Thursday, February 25, 2010

First Impressions of Migration Brewing

A handful of the Pub Night gang headed over to Migration Brewing yesterday for its opening night. There are only guest taps for now, but next Wednesday they will put on their Migration Pale Ale. The fine folks at Lompoc Brewing are doing a great community service by letting brewer Michael Branes brew on their system until Migration's rig is ready. That's Michael on the left in the picture, next to co-founder Colin Rath at last night's opening.

The space is nicely done, with high ceilings open to the rafters, lots of unfinished wooden tables, and a couple of nooks with couches in them. Last night we sat at about the spot where a pile of dirt sat next to the kegerator on my exploratory visit a few months ago -- you can see how much work went into getting the place ready. It's not a huge space, but with the open feel, the garage door in front, and the wooden bowls of peanuts in the shell, it's kind of like a Lucky Lab with a nice paint job. I hope that doesn't sound snarky in either direction -- I love hanging out at the Lucky Lab and I think Migration will have a nice hangout vibe also.

There is a square cove to the right of the bar which will soon become the home of a couple of dartboards.  Hooray!  It's a good setup, there will be a "lean bar" about chest height along the dart room wall, a place to set your beer and darts.  It's tucked away nicely, there shouldn't be any traffic issues there.

One quibble: I wish Migration had hit the ground running with honest pints instead of the ubiquitous shaker pints. Given all the similarities with the Lucky Lab, I'm surprised they didn't break out imperial pint glasses.  Or, being a new operation, why not start out on the right foot and have glassware marked with a 16-ounce or half-liter line?  More and more places are doing that these days.

Some more general observations:
  • Kids are allowed until 8 PM
  • Good bike racks out front
  • Food is simple (sandwiches, sausages), but pretty reasonably priced.  Most things seemed to be about $7.50.
  • The patio will be a great place to hang out in good weather
For further reading: eyewitness reports from Jason and Angelo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Double Alt Smackdown

A couple years ago I became obsessed with Alts. I was confused by the wide variation of different beers called "alt" -- the bland industrial alts I remembered from a trip to Germany had nothing in common with the Lucky Lab's Crazy Ludwig's Alt, which was a far cry from Alaskan Amber. Then I brought home a Pinkus Muenster Alt from Belmont Station, and I didn't know which way was up. It took samplings of Uerige Alt and Widmer Alt to set me on the right path.

Uerige also makes a double alt -- called Doppelsticke Alt -- which is nearly twice as strong. Double alts are catching on around Portland as well: Dave Fleming did one at the Lucky Lab before he left there a couple years ago; Hopworks did one a year or so ago; Widmer -- whose (single) Alt was their original flagship -- released 84/09 Double Alt to commemorate their 25th anniversary last year; and Ninkasi's somewhat counter-intuitive choice for a winter seasonal is a double alt called Sleigh'r.

Back in December I picked up a bottle each of the Sleigh'r, Uerige Doppelsticke, and 84/09, intending to corral some friends to help me blind-taste and compare the three. With one thing and another, I never got around to it, but I finally got motivated last week when my friend Brett ordered a glass of the Green Dragon/Oregon Brew Crew double alt -- yes, another Portland version of the style -- and gave me a taste of it.  That was the final straw: I dragged Brett and Lindsey over to my house to finally do the comparison.

My feelings about these double alts are contradictory.  The couple of times I've had the Uerige in the past, I found it too syrupy.  I recognize that someone could make the same complaint about the Widmer, and yet something about it grabs me: it was one of my favorite new beers last year.  On the other hand, Sleigh'r is a drier, more restrained version, but for some reason it doesn't grab me.

So, going into the blind tasting, I expected to like Widmer the best, Uerige next, and Ninkasi third.  Interestingly, when we compared notes later, that was what the other guys expected their preferences would be, too.  Lindsey won the contest, because he correctly identified all three.  I was able to spot the Ninkasi, but I confused Widmer and Uerige.  Brett amazed us by getting all the beers wrong: he thought Ninkasi was Widmer, Uerige was Ninkasi, and Widmer was Uerige.  I assume it was his first time to try Sleigh'r and -- like Jeff Alworth -- he wouldn't have imagined Ninkasi using a lighter touch than Widmer. With that bit of background, he might have made the same guesses as I did.

