If you tell tell Great Notion brewer James Dugan he can't do something, he's probably going to do it.
"That's how I like to operate," says Dugan. "If someone tells you it's not a good idea, I tend to question that. How else do you make good beer that stands out?"
And when other Portland brewers said that a well-behaved West-Coast IPA should always be crisply clear, Great Notion made beer that looked like pulpy orange juice. And in the process, Dugan and co-founder and co-brewer Andy Miller changed the face of Portland IPA, led by their 2017 Oregon Beer of the Year, Juice Jr.
When other brewers scoffed at beers like Great Notion's eerily mimetic Blueberry Muffin sour as "homebrewer" beers not fit for a serious brewery, the Northeast Alberta Street brewery turned them into a trademark, and began selling sour beers to people who said they didn't like sours.
When it comes to fruit beer, the brewery is no different. Which is to say, the beer is really different.
The first time we tried Great Notion's Biggie-themed I Like It When You Call Me Big Papaya sour, we couldn't believe our mouths.
Sure, we recognized that same Berliner-weisse base he'd played around with for his muffin and other flavored beers. What we couldn't understand was how much fruit was in there. Big Papaya tastes more like papaya than papaya. It's a big and round burst of fruit flavor that seemed almost impossible, when so many fruit sours end up utterly attenuated and thin, with only whispers of fruit.
In September, when he found himself with a whole bunch of extra passion fruit and papaya purée, Dugan figured he'd make a Berliner-weisse kettle out of it.
But he again did something he's not supposed to do. He stopped the beer before all the fruit had finished fermenting.
"It's an experimental technique," says Dugan. "If you let it ferment out all the way, you lose a ton of the fruit character. If you don't, it's too sweet. So there's a sweet spot to get the fresh fruit character still in the beer. I'd say the fruit is probably 80 percent fermented. There's just a touch of unfermented papaya or passion fruit."
The result is a fruit bomb of magnificent proportions. We came back for it four times over two batches last fall.
But the technique is something a lot of brewers are afraid to play with, because if you leave fermentable material in a beer, you run the risk that it will start fermenting and build up a gush of carbonation.
"It's a bit of a balancing act," says Dugan. But he says the low 3.3 pH of the Berlinerweisse makes fermentation happen slowly, as does the low amount of unfermented fruit.
And if you keep that Big Papaya beer too long, like we did with one ill-fated crowler? It starts to taste a little like SweeTarts.
But Great Notion isn't like every brewery. The little brewery is so busy, and its beers are so popular, that the beer stays perennially fresh. The first small batch blew within two weeks, while a bigger batch in October lasted only a month.
"If I sold that seven-barrel batch in crowlers," says Dugan, "It could have been gone in two days."
So consider Big Papaya a little like the "gamble" a baker takes with bread: When it's fresh, it's amazing. And it's always fresh.