Sunday, August 31, 2008

Southern Star Pine Belt Pale

Carla was visiting her family in Conroe, Texas a few weeks ago -- for those of you who aren't familiar with Conroe, it's in the southeast part of the state, just five miles from Cut and Shoot. Happily enough, one of Texas' newest microbreweries is located in Conroe: Southern Star. She was able to sample their first release, Pine Belt Pale Ale, and -- attentive wife that she is -- she brought me a 16-ounce can so I could try it myself.

It's a solid first effort: quite malty with a good dose of hops. Pine Belt is unfiltered, so it's a little cloudy, and mine even seemed to have some flecks of yeast in it. The hops are not so floral but nicely bitter. Carla picked up what she called an interesting oily flavor -- in a good way -- but try as I might I couldn't taste that. The 16-ounce cans are a great idea -- as more breweries start to can their beer, I hope they go the tall-boy route like this. They still take up less space than a 12-ounce bottle. Hey, how about 20-ounce cans?

The obvious Oregon beer to compare Pine Belt to is Caldera Pale Ale, also sold in cans. The Caldera is definitely a few shades lighter in color, but almost as malty in flavor. Crystal clear -- must be filtered -- and with a little more flowery hops. In my opinion, Caldera's is a little better offering, but there's no shame in that, they've been at it a lot longer than Southern Star, and they get to brew with pure Oregon water. Our correspondent in Texas calls Southern Star the Rookie of the Year. For now Pine Belt Pale is their only brew; I'll be interested to hear what other styles they work up.

Something about the name Southern Star had a familiar ring to it. I finally realized that the beautiful picture of a table laden with Tex-Mex food that takes up the whole gatefold of ZZ Top's Tres Hombres LP shows a glass of beer with a Southern Select bottle next to it. Apparently that was a Houston-area brewery from the 1930's to the 1950's. Given that Southern Star is producing craft ales instead of factory lagers, the naming similarity is probably only coincidental.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Eugene's Oakshire Brewing

Last night, the Pub Night gang descended on the Green Dragon's excellent new outdoor patio for meet-the-brewer with Oakshire Brewing. That's Oakshire brewer Todd Friedman in the picture, next to the clever business-card-holder tap handles. These guys didn't appear on my radar until earlier this year, when the Green Dragon poured their Amber, but according to their website they've been selling beer since late 2006. We've had an amazing run of good new breweries in Oregon these last few years.

Originally Oakshire was called Willamette Brewing, but as they got more attention they started getting cease and desist letters from Willamette Valley Vineyards. That's pretty stupid -- maybe Willamette University or Willamette Week should sue the whining winemaker. To get on with the business of making beer, the brewers changed their name to Oakshire Brewing, but then had to tweak their oak tree logo after getting a cease-and-desist from Laurelwood's lawyers, who think they invented the "tree" shape. Hey lawyers, why don't you go out and do something constructive for a change?

The Amber seems to be their signature beer. It's not bad, but of the ones I've tried so far, it seems the least interesting to me. Last night the big winners were the Watershed IPA -- which I had enjoyed at the OBF Brewers Dinner last month -- and the Overcast Espresso Stout. The stout was pitch-black, with a nice dark-brown head. Flavored with coffee from Eugene's Wandering Goat, the stout mixed with the java flavor really well. They also brought along a Hefeweizen, which was OK, but a little disappointing compared to the awesome Dunkelweizen they showed off at the Organic Brewfest this year. Or maybe it's as good as the dunkel, but I just need to drink it on a 100-degree day.

Look for their beers on tap around town -- the Green Dragon and Belmont Station seem to have them on fairly regularly. For more information, check out thisthat Portland writer

Friday, August 22, 2008

West Coast Good Beer Guide

Anytime you're traveling on the West Coast, you'll want to bring along the CAMRA Good Beer Guide for our fair region. The British authors of the Guide, both in their early 30's, do an amazingly thorough job of covering the breweries and pubs of the area. They even have an entry for a bar 10 blocks from my house -- Roadside Attraction -- that I was dimly aware of, but had never ventured into. Cheeky devils -- if I was younger I'd go write a book about drinking beer in their neighborhood. The writing is witty but concise: they cram a lot of beery information into 300 pages.