The Doppelsticke was my favorite of the three, which surprised me since it had rubbed me the wrong way in the past.  Lindsey said he couldn't pick a favorite between Widmer and Uerige.  Sleigh'r was Brett's favorite.  That's two first-place votes for Uerige, one for Ninkasi.  Widmer seemed to have all-around appeal:  it got Brett's and my second-place votes, and Lindsey's tie-for-first.  Brett and I also agreed that the Green Dragon's version was most like the Uerige, so kudos to the Brew Crew for nailing it.

Too bad I didn't get this tasting done while 84/09 and Sleigh'r were still widely available, but if you're interested in double alts, you still might find a few bottles of them at the usual places.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Resurrected Beer Styles

A few nights ago at Spints Alehouse I noticed that they had a 33 cl bottle of Leipziger Gose from Bayerischer Bahnhof on the menu. I've been trying the Portland-brewed Goses from Upright and Cascade -- actually, all of them at once at Brewpublic's Gose Solstice celebration in December -- but had never tried a German one. Bottles of the Bayerischer seemed to elude me, so I was excited that Spints had them. It was quite nice, thirst-quenching and appetizing.  The slight tartness was balanced by the very slight saltiness, and the coriander enhanced the faintly herbal flavor.  Upright and the lighter Cascade versions mimic this one pretty closely, though of course Upright's farmhouse yeast contributes its own herbal notes.

The story behind this beer is fascinating.  Originally brewed in the German town of Goslar -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an interesting place to visit, by the way -- the style really caught on in Leipzig before dying out in the 20th century.  The salt in the recipe is apparently there to mimic the taste of the water from Goslar's wells.  Angelo has a really nice post about the history of the style and the local Goses. More background from Jeff here.  And here's a very comprehensive article by Ron Pattinson.

Originally this post was going to be about last night's Fort George meet-the-brewer at the Green Dragon, except that three other bloggers beat me to the punch and wrote it up better than I would have.  But there is a tie-in to this article, because Fort George's Oyster Stout -- called Murky Pearl -- was one of the attractions last night.  Oyster Stouts are another style that was dead or dying, but is making a comeback.  The two I've had, Fort George's and Upright's -- gee Alex, what style can you resurrect next month? -- are not noticeably fishy at all.  At most, there's a slightly briny aftertaste.  They're both worth seeking out; I give a slight edge to Upright's, which will be out in bottles next week.  For more background, read Ezra's excellent article about Oyster Stouts.  The picture here is of Fort George brewer Chris Nemlowill and his wife Zetty McKay.  Zetty is the Coffee Girl that Chris named Coffee Girl Stout after.

These are the "dead" beer styles I can think of that have been brought back to life in our times:
  • Gose
  • Oyster Stout
  • Adambier (Hair of the Dog Adam)
  • Witbier (Pierre Celis resurrected this at Hoegaarden)
Any other ones that you can think of?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Small Are Beautiful

I'm talking about bottles, of course.

Back in college or shortly thereafter, my friend Bret was contentedly sucking down a can of Milwaukee's Best Light at a party when he was accosted by a preppy kid who told him, "Life's too short to drink cheap beer!" as he waved his 7-ounce Little Kings bottle in Bret's face.  In one of the finest comebacks on record, Bret shot back, "Life's too cheap to drink short beer!".

Setting aside the multiple ironies of that exchange, I want to talk about two beers that have recently been repackaged in smaller bottles than before.  Three cheers to Bridgeport for making Hop Czar cheaper and shorter.  It makes more sense to sell a 7-8% beer in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles than it does to sell it in 22-ounce bottles.  Anyone recall what bombers of Hop Czar sold for?  I'm thinking it was $5, or an SPE of $16.36.  The six-packs have been on sale around town for $7 -- less than half the price.  Hop Czar is now a constant fixture in my fridge.

It's one thing to open a 22-ounce bottle of 8% beer, but Rogue was selling their big beers -- like the 11% Russian Imperial Stout -- in even bigger 750 ml bottles (25 ounces).  The news that Rogue's XS series would now be sold in 7-ounce bottles took the Twitternet by storm a few weeks ago.  It's obviously a much more reasonable size for such big beers.

But instead of halving the price as Bridgeport did, Rogue took advantage of the switcheroo to raise the price about 5%.  At Belmont Station, the big bottle of RIS sold for $16.49, and the new small ones are $4.79; the SPE went from $46.82 to $49.27.  Which is even more surprising when you consider that the big pottery swing-top must be a much more expensive package than the regular-old glass bottles with a cap.  The beer is good -- I bought one of the 7-ouncers and drank it even though the bottle (wisely) recommended aging for a year -- but it's not $50 six-pack good.  That's more than $10 over the SPE for Deschutes Abyss.

