Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Tale of Four Businesses. Part 4: Brewer's Union Local 180

Finally, finally, finally I finish my series on the four southern and mid Willamette Valley brewing businesses I visited with Jeff Alworth in, uh, November. So today we venture back to Oakridge to visit Brewer's Union Local 180 and Ted Sobel, the publican and visionary behind what is, to my mind, the most unique brewpub in Oregon and one of the few that are a pure Oregon treasure.

When I first heard of Ted Sobel my impression was a crazy man in the woods with a thing about real ale.  Which is basically right - you would have to be crazy to pick out Oakridge, Oregon to launch your business and he does have a thing about cask-conditioned real ale.  But he is not crazy in the sense of CAMRA purists and his passion for real ale, I soon discovered, is not out of Nazi purism but of a complete vision of what a rural, local brewing pub is and what such a place means to a community.  A vision he developed in time spent at local brewing pubs in Britain and has perfected in Oakridge. 

Given my own passion for cask ale, English ales and smaller beers, I eagerly sought out Ted and his beer after hearing about him, finally getting the chance to meet him and his beer last year at the Green Dragon Firkin fest (which, incidentally, is coming up again soon on April 16 and Ted will be there again I understand and of course this make the timing of this post impeccable! - there is reason to my madness after all). At the time my impression was that cask ale was his passion and his hook. But it wasn't until I visited the pub in Oakridge that I understood the beer is only part of a more complete vision of a rural, local pub that is a part and even a centerpiece of a community.

Pocket billiards
What Ted has created in Oakridge is a warm, inviting place with many nooks and crannies in which to sit, relax and chat with friends and neighbors. His brewing operation is more like a scaled up homebrewer than a fancy brewpub, but his beer is subtle and tasty and always served fresh on cask.  He has a number of guest taps and even convinces locals to send him a firkin now and again - Nick Arzner of Block 15 in Corvallis had sent a firkin of Ridgeback Red that was hooked up to one of the beer engines when we were there. 

Ted finally answered a lingering question for me, which was why most beer served on cask in local bars and pubs is considered not quite legit according to the CAMRA-types. The answer is, apparently, that most breweries will take beer from a conditioning tank, put it in a firkin and then add priming sugar, much like the traditional homebrewer does, to re-activate the yeast and produce the desired carbonation. However, traditional cask ale is created by taking beer from the fermentor before it has entirely finished out, condition it, and then warm it back up to reactivate the yeast and create carbonation from the remaining sugars already present. It is an incredibly subtle distinction, but Ted's beer is done the latter - correct - way.  Despite being a purist himself, Ted is not critical of those that do it the other way - cognizant, I suppose of the realities of a brewery trying to do everything.  His fully realized vision allows him to do it the way he prefers, and that, I believe, is the point.

Note the floor made of the old MacArthur Court.  Yes, the very one played on by the National Campion Tall Firs. Go and take Darshan.

Ted's business suffers in the lean winter months, but then picks up when the hikers and mountain bikers return to the mountains in the spring and summer months. I was there in the cold and wet fall, and the pub was a cozy and inviting place to settle in for an evening and Ted's beer which is mostly quite small, is very sessionable - so you can settle in for and evening without feeling it the next day.  It was quiet but a number of locals wandered in and out.  The pub has no TVs so, gasp, there is naught all to do but chat.  Of course there are other diversions, stocked bookshelves, a pool table and free WiFi if you prefer the solitary amusements.

As an aficionado of fish and chips it behooves me to mention that Ted's are very, very good: moist and flaky fish in a light and well cooked batter on top of a pile of crisp chips. Excellent. I did not try the other food from the kitchen but it features very traditional British pub food such as bangers and mash as well as more American standards like burgers and reuben sandwiches.

The point that I am trying to make in this whole write-up is that most reviews of brewpubs focus on the beer and then incidentally the food, ambiance and so on.  But Brewer's Union is the realization of a complete vision and all aspects - the beer, the space, the food and so on - are critical complements of each other.  Jeff and I understood the completeness of the vision when upon checking in to the Oakridge Motel and informing owner Vivian of our plan to spend the evening at Brewer's Union, she said to give her regards to everyone there.  This, I think is the point of Ted's vision - a pub that is interwoven in the social fabric of a small town.

And so even the crazy decision to open in Oakridge made sense to me in the end.  And as we left Oakridge on a typical November Oregon day - misty, wet and gray - I gazed lazily at the tops of the surrounding Cascade foothills that had gotten a dusting of snow the night before and decided the whole experience, the setting, the town and the pub, was enchanting.   

