Thursday, December 22, 2011

Portland Beer Price Index: Winter 2011

Could you imagine yourself trading June sunshine for December sunshine? It's not a good trade, but aren't you glad that our dreary summer has been partially made up for by a dry December?  That's right, I'm talking about Portland weather on the shortest day of the year. It's the winter solstice, time for the Q4 2011 Portland Beer Price Index:
  • 6-packs: $9.23, up 25 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers: $4.99, up 6 cents
  • 6-packs (sale price): $8.73, up 5 cents
  • 22-ounce bombers (sale price): $4.78, up 1 cent
  • 16 oz. draft: $4.35, up 2 cents
  • 16 oz. draft (happy hour): $3.57, unchanged
An anonymous commenter last quarter said that wholesale six-pack prices were heading up, and that certainly showed up in the six-pack retail prices:  this was the biggest jump the PBPI has ever seen.  In fact, everything went up this quarter except happy hour pints.  One pub raised their regular pint price, but kept the happy hour price the same.  I'm sad to see bomber prices bounce up from their record low last time.  They are still overpriced, with basically the same SPE price as happy hour pints.

As far as logistics go, I had to adjust the prices I have been recording at the Pearl Specialty Market, because I didn't notice until this time that their shelf price includes the bottle deposit, even on six-packs.  Not that most of us cash those deposits back in, but all the other prices I've been recording leave off the deposit, so this time I brought Pearl's prices down accordingly.  As a result, the previously reported Q3 numbers are slightly higher than the base price used for the price differences above.

Has the beer selection been shrinking at the Seven Corners New Seasons?  Unlike QFC and Fred Meyers, they continue to carry Pelican IPA, but they did not have sixers of high-volume standbys Widmer Hef or Deschutes Black Butte Porter on the shelf, nor did they have Rogue Shakespeare Stout.  I was able to record reasonable prices since they had other bottles from those breweries that are always priced the same as the missing ones, but it makes me wonder what they're up to.

Finally, I want to remind everyone that this is not a complaint about beer prices, not that I'm above that, especially with numbers like these.  But the main purpose of the PBPI is to track price trends over time. Click here for an explanation of how the numbers are gathered, and check back three months from now for the Q1 2012 PBPI.  If I had to venture a guess, I'd say to get ready to see even higher prices next time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Oakshire Brewers' Reserve and Hellshire

Oakshire Brewing brewmaster Matt Van Wyck was at Belmont Station yesterday to promote the brewery's third Brewers' Reserve beer:  a tart blended ale called Skookumchuck, which is available in a very limited number of corked and caged 750 ml bottles.  Skookumchuck is mildly tart -- it won't make you pucker -- with an aroma and flavor much like lighter Belgian geuzes.  It's fairly malty but not cloying, with a little dusty wood in the finish.

The three base beers were aged in wine barrels for varying lengths of time before blending:  a 2009 strong Belgian golden ale was aged with Drie Fonteinen's strain of brettanomyces; a 2010 saison got a dose of La Folie's brett and aged on apricots and plums; the third beer was a 2009 lactobacillus-spiked Berliner weiss that was thrown into a barrel when it didn't work out as a fresh beer.  The beers themselves wouldn't point toward such a close approximation of a Belgian geuze, but I suppose the brettanomyces and the barrels contributed a lot toward the flavor.

You might be wondering what the first two Brewers' Reserve beers were.   They were released stealthily earlier this year, and are now apparently gone.  Green Power Pale Ale was available on draft only, and a Märzen called Land Trust Lager also came out in bombers.  The three beers were a collaboration with the Eugene Water and Electric Board, to commemorate EWEB's 100th anniversary, and all profits from them are donated to the McKenzie River Trust, the source of Eugene's city water.  The beer names were chosen from suggestions by EWEB employees -- "Skookumchuck" is a Chinook word for river rapids, but the literal meaning of "strong waters" is a nice double entendre for a strongly-flavored beer.

Going forward, the Brewers' Reserve line will mostly be blended barrel-aged beers like Skookumchuck, and mostly sold in corked 750s at Oakshire's tasting room.  Releases are not on a schedule: not until a barrel is ready, says Matt, though he hinted that he has a framboise in the works.  Brewpublic has a nice post by Matt talking about the philosophy behind Oakshire's barrel-aging projects.

Speaking of which, Belmont also had Oakshire's Hellshire II on tap yesterday.  Hellshire II is a bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout with coffee.  (To digress for a second, whenever you're looking for a coffee stout, my favorite for the last few months has been Oakshire's Overcast Espresso Stout, especially when it's fresh on tap.  Best of all, it's widely available in Oregon on tap and in bombers.)  Planned for an annual release each winter, the Hellshires are strong ales aged in spirits barrels -- so far just bourbon barrels, but Matt said that they have various other barrels going also.  Hellshire bottles are bottle-conditioned and sold in wife-proofed wax-dipped bottles.  Last year's Hellshire I barleywine was somewhat coolly received by the rare beer crowd that had been eagerly awaiting it based on their fondness for the annual Wooden Hell barleywine that Matt did when he was the brewmaster at Chicago's Flossmoor Station.  I thought the negative reaction was overblown, it's a nice solid beer.  I've got one on hold in the basement right now.

