Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Double IPA Blind Tasting

Last month Dave and I sat down and blindly tasted three Imperial IPAs. At that sitting, we preferred Hopworks Ace of Spades, followed by Pyramid Outburst, with a possibly decrepit bottle of Ninkasi Tricerahops lagging behind.

On that post, Jeff Alworth commented that he wished Deschutes Hop Henge had been in the competition.  Hop Henge is something of a moving target, since every batch is a different experiment on the recipe, but it is right in there with the hoppiest, maltiest bruisers, so I hinted that I might try a second round of IIPA tasting, pitting Ace of Spades against Hop Henge and another beer I'm a huge fan of:  Firestone Walker Double Jack.  Suprisingly, I did get my act together enough to pull that tasting off at a neighborhood get-together last weekend.

Dave, Lindsey, and I -- with special guest taster Gypsy -- put our heads together and sampled the three beers.  Dave immediately declared "I know which one is the Ace of Spades", so naturally I blurted out, "Oh yeah, me too", though it turned out he was right and I was wrong.  The competition ended up as follows:
  1. Double Jack - everyone's favorite: hot and flowery, thick and satisfying
  2. Ace of Spades - solid and malty with a nice bitter finish
  3. Hop Henge - the lightest of the three, flowery and green, a little sweet
There's a kind of poker poetry there -- a pair of jacks beats ace high.  I'm not sure what kind of hand a henge is.  The three gents were unanimous in ranking the beers that way; Gypsy agreed the Double Jack was best, but didn't care for the Ace of Spades, so Hop Henge was her second-place vote.  Of course, we didn't know which beer was which when we ranked them, though as part of the fun Lindsey, Dave, and I tried to guess their identities.  Dave got all three of them right; Lindsey and I got Hop Henge right but incorrectly guessed that the #1 brew was Ace of Spades -- which surprised me until I found out the truth, since I had expected to like Double Jack the best, as indeed was the case.  We almost oppressed Dave into joining our side, but he stuck to his guns and won the guessing game.

All three are worthy, if you like giant hop monsters like that, and Ace of Spades and Double Jack have enough in common that you might mistake one for the other.  Definitely try the Double Jack if you haven't already.  But check this out: the blog Bottle Battle blind-tasted Double Jack vs. Widmer Deadlift (now called Nelson IIPA), and the Widmer won.  I've written favorably about Deadlift/Nelson in the past, but I can't imagine it beating the magnificent Double Jack, so I may have to do yet another round of blind IIPA tasting to see for myself.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest

Portland's Beer Goddess herself, Lisa Morrison, is the author of a new guidebook: Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, published in paperback by Timber Press.  It's a nice overview of the beer scene in our region, written in a pub-crawling style, where a paragraph about one pub rolls into a description of the next brewery in town.  Indeed, the chapters are peppered with suggested pub-crawl itineraries sketched out on simple maps.  I've been flipping through a copy that the publisher gave me, and I'm happy to recommend it to anyone planning any beer travel in Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia.

The most obvious book to compare Craft Beers to is the Good Beer Guide West Coast USA, published in 2008 by CAMRA (here's my review of the GBG).  Whereas the GBG attempts to be an almost encyclopedic list -- think a Best Western or AAA guide to beer -- Craft Beers only aims to hit the high points in a readable, narrative format.  The books don't exactly overlap geographically.  Lisa's book includes British Columbia, which I found to be an unfortunate omission from the other book; on the other hand, the CAMRA guide does cover California, as well as Alaska and Hawaii.  Furthermore, you might be amazed at how dated the Good Beer Guide has become in the short span of 3 years.  Not only have several good pubs in Portland alone closed in that time -- and new hotspots like Apex, Hop and Vine, and Beermongers have come along -- but it's amazing to think that it was written in the pre-Saraveza era, and before Ron Gansberg's now-famous sour beers merited any mention in the entry on Raccoon Lodge.  So Craft Beers has the edge of being more up-to-date.

Another difference in the two books is Craft Beers' greater focus on the people behind the beers and establishments it talks about.  There is a little bit of that in the Good Beer Guide, but not nearly as much.  The narrative style of Craft Beers allows for more of that to come out, and I especially enjoyed reading some of the anecdotes about less talked-about breweries like Mia and Pia's or Beer Valley.

