In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its sixth year, honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. The inaugural winner was Ninkasi Believer followed by Full Sail Lupulin (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008), and Upright Four (2009), and Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2010)--all of which, I'm pleased to see, are still on the market.
Now that I've been doing this thing a little while, I'm starting to see a pattern emerge. In three of the five years, I've chosen a beer from a new brewery. You could throw Cascade into the mix, too, because it was effectively a new brewery--a separate name and entirely separate brewing philosophy from the Raccoon Lodge. Even Lupulin honored the novel--the emergence of fresh hop ales as a fixture in the Northwest brewing calendar.
All of which led me to believe I'd be choosing from one of the new breweries to hit the scene--Burnside, Logsdon, or Boneyard (I might have been convinced to name GoodLife or Occidental had there been a tide of support, too). Then I began winnowing and thinking. Finally, it came down to three. And I was surprised to see which emerged as The One.
Logsdon Seizoen Bretta
This would have been a pretty easy choice. The beer geeks were clamoring for it, saison is one of my favorite styles, and the story behind the brewery is fantastic. The problem is the beer. I have to back into my complaint. Over the course of four days in my recent trip to Belgium, I had an epiphany. It came after about my 14th gueuze, the style that makes the Brussels area famous; it occurred to me: sour beer should never, never be harsh. In the US, we love extremes. If alcohol is good, more is better; if a little hop bite is good, melting faces is better. With sour ales, if funk is good, psychedelic funk has got to be better. What results is a staggering range of sour beers, some of which have lots of flavors one might charitably call "interesting" but never pleasant. Solvent, band-aid, burning plastic, extreme, saliva-sucking aridity, and painful harshness. True: they are natural. We like sour ales because they have unexpected character. But these flavors aren't pleasant.
Which brings us to Seizoen Bretta, a beer that announces its prickly nature with its unpronounceable name. Dave Logsdon uses a secret strain of brettanomyces to sour his saison, and one would expect nothing less of the founder of Wyeast Labs. But it's not a gentle strain. A style fascist might demand both malt character, preferably rustic, and some funky fermentation notes like you find in Dupont. I will resist the urge and approach the beer on its own terms. Yet what I find is not a pleasant, interesting brett character, but one that is exceedingly dry and has a long, tongue-scraping citrus-rind bitterness. To me it's out of balance, a beer bludgeoned by brett So, while I will no doubt incur the wrath of the fans who love it, I am passing over this early Logsdon effort.
Burnside Sweet Heat
Next we have a beer in the category of experimental flavored beers. (Bend's Ching Ching, a beer I considered almost as strongly, is another example.) This category of beer is the future of beer, and one area where American breweries are in the forefront--not alone, but definitely right there with the Italians and maybe a step in front of the Belgians. It makes a lot of sense to choose a beer that represents this style of brewing as a way of acknowledging its arrival, and I almost did.
I love Sweet Heat. This is a reprise of a beer Jason McAdam brewed when he was at the now-defunct Roots Brewery, Calypso Ale. A light wheat beer, it finds balance by contrasting Scotch Bonnet peppers with apricot--a high-concept recipe designed to evoke the cuisine of the Caribbean. McAdam pulls off the trick in a light session ale, which is a doubly impressive achievement. The future of flavored ales depends on the examples that manage not to be gimmicky but cohere into something that is truly beery. Sweet Heat does exactly that. Even more importantly, it passes a truth test for whether I really like a beer: do I crave it from time to time and feel like I just need to go buy a pint? Sweet Heat brings the crave.
In the end, it was that element of pure craveability that won me over and which brings us to the last beer I considered. I chose because, not only do I regularly crave it, but it falls into a category of beer we just have too little of--tasty light session beers, especially lagers.
2011 Satori Award Winner: Fort George 1811 Lager
I loved this beer the first time I had it, and wrote:
I hope customers are so mesmerized by the shiny blue cans that they ignore the prominent word "lager" and don't read blogs like this. Because, if they manage to get the beer into their glass, they're in for a treat. Despite people's expectations about canned lager, this is quite a lively and assertive beer. I'm not sure what the hops are, but noble sounds about right--or maybe Sterlings or a mixture of nobles and bastard American varieties like Mt. Hood. In any case, it's zesty and spicy, but buoyed by a lovely, summery sweetness. As is de rigueur for an Oregon beer (nod to Stan Hieronymus), it is as cloudy as November Portland skies. And, although it is packed with flavor, the volume doesn't blast at IPA levels, so it has that moreishness you want from a summer tipple.Many cans and pints later, I'd add a few more notes. It's not a subtle beer. The hops (which were at the time confirmed to be Saaz and Centennial) are American-strong. It's certainly not balanced in the manner lager fans will expect. There's a decidedly sulfury nose that combines with the hops in a way that does not delight one and all (a friend of mine recoiled and said "woo, skunky"). Even in the lead-up to this post, a number of people called it their fave while commenter Shawn wrote "I heard the hype, bought one, took a few sips and had to give the rest away. Yuk. I like some lagers (Heater Allen, especially), but the 1811 was undrinkable." As all those fans of Logsdon's saison will no doubt agree, assertive beers divide people.
But hey, the heart wants what it wants. Fort George is one of Oregon's best breweries, and their wish to honor the founding of their home town, Astoria, makes all this a lot easier. The pub is one of the nicest anywhere, and I would call Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, Vortex IPA, and Murky Pearl Oyster Stout Beervana must-haves. They even have a sweet new website. So congrats Chris Nemlowill, Jack Harris, and the brewing crew from Fort George--you made a hell of a beer.
Mike Wright recently launched his post-Beetje Brewery, the Commons. I'm going to consider all beers from the new brewery eligible for the 2012 Satori rather than this year. I didn't have a chance to try them, and I'd like to give Mike a chance to get the line up and running on the new system. Looking forward to get over there.
Ben Engler of Occidental Brewing. early new year's resolution: I will come see you soon. Promise.
Special shout out to Laurelwood for their new Organic Pale, which qualified as the most tasty of all the new beers released this year. It's hard to make the case for what is, after all, just a perfectly executed example of the country's most common style, but it deserves recognition for being a fantastic--if not quite Satori-ish--beer. Kudos to Chad Kennedy, and good luck, man.
I also totally loved Deschutes Chainbreaker, which used sage to bridge the flavor spectrum between spices and hops, and I'd like to put out a special appeal to the brewery to bring it back. Extremely tasty beer. Don't leave me hanging, guys.