May 8, 2014

My Oregon Beer Trail -- Part 5

We concluded our trip in Bend, home of Deschutes and a number of other breweries. Bend has long been a hub for vacations due to its proximity to multiple climates. Lots of visitors means lots of drinkers which means plenty of opportunities for breweries. There are currently a dozen breweries in the small town (depending on how you count them). The downtown area is a picturesque blend of new and old multi-use buildings aside the Deschutes River. It's friendly and walkable. The rest of the city looks similar to any other smallish town, minus the mountainous scenery.

Bend has taken advantage of its numerous breweries by promoting the Bend Ale Trail, in which you obtain a brochure (called a passport) and take it around to each of the dozen breweries and get it stamped. Upon completion you take it to the Bend tourist agency and they give you a silicone pint cup that acknowledges your ability to drink at twelve breweries. I had read around the interwebz that many people found the Bend Ale Trail insurmountable. It is a challenge if you attempt to drink a lot of beer at each location. We hit taster trays at most places and split them so we didn't drink too much beer but honestly it's still a lot of beer. One place gave us a taster tray with eleven beers. We managed to knock out the Bend Ale Trail in twenty-five hours which included sleep time, a workout and about three hours at the main Deschutes brewery. We know how to put down some beer.

Many of the breweries in Bend are older breweries that offer a lot of the typical brews: the obligatory IPA, pale ale, yellow beer and dark beer, plus a few seasonal IPAs. Not all of them were great but we didn't come across any terribly flawed beers. Lots of mediocre beers that I only drank because I wanted to declare victory over the Bend Ale Trail. However, there were lots of great beers and interesting locations so on balance it was a great experience. Let's get to it.

10 Barrel Brewing

10 Barrel is one of the ever-popular brewpub with pizza joints. They have a production facility in Bend along with pubs in Bend, Portland (to open this year) and Boise. We visited the Bend pub, which featured excellent food along with an interesting mix of beers that spanned the conventional to more unusual beers. The business has only been around since 2007 but is obviously doing very well. I couldn't tell for sure but it seemed like there wasn't an actual brew house in the pub. (I do know the Portland location opening later this year will have its own system.) Overall we found the beers solid. Some of the beers weren't our preference but they do a good job of balancing new styles/trends with classic beers. A couple really stood out for us:

  • Night Ryed'r: You can probably guess from the name that this is a rye porter. I couldn't find much info about it online so I think this was a one-off batch. A solid porter and not afraid to let the rye shine through.
  • Cucumber Crush: Hands down the best beer we had from 10 Barrel. It is a cucumber infused Berliner weisse. I'm not a huge BW fan but it seems to be a great canvas for interesting flavors. The cucumber brought some fresh earthy flavors and a little sweetness that worked well with the tartness. The overall result was a very refreshing beer with a lemon/cucumber flavor profile. Among the top two or three BWs I've ever had.

Good Life Brewing

Good Life maintains a lengthy list of beer options that focus around hoppy beers and a smaller set of malty options. The flight we ordered had eleven different beers! Good Life had a laidback tap room which made it an inviting place to pour through an extensive set of beers. We killed off all but a few ounces. Definitely a place I'd go back to get some full pours. Here's our favorites:

  • Sweet as!: This beer is labeled a "Pacific Ale" which I expected would be just another way to call a beer an IPA without calling it an IPA, but this beer fit more in the XPA category (which itself is just an older model of IPA...) with fruity AUS/NZ hops. Nice bright flavors and a nice change of pace from the piney/citrus/floral C hops all over Oregon.
  • 29er Brown Ale: There's a lot of bland brown ales out there but this isn't one of them. It's a little bigger than the typical 4% brown ale. There's lots of English malts putting together a nice mix of caramel, chocolate and coffee flavors along with a mix of hops that is noticeable and complimentary. 
  • Belgian IPA: This seemed to be a one off batch but maybe it is part of a seasonal rotation. It's hard to say because I can't find a lot of information about their beers online. The whole Belgian IPA fad may have passed but it's still a good style and a few breweries have done a good job representing why that trend became popular in the first place. Unmistakable Belgian yeast character shines through a complex hop profile.

Cascade Lakes Brewing Co.

Cascade Lakes started in 1994 and you can tell by their line up. Their core line up is the classic standards from the 1990s: porter, IPA, brown ale, blond ale. They also mix in several seasonals and that list is heavy on IPAs as one would expect in the Pacific NW. We visited the lodge location, which looks a lot like a ski lodge. The taster flight came with (I believe) seven beers in six ounce pours so it was a lot of beer. Unfortunately, we didn't really care for the beers. Not awful just very mediocre. I recognize that older breweries have an established customer base who have a preference for the line up as it is and that means the brewery has to stay loyal to those beers that were novel in the 1990s as they established themselves. However, the seasonals are pushing more modern styles but still have that tempered feel. There are just better versions of the same beers around town.

