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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Meet the New Brewery: Gigantic

One of the most-anticipated new breweries opened in Portland a couple weeks ago--Gigantic Brewing, the new project by Ben Love (Pelican, Hopworks) and Van Havig (Rock Bottom).  How anticipated?  So much that when I was visiting there yesterday, a constant stream of people were trying to get into the tasting room including--I kid you not--a woman who fell to her knees in supplication when she realized it was closed.  Gigantic isn't a brewpub, has no food, and the tasting room's window is limited to six hours, five days a week.  Ben and Van didn't figure a production brewery in the industrial Southeast would get a lot of visitors. 

The Project
Not that Ben and Van didn't do a lot of figuring.  Gigantic is built on a totally novel business plan that starts with just a single regular beer--an IPA.  This they will bottle, along with a constantly rotating series of new releases, two a quarter plus the odd specialty releases.  Each beer will be different, and they'll come in numbered bottles that will stay on shelves until the next series displaces them.  This follows a trend in the market toward seasonals, but takes it to a whole new level of evanescence.

Ben looking at the label for IPA.
Counterintuitively, Ben and Van are focusing on the bottle market--which makes producing new packaging for every beer a seeming nightmare.  That was actually part of the plan, it turns out.  They are working with a third member of the team, Rob Reger, who is acting as an art director.  The Emily the Strange artist made the label for IPA, but he is soliciting art from other artists for new labels.  Each label has a central panel that looks like a comic book, fully illustrated by the guest artist.  The only consistent element is the "Gigantic" banner and the Gigantic "G" in the right corner.  Even the "Brewing Company" under the name is different each time. J. otto Seibold, Olive author, did City Never Sleeps and Jay Howell did Axes of Evil.  (You can see the art here.)  Gigantic gives the artists an additional boost by putting up original pieces in the tasting room.

Ben told me he hoped to take the concept even further and work with bands and artists to make original music connected with each release, and maybe even put a QR code on the bottle that takes you to a video of the band performing the piece--which might have additional animation from the artist.  "We don't really have an ad budget--we'd rather give it to [label] artists."

The Brewery and Beer
Ben Love and Van Havig appear to be an unlikely pair.  Van fizzes with energy, and his mind generates 9.2 deadpan jokes a minute.  Ben, by contrast, is an eye of still peacefulness in the Havig storm.  They seem to have a mind meld when it comes to beer, though.  During our tour, they would regularly finish each other's sentences.  The IPA, which will probably constitute over half their total production, could have been a fraught beer.  They each went off and drew up their ideal recipe and came back together to see how far off they were.  Not far, it turned out: the only difference was bittering hops--they had all four of the same late-addition hops.

Built with room to grow.
Between them, they have 24 years of brewing experience.  That was a big advantage in setting up the brewery, which Metalcraft built to their specs. It's a 15 barrel system, but tweaked so it has a decidedly English flair.  (I think it's coincidental, but Van spent a year at the London School of Economics.)  It starts with a homebrewed version of a Steel's masher, which wets the grist as its coming into the mash tun--more fully, according to Havig.  The mash tun is built to produce a floating mash for greater efficiency.  A direct-fired kettle produces noticeable caramelization, and the wort goes through a proper, English-style hop back, a flourish that adds up to an hour to each brew but saturates the beer in hoppiness. Gigantic is currently using a yeast from Sunderland's famous, now-defunct Vaux Brewery.  To coax esters from the yeast, they built fermenters at a 1:1 ratio of height and width (the pressure in tall fermenters represses ester-production). 

Gigantic isn't trying to become an English-style brewery, but because it's a small system, Ben and Van relied whenever they could on tried-and-true methods.  That it borrows from English systems is more a matter of function than tradition.  (Indeed, with a rauchweizen, imperial saison, and no beers under 5.5%, you can find little evidence of Englishness in the final products.)  The point is underscored when you go into the cask room and discover a 660-gallon (21-barrel) foeder (or foudre, in French).  It's a fifty-year-old wine vessel that now holds a batch of beer that will begin to encourage a wild ecosystem.  (We have to wait 12-18 months to try that beer.)

The beer is very good.  The IPA has already developed a loyal following.  The first batch was cloudier than intended but has a green, spritzy liveliness that belies its heft (7.3%).  Ben and Van focused on the nose and hop flavors to produce a beer that's not hugely bitter but vivid with fresh hoppiness.  The City Never Sleeps is an imperial black saison that has a bit of rustic yeast character but scans more as an imperial stout, and a wild experiment called Rauchweizen and the Bandit (they were screening Smoky and the Bandit on the new DVD player when I arrived), a 40% rauchmalt weizenbier.  It's as if a Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock collided with a Bavarian weizen.  Finally, my fave is a rich pale ale called St. Tennenholz, named for the OLCC agent who helped smooth the process for Gigantic.  Amazing creaminess and bright aromatics.

There's a lot more texture I could add--like why there's a gun, boar, and axe mounted on the walls, for example.  But best you go down and check it out yourself.  Mind you go at the proper times, though--hump day through the Lord's day, 3-9pm.  Even genuflection won't get you in outside those hours.

As always, more photos below the fold.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Photo Caption Contest

Okay, contest may be stretching the definition, but have your best go:

There will be much, much more on this topic tomorrow.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy Memorial Day

Clouds dampened the Timbers game Friday night.
Memorial Day is known as the first day of summer across the country--pilsner weather.  True to form, it will be 97 in Chicago, 81 in New York, and 75 in Denver.  In the upper left-hand corner of the country, we call this mid-spring.  The mercury will poke its head up into the sixties briefly and fall back into the fifties by about the time the embers die in the area's barbecues.  Our clouds are silvery above and probably they'll tear up a few points along the way.  We'll be huddled with porters around our grills.

Wherever you are, I hope you're drinking good beer.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Meet the New Brewery: Solera

The word Solera sounds vaguely Spanish and when used as a proper name reminds one of a luxury automobile or a sleeping pill.  In fact, it actually refers to a process, one worth spending a few sentences explaining.  It's a barrel-aging system used in wine, liquor (sherry, madeira, port) and vinegar production.  In liquors and vinegar, it's mainly a way of blending different vintages.  The blender has a series of casks, and at the end of a period of, say a year, he will remove some liquor from the final and oldest cask.  He replaces the removed liquor with liquor from the next oldest cask, and on down the line to the youngest cask, to which he will introduce new liquor.  In one variant, whisky producers replace volume lost to evaporation.  The process is similar in beer, with one huge difference: the goal is not only aging, but cultivating native yeast cultures within the barrels.  Brewers can blend beers from their soleras or just pull beer out straight and add wort.  It's pretty obscure, but Nick Arzner at Block 15 is using a solera to make his Caves Saison.

