Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Little Boat that Could

Hands down, the most unusual brewpub in Portland is Tugboat Brewing Company, hidden away on a downtown alleyway which is actually a disconnected stretch of Ankeny between Broadway and Park. It's a small 4-barrel operation that's been there since 1992, but it's a well-kept secret. When I ask people if they've ever been there, the few who have usually add, "Is it still there?".

It's a quiet existence: they don't advertise or participate in beer festivals, the website appears to be at least 5 years out of date, and their ales are only available at the pub. Their opening hours are pretty limited, basically 4 PM to midnight every day. In a state where all the brewers seem to know each other -- and many have reputations spanning multiple breweries -- Tugboat isn't even on the Oregon beer family tree. That's not at all to imply that the owners are arrogant or unfriendly -- in fact if the brewer or his wife isn't behind the bar, they're probably having a beer at one of the tables.

The obscurity is part of the charm of the Tugboat, and it's definitely worth a visit. It's a comfortable, cozy place. The walls are lined with used books, and you'll usually see the people at one or more of the tables enjoying a quiet game of cards or board game. Smoking is allowed, but the ventilation seems pretty good. I always smell the smoke when I'm there, but it's not thick enough to stick to my clothes.

Ales at the Tugboat all have a pleasantly yeasty character, there's usually a selection on cask, and none of the beer is served too cold. The price is right: $3.50 a pint, or $3 during the 4-7 PM happy hour -- cash only. Here are the house beers they were pouring last night:

  • Lighthouse Pale Ale: light, floral hops, nice
  • Amber Ale: yeasty and nicely bitter
  • Crimson Red Ale (cask): cloudy, fresh, and tasty; very flat
  • Coffee Brown Ale: toasty and good, chocolaty flavor
  • Blond Ale: oops, forgot to try this one
  • Chernobyl Russian Imperial Stout: flat and strong
"Coffee Brown" is just named for the dark-roasted color, there's no coffee in it. Chernobyl is definitely the most distinctive beer, the one I seek out every time I'm there. It's a big one -- over 10% ABV, only served in half-pints -- tasty and black, though last night it seemed a little too flat. None of the other ales seemed like they were terribly strong, you could comfortably have a few of them.

They also had eight guest taps last night, plus a cider. Three of the guest taps stood out as being pretty rarely sighted in these parts: Klamath Basin 8 Second Ale, Leavenworth Blind Pig Dunkel Weizen, and Off the Rail (no website?) Over the Mountain Stout. I like to award imaginary community service points to places that have obscure guest taps, like when I found Klamath Basin beers at SuperDog. Tugboat gets double points, for supporting Klamath Basin and Off the Rail, the brewery with the excellent Ozzy/Black Sabbath beer names. Guest pints are $4.50 ($4 happy hour).

Tugboat might get a little more exposure to beer fans now that Bailey's Taproom -- the westside's attempt at Green Dragon coolness -- has opened across the street. It chugged along before that for many years, and hopefully will for many more. If you're downtown of an evening, stop in for a pint or a nuclear stout.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Getting Back to Our Roots

It had been a few weeks since the Pub Night gang had hit Roots, so Lindsey and I trooped down there last night with new neighbors Bryan and Tanith, fresh off the boat from Cleveland. Lindsey was excited to have moved back to his mostly-remodeled house. OK, let's call it partially-remodeled, but at least he's back within walking distance of Roots.

The weather was perfect for the sidewalk picnic tables, but we were surprised at how quiet the place was, maybe because of the holiday weekend. Anyway, the $2.50 Tuesday night imperial pints beckoned, and we heeded the call.

Roots has a couple of excellent beers on right now. The Farmhouse Bruin has improved a lot since it was unveiled a couple months ago at the Cheers to Belgian Beers event. It seemed a little thin at the time, and I even went back the next week and had the same impression. But last night it tasted better -- it still has that wild-yeast/saison flowery tartness, but it's richer and rounder. Is it a different batch? Or is that what a couple months in the cellar will do for you? Whatever the case, stop in and grab one before it's gone.

Along the same lines, the strong Belgian Golden they're pouring right now is also a gem. This one has been good from the get-go, although it's sometimes difficult for me to spring for a delicious 10-ounce beer when I can reach out and grab a 20-ounce pint of something nearly as good. We shared one around last night, though, and it was mighty tasty. Darker in color than you'd expect a "Golden" to be, but dangerously smooth. Maybe those little glasses are a good idea after all.

