Thursday, May 26, 2011

Craft Brewers Alliance 2011 Shareholders Meeting

About a year ago I noted a crazy run-up in the stock price of Craft Brewers Alliance, the parent company of Widmer Brothers, headquartered at Widmer's North Portland facility.  At the time, I was amazed that the stock price (ticker: HOOK) was climbing toward $4.  Fast-forward a year, and in recent weeks it's been hovering around $9.  Somewhere in between, I made a small investment in 115 shares of HOOK, ignoring my own advice about the risks involved.

And so it was that yesterday I wandered over to Russell Street to attend the 2011 CBA Shareholders Meeting.  It was a pretty civilized affair:  Widmer Pitch Black IPA (formerly W'10) and Kona Longboard Lager were on tap, and chilled bottles of Red Hook Pilsner and Copper Hook were available.  Shareholders were given a Widmer grocery sack and invited to pick up a nice "dividend" for attending the meeting:  six-packs of the three CBA brands.  Kurt Widmer ran the meeting with a glass of Pitch Black in hand, and Prosted us with it after the brief formal business portion of the meeting.

There followed a Power Point presentation on the current marketing focus of the company.  Widmer, Kona, and Red Hook -- the three brands that remain in CBA after the sale of Goose Island to InBev -- each fulfill a different goal for the company.  Kona has great summer seasonal sales as beachgoers try to recapture that island feeling from past Hawaiian vacations (marketing speak: Liquid Aloha).  The Widmer brand aims to provide the variety that the modern beer geek demands:  this was the point of this year's rebranding, replacing Broken Halo with the Rotator IPA series, the yearly "W" releases with the more flexible Series 924 four-packs, and continuing the occasional Brothers Reserve bombers.  Red Hook is the part of the portfolio I feel a little sorry for.  This is its 30-year anniversary, and while it was a big fish in a small pond decades ago, the company has all but relegated it to downmarket status.  In Marketingese, Red Hook is sold on its "unique big personality":  the company describes it as "edgy" and "approachable", not as delicious and high-quality.

One interesting thing I learned at the meeting is that CBA really is paying attention to the blogosphere.  The Power Point slides had no fewer than three quotes from Brady's analysis of the Widmer makeover, and one quote from Sanjay's review of Red Hook Pilsner.  No quotes from It's Pub Night, but I was surprised that the Director of Investor Relations -- whom I hadn't met before yesterday -- called me by name on the street before the meeting as I wandered toward the wrong entrance.  Guess I'm not as incognito as I thought I was.

In terms of the stock, this has been a good year.  The price has nearly tripled in the last twelve months.  The sale of CBA's stake in Goose Island brought in a nice cash windfall for the company.  And the business page editors at the Oregonian have been roused from their four-year slumber and finally added HOOK to their table of Stocks of Local Interest.

Last June I listed several risks you might consider if you were thinking about buying stock in the CBA (if you are thinking of such an investment, do read that article).  I received a first-hand lesson in those risks when I took the plunge.  Here's how it happened.  Last August, with the share price threatening $5, I decided to take a gamble in an IRA account and buy 100 shares.  Because so few shares are traded, and because I placed my order late on a Friday, the brokerage only filled part of my order that day.  I was the proud owner of a mere 15 shares, meaning the $9 commission had effectively added 60¢ to the $4.93 share price.  Dammit!  That's like losing 12% on your investment immediately.  The following Monday I was able to get a full 100 shares for $4.95 apiece, though there were some tense moments as I watched the purchase get pieced together in chunks of 4 shares, 6 more, 7 more, wondering if I had just bought another expensive 17 shares, until the final 83 came through.  Moral for the small investor: bid at or above the ask price, and buy early in the day.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Third Double IPA Blind Tasting

For the last couple months I've been playing around with blind-tasting sets of three Double IPAs, a.k.a. Imperial IPAs.  Hopworks Ace of Spades won the tasting in March, but was defeated by Firestone Walker Double Jack in April

This month, when my neighbor Dave and I drove down to San Francisco to visit our pal Andy, Dave took the initiative and brought four bombers of 2IPAs to blind taste, as though we didn't have enough beer-drinking plans.  I had no idea which four IPAs he had brought, so for a change I was not only blindly picking a favorite, but also trying to figure out what beers they were at all.