Apparently Ninkasi is building a new bottling line that will let them move into six-packs.  When they do, watch out! Total Domination usually has an SPE of $13.09 -- I think their retail sales will go through the roof if they bring out $7-$8 six-packs.

Since I mentioned Abyss above, what do you think about Deschutes putting some of their bruisers like Abyss or Mirror Mirror into smaller bottles?  They could go Rogue and have a little higher margin if they went from $12 bombers to $4 sevens, or they could give us a break and sell them for $3.50 and leave off the wax coating.

Anyone heard of any other breweries moving to smaller formats?  Shorter, or cheaper, or both?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Full Sail Beer Belly

Carla and I had a great time at East Burn's Beer Belly Dinner last night. It was the one-year anniversary of the dinners, so they brought back Full Sail's John Harris as the guest brewer, since he did the first such dinner.  A new beer was previewed, Hop Pursuit Extra Pale Ale,  and I got to try the Pilsner Room exclusive Slainte Stout for the first time.  The appetizer courses matched up well with the two lagers of the evening: Session Black and LTD 1, and of course any night is a good night if the dessert is served with barrel-aged Top Sail Imperial Porter.

Hop Pursuit is a nice biscuity pale that John said was his way of getting back to his brewing roots, with the "old-school hops" that were all he had to work with early in his brewing career:  Willamettes, Mt. Hoods, and Cascades.  It will be out in 22-ounce bottles in a few months as part of the Brewmaster's Reserve series.  There are lots of flowery hops in there, but it's not overly bitter.  Nice stuff.

These Beer Belly dinners are a great deal, $35 a head for five wonderful courses paired with beer.  The setting on the East Burn's patio is pleasant and relaxing, especially if you get one of the tables with porch-swing seats. Best of all, the proceeds from the dinners benefit a worthy cause: Ride On, the non-profit organization that will drive you and your car home for a small fee if you've had too much to drink.

I foolishly forgot to bring a camera, so all I got were some blurry cellphone pictures.  Blurry and dark -- it wasn't until the cheese course that I figured out the night-photo feature of my new phone.  I wish I could show you the massive pork chops we were served, or the delicious pork-belly skewers candied and dusted with Indian spices.  [Update: A generous reader is willing to share her pictures of the dinner. Check out those courses.] Last night's menu was very pork-o-centric, but I noticed that a diner at the next table was provided with vegetarian replacements, so I suppose if you call ahead they'll accommodate you.

Next month's dinner features San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery.  Good food, good beer, good deal, all for a good cause.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Widmer Deadlift and Bridgeport Hop Czar

Two big Imperial IPAs are out now in 12-ounce bottles: old friend Bridgeport Hop Czar, and a new offering from Widmer, Deadlift IPA. Hop Czar is a beautiful hop bomb that used to go for about $5 a bomber -- $16.36 SPE -- that is now available in $7-$8 six-packs. We must be living right. Deadlift continues Widmer's romance with the Nelson-Sauvin hop variety; the big imperial gained early notoriety when Widmer had to dump a batch of 62,000 pints of it because of a power outage.

After I tried a bottle of Deadlift the other day, I imagined writing up a head-to-head between Deadlift and Hop Czar, with Hop Czar being declared the hoptastic winner. But when I opened a bottle of each at the same time, I was really surprised by how nice Deadlift is. If you're a hop-head, there's a place for both of these beers in your diet.

Let's start by describing the Hop Czar. It's got a surprisingly light body, dosed with tons of grapefruit-flavored hops. Grapefruit and grapefruit rind. The hop finish is oily -- like citrus rind -- and very, very long. My wife pointed out that the aroma of this beer is not as good as the taste -- she described it as smelling like beans cooking -- not in a bad way -- and I'll stand by her on that. Doesn't matter; the taste is wonderful if you like hops. Statistically, it's a 7.5% beer with 87 IBUs (though earlier releases claimed something like 100 IBUs). This is likely to be my new everyday six-pack beer; when it first came out in 2008 it made such an impression on me that I named it as one of the best beers of the year in Brewpublic's year-end poll.

