New System

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
5) Doppelbock
6) Rauch helles lager
7) Double hazy
8) Ipa
9) 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, people who are out of that bubble, trying to make sense of trends based off sales data that doesn’t carry that whole story.

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. Iam 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.

Cheers.
*written from the bar of Johns Marketplace in Multnomah Village, edited from Great Notion

Battle Royale

Bottle shop v brewery v brewpub

I recently took a trip to flyover country, the American Midwest, home of the Field of Dreams, Iowa. There were several reasons for the trip, but at it’s core, it was meant to be an opportunity to explore Iowa’s craft beer scene, specifically the breweries that have opened over the last decade plus around Des Moines. As I sat at brewery after brewery, and one single taproom, I was taken back to a topic I’ve been thinking about off and on for a few years now – the difference between bottle shops, ‘taprooms’, and brewery taprooms. In places where the population doesn’t support ten breweries per square mile, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from when you go out looking for the craft beer experience – there’s the local brewery, and local bars, and if you’re lucky a high-end leaning gastropub or national chain (think Red Robin) that features the kinds of beer you can’t find in the local grocery store of most smaller or rural markets.

It can be easy to forget the vast distances that define the American heartland, and the people spread out among the hills and fields of places like Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa, if you don’t visit or look out the window when you fly to some more tropical locale. The town I stayed in claims some 5,700 residents, but much of that claim includes large stretches of farms before it runs into the creeping sprawl of Ankeny, with 70,000 Hawkeyes living a half hour north of greater Des Moines, itself with just under 700,000 people spread out in a 15×20 mile patch of dirt that is quite under-developed. Single-family homes on tidy, sizeable lots march off into the distance in neighborhoods without sidewalks or any thought to a shared transit system (aside from the school buses that ferry screaming kids several miles each day).  

It was a solid half-hour drive from the airport to my friend’s house, on the northern edges of another sprawling Des Moines suburb, Johnston. There weren’t many obvious places where people might congregate in the way you see in places like Portland, at least not outside of the downtown areas where they’ve put the focus on developing smaller eateries and a few beer-centric places that I simply couldn’t get to. Everything is just soooo spread out that even in the residential areas in the city itself, you don’t get any feeling of community or neighborhood character, outside of maybe the era the homes were built. It simply doesn’t feel like a critical mass of attractive businesses and nicer, modern housing has accumulated anywhere in particular – compared to places like Portland, where you can walk any number of neighborhoods and find an endless amount of commerce on every corner. I suspect that many Iowans would enjoy the sorts of business opportunities and relaxations that I can choose from in Portland, all within that same 30-minute drive that I took to go from one end of Des Moines to the other. Yes, there are drawbacks to living in the city, but that’s not the point today. I’m trying to put to words the different cultures that I feel that drive a different sort of interface between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – consumers and producers. 

Obviously, I must admit that I cannot possibly know everyone’s reasons for locating where they do and why they chose the approach they do, but in my quest to visit all these places I have gained some insight into matters that escape the average local family dad looking to have a pizza and some beer made locally. I enjoy going to breweries, but there is a limited experience available, even at the most renowned and celebrated locations of the best breweries you could name. Each brewer and owner has a vision of their beer and the way they want them enjoyed and seen and presented, and this is all great and fine, but the last few years have seen the limitations that can come along with trying to make your brewery the destination, and the only place your fans can get your product. The fallout from Covid lockdowns is percolating, as businesses in all sectors are still seeing depressed revenue, compared with pre-covid numbers. There is a wave of economic reporting that’s about to crash into the American economy that will sound pretty bad, when looked at from the big angles. Some of the smaller angles will be ugly, too, but there will be some movement towards a more stable market because of these uneven rebounds, and if you’re trying to support your local brewers, it’ll help to understand some things.  