As an aside, Ted and I both have a connection to Ithaca, New York (me school, he hometown, I think).  He has a nice bog post about a return home and a trip to Ithaca Beer Company (whose owners are friends of mine and whose birth I witnessed first-hand) and an old haunt: The Chapter House.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Context and Relativity in Beer Prices

In economics, it turns out, relative measures matter a lot.  For example, peoples' satisfaction with their own income depends a lot on the incomes of their neighbors and friends.  People place value on things like cars and barbecues that depends not only on their own intrinsic value but on how much better they are from the next best thing.   This fact does not easily fit into a lot of economic theory that deals only in individual decision making.  You have do get into game theory to start to describe these types of values that depend on others actions - and that gets hard quickly. 

Anyway I thought of all this when I finally encountered a Ninkasi six-pack in my local grocery store and was taken aback by the price: $10.99.  Holy s#%t, I thought, that is expensive. It is substantially more than say a Bridgeport, Deschutes or Full Sail sixer.

Except that it isn't of course, in fact it represents a substantial discount per ounce then the standard 22oz. Ninkasi bomber bottle that generally retails at $3.99.  Bill Night has been pointing this out for a long time, of course, but it is one thing to talk about rationally and quite another to experience it emotionally.  Using Bill's Six Pack Equivalent (SPE) calculator it is easy to see that a 22oz bomber at $3.99 translates to a six pack price of $13.06. 

So the Ninkasi sixer actually represents a much better deal than the previous 22oz bottle which makes little rational sense as the packaging per dollar has gone up.  But of course when you buy a six pack you are buying 72oz total and thus the better price is a volume discount.  See previous posts on non-linear pricing to understand why companies can do better but following a non-linear pricing strategy.

But what really matters, at least to the front of my mind where the first emotional responses form is that Ninkasi 22s were generally among the cheapest ones on the shelf and now the Ninkasi sixers are the most expensive.  And where I was very happy to fork over $4 for a 22, I am now reluctant to spend $11 on a sixer even though I am the only beer drinker in my household and a 12oz bottle of a big Ninkasi beer is generally all I need.  Its all in the framing - the relative comparisons.  Before I would look at a bomber of Deschutes Red Chair, say, for $5.49 and quickly choose Ninkasi.  But now I look at a sixer of Red Chair for $6.99 and a sixer of Ninkasi for $10.99 and I am not likely to buy the Ninkasi.  Except that I will probably buy a bomber - despite my knowledge of Bill's SPE calcs.

I always thought of Ninkasi as very savvy for coming in at an aggressive price point for their bombers and it'll be interesting to see what happens now given that their sixers are going to be relatively expensive. 

 Because it is all relative.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Green and Pleasant Land

One of the things I love most about craft beer (and one of the most wonderful aspects of the wildfire-like spread of craft beer in the US) is how, through local beer, you can get a sense of the location itself.

And so I titled my post as I did because in my beer tour of Britain I am reminded of the green and pleasant land from whence the beer came: It is subtle and mild, but rich with history and character.  The Brits have been at this for centuries and have a wonderfully soft touch - teasing out delicate flavor and nuanced character.  Centuries of iterations have led to a equilibrium style that is quaffable - good for long hours in pubs - and tastes of the land, touched my mizzel rain and cool air.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, at the far end of the new world - the windward edge abutting the vast expanse of the Pacific - we take our beers bold and strong, bitter and hoppy.  Our young new-world brewers just discovering the myriad of flavors and experiences craft beer can provide, surrounded by bold and exotic spices with which to flavor their beer.

It is thus a joyful enterprise to collect a variety of British beers, as I did, and enjoy a range of ales from the old country.  The Northwesterner in me led me to a disproportionate number of IPAs, but these are British IPAs, bearing little resemblance to their NW cousins.

They are all of a type however, characterized by a more malty and soft mouthfeel and by the restrained use of more traditional English hops (East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, etc.) that provide a delicate spice.  They were also characterized by the minerally water note that is most commonly associated with the water of Burton-on-Trent.  But I noticed the same even in Scottish beer causing me to wonder if gypsum is a common characteristic of groundwater island-wide or if British brewers add gypsum to mimic the Burton-on-Trent character.

I enjoyed all of the beers, but some definitely more than others.  Here is a breakdown of the great, good and forgettable. Oh and a note about the wonders of modern trade - one can amble down to the local bottle shop and trip through Britain, Belgium, Germany, wherever without leaving the house.  What a wonderful age in which we live.

