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Monday, October 28, 2013

McMenamins Highlights Barrel-aged Beer Program

It will almost certainly come as a surprise to many beer fans that McMenamin's has a barrel-aged beer program. I had no idea until a couple of weeks ago, when I attended Inside the Barrel down at the Crystal Brewery (inside the Crystal Ballroom). More on what they're up to shortly. First, some brief history.

The early days..Mike and Brian with Hillsdale brewer, Ron Wolf
One of the generally unappreciated aspects of the McMenamin's story is that Mike and Brian have generally gone about their business quietly. They and their organization have made many positive contributions to the community. Yet they have never been particularly active in honking their own horn about any of it.

For instance, on the day they were scheduled to receive the keys to the Kennedy School in 1995, Brian saw a huge crowd and TV cameras as he approached the school. For a moment, he considered turning around and driving home. He obviously didn't and, anyway, the Kennedy School turned out to be one of their great success stories.

Looking at those successes, it seems to me the primary story revolves around their knack for acquiring and restoring unique (and often decrepit) historic properties. Beer's role has always been somewhat secondary...to attract fans. Mike and Brian liked good beer and they figured a lot of other people did, too. Time has proven them exactly right.

When I bumped into Brian prior to Inside the Barrel, he told me he sees beer in more of a leading role today. Frankly, I don't think he fully agrees with my view of where beer has fit in the McMenamin's scheme, but never mind. Inside the Barrel suggests they recognize the need to push what they're doing more fully with social media and other PR tools.

The truth is, the barrel program isn't all that new. It was launched in 2005, when Mike McMenamin asked brewers to create a bourbon barrel-aged beer for a special event they were holding at Edgefield. They've been gradually moving barrel aging forward in the years since.

These guys are well-positioned to age beer in barrels. Why? Because way back in 1998, they started a highly successful distilling program at Edgefield. They launched a second distilling facility at Cornelius Pass in 2012. This means their brewers have easy access to barrels. Many breweries don't have that luxury.

"The distilling program presented us with a unique opportunity to begin barrel-aging," said Graham Brogan, head brewer. "The ease of access to freshly dumped barrels (sometimes filled with beer the same day they are released by the distillery) combined with the creative freedom here to make barrel-aging a no brainer."

The beers they showcased at Inside the Barrel were produced at a number of McMenamin's breweries. A few examples: Whiskey Widow (Bourbon barrel-aged porter) from Concordia Brewery; Venomator Imperial IPA (Hogshead Whisky barrel-aged) from the Crystal Brewery; Night Court Barleywine (Rum barrel-aged) from the Edgefield Brewery. And others.

In fact, Inside the Barrel was a sort of pre-launch party for a hoard of events that will feature barrel-aged beer in coming weeks. There's a list of dates, beers and locations here. By the way, these beers will only be available at certain McMenamin's locations. This is standard operating procedure for these guys. They have never really distributed beyond their own walls.

As for the future of the barrel-aged beer program at McMenamins, it will likely continue to flourish. There's something about barrel-aged beer that attracts the interest of brewers and the pallets of beer consumers. Indeed, the savvy pallets of Portland beer fans are driving increased demand for premium, complex, barrel-aged beers. It's all good.

"Almost all of our breweries would like to be involved in barrel-aging," Brogan said. "The problem is, most don't have the necessary space. We are currently looking into acquiring smaller barrels so our smaller breweries can play around with barrel-aging."

Friday, October 25, 2013

Larrance, OBF Donate $10,000 to Lone Fir Restoration Project

History is bunk, some people say. And maybe they're right. But not everyone agrees with that notion. There are people out there who think remembering and recognizing the past is important to the present...and future. Art Larrance is one of those folks.

The signature
Last night at the Oregon Zoo, Art donated $10,000 to the Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery. More on Lone Fir in a second. The purpose of the donation is to support restoration of the tomb of George Frederick Bottler, one of the Oregon's founding frontier brewers. Bottler's tomb, one of the first structures at Lone Fir, is currently crumbling and in desperate need of repair.

"I hope my donation will promote interest among brewers and others for the Lone Fir project," Larrance said. "We all want to be remembered when we're gone and I think it's important that we pay tribute to people like Bottler who came before us. Preserving and respecting our brewing heritage is important."

