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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

MacTarnahan's Reconsidered

Last week I went to the MacTarnahan's Taproom to chat with folks about new beers and brands. Mark Carver invited me out, and he may now be the longest-tenured guy left at Mac's. We were joined by Pyramid President Mike Brown and brewers Tom Bleigh and Vasilios Gletsos. The featured beer was Mac's Spine Tingler, a tripel that will be released within days. But the real revelation came just before I left, two hours later. Mark plopped a MacTarnahan's in front of me.

There are many cool things about writing about beer. Like sitting around drinking beer with brewers and brewery presidents. But there are some embarrassing moments, too, like the one I was about to experience. I sniffed deeply of the beer and was surprised at how vivid the hops were. Then I tasted it and was even more surprised. It was a totally different beer than the last time I tried it. "Have you changed the recipe?" I asked. "Not since we started dry-hopping it in 2001," Mark replied, mildly.


It has apparently been that long since I've had a Mac's. (I never forget a beer--just the last time I had it.) MacTarnahan's was always a tasty beer, but understated and, as the decade of the 90s wore on, a bit underpowered as well. It went through a series of rebrands, becoming a "Scottish-style ale" for awhile (a nod to the namesake), and now calls itself a "distinct, well-hopped amber." I have always thought of the beer as perfectly characteristic for a brewery that prized consistency and drinkability above daring.

Despite the now-anachronistic name ("ambers" emerged during a phase of American craft brewing when consumers didn't know how to relate to ales. To help them along, breweries named their darker pale ales "ambers" to bridge the gap between pales and browns.) Naming tradition aside, MacTarnahan's is a pretty classic pale ale (in fact, it won gold at the GABF in that category last year).

Apparently, though, the brewers tuned it up a decade ago, and what a fine tuning it was. It's a very simple recipe, just pale and caramel malts and Cascade hops, and a modest beer at 5.1% and 32 IBUs. Dry-hopping is the key, because it takes those hops up a notch, saturating the mild recipe in lupulin goodness. As a region, we've grown to associate Cascade hops and pale ales so closely that a great many are, like MacTarnahan's, single-hop ales. With dry-hopping, Mac's wrings a bit more of the juice from them, and I found a perfumy note absent in most pales. (I had a bottle at home after I visited the brewery and I can confirm that if you really want the full monty, you need to try the beer on tap.)

One of the problems with writing about beer in the Northwest is that there are literally hundreds of new beers to try every year. I could easily try a new beer every time I went to the store or pub and never run out of options. As a result, I often fail to loop back around and try the old standards (a phenomenon I've Karl Ockert has called the "novelty curve"). It's been a long time since I've been out to the Tap Room, which is flanked by those beautiful copper vessels. If you have been similarly remiss, maybe it's time to take a trip out.


  1. I haven't had Mac's in a long time too, but it was my favorite beer in college (you know, when I could afford something decent). For awhile it's all I drank, but then they seemed to mess around with it, and it started tasting different. I think this was prior to 2001, and I haven't had one since. I'd probably have the same reaction you did - thought not in front of the brewer. :)

  2. Bullshit! I know for a fact that they lightened that bitch up back around '02-'03. The guy who did it told me about it. (Can't go into more detail because he's still in the industry.) You got suckered Jeff.

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  4. I bought a six pack of Amber Ale not soon after moving to PDX a year or so ago when I was looking for some local beer to take home. Blech. What a disappointment. It's made me stay away from any local beer with the word 'amber' in the name.

  5. For me, a neophyte to craft beer, not yet out of Year_01, the most instructive part of this post, is the disclosure of the historic use by brewers of the 'amber' descriptor. Nice corporate history. Thanks.

    I notice the taplist in 3-4 local SWFla restaurants includes a house-brand amber beer. Pedestrian quality; likely brewed by AB-InBev in Jacksonville.