Beer Guide 2015: Nine of Our Favorite Ten Beers of 2015


2015 Oregon Beer of the Year | Favorite Oregon Beers # 2-10 | Oregon Beer Awards  

Portland-Area Breweries from A to Z | Astoria  | Bend | Hood River | Portland Beer Bars

An Oral History of Cascade Kriek | Celebrity Oregon Beer Picks | Beer Calendar

Best Growler Spots | Homebrew Shops | Kid-Friendly Brewpubs | Beer Bodegas

Top of the Shelf: Saisons | Imperial Stouts | Imported IPAs | Wheat Beers | Barleywines

(Go here for our our 2015 Beer of the Year)

2. Peach Slap (Batch No. 1) 

Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House

Some great beers are meticulously planned, and others are happy discoveries. Some are flat-out unicorns, creatures that appear only to the pure at heart, just once, never to be seen again.

Peach Slap is a unicorn beer.

"The beer was not at all what I was trying to make when I made it," says Jason Barbee, who brewed the beer last summer while working at the Portland satellite of Bend's Deschutes. "I was trying to make a Belgian table beer."

Barbee was aiming for subtlety—a lightly tart, low-alcohol Belgian spiced gently with ground-up peppercorns and juniper berries. It would be a pleasant-drinking summer beer, intended for a bicycle competition. He threw in a little lactobacillus—half what he'd use for Berliner Weiss—to slightly sour the beer.

"I came in the next morning and the lacto had gone crazy," says Barbee. "I thought, 'This is so tart. What am I going to do with this?'" He switched gears, adding a little Ardennes yeast—a Belgian yeast he liked for its subtle flavors.

"I didn't want big flavors," Barbee says. "I wanted smaller, delicate flavors."

He wasn't happy with the resulting beer, even though others at the brewery liked it well enough to put part of the 20-barrel batch on tap as a spicy sour. "I was looking to make something subtle, and it blew up," he says.

Trying to redeem what he saw as a failure, he asked the Portland brewpub's chef last May what they had in season. "Peaches," she told him. He liked the idea, but to counteract the peaches' sweetness, he would need something else. "I really like hot food. I like the tropical fruit character you can get out of hot peppers."

Barbee experimented with different amounts of peach and habanero syrup, trying to get peach flavor without too much sweetness, tropical flavor without too much heat. More than 100 peaches had been soaked for days and then pureed—skins, pits and all—to help make a beer that was almost chewy with fruit at its peak of freshness, combined with peppers that offered more flavor than pain.

What began as an experiment in subtlety had become one of the most punch-you-in-the-mouth, positively bursting fruit beers we've yet tasted. Except it was still recognizably beer, not a toddy, and the tartness, juniper and sweet peppercorn beneath the fruit bomb kept the brew grounded. It was simultaneously overindulgent and perfectly balanced, like a whole troupe of acrobats on a unicycle.

When he debuted the beer at the Portland Fruit Beer Fest in June, the response was ecstatic. Those three barrels of Peach Slap disappeared almost immediately, but people kept looking for it, so Deschutes brewed it again—first for the brewpub, and then for the Peche Fest in October.

It just wasn't the same. Peaches weren't in season anymore, so they weren't as fruity, making the syrup too sugary. The habaneros were all heat, no tropical flavor. And the base beer didn't turn out as sour for the Peche Fest batch. Barbee hadn't taken notes on that fateful morning when the beer went crazy, so some of the details were lost.

"I was so frustrated the first time around, I didn't write it down," he says. "I've since learned my lesson. I write everything down now." But in the meantime, he's also left Deschutes to take over as the head brewer at nonprofit brewery Ex Novo, where he's been working wonders. Still, nothing like that first batch of Peach Slap remains—a happy moment that will likely never be recaptured. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


3. Hop-A-Wheelie

Boneyard Beer

We're witnessing the extinction of the Oregon pine. Not long ago, Northwestern IPAs were just as likely to have green, resiny flavors as citrusy bite. But, in the last year, the most talked-about new IPAs have gone fruity.

Lompoc's grapefruit-spiked Pamplemousse was Oregonian beer writer John Foyston's favorite of the year, Coalition scored a surprise hit with Space Fruit, and San Diego brewery Ballast Point's Grapefruit Sculpin has become one of the most sought-after new beers in this or any state.

