April 30, 2014

My Oregon Beer Trail -- Part 3

Part 2 of this trail was day one in Portland. We took a day to go out to Hood River and then returned to drinking in Portland before a brief non-drinking detour to Seattle before heading to Bend. I'll post on Hood River separately just to keep the Portland stuff together. So more Portland we go...

Breakside Brewery

Breakside is a small brewery with a brewpub location in north Portland. Their lineup is a mix of classic craft styles mixed up with both straight forward, classic presentations and some unique takes on the styles with various inclusions. The beers are solid, prototypical examples of classic American craft styles. They were good beers and beers I would be happy to hang out and drink but not necessarily the beers I was trying to hunt down or spend time discussing here. The food was delicious and there were a few of the beers that stood out and I found worth mentioning:

  • Gooseberry wheat: A simple American wheat with gooseberries, just like you think it would be. Nicely tart with clean fruit flavor. We don't get gooseberry in Texas so maybe I liked it an extra helping because it was a new flavor for me. Interesting mix of grape, apricot and fig. Nicely placed in this beer.
  • Wanderlust IPA: This was a well constructed IPA with huge grapefruit notes. It includes five hop varieties but the cascade-like grapefruit punch really dominated the hop profile. It was like a big brother for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
  • Ice Smoked Doppelbock: This was a smoked doppelbock freeze concentrated down to a stronger beer. It was full of malty complexity and a balanced amount of smoke that was present but not overwhelming. They did a good job of freeze concentrating an already big beer without making the alcohol too present. It drank way, way too easy. 

Upright Brewery

Upright was a must-see brewery for me because I was crossing off every saison and sour brewer I could find and I had heard good things about Upright. The brewery is located in the basement of a mixed use building near where the Trailblazers play and I strongly got the impression that the brewers decided to fit themselves in a small area with little room to expand specifically to capture that foot traffic. The taproom is sort of clunky and there's not a lot of seating. You're just sort of thrust in the brew house if you can't fit in the small taproom section. There's no bar. It's just some guy standing in the corner with taps sticking out of the wall. It's ok, I don't need glamor, just good beer. It was just a strange place. The picture below is the brew house but off to the left is some seating.

Upright focuses on farmhouse style beers but also produces a set of other beers that include an IPA and a few German beers. I found the combination of farmhouse ales and German beers (both lager and ale) a very common combination in Portland. I'm not sure what drives the desire to put those two together but it seemed to work well. At any rate, I wasn't nearly as impressed by these beers as I had expected. Some were pretty good but others seemed rough around the edges. Anyway, there were some beers we liked so let's get to those:

  • Four: Four is a wheat-heavy saison. It's sour mashed, so there's some tartness to it but it doesn't reach the level of a bracing acidity of a sour beer. Lots of noble hop character going on with it as well. 
  • Seven: Seven was somewhere between a tripel and a saison, with the more refined and clean fruit character of a tripel although it's still saison yeast driving the beer. The hops are more restrained but not completely subdued.
  • Four Play: Four Play is Four soured in Pinot barrels with cherries. A really great beer. The base beer was lost among the sour, funk and cherries but what was revived from the barrels was everything I was looking forward to from Upright. Great fresh fruit flavor going on. 
  • White Truffle Gose: Probably the best gose I've had. It's a saison yeast fermented gose with a bunch of white truffle dropped in. The salty character mixed really well with the earthy truffle flavors. The truffle was a very mild flavor so I'm not sure these guys got their money's worth out of them but the end product was very good. I often find gose a little flabby from the excessive salt (which promotes maltiness, sometimes too far) but that problem didn't arise here. Good stuff.

Hopworks Urban Brewery

Hopworks wasn't on our list of places to visit but we drove past it to get to Breakside and I had heard some good things so we decided to stop in. They have a couple locations: the main brewpub on the east side of town and the second BikeBar on the north side (where we went). Hopworks focuses on producing beer "as sustainably as possible" including the use of local and organic ingredients. Hopworks, which also markets itself as H.U.B., has an extensive lineup of beer and like many local brewers there were plenty of hoppy beers on the list. Hopworks receives fairly strong reviews on the beer rating sites but IMO the beers were mostly average to slightly above average. I guess they just weren't my cup of tea. Not necessarily bad beers but in a city full of brewers pumping out IPAs and variants of IPAs they didn't stand out. I would rather see them pair back the selection and focus on improving the quality of the beer. I didn't find flaws in the beers they just tasted like beers a few iterations short of a polished recipe. All that said, we were impressed by one of the beers:

  • Survival Stout: More an american stout by style, this stout features seven grains (barley, wheat, oats, amaranth, quinoa, spelt and kamut) plus coffee. It has a nice depth of flavor both from the coffee and the grains. What I found most impressive about this beer was the balanced approach to using some of these more obscure grains. Often when I find beers with those types of grain the recipe tends to push forward the unusual character of the grains to the point that it sticks out in an unpleasant way. Here the unique profiles of the amaranth, quinoa, spelt and kamut were restrained and well-integrated into the beer. Interesting but still easily drinkable.

