Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gregwatch: March 2008

In the past, I've lauded Greg -- the one-of-a-kind Hair of the Dog ale at Higgins -- and I've panned it. This beer is art: some batches are excellent, some are almost undrinkable.

The batch that was on today was awesome. It has the delicious Belgian yeast flavor, a hearty amber color, and a delightful light carbonation. As Charlie -- the Higgins bistromeister -- says, "the only beer in the world with a gray head".

Today was something of a swan song for me; I'm giving up my downtown office to work from home. Not that I'll never luncheon at Higgins again, but I'll not have an easy stroll there and back from my office.

Some of the other winners on tap at Higgins today are the delicious Hopworks Pale Ale, Ninkasi Soulstice, and Full Sail Slipknot on cask. To top it off, while I was sitting at the bar, a new keg was delivered from Lucky Lab, the Double Alt that John Foyston was just writing about. I'm not sure how they scored one of those. I had a taste. To be honest, there was a little bit of a chemical (disinfectant?) taste to it; I prefer the original Crazy Ludwig's Alt that this is based on. Still, if you want a never-before-never-again beer experience, get to Higgins or the Quimby Street Lucky Lab quickly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hooray for Hopworks!

Procrastination makes the world go 'round. I'm not really accusing Hopworks Urban Brewery of procrastinating, but when Christian Ettinger's pub finally opened yesterday after a year of delays, it definitely drew a crowd. Hundreds of people pressed together drinking beer -- it was like the Holiday Beer Fest with glass mugs instead of plastic. Maybe that's why a keg of Kentucky Christmas was on tap.

We've been getting a taste of Hopworks beer for quite a while now, starting with the classic IPA. Then the winter warmer Abominabale was out at a few places, and more recently it's been possible to find the Lager and the Deluxe Organic Ale around town. HUB is part of the talented Class of '07 Oregon breweries, so expectations were high as we elbowed our way into the grand opening of Hopworks' pub for our Tuesday Pub Night. We were not disappointed, the beers were amazingly good.

Lindsey was executing the Beerfest-inspired maneuver of "get beer; get back in line" when I arrived, so I had a taste of his Kentucky Christmas (bourbon-aged Abominabale, I think) while we waited in line. Dave showed up in time to get in on that first round; miraculously we snagged a booth and crammed in there with Brett and Chris when they showed up. With that kind of manpower, we were able to run through the beers on tap:
  • Seven Grain Stout: smooth and rich, with coffee and chocolate flavors
  • Crosstown Pale: floral and pretty, maybe even tastier than the IPA
  • El Diablo: a Belgian golden ale, strong and delicious
  • Cultivator Doppelbock: sweet and malty, right on
  • Kentucky Chrismas: warm and tasty
  • HUB Lager: I'm not a fan of the style, but it was very drinkable
  • IPA: full-bodied, flavorful, classic Portland IPA
  • DOA: good as always
  • Velvet ESB: smooth but a little unremarkable
The IPA has quickly become a well-loved Portland staple, but as good as the HUB IPA is, the first four beers in the list were the big winners at our table. That's four pretty distinct styles, and they were all right on target -- we were astonished that Christian and his assistant brewer Ben Love were able to capture the styles so well. In particular, I almost always wrinkle my nose at micro-brewed doppelbocks, because I can't get that candy-beer taste of Paulaner Salvator out of my mind. But Cultivator -- while not a Salvator clone -- had the sweetness, the roastiness, but not the bad aftertaste that seems to come with U.S. doppelbocks. We complimented Christian on the smoothness of it, and he said, "yeah, it's got some age on it", which Brett interpreted for us to mean that it had been lagering for a long time.

Similarly, El Diablo nailed the Belgian style. Being true to style is one thing, but that's a minor consideration -- the most important thing is that it was delicious, and even "I hate Belgians" Dave was smacking his lips. I really can't think of one defect to report about El Diablo.

