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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Abyss, Slight Return

Speaking of Belmont Station, they're currently serving the Abyss. I've heard rumors that a shipment of bottles has hit the Portland area, too, but I have no info. Oh, and the Duchesse is at the Horse Brass, Six Rivers lambic at Bailey's, and Green Dragon ... hasn't updated their tap list.

Cheers--

Variable Pricing - The Retailer Perspective

In the discussion of variable pricing below, Chris from Belmont Station gives a fascinating account from the retailer's perspective. I almost never bump comments up to the main page, but this one is exceptional. Thanks, Chris.
Saying "The grocer sets the price" isn't really reflective of reality. Admittedly, the final shelf price is up to the grocer, but the breweries know what margin the distributors will take, and roughly what margin most stores will take, and the price they charge the distributors determines what it will cost when it finally hits the shelves.

So, if the brewery wants their beer on the shelf at $8.99/6pk (assuming a 20-30% margin for the store and 20-25% margin for the distributor) they have to sell the beer to the distributor for around $18-20/case.

Some breweries (like Rogue) are quite proud of their beer, and regardless of whether or not Dead Guy cost significantly more than Inversion they want to project an image high quality, expensive beer, so they price it higher.

Simple socioeconomic research will tell them that a certain percentage of shoppers will always gravitate towards "the best" (i.e. most expensive), and while this might cause some folks to regard them as over priced, if they can sell everything they produce at that price then there's no reason to go lower.

Other breweries like Deschutes or Widmer want to be perceived as "great value for the money" so they set their prices to be competitive with most of the other 6pks in the store. Many of them will take it one step further by having what's called a "false front-line" price of say $27.99/case (wholesale), and put the beer on "post off" (on sale) every month. This gives the grocery stores more flexibility in their sale pricing and allows them to use the false front-line price as the "regular price" on the shelf tag and put it "on sale" at the post off price without actually sacrificing any margin.
Not only does this clarify some points, but it also raises some fascinating philosophical questions about pricing. Pricing a product at a premium to communicate quality is nothing new, so Rogue's strategy, while distinctive in Oregon, isn't surprising. This is particularly true given that Rogue has always wanted to be a national brand. Deschutes, by contrast, has focused primarly on local markets, spreading only when other states clamored for their beer.

Because I'm a beer geek, Rogue's communication never really worked--I didn't see their higher prices and think, "Hmm, this Younger's Special Bitter must be tastier than Mirror Pond." But if you weren't broadly familiar with the brands--the case with most consumers--this may well be effective communication. I will admit that the reverse is true: when a company consistently low-balls their price, I have the sense that it's a cheaper, cut-rate brand.

[Update: Economist Patrick Emerson expands on the Rogue strategy; turns out it's a theory known as "signalling." I will not summarize it here--go read his explanation.]

Friday, January 30, 2009

Variable Pricing?

So I had this thought. Why is it that beer isn't priced based on the cost to the brewery except in a very blunt way? If you go to a pub or grocery store, you'll find sixers or pints priced at roughly the same price. There might be a second category for specialty beers on which you pay a premium, but everything else is standardized.

To pull one case at not-quite random: Widmer Hef v. Widmer Brrr. In this corner, WidmerHefeweizen, weighing in 11.75P, 4.9% abv, and 30 IBUs. In the other corner, Widmer Brrr, 17 P, 7.2% abv, and 50 IBUs. For the sake of argument, let's imagine that the Plato and IBU values correspond to ingredients.* The ingredients alone would make Brrr the cost of 1.5 Hefs--if there were additional aging or other methodological complexities, the cost could be twice as expensive. Yet a sixer or a pint of these beers would cost you the same in a grocery store or pub.

I don't know that this is unique to the beer world, but it's odd. Tillamook doesn't charge the same price for its medium and sharp cheddar--it sets prices proportional to costs. So why is it that beer isn't priced proportionally?

I asked Rob Widmer, and he explained their method this way:
"For the beers that we focus on (our bottled beers) we spread the cost of more expensive beers over our entire portfolio rather than charging more for some beers and less for others. Our retail customers appreciate this consistency. An example might be a restaurateur who spreads a cost increase in beef over his entire menu instead of just charging more for a burger. However, at the Gasthaus we do charge a differential for more expensive beers."
(He also pointed out--delicately, after a boneheaded question on my part--that the brewery doesn't set the price at the grocery store, the grocer does.)

Which begs a point Rob already identified: what about brewpubs? They set their own prices and could sell beer at a variety of different points. Why don't they? Is this by convention or because of a business decision? Imagine walking into a brewpub and seeing a chalkboard with the following beer menu:
Best Bitter $3.50
Pale Ale $4.00
Pilsner $4.00
IPA $4.50
Imperial Stout $5.00
Would this offend you? Excite you? Assuming all were well-made beers, which would you order, and would price be a factor? Hmmm....

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*Brewing techies will point out that we can't know the correspondence without identifying the grains and hops, and I grant this. We're running a thought experiment here, though. Bear with me.

Early Signs to Watch

Earlier this week, I posted an unscientific poll about whether the recession has affected your beer drinking. In a word: yes.

The bad news: slightly more than half of you have already altered your drinking habits due to the recession. The good news: almost none of you have been forced to abandon good beer to save money.
47% - My habits haven't changed
16% - I buy good beer, just less of it
11% - I go to pubs less frequently
11% - I mainly buy beer on sale
10% - I drink fewer expensive imports/specialty beers
_5% - I've resorted t faux craft or macro like Pabst
I am surprised at how many of you are already altering your habits. I don't know if craft breweries should be at a full panic yet--like me, you clearly still want to be drinking good beer--but this could be the canary in a coal mine. I'll do the poll again this summer and see if anything's changed.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sesquicentennial Beer?

A while ago, I mentioned that Rogue has somehow been designated the quasi-official beer of the Oregon Sesquicentennial. At the time, I said it seemed a little inappropriate for there to be an official beer, and Jon points out that other breweries apparently think so, too. From their twitter feed, he picked up this necessarily brief comment:
Brewing 2 beers this week with 100% Oregon ingredients to celebrate Oregon's 150th birthday on Feb 14th.
Good for them. I hope ever brewery brews a birthday beer. It's too enticing an opportunity. If they do, it will be a fascinating study of the way in which breweries approached the beer. Something traditionally Oregonian? Something that would have been brewed in 1859? Something crazy over-the-top?

A hundred and fifty years ago, beer was wholly local. It was the pre-refrigeration era, so you had to get your beer fresh. Oregon already had a number of tiny breweries, and the number would jump to the dozens around the time of statehood. Mostly they were run by German immigrants who had come West with the pioneers to make their fortune. And of course, most of them are lost to the mists of time. Early Oregon beer would have mainly been German lagers--though not entirely. A few breweries produced English-style ales, too.

So anyway, consider this my effort to lobby Oregon breweries to brew a special beer for the Sesquicentennial. It would make for great fun, and after all, no one can lay claim to being the "official beer." It's our state, we can honor it how we wish.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Homebrewing the Cheap Choice?

In these depressionary times, the mind of the young beer drinker turns not to fancy, but cheap beer. But not any cheap beer--good cheap beer. Sales, mooching; good options both, but they require serendipity's intervention. The young beer drinker does not like to wait for opportunity, the young beer drinker makes his opportunity. And so too shall he make his beer, cheaply!

Well. While I encourage every lover of beer to take up the ancient art--it aids enormously in understanding and, by consequence, appreciation--don't be lured by the promise of cost savings. There are ways to minimize cost, but there's an initial start-up cost. If you're a modest drinker, you won't make back your initial investment for months ... by which time the recession may be long over.

Initial Investment
In order to brew, you need equipment. A brew kettle obviously, and a carboy for fermentation, but also a lot of smaller objects that add up quickly: thermometer, tubes and canes, fermentation locks, a funnel, strainer, bottle-capper, etc. Once you buy all that, you're in the hole for around 150 bucks minimum (starter kits, usually around $100, don't include a kettle). That's 19 six-packs, and we haven't even bought the ingredients for our first beer.

