In December of 2016, Upright brewer Alex Ganum began a project unique in Oregon beer, something that would have been unthinkable for him even a few months before. It ended up taking most of the brewery's barrel space in the basement of a building looming against the east side of the Broadway Bridge.
The back wall of Upright's bare-bones, concrete-floor taproom is lined with racks of barrels—but none of them contain the nine-year-old brewery's revered Fantasia peach beer or pinot grape Oregon Native. Last year, Ganum moved all those beers to a new barrel room down the hall. The brewery floor is now filled with barrels devoted to Ganum's newest obsession, a beer called Pathways.
Pathways is an evolution of one of the first beers ever made at the brewery, the dry and fruity Upright Seven saison. But that beer is aged up to nine months using six different strains of funky, earthy Brettanomyces and souring Lactobacillus. The resulting beer is a torrent of taste, an ever-evolving mix of earth, fruit, funk and lemony hop.
Now, we're naming this ambitious, complex and yet accessible mixed-fermentation farmhouse our 2018 Beer of the Year.
Beers made with a mix of cultures are nothing new, of course. Farmhouses and lambics like Belgium's Cantillon and Fantome are spontaneously fermented from the inscrutable mix of yeasts and bacteria floating in the air of the brewery—a culture every bit as expressive and varied as Paris in the '20s, Harlem in the '30s or Portland in 2006.
The other method, which Ganum himself did with his third-ever beer, Billy the Mountain, involved inoculating different barrels of the same base beer with different bacteria to attain the complexity and depth of the old Belgians.
No one in Oregon is doing that better than Ganum.
The new breed of intense and deep mixed-fermentation beers are the trend we're most excited about in Oregon beer right now—and more than any other beer in the genre, Pathways manages to balance a riot of flavor. Brett's earthy, funky notes play against lemony hops and fruity esters, rounded malt and the light acidity of Lactobacillus. The beer develops across your palate like the plot of a novel, but somehow finishes crisp and clean.
And while other brewers might charge $20 or even $40 for a special-release mixed-fermentation beer, Pathways blows most of them out of the water for a miraculous $6 a pint. And it's available every single day of the year.
According to Ganum, the idea was to pull together all of the flavors he likes in beer.
"There's so much to be said for contrasting flavors. It's having the thread of all the elements," says Ganum. "The beauty is that it has a little bit of everything going on and finds a way to come together. The tricky thing on our end is to get it to evolve in the bottle so its window of tasting balance is very big. So if you buy it now, in six months, in 12 months, it has a semblance of balance."
For all of his love of Zappa and jazz, Ganum is a skilled brewer who understands how to make consistent beer. His world-beating lager, the Portland-only Engelberg Pilsner we named Beer of the Year back in 2015, shows he can master meticulous German lagers as well as anyone.
But once you know the rules, you get to break them. You'll never taste the same exact Pathways twice, and this is by design.
"The really old brewers, the beers would vary depending on the time that they're brewed," says Ganum. "I think that's awesome. That's something you embrace. That's the heart of farmhouse brewing. You try to perfect the process, but the end goal is not a fixed profile. It's much more fluid."
Each of the 25 barrels earmarked for Pathways has a unique character that will continue to develop, whether because of a specific yeast strain or because a different beer was in the barrel before it.
Ganum and Upright brewer Bobby Birk hunt through the barrels and taste each one before selecting the four or five that will come together to make a batch of the beer. Whatever flavors they find at the moment of brewing are the palette they have to work with.
"We taste the beers on their own and imagine how they come together," says Ganum. For us, it's so much about functionality. What do you have? OK, let's work with it."
The first batch in May was all in new California wine barrels, while in the second batch they added a little apricot purée to amp up the fruity notes. The third, released this February, used a barrel with white wine grapes left over from Upright's Going Gris.
"The blends are kind of a snapshot of those casks at any given moment," says Ganum. "Maybe it seems cheesy, but it's like a moment in time."
Ganum says devoting himself to the complexity of a single beer feels like an antidote to a trend-hopping craft brew scene gone haywire.
"How many more styles of beer do you need? How many more times can you go through another wave of shitty renditions of a popular style?" he says. "We're not trying to shock people, We're not trying to go over the top. It's a beer. It's just an expression. It'll come and go, and there will be more coming up later."