Monday, March 30, 2009

Beer Review Generator

I tend to recite the caption of this James Thurber cartoon whenever someone asks me if the wine is good. It's a stale joke; wine criticism has come a long way in the last 70 years or so. Good beer snobs have now adopted some of the modern wine-snob vocabulary, and have settled into a typical phrasing that lends itself easily to mockery. That's where I come in. Presenting the It's Pub Night Beer Review Generator:
The beer I'm reviewing is:
It has a:
Big headSmall head
Its color is:
If the button doesn't work, click over to It's Pub Night, it works there!
Please forgive me, Beer Advocates and Ratebeerians. The Beer Review Generator is obviously my way of lampooning your subculture. Don't take it the wrong way -- I'm glad that you're taking beer so seriously. You're inspiring brewers to greater heights, and creating an important part of the beer culture. The Beer Retard may call you "beer douches" -- his Thurber-meets-MS Paint cartoons are pretty funny -- but the truth is I could read beer ratings all day long. In fact, as simplistic as the Generator is, I could keep pushing the button and reading its reviews all day long, and I wrote the stupid thing. The vocabulary and cadence of these stereotypical beer poems has its own brain-candy deliciousness.

Which brings me back to skepticism. How useful are these wine-talk screeds about beer? It's exciting to read about a beer's "Sexy full-bodied palate, with just a hint of plum and orange", but does that really tell me whether I'd like it or not? I doubt it, and that conviction grows stronger as I idly amuse myself by reading one artificially-generated review after another. What I would like to see more of in beer criticism -- including my own -- is analogy. Something like "This beer is like an over-hopped Young's ESB", or "It reminded me of a cross between Sierra Nevada Celebration and Duvel". Describe a new, rare, or regional beer in terms of other beers that aficionados have been exposed to or have ready access to.

Play around some with the generator. I think you'll be amused by its presumption.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Stuff at the Green Dragon

It's always a shame when a pub takes down their dartboard. Dave and I were planning to throw some darts at the Green Dragon last night during the New Old Lompoc meet-the-brewer, but the board was gone. I was astonished by what took its place: a row of 30 gleaming beer taps! No, it won't be a self-service area. At some point a second bar will be installed there, and the new taps will serve up the house-made brews and others from around the Rogue Empire.

Now that I look at my pictures from the Firkin Fest last weekend, I see the taps were there. I didn't notice them at the time; maybe they've been there for a while? It's a nice development, but I hope the Dragon will find a new place for the dartboard. They should move the little-used shuffleboard and put three or four dartboards up along that wall.

A few more Green Dragon innovations to report:
  • A cask-conditioned offering
  • Growlers filled again
  • A selection of bottled beer
  • Beer souvenirs for sale
The first cask to go on the new beer engine is Hopworks IPA. The growler refill price is complete madness: $17-$18 depending on the beer (six-pack equivalent: $19.12-20.25). No thank you. I didn't pay much attention to the bottles in the cooler, but I think they had a few Rogue offerings and some spendy Belgians. It looked like they had a to-go price and a drink-here price.

The souvenir stand is interesting: you can get the hat and t-shirt not only for Rogue places, but for a few other Oregon breweries -- I seem to recall seeing Amnesia merchandise as well as Full Sail. That's team spirit! As far as I can tell, merchandise is the only discount that you can get at the Green Dragon by flashing your Rogue Nation identity papers.

Just a quick note about the Lompoc tasting. The braggot they brought was interesting, but not something I'd reach for very often. There was an antiseptic smell and taste to it that might have been intentional or might not. For me the highlight of the evening was the 2007 Fresh Hop Red. I didn't expect a beer that old to keep much of the fresh-hop goodness, but it did and it was beautiful. It was a little maltier than the 2008 version they also brought. 2007 was the year of my most manic fresh-hop mission, but somehow I missed Lompoc's fresh-hop red that year. I asked the brewer Brian if it was the same beer as their Harvest Man, but he said no, that's a different brew, and the fresh hops in Harvest Man are actually ones that had already been used in another of the fresh-hop beers -- interesting concept. Mmm... fresh hop beer. Only six months to wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

OBG Firkin Fest 2009

Carla and I had a nice time at the Oregon Brewers Guild Firkin Fest Saturday at the Green Dragon. Thirteen cask-conditioned beers poured by gravity from the keg; two more beers pulled through sparklers on Brewers Union proprietor Ted Sobel's nifty mobile beer engine. I had missed Portland's first firkin fest last year, glad I got in on the second annual this year. We went to the first of the two limited-attendance sessions. It didn't look like all 200 spots in our session were filled, which made for a very relaxing event: no lines, no waiting, no jockeying for tables. What was the second session like?

