By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Who’s afraid of the seasonal creep? It sneaks up when you least expect it with autumn pumpkin-spiced beers in August and malty, strong winter ales in September. The seasonal creep lures you in with your favorite summer seasonal when spring rain is still falling, but mysteriously disappears by August.
If you’re one of those people surprised to find 10 Barrel Brewing’s Jamaican Me Pumpkin available in the dog days of summer or Deschutes Jubelale before the first leaf hits the ground in fall, then you’ve been smacked by seasonal creep. Pumpkin beers are a controversial new seasonal hit, but usually debut in stores before pumpkins. As I write this, it’s a clear blue sunny day and there’s a bottle of 2016 Deschutes Jubelale on my desk. Ironically, this year’s Jubelale art is called “First Snow,” while winter still seems nowhere in sight.
Understanding why seasonal creep strikes is to understand consumer buying habits and the supermarket strategy. In many ways, craft beer has blossomed on the back of seasonal beer releases. Where bars and taprooms would once carry the same beers year-round, drinkers began craving diversity. Seasonals were the first rotating, specialty offerings before limited-edition one-offs were a thing. We grew accustomed to looking forward to our favorite seasonal all year. No doubt there is value in hanging a beer release on a holiday, but it’s a double-edged sword.
The quickest way to grow a brewery is by getting beer into bottles and onto supermarket shelves.
A store will grant a brewery a certain number of stock keeping units (SKUs) or how many varieties they’ll carry. These slots must remain filled because an empty row is lost revenue. It’s difficult to capture more than a few SKUs if you’re a small brewer, and if you can’t keep them filled, you’re out. As Jason Randles, digital marketing director for Deschutes Brewery explains it, “You can’t have empty shelves at retail, so you have to be ready to backfill with the next seasonal because they share the same SKU.”
Seasonals are often intrinsically connected to holidays. Breakside Brewery’s head brewer and former Oregon Brewers Guild president Ben Edmunds says, “We've found that brewing and rolling out a beer attached to a very specific season or holiday really shifts people's attention away from the beer and onto the season in question. And, unfortunately, this means that if you release beers "late" in a marketing season — say releasing a "winter beer" on Jan. 15 or a pumpkin beer on Oct. 20 — the beers don't sell as well as they would if they were released earlier.”
“Summer seasonals stop moving towards the end of August. Holiday beers like Jubelale stop moving on December 31st,” adds Jason Randles. “Another interesting point about seasonals is that the trends are very soft. In the past, consumers would go to seasonals for variety and change, but now change is everywhere. “
The McMenamins locations throughout the Pacific Northwest regularly tie their beer releases to holidays. Black Widow Porter is a rare McMenamins bottle that only makes an appearance around Halloween. McMenamins hopes that supply will be gone by Nov. 11 when the Christmas-themed Kris Kringle Traditional Yuletide Ale comes out.
“When should a winter seasonal be released? I'm not sure, but I do think that if you're putting a beer out marketed with snowcapped mountains, Santa Claus or winter landscapes on the label before Oct. 1, you're letting marketing drive a lot of your beer-making decisions” says Ben Edmunds.
Deschutes Brewery is the largest independent brewery in the state, the eighth largest in the country. Their winter seasonal Jubelale is one of the region’s most famous, now in its 29th year. But even a classic like Jubelale can struggle in the market. Jason Randles admits Jubelale has hit as early as late August to ensure sellout by the holidays. However, Deschutes is making attempts to release seasonals more in line with the actual seasons.
“We did our best to address this seasonal creep this year by introducing a fourth seasonal, Hopzeit, but it didn’t work out as well as we had planned,” Randles says. “Hopzeit was supposed to be available for about six-to-eight weeks in late August through early October, but Hop Slice went long and is still on the shelf in Oregon. Hopzeit was supposed to push the Jubelale release to its intended early October release date.” Still, October ain’t bad when compared to an August release.
At Breakside Brewery, they have found their own way to stay out of reach of the seasonal creep.
“Our solution has been to avoid attaching our bottled, rotating beers to a particular season. You won't see any of the seasons or holidays specifically mentioned in the marketing or imagery for our rotating beers. The exception to this is some draft beers” said Ben Edmunds.
So if you’re as afraid of seasonal creep as I am, do your best to support year-round beers and drink your seasonals fresh and in high quantity!
Ron Gansberg (right), brewmaster for Cascade Brewing Barrel House, says the biggest challenge when creating spiced beer is having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how to use each one. Kevin Martin, lead blender, agrees that time is a huge ingredient. Photo by Emma Browne
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The holidays wouldn't be the same without spices — they infuse the air with warm, welcoming aromas and contribute distinct flavors to food and drink — bringing to mind memories of gatherings filled with family, friends and cheer.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House, led by Ron Gansberg, is a brewery that fully embraces the use of spices in their beers. While they offer spice beers year-round, many people tend to associate fall with the flavorful variety as we begin to turn to seasonal food that works well with spices, like pumpkins and apples, which are also in abundance. One of many spiced beers Cascade turns out is called Pumpkin Smash, which is made with local, organic Cinderella pumpkins from Sauvie Island that are then roasted in-house. The Northwest-style sour ale is barrel aged for 11 months and still highly drinkable at 11.4 percent ABV due to a combination of spices that bring to mind pumpkin pie.
