Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 Pub Night Memories

Despite the fact that I recently won a Worst Photograph prize, I'd like to wind up the year with a slideshow of Pub Night memories. These are pictures I took during 2009 that didn't make it into a blog post. Even so, they tell a story of camaraderie that illustrates what I love about Portland and the beer-obsessed people that congregate here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Keg of Cask Ale

Last week I was asking for your opinions on the state of cask ale in Portland. Here's some evidence in support of Ted Sobel's gripe about "cask-conditioned" beer: a pony keg of cask Wreck the Halls that Dave picked up for the Main Street solstice gathering. Definitely just a regular-'ol keg, of a very burly Full Sail beer that wasn't brewed with cask ale as the first thought.

Over the weekend I wasn't tsk-tsking it, I was glug-glugging it, because it was mighty tasty, even if it wasn't culturally authentic. The biggest problem Dave had was, how do you get the beer out of the keg? It didn't have a blowhole like a firkin does, so he couldn't just somehow tap it and drain it. On the other hand, forcing it out with a keg tap or CO2 seemed risky.

Dave is always up for some kind of project, so he made his own cask engine, using some kind of RV water-pump gadget and the fitting from a regular keg pump. By unscrewing the central cylinder of the keg pump, the keg was able to breathe in air to make up for the lost volume of ale. It wasn't as eye-catching as English pub-style cask handles, but it got the job done for the party. And, yes, that's too much ice cooling it off -- we had to let the beer warm up after dispensing it.

On the earlier post about cask ales, I was hoping people would name more names of places with good or bad cask ale. There wasn't much response, but here's what I got, plus I'll add a bit of my own opinion.

Good places for cask ale:

  • Deschutes - even Ted approves
  • Moon and Sixpence
  • County Cork
  • Rock Bottom - from firkins at the right temperature
  • Bridgeport - especially the Pearl location
Places where you might avoid the cask ale:
  • New Old Lompoc - one commenter reports multiple fails
  • Horse Brass - same commenter says "hit or miss"; I agree
  • Lucky Lab - pains me to say it, but that two-week old Black Lab Stout has its tongue hanging out.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Portland Beer Price Index: Winter 2009

It's the winter solstice, time once again for the quarterly Portland Beer Price Index. In response to comments on the first PBPI back in September, I recorded not only the regular price of the beers in the survey, but also sale prices (for retail) and happy hour prices (for bars).

Reminder: this survey is not a complaint about beer prices generally or at any particular place. It's just my attempt to watch price trends over time. For more details on which beers and establishments were surveyed, see the first PBPI.

Here is the Winter 2009 PBPI:

  • 6-packs: $8.75, down 10 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers: $5.03, down 5 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $7.85
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.97
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.20, unchanged
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.46
The makeup of the BPBI has changed a little bit, and I went back and recalculated the fall numbers based on that. When the big boys do it, they call it "restating". One change is that I reluctantly dropped Beermongers from the bomber index, because they only had 3 of the 6 bombers in stock when I was there (not a single bottle from Hopworks, Laurelwood, or Lompoc). I was really counting on them to lower the index a little bit with their great prices -- indeed, the autumn bomber index is 18 cents higher without them -- but their selection misses too many Portland standards. The other change was adding Bridgeport's Hawthorne Ale House to the pub list -- because of their generous happy hour -- which lowered the 16-ounce index from $4.27 to $4.20.

The decline in retail prices is mainly due to Belmont Station's lower prices, though Fred Meyers lowered one or two also. The sale/happy-hour prices are based on all the beers in the survey, so it includes beers that weren't on sale. That's especially evident in the bomber prices -- almost none of them were marked down when I did my canvass. A few more details are worth mentioning:
  • I used Belmont Station's cash prices. Purchases with a credit or debit card are higher.
  • Not only is the pub average unchanged, but no pub in the survey changed its regular price since September.
  • Six-pack equivalent (SPE) prices:
    • bomber: $16.46
    • sale bomber: $16.27
    • pub: $18.91
    • pub happy hour: $15.55
Look for the Spring 2010 PBPI around March 21st.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Won a Major Award!

Even though I try to decorate every post on It's Pub Night with a picture of some kind, I have to admit that my photography skills are probably not what keeps this enterprise afloat. Now I have received official recognition of my deficiency -- I was dubbed the Grand Loser of the Yuletide Photo Contest on Alan McLeod's A Good Beer Blog.

