№1: Alesong Brewing & Blending Touch of Brett Mandarina
Style: Dry-hopped saison/farmhouse ale
ABV: 8.5 percent
When Matt Van Wyk left his position at Oakshire in 2015 and teamed up with brothers Brian and Doug Coombs to launch Alesong, which would exclusively produce batches matured in wood, he knew the first several months would be tough.
"It's very challenging when you start a brewery that's all barrel-aged because it's like a winery," Van Wyk says. "You don't have a beer three weeks later, and therefore you are buying a lot of the ingredients and barrels and labor before you ever have anything coming in."
The team at this Eugene brewery knew they had to get beer in barrels—and fast—which is why Touch of Brett is one of the first they made. Though it needed some time to rest in French oak to help impart the liquid with additional flavors and complexity, the waiting period to completion wouldn't be nearly as long as something like a sour—its lactobacillus bacteria requiring more along the lines of at least a year to age. But just because Touch of Brett had a quicker turnaround didn't mean it lacked layers of nuance and that something extra special to make it stand out.
"We'd only been actually making beer for five months when we won the gold medal for the original Touch of Brett," Van Wyk says. "And because of that and because people like it, we decided to make it once a year."
Since then, Touch of Brett has been on a tear.
The dry-hopped saison bagged a bronze last September at the Great American Beer Festival, making it the third win in a row for the latest iteration of this beer. And while drinkers might think barrel-aged concoctions are a product of brewer whimsy—it's a profession, after all, known for experimentation and innovation—we now know Touch of Brett was born out of necessity to help get the brewery off the ground.
All three batches—and soon to be a fourth—were fermented with Brettanomyces, the wild yeast that's also referred to in the name. But each version is dosed with a different variety of hop: first Citra, then Mosaic and most recently the German-grown Mandarina. Comparing the first two, Van Wyk had a slight preference for the Mosaic. But now that a third has joined the lineup—each with unique characteristics, you could really even say personalities—singling out the best is about as easy as admitting you love one of your kids more than the others.
"[Mandarina] is a great one and I'm not sure if this one's my favorite," Van Wyk says. "It's hard to pick a favorite. They're all different in a couple of different ways."
A distinguishing attribute you'll immediately notice is the citrus aroma that's downright Pavlovian in its effect on the salivary glands. One sip reveals a tingling nectarine flavor that fades into a subtle, dry rosé. Van Wyk chose that hop because its tropical notes spring to life after a primary ferment with Brettanomyces—a departure from the funky, barnyard drink most expect the yeast to produce.
The beauty of Touch of Brett Mandarina is how it's really two beers in one—though you would've needed more than a single bottle for that experience. Van Wyk discovered the orange-peel-like taste from the dry hopping has a pretty long shelf life, lasting six to seven months after bottling. "It's amazing how it doesn't fade as much as maybe an IPA," he says. At this point, the Brettanomyces has begun to take over, contributing more yeastlike esters.
"It's a really fun beer to drink early and late because of how the hop character diminishes," says Van Wyk.
The next rendition, which features Galaxy hops from Australia, was blended into a tank in early February, putting it on track for a May release. And as with previous batches, Van Wyk expects to learn a little more and adapt along the way. For instance, he'll be working on dialing in the fermenting and aging timeline since the beer shouldn't pick up too much oak by languishing in the barrel. But this particular yeast can be slow to kick into gear.
"We have to be a little more patient," Van Wyk explains. "Patience is important because the Brettanomyces sometimes has a mind of its own."
Time will tell if a medal awaits the fourth Touch of Brett. In case you're wondering, there are no lucky cooperages that have helped Van Wyk snag wins for the beer so far. But who needs luck when you've got a barrel whisperer? As for Mandarina, Alesong possessed about two-and-a-half cases before this guide went to press, so you might need good fortune to get your hands on one.
"When we make a beer, when it's gone it's gone," says Van Wyk. "And we'll try to re-create it, but it might not happen. So this is a beer that you can find in a few places in Portland, but it's almost gone." ANDI PREWITT.
№2: Upright Brewing Four Hands
Style: Saison/farmhouse ale
ABV: 9.5 percent
Upright is one of Oregon's best breweries, yet too many people don't know much about it. That's a shame because the beers happen to be excellent, and Four Hands is just the latest to make our Beers of the Year list.
Four Hands is the second beer owner-brewer Alex Ganum created working with John House and Ovum Wines, which specializes in whites. The first was Jeux D'eau, a beer made in 2012 and released two years later that showcased muscat grapes. This time around, the focus is on gewürztraminer.
"We were doing Oregon Native [a brew with Patton Valley Vineyard featuring pinot noir grapes] regularly and wanted to do more grape-influenced beers," Ganum says. "I asked John for some advice on fruit, and he suggested gewürztraminer, which tends to be medium-sweet."