The use of spices is not new, having been a mainstay in beer making since the beginning, but in recent history their presence has been overshadowed by other ingredients — primarily hops. Ron’s work continues to buck that trend and it’s an ongoing project to master Cascade’s spiced beer game. When asked what the biggest challenge is when creating spiced beer, his answer was having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how and when to use each one. Some spices are more stable than others, retaining consistency throughout the life of the beer; others might be more prominent early on only to eventually fade, quickly or slowly, as the beer matures. That factor is particularly important at Cascade since so many of their beers spend time aging in barrels. Kevin Martin, lead blender at Cascade, explains that when making spiced beer, it must be understood that "time is a huge ingredient."
Just as hops can be added during the boil, during aging or even right before serving by using a Randall, spices may also be introduced at different points throughout the beer-making process. Cascade's spice regimen includes kettle spicing, barrel spicing and spicing at blending, all of which have been developed over time with the help of detailed notes that track how the spices are expressed in the beer. The careful note taking allows Cascade to refine its processes.
Kettle spicing happens during brewing and builds a good base layer of flavor. When added at this point, the flavors have the opportunity to not only be more integrated, but they may also be transformed at the molecular level during fermentation. Barrel spicing doesn't provide the level of integration that kettle spicing does, but just as an application of salt and pepper enhances a dish before it’s served, adding the element as the beer ages is an important step in creating the final product. Both methods are important, each providing their own flavor contribution to the beer. Then comes the "eleventh hour correction," or spicing at blending. This is the blender's last hurrah with the beer in an effort to make it the perfect concoction.
Vlad the Imp Aler, a sour ale that is a blend of blonde quads, tripels and blondes that have been aged more than 18 months in bourbon and wine barrels, was the first spiced beer that Ron made at Cascade. When asked why he first decided to make a spiced beer, Ron said it was because he felt that the spicing complemented where the beer was going and also helped define and frame the brew. As for the how — his process and way of doing things — that’s something he’s intentionally developed through trial and error without turning to other breweries’ methods as a model. While one might think it would be useful to learn from what others are doing, his view is that if he learned other breweries' processes, essentially he'd just be making their beers instead of making his own. That's a pretty enlightened view, even if it has meant that he's had to work harder to figure it out on his own rather than learning from others.
Ron’s independence isn’t the only element that makes Cascade’s beers so unique. The brewery’s extensive blending program also sets it apart. Vlad the Imp Aler is a prime example, drawing from multiple styles and likely multiple vintages each time it's created. And blending is not for the faint of heart. While with brewing you can experiment with test batches, blending cannot feasibly be done small-scale. As Ron explained it, blending is something he’s just had to go forward with despite any fear of the outcome. Were he to have proceeded with caution, giving into uncertainty and concern, Cascade would be light-years behind where they are today. Thankfully, Ron forged ahead.
One of his newest creations is Mulled Apple Sour. Just as Pumpkin Smash was made with spices you’d associate with pumpkin pie, this beer is reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie due to the spices, vanilla and honey. Presented for the first time this year, as the chill was just starting to creep into the air, it's a strong opening act to Glueh Kriek. Cradling the glass of warm liquid is as comforting as being handed a plate of fresh-from-the-oven pie that was almost cut too soon, allowing the warm goodness to ooze out.
Glueh Kriek, a mulled beer some may have enjoyed last year, is both sweeter and more acidic than the Mulled Apple Sour, with an intense cherry flavor and undeniable presence of cinnamon and clove. Deep red in color, served with a clove-spiked orange slice, breathing in its aroma is like breathing in the best of the holidays. It’s a beer that fully embodies the depth and breadth of Cascade’s spicing and blending program.
So what's next for Cascade? There's no clear answer, but Ron is continually bringing in new spices and experimenting with them to determine which express themselves well and which do not. Those in the former group will get further attention to figure out how and when to apply each spice to bring them to their fullest potential. Then there are some that fall in between, such as cardamom, which are much more challenging to apply. Not one to shy away from the challenge, it's more a matter of when, not if, Ron will unlock the key to using it. Whatever the result, it's sure to be a unique creation — the result of the dedication to the craft of brewing, spicing and blending that Cascade is known for.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House
[a] 939 SE Belmont St., Portland
At Agrarian Ales in the countryside south of Eugene, business manager Todd Perlmeter, left, and master brewer Toby Schock look over the gallons of fresh-picked raspberries brought in by Maia Kazaks, field worker, and assistant brewer Matt Leef. The berries will be used for a spontaneously fermented beer. Photo by Patty Mamula
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
A visit to Agrarian Ales in the lush, bountiful countryside of the Willamette Valley, just 13 miles south of Eugene, is an escape from the demands of everyday life. The farmhouse brewery sits on 25 acres of family land brimming with 15 different varieties of hops, herbs, spices, orchards, beehives, wheat fields, natural grasses, and an abundance of fresh vegetables.