McMenamins 

So McMenamins is a chain business in the pacific northwest with locations that mix lodging, brewing, dining and concert hall together. The Bend location, Old St. Francis School, is a 1930s Catholic schoolhouse turned into a hotel with several on-site bars. I don't believe there is brewing at this location although they serve their own beer. McMenamins did a great job restoring/remodeling the building. They kept a very old feel to it and at very least it's worth seeing it from the inside. I heard a lot of bad things about the beers from people, ranging from bland to severely flawed. I only had one beer here and found it decidedly mediocre. I wasn't willing to roll the dice and pick a flawed beer so I left it at that. Probably not a place I would hunt down again.

Silver Moon Brewing Co.

Silver Moon is a little outside of downtown in the non-touristy part of town. It has the feel of a working class kind of bar in a working class neighborhood. The service was very pleasant and helpful and the beer lineup was predictably hop-forward. Another place where the beers were average but not the best example of the styles around town.

Old Mill Brew Werks

Old Mill Brew Werks appears to be a newer brewery in Bend but by looking at the beers in the standard line up I'd guess they opened doors around 2010. They need a lot of work. The beers were barely drinkable. Flawed and boring.

Worthy Brewing

Worthy Brewing has an interesting business model. They are owned by the people who run Indie Hops and they have designed Worthy's location to be one part environmentally friendly brewery and one part a place to experiment on hops, with the eventual goal to develop proprietary hop strains for their beers. It's smart because the brewery gives the hop farming a natural audience to test new strains. The picture to the right is some of the hops being grown on site. It's definitely a developed business strategy.

The problem, however, is that the beers don't reach the same high level as the brewery's planning. We hit the tasting tray and found a lot of the beers really boring and some slight fermentation flaws showed up among the line up. The have a huge portfolio of beers they brew between their regular brew house and their pilot system. They would definitely benefit by scaling back the portfolio and improving the quality of a smaller number of beers.

Bend Brewing Co.

Bend Brewing is another lodge-like brewpub that is one part restaurant, one part sports bar and one part a really nice way to enjoy a beer while enjoying the view of Mirror Pond. Bend Brewing has good food and decent beer. Their line up, like so many others, features a typical core portfolio plus a rotating seasonal line up that is hop-forward. That I found unusual was that the regular line up features an old ale, which was pretty decent. One beer really stood out so let's get to it:

  • Ching Ching Berliner Weisse: This beer is a pomegranate hibiscus berliner weisse. A radiant pink color with an inviting fruity aroma. The clean sourness makes the subtle flower and cherry-berry pomegranate flavors pop. It's a good job of getting fruit into a BW without turning it too sour or too sweet. On the other hand, I think the name and logo are racist.

Boneyard Brewing Co.

Boneyard is located in what looks like Bend's roughest neighborhood (which really isn't saying that much) but they have a rough around the collar attitude so maybe that was intentional. Boneyard doesn't do a tap room although they should. Instead, the customer area is a small space with beer to go but you can get 2oz. tasters of each beer. You can get very reasonably priced growler fills but I could have gone for a couple pints. Boneyard is doing interesting things, both with their regular line up and their limited runs. Boneyard is well regarded for good reason. A couple of the beers we got stood out:

  • Black 13 Black Ale: Can we agree that a "black ale" is just a stout with less body? We have come to think of stouts as roasty and thick bodied and porters as thinner and more chocolaty (let's save the legitimacy of a distinction for another discussion) so it feels like "black ale" is just a way to market a beer that is somewhere in between without offending the expectations of consumers. This rendition was interesting. It had some sweet notes to it, like a milk stout, but it was really smooth like a schwarzbier. This is one of the few renditions of a black ale that really felt like a crossover beer that didn't quite fit into any particular style for style's sake. This is what more black ales should try to be.
  • Diable Rojo Fuego: This is an imperial red ale with habanero. Habanero is a tricky chile because it has great fruity flavor but it is intensely spicy. I've only had a few beers with habanero and most of them have been entirely too spicy. Lots of people review this beer as being overwhelming in the heat but I didn't find that to be the case. Instead the beer brings some sweetness and alcohol to help temper the heat. It's definitely there but you can enjoy the bready beer flavor and the fruity habanero flavor along with a jolt of spicy heat. The heat is present enough that I probably wouldn't drink more than one at a time but not to intense that I couldn't easily polish off a pint. It's a good balance with a pepper that could easily make the beer undrinkable. 