Now, even Boneyard has a brighter, lighter new IPA.

Most of the Bend brewery's production goes to its flagship RPM, a beer with an intense following across the region. RPM finds its way onto handles across this city. When they send a keg to Seattle in the morning, it often kicks by the night's end.

Though Hop-a-Wheelie's flavor is lightly sweet and citrusy, like lemon water and peach fuzz, it's actually bigger than RPM, weighing in at a borderline-Imperial 7.5 percent ABV. But you'd never guess that from the Pilsner-light body, which comes from nothing but pale malt. Wheelie gets four hops—Centennial, CTZ, Bravo and Cascade—and more dry-hopping than RPM. The result is a beer that's even more refreshing than RPM, and just as balanced, though it pivots from a fruitier center point.

Hop-a-Wheelie's Cascades hops are grown at Crosby Hop Farm in Woodburn, and have a lighter, more delicate flavor than their acidic cousins from the high desert of Yakima.

"We liked them and will be using them more often," says Boneyard owner Tony Lawrence. "Typically we use Yakima Cascades."

Like all good IPAs—and like most of Boneyard's releases—Wheelie is a temperamental beer. I've had an outstanding pint from one keg in town, and a pint that was merely OK a few days later at another bar. And I've had a growler fill that actually tasted rounder and fuller than the sample I tried when getting it filled. That's the nature of the game these days: IPAs have gone fruity, and everyone knows fruit spoils. MARTIN CIZMAR.


4. Top O' The Feckin Mornin'

Feckin Brewery

Where did the lid lifter go? The peasants of Europe used to pour flagons of beer with breakfast before a hard day's work. Now even the Germans and Irish are worried about their morning commute.

Well, Feckin brewer Mark Maher wants to bring it back. Top o' the Feckin' Mornin' feels just like its name, a fine how-do-you-do for those drowsy early hours. The supercharged 8.5 percent ABV porter is pepped up with cold-brew coffee and spiked with vanilla-bean-infused Paddy Irish whiskey. And if you like milk and sugar in your morning brew, no worries: so does Feckin. Maher added lactose according to the educated palate of collaborator John Lovegrove, who's probably tasted as much beer as any man in Portland—he's visited every brewery in the city in a single day.

It's a fine Feckin beer—the best we've had from a Feckin brewery that's already producing a great Feckin red ale under brewmaster Dave Maher, Mark's father. It's savory, thick, and roasty, sweet enough and strong enough that it feels like a whole Sunday brunch at once, with an Irish coffee.

"It's a new category," says Mark Maher. "The Irish breakfast beer."

The roots of the beer go back five years, to a nitro milk stout Mark Maher tried in California. He liked what the nitro bubbles did to a milk beer. "It was very rich, and very smooth," he says. "It tasted like Frappuccino, really creamy. I always wanted to do a beer similar to that."

He got his chance at December's Holiday Ale Festival. "I took our porter recipe, doubled it up to about 9 percent [AVB]," he says. "At that point, it's a really sweet, high-alcohol beer. You throw in milk sugar, you get a milk porter. So there's more body, this heavy sweetness. So to balance that, I put in cold-brew coffee."

The cold brew was a recommendation from Kells' Dave Fleming, who helped Feckin scale up to a full-sized Oregon City brewery in 2014 after years as a tiny bar brewery based at Maher's Irish Pub in Lake Oswego. Fleming knows from coffee: He runs the NW Coffee Beer Invitational at Goose Hollow Inn each year.

Maher ended up using a whopping 20 pounds of coffee from Happyrock roastery in nearby Gladstone. "That's a lot for coffee beer," he says. "Other brewers were like, 'Whoa, that's more coffee than beer.'"

After the festival, Feckin got so many requests for TOTFM they haven't stopped making it, although they're now adding nitro instead of the typical carbon dioxide. But Mark Maher says he's thinking of switching back, even though that milky nitro smoothness was the original inspiration for the beer.

"The more I drank it, I realized the bubbles in the CO2 open up a lot of the flavors," Maher says. "As you make beer and you drink a lot, you find those things along the way." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


5. Schwarzbier

Pints Brewing

Most Americans have no clue what German beer tastes like. Whether the bottles are green or brown, those imported beers are always a little ruined.