At the moment, Parkdale's newest brewery is sans solera--but we'll get to that in due course.  Let's talk about what it has, first.  It's the newest project of Jason Kahler, who was most recently at Big Horse down the road in Hood River.  Before that he was at Walking Man and Full Sail and before that, he was getting his brewing start in Duluth, MN at a place called Fitger's.  He's joined by partner John Hitt, a homebrewer with a background in biology and business--who's also a homebrewer.

Kahler took the helm at Big Horse a few years back and turned Hood River's red-headed stepchild into a place worth visiting.   He didn't often get to uncork wild yeast experiments, but when he did they were always impressive.  Hop fans know him for Vernon the Rabbit-Slayer, one of the most accomplished fresh hop ales and an annual fave.  But Big Horse, which has had a constant stream of brewers over the years, is not a final destination.  Jason was never going to follow his bliss making standard pale ales and stouts for a tourist brewpub.

Instead, he relocated 17 miles south in the wide spot in the road known as Parkdale, an unincorporated village of about 200.  The center of town is adorned by a 75-year-old theater that was, fifteen years ago, converted into the Eliot Glacier brewpub.  When the owners retired, they put the place on the block--brewery, building, and insane view of Mt. Hood (8 miles distant)--for a song.  Still, Parkdale's really remote, and it sat for the better part of two years before Jason and John decided to buy it.  They gave the 7-barrel system a scrub down and flipped the switch and about six weeks ago threw the doors open to the public.  

Beer and Brewing
To understand Solera's future, we look into Jason's past--and basement.  For years and years, even while he worked at different commercial breweries, Jason was conducting extensive experiments with soleras at home.  He now has something on the order of 20 in different sizes, which I take it his wife is a saint to tolerate.  He's also experimented with spontaneous fermentation, blending the results with the beer from the soleras.  Those form the research for projects he plans to continue at the new place, and he's currently looking for barrel space at warehouses around the area--the brewery building is far too small for a barrel room.  He even plans to convert the salad bar into a coolship and experiment with spontaneous fermentation out back.  It's hard to imagine a better place: the valleys around the brewery are forested in orchards, so the wild yeast ought to be healthy and dense. 

The first batch from Jason Kahler's private solera project.
In the meantime, he's making a range of eclectic ales roughly in the Gigantic mode--two standards and everything else rotating in and out.  Because it's Oregon, one standard is an IPA.  (As with Pints, Solera has no hops contract, so Jason has to work with hops he can find.  The current recipe uses the Zythos blend and Cascades and is lemony and thick.  I wouldn't be shocked to see it evolve.)  The other standard is far more unlikely: a 3%, sharply acidic Berliner weisse. 

What's amazing is the story of how it became a standard ale.  Solera may one day have the volume to send beer around the area, but it depends on local clientele.  And locals are principally hard working folks, not Portland hipsters and beer geeks.  Nevertheless, when Jason put Berliner Weisse on, they loved it.  This is pretty remarkable; when Full Sail put on a Berliner weisse at the Pilsner Room, it got geek admiration, but didn't move.  It's huge in Parkdale, though, so Solera will keep it on tap for them.  When they can, that is--and indeed, I had the misfortune of visiting on a day it was out.

The beer goes through a two-week lactic fermentation.  Jason experimented with different yeasts for the alcohol fermentation--German ale, lager, and saison.  Interestingly, the saison really didn't work; since saisons can have many qualities in common with Berliner weisses--wheat, tart character--you'd expect a fine marriage, but no.   The German ale strain, predictably, is the best fit.

Jason's also got a Grisette (4%) on tap and a stronger saison, both of which were delightful.  The Grisette, slightly phenolic and menthol-y with the French farmhouse yeast, is a perfect summer refresher.  He had on a pale made with no bittering hops--everything came in at about 15 minutes, and to get the BUs, that meant massive hopping.  These are not destined to last, of course, so you just have to visit to see what's on tap.  Oh, and Solera plans to make use of the local fruit bounty--look for ciders this fall. 

I hope John and Jason coordinate with Dave Logsdon and Charles Porter down the road at Logsdon Farmhouse Ales.  The two are just six miles apart and would make a drive out the Gorge a must for beer pilgrims.  They share a lot in common philosophically, too.  We have the makings of our own Senne Valley right here in Oregon.

As always, a few more pics below the fold.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Time to Ditch Facebook?

The recent reports that Facebook rigged its own IPO are just the latest in a litany that collectively set my spidey senses on edge.  I associate with no other company that is simultaneously so slippery and opaque, but Facebook has managed to create a quasi-public space.  I use it to contact people I can't find otherwise (it's super handy for foreign breweries), stay in touch with friends--especially out-of-towners--and as a shingle for people to find me.  I'd lose a lot by cutting Facebook loose, and so I just whistle past the graveyard, hoping it will all work out in the end. 

If this describes your relationship to the company, I recommend this fantastic indictment by the New Yorker's Steve Coll. 
Zuckerberg’s business model requires the trust and loyalty of his users so that he can make money from their participation, yet he must simultaneously stretch that trust by driving the site to maximize profits, including by selling users’ personal information. The I.P.O. last week will exacerbate this tension: Facebook’s huge valuation now puts pressure on the company’s strategists to increase its revenue-per-user. That means more ads, more data mining, and more creative thinking about new ways to commercialize the personal, cultural, political, and even revolutionary activity of users. 
The thing is, not only has Zuckerberg not earned our trust, he's actively undermined it.   If Facebook weren't so valuable, we'd all ditch it in a heartbeat.  There's a ratio of useful:creepy with the site, and it's always been weighted on the "useful" side.  I'm wondering, with this IPO, has "creepy" overtaken useful?

Anyone else out there thinking of abandoning ship?