Caught up in this strange economic conversation will be your favorite local brewery, who hopefully didn’t go balls-deep in expansion debt in 2019. Or maybe they did expand, riding a wave of success that demanded they go big and take a slice of their local market. The number of breweries that opened in 2019 that didn’t make it, vs the number that did…that’s a deep-dive topic that runs alongside what I’m reaching for here. The need for a local bottle shop can run directly into headwinds from a popular local business, the regional distributor, or any number of other sources, but once established they’re better positioned to weather the kinds of troubles that faced most businesses over the last 3 years. It’s important to understand the basics of the kind of place that you like to consume your beer, even if there isn’t much choice in most smaller markets – yet. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because I’m not sure most people even have the kind of bottle shop I’m talking about anywhere near them – I’m sure it’s still probably illegal in some states, too – but most people have at least been exposed to the kind of place that will soon be competing for your beer dollars. 

Yeah, I buy my beer at a shop. It has bottles..? 

Oregon seems to be somewhat unique in my experience, in that it allows several different levels of sales of alcoholic products, from basic sales to on-site consumption. This results in hybrid retail establishments that have a draft license, pre-packaged offerings from multiple sources, and focus completely on beer (or wine, which is given similar lattitude as far as retail outlets are concerned). My favorite example is John’s Marketplace in Multnomah Village – I’ve probably mentioned John’s before, and have purchased hundreds(thousands) of dollars worth of beer there in the 7 years or so I’ve been in the area.  

I can’t forget the tiny little shop in Astoria that I spent a lot of time in, Bridge & Tunnel, which kept me in delicious beers through the darkest hours on the coast (and there are some very dark hours out there). The owner Duane had quit a job in finance somewhere (so the story goes) and opened his beer store right down the street from a still-growing Fort George, catching overflow, curious and lost tourists who clog the sidewalks for a few months (weeks?lol) every summer. He knew some folks, and had the gumption to go ahead and bring great beer all the way out to one of the farthest points you could pick on a map, from all the other places you can find great beer. I am always looking at new beers in places like B&T and have a healthy respect for the small shop owner that can keep the good stuff coming in regularly and often, and I was never bored when I was sitting at Duane’s bar.  

You can’t talk about this stuff without getting into the murky waters of distribution; in this case it’s the end of the chain that makes a difference in the quality and selection of a small bottle shop in a small tourist town that’s empty 8 months of the year. Duane has to cultivate his contacts to satisfy the cravings of a customer that might be looking for their favorite IPA from Vermont or Michigan. I was always delighted to find beer from across the country on hand, these little packages of metal wrapped in pastel artwork and holding delicious nectar, created with care by someone as passionate about the beer as I am (hopefully) somewhere hundreds or thousands of miles away. I’m kind of a romantic at heart, I guess, because I want to believe it matters, that the little touches and effort of a small brewer MATTER, that my respect of that work matters. So much of what we consume in the US is mass-produced and wrapped in plastic and the creators are freakin’ robots in China, and taking the time to appreciate the craftsmanship of something, ANYTHING in today’s life is underrated. And so, sitting in a small bottle shop in Astoria, on the far west coast, I was often left in awe of the product of someone whom I will never meet, for at least as long as it took me to drink it.   

Here in Oregon, shops like Bridge & Tunnel have significant leeway in how they acquire their products, as it’s been written into law and practice by the OLCC’s interpretations. A small operator like Duane is allowed to go outside of the general distribution network to get beer from other states, for instance, because most Oregon distributors cannot or will not. However, some states still require a third party distro to manage wholesale and interstate sales, which complicates efforts but still allows for a motivated shop owner to get beer from all over the country. As the industry has opened up, more pressure against traditional distribution has meant a cascade of new beer hitting shelves in other parts of the country that simply could not get them before. When you walk into a Portland bottle shop, you’re as likely to find Heady Topper (a staple from VT) as you are something from Great Divide (Colorado) or Prairie Artisan Ales (Oklahoma).  