In addition to covering Washington, Oregon, and California, the Guide has chapters on Alaska, Hawaii, and Las Vegas. Within each geographic area are separate sections for breweries, brewpubs, beer bars, and "other beer destinations". The entries within each section are numbered, with a map at the end of each chapter for handy reference. Driving through Washington on Highway 97 last week, if it weren't for the map in the Guide, I would never have been aware we were passing so close to the Hop Museum in Toppenish, although we got there too late in the evening to visit it. It also saved me by providing the phone numbers for Boundary Bay and Iron Horse -- even though we intended to visit both breweries, I had left home without directions or phone numbers for either.

Just before buying this book, I had blogged about Tugboat Brewing. Thumbing through the Portland section, I became embarrassed about the uncomfortable number of similarities between what I wrote about Tugboat and the Guide's take on it. Both descriptions noted that it was a cozy pub with a 4-barrel operation that had been there since the early 90's. We both recommended the Chernobyl Stout, and dutifully pointed out that it is only served in half-pints. Finally, I regretted my pretentious use of the British phrase "opening hours", since it made it seem like I took every bit of my information from the Guide. I was certain someone was going to accuse me of plagiarism; fortunately my readership is small enough that no one made the connection.

As good as the GBG is, I wouldn't be a beer nerd if I couldn't find a few things to nitpick about it. For starters, the Washington map is a little confused: the things I noticed are that some of the brewpub numbers between 33 and 40 are incorrect, and the map shows Dick's Brewing to be in Long Beach instead of Centralia. I also wish they had included a chapter on British Columbia -- that would have been more useful to Northwesterners than Alaska and Hawaii. Another quibble is that most Portlanders will be ticked off that the only Portland brewpubs that rate a "Highly Recommended" are Edgefield and the Rogue pub -- and Rogue doesn't even brew at the Portland pub.

Still, you don't buy a travel guide for your hometown, you buy it for the places you're visiting. The Good Beer Guide is thorough, up-to-date, well-organized and fun to read. Don't leave home without it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Washington Vacation Beers

On our way back from Canada, we stopped for lunch at Boundary Bay in Bellingham. The Pale Ale they brought to the OBF was one of my favorites this year, and we were hungry after a frustrating wait at the border, so the pub was a welcome sight. The service was especially friendly there; for example, they quickly found us a new table inside when it started to rain on our original porch seats.

Carla was the big winner, since she ordered their delicious IPA. It's their most popular ale, and it's easy to see why -- it's flowery and rich, even better than the single-hop pale that I tried. The Oatmeal Stout was also tasty -- better than the Dry Irish Stout -- but that IPA topped them all. Good food, too.

I saw a guy at another table get his gallon-sized apple-juice jug filled with beer, twice the size of regular growlers. The price for that was $15, close to bottled beer pricing, corresponding to about $8.50 per 6-pack. Regular half-gallon growler fills were less of a deal at $8.75, but that's less than most Portland pubs charge.

Then we drove across the Cascades on Highway 2, to spend nearly a week off the grid in Stehekin, a town without telephone or cellular service, that can only be reached by taking a boat up Lake Chelan. There is no brewpub action to report for that part of the vacation, though I was impressed by the selection of beer available at the one little grocery there: Alaskan Amber, Rogue Dead Guy, and even Shiner Bock were available for not-too-ridiculous prices. If I had known about that, I might not have bothered to haul in my own supply of Unibroue acquired in Vancouver.

On the way back to Portland Saturday afternoon, we went through the interesting little Central Washington town of Ellensburg. It's basically in the middle of nowhere [oops, only 100 miles from Seattle, see the comments], but it caught my attention because it's the home of the Iron Horse Brewery. Iron Horse's Quilter's Irish Death Stout was one of the buzz beers at the 2008 OBF, but I failed to try it before the lines went crazy.