Rounding Up Them Little News Dogies

Various bits and pieces on the news wire today in which you may have slight interest:

Churchkey Hits NYC
Adrian Grenier took his new beer to the country's media capital, and the debutante received lots of attention.  I particularly admire this piece by Jim Galligan:
Adrian Grenier looked back at me with genuine surprise as he stood behind the bar. I had come to a press event in New York City to taste the fruit of the “Entourage” star’s latest venture, a Pilsner beer named Churchkey. It comes in a funky, old-fashioned flat top can, and I had just asked for a glass. “You want a glass?” he asked, a little befuddled as he searched the back bar for an appropriate vessel.  I’m not sure anyone had asked him for one before.  After all, the novelty of Churchkey is in its retro steel can, so why spoil the fun by pouring the beer out of it?  Because I was there for the beer, not the packaging, and beer is best tasted in a glass.

(The upshot: Galligan gave the beer high marks.  After a assault on Mt. Hipster, he was also startled to discover Grenier sitting at the peak: "I'm a total hipster!")

Meanwhile, The Atlantic's Jordan Weissmann looks at Churchkey's business prospects and, observing that Craft Brewers Alliance grew only .7%, finds it wanting.  (Ouch.)  Nevertheless, having a movie star as the front man is quite useful when you're trying to attract investors.  That last link will also take you to a 20 minute video of a press event if you're really, really interested in Churchkey.

Dept. of It Pays to have Friends in High Places
In a place I rarely find beer news*, Politico today reports on the progress of the Senate and House small brewers caucuses to boost the fortunes of craft breweries. A perfect storm is making small breweries like a huge political winner.  They are sources of jobs and growth in a recession slowly recovering economy and a fat target for a tax cut.  Plus, they're, you know, breweries.
The Democrats from Montana and Colorado, respectively, have been raising a glass to independent craft brewers lately, highlighting the role such companies play in job creation and economic growth — while also calling for legislation that cuts taxes for small businesses.
Politico contacted some of the caucus members to find out what their fave beers are (and got really safe, anodyne answers)--but unfortunately didn't talk to Oregon's Peter DeFazio, who founded the House caucus.  I bet he has some strong opinions about some strong, tasty Oregon beer. 

(FWIW, the idea of giving a tax cut to an industry that has grown in double digits for five years doesn't make a lot of sense--they seem to be doing fine on their own--but hey, who am I to argue?)

No Beer for Fido
Also: don't give your dog beer.  Or not much, anyway.
*Or any news, for that matter.  Badda boom!  (Sorry, political geek humor.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"India Red Lager"

Style traditionalists, sharpen your knives:

Rather than go on a Cornell-style rant, I will instead nod appreciatively at what is clearly a postmodern joke.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Meet the New Brewery: Pints

"A craft is something where you're constantly tweaking and striving to make it better."  (Zach Beckwith)
If you're standing under the leafy canopy in front of Pints Brewing and you look to your right (north), you see Union Station; if you look left (south, obviously), you see Big Pink.  That stretch of Fifth Avenue is quieted by the Max line and is the perfect place to find a pub tucked into the old brick buildings.  Downtown has so few really good pubs, though; you almost never find one where it should be found.  I hope this augurs a change for the better.

Pints originally started as a coffee shop and pub and then owner Chad Rennaker had the idea of turning it into a brewpub.  He picked up a beautiful (but tiny) system that will become the showpiece of a dining room that is currently half-sheetrocked around a kitchen that isn't even half-installed.  (ETA two months.)  He hired Zach Beckwith, who has been working for Lompoc, and Zach is now a few batches into production. 

I first became aware of Zach last year when he made Voodoo Mild for the Mighty Mites fest.  Milds are fantastic beers but usually subtle (mild?) enough that they're underappreciated.  In what I will modestly say was a very strong line-up, Voodoo Mild might have been the standout.  It was impressively flavorful and just 3.4% strong.  Zach brings a similar sensibility to Pints, which I will let him describe in this wee video clip:

The beers are in the process of development, and will change batch to batch.  We can discuss tendencies, though.  Zach loves English floor malts, but prefers American hops.  Optic and Golden Promise are the current workhorses, but they're used in beers with hops like Glacier, Chinook, and Crystal.  (As I think will become a regular feature in these reviews, I'll note that Pints is having some trouble finding hops and has to take what they can get.  Most breweries have contracts and don't have to survive on the spot market--as Pints will when the new harvest comes in later this year.)

Floor malts give the beers rounded, fuller malt flavors.  The Tavern Ale, a strong bitter hopped with Willamettes, is cakey and lush, but it finishes with a nice crisp snap.  I thought I detected some water hardness and even sulfur, but Zach says he doesn't amend the neutral Portland water.  Red Brick Rye is fruity and spicy, Seismic IPA (made with Belgian pale) has relatively low bitterness but layered hop flavors, and Ripsaw NW Red is the most sharply bitter. Zach also has an historical English IPA in the bright tank that was lemony and very sessionable. 

My fave of the beers currently pouring is Steel Bridge Stout, made with Golden Promise and US pale malts, roasted barley, chocolate malt, brown malt, and midnight wheat.  Zach's originally from Michigan, and he grew up loving what he calls "Michigan stouts"--creamy, rib-sticking ales that could warm you on a frozen Upper Midwest night.  He will therefore almost certainly beef Steel Bridge up, but it's about perfect as an Oregon stout.  It's a creamy 6% stout that has found perfect balance between roastiness and a soft scone sweetness.

Some brewers enjoy experimentation, but Zach is an incrementalist.  As my call-out quote at the top of the post suggests, for him "craft" means slowly fine-tuning a beer into perfection.  Brewers always hate it when you associate them with any tradition (all brewers would have you believe their beers are sui generis), so probably Zach won't like me associating him with England's.  It's inescapable though--his temperament, his beers, and the setting of the pub, cozy and quiet, all point in that direction.  On the other hand, if you're not familiar with the British tradition, Pints is likely to seem familiar anyway--Portland's not far from London, aesthetically.

The beers on tap now are already in the B range, but he's only begun to tinker.  I hope to carve out some time in the coming months to stop by and try later batches and discuss what he's liking and what he's looking to change.  You might well stop in for a pint so you can watch them evolve, too.

