Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Experimental Results

Every night, after closing, someone pulls the Z off the primitive Casio till and peers at the numbers. This is myself, whether primarily or ultimately; I like seeing if we made any money, for one thing, but also how the grand experiment is progressing. Grand Experiment, you say? Yes - how is the real ale selling?

I sometimes view this project, the Oakridge real ale pub and brewery, as having two parts. The first is that, for some crazy reason, I want to run a pub and brew and drink real ale. The second, for equally crazy reasons, is that I want to see what happens when you stick with your guns and do all the things that you were told not to do but which you believe in anyway. It's for this second reason that I really enjoyed Sunday night's Z from the till; and this is a fairly typical example:

36.36% $163.75
3.33% $15.00

What this means is that 50 servings, whether pints, halfs or 5 oz tasters, were served, as opposed to 3 servings of keg beer. 36% of the sales came from the stuff concocted in the back of the building. I do get to enjoy a happy moment from time to time.

Next time I post I'll be sure to find something to complain about.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Aiming at the Wrong Target, and Hopefully Missing

The Oregon legislature is being lobbed (lobbied) a bill to increase the beer tax. And not by just a little bit. It would certainly put us out of business should it pass. I'm not much of a letter writer, but this one is important enough. I have already sent off paper mail to my state senator and representative containing the following:

Ted Sobel
Publican, Brewer
Brewers Union Local 180
48329 E. 1st St.
PO Box 739
Oakridge, OR 97463


Proposed Beer Tax Increase

Dear [Senator/Representative]:

Permit me to introduce myself. I am the owner, publican and brewer of Oregon’s only real ale public house and brewery, the Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge. By real ale, I mean genuine cask-conditioned ale, as brewed in England, particularly utilizing the techniques practiced in the Lake District. I have been in business in the Uptown area of Oakridge now for six months, providing a safe comfortable meeting place for locals and visitors alike, with great home-cooked food and authentic ales. We are excited about the changes taking place here, with the growth of the mountain biking community and the wonderful outdoor recreational opportunities.

This project has the fulfillment of a dream of mine. I fell in love with the British pub and real ale on a trip to the UK back in 1991 before I moved to Oregon, and have wanted to start my own brewery and pub since a walking trip to Cumbria in 2006. After purchasing a building with a business partner in ’07, we spent 10 months completely gutting and rebuilding in the style of a British pub. With all the hard work we have put into this, and despite a rough economy and being in a small town, we are starting to experience a small amount of growth and recognition.

You can probably guess by now that my reason for writing is a concern over the proposed increase in the beer tax. Indeed, increase seems like too weak a word to employ in this context; perhaps I should suggest the egregious increase in taxation on beer. I might be able to understand a small, fair increase, such as $5/BBL, as long as it is fairly employed across the so-called sin-sector, i.e. apply the increases to wine and liquor as well. But, singling out beer, and making an order-of-magnitude increase, is blatantly unfair. The craft beer industry is one of the leading Oregon industries, and is in fact one of the many reasons people visit Oregon – to sample the richness and variety of our brewing culture.

I have put everything I own into this business, including taking out personal loans and putting a second mortgage on my house. I work seven days a week doing something I love. I employ seven people, paying a higher than typical wage, in a town that has struggled to rebuild itself after the demise of the logging industry. I do not serve minors. I do not indulge in, promote or encourage over-consumption. If this bill passes, those responsible for its signing into law will be, in fact, shutting us down. I cannot weather charging my customers at least another dollar per pint, and as such would have to let my employees go, shut my doors, and attempt to sell my house and business property in a stagnant economy.

I sincerely ask you to consider the impact that this bill would have on Oregon brewery businesses; the mom-and-pops; the little guys. We are already suffering from the consequences of the irresponsible. This bill is not a solution. The responsible local pubs and breweries are not the factors that promote and encourage the types of abuses that the bill attempts to remediate. Cheap, sugary alcopops at the local supermarket, purchased by “big brother”, and negligent bar owners who don’t care how they make a buck, have much more to answer for. I have been following a similar story in the UK with the out of proportion increases in duty on ale in the small community pubs, and watching them close at an alarming rate, while supermarkets play the loss leader with fizzy, sugar-laden nirvana. This bill must not pass in its current instantiation.

Thanks for listening. And please stop by for a pint sometime.


Ted Sobel

Post Brewfest Post

It's taken until Monday, a whole week and more indeed, to catch up on all the things I didn't do this past weekend while attempting to participate in the KLCC Microbrewfest and our local theater company's performance of "Web of Murder". Not only was there a brewery to clean, and a festival to clean up after, but those of you in the business can imagine the sort of paperwork that can pile up in just a couple of days. Oh, and I had to brew more Dearth and Surfeit.

With our embryonic, traveling pub kit, we managed to go through a couple of firkins of ale in a festival that has never witnessed the utilization of shive-and-keystone firkins tugged through a couple of beer engines. Temperature control became an issue, as active, swirling bodies elevated the ambient temperature of the exhibit hall seemingly past the intended capabilities of the HVAC system. Wet towels and ice bags lowered our ale temperature to an almost satisfactory 14° C, but I would've preferred a couple degrees lower.

Pouring remained steady throughout the festival. The first guy who wandered by put on what I believe to be a genuine happy face. I had brought down two firkins each of Cumbrian Moor, a porter, ABV 3.2%, and our usual unusual IPA, the Union Dew, at 5.5%.

