Friday, October 28, 2011

Black Raven Brewing, Redmond, WA

On my recent trip to the Seattle area, I stayed in Redmond with my old college buddy Jesus, who's on a job there for a few months.  The suburbs don't hold the same charm as other Seattle neighborhoods, but that doesn't mean good beer isn't to be had.  Northwest brewing pioneer Mac and Jacks is located in Redmond, as is the up-and-coming Black Raven Brewing.  The weather was nice, so on Saturday evening we walked about a mile from Jesus' apartment to the Black Raven tasting room to check out the beers there.

From the outside, you wonder why you came to a nondescript office park in search of a beer.  Inside, however, the atmosphere is very relaxing:  soft, warm lighting, lots of wood and stone, a couple of bars and lots of tables spread through a few small rooms.  There's no kitchen: bring your own food or have pizza delivered from a joint nearby.  They also served free bowls of peanuts in the shell -- I like the way Washington tasting rooms give you some free bar snacks. The place was full right up until closing time, but not overcrowded. They were playing good reggae at a conversational level on the stereo all night -- more Burning Spear and Culture than Bob Marley -- which suited me very fine, though one of the bartenders conceded he gets a little tired of it.

While we were enjoying our Black Raven brews, one of the brewers -- the dapper Keil Anderson (in the photo) -- was showing a couple of his friends the brewhouse and barrel room.  I insinuated myself into the field trip, and was impressed with the various barrel experiments they have going on.  They even had a fermenter stewing away with some brettanomyces.  Since I was still in the throes of fresh hop mania, I was disappointed to hear that Black Raven wasn't able to do a fresh hop beer this year: the grower they planned to get the green hops from brought his crops in early, but neglected to tell the brewery about it in time to get them into the planned brew.

Over a couple hours Jesus and I ran through everything Black Raven had on tap that night -- from memory (since I foolishly forgot to photograph the chalkboard or write anything down) an IPA, a pale, a brown porter, a stout, a barleywine, a scotch ale, and a black lager.  Our favorite of the evening was the scotch ale:  hearty without being too sweet, and just a little smoky.  The barleywine was an excellent nightcap, the porter was very quaffable, and everything else we tried was well done, though the nitro stout I started out with was a little forgettable.  The tasting room is open most days 3 PM to 10 PM, opening at noon on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Keep an eye on Black Raven:  they've only been brewing for a couple years, but they're a big hit in Seattle right now and they're looking to grow.  Further reading:  this month's Northwest Brewing News has an article on Black Raven.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fremont Brewing Company, Seattle

A couple of weekends ago when I went up to Seattle for the Fresh Hop Throwdown, I spent Friday evening running around with Chris, a Seattle beer friend once known as The Beer Retard, who has moved up in the world by getting out of the beer blogging hobby.  My Seattle beer credentials are so weak that it was easy to think of crucial places that I hadn't been to before.  We were on our way from Elysian Fields near the train station to Bottleworks in Wallingford when Chris suggested that we stop at the Fremont Brewing Company tasting room, despite the possibility of having to dodge the unattended ankle-biters of our fellow imbibers.

There only ended up being a couple of toddlers in attendance, sliding around in a small spill of beer next to a neighboring table as their oblivious parents rolled their toys into it again and again.  The warehouse space -- I called it a tasting room, but Fremont calls it the Urban Beer Garden -- consists of a long communal table with kegs for seats, a padded bench lining one wall, and a few small tables with custom upholstered booths backed up against the brewery's fermenters.  The tables were nearly full, but we found room to sit on the bench.  Since we were on a fresh hop mission, it was good to see Fremont's Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Pale on tap, though if had arrived half an hour later we would have missed it.  It was decent, growing so much on me as it warmed that later at Bottleworks I bought a bomber of it to take back to Portland.

Besides the fresh hop, there Fremont was pouring a standard lineup of the usual beer styles, plus a gravity-poured cask of the week -- when we were there it was a stout flavored with chocolate mint.  We were on our way elsewhere, but I haven't had good luck with mint beers recently so I didn't even consider a glass of that. 

The Urban Beer Garden hours are pretty sparse: it's open Thursday and Friday from 4 PM to 8 PM, Saturday 12 to 8, and Sunday from noon to 6.  You can bring your own food, or cleanse your palate with free pretzels.  Kids and dogs are allowed.  Relaxed, friendly neighborhood vibe -- I will definitely visit again if I'm in the area during opening hours.

