Monday, April 28, 2008

The Bikiest Brewpub in Portland?

A couple weeks ago John Foyston worked a short review of Hopworks into the Oregonian under the O's Cheap Eats rubric. No slam on either John or Hopworks, but journalists must be doing pretty well these days, if a $9.25 burger qualifies as cheap. Anyway, I don't want to quibble over the definition of "cheap".... Instead I want to take issue with the opening sentence of John's review.

"Portland's bikiest, most sustainable brewpub is now open," writes John. I definitely applaud HUB's moves for sustainability, and I love the bike theme in both the name and the decor of the place. But I had a visceral reaction to the word "bikiest", because anyone who could describe HUB that way has obviously never arrived there by bike [Update (2008/10/28): That was a stupid thing to write -- John obviously has arrived by bike (retraction).].

When I first heard of Hopworks, my immediate thought was, "How am I going to bike there?" I've been getting around by bike for a long time, and I'm not afraid to ride in traffic if I need to. Nevertheless, Powell Blvd. is one of those car-clogged behemoths that makes you roll your eyes when you think about crossing it. If you try and approach from SE 29th, depending on the time of day, you'll watch wave after wave of westbound and eastbound traffic until you get an opening in both directions to scurry through. If you'd rather cross Powell with a traffic signal, your choices are 26th and 33rd, three or four blocks on either side of Hopworks. That probably means you'll walk your bike on the sidewalk from that intersection, though if you love adrenaline you could battle the pent-up traffic both ways and turn left at 26th.

Then I thought, well, fair enough, the people living south of Powell now have a place they can bike to easily. But if you look at a map, their choices are little better -- the nearest neighborhood streets that go through to Powell from the south are 28th and 32nd. And check out this snippet from a map of pedestrian injuries and deaths between 1995 and 2004. HUB is just west of the big dot signifying two pedestrian injuries; the little dots are locations where one pedestrian was injured; the X's are pedestrian fatalities.

Here's another map showing bicycle collisions between 2003 and 2006. Whoops, looks like crossing Powell at 26th isn't such a great idea -- 4 or more bike crashes at that corner during that period. At least there was only one bike crash at 33rd. The point is, whether you're walking or biking to Hopworks, the volume and speed of traffic in that area is a danger to those not encased in metal pods, even if you come from further south.

For the bikiest brewpub, I would put forth someplace like Roots or the Lucky Lab, which draw lots of biking patrons and have good connections to bike lanes and bike routes. Or maybe the Quimby Street Lucky Lab -- the first time I biked over there, I was fuming that I had to lock up to a stop sign, only to walk in and find out that the bike rack is indoors.

Of course, there are worse locations than 30th and Powell -- at least it's close in. I've biked to Hopworks a few times and will continue to do so -- the beer is fantastic, as is the moderately-priced organically-grown food. And I'm not alone, either: the bike racks out front are usually so full that I have to lock up to the wheelchair ramp alongside the parking lot. I suspect that HUB's community spirit will be a good influence on future traffic planning for the area, but for now its location alone keeps it from being the "bikiest".

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It Must Be Widmer Week

Last weekend I wrote up my ode to the Widmer Gasthaus, not knowing that more news was on the way from John and Jeff about Widmer's brewery expansion and next winter's seasonal. It also came out that Widmer took two golds in the World Beer Cup, for their Hefeweizen and for their Pale Ale -- is that the W'07? Then there was Widmer meet-the-brewer at the Green Dragon on Tuesday, but before I could turn that experience into blogging gold, the Widmer brothers popped up again, announcing that they'll help promote the start of National Bike Month May 1 by racing one another across Portland, Kurt in a car and Rob on a bike. I guess this is just Widmer Week.

The meet-the-brewer was interesting as always. Here's a picture of one of the Widmer brewers, Doug Rehberg (second from left). To his left is Kerry Finsand, a Portland beer writer who's developing the Portland Beer Wiki; on the right are my buddies Corey -- himself a recent meet-the-brewer brewer -- and Matias. Doug told us he's been with the company for fourteen years -- that's job satisfaction for you.

Judging from the color of the beers, I think Doug has Widmer's Belgian Golden, Corey has the KGB Russian Imperial Stout, and Matias has an Old Embalmer Barleywine. It wasn't the barrel-aged KGB that they sometimes have, but it stood on its own and really didn't need the bells and whistles. It was a delicious chewy stout. The Embalmer was fantastic also, not the wildest barleywine at 9.5%, but it had the classic American hoppy barleywine flavor. A fourth keg was on tap also, the Broken Halo IPA. I wish they'd brought a keg of Hefeweizen so that people like me could stop boasting that the Green Dragon had never served it.

