The Eugene Beer T

Eugene is about to have its own “Beer T.” (Disclaimer: the T looks like it was drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch by a toddler. Work with me, people!) The mostly straight shot from Sam Bond’s Brewery in the east to Ninkasi in the west, which includes ColdFire, Steelhead, Oakshire, and Hop Valley, will be joined at the “joint” by The Wheel Apizza Pub, a New Haven-style pizzeria and pub from Tacovore’s Steve Mertz. Tobias Schock, former head brewer at Agrarian Ales, will head up the wet side of the operation. Word is he’s been perfecting a pilsner recipe and playing with new hops and Mecca Grade Estate Malt; sounds just right.

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Two new brewery tasting rooms will add to the vertical portion of the Eugene Beer T. Coincidentally, both are located in new buildings constructed after fires destroyed the previous ones. Claim 52 Kitchen will open just south of 12th Ave. on the east side of Willamette, where a fire destroyed an antique mall several years ago. Another local brewery will open a satellite tasting room in the former bowling alley at 2490 Willamette. Once the new locations are open, the pub crawl will also include the Falling Sky Pub. (And here’s a shameless plug for The Bier Stein!) The diverse range of beer produced in the Eugene-Springfield area easily matches that of other brewery-heavy cities, and should not be overlooked by tourists and locals seeking quality suds. Craft beer lovers in River Road and South Eugene are still waiting for a brewery to move in. 

Click the link below to view the map, which also includes pins of the good beer bars in the area. Please note that Google would only allow so many spots on the walking map; WildCraft’s new spot and Falling Sky Deli aren’t included.

Here Comes the Judge!

Part One
Put on your powdered wigs! You’re about to participate in a niche ritual, engaging your senses and translating them to the written word. Your wrist will be sore, your tongue deflated, your faith shaken. You are about to judge beer.

You don your clothes earlier than usual for a Saturday, eat a mild breakfast and consider not brushing your teeth. The recommended status of a “clean palate” conflicts with all morning rituals; do you choose coffee or toothpaste? Already, your brain is preparing for minutiae. Did you burn your tongue on pizza last night? What part? Can you still taste? Whew! Crisis averted. But please, revel in everything you do before you leave the house; it is the last bit of canny sanity you will encounter today.

“Just show up,” they said plaintively. “Free lunch, free beer.” This is community service. Your peers spent hours poring over the guidelines sipping on a glass of beer with pen in hand, trying to remain objective while deciding exactly how their malty offspring would be sacrificed. With only two gallons left in the keg, 36 ounces seems like a lot. But enter they must, whether gunning for ribbons or hoping for legible, coherent feedback. The dutiful entry process has stymied many, but not these stalwarts without whose gung-ho, go-gettem attitudes there would be no competition, no reason to get out of bed and join your fellow judges for a day of impeachment, veto, repeal, debate, gerrymandering, election, re-election, and insider trading.

The process takes place in a space in which you might not otherwise expect to drink. It is not a bar, a friend’s house, or a public park. You are removed from society and plunked down at a table, chatting with two other people in the same position, waiting to see what happens under your nose. Hastily, you fill out the basics on the scoresheets. Your name! You are now accountable for your words. Your BJCP judge ID number! Do you have one? Good! If not, expect to be the first to compromise. Your e-mail address! Dear god, are these people going to contact you? Will you receive beer judge-related spam? (“Spiral-bound 2015 BJCP Guidelines, with EZ-Grip Mechanical Pencil Embossed with Your Name, $17.95 + S&H”)

Engaging in this sort of sensory role play with other people is intimately platonic. All feelings are directed toward a beer; it is the collateral damage in a codependent relationship. It better behave, or else. The beer is treated as a child at cheap daycare, told when it is good but not receiving commensurate praise to scorn. A flawed beer hides its positive traits; a good judge teases them out for constructive criticism rather than putting it in time-out. A good beer is difficult to nitpick not because it is a good beer, but because it is a relief.

homebrew rainbow
This is what Best-of-Show looks like. From the 2018 KLCC Homebrew Competition.

