Saturday, December 29, 2007

Oklahoma Christmas Beers

Pub Night took a hiatus last week while we visited family in the zymurgically-challenged state of Oklahoma. The title of this post is a joke, by the way. My holiday beer was Shiner Bock -- more specifically, Shiner Bock that had been dumbed-down to 3.2% ABW for supermarket sale in the Sooner State.

Most Americans are privileged to be able to complain about the bizarre contortions of their state's liquor laws. Maybe not you Louisianans -- do you even have liquor laws? But you can't beat Oklahoma, where beer above 3.2% alcohol content by weight can only be sold at liquor stores. Bars with a full liquor license can serve stronger beer, but -- get this -- not brewpubs.

Now, 3.2% isn't the complete disaster it sounds like, because it translates to about 4% by volume, which is the way alcohol content is reported by most people. But it's no wonder that there's not much of a local brewing industry, with an extremely low limit like that. It seems like the Indian tribes could get into the brewpub business and avoid the 3.2 limit -- they've got casinos right in the city limits of Tulsa now -- but maybe it's kind of taboo given the history of alcohol and Native Americans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Where to Find Ninkasi in Portland

Pub night last night was at the Nine Muses Acoustic Pub, a folk-musicy hangout on Belmont. The attraction? They have six Ninkasi beers on tap!

[Update 2009/04/07: Alas, Nine Muses is no more. The new place, Duke's Landing, does not look very auspicious. Big Bud Light banners fly outside, and today instead of tables out on the patio, there was a very sketchy-looking secondhand sale.]

I haven't been to Ninkasi's headquarters in Eugene, but I well remember my first taste of their beer. My neighbor Lindsey got me to go to the pre-brewfest Brewers' Dinner in 2006, and the knockout beer served that night was a Ninkasi IPA. "Where is this brewery, and what's with the Japanese name?" Turns out the name is ancient Sumerian, and the beers keep knocking me out.

So Dave and I were excited when Corey alerted us to the wealth of Ninkasi waiting for us just a few blocks from home. The Nine Muses is in an old house that used to be the beloved -- if dumpy and stinky -- neighborhood video rental place. They fixed it up pretty nicely, it's a comfortable place. Too smoky for me to be a regular there, but at least it's not the Horsebrass level of smoke. And I can definitely picture myself outside at one of the picnic tables come summer.

We started off with a Tricerahops, the full and flowery IIPA, which is sold in a 10 oz. glass due to its 9.5% strength. Of course we had to have a Believer, the dark and delicious double red ale. And somewhere along the way was a Total Domination, another fine IPA. Oh, that Tricerahops is nice. The other ones they have on tap right now are the Oatis Oatmeal Stout, Schwag Light Lager, and (embarrassment) something I can't remember, Pale Ale maybe?

They had a few other respectable brews on tap, Lompoc Strong Draft (get it? hippie pub? LSD? hahaha), Bridgeport Hop Harvest (good move!), and a couple of Fearless beers.

Other places to get Ninkasi

The Green Dragon, being the guardians of good taste that they are, usually has a Ninkasi on tap, a couple weeks ago it was Believer. Non-smoking!

The Horsebrass usually has one or two on tap, if you're lucky they'll have one on cask. Had a cask Believer there during the summer. News flash: had some cask-conditioned Tricerahops there on 2007/12/20! All the pretty flowers, a little less sweet than the regular.

The Blue Monk had Oatis on tap, 2008/01/18. Non-smoking.

Every few months I torment myself by going to Henry's Tavern at 12th and Burnside. How can they have such a respectable beer list, but no one waiting tables knows a single thing about beer? That includes what quantity of beer you are ordering. "Is that served in a pint glass?" "Oh, yes." And here he or she comes back with a little round glass. The bar staff seems to think anything stronger than a "Hef" has to go in a little glass. Still, they seem to keep one or two Ninkasi beers on tap, if you don't mind a small serving.

Ninkasi's MySpace blog now has a list of Portland Ninkasi taps.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Holiday Ale Festival 2007

Only about two weeks late, I wanted to capture my thoughts on this year's Holiday Ale Festival in Portland. That's my neighbor, Jill, enjoying the festivities with Santa Claus.

Carla and I got there pretty close to opening time on Thursday, before everyone got all cheek-by-jowl and belly-to-belly, and we had a great time. I went back Friday afternoon to fill in a few gaps and hang out with the neighbors, but the crowd was so dense at that point that it was a little less enjoyable. Still a good vibe, just too much of it.