Ingredients
Brewers generally start with extract-based recipes. Extracts are cheaper more expensive than whole grains, so your cost is a bit higher (but you didn't have to spend money on a mash tun). You also need hops, specialty malt, and yeast. All together, you can expect to spend at least $30--and if you're going for a high-gravity beer with a variety of different hops, liquid yeast, and specialty malts, you could easily spend twice that. If you're at the low end, you've cut your per-bottle beer price in half (yay!), but if you're at the high end, you're barely breaking even (hmm). Let's say you're saving an average of $2.50 a sixer. At this rate, it will take you eight batches of beer to make back your initial investment. Actually, it's your 38th gallon where the savings start. But that's if you haven't been spending money on things like wort chillers and imported hops and additional carboys, which, if you've made it to your eighth batch, you probably have.

Time
All other things being equal, this is the real investment. Homebrewing is labor-intensive. You'll put in six or seven hours getting a batch from store to basement. A lot of this time is scrubbing and lugging. If you mash your beer, it takes even longer. Many homebrewers find their interest waning because they don't just don't have the time.

Efficiencies
Eventually, homebrewing can really save you money. You can plant your own hops, transition to all-grain brewing, even recycle your yeast. Your equipment costs start to drop away. If you did all of these things, you could bring your costs down to $10-$20 for even the most expensive beers (mainly it's the cost of malt). It's difficult to start out this way, though--you tend to get to this place by increments.

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I am happy to be corrected on the following point, but it is my experience that no one who becomes an engaged, accomplished homebrewer does it because it's cheaper than buying beer in a store. If you take up the craft to save money, you'll instantly find everything working against you--it's expensive to get started, it's time-consuming, and it's almost a dead certainty that your first few batches will be inferior to beer you buy. (You aim for Pliny, you brew a murky paste. Tasty!) On the other hand, if you take it up because you have a fascination with beer and love tinkering with recipes, it will draw you in. Eventually, if you keep at it, you might notice that, hey, you're actually saving a few bucks. That's a pleasant by-product, though, not the real reason for the young beer drinker to brew. Go back to mooching if you just want to save money.

Oregon Beers Lauded

John Foyston points us to an article in Draft Magazine citing 2008's twenty-five best beers. It's an international collection, and four of the beers hail from Beervana. Only California had more slots. Given the number of breweries in California, this isn't a shock or unwarranted. Surprisingly, Michigan tied Oregon with four nods. Overall, an apt appreciation of the quality of beer from the West Coast. (Okay, one quibble: nothing from Washington? An oversight.)

Oregon's showing, with the mag's comments.
  • Deschutes Abyss. "It was difficult to choose one beer from Deschutes this year, but ultimately we sided with the brewery’s second installment of its wildly popular oak-aged imperial stout. The Abyss is rich with roasted malts, chocolate notes and fruity fermentation qualities, all made more complex by its time on wood. Oak kisses the profile for an all-around rich experience."
  • Pelican Kiwanda Cream. "Any idea how good a cream ale has to be to make a top 25 list? As excellent as this one. Kiwanda begins with a slightly sweet, delicately bready malt character. It moves into a firm floral hop presence with mild bitterness and delicate malt character. This is easily one of the best light-bodied beers in the country and is bright, flavorful, and wonderfully easy to drink. "
  • Cascade Apricot Ale. "Cascade’s Apricot Ale takes fruit beer to a whole new level: It's like opening a bottle of freshly packaged apricots. This is an exquisite beer that allows the fruit’s juicy quality to shine with each thirst-quenching sip. Pouring this brew is an unforgettable experience: An intense apricot aroma races out of the glass. The flavor is sweet but not syrupy, with apricot flavors from beginning to end. This is everything a masterfully crafted fruit beer should be."
  • Hair of the Dog Adam. Hair of the Dog is one of the Northwest’s most celebrated brewers for a reason: Every beer it releases is high-quality, and selecting one beer above the rest is no simple task. We landed on Adam because its sweetness, alcohol, and hops are incredibly well balanced, and create a drinking experience that makes you wonder about the way beer used to be. From first taste to swallow, the flavors magically work in unison, with chocolate and toffee beginning the show before giving way to subtle notes of pepper and citrus. It has an assertive hop bitterness that lasts into the aftertaste, along with toffee notes."
I give Draft special kudos for selecting a light beer in Kiwanda Cream. Lighter beers are so rarely celebrated (and indeed, most of the list is given to exotic and/or huge beers), and yet they demonstrate no less of the brewer's art. I also admire the mag's HotD selection over the far more-celebrated Fred. That's to take nothing away from Fred, but Adam deserves some of the spotlight, too.

There is another Oregon connection here. In the mention of New Holland's Dragon Milk, they point out the stir it caused at the OBF--further evidence of the high-profile nature of that fest.

(I praised that beer in my coverage of the OBF and of course have been promoting Apricot Ale. I even reminisced about how under-appreciated Adam is. A more egomaniacal person could jump to the conclusion that the Draft Mag editors read this here blog. Fortunately, I'm famous for my modesty and chalk it up to great minds thinking alike.)

Congrats to these very well-deserved beers and their breweries. You could substitute another ten Oregon beers (at a minimum) for these and find no argument, but I'm pleased that these are all exceptional beers. Kudos!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Keep Voting

I admit I'm finding the results of my poll pretty interesting thus far--half of you have resorted to cost-saving measures. I want to bump the poll back up to the top of the blog for those of you who haven't yet responded.

A Visit to Cascade Brewing/Raccoon Lodge

Twice I have visited the Raccoon Lodge to see what Ron Gansberg is brewing. Twice I have gone straight to the brewery in the basement, bypassing the rather striking lodge part of the restaurant. Not a bad metaphor for what Gansberg has going on there. The Raccoon Lodge's regular beer menu is fairly typical--a wheat, an IPA, a stout, a Irish ale. Down in basement, it's a whole different brewery.

This time we did start with a rather pedestrian beer by the downstairs standard--but it could have been that Ron was just trying to get my goat. It was the Dark Day IPA, a black IPA, and he'd just read my jeremiad against the new style. The rest of the beer we tried was what has brought Gansberg attention at festivals and specialty pubs (not to mention the judges of the prestigious Satori Award)--barrel-aged, soured, strong. So, while I have news of nine beers (!), none is a standard Rac Lodge offering. Someday I'm going to have to go upstairs and reacquaint myself with those beers.
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We did start with the Dark Day IPA, a bright, mahogany beer (if memory serves). Hops were present but not overly aggressive; instead the beer was characterized more by cocoa-roasty malt. Personally, I'd call it as hoppy porter, or perhaps a strong schwartz (like most of the beers that come from the basement, it's strong--7.5%). Then it was onto the really experimental stuff.

The Vine (9.2%)
The rule of threes? Last year Cascade produced three fruit ales, but when it came time to select fruit, they found the blackberries insufficiently ripened. They still have three fruit ales, but The Vine uses (can you guess?) white wine grapes. I'll confess that this one is so far off the grid I have a hard time characterizing it. I was expecting something like Cantillon Vigneronne, but that beer is much, much drier. The Vine has enough grape and sweetness that it tastes more like a mead to me. The brewery further confuses the palate with spices--cardamom to my tongue, though they didn't disclose the recipe. I would like to try this beer in a few months, when the sour has come in a bit more strongly. I can only give this provisional preview--we'll have to wait for the finished product. (It's also worth noting that this beer is assistant brewer Curtis Bain's brainchild, so the lineage of "mad scientist" continues.)

'09 Apricot Ale
Random trivia: there are more than 20 varieties of apricot. Well, not so random: this year's batch of Apricot Ale is made from a different type than the '08 I loved so much. Every year, Gansberg hand-selects the fruit, basing his selection on the quality available. He chose these apricots because they have a fuller, sweeter flavor, though he admits they're not as aromatic. I noticed this right away--that succulent scent was almost absent. But that's the nature with hand-made, artisinal ale--you are beholden to the offerings of mother nature. (And man, is this artisinal brewing. Not only does he hand-select the fruit, but he leaves it spread out throughout the brewery. "We put the fresh fruit out and every day I scrabble up there and pick out only the perfect fruit.") This beer is perhaps one notch less beguiling than last year's, but that means it's still exceptional. You almost certainly missed the chance to try this last year, since so little was produced. Don't miss it this year. Bottles of the new vintage are now available at the brewery.

'09 Kriek (8.1%)
If variability was agin' Cascade on the Apricot, it was for them on the Kriek. Gansberg was both joyful at the results and cagey: "It might be too good to sell," he joked. Last year's version was nothing to sniff at--it earned a bronze at the GABF. But this version is much more resonant. The cherry flavor is deeper and sweeter, bringing the beer into harmony (I found last year's a mite too sour). The '09 is made with two varieties of cherry, one sour and one sweet. It's also substantially stronger than last year's at 8.1%, but Gansberg is making "Belgian-inspired" beers. The extra strength, he believes, will appeal to NW palates. "This is everything I have aspired to in beer," Ron told me, and I can see why. The only place to get a bottle right now is at the brewery, and you might consider buying a bottle earlier rather than waiting--I don't know how long it might last. This could be the must-have beer of 2009.

