Monday, January 26, 2009

The Sour Wine Craze

There's a new trend in the wine world that might interest you beer drinkers out there. Cutting-edge American vintners are experimenting with ways to overcome the natural sweetness of the grape and produce wines of intense sourness. The inspiration for these sour wines lies in some obscure European styles, but the Americans are adding their own innovations, such as using yogurt bacilli as part of the fermentation process.

Sour wines are admittedly an acquired taste, but sophisticated oenophiles are increasingly willing to pay premium prices for them. Sours are some of the most expensive wines among recent vintages, because of the great technical skill and attention it takes to produce them, and the unpredictable and sometimes lengthy fermentation process.

Only joking. There is no Sour Wine Craze, it's just something I dreamed up as I pondered the sour beer craze. Some tartness is not unusual in a wine, but no one would buy a wine whose sourness stood out over all its other flavors. Can you imagine wine snobs paying, say, $75-$100 -- my attempt to translate $10-$20 beer -- for sour wine? Can you imagine Mt. Tabor Fine Wines holding an event like Puckerfest? I guess those things are imaginable, but in light of the fact that fine wines have a bigger audience to date than fine beers, if it hasn't happened yet it probably won't.

Then why have sour beers caught on? One guess is that a lot of beer connoisseurs are themselves homebrewers, who appreciate the technical finesse and cultural background that goes into sour beers. Or maybe it's simpler to just say there's no accounting for taste -- after all, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for bitter medicinal liqueurs, and I did just recommend that people try the drinking vinegars at Pok Pok.

About a week ago I dutifully went out and tried Deschutes' The Dissident and Roots' Flanders Red on consecutive days. They both are very big beers, 9% or so, and lovely to look at. As you've guessed, I don't particularly like sour beers; that said, I give the edge to Roots, maybe because it was less sour than the Dissident. On the other hand, both breweries have so many beers that are to my liking, that their sour ales are just a curiosity to me.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Division Street Pub Crawl

Tuesday night the Pub Night gang checked out the Victory Bar at 37th and Division -- first visit for most of us. Contrary to its laid-back reputation, the Victory was crowded and loud that night -- I guess Bryce isn't the only Portlander whose neuron for "Victory" is connected to the "no more Bush" neuron. Some of us wandered down the street to the Matchbox Lounge afterward, and I realized that recent new additions to this mile-long stretch of Division make it a very walkable pub crawl.

View Larger Map

I've listed the pub crawl from east to west since it's downhill and towards my house. You could turn it around if it's more convenient for you. If you skip the Matchbox, you don't even have to cross Division, everything else is on the south side of the street.

A: Victory Bar: Inauguration night was an unusually crowded weeknight for Victory, as I mentioned. As a result, three of the six kegs were blown, leaving only HUB Lager, another beer I didn't want and can't remember, and a spendy Belgian (Nostradamus). They have a respectable bottled beer list, but it was a little Euro-centric and expensive for my tastes -- very few quality American beers. So my first impression isn't that great, but a lot of Portland beer snobs love this place: Jeff and Angelo both raved about it, and I heard Full Sail's John Harris say it's one of his favorite places in town. I'll give it another shot on a quieter night.

B: Hedge House: A couple blocks down the street is our local Lompoc outlet. It's a classic. If you're a large group, you'll probably have to go when the weather permits outside seating (there is also a heated patio, but it fills up almost as fast as the inside).

C: Pok Pok: This isn't a beer place -- they might have a tap or two -- but I put it in here as a potential food stop. Amazing Thai food -- far beyond your standard noodle/curry/rice standards. If you need some pacing on the pub crawl, order one of the drinking vinegars instead of a beer. This is part of your Portland lifestyle. Get in there and enjoy it.

D: Matchbox Lounge: Mainly a Pabst and cocktail dive, but they give a nod to quality with Walking Man IPA on tap -- yes, there really is a Walking Man beer without a cute name, just "IPA". Brian said they usually have three good Belgians on tap, but they weren't in evidence Tuesday.

E: Clay's Smokehouse Grill: Not primarily a beer place, but they have about four taps. One tap is usually a Leavenworth beer from Fish Brewing. Good barbecue if you didn't get a seat at Pok Pok. Open until 10 PM, closed Monday and Tuesday.