It was the picture above -- of a kegerator sitting next to the dug-up floor of the future Migration Brewing pub -- that pushed Alan over the edge and made him create a new prize category for the worst photo submitted. He claims it's the ugliest picture ever to appear on A Good Beer Blog. Gee whiz, it's probably one of the 20 best photos on It's Pub Night -- at least it wasn't taken with the 1.4 kilopixel camera on my old cell phone. Well, different bloggers have different standards.

Speaking of which, you may recall that in past years two other Portland beer bloggers have actually won the real Grand Prize in Alan's contest, Dave Selden (Champagne of Blogs) in 2006, and Matt Wiater (portlandbeer.org) last year. Matt is a photographer by trade: take a look at his collection of Portland beer photography on his Flickr page. Not only are the pictures stunning, but they are a great document of the local beer scene.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Your Thoughts on Cask Ale

If you're a good beer geek -- in the U.S., anyway -- you are always on the lookout for beer "on cask". You hope for a more flavorful experience: warmer, flatter beer that the bartender has to laboriously pump into your glass with the big porcelain handle mounted on the bar.

Two recent internet articles have me pondering the state of cask beer. One is by Ted Sobel -- the brewer/publican of Brewers Union Local 180, an all-cask-ale brewery in remote Oakridge, Oregon -- explaining on his blog why he won't let the beer he brews out of his sight. Shortly after Ted's post, Beer Advocate asked its readers for their opinion on this question: (paraphrasing) is cask beer done right in the U.S., or are those pumps just a gimmick?

In Great Britain, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) promotes this particularly English way of producing and serving beer. There's special emphasis placed on the condition of the beer: the publican has to cellar it while it finishes fermenting, then let it settle after he jostles it up to the serving area, then make sure it is served at the right temperature, while it's still fresh.

Here in Oregon, there are cask engines in more and more pubs, even places that don't cater exclusively to beer nerds, for example Beulahland and Bar Avignon. Ted's post was skeptical about such cask offerings:

The contents of the kegs are dubiously named cask-conditioned beer, which in many cases simply contain ale destined for keg that has been drawn off from the fermenter and primed in the cask (keg).

Now, to my mind, that's good enough. It would not be good enough if it were just an ordinary keg of beer, not re-fermented in the keg. But if the keg is conditioned, it's legit, right?

Bridgeport immediately came to mind as a place in town that serves cask-conditioned beer, and is probably doing it the right way. So I emailed Karl Ockert to ask him about their process. He replied:

We currently have three engines pulling from firkins at both our brewpub on NW Marshall St and the Alehouse on SE Hawthorne. Our cask ales are my beer of choice when I go down at the end of the day to our pub for my pint. And yes we have the stillage racks, spiles, keystones, cask breathers, etc.

And Bridgeport's cask ales are definitely a treat.

But I'd like to hear from all of you out there, especially if you work at a brewery or a pub that serves cask-conditioned beer. My questions are:
  • What places in Portland serve cask ale correctly?
  • What places in town are faking us out?
  • What places have cask ale, but in poor condition?
  • Can "ale destined for keg" qualify as cask-conditioned?
  • What about Beer Advocate's question: is cask just a gimmick?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Confidence

A few weeks ago, when the oddly-named Stout, Microbrew, Wines and Market -- with no real microbrews in stock -- opened near 20th and Hawthorne, I stopped in immediately, hoping for an excellent bottle shop just steps from my house. It was disappointing to find that the beer selection there was not even as good as the 7-11 across the street -- really, not as good as the Safeway six blocks away.

Beermongers had just opened a couple of weeks before, so as I was chatting up the SMW&M proprietor, I asked him what he thought of Beermongers. He said, "I don't see how they're going to make it, with New Seasons just down the street from them."

Man, that just sent my head spinning. You see, SMW&M is at the NE corner of Ladd's Addition, Beermongers is at the SW corner, and New Seasons is at the SE. So, comparing Beermongers to SMW&M:

  1. Distance to New Seasons: tie
  2. Selection: Beermongers wins
  3. Price: Beermongers wins
  4. Distance to 7-11 and Safeway: SMW&M loses
I don't see how they're going to make it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Upright Brewing Tasting Room

If I had written this up the day after my visit to the Upright Brewing tasting room, I could have made John Foyston look like a copy-cat. Instead, I get to ride the coattails of the excellent article he wrote for the Oregonian a few days ago. Fortunately, John left out a few of the dry details -- like prices for tastes and growlers -- so I get to look like I'm adding something to the conversation.

