Beer Guide 2014: Nine of Our Favorite Ten Beers of 2014

McMenamins Edgefield head brewer Matt Bergfield

[These are nine of our favorite ten beers of the past year. For our Beer of the Year, click here.]

2. Swill (10 Barrel)

Call it brewmaster Tonya Cornett's Berliner Period.

Picasso went through a stage in which he used warm, rosy colors. Cornett, the head of experimental brewing at Bend's 10 Barrel, has lately been the queen of the tangy, effervescent Berliner Weisses.

10 Barrel Swill is a sweet, citric grapefruit radler that may have been dismissed as a lady's beer in another era. Contemporary Portland men have come to love it, too: Swill even won second place in the year-end poll conducted by the New School beer blog, a bastion of bearded beer-geekiness. We've also come to love it.

Swill starts with a base of sour wheat beer that won a gold medal at the most recent Great American Beer Festival. That beer is called German Sparkle Party, and it's been known to put on various flavors of party pants thanks to various fruits. There's an apricot version and a cherry version, as well as more challenging iterations like cucumber and pumpkin. All are called "Crush," and have nothing in common with the raspberry- and woodruff-flavored syrups traditionally associated with Berliner Weisse.

In the case of Swill, German Sparkle Party is used to make a beer like Stiegl Grapefruit Radler, one of the most perfect quaffers on warm, sunny days. Whereas Stiegl's submission has only 2.5 percent alcohol, Swill remains sessionable at 4.5 percent. Grapefruit juice works very well as a flavoring agent here: Swill tastes like a vodkaless greyhound, a tequilaless paloma or a Champagne-less grapefruit mimosa.

"We wanted to brew a beer that you could crush in the sun, and Swill was just that," says 10 Barrel co-owner Jeremy Cox. "Technically difficult to brew but easy to drink."

Given Portlanders' propensity for riding bikes from brewpub to taphouse, it's worth noting that "radler" translates to cyclist in German. Cox wants fair-weather two-wheelers to know that this beer will be back for their next long summer ride. It was originally brewed as a one-off, but given the ecstatic response, it'll be back.

"We've been tweaking the recipe all winter," he says. "We're excited to release it again this summer." BRIAN YAEGER.


3. Workhorse/RPM (Laurelwood/Boneyard)

The beer you loved last week might not be the beer you love next year. For the most part, our tastes change faster than recipes, which is why so many once-groundbreaking beers become boring over time.

This is especially true of Northwest IPAs. The beers that started the great hop race of the late '90s and early '00s (see our feature on BridgePort IPA) often seem tame today. Tomorrow, Pliny the Younger may drink like a Henry Weinhard's amber.

The makers of Oregon's two best IPAs, Laurelwood and Boneyard, know that. Which is why they updated the recipes for their flagship brands, Workhorse and RPM, in the past year or so. The results have been extraordinary.

RPM comes from the recently expanded Bend brewery run by Tony Lawrence. It's dropped in ABV in the past year, and improved in flavor. The September batch is the best Oregon IPA I've ever had: crisp and fresh with huge bursts of grapefruit and cannabis.

Workhorse, from Portland's Laurelwood, is a huge success story—especially given how this recipe came to be. When brewmaster Vasili Gletsos took over in July 2011, he quickly figured out that the brewery hadn't contracted for enough of the elusive and expensive hops—Simcoe and Amarillo—needed to continue brewing the company's most successful beer. Rather than use fewer hops, degrading the quality of the beer, he stopped making it altogether. "We figured we could spread them a little thinner, but we thought it would lose its integrity," he says. "The West Coast IPA is really about the bouquet of those particular hop varieties. It was painful. It wasn't anything I'd wish on anyone. It was a rough way to start a new job."

After the new hop harvest the brewery brought it back as a pub-only offering, with the first batch out to toast the holidays in 2012. And then Gletsos decided to do something even more radical: change the recipe.

