ALTHOUGH HE'S a veteran of over 20 years in the "alcoholic drinks business," Robert Rentsch has his work cut out for him. That's because he's the new general manager of a brewery—a pair of breweries, actually, Portland and Pyramid Brewing—that were each considered pioneers in craft brewing a decade before he launched his career.
But this is a sexy, new era of locavore suds that presently boasts over 230 breweries in-state—including a full 50 that weren't even in operation at the beginning of 2014. When Portland Brewing opened in 1986, Pyramid Brewing (née Hart Brewing) was just two years old and still based in Seattle. Come 2004, Pyramid would buy Portland Brewing, which is how it came to pass that they presently share the same large factory in Northwest Portland.
"Both Pyramid and Portland, over the last several years, have not been performing on par with the rest of the craft-beer industry," says Rentsch. "In fact they've gone in the opposite direction." So he's now tasked with getting those numbers to go back in the right direction. He calls that mission "a wonderful challenge."
Rentsch also points to "ownership changes" that have not given these heritage brands sufficient focus. Since 2004, ownership has changed hands four times, and to larger brewing concerns. As of 2012, it's under the umbrella of Florida Ice and Farm Company, which is based in Costa Rica, not Florida.
The sales numbers may be bleak, but there's plenty of fight left in these twin dogs. According to Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) reports, Portland/Pyramid has been selling more and more barrels in Oregon over the last few years. Between OLCC stats and those of market research firm IRI, Portland/Pyramid remains in the top six best-selling brands of craft beer in Portland and across the state. In fact, Kris Sirchio, who's the chief executive officer of parent company North American Breweries, said in July when Pyramid's brewery in Berkeley, California closed down, "By investing in Portland and Seattle, we are better positioned to accelerate innovation, increase capacity, and improve packaging capabilities while creating cost efficiencies."
Indeed, $2.69 bombers of MacTarnahan's Amber and Pyramid Apricot Ale are flying off the shelves.
Low price points are an industry-proven mechanism for boosting sales, and as Rentsch notes, "the evolution in the last five years is so fast-paced." His plan from day one—and keep in mind he's been in his new role for a little over a week—is three-pronged: Brew great beer. Focus on great people and culture. Foster stronger connections with the community.
Of course, this being the Northwest, what drinkers look to more than anything is the liquid in the glass. Rentsch is excited about the introduction of Pyramid's new Brewer's Reserve beer, H7—an unfiltered imperial IPA boasting seven hops. Their next rollout is Portland Belgian Red, which head brewer Ryan Pappe describes as "a distinctive red ale, but backed up with the rich spice and fruit cocktail character imparted by traditional Belgian yeast."
Don't expect them to be priced under three bucks. "When it comes to making great beer we'll probably test the waters," says Rentsch in discussing multiple price points. As the 30-year-old brewery plots its next moves, the new general manager says, "Heritage and history you can't just buy, you earn."
Hop to It!
Whereas other seasonal offerings stick around for the whole season, hops must be harvested quickly at their peak in late August/early September. The window for fresh-hop beers is ephemeral, and fantastic. It's the difference between fresh-squeezed OJ and concentrate. Here are just three of the early favorites from around the state:
Laurelwood Fresh-Hopped Workhorse IPA (Portland): As if this thoroughbred IPA wasn't pitch perfect enough, using fresh Nugget hops makes it extra herbacious and resinous.
Gilgamesh Fresh-Hopped Prince of Ales (Salem): Millennium hops are underused, but the abundance of freshies in this imperial IPA, combined with the rich malt bill, is reminiscent of fruit cocktail in syrup.
Three Creeks Cone Lick'r (Sisters): Going with an even-keeled base of pale ale makes for an amazing dance floor on which to watch the hops pop.
The Next Fest
We are just at the beginning of the best season for beer drinking, with fresh-hopped beers arriving on tap, but that hasn't stopped pumpkin beers from popping up already. Get ready for the return of Killer Pumpkin Fest next month: There will be ample pumpkin-forward beers at the bar, but the real fun is in the beer garden, with pumpkin bowling and everyone's favorite—honest-to-goodness pumpkin smashing. Green Dragon, 928 SE 9th, Sat Oct 17, 11 am- midnight, $5 suggested donation