Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Breweries in Bellingham

A couple weeks ago we took a family vacation to Lake Whatcom outside of Bellingham, Washington.  Beautiful quiet setting, clean water, and easy access to a cute little burg that the Urban Beer Hiker refers to as "Little Portland".  (Click that link, by the way, it will do you good.)

I've always liked Bellingham, and Boundary Bay Brewery has always been there as a reliable place for a good beer.  My lifestyle has become so sedentary that I hadn't visited the town since before the widely-acclaimed lager-centric Chuckanut Brewery opened there 6 years ago.  So I knew I'd get some beer tourism done during our week at the lake.

What I didn't expect was to find that the two established breweries have recently been joined by some very talented upstarts.  In fact, the beer was much more exciting at the new places than the old ones.  Once-beloved Boundary Bay now seems overcrowded and overpriced, with indifferent beers -- I had a cask Pale Ale that was so tired it made everyone at the table yawn.  A quick stop at Chuckanut found them with only 3 of their beers on tap: German Pils, Czech Pils, and IPA.  They were decent enough, but as a tourist I was hoping for some special hometown magic.  Maybe it's one of the hazards of focusing on long-gestation lagers.


Enough grousing, let's talk about what was exciting in Bellingham.  Top pick:  Kulshan Brewing, which opened in 2012.  Very solid lineup, and they do an especially nice job with lower-alcohol ales:  Full 90 Session Ale and Dude Man Wheat had tons of flavor and clocked in below 5%.  Good Ol' Boy Pale and Transporter were good choices below 5.5%.  If you want something stronger, their flagship Bastard Kat IPA is right on the money for a West Coast IPA.  The one blemish on our visit was the Double IPA (forgot the name), which tasted too solventy to me, though my wife didn't mind it.

Kulshan doesn't serve food, but they have a very spacious tasting room and patio, with a food cart parked out front, or you can bring your own food (the barbecue cart was pretty lame, in our opinion, and we were really hungry that day).  Minors are allowed (in fact, they're allowed at all the pubs and tasting rooms in this post).

Another surprising find was Wander Brewing, whose decor and repertoire reminded me a lot of Portland's Base Camp (a place I like more and more with each visit, by the way).  Heck, even their chalkboard reminded me of Base Camp.  I really enjoyed a couple of their rye beers -- a roggenbier and a rye IPA.  And when the vacation ended and it was time to select a souvenir beer to fill my growler with, I didn't hesitate to fill up with Wander's Coffee Baltic Porter.  Definitely a nice touch of java in there, but it's the thick, rich, stouty goodness that keeps you sipping on it.

Wander just opened this year, and they're located in what looks like an old shipbuilding warehouse with really high ceilings.  The tasting room blends right into the brewery, with lots of hip reclaimed wood used in the furnishings.  The tables have some weird sloping surfaces, so careful where you set that glass.  There's a food cart outside one of the garage doors -- a different cart every day (cool idea).

Another Bellingham brewery that just opened in 2014 is Aslan Brewing.  Hold onto your hats, this one is an actual brewpub serving food from their own kitchen, including a passable waffle-fry poutine.  The beer was all right here -- not as inspiring as Kulshan or Wander, but I would rate Aslan's beer, food, and atomsphere higher than Boundary Bay's based on our single visit to each this summer.  One very cool offering:  DNA -- Don's Non-Alcoholic Beer.  I have always hoped to see some microbrewers to try their hands at N/A beers, so big ups to Aslan for actually taking the plunge.  It was a dark, rich brew -- you can see it in the tall schooner behind the taster tray in the top photo -- that had that malt-o-meal flavor you get from Malta drinks, but not as intense.  It wasn't so wonderful that I would drink it every day, but I might have one occasionally.

Finally, there is a fairly new brewery (2013? 2012?) called Menace Brewing, just outside of Bellingham in Ferndale.  We didn't make it out there, but they have a pub in Bellingham called The Local which serves a few Menace brews and others from around the area.  We popped in to The Local (love the name) on a Saturday afternoon, and got some of the weirdest service ever.  I hope it was just a bad day, but the icing on the cake was when we were leaving, trying to say a goodbye to our waitress, who steadfastly refused to look up from some small task like napkin sorting to meet our eyes.  After standing there awkwardly for a few seconds, a grumpy bartender nearby finally gave a wordless wave and a grunt -- but it was kind of a back of the hand wave, more like "shoo" than "see ya".

Anyway, let's hope that was a fluke. The couple Menace beers we tried -- a stout and an IPA -- were all right, nothing wrong with them.  The food at The Local had highs and lows -- we had a wonderful mixed-green salad, and the grown-up mac-and-cheese was decadent and fantastic.  But the breakfast dishes were very lame -- flat bland waffles, flavorless home-fries, and something else I can't even remember.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Portland Beer Price Index, First Half of 2014

What if they had a beer price index and nobody came?  Apparently nothing, since I skipped reporting the PBPI for the spring quarter of 2014, and no one called me on it at all.  I did gather the data for that quarter, so I can show you the ever-rising chart.  My feelings aren't hurt, I went ahead and gathered the summer 2014 numbers, and now I'll report both at the same time.  The chart is for bomber prices, partly because of the dramatic 30-cent jump last quarter.  Here are the current numbers:
  • 6-packs: $9.66, down 3 cents (Q1: -.01, Q2: -.02)
  • 22-ounce bombers: $5.54, up 30 cents (Q1: +.30, Q2: -.00)
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.91, down 3 cents (Q1: +.12, Q2: -.15)
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.98, up 4 cents (Q1: -.09, Q2: +.13)
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.61 up 9 cents
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.79, up 9 cents
It appears that Laurelwood Red is now only available in six-packs, so I have removed it from the bomber index (the numbers reflect apples-to-apples with the previous index).  I think the replacement bomber will be Base Camp In Tents India Pale Lager, but I want to gather the numbers for one quarter before adding it in, to preserve apples-to-apples comparison with the previous quarter.