In addition to the beers listed above, there were two cask engines, one with DOA and one with IPA. Both are excellent on cask. I mentioned the glass mugs above: honest pint sticklers will be pleased to note that the Hopworks mugs have a 0.4 liter mark on them, about 3/4 inch below the top. Google informs me that 0.4 liters is about 13.5 fluid ounces, so we're probably looking at a 14 or 15 ounce pour here. But the point is, you know what you're getting.

Christian and Ben were working the taps and tables right up until closing time. That's Christian chatting with Lindsey in this photograph (and that's the back of Ben's head). The pub has a great atmosphere -- it will be a little more comfortable when it's a regular-sized crowd -- with high ceilings and a good mixture of booths and tall tables. There is lots of room at the bar, and lots of interesting spaces: an open loft with pinball machines; a semi-private 8-person cubbyhole table complete with a gas lamp overhead; patio areas on the side and in the back. Kids are welcome in the restaurant area and the loft.

For more information on Hopworks, check out John Foyston's recent writeup. Jeff Alworth has some better pictures than I do; I forgot my camera and just did the cellphone thing. It's really exciting to have HUB in the neighborhood, after so much anticipation. It's nice to see that it was worth the wait, they've created a nice space and fantastic beers.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cask Beers at the Horsebrass

Carla makes me take my clothes off and leave them on the side porch whenever I come home from the Horsebrass. Then I dash naked to the shower, and scrub myself from head to toe. I don't even take off my glasses, because if I don't wash them with soap, I spend the next couple days sniffing around trying to figure out what part of my body or clothing I failed to purge of cigarette smoke.

Despite the unbreathable air, the Horsebrass is a national treasure. A beautiful standing beer list, plus a dozen or so well-chosen rotating taps, usually including three cask conditioned ales. Five dartboards, authentic pub grub, a Rogue beer named after the proprietor's brother (Younger's Special Bitter).... It's worth an occasional brush with lung cancer to bask in such pub glory. This weekend's cask festival was a great excuse to brave the smoke at the Horsebrass. Dave and I headed down there Friday evening; we sat down with Brian, a mustachioed chap that I seem to run into at all of these festivals nowadays. Matias joined us a little later.

The Horsebrass published a list of 21 cask beers, so it was a little disappointing to arrive and find that only 6 of them were available at a time. Not that we were going to run the table with 10-ounce sample sizes, but six cask-conditioned beers felt a little paltry considering that any day of the week you can walk in and find three cask selections. Oh well. The ones we were able to try were tasty indeed:
  • Walking Man: Big Phat Homo Erectus Double IPA: awesome, sweet, hoppy
  • Double Mountain: Oak-Aged India Red Ale: sweet and nice, honey-flavored
  • Laurelwood: Deranger Imperial Red Ale: sweet, thick, hoppy
  • Hopworks: Deluxe Old Ale: very nice, nicer than CO2
  • Bridgeport: Hop Harvest Imperial IPA: good, but still too much dry hops
  • Deschutes: Jubel Ale: subdued, caramely
A word of explanation on Hopworks and Bridgeport. I've had the Hopworks DOA on regular draft at Higgins a couple of times: it's a nice strong ale, much more malty than hoppy. It's always good, but this cask version was even better. As for the Bridgeport, it's really a fine brew, but I can't suppress my disappointment that the fresh hops are completely dominated by the dry hops in the flavor. This goes back to my fresh hop obsession from last fall. The Bridgeport was served firkin-style -- that is, the beer wasn't pumped out, it just poured out from a spigot. The Walking Man may have been done the same way. I didn't see a huge difference between them and the hand-pumped ales; I'm not sure firkins are something to get especially worked up about.