Of course, the reliable standbys were on tap, too: Island Red, Woody IPA, Nevermined Pale Ale, Burghead Heather Ale, and the Imperial Stout. There's also an ESB out right now, but they were out of it last night. Burghead always seemed like a weird idea -- no hops? -- but now that everyone is losing their minds over the hop crisis we can see that it was really an idea that was ahead of its time. The one thing I miss at Roots these days is having a selection on cask -- it's been many months since I've seen the engine hooked up.

Seeing no signs of the promised pub remodel, I asked the bartender Jim about it. His impression is that it's on the back burner for now. It would be nice to have a better use of the space in there, but really the beer is the bottom line. If Roots keeps cranking out the good stuff, we'll put up with the bad feng shui.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Vincente's Pizza

Let me get one thing clear: I'm sick and tired of pizza. The brick-oven pizza at Hair of the Dog last Saturday was nice; but Friday and Sunday were pizza nights for us also. Friday because it's our traditional pizza-and-video night, and Sunday because we had to feed the kids quick after putting them through a day of waiting in line for the Portland Obama rally. The last straw was on Monday morning, when the only thing I could find for breakfast was the final slice of Friday's pizza.

It's tempting to swear that I'll never eat pizza again, but that pledge would soon be broken. The truth is, our household would fall apart if Vincente's Pizza wasn't right around the corner from us at 20th and Hawthorne. The Friday ritual is deeply ingrained: call Vincente's and order a large cheese and large Caesar salad to go. For the need-food-now situations -- like last Sunday -- sitting down and ordering slices ($3.25) is faster and easier.

There's another benefit to dining in: Vincente's keeps a decent selection of beer, about 20 taps and quite a few good bottles. Some of the standard taps from the menu:

There are a few more mainstream taps -- PBR, Czechvar, Black Butte, Widmer Hef, Guinness -- but also interesting rotating taps. A few weeks ago they had the Hopworks Lager and the Copper Ale from Raccoon Lodge; today they had Lagunitas Kronik (a.k.a. Censored) and Walking Man Knuckledragger. "Today?" you ask. "I thought you were sick of pizza." That's where the Greek Salad comes in: order the medium size for $6.50, wash it down with a pint, and you've got a meal.

The bottled beer selection varies, but they usually keep pretty current seasonals from Lagunitas, Full Sail, and Rogue. Looking at the picture here, I can pick out some other good calls: Newcastle, Ayinger, Pelican IPA, something by Lazy Boy. The big bottles are mostly $4.75, so I tend to stick with the draft pints for $3.50. I think there's a $3.75 big-bottle special on Sundays. In a beer emergency, you can buy the big bottles to go, but they looked befuddled when I asked if they would fill a growler from the taps. It would be nice if they did: Hot Lips Pizza one block east fills growlers, though their beer selection -- and their pizza -- are no match for Vincente's. (Speaking of nearby beer choices, the 7-11 across Hawthorne from Vincente's now carries the Ninkasi 22-ouncers.)

At lunchtime, only the few tables on the original restaurant side are open, plus a few more tables outdoors. At night, a whole new section called the Winking Toad Bar is open, including a small loft upstairs with a pool table. A couple of years ago they had dartboards upstairs, but I guess it was too crowded up there, because they took them down. I also miss the foosball table that was in the tiny pinball room on the restaurant side. It was rickety, and disgustingly filthy, and would run so low on balls that one time we bought new ones for it, but the girls and I were sad to see it go.

Pizza: you can't live with it, you can't live without it. At least you can enjoy some good beer with it at Vincente's.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Visit to Hair of the Dog

Hair of the Dog is less than two miles from my house, but somehow I never make it over to their Earth Day open house events, despite years of good intentions. I didn't even make it to FredFest there a couple weeks ago. But as luck would have it, Carla and I got in on a pizza-and-beer night at Hair of the Dog last Saturday. It was a benefit for our daughter's school -- also attended by owner Alan Sprints' kids -- that our friends David and Beverly were alert enough and thoughtful enough to reserve us a place at.

The pizza was gourmet, prepared in a mobile brick oven by Alan's brother-in-law Mark -- who also does awesome brick oven pita bread and sandwiches at the downtown farmer's market. But I don't want to talk about the pizza, I want to talk about the beer. Look at those taps, is that a thing of beauty or what? It's getting less rare to find Blue Dot around Portland on tap, and Greg is usually on at Higgins, but check out the lineup here (from left to right):

  • Jim 2007 (a blend of barrel-aged and fresh HotD beers)
  • Fred from the Wood (barrel-aged Fred)
  • Adam
  • Doggie Claws (this one made with cherry-blossom honey)
  • Fred
  • Blue Dot
  • Greg
Any one of these would put a smile on your face. All of them flowing freely made for a very enjoyable evening.

