Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Yellowstone Vacation Beers

Finding surprisingly good beer on a family vacation to Yellowstone. The Old Faithful Inn has a few good taps, like Bozeman Brewing's Bozone Amber in the grainy picture - my favorite here. A few safe bottles from Big Sky and Idaho's Grand Teton are available at the inn and the general store.

There is a pretty good beer culture in Montana. We stayed one night in Missoula and had a couple nice ones at the hotel. Kettlehouse Cold Smoke tasted like Lompoc Strong Draft to me, though lighter in color and a little sweeter. Blackfeet IPA was also tasty - think Ninkasi Total Domination.

Red Lodge Pale Ale is the only Wyoming beer I've gotten to so far. Well done, but not as satisfying as the Montana ales.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Happy 100th, Shiner!

This year marks the 25th anniversary of two fine Oregon breweries: Bridgeport and Widmer. It also happens to mark the 100th anniversary of a brewery near and dear to my heart: the Spoetzel Brewery in Shiner, Texas. In the 80's, when I was a college student in Austin, there were two flavors of Shiner beer available: Shiner Premium and Shiner Bock. There may not have been much difference between the two: one time we were in the hospitality room after a tour of the brewery, and a longtime employee told us that the only difference was some caramel coloring added to the Bock. It didn't matter to us: Shiner Bock was better than the fizzy yellow beer you could get during those pre-microbrew times, and miraculously, it was usually cheaper.

Things have changed a lot since then. After Gambrinus -- also Bridgeport's owner -- bought the brewery, they applied some marketing savvy to the brand. For one thing, they attracted a larger customer base by raising the price of Shiner. Shiner Premium was renamed Shiner Blonde, and some new variations started coming out: first a Hefeweizen, then Shiner Light, and a Dunkelweizen at some point. They grew the distribution -- it's surprising to think of now, but pre-Gambrinus Shiner wasn't sold in many grocery or convenience stores in Texas -- to the point where in 2008 Spoetzel Brewery was the 10th-largest in the US by sales. Shiner's push into Oregon a few years ago fizzled out, but it is still distributed in Washington.

In the years leading up to this year's 100th anniversary, Shiner came out with a special edition brew each year, culminating appropriately this year with a doppelbock called Commemorator. The special editions -- numbered 95 - 100 -- have been nicely done, obviously a labor of love by the brewers. I smuggled some of the doppelbock back with me on The Last Trip To Tulsa. It's got that maple sweetness that made me fall in love with Paulaner Salvator years ago -- candy beer. A thinner body than the best doppelbocks, and with a correspondingly weaker finish, but a good solid effort.

I also liked the mesquite-smoked rauchbier -- called Smokehaus -- that Shiner came out with this year. Maybe it's based on the 99 commemorative Helles? Decent body to it, and the smoke flavor is obvious but not distracting. It's been quite a Shinery summer at my house: Po also brought me a mixed six-pack called the Shiner Family Reunion, that included a bottle of the lovely 97 schwarzbier and a good old Shiner Bock.

So, happy birthday, Shiner! You opened my eyes to beer. It's wonderful to see that you can grow a nationwide product from a small town, and also brew up some nice surprises like Commemorator and Smokehaus. For further reading, check out my buddy Lee's interview with the author of Shine On, a coffee-table book commemorating the brewery's 100th anniversary.

Monday, August 17, 2009

This is Just Sad

How pathetic is this? A local establishment endows their outdoor tables with beer umbrellas that advertise the non-alcoholic version of a wimpy imported beer. Imagine the chain of decisions -- by the producer, distributor, and proprietor -- that led to a row of these umbrellas here in Portland.

Years ago when I was traveling in Finland, I thought it was funny that all the cafe umbrellas had a Roman numeral "I" after every beer name, because it was legal to advertise the lower alcohol formulas, but not the stronger "III" beers, even though they had the same brand name. This N.A. umbrella strikes me as even sillier than that.

I guess I've told some of you where these are. Has anyone else noticed these, or can you guess the location?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Produce Row Cafe

Tucked away on the wrong side of the tracks on the eastside, close to the river with only a roaring jumble of expressway lanes in between, is a gem of a pub: the Produce Row Cafe. It's also a part of Portland's craft beer scene history: it was the first bar owned by the McMenamin brothers, before they launched their sprawling brewpub/hotel/concert venue empire. Don't worry, there are no garish faces painted on the walls or hour-long Grateful Dead jams on the stereo -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- it hasn't been a McMenamins joint for many years.

Produce Row has that British Isles pub feel about it, with about 20 nicely chosen beers on draft, a decent whiskey collection, and hearty pub food. The beers are mostly Northwest selections. When the Pub Nighters were there Tuesday evening, there was a good selection including a couple beers from each of Laurelwood, Lagunitas, Terminal Gravity, and Anderson Valley, plus Hales Cream Ale and Stout both on nitro. There were five lagers available, one of which was Miller High Life, in case there are some drinkers of wimpy downstream beers in your party. There's also a reasonably-priced menu of beer and whiskey pairs ranging from $6 - $9 -- that gets you a pour of a designer whiskey plus a little 5-ounce glass of beer.

The interior is a very cozy place to hang out, but a lot of people consider the back courtyard to be the best real estate on Produce Row. It's so popular that there were several tables full on Tuesday night, even though it was so rainy that the tables and benches must have been soaking wet and the barmaid refused to venture out onto the slippery planks of the deck.