Compared to the slick and glossy GBG, the two-color printing of Craft Beers is not as much of a looker.  I understand, 4-color printing is a great deal more expensive.  Still, the second color could have been used to greater effect in the printing, to highlight pertinent information in the book.  At the very least, I wish that pub and brewery names had been put in bold face -- sometimes it's difficult to quickly scan through a chapter to the information you're seeking.  On the plus side, the "Don't Miss" boxes at the end of each subchapter are a short and sweet way to present the highlights.  Pub names and addresses are conveniently called out into the margins, though there are a fair number of oversights:  in the Portland section I noticed that Saraveza, Higgins, and the Cheese Bar all showed up in the text, without their addresses appearing in the margin.  And hours of operation would have been a handy piece of information to include -- that's one thing the Good Beer Guide did really well.

I already mentioned the pub-crawl maps that run all through Craft Beers.  It's a very useful feature to provide you some beer itinerary ideas -- all short enough to be covered on foot -- and the pub crawls serve in some sense as the backbone of the book.  The simple maps don't look as fancy as the regional maps in the Good Beer Guide, but they have just the right level of detail and are actually more useful than the GBG maps, which are often inaccurate and needlessly cluttered.  A few of the Craft Beers maps are confusingly hacked into pieces when they could have been made more readable by simply reorienting them on the page and/or changing the scale -- the SE Division Street pub crawl is an example of that.  But most of them fit on the page without being broken up; those give you an easy-to-grasp birds-eye view of the various beer neighborhoods.

You can see I had a few quibbles with Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, but hey, I'm a picky person, and nothing I mentioned was a fatal flaw (maybe a future edition could address some of those issues).  Overall, it's a well-written and entertaining travel guide to the best breweries and pubs in this region, and the 18 walkable pub crawl ideas give you a leg up on your beer travels.  Don't leave home without it.  (I'll get a kickback if you click here to order it from Powell's Books.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Brews from Widmer

You've probably already heard about the Widmer product shakeup:
  • Broken Halo IPA has been retired.
  • W'10 is now year-round in $9 4-packs as Pitch Black IPA.
  • Deadlift IIPA is now called Nelson IIPA (still in $9 4-packs).
  • Broken Halo's 6-pack slot will be filled by various IPAs labeled Rotator.
  • The latest Brothers Reserve is out: Galaxy Hopped Barleywine.
  • The summer seasonal that was called Sunburn last year, is now called Citra Blonde.
Let's have a brief moment of silence for Broken Halo.  Born into the world as W'05, it was a satisfying, clean, middle-of-the-road Northwest IPA, made more attractive by the fact that you could often find it on sale at the supermarket for $7 or less per six-pack.  I'll miss it a little, but I think Widmer made a very astute move by recognizing that tastes have moved on since Broken Halo came out, and they can stay on top of the game by releasing a different recipe of IPA every so often.  It would never have occurred to me to do something like that, but once you hear it, you realize it's a smart idea.

The loss of Broken Halo is amply compensated for by the first Rotator IPA, called X-114, named after the experimental hop variety that is now called Citra.  An IPA by that name has been on and off at the Widmer Gasthaus for a couple years now, and I even remember seeing it on tap at Belmont Station once, but odds are that the recipe has been changing during that time.  The version that's out on tap and in bottles right now is very nice.  It has that beautiful orange-blossom aroma that Widmer's Drifter Pale Ale has, even though the aroma hops are different for the two beers (Drifter uses Summit and Nelson-Sauvin instead of Citra).  But X-114's sturdy backbone keeps the flavor up right to the end, whereas Drifter's flavor falls disappointingly flat.  X-114 isn't a barn-burner, but it's a solid IPA that I'll be indulging in regularly while it lasts.

The Galaxy Hopped Barleywine that's out right now is also a treat, and well worth seeking out.  It's darker than what you might be used to in barleywines (see the picture above), and has a comparatively light mouthfeel.  The Galaxy hops give it a nice tropical fruit aroma; in your mouth it takes a second for the hops to kick in.  They provide a kind of guava or tangerine flavor, followed by a moderately long, bitter finish.  It's very smooth and drinkable: I don't get the Old Foghorn maple/alcohol kick that I usually find (and appreciate) in barleywines.  It might age OK, but it seems better to drink it now while the hops are in full bloom.

In the interests of disclosure, I'll note that Widmer sent me samples of the X-114 and Barleywine, though I bought some of my own X-114 both before and after receiving the freebies.  Both beers are only available for a short time -- the Barleywine is a one-and-done; the brewery says the X-114 is due to be replaced by the next Rotator sometime during the summer -- and I recommend both of them, especially the cheap and plentiful IPA.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hair of the Dog Food

Back in December when I finally phoned in a review of Hair of the Dog's tasting room on Water Avenue, I was kind of dismissive about the food, saying that it was generally a little overpriced, and that it looked like there was a lot more bustle in the kitchen than was called for by the menu.  Granted, it was just an early impression offered with the caveat that I hadn't done a lot of dining there.

