Hyperlocal Seattle Beer: The Shambles

tasty goodnessAfter a long period of construction and, one presumes, permit and license application bureaucracy, The Shambles finally opened a few weeks ago, just a short walk from my house. Although it was initially disappointing for us that it wasn’t going to be an all-ages venue – the state of Washington has very peculiar square-footage requirements for restaurants with liquor licenses to legally allow in those under 21, whereas breweries and taprooms that don’t serve food are generally able to welcome visitors of all ages, for reasons passing understanding – the fact that it’s so close means we can still enjoy it, albeit only as alternating adults.

The name is a nod to York’s famous tourist-laden medieval street in the north of England, which, as it happens, is also only a short walk from one of my favorite beer establishments, House of the Trembling Madness (also undertaking its own construction and relocation project).  The aim at The Shambles is to offer not only dine-in options for house-cured meats, accompanied by delicious beverages, but also a fancy butcher shop. The deli counter portion will go some way toward placating my older child, who had been very much looking forward to meat and cheese plates before the 21+ announcement (he was lamenting the fact that ‘we have no  jamón ibérico,’ just like all normal tweens, only the other day). That said, what I’ve been most impressed by (so far) is the experience of settling in at the bar.

totally like Disneyland, for realsThere’s a lot of really lovely reclaimed wood that’s been carefully crafted into said bar and tables, and the backlit wood carving above the taps is a bit like a more subtle version of the light-up headboards at the Disneyland Hotel (and this is a compliment, not a snarky comment). The rotating small plates have all been interesting, and while the meat and cheese were, as expected, fantastic, I’m always a sucker for a good bread and salty butter option – I miss the one at Tired Hands very much on this coast – and The Shambles delivers. There are no televisions (though there is some well-chosen music), and the top-notch service, combined with the woodsy surroundings, makes for a very soothing atmosphere.

And what of the beer? So far, it’s been an interesting selection of (mostly) regional choices, from breweries like Cloudburst, Seapine, Fort George and Urban Family. As is the norm in US beer bars, there aren’t a lot of options under 5%, but there are at least a few; some of that may be a function of the season as well, and I expect it will change often.  My only real complaint is that a beer engine would not go amiss, especially with the English-lite theme; it would be great to see rotating casks of ESBs and porters (as a start) in the neighborhood.

And speaking of the neighborhood, a slight, hyperlocal aside…The Shambles has taken to calling the immediate area, which, depending on your real estate agent may be Maple Leaf, Ravenna, Roosevelt or merely ‘northeast Seattle near Lake City Way’, Maple City, while the portmanteauic Ravenleaf Public House (one of our  regular family go-to options) across the street has gone for the other local name elements; I hope this leads to some sort of entertaining rivalry during the summer.

All told, it’s a most welcome addition to the area; we’ve long had a few dive-ier places nearby, but that’s rarely my thing (even though, this being the Pacific Northwest, most have some pretty good tap lineups and occasional beer events); The Shambles is much more my speed.

Add a ghost walk and a few hand pumps and it’s perfect…

London (Beer) Loves

Best coaster ever. TFL FTW.The jet lag may still be lingering, but getting back to London is always worth it. While much has changed since I first moved there in the 1990s – most notably, that everything is so clean, which was absolutely not a feature of so-called Britpop London – it was lovely to see some of my old stomping grounds in a new (visible) light. It’s probably fair to say that I drank ‘reasonable,’ albeit cheap, beer as a postgrad/early career adult back in the day; lots of pints of Directors at my local Wetherspoons, but there wasn’t much beyond that, at least so far as I was aware.

Fast forward to the present day, to a (I have to say it again, very clean) London where specialist beer bars and small breweries abound, and there is so much choice that it requires some navigation; for that, we relied on Des De Moor’s excellent guidebook, plus regular last-minute Twitter ideas from Melissa Cole and Pete Brown (though we never did make it to his Stoke Newington ‘hood – I looked at a cheap bedsit there nearly two decades ago and would love to go back to see it now, though I’m sure I’d lament not having had the wherewithal to buy some portion of it then, when I had £25/week to spend on rent – I ended up getting something for the same amount in East Ham instead, which had the distinction of being near The Who Shop, though little else – but I digress).  We upped the degree of difficulty by having our kids in tow, and while our older one claims he could easily pass for 16 (and he’s probably right), finding a place with great beer that is also reasonably welcoming to a 3-year-old is a trickier challenge.

With that in mind, we were thrilled to have great experiences at The Rake, CASK Pub & Kitchen and The Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden. Each one had a fantastic lineup of CASK ALE (I miss real handpumps so much) and a variety of interesting kegged options. They also had friendly, deeply knowledgeable staff and a largely non-bro-y clientele, which was very pleasant indeed. We found traditional pubs a bit more hit and miss (though I’m mindful that we were often firmly in Tourist London, which can veer toward the more generic), but thoroughly enjoyed The George – re-reading Pete Brown’s book on the plane was useful – and The Lamb, which was an occasional hangout spot of mine as a student; visiting as an adult with children was a very different experience, as its proximity to Coram’s Fields was a major selling point in ensuring a less-fussy meal – and I had one of my best beers of the trip there.

