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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Satori Award 2010: Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter

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 fifith 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 (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008), and Upright Four (2009).


Trying to name a single best beer has been brutal the last few years. I have had to leave Deschutes Dissident, Double Mountain (pick one: IRA, Kolsh, Kriek, Vaporizor), and Hair of the Dog Blue Dot on the table--among many other good and great beers. This year it was a little different. I tried no beer that could compete with those beers or past winners. There just weren't many beers released. Many of the new beers came from new breweries, and new breweries rarely debut with world-class beers.

I did admire several beers quite a lot. The People's Choice winner, Deschutes Hop in the Dark, was the first CDA I actually enjoyed. Ninkasi's Maiden the Shade didn't revolutionize anything, but it was a really nice summer IPA. My local brewpub, Coalition, debuted with a nice red and an even nicer Loving Cup Maple Porter--a beer I've had a lot of pleasure drinking this fall and winter. Rogue made their best beer in years with Single Malt, an ale so mild it got little attention--but which perfectly showcased the brewery's new homegrown malt and hops. Block 15's first bottled release, Figgy Pudding, was a great effort at reproducing a strong English ale (call it an old ale or barleywine as you wish). And finally, nano-brewing Beetje impressed me with an elegant, understated saison called variously Urban Farmhouse or B-Side.

The next cut were those I actively considered for the Satori--my short list. I oscillated among each of these beers and I could make the case for each of them, but of course there can be only one. So first, the two that just missed the cut.

Cascade Noyeaux
First, a guy who might as well pitch a tent on the short list--Ron Gansberg. He constantly has something new in the hopper, but a few of his experiments grow to become regulars in his ever-expanding line-up. Noyeaux is effectively a sister beer to the '08 Satori winner Cascade Apricot Ale. It's made on a similar base of port-aged, strong blond ales (blended, as are all the Cascade sours) and includes the kiss of raspberries. The key ingredient, however, comes from the pits left over from the Apricot Ale.

I learned about the special ingredient a year ago when I visited the brewery. Ron showed me how he was repurposing the discarded pits. Employing a high-tech process, Ron removes the meat from inside the pits and adds it to the Noyeaux. (Actually, the process involves a hinged lever device and a lot of grunting, and then results in an explosion of pit-shrapnel.) That meat, later toasted, tastes like almonds, however (it's even used in amaretto syrups), and so does the resulting Noyeaux. Cascade's most-coveted beers are aged on bourbon casks, but I like the ones that come off wine and port barrels. The flavors meld more naturally with fruits and nuts and allow the sour to wash over them. You can take the Vlad; leave me the Noyeaux.

Oakshire Well-Mannered Gnome
By all rights, I should elevate this extremely tasty small beer to the Satori as a matter of advocacy. Everyone should drink small beers! It's certainly a worthy choice. Made in the small-beer manner, off the second runnings of the massive Very Ill-Tempered Gnome, the Well-Mannered Gnome has as its grist six malts as well as infusions of Nugget, Centennial, Willamette, and Crystal hops--including dry hops. The result is as complex and lush as it is svelte (just 3.8%). It was dry and spicy--though not husky, as is sometimes the case with small beers. (Harsher notes can apparently be pulled out in the second run.) It was pouring when Patrick and I visited a few weeks back, and I think it may have been my favorite beer of the visit. And this is exactly the thing about low-alcohol beers: they're not just good for small beers, they're good, period. I confirmed from brewer Matt Van Wyk that they'd continue to make this, and next year I'd put it on your "must try" list.

Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter
The final beer, and the Satori winner, is from one of those new breweries--Prodigal Son, from that increasingly beer-rich region of Northeast Oregon. This beer didn't do too well in People's Choice polling, and I'm not surprised. Just 17,000 people live in the home of the Round-Up, and probably not many read beer blogs. They are fortunate indeed to have brewer Brian Harder, a Seibel-grad and Rogue alum, as a prodigal son who so kindly returned with the bounty of his beer knowledge. In Prodigal Son they have one of Oregon's best brewpubs, both in terms of ambiance as well as beer.