I probably don't need to remind people who follow this blog who Art Larrance is. But I will. He is one of the founders of the craft beer movement in Portland,  having co-founded Portland Brewing with high school buddies Fred Bowman and Jim Goodwin. Later, he moved on to found Cascade Brewing, which operates today as the Raccoon Lodge and Cascade Barrel House. Of course, Art is also head of the Oregon Brewers Festival, an event that has probably meant more to Portland and Oregon beer culture than any other.

As McMenamin's historian Tim Hills documented Thursday evening, there were two Bottler brothers present in Oregon during the early days. It's tough keeping them straight because they shared the same first name: George. George Michael Bottler founded Portland's second brewery, the City Brewery, in 1857. George Frederick Bottler founded The Dalles Brewery in 1859.

When George F. Bottler passed away in 1865, his bother George M. Bottler was in Germany. Travel time in those days wasn't quite what it is today. So Bottler's friends Edward Schrader, Henry Weinhard and Henry Saxer arranged for him to be buried in Lone Fir. Upon his return, George M. Bottler arranged to have a tomb erected over the site of his brother's grave. It is that tomb that is decaying today...surrounded by a fence it is in such a state of disrepair.

The estimated cost of restoring the Bottler monument is roughly $80,000 and there is a plan in place. It's funds that are needed and that's where the Friends of Lone Fir come in. They are dedicated to preservation, education and restoration of this historic space, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of Oregon's pioneers are buried at Lone Fir.

There's more information on the Lone Fir restoration project here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Stars Align for Harris, Ecliptic Brewing

When I last visited the site that was to become Ecliptic Brewing, the building was nothing more than a shell. This was in late April. Brewer and proprietor, John Harris, raised some eyebrows, including my own, when he talked of opening in October. Yet here we are. Ecliptic officially opens today.

The brand
Just to review, Harris is one of Oregon's iconic brewers. He started out at McMenamin's Hillsdale Brewpub in 1986. Two years later, he moved to Deschutes in Bend, where he developed beers like Mirror Pond, Black Butte Porter and Obsidian Stout. In 1992, Harris returned to Portland to run Full Sail's brewery on the South Waterfront. He left there last year to start his own gig, Ecliptic.

Members of the so-called beer media toured the Ecliptic facility Sunday afternoon. It is impressive, even if it is a work in progress. Harris put together what he willingly describes as a "Frankenstein" brewery...so named because it is composed of pieces scavenged from all over. It's a 15 bbl system with three fermenters...one 15 bbl and two 30 bbl. Several conditioning tanks complete the line-up.

The brewing floor
Some expected to see Bridgeport's original brew kettle in the middle of the brewery. John acquired the old steam-heated kettle from Dogfish Head in Delaware, but discovered the old vessel needs some fixing. He subsequently acquired a more modern kettle from Japan. No word on what will happen to the old Bridgeport kettle, which has significant historic value in Portland. Perhaps a display of some sort.

A word about the theme here. Ecliptic's is all about astronomy. We're talking stars, not horoscopes, if you're wondering. Harris has combined his two passions here...brewing and astronomy. Ecliptic represents the Earth's yearly journey around the sun. They actually have a sizable light fixture that mimics that path. The movement is reflected in the beer list and menu items, which will rotate with the seasons. No standing still here.

Late afternoon sun hugs the beers
Ecliptic is pouring four beers out of the gate, and none of them will wind up being flagship beers. Harris plans to alter the brewing approach according to his own feel and what the clientele likes. There will soon be more beers available, including a pilsner and a Porter. The current list:

Procyon Pale is adequate, if a little dry. It has great color and clocks in at 5.9% ABV and 60 IBU. It could use a touch of sweetness, in my view, but many will like this beer fine as it is. The IBUs are a little higher than what Harris intended, he said. That will get dialed in as he tinkers with the recipe.

Brews and food with a view
Arcturus IPA is made with a mix of "C" hops (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus). It clocks in at 7.4% ABV and 75 IBU. This is a decent IPA and will surely be better with tweaking. Arcturus is not dry-hopped, which means it lacks the nose most Portlanders expect in an IPA. Still, pretty good.

