[Our 2013 Beer of the Year is featured here. The exemplary beers below round out our top 10 local beers for the year 2013.]
No. 2: Oblique Black & White Coffee Blonde Stout (Cascade)
Cascade Brewing’s Oblique Black and White Coffee Blonde Stout has a logic-defying, tongue-twisting name. It fits the beer well. This brew is blonde in color, with the huge body of a stout and the drinkability of a lager. A blind smell test conjures images of an iced toddy rather than beer, and the taste backs it up: This is the most vivid coffee flavor we’ve ever tasted in beer. Too many pints, and you’ll feel wired and drunk. In short, it’s exactly the sort of beer Portlanders should be excited about, the sort that breaks new ground and can spawn a brigade of imitators.
Cascade is primarily known for its sours, but Jon Berry is carving a new niche. Four years ago, Berry gave up a lucrative career as a chemist at Seattle-based biotech firm ZymoGenetics to brew full-time, taking over Cascade’s operation at Raccoon Lodge. A year ago, Berry approached Southeast Portland’s Oblique Coffee Roasters about collaborating on a coffee beer, as other roasters and brewers have done across the country.
Initially, Cascade’s notoriously prickly head brewer, Ron Gansberg, a world-renowned master of sours, wasn’t thrilled with the idea. “This was a beer, believe it or not, he didn’t want to make,” Berry says. “Then I showed him how cool it could be to do coffee beers, and now we’re doing a whole series.” The blonde stout is the third entry in that series, and the first of its kind: a combination of rich malts, oatmeal (“anything to provide body”) and Oblique’s dark, heavy Landauer French roast beans. Those beans come through in the beer better than in any of the many coffee stouts we’ve tried before this blonde.
“How can you call a stout blonde?” you may ask. This is a common question from beer drinkers who come across this startling hybrid.
Berry has a simple answer: “Just to fuck with people.” JORDAN GREEN.
No. 3: Piledriver (Hopworks)Outrageous sour beers are all the rage, with some Oregon breweries focusing on them almost exclusively, even developing wild ale programs to better corral wild yeast spores for their bidding.
Portland’s Hopworks Urban Brewery has done only one sour. That’s a precarious situation in any brewhouse, since introducing any new yeast risks infesting your equipment with rogue micro-organisms for one batch of beer. In the end, though, Piledriver was worth the trouble. It’s an instant classic: an amazingly complex beer wrapped in a memorable label that finds brewers standing in for WWF performers from the classic era that ended right about the time its namesake wrestling move was banned.
Piledriver’s “base liquid” began as a dark, strong Abbey Ale made for Portland’s Cheers to Belgian Beers festival in 2009, according to brewmaster Christian Ettinger. Then-head brewer Ben Love, now at Gigantic Brewing, was given carte blanche to experiment with it. Some of the beer filled bourbon barrels. The rest filled cabernet barrels along with 60 pounds of sour cherries. After 18 months, the beer was blended and released through a special dock sale at the brewery.
Piledriver, which marries the sweetness of Belgian candi sugar and malts with sour flavors from Brettanomyces and cherries, was one and done. Sure, HUB makes other Belgian-style beers (in fact, the Abbey Ale currently for sale in wax-dipped bottles is from the same base liquid), but they’re nothing like Piledriver.
There won’t be anything like it for a while, either. Hopworks has no sours scheduled for production this year.
New brewer Tom Bleigh has his sights set on creating a Flemish red sometime in 2015. It’ll be a long, sour wait. BRIAN YAEGER.
No. 4: Sahalie (Ale Apothecary)As the saying goes, you learn the rules in order to properly break them. Paul Arney learned a lot about the best practices of modern brewing during his 16 years at Bend’s Deschutes brewpub. And he’s set it all aside for the Ale Apothecary, “an art project” set up in the wilds of central Oregon at the end of 2011.
Sahalie, his blondish, barrel-aged mix fermentation ale, was made by inviting one thing most brewers—among other humans—fear. The unknown.
“Chance is actually an ingredient in the beer,” Arney says. “The way I set up the barrels and the yeast, I don’t know quite what’s going to happen.”
The resulting beer is difficult to describe, because we’ve never had anything quite like it. The extremely effervescent Sahalie floats more than sips, with thin layers of honey, lemongrass and grape covering the blond base like phyllo dough. If the funkiness of traditional Belgians is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Sahalie is Prince’s Purple Rain.
At Deschutes, Arney was given whatever he needed and encouraged, above all else, to be creative. Eventually, he confronted that most-feared hobgoblin of modern American life: the overabundance of freedom known as the Paradox of Choice.
“I had an open checkbook and I could pretty much do whatever I wanted,” he says. “I could order any raw material I could get my hands on, whether it was a special malt from England or a special variety of hops. And so I just kept thinking, ‘How can I do something that’s different?’”
Eventually, Arney decided the only way to be different was to set aside modern brewing techniques in favor of the preindustrial.
