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About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

Revelator Octane Coffee

If you live in Atlanta and give a hoot about coffee, you’ve surely heard the news: Revelator has bought Octane. It’s a shock, but not a surprise. Octane was a pioneer in Atlanta’s coffee scene and has steadily grown over the past dozen years, expanding from the west side, to Grant Park, to Buckhead, to midtown, not to mention two shops in Birmingham. They have developed and nurtured a loyal community of fans despite an onslaught of competitors both big and small, most of whom arrived after Octane proved the market was ready for quality coffee. Which is why it’s easy to see that Octane is an attractive acquisition target. They’ve got a strong presence in the Southeast’s leading market, and admirable know-how in terms of operating both the retail and roasting sides of the coffee business. More importantly, Octane owns something that coffee companies dream of – a powerful brand. Revelator? Not so much.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering how Revelator managed to buy out Atlanta’s leading craft coffee purveyor, you’re not alone. But the simple fact is – Revelator has money, fueled by a California-based venture capital firm that seems bent on aggressive growth. Octane is owned primarily by Diane and Tony Riffel, the couple that started the company those many moons ago. And behemoths buying up craft coffee companies is not a new thing. The most prominent proponent of the approach is privately held JAB Holding Company – the money that has scooped up stakes in former indy darlings Peet’s, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown, along with Caribou, Krispy Kreme, and the Einstein/Noah’s bagel brands.

While I spend a good chunk of my time writing about food and drinks, my day job is actually brand strategy consulting. I’ve worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies on acquisition and innovation strategies, customer experience mapping, value proposition development, you name it. When a company is looking at acquiring another, the resulting brand portfolio should be among the most important considerations. Unfortunately, more often than not, the question of brand optimization is an afterthought to financial and operational considerations. Sure, assets like real estate and equipment are critical, as are capabilities like operational know-how and expertise. But understanding the nature of brand-customer relationships is where great acquisitions are made… will the acquired brand bring something new and complementary to the portfolio? Which of the brands in the new portfolio offer the best opportunities for future growth? Or, how readily will the acquired brand’s loyal customers move from the existing brand to the acquiring brand if pushed to do so?

Go back to JAB Holdings, the big boy that bought up brands like Intelligentsia and Stumptown – brands that had built-in loyal fan bases. You’ll notice that JAB is now managing a portfolio of strong brands, and not trying to subsume acquired businesses under a single brand moniker. Intelligentsia and Stumptown are both known for high-quality sourcing and roasting, as well as for running effective retail shops – and while the argument could surely be made that continuing to invest in both brands is not the most efficient path to growth, both brands have equity that is worth building on. Killing one to favor the other would be a mistake, and JAB seems to know that.

When a company makes an acquisition, that move always serves a larger purpose. Maybe they’re trying to expand into a new geography or product area, maybe they need intellectual capital or technology to take advantage of an emerging market opportunity, or maybe they are simply tasked with growing the top line. The very first thing to understand when looking at an acquisition is that larger purpose: what is the company trying to achieve?

In Revelator’s case, all I have to go on to figure out the company’s goals are the public comments from president Josh Owen. I’ve seen three things that seem to be driving their decision to purchase Octane:

  1. They want to be “a hospitality company first and a coffee company second… and that experience comes in a lot of forms,” including food, alcohol, and evening hours
  2. They think acquiring local companies that have community connections is a stronger path to growth than entering markets from scratch
  3. They see an opportunity to grow significantly in wholesale channels (like supplying coffee to restaurants and other retail)

Octane is a homerun on points 1 and 2, and a solid at-bat on point 3. They’ve seamlessly blended beer and cocktails into their persona from day one, and they’ve established very strong relationships within Atlanta’s and Birmingham’s restaurant and food communities. Wholesale? Octane is there, and has shown success in the sourcing and roasting skills necessary to succeed, but nothing approaching the success of bigger players like Counter Culture or Batdorf & Bronson, who have become heavy hitters when it comes to the wholesale distribution side of the business. So, yes, the acquisition makes sense, but what about the question of branding? Isn’t point 2 above dependent on nurturing acquired brands rather than taking them out?

Owen has said that they intend to phase out the Octane brand within 12 to 18 months. Simply put, I have a hard time seeing that as the right choice. Has Revelator thoroughly considered the existing equities of their own brand relative to the Octane brand? Have they done so through the lens of the intended target markets – both geographic and psychographic/demographic – that they hope to win with? If they have and have simply concluded that phasing out Octane is the way to go, good for them. But, at least in the Atlanta market, that sounds like a path to failure. Here, Octane has equity; Revelator has apathy and even (among many coffee industry insiders and fanatics) enmity. And there are plenty of competitors who have good relationships with the local community that Octane customers can jump to – think Spiller Park, Dancing Goats, Brash, Chattahoochee… I could go on.