2008 Cuvee (8.4%)
Cuvées are created by blending a selection of a brewery's best aged beers (the word comes from the French cuve for "cask or tank"), and Cascade's includes their tripel, with some portion aged 18 months, Flanders Red, and quadrupel. To bottle condition the beer, Gansberg added a portion of the red that still had active lactic fermentation--he didn't prime or krausen the beer. Is it redundant to call a blended beer complex? The Cuvee has a roastiness, a dry, sherry-note, vanilla, and what Gansberg called a "blue cheese" flavor that lactobacillis produce when they die (sounds gross, but sour-heads will love it). Cascade will produce no '09 Cuvee--they just didn't have enough beer to blend. If you buy a bottle, you might consider two. They're corked and will lay down for a long, long time.

From here we went through a few draft-only beers in fairly quick succession and I have more abbreviated notes on these:
  • Sang Noir. It's a double red aged with bing cherries in bourbon casks. It's a beer I know many people enjoyed at the Holiday Ale Fest, but I find the bourbon clashes with the sweet and sour of the cherry and red. (Then again, I'm not a big fan of bourbon.)
  • Vlad the Imp Aler. "This is like Cuvee's gigantic big brother." Indeed it is. Made with year-old sour quads (25 P), sour, spiced blond, and a soured tripel, it weighs in at 10.3% ABV. We didn't drink a lot of it, but I found it sprightly for a big beer, rich and layered, sour, and tasty. Order it if you have a chance (and aren't driving).
  • Mouton Rouge. This is the Flanders Red that is the backbone for many of the beers Gansberg produces. I had it straight at the Green Dragon a month or so ago, which is my where my main recollection comes from (my palate, by the time we tried it at the brewery, was ... not fresh). The strength (7.5%) combined with the very dry tartness argues that it could be called something other than a Flanders Red. But what? A debate for another time. In any case, a lovely ale.
The final beer we tried was poured straight from the tank. A new tripel (I think--anyway, that's what I declared it to be when Ron asked me what I thought--I don't know that I ever did get his description), made with a different yeast than he's formerly used. It was insanely drinkable: creamy, rich, and just a touch sweet--that will diminish as the beer ages and alcohol will come forward--it's one of those beers that would please equally the novice drinker and the old hand. It will be a popular beer. (You can't actually see it in his hand, but the tripel is what owner Art Larrance is drinking in the picture at right.)

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I often affectionately describe the brewery as the laboratory of mad scientist Ron Gansberg. It's apt because messing around with age and lactobacillis has an aspect of alchemy to it. Ron has decades of experience brewing, but no one can really get experience with these kinds of beers without brewing them. Since the experiments take years to execute, it's a slow process. But it means that, year by year, batch by batch, Ron refines his technique. I have enjoyed watching the progress, and hope to continue to see what evolves. These are fascinating, wonderful beers.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pssst

An extremely expensive beer, Struise Black Albert Belgian Imperial Stout, is making the rounds. I have not tried it, but based on reviews coming over the twitter feed, I'd encourage you to spend your money on a tasty local. Can you thank somenone for a counterfactual? Never mind the philosophy, you'll thank me.

(Also, this is sort of a recession-based post. Don't spend more than you have to in the land of extraordinary beer!)

Update. Angelo dissents.

Two Bits of News

A resident of Maui and regular visitor to Oregon sends along news that a Webfoot will be relocating to the Magic Isle:
Maui Brewing Co. (MBC) is proud to announce that Scott Freitas has joined their ohana as their new head brewer....

[In] 1991 he was working for Steelhead Brewing Co. in Eugene, learning everything he could. By 1994 Scott became Assistant Brewer for Bend Brewing Co. and also worked at Bend 's renowned brewery, Deschutes, alongside their head brewmaster - all the while honing his craft. In 1996 Scott began working as assistant brewer at Wild Duck Brewing Co. in Eugene. The head brewer there, Glen Falconer, was Scott's best friend and mentor.
Having to leave Oregon. Poor bastard.

Also, I wanted to give a provisional shout-out to Rogue for keeping the Green Dragon's taps open to outside breweries. I was there last night and had a couple of wonderful Belgian ales (La Chouffe and Scaldis/Bush Noel). The food has changed, but that's really the only clue. Most companies have a huge interest in rebranding everything to fall into a corporate identity. I'm not an MBA, but I assume there's a method to this madness. I suppose Rogue will hold the line exactly as long as they think the line is profitable, but keeping things as they are demonstrates rare restraint. They're earning their name now. A Rogue approach indeed.

Are Your Habits Changing?

Below is a poll about whether or how your beer drinking habits are changing. Based on anecdotal reports and imprecise media reports, my impression is that the recession hasn't affected the habits of good-beer drinkers too much as of yet. However, every morning brings reports of large corporations dumping hundreds or thousands of jobs, and economists believe the recession won't start to improve until 2010. I'll run a version of this poll every few months and see if patterns are changing.

(The poll isn't scientific. There are a number of reasons why we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking the results reflect larger trends. Still, it might plausibly register some change over time--or at least provide us an opportunity to revisit the question in a few months.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Recession and Beer

It occurred to me, only well after the fact, that I may have committed a causal fallacy. When I visited Max's Fanno Creek two Fridays ago and found the crowd wanting, I blamed it on West Side beer culture. It was only as I listened to the news of massive layoffs last week--including a thousand Oregonians Intel plans to lay off--that it dawned on me that we might be looking at the first signs of recession hitting the beer market.

I plan to delve a bit more into this possibility in the coming week. By way of adding to the conversation, what evidence are you feeling/seeing? Economists say the recession will last throughout the year, and the recovery, when it starts in 2010, probably won't produce an instant recovery among damaged industries. It may be instructive to try to find a few key indices now and follow them over the next 18 months.

Your thoughts?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Weekend Best Bets

Your best bets for a sweet pull this weekend....

2007 Alaskan Smoked Porter
This beer ages wonderfully--up to five years and more. Try last year's version alongside this year's at Belmont Station.

Ommegang Hennepin v. Saison Dupont
What's the best saison in the world--Dupont? Test the theory with Ommegang's version, which I might tentatively call superior. It's at Bailey's. Over at the Green Dragon, they're pouring the original from Dupont. Tis the saison!

New Breweries
Block 15 (Corvallis) and Vertigo (McMinnville Hillsboro) are pouring at Bailey's as well. It's easier than traveling an hour or more to the source. Block 15 has a Belgian Brown (7.7%) and Vertigo an alt (5.1%). Or try Oakshire (Eugene) Espresso Stout at Henry's Tavern.

Deschutes Spencers' Gold
On an unexpected journey to the Pearl today, I stopped in for a pint that was brewed at the mothership in Bend. It is an extraordinary session (4.5%) absolutely saturated with Cascade and Centennial flavor (though not bitterness). Holy moly.

Go forth and enjoy--

A Meta Moment

In the next 24 hours or so, I'm going to post a rather longish article about a recent visit to Raccoon Lodge to try Ron Gansberg's 2009 slate of beers (twice to the West Side in the same week!). Since I recently gave Gansberg's Apricot Ale the Satori Award, you may wonder, "why are you so biased toward certain breweries?"

The back story is this: Ron invited me. I blog in the margins of life, and so proximity dictates content. I write about Belmont Station rather than John's Market because it's 35 blocks from my house. I spend a lot of time at the Laurelwood because a) it's close and b) the TVs usually play Blazers games. I have somehow failed to get on the gravy train some bloggers ride (cough Jon cough) wherein beer regularly arrives at the house. In many ways I think that's fine. As a blogger, I'm just a citizen beer drinker. My experience is just like everyone else's. The downside is that my experience is just like everyone else's, if you see what I mean.

Recently, someone contacted me to ask if I talked to the brewers at Max's before doing the review. It raised this question because I'd just come back from the Rac Lodge. I'd love to promise to talk to brewers before writing about their beer, but so long as this remains an unpaid hobby, I'm not sure it's in the future. However, if brewers read this blog and want to have me out to the brewery, give me a holler. Thanks to Ron's initiative, I did make it out there--to the dogged go the spoils. (And meager spoils indeed are the reward of my visit.)