With that segue, I’ll again call out the range of cask beer on offer, essentially everywhere we went, which is absolutely not an expectation in Seattle (though I wish it were – it was much more readily accessible in Philadelphia, but there you go). Particular standouts included the aforementioned beer at The Lamb – Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale from Adnams was one of the best pale ales I’ve had in recent memory, and certainly the best cask pale ale I enjoyed.  And as it’s a Young’s house, the Winter Warmer was firmly on the agenda, and as lovely as I remember it. Another favo(u)rite was Barnsley Bitter from Stancill Brewery, which is exactly the sort of beer I wish I had as a regular go-to; it was very nearly perfect. Moving to the dark side, Glamorgan Brewing Co’s Welsh Cake Stout was delightful, as was Truman’s Brewery’s Original Porter – finally, a good porter! Also of note was a black IPA from Windsor & Eton, Conqueror; ironically, the style seems to have vanished from our home in Cascadia, so it was very pleasing to find a well-crafted, hoppy/dark beer elsewhere. We had two historical beers from The Kernel, and while both were very fine, the edge went to their Export Stout London 1890, which was absolutely fantastic though the Imperial Brown Stout London 1856 was also excellent.

Obviously we did some non-drink-related things too – you may have heard of a can-do little musical called Hamilton, and I have nothing but praise for the talented London cast – and the Harry Potter exhibit at the British Library is well worth a visit. We also made some discoveries and rediscoveries. I’ve long been a Foyles partisan, but we didn’t have a chance to make it to their (still new to me) headquarters. We made up for that omission by taking over Daunt Books and buying up as much of their stock as we could carry (including Boak & Bailey’s 20th Century Pub, at long last). Persephone Books made themselves more even more dangerous by ensuring we left with a catalogue, and I enthusiastically recommend the London Transport Museum. While I’ve been there before alone, there is no better place to take an alternately happy, clingy, angry and curious jet-lagged toddler, and the current exhibit on women artists is spectacular. The kids get to touch, climb and play while adults enjoy the exhibits, and everyone comes out happy (if lighter in the bank account). They also had quite reasonable tea, though the dearth of good tea in London may need to be its own post – why did so many otherwise-good hotels, restaurants and pubs want to foist their Twinings supermarket tea upon us? I realize we may not be the target tourist market, in that there is really great tea everywhere you go in the Pacific Northwest and so we expect it, but it did seem odd that we had to seek out teas we’d normally consider passable, rather than really good.  If any venture capitalists are looking for a new vertical, let’s get top-quality fair trade tea to become A Thing – only the museum cafes delivered.

Finally, I’ll recommend two very different experiences: the London Mithraeum, well-preserved and well-presented underneath the new Bloomberg building, may be one of the best public archaeology installations I’ve seen. I won’t say that no expense has been spared, as I’m sure there’s been some sort of trade-off, but it’s really very impressive, and should serve as some sort of model for other developers. And as it’s only a temporary happening, you should make your way soonish to the Southbank Centre for ABBA: Super Troopers: The Exhibition. If you’ve ever wondered what an immersive ABBA-themed experience, narrated by the dulcet northern tones of Jarvis Cocker, would be like, wonder no more. It is utterly delightful (and my 12 year old will vouch for this as well).

Out of the many places I’ve lived, London and New York are still my favorites – hardly surprising for a city-obsessed theatre nerd, but London does edge out New York when it comes to beer; I wish I had more excuses to get back to both more often (ideally, of course, on someone else’s dime, but who wouldn’t want that?).  All outrageous job offers happily considered!

[Another] Wildly Subjective ‘Best Beers’ of 2017

Great Notion BeerIt’s that time of year again; time to comb through my Untappd history to see what I loved immediately, what grew on me, what I had second thoughts about, and what I’ll be leaving out entirely to keep things positive. Although I frequently lament the preponderance of IPAs here in Seattle, there are quite a few on the list that stand out – equally, while there aren’t enough bitters, porters and stouts around these parts for my taste, those that did impress are highlighted.

Travel, of course, influenced some choices as well, and I’ll wager that some of those I selected as especially interesting to the non-local are considered boring or ‘too accessible’ by some, but that’s what fresh eyes taste buds are for.  We were fortunate to make it to ‘both’ Californias this year, as well as Portland, our old Philly-area stomping grounds, Vancouver and Victoria, BC, and London, though most of what features here is, indeed, local (for local people).

Without further ado, my fully-owned and wholly-subjective favorite beers of 2017 (US and Canada edition):

Fort George Brewery, Great Notion Brewing, Reuben’s Brews – 3-Way IPA 
We rarely go to official beer release events, because 1) it’s a pain with children and 2) crowd hassle in general, but this beer was well worth our trek over to Reuben’s Brews for the event. We love Reuben’s, one of our favorite local breweries (see the next entry), and were completely won over by Great Notion on our first visit to Portland (of which more below as well). Everything we’ve had from Astoria, OR-based Fort George has been top-notch, and this was no exception. Again, I may complain that it sometimes seems that everything in the area is an IPA somewhere north of 7%, but was simply wonderful.

Reuben’s Brews – Kentucky Common 
Reuben’s has been building out an ever-larger set of year-round beers, but their one-offs are always interesting. This particular one went well beyond that – my only complaint was that it was gone so soon. It had a lot of depth and complexity, and nailed a unique brand of ‘sour.’ I’m always a fan of reviving an underappreciated historic style, even if only in inspiration rather than specific recipe, so this ticked many boxes for me.

Spinnakers Gastropub – Firefighters Session
Once again, it was hard to pick just one or two from Spinnakers, since everything – especially their cask bitter – was delightful, but this beer, brewed to give a nod to the firefighters who saved the brewpub during a devastating fire last year, was a subtle standout. Also of note: fantastic scones, most likely the best in North America.

