Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Abyss

Man, this is a good beer. Deschutes' Abyss Imperial Stout has the heartiness you want in a stout, plus some extra flavor and strength, all kept in balance to make it easy to drink. And the flavor just stays on your tongue. The label could scare you away: "Brewed with licorice and molasses". Whatever licorice is in there just gives a nice edge to the bitterness, without becoming the predominant flavor. There's Dave next door busting the myth that light can shine right through the Abyss.

Last year, there seemed to be plenty of this goodness to go around. At least, Dave always seemed to pull one more bottle out of the fridge. This year, the hype got out of control, and if you didn't have cat-like reflexes -- or have a neighbor with cat-like reflexes -- then you didn't get any. It sold out in about three days, despite the $10 price tag per 22 oz. bottle. I would like to think that it was the GABF gold medal that caused all the hype, but my fear is that the hype came from the "Best Stout in the World" label pinned on it by the tastemeisters at the Men's Journal.

It's even appeared on Ebay already -- sorry, not the beer, just the unopened collectible bottles, since Ebay doesn't generally allow sales of alcohol. [Update: the bottle in the link went for $21.50 plus $10 shipping. The most egregious sales were done with Ebay's "Buy it Now" feature: I counted 8 bottles that went for $45-$50 each plus $10 shipping (assuming they needed to be shipped).] Oh, great, is beer going the way of concert tickets? The day it's released you jockey for a few bottles; if you're lucky you pay a "convenience fee" to get the beers you want; otherwise, you pay a king's ransom to a beer broker who was clever enough to snarf up the bottles. I like the wife-proof packaging of Abyss, but it's really a stretch to say that some wax on top of the bottlecap makes it collectible. Laurelwood's Olde Reliable Barleywine has wax on it; Lucky Lab's Pavlov's Russian Imperial Stout has wax on it, are those bottles collectible? They even look cooler than the Abyss bottle. Are they being scalped on Ebay? Nope.

Speaking of Pavlov's, Dave and I cracked a bottle of that right after the Abyss. Of course, that's a tough act to follow, but we found the Pavlov's to be a little too sweet, almost syrupy, and not very long in the finish. On the plus side, there are a lot of interesting flavors. Even though it didn't compare favorably to the wonderfully balanced Abyss, it would probably make a good dessert beer after a hearty meal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Life Imitates Blog

Hmmm.... Recently I was wishing for the return of a couple of Lucky Labrador IPAs: Triple Threat, and Super Duper Dog. Then Lee chimed in with a comment about how good the Old Yeller Barleywine was when he visited last summer.

Today I went in there to find that Old Yeller and Triple Threat are on tap, and Super Duper Dog is for sale in 22 oz. bottles! Hooray! My wishes have been granted.

Also, my earlier entry sold them short on the number of taps; the board here clearly lists 11 house ales on tap, plus, cask, nitro, and guest taps. Super Duper Dog is only in bottles right now, but the flyer for it at the bar mentions it being on tap for a short time. Maybe that's at one of the other locations -- no one knew about it on Hawthorne today.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What Happened to Greg?

A couple weeks ago, I was raving about Hair of the Dog's one-off Greg, available only at Higgins. I described it as tasting like a strong Belgian Golden, but amber in color, and had a photo of it to boot.

It was quite a surprise to order one yesterday and have it be so totally different. It's the beer on the right -- luckily our friend Lisa went with the cask Wreck the Halls like the beer on the left. Now, I didn't do a great job taking this photograph, but hopefully you can see that the color is much lighter than in the earlier photo, and there is apparently no carbonation. Those things are not necessarily bad in my book, but there was none of the Belgian-y flavor I was expecting -- not much flavor at all, in fact.

A couple weeks ago, they did make a point of saying that the Greg that was on had been in the keg for several months -- they had switched to Hair of the Dog Blue Dot for awhile, so the Gregs just sat around. The Greg that's on now is from a fresh batch, but the variation seems greater to me than just the age. I do recall that the first time I had it (early 2006?), I didn't care for it, then a few months later I tried it again and was surprised at how good it was. Looks like some batches are better than others.

Still worth a try, if you want a beer that can't be had anywhere else. But you might ask for a sample first, to see which Greg you're getting.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

More about Epic

Well, after carping in the last entry about the dart board location at Roots, Dave and I were lucky enough to waltz in for pub night Tuesday evening and get the table under the dartboard. We must be living right. I still wish they had a better location for it.

