Friday, May 14, 2010

Beer of the Week (Vol. LV)

Another edition of Beer of the Week brought to you by the intrepid folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help you explore the wide world of wine, whiskey, and beer.

Local craft beer fans no doubt recognize the name James Page Brewing. It was one of the first craft brewers to emerge on the scene. At that time, James Page and Summit were pioneers who helped blaze a trail and pave the way for the many local craft brewers who have since followed. It's interesting to look back on the history of James Page Brewing:

The brewery was founded by Minneapolis attorney James Page in 1986. The brewery was located on Quincy Street in Northeast Minneapolis, in an aging industrial warehouse building. The brewery's infrastructure was cobbled together from secondhand equipment. Despite the fact that James Page started brewing operations at almost the same time as the Summit Brewing Company, Page never exceeded more than about 1500 barrels per year of production until it was sold to new owners in the mid 1990s.

For some reason, Page just never really caught on the same way that Summit did. One of the reasons was their lack of a flagship beer like Summit's Extra Pale Ale. While their beer was good and much better than the mass produced alternatives, nothing really stood out about any of them.

In October 1995, James Page sold the brewery to a group of investors with a background in food marketing. Mr. Page continued to operate a home brew supply company until 1998 under the name "James Page Brewing", although there was no longer any tie to the brewery.

The new owners of the brewery, led by President David Anderson, thoroughly re-invented the brand. They created a fictional character to personify "James Page". This new James Page bore little resemblance to the founder of the company -- he was something of a rugged American frontiersman. They also stopped the unusual practice of trucking the beer to distant bottling lines. Instead, they produced the bottled product as a contract brew at various regional breweries (Minnesota Brewing Company in St. Paul, and then Stroh's in St. Paul). The draught product continued to be brewed at the Quincy Street brewery.

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Page became the first American craft brewery to package their beer in cans. The canned product was brewed and packaged under contract at the August Schell Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. They won a contract with Northwest Airlines to feature the canned beer on certain domestic flights.

I remember when Page came out in cans, but I didn't realize they were the first ones in the country to do so. If you consider the number of craft beers that come in cans now--Surly being the most obvious example--they were obviously ahead of their time. Having Page in cans was extra nice when Northwest started carrying it. You could actually get a decent beer on a flight for a change.

Despite a more aggressive marketing push, the brewery's new management was not able to turn a profit. The James Page Brewing Company suffered from an identity crisis: although the Quincy Street brewery produced beer for their draught accounts, the bottled product was a contract brew. The beer in the bottles was not the same product as the beer in the kegs, and this could not help their reputation among beer aficionados. This was obviously perceived as a problem by Page management, as they made the acquisition of a bottling line a top priority during the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Although I didn't realize at the time that Page's product was not consistent between bottles and kegs, I do recall being generally unimpressed with Page's offerings whenever I purchased a six-pack. It's interesting to now know why.

In 2000, James Page had a stock offering, and the first $400,000 was specifically earmarked for the bottling line. They advertised their stock offering on their six-packs, and solicited investments as small as $285. They announced that they had successfully raised the maximum $855,000 from over 1,000 supporters in January, 2000. But the money was never used to fund expansion--instead it was used to lower their substantial debt burdens, and the bottling line was never built. 2001 proved to be a killer year for the company, as they continued to lose money. In 2002, the brewery was shut down. The company continued to contract-brew the beers at other regional breweries.

I remember the stock offering. While it was a clever approach, it also smelled of desperation and it wasn't surprising when the brewery went belly up shortly after.

In 2005, the company's final asset was liquidated when the Page brand name was purchased by the Stevens Point Brewery in Steven's Point, Wisconsin.

A pretty sad way to go out. Not only do you give up the name, you give it up to a brewery in Wisconsin which, despite having a storied history, isn't exactly known for producing high quality craft products. It looks like Point currently brews four of the original Page beers with the same names and label designs. So the Page name lives on. Sort of.

But the biggest legacy of James Page Brewing is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia piece. For even though there's really no longer any connection between James Page beers and Minneapolis, the James Page Blubber Run goes on:

Put on your running shoes and funny hats and come down to the 19th Annual 5k James Page Blubber Run, Walk or Whatever. If you're not a speedy runner, don't fret, costumes, creativity and a great sense of fun count most in this 5K race. Bring your friends, bring the pet, bring the kids, wear your goofiest outfit, just show up and join in the fun.

Nineteen years of Blubber Runs? Wow, doesn't seem like that's possible. Back in my pre-kids, pre-knees-shot-to-hell days, I participated in a number of Blubber Runs. They were about as serious running as I ever wanted to do, which obviously wasn't very much. If you want, you can drink before, during, and after the "race," which many participants choose to do. Since they take place in September, you never know what kind of weather you're going to get. Some years it was seventy-five and sunny, others forty and rainy. But either way it was always fun, especially post-race when everyone would enjoy brats, burgers, and of course beer while hanging around Peavey Plaza listening to music. Even though I haven't done it for a while, I'm glad the Blubber Run still exists. Some part of the James Page legacy still lives on.

All of this leads up to our beer of the week. JAMES PAGE VOYAGEUR EXTRA PALE ALE now brewed by Point.

Standard brown bottle. Looks like pretty much the original label with a yellow background and a picture of hearty French voyageurs guiding their canoe through raging waters. The James Page logo is on the front of the canoe.

Beer Style: American Pale Ale

Alcohol by Volume:5.4%

COLOR (0-2): Dark gold and very clear. 2

AROMA (0-2): Light hops 1

HEAD (0-2): Off-white color. Decent volume and good lacing. 2

TASTE (0-5): Some hops flavor with a touch of sweet malt. Not really a whole lot of there there though. Lighter bodied with a thin and somewhat watery mouth feel. Drinkable. 2

AFTERTASTE (0-2): A little hollow. 1

OVERALL (0-6): I'm not sure how much this outsourced version resembles the original James Page Voyageur Pale Ale, which as I recall wasn't much to write home about. This too is a very ordinary offering. The one thing that might recommend it is the price. At $6.99 a six-pack it's at least a buck of two less than what most craft beers run these days. Personally, I'm happy to pay a little more for better taste. 3

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 11