The other two beers are collaborations, one with Gigantic Brewing and the other with Widmer. The Gigantic beer, TicWitTic, is a Belgian-style Wit that is soured.  The Widmer beer is 1/2 Mile Pale Ale (Widmer and Ecliptic are half a mile apart). I didn't taste either of these beers, so I can't comment. The TicWitTic sounds fairly interesting. Must make a return trip.

Sweet & Spicy Drumsticks...yummy
Food isn't going to be an afterthought here. Harris says there's no reason why a brewpub can't be listed among the best restaurants in the city. He may be right. Regardless, he aims to offer a rotating menu of stellar items. Sure, you'll find burgers and standard pub fare. But you'll also find pan-fried black cod, ale-braised lamb shank, grilled flat iron steak and more. Appetizers, too. Don't miss the sweet and spicy drumsticks!

Besides the food and brews, there's other good news here. Located just a block south of Fremont on Mississippi, Ecliptic features nice views of the city through large garage doors. The doors will be shuttered most of the winter, but the views remain. By next summer, Harris will have an outdoor patio to supplement the space. Chain link fences lining the property will be gone by then. Perfect.

Hard to miss signage
Back in the brewery, there's a lot of unused space...by design. Harris expects to expand the brewing system as business grows and will add a barrel program as well. He has plenty of room to do so. He also hopes to release his beer in bottles (or cans) at some unspecified point. There's space to install a bottling (or canning) line if he chooses. Smart move.

Of course, you never know how a new business is going to do until you see it in action. Harris definitely has the knowledge and experience needed to run a prosperous business. This location is nearly ideal in my mind., but consumers will vote with their dollars on that. I suspect Ecliptic has a bright future.

Bridgeport's historic kettle

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Rural Oregon: Where the GABF Medals Roam

Everyone in the beer community is talking about the just-completed Great American Beer Festival. Here in Oregon, there are handshakes all around. Our breweries brought home 25 medals, third on the list behind California (52) and Colorado (46).

First, congrats to everyone who won a medal, any kind of medal, whether your brewery resides in Oregon or elsewhere. It's no small task. As Jeff Alworth says in his wrap-up, it's a challenge just getting into the GABF. There are something like 2,500 breweries competing for roughly 600 spots. Ye gods.

Some have suggested that the Brewers Association adopt regional competitions to filter entries for the national event. Don't hold your breath. There's a lot of money being made just the way things work now, and there are logistical challenges involved in putting on regional competitions. Near-term changes are unlikely.

As I looked at the list of Oregon winners, the first thing I noticed is that Portland breweries are not well-represented. Of the 25 Oregon medals, Portland breweries picked up just six of them...roughly 25 percent. I was surprised by that, given we have more than 50 breweries in the city. It turns out I shouldn't have been.

I decided to do an analysis of where Oregon's GABF medal winners have come from over the past five years. Sure, I could have gone back 10 years...or 20. I chose five because I'm most interested in recent history. Be my guest if you want to do a more extensive analysis. The data is out there all the way back to 1983.

Of the 95 GABF medals Oregon has brought home since 2009, 67 (70 percent, if you prefer) were won by breweries outside Portland. In actual fact, Portland breweries have done fairly well the last two years, winning six medals this year and eight in 2012. Before that, the best recent year was 2009...when Portland breweries won nine of Oregon's 22 medals. The bad years were 2011 (2) and 2010 (3).

I wanted to know more. I wondered who the hell is winning all these medals. So I looked through the yearly GABF results and tabulated the number of medals won by the various breweries around the state. I don't want to say I was shocked, but I was surprised.

It turns out five breweries have been fairly dominant over the course of the last five years: Barley Brown's (aka Baker City Brewing), Bend Brewing, Deschutes Brewing, Pelican Brewing and Rogue. Together, these five breweries have accounted for 56 (or 59 percent) of the 95 medals GABF medals won by Oregon breweries.

Boiling it down further, the top three accounted for 41 of the 95 medals (43 percent). It may come as a surprise to learn that the top medal winner is Barley Brown's of Baker City, which has won 16 medals. Deschutes is next with 13; Pelican has 12. Rounding out the top five, Bend Brewing has eight medals and Rogue has seven.