The crude and only partially effective technique of electrical taping numbered sheets of paper around the bottles allowed Dave to taste blindly as well, though of course he knew which four bottles he had brought.  The competition fell out like this:
  • 1st place: Port Brewing Mongo IPA: lots of head, piney nose, gritty bitterness, hot alcohol
  • 2nd place: Hopworks Ace of Spades: another hot one, delicious and malty
  • 3rd place: Ninkasi Tricerahops: a little thin next to the bruisers, nice orange-blossom hops
  • 4th place: Caldera Hopportunity Knocks: honey and diacetyl in the nose, super malty with a long bitter finish
Andy is not as big of a hophead as Dave and me, so his favorites were actually in the reverse order [insert prissy Californian joke here], except that he did like Mongo better than Ace of Spades.

If you've been following these tedious tastings of mine, you'll remember that in the first one we had a lame bottle of Tricerahops; I'm happy to report that the 2007-era favorite has redeemed itself.  Even though it came in third to a couple of heavyweights, it was a tasty beer.  The Port Mongo -- a gift from our buddy Todd, who has a Southern California connection -- was brilliant.  By the Bottle in Vancouver usually stocks Port bottles, so if you see the Mongo up there, pick some up.  The Caldera was a crying shame.  It wasn't too bad at first, but as it warmed up the diacetyl became overwhelming, and it was pretty hard to swallow.  On Beer Advocate most people seem to like it, though I found one fairly recent review that also uses the D-word, so I'm not completely insane.

As for the guessing game -- which number is which beer -- I was pretty pleased with myself since I didn't know which beers were in play to begin with.  But I correctly identified Ace of Spades (easy) and Tricerahops.  Clutching at straws, I guessed the Mongo might have been Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, and really without a clue for the Hopportunity, I hedged my bets and wondered if it was a Ninkasi Total Domination.  Dave didn't do as well, he got Ace of Spades right, but since he wasn't familiar with Mongo he thought maybe the last-place finisher was that one, and guessed that Tricerahops was Caldera and Mongo was Tricerahops.

Conclusion:  Tricerahops -- redeemed (but don't be afraid to return a bad bottle if you get one).  Ace of Spades -- smashing.  Port Brewing Mongo -- seek it out.  Caldera Hopportunity Knocks -- avoid.

Russian River and Bear Republic Pubs

Last week I wrote up a visit to the Lagunitas Taproom, the first stop on a day trip out of the city on a recent trip to San Francisco.  With Andy at the wheel and Dave and I drinking at pubs and snoring in the car, we headed north from Lagunitas to Russian River's pub in Santa Rosa, and then Bear Republic's pub in Healdsburg.

Russian River was fun:  it wasn't wine-country fancy as I had feared, rather it was a spacious, kid-friendly place that would fit right in if it were suddenly dropped into Portland.  The food was pretty standard pub grub, and not surprisingly there was a fabulous selection of RR beers -- 15 on tap the day we were there.  The beers were very reasonably priced -- especially for California -- West Coast ales were $4.50 a pint, and the Belgian "-tion" beers ranged from $3.75 to $6.75 a snifter.  Whether you're going for the hop monsters like Pliny the Elder or Blind Pig, or for the sours like Consecration and Sanctification, you'll be pleased.  Go visit if you're anywhere nearby.

About a half hour north of Santa Rosa is the little resort town of Healdsburg.  Tucked behind the tourist-shopping main drag is a Bear Republic pub, which we thought we'd try, since we like quite a few of their beers, like Red Rocket and Racers 5 and X.  As near as we could tell, no actual brewing happens at the pub, but they plunked a bunch of big tanks down here and there to give it a brewy feel.  The place was a little bit of a letdown, partly because the Bear Republic meet-the-brewer at Apex in Portland a couple weeks ago had a much more amazing selection of their beers than the pub did, and partly because Russian River and Lagunitas were much more our style.  The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that a lot of people at the Healdsburg pub were drinking from German-style 1-liter mugs.  If for some reason you are being punished with an overnight stay in Healdsburg, those would be just the ticket for drowning your sorrows.  But I wouldn't recommend going out of your way for a visit.  Neither the town nor the Bear Republic pub offers much to get excited about.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fred Fest 2011

