Category: craft beer

Hop TonicIt’s been a while since we’ve sampled a good double…

Hop Tonic

It’s been a while since we’ve sampled a good double IPA. It seems that the new hazy IPA trend has been covering up a more sinister drop in alcohol. All the hazies I’ve seen lately are 7% ABV and under. Makes you wonder. 

But Hair of the Dog recently released Green Dot, an extra special 9.5% ABV version of their classic Blue Dot double IPA. It’s a boozy beast designed to deliver optimal hop flavor. Like a tincture, the higher alcohol absorbs hop oils and delivers the resins directly to the user. A spoonful honeyed malt sweetness meets a juicy fruit flavor – melon and mango – before being swept away in a therapeutic wave of floral piney bitterness. The finish is a little medicinal, like cherry cough syrup, completing the image.

Beer-likeIt’s nice to know there are still brewers making beer…

Beer-like

It’s nice to know there are still brewers making beer flavored beer. Baerlic Brewing recently celebrated four years of beery beer and opened a new location in Portland’s underbeered Rose City Park. To celebrate they released a new, get this, pale ale. American pale ale is an underappreciated beer style. You can do so much with a little golden malt and some good hops. Rose City Park, the pale ale, opens with a floral bouquet, like jasmine or lavender. The flavor starts with golden malt sweetness that is immediately eradicated by a bracing bitterness and a perfumed finish. Every sip invites another, the best possible compliment in a session beer.

Helles Bells If it didn’t say Helles on the bottle, would it…

Helles Bells

If it didn’t say Helles on the bottle, would it taste like one?

In a blind taste test, could I tell the difference between Buoy’s Pilsner and Helles lagers? When I have the one bottle in front of me, it takes a moment to taste the essential helles-ness of the beer. It’s crisp on the tongue, with the cleanness of any good lager. The hopping is light and herbal adding just the thinnest bitterness. The malt is golden and sweet. This is where the helles flavor kicks in – notes of honey and golden sugar crystals. It’s sweet, but not that sweet. In another bottle, in another can, would it taste like a pilsner? Or perhaps a Pabst?

Kegged and ConditionedThis weekend, we found ourselves driving…

Kegged and Conditioned

This weekend, we found ourselves driving through the state capital in search of a nice pint. Salem isn’t a particularly beery city, but the metro area hosts a respectable ten or so taprooms and brewpubs. We went straight for Santiam Brewing on the southside of town. It’s not the fanciest place in town, nor the most famous, but in addition to a dozen beers on tap, Santiam serves not one but four cask conditioned ales

For the uninitiated, cask conditioning is a beer serving method most often seen in the UK. In a typical American brewery, when beer is packaged in kegs, carbon dioxide is forced into the beer. Carbonated beer is then dispensed on tap with more gas. Cask conditioned beers, or “real” ales, are fermented right in the keg giving it a much lighter carbonation. When it comes time to serve it, a tap can be inserted right into the cask and dispensed like a big gatorade cooler. To keep the yeast working, cask beers are kept at about fifty degrees fahrenheit. It’s this unique conditioning that gives English beer the appearance of being warm and flat.

Santiam has four beer engines which pump the beer from under the bar. The result is a smooth, slightly bubbly beer. Without the extra carbon dioxide, even a light beer feels full bodied. But this is America, and an ordinary bitter with less than four percent alcohol won’t move too fast, so all the Santiam taps were over six percent. But that’s not to say they weren’t tasty.

Spitfire is an amber colored extra special bitter. It’s brewed with traditional Maris Otter malt with a little crystal malt and Belgian candi sugar for color and English Admiral and Fuggle Hops. Despite being on the strong side for a bitter, it’s incredibly drinkable, and even in the afternoon warmth, Spitfire is still cool enough to be refreshing. 

The IPA, Stonehenge, is a burnished copper color and full of classic Cascade hop flavor. I could stick to that for an afternoon very happily. The cask conditioning really brings out the grapefruit flavor. It’s not harshly bitter, but it’s far from the fluffy, sweet hazy IPA currently in fashion.

Coal Porter feels like a pint of nitro Guinness but with a deeper flavor. The low carbonation calls for gulping and glugging instead of the usual taproom sniffing and swirling. The toasty flavor goes perfectly with thick cut french fries.

I’m not a great judge of cask beers. I understand there is a certain art to tapping a cask. The beer should be lively and fresh, but not green or underdone, but it should be poured entirely before it gets old and stale. The care of casks is more like that of fermenting homebrew. But I only get to taste a few cask ales a year, so I don’t know the difference between a beer in good condition or bad. But I know I definitely enjoyed drinking the beer at Santiam.

How Beer Styles are BornIn the early 1800s, Pilsen was not known…

How Beer Styles are Born

In the early 1800s, Pilsen was not known for beer. The brewers of Pilsen made ale, and not very well. The beer was unimaginative and often quite bad. Locals with connections started bringing in lager across the border from Bavaria, especially lager. Lager was still a new phenomenon. No one was quite sure why, but these cold fermented new beers didn’t spoil as often as the locally made ale. The local brewers didn’t like seeing their market shrink, so they gathered together to make a new brewery, specialized to recreate the lagers everyone loved.