What about the beers we missed? It was quite a blow not to get to try Lagunitas Maximus or Hairy Eyeball on cask (especially for Dave), and I wanted to get a taste of Ft. George's Cavatica Bourbon Barrel Stout, which I've had on CO2 at the Green Dragon. The promised Ninkasi selections were part of the attraction for me, but at least I've been fortunate enough to have Tricerahops and Believer on cask at the Horsebrass in the past. Even so, I'm sad to have missed them, especially since the Tricerahops lined up for the fest appears to be a special dry-hopped version. I also would have liked to try Dick's Porter or Barley Wine on cask, and the Mt. Hood Pittock Wee Heavy. Mt. Hood Brewing always surprises me with the quality of their beers, though the last time I tried their Wee Heavy -- at the Horsebrass, of course -- it wasn't exactly what I hoped for.

All in all, another great pub night with some one-of-a-kind beers. Don your oxygen masks, and go forth to the Horsebrass!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

More Austin Pubs

The brewpub scene in Austin has seen its ups and downs over the 15 years since legalization, with a particularly low point being the murder of the pioneering Waterloo Brewing back in 2001. Apparently the tavern/church ratio isn't as favorable to pubs as it is in Oregon, and entrepreneurs tend to start small breweries instead of brewpubs: Real Ale, Live Oak, and Independence are quality craft brewers in Central Texas with a good distribution to finer establishments.

On my latest trip to Austin, I paid my first visit to a relatively new brewpub -- about a year old -- Uncle Billy's Brew and Que on Barton Springs Road. It's a welcome development to see a brewpub open south of the river. The place has a great atmosphere, most of the front open to the street, and a huge patio out back with its own bar. The house beers when I was there were:
  • Back 40 Blonde
  • Haystack Hefe
  • Organic Amber
  • Ax Handle Pale
  • Bitchin' Camaro
  • Bengal Bout Stout
I had the Ax Handle Pale, it was a decent enough dry-hopped ale. Bitchin' Camaro was the "hop" seasonal, but it registered pretty low on my own personal hop-o-meter, I didn't care for it. If the house beers don't grab you, they also have a few Real Ale and Live Oak taps, plus a Saint Arnold's and an Independence.

On Sunday, while we waited for the Draught House to open, Lance and I checked out the Flying Saucer -- not a brewpub, but a recently-opened beer bar. I have a built-in bias against corporate chain pubs like this, but I'll give the Flying Saucer credit for one thing: our waitress was friendly and could converse intelligently about the beers. That doesn't always happen at chain places -- Henry's Tavern and Rock Bottom, I'm looking at you -- so kudos to the Saucer for that. The beer list is certainly large, a couple hundred beers, with 50 or 60 on tap. But it's a tour de force, there's something soulless about the selection. Only a single Lagunitas, the bottled IPA? Only Full Sail Session stubbies and a couple of Rogues to represent Oregon? Come on, you can get three flavors of Widmer in the grocery store in Austin. Even the regional selection was a little thin: for instance, only two Saint Arnolds, and none of the new Shiner recipes. Sure they've got Hoegaarden, but why not make the local connection and also serve the resurrected Celis White, or Pierre Celis' Grotten Brown? The bright spot was that they did have a good selection from Real Ale; I enjoyed the Phoenixx Double ESB, it was fruity and malty and just slightly bitter.

After the Flying Saucer, Lance and I headed to Billy's on Burnet (that's prounounced "burn it" for you non-Austinites, not "burr net"). I applaud this trend of naming pubs after me; Austin is bully for Billy. I'm pretty sure there's no direct relationship between Uncle Billy's and Billy's on Burnet . Billy's is the latest brainchild of Billy Forrester, who also had a hand in Waterloo Brewing and the Dog and Duck. No confusing Billy's with a corporate chain, it has a relaxed, unpolished atmosphere. There are about 20 beers on tap, mostly locals plus a few wimpy downstream brews for the unlearned. There's a couple of dartboards and a pool table inside, but the weather was perfect for the outside picnic tables, so we headed out there, where I sipped on a tasty Live Oak Big Bark Amber. If you're hungry, Billy's greasy-spoon fare has a good reputation among the, er, greasy-spoon cognoscenti.