So, about Octane. For Revelator, my advice is this: think long and hard about which brand offers you the best chance for success – here in Atlanta, more broadly in the Southeast, and even on a national scale (if that’s what you’re after). Think about what you’re trying to build and the tools you now have at your disposal. Sure, there’s pride in the Revelator brand that you’ve begun to build over the past couple years, despite its ups and downs; but there’s a lot more than pride in the brand that Octane has built. There’s a community of loyal fans (myself included).

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Beer Before Liquor

Beer Before Liquor

Bierschnaps & its’ root (hah!) beer, Feest Noel. Courtesy IDC/Three Taverns.

If you’re into whiskey, you may have heard the expression “distiller’s beer” which refers to the fermented mash of grains, yeast, and water that feeds the first distillation. Typically these are not beers that are meant to be consumed on their own, but a few craft distillers are now working with existing craft beers and using them as their distiller’s beer in special releases. There’s the Samuel Adams Boston Lager that becomes Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Two Lanterns whiskey, or Arcane Distilling’s Lone Wolf line of whiskey made from various micro-craft (and homebrew) beers, or Charbay’s R5 Whiskey which is distilled from Bear Republic Brewery’s Racer 5 IPA, or HUB Brewer’s Whisky made at New Deal Distillery from HUB Organic Lager. Even more crafty, J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City is using slightly-past-its-prime beer from nearby Boulevard brewery as the starting point for their Left for Dead series.

Here in Atlanta, two recent craft beer-distillery collaborations have taken up the charge of beer before liquor, both to rather impressive results. There’s Decatur-based Independent Distilling Co., who used the Feest Noel beer from neighboring Three Taverns brewery to make their Outlier series Bierschnaps; and ASW Distillery, who partnered with Monday Night Brewing to develop a custom distiller’s beer and turn it into  Monday Night Scottish-Style Single Malt Whiskey.

Both of these collaborations are unique and, more importantly, quite tasty. If you’re into the esoteric and local and can manage to find a bottle, whether at the distilleries themselves or in limited local release around Atlanta, they reward the investment. And both are harbingers of good things to come as the craft beer and distilling scenes in Atlanta (and beyond) continue to grow side by side.

Here are the details and tasting notes on these two very special (and limited) beer-to-liquor success stories:

Independent Distilling Co., Outlier No. 3 Bierschnaps

Base Beer: Three Taverns 2014 Feest Noel (300 gallons) – made with 100% malted barley, Belgian dark candy sugar, cardamom, allspice, and clove.
Distillation: Alembic pot still (in February 2015)
Aging: 22 months in newly charred American oak barrels (two 15 gallon barrels)
Bottled at 90 proof

Notes: I first tasted this one out of the barrel about halfway through its aging process, and the prominent baking spice notes on the nose and palate had me thinking of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (one of my favorite sweet vermouths). The extra time in the barrel until release lent this Bierschnaps further depth and complexity – starting delicately with a floral yet spicy nose, then hitting the tongue hard with a slap of cinnamon and clove backed up with toasty burnt caramel notes. The aging in those small barrels (for more interaction with the wood) is evident in a dark and oaky finish. Simply fascinating stuff, especially if you can get a hold of a bottle of Feest Noel and compare the two. The spice notes here offer some fun opportunities for cocktail experimentation as well (Kimball House recently made a Sazerac variation with the Outlier No. 3 combined with aged rum).

The Outlier No. 3 Bierschnaps actually has a release party tonight (if you’re reading this on March 23) at the Argosy if you want to snag a taste of this very limited run!

Seeing double (and more) with the ASW-Monday Night collaboration

Monday Night Scottish-Style Single Malt Whiskey

Base Beer: Custom batch from Monday Night Brewing, made with a hefty dose of cherrywood-smoked malt barley (which is a component malt in their popular Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale) and two-row malt barley.
Distillation: Scottish-style twin copper pot stills (in August 2016)
Aging: Roughly 6 months in new charred American white oak quarter casks (13 gallons)
Bottled at 86 proof

Notes: How is this lovely whiskey merely six months old? The nose may not give much away, with light hints of marzipan playing coy, but you can tell there’s much more of interest underneath. If you sit with it long enough, the cherrywood smoke comes through in subtle wisps at the tail end of deep breaths in. Sipping, the “Scottish-style” character emerges, but this is no peaty beast – think of the more delicate end of Scotch and you’ll be in the right territory. The malted barley here provides a pleasant cereal warmth, balanced with a light wildflower honey sweetness, and the finish leaves a happy memory on your tongue for several minutes. ASW is turning out mighty impressive limited releases (like this and their Resurgens Rye) for such a young distillery. And you have to love a label with a badger in a bowtie.

