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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Widmer '09 and Deschutes Sesquicentennial Beers

What an odd winter. Western Oregon has felt more like Bend this year than the Willamette Valley, with long periods of dry, sunny cold punctuated by flurries of snow. Today, as I sit looking out over a slate sky through the black fracture of a dormant maple tree, it feels a bit more like home. Some wet back in the air. After what feels like a rather longish period of stasis--breweries buried under December snow and hibernating?--these earliest signs of life welcome the blossoming of Spring beers. My nose tickles with itch of pollen. Outside, on the lawn, bulbs push up through the mossy yard. (Why do Portlanders plant bulbs in their lawns?) I have tried three of the spring beers in the past two days, and here are brief reviews. For reports of pollen and flower activity, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Widmer W '09
Each year the Widmer Brothers offer a beer under the "W" label. That is about where the similarities among them end. The last three years have featured a big NW red, a Summit-hopped pale, and a wheat beer. Add to that this year's edition, a Belgian, and you have quite a bit of diversity. It looks like the series is actually a kind of depth charge: the brothers toss out a strange beer and see what happens. The big red came back as Brrr and the pale as Drifter, slated to be released later this year. And this year's Belgian is already in edition #2. Some of you will remember it from its debut almost a year ago at the Cheers to Belgian Beers event. Last year, every brewery made a beer with the La Chouffe (Ardennes) yeast, and mostly, they made beers like La Chouffe, as did the Widmers.

Let us begin by stipulating that La Chouffe is a hard yeast to work with. Having now sampled beer created by it perhaps 30 times, I'm prepared to add that it's not a particularly tasty yeast. Beers come out sweet and heavy, two qualities brewers generally try to avoid. I personally think the Widmers did a better job than most of the other breweries I tried, but having surveyed some of the blogochatter, not everyone agrees. The beer is honey-colored, slightly hazy, and sports a white, seltzer-like head. Shadow coriander is a prominent note in the beer, though Rob swears there's nary a spice in it. I get the note in the nose along with an herbal, clovey one and also a bit of bubblegum/banana. It's quite a nose. The flavor follows the scent--sweet, with that bubblegum candy quality. I'd call it phenolic, but I also thought there was coriander. It's smooth, easy to drink. Go buy a sixer (or just a bottle) and tell me what you think.

Deschutes Maiden Oregon
Deschutes has made two beers for the sesquicentennial, one at the Bend brewery and one in Portland. This is Cam O’Connor's Portland offering. Made with all-Oregon ingredients (Klamath barley, Willamette Crystal hops, yeast from Wyeast, and sugar from Nyssa sugar beets), it's a Belgian strong, sort of a dry tripel. The nose is pronounced in a Belgiany-musty fashion ("Belgiany-musty"; see, that kind of descriptive muscularity is why I get paid the big bucks). It's a bit aggressive on the palate for my taste--alcohol comes roaring and biting its way onto your tongue, followed by a bitter herbal/licorice note. The sugar fermentation is evident by that biting alcohol, but also creates a sophisticated, dry finish. Once my Caeser salad arrived, I liked it a great deal more. It really went nicely with the garlic and lettuce.

Oregon 150 Ale
This beer, crafted by Paul Arney, baffled me. In addition to the local malt, hops, and yeast, it features blackberry honey and marionberries. I was expecting something along the lines of McMenamins' Ruby, but no. The brewery describes it as "a flavor that makes it hard to categorize ... a beer like you’ve never tasted before." How true. There's a strange scent which might be diacetyl. Hard to say, though, because the fruit, vaguely sour, confounds the nose. Mine came with almost no head, and not by accident; this is not a lively beer. The weirdness is in the flavor, though. It is vaguely sour, somewhat thick and syrupy on the tongue, and only very mildly fruity. It finishes tartly, but with a Sweetart (TM) zing. For added sesquicentennialness, they mashed it at 150 degrees, so maybe that created the sourness. Or residual sugar. Or ... ? (Brewers, help me out, here.)

My instant reaction was condemnation and rejection. However, I was waiting for a showing at the Portland Film Fest, entertaining myself with the UConn-Pitt game, and I kept working on the beer. Damned if I didn't start to enjoy it. By the end, I was actively wishing I had ordered a pint instead of a glass. An odd, odd beer. But one I wouldn't shun. Nope, wouldn't shun it at all.


  1. Your note on the Achouffe yeast: Beers come out sweet and heavy.

    My brain locked up when I read this. What I love about this yeast is that it produces beers that are dry, light on the palate and earthy.

  2. The original is drier than than the mean, but I find it pretty cloying. Earthy, though, yes.

    Last year's Cheers to Belgian Beers event was really an eye-opener. You get such a strong sense of a yeast when you taste it in so many different beers. You can try to brew different styles, but yeast has a certain inflexibility. You want to adopt the approach of a Taoist with yeast--use in appropriate styles.

    Obviously a lot of people love this yeast--La Chouffe is beloved, and Portland breweries had a lot of fun with it. I can, at best, appreciate it. But that's the way with things. We're humans, we have preferences.

  3. I had the same sort of reaction to the 150 this evening. I was warned by the bartender that it was running at about a 20% 'Like' and even then it was only being ordered by the glass vs. the pint. You're kind of taken aback when you ask for it and hear, "Yeah . . . you probably won't like it." It's definitely one you have to work through, but in a good way. I found the slightly sour aftertaste kind of tasty, actually - but this is not something I'd actively recommend. I can see why 4 out of 5 have a taste and seek safer harbors.

    LOVED the Maiden, however, and ordered one up immediately after the taste. No worries on the description, I have a hard time saying anything other than "Belgian-esque" myself. I don't think it needed a food pairing as much as you indicated - it says hello, but not aggressively so. Good stuff and was the most widely sampled at the bar while I was there.

