Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Block 15 Restaurant and Brewery

Last week we spent a few days at the southern Oregon coast, one part of the state we had yet to explore. Our family trip gave me the chance to visit a well-regarded brewpub that I hadn't yet been to, Block 15 Restaurant and Brewery in Corvallis.  It's not completely unusual to see one of their beers on tap in Portland, but I was really looking forward to checking out Block 15 in person, to be able to sample from their full range of offerings.

My visit to the pub did not disappoint in that regard.  There were 13 house taps to sample from, plus a guest tap from Oakshire, a guest cask from Brewers Union, and a collaboration beer brewed with fermentation science students at Oregon State.  Given all that bounty, and the fact that we were on the highway (I wasn't driving), I went through a couple of five-sample taster trays with our lunch, with a little help from Carla.  Here are the beers we tried:
  • Pappy's Dark bourbon-aged strong ale: boozy yet smooth, delicious bourbon and vanilla notes
  • Super Nebula bourbon-aged imperial stout: well-rounded big stout, on the sweet side, with hints of cocoa and coffee
  • Alpha IPA: clean, tasty IPA with lots of floral/piney hops
  • Up in Smoke rauchbier (the OSU student collaboration): dark and smooth, with the perfect amount of smoke
  • Anniversary Trippel: lots of banana flavor, nice bubbles and hops on the tongue, pleasantly sweet
  • Cherry Quad: lovely Belgian flowery aroma/taste, later the banana kicks in, very light cherry flavor
  • Nebula Naked Oat Stout: licorice nose, charred malt and licorice taste, nice bitter finish
  • Aboriginale strong ale: nice balance between grainy malts and piney hops
  • Ridgeback Red Ale: firm body, fruity malty flavor, decent hops.
All the beers we tasted were really well done, there was nothing we turned our nose up at, and in fact we got seconds of the IPA.  Brewer/owner Nick Arzner told me that they recently installed a brite tank for serving the IPA, and he thinks not jostling the beer into and out of a keg helps keep the hop aromas at their peak.  I was hoping for a little more cherry flavor in the Cherry Quad, but it was a dandy Belgian.  Pappy's Dark is a gem: drink it whenever you find it.

There's so much to say about Block 15 as a brewery that I hardly know where to start.  The place seems to be going several directions at once, and surprisingly, doing them all very well.  For example, a lot of their best-known beers are giant, barrel-aged sippers like Pappy's Dark or Figgy Pudding, but on the other hand their cask ale setup meets the orthodoxy requirements of Ted Sobel at Brewers Union, so that Block 15 is -- as far as I know -- the only establishment where Ted will let another human being serve his wares.  Meanwhile, in the basement of the brewery, a few different rooms hold various wine and whisky barrels for aging beer, while in another corner sits a custom koelschip for open-fermentation projects.  Nick's brewing partner Steve van Rossem admits to a certain amount of nervousness about all the different critters they're using to ferment their beers, but he also keeps a tight handle on sanitation, which must be a big part of Block 15's success in producing such a varied lineup.

The collaboration with OSU -- called Brewed by Beavers --  makes good sense for a brewpub in a college town where the local university has a fermentation science program.  And in another kind of community outreach, Nick's Brewer's Brain blog is updated with pretty decent regularity, and has some really interesting content.

This was a lunch visit, so I better say something about the food in the restaurant.  It's not revolutionary -- a pretty straightforward Northwestern locavore menu -- but the whole family was happy with our burgers, fries, soups and salads.  I certainly recommend it.  If you are in Corvallis, you're going to hit Block 15 for the beer anyway, so you might as well go with an appetite.

Finally, I should mention that Block 15 won last year's Cheers to Belgian Beers with their Ferme de Demons.  Don't worry, we don't have to go to Corvallis for this year's festival, the surrogate site for it is Metalcraft Fabrication, 723 N. Tillamook, just off Interstate near Widmer and not far from a Yellow Line MAX stop. I hear that the big warehouse should be an excellent venue for the festival.  Mark your calendars:  April 30th, noon to 9 PM, with 42 (!) Oregon breweries lined up.