The Commons Brewery

The Commons was another brewery we were on the hunt to find because it fit our saison-and-sour focus.The Commons Brewery is located just east of downtown across the river in what looks to be one of those warehouses-turned-mixed-commercial-use buildings. The set up was somewhat similar to Upright with a small bar, a smattering of seating and open access to the brew house in that same sort of open concept space. However, unlike Upright, it was more spacious with a larger bar.

The Commons Brewery primarily focuses on Belgian farmhouse ales and German beers, which is a strange blend for a line up. On one hand, the farmhouse beers have an anything goes attitude while German beers are considered highly precise and focused. We were told by our excellent bartender that the brewer has experience brewing German styles but wanted to branch out into the farmhouse styles. Various other styles, mostly English, also appear among the taps. I found it impressive that the brewery did such a good job producing technical German beers and turn around and pull out farmhouse beers with a lot of rustic character. We actually found this combination of Belgian and German beers fairly common around Portland. I'm not sure of the actual motivation across all of the breweries but it had the feel like the Belgian beers were the crazy side of the lineup while the German side played the safe card without being the nth brewery to dump out blonde and brown ales to satiate those disinterested in weird beers. So although it is a strange mix, it certainly wasn't unusual for the local scene.

We enjoyed the mix of beer and were overall very impressed by the line up. We were quickly won over by the saison but found the rest of the beers kept standards high. Overall, the beers were not the most exotic but did an excellent job of generating complex flavor profiles while keeping the beers drinkable. I found it refreshing that the beers were not overly hoppy to satisfy the local celebrity of American hops. Instead, restrained noble hop profiles carried through and it was a refreshing change from the vats of C hops I was drinking everywhere else (not that it was a bad thing). Here were our favorites from among the beers we tasted:

  • Urban Farmhouse Ale: A straightforward saison with a gentle hop profile and lots of yeast character heavy on the phenolics rather than a fruit bomb. This is the flagship beer for good reason. It is easy to drink at 5.3% without the bold flavors often crammed into saisons (something I am often guilty of) but enough complexity to make it worth slowly enjoying. 
  • Biere Royale: A one off for the taproom, this beer is a blonde sour with black currants. Currants are known to play well in sour beer and this one was no exception. Punchy sourness and a hint of funk helped round out the earthy currant flavor. Fruit character was present but not overwhelming. Like the other beers, well balanced.
  • Putin Riot: An excellent example of a baltic porter. This was the hoppy option on the tap wall, which isn't saying too much in the pacific northwest with its noble hop profile and deep malty character. It's an excellent baltic porter, easily among the best I've come across. The hops were fresh and complimentary to the dark malt flavors. There aren't many breweries producing great baltic porters so it's nice to find one when you can.
  • Flemish Kiss: A brett-spiked belgian pale ale heavy on the brett. The brewery's website claims the beer begins life as an american pale ale rather than a belgian pale ale that develops a flavor akin of Orval and other bretted pale ales after five weeks of aging. What I liked most about this beer is how well integrated the brett character was after so little aging. The funky brett character was similar to what you often see in brett beers after a year or more of aging with a smoother funk and less of the more offputting brett notes like wet dog or mouse taint. 
Ok, that's the end of Portland. We hit a very small number of breweries but we had a long road of drinking ahead of us and you can only hit so many places. Portland traffic is pretty bad so that played a role in how many places we could hit. We wanted to drive out to De Garde and Block 15 along with several other Portland breweries and bars but we just didn't have the time. We'll certainly be back, so there's plenty of time to visit more. On this trip we also hit Bend and Hood River, so there's at least a couple more posts on this trip to write. I have a busy work schedule early next week and I'm in California for more brewery visits the latter half of next week and most of the following week so I need to try to knock out posting the rest of this journey this week. 


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