It's hardly a surprise to see Deschutes among the top medal winners. It's a huge operation and they've been making good beer for a long time. The big surprises are Barley Brown's, Bend Brewing and Pelican. These operations are small and two of the three are rather remote. When was the last time you visited Baker City? Pacific City? Alrighty then.

In case you're wondering, the top Portland brewery over the last five years, in terms of GABF medals, is Laurelwood with six. Widmer and Breakside both have four. Hopworks and The Commons, which added two this year, both have three.

What do these stats mean? Mostly they mean Oregon's rural brewers have dominated the GABF medal hunt in recent years. Why has this been the case? I have no idea. I was originally thinking about linking Portland's relative lack of success to the fact that style barriers have completely collapsed here. But that seems a bit of a stretch. There has to be more to it.

One final point with regard to Barley Brown's/Baker City Brewing. These guys won three golds, two silvers and a bronze this year. They were also named  best Very Small Brewing Company and Very Small Brewing Company Brewer. Seeing them win medals in highly competitive categories (like American Style IPA) shouldn't really come as a surprise. Not if you look at their recent history. They're in a groove.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mill City Brew Werks Stalks Clark County Beer Scene

Until recently, Portland's craft beer explosion left our neighbors across the Columbia River largely out in the cold. I've talked about this before. For much of the last 10 or so years, the trend in brewery growth in Clark County was mostly anemic. Today, the course is shifting.

Terrific, unassuming location
This was bound to happen. There is a gigantic underserved population in what might be referred to as metro Vancouver. The key to tapping that audience has always been the same: You need a product that's good enough to compete with Portland. Your underserved audience generally prefers to stay near home, but it refuses to accept a poor product. That presented an elusive challenge for many years. No more.

Another example of the progress that's being made in Clark County is Mill City Brew Werks in Camas. Located in the charming and historic downtown area (only blocks from the paper mill), Mill City features an extensive line of great beers and a food menu packed with tasty items prepared on site. There is nothing fake or shoddy here. Quality is king.

At the bar
Owner Mark Zech comes from a long line of brewers. He started homebrewing in 1985, but says his ancestry has several centuries of brewing experience. These things are hard to verify. Yet you get the feeling he knows fully what he's doing. Mill City opened over the summer and the place is doing well.

There are reasons for these things. When Mark and his wife were in the early stages of planning the business, they did guerrilla marketing out of their residential garage. They offered food and beer in exchange for honest input on what was good and what wasn't. That input was used to develop the beer and food lists. Smart move.

The boss checks the boil
Mark installed a 10 bbl brewing system in the basement of the pub. He has four good-size fermenters and the same number of brite tanks. All the beer is kegged for serving and makes its way to the pub above via glycol-chilled lines. Next to the brewery is a bakery, where they create desserts and a variety of baked items. Fresh ingredients arrive daily. This place is all about hand-prepared food and beer.

The brewpub approach that kick-started the craft beer revolution in Portland and around the country is on display here. Mark believes good food attracts customers who might not come in strictly for beer. People who do come in for beer will stay longer and drink more beer because they offer food. There's more overhead in food, but it's worth the additional cost, he says. It's a proven concept.

I tasted virtually everything on their beer list, as well as a couple that are simmering in the basement and not on the beer menu. Aside from a Scottish Ale that is cloudier than it should be (the yeast refuses to drop out of solution, Mark said), it's a stellar list. Even the Scottish Ale is pretty good if you drink it with your eyes closed.

Alpha IPA (7.1% ABV, 88 IBU) is their flagship beer and one of the beers they were serving at last week's Celebration of Beer at Skamania Lodge. For good reason. This is a nicely balanced IPA that's dry-hopped with Simcoe. The hops are immediately evident in the nose and flavor. Alpha IPA compares well with some of the area's best IPAs and will likely be the basis of further expansion...which I'll get to
Brewers Panini...recommended
Red Beard IRA (7.4% ABV, 85 IBU) is a quality red similar to Double Mountain's IRA. I'd say the malts obscure the relatively high IBU count, but that's fairly common in reds and ambers.

Zech's Bavarian Hefeweizen (5.5%.ABV, 11 IBU) is a traditional Hefeweizen with strong clove and banana aromas and flavors. This beer competes with Alpha IPA for their top selling brew, Mark said. I get it. This was the first keg to blow at Skamania and I heard several people raving about it.

