Friday, March 30, 2012

BenderPDX: Finding New Portland Bars

Here's a great idea:  a computer program that scours OLCC filings online, and creates a Google map of all the new liquor licenses that have been applied for recently.  Portland computer expert and cocktail aficionado Chris Barker has created just such a program, and publishes links to its maps on Twitter.  Here's this week's map:

View Larger Map

Chris calls his creation BenderPDX. The Futurama reference is a good name for a Twitter bot, especially one that can see into the alcoholic future. If you follow BenderPDX on Twitter -- or even just occasionally click that link to check the feed -- you'll get the link to the latest map.

With a hat tip to #pdxbeergeeks and their series of Meet the Geek blog posts, I decided to bombard Chris with some questions about BenderPDX.

BN: I used to occasionally try to remember to look up the OLCC filings to see what was coming down the pipe in Portland, but I wasn't very regular about it, and it's kind of boring. BenderPDX is like a dream come true for me, with a Google map to boot! Why did you create a bot like this?

CB: Thanks! I'm glad to know that other people are finding BenderPDX to be useful. I live out near Mt. Tabor, so when my "good enough" Thai place closed and I found out it was being replaced with Tabor Tavern via a news blurb in Eater, I realized I wanted to know when more places were coming in. I have done work in Python in the past, so I figured that I could probably find a module to strip addresses from the OLCC PDF that gets posted weekly, and then once I had the addresses, I could do some geocoding and then make a Google Earth KML file to view it. It was only after I had gotten that working that I realized it was only a few more lines of code to get url shortening and tweeting worked into the script as well.

BN: How often do updates come out? Is it automatic? How do you make sure it finds the right documents at the right time?

CB: The first iteration of the script is manually invoked, it just dumps the output from the PDF to kml then tweets it. The new version (which does Portland only), scrapes the HTML from's liquor license notification page, which includes links to the submitted applications in PDF.  It is still very much a work in progress, and I don't have much in the way of integrity checks yet, so if there is a garbage upstream or I don't parse the location properly, you might end up with a bad link or pin location (usually right in the center of Portland).

Eventually I hope BenderPDX will be able to do a collection of different actions, so weekly OLCC updates, as they come in single business notifications, and random snarky Bender quotes as appropriate. And really, it's an excuse for me to keep playing with Python some more.

BN: How long do entries stay on the map? Are there links from the map to the source documents?

CB: Right now for simplicity, I just show the 15 newest applications in Portland, but each tweet BenderPDX generates is to its own map. So yesterday's tweet is a link to the map it built yesterday, and so on. As I expand on the concept, I hope to clean it up a lot and make it a little less hacky. The pins should link folks to the actual PDF of the business's application, but I have no idea how long Portland Online keeps those records available, and I don't want to get into the grey area of caching/hosting them locally. The rest of the information is just scraped from the same notification page I got the PDF links from.

BN: I met you through my friend Lindsey, who knew you as mrzarquon from Metafilter events. How did you get involved in the Portland Metafilter community? Are Metafilter people as cool as Beer people? Are there flesh-and-blood Metafilter groups everywhere, or just in Portland?

CB: I've been a member of MetaFilter since 2005, and starting going to local events put together by MeFites when I was living in Seattle. I've been to meetups in LA, Chicago, and San Francisco as well. I was actually attending Portland meetups long before I had moved here, as I loved the city and found that it was a great excuse to get to know people here in anticipation of eventually moving. For the tenth anniversary, Metafilter had 67 meetups on all seven continents (yes, even Antartica).

Being a member of MetaFilter means you have a social network stretching around the world full of interesting and strange people. When you hang out with Beer people (or cocktail people, or car people), you can in a way have a diverse group of people who all share this one common interest. When you hang out with a group of MetaFilter folks, the common interest is intelligent discussion on the internet, which can encompass beer, cars, computers, politics, healthcare, mortuary practices, what is the most cost effective way to raise chickens and what was the name of that song you heard that one time while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. I don't know if I have a common definition of Cool, but I find that meetups with other folks from Metafilter to be interesting if not fascinating. I am proud to say I participate in a community where folks like Adam Savage drop by, because they like the conversation and the topics discussed.

BN: What's your day job? Have you spawned any other bots we should know about?

CB: I work for Portland State, doing IT work for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In short, I herd professors and help make sure that they get their labs and systems setup properly, so they can focus on teaching instead of how to get their bioinformatics software working in a new lab. In the past I've worked mostly as an IT consultant, so the change in pace (from 60+ hours/week and travel to 40 hours and a bus commute) has finally allowed me to pursue honing some of my programming skills and working on making some creative projects for once, not just troubleshooting an Exchange server at two in the morning or flying across the country to repair someone's SAN.

