Portland Beer Guide 2015: An Oral History of Cascade Kriek

Cascade's legendary barrel-aged cherry beer has roots in a failed IPA.

In Portland, it all comes back to IPA.

Even when you're looking at the furthest thing from it. Say, a beer like Cascade's Kriek, a robust but nuanced barrel-aged sour cherry beer, which bested the Belgians to become the best kriek in the world, according to the wine critic for The New York Times.

Back in 2003, IPAs were well on their way to becoming Oregon's dominant style of craft beer. Today, half of all craft beers sold in the state are IPAs, and there are thousands of wildly different recipes.

Art Larrance's little Cascade Brewing operation was looking for a way to compete with bigger breweries and upstarts hooking up the then-freshly legal millennials with hops. Larrance, a Hillsboro High School alum and lifelong Portlander who founded Portland Brewing in 1986 and the Oregon Brewers Festival a year later, needed something new and different, a "magical elixir" that would allow his Raccoon Lodge brewery in the southwest hills to compete.

"We knew early on we didn't want to get into the hops arms race, so we were thinking, 'What can we do that's different?'" he recalls.

The beer they came up was a game changer. Cascade's Kriek is barrel-aged with fresh Oregon cherries and lactobacillus bacteria, then blended into a tart, sweet, slightly tannic brew that drinks like wine. Today, the Cascade Barrel House on Southeast Belmont Street is one of the first destinations for beer-conscious tourists, and the kriek has spun off into a full barrel-aged sour program that includes everything from honey ginger lime to elderberry, stored in a 23,000-square-foot warehouse in the West Hills for national distribution.

And it all started with Cascade's version of an IPA, possibly the oddest and most labor-intensive beer ever made in this city…

"We were hand-to-mouth brewing. In the summer we couldn't brew enough, and in the winter we didn't have anything to brew. So we were trying to come up with brews that we could do in the winter that had some appeal in the summer months, when we had higher demand." —Ron Gansberg, head brewer

"The prices get set by the big boys. Mass production gives you lower prices, but all us small guys—no matter what our cost—it's gotta sell at $4.50 or $5 per pint across the line. We found out that we couldn't do that without getting bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger." —Art Larrance, owner

"We needed something that had added value—limited production, high price." —Gansberg

"We always needed what we called our magical elixir. We needed something special, something new…and for $600 we could get as much fermentation in wood as $10,000 would buy in stainless steel." —Larrance

Cascade's brewery at Raccoon Lodge on Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway started by making something really old: a hyper-traditional British IPA. Gansberg bought barrels with the idea of making the kind of IPA that sailed around the Horn of Africa with added sugar and dry hops. They called it Bombay IPA.

"Raccoon Lodge brewmaster Ron Gansberg [is] determined to brew the most authentic India pale ale around. Some will know the basic story, that British troops stationed in India during the Raj period demanded Brit beer and that India was too hot for brewing in those refrigeration-free days. The problem was the four-month voyage by sailing ship: brown ales turned sour and musty, and even after they were casked flat and allowed to recarbonate during the voyage, they weren't especially suited to India's saunalike weather." —John Foyston, "Raccoon Lodge Tests the IPA Waters," The Oregonian, Feb. 21, 2003

"We had four full-sized oak barrels of this beer, basically in this timed voyage, and then we also had it in stainless steel so we could see how it compared." —Gansberg

"John Foyston would come out, and we'd get 50 or 60 people. You got to drink it free. We had a little cask up on the bar, and we did it on a Sunday afternoon." —Larrance

"It was pretty boozy, too. I'd get there early in the morning on Sunday. Didn't eat anything. I'm racking the beer, trying to get it carbonated, doing all this stuff. People are showing up. Still didn't eat anything. We'd play jungle croquet afterward. There was one time I'm out there laughing and cackling when my wife picked me up. She was not happy." —Gansberg

In many ways, those monthly IPA tastings were like today's Tap It Tuesday. Every Tuesday at 6 pm, the Cascade Barrel House on Belmont taps a fresh barrel of aged beer using a wooden mallet and spigot. Because you never know how the bacteria are reacting in the barrel, sometimes the bar gets soaked in beer.

