Sometime this month, Deschutes will release Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale, which is I believe a renamed version of Red Chair IPA. (Anyway, the strength and bitterness--6.4%/55 IBU--are identical.) Side note: don't look for it at your local grocer, however; it appears only outside the Northwest in January. Here we'll be receiving Cinder Cone--perhaps my least fave of the Deschutes line--in its swan song and last-ever bottling. When it runs its course, then we'll get Red Chair.
Yet the thing that interests me is not so much Red Chair as the style description: Northwest pale ale. It happens to coincide with a batch of homebrew a friend of mine made that he styles a Northwest best bitter. And let us not forget the effort to popularize a black IPA variant locals are trying to dub "Cascadian dark ale" (two versions of which--Hopworks, returning on tap today, and Widmer W '10--are currently available) nor the emergent Big NW Red. Something's afoot.
In viticulture, "appellation" is a geographic designation for a region where grapes are grown. The sense of place is everything for a wine--the geography, the climate, the terroir. A pinot grape grown in the Dundee Hills (AVA 2005) will taste different than one grown in the Santa Maria Valley (APA 1981). Legal matters have strained the elegance of the system (can't call a sparkling wine Champagne if it's made outside France?), but it is useful nevertheless.
Beer is less finicky about place. Many of the classic styles were once products of the local environment (water quality, hop variety and availability, local adjuncts), but now brewers can fiddle with the elements and achieve a minerally pale ale even with soft, pure Oregon water. Yet styles do emerge when locals demand certain qualities in a beer. General themes have emerged: on the West Coast, we love our hops and we strongly favor ales. In New England, they like a proper, balanced pint. The Midwest is a bit schizophrenic, but they do appreciate a nice lager far more than we do.
But can we start talking about a "Northwest" style?
I'm on the fence. On the one hand, "West Coast" seems an adequate description of most of the things you might otherwise call "Northwest." (I'll quickly concede that West Coast beers are distinct from those brewed elsewhere.) The general features: bigger than usual, fruitier, characterized by zesty American hops, and more bitter.
On the other hand, there do seem to be subtle differences. Northwesterners aren't as focused on purely bitter beers as they are on hoppy beers. They want as much aroma and flavor as bitterness. In fact, I think most in the Northwest have moved beyond beer that features only punishing bitterness. While that may be present, if it isn't rich with aroma and hop flavor, Northwesterners will dismiss it as a lesser beer. Conversely, even bitterheads admire an ale of moderate hopping (say 40 BUs) that is saturated with flavor and aroma.
Apply the proclivity more broadly, and I guess you could say that it is characteristic of the Northwest to try to infuse beer with hoppy goodness. Generally this means bittering it up some, but not exclusively. I am reminded of Double Mountain's exquisite Kolsch--a beer that is both too hoppy to be called traditional, yet also one that tries hard to stay true to the spirit of Cologne's famous style. A Northwest kolsch. Hmm, possibly.
I don't know. Your thoughts?