Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tourist's Guide to the Oregon Brewers Festival (3rd Edition)

I love the OBF.  Sure the Oregon Brewers Festival gets crowded as the weekend wears on, and it's often hot and dusty, and there is only one beer from each brewery.  Still, it's hard to beat in terms of a happy crowd and pretty surroundings.

In 2008 I wrote up a meandering guide to the Oregon Brewers Festival, which I followed up with a more to-the-point Tourist's Guide in 2010.  The rest of this post is a rerun of that 2010 guide, updated with even more Eastside places to drink beer.  The guide and the accompanying map have recommendations of things to do within walking distance of the festival, not all of which have to do with beer.

The Journey is the Destination

The OBF's location at Tom McCall Waterfront Park makes for a nice 2.5 mile loop along the east and west banks of the Willamette River, walking over or under four of Portland's drawbridges. Go south along the river, beneath the Morrison Bridge, and cross the Willamette (rhymes with "dammit", by the way) on the beautiful Hawthorne Bridge (1910). Pedestrians should keep toward the bridge railing -- bicycles get the part of the sidewalk nearest the cars. Follow the curving sidewalk down to the path on the east side of the river, the Eastbank Esplanade.

View Larger Map

Heading north along the river, accompanied by the automotive roar of I-5 overhead, you'll cross under the Morrison and Burnside Bridges before coming to a stretch of the sidewalk which actually floats in the Willamette. You'll cross the river back to Waterfront Park on the Steel Bridge (1914). There are other double-deck drawbridges in the world, but the Steel Bridge is the only one that telescopes: the lower deck can be raised while the upper deck remains open to traffic.  (For a shorter route, take the corkscrew sidewalk up to the nice wide sidewalk on the Morrison Bridge, and then cross Naito to get back to the festival.)

For Kids of All Ages

If you brought your kids to the festival and need to give them a break, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is a science museum on the east side of the river, just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, easily accessible from the Esplanade. There is also an IMAX theater and planetarium at OMSI.

Another interesting eastside youth attraction is the skateboard park hidden under the Burnside Bridge. Originally a do-it-yourself project that was later embraced by the city, you can't get to it directly from the pedestrian loop described above -- you can't even see it from there. You have to get onto the south sidewalk of the Burnside Bridge, either on the west side at Saturday Market, or by taking the stairs labeled "Burnside" from the Esplanade. Follow the Burnside sidewalk to MLK, turn right and go a block to Ankeny, turn right and go two blocks to 2nd (the sidewalk runs out), and turn right again to go under the bridge. You probably shouldn't go down there at night, but it's a cool thing to see during the day.

More Beer!

There are several interesting pub options you can walk to from the festival.

The Morrison Bridge sidewalk drops you right at the door of the Hair of the Dog tasting room at Water and Yamhill Streets.

The Full Sail Pilsner Room [review] is about 3/4 mile south of the festival. Go underneath the Hawthorne Bridge and follow the sidewalk down towards the sailboat harbor.

Bailey's Taproom [review] is about 1/2 mile west of the festival. Follow Oak St. across Broadway, Bailey's is one block to your right.  Tugboat Brewing Company [review] is across Ankeny.

If you took the stroll to the east side of the river, you're only about a half-mile from a cluster of breweries in a neighborhood that is also known as Distillery Row:  the Lucky Labrador [review] at 9th and Hawthorne, the Green Dragon [review] at 9th and Yamhill, Cascade Barrel House at 10th and Belmont, and the Commons Brewery at 10th and Stephens.  There is also a brand-new taproom at the corner of 12th and Hawthorne:  Lardo has about 15 nice taps, and high-fat snacks.

Further Afield

This article is too long already, so I'll briefly list a few more attractions that you should see while you're in Portland.
The Horse Brass would be quite a long walk: take bus #15 (to Parkrose) and get off near SE 45th. The Tram is not too long of a walk if you're already at the Pilsner Room, but it's not a very pleasant one; you could also take the streetcar.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pfriem Family Brewers

You will soon start to see taphandles around town from a new brewery in Hood River: Pfriem Family Brewers.  Brewer/owner Josh Pfriem (pronounced "Freem"), was at Bazi Bierbrasserie Friday with his wife Annie and some more of the Pfriem crew to promote his new Belgian-styled beers.  Those in attendance got to try the five beers on the current roster -- Pfriem calls them the "2012 varietals", implying that 2013 might offer a different lineup.