With a somewhat hidden location, out of sight sometimes leaves Produce Row out of my mind. That's part of its charm: it's not part of any trendy pub district, so it feels kind of like a hideout in among the warehouses and off-ramps. But it's not that hard to get to, and there's even pretty good bike access from most parts of town, since the Water Avenue bike lane dumps you off at Stark just a block away. It's also open for lunch, if you'd rather visit the warehouse district during the daytime. Check it out for a relaxing pint and a taste of local beer history.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Seattle: Brouwer's and Tap House Grill

A couple weeks ago Carla and I spent a weekend in Seattle. It wasn't a beer trip, but of course we ended up at a couple of beer spots: Brouwer's Cafe in Fremont, and the Tap House Grill downtown.

Brouwer's is well-known to Northwest beer aficionados, but it was my first visit to the place. I wasn't disappointed. Fifty beers on tap, hundreds more in bottles, all served in correct glassware and accompanied by delicious food. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the spacious interior provides a wonderful atmosphere. As you can see in the picture, the bottles are part of the decor behind the bar, lovingly displayed behind evenly-spaced cooler doors. There are five different kinds of seating: you can sit at the bar, in a booth along the outside wall, at a table on the ground floor, at a table up in the loft area, or in one of the couches by the stairs. Make that six -- there's patio seating outside also. No minors allowed -- it's just for the grown-ups.

For Portlanders like us, the big attraction was the draft Washington beers that are not available in Oregon, like the lovely cask-conditioned Port Townsend Hop Diggity IPA, and the masterful Boundary Bay Dry-Hopped IPA -- which you might have tried at the OBF this year. But there were many other attractions at Brouwer's: I finally had to order a St. Bernardus Abt 12 after seeing so many other patrons hefting their chalices of dark Belgian ale. And I got my hopes up when I saw Port Brewing's Old Viscosity on the bottle menu, but had to settle for a bottle of Port's Santa's Little Helper since the OV was sold out.

The Tap House Grill in downtown Seattle is a different beast from Brouwer's, but worthy in its own right. It boasts 160 beer taps, and it was a short walk from our hotel, so it seemed like an obvious choice for our first night's dinner. Descending from street-level into the restaurant, my first impression upon taking in the corporate atmosphere and TVs above the bar was "Uh oh, this is gonna be like Henry's Tavern in Portland". That feeling was reinforced when I opened the beer menu: it was printed up in almost exactly the same format as the Henry's menu -- beers categorized by style, no prices listed, asterisks next to the rare or expensive beers.

My inquietude was quickly pacified, when I found out that our waiter actually knew something about the beer. He was able to help us choose between a couple of Washington beers that we were curious about, and he knew which ones were served in pints and which in smaller glasses. (That's what earns Henry's my enduring scorn -- I have never been served there by anyone who knew anything about the beer, including the quantity served.) Even better, when I asked what the Tap House's seasonals were, the waiter was able to punch a button on a cash register and get a printout of the 20 taps which weren't on the menu. Bravo!

I had a decent Biere de Garde from Iron Horse; the Silver City Fat Scotch was a nice Wee Heavy. Carla enjoyed her Elysian Dragontooth Stout -- I know, I know, we can get that in Portland, but it was probably the best beer on our table. It seems like we had another Washington beer at the Tap House, but I can't remember what it was. The food was quite good also -- I had a spicy Thai salad that kept me reaching for my beer. We were there without kids, but I noticed kids at three or four tables -- it seemed to be a reasonably kid-friendly place.

Any trip to Seattle must include a trip to Brouwer's. You probably knew that already, and now I do too. And I think the Tap House Grill is worth a visit if you're staying downtown -- not the most inspiring atmosphere, but family-friendly with good food and a great beer selection.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bridgeport Stumptown Tart 2009

Don't be afraid of the "Tart" label on Bridgeport's latest "Big Brew", this year's Stumptown Tart. A wheat beer flavored with fresh cherries, it certainly has a little citric tang that lingers briefly on the tongue, but it is not oppressively sour. The 2008 marionberry incarnation of Stumptown Tart -- itself on the tame end of the tart-beer spectrum -- was far more sour.

In fact, I didn't much care for last year's Tart, but the 2009 cherry Tart is a lovely, refreshing beer. Its earthy cherry-pie flavor blends perfectly with a base that is quite dry but not at all astringent. Even though the flavor really will remind you of cherry pie, it's not cloying -- really it's not noticeably sweet at all. Another nearly undetectable ingredient is the alcohol. This is a big beer -- 8.3% ABV -- but there's no boozy flavor at all. The 2009 Stumptown Tart is a real gem.

In the past, I've gone off on the sour beer craze. I'm not totally opposed to tart or funky flavors in beer, but when there's no other notable flavor, or when the sourness steals the attention from everything else in the beer, count me out. Hence, I'm unable to enjoy beer-snob darlings such as Russian River Supplication or the Duchesse de Bourgogne. A little farmhouse funkiness is OK with me, and I even found some love in my heart for Dogfish Head's very tart Festina Peche.

But the "tart" in this year's Stumptown Tart is a red herring. It's definitely worth a try even if you shy away from sour beers or fruit beers. Bridgeport's brewmaster, Karl Ockert, thinks it will age well for a year or two. Since I like the fresh article so well, it's not obvious to me how aging would improve it, but I did hide one bottle in my basement out of curiosity. The 22 oz. bombers have been selling for around $5, a pretty good deal ($16.36 SPE) for a beer this big. Get it while it lasts.