expr:class='"loading" + data:blog.mobileClass'>

Friday, May 31, 2013

Amnesia Sees the Light in Washougal

Back when I worked up in the Couv, we used to joke about the beer scene. There was a place near the old office called the Bell Tower that brewed. It went under. Whenever someone got fired or left for whatever reason, we'd eventually meet up for beers somewhere in Portland.

I recall meeting old workmates at Amnesia Brewing on Mississippi after good, bad and ugly work days. We might have met somewhere in Vancouver, but the options weren't that appealing. Things have certainly changed. Amnesia's relatively new place in Washougal is a great example of that.

Amnesia Washougal is located in the heart of downtown, which is to say it's fairly laid back. There are nearby businesses and government offices, but the feel is small town. Things move a little slower here. You probably aren't going to get run over if you cross the street in the middle of a block. Washougal is growing and I doubt the small town charm will last forever. For now, though, it's there.

The pub/brewery is located in what was once a funeral parlor. My server, Jaden, told me they discovered benches for dressing bodies in the catacomb-like basement when they were fixing up the place. More recently, it was a pawn shop with several floors. It's plain to see where the second floor hit the old timber beams. Some really gorgeous fir removed during the demolition and remodeling now serves as the bar.

Compared to the spartan location on Mississippi, the Washougal pub is quite striking. The bar, flooring and tables are beautiful. There's no outside patio like what they have at the Portland location, but the windows open in good weather and there will be some tables on the sidewalk. There's also an indoor kitchen, as opposed to the outdoor grill on Mississippi.

Amnesia has operated on Mississippi since 2003. Clearly, they outgrew that space a while ago. The brewery there maxed out at roughly 1,700 barrels a year. The newer, larger 15 bbl brewery in Washougal will produce 6,000 barrels this year and more down the road. They will soon started canning a couple of their beers and there's plenty of room to grow in this space. Smart move.

Of course, the beers. I've always liked Copacetic IPA, which they weren't pouring when I happened by. I recollect a conversation a while back in which someone told me Amnesia management was thinking about making Copacetic exclusive to the Mississippi location. I suspect that was just a rumor. Copacetic isn't Pliny the Elder and it should be available at both Amnesia locations, particularly since they now have the capacity to brew whatever they need.

My plate of tasters included Alt (5%), ESB (5.6%), Crystal Red (6%), Kill Switch IPA (6.4%), Damnesia IPA (6.7%) and Impale (7.4%). Both of the IPAs were lighter in color and body than I expected. They are generously hopped and pretty good. They seemed a little thin next to some of what I'm used to drinking (Workhouse, RPM, Hop Venom), but that's to be expected. Even Desolation IPA (6.2%), which is closer to an English-style IPA and a beer I've had many times, is lighter in body than what I'm now used to.

My favorite beers were the Alt and the Crystal Red. These are both malt-forward beers that are lightly hopped. Opinions are going to differ on this. Many will prefer one of the IPAs. But I've lately taken a liking to reds, particularly those suited for extensive summer quaffing. The Alt and Crystal Red fit well with that idea. For those similarly inclined, there's also 2 Stroke Pale (5.6%), a nice summer session ale.

The food menu at Amnesia Washougal is short and sweet, consistent, yet somehow different from the menu on Mississippi. There are some nice Starter choices, including the Pizza Bread I ordered. You can order a salad or hummus plate, too. For sandwiches, they have several choices, though there's no burger or sausage. The kitchen is small, but it seems likely the food offerings will evolve as they get busier.

When you look at Washougal, it's vaguely comparable to what Mississippi was in 2003...a sleepy strip with huge potential that's about ready to take off. This area has been under-served from the standpoint of beer and food for ages. It's now getting better and Amnesia is going to be part of that...just as it was on Mississippi.

It turns out that Amnesia isn't the only brewing show in Washougal. I drove by Rail Side Brewing on my way in and I learned there's another one getting ready to open in the downtown area. That's just more evidence that Camas-Washougal has been woefully under-served and things are changing, finally.

For Amnesia, having a production brewery and pub in Washougal makes sense. They now have the space to expand production and distribution as they wish. And the new pub extends their reach by giving them access to customers who might not make the trip to Mississippi. This is a charming enough spot that a few people from Portland may cross the bridge to check it out, but that will not be crucial to their success here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hard Cider: The Full Court Press

There was a release party for Square Mile Cider Thursday evening at Bushwhacker in Southeast Portland. If you know nothing about Square Mile or Bushwhacker, you'll soon be learning more. It's all about hard cider, which is in high growth mode in Oregon and across the country.

The featured guests
First, Square Mile is a newly launched brand of the Craft Brew Alliance...the folks who represent Widmer, Kona, Redhook and Omission. The official logic behind Square Mile is pretty simple: the CBA wants to spread its umbrella of brands to cover as many palettes as possible.

