Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Portland Beer Week Fresh Hop Seminar 2021

I've spent a lot of time over the years obsessing about fresh hop beers, in fact fresh hops are the subject of the first post on the blog.  So I was not going to miss this year's "Fresh Hop Seminar & Tasting" held at Zoiglhaus this past Saturday as part of this year's Portland Beer Week.

Participants listened to tales of fresh-hop glory and misadventures told by Zoiglhaus's Alan Taylor, Von Ebert's Sam Pecoraro, and Ex Novo's Ryan Buxton.  We got tastes of a Tettnanger-hopped kölsch and an oktoberfest from Zoiglhaus, a Sterling-hopped pilsner from Von Ebert, and a Simcoe-hopped variant of Ex Novo's Eliot IPA.  In recent years Fresh Hop Eliot has been one of the standouts of the season.  This Simcoe one was the best fresh hop beer of the afternoon, and noticeably better than the Centennial-hopped Eliot I tried at Ex Novo a few days ago.

As a bonus/punishment, we also got to taste some unfermented fresh-hop wort that will be one of the next Zoiglhaus fresh hop offerings (an IPA if I remember correctly).  Now, how the heck did fresh hops get into someone's wort?  In the jargon being thrown about at the seminar, that is a "warm side" application of fresh hops, and I thought that everyone decided a long time ago that you get more out of your fresh hops on the "cold side".

That may indeed be true, but Alan has good reasons for choosing the warm side.  At the most basic level, he is working with German-style hops like Tettnanger which are not grown in as great quantities in Oregon as big IPA hops like all the C hops or Simcoe or Strata.  If you want fresh Citra hops, your supplier might tell you, "we're harvesting all next week, what day are you coming?".  But if you want fresh Tettnanger, the farmer might call you at 10 AM and say "we looked at them this morning and it was time to bring them in, how soon can you get here?".  Hence he is not able to have fermented beer ready for dry hopping, and it works better to throw the fresh hops into the wort.

That hop potion was intense -- most of us just had a quick sip, but at least one intrepid fellow at the seminar finished his entire two-ounce pour.  Alan explained that most of the bitterness would go away after fermentation, after some byproduct of the yeast attached itself to the alpha acids and dropped to the bottom of the tank (there was a technical term for this that I forgot to write down).

Check out the fifty-pound bag of fresh hops in the picture above.  Unforunately we weren't given the chance to roll around on it as though it was a big human catnip toy.  But Ryan had a good story about checking four such bags onto a Southwestern Airlines flight in order to brew a fresh hop beer at the Albuquerque Ex Novo.  Much cheaper than traditional shipping, and despite the size, they meet the weight limit for checked bags!

This seminar format is a refreshing change of pace for a beer event.  A few years ago I had a great time at the Sour Blending Symposium (part of Portland Beer Week 2012).  I was sad not to be able to make it to this year's Cask Beer Seminar.  But I definitely recommend checking out any beer week seminars in the future.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Ten Years of It's Pub Night

Well, time flies when you're having fun.  This week marks the 10th anniversary of the first post on It's Pub Night -- fittingly, a rundown of fresh hop beers I had tried that year (thanks, Lee!).  It's ridiculous to think this blog has lasted longer than Nirvana; thankfully Beervana: The Blog is still around and in fact something of a global phenomenon these days.  Let us pause briefly to lament the demise of other PDX blogs from the last decade:  The Beer Here, Portland Beer and Music, Beer Around Town, and others, even poor benighted Dr. Wort.  Someone is still paying to keep the lights on at portlandbeer.org and the Champagne of Blogs -- maybe one day they will again grace us with their insights.

If the New School or Brewpublic had existed in 2007 I might never have bothered to start It's Pub Night, since they are filling the role that I thought was missing in Portland at the time, and doing it way better than I would be able to, even in my most perfect fantasy world.  Meanwhile, there are still some plucky citizen bloggers who keep regularly putting out original content year after year, like Dan at A Pint for Dionysus and Kris at Beer Musings PDX, to name only two.

About seven years ago, Jeff commemorated the fifth anniversary of Beervana with a self-published book called the Best of Beervana.  We now know his best was yet to come, but this wacky one-off is one of my prized possessions.  I can't even approximate something like that (though you can get the Six-Pack Equivalent App for either iPhone or Android), but I'd like to mark today's milestone with a list of posts that show off the high points -- so far! -- of It's Pub Night.  Enjoy.


Actual Drinking

 The April Fools Collection

 Did These Things Really Happen?

It has been a blast getting to know the beer family in Oregon and beyond, and this hobby project has brought me a wonderful group of friends.  I'm going to celebrate 10 years of It's Pub Night this Saturday, December 9, 2017, with an informal SE Portland pub crawl.  If you happen to read this before then, feel free to come join us.  It's not an organized event -- there's no swag, no collaboration beers, no discounts, and not much of a schedule.  On the other hand, there are no wristbands, drink tokens, or entry fees.  Here is the plan:
  • 5-6:30 PM
The schedule is only a guideline; if you're joining us partway, track our progress on Twitter.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Vintage Fernet Branca Tasting... With Mr. Branca!

