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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oregon Brewers Festival - The Five-Rupee Preview

Note: the post has been updated annotated following my visit to the Fest.

And so it begins.

The Oregon Brewers Festival is perhaps the most famous non-award fest outside of Munich, and it's a force of nature--hurricane or solstice-like celebration, your choice. No matter what beer shows up, if the temperature is below 90, the throngs will arrive. Once the showcase event for craft beer, the OBF has become something more--and less. With no fewer than a half-dozen other serious Portland fests, the Brewers Fest no longer boasts the best beer. And because the season and location has fostered a party atmosphere, beer geeks long ago downgraded this from a "must see" fest to a "if I'm in the mood."

Ah, but I wonder: are things changing? I have complained in years past about what looks like a cartel on brewery selections. The same old breweries were always invited, and the little guys got left out. This year they've tightened things up. Here's just some of the wee folk who got a nod: Natian, Upright, Vertigo, Laht Neppur, Hop Valley, 10 Barrel, Mt. Emily, Three Creeks, Double Mountain, Seven Brides, and Southern Oregon.

But it's in the beer list where hope is kindled for a OBF revival. In past years, you could be forgiven for thinking the OBF was the IPA fest. This year, more than any in memory, there are some delicate, light beers. With 33 offerings at 5.5% or under (and 13 at 5% or under), you can easily turn this into a session fest. IPAs are here, of course, but big beers are rarer; none exceed 10% and only 18 exceed 7%. Mostly what we have are nice, mid-range beers; perfect for a summer day.

So, onto the preview. These things are always fraught with difficulty--do you aim it at local audiences or visiting audiences? I'm excited about beers from Minnesota, but visitors from the Twin Cities may yawn at Surly's Bitter. Those folks want to try beers like Double Mountain's Vaporizer--certainly a delight, but a familiar one to Portlanders. This year I'll go by category and suggest beers that look good in each, and for good measure mention the ten beers I most want to try.

As always, the two most important things to remember are to lay down a layer of protein before you go and stay hydrated. After that, have fun--

With so many small beers on offer, this category isn't the usual first-beer-and-go. I might well spend half the day with these little guys.
  • The Bruery 7-Grain Saison. A small saison of 5% made with rye, oats, wheat, rice, and corn. It sounds like what saisons would have tasted like if they'd been invented in the US.
  • Caldera Hibiscus Ginger Beer. The name sort of says it all. Brewed specially for the Fest, it will either be a fascinating experiment or something to remember. [Not recommended. The balance is a bit off--too sweet and too gingery. All the pieces are there, it just didn't quite come together.]
  • Collaborator Sunstone Pilsner. The homebrewer/Widmer collaborator project is a German pilsner made with 35% American wheat. Should be both tasty and fun.
  • Laht Neppur Strawberry Cream Ale. Talk to people before you try this, because it may be a horrible travesty. Made with lactose and strawberries. Could also be lovely. [Not recommended. Tends more toward travesty.]
  • Natian Destination. One of Oregon's smallest breweries arrives with an interesting beer--a red sweetened with honey and hopped with Palisades.
  • Surly Bitter Brewer. Made with oats for extra silkiness, a 4% beer with 30 IBUs--just like we like it.
  • Three Creeks Creekside Kolsch. Among the kolsches, this looks most promising: a bit of bitterness from traditional German hops should make it a tasty update on a classic style.

The Hoppy Beers
We may lobby and cajole people to try other "interesting" styles, but at the end of the day, Northwesterners want their hops. There are as usual many, many options--31 have 50 IBUs or more and ten are north of 90. But you can't judge a hoppy beer by its IBUs. Here are the ones that look good to me.
  • Boundary Bay German Tradition Double Dry Pale. That confusing name needs some unpacking. Boundary Bay has for years been making single-hop beers, and this year's is made with newly-introduced German Tradition hops. "Double dry" refers to two infusions of dry hopping.
  • Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA. A single-hop IPA made with Citras. If you're not familiar with this new belle of the hop ball, here's a chance to make her acquaintance.
  • Green Flash Le Freak. A Belgian IPA all the kids are talking about. Green Flash knows hops, so this should be a winner.
  • Hop Valley Alpha Centauri Binary IPA. With no Pliny this year, we have to sub in a late-fest, shattered-palate hop monster. Five hop varieties plus dry-hopping make this look like a good pick.
  • Lucky Lab Summit IPA. This beer, made with obscene amounts of Summit hops, will not be for me. But the orangey (and sweaty) Summits will probably thrill many.
  • Terminal Gravity Single Hop IPA. Okay, single hopping isn't an obsession with me, but these all just seem interesting. The single hop strain in question here is Columbus.
  • Widmer Captain Shaddock IPA. The Widmers always make a special beer for the fest, and the 2010 brew features what may a case of hyper-literalism." Since many hoppy beers have a grapefruit note, the Brothers reasoned, why not actually use grapefruit peels? Or maybe it's transcendent. Worth a pour either way.

