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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review: Heater | Allen

Heater | Allen Brewing
907 NE 10th Ave
McMinnville, OR 97128
(503) 435-9119

Hours: No regular visiting hours now, but you might catch brewer Rick Allen brewing or bottling if you drop by. It's safer to call ahead.

Beers: Pale lager (a pils), schwarzbier, Coastal Common (a hybrid steam beer with Cascade hopping), bock, dunkel, Vienna, seasonals (currently pouring a doppel for winter).

Available: Call the brewery to arrange for pickup or delivery. Belmont Station should be carrying them soon.
Last night, Oregon's smallest brewery was featured on tap at the Green Dragon. I wasn't able to make it for the official event, but (Dragon-meister) Jim Parker invited me to drop by a couple hours earlier to sample the three beers he was pouring. By chance, I happened to catch owner/brewer Rick Allen, who gave me the history of his brewery and walked me through a tasting.


The roads to good beer are many. These days, it's more common for brewers to get an early jump on their career. In a previous age (twenty years ago), brewers came to the trade later in life. Rick Allen is a throw-back. After years as an investment banker, he took a job as a CFO in a California winery for a year. He wanted to come back to Oregon and, with his experience of the industry, considered opening a winery here. But given the odds--hundreds of wineries and only dozens of breweries--as well as his 18 years as a homebrewer, he decided to go for beer instead.

The brewery he set up is truly micro--20 gallons a batch. That's 20 gallons, as in .65 barrels. He brews twice a week and the portion that doesn't go in kegs he bottles by hand. That's a mere 320 pints a week, in what amounts to large-scale homebrewing. This is the test phase, though--he wanted to see what kind of market there was for lagers. It has been good enough that he plans to upgrade to a 4-7 barrel brewery by next spring--though even that is tiny by commercial standards. Still, it will be enough that we might actually get to see it on tap in Portland on more than a lightning basis.

Every beer brewed by Heater Allen is a lager, just the second such experiment in Oregon's craft-brewing history. You'll recall that the two previous incarnations of Northwest micro lager brewing, Saxer and Thomas Kemper, didn't fare so well. So why lagers?

"I like lagers, number one," he said, "and number two, I view it as a market niche. A lot of people do fabulous pale ales--I just didn't think we needed another one." He also likes the way the exceptionally soft water that washes down the Nestucca and Yamhill Rivers gives his beer a softer palate (noticeable indeed--see my review, below).

Given the small batches he's brewing, lagers seem like a decent bet. Saxer and Thomas Kemper both tried to support substantial volume--but, even at seven barrels, Heater Allen would be a fraction the size. I suspect people will also be willing to give lagers a second look--in the early 90s, when Saxer got started, lagers still had a strong association with the stuff you got in cans. I think a nice pilsner (see below) will have a receptive audience, and the schwarzbier style is one of the nicest--and tailor made for NW audiences.

The Beers
The three beers Allen brought to Portland were all excellent. He uses a Bohemian pilsner yeast, and it leaves the beers soft and sweet. He spoke at length about malts, which are more evident in a clean lager than in ales--a further reason to welcome these beers. Malts are so often an afterthought in Oregon brewing, where the layered flavors come from complex infusions of hops. In Allen's beers, the malt character is complex, and the hops have to vie for attention (don't worry, they're ample enough for Beervana). Notice also the strength--these beers are true sessions, weighing in at less than 5% abv.
  • Pale Lager (pilsner) - Pilsners are, Allen told me as I started sipping his version, "really, really hard to make." He experimented with 14 versions of this recipe before he got it down. It was worth the effort. It is a classic Bohemian pils, more like Budvar than Urquell, with a soft palate and sneaky hopping. The Saaz are clear and crisp, but they aren't intense until you've had a sip or four, and then the bitterness starts gathering at the back of your tongue. It's really hard to find a fresh pils in Oregon--this would be a most welcome addition. (4.8%, 40 IBU) Rating: B+
  • Coastal Common - This beer recalls steam beer without actually being one. Steam beers are lagers fermented at warmer ale temperatures, but in Allen's version, only marginally so ("a degree or two"). He designed it to appeal to fans of traditional Oregon ales, and hopped it with lots of Cascade. The result is slightly disorienting. With a citrus bouquet and palate, the tongue settles in for a long, sweet finish. Instead, it dries and ends abruptly. I would need a couple pints to see if I could shake my habitual expectation. (4.9%, 39 IBU) Rating: B.
  • Dunkel - A beer that occupies the place a brown ale does in the English lineup, and just as obscure in American brewing. This is really the finest example of malt complexity of the three he brought--I found roast notes, chocolate, and nuts. He adds just a touch of crystal malt to draw out a poundcake-like note. Keep sipping and you keep finding more. As with his other beers, it finished a little sweeter than some lagers, giving it a fullness in the finish I enjoyed. I think of browns as the cold-weather session, and this one was perfect on the freezing evening I tried it. Rating: B+
At the moment, you may not have many opportunities to try Heater Allen beers. Even after this tasting, I am left longing for the schwarz and doppel he didn't bring to town. But keep this info in your mind--it looks like Allen has been persuaded to continue this experiment. With luck, we'll see more of his beers on tap in 2008.


  1. Thanks for the great post. I am a huge lager fan and so I am insanely jealous of you. I have been itchin' to try their beer since I read about them in John Foyston's blog. I think a good lagering brewery is long overdue in Oregon and I can't wait for them to grow and to be able to find their beer on tap.

    Sounds like they are off to a fantastic start.

  2. I had the coastal common last night at the Green Dragon and really enjoyed it, although I think I have a hangup about drinking lagers in Winter. I would really, really enjoy this in the summer.

  3. I enjoyed several glasses of Heater Allen's Pilsner at the McMinnville 2nd Annual Brews & BBQs.

    It was excellent.

    I will make a trip to McMinnville during HA brewery-shop hours and purchase some bottles. I will suggest the bar manager at my local add a keg to his list, but, we live under the long shadows of IPA and 2X IPA here in Oregon.
    PapaJ - Salem, Ore.