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Showing posts with label Breakside Brewing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Breakside Brewing. Show all posts

Thursday, February 13, 2014

All the New Beers

Several years ago, the Oregon Brewers Guild launched Zwickelmania as a way of bridging over the doldrums of late winter.  Mission accomplished.  I have been absolutely inundated with new beer releases, and many of them are keyed to release on Z-day.  (Which is cool, because whether you're a rank newbie who has only recently learned that beer is made from barley or an advanced stage beer geek who knows the varying character of Wyeast 3711 when fermented at 65 versus 80 degrees, there's a reason to go check out the Zwickel events.)  I have endeavored to sample as many of these as possible, so here's a quick and dirty rundown.

Oakshire Hellshire IV
The annual release of Hellshire has become a big deal for the no-longer little brewery from Eugene.  It comes along with its own fest, which is studded with tons of beers from around the country.  The centerpiece is Matt Van Wyk's barrel aged strong ale, of which there are but a mere 120 cases.  This year's vintage should be in especially high demand; the 2013 Hellshire took gold in the coveted barrel-aged category at the GABF.

Hellshire is a blend mainly of Very Ill-Tempered Gnomes that were aged in bourbon and rye barrels.  There's some rum-aged barley wine in there and a dab of unbarrel imperial stout.  "We're doing a lot of blending and not worrying about style," he said.  "We grab an old ale, a barleywine, an imperial stout."  I found it curious that Matt blends different styles of beer, but apparently this is a thing.  (More evidence of my slow-moving antiquity.)  It's a slightly murky nut-colored beer with a boozy-sweet aroma.  The booze is gentle on the tongue, though, and the beer has a dessert-like quality, rich with chocolate and caramel.  The liquor tracks more like rum than bourbon to me.

The only way you can be assured of getting a bottle is by heading to Eugene.  Hellshire Day looks to be a treat, though, so the trip ought to be worth it.  All the details are here.

Fort George Java the Hop
A bit more than one year ago, I spent my birthday weekend in Astoria, hiking during the day, drinking beer in the evening.   Fort George was pouring a beer I thought was going to be a disaster--a coffee IPA--but was the opposite.  The nose had lots of coffee with a bit of green hoppy underlayment, but then miraculously, the two harmonized in the mouth.  The coffee only inflected the IPA, which was less hoppy than the usual Fort George beer, and the earthy, aromatic notes perfectly complemented the hops.  Java the Hop is back this year in a can, so you can see the effect.  Unfortunately, this year's batch is not quite as perfectly balanced.  The coffee is a bit too assertive, and the flavors compete in the mouth.  (It is a lot prettier; last year's batch looked like pond water.)  Still, my judgment is affected by expectation, and you should definitely give it a try. 

Widmer Upheaval
I'll have more on the making of this beer in a subsequent post, but I wanted to bookmark it here.  Upheaval is the new year-round IPA, and it coincides with the brewery's 30th anniversary.  Appropriately, it has a grist very similar to Hefeweizen, with 40% wheat.  It's a nice way of underscoring the brewery's long history with wheaty American beers.  It's a modern IPA, though, with tons of late-addition hops, and a light, delicate palate.  Widmer has really dialed in their house flavor, so that in-house Alchemy blend lets you know it's a Widmer beer.  I also want to mention that Columbia Common is back out for a second year.  It's small, delicate, and not show-offy, so it's not going to set geek palates on fire.  It's an excellent beer, though, and a great session for, say, watching the Olympics.

Breakside has--shocker!--a flurry of new beers.  Last night, brewer Ben Edmunds was showing off the latest saison, called, with tongue firmly in cheek, Suburban Farmhouse Ale.  (Their friends at the Commons brew Urban Farmhouse Ale.)  Jokes the brewery:
Traditionally, Suburban Ales were brewed in garages and backyards in urban middle-class neighborhoods of America. These beers were born out of expendable income and free time as good commercial beer was readily available and affordable. Our rendition was developed in the spirit of that noble tradition. The beer pours with a copper hue and an aroma of freshly mown grass and old copies of Willamette Week Beer Guides.
Nice. They used the French farmhouse yeast strain and hopped it with Australian Topaz.  Ben said the info they had described the hop as having juniper, "Mediterranean Sea" (because Black Sea is just gross), forest floor, apricot, and a few other strange notes.  The juniper is what really comes through--I thought it was a gin-barrel saison.  You can pick up a bit of the sea too, if you're suggestible and look hard enough.