The biggest difference, though, is the on-site consumption of any of the merchandise (beer/wine/cider) for a small corkage fee. The bottle shops I’ve been to in other states never had on-site consumption of anything, not taps nor pre-packaged from the shelf, whereas it is common here in Oregon. I’m sure they’re allowed elsewhere, but I’m struggling to remember the last place outside of Oregon where I could buy a bottle…there was a place in Jacksonville way back in 2008 I remember that had Stone bombers (I think I was probably a bit snarky about the $9 per bottle cost, little did I know what the future would hold…) but they were a gastropub, the precursor of the modern brewpub. Or maybe they’re still a thing in other states? I simply haven’t had the chance to travel as much as I’d like to have recently. Maybe things have changed.  

THE PLUG 

This is the part where I start asking for people to ping my patreon for a buck or two. I’d like to go places and do on-the-ground writing about what I find when I poke around the corners of the country. I have been working on a number of drafts covering a whole bunch of topics, and I’ve even started dreaming about them recently. I don’t know what my future holds, but if I have the chance to keep writing about these things and doing actual research, I will. I’ll also be honest and tell you any support I get will be spent on either beer or the administration of this effort in some way. My nascent media empire (Autoneurotic Media) needs a few dollars a month, and I’m even adding pictures to my blog soo….yeah. I’d rather not monetize things with ads or other garbage but I also spend a lot of time just writing so help a guy out, buy me a pint! 

 GAME ON 

So I mentioned a place in Jacksonville (Kickbacks Pub, still open!) that a lot of people will find familiar, as compared to the actual bottle shops in their areas, which are usually just retail sales locations and don’t offer anything else. The gastro or brew pub is a bar or resturant that has a number of beers on tap and food and maybe some other entertainment or attraction, like say Old Chicago or Ruby Tuesday or, increasingly, chains like Applebee’s and BWW will feature a wider array of beers than the straight-up domestic beers that would once have been the only options. Bud v Bud Lite v Coors v Miller Lite is no longer on display, having been replaced with flagships from Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Sam Adams and the like. As the craft beer market expanded, the larger distributors in these markets started offering more selection, but when you walk into one of these places in most parts of the country you’ll be limited to a fairly predictable spread of beers that only dabble in the direction of ‘craft’ and cost the same without much of the flavor. Even here in Portland, these sorts of places don’t break the mold by much, despite having options that far surpass the top-20 on the books down at Columbia (the Big Distributor in Oregon, they often dictate entire isles of product placement in the state). Many of the larger chain ‘pubs’ don’t want to deal with smaller self-distributed breweries here in Oregon or the smaller distributors, who might struggle to keep regular stock or make timely deliveries. In most other states that haven’t updated distribution, I’d have to suspect it’s much harder to run a single gastropub and have a respectable selection without the constant hassle of going outside of the local distributor to find something that 8 other places in town also have on tap this week.  

One of my favorite places in Iowa was called Bricks in downtown Cedar Rapids, and I lived not far away while working full-time at Godaddy (one of Iowa’s original pet technology companies). You might say I had some disposable income, and the front door of my apartment was a 6-minute walk away (one whole minute for the elevator). The local brew club (Cedar Rapids BeerNuts) held monthly meetings there and we were allowed to share homebrew and bottles we’d got, and the owner was very involved in cultivating a unique selection of beer that was hard to find anywhere else in Iowa – while still maintaining enough ‘domestic’ brands to get the dollars from the still very-domestic local bro crews. I spent many evenings at the bar quietly listening (cringing) and judging people’s beer selections, constantly asking myself what the actual fuck I was still doing, back in Iowa, (again), trying to converse with absolute hicks more often than not. I spent a lot of time backing away from political conversations, and this was well before a certain orange con artist rode down his golden escalator.  

There were another half dozen places like Bricks when I left Iowa in 2015, featuring some really excellent beer, some with a focus on Iowa and local Midwest beers specifically. But there was only one or two bottle shops, and they only sold pre-packaged stuff, even if they did offer a wide range of local and imported beers. So you could either post up at bar and explore the taps, or go buy your fancy bottles (and they were mostly still bottles at that time) and drink them somewhere else – but never the two options together.  

