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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Flying the Unfriendly Beer Skies

Despite the growing popularity of craft beers, you don't have to look far to see how the macros continue their efforts to program people into accepting lousy beer. The evidence is everywhere...on TV, on store shelves, on billboards.

The principle is pretty simple. If you bombard people with enough messages associating your beer with good times, you won't have to worry about making decent beer. Anheuser-Busch (InBev) and MillerCoors have been taking this philosophy to the bank for years, and are official proof that this strategy is alive and well.

So it really shouldn't surprise anyone that the reach of the beer conglomerates extends to the airlines. If you want to drink a decent beer while you're in the air, you'll probably have to smuggle it aboard. Terrorist.

Elevating my spirits with this beer list is problematic

First, let me say that I've warmed up to Southwest Airlines. I've gotten used to the cattle call otherwise known as boarding. I actually like the no frills aspects of the airline. They are obviously one of the more efficient air carriers out there. I have nothing against them...well, almost nothing.

A flight to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving gave me a chance to see the current drink offerings on Southwest. That's the booze portion of the in-flight menu you see above. Not a pretty sight. Five bucks for a Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Michelob Ultra, Corona or Heineken! Yikes! Standards are obviously pretty low here. 

To me this is just another barrier that needs to be broken down. There's no excuse for any airline to be offering such a shameful list of beers. I'm not suggesting that Southwest should be pouring Pliny the Elder, but it seems to me they could offer a decent pale ale and maybe even something a little darker. A couple of craft choices would be cool.

You hate to assume anything, but my guess is Southwest and other airlines offer what they do because that's what big beer wants them to offer as part of programming. I mean, how can you possibly fly anywhere without the chance to bolster your experience by consuming a tasty Bud Light? Mission impossible. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fire on the Mountain Beers by Design

I want to follow-up on my earlier post about the new Fire on the Mountain location on NE 57th and Freemont. The place has been open for about a month and they are now pouring several beers produced in-house. You can jet back to my earlier piece here if you wish.

A quick review: the FOTM brewing facility was put together with assistance from Craig Nicholls, well-known in the local beer community via his time at Alameda, Roots and as organizer of the North American Organic Beer Festival. Ben Nehrling was hired to run the brewing operation. Nehrling previously worked at McMenamin's Kennedy School. Enough said.

I tripped on up the FOTM the other day, eager to check out the brews. The place has been packed to the gills for much of its first month. Knowing that, I got there in the late afternoon just in time to find a spot in the bar area. Tasters up!

The FOTM lineup: NW Pale, Wheat, IPA, Amber
Another quick preface: FOTM previously announced they would be offering 4-5 house beers to go with what has historically been a strong guest selection. Besides the four beers I tasted, they expect to release Wonderin' Rye this week. I'm told they also have a stout and a lager waiting in the wings.

Moving right along, there is nothing earth shattering here. The four taster beers are all very clean and pleasantly unoffensive. They have very little bold character. The Eleven (brewed on 11/11/11) is a very drinkable pale. X-tinguisher Wheat has a nice citrus character courtesy of the Sorachi Ace hops. Shocks of Sheba IPA (inspired by KBOO's reggae program) is an organic IPA with middling character. Hoosier Amber has nice layers of malt and a smooth finish.

It would be easy to pan these beers as completely inadequate. But hold on. Step back and consider the big picture here. Fire on the Mountain is mostly about food. And they serve up a lot of spicy food. They are best known for their wings, which are served with a variety of mostly hot sauces. Spicy is the name of the game here. 

After I tasted of the four beers and made brief notes, I suggested to myself that the beers were perhaps designed to go with the food. Luckily, I had some hot wings on the way to verify that thought. Sure enough, the beers, particularly the pale and the wheat, went well with the spicy wings.  

Plenty of high octane beer choices

I wanted to get closer to the bottom of this, so I sent FOTM an email asking for some explanation. I made no reference at all to the opinion I had formed regarding the beer and the food. Ben Nehrling responded in kind: 
We serve a lot of spicy food so I am trying to brew some ales and lagers that help cut the heat and refresh your palate. In terms of viewing the recipes as starting points, we have only brewed ten batches of beer so we had to start somewhere.
There you have it. If you're headed out to any of the FOTM locations for a beer, the IPA and the amber offer the most character. Or you can choose from one of the many guest beers. On my trip the guest taps were staffed by Oakshire, Double Mountain, Amnesia, Sierra Nevada and Mt. Hood Brewing. Plenty of high octane beer power if that's what you're after. Did I mention they also have Rainier?