Since Lee had asked whether Broken Halo was endangered by the hop shortage, I went ahead and posed that question to Doug. The answer was pretty much what I expected -- they keep everything lined up ahead of time and they're not sweating it. Doug had another tidbit of information for us -- the promotion of the W'06 NW Red to winter seasonal means that Snow Plow won't be bottled this year. It's logical enough, but sometimes you have to hit me over the head with these things. Every now and then I was in just the right mood to enjoy a Snow Plow, but I like the Red better. If you can't wait for winter, the NW Red is on tap at the Gasthaus right now -- so is the Old Embalmer, by the way.

Side note: the Green Dragon never fails to amuse. There was no way I was leaving without trying Fort George's Oatmeal Pale Ale. It was drinkable, kind of tangy with quite a bit of hops on top. They probably aren't going to add OPA to the beer-judging categories, but I'm glad to see brewers push the boundaries like that.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Widmer Gasthaus

We have an embarrassment of riches in Portland. There's so much excellent beer here, that we get to look down our nose a little bit at any brewery that gets too big, like Widmer, the 11th largest brewery in the U.S. by sales last year. Widmer Hefeweizen is ubiquitous, available in every convenience store, pizza joint and tavern in town. Well, not the Green Dragon -- case in point! -- though Widmer will be featured at this Tuesday's Meet the Brewer.

There are many reasons to rise above our beer snobbishness and open our hearts to Widmer -- not least of which is the fact that the beer they sell in such vast quantities is actually good beer. Furthermore, the Widmer brothers were there at the beginning of the craft brew revolution in Oregon, long before hangers-on such as myself, and they still support the grassroots by offering homebrewers access to their brewing facility through the Collaborator project. Finally, there's the Gasthaus: the restaurant attached to the brewery, where Widmer serves a number of interesting beers that are unavailable anywhere else. Good food, too.

I dropped into the Gasthaus a couple days ago as part of my Alt quest. Turns out that a Dusseldorf Alt was one of the first beers the Widmers brewed, and it is apparently always on tap at the Gasthaus, but nowhere else. The Widmer Alt is a well-done beer, and matches the style guidelines very well: a dark, dry beer, with a bitter edge but almost a nutty flavor to the malt underneath. Compared to other local Alts I've had recently, it's more polished and flavorful than the Collaborator Alt I had at Belmont Station; it's less fruity and more bitter than Corey's Evolution Amber; and it's not a wacky hop-bomb like the Lucky Lab's Crazy Ludwig's Alt. It's not a style I love enough to have every day, but I'll certainly revisit it on future trips to the Gasthaus. I still need to track down a real Dusseldorf Alt to compare these all to.

Of course the restaurant has taps that represent Widmer's bottled-beer lines, but in addition to the Alt they had eight more taps that you can only get there. The Belgian Golden didn't impress me much at the Cheers to Belgian Beers festival, and I wasn't in the mood for a lager or barleywine, but I was happy to see that they had the NW Red on tap. This was the "W '06" special yearly bottling from a couple years ago, a tasty brew indeed. The W '08 Crimson Wheat, while drinkable, is nowhere near as interesting as the previous W's.

Speaking of W's, the first one -- the W '05 IPA -- was so good, that it became a regular offering: Broken Halo. This is what I'm talking about when I say that Widmer's mass quantities of consumables are still really good. Broken Halo's renown has spread across the country, to the point where it was a favorite of my buddy Lee before he even visited Portland. Just last month, another less-beer-obsessed friend in Austin told me -- without being able to remember the brewery name -- that it's the only beer he buys these days. And here's an excellent stunt from the blogosphere: a blind-tasting "tournament" of 32 IPAs, seeded by their ratebeer ranking. Broken Halo won, even though it was ranked 24th by the master beer-raters.

Other delights that the Gasthaus has offered in the past are the KGB Imperial Stout, aged in bourbon barrels; and Noggin Grog, Widmer's entry in last year's Oregon Brewer's Festival. A lot of beer snobs dissed Noggin Grog -- a so-called Imperial Wit -- but I loved it. Sure there's no such thing as an Imperial Wit, but it was a big, tasty beer.

