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Monday, July 01, 2013

Astoria in June

Better than Paris, France.
You may dream of a summer trip to the Champs-Élysées, with repasts of vino and baguette and views of the Seine, but give me a paper plate of Bowpicker's and a pint of beer at the mouth of the mighty Columbia.  Views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower?  I prefer to rest my gaze on the majesty of grain barges.  Twice in the past two weeks did I visit Oregon's old town, but the second is the one you'll be interested in: I and a gaggle of writers toured Fort George on the occasion of the release of their 3-Way IPA, a collaboration with Lompoc and Gigantic.

We also got a tour of both breweries--the old wee one you can see at the back of the pub and the new 30-barrel system across the parking lot.  But: breweries.  I could tell you about a cool fitting at the bottom of the grain silo that sends organic malt in opposite directions to both brewhouses, or about the pig-shaped hot liquor tank.  But they're breweries, and one mash tun thrills no more than the next.  I hadn't seen the new canning line, and I admit a fascination with packaging, but again, not a lot to say there.  The rilly big shew, however, was our first glimpse at the new second-floor pub space that runs the entire length of the Fort George building (the brewery shares the first floor with the Blue Scorcher Cafe). 

Fort George Expansion
Fort George has grown in increments since it first opened.  Initially, space included a modest pub and the small brewery.  Then the brewery built an outdoor patio for those many sunny days Astoria enjoys.  Then they began steady expansion that took them to neighboring buildings for storage and brewing space.  But except for that patio, the seating space has not grown. (I kid about that sun thing--Astoria is the most humid town in the US, averages 191 days of rain, 67 inches of it overall, and gets less than a week, on average, of temperatures north of 80 degrees.)  Popping a spiral staircase to the second floor way more than doubles it.

The new upstairs is suffused in light that comes in through three walls that are largely warehouse windows.  You get a better view of the river up there, too.  It's essentially a self-contained separate restaurant, with a different menu and a separate bar.  Whereas you get a pretty standard pub menu below, upstairs it's wood-fired pizzas.  The tables and bars are long and beautiful, and I can imagine that when light is scarce around about January, this will be a great place to be.  One of the coolest features is that spiral staircase; the brewery managed to harvest discarded runners from the last upgrade of the Astoria column.  Anyone who's been up that signature landmark will instantly recognize them.  (There are a batch of photos here.) 

New Beers
We were ostensibly visiting to try the 3-Way IPA, and we each received one as it came off the canning line.  (As cool as it sounds.)  Lompoc, Gigantic, and Ft George all all noted for hops, so I expected a face-melter, but instead, it's more a meditation on the eras of Oregon IPAs.  It's got old school hops (Cascade), more modern hops (Centennial), and new hops (Meridian), all in a milkshake-cloudy solution of sweetish (but not heavy) malting.  A summer IPA.

The beer that won my heart is a different collaboration, Tender Loving Empire Northwest Pale Ale.  Leaving aside the question of this new style appellation (it's just a pale), it's a damned tasty beer.  Sweet with honey malt but spiced with a bit of rye, it's electrified by Meridian, Simcoe, and Centennial hops.  It is very close to bright, a minor miracle for Fort George, is light-bodied and very crisp--so much so that I was fooled into asking whether they'd used the 1811 lager yeast.  (Nope.)  They did can it, I don't know whether you can find it in PDX.  All the more reason to spurn France and head to the Sunset Empire.

Astoria Brewing Expansion
Angelo De Ieso and I did break away from the herd for a stop into Astoria Brewing, which is but a quarter mile away.  Astoria Brewing has been shoe-horned inside a small corner of the Wet Dog Cafe since 1997 ("Pacific Rim Brewery" for the first half of that time).  Some time ago, owner Steve Allen decided to expand, and a new brewery will go in a few buildings down the Riverwalk.

Astoria is a very nice counterpoint to Fort George.  Despite the fact that Astoria's flagship is the aptly-named Bitter Bitch, brewer John Dalgren has interest in beer ranging from sessionable lagers to wild ales--beers Fort George is just never going to mess with.  (If Fort George were a band, they'd be something like the Ramones--boisterous, hugely fun, but totally unmistakable.)  My palate was in slightly rough shape when we arrived to try three subtle beers in a row--a kolsch, very light pilsner, and--on my request--a strawberry wheat ale.  John was actually a bit embarrassed by that last one, but it was actually exquisite.  There are few agricultural products finer in this fine state than strawberries, and he captured their lovely flavor, married them to the wheat, and kept everything dry.  It's a hard beer to brew, and it was really dialed in.

Fort George has definitely captured the imagination of Astorians.  But visitors should not be too blinded by its assets to ignore Astoria Brewing.  Dalgren is quietly making very nice beers a few blocks away.  (And the Wet Dog has the better view.)

John Dalgren (L) and Steve Allen

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