[Note: A sharp-eyed reader noticed a repetitive use of the word "weed," which I've adjusted somewhat. Also, my latest copy editor has been beaten and fired.]
MacTarnahan's, the forgotten brewery.
Really, when was the last time you had a pint of an erstwhile Portland Brewing beer? With a reputation of safe, pedestrian beer and a flagship that now looks like a daisy in a field of craft brewing's exotic orchids, MacTarnahan teeters. Recent seasonals have done nothing to stem this impression (Grifter, Slingshot Pale) ... until now. Of all the major breweries most likely to release a saison, MacTarnahan's had to be the least. Yet here it is, Lip Stinger. The whole thing is mystifying. Including, it turns out, the beer itself.
It is a light saison, just 4.8%, but with a pretty pointed 32 BUs. Although the early buzz is positive, I found it an odd beer. Not timid, but strangely incoherent. The aroma is funky and phenolic. If the brewery didn't use a saison yeast, they did a good job of disguising the fact. Yet the beer is as clear and golden as a pilsner, which creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Sniff: Belgiany, funky, saison. Look: gently effervescent, clear, bright, and filtered. Well, no matter: try a sip to resolve things. Except it doesn't. The palate is all tang and medicine. The Saaz hops are strong enough that it adds to the pilsnery aphasia, yet the yeast is estery, fruity (apricots?), and effervescent. Then there's the peppercorn addition, which comes across as a grating bitterness, almost like menthol. In the end, the needle was pointing in a positive direction, if provisionally. I would recommend this beer selectively, and only to the the experimental.
The riddle does not stop at the glass, however.
1. Why "Lip Stinger?"
Let's start with the name, which is terrible. The brewery used four kinds of peppercorn (a traditional saison spice), but there's nothing stinging about the beer. Which is good, because who wants stung lips? The pepper isn't peppery, though; I find it weedy and medicinal. It's not necessarily terrible, but "weedy and medicinal" will appeal to only a niche audience. It's subtitled a "farmhouse" ale, which is better. People relate to the word "farmhouse" positively. The word is vague, though, and only by tasting this dry, effervescent, spicy beer do you know that it's properly a saison. I get why the brewery would choose the more consumer-friendly "farmhouse" than saison; why then did they choose the consumersbane "Lip Stinger" as the topline name?
(There is a French wine grape known as picpoul--"Lip Stinger." It produces a very crisp, tart, food-friendly wine, and so the sense in French, apparently, is "lip-smacking." Whether this is an allusion to that grape, or a direct translation of the French, I can only imagine. Still, if this is the case, we're into the very deep grass in terms of naming arcana.)
2. Why is Lip Stinger Filtered?
This is a minor quibble alluded to in my description, but come on. Farmhouse ales are supposed to be "rustic." Rusticity is not a quality easily described, but we can infer from it a certain lack of polish. It comes from the Latin rusticus, for "open land"--it suggests "country" and "handmade." Filtering, an invention of industrialization, is definitely not rustic. The passion for clarity is a modern one. For once, couldn't MacTarnahan's have resisted filtering a beer?
3. Why Saison, of All Styles?
MacTarnahan's has, over the years, dabbled in a variety of styles. One of my faves was a traditional hefeweizen they made back in the mid-90s. They had a widely-lauded pilsner called Zig Zag. But except for a quasi-Belgian beer they made for the millennium, I don't recall any Belgian styles. Lately they have specialized in even more anodyne beers than usual, suggesting a slow fade into the kind of beers corporate brand-managers concoct. (Not to say that's what was actually driving things.) So to go for a Belgian beer, and even more a saison (quite a jump into the deep end of the Wallonian pool)--how did they get from there to here?
4. Why Only 3,000 Cases?
This is not actually a riddle: the answer is pretty self-evident. You don't bet the farm on a beer so radically different from the rest of your line. I ask it rhetorically: why not really try to make a splash. Putting these out in sixers for a month would have at least been a nice advertisement that MacTarnahan's is stepping up. Casual drinkers might have been persuaded to buy a bottle (or maybe not; see #1) and even if they found it shocking and gross, they would remember it. Sometimes that's a good thing. But putting it out in such a small batch and in 22s means that only the beer geeks will discover it. Ah well, baby steps.
You should go buy a bottle for the novelty and see what you think. MacTarnahan's effort is worth at least a bottle.