Dave had the upper hand at darts, but it's hard not to be content with pints of Festivus and a glass of Epic on the table. Turns out the Epic that's on tap right now is not the one brewed and bottled this season, it's the 2006 Epic. I just assumed it would be the new one: thanks to Lindsey for being sharp-eyed enough to figure that one out. Does that mean the Epic they were pouring last year was a year old -- the 2005? We must be living right to have a place like Roots in town.

Carla bought me one of the huge jeroboams of the 2006 last year for my 40th birthday. That's a perfect gift: something I'll open to great fanfare in a few years, but which I never would have bought myself. I remember trying to haggle the price down on the last 2005 Epic jeroboam as it sat on the bar week after week, but they wouldn't budge and I'm too cheap. Interestingly, that 2005 bottle has reappeared on the bar recently, but Jim the bartender says the brewers disagree on whether it was handled carefully enough to still be good. I hope basement storage is careful enough for my 2006. The one that's on tap right now is tasty indeed: smooth and very sweet, with flavors like maple and cherry. I don't really keep mine behind the shovels.

A jeroboam holds 3 liters according to the Internet. The label on this one says 95.4 fluid ounces, which is less than 3 liters, but I'm not complaining. It's still going to take a lot of help to empty that sucker. This year's Epic is bottled in 1.5 liter magnums. That's a good idea, it cuts the price in half (to $40), it's easier to store, it's easier to use up when you eventually open it. Still, the jeroboams were quite a statement -- 10 out of 10 for style, as Zaphod Beeblebrox said. You've got to admire the audacity of it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Always Reliable Lucky Lab

There's an old Trek hybrid bicycle in my garage that I bought used in Austin in early 1996 when both of my bicycles were stolen within the space of a couple of weeks. I needed transportation right away, and it had to be cheap. Our first baby was on the way, and I was on a grad-student stipend with a social-worker wife. Compared to my beautiful stolen mountain bike -- a 1991 Trek 970 -- the hybrid was a dowdy-looking thing with a dull green paint job and (gasp!) grip shifters.

Even though it was my daily transportation for the next six years, the hybrid never got any respect in our house -- oh, that old thing? I finally moved on to a slicker, faster ride. But as the years continue to roll past, it becomes more apparent that the old green hybrid is a crucial part of the fleet. It gets zero maintenance, but when there's a guest in town, or another bike is out of commission for one reason or another, the Trek comes through for us. It's always there in a pinch.

My feelings toward the Lucky Lab have followed a similar trajectory. It starts a little differently, because I never loved that old bike, but I fell in love with the Lab when we first moved here in 2003. I couldn't believe my luck: a pub in the neighborhood that always had something on cask! The neighbors and I would walk the dogs down there almost every Monday evening for Miser Monday. You can bring the kids to a brewpub? Heaven.

Pretty soon there were pubs serving slicker, faster ales in the neighborhood: Roots and the Hedge House (and now the Green Dragon). And the Lab suffered the same loss of respect as the Trek. To tell you the truth, I think the quality did decline for a little while at the Lab sometime in 2005 -- at least that's the consensus among the pub night neighbors. I don't know if something was going on internally, or if it was just one of those things. At some point we switched pub night to Tuesday to catch the cheap night at Roots.

And yet, the Lucky Lab is always reliable. In good weather you'll be lucky to get one of the tiny picnic tables at Roots or one of the few tables at the Hedge House, but the patio at the Lab seats 200 people and 100 dogs (and the patio now has heaters and rain flaps). The Lompoc beer at the Hedge House is tasty, but they don't have 20 oz. pints or cask-conditioned ale like the Lab does. How about darts? Roots has a board, but there's a table underneath it -- how does that make sense? -- so if someone's sitting there, you're off to the dart room at the Lab.

If you had to assign beer rankings, Roots and Hedge House probably come out higher than the Lab. But the Lab seems to have pulled out of the slump it was in: nowadays you'll find something worth drinking every time you go in. The Super Dog IPA is classic; even better a couple times a year when they brew up "Super Duper Dog", which I guess is the Imperial version. Last year they had another great IPA called Triple Threat, I hope it comes back. I also like Crazy Ludwig's Alt, though I suspect it's about three times hoppier than a German Alt. Black Lab Stout is good, especially on cask, but I don't care for the Irish Stout they serve. I had the Hellraiser ESB today, first time I remember having it. Nice and smooth, maybe a little stronger and more bitter than, say, a Young's ESB.