Last month I was lucky enough to get the chance to taste some old bottles of Fernet Branca during a promotional event in Portland hosted by a sixth-generation member of the family business, Edoardo Branca.  Mr. Branca pulled bottles of 1970's and 1980's Fernet from the company archives, so we could taste older versions of the liqueur alongside the modern product.  (The rightmost bottle in the picture is actually an unopened antique bottle that someone else brought to the event.)

If you're not familiar with Fernet Branca, it is an inky, delightfully bitter-tasting herbal liqueur.  Fairly sweet, you could simplistically describe Fernet's flavor as medicinal, but there is a lot more going on than that. There is a whole class of these digestive liqueurs that in Italy are called "amari" -- singular "amaro" -- which appropriately means "bitter".  But the concept is not unique to Italy. I have been obsessed with these things since I first tasted Unicum during a trip to Hungary in 1990, then I found out about Gammel Dansk (Denmark) and Rigas Black Balsams (Latvia) before I made my way to amari like Fernet Branca.

Spirits don't benefit from aging in the bottle in the way that beer or wine do.  The point of tasting the 30- and 40-year-old Fernets was to see the subtle variations over time, as ingredients and tastes change.  Here were my impressions from the event:

  • 1970's Fernet: Maybe stronger than today's 78 proof? Serious echinacea bitterness, but a very long finish, with flavors developing on the tongue long after swallowing.
  • 1980's Fernet: More of a chocolate bitterness in this one.  A little dusty in the beginning, with aromatic cedar notes.
  • 2017 Fernet: Mintier, fresher tasting than the older ones.  A little cola-like effervescence on the tongue.
Three cocktails containing Fernet Branca were also shown off at the event.  Personally, I find that a little sacreligious.  Here is a complex herbal recipe with 150 years of history, why are you burying its flavors under a bunch of other stuff?  I asked Edoardo Branca about that, and he said reasonably enough that he doesn't object to someone drinking Fernet however they care to do it, though personally he prefers it either straight up or in a caffè corretto -- espresso with a shot of amaro in it.

He had a good story about his grandfather, Pierluigi Branca.  That gentleman also disapproved of mixing Fernet Branca, and didn't hesitate to chastise anyone he saw adulterating it with anything.  In 1955 or 1956, he happened to be in Cannes for the film festival, and in a hotel bar he overheard the revered opera singer Maria Callas as she ordered a Fernet Branca with sugar and mint added.  As he shouted his disapproval at her, his wife (Edoarado's grandmother) started shouting back at him, "You don't behave like this!".  Edoardo didn't say what Ms. Callas' reaction was, but family legend credits the encounter as the inspiration for the milder, mintier Branca Menta liqueur.

The cocktails we had that night did not do much to change my mind about the impropriety of diluting your Fernet.  In the picture at left, the bartender is making a complicated drink called The Italian Icon, with Fernet, Carpano, rum, and egg white, cleverly finished off with a disk of rice paper bearing the Branca logo.  It seemed like a lot of trouble, especially since hardly any herbal flavor at all remained in the finished product.  Somewhat more to my liking was the Shakerato -- Fernet, cold brew coffee, coffee liqueur, and cream.  The best cocktail served at the event was the Toronto -- basically a Manhattan with Fernet Branca instead of vermouth.  The herbal liqueur played well with the bite of rye whisky.  If you're interested, this article has the recipes for the Toronto, Shakerato, and a couple of other Fernet cocktails.

One more point about mixing Fernet.  The biggest market for Fernet Branca outside of Italy is Argentina, where Fernet con Coca -- Fernet mixed with Coca-Cola -- is something like the national drink.  That is also the only other country where the company produces Fernet Branca, and it is made a little stronger there, 86 proof instead of the 78 proof version made in Italy -- be sure and bring back a couple of bottles next time you find yourself in Buenos Aires.

Fernet Branca is aged in oak barrels for a year.  Since breweries these days are always looking for unique barrels to age beer in, I asked Edoardo if they ever sold their used barrels to anyone to make funky beer with.  He gave me a funny look and a curt "no".  Later I realized that a lot of their aging is done in barrels as large as 17,000 liters, so it's not like the whisky model where a lot of small barrels are used once or twice and then passed on.  No wonder he thought it was a strange question.  I did enjoy a very interesting Odell Brewing Fernet-aged Porter a few years ago, but those barrels were from a Colorado distillery.

Here's another take on the Portland event, with a lot of nice photos.  Many thanks to Edoardo Branca for visiting us in Portland.  The vertical tasting was something I never would have expected to experience, and it was great to hear his personal insights about a classic drink.