The Great

St. Peter's IPA.  To me this was the quintessential English IPA, malty and minerally but with a gorgeous hop bouquet that was subtle yet perfect.  This would be a stand-by in my fridge were I in England and I look forward to trying more of their beer.

Belhaven Scottish Ale.  I wrote about this before, but I am generally not a fan of the style as practiced here in the States.  American brewers (or at least Pac NW brewers) have a knack for hop bombs but struggle with malt-forward beers in my opinion. The Belhaven Scottish Ale is perfect - malty but in a restrained way.  Not sweet, thick and sticky but light and balanced by a touch of hops. A real Winner.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA.  Another winner from Belhaven.  Their twisted thistle is a wee more hop forward than the St. Peters and less English as is appropriate - for Scotland is a more wild and windy place.  I believe they use a little Cascade hops as well which gives it a slightly more floral aroma that we are so used to here in the NW.  It is worth mentioning that the Highland Stillhouse in Oregon City features Belhaven beers on tap including Twisted Thistle - it is especially good there). 

Thornbridge Jaipur IPA.  This, to me, is an English take on a Pacific NW IPA.  So it is halfway between a restrained English IPA and a NW hop bomb.  It works spectacularly well.  But it is very expensive, so caveat emptor.

Fullers ESB. Emphasis on the 'extra' - extra big, malty and spicy.  Not a session beer by any stretch of the imagination, but very good. 

The Good

Wells Bombardier.  This takes the prize for the best bottle of all: christened 'Drink of England,' and adorned with the St. George's cross it is all English pride.  Unfortunately my bottle was not in the best condition.  I think this beer is best appreciated on cask, but in the bottle (which is a higher alcohol version) it looses some subtlety.  Perhaps a fresh bottle would make a better impression but I woudl love to try the cask version.  Still, I plan to try again with a new bottle - how can one resist the 'drink of England'?

Greene King IPA.  I had high hopes, but was disappointed.  Could very well be the bottle I had as it lacked a bit of flavor and character.  Felt a bit bland and the aroma was a bit lost.  Not bad, mind, a quite enjoyable quaff, but not among the best.

Moreland Old Speckled Hen. Moreland is now owned by Greene King and I found it a very enjoyable beer but missing that particular something that makes it particularly wonderful.  I suspect, once again, that freshness is an issue. 

The Forgettable

Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted.  This is 'twisted' with Sorachi Ace hops which to some evokes lemon.  To me they evoke unpleasant dill notes.  Some love them, I dislike them.  If you like Sorachi Ace then you should give this a try, I suspect you'll find it very enjoyable.  I did not.

Williams Brothers Scottish Joker IPA.  Again, remember that these are bottles that have traveled far and long, but even given that, I found this beer to be entirely without character.  My 5 year old did like the bottle however...

One of the things I love about British beer is their mild subtlety and this is the very thing that makes trying bottles shipped all the way to Oregon a bit of a risk.  There are some beers that I sense would be superb on cask in England (Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen) that just lose that special character by the time they make it to my glass.  Still BOTH the great and the good beers here are well worth a try and are beers I would buy again without hesitation.  I especially recommend St. Peter's in the bottle and Twisted Thistle on tap.

But perhaps next time I can have them at the source.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Beer Tour of Britain

I am on a bit of a British kick these days in response to officially becoming a British citizen.  And in celebration of my new, and more useful, passport I waddled on down to Belmont Station and bought up a bunch of British ales.  Interestingly, there were almost as many Scottish beers as English.  I wonder why such a high proportion of Scottish beers make it to Belmont station?

I actually was not in the hunt for many, I just wanted to pick up some Belhaven (speaking of Scottish beer) but I was intoxicated by the amazing array of British beer.  I have also been on a bit of a crusade for smaller, more mild ales as too much attention in the NW is on big hop bombs (which I adore, but am not always in the mood).  In addition, there was a bottle of Thornbrige Jaipur highlighted in the great Beertickers film (though at a walloping $8+, I did have a moments pause).

I will try and give some specific tasting notes, but as many of the beers are quite similar, I worry about having enough to say and not ending up sounding like Bill's beer review generator.

It'll take me a while to make it through all the beer, but it has already been a week and I have had a chance to sample a few so here are a few initial impressions.