Fred from the Wood was the definite standout. Everyday Fred is already a delicious, strong Belgian-y ale. The barrel-aged Fred just turned it up another notch -- smoother, stronger, with more different flavors swirling around. It was startlingly foamy coming out of the tap, filling most of a small beer flute with head, but the head quickly -- in seconds -- turned into delicious nectar. I was glad to see that there were still some bottles of FftW for sale, $7/bottle or $140/case. There was a bit of mirth as we stood near a pallet of Fred from the Wood cases, and the less beer-fanatical members of our party guessed what a case would sell for: $25? $50? Hmm... $75?

The Doggie Claws made with cherry-blossom honey was another nice surprise, the holiday-season barleywine with extra honey/cherry sweetness. And Alan sampled out a Flemish Brown ale that's so new it hasn't been named yet. A little bit of those sour beers goes a long way with me, but if that's your cup of tea, this is one to keep an eye on: it was crisp and clean, not menacingly sour like some of them are.

For dessert, Alan did his science fair trick of making fast-frozen ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Not the Fred sherbet described recently by John Foyston -- it was chocolate raspberry with a little Adam for flavor. Dramatic, delicious, and a real time-saver.

This gathering was my chance to ask Alan about the variations I sometimes see in the Greg on tap at Higgins. He expressed surprise, saying that in his experience of keeping a keg on tap at the brewery, that it changed very little over time, and that he thought the batches were pretty consistent. He did say that he used a lighter malt this year than last, and indeed the Greg at the brewery was lighter in color and body than most of the pints I've had at Higgins.

It was a great evening; I'm glad I finally made the pilgrimage. Thanks to Alan and Eliana for putting on the event and supporting our beleaguered public schools!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sierra Nevada's Southern Hemisphere Harvest

Every September I get all antsy waiting for the fresh hop beers to come out. I go from pub to pub pestering the people behind the bar: "Is the harvest beer out yet?" Fresh hop ale was a great revelation the first time I tasted it at the Lucky Lab during my first autumn in Portland -- it was something I had never heard of before. A flyer on the bar at the Lab described how the brewers had driven out to a hop farm to get the fresh cones at harvest time so they could throw them into a batch of pale ale without drying them. Quite a wholesome idea, but the real proof is in the drinking. The herbal, or vegetal, or green flavor imparted by the fresh hops makes fresh hop beer truly special.

This past autumn I really went crazy, with a goal of trying a new fresh hop beer every day. I didn't exactly succeed, but I enjoyed every day of the marathon, especially that fabulous Lupulin Ale from Full Sail. There were some misses also -- the Lucky Lab and Bridgeport really disappointed this year. I wish the Lucky Lab would go back to that golden ale that first hooked me, instead of the drab concoction they call the Mutt; Bridgeport's Hop Harvest is a lovely hop bomb, but so hoppy that the fresh flavor has gone missing. I prefer the lighter ale they brewed in years past.

Being such a fresh-hop fiend, it definitely caught my eye when Jay Brooks' blog mentioned that Sierra Nevada was coming out with "two new fresh hop beers". Their new Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale would be made with hops harvested in New Zealand, while it's still spring here in the US. That is some clever strategizing there, taking advantage of the spherical shape of the earth to get a second harvest ale out, six months before the West Coast hop harvest. It sounds too good to be true, and indeed it is too good to be true. From the description of the beer on Sierra's website: "the fresh hops in this beer are dried right after being picked". Uh oh.

Have you seen the Fawlty Towers episode where the hotel guest insists on fresh peas for his omelet (at 9:30 in this YouTube clip)? Basil Fawlty tells him "I assure you they were absolutely fresh when they were frozen". When it comes to fresh hops, I'm that hotel guest guy -- the overly fastidious, impossible-to-please customer with the florid turns of speech. I don't care what hemisphere you're in, dried hops are not fresh hops. "Might I suggest that in future you avail yourself of sufficient quantities of the fresh article?"