"It's a shame," says Pints brewer Alan Taylor. "The malts oxidize. When a friend of mine was first learning about beer, he was like, 'I really like that German beer flavor.' What he really liked was oxidized malt."

If you want to know what German beer tastes like when it's fresh, go to Pints. Here in Old Town—just a few blocks from strip clubs, dance clubs and the Greyhound station—the German-trained Taylor is re-creating those flavors with a faithfulness almost unheard of in America, where even "German-style" lagers are often made with American hops and malt.

Pints' Hefeweizen has that same sweet-banana fullness I've found in Munich. East Germans say the same, telling Taylor that his Berliner Weiss took them back to their childhoods.

The Schwarzbier? It's a rare style even in Germany. It comes from the state of Thuringia in the former East Germany, where Taylor's father-in-law was born, and tastes like nothing else in Portland. Pints' version is a fulsome dark-malted Pilsner that's smooth and crisp but reveals surprising depth and roundness, with only a hint of the roastiness you find in porters or stouts. At 4.3 percent ABV, you can drink it all day.

Soon, Taylor will take that Schwarzbier, along with a whole host of other German beer styles, to East Portland. In addition to his gig at Pints, he'll be starting up a 10-barrel brewery in Lents this year, called Z Haus. He'll use a system he designed himself, so he hopes he can brew with even greater precision.

But he's plenty precise already. The Schwarzbier doesn't work simply because of the imported Munich and Pilsner malts, or the Hallertau hops. Taylor aims to re-create the water of Bad Köstritz, where the best Schwarzbier is made. From near-pure Portland rainwater, he adds sodium bicarbonate to achieve the high alkalinity of Thuringia, modeling the beer using formulas he made on a wildly complicated spreadsheet.

"I like to do the math," Taylor says. "I was a math major. I learn a lot more this way than plugging in some numbers into a program and hoping they're right."

But however complex his thought process, the goal is always the same. "I want someone from Thuringia to come in and say, 'Oh, this tastes like Schwarzbier—this tastes like Köstritzer!''' he says. "That is the highest compliment." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


6. Alpenglow (Batch No. 1)

Fat Head's Brewery Portland

Fat Head's might not have known it, but they were fighting an uphill battle.

In suburban Cleveland, where Matt Cole's vaunted brewery began, it's easy to impress people with a solid IPA and sandwiches that make liberal use of bacon. In Portland, not so much. When Cole described the Pearl District, where his mammoth 275-seat dining room opened in November as "a pretty hip area right in downtown Portland," it was clear they had some things to learn about our city. The Pearl isn't just decidedly unhip by local standards, but also not downtown.

And yet, Fat Head's exceeded expectations from the start. And one beer from the first batch, a deceptively smooth 8.7 percent ABV Alpenglow, instantly became the state's best new weizenbock.

For that, Cole has head brewer Mike Hunsaker to thank. Hunsaker—he has an Amish chin beard and is built for tossing grain sacks around like Beanie Babies—and his team worked extreme hours to open the brewpub with some of its best beers, including Alpenglow. A Cleveland-brewed batch won gold at Denver's Great American Beer Festival in October.

"People on the street were saying, 'Are you going to ship your beer out from Ohio?' No way. How much credibility would that give us?" he says. "I said, 'We cannot open without our beer.' It was tough. Before the soft opening, we slept three hours on the grain upstairs. Then we went right back to it."

Among the first batches brewed were the brewery's flagship Head Hunter IPA, which ended up being dumped when it didn't meet Hunsaker's standards.

"Our first batch wasn't what we wanted, so we didn't serve it," he says. "We weren't going to come out with a lesser version."

But that first batch of Alpenglow turned out perfect—a banana bomb and glorious pigpile of clove and roasty caramel that shows the best side of Germany's big, bready wheat ales.

Having brewed a perfect batch of this gold-awarded beer in his first go, and nailing Head Hunter on his second, Hunsaker is starting to experiment with more of his own recipes. Most exciting, perhaps, is the fact that unlike in Cleveland, where the IPA and Bumble Berry rule the brew schedule, the Portland Fat Head's is slated to start barrel-aging a bunch of beers in the basement. Yup, they're learning the local ways, and fast. MARTIN CIZMAR.