Just like a horror movie sequel, the beer zombies have now come after Hellshire II.  Yesterday Matt was groaning because the recently released stout was getting beat up in a Beer Advocate thread called "Hellshire II Infected?"  Here's where geekiness can outsmart itself:  how are you going to taste a brettanomyces infection in a one month-old bottle of beer?  Now, I haven't tried it from the bottle, but it was beautiful on tap yesterday, with very strong notes of coffee and chocolate.  It's not your usual bourbon-bomb stout -- not that I object to those in any way -- but it isn't by any stretch soured.  Maybe the extra dose of slightly astringent coffee is throwing people off; I thought it all hung together really well, so I'll probably pick up a bottle to hide in the cellar for a year or so.  Matt promised on the Beer Advocate thread to have some labwork done on the beer, so there should be a definitive answer to the question early next year.  [Update 2011/01/05: Turns out there is a lactobacillus infection. I guess some of those geeks are pretty good at tasting these things. Matt's explanation on Beer Advocate and the Oakshire blog.]

At the Skookumchuck tasting yesterday, I expressed the opinion that its mild tartness is more in line with Belgian wild ales than most American-made sour beers are.  American sours -- even ones that I like, such as Cascade's cherry-infused ones -- tend to be so over the top that they can be a challenge to get through.  To test my point, I cracked a bottle of Lindeman's Cuvée René Gueze to try alongside the Skook' (that's the beauty of holding beer events at a bottle shop).  While the Lindeman's did have the edge in sourness, the difference wasn't huge.  Matt said they were far closer than he would have guessed.  The Oakshire was definitely maltier, making me think that one difference might be extra drying-out time by the Lindeman's.  As you can see, the Lindeman's was much clearer, and had a touch of vinegar flavor that I don't remember from last time I tried it, but which is completely absent from the Skookumchuck.  Verdict:  the Oakshire was not as sour, was sweeter and overall more approachable, but with many of the nice flavors and aromas you get from the Lindeman's.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cascade Sang Noir Vertical

Last Thursday evening I was encouraged to get out of the house when my wife was hosting her book group, so I walked down to the Cascade Barrel House to try the 2007-2010 four-year vertical tasting of Sang Noir they were offering that night.  I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of sour beers, but I do appreciate cherry beers like Cascade's Kriek, and I have a history with Sang Noir, having tried a couple of vintages of it at previous Holiday Ale Festivals (in 2009 and 2010).

It was a small-world evening at Cascade that night.  When I arrived, honorary Portlandians Jim and Joan were holding down the west end of the bar, and I sat at an open barstool not far from them.  You might recognize them as the couple from Alabama that sports their funky beer-patch jackets every year at the Holiday Ale Festival -- I snapped a picture of them for my recap of the HAF 2008.  After a while of talking to Jim and Joan across the fellow on the barstool to my left, I finally introduced myself to him only to find out that he was Dan Engler, the owner and brewmaster of one of Portland's newest breweries, the German-oriented Occidental BrewingThen Portland beer expert and Sierra Nevada Beer Camp alumnus Harry Sanger (in the picture) showed up to try the vertical, saying that all the "Sang Noir"s on the chalkboard kept catching his eye and making him think they'd written "Sanger" up there.

Anyway, about the beer.  Sang Noir means "black blood" in French, though it's not noticeably darker than Cascade's Kriek, or even the Sang Rouge. Cascade says it is "a blend of red and double red beers that were aged in Bourbon and Pinot Noir barrels for 12 to 24 months then blended with barrel aged Bing and sour pie cherries".

All of the vintages were extremely tart, with Cascade's characteristic lactic bite.  My favorite was definitely the 2009 -- it was the smoothest and clearest version, and had the strongest cherry flavor.  Dan and Harry both preferred the 2008, which was by far the funkiest vintage of the four:  quite musty and earthy.  The 2010 was probably the simplest of the bunch -- very sour of course, but with a decent cherry flavor.  I thought the 2007 was starting to show some oxidation, though maybe that was just part of the intentional woody funk:  my notes describe its flavors as pomegranate and oak.

When I tried Sang Noir 2010 at the 2010 Holiday Ale Fest, I wrote that it had more cherry and less funk than the 2009 version.  That wasn't the situation Thursday, where the 2009 was definitely the least funky and most cherry of the the four vintages.  It makes me wonder if the dates on these are shifting:  is the 2008 served at the pub the same batch that was called 2009 at last year's HAF?  Similarly, the fruitier, less-funky 2009 at the pub was more reminiscent of HAF's 2010 vintage.