  4. Mashing in at 150 degrees produces a drier beer.

  5. To expand on what Damon wrote; lower mash temps encourage the enzymes that break sugars down into highly fermentable blocks. Higher temps encourage enzymes that break sugars down into larger, less fermentable blocks. A lower temp mash, all else equal will lead to a drier beer, while a higher temp will lead to a beer with more body.

    I'm sure Dr. Wort could explain this better than I.

  6. Check out Double Mountain's "Ardennes". I had it last night at the Green Dragon...might change your opinion about the yeast qualities. Nicely dry, yeasty-fruity and "Belgiany", but without the hot alcohol note and without the big clove skank. Those guys know how to make friendly beers!

  7. Did someone call my name???!!!!

    Oh, I've been waiting for a calling! ;-}

    Yes, "JOE" you are correct! I won't expand any further, you have it pretty much down. The rest can open a book.....

    I guess this is my chance to discuss of tidbits in regard to these beers...

    Jeff - You've "locked my brain" on so many occasions it's not funny! You have so many "Interesting," albeit "Disjointed" brewing ideals and concepts. I'm always amazed that a quick reference could save you from a major literary blunder. ;-}

    I can see Stan shaking his head now and thinking, "I bet this guy never even read any of my books!"

    Thanks for letting me pick on you Jeff!

    In regard to Adrennes yeast and fermenting with it... Yeast works only as well as the brewer can condition and pair it. Even the best yeast can turn out a poor beer due to conditioning, wrong application or just a misunderstanding of the yeasts profile.

    Jeff sounds like the Doctor when he says, "You want to adopt the approach of a Taoist with yeast--use in appropriate styles."

    I agree! Understanding the yeast and proper usage is highly important. A beer made with Adrennes yeast that comes out sweet is very problematic. As I always preach style and profile matter! With some beers and yeast, you can't go throwing caution into the wind...

    Oh! "Belgiany-musty fashion!" Please Jeff! What the hell does that describe?? Sounds like an Old Belgian mans overcoat! Describe what Belgiany-Musty smells or tastes like to you, then you give validity to the words. Otherwise it's just words that mean nothing to the reader. I can say, "The beer has an aroma of a spring day is Antwerp." So what? Who the hell can relate to that?? ;-}

    Onto my favorite part of this posting!

    "Oregon 150 Ale - This beer, crafted by Paul Arney, baffled me. In addition to the local malt, hops, and yeast, it features blackberry honey and marionberries."

    I had an instant laugh out loud when I read this! "OREGON 150 ALE" Oregon? The state of the rugged pioneers that made it through the Oregon Trail? Survived by the raw desperation and hard work? The state of burly Lumber jacks and AXE Men? A state where men are men? For this state, we brew a "Marionberry and Honey" beer???? PLEASE!! That sounds like a breakfast cereal for some limp wristed tree huggers, who are out watching for the spotted owl's demise with his buddies Skip and Willow!!!

    How about a real "Oregon" Beer? A Barleywine made with a couple shots of whiskey and scotch in the mash and maybe a pinch of chew! Throw is some over boiled coffee grounds, some Smoked Salmon Rub and some used Oyster Shells! Barrel fermented in a cask from Old Grandad and hopped with some high alpha monster hops like Warrior, Tomahawk and Magnum. Serve it in a dirty cheater pint with a nice cigar... No frickin fruity Lemon wedge, that's for girls!

    Now that's an Oregon beer!

  8. Ah D Wort, your loquacity is exceeded only by your modesty.

  9. It's nice to be missed, Jeff... ;-}

    I had to spice up all this "Beer Tax" stuff....

  10. I've got to disagree with the "…mostly, they made beers like La Chouffe" comment, as La Chouffe - IMO - tastes the least like its yeast of those I've tried. Admittedly, I've only experienced the majority of beers from PCtBB, along with a couple others that Cascade has produced since (they love the yeast), as well as Delirium Tremens… and that is the beer which defines the flavor of the yeast for me - no fancy descriptors which mean different things from one person to the next (most of which I'm not even sure what they mean to me), just this: Ardennes yeast = Delirium Tremens = most of the beers at PCtBB; and no, I'm not a fan.

    Fortunately, Widmer's (current) offering doesn't succumb to the overpowering characteristics of the yeast. However, while La Chouffe manages to craft a unique, considerably more appealing taste ("Belgiany-musty" fits) than its brethren, Widmer's seems lackluster… a sort of Belgian-light (more similar to Duvel - which I love - just weaker) which, while not unappealing, is less than enthralling. It's the sort of beer which might get the uninitiated to check out the style (which would be a good thing); but for those who are already knee-deep, it doesn't impress.

    Still looking forward to the Drifter Pale, though… and I gotta get down to Deschutes for those new beers.


  11. Dr. Wort,

    Your take on Deschutes 150 beer is perfect. Apt description of the effort in birthing this fine state, and maybe the brewers should have reflected on this factor in creating their offerings.

    I think Dr. Wort has hi-jacked your site yet again.

    Has anyone tried Rogue's effort?

  12. Patrick,

    I don't mean to hi-jack Jeff's blog. I meerly want to add my 2 cent opinion. ;-}

  13. Jeff asked the brewers to help him with the flavor profile....

    Here's my drinking suggestion:

    Sounds like you need to pour it into a big Punch Bowl, add a big dollop of Raspberry or Orange Sherbet in the middle and float some Marionberries and pineapple! Wait 10 minutes before the Girls come for the Bridge Game and serve with a ladle into little frosted angel glasses!

    Maybe some lady fingers and cucumber sandwiches if you want to be fancy!