The notes I take at these festivals are telegraphic, to say the least, usually three words or less for each beer. Not Pulitzer Prize-winning words, either; sometimes just a "Nah", or an "Awesome" -- which is all I could think of to say about my favorite from Thursday, a blend of Hair of the Dog beers called Jim II. On Thursday I had the presence of mind to keep a ranking of my favorites, which were:

  • Hair of the Dog: Jim II (Specialty Blend): "Awesome".
  • Double Mountain: Fa La La La La (Winter Ale): "Most excellent, hoppy & big".
  • Caldera: Cauldron Brew '07 (Dry-Hopped Strong Ale): "Carla says almost perfect. Flat carbonation, tasty".
  • New Old Lompoc: Brewdolph (Belgian Specialty): "Really good, candy".
  • Ninkasi: Otis (Oatmeal Stout): "Delicious".
  • Deschutes: 2007 Oak-Aged Jubel (Winter Warmer): "Not disappointing".
Hmmm... Where would that Jubel fit in the ratings of the 5-year vertical described in an earlier entry? It might have been slightly better than the regular 2007 -- which I like a lot -- then again, how much greatness can you get from aging in oak for only 2 months?

I skipped Roots' Festivus and Full Sail's Wreck the Halls at the festival, since I've already "sampled" them this year. They probably would have landed somewhere around New Old Lompoc in the rankings above. They're awesome beers.

Hey, is Ninkasi trying to make fun of Hair of the Dog, giving their beer a man's name with only four letters in it? Speaking of which, what's with HotD's "Jim"? I'm surprised they didn't keep up the four-letter pattern by calling it Jimi.

Now for some notes from Friday. These aren't as -- ahem -- scientific as the ones above, but there are some beers worth mentioning, though they're not listed in order of preference like the ones above. For the simple reason that I can't remember that order.

  • Lagunitas: Oaked Brown Shugga (Strong Ale): "Awesome". My poetry shines through again.
  • Hopworks: Organic Kentucky Christmas (Winter Ale): "Quite good".
  • Rogue: Santa's Private Reserve (Double-hopped Red Ale): "Quite good". The language skills are really breaking down at this point.
  • Pyramid: Dry-hopped Snow Cap (Winter Ale): "Very good, flavorful". It's easy for us snobs to dismiss Pyramid beers, but I like Snow Cap pretty well.
  • Pelican: Bad Santa (Black IPA): "Really good, like rauchbier".
  • Sierra Nevada: 20th Street Ale (Fresh Hop Ale!): "Better than the Harvest Ale. Malty and full."
I was glad to get that 20th Street, it was a last shot at fresh hops, in a year when I went off the deep end. (Actually, Matias gave me some bottles of his homegrown, homebrew fresh hop, so it hasn't ended yet!) I didn't care for Sierra Nevada's Harvest Ale this year, but the 20th Street was a special batch, with hops from their own garden. It just seemed fuller and better, with more of the fresh hop aroma.

There were some other pretty good beers, and there were five of them that I had to put in the dungeon. Since the internet is forever, I don't want to name names, but I can at least share the comments for the bad ones:

  • "Nah". But I already told you that one.
  • "A little disappointing". This is a winter beer I usually like.
  • "No way, tainted".
  • "Not too long. A little bland, but bitter". Ouch. Bitter usually means good for me.
  • "Not so good".
Man, all this writing makes me thirsty.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Jubel Vertical Tasting, 2007

Last night we had our annual vertical tasting of Deschutes' Jubel Ale. This being our fifth winter in Portland, we had five different years of Jubel to try.

Before going into the details, some history. In the winter of 2003, we had only been living in Portland a few months, but we already had a regular neighborhood pub night going, usually Mondays at the Lucky Lab. My next door neighbor, Dave, was excited when that year's Jubel Ale came out, and after a taste (or two or three) I understood his point of view. It's a delicious, dark, sweet, spicy winter brew.

Dave and I were buying cases of it at a time, and somehow it got into my head that I would save a case every year, and every year break out a six-pack from earlier years, to keep a five-year "beer ladder" going. There have been ups and downs with that program -- the case of 2004 I put down seems especially terrible -- but in my stubbornness I have persisted, and here we are in 2007 with five different years to try.

The 2003 Jubel Ale certainly seemed to be a standout, and each year it still is one of the best-tasting. I have high hopes for 2007, it seems to me to be at least as good as 2003. And the 2006, which didn't drive anyone wild when it was fresh, tasted very good this year after aging for a year. One reason the 2004 might be bad is that I bought refrigerated 12-packs and then stashed them in the basement. Last year we decided "ferrous" was the best word to describe it. It tastes like iron, or blood, or a mouthfull of pennies.

