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Monday, May 22, 2006

Blind Tasting: Pale Ale

The first Beervana blind tasting happened outdoors under (unseasonably) sunny Oregon skies. Appropriately, we sampled that epitome of summer beers (at least here in Beervana), the pale ale.

I'm toying with the title "Council of Beer Elders" for anyone who becomes a regular in the panel, but I don't want to encourage arrogance. We'll think on that one. In any case, the four tongues that swished ales were Iggi, a native Oregonian who counts Roots among his favorite breweries, Absent Mindful, a ringer and a pro who works for BridgePort (and another native), and Cap'n Cyber, the elder of the beer elders, who has surely drunk more pints than anyone on the panel. Rumors that he enjoys Hamms are slightly exaggerated. I rounded out the panel.

In alphabetical order: Caldera, Deschutes, Fish, Full Sail, Pike, Sierra Nevada, and, to mix it up, London's Whitbread. We happened to be drinking BridgePort Blue Heron, which is not a true pale, but Absent Mindful demanded its inclusion.

Initial Impressions
The major discovery in this tasting was that pales are uniformly good, but, ah, uniform: with small distinctions, five of the eight beers were very similar. Everyone was able to not only distinguish, but also identify the Blue Heron, Pike, and Whitbread. The other five were the toughies. Iggi and I both felt we knew Mirror Pond and FS Pale, but couldn't actually tell which was which (we were right and we both guessed wrong).

Individual tastes seemed to determine which beers got the big thumbs up. There were four tasters, and four different beers were identified as faves: Mirror Pond, Caldera, Sierra Nevada, and Whitbread. I asked which were second faves, and we had votes for Caldera, Mirror Pond, Full Sail, and Pike. And, just to show how close the beers were top to bottom, I asked for least favorites and got a Pike, Whitbread, and Sierra Nevada--all beers that were others' fave or second-fave.

Based on what I've already reported, it won't come as a surprise that tasters did a poor job of identifying the beers. Absent Mindful batted .500--the best in the group. Cap'n Cyber and I got three right, and Iggi--well, Iggi didn't strike out completely, and we'll leave it at that. (If Iggi and I had guessed right on the FS/Mirror Pond pair, we would have stood a little taller.) Bragging rights to both Absent and the beers we tasted--all of which were very nice.

Other Thoughts
It's worth mentioning that Caldera is available only in can. (All beers, incidentally, came from Belmont Station, so I know they were their freshest.) This caused some eyebrow-raising among tasters, but no one could distinguish the slightest tinniness from Caldera (which was my favorite).

Also, Caldera, Deschutes, Fish all employ solely Cascade hops. Full Sail and Sierra Nevada use Cascade, but others, as well. It was interesting to see the differences malt and yeast make in the production of beers--Caldera and Deschutes, for example, were noticeably different, yet made from substantially the same ingredients.

Next time, I may vary the flight somewhat and perhaps through in some beers that we should be able to identify as outliers (a macro, and import, or a beer we profess not to like, say). Just something to keep the Council honest.


  1. Oh, and I should have mentioned that Absent, in a amusingly loyal way, also thought the beer he liked best (which turned out to be Sierra Nevada) was BridgePort.

    Full disclosure: Iggi thought his fave (Mirror Pond) was Full Sail, while I thought my fave (Caldera) was Sierra Nevada. The Cap'n, like all of us, knew the Whitbread the moment he smelled it, and that was his fave.

  2. But, upon reflection, I'm delighted that it was an Oregon beer I chose as me fave--despite the embarrassment of getting it wrong. Oy, the ignominy of liking a Cali beer the best!

  3. The Blue Heron came from a little market a block away from iggi's house (the site of the tasting), and most likely wasn't kept in Belmont Station's prestine conditions. I savored a bottle minutes before the tasting in an effort to absorb the nuances, but once we started I could not truly place it. Once the true identities were revealed, I took another taste and it didn't match with what I had consumed earlier. My thoughts on this:
    1). Flavors can vary from bottle to bottle- BridgePort uses UV Water (that is, water that has passed through an ultra-violet light, to kill microbes) as a rinsing agent prior to filling. At my former employer, we used both Paracetic Acid solution, and then changed to Chlorine Dioxide solution, so to not use an active agent can possibly allow a few off-flavors now and again.
    2). The drinking vessels were non-uniform, AND belonged to a house of bachelor-types. It's possible (and I'm typing this not to put-down iggi) that the glasses were not up to restaurant standards, lending their own form of adjuncts to the beer.
    Despite the theories, I couldn't place a beer that I myself help produce, so this isn't a shifting of blame, but I wouldn't mind hosting the next blind-tasting. My eye for detail could benefit the panel.

  4. it's true that the glasses were all used prior to the tasting, but i suspect that the true culprit is the Scary-Mart coolers which, during the hotter days, only keep the beer at a lukewarm temperature. combine this with poor product recycling (i once bought a six pack that had "expired" two months prior) and that may be your off-taste culprit. while expiration may not count so much, poor refrigeration/lighting might - you can spank me down if not.

    i think the only reason i couldn't spot the MP and the FS is because i've been drinking them in pints (they come in pints!) for awhile and not out of the bottle...the FS definately tasted different than i remembered from just a couple days prior.

    oh well, we should have a Stout taste-off then i'll show you who's king!

  5. Hi Guys!

    I wanted to thank you for the plug and tell you what a good article this is. Once Belmont Station has finished moving and "The Station Cafe" is open I'd like to invite you all to come in and have tastings with us. As soon as I'm no longer limited in cooler space I intend to increase Belmont Station's beer list to over 1000 beers (5 times more beer than any other bar in town), so you'll have plenty of variety for the tasting flights. Keep an eye on our blog for more news as we approach opening day, hopefully in time for the PIB, July 14-16.

    Keep up the good drinking and writing!


  6. I should clarify some of the doubts Absent raised. Prior to the tasting, I carefully washed all glasses. They were, indeed, different shapes, sizes, and colors, and this may have thrown off one element of the tasting, but the beer inside was unpolluted.

    As to this grand theory about BridgePort, I put the kibosh on it. Blue Heron's a session ale, a classic British bitter, and the one beer not to style. I was happy to toss it in the flight, but all this bottle talk obscures far more obvious factors.

    Your observation, Iggi, about the differences between bottled beer and draft beer are well-taken.