The Gasthaus location, with a nice view of the Fremont Bridge, is right on the edge of a gritty industrial area, though its near neighbors are the trendy 820/Mint and the retro-chic McMenamins' White Eagle. Despite the fact that it's walled in by massive freeway overpasses, a trip to the Gasthaus makes a nice little bike excursion -- the Interstate bike lane connects with the Eastbank Esplanade right by the Steel bridge. You probably wouldn't bicycle the kids there, though -- the car traffic moves fast on Interstate, and the other route along Russell Street is kid-friendly enough on the way down, but will have them cursing you on the way back up the hill, if you're not already cursing yourself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Help Me Figure Out Alts

My first exposure to Alt beers occurred in 1995 during a dash through Germany. I don't recall the brand or brands we had, but I do remember thinking, "This isn't so great". The dark color belied the bland taste. There are plenty of German beers that I love, like a good Hefeweizen, or that pinnacle of sweet beers, Paulaner Salvator, but the couple of Alts I tried didn't impress me.

I didn't give it much thought until ten years later when I was living in SE Portland, and discovered that one of my favorite beers at my local, the Lucky Labrador, was Crazy Ludwig's Alt. It was rich and very hoppy, much more flavorful than my recollection of German Alts, but with a lighter color, as seen in the picture here. I was able to reconcile these conflicting pieces of information, thinking that the Oregon Alt was an inauthentic version -- and better for it.

Then Corey brought his Evolution Amber to the Green Dragon for Meet-the-Brewer night. He said it was really an Alt, but that -- who knows why -- calling it Amber sells more beer. He pointed to Alaskan Amber, saying it's really an Alt. Sure enough, take a look at the Alaskan Amber label, it says "Alt Style Beer". All of this contradicted my earlier impressions. Evolution was flavorful, in contrast to my German Alt experience, but not as hoppy as Crazy Ludwig's. None of them seemed to have much in common with Alaskan Amber, which is clear and pleasant -- it got me from Juneau to Bellingham on the ferry last year -- but not as interesting as Ludwig's or Evolution.

Clearly this style is not as easy to pin down as, say, an IPA or Barleywine. So what is an Alt? Michael Jackson described it as "brewed with dark malts, and very well hopped... an aromatic, slightly fruity, bitter-sweet taste". So far, my experience tells me that only Ludwig's is very well hopped; only Evolution is remotely fruity; and the German Alts of my recollection only had the dark malt going for them. Technically, an Alt is a top-fermented beer -- like ales -- but aged for a while at cool temperatures, like a lager. Corey has more technical details in his article about the Alt style.

Authenticity is not a big deal for me; it's fun to talk about how close something adheres to a certain style, but at the end of the day it's the taste that matters. On the other hand, I don't want to write off a whole style of beer based on a mistaken impression.

My curiosity led me over to Belmont Station to try and recalibrate with some German Alts. Unfortunately, the only one Belmont had in stock was a Pinkus Alt, from Munster instead of Dusseldorf, the traditional Alt capital. As if I needed more confusion, Pinkus Alt was another curve ball: light in color (see the picture), highly carbonated, but with little hop character. It was very much like a Czech pilsner, like a Pilsner Urquell that hadn't been skunked on the way over to America -- rich and malty with a little bit of clean hops on top. Tasty -- and USDA-certified organic -- but it seems like a different kind of thing than the dark Alts.

There was another Northwest Alt on tap at Belmont Station when I was there, the Collaborator Alt, but it didn't really clarify anything for me. It was dark and smooth, but wasn't hoppy, wasn't particularly malty. Nice drinking, but didn't help me figure out Alts at all. Corey's article mentions finding Diebels Alt at Whole Foods, but they no longer have it. Higgins has Diebels on their antique online beer menu -- I'll have to go down there and see if they still have it.

At some point I will venture into the wilds of Southwest Portland to see what Alts John's Market has for sale. In the meantime, if you have an opinion, tell me what it's about: help me figure out Alts.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Next Stop, Belmont Station

When I first rolled into town, a visit to the Horsebrass was always followed by an obligatory stop at Belmont Station, the beer store next door. In a cramped little room, you would scan the shelves lined with single bottles, until you decided which Northwest or Belgian or British beers you had to have. Then you would go to the clerk and tick them off on your fingers, "I'll have two of the little Tripel Karmeliets, and a Fuller's ESB, and a Dick's Barley Wine". While you perused the glassware or the British foodstuffs -- banana ketchup??? -- the clerk would rummage around in the back and bring out your beers stuffed into a six-pack holder from some other brewery.

It was a quaint ritual, and they had a good beer selection, but the new location on Stark Street -- not that new, since January 2007 -- is far superior. Now you can pull your own beer off the shelf or out of the cooler! No more head-slapping when you get home and realize you forgot the one beer you went there for; no more buyer's remorse when you get tongue-tied and ask for the wrong bottle. The new place is bigger, too. I mean, you could still fit three Belmont Stations into John's Market over in Multnomah Village, but there's plenty of good inventory to empty your wallet on.