Further reading:
  • Patrick Emerson recently put up a nice report on a visit to Block 15 a few months ago
  • Angelo's interview of Nick is a couple years old now, but still interesting

Friday, March 25, 2011

Website Recommendations

Here are a few websites that I've been geeking out on recently, and that I think you should check out:
Let me explain:

White Beer Travels: We are hoping to take a family vacation to Europe this summer, and as I googled around for information on the Cantillon tour in Brussels, I landed upon the charmingly 90s-flavored webpage of White's Beer Travels.  The content hasn't been updated since Mr. White's unfortunate demise in 2007, but there is a ton of good beer information there, mostly focused on Europe.  There is absolutely no rational organization to the website, and the narratives and photo credits are innocently homespun in the manner of George Herter's cookbooks, or your oldest male relative's holiday videotapes.  If you must have some structure to your web activities, start on the beer hunts page, or the "pub of the month" entries for Bamberg, Bruges, Uerige, or Denver.

Silly Tasting Notes Generator: I'm very proud of my Beer Review Generator, and every now and then someone StumbleUpon's or Reddit's it, bringing an extra thousand visitors to the blog for a brief time.  Along the lines of the BRG, but for wine, is Greg's Silly Tasting Notes Generator.  It recently caught New York Times critic Eric Asimov's attention, who tweeted it to the rest of us.  Good stuff.  Try it out on your wine friends.  And don't forget the BRG when you need a silly beer review.

A pint for Dionysus: There are many excellent beer blogs in Portland. Man, that's a weird thing to say -- why would any town need more than a couple of good beer blogs?  There's only a certain amount of gossip and current events to report upon.  It's true, and yet the varying interests of the different bloggers still makes for a pretty interesting ecosystem.  Then there is A pint for Dionysus.  I don't want to ghettoize Dan by putting his blog outside that ecosystem, but there is something so refreshingly different about his writing style that it sits outside the mundane concerns of the rest of us.  Or -- I'm confused -- are Dan's concerns so timelessly mundane that they make good reading whether they're about beer or not?  You'll have to decide for yourself, but if you're not already following Portland's Studs Terkel of beer, I recommend you start with some of his bar reviews:  The Agenda, The Nest, Angelo's; or peruse his year-long project of checking out The Local.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Imperial IPA Blind Tasting

Imperial IPA is kind of a ridiculous term: it has no historical significance, and Double IPA is a better description of the same thing. Nevertheless, it's probably my favorite beer style if I had to choose one. Lots of hops, lots of malt, and lots of medicine.

Hopworks just released the 2011 version of their IIPA, the Ace of Spades, and since they gifted me a couple bottles of it, I thought I'd try it out alongside a couple of other big IPAs of note: the stalwart Ninkasi Tricerahops, and this winter's price-performer: Pyramid Outburst.  Tuesday night Dave came over from next door, and we did a blind tasting of the three, to see if we could tell which was which, and to see which one we liked the best.  Carla also took a quick taste; she didn't try to identify them, but voted on what she liked.

Sadly, I think the bottle of Tricerahops was a little old, even though I just bought it a couple days ago at New Seasons.  It didn't have the giant, flowery hops that I expected, and there was quite a bit of murky sediment in the bottom of the bottle.  It was so unimpressive that Dave and I both ranked it behind the other two, and we both assumed that our blind sample of Tricerahops was the cheaper Outburst.  Remember when Tricerahops was this startling new style of gigantic, floral IPA?  When you would call your friends if you saw it on tap somewhere?  That was only 3 or 4 years ago.  Now there are dozens of double IPAs, and a bottle of Tricerahops can be something of a letdown.

In second place in our blind tasting -- actually, it was Carla's favorite -- was the Pyramid Outburst.  A new offering this year, Outburst is priced right -- about $2 a bomber, or $6 a six-pack -- but I've had mixed emotions about it.  The first time I tried it, I had already had a beer or two (can't remember which), and I was completely underwhelmed by Outburst.  Then a few days later I popped one open after a long work day, and it really hit the spot.  A couple more good experiences followed, until one day when I followed up a bomber of Firestone Walker Double Jack with an Outburst, and I almost wanted to cry.  It tasted awful that day, like on Thanksgiving when you drink a glass of water after eating your cranberry sauce.  Because of those experiences, I was a little worried about how it would fare alongside Ace of Spades and Tricerahops, but this time it held its own.  Since it's such a bargain, stock up on Outburst while it's out there, just be careful how you use it.

Which brings us to the Ace of Spades:  boozy, malty, flowery -- what's not to like?  Dave and I both picked it out of the lineup, and also found it to be the most satisfying of the three we tasted that night.  Carla said it had an aftertaste she didn't like, but I almost wonder if that aftertaste was alcohol, given how big this beer is.  Enjoy it while it's out -- last year it seemed to disappear almost before I realized it was available.  It's highly recommended.

