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Sunday, July 31, 2011

OBF Thoughts

The 2011 OBF is in the books and a fine festival it was. A few comments are definitely in order.

Attendance: As mentioned earlier, I'll be interested to see the final attendance numbers. I was there for three of the four days and the crowds were larger than any I can remember in 20+ years. The weather was perfect, obviously, and the festival seems to be attracting and increasing broad audience. I also think lousy economy played a part. The OBF isn't super cheap entertainment, but it is far cheaper than a trip to Sunriver or the coast. Anyway, it may be time for Art Larrance to again consider expanding the festival. And I'm not talking about the sour beer showcase planned for OBF Tuesday next year. I'm talking about possibly Wednesday. I can honestly see the OBF being a week long someday.

Hammerheads: A few people probably know McMenamin's was the host brewery this year. That meant, among other things, that the ceremonial kegs (barrels) were McMenamin's beer. I never heard an official announcement, but I assume the beer was Hammerhead. I assume this because 1) I know Hammerhead is one of their more popular beers, and 2) there were McMenamin's shills with foam hammerheads in the parade and in the gallery during the ceremonial tapping. Okay, the foam hammerheads were arguably a cute marketing touch. But they were obnoxiously blocking almost everyone's view of the stage. Not the best planning folks.

Errant Hammerhead marketing ploy.

Honest Tastes: We all know the volunteers who work the festival are largely responsible for its success over the years. I've poured beer and worked as a supervisor many times. I know the drill. So I was not surprised when several servers failed to fill my mug to the taste line. This happened early on. I know the people pouring the beer are told to limit the size of pours. That's cool. But I'm paying $1 for 4 ounces of beer and I expect to get 4 ounces of beer. After those initial issues, I checked pours every time and servers were always happy to fill my mug to the line if they had shorted me.

Short staffed: I know it's difficult to plan volunteer staffing for the OBF. You don't want people standing around with nothing to do and you don't want too few people. It seems to me they may have erred on the side of not enough staffing this year. I say this because there was really no excuse for some of the lines I saw on Friday and Saturday afternoons. We're talking very long lines. Several times I walked up to the front and found one person pouring and one filling pitchers for multiple beers. If you like long lines, that's a great strategy. It looked like they just didn't have enough people to keep up. Another thing I saw, even when it wasn't all that busy, was sloppy organization. In one case, there was a huge line for Firestone Walker and only two people manning that tap. On the same trailer, there were people standing around with no lines. Not great.

Led Zeppelin: The quality of the music acts at the OBF is typically not great. I suspect that's because the people that play are doing it mainly for fun or exposure...they aren't getting paid or they're getting paid very little. But Stairway Denied, the Led Zeppelin tribute band that played Saturday afternoon, was terrific. They worked their way through a hoard of Zep classics and attracted a good crowd. The lead singer did a pretty good Robert Plant and the rest of the band was solid. I talked to the singer after the show, asking him where they usually play and when. He said they seldom play in public...only every six months or so. That seems like a waste of talent to me, but maybe the OBF just happens to be a perfect venue for a band like this.

Hope everyone had a great festival. The countdown is on for next year!

Friday, July 29, 2011

OBF Day 1

Day 1 of the Oregon Brewers Festival was near perfect. The weather cooperated perfectly and the crowds materialized. The sheer number of people involved in the breakfast and parade forced organizers to have two ceremonial kegs (actually barrels) this year, which says a lot about where this festival is headed. Art Larrance will apparently expand the festival to Tuesday next year. More details to come.

Over in the media tent, they took us through 15 "seminal" beers chosen mostly on a subjective basis. Some of these beers were really good. Others not so much. People coming to the festival over the weekend are looking for a cheat sheet of good beers. So I'll offer a few thoughts.

If you're looking for a great starter, one that's clean and refreshing, but not too high in alcohol, try Ninkasi's Helles Belles. This beer is a lager, which is off-brand for Ninkasi, mostly known for heavily hopped ales. Helles Belles is a light beer with depth and soul. It's highly drinkable in the warmer weather that is expected to last through the festival.

