2016 – The Year in Beer

Sampler tray at the Prodigal Son Brewery

I haven’t written up a year-end retrospective post in awhile but this past 12 months felt like the year for it. There have been some interesting things going on in beer for 2016, on both the national and the local level, that are worth revisiting. No big revelations here, other than what you might find contemplating the lacing in a pint of IPA, but hopefully worth some discussion at the pub.

2016 started out in such an odd (and non-beer related) way for Oregon, and Central and Eastern Oregon in particular, with the takeover and occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by armed militia. (Or domestic terrorists, if you prefer.) Well, even then it wasn’t completely unrelated to beer, for me (apparently I can connect the beer dots to a lot of things): I was working on an article about Steens Mountain Brewing, located in Burns, Oregon, which was directly affected by the occupation:

During the occupation, the threat against the federal employees was enough that [owner Richard] Roy (himself a long-time employee of the Bureau of Land Management) packed up his family and left Burns for a time, staying at an undisclosed location well out of town. I talked to him a few times during that time, article still in progress, and even met up a couple of times to drink some of his beers, but since they were still in hiding and the occupation was still going on, I didn’t add any details into the article.

Sales and production slowed down during that period (naturally), and Roy’s original plan of launching a Kickstarter type campaign to raise funds for his brewery upgrade had to be put off from late January until sometime later. On the other hand, his oldest sons had stayed behind and continued to brew so it wasn’t a total wash.

In the aftermath, Roy brewed up a gruit dubbed LEO (for “Law Enforcement Officers”) as a show of support for the efforts by the authorities during the occupation.

Steens Mountain LEO Gruyt

Beer aside, the Malheur Occupation was just one very strange and disturbing start to a year that turned out equally and unpredictably strange. Not many will be sad to see 2016 go, but let’s not get complacent about 2017 either. I will just point out that now might be a good time to brush up on your beer brewing skills.

Back to beer. On the national scale, there are interesting numbers and trends to note. The Brewers Association sent out their year-end review, and glossing over some of the PR, here’s where the U.S. stands by their stats:

  • 5,005 total breweries in the United States (as of November 30).
  • Growth in the “small and independent” brewery segment was 8%.
  • IPAs continue to represent roughly 25% of all craft styles sold; and this: “More sessionable styles, including golden ales, pilseners and pale lagers, are up 33 percent, totaling nearly five percent of craft.” (So IPAs 25%, sessionable 5%)
  • Growth in “craft beer export volume” was up 16.3%, with 446,151 barrels exported to international markets, worth $116 million.

And notably, though this kicks back against my “glossing over PR” comment above, the BA helped Travelocity develop a “Beer Tourism Index” which lists Portland (Oregon) metro area the #1 large metro area destination, and Bend (Oregon) the #1 small metro area destination. Well you know I had to mention Oregon, right?

Two things of note. First—5,005 breweries! I am reasonably certain many (most?) of these new ones coming online this year are basically picobreweries, with brewing systems in the neighborhood of one to two barrels, essentially scaled-up homebrewers gone pro. That’s been my sense of many of the new breweries that have started up recently. Why not: it’s a lower barrier to entry than investing in 30+ barrel facilities that require tens or hundred of thousands of dollars, making a small brewery business easy to open. Nothing wrong with this model at all! But I do think this is what accounts for numbers that have blown the roof off of various predictions we all made in past years.

Then, there’s that 8% growth number. That’s actually down from double-digit growth seen in previous years which has some people worried that craft beer is slumping. In fact, beer sales across the board have been declining for years—but that decline is in the macro beer segment. So the way I see it, even if “growth is down” in craft, 8% growth is still growth. Maybe not the bubblicious double digit growth numbers that get investors and people all slathery to jump into the market (late 1990s, anyone?), but still positive.

Not to say the industry is all sunshine and unicorns either, as we saw Stone Brewing lay off a stunning five percent of its workforce this past year. And that’s not going to be isolated or going away for the foreseeable future, as everyone wakes up to the realization that, whoa, beer is business! At this point I’ll recommend Jason Notte’s article “The craft beer industry’s turf war begins in earnest in 2017” and call this line of thought good.