My final thoughts are these: I suspect the FOTM beers will evolve with time and eventually have more character than these opening salvos. But I don't expect these beers to compete with the big players in the styles. If they're going make an award winning beer, it will probably be a pale or wheat beer. That could happen. When you drink these beers, keep in mind what they're all about.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beer in Wine Country: Russian River Brewing

Getting back to my post-Thanksgiving Day tour of California, the second stop was Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa. As noted in the previous installment, Bear Republic was the first stop. Russian River was the inevitable second stop, since it is located between Bear and Lagunitas.

I had high expectations for Russian River. As most beer fans know, they produce some excellent beers, including Pliny the Elder, Blind Pig IPA, Damnation and others. There was probably no way my expectations for this place could have been met.

Line out the door sends ominous signals

First, Santa Rosa. The city was bustling, with lots of traffics and people everywhere. If you're fixing on visiting Russian River, it's pretty easy to find. But the availability of parking is not good and the street parking is not cheap. We were lucky to get a place not far from the pub. That's where our luck ran out.

The place was packed to the gills. It isn't a huge space to begin with, and the hype surrounding this place is evidently bringing in the masses. After waiting in line for a few minutes, a snarky little "greeter" told us it would be about 40 minutes for a table. Terrific.

The beer board was packed with options...like the bar

While my travel companions waited in the outdoor seating area, I looked over the beer menu on the board above the bar. All the usual stuff was there and more. The folks at Russian River, like brewers in Oregon and elsewhere, are engaged in barrel aging and sour beer production. This was news to me. But I digress.

I hung out in the four-deep mosh pit by the bar hoping to get the attention of a bartender. Finally, one asked me what he could do for me. Since I knew there was no seating and this was going to wind up being a quick stop, I ordered the base taster tray...Aud Blonde, O.V.L. Stout, Porter, Russian River IPA, Blind Pig IPA and Pliny. The mistake soon became apparent.

The standard beers were all pretty good. Russian River hasn't made a name for itself with its porter or stout, but those beers were fine. It's the IPA swell that RR has been riding to fame and (I guess) fortune. All the IPAs in the taster tray were good. Pliny has been a favorite of mine, although I'm starting to think it's a bit over-hyped.

The basic taster tray...snarky comments included

The thing is, I should have ordered some of the specialty beers they were featuring. The list was tantalizing. Had things been a little less frenetic around the bar, I likely would have tried to order some combination of barrel-aged and standard beers. Oh well...life goes on.

Russian River makes some fantastic beers. No doubt about it. But my sense is they've had a little too much success and received a little too much hype for their own good. That might help explain the snotty, snarky comments and slow service.

As far as I'm concerned, if I'm looking for condescending attitudes and snarky commentary, I'll go wine tasting. If you're planning a trip to Russian River Brewing, my advice is to visit when the place isn't teeming with yuppies. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Digital Stocking Stuffer

This blog has only been around for about six months. I should have been writing it a long time ago, but somehow never did. The blog was born in connection with what I then assumed to be a larger project: a book focused on Portland's craft beer culture.

The concept behind the book was to provide a reference for casual beer fans. My rationale was simple: A lot of people who go out beer tasting in Portland, whether they come from far away or live in the city, need a guide that provides more than just a list of breweries and where they are. I ran into lots of people who needed something like this while I was working on the book.

For sale on Amazon, iBooks and other sites

My little book is not War and Peace. It would come in at somewhere around 100 pages in print. It features a brief history of the Oregon beer industry and how craft brewing started here. It then explores most of the brewpubs and pubs in the city, broken down by quadrant. Maps and photos are included. There are no formal beer reviews, beyond a general mention of what the destinations typically have on tap.

Beervana Rising can be purchased through the various online vendors, including Amazon and Apple iBooks. The price is right: $4.99. The eBook concept fits in with the idea that people who buy the book can take it with them on their phone, eReader, laptop or tablet computer while pub hopping. Pretty cool!

They say ePublishing is the wave of the present and future. I suspect it is. But I also recognize the importance of getting a get a print version of Beervana Rising out there. That may coincide with a second edition or I may get it done sooner. We'll see.

For now, the digital version is out there. It's a great value. If you have an iPad or iPhone, I recommend making the most of your reading experience by buying the book through iBooks. You can certainly read it using the Kindle app, but the experience is richer from the iBooks app. The price is the same.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nothing Common About The Commons

We keep seeing new breweries pop up around Portland. I sometimes wonder how all these places are going to fare, but you can't dwell on it. It seems the common dream of most brewers is to at some point open a brewery or pub. And so it is.