7. La Tormenta

Breakside Brewery

Ten years ago, even hardcore beer nerds would have laughed at a dry-hopped sour ale in 22-ounce bottles selling for $5.79 at Trader Joe's.

Breakside's La Tormenta arguably represents a whole new genre of beer: the affordable, hop-forward sour. In a town where we've come to expect $20 bottles of barrel-aged fruit beers, it's a revelation.

"There's plenty of other sour producers in town who are doing a year or more of contact time in the barrel on what I consider to be obscene amounts of fruit, and they charge for that and that's fine," says Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds. "I think sour does not necessarily mean expensive."

It's not just price, though. La Tormenta is spectacular. The Spanish word for "storm", it pours a hazy golden color with a soft wave-capping head. The beer's nose is an enticingly tart pineapple cocktail that plays the storm's eye, focused and dry. The first sip reveals a mild acidity compared to many American sour ales, and serves as an interesting homage to a more traditional hop bite.

La Tormenta's tropical cocktail of flavors is perfectly balanced, funky-tart and juicy-citrus with a hint of stone fruit. It rolls onto and off the tongue easily, as if the speed at which it can capably be drunk were calculated into the low price point.

Right now, it's matched to Portland's beer-buzzed Zeitgeist, catering to both hopheads and puckerheads. It started as an experiment by former Breakside brewer Sam Barber at the brewery's Northeast Dekum Street brewpub.

"Hops are popular, sours are popular. You put them together, and there is a little bit of a no-brainer there, right?" Edmunds says.

It's a tricky combination, but for brewers such as Barber and Edmunds, who are known for walking tough balance beams of flavors with the confidence of Olympic gymnasts, Breakside sticks the landing just fine.

And, it's a remarkable value.

"One of the advantages of being a brewery of a certain size is that you have an economy of scale, and you can pass certain savings along," Edmunds says.

Utilizing techniques like kettle souring, which gives the Berliner Weiss its tartness, and aging La Tormenta for a short time in stainless-steel tanks instead of oak barrels, helps the bottom line. It's the same trick that blew us away last year with Breakside's Passionfruit Sour, but is even more striking because of the use of dry hops.

La Tormenta is slated to be a seasonal release in 2015, but Edmunds notes there are no concrete plans beyond that. He'd rather continue his focus on pushing consumers.

"The great thing about Oregon beer is that there are markets for peculiar beer styles," he says.

Then again, it's easy to corner the market when you've got a great product at a ridiculously low price. PARKER HALL.


8. Red Sea

Big Island/Caldera

On paper, Red Sea looks like a mess. This imperial red gose was a collaboration between Ashland's Caldera Brewing Co. and Hawaii's Big Island Brewhaus, and includes pink peppercorns, Himalayan pink salt, molasses and liquid chocolate, plus six different malts and two kinds of hops—all aged in bourbon-soaked oak spirals.

And yet, it works. A rigid backbone of malt and molasses allows more exotic ingredients to dance around without outshining the rest of the show. From the salt comes a subtle brininess that plays well with stiff chocolaty and peppery flavors.

Caldera's owner made the first batch in Hawaii, and planned to host the Big Island Brewhaus crew for a collaboration in Ashland. That didn't happen, but the recipe proved so popular that Caldera has continued to make it over the past two years.

“It’s a very complex beer,” says lead brewer Adam Benson. “It’s a dessert, like a salted chocolate caramel.” 

For now, it's mostly found in Ashland, but the brewery is looking to bottle it later this year. MARTIN CIZMAR.


9. Altbier

Widmer Brothers Brewing

In 1984, beer came in two flavors: light and dark.

The young brothers Widmer were in trouble with their first release, a traditional German Altbier. "I remember donating a keg to a fundraiser," recalls Rob Widmer. "When I went to pick it up, it was full. The guy said, 'We don't know what this was, but goddamn you, we had to go get a keg at Blitz because nobody can drink it.'"

