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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Satori Award for 2016

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer.  

When we gaze back over 2016, our eyes pass anxiously over stories about "the industry." The chatter is about things like sagging flagship sales, "brand positions," metastasizing breweries and beer,  and excess capacity. The once-DIY flavor of small breweries has become slick and professional. There's no longer a clear line between those small brewers who are authentically excited about the beer first, and those that use "passionate" as a PR term to drum up business. All of which has led to a kind of weary cynicism about everything to do with beer.

Lost in all of this focus on the business is the thing that's really important: the beer itself. And by that metric, 2016 was spectacular. It's true we can't taste all the good beers out there like we once fooled ourselves into thinking we could. But among the beers I tried were a number of truly exceptional offerings. For a graybeard who can remember what passed for "good beer" a quarter century ago, we are truly living in the golden age. We normalize things in our minds, moving the needle on what's considered average without ever realizing we're doing it. Take the average American brewery in 2016 and time-travel it back to 1991 and it would instantly become one of the country's best. And the breweries making the best beer are doing it at a level absolutely no American brewery could touch back then. (Even Sierra Nevada 2016 crushes Sierra Nevada '91.)

The Satori gives me a chance to look back at the year and remind myself just how good it was. The full list of the beers I considered for the award is here, and I could write a separate post on the significance of each beer and why I admired it. We select a "best" as a political move--we choose a particular example of art because it says something about that moment in time. But "best" is a ridiculous designation, as we all know. It's really just an excuse to talk about the things we love. With that in mind, let me point to three other beers that I didn't choose--which were equal in every way to the winner.

Zoiglhaus - North German Pilsner
German beers just do not get the kind of love American, Belgian, or even Czech beers get. They are acts of subtlety and restraint, and as a result, don't dazzle the palate the way vivid saisons, IPAs, or wild ales do. Nevertheless, Alan Taylor's mastery over this oeuvre is worthy of a lot more attention than it gets. The house helles is a masterpiece, the dunkel lager now pouring is the equal of any I found in Bavaria, and his Berliner weisse is literally one of the best examples made in the world. But this summer's North German Pilsner was special because it exemplified not just the brewer's art, but something about the brewer and brewery, too.

No one is as professorial as Alan Taylor. My first introduction to him was on this blog, when I quoted a 1914 German text that used the word "zentner," an obscure term I'd never encountered. Taylor quickly commented on the post, explaining what it was. A bit later on, he was introducing two goses brewed at Widmer, detailing the difference between the Leipziger and Goslar variants. Since then I've turned to him a number of times to explain the arcane or technical to me, and he has always come through. Well, with North German Pilsner, he exposes his customers to this side of his personality. The dry, hoppy, and fairly macho pilsners Taylor loved to drink while living in Berlin get the spotlight this time. They are indeed unusual beers, with less balance, less malt, and a good deal more bitterness than is typical either for German beers or lagers in general. (They're roughly the opposite, within the same style band, of American mass market lagers.) It's an obscure style presented lucidly--a perfect metaphor for everything Taylor does.

Taylor's version smacks you across the mouth like a right cross, and for the first couple swallows you're wondering what's the matter with him. But then your tongue adjusts and a previously hidden layer of malt flavor emerges. The best beers are not just good from a sensory perspective, but from an experiential one. I had my first pint on a hot day in July after riding out to Lents on my bike. I was sweaty and steaming, just like the factory workers who were the original drinkers of these kinds of beers. It enlivened me and slaked my thirst and offered an experience I will never forget.

Agrarian Ales - Field Beer
One of the quiet developments in brewing in the past half-decade is the emergence of true farmhouse brewing. This is happening nationwide. In 2012, for example, New York state introduced a law to encourage farm-based brewing. The South has been on the leading edge of farm brewing, and places like Scratch Brewing in Illinois have gotten attention for their old-world ways.