Being the lazy blogger that I am, I invited dozens of people over for the vertical tasting, and put out sheets of paper for them to mark their comments on. That way, all I have to say is that I rank them in this way: 2003, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004. Surprisingly, at least some of the tasters this year liked the 2004. I'm not ashamed to say that I thought it tasted as bad as ever.

Here are the anonymous, sometimes dubious, but often insightful comments of this year's tasters:

  • More stoutish
  • A bit sweet, molasses, rich
  • Porter/stouty, like mushroom hunting in the fog
  • Smooth, cherry(?), balanced hops
  • Nutty, sweet... chestnut essence
  • Super full flava
  • Sweet! (Dude!) Sweet! (Dude!)
  • My favorite
  • Silky smooth pajama
  • Sweet, nutty, but with a bite at the end
  • Tastes like a tree, or sap, a little molasses or tar
  • Flat, metallic, spoiled
  • Bitter -- not so good
  • Fruity, light metallic, similar to '05
  • Sweeter
  • Butter love
  • Flat -> in a good way
  • No bitterness/Not too sweet
  • S'allright
  • S'right
  • Spicy -- a bit metallic(a)
  • Hoppyish taste -- more "fresh" tasting
  • Bitterish
  • "Middle of the batch" tonight -- not notable but OK
  • Crispy critter
  • Sweet, chocolate-like
  • The winner according to Gypsy
  • Like the '04 but sweeter, smoky like the sausage
  • Whole lotta hop
  • Definitely hoppier than previous years
  • Tinny taste
  • Effervescent
  • Big opening flavor, mellows with a slight bitterness
  • Smoooth butt

  • Tastes brand new, not as complex as other years, but kinda easier to drink
  • Good balance of hop and malt, but lost the spices
  • Clean tasting -- distinct flavors -- balanced
  • Thick but still hoppier than the old school '03
  • Simpleton

So there you have it. I don't know what to make of "smoooth butt" or "simpleton", but generally you get an idea of peoples' opinions of the different years. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hop Harvest Beers 2007

My humble blogging start was a maneuver called "guest blogging" on my buddy Lee's blog. He was kind enough to let me write not one, not two, not three, but four posts about this year's fresh-hop beers around Portland.

It seems pretty lame to me to blog under someone else's marquee (though others have proposed that it's the best way to blog), so I'll start putting my beer scribblings on my own blog.

[Update: 2008/05/23]: Here are the original posts, in reading order, not backwards-blog-time order. I've added a little linkage and changed punctuation and formatting just a little.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Well, it's starting to rain again, so I guess we'll see less sun for the next, oh, nine months.

But this time of year has its reward: fresh hop beers. I hadn't heard of such a thing when we first got here, but now I await it eagerly every fall. The idea is, the brewer goes out to some farmer's place and gets some hops right after they're harvested, and throws them into the beer the very same day. It's a distinctively different taste, you get the nice bitter hop flavor, but also something herbal or vegetable-y on top of that.

I got caught off guard this year, Roots was the first place I saw it, Tuesday night when Dave and I headed over there for some darts. Their Hop-o-pottamus (what a name) was very much in character, it was one of their hearty, strong ales, it might remind you of Roots Red. Good stuff.

The next day Bridgeport was scheduled to release their Hop Harvest, so I took a chance and walked over there for lunch. They weren't going to serve it until 4, but luckily I overheard one of the employees talking about it to someone, and when I pestered him about it he took me upstairs and gave me a small sample. From that sample, my impression was that it was very competently done, but maybe not quite as tasty as what they had last year. They took a chance this year, and made a stronger (7%) ale, almost an Imperial IPA. I'll give it another chance and see if it tastes better in a bigger glass. Lee, you might look around Austin for this, they're selling some in 22 oz. bottles for the first time.

Well, since I had two days in a row of fresh hop beers, I went to Laurelwood's NW location yesterday (Thursday) to see if they had their version yet, but was disappointed. Apparently they do have it on the eastside.

Today I headed over to the Rogue brewpub for lunch, and they had just tapped their Hop Heaven. This was much more classic than Bridgeport's, and I'll probably try to soak up more of it while it lasts. Maybe you can even get bottles of this outside Oregon?

