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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Coalition Brewing

2724 SE Ankeny
Portland, OR 97214

(503) 894-8080

Hours: Wed-Sun, noon to midnight
. Beer Prices: Shaker pint - $3.75. Beers: A range of NW-style ales and rotating "Coalator" beers brewed in conjunction with local homebrewers. Menu: Light fare, including sandwiches, salads, and appetizers, a cut above pub grub in quality and ambition.
Coalition's unavoidable first impression is its size: wee. Call it the Smart car of brewpubs (but with a ten-barrel brewhouse, don't call it a nano). I'd like to direct your attention to less obvious aspects. Note the heavy, single-plank fir bar, the embossed glassware, the wood paneling, the precise photographs on the walls, the solicitous staff. Coalition isn't an ad hoc pub; everything about it is intentional and well-executed. Of course, it should be. I first blogged about Coalition Brewing in April '09 (when principals Elan Walsky and Kiley Hoyt were thinking to call it Hobo), and it opened more than a year later, in June. During that time, there were the usual setbacks start-ups face, but more than that, there was a lot of planning going on.

Coalition sits in the heart of the inner Southeast, nested along 28th Avenue's restaurant row. The Kerns Neighborhood has elements of Buckman and Laurelhurst, high and low, and Coalition has aimed to cater to both. The space is--though small--both comfy and elegant. It spills out through a garage door that is the width of one wall, bringing the outside in (I worry that it's going to be awfully small in the winter months, though). The menu features better fare than you find at most pubs, but the price is great--and shaker pints of beer are only $3.75. The clientele is a mixture of the hipster techies like Crema, next door, draws, and young, casual Buckman types.

The Beer
Coalition debuted with three hoppy beers and then added two more. I would guess this is, as everything, intentional. In Portland's ADHD pub scene, Coalition needed to win converts on the first pint, and the surest way to a Portlander's heart is through hops. They started out with a pale (5%, 59 IBUs), and ESB (5.5%, 56 IBUs) and a red (5.7%, 59 IBUs), all of which were fairly similar in type. The red is my favorite of the bunch. The malts are creamy and slightly candy-sweet, and they help offset the sharp bitterness. The next addition was an IPA, which counter-intuitively, wasn't quite as aggressively hoppy. But then came a stout, which is. All of the early beers were a bit tannic, which added to the perception of bitterness. Later batches, though, have had far less of the tannic grind and are quite tasty.

For those who prefer less bitter beers, there's a very nice cream ale (actually, I'd say it was closer to a kolsch). Light, peppery, and very sessionable. The final beer in the regular line-up should be coming on-line this week--a maple porter. Kiley hails from Vermont, and this is a tip of the hat to the homeland. (I married a Mainer, and I can confirm that maple syrup is a major part of the culture of New England. If you visit, just make sure you know the proper use of the term "sugar bush.")

Finally, Coalition's name comes from the idea of working with the community of home brewers to create one-time beers. In the "Coalator" program, homebrewers work with head brewer Bruce McPhee to reproduce recipes in small batches. Last week, they had on a fantastic strong wheat ale from the program. Because the batches are so small, there's no way to predict what will be on (though they're pretty good about updating it on their Facebook page).

The Menu
Coalition clearly has a pretty small kitchen, so elaborate meals are out of the question. Still, they have tried to improve on the standard pub menu. I had a sandwich made with Oregonzola that was amazing (though sadly, it was a special). The salads are use fresh, tasty greens. They recently switched the menu, leaving behind the meat muffins that were getting so much attention (a loss I can't say I much lament), and seem to have gone for an even more elegant line-up. They also do exotic hand-made ice cream--balsamic and strawberry, lemon-pear, peanut butter, and chocolate covered bacon (!).

The Upshot
Coalition has been open less than two months, and it already feels like a neighborhood fixture. It's literally four blocks from my house, so I've watched its evolution and visited more often than I do most pubs. None of the beers is a trend-setter or instant classic, but none is a dud, either--a good start for a two-month-old. I've spoken with Kiley and Elan about future beers, and they have some fascinating ideas (one on the super-secret down-low I've been forbidden from discussing). Sitting in the setting sun on a summer evening, it's hard to beat the laid back, comfortable atmosphere. A welcome addition to Beervana.

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