More pics below the fold:

The Small Town Advantage

Someone at the Brewers Association is doing a great job placing articles in high-profile news organizations (and always in the gee-whiz ain't-it-cool mode, too*).  The latest is from NPR, which recently gave craft brewing a fat, juicy kiss.  Almost every sentence could have come from a Brewers Association press release.  But it was a passage in the piece detailing breweries per capita to which I would like to draw your attention:
The Brewers Association finds that states in the Midwest and Northwest support particularly strong beer cultures. And five states that have the most craft breweries per citizen might be called the craftiest of the crafty: Vermont: 27,206, Montana: 30,919, Oregon: 31,662, Alaska: 35,512, Colorado: 39,600.
In comments, lots of people complained that this is a misleading metric.   I totally agree.  The NPR reporter, Bill Chappell, uses per capita brewery density as a proxy for strong beer cultures--a perfect example of a common conflation.  A lot of different factors go into beer culture, and brewery density is only one weak correlate.  Take for example Belgium, a country I think most people would agree has a better beer culture than Montana or Alaska.  Breweries per capita?  One in 87,000. 

Consumption is the relevant metric.  How much craft beer does a state consume?  Breweries produce radically different amounts of beer, and cities and states consume different amounts of beers.  New York City has very few breweries and would get crushed in the per capita metric.  But that has a lot more to do with the cost of a square foot of land than what people are drinking in the bars.  I won't fault Portlanders for straining their arms patting themselves on the back--our brewery number is staggering--but we should have a touch of humility.  We have breweries because we can afford them.  The real reason we're so advanced is because we drink such a huge proportion of craft beer.

If a state has a few dozen tiny brewpubs but the population still drinks 97% macro, it's not a great beer state.  Unfortunately, stats on consumption and other pithier metrics just aren't available.  I wonder why the Brewers Association doesn't put those out?
*NPR even fell for this line, from BA spokeswoman (and genuinely nice person) Julia Herz: "Herz calls it an inclusive category.  'The bottom line is, we don't define what craft beer is. Craft beer is different things to different beer lovers,' she says. 'To me, it's small-batch beers made on a local or regional level.'"  Of course, the Brewers Association's entire raison d'être is defining what craft beer is, and who gets to be in the club.  NPR is surprisingly bad about using paid advocates to speak as if they were just disinterested bystanders--whether in politics or industry. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Happy Friday One and All

Portland, Oregon is in the midst of a remarkable run of sunny weather.  When the rains come on Monday, they will have been preceded by 15 days of Rose City sunshine.  Our weather depends in part on the sea, which remains cool until July, keeping the western part of the state shrouded in a batting of fine silvery clouds.  The fourth of July is the traditional start of summer--that moment when you can be assured the day won't bring a high of 58 and drizzling skies.  (By the same pattern, Mother Earth has given us September, air warmed and dried by summer seas, in recompense.) 

Anyway, yesterday I continued perfecting my perfect pale ale in the back yard, and today I head north for a weekend of fun.  In lieu of real content, I leave you with a fine article in Slate, wherein Brian Palmer does a fantastic job of describing the differences between the cultures of beer and wine appreciation.  This is a particularly sharp observation, but the whole article's worth a read:
Ordinary beer lovers actually believe that their opinions matter, and they’re pretty much right. Professional brewers show up at home brew competitions to learn new ideas and techniques, and they read Internet reviews to learn what people are saying about their latest release. (I assure you the good folks at Château Latour do not care what some guy in Kansas thinks about the 2010 vintage.) 
Who sez the MSM can't get beer right?  See you Monday--

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Migration Rallies

When Migration Brewing first opened up a couple years ago, I was psyched.  It's in walking distance from my house, has a comfortable interior and a slightly industrial but typically urban patio out front.  Problem was, the beer had trouble.  The young guys who started the place were eager, hard-working, and determined to improve things, which they did ... marginally.  But meh beer in a city like Portland is a hard sell.

Sunday afternoon and still packed.
I am a coward.  In the months since my last visit (over twelve), I have dodged Migration.  I didn't want to discover the beer hadn't improved and face the blogging consequences of such a finding.

Last Friday, during a celebratory night out, Sally, Patrick, and I decided to give Migration a shot.  It was one of those gorgeous spring evenings when Portland is about the prettiest town on earth and it's like the city has simultaneously taken a big, happy bong hit.  I was no longer slave to my lesser emotions.

After worming our way through the teeming crowd (a hopeful sign), we ordered three pints, found a table, and discovered that all has changed.  The beers were absolutely clean and well-made, and after a moment of shock, we started nit-picking the recipes.  That's always a good sign--if you're talking about slight tinkering, you're really talking about how you enjoy the beer (as opposed to the discussion you're really having when you're attempting to discover what that nasty, rotten note is).  We had the Terry's Porter--the beer I found the most reliable back in the early days--the IPA, and Glisan St. Dry Hop.

The IPA was perhaps objectively out of balance, but typical for the town.  Patrick's a hop head, but he found it a bit sharp even for his liking.  Still, it was obviously intentional, and I found it pretty palatable.  Terry's Porter is a sold, roasty beer with a bit of rounding sweetness.  The Dry Hop was the real winner, though.  A pretty standard pale (with some oats--always a good call) with tons of late addition and dry hop flavor and aroma.  Just 5%, it's the perfect beer for sitting in the sun on that patio.

I am happy to say my next visit will be measured in days or weeks, not months.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Block 15's Spontaneous Project Underway

When I drew up plans for my gratzer quest, I was actually eying two birds with my single stone: no trip to Corvallis should ever exclude Block 15.  And, since I hadn't seen the new Caves pub, I was doubly keen to mosey over.  (The breweries are an easy .3-mile mosey apart from one another.)  By good fortune, owner/brewer Nick Arzner was around, and after we chatted for awhile over Caves Saison, he offered to take me down to the cellar to see what was shakin' resting quietly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Les Caves is a side project of Nick's that is meant to evoke the cafes of Belgium and serve as a less family-friendly alternative to Block 15, which is immediately next door (one day a door may join them).  Key fact: Nick is besotted with Belgium.  References to his travels there are scattered around (Wandelpad, the Provision saison), and for anyone with the good fortune to have visited Tourpes, Les Caves is instantly familiar:

The inside of the wood-paneled, shotgun pub has evocative photos of Belgium on the walls, and the food and tap list are further evocations.  It's not a theme pub, though, so while you find mussels and frites and the house saison on the menu, you also find IPAs and lamb ragu.  (It strikes me as perfectly Belgian to have local specialties on the menu with the classics.)  I can't speak for the food, for I had just come from a feast at Flat Tail.  The Caves Saison, however, was great.