So, to paraphrase Meatloaf, 3 out of 4 ain't bad. Next week I'll pop into the New Old Lompoc to check theirs out (that's the same brewery as Hedge House), and Lucky Lab should have theirs pretty soon. I may even break down and go to Rock Bottom, since they have one on tap right now. Next month there is a mini-festival of fresh hop beers at the McMenamin's in Troutdale, I'll see if I can scare up a posse for that. Deschutes (Bend, OR) makes one called Hop Trip every year, with any luck I'll find that on tap somewhere.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Saturday evening the missus and I were downtown and happened into the bar at Higgins, and found that their cask beer was Full Sail's fresh hop ale -- guessing it's the one they calll Lupulin Ale. Perfect. This is the flavor I was looking for: a little sweet, hoppy and flowery with a little extra green flavor. A little flat and not-too-cold from the cask, just beautiful. The best one I've had this year, and I'll have to hit it a few more times before I'm satisfied.

Sunday I convinced the neighbors to join me at the Lucky Lab, where they have The Mutt on tap, named after the 4 different varieties of fresh hops. It was interesting, a little bit tart like a rye or even some wheat beers, but we found it disappointing. Not much flavor, so you had to concentrate really hard to pick up the fresh hop aroma. I notice they have a couple other varieties they will show at the festival, so I'm holding out hope that one of those will redeem the Lab.

Monday I pounced on the New Old Lompoc and was surprised to find that they were pouring two different fresh hop beers. The Star of India IPA was a winner -- strong hops, but with that nice grassy flavor. The other one was a dark, strong (7.8%) beer called Harvest Man, which they described as an Alt. It was delicious, especially after it warmed up a little, but I felt like the fresh hops were wasted on such a big beer. There was just so much to it, that you wouldn't notice the herbal notes unless you already knew they were there. As Joe Walsh said, I can't complain but sometimes I still do.

Tuesday we went for lunch to the Laurelwood on the east side, and tried their fresh hop Extra Pale. Good stuff, but didn't have the green herbal flavor I was looking for. Might have been because it had a ton of hops in it; if you're a hop-head you won't be disappointed to drink one. It seemed similar to Bridgeport's offering -- high quality but lacking a little pizazz.

Speaking of Bridgeport, I really have to sit down with a pint of theirs, since my small sample didn't do it justice. But I was thwarted Friday evening when I tried to pick up a half-gallon of the Bridgeport fresh hop ale at the Bridgeport pub on Hawthorne. A gal who looked like she might be the pub manager said their "policy" is to only fill their own growlers (I had an unmarked mason jar). Stupid policy -- here's a guy who wants to spend $10 and tip the bartender, and you don't even have to wash a glass or wipe a table. They lost more than $10 business on that one, because I'll skip a few lunches after that.

I'll see if I can keep my streak going a little longer -- that's 8 different fresh-hop beers in 7 days. If I run out of new ones to try, I can always drink up more Full Sail.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My fresh hop streak is continuing, a new one each day, though I did have to resort to bottled beer a couple of times. That's OK, one of the bottles was a big winner, my second-favorite harvest beer this year.

Wednesday I boldly ventured into the chain brewpub, Rock Bottom. The Hop Harvest beer there was drinkable, within the range of what I'm looking for. I almost had to report that their Hop Harvest was way off the mark, just a normal IPA, because when I asked for the fresh-hop beer, I was served just a normal IPA. I guess there aren't enough beer geeks to fill all the wait-staff positions at big corporate operations.

Thursday I finally broke down and had to experiment with a bottle from Hale's Brewing in Seattle, their O'Brien's Harvest Ale. Hale's usually has great stuff, and this was no exception. Lots of flavor -- what do I taste there, charbroiled steak? No, I guess it's just a pretty dark, caramely malt, maybe some yeast flavor, and there just on top is the flowery fresh-hop. Very tasty, and I'll have it again, but this time of year I like the green hops to be the star of the show, not a supporting actor.

Friday I grabbed a Geschwills Golden Ale at the Widmer Gasthaus. Uh oh, "golden ale", isn't that secret code for "if you don't like beer, you'll be able to choke this one down"? This was pretty bland, I didn't really get much of the fresh hop aroma. I was hoping for better.

Saturday was Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale. It's in 6-packs, but I tried it on tap. A little bit of hop bitterness, but none of the exciting greenness I wanted. Put it in the same category as Widmer.