Part Two: Nobody Ever Gets a 50
The best-of-show lineup at Saturday’s KLCC Homebrew Competition judging contained 24 different styles, including a mead and two ciders. How on earth–why on earth–should they be whittled away like contestants on The Weakest Link down to the best three? They should all have merit enough to stand on their own; every one is a winner! BOS judge panels are experienced and trusted. My first time, I recused myself from having any actual input until, during the same session, I timidly gave some input that was accepted by the majority. Later, I was put in my place: “Do you like soap?” Long story.

In my experience, the high score of 50 is like the amp that goes to 11. Why not just make 40 louder? Maybe it’s a localized phenomenon, but nobody ever gets a 50. Nobody ever totally wins the game. Really, that’s not fair to the brewer who may not understand that a 35 is a pretty good score, even though it’s an academic C-. Judges should reconsider this tactic. I should reconsider this tactic. A beer without fermentation flaws should be considered quite good, and not be lumped closer to beers that exhibit careless practice.

Homebrew is no longer its own bubble, as it was before 5,000 craft breweries opened in eight years (roughly). The transfer of knowledge from the home garage to the commercial garage–and to taps in our neighborhoods–has shown that good beer and bad beer can come from anywhere. At the Oregon Beer Awards judging (which has a radically different format from a BJCP competition), I tasted roughly 80 different beers in a range of styles. And though flaws were less pronounced, they were just as prevalent as in the KLCC comp. They were also different; fusel alcohol and strong esters were rarely an issue. Pro brewers typically have control over fermentation temperature and yeast health, whereas homebrewers are more likely to produce apple and banana bombs due to the lack thereof. The tiny scale of a batch of homebrew makes it comparatively harder to ferment well. Even doing cell counts and dosing by weight is less foolproof by the gram compared to the kilo (but props to the nerds that do this!).

If a judge is able to assert confidently that a homebrewed beer could be found on tap at a good beer bar (a metric I will add to my lexicon), it deserves a very high score. Suggestions to tweak the water profile or this-and-that malt or hop adjustment should be considered trivial compared to good fermentation, carbonation, and pH balance for the style. Very few beers will achieve this; reward those that do.

Part Three: Judging Judges
Don’t be the new guy who waltzes (because there’s 3-to-4 odds you’ll look like an idiot) into the judging chamber (judges suit up, beers are redressed) and thinks he knows everything (yup, you’re a guy). And don’t be the judge who doesn’t listen to the new guy. Remember, you are Lady Justice; Ego plays no part in this comedy.

A person, who shall remain nameless, made themselves a pariah at the judge table on Thursday (apologies for any grammatical confusion with genderless pronouns). They chatted loudly, texted, and showed extreme bias. They irritated their fellow judges. I heard about it a day later, and still wonder what my reaction would have been had they been at my table. This is an outlier situation. I’ve judged with brand new judges before (and I was one as well, starry-eyed in awe of the whole thing), and worked hard to help acclimate people to thinking and tasting as objectively as possible, while simultaneously accepting that everybody’s palate is valid. All this within a time crunch; it’s not easy. And yet there are experienced judges who refuse to give good feedback; two word reviews are a slap in the face to the antsy homebrewer awaiting results. No, you can’t print “shit sandwich.”

You, beer judge, are a hero. You step out of your comfort zone not knowing what is going to be in your mouth. You risk headache, palate fatigue, losing an argument, and being a guinea pig for some schmo’s carrot-ginger-raisin experiment in exchange for a sandwich, all from a sense of duty you can’t fully explain. You are a first world middle class homebrew hero. Act like one.

A Whole Brew World

One year ago I was in Peru; we had flown to Cusco from Lima and taken a combi van to Ollantaytambo where we met our friends and their baby and their dog Rabbit. The day after we arrived, I assisted on the first of a two-day kettle sour beer at Cerverceria del Valle Sagrado, which my friends had helped build. The brewery is right next to the Urubamba River, and right across the street from thousand-foot cliffs. Finding a witbier at 9,000 feet elevation halfway across the world from its origin would have been a preposterous idea ten years ago. But there it was (and then wasn’t; I drank it).