The thing about having over 5,000 breweries (accounting for, what, at least 25,000 different beers?) is that there are simply too many to reasonably write about with any authority—much less visit and drink that much beer. That why the trend of “local beer” has become so prominent; it’s out of necessity as much as it is a backlash against big(ger) corporate breweries and a focus on fresh, small, personable. “Local” only becomes more important in the coming years. Keep that in mind.

With that being said, be suspicious of any year-end “Best Of” type writing that purports to authoritatively cover beer beyond the writer’s own region. I’ve been drinking and writing about beer for a long time now but if I tried to tell you one of the Best Beers of 2016 was one of the Cigar City Brewing samples I tasted during the Beer Bloggers Conference in July, well, I’d be wrong.

Cigar City Brewing samples during Beer Bloggers Conference 2016
Don’t misunderstand, there were some tasty beers at CCB, but nowhere near enough to declare a year’s best!

So, I can really only reliably talk about the local beer scene: Central Oregon in particular, and Oregon in the larger sense. Once we get beyond the borders of the state, any brewery- or region-specific knowledge I have is pretty minimal.

Here is Central Oregon, in line with the growth numbers above, we saw three new breweries added to the scene: Kobold Brewing, Immersion Brewing, and right toward the end of the year, Crooked Jay Brewing. To be fair, Kobold started right at the very end of 2015, selling their first keg to the Platypus Pub just before last New Year’s. So I have them on my local breweries list as officially being a 2015 brewery, but since they were just being discovered this year they are a 2016 brewery in spirit.

Immersion Brewing opened as a 10-barrel brewpub with an attached Brew-It-Yourself homebrew business, something we haven’t seen in… a long time. It’s a nice setup but I still have my doubts as to how well BIP (brew on premise) works as a business model, and it wouldn’t surprise me at some point if that goes away to focus on the brewpub portion, but in that regard I have no inside information so I may well be wrong.

Crooked Jay Brewing I know the least about so far, other than a name, website, and the fact that they sold their first beer to Pisano’s Pizza in Tumalo (which is a community about six miles north-northwest of Bend, on the road to Sisters). So I am counting them as a 2016 brewery, though likely they will be “discovered,” like Kobold was, in 2017.

Among the existing breweries there have been all sorts of growth and developments, including:

  • Deschutes Brewery announced that Roanoke, Virginia will be the location of their East Coast brewery.
  • Bend Brewing Company ownership officially changed hands at the beginning of the year. The new owners’ goal is to maintain the quality of what BBC has accomplished and focus on growth and improvements.
  • Silver Moon Brewing’s Redmond production facility came online, and they began canning this year.
  • Oblivion Brewing lost their pub space at the end of 2015, and Sunriver Brewing ended up taking the space, opening their Bend pub.
  • Monkless Belgian Ales moved into the former 10 Barrel/Brew Werks/Fresh Tracks brewery location, upgrading to a 10-barrel brewing system in doing so.

And Fresh Tracks Brewing is one I ticked off my “active” list for that last bullet point. They had a strange trajectory that could be traced from Old Mill Brew Werks to Brew Werks Brewing to Fresh Tracks, and ultimately they just seemed to fade away.

Another item on my local brewery list that I am going to remove for 2017—at least temporarily—is “The Brew Shop/Platypus Pub” entry. While they still have a valid business registration as “Platypus Pub and Brewery” they haven’t had a house-branded beer available for some time. (The beer was basically contract brewed with Bridge 99 Brewery, I believe.) The other factor is, their lease runs out by March and they have to move (something I originally reported on here), and as far as I know there is no new location determined yet. So frankly, I’m considering brewing activity (for purposes of counting the number of breweries) suspended until we find out otherwise. The list on the site will be updated to reflect that.

There is always a bit of hand-waving when trying to count breweries—do you count the number of actual brewing systems? Do you count contract/gypsy brewers with a license but no equipment?—but with this update that will put Central Oregon at 28 breweries, and Bend itself at 20. (I count the total number of locations with equipment that are brewing beer at 33—Deschutes has two different breweries, Boneyard has two, etc.)

