Monthly Archives: February 2018

What I Learned on Vancouver Island

I had the fortune to be invited, as both guest beer writer and chauffeur, to tour the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island. Along with Ezra, publican of The New School, the tour took five nights and covered Victoria to just north of Qualicum Beach, around 100 miles apart. This was my first ever media trip; lodging, car, and per diem were paid for by a tourism company in conjunction with the BC Ale Trail. In our rented Taurus with (thank heavens) GPS, we visited over a dozen breweries and beer bars and took some side jaunts to coffeeshops, beach parks, and a grand old train trestle.

Though the laws are slowly loosening, drinking beer in British Columbia is somewhat complicated, and expensive due to high taxes. Some taprooms only offer samples and beer to go, no full pours. Others sell flights and “sleeves,” or full pours (not always a pint; in fact, very rarely a pint it seemed). All of them filled growlers. It appeared that none were required to sell food. So whenever we walked into a new brewery, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Given our status as professional tourists, we always opted for flights in order to cover the most ground in the fewest sips. Touring this way can be tedious, as the palate eventually degrades into simple sensations.

The words “nascent,” “emerging,” and “burgeoning” are the most generic to describe a young and growing craft beer “scene,” just as the word “avid” is the most overused adjective to describe a homebrewer who goes pro. But the Vancouver Island beer industry is basically that. Though several breweries have been open for more than a decade, the majority are much younger than that. According to bartenders and brewers we spoke with, the reemergence of township breweries there is concurrent with that in the States. The collective beer-unconscious has produced a pox of small breweries in small towns; everybody had the same idea at the same time. This is the direct result of a legislative change in 2013 that allowed breweries to sell their beer on-premise in “lounges,” rather than being forced to sell it to the government and buy it back, or not make any retail margin at all.

The Island is lovely. Downtown Victoria has maintained much of its 19th century architecture, the beaches and harbors are photogenic and full of life, but also rocky and stark like the coast of Maine, or Alaska; life abounds in crevices. Fir, cedar, and madrone trees line roadways and trails. Though it snowed periodically through the week, it is generally temperate, with lower highs and higher lows than Oregon, at least on the coast. Mountain views are frequent, whether inland or across the Salish Sea to the mainland. Camping and backpacking here would be excellent (though we heard no reports on summer bugginess).

Victoria is a medium sized city, quite bigger than Eugene, but smaller than Portland. It has the most mature breweries, and several beer bars. We visited The Drake Eatery, a beer bar in downtown Victoria. The beer selection of around 30 taps was broad (i.e. did not lean heavily on hoppy beer) and carefully curated by the proprietor, Mike Spence. The experience there gave both of us, I think, a false sense of security about the beer we were to taste on the trip. It’s a really nice beer bar, and I would have liked to stay longer.

But Victoria was not our destination. The second day, we went to three breweries and a taphouse: Red Arrow, Craig Street, Riot, and Sawmill Taphouse & Grill. It’s difficult to write about the first two, especially Craig Street. The tourism company had given us an itinerary, but no times or appointments; communication with the breweries was spotty because very few expected us (that was not the case at Riot, which I’ll get to). We got into the brewery at Red Arrow for a couple minutes and looked around; yep, it’s a brewery. At Craig Street, we simply sat down with flights and a dish of poutine. Perhaps it’s best that nobody was there to meet us; the beer was not good, with buttery diacetyl in every one, even the seasonal Altbier. But it would have been nice to ask some questions, as the space is welcoming and well-adorned and seems reasonably popular.

The new breweries are all doing pretty much the same thing: blonde, pilsner, pale, IPA, porter or stout, and a seasonal make up the tap lists. Hardly any saison or other Belgian, no sour or wild ale. Not very adventurous. That goes for most of the food and coffee we experienced as well. This is likely because everything north of Victoria is basically the middle of nowhere. Nanaimo is the next largest city with about 100,000 people in the greater vicinity; only half the population of Eugene-Springfield. So really, the lack of urban culture shouldn’t have been surprising at all. We could have packed a bottle of Sriracha and called it good.