The Lab always has about eight of their own beers on tap, plus a guest tap, plus a nitro tap and the cask engine. So there's more of a variety going than down the street at Roots or Hedge House, though the Green Dragon slams everyone in the variety category. The food is decent and cheap, there's PB & J for the kids, the dogs are happy, and there's lots of bike parking. The Lucky Lab is always there in a pinch.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Winter Beers at Roots

If the Portland winter weather is getting you down, what better to pick you back up than a Portland winter beer? And why not go for something that's so over-the-top, so je-ne-sais-quoi, so what-the-hell-were-they-thinking that you can only get it at your friendly neighborhood brewpub?

By now you realize I'm talking about Roots' Epic Ale. The malt for this beer is smoked over cherrywood soaked in Glenlivet (in Craig's backyard, if I recall correctly), presumably while the brewers smoke cigars they lit with hundred-dollar bills. Dark, smoky, with tons of malt, tons of hops, tons of alcohol (14%), it still manages to be smooth and drinkable. Aged a little in oak.... Truly one-of-a-kind.

Of course, you're not going to drink more than one Epic at a time, so there are a couple more cold-weather seasonals available. Festivus has the characteristic Roots flavor: if you like Roots Island Red, Festivus is like a bigger, darker version of that. They're also pouring a Milk Stout which doesn't really float my boat, but the Imperial Stout is always a winner.

Rumor has it that the brewers burned out last year on the "Six beers of Christmas" quest, and they won't be repeating it this year. Too bad, the Wee Heavy last year was one of the best beers I've ever had. It wasn't as insane and unique as Epic, but it was a beautiful, well-rounded beer. If I remember correctly, a Belgian Trippel was the 6th beer last year; it was good, but not outstanding (maybe a little out of character for Roots).

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Bistro at Higgins

Have you ever been in the right place at the right time? Not often enough? I can help you out. Sit yourself down at the bar at Higgins some lunchtime, or after work, and you'll know without a doubt that you're at the right place, at one of the many possible right times.

Now, Higgins Restaurant is a great place for one of those splurge dinners -- an anniversary divisible by five, a new job -- but the bistro side is reasonably-priced enough for less momentous occasions, such as lunch on a Thursday. The sandwich/salad lunch special is $8.50, and usually consists of some hormone-free meat on homemade bread with homemade pickles, with locally-grown vegetables on the side. If the special doesn't ring your bell, how about a burger from fresh-chopped sirloin, or a homemade pastrami sandwich? The appetizer mussels are a meal unto themselves. Vegetarian? There's a vegan soup every day.

Wait a minute, I thought this was a beer blog.

Let's talk about the beer at Higgins. The bottled beer list rivals their wine list, with an excellent selection of Belgians, and Belgian-y ales like Unibroue and Hair of the Dog.

The draft beer selection is not huge, but is carefully chosen. You know, Quality vs. Quantity. As seen in the picture above, there is always a cask-conditioned selection on the beer engine. Today it was Full Sail's delicious winter warmer Wreck the Halls; for the last few months Full Sail has tended to dominate the beer engine, but it was Deschutes for a few months before that.

There is always a Hair of the Dog selection on tap also. Usually -- like today -- it's a beer which is only available at Higgins: Hair of the Dog's Greg, named for chef/owner Greg Higgins. What was I saying about being in the right place at the right time? That's a pint of Greg in the picture above. The color is amber, but the style is like a strong Belgian Golden Ale: sweet, flowery, long and strong. Secret ingredient: winter squash prepared in the kitchen at Higgins, like the one pictured on top of the Greg tap-handle above. [Update: 2008/01/18: Whoa! Just had a Greg that was nothing like the one described here. Light in color, very flat, not sweet, not flowery, not long... A couple of weeks ago the Greg was from an older keg -- they had gone with Blue Dot instead of Greg for awhile -- but I also wonder if the current batch is not quite right. Not spoiled, but not right. New entry here.] [Update: 2008/03/27: Zowie! Had an awesome Greg today. When it's good, it's very, very good....]

Rotating selections favor local and/or seasonal brews. There's often a Roots or Laurelwood beer on tap, and this winter I've seen Terminal Gravity Fest, Hopworks Abominabale, and Deschutes Jubel; today it was Lucky Lab's Scottish Holiday, Elysian's Bifrost, and Sierra Nevada Celebration. The rest of the taps provide reasonable defaults to those customers who don't spend every waking moment considering their next Oregon beer: Guinness, Chimay, Lindeman's Framboise.

To top it all off, the service is friendly and efficient (both on the bistro side and the restaurant side). No snobbery at all, just the real deal, from food to beer to wine. So, whether you're after the uniqueness of Greg, or the heartiness of a cask Full Sail, or the outlandishness of some obscure De Dolle, pop into the bistro at Higgins and get the most from your Portland lifestyle.