[Note: An update about the winner is at the end of the post.]
It's all in the yeast.
This was the fourth year of Portland's Cheers to Belgian beers, a fest in which participating breweries all work with a single yeast strain and brew recipes of their own choosing. I missed the first year, when breweries used the versatile Rochefort strain (which Double Mountain also uses). The last two years, though, with the Ardennes (La Chouffe) and Ingelmunster (Kasteel), were largely misfires. Those yeasts were finicky and tended to produce heavy, cloying beers. I've no doubt that given time, breweries could have made some great beers, but the beers at those fests weren't especially distinctive. This year's strain was a saison from Blaugies, both easy to work with and versatile. The beers? Far better than the past two years.
General comments. Although all the breweries used the saison yeast in primary, at least five went a step further and soured their beers with wild yeasts or bacteria. Two used sour mashes. On the one hand, you could argue this undermines the fest's purpose--everyone's supposed to use the same yeast. On the other, it shows that breweries are taking the yeast as a jumping-off point. They're developing beers that express the styles they want to brew. I heartily endorse this experimentation. As for the yeast, while it was versatile, it didn't seem to take to dark beers as well as light--at least when no souring was involved. Maybe someone smarter than me can explain that--or maybe it was just coincidence.
Sally and I tag-teamed, managing to sample at least half-pours of 17 beers. (We both liked two beers well enough to get second pours, and I gave my last ticket to Bill.) Of those 17, I tried only one beer I'd call a dud. Four were absolutely fantastic. The rest fell in the mid-range. Looking around at some of the early reviews, and based on talking with folks at the fest, I'd say this was similar to others' experience--though the beers we admired differed. Liking different beers--there's a lesson in that. Belgian breweries tend to take beers further down roads than breweries in other countries; Belgian beers are often sharp-elbowed and challenging. Even among those known as great beers, a minority of people will just flat-out dislike them. That we all appreciated different beers at this fest attests to the breweries' success in really exploring style and ingredients.
Take Oakshire, for example. It was a strong beer with four spices and a bold palate. When I spoke to people at the fest, they either liked it or disliked it. But interestingly, we all pretty much described it the same way. The spices were well-integrated, drawing out flavors that might have been fermentation characteristics (probably excepting the the grains of paradise). I think there were some fusel alcohols, to which my palate is especially sensitive, and so I found it harsh. But both Doc Wort and Derek gave it high marks. That's the nature of this fest--different strokes. The beers I admired got panned by others.
So, with that in mind, here are my reviews. I'll follow both Doc and Derek's lead--I'll go alphabetically (like Doc) and offer letter grades (like Derek). The four I liked all got As or A-minuses.
- Big Horse Cuvee de Ferme. I loved this beer. Brewer Jason Kahler used a sour mash on one part of his blended beer; it gave the beer a gentle tang. He also included a small amount of beer soured with lactobacillus and pediococcus, which added a small amount of very sharp sour--though the overall effect was mild. It had neither the sharpness of lactic sour or the funkiness of a brett sour. The rye and wheat softened everything out, gave it a bit of bread and spice, and further softened the souring. Rating: A
- Block 15 La Fermé de Demons. Everyone seemed to love this beer--except me. A triple-barrel aged beer with a bit of young brett. I found it overwhelmingly oaky--the sharp, dry tannic quality and sweet vanilla notes both suffused the beer. The brett hadn't had a chance to get going, either. I would love to see it aged longer, off that new American oak, and see what evolves. As it was, I felt like I tasted a zwickel from a work in progress. Promising, but incomplete. Rating: incomplete
- Cascade Frite Galois. Let me draw your attention to one statistic: 4.6%. That's the ABV, and for those who think small beers can't rock the palate, I offer you Frite Galois. I'm sure Gansberg loves all his children equally, but I sort them into categories of sublime and merely damn good. Call this one damn good; a relatively gentle sour, a bit of apricot (which must have been esters, right?), and quite creamy mouthfeel. Rating: B+
- Deschutes Tropisch Bruin. Tamarind is not a generic fruit. It has a particular flavor, and this beer was therefore itself particular. The brown ales at the fest seemed to bend toward a sour staleness. This had that, but also the funny tamarind (next time you're at a burrito joint, get a Jarritos Tamarindo and you'll know what the flavor is). Not at all sweet or sharp, just odd. One of those beers you're glad to try. Once. Rating: B-
- Double Mountain Bonne Idée, Bonne Idée avec Kriek. Sally and I got a pour of each of these for the side-by-side. One of the beers that really suffered from the cold serving temperature, both were startlingly severe at first sip. They were sharply hopped, and then dried out to dust. Sally called them "stern." The kriek softened the palate a bit, but mainly added a cherry note. Clearly very well made and very intentional, but they require the kind of person who loves exceptionally dry, asutere beers. Rating: B-, B-