"We entered a contract with Craft Brewers Alliance, and they had a bunch of new varieties available to us," he says. "And we thought it made a better beer."

We agree. The new blend—roughly 40 percent juicy Galaxy from Australia, 50 percent Citra from Washington and a smattering of El Dorado and Simcoe—has a fresh flavor, a nice dry body and, we dare say, an even better bouquet of fresh citrus and flowers than the Workhorse now put out to pasture. MARTIN CIZMAR.

4. 2013 Night Court Barleywine (McMenamins Edgefield)

You never know what's going to come out of the barrel. Unlike steel tanks that are hosed down and sanitized with industrial-strength bug killer, liquor barrels double as petri dishes—sometimes the microflora and wild yeast inside are tasty, sometimes they're not.

So there's only so much credit Matt Bergfield is willing to take for Night Court Barleywine. "It was a happy accident with experimentation and the ingredients we had on tap that really panned out," he says. "I wasn't really sure what we were going to get out of it. We just knew we had those rum barrels and coffee beans and wouldn't it be cool if we did something with them?"

Such magic happens when you have interesting ingredients and license to experiment, as does the team at McMenamins' largest brewery. The barrels used to age Night Court came fresh, still wet from Edgefield's own distillery, unlike those that stew in the back of a truck traveling from Kentucky or farther. Same goes for house-roasted coffee beans previously used to infuse a coffee liquor made onsite. The finished product is an extraordinary burst of caramel and vanilla with a little smoky bitterness and a shimmering dark caramel color. "It's a really neat confluence of all these big and sweet flavors that make something pretty well-rounded—it's not cloying, because the base barleywine is strong enough to carry the weight and not let it overpower it," Bergfield says.

The base beer was brewed in November 2012, originally a "wimpy" 9 percent alcohol.

"We made it the traditional English way," Bergfield says. "You don't use a lot of specialty malts—you use basic malts, boiled for longer than you normally would. That long contact with the heat is key, because it basically caramelizes the sugars. That creates flavor you can't get otherwise.

Then, it's up to the barrel to do the work.

"We don't call it Night Court unless it comes out of a wet barrel directly from our distillery," he says. "It really makes sure you're going to hit a home run with that rum flavor and get that character.” MARTIN CIZMAR. 


5. Passionfruit Sour (Breakside)

When the world asks, "Why?" some people answer, "Why not?" And like a man trying to get into Guinness World Records by eating an entire pickup truck, Breakside's Ben Edmunds seems particularly fond of setting himself near-impossible tasks just for the pleasure of seeing whether he can accomplish them. In December, WW wrote about Breakside's feat of putting out 62 brand-new recipes last year, for a total of 100 beers produced in one year. Of all those beers, the Passionfruit Sour was one of Edmunds' own favorites.

In technical terms, the beer is an impressive achievement. With little experience making traditional Berliner Weisses, Edmunds tinkered with a recipe developed by brewer Sam Barber on the 3-barrel system at Breakside's Dekum brewpub. After two tries, he decided to jump to the 30-barrel system in Milwaukie. "Our director of operations said, 'Are we really going to do this?'" Edmunds laughed. "I said, 'I think we can pull this off.'" Few brewers would attempt to sour a beer in this volume at a single batch, and even fewer would do so without extensive testing.

The beer has less than a handful of IBUs, because hops—a natural antiseptic—kill the bacteria that sour the beer. Edmunds' choice of passionfruit is also inspired, since it's most commonly seen in sticky-sweet concoctions described as "exotic" or "erotic," with pictures of cartoon hula girls on the label. Here, the fruit adds just a bit of tropical tang to the beer's brightness, which fades quickly to a clean finish.

The beer won a bronze at the Great American Beer Festival last year, and owner Scott Lawrence notes that Breakside will be bottling it later for summer distribution. It's a worthy addition to your warm-weather lineup, and should cut the grease off an entree of engine parts very well. ADRIENNE SO.