On to the Deadlift. I mentioned above that this beer uses flowery Nelson-Sauvin hops, which are also used as aroma hops in Drifter, although Summit is the main hop variety in Drifter. Nelson-Sauvin has a big detractor here in Portland, Beervana's Jeff Alworth -- read his diplomatic panning of Drifter here. Drifter doesn't do much for me either beyond its beautiful aroma, but I remember liking Widmer's Full Nelson at the 2008 OBF. Whatever might be the impact of the Nelsons, I do find that Deadlift has a beautiful hop aroma on top of a very malty, full-bodied ale. The hops don't dominate, they harmonize wonderfully with the malt. It's a strong 8.6% beer, but I feel like it hits the flavor target that Drifter missed. This is a wonderful beer, I'm glad it is going to be a year-round offering from Widmer.

Here are some recent reviews of Deadlift: Dave Selden was impressed; Bulls & Brew was not, nor was Jason at Portland Beer and Music. Poor Jeff can't decide whether he likes it or not.

Too bad about the batch of Deadlift that had to be dumped because of the power outage. In case you hadn't noticed, every Widmer bottlecap has a toast -- a Prost, as they say -- printed on the underside, most of them submitted by fans of the brewery. Things like "To sleeping in!", or "To spooning!". A couple of summers ago I submitted my own, and I was kind of miffed that it didn't make it onto a bottlecap. See, my friends Lee and Bret were in town, and a surprise power outage meant I had to stop working on a beautiful sunny day and instead join them for a couple of beers at Deschutes. It sounded like a good Widmer Prost to me: "To power outages on a sunny day!". But now I understand why that might not sound so good to the owners of a brewery. [Update 2010/02/15: Today is a sunny workday for me, but now the power is out at my company's California office that I telecommute to! Best of both worlds: no wasted Oregon beer or Oregon sunshine.]

Speaking of which, when I was at Upright Brewing a couple weeks ago I asked Alex about that power outage, since he's in the same neighborhood as Widmer. He said that the power never went out that day at Upright. Interestingly, he mentioned that one time he did lose power overnight, but because he uses open fermentation, the rise in temperature in his fermenter was just a couple of degrees -- not enough to cause any damage. He figures that a closed fermenter that lost cooling for that long would have ruined a batch of beer.

Cheapskate that I am, I can't help but discuss the pricing of these beers. The more economical price on Hop Czar is very welcome. The price on Deadlift is a little higher: I think it was about $2 a bottle at Beermongers, and about $8.80 a four-pack at Belmont Station. The Oregonian article about the power outage described Deadlift as Widmer's "most expensive beer". Deadlift's $12-$13 SPE is pretty high for Widmer, but the Brothers' Reserve Doppelbock sells for about $10 per 22-ounce bottle -- a much higher SPE of $32.73. (Are the Brothers ripping us off on the doppelbock? No, more likely it's due to mathematically-challenged reporting at the Oregonian. After all, the O recently described Portland's 20-year bike plan as too expensive, even though it aims to serve 25% of the city's transportation needs for less than 5% of the transportation budget.)

Conclusion: Want a delicious tongue-scraper at a nice price? Pick up a six of Hop Czar. Want a little more aroma and balance? Snatch up some Deadlift. You won't go wrong either way.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Jubel 2010

Deschutes Jubelale is a traditional wintertime favorite on our block of Main Street. We all feel like we're on a first name basis with the beer, and we tend to just call it "Jubel". But in the Deschutes pantheon, that name is reserved for their once-a-decade doubled version of Jubelale, bottled ten years ago as Jubel 2000, and again this year as Jubel 2010. I went down to the Portland pub Friday for the release, and met Ritch and Brian there. They're showing off their commemorative glasses of 2010 with Cam O'Connor, the head brewer here in Portland.

Chalk up another win for Deschutes' double-recipe trick, also used to great success with Mirror Mirror, Double Black Butte, and Double Cinder Cone. This 10% beer is amazingly smooth and balanced. Swirl it in your glass and you get a great whiff of malt. The taste is indeed something like a concentrated Jubelale, but the Christmas spice flavors are replaced in this version with a soft cherry note. The taste was very familiar to me, so I asked Brian what beer it reminded him of, and he instantly responded "Hair of the Dog Adam". I think he hit it right on the head: this has the darkness and strength of Adam, and the hint of cherry calls to mind last year's wonderful Cherry Adam.

I remember having Super Jubel last winter ('08-'09) at the Portland pub, and finding it a bit harsh. Jubel 2010 has been aged in Pinot Noir barrels for 13 months, so perhaps what I had a year ago was just too green (or if last year's was also aged for a year, then Deschutes really hit a home run with this year's batch).