And certainly none of that horseplay was welcome at the local breweries. Absolutely not. It’s still often that way in most brewery taprooms around the country, where you’re there to try their beers and that’s it. Post-pandemic, most breweries have their pre-packaged beers to-go, at least here in Oregon, but in the before times it wasn’t always a sure bet. Crowlers – 32oz cans that are poured and sealed to-go and as-ordered – were still catching on in a lot of places when covid rolled through and gave everyone the opportunity to start canning everything. When you went to the brewery you were there to drink their draft beer and that was it, unless you were at a truly progressive pub that had a guest tap or two from another local joint. These days it’ll be a cider or seltzer or (NEW FOR 2023) a non-alcoholic variant, or maybe even some wine to cater to the folks who’d rather drink acid than beer. If you’re reading this, you almost positively have sat in a brewery in your hometown that was quirky and had a bunch of local cred and an interesting food menu and an outdoor patio and at most a dozen beers that were still ‘rough drafts’ compared to what you’d find at the brewpub. 

I have been fortunate to have been a guest or regular customer at many, many, many (hundreds) of breweries over the years. Something like 200+, but that’s a rough estimate. Unfinished concrete floors, some rough-finished wood accents, stainless steel. Lots of glass. Some of these places are better than others but the feeling you’re left with is a capable, young business that has a vision of their future and for their products (hopefully). I found myself at the grand opening of La Cumbre in Albuquerque, on the patio/parking lot of Bold City Brewing in Jacksonville, at the opening festivities of Lion’s Bridge in Cedar Rapids, and talking to brewers of Old Capitol Brewing in Iowa City (now River Ridge in Davenport) when they were still pushing out their first batches for sale at the pub.  

TREEHOUSE. yep.

The thing all these breweries had in common (at first) was that they were only selling their beer at the brewery itself, or to a very limited selection of restaurants and pubs that had somehow gotten wind of their beer, and often had to get the kegs themselves. I had tried Bold City’s IPA and brown ales at the monthly Artwalks in downtown JAX, where they would set up a keg and hand tapper and give away beer for a nominal tip from the 2nd floor of the old library. They were still working on the brewery, with difficulty getting the permits and operating license from the city. That is one quiet secret in the industry – many of these breweries have made thousands of gallons of test batches on their equipment before they ever sell a single pint. That beer goes somewhere…

The business model is uniform, with little variation in the approach overall. The stories of these places are with the owners and brewers and wives and parents of the people who have opened them, and they are the heart of this industry. But they’re self-limiting in scope, and that left them hanging when lockdown closed their primary and secondary sources of revenue; on-site sales and keg sales to draft retail outlets, often through larger distributors if they were lucky, evaporated overnight.  

I had my head down in that period myself, and it was painful to read about the constriction of so many dreams, so many gallons of beer dumped, so much wasted effort because there was simply no way for any of it to get to market. I guess there was a certain amount of ‘correction’ of the market overall in a sense, with marginal breweries scrambling to correct that limited business model. There was panic everywhere. And this is where the differences of the places I’ve described above come out and make an impact in how they have gotten through the last few years, and where they see themselves. I’m taking the time to go over the different kinds of drinkeries I’ve seen because there are variables at play to keep track of, if you want an accurate picture of the bigger industry. If you were a brewery that didn’t have a strong packaging operation at the end of 2019, you were probably in trouble 6 months later. If you were a gastropub or taproom in any state that took lockdown seriously, you were hurting pretty bad. If you were a bottle shop you were probably doing alright as soon as they relaxed retail sales outlets (many were able to stay open completely, and saw a surge of new business as breweries all over the country suddenly started canning).  