Now, Iron Horse is not a pub. They do have a tasting room, but we were a tired, hungry family of four, so that wasn't good enough for us. Fortunately, a call to the brewery led to a fantastic restaurant recommendation: the Palace Cafe and Saloon, which serves four of Iron Horse's beers. The Palace -- open since 1892, in the current location since 1949 -- serves very good Western diner food in a quaint setting that would seem cheesy in almost any other place, but which succeeds in being totally charming. The bar in the back is less quaint, but they've got your sports viewing covered with several TVs mounted all over.

I got my taste of Irish Death at the Palace. It was a smooth, decent stout, but I have a feeling that its name gave it a little extra appeal. The IPA seemed better to me, another classic Northwest hop-slam. Very surprising to find something that good brewed in such an out-of-the way -- from my perspective -- place.

The tasting room sounds fun. When I called Iron Horse Saturday about 5 PM, I could hear a hubbub of happy conversation in the background. The woman who answered the phone told me about the Palace, but she couldn't direct me to it from Highway 97, because she wasn't from Ellensburg and didn't know where the highway was! Pretty informal there, I guess. If you're driving through Ellensburg on 97 or I-90, try to make a visit to the Iron Horse tasting room, and definitely hit the Palace for dinner.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Growler Math

How ridiculous is it that there are no longer returnable beer bottles? (Or pop bottles, for that matter.) In this day and age where we're worried about energy and the environment, every bottle of beer you drink is manufactured for a single use, then -- best case -- crushed into dust; worst case, tossed in a landfill.

Two-quart growlers provide you, the eco-friendly Portlander, a way to reuse a bottle, instead of sending it off to be melted and made into a different bottle. Plus you get some good, fresh local beer.

But there's a catch: in general, you get to pay more for the privilege of not using a bottle. For example, the new Deschutes pub in Portland charges $15 for a 64-ounce growler fill, about 23 cents an ounce, quite a premium over the price of a 72-ounce six-pack. Given that good Oregon beers are selling for something like $7-$9 a six-pack -- even good beers from out-of-state are in the same range -- the bottle price is somewhere between 10 and 13 cents an ounce.

Granted, $15 is on the high end of growler prices. But even the more usual price of $11 is about 17 cents an ounce. Why does it cost less to buy a six-pack, with a cut going to middlemen in the form of distributors and retailers, than to buy unpackaged beer directly from the producer?

[Update 2008/08/17]: Lindsey points out that it's confusing to talk about the price per ounce. Instead, consider that a growler holds eight-ninths the volume of a six-pack. So if you would pay $9 a six-pack, you should get a growler filled for no more than $8. An $8 six-pack equates with a $7.10 growler; $7 with $6.20. And that gives the brewer all the extra margin that used to go to packaging, distribution, and retailing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to show that growler prices could be even lower and still be a winner for the brewery.

According to the excellent growler index on the Champagne of Blogs, there are some deals to be had: $6.95 at Rock Bottom, or $4.95 at Portland Brewing -- oops, now it's $5.95 according to a comment below. If more places had growler fills that were in that six-pack price range, it would be a big boost to environmentally sound beer-drinking. Maybe it could even be a way to boost pub business: sit down for a pint and get a discount on your growler fill.

By the way, that growler index would be a great thing to put on the Portland Beer Wiki. Pubs open and prices change all the time, so it's just the thing that you want feet on the street to update. I would also be interested in growler prices at non-brewpubs: I think that any bar with a beer license could fill growlers if they wanted to.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

North of the Border

We were on vacation this week in British Columbia. In Victoria we got to have a beer with Carla's cousin Kelly and his wife Carol. The beer prices were very alarming to us: $6.50 a pint in pubs and $13 a 6-pack in liquor stores (yikes!).

