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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Beer/No Beer: A Curmudgeon at the Oregon Brewers Festival

The hop-garlanded OBF cask with beer this year from
BridgePort.  (Blueberry, natch.)
There are some absolutely spectacular beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival this year.  I started out with a pour of Kaiser Pilsener, the special beer Jürgen Knöller brewed up to celebrate Bayern's 25th anniversary last year.  An intense blast of noble hops with a polished malt base--and we're off.  Upright's impressive Kolsch followed and then the smoked helles from Widmer and the Collaborator project, another really impressive effort (and the prettiest beer at the fest).  A little later the twin Dortmund exports from trailer 5, Occidental and Breakside.  The former was more a helles, emphasizing grainy malts, while Breakside's was a good example of what I imagine enthralled Germans half a century ago.  It was a truly spectacular beer and my fave of the beers I tried.

You can see the theme there: I was going for the low- and mid-alcohol, low-impact German beers to get started.  I was there with a clutch of friends, and we had staked out a prime table in the shade of a large tree by the river.  For the most part, my friends had taken a different approach and were going for the exotica.  I was cradling my precious Breakside when one of the friends handed me a pour of Peaches and Cream by Fearless.  The aroma: pure peach.  The flavor?  Even peachier.  I detected nothing in the liquid that betrayed the art of zymurgy.  Sort of off-handedly, I declared it "not beer."

This is an old dispute.  The nature of beer is change.  One generation's abomination is another generation's cherished tradition.  Indeed, in some countries, the cherished traditional beer from the neighboring country is an abomination.  It's almost impossible to defend the idea of a fixed identity for "beer" when you have styles as divergent as pilsners, porters, and lambics.  We're well into the realm of subjectivity here, right?--so I should get with the program and just enjoy the damn beer. 

A circus of the bizarre continued parading across my tongue: spicy gazpachos like Elysian's and Dunedin's; Gigantic's literal juicy IPA (Old Town's Bolt Minister: "It takes like a Christmas Tree, with juice"); Laht Neppur's peach entry; (weirdly) innumerable blueberry beers (though props to Boulder for a very nice, beery take); Oakshire's crazy 26-ingredient beer that included Oregon grape*; Widmer's Thai-spiced lager.  They were so weird that we continued my game.  With each new specimen, we sniffed and sipped and rendered a judgment: beer/no beer. 

I am no longer going to stand on my porch and shake my fist at you damn kids to get off the lawn.  Put whole pies in the beer, whip up meat stouts, shave the dog and harvest the yeast from his fur: it's all good.  When you read medieval accounts of beer, you realize this is a time-honored practice.  The ancients liked to brew with beans and bark, eggs, hallucinogens, and the residue of coal seam fires. I am in no position to call BS. 

And yet, and yet.

There is something illuminating about tasting a beer like Breakside's or Bayern's and comparing it to one of the cold soups on offer.  I like beer.  The flavors that come from the fermentation of malt and hops are pleasant to me.  It's hard to make them harmonize perfectly and when a brewery manages the trick, it's like watching a crisply-executed give-and-go.  A fundamental play in basketball, but not so easy to pull off and very satisfying when done properly.  When you start dumping random flavors into beer (and I use the word "random" advisedly), you start to obscure the beer. Maybe a fermented peach drink is heavenly, but it doesn't taste anything like beer. You may call it pleasant, but I call it "no beer."  Hand me the export, please.

*Not a grape.


Bill Night said...

Shave the dog!

Anonymous said...

As much as I liked Gigantic's Beermosa, it was really just alcoholic grapefruit juice, not beer. I tend to like big hoppy beers, and my favorite was Silver Moon's IPA. It had the right contrast of alcohol, bitterness, hop flavor, and hop aroma. The Stone IPA was also really good. My wild card, the Hopworks Pear beer, was just blah. Beer certainly, but not peary at all.

Pete Dunlop said...

The fruit beers I tasted were big failures as beers, but not bad as beer soda. I put the Gigantic and the Dunedin in that group, among others. I suppose those kids on your lawn (and mine) have their reasons for pursuing these beers. They're bored with the old standards. Gotta change things up to get their mojo on. It's for similar reasons that they are covered with tattoos. But never mind. Pretty soon, look for Mountain Brew...a blend of lager and Mountain Dew. You're gonna love it, kids. Trust me.