F: Reel'M'Inn Tavern: I've never done more than poke my head inside here, and that was before the smoking ban, so I poked my head right back out. Nothing outstanding beer-wise, but if I remember right they had at least a Widmer and a Deschutes on tap. Now that smoking is out, I need to get down there and try the advertised Chicken and Jojos. [Update 2009/02/19: Been there now. Only Mirror pond on tap, but delicious fried food!]

G: Bar Avignon: Oops, another place I haven't been. I'll admit, I'm unsure whether I should patronize a place that capitalized on the demise of the Red and Black Cafe -- anyone have an opinion on that? It's mainly a wine bar, but they have a nice rotating selection of beers on tap, and a beer engine for cask beers. The Barfly review mentions 20 oz. pints, so it seems like it could be a winner. Anyone been there yet?

That seems like a pretty decent pub crawl. If you need even more action, it's just a block south to Clinton Street, there are four or five more options right around 26th and Clinton. Is Division the new Hawthorne?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Respect Beer

There are so many communities of beer lovers in the world, that you can't fully participate in all of them -- I do my best to keep current with beer events I can walk to from my house in Southeast Portland. One worthy community is the group of beer aficionados that has coalesced around the magazine Beer Advocate and its well-organized website. Beer Advocate's motto is "Respect Beer" -- you better not argue with that. The website holds thousands of thoughtful reviews of craft beers from around the world.

The BA community has also spawned a culture of beer trading, allowing a wonderful cross-pollination of zymurgical culture as people ship beer across the artificial boundaries of bureaucracy. My crippling fear of the post office keeps me from participating in such activities, but this past weekend I was lucky enough to go to an imperial stout tasting at Brian and Sharon's house, fueled partially by Brian's impressive beer cellar, partially by contributions from Brian's local acquaintances from Beer Advocate.

Here are some of the amazing stouts opened at Brian's on Saturday (most of them unavailable in Oregon):
  • Brooklyn Brewing Black Ops: big and good
  • Skagit River Trumpeter: malty goodness
  • Avery Mephistopheles: 16% awesome
  • Southern Tier Imperial Oat (2007): smooth and malty
  • Schlafly (St. Louis) Imperial Stout (2006): flat but rich and tasty
  • Voodoo Black Magick: heavy whisky dark stout -- nice but too much
  • Goose Island Bourbon County: nice, smooth and strong
  • Terrapin Beer Coffee Oatmeal: good and coffeeish
  • Bell's Expedition Stout: very nice
  • Three Floyd's Dark Lord (2008): big, sweet, minute-long finish
  • Dark Lord (2006): same but darker flavor
  • Port Brewing Old Viscosity (2007): stouty and delicious -- awesome
Forgive my simple-minded descriptions: I'm not a wine guy. Those were some fantastic stouts, but perhaps more impressive was the great camaraderie and friendliness of the Beer Advocates at the tasting. There was a sincere interest in all things beery, and a great generosity in sharing some hard-to-find bottles. I was pleased to meet local blogger dabeers of Beer Around Town, who is active in the Beer Advocate scene. I actually held off a few days on this post, thinking he'd beat me to a writeup. Oh yeah, the Old Rasputin Cheesecake was a thing of beauty also -- nice work, Les!

Now I need to make it to one of Ezra's tastings...

Friday, January 16, 2009

By the Bottle

On Sunday we were across the river in Vancouver for a concert my daughter was in, so I got to make my first visit to By the Bottle. If you haven't been there, it's a fabulous beer store right in downtown Vancouver. That's a picture of Dave, the owner, standing next to some of his bottled treasures.

The selection is pretty small compared to Belmont Station or John's Market, but there's a lot that a spoiled Portlander can get excited about. By the Bottle stocks a number of beers that are distributed in Washington but not Oregon. Here are some of the breweries that caught my eye:
Oops, Ezra just tweeted that Belmont Station now carries Laughing Buddha, but I didn't know that on Sunday when I picked up a bottle of their Purple Yam Porter. I haven't tried it yet, but I did enjoy my Southern Tier Tripel, ridiculously hoppy though it was. There was also a great selection of Port's top-shelf Lost Abbey beers. Set yourself a budget before you go in.

