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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Astoria Brewing/Wet Dog Cafe

When I last visited Astoria Brewing, the man at the kettle was Chris Nemlowill. You'll hear more about him when I do a post on Fort George Brewing, his new home. The man who replaced Chris is Bolt Minister (a family name going back at least a couple generations). I did a fairly involved review of Astoria in June of 2007, and rather than repeat things here, I'll just fill in some blanks. For the archives, I'll go back to the earlier post and update it. Feel free to click over and back if you want an overview of the pub.

Let's begin by handing the mic over to Bolt, who will describe how he got into brewing and give you a sense of his personality.

Bolt is at least the fourth brewer to work in the kitchen-sized brewery at what is now Astoria (formerly Pacific Rim). Despite that, the beer and food menu demonstrate admirable consistency. This must be both comforting and frustrating for the incoming brewer. It might be nice to have a slate of beer recipes on hand, but it also means you have little elbow room to express your personal style. John Foyston asked what his brewing preferences were like, and he admitted they tended toward lighter lagers. No worries, right? Well, the flagship is a monster IPA with triple-digit IBU hopping, and standards are the porter and stout, which warm the chilly bones of those looking out over the wind-swept Columbia.

He ran into this particular quandary early on, when he decided to ratchet back the hops on Bitter Bitch--that's the hop monster--to 93 IBUs, the threshold above which humans are not supposed to be able to distinguish further bittering. But the regulars at the Wet Dog Cafe could tell, and they did so, loudly, and now Bitter Bitch is back to her earlier octane.

When we arrived, he had three beers at the ready that aren't yet available, a kolsch, a biere degarde, and an imperial wit. The last two were made with Wyeast's Ingelmunster, one of which will be Minister's entry to Cheers to Belgian Beers. The wit was surprisingly spry and delicate, with characteristic coriander spicing. Wheat can really get cakey if you use too much, but the Ingelmunster handled it nicely, keeping it drier than a wit yeast would have been able to. At 6.8%, it wasn't imperial like a stout or IPA, and that helped. The biere de garde came topped with a head as dense as meringue, and the beer was nearly as sweet. I'll be interested to see it when it finishes out. The final beer we tried, which will be available at the Spring Beer Fest, was a kolsch--perhaps my favorite of all Minister's beers. Still a bit yeasty from the tank, but it had a gently spicy hop quality, and a crisp finish. Definitely look for it.

We sampled a variety of beers throughout the afternoon, and my notes are a bit brief:
  • Pumpkin ale. The last bit from fall. The spices have fallen back a bit and the squash is now evident--a good change in my view.
  • Bitter Bitch. The flagship ale is over 100 IBUs and is therefore shockingly bitter. The beer was designed to be out of balance--the hops vent out of the glass like strong wasabi--but the locals love it.
  • Solar Dog. The nose on this beer suggests its Bitter Bitch's little brother, but it deceives. Still quite a bit of bitterness, but the malt is evident underneath, as is a richer, more floral hop flavor.
  • Porter. In competition with the kolsch for brewery's best beer. The head was so creamy I asked if it was on nitro. It's both a gentle, sweet porter, but also thick, with a bit of roastiness for depth. "I praise the brown malts," Minister said by way of explanation.
  • Strong ale. The final beer before my palate was certifiably shattered, this very dark brown ale was surprisingly smooth and gentle. Abram declared it an old ale, and when I asked Bolt about it later, he said, "well, it's actually an old ale..." (Abram on the case.) Also a great ship-watching beer.
In addition to these, the brewery has a weisse, an ESB, and a stout. My least favorite beer is the brewery's best-seller, so go figure. I didn't rate out all the beers separately, but none would drop below a B-, and the kolsch and porter were in the B+ / A- range. A very nice line-up.

Other Notes
Astoria Brewing is Oregon's second to go solar (you might have guessed by the name of the beer), using the same system--and vendor--as Lucky Lab. Turns out it's a fantastic experiment. After all, if a solar system works in Astoria, it'll work anywhere, right? And it does. Minister gets 150-degree water on the worst days of winter, not a bad head-start on heating.

The brewery has plans to bottle 22s sometime in the coming months. In order to use the mobile bottling line, they have to amass enough beer to make it worthwhile. For a 350-barrel brewery, this takes a bit of prep, but have a look this summer if you stop by. You might also look to see if the pub has installed a fresh fish market, as they have plans to do. It would look out onto the boardwalk, and you should be able to get a bottle of beer with your two pounds of Dungeness crab. Cool.

Widmer Turns 25

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of both BridgePort and Widmer. I'm not sure about the historical arcana, but I think Widmer actually incorporated first, but didn't get beer out the door until after BridgePort. BridgePort lays claim to Oregon's oldest brewery, without dispute from Widmer; the reality, though, is that these two companies, along with Mike and Brian McMenamin, Art Larrance, and Fred Bowman, were all having the same idea at roughly the same time. They are the pillars of the Oregon brewing rennaissance, and this is a great year to look back at what these pioneers accomplished.

I'll take a tour down memory lane this week, part history, part reminiscence, but in the meantime, have a look at Angelo's interview with Rob (part 1, part 2)--really good stuff for those of you who love history. Also, make a note that on Thursday (April 2nd, the official date), the Gasthaus will be serving all pints for a buck fitty--1984 style. 11 am to 11 pm, 955 N Russell.

Monday, March 30, 2009

An Astoria Overview

"Astoria's a different place."
--Jimmy Griffin, Rogue Astoria
Astoria is in some key ways like a little microcosm of Oregon. Like Oregon, Astoria's located in the upper left corner of the state. It is a working community, not a show place. The people share a common sense of themselves and are fiercely proud of their town. They feel like the place doesn't get enough attention for how good it is, but at the same time, you get the sense they aren't thrilled about the idea of a lot of new people coming and messing things up. It is a place where people feel and live their history, where everyone knows everyone else in the community, and that if an event happens in town in the morning, by two o'clock that afternoon it will be old news.

For all the history and prominence of the town, it only has 10,000 people, as stable a population as you find in Oregon. The history, of course, goes all the way back to Lewis and Clark, who spent a delightful winter at Fort Clatsop in 1805-'06. John Jacob Astor founded a fur-trading post there in 1810, and from there its prominence has always been linked to the Columbia River's vast mouth, opening into the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean.

I have been to Astoria a number of times over the past decade, and among all the major towns of Oregon, it has changed the least. This has something to do with the history--old towns change less than young ones--but also because people seem to hold the entire place as communual property. In no other Oregon town have I felt the residents were so involved in the life of the community. As we made our tour of breweries on Saturday, people would refer to other townsfolk by their first name, off-handedly, like you would a relative. Of course, things do change. Astoria, despite its penchant for stability, has, as a port city, suffered the whiplash of global change more than others. Canneries disappeared, mills closed, artists arrived. Perhaps these outer forces make a town rely on inner stability more.

A good example of this came at our first stop on Saturday, at Fort George Brewing. I expected to see just the other beer writers invited along--John Foyston, Lisa Morrison, and Abram Goldman-Armstrong--but we were joined by a few locals who'd gotten wind of our arrival (that familial feeling again). One of them, Dan Bartlett, a former city manager, very graciously went and grabbed us copies of the Clatsop County Historical Society Quarterly, which had an article about Astoria's early breweries. It wasn't until I got it home that I saw the date of the issue--Fall 1989. (I'll do a separate post on Astoria's brewing history, tip of the hat to Dan.)

For visitors, all of this is very good. For history, no city--I think you can include Portland in this claim, but just to be safe I'll except it--can match Astoria. It contains several stellar museums: Flavel House, Fort Clatsop, Maritime Museum, and Heritage Museum. All of these were put together with the kind of care you'd expect from a town whose citizens can exhume 20-year-old historical quarterlies. But even more than that, the city itself has the feel of a place lost in time. To sit in the Wet Dog (Astoria Brewing) and look out on the massive Columbia is to feel like you're looking into time. The hillsides are studded with streets of 19th-century homes. In the homogenization that results from modernity and globalization, Astoria is a place apart.