The approach with Four Hands is slightly different than with Oregon Native. "We wanted Four Hands to lean a little more saison-forward," says Ganum. "Oregon Native uses a vineyard culture and tends to be a vehicle for the pinot.
Using our house saison yeast allowed us to keep Four Hands beer-y. It spent about a year maturing in local wine barrels."
The result is a balanced and tasty beer that has an earthy brett character provided by the grapes. A 2019 version of Four Hands is maturing in bottles and will be released in coming months. PETE DUNLOP.
№3: Ruse Brewing Grizzly Menace
Style: Coffee porter
ABV: 7.7 percent
Ruse may have built a cult following with traditional IPAs, hazys and barrel-aged farmhouse saisons, but the brewery is absolutely killing it in its new taproom with simpler, more classic styles. After spending close to three years perfecting their core recipes under Culmination Brewing's roof, Ruse owners-brewers Devin Benware and Shaun Kalis finally got to move into their own space in the summer of 2018. With an entire brewhouse to themselves, the Ruse team has really been able to show off their skills beyond IPAs and sours.
One of those beers is a velvety coffee infusion aptly named Grizzly Menace. This delicious beast is a jet-black, dry robust porter brimming with heavy notes of fresh-roasted coffee, rich dark chocolate and a hint of bitterness in the finish.
"It's a play on a traditional English stout-porter recipe utilizing a mix of base malts and a heavy dose of dry bitter brown malt," says Benware. "Once we knew our base beer profile, we linked up with Coava Coffee to pick the right roast."
That happened to be Coava Coffee's Honduran-sourced Las Capucas. Known for its fruity acidity and rich baker's chocolate and caramel notes, it blends in seamlessly with the roasty malt bill to create one of the most balanced, crushable coffee porters around. SHANNON ARMOUR.
№4: Culmination Brewing Momentary Lapse of Reason
Style: Imperial hazy IPA
ABV: 8.4 percent
Momentary Lapse of Reason is dangerous.
An imperial hazy IPA that weighs in at a hulking 8.4 percent ABV, it uses a one-two punch of tropical El Dorado and Citra hops along with a creamy blend of flaked malt to lower your guard, slipping down your throat with a perfectly calculated hint of alcohol to dry off your tongue between sips.
Have a couple and you'll smile like you just stepped off a plane in the tropics and pressed play on the Pink Floyd album it's named after.
"El Dorado is one of my favorite hops," says brewer Conrad Andrus, who decided to modify another of the brewery's hazy IPAs, Obscured by Clouds (also named after a Floyd album), by bombing it with a massive amount of the hop variety, thus creating Momentary Lapse of Reason. "It's that beautiful orange, citrus, creamsicle character."
But the reason the hop works so well in this beer may be the way that Andrus decided to balance it. "Citra's citrus, piny, resinous [quality] is kind of the perfect marriage," he says, adding that he paid special attention to the way the hops create a perceived dryness.
Such attention to drinkability is a theme across all of Culmination's hoppy beers, and it's what makes so many of them so immensely palatable when compared to their often cloying counterparts. Andrus plans to keep experimenting with new ways to create hyper-drinkable (but not sickly sweet) hazy IPAs, with a tinkerer's brain that never stops running.
Just don't expect another Pink Floyd reference in the name.
"We made the Final Cut," Andrus laughs about another Floydian IPA they made, to a groaning Paul Francis—Culmination's sales head—when Francis says they've ended the Floyd series.
"We stopped there," Francis laughs.
№5: Ferment Brewing 12° Pils Czech-Style Lager
ABV: 5 percent
After stints at Full Sail and pFriem, Dan Peterson launched his years-in-the-making Ferment Brewing in the summer of 2018 on the waterfront in Hood River. He intended to focus on approachable, enjoyable, Old World styles. Balanced and tasty, 12º Pils hits the desired target nicely.
"In considering a style of Pilsner to have as a core brand, Czech Pils made the most sense to me," Peterson says. "It is the origin and root of the style—the pride of a small, ancient city—and a style that is known and appreciated for its balance and the subtle nuance of its four ingredients."
The recipe is simplicity in action. It leans on Bohemian malts, Czech Saaz hops and European lager yeast. Water from the springs of Mount Hood is soft like that of Pilsen and provides the canvas upon with the beer is layered.
The simplicity of the recipe carries over to the name.
"I wanted to pay the style as much respect as possible," Peterson says. "So I stuck with the traditional name of '12º,' which denotes the starting gravity in Plato [a measurement scale], and called it simply 'Pils,' as it is not brewed in Pilsen."
True, it's not made in the Czech Republic. But consider Hood River the new spiritual home of the Pilsner. PETE DUNLOP.