Fremont also opens at 10 AM every weekday for retail sales:  bombers are $3.75 and up, or swap out your empty growler for a full one for $8.  That's a refreshing growler price, $9 six-pack equivalent.  I would take home more growlers at that price: with most Portland growlers starting at $10, it's been at least a year since I got one filled.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Your Thoughts on Alcohol Counseling

This is a weird question that I hope doesn't sound like a cry for help.  Do you have any good recommendations for alcohol counseling?

It's this friend of mine... No, actually, it's this blog itself.  The page on It's Pub Night that gets Googled the most -- I'm going to describe it obliquely so that the hits keep going there and not to this post -- is this one that describes a bad interaction between a common store-bought headache remedy and the intoxicant found in beer (click the link if that's too confusing).

What does that have to do with alcohol counseling?  Because that post comes up in a lot of (possibly remorseful) web searches, I got an offer earlier this year to insert paid text links into it, pointing to a website that purports to find you help with substance abuse.  It was easy to turn down the offer, because the website carefully obscured who was behind it, putting the ball in your court to either telephone them or send them your personal info.  On one level or another it was obviously a scam and not a professional service.  At best it would mechanically hand you off to someone in that line of work in exchange for a finder's fee; at worst it is a phishing operation.  No way to tell.

But it put the idea in my mind that I could put links to reputable rehabs or counseling services on my oft-searched page.  It would be purely a public service, not a paid advertisement, but only if I can find links that would truly be helpful to someone who wanted help with a drinking problem.

Got any recommendations?  Or is my whole idea ridiculous?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Seattle Fresh Hop Throwdown 2011

Fresh hop beers have exploded in Portland the last few years, and they are also catching on more and more in our sister city of Seattle.  This past Saturday, Geoff Kaiser of Seattle Beer News (he's also a regular columnist at NW Brewing News) curated 15 fresh hop beers for a mini-festival at The Noble Fir, a relatively new tavern in the Ballard neighborhood.  The place quickly filled up, and had a line running down the block.  There were eight beers from Washington and seven beers from Oregon, so before the doors opened about a dozen beer mavens from the two states took part in a blind tasting to choose the best of the lot -- and to decide which state turned out the best fresh hop beers.

Oregon won the blind tasting decisively.  Scoring out of 25, where anything above 13 was a good beer, and 19 and above indicated a good showcase for fresh hops, the Oregon beers averaged 16.2 vs. 15.7.  That's hardly a landslide, but the top four beers went to a second round of judging for best in show, and Oregon beers took gold, silver, and bronze:
  1. Laurelwood Fresh Hop Cavalry IPA
  2. Deschutes Fresh Hop Mirror Pond
  3. Double Mountain Killer Red
Fourth place was taken by a Washington beer:  Two Beers Fresh Hop Ale.  I wasn't involved in the final best-of-show judging, so of the four finalists, I only scored Double Mountain and Two Beers.  If it's any consolation to fans of Washington beer, I preferred the Two Beers to the Killer Red, though both were excellent.  Afterward I did have my first taste of the Laurelwood Cavalry.  I had been hearing good things about it from people who had already tried it in Portland, and it was indeed a top-tier fresh-hopper.

The other beers that were poured at the throwdown were:
  • Oakshire Triune
  • Iron Horse Fresh Hop Loco Red
  • Schooner Exact Fresh Hop IPA
  • Full Sail Hopfenfrisch Pilsner
  • Snipes Mountain The Hooch
  • Seven Seas Hop Prophet
  • Hopworks Give Me Liberty...
  • Ninkasi Fresh Hop Tricerahops
  • Big Al Harvest Ale
  • Big Time Fresh Hop Bhagwan's Best
  • Paradise Creek Alpha Madness
On that list, I judged the six from Oakshire down to Seven Seas, and that's the order in which I had them scored (after Two Beers and Double Mountain).  I foolishly left the bar before the festival opened for real and was then stuck outside because of the crowd, so sadly I missed trying the last three Washington beers.  Still, it was a great experience, and I am grateful to Geoff for inviting me to take part.  Further reading: Geoff's official report on the Throwdown.

