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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Appellation "Northwest"?

Sometime this month, Deschutes will release Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale, which is I believe a renamed version of Red Chair IPA. (Anyway, the strength and bitterness--6.4%/55 IBU--are identical.) Side note: don't look for it at your local grocer, however; it appears only outside the Northwest in January. Here we'll be receiving Cinder Cone--perhaps my least fave of the Deschutes line--in its swan song and last-ever bottling. When it runs its course, then we'll get Red Chair.

Yet the thing that interests me is not so much Red Chair as the style description: Northwest pale ale. It happens to coincide with a batch of homebrew a friend of mine made that he styles a Northwest best bitter. And let us not forget the effort to popularize a black IPA variant locals are trying to dub "Cascadian dark ale" (two versions of which--Hopworks, returning on tap today, and Widmer W '10--are currently available) nor the emergent Big NW Red. Something's afoot.

In viticulture, "appellation" is a geographic designation for a region where grapes are grown. The sense of place is everything for a wine--the geography, the climate, the terroir. A pinot grape grown in the Dundee Hills (AVA 2005) will taste different than one grown in the Santa Maria Valley (APA 1981). Legal matters have strained the elegance of the system (can't call a sparkling wine Champagne if it's made outside France?), but it is useful nevertheless.

Beer is less finicky about place. Many of the classic styles were once products of the local environment (water quality, hop variety and availability, local adjuncts), but now brewers can fiddle with the elements and achieve a minerally pale ale even with soft, pure Oregon water. Yet styles do emerge when locals demand certain qualities in a beer. General themes have emerged: on the West Coast, we love our hops and we strongly favor ales. In New England, they like a proper, balanced pint. The Midwest is a bit schizophrenic, but they do appreciate a nice lager far more than we do.

But can we start talking about a "Northwest" style?

I'm on the fence. On the one hand, "West Coast" seems an adequate description of most of the things you might otherwise call "Northwest." (I'll quickly concede that West Coast beers are distinct from those brewed elsewhere.) The general features: bigger than usual, fruitier, characterized by zesty American hops, and more bitter.

On the other hand, there do seem to be subtle differences. Northwesterners aren't as focused on purely bitter beers as they are on hoppy beers. They want as much aroma and flavor as bitterness. In fact, I think most in the Northwest have moved beyond beer that features only punishing bitterness. While that may be present, if it isn't rich with aroma and hop flavor, Northwesterners will dismiss it as a lesser beer. Conversely, even bitterheads admire an ale of moderate hopping (say 40 BUs) that is saturated with flavor and aroma.

Apply the proclivity more broadly, and I guess you could say that it is characteristic of the Northwest to try to infuse beer with hoppy goodness. Generally this means bittering it up some, but not exclusively. I am reminded of Double Mountain's exquisite Kolsch--a beer that is both too hoppy to be called traditional, yet also one that tries hard to stay true to the spirit of Cologne's famous style. A Northwest kolsch. Hmm, possibly.

I don't know. Your thoughts?


  1. Call it the "Widmer effect" but it seems to me you see more hazy - often hop haze - beers in the Northwest.

    Granted, that's a dangerously broad brush. You can find hazy beers in brewpubs in most parts of the country. I think of highly hopped beers from SoCal as generally more clear, but then you have Green Flash.

    And I don't think it applies to Red Chair.

  2. Northwestern hops have certainly taken on a local character, in both the sense of intentional breeding and terroir.

    I'd say that local brewer's full-throttle use of these flowers - due to their unique character and local source - justify the use of a "Northwest" appellation.

    Beer lovers around the world recognize that for this corner of the world, it's all about our hops.

  3. I have nowhere near the tasting experience to answer the direct question about a Northwest style. I can say that it behooves Northwest brewers to establish this sort of differentiation as a way to appeal to drinkers here and elsewhere.

    The very reason that Champagne growers and bottlers insist that only Champagne can come from that tiny region around Epernay is that it gives them a brand advantage over any other sparkling wine maker. Sure, they are interested in adherence to technique and style and the like. In the end, they want you to believe that their wine is somehow better and different than the sparkler made even as nearby as Alsace.

    I don't ascribe any nefarious attitude to this practice. I think brewers in our part of the world are right to seek a sort of "is only made here and in this style" approach. I have a friend in Pennsylvania who cannot get enough of Mirror Pond even though there are plenty of fine pale ales within his reach and probably taste very much the same.