Full Disclosure: The tasting bottle of Monday Night was provided by ASW Distillery.

 

 

 

Rare bourbon for a cause – Pappy Van Winkle and 1980 O.F.C.

Rare bourbon for a cause – Pappy Van Winkle and 1980 O.F.C.

In a second, I’m going to tell you about a chance to acquire the full lineup of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons and one of the mere 100 bottles of 1980 O.F.C. bourbon in existence, plus the chance to support a wonderful non-profit. But first, I have a question…

Do you – A) love drinking rare bourbon, B) love supporting a good cause, and C) love using the thousands of dollars of wealth you have accumulated in order to enable your love of drinking rare bourbon and supporting a good cause?

  • If you said YES to all three, congratulations! You are an awesome person and should read on.
  • If you didn’t say YES to all three, you may still be an awesome person… I don’t know, we haven’t met, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You still might want to read on.
  • If you didn’t say YES to ANY of those three, then you are likely NOT an awesome person, but maybe you have recently declared a new year’s resolution to either drink more bourbon or support more charitable causes, in which case, you may well indeed be on the path to becoming an awesome person. I hope so. Please read on. Maybe it will help you on your way.

So back to the bourbon and the charity. The Giving Kitchen is one of my favorite non-profits. They do tremendous work in the Atlanta restaurant community to aid those in need. I’ve volunteered and worked with them, and even gave them a bottle of Pappy 15 a while ago since I was so enamored with their work. On January 29th, they are holding their annual Team Hidi fundraiser event, which includes a ridiculously good live auction. This year, they happen to have the full lineup of Van Winkle bourbons in one lot (10, 12, 15, 20, 23 year old), and the ultra-rare 1980 O.F.C. bourbon in another lot. And, for the first time, they are allowing bids from outside the room (the event is already sold out).

I don’t need to tell you about the Pappy. We all know how hard it is to come by, especially the chance to get the entire Van Winkle bourbon lineup in one fell swoop.

The O.F.C. you might not be familiar with, but is really interesting for bourbon geeks. Buffalo Trace Distillery has, over the years, been pulling barrels from back vintages – before it even was the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Their new O.F.C. limited releases are vintage-dated, but have not actually been in barrel ever since that initial vintage. The 1980 that the Giving Kitchen will be auctioning off, for example, is not actually a “36 year old” bourbon – it has no age statement. A Buffalo Trace representative tells me, “these bourbons were distilled over 30 years ago, but did not age for three decades.  These bourbons were tasted and removed from the wood as they peaked in flavor over the years.” In any case, they offer a chance to taste something from a different time in the bourbon industry. A time many look back to as the golden age of the craft. (Please read Sean Brock’s thoughts on the matter.)

Maybe the coolest thing about this O.F.C. release is that all of the bottles – 100 from 1980, 50 from 1982, 50 from 1983 – were doled out to charities (no charge) to help raise funds to support their missions. Good bourbon, good cause. I love it.

So, for those of you interested in bidding on either the Pappy or the O.F.C., here are the details, pulled from the Giving Kitchen’s press release. And note that, while they are allowing bids from anyone, the charity’s supporters who are in-person at the event will have the ability to outbid the highest outside bid. In other words, if you actually want to win these lots, you better go big:

The Giving Kitchen, the non-profit that serves Atlanta restaurant workers facing unexpected hardship, will be auctioning off several rare bourbons at its annual Team Hidi event on January 29 and, for the first time, will be taking bids in advance on select lots for those who can’t make it to the sold-out event. Bids on the two lots below will be accepted via email (whiskeygalATL@gmail.com) between Monday, January 23 at 9AM EST and Friday, January 27th at 5PM EST. While these bids allow a wider audience to participate in the auctions, they will serve as the opening bid for each lot, giving supporters in the room the opportunity to bid higher if they so choose.

The first lot of interest to bourbon enthusiasts is a bottle of 1980 vintage O.F.C. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, one of only 100 bottles produced by Buffalo Trace, exclusively offered to non-profit organizations at no charge to raise money for their causes. The hand-cut crystal bottle containing this precious whiskey is a replica of an O.F.C. decanter from the early 1900s found in the Buffalo Trace Distillery archives. It comes in a luxurious dark wood display box embossed in copper. According to Buffalo Trace, bottles of this rare collectible are expected to bring in upwards of $10,000 each for the charities they support. For the Team Hidi auction, the Giving Kitchen is pairing the rare 1980 O.F.C. with a multi-course whiskey-themed dinner for 12 people at Atlanta’s Empire State South, one of chef Hugh Acheson’s many lauded restaurants. More information on the O.F.C. limited release can be found at www.ofcvintages.com.