Arguably the more pressing reality is that the cider business is booming. Sales have reportedly tripled since 2007. As a major industry player, the CBA must have a cider. Sam Adams has Angry Orchard. MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have both introduced ciders and there are a growing number of independent, craft ciders out there. Expect a lot of craft brewers to figure out how to add a cider to their line.

Why cider? That's the quintessential question. Some of the growing popularity of cider is based on a sort of mythology, it seems. Something like 6 percent of Americans are gluten-intolerant, which means they shouldn't be drinking beer, eating donuts or gobbling up pasta, among other things. Yet 29 percent of the American public is reportedly trying to avoid gluten. Some are doing so because they think it will help them lose weight; others think it will make them feel healthier.

I'm not here to argue the point one way or the other. Some experts say going gluten-free isn't going to benefit most people who aren't intolerant, though it will definitely cost them more at the grocery store. And avoiding gluten isn't the key to losing weight. That's a calorie issue and gluten-free doesn't solve it. On the other hand, there are those who clearly feel better when they reduce or eliminate gluten in their diet, and not just beer. So there are at least two sides to this argument.

Bushwhacker big board
At any rate, Square Mile is targeting a growing market segment. The cider isn't made in Portland. It comes from Milton-Freewater, where several varieties of apples are grown and processed on a family farm. The apples are crushed, blended and fermented with lager yeast. Modern storage techniques ensure an ample supply of apples through the year, though production of this stuff is somewhat limited.

The two Square Mile brands are The Original and Spur & Vine. Both are clean, refreshing ciders that come in at 6.7% ABV. The only discernible difference is that Spur & Vine is dry-hopped with Galaxy hops during conditioning. Since there's no heat, the hops impart no bitterness. But they do add a mellow aroma and a touch of hop flavor. Beer fans will likely prefer Spur & Vine, although both are quite good. Serve The Original over ice to complement the apple flavor; serve Spur & Vine straight-up to fully appreciate its complexity.

Inviting patio was vacant on a wet evening
The press materials emphasize the history of cider in Oregon. It is certainly true that the original settlers found the soil and climate conducive to fruit production. A lot of cider was produced in frontier Oregon and it remained popular through Prohibition, particularly in rural areas where fruit was abundant. The current growth trend represents a sort of resurgence, as cider had declined in popularity until recently.

The Square Mile ciders are currently available on draft and in 22 oz bombers at select locations.That brings up Bushwhacker, billed as America's first urban cider pub. They appear to serve and sell nothing but cider here. They have six on tap, including their own brand, and a deep supply of bottles. The physical space isn't huge and there's no food. But it's comfortable inside and the patio is surely great in nice weather, which was not in evidence Thursday evening.

If you're interested in cider or just want to see the lay of the land, check this place out. Bushwhacker is located in the Brooklyn neighborhood, just off Powell on SE 12th.  Mitzi Komisar, once the star of Belmont Station, is involved in running the place and it looks great.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Brewery Growth Since 2009 Needs an Explanation

You look at the Portland beer market and you wonder. There's plenty of crap beer being consumed out there. You know it. PBR is popular, and not just with hipsters. I see lots of people drinking Miller High Life, Hamm's, Rainier, Bud Light and Coors Light.

And then you have craft beer. And all those breweries. Beervana, as it were.

According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, there were 51 breweries operating in Portland at the end of 2012. Add another 17 for a total of 68 in the greater metro area. I'm quite sure we've wedged a few more into the mix since the end of the year, but never mind. These are serious numbers as is.

I've been toying with the question of why we have so many breweries as part of the book project I've alluded to. Yes, we have more breweries than any city in the world. Yes, we consume a ton of draft beer. Yes, we have a lot of pubs. Yes, the shitty climate contributes to the strong pub culture. Indeed, there are probably a number of reasons for the popularity of good beer here.

But the brewery numbers are a bit deceptive. Our path to 51 breweries has not been at all gradual. More than 40 percent of the breweries we have (22 of 51) have launched since 2009. In that year, we started with just 29. After adding only two in 2009, growth went berserk: Seven in 2010; five in 2011; eight in 2012. I hesitate to guess where the number will be at the end of 2013.

The question is this: What is so special about the years since 2009? Things were relatively stable prior to that time. Since then, we've been in the midst of a severe economic downturn that has caused all kinds of displacement here and everywhere. Yet brewery growth has gone crazy. How can we possibly explain it? I'm tossing that out there. Chime in with your thoughts.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Portland's Original Craft Beer? Maybe

There's not been much happening on this blog, the consequence of a book project that is nearing completion, but still consuming most of my time of late. That project will soon be put to bed and I'll be providing additional details.