Even so, when I saw Southern Hemisphere Harvest at Belmont Station, I had to grab a bottle to try. Sadly, it was as I suspected: none of the great green fresh hop flavor. I even sprang it on Dave next door without telling him what it was, and he was as underwhelmed as I was. Not a huge surprise, really, the Sierra Nevada Harvest that came out last fall was also a dud. Neither of these beers even really had any hop-floral flavor -- like for instance Bridgeport's Hop Harvest does -- and the Southern Hemisphere has an unusual extra-bitter aftertaste that comes out several seconds after swallowing the beer. Not a totally bad bitterness, but definitely not what I want in a harvest ale.

We're spoiled here in Oregon with our proximity to the hop fields -- getting the hops into the beer the day they're picked is an integral part of the flavor. In the case of the Southern Hemisphere Harvest, it sounds like it takes them about a week to get the dried-fresh hops into the kettle; even Sierra's regular Harvest has hops that were trucked across two state lines. But here's the good news: Sierra Nevada has started growing their own hops for use in a limited edition Chico Estate Harvest Ale. I can vouch for Chico Estate's potential: at Portland's Holiday Ale Festival last year there was a keg of Sierra Nevada made with their estate hops -- it was called 20th Street Ale then, not Chico Estate -- and sure enough, it had that special something that the wet hops provide. It sounds like distribution will be fairly limited, but I hope we get some kegs or bottles of Chico Estate up here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

No Thanks, I'm Drinking

Do you drive every morning, every evening, and sometimes during the day? Do you drive alone? Does your driving take up more of your time and money each year? Has your driving ever caused trouble at home? Is it hard for you to socialize without driving? Then you probably have a driving problem.

If you suffer from automobile addiction, please don't let it interfere with your drinking. At least on weekend nights, there's a new outfit in Portland that will help you out. RideOn Portland is a non-profit organization that will send a sober driver to your location, to drive you and your car home safely. According to their website, the drivers arrive on folding scooters, so they can load them into your car and be on their way after dropping you off.

The $10 price makes RideOn a no-brainer if you know you shouldn't be driving. That's $10 per car, no extra charge for your passengers -- you did carpool to the pub, right? The service area is fairly limited right now: the website says they'll drive you anywhere in the Portland metro, but they'll only pick you up in SE Portland within the rectangle bordered by Grand, Burnside, 82nd, and Powell. Still, there's some good drinking to be done within that rectangle.

Hours of operation are pretty narrow -- 11 PM to 3 AM, Friday and Saturday only -- but those happen to be the drunkenest eight hours of the week. Bad public transit hours also, with little or no service in some parts of town. I like their strategy: break off a manageable chunk of spacetime to get the ball rolling. The phone number to call is 503-235-7433 -- put it in your cellphone right now if you think you're going to need it. If you really did that, go ahead and put Radio Cab in there too, in case you lose your cool outside the RideOn area: 503-227-1212.

I haven't used RideOn myself. If you have any experience with it, feel free to leave a comment. And work on that driving problem.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Another Clinton Administration

[Update 2009/11/03: Clinton Street Brewing is no more.] The smallest commercial brewery in Oregon -- Clinton Street Brewing (warning: noisy website) -- stands just a few blocks away from new Portland heartthrob Hopworks. The brewery is an offshoot of the Clinton Street movie theater, a small art house cinema at the corner of SE 26th and Clinton. You can enjoy a Clinton Street brew while watching your movie, or have a pint in the tiny pub. There are 4 or 5 tables inside, seating about 15 people, plus a couple of outside tables and about 5 seats at the bar. No smoking inside.

It had been a while since I'd been there, so I stopped in the other day to check it out. It turns out there is a new brewmaster at the Clinton, Dylan Goldsmith, and his beers are beginning to turn up around town branded as Captured By Porches -- which I'll call by the less-embarrassing acronym "CBP". At the time of my visit, there were 3 CBP beers on tap: a Belgian Wit, an IPA, and an Amber. Now, none of these beers is going to become your new favorite, but sometimes you go out on a limb to experience something off the beaten path. The Wit was interesting, but quite a bit more bitter than I think it should have been. The IPA was a little funky. I think the best bet was the Amber, despite having a little bit of a homebrewy flavor (that's Dave's adjective).

The theater owner, Seth, told me that it was quite a feat to brew enough for CBP's 30 accounts at Clinton Street's little two-barrel brewhouse. So Dylan is setting up a new brewery in industrial NW Portland. A decision will be made soon as to whether to continue to brew on Clinton Street or not. Moving the brewing equipment out might make sense for the theater/pub, since it would give them more kitchen space and allow for expanded food options -- currently the menu is anchored by pizza slices from Hammy's Pizza down the street.