In the mean time, I'll try to pick up my game and do a little more investigation before I write reviews. Sorry for the navel gazing, but I've been feeling a bit like a slacker, so I thank you in advance for humoring me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Shout Out to Hot Lips

Catty-corner from my office is Hot Lips Pizza, which has always had an exceptional tap list, despite its brevity And today I noticed this fine sign (sorry about the blurry, cell-phone pic).


Perfect!

Bailout Bitter

Speaking of theft, I'm stealing a post from a beer-loving economist, mainly for the photo (further theft) which is darkly amusing. Howe Sound Brewery in Squamish, BC--apparently in the neighborhood of the 2012 Winter Olympics--has produced a beer called "Bailout Bitter." They're selling it at a slight discount; a nod of the head to the label, and probably good business. The brewery describes the beer thus:

A bitter beer for bitter times. An English style golden bitter brewed to help fight the current global economic crisis. It is a moderately hopped ale, with a nice light flowery nose, and a moderate malt profile. (5% alc./vol.)

Cheers ... I guess.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Max's Fanno Creek (Briefly)

Max's Fanno Creek
12562 SW Main St
Tigard, Oregon 97223
503-624-9400

The West Side and I ... we don't mingle. I do occasionally pass through the West Side, but rarely is it my final destination. As a result, oversights will happen. Max's Fanno Creek, one of a tiny handful of brewpubs scattered among the hills (excepting McMenamins' outposts, you got your Raccoon Lodge, your Old Market Pub, and Max's) opened 20 months ago, but I just made it out on Friday.

I arrived there at 7 pm, expecting a madhouse like you'd find on the East Side at the busiest hour of the weekend. Instead, it was only a half to two-thirds full and I was guided to a primo booth by a rather excitable waiter. Odd. Still, I ordered a taster tray of the beer and a pile of fries and waited for my West Side friend to arrive.

[I'll get to the beer in a moment, but first let me remark on how strange it is for the East-side tourist to visit Tigard. The little stretch of downtown there is quite pleasant, with a wee creek--Fanno, brewery namesake--running just by the brewery (one can imagine how in centuries past, that's exactly the kind of place you'd find a brewery--right next to a ready water supply). Yet the decor of the place is stripped-down. You walk through a no-man's land out at the front of the pub, and the inside is spread out and lacks an inviting feng shui. I don't know how to describe it. And then the topper: last call at 8:45. Maybe there was a private party afterward or something, but it was astonishing to visit a pub and have last call that early. I felt as if I had visited a foreign city--Bucharest 1983, say. Could this have been Beervana?]

Fortunately, the waiter screamed right over with several vessels my nostrils and tongue recognized. I had found familiar ground. The beer range is idiosyncratic--a couple of Belgians, some standard ales, and an experimental beer or two. I was served a more traditional line-up of six beers which ranged for the most part on the good to excellent side of the scale--with one notable exception. Notes below, in the order I tasted them.
  • Golden. Many brewpubs offer a "golden," which is code for "micro beer for macro drinkers." This version a little less characterful than Full Sail Session, but similar. Fine, but not designed to wow.
  • Nit Wit. Belgian whites are becoming, thanks to their approachable tastiness, almost ubiquitous. The downside is that you therefore find many ordinary examples. Max's is one of the finer versions I've had recently. Richly wheaty, modestly but appropriately spiced, crisp, very refreshing. Great beer.
  • Reverend's Daughter. I have had this beer--a Belgian golden--before, and it had an unavoidable off-flavor then. I had hoped that was due to extenuating circumstances, but alas, here it was, brewery fresh, and here was the off-flavor. I don't mean to diagnose DMS, but the character is very much of over-boiled vegetables. Both in the nose and on the palate. If it's intentional, I'd like to know what the intention is.
  • Scottish. Great example of style, with a nice nutty, slightly roasted malt character and silky mouthfeel.
  • Pacific Red. I anticipated a burly, hoppy beer, but this was a lighter, chalkier brew. For malt fans, the Scottish is the better choice. I found it wanting hops.
  • O Holy Hops. The brewery's big winter ale, this is more strong ale than Imperial IPA (though distinguishing the taxonomic differences between the two might provoke a spirited discussion), so intense that you get a bit of kickback on your first sip. Power through and keep sipping, however, and you'll be rewarded with a piney residue on your tongue, a warmth in your belly, and a smile on your face. Hopheads will rejoice.
I would like to offer a bit more insight into the pub, but perhaps West Siders can round out the portrait in the comments. This confirmed East-Sider welcomes input--

Doggie Claws at Six and a Ghost From the Past

As I get ever longer in the tooth, my beer cellar ever improves. I've made a concerted effort this year to start laying in good beers, but I also have scattered purchases dating back to the late 90s. Last night, to toast the new president, I broke out a couple.

2002 Doggie Claws
Confessions first: I don't love barleywines. I know this is an excommunicatable offense among beer geeks, but what can I say? To my palate, most barleywines are like music piped through speakers a few clicks of volume higher than they were made to handle. The malt is sticky and cloying, the hops shrill and overwrought--painful, but unable to temper the syrupy goo. Ah, but when they're good, they're insanely good. So it is with six-year-old doggie claws. Everything about this beer was perfect, from the head retention, which inexplicably lasted until the final drop despite the alcohol, to the aroma of gingerbread and spice to the magnificent flavor, where the malt and hops were silky rich but at the perfect volume. The malt had lost the leather quality and was more akin to something baked--spiced plum bread or gingerbread. The hops retained a lively spiciness that perfectly drew out the malt notes. I have almost never tasted a beer I would score 100 points out of a 100 points, but this had not a single flaw; better, the elements were greater than their sum. An amazing beer. I'll be laying a lot more of this away in the future.

1998 Saxer Three-Finger Jack Doppelbock
A few of you will recall Saxer Brewing, kaput since the late 90s. They specialized in lagers, and the annual pièce de résistance was Three-Finger Jack. Saxer was ahead of its time with lagers in an ale land, but there was no dispute about the doppel--we all loved it. I bought a sixer and I've been parsing it out at very special occasions.

Sadly, I think I've waited too long. It's gone beyond its prime. It was extremely oxidized and more or less flat. The original flavor was suggested, but dissipated. I was reminded of snapshots from the 70s, before they'd perfected color photography. You look at them now and they're all spotty and blurry. This is a risk with aging beer, and one to which I'm particularly susceptible. I regard the beer as too precious to drink. It's stupid, a subversion of the art, but we all have our faults. Perhaps this will encourage me to start drinking these beers, before it's too late.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More Obama

This pic is getting quite a bit of run in the blogosphere. I stole it from Angelo, but I don't know who to credit.

He also has news of a beer called Senator in Kenya--the beer of the people:
East Aftrican Breweries LTD of Kenya, founded in 2004 has released an adjunct-free brew called Senator. The beer, in Obama’s father’s native country is commonly known as “Obama Beer” and has become quite popular since the President won a Senate seat in 2004. The average daily income for about half of Kenyans is less than $1, and most other mainstream beers are upwards of $3 a glass. The Senator/Obama Beer sells for less than half of these mostly corn, sorghum, and rice malted brews at about 40 cents a bottle.
Not exactly beer news, but I heard on the radio that some coffeeshops are selling "Obama blend" with (can you guess?) 50% Kenyan and 50% Kona. So obvious when you think about it....

Okay, I'll knock off the Obama posts after this one. I've got a lot of info about Ron Gansberg's latest offerings, and a long-overdue review of Max's Fanno Creek in the hopper. Soon.

Hail to the Chief

Raise a beer to the new guy, no matter whether you bleed red or blue. He's our president and we all wish him will well. Cheers!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stealing Versus Using

Last week, Matt at Portlandbeer.org posted what became a rather provocative article on the ethics of appropriating photography. It generated dozens of comments and a hundred emails--so much so that he has since removed the post. The gist was this: without asking, crediting, or paying for them, Alameda appropriated Matt's photos for their commercial website. Many (all?) remain. It's not surprising that they would do this; Matt's an amazing photographer who is preparing a book of his work.

We live in a world where you can easily snatch a pic or bloc of text and post it on your own site. In some cases we regard this as appropriate, and some cases theft.

This is an example of theft.

