MacTarnahan's Grifter

Has any brewery been in more of an identity crisis than MacTarnahan's? When I was first writing about beer for Willamette Week, I got invited to a tasting panel by members of the brewery and a few key stakeholders. It was intimidating; they were all gathered around a big conference table, and as I took my seat, I was peppered with questions. One of the first was what I thought of when I considered the brewery. It was then called Portland Brewing, and it had the same opaque identity it has now. I said something about the beers being very clean. There were sighs--this was a usual response.

Having clean beers is good, but it's not an identity. As the brewery tried to avoid bankruptcy, it tried a series of different strategies, finally settling on letting the flagship become the identity. And then it slid out of view, as its flagship, an above-average (clean!) amber was swamped by other mid-range ambers. I keep waiting for the brand to be fully supplanted by Pyramid or to try something bold to establish an identity.

Enter Grifter Summer IPA. This is the second in the brewery's new line-up of seasonal offerings, following a beer I completely missed, Sling Shot. In their press release, Mac's writes describes the series as "a growing portfolio of distinct, bold, and original offerings." I have grown to distrust press releases that use vague superlatives like this--usually it means the beer is likely to be bland, indistinct, and unoriginal. But with good packaging!

I hate to say it, but Grifter is, well, clean. It has that characteristic MacTarnahan's clarity, the light fruitiness, and the gentle, unassuming hopping. I could see no evidence that the brewery had spent a lot of time looking for something original to offer. (And it's not like we needed another IPA.) It's fine, but have a bottle and then try to recall the experience 24 hours later.

And then there's this Grifter business. Why Grifter? It sounds sort of cool, and there's always something magnetizing about an anti-hero. It allowed the MacTarnahan's marketers to go crazy with puns and allusions, perhaps not to their benefit:
MacTarnahan's Summer Grifterâ„¢ is a limited edition IPA for the summer whose cunning malt taste and hefty hop aroma will steal your attention and disappear in a wink! It's unique and thought provoking packaging depicts a mysterious character known by our brewers simply as "Clem", and who's haunting stare is just intriguing enough to make you want to know a little more. Summer Grifter IPA, is a deliciously wayward ale, lurking wherever thirsts gather!
A grifter is a confidence man--someone who lures you in with the promise of riches. First, you have to pony up some cash, and then of course he's gone. It's a terrible name for a beer, leading one to think that he's a sucker for putting his $8 on the line for a sixer. Of course, it's not a sucker's bet. It's fine. Just clean, forgettable beer.

MacTarnahan's is a brewery still in search of an identity.