Only a couple beers are Block 15's; the rest are given to Oregon and European beers.  The two Block 15 beers, though, can only be found in the Caves.  One's an IPA and one is a specially-made saison.  Nick started with a farmhouse strain and open-ferments the beer, top cropping for future batches; his hope is to let that strain pick up house characteristics.  He then adds a portion of barrel-aged saison that has wild yeasts (read the full procedure here).  It's a dry, spicy beer, but beyond that I would say go try it yourself--the brewery is currently on batch 3, but this beer is mid-evolution and batch 4 won't taste the same.

Spontaneous Fermentation
Block 15 has had a coolship in the cellar underneath his brewery for a long time--he had it when I visited in 2010.  Built deep so it could handle both spontaneous inoculation--filled shallowly--and also regular open fermentation.  But since the coolship is in the basement, and since coolships are normally on the top floor of a brewery, Nick has been trying to inoculate the room with wild yeasts.  There are barrels down there, and he knows that spills and sloshes release the buggies inside (exactly why breweries do their best to sequester brettanomyces--when they use it at all).  In January, he felt the time was right to try a batch of spontaneously-fermented beer.

He has done everything he can to adhere to the standards of lambic-brewing: a turbid mash (he uses a 50-50 ratio of unmalted wheat to barley), long boil, and rest in the coolship before going in the oak casks.  By tradition, this beer isn't a lambic, though--like champagne, lambic is a product of place as well as ingredients and method.  (When a brewery makes a spontaneous beer outside the Brussels area even in Belgium, they refrain from calling it lambic.)  Still, Nick's trying to do everything else by the book.

I got to sample beer from the cask at just over three months.  Green lambic is funny stuff.  It hasn't yet developed much tartness and is instead enormously fruity.  Young lambics are very cloudy, wheaty, and raw.  They taste like what they are--works in process.  It's absolutely impossible to say what this beer will taste like in two years, but Nick has reason to feel encouraged--the flavors were similar to the young Boon I tried in Lembeek.  Time will tell--the environment may be great for wild yeasts, or a noxious invader may be at work spoiling the beer.  A brewery just can't know until the entire life cycle plays out.  (And in any case, it will take Nick years or decades to be able to produce consistently great lambic.)

As always, he has a few other projects going on, including a wild wit with golden raspberries (super aromatic) and my favorite, a dark Flanders kriek that had a fair acetic wallop but lovely fruit and pit flavors.  Incidentally, a few days after the spontaneous batch went into casks, Nick lost his nerve and pitched yeast into a portion of the beer (the lag time on spontaneous beer is days, not hours).  Of course, the next day the unpitched batch kicked in.  But now he has two varieties, and that pitched portion will probably find its way into something interesting.  (In a contrast to the unpitched portion, it is already tart.)

If you weren't convinced to head to Corvallis after reading about Flat Tail, let this be a further inducement.  You gotta go.

I'll throw a bunch of pictures in below the fold.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sap Beer

An old-timey beer.  Ay-up.

Dodge said that leafy-tasting sap would be boiled down, about halfway to syrup. Farmers added hops, yeast, a little sugar or maybe some raisins and put it up in a barrel in the cellar.

"I don't think the man ever lived that could drink two 8-ounce glasses and walk 10 minutes later. I don't believe so. So, that was sap beer. I doubt if there's a barrel of sap beer in the state of Vermont today," he said back in 1992.
Of course, there's a revival.  Whether it's "authentic" or not--well, that's a pit trap I'll nimbly side-step tonight.

Kali-Ma Becomes an International Incident

Okay, this is getting way out of hand:
Strongly objecting to a US company launching a beer brand named after Goddess Kali, a demand was made in Rajya Sabha [a legislative body sort of halfway between the Senate and House of Lords] today that US Ambassador to India should be summoned and asked to apologise for it.

Raising the issue during Zero Hour, Ravi Shankar Prasad (BJP) said it is a serious and sensitive issue that a Portland-based company Burnside Brewing has launched a product titled Kali-Ma beer, hurting the sentiments of Indians... 
"Summon US Ambassador to India... and make him apologise for this," he said condemning the act and demanded a statement from External Affairs Minister.

The way I read this is that certain Indian politicians have a larger beef with the way Hindu gods are used by American companies generally--not this case in particular:

Earlier also a picture of Goddess Laxmi was displayed in a toilet... picture of God was put on bra... Lord Ganesha was displayed as a sex object in a talk show," he said demanding India to take up the issue with US.
The whole thing counts as a social issue in India.  The BJP is the Hindu nationalist party, sort of like the GOP if the GOP were made up exclusively of Christian conservatives.  In other words, pique over American insensitivity is smack-dab in the center of their wheelhouse.  Think what Rick Santorum might do with a racy picture of Mary on a bottle of beer.

I feel for Burnside, who had every reason to believe their release of a single-batch beer to the citizens of a city 7,000 miles from India would go unnoticed.  Nothing that can be politicized escapes notice of the all-seeing eye of Google, though.  For what it's worth, there's a bit of a backlash against the backlash on Twitter.  For what it's also worth, second edition: I still haven't heard a peep of complaint from anyone who isn't using exploiting apparently faux outrage over the incident.  Anyone?

Monday, May 14, 2012

In Terms of Style, What's "Authentic?"

Last week, in the post about Flat Tail's Grätzer, I described it this way: "The first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about)."  Dave Marliave did his best to replicate a beer based on descriptions of the defunct style, using stiff hopping and a grist of smoked wheat malt.

A commenter named Mike, whom I'm assuming is the Europe-based Mike who sometimes comments, took issue with the "fully-authentic" comment:

"Jeff, when I was in university, many years ago, my English professor used to say: 'If my grandmother wore roller skates would that make her a motorcycle?'"
We arrive now at a place of some controversy: hair-splitting on the question of what qualifies as style adherence.  The problem is that certain styles require greater fidelity than others.  Two of the chapters I wrote most recently in The Beer Bible were lambics and tart Flanders ales, and they offer a nice contrast.  The former requires enormous fidelity of ingredients, method, and even chemical constituents (the presence of isoamyl acetate is verboten).  Flanders ales, variously referred to as red or brown, made with spontaneous or mixed fermentation, wood aged or not, have huge latitude.  German lagers tend to fall in a far narrower band than English or certainly Belgian ales.  In most cases, styles are matters of convention, but there are a few examples like lambics where laws actually play a role.  "Style" is far from a consistent measure.

