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Friday, January 21, 2011

From the Mists of Time, Two From Upright

Imagine the year 2020. We're all flying around in our electric hover cars and communicating telepathically through digital neural implants. Cloned cyborg monkeys do all the physical labor, freeing us up to blog and tweet. You're sitting in one of Portland's 237 brewpubs and a guy walks by in a t-shirt that says, "Upright Brewing, Still IPA-free since 2007." Sadly, it's not to be. Not the cyborg monkeys--those are mathematical certainty--the Upright tee: alas, Upright has brewed an IPA after all.

It's called "Safe as Milk" in homage to the recently-passed Captain Beefheart, and like him, it's not usual--at least, not in these parts. Here's Alex Ganum describing it:
"We decided to make a traditional English-style IPA. It has half the bitterness and hop charge that some popular west coast or American IPA's have, but hey, it's a start.... The Willamette hops that we got from the 2010 harvest were especially nice, and so it was an easy decision to make the English-style IPA with them as the sole flavor and aroma hop. Roughly 40-45 ibu's, not excessively hopped or carbonated for that matter, yet still displaying the wonderfully woody and floral Willamettes in the forefront. "
What Alex neglects in this description is the minerally structure that really signals a British-style IPA, achieved through amendments made to Portland's unadulterated, feather-soft water. You notice this on the tongue as a slightly chalky character; it makes the beer a bit more bracing and brings those relatively low levels of bitterness into sharp focus. It's a fascinating beer, a standard deviation or two beyond what's considered normal on the West Coast, and therefore a respectably offbeat offering from Upright.

While Safe as Milk is a nice beer and worth tracking down, the current vintage of Billy the Mountain, Upright's version of a traditional old ale, is a stunning beer you must track down. Alex wrote at length about it at the Upright blog--too long to excerpt here, but worth checking out. To summarize briefly, it starts as an 8% strong ale made with a blend of caramel, mild, black malts, and a touch of molasses to create a rich, sweet base beer. It's aged in pinot barrels with brettanomyces clausenii, the native strain isolated in England a hundred years ago. There it sits for a year, developing acidity and character (and another percent of alcohol). Alex conditioned it with a new batch of Billy to keep carbonation levels low. It won't be still, but like a nice English ale, it will neither be lively.

What results is a beer I expect is a very authentic recreation of the types of beer you could buy in London a hundred year ago and more. Here's Martyn Cornell, from his stellar book Amber Gold & Black:
Arctic Ale and other super-strong English 'stock' ales were brewed to lie in wooden casks or vats for at least a year, often longer, where they would be worked on by Brettanomyces-type yeasts lurking in the wood, which took over from the standard brewing yeasts to consume the more complex sugars found in quantity in strong beer worts. Indeed, 'Brett' yeasts were first isolated by the Danish brewing scientist Niels Hjelte Claussen in or just before 1903 from an English 'stock beer.'
Ganum's mixture of malts, use of an English strain to ferment the first wort, and the process of aging in barrels with the English brett are all perfectly consonant with the old way of producing English stock ales.

So, what does it taste like? We tend to put beers in boxes and keep them sequestered in our minds from other boxes, and so English old ales and Flanders oud bruins or reds have nothing in common. Except they did--quite a lot. Billy the Mountain has many of the qualities we associate with English strongs--a creamy body with a bread-pudding quality of dark fruits and cake--but also a vinous tartness that evokes the Burdgundies of Belgium. Contra Ezra, the brett here do contribute a sour sourness--not the dry, horse-blanket notes you get from brettanomyces bruxellensis. Yet they're gentle, and marry approachably with the sweeter, fuller notes of the malt and molasses.

It's definitely an A rating beer, but not one that will last forever. I have a couple bottles, one for now and one for the larder, but I may head back down to Upright for another pour. It's a perfect rainy-January ale.


  1. I assume the Billy the Mountain you describe is the same batch that I tried in September (got a bottle at the Beer Stein in Eugene).

    It was almost like an imperial porter aged in wine barrels with Brett. Very, very tasty.

  2. what ever happened to all Belgian, all the time? Is the Fonz getting ready to jump the shark tank?

  3. @Soggy: If you got it from the the Bier Stein in September, it was probably a bottle from the original batch, released Jan. '10.

    I tried the new batch for the first time from a growler @ 16 Tons in December. Huge amount of oak compared to batch 1 and richer caramel notes.

    Beer and Coding

  4. Jeff,
    Tartness man, it has tartness, and by the way a lot of that is from the wine not brett.

    Soggy Coaster,
    that was definitely last years. I would buy that shit up for sure. The new batch just came out right before the new year. I personally think this batch is superior fresh while last years is killer now. Just my personal thoughts.

  5. You thread a narrow needle, Ezra. But I admire your pluck on this whole brett-ain't-sour crusade. If bloggers can't crusade, what good are we?

  6. All I know is that Upright brews some freakin' kick arse brews.. and I need to get to their tasting room... just in an area I don't get to very often.. but the trip will be for them.