Ron Pattinson said...

This sounds depressingly like German youth and their Biermischgetränke.

Pivní Filosof said...

The more I drink (or even read about) all this "unconventional" stuff, the more I value and appreciate those who stick to the simple (and do it very well).

Bill Schneller said...

While I appreciate innovation, I'm also a bit wary of how a lot of people are pushing the idea that innovation is more important than tradition and that we need to reimagine every beer with new ingredients, techniques etc. Leaving aside the idea that styles do change over time, I think it's important to keep certain "styles" alive, because if we let them die off, we lose a bit of our own shared beer cultural history. I also fear what happens when people who aren't grounded in tradition start to innovate. It's like cooking. Innovate all you want once you have a solid foundation in classics which is where you learn technique and why flavors work together. But if you can't make a decent pale ale or pils, I'm wary of trying your double imperial bourbon barrel aged mangosteen koelsch.

While this year's tap list is interesting and I think one of the better lists in a few years, the trend towards "innovation above all" is certainly present. But I'll try beers like Gingantic's because I know Van and Ben are well grounded in what makes beer beer. But I'm also thrilled with the nods to tradition by Breakside, Old Town, Occidental and the like. And for innovation, I liked both the idea and the actual beer from Epic, who did a dry hopped US lager, which built on tradition but also showed a new idea, but without overdoing it.

At the end of the day, I like beer and I'm wary of what I call festival beers which are meant to be drunk in 3 or 4 oz tasters. I think I'm stealing Ron Pattinson's line, but I don't like innovative beers, I like beers that taste good.

Dave Hayes said...

What this country needs is a good five percent pilsner.

Gary Gillman said...

This was never really different in the past. Even in the days of almost complete dominance by mass lager. If the companies didn't do it (and there were a few fruit-flavored beers in the 60's and 70's), people flavored them themselves. They made shandies (popular on parts of the east coast again), beer floats (which according to a friend of mine who graduated in the 1950's was a popular college concoction on some campuses), red-eyes (beer and tomato juice), and drank boilermakers. In addition, those who knew about British imports knew how a half and half. In centuries earlier, everything has been added to beer from fruit to nuts, including meat (cock ale), probably beef, coffee, herbs, flowers (non-hop), wormwood, port, and it goes on. The current infatuation may be more pronounced, but that's a question of degree. Let it all unfold (again), and what is good will find an audience although probably ephemerally, and what is bad won't.

Also, what is more important than the constituents is the taste, just as for a normally-confected beer. It is not easy to get a really good taste from anything or any process - where you do (e.g. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), great success often will abound. Something that appeals to a lot of people can be made from an unlikely group of ingredients: it is more the melded final result that matters.


Gary Gillman said...

I forgot lager-and-lime, popular in Irish-

Gary and English-style pubs from the 1960's on in New York, Boston, Toronto and other large metropolitan centers. Ever had one? It has a strong taste that can compete easily with a lot of the Frankenbeers of today.

Gary Gillman said...

Jeff, apologies for the fractured comments above. Not sure what happened but let me try again at least for the second comment:

"I forgot lager-and-lime, popular in Irish- and English-style pubs from the 1960's on in New York, Boston, Toronto, and other large metropolitan centers. Ever had one? It has a strong taste that can compete easily with a lot of the Frankenbeers of today".


Jeff Alworth said...

Gary, there is at least one significant difference between the beers/beer blends of yore and the ones I mention above. The older versions developed organically and were fine-tuned to taste like people want. Modern experimental brewing rarely benefits from development. They're one-off beers that work, when they do, more by chance than design. There are some oddball beers out there that breweries have spent time fine-tuning. I feel a bit different about them.

Gary Gillman said...

Of course I recognize that the experimentation of today is studied, one might say, but take Hop 'n Gator (beer flavoured with Gatorade), or Burgundy Brau (red wine apparently), or Pink Champale... Even in the "dark days" there were some way out beers out there. :)


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