IT’S NOT LIKE THAT WHERE I LIVE, NOT AT ALL 

Well, this is just one man’s opinion, okay? I’ve been spending a lot more time reading industry materials recently and most of it lines up to what I already felt, on the whole. I had a 3rd shift job during covid and have always fought to find motivation and mood to write things like this. I am barely breaking the surface of these topics, and spending too much time on twitter simply promoting myself and catching up on other material, and the industry is changing so fast it’s hard to get to everything I want to connect together. Of course I don’t know what the local tap scene is like in Ashville or Miami or anywhere else, for that matter. I have nurtured this little dream of being a professional beer tourist for a long time, writing drafts and talking about beer endlessly to anyone that would listen (People ask “Do you work at a brewery?” more than they ask for my name) just because it was a comfortable hobby, and I didn’t want to ruin my hobby. I’ve said that before and will again, it’s why I don’t want to commit to a single brewery – for some reason I sabotage all the good things in my life.  

The flip side of this is that I’m aware of so much more going on than I would be if I were a fanboy of just one local brewery. I try to be fair and generous when reviewing my life (haha I don’t review your beer it just happens to be in MY hand at the moment, lucky you) so you can feel reasonably confident in my opinions, except where I’ve said so explicitly (see my above pleas for funding).  

WHAT?

In order for other people to understand my opinions better, I just wanted to explain the places I drink beer a little more. Where you drink your beer determines what you drink, and some places are more suited to certain types of drinking than others. I prefer the Oregon version of the bottle shop, where I can peruse many types of beer from many different breweries all over the country, selecting just the right beer for my immediate mood (or just as often wandering for ten minutes, culling hundreds of beers into a top-5 list before settling on just one) – even though there are often dozens of great breweries in the same area as the bottle shop. I wonder if people in other states would appreciate this kind of retail outlet, and reasonably relax state laws to facilitate a hybrid retail model like I enjoy in Oregon, if only they knew there was another way.  

Maybe there’s a subset of people out there that are more interested in this kind of personal take on the industry itself. I’m a little too honest (if I’m honest) and I’m okay with that if you all are. Maybe you just need something to read while you wait at your favorite taproom for your friends. If you talk about any of this, you can let ‘em know you were right about beer. That’s a shameless plug. Repeat it so you’ll remember when your friends ask you how you know so much about these things all of a sudden. I’m thinking about what I could do to help other people write more about beer (and, increasingly, other related industries under OLCC regulation) and if I can inspire others to jump in and not worry about what it looks like, cheers to that. Obviously, I’d like to get paid, and there’s only so much room at the top…but I’ll allow groupies and cheerleaders and hangers-on to also enjoy the ride.  

IT’S ALL BOUT YOU, INNIT?  

Duh. Seriously though, the next few years will be rough for the folks that have survived so much already. They need your support in ways that are familiar to so many people now – like their posts on social media, write them up and share your positive reviews on google and yelp, check their beers in and even rate them (gasp! Check out a post I did on reviewing beer from 2020) . There are so many reasons to get more involved in your local beer scene before you even crack a fresh can. As I write this, I’m chatting with the bartender of the Beaverton outpost of Ex Novo, tossing around ideas, and she’s taking photos for the brewery socials and I’m trying to take a decent shot of a tall and dark lager, and it’s like a shared struggle for just a moment. I don’t have to work for a brewery to work for them – this is one of the only industries where your participation matters directly to the people you’ll see while you’re there. Aside from walking into the kitchen and running a few racks of plates through the dish machine, you can’t get much more involved than repping your favorite flagship or wax-dipped bottle. Maybe your favorite company will see you out there and find room for you on their payroll. It could happen, I know another guy named Jeff who is doing better and better every time I check in with him. He’d tell me patience is a virtue, or something really zen like that. And I’d ask him to sign another Beer Bible because I gave my last one to my friend. Because I support my people.  
 
Cheers to you, wherever you have your next pint. Get out there and have fun.  

Wheels Down – DSM

Dry January…air.