As of last night, Cascade's website still listed the 2010 and 2009 Sang Noir on tap (only 3 oz. tasters of the 2009).  If you're like me, and the cherry interests you more than the sour, I recommend trying the 2009 before it runs dry.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Beer Advocate Loves Portland

First the New York Times got a huge crush on us, and now Beer Advocate.  Have you noticed that three of the last four BA magazine covers feature Portland beer people?
  • #56: Ryan Schmiege (Deschutes Portland Pub)
  • #57: Geoff Phillips and the gang at Bailey's Taproom
  • #59: Eric Bottero (Bazi Bierbrasserie)
The picture of Ryan was taken when he was working in Bend, but he's been brewing in Portland for more than a year.

The New York Times has been all over Portland for a few years now, especially for our food carts and restaurants.  But when they published a gushing review of Portland barbershops -- including Bart's Barbershop, where I get shorn every few months -- I knew their infatuation had crossed the line into weird obsession.  The picture of Bazi manager Bottero mixing a beer cocktail creeps me out in a similar way.  I don't mean any offense to Bazi by that -- it's an interesting new place -- but it doesn't seem to me to be at the forefront of beer cocktails, or even of the Portland beer scene.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it:  Find a Portland connection in the picture on the cover of Beer Advocate #58.  One of the bottles?  One of the people wandering around?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Draft vs. Bottle

I've been pretty sure for a while that I prefer draft beer to bottled -- it sometimes seems to me that beer loses some flavor in the bottling process -- but I've never tried the same beer side-by-side from bottle and keg. Until now. Over the weekend we had a keg of Deschutes Jubelale at a party, and I decided to do a blind tasting of the draft vs. bottles.

This was in a pretty casual atmosphere, and lately my blind-tasting skills have been questionable. In this case I didn't take very good notes about peoples' preferences between the bottled and kegged samples, though most people seemed to find the draft Jubelale to be mellower. Personally I found the bottles showed more of this year's "tannic" harshness decried by Jeff and Pete. I actually like this year's stronger taste -- it seems to me to come from extra hop bitterness or maybe some darker malts -- but it was more muted and easier to approach on tap.

In my jubilant mood, the silly thing I focused on in the blind tasting was whether people could guess which glass had beer from the keg and which from the bottle.  Almost universally, people guessed wrong, including myself.  Ritch Marvin got the question right, and Brian and Bryce might have also, but there was some possibility that their samples were swapped (those questionable skills of mine at work again).

Which was better, tap or bottle?  In this case they were nearly identical, though I still think the draft Jubelale was infinitesimally better.  There was much less of a difference than I expected, which makes me wonder if my bias is wrong, or if it is based on some other factor like out-of-date bottles.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Holiday Ale Festival 2011

The Holiday Ale Festival 2011 started yesterday in downtown Portland.  So far I'm much more impressed with the beer selection than I remember being for the last couple of years -- there were some fabulous beers, and very few failures, in my opinion.  Here are a few recommendations of my favorites, in order:
  • Firestone Walker 100% Bourbon Barrel Aged Velvet Merkin: the perfect amount of vanilla/bourbon in a robust stout.  A home run.
  • Elysian Bye Bye Frost: seriously hoppy yet rather dry barleywine.
  • Bear Republic Old Saint Chongo: a strong dark wheat beer, with a tiny hint of chocolate.
  • Lagunitas 2010 Olde Gnarly Wine: predictably delicious bitter barleywine.
  • Ninkasi The Little One: a small beer from the second runnings of Critical Hit barleywine; hoppy yet light-bodied.  If you like Hair of the Dog's Little Dogs, you should enjoy this, though it's nearly twice as strong.
  • Hopworks Kentucky Christmas: no surprise that this is hoppy, bourbony, and delicious.
  • Double Mountain Chimney Stout: solid stout with a long, dry finish.
  • Burnside Barrel Aged Permafrost:  strong hoppy ale with just a bit of bourbon.
The layout is much like it was last year, but there is a little different feel because the tents are transparent everywhere this year.  It made a huge difference in the southwest corner section, which was gloomy and claustrophobic last year but seems open and airy this year.  If you're looking for the mug rinse/drinking water station, it is tucked away near the northeast exit (near 6th and Morrison).

It's a little embarrassing that my top 4 beers are from outside Oregon, since I'm usually such a reliably provincial hometown booster.  There were several other beers I tried that ranged from not bad to very good, but the ones in the list above really shine.  It's strange, because I am often left cold by Velvet Merkin/Merlin, and similarly for Elysian Bifrost, but the souped-up versions were wonderful.

There are only a few beers I can pan:
  • Breakside Cranberry Biere de Table: has a clove flavor I really didn't care for; on the plus side, it uses a nice light touch with the cranberries.
  • Fort George Kentucky Girl Stout:  this went a little sour in the barrel, adding a kind of musty, chile-pepper flavor; it wasn't terrible, and you might enjoy the sourness, but I think most people won't.
  • Buckman Fruit Cake: Ezra pointed out that this tasted and felt like egg nog; not a great beer.
  • Collaborator Hallucinator: Pretty sure I've had this in the past and enjoyed it, but it tasted bland and maybe slightly off to me yesterday.
Great festival this year!  Kudos to Preston and the gang for putting it together.