Another benefit of the new location is the attached pub -- the Biercafe -- including a few tables on the sidewalk. They only have four taps, but they keep them tasty -- or, as the cafe boss Wade put it to me today, "No crap on tap". It's not unusual to see less common locals like Double Mountain or Fort George on tap. Today for local flavor they had the Collaborator Altimate, plus some California and Colorado imports: a 10% HeBrew Ale, Avery Maharaja IIPA, and Six Rivers Kona Porter. That's obscure Green Dragon-ish territory. Way to go, guys! According to the Belmont Station beer blog, the cafe has plans to increase the number of taps to at least 10. That will make it an even more attractive hangout.

If you like the selections on tap, you can get a half-gallon growler to go -- prices depend on the beer. They'll sell you a two-quart mason jar for $3 if you forgot to bring your own jug. And, if you don't like the selections on tap, pick a bottle from the store side, pay a little bit of a markup, and drink it in the cafe. Highly civilized. They also have a curious device called a "surger" that purports to turn a bottled Guinness into a draft-like pint with ultrasound waves. I'm not sure what to make of that; probably if I'm dying for a Guinness I'll go find one on tap somewhere, but maybe someday I'll think of some other beer that I want microwaved.

Belmont Station is truly Southeast Portland's beer geek Candy Store. It's also the place to call if you need a keg of something offbeat -- they'll special order you almost anything in the state.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Cheers to Belgian Beers 2008

Roots hosted the 2nd Annual Cheers to Belgian Beers event Saturday, a kind of friendly competition where area brewers all brew a Belgian-style beer with the same strain of yeast. Proceeds from the festival go to charity; the public votes on their favorite beer, and the winner of that People's Choice Award hosts next year's Cheers and picks the charities.

There was such a crowd that the commemorative glasses were gone within an hour, and by the time Carla, Dave, Jill and I got there about 3 hours after the start, a couple of kegs were dry -- New Old Lompoc split their entry between two smallish kegs. Roots had room for the crowd because they're in the process of expanding into the back part of their building. All the brewing operation will move into the area in the picture here, freeing up more pub room by the front door.

It seemed to me a little overwhelming to try and make sense of 14 different Belgian-style ales all at once. Usually, the more beers on the list the happier I am, so maybe it was just the mood I was in. Or maybe it's the mystique: beers perfected by monks cloistered in remote abbeys, flavored with secret yeasts and spices, aged just so... shouldn't each one be savored -- from a specially designed glass -- and ruminated over?

There was no time for rumination, but there were some mighty fine beers on hand. I had already tried Full Sail's Dubbel, Hopworks' El Diablo, and Lompoc's Mon Cheri. El Diablo is magnificent, and I really enjoy the Full Sail (on tap the last few months at the Pilsner Room), so I was pleasantly surprised to find a few other beers that I liked at least as much as those two. My favorites were:

  • Lucky Labrador: Malt Bomb Belgian (Belgian Dark Abbey): total sweetness
  • Rock Bottom: Floreal Deux (Spiced Amber): nice and even
  • McMenamins' CPR: Blind Abbot (Belgian Dubbel): classic Abbey
  • Hopworks: El Diablo (Belgian Golden Strong): Carla says sweet and sharp
  • Full Sail: Dubbel (Belgian Dubbel): very good
  • Roots: Farmhouse Bruin (Belgian Brown): decent, tangy
My sources tell me that the Malt Bomb won the People's Choice award. I know it got half the votes at our table. It was a pretty eccentric brew -- I'm not sure the monks would recognize it -- but the extreme richness of it went well with the yeasty flavor. When I stopped the Lab's Dave Fleming to compliment him on it, he told me it was brewed by Abby Sherrill at the Hawthorne Lab -- hey, it's Abby's Abbey Ale. He also said "That's one expensive beer," alluding to the amount of malt that went into it. It's a beautiful mahogany color: check out the picture on the left. I picked up a growler of it at the Lab today; if you're lucky it might still be on tap.

Rock Bottom's entry was very tasty, as was Corey Blodgett's Blind Abbot, which got some of its flavor from carmelized raisins added to the mix. A couple of the beers I think got short-changed by the small-quick-taste format of the event: I know the Full Sail didn't taste as good to me as it does when I get to linger over a pint, and I think I need to spend more time getting to know the Roots Bruin. A couple of other beers are worth mentioning. BJ's Redrum Belgian Red Ale was pretty nice. And if you like really sour beers -- I don't -- Philadelphia's Flemish Brown seemed well done for that style.

