If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Ted's Excellent, Oddball Adventure

There are a lot of ways to sell beer in this state, but the easiest is to make them big and hoppy. It helps if you're conveniently located in East Portland--though Eugene seems like a pretty good location, too. A sure-fire business model includes a pub/taproom and capacity to distribute 22-ounce bottles and/or kegs to alehouses around the Northwest. Do that and your road is lined with rose petals.

Ted Sobel, master of the all-cask Brewers Union Local 180, has not chosen the easy way. He makes small beers with low levels of hops. His pub is three hours from Portland, in Oakridge. He brews real ale, sold exclusively by firkin, and only really trusts one other pub to handle his beer. To reach the Portland market, he must load the casks into the back of his station wagon and drive them up himself. For his trouble, he earns less per firkin than he would if he sold the beer in his own pub. In the term of art, Ted has not yet figured out how to "monetize" his vision in the way other pubs have. His road is thorny, cold, and lonely.

(As a writer who has failed to adequately monetize my efforts--did I mention there's ad space available?!--I can appreciate this. Sometimes you gotta follow your bliss, even when it's a meager bliss.)

Last night, Ted brought two classic cask offerings to the Green Dragon--Cwrw Welsh Mild and a classic English porter. Or, as he describes them, "plain, ordinary, mundane session beer." Actually, the porter was of a kind that is directly in most Portlanders' wheelhouse. It was smooth, roasty, and lively. Cask ale isn't innately a better form of beer, and there is honest disagreement over the method. But even non-cask drinkers would have gobbled this one down--maybe without even realizing it was casked.

The mild, not so much. Ted used a tiny amount of peated malt, but a tiny amount's enough--it imparted a smoky, slightly sour note. Cwrw was creamy and soft--Sally called it "milky" and wondered if there was lactose ("no," said Ted)--and clearly low-alcohol. This is where I think Ted has his biggest hurdle. Craft beer drinkers have become accustomed to that sharp, anesthetizing tingle on their tongue. The difference between a mild and a stronger beer is the difference between apple juice and hard cider. To absent that quality from a beer is, I'm afraid, to move into a radical philosophical space that questions the nature of the drink. At least for most people. The mild had all kinds of flavors going on--but no amount of appreciating can will the flavor of alcohol into being. Can people put aside their expectations and appreciate the flavors that are in a beer rather than focusing on the ones that aren't? That's the big question.

As for "Cwrw" (pronounced kuru, with a roll of the "r"), I think you'll find adequate clarification here.

If you missed these beers, stop by Belmont Station this afternoon to try a special bitter called "Quid Hoc Sibi Vult?" Pours start at three and run until the firkin's gone. My high school Latin's a bit rough, but the Google tells me this idiomatic expression is generally translated as "what does this mean?" I suppose we could read this as a question Ted ponders, elbow on knee, about the difficulty of the path he's chosen. (Or which has now chosen him.) A less idiomatic translation, apparently, is "what does this want for itself?" I like this one better. What does Oregon real ale want for itself? Appreciation, clearly. Ted told me last night that he expects there to be ten cask houses in Portland in ten years. This is what the real ale wants.

I hope you're right, Ted.

7 comments:

KeAloha said...

Definitely picked up on the slight sourness in the mild, but I couldn't pick out a flavor that I would describe as smoky. It was more sour and toffee to me. I liked both a lot and really appreciate what Ted is doing.

Bill Night said...

Jeff, you write that making a low-alcohol craft beer "questions the nature of the drink. At least for most people." I see where you're coming from, but it's kind of jarring on the day after your post about Beervana Derangement Syndrome. And even among the cognoscenti, there is a growing clamor for more session beers.

I didn't see you at the Dragon, we had a crowd at the big table out back. Loved the porter, thought the mild was nice, too.

JoshG said...

Jeff,

Roughly how many people were drinking the Brewer's Union beers when you were there last night?

MT said...

I only had time to try the mild, and found it to be quite tasty. I was also a big fan of the Double Mountain Dapper Dan during the all too brief period of time when it was on at a few places around town (delicious on cask at the HB). I, for one, wish the breweries here in so-called Beervana would offer up small beers on a more frequent basis. I like the high octane palate assaulters as much as the next guy, but I don't necessarily want to shellack my taste buds on a nightly basis. Maybe Ted should open up a Portland branch......

Jeff Alworth said...

Bill, you make a subtle point. This is one of those subsamples issues. Let's take all those afflicted with BDS. It's a large number, say 25,000 in Portland. Problem is, when you start dividing them up by likes, they sort out into a bunch of different little pools. You have your pils fans, say 5% of the sample. Your saison fans--five percent. And your mild fans. One percent, two? It may seem like a lot of people, if you gather them together, say, but it's not like those who target the hop fans--75%. Ted has selected a type of beer that currently doesn't have a large fan base--his goal is to make it large, and by god, I'll help him by drinking my fair share.

Josh, when I arrived, there was literally one table left. It was way in the back, in that little gully that abuts the distillery. I could see few patrons from there. (Plus, IDing the porter and mild by sight was no easy task.)

Brian Gilbert said...

I didn't get to try the porter or the mild, but I really enjoyed the bitter at Belmont Station. Oddly enough, at about 5% ABV (I think that's what it was), it seems somewhat high for the style. Getting a real ale pulled from a firkin - heaven. Loved the maltiness of it. Perfect for a grey, rainy afternoon.

Brian msubulldog25 said...

I was impressed enough by both of Ted's brews to stick with them all-night (prior to an ill-advised foray to Apex, (wink to Mr. Night))
I think just about everyone at our table, that at one point must have approached 20 people, at least *tried* one (or both) BLU180 ales. For some, the 'trying' was enough; for others, they was worth having again and again.

I, for one, really liked the faint sour/smoke in the Cwrw Bach, tasty & certainly 'drinkable'...but, good lord, the Cumbrian Moor Porter was DAMN delicious. Two pints was not enough. Here's to hoping for a Ted Sobel return visit in the near future.

Brian

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