Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How to Miss Two Beer Festivals

Even though there was some turmoil surrounding the North American Organic Beer Festival last weekend, I'm sure I would have made it over to check it out at some point, if I had been in town. But instead of enjoying the onset of Portland's brief season of beautiful weather, we have landed in the middle of Austin's siege against the upper end of the thermometer. It's not the right timing for a trip to Texas, but we had a wedding to attend, so off we went.

But aha! there was a beer festival in Austin that weekend also -- the GABF. Oh, sorry, not the GABF, just a GABF: the Great Austin Beer Festival. I suppose I would have gone to that as a replacement for the NAOBF, except that Brady and Sarah's wedding was scheduled at the exact same time. Truth be told, the GAusBF didn't sound very appealing. As far as I can tell from looking at the list of breweries, it was a distributor-driven juggernaut with a couple of local breweries thrown in at the end as something of an afterthought. Here's an example of how lackadaisical the festival was: they never contacted my buddy Lee who is the beer writer at the Austin Chronicle to tell him about the festival. [Note to Portlanders: the Chronicle plays an even more important part in peoples' entertainment planning than the Portland weeklies do.] Lee found out in a roundabout way, and wasn't offered any kind of media access to the fest.

There are a couple of reviews that give the festival a thumbs-up, but if you read between the lines, neither review is very enthusiastic, and commenters had some complaints. Sounds like not too bad of a festival to miss.

So that's how you can miss two dodgy beer festivals. First, leave your hometown on a festival weekend; second, have your friends' wedding scheduled at the same time as the beer festival in their town.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Update on the Cheese Bar

Several weeks ago I wrote up the Cheese Bar on Belmont -- a cheese shop that also has a rotating selection of five or six good draft beers and a few dozen nice bottled beers. While I said it was worth a visit, there were a few things I complained about. Since then, I've run into proprietor Steve Jones a couple of times, and also been back for another visit. Some of my issues have been corrected, in other ways I was just off base, so I want to talk a little more about the place.

On our first visit we ended up getting several $1 orders of crostini (4 pieces), to get through the cheese and meat plates we ordered. I complained that it would make more sense to offer baguettes instead of small, expensive toast. Well, it turns out there are baguettes available, and reasonably priced at that: $1 for a smallish "demi" baguette, or $3 for a typical very big baguette. The demi was worth about 4 orders of crostini, and makes a good accompaniment to a cheese plate or an order of house-blended potted cheese.

In the first writeup, I was also puzzled by the prices of bottled beer. Some of them seemed ridiculously cheap, others insanely overpriced, but the real confusion was on the take-home price, which subracted either $1, $1.50, or $2 from the price. Steve explained to me that the $1.50 premiums were a mistake that has now been corrected. The $2 surcharge should only be on big bottles -- those that two people would share at the bar -- and the $1 for single-serving bottles.

Steve also mentioned to me that the cheeses on the daily special are kept out at room temperature. That had been my other quibble -- I felt like the cheese we got on the first visit was served too cold. There's no way around it if you select your own cheeses -- they come straight out of the cooler, as they should. But if you stick to les fromages du jour, they'll be served to you at a tastier temperature. You'll get an explanation of the cheeses when they're served to you, but if you're like me it's so much new information and unfamiliar names that it tends to go in one ear and out the other. Maybe someday the cheese plate will come with a little printout that names and describes the cheeses, so you can remember them afterwards.

So the things that grated on me a few weeks ago turn out to be non-issues. One thing I would reiterate from the original post is that you'll have a much more relaxed time sitting at the tables than at the bar. Four of us sat at a table on this second visit, as opposed to two of us at the bar, and it made all the difference in the world. There's just too much activity on both sides of the bar for it to be very comfortable. I took a look at the back patio also, but I can't really recommend the couple of tables out there right now: they're in a tiny space loomed over by the back parking lot, not a very good atmosphere.

Grab a table, a beer, a baguette, and some cheese, and you'll have a good time at the Cheese Bar.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Portland Beer Price Index: Summer 2010

It's hard to believe that the days are only going to get shorter from here, since the clouds have kept the days from seeming long at all, but it's the summer solstice already. Here's the Summer 2010 Portland Beer Price Index.