 Crux Fermentation Project

Crux is a unique little brewery born out of the mind of a former Deschutes brewer. The brewery is located in a tricky area to find but with a great view of the mountains.  The tap room features an excellent kitchen to go along with great beers. The tap room is surrounded by barrels and the brew house with easy access to view the slumbering beer and the active brewing system. Their beer portfolio includes Belgian styles, German styles and unsuprisingly a few hoppy beers. All good stuff going down but I had to pick out a few favorites so here you go:

  • Hefeweissen: A really solid version of a hefe. It's big on the banana, rather than the clove. I like a hefe with a big banana kick so this was right up my alley. Not everybody loves the nanner as much as I do (including my wife) but you can't have all hefes tasting identical.
  • Freakcake Oud Bruin: Freakcake is brewed along the lines of a flemish red but features some different specialty malts. It's also heavy on the brett and low on the acidity which made for an interesting take on oud bruin, which usually are the other way around, and produced a pleasantly complex flavor profile with a tartness that helped add contour and definition to the flavors.
  • Banished Tough Love: Tough Love is Crux's imperial stout and the Banished version is aged in bourbon barrels. It's everything you expect in a bourbon barrel aged stout but with some unique vanilla and cherry flavors. Tough Love includes some rye and oak-smoked wheat malt and that adds some unique character to a style that seems everywhere these days.

Deschutes Brewery (Production Facility)

Thanks to my wife's professional relationship with the Deschutes folks we were treated to a long and up close tour of the production facility in Bend. The new brew house they have build is incredible. The whole system is huge, as you would expect for a brewery of its size, and incredibly industrial. In a good way, if that makes sense. The brewers still seemed like they had an intimate understanding of the brew they were working on and although the system was being controlled by computers they seemed just as connected as interested in their work as I am on my crappy home system. The new fermentation space is really cool. The fermentors are sunk into the floor on the second level so all the controls on the bottom of the fermentors are accessible without having to climb under equipment. Probably the coolest piece of equipment is a sink. Yes, really. Every fermentor feeds into the sink and they can hook up a nozzle to each output to test for gravity and clarity, play around with blends and even transfer beers across one fermentor to the other (although it would seem incredibly slow given how narrow the lines are into the sink). The production facility offers free tours and it's a good opportunity to see a well run brewery on a bigger scale than the 7-30 BBL systems at most start ups. They also give free samples and it's not just their regular beers. They had Mirror Mirror and some other gems available. Worth peeking in for the 45 minute tour.

Deschutes, like Sierra Nevada, has a real commitment to whole cone hops. When they use pellets, which they do rarely when whole cones aren't available, they only use T45 pellets which are made using a process that avoids the amount of heat generated in producing the T90 pellets, what we usually find as homebrewers, which is important because as you know heat degrades the oils we need for that delicious hop flavor and aroma. They insist that the use of whole cone hops and T45 pellets are crucial to the production of their hoppy beers like the deservedly vaunted Red Chair and Fresh Squeezed IPA. Something to think about if you're shooting for a clone.

As an aside here, even if you're not a Deschutes fan you should check out their website and scan through the pages. They keep some basic recipes for their beers on the website plus a lot of excellent recipes using beer (obviously theirs). They are particularly generous with the food recipes. I am waiting for the day the Portland pub releases the recipe for their amazing Fresh Squeezed Thai wings. Best wings ever.

Just a few beers worth pointing out here:

  • Armory XPA: I'm still a believer that XPA is really just the old school IPA rehashed but it's more up my alley than a tongue-scraping DIPA. Armory is probably my favorite by far. Light in body and moderate bitterness so the classic American hops shine through with a little new character from Citra.
  • Mirror Mirror: A barleywine aged in a combination of red wine barrels. The red wine character comes through nicely but it's well integrated. It's a nice change of pace from the typical bourbon barrel aging. It's on the short list for my favorite barleywine. It's very complex and surprisingly smooth. 
  • Big Red: Big Red is a pub exclusive; it's an imperialized version of Cinder Cone Red then aged in red wine barrels. You wouldn't think the red wine character would play well with all the hops but there's enough crystal malt character to help create a integrated malt-wine flavor and the wine actually works really well with the combination of fruity and grassy hops. You would be surprised how well red wine works with hops. It works really well here.