If you're not familiar with the Noble Fir, it's a nice place that's worth a visit if you're in the neighborhood.  Fifteen beer taps, plus two nitro taps, and a pretty good selection of bottles; no kids allowed.  The food menu consists of small plates, including vegan options:  you can pick an assortment of 3, 5, or 7 items for $10, $15, or $20 respectively (if I remember right), which seems pretty reasonable.  It's not reflected in the name, but there is a travel theme to the restaurant:  one wall is lined with travel books and laminated maps for your reading pleasure while you're having a beer or some snacks.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Beer Festival Prices Keep Going Up

A couple weeks ago, I thought the Hood River Hops Festival was a little cheeky for charging $6 for an empty plastic mug; then the obligatory pint glass at the Oaks Park Fresh Hops Fest was $8.  The pint glass was nicer to drink from and more of a keepsake than a plastic mug; ditto the $8 tulip glass at the recent Beermongers 2nd Anniversary.  Either way, $6 or $8 seems like a pretty steep price for entry, though looking into it more, Hood River was just following the lead of the Oregon Brewers Festival, which has charged $6 for their plastic mugs for at least the last couple of years.

So I was a little floored to realize that the $25 entrance fee at the upcoming Holiday Ale Festival -- for a mug and 8 tickets -- effectively means that your plastic mug costs you $17!  HAF prices have been steadily climbing: last year the mug penalty was $15, up from $10 in 2009 and 2008, and $5 in 2007.  I guess I am going to have to add a festival category to the Portland Beer Price Index.

There has been some beer-geek discussion around Portland about how maybe the big festivals should raise the entry price to help keep the crowds smaller, but now that I'm faced with the reality of a $17 entry fee, I wonder if I agree with that.  It would be convenient to blame Mr. Alworth -- here's a Holiday fest write-up from 2007 where he hints that higher prices might thin the crowds.  But that wouldn't be fair:  the Mighty Mites small beer festival that Jeff helped organize in August charged an entry fee of $0 and encouraged attendees to bring their own mug from some other festival.

Now the big question on my mind is whether I will see Jim from Portland Beer and Music at the HAF.  He has a thing against drinking fancy beer from plastic cups.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Westvleteren vs. St. Bernardus

One of these things is not like the others...
Disclaimer: this tasting didn't go how I wanted it to.  Not the results, the tasting itself.

A few weeks ago there was a multi-birthday party at the home of our friends Brett and Debbie.  Since lots of our beer-loving crowd was going to be there, I decided it was time to trot out the bottles of Westvleteren 8 and 12 (one of each) that I brought back from Belgium this summer.

To make it more interesting, I decided to make it a blind tasting, comparing the Westy 12 with St. Bernardus Abt 12.  Westvleteren 12 is one of the world's rarest and most sought-after beers: it is only distributed at the Abbey St. Sixtus where it is produced.  St. Bernardus is very easy to find: I bought the bottle for this tasting for $4 at the CVS on East Burnside.  The two beers are often compared to one another, and have some history in common.  I had tried them side-by-side in Amsterdam, but I knew which was which, so I was probably biased in favor of the rarer, more expensive Westvleteren.  This blind tasting -- with a lot of experienced palates -- would be a great experiment.

But the best laid schemes go oft awry, and so it was with this tasting.  See the bottlecaps in the picture?  I popped the blue bottlecap from the bottle of St. Bernardus and poured some samples into small glasses, and then popped the Westvleteren bottle with the blue bottlecap and divided up that beer.  Westvleteren bottles don't have paper labels, so the bottlecap was my indication of which style was in each bottle.  In my excitement about what a fun tasting this would be I let the color fool me instead of reading the numbers, which means that instead of comparing two similar quadrupels, I had pitted  Abt 12 against the dubbel Westy 8 -- also a fine beer, but quite a bit subtler than the 12.  I didn't realize the mistake until all the glasses had been passed around and drained, and I went to open the third bottle as Act Two of my show and tell.  "OK, now try the Westvleteren eigh... uh oh."

Not too surprisingly, the Abt 12 handily defeated the Westy 8 in the blind tasting, 5 votes to 2 -- hey, a couple of people enjoyed the more subtle pleasures of the dubbel, anyway.  Before I knew about the mix-up, I was perplexed by how different the Westvleteren was than my memory of it from a few weeks earlier.  And I was even more disappointed because the Abt 12 seemed a little cloying to me that day, not worthy to knock off such a sought-after beer.

We did share the Westy 12 around after that.  It was as spectacular as I remembered it being, and in my opinion was better than a 3 year-old Westy 12 that Angelo generously shared with a few people back in August.  Cellaring beer is fun, but sometimes your best bet is to drink things fresh.  At the party, I think most of us agreed that the Westvleteren 12 was indeed a notch above the St. Bernardus.  But by then the damage had been done -- it wasn't a blind tasting anymore.

