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Friday, December 30, 2011

And the 2011 Satori Award Goes To ...

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 sixth year, honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, 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), and Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2010)--all of which, I'm pleased to see, are still on the market.


Now that I've been doing this thing a little while, I'm starting to see a pattern emerge. In three of the five years, I've chosen a beer from a new brewery. You could throw Cascade into the mix, too, because it was effectively a new brewery--a separate name and entirely separate brewing philosophy from the Raccoon Lodge. Even Lupulin honored the novel--the emergence of fresh hop ales as a fixture in the Northwest brewing calendar.

All of which led me to believe I'd be choosing from one of the new breweries to hit the scene--Burnside, Logsdon, or Boneyard (I might have been convinced to name GoodLife or Occidental had there been a tide of support, too). Then I began winnowing and thinking. Finally, it came down to three. And I was surprised to see which emerged as The One.

Logsdon Seizoen Bretta
This would have been a pretty easy choice. The beer geeks were clamoring for it, saison is one of my favorite styles, and the story behind the brewery is fantastic. The problem is the beer. I have to back into my complaint. Over the course of four days in my recent trip to Belgium, I had an epiphany. It came after about my 14th gueuze, the style that makes the Brussels area famous; it occurred to me: sour beer should never, never be harsh. In the US, we love extremes. If alcohol is good, more is better; if a little hop bite is good, melting faces is better. With sour ales, if funk is good, psychedelic funk has got to be better. What results is a staggering range of sour beers, some of which have lots of flavors one might charitably call "interesting" but never pleasant. Solvent, band-aid, burning plastic, extreme, saliva-sucking aridity, and painful harshness. True: they are natural. We like sour ales because they have unexpected character. But these flavors aren't pleasant.

Which brings us to Seizoen Bretta, a beer that announces its prickly nature with its unpronounceable name. Dave Logsdon uses a secret strain of brettanomyces to sour his saison, and one would expect nothing less of the founder of Wyeast Labs. But it's not a gentle strain. A style fascist might demand both malt character, preferably rustic, and some funky fermentation notes like you find in Dupont. I will resist the urge and approach the beer on its own terms. Yet what I find is not a pleasant, interesting brett character, but one that is exceedingly dry and has a long, tongue-scraping citrus-rind bitterness. To me it's out of balance, a beer bludgeoned by brett So, while I will no doubt incur the wrath of the fans who love it, I am passing over this early Logsdon effort.

Burnside Sweet Heat
Next we have a beer in the category of experimental flavored beers. (Bend's Ching Ching, a beer I considered almost as strongly, is another example.) This category of beer is the future of beer, and one area where American breweries are in the forefront--not alone, but definitely right there with the Italians and maybe a step in front of the Belgians. It makes a lot of sense to choose a beer that represents this style of brewing as a way of acknowledging its arrival, and I almost did.

I love Sweet Heat. This is a reprise of a beer Jason McAdam brewed when he was at the now-defunct Roots Brewery, Calypso Ale. A light wheat beer, it finds balance by contrasting Scotch Bonnet peppers with apricot--a high-concept recipe designed to evoke the cuisine of the Caribbean. McAdam pulls off the trick in a light session ale, which is a doubly impressive achievement. The future of flavored ales depends on the examples that manage not to be gimmicky but cohere into something that is truly beery. Sweet Heat does exactly that. Even more importantly, it passes a truth test for whether I really like a beer: do I crave it from time to time and feel like I just need to go buy a pint? Sweet Heat brings the crave.

In the end, it was that element of pure craveability that won me over and which brings us to the last beer I considered. I chose because, not only do I regularly crave it, but it falls into a category of beer we just have too little of--tasty light session beers, especially lagers.

2011 Satori Award Winner: Fort George 1811 Lager
I loved this beer the first time I had it, and wrote:
I hope customers are so mesmerized by the shiny blue cans that they ignore the prominent word "lager" and don't read blogs like this. Because, if they manage to get the beer into their glass, they're in for a treat. Despite people's expectations about canned lager, this is quite a lively and assertive beer. I'm not sure what the hops are, but noble sounds about right--or maybe Sterlings or a mixture of nobles and bastard American varieties like Mt. Hood. In any case, it's zesty and spicy, but buoyed by a lovely, summery sweetness. As is de rigueur for an Oregon beer (nod to Stan Hieronymus), it is as cloudy as November Portland skies. And, although it is packed with flavor, the volume doesn't blast at IPA levels, so it has that moreishness you want from a summer tipple.
Many cans and pints later, I'd add a few more notes. It's not a subtle beer. The hops (which were at the time confirmed to be Saaz and Centennial) are American-strong. It's certainly not balanced in the manner lager fans will expect. There's a decidedly sulfury nose that combines with the hops in a way that does not delight one and all (a friend of mine recoiled and said "woo, skunky"). Even in the lead-up to this post, a number of people called it their fave while commenter Shawn wrote "I heard the hype, bought one, took a few sips and had to give the rest away. Yuk. I like some lagers (Heater Allen, especially), but the 1811 was undrinkable." As all those fans of Logsdon's saison will no doubt agree, assertive beers divide people.