But it’s proven that beer quality has nothing to do with proximity to an urban center; there is plenty of shit beer in cities. Education and good brewery practices, however, are critical. Though we were unable to interview every brewer, it is clear that there is a collective dearth of good brewery practices; off flavors like diacetyl and acetaldehyde were common, appearing in at least one of every brewery’s beers. Attenuation issues, either over or under, were not uncommon either. Some beers were oxidized, presumably not having sold well; we only visited one brewery that had any real activity going on, which indicated at least a slow season, if not infrequent brewing.

The market is still growing; in the age of social media, it is easier to spread information about craft beer, and groups like the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society are doing a really good job. The ultimate event on our trip was called Crafternoon, and was the finale of Nanaimo Craft Beer Week, held at Longwood Brewpub. It was different from any beer fest I’d been to before, as it was held indoors at a brewpub and there were no tickets for beer and the food, brought around on trays by wait staff, was free. There were only 150 or so tickets sold, so the two floors of the pub weren’t jam packed; they probably could have sold 50 more tickets without issue; the event had sold out in December, anyhow. With 14 breweries from the Island and mainland serving two beers each, the selection was the broadest and the quality the highest we’d seen since The Drake. The community is strong, and part of the Society’s stated mission, as told to me by one of the members, is to improve the quality of the beer. They know it’s not all good; that’s a really big step! All too often, brewers think their shit smells great when in fact it smells like… so having a group like the NCBS will prove quite valuable.

I wrote a journal of the trip, which I might post here soon, along with more photos. Stay tuned!


Crowd Control

Spoiler Alert: this is not a post about the overwhelming traffic to my site. Shocking.

This past weekend was the Festival of Dark Arts, a single-day deluge of very dark beer held at Fort George Brewing’s campus during, appropriately, Stout Month. I say “campus” because there are two buildings, a courtyard, and a balcony, and roughly twelve places to get beer during the fest at Fort George, and I say “appropriately” because February is officially Stout Month (it is no longer called “February,” whatever that means), and that is because it was invented in the 90s by Jack Harris, who started Fort George.

Festival of Dark Arts got a lot of flak a couple years ago for being a “shit show,” according to some sources. I was there a couple years ago, and thought the shit show was mitigated to obscurity by the breadth and quality of stouts, the artisans working their crafts, and the spooky burlesque dancers. Yes, there were people crammed into every conceivable space. But look, people: it’s a stout fest during Stout Month in chilly wet Astoria, Oregon. I know you don’t like to touch elbows, much less come within feet of each other in a mosh pit, but suck it up; you’re in line for Parabajava. Where else can you find Parabajava in Oregon? Nowhere.

This year’s Festival of Dart Arts was, in comparison to 2016, more mature. At least, I was more mature; I knew not to stand in that stupid rainy entry line at noon when I could easily wait out the line with a beer at Reach Break Brewing, literally within a stone’s throw of the line. The crowd, as a unit, was also more mature. Yeah, they were older (but they still partied; just ask the people next door to us at the Norblad). They didn’t jostle. The one thing that held back the chaos in the first two hours of the fest was the fact that everybody knew they needed a beer in order to deal with the crowd, and if they could just wait in line to get that beer, the chaos, which was mostly in their heads, would dwindle to a din. Once everybody got beer in their awesome little whiskey snifters, got back in line, and did it again a few times, the fest was terrific and some people touched elbows.

I spoke briefly with a shift lead in the pizzeria at Fort George the next day, and she impressed upon me the literal insanity of that beer fest. Over 100 employees and 50 volunteers move everything, set up, herd people to beer, and then put it all back together within 24 hours.
Every year.
One day.

FoDA crowd
This is not a picture of a line at Festival of Dark Arts.

Ask a manager at any busy place about the psychology of lines. “I was in line for 20 minutes!” somebody might complain on Yelp. But that’s likely not true. Maybe they were in line for five or 10 minutes, and since it was obviously busy, their order took longer than normal. That’s not 20 minutes in line, that’s a manager stressing out over a ten minute wait because of a Yelper. The same psychology applies to lines at beer festivals. Unless something is seriously wrong or the keg of Hunahpu’s is about to be tapped at Hellshire, nobody waits that long for a beer. And lines aren’t bad, evil things to be afraid of. Hell, they’re probably a sign that a fest is successful. For the fest organizer, it’s where to put those lines that matters. Upstairs in the pizzeria shortly into the Festival of Dark Arts this year, the line to get to the bar to get beer snaked so wildly that it was hard to tell who was in line and who was just standing around with their glass getting empty. That was a shit show, but I eventually got beer, so it was great! And the line abated after a couple hours. The fest is only as happy as you make it.

