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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Elysian Immortal IPA

I picked up a batch of Elysian at the store, lured by a remaining bottle of Bifrost Winter Ale. Seattle's Elysian has been one of my favorite breweries since they brought a batch of Elysee Saison to the Oregon Brewers Fest a few years back. I assumed they specialized in Belgians, but it turns out that's actually just one of many interests (albeit an exceptional one): their 14 beers represent British, Belgian, and German traditions, plus a dose of good old American innovation.

A few facts: Co-founder Dick Cantwell brewed at three breweries before Elysian (including Pike and Big Time), so he knew his way around a lauter tun. Although the brewery does bottle some of their beer, it was founded as, and remains, centrally a brewpub. I've visited their Capitol Hill location, and it's got that pub Feng Shui so rarely attained (eg: some of the McPubs, the Lucky Lab). So tasty are its beers and so groovy its bricks and mortar that the GABF named Elysian Large Brewpub of the Year in 2003.

Tasting notes
This is a beer that looks great on paper (see stats below), but doesn't sing like a few of the stellar Northwest IPAs out there. Things start out great: it is a rich, slightly hazy golden ale with a creamy white head. The nose is florally hoppy, almost perfumy (had I not been reading the webpage as I slurped, I might have guessed dry hopping).

On the palate, it's a nice, but unexceptional beer. It's balanced and pleasing, and not too rich to have a couple pints (I had the full 22-ounce bottle and it wasn't too heavy or alcoholic). However, in a world of BridgePorts, Terminal Gravities, and Walking Mans, Elysian's IPA is, sorry to say, merely mortal.

(I have a bottle of The Wise ESB in the fridge, and it is one of the most celebrated beers in America, so immortality is just around the corner.)

Hops: Bittering, Chinook, finishing Amarillo and Centennial
Malts: Pale, Munich, Crystal and Cara-hell
Alcohol By Volume: 6.3% by volume
Original Gravity: 15.5 degrees Plato/1.063 OG
BUs: 42
Other: The brewery has a homebrew recipe of Immortal, and the brewer is also a beer writer.


Monday, April 24, 2006

World Beer Cup Winners

I received two emails about the recent World Beer Cup awards--one from a BridgePort employee (I'll let him out himself is he wishes) and one from the BridgePort publicist. It should therefore come as no surprise that BridgePort took home the gold. They did. At the end of the post, I'll put a listing of Oregon and Washington winners (Washington being the northern province of Beervana).

But before I do, let me spend a few moments venting. There are two main US brewery awards, the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. I don't exactly know what distinguishes them--both are part of the Brewers Association hive, and both claim to be the bee's knees in terms of competitions. (Admittedly, the Beer Cup is an international competition, though barely--of 2221 beers entered, 1433 are American).

I have two major problems with the fest(s), and I think any announcement of the winners should be prefaced by this acknowledgement. First, the Brewers Association long ago made the decision to judge beers by style. Thus the macropilsners, by virtue of being entered in the "stink-ass tin can, cheapo" category (I think it's actually called "American-Style Low-Carbohydrate Light Lager"), always take home some metal. Meanwhile Hair of the Dog, by virtue of not being brewed to any known style, has won exactly bupkis.

The second problem is geographic. Each region of the world--and now of North America--has developed a particular palate. The West Coast loves beer that's got rich mouthfeel and is hop hop hopilicious. This is particularly true of the Northwest. It is almost impossible to find a beer with less than 30 IBUs or less than 5% alcohol. Even Full Sail's "Session"--their offering as a competitor for Pabst--is 5.2%. The Colorado style is quite the opposite. They love sessions, don't like aggressive hopping, and tend to brew slavishly to style. And of course, the Brewers Asssociation is a Colorado production, and the founder and Lord, Charlie Papazian, has always been slavish about style. What results are competitions that favor precision over virtuosity, and Colorado beers over Oregon beers.

Oh, and what the hell--here's a final whinge. To compensate for the problems raised by deciding to judge according to style, the Beer Cup has now created a style for almost every beer, including such beauts as "Coffee Flavored Beer" and "Wood and Barrel Aged Beer," not to mention two or three different version of standard English-derived beers like "English IPA," "American IPA," and "Imperial or Double IPA." In all there are 85 "styles," a proliferation worthy of the DSM. Can "Northwest Style Double Pale Tall Skinny Machiato Flavored Beer" be far behind?