There wasn't a bad beer in the house, but some of them were positively beautiful. My favorites were the Rock Bottom Maltnomah Porter, the HUB 150 IPA from Hopworks, the Brewers Union North Fork Ordinary Bitter, and the Broken Paddle India Black Ale from Full Sail. It kind of pains me to single those out; as I type the names I keep thinking of others I could add to the list. That's how nice the selection was.

Rock Bottom is a place I rarely go, but I really need to make the effort: Van Havig turns out some brilliant beers. My favorite beer of the fest, Maltnomah Porter is one of the standards at Havig's Portland branch of the chain; this cask version was perfectly smooth, a little sweet but not cloyingly so, dark and satisfying with no burnt flavors and little bitterness. Opinions vary, however, and through the magic of Twitter I got instant feedback from someone who found it was his least favorite.

Brewers Union didn't have to do anything special for the firkin fest. All of the beers Ted brews there are cask-conditioned English-style ales. He's been open in Oakridge, Oregon for over half a year now, but this was my first chance to sample his wares, since I'm such a walking-distance-only pub-goer and Ted doesn't easily let his kegs out of his sight -- "they're like gold to me", he said. A stickler for correct handling of his ales, he set up his two firkins at the Green Dragon a day ahead of time to allow them to settle after the ride to Portland, and he served them at the fest himself. The North Fork bitter was fantastic: malty and a little fruity with an Oklahoma-friendly alcohol content of 3.5%. His molasses stout -- called That Dark Beer -- was delicious also, dark and roasty.

Being an unrepentant meddler, I assured Ted that Geoff at Bailey's Taproom would undoubtedly work with him to offer the beer to Portlanders in the right condition. That backfired later when I introduced the two and questions came up of stillage and how to serve the ale at 50° at Bailey's. Keep your fingers crossed that Geoff or someone in town will jump through the hoops to get BU brews to Portland. Meanwhile, it's definitely worth a detour if you find yourself in that part of the state. You can also check out Ted's entertaining blog about the hazards of peddling real ale in a small town.

Coincidentally, I had tried both the HUB 150 and the Broken Paddle IBA earlier in the week in their non-cask incarnations, which are on tap right now at Hopworks and the Pilsner Room, respectively. Both are very tasty, but the cask versions added a depth of flavor that made them all the more satisfying. In another coincidence, beer writer Abe Goldman-Armstrong was serving the Broken Paddle during the first session. Abe is on a mission to get people to use the term "Cascadian Dark Ale" instead of India Black Ale, since the style originated in the Pacific Northwest and has nothing to do with other ales traditionally called Black Ales, and certainly nothing to do with India. Hail Cascadia!

Big thanks to Brian Butenschoen of the OBG for organizing the firkin fest. And for giving my own petty name crusade a victory by not calling it a Tastival this year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's on iTap?

My cellphone -- hardly the latest model -- knows a lot about my beer-drinking habits.

It usually takes me awhile to adopt new technology, even though I work in a technical field. First CD player: 1995. First laptop: 2005. Maybe by 2015 I'll get my computer's MP3s and my daughter's ipod tunes hooked up to the stereo.

So instead of using a cellphone that has a qwerty keyboard or touchscreen, I still use my 10-digit phone keypad for any text messaging, live-blogging, or twittering I need to do. As a result, the iTap predictive text system on my phone now shares my beer obsession. When you enter a word that's not in its dictionary, it silently remembers it. Now it offers to complete a lot of beer-related words for me after just a few keystrokes:
  • bar: barleywine
  • des : deschutes
  • hopw : hopworks
  • laur : laurelwood
  • nink: ninkasi
  • grow : growler
  • higgi: higgins
  • lupul : lupulin
The phone has a great memory for beer, but never seems to predict the right word for simple things like go vs. in or on vs. no. My phone has become my drinking buddy, but I probably shouldn't count on it to loan me any money or remind me about birthdays or romantic holidays.

Speaking of twittering, Steve Novick's robotic minion is still roaming the internet, even though last year's U.S. Senate primary is long in the past. I accidentally discovered that if I put his name in a blog post, the robot tweets a link to the post (Update: the robot's tweet for this very post beat my own Twitterfeed announcement). Very useful for the 36 diehard followers that haven't given up hope that he may yet defeat that hot-dog chomping Jeff Merkley. Go Steve!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hop Henge and Pliny the Younger

Hop bombs. They're not for everyone, but I love them. I borrowed Dave's bottle of Deschutes' Experimental Hop Henge to photograph for this post, and noticed the flavor crystals floating in the bottle (click on the photo for a closer look). Delicious and nutritious. More on Hop Henge below.