Although I didn't make it to the North by Northwest brewpub on this trip, it bears mentioning as another good beer spot in Austin. It's more of a restaurant than a pub, but if you are in the northwest part of town it's definitely worth a visit. Still, if I could make only one stop in Austin, it would be the Draught House every time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Draught House, Austin

I found myself in Austin last weekend, not for the South by Southwest festival, but for a friend's wedding. A wedding on Leap Day, another on the Ides of March... I wonder why none of my friends is getting married on April Fool's Day or 9/11. The wedding was lovely, and it was great to visit old friends and fortify myself with Tex-Mex food and a dip in Barton Springs. It was also great to sit outside on a breezy spring day and drink some beer. My friend Lance took me on a Burnet Road pub crawl that ended up at my favorite Austin pub, the Draught House.

It's been a respectable beer bar for decades, but I didn't start going there until the late '90's. A change of ownership had required the new owners at that time to change the name, so they swapped one letter on the sign and called the place the Draught Horse. When they changed the name back to the original "House" a few years ago, it completely flummoxed me, and if I want to invite someone to go there, I just have to say both names because I can't seem to remember which name is current.

It was during the Horse era that they started brewing their own beers, and our regular Austin Pub Night was Thursdays, when the horse -- er, house brews were just $1.75 for a 22 ounce hefeweizen glass. How's that for an honest pint? It was a pleasant 2-mile bike ride through the neighborhood for me, then we would drink our beer out in the parking lot with dozens of other tailgaters because the pub itself was so smoky. This was real craft beer, endearingly inconsistent. Sometimes it was amazingly good, other times embarrassingly bad. But in the bad times, the Draught Horse offered a safety net that I haven't seen at any other brewpub: sixty guest taps. Good ones, lots of classic imports: a couple Paulaners, two or three Spatens, and Newcastle, to name a few.

Things change, of course, but many of the changes at the Draught House are for the better. A city ordinance dragged them kicking and screaming into the smoke-free world, and they added outdoor seating, though tailgating is still a popular option. The guest taps still include plenty of good imports, but also more and more interesting beers from Texas and the rest of the U.S. On the downside, that $1.75 price is long gone, and I was disappointed on this visit to find the 22-ounce glasses had been replaced with 16-ounce fake-imperial-pints (like at Laurelwood). I'm pretty sure they still had the 22-ouncers when I went there last November, so that's a pretty new development.

They've also been tinkering with their house offerings, if my visit yesterday was any indication. I expected to see familiar choices like the Vanilla Porter, or Bedell's Best Brown, or with any luck, the Weizenbock or Marley's Gnarley Barleywine. But I didn't recognize any of the names: Hop Gold, Red Planet, and a Brown and a Pale that I didn't recognize the names of (or write them down). That's OK, I'm up for something new, so I tried the Red Planet and was quite impressed. It was a very hoppy Red Ale, and was easily the best Texas beer I had over the weekend -- I almost thought I was back in Portland. It reminded me of Lagunitas Imperial Red, and was that hoppy, but not quite as heavy -- maybe like if you crossed the Lagunitas with a Laurelwood Red. I'll take Red Planet's ascension as a good omen for the future of the Draught House.

Writing about the Draught Horse/House really brings up a wealth of great memories for me. I won't bore you with talk of the pizza-roll guy, stopping at Ginny's to listen to Dale Watson (website), or peeing off of a little-known footbridge on the way home. But I will recommend a trip to the Draught House if you're ever in Austin. Oh, and one more thing: don't drink more than one Weizenbock.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Block 15: First Taste

Block 15 is a new brewpub in Corvallis, just opened this year. The Green Dragon gave us a first taste of three of their beers Tuesday night as part of their Meet the Brewers series. Aboriginale, whose business card is pictured here, was my favorite of the three. Purists may balk, since it isn't brewed to a particular style, but those of us who just want a tasty beer will be satisfied with a strong Northwestern Ale like this. The dry-hopping adds a really nice touch, there's a lot of flowery aroma in it. I'd like to have this beer again sometime: I hope they took enough notes -- and have enough hops -- to be able to brew something close to it again.