- Fort George Magnifera Indica Belgae. Another beer where the additive--in this case mango--was impressively understated. I had to let it warm up before the fruit became evident--and then mostly just in the nose. It's a sweetish beer, and alcoholic, with a heavy, rich body. I would have liked to see more dimensions to it--there were few fruity esters or spicy notes. Good, but didn't knock my socks off. Rating: B
- Green Dragon King Ghidorah. I hadn't planned to try this beer, but everyone was raving about it. (Ezra, however, predicted I wouldn't like it.) I had it pretty late in the fest, and my palate was failing me, but what I mainly got was booze and whiskey (it was aged in Rogue Whiskey barrels). I didn't really find much distinctive in it, and I'm getting tired of whiskey beers. Ezra was right--not for me. Rating C
- Hopworks DiaBlato. This was the last beer of the day for me, and so you should regard my opinion with the most suspicion. Nevertheless, I could taste the sugar and immense alcohol in the beer. Too much for me, though others were giving it admiring marks. Too much power, too little finesse. (Of course, I was at the time blind to finesse, so.) Rating B-
- Lucky Lab Doggie Kong. This was Sally's pour, and I didn't get a whole lot of it--partly out of choice. It was an interesting beer, but ultimately a misfire. Sour mashed, with a bit of lychee added, but no hops. The result was not a sour beer, but a very caramelly one. It was quite sweet (as you would expect), but I think the caramel was what put it over the top for me. I appreciated the experiment, but not so much the beer. Rating C-
- Kennedy School The Life of Riley Honey Wheat. This was another beer we kept hearing good things about, so tried. Effectively a wit, with coriander and orange peel. Some fermentation characteristics--spice, notably--made it more interesting than an off-the-shelf wit, but the spices were overdone. Even splitting our pour, it was plenty. Rating: C
- Oakshire La Ferme. (Discussed in the body of the post) Rating: C+
- Rock Bottom Floreal IV. As we worked our way through the beers, Sally and I started dividing beers into those that had been designed to let the yeast express itself, and those that ignored the yeast. Floreal was the best we tried in expressing the character of the yeast. It was a very clean, crisp beer but also spicy and floral. It captured the essence of farmhouse ales to me--refreshing but rustic, elegant but approachable. Another of my big faves. Rating A
- Roots Brune O. The second-to-last beer, and one which I couldn't really taste properly. It seemed in possession of that stale sourness, but not overwhelmingly. There was some spiciness, and maybe some dark fruit, but my tongue couldn't do it justice. Rating: C+, with a big caveat for rater unreliability.
- Silver Moon Saison de Moon. Like Floreal, another beer that tried to work with the yeast. Silver Moon's was a darker beer, but quite nice. The yeast can really offer a wonderful spice along with a dry, tasty finish. Rating: B+
- Upright Mingus and Monk. If Floreal was a great beer in expressing the yeast's character, this was a great beer in ignoring it. A tremendous amount going on in Mingus and Monk, which was at turns rich and sweet, like a dessert, and at times sharp and tart. I had a sense brewers Alex Ganum and Corey Blodgett were trying to blow the lid off this beer in terms of richness (barrel aged with currents soaked in fortified wine?--so decadent). Doc Wort thinks it could age, and I agree--but it will get a bit sharper and drier and the brett will knock some of those tongue-pleasing notes into minor key. It's perfect now, and it will be perfect--and perfectly different--in a few months. I hope to get to try it then. Rating: A
- Widmer Biere de Table. This beer didn't get the love I thought it deserved. It was as if people weren't giving it a chance--just swilling it and moving on to more florid offerings. Well, they missed a lushly understated beer. It had a crisp nose with what I thought were light phenolics. I brewed a grisette with the Dupont strain last year, and got this same quality, so when I saw brewer Ben Dobler, I asked if he'd used wheat in the recipe--he had. I think that helped pull out some of the yeast's spice. It was highly carbonated and lively on the tongue and would, I suspect, be a great friend to food. Sally's fave, and one of my finest four. Rating: A
Overall, a great fest.
Update. Bill and Angelo have added their reviews.
Update 2. We have a winner: Block 15 La Fermé de Demons. They will have the right to select the yeast for next year's fest. Generally the winner gets to host, but apparently PDX retains the right, so I'm not sure who will host in Block 15's stead. The top six vote-getters speak well for the crowd, too: Cascade Brewing's Frite Galois, Green Dragon's King Ghidorah, Hopworks' DiaBlato, Oakshire's La Ferme, and Upright's Mingus and Monk. Congrats all around.
As I look back at that list, I notice soemthing interesting. Every one of the breweries in the top six except Cascade was established in the last three or four years. In other words, the kids are all right.