Brothers Nate and Ben Tilley grew up here on their parents’ organic vegetable farm. When they graduated from Oregon State University, they returned to plant hops and grow a brewery. Toby Schock joined from the start as the master brewer.
In November of 2012, they opened the brewery in a converted dairy barn on 17 acres leased from Crossroad Farms, their parents’ operation. Their vision was to use only homegrown hops and they have stayed true to that vision. In fact, they are the only Oregon brewery exclusively using estate-grown, hand-picked hops.
General manager Todd Perlmeter said, “Agrarian has never purchased hops. This year we pulled our entire crop of Cascade hops, 500 plants, because of downy mildew. We added a third hop field, focusing on varieties like Mount Hood, Centennial and Nugget.”
They also planted an experimental stand, trellised in a tepee configuration, of heritage Mount Pisgah hops, transplanted from the native plant nursery at Mount Pisgah Park. When harvested, these hops will be used for a Mount Pisgah porter to benefit the park.
Agrarian also sells hop starts in early spring at their farmers’ market booth, a five-tap beer trailer. “We feel very fortunate to be the only brewery allowed in the market,” said Perlmeter, “because we grow our own products.”
The casual, rustic brewery and taproom have drawn record crowds this summer. It appeals to young and old, pets, kids and parents. With 4 acres of outdoor space, there’s plenty of room to play or simply sit at one of the many picnic tables and take in the surrounding view of growing fields.
The red barn is brewing central Monday through Friday until 3 p.m. when it transforms to the taproom and gathering place to sample brews and local food. The taproom is open Friday and Saturday from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. with live music in the summer. The pizza oven is the cornerstone of the outdoor kitchen, but the focus for everything at Agrarian is fresh from the surrounding fields to the table.
Perlmeter said, “The original idea was to use all local products. We’re willing to pay a premium to buy products to support local farmers.”
While their website lists many of these farmers, some of the more unique connections include Eugene’s Noisette Pastry Kitchen that takes the spent grain and bakes custom bread for them. All the raw grains are local. Agrarian gets most of their wheat, barley and flours for pizza dough from Camas Country Mill. In fact, the pizza flour is custom-milled for them. Nearby Burnheimer Meat Company makes their pepperoni using Agrarian’s beer and chili spices.
“Everything we serve here tastes so fresh and real; there are no chemicals, no glycol in our beer,” said Perlmeter. “All our beers are seasonals.”
Brewer Shock creatively uses the ripest ingredients at hand. He makes farm-fresh beers, often using peppers, such as Chipotle Porter and Hot Banana Hef. They usually have 12-15 beers on tap
Generally, Shock brews just one batch and that’s it. “Sometimes he repeats a batch because it’s so popular,” said Perlmeter. “Essentially, all the brews are one-offs. Even the same recipe a year later won’t be the same because the fresh ingredients will taste different.”
The one constant, usually available year-round, is a farmhand session.
They recently started barrel projects and have bottled a few favorites. Like everything at Agrarian, it’s a labor-intensive, totally manual production process with one person sanitizing the bottles, another filling them and a third corking and caging them.
The first bottle release was Yuletide, a Belgian beer that was strong aged in rye whiskey barrels for eight months, bottled and aged for another year.
Last fall their neighbor offered them Akane apples from his orchard. They ground and pressed the apples, then aged the juice in a pinot noir barrel letting it ferment with all the wild yeast for one year. Then they used that tart, funky juice to brew a Belgian saison, bottled it and aged it for another six months. The Akane Saison is only available on-site.
Eventually, they want to grow or produce everything they use. That means having a malting facility on-site and a yeast lab.
“The goal is to continue the ethos and grow organically. We like to grow roots deep into the ground versus spreading them across the land,” said Perlmeter.
Speaking of organic growth, the next step for the hops is to get organically certified. “We think it will be worthwhile for sales, documentation and talking points. We have some unique practices out here. Finding a way to communicate that to customers without hitting them over the head with it is important. We want people to come out here and experience that lifestyle,” he said.
Back at the brewery, the long-awaited addition of indoor bathroom facilities was completed June 27. This project was the number one priority for the funds that Agrarian has raised from Hatch Oregon, a new investment opportunity available only to Oregon residents. Agrarian was one of the first investment opportunities rolled out when the new law became effective in January.
Their original stock offering was set for $165,000. So far, halfway into their one-year time frame, they have raised $65,000, most of which went to the new addition. The remainder will go to purchase more kegs, cooperage and larger batches of grain.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.