Just one bit of advice: take the Gore-Tex. The 1.13 inches of rain we enjoyed on Saturday was not unusual, nor the wind that lashed us as we scampered between breweries. (It was robust enough to pin Lewis and Clark down for a winter, recall.) Perhaps more than anything else, this is why Astoria's permanent residents number no more than 10,000. The weather is relentless. I have spent summer days where it was in the fifties and rainy. (Though that's rare--only 1.2 inches of rain falls on average in August.) December is ... worse. On the other hand, there is no place as nice to enjoy a beer and watch the weather--and ships--roll through. If you have never visited, you should. And if you're a beer fan, you must. (But more on that later.)

Beer Writing Made Easy

As I labor to put Astoria to (digital) ink, I see that Bill from It's Pub Night has made my job a lot easier. Or rather, put a spotlight on an issue beer bloggers and writers suffer every time they sit down to describe a beer.

In one of the more clever posts I've seen in recent memory, he's put together a little engine that spits out generic descriptions of beer you could apply without modification to just about any beer. One example:
Pours a translucent dark chocolate color with a thin head. A tiny bit of lacing. Beautiful tart aroma, with overtones of grapefruit and lilac. Intense hoppy taste, with notes of apple and circus peanut. Thick and chewy mouthfeel and dry finish. Score: 4.15/5.
He has really gone to some effort to create some nicely satirical language, and the point is made. So many beer reviews say a lot but tell you nothing. (I particularly like that some of his parameters don't require you to choose whether the beer is good or bad, or even what style it is. It's true: sometimes you read a review festooned with adjectives and you have no idea whether they're intended to praise or excoriate the beer.)

But also: pity the poor reviewer. The bell-curve reality of beers dictates that most are average. They are indistinct. They have generic qualities of malt and hop. These are the worst beers to have to describe, but, proud reviewer that you are, you give it a shot. Pretty soon you're inventing adjectives ("hint of old cloves," "musty maple leaf") to try to inject a bit of pizazz into your description. Even very good beers may not offer you a lot to hang your hat on; what distinguishes them is not their distinct elements, but a totally vague quality of harmony produced when all those elements come together. How do you describe that?

I miss the mark more often than I hit it, but this post reminds me of a directive I try to use when writing about beer. Don't write to impress, write to communicate. How would I tell a friend about a beer so that she would get what I was trying to say? It's useful to include adjectives, but they should reveal the beer, not conceal the reviewer's inability to describe it. When I was drinking an Old Peculier, I held it up to the light to get a good look (knowing I'd have to somehow have to describe it later), and my friend Shawn said, "it looks like iced tea." Perfect. "Mahogany" doesn't tell you anything, but iced tea instantly brings to mind an image we can all relate to.

Another element often overlooked is to give some sense of the experience of the beer. Indians have a philosophy of art in which every artistic expression can be categorized by the emotional mood ("rasa") it delivers. This is perhaps an unnecessary idiosyncracy of mine, but I strongly relate to the experience of the beer, not just its characteristics. I drink beer to accommodate or augment a mood. I don't identify this quality in every beer, but the very good ones seem to suggest a rasa.

But anyway, enough of my babbling. Go check out Bill's post--it's a must read.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Preview of Coming Attractions

As if to say, "Behold, I offer you the malty riches of Astoria," Chris Nemlowill poses with one of his Fort George beers.

I have video, pics, and lots of notes from my sojourn to Astoria this weekend. I'll be rolling content out as soon as I can get it ready. (Probably no omnibus post--I'll do it piecemeal.) Qucikie upshot: a cool town, good beer, great people. More soon--

Friday, March 27, 2009

Interesting Odds and Ends

Every now and again, a bunch of small items come over the transom that wouldn't, on their own, constitute sufficient reason for a post. Today is one of those days.

1. Bailey's Taproom open at noon--today only. The sole fault of this wonderful alehouse is limited hours. Go before 4 pm and you can only gaze longingly through the window. Today they're experimenting with an earlier opening time to gauge the market. Seems a little fishy to me--the word of this experiment only came out today. But anyway, go have a pint and let 'em know this should be a regular thing.

(Advice from a blogger. If noon's too early, try 2:30 or 3. This city loves happy hour. Partly they love the cheap beer--Bailey's might offer a 3-5 early happy hour--but partly it's because there's no finer way to end the long workday than with a pint of beer.)

2. Obama is a beer drinker. Yeah, it appears he likes the cheap stuff, but never mind. A beer drinker in the White House is a good thing. He's got eight years to work on developing his palate. (Yes, eight.) This NYT story mentions that he regularly hits the town for a meal, and not just chi-chi places. What I'm waiting for is a visit to the District Chophouse & Brewery or Capitol City Brewing--both in the White House neighborhood. The picture, incidentally, was taken at a recent presdential visit to the Bulls-Wizards game.

3. Belgian cheese and beer. I get quite a few press releases, and they mostly head right into the trash folder. This item, however, passed muster:
Whole Foods Market is pleased to announce the arrival of two new artisanal cheeses from Het Hinkelspel Cheese Co-op in Gent, Belgium. The Pas de Rouge washed rind cow's milk cheese and Pas de Bleu, blue cow's milk cheese are now available in all Washington and Oregon stores.

Accompanying these cheese selections is Lousberg Belgian Ale. Lousberg was designed by De Proef Brewery of Lochristi, Belgium specifically to complement the Het Hinkelspel cheeses.
As many of you know, I would really like to see beer taken seriously as a complement for food. Wine's hegemony on this score irks me. Clearly Belgian beers are the access point, and who can argue with Belgian beer and cheese? I'll include a flier that came with the release.

Photo credit: Molly Riley/Reuters

To Astoria

On Saturday, I'll be on a junket of sorts with three eminent beererati: Lisa Morrison, John Foyston, and Abram Goldman-Armstrong. We were invited out by the Astoria PR folks who would like to highlight the town's beery credentials. I am a pretty big fan of Astoria already, but I'm always up for the chance to walk through some guided tours of breweries. I haven't pulled out the vid cam in long months, so this is a good opportunity to do so. Expect a flurry of reports back and, with luck, some entertaining video.

The agenda is intentially loose so that we can do some investigation on our own. Aside from the breweries there, do you know of anything that's a must-see?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Toying With the Layout

Just an FYI for the observant. I'm trying to figure out how to put Google ads in the left-hand column. That means I'm trying to figure out how to create a left-hand column. So far, so good. You'll notice that the title banner is now too short, but I'm not messing with that until I decide to make the layout permanent. I know it looks more crowded this way, but the Honest Pint Project has a number of associated costs, and I'm trying to figure out a low-impact way to fund them.

A Toast for MJ

Tomorrow marks what would have been beer writer Michael Jackson's 67th birthday. Charlie Papazian proposes that we all toast him at 6pm tomorrow evening (at your local time). I will be delighted to do so. Join in if the spirit moves you--

Budvar Slaps Down InBud

The ever-more-steroidal American Belgian Budweiser just can't take down the mighty mouse in Budweis, Czech Republic:
LUXEMBOURG, March 25 (Reuters) - A European Union court on Wednesday upheld a ruling denying Anheuser-Busch Inbev the right to register the Budweiser name as a trade mark in the EU.

U.S. brewer Anheuser-Busch, bought by Belgian counterpart Inbev last year, applied for an EU trade mark in 1996 for the name "Budweiser" for its "beer, ale, porter, malted alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages."

The application was opposed by Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar, which makes beer marketed in the European Union as Budweiser Budvar, or Czechvar in North America.

Budvar's opposition was upheld by the European trade mark office, OHIM. After a failed appeal at OHIM, Anheuser-Busch took the case to the Luxembourg-based EU Court of First Instance.

Pilsners were born in the Czech republic in the 1840s and named for the town of their origin--Plzen. The style spread across Bohemia (and ultimately, the world) and was taken up by breweries in Budweis. What follows is a classic American story. In the 1870s, Adolphus Busch visited Bohemia and returned to the US with an idea about developing a style based on these beers at his father-in-law, Eberhard Anheuser's, brewery. They decided to name it "Budweiser," after the city they had found it in. Of course, the local beer made in Budweis was also called Budweiser. But the wily American managed to beat the makers of the indigenous brew to the legal punch: Busch trademarked the name before the brewery we now know as České Budějovice--aka "Budweiser."

