Q: What happens when you have a cool little beer fest that features breweries' most creative efforts of the year, is held just off the MAX tracks, and offers a toasty warm respite for shopping-phobes in the middle of the Christmas rush?Something's gotta give. Pio Square is a wonderful location, looking out as it does on the downtown buildings. But it's only wonderful if you can get a beer in less than 20 minutes (or say, two minutes) and aren't in constant physical contact with all 23 of your closest neighbors. I stopped off after work on Friday for a full pour of Jim (just to be sure) and returned at 11:30 on Saturday. Friday night, even at five straight-up when I arrived, was insane. It was so crowded and so loud that I had to text Sally to find her once she'd gotten (almost instantly) lost in the crowd on her trek to get us tickets; when I tried to call, I couldn't even tell if she picked up. Saturday was all right until about three and then almost instantly the lines went from ten-person affairs to behemoths that ran the length of the tent.
A: It becomes an overcrowded, big festival in its once-cozy space.
The supply and demand ratio is out of whack. Short of raising prices to thin crowds, the thing needs to be moved. How about the North Park Blocks where the Portland International Beer Fest is held?
But there was a consolation prize for my attendance--a density of dense beers unlike any I can recall. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a six-month-old, blended, barrel aged, 9% ale--which, admittedly, soothed me quite a bit.
The big winners of the fest, in addition to the Jim II and Baltic Porter I mentioned Friday, were Caldera Cauldron Brew, Double Mountain Fa La La La La and Widmer Decorator. Give Widmer extra points, however, for originality. Of the beers I tried Saturday, it was the clear standout.
This summer, Widmer attempted an Imperial Wit, a failed experiment that sacrificed all of the virtues of the original style without attracting any of those of imperialization. Consider Decorater a make-up beer. It was apparently brewed with a weisse yeast--anyway, it had a wonderfully tart, zingy profile. Still, despite the hefty alcohol percentage, it was light and refreshing--neither heavy nor the least cloying. I would have guessed a beer of no more than 5% ABV. Amid the heavy monsters at this fest, it was a shocking contrast. I don't know if there's a market for this beer in Oregon (based on the reactions of the people I kept sending over to try it, maybe not), but I would love to be able to buy this on a regular or recurring basis. Rating: A.
Double Mountain Fa La La La La
I didn't get over to the DM until a little later in my flight, and as a result, my ability to record the experience was affected. It was a wonderfully aromatic beer, with spicy notes in the nose and on the tongue. Caramel body nicely balanced the layered bitterness--an extra, extra special Northwest bitter (to coin a style). Rating: B+
Caldera Cauldron Brew '07
Another hoppy ale, this one had the character of the Big Northwest Reds I have been writing about, but I couldn't get a clear read on the actual color of the beer through my opaque plastic. It had a bit more body than some of the reds, which to my tongue gives the hops a little better platform on which to deliver their performance. Caldera was sticky and green, but the bitterness was supported nicely by the malt. Rating: B+
The other beers were a mixture of well-intentioned failures or interesting mostly-successes. I give beers like this a lot more latitude than some: brewers spend months on an experiment they can't replicate, hoping that their experience, wits, and a little luck give the beer some of the transcendence it possesses in its back-of-the-envelope stage. Even when the beers didn't work, I felt edified somewhat. A brief run-down of the others I tried (in order of tasting):
Ninkasi Otis (aka "Oatis") - A roasty, rich ale that finished with a sharp, astringent note. Up until that moment, everyone liked it, but the sharpness alarmed some lovers of the soft style. Might have been some tannins from crystal malt or a bit of Chinook or ... ? I liked it, but perhaps subsequent batches will come in a little milder.
Hopworks Organic Kentucky Christmas - I would love to know what's in this beer--I got a note that reminded me of sage or rosemary. (Truth is, what it reminded me of was chicken, but much like alder smoked malt reminds you of salmon, I think the note was actually an herb normally used in chicken's preparation.) Unlike a lot of Christian Ettinger's beers, it wasn't a hop bomb but was rather a very nice, warming malty beer. The bourbon was subdued.
McMenamins Krakatuk Russian Imperial Stout - Way over-roasty. Like chewing on a handful of roast barley.
Pelican Bad Santa - This beer should have been a home run, but the constituent elements didn't come together. The body was very thick and the malting and malt alcohol intense; next to this, the hopping, which was robust, had to merely scream to be heard. The genius of IPAs is that the malt play a decidedly supporting role. Black IPAs are confronted with the difficulty of getting color without a lot of dark-beer notes (chocolate, roastiness, and coffee). Bad Santa didn't pull it off.
Mirror Mirror 2005
Barleywines, like stouts, are hard to screw up. You just throw in the kitchen sink and any off notes have no chance of surviving. But because of this, it's also hard to achieve the sublime. Mirror Mirror--at least the taster I had at the Fest--was an indifferent barleywine. It had the strength without the distinction. The notes were muddied without being deliciously stewed. It was strong and hoppy, but tasted like a kitchen-sink beer. An extremely rare beer, so a shame I can't make those of you who didn't have a taster feel jealous.
Calapooia Kringle Krack
This may actually have been a great beer. I enjoyed it and admired a thickness and depth of flavor I was unable, at that late moment, to describe.
Some of the beers at the Fest can be found around town or at their home breweries, so keep your eyes peeled. You may not have been able to swing a dead cat without finding one of these rarities at the Fest, but you'll have to seek them out with some intention now. And it's a long time until the next Holiday Ale Fest, so happy hunting--