“The industrial revolution warped us from our brewing path,” he says. “It’s this thing that’s been part of humanity for so long, and we’ve kind of lost touch with those skills. Were it not for Belgium holding on to some of these, we wouldn’t even have them now.”
The methods behind Sahalie are, Arney says, “terribly complicated,” but the basic technique involves a barrel of Lactobacillus—the tang in sourdough—that is fed a constant stream of wort. Acid is balanced against three sources of sugar until Sahalie is sufficiently confusing.
“What I really get off on, is when you get your nose into something and you can’t quite figure it out,” Arney says. “You sip it and you enjoy it and you can’t name it.” MARTIN CIZMAR.
No. 5: Aztec (Breakside)If the concept behind Breakside Brewery’s chili-chocolate Aztec seems puzzling, it shouldn’t. Hot peppers and cocoa beans have been combined to spectacular effect for generations, blended into restorative drinks by the Mayans and made into the beloved Mexican sauce called “mole.”
In Portland, though, the best choco-chili combo you’ll find is Breakside’s Aztec. Part of the brewery’s year-round offerings in various forms since it opened in 2010, Breakside’s concoction is technically an American strong ale.
At 10.2 percent alcohol by volume, brewmaster Ben Edmunds wants the beer to stand alone as a digestif because his pub’s general manager is dubious of pairing food with it.
Rich, red malts provide a hefty backbone for the combination of serrano and habanero peppers, which make the beer’s spiciness more flavorful than hot.
The spice is a side note to the sweetness of the malts, which are complemented by cacao nibs from Portland chocolatier Mana Chocolate. The peppers leave a pleasant warmth on the back of the tongue that quickly fades after swallowing, leaving no lingering burn.
Aztec has a cult following at Breakside’s pub in the Woodlawn Triangle. Bottles of a bourbon-barrel version, only periodically available, are highly coveted and quickly sell out when released. Bourbon adds vanilla notes to the chiles and chocolate, and, in the past, Edmonds has also added extra cacao nibs and peppers as the beer ages.
You’ll soon be able to age the regular version of Aztec at home, too, since the brewery will begin bottling shortly after this guide goes to press. ADRIENNE SO.
No. 6: Citra Hot Blonde (Barley Brown’s)Portland gets Barley Brown’s beer only when the Baker City brewery has other business in town. A keg of Citra Hop Blonde that blew us away in September, for example, came with samples to be shipped from Portland to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival.
That was a fruitful trip for Barley Brown’s: The tiny brewery in the Eastern Oregon town of 10,000 won four medals at GABF. And one of the kegs it delivered to pay for gas on the way here—all immediately purchased by Apex bar—lands in our top 10 beers of the year.
Now undergoing an expansion that will allow it to make enough beer for distribution, Barley Brown’s was originally intended for locals, says brewmaster Tyler Brown. “We just wanted to make kick-ass beer and food for local people,” he says, “but we’ve been drug out of our little cocoon by Portland people.”
And, yes: Our favorite from Brown’s is a chili beer we’d deem better than any Oregon IPA released last year. Long regarded as gimmicks, pepper beers are coming into their own. Among Oregon breweries, Breakside, Gigantic, Fort George, Widmer, Burnside and Calapooia have all recently had success with the style. But Barley Brown’s heater left our mouths watering the longest.
Piles of hot-but-not-blistering jalapeños give the beer—part of a series that also includes a hot brunette and hot red—a warm bite. But Citra hops are the secret sauce.
Citra is the Lady Gaga of the hop world: Released in 2008, it’s a hybrid of several familiar styles somehow fresh enough to inspire a craze of its own. With the bite of grapefruit and intensely tropical fruitness, the proprietary variety bred in Washington’s Yakima Valley has been a blockbuster hit with consumers and critics alike. Sierra Nevada’s unit-moving Torpedo Extra IPA prominently features Citra beer, as does Three Floyds’ lauded Zombie Dust.
Something about the heat also works really well with chilies. This beer delivered the same citric, forehead-sweat-inducing satisfaction as a spicy Thai noodle dish. Find out for yourself the next time Barley Brown’s has an errand in Portland. MARTIN CIZMAR.
No. 7: Milk Stout (Widmer Bros.)Yes, this is beer with milk in it. Sort of, anyway. Milk stouts are made by adding lactose, the sugar in cow’s milk, to a base of dark, chocolaty malts. Brewer’s yeast can’t ferment milk sugar into alcohol, so it hangs around to give the brew extra heft and a soft, creamy sweetness. Done right, the results can be extraordinary, and Widmer Brothers brewer Matt Licklider did it perfectly last year.
The secret ingredient? The same one found in so many Portland beers before it: Cascade hops, and lots of ’em. “We had a beer called Snow Plow that was a really heavy, sweet milk stout—almost a velvety texture,” Licklider says. “While people liked that beer, it was pretty overpowering. So for this one, we wanted it to be more balanced, and a little more hop-forward.”