That's a look at three Double IPAs.  There are lots more out there: for example, we just went through our annual bout of Pliny the Younger madness, and Hop Henge is still pouring at Deschutes (and was $4 a bomber at the Burnside CVS a few days ago).  And do try Double Jack if you run across it -- it's stunning.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Portland Beer Price Index: Spring 2011

Now that the days have once more lengthened to challenge the nights, here is the Spring 2011 installment of the Portland Beer Price Index.  This thing has been going for nearly two years now, so I finally can replace the squirrely graphic I've been using to label these posts with one that contains actual data from the survey: the average retail shelf price and "on-sale" price of bombers in the survey.  As always, I ask you to remember that this is not a rant about how expensive beer is, it's just a project to watch how prices change over time.  Click here for a full explanation of the PBPI.

Here it is:
  • 6-packs: $8.78, up 5 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers: $5.03, up 4 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.31, up 18 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.95, down 3 cents
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.29, unchanged
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.52, unchanged
I have to admit, I haven't been to every pub in the pint-price survey all that recently.  But I don't know of any prices that have changed since last quarter.  On the retail side, this survey marks the second one in which Beer Valley's Leafer Madness has replaced Pelican IPA.  I expect to make two other changes next quarter: I'll include Ninkasi's Total Domination in the 6-pack survey, and I'll start averaging in the prices at Pearl Specialty Market, since they sell everything in the survey at pretty reasonable prices.  I'm collecting the new data for Ninkasi and Pearl this time, but not figuring it into the numbers since I can't compare them to last quarter.

Look for the next PBPI around the summer solstice.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Girlie Beer Labels

    All the hullabaloo at Beervana over the label for Upright's bottles of Four Play reminded me of a beer label I spotted a few months ago at Belmont Station, this "Before-After Triple Bock", which turns out to be from a Lithuanian brewery called Rinkuškiai. It didn't cost much, and I didn't have much hope for an allegedly 12% ABV Baltic bock that I'd never heard of, but it I figured the somewhat humorous nature of the label made it worth a couple bucks.

    See how pretty the girl is after you drink this beer?  You should have seen her beforehand (see the side-by-side picture at the bottom of this post).  Talk about beer goggles.  The beer was pretty bad, by the way:  syrupy and one-dimensional.  Dave described it as: "Like syrup from canned fruit cocktail with fluorescent cherries".  It gets a generous "C" on Beer Advocate.

    Back to Ezra's label for this year's Four Play.  Commenters at Beervana and the New School have complained that the painting of a partially undressed woman on a couch objectifies women.  Good lord.  It's a stylized piece of art, and while I think the artist has portrayed an attractive, fit young woman, it's not necessarily a seductive pose.  She might be waking up with a hangover, for all the picture conveys. To the complaint that the label panders to "stereotypical hyper-masculine, heterosexual males", Ezra replies that there is no indication of masculinity or heterosexuality in the picture at all: "the lack of presence of a male could mean the opposite".

    To my mind, the Before-After label is more offensive than the Four Play label.  It's a clever drawing, and good for a titter or two, but it sends an even bleaker message about women than Ezra's pin-up art.  First, it says that a woman is only interesting if she has a particular kind of youthful beauty.  A second implication is that if you can just get drunk enough, you'll be ready to hook up with any woman.  But look, even though I said the label was more offensive than Four Play's, it's not worth throwing a snit about either one.  Lighten up, people.  Next you'll be complaining about the St. Pauli Girl (this year's is a trained architect and kick-boxer who speaks five languages and is developing her own make-up line!).

    Judging from the website, Rinku┼íkiai markets a much more staid image in Lithuania.  But trolling the internet I found a couple more labels where they strive for prurience in strange and ineffective ways: Lobster Lovers Lager and Werewolf Dark Ale.

    One more thing.  Why is it that, in a town full of beer lovers, any little glitch is greeted with a chorus of "Boycott!"?

