Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cheese Bar

Friday evening Carla and I made an accidental stop at the Cheese Bar, a new, uh, cheese bar at about 60th and Belmont. I had heard about the place, and we happened to pass it after two different moviegoing plans fell through.  It filled the bill perfectly for us: we needed a light dinner, and I needed another taste of Upright's Oyster Stout since I had given away the first bottle I bought and Beermongers was sold out when I checked there. Actually, that's kind of funny: in addition to beer bars and cheesemongers, Portland also has a cheese bar and a beermonger.

As the name indicates, the main attraction of the Cheese Bar is its dairy case, with a hand-picked selection of artisan cheeses from around the world.  You can buy cheese to go, or sit at the bar or one of the five or six tables and enjoy a small snack.  But the Cheese Bar also has a nice selection of beers -- 6 taps and about 30 bottles.  The space is nice, it's a comfortable place to hang out in, especially if you can get a table (it's a little hectic to sit at the bar).  After our oyster stout, we split a pint of the nice Chinook Single-Hopped IPA from Terminal Gravity.  There's a lower "take-home" price on the beer bottles, though I'm pretty sure the prices are higher than those at most bottle shops and groceries in the area.

Let's talk about those prices.  Some of them are a little high -- $4.30 for a 12-ounce Terminal Gravity ESG?!? -- but some of them are almost charitable: $2.70 for a Firestone Walker Pale Ale.  Hold on a second, on further reflection the problem is that the beer prices are just weird.  Take a look at the "here" prices on the menu below.  There are 25 beers on that side of the menu, and 19 different prices!  That's pretty delicate bookkeeping.  The take-home discount also varies from beer to beer, it's either $1, $1.50, or $2; that doesn't make a damn bit of sense.  Some order to the listing would be nice also, if not by style, then good old American alphabetical order.

The food prices are on the high side, for example $8 for the daily cheese plate with three small tranches of cheese, or $9 for the charcuterie sampler, but those are kind of typical for Portland, and not unreasonable considering the quality and uniqueness of the meats and cheeses.  On the other hand, the menu also has a $6 sandwich and a $4 salad (exact ingredients change day by day), so there is a way to economize.  That is, unless you're an unfortunate wine drinker: wine bottles are mostly about $35, within a range from $20 to $80.  And the only by-the-glass price on the printed menu is $10, though maybe they have some daily specials.

I have two gripes about the food at the Cheese Bar.  First, the sample plates come with 4 little coins of dried-up bread -- excuse me, crostini -- which is not really enough to do the job.  Each additional order of 4 crostini is $1, which is quite simply a laughable price for something so small, hard, and flavorless.  A better option would be to offer a couple of choices of baguette or roll; heck, if you want people to buy more $30/pound cheese or meat snacks, just give them some bread for free, and don't bother drying it out first.

My second issue with the food sounds a little silly, but it will be familiar to beer fans: the cheese is served too cold.  Like good beer, you want to taste the flavors in your good cheese, but that means it can't be right out of the fridge.  You could sit there a while and let it warm up, but that kind of goes against the owner's stated goal of a place to have a quick bite, shop for some cheese, and be on your way.  I don't know if there's really a solution to that problem: of course they need to keep their perishable wares cold.  Maybe some portions of the daily special could be kept out at room temperature during busy times, or the cheese could be served on a warm plate.

The place is pretty new, so maybe some of the pricing issues will get tweaked as they go.  It is a nice place, and definitely worth a visit, especially if you get a hankering for some cheesy comestibles.  By the way, I was hoping to be the first to report the factoid that it's a favorite hangout of Oregon Brewers Guild CEO Brian Butenschoen, but Portland Monthly stole my scoop in their review.