The granddaddy brewpub in Victoria is Spinnaker's. It has a fine waterfront location, but we found the beer and the food both to be bland. The best beer in town was at Swan's Buckerfields -- the cask bitter and cask stout were both very good, as was the seasonal Wit. Right around the corner is the Canoe Brewpub, with acres of harborside seating and a cool atmosphere inside. The bitter there was OK.

Two other local brews I enjoyed on tap were Hermann's Dark Lager from Vancouver Island Brewing and the IPA from Phillips Brewing. I also plunked down $13 for a 6-pack of cans of Race Rocks Amber from Lighthouse Brewing. It was pleasantly malty -- I'd have it again.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Uerige Alt

It has been awhile since I made it across the hill to John's Market, but Clark was interested to see it while he was in town, so we went. I was finally able to procure a couple bottles of Uerige Alt and Uerige Doppelsticke -- true Dusseldorf Altbiers -- which I had been wanting to do for some time. They weren't cheap -- about $4.50 for a little 11 oz. bottle -- but the bottle is kind of cool looking, with a stopper cap. Maybe someone will fill it with homebrew for me.

My ragged German-English dictionary doesn't have the word "sticke", and neither does Google Translate. So we turn to the Uerige website itself, which says it means "whispering" in an older dialect. I think they're implying that Uerige Sticke is a seasonal that people talk about a lot; or maybe you can interpret it as a secret beer, and hence the Doppelsticke is a double-secret beer. Despite the exciting prospect of a double-secret Alt, I prefered the 4.5% regular Alt to the 8.5% Doppelsticke, which I found to be too syrupy.

The regular Alt was pretty nice: richer than the Widmer Alt available at the Gasthaus. It has a very long and agreeable bitterness -- I'd say the Widmers mimicked that bitterness very well. You want to drink this pretty cold. The flavor did not improve as the beer warmed up towards room temperature. My guest tasters had some good insights:
  • Dave: malty but dry; not as sweet as it tastes
  • Clark: taste reminiscent of limburger cheese
  • Carla: chalky
  • Milena: malty
  • Tammy: likes the long bitter finish
When I recently rediscovered my notes from the 2007 PIB on Lee's blog, I noticed that I had tried the Doppelsticke and been disappointed in it, describing it as "sweet, not long". I had forgotten all about it by the time I got obsessed with alts this spring. If I have another Uerige it will be the regular Alt, not the double. In Portland it's probably wiser to go with the fresh local stuff at Widmer.

Man, it was fun to go to John's Market. I love the selection at Belmont Station, but John's Market turns it up to eleven.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bridgeport Repeals Prohibition

The Bridgeport Ale House on Hawthorne will now fill growlers from other establishments! A few days ago I got this email from the restaurant manager:

I want to thank you for your input.

After you posited the growler idea on the blog last week, I did indeed research the issue.

What follows is our revised policy (I can't speak for the Pub downtown, so this is representative of the Ale House on Hawthorne.):

Starting immediately, we will fill other brewery’s growlers as well as our own. We will charge the price of our growler refill ($11.00). We will not fill mason jars, and the price is subject to change at any time.

I’m really excited that our policy is expanding--thanks in large part to your input--so please come in and fill those growlers!

That's right, I was whining in a blog comment about their Bridgeport-growler-only policy. It wasn't the first time: I complained on Lee's blog last year during fresh hop season when they wouldn't fill my mason jar with Hop Harvest. I even fussed about it a few weeks ago to a poor Bridgeport brewer at a Green Dragon meet-the-brewer, knowing full well that he had no idea who made rules like that, and even less of an interest in getting involved in it. But this time I bounced it off the right person, and she took care of it.

I wouldn't mind if they filled mason jars also -- those wide mouths are easier to fill -- and for the sake of the west-siders I hope the Bridgeport Mothership will also lighten up. But personally, I'm all set now. I can just take my Roots growler down the street and get the fresh stuff from the Ale House.