One of the themes that's come up a lot lately in the beerosphere is novelty-fatigue. While it's very cool to live in a moment of such experimentation, one also hankers for a familiar style done really well. When I visited the brewery, all the beers were well-made, and with the exception of the hefeweizen--an offering to lite drinkers--each was well-executed, distinctive, and tasty. Among these was a porter that I didn't realize until later was 7.5% because it was so balanced and approachable. I wrote this about it:
A robust beer that conceals its strength in velvety-soft folds of chocolate. Roast notes balance the beer, but they play a minor role. It was a hot summer day when we visited, and I could easily have downed an imperial pint of this dark nectar.
Sometimes I know the second I drink a beer that it's special, and sometimes I know it because I keep wanting another one days after I tried it. I thought Bruce/Lee was special the first time I had it, but over time, as I pined for it, I knew how special it was. It's a bit big to call a simple porter, but that's how it tasted: nothing gaudy or ornamental about it, just pure pleasure. I expect to see good things from Prodigal Son over the years, and I'll try to make it out there from time to time. You should, too.


  1. Great choice Jeff. Cheers to Prodigal Son! This was my pick in the People's Choice poll as well.

    As you know, I am "lucky" to have to work out towards Pendleton every other month. Visiting Prodigal Son is the highlight of my week out there. It is the first place I head to and I always have a porter. I almost always return once or twice more during the week and always try to grab a growler of the porter to take back to Portland. They have continued to roll out great beers and they are great people. I wish them continued success and I look forward to my next week out there in February!

  2. Uh... So, tell me again why this beers stands out as being an innovation in North West brewing? Enlightenment is what you are going for, right? In your post you describe your top choices by standard (non-original/non-innovative) styles; 'It's a Porter, an IPA, an Old Ale, etc.' Your winner is described as a higher gravity silky well-balanced Porter? That's it? That's all it takes for you to achieve beer enlightenment? Come on, Jeff... In all your years of drinking beer from all over the world, you've never had a big silky well-balanced Porter? ;-)

    You try and legitimize it all by saying, "Sometimes we need to find a real great beer made to style." We have plenty of Good to great beers brewed to style in the NW! It's the norm, not the exception. Then, you note... "This beer isn't really in style due to alcohol content." I'm confused, Jeff! Is this beer IN Style and Great or is it CLOSE to style and great.... or is it just another real good Porter?

    OK... Jeff. I'd have to summarize it was a poor year for new Oregon Beer enlightenment and your reaching. ;-)

  3. Doc, I sort of had you in mind when I selected this. It's a refutation to your thesis that transcendence only rides the waves of innovation. It doesn't; a well-made porter may easily be the best beer in a given year.

    And nowhere did I say it wasn't brewed to style, your quote marks notwithstanding.

    I encourage you to offer the "Doc Wort Beer of the Year" award as a counterpoint. But I knows what I knows, and I knows Bruce/Lee was a damn good beer.

  4. Well done Prodigal Son! I love it there.

  5. Working on a DoC Wort post for ya. I'm sure you won't be surprised with the context.

  6. Sorry to jump on the anti-Doc bandwagon (well, not really but...), but I completely agree with Jeff. Beer in well-known styles is only boring when it's poorly or mediocrely made. The key to a great beer, a transcendent beer, is execution, not an innovative recipe. In fact, "innovation" is horribly guilty of some completely awful, undrinkable beers. But so long as there are beer geeks to chase after the latest thing, mediocre beers that are seen as innovative will always have appeal to the limited beer geek market. I'd rather drink a great porter than chase the latest "it" beer.

    Doc, out of curiosity, why does "innovation" trump execution in a beer? No tricks, I'm really just curious to understand that, because in a year of some astounding "innovative" fails, I still don't get why people are obsessed by finding the new "it" beer. The need for unlimited variety is a manufactured need in capitalism. The market tells us that we need new stuff and “experts” to differentiate them, simply so it can get us to buy things. (Sorry, I had a need to throw some Theodor Adorno in here.) I don’t get why “new” and “different” are better than well made.

  7. @Bill

    I'll give a Satori award to the first brewery that can clone the perfect Duvel Strong Blond Belgian, but just for one year. First American made Cantillion... Satori award.

    Read my new post and enjoy well produced "Big Mac Beers" (overproduced and over exposed) if you will. There's tons of well made beer out there.... Not all are worthy of any award beyond "Brewed to Style" in a judging competition.

    It's not always a good vs bad concept. Worthy of a discussion maybe, but vehement defensive status? I don;t think so. It's about preference and individuality... You know, that thing that seems to be missing from the Oregon mainstream society? ;-}

  8. BTW, I don't look for an "IT" beer. Marketing dorks look for trends. Fools follow trends, I look for unique experiences in beer.

    I'm not going to praise a Porter for being a Porter. If all the innovations have failed, then there's no unique and top beer of the year. Giving it to a Porter is like modern parenting bullshit philosophy that "Someone has to win" or "Everyone deserves an award." Bitch up people! We can't embarrass someone, we have to protect them from the truths of the world? The reality is that there are no substitutes for greatness. Especially, a Porter that probably has at least 20 identical clones out there.