They also have a barrel-aged strong ale called Elder Statesman made with rye-aged barley wine (80%) and a bourbon-aged strong golden.  It is creamy, rich, and very smooth.  Finally, Breakside has bottles of Caramel Salt Stout, which is just what it sounds like.  They caramelized some sugar and added that to the grist and then dosed it with some salt.  The salt is a subtle but evident note, but the caramel could easily just be a component within the stout.  It works and may be my pick of the three.

That's in no way an exhaustive list.  Alan Taylor has made the old new again at Pints by brewing a bitterbier--you know them as India Pale Lagers--called XL-5 Experimental Lager, complete with "hop stuffing" (dry-hopping); Double Mountain has released their two Krieks in bottles (and they also have a 2.6% small beer at the pub); Gigantic just did a five-cask release of Bang On! with different hops in the casks (though they're probably all gone now); Portland Brewing, doing its best to rally in the minds of locals, has the spring release of Rose Hip Gold; and Abram Goldman-Armstrong's new project, Cider Riot, just released their first cider.  More on that on Saturday.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Mad Scientist(s) in Milwaukie

It makes a certain kind of perverse sense that the new outpost for Breakside Brewing is located in Milwaukie, just south of Portland in Clackamas County.  (Founder Lot Whitcomb named it for the other Milwaukee, though he apparently never lived there, which is odd.)  Milwaukie is the anti-Portlandia.  It is aggressively normal.  People live in or move to Milwaukie to get away from the single-estate coffee roasters, microbreweries, tattoos, and urban infill of the big city.  So the most outre place to locate your new boundary-crashing brewery is, of course, Milwaukie.

Which is where I sampled beers made with everything from fennel pollen to cedar tips last Friday.  Brewing with weird ingredients is no longer weird, but no one has embraced it as enthusiastically as Ben Edmunds (and now he has a team of style-benders to assist his alchemy).  Last week, in what was largely a failed experiment to understand the idea of "good" beer, I had in mind potions like Cedarbaumbier, an American wheat beer made with wild-foraged cedar tips and no hops.  The beer tasted like forest.  Actually, it tasted like thuja plicata, the mighty Western red cedar, my favorite of all trees in the world.  No plant has had a more important impact on the Pacific Northwest than this not-cedar (it's actually a cypress), which was used for centuries in everything from art to homes to extracts.  An incredibly aromatic tree, anyone who has walked in the old forests of Oregon will have encountered this giant (I believe it's second only to the redwood in size).  Doug firs are more common, but cedars are iconic.  So a glassful of cedar, sweet, resinous, perfumed--something halfway between a cleaning supply and a shake shingle.  How to assess?

When I was still in college, ignorant but curious, I received some folk wisdom from a friend that has served me well.  We were looking at an abstract painting by a friend of ours, and had no way of assessing it.  He said, "I always want to see if someone can draw something realistically before I judge their abstract stuff.  If you can do proportion and angle, I'll trust you to do abstract."  This holds with beer, too.  Amid the savory stouts  and cardamomy Belgian pales Ben and Sam Barber were slapping in front of us, they were also serving classics: pilsner, dunkel, tmavé, Flanders tart.  They've introduced a pale since my last visit that is absolutely saturated in hop goodness, but has something like only 35 IBUs.  The dunkel and tmavé might have been served in Munich and Prague, the Flanders tart, though kissed by bourbon, was very much a brother to Rodenbach (they use the Roselare yeast, but only after, like Rodenbach, completely fermenting out a regular beer).  The pils is already a regular beer and big seller--though truthfully the IBUs put it partway into the Northwest tradition.

I guess I'm just going to have to get with the program.  The truth is, I loved the Cedarbaumbier.  I'd like to try a pint--or better yet two or three--just to see how the experience evolves.  My favorite beer of the flight was a saison made with fennel seeds and pollen.  I know that it will be a bridge too far for some folks--fennel divides people--but it was an inspired combo.  Fennel is a bit like anise, but also earthy and woody.  In both intensity and type, it has a great deal in common with the phenolics you get in some saison yeasts.  You could taste the yeast's work and you could taste the fennel, but they met in the middle in a way that was impossible to tease apart.

Some of Ben's first batches of beers tasted like experiments.  Over time, he (and his cohorts) have grown more and more able to take weird ingredients and make a beer that tastes intentional.  Cedarbaumbier is hard to rate on the good-bad spectrum, but by the "is this what you were shooting for?" metric, it felt like a bullseye.  The new tasting room is a great place to sample from the full spectrum--they've got everything there (21 beers on our visit).  The place is a bit hard to find, but persevere and trust that the funny little industrial park is the right place.  Seems like Fridays are a good time to see the brewers manning the taps.  That's handy, because you will almost certainly like to inquire about the weird beer.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Heading in Opposite Directions, MacTarnahan's and Breakside