The dispute has been ongoing for over a hundred years, surviving the Habsburg Empire, two world wars, communism, and now democracy and the EU. At issue: can a foreign country raid a traditional product, establish trademark, and essentially displace the original? For decades the dispute has been a draw: Budvar can be sold under the Budweiser name in the EU, but not the US, where it's marketed as Czechvar. The US product is sold in the EU under the name "Bud." (Interestingly, both are sold as Budweiser in the UK.)

Yesterday's news is yet the latest chapter in the ongoing battle. For what it's worth, from where I sit, the deal seems to be settled as best as it can. No company will ever relinquish rights to the name on their home soil, and the countries won't allow an interloper to threaten local hegemony. We have reached, however uncomfortable it is for the two parties, equilibrium, 21st-Century style.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cat Per and Duck Pee

Below is the exact transcript of a text conversation I had this afternoon. It's amusing because the friend--I'll leave names out of it to protect the salty-talker--attempted but was thwarted by auto-correction from swearing. What resulted was a sanitized, but consequently bizarre, conversation.

Russian River Damnation--yes or mo.

That's 'no.'

Oh good god. It's unique. Umm ... yes.

Sample coming.


Oh ... My ... God.

Cat per.



Now, I have no idea where he was or why it tasted like cat per (it shouldn't have). Something's not quite right there, but at least the exchange was amusing. He ultimately went for a Diamond Knot IPA.

The Troubling Stats on Underage Drinking

As we engage in the biennial debate about the beer tax, we tend to separate out into camps who refuse to look at the issues of the other side. I will stipulate at the outset that while I think the beer tax is absolutely the wrong prescription for underage drinking, that doesn't mean I'm cool with underage drinking.

There's an article in the paper today about binge drinking among underage Oregon teens, and the problem is very bad. According to a recent survey of Oregon 11th graders, we have a problem:
  • Almost half of Oregon's 11th-graders said they drank alcohol in the previous month.
  • Nearly 30 percent of eighth-graders said they drank in the previous month, according to the same survey.
  • Oregon eighth-graders are 76 percent more likely than the U.S. average to drink alcohol.
  • Eighth-grade girls now drink more than 8th-grade boys.
  • More than 10 percent of eighth-graders taking a 2007 national survey said they downed at least five alcoholic drinks in a sitting in the previous week. That rose to nearly 22 percent of 10th-graders and 26 percent of 12th-graders.
The article suggests that liquor is the biggest danger, but this doesn't mean the beer community doesn't have a role to play. Any group who produces or promotes alcohol has a responsibility to be more engaged in the effort to stop underage drinking. Craft brewing is about the craft of brewing, not the hooch. They're trying to produce malty works of art, not adolescent alcohol delivery systems. This is exactly why they can play a positive role--craft brewing can highlight that the joy is in the flavor, not the buzz.

We can also get active in supporting efforts like these:
Health officials and nonprofits have launched a host of efforts to warn kids and parents about the risks of binge drinking. In November, a task force presented Gov. Ted Kulongoski a five-year plan to fight underage drinking in Oregon, which called for more than $15 million in efforts, including programs to prevent youth drinking and addiction treatment.
What Oregon needs is a healthy culture of moderation, not an abstinence and binge cycle. I have always felt that Oregon craft breweries contributed to a healthy orientation toward drink, but obviously, there's work to do. This is a problem we all need to address.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Price of Beer

Stan Hieronymus noticed that the comment threads to a recent story in the Chicago Tribune were pretty hot:
[I]t’s interesting to “eavesdrop” on comments posted about beer at a non-beer site.

Yesterday the Chicago Tribune published a story about two new microbreweries in the city. What seemed to get the most attention is that 6 packs of Half Acre beers cost $9. We’re not talking a knee jerk reaction about how that’s ridiculous, but a discussion. Check out the comments.

This in turn provoked some unusual commentary on Stan's own site. Every product has an invisible cost line, and when prices creep over it, there's a backlash. People thought it would happen with $3/gallon gas, but it actually too four to trigger the response. Nine bucks seems to be at or around the invisible line. Perhaps ten is the biggie.

For what it's worth, I think the outrage is misplaced. Until recently, beer prices have been artificially low. The hop and barley price hikes surely forced breweries to raise prices a bit, and the forces of inflation have their effect, too. But nine bucks is probably about right by historical standards. If you convert the price of a $9 sixer in 2009 back to 1990 dollars, you get $5.54. In 2000 dollars, it works out to $7.30. My memory is that the price of beer was probably hovering around six bucks and change a decade ago, and we regularly hit the $7 threshold a few years back. So prices have been low for awhile and now they're headed back to historical norms.

Beer naturally lends itself to class commentary. Beer is a blue-collar drink. This has long put craft brewers at a slightly uncomfortable crossroads--trying to appeal broadly to blue-collar drinkers while charging enough to pay the bills. The association between craft brewing and patronage by yuppies hasn't helped (an association I think is particularly weak in Oregon). But in any case, it looks like this isn't a function of real price inflation but rather a reaction to economic instability more generally.

Fest Thinkin'

This past weekend I missed the second annual Firkin Fest. (Fortunately Bill did the hard work; he has a report here.) This weekend, Seattle is having a much larger version, but the structure is just the same--two sessions on a single day. Portland's version was held at a pub, had 20 beers, cost $30, and each session was three hours long; Seattle's is being held at the Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion, has 65 beers, costs $40, and each session is four hours long. Same event, just bigger.

I love cask beer. The chemistry of carbonation is brutal; trying a cask ale is to understand the true nature of the beer, unbruised by the violence of CO2 (Supporters of Native Oregon Beer) and their Seattle . That love is not adequate, however, to get me to the fest. The structure resists me--I need a weekend with two or three 12-hour sessions so I can work it into my schedule. Why not have a regular fest structure?

Not only would it make it easier to get to, it would make it a populist event; right now, the only people going are SNOBs brethren. Instead, we should be targeting drinkers who don't know cask ale from a hole in the wall. It's great to create a fest for those who love cask ale but have a hard time finding it. It would be better to have a fest so more people could be introduced to it and create a market.

So to anyone from the Firkin Fest who's listening, an appeal from a lowly blogger: find a sizable location and turn this into a weekend affair. Please.


While I'm on the subject of fests, here's a random thought that floated through my brain after last week's experience with Full Sail's cask Amber. Since we have such a grievous paucity of beer festivals in Oregon (293 at last count), I'd love to see one more--the small beer fest. No beer above, what 5%, 4.5%? Maybe have a people's choice for beers below 5% and below 4%. Invite breweries to brew up special beer for the occasion and challenge them to come up with riveting flavors. Call it the Extreme Small Beer Fest or something. Small: it's the new frontier for extreme.

Now, how do you put on a fest?

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Damn Poll

Charlie Papazian continues to flog his "best beer city" poll on Twitter, and Asheville has yet again pulled out in front. I wouldn't bother with it too much except that he's going to use the whole Beertown fiefdom to promote the city with the highest vote total. I know, I know, it's absurd. Fully three-quarters of the votes are for either Asheville or Portland. That right there is a perfect example of why online polls are idiotic. Just get a bunch of your homies to vote and you can heavily skew the results. It is far from "scientifics."

But damn, since we're getting our homies to vote, why is Portland still trailing? Vote, Portland homers, vote!

This Seems Excessive

A Scottish brewery sends beer to India to make an "authentic" IPA:
The pair prepared eight oak barrels which spent seven-and-a-half weeks aboard the Ocean Quest, a mackerel trawler captained by Watt, who is also a fisherman. During the journey the casks were lashed by towering waves and covered in snow. One barrel had to be salvaged from the sea after it was washed overboard.

Dickie said that the traditional India pale ale contained higher than normal levels of hops and alcohol, which acted as preservatives. He added that the beer was given its distinctive taste by the way it aged in the barrels, which were tossed around and subjected to large fluctuations in temperature during the journey.

“With all the motion of the sea, the oxidation in the barrel would have been brought on quicker than if they were sitting in a warehouse. Some interesting flavours were also introduced, like the wood of the barrel, but also the fruity flavours brought on by the oxidation.”
Of course, the IPA origin story has been debunked, so this is sort of a strange experiment. No doubt it will produce an interesing beer (though I shudder to think of the price of a bottle.)

The Weird, Wonderful World of Gose

If you are a respectable beer geek, you probably imagine you know the general shape of the beer map. There may be a few streets in a few cities you haven't walked down, but nothing you wouldn't recognize. I am one of those beer geeks, and about ten days ago I bought a bottle of Gose. To my shock, I learned that there's a whole new country on the map.