Art Larrance (right) gives Fred Eckhardt his due.

Next in line is Collaborator Hopfinium, a hoppy lager. You heard that right...lager. This is basically an IPA with a cleaner, dryer finish courtesy the German lager yeast. For the unknowing, Collaborator is a collaboration between Widmer and the Oregon Brew Crew. Some Collaborator beers show up on guest taps around town. This apparently won't be the case with Hopfinium, as they only brewed enough for the OBF. Come and get it!

Boundary Bay, from Bellingham, has always been a favorite of mine. This year's OBF submission is Double Dry Hopped Glacier Pale Ale. The name comes from the Glacier hops added four different times. This beer occupies an interested space. It's likely not hoppy enough for hopheads (45 IBU), but too hoppy for novice drinkers.

Fort George's Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale is a pleasing and well-balanced beer with a heavy citrus component, thanks to lots of Amarillo and Centennial hops added at the end of the boil. As the OBF program suggests, you could have some of this for breakfast in place of grapefruit and cereal.

For hopheads, a must try is Firestone Walker's Double Jack. What a fantastic beer! A fairly malty character does a great job of reducing the sonic blast of 100 IBUs and 9.5 percent alcohol. Lots of fruity aromas here. This beer is so tasty you'll be tempted to come back for seconds and thirds. Best enjoyed in moderation is my advice.

Another excellent choice is Amnesia's Dopacetic IPA. Locals will recognize Dopacetic as the imperial version of the Copacetic IPA they pour at the brewery. Dopacetic has a great balance of flavor, bitterness and aroma. Amarillo hops used in dry hopping add significant character.

If you like smokey porters, don't miss Donner Party Porter from FiftyFifty Brewing of Truckee, Calif. This is a complex and silky smooth beer that uses 11 different grains, toasted oats and a shot of Molasses. Hop character is in the background here, just enough to back things up.

Possibly the most loved beer in OBF history, 21st Amendment's Hell or High Watermelon Wheat, returns. It isn't that hard to find...just look for a long line. While Watermelon Wheat isn't my favorite beer or beer style, I understand why this beer is so popular. It's light, the fruit flavors and tartness are subtle and low hop levels make it highly drinkable. Don't feel guilty for loving this beer!

Cheers to festing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beers and Stereo Speakers

On the heels of last weekend's Concordia Cup, there's more serious tasting tomorrow at the Oregon Brewers Festival. For the first time, I'll be participating in the media tasting, held Thursday afternoon. They will be tasting 15 beers in a range of styles and there will be some commentary by Noel Blake of the Oregon Brew Crew.

The idea of tasting beers got me thinking back to my college days, when I would go to the stereo shop to listen and compare speakers. That's how I bought my first pair of speakers. But I returned to the store often to compare what I had with the competition. I was sometimes shocked to find out how bad my speakers sounded when compared side-by-side with others. While they sounded fine in my apartment or dorm room, my speakers often sounded flat or bright next to others.

It seems the same thing is true with beer. You drink a beer at home or in a pub and it tastes pretty good. Only when you taste it alongside similar beers do you really get a bead on where that beer fits in. Sometimes you find out the beer you thought was pretty good when you drank it solo ain't so great compared to others of the same style.

I'll post tasting notes tomorrow. Looking forward to another great OBF!


Monday, July 25, 2011

Concordia Cup 2011

The ongoing competitions at Concordia Ale House are always amusing. Concordia is an interesting place. They have 20+ rotating taps and usually a pretty good list of draft beers. Then there's the bottle selection. They don't have a huge amount of cooler space, but the bottles they have are well-chosen. It must be tough being virtually next door to New Seasons, which carries a pretty good selection of bottles at what I consider to be decent prices. Oh well, Concordia has been around since 2004 and seems to be getting by.

