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Friday, May 15, 2009

Upright Brewing - Early Impressions

Upright Brewing
240 N Broadway St.
Portland, Oregon, 97227
Tasting Room Hours: Sat-Sun, Noon-5pm

We learned almost a year ago that a new brewery was coming to the Left Bank Project, in the fork where Weidler and Broadway split in two. Founder/brewer Alex Ganum described his vision for Upright Brewing then:
Imagine combining the spirit and methods of rustic French and Belgian style farmhouse brewing with the positive energy and downright beautiful ingredients the Pacific Northwest offers us. These are beers inspired by historical records and the dedicated few who have kept traditions alive, drawing from our city and region for resources and raw materials. In addition to the year-round brands expect to see several unusual special releases including barrel-aged beers, sour beers, fruit beers, smoked beers, and many other distinct brews.
I have been saying that Upright's beers speak with a Flemish accent, but maybe French is more accurate. Having interned at Ommegang and assisted Dan Pederson at BJ's (who was one of the earliest Portland brewers to experiment with Belgian styles), this isn't entirely surprising. Yet he takes great pains to emphasize that his beers aren't brewed to style. He would pour a beer, then describe how it behaved, not what it was. His vision does not include telling beer writers what styles inspired him. This is disorienting--you're always trying to get a bead on the beer and the style the brewer was shooting for. Ganum doesn't want to be pigeonholed, so he gives you very little to work with.

Guess what? This makes him all the more Belgian. What other country cares so little for the dictates of style?

The Brewery
The brewery is a ten barrel system, already outfitted with pinot casks for barrel-aging--with quite a bit of room to grow. Following Ommegang's example, Ganum uses open fermenters in a small, sequestered room, accessible by beautiful fir doors. (The restoration of the Left Bank means lots of beautiful fir.) The day I visited, a batch was near the end of primary fermentation, and seem dangerously exposed. Not to worry, Ganum said cheerfully, "as long as you keep your brewery clean, you shouldn't have any problems. And you should keep your brewery clean anyway."

He uses a French saison yeast (perhaps this one)--not Dupont's. His doesn't require the exotic conditions of Dupont's, although it apparently needs a little heat. The day I visited, he had a heater going in the fermentation room. It's a very nice yeast, finishing out to bone dry gravities but somehow leaving the beer tasting smooth and sweet. It is versatile and distinctive, but not aggressive or overly "Belgiany." Funky flavors are mostly absent, but subtle, earthy ones reward the observant.

The Beer
Let's start with the naming convention. Upright's can be said to be in the Rochefort system, following the specific gravity of the wort. (Not, as you might have surmised--as I did--the batch numbers.) So "Four" comes from a wort of roughly 1.040, "Five" of 1.050, and so on. Ganum prefers this to the baroque names many beers have. (The brewery name comes from the Upright bass--he's a jazz fan.)

Four (4.5%).
We had a discussion just before I left about which of Ganum's beer would emerge as favorites. He thinks it will be Four, which is his most distinctive. (I agree, but assessing mass tastes has never been a great forte of mine. In any case, it's my favorite.) A cloudy wheat beer (50% of the grist) Four is made with a sour mash, which gives it a lip-smacking tartness. I was recording Alex so I didn't have to take copious notes, and he gave a great description of the process:

Ganum may not like to refer to established styles when he describes his beer, but I have no such compunction. I'd put this halfway between a weissebier and a Berliner weisse. It lacks the banana/clove quality of a weisse, but isn't as sharp as a Berliner. Rather, it's cleanly tart and acidic and very quaffable. The wheat is evident, as are the Hallertauers. It's a very classic-tasting, accomplished beer. We didn't have any cheese or a salad to pair with Four, but I bet they would have gone wonderfully together.

In addition to the regular Four, there's a batch on wood to which he will add cherry puree, lactic, and brettanomyces claussenii (a purportedly gentle brett). Thereafter, the inoculated barrel will continue to add funk to future batches.

Five, (5.5%).
Upright's yeast isn't in-your-face, but I had the opportunity to see just how much it contributes when I tried two batches of Five--one on Upright's usual yeast, one on an English ale yeast. Five is an golden, slightly cloudy ale with a creamy, frothy head. The English version was a fairly pedestrian beer. Slightly nutty but underhopped, it was sweetish and bland. But on the saison yeast it was a totally different bird. It had a rather pungent nose (absent the other Upright beers--odd) and was marked by a strange bitterness--"herbaceous," in Alex's words. The hops come forward, and the malt plays a more supportive role.

Six, (6.7%).
If people don't resonate with the names of Upright's beer, my guess is that they'll refer to six--the only non-golden Ganum brews--as "the brown." But more than brown, it's a rye (15-18% of grist), and also has a touch of black barley. It is also highly attenuated, but has a round, fruity/raisiny character. Malt-forward and creamy, it is the most familiar of Upright's beers.