I have long meant to try the obscure style now native to Leipzig. What I recalled about it mainly was one of its more exotic ingredients--salt. Obscure German beers are generally the ones I like the most, and salt seemed as interesting and strange as the smoke in rauchbier or the sour in Berliner Weisse. But those beers are essentially variations on a theme. Gose is a totally different beast. Though its Frankenstein-monster of ingredients and methods makes it seem like variations on variations on variations on a theme, it doesn't taste like any beer I've had. The closest thing to it is made in India, and it's not a beer (but we'll come to that in due course).

Gose is an ancient style born in Goslar, 110 miles northwest Leipzig. The history of the style is sketchy. Some sources cite references back as far as medieval times--when I describe the beer, you'll see why this isn't far-fetched--but its modern incarnation dates back 250 years. It's popularity spread to Leipzig, and by the middle 1800s, it was considered a native style. In fact, it is now regularly referred to as "Leipziger Gose." Unfortunately, WWII dealt Gose a wound from which it would never really recover. It was out of production twice and mostly forgotten by the 1980s.

It has a great deal more in common with Belgian beers than anything brewed according to Reinheitsgebot (the more you learn about German beer, the more you realize that "purity" has a great deal less dominance than Americanos have been led to believe), and to taste it, you'd never guess it game from Germany. A wheat beer (50%+ of the grist), it contains the salt of its reputation but also coriander. Now here's where it gets interesting. Gose also uses a souring agent, added to the boil. Brewers of the 19th century guarded this secret:
The beer's popularity (and the premium price that it commanded) made it an attractive proposition for any brewery. Naturally, those already in the business of making it weren't too keen on their rivals getting in on the act. The tricky part was getting the addition of the lactic acid bacteria right. Sometime during the boil, the precise moment was of great importance, a powder was added to the wort (according to a source of 1872).
When Bayrischer Bahnhof began experimenting with a revival of the style in 2000, they weren't sure how to sour it, either. Encouragement by Michael Jackson led them back to lactobacillus. A wheat beer made with coriander and salt and soured by lactobacillus--perhaps even once spontaneously fermented. A mutt of a beer--can it be a German? (As it happens, brewers had to get a special exemption from Reinheitsgebot to go into production when they revived the style.)

So now the ancient style is back in production and available--periodically--at Belmont Station. Ready to hear that it takes like?

Tasting Notes
Gose is reputedly quite delicate and perishable, but the bottle I got seemed perfectly fresh and lively. A tangy, orangey aroma rose off the sudsy head. The beer was slightly cloudy but nothing like a hefe (rousing the yeast before pouring this beer would be a mistake--the fresh, delicate flavors and aroma shouldn't have to compete with yeast). More on the aroma: the wheat and coriander conspire to give a phantom wit nose, but not as much as you expect, and the sour note confuses the nose.

Before I mire us in adjectives, let's go for the big picture. There's a popular drink in India called lassi made from fresh yogurt. It comes in two versions, salted and sweet, both designed to cool you on a hot day. Gose is strikingly similar to lassi, and I imagine it is equally as satisfying on a hot day.

The first note is the tangy, gentle sour. The coriander is more an essence you notice only in the breath following the swallow, volatile, like oil coming off the tongue. The oddest thing--even more than the sour--is the salt. This is the ingredient that most characterizes the style, yet I was still surprised by its prominence. Salt infuses this gose, from the first sip through the final swallow. In fact, I licked my lips a few minutes after I finished the beer and they were still salty. Wheat is there throughout, softening the more intense flavors. Salt and sour are wonderful together, and yet so unexpected in a beer. It is perhaps the most flavorful 4.6% beer I've ever had.

This beer is a must-try. You'll be both disoriented but delighted.

Malts: 60% wheat, 40% barley
Adjuncts: coriander, salt
Other: Ale yeast, lactic bacteria added in the boil.
IBU: 13
Original Gravity: 1.046
ABV: 4.6%
Availability: Limited. In Portland, check Belmont Station; John's doesn't seem to carry it.
Rating: A

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Your Champeen: Laurelwood

I have been updating you on a competition I frankly don't fully understand, the National IPA Championship, hosted by Great Lakes Brewing News. It was set up like the NCAA Tourney, with 64 IPAs organized into brackets. The beers didn't appear to be seeded. Oregon has been doing well all along--we had three beers in the sweet sixteen, two in the final four, and one in the championship matchup. Among those power players--Deschutes Inversion, Rogue Yellow Snow--was the underdog, Laurelwood Workhorse IPA. But it was Workhorse that worked its way to the final and beat Big Sky IPA. Big Sky is itself a rather surprising longshot--I don't think many would have taken this erstwhile contract-brewed, Missoula-based beer much of a contender. But that's why you have taste-offs.

Congrats to Laurelwood!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Heads Up

Last night at nine, the 11-year-old imperial stout was still on tap at the Pilsner Room. Might be worth a trip down to Riverplace if you haven't had a chance to try it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Good Beer Cities

Leaving aside the question of "best," and leaving aside that poll I linked to earlier, I'd like to meditate for a moment on the nature of what characterizes a good beer town.

Beer is local. In the middle ages, every town had two buildings that rose higher than a story--a church and a brewery. Breweries depended on local agriculture and water for ingredients, and these limitations created the distinct styles we now celebrate. In the modern era of globalism, breweries are no longer restricted; a good brewer will have traveled the globe and tried hundreds or thousands of foreign beers, all of which inform his own styles. But even with globalization, beer is local. We have other limitations. The beer you'd wish to drink in the heat of Phoenix, the gloom of Oregon, or the elevation of Santa Fe differs. Our regional and ethnic history contributes to the styles we admire. Finally, local ingredients, even in the age of globalism, can definitely play a role in creating regional styles.

So a city should have a unique beer culture if it's a "beer town." I've got or have had relatives scattered across the Mountain West, and while cities like Boise and Salt Lake have local brewpubs, they're as generic as Applebee's. These are not good beer cities, however good an individual brewery may be. Ask yourself--what's an "Idaho beer?"

A good beer town should have not only the ready availability of distinct, local beer, but a public clamoring for it. I like to check out little Mom and Pop grocery stores to see what beer they stock. In a beer town, they will have a decent selection of micros and imports. I look at the taps in hole-in-the-wall bars and also upscale bars. In a beer town, they'll both have some decent selections. I look to see whether there are regular local beer events--festivals, tastings, brewing dinners, meet-the-brewer events, that kind of thing. You only have those events if the public is demanding them. Are there taprooms in the city that feature a slate of a dozen or more exceptional taps? How many of these places are there? Have some of the local upscale restaurants, influenced by the brewing scene, begun to feature beer along with wine? Here's an especially potent test to run. If I go to a city, can I find any place with a Belgian beer on tap (Stella excepted)? A city can't call itself a beer town if the answer's no.

Looking for the "best" beer town is a fool's errand. Portland, a city of a half million, is clearly the most saturated environment for beer. That's in large part a function of it being the right size--too much smaller and it wouldn't have a critical mass to support all the activities, and too much larger and you'd find a population with more varied interests. Surely there are as many good places to get a pint in San Francisco but, owing to its size, the level of saturation is necessarily less. We can't identify a "best" because it's never going to be an apples-to-apples comparison.

It is possible to identify "good," though. I'd look at some of these indicators I've mentioned. Strip away local boosterism, and there are sadly fewer good beer cities in the country than we'd like. Fortunately, the number is getting larger by the decade, not smaller.

When Macros BS

So there I am, starting to relax as the Zags pull away from the plucky Akron Zips (Zips versus Zags--evidence someone in the NCAA selection committee has a sense of fun), and this abomination appears on my small, nearly-obsolete analog screen:

Actually, that's just a shorty version of the full commercial, available at the Miller Lite website. Let us pause for a moment to consider the brewing wisdom imparted by the Miller Corporation of bad beers by examining the text of the full commercial:
In the first step, our hops give Miller Lite a clean, distinctive pilsner flavor and aroma. So when you take that first sip, your taste buds are on their way to HAPPY TOWN. The second step: hops are added for balance, ensuring perfect body and hop taste in every beer. And we all know how much you appreciate a GOOD BODY. So you're welcome. In the third step, our hops add to Miller Lite's perfect head and lock in its great taste from start to finish. It also gives you a ROCKIN' BEER mustache.
Let us review. Hops: 1) give Miller Lite a distinctive pilsner flavor and aroma; 2) ensure perfect body; 3) add to a perfect head and "lock in" great taste.

