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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.

 The brewery is wedged into a corner of the old 
movie house.  


This is the view you may often see outside 
the back of the brewery.  For the sunny day,
 full Hood view, try this

The centerpiece of the bar is this glass art 
piece by Wyeast Lab's Jess Caudill.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Schneller8:07 PM, May 25, 2012

    Wow, that's incredibly exciting. Often times making sour beers seems akin to madness, at least in a commercial sense, but I hope they can pull it off.