Log Splitter Imperial IPA (9.5% ABV, 90 IBU) leans on eight types of hops added at different times. The beer is deep copper in color and packs a wallop. They serve Log Splitter in an 8 oz snifter for good reason. It isn't dry-hopped, so it lacks the aroma of the standard IPA..but it's a fairly complex beer.

On-site bakery in motion
Jose Jalapeno Ale (6.7% ABV, 19 IBU) is a mild mannered chili ale. I am not normally a fan of these beers. But this one is very well-executed. They added 25 pounds of roasted jalapeno for several days during secondary fermentation. The result is a beer that has mild jalapeno notes, but lacks the throat burn so common with these beers.

Pst Pale Ale (5.2% ABV, 26 IBU) is a sessionable beer that works well. This one leans on Citra for dry-hopping and the aroma is unmistakable. This is a great choice if you like the smell of Citra and plan to have a few beers.

Some of the other beers included Hop This Fresh Hop IPA (no green moldy character here), Dragonfly Black Rye IPA (great if you're a fan of rye beer), Genesis Cream Porter (full-bodied), Milk Stout (smooth as silk on nitro) and Nelson Sauvin IPA (made exclusively with New Zealand hops).

Fermenters and brite tanks
You can find Alpha IPA in a few places around Vancouver and apparently as far north as Longview. These guys have only been open for a few months and getting access to tap handles is a work in progress. Alpha IPA has been on at Pizza Schmizza, Brickhouse and Lapellah, to name a few. More coming.

It's interesting. Mill City has no plans to enter the Portland market. Mark says they will focus on Clark County for now. If things go as he expects, long-term plans include a brewpub in downtown Vancouver, a production brewery outside the city and entry into the Seattle market. He intends to begin building the Mill City brand in Seattle in the near future so he'll have a customer base once the production facility comes online.

Mill City is certainly a worthy addition to the local beer scene. The fact that it's located in an underserved area in a charming spot makes it just that much more appealing. Check it out if you have a chance. Mill City is  located at 339 NE Cedar in Camas. They have a Facebook page, but no website.

Historic downtown Camas

Monday, October 7, 2013

Skamania Beer Fest is Hidden Gem

I traveled out to Skamania Lodge for Saturday's Celebration of Beer. My expectations were not high. I figured the views would be terrific and the beers something less than that. What I discovered was a low key festival that qualifies as a hidden gem.

The mugshot
Look, maybe the best part of this event is that a lot of people aren't going to go to the trouble of driving out there. I get it. You really don't want to drive all the way out there, drink a bunch of beer and drive home. Sure rooms are available; but not everyone can afford that kind of excursion.

Because I did have to drive back to Portland after imbibing, I kept my stay to about an hour and a half and limited myself to tastes. By the way, tastes out here aren't what you find in Portland. The tasting line on the glass is a little iffy. A one-ticket taste was six ounces. A two-ticket full mug was 12-14 ounces. Tickets cost $1.

Fire pit and music
The setup is pretty informal. There was a rectangle of tables with the beers, food and, yes, one with wine. In the center there were tables where you could sit or stand. Once you had a beer in your hand, you were free to roam the grounds outside the serving area. Try that in Portland.

Off to one side of  the serving area is a fire pit, part of which served as a sort of music stage. This is a gas fire, not the smokey real thing. Good thinking. A couple of acts rolled through while I was there and the music added to the ambiance without overwhelming it.

One of several grub choices
The list of beers was more impressive than I expected. There were several Washington breweries whose beers aren't well-known in Oregon. Backwoods Brewing (Carson), Mill City Brewing (Camas), Mt. Tabor Brewing (Vancouver) were pouring some nice beers. Usual suspects like Lompoc, Double Mountain, Full Sail, Amnesia, Deschutes and others were pouring mostly seasonals. Good stuff.

Another great aspect of the Celebration of Beer is brewers or brewery-connected folks were pouring beer or hanging out around the taps chatting with patrons. I spent a few minutes talking to several brewers. I'll be making a trip out to Mill City Brewing the check the place out as a result of one conversation. The point is, most of our Portland festivals have gotten so large that these kinds of conversations rarely happen.

