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Thursday, January 21, 2010

American Pales Considered: Deschutes Red Chair and Pyramid Fling

Of all the "American"-style beers now brewed, the oldest is perhaps still the most American--the humble pale. The landmark beer--and still one of the most important American beers ever brewed--was Sierra Nevada's Pale. (Shockingly, that beer celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.) Many of the early beers in the craft revolution were forgettable, but SN Pale was a fully-formed masterpiece. It pretty much created the style. Unlike English pales, it has a soft sweetness lacking the sulfur or minerals of the originals and of course, that fresh, citrusy hop character that made Cascades the signature spice in American craft brewing.

But at thirty years on, is it a style that still has legs? Both Deschutes and Pyramid think so; their spring seasonals are both pales. For Pyramid it's a beer called "Fling," and for Deschutes, that re-booted Red Chair, now dubbed a "Northwest" pale.

It's no longer possible for a brewery to make much of a splash with a Cascades-hopped pale. Even if its absolutely saturated in Cascades, it will seem like a familiar pour to most beer drinkers. Yet the style is always going to be popular because it really hits us in the sweet spot--a light(ish) session beer that has that characteristic NW/West Coast tang. A good pale is a wonder to behold. So, how did Pyramid and Deschutes do--splash or flop?

Deschutes Red Chair NW Pale Ale
Let's start with the beer most of you know. My only experience with Red Chair was at the brewery, months before it was released in 22s. It was one of I think three IPAs on tap that day (and possibly four, but I'm an old man and these details drizzle out my ears), and not my fave.

Sometimes you revisit a beer to find that you had mistaken it the first time, but nope, this is what I remember. A beer many characterize as somewhere in-between a pale and an IPA, it is definitely milder on hops than most regional IPAs. But I find it generally muddy. It's thick and chewy, with malt notes that smell bready but tend toward candy (rather than caramel) sweetness. The hops don't pop--they're vaguely citric and piney, but exhibit little character. It's by no means a bad beer, but not a memorable or distinguished one. I wonder if this isn't an IPA made more for the non-Beervana market. Scanning through the comments, I see that someone in Ohio declares it "laceratingly" bitter. Yet some of the NW types find it subdued, as I did. All taste is local, right? Give it a C+ on the Beervana ratings scale. Buckeyes, you're on your own.

Pyramid Fling
Pyramid, like Mac's, is taking an aggressive posture toward naming and packaging. It's not quite as far out there as Mac's on names, but the packaging is definitely, um, something. (Call me a traditionalist: I have long loved the old pyramid-forward labels, a nice nod to the antiquity of the product. These new labels seem to be pitched at younger drinkers--or at least are trying to send the message, "We're not old and fusty! Really! Look at the young people doing active things on our bottles. Stoked to brew, brewed ... wait, check that." But I am old and fusty, and so maybe these are good labels. I know beer, not beer packaging.)

But in a glass, all ale is naked and unaided by clever design departments. And in the glass, Pyramid is ... surprisingly tasty. Fling employs Nugget and Willamette and XP-04188, which is a Cascade/Fuggle hybrid*, to great use. It goes to show that you can get a great deal of hop flavor and character while still having a relatively low level of bitterness (36 IBU). Yet the hopping here is not exactly subtle. It is unexpected--soapy, astringent, tangy. It actually reminds me a bit of the mineral quality you might find in an English pale. Insistent, distinctive--nice.

When I cracked the beer, I was really expecting something light and harmless. I was also wondering why Pyramid would be releasing this now, in the chill of January, rather than later in the spring. Now I get it--this beer was meant to stand up to the late winter. It's interesting, this beer seems to have provoked Angelo to go on a rant against Pyramid, but I really like it. (I'm right; Angelo's crazy.) Call it a solid B+, maybe even an A-.

It's still possible to make a splash with a new pale. A "Northwest" pale ale? Jury's still out.

*Not to be confused with the X-114--or Citra--used by Widmer and Sierra Nevada. That one was largely Hallertau Mittelfruh (50%), US Tettnang (25%) and Brewers Gold (19%).


  1. Hmm; wondering how you'd compare Red Chair with Cindercone Red, the line it's replacing.

    Cindercone always struck me as a pleasantish bottle but pretty undistinguished, especially for Dschutes.

    It almost sounds as though Red Chair is the same beer with a small handful of Cascades tossed in.

  2. MAC=Pyramid=Portland Brewing

    For the last time! Same brewery! Same corporate PR, same marketing. SAME SAME SAME.... ;-}

  3. Richard: Did a side by side of Cinder Cone and Red Chair and while there are similarities, Cindercone is darker in color. Both (according to a confusing Deschutes press release)have the same IBUs, but from my understanding and interpretation, the Chair has more backend floral hoppiness. Both are very comparable. As for the marketing, I think Red Chair is lost for its identity. I would have rather they retooled the recipe and kept the name. This would keep the theme of greatly labeled beers like Mirror Pond, Black Butte, Bachelor, you get my point. Did anyone notice Buzzsaw Brown was axed? Where was the memorial service for that one?

    As for Fling, I enjoyed a few pints of it at Hop and Vine at their Mac's meet the brewer night and I have to say it is quite pleasant. As I wrote on my rant: "The newest Pyramid season beer, Spring Fling is very refreshing but not at all interesting or inspiring." I stick by those guns. If Mirror Pond wasn't invented years ago, this beer would really hit it for me. Pyramid has proven they can make a good pale. Cheers

  4. Richard, they are similar. Red Chair is a heavier beer, though, and the hops less insistent. The hops are more in the nose in Red Chair, more on the tongue in Cinder Cone.

    Brett, I'm not sure that's true. While Macs is owned by Pyramid, they have different brewers and different marketing departments. I would inquire before solidifying that view too much.

    And even if they are the same company, that doesn't mean they're the same philosophically. Breweries often have two lines that are radically different. I don't think ownership is quite as determinative as you do.

  5. Angelo: Red Chair is a thematic name, it's Bachelor's oldest operating lift. As for Buzzsaw, I think I read somewhere that it was taking a hiatus, but would probably return at some point. Can't remeber where I read it though...