Karl Strauss Brewing Company – Mosaic Session Ale, Red Trolley Ale
You can get decent beer at Disneyland! Well, more accurately, you can get not just decent, but really quite good beer, in California Adventure at the Karl Strauss beer stand. We were also pleasantly surprised by everything on offer in their brewpub in the otherwise-vaguely-dystopian mall next to Universal Studios (and after a day of shepherding children small and large around Universal Studios, drink is certainly called for), but these two beers were my favorites, and have become go-tos when trapped in California airports.

Machine House Brewery – Fresh Hop Talisman Pale Ale, Best Bitter, Cambridge Bitter, Battel Special Bitter 
Can you tell I love bitters? Yes, I complain they are hard to find here in Seattle, but Machine House makes some truly outstanding ones, as well as a great mild – they just don’t make it up toward my neighborhood very frequently, though I’m always pleased when they appear on cask as a guest at our nearby Elliott Bay Brewing outpost. And while this region does produce many great fresh hop beers in the fall, the Fresh Hop Talisman was my favorite. Again, rather lower-key and more subtle than many of the more heralded fresh hop beers, but really lovely.

Tired Hands Brewing Company – Gatherer
We made it back to Philly! Imperial Stouts are not usually my thing, but as always, Tired Hands excels where other breweries often seem a little ‘try-hard.’ It was also wonderful to have another HopHands – I miss being within walking distance of what is, for my money, the most interesting brewery in the US.

Seapine Brewing Company – Sea Witch Stout
Seapine is another local brewery that flies somewhat under the radar (at least in my part of the city), but I’ve really enjoyed most of their output, chiefly their pale ales and IPAs. But their seasonal stout was another standout for me; in a land where it’s hard to find a stout that’s not preceded by ‘imperial’ or ‘barrel-aged’ (again, all well and good from time to time, but not something I’m seeking out regularly), this was most welcome.

Victory Brewing Company – Home Grown 
More from our return trip to Pennsylvania, and we finally had a chance to see Victory’s new(ish) production brewery and taproom. The self-guided tour is very well-designed, and it’s fantastic to see how they’ve grown. While they do distribute here in the Pacific Northwest, I haven’t seen Home Grown here yet, but I hope it makes its way to this coast soon; it’s a really flavorful lager that’s neither too much nor too little. I miss Yards Brawler, my favorite US mild, and this makes a perfect lager analogue to a great ale.

Great Notion Brewing – Over-Ripe IPA, Juice Junior 
Hey, look – IPAs from Portland! Great Notion is one of those few breweries where we enjoyed absolutely everything (even some very fruity beers that I was highly dubious of before trying), but these were especially tasty. Juice Junior was everything you expect from a really great IPA, and Over-Ripe is the best New England IPA I’ve tried thus far; as much as some like to malign the style (often with good reason, given a few I’ve had that simply didn’t make the grade), this showed it can work very well indeed.

Ex Novo Brewing Co. – Cactus Wins the Lottery, Where the Mild Things Are 
Great Notion and Ex Novo are now our favorite Portland breweries. Ex Novo is somewhat similar to Tired Hands in terms of being able to do the weird stuff, and do it well, while also producing top-quality ‘normal’ beers. Cactus Wins the Lottery is a prickly pear Berliner Weisse, which may sound gimmicky at first, but it’s absolutely delicious; it’s rare for me to go back for ‘more of the same’ when I’m only on a flying visit, but this was a fabulous exception. The mild was also just as good, and in Portland, that’s saying something.

Cloudburst Brewing – Talk and Not Talk, O Pioneers 
It’s impossible to live in Seattle and not appreciate Cloudburst. Whenever I’ve been underwhelmed by yet another generic/too strong/wildly unbalanced IPA, they remind me that a really fantastic one can, indeed, be worth seeking out – and they are consistently creating those top-quality IPAs, like Talk and Not Talk. But they went off-piste with O Pioneers, which was a really lovely porter; proof that they really can do anything, and do it superbly.

So, there you have it…we’ll be following up with thoughts on London in the near future…here’s to a better 2018.


More Beer & Tea: Victoria, BC

At SpinnakersVictoria, BC, has a bit of a reputation for being ‘more English than England,’ and we put this notion to the test on our most recent trip across the border. It’s an easy journey from Seattle, even with a toddler who can ratchet up the degree of travel difficulty considerably, but the sensible people in charge of boarding the Victoria Clipper make sure that you can pre-board with your fussy, awakened-pre-dawn child. The trip is a relatively speedy 2.5 hours, and the quick check at immigration is one of the friendliest I’ve ever experienced – clearly, there’s something to the Canadian stereotype.

There are no water taxis this time of year (though they do have a water taxi ballet in summer, which seems something we’ll need to investigate at some point), but even in less-than-ideal weather – this is the Pacific Northwest in late autumn, after all, so rain is a certainty – the walk around the harbo(u)r to our destination was pleasant. Having been deeply impressed by their beer and food on a previous visit, we opted to stay at Spinnakers, Victoria’s longest-serving (and, let’s be honest, best) brewpub, in business since 1984. We were not disappointed by our room, which had ample space to allow our children to ignore us when they so desired, and breakfast is included as a perk of staying on-site.  (In case you were wondering and/or feeling cynical, there’s no need for any sort of ‘full disclosure’ here – no freebies, just a great experience). And the breakfasts are amazing – fantastic scones, a variety of great entrees and a beautiful water view; it’s actually rather a good thing the water taxis weren’t running, because we needed the longer walk downtown to work off the generous portions of wonderful food.

I have no shame.And, of course, there’s the beer. While everything was lovely, I especially enjoyed the cask bitter; our friendly, if bemused, waitress had to come ask me if I was really fondly stroking my pint. I had to explain that a great bitter is a rarity for me, so yes, it’s all true. Also of special note was the Firefighter Thirst Extinguisher Session Ale – we didn’t realize we had arrived on the anniversary of a large fire a year ago, but everything looked perfect – there was no sign of damage any more, and the ‘thank you’ beer was really quite wonderful. It could be argued that there isn’t the range of ‘adventurous’ beers we are used to on this side of the border, but I certainly did not feel their absence.