So anyway, having spent four paragraphs detailing why this fest sucks, here are the winners. Enjoy!

Oregon Breweries (by alpha)
BridgePort - Blue Heron Pale Ale - Gold
Caldera - Caldera Pilsener Bier - Gold
Caldera - Caldera Dry Hop Red - Bronze
Full Sail - Session Premium Lager - Bronze
Laurelwood - Organic Deranger - Bronze
Pelican - Kiwanda Cream Ale - Silver
Pelican - India Pelican Ale - Silver
Pyramid - Pyramid Hefeweizen - Bronze
Pyramid - Pyramid Crystal Weizen - Bronze
Rogue - Shakespeare Stout - Gold
Rogue - Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale - Silver

Washington Breweries
Boundary Bay - E.S.B. - Silver
Boundary Bay - Cabin Fever - Bronze
Elysian - Dragonstooth Stout - Gold
Fish Brewing - Old Woody - Silver
Ram/Big Horn - Seattle - Total Disorder Porter - Bronze
Rock Bottom - Bellevue - Vienna - Silver
Rock Bottom - Bellevue - Hop Bomb IPA - Silver
Silver City - Fat Bastard - Silver
Snipes Mountain - Sunnyside Stout - Bronze
Walking Man - Blootvoetse Bruin - Gold
Walking Man - Walking Man IPA - Gold
Water Street - Big Phatty - Silver

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Spring Beer Fest (2)

But nevermind the tchotkes, here's the beer. In order of tasting, as scrawled in my notes.

Rogue Chipotle
Pretty amber, thick head. Rich, creamy beer without harsh chile bite. Chile imparts a smoky meatiness. Also a smoked malt quality. Subtle bite in finish. Rating: Excellent

Widmer Brown Porter
Horrible smell.* "Wet Schnauzer" (Sally). Robust flavor, roasty rich palate, but also a cabbagy off-flavor. Can't get past the nose; quesy. Rating: Not poisonous.

Alpine Pilsner (Oroville, WA)
Beautiful golden, bright. Nice head. Light and spicy and totally clean. [Apparently I was still smarting from the Schnauzer.] More of a Bavarian pilsner. Rating: Good.

Spanish Peaks Black Dog Ale (Bozeman, MT)
Off nose: cabbagy. Again?! Tastes same, plus some fusel alcohols. Pretty bright brown ale, however. Rating: Not poisonous.

Walking Man Street Walker Malt Liquor (Stevenson, WA)
Clear golden. Tastes like malt liquor. Sorta strong and a bit harsh. Clearly well made, but.... Rating: Average.

Stone Imperial Russian Stout [IRS, it was April 15, get it?] (Escondido, CA)
Huuuuuuuge. Black. Latte-like head. Massive. Would hold up a spoon. Actually, though, not super-intense. Creamy and rich. Rating: Good.

A Belgian Kriek
Didn't take notes.

Alesmith Grand Cru (San Diego)
Dark amber. Palate going. I can tell it's strong. May be roasty. Residual cherry from failure to rinse glass after kreik. Rating: Average (?)**

Walking Man Double IPA
Quite a large beer, yet harmonious. On the other hand, I'm a wee tipsy. Rating: Excellent (?)**

Sierra Nevada Brown (Chico, CA)
Mixed with residue of WM. Seems of the Basement Brown variety (a homebrew I regularly brew)--thicker, richer, nuttier. Maybe. Rating: Excellent. (?)**

Chateau Lorane Apricot Mead (Eugene)
Wonderfully spicy and dry. I ultimately resolved that the spice was from the apricot. Complex. Rating: Excellent. (?)**

New Deal Hot Monkey (Portland, OR)
No notes.

I also recall having Widmer Broken Halo (I felt they needed the redemption after the Schnauzer, and this earned it), another mead (cherry, also dry), Victory Pils, a cider, and Chimay Cinq Cents, but failed to take notes. Naturally, the crappy SBF website is of no use.

I may have had others.