Almost forgot to mention: it was this tweet by Matt at portlandbeer.org that inspired me to finally write this up!

Friday, October 7, 2011

2011 Fresh Hop Tastival Checklist

Fresh hops, click, fresh hops, click, fresh hops... Yes, I am a broken record at this time of year.  It's just that the beers are so good, so special, and so fleeting, that it becomes something of an obsession.

The Oregon Brewer's Guild/Oregon Bounty Portland Fresh Hop Tastival takes place tomorrow (Saturday, October 8, 2011) at Oaks Park, noon to 8 PM.  Scroll past the confusing east-is-up map on this page to see the beer list.  Kids are allowed, and if the weather is nice -- unlike last year -- the picnic area just outside the festival building is a great place to mingle in the fresh air.  As with any beer festival, the earlier you can arrive, the happier you'll be.  There is usually drinking water available, but the most convenient option is usually to bring your own.

There are still some entries on the Tastival list that I haven't tried yet, even after the Hood River Hops Fest and several weeks of trying an average of one new fresh hop beer a day.  So I'll be out there trying to fill in those blanks.  Meanwhile, here's my updated list of 2011 fresh hop beers, divided into these four categories:  fresh-hop beers you must try; beers that show off fresh hops well enough; beers that are really good but where I didn't really notice much fresh hop flavor; finally, beers to avoid.  The ones that will be available at Oaks Park this weekend are marked with "(Oaks)". [Update 2011/10/08: and new ones I tried at Oaks Park are marked with italic "(Oaks)".]

Must-try:

  • Deschutes Fresh Hop Mirror Pond (Oaks)
  • Deschutes Fresh Hop Twilight Ale
  • Full Sail Lupulin (with Tettnanger hops) (Oaks)
  • Breakside Fresh Hop IPA
  • Laurelwood Cavalry IPA
  • The Commons Fresh Hop Farmhouse (Oaks)
  • Big Horse Vernon the Rabbit Slayer
  • Elysian Kama Citra
  • Logsdon Fresh Hop Sezoen (Oaks)
  • Two Beers The Fresh Hop
  • Alameda Citronix (Oaks)
  • Double Mountain Killer Red
  • New Belgium Fresh Hop IPA
  • Bridgeport Hop Harvest (Oaks)
  • Laurelwood Laurelfest Vienna Lager (Oaks)
  • Deschutes Hop Trip (Oaks)
  • MacTarnahan's Fresh Hop Mac's Amber (Oaks)
  • Coalition Green Pig (Oaks)
  • Laurelwood Fresh Hop Free Range Red (Oaks) 
  • Green Dragon (OBC) Sophie Harvest Ale (Oaks)  
  • Ft. George CoHoporative Ale
  • Terminal Gravity Wild Wild Wet 
Good fresh hop beers:
  • Full Sail Lupulin (with Magnum hops) (Oaks)
  • Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest
  • Rogue Chatoe Wet Hop (Oaks)
  • Ninkasi Tricerarillo (Oaks)
  • Hopworks Fest of Fury (Oaks)
  • Widmer Liberty Fresh Hop Lager (Oaks)
  • Deschutes Fresh Hop Inversion IPA
  • Pelican Elemental Ale (Oaks)
  • Migration 69 Pound Perle (Oaks)
  • Fremont Brewing Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Pale
  • Oakshire Triune Wet Hop Pale Ale (Oaks)
  • Everybody's Brewing Head Stash Pale Ale
  • Iron Horse Fresh Hop Loco Red 
  • Schooner Exact Fresh Hop IPA
  • Full Sail Hopenfrisch Pilsner (Oaks)
  • Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale
  • Lucky Lab The Mutt (Oaks)
  • Rock Bottom Hop Harvest (Oaks)
  • McMenamin's Thundercone (Oaks)
  • Cascade Lakes Harvest Ale (Oaks)
Tasty beers, not much fresh-hop flavor:
  • Full Sail Lupulin (with Centennial hops) (Oaks)
  • Breakside Fresh Hop CDA
  • Long Brewing Fresh Hop IPA #1
  • Port Brewing High Tide IPA
  • Double Mountain Killer Green (Oaks)
  • Hopworks Give me Liberty... (Oaks)
  • Lompoc Crystal Missile (Oaks)
  • Cascade Fresh Hop Porter (Oaks)
  • Old Market Nugget IPA (Oaks)
  • Snipes Mountain The Hooch 
  • Ninkasi Total Crystallization (Oaks)
  • Upright Hits from the Vine (Oaks)
  • Gilgamesh Fresh Prince 
  • Big Horse Red Fang
  • Seven Seas Hop Prophet
  • Seven Brides Fresh Hop Emily's Ember (Oaks)
  • Coalition Liquid Sterling (Oaks)
  • Beer Valley Fresh Hop Leafer Madness (Oaks) 
  • Gilgamesh Fresh Hop Double IPA
Avoid:
  • Ft. George Fresh Hop Vortex IPA (Oaks)
  • Burnside Nuggets with Attitude (Oaks)
  • Deschutes Fresh Hop Chainbreaker White IPA
  • Lucky Lab Reaperweizen (Oaks)
  • Portland U-Brew King Harvest (Oaks) 
  • Philadelphia's Willamette in the Rye (Oaks) 