Well, I still haven't dined there much, but last Saturday I was in there for a double date, and we were all extremely pleased with the food.  Carla and I were not all that hungry, so we split two small items from the menu: the $6 slab of beef brisket, and a $4 plate of carmelized brussels sprouts.  Already from previous visits I had decided that the brisket was the best deal on the menu, and Saturday it was served with a simple green salad on the side, which makes it an even better deal.  So what, cheapskate?:  the price doesn't matter if the food is bad.  Saturday the food was a home run -- deliciously moist and flavorful brisket, an interesting citrusy dressing on the lettuce, and the sprouts cooked exactly the right amount.  Our friends Joe and Lisa were also quite happy with their respective orders of macaroni and pork spareribs.  So, I take back my earlier grousing about the menu and the prices.

Unfortunately we missed the bourbon-barrel version of Fred from the Wood that had been on tap earlier last week.  But I finally got to try the Adam version of HotD's Little Dog small beer.  It was smashing.  They bill it as "smoky", and while there's a little of that Adam smokiness, it doesn't seem to me to be the dominant flavor.  I get more of a plummy, dark fruit flavor, though since this is a very light 3.5% brew, it's not plummy the way you think of darker dessert beers.  It reminded me of Anchor Bock, but with more flavor and less alcohol.  I've really liked all the Little Dogs I've tried -- including the Fred version which was also on tap Saturday -- but the Adam variant is really something not to be missed.  It's also fun to taste it alongside the big dog Adam.

Now I've got to figure out how to get by there more often Wednesday through Saturday after 2 PM but before 8 PM.  Oh, and sorry about the headline, I couldn't help myself.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Portland-based Lambic Blog

Portland has a great pool of beer bloggers.  As Brady noted a couple weeks ago, the Wikio blog-ranking website currently thinks 4 of the top-10 beer blogs in North America are from Portland.  Take that with a grain of salt, of course, but it is a symptom of our blogging prowess.

So, it was with some amount of surprise that I found a Portland-based blog that I had never heard of, that has been updated pretty regularly for about two-and-a-half years, with in-depth, well-written content:  Lambic and Wild Ale.  I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance:  I can't find links to this blog on any other Oregon beer blog.  Talk about flying under the radar.

A little googling finds that the blog's author, Aschwin de Wolf, is a native of Holland whose other interests are cryonics -- yes, freezing dead or terminally ill people for future resuscitation -- and philosophical anarchism.  Uh... wow.  And I thought drinking fancy beer made me somewhat intellectual.

I'm not completely in love with sour beers myself, though I'm expanding my palate a little bit in that direction.  But I'm stunned at the quality of content on Lambic and Wild Ale.  Check it out, especially if sours are your thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Master of Malt: Caol Ila 30 and Highland Park 13

The British whisky retailer Master of Malt sent me a couple more samples from their Drinks by the Dram program that I wrote about back in January.  Drinks by the Dram is a slick way to try some scotches you wouldn't otherwise be able to afford, or that you might splurge on if you knew you were going to enjoy it.

That's pretty well illustrated by these two recent samples, bottled under the store's own label.  First up, an unusual single-cask 30 year-old Caol Ila.  I love Caol Ila's standard bottlings, especially the 18.  On the other hand, the little exposure I've had to really old scotches has led me to believe they aren't necessarily for me.  This fits the Drinks by the Dram model really well:  I wouldn't risk $135 on a bottle of it, but I can't deny that I'm curious how it would taste.  Similarly with the second sample, a single-cask 13 year-old Highland Park.  In this case, I'm not a huge fan of the distillery, but this is a non-sherried expression -- it was aged in bourbon barrels -- so again, my curiosity is piqued.  And the $5 sample price is tough to beat.

Dave next door is at least as big a peat freak as I am, so I took the samples over the other night so we could talk them over.  (The picture above is a glass with my half of the Caol Ila -- double that to get an idea of the sample size.)  We agreed that the Caol Ila was stunning, but neither of us was very impressed by the Highland Park.

Here are my notes on the two:

Caol Ila: Pretty hot and intense: 57% ABV. As expected for 30 y.o., a little dusty and astringent at first (maybe even a pine tar sensation), but it opens up on the tongue, for a long, complex finish. Smoky, but not overpoweringly so, less than my recollections of "regular" Caol Ila. If you can bear to add a drop of water -- literally a single drop -- it takes a little of the initial astringency off. Very good dram.