The Commons Brewery is conveniently located in what beer geeks refer to as the Beermuda Triangle. The Triangle comprises much of Southeast Portland, and includes Hair of the Dog, Cascade Brewing Barrel House, The Green Dragon, Lucky Labrador, Hopworks, Coalition and several others. If you're keeping track at home, you can safely add The Commons to that list.

Double taster tray treat (artistic element added)

This place is the brainchild of Mike Wright, who initially launched the brewery in the comfort of his Southeast Portland garage. Soon thereafter, he decided to shoot the moon and expand his nano brewing setup to a 7 bbl operation in a space large enough to brew and conduct barrel fermentation.

The new facility has been operational for a few months, and only recently opened its doors for tastings. A tasting room and brewery is what you'll find here. Wright says he has no designs on turning this location into a brewpub. He hopes to see his beers distributed in draft and bottled form. Some Commons beers have already been poured at pubs around town. The bottling effort will take some time.

Mike Wright handles the colorful tasters with ease

In contrast to most breweries and pubs, the Commons does not feature what I would describe as typical Portland beer fare. There's no IPA on the beer menu. No imperial IPA, either. They also don't offer a stout or a porter. What they produce is a line of Belgian-influenced beers that are designed to, as they put it, "enhance social interaction."

The board shows two standard, year-round beers, along with a couple of seasonal offerings. Then there's the Beetje (pronounced bee-cha) Series. Beetje is a Flemish word, meaning little or little bit. The term refers to small batch beers that are produced at the Commons using predominantly organic ingredients. Four Beetje beers graced the board when I stopped by.

The beer board with plywood motif

Tasting Spree
I opted for the double-fisted tasting experience: Eight wildly colorful beers in exquisite glass ware...and every one of them pretty good. I had several favorites, although opinions will certainly differ.

Urban Farmhouse Ale (5.3% | 27 IBU) This is the lightest of the beers on the board, brilliant gold in color. I am not a huge fan of this style, which is often over-carbonated and too yeasty/fruity for my taste. But this is a great beer. I would love to have one of these in the heat of the summer, though it tasted pretty good on a freezin' Friday evening. Light and refreshing with a subtle floral nose. When bottling eventually gets underway, this will be evidently the first beer to go that route.

Little Brother (8.7% | 21 IBU) One of two seasonal offerings, Little Brother is a strong Belgian ale aged in bourbon barrels.  The barrel aging adds some nice character to this beer...not over-the-top like you find with some bourbon barrel-aged beers. Little Brother is reminiscent of a light barley wine, with lots of chocolate and caramel notes. This is the biggest beer made here, although not that big compared to some of the monsters you find around town.

Barrel treatment in progress

Barrel 1 (6.8% | 21 IBU) This is a tart pale ale aged in pinot barrels. I'm a big fan of the sour beers available at the nearby Cascade Barrel House. Those beers only lose me when they get too sour. Barrel 1 is conservatively sour. It's a lovely beer, pleasantly tart and full of flavor. I look forward to seeing this beer available in a bottle.

Some notes
If you're heading over to check out The Commons, please note that tasting days and hours are limited. They are currently open Friday and Saturday evenings. That may change as things ramp up, so check their website, Facebook page or give them a call to verify.

Unlike some of the smaller tasting spots, The Commons DOES take credit and debit cards...in case you're strapped for cash and need a great beer. Indeed, the checkout system is pretty cool.

It probably goes with saying, but these beers are going to respond well to a bit of secondary fermentation in a bottle. It's a style thing. When the bottling part of the operation gets going and Commons beers are available that way, they will be prized purchases. In my opinion.

Finally, there is very limited bar space here, along with a few barrels. You will very likely find yourself walking around exploring the brewery while sipping the beer. No worries. Mike was mingling with the tasters while I was there and he's happy to share what's happening with the beers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Beer in Wine Country: Bear Republic

As I may have alluded to earlier, I spent the day after Thanksgiving touring California wine country. Not for the wine, though. Part of the plan in spending T-Day down there was to soak up some of the local suds.

Vineyards everywhere. Good beer must be close

My top targets were Bear Republic, Russian River and Lagunitas. This was determined to some extent by the map. From where we were staying in Winters (not far from Davis), the map seemed to suggest my primary targets were not all that far apart. The trip in from Winters took longer than I thought it would.

Bear Republic Brewing, the northern-most of the target breweries in Healdsburg, wound up being the first stop on account of when they opened. Lagunitas was the more logical first stop, but they wouldn't be open when we got to Petaluma, according to their website. It turned out they opened earlier than advertised that day. Silly me for believing what I saw on the web.