I have now been in the rarefied air of mid-central Iowa for several days* and boy do I feel…cold? It’s Iowa in January and there’s just enough snow on the ground to remind me/you that it’s frosty outside, and it seriously discourages me from doing anything much outdoors, I can tell you that. A crisp breeze from the west will quickly convince you to go inside if you do wander into the unheated place accidentally or foolishly.  *written in real-time posted a week later

I am currently solo at LUA Brewing in downtown-ish Des Moines, having a few 5 oz tasters, which is something I almost never do unless I’m trying to visit a bunch of breweries in one swing. It’s been a while, though, since I had the explicit goal of making the rounds in a place, and I’ve been given some keys to a vehicle and a mandate to enjoy myself. My friend and wingman is on family duty, as his wife developed a double ear infection or something entirely more painful than I’d like to think about, and they’ve got an 8 week old and two older boys to feed or hose down or feed baby goats, IDK (insert parenting duty here). 

Why is it weeks and not months when talking about baby age? I don’t know, I’m a beer nerd and children are completely foreign territory for me. I like the ones that are a little bit bigger and don’t throw up on themselves (or me) all the time, he’s got two of those and they’re fun enough when the tiny one in blankets is sleeping. ANYWAYS, my friend insisted on flying me out, which is something that I’m extremely grateful and fortunate for, and got me a hotel room at a converted old folks home in near-bumfuck, Iowa (it’s the next town over), and the keys to an ’06 Range Rover that goes ‘BURRRBLE’ and so I told him to stay at home and do the attentive husband thing while I went out drinking beer, and…well, I made choices. He is successful and has a family and I get to go drink beer whenever I want.  

Sometimes, the two paths cross

Uh, yeah. 

I am pleased to see the general atmosphere of these places is great. I went to a small pizzeria next to a small brewery in a small town in Iowa and they made great food and the beer was tasty and I sincerely hope this is the way things are for most places around the country. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not, though, but that’s one of those posts we save for the crazy uncle thread on reddit.  I have to be mindful of the things I say there, in some of these places, because Iowans tend to be conservative – despite knowing better – and I could get caught up in some drama for simply talking about facts. Still, I love how people try to pretend the beer they drink doesn’t have some sort of political underpinning, like they’re not making a conscious statement by the beverage they drink. I wonder what mine is? 

Spicy jalapeno cheesy bread and a tasty brown ale from Fender Brewing in Polk City, Iowa

I’m better than you..?

haaa haaaa…

I have moved down the street to Big Grove’s DSM facility, and I say ‘facility’ because this place is enormous by most standards. It’s an older brick warehouse building with lots of updated renovation work and exposed modernization to the bones. There is a large brewing area on one end that is probably bigger than many primary systems at places I’ve visited. I was still in Cedar Rapids when Big Grove opened their first location in Solon, Iowa. Solon is basically right between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, the two quickest growing cities in the state (at the time), and the demand for craft beer was just starting to explode in 2013, so they have apparently found themselves with an excess of ambition and capital, with several large properties in Iowa already. They are ready for big growth, and I’m intrigued by the large scale they’re working on compared to their competitors.  

I plan on visiting Confluence a bit later. They’ve celebrated their 10th mark recently, and there’s some similarities to consider, but also some differences in approach. In the same light, LUA has a whole different vibe than Big Grove, and they’re just around the block from each other. Exile is also nearby, and they’ve got a whole…different thing for themselves that’s a unique identity from the other places. If this feels familiar, I’m glad. My time in Portland was starting to feel a bit bland despite my best efforts to explore new breweries – there is only so much stainless steel and rough-cut pine you can absorb before it all starts to blur together. There is still a same-ness that bothers me here, but it’s understandable when you consider that small-town Iowa doesn’t have old large warehouse spaces that are also conducive to a brewing and restaurant operation that also has scenic views and/or character.  

I mean…there are only so many roll-up window door-walls you can fit in a given space 

It’s kind of strange to see the amount of effort spent to install glass-windowed roll-up doors on every wall, at both the new construction and old remodel spaces, since Iowa is freezing for more than a few months a year and the rest isn’t always ideal for outdoor dining. I shouldn’t be surprised, though – the last few years have proven the need for flexibility and the need to grab every dollar you can when you can, often by expanding however the local authorities will let you.  