The beers don't have clever names, at least not so far:  they're just called by whatever style they are.  Here's what we tried on Friday:

  • Wit: Noticeably more bitter than most wits (this is intentional), but a nice take on the style, with the usual herbal/yeasty flavors.
  • Blonde IPA: Josh said he thinks of this as a "Pilsner IPA" -- it is brewed with pilsner malts -- but also intends it as an homage to Westvleteren Blonde (a surprisingly hoppy light Belgian beer).  It is very crisp and dry.  Interesting and not bad, though I think IPA is not quite the right word for it.
  • Belgian Strong Blonde: I loved this beer. It has that nice clovey flavor like Duvel (though it's always dangerous to compare something to Duvel).  Like the other Pfriem beers, it's pretty dry and light-bodied, and it is a beautiful-looking beer: impossibly light in color, almost clear, but with a golden sparkle.
  • IPA: This is intended to be the NW style house offering.  Again, surprisingly dry and light on the tongue, but with nice floral hops.  Pretty strong at 7.2%.  Not bad, but probably not going to become your go-to IPA.
  • Belgian Strong Dark: A 10% sipper, with the kinds of dark fruit, chocolatey, almost leathery flavors you want in big beers like this, but still drier than a lot of beers this size.  Josh wouldn't call it a Quadrupel, but he does want you to think of beers like St. Bernardus when you're drinking this. 

All the beers were clean and well-made.  At a point in time where saisons and related "farmhouse" styles seem to be all the rage, it's interesting that Pfriem didn't go down that road.  Nor are they selling any wild or sour ales, though Josh did say that a wild-ale program is in the works for future releases.  I predict that the Strong Blonde and Strong Dark are going to be the most popular Pfriem beers.  It's great to have an Oregon brewery focus on those kind of Abbey-inspired Belgians -- I can't think of another brewery in the region that has those as their flagships, though Hopworks comes out with some great strong Belgians from time to time.

Except for the Wit, all the beers we tried were filtered, which gave them a really pretty clarity in the glass.  If there's a common theme in my tasting notes, it's "dry" -- there was nothing anywhere near cloying in any of the beers, and even the stronger ones were surprisingly light-bodied and drinkable.

Look for Pfriem beers on draft in Portland at finer establishments.  The brewery has ordered equipment to produce corked-and-caged 750 ml bottles.  The tasting room at the brewery in Hood River will hold a grand opening Saturday August 4th, and it looks like the hours after that will be 11:30 to 9 Wednesday thru Sunday.

Further reading: Ezra has a very detailed interview with Josh over at the New School.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

New Belgium Sour Blending Symposium

Last month I was invited to New Belgium's Sour Beer Blending Symposium at Saraveza.  The event was a fine Monday night offering during PDX Beer Week: for some background, here is the press release for it over on the New School; here is Jeff Alworth's excellent recap of the session.  It was a really interesting and fun experience which my brain has been digesting about as quickly as brettanomyces digests sugar, and now I'm ready to give you my point of view.

Symposium.  I like it.  It's not a meet-the-brewer, it's not even a seminar, it's a symposium.  I was going to make fun of the snootiness of that word, until I looked up the etymology:  holy crap, in Latin it meant "drinking party", with Greek roots:

syn- "together" + posis "a drinking,"

Say what you will about Fat Tire -- go ahead, I dare you -- New Belgium has a boldness that you have to admire: hiring a brewmaster from Rodenbach, promoting bicycling with the Tour de Fat, and putting on Sour Beer Symposia and/or Drinking Parties around the country.  The Symposium in Portland was headed by the husband and wife team of Eric and Lauren Salazar.  Eric is a brewer at New Belgium, and Lauren is NB's Sensory Specialist, in charge of the blending program that produces the sour beers in the Lips of Faith Series.

The Symposium started off with an hour-long slide show about the brewery, including a virtual tour of the warehouse where they age beer in giant wooden casks called foeders.  All the sour Lips of Faith beers are based on some combination of an Odd Couple of beers called Oscar and Felix.  Oscar is a dark ale that has almost the same components of NB's 1554 Black Ale, minus the black malt; Felix is a lighter-colored strong Belgian.  If you've had Eric's Ale or Le Terroir, those are 100% Felix beers, so you might get an idea of what Felix is about.  The beers are fermented out to be pretty dry -- they don't want a lot of residual sugars in these beers.

New Belgium has some wooden barrels for aging beer, but their real workhorses are the foeders. When a new foeder arrives at the brewery, a certain amount of the wood inside is shaved off, but there may be some residual critters.  Once filled with beer, they are inoculated with the house blend of... well, of what we aren't exactly sure.  Lauren said that they started off with all the stuff that sounds like childhood diseases:  pediococcus, brettanomyces, lactobacillus.  But now she says that what's growing in those foeders is its own little world, and New Belgium doesn't care so much what it is, as how it is.  When people asked her what was growing in the foeders, she said (I'm paraphrasing) "I don't know exactly, but it's a bunch of organisms that love where they're living".

And so the NB blending program doesn't rely on any microbial analysis, the blending is done entirely on sensory perception.  Because there is no particular schedule to the Lips of Faith releases, the brewery has the luxury of waiting until they think they have something worth bottling before they pull it out of the casks.  As the foeders are sampled, they are grouped into three rough categories:  Users (ready to use), Blenders (ready to extend Users), and Waiters (not ready yet).  Every now and then, a beer tastes so good out of the foeder that it is deemed suitable to be bottled without any blending.  These are the beers that occasionally appear as "NBB Love" beers -- if you ever see a New Belgium beer with the word "Love" in its name, it's a single-barrel beer that you should not pass up.