Friday, March 26, 2010

San Francisco vs. Portland

While waiting in line at the Rooftop Coffee Bar at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier this week, I couldn't help but overhear a young lady nearby ranting about -- of all things -- how pretentious Stumptown Coffee is. She was talking to a somewhat older gentleman -- her father? her art professor? -- and seemed particularly offended that Stumptown's cafes serve French-pressed coffee instead of drip coffee. "Of course," she added with disgust, "Stumptown is from the most pretentious city I've ever been in: Portland."

Interesting.  She's enjoying a visit to a museum that currently exhibits not just one rectangular painting of a uniform gray but also a second such work, yet she thinks coffee presses are pretentious. Not to mention the fact that the Blue Bottle cafe we were standing in serves an espresso drink designed by kitsch-meister Jeff Koons, whose porcelain Michael Jackson is also on display at SFMOMA. I mean no disrespect to the museum or the art world, but isn't irony delicious? As I stood there pretentiously sporting my Hawthorne Bridge T-shirt, I turned to ask the Stumptown hater, "Portland is more pretentious than San Francisco?". "Well," she replied, "it certainly has a higher ratio of pretentious to non-pretentious people."

Oh well, Portland will always have its detractors. In fact, the girl at the art museum reminded me in a way of cranky Portland beer blogger Dr. Wort, though instead of finding us too pretentious, he thinks things are too sloppy here, and he pines for the more refined San Francisco beer scene he experienced as a lucky denizen of the Bay Area. Though conceding that SF has a relatively small number of breweries and brewpubs, the Doc fondly remembers them as places where -- this is a quote -- "the gastronomic delights abound". It's tempting to pick apart the doctor's fawning over some California places that he would excoriate for their blandness if they magically appeared here in Portland, but I think I better get on with my own report of this week's trip to San Francisco.

It was a family vacation, so there weren't any late nights or beer-soaked days, but Carla and I made it out to a few beer places. Sunday evening we swooped down on our San Fran man Andy, who hiked us from his apartment to Zeitgeist and then Toronado, neither of which I had been to before. Toronado was smashing -- an interesting, well-rounded selection of draft beers, reasonably priced. It's got a little bit of a dive bar feel to it, in the sense that you could sit there in the dark and be perfectly at ease. The place is famed for bartenders with attitude, but I thought the service was good, and they even forgave me a faux pas when I accidentally slammed my empty glass down on the zinc bar with a loud bang. The delicious cheap sausages from Rosamunde's next door were the icing on the cake. Kind of ridiculous I'd never been to Toronado; now I'll make sure and get there every time I'm in the city.

On the other hand, Zeitgeist was a disappointment. In his recent report on San Francisco, Ezra said Zeitgeist has about 40 taps, but Sunday at least 25 of those were blown -- the Sierra Nevada Imperial Stout blew with my order. My wife only gets IPAs anymore, and there wasn't a single IPA or even Pale Ale left when we were there. She ended up with a so-so amber called Poppy Jasper from El Toro. The Zeitgeist beer garden is set up pretty nicely, but it was way too crowded. We found a vacant place to sit, but had to wait awhile for the empties from the previous occupants to be bussed, and forget about a rag to wipe the table. Of the 500 people in the yard, 350 were smoking cigarettes and another 25 were openly smoking pot. I've got no particular beef with those activities, but it wasn't our scene.

On other nights we made it out to 21st Amendment and the Thirsty Bear, both walkable from our Market Street hotel. It had been a few years since I'd been to 21A, so I was glad to get the chance, but the taplist was a little disappointing -- IPA, Amber, Red, Light Golden, Watermelon Wheat... ho hum. The Smoked Imperial Porter was the standout, though it bore a cruel California price tag of $7 for 10 ounces, plus tax. Of course Carla went with the IPA, and it was very tasty -- the hop aroma would remind you of orange blossoms or apricots. The food we tried was quite decent, if a little spendy for what it was -- a brick-oven pizza and a loaded cheeseburger (no tater tots).