  • 6-packs: $8.73, up 2 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers: $4.95, up 3 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.25, up 12 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.83, down 3 cents
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.21, up 1 cent
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.51, up 3 cents

Generally, prices are up a tad, though bomber sale prices continue to fall. There's a little bit of restating going on with the retail numbers. At the time of the Spring 2010 PBPI, I complained that Safeway didn't stock enough of the beers in the index, and asked for suggestions for a replacement. Readers Jeff and Rick suggested the QFC at 55th and Burnside. It was a good call -- the fine beer selection at that store covered all the beers. Sometime in April, I recorded the prices at QFC, so the up/down figures quoted above are with respect to the spring numbers once QFC is factored in, which lowered the prices by 2 or 3 cents.

Speaking of restating, it looks like I may have to find a replacement for Pelican IPA. Neither QFC nor Fred Meyers had it this time. The wine guy at Fred Meyers said that Fred's hasn't been able to get it since Pelican moved to self-distribution. At QFC there was one bottle of Pelican Tsunami Stout and one of Kiwanda Cream Ale, both drastically marked down to $5, which leads me to believe that QFC is also discontinuing Pelican. For the index this time, I maintained the previous QFC and Fred's Pelican prices, and used the closeout $5 QFC price as its sale price. Since you guys were so good at finding me a replacement retailer, I'll ask your advice again. What would be a good bomber to replace Pelican? I'd like it to be an Oregon beer from outside of Portland, so the first things that come to mind are Oakshire and Heater Allen, though I'm not sure QFC has the latter. What do you think?

Time flies when you're having fun. Look for the next PBPI -- one year after the first one! -- around September 21.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Produce Row Makeover

As I noted last August, the end-of-the-line location of the Produce Row Cafe is a two-edged sword: it's either a brilliant hideaway, or a place you forget is there.  I usually end up in the latter category, but it does have a loyal clientele.  The cafe reopened this week after an extensive remodel, which owner Alan Davis told me took only seven weeks. 

It's an amazing transformation inside and out. In the main seating area, pastel murals and tiled walls have replaced the drab tan walls, giving the place a lighter look. A more open feeling has been created by moving the bar from the back wall to the side wall. The non-descript wooden tables and chairs have been replaced by nicer tables, cloth-backed chairs, and velvet couches in part of the space. The pool table -- which was primarily an odd obstacle on the way to the patio -- is now gone, giving the little side room with its deep circular booths a darker, more private feel. Outside, the worn wooden deck has been replaced by a paved patio with more open space and more covered seating. Even the facade has been spruced up.

Here are before and after pictures of the interior ("before" photo credit: Samurai Artist):

← Before

After →

And the patio:

← Before

After →

For some better photos of the new furnishings, look at John Foyston's writeup or Ezra's report.

The new bar added 3 beer taps to bring the total to 24. About half of those will be comforting Northwest standards, with the other half rotating in some variety. Since Alan describes himself as a whiskey guy, he improved the selection of bourbons and scotches when he bought the place a couple years ago, and added a menu of beer/whiskey pairings. The food menu is looking good: about a dozen sandwiches between $6.50 and $8, a few $12 entrees, good soups and salads.

To get to Produce Row by bicycle, turn on to SE 2nd from Ankeny or from the continuation of the Water Avenue bike path after it turns into Stark. It's just a little too far from the new Hair of the Dog location to qualify as a beer district, but there are some nearby options for a pub crawl or progressive dinner. On the beer side, you could hit the Grand Avenue cluster of bars like Slow Bar and the Side Door; places with interesting food but limited beer include Olympic Provisions just a couple of blocks away and Montage a little beyond that.