They hired local architects to study breweries in Munich and abroad. He designed a state of the art brewery with sparkling brewing equipment, cellars for long aging, and a new malthouse for making pale English-style malt. The money men also hired a young brewer trained in the German lager breweries. In 1842, Josef Grolls made the world’s first Pilsner.

Why am I telling you all this? Because all beer styles are created by human beings living in a particular place at a particular time. Without the popularity of imported dunkel from Bavaria, the burghers never would have fronted the money for a local lager brewery. Without advances in kiln technology and malting, clear, golden beer wouldn’t be possible. And without that soft Pilsen well water, the beer wouldn’t taste as sweet.

Beer is a product of the surrounding culture. Beer is subject to the forces of technology, geography, and politics.

Pilsner Urquell, the direct descendant of Josef Grolls first beer, is made in much the same way as it was in the beginning. It starts with Czech barley floor malted and kilned to a light toast. Floor malting leads to a uneven product, but that’s part of the charm. At Urquell, and most Czech breweries, the malt is mashed using traditional decoctions method in which a portion of the grain is removed from the main mash and boiled before being added back in. This extra step caramelizes the sugars slightly, giving the beer a deeper gold color and a richer flavor. The hops are locally grown Saaz, a cultivar that was domesticated from European wild hops centuries ago. The result is a fresh, herbal bitterness. The beer is fermented cold and matured underground for up to weeks – until the nineties Urquell was lagered in oak tanks four two months before packaging.

This new Bohemian beer caught on like wildfire. Josef Groll’s Pilsner hit like the hyped up IPAs of today. Within a few short years the new beer was everywhere. And soon everyone was trying to copy it.

Across the border in Bavaria, brewers suddenly found themselves competing with Czech upstarts. They designed their own sparkling lager Helles, like this Benediktiner, made with local German ingredients. The new blonde lager was even clearer than the original. The malt is more evenly kilned and need less work in the brewhouse. Without decoction the beer ends up with a more honey flavored sweetness and a rounded body. The hops are German varietals like Tettnanger, but there are less of them. For drinkers raised on the malt driven Dunkel, the sweeter, less hoppy Helles style was a great alternative to imported Pilsner.

Further north, in the mining regions of the Westphalia, the brewers of Dortmund made their own take on Pilsner and, following the naming conventions of the time, called it Dortmunder. But Dortmunder didn’t catch on until they made a stronger version for foreign markets, Dortmunder Export. This new beer was stronger, almost 6% ABV. The extra alcohol was met with a sulfury scent from the local water, giving the beer a snappy edge. Of course, it’s hard to find a proper Dortmunder Export these days. Brewers still trade under the name, but the beer is a shadow of its former self. DAB makes a 5% ABV lager called Export, but it lacks any features to differentiate it from any other pale lager. No sulfur. No alcohol. It’s just another inane, inoffensive, crisp beer

So what causes one beer style disappear while another lives on to beguile a new generation of beer drinkers? Let’s blame Capitalism.

The story of twentieth century beer is a tale of industrialization, consolidation, and standardization. As the name implies, Dortmunder Export was made for international markets, and the international market was dominated by American lagers with their increasingly flavorless fizz. To compete, you’re beer had to be almost completely indistinct. Hard edges were worn down, alcohol brought down to avoid duties, and any hint of sulfur scrubbed away. The result is a beer that tastes just like any other beer, but in a signature package.

Bavarian brewers have always been a stubborn lot. Even as dark Munich dunkel was losing sales to golden Pilsner, the local brewers union was voting to expel anyone making the new helles lager. But once helles caught on, brewers and drinkers stuck to it. Bavaria is provincial like that. The beer is brewed by locals for locals for the most part. They didn’t look to make their beer accessible to foreigners.

Pilsner brewers in Bohemia didn’t even have the option. After the World Wars, Pilsen and the entire Bohemian region was absorbed into Czechoslovakia a member of the Soviet Bloc. Behind the Iron Curtain, brewers and drinkers had less access to imported lagers from the US and Germany and were not affected by the midcentury boom in brewery consolidation and the flavor revolution of light beer. When international Communism dissolved in 1990 Pilsner Urquell emerged as if nothing had changed. The multinational conglomerates never had a chance to “improve” the old methods.

When a brewer sets out a make a beer these days, she’s liable to look at the way beer was made somewhere else, sometime else and attempt to match those specifications exactly. It’s not hard to use a little chemistry to match the soft water of Pilsen or the hard water of Burton-upon-Trent. It’s simple to order malt and hops from around the world. So when you see a Czech-style Pilsner brewed in Portland or New York, you know the brewer is trying to echo this ur-Pilsner. 