First, what is up with clear bottles?  Bad enough for the domestic market, but for beer that has to cross the pond and the North American continent (in my case), clear glass is a poor way to make sure your beer arrives at my lips un-struck.  It is certainly true that many of the beers look beautiful in the clear glass bottles, but the risk to the contents is quite high.  Perhaps there is enough awareness in Britain about proper handling of beer that they don't have problems (one expects this must be true or else brewers would not find it worth it).  Perhaps we'll get to a day in the US where we too can admire our beer before even opening the bottle.

Fortunately, so far they have all been in good nick, which is point number two: they are remarkably fresh tasting - perhaps not as bright and vibrant as they might be having not had to make the sea voyage - but very good nonetheless.  Here's to modern container shipping, I suppose.

Third, I associate the mineral quality of the Burton-on-Trent with English ales (e.g. Marston's) but I find a hint of it throughout the beers I bought, including Scotland.  So is this gypsum infused water common there too or do Scottish brewers try and mimic the mineral quality of English ales by adding gypsum, or I am I just imagining it.  I, of course, find it delightful.

Some reactions so far.  For an absolutely delightful and perfectly balanced English IPA, you simply cannot do better than the St. Peter's IPA.  The Beerax was with me during my shopping episode and told me to buy it, he was not wrong, it is superb.  For an more English-crossed-with-Northwest IPA the Thornbridge Jaipur was also fantastic but, as mentioned, quite spendy.  It is well worth a try, however, especially if you like the bigger NW style IPAs.  Another surprisingly big and bold beer is the classic Fullers ESB.  This is a beer that takes the Extra Special seriously and is a malty, hoppy mouthful, it is very good but not a session beer.

The big disappointment so far came from Scotland, the Williams Brothers Scottish Joker IPA.  I found it a dull, muddled mush of a beer - thin in body and weak in hops.  My five year old liked it the best for the joker on the label so there you go...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Tale of Four Businesses. Part 3: Block 15

Note: Here is the third installment of my four part series on four very different brewing businesses in the Willamette Valley. It is long delayed due to illness and work, my apologies.

It amazed me, when I first arrived in Corvallis in 2006, that there were no brewpubs.  There was a downtown McMenamins, but I am not sure they even brewed there and if they did I never noticed.  Oregon Trail is, as far as I can tell, mostly just a hobby and the Old World Deli leaves a lot to be desired - a pub it is not.  Thus Corvallis seemed a city not only ripe for a nice brewpub but with OSU in residence, a university very much intimately involved in the beer industry - hops especially - it seemed a natural fit.  It was only in 2008, as I was preparing to move to Portland that Block 15 opened and finally Corvallis had its real brewpub.  And, predictably, it has been an immense hit.  So much so, in fact, that it has spawned another brewpub just a few blocks away: Flat Tail Brewing in the old Fox and Firkin location which will be a marvelous place to sit outdoors in the summer.

That Block 15 is a huge success is no accident, Nick Arzner, the owner had vast experience in the restaurant business and knew what it takes to make a successful restaurant.  He also was wise enough to know that his limited experience as a homebrewer was not going to cut it and so he found a veteran brewertop become the brewmaster and make sure his brewery was run right.  This also freed Nick to become the mad scientist of beer - creating a cave of barrels in which wild yeasts run free and Nick climbs about creating what just may be Oregon's finest specialty beer.  I do not say this lightly, perhaps because of his willingness to experiment, or perhaps because he just has that sense about what will make a great barrel-aged beer, Nick's concoctions are masterpieces.

So this is a tale of a business that looks standard from the face of it - a fairly standard Oregon brewpub with good solid IPAs, Pales and Porters - but the brewpub-restaurant is actually the stable economic engine that allows founder Nick Arzner to pursue his true passion: barrel-aged and sour beers.  It is, quite frankly, an inspriation.

Nick and his barrels
Of course for the model to work the rest of the business has to run smoothly and Nick's extensive restaurant background shows - the food and service are excellent.  The brewery itself runs smoothly thanks to brewer Steve Van Rossum who has extensive brewing experience at West Brothers in Eugene and at the McMenamins High Street.   Their regular beers are every bit as good as the specialty stuff and Steve is largely to thank for that.  From the start Block 15 ran smoothly and has been a roaring success since - Nick confirms that they have surpassed all business plan benchmarks comfortably.
Which, of course, frees him both physically and mentally to follow his bliss in his now quite extensive cave of barrels.  His restaurant and brew house takes up roughly one fourth of the city block but the basement now runs under an entirely other building or two and seems to go on and on and on...