Fat Monk Dubbel was Block 15's Belgian-styled offering. Here's where it comes in handy to try things at the Green Dragon -- they're likely to have other beers of the same style flowing to compare to. Brett got a glass of Double Mountain's Little John Dubbel; I only had sips of both, but I liked Block 15's better. That's no mean feat, Double Mountain brews some great stuff -- they're part of the charmed class of '07, after all. Fat Monk probably won't blow you away, especially if you already have a favorite Abbey Ale, but it was true to style, with a nice esthery taste.

The Printmaster Pale Ale -- the name comes from the brewery's location in an old newspaper building -- was decent enough, but certainly wasn't breaking any new ground. Of course, drinking a pint of big hoppy Aboriginale first is a little unfair, the lighter ale just can't compete.

Sadly, I got to the pub a little too late to actually meet the brewers; John Foyston must have gotten there on time, because he has a better-illustrated and more people-oriented write-up. Fellow Pub Nighters Lindsey and Brett also talked to the brewers a bit; they report that the hop shortage is going to hit Block 15 hard since they're just getting off the ground, and didn't have contracts in place for the future. Hopefully it will just be a small bump in the road, because the first taste is very promising.

Update [2008/03/19]: See the comment below by Nick Arzner, the owner and assistant brewer. They do have hop contracts in place for the next couple years. It's just that they won't distribute much beyond their own pub because of high demand at the pub. That's the kind of problem you like to have.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Barleywine Festival 2008

Dave and I beat the rush yesterday and showed up right at the opening of the Lucky Lab's Barleywine and Big Beer Festival. That made it a much more relaxed tasting than last year's -- no waiting in line, no shortages, and a chance to shoot the breeze with the brewers and other diehards. The Quimby Street pub was mostly empty. Many of the patrons were just there for lunch and hardly seemed to notice the treasure trove of gigantic beers available to them.

I had been eagerly anticipating another shot at the Caldera Russian Imperial Stout. It didn't disappoint: the 2005 was delicious, with some kind of nutmeg flavor to it; the 2004 (according to the taps -- the menu said 2003) reminded me in a good way of this year's barrel-aged Top Sail. The texture was really interesting on the 2004 -- lots of tiny bubbles, almost like nitro bubbles, but fizzier -- whereas the 2005 had almost no carbonation. No matter, the 2005 was just beautiful, one of my top 3 for the day. Dave described it as "chocolate steak milkshake". Neither one of us is really ready to write for Wine Spectator. If you ever see this on tap someplace, please leave a comment.

My very favorite beer of the day was Terminal Gravity's 2005 Barleywine. It was unmistakably a barleywine, plus an extra helping of floral hops. The hops were balanced with just the right amount of sweetness, and there was a good wallop of medicine in there too: 13.1% ABV. It was a beautiful thing.

A nice surprise was the Fort George 2007 Sistine Chapel Imperial IPA. This got listed on the "big beer" side of the menu because of its name, but it looked like a barleywine, and smelled like a barleywine, and tasted just exactly like a barleywine, so let's call it a barleywine. I can see the temptation to call it an IPA, because it was very hoppy, but it was hardly alone in that regard. The Chapel has a very beautiful perfumed hop flavor that went well with the strength and sweetness. 2007 was a great year for new breweries in Oregon: Fort George is definitely one to keep an eye on. Makes me want to head out to Astoria.

On the flip-side of the Barleywine/IPA coin, Full Sail's Old Boardhead was definitely more like an IPA than a barleywine. There was something really strange about this beer: at first it was one of the best, but it got worse as it warmed up, which is not the way things usually work for me. First taste, it was very hoppy: flowery hops at first, becoming bitter for a nice long finish. Later, there was only a kind of dry bitterness, and the long finish was more like a bad aftertaste. Moral: drink it fast.

