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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An Honorary Satori (Plus Other 2015 Highlights)

Back when this blog started, 3,633 days ago*, I used to do a year-end award for the best new beer released that calendar year. I managed to keep it alive through 2011, when the sheer force of new releases overwhelmed me. In 2012 I gave a sort-of Satori to Occidental Brewing for excellence in lager beer, and general overall awesomeness. Since then the Satori has been dark...

Until now.

It's certainly not that things have gotten easier. It's now so impossible to keep up with beers--so much so that the New School declared Occidental, my 2012 Satori winner, the second-most "most underrated brewery."  The winner, absurdly, was my 2009 Satori winner, Upright Brewing. Apparently we can not only not keep up with new breweries, what to speak of new beers, but now we're losing track of beloved existing breweries. But I digress.

This year I wanted to make special note of a new brewery here in town that should quickly jump to the top tier of must-see stops on a visit to Beervana. That brewery is Culmination, which opened over the summer. I haven't seen such a confident and sure-footed debut of a new brewery since--well, probably since Upright. Brewer Tomas Sluiter had toiled for years at Old Market Brewery, making beer for folks who had fairly pedestrian tastes. For special events, he was sometimes given the green light to make something to age in a barrel, or ferment with wild yeast, but I don't think too many people expected him to be harboring such ambitious goals.

All that time making golden ales and porters gave Sluiter the time to envision a truly adventuresome lineup, and when Culmination launched, it had an impressive array of yeast-forward beers designed to please palates. I've never seen fewer than three saisons on tap, in all colors of the beer rainbow. There's usually at least one wild ale on tap, and generally a spiced ale or two. Of course, he also dabbles a bit in hops, and it's here where he made perhaps the biggest impression. His regular IPA is in fact fairly irregular--and has become my favorite hoppy ale in the city. Euphoric IPA is made with Brettanomcyes (the chalkboard inevitably says "Brett IPA," and I bet half the people ask--"who's Brett?"), but most people would be unaware of the yeast's contribution. In the manner of modern IPAs, it's incredibly tropical, with layers of fruity flavors and clouds of citrusy aroma. The strain of Brett he uses accentuates this, but you don't have to know it's there. What you find is a deeply pleasurable, approachable beer. The Satori is typically given to a beer, so consider Euphoric IPA this year's winner.

I've been very impressed with his saisons, as well, and the black saison is a perfect winter beer. He also has a penchant for dark ales--no longer particularly popular, but personal faves of mine--and treats like the recent chocolate stout were good, old-school fun. From top to bottom, the beer list has been impressive.

Culmination has been getting a lot of press as one of the best new breweries this year, which is an accurate but understated compliment. Culmination is one of the best breweries in Portland, and if you haven't checked it out, do so at your earliest convenience.

A lot else happened in 2015, and here are a few of the highlights

Kurt Widmer
At some point I hope to have a proper post up about the influence of one-half of the titular Widmer Brothers. Kurt announced that he was going to retire this year, concluding a 31-year run with the brewery he founded. It opened within months of BridgePort in 1984, and quickly became a part of the fabric of the city. Despite those 31 years, Kurt is still relatively young, and I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement, with our many, many thanks.

Honest Pints
For a very brief moment, it looked like honest pints might become the law of Oregon. Didn't happen.

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
Traveling around the country was a useful perspective-giving exercise. I learned many things, but one was relevant to Oregon. Basically, no one beyond a buffer of a state or two away has ever tried Oregon beer. Rogue is very like the only beer a, say Wisconsinite, will ever have encountered. This I knew. What I did not know is that Deschutes has begun pushing ever further out, and in many of the more beer districts, riding the success of Fresh Squeezed IPA. I saw it on tap throughout the Midwest. Here in Oregon, we have gotten used to these fruit-juice IPAs (the "fresh squeezed" of the title). We are still a few years ahead of other states, and so this is a radical beer in far-flung markets. Not surprisingly, people rave about it. It's the kind of beer that hints at the huge potential of hops to go beyond bitterness. It's a great beer and a great ambassador for Oregon.

Oregon legalized it. Almost nothing changed.

Kettle Souring
Rarely does a brewing technique deserve special attention at year-end best-ofs. But this year we must acknowledge the debt the brewing industry owes to kettle souring, that process of acidifying a wort with a lactic fermentation and then using the soured mash in beers like gose, Berliner weisse, and dry-hopped sours. All three of those styles were hugely popular in 2015--gose grew the fastest of any style, Berliner weisse the third-fastest--and follow a trend led by brewers here. In April, Gigantic's Ben Love, The Commons' Sean Burke, and Breakside's Ben Edmunds gave a talk on the process at the Craft Brewers Conference, illustrative of how well-established the practice has become here. It's a great, natural way for breweries to use lactic acid to acidify beers exactly the degree they wish. You can tinge a saison with crispness or make a Berliner weisse screamingly tart--and everything in between. Expect this to become a universal, common practice in the US in the next decade.

Some Guy Released a Book
You may have heard about it. 

You couldn't end a round-up of the year's activities without noting the trend toward consolidation within the craft-brewing segment. Just a quick glance at a list of the largest U.S. breweries demonstrates what's happened. The three largest US beer companies are still makers mainly of mass market lagers, but half of the next eight—all one-time craft breweries—are partially or entirely owned by large multinational beer companies. To add a cherry on top, Reuters recently reported that employee-owned New Belgium was courting a buy-out suitor. (Which goes to show that employee-owned companies may be especially vulnerable to buy-outs; earlier in the year, Oregon's employee-owned Full Sail sold out to a private equity firm.)

None of which should really bother us. I would expect that consolidation will continue to proceed apace. Anheuser-Busch InBev's strategy is to create a network of "craft" brands that it can use to create a national all-ABI family of products. That will streamline business at both the wholesale and retail levels. But there's little reason to think that it will damage the market or make good, experimental beers harder to find. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, big companies are going to be emulating the craft brands, trying to make the edgy, experimental beers that craft drinkers want. Remember the old cliche, which fits the moment perfectly: Bud couldn't beat 'em, so they joined (or bought) 'em.

That's it for 2015. Onward to 2016 . . .
*Look for special 10th anniversary blogging in the new year.

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