  9. Dr. Wort, I'm sorry, I'm confused. You are bashing Jeff's choice, but you don't seem to have any comments on the beer itself. Have you tried it?

    If you haven't tried it, then how do you know it isn't the most amazing porter ever? Why bash the beer when you are really trying to bash Jeff?

    The beer is excellent. It stands on its own.

  10. Anon

    Even if it's the best Robust Porter I've ever had, I wouldn't make it the top beer of the year. It's just a Porter.... and I've had a zillion great Porters. ;-}

    It's like eating the best hamburger you've ever had and calling in the Top Dish of the year.

  11. So Doc, if you've had a zillion porters, why would you give an award to someone who could do a Belgian Golden as good as Duval? Wouldn't that be passe as well, since you've ostensibly had a zillion Belgian Goldens and Duvel a zillion times? Wouldn't it have to be boring because it's been done so many times? If anyone brews a beer that's similar to what another brewer has already done, isn't it no longer unigue? Why do certain styles, like Belgian Goldens, get cachet over porter? Repetition is repetition and seems to equate to boring in your eyes. Why do some styles get a break? Your approach seesm inconsistent. Again, not being hostile, just trying to put the Doc on my beer analyst couch for some deep analysis.

  12. This is why blogs exist. They are mainly expressions of individual idiosyncrasies, and so Doc applies his strange, inconsistent rationales in one way, and I apply my own in another.

    If I would quibble at all on this point, it's to caution anyone in thinking that anyone's opinion in a matter like this establishes anything. It doesn't. There is no such thing as a quantifiable "best." We apply our flawed criteria and come to a conclusion. So, just as the Satori establishes nothing, neither does Doc's dismissal of porters. It's all just lines drawn on water.

    (Except that I'm right: this is the best beer of the year!)

  13. @Bill

    You're a funny guy! Need to read a little more carefully, but a funny guy.

    I said, 'I'd give an award to a brewery that could duplicate (clone) a Duvel.' Period!

    I didn't say every Strong Golden ale or any Strong Golden ale... I said a Duvel Golden Ale.

    In case you missed the original point I'm trying to make... and obviously you did... Nothing else tastes exactly like a Duvel, but there are plenty of Porters that taste similar. 1000's of Porter, far fewer Strong Belgian Ales.

    It's all about trying to reproduce something unique vs. reproducing something common. Pretty simple concept... for some of us.

    I'll hit the shrinks cough right after you get a reading and comprehension coach.


    Your philosophy is correct! Fun to toy with those who take this all way to serious. Oh! Don't read that Bill! Ah never mind, he'll get it all mixed up anyway.

    Philosophy Good... Your Selection of the year is stupid. Obviously, some of the natives are buying it though! Next year give a WHeat Beer the Satori award and I'll bash it again. Should be fun! :-0

  14. Me funny? Hmmm, most people would say odd, or perhaps eccentric if they're being polite. But anyway...

    No, Doc, I read well enough, but like most people, I'm selective. But when people get angry you know you're getting to something important and you gave me what I wanted and what I suspected:
    "Nothing else tastes exactly like a Duvel, but there are plenty of Porters that taste similar." But doesn't that mean that there are plenty that don't? Including this one which you ostensably haven't tasted?

    I would say that nothing tastes exactly like anything. Subtle differences, maybe too subtle for you to bother with, but I kind of expected your response. No other Belgian Golden is exactly like Duvel. Yes, but no other porter is like Fullers. Again, I wonder if it's snob appeal. Porter = common; Belgian = unique and sophisticated.

    Since you haven't tasted this porter, we're arguing from theoreticals. You've put yourself into a corner where from some outdated perspective, Belgians get a pass because they're unique, mysterious, or sophisticated as opposed to other beers. That's so 1990, but I expected as much. So long as I know the root of your issue is common snobbism, I can overlook it.

    Mass produced Duvel is more unique than mass produced Fuller's London Porter? Hardly. But you won't even consider that a porter brewed on a 10 barrel system in rural Oregon could be different from all the rest, simply because it's a Porter? That's just plain old closed minded mid-90's beer geek moronity.

    @Jeff - I like the lines drawn on water.

    Cheers, I'm done playing since this horse is long snce dead, so insult away.

  15. The funny thing is Doc has tried it--and admired it! But it is categorically exempt from praise because it's a porter. That is pretty much the definition of idiosyncratic. And so there's no real point in having the debate.

    Different strokes...