We begin today's post by turning it over to the economist Joseph Schumpeter:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
The truths of Schumpeter's observation (referred elsewhere, delightfully, as "Schumpeter's gale") are evident in the fortunes of two breweries, both with big news out this week.  The first comes from one of the shining new stars of the Oregon brewing scene: 
New Breakside brewery/taproom opens Jan 30.  From nanobrewery to microbrewery with a 30 barrel system in three years, Breakside Brewery’s new location is proof the craft beer producer has no intention of slowing down. The new 7,000 square foot facility opens Wed., Jan. 30 just behind Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie and features a tasting room with 24 taps. 
The second from one of the aging veterans of the first days of craft brewing (no link):
An exciting change for Portland’s beer scene is quickly taking shape. The company that brews the beloved MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale and other craft beers is going back to its original name and will once again operate as Portland Brewing Company, beginning in February 2013.
Schumpeter's thumbnail description nearly perfectly describes what's going on here.  American brewing has, in the aggregate, been very good for new breweries in the last 30 years.  But despite the overall health of the herd, there have been some pretty spectacular die-offs.  Indeed, when you look back at that first decade of microbrewing, you see how the game turned out to be  high-risk, high-reward.  When you look at the largest American breweries today, among those founded after 1980, most of the largest were founded in the late 70s or 1980s.  Early success gave those breweries a huge advantage.  You see that in Oregon, too, where the biggest breweries--Widmer, Deschutes, Full Sail, and Rogue--were all founded before 1990. 

But it was also high risk.  Breweries like Pete's Wicked skyrocketed and then collapsed.  Others, like Portland Brewing [MacTarnahan's] and Pyramid stumbled badly after the market re-set in the mid-1990s.  Redhook and Full Sail are two examples of breweries that nearly went the way of Pete's but finally flourished, but Portland and Pyramid fall into a separate, depressing cateogry, sort of like zombie breweries.  I have no idea how much beer the newly re-olded Portland Brewing makes, but if it weren't for that gorgeous facility they have, the brand would have died a long time ago.  Brands are fungible; brewing plants retain their value. Two months ago we learned that in yet another buy-out, Portland would be acquired by a Costa Rican company. That's not how Art Larrance and Fred Bowman drew it up when they founded the brewery 27 years ago.

Contrast that with the more modest risk/modest reward ventures of post-shakeout craft breweries.  They're among the safest businesses to start (at least in Oregon), and few fail.  On the other hand, most don't get huge, either.  Ninkasi is the rare example of a quickly-growing new brewery, and I'd put Breakside into that category.  Going from three barrels to thirty is a huge jump--rare in the 21st century.  Collectively, though, the dozens of small breweries create quite a force.  They are "revolutionizing the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one." 

Is rebranding enough for a brewery dependent on a generation-old amber ale?  PBCo (as the employees used to call it) are reviving the elephant-themed IPA from the old Alan Kornhauser days, but is an IPA enough?  It sure doesn't seem like it.  What are you more excited about, Ben Edmunds' next concoction or a new "brand" from a tired old brewery?  The gale blows...

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Most Interesting Brewer 2011

A post over at the New School jogged my memory about one final year-end post I had in mind. It was written by Breakside's Ben Edmunds, and he was discussing the various exotic ingredients he tossed into beers.
In all, we’ve made 92 different beers at the pub this year, learning lots about the various ingredients we’ve incorporated along the way. Some of that includes the fun of working with different base malts, the challenges of finding substitute hops when our supply of Citra and Amarillo ran dry, and the learning curve with bringing in a new yeast strains. It also includes all the Reinheitsgebot–forbidden ingredients that I love to use in the brewery. Over the last few months, it seems like we’ve been on an especially adjunct-heavy kick using a number of less common fruits, herbs, spices, and so on in some of the beers. (At the same time, we’ve also been making a series of traditional lagers, for what it’s worth.)
Ben has an almost unique situation at Breakside. It's a three-barrel brewery with owners willing to completely cede the brewhouse to their brewer. The small batches allow Ben to experiment endlessly even while keeping the house range on tap. As a consequence, Ben can brew beers that are hugely experimental. Larger breweries can't afford to gamble as much. It creates a virtuous cycle: Ben is now well-known for being able to pull off experimental beers, and that makes people eager to try them.

Beyond making some of the most interesting beers over the past year, Ben has also done more than any other brewery on the education front. He blogs at the New School, regularly brews authentic revival beers (his Devon White Ale this year is one of the all-time highlights of Oregon brewing), and has collaborated with various bloggers, writers, and groups to design and brew their own recipes. (A personal highlight of mine was brewing a grisette--a low-alcohol saison--with Ben.)