When you subject yourself to a beer fest, a tiny universe in which the people are like insects whose only purpose for the duration of their short lives is to get drunk, you have to let go. Maybe you make a plan of action because you are a smart insect, but you must trust that the organizers mostly know what they’re doing. And the organizers trust that you are there to have a good time; that’s the relationship.

Festival of Dark Arts can be a hunt and a throng and a cattle call and a shit show and all the things people want to call it who didn’t let themselves enjoy the space for the marvel of stout and crowd control that it is.
For one day.
Every year.

What is Beer Community?

It’s a staple of every brewery’s mission statement, but what does community mean? For people in the industry, it is an actual community of people with common interests and goals. For patrons, it is a public space that should feel welcoming and safe. The way a brewery (or other beer drinking establishment) interacts with other organizations can be an essential tool in its branding, and can positively augment its customer base. And breweries, more than many other businesses, actively contribute to their communities by creating jobs, supporting nonprofits and other local organizations, and by partnering with other businesses on collaborative adventures.

When Ninkasi was still tucked into a bay in the building that used to stand where its tasting room is, it doled out kegs and kegs to official and unofficial parties and concerts; I have fond memories of pouring red cups of Believer and listening to a Grateful Dead cover band at the Eugene Whiteaker Hostel during the Last Friday Art Walk; music events were particularly rife with black and teal. Now, nine years later, Ninkasi has its own recording studio; bands only pay for the recording engineer, James Book’s, time.

While the big breweries are relegated to grocery store shelves and distributor warehouses, local craft breweries and beer bars can use the social aspect of beer, arguably its most important contribution to civilization, to indirectly pay its customers back. This happens both economically and psychologically. The pub is where connections are made, where ideas form and mutate, where business deals are hashed out and relationships are negotiated (strike that; reverse it). Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? The pub or taproom may also be a place of solitude; one finds a nook out of sight to read a book, or even sits at the bar, turning pages and tilting glasses. The thrum of a busy but safe space without the stress of a shopping mall or bus station can be meditative, white noise.

My own experience has taught me not to expect any particular social situation. Meeting a friend for beer yesterday, we were joined by two more friends, then two more friends; pure happenstance. Our conversations expanded and contracted within the group, and pulsed with laughter. I absorbed the spirit and left happier than I arrived.

Community starts with good people. Beer helps!

How does a business that relies on income and capital put money back in the pockets of its patrons? Many do so through work with nonprofits; the benefits are more than mutual. As an example, Oakshire Brewing gives 1% of sales of its Watershed IPA to the McKenzie River Trust. This helps not only to protect the brewery’s water source, but helps keep my wife in a job! That’s a pretty tight circle. In turn, employees and donors from a beneficiary nonprofit are likely to support the brewery.

On a broader scale, Hopworks and Patagonia Provisions partnered to make Long Root Ale, a beer using Kernza, a perennial grain that requires far less cultivation than annual grains like barley and wheat. While Kernza is unlikely to ever replace barley, the project emphasizes Hopworks’ interest in organic and sustainable business practices; a partnership with an arts organization may not have fit the brewery’s mission statement as well.

Though beer is not known as the best paying industry, it does provide tons of jobs; local jobs are naturally better for a local economy, and brewing and serving beer cannot be outsourced. Building a strong, regular customer base also adds opportunity for mutual support. Contractors (at least the ones I know) really like beer. They hang out at a spot long enough, chances are something’s going to break or need to be built; there’s that economic wheel spinning around again.

How do you fit into your community? How do I? It should be a mantra, a thing to reflect on periodically throughout the day, a subtitle to our lives. A part of our conversation over a beer.