So Bend added two or three breweries, depending, and around the state it seems to be the same story—growth and new breweries. In Portland there are too many new breweries to track; but it’s especially gratifying, to me, to see the growth in numbers outside of the Portland (and Bend) metro area. New breweries opening up on the coast in the past year or two, in places such as The Dalles and Boardman, Forest Grove and Lebanon. And more planned—covering the state gradually, and keeping it local.

I am not going to write about the whole “Northeast IPA” fever that gripped Portland over the summer, other than to say I didn’t experience it. Hazy, flour-infused, milkshake-thick beer? Yawn. I like unfiltered beer just fine, but I’m glad that trend kept its 15 minutes in Portland.

On a personal note, my writing has expanded beyond the scope of this blog (well, it had before, but not as regularly). In addition to the Steens Mountain article I mentioned above for BeerAdvocate Magazine, I have a regular bi-weekly paid writing gig for our local newspaper, The Bulletin. I’ve recently added links to my most recent Bulletin articles in the sidebar. One big goal for 2017 is to focus on more paid writing like that.

And if you visit the blog itself regularly—as opposed to, say, reading articles in your RSS newsreader or just scanning posts on social media—you might have noticed a bit of a theme/style refresh. From a visual design standpoint it has been subtle so far, but I spent time rewriting the underlying theme code to modernize it and to take advantage of the big increase in mobile traffic in recent years. (Fun fact: at least 50% of site visits across the web come from mobile devices these days.) The goal is to focus on a cleaner reading experience, improve the structure and speed, and ideally improve visibility. I will still be tinkering with the code in the coming weeks.

Finally, just for fun, here’s a very short photo essay of my year in beer, featuring one photo for each month (and not all of them have been previously posted):

January:

McMenamins High Gravity Extravaganza 2016
High Gravity Extravaganza at McMenamins Old St. Francis School

February:

Zwickelmania 2016: Three Creeks Brewing
Zwickelmania at Three Creeks Brewing

March:

Sky High Brewing sampler tray
Beers and booze at Sky High Brewing, Corvallis

April:

Pelican Pub & Brewery at night, Pacific City, Oregon
Pacific City’s Pelican Pub at night

May:

Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice, from the cask
Deschutes Brewery Hop Slice, from the cask

June:

Sampler tray at the Prodigal Son Brewery
Sampler tray at the Prodigal Son Brewery, Pendleton, Oregon

Okay, one extra bonus for June:

Selfies with Rob Widmer
Selfies with Rob Widmer

July:

Brewery Tour at 3 Daughters Brewing
Touring 3 Daughters Brewing in Florida, post-Beer Bloggers Conference excursion

August:

Yachats Brewing beer sample flight
Sampling beer at Yachats Brewing

September:

Wild Ride El Luchador at The Little Woody
Wild Ride El Luchador at The Little Woody

October:

Happy Halloween!
Halloween treats with McMenamins

November:

Holiday Wine Festival Santa hat
Sampling wine at the Holiday Wine Fest, Seattle

December:

Holiday Ale Festival, Good Night Sweet Prince
Holiday Ale Festival, Good Night Sweet Prince

Here’s to a great 2017! Cheers!

2 comments

  1. I had 2 of those OR-born NE IPAs and while in some ways they were tasty they were also disgusting. I agree unfiltered can be excellent but the point of those …?

    I really like Crooked Jay’s logo but they have already bored me and I just heard of them from you: 6 beers, 3 of which are IPAs, 1 session (IPA?) and 1 pale. Oh, and a lager. They lost me before they started. [Yeah. Yeah. I will give them a try but still. Freaking boring as all get out!]

    The site redesign looks great and it does load a *lot* faster. I had had to stop looking at the site on my mobile devices but thankfully can now.

    Also, thanks for keeping that brewery list up as it is what I point people to as the definitive list for our area. 😀

    Cheers, brother!

    1. Thanks Mark! Glad you noticed the site’s faster/better in mobile, that was definitely a sore spot myself.

      As soon as I know more about Crooked Jay I’ll let you know, Central Oregon has a pretty high bar for new breweries to reach these days for sure.

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