Breakside may be a tiny brewery in a remote quadrant of the city, but Ben's made it a destination. I can't think of any brewer who did more interesting work in 2011 than he did. Kudos--

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Grisette (and Breakside's)

Back in June, Breakside held a "collaboration fest"--though the collaborators were citizens, not other brewers. Well, not exactly citizens. One was world-famous beer writer John Foyston and another was world-famous beer writer Lisa Morrison. One was not SE-Portland known blogger Jeff Alworth. I sought to rectify this, and to his great credit, Breakside's brewer, Ben Edmunds, agreed.

That beer debuts this week, and we shall discuss it in due course. As it is the finest beer ever to have been brewed in this world or any other, you will want to take note. But first, and a bit more seriously, I wanted to describe the process, which was a joy. It's less a collaboration than an invitation--Ben encourages his collaborators to brew the beer of their bliss. His role is to use his experience to help craft the recipe and process.

On brewing day, you go down to Breakside and walk through every step, from measuring the grain to pitching the yeast. Ben and his newish assistant Sam help guide the process along, but it's very hand's-on, and you do as much hauling and clamping and washing as you're able. It all concludes with a particular test of brewing mettle. I won't describe it so that the next collaborator may experience it fresh. Suffice it to say that you will be judged against those that have come before. Even if you've homebrewed, it's an education. I was almost instantly asking questions like what the Breakside mill was set to. Ben is a born teacher, which makes the whole experience relaxed and fun.

The beer is a grisette--sort of. Historically, saisons were brewed at farmhouses to serve to workers. Grisette's ("little gray") were served to miners. Although the style died out, they were described as small, refreshing blonde ales that probably lacked the lactic acid that characterized their close cousin, saisons. In fact, what we brewed was more in keeping with farmhouse ales, or bieres de table. We were aiming for a rusticity of malt but a characterful beer that would come from a finicky saison yeast. For good measure, we wanted to add a bit of sour snap to evoke historical saisons, which would have been infected--and would have therefore been very thirst-quenching on a hot day at the farm. So call it a rustic small saision (petit saision?).

We used 65% pils and a dash of rye (about 2%), and the rest was split of wheat and spelt. We used a sprinkling of Spalt Ben just brewed Beach Saison using the Dupont strain, so we were able to harvest and repitch that yeast. Finally, we did a small post-fermentation sour mash to add just a touch of tartness. We were shooting for 1.035/9 P and a shade under 4%. That makes it Breakside's lightest ever--though only in alcohol. By luck, it also turned out to be Breakside's 100th beer.

When can you get this fine beer? Why right now, at the pub. (820 NE Dekum Street)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beer Month Notes, With Pictures

And Oregon Craft Beer Month rolls forward, leaving tired livers in its wake. Notably, Puckerfest has delivered a tour de force of great beers, one that continues tonight when Block 15's Nick Arzner brings a four-pack of his wonderful barrel-aged beers. If you haven't been to Puckerfest yet, definitely go. I've been really impressed with the pricing structure; it encourages you to get many small pours. Many of these beers are exceedingly rare, so Belmont Station could be charging a mint. Anyway, I've been sipping and snapping (pics) of beers as I go along, and here are a few highlights.

Flat Tail Corvaller Weisse
I have now tried exactly one of Dave Marliave's Flat Tail beers, which looks impressive when you compare it to the previous total (100% increase!). At some point I'll make it to Corvallis and do a proper survey. In the meantime, I was quite pleased with the Corvaller Weisse he brought for Puckerfest. Just 3.6%, it was a great example of how flavorful small beers can be. Lots of lactic tart with a wheaty background, crisp and light, perfect for that summer we may one day get. A very nice example. Below are Dave and his beer.

BJ's Enfant Terrible
It's probably sends the wrong signal to call this a zombie beer, but I mean it only in the best sense: it's the last keg of a 2007 batch of brett-aged beer made by Vasilios Gletsos when he was at BJ's. (There's another zombie at Puckerfest, Roots' Epic.) Sometimes aged beers get mellower, sometimes they don't. Brettanomyces is not a gentle yeast, and it has roughed this beer up pretty good. Still, I enjoy tastes of the past. Plus, it was purty.

Upright Lambicus Six and Blend Love
Four Uprights were pouring last night, but two were aged in gin barrels. Let us speak no more about that. (Gin fans should consult Nicole, who likes a nice gin-soaked beer.) The two I liked were Blend Love, the kind of sour that brings folks together, and Lambicus Six, which divides them. Blend Love was a toothsome mixture of tart and sweet, shot-through with rich, summery fruit flavor (raspberries, cherries, and strawberries). Lambicus Six, made with the rye-based Upright Six and aged with a lambic blend, was deeper, funkier, and much more sour. Some of the sour-heads were giving it a big smile, others wrinkling their noses. I smiled.