We didn't try any entrees at the Thirsty Bear, but the oysters with avocado granita and sea salt were brilliant. I enjoyed the abbey-style Belgian ales (one golden, one "amber") that were on as seasonals, although we found the cask IPA to be a little humdrum. It's an odd place -- they get a lot more business from the convention center nearby than from any kind of regular local crowd. It's worth a visit if you're in the area.

I realize that this post meandered around quite a bit, and might not have all that much to do with the headline. For me the main beer lessons of this trip were: first, Toronado goes a long way toward redeeming the sparsity of San Francisco's beer scene; second, be it ever so pretentious, there's no place like home.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Portland Beer Price Index: Spring 2010

Sunday is the spring equinox, so it's time once again for the Portland Beer Price Index. As a reminder, this survey is not a complaint about beer prices generally or at any particular place. It's just my attempt to watch price trends over time. For more details on which beers and establishments were surveyed, see the first PBPI.

Here is the Spring 2010 PBPI:

  • 6-packs: $8.74, down 1 cent
  • 22-ounce bombers: $4.94, down 9 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.15, up 30 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.88, down 9 cents
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.20, unchanged
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.48, up 2 cents
It's interesting, the pint price is unchanged again, but not because no one changed their prices this time. A 25-cent drop in the typical Belmont Station tap price offset the 25-cent rise at Deschutes. The happy hour average went up because the Bridgeport Ale House is 25 cents less generous than it was three months ago.

The drop in bomber prices is almost wholly due to a $1 drop in the price of Pelican IPA at Belmont and New Seasons.  Fred's is pocketing the savings on Pelican, and also seems to indicate that they're going to raise the price of Rogue Shakespeare Stout, though the sale price keeps it even for now.  I noted fewer 6-pack sales this time, which resulted in the 30-cent jump in the 6-pack sale price.  In particular, no one had a sale on Deschutes.

Is something going on with Deschutes' cash flow?  They raised their pub pint price, and no six-packs are on sale.  On the other hand, prices are still falling at Belmont Station -- including a 25-cent drop on the typical draft pint price -- which makes me think they're feeling the heat from Beermongers.  Do the Deschutes and Belmont changes represent two opposing responses to the rough economy?  I also noticed more variability in the prices at Horse Brass.  A lot of classics are just $4.25 a pint, but some guest tap prices are creeping up.  For now I kept a $4.50 typical price for Horse Brass.

In the next cycle, I'm likely to drop Safeway, since they only contribute four six-packs and no bombers.  I tried to outflank them this time by checking out the fancier store at 39th and Powell, but it had exactly the same selection as on Hawthorne.  Does Trader Joe's have the beers in my survey?  QFC?  I might consider Beaumont Market or 39th Street Mini-Mart as a replacement, but they are likely to have higher prices than Safeway and I'd have to figure out how to restate the prices.  If you have any ideas for me, I'd love to hear them.

Look for the next PBPI around June 21.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Dirt on Beermongers

Seeing a pile of dirt on the floor at Beermongers over the weekend, I couldn't resist taking a picture of it, since it reminded me of the award-losing photo of dirt piles that I took at Migration Brewing last year.  Matt has his Fermented Photo series... maybe I'll start a Dirty Photo series.

Like at Migration, the ugly picture heralds a beautiful future. Beermongers is installing a permanent bar with seven taps to replace the rollaway bars that currently house their five taps. The new bar will also have an industrial-strength dishwasher, so no more plastic cups. Hopefully they'll jump on the honest-pint bandwagon and peddle their wares in glassware marked with volume lines.