№6: Flat Tail Brewing Spigot Licker
ABV: 18 percent
Dave Marliave likes going the distance.
For the past two years, the Flat Tail brewmaster and co-owner has embarked on an annual endurance-testing road trip, riding his motorcycle from Corvallis to San Diego in a single day to raise money for the National Brain Tumor Society. That ambition extends to his brewhouse, where he set out to make a naturally fermented beverage with the highest alcohol content ever.
While human error caused Marliave to fall short of that goal with Spigot Licker—a couple of barrels of pale ale made it into the batch during a yeast pitch transfer—he probably did set a different record. The beer underwent a six-day boil, turning it into a category-defying concoction.
"There literally hasn't, to my knowledge, been a beer like this brewed before," says Marliave. "There is no generally accepted style that it fits into."
And he's right. Spigot Licker can't be bound by any one drinker's description or traditional classification. It's both strong Scottish ale and bold barleywine, but at the same time neither of those exactly.
Diluted to a paltry 18 percent ABV, about 7 points or so lower than he'd hoped, Spigot Licker is nonetheless an exceptional endeavor—the result of a rigorous process. The idea to see just how long Marliave could keep the wort churning was hatched up when he was a few beers deep with Joel Rea, owner of Corvallis Homebrewing Supply. The two decided to push a single-malt beer within an inch of its life after being inspired by their mutual love for Thomas Hardy's Ale, an old English style that began with a 100 percent Simpson's Golden Promise malt base eventually transformed into a ruby-red liquid by a 14-hour boil.
"Part of what I think is exciting about that is, you know, we're not trying to break the number just for breaking the number's sake," Marliave explains. "There are a whole array of yeast-derived flavors we're not used to seeing because they're not really produced until you get the ABV that high."
So how do you keep that prolonged cook going? Marliave and his team filled the kettle to the brim, which is about 24 barrels, and cranked up the heat. They continuously sparged to rinse the grains of sugar until the runnings got too low. At that point, the brewers re-mashed and emptied the kettle, repeating the whole process. A minimum of one person would always be in the brewery while the liquid was roiling, but to avoid needing a body to stand watch overnight they'd reduce the temperature to a simmer.
Great things are said to have been made in six days. But was there any particular reason Marliave stopped the boil then?
"Well, No. 1, my gas bill was getting out of hand," he says. "That was an actual huge part of the cost for this project. We ran a 500,000 BTU torch for the better portion of a week."
Four yeast strains and nearly two years aging in neutral and heavily toasted Kentucky white oak impart everything from powerful plum and fig flavors to deep molasses and cocoa. There are vinous and portlike qualities that warm you to the core. It's a beverage to be studied rather than merely drank—if possible, while lounging on furniture swaddled in leather and constructed out of rich mahogany.
"I like to put that beer in front of people and not tell them what it is, and the first thing I say is, 'What kind of beer is this?'" Marliave says. "And everybody says something different. We've probably heard every flavor descriptor that's ever been used in the history of the world used on that one beer." ANDI PREWITT.
№7: Little Beast Brewing Golden Stone
Style: Farmhouse ale
ABV: 8.1 percent
Charles Porter has been experimenting with mixed-fermentation beers longer than many breweries in Portland have been in business. What started in the early 2000s as a series of funky, Belgian-inspired side projects while he was working for Full Sail evolved into a gig as founding brewer at Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in 2009, with Porter eventually going alone in 2015 with his current endeavor, Little Beast. In a relatively short amount of time, he's already made good on his reputation as a master of farmhouse styles that carefully balance funk, fruitiness and the fantasia of yeasty flavors, all while remaining accessible enough to not ward off the uninitiated. With his first batch of Golden Stone, Porter presents just about everything he's become known for in one fantastic beer.
"I wanted to make a beer with a lot of stone fruit quality because I was known for making Peche 'n Brett at Logsdon," says Porter. "But I also wanted something with a more diverse flavor profile. Not saying those were one-dimensional, but I really hoped to capture a wider berth of stone fruit flavors."
To do that, Porter opted for 2.5 pounds per gallon of whole apricots, peaches and nectarines instead of a fruit puree, which he says allows the distinct flavor of each to shine without becoming cloying or overbearing. The fruit sat in the tank for six months with Brettanomyces and lactobacillus, the latter of which he added to bolster the natural tartness of the fruit. That mix was then aged for six months in oak barrels, which imparts a smoky vanilla character. The higher ABV content contributes to Golden Stone's most impressive characteristic—a juicy finish that lingers just long enough to make you want more. PETE COTTELL.
№8: Von Ebert Brewing Pilsner
ABV: 4 percent
When the first sip of Von Ebert's Pilsner crosses your lips, it tastes as if you were reading a 19th-century love letter painstakingly translated from German.