Oregon's doing all right on this front as well, and Agrarian Ales in the Southern Willamette Valley near Eugene is our local version of Scratch. They use their own farm-grown hops and dose most of their beers with something grown on-site. Appropriately, their line is rustic, whether the beer is a lager, a traditional style, or a farmhouse ale; they are cloudy, yeasty, and full of the flavors of grain and hop (and often beet or sage flower or apples or whatever's on hand). The beer that wowed me, however, was a little 4% saison with no frills. It had a simple grain bill and I think a single hop variety. Despite all this simplicity and its modest strength, the little beer was a mighty mite of flavor. Yeast led the way, with a character similar to Dupont's, with an emphasis on phenolics. It was heavily hopped, giving it a pretty nice bitter punch followed by wildflower aromatics. A spectacular beer, and one that seemed precisely of the place and moment I drank it.

Ex Novo  - Where the Mild Things Are.
Ex Novo is another brewery that had a quietly superb year, and richly deserves more attention. Departing brewer Jason Barbee (who was at Deschutes PDX before Ex Novo) has a feel for the beers of Great Britain, and I've previously extolled the delights of Stiff Upper Lip, a spectacular strong bitter. Brexit Through the Gift Shop, a summer ale, and Most Interesting Lager in the World are another pair of big winners. Barbee and Ex Novo's body of work this year puts them near the top of Portland's breweries.

But nothing was as special as their 3.5% dark mild. If we were to categorize styles by how close to extinction they are, milds would be moving from endangered to critically endangered. Even in the country of their birth they are really rare in the wild. I've been able to drink maybe two dozen separate brands in my day, and I've never let one go by without downing (a pint of) it. That said, Where the Mild Things Are is easily the best mild I've ever tasted. I Sherpa-ed it in July, writing: "It has it all, from a rich, biscuity/nutty malt profile to a sturdy body to a creamy mouthfeel (despite being served on regular draft). And wonder above wonders, it doesn't taste like a low-alcohol beer. You wouldn't mistake it for a double IPA, but neither does it have that hollow spot so often found in weaker beers. It is hearty and satisfying, rich and flavorful, and of course, wonderfully sessionable."

Very rarely do you locate a clear best-in-style beer, so this is a seriously impressive accomplishment. I was this close to choosing Mild Things for the Satori and would have, were it not for the beer I did choose.

Satori Winner: pFriem Sour IPA
For a small brewery that makes so much noise with its barrel-aged selections, it may seem odd to single out a beer that hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and yet here it is, my Satori 2016: pFriem Sour IPA.

So why did this beer go mostly unnoticed? A big part of the problem is a category error: it is neither sour nor an IPA. Putting people in the frame of mind to expect one or the other of these things, I think they missed the genius of this beer. IPA is a category large enough to contain multitudes, but even a term that malleable has certain limits; no beer that's 5% and 15 IBUs will ever meet the expectation of someone looking for an IPA. Nor is it particularly "sour." The brewery uses kettle souring to lower the pH, but only to a level of tartness that harmonizes with lushly tropical dry hopping.

Rather, the idea is to use acidity rather than bitterness to balance the beer and give it structure. American IPAs have been on an inexorable quest to achieve the qualities of fruit juice, going so far as to include fruit juice (and rind) to create the effect. But hop bitterness is not like anything that appears in fruit juice, and always creates some distance. pFriem takes the logical step in eliminating the bitterness and replacing it with acidity--the balance in fruit juice itself.

Rather than chase the IPA trend, though, pFriem has done something more interesting. These light, bright fruit flavors are not consonant with a big, boozy beer. They're like lemonade on a summer day--crisp and refreshing. The aromatics that come from dry-hopping are delicate and complex. When other hopping is used, they accent the flavors and aromas that come along with kettle hopping. When they're floated atop a kettle-soured base, however, they have to stand on their own. That calls for a softer hand.

Sour IPA is a new style altogether. It may be a logical step in American brewing, but it's too far removed either from more familiar kettle-soured beers and from American IPAs to be substyles of either. Josh Pfriem and Co. have a literalist approach to beer names: they call them by their style. (pFriem has a beer called "Flanders Red," which is fine, but compare it to The Commons' Flemish Kiss, a much more evocative moniker.) For the most part, the loss of a resonant hook a good name provides is offset by the sheer virtuosity of the beer inside. But in the case of Sour IPA it is regrettable. The beer itself is at once instantly familiar and completely unusual. It's a new thing in the beer world, a purely American thing, and it's my beer of the year.


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