The second lot that will draw heavy interest from bourbon fans is titled, “Who’s Your Pappy,” and includes the entire range of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery – one bottle each of the 10 year Old Rip Van Winkle, 12 year old Van Winkle Special Reserve, 15 year Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, 20 year Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, and 23 year Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. The opportunity to find the full Van Winkle bourbon line-up in one place is incredibly rare. For the Team Hidi auction, the Giving Kitchen is also including a private whiskey tasting and dinner for 20 prepared by the chefs of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn BBQ at the home of the winning bidder (if in the Atlanta area).

While these are the only two auction lots that are open to outside bidders, the Team Hidi event will also include more than a dozen other impossible-to-replicate auction lots that celebrate Atlanta and the city’s thriving restaurant community.

THE WHEN & HOW:

The sold out Team Hidi event, featuring the live auction and tastes from more than 50 of Atlanta’s top restaurants and bars will take place Sunday, January 29, 2017, from 5-9PM. Bids for the two lots discussed will be accepted via email (whiskeygalATL@gmail.com) between Monday, January 23 at 9AM EST and Friday, January 27th at 5PM EST. All emails should include the specific lot the individual is bidding on, the single bid they are placing on that lot, and the bidder’s home address. At 5pm EST on January 27th, the Team Hidi auction staff will compile and review the submitted bids on the two lots. The highest submitted bidders on each lot will be contacted to ensure that their bid is legitimate, then their bid will serve as the opening bid for that lot in the live auction – so may or may not end up as the winning bid. The opening bidders will be notified immediately after the auction as to the results.

 

Drink Local: ASW Distillery Fiddler Bourbon

Drink Local: ASW Distillery Fiddler Bourbon

ASW Distillery Fiddler Bourbon

If you’re in Atlanta and enjoy a fine drink, you need to be watching our local distilleries, who are all up to some very cool things. This week in Creative Loafing, I shared the goods on the new Fiddler Bourbon from ASW Distillery. My take? This is a must try for local whiskey enthusiasts, thanks to a  reasonable price, a unique mash bill (45% wheat), and the fact that ASW is very open about this being a foraged spirit that they are fiddling with in the aging process. And it’s delicious. So grab a bottle quick if you are interested – there’s not much to go around.

Here’s the news from Creative Loafing:

The facts: The new Fiddler bourbon whiskey comes from a line of “foraged” spirits to complement ASW’s house-distilled products — meaning ASW bought the stuff from another distillery but have fiddled with it in some way, mainly through aging in different types of casks and blending. This particular release came out Nov. 1 and amounts to a mere 450 bottles, or roughly two barrels. It is a high-wheat bourbon, meaning that wheat makes up a good percentage of the mash bill — 45 percent for this particular whiskey. Other notable wheated bourbons on the market are Maker’s Mark and Pappy Van Winkle, both of which have a much smaller wheat component than ASW’s. This Fiddler release is relatively young — “aged at least 18 months,” according to ASW, in full size new American oak barrels followed by quarter casks. Suggested retail price is around $35.

How it tastes: At 86 proof, Fiddler makes for a smooth and balanced sipper… READ THE REST AT CREATIVE LOAFING.

 

 

Should I go to Manuel’s Tavern?

Should I go to Manuel’s Tavern?

When Atlanta’s beloved Manuel’s Tavern announced last year that they were shutting down for renovations, it seemed like half the city had a fear-induced conniption fit. Would the layers of historic bric-a-brac accumulated over 60 years be lost? Could a shiny and new Manuel’s Tavern ever keep the insider-political aura of the place intact? Teeth gnashed in anguish. Brows furrowed in distress. The AJC wrote an entire series of articles (at least eight by my count!) about Manuel’s, alternating between hearty nostalgia and uncertain hope. And then Atlanta waited. And waited some more.

Finally, Manuel’s re-opened in August 2016, and the overwhelming vibe from the first visitors was… relief. It was still Manuel’s Tavern.

To help you answer the most critical question – should I go to the newly renovated Manuel’s Tavern??? – Thirsty South uncovered a decision tree of unknown provenance that provides everything you’d need to know. Have at it.

And please check in with Manuel’s before you head over – their hours and menu are still ramping up as they settle in to the refurbished space. You’ll find $2.50 Miller Lite on draft, and a solid selection of craft beers to boot (including Creature Comforts Tropicalia for all you hip beer geeks). The only disappointment on my recent visit? They were out of the $2.50 PBR on draft. The regulars must be coming back in force.

Manuels Tavern