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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Organic Brewers Fest Wrap-up

[Update (via Twitter @beerabe): People's Choice award winner: Standing Stone Double IPA. Tie for second: Crannóg Back Hand of God Stout and Hopworks Secession. Third, Oakshire IPA.]

It wasn't clear to me for years, but I'm beginning to see that for a beer fest to find relevance, it has to have a raison d'etre beyond "beer." The three standards are the Oregon Brewers Fest, International Fest, and Holiday (winter) fest. All of these have very clearly defined taplist identities and target audiences. Once upon a time, the Spring Beer Fest managed to bring to Portland lots of small breweries who couldn't otherwise get distribution. As a bonus, lots of the brewers came. Since that time, those breweries do get distribution here, and it's not obvious why the SBF still exists.

Which brings us to the Organic Brewers Festival. It has a reason for being, but a slightly artificial one. Organic ingredients don't suggest anything about beer styles. So now, after the fest has had three full-fledged years, has an identity emerged? I pondered this as I worked my way through the diversity of styles on offer, and I'm prepared to offer a tentative "yes." "Organic" may not be a kind of style, but it is a state of mind. The Organic Brewers Fest, held in that green bowl of Overlook Park and ringed by fir trees, promotes the idea of harmony. I sat under an amazing tree (chestnut, walnut?) that provided a Tolkien-esque view on the fest, further enhancing the whole experience.

When I visited two years ago, many of the beers were (generally very well-made) versions of more straightforward styles; this year, that element of natural harmony was expressed in the diversity of ingredients. Beers were made with basil, berries, honey, spruce, coffee (lots and lots of coffee!), and so on. There were even two gruit ales. This is already a trend in brewing, and the Organic fest plays on that theme. For the time being, it's the fest that actually best captures the current trends in brewing.

The Beers
But enough prattle. I was again impressed with the uniformity of quality. The only flat-out miss-fire I tried was Eel River's acai berry debacle (early tweets described it, accurately, like "Crunch Berry"), and in that case the brewery at least was going for something. All the other beers were B's or better; you had to work to get a bad pour. Below are a sampling of beers that stood out, not an exhaustive list.

Best in Show
Three beers stood out for me:
  • Crannóg Back Hand of God Stout. I'm a little reluctant to rave about this beer because I raved about it after the last Organic Fest. But since I haven't seen it in two years, what the hell. The brewery styles it an Irish stout, but it's really a hybrid--light-bodied and creamy like an Irish, but succulent with notes of chocolate and vanilla as in a sweet stout. The end is clean but slightly sweetish--you want to drink a full pint in a single swallow.
  • Standing Stone Double IPA. If only the beer geeks could vote, this would win the people's choice going away (it may win, anyway). I know why, and I approve of Standing Stone's cunning: they poured it from a cask. Nothing exhibits fresh, pine-cone hopping so well as real ale, and, with the lovely caramel base, the beer was in perfect harmony. Usually I find double IPAs overwhelming, but this one was just a tour de force of flavor. The visual of the beer engine didn't hurt, either.
  • Dupont Foret. This also feels like cheating, too--an identified world classic and one of the first organic beers. But it was also instructive: given that saison is the style du year, it's worth trying a standard. What I love about the Dupont beers is their dryness. The yeast is bone dry and peppery, but Foret is soft, floral, and lovely. The two elements leave you considering going back for an 8-token full pour (I resisted). My only complaint that it didn't come in a keg.
Other Winners
A beer that might have made it into my top three had I tasted it earlier in the day was Nelson After Dark, a beer brewed in what we might call the "Northwest mild" style. It was, as are all beers on the left coast, a mite strong for style (5%). Yet even at that, I was surprised at the amount of flavor they managed. A brown ale of such creamy substance I could imagine it sufficing as a winter tipple, it was toasted elegance. I regret not starting out with it.

I think I tried all of the coffee stouts, but the one that stood out was Oakshire's Overcast Espresso Stout. The trick with a coffee stout is to hint at coffee without overpowering the beer. You want it to draw out the chocolate and roast notes of the malt, not conceal them. Oakshire's did, and may have been the best coffee stout I've had.

I also quite liked Samuel Smith's Cherry Ale. It bordered on too sweet, but the cherries provided just enough sour to keep it from cloying. Definitely brewed in the English fruit-ale style (as opposed to Belgian), but nicely done.

Interesting, but...
Three beers deserve mention for expanding my world, if not rocking it. Let's start with Upright's Reggae Junkie, a gruit. Gruits are unhopped beers that compensate for the sweetness of the malt with a potpourri of other herbs and spices. Upright's had an herbal tea quality that was interesting but just a step too far away from beer. A bit of lactic zing gave it interest, but it wasn't for me.

Another interesting effort was Fort George's Spruce Ale. Jack Harris, one of the brewers at Fort George, has been working with spruce for years at his first brewpub in Cannon Beach. (Confession: I've never tried those beers.) That useless background out of the way, I will proceed to say that spruce is not what you think. Rather than being astringent and piney, like I expected, it's very sweet and almost citrusy, like lemon-lime soda. I'm not sure this wasn't a gruit, but if there were hops, there were few.

Finally, Hopworks Secession, a beer aiming to solidify Abe Goldman-Armstrong's emerging "Cascadian Dark Ale" in the brewing firmament. The idea is to have a hoppy dark ale where the dark malts contribute not just gimmicky color, but a rounded roastiness. If any beer can, this one should accomplish Abe's wish. It has both elements--a nice but not punishing level of bitterness and a gentle roasted note. The two conflict as little as any I've tried. But still, they do conflict. This is the problem--roasted dark malts rob hops of their vivid freshness. It's like trying to smell a flower while your head's in the smoke of a camp fire. Both aroma's have their virtues, but they don't go well together. (Obviously this view is not shared by everyone. Abe clearly loves the beer and so did Bill. That's the beauty of beer--spectacular variety! Of course, they're still wrong.)

Oh, and speaking of Bill, in addition to his review is another at the Hops and Barley blog. Dave was apparently there, but no review as yet.

Your thoughts?


  1. i agree with most of your favorites, but i think ft. george's quick wit was the overall best in show. drinkable, nice belgian yeast note, and delicious spicing. i believe its on tap now at bailey's if you missed it.

  2. I had the Cascadian at HUB on Sunday and it tasted like someone put soap and ash in an IPA. I've admittedly never been a huge hops fan, but I enjoy a Ninkasi or TG IPA every once in a while. Cascadian won't be on my hop list.