped all-in to the distro game long before covid made it into a necessity. Now they’re supremely well positioned to ride the next few years (at least from an observer’s standpoint. Maybe they over-invested and are already looking at closing locations). This is another location that features some vinyl love – they’ve got a little radio station on-site – and the ‘detroit’ style pizza kitchen that operates out of the same location is the perfect food to pair with beer. The deep-dish and a pint formula is an easy winner and you’ll see it repeated often here in Portland. Baerlic had an expansive taplist, with a bunch of hazies and pilsners and a stout on tap, but the overall selection was more west-coast than hazy IPA – but they’re not shy about mixing it up. It’s a good brewery for a vibe-check, IMHO, since they’re hustling quite hard and are competing in a very tight market. If I was a real journalist, I’d try to get an interview with someone over there, for one of those fluff feel-good pieces.
The CROSS-STREET FIGHT
Beermongers has moved, so this isn’t exactly the rivalry that it once might have been – as imagined by customers like myself, who saw the two vastly different approaches to beer and went to beermongers over Apex, any day of the week, despite(or because of) the abusive number of beers on tap at Apex. The Beermongers is where the old greybeards hang out, and Apex is where the (everybody else) goes to be ignored by the bartender and scoffed at when they ask for a sample. APEX has an absolutely astonishing selection of great, bucket-list beers on tap, but the atmosphere is trash, from the attitude behind the bar to the laughable selection of pricey bottles in the few coolers on hand that qualifies it as a bottle shop, as well as a ‘taproom’.
TO BE HONEST, though, many of those beers have been on tap at that location for years, and many of them aren’t as hard to find as they used to be – although the place certainly does make some good money off beer tourist traffic, and has a large outdoor patio space for those warmer months. If you happen to stop in when it’s dead, like I did recently, the service won’t change, and the Pliney on tap isn’t the one you really want, so calm down and get something semi-local. I keep trying to get a different take from the place, but I always leave feeling like the customers aren’t really the point of APEX. They will probably still be there long after the hosting on this blog has ran out, so who am I to judge?
Before they moved, you could see APEX from the front door of Beermongers, and that was good, because you could remind yourself that you were making a conscious choice to go someplace where the employees cared about their job, serving (you) beer, as you entered. They have maintained the vibe, just at a new location around the corner. They haven’t really expanded the cooler space (yet), but the small selection of taps is usually holding something special for the lucky visitor, and there are some good bottles and cans to be found in the doors. You can ask the helpful staff questions about what you see. It’s a completely different experience, and while the choice of what kind of beer establishment you enjoy is entirely yours, there are tangible differences if you know what to look for. Beermongers is closer to Baerlic though, so it’s not hard to make the right choice.
At each of these places I try to get a sample or two plus a pint, plus or minus. I look around, and try hard to keep track of interesting beers from breweries I’m aware of. There are soooo many, though. So many styles, so many beers, so many breweries with similar logos. Lately I’ve been in the mood for dark stouts and barrel aged ‘big beers’, mostly, but I still break for a nice clean ‘west coast’ ipa. When I engage with folks on twitter – none of whom will take the time to read this, I’m certain – I am drawing on these lived experiences to inform my statements. I can barely keep track of the beers I drink via untapped, and I often find myself ‘forgetting’ to check in another tall can of Deschutes imperial ipa or boneyard hop venom as I nod off to sleep. I might chase a bunch of different beers in my dream day job, but when I’m tucking in at night with a frozen pizza and some netflix, I’m crushing a 6-pack of cans of some medium west-coast style IPA more likely than anything else.
What I’m trying to say is, I don’t just buy my beer at expensive bottle shops – I stop at 7-11 and plaid pantry and Fred Meyer for the $3 or $4 cans and $9.00 sales 6-packs. I am awash in great local beer, even at the grocery store.
I feel like it does matter, this viewpoint, because a lot of the conversation I see is from industry wonks who aren’t really on the ground in their regions, seeing the actual products on the shelves or engaging with the people at the point of sale. As I tried explaining before, this is partially caused by the various differences in the distribution laws that dictate who can sell beer, and who can drink it, where. When people speak for the craft brew industry, are they speaking from these positions behind the scenes, or are they cognizant of the reasons behind the declining sales of a certain style of beer in a certain region, based on some action that isn’t visible to anybody on the industry side?
I’m talking about the way a beer or brewery might be torpedoed by a distributor or get blacklisted from local bars for some reason that isn’t obvious to anyone outside of their bubble.
Some breweries have had significant personnel issues, and the way that impacts a breweries sales might not make it into a yearly earnings report or sales numbers, and people in a larger sense might forget altogether. Founders and Mervin come to mind – two staple breweries that have had internal issues that became public, and absolutely impacted the perception of craft breweries and sales in those areas, beyond those two directly. Meanwhile, most people are out of that bubble, trying to make sense of trends based off sales data that doesn’t carry the whole story. We’re out here talking about sub-styles that might represent one half of one half of one percent of national craft beers sales while Stone’s lawsuit against Keystone may well have moved national sales numbers based off the publicity alone. And the thing is, if you’re looking that seep into the back side of the industry, you aren’t going to be spending much time on the local dive bar circuit, watching in real time as new trends emerge among target consumer groups.
My writing isn’t a cut-and-paste newsletter announcing brewery openings or expansions. I am not here to talk about specific numbers, generally – there are plenty of people trying that angle. The industry as I know it isn’t just about data, it’s about the people who are involved on both ends of the process. I am in the middle in a way that few people are, and I’m trying to shine a light in corners and get people interested in the things they didn’t even know about. When I tell people here about how restrictive some of the alcohol laws are in other states, many are in disbelief, and they cannot imagine life without such easy access to so many different products from legit small businesses. Even today, a state on the east coast is procrastinating on legislation that would allow self-distribution of breweries under a certain size. I am editing this piece from a brewery called Great Notion, celebrating their 7th anniversary – and they solely self-distribute, for their entire history. They were fairly exclusive for a long time, too, but this is another example of a business that changed because of covid, for the better IMHO.
I see prognostications of closing breweries in the near future and I’m not entirely sure how accurate those predictions are, either, based off the thriving brew culture I saw in Des Moines this month. It turns out that small owner-operated businesses that employ the local young people in honest paying work are generally well-received in the midwest, and even on a Thursday in January, I saw several breweries bustling with customers that ranged in age and apparent socio status. It is true that some breweries will fail, but what some people will miss in this conversation is that so many opened in the years before covid that the time is right for the percentages to play out – new businesses fail at xx% for every xx years they’re open, and we’re entering the window where a lot of places would have run out of steam, covid or not. We’ll see what happens, but I’d rather not pretend to know which way it’ll go. I am quite sure that more people than ever are familiar with the concept of craft beer and the possibilities it brings, and that’s going to be a good thing moving forward.
This has got a lot longer than I thought it would. I’m off to find a warm spot for the weekend, as the temps in Portland are set to plunge below freezing for several days. I remain officially unhoused, looking for a room to rent, but haven’t had any luck. If you’re reading this in the greater Portland area and have a room for rent, find me on twitter or email me. I’m just about ready to come in from the cold and I have cash.
I leave you as I sip a Czech-style dark Lager from Loowit Brewing in Vancouver, WA, sold in cans at John’s and consumable on-site for just $1 over the retail price. I told ya’ll to pay attention to these beers, they are this year’s mexican lager. I said it.
*written from the bar of Johns Marketplace in Multnomah Village, edited from Great Notion