Alan said that the entire staff has returned after the remodel. It will be interesting to see if the regular customers also approve of the changes. Will it be like the grumbling about Bridgeport's makeover? You know, something like, "Oh man, I used to go there when it was this excellent grungy place, and now it's all Pearl District and overrun with hipsters/yuppies/lawyers." It would be too bad if that was the attitude; on the other hand, Bridgeport's business doesn't seem to be suffering, so hopefully this revamp of Produce Row will be a similar success.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A New Low in Advertising

In case you don't recognize it, the object in the picture is a urinal mat.  I thought it was a good idea to stick my cellphone way down into the mens' room urinal at the Horse Brass the other day, to take this picture and share with you its advertising slogan:

Burning Sensation?

Next time make it a Cascade Lakes Brew

Not sure I'd want to advertise my fizzy yellow product in this way, but maybe it will pay off for them.  By the way, Cascade Lakes of Redmond is not to be confused with Cascade Brewing of Portland.  I used to pick up some Cascade Lakes six-packs when they were on sale at Belmont Station, but I'll admit it's been awhile since I had anything from them.  Anyone have an opinion on them?

My sportswriter friend Bret was in town, so we were at the Horse Brass to see Germany's rout of Australia in the World Cup.  Too bad Cascade Lakes didn't plunk down a little extra for these Uro-Goal mats, with a builtin goalpost.  Speaking of World Cup, apparently Kell's is the place to go in Portland for the 4 AM games.  Even though they can't serve beer at that time, they've got the screens on and the kitchen is open.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel

A few weeks ago at Belmont Station I tried Mikkeller's Beer Geek Breakfast Stout for the first time and really enjoyed it, even during the nighttime.  So when I saw that Portland bottle shops were getting bottles of the over-the-top variant called Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, I went ahead and splurged for one. I've always wanted to be able to say I've tried the expensive Vietnamese coffee that was picked out of civet cat droppings, but it was unlikely that I would overcome my cheapness enough to ever buy even a cup of the coffee. Beer is another matter, and I set my parsimony aside to be able to try this rare beer made with rare coffee.

It turns out to be quite a different beer than the Breakfast Stout -- about 50% stronger at 11% -- but still with that smooth oatmeal stout goodness, pleasantly medium-bodied despite its strength. The coffee flavor is strong but not overwhelming; in fact as you roll it around in your mouth there's a very nice chocolate flavor, quite a bit of hop bitterness, and an earthy sweetness that had me thinking maple. I knew maple wasn't quite the right way to describe it, and now that I've read a few Beer Advocate reviews of Weasel which mention "dark fruit", I realize that "prune" would be a good description if prunes had a better reputation, so I better say "dried plum". Split between three people, it made a nice after-dinner beer.

If you don't know much about Mikkeller, it's a one-man brewing operation... without a brewery. His brews are done on an itinerant basis at fine breweries around Europe and the U.S. The Beer Geek line of stouts is done at Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø, whose awesome imperial stouts and porters are available in bottles around town. As near as I can tell, Nøgne Ø is pronounced "Nerg-nuh Er" (maybe it's "Nern-yuh Er" -- anyone know for sure?).

Does the special weasel-excrement coffee make a difference? Mikkel the brewer admits that -- while the coffee is excellent -- it's something of a gimmick to use it instead of some other good coffee. Next time I have a hankering for a Mikkeller coffee stout, I'll probably go with the cheaper Breakfast Stout. The Weasel price is about one and a half times that of the Breakfast; there's no denying it's a more complex beer, but I don't think I got 1.5 times the enjoyment out of it. And speaking of costly gimmicks, there are even two bottlings of Weasel that were aged for awhile in Scotch whisky barrels. I doubt I'd pay the ransom for one of those bottles even if I had the chance, but I admire the audacity.

Weasels and beer, where have I heard that before? Oh yes, a couple of friends in Austin called their homebrewing operation Weasel Breweries long before any of us had heard of coffee that came from the wrong end of a weasel. Trendsetters? Or just too much time on their hands?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Planning Your Portland Bicycle Pub Crawl

A few months ago Google Maps added bicycling directions as one of the options for how to get from A to B on their maps.  There's a warning that "bicycling directions are in beta", and some of the early routes I tried were very silly, like going 4 blocks out of the way to end up going the wrong direction on the Hawthorne Bridge sidewalk.  There is a link you can click on every map to report problems, and they have been dutifully swatting them down as people send them in -- for example, the Hawthorne Bridge issues got taken care of pretty quickly.  I'm sure that eventually the Google biking directions will be an incredibly useful tool, but they're not ready for prime time yet.