We also did the usual tourist-y things – a tour of Parliament, a return visit to their excellent historical ghost walk (those not with the smaller member of the family also enjoyed the Chinatown history excursion), went to Munro’s to buy far too many books – and then we started on the tea. We didn’t make it to Murchie’s last time, but visited a few times on this trip; while I’m sure the fancy high tea at the Empress is lovely, it’s likely not geared toward a 3-year-old’s attention span, so we opted for basic tea and cakes. I’m not sure if it’s simply down to a sampling error, but on each visit it was full of transplanted Scots; it may be that Victoria is secretly more Scottish than Scotland, rather than more English than England. And a side note for people like me, who love good tea but can’t have too much caffeine: Murchie’s Decaf Afternoon Tea is actually good! Most decaf tea is, frankly, appalling, so this was a very welcome discovery, as was the fact that the local supermarkets stock most of the terrible British snacks and cereals I miss from living in Britain in the 1990s.

Finally, a bit of an unexpected recommendation: we had another great meal and some fine beers at the Irish Times Pub. I quite wrongly assumed it would be like every ‘Irish’ pub in North America – Guinness and Stella on tap, and some microwaved shepherd’s pie – and while there was indeed Guinness, it was accompanied by simple, but well-prepared fresh food and a wide selection of local beers. I’m very tempted to go back again for their breakfast at some point in the future.

We’ve already made a list of galleries we’d like to spend more time in on a return visit; there is a wide selection of works by local First Nations artists we didn’t have enough time to explore, we skipped over the major museums and gardens on this trip, and I didn’t even mention the range of shoe stores that stock shoes actually made for walking – another rarity around these parts.  Victoria’s well-preserved (and thoughtfully re-used) older buildings are a draw, but even the new construction had me checking prices; I’d happily go back in any season.

The Session 129: O Porter, Where Art Thou?

They didn't make porter, but had a pretty building.
[Photograph: Dave Sizer on Flickr]
It’s been far too long since I’ve participated in The Session, but this month was one I couldn’t pass up – really, what beer nerd would pass up the chance to pontificate about talk missing local beer styles? Were I still a Pennsylvania resident, I’d have ample opportunity to talk about Pennsylvania Swankey in all its possible permutations, but here in Seattle, something much more familiar is (mostly) missing – porters and ‘steamed beers.’

I recently had the slightly surreal experience of re-reading an old column and only partway through realizing that I’d written it, though to be fair, it’s been a while and my smaller child is continuing an ongoing campaign of disallowing sleep in her general vicinity. But after reviewing the piece on Seattle beer history, I was struck by the mention of porter, and duly went back to my source material to see if there were more mentions of Seattle porter – and there were, albeit only for the late 19th century. And while there are a few good local porters nowadays (shoutouts to Machine House, Reuben’s Brews and Georgetown Brewing), they aren’t always easy to find on tap very much beyond the immediate neighborhood of each brewery. This is true of British styles in general, which is a bit ironic since the earliest beers in the Good Beer Revival in the Pacific Northwest were very much along those lines, especially those brewed by or under the tutelage of Bert Grant.  And compared to our previous Philadelphia-area stomping grounds, there are vanishingly few beers imported from the UK to this coast; while not surprising, given the cost and potential quality concerns, there are few locals beers that fill that gap. A good bitter is hard to find (again, Machine House excepted), but mediocre IPAs are ubiquitous. That’s not to say there are not some great Seattle IPAs – Cloudburst does an amazing job – but there are so, so many that only elicit a ‘meh.’

But back to porters – I was quite envious of the recent wealth of porters around Britain mentioned by Boak and Bailey, and hope to find a good many of them still around when I’m next in London over the holidays, but I think a lot of my porter problem (kids, feel free to steal The Porter Problem for your new free-jazz combo) is the absence of Troegs Dead Reckoning Porter; to me, this is the beer that means fall has arrived. While I’d love a special coast-to-coast tap sending me Troegs (and, let’s be honest, Yards Brawler, my favorite US mild) from the source(s), I’d hoped that there would be a readily-available local equivalent; if there is, I have yet to find it. So, let this be a challenge to Seattle brewers – make your best porter! Try a few historical recipes! Feel free to make it hoppy if you must – hey, Troegs did it, and it’s wonderful.

Seattle used to be (briefly) known for porters…it would be lovely to see more of them on the local market.  Now, about those equally-disappeared ‘steamed beers’…

What Does a Beer Festival Look Like, Anyway?

Beers & beardsI’ve been overthinking beer festivals lately; mulling over the idea of developing a taxonomy of beer events, then abandoning the idea as Not Useful. But some questions stick in my mind: when is a beer festival a ‘festival’ and when is it an ‘event’ (in the ‘Facebook event’ sense)? Is something the scale of Philly Beer Week too big to be a festival? Is Seattle Beer Week’s Celebration of Women in Beer its own festival, nested within a larger one? Has something like GABF become too ‘corporate’ to be festive? Is our local progressive Oktoberfest* a festival? Or is the Cask Bitter Festival held by Machine House, one of my favorite local brewers, really too small to warrant the name? Can they ‘take over’ their own taps in a single-style tap takeover?  I’d argue that their branding worked – there may have only been 4-5 beers featured in the ‘festival,’ but it certainly got me there.