Only in the PR conference rooms where young MBAs hatch bad commercials while sipping Chardonnay are these things true. Ghastly.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vote Portland

This is a silly thing, but I still have to draw your attention to it. Charlie Papazian has a poll asking people to vote on "Beer City, USA"--a particular hobby horse of his. Someone in Asheville, NC is directing readers to the poll, because it's got half the votes. While I find the whole idea a little silly, the idea that Asheville might be bragging about being best beer city is a little hard to take.

Go vote for the real beer city, folks. You know who it is.

Bravo to Hot Lips Pizza!

[The post has been updated.]

A wonderful surprise arrived in my email account a couple days ago. Behold the very first fully authenticated Purveyor of an Honest Pint: Hot Lips Pizza. In accordance with the certification process, Hot Lips has sent in a photo with the glass, the amount of beer poured out of that glass, and a clearly-recognizeable shot of the establishment:

It's worth noting that Hot Lips has a great taplist. I work a couple blocks from the downtown outlet, and though they only have a half-dozen taps, they're extremely well-selected.
  • SE Hawthorne at 22nd
  • Downtown/PSU, SW 6th and Hall
  • Pearl District, NW 10th and Irving
  • Civic, SW 18th and Morrison
  • 33rd & Killingsworth
Go forth and patronize this Certified Purveyor of an Honest Pint!

Update. My able web professional SM has updated the official website for the Honest Pint Project. As I get officially certified pubs online, I'll include the certifying photograph on the site, as is the case with Hot Lips. These photos serve as authentication in the case a certification is ever contested.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tourney Time Beer

In comments below, Anon asks a pertinent question:
I need the perfect beer for the opening weekend of March Madness. It's gotta compliment the spicy snacks but also be low enough in alcohol so that it can be consumed all day.

Come on beervana, this is THE best weekend of the year. I need your help and so does everyone else who will be calling out sick the next two days to watch the madness unfold!
Anon, you're a (wo)man after my own heart. As the non-sporty among you don't know, the next four days will present basketball fans with an orgy of non-stop excitement. Forty-eight games spread across vast, time-gobbling stretches in which a person's hand will naturally reach for food and drink. But in all things you must pace yourself--you can't bust out a case of Fred and hope to make it to halftime of the first game. So which beers?

Patrick recommends Full Sail Session--always a reliable choice. Soggy Coaster gets seasonal with newly-released Cinder Cone. Personally, I like variety. If the day is grim and harsh, I might start with some Black Butte Porter. It's roughly the same alcohol as FS Session, so you're still going to stay alert. Similarly, you could grab an Irish Stout, apropos of the season. I would suggest Beamish, but if you go to a regular store, you will be looking at Guinness. I would definitely have some BridgePort IPA in the fridge as something a little special for celebrating. It's not a true IPA, and at 5.5%, you're just barely above the Session and Black Butte.

If the weather's good, on the other hand, you might give the new Widmer Drifter a try. It's probably too early to get into the real sunshine beers, but you could do worse than picking up a sixer of traditional Czech pilsner--Urquell or Czechvar (aka Budvar) would be tasty and hearty enough to keep you interested. If you really want to knock your socks off, head to Belmont Station and grab a few Bluebird Bitters from Coniston. We were talking about wonderful session ales earlier, and this English beer is one of the best sessions made in the world. A great time to try something new.

After that, well, just make sure you get your cheer down. It goes something like this: "Stand tall you Badgers!" Variants include, "Go Zags!" and "For God's sake, it's Xavier, you can beat these chumps, you mighty PSU Vikings!"

Last Night's Fun

As I mentioned in the Full Sail post below, I wanted to make a few comments about the Irish whiskey tasting at McCormick and Schmick's last night.

Stuart Ramsay led us through a progression of three malts. The first, Kilbeggan, is a relatively inexpensive blended whiskey ($18). It expressed what I think of as a typically "Irish" quality--wet and smooth. The distillery has the distinction of being the oldest in the world (1757). Smokiness enhances the beer, and although it seems robust enough in the mouth, it goes down like sweet springwater--gentle and cool. You could do a lot worse than bringing a bottle of this to a party. The Islay-Talisker crowd might like a bit more oomph, but they'd still enjoy this. Others, scared of whiskey, might drawn in via this malt.

Next we tried Tyrconnell, named for a racehorse that came in at 100-1, and a malt sold in the US prior to Prohibition. Whereas the Kilbeggan was solidly Irish, Tyrconnell begins a journey north across the Irish Sea toward Speyside. Still a gentle malt, but one with a more Scotch-like character. It's still sweet, though, and I don't know that you would mistake it for a Scotch.

Finally, we come to Connemara Peated Single Malt, and our journey to Scotland--at least via the flavor routes--is complete. In fact, Connemara takes us past the tamer malts all the way to Islay. It's full of peat and smoke and that characteristic band-aid. In my notes I wrote a single word: Islay. That this malt is so close to a Scotch shouldn't be a surprise, apparently. Ramsay gave us a history of whiskey, describing how it traveled from Ireland to Scotland in the 11th Century. So perhaps we shouldn't jump to any conclusions about which malt is influencing which.

In addition to the cask Amber, brewer John Harris served two beers, one brand new, and one very old (older than the whiskies, as it happened). He led off with Keelhauler, the brewery's first Scottish ale. John's goal was to create a drier version of a Scottish, and not a huge bruiser. What he came up with is a teak-colored beer with a slightly smoky, malty aroma. It had more hops than most Scottish ales (later, John pointed out to me that the style guideline is pretty broad)--though it was by no means bitter. I found it lush, rich, a bit toasty and nutty. Very nice. It went well with the course.

The other beer to mention--and I almost hate to, since only three kegs existed before last night (one remains)--was an 11-year-old Imperial stout John brewed back during the Clinton administration. He introduced it by describing what the intention was:
"We really wanted to get it up there--1.090 or more. We ended up doing three mashes. So like seven hours later, we were ready to put it in the kettle. But we kept having to shoot water in to keep from boiling it over. Who knows how strong it would have been if we hadn't added water. It's 9% now."
It was an extraordinary beer. The aroma was fairly neutral--a bit of papery oxidation and plums. (Sometimes I write "dark fruit" to suggest a generic fruity quality. Not here; it was straight plum.) The flavor had that wonderful stewed quality aged beers get. The plum note was less specific in the flavor--I also got raisins and other unnameable esters. It was meaty and smoky yet not burly. Rather it was creamy and smooth as silk. A beer like that is in a sense priceless--I mean, three kegs and it's gone forever, what's that worth?--so I felt quite privileged to get it for the low, low price of $25. That they threw in the whiskey and food to boot was just damned nice of them.

Full Sail Amber Revisited

I spent a lovely evening last night with Stuart Ramsay, John Harris, and McCormick and Schmick's Harborside chef Joshua Boyd. In advance of the event, the three huddled together and came up with a troika of troikas--Irish whiskey, beer, and food in three flights. For beer fans, flights one and three looked to be the big winners. Keelhauler Scottish Ale led off the night; rather extraordinarily, it was the first Scottish the brewery has ever produced. ("It's the only beer I've worried about in years," said the Reverend John O'Harris, as Ramsay re-dubbed him for St. Paddy's.) The last flight featured my central reason for attending--an 11-year-old Imperial stout. I'll write more on the event later, but let me devote a full post to the beer you've probably forgotten about, the middle flight's Full Sail Amber.

This is a beer dating back to 1989, the early days of the craft brewing renaissance. At its release, people marveled: the heft and sweetness of the body, the amazing sprightliness of the hopping. For people trained to think Henry's Private Reserve was "good beer," FS Amber was off the charts. Yet over the years, as people's experience with good beery expanded, they began to think of the beer as a starter beer, almost a throwaway. Jamie Emmerson once told me that people accused the brewery of changing the recipe. In their memory, Amber was this intense, rich beer--surely Full Sail had slowly watered it down. Of course they hadn't. Whatever adjustments the brewery has made were to accommodate the annual variability in hops and barley so that the beer was always the same.