BenderPDX is my first bot, I'm hoping to work on extending it out nicely so it is a genuine robust script, and not something "good enough." There is a ton of potential in parsing twitter feeds, and the other day I was thinking how it would be cool for there to be an #ontappdx like system but for food carts, but my programming abilities aren't up to that task yet.

BN: What kind of bars are you hoping BenderPDX finds for you? What are your current favorite places in town?

CB: Interesting ones near my house, so I can walk home afterwards. I like places that do creative things with alcohol, so a bar that actually knows to stir a Manhattan and not muddle the orange in an Old Fashioned are things I am always looking out for.

Of my favorite places in town, it depends on what I'm going for:
  • Brunch: City State Diner, fast, great food, no line
  • Dinner: Over and Out/The Observatory, awesome two for one space in Montavilla, bar in the back with pinball, fine dining in the front.
  • Drinks: Vintage Cocktail Lounge - I've been there so often I run their website now, and they are always trying to think of new ways to mix drinks. If I was going to open a bar, they have the template I would most likely copy from. Also recently I've been hanging out at the Guild Public House, which has had a nice bounce back since they got new owners (one of whom is the owner of Vintage), it helps that I pass it on my bus ride home from work.
But I am also excited just for the rain to finally stop so I can actually have a nice weekend BBQ in my back yard.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Portland Beer Price Index: Spring 2012

A pretty quiet installment of the PBPI this quarter:  no change of more than 3 cents in any of the categories.  Suits me, I'm ready for some quiet time.  Here are the numbers:
  • 6-packs: $9.25, up 2 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers: $4.96, down 3 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.73, unchanged
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.77, down 1 cent
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.33 up 2 cents
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.54, up 2 cents
The draft prices are actually lower than I reported last time, but I realized I had been recording too high of a pint price at the Horse Brass for a few quarters. Taking that into account, the draft prices are up 2 cents from what I should have reported last time. I discussed the details in last week's meandering Horse Brass post.

The bomber availability battle that I fight every quarter seems to be pretty stable for now:  Pelican IPA was available at 3 of the 5 stores I canvass, and Beer Valley Leafer Madness was at 4 of them.  But in a surprise development, the Division Street New Seasons has stopped carrying any Rogue bombers.  An employee told me they dropped them because the prices were getting too high.  Uh, yeah, for the last 20 years or so; you guys are just now figuring that out?  For now Rogue and New Seasons have enough coverage that I'll keep them both in the survey, but it's something to keep an eye on.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Horse Brass Musings

The other night a few beer bloggers were standing around drinking beer, and a man in a suit and tie asked what our favorite beer bar was in town.  It's a tough question with so many great places in Portland, but Ezra was quick to speak up for the Horse Brass, and I had to admit that would be my first choice also.  (For what it's worth, Saraveza was the favorite of our well-dressed interrogator; Saraveza and Bailey's got a lot of nods around the circle.)

Yesterday I went to the Horse Brass for lunch.  It's only been a few weeks since I was there last, but there were a handful of noticeable changes in that short time:
  • The old Belmont Station sign has been replaced by a Horse Brass sign (pictured).  Finally!
  • The rotating tap menu now lists prices.  Hooray!
  • The regular lineup beers have gone up in price by 25 cents.  Rats.
  • There was music playing -- country and western -- on speakers throughout the pub.  Really?
  • My fish and chips came with a side of ranch dressing instead of tartar sauce.  What the...!?
For a while I've considered it a drawback that there was practically no way to know the price of a rotating beer at the Horse Brass until your check came.  Bravo for printing the prices on the daily menu -- they're even listed online now.  We're not in nirvana just yet: the beer I ordered was listed at $4.50 but I was charged $4.95.  It's a start.

Speaking of prices -- are you sitting comfortably? I'm about to go off on a tangent.  For a few weeks I've been fretting because I realized that the Portland Beer Price Index has been overstating the "typical" pint price at Horse Brass by 50 cents.  What happened was, in the fall of 2010 I decided that most of the beers I ordered there were over $5, and only a few were under $5.  So, I rather brazenly raised the price I was recording in the PBPI from $4.50 to $5.  Problem is, the non-rotating, everyday beers on the menu have still been just $4.50 all that time, so that's the number I should have used, except now they have raised the price to $4.75.  This quarter's PBPI will be adjusted properly when it comes out next week.

Music playing on the stereo -- that's new, right?  I don't recall being in the Horse Brass, even at quiet times, and hearing canned music, or am I just forgetting?  Country music seemed a vaguely surprising choice, though the selection sounded more like Americana than Nashville, and it was inobtrusive enough that it didn't bother me.  I'll admit I would rather hear that in the background than authentic folk tunes from anywhere in the British Isles.

