Even with more than 100 breweries within an hour's drive, it's seriously difficult to find an authentic-tasting pint of English ale in Portland.
Served warmer and flatter than their American counterparts, English beers come in styles seemingly named explicitly to give American salespeople a tough time: "mild," "bitter," "old ale," "stock ale," and so on.
So when famed homebrewer and beer judge Bill Schneller and the brewing team at Culmination decided to enter a classic-style Burton ale called Trumpet Major for WW's fourth annual Pro/Am festival, they knew they were going to have a hard time wooing average Portland drinkers.
"I was sitting in the phone-charging area at the competition, and I started talking to this lady," says Culmination brewer and founder Tomas Sluiter. "She was very enthused that I was one of the brewers, and wanted to try our beer. When we were on our way to the booth she was talking about all these beers she loves, and they were all these super out-there flavors."
When she tasted theirs, she didn't quite know what to say.
"She goes, 'It tastes like beer,'" Sluiter laughs, "in a disappointed way."
But to a small number of beer nerds—many of them competitors—the beautiful stone-fruit yeast character and cracker graininess hiding inside Trumpet Major was more enticing than anything hoppy, sour or fruit-filled at this year's event.
That's because it's about as close as you can get to tasting an authentic Burton ale, the parent style of more-popular barleywine and old ale.
A beautiful copper beer with a hint of off-white head, Trumpet Major was blended with 18 percent of Culmination's barleywinelike, Brettanomyces-infused triple IPA, which had been in wine barrels for a little over six months.
Although this blend spoils the complete authenticity of Trumpet Major—most Burton ales, Schneller notes, were aged together in one vessel and not blended—the addition of stale beer contributes the subtle wild-yeast notes that would have been present in real vintage version from the late 19th century.
"And because it's not my money," Schneller chuckles, "I even insisted we use all-English malts."
The result is a beer that tastes like the elegant grandfather of your favorite barleywine. Deep, leathery funk and sweet malt is balanced by the sharp bitterness from the barrel, an experience which, for fans of English beer, is like drinking the blood of a long-sought unicorn.
The scholarly Schneller, a decorated homebrewer who mostly makes classic English ales, is one of the few people in the country who knows as much about Burton, a near-extinct style.
"Within five minutes of emailing them about working together," Schneller recalls, "I had gotten a response that was like, 'Hells yeah!'"
"I think that's actually exactly what I wrote," says Sluiter.
Culmination hasn't moved very much of the five barrels of the original batch in four months since the competition.
There is some long-term hope for the beer, though. When the owner of English-style pub Raven & Rose recently tasted through a flight of Culmination's beers for inclusion on the bar's upcoming cask ale program, the Burton was the clear winner. And so the second batch of Trumpet Major will hit the restaurant's beer engines this spring.
"We brewed, like, the most obscure, hip beer ever, and people just don't
realize it, right?" says Culmination brewer Devin Benware.
"Fools," Schneller jokes. "I will destroy them all."