It’s odd to think that cask bitters are now so rare on the US beer nerd scene that they need to have a whole weekend dedicated to them; back when I began attending beer festivals in the late 1990s, bitters, brown ales and stouts were typical fare – now they are nearly as novel as this month’s most popular resurrected-and-tweaked forgotten sour historical style, and they are probably not considered as ‘accessible’ as everyone’s standard-offering 7% IPA.  Indeed, most beer festivals I enjoy tend to be somewhat smaller in scale. I no doubt ‘imprinted’ to some extent on the first beer festival I attended more than once: namely, the Mountain View Small Brewers Festival. Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, in the heady days of the dot-com boom and bust in Silicon Valley, this pleasant annual event was largely a Local Festival for Local People. As I lived a short walk away in a terrible, expensive 1-bed apartment (and this was in a pre-Google Mountain View), it was doubly so for me. It was my first introduction to beers from Firestone Walker, Mendocino Brewing and Widmer Bros, long before they were even regional powerhouses, but I had a special fondness for Wizard Brewing, whose hand-carved, Tolkienesque tap handles were a crowd-pleaser to their nerd-dominated audience; we were people who knew our way around a D20 (though some of us were beard-free). The beers tended to be British-influenced, and anything ‘sour’ or ‘wild’ was almost certainly not so purposefully crafted, and such terms were entirely absent. Rogue and Sierra Nevada brought their IPAs, but they were something of an exception; especially bitter and/or hoppy beers were practically confrontational (at least according to Rogue’s/Stone’s marketing materials). But Michael Jackson himself recommended the festival every year, so it had to be good.

Festivals – at least, festivals I attended – began to get bigger, more expensive and slightly weirder in the early-to-mid 2000s; the event that evolved from The Book at the Cook at the UPenn Museum in Philadelphia became the Annual Michael Jackson Beer Tasting, with beers from Dogfish Head, Yards, Troegs and Victory (plus some international oddities), and the man himself in person. He was incredibly generous about signing books for tipsy, effusive fans (ahem), and happy to talk tasting notes and the history of the local and international scene. It was a unique chance to sample some of Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales before they were commercially available (though we got to do this at the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach not infrequently as well), and I’ve never been to a more wonderfully-appointed salon for a festival – being surrounded by ancient Chinese and Egyptian art is a far cry from tents in a field or booths in a convention center under flickering lights, though I cannot imagine the museum’s insurers signing off on it now. This and similar local festivals seemed to be a chance for brewers to showcase their standard lineup – maybe bring a small keg of a one-off beer, or a special collaboration with another brewer at the festival, but in most cases, that was the exception; it seems quite the opposite now, when brewers seem to compete to bring their most oddball beer to each festival.

This is no doubt driven by drinkers, at least those polled during market research, who claim to seek novelty, and while novelty itself is no bad thing, it can become repetitive in its own way. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote, ‘when everyone is somebody, then no-one’s anybody,’ and that rings true at some festivals now. If everyone has brought their ‘tequila-barrel aged Mexican lager brewed with lime,’ it’s easy to skip those booths, but it can’t be cheap for the brewers to continually churn out specialty beers for the huge number of festivals that now appear on the calendar. I had a candid chat with some of the higher-ups at Victory Brewing a few years ago – I was interviewing for a job I didn’t get, though they were lovely about the whole process – and they were quite open about how Philly Beer Week was tough for their staff: locals wanted to see something special or otherwise hard-to-find, while those who were visiting for the express purpose of trying all the local beers wanted a mix of the standard line-up and a few of those ‘white whales.’  Getting that festival lineup wrong would be expensive for a larger, established brewery, but potentially ruinous for a smaller one. However, given that these are businesses, one assumes that there’s a strategy involved with going to (or not) individual festivals, whether those are local or far-flung – if the intent is to keep it small and impress your existing base, make a weird one-off; if you are working toward your regional, national or even global reputation, bring a well-made flagship beer – it’s entirely possible that your amazing mild or schwarzbier will seem exotic among the fruit-infused, barrel-aged novelty beers. There’s probably a very dry business school case study in here somewhere, but I digress.

So, what do I really want from festivals now?  I cannot speak highly enough of the recent Oregon Brewers Festival, which celebrated its 30th year when we attended this past summer; as a multi-day festival with no admission fee, family-friendly options for the kids and in easy walking distance of our Portland hotel (not to mention many of Portland’s justifiably-lauded breweries), it was absolutely ideal, if still beardy. There wasn’t the (usually self-induced) pressure of needing to try all ALL THE THINGS in the 2-3 hours of a pricey, one-day festival; it was pleasant to wander in, try 2-3 samples, then wander back out to see other sights.  Having been to another ‘kid-friendly’ beer festival that was simply more trouble than it was worth (few activities, not enough food, hard to get to, questionable beer quality, etc.), I had relatively low expectations, but Portland has it figured out. I do still enjoy many of the adults-only events, but they need to have a very specific focus and/or attendees to get me to shell out my babysitting dollars.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention a ‘beer festival’ I came across when we were in the UK a few years ago; it was simply a series of rotating casks from a handful of specially-chosen breweries, highlighting the seasons – more or less just the normal offerings for this particular free house. No lines, no hype, no tickets, no tokens – just a beer you might not normally have, available with or without excellent food.  The novelty factor was still there in that the beers were only  available in limited quantities, but they were simply (mostly) excellent pale ales, bitters and stouts – old school. It would be too low-key to be considered a ‘festival’ by most American standards, but if this is the future of festivals, I, for one, welcome our laid-back, throwback beer overlords.