Lovely fall colors on display at Healdsburg's city park

Healdsburg is a very cool place. Lots of shops up and down the main street area. We arrived 15 minutes or so before Bear Republic opened. I loitered in front of the pub for a few minutes and took some pictures, then stalked across the street to a park where leaves were falling in the face of Christmas decorations.

The Bear Republic pub is a nice space, with high ceilings, a long bar and plenty of table seating. They have a patio area that undoubtedly fills up nicely in the warmer weather. It was enclosed with the kind of clear vinyl you see around Portland during the cooler months...which is to say most of the year.

The front of the Bear

By the way, they appear to have a substantial production facility just north of the pub. There's no way they could support the demands of the pub and their distribution with the brewery in the pub building. There's a brew kettle and mash tun near the bar. They are mostly for show, I'd say, though it looks like they are being used, probably for small batches.

We sat down at a table and ordered a taster tray that included pretty much everything they had available...the standard house ales and the seasonals. It was lunchtime and food was in order. The menu choices are typical of what you find in most pubs, though there are some higher end items.

Formal labels keep confusion to a minimum

Most of the standard Bear Republic beers are well known to me. Red Rocket and Hop Rod Rye are old favs and I've brewed clones of each more than once. XP Pale Ale is a nice light ale, prefect for warm weather. Racer 5 is a serviceable IPA, although it has become somewhat pedestrian due to the hops arms race we've seen over the last few years.

All of the beers from the standard list were excellent. Peter Brown, a brown ale I was not familiar with, was quite nice. I'm not a stout fan, but Big Bear Black was excellent. The rest were true to form. In short, the house beers, which also enjoy pretty wide distribution, seem to be pretty refined. No surprise there. They've had plenty of time to tweak and refine these recipes through the years.

The Bear's old-style bar was bustling

The seasonal beers were disappointing by comparison. I liked Tartare, a low alcohol, vaguely sour beer based on the Berliner Weisse style. Cher Ami, a fruity, spicy Belgian-style ale wasn't bad. Mach 10, a double IPA (100+ IBUs and 9.2% ABV) I've had on draft in Portland, features a megaton blast of hops. Indeed, none of these beers were bad. They just seemed unfinished next to the standards. It makes sense, somehow.

The food was just okay. Soggy fish in the fish and chips. Fries that weren't especially hot when they arrived. A bland burger. I don't like to form an opinion about a pub's food based on a single visit. These guys had just opened and were getting ready for a busy lunch. I'll cut them some slack for now.

When I look at Bear Republic, it's very similar in feel to some of my favorite places in Portland. It's probably a little larger, which makes some sense. The most important point is that the standard beers are really terrific. I'll have some thoughts on that in future posts.

Next up: Russian River Brewing

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Geeking Out of Beer Festivals

On the heels of last week's Holiday Ale Festival, I started thinking about what beer festivals are all about these days. My thoughts on this issue are not solely focused on the HAF, although it may be one of the best examples of the "geeking out" approach.

I'm pretty sure my line of thinking will offend some of my friends and fellow bloggers...fellow beer geeks, if you will. Might as well jump right in with an unflattering photo.

First, the Holiday Ale Festival. A rudimentary look at the beer list reveals that very few of these beers are available to the general public. Not in a bottle, seldom in a pub. Why? Because many of these are limited release beers, some made specifically for this festival. Rare is what they want here.

The HAF has been going down this road for years. Preston Weesner has actively encouraged (pushed may be a better word) breweries to create special beers for this festival. Go back 10 years and you would certainly find more mainstream winter beers in the mix. You know. Beers you could actually buy somewhere.

Of course, we beer geeks love the idea of going to a festival and tasting something no one can get anywhere else. Even if it's just a tweaked version of something we can get in a bottle or on draft. We like the experience of seeing what brewers can do when they have a blank canvas. We actually encourage brewers to extend themselves in sometimes crazy directions. We are geeks, after all.

Back in the day, festivals tended to focus on "gateway" beers. Gateway beers are beers that can introduce non-geeks to a craft line or style. The definition of a gateway beer has certainly changed over the course of the last 10-15 years. But the festival culture, and I'm not just talking about the HAF, seems increasingly to be moving away from the gateway concept.

So where does this leave the casual beer fan? Does the casual beer fan come to a beer festival to experience rare and eclectic beers? Have the pallets of casual beer fans in Oregon advanced to the point where they like the the idea of attending festivals where mostly unworldly beers are served?

The question is, are we geeking out our beer festivals? If we are, is it a good thing? Comments welcome.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Under the Clear Tents: HAF 2011

 After a bit of travail, caused by a power outage that disabled MAX and forced me to ride a bus in the general direction of downtown, I enjoyed several hours at the Holiday Ale Festival Thursday afternoon and evening. Beer fests are always a good time. Why would this one be any different? Hint: It's not.