Fred Fest is always a blast; Saturday's celebration of Fred Eckhardt's 85th birthday at Hair of the Dog was no exception.  Perhaps fittingly, a theme that came up again and again in the beers I tried was "Age has been kind to this beer".  It was especially true of the best beer of the night, a 1998 Bourbon-barrel aged Full Sail Old Boardhead Barleywine, which was amazingly flawless so many years later.  But there were four other beers that I have tried at other times in the past year that were noticeably improved after a few months of aging:
  • Ninkasi UnconventionALE Imperial Stout: I liked this a lot at the Holiday Ale Fest in December.  Six months later it was even better, a knockout.
  • Hair of the Dog Peach Fred from the Wood Barleywine: On a December visit to the tasting room this was unremarkable, not as good as regular Fred.  Saturday it was fantastic: a beautiful blend of boozy bourbon, earthy peach, funky yeast, and bitter hops.
  • Sierra Nevada Charlie, Fred, and Ken's Helles Bock: I'd had this twice before: a small taste when Fred brought a sneak peak of it to Fred Fest 2010, and from the bottle when it was on store shelves.  It was pretty good those times, but after about a year in the keg, it's really something.
  • Lompoc Franc'ly Brewdolph barrel-aged Belgian Ale: This was tasty six months ago at the HAF and even better now: nice wine and funky yeast flavors on top of a solid Belgian.
Nicole said that bottles of the Sierra Nevada Helles Bock have improved in her cellar also.  It wouldn't have occurred to me to cellar that, but I was impressed by it Saturday.  If you happen to see any stray bottles on the shelf anywhere, don't hesitate to grab them.

Besides the five beers mentioned above, other highlights for me were:
  • Hopworks Kronan the Bourbarian barrel-aged Baltic Porter: big bourbon and dark fruit (bing cherry?) notes on top of a big delicious BP.
  • Double Mountain Fine Pimpin' Brown ale with cocoa and chiles: one of the lighter beers of the night, it was smooth, spicy, and beautiful.
  • Barley Brown's 2010 Havoc Double American Stout: completely opaque black beer: thick, rich, and bitter.
  • Midnight Sun Arctic Devil Barleywine: hot, mapley, and thick. I was a little less happy when Charles pointed out to me the acetone nose that came out when it warmed up, but it was still tasty for a giant barleywine.
If humanly possible, get yourself to Fred Fest next year.  Delicious gigantic beers, nice barbecue and other snacks included in the package, and a small, jolly crowd.  Happy 85th, Fred!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lagunitas Taproom, Petaluma

Last Saturday when Dave and I were in San Francisco visiting our friend Andy, the three of us made a pilgrimage north to Petaluma to the Lagunitas Taproom.  Dave and Andy had been there once before, but a few years ago when Carla and I were in the neighborhood and dropped in to Lagunitas for a visit, there was only a small bar/tasting room upstairs in the main brewery building.  The taproom and patio, open since the middle of 2009, is a vast improvement.  Food, lots of seating, and a good selection of Lagunitas beer.

Beer?  How about 16 taps of Lagunitas standards and one-offs, plus one or two cask selections.  When we were there, one cask was a blend of Wilco Tango Foxtrot and Hop Stoopid aptly named "WTF Stoopid".  It had been tapped the previous Thursday, so it was getting a little tired, but I'm a big fan of WTF, so it was nice to try a hoppier, caskier version of it, though it wasn't better than the standard Wilco. WTF bottles say it's an American Strong Ale, and it's a deep brown color, but the flavor says Cascadian Dark Ale to me.  Other rarities on tap were Tocaloma Amber on cask, Sonoma Farmhouse Gueuze, a double IPA called Waldo 420, and Fusion VI, which if I remember right is a hoppy ale brewed with some rye.  The gueuze is a blend of two vintages of Lagunitas' Farmhouse Saison, and it was really nicely done:  tart and funky, but with enough malt heft that even Dave appreciated it.  The Fusion was pretty good, but the Waldo was such classic burly Lagunitas that we pondered plunking down the $19 for a growler of it, until we learned that they only serve it for drinking on site.

There is also a small gift shop adjoining the pub, which is another step up from the cluttered closet that a receptionist showed Carla and I into a few years ago.  All your Lagunitas T-shirt, poster, and blanket needs are available, as well as the excellent custom mason jar pint glasses, marked with a line drawing of the Lagunitas dog logo and whimsical volume lines labeled "3.14...", "420", and "10/6" (ten shillings sixpence -- the price tag that the Mad Hatter left on his hat).

Coincidentally, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee is in Portland this week for events at Saraveza (last night, May 11), and East Burn tonight for May's Beer Belly Dinner.  I'm kicking myself for not getting seats for the East Burn dinner, those are always a fun time and a great deal, and Lagunitas is high on my list of favorite breweries.