The Belgians
This fest features fewer Belgian-style ales than recent years, but here are a few that look mighty tasty:
  • Flying Fish Exit 4. New Jersey's Flying Fish brings their much-lauded tripel, which last year won gold at the GABF. She's big--9.5%--so be careful.
  • Goose Island Sofie. One of the best saisons I've had--and I have frustratingly only had it once. I'll rectify that today.
  • Rock Bottom Oud Heverlee. Flemish Brabant, the "style" of this beer, is actually a Belgian province--and Heverlee is a town in that province. I think Van Havig's pulling our leg here. In any case, the beer's made with tulips and is otherwise obscure. Should be fun.
  • Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse. Boulevard has really been a leader on the farmhouse front, but I've failed to experience their bounty. This is like a bigger version of the Bruery's made with corn and wheat and 40 IBUs.

Local Faves
If you are visiting from elsewhere and want the best of the local beers, here are a few to start with.
  • Beer Valley Leafer Madness (Ontario, OR). You know how Reefer Madness is a cult fave? So's Leafer Madness. Mad hopping, so beware.
  • Cascade Summer Gose (Portland, OR). Ron Gansberg makes many offbeat beers, and I knew one of them would become a beloved local fave. I never would have guessed it would be a gose.
  • Double Mountain Vaporizer (Hood River, OR). These guys know how to make hoppy beers that don't assault but still please the most discerning hophead.
  • Fort George Vortex (Astoria, OR). There are so many good IPAs that this one often gets overlooked. Drink this and you can brag to your friends back in Indianapolis that you had the best Oregon IPA no one's tried.
  • Laurelwood Organic Deranger/Hopworks Rise Up Red (Portland, OR). A style has emerged in the Northwest that is sort of like a stripped down IPA--none of the sweet biscuity malts to interfere with the lupulin enjoyment. These are two good ones.
  • Oakshire Overcast Espresso Stout (Eugene, OR). No, not every style brewed in Oregon has scads of hops. Some have coffee!
  • Pelican Kiwanda Cream Ale. One of the best summer ales available. A great first beer, too.

My Top Ten
It's all well and good to praise and recommend 26 beers as I have done--but I can't drink all of those. I'll definitely try a number of the beers above, plus a couple others. From the list above: Boundary Bay German Tradition, Bruery 7-Grain Saison, Caldera Hibiscus Ginger, Collaborator Sunstone Pilsner, Flying Fish Exit 4, Goose Island Sofie, Natian Destination, Surly Bitter Brewer. There are two more I haven't mentioned that are on my list:
  • Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager. Described as an Oktoberfest, but looking a bit like a roggenbier, this whatever-it-is has caught my eye.
  • Rogue Ales 21. John Maier always brews a new beer for the Fest, and guess how many years he's been doing it? This is an old ale, one of my fave styles, made in the old way with molasses and licorice.
I'll be headed down to the Fest today, so I should be able to update you on some of these beers. Meanwhile, you should mention what I missed or got wrong in comments so festgoers are not lead astray. Cheers and happy OBF--


  1. Jeff, we share a lot of the same beers on our top lists. Looking forward to seeing what you think. I tried the Laht Neppur Strawberry Cream Ale at the North American Organic Brewers Fest, and wouldn't go out of my way to try it at the OBF. See you there.

  2. Wanna see something interesting? Search "Beer Festival" in Wikipedia. See where the OBF is mentioned in the grand scheme.

  3. Nice posting; rich with information. Beervana is a daily must-read.