Deschutes Brewery Bend Pub

Yeah, more Deschutes. The Bend Pub is the original Deschutes location but they have expanded it out to accommodate more brewing and more seating. The pubs are given decent latitude to brew their own beers and venture outside of the core lineup but the Bend location seems far more out there than the Portland pub. They had stuff I had no idea Deschutes even had an interest in brewing. It's good for the company because letting the pubs develop their own identities encourages people to visit multiple locations and it allows the company to basically develop three different brewing ideologies, which means more variation among the distributed beers. Here's a few standouts for me:

  • Trees of Doom: Ok, here's an interesting beer. It's a dunkel lager dry hopped with strisselspalt and served on cask. It could have easily passed as a very clean English mild dry hopped and served on cask. The big difference was the absence of a little yeast character but it had the light crystal character similar to a darker English mild and earthy hops that aren't quite the same as English hops but strisselspalt is a mild hop with a grassy hop character not far from EKG. I first ordered it because I'll hit anything on cask and then I was surprised when I read what I had ordered. An excellent beer on its own but bonus points for an interesting idea.
  • Lil Blitzen XPA: This XPA features an experimental hop, I don't know which one, but it was fruity and piney like a mix of Chinook and several of the newer fruity hops. Whatever it is, it's a hop that should be made available to everybody. It's delicious. 
  • Black Butte Porter with Belgian yeast: I know, the whole Belgian stout thing came and went but I still like it. Usually Belgian stouts are low on the roast so it doesn't conflict with the phenols from the yeast but this beer was left with its big roast note and the yeast still worked really well. The roast downplayed the phenols but made way for the esters. 
  • Onder de Trapp Abbeyweisse: I have no idea what the heck that name means but it is a sour Belgian dark strong ale. Very similar to a flemish red but with a lot more fruit character and less caramel. It was stunningly sour and really made me want to explore brewing this style. I know a lot of people rave about the sour BDSAs out there and I can see why. This is my first chance to put one down (ok I put down more than one) and I was glad I did.
Sadly, that's all the brewery experiences I had. I wish I had time to wrangle some brewers into technical conversations but we had so much to hit that we had limited time at each place, except for Deschutes where we spent quite a bit of time. I have some interested tidbits from Deschutes but I don't want to share them just yet because they relate to projects that may never come to fruition and I would hate to cause grief for people who were so generous with us.

We heard whispers in Portland of a place outside of Bend called Ale Apothecary and those whispers turned into thunderous insistence that we find their beers. Even the people at Deschutes couldn't shut up about how interesting and unique the beers are. It didn't surprise me too much when I discovered Ale Apothecary is owned by yet another former Deschutes brewer. Ale Apothecary has some really interesting sour beers but they don't do regular tours so we didn't have a chance to get out there. We did track down a couple bottles in Bend and enjoyed drinking them. They were incredibly expensive (think Bruery prices) but honestly some of the most interesting beers I've had and quality-wise worth the price in my opinion.

I am mystified by their explanation of their brewing process. As I understand it, they open ferment with a house culture of wild yeast (including brett) in barrels for an extended period of time and often dry hop for a month right in the barrel. I am not sure whether I understand that the beers are open fermented and then transferred to closed barrels or spend their lives in open-topped barrels. The beer, which may or may not be hopped, is then blended with beer fermented only by lactobacillus to generate sourness. The is bottled still but primed with various sugars. I'm surprised they get the level of complexity they do out of blending but these beers are crazy complex. We tried two.

Sahati is one of the greatest beer stories ever. They took a two hundred year old spruce tree and turned the trunk into a lauter tun. They use branches as a filter. The mash gets dumped in and the needles on the branches act like a filter. The heat from the mash extracts oils from the spruce tips and needles, resulting in a spruce character in the beer. It's sour and full of crazy yeast flavors. When cold there is a subtle spruce character. As it warms the spruce becomes more evident and a slight oiliness develops. I liked it right around what I guess was 55-60F where the spruce became a little more noticeable but the oiliness hadn't shown up.

The other beer we tried was El Cuatro. This is a bizarre beer. It's brewed with no hops at all and run through their typical mixed fermentation process in brandy barrels. One of the two beers we tried was bottled with some unique sugar and I seem to think it was this one. The website says the beer is cut with another one of their beers that is hopped (sahalie) at bottling but by digging a little deeper I found the most recent batch wasn't blended with another beer. It has zero hops in it. Surprisingly, we did not die. There is an obvious plum character from the brandy but an avalanche of fruit notes are present as well. It isn't a fruit bomb in the same way as a Belgian beer or even a fruity IPA. It's sour and the fruit is cut by a lot of earthy/leathery/funky yeast character. One of the best beers I've ever had.

Ok folks, that's Oregon. I'm actually heading to California to drink in thirteen hours so I'll have some new drinking adventures to share shortly. Then it's back to brewing.

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