Breakside Beach Saison
This is not a Puckerfest beer, nor is it sour. Rather, it's a pretty traditional Dupont-style saison made with Dupont's yeast. (A yeast Breakside's Ben Edmunds and I used in a Grisette collaboration I'll tout heavily next week.) This is a classic saison: rich with tropical fruit flavors, crisp, dry, and moreish. It's a fantastic beer, and I could drink gallons of the stuff.

Deschutes White IPA (But Not That One)
Before last night's Timbers game (another topic about which we shall not speak), I stopped in at Deschutes to see what was shaking. In addition to the usual goodies--a nice pils, Armory XPA, Black Butte XXXIII--they have a remarkable beer called Chainbreaker White IPA. This isn't the White IPA that came from the collaboration with Boulevard--still not released--but a milder, super tasty version. It's not remotely an IPA: nothing in it has even distant familial connections to that old style. Rather, it's a hoppy wit, or a spiced wheat pale, or something. It's a soft, delicate beer that has a spine of zesty hops that merge perfectly into the spices. I suspect they used sage in this recipe, as they did in the collaboration brew--in any case, my mind couldn't shake the connotation. It's one of the most interesting beers I've tried in a long time, a fusion brew that actually finds breaks new ground in tastiness, not just bizarreness.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Three Tasty Saisons

Note: this post had more garbled English than usual. I've tried to clean it up.

On Saturday, the Cascade Barrel House hosted a saison tasting, with a dozen and a half examples to demonstrate the breadth of the style. As a tuning fork, they had Saison Dupont on tap. Not that this is the only way saisons can be made or should--but as a matter of perfect pitch, you can't do any better. I tasted most of what was on offer, and was pleased with most. Three, however, really stood out and deserve special mention.

1. Boulevard Tank 7
Saisons are a state of mind as much as a style, and Boulevard does a magnificent job of capturing their essence without being slavish to a Belgian norm. Perhaps as a nod to the region, Boulevard's version uses corn and wheat in the grist, and the result is a soft, lightly sweet malt base as comforting and familiar as a bowl of porridge. The aroma is pure saison, though, with a musty, slightly cellarlike quality the yeast gives. The yeast also provides some interesting pepper notes, and while the grains are suggestive of sweetness, the beer is really quite dry and finishes with a crisp snap. An impressive beer that I would rank with Ommegang Hennepin as the best American examples I've tried.

2. Cascade Fume
I'm a fan of smoked beers, but Iwould have skipped Fume without a second thought except that people kept raving about it. The idea of smoked malt and saison yeast struck me as being roughly as compatible as anchovies and ice cream. Fortunately, others' minds were more open than mine. What I discovered was a very lightly smoked malt in an otherwise typical Dupont-style saison. But where Cascade's Saison de la Maison was wet and a mite sweet in the middle for my palate, the smoked malt dried out Fume. It added an austerity and richness, and when you swallowed, it clipped all sense of sweetness and evaporated instantly, like a wisp of smoke. Of all the attempts to find new ground beyond Dupont, this is the most interesting and palatable I've enjoyed.

3. Breakside Amarillo Saison
With apologies to Rod Serling, there should be a warning label on Breakside's beer reading: "You unlock this beer with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of aroma, a dimension of flavor, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you've just crossed over into the twilight zone of beer." I overheard people denouncing this beer; I watched people dump it; others just expressed shock and confusion. I loved it. Admittedly, when I took the first sip into my mouth, my eyes bugged out and rolled around in surprise. This beer is off the grid.

We often talk about hops as tasting like grapefruit, but this is an evocation. Flavors can only be described by other flavors; we triangulate from there. But Breakside's saison?--it really does taste like grapefruit. The hops provide one element, but it's the aromatic, oily part, not the juice. Add a dose of brettanomyces and you get the sour and bitter--the fruit itself. It was an amazingly resinous beer, and long, long after I quit drinking it, it was still managing to throw my palate off. Still, the intensity, once I submitted to it, was beguiling. By the time I finished my taster, I wasn't even thinking of it as all that intense. It was, but my palate had re-calibrated. I don't doubt that only a few, proud drinkers would find this beer worthy of praise, but I am among their company, and it is indeed worth praising. Approach cautiously, but prepare for a new dimension...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Meet Grätzer, the New Gose

The newest thing in brewing is ... old things. Last year, we marveled that the very obscure gose style was enjoying a boomlet. But gose is old hat. Having scoured through all extant commercial styles, brewers now appear to be perusing the extinct. Last week, Ben Edmunds offered a beer inspired by an old style called grätzer (which he pronounced "grate-sir"). We'll loop back around to his version in a moment, but first, let's have a glance at the historical style.