  4. Perhaps the beer commonly called "Imperial IPA" is the most uniquely Northwest. Let's face it, at a certain gravity it really stops being an IPA. And I don't remember reading anything about a Russian Czar (Imperial) liking to drink IPA. So maybe an Imperial IPA is neither Imperial or IPA? Maybe it's a whole new thing. Maybe a NW Ale is 80+ IBUs and 8.0+ ABV. I don't know. I wonder what Bert Grant would have to say on the subject.

  5. I'd say it's balanced big IBUs. More than a trend, I'd say it's our regional style. Hop wallops with finesse.

  6. Five comments in the span of 23 minutes and then nothing. I suspect the influence of Twitter.

    That haze is the infusion, I think, Stan. I remember you commenting on it during your visit this summer.

    Mark, nice description of appellation. I considered getting deeper into it, but you did a better job than I would have.

    WWB, I don't know about that. I encounter a lot of those kinds of beers, but just as many of the hazily-infused 40-50 IBU ales (at 5.5% or so).

    Suds Sister, finesse--yes, it's all about finesse!

  7. I think a NW appelation is fine. Obviously plenty of local hops would be the most obvious common denominator.

    What most bothers me about this post is that now the Red Chair can apparently be interchangeably be considered an IPA and Pale Ale. Are Pale Ales getting so strong that they're indistinguishable from IPAs?

    Will there be any beers left that aren't 7% abv and hopped to the moon?

  8. I'd say that any more Northwest and West Coast are interchangeable when describing styles. California calls it West Coast, we don't like to share, so we call it NW.

    Appellation might not quite be the right word for WC/NW beers. Sure, the beers are produced here, as are a good portion of the hops, but most of the grain still comes from elsewhere.

    Anyway, to me what defines a WC/NW beer is how the ingredients are used, not where they are sources from. A large flavorful hop presence, a higher than usual ABV for the style and a diverse hop selection/grain bill (no SMASH beers here) are what seperate WC/NW ales, in my mind from their non-regionally specific brethren.


  9. As a recent arrival to Portland (and to the craft beer scene), the popularity of bitter beers here is a downer. I'm not a fan of IPAs or pretty much any beer with a IBU of over 40 or so. That leaves out a LOT of beers here in PDX.

  10. @Shawn: Sure it leaves a lot of beers out, but being Beervana, you have access to some fantastic low bitterness ales from around the state.

    A quick search of my Beer App (shameless plug) came up with 150+ Oregon beers under 45 IBUs. Here are some of my personal favorites that aren't too bitter.

    Captured By Porches - Red Emma Amber
    Double Mountain - Kolsch
    Anything from Heater Allen
    Ninkasi - Oatis
    Oakshire - Overcast Espresso Stout
    Pelican - Doryman Dark & Kiwanda Cream Ale


  11. @Shawn
    I tuned into the craft beer scene 3/4 year ago. I began a quest to replace my 2 standard European pilsners with PNW pilsners. The pilsner from HUB, Bayern, Baron, Full Sail, Lagunitas, Seven Brides, Caldera, Leavenworth, Heater Allen, et cetra are good pilsner lagers.

    Seven Brides and Baron Brewing Cos. both offer ~1/2 dozen moderate [25-40]IBU lagers. There are not doubt other like example.

    Lastly, over said period, I developed an appreciation of / attraction to 2X IPAs. Bear Republic, Caldera, Fort George, Green Flash,Laughing Dog, Lompoc, Lucky Lab, Russian River, ... . The choice is almost endless. Give them a try. You are living in Beervana.

  12. Don't worry, I'm going to keep on trying locally crafted beers of the whole spectrum, but I will mainly stay towards the <40 IBU beers. My favorite types are many of the Belgian styles, some of the German bocks, and occasionally a wheat beer or porter if I'm in the mood. None of those styles are mainstream here in the Portland brew scene, but you can find them if you look for them. I was just at HUB last week and had their Saison which was very good.

  13. I think you've hit it on the head with the "hoppy" distinction, since the IPA seems to enjoy unparalleled popularity up here. As "Washington Beer Blog" pointed out, even our IPA taste is pushing the IBU bar higher and higher. Perhaps it has to do with our locally accessible hop crops (Best hops around!!!!).