In Portland you find that a lot of street parking has been taken over by ‘sheds’ for dining. It was becoming more common before covid, but the relaxation of rules for these things has allowed many small business owners to expand their operating area without having to build anything substantial. There’s a permit they can get to take over parking in front of their storefront and then they’re free to build a platform. I could be wrong but from the range of designs and materials used to the placement you’d have to wonder how stringent the process was to get approval for these things; a few years after the pandemic’s first waves, many of these platforms are quickly falling apart, since they were made with plywood and left outdoors without much work done to have them painted or protected. Some blocks have derelict platforms, leftovers from failed joints that simply shut their doors and left that shit outside for someone else to deal with. The more industrious homeless folks take the good bits first, and then the rest just rots in the street, neglected, a reminder of how the city will chew you up if you don’t move fast enough. Over Christmas I rented a room to shelter from the yearly ice/snow storm, and there were the remains of a platform right around the corner from a fairly busy intersection – but this had been a personal effort, it seemed. There had been a tent, and inside the tent…I’m completely serious here… there was a full drum set. It was almost like someone had set up a practice space inside a tent on this little platform just randomly in front of someone’s house and left it for the storm to destroy. 

I don’t anticipate that most cities in Iowa will have to worry about things like derelict dining platforms rotting in their streets, but the need for the massive roll-up doors and expansive outdoor seating is at best a wishful one. But maybe downtown Des Moines is this thriving monster of pedestrian consumerism, and the crumbling brick homes and apartments nearby are, umm, going to be gentrified soon? There are a lot of empty storefronts here. Some of the older homes are in bad shape and you know there isn’t a whole lot of help to be had if you’re struggling in Iowa.  

Before I went downtown, I stopped by the family cemetery plot to visit grandma, and then by her old house, which…will be not long for this world. It’s a small house that was built a long, long time ago and there’s not much worth saving, sadly. I doubt you could even get a loan to buy the place unless you wanted to pay straight cash, and hey – I’m sure you could do that with some fat stacks. The location makes it a valuable plot, I’m sure it’ll hold a large modern home within a year or two. This has been a weird time for me, because in addition to all this stuff I’ve recently gotten back on that social media horse, to try connecting with people and stuff, only to realize it’s not…the people aren’t there. Fakebook is like a time capsule with living artifacts in it and I keep hoping for some reason it’ll work for what I want it to do but it never has and it never will. Eh? 

You’re drunk, old man. Go home.

*Some time later* I find myself at a place called Exile Brewing. They’re right down the street from the other two I was at already, a half-mile, maybe. The heated seat in the Range Rover barely got warm, it was so close. Big Grove is a great place for gathering people, but in early January, the wind gets through those big window-doors and it was a bit cold for my comfort. I tried some beers and felt like moving on, so now I’m surround by CHRISTMAS, balls-deep in a hellscape of sparkly snowflakes and lights and decorations hung from strings every 2 feet. No joke, it’d be a bit of a nightmare for certain types of people. I am at a dumb point in my day where I don’t really find anything on the taplist inspiring and the plan to keep visiting breweries starts to fall apart a bit without effort. Why am I doing this?Surely there is something more productive I could be doing with this visit. Self-doubt is a killer. It follows me everywhere. (As I edit this, I know the in-your-face blitz of lights and gaudy decorations had a serious impact on my mood that night). 

I ordered a big stout for some reason, but just a small pour because I’m conflicted. Jesus on a Forklift, 12.5% and eh? I dislike wasting beer but I’m not above leaving a pour behind because it’s just not working for me. I think the atmosphere of this place isn’t helping, now I’m hearing some latin Christmas samba shit, this isn’t the time for a quiet rumination on the beer. I’ve got to go. Maybe next time I’m in town Exile won’t be full-on sensory overload city. I realize they’re looking to stand out a little, but this sort of gambit is 50/50 and best used for a very limited time.  
 