Grätzer is actually indigenous to Poland, where it was known as grodziskie. Grätz was the German name for the town Grodzisk, which was, for a little over a hundred years, part of Prussia. But the beer style both pre- and post-dated Prussia, and was in fact still brewed in Poland until the 1990s. Grodzisk was a major center of brewing, and at the end of the 18th Century, boasted 53 brewers.

One of the famous local products in that old-school Beervana was a beer made entirely of smoked wheat malt. The indispensable scholar (and Grätz enthusiast) Ron Pattinson retrieved this information for our edification:
"Grätzer Bier, a rough, bitter beer, brewed from 100% wheat malt with an intense smoke and hop flavour. The green malt undergoes smoking during virtually the whole drying process, is highly dried and has a strong aroma in addition to the smoked flavour. An infusion mash is employed. Hopping rate: for 1 Zentner (100 kg) of malt, 3 kg hops. Gravity just 7º [Plato]. Fermentation is carried out in tuns at a temperature of 15 to 20º C."
--“Bierbrauerei" by M. Krandauer, 1914, page 301.
In brief, the passage highlights a few key points: in addition to being brewed entirely of smoked wheat, the beer is small (1.028; less than 3% ABV) and aggressively hoppy. Although it was fermented cool (60-68 degrees), it was an ale. Also interesting: the beer is hopped during the mash.

Stan Hieronymus, writing in Brewing With Wheat, tracked down homebrewer Kristen England who, after chatting with Pattinson, brewed his own Grätzer. It became one of his favorites. England told Hieronymus, "The amount of smoke and hop in this very low-gravity beer is absolutely massive."

Fascinating stuff, and certainly something that should pique interest in more minds than just Ron Pattinson's. Aggressively hoppy, intense flavors--the style may date back 600 years, but it sounds pretty contemporary to me.

Breakside's Grätzer
The greatest barrier to brewing Grätzers is not incidental: no one produces smoked wheat malt commercially. This means a brewery either has to smoke its own malt or improvise. Edmunds improvised, using regular smoked malt. In fact, his is an all-barley version, employing Munich and pilsner malt along with the smoked. (To head off howls from uber-geeks, he admits the obvious: "this is not an historical recreation of grätzer, but rather a re-imagination.")

Ben studied brewing in German, and when he consulted historical descriptions, found mention of an apple note. Instead of vibrant hopping, he decided to spice the beer to evoke that apple character, and added cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. He also blanched at the historically tiny OG and boosted it to 1.046--leaving a beer of relatively robust 4.4% abv.

The spice dominated the palate, which was light and quaffable, but only mildly smoky. Hops also fell back. It was actually quite a nice beer, but quite a bit different than my expectations.

A Grätzer Revival?
Given the difficulty smoking wheat malt, it's a bit hard to imagine grätzer emerging an even minor trend. Hieronymus cites a collaboration between Yards and Iron Hill where the brewers smoked some of their malt, but so far as I know, no one has made a fully traditional grätzer. Perhaps a nanobrewery will attempt it. In the meantime, it may be that the style remains solely the purview of homebrewers. I'll confess that after tasting Ben's version, I did a Google search to see how hard it is to smoke malt. At 1.028, we're only talking about five pounds--how hard can it be?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Brewing Experiments, a Dissenting View

Last week, I commented enthusiastically on Breakside's recent offering of five versions of a porter, each with one different adjunct. Vasilios Gletsos, MacTarnahan's brewer, added a comment I'd like to share.
I'm probably getting lost here at the end of the comments section, with all the excitement and all, but I wanted to suggest that this kind of thing happens at commercial breweries all the time, as part of the R&D process. It is just that the decision is typically made by the brewer before releasing the beer about which one is best.

Also, what is 'best' can also have different criteria. Like for yeast: how does it perform in the cellar?, flocculation, attenuation, longevity, and of course flavor profile, among many other questions.

We often trial different hops in our standard brews or quantites of spices, etc. What is unique here is that Ben is presenting the beers and letting the public decide for themselves. I would personally feel uncomfortable putting out a beer if I thought some other example worked better.
I have no doubt that Vasili speaks for lots and lots of commercial breweries here. A brewery is in the business of offering the very best product it can; beta versions may work for software, but not beer. Fair enough. I wouldn't expect to see a brewery's work as it's hammering out a new recipe (although Deschutes regularly releases in-development recipes to beer at their brewpubs).