Hmmm.... Sounds like things are tapering off, have I already been through all the good ones? Luckily, Sunday's experiment restored my faith in the fresh-hop spirits. A bottle again, but a good one, 22 ounces of Deschutes' Hop Trip. Of everything so far, this is second only to Full Sail in my opinion for nailing the style. Honey sweet, fresh flowery hops, Hop Trip was what I was looking for.

I'm going to try desperately to keep the streak going for 5 more days, then Saturday there is a "Fresh Hop Tastival" that will be the icing on the cake.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Well, it looked like my mission had finally petered out. Monday was rather lame, I tried different presentations of beers I had already had. The Full Sail Lupulin on CO2 instead of cask; finally a reasonable quantity of Bridgeport Hop Harvest, from a bottle. Full Sail: excellent, though not as much so as the cask variety; Bridgeport: a fine beer, but doesn't quench my thirst for that grassy fresh-hop flavor.

Tuesday, fighting the smoke at the Horsebrass, got to taste Ninkasi's Ceridwen Harvest Lager. Now, Ninkasi beers are usually musclebound bruisers that make you beg for more punishment. A light lager is a little out of character for them. The waitress tried to steer me away from it, she said, "It's like the best Budweiser you ever had". Simile is a great way to describe things, and I think she nailed it. Very well done, but why the hell would you waste your freshly harvested hops on a light lager?

Wednesday, I can't even claim to be on track any more. The best I could do was a few cask Lupulins at Higgins before the George Jones concert.

Thursday, it looks like Monday all over again. The Full Sail Pilsener Room, trying beers on tap that I already had in bottles: Deschutes Hop Trip and Hales O'Brien's Harvest Ale (the menu calls it a Fresh Hop ESB). I was prepared to gloss over Monday's lapse, and pretend like Wednesday never happened, but this looks like the final nail in the coffin. Fortunately, the bartender asked me which one was better, and when I pointed at the Lupulin cask handle, he told me that the Lupulin cask had been replaced with a Harvest beer from Hopworks.

Hark, are those angels singing to me? The quest is alive for one more day! Hopworks is a Southeast brewpub that hasn't even opened yet; a few places have their IPA, but I couldn't believe it when he pumped out a reddish-orange pint of their fresh hop beer. This is an awesome beer -- I'd say it bridges the gap between the sweeter, lighter beers I crave each year, and the people who try to make a strong, bitter harvest ale. It's got the flavor, it's got the color, plus a little bit of extra bitterness. [Update: 2008/05/23]: A couple days later, there was a label on that Hopworks cask that just said "Hopworks IPA", which does have a grassy, "fresh" flavor. So I'm not 100% sure that this was truly a fresh-hop offering.

Then, as the icing on the cake, he gave me a tiny taste of Bridgeport's "firkin-style" Harvest Ale. The night before the Bridgeport people had been in and served it out of a barrel just by sticking a nozzle in and letting gravity do the work, no pumping or pressure. The bartender saved a pint overnight, so it was pretty flat, but it was awesome. I don't know if the firkins are from a different batch than the rest of Bridgeport's Hop Harvest, but this was sweeter and with more fresh flavor than what I tried on tap or from a bottle.

Friday I was able to try Killer Green from a new Hood River brewery, Double Mountain. This was an awesome beer in the same vein as the Hopworks from Thursday, with the fresh flavor but on the bitter side. Smooth and almost creamy.

Saturday I crossed the finish line for my marathon, by attending the Fresh Hop Tastival at McMenamin's Edgefield. Sadly, a number of the beers that were listed on OregonLive were not at the festival: nothing from Ninkasi, Amnesia, Standing Stone, Mia and Pia's, Raccoon Lodge, or Calapooia; none of the alternate beers from Deschutes or Lucky Lab. What the hell, that's a lot of gaps! Still, I got to try 6 or 7 beers that I hadn't had yet. Golden Valley's beer was in the acceptable range. Pelican's Elemental Ale was really good, but the fresh hop flavor got submerged by all the other flavor and nutrition -- the beer was thick and a completely opaque light-gold color. The only one I hadn't tried that lit a fire under me was from Mt. Hood Brewing, they had the style down.

Final verdict: My three favorites this year are Full Sail's Lupulin Ale, Deschutes Hop Trip, and whatever Hopworks calls theirs. Runners up are Double Mountain, Rogue Hop Heaven, and Mt. Hood. Excellent beers that I fault a little for lacking or hiding the green hop taste: New Old Lompoc's Harvest Man, Hale's O'Brien's Harvest Ale, Bridgeport's Hop Harvest, Pelican's Elemental Ale.