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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Riddle of Lip Stinger

[Note: A sharp-eyed reader noticed a repetitive use of the word "weed," which I've adjusted somewhat. Also, my latest copy editor has been beaten and fired.]

MacTarnahan's, the forgotten brewery.

Really, when was the last time you had a pint of an erstwhile Portland Brewing beer? With a reputation of safe, pedestrian beer and a flagship that now looks like a daisy in a field of craft brewing's exotic orchids, MacTarnahan teeters. Recent seasonals have done nothing to stem this impression (Grifter, Slingshot Pale) ... until now. Of all the major breweries most likely to release a saison, MacTarnahan's had to be the least. Yet here it is, Lip Stinger. The whole thing is mystifying. Including, it turns out, the beer itself.

It is a light saison, just 4.8%, but with a pretty pointed 32 BUs. Although the early buzz is positive, I found it an odd beer. Not timid, but strangely incoherent. The aroma is funky and phenolic. If the brewery didn't use a saison yeast, they did a good job of disguising the fact. Yet the beer is as clear and golden as a pilsner, which creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Sniff: Belgiany, funky, saison. Look: gently effervescent, clear, bright, and filtered. Well, no matter: try a sip to resolve things. Except it doesn't. The palate is all tang and medicine. The Saaz hops are strong enough that it adds to the pilsnery aphasia, yet the yeast is estery, fruity (apricots?), and effervescent. Then there's the peppercorn addition, which comes across as a grating bitterness, almost like menthol. In the end, the needle was pointing in a positive direction, if provisionally. I would recommend this beer selectively, and only to the the experimental.

The riddle does not stop at the glass, however.

1. Why "Lip Stinger?"
Let's start with the name, which is terrible. The brewery used four kinds of peppercorn (a traditional saison spice), but there's nothing stinging about the beer. Which is good, because who wants stung lips? The pepper isn't peppery, though; I find it weedy and medicinal. It's not necessarily terrible, but "weedy and medicinal" will appeal to only a niche audience. It's subtitled a "farmhouse" ale, which is better. People relate to the word "farmhouse" positively. The word is vague, though, and only by tasting this dry, effervescent, spicy beer do you know that it's properly a saison. I get why the brewery would choose the more consumer-friendly "farmhouse" than saison; why then did they choose the consumersbane "Lip Stinger" as the topline name?

(There is a French wine grape known as picpoul--"Lip Stinger." It produces a very crisp, tart, food-friendly wine, and so the sense in French, apparently, is "lip-smacking." Whether this is an allusion to that grape, or a direct translation of the French, I can only imagine. Still, if this is the case, we're into the very deep grass in terms of naming arcana.)

2. Why is Lip Stinger Filtered?
This is a minor quibble alluded to in my description, but come on. Farmhouse ales are supposed to be "rustic." Rusticity is not a quality easily described, but we can infer from it a certain lack of polish. It comes from the Latin rusticus, for "open land"--it suggests "country" and "handmade." Filtering, an invention of industrialization, is definitely not rustic. The passion for clarity is a modern one. For once, couldn't MacTarnahan's have resisted filtering a beer?

3. Why Saison, of All Styles?
MacTarnahan's has, over the years, dabbled in a variety of styles. One of my faves was a traditional hefeweizen they made back in the mid-90s. They had a widely-lauded pilsner called Zig Zag. But except for a quasi-Belgian beer they made for the millennium, I don't recall any Belgian styles. Lately they have specialized in even more anodyne beers than usual, suggesting a slow fade into the kind of beers corporate brand-managers concoct. (Not to say that's what was actually driving things.) So to go for a Belgian beer, and even more a saison (quite a jump into the deep end of the Wallonian pool)--how did they get from there to here?

4. Why Only 3,000 Cases?
This is not actually a riddle: the answer is pretty self-evident. You don't bet the farm on a beer so radically different from the rest of your line. I ask it rhetorically: why not really try to make a splash. Putting these out in sixers for a month would have at least been a nice advertisement that MacTarnahan's is stepping up. Casual drinkers might have been persuaded to buy a bottle (or maybe not; see #1) and even if they found it shocking and gross, they would remember it. Sometimes that's a good thing. But putting it out in such a small batch and in 22s means that only the beer geeks will discover it. Ah well, baby steps.

You should go buy a bottle for the novelty and see what you think. MacTarnahan's effort is worth at least a bottle.


