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A Challenge for ALL Northwest Breweries

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TPFFACT: exactly ONE of the legendary, modern American Stouts is made in the Pacific Northwest.

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Deschutes “The Abyss” is IT for this wildly Brit-centric region’s contribution to the Stout Continuum that contains Firestone Walker “Parabola“, Three Floyds “Dark Lord“, Perennial “Abraxas”, Cigar City “Hunahpu’s”, Great Divide’s 235 different iterations of “Yeti“, that now-defunct Chicago brewery’s legendary “Bourbon County“, Bell’s “Black Note“, Founders “CBS“, The Bruery’s “Black Tuesday“, and other beasts like those. Basically, out of nearly 600 breweries in Washington and Oregon (closing in on 700, if you add in Idaho and Montana) we have this following list of near-misses and “almost, maybes”:

abraxusReuben’s Brews Russian Imperial / Sound Brewery “Ursus Spelaeus” and “Ursus Americanus” / Block 15 “Super Nebula” and “Imagine” / Fort George Rum and Bourbon Barrel Aged “Cavatica” / Fremont “Dark Star” (in certain years) / Crux Fermentation Project {Banished}Tough Love” / Boneyard Brewing “Suge Knite” / Full Sail “Black Gold“…and then a couple hundred others attempts.

SugeKnite

Boneyard’s new “Crowler” of Suge Knite

I’ve left a few out, on that list. Maybe. But the central fact is that, no matter what fans and brewers may think of some other Stouts, ONLY The Abyss has that mammoth viscosity, depth, complexity, density, and gravitas of those on the first list. Reuben’s Brews Anniversary Barrel-Aged Imperials come very close but are one-offs, made in tiny quantities. “Suge Knite”, which is my choice for the second-best Imperial Stout made in the PNW, misses that upper tier ONLY because very, very few people outside the PNW have ever tasted it, due mostly to the fact that, until their recent “crowler” release, Boneyard had been so swamped with filling keg orders that they just didn’t have time or capacity to package anything. And it’s those cans and bottles – the containers that have (with notable exceptions) come out of this region far later than from any other major American craft brewing culture – that get the word around, make waves, feed that peculiar American frenzy for Big Stouts. Make no mistake about it, that demand is Out There. Proof? Sure: how many release dates do we see that become even half as frenzied and buzz-worthy as those for the Imperial Stouts? How many IPAs have a mobbed release like Cigar City’s “Hunahpu’s“? Deschutes “The Abyss“? FW’s “Parabola“? I know of ONE Imperial IPA release that goes SRO every year: Russian River “Pliny“.

bkts-2015-167x480I’m NOT talking about just a big crowd at our local brewery. I’m talking about fans from coast to coast and ever overseas clamoring for the products, hammering retailers, and even flying in to snag their one bottle. 200 people will max out most small brewery taprooms. 1,500+ people is what turns out for the Major Stouts.

Now, you may say and I may even agree, in part, that this sort of mania for any one beer runs counter to the general interests of craft brewing. And that’s absolutely correct. How many fine Stouts are totally ignored on shop shelves by those wandering hoardes who just must have Bourbon County, which – let’s be honest, here – they want only because it carries cachet to snag a scarce release and they want to be Cool more than they want to drink a great Stout? I think the answer runs somewhere north of 99% but even if it’s only 90%, that’s still ridiculous hyperbole, motivated by childish fixation.

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Crux “Tough Love”

BUT – and this is s HUGE “but” – what these epic beers do is help raise the profile of their breweries, which helps sell all of their beers, which washes the bottom lines with black ink, which helps raise awareness of their home communities, which makes it possible for their neighbors to try their own Big Stouts, all of which raises the bar considerably for the general quality of the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest, or this soggy, somewhat isolated Valhalla we enjoy up here in the left corner of your US map.

I understand the challenges, especially here in Washington, where our crippling alcohol tax structure actually punishes brewers who want to make a major, high ABV Stout. Beers over ten percent ABV are excise taxed more than double those below that threshold. So, making a Big Stout isn’t a great economy move, here in WA. But it IS a great way to get noticed and the effect of that should not be underestimated.

wek_hunaphus030812_213481a_8colI was contacted, about a year and a half ago, by a Washington brewery which was in the process of reevaluating their operations. The owner contacted me privately and asked if I would give him my honest appraisal of why his brewery just never seemed to get over the hump. “We don’t generate any talk,” he wrote, “No buzz at all. I don’t get it. We make great beers. Our customers love us. We have a core of well over 500 loyal customers, people we see at least once a week. But outside _____, nobody knows us at all.

I replied that his beers, while solidly drinkable and pleasant, had nothing about them that couldn’t be found at 200 other breweries in this state. I asked him to name the state’s best breweries, and leave his own out of it. Then, I took his list and pointed out the differences; the beers that do generate buzz and talk and crowds. In every case, those breweries made beers that broke some sort of new ground. Mac & Jack’s African Amber, Washington’s best-selling craft beer, was the area’s first unfiltered, high-hops Amber. Georgtown Brewing’s “Manny’s” Pale Ale was the state’s first pale to emphasize aggressive hops. The others he named has similar distinctions. “What do YOU have?” I asked.

beer_202819This email conversation went on for a solid week, him consistently arguing that, basically, his brewery was just fine the way it was and that it was simply slack-ass consumers who were to blame for his lethargy. I strongly advised him to at least try a sour or barrel-aged program, Belgians, some experimental beers, something, in short, that would get his brewery outside their comfortable but boring box. He promised to think about it.

What he wound up doing was…nothing. And his brewery chugs along, not growing, not bringing in new customers, not being in the conversation at all.