There were quite a few beers that we didn't get around to, and a few that hadn't been tapped yet. Of the ones we tried, here are my notes on the ones I liked, in order of preference (though the Full Sail would have ranked 4th if the flavor had held up):

  • Terminal Gravity: 2005 Barleywine: floral, balanced with sweet
  • Caldera: 2005 Russian Imperial Stout: nutmeg, delicious, flat
  • Fort George: 2007 Sistine Chapel IIPA: barleywine-ish, nice floral hops
  • Caldera: 2004 Russian Imperial Stout: lots of tiny bubbles; like Top Sail
  • Lucky Lab: 2005 Old Yeller: maple, bitter and good, better and better
  • Deschutes: 2005 Mirror-Mirror: stronger? [than listed 9.2%], tasty
  • Walking Man: 2007 Old Stumblefoot: good, sweet and bitter
  • Sierra Nevada: 2004 Bigfoot: nicely done
  • Lucky Lab: 2002 Old Yeller: maple, a little funky
  • Rogue: 2004 Old Crustacean: super hoppy, nice
  • Great Divide: 2007 Old Ruffian: so-so at first, gets better as it warms, quite nice
  • Stone: 2006 Old Guardian: purty good
  • Full Sail: 2006 Old Boardhead: hoppy, flower becoming bitter; warming up didn't help
I'll mention a couple of oddities that didn't make it into the rankings. New Old Lompoc sent over a 1998 Tavern Rat -- yes, 10 years old. You know, it tasted pretty good for being that old, though it was totally flat. It really looked like a glass of sherried whisky, like a Macallan cask strength. I also tried something from a brewery I'd never heard of before, located in a town I'd never heard of before: Laht Neppur, from Waitsburg, WA. Their 2006 Barleywine wasn't quite up to the competition, but I'll definitely check out their pub if I ever find myself out Walla Walla way.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Main Street Station, Las Vegas

My friends -- let's call them Mr. and Mrs. Dangerfield -- chose Feb. 29th for their marriage day, and chose Las Vegas as the venue for such a stunt. Actually, his parents live there, and Elvis did not officiate, so I shouldn't call it a stunt. It was a nice ceremony, and, having introduced the couple to begin with, I got the honor of being the best man.

I had not been to Las Vegas as an adult, so I was looking forward to a first visit, even though it would be a short one. According to Lee, it wasn't going to be much of a beer vacation, but because I made the idiotic mistake of staying downtown instead of on the strip, I actually stumbled upon one of the few brewpubs in town, the Main Street Station next door to my digs at the Plaza. So, even though I was staying in a fleabag hotel, permeated with the twin fragrances of vomit and cigarette smoke, I could still walk down Main Street for a fresh beer. Just like home!

My first night in town, I went over there about 3:30 AM, after dropping $100 on some, ahem, poker lessons at Binion's. Lucky for me, the Main Street casino doesn't have a poker room, but midnight to 7 AM is happy hour of sorts, with $1.50 pints. The picture above is of the tanks on display in the restaurant area. As you might expect with a tourist place, the beer wasn't adventurous, but it was drinkable, so I licked my wounds with a couple of pints of their winter warmer seasonal (not very warm, around 5%). Adding a big bowl of Chinese noodle soup from the breakfast menu brought my bill to a whopping $7.85. I think in Portland we'd probably call their winter warmer a red ale, it had that reddish-malt look and taste to it.

The regular beers on the list are a pale ale, a porter, a "red lager", and a golden. My beer snobbery got in the way of trying the latter two, but I did check out the pale ale and the porter the next night as I dabbled at $5 blackjack. Like the winter warmer, these were tame but drinkable, especially the porter. The other casinos I sat down in -- on the strip and downtown -- didn't seem to offer any beer better than Heineken, so Main Street is guaranteed at least some of my gambling losses next time I'm in Vegas.