I'm not a lawyer and I make an ethical point. My guess is that the law is also on Matt's side on this one (if not the lawyers), but let's not go down that road. We don't need to make a legal case here, just a clear ethical one. Here's how I would characterize it. As a society, we want to strike a balance between encouraging creative innovation and the exchange of information and discouraging the practice of profiting off someone else's work. Bloggers steal profligately from other sites, quoting and using pictures. I regard this as a fair use under certain circumstances: attribution and (where possible) links must be provided when appropriating someone's work. And the use must be non-commercial; that is, you shouldn't be using it to turn a buck. From time to time, I want to grab a picture off a site like Flickr, and when I do, I cite the photographer and link back to the picture I used. Although it's never happened, I'd pull the picture anyone requested that.

But a business is a whole different ballgame. Alameda wanted to use Matt's photography to sell their product. Matt will receive no payment for these profits. Even more egregiously, Alameda didn't cite Matt as the photographer. This falls squarely in the category of exploitation. The ethics are made no worse by virtue of Matt's intention to use his photography in a book, but it's worth noting that it does downgrade his own product. Ethically speaking, stealing is stealing, and stealing from a point-and-shooter like me is just as bad, even though I suffer no additional harm by the degredation of my product. But it does doubly screw Matt.

Alameda should rectify this immediately. Having already used the photography, they owe Matt money along with an apology; simply removing the photos isn't adequate compensation. If they want to keep using the photos, they need to strike a deal with the photographer.

For reasons I don't understand, Matt has removed his original post, which is of course his prerogative. But let's not forget the issue or overlook bad behavior. Alameda needs to make things right. And for other breweries who might wish to scoop up pictures or text from bloggers, a handy tip: just email us and find out whether it's okay. It's not rocket science, just good manners.

[Update. Looks like Matt and Alameda have come to (are in the process of coming to, something) a meeting of the minds, so the above case should probably just be regarded as an example. And boycotts, blood vendettas, and so on can be revoked.]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Milestones

Two score and one year ago, I dropped wheezing into the world, asthmatic, nearly blind, but sporting a luxurious pelt of dark hair (that would begin to abandon me about twenty years later). I yet wobble and creak about--as much as old folk can expect.

Also, this here blog now exits the terrible twos and will, on the day a new president takes the helm, turn three.

Happy birthday to us.

[Update. In the Facebook age, I've gotten in touch with some long-lost friends from years back. One of the earliest sent this. I'm the skinny one in the stylish glasses in the back row--call it portrait of the blogger as a young hoopster. Photo must be circa 1978.]

Friday, January 16, 2009

News Ticker

I don't know that any of the following items deserve a post themselves, so how about an omnibus news post for the weekend. Incidentally, I spent a couple hours tasting the new lineup from Cascade (Rac Lodge) last night, and I'll get that out in the next few days. Definitely an item or two that should be on your "must buy" list. Okay, here goes.

Southern Oregon Brewing will soon be available in bottles. I learned this from Mike at Green Bottling, who sent a label along a sentence or two marveling at what a big, professional place SOB is. Porter, Gold, and Pale Ale, all headed to a store near you.

Rogue has two news items, one cool and one slightly odd. First, the odd. Somehow, Rogue managed to get sole rights to brew the official Oregon Sesquicentennial beer. No info on what kind of beer it is. Maybe they got the nod because they have the access to the most home-grown ingredients; anyway, that's what they're touting in the press release. (I am slightly uneasy about an "official" Oregon beer. Seems like everyone should get a shot at brewing up their take--and it would be a hell of a lot of fun to see what they would come up with. Missed opportunity.)

The second thing is unequivocally cool, though: Dead Guy Whiskey. As you know, whisky is just distilled beer, so why not go all the way. The bottle looks a whole lot like the beer, so you shouldn't have trouble spotting it.

The Brothers W have re-released one of their best seasonals, now a year-round and restyled "Drifter Pale Ale." You may recall it was their "W" beer from a couple years back, made with Summit hops and all orangy and tasty. Seems that program is a way to test the commercial prospects of a beer, and I am delighted to see this come back as a regular. (In fact, I believe I shot an email off and requested just that, so probably you have me to thank.)

That's all the news that's fit to print.

Roots Flanders Red - Or, How Do You Know if It's "Good?"

I come to this review with some trepidation. First because the entire range offered in the traditional Flanders Red style (made famous by Rodenbach) is about six beers, only two of which I've seen in America. Also because Roots has spent more time and money trying to brew a version of this style than they can ever recoup (though do a search on the terms "Flanders Red" and you'll see that they may make it up in advertising), so they don't need me nitpicking. Yet that's why I get paid the big bucks, so here we go.

1. What's the style?
There are a number of sour Belgian styles, and one could easily complain that parsing the difference between a lambic, Flemish Red, and Flanders Brown is--as far as the tongue's concerned, anyway--a pointless game of semantics. In one sense this is true, but you could complain that the difference between pale, amber, and brown English-style ales is really a matter of art, not science--but who in Beervana would sign on to such a crude view?

The "red" ales (Jackson calls them "Flemish Reds," distinct from "Flanders Browns"--aka "oud bruins--though the reds are also made in Flanders and have a lot of brown in them) all take after the ur-red, Rodenbach. Although the brewery pre-existed the style (as did all the Flanders breweries currently producing reds), it probably started to take form with the arrival of Eugene Rodenbach in the 1870s.

The grist of the beer is 80% malt, 20% corn. It is aged for months or years and then blended to produce the standard version of the beer (about 5% abv). The straight aged beer is sold as "Grand Cru" is stronger at 6%. None of the traditional Belgian versions exceed 6.2% alcohol by volume. The beer is aged in massive wooden tanks that are scraped between each batch so there's always new wood to season the beer. Finally and most importantly, the yeast, which has funkified through the generations, contains as many as 20 distinct strains (!), including a range of lactobacilli.

It is these yeasts that dictate much of the character of the beer, which is tart and sharp but not overly dry; even the Grand Cru, which is rather intensely sour, has some residual sugars which allow layers and depths of flavors. It is the sugar that distinguishes the style from lambic; where the latter dry out, sometimes to dust, reds have a wonderful roundness and sweetness. In fact, Rodenbach's cousin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, is quite sweet. The style is referred to as the "Burgandy of Belgium" because of this balance.

2. Roots Flanders Red
So this brings us to Roots' version, which was two years in the making--clearly a labor of love for this wonderful, innovative brewery. I will now roll the tape from an interview Craig Nicholls did on Libation Station (mp3) for a description of the beer:
"We took three-quarters of this beer, that was brewed two years ago, and we threw it on French pinot noir oak barrels and let it sit there for about 11 months. Then we took it and re-blended it with the rest of the beer that had been sitting in tank and went through a secondary fermentation for the last year."
The result is a 9.2% beer that falls fairly far outside the style on a number of dimensions--it's substantially drier, obviously a lot stronger, and the glass I received yesterday had no head (the pic at right is slightly misleading on that score) and was nearly still. But let's leave aside the style consideration--Belgians are not much for style, anyway. The real question is how it tastes.

Sadly, for me the beer was a near miss. As you can see from the picture, it was a bit murky, though the color was nice (to my color-blind eyes, anyway). When cold, the aroma was inhibited--faintly sour with a cherry/fruit note. As it warmed the nose opened up into a cellar-y lactic bouquet, more lambic than red as the fruit fades back.

Flavor: first comes a dry, minerally tartness. There's a strong mid-note, which grew as the beer warmed, of peppery heat. It might be fusel alcohol or some other by-product of yeast action. The beer finally tapers to a bone-dry tartness characteristic of some lambics.

I call it a near miss not because it's out of style (actually "Flanders red" is as good a description as any), but because the final presentation was overly dry; that hot middle not also tends to nuke other, more subtle flavors. In this way it lacks the depth you'd like to see--there's not enough sugar to buoy the heft and acid. My guess is that the beer actually sat too long--months or even a year ago, would some of the remaining residual sugars have brought it into balance?

That said, I hope the Roots men ignore my comments and keep brewing the beer. It took Rodenbach decades to arrive at a system where they had the right number and kind of resident yeasts in their barrels to create what we now think of as the standard of the style. Roots can hardly be expected to hit the mark on the first batch. It takes a great deal of courage to put the time and effort into a beer that may be only 75% where you want it, and then maybe even more courage to keep trying. Still, this is the only way these kinds of wood-aged beers will ever come to be. A brewery has to be willing to invest years and years into the experiment. Here's hoping Roots already has batches two and three sitting in a nice, cool place in the brewery.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Roots Prequel

Confessions first: last night was my anniversary with Sally (our first, most-remembered, pre-marriage anniversary), and despite my intense anticipation for the Flanders Red, I didn't make it to the pub. I intend to stop in for lunch this afternoon, after which I'm off to see what Ron Gansberg is up to. So reviews to come. Fortunately, this was a well-documented affair, and I bring you a couple comments from those who caught the debut.