We, the Consumers

Who controls whom? Increasingly, advertisements for products show up after a  conversation, rather than a dedicated internet search; our phones are indeed listening to us unless we tell them not to (and even then I’m not so sure). Want to buy a new TV? Instead of heading to the electronics store and conversing with a knowledgeable employee, we turn to the peer reviews, read ratings on the high and low spectrum, and make “our own decision,” or go to a store that sells everything from TVs to baby food and hunt down a roving person in uniform hoping for a reliable answer. Or, worse, we click on an advertisement and take a blind risk on a product; later, we are proud to have saved money on the potential piece of junk. Just as the consolidation of specialized brick-and-mortar businesses has lowered knowledge, breadth of choice, and quality of product at Walmart and its ilk, the consolidation of information and goods online and the rise of “Yelp culture” via proliferation of peer reviews has made everybody “an expert;” thus, nobody is an expert. We, the consumers, are complicit in this cycle when we choose to base our consumption on the advice of laypeople.

This dour, generalized view of middle class humanity plays out in the beer world when beer drinkers choose to base their buying habits on unqualified information from beer rating sites, and then either add their feedback, which feels more valuable than it is, or don’t, which defeats the purpose; the system works better, supposedly, with more input. In a fascinating New York Times Magazine article about cryptocurrency, internet protocols, and blockchains, author Steven Johnson quotes a former Google strategist, James Williams: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will.”

This topic may seem too heavy for an enjoyable beverage like beer. It ought to be, but in this age of information access, subtle marketing techniques, and “likes” as social cachet, attention is what it’s all about (see previous post and subsequent Facebook debate for proof of my own foray into the attention economy). When a beer receives good attention–positive reviews–its desirability increases. And while questions of quality arise from this conversation, public perception and reaction are arguably bigger factors.

“If you like this, you may like that…”

Rather than a catalog of new items with raw details, pricing, and availability, beer rating websites create roadblocks and distractions by telling the consumer what they want (again, I’ll use the non-binary third-person singular terms “they” and “their” rather than he/she; it’s becoming grammatically easier), rather than encouraging the consumer to make their own decision based on data provided by the brewery. The ability of technology to tell us what we [think we] want is pervasive now; identifying when that’s happening and making a rational decision to adopt or reject the opportunity is the least we can do to remain autonomous. If a consumer chooses to read ratings, they should be prepared to make the same rational decision. But rejecting the opinion of one’s peers infers that one’s own opinion is just as insignificant; a loss for the attention economy.

In the less dramatic scenario of a catalog, the onus of descriptive ability would fall on the brewery. It would ideally prohibit active marketing techniques. It would force users to choose based on their own preferences and riskiness. It would encourage consumers to seek the advice of trusted individuals, or institutions. (Here is my bias: with eight years working in both commercial beer and homebrewing retail, I would like to think that my training, and that of my peers in the industry, matters. When a customer asks for a recommendation and then chooses, right in front of me, to opt for the suggestion on their phone, it’s a slap in the face. Is that what free will looks like?)

The Times Magazine article goes into some depth about the philosophy of open-source material and the potential for internet users to have control of their own identities rather than parting them out to corporations. The upshot is that it decentralizes and democratizes information and currency. The concept is a huge threat to our current economic infrastructure and forces people to become more aware of their virtual space. One doesn’t need to know coding language to understand that having control of one’s personal information reverses the power structure. For the beer consumer, having an intimate knowledge and control of their senses takes power away from marketing and centralized sources of potentially unqualified information. It provides an opportunity to engage more personally and honestly with friends and qualified people in the industry, and encourages others to do the same, organically.

The beauty of this evolving philosophy of decentralization, though it is quite complicated, is that it makes room for free will in virtual space. Right now, our physical world is partially informed by the internet, which is highly consolidated. Our engagement with others on solid ground is altered by internet memes, often passively and unironically. We are at risk of losing ourselves. For we beer consumers, it is imperative to rise above the noise, to take stock of our senses, and to use all external resources carefully. Seek qualified sources. Take risks, they won’t kill you. Question my recommendations, or use me as a metric in your own experiment. Just don’t let anything tell you what you want.

I used to own this t-shirt.