But in the process we’ve lost a bit of the wibbly copying of the late 19th century. If Bavarian brewers had access to Czech ingredients and basic water chemistry, they could have easily copied their neighbors and run them out of business. But they didn’t. They only had access to locally grown ingredients and made due., creating something unique in the process. The same thing happened all over the globe, from Dortmund to St. Louis brewers tried to make their own pilsner, and in the process invented dozens of variations on that same theme.

The same thing rarely happens these days. An IPA brewed in San Diego or Tampa or London is going to use malt from a few global producers and hops inevitably grown in the Yakima Valley and fermented with yeast from one of three labs. There’s plenty of room for experimentation, but less room for regional specialization. That’s a shame. I’d love to see someone try to create an IPA with ingredients only grown in Canada or Columbia. That would take some real creativity.

Pale Green ThingsWho said you need hops to make a beer taste…

Pale Green Things

Who said you need hops to make a beer taste like oranges? Spruce Budd is brewed with spruce tips. In the spring, the forests of Oregon’s coast range are full of new growth. The pale green tips of Douglas fir and spruce trees have been eaten by native tribes for millennia. Their high in vitamin C, full of minerals, and taste great.

Spruce Budd is brewed in Fort George’s small Sweet Virginia brewery with only light pilsner malt and pounds of fresh foraged fir. The beer is amazing. It’s fresh and zippy and tastes nothing like a christmas tree. It’s floral and citrusy. Like orange blossoms. It’s bright. It’s sweet. It’s delicious.

3-Way IPAEvery year, the brewers at Fort George invite over a…

3-Way IPA

Every year, the brewers at Fort George invite over a couple friends to make a new IPA. But this is no one time brew. 3-Way IPA comes out in June but the collaboration starts in January. Throughout the spring, they brew test batches and serve them under the Beta IPA tag in Astoria. When the recipe is perfect, they can it and send it out.

This year’s 3-Way was brewed in collaboration with Seattle’s Holy Mountain Brewing and Modern Times out of San Diego. It’s a juicy, fruity, sweet, and tangy beer, but it looks like mud. Oats and wheat form the thick and creamy body. The fruit flavor is all over the map. It tastes like passion fruit. No. It’s tangerines. Peaches? I don’t know. But it’s pretty tasty. Just don’t look to closely at the weird beige pulp swirling around in there. 

Cleaning the CellarThere are some old beers in our closet. A…

Cleaning the Cellar

There are some old beers in our closet. A fine layer of dust has settled on the vintage Abyss bottles. But a few bottles seem to are coated in either extra thick dust particles or a very thin layer of mold. It’s powdery and white. That can’t be good. Maybe it’s time to rearrange and clean things up. But first, let’s drink some beer.

Billy the Mountain is Upright Brewing’s old ale

based on 19th century English brews. It’s a blend of fresh young beer and aged, sort of sour, beer. This particular bottle is from the 2016 release. Billy is a rich malty brew that evokes a certain rustic elegance. Tart notes of bing cherries and black grapes come more from the skins than the fruit. It’s dry and tannic. Under the vinous jam is a layer of brown bread and leather. Despite the mildew, it seems to be holding up just fine.

I took everything out of the closet, and wiped down all everything before returning it. The culprit seems to be an old bottle of Cantillon Kriek. There was a drip line leading from the capped cork. It must have sprung a leak at some point. Yikes. I’m not sure if I’ll be sampling that particular vintage.

SimpleA golden ale with a whiff of fresh flowers, a hint of…

Simple

A golden ale with a whiff of fresh flowers, a hint of marmalade on the tongue, and a crisp body. It’s all you really need. Everything else is fluff.

The Future and the PastWhen the shelves are crowded with the…

The Future and the Past

When the shelves are crowded with the next big thing, it’s good to remember that popularity is cyclical. Ideas that seem daft today will be everywhere next year, and gone a year after that. Right now glitter beer is the contentious next big thing. It’s shiny! It’s fun! It’s gross! It’s going to make your poo sparkle! Who knows, next year it could be everywhere. And the year after that it could go the way of black IPA.

Black IPA, also known as Cascadian dark ale around these parts, is the marriage of the dark roasted malt of a porter or stout with the heavy American hopping of an IPA. It shouldn’t work on paper, and I’m sure in the early stages there were many weird iterations, but the style captured a certain adventurous spirit.

It shouldn’t work – and it’s still arguable whether it’s does – but somehow it goes together. Drinking a dark IPA is a bit like tasting those fancy single origin coffees. The tasting notes offer stone fruit and orange blossoms, but at first all you taste is coffee. It’s just a subtle difference in aroma and a tingle at the back of the throat. Oh! That is a little different. That is a bit like a peach.

Secession CDA from Hopworks is one a of the few of these roasty hop bombs that have survived into the hazy IPA era. It pours out blackety black with a creamy meringue head. It smells a little odd. A mixture of roasted grain and perfumy hop flower. The flavor starts out familiar enough, a little bit astringent and toasty, before moving into the light notes of citrus near the back end. It’s not particularly fruity, just a little suggestion of orange peel and pine. It’s subtle but very unique. No one could confuse it for a robust porter.