The release of new beers has an unpredictable quality. Some years it seems like breweries collectively stand pat, while in others they issue a torrent of fresh suds. This year is shaping up to be a torrent. No single beer tells much the tale of the market, but if you look at them collectively, you can start to get a sense of where things are headed. Saisons had their day, tarts, black IPAs, gluten-free, and organics. So what's new in 2013. Cue the ray of sunshine and the angelic choir, because it appears to be session ales. I have been flogging the joys of small beers for half a decade, and even, in one bright, shiny moment, helped to get a festival of sessions off the ground. So obviously I'm psyched about this boomlet. So let's have a look at what's out there.
Redhook Audible Ale and Deschutes River Ale
I received bottles of these beers on successive days in the chill of February. I don't totally understand the superstructure around Audible's release--it has something to do with sports broadcaster Dan Patrick--but the beer is straightforward enough. A lithe 4.7% beer, it is "brewed for crushability with lots of flavor," in the inexplicable language of the brewery. ("Crush" apparently means "drink.") Deschutes River Ale is just 4%, and the brewery even goes so far as to admit it's a session ale--no shilly-shallying around.
The contrast between them is the difference between old-school American craft and old-school English bitter. While many breweries have shifted with the times, Redhook is a bit of a throw-back brewery, making very clean, bright ales that ignore the IBU arms race. Audible is much in this vein. Deschutes, by contrast, is a dead ringer for a nice bitter, with a rounded body, biscuity malt flavor, and bright citrusy-crisp hops (Cascades and Crystal). I even thought I detected a touch of diacetyl, which brewer Brian Faivre confirmed: "We are targeting a low level of diacetyl, 30-40 ppb, as we feel that it lends a positive flavor attribute to this beer, similar to that nice character found in traditional English style ales."
It will come as no surprise to readers that my palate inclines toward the Deschutes. Audible is a bit less complex than I would like, and there's a hint of roast in there that puts me off. Deschutes River Ale, though, is a beer I would love to find on cask in a pub where I could spend a couple hours getting to know it.
Widmer Brothers Columbia Common
The name of this beer is instructive. "Common" is, of course, the non-trademarked reference to San Francisco steam beer. They get the hybrid character by using their regular yeast and a lager strain. (Steam beer was made by fermenting lager yeasts warm in the age before refrigeration reached the wilds of California.) The Columbia refers to a type of hop bred simultaneously with Willamette. Budweiser was looking for a domestic replacement for imported hops and a couple of varieties were bred largely from Fuggle stock to grow well in the US. You know how this ends: Bud chose Willamette, consigning Columbia to the scrap heap of forgotten strains.
In fact, Columbia Common uses a variety of hops--the Widmers' standard Alchemy blend for bittering, and the sisters, Willamette and Columbia, together in later additions. For the hop nerd, this is slightly frustrating--I'd love it to be a single-hop beer so I could get a sense of the flavor. But there's no arguing with the results; it's really a wonderful beer. I had it at the Rose Garden first, and it tasted really fruity, making me think the hops were quite a bit different from their Fugglish sister. But in subsequent samplings from the bottle, I've found the "grassy, spicy" flavors the brewery promised. In fact, the hops are a lot more German in character than English, and I was reminded of some of the helles lagers I had in Bavaria. It's got a wonderful copper color (Widmer used chocolate malt for color but didn't get any roast, just color), and is a perfectly crushable 4.7%. I really enjoy this beer and wish it would stick around through the summer.
Not all beers are sessions. BridgePort has a new chocolate cherry stout called Bear Hug that is every bit as decadent and dessert-like as it sounds. It comes in a 22 ounce bottle, so I'd be sure to invite a friend along before you pop the cork. Full Sail has their latest vintage of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout out. Every year, the brewery alternates between a big porter and a big stout they age in bourbon casks, and every year the vintage is on one side or the other of excellent. This year's is spectacular--akin to one they had out back in 2010 (maybe?). An amazing balance of chocolaty roast blending into vanilla-y bourbon. Double Mountain has its usual rotation of new one-offs, and I'd like to draw your attention to Project 48, a double IPA that really sings. For me, double IPAs work best when the sweetness of the malt harmonizes with the flavors of the hops to accentuate bitterness and frame the lush aromas. It's hard to pull off, which is why so few double IPAs stick around. Project 48 does that in spades. I think you probably will only find it in Hood River, but if you're up for the drive, you could do worse.