I have a FS Amber irregularly, but I check in at least once a year. I don't think I've ever had the beer on cask, though, and it was a revelation. It was served with Tyrconnell Single Malt, a whiskey akin to a gentle Speyside, but sweeter in the Irish fashion, and Oyster Isobella and a beet slaw. Amber is a thoroughly America beer, but its lineage is much in keeping with the gentler session ales of the UK. On cask, the malt was smooth and creamy, a perfect base for the slightly sweet, fresh, fruity American hops. Some malts manage to communicate the quality of the fresh, lively springs that feed their distilleries. Cask Amber does, too. I originally frowned when I saw Amber on the menu, but it was an inspired choice--Harris recognized what a perfect complement it was to the whiskey and salad.

As beer fans, we tend to want to push the envelope on flavor sensations. We like to be surprised. But there's great virtue in the elegance of simplicity. To get a beer to harmonize so graciously, to be able to lure the drinker back to the glass quickly for another sample, to be such a perfect companion for food--this is a rare thing. The next time you're down at the Pilsner Room, check to see if they have Amber on cask. Vanquish all expectations and come to the beer again, as if you didn't know anything about it. Order a bit of food. It may knock your socks off, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Honest Pints - 1991 Edition

Tonight I'll be headed off to taste Irish whiskeys and an 11-year-old stout with the eminent Stuart Ramsay. Although he is now known for his knowledge of whiskeys (or whiskys--Scotch is a specialty), he was at one time a beer writer for the Oregonian. And yesterday he forwarded me an article from 1991 that left my mouth agape. I have long tried to credit my predecessor at Willamette Week, William Abernathy, with launching the cheater pint crusade that I picked up in the honest pint project.

But I thought I had at least given the thing shape in the form of a name. Well, turns out even that was (however unwittingly) an appropriation. Here's Ramsay, writing almost exactly 18 years ago in a piece titled "An Honest Pint for a Fair Price."
To further complicate the issue, the customer is often the recipient of dishonest pours. The pint glass served in our drinking establishments is a "shaker" or "mixer" glass, and contains 16 ounces of liquid only when filled to the very rim. Distributors and tavern keepers know full well that foam equals profit. A glass with a half inch of head contains 14 ounces of actual beer; three quarters of an inch means 12 ounces of beer. In the chart, I calculated the fair price based on 15 ounces of beer. To give an example, the net profit on a keg of Widmer's at $2.75 a pint with a typical 14 ounce pour would be $308.50. With 142 "14oz." pints in the keg, the fair price works out to be $2.01 a pint. In Britain and many European countries, glasses have a line marking the true measure, and it is illegal to pour below this mark.

It seems that some form of consumer protection is required, to act as a watchdog or ombudsman over the breweries, distributors, and retailers, to encourage responsible drinking and pleasant gathering places, and to ensure an honest, fresh pint at a fair price.
So there you have it, the first stirring of the Honest Pint Project, written about three weeks after I turned 21. Obviously, I am very, very late to the party

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beer Tax Propaganda

An observation: when you see an op-ed title that purports to record-straightening, expect further twisting. Today the Oregonian has a piece by Judy Cushing, CEO of Oregon Partnership, with this title: "The sober truth on Oregon's beer tax." I have no reason to doubt that Oregon Partnership, devoted to fighting drug and alcohol abuse, is a great organization. But Cushing's editorial shades the "truth."
" Oregon's beer tax is less than a penny per 12-ounce container, effectively the nation's lowest beer tax. Those states with a slightly lower beer tax than Oregon have a sales tax that puts their total tax higher than ours. The industry has grabbed headlines with its cries of a 1,900 percent increase. The fact is, any increase looks large when multiplied against almost nothing."
This sales tax argument has been a common one lately. Having already harped on the point, I'll skip the comments on the per-glass cost and move to this new meme--that the lack of an Oregon sales tax makes the beer tax effectively the lowest in the country. This compounds the dishonesty of the per-glass argument, making it appear all the more like a retail tax. It's not--it's an excise tax. Oregon's beer tax is low--everyone will stipulate that--so why cook the data and try to make it the lowest? Not so truthful. I also ding Cushing on shading the reality of the cost. If she is going to complain that the 1900% increase is possible only because we already have a low tax, I'll point out that the percentage increase aside, this tax would make Oregon's beer tax fifty percent more than the next highest state's.
"There is no evidence a beer tax increase would cause job losses or financial ruin for our thriving Oregon brewers. And, in fact, the vast majority of the $320 million that would be raised would come from the major out-of-state beer companies."
Of course there's no evidence--no state has ever attempted to raise taxes even close to this much. That Bud would pay more than Ninkasi is hardly relevant; the huge increase on Oregon breweries might not amount to much of the $320 million, but it could easily be enough to bankrupt the smaller breweries. This is an experiment Cushing is happy to run, but how much does an anti-alcohol CEO care about bankrupting breweries?

On this point, I'd love to hear some real data. I'm ignorant, but it's clearly not a "demonstrable" function of economics based on the anecdote Cushing cites:
"Beer producers say a considerable increase would translate into an additional $2 per pint. That's demonstrably false. A week ago we purchased a six-pack of Widmer brew in Vancouver, Wash. -- where the beer tax is three times that of Oregon's and where the combined local and state sales tax is 8.2 percent. We discovered that a six-pack of Widmer was cheaper -- at $8.69 at a Vancouver Fred Meyer store -- compared with the $9.49 we paid at a Portland Fred Meyer. Who's pocketing the change?"
I share Cushing's interest in drug and alcohol treatment. Obviously, there are many ways to fund these programs, and they're not all created equally. The beer tax, as it's currently written, is a horrible solution. She calls into question the motivation of those who oppose the tax (a "long-standing, cozy relationship many legislators have with industry lobbyists"), but aren't her own motivations conflicted? She says that Oregon breweries won't be harmed, but her professional goal is to reduce drinking. I have no idea how the funding stream would work if this were passed, but I'd also be comforted to know that Oregon Partnership wouldn't receive any of the funds. Otherwise, her argument becomes all the more suspicious.

(I'm often dinged for not offering counter-proposals, so here's one: let's change Oregon law to incarcerate fewer people and spend the money on drug and alcohol treatment. It's better at addressing low-level crime and addresses the root problem. It's a public policy interest we all share, and it should be paid for out of the general fund.)

What's Up With Southern Oregon Brewing?

Southern Oregon Brewing mystifies me. The brewery fits no template I understand, and drinking two of their beers over the weekend didn't resolve anything. Let's review.
  1. Unlike most new Oregon breweries, SOB didn't begin life as a brewpub. Instead, founder Tom Hammond built a massive 11,000-square-foot facility with brand-new equipment capable of an annual capacity of 40,000 barrels a year. Yet their goals for the early years are less than 2000 barrels. This is not usual.
  2. The brewery has but three regular beers--a pale, porter, and golden. There's nothing inherently wrong with these styles of beer, but the world wasn't exactly demanding that a brewery race in and fill these much-neglected beers.
  3. The beers are brewed with lager yeast, apparently at warmer temperatures, though they taste like lagers. Yet they're brewed as ale styles, with ingredients typical of these standard-issue beers. I will get into the results of this choice below.
  4. The brewery proudly embraces its acronym. "Are you ready for a real SOB?"
Apparently SOB thinks Southern Oregon is being neglected by craft breweries: "SOB has the largest brewing capacity in Southern Oregon. That means we have the ability to meet increasing demand without compromising our dedication to using time-tested brewing methods."

I am reminded of a similar brewery from the mid-90s in Milwaukie--the name of which now eludes me. It was similar in all ways, but I think it went with a Boston Lager-style beer. Times change, so I draw no conclusions about SOB.

The Beer
I picked up the porter and pale. When I went searching the intertubes for info, I discovered a post I myself had written about the porter. I gave the beer a positive appraisal, but the fact that I forgot both drinking the beer and writing a post isn't a great sign. Part of the problem is that while pale ales and porters are totally respectable beers, barring some miracle, even good versions are unlike to stand out among the very dense crowd. They also brew a golden, a serious throwaway style--a dreaded crossover beer--I didn't even bother to sample.