Make no mistake, the tasting room isn't a pub. It's only open from 1 to 6 on Saturdays and Sundays -- plus special hours starting at 6 PM every night that there's a home Blazers game around the corner at the Rose Garden. There's no kitchen, but on some days there might be a small charcuterie plate available to snack on -- a couple weeks ago it featured some of Alex's homemade blood sausage. It's more like hanging out in the basement of your most hardcore homebrewing friend -- a couple of street-level windows at the top of a cinderblock wall, a half-dozen beer taps sticking out of another wall, and maybe a special rare bottle open on the table. OK, your friend's basement probably doesn't have a dozen oak barrels stacked up aging beer, but you get the idea.

It's a good deal: most 12-ounce samples are $2; some special brews cost $3. The special beers are often one of the everyday Upright beers like Four or Seven, spiked with some homegrown fruit or vegetable, like Fatali peppers or baby kiwi. You can buy the various Upright bottled beers at the tasting room, or get growlers filled for $10 ($15 for some special beers).

You'll likely get a chance to chat with brewer/owner Alex Ganum; most days your bartender will be Portland beer expert Ezra Johnson-Greenough -- SamuraiArtist on Twitter. Speaking of social networking, Upright now has a blog with interesting entries so far -- keep it up, guys -- and you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Holiday Ale Fest Advice

Yesterday's session of the Portland Holiday Ale Festival sure got crowded fast. When I got there about 3 with Dave and my Austin visitors Bill and Lance, the line for vintages of Hair of the Dog Jim was already backed up all the way out of the upper tent, down the stairs, and into the main tent. Lines for most other beers were quite manageable well into the evening, once you realized that most of the people in the chutes were just standing around chatting and not really waiting in line. The festival reports first-day attendance of over 2500 people -- you can imagine how crowded and loud the tents at Pioneer Square were.

Don't worry, it's still a great time, thanks to the friendly crowd and an awesome lineup of beers collected by Preston Weesner. The weather was unbelievably fine yesterday, and looks to be good today also. Here's some friendly advice on how best to enjoy the fest:

  1. Don't drive there. These beers are huge, and they'll catch up with you. Take the bus or train, or arrange a ride home.
  2. Bring water. If there were mug rinse stations, I didn't see them. You can buy bottled water, but why not just come prepared?
  3. Get there early. Shorter lines, less shouting.
  4. Warm up your beer. Due to storage and weather, the beer is served too cold to get the best flavors. Cup it in your hands for a while before tasting.
  5. Samples, not full pours. Because they're cheaper, easier to warm up, and won't clobber you as quickly.
  6. No kids allowed whatsoever. Dave found out the hard way that even a baby in a backpack is verboten.
Because of the strength and deliciousness of the beer at this festival, it's easy to go a little overboard. Food, water, and pacing will help you out with that. Just don't count on driving home. I don't even think I would recommend biking to this festival; for one thing, there's not much in the way of bike parking.

There are tons of excellent beers. Here are a few that made an impression on me yesterday:
  • Bear Republic Barrel Aged Old Baba Yaga (Imperial Stout): rich malt-o-meal flavor, strong alcohol
  • Deschutes Mirror Mirror (Barleywine): single-barrel version of the 2008 release; delicious maply, oaky barleywine
  • Cascade Sang Noir (Sour Red Ale): a nicely dry sour; you must let it warm up and open up
  • Hair of the Dog Jim 2009 (Blended Aged Ale): this year's Jim is very hoppy and barleywinish, leans very much towards Doggie Claws
  • Vertigo Arctic Blast (Vanilla Porter): a nice lighter offering, with lots of vanilla
  • Hopworks Kronan the Barbarian (Baltic Porter): dense and delicious, not as strong at 8%
  • Laurelwood Polska Porter (Baltic Porter): dark, rich, and boozy
  • Grand Teton Black Cauldron (Imperial Stout): smoky and malty
Those Baltic Porters from Hopworks and Laurelwood are wonderful, but I think both are available in the pubs right now, so you might not want to spend your festival tickets on them. The sour Sang Noir is a unique blend that won't be seen again: it's a good choice when you need a change of palate from the big dark beers. Just make sure and warm it up: there's a dusty note to the beer that doesn't go down well when it's cold, but that adds just the right funk once the beer has warmed enough.

That hardly does justice to the many offerings at the festival, but these were standouts among the few beers I tried yesterday. Leave a comment if you have something to recommend.

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