Even odder was Wick’s, the English pub in Lima’s Barranco district. Barranco is the Peruvian version of the hip, low-slung neighborhood you might find in Portland or San Francisco. Every night, bands played at several spots on the sprawling plaza. Little kids zipped around on tiny wheels while parents watched percussion troupes. Native and tourist couples snogged and took selfies on el Puente de los Suspiros, the Bridge of Sighs.

In Wick’s, the street life disappeared except when the door opened. The large men at the bar had British accents, though they may have been Dutch. The barkeep pulled pints with sluggish indignation; I tried to chat him up casually, but he wasn’t having it. Only on my return visit, to watch the Super Bowl (yes, the Super Bowl goddammit), did he engage in the slightest. It must be frustrating to have a rotating cast of ex-pats and tourists at your bar.

Sunburnt and satisfied. At Wick’s Pub in Lima drinking an English bitter, representing Agrarian Ales.

But the beer was fantastic. The stout was stout but quaffable. The pale was flowers and biscuits. The tiny brew system couldn’t have been larger than 3 barrels. The gin ‘n tonic was mostly gin; that seems pretty appropriate. It felt sort of wrong to sit at a brown bar crushing pints of bitter in the middle of Lima; wrong that I chose to escape the onslaught of culture outside for a moment; wrong that such a place even existed amid the cevicherias. But then there are McDonalds and Starbucks crowded with locals; it is a huge, international city. Would a Peruvian think twice about getting a causa in D.C.? At the time, it also felt quite comfortable.

This won’t be the last not-in-Kansas-anymore sensation I get in my beer travels. I look forward to tasting how breweries in Berlin interpret an IPA in a couple months. As craft beer has grown global, it’s brought along certain aesthetics; these manifested differently at each of the 6 or so breweries we went to in Peru. The vibes swung from modern to homey, but each insinuated “craft beer” in its own way.


Beer Pairing “Secrets”

I used to watch a lot of Food Network; Good Eats and Iron Chef America, on both sides of the entertainment spectrum, were my favorite. Alton Brown’s Mr. Wizard-like citizen science epitomized my ideal life in the kitchen; practical tools and a commercial-level know-how in a home setting appeal to my sense of efficiency and creativity. With Brown as host of the sequel to the original great cooking game show, with its dramatic lighting, swinging cameras, and do-or-die time constraints (I have since moved on to the placid, polite Great British Baking Show; I’m old), the competing chefs were mostly battling their own time management skills, while maintaining enough composure to manipulate and perfectly plate the secret ingredient. The words the judges used to describe and criticize the food informed my lexicon; I brought that to restaurants and, eventually, beer.

There are lots of ways to think about cooking and brewing, and a lot of those overlap; I enjoy dissecting a meal into its constituent flavors and tastes, and equating them to a beer. The reverse, starting with the beer (and a good conversational partner), is how I develop beer pairing menus. Rather than considering the ingredients themselves, recognizing texture, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and the other basic sensations in the mouth help to find inspiration for what will be, at best, a dance between food and drink. Once those basics have been established, the flavor discussion follows.

Meat & cheese boards are great for exploring what works or doesn’t work in pairing. Try new things! Photo by Aaron Brussat

The chemical reactions that occur when pairing food and beer are too complicated to explain easily; I’m no scientist, but have practiced and read enough to understand that an acidic or highly carbonated beer will break apart the fatty proteins in a bite of a creamy dish (with a béchamel sauce, for example) and effectively clear the palate. Because creating a beer pairing is a very intentional act, all of these sorts of factors must be taken into account. The poetic limitations of pairing–choosing the right type of acid, adjusting the crunchiness or level of char–make it at once daunting and alluring. It’s like the prospect of having a threesome; adding a third person to an already complex act (emotionally, if not physically) increases the likelihood of mishap by 150%. Thankfully, our tastebuds are pretty forgiving.

