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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Visit to Cascade Brewing/Raccoon Lodge

Twice I have visited the Raccoon Lodge to see what Ron Gansberg is brewing. Twice I have gone straight to the brewery in the basement, bypassing the rather striking lodge part of the restaurant. Not a bad metaphor for what Gansberg has going on there. The Raccoon Lodge's regular beer menu is fairly typical--a wheat, an IPA, a stout, a Irish ale. Down in basement, it's a whole different brewery.

This time we did start with a rather pedestrian beer by the downstairs standard--but it could have been that Ron was just trying to get my goat. It was the Dark Day IPA, a black IPA, and he'd just read my jeremiad against the new style. The rest of the beer we tried was what has brought Gansberg attention at festivals and specialty pubs (not to mention the judges of the prestigious Satori Award)--barrel-aged, soured, strong. So, while I have news of nine beers (!), none is a standard Rac Lodge offering. Someday I'm going to have to go upstairs and reacquaint myself with those beers.

We did start with the Dark Day IPA, a bright, mahogany beer (if memory serves). Hops were present but not overly aggressive; instead the beer was characterized more by cocoa-roasty malt. Personally, I'd call it as hoppy porter, or perhaps a strong schwartz (like most of the beers that come from the basement, it's strong--7.5%). Then it was onto the really experimental stuff.

The Vine (9.2%)
The rule of threes? Last year Cascade produced three fruit ales, but when it came time to select fruit, they found the blackberries insufficiently ripened. They still have three fruit ales, but The Vine uses (can you guess?) white wine grapes. I'll confess that this one is so far off the grid I have a hard time characterizing it. I was expecting something like Cantillon Vigneronne, but that beer is much, much drier. The Vine has enough grape and sweetness that it tastes more like a mead to me. The brewery further confuses the palate with spices--cardamom to my tongue, though they didn't disclose the recipe. I would like to try this beer in a few months, when the sour has come in a bit more strongly. I can only give this provisional preview--we'll have to wait for the finished product. (It's also worth noting that this beer is assistant brewer Curtis Bain's brainchild, so the lineage of "mad scientist" continues.)

'09 Apricot Ale
Random trivia: there are more than 20 varieties of apricot. Well, not so random: this year's batch of Apricot Ale is made from a different type than the '08 I loved so much. Every year, Gansberg hand-selects the fruit, basing his selection on the quality available. He chose these apricots because they have a fuller, sweeter flavor, though he admits they're not as aromatic. I noticed this right away--that succulent scent was almost absent. But that's the nature with hand-made, artisinal ale--you are beholden to the offerings of mother nature. (And man, is this artisinal brewing. Not only does he hand-select the fruit, but he leaves it spread out throughout the brewery. "We put the fresh fruit out and every day I scrabble up there and pick out only the perfect fruit.") This beer is perhaps one notch less beguiling than last year's, but that means it's still exceptional. You almost certainly missed the chance to try this last year, since so little was produced. Don't miss it this year. Bottles of the new vintage are now available at the brewery.

'09 Kriek (8.1%)
If variability was agin' Cascade on the Apricot, it was for them on the Kriek. Gansberg was both joyful at the results and cagey: "It might be too good to sell," he joked. Last year's version was nothing to sniff at--it earned a bronze at the GABF. But this version is much more resonant. The cherry flavor is deeper and sweeter, bringing the beer into harmony (I found last year's a mite too sour). The '09 is made with two varieties of cherry, one sour and one sweet. It's also substantially stronger than last year's at 8.1%, but Gansberg is making "Belgian-inspired" beers. The extra strength, he believes, will appeal to NW palates. "This is everything I have aspired to in beer," Ron told me, and I can see why. The only place to get a bottle right now is at the brewery, and you might consider buying a bottle earlier rather than waiting--I don't know how long it might last. This could be the must-have beer of 2009.

2008 Cuvee (8.4%)
Cuvées are created by blending a selection of a brewery's best aged beers (the word comes from the French cuve for "cask or tank"), and Cascade's includes their tripel, with some portion aged 18 months, Flanders Red, and quadrupel. To bottle condition the beer, Gansberg added a portion of the red that still had active lactic fermentation--he didn't prime or krausen the beer. Is it redundant to call a blended beer complex? The Cuvee has a roastiness, a dry, sherry-note, vanilla, and what Gansberg called a "blue cheese" flavor that lactobacillis produce when they die (sounds gross, but sour-heads will love it). Cascade will produce no '09 Cuvee--they just didn't have enough beer to blend. If you buy a bottle, you might consider two. They're corked and will lay down for a long, long time.