Then we have the grätzer case, which falls in that category of recreation and raises a whole new set of issues.  The biggest barrier is that for any style brewed before the 20th century, the ingredients were different enough that it's essentially impossible to accurately recreate them.  (Actually, that may not be the case for lagers, but I haven't gotten to that part of the book yet.  It's definitely true for any ale made in Britain, Belgium, or France.)  The act of recreating these styles means trying to figure out how they might have tasted and brewing them to produce those flavors with modern ingredients and processes.  The only reasonable goal is to try for fidelity to flavor.  Grätzers aren't a 19th century recreation, but the style has been extinct for 18 years--and in decline for decades before that.  We know that style variability diminishes as producers quit making them, and probably that last holdout was just one data point on a wider spectrum.

So is Dave's grätzer "fully authentic?"  There is, of course, no answer to this.  The style itself evolved and expressed variation among producers.  There are two qualities that make it distinctive: a smoked wheat grist and stiff hopping.  There are other aspects I guess you could argue are critical as well, like the yeast strain and need for Polish hops, but I wouldn't call these markers of style so much as locality and tradition.  Those demands are matters of preference.  Some traditionalists require extraordinary fidelity to a particular example in order to clear the "authenticity" bar, but breweries themselves have never adhered to this dogma. (I'd be interested to know if Mike would give Choc's Grätzer the thumbs up.)  There is no style authority, so the best we can do is try to find agreement.

For my purposes, I wanted to understand what a beer made with very smoky wheat malt and stiff hopping would taste like.  I've never encountered those combinations in a beer before.  Dave's beer was easily close enough. As with most discussions in the realm of style, your mileage may vary.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Note From the Blogger

On Friday, I turned in the first half of the manuscript to the Beer Bible, a document running 127,003 words*--though that included the table of contents and working bibliography.  I am well aware that blogging has been threadbare lately, and it's because I was trying to meet the first-half deadline.  In recompense, I plan to catch up and go visit the 297** new Portland breweries that have opened since I went underground.  I may even do a little video feature, though since I am a blogger (read: a slacker with poor follow-through), we'll see. 

I plan to visit Pints this week and maybe Gigantic as well.  But I also hope to brew up a batch of summertime ale and I'm leaving for the weekend on Friday morning, so we'll see about that, too.  Harvester, Humble, Fire on the Mountain, The Commons (nope, ain't visited yet), Sasquatch, Occidental, and--who'd I miss?--to come.
*400-500 pages, depending on how those pages are formatted.

**Approximate number.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Holy Crap: Burnside Spikes Kali Ma

I did not see this coming:

Angelo has a bit more, but I still have a hard time not checking the date to make sure it's not April 1:

Upset Hindus have urged Portland (Oregon) based Burnside Brewing Company not to release its “Kali-Ma” beer proposed for May 15, calling it inappropriate. Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada today, said that inappropriate usage of Hindu deities or concepts or symbols for commercial or other agenda was not okay as it hurt the devotees. Zed, who is president of Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that Goddess Kali was highly revered in Hinduism and she was meant to be worshiped in temples and not to be used in selling beer for mercantile greed.
I wrote about this a couple days ago--largely because I spent seven years studying Indian religion in college and grad school--but I'm shocked that Burnside's pulling the beer.  If Zed is the only complainant, I would be a bit cautious here--he seems to be a serious self-promoter and self-appointed protector of Hinduism.  It's always good to be sensitive to inadvertent offense--but I'm not sure Burnside has given anyone offense.  Look more like they gave a random guy an opportunity to generate phony outrage to me.  I encourage Burnside to contact some of these groups first before they make a decision based on the howls of one guy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flat Tail Goes the Full Grätzer

Post Updated with exciting new info--see below.

Over the weekend, I made a trek down to Corvallis--a relatively short jaunt for the average person, but an enormous odyssey for someone who finds even cross-town travel a trial.
My target: the first fully-authentic grätzer brewed by an American craft brewery (or anyway, one near enough to me to know about).  We have seen evocations of the extinct style around town--Ben Edmunds and Jason McAdam have made smoky wheat beers.  But a real grätzer?  They're a bit more radical:
"Grätzer Bier, a rough, bitter beer, brewed from 100% wheat malt with an intense smoke and hop flavour. The green malt undergoes smoking during virtually the whole drying process, is highly dried and has a strong aroma in addition to the smoked flavour. An infusion mash is employed. Hopping rate: for 1 Zentner (100 kg) of malt, 3 kg hops. Gravity just 7º [Plato]. Fermentation is carried out in tuns at a temperature of 15 to 20º C."
There were two reasons no one had made this style of beer before: 1) it sounds crazy to make "a rough, bitter beer  with an intense smoke and hop flavour" that had died out, obviously for lack of love, and also 2) smoked wheat malt has not been commercially available.  Well, a few weeks back, Weyermann rectified issue two, releasing oak-smoked wheat, and Flat Tail's experimental brewer Dave Marliave decided to go all-in.  (Indeed, he got in so early he paid some crazy amount of money for the first lots Weyermann released, only to see the price of smoked wheat plummet after he placed his order.  Punished for his enthusiasm--terrible.)

Dave's Grätzer uses 96% of that smoked wheat and Hallertauer hops, finished with a clean kolsch yeast strain--all in service of a 5% wheat beer that runs a pretty stiff 28 IBUs or so.  Dave's one cheat, if you can call it that, is the inclusion of 4% acidulated malt to give the beer a snap at the finish.  (Which is actually a fair snap: acidulated malt reduces the pH by .1% for every 1% used, and Weyermann recommends just 8% in a Berliner Weisse--itself a damn snappy beer.)

