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Monday, December 28, 2009

Satori Award 2009: Upright Four

The Satori Award
In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its fourth year, honors the beer that in a single instant allows the drinker to realize brewing magnificence. It is that moment when the sheer force of tastiness produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. The inaugural winner was Ninkasi Believer followed by Full Sail Lupulin in 2007 and Cascade Apricot Ale in 2008.


In the past few years Oregon witnessed a furious storm of novelty--new lines, new styles, new releases, and new breweries. Correspondingly, my job in trying to select a single winner has been agonizing. Last year I had the horrible task of choosing among Cascade's Apricot Ale, Deschutes' Dissident, and Double Mountain's Kriek (amazing, if little tasted).

Fortunately, it seemed like the industry stopped to catch its breath a little in 2009. The number of things new was almost manageable. And although there were again a number of impressive new beers (list here) this year, the decision was relatively easy. The debut of Upright Brewing was made with such confidence and brio that I have known since May its beers were the one to beat. So while there were some very good beers this year, none were as fascinating or important as those brewed by Alex Ganum.

It is rare that breweries enter the market with fully conceived visions. Generally they aim for good beer and worry about their brewing vision later. Not Upright. Nearly a year before it opened, Alex already knew what he intended to brew:
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.
It is a testament to this vision that, with the brewery now open only since May, it has already become a fixture in Portland's landscape. We think of Portland as a town in love with hoppy beer, but this is only part of the picture. For a long time breweries have been shifting palates toward Brussels, and with his open fermenters, French saison yeast, and locavore mentality, Ganum has thrust Upright into the center of the this movement (full brewery review here).

For decades, you have been able to find more good beer in Portland than other cities (local and otherwise), and for the past few years you could find some of the best and most innovative food, too. But in an agonizing missed opportunity, mostly these two never got together at the restaurant table. If this changes--and there are finally some indications that it might--Upright will be part of the reason. With a range of styles that seem designed to complement different courses, Upright may finally help muscle pinots out of the way.

The Satori Award, however, is given for a single beer, not a brewery, and my favorite of the regular Upright offerings is the estimable Four, a modestly-strengthed tart ale that blew me away when I first tried it at Cheers to Belgian Beers. Here's what I wrote about Four in May:
A cloudy wheat beer (50% of the grist) Four is made with a sour mash, which gives it a lip-smacking tartness. 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.
Four is a truly original beer, though its lineage is long. I suspect that a time-traveler could take this beer to Southern Belgium in the 1880s and, with its wheat and lactic zing, it would be recognizable to the locals who loved tart, rustic beers. Nothing like it is regularly available in Oregon, and it is a great addition to our slate of regular beers. I'm pleased to call it my Satori Award winner for 2009--and I hope it will continue to be brewed here for a good, long time.

Congratulations to Alex and all the folks at Upright.


  1. Great choice. They are doing some fine things in the Left Bank building's basement.

  2. awesome. This eases the bitter sting of Ninkas's win in the polls. No hard feelings guys.


  3. I've had the chance to sample Upright's Four, Five and Flora Rustica on my visits to Portland. I think you're right on, Jeff. Not only are Upright's beers tasty, but they're very well conceived and thoughtfully incorporate saison yeasts and interesting ingredients, like Flora Rustica's calendula flowers.