The Clear Tents
Let me first discuss the venue. Everyone knows Pioneer Courthouse Square is miniature compared to Waterfront Park, which plays host to the gigantic Oregon Brewers Festival. There isn't a lot of space here and organizers have to efficiently use every square inch. They do a good job.

The clear tents lend a spectacular ambiance

Clear vinyl tents are a terrific innovation for his festival. In the old days, it felt a bit claustrophobic under the tents. You couldn't see in or out. Now, we enjoy lots of ambient light (daylight hours) and you can admire the surrounding cityscape, not to mention the nicely lit holiday tree nearby.

The Cost
In my preview post, I discussed the cost of attendance. You pay $25 at the door for a tasting mug and tokens. You also get a program, which is good news. There are some good reasons why the cost is what it is. Winter festivals cost more than summer festivals, for one. Read my prior post here if you want more info.

I honestly believe one of the intended outcomes of charging higher admission is reduced attendance. This has everything to do with the available space. Nothing more. I've seen this place so crowded you couldn't move an inch, to get a beer or otherwise. They'd like to thin it down a bit, I think.

Non-existent lines for most of my stay = treat

The strategy seems to be working. I arrived down there much later than I hoped, around 3 p.m., thanks to the MAX snafu. There were no lines of any kind, for beers or to get in. Even at 5:00 o'clock you could still move around and get a beer with relative ease. When I left around 6:30, it was getting busy. But this was far later than I expected. I'll be interested to see what my fellow bloggers say about the weekend crowds.

The Brews
There are a lot of good beers here. If you're reading this, you'd probably like to know which ones are the best. First, I did not taste every beer. I know because I was able to walk out of the place and onto the MAX. Second, beer opinions are all over the map. I'm already seeing differing opinions on HAF beers from people who know what they're tasting. Opinions will differ. Period.

I tasted around 15 beers and most of them were pretty good...because I chose them from a list before I arrived. Some styles I'm not fond of, and I intentionally kept them off my tasting list. Something like Chocolate Mint Stout isn't going to make my tasting list, although I see it did make Ezra's list over on the New School blog.

The volunteer elves are doing their usual great job

If you're looking for a breakdown of HAF beer types by style, you won't find it here. I tend not be all that interested in stuff like that. However, you can find that list over on the Beervana blog. Jeff produces this list for the most significant Portland beer festivals and his stuff is always top notch. Go there if you want these details, I command you.

Don't Miss
There was a lot of pre-fest buzz over the Firestone Walker Barrel-Aged Velvet Merkin. This is a fantastic beer, loaded with character yet balanced to the hilt. This is a stout and I generally don't care for stouts. But I particularly enjoyed the chocolate and vanilla notes. This beer is just excellent and should not be missed.

I visited Bear Republic Brewing just last week, tasting almost everything they had. But they didn't have Old Saint Chongo, apparently made for this festival. This is described as winter chocolate wheat ale. Sounds funky, huh? I thought it was pretty good. Nicely balanced chocolate character throughout. And mellow.

Good times? You betcha!

Lagunitas Brewing was another target last week. I loved that place and will get around to writing about it in due time. I've always liked Old Gnarly Wine...the version you can get in a 22 oz. bomber. The HAF version is just what I expected...nicely hopped and full of flavor. At 10.6% ABV, you better be careful with this one.

Elysian's Bye Bye Frost is another great one. This is a strong pale ale and the hop character is pretty intense at 80 IBUs, but balanced out via lots malts. It's dry-hopped with Amarillos, which provide an excellent aroma. Oh, another huge beer at 10.6% ABV. Watch it.

Near Hits and Misses
There were several beers that came close to the mark. Deschutes Super Jubel was really good, smoother and better-balanced than the current bottled vintage. Coalition's Lost Glove was right there, very tasty with a nice hop punch. Lompoc's Cherry Christmas is good, but I thought it had a little less punch than when I tasted it several weeks ago at the Sidebar. Perhaps my pallet was overwhelmed by all the megatron beers.

The only beer I thought was seriously bad and poured out was Mjolnir Imperial IPA from Fearless. The program describes this beer as "a constant work in progress." Maybe they're between tweaks. I found it to be void of flavor or body and completely unable to disguise 100 IBUs. I like big IPAs, but not this one. As noted above, opinions may differ on this beer.

As always, thanks to Chris Crabb for her efforts in making this event the success it is...and for helping out all the pretend media folks like me. Big kudos to Preston Weesner, who does such a great job of bringing in rare and unique beers.

Happy Holiday Ale Festival!