6. Isarweizen (Heater Allen)

American-made wheat beers tend to be dry, hoppy and, far too often, bland. Compared to traditional German Hefeweizens, these New World cousins typically tone down the yeast's tutti-frutti punch while amping up the bitterness with extra hops.

But Heater Allen didn't build its first-rate reputation on Americanized versions of European brews—the McMinnville brewery instead gained renown for its authentically Bohemian lagers. It's little surprise, then, that Heater Allen's first ale started with a recipe imported directly from Germany. Lisa Allen, who brews with her father, Rick, had a college roommate who spent time working at a Munich brewpub, and back in 2008 she returned to Oregon with the formula for this Bavarian-style wheat beer. If you've only guzzled Widmer or Blue Moon, prepare yourself: This beer will thump your nostrils with the smell of clove and then strike your tongue with the taste of banana. It's creamy and crisp, something like chewing a slice of Juicy Fruit gum—in the very best way.

"We've had several Germans come in and try it," Allen says. "They're like, 'This tastes like a real German hefeweizen.'"

That authenticity comes from the Isarweizen's German yeast strain and its 100-percent German malt bill. In accordance with German beer-purity laws, wheat makes up half of the beer's grain bill. Allen says the brewery has tinkered somewhat with the formula since 2008, fermenting it at a slightly colder temperature to enhance the spicy notes and dampen down overwhelming fruitiness. But, she adds, her college roommate still always asks to have a couple cases set aside for her. This year, she can expect to pop those bottles in mid-May: At only 4.8 percent ABV, this cloudy quaff is designed for summer drinking. 

"It's the best beer to have on a warm day," Allen says. "When I think of Isarweizen, I just want to be sitting out in the sun. It's refreshing and goes down easy." REBECCA JACOBSON.


7. Bu Weisse (De Garde)

Normally stoic beer enthusiasts greeted De Garde's arrival last year with the adoring hysterics I'd normally expect in response to Obama appearances or touring Brooklyn synth-pop duos. Even for Oregon, Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher took a daring approach. For two years, the pair drove up and down the coast with jugs of wort and left them in fields and outside friends' houses and hotels, all in order to find the perfect wild bacteria for their Belgian-influenced beers.

At a mere 2.1 percent ABV, their flagship Bu Weisse is at the low end of the alcohol spectrum. But to speak of it in purely quantitative terms is to ignore Rogers' obvious devoted care and attention. It's a beautiful hazy gold in appearance thanks to the inclusion of raw Oregon wheat, and bubbly and tart on the tongue, with just a hint of that characteristic brettanomyces old-gym-sock funk. It's simply one of the most sophisticated summer beers around.

As is to be expected with the perfect summer beer, the Bu Weisse also carries fruit very well. Rogers racks off a portion of each batch to nearby wineries to be aged with local fruit like blueberries and cranberries before bottling. And soon you won't have to wait between February and June—De Garde also plans on offering an Imperial Bu Weisse, weighing in at a comparatively hefty 5.5 percent ABV and also aged with blackberry, boysenberry and raspberry.

"As we grow the production of Bu Weisse this spring, we expect the regular version to be more regularly available," Rogers says, "and we will have a growing range and higher quantity of fruited versions." Even if he had a magic wand, it's highly doubtful Rogers could produce enough beer to satiate all the people who will want to drink it. ADRIENNE SO. 


8. Bier Royale (The Commons)

With its crisp effervescence, dry fruity tartness and rosy-pink tone, it's no great surprise that Commons Brewery's sour Bier Royale is modeled after a Champagne cocktail—specifically the kir royale, a blend of Champagne and black currant liqueur.