*I haven't always been the Widmers' biggest booster, but I've also never known them to produce an infected beer, and am left to conclude that something happened between the brewery and my mouth.
** I was still rating beers, but at this point, my judgment was suspect.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Spring Beer Fest (1)

For many reasons, the most famous beer fest, perhaps outside Munich, is the summer Waterfront Brewers Festival. For three or four years, it looked like the Spring Beer Fest might rival it. While the OBF is a hell of a lot of fun, it's not really an exceptional showcase for brewers. Organizers selected the hottest weekend of the year, and they invite people according to an obscure formula that has nothing to do with quality.

The SBF, by contrast, originally set out to make the brewers the story. They invited the brewers to the fest and you'd often find them pulling beers. I discovered a bunch of Oregon treasures this way. For example, I recall meeting a young brewer who was trying to promote a rare foreign-style stout. He was a cool guy, and he was trying to drum up business for a brewery hailing from an obscure town on the coast. It was Pelican, the brewer was Darron Welch, and the beer was Tsunami Stout, which has won a gold, a silver, and two bronzes at the GABF. I saw brewers from Caldera and Walking Man, two breweries I consider exceptional to this day.

But things sorta went south. The SBF started expanding its invitees--first to vintners, but then to totally random people. The last couple years, it's seemed more like a flea market than a beer fest, and this year was the worst. There were vendors hawking salsa, tchotchkes, and vinyl windows. Worse, the beer booths were staffed by volunteers who knew nothing about the breweries--sometimes even where they came from. The booths were often bleak affairs with nothing more than a table and a sign with the brewery's name.

A few breweries were decked out and making the most of the event, notably Roots, Widmer, and Walking Man. (Also vodka distiller New Deal.) But for the most part, it felt like a flea market--with great beer.

If anyone from the fest reads this, here's my advice: retool, downsize, and focus on the beer. No one's going to see some guy peddle vinyl windows.

This Person's Choice: Rogue Chipotle Ale

The Spring Beer Fest came and went this weekend, and I'll post a review, including mini-reviews of the beers I tried, later today. For now, I want to turn your attention to the beer that caught my attention: Rogue Chipotle Ale.

A classic, and under-appreciated beer style is known as rauch (or "smoke") bier. Traditionally, a portion of the malts are smoked before brewing, and this imparts a rich, smoky flavor. (Some breweries add smoke flavor, with predictably inferior results.) It's apparently not the only way to achieve the flavor of smoke, however. (I mention this apparently unrelated information for reasons that will become clear in a moment.)

Tasting notes
Breweries have experimented with chile ales for some time, and they are usually gimmicky. The chiles don't contribute much in the way of flavor, just a sharp pepper bite in the aftertaste. You have one (or one sip) and that's all you need: experiment concluded. But Rogue, a brewery known for more than a few gimmicks, hasn't made a pepper ale. Quite unexpectedly, Chipotle Ale has the palate of a rauchbier.

The chipotles have the same smokiness of a rauchbier, and are actually far lighter. Rogue uses its Golden Ale as a base, so the effect is a light, creamy smokiness, with unusual notes you associate with food. The finish is ever so slightly peppery, but not hot (I'm a chile wimp, so I feel qualified to judge), which is yet another surprise to the beer.

I've seen Chipotle in Rogue's (now archaic) 22 bottles--though I don't recall where--so see if you can track it down. In a world of a million pale ales, it's something different and original.

Hops: Willamette, Cascade
Malts: Northwest Harrington, Klages, Maier Munich
Alcohol By Volume: Unknown
Original Gravity: 12 degrees Plato
BUs: 35
Other: smoked jalapeno (chipotle) peppers


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Deschutes Inversion IPA

There are 5,237 Northwest-brewed IPAs. Or thereabouts. Of all beers, IPAs have become the signature style of the region. I recognized that this was the case when a co-worker ordered one at a pub. After ordering, she turned to me, wrinkled her nose, and said, "I don't like bitter beers."

Americans have come to associate the taste of tin with the "bitter" the tin-can beer companies told them they should fear. The flavor of hops, intense, green, and bitter (as in, say, a strong cup of Stumptown), fit the region like a glove. We don't fear organic flavors, we relish them. It is somehow appropriate that the last region of the country that still produces hops should become so delighted by them, and so we have our 5,237 IPAs to shock and delight our tongues.