The layout
They were lucky with the weather this year. It was perfect. In less than perfect weather years, the festival area is covered by a tent. As it was on Saturday, the sun was out and the views were stellar. If you squinted a bit while looking at the Columbia River, you could spy windsurfers flying back and forth.

When you look at an event like, it's all about perceived value. I always ask myself, "Would I attend again?" Even with the travel involved and the fact that the $25 entry fee (tasting mug and five tokens) is steep, this is still a great little event worth a try for any self-respecting beer fan. I'll look for it next year.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Horse of a Slightly Different Flavor and Character

I sometimes have to thank my neighbor, Mark Hall, an unapologetic hophead who scours area tap lists for the stickiest IPAs he can find. He often discovers beers that my own travels don't reveal. Such as Laurelwood's War Horse, which is on tap at the Horse Brass and likely other spots around town.

The name of the beer is so similar to Laurelwood's flagship beer, Workhorse, that I figured it must somehow be connected to the recent arrangement in which the Craft Brew Alliance is brewing and bottling Workhorse (and Free Range Red) in 12 oz bottles. Indeed.

Part of the deal with the CBA was to see that the contract-brewed version of Workhorse matched what they were producing at Laurelwood's own brewery. That can be a challenge when you're moving to a significantly larger and functionally different brewing system. It took several test batches to dial in the recipe. That's where War Horse comes in.

"War Horse was the first CBA trial of Workhorse," said Vasili Gletsos, Laurelwood brewmaster. "It finished high, a little sweeter then Workhorse, enough so that we didn't want to release it as Workhorse. It's really nice, similar style wise. We called it an Imperial Pale Ale, since without the attenuation, it fits a bit better as a strong pale."

The difference in finishing gravity between Workhorse and Warhorse isn't huge...a degree higher Plato, resulting in about a half a point difference in ABV, according to Gletsos. That small difference would have put them out of spec for the stated alcohol on the label. They wanted and needed to dial in the Workhorse recipe a bit more. But they suspected people would like that first effort, so they released it as War Horse. 

If you are a fan of Workhorse and similar beers, you owe yourself a taste of War Horse. The aroma and flavor are fantastic. The marginally sweeter backbone seems to embrace and bond with the aroma and flavor. It may be an Imperial Pale Ale, but it's a serious hop bomb worthy of any hophead. 

Where can you find War Horse? They aren't pouring it at any of the Laurelwood locations. "We only tap beer produced at our brewery," Gletsos said. "It's possible we will at some future point carry CBA-produced seasonals. But not yet."

War Horse has been on at the Horse Brass for a week or so, I guess, and it was on Thursday evening when I stopped by. The beer was distributed by Laurelwood's distribution partners throughout Oregon and Washington, so it's out there for the finding. The bad news is War Horse is a limited release. They don't plan to brew it again. Get some now!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Skamania Lodge Offers Beers with a View

This weather we're having around Portland isn't the best. We usually have great weather in September and early October. I suppose the recent monsoon-typhoon is payback for our drier than average summer. Like they say, paybacks can be a bitch.

On a clear day...
If you're looking to revisit summer briefly, a trip up the Gorge for Skamania Lodge's 5th Annual Celebration of Beer might be a nice fit. It's happening Saturday, Oct. 5, from noon to 5 p.m. It looks like Saturday weather might just cooperate. There's a Full Sail brewer's dinner Friday night and a Sunday brunch. You'll find more info on the Skamania website here.

The tasting part of the Celebration of Beer sets up shop on the Cascade Lawn, which features spectacular panoramic views of the Gorge. The list of attending breweries includes some common names: Deschutes, Hopworks, Lompoc, Full Sail, Double Mountain and Amnesia. Then there's the list of less known breweries: Walking Man, Backwoods, Big Horse and Arcadian Farms. Hmmmm.
This year's Celebration of Beer is part of the 20th Anniversary Celebration at Skamania Lodge. It's hard to believe Skamania is celebrating 20 years. I remember going out there to play golf many years ago (and losing many golf balls in the woods). I've been out there on other occasions since. I've never been out there for this festival. But that view of the Gorge while drinking a few beers is mighty tempting.