April 23, 2014

My Oregon Beer Trail -- Part 2

My wife and I first hit Portland on our Oregon alcoholiday. It was the easiest airport to hit and an easy place to start drinking. The flight in was incredible. We came in over the Columbia River with massive snow capped mountains, such as Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens, on either side. Outside of the large number of breweries in Portland, the city is probably most known for its eclectic and liberal identity. In addition to the enormous number of breweries, there are plenty of other fun things to do in Portland. There's great food (we enjoyed excellent meals at Andina and South Park as well as great brewpub food at Deschutes) and we took a nice hike in the forest park on the north side of town. We hit Voodoo Doughnuts, which were good donuts but maybe not so fascinating that I would have stood in line for more than the twenty minutes it took us to get through the line on a Friday morning. They flavor combinations are interesting and although the lemon chiffon crueller was among the best donuts I've ever had, I wouldn't stand in the hour plus lines on the weekend to get them.

Ok, enough non-beer ramble. Let's get into talking about beer. With so many breweries to choose from but limited time, we decided to focus on enjoying the places we wanted to go the most rather than trying to go for breadth. We breweries we chose to hit were primarily sour and saison based but we made our way around to a few other places. Overall we were pretty happy with the beers we enjoyed and I would happily go back for more.

I drank an enormous amount of beer on this trip and rather than discuss each beer, I'll just highlight my favorites. I only had time for one tour but I picked up a few odds and ends so I'll try to share what little brewing knowledge I picked up along with discussing the breweries and their beers.

Deschutes Portland Public House

Deschutes maintains a spacious brewpub in the upscale Pearl District in Portland, which both sells beers imported from the main Bend production facility as well as brews several of its own beers. Deschutes allows each of its pub locations (the other is in Bend and we'll get to both Bend locations later) to experiment and sell its own beers that are developed outside of the main Deschutes line of beers. The food is excellent and worth the visit even if you aren't a huge Deschutes fan. (The Thai Wings made with Fresh Squeezed IPA are alone worth the visit.) Thanks to our friendly connection at Deschutes we were allowed into the brew house to chat with the brewer. They brew on a brewhaus system modified to include a hop rocket in a tightly fit brewhouse. I found it surprising that even with a brewhouse the same size as many production craft breweries they had to bring in beer from Bend to supplement their production of the main lineup but that is just a testimony to how much business they do out of that brewpub. We were told they sold 56,000 taster trays last year. Crazy.

Here's a picture of the brew house. It's not the smallest brew house I've seen (Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs is basically a closet) but it's probably the smallest brew house I've seen pumping out as much beer.



So here's a few beers I picked as my favorites from the Portland pub:

  • Fresh Squeezed IPA on cask: Fresh Squeezed is probably my favorite IPA (and I have so few I really enjoy) but putting it on cask kicked it up a notch. I always prefer IPA by cask because the warm temperature and gentle carbonation helps subdue the bitterness and brings out the hop flavor in a more rounded profile. Here the cask made the blueberry and peach notes really stand out. You're really getting your money's worth out of the mosaic and citra hops that way.
  • Mirror Mirror: It's hard not to put a barrel aged barleywine on a list of favorites but it deserves its place. It's deep and complex without being bowled over by the barrel character, which is present but subdued, exactly the way I like my barrel flavor in a barleywine. 
  • Double D imperial spelt ale: This is a weizenbock made with spelt in place of the wheat. It was a really interesting beer. It had all the familiar characteristics of a weizenbock but with that nutty, creamy flavor of spelt rather than the tart and bready character of regular old wheat malt.
A couple other beers that weren't favorites but worth mentioning:
  • Experimental Pale Ale: This one off beer was made with one of the experimental hop varieties with very accurate description of mint, tea and grape. I had mixed feelings about the beer. I liked it on some sips and hated it on others. It was a really interesting hop character just not one I really think of as a pale ale profile. Maybe something better suited for a quirky saison or matched up with noble or english hop varieties. I know I have read the description for this experimental hop somewhere but I wasn't able to track it back down to label it here. If you know which variety this is, please add it in the comments below.
  • Unnamed imperial red ale/india red ale/whatever we are calling them now: When we were given a brief tour of the brewing facility the brewer was kind enough to offer us samples of this beer he had just created and was still clearing out. It was his first attempt at brewing a beer with the hopbursting method and in spite of the yeasty character of the unpolished beer it had a really pleasant hop flavor. I hope that beer gets some time on the taps. It will be excellent once it's clear and carbonated.

 Hair of the Dog

After brewing an adambier of my own and having long desired trying HOTD's Adam. HOTD has been around since the 1990s and has cemented its identity as a cornerstone of Portland's beer identity. However, I was really surprised by how many people told us (after we told them we had visited) that HOTD is largely overrated. I have to say, I kind of agree. They were really out there in the mid-90s but today most of their beers are well within the scope of the average brewery's line up. All that said, I think it's still worth a visit to try out Adam and some of the variants on their beers. I am less negative about their beers than others (my wife included) although the hype exceeds quality. I thought several of the beers were better than average but not the stunning beers I thought I was getting.

Adam is an interesting beer and I can see how they built a reputation out of it. I didn't particularly love it because it's heavy on the peat malt and I just don't love that iodine character in my beer or my scotch. There's a lot of malt complexity going on behind it but it wasn't worth getting through the iodine to find it.

On the other hand, we also had Adam aged three years in barrels and that is a very different story. The iodine character is lost to a subtle smoky remnant and all that malt complexity comes shining through, along with some barrel character. It easily stacks up against some of the best barrel aged barleywines out there with pleasant smoothness in spite of the 10% ABV but an avalanche of flavors to explore. I would go back to HOTD for the barrel aged Adam but I'd probably pass on everything else.