Does anyone know why Shiner isn't distributed in Oregon anymore? Two or three years ago it briefly appeared in Portland. Anyway, I couldn't resist picking up a bottle of Shiner Bock at By the Bottle. I was really hoping to find the Shiner Holiday Cheer that came out this winter, or the 100th Anniversary doppelbock they just released. I'm not sure if those specialty brews make it to Washington, but Dave said he hadn't been offered any by the distributor in Seattle.

Dave described his shop to me as a labor of love, and it shows. He actively seeks out smaller Washington breweries, and considers it a part of his mission to give them a toehold in the Portland market. Be sure and stop in to By the Bottle if you're up in the 'Couve -- it's even open on Sunday, when the whole town shuts down.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Widmer W'09 Belgian Golden

Widmer is out with this year's entry in the "W" series -- the trial balloon they send up once a year to see how people like it. This time it's a Belgian Golden Ale, and I think they've got a solid entry after a couple of forgettable years.

Not everyone likes the Belgian-beer combination of flowery and sweet, and those who do are often hard to please because they've gotten used to the divinely-inspired output of Belgium's many monastery-breweries. For those of us who like the style, and are willing to drink a beer that's 80% as good as the original but costs only 33% as much, W'09 is right on the money. A beer you could compare it to is New Belgium's Trippel. Years ago in Austin I turned to New Belgium Trippel as my inexpensive big beer of choice after Miller shut down the Celis Brewery and deprived me of the wonderful Celis Grand Cru. If you like NB Trippel, I think you'll like W'09.

Widmer had a few batches of the Belgian Golden out last year, and I was underwhelmed when I tried it at Cheers for Belgian Beers and at a meet-the-brewer event at Green Dragon. Jeff Alworth disagreed with me at the time: he rated it "fantastic" in his write-up of C4BB. I don't know if they've tweaked the recipe a little, or if I'm less snobbish about a six-pack from the supermarket, but my third impression is better than my first two. Jeff's review has a clue that they may have worked on the recipe -- he said its alcohol content was 6.1% at the festival at Roots, whereas the label puts it at 6.5%.

I bought a bottle of Duvel so I could see how the W'09 stacked up with the prototypical Belgian Golden. Interestingly, the Duvel was much lighter in color, as you can see in picture -- it was even lighter than my recollection of it. As you might expect, Duvel had a bigger, bolder flavor. I don't think hops played much of a role in the difference, they were pretty low in both beers. Part of Duvel's big flavor is our beloved alcohol -- it weighs in at 8.5% (for comparison, New Belgium Trippel is 7.8%). But the price difference will have me voting for Widmer more often -- it's really about a third of the price.

It will be interesting to see if the Belgian Golden becomes a permanent part of the Widmer repertoire. After all, the popular Broken Halo IPA was W'05, and this year's delicious winter brew Brrr was W'06. The Pale Ale that was W'07 was so unremarkable that I can't remember anything about it, and the "crimson wheat" W'08 was an interesting idea that just wasn't very good. I think W'09 might make the grade. What's your opinion?

[Correction, 2009/01/14]: Some people -- Jeff, for example -- liked W'07. It is now going to be a year-round Widmer offering, named Drifter.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Best Routes for Biking to Hopworks

The sun is shining on me, and it looks like there's a break in the weather for the next few days. You might have a mind to hop on your bike and hit a pub or two this weekend. Seems like a good time to trot out this Google map I made to show the best bicycle approaches to Hopworks.

View Larger Map

The Hopworks website links to a (huge) hard-to-read map from the city that doesn't even have the pub marked on it. I proposed this map to Christian Ettinger as a replacement, and we exchanged a couple emails, but nothing ever came of it, so I'm releasing it into the wild. (HUB folks, feel free to link to the map or this page.) If you click over to the Google map, there is a column of text explaining the markers and lines on the map.

Of course, we're not talking Tigard or Gresham, but by inner-Portland standards, Hopworks' location on Powell Boulevard is not that great for bicycling. The map tries to show routes from north or south that would be comfortable for most Portland bicyclists. Very experienced cyclists might brave the left turn onto Powell at 26th, and even stay on Powell for the short stretch to Hopworks. I've done that myself, but that left turn can be a problem in busy traffic. So I list a couple of other options for more cautious riders, or those traveling with children.