For a second opinion, check out Jeff Alworth's review on Beervana. Our favorites overlap on the Full Sail and the Roots, and although the Laurelwood Saison d'Arduinna didn't grab me like it did him, there was nothing bad about it. But I'm scratching my head about Jeff's choice of Widmer's Belgian Golden. I'm usually a big Widmer booster, but this one left me flat. At our table, Dave pretty much summed it up with "it tastes like beer" -- there didn't seem to be much more to it than that. On the other hand, maybe it was just a casualty of so many great beers in so many tiny glasses. Many thanks to Roots for putting on a great tasting.

[Update: 2008/04/09]: The People's Choice winners have been announced! With 289 ballots counted, Lucky Lab Malt Bomb was the winner. Laurelwood Saison d'Arduinna, 2nd; Alameda Lucky Devil 3rd. Congratulations!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

But I Already Know the Brewer

Tuesday night the Pub Night neighbors and friends headed over to the Green Dragon for Meet the Brewer. It was an exciting time, because the brewer to be met was our friend Corey who brews at McMenamins' Cornelius Pass Roadhouse. Even the wives showed up -- except Amy, stuck out in the bayou -- so you know it was a big night. The Green Dragon has done a smashing job with the Meet the Brewer series, and I'm especially grateful that they chose Tuesday for it, since that's my habitual night out.

I'll be honest, I'm not so gregarious that I need to meet a brewer every week. What attracts me is that the gig includes three kegs of whatever they want to show off. We almost had to settle for two choices last Tuesday: McMenamins' uses a non-standard keg that requires special fittings, and one of them delivered to the Green Dragon didn't work. Luckily, Corey lives nearby and was able to grab a spare from his place, so we got to try all three: Rose City Til I DiePA -- the lovely double IPA that took second place at this year's Battle of the Belt -- as well as Testament Double Red Ale and Evolution Amber Ale.

Evolution is very sessionable, as they say nowadays -- you could enjoy a few of these and not damage yourself too badly. It's not too strong, about 4.7%, flavorful, cloudy and rich, a little bit sweet. Corey originally called it an Alt, but I think the Amber Ale is a good description. I may be a little confused about Alts, because every time I try one I think, "I'm not sure that's an Alt". My dim recollection from a trip to Germany several years ago was of a dark beer, light in body and alcohol, with almost no hop or yeast flavor. Evolution is different from most of that, although it's true that it's light in alcohol and not overly hoppy.

The Testament Double Red is something that I've tasted from a growler before, and even though it was a couple days in the fridge at that point, it reminded me of Ninkasi's Believer. Come to find out, Corey reveals that Believer was indeed the inspiration for Testament -- I apologize if this sentence causes Google to bring the whole Sunday School class to a beer blog -- and Testament lives up to its forebear. It was full-bodied and all flavor, flowery with just enough bitterness. Tuesday night's keg was dry-hopped then aged for three months.

As a member of the Timbers Army -- the most rabid fans of the Portland Timbers soccer team -- Corey had to name his 9.5% Double IPA "Rose City 'Til I DiePA", after one of the Army's chants. Sad to say, I've never been to a game, but I'll gladly drink the signature beverage. It's along the lines of classic northwest big IPAs. As I was sipping one Tuesday night, I fancied that I could pick out the various tastes of it one at a time -- now the malt, then the hops, then the alcohol -- like picking out the separate notes of a musical chord. Delicious.

For a sedentary person like me, who feels a sense of defeat on any day when I find myself driving or riding in a car, the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse is not going to be on my regular circuit. We get an occasional taste of Corey's beers at the Broadway McMenamins', though some of them -- like RCTIDPA -- are only served at CPR. So, another tip of the hat to Green Dragon for bringing in some brews that are otherwise out of my reach.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Really Not Intended for Consumption

It happened before April Fool's Day, but someone out there came up with another prank to make fun of the Ebay beer auctions: a wax-dipped Pabst Blue Ribbon longneck for sale. When I wanted to sell my collectible Abyss bottle, I had to drink its contents to comply with Ebay rules; this guy decided instead to sell something where he could credibly claim that the bottle was worth more than the beer. Photo credit: the picture here is brazenly lifted from the auction post.

It looks like he'll fare a little better than I did on the money end of things, with $9.50 plus $20 shipping. He's got the ALL CAPS auction idiom down, with flashing sirens, dancing babies, dancing bananas, and waving U.S. and Iraqi flags -- buy this bottle or the terrorists win. He notes that PBR won the GABF 2006 Gold Medal for American Lager, but must not have noticed that just a couple of weeks ago Pabst took the gold at Portland's 2008 Spring Beer and Wine Festival. Maybe they should start holding the SBWF on April Fool's Day.