There are two schools of brewing, the scientific and the artistic. They are not quite diametrically opposed. The scientific school, characterized by the great German brewers, holds that beer is a compound of precise elements--the more rigorously one strips this compound of extraneous flavors, the purer the product. The artistic school, characterized by Belgian brewers, views brewing as an improvisational art. For these practitioners, the essence of beer can only be expressed through originality and audacity. In the new world, Colorado brewers hew the scientific line, Oregonians the artistic. And in Oregon, the maestro of the art is Craig Nicholls.
Nicholls, the founding brewer at the Alameda Brewhouse in the 90s, gained wide fame (among beer geeks) for alchemical brews that included roses (Spring Rose Doppelbock), juniper branches (Juniper Porter), and sage (Zeppelin Sage Fest Bier), among other odd infusions. He bumped around for several years, toting his bag of herbs to Hood River, Gresham, and points nearer by. Four months ago, he landed in SE Portland in a place he can call his own (in what may or may not be Portland's newest brewery)--Roots Organic Brewing.
The art continues at Roots. I know of only two beers in Oregon that are brewed without hops (blasphemy?), and both are brewed by Craig. The first is an old fave, Burghead Heather Ale, in which heather tips offset the sweet malt--a standard in the days before brewers discovered hops. Upon first inspection--sniff, swallow, smack--it seems different enough from a regular beer that many stop at the one sip. Weirdly, though, the more you drink, the more it starts tasting like a regular beer. With Nicholls' brews, that's usually the way; he uses herbs to accentuate beery tastes, not to mask them. You could travel the country and never find a beer like it.
Another of the no-hop specialties is a Kolsch made with a potpourri of herbs--lavender, coriander, bitter (Curacao) orange peel, paradise seeds (I think), camomile, among others that now elude me. I suppose Kolsch is the style closest to this beer--it's soft and mild--but again, it's in its own class. The spices come together to create a gingery aroma, but are very subtle to taste seperately. He was nearing the end of his supply at the brewery, but you'll have an opportunity to try it at the Oregon Brewers Fest.
But perhaps you want regular beers. Roots has 'em. The pub offers a pale ale of modest bitterness, but rich hop flavor, an IPA of profound bitterness and strength, a succulent stout so creamy and rich you don't notice the 7% alcohol (this recipe was brewed by Nicholls' partner, Jason McAdam, a McMenamins vet), and a beer called "Red" and "stout" which is neither, though it is rich with oats and sharp with English hopping. If you're really in the mood, there's also an Imperial IPA with enough Amarillo hops to knock you on your ass.
Craig and Jason are currently the whole staff. If you stop in, one of them will pour you a beer (if you find yourself shaking the bartender's hand, that's Craig), and if you order a sandwich, one of them will scuttle over to the side of the bar and make it for you on the spot. And if they blow a keg--as they did last night with the stout--one of them will wheel around to the brewery, which encircles the pub in stainless steel, and whip up a new batch. As I was on my way out, Craig stopped to sniff the air. "Smell that?" he asked. "That's the stout Jason just started." It was eight-thirty at night.
Artists and brewers are not beholden to office hours.
Roots Organic Brewing
1520 SE 7th Avenue, Portland -- just two blocks from the Lucky Lab