But hey, the heart wants what it wants. Fort George is one of Oregon's best breweries, and their wish to honor the founding of their home town, Astoria, makes all this a lot easier. The pub is one of the nicest anywhere, and I would call Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, Vortex IPA, and Murky Pearl Oyster Stout Beervana must-haves. They even have a sweet new website. So congrats Chris Nemlowill, Jack Harris, and the brewing crew from Fort George--you made a hell of a beer.

Mike Wright recently launched his post-Beetje Brewery, the Commons. I'm going to consider all beers from the new brewery eligible for the 2012 Satori rather than this year. I didn't have a chance to try them, and I'd like to give Mike a chance to get the line up and running on the new system. Looking forward to get over there.

Ben Engler of Occidental Brewing. early new year's resolution: I will come see you soon. Promise.

Special shout out to Laurelwood for their new Organic Pale, which qualified as the most tasty of all the new beers released this year. It's hard to make the case for what is, after all, just a perfectly executed example of the country's most common style, but it deserves recognition for being a fantastic--if not quite Satori-ish--beer. Kudos to Chad Kennedy, and good luck, man.

I also totally loved Deschutes Chainbreaker, which used sage to bridge the flavor spectrum between spices and hops, and I'd like to put out a special appeal to the brewery to bring it back. Extremely tasty beer. Don't leave me hanging, guys.


  1. I'm with you, Jeff. I LOVED 1811, but figured I would be in the minority since I don't have the sophisticated palette/knowledge of other Beervana readers. Thanks for some validation...

  2. Huh. OK. I very much agree with the Shawn you quoted. I don't really have anything bad to say about the 1811, but the Heater Allen Pils is transcendental compared to it, and a its technically a much better crafted lager. If someone picked up enough sulfur in the 1811 it to call it "skunky", that is a technical problem. The brewers should be working to reduce that to just above threshold levels.

    I have had Seizoen Bretta on draft and from the bottle, and sometimes it seems to be sweeter, sometime drier. I don't know if this is a batch to batch variation, a draft vs. bottle thing, or maybe just my own perception or age of the beer. But, I prefer it a little drier. It's not a "textbook" saison at 8% ABV, but saisons are not supposed to be "smooth" beers. I don't recall it having band-aid or medicinal phenolics. If I had had a bottle like that I would probably be agreeing with you wholeheartedly, as those flavors are never good in funky beers in more than barely perceptible levels, if at all.

    I have a question for you though, Jeff. have you had the Seizoen Bretta enough times to think it is always too funky with brett, or could this maybe be a one-time thing? Brett flavors can definitely intensify with time, especially if the bottles are kept at warmer than cellar temperatures. I assume you have had it a few times but i just wanted to point this out.

    I still consider the intro to saisons (written by Yvan DeBaets) in "Farmhouse Ales", to be the defining treatise on saison, so it's worth re-reading again if you want evidence of what I am talking about in the above paragraph.

  3. OG (hey, was that intentional?),

    Different strokes. However, in response:

    - Some pilsners have sulfur, and whether it's 'off' or not is, like compounds produced by wild yeasts, subject to debate (skunky was my friend's laymen term and not meant as a technical description).

    - "Textbook" farmhouse ales. First, we're in the deep weeds if we're setting up a discussion about textbook saisons. Into the weeds! It's a style I'm pretty familiar with. The comment I'd make is that a saison inoculated solely with a pure strain of brett is modern. The wild saisons of yore picked up their funk on the hoof, as they collected on wheat and in the brewery. I don't think any of that matters, because the result should be tasty in any case. Logsdon's was challenging to my palate.

    - I wouldn't excuse a beer where the brett had gone too far: that's the nature of brett and breweries have to deal with it. If I recall correctly, Dave inoculates whole batches with brett rather than blending--unwise in my view. (It tastes that way, anyway.) If the beers become very aggressive in the bottle, that's the brewer's issue; people are going to cellar this beer, which is exactly the kind of beer you should age. But in any case, I have had fresh beer, once at the brewery, once on tap, and this week from a bottle that had just arrived at Belmont Station (the cashier didn't realize they'd gotten any in) and was refrigerated.

  4. "To me it's out of balance, a beer bludgeoned by brett So, while I will no doubt incur the wrath of the fans who love it, I am passing over this early Logsdon effort."

    I couldn't agree more, and this is the same complaint I have with a number of recently-released American saisons (and wild ales for that matter). I prefer brett used in a manner where it isn't instantly recognizable, but there is a perceptible complexity that would not be realized with Saccharomyces alone. But then again, I am probably one of the aforementioned style nazis. Saisons are my favorite style.

  5. I was at Deschutes PDX yesterday, and they had the Chainbreaker pouring. I didn't have one, so I can't say whether or not they've been playing around with the recipe.

    I did have a small glass of their newest gluten-free offering "Gluten-free Pale Ale #55", and if they bottled that stuff they could give Harvester a run for their money.

  6. Jeff, We can't wait to see you. Cheers!