The porter was good. I'll quote myself from the earlier post before adding a bit:
Call it a steam porter. The strongest note is tangy and not quite identifiable--at first I think it's headed in a sour direction, but then it finishes out with a currant tartness. It's a creamy beer, with notes typical of porter--dark grains, roast, and coffee/bitter chocolate. I suggest it's fermented warm because, while the beer is a bit drier than a typical porter, it's sweeter and fruitier than a German schwarzbier.
In the bottle I tried, that funky note was absent and it did in fact taste more like a schwarzbier. It was not fruity like the earlier draft version. I said it would score in the B to B+ range, which is about right.

Porter Stats
Malt: Pale, Carafa (dehusked chocolate), Carapils, roast barley, caramel
Hops: German Magnum, Mt. Hood, Northern Brewer, Perle, Styrian Goldings
ABV: 5.5%
IBU: 30

The pale, on the other hand, is not a good beer. Sometimes it's a good idea to brew a standard style and use a different yeast, and sometimes it's not. In the case of the pale, it's not. The schizophrenia of the beer announces itself in the aroma, simultaneously citrusy (though faintly) but with a clear lager signature. The lager yeast creates discordant flavors. The beautiful thing about a pale is the way the rich hop flavor, usually citrusy or floral, pulls out the fruity ale notes. The two do this wonderful tango, cheek to cheek. (There is a reason this beer is so popular.)

But here, the yeast is trying its best to bring a pure, clean malt note. The hops intrude in their tangy, flavorful way and mess things up. This may partly be a function of hop confusion--SOB uses seven (!) different strains here. It's soapy and harsh. You don't want to take a deep, gluttonous pull on the beer like you should with a pale. Rather, you take a nip and shake your head to help it descend down your throat. I couldn't finish the bottle. Actually, I couldnt finish my glass. Not a good beer.

Pale Stats
Malts: Pale, Maris Otter (an English malt), crystal
Hops: Amarillo, Cascade, Challenger, Newport, Sterling, Styrian Goldings, Glacier
ABV: 5%
IBU: 35
Rating: C-

So the final analysis is no clearer than the initial one: SOB remains an enigma.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Honest Pint on the Telly

For those of you in Portland, you might like to tune into KGW (channel 8 on your analog dial) at 7 tonight. They're doing something on the Honest Pint legislation. Fortunately for all involved, Pat Dooris didn't catch me until after the filming, so we won't be burdened with my grim visage. But they did choogle down to Belmont Station, so that's cool. You might see one of the usual suspects.

Beer Drinkers Lose in the Mountain West

Two bits of news from Colorado and Utah today--both setbacks for beer fans. The first is a triumph of liquor-store owners over consumers.
Convenience stores and supermarkets in Colorado won't be allowed to sell full-strength beer following protests by liquor store owners, who said a proposed law change could drive many of them out of business....

Right now, convenience stores and supermarkets are largely limited to selling 3.2 percent beer, but they say sales have tanked since liquor stores started staying open on Sundays under a law passed last year.
In Utah, another bizarre law was protected by the state Senate, who shot down a proposal to allow stronger beer.

The Utah Senate has decided against allowing the sale of full-strength draft beer in bars and restaurants. Currently, draft beer sold in Utah can contain no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, or 4 percent by volume.

A bill to lift the cap was approved 58-2 in the House. But on Thursday, the last day of the session, the Senate decided not to debate the measure and to go home early instead.
Ah Utah, what a place. Having lived there for 2 1/2 unpleasant years, I am reminded of why I shot, bullet-like, from its sharia draconianism, the first chance I got. But I pity those not of the "dominant culture" who remain, trying to choke down 4% IPAs.

BridgePort Fallen Friar

Ah, tripels. Eventually, every brewery feels the call. A burly yet beatified beverage, it has the virtue of a velvety hammer of alcohol but the respectability of Catholic abbeys. (I almost went with "hammer of hooch," but we were at near toxic levels of alliteration already. See what tripel does to you?) I think brewers in particular are drawn to try their hand at a tripel--there is little in the beer world as tasty as one of the world-class versions. (There's never been a blockbuster abbey ale in the American market, so owners may be less interested in the style.)

But here's the rub. While it's pretty easy to make an adequate tripel, it's damn hard to make one that rivals the best. With enough alcohol, a brewer can conceal some sins; but to make a big beer like a tripel harmonize--that's no easy trick. A pale tripel immediately recalls Westmalle, which is perhaps the highest pinnacle for the style. Westmalle is a lush, creamy ale that manages to combine strength with sweetness, never sacrificing either. In this way, it's a dangerous, alluring ale.

BridgePort's Fallen Friar is the final seasonal in their Big Brews series, and the most straightforward in terms of style. Except for having been aged in pinot oak, BridgePort has gone for a classic tripel.

Tasting Notes
Things don't begin auspiciously. Fallen Friar pours out limply, rousing only a tiny skiff of instantly-disappearing head. The golden, honey-colored body is attractive, but the lack of head doesn't bode well. The aroma, too, throws me off. A bit bready, a touch of spice (phenols?), but then a rather pronounced apple note. Fortunately the apple fades and the spice opens up as the beer warms. But still.

The flavor is--I hate to say it--adequate. The lack of effervescence causes the beer to cloy; I find it thick and syrupy. At some point, I'm going to have to make a serious study of the effect of pinot casks. My sense is that quite a bit of wine gets into the beer, adding substantial sugar, but the sample size is still too small to know if that's what's happened here. It could just be the character of the yeast.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to put a bottle away. The yeasties may still be doing their thing in a few months, which could do this beer wonders. As it is--well, the monks at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart aren't yet quaking in thier boots.

Malts: German pilsner and Northwest wheat
Hops: Czech Saaz and Hallertauer
ABV: 8.2%
Available: 22 ounce bottle, through the Spring.
Rating: C+

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Upright Brewing

Angelo has a great interview with Alex Ganum, whose Upright Brewing will be up and running by the end of the month. To jog your memory, this is the place that will be located in the Left Bank building, right in the fork in the street where Weidler and Broadway split. Ganum is a Belgian fan, and his beers will deviate from the standard NW style--fantastic news for those of us who like variety. You should read the whole interview for bits that may interest you, but this passage was the part that caught my eye:
Do you plan on having a flagship beer?

AG: It’s safe to say that in Portland the hoppiest one will probably become the flagship although it would make me smile if our more sessionable wheat beer became the most popular as I plan to promote flavorful beers that aren’t too high in alcohol.

What is the first beer you are planning on making?

AG: The first brew will be the a variation of the aforementioned wheat beer that will be matured on cherries in used pinot noir barrels. After that we’ll start production of our four standard year-round beers along with single batches of a redwood smoked lager, a traditional old ale and perhaps a farmhouse inspired gruit.
He also talks about the particulars of the brewery and his inspirations and interests. Go read it at Brewpublic.

A Hair More on Honest Pints

Apropos of a brief note from Jules Bailey's office today, I offer you a stanza from that timeless classic by Schoolhouse Rock, "I'm Just a Bill." (Really worth watching again if you haven't seen it in decades like me.)
I'm just a bill
Yes I'm only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I'm stuck in committee
And I'll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
How I hope and pray that they will,
But today I am still just a bill.
The Honest Pint Bill was referred to Business and Labor today. Quoth the staffer: "Hopefully it will get a hearing soon!" So we're a long way off, but there are a couple champions--Rep. Schaufler, chair of the committee, is a co-sponsor--so it's got a bit of juice.

Also, I have been alerted to a blog post at the Portland Monthly site. (I am surprised that 1) there's a site with any content at all--didn't used to be, and 2) that they have blogs. But there you go.) The blogger there is high on it.

So apparently the word's out. Much as I have resisted turning this blog into an anti-beer-tax site, I'll try to hold off on obsessive coverage of the Honest Pint Act (which, according to Portland Monthly blogger John Chandler, is its nickname).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Honest Pint Bill in the Oregon Legislature?

I had gotten wind of a possible legislative remedy to the Honest Pint Project a few weeks ago. Ostrich-like, I hid out. Well, looks like it may be coming down the pike. HB 3122 is an effort very much in accord with the goals of the HPP. Some of the salient language (emphasis mine):

Allows holder of full on-premises sales license or limited on-premises sales license to obtain verification of capacity of pint glasses used at licensed premises for draught malt beverages. Allows holder to obtain display sticker from Oregon Liquor Control Commission if glasses at premises hold pint of malt beverage under standard conditions....

