There are a lot of ways to sell beer in this state, but the easiest is to make them big and hoppy. It helps if you're conveniently located in East Portland--though Eugene seems like a pretty good location, too. A sure-fire business model includes a pub/taproom and capacity to distribute 22-ounce bottles and/or kegs to alehouses around the Northwest. Do that and your road is lined with rose petals.
Ted Sobel, master of the all-cask Brewers Union Local 180, has not chosen the easy way. He makes small beers with low levels of hops. His pub is three hours from Portland, in Oakridge. He brews real ale, sold exclusively by firkin, and only really trusts one other pub to handle his beer. To reach the Portland market, he must load the casks into the back of his station wagon and drive them up himself. For his trouble, he earns less per firkin than he would if he sold the beer in his own pub. In the term of art, Ted has not yet figured out how to "monetize" his vision in the way other pubs have. His road is thorny, cold, and lonely.
(As a writer who has failed to adequately monetize my efforts--did I mention there's ad space available?!--I can appreciate this. Sometimes you gotta follow your bliss, even when it's a meager bliss.)
Last night, Ted brought two classic cask offerings to the Green Dragon--Cwrw Welsh Mild and a classic English porter. Or, as he describes them, "plain, ordinary, mundane session beer." Actually, the porter was of a kind that is directly in most Portlanders' wheelhouse. It was smooth, roasty, and lively. Cask ale isn't innately a better form of beer, and there is honest disagreement over the method. But even non-cask drinkers would have gobbled this one down--maybe without even realizing it was casked.
The mild, not so much. Ted used a tiny amount of peated malt, but a tiny amount's enough--it imparted a smoky, slightly sour note. Cwrw was creamy and soft--Sally called it "milky" and wondered if there was lactose ("no," said Ted)--and clearly low-alcohol. This is where I think Ted has his biggest hurdle. Craft beer drinkers have become accustomed to that sharp, anesthetizing tingle on their tongue. The difference between a mild and a stronger beer is the difference between apple juice and hard cider. To absent that quality from a beer is, I'm afraid, to move into a radical philosophical space that questions the nature of the drink. At least for most people. The mild had all kinds of flavors going on--but no amount of appreciating can will the flavor of alcohol into being. Can people put aside their expectations and appreciate the flavors that are in a beer rather than focusing on the ones that aren't? That's the big question.
As for "Cwrw" (pronounced kuru, with a roll of the "r"), I think you'll find adequate clarification here.
If you missed these beers, stop by Belmont Station this afternoon to try a special bitter called "Quid Hoc Sibi Vult?" Pours start at three and run until the firkin's gone. My high school Latin's a bit rough, but the Google tells me this idiomatic expression is generally translated as "what does this mean?" I suppose we could read this as a question Ted ponders, elbow on knee, about the difficulty of the path he's chosen. (Or which has now chosen him.) A less idiomatic translation, apparently, is "what does this want for itself?" I like this one better. What does Oregon real ale want for itself? Appreciation, clearly. Ted told me last night that he expects there to be ten cask houses in Portland in ten years. This is what the real ale wants.
I hope you're right, Ted.
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