The Altbier was an interesting—and ultimately failed—choice for the burgeoning brewery's first offering. A dark amber style that originates in Düsseldorf, Altbier skirted the line between light and dark just enough to confuse early craft-beer drinkers. Its hop bite was the result of having 60 IBUs, making it an incredibly bitter brew for the time. The Widmers realized this, and quickly dialed back on hopping, but couldn't overcome the marketing challenge that a hoppy, dry, not-quite-dark style presented in 1985.

But at least legendary beer writer Fred Eckhardt liked the Altbier. In a 1985 Oregonian article, he wrote, "What an ale it is, copper colored and strongly hopped, this beer is sure to become a Portland favorite."

Despite Eckhardt's endorsement, the beer never really caught on outside of the town's beer-geek bubble.

"There were, like, six beer geeks in Portland at the time, and two of them were us," says Kurt Widmer, smiling.

The Widmers ended up building their name with an American take on German Hefeweizen, using the same Altbier yeast that Kurt Widmer borrowed from the Zum Uerige brewery in Düsseldorf for their original beer. The brothers gave up any hopes of mass distribution after two failed attempts to rebrand the Altbier over the first 10 years, but have kept it alive and on tap at their Portland pub.

To celebrate 30 years in business, the Widmers decided to resurrect 30 notable recipes for a fresh release in bottles. That included their first beer.

The 1984 Altbier was brought back, complete with the original handwritten recipe on the bottle, last April. It perfectly balances dark chocolate and roast flavors with an assertive earthy bitterness. For a dark amber beer, it is light and refreshing, a refined rarity equal parts quaff and sip. It's still Kurt Widmer's go-to pint.

"Any day now, it's gonna blow up," Rob says.

Answers Kurt: "We've been telling ourselves that for 30 years." PARKER HALL.


10. Golden Promise Single Malt Pale Ale

Pfriem Family Brewers

Josh Pfriem's Hood River brewery zigzags across the world's beer styles like the Road Runner from Looney Toons, stopping just long enough to stick out its tongue before jetting off again.

In addition to WW's 2014 Beer of the Year, Belgian Strong Dark, and its cousins, a Belgian pale and wit, the expansive lineup at Pfriem's (pronounced Freem) brewery includes a huge array of single-hop ales and lagers. But what about a single-malt ale, a beer made using just one type of dried grain instead of balancing several against each other, as almost every beer does?

That idea shocked a fifth-generation British malt-maker.

"'You're really gonna strip it down naked and do it like that?" he asked Pfriem.

"Yep, that's exactly what we're gonna do," Pfriem replied.

One malt, two hops, water and yeast—incredibly simple and simply incredible.

Pfriem's Golden Promise Single Malt Pale Ale gets citrus hop flavor and aroma atop a toasty base of British malt, framed by clean American yeast. The hops are Citra and Amarillo, used gingerly, pulling the flavor out of Golden Promise, a Scottish-bred barley that offers a sweet, light body.

The finished product spins in your mouth like an effervescent top.

Until this year, the ongoing hop war was becoming a battle of extreme bitterness, fought with ever-expanding varieties of hops out on a battlefield of American pale malts with a little caramel for balance. Pfriem makes a convincing case for taking things in a different direction, using simpler malt bills to allow his hops to sparkle.

"People are laying off the caramel malts, and what malts you do use are more sophisticated," he says.

The techniques don't stop there. Golden Promise moves most of its hopping from the beginning of the boil to the later whirlpool and dry-hop stages, where the beer gets more flavor and aroma. The resulting ale is a featherweight champion, with a smell and flavor that's hoppy as hell while still coming in remarkably low on the bitterness scale at 25 IBUs.

More than anything, Golden Promise is a beer that showcases Pfriem's mastery of craft and expert hand with the ingredients at his disposal.

"We like to know what we know," Pfriem says, "and we really know our hops."

And his yeast.

And, apparently, his malts. PARKER HALL. 

2015 Oregon Beer of the Year | Favorite Oregon Beers # 2-10 | Oregon Beer Awards  

Portland-Area Breweries from A to Z | Astoria  | Bend | Hood River

An Oral History of Cascade Kriek | Celebrity Oregon Beer Picks | Beer Calendar

Best Growler Spots | Homebrew Shops | Kid-Friendly Brewpubs | Beer Bodegas

Top of the Shelf: Saisons | Imperial Stouts | Imported IPAs | Wheat Beers | Barleywines

WWeek 2015

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