Yesterday afternoon I, along with hundreds of other ethically flexible Portlanders, left work early to hit up the opening of the 2009 Holiday Ale Festival
, plunging headfirst into a heaving sea of drunken humanity swilling plastic mugs of high-ABV suds. Eighteen samples and four hours later my tastebuds and equilibrium were a waste, and I could taste nothing in the beer but brown sugar, coffee and stomach acid. But I tasted some very fine brews along the way: here are my favorites.
Bear Republic Brewing Co. - Barrel Aged Old Baba Yaga
Huge and delicious—thick and sweet, with lots of licorice. This Russian Imperial Stout is aged in Cabernet barrels. A knockout.
Cascade Brewing Co. - Drie Zwarte Pieten "Sang Noir"
This barrel-aged sour red ale, which sat on Bing cherries in the barrel, smells like an overripe peach and tastes of copper, dirt and raw beef. I like it a lot. Take it slow.
Deschutes Brewery - Lost Barrels of Mirror Mirror
The way Deschutes tells it, the brewers misplaced some barrels of the 2006 release of this barley wine in the warehouse, which were rediscovered this year. I'm not sure I buy it, but I love the extra-aged stuff. Damn, this is nice. Very sweet, smells like fermenting pinot noir, tastes like black raisins and date sugar.
Hair of the Dog - Jim 2009
Blended beers are all the rage these days, but this one, made collaboratively by Hair of the Dog and the Holiday Ale Festival's Preston Weesner in honor of the late, legendary beer importer Jim Kennedy, is actually in its third iteration. The blend contains all of Hair of the Dog's brews, plus a keg of English Brown Ale, German Bock and American Strong Ale, plus some bottles of other stuff. It's really good: The hops from the Blue Dot IPA are backed by a barnyard odor, and the beer tastes like a Christmas tree. It's piney, in a good way.
Ninkasi Brewing Co. - Unconventionale
I've yet to have a bad beer from Ninkasi, and this one's no exception. A dark and solid imperial stout, with strong floral overtones from lavender and heather added to the brew. Thick, like excellent black bread.
I only tasted one really bad beer at the fest—Drunkel, a really foul Strong Ale from Seven Brides Brewing
. It tasted of brown sugar and rotting grass. It's in the same line as Jim, so your choice is made for you already.
The Holiday Ale Festival takes place at Pioneer Courthouse Square, 701 SW 6th Ave. 11 am-10 pm Thursday-Saturday, 11 am-6 pm Sunday, Dec. 2-6. Brunch 11 am-1 pm Sunday, Dec. 6. Tickets available at holidayale.com. Free admission, mug and 10 tickets $20. $45 for brunch.