What Breakside did is a little different. Ben used a recipe that was already excellent--it didn't occur to me to ask, but I assume he was pleased with it. With that recipe, he made four variants that used a single different ingredient. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see. Take MacTarnahan's for example. It's a beer made exclusively with Cascade hops. It would be absolutely fascinating to see the brewery do a few other versions that used different hops--everything else being identical (process, IBUs, etc.). It'll be a cold day in hell before they do it, but I'd love it. (Or, if you prefer, Mac's with different English and American ale strains.)

There's no right answer. One thing I've learned in talking with scores of brewers over the years is that they all have definite ideas about what they're doing--and these ideas are in no way identical. So I'll put Vasili in the "no" column. Any other takers?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Five in One at Breakside Brewery

Given how easy it is to brew a batch of beer, I'm surprised more breweries don't attempt maneuvers like the one Breakside managed last night: five versions of a beer, each with one different ingredient. In this case, the beer was a smoked porter, and the five variations included, beyond plain: maple, chipotle, coffee, and honey.

Since they were one-shots no one will ever be able to taste again, I won't go into great depth on the review. What was fun and fascinating about the experiment is in seeing how a single ingredient can change so much. The basic recipe was a 6.2% porter, and I'm not sure how the smoked malt might have tasted--there was an inadvertent blending of a small amount of the chile and plain (I thought they had brought me the wrong beer). Triangulating from the five, I can say that it was a fairly robust porter, balanced between sweet and dry, and quite tasty.

But beyond that, each was quite a bit different from the other. Take the honey and maple examples. Here's what I would have assumed: the maple would contribute more obvious flavor, as the unfrementables contribute more than honey's, which mostly gets consumed by yeast. Yes and no. The honey, it turns out, actually contributed lots of sugar that wasn't fermentable--it was quite a bit sweeter than any of the others. The maple was a flavor component, and while it may have boosted alcohol, it wasn't by enough for my tongue to appreciate it. I talked to brewer Ben Edmunds, and he was surprised at how these two behaved when they were brewed, too; the maple was a slower, longer ferment than the quick-burning honey.

It's not totally surprising that Ben ran this experiment--he's sidelines as a beer educator (or is he an educator who brews on the side?). But I wish more breweries would do this. The value is in trying beers together with just a single variable's difference. In terms of appreciating and understanding beer, it can be revelatory. A few possibilities I'd love to see:
  • Beers made with different single hops. For example, a few pale ales brewed with Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, Goldings, and Saaz (or Sterling).
  • Beers made with different yeast strains.
  • Beers fermented in different environments--say different temperatures and in different vessels (at Upright, an open v closed fermentation, for example). This is a bit esoteric, but I'd be fascinated.
  • Beers made with strains of fresh and dried hops side-by-side.
In any case, kudos to Breakside for putting the effort into these five beers. They were a lot of fun.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Surveying Portland's Nanobreweries

I'm used to talking to brewers about their brewhouses. Some of the subtleties are lost on a non-commercial brewer--I have only a general sense of how shape, type, and quality affect different systems--but the basic stuff, like size, is pretty obvious. Or has been, until I found myself listening Eric Surface describe Mt. Tabor's brewhouse. He was using odd figures to describe their growth: 30 (current), 60 (expanding to), 120 (aspirational). I nodded as my brain tried to catch up and when it did, I asked with dawning recognition, "Oh! You're talking gallons, right?" (He was.)

Three of the twenty largest craft breweries are based in Oregon. I had a chance to try five of the smallest last week at the Bailey's/Brewpublic Microhopic fest: Beetje, Breakside, Mt. Tabor, Natian, and Vertigo. You could say that many things distinguish these two categories of breweries, but based on my discussion with Ben Edmonds (Breakside) and Mt. Tabor's Surface and co-owner Brian Maher, you couldn't say it was seriousness. These guys have mini-systems, but their goals are as outsized as any other brewer in the country. I guess it makes sense--you want to compete in Portland, Oregon, you better think you can make good beer.