Bottling #13 was sold very briefly in 1978 
Meanwhile, a trip back to 1976 is in order. At the time, Blitz-Weinhard had been struggling to exist in a market increasingly dominated by big beer. Bill and Fred Wessinger, great grandsons of Henry Weinhard, were running the company and decided on a bold move.

They noticed that the big brands had largely ignored certain parts of the market. Instead of fighting a losing battle for a shrinking share of the industrial lager segment, the Wessingers opted to go after a different market. The result was Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve.

Private Reserve was marketed as a super premium beer based on a nineteenth century recipe and brewed with malted barley, hops and water. This was clearly a shot at the adjunct-heavy lagers of the day. Private Reserve was a huge success and revived Blitz-Weinhard.

Make no mistake. The original Private Reserve was a good beer, certainly a lot better than Bud, Coors, Miller and any of the other crap lagers. Some have even argued Private Reserve was Portland's original craft beer. And maybe it was. Each bottling was numbered and they blew well past 100 before they eventually stopped using numbers.

The concept of a premium product that would go after the big brands at their weakest point would be used by future craft brewers. When Kurt Widmer was researching the idea of starting a brewery, he saw the growing import segment as his niche. It made sense and it worked. But Blitz had already tested the formula.

For Blitz-Weinhard, Private Reserve turned out to be a shining moment in a sea of despair. The Wessingers saw an increasingly difficult financial road ahead and eventually sold the company, which they continued to manage, to Pabst in 1979. As most people around these parts know, the brewery went through several more buyouts before the lights went out for good in 1999.

After the old brewery was closed, the brands went their separate ways. Most of the middling brands were sold to Pabst. The premium brands, which by then included Private Reserve, Blue Boar Light Irish Style Ale and Private Reserve Dark, went to Miller. Stroh, which owned the property at the end, sold it to a developer for a king's ransom.

In my mind, Weinhard's premium beers were a shadow their former selves long before production moved, first to the old Olympia plant in Tumwater, then to Full Sail in Hood River and more recently to a plant in some unknown location. Miller is apparently intent on distributing the beers to a wider audience...what's left of them, anyway. Oh well.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Atomic Pizza and Hollywood Theater Team Up

The recently opened Atomic Pizza in the Hollywood District is a nice addition to an area that is bustling with growth and activity. They've got great pizza and a rotating selection a craft beers pouring from five taps. They made add more.

I stopped in not long after they opened a while back. This was based mostly on info from social media. They were pouring beers by Occidental, Breakside, Burnside, Ninkasi and Oakshire. They also have a small selection of bottles. Good stuff.

What goes good with great beer? Great pizza, of course. For me, great crust is the most important element of good pizza. Atomic has it. They make their own dough and the sauces are handmade, as well. When baked, the crust is crisp and crunchy without being too hard. I think it could use a bit more salt, but that's a personal preference easily addressed with a salt shaker after the fact.

Main ingredients
Another cool aspect of this place is its connection to the nearby Hollywood Theater. Folks who attend movies and other events at the theater can purchase Atomic Pizza via a pie hole in the main lobby. If you look at the sidewalk space between the two entities, you wouldn't think a connection possible. But this is an old building with catacomb-like passages. 

Atomic can't serve you a beer from the pie hole. No worries, though, because Hollywood Theater has a decent tap selection of its own. When I stopped in to watch The Wrath of Khan for the millionth time back in mid-April, the theater was pouring Occidental Kolsch and beers from Deschutes, Laurelwood, Ninkasi and Lagunitas. And Miller High Life by the (16 oz) can. It doesn't get much better.

The pie hole defined
This area is undergoing a rejuvenation process. A long-empty space next to the theater is now filled with a new building. I believe these are apartments or condos with shops below. New businesses have opened along this strip and the amount of foot and bike traffic is amazing. I live close-by as the crow flies, so I'm happy to see this happening.

By the way, Atomic Pizza has another shop in the Overlook neighborhood on North Killingsworth St. That's actually their original store. I haven't been there, but I understand they offer the same selection of great pies and beers there. No theater, though, unfortunately.

A view from Atomic Pizza to the Theater
Speaking of the theater, this place has some history. It opened in 1926, smack dab in the middle of Prohibition and silent films. No beer or wine served then, folks. It was an odd setting for a theater, remote from downtown. In those days, Sandy Blvd. had streetcar and automobile access. It was considered a luxury theater.

After difficult times in the 1970s, the theater was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The non-profit group, Film Action Oregon, bought the place in 1997 and has worked to refurbish it ever since. Today, they screen films from all over the world and support Oregon-based independent film projects. Cool stuff.

New marquee coming soon
Part of the renewal project involved a fundraising campaign to purchase a new marquee for the old girl. That campaign exceeded its goal in late 2011 and the new marquee has been under construction. They hope to get it on the building by summer. More improvements are also planned and you can donate to the cause on their website here if you wish.

Good times in the Hollywood District.