Cam reported that they made 500 barrels of Jubel 2010 -- for comparison, this year's run of Abyss was 700 barrels -- so you'll want to grab a couple of the 22-ounce wife-proofed wax-dipped bottles as soon as you can. They're $12 at the Portland pub. Your next chance will be in 2020.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Pyramid Fling Pale Ale

Pyramid's new spring seasonal pale ale, Fling, is now out on the shelves. It splashed into the Portland blogosphere a couple of weeks ago: Angelo used the occasion to lament Pyramid/MacTarnahan's listless lineup and kooky marketing, then Jeff sang Fling's praises, reviewing it alongside Deschutes Red Chair. Shortly after that I was at the Green Dragon and happened to run into Rick Nickerson, a Pyramid marketing guy, who gave me a bottle of Fling to try. I cracked it open last night.

It's quite a nice beer, refreshing and drinkable. I find it odd that Jeff lumped it in with Red Chair -- Fling has much more in common with Deschutes Mirror Pond. In the glass, Fling has a very light golden color with a quickly dissipating head. There's a nice citrus-hop aroma. It's smooth and easy-drinking, and the hops contribute a distinctly lemony taste -- maybe due in part to an experimental hop variety that is part of the recipe. The hop bitterness stays on the tongue just long enough.

Comparing Fling with Mirror Pond is a big compliment in my book. With a constant stream of new beers and new brewers bombarding us in Oregon, it's easy to forget what a well-made classic MP is (the fresh-hopped versions of the last couple years are what re-opened my eyes to it). So is there room on the supermarket shelf for two similar pale ales? I think so, especially with the different hop characters. It's also puzzling to me that a lighter beer like this would be released as a spring seasonal -- the website says it will be available in February and March. It seems much more like a summer beer to me; moreover, it's good enough that I think it would pick up a following if it was available year-round.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Full Sail 2010 Top Sail Release

Every February something special happens at the Full Sail Pilsner Room at the Portland harbor. In even-numbered years Full Sail rolls out a barrel-aged version of their Top Sail Imperial Porter; the odd-numbered years see the release of barrel-aged Black Gold Imperial Stout (though for some reason 2006 also got the stout and not the porter). Last night I sat at a table full of beer bloggers -- Charles (in the photo), Derek, Ezra and SNOB poster boy Ritch -- to sample this year's batch.

Usually the release party includes a vertical tasting of previous vintages. Brewmaster John Harris said that they've drained so many of those earlier kegs, that there wasn't enough old beer available for this year's release. So they hit on a wonderful idea: instead of a vertical tasting, have a horizontal tasting of single-barrel versions of this year's Top Sail, alongside the final product, which is a blend of beer aged in Maker's Mark, Stranahan's, and Four Roses barrels. Most of us at the table agreed that the blend was the best of all, capturing just the right balance between beer, wood, and bourbon. But it was wonderful to try the individual constituents side-by-side. Great idea.

I'm not a bourbon expert at all, and it would have been nice to have some experience of the three whiskeys to orient myself.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to note the differences in the individual barrels.  The Maker's Mark version seemed to contribute the strongest vanilla and alcohol flavors to the chocolatey porter.  That barrel seemed to most closely resemble the final blend.  The vanilla notes were much more subdued in the other two barrel; I'm guessing that the Stranahan's version was closest to the original brew, and the Four Roses barrel added what to me was a dry and dusty character -- Derek described it as "spicy".  The blend is a delicious strong porter with a drinkable non-syrupy consistency; it has a satisfying chocolate malt flavor, with bourbon and vanilla highlights added by the barrels.  Everything is very well-balanced -- you get a taste of the bourbon, but it doesn't overwhelm as it does in some bourbon porters and stouts.

Even though there were no kegs of older vintages available, John opened one bottle each of the 2004 and 2008 barrel-aged Top Sail.  He passed small glasses of each around our table.  The 2004 was still drinkable but is starting to lose its way (not surprising after 6 years).  The 2008 was lovely, quite similar to this year's, but a little mellower.  It's interesting, when I wrote up the 2008 Top Sail release, I found the 2008 a little disappointing compared to the 2004 -- age seemed to help out.  But last night I decided the 2010 is plenty good enough to drink right now, easily a match for the cellared-two-years 2008.  Who knows, maybe a year or two in the cellar will make it even more brilliant, but you won't be disappointed if you crack open a fresh bottle of it.