"We dry-hopped them, kräusened them, hard-bunged them. If you looked close at the heads on a lot of the barrels, you could see they were distending because of the pressure. I remember Fred Eckhardt was over there like, 'This thing's about to blow, get over here, we've gotta get the pressure off!' It was coming out as just this white foam that would hit your glass and slowly turn back into beer." —Gansberg

The project took four months, ending in April 2003.

"The last cask—for a while—of the Bombay brew will be tapped Sunday…. No telling if the folks at the Raccoon Lodge will be that historically accurate when they re-create the arrival in India of an oak cask of Bombay India Pale Ale. But you should know that they scoured Andy & Bax in search of pith helmets." —Foyston, The Oregonian, April 2003

"We did that just long enough to know that wasn't going to be our deal." —Larrance

The main legacy? Cascade Brewing had wood barrels.

"How could we expand and not borrow money? We thought, what could we use locally? Wood barrels and fruit." —Larrance

They experimented with barrel-aging on their raspberry beer. And then, on cherries. Cascade's Kriek was born. It's a Flanders-style red ale in competition, but unlike the originals it's made without spontaneously fermenting wild yeasts. The Cascade crew started making their "Northwest" style Kriek before trying any Flanders ales.

"We weren't of the philosophy of 'let's go to Belgium and have them all and make it.' In fact, we didn't even go buy any to try and then make. Ron just said, 'Let's go do our own Northwest style,' so we weren't beholden to some other style. We started from scratch." —Larrance

"The first few years, I would go out and pick all the cherries myself—in the Valley, out in Mosier, in Yamhill. I'd pick 50 pounds in an hour. I could pick more, so long as there's someone there to listen to me complain." —Gansberg

Things changed in 2008, when Cascade won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

"We were in Denver, at GABF, at Falling Rock taproom, and they let us bring a bottle in and said, 'Let's try it.' And then they let us bring in another bottle and then another bottle. Pretty soon the Alström brothers come by. That was the first time we got any endorsement." —Larrance

Beer geeks started to get excited.

"Wow, the Northwest seems to be booming with Belgian-inspired beers…. Such a wonderful aroma of fresh cherries and a faint tartness with suggestions of nutmeg and baked pie crust. Think cherry pie. The unsurpassed smoothness feigns a bigger body for a second. Lots of cherry flavor up front with an ample tartness and deserving sweetness, hints of oak and bready grain are noticeable." —The Alström brothers, Beer Advocate magazine, Vol. II, Issue 1

"Gansberg's recent creations are some of the most spectacular Lambic available this side of Belgium. It is almost surprising that so much hype is given to other breweries when considering the art that goes into the making of these beers and the divine flavor complexities that come out."

—Angelo De Ieso, Brewpublic.com, Nov. 19, 2008

It wasn't just the geeks who were impressed with the Cascade Kriek. The beer quickly found fans outside beerdom.

"This sparkler from Portland lacks some of the bitter characteristics often found in beer, so it appeals to people who drink simple cocktails like a whiskey sour." —O, The Oprah Magazine, June 2011

And then came the big one: New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who tabbed the kriek the best in the world.

"No beer impressed us more than our No. 1 bottle, the 2010 Kriek Ale from Cascade in Portland, Ore. This lambic-style vintage beer is flavored with cherries, but was not sweetly fruity or cloying. Rather, it was beautifully tart and richly complex, with just a hint of fruit flavor for balance. We liked this beer so much, we gave a rare top score of four stars." —Eric Asimov, "Brews as Complex as Wine," The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011

"I remember when I got the call the day after Thanksgiving, a friend said, 'You're in The New York Times.' What? 'Yeah, your kriek's in The New York Times!' The article's right on the wall, still. How they got the bottle, we don't know." —Larrance

“I went, ‘Ah, hell, we’ve only got seven cases left.’” —Gansberg 

Aged and Blended

photos by Matt Wong

For early batches of Cascade sours, brewer Ron Gansberg (below) picked the fruit himself. Those beers came from the Raccoon Lodge brewery. After running out of space there, the sour program moved to Southeast Belmont. Today, sours including the kriek are made and stored at a 23,000-square-foot warehouse in Southwest Portland.


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