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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oregon's Best Beer

This week our local alt-weekly Willamette Week released their annual beer guide.  It includes their picks of the year's best beers and, for the first time ever, winners of the "Oregon Beer Awards" in 15 different categories.  Most people are pretty desensitized to best-of lists these days, particularly in this moment of online listicles.  Who cares what WW thinks, so goes the thinking, since we all have our own favorites?  I've got one foot in that boat, too, but there are a few reasons why this is a good and healthy development.

Upright's Alex Ganum. (WW's Arts and Culture editor,
Martin Cizmar, smiles in the shadows at right.)
Let's start with WW's pick for best beer: Upright Engelberg Pilsner.  Awards are only effective so long as they're credible.  I absolutely love this pick.  It follows pFriem's Strong Dark (2014) and the Commons' Urban Farmhouse (2013)--also excellent choices.  They're all good beers, but WW is also effectively using its bully pulpit to identify important beers.  Oregon breweries have been trying to make traditional pilsners for decades, and they just never sold.  Brewers love them, but the market is a tyrant--no sales, no pilsner.  Upright managed to finally break through, though.  I suspect it had something to do with restaurants--I would regularly find it on places with well-curated taplists.  (Chefs know that pilsners are great with food; they're versatile and won't overwhelm the dishes they've worked so hard to perfect.)  Since Upright came out, Oregon has now become a safe port for pilsners, and there are a ton of excellent ones around.  I've noticed restaurants often seem to reserve a tap handle for pilsners the way they do for IPAs.  Give Alex and Upright a lot of credit for that--and give WW credit for recognizing it.

This hints at why awards may have lasting value.  We don't fool ourselves into thinking there is such a thing as a "best" beer--subjectivity can never be quantified.  Yet collectively, awards are a great way to give a snapshot to a particular time and place.  Willamette Week's awards can't reflect the actual best beers, but they can illuminate where the beer world was at that moment.  Awards are really a way of saying, "here's where we were in 2015."  Done well, they act both as a pretty good time capsule and year-end wrap up all in one.

Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker
I don't know if the Oregon Beer Awards will have legs, but I also think it's worthwhile to have a bit of pomp and celebrate an industry.  On Monday, WW announced the awards at the Doug Fir Lounge, and there was quite a turnout.  Kurt Widmer, rarely sighted in the wild, was in the house.  Matt Swihart, rarely cited in Portland, was too.  You couldn't swing a bottle of High Life without hitting a brewer (bottles of which started popping up after the beer lines downstairs got too long).  I was part of the selection committee that created the categories and made nominations.  (It was mostly brewers and people inside the industry, not writers.)  WW sent the names of the ten nominees in each category out to a couple hundred industry types for the voting.  The recognition came from inside the industry and allowed some smaller entities to shine.  It felt like the kind of collegial event that has been the hallmark of Oregon brewing for so long--and I could imagine it surviving well into the future.

So while I don't need WW to tell me what Oregon's best beer is, I'm glad they did anyway. 

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