One of the coolest additions to the basement is his new, custom-fabricated koelschip.  This is a open tub to expose wort to wild yeasts.  When asked about the type of yeasts and the presence of other bacteria, Nick was unfazed.  For him it is all a part of the great experiment in beer that is his basement.

This is also true of his barrel aging process, where brettanomyces, lactobacillus and other wild yeasts and bacteria all comingle.  Some brewers are paranoid about these things to the point of not even wanting brett at all (ala Cascade), but Nick is sanguine.  If he gets cross infection, all the better and more interesting to blend in the end.  This is a man not troubled by needing his barrel experiments to add to the bottom line of the business.

But they will, I had three of the very best beers ever in his basement: Ferme de La Ville Provision, Wonka’s Wit, and La Ferme de Demons. Plus the Figgy Pudding which I was supposed to cellar, but couldn't keep my hands off around the holidays.

The ability to create a successful business and also a barrel aging program is a masterstroke.  It liberates he the barrel aging and blending master to follow his bliss and we, the punters, to benefit. By being able to fearlessly pursue his passion (and by being pretty darn exceptional at it to boot) Block 15 has become the brewery to watch in Oregon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scotland Forever: Brew Dog Hits a Homerun

Brew Dog, the boundary pushing Scottish brewery most famous notorious perhaps for the beer sold in a stuffed stoat, has done a brilliant masterstroke: four single hopped IPAs sold together in a four-pack.  Called the IPA is Dead, these beers are hopped with some more exotic hopps: Bramling Cross, Citra, Nelson Sauvin and Sorachi Ace.

I think it is an absolutely brilliant idea. What a great way to really get familiar with hops and the character they add to beer. They use the same yeast and malt bill in each one, so they are all the same ABV, and they hop to the same IBU level.

From Brew Dog:

99% of beers on the market are made with a blend of hops, we want people to get to know the characteristics, flavours and nuances of some the most interesting hops on the planet. The only way to do this was to showcase them in single hop beers. Oh and to use mountains of hops to make sure the resultant beers were positively exploding with their respective hop flavours!

They go on to provide tasting notes:


The Pacific North West of America is home to the Citra hop. America is not just about cheer leaders, a silly version of football, elastic top jeans and cheeseburgers. They grow remarkable hops and Citra is a killer example of this, embodying all that is good about American hops and then some. A relatively new hop on the block, it may even seduce you into thinking the American Dream is not just a catch phrase to sell movies and elect Presidents. Fearfully hard to resist, this beer is loaded with brash citrus, grapefruit orange, hints of resinous pine and touches of black currant. Devilishly moreish. I am a little bit too obsessed with this beer for my own good.

Bramling Cross

Good old Bramling Cross is elegant, refined, assured, (boring) and understated. Understated that is unless you hop the living daylights out of a beer with it. This is Bramling Cross re-invented and re-imagined and shows just what can be done with English hops if you use enough of them. Poor Bramling Cross normally gets lost in a woeful stream of conformist brown ales made by sleepy cask ale brewers. But not anymore. This beer shows that British hops do have some soul, and is a fruity riot of blackberries, pears, and plums. Reminds me of the bramble, apple and ginger jam my grandmother used to make.

Sorachi Ace

A hop that tastes of bubble gum? Seriously? No, we did not believe it either. But it does! This is one unique, son of a bitch of a hop. Lemony, deep, musty with a smoothness which belies its power. This hop is lemony like a lemon who was angry earlier but is now tired because of all the rage. This hop of Japanese origin is best enjoyed trying to make sushi from your gold fish, or trying to persuade your girlfriend (or boyfriend maybe) to dress up as a Geisha for Valentine’s Day.

Nelson Sauvin

Nelson is a love it or hate it kinda hop. We are cool with that, if we wanted to keep everyone happy we would be brewing Fosters anyway. Sharp as a razor, this New Zealand hop slices its way through your taste buds and is brutally resinous, almost scraping the intense flavours of passion fruit along your poor tongue. There is a huge depth of tropical fruit flavour with astringent gooseberry balanced against the robust malt base. Throw another shrimp on the Barbie mate and you are all set. New Zealand is near Austria, right?

I think Full Sail should get on this, pronto. Why Full Sail?  Well John Harris already does this kind of thing - for example at free hop time, he usually comes out with two or three versions using different hops. Plus they have the resources to pull it off commercially.

Next should be a mild with four different strains of yeast.