Lauren boasted that she could train anyone to be on her sensory panel; that seemed overly idealistic to me so when I followed up with her by email she said "No one panelist is perfect, we all are going to be more or less sensitive to families of compounds (sulfurs, organic acids, esters, etc). Your panel is your strength and that strength comes from a number of trained and validated panelists that you know their strengths and weaknesses."

After the slide show and infomercial came the audience participation part of the Drinking Pa-, er, Symposium.  New Belgium had brought five firkins to Saraveza, four of which contained beer from various foeders at the brewery; the fifth contained La Folie (an expertly blended sour -- the 2010 vintage if I remember correctly).  Participants were given samples of the five beers -- in plastic cups, sorry Jim -- and asked to sample them and come up with a ratio that they would want to take home in a growler as their own personal blend.

For the record, in Portland our samples were from Foeders 2, 7, 8, and 14, plus La Folie of course.  It was a little bit suboptimal in that the pure items were uncarbonated -- if you wanted a little fizz in your mix, you had to add in the La Folie training wheels.  I've lost my notes on the different samples, but there was definitely a range of funk there, from sweet tart to "did you step in something?".  At our table we were pretty much in agreement as to the nastiest beer -- not that it was totally irredeemable -- and that tended to occupy a smaller part in most of our blends.  Interestingly, one of the NB marketing guys told me that the foeder we eschewed was the most popular in the earlier session.  Where's my tasting panel?

I was pretty happy with the beer I took home, though like Jeff, I think that this blending thing is pretty difficult.  My hat's off to people that do it for a living.  My blend was 8 parts firkin 2, 18 parts firkin 7, 14 parts firkin 8, 16 parts firkin 14, and 8 parts La Folie.  Needless to say, it was flat as a pancake, especially after riding home on the front rack of my bike.  But tasty -- funky, and not too tart.

If you are a fan of sour beers, especially if you are a fan of La Folie or any of the New Belgium Lips of Faith beers, you should absolutely attend one of these Sour Beer Symposia if you get the chance. 

Further reading: Here's an excellent long interview with Lauren on a blog called Embrace the Funk.

Monday, July 2, 2012

De Struise Meet the Brewer at Hair of the Dog

Urbain Coutteau (photo: Teresa Culp)
I haven't been paying very close attention to the beer events happening around me lately, so I was glad to get an email from Brian Thursday morning that there would be a meet-the-brewer that evening at Hair of the Dog with Urbain Coutteau of Belgium's De Struise brewery.  The event featured a tap takeover with eight De Struise beers seldom tapped in these parts, and since Hair of the Dog lies directly between my office and home, it was an easy call.

This was the most fun I've had at a meet-the-brewer in a long time.  The beers were great, and Hair of the Dog's wide open space made things very comfortable.  Urbain was orbiting the bar area, stopping to chat with clusters of people who dragged him over to talk about beer.  He told us he's been here about a week, but that HotD brewer Alan Sprints kept him busy brewing much of the time.  He'll have to return another time to see more of Portland.

Belgian beer is held in such reverence here that we sometimes miss some of the fun in their brewery names.  "De Struise Brouwers" means "The Sturdy Brewers" -- already a lighthearted name along the lines of "Gigantic" -- but there is also a pun involved because "struise" can mean "ostrich".  (The brewery that brought this situation to light for me was De Proef, whose self-deprecating name means something like "The Test Brewery".)

The beers that were on were:

  • Witte
  • Svea IPA
  • Elliot Brew (Mikkeller collaboration double IPA)
  • XXX Rye Tripel
  • Tsjeesus Tripel
  • Pannepot Quadrupel
  • Pannepot Reserva (barrel-aged)
  • Pannepeut Quadrupel

My favorite of the bunch was the regular Pannepot, which the brewer himself described as "a punch in the face".  It does have tons of dark roast and esthery Belgian flavors, which I felt like were diminished too much in the barrel-aged version.  Pannepeut -- a drier, lighter-bodied version of Pannepot originally brewed as Pannep√łt for a festival in Copenhagen -- was a subtler version that was still very interesting.  Urbain said he thinks of it as a more traditional abbey ale than the heavy-handed Pannepot. 

The Svea IPA seemed to me to have a lot in common with Hair of the Dog Fred -- both of them being quite hoppy but nicely balanced beers on the sweet end of the spectrum -- even though it's only about 75% the strength.  On the other hand, I thought the Elliot Brew -- I can't believe I'm about to type this -- overdid the hops.  It wasn't terrible, but a little more balance would have made it better.

Urbain seemed uncomfortable at first when I asked him what he and Alan brewed this week, so I asked if the beers were clones of De Struise recipes, and he said, "Well, pretty close, but with Hair of the Dog's hopping schedule".  Alan was more direct in proclaiming their lineage, telling me they brewed Pannepot and Pannepeut, and that he plans to barrel age some of the Pannepot to recreate De Struise's Pannepot Reserva.

This was a nice low-key event that I'm glad I didn't miss out on.  Now if we can only convince De Struise to send us a keg of their 26% ABV Double Black...