Meanwhile, one of his neighbors, in the same town, did all that; made creative beers, put some in  barrels, inoculated some with lactobacillus or brettanomyces…or both. They experimented, which is more rare, here in Washington, than Japanese players in the NBA. Today, that brewery is being talked about all across the country. Their pub is full daily, and their sour/brett/barrel program continues to expand. they’re not just growing, they’re booming. And all because they dared to do what 95% of their ownership and the local beer intelligentsia said would never work.

a16a574c09b1260a14f663021826d0e8So, I have a Challenge for our Washington and Northwest brewers and brewery owners. This is prompted by my own overwhelming desire to see brewers – who, as a group, are some of the best, smartest, and most decent human beings I’ve ever known, with only very rare exceptions – benefit and prosper and be recognized for their considerable skills, and, no less, because I expend a TON of energy, every year, having to explain to readers and beer pundits and those out-of-state or foreign publications/websites who interview me, why Washington beer is so great, when they’ve quite likely never even tasted a bottle that wasn’t issued either by Pike Brewing or one of the AB/InBev-affiliated breweries. Pike is the sole exception to my objections about this sad state of affairs. Pike is an excellent representative of what Washington beer can be but their distribution reach is not as broad as the Bud-ites. People all over America think PNW beer is Red Hook and The Artist Formerly Known As Elysian and Oregon’s ruined  10 Barrel, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Fort-George-Bourbon-Cavatica-StoutHere’s the Challenge: MAKE A BIG, MODERN AMERICAN STYLE IMPERIAL STOUT. Throw out your aesthetic strictures about British authenticity and any rationales you may have entertained about elegance and nuance and subtlety and simply Go For It. In a state which, until very recently, produced at least 97% beers that could all be classed as British-style ales, it’s incomprehensible to me that NOBODY came up with an epic, Abyss/Parabola/Dark Lord-type Stout. get a bottle of any of those I named. Assemble your staff. Taste it. Talk about it. Figure out what creates that stunning viscosity and grip and depth and complexity and then do it Your Way. New infusions, new yeasts, new malts, new ideas, new techniques, and a new way of approaching the marketing of it. Get outside whatever comfortable box you may have suspected you were sitting in and over-reach, go beyond your own ambitions and preconceptions. Make an ale that will start tongues wagging. If enough people are willing to do this, I’ll pledge to find backing for an annual Stout competition and cash awards. A big ol’ massive Stout Throw-Down, if you will.

DarkLordClipped-400x1654MAKE A MONSTER STOUT. BOTTLE/CAN IT. Talk about it, in your taproom, to everybody you know, across all your social media and your website. Send out samples for review, if you’re damned sure you nailed it. But be certain you’re being objective about that Abyss or Parabola or Yeti you taste. If you sit there thinking, “Well, mine is just as good as this“, I’m here to tell you that, as someone who has tasted about 95% of all the Stouts made in this two-state area, your Stout is NOT as good as that. Not by a mile. Those I named in the second graph of this post are VERY close but there’s a reason releases of The Abyss are national news. It’s because it is just exactly THAT great.

That’s the challenge. I can’t make anybody do anything but I will, if anybody comes close enough, become your biggest cheerleader and if enough breweries start to make it work, I’ll organize that StoutFest. This is not about me and my huge ego. This is about promoting PNW beer and trying to raise the profile of ALL breweries in WA/OR/ID…and I can’t even move the needle a tiny bit. That takes something different and exciting from YOU.

4 thoughts on “The Northwest Stout Conundrum: Where’s the Beef?

  1. I don’t understand why breweries don’t put more focus on creating at least one signature beer, as you implied. I go out of my way for Counterbalances Russian Imperial Stout, Machinhouse’s Mild, Big Al’s Smoked Porter, the hope that Schooner Exact has one of their sours on tap. Even though I find most of their beers kind of average, everyone knows Maritime Pacific’s Jolly Roger and I’m sure it helps sustain much of their business. It took me about 5 seconds to figure your unnamed brewery is likely NW Peaks. They’ve been around awhile and have never had anything interesting to offer. They’re not on mine nor anyone else’s radar. Which is to bad. I want and root for all breweries to be successful.

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    • Also, YES, I agree whole-heartedly that breweries should make – or at least identify, based on patrons’ feedback – a flagship beer. Many times, as in the case of at least three breweries I’m thinking of, the brewer designates one as his signature beer and the clientele ignores that and makes some other beer their favorite. But having a flagship can be a signature; a statement of purposes about that brewery. At Reuben’s, for example, it’s evolved into Crikey. At Sound, it’s Monk’s Indiscretion. At Big Al, absolutely the Smoked Porter. Wingman, despite pushing Ace IPA, is better known now for a couple of other beers, including Brux 2 the Cu and Abogado. I am always a bit baffled at how some brewery owners don’t see marketing advantages in how they present the beers but it’s fairly common. I liked the Counterbalance RIS, BTW, but it falls well short of what I was talking about in the post.

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  2. I don’t understand why breweries don’t put more focus on creating at least one signature beer, as you implied. I go out of my way for Counterbalances Russian Imperial Stout, Machinhouse’s Mild, Big Al’s Smoked Porter, the hope that Schooner Exact has one of their sours on tap. Even though I find most of their beers kind of average, everyone knows Maritime Pacific’s Jolly Roger and I’m sure it helps sustain much of their business. It took me about 5 seconds to figure your unnamed brewery is likely NW Peaks. They’ve been around awhile and have nothing interesting to offer. They’re not on mine nor anyone else’s radar. Which is to bad. I want and root for all breweries to be successful.

    Like

Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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