Next time you're in the California wine country, or if you're in San Francisco and have time for a day trip out of the city, I highly recommend a stop at the Lagunitas Taproom (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Standing Stone Brewing Company, Ashland

Ashland, Oregon is lucky to have two fine brewpubs right in the center of town: Caldera and Standing Stone Brewing Company.  Even though Caldera is better known because of their wide distribution of kegs, cans, and bottles, Standing Stone has been open longer than Caldera's funky Ashland pub (right around the corner).  If you happen to be in Ashland -- or if you're passing through on I-5 as Dave and I were last week -- Standing Stone is a great place to grab lunch or dinner.  Tasty beers poured from serving tanks above the bar, better-than-average pub fare with a focus on local and organic ingredients, and spacious seating indoors or on the back patio in good weather.

We rolled through at lunchtime last Thursday, and checked out the Hop Night CDA that had just been put on tap, as well as the flagship dry-hopped Double IPA.  The Double IPA is a well-balanced take on the style, weighing in at 8%, don't miss it.  Hop Night was also well done, on the stouty end of the CDA spectrum, cloudy and satisfyingly full-bodied, pretty lightly carbonated, with enough hop aroma to convince you it isn't a stout.  It's been a while since I had a Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous, but that was the closest CDA I could think of to relate Hop Night to -- hopefully it's not just the similar brewery names -- though Sublimely Self-Righteous is undoubtedly hoppier.

Our burgers were quite good, served on nice fresh ciabatta rolls.  The garlic fries were not as garlicky as I expected them to be, but maybe this was a good thing for two dudes about to drive seven more hours in a small car.  I had a certain amount of salad envy looking at the large plates of fresh greens that went out to a couple of other tables on the patio.

After lunch we chatted up the head brewer Larry Chase, who has been at Standing Stone for about a year and a half.  Larry brewed for many years at the Midwestern brewpub chain Granite City, before moving to Ashland with his wife Ginger Johnson, who runs a beer marketing consulting business called Women Enjoying Beer.  Larry gave us some tastes of a couple seasonals:  the light and crisp Indie Pilsner, which he said is his favorite Standing Stone beer right now, and a tasty golden ale made with lactose called Milk and Honey, which is not quite ready but will be out soon.  There are no actual bee by-products in Milk and Honey, but the malt provides an unmistakable honey aroma and flavor.

Another cool thing about Standing Stone is the way the business has really gotten behind bicycle transportation.  A couple of years ago, they started a program where employees are given a free commuter bike if they commit to riding it to work 45 times during the next year.  We saw a few of the bikes -- labeled with the company name and logo -- parked in and around the pub.  They also installed a large bike parking corral in front.  Those two-wheeled innovations earned the brewery owners an Alice B. Toeclips award this year from Oregon's Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

We used to occasionally see Standing Stone beers in Portland -- mainly at beer festivals -- but for the last couple of years they haven't had the spare capacity to send any kegs our way.  They self-distribute, so retrieving kegs from afar is another issue -- Larry said that Geoff Phillips told him he still has an empty Standing Stone keg waiting at Bailey's Taproom for someone to take it home.  It would be nice to see more of their beers up here, but meanwhile make sure and stop in for a bite and a pint next time you're in Ashland.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cheers to Belgian Beers 2011

Cheers to Belgian Beers has been one of the most interesting Portland festivals during the last few years.  A great example of the friendly rivalry of Oregon brewers, most of the beers at the festival are brewed with the same yeast, chosen by the brewer who won the peoples' choice vote at the previous year's festival.  The beers are usually one-offs that might never be seen again, and give the brewers a chance to step outside of their usual lineup, or to flex their muscles with styles they particularly enjoy.  Proceeds from the festival are donated to charity.

Saturday's Cheers to Belgian Beers 2011 had even more advantages going for it.  Since the 2010 contest was won not by a Portland brewer but by Corvallis' Block 15, the venue for this year's festival was brewery equipment manufacturer Metalcraft Fabrication, and the yeast that Block 15 chose for the competition was the versatile and flowery Westmalle Abbey yeast.  Holding the event at Metalcraft turned out to be an inspired choice:  the big, airy warehouse comfortably held the crowd, and there was even more room in the fenced yard outside, along with mobile food from Philadelphia's and Koi Fusion.  There is a yellow-line MAX stop not far away, and the warehouse is right beside the Interstate bike lane.