I haven't gone to this particular brewfest in years, as a participant of course. The principal unfortunate feature of this festival, and many like it in this country, is that the individuals serving the beer generally don't have any knowledge of what they are pouring. It is disappointing to taste a beer or cider and then be denied further enlightenment. After a wrangle with one of the festival monitors as to whether I could, myself, as owner and brewer, and with a valid service permit, draw one of my own beers, I did manage to spend a bit of time behind my own pumps. Otherwise, Dave did a splendid job fortifying the little gray punter cells. We received a slew of compliments from surprised festival participants with our ability to speak intelligently and coherently about what we are about and why.

At a dollar for a 3 oz. taste, I managed to try some interesting brews. Unfortunately I didn't take any notes, and it is too long after the festival to have many name recollections. Predominantly featured are big beers; seems like subtlety is sadly lost on the American palette. I would like to see more bitters, milds, casks; but alas I'll have to draw on my memories of some nice British festivals. The West Coast IPA is everywhere, with little variation as the battle for IBU's and ABV's continues to wage. There were a few foreign beers, including Belhaven Scottish and Youngs Double Chocolate Stout, both of which would've been nice on cask and a bit warmer. The Youngs did win best of show, which I find interesting given its cold fizziness. With my enthusiasm for heat, I was quite delighted with the Calapooia Chili Beer. Now there's a beer best served cold on the keg.

I'm not sure what festival to have a go at next. There is a firkin fest in Portland in March and the Blooms and Brews up near Salem in April sounds interesting. Money is still an issue with us, as we attempt to work through our first year of business in a slow economy.

And for all you sharp-eyed bar towel spotters, I just also noticed that the English flag had been surreptitiously inverted.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Festal Virgin

We were invited to attend the KLCC Microbrew Festival at the Eugene Fairgrounds, which starts today. Since this is the USA of America, everyone will be dragging in and setting up jockey boxes and kegs of ice cold beer. Everbody but us, that is.

This is to be our first festival since we opened back in August. While I don't really like this particular festival, primarily because of the high entry fee and the impersonal nature of it (e.g. volunteers that can't answer questions about the beer they are pouring), I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some exposure and to start learning how to cellar the beer on the road. For starters, this means that I had to get permission to enter the exhibit hall the night before the festival opens in order to set up my portable stillage. This permission was, fortunately, granted, and my friend Dave Adams and I gained access at around 6:00 PM last night. I had purchased four cheapo wooden fixed stillages (can that word be used in the plural?) from UK Brewing, and we laid our children to rest for the night on the flimsy little tables in a dead empty exhibit hall.

The next problem came about with realizing that clamping two beer engines to the aforementioned flimsy tables had a couple of near impractibilities: too low and too flimsy. Dave said he would tinker about his shop, as he works for a sheet metal company, and see if something can be fabricated or modified. As it is now opening day, Dave says that I should have something available this afternoon that can clamp to the table and elevate the hand pulls.

The exhibit hall was left without heating overnight, which was to our benefit. When I went in this morning to check the internal temperature, I got a reading of 12° C. I have attended and/or worked at three real ale festivals in the UK, and have a little bit of an idea as to how to regulate the temperature. I hastily crafted a set of ice saddles out of ziplock baggies and clothespins that should work just fine.

More pictures to come later today, as things get further set up and the festival opens. Unfortunately for me, I have to be onstage for the local theater group tonight and tomorrow, so I will be driving the hour back up to Oakridge, going onstage, dying, and then rushing back to Eugene.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fresh Root Beer

I was intending to trot out with another informative (read: boring) discourse on the realities of cellaring real ale, when I passed A & W in Oakridge on the way down to Eugene for a quick shopping run. I was hopeful that this time the shopping run might entail a visit to a purveyor, or plural, of fine barley-oriented beverages. This would purely be, of course, as a reward of my bravery in attempting to shop sensibly. Success has been achieved, thanks to my vehicle's tendency to navigate to McMenamins High Street Cafe while in Eugene. That's my wife's vehicle, actually, as mine has no brake lights, amongst other electrical features, due to mice and their industrious incisors.

Now, as many of you know, A & W is a pioneer in the manufacturing, promotion and retail of the acclaimed soft drink known as root beer. They have a multiplicity of franchises all over this fair land. I used to take my wee little daughters into our local (for lack of a better word) for a root beer float or two before they learned how to roll their eyes at me and say "Dad!" in that tell-tale, teenage accent. It is firmly etched in their gray matter. I hope.

So, all that blather above just to introduce the bit that caught my eye. The reader board, located as such to catch the travelers' eye, said "Root Beer, Made Fresh Daily". I didn't happen to notice a surfeit of Les Schwab tire skid marks opposite the "restaurant" in prospective patrons' efforts to toss back a fresh one, but the promotion is in its early stages and I admonish myself to be patient. But the rub here: am I to understand this bold, all-caps advertising strategy as suggesting that BOTH the fizzy soda water AND the root-beer-syrup-food-product are, as the precursors, suitably "fresh"? What exactly is "fresh root beer"? Are the CO2 bubbles in the peak of their hazardous existence?

Now beer, particularly real ale, cannot be made fresh daily. It can be made daily to be fresh at least two weeks out, but you wouldn't be interested in it the day it is brewed; at least not in the sense of one tipping back a pint of same. We do like to take a little sample as it tumbles into the fermenter after the heat exchanger, but mostly to see if it might be headed for the land of just plain awful or the magnificent realm of the sublime.

And I want you all to check back every hour or two to hear my further tales of the woes of beer finings, and I hope someone questions my over-use of quotation marks.