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    Broadway Grill and Brewery

    A couple weeks ago on my way home from Zwickelmania at Breakside, I decided to pop in to the Broadway Grill and Brewery at NE 17th and Broadway.  If you're not familiar with it, it's an outpost of Multnomah Village's Old Market Pub and Brewery.  The first time I'd been to the Broadway Grill was a few years ago when some of us were over at the McMenamins on Broadway to drink some of Corey's beers.  After leaving McM's, we noticed the Grill, and since none of us had ever heard of it, we stopped in to check it out.  At that time we found that the beer was not very good.  But I've noticed that the last few times I've had an Old Market beer at a beer festival I've really enjoyed it, so I thought I would give the place a second chance.  Plus a sign hanging out front that advertised homemade chili called out to my lunch-deprived belly.

    The place is basically a family-friendly sports bar -- typical pub grub and a selection of TVs scattered around with different sporting events on.  The chili was not what I hoped it would be, and the house beers I tried were a mixed bag, but there were a couple that were pretty good.  In the interest of science I got a sample tray of nine beers ($11) -- eight standards that they chose and one seasonal that I chose.  They have an impressive number of house beers on tap -- the menu lists 12 regulars, and I believe they had 4 or 5 seasonal choices the day I was there.  The beers I could see drinking again were:
    • British Bombay IPA: pretty well-balanced, but still a healthy dose of hops
    • Hop On!: nice IPA with a long bitter finish (the finish reminded me of Sierra Nevada's Southern Hemisphere)
    • Multnomah Village Golden: kind of like flowery Hawaiian golden ales, not bad but more bitter than I expected
    • Rat Dog ESB: decent enough ESB, though again a little more bitter than it had to be
    Now for some beers that had problems:
    • Mr. Toad's Wild Red: an attempt at a NW red that is way too malty, almost a porter
    • Vienna Lager (seasonal): a little gamey, maybe not conditioned enough
    • Pacific Porter: too sweet, with a strange cocoa flavor (added cocoa?)
    • Mr. Slate's Gravelberry (raspberry wheat): the raspberries cover a mediciney off flavor that can't be intentional
    • Great White Wheat (with obligatory lemon): same medicinal problem as Slate's, not cloudy as advertised
    Now, I said the place was family friendly, but what's up with the kid's names on the beers?  Mr. Toad?  Mr. Slate (you know, from the Flintstones)?  Old Market says their beers are now 100% organic (I have to assume they are not including the hops).  They seemed to have a handle on the English ale range, but the other things I tried were not very good.  Next time I go back I need to try the beers flavored with chili peppers and apples, and I'd like to venture further into the seasonals, given the good luck I've been having with Old Market at festivals.

    All in all, I'd say it's worth a visit if you're in the neighborhood or if there's a game on you want to watch.  Broad array of house beers; stick to the IPAs if you can't stand a disappointment.

      Friday, March 11, 2011

      Barleywine Festival 2011

      I spent an even shorter time than I usually get to at the Lucky Lab Barleywine Festival last Friday, but still had tastes of some amazing beers.  One thing that kept the quality high was that I was lucky enough to sit down with some skilled palates who were about an hour ahead of me, so Ritch, Eli, Sanjay, and Lisa guided me towards the hits and away from the misses.  Don't you love beer people?

      As always, it helps to arrive early, though if you only hit the festival once, you'll miss some of the offerings, since they have more kegs than taps. That's part of the fun, though.  The organization was the best I've ever seen at this festival: the program was accurate and complete from the get-go, the beer was at the right temperature, and everything went really smoothly.  Nice work, guys.

      Here are my favorites, in order:
      • Lucky Lab 2007 Old Yeller: classic gigantic barleywine, light fruits, long finish
      • Butte Creek 2007 Train Wreck: bitter, slightly oxidized, delicious
      • Ninkasi 2010 Critical Hit: strong, hoppy, well done
      • North Coast 2010 Old Stock: too smooth, rounded and sweet
      • Laht Neppur 2008 Blackwater: dry, light mouthfeel, mild hops, very nice
      Old Yeller is always a favorite, though the early tasters at our table rejected the 2009 barrel-aged version.  The 2007 was exactly what I want in a barleywine, big flavors of every kind, including a kind of caramel or maple sweetness.  The Butte Creek and Ninkasi offerings were in the same vein.  It was kind of amazing how hoppy the Butte Creek still is 3 or 4 years old -- it must have been off the charts when it was fresh.

      Old Stock is a little different variation on the barleywine theme, with the hops toned down more like English versions like Thomas Hardy or J.W. Lees.  The 2010 was delicious; I skipped the 2009 on Eli's recommendation.