*For those whose reading of the world ‘progressive’ now defaults to the political, thanks to The Current State of the World, this is a literally progressive Oktoberfest – it moves from brewery to brewery over the course of the afternoon, accompanied by an oompah band. Specialty merchandise – t-shirts, hats, drinking boots – are part of the fun. Protip: beat the crowds by always staying one stop ahead!

Portland Flights of Fancy (and Beer, and Tea)

Great Notion BeerWell, we did it – after over a year and a half of living in Seattle, we finally made it to Portland.  I admit I had lowered my expectations somewhat – could the beer really be that good? As an old, jaded beer nerd (not to mention one who has been thoroughly spoiled by having lived within walking distance of Tired Hands), I’m used to finding things that I’ve heard mentioned in either hushed reverence or wild enthusiasm to actually fit somewhere between ‘it’s not bad’ and ‘did we really need another 12% barrel aged sour?’  Or worse – ‘does it have a high BeerAdvocate and/or Untappd rating simply because it’s so alcoholic/hoppy/sour/hard to find as to be nearly undrinkable?’ And the much-maligned Portlandia-is-real hipster food scene – surely it would be quite similar: lots of dishes that were perfectly nice, but probably little worth braving Amtrak for (or – spoiler alert – your replacement bus that is required when Amtrak is sidelined by a landslide). After all, Portland is much smaller than Seattle, and I’ve found Seattle’s food and beer to be pleasant, though not nearly as good as what we had in Philly, and certainly nothing like our old Brooklyn stomping grounds, though that’s always an unfair comparison.

I am quite happy to report that I was wrong: it really is that good, and you can get tasting flights of absolutely everything: beer, spirits, ice cream, tea – you name it – and we did. Portland breweries, bars and restaurants also seemed to be much more comfortable with well-behaved children than their Seattle counterparts; we only encountered one place that wouldn’t let them in, and they were incredibly apologetic and said they are working on getting their license revised. Most of the places we visited, and I’ll highlight a few standouts in a moment, welcomed them with toys and great real food in smaller portions (though if you are my tween, he really only wants a place to plug in his phone so he can stream 1990s television and ignore us while we eat, though he does appreciate the food). Here are a few places we will definitely want to try again the next time we visit:

Ex Novo Brewing
Something billing itself as ‘the nation’s first nonprofit brewery’ sounds like a Portland cliché, right? But absolutely everything about it – the welcome, the food, the beer, the fact that they donate their net profits to the local community and beyond – was fabulous. It was outstanding across the board: the kids had milkshakes of a quality I’ve not had in years (so good it stopped a travel-induced tantrum), I had possibly the best taco I’ve ever eaten, and we got bacon for the table. The beers were uniformly fantastic, from Cactus Wins the Lottery, a Berliner Weisse made with prickly pear cactus, to Where the Mild Things Are, a great – you guessed it – mild. I loved this place so much I started looking at local real estate prices.

Great Notion Brewing
This was on my ‘try if in the neighborhood’ list, rather than a must-do, but it was so good I had the ‘what are the local house prices’ reaction again. I admit I was a bit skeptical after my first glance at the menu; quite a few sour beers, and I’ve had so many mediocre sour beers of late – some clearly accidental, some just not nearly as good as their makers suggested.  But thoughts of bad beer were banished quickly – the Key Lime Pie and Blueberry Muffin beers were both wonderful; tart and refreshing, nice fruit character, but never cloying or perfume-y as is so often the case. Juice, Jr. was a fabulous IPA and as with Ex Novo (with whom they also collaborated on Best Budz – not a hipster pot beer, as you might fear, but a successful New England-style IPA, as we are calling them now), the food and service were both great. There was a welcome toy box and even the children’s menu was made with top-quality ingredients; I would be tempted to order off that menu for myself.

Deschutes Brewery
Deschutes has always reminded me of Victory, our previous local stalwart when we lived in Pennsylvania – they’ve been around much longer than most of the smaller (and often weirder, in both good and bad ways) breweries, and to some they sit in that awkward ‘uncool’ space between the upstarts and the mega-brewers, but both have continued to thrive by offering a consistently high-quality product line, as well as careful expansion and innovation. Their Portland brewpub offered a good range of interesting food and tasting flights that backed up their reputation. Everything was lovely, but the Altbierior Motive stood out as a new-to-me offering.

Steven Smith TeamakerNot Beer
I’m not generally a huge ice cream fan, but it would have been churlish to go to Portland and not at least try Salt & Straw, even though it seems their frozen empire is slowing moving up and down this coast, and it was well worth the trip. We actually skipped the tasting flight simply because the line was long and this time the tween, rather than the toddler, was fussy, but we did swap around a few times to good effect. We returned to tasting flights when visiting the fine local distilleries, but my favorite non-beer sampling session came at Steven Smith Teamaker. Both of their locations are in nicely-restored buildings, and we very much enjoyed the beautifully-presented custom tasting flights, each complete with a card detailing the tea’s origin and properties.  We went home with a lot of tea.

Putting aside a few minor quibbles – one much-talked-of brewery that had excellent food but only ‘meh’ beers, a ghost/history tour of highly questionable historicity (not to mention the poorly-constructed ghost stories – there are formulas for this, people!) – Portland also impressed with its largely-thoughtful historic reuse. For a relatively young city by global standards, there is a large collection of older buildings and walkable neighborhoods that sit comfortably next to their new additions, providing a lot more character and visual interest than you get in much of Seattle. And, of course, there was Powell’s Books – that certainly lived up to and exceeded expectations. My major disappointment in visiting Vancouver was the absence of a great independent bookstore (though, to be fair, the ghost tour was pretty good – yes, I judge cities by their bookstores and ghost tours), so Powell’s, with their detailed categorization and (actual) curation, makes Portland a much more attractive destination for us bookish types; the transit and odd specialty shoe stores were also very much to my specifically-weird liking.