The look of a small, frightened animal

My last stop was Confluence brewing, a standout as far as I’m concerned, but their brewery and taproom are situated in an odd part of town and they don’t have a kitchen, so the place was almost empty when I rolled in after 5, maybe. I sat at the bar next to a guy who was interested in crystals and some interesting theories about radio waves. I run across these folks a lot, perched at the bar like it’s the neighborhood spot, theorizing on things with a…limited background knowledge. Or maybe a smaller vision than their theory requires to make any working sense (like ‘why would this thing you think be helpful to anyone?’). A lot of the time, these folks don’t get challenged in any helpful way, and just rely stuff they might have heard on certain ‘news’ networks, for instance. When you try to lead them to the ultimate conclusion of whatever theory they have, and show them some alternatives, sometimes you can have some great conversations. Like, why would ‘rich people’ pump chemicals into the air that they also breathe (it’s an old chemtrails argument that’s guaranteed to start a fight if you push it far enough)?  
 

Anyways, it was entertainment while I sipped on some Ferryman’s Death By Chocolate. I had the un-flavored Ferryman’s in bottle-form and I honestly enjoyed it better. I also have a bottle of Ferryman’s peanut butter, so they’re working the barrel program pretty hard. There were multiple barleywines on tap, a personal favorite style of mine, but since I’d already had several tasters of great Iowa beer, I only had a few sips of the BW. Oatmeal cookies and monster cookies were great little stouts with a unique flavor that broke from the rest of the oat/milk stouts I’ve had lately. I had many miles to drive to get back to my crappy little hotel room in some tiny little township only accessible by 2-lane roads, and it was starting to get windy and snowy out.  

It can be hard to navigate a path through these beer lists when you’re visiting with a very limited amount of time and sobriety to manage, especially when you’re out doing it alone. I’ve been doing it a long time, but it’s different here than my usual beering grounds around greater Portland. Each one of these breweries that I went to had an extensive list of styles on hand, with some a focus by each, but overall a general attempt to have several styles on hand. The IPAs here are alright, with the ‘NE HAZY’ being dominant. Most of the rest of the efforts are devoted to lagers and mild brown beers, depending on the brewery. You might not find something that gets your attention at a specific brewery, but since you can’t just walk down the street to a different spot, you’re left making choices and sometimes you find yourself enjoying a beer you wouldn’t normally have had. It’s a strange place to be in, and I’m sure it colors the local experience quite a bit, so I might have to come back to this topic at some point.  

I wrapped my night up at a little place called Fender Brewing in Polk City. On the first night in town I’d had some of their beer at the pizza place next door, and I was hoping to talk to an owner or brewer or whatever. Instead, I got to harangue a bewildered stand-in who admittedly knew not much about the beers while a 5-pack of cougars talked post-holiday shit to each other on the other side of the cozy taproom. The snow had accumulated, and it was nearing 9pm when I finally headed out, after a quick sample of some other beers on tap and the not-unusual feeling that I had maybe frightened a local again. Smile and nod when I’m around if you don’t know wtf I’m talking about and eventually I’ll go away. Probably. I try to tip. 

I SAID I’M TRYING

I am safely thousands of miles away now and can disclose my adventures on the return to the fields of corn. I had tried to broadcast my presence and hoped somebody (who I dunno anybody?) might come out or recommend something I hadn’t seen but as usual I am almost invisible to the algorithms and interesting people and women all at the same time, so nobody was interested. Or responded. Or even saw my tweets trying to share my posts and fakebook will probably throw that shit up in a couple of weeks. The few people who read my stuff say it’s good but I guess you’ve got to have some interest in any of this stuff and most of the people who do don’t take it as seriously as I do. Probably.  

Real Human. Real Airport.

Recent updates to wordpress have of course obliterated my photos and layout so I’ve got to do all of that again. Yay. Maybe I should get another crappy regular job. Sigh.