Post updated below.
With the introduction of Cafe Negro and Kingpin, Oregon's oldest brewery continues what has been a very quiet reworking of almost its entire line. This is the second time they've scrapped most of their line-up and tried to rebrand themselves, though this time they've approached it very differently.
Historical recap. In 1995, Texas-based Gambrinus bought BridgePort. At the time, it had a line-up of well-regarded Northwest-inflected English ales. More than that, they were beloved of the city that was just beginning to call itself "Beervana." The flagship, Blue Heron, had prett decent claim to being the city beer of Portland. No matter; Gambrinus went a different direction, scrapped all the beers and built a new line of classic English ales. (In a colossal blunder, they even decided to scrap Blue Heron, which then accounted for 50% of sales.) The new line was keyed around their then-ground-breaking IPA and included Amber, Porter, ESB, and Blackstrap Stout. To their great credit, they also tried to promote cask ales, and plastered the motto "firkin good beer" all over the city. When an outrage about Blue Heron threatened to swamp the relaunch, the brewery decided to keep the name around, though Karl Ockert created a new recipe.
That line was more or less intact until a few years ago, when new beers began to supplant the old: Haymaker and Hop Czar, and now Kingpin and Cafe Negro. Only IPA and Blue Heron remain from the previous line. Gone are the English ales, in are Northwest ales. The last time BridgePort reworked its line, it abandoned its strength within the city. With this reworking, it seems to be trying very hard to reclaim that image of "local." The beers are big and hoppy (or caffeinated), and the branding is all about the newly acquired Trademark "Beervana." A fascinating (if low-key) development. Of course, beer drinkers mostly don't care about the business end. For them, the question is: are the new beers any good?
Here are my thoughts.
A double red ale is an odd choice for a new beer, but one that hints at the success of Hop Czar, BridgePort's boozy hop bomb they elevated from Big Brews to six-pack mainstay. Like Hop Czar, Kingpin is very big (7.5%) and hoppy (65 IBUs, nowhere near as hoppy as the Czar). In an email, new master brewer Jeff Edgerton--who replaced founding brewer Karl Ockert last year--described what he was shooting for:
This beer resulted from my wanting to do a beer that had a unique look and featured a hop variety that I really like, Liberty. Liberty hops are grown in Oregon (some in Washington, too) and we already had a relationship with one of the local hop farmers that grew it. So we contracted to purchase a large quantity of Liberty hops and designed our recipe to be a double-red, triple-hopped (kettle, hopjack, and dry-hopped) beer that uses rye in the grist to give a unique mouthfeel and flavor to this beer. I’m really pleased with this beer, and I consider this to be my personal first (as brewmaster) year-round recipe with BridgePort.Liberty hops are one of the old-generation low-alpha American hops, developed in the early 80s from a Hallertau Mittelfruh and unnamed male. To get a sense of it, related hops include Mt. Hood and Crystal. They're mild, lightly spicy, and generally deployed in noble-hop-using lagers. I've heard some brewers say they have a "traditional" flavor, by which I think they mean a less funky American quality typical in that first generation of US hops.
The beer is brewed in a style I once called "Big NW reds" because about four years ago, they seemed to be everywhere. The pace of releases has slowed locally, which makes Kingpin an interesting choice--tt's a bit behind the curve in terms of trends. But then again, hoppy 7.5% beers are always in style in Portland.
Tasting Notes. There are beers you like and those you admire. This is one I admire. Big reds are on the outer edges of balance, with hops overwhelming the malts (which seem mainly to exist for their beauty and booze-producing qualities). Kingpin has a higher purpose. The spice in the liberty hops and rye malt (a hearty 20% of the grist) create an intentional resonance and provide depth beyond pure IBUs. Unfortunately, in beers this intense, it's difficult to appreciate the subtleties you might find in a low-alpha hop and interesting grain bill. I would love to try a 5% version of this beer. It is a beautiful pour--a vitreous crimson with a snowy head--and it's getting some love from the bloggers (here's Bill and Brady). No love from me, but an appreciative B rating for the craft behind the beer.