Three different Pilsner malts, each with its own crackery nuance, join like the tiny gears inside an imported continental timepiece, ticking beneath a flowery blend of Perle, Saphir and Tettnanger hops lifted into your nose by spritzy natural carbonation. And after weeks of cold-temp lagering, you can actually read a letter through it.
Clean, crisp and dangerously refreshing, it's nearly impossible to drink just one.
"I've been trying to make great Pilsners for lots of years," says Sean Burke, who first started experimenting with the Northern German style as a homebrewer and continued working on it at the now-shuttered Commons Brewery before taking his latest version of the recipe to Von Ebert.
"Maybe people aren't noticing it, but we're tweaking this beer constantly," says Sam Pecoraro, the westside head brewer who's spent the better part of the past year modifying Burke's original formula.
"We've always had a really clear vision of what we want this beer to be," he says, adding that small changes, like modifying hopping rates, switching to natural carbonation and adjusting malt varieties, have helped the beer slowly meet their high bar.
Such dedication is admittedly a bit self-centered; the style is one that both Burke and Pecoraro can't get enough of.
"We tend to drink this beer the most," Burke says.
After a few dozen more pints between them, maybe they'll find even more things for us to love. PARKER HALL.
№9: ColdFire Brewing Cumulus Tropicalus
Style: New England-style IPA
ABV: 6.5 percent
While many breweries manufacture hype around their hazy IPAs, the ever-humble Hughes brothers behind ColdFire have let Cumulus Tropicalus enjoy a simple life as a beer—a beer that many, many people want to drink. The fact is, Cumulus offers the best of both worlds when it comes to the cloudy trend and traditional India pale ale.
"That beer was Dan's and my response to some experiences we had with New England IPAs," says co-founder Stephen Hughes. "We took what we liked and went from there."
Yes, it's hazy—bursting with modern hop aroma—and offers a body that keeps the juice flowing. But it also has bitterness, an essential part of a balanced IPA experience.
"We use a blend of three different yeasts that gives it our own character, and a blend of fruitier modern hops and classic 'C' hops," Hughes says. "I feel like in Cumulus, the tropical notes are playing backup to the citrus tones."
The aroma has heady wafts of guava grounded by oily lemon zest. It rubs the velvet on your tongue just the right way, and plants a tantalizing tingle of bitterness in the finish. And that's all very exciting.
"We don't use a lot of wheat and oats; I don't want to feel like I'm chewing a beer," says Hughes. "I like being innovative, but it's easy to forget about what works and what tastes good."
Cumulus Tropicalus is less hyped, perhaps, than ColdFire's Tangle of Tigers IPA, a recurring release that sells out quickly. But the access to draft and four-packs of Cumulus is a treat for those who avoid lines. AARON BRUSSAT.
№10: de Garde Brewing The Boysenberry (Batch 2)
Style: Barrel-aged spontaneous wild ale
ABV: 7 percent
Tillamook brewery and sour beer darling de Garde has gained a passionate following for its mouth-puckering sour ales with an earthy funk. But more recently, brewmaster and co-owner Trevor Rogers has been toning down the aggressive bite in his oak-aged batches while upping the complexity, and we couldn't be happier.
"We have targeted a lower acidity in our beers over time through recipe and process, notably by a progressive increase over the last few years in hop usage to restrain bacteria," Rogers says. "This has led to a lower acidity, on average, across all of our beers."
One of the best things to roll out of the coastal brewery in 2018 was a deep magenta beauty thick with the flavor of a lesser-used local fruit: the Boysenberry.
"Oregon boysenberries have a quite unique character to them," Rogers adds.
"There's a notable 'jammy' quality for sure, with an impression of sweetness even when fermented to dryness, but the uniquely boysenberry spice is a beautiful and singular thing. There's a special vibrancy there to counter that richness."
Like all de Garde beers, the Boysenberry started its life by spontaneously fermenting overnight in a coolship gathering yeast and bacteria from the air characterized by a combination of winds from the ocean, the estuaries and the farms. Then transferred into oak barrels, the beer spent the next year of its life undergoing a slow fermentation before being moved once again to another wooden vessel on top of fresh boysenberries to allow the flavor to really sink in. One final step before packaging, the beer is blended to taste with other oak-aged stock ranging from 2 to 3 years old.
The result is a tart masterpiece that is a jar of fresh jam in beer form. With fragrant berries up front, the Boysenberry finishes dry with just the right amount of wild funk to make it well-rounded.
Every de Garde beer is unique; you won't see this exact iteration ever again, but Batch 3 is in the works. We'll be waiting as patiently as possible. SHANNON ARMOUR.