A recent, quite random experience sums up how a high intensity beer pairing can go right. I was at a local brewery, chatting with the brewer about a batch of beer; it was the first generation yeast pitch for a hazy IPA (nerd alert!). My impression was of papaya, mango, orange, and some soft red apple yeast esters that added complexity. It finished on the bitter side, but had body. My friend had ordered a green curry with chicken from the food cart outside, and offered me a bite. The sauce had a building heat with its own fruitiness, but was tempered by the coconut milk, just enough so my tongue didn’t burn. Fortuitously, the IPA was a perfect pairing. Without the body provided by the yeast in suspension and a small dose of oats, the bitterness of the beer would have turned the heat up to 11 (I typically avoid bitter beer with spicy food; I find it unpleasant and over-filling). The fresh tropical character of the hops played into the complexity of the spices, and the soft carbonation washed just enough of the flavor off the palate that I wanted another bite. He let me finish the plate.

Had I been drinking a sour beer, the pairing would have been a disaster. A hefeweizen, still cloudy and full but much less intense, would have played well but not on all levels. Couldn’t have planned that one better.

From the Breakside beer dinner at The Bier Stein. The wild greens and jerk sauce played on different aspects of the Simba Saison’s hop & yeast character. The texture of the raw tuna helped smooth the dryness of the beer. Photo by Aaron Brussat


Distributor Merger Poses Threat

At the end of a long day, I was greeted by this post on The New School announcing the sale of General Distributors, Inc. (GDI) to Columbia Distributing. Columbia is one of the largest distributors in the country, and serves major areas in Washington and Oregon, as well as northern California. GDI serves the greater Portland area, as far south as Corvallis (I believe). As my recent past life involved a lot of interaction with distributors, and my way past life involved a wariness of businesses that grow too big and swallow or destroy others, this sale piqued my interest.

Of the three main Eugene-area distributors, Columbia has the largest catalog. But let’s back up a second:

Distributors are the “middle” tier of the three-tier system of beer distribution. The system was formed after Prohibition to prevent tied houses, which is when a brewery has an exclusive agreement with an independently owned retail establishment. Inserting a middle man and requiring all beer (some exceptions, state-by-state) to go through that process removes the possibility of a tied house and encourages fair business practices. In real life, pay-to-play is still alive but doesn’t have the same anti-competitive impact.

The three-tier system has gone through the evolution of beer in the U.S., from the consolidation of breweries that led to the “big three,” Bud-Miller-Coors, to the first and second waves of the craft beer movement that essentially ruined the Mad Men fantasy world of beer distributors. Now, distributors are partly responsible for representing all of the brands in their catalogs. The relationship between a brewery and its distributor is crucial to maintaining that representation; if a brewery doesn’t have a plan and communicate it effectively, it will likely flounder. It’s like any other business. Back to the main plot–

columbia warehouse
Columbia Distributing’s Portland warehouse is enormous.

Columbia has the largest catalog in town. Bigfoot Beverages in Eugene is much smaller, and has a concentrated, high quality catalog of craft beer and other beverages. Bigfoot also works with GDI to distribute certain brands in its territory, which covers the central coast to Bend, and south to Roseburg. In Oregon, distributors cannot overlap distribution of a brand. This is what’s troubling. The merger has the potential to take away business, by default, from another distributor. It also poses a threat to breweries in GDI’s catalog that have built relationships with retailers through the distributor.

The merger may or may not have anything to do with a strike in late 2015. The two week lapse upset the production and distribution schedules of numerous breweries, and resulted in many thousands of dollars lost for some, as they lost valuable shelf space during one of the busiest times of the year. Though the union was decertified and pushed out of GDI, damage had been done. It took months for breweries to recover from the upset.

Consolidation brings more concern, as a strike at Columbia could deal a blow to even more breweries. In addition, Oregon laws favor distributors; it is nearly impossible for a brewery to switch distributors without paying large sums of money, even if the brewery is dissatisfied with the service.

With so many breweries in Columbia’s catalog, it will be even harder for smaller brands to be recognized and properly represented; the distributor will act in its own interest by focusing on brands that perform well, and breweries with deeper pockets will have a louder voice in the crowd as they can offer incentives to sell. And while the goal will not be to squash anybody, it will happen. At that point, the onus is not just on the brewery to push hard to represent itself; retailers who care about variety will have to work harder to find unique offerings and support the underdog.

Has Columbia grown too big? What are the options for the affected breweries, which have no say in the matter? This is a complicated issue, to say the least.