It is unwise to base any judgment on a single beer, but that's all the breweries were able to send to Microhopic, so I'll run down the list here. I'll include website links--if a beer catches your fancy, you can click through and see if you can figure out where it might be pouring.
  • Beetje: Small Saison. A sessionable 5% or so, this beer isn't that small. But it is a nice saison, with lots of yeast character and a NW-level dose of hops. I found the nose full of sulfur and soap (hard for that not to sound like a criticism, but it's not)--the former from the yeast, the latter perhaps from the hops. A lovely little beer--perhaps not ready to knock Dupont aside, but my favorite of the night. (Jeff's fave a saison!--big shocker there.) | Beetje website
  • Breakside: Texas Brown. The name here has a similar provenance to Cascadian Dark Ale. The style emerged which featured robust hopping backed by a nutty malt base. No doubt this type of beer has been brewed in many places at many times, but Texas is laying claim. Fair enough. More a dark amber than fully brown and topped with a persistent, creamy head. A cola nose with floral hopping. The palate is marked by a sharp astringency which I identified (incorrectly) as roast barley. It has that quality of roastiness that almost reaches around toward sour. Apparently it comes from the aggressive hopping, though, combined with the pretty standard malts (Maris Otter, chocolate, Victory and--I think--crystal). | Breakside website, Facebook page
  • Mt Tabor: Little Bull Stout. This was by far the toast of the evening--literally, it turned out. By the end of the night, Angelo had mounted the bar and stood cheering, "Mount Tay-bor!" I thought it was a bit fudge-like in density. In my own many forays into the stout style, I know that if I use too much dark malts, it will almost seem to ball up in my mouth, so that's the "helpful" comment I made to the brewers. It starts with a vanilla nose and ends with a nice roasty finish, which effectively dries it out. Lots of people were really raving about this beer. | Mt. Tabor website, Facebook Page
  • Natian: Big Block IPA. Natian gets credit for having the best tagline of any nanobrewery: "Brewing (nearly) one pint at a time." It must be so, because after a year of business, the only time I had a Natian was in a blind judging. Their debut at Microhopic was bold, though, and I won't soon forget Big Block. I might have called it "stealth bomber" IPA because of the sneaky hopping the beer conceals. Up front it is richly piny both in the nose and on the tongue. The play of sugar-cookie malts and those hops produce what seems like a very approachable beer. Swallow, though, and--pow!--what an amazing bitter whallop. It is akin to Astoria's Bitter Bitch, one of the bitterest beers around. | Natian website, Facebook page
  • Vertigo: Friar Mike's IPA. This was a strange beer. Even after it had warmed, I could locate no aroma. The flavors were similarly mild, and none articulated in a very clear way. The malts and hops were indistinct, and the most notable quality was a sharp alcohol note. After a few swallows, I found that the hops were creating a resinous slick on my tongue, but without offering a lot of flavor along the way. | Vertigo Website, Facebook page
By definition, nano-brewers don't put a lot of beer in the marketplace. But that doesn't mean they can't find tap handles in some nice pubs and restaurants. Wildwood has contracted with Mount Tabor for two kegs a month--definitely doable, even for the tiniest of breweries. I'm not convinced nanobreweries can survive long-term (the effort/profit ratio seems to narrow) , but that doesn't mean they can't compete. Given the seriousness with which these breweries are addressing their craft, my guess is they won't be nano too long, anyway.


Unrelated addendum. Since Microhopic was being held in Bailey's, it meant there was a raft of other good beer also on tap. I couldn't resist Oakshire's Belly of the Beast, thinking it was the same beer I tried and loved at the Oregon Brewers Fest this summer. Although I am no closer to answering that riddle, I can say that the beer is amazing. Actually, it's green. But it will be amazing when the hops lose their jagged edges and instead draw a clean line around the lovely sweet, rich malts. Even green, I was having a high old time with it.

Update. I forgot to post this photo. In case you're wondering, it's from when Angelo hopped up on the bar to make an announcement. I have another that is more representational, just out of focus (and therefore uninteresting). This was so surreal as to be beautiful. Can you find Angelo?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Portland Brewery: Breakside

You gotta be kidding me--another brewpub slated to open in Portland? Yup. This one, however, is going into Woodlawn, a woefully under-served neighborhood. From Neighborhood Notes, here's the skinny (hat tip to eagle-eyed Jim Parker):

"I know ‘breakside' can mean a couple of different things—going against the flow, going your own way, or even just going for a break," [owner Scott] Lawrence says. "We kind of mean all of the above. We want to do things a little differently, but ultimately our goal is to create a relaxing neighborhood hangout." Lawrence and his partner (silent, for the time being) have been devout home brewers for years, and after a trip to an Alaskan brewery last year, decided it was time to give up their corporate gigs and turn their passion into a profession.

"I started looking at space all over town," Lawrence says. "I found this spot on Craigslist and biked over." He said he was drawn to the space, and to the neighborhood. He says the burgeoning business district feels very welcoming, that they seem to be supportive of one another. He is also eager to include the residents surrounding them—with some sort of reward for people who walk or ride their bikes there.

We'll have 4 or 5 different drafts on a rotating basis, and we'll keep our customers in the loop when we choose them," he says. "We'll take customer suggestions to come up with new recipes. We want this to feel like it's their place, so we'll listen to what they want."

Let's see if I have this right. Breweries now under way: Alchemy, Coalition, Migration, and now Breakside. Good time to be a beer blogger, eh?

PHOTO: Neighborhood Notes