This had to be the biggest CtBB yet, and I didn't get a chance to try even half of the beers.  Of the ones I tried, my favorites were:
  • Double Mountain | Wooden Nipel | Oak-aged tripel | amber color, dry and not hot for 9%, balanced but not very tripelly, mild hints of oak
  • Beetje | Eleanor | Tripel "sort of" | definitely a tripel though on the hoppy end, flowery yeast comes in at the end
  • Alameda | Say What? | Strong Dark Belgian | sweet and dubbel-ish Abbey-style ale
  • Lompoc | Alpha Blonde | Belgian Golden | light and drinkable, nice flowery taste, with plenty of hops
  • Logsdon | Seizoen Bretta | Farmhouse Ale with Brett | amber color, nice grainy saison, with a little barnyard funk, not very hot for 8%
  • Flat Tail | White Heat Wit | Wit with peppercorns | very tasty wit, just right
  • Cascade | Chugg it Pucker | NW sour | classic Cascade lactic cherry beer (really Westmalle?)
  • Silver Moon | Andre le Geant | Tripel | pretty hot 9.4%, nice tripel-yeast flower flavor
  • Coalition | Trifecta | Belgian Dark soured with Brett | nice balanced ale, like to try it with a little more age on it
[Update: 2011/05/04] The People's Choice award was a tie this year:  Logsdon and Hopworks.  Unfortunately, I didn't get around to trying the Hopworks, but the Logsdon was certainly worthy.  Here's the official announcement from the Oregon Brewers Guild:

PORTLAND, Ore. (May 4, 2011) More than 1,500 beer fans attended the 2011 Portland’s Cheers to Belgian Beers festival at Metalcraft Fabrication on Saturday, April 30 and selected Hopworks Urban Brewery’s Muscles from Brussels and Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales’ Seizoen Bretta as the People’s Choice champions. As the winners of the 2011 competition, Hopworks Urban Brewery and Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales earn the right to select the yeast strain for the 2012 event.

“This is the first year we’ve had a tie in the People’s Choice voting,” says Oregon Brewers Guild Executive Director, Brian Butenschoen. “It’s incredible to see how this festival has grown as public appreciation for Belgian styles and flavor profiles increases."

The 2011 Portland's Cheers to Belgian Beers festival marked the world debut of Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales. This is the second time Hopworks Urban Brewery has tasted People's Choice victory, the brewery also took home the coveted prize at the 2009 festival. The top five spots (including two ties) in the voting went to: Ambacht Brewing Honey Triple, Big Horse Brew Pub Bear's Choice, Block 15 Brewing Co. St. Macarius, Breakside Brewery Brewers Bramble, Cascade Brewing Co. Chuggeté Pucker, Hopworks Urban Brewery Muscles from Brussels and Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales Seizoen Bretta.

Hold on just a second: as Charles noted in the comments, Cascade's entry was not brewed with the contest yeast.  So how can they be in the running?  I only had a taste of Block 15's chocolatey entry, and while neither it nor Breakside's Bramble really rung my bell, they were tasty and I can see how people would vote for them.  I didn't try the Big Horse entry, so I don't know how it was, but I'm kind of confused that so many people liked the Ambacht Tripel, which wasn't flawed, but wasn't all that great, and not really much like a tripel, either.

Anyway, congrats to Hopworks and Logsdon!

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Vote Asheville for BeerCity, USA

    First of May, First of May, BeerCity voting begins today! (Photo credit: rbatina.)

    This thing is very simple.  For the last couple of years a bunch of people in Portland and a bunch of people in Asheville, North Carolina have all got their panties bunched up trying to sway the vote in Charlie Papazian's online poll to choose BeerCity USA.  Tiny Asheville always wins, and Portland always comes in second, and no other city in the country even notices.

    Portland folks:  please don't take the bait this year and try to churn out PDX votes for this silly poll.  Even though Portland and the much smaller Asheville combined for about 14,000 votes last year, the voting was a non-event in much larger cities that have respectable beer scenes:

    • Chicago (metro: 9.6 million): 190 votes
    • Boston (metro: 4.6 million): 114 votes
    • San Francisco (metro: 4.3 million): 171 votes
    • Seattle (metro: 3.4 million): 362 votes
    • San Diego (metro: 3.1 million): 884 votes
    Portland is a great beer city.  Wherever you go in this town, from the crunchiest granola store to the dingiest gas station, from the humblest dive to the snootiest restaurant, if there is beer at all, there is something good on the list.  Asheville must be pretty nice also.  But to say that either of them is 50 times better than the cities I've listed above is simply ridiculous.  This year, let's bring Portland into the ranks of the other great beer metropolises by minimizing the number of Beer City USA votes we get.

    One reasonable approach for Portlanders is to ignore the poll.  But just to make sure we don't lose by a hair as in past years, I urge you to do as I've done:  cast a strategic vote for Asheville, NC, for BeerCity USA.