      Laht Neppur has turned in some not-so-good barleywines to this festival in the past, though a year or two ago at the OBF they brought a lighter beer that wasn't too bad.  The 2008 Blackwater at the festival this year was very good, and an interesting change of pace.  Lisa told us that she heard it was brewed with a wine yeast -- the brewer had originally moved to the Walla Walla area to make wine.  I don't know if that was what made it so different, but it was noticeably drier than most barleywines.

      The routine was different this year than in the past.  Instead of the pub providing small taster glasses, you bought a little taster glass of your own on the way in, $9 for a glass and two tickets.  Extra tickets were $2 each.  That seems more expensive to me than I remember from years past, but maybe it's just due to the expense of the glass.  The single glass and $2 samples definitely slowed down the pace a little bit, which -- intentional or not -- is a good thing for beers this big.

      The near-misses and misses for me this year were as follows:
      • Oakshire 2010 Very Ill-Tempered Gnome: very malty, needs more age
      • Ninkasi 2009 Critical Hit: cloudy and oxidized, didn't age well even for a year
      • Upright 2009 Just Another Strong Ale: dark plummy fruit flavors, but a vinegary taste creeping in
      • New Old Lompoc 2010 Upsetter Belgian Barleywine: no, no, no
      That only covers about 20-25% of the beers that were at the festival!  For a little extra coverage, check out these wrap-ups from Sanjay and Jeff.  For some past perspective, here are my reports from 2009, 2008, and 2007 (did I miss it last year?).

        Tuesday, March 8, 2011

        All Ninkasi, All the Time

        It's weird, sometimes the name of one brewery pops up over and over in the course of a few days. Last week, Ninkasi kept invading my consciousness:
        • The brewery started shipping 6-packs of Total Domination IPA and Spring Reign Pale Ale.
        • The East Burn Beer Belly Dinner for March featured Ninkasi.
        • One of my favorite beers at the Lucky Lab Barleywine Festival was Ninkasi's 2010 Critical Hit.
        The ticket pictured above is from a 6-pack commemorative party two Saturdays ago.  Heh heh, "drinketfaster".  Take that, Ticketbastard.  I heartily applaud Ninkasi's move to six-packs.  The $12-13 SPE price on Total Domination 22-ounce bombers always rankled me.  It looks like the six-packs are going to have a regular price of about $10, usually on sale at $9?  I'll take it, especially if Believer gets down to that price.  By the way, the other day Zupan's -- which I always think of as having ridiculous beer prices -- had Ninkasi bombers for $3 (SPE $9.82).

        A few days after that, this past Thursday, Carla and I went to the Ninkasi dinner at EastBurn, hosted by brewer Jamie Floyd.  If you haven't been to one of these monthly dinners, pick a brewer you like and go to one.  $35 gets you a really nice 5-course meal, 5 or 6 beers, and congenial company on the back porch.  Proceeds benefit Ride On.  Thursday most of the Ninkasi offerings were pretty standard:  Spring Reign, Believer, Total Domination, Tricerahops.  The dessert was served with side-by-side samples of Oatis and Vanilla Oatis, the latter dry-hopped with vanilla beans, which add a delicate sweetness to the already smooth oatmeal stout.  We also got a taste of Ninkasi's 2011 entry in Eugene's KLCC Collaboration -- a sessionable pale ale that Jamie hopped with Hop Union's Falconer's Flight hop pellets.

        Friday I snuck over for a brief session at the Lucky Lab's Barleywine Festival.  I hope to write a little more about the fest in a couple days, but as I said above, one of the winners in my book was Ninkasi's 2010 Critical Hit.  It was a classic take, located on the Old Foghorn/Bigfoot branch of the barleywine family tree, with decent but not overpowering alcohol heat and massive hops.  I preferred the fresh article to the 2009 version, which was still good, but quite a bit cloudier and with less distinct flavors (maybe a little oxidation already creeping in also).

        Speaking of Critical Hit, I won an EastBurn hoodie at the dinner Thursday night by answering -- close enough -- Jamie's trivia question about how he came up with the name Critical Hit.  Luckily, Jeff Alworth had mentioned that bit of information to me recently:  it's a Dungeons and Dragons double-damage dice roll.  Pretty cool name for a barleywine, actually.  Er, not cool, but apt.

        Just four years ago, who could have foreseen Ninkasi's meteoric rise to become the brewery with the biggest-selling IPA in Oregon?  That is, who besides Jamie and company?  Keep your eye on them:  the six-packs are going to propel them even further in their goal of Total Domination.