Verdict?  Strange and delicious.  There really is something interesting about balancing smoke and hops at a higher intensity.  To my palate, smoke is a deeper flavor, sometimes sweet, sometimes almost musty, while hops give high and bright notes.  Where smoked beers get weird is when they make a beer meaty and heavy (smoke can fool the brain into thinking meat--hickory makes us think of ham, alder of salmon).  The hops raise up the smokiness so that it doesn't wear on the palate.  That acid balancing note is also a great call, even if it's not traditional (and I'm agnostic on the point).  It lightens the beer even more, so that it becomes a wonderful warm-weather session.  By the end of my pint, I was honestly no longer registering the huge levels of smokiness.  I could enjoy an entire session with that grätzer.

Update.  Thanks to a tip from Stan Hieronymus, I want to direct you to this amazing story of how that yeast came to be.  It started with Choc Brewery in Oklahoma and the friendship between brewer Michael Lalli and a local homebrewer with contacts in Poland, where the style originates.  Those connections led back to a yeast slant taken from the last brewery who made grätzer and a request to Weyermann to make the smoked wheat malt Dave used in his beer.  If you're at all interested in this style, follow that link and go read the story.

Flat Tail
It was also my first visit to Flat Tail, which has the appearance of a wildly successful pub.  It's right on the Willamette River, and has a large sidewalk seating area overlooking same.  Inside, it's a Beavers sports bar, festooned with Beavs paraphernalia.  (I find it odd that there aren't more of these kinds of places in Corvallis, a Pac 12 school.  The city really punches under its weight in terms of Beavs boosterism compared to other cities.  Dave and Co. were wise to fill that niche.)

The food is pretty standard pub fare, though the menu is a big one.  It's hearty and there are some decent vegetarian selections.  Dave's beers are the real treat, though.  When I visited, he had something like 15 beers on tap.  He paired a regular wheat with the grätzer to illustrate the difference in the smoked malt (the non-smoked was also really nice), had a classic English pale on, an IPA with Zythos hops, three sours, a roggenbier, two Baltic porters (one bourbon-aged), a hibiscus beer, and a chocolate chile stout--among others.  Dave is one of those brewers who likes to experiment, but he also likes to brew traditional styles traditionally.  I think my fave of the bunch turned out to be the grätzer, but I also really liked the minty, spicy robbenbier and the balanced, homey pale.

Dave's been getting a lot of notice for his beers, and he deserves it.  Corvallis went from having very little going on to being a must-stop location with Flat Tail and Block 15.  Or, in my case, a must-visit.  I stopped in and saw what Nick was up to at Block 15, and I'll get to that post as soon as I can.

More pics below the fold...

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The "Craft Brew" Economy

In a marathon column at Salon, the political writer David Sirota advances the analogy of expensive craft beer and the trend toward upscale.  Essentially, it's like Apple--people are willing to pay more because it tastes better.  He wraps it up thus:
A Macrobrew Economy — a high-volume, low-price model — asks us to compete with other such economies throughout the world, and the problem is that countries like China will always have lower-priced labor, more lax environmental regulations and lower production standards to win a battle that rewards more and cheaper for more’s and cheaper’s sake. By contrast, a Craft Brew Economy — a high-quality, lower-volume model — is a different proposition. It follows the German model, which, as Time magazine notes, is all about being “committed to making the sort of high-quality, high-performance, innovative products for which the world will pay extra.”  The choice is ours — and it starts with the beer in your fridge.
 I have only one problem here: the analogy is flawed.  Even at ten bones a sixer, beer remains a huge value when compared with good liquor or wine.  It's true that Grain Belt is cheaper, but the distance between Bud and Sierra Nevada is pretty slight in absolute terms.  The analogy may point to something real in the economy--though David's evidence is actually pretty thin--but I would hate to have it rise and fall on the example of craft beer.  It's still a pretty cheap thrill.

Burnside Kali Ma: Kosher Cultural Reappropriation?

Burnside Brewing is releasing a new beer, one freighted with substantial cultural and religious meaning.  Their gloss from the press release:
Kali-Ma, is inspired by the Hindu goddess and her tribute in the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The name Kali comes from kāla, which means black, time, death, lord of death, Shiva. Kali-Ma the beer is an Imperial wheat ale or wheat wine made with toasted cardamom, fenugreek, and cumin spices added in addition to almost 400 pounds of apricot. Fermented with a Belgian ale yeast harvested from Upright Brewing. We then dry hop it with 8 pounds of scotch bonnet and native India dandicut peppers.

Come worship "the black one" Kali as the ultimate reality or Brahman this Tuesday!
Hindu gods are almost irresistible to Americans.  To Yanks, they're gothic in a graphic novel mode, exotic, and very difficult to relate to as divinity.  Thus do they get repurposed as packaging to hawk just about every product sold in America.  Thanks to India Pale Ales, they do a lot of heavy lifting in the beer realm in particular.  Kali is particularly vivid, and the label art exploits her most exotic qualities. Even the mention of that crappy second Indy movie is instructive: so offensive was the movie to Hindus that the Indian government banned it (though admittedly they're quick to ban controversial art).  So, leaving aside the beer, which I haven't tried, is this 1) a silly but harmless reappropriation of Indian religious themes, or 2) an (albeit unintentionally) offensive use of Indian religion?

I'm a bit on the fence.  A lot of this is context.  It would be tremendously offensive to place the image of Muhammad, offensive to many Muslims by its very existence, on a bottle of beer.  But Hindu gods are regularly harnessed to sell products even in India.  Beer?  Okay, that moves us closer to the line.

It would have been nice if Burnside had done enough research that they didn't have to cut and paste Kali's description right off the Wikipedia page.  Kali is an interesting figure in Indian cosmology.  The description mentions that her name means time, and this begins to hint at her significance.  She is the destructive force that in identical to the creative force--with birth must inevitably come death.  The Hindi word for tomorrow, कल, is the same as the word for yesterday.  The Indian cycle of rebirth is something to be escaped; Kali is part of the creative/destructive nature of the fallen world we inhabit, samsara, 

How does all that relate to a wheat wine?  Beats me, but it would have been nice to see it worked into the whole concept a bit more adroitly.  And that last reference to brahman?  Don't even get me started....