Highland Park: Not a huge fan of the distillery, but it's interesting to have a non-sherried sample. Very sweet in a surprising way. I miss the sherry; I think it would help with a vegetal or mushroomy taste that's present. I wouldn't recommend it except for someone who is a Highland Park follower that wants to try something quite different from the usual expressions.

By the way, as part of my half-hearted attempt to make some money off of It's Pub Night, I've enrolled in Master of Malt's partner program, because I think it's a pretty good service they're offering, plus U.S. customers can request a VAT refund on orders -- effectively a 16% discount.  Master of Malt will give me a kickback if you buy something after arriving there from the links in this post, or from the links to them I've put in the blog sidebar (with a few other moneymaking schemes under the "Monetize Me" headline).  I don't expect to make a dime off it, but if you're going to buy something from them, click one of my links so they'll know I sent ya.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Full Sail Imperial Porter

I've stashed my case in the basement, so now I'm going to share with you one of the best beer bargains in Oregon at this time of year:  Full Sail's Imperial Porter (on the right in the photo -- I'll talk about the beer on the left in a minute).  It's under $5 a bomber ($4.25 at Beermongers), and a nice hearty beer to drink right now, but cellar it for a year or so, and you'll have a great beer for any occasion.  It's on the shelves now -- I highly recommend it.  Fresh, there's an angular bitterness to it; it's pretty dry, with very roasty malts and 60 IBUs of hops.  After mellowing out for a year, it gets a little smoother, the flavors meld together, and the chocolate/coffee flavors of the double porter come to the fore.  $4.25 + 365 days = delicious.

The beer in the glass in the photo is actually not the 2011 Imperial Porter I'm praising in this post.  It's the 2010 Top Sail, which is the 2009 Imperial Porter, aged in bourbon barrels for a year before bottling.  Tonight I cracked open a bottle I had in the basement, and it's a boozy, vanilla-y thing of beauty.  I recall it being ready to drink as soon as it was bottled last year, and I can't say that I think its time in my cellar added anything, though it hasn't suffered either.  Here's the thing: when you buy the foil-topped barrel-aged bottle, it's more than twice the price of the fresh porter -- usually at least $11.  It is a fair amount stronger in alcohol at 9.9% ABV vs. 7.5% -- is that due to evaporation/fermentation in the barrel? added bourbon? -- and definitely gains some interest from the bourbon flavors.  Also recommended, but not twice as recommended as the un-barreled one, especially if you give the cheap one a year to age.

As you may know, Full Sail alternates years between releases of the Brewer's Reserve Imperial Porter and the Imperial Stout.  This allows them to barrel-age part of the batch for a year, so in even-numbered years a barrel-aged porter and fresh stout are bottled; in odd-numbered years a barrel-aged stout and fresh porter are bottled.  When I was buying my case at Beermongers, Josh pointed out to me that's another good reason to stock up on this year's porter -- so you can compare it to the barrel-aged version next year.  The barrel-aged ones get special names:  Top Sail (porter) and Black Gold (stout), though apparently in 2007 (and before?) the unaged porter may have also been called Top Sail, judging from this old Beer Advocate page.

For some reason, Full Sail's Imperial Stout -- aged or no -- doesn't grab me like the porter does.  Oh, it's good, but the porter always seems rounder and more chocolatey to me.  Look for it now, and stock up.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Brew to Bikes

A few weeks ago I was sent a PDF of the book Brew to Bikes: Portland's Artisan Economy, edited by Charles Heying and published by PSU's Ooligan Press.  Here's the publisher's description of the book:

Dissatisfied with passive consumption, many residents of Portland, OR, take matters into their own hands. Associate Professor of Urban Studies Charles Heying noticed these local artisans prospering all over the city and set out to study their thriving economy. Profiling hundreds of local businesses, and with an eye on Portland’s unique penchant for sustainability and urban development, Brew to Bikes is about everything from bike manufacturers to microbreweries, from do-it-yourself to traditional crafts. A treatise to local, ethical business practices, Brew to Bikes positions Portland as a hub of artisan ingenuity worthy of admiration.

It sounded like it was right up my alley.  Well, I'm not necessarily opposed to passive consumption, whatever that means, but I'm a big fan of microbrews, bicycle transportation, and buying local, and those things are near the top of my list of reasons why I love Portland.  Heck, I had just recently received my own artisan bicycle, handmade here in Portland by Tony Pereira.