The Imperial IPA taster tray.
The just-completed Concordia Cup 2011 competition was between 12 Oregon Imperial IPAs. They don't reveal the beers on the tray. Instead, you taste them all and vote for your favorite. The results (and beers) are revealed by email on Monday morning. Some of these beers are not readily available around town, so good luck guessing the names while you taste. Some weren't even very good. But never mind.

The winner, occupying the 12th slot in the tray, was Hopworks' Ace of Spades. Second place went to Oakshire's Perfect Storm. Third went to Bitter Bitch, from Astoria Brewing. I have to admit I didn't vote for any of them. Ace of Spades is good, but had heavy alcohol overtones. Perfect Storm was closer to the mark and got  my buddy's vote. I voted for #10, which was Mega Monster from Gilgamesh Brewing. Mega Monster is slightly dark for the style, but really well balanced, in my opinion. My choice for second would have been the Oakshire. Honorable mention goes to the #3 beer, which turned out to be Boneyard's Hop Venom. This beer exhibited hints of banana and cloves along with the heavy hops. I recently had a pint of Hop Venom over at the Hawthorne Hophouse and didn't notice those flavors. Further research may be needed. Comments welcome.

The next Concordia competition is Beerknowledgy, in which you taste 10 beers and try to identify them from a list. That's happening Aug. 17-21. Always interesting.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

OBF Walkabout Destinations

It's strangely inevitable. People attending the Oregon Brewer’s Festival will want to do a little tasting on the side. It’s tough to fathom, given the 86 beers available at the Festival, but it’s going to happen. So I’m making a few suggestions…places within walking distance of Waterfront Park that represent some of the best beer selections Portland has to offer. No need to explain the walking part, right?

Five walkabout destinations by the numbers.

1. Hair of the Dog After operating his brewery out of a Southeast Portland warehouse for many years, brewer Alan Sprints finally stepped to the plate and opened a first rate tasting room closer to the city on Yamhill and Water Ave. Hair of the Dog should be at the top of any serious beer fan’s list when visiting Portland. It’s where you can sample some of the finest beers on the planet. Adam, Fred, Ruth and the excellent barley wine, Doggie Claws, are all available to taste in exquisite glassware. These are high alcohol beers, so don’t overdue it. Hair of the Dog beers are available for sale in bottle-conditioned form at the pub and in select stores around town. These beers, like fine wine, are generally thought to improve with age. But they also taste great directly out of the tap.
2. Cascade Brewing Barrel House One of the founding fathers of the craft beer movement and the Oregon Brewers Festival, Art Larrance, opened the Barrel House in 2010. Larrance also operates the Raccoon Lodge in Raleigh Hills, but the Barrel House is truly unique thanks to the beers being produced there. Brewmaster Ron Gansberg, who came from the wine making industry, is dedicated to being different. He and Larrance wanted to offer an alternative to what they refer to as the “hops arms race” in the Northwest. They landed on the idea of creating a line of sour beers similar, but not quite identical to, Belgian-style ales. They use fruit grown in the Northwest and oak barrels from local wineries for aging. This effort started in 2005 and their sour beers have been recognized several times at the Great American Beer Festival. They offer more than their sour beers at the Cascade Barrel House. But sample the sour beers if you go there. They are pretty unique.
3. Bailey’s Taproom The growing popularity of craft beer has resulted in growing number of pubs that feature a huge number of guest taps and wide selection of beer. Bailey’s Taproom is one of the best. It offers 20 constantly rotating taps that emphasize Oregon and Northwest beers. Bailey’s hours are limited to late afternoons and evenings and they don’t have food. But the beer list is primo and the assistance provided by the servers is excellent. Also, Bailey’s is one of the few places that regularly updates the list of available beers on their website. Their stated goal is to constantly offer one of the most eclectic selections of beer around and provide an atmosphere that is comfortable, accommodating, and encourages enthusiasm for the unfamiliar. They succeed on all counts.
4. Tugboat Brewing Across the street from Bailey’s Taproom you’ll see the Tugboat Brewing fascia. Tugboat started operations in 1992. It’s a logical destination for OBF visitors because it represents the small ball approach that once characterized brewpubs in Portland. The brewhouse is small, producing the equivalent of eight kegs per brewing session. Owner/brewer Terry Nelson apparently brews what he feels like as his schedule permits. For 20 years, Nelson has maintained the values of small scale beer production and friendly, down to earth ambiance. While some of Oregon’s craft breweries have gone to mass production and distribution, Nelson likes to think Tugboat has taken a calculated step backwards by staying small, family-owned, and respectful of the beer and his customers. You never know what you’ll find on tap here. Don’t worry about it. Have a pint of house beer and take in the ambiance. It’s worth the trip!
5. Deschutes Brewing Based in Bend, Deschutes Brewing has enjoyed amazing success since opening in 1988. It is now the fifth largest craft brewery in the United States. Deschutes didn’t open a brewpub in Portland until 2008, possibly because they wanted to find the perfect space. They found it, then spent a fortune renovating the building to their specs. What they have is striking, with high ceilings, a sizeable bar area and plenty of table seating. The brewhouse is a custom-built 20 bbl system which is prominently on display for beer fans to absorb. Most of the beers served at the Portland brewpub are produced there. That list includes a number of specialty beers you won’t find in stores or pubs. Whether you like their mainstream beers or not, you have to face the fact that Deschutes produces a consistently excellent product. Mirror Pond Ale has won a number of awards and Black Butte Porter is the best selling craft brew porter in the land. There’s nothing at all wrong with their standard beers, but look to the list of specialty beers like Imperial Hop in the Dark, Streaking the Quad, Chainsaw White IPA or Fresh Squeezed IPA for a taste treat. Great stuff.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Oregon Brewers Festival On Deck

