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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Best Oregon Beer of 2006: Ninkasi Believer

Long ago, in a world far, far away, a young man from Hope was our President, and breweries made seventy-five beers plus seasonals. 'Twas the wild west in brewing, and if you didn't have a hemp beer, three wheats and a blackberry ale, you weren't really trying. I remember going to the grocery story and every week there were three or four new beers. Sadly, this was moments before the bottom fell out of brewing, companies realized they could lose money, and everyone started to focus on core brands.

We haven't returned to those days, but for the first time, things are looking a little more creative in the beer world. Deschutes went nuts and released about 30 new beers--apparently a strategy more than a quirk of timing. Widmer, BridgePort, and Full Sail all got in the game, too. And even wee Hair of the Dog, which has never been profligate with new releases, had a banner year with Blue Dot and the now-legendary Jim (aka Jim K). New brewpubs started opening up again, and I have been remiss in visiting many of them. Still, a fine trend. All in all, I'd call it the best year in beer since the mid-90s.

To celebrate this new trend, and since this blog is almost a year old, it makes sense to begin a tradition of naming the year's best beer.* Owing to the fact that this blog is Beervana, I'll constrain my focus to those brewed in Oregon (not to mention that trying to sample the vast array of new releases at the national level would pickle my liver). I'll also limit myself to beers released this year, or in the cases of small, far-flung brewpubs, those that made their Portland debut.

The Contenders
None of the new beers I tried were a misfire--maybe one reason why it seemed like such a good year. But among the notables, five stood out:
Deschutes Inversion IPA and Buzzsaw Brown
Full Sail Vesuvius
Hair of the Dog Blue Dot
Ninkasi Believer
Let's work backwards toward the winner, which, since I put it in the title, is not much of a secret. I had a half glass of Hair of the Dog Blue Dot and then it was gone. I don't know if the brewery intended it to be a limited edition, or if it's a seasonal, but if you didn't act quick, you missed Blue Dot. (Since it was named for the earth, maybe this was intentional; a commentary on global warming?) It was a massive, cloudy ale with an herbal quality that, like so many of HotD's beers, defied category. It was part NW IPA, part Belgian golden, and another part that was totally unique. I would love to have tracked down another bottle, and if you want to give this old blogger a wee, late Christmas bonus, you could do worse than digging up a bottle from your cellar hoard.

Full Sail's Vesuvius was also notable for its variance from the NW norm. A Belgian golden, it had the hallmarks of that style--rich yet approachable, and dangerously misleading on the tongue. You could throw down two pints like water, but you'd pay for having missed that it was 8.5%. I wrote about it: "Vesuvius [is] extremely approachable, quaffable, and tasty, concealing its substantial alcohol. [N]ice fruitiness, a very slight Belgian tart, and a long, dry finish. Very tasty and very dangerous."

Deschutes had a banner year and deserves a special award for consistent excellence. You could take the beers they released this year, found a brewery with those beers alone (never mind Mirror Pond, Black Butte, et. al.), and you'd have one of the best in Oregon. The first of the two honored beers, Inversion IPA, may one day challenge BridgePort as Beervana's king--a possibility I wouldn't have considered 12 months ago. Of it I wrote "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."

Deschutes' other honoree, Buzzsaw Brown, was my second-favorite beer of the year. Brown ales are deceptively simple affairs until you start sampling them or trying to brew them. Then you realize that hitting the sweet spot on creaminess, malt sweetness, and balancing hops is exceedingly difficult. It's a mild style, so imperfections are magnified. I have waited for literally fifteen years to see a good brown ale come out in the bottle, so Buzzsaw was a long-delayed dream. I wrote these understated comments in my review: "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." A really nice beer.

The Winner
Before I introduce the winner, let me tell you about the first time I ever tried BridgePort IPA. I was joining an out-of-state friend for a movie at Cinema 21. We were trying to kill some time, so we stopped in at the Gypsy across the street, where I had BridgePort's newest beer. The second I tasted it, I knew the brewery had done something special. This was amid that period of shakeout, when B-Port was casting around to find a replacement for Blue Heron as a flagship. A lot of really fine beers had failed to find a market, but this one was so good, I knew instantly that it was destined for greatness.

I have had that experience very rarely. At the Holiday Ale Fest, even before I tasted Ninkasi Believer, I suspected I had found another. The aroma was so exceptional that I didn't even try a sip before I handed my mug around for people to smell. To a person, they all had the same surprised look, and they all went back for a follow-up sniff. The flavor was no disappointment--like BridgePort's IPA, it was sunny and delightful, equally appealling to a beer geek or a novice. I have no idea whether Ninkasi will continue to brew this beer, but I hope they do. It could become an Oregon standard.

So congrats to one of Oregon's youngest breweries and one if its most engaging and accomplished brewers, Jamie Floyd--that was a helluva beer.
*Usual caveats: I didn't try every beer released in 2006. I visited not a single non-Portland brewpub in 2006. Beer preference is wholly subjective. Mood, circumstance, and conditions play a more than insignificant role in one's experience of a beer.


  1. I'll disagree with you on the Ninkasi (I'd go with Inversion or Blu Dot), and as a matter of fact, I do happen to have a few bottles of Blu Dot held hostage. We should do a Portland Beer Bloggers meetup sometime and each bring a few to taste.

  2. I'M ALL FOR THAT!! I HAVE A CELLAR FULL OF BEER. I can pick some good ones for a little tasting party...

    Although, I think Jeffery thinks I bite or something... He has been nonresposive to my requests to meet for a beer.....

    jeff?! I'm actually a nicer DBT than you think....

    We should have a pow wow somewhere and have some beers... If we've going to bring our own, we'd have to pick a place that doesn't mind that.... Maybe Belmont Station! They've sold me most of my beers...

    I agree with Dave... You knew that was coming.... But, I don't agree that Blue Dot or Inversion are any ground breaking beers either....

    Both are just modified versions of IIPA or IPA....Other original or ground breaking with THAT style in the NW.... But, Vesuvius, a fairly tight Blonde Blegian is VERY ground breaking for the NW and definietly unique...

    That's all I say, I won't rant...

  3. Hmmm.. Spelling problem!!

    I meant to say, "Nothing original or ground breaking with THAT style in the NW.... Meaning, "What another frickin IPA??!! Big deal!?