But it's quite another thing to learn that one of the first ingredients was a dollop of Nancy's Greek yogurt, thrown into the wort for our 2013 Beer of the Year, Commons' Urban Farmhouse Saison. Brewers Sean Burke and Michael Wright had long thrown around the idea of using yogurt as a source of lactobacillus culture that could give their beer more acidity, and Burke finally tried it out for the Portland Fruit Beer Festival last June. "Souring beer with yogurt," says Burke, "on a very nerdy level it's fun. It's fun to buy some Nancy's and come out with beer on the other end."

But unlike a lot of beers with unconventional ingredients, Bier Royale isn't just for the geeks. About 90 pounds of black currant puree for seven barrels of beer—dropped in at the peak of fermentation—give the Royale its vividly fruit-forward nose and taste, while Burke added malted spelt grain to beef up the flavor and round out the mouthfeel. Only a smidgen of hops came into play, just enough that they could rightly call it beer and not gruit.

The result is a sour beer of uncommon balance and accessibility, popular enough that Commons will make it a regular seasonal. At a modest 5.5 percent ABV, it's flat-out sessionable by sour standards. And the beer's mere 0.75 IBU allows the fruit flavor to come across without the need for a blanket of cloying sweetness.

"We had a nice couple at the brewery who told us they didn't drink sours," says Wright. "They'd had terrible experiences. Amazingly, they liked the Bier Royale. They're coming back for more." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


9. Vanilla Bourbon Cream Ale (Sasquatch)

A lot of bourbon beers taste like a drop shot. The whiskey heat comes rifling out of the pint glass and hits you straight in the sinuses, before the fermented alcohol sugars coat the back of your throat like the powder off a muzzle flare, lingering for forensics. The intensity is bracing, but you don't always order a second. 

Sasquatch's Vanilla Bourbon Cream Ale is a blazing exception. Its mouthful of a name describes a mouthful of flavors, each one very present but none dominating the palate. The vanilla and bourbon are light accents to the cream ale used as a base, adding complexity and finely honed specificity to an often-mushmouthed beer variety.

The beer started out as a collaboration between Sasquatch brewer Charlie Van Meter and Maletis Beverage rep George Dimeo, who added special roast and honey malt to cream ale before aging it with Evan Williams-soaked oak chips for a week and a half. The two had been brewing together regularly as a side project, but had never intended to produce their Vanilla Bourbon Cream Ale commercially until Willamette Week's Pro/Am Beer Festival last November. 

The beer mopped up in festival voting, winning not only the people's prize but the judge's award as well, which led Sasquatch to pick up the beer as one of its regular taps and sell it across the city. And in one regard, the beer is indeed like a rifle blast. "We're already having a hard time keeping it in stock," Van Meter told WW in December. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


10. Most Premium Russian Imperial Stout (Gigantic)

Asked about their goals in concocting Most Premium Russian Imperial Stout, the Gigantic guys can't help themselves. 

"To impress the Foster-Powell triangle," says brewmaster Van Havig, cracking up fellow brewer and co-owner Ben Love. "As soon as you put 'Most Premium' on something, all the Russians know it's the best. 'Will buy! Most premium beer!’” 

Never mind that the style is actually of British origin. In a beer scene lacking in big, bottled imperial stouts, Gigantic's might be the czar. Imperial stouts have varied profiles, but Love and Havig knew immediately what they didn't want to do.

"The bad ones are thin and hot," Love says. That's not an issue with Most Premium: Thick as chocolate milk and black as the Mariana Trench, it masks its 10 percent ABV in a complex, aromatic palette of flavors, intermingling touches of raisin and prune with deep caramel and nuts. It is dense and robust, not to mention dark—"like a Russian winter's night,” adds Havig. 

It won't last nearly as long, though. Gigantic's lone mainstay is its well-regarded IPA, and the Southeast Portland brewery plans on keeping it that way. They'll experiment with other imperial stout recipes, but once this limited release ends, Most Premium will go the way of Yakov Smirnoff. Says Havig, "Don't hold your breath for this beer to come back." MATTHEW SINGER.

WWeek 2015

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