In short, we can’t wait to go back – if someone could send a beer and taco truck from Portland to Seattle in the meantime, I’d be most grateful.

The Session #120 – Brown Beer, At Home & Abroad

The SessionI have long had a fondness for ‘brown’ beers of many descriptions: dark milds, schwarzbiers, porters, dunkels, and, of course, your better-than-average brown ale (either theoretically British or American – I know I should like a good Oud Bruin, but it’s just not my thing in quantity). And, once upon a time, brown ales loomed large on the beer horizon. Newcastle Brown Ale was widely available, and Pete’s Wicked Ale was the go-to American version of the style.  Cast your mind back to a differently-benighted America in the early 1990s…while there were a few interesting regional beers, nationally-available ‘microbrews’ (as we used to call them) were few and far between. If you weren’t a lager fan – and you might have over-corrected in your dislike of the macro-brewed ‘lager’ offerings to ignore Sam Adams – your options were relatively limited. Your ‘import’ choices tended to be pretty straightforward British beers: Newcastle Brown, Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout and the like.  These were presumed (at least by me, in my inexperience) to be vastly superior offerings – they had color! Flavor! Exciting times.

Moving to the UK in the mid-’90s quickly taught me that while there were certainly good things about British music and television, there was just as much that was terrible as there was in the US; it was just that the worst (and some of the best) never made it abroad. This rule applied equally to beer – I discovered that ‘the good stuff’ was often simply from a local family brewery, and they didn’t always make enough to export. But I loved my go-to beers, even if they weren’t ‘fancy’ – a pint of Theakston’s Best, Brains Dark, Moorehouses’s Black Cat, Lancaster Bomber (the version from the 1990s, not the current iteration, which seems much changed). I tended to go for beers on a chestnut-to-dark-brown continuum, and while I do go for more variety today, overall, that pattern still seems to hold.

Even back in the US in the dead-end of the millennium, the Mountain View Small Brewers’ Fest featured a wide variety of copper-to-black beers of varying quality, not infrequently named after less-renowned Tolkien characters, though this is to be expected when software engineers have side projects. Shortly thereafter, the American beer scene exploded – microbrews became ‘craft beer’ and bitters, stouts and porters began to play second fiddle (or perhaps eighth oboe) to IPAs. ‘Boring’ brown beers began to disappear – milk stouts were booted for coffee stouts, and everything else on the amber-to-brown spectrum seemed to end up aging in or on oak. Fortunately, though, the pendulum for extremes seems to have shifted slightly – sure, it’s nice to have some of the more extreme stuff from time to time, but on the whole, it’s lovely to have beer that tastes like beer.

Of late, there are few things I enjoy more than a toasty, biscuity ESB or a roasty – but not too roasty – mild, but they are relatively few and far between in the Pacific Northwest; granted, we have great IPAs, but the ubiquity of great IPAs also means we are awash in mediocre ones, since nearly everyone feels they need to make one to compete for tap space, even if they aren’t particularly successful at it (and they are probably correct). There are a few local standouts that do fit the bill for this discussion, however – Lower Case Brewing’s ESB is very fine indeed, and I recently had an excellent, straight-up brown ale called Betsy’s Mountain Brown at Naked City Brewery a few neighborhoods over from ours.  Perhaps because they grew out of the 1990s microbrew tradition that was more influenced by British pubs than (often wonderful) Belgian oddities, Seattle’s brewpubs tend to have a much wider variety of the sort of solidly-made, eminently quaffable ESBs, porters and stouts than many of the more buzzed-about small breweries – or maybe they simply assume a fairly large percentage of their clientele will be there for a meal with the family, and a tap list of 12% tequila-barrel-aged strong ales doesn’t suit all palates or occasions. So, with little fanfare, many are consistently turning out great coppery altbiers, dark caramel ESBs, deep ruby-brown porters and nearly-burnt-toast dunkels.

Long may they continue – and here’s hoping more of the ‘edgy’ breweries also opt to show off their skills with a few subtle brown beers.

And thanks to Joe Tindall for hosting The Session this month; I’ll be raising a glass of something coppery to you for prompting me to get back to regular-ish beer writing.

An Unabashedly Subjective ‘Best’ Beers of 2016

Fresh local beer
Fresh local beer

We’ve been in Seattle for just over a year now, and I’m finally beginning to develop a consistent list of favorite local breweries and beers, though I continue to discover new (or new-to-me) options on a regular basis. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a fair amount of travel this year – mostly for work, but with some fun family trips thrown in as well – and while it is certainly possible to find mediocre IPAs across the globe, there are some real gems as well.

A brief aside: I will note that while I don’t mention them below specifically, I really, really miss several Philly breweries and events, notably Philly Beer Week; sorry Seattle locals, but it’s better than Seattle Beer Week by an order of magnitude, as illustrated by these True Facts: 1) my favorite part of Seattle Beer Week was Victory Brewing doing a tap takeover and 2) there wasn’t even a working iOS app. We have some excellent festivals, but the Beer Week game is weak. I particularly miss Yards Brewing and Tired Hands – though I’m pleased I’ve been able to pick up Victory Festbier here. But I digress…so, without further ado, my favorites of 2016 (categories as per the brewery, in most cases):

Pacific Northwest Beers
Reuben’s Brews – Daily Pale – Seattle Beer Week 2016 – Pale Ale, 4.9%
As mentioned, Seattle Beer Week isn’t nearly as fully-featured as Philly Beer Week, but this brewed-for-the-event beer was outstanding – a perfect pale ale, full of flavor and subtlety.