Of course, those are just my opinions, and your mileage may vary. But if you see something in the top two categories that ordinarily you would have skipped, give it a try at the Tastival or around town. A good example is the Fresh Hop Mac's Amber. The last couple years it hasn't been too exciting, and I had low expectations this time since Mac's excellent head brewer Vasili Gletsos jumped to Laurelwood earlier in the year, but the 2011 batch of Fresh Hop Mac's is really outstanding.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hood River Hops Fest 2011

Early autumn in the Northwest is marked by the return of the rain and drastically shorter days, but brings with it a special compensation: beer flavored with fresh hops.  The Hood River Hops Fest kicks off a series of fresh hop beer festivals around Oregon each year, and I was glad to finally make it the HRHF for the first time last Saturday.  The weather could not have been nicer, the crowd was bustling but manageable, and there were some very nicely done beers on tap.

There were 38 fresh hop beers offered up, and I had already slimmed down the task ahead of me by scouting out 16 of them around Portland in the couple of weeks that the fresh stuff has been out. I also cut a few corners by skipping Portland breweries that I knew I could easily catch up with if I didn't get to those beers at a festival. Even so, the taps started drying up mid-afternoon, and I missed out on a couple of beers that I intended to try: Pelican Elemental Ale and Beer Valley Fresh Hop Leafer Madness. Those are pretty popular numbers, and both are bottled in limited quantities, so I expect to track them down somehow or another. Is it just a coincidence that these are also the two breweries that give me so much trouble every time I go to compile the Portland Beer Price Index?

My favorites of the day were:

  • Big Horse Vernon the Rabbit Slayer -- giant double IPA, with a beautiful flowery hop flavor
  • Elysian Kama Citra -- awesome, very fresh flavor
  • Logsdon Fresh Hop Sezoen -- very different take on fresh hops, nice apricot flavor
  • Double Mountain Killer Red -- malty red ale with good fresh hop presence
  • Ft. George CoHoporative Ale -- great orange blossom hops (lots of Centennials?)
Double Mountain's Killer Green is a yearly favorite, though I tend to complain that the fresh hop greenness gets buried under the massive bitterness, so I was looking forward to trying this year's and comparing it to Killer Red, which I don't recall seeing before.  Killer Red is just as massive, but to my mind does show off the fresh hops better, even though it's built on a darker, roastier beer.

I was a little disappointed in Ninkasi's Total Crystallization -- Total Domination with fresh Crystal hops.  Last year it was stunning, and really a breakthrough for Ninkasi, who had always come up surprisingly short at fresh hop time.  This year it was nicely bitter, with a pleasant grassiness, but not up to the level of last year's.  Their Fresh Hop Tricerarillo had a little more going for it, but could still be better.

There was one disaster at the festival:  Lucky Lab's Reaperweizen, which was either infected or had something else strange going on with it.  A couple weeks ago I had an early taste of Reaperweizen, and it seemed promising at that time, so I don't know what happened in the meantime to it.

The Hood River Hops Festival was a great time; if you've never been, consider going next year.  As with every festival, early is better, as some of the buzz beers were gone in just a few short hours, and by about 7 PM very few of the 52 beer lines were still flowing.

The Portland Fresh Hop Tastival is coming up this Saturday, October 8, 2011 at Oaks Park, 12 - 8 PM (there is also a sneak preview Friday night from 5:30 to 8:30).  I've updated the Fresh Hop 2011 Progress Report with my opinions from the Hood River Festival -- when the Oaks Park taplist is published I'll probably put up another progress report annotating the beers that will be on tap Saturday.