From here we went through a few draft-only beers in fairly quick succession and I have more abbreviated notes on these:
  • Sang Noir. It's a double red aged with bing cherries in bourbon casks. It's a beer I know many people enjoyed at the Holiday Ale Fest, but I find the bourbon clashes with the sweet and sour of the cherry and red. (Then again, I'm not a big fan of bourbon.)
  • Vlad the Imp Aler. "This is like Cuvee's gigantic big brother." Indeed it is. Made with year-old sour quads (25 P), sour, spiced blond, and a soured tripel, it weighs in at 10.3% ABV. We didn't drink a lot of it, but I found it sprightly for a big beer, rich and layered, sour, and tasty. Order it if you have a chance (and aren't driving).
  • Mouton Rouge. This is the Flanders Red that is the backbone for many of the beers Gansberg produces. I had it straight at the Green Dragon a month or so ago, which is my where my main recollection comes from (my palate, by the time we tried it at the brewery, was ... not fresh). The strength (7.5%) combined with the very dry tartness argues that it could be called something other than a Flanders Red. But what? A debate for another time. In any case, a lovely ale.
The final beer we tried was poured straight from the tank. A new tripel (I think--anyway, that's what I declared it to be when Ron asked me what I thought--I don't know that I ever did get his description), made with a different yeast than he's formerly used. It was insanely drinkable: creamy, rich, and just a touch sweet--that will diminish as the beer ages and alcohol will come forward--it's one of those beers that would please equally the novice drinker and the old hand. It will be a popular beer. (You can't actually see it in his hand, but the tripel is what owner Art Larrance is drinking in the picture at right.)


I often affectionately describe the brewery as the laboratory of mad scientist Ron Gansberg. It's apt because messing around with age and lactobacillis has an aspect of alchemy to it. Ron has decades of experience brewing, but no one can really get experience with these kinds of beers without brewing them. Since the experiments take years to execute, it's a slow process. But it means that, year by year, batch by batch, Ron refines his technique. I have enjoyed watching the progress, and hope to continue to see what evolves. These are fascinating, wonderful beers.


  1. Don't ya hate putting all the time and effort into writing a nice article, and no one comments?

    Do you wonder if you just shot way over the readers head or the readers don't care about your topic or was it just perfection?

    I enjoyed your the article, Jeff!

    Of course, if I said something very snarky right now, you'd get some comments! About DW, not the subject. It can be fun playing with the transparency of social attitudes and norms. When all else fails... ;-}



  2. Nah, it's cool. This is often the case in blogging--that people mistake the correlation between comments and interest. My guess is that since most people haven't tried most of these beers, there's not a lot to add. But I also have the hope that they've noted a few in their heads to try to track down.

    When Angelo does interviews, I often don't comment, but they're my favorite type of post that he does.

  3. Yea? If you like those interviews, you'll love the one I'm going to post....

  4. Where the hell have I been for the past week? I got my wisdom teeth pulled on Friday, but that only explains half of that… *shrug*

    Did they happen to mention which yeast they were using in the Tripel now? If it's the Ardennes, I am sorely disappointed… their Tempter Triple was my introduction to the style, and still stands as one of my all-time favorites… I'd hate to see it tainted by what I consider to be an inferior yeast.


  5. Anónimo--

    Did they happen to mention which yeast they were using in the Tripel now?

    Yes, but I'm not sure I'm at liberty to disclose it.

    If it's the Ardennes, I am sorely disappointed…

    It's definitely not. I'll go that far. (I agree with your take--not my fave yeast.)

    their Tempter Triple was my introduction to the style, and still stands as one of my all-time favorites…

    My understanding is that this isn't a replacement--it's just another experiment. I could be wrong on that, or it could turn out to be so successful that it becomes a replacement. But Ron didn't say anything about it being their new tripel.

    (I'll also go this far: it's a yeast with a pretty decent pedigree.)