Speaking of dirt, yesterday in a post about Cascade Brewing, Angelo put up a picture of more cut-up pavement inside Cascade's new Barrel House (photo lifted from Cascade's Facebook page). There's a lot of beer construction going on around here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beer Tipping Etiquette

Last week I asked you "How much should I tip the bartender?", and a bunch of people fired back with useful information. I especially want to thank Jeff over at the Beer Cave -- yikes, another interesting Portland beer blog? -- for some great insight, but really all the comments were appreciated, even the somewhat long-winded ones from Hugh "Doctor" Johnson. As promised, here is a summary of how you can win friends and influence bartenders by tipping appropriately:
  • Tip $1 per beer minimum.
  • Tip 20% minimum on a big tab.
  • Pay the tip with cash.
  • Tip for bad service, too.
  • Even if the owner serves you, leave a tip.
  • Kick in some more for special favors, like samples.
A lot of you are probably stunned to hear that your 50- or 75-cent tip is no longer in style.  I sure was.  It's why I asked the question in the first place.  Don't take it personally, just breathe deep and enter the 21st century.  If your inner banker gives you a hard time about it, compare good and bad tips to the total tab.  For instance, if you buy 3 beers for $3.50 each, tipping 50 cents a beer brings the total to $12, versus a total of $13.50 if you tip $1 a beer.  Hopefully you got a couple hours enjoyment out of your investment, so don't split hairs on the final $1.50.

What about when you don't enjoy your visit to the pub, because the service is bad?  Short answer: tip normally anyway.  For one thing, if you plan on visiting the establishment again, you don't want to get a reputation as a non-tipper.  For another, failing to tip doesn't fix the problem. The remedy for bad (or rude) service is to let management know -- on the spot if that is convenient or comfortable for you; otherwise later on with an email or a phone call.  Not tipping the front-line employee isn't going to teach them a lesson -- if anything they might feel justified in their treatment of you -- and the message isn't going to reach the manager who could do something about it.  A competing school of thought says to leave a symbolic insulting tip like one penny.  That only seems like an option if you know you'll never be back, but it's also very petty.  Don't be petty.  Be big and then wash your hands of the place.  Another thing to consider: people don't stay in the same service jobs forever, and the surly bartender you stiff today might show up at your favorite haunt tomorrow.

Another thing I was curious about was the etiquette of tipping the owner of a bar.  In the comments, Jeff set me straight pretty quick about that:  tip the owner normally.  For one thing, if the owner is working a shift behind the bar instead of relaxing by the pool, he or she is probably working for a lower hourly figure than the employees.  Secondly, some of that tip money goes to the other employees on duty at the time.  And finally, if the proprietor finds you to be too generous, it's within his or her power to make it up to you -- or, to put it another way, why wouldn't you try and get on the good side of the owner of a bar you like to go to?

Finally, there's the question of cash.  Forget about the tax angle -- let's assume that our bartenders are honest citizens who will pay whatever taxes are due on the tips.  There are two issues with cash.  First of all, on the previous post, Ezra pointed out that the surest way to make sure that your tip goes to the server you want to flatter, is to put your cash on the barrelhead.  In his experience, the credit card tips are averaged for the week and distributed based on the number of hours worked.  Furthermore, as I've pointed out before, more of your money stays local if you pay in cash, instead of having the bar pay roughly a 4% tax to out-of-state credit card processors.

Thanks again to everyone who chimed in on the earlier discussion.  Tip your bartender, and tell 'em It's Pub Night sent you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The 24-Hour Beer Cycle

Politicians and pundits decry the 24-hour news cycle: modern communications drive an unquenchable thirst for information, as media outlets strive to keep new content in front of their audience. When I appointed myself as a beer blogger, I put myself into the whirlwind of the 24-hour beer cycle -- the internet deluge of blogs, tweets, emails, and Facebook updates about beer. It's exhausting.

Here in Portland alone, there's at least one beer event happening every single day. Even if there were no special events, there are so many new or interesting beers a short bike ride away that it's sometimes hard to think about anything else. When Bob Noxious and his family were visiting us last summer, Bob shook his head as we settled in at the third stop of some pub crawl and said, "How could you keep from becoming an alcoholic in this town?" Fair question. As much as it hurts, you have to let some events pass you by, sometimes even cherished traditions like the Lucky Lab Barleywine Festival that I missed this last weekend.