Reuben’s Brews – Gose, 4.3%
Can you tell I really like Reuben’s Brews? Their taproom is great, kid- and adult-friendly and their regular lineup is fantastic. This is now my favorite gose; it was perfect all summer, and frequently on tap at the Ravenleaf Public House which opened earlier this year – we have a local again! If you’re looking for a great burger (which was surprisingly hard to find in Seattle), it’s a must-visit. I’m so happy it’s just around the corner from our house.

Atwood Ales – Lodge – Session Ale, 3.2%
This was a road trip discovery; we came across the brewers at the farmers’ market in Bellingham, WA and could not have been more pleased. For those unconvinced that a 3.2% beer can impress, I’d suggest this – it was dark and toasty without being coffee-like, and was simply all-around delightful. I’ve been cheered to discover they now send some bottles to one of my local bottle shops; it may well become my Yards Brawler ‘replacement’ as a go-to beer.

Optimism Brewing – Automatic, ESB, 4.1%
I was a bit wary before trying Optimism, as I’d heard they didn’t label their beers by traditional styles ‘to avoid limiting choice,’ but I found that by the time I visited they (more or less) had pretty standard descriptions. I enjoyed quite a few of their beers, but especially this ESB – I frequently complain that there aren’t enough around, certainly when compared to the ubiquitous IPA, but this one was especially nice.

Lowercase Brewing – Chocolate Milk Porter, 5%
They also make a fine ESB, but I especially enjoyed this seasonal variant on their regular porter. Despite the name, it’s not overly sweet, but just right.

Holy Mountain Brewing – Helmsman – English Mild, 3.7%
I admit I am on the fence about this brewery as far as some of their ‘strange’ beers go; they just haven’t had the consistency of Tired Hands, who are strange alchemists when it comes to regularly pulling off the weird and wonderful, though I freely acknowledge my bias. That said, Helmsman is outstanding – a perfect mild, and one I’d happily pipe into my house if I could.

Floating Bridge Brewing – Bitter – 5.2%
Another great bitter! We’ve only managed to get to their new-this-year taproom once, but it was well worth the effort.

Stoup/Cloudburst – Fist Bump – Pale Ale – 7%
Is it really a pale ale at 7%? Probably not, but it is a fantastic beer. I am a big fan of both Stoup and Cloudburst (more on them in a moment), and this was a top-notch collaboration.

Georgetown Brewing Company – Bodhizafa – IPA – 6.9%
I complain a lot about all the ‘meh’ IPAs that seem to have taken over the world, but it’s nice to be reminded that there are some truly fantastic ones in this area. Some local beer nerds turn their noses up at Georgetown for (presumably) being easy to find on tap, making beer that tastes like beer and having been around a long time, but there’s a reason they are successful – it’s good beer.

Cloudburst Brewing – Phenomena – IPA – 6.9%
Having said that, the new kids are doing some amazing things – I don’t think there is a better brewery for IPAs anywhere on the planet than Cloudburst. Everything else they make is good too, but the IPAs are simply outstanding, and constantly rotating. They may well be the best brewery on this coast.

Wild Ride Brewing – Nut Crusher Peanut Butter Porter – 6%
This should not have worked for so many reasons, but it did. It was so good I sought it out multiple times.

Boneyard Beer Company – Bone-A-Fide – Pale Ale – 5.5%
Another fantastic pale ale from a great Oregon brewery – perhaps we’ll finally make it down there in 2017.

Elsewhere in the US
Toppling Goliath – pseudoSue – Pale Ale – 5.8%
I am always a bit dubious about beers for which people make special road trips, but this lived up to the hype. Yes, this is a pale ale for which an old-school bottle trade is a worthwhile endeavor.

I also made it to New York, Virginia and Texas on business trips this year, but alas, there was quite literally nothing to write home about from a beer perspective (not including the Mid-Atlantic beers I know and love from previous visits, and the fact that I did get to have a Hamilton-themed beer before seeing the show).

Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub – Lion’s Head Cascadia Dark Ale – 6.5%
We have yet to make it to Vancouver, but we did cross the border by water to visit Victoria. While most other local beer wasn’t especially impressive (at least in our limited sampling), everything at Spinnakers was wonderful, especially this hoppy/malty/roasty wonder.

Fine Irish beer
Fine Irish beer

The White Hag Brewery – Little Fawn Session IPA – 4.2%
I enjoyed this on cask at one of the many Galway Bay Brewery locations scattered around Dublin; while their beers were pleasant enough, this one was special. I would love to see more breweries offer at least a few guest taps for friends, though I suspect that may be a vanishing trend.

Guinness – Dublin Porter – 3.8%
Yes, Guinness did taste different (and better) in Dublin, but it’s never been a favorite of mine. However, the Dublin Porter was wonderful; if the good people at Diageo began distributing this worldwide, I’d be most grateful.

Almasty Brewing Co. – Dry Hopped Stout, 6.5%
Our travels to the north of England were only a few days after my return from Dublin, so I wasn’t actively seeking out any more stouts, but this was a delight. Also delightful was The Knott in Manchester – wonderful, friendly staff and a wide selection of beers from around the world and around the corner.

George Wright Brewing Company – Mild, 4%
I know it’s becoming something of a broken record, but I love a good mild. Finding a great one was even better. We enjoyed this at The Ship & Mitre in Liverpool, which came highly recommended – while it did get crowded (and rightfully so, given their beer and food), it was an excellent find, so thank you, internet!

And there you have it for 2016; I