Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

July 30, 2007

Event Review:

Beware Of Belgians Bearing Hoppy Gifts, Naturally

Eddie Glick goes to the Pacific Northwest to check out the 20th annual Oregon Brewers Festival.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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Yes, folks, it feels cold in the Midwest right now because Eddie Glick is on vacation, visiting the Pacific Northwest for the Oregon Brewers Festival, one of the oldest and most established craft beer festivals in the U.S. I've attended seven of the last eight festivals, mainly to visit fellow Beer Dork Ade Solomon, and also to check out the unbelievably vibrant beer culture that exists out here. As I and others have asserted, Portland is basically where the American craft beer industry came of age and helped kick off a nation-wide movement toward better beer.

Plus, I find the fest in Portland to be a good warm-up to the Great Taste of the Midwest, as it provides an interesting contrast to that stellar beer fest. Probably the biggest difference between the two is that the Oregon Brewers Festival goes for four days. Admission is free: you only need to buy an official mug and tokens--one token, one four-ounce taste. Four tokens'll get you a full mug, but it's the worst deal since the invention of the carpet sweeper.

Also, unlike the Great Taste, a limited number of brewers are invited to the fest: 73. Even though it's called the Oregon Brewers Festival, a lot of the brewers come from outside the state, and even outside the Pacific Northwest. In fact, two Midwest breweries--Sprecher and Michigan Brewing Co.--were in attendance. And each of the attending brewers is only allowed to serve one beer for the entire fest. While I'm not sure if this is better than the Great Taste setup, where attending brewers can bring as many beers from their lineup as they are willing to haul, it does have an impact on what beers a brewer presents at the festival. Some breweries use the fest to serve their flagship brew, while others roll out their biggest specialty beer to appeal to the beer dorks in the crowd. Other brewers brew a beer especially for the festival, never to be seen again no matter how well it's received. It all makes for an ecletic mix of beer styles from a wide range of breweries, where both afficianados and philistines can find something to enjoy.

But--this being the Pacific Northwest, where the American version of the IPA was born--this year's list was heavy on the hops. Fifteen brewers presented IPAs, while another six hauled out imperial versions. To start off the tasting, I decided to go with a big IPA while my taste buds were, for the moment at least, functioning. Since trying to pick from more than twenty hop-filled brews can be a little daunting, I ended up going for the one whose name jumped out first: Whoop Pass (or Whoop Ass, depending on where it was printed) Double IPA from Silver City Brewing Co. in Silverdale, Washington. This was a BIG beer: tons of body to combat both the massive hop bitterness and the towering 9.0 percent ABV.

It proved to be a pretty good entry in a crowded field. Another standout was the Triple Threat IPA from Portland's own Lucky Labrador Brew Pub. Eel River Brewing in Fortuna, California also impressed with their Organic IPA. One entry that, shockingly, did not impress me was the fest's biggest beer, Bear Republic's Racer X, a gigantic imperial IPA boasting nearly 10 percent ABV and 110 IBUs. This beer is a good example of why I think IBUs can be a kind of deceiving measuring device. Your more floral hops might pack a high alpha count but still not convey a lot of harsh hop bitterness. Although the Racer X did have some bite with its infusion of Columbus hops, it was mostly a thick mouthfeel with too much of the alcohol out in the open. The hop cocktail of Cascade, Chinook, CTZ, and Centennial just weren't enough to keep up with the rest of the beer. It wasn't a bad beer by any means, but not worth a lot of the hype it's gotten.

Another style that's gained a lot of traction out in the Northwest and the U.S. in general are Belgian style ales. The punctuation point for this was Stone Brewing's entry--which historically has been a giant-ass hop killer like the Double Bastard or Ruination Imperial IPA--which was their Vertical Epic 07.07.07, a saison/tripel hybrid. They were demanding two tokens for a taste, which I thought was a bit much, since I had a bomber of it sitting in the beer fridge back at Ade Solomon's pad. So I passed. I also passed on the two tokens North Coast Brewing Co. was requiring for their PranQster Belgian-Style Golden. The PranQster is one of the best American takes on the Belgian style I've had, but finding a bottle of it in the liquor store, even in the Midwest, isn't that much of a challenge. So, those two tokens went elsewhere.

One of them went toward a tasting of Deschutes Brewery's 19th Anniversary Golden Ale, which I thought was the day's best bet when it came to Belgian styles. Terminal Gravity's TG Triple was a decent entry as well, while Betsy Ross Imperial Golden from Philadelphia's Brewpub was basically tasteless alcohol in a cup. All in all, the American craft brewing industry is still looking for a voice when it comes to creating Belgian-style beers.

The other buzz word in American craft brewing is organic. Nowhere is it more prevalent than out here in Portland. Almost a sixth of this year's featured brews were organic. From an ethics standpoint, I wholeheartedly support a movement toward more "sustainable" everything, especially beer. But from a taste standpoint, I can't really believe there is a detectable difference between an organic and non-organic beer. It will be interesting, though, to see how the organic movement plays out in the craft beer sector. And if this fest is as prescient as it's been in the last two decades, organic will be a big part of our drinking future.

Pale ales and pilsners made up another thirteen entries, although few did much to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Boundary Bay's Galena Single Hop Pale Ale was probably the hoppiest of the pales, but not exactly a great entry. BridgePort's Haymaker Extra Pale Ale was a light, refreshing drink on the warm summer day, but wasn't all that interesting. Of the six pilsners being offered, I tried exactly zero of them, since, right now at least, nothing bores me more than a pilsner, craft brewed or no.

The darker beers were a rarity at the fest, probably due more to the hot weather rather than a dearth of brewers with them in their portfolios. Fifty Fifty Brewing's Donner Party Porter was a nice, solid beer, but Fearless Brewing Co.'s Fearless Scottish Ale was lacking the big malt backbone the style demands. Ninkasi Brewing Co.'s Believer, a red ale, was big on flavor, but I think my favorite beer of the fest was Spanish Peaks Brewery's Black Dog Ale, an alt bier with tons of malt body and a gigantic, but smooth-as-silk, mouthfeel, ending with a hop nip to keep things in line.

Once again, this year's fest proved that it was a premier showcase for American craft brewing and a nice pulse-point for where the industry is and what's in store for the future. Even though I always get my fill of great craft beer, I'm still sorry to see it end. Kind of like how all you feel with me being absent from the Midwest for five whole days. No need to worry, though, because I'll be back in the Midwest soon enough (or too soon, for most of you). Once I get back, I'll start counting the days until the Great Taste.

Today is the feast day of St. Arnold, patron saint of beer.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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