Now that Russian River is distributed in Oregon, we have year-round access to Pliny the Elder -- we used to have to wait for the Oregon Brewers Festival to get that wonderful hop infusion. Pliny the Younger gives hopheads a new limited edition to crave: a double IPA that's even bigger and hoppier than its, er, father. Russian River had to find some way to keep the mystique level high. The Younger is a beautiful IPA. Deceptively light in color, it has an intensely floral hop smell and taste. It's bitter, that's for sure, but with the flowery bitterness that makes you feel all cheerful. Or is it the 11% alcohol content that does that?

The keg of Russian River's Pliny the Younger tapped at Belmont Station Tuesday lasted nearly six hours, thanks to the 10-ounce serving size. The place was packed around 7:30 when I got there: the cafe was jammed, and the aisles of the store were full of people also. It's Imperial IPA week at the Station, so I was also able to enjoy a pint of Fort George's XIV Chapel -- I missed it at the recent barleywine festival. XIV is another big IPA that coaxes a perfumey jasmine flavor out of its hops. Wonderful.

Pliny the Younger's hops reminded me a little bit of Hop Henge. Deschutes brewed two batches this year to see how much hop flavor we can take. The second batch comes close to matching the intense hoppiness of Pliny the Younger -- it may be technically hoppier but doesn't balance it as beautifully as the Pliny. If you have a bottle of Hop Henge and don't know which batch it is, look just above the bar code. Batch #2 is marked as such. I can appreciate both, but I prefer the first batch -- it's nearly as hoppy as the second, without leaving a fuzzy coating on your tongue. Dave and I tried them side-by-side at the Portland pub a couple weeks ago, but as of today the website only lists #2 as on tap. Carla is no stranger to IPAs, but when I poured her a glass of batch #2, she took a couple sips and then gave up. Luckily I was able to take up the slack.

If you ever see Pliny the Younger being served, don't even hesitate, have one. At least one. Hop Henge will be much easier to find around Portland. Oh! another hop bomb that's available right now is Lagunitas Hop Stoopid -- $3.29 for bombers at New Seasons recently.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Barleywine Festival 2009

I'm sure glad I made a second trip to the Quimby Street Lucky Lab's Barleywine Festival Saturday night. At least half of the beers were already gone by that time, but I did discover one very pleasant surprise. Beer Valley's Highway to Ale was one I passed over on Friday afternoon, because I didn't care for the Beer Valley brews at last year's Fresh Hop Tastival. But I gave it a whirl Saturday evening, and decided that Highway to Ale was my favorite of the barleywine festival -- the perfect mix of dense malt, tasty hops, and firewater.

When Dave and I showed up at lunchtime Friday, some of the beers I was eager to sample weren't yet on, including Oakshire Sasquatch, Ft. George XVI Chapel (a favorite from last year), and Three Creeks 8 Second. Friday was a beautiful sunny day and the warehouse door at the Lucky Lab was thrown wide open, lowering the temperature to about 40 degrees. Dave had to put his hat and mittens back on. Sunny days in the spring are a time of ecstatic disorientation for Portlanders -- it's as if we've arrived in Valhalla and all rules are suspended. Let's open the doors and windows, we won't get cold! Stop sign, what stop sign? No kidding: on my way to the Lucky Lab, I watched motorists at two intersections drive right through stop signs at full speed. It's just the sun, friends, it's not an archangel come to take you home.

Here are my Not-A-Wine-Guy™ descriptions of my favorite beers from the festival. Remember, some of them are just "big beers" and not technically barleywines.
  • Beer Valley Highway to Ale: deliciously well done
  • Walking Man Old Stumblefoot: right on (2008); righter on! (2007)
  • Terminal Gravity Superfest: barleywine-ish and good
  • Oakshire Sasquatch: nice and malty, beautiful carbonation
  • Lagunitas Gnarleywine: maple goodness
I got the merest taste of the Three Creeks 8 Second -- it was hooked up just as I was leaving Friday -- but it seemed promising. Dark and hoppy, maybe a little dry? There were a slew of beers that I missed completely, mostly because they came and went between my visits. Hmm... Charles also came and went between my visits. I wonder if he drank up all the beer I wanted to try.

Saturday I did get to try the lovely Oakshire Sasquatch -- not to be confused with Bigfoot -- one of several batches of the late Glen Falconer's strong ale recipe brewed around the state in his honor. The Ninkasi version at the Barleywine Fest was also quite tasty, and last week at the Green Dragon our friend Corey brought some deliciously malty and yeasty dry-hopped Sasquatch he brewed at the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse. But my three Sasquatch sightings can't compare to the five Sasquatches Angelo tried a few weeks ago. I feel like an old stumblefoot for not even getting my hands on the Hopworks Sasquatch yet.