  1. OK, I've already admitted I like this beer. It's not "textbook" Saison, but deviations from style don't bother me, as my recent diatribes on style likely alluded to. Personally I was happy they took the Farmhouse route as opposed to calling it Saison. They're giving a vague idea of what to expect but aren't pigeon holing it. I've only had a few bottles so far, but it's attractive for a couple of reasons: good price point at about $3.50 (when every other US farmhouse beer seems to cost $7-10 for a 22-25 oz bottle), available at my local supermarket, and lower alcohol (hooray!). Finally someone's pushing the envelope the other way. It does have a tiny bit of residual sugar, but it's certainly not sweet. It's the kind of beer I like with hot food, because that tiny amount of sugar cuts the chiles. It's big on flavor for a 4.8% beer. It is unusual, but I like the funkiness of it.

    Why Farmhouse? My guess is simple: Vasili Gletsos, the new head brewer. He was the head brewer at BJ's before they moved the brewing to Nevada, and then worked with Van Havig at Rock Bottom. Also, he's good friends with Alex Ganum (who was head brewer at BJ's when Vasili started). Vasili did a bunch of really unusual Belgian inspired beers at BJ's, including some good sours. Some may disparage "corporate" brewers as uncreative, etc. but I think that's nonsense, because most learn to be creative whileworking within tight budgetary and marketing concerns. He's an excellent brewer who has also done some amazing homebrewed Belgian farmhouse beers (including a sort of half sour Yarrow farmhouse beer he gave me which is still one of the best homebrews I ever drank).

    I think his corporate brewer background will be an asset in his new positon, because he knows the pressures of working in an environment where sales and market penetration are paramount. I don't know if this beer was his idea, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it was. And what a coup: saison is popular, so it's not a stretch to sell it to the brand managers and marketing guys, plus he made a smaller beer, so the production costs aren't out of line. It likely wasn't that hard of a sell to get the beer greenlighted. Again, I don't know any of this as fact. I'm just guessing.

    Why filtered? Likely because they're line is set up that way and maybe for stabiltiy reasons (since I believe it is the Dupont strain and that yeast can continue to ferment for sometime and might leads to botle bombs). The clarity doesn't bother me, and it may be less off putting to people who know the brand and expect brilliant beers.

    Overall, I think it's an interesting and smart move on their part. It's daring if you look at it from style, since iot's not a style they're known for, but it's safe from a cost stand point, so it let's them test the waters. Moreover it lets the new brewer show something individual. I'll be buying more of it.

    Again, these are all suppositions on my part and I'm not speaking for Vasili or for the brewry.

    Disclaimer: Yes I'm friends with Vasili, but I like this beer because of what's in the bottle, not because of who put it there.

  2. Hmmm I think my taste buds might be dead aft. While my impresssion of this beer isn't negative, it wasn't hugely positive either. I thought the flavors of the beer were muddy, and I couldn't figure out where this beer was trying to go. I couldn't peg anything special about this beer that would cause it to enter the rotation for the duration of it's release. If the peppercorns had delivered more, or that had been something to cause this beer to stand out I'd be gushing. :P

    I do agree on some aspects though Bill. I like that it is lower alcohol. Also, I appreciate the price. My favorite regional saison is the one released by Bison, but that and Dupont are in the higher price range and therefor don't get rotated into the fridge often either :'(

  3. Ooops, that first sentence was supposed to read :dead after reading this."

  4. Bill, I agree that I hope the brewery feels encouraged to keep trying interesting new beers.

    I have no animus toward corporate breweries, incidentally. I agree that they brew exceptionally clean, consistent beer. It's just that corporate-think can be anathema to good beer. But they don't have to inhibit interesting brewing. You mentioned Van Havig, who's a good example, as was Dan Pederson. Both are brewers at corporate chains who make wonderful and interesting beer.

  5. Pyramid is having a release party for the Lip Stinger tonight at Mac's Taproom. Sounds pretty awesome. They are also brewing a Fresh Hop Mac's this week which is another step in the right direction. Boo yah!

  6. Jeff, I wasn't implying that you had anything against corporate brewers. I hope I didn't come across that way.

    It's always interesting to see how brewers for large chains sneak in unusual beers. Van said he can brew whatever he wants so long as it sells. Because of the location and his clientele, he covers most of the usual bases with well made beers but normally manages to sneak a few unusual things as well. He knows his audience, but also knows when he can try new things and how far he can go. It's a balancing act and he does it well.

    I hope Lip Stinger is enough of a commercial success that they let Vasili try other things as well.

  7. Wow, I didn't know Vasili got the head brewing gig at Portland. That's awesome!

  8. Uh, did anyone tell Tom Bleigh that Vasili is now head brewer?

    As a "friend" of Vasili you might want to know these things... Or maybe John Foyston is wrong.

  9. Opps...