I also wonder if I will be able to keep Belmont Station in the retail index.  They seem to be tweaking the six-pack selection, and I wouldn't be surprised if they dropped some of the old stalwarts that a boring price index depends on.  I'm sure the changes allow a more interesting selection there, but it will sadden me to lose that data point (and hopefully I'll be able to find a replacement).  The pub side of Belmont is better than ever, and it will continue to be in the pub price index.

The bomber non-sale price is way up, largely because Hopworks IPA has gone way up in price.  Retailers (or wholesalers) seem to be trying to get people used to the new normal by offering discounted sale prices on it for now.  The six-pack chart actually tapers off a little bit, mainly because of continued pressure on Terminal Gravity and Caldera, whose six-packs used to be relatively expensive but are starting to fall more in line with everyone else.

Check back in three months for the next installment of the index.  More information on how the index is compiled is on the PBPI configuration page.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Upcoming Portland Beer Festivals

As the days grow longer and the weekends start filling up with Portland beer festivals, I thought it would be a good time to highlight some changes that are planned for a few upcoming festivals.

Spring Beer Fest

For some years now the spring festival held in the fluorescent glory of the Oregon Convention Center has been called the "Spring Beer and Wine Fest", but in 2014 the organizers have recognized that they have a much more diverse festival than just beer and wine.  This year the festival has been rechristened the "Spring Beer Wine Mead Cider Braggot Vodka Gin Snack Condiment Tattoo Piercing and Home Improvement Festival" (italics theirs) to more accurately represent the range of exhibitors at the festival.  I'm not sure why they left commas out of the name -- "Condiment Tattoo Piercing" all runs together for me -- but I guess saving 10 characters might help out on Twitter (hashtag: #SBWMCBVGSCTPHIF2014).

Beer-loving Portland Catholics have often complained about the festival's perennial Easter weekend scheduling.  In an attempt to reach out to that demographic, this year's fest will add a Thursday night session featuring a screening of Mel Gibson's 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ with live Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary by a trio of comics who bill themselves as Cathloholics Anonymous. Not sure how well that will go over.

Spring Beer Wine [etc.] Fest:  April 18-19, 2014, noon to 10 PM.


Portland Fruit Beer Festival

Photo credit: Draft Magazine
You've heard of a Kissing Booth, but how about a Rimming Booth?  That's an exciting addition this June to the Portland Fruit Beer Festival:  a special area of the festival where attendees can accessorize their pretty, hop-free beers by decorating the rims of their beer glasses with colorful slices of fruit or various sprinkles and additions that you'd be more likely to find in an ice cream shop than a taproom.

Festival founder (and Pub Night friend) Ezra Johnson-Greenough has never hesitated to take beer in unexpected new directions, whether brewing a chocolate and peanut butter stout, crafting beer cocktails, or in this case updating the "lemon your Widmer" idea.  Rimming is a practice I first read about in this Draft Magazine article, and it sounds a little perverse at first, but I've heard it can be a very pleasurable experience.  Apparently it is something young people do a lot of these days, especially as a way to add even more cookie and pie flavors to pumpkin beers.  The Fruit Beer Fest's Rimming Booth will be set up between the dedicated cider taps and the children's face-painting station.

Portland Fruit Beer Festival:  June 7-8, 2014.  11 AM to 9 PM Saturday, 11 to 6 Sunday.

Hopworks DriveToBeerFest

Although the date for Hopworks Brewery's fall festival hasn't been set in stone yet, some major changes in the theme are in store for the 6th annual event.  Instead of the bicycle-centric BikeToBeerFest of the last several years, this year Hopworks is holding a DriveToBeerFest.  It sounds like an off note to the Portland ear, but it makes sense on at least two levels.  For one thing, in a more competitive craft beer market, suburban beer lovers are a market that Hopworks wants to cater to by demonstrating that driving to a beer festival is just as cool as biking to one.

On a more practical level, you may have noticed how crowded BikeToBeerFest has been the last couple of years.  The more the merrier, up to a point, but lately the crowds have been so large at the festival that Hopworks is ready to dial it down a little.  One very natural way to limit attendance is to encourage less efficient modes of transportation, so that fewer people are able to attend.  With that in mind, instead of setting up hundreds of bike racks for people to park at, attendees will be encouraged to drive their cars to the festival, preferably with each person arriving in their own car (they call it "designated driving").  In a partly symbolic, partly utilitarian measure, the dozen or so bike racks in front of the pub will be removed during the weekend of the festival to make room for a single parking space.  Watch this space for more information on the dates and times for this exciting festival.

Of course, there are a couple of other minor festivals happening between all these events, but I wanted to keep you abreast of the exciting innovations that are coming up.