Many's the time that the devil on my left shoulder whispered to me to steal the square Belmont Station sign that hung next to the Horse Brass office awning for many years after the Station had moved up to Stark Street.  I'm glad that there is now a Horse Brass sign hanging there -- that temptation is now safely behind me.

I didn't make a fuss at the time, but ranch dressing with fish and chips?  Let's hope that was a one time accident.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

2012 Toronado Barleywine Festival Recap

The weekend I recently spent in Oakland happened to coincide with the final days of San Francisco's annual SF Beer Week. That was why Beer Revolution had an L.A. brewery takeover when I was there, and it's also why I was able to partake of some lip-puckering Cantillon drafts -- Mamouche and 2010 Iris -- that Saturday evening at The Trappist.

Another legendary SF Beer Week event is the Toronado Barleywine Festival, and on Sunday morning I couldn't resist heading into the City on BART for that, especially since I knew I was going to have to miss the Lucky Lab Barleywine Festival in my own hometown. Publicity for the event said it would begin at 10 AM, and following the "arrive early" rule of thumb for festivals, I walked past Toronado a little before 10 while searching for some pre-barleywine breakfast. There was already a line of perhaps a dozen people waiting out front.

Now, 10 AM is pretty early to start with the big beers like that, so I was a little relieved when I came back at 10:30 and found that the place hadn't opened yet.  I took my place at the back of the line, and waited until the doors finally opened a little after 11.  My notes say that I tried about 14 of the beers that day though some of those were little sips generously shared by my neighbors at the end of the bar.  My three favorites of the day were:
  • Speakeasy Old Godfather 2009
  • Emelisse Barleywine
  • Stone Old Guardian 2009
All three had that brown sugar note that tastes so good in a big barleywine, with the characteristic alcohol heat.  If you're not familiar with Emelisse, it's a Dutch brewery that is starting to show up more often over here, though I'm more used to seeing their Imperial Stout than their Barleywine.  I'm a little surprised at how much I liked the 2009 vintage barleywines at the festival -- that's pushing the envelope on how long a beer should be aged, in my opinion.  Maybe I need to be more flexible about that.  At the other end of the spectrum, here were three I didn't like:
  • Alaskan Rough Draft 2011 -- fruity, too sweet, "tootsie roll"
  • Shipyard Double Old Thumper -- too sweet
  • Triple Rock Dragonaut -- weak
Getting to the festival early was definitely a good idea.  Sitting at the bar, I was treated very well by the notoriously touchy Toronado staff, who did a good job keeping the samples flowing.  There were two sizes:  small (3 oz.) and medium (6.5 oz.), $3 and $5 respectively, though sometimes the smalls seemed to be as full as the mediums.  Apparently there was a large serving in years past, but experience had proven that to be a bad idea. 

If you go to the fest, remember this trick that Ezra told me about:  bring an empty six-pack holder to carry your samples back to your table, since you'll want to order a few at a time.  It ended up not mattering for me since I found a seat at the bar, but the people with six-packs were definitely having a nicer time of it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Oakland Beer Getaway

Last month I had to spend a week in the Silicon Valley on business.  I took the opportunity to spend the preceding weekend in Oakland and check out the growing beer scene there.  It's a good way to have a cheap Bay Area getaway -- I pricelined a hotel right downtown for $42 a night -- and San Francisco is just a $6 round-trip away on BART.

My first stop was a couple of blocks from the hotel, a Belgian-heavy place called The Trappist.  A cozy, narrow space that they call The Front Bar calls to mind Dutch or Belgian beer bars, but opens onto a back patio that is perfect for sunny California days.  There are fifteen taps at the front bar, and ten more in a bigger room called The Back Bar -- an assortment of off-the-beaten track Belgian and Belgian-inspired beers, some nice California offerings, and some surprises from Mikkeller and Evil Twin, including an Evil Twin coffee porter specially brewed for The Trappist.

The food is reasonably-priced and not too fancy, and there is a good assortment of special bottled beers if you need to show off.  Compared to the similarly-named and -themed La Trappe across the bay in North Beach, there are more taps here, though La Trappe seems to have a longer bottle list.  Both are fine establishments, but The Trappist is less crowded, less expensive, and seems a little more laidback than its counterpart in the City.

A few blocks toward the bay from The Trappist is the new beer-geek darling of Oakland:  Beer Revolution.  It's easy to see why people are so enamored of Beer Revolution:  over 40 taps of well-chosen beer, plus several coolers full of bottles for takeaway or drinking there ($1 corkage fee), and the easy-going taproom/bottleshop system of bringing in your own food.  It's like a less crowded, less expensive, more laidback version of SF's City Beer Store (a theme is developing here).  There's even a small but sunny patio area out front.  I had a great time at Beer Revolution, enjoyed a delicious glass of barrel-aged stout from Drake's before wading in to the LA brewery tap takeover that was going on that weekend.