There were some surprising breweries missing this year: no Caldera, no Rogue, no Full Sail? The delicious Caldera imperial stout has been a perennial favorite of mine at this festival. And the only thing Deschutes could come up with was a keg of 2005 Mirror Mirror that hasn't aged gracefully? The Deschutes brewers in the Pearl should have landed with both feet on a barleywine festival in their own backyard.

Despite those omissions, the Barleywine Festival was a great success. Timing is everything, though. Next year I'll try to get there before the kegs run dry, but after they've actually been tapped.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Session Premium Lager

For this first Friday of March, The Beer Nut in Dublin is choreographing the world's beer bloggers in the synchronized blogging experiment known as The Session. The Nut decreed that we write about "cold, fizzy, yellow" light lagers -- challenging us loudmouths who go on and on about the latest Imperial This or Double That to "return to our roots as beer drinkers".

The Lager Session... think, think, think... I've got it! I'll write about Session Lager, the cheaper beer that Full Sail markets to those who refuse to drink craft beer. As part of my research, I picked up a twelve-pack of 11-ounce stubbies for $11. What qualifies for cheap sure has changed over the years: in the mid-90's in Austin my cheap stubbies of choice were $2 six-packs of Pearl. That's not really my roots as a beer drinker -- I consider Shiner Bock to be my early muse -- but it was a reasonable way to stretch the budget at the time.

What can I say about Session Premium Lager? Well, it's cold, fizzy, and yellow. Tastes to me like Pearl or Miller High Life. In the narrow range of lawnmower beers, it's at the more flavorful end. If you absolutely must down something cold, cheap, and mildly alcoholic, you may as well make it a Session, especially if you're here in Oregon and want to drink local.

The little bottles of Pearl back then had entertaining rebus puzzles under the bottle caps; Session's caps have rock-paper-scissors drawings on them. What are those for? It wouldn't make a good drinking game, because both players have to open their bottle to play. Maybe you could use it to decide who buys the next round, but who wins a three- or four-person game?

Even though Session won't be a common choice for me, I'm glad Full Sail took this direction. It gives the cheap beer crowd a local choice, and it might also entice some of them to branch out to better beers. One suggestion to Full Sail: you should make Session even more versatile by selling it in cans.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Philadelphia's Steaks and Hoagies

My thinking got confused a couple weeks ago when I was writing about the Portland Democrats who want to raise the excise tax on beer by 2000% -- or tax kegs at 50% of wholesale, if you want to look at it that way. The stress of thinking that my state senator would sign on as a sponsor of such a Satanic piece of legislation had me all worked up, so that when I tried to enumerate the five small breweries in her district, I mentioned "Milwaukie's" as one of them. An alert reader -- thankfully there's one -- drew my attention to the fact that there is no such establishment in Portland.

Of course what I meant was Philadelphia's on Milwaukie Avenue. One reason for my unfamiliarity was that I had never been there. Carla and I rectified that one evening recently by walking over there while our name slowly drifted to the top of the waiting list at Saburo's Sushi House around the corner on Bybee.

As you'd guess by the "Steaks and Hoagies", Philadelphia's is primarily a sandwich shop, and most of the clientele is there for the Philly cheesesteaks. But they also sell half a dozen kinds of beer they brew themselves on a small system. This is another piece of evidence that we do indeed live in Beervana: a mom-and-pop sandwich shop decides to quietly brew their own beer on the side. They've been doing so for fourteen years.

Since we had an eye on the clock that night and were saving our appetite for Saburo's, we took the rare action of ordering samplers. For the $4.25 price of a pint, they'll serve you three little 6-ounce tasters. Our favorites tended to be the darker beers: the Ben Franklin Brown was the best beer in the house. The Mummers Imperial Stout was Carla's favorite, and the William Penn Porter wasn't bad. We weren't impressed with the Independence IPA or the Spectrum Amber.

They also have a few rotating guest taps, which had a southern Oregon bias during our visit -- Mia and Pia's Double Chocolate Stout and Klamath Basin's Drop Dead Red were joined by Laurelwood Tree-Hugger Porter and Cascade's Defroster. It seems like Klamath Basin beers are appearing at more and more places since I originally rewarded community service points for KB beers to SuperDog -- for instance, Claudia's was serving Klamath's Brown a couple weeks ago. But it's been a few years since I've seen Mia and Pia's on a smaller taplist like this, so I'll give CSPs to Philly's for that.

The laid-back atmosphere was also very appealing. We weren't in a position to try the sandwiches -- or the Tastykakes -- but the grill area behind the counter was meticulously clean, and the diners looked happy. If you're down in Sellwood, it would be a great place to stop in for a sandwich and a pint.