It pains me to pan this book, but I can't really give Brew to Bikes much of a recommendation.  It begins with a little bit of philosophical introduction by Prof. Heying, followed by a dozen chapters written by PSU students about various artisan industries in Portland, and ending with a couple of chapters of recommendations to policymakers and civic leaders here and elsewhere.  In the Introduction -- which reads peculiarly like a sales pitch for the book -- the intended audience is described as (paraphrasing here) "Locals who love Portland... city planners, consultants, and developers... academic courses in popular culture, community and economic development, urban sociology".

It's hard to imagine any of those potential readers finding much to sink their teeth into.  It's not a coffee-table book, with colorful illustrations of this exciting time in the life of a great city.  It's not a scholarly work that researches how Portland's artisan economy came to be -- in particular, it doesn't have any grounding in Economics, despite its subtitle.  Portland history buffs would be disappointed in the book as well: for example, a fan of Portland beer who read the chapter entitled "Brew" would be annoyed by the inaccuracies and gaps in that chapter.  I guess the city planner angle makes a little bit of sense, especially the next-to-last chapter which sums up the book with some insightful recommendations on how a city can foster or build upon homegrown industries.

If you're someone who lives elsewhere but has visited Portland and likes what our city has to offer, you might enjoy reading the vast middle section of the book, which provides overviews of several artisan sectors such as beer, food, fashion, bikes, coffee, and distilling.  These chapters are written at about the depth of an article in an in-flight magazine:  they drop lots of names of businesses and the people involved to give you a nice sampling of what's unique in Portland, without pretending to cover any topic completely.  That level of presentation makes sense for an out-of-town visitor, though you'll have to wipe your brow at the occasional howler, like this one in the section on the Free Geek computer-recycling collective:  "When regular Joe buys a sexy new laptop from a big-box store, he may plug it in at home and be so completely baffled by all its cutting-edge software that he never turns it on again."  Uh, say what?  How did a frankly bizarre, clearly false bit of hyperbole like that make it past the author's rough draft, the book's editor, and the editor at the publishing house?  It makes me worried about the factual content of the rest of the book.  Still, if you want a quick, airline magazine-style taste of Portland, you might appreciate the middle section of Brew to Bikes.

On the other hand, Portlanders might well be put off by these "in-flight" chapters, especially those on topics they have some familiarity about.  Readers of It's Pub Night would be smacking their foreheads to read that Portland has been called "Beer City USA" (Charlie Papazian's annual poll has never picked Portland), or that the industrial brewing practice of padding out the grain bill with rice was imported from Bohemia, or that whereas Widmer and Portland Brewing consolidated with other breweries, Bridgeport has remained an independent brewery (Texas-based Gambrinus has owned Bridgeport since 1995).  And, while I love this city as much as anyone, the self-congratulatory tone of most of the book is a bit much at times.

Check it out if you need a broad but shallow intro to Portlandia chic.  Meanwhile, keep drinking those brews and riding those bikes.  [Click here to buy Brew to Bikes from Powell's Books.]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Russian River Objectification

Last month there was a fair amount of chatter on Beervana, the New School, and even here about Ezra's racy label for Upright's cherry-infused Four Play.  A good number of people saw the label as objectifying women, which seemed to them to be a bad thing, and best left to macro brewers.  A quality small-batch brewer like Upright should stick to more elevating imagery.

In California -- where sexual mores have always been rather more expansive than elsewhere in the country -- I doubt the Four Play labels would have caused much of a stir, despite the sizable feminist population of that state.  As if to illustrate that point, the vaunted Russian River Brewing Co. has decided to make fun of macro lager advertising by giving the name "Objectification" to a new wood-aged session beer they will release this month.  The branding for RR's "-tion" beers doesn't allow the label art to go with the photographic realism of the Upright labels, but it does playfully highlight some parts of a woman's physique which male lager drinkers tend to value more highly than her elbows, her face, or intangibles like her personality or intelligence.

Here's the commercial description of the beer:

Objectification: Aged for 15 days on beechwood chips from the beech forests of Chico, California, this light, approachable beer brewed with rice adjuncts goes down like a power window on a hot day.  Whether you're mowing the lawn, fishing, water skiing -- or just sitting on the couch watching sports -- this is the Russian River lager that you've been waiting for.  Pairs well with hot dogs, potato chips, or hamburgers.
3.75%ABV / 1.001 O.G / 3 IBUs / 36-24-36

Before hitting upon Objectification, Vinnie and crew rejected some other possible "-tion" names for this beer:  Titillation, Fornication, Salivation, and a few others I won't mention.  Keep your eyes open, some of those names might come up on future releases.