In addition to the base beer, there are three variants on wood: one with Turkish chiles, one with standard brettanomyces (not the claussenii), and one with chocolate. The plan is to release them simultaneously.

Seven, (8%).
If BeerAdvocate is any guide, all Upright beers are going to be classified as "saisons." Seven seems closest to the mark. It would be considered a strong saison, but the character is right. An orangey, lively beer with a super dense, creamy head, it sports pronounced hopping. (Magnums to bitter--as is the case with all the beers but Four--as well as Mount Rainier, Liberty, and Hallertauer.) It was still a bit green--Alex poured it from the tank--but already finishing out to be a dry, refined beer. I'll have to try it again on tap, but after Four, it was my favorite.

Upright's submission to the Organic Beer Fest is an unhopped Gruit ale made with a bit of spelt, lemongrass, two types of orange peel, hyssop, and sichuan peppercorn. Upright's yeast is especially suited to a gruit because it finishes so cleanly. We sampled a bit from a batch still in the fermenter, and it was already past the cloying stage. A nice combo of herbs, with the peppercorn adding a delicate spicy-herbal note. A Rauchbier may or may not also be on the way. The brewery hand-smoked the malt themselves over redwood. Unfortunately they had some yeast issues. If it's not up to snuff, they'll have to dump it.

Final Notes
You can now find pubs around town pouring Four (EastBurn) and Five (Belmont Station, Bailey's, Concordia Ale House). Tonight Six makes its debut at Seraveza, when Sarah will tap a fresh firkin at 6pm.

Upright will ultimately be bottling their beer. They are currently trapped in that terrible Kafkaesqe process of trying to get their labels approved by the Feds. Samurai Artist is the man behind the label art--variants of the image seen at the webpage and on my little audio clip.


  1. Did you notice the base clef symbol in their logo? Perhaps if they weren’t calling their beers by number they would call one the Mingus or the Bootsie?

  2. Nice introduction, Jeff!

    I really liked the pseudo-generic numbers-for-names idea at first. But then I tried to remember if it was 4 and 5 I had tried, or 4 and 6, or if I somehow got ahold of some 3.... Some more mnemonic names are in order, Alex.

    I like Mr. Murphy's idea of naming them after bassists. I'd like a Geezer, please. Either that, or give them really long bar-code numbers for names.

  3. Yeah, I thought of that, too. How about songs?

    Blue Trane
    Mombo Jambo (Leroy Vinnegar)
    Round Midnight (or Blue Monk)
    Take Five
    Yardbird Suite

  4. I like the numbering system, and now that it's associated with OG, it should be simple to remember, at least for me. Had the 4 at CtBB was really impressed. Last weekend I had the 5 at the Horse Brass. Another very well made beer. Alex clearly takes care in his recipe formulation and execution. Hopefully he's got a neat trick planned for fresh hop season. I think Jeff longed for some like that in a post long past. Unfortunately I stupidly objected to the idea time...can't believe I can be such a dolt sometimes!

  5. Had the 5 at Belmont the other day, thought it was in need of a lot of work. It was overly yeasty, overly dry, overly bitter and overly green. It was a task to finish. YMMV. Hopefully the next batch will be more palatable to me.

  6. the special and seasonal releases will have much more interesting names like the 'Reggae Junkie Gruit'.

  7. @anon: to each their own, but the keg of #5 we put on tap last week only lasted about 3-4 days. Outside of crazy things like the Abyss, the only other beer to go so quickly is Pliny the Elder.

    You can probably chalk some of that up to Upright being new and exciting, but I saw many, many people going back for a second or third pint, which isn't usually the case in the cafe. Usually it's "one and done" and then onto another variety, so seeing people come back for more is a pretty good sign.

  8. absent mindful8:10 PM, May 15, 2009

    I could tell "The Argus" by Ween was playing in the background of the sour-mash sound file. Haven't tried any LB beer, but I'm likely to soon knowing the brewer has great taste in music!

  9. @anon, I had the 5 at Belmont the other day and the first pint I had was similar to your description, very yeasty and it really brought out the bitterness and left it a bit sharp, although I had a pint later and it was much mellower and really nice, so I think the keg was a bit shaken as they had just tapped it. Might look for it again and give it a second go.

  10. Jeff If I was a betting man and had $5 I would say the 'Five' will be the best seller and not the 'Four'.
    Oh wait, I am and I do!
    What say ye?

  11. I obviously haven't had 6 or 7 yet, but I can say that the local affinity for hops will certainly help 5's popularity. I've over heard some folks describe it as a Saison IPA which will obviously provide some descriptor for the larger body of craft beer drinkers to share.