Monday, May 07, 2012

How Beer Saved Bend

The New York Times, camped out in Portland, decides on a road trip:
What it showed was this: While places like Seattle and Denver and Brooklyn and Delaware can claim impressive craft brewing scenes, and a weirdly large number of people nationwide now speak of hop fetishes and beer crushes, Bend is a per capita powerhouse. With 80,000 people surrounded by not much of anything — with no Interstate, no university, and the closest major city 160 miles away across steep and snowy mountains — beer has had room to make a difference.

And it has.

“Deschutes County breweries and brew pubs reported 450 jobs in 2010,” Carolyn B. Eagan, a state economist, wrote last fall. “That is 15 percent of all of the brewing employment in the state. For a county that had 4 percent (one of every 25 jobs) of the state’s total employment that year, one out of seven jobs in Oregon brewing is quite impressive.”  
The NYT fancifully suggests the beer saved Bend.  Since unemployment remains 11%, I believe they mean to say it saved Bend's soul.

Friday, May 04, 2012

When Brettanomcyes Sneak In

For the most part, American breweries are now happy to tango with brettanomyces--at least on their own terms.  There are a few who have no interest in wild yeasts, and Full Sail is one--at least, I don't recall any forays they may have made into the funk. Or anyway, intentional forays.  I discovered last night that they have made at least one unintentionally.

Earlier this year, I went out to the brewery to see the latest year-old Top Sail Imperial Porter come out of the barrels.  As you know, every year, Full Sail puts a strong dark ale in barrels and lets them sit there a year; then they blend the barrels together and release them as Top Sail or Black Gold Imperial Stout.  When I visited, they were tasting beer as it came out of the barrel, flagging any batches that had gone south.  Barrels are not precise instruments, and in a certain percentage of them, something goes wrong.  Anything that tasted a bit funky got this treatment:

But here's the thing.  Brettanomyces work very slowly.  I've been in three different barrel rooms where a brewer has discovered a cask that a resident colony, heretofore unbeknownst to the brewery, has begun souring the beer inside.  It takes months for them to reproduce enough that they make their presence known.  it's easy to miss them until they've affected the beer sufficiently.  Their elusiveness is compounded in a process like Full Sail's, where all the barrels are blended together before bottling. 

After my visit, Jamie Emmerson gave me a couple bottles of vintage beers from Full Sail's own cellar.  One of the bottles was an '09 Black Gold, which I cracked last night.  It's no secret where I'm headed.  In 2009, one of those barrels had a bit of the wild culture going on--and after three years, it finally expressed itself. The bottle I had was still fairly mild--just a bit tart and vinous--but it was unmistakable.  Indeed, the flavor was probably not far from the historic London porters of the 19th century.  It had a certain refined quality to it that I quite enjoyed.  Full Sail probably won't be excited to hear it, but that's what happens when you use old whisky barrels--sometimes they harbor wild things.

If anyone else has '09s laying around, I'd be interested to hear what they taste like.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tax Law Theater (More Entertaining Than You Expect)

It's been at least three months since we've had a beer tax post--far too long, don't you think?  Today's post is mainly just a recap of a fascinating little drama that played out when the importer Shelton Brothers (who bring you at least half the exceptional imports you drink regularly) decided to wade into New York's tax laws.  Like any lawsuit, the details are confusing and oblique, but essentially, Shelton Brothers managed to strike down a tax break the state gave to local small breweries.  Oregon has one of these, too, as I assume many states do.  So:
What does this mean for local brewers? Well, let’s take an in-state brewery like Captain Lawrence, whose new brewery has a capacity of about 40,000 barrels per year. Any of that beer sold in New York State is now subject to a new state excise tax rate of $4.34 per barrel. The previous rate? Zero. Captain Lawrence brewer Scott Vaccaro estimates on his site that the rule change will subject his beer to about $100,000 in added expense each year.

Guess how popular the lawsuit made Shelton Brothers?  Today they responded in BeerAdvocate, violating several rules of damage control with this beautiful lead-in:
We’ve heard that there's been a bit of banter about the recent New York Supreme Court ruling, mostly by ill-informed and emotionally fraught bloggers. (Keep those death threats coming, folks!) The facts here are really quite simple, though the legal and financial issues are apparently a bit difficult to comprehend. 

Yep, that's going to settle everyone right down.  (The whole piece is embroidered with inflammatory name-calling and thinly-veiled derision--and is therefore an excellent read.)  Their arguments are two: first, that the thing they really cared about was having to spend $150 a pop to register beer labels--from which small NY breweries were exempt--and second that the tax thing was unfair to them, so suck it, Empire Staters.  Seriously:
It really isn’t for us and other out-of-state brewers and importers to say whether New York should keep its beer taxes or do away with them, as long as we outlanders are not the only ones paying the taxes while New York brewers go tax-free.  If it really is a matter of whether Brooklyn’s head brewer gets a bonus or not, New York has to decide whether it wants to give him and his colleagues that money, or use it for other essential services, like education, fire and police protection, etc., etc...
If any New York brewers tell you now that they can’t raise their prices, even so slightly, because that will make their beer more expensive than beer from their small out-of-state competitors, that is nothing but an unwitting admission that up until now they’ve just been pocketing the savings they enjoy from that unfair tax exemption, rather than passing it along to consumers in the form of lower prices.
To which, you will be unsurprised to learn, there was plenty of reaction.  (PR note #1: if the response to your clarification is how jerky the clarification was, you've failed.)  One of the reactors was a Mr. Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery,
I pointed out that I like many of the beers he imports, that I have helped promote them (as most of us have, in some way or other), and that I've poured them in numerous tastings. Why, I wondered - talking, as I thought I was, to him alone - would he want to do a thing like this? Even if his statements regarding tax law are correct (and I have no idea whether they are), many states have situations that in some way favor in-state brewers. Frankly, it never occurred to me to think of them as unfair. I will not go down this path and print bits and pieces of Mr. Shelton's response; I would, however, characterize it as inflammatory. Mr. Shelton and I have had many heated arguments, often to the wee hours, all over foreign capitols; it's a running joke at this point.
I have a strong sense that all the reactions are not yet in.

In conclusion: 1) many times sellers of good beer are not on the same team with regard to tax law and sometimes makers of good and bad beer are; 2) companies are fools not to pursue their own self-interest even when that may make them unpopular with rivals, but 3) since they function at least partly through the goodwill of their consumers, it would behoove them to at least look like they're not total jerks.

Good times.