SECTION 2. { + (1) If the Director of Human Services ... determines, based on a random sampling of the glasses, that the glasses used at the premises hold at least 16 fluid ounces of draught malt beverage when dispensed under standard conditions established by the director, the director shall provide the holder of the license with written verification of the measurement....

(3) The Oregon Liquor Control Commission shall design a decal that features the words 'honest pint' for display at qualifying premises.... Upon receiving a valid measurement verification, the commission shall issue the holder an 'honest pint' decal for display at the licensed premises where the director conducted the measurement verification.

For what it's worth, I've slowly been trying to get my project in order. I have designed an official decal, but haven't got it reproduced. I had hoped to do that this week, and still plan to--since I would love to take the project national, state statutes and official decals won't be usuable outside Oregon, anyway. I'm also finishing up a Facebook page, which I've been delaying until the decal is complete. Now I'll have to consider the prospect of a concurrent state initiative.

I am slightly spooked to think that this thing has gotten this far. So strange.

More on Irish Whisky (Plus 11-year-old Stout)

Well, it's that time of the year. Our Disney-fied version of St. Patrick's day is in full commercial gear, leprechauns and pots of gold a'plenty. Fortunately, more serious people are delving into actual Irish culture. John Foyston reports that whisky expert (say with a brogue now, you lot) Stuart Ramsay is doing some beer-and-Irish-whisky tastings for the season. And these are two events you should really consider seriously. (Predictably, the article from the print edition isn't online. No idea how you're losing subscribers, fellas! John posted the press release on his blog, though.)
And the perfect Celtic marriage is a dram of whiskey and a porter back. I've teamed up with Ireland's only independent distillery, several local breweries and some stellar drinking establishments to explore this union.

We'll be tasting Kilbeggan, The Tyrconnell single malt and Connemara peated single malt.They are the award-winning juices from Cooley, Ireland's only independent, Irish-owned distillery. The distillery was nominated World and European Distiller of the year in 2008 for their portfolio of whiskey, so the drams and the craic will be good. I've asked some Oregon brewers to bring their porters or stouts to pair with the whiskey, and two of the chefs (Ten 01's Mike Perez and Joshua Boyd at Harborside) have designed a menu around the whiskey and beer.

There are some whisky tastings at various places, but here are the two events that will attract the particular attention of beer lovers:
Monday, March 16th 6:30 pm
Highland Still House Celtic Festival,
201 South 2nd Street, Oregon City. 503-723-6789

The three Cooley whiskies, Southern Oregon Porter and Still House appetizers. The brewer, Anders Johansen, will be joining us.
$25 at the tent entrance. Please RSVP.

Tuesday, March 17th 5:00 pm
McCormick & Schmick's Harborside at the Marina

The three Cooley whiskies paired with beers from Full Sail's Master Brewer, John Harris. (Including John's 11 Year Old Imperial Stout with the Connemara.) Chef Joshua Boyd has prepared a special menu for the event. At 5pm guests will gather in the bar of the restaurant; the pairing and the food begin at 5:30 pm on the mezzanine level. Mr. Harris will be joining us. $25. Please RSVP to the restaurant (and copy me if you wish) Be sure to ask for the $25 Irish Whiskey and Beer Tasting.
Twenty five bucks for that Harris 11-year-old plus whisky--hard to beat that deal.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lew on Irish Whisky

In the debate among whisk(e)ys, bourbon and Scotch generally manage a filibuster. Irish Whisky, gentle, softspoken, demure, stands in the corner smiling coyly. Lew Bryson has a nice article today that gives Éire her due.
“There’s been such a huge amount of new Irish whiskeys coming on the market,” David Quinn told me. He’s the head of quality control at the Midleton Distillery, where they make Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, and others. (He’s also the former master distiller at Bushmills, so the man knows his whiskey.) “[They’re coming] not just from ourselves but from all the Irish whiskey makers as well. People are becoming more aware of the styles of Irish whiskey, that it’s not just sort of a tag-on to Scotch, or anything else, that it’s an identifiable category all in itself.” New expressions of Irish whiskey, the biggest rush of them in years, makes for customer curiosity and increased trial.
The article discusses the business and craft of Irish whisky--far too long for me to comment on. But here's one bit I'll throw at you by way of piquing interest.
Bushmills has been experimenting with different wood aging techniques. I’ve been filling my flask lately with a 21 year old Bushmills that was finished in madeira barrels; it’s a popular pass-around at get-togethers. They’ve also done something no other Irish or Scottish whiskey-maker I know has done: they used caramel malt in their 1608 400th anniversary whiskey. Brewers use different malts all the time, but whiskey-makers use just pale malts . . . until now. Look for more innovation going forward from Bushmills.
Lots more, and for anyone with even a passing interest in Irish whiskys, very much worth a read.

Ninkasi Spring Reign

An IPA by any other name is ... a session ale to Ninkasi's Jamie Floyd. Thus we have Spring Reign, which the brewery's website describes as:
Notes of toasted malt up front, finished with a bright and refreshing Northwest hop aroma, it’s a session beer that everyone can enjoy!

6% alc./vol. 38 IBUs
A six-percent session? That's some serious style creep. Admittedly, it's also not a proper IPA, either. On the other hand, there's no way on earth this beer is 38 IBUs. Having recently tasted the almost wholly bitter-free Widmer Drifter, a lighter beer listed at 32 IBUs, I'm guessing somebody's equipment is off-base. (Perhaps both breweries.) Then again, calculating IBUs is mostly an art, anyway.

Never mind the name; for folks who love vivid, sticky hopping, Spring Reign will be just the ticket. The mixture of Simcoe, Santiam, and Ahtanum produces a piney, resinous hopping, and the malts provide a sweet caramel base. It's frothy and creamy and leaves attractive tracery in the glass. Overall, a beer of instant familiarity, a classic Northwest ale.

I am reminded of the experience of hearing a song for the first time on the radio that I feel like I should be able to identify. It's not original, doesn't reinvent rock, but it's well-done and entertaining. Spring Reign is like that, and I suspect it will be received warmly by people whose tongues are already attuned to this style--or to those whose tongues will, having been weened on Spring Reign, become attuned to the style in due course.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Evanescence of Dry-Hopping

Just outside our dining room window is a mature magnolia. As with many magnolias, it blooms briefly in the early spring and magnificently. If you happen to come up on it unawares--looking at your shoes as you walk down the road, say--it can literally stop you where you stand, gazing at its abundance. About a week, that's what we get. Then the lobes of the fleshy flowers start peeling off--usually prematurely rotted by the Oregon rain--falling in clots like discarded Kleenex on the lawn. The lesson: spend as much time during that week enjoying the tree, for nothing, not love nor money, will prolong the show.

So it is with dry-hopped beer.

Two incidents over the weekend reminded me of the evanescence of hops. One was my friend, Patrick, somewhat crestfallen at the dimming freshness of his recent dry-hopped homebrew. He tweeted:
Dry hopped home brew begins to lose it's delightful nose after a month in the bottle-interesting, and a wee bit sad.
In the second case, another friend produced a 2007 Blue Dot and we were all surprised at how much freshness it had lost. I don't know whether Alan dry-hops the beer, but he manages to extract much of the most delicate, fragile essence from the hops, and all of these had faded. Just like an old magnolia blossom.

I fall prey to the instinct to try to preserve beers that shouldn't be preserved, too. A Homer moment--D'oh!--inevitably follows. But with age comes wisdom. Dry-hopped beers--drink 'em if you got 'em.

Big Beers at Belmont

First the barleywine fest, now this: Belmont Station will be rolling out imperial IPAs all week.
  • Monday: Bend Ecplipse and Laurelwood Artic Apocolypse (both Black Imperial IPAs)
  • Tuesday: Russian River Pliny The Younger and Steelhead Hopasaurus Rex
  • Wednesday: Moylan's Hopsickle and Bear Republic Apex
  • Thursday: Anderson Valley Double IPA and Victory Hop Wallop
  • Friday: Avery Maharaja and Bear Republic Racer X
So what is, the March snow? Something in the air has inspired a last-gasp interest in wintery beers. From my side, I'm looking forward to getting some warmer weather and lighter beers, the sooner the better. Fortunately, the emerging crocuses assure me that time is on my side: