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Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With Southern Oregon Brewing?

Southern Oregon Brewing mystifies me. The brewery fits no template I understand, and drinking two of their beers over the weekend didn't resolve anything. Let's review.
  1. Unlike most new Oregon breweries, SOB didn't begin life as a brewpub. Instead, founder Tom Hammond built a massive 11,000-square-foot facility with brand-new equipment capable of an annual capacity of 40,000 barrels a year. Yet their goals for the early years are less than 2000 barrels. This is not usual.
  2. The brewery has but three regular beers--a pale, porter, and golden. There's nothing inherently wrong with these styles of beer, but the world wasn't exactly demanding that a brewery race in and fill these much-neglected beers.
  3. The beers are brewed with lager yeast, apparently at warmer temperatures, though they taste like lagers. Yet they're brewed as ale styles, with ingredients typical of these standard-issue beers. I will get into the results of this choice below.
  4. The brewery proudly embraces its acronym. "Are you ready for a real SOB?"
Apparently SOB thinks Southern Oregon is being neglected by craft breweries: "SOB has the largest brewing capacity in Southern Oregon. That means we have the ability to meet increasing demand without compromising our dedication to using time-tested brewing methods."

I am reminded of a similar brewery from the mid-90s in Milwaukie--the name of which now eludes me. It was similar in all ways, but I think it went with a Boston Lager-style beer. Times change, so I draw no conclusions about SOB.

The Beer
I picked up the porter and pale. When I went searching the intertubes for info, I discovered a post I myself had written about the porter. I gave the beer a positive appraisal, but the fact that I forgot both drinking the beer and writing a post isn't a great sign. Part of the problem is that while pale ales and porters are totally respectable beers, barring some miracle, even good versions are unlike to stand out among the very dense crowd. They also brew a golden, a serious throwaway style--a dreaded crossover beer--I didn't even bother to sample.

The porter was good. I'll quote myself from the earlier post before adding a bit:
Call it a steam porter. The strongest note is tangy and not quite identifiable--at first I think it's headed in a sour direction, but then it finishes out with a currant tartness. It's a creamy beer, with notes typical of porter--dark grains, roast, and coffee/bitter chocolate. I suggest it's fermented warm because, while the beer is a bit drier than a typical porter, it's sweeter and fruitier than a German schwarzbier.
In the bottle I tried, that funky note was absent and it did in fact taste more like a schwarzbier. It was not fruity like the earlier draft version. I said it would score in the B to B+ range, which is about right.

Porter Stats
Malt: Pale, Carafa (dehusked chocolate), Carapils, roast barley, caramel
Hops: German Magnum, Mt. Hood, Northern Brewer, Perle, Styrian Goldings
ABV: 5.5%
IBU: 30

The pale, on the other hand, is not a good beer. Sometimes it's a good idea to brew a standard style and use a different yeast, and sometimes it's not. In the case of the pale, it's not. The schizophrenia of the beer announces itself in the aroma, simultaneously citrusy (though faintly) but with a clear lager signature. The lager yeast creates discordant flavors. The beautiful thing about a pale is the way the rich hop flavor, usually citrusy or floral, pulls out the fruity ale notes. The two do this wonderful tango, cheek to cheek. (There is a reason this beer is so popular.)

But here, the yeast is trying its best to bring a pure, clean malt note. The hops intrude in their tangy, flavorful way and mess things up. This may partly be a function of hop confusion--SOB uses seven (!) different strains here. It's soapy and harsh. You don't want to take a deep, gluttonous pull on the beer like you should with a pale. Rather, you take a nip and shake your head to help it descend down your throat. I couldn't finish the bottle. Actually, I couldnt finish my glass. Not a good beer.

Pale Stats
Malts: Pale, Maris Otter (an English malt), crystal
Hops: Amarillo, Cascade, Challenger, Newport, Sterling, Styrian Goldings, Glacier
ABV: 5%
IBU: 35
Rating: C-

So the final analysis is no clearer than the initial one: SOB remains an enigma.

6 comments:

Bill said...

Not trying to be contrary (I don't have to try), but Unlike most new Oregon breweries, SOB didn't begin life as a brewpub is not quite right. The trend recently seems to be against attached pubs: off the top of my head Ninkasi, Vertigo, Upright, Heater Allen.

Why would he build a huge facility for a small projected output? One guess: so he could make some bucks on the side contract-brewing for other people.

I've only had the porter, only on draft. I agree with you, probably give it a B.

Jeff Alworth said...

Bill, the "new" in that sentence referred to start-ups, as in "unlike most start-up breweries...." I think it's still true that the proportion of newer breweries still tilts toward brewpubs, but you have identified a trend that has escaped my notice. There are a surprising number of bottle-only breweries open lately.

I don't know about his business plan. It's actually outlined on the brewery website, and it projects very modest (read: attainable) goals for the SOB brand.

Anonymous said...

SOB does have a tasting room that is open several evenings a week. They also bottle a red ale with the lager yeast that is refreshingly hoppy and bright. I think that SOB beers are a sessioning beer with flavor.

Pint Lifter said...

Lager yeast for ales? Pass the vomit bag.

Karrgo Bossajova said...

SOB is great in my opinion. They certainly brew more than just 3 different recipes. Prices are reasonable, taphouse is great,
staff is friendly, and i've personally always enjoyed their beer. Sure Tom Hammond might have started out with a larger capacity, but who wouldn't if they were aspiring for large growth? To me Southern Oregon Brewing Co is another locally owned & operated brewing company that is definitely worth supporting. If you don't like the beer though I could see how you would disagree. :) To each their own right?

steve tea said...

just moved to the area and can't say i am impressed

i had better beer at wild river pizza

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