The other most well-known of their beers is Fred, a Belgian golden strong ale. I liked it but wife hated it. It had a nice yeast profile but it was on the cloying side of the style. Not among the best I've tried but I would drink it again if offered.

So in summary, worth the visit if you are really after the adambier and you have appropriate expectations.

Cascade Brewing/Cascade Barrel House

You bet your ass I'm not going to overlook the big sour brewer in Portland. We hit the barrel room on the north side of town, which features sour beers, over the taproom on the south side of Portland that features their non-sour line up. They do some pretty interesting stuff at the barrel room, with plenty of sour beer on tap along with a few non-sour options. The craziest thing is Tap It Tuesday, where they allow two lucky patrons to tap an actual barrel that goes into the taproom's lineup. The time we spent at Cascade was among the best experiences of our trip. We loved the beers and our server was really cool. We don't have anything like this in Texas, so that made it a really special occasion.

For those, like myself, who do not have access to Cascade in your local bars and bottle shops, Cascade's sour program is largely made up of various sour beers that are blended, often with fruit and/or spices. It is often reported that Cascade relies solely on lactobacillus for souring their beers. That would make sense if you want to add spices to the beer and control the phenolic part of the flavor profile that would often be dominated by brett. Not to mention brett's desire to manipulate the phenols coming from spices into something different. However, several individuals with home yeast labs report seeing brett floating around in the dregs of Cascade beers. Perhaps it is coming off the fruit. I believe the official word from Cascade is that they are still lacto-only. There's not an obvious brett character in the beers so I'm willing to buy into it.

It's hard not to like the wide range of sour beers from Cascade, if you like sour beer, but the beers really command respect for the level of blending and careful flavor profile construction that goes into each beer. While many brewers are still struggling to produce quality kriek or frambroise, Cascade is putting out a quality line of fruited and/or spiced sour beers that add complex flavor profiles on top of the sour base. Maybe they have figured out leaving brett out of the picture makes it easier to construct that complex flavor profile but I don't see that as taking the easy way out, just making the right decision to produce the best beer within the brewer's target.

There were so many beers I loved that the lengthy list that follows is the short list of my favorite beers. So many of the beers at Cascade deservedly placed on my list of exceptional beers that I had a hard time trying to pair down the list for publication.

  • Frite Galois: Let's start off with one of the more complex brews to show what I mean about Cascade's level of blending and flavor profile construction. Frite Galois is a blend of a wheat-heavy sour beer aged for three months on apricot pits and then blended with an unaged gose. There's sourness but also the malt character of the young beer mixed together. The apricot pits give the beer a subtle amaretto-like character. Surprisingly complex for a sour beer missing the crazy flavor additions brett normally brings to the table.
  • Figaro: This is a twelve month old blonde sour aged in chardonnay barrels then supplemented with white figs and lemon peel for up to an additional twelve months. Punchy acidity mixed with the chardonnay character, sweet but earthy figs and crisp lemon. Again just really complex fruit flavors but nicely restrained so the beer doesn't get lost underneath all of it. This was probably our favorite of all the beers.
  • Sang Noir: A blend of sour red beer aged in bourbon and pinot noir barrels for 12-24 months and then blended with "bourbon barrel aged bing and sour cherries". An interesting take on the usual Flanders red style missing the brett funk but taking on a deep fruit character from the cherries and bourbon that emulated the typical brett cherry pie character but without the funky side of it. 
  • Noyaux Apricot and Raspberry: A blended sour blonde ale aged in white port barrels and then given generous doses of raspberry and toasted apricot pits and further aged for a total of 2-3 years from brew to packaging. The raspberry wasn't overwhelming but asserted itself. The apricot pits add sort of a creme brulee kind of sweetness that makes the beer bring sort of a raspberry jam flavor but with far more acidity. It wasn't the usual framboise beer that can be fruity but extremely acidic.
  • Vlad the Imp Aler: A blend of various strong Belgian blonde ales soured in bourbon and wine barrels for up to two years. Sounds like your run of the mill high ABV blonde sour but it had a lot of interesting fruity character where sours normally have the brett funk, which made it a very different beer from a lambic or other brett-assisted sour beer. 
  • Diesel: A bourbon barrel aged stout with molasses, Belgian dark candy sugar and vanilla beans. There are plenty of beers like this around the national market but it was a really well constructed version at a very reasonable price. The inclusion of molasses seems to be strongly preferred in the Pacific NW (Deschutes' Abyss includes it as well) and it does a really nice job of tempering the sweetness from the bourbon barrels that can sometimes be a little cloying.
  • Oblique B&W Stout: This is a coffee-infused white stout. It is the color of a blonde ale but the first thing you smell is that coffee. It's very confusing to look at but the taste is harmonious. Can we agree that a white stout and a blonde barleywine are the same thing? Just a lot of pale malts (e.g. two row, white wheat malt, pils malt, etc.) with little to no crystal malt (to prevent it from being too english barleywine-like) and no roasted malts (to prevent it from being a regular stout). The coffee infusion gives that impression of roast that would come from the roasted malts but without the color because the amount of coffee used isn't enough to make a big color impact. It's the first I've come across and regardless of whether the whole white stout thing is a gimmick it's a pretty good beer.
Alright that's most of Portland. I have more Portland to go, as well as Bend and Hood River. I'll try to get the next clump of breweries up in the next few days.

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