In beer as in everything, the internet amplifies the amount of information, and keeps it coming throughout the day.  To keep up with local news and to avoid duplicating someone else's rant, I read about a dozen active Portland beer blogs, and a few others from around the country or other English-speaking nations.  But Twitter is the real killer.  The first tweets I read in the morning might be about @thebeernut's evening libations in Ireland, followed a few hours later by live reports of beer drinking in Boston, then Chicago and Austin.  Then when the dozens of nightly tweets from around Portland start rolling in about various bottles opened and pints drained, how can it not make you thirsty?  Not just after a hard day's work, but morning, noon, and night.  It's the 24-hour beer cycle.

For all of that information, there's some that I don't get around to: the excellent Northwest forums at Beer Advocate, the beer radio shows, beer podcasts, and beer videos are too much for me. I have a day job, a family, some exercise routines, and a dwindling number of outside interests.  I have to let a lot of beer info -- and a lot of beer -- get away from me.  Which means that sometimes the blog just gets fed a filler post like this one, instead of the substantive, hard-hitting beer analysis you expect from It's Pub Night.  Hey, not so different from the effect of the 24-hour news cycle on the news media.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

That Is Cheap

Not long ago I was mocking the little beer store on Hawthorne just east of 20th for their pitiable selection. But today Dave radioed me that every bomber in the shop was for sale for just $2. So I scooted around there and found a few things that were well worth the $6.55 SPE that represents. Sure, that's not much less expensive than the usual MacTarnahan's/Pyramid bomber price, but even a 20-cent markdown lowers the SPE by 65 cents.

And that's a hellacious price on Prima Pils and Sinist0r. Dave has even rounded up $2 Total Domination bombers there before, though they didn't have any today. The shopkeeper told me that they try to clear out the stock over the weekend, starting Thursdays, so you might check in there late in the week to see if they have any bargains.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Your Thoughts on Tipping

I've been meaning for a while to ask for your thoughts on tipping at pubs. A few weeks ago I was having a beer with Charles and casually posed the question of how much to tip. Without hesitation, he said "a dollar a beer". Turns out that's pretty standard -- here's a Beer Advocate screed that recommends the same thing.

Confession time: that's toward the upper end of my tipping habits to date. Long ago my wife whipped me into shape on restaurant tipping, so that I go a little over 20% unless I've really been abused. When I run a tab at a bar, I apply the same formula. But if I step up to the bar and pay cash for two or three beers for the table, I tend to cover the whole trip with one dollar, or maybe a dollar and some change.

For a single beer, 50 or 75 cents seemed reasonable to me. Now that I've been corrected I will amend my skinflint ways, but some questions still come to mind:

  • Tip one dollar for one beer whether the beer cost $2 or $6?
  • How much for a pitcher?
  • How much for three or four pints?
  • Same tip for walk-up service as for table service?
  • Same tip at dive bars as at nicer places?
  • What is your remedy if the service is bad?
  • Tips are meant to supplement slave wages.  Do you tip differently when the bar's proprietor is serving you?  (Geoff, Sara, et al., please don't hate me for this question.)
  • How much do you tip when a bartender fills a growler for you?
  • When running a tab, is 20% good, or should you still do a dollar a beer?
Please leave a comment if you have answers for any of those.  I'd love to get the perspective of current and former servers and bar owners.  If I get any good stuff, I'll write a summary next week. [Update: here's the summary.]

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    No Relation

    The Fred Meyers on Hawthorne seems to think that Blue Dot and Blue Moon have something in common. They shelved them right next to each other. I'm as big a fan of alphabetical order as anyone, but this is taking it too far.

    At the top level, Fred's beer taxonomy is:

    • Organic
    • Foreign
    • U.S. Micro
    • Industrial Lager
    I suppose those are somewhat interesting categories -- I can't think of another store that separates the organic beers -- but within those categories there doesn't seem to be any order.

    So you end up with Blue Dot next to Blue Moon (no relation).