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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.

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