Beer Around Town

I’m damn impressed, very well built brew, sour, but a very soft acidity. Doesn’t have as strong of a sweetness up front as the Dissident, and not as woody, but a bit more of a tart cherry flavor. I know a few of the other local blogs will have a better review of the evening and some good pictures to go along, so I won’t ramble.

John Foyston
[I]t's a fine eexample...dimensional, you might say; tart; refreshing, with a complex and evolving nose...Okay, you're right...we need Noel Blake to describe this beer in those poetic terms of his...

Matt, from Portlandbeer.org, apparently took photos, so we'll look for those. (In the meantime, look at this post--it shows how the good-natured collegiality of the beer world can be exploited. I'll post on this later--it's instructive and important to discuss.)

More to come--

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Politics and Beer, International Edition

I have long maintained that beer and politics don't mix. (Politics needing beer--that's another matter.) In front of the cask, we are all members of a more ancient tribe than can be expressed by blue and red. Beer transcends politics and has the capacity to bring people together. This is loose talk compared to the barriers Israeli and Palestinian beer fans must overcome. But look:

Professionals devoted to hops and malt instead of vitriol and weapons, on the other hand, seem to have a knack for bridging gaps that political leaders may find insurmountable. A perfect example is an article in The Jerusalem Post of December 11, 2008, which — barely three weeks before the outbreak of yet another round of war — quotes an Israeli talking about “the divine Palestinian brew Taybeh.” The man quoted as calling the Palestinian brew “divine” is Gad Divri, a brewer and the General Manager of Beer-D, a Tel-Aviv brewing supply company. Taybeh is made by Nadim Khoury, the owner-brewer of the Taybeh Brewing Company. Taybeh is the only brewery in Palestine. It is situated in the small village of Taybeh outside the Palestinian West Bank capital of Ramallah. Fittingly, Taybeh means “delicious” in Arabic.

Nadim obviously reciprocates the esteem accorded him by his Israeli colleague, as was evident at the 10th annual post-BRAU-Beviale Bavarian Party at the Weyermann Malting Company, on November 15, 2008. What the diplomats and the generals have not been able to accomplish in decades, happened over pints of Barley Wine, Rauchbier, English Bitter and Pumpkin Ale — all made in the Weyermann Pilot Brewery in Bamberg: A Palestinian and an Israeli brewer sitting peacefully side by side, smiling, exchanging ideas, and enjoying each other’s company!

A nice story amid very grim news. Prost!

Listen to Your Beer

A coupla weeks ago, I was on Lisa Morrison's radio show, Libation Station. In the manner of self-promotion (or, given my facility on the radio, -immolation), I alert you to this recording (mp3). It starts about 2/3s of the way through. In reality, I spoke more fluidly than I have on my KPOJ appearances, and you might find it interesting. Might. No promises.

Perhaps more interestingly, Craig Nicholls was on the more recent edition talking about his Flanders Red, debuting tonight. It starts a little earlier in the podcast, maybe 60% in. For those of you who have spoken with Craig, you know him as a gregarious and animated speaker, so it's interesting to hear him on the radio, where he's subdued. He warms up when Lisa asks him about the delayed release, and my theory about Vedic time is sort of right if you consider the fermentation of beer a godly thing. After that, he opens up, talking about his history at Alameda and how his organic brewing evolved. Lot's of other stuff in there, too, so listen, particularly those of you who haven't heard Craig before.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fool Me Once

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."
--GWB
Time is not fixed, as anyone who has traveled to India knows. It is set by the Vedas, and moves in syncopation to heartbeat of the universe. Only Vedic priests can mark anniversaries. If a train is scheduled to arrive at 2pm, similarly, this doesn't correspond to Greenwich Mean Time's calculations. Rather it is an obscure moment, the arrival of which can only be known when the train appears, ribbony in heat, on the horizon.

I therefore take it to be true that Craig Nicholls and Jason McAdam set the release of their Flanders Red to Vedic time. Announced months ago, I have twice appeared on earlier, appointed days with a bright smile, only to find a publican shaking her head. This happens in India, too: with a look of pity--the acknowledgement that Westerners always misinterpret Indian time--the trainmaster, say, will shake his head sadly and say, "no, no, the train is not here." No, the brewery said, false alarm.

Here we go again. Roots has now announced the official release of the Flanders Red, slated for tomorrow. I will show, grudgingly, expecting the worst. But who knows? In India, sometimes the trains do show up when you expect them to. They're never so predictable as never being on time. So I will go to the pub on the off-chance that this time my amrita awaits. No doubt you suckers will be there with me.

Flanders Red Release Party
Roots Brewing, 1520 SE 7th
Wednesday, Jan 15
Sorry for the delay in the release of the Flanders Red. But guess what …. It’s here!

Brewed two years ago, 3/4 of this beer spent eleven months of it’s life in neutral Pinot Noir French Oak barrels. It was then re - blended with the remainder of the original Flanders Red that had been cellaring since it’s conception.

After going through a secondary fermentation, we cellared it again for the last eight months. This Belgian beer is extremely smooth with a fruity nose that will leave no senses untouched.

This will be available in limited, one liter bottles and on draft at Roots Organic Brewery exclusively. Only 175, one-liter bottles, $25 apiece.
See you there--

Monday, January 12, 2009

Taste the Apricot Ale - Tonight!

This is really late notice, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood of Belmont Station between 6 - 8 tonight, Curtis Bain will be doing a meet-the-brewer event for Cascade Brewing (Rac Lodge). He's Ron Gansberg's right-hand man, and he'll have various concoctions from the Laboratory, including 2008 Satori Award Winner Apricot Ale.

Belmont Station
4500 SE Stark
6 - 8 pm
Go forth and enjoy.

Specials at Deschutes

I just received a tip from Mike Starzec, manager of Deschutes' Portland pub, which I will quote verbatim. Looks like time-sensitive stuff, so grab it while you can.
Hi. We hosted the NW Brewing News' Reader Choice Awards ceremony yesterday, and we brought out a bunch of our big beers from our cellars. Some of it is still on tap, including:
  • The Dissident
  • Black Butte XX
  • Mirror Mirror (2005)
  • Super Jubel (a double Jubleale Barleywine)
  • Big Red Oak (a double Cinder Cone Red aged in Oak)
... as well as a host of other Deschutes beer. Get 'em while they last (which might not be long)!!

Mike Starzec
Mmmm, tasty.

On Black IPAs

On Saturday, whilst craning my neck to see the Blazer game from a poorly-situated booth at the Laurelwood, I sipped "Arctic Apocalypse," Chad Kennedy's black imperial IPA. As he promised, it tasted more or less like a regular imperial IPA, though the dark malt(s) added what I'd call a malt-o-meal note (wholesome, rib-sticking, breakfasty). It's a neat trick, something to appreciate on the level of sleight of hand. But it raises more pertinent questions: why, for example, does the world need a black IPA? Are we similarly deprived for lack of a pale stout? Hmmm.

I have spent some time trawling the internets for an origin story for this trend (please, let's refrain from calling it a style just for the moment, shall we?), and came up empty. Someone thought of it, brewed it, and the meme was released. Now we have several dozen examples, and a few Oregon breweries have dabbled with stained IPAs. The idea doesn't appear to extend beyond coloring a standard style--sort of like green St. Patrick's Day beer--and the trick is to achieve darkness without changing the flavor.

This brings us to the why. Although I have commented dyspeptically in the past about style creep, I'm actually a big fan of innovation. Yet the idea isn't to change the nature of the beer, just its color--isn't that gimmickry, not innovation?

None of this is to slag Acrtic Apocalypse (though how about "Black Bombay" or "Dark Delhi" or somethinng?), which I enjoyed. Chad may have hit on one of the ways to accomplish the trick--add 100+ IBUs of hops and blast away all the maltiness. AA is a massive beer, and the hops come in a wall of brutish force, bouyed by a lot of thick, malt alcohol. If you're a fan of the imperial IPA style, you'll like this beer. (Although if you're more into nuance, try the British Daily Ale, which also just went on tap. It's a brown, full of flavor and aroma, but a session tipple. More of the Blazer-watching beer I was looking for.)

So how about your thoughts: black IPAs, gimmickry or grooviness?

Friday, January 09, 2009

Weekend Best Bets

If I were to go out on the town this weekend (and as usual, the likelihood falls below the midpoint), these offerings would grab my attention:

Bailey's Taproom
In addition to the usual fine offerings, Bailey's has a gem: a 2004 keg of Caldera's Old Growth Imperial Stout. Five-year-old stout. Hoo-boy.

Belmont Station Biercafe
Two good ones on tap here: Pliny (an old but uncommon favorite) and Fantome de Noel. Add Heater Allen's delightful Pils and you have a trifecta.

Horse Brass
In the new clear-air Brass, you might lower your nose to a snort of Des Rocs Triple Imperial Ale, for now you'll smell the beer. Also cask-conditioned Wreck the Halls.

Green Dragon
It's worth a trip for the Cascade Mouton Rouge, which I'd call more a brown than a red. You'll call it tasty. I should review it, but ... lassitude strikes.

Laurelwood Arctic Apocalypse
If you're there Saturday night watching the Blazers, say, try this beer. Brewer Chad Kennedy notes:
This is an Imperial IPA with a twist. It's actually quite black in color. Unlike your normal super big IPA, we did a little something (no artificial ingredients of course) to create a super dark Imperial Black Ale. We swear, in a blind tasting there's no way you'd guess this beer was as dark as night. Of course, all the normals apply- it's super hoppy and supper big. Check it our for yourself. Just don't expect the expected.
He's written the check, but can he cash it? I have yet to have a black IPA (how about India Black Ale?) that has delivered, so this is an intriguing prospect.

Have a good one--

What's Shakin'?

I generally have something to write about, but January is a real dead time beer-wise. Seems like we're all re-booting following the bacchanalia of winter releases. Is there anything out there to which I might direct my attention?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Green Dragon Report

It was exactly like it was before Rogue took it over, save for the menu. I met a friend for lunch and we enjoyed a Roots Habanero Stout (Roots, the intended destination, was closed due to an electrical issue) and a Cascade Mouton Rouge. The waiter, Stacy, was stellar and engaged me in a discussion about the virtue of hoppy beers v. sour beers.

Were there ominous signs? Hard to say. The only evidence Rogue was the owner were two small, subtle things: they used the six-pack containers as condiment trays, but the did not use Rogue sixers; two of the next four Meet the Brewer events are Rogue Brewers. There was one official-looking gray haired guy with a clipboard wandering around taking notes. But maybe he was with the city--who knows?

I gotta say, if this is the end result, those who were worried should be breathing a big sigh of relief.

In-Bud's Wreckage Begins (But It's Not Too Bad)

When I first saw this, I panicked:
LONDON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Anheuser-Busch InBev (INTB.BR), the world's largest brewer, said on Tuesday it would close its newly-acquired London Stag brewery in 2010, with the potential loss of 182 jobs.

The Belgium-based group acquired the Thames-side brewery at Mortlake as part of its takeover of Budweiser brewer Anheuser two months ago for $52 billion. It has targeted merger cost savings of at least $1.5 billion by 2011 to help pay for the world's largest ever cash takeover.
The kicker is that Stag predates Shakespeare, going back to the 15th Century. However, a bit of research reveals that it's currently just a faceless, industrial facility opposite a Young's pub, producing only packaged macro. Whew--call off the outrage.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dogfish Head's $140,000 Experiment

A little over a month ago, I wrote a few tart remarks about Dogfish Head that got me in some trouble. They stemmed from an article in the New Yorker (subject of tarter remarks) describing the brewery. At its center was the description of Dogfish Head's experiment with a stongly-scented tropical hardwood from Paraguay. The beer that resulted, Palo Santo Marron, is now available in Portland, and I tried a bottle. Before we get into that, I think it's worth excerpting liberally from the New Yorker piece describing the background of the wood and beer:
On the trip in question, [John Gasparine, a Dogfish Head fan] had noticed that the local wood-carvers often used a variety called palo santo, or holy wood. It was so heavy that it sank in water, so hard and oily that it was sometimes made into ball bearings or self-lubricating bushings. It smelled as sweet as sandalwood and was said to impart its fragrance to food and drink. The South Americans used it for salad bowls, serving utensils, maté goblets, and, in at least one case, wine barrels....

And so, a year later, [Dogfish Head owner Sam] Calagione sent Gasparine back to Paraguay with an order for forty-four hundred board feet of palo santo. “I told him to get a shitload,” he remembers. “We were going to build the biggest wooden barrel since the days of Prohibition.”

Gasparine, by then, had begun to have second thoughts. No lumbermill he knew had ever cut so much palo santo, and he wasn’t sure that any could. Bulnesia sarmientoi is a weedy, willowy tree, sometimes called ironwood. It’s difficult to get large boards out of it, and even small ones can dull a saw blade. Wood experts rate a species’ hardness on the Janka scale—a measure of how many pounds of force it takes to drive a half-inch steel ball halfway into a board. Yellow pine rates around seven hundred, oak twice as high. Palo santo hovers near forty-five hundred—three times as high as rock maple. It’s one of the two or three hardest woods in the world.
Cool, right?

Errr, wait a second--is it? This is where Dogfish Head loses me. The brewery invests not just a little money into an experiment--like making a 53-gallon cask or two of palo santo wood. Instead, they go all-in: $140,000 for a 10,000-gallon tank. They've never aged beer on this wood, so its effects are a mystery; they've never experimented on beer styles to find out which are best with the wood. Some wineries in South America use it, so presumably they discussed how the tanks will age and what will happen to the wood. But really, it's a huge-ass gamble.

The beer they ultimately produced is tasty--so far the tastiest Dogfish I've tried. But damned if I can distinguish the quality the wood contributes. Inexplicably, they've made a chocolate-colored, gloppy, 12% destroyer of a beer. It pours out of the bottle like ink, pooling with little in the way of head. They've gone for a sweetish brew in an effort to draw out the wood notes (an interminable video describing the project is here), and I would describe the result as (please forgive the forthcoming oxymoron) an imperial dubbel. It is toasty warming, with a pronounced raisin character. It's tasty, but I don't know why they chose a beer almost guaranteed to disguise the quality of the tank they spent so much to build.

Here's hoping the next batch will be a lighter beer. I'd like this experiment to succeed--it's similar to a suggestion I made months or years ago that Oregon breweries use Doug Fir or Cedar tanks as indigenous aging vessels. Palo Santo is far from indigenous to Maryland, but at least it's interesting.

You might stop into Belmont Station or another good beer store, buy a bottle, and let me know what you think. I'd be interested in a larger sample size of opinion on this one.

John's Year in Beer

John Foyston has a nice retrospective on the events of 2008, catching a lot of things I missed in my own review. I think the oddest and most interesting event was when Czech President Vaclav Klaus visited BridgePort. I do think it's high time that when beer-producing countries start visiting the US on state visits, they should pass through Beervana to pay their respects. You'd go to Rome and ignore Vatican City?

A few things I missed:
  • Feb. Lucky Lab goes solar (almost secretly).
  • May. Full Sail kicks off its Brewer's Share series.
  • June. Barley Mill turns 25.
  • Nov. FH Steinbart, the nation's oldest homebrew shop, turns 90.
Definitely worth a read if you like basking in the things that make this such a fantastic place to live.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cheeky

Perhaps you saw this over on the Belmont Station blog where Chris posted it. I ust saw it, and I can't resist reposting it here. The inspiration, by some Italian, follows.



You can see from the original that it's not a bad pose.



As for the casting of Don Younger as Christ--well, one of you apostates can comment on that. (Worth noting that it's not the first time this particular painting has been retooled blasphemously.)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Never Enough Cool Pubs

Many of you have been to and raved about the Victory Bar. For those of you who haven't--or, God forbid can't--let me paint a quick picture. It's a neighborhood place on the never-quite-as-cool-as-it's-neighboring-streets Division St. Obama's HQ used to be down the road--evidence that the property value to coolness ratio was just right. It's about the size of a big Starbucks, dark, and cozy. The music playlist oscillates between funk and late Motown to avant retro white, like Joy Division and the Velvet Underground. You can imagine how they manage therefore to swing catering simutaneously to old beerhounds like me and young, svelte people drinking cocktails. (Perhaps by dint of habit, the bartender carded me. First time in a decade.)