If you're planning some Portland bicycle pub crawls this summer, your best resource is Metro's Bike There map, because some of the Google directions are more dangerous than they have to be, and others are just physically impossible.  Another option which is better than Google right now is byCycle.org, though it too is labeled "beta", and hasn't been updated for three years.

One route Google can't seem to get right is one of my favorite bugaboos -- biking to Hopworks Urban Brewery.  Powell Boulevard is never a fun place to bike, even for hardened urban riders, so a year and a half ago I made a custom Google map describing some of the best approaches to Hopworks. Because there's no road to the pub from south of Powell, at some point you have to be eastbound on Powell, or possibly westbound on the south sidewalk (and if you're doing that, I hope you're walking your bike).  If you're approaching from the north and want the least amount of hassle with Powell, the crosswalk at 28th Place pictured here is your best bet -- sneak up to it through the McDonald's parking lot.

Now consider the Google biking directions to HUB, which currently insist on a right turn on Powell at 31st -- even if you start out northwest of Hopworks -- with the final instruction being "Destination will be on the left".  That might be reasonable, if the directions had you take the crosswalk at 31st, and walk your bike against traffic on the far sidewalk. But if you weren't familiar with the area, you might think you could take a right and then merge over to the turn lane and wait for an opening to make your left.  It's theoretically possible, but you'll sure need a beer after you pull it off.  Take my advice, use the It's Pub Night map to Hopworks instead.

Another brewery destination that is currently bungled in Google bicycling directions is Upright.  Suppose you decide to bicycle from Hopworks to Upright.  Amazingly, the Google directions (pictured at the top of this post) send you across the Hawthorne Bridge, eventually onto Naito Boulevard, turning right -- no, left -- whoops -- onto the Broadway Bridge.  I suppose you could carry your bike up the steps to the bridge, but that's probably not what you had in mind.  If you already kind of know the route, you can drag the lines around to eventually get a map that keeps you on the east side of the river.  But no amount of fiddling would get it to take the most natural route past the Rose Garden -- in the Wheeler bike lane instead of Interstate -- maybe because that involves a little bit of sidewalk action against traffic.

Even no-brainers like the route from the Horse Brass to the Lucky Lab are not very good yet.  Most people would stay on Taylor when Google sends you to Salmon at 41st, since the pedestrian stoplight gives you more chances to cross Cesar Chavez (39th) than you'd get on Salmon, and then there are no stop signs on Taylor until it dead-ends at 35th.  Later on, Google meanders you off of Salmon when it's at its bicycling best, between 20th and 12th.  Those are just little annoyances, but if you reverse the directions and go from the Lucky Lab to the Horse Brass, Google sends you right up Hawthorne to 41st.  You might do that very late at night, but even then, Salmon/Taylor is the nicer route.

Interestingly, even though byCycle.org has been dormant for years -- and is far from perfect -- it passes the tests above better than Google does today.  It chooses the correct routes both ways between the Brass and the Lab, at Hopworks it gives you a right turn off of Powell instead of a left, and it keeps you on the east side of the river if you're headed to Upright.  Its Upright directions are not great -- even with its "safer" setting it puts you on SE 12th for a mile or so -- though if you're headed south from Upright, it correctly finds the bike path along the Eastbank Esplanade.

The Google biking directions are getting better all the time, and will someday be very valuable.  But don't count on them this year.  As I mentioned above, what you really want is the Bike There map.  There's a new edition out this year, and it will never put you in the suicide lane on Powell Boulevard or make you fly up to a bridge from the road underneath it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hopworks Rise Up Red

[Editor's Note:  Since several of the finer Portland beer blogs are now having guest bloggers, I decided to get with the program and solicit the help of my next-door neighbor and beer buddy Dave.  He was supposed to give me this article a couple weeks ago; by getting it to me so late, he has passed his first test and shown himself to have the right work ethic for beer blogging.  Thanks, Dave!]

