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Monday, May 12, 2014

First Look: Astoria's Buoy Beer

The town of Astoria, where the Columbia River drains into the Pacific Ocean, has become one of the best places in Oregon to drink beer.  In the space of a half-mile stroll, one can proceed from Fort George Brewing to Astoria Brewing (.3 miles) and then on down the Riverwalk to newly-opened Buoy Beer, smack dab on pilings in the river.  It's on the site of the former New England Fish Company of Oregon cannery (a 90-year old structure; it's not clear how much of the current building dates back that far). 

The principals in the brewery are a group of guys who had various things to bring to the table (story here), including Dan Hamilton, a homebrewer with a penchant for lagers.  They brought in Kevin Shaw, a brewer whose professional experience dates back to Star Brewing in the mid-90s.  He also brewed for Bert Grant, got a degree at Siebel, and then went on to work for 14 years at BridgePort.  The focus on lagers is the hallmark of Buoy's line (at least now), and they have a helles, pils, and cream ale on tap now, and a dunkel is apparently part of the regular rotation (but not on now).  There's a pale but--shocker!--no IPA.  (Given that Astoria and Fort George are so close and so closely identified with hops, this may be an astute move.)

The building is pretty spectacular.  It's got a wonderfully worn wooden floor and wood-paneled walls that make for a cozy pub session.  They've installed a sliding door that opens out on the boardwalk portion of the Riverwalk, which they can swing open on those rare, sunny and warm days.  All the wood makes it relatively quiet inside.  The real treat is still coming, though.  When you enter the building, you pass by the main bar and restaurant on one side and the brewery on the other.  If you keep following the hallway, it dumps out you into an as-yet-unfinished room that is bounded by large windows looking out over the river.  If you incline your head, you can see the bridge to the left.  They are installing a bar in that room and it looks like it isn't super far from being complete.  It's going to be one of the prize places to sit in Astoria once they get it open.

The Beer
Buoy clearly emphasizes lagers.  They prefer classic, unadorned old-school lagers in their traditional presentation.  No 38-BU dunkels here.  I really hope they sell, because these are rare beers in Oregon (which is exactly the reason I'm worried they won't).  In addition to the lagers, they have a pale, a porter, and a red.  My notes:
  • Helles.  The malt is nice and bready, but quite light--one has to bring attention to notice it at all.  The hops are delicate and lightly spicy, just as you would expect, and there's a mineral component that reminds me of Bavaria.  The surprise is that it's a fruity beer, too--berry, perhaps, and definitely banana.  I think isoamyl acetate (the banana) probably gets you drummed out of the Munich brewers guild, but it's subtle enough that the overall presentation here isn't hurt by it.  And I tried more than a few Franconian helleses that had odd esters floating about. 
  • Czech Pils.  It looks and smells just right--although the hops are not especially pronounced in the nose.  At first sip, the malts really pop nicely, too, but then the hops come in fast and sharp.  Czechs talk a lot about "soft" bittering, and a lot of them use first-wort hopping to try to get a softness.  Perhaps this version is too dry, but the 35 IBUs throw things a bit out of balance.
  • Pale.  An impressive beer keyed by vividly piney hops.  It has excellent balance, with rich, saturated flavor.  As I was drinking it, I started thinking about what kind of conifer was I tasting.  Was it really pine?  Maybe juniper.  Cedar?  Sweet spruce?  There's definitely a touch of dank as well. Both the pale lagers were clear and bright, and I was happy to see the pale was cloudy in the Oregon manner.
  • Cream Ale.  This doesn't seem to be part of their regular line-up, but it is their most impressive beer.  You want a cream ale to have a sweet, approachable palate, but in order for it to be a satisfying session ale, it's got to end with a crisp snap.  This one does that, and has a lovely touch of corn sweetness in the middle  (I'll probably learn there's no corn and lose all credibility--wait, I have no credibility.  Never mind.)  I had a pint and the last sip was as refreshing as the first.
  • NW Red Ale.  A chewy, spicy, caramelly beer with a somewhat jagged, ragged finish.  Okay but not especially memorable. 
  • ESB.  Seems like it has a great recipe, with lots of bready malts topped by soft hopping--but it was overwhelmed by diacetyl.  The brewers may have been trying to leave a dollop of diacetyl in, but this was way too much.
  • Porter.  Chalky black malts greet your tongue, but they're not supported by anything.  The mid-palate is hollow, and it stays chalky and charred throughout.  There is a bit of berry ester that works well, but I could use a few more crystal malts to add body and sweetness.

The Food
Oysters above and fish and chips below.
Astoria has quietly become a pretty decent food town, too.  Twenty years ago, it was a food desert, and if you went out to a "nice" restaurant, you paid 20 bucks for rubbery, bland fish.  Buoy's trying to offer a serious menu, and based on the two dishes Sally and I had, they're pulling it off.  You'd think Astoria would have a lot of seafood, but it doesn't (except for fish and chips, a local specialty).  Buoy's menu is seafood-heavy, and is helmed by chef Eric Jenkins, an old hand with fish. Not only is the focus on seafood, but where possible, Jenkins sources local catches.   Buoy also offers burgers, and good call--despite the seafood, most people seem to be going for them.  (It may have had to do with portion size--see  below.)

I'm a fish and chips fan, and I love both Bowpicker's and Fort George, both of which serve tuna F&C.  At Buoy you get a choice of salmon or rockfish, and I went the latter.  The breading was delicate and not greasy (critical), but it was the fish that stood out.  Flaky, flavorful, and moist.  I could have eaten a pound of it.  The fries were crisp and salty.

Sally had pan-fried Willapa Bay oysters with jalepeno jam.  By the description, I expected it to be an overly-fussy misfire, but no.  The jam had only a trace of fire, and that balanced the sweetness.  Both drew out the succulence from the oysters. Impressive.  If there's a drawback to the menu, it's portion size.  The fish and chips are hearty, but the oysters weren't a complete meal.  If she didn't have my fries to snack on, Sally would have had to get a side.  That makes it a fairly spendy outing--but worth the price.

Overall, a strong debut, and I expect it will only improve as rooms and recipes come on line and get refined.  Since I make it to Astoria pretty often, I will be happy to check in and report back.  I'll throw a few extra pictures below the fold for those who admire my beautiful iPhone handiwork.

The unfinished river-view room.

Looking east down the Riverwalk. 

The open space on the right is the main pub area. 

The bar.


  1. I can't wait to sit in that bar and take in that view. Great description and a nice little write-up, overall. Good to see.

  2. Update, 12/27/14. That helles has been tuned up and dialed in--no esters, amazing malt character, and light but zingy hops. Spectacular.