It will not uniformly delight the masses. They've gone for a very specific (and to me, pleasurable) vibe. But that's what's great about independent, corrner bars. I only wish there were about a hundred more.

(I'm here now, writing this on my iPhone, drinking a Russian River Salvation. Perfect.)

Satori Award 2008: Cascade Apricot Ale

The Satori Award
In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its third year, honors the beer that in a single instant allows the drinker to realize brewing magnificence. It's that moment when your head snaps back toward your beer and your mouth, of it's own accord, utters a surprised "whoa!" I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. Last year's winner was Full Sail Lupulin, and in 2006 it was Ninkasi Believer.
This year's Satori Award has been fraught with difficulties and painful choices. Any one of these beers could, in another year, easily win. One of the finalists I didn't select was brewed by Double Mountain, which finished second last year--it pains me to leave them on the outside again. All three are sour ales so mutable that at any given moment, one might be better than the other two. These factors have left me gun-shy, but at the end of the process, there must be only one winner. This year, I made my call based on that first, head-snapping moment I tasted the winner, Cascade (Raccoon Lodge) Apricot Ale.

Honorable Mention - Double Mountain Devil's Kriek
I only got a half glass of this beer at Puckerfest in July. We should observe first: a good kriek is a hard thing to pull off. A complex beer, it should balance three elements: sour, sweet, and fruit flavor. The best are dry and tart with a crisp fresh-cherry note. The fruit adds flavor more than sweetness, and the final result is closer to wine than beer. Double Mountain pulled it off. In July, I described Devil's Kriek like this:
It was appropriately sour and had a wonderfully rich (Hood River?) cherry flavor---not cloying, but not hidden or overwhelmed by the sour. These kinds of beers are extremely difficult to pull off, and now that more and more breweries in the US are trying them, I'm aware of the pitfalls. This was a good kriek by international standards, though, not by my usual lowered-bar standards for American newbies trying to master the old art. Charlie and Matt have really distinguished themselves as two of the most innovative and accomplished brewers in the state.
Incidentally, brewer Matt Swihart confirmed that the cherries were "bings from our orchard in Hood River." Great job, guys.

Runner-up - Deschutes Dissident
It is very difficult not to reward Deschutes for the Dissident. Not only is the beer an exceptional example of wild-yeast brewing, but the brewery really put a lot of time and intention into a beer that is in front of its market. No one that I know of was clamoring for a Flanders Brown. Yet here we have one, and a very good one indeed. I have nothing bad to say about the Dissident, and in September waxed long-winded about it in my review:
As you can see from the picture, it's a bright brown, with reddish highlights. The aroma is not as funky as Liefman's--there's none of that skanky brett, but rather a sweet chocolate and sour cherry-accented nose. As it opened up, the astringency of the sour diminished a little and the cherries muscled their way in... The body is creamy and rich, with malt notes contributing a brown sugar/biscuit base. Onto this are balanced the twin flavors of tart/sweet cherries and the sourness of the yeast and cultures.
It's worth noting that the beer has changed quite a bit since I wrote that. I busted out a bottle at Thanksgiving for Sally's family and it was substantially more sour. No doubt it will continue to change over the years; I'll know because I have a case in the basement.

The Winner - Cascade Apricot Ale
Like beer, the character of fruit is dependent on the moment and circumstances you eat it. At its best, fruit is eaten right off the tree, warmed by the hot summer sun, so juicy it falls into your hand. The flesh of the fruit eaten in these conditions is almost liquid and suffused with intense aroma and flavor. When I was served a goblet of Ron Gansberg's Apricot Ale, it had captured this quality of the apricot. From the aroma, which was so fresh you could almost smell the summer breeze in the orchard, to the flavor, which captured the evanescent quality of fresh fruit nectar.

Gansberg is a mad scientist with sour beers, and he has a bunch of different esperiments fizzing and burping in different barrels. The Apricot, however, is built on a base of his tripel (the Kriek and Blackberry start out as lower-gravity Flanders Red)--unique, I believe, among his sour ales. As a result, the beer is deeper, more supple, and far less sour than others in his lineup (not that there's anything wrong with that). After visiting the brewery last Spring, I wrote:
It has the aroma not only of fresh apricots, but that intense scent fresh fruit, warmed by the summer sun, vents off. The palate is also infused with this fresh apricot. It is warmly sweet, sensual. The body is deceptively delicate and I was shocked to learn it was a tripel. An amazing beer, both approachable yet complex.
Whether he can replicate this feat with the '09 vintage (2008's is long gone) remains to be seen. But never mind, we're honoring accomplishment. That beer was truly a revelation. Congrats, Ron, that was a helluva beer.

Incidentally, here was your choice for best debut:

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Turn on Your Radio

Every Saturday, Lisa Morrison (aka "The Beer Goddess") hosts an hour of beer talk on KXL radio (750 am). I'm supposed to be on later this hour (between 3:30 and 4, Portland time). Tune in if you wish to hear a remarkably inarticulate blogger embarrass himself for a few minutes.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bier Stube and Other Mysteries

Just watching my beloved Blazers get smacked around be the Hornets, and I come away with these questions:

1. Has the Laurelwood's Piston Pale gotten noticeably less hoppy? If yes, why?

2. On the way home, we noticed Gustav's Bier Stube, which I always referred to (amusingly) as the bier "schtube." But I actually thought this was how it's pronounced. Sally declared that it was "just totally one of the things you and your drunken friends made up in college." Can this be true?

(This is one of those posts that ignores the fact that some readers may not live in Portland. Sorry.)

3. What's a stube?

2009 Satori Award - Still Deciding

Deciding which beer should receive the third annual Satori Award--given to a debut beer released in Oregon--is easily the most painful choice I've had since introducing the award. In fact, I was just starting to type up my winner when I got cold feet. The truth is, I need to try two beers head to head to make sure I've gotten the call right.

(There are actually three in contention, though one came and went, and I've eliminated it on the technicality that it's possibly not going to be a regular, recurring beer.)

And also because I can't throw it into the final showdown. All three of these beers are among the best I've enjoyed in any year, and I've also considered the cop-out of awarding a tie. Bah!--ties are for suckers. But anyway, consider this an apology--I meant to get this post up today, but it will have to wait.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Picture dump



and

Trends of the Year: 2) Sour Beers

Northwest beers are famous for being robust and, particularly, robustly hoppy. Breweries could be charged with giving other ingredients short shrift: except in a small minority of cases, malts are essentially a pedestal used to showcase the hops; Oregon water, so close to rain, is elementally neutral--no Burton-on-Trent minerals here; and except for stunted forays into lagering, yeasts are almost uniformly descendents of English ales.

I don't expect hops' supremacy to wane anytime soon, but 2009 will be noted as the year breweries started to get funky. Breweries have messed around with Belgian yeasts in the past, but mostly the safer ones--abbeys, biere de garde, wit, strong goldens. This year, they went sour. Off hand, I can think of at least five examples:
  • Cascade/Raccoon Lodge's range of funky beers
  • BridgePort Stumptown Tart
  • Double Mountain Devil's Kriek
  • Deschutes Dissident
  • Roots Flanders Red
The difficulty in souring a beer, what to speak of the danger, is demonstrated by Roots' entrant, which while it was announced months ago, hasn't actually been released yet. I haven't a clue why, but it's not surprising. Souring a beer isn't an exact science, like bittering it. Breweries have a few methods available to them, but they are at best unpredictable. At worst, as when Deschutes danced with wild yeasts, they can actually screw up other beers. If you are working with fruit, that will affect the sourness. When Ron Gansberg soured his blackberry and cherry beers, the blackberries actually made the beer more tart. I'm not sure how BridgePort soured their Stumptown Tart, but it wasn't an entirely successful effort. I found it to have a chemical signature. So it's not easy or safe work.

My guess is that we won't see this evolve into a major trend. Sour beers are niche beers. Even the companies that make only sour beers are small by international standards. Lambics, so beloved, are obscure enough that most Americans won't even have heard of them much less seen or tried them. But there may well just be enough nuts like me to make it worthwhile for a few NW breweries to continue to experiment with this high-risk, low-reward genre.



(In any case, the trend was so well-established this year that it prompted me to make the Sour-o-meter, one of my favorite innovations of the year.)

Happy New Year

I hope you all had safe, fun New Years Eves and I wish you the best in 2009. May the beers be interesting and tasty, the pubs warm and inviting, and the fests varied and not too crowded.

Cheers--