Bill was gracious enough to let a scheduling conflict prevent him from attending Hopworks' bottle release party for Rise Up Red, their GABF gold-medal winning red ale, and deputized me to take his place. This is the third seasonal offered in bottles from HUB, preceded by Secession Black Ale and Ace of Spades. Christian outlined HUB's seasonal release strategy as alternating between sessionable offerings and higher alcohol beers.  There was no mention of the recent imperial red, but it sounds like we'll see bottlings of a barley wine and the Abominable winter ale.

Rise Up Red is a solid NW Red; it's not overly malty, letting the bitterness of the hops shine through. I had the cask version today and was blown away by the citrus nose, something I wasn't getting from the bottle and CO2 pours.

Christian gave one the most comprehensive brewery tours I've been on; it was a perfect blend of brewing science and his passion for the craft. Beyond Christian’s animated tour-guiding, the two highlights of the tour were: A) Standing in the cooler getting pours from a pigtail while freezing my ass off, and B) Snuffing crushed Amarillo hop flowers to illustrate how much resin is lost in the pelletizing process. Given Christian’s attention to maintaining a low carbon footprint, I wondered aloud if there was any benefit in shipping the condensed hops: The obvious answer was that weight has more to do with MPG than volume, and the main benefit of pellets is shelf-life. He also brought up that the only organic hops are grown in New Zealand and Germany, and that to brew a truly organic beer would result in a ridiculous carbon footprint.

Another highlight was meeting HUB’s graphic designer, Astrogirl, who was also on hand at the release party. She is the creative genius behind the Hopworks identity (see Beervana’s excellent dissection here).

Thanks to Christian for being a gracious host and putting up with my less-than-intelligent questions. The delay in getting this post to press is entirely my fault (I’ll still find a way to blame my children for it).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Strike It Rich in Beer

Occasionally I'll check the stock price of the Craft Brewers Alliance, the company formed by the merger of Widmer and Redhook.   It surprised me this morning, not so much with its 6-7% rise today, but by the fact that it has risen about 50% since I last checked the price a few weeks ago.  The price got up to about $3.95 this morning, but looks to close a little below that [Update: wow, closed at the high of $3.95].  Compare that to the $2.62 closing price three Fridays ago (May 14).

Wouldn't it have been nice to put some money on that last month?  Or last summer when the share price was below $2?  On the other hand, I don't feel too badly for missing the boat -- there are a lot of high-risk factors on this stock if you're an individual investor:
  • Thinly traded: most days fewer than 10,000 shares are traded
  • Controlled by insiders: 57% of shares are owned by insiders
  • Not followed by analysts: no one is researching the company and publishing earnings estimates 
  • Price/book ratio: below 1.0, which could mean it's undervalued, but could mean some nasty writedowns are on the horizon
  • Been through a couple years of red ink, showing losses instead of profits
In fact, this recent run-up is itself a good illustration of the risks you or I would face investing in CBA.  The stock went up by 13% on Monday, May 17, a day before the conference call that told the world about the company's quarterly results.  The day of the conference call (which was during the trading day), it went up another 17%.  By the time the results were published by a news source on Wednesday May 19, the price had stabilized at the new levels.  That looks like a fun ride, but imagine if you were an investor and the price had moved in the other direction: you would have to be watching it like a hawk not to lose 30% over a couple of days.

I'm a big fan of Widmer's line, and it's interesting to watch the company grow their business.  Someday I may get up the nerve to invest a little of my savings in the CBA, but for now I'm just a spectator, occasionally dreaming of what could have been.

[Update:  I did take the plunge and buy some HOOK at about $5.  And the "thinly traded" warning up there is true:  my first order of 100 shares only found 15 shares at the limit price, so instead of a 10¢ per share commission, I effectively paid 60¢ per share. Further reading: my account of the 2011 CBA shareholders meeting.]