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Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Mad Scientist(s) in Milwaukie

It makes a certain kind of perverse sense that the new outpost for Breakside Brewing is located in Milwaukie, just south of Portland in Clackamas County.  (Founder Lot Whitcomb named it for the other Milwaukee, though he apparently never lived there, which is odd.)  Milwaukie is the anti-Portlandia.  It is aggressively normal.  People live in or move to Milwaukie to get away from the single-estate coffee roasters, microbreweries, tattoos, and urban infill of the big city.  So the most outre place to locate your new boundary-crashing brewery is, of course, Milwaukie.

Which is where I sampled beers made with everything from fennel pollen to cedar tips last Friday.  Brewing with weird ingredients is no longer weird, but no one has embraced it as enthusiastically as Ben Edmunds (and now he has a team of style-benders to assist his alchemy).  Last week, in what was largely a failed experiment to understand the idea of "good" beer, I had in mind potions like Cedarbaumbier, an American wheat beer made with wild-foraged cedar tips and no hops.  The beer tasted like forest.  Actually, it tasted like thuja plicata, the mighty Western red cedar, my favorite of all trees in the world.  No plant has had a more important impact on the Pacific Northwest than this not-cedar (it's actually a cypress), which was used for centuries in everything from art to homes to extracts.  An incredibly aromatic tree, anyone who has walked in the old forests of Oregon will have encountered this giant (I believe it's second only to the redwood in size).  Doug firs are more common, but cedars are iconic.  So a glassful of cedar, sweet, resinous, perfumed--something halfway between a cleaning supply and a shake shingle.  How to assess?

When I was still in college, ignorant but curious, I received some folk wisdom from a friend that has served me well.  We were looking at an abstract painting by a friend of ours, and had no way of assessing it.  He said, "I always want to see if someone can draw something realistically before I judge their abstract stuff.  If you can do proportion and angle, I'll trust you to do abstract."  This holds with beer, too.  Amid the savory stouts  and cardamomy Belgian pales Ben and Sam Barber were slapping in front of us, they were also serving classics: pilsner, dunkel, tmavé, Flanders tart.  They've introduced a pale since my last visit that is absolutely saturated in hop goodness, but has something like only 35 IBUs.  The dunkel and tmavé might have been served in Munich and Prague, the Flanders tart, though kissed by bourbon, was very much a brother to Rodenbach (they use the Roselare yeast, but only after, like Rodenbach, completely fermenting out a regular beer).  The pils is already a regular beer and big seller--though truthfully the IBUs put it partway into the Northwest tradition.

I guess I'm just going to have to get with the program.  The truth is, I loved the Cedarbaumbier.  I'd like to try a pint--or better yet two or three--just to see how the experience evolves.  My favorite beer of the flight was a saison made with fennel seeds and pollen.  I know that it will be a bridge too far for some folks--fennel divides people--but it was an inspired combo.  Fennel is a bit like anise, but also earthy and woody.  In both intensity and type, it has a great deal in common with the phenolics you get in some saison yeasts.  You could taste the yeast's work and you could taste the fennel, but they met in the middle in a way that was impossible to tease apart.

Some of Ben's first batches of beers tasted like experiments.  Over time, he (and his cohorts) have grown more and more able to take weird ingredients and make a beer that tastes intentional.  Cedarbaumbier is hard to rate on the good-bad spectrum, but by the "is this what you were shooting for?" metric, it felt like a bullseye.  The new tasting room is a great place to sample from the full spectrum--they've got everything there (21 beers on our visit).  The place is a bit hard to find, but persevere and trust that the funny little industrial park is the right place.  Seems like Fridays are a good time to see the brewers manning the taps.  That's handy, because you will almost certainly like to inquire about the weird beer.


  1. Really nice post, Jeff.

    I like your take—great context on every piece of the operation.

    One thing, though: As I understand it, part of the concept is that the brewers themselves are almost always the bartenders. This has pros and cons as bartending is, contrary to popular belief, skilled labor that requires a certain touch... (Not to mention actually being behind the bar instead of out mingling, so patrons don't have to stand there waiting for a drink for two minutes, as we did.) But I don't think you'll find more knowledgeable bartenders in town.

    I had planned to review the bar for our paper next week. Now gonna do something else instead—but I'm happy someone nailed what it all means.

    -Martin Cizmar

  2. I am with you on the cedarbaumbier, outstanding!