The resulting brew, called, simply, Widmer Milk Stout, is a hybrid of sorts, retaining the creaminess of milk with the noticeable hoppiness of a typical American stout. This smooth, black beverage is 7.6 percent alcohol by volume and has double the hoppiness of the famous version from Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing. “The question was, ‘What’s Widmer going to do that makes it really special?,’” Licklider says. “And I think we did that. Pour it in a glass, and you’ll see it’s not like other milk stouts.”
Don’t pour it too quickly. Widmer hasn’t scheduled the milk stout for production in 2013, so, for now, the 2012 vintage is one of a kind. Toss a few in your cellar—unlike the milk in your fridge, it won’t spoil anytime soon. MARTIN CIZMAR.
No. 8: Loki Red Ale (Fearless)It’s not often a brewer will proclaim something to be the best he’s ever made.
Yet Fearless Brewing’s Ken Johnson says exactly that about his Loki Red Ale. And we can’t disagree. The humble mom-and-pop operation in Estacada has really outdone itself with this brew, one of the best-ever takes on the rightly maligned Irish style, far too often boring and syrupy sweet. The mighty Loki is nutty, rich and a little bitter—without betraying that famous red drinkability.
It took a lot of work to get Loki right, according to Johnson. But when he nailed it, he didn’t even wait for proper packaging: The batch that blew us away came in aluminum originally intended for the brewery’s flagship Scottish Ale. Rather than manufacture new cans, Fearless merely stuck a fire engine-bright “Loki Red” sticker over the normal label.
The recipe for Loki, named for the Norse trickster god, has been an ongoing three-year experiment. The brew started as a brown ale brewed to mix things up between bigger batches of Fearless standbys like Mjolnir IPA. Test kegs were offered at the Estacada brewery to patrons, who shared their thoughts with Johnson. The version finally canned uses highly acidic and resinous Tomahawk and Galena hops with sweet English brown malts. It’s perfect—stickers aside. MICHAEL LOPEZ.
No. 9: 25 (Oakshire)To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Oregon Brewers Festival last year, Oakshire Brewing concocted something unique. The Eugene brewery’s 25 was made with 25 ingredients in a what it dubbed an “Imperial Oregon Ale.”
It was a cute gimmick: Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk wanted to “celebrate as much of the Oregon bounty” as he could, so many of the ingredients were grown within our state’s borders. That included some of the barley and three hop varieties, along with filberts, cranberries and lemon verbena.
But, impressively, it managed to be much more. After all, gimmick beers are often sent home after a festival only to linger for months at their home pub. Oakshire, on the other hand, actually wanted people to drink this stuff. “The real challenge was to make a very complex beer that people would buzz about while keeping it perfectly drinkable…in hopes that revelers would be interested in going back,” Van Wyk says.
It worked on us. To incorporate so many ambitious ingredients while creating a brew that’s interestingly complex yet simply refreshing takes a deft hand. The light golden color and various lemony notes belie its respectable 7 percent alcohol by volume, and the gentle fruit and herbal aromas and flavors make it a standout at a festival of standouts.
It’s so good, in fact, that Oakshire plans to do it again—look for 26 on the western banks of the Willamette, the last full weekend in July. BRIAN YAEGER.
No. 10: Devil’s Kriek (Double Mountain)When the Belgians make their traditional kriek cherry sour beers, they tend to use sour Morello cherries that tart up the beer like an old swimsuit model. They typically drop their cherries into a base of Flemish Red, and let their barnyard-y Brettanomyces yeast do its work until the cherries’ sugar is completely spent and only the puckery flavor remains. But while Double Mountain Brewery still uses about 10 percent Morello cherries in its superb Devil’s Kriek sour, brewer Matt Swihart has a not-so-secret weapon, culled from his own orchards: The 80-decibel umami and sweetness of Oregon’s native Bing cherries.
“The Hood River Valley is a fruit area,” says Swihart, “so it could be like the Lambic region in Belgium.”
The brewery’s first kriek batch in 2007 was a bit timid about the cherry and sour notes, says Swihart, but now he lets the cherries stay on the trees for 10 extra days so they create more sugars for the yeast to feed on. He ferments the Brettanomyces for 11 months. He also keeps adding more and more fruit each year.
The result? A ruby-red, pink-frothed kriek that leads with a rich, fruity, front-and-center blossom of cherry in the mouth. The beer’s fruitiness lingers sweetly even as the kriek’s tart notes and hints of hay assert themselves as an aftershock to the initial cherry bomb. Double Mountain also makes a fine Rainier Kriek—with the namesake cherries and a blonde base—but the mild-mannered complexity of the 2012 Devil’s Kriek made it especially welcome during its summer run, if also deceptively alcoholic at 9 percent ABV. Devilish indeed. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.