The second beer is also an interesting choice--a coffee porter called Café Negro. Dark, coffee-infused beers are tasty, but there are already at least three regularly on the market (Kona Pipeline Porter, Oakshire Overcast Stout, and Laurelwood Portland Roast). Here's what Jeff wrote about the genesis of this beer:
Karl and I reformulated our base Porter a few years back and were always hoping that we could find a way to distribute the beer to a wider audience. After Karl left, our owner asked if we could do a coffee porter based on our pub porter recipe. So we bought a bunch of coffees from local roasters, figured out a cold-infusion process, and tasted a bunch of coffees infused into our Porter to figure out which coffee would compliment our beer the best. We settled on blend from World Cup Coffee (on NW 18th and Glisan) and established a relationship with them to begin buying freshly roasted and ground coffee. We made minimal changes to the Porter recipe and then had to design a “system” for cold infusing coffee in our existing tanks. This is much more difficult than one might think. But we figured it out and the result if Café Negro.Whether there's room for one more dark coffee ale on the market remains to be seen. Before moving onto the notes, though, I would be remiss in not mentioning the name, also a bold choice. The word "Negro" here means black and is uncharged in languages like Spanish and French. In American English, however .... Language is funny, and emotional resonances can produce unintended consequences--or not. Anyway, an interesting choice.
Tasting Notes. Beautiful, densely black beer with a lovely head. BridgePort uses Sumatran, a wonderfully smooth, medium-roast bean, and I was surprised to find that it was a bit harsh here. I had to confirm that it was cold-brewed. I was also surprised that it offers only a general "coffee" flavor, not the distinctively Kona-like flavor in Pipeline or rich semi-sweet espresso in Oakshire's. As expected, Café Negro mostly tastes of coffee, with just a bit of malt sweetness to indicate beer. And since it does, these underwhelming qualities of the coffee bring Café Negro down a bit. I'm afraid I won't be seeking out another pint very often and will have to give it a C+ on the ratings scale.
This final review involves a beer outside the year-round line. But of all the recent beers, it may be the one to show the way to the future. It's a great beer, unusual, and very drinkable. Of the three new beers BridgePort has on offer, this is the one that kept popping up in my mind days after I drank it. Here's how Jeff described the backstory:
Nightcap was an idea that started with the fact that when I was Karl’s Asst., I filled some empty bourbon barrels with some excess Ebenezer that we had, mostly to keep the barrels hydrated. We kept the beer for nearly a year, and when Dan Wecker asked for something special for an account that he had, we racked off some of the beer into kegs. Everyone loved it. So last January we filled about 38 Maker’s Mark barrels with beer and held them until this past fall. We were looking for a winter warmer type of big brew, so I suggested that we brew an amped-up version of Ebenezer and blend with the strongly bourbon-barrel flavored beer that we had in the barrels.Tasting Notes. Pours out a murky russet, which I considered promising--the look of something rustic. Ahough overall the aroma is subdued, there are some biscuit and caramel notes in the nose, a touch of bourbon. The palate is sweet and malty, with strong overtones of wood (cedar more than oak) and bourbon. Slight cherry note and coconut, perhaps produced by the wood tannins. Also a bit of spice, perhaps from the Chinooks. The sweetness is balanced fairly nicely. More winter warmer than old ale. Blending the beer provides the character of the barrel-aging, but without being bludgeoned by bourbony booze. High marks: A-.
I'm not sure what the new line adds up to. BridgePort seems to be headed sort of in the Ninkasi direction: high-octane hop bombs. I wouldn't be surprised to see some more changes down the line as BridgePort learns what works and what doesn't.
Update. Bill Night has done a great follow-up on BridgePort's line change, including this bullet list:
- ESB: gone
- Stout: gone
- Porter: replaced by Cafe Negro
- Ropewalk Brown Ale: gone
- Haymaker Extra Pale: no longer bottled; still on tap in the Pearl