So now we have one more, and from a brewery that already had an IPA--the woeful Quail Springs. I recall its much ballyhooed release. Obsideon, Black Butte, and Mirror Pond were the leading stout, porter, and pales in the state, and they meant to displace BridgePort with Quail Springs. There was no contest--QS was harsh and overly aggressive, with a palate offset by tannic malts. You might have thought you had accomplished something in finishing one; you didn't want another. BridgePort was unalarmed.

I am therefore not surprised that Inversion has crept onto shelves. The brewery apparently feels this beer will win converts without the hype.

Tasting notes
If they're not filtered out, hops will often cloud a beer, and so it was promising to find a murky golden-orange beer pour from the bottle. I expect the beer has some aroma at warmer temperatures, but I could detect but a hint of citrus in my refrigerator-temperature bottle.

As you would expect from a burly IPA like Inversion, the flavors are intense. Hops are the main note (again, as expected), a festival of citrus that contain notes of apricot and spice. The malt offers a nice biscuity complement and the alcohol seems to atomize the aromas in the mouth.

All intense beers are not created equally. Beer geeks love big beers because they do have intense flavors, yet finding the right balance is tricky. It's easy to make a good IPA; hard to make an exceptional one. I've now had two bottles on separate evenings, and my reaction was the same both times--the second the beer hits my tongue, it seems like a fully realized, perfectly harmonious beer. I can't call it a classic after just two bottles, but if I keep having that same reaction, Inversion will definitely be due for an upgrade.

(As for BridgePort, they might not yet be alarmed, but perhaps concerned. Though in truth, BridgePort's interpretation is much lighter and easier to drink in a session. You wouldn't want more than two Inversions.)

Hops: Unknown
Malts: Crystal, caraston (and ?)
Alcohol By Volume: 6.8%
Original Gravity: Unknown
BUs: 75


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Deschutes Buzzsaw Brown

Deschutes has a couple of new beers on the shelf, news definitely worth noting. I'll review the replacement for the woeful Quail Springs IPA tomorrow. Tonight it's Buzzsaw Brown.

Brown ales are the forgotten stepchild in American brewing. Whenever they are taken up, it seems like an afterthought to fill out a line between pales and stouts. But brown ales should be something more than a pale with chocolate malt.

In England, the venerable Newcastle brewery actually introduced its beer as a rival to pale ales in 1927. That beer is light and bright, with toffee and banana notes. Other browns can have a richer, winier quality while others are nutty. The best beer I ever brewed was a brown, which was the result of a brewing error: we forgot the finishing hops and so decided to dump them in the carboy with the wort. Thus did we invent (hundreds of years after the fact) dryhopping.

Tasting notes
Despite the name, Buzzsaw is a deep, bright red (which is actually appropriate to style). The nose is malty and has a fresh bakery characteristic--scone? Having poked my own nose into many a Black Butte, I found a lot about the beer that was familiar--like many great breweries, Deschutes has developed a house aroma.

The palate is also familiar--sweet and light, also akin to Black Butte. There are a few hops, enough to give the beer additional interest and balance. It's essentially a session ale, so it's not bursting with intensity. Yet it's that kind of beer that immediately has a comfortable, recognizeable quality, like you've been tippling pints for decades.

Deschutes is recognizeably one of Oregon's world-class breweries, and turning out beers like this is why.

Hops: Unknown
Alcohol By Volume: 4.8%
Original Gravity: Unknown
BUs: 30


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Recession Blues: How Are Your Habits Changing?

In January, I posted a poll asking how your drinking habits were being affected by the recession. Based on the news of declining sales of craft beer sales--even while overall beer sales are up--it seems like a good time to poll you again. Incidentally, I would tweak the poll if I were offering it for the first time. I'd let you select more than one item or offer a "mixture of the above" category. But for comparison's sake, I'm leaving it as is. Some of you may be employing more than one method to save money--if so, select the strategy you use most often.

(Usual disclaimer: The poll isn't scientific. There are a number of reasons why we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking the results reflect larger trends. Still, it might plausibly register some change over time--or at least provide us an opportunity to compare results with those taken in January and again this summer.)