There is a concert this weekend to raise funds for the CBP brewery -- see this blurb on the Beer Northwest blog. I've also seen flyers for this on lampposts around 20th and Hawthorne. It's interesting that Beer Northwest talks about CBP as a St. John's brewpub. For one thing, I'm not sure if the NW St. Helens Road address they give qualifies as St. John's, being across the river and a mile or so south. And it would be surprising if there was really going to be a pub in such an armpit location. I suspect that Clinton Street will continue to be the tied house for CBP, with brewing -- but no pub -- out in NW. Or perhaps there's a missing piece of information here: a pub-worthy address that really is in St. John's.

At Clinton Street, pints of CBP are $4, or they'll fill your half-gallon growler for $9. They have a few other taps also -- when I was there it was Ninkasi Believer (yes!), Lompoc Strong Draft, and Bud Light. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for CBP around town. I had a near miss last weekend at Big Daddy's Barbecue on Hawthorne. The bizarre happy-hour posters at Big Daddy's included a subliminal CBP logo along with logos for Bud, Widmer, and Laughing Dog -- any relation to Laughing Cow? -- but they weren't actually serving any CBP.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Deschutes-sur-Willamette

The stealthy opening of Deschutes' Portland brewpub -- it's been open all week -- means I got scooped by several Beervana commentators. Better late than never, Carla and I went over there for lunch today on the official Grand Opening. At least we got some commemorative pint glasses for our effort.

It was probably a good strategic move to open a few days early, to take some of the pressure off, considering Hopworks' fire-code-busting opening day six weeks ago. Maybe it's a different story tonight, but the lunch crowd was manageable. The restaurant tables didn't really fill up until about noon, and as far as I could tell there was never a wait.

The Deschutes Pearl District pub is a great addition to the Portland scene, especially since they're actually brewing there. Their first Portland brew is on tap right now, the Armory XPA, named after the garrison-turned-theater across the street. It's a well-done Northwestern Pale Ale, with very floral hops.

I suppose the "X" in XPA is for "extra", though of course these extra pale ales turn out darker than the pales. On the other hand, there's a code-switching pun here: "ex-pee-ay" is how you pronounce the French verb "expier" -- to do penance or to make reparation. I can't help it, I loved the headline on the Champagne of Blogs' review -- "Deschutes: French for 'Watch out, Bridgeport'" -- and now I can't get the French connection out of my brain. So if there's something troubling you, some sin you have to make up for, go XPA it with a couple of pints.

John Foyston says there are 16 tap handles, but I think some of them just pour root beer, because I can only come up with 12 beers served. I forgot to take home the seasonal beer menu, but between the Deschutes website and my memory, here are the beers that were on tap today:

  • Mirror Pond Pale Ale
  • Black Butte Porter
  • Obsidian Stout
  • Bachelor Bitter
  • Cascade Ale
  • Inversion IPA
  • Cinder Cone Red
  • Armory XPA
  • Hop Henge IIPA
  • 2005 Mirror Mirror Barleywine
  • The Abyss
  • Green Lake Organic Ale
There were also two cask engines; today they had Black Butte and Bachelor Bitter. The cask Bitter was served too cold, but maybe they'll get that straightened out as they get settled in. As usual, Mirror Mirror was a thing of beauty. The 20 oz. pints were $4.25, served in a Guinness-shaped glass -- I assume it's really 20 oz. -- or 10 oz. for $2.50. Big brews like Abyss and Mirror Mirror are served 10 oz. at a time in a snifter for $3.50. They'll fill a half-gallon growler to go for $10 (more for the heavyweights).

The decor is Northwest lodge through and through: big wood rafters, a stone fireplace, and chainsaw sculptures. The food seemed pretty good to us -- we each had burgers from the $9.50-11.50 burger menu. My french fries were drab and greasy, but the salads were decent. We were intrigued enough to try the hop cheesecake, but we didn't really pick up any hop flavor. Maybe the Mirror Mirror was to blame for that.

Let's talk about what might have been.... Two or three years ago, I noticed a banner on the side of the building on the northeast corner of 34th and Belmont. It said "Future home of Deschutes Public House". That was exciting -- one of Oregon's best breweries opening a pub in our neighborhood. But the banner was soon down, apparently because Deschutes made the deal for the current location in the Pearl, and the low-key Side Street Tavern opened on SE 34th instead. It's hard to imagine getting a pub and a brewery into the Side Street space, so although Southeast lost a pub, Portland gained a brewery. Whatever the case, welcome to Portland, Deschutes!