One weakness of this map is that it really only helps you if you're already on the Eastside. Put yourself in Christian's shoes: he lives in Southwest, so to get to his pub he rides his bike on the sidewalk across the Ross Island Bridge. That's got to be a nasty ride. My hat's off to him.

Have fun enjoying Portland's beer and bike cultures! Be safe out there. Follow the traffic laws -- they're there to maximize everyone's peace of mind -- and don't terrorize the pedestrians.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Upside to the Smoking Ban

I had my rant about how we should not let the busybodies and Church Ladies of the world ban everything that carries some statistical amount of danger. Now it's all academic: the smoking ban is here. Let's look at the upside. As a non-smoker, there are a lot of pubs and bars that suddenly seem more inviting to me.

Topping the list, of course, is the Horse Brass. When Carla and I were on our way over there January 2 to enjoy its smoke-free splendor -- by the way, it was packed that night -- I was shocked to hear my own dear wife say that it would be her first visit to the Horse Brass. She's all for the smoking ban. I think she might be a Church Lady: look, she even drinks her Caldera Smoker's Stout in front of the Brass' stained glass.

Some other places that are likely to get more of my business post-ban:
  • Moon and Sixpence
  • Claudia's
  • Langano Lounge
  • Hawthorne Hideaway
  • Basement Pub
  • Pub at the End of the Universe
  • Nine Muses
Claudia's has a completely respectable beer selection for a sports bar. I've never been inside the Hideaway, but it's three blocks from my house. The other places on the list have bona fide cool, but the smoke was annoying enough to keep me away. There are some nearby dives that I'll probably check out -- like Ladd's Inn, Reel'M'Inn, The Slammer -- although the beer selection may not be up to my snobbery. I'm not really a strip-club guy, but I could imagine a visit to Mary's Club now that there's no smoking.

So I ask you, Dear Reader: What are some other good places in Portland that are now worth it for a non-smoker to go to?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It's Pub Night 2.0

Happy New Year! With a couple weeks off from work, I've been tinkering a bit with It's Pub Night. For instance, the ugly banner that used to take up a third of the screen has been replaced by an ugly banner that only takes up about a sixth of the screen. But what I'm really excited about is updates from Twitter posted to the blog, and notification of new blog posts going out as Twitter updates.

I set up a Twitter account back in April, but I didn't really participate in it. I didn't follow anyone, so when I went to my Twitter account, I only saw my own infrequent boring updates. For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, to "follow" someone is to see the short messages they post on Twitter. Those short updates are called "tweets", and you can send them from your computer or as a text message from your cellphone.

It was starting to look like I would only use Twitter to keep a record of bruises, so later when I wondered where a particular bruise came from I could log on and find the tweet for it. Then a few things lit a fire under me. I had admired a couple of beer applications of Twitter: the Beer Mapping Project's geocoding that allows you to map your tweets, and the Champagne of Blogs' Twitter feed. And then on one of our snow days, after tweeting that the Bridgeport Ale House was closed, one of my 3 stalwart Twitter followers -- Ezra the Samurai Artist -- replied to my tweet. Holy Cow, my first reply! I have a social network! Ezra encouraged me to raid his "following list" for more Portland beer types. That's the key to the whole business: Twitter doesn't make any sense until you start following a few friends, acquaintances, and pubs. I finally get it.

Let me give you a tour of some of the exciting features of the Twitter feed in the sidebar, which is produced by a script supplied by Twitter. The first red circle in the picture is around a link created by a Twitter "@" reply. It's a link to the page for the person I'm replying to -- in this case to Dave Selden (Champagne of Blogs guy) -- so you can check out that person's tweets if the reply piques your interest. Even better, I hacked the Twitter script so that tweets tagged with a Beer Mapping Project location ID get a "map" link -- the second red circle -- that takes you to the BMP's page for that location (Deschutes' Portland pub in the picture).

The third red circle takes you to my Twitter page, where you'll get a chance to follow my tweets and get messaged every time there's a new post on It's Pub Night. Last but not least, is a link to a Beer Mapping page that maps the most recent tweets that I bothered to tag with locations.

I try not to make blog posts about the blog itself, and I don't plan to make a regular practice of it. But I was so excited about the recent geekery that I wanted to explain what it was all about. If you get half as much enjoyment out of it as I do, then I'll get twice as much as you.