One big gripe about Beer Revolution:  the pint glasses there are cheater pints, those big-booted bastardizations that only hold about 13 ounces of beer.  It wasn't just one that slipped into the mix -- after I noticed that I was served one, I started watching and all the pint glasses that came across the bar were cheaters.  C'mon guys, it's the year 2012, please get with the Honest Pint program.  Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll still say that the selection and atmosphere make Beer Rev a must-stop in Oakland despite the glassware, and many of the big beers they'll tempt you with will be in smaller glasses anyway.

On the advice of Beer Revolution's co-owner Rebecca, I went from there right down to the waterfront to check out Heinhold's First and Last Chance. Something of a tourist trap which claims an association to Call of the Wild author Jack London, it is nevertheless worth a visit.  They have a couple of sessionable local beers on tap, and they also serve -- another hat tip to Rebecca -- a very nutritious and delicious Bloody Mary.  The floor and bar slope noticeably downward towards the back of the building -- a little remodeling done by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Heinhold's cleverly straddles the line between cheesy and authentic, and it would be better to say you'd been there than to say you'd missed it.

There are a couple of breweries in downtown Oakland:  Linden Street Brewery, which I didn't get around to visiting but which had some tasty beers on tap at Heinhold's; and Pacific Coast Brewing around the corner from the Trappist, which is friendly and comfortable enough but doesn't make very good beer (luckily they have about a dozen guest taps). If you're looking for a good meal with good beer to accompany it, head up Broadway away from the bay to Luka's Taproom. The 16-tap beer list won't blow you away, but it's serviceable enough, and it's fun to watch the hip locals come and go while you fill up on good food.

Oakland has a lot going on beer-wise, and offers easy access to San Francisco while being much cheaper, quieter, and easier to navigate. Next time you're headed to the Bay Area, consider setting up camp in Oakland.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Widmer Brothers Sow Their Bro Oats

 [Editor's Note:  Another nice guest post from Brian (msubulldog25).  Keep up the good work, Brian!]

On a recent mid-week evening, Sharon and I attended a release party at Irving Street Kitchen for Oatmeal Porter, the latest from ‘Series 924’ by Widmer Brothers. The event was an unveiling of sorts for this new recipe; it also was a chance for us to meet representatives from the brewery and sample beers both new and familiar (Pitch Black IPA and Nelson Imperial IPA also graced the menu).

Though the Oatmeal Porter was the stated focal point of this night, the spiel by brewer Doug Rehberg was short and to the point. The new seasonal (available March – May) weighs in at 6%, with a modest 27 IBUs, and is crafted using a liberal dose of custom-toasted oats (made exclusively for Widmer Brothers by the folks at Briess Malting and dubiously dubbed ‘Bro Oats’). I enjoyed the beer quite a bit; its feel is smooth and creamy and its nutty and sweeter flavors evoke cocoa powder, brown sugared oatmeal, vanilla and toasted coconut flakes. In early sips, I found ‘bourbon’ and, thus, could have sworn that some barrel-aging was behind it. There is none. Whether this dessert-y porter finds a home in the market remains to be seen, but I found it satisfying for my malt-loving leanings and a good complement to the hoppier things in the brewery’s current lineup.

Once the brief speech ended and the noshing and sipping resumed, a familiar-looking gentleman approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself as ‘Kurt’. After some awkward chit-chat about the food pairings and -facepalm- the rainy weather, we settled on topics more near and dear to Widmer. We discussed upcoming beers, such as the ‘Series 924’ summer release Marionberry Gose (fans, like me, who recall a similar beer at last year’s Fruit Beer Fest will note the switch from raspberries) and the imminent release of the Raspberry Imperial Stout (‘Babushka’s Secret’ without the fancy name).

Among other Widmer tidbits:
  • Upstairs remodeling in the building where the Gasthaus is located has (finally) been completed.
  • Several small tanks will soon move from the original brewery to the test facility at the Rose Quarter – meaning more opportunities for smaller/experimental batches.
  • Several huge fermentation tanks (I forget the volume, but it’s a lot!) will be added to the main brewery, filling the void in the N. Mississippi/Russell St. corner. This will require the roof to be temporarily removed, an endeavor which the architect in me finds fascinating. Can’t wait to watch.
  • In business news: the annual shareholder meeting (which Bill blogged about last spring) will NOT be held in Portland this year (but it’ll be just a daytrip away, up at the Redhook brewery in Woodinville, WA). Bummer for us Portlanders, but great for longtime HOOK shareholders who’ve asked for it in recent years.

The window is short on the Oatmeal Porter -- check it out before it gets replaced in May.