The Oregon Brewers Festival, coming up next week, is a destination event. It has become so popular that it has spawned a collection of related beer events in the city. Held the last full weekend in July each year, the OBF is the crowning moment in Oregon Craft Beer Month. The event attracts 70,000-80,000 beer fans to Waterfront Park each year, showcasing what fun it is to sample great beer while enjoying views of the Willamette River and the surrounding city. Beer lovers travel from around the world to enjoy the festival. The OBF has been instrumental in lending credibility to the notion of craft beer.

Mayor Sam Adams taps the ceremonial first keg at the 2010 OBF.
 The history of the OBF is rich. In the early days of the craft beer movement in Portland, the key players discussed the possibility of holding an event to promote their beers. The initial beachhead came in 1987, when Papa Aldos Pizza held a Blues Festival at Waterfront Park. Thinking they would need beer, they approached Portland Brewing about getting involved. Art Larrance, co-founder of Portland Brewing, anticipated a small crowd and planned accordingly. The taps ran continuously, once turned on. Larrance wound up making countless trips between the festival and the brewery to refill spent kegs. In the end, 76 kegs were consumed.

As 1988 dawned, Papa Aldos decided the blues festival wasn’t quite the right demographic fit for them. But they had a two-year permit to do an event in Waterfront Park. They turned the permit over to the Blues Association, which wanted to do its festival around the Fourth of July. That left an open, permitted date in late July. Portland Brewing bought the permit from the Blues Association for $500. Larrance then got Widmer and Bridgeport involved. The McMenamins were busy with their own projects and didn’t want to help organize, but said they would bring beers. The first official OBF happened in 1988. There were 13 breweries involved and 30 beers on tap. Logistical issues were rampant. The expected crowd of 5,000 tripled to 15,000.
Lucky fans enjoy the ceremonial keg of Deschutes Jubel.

Larrance eventually bought out Bridgeport and Widmer changed their involvement. The OBF continued to grow year by year. Larrance never expected the OBF to get as big as it has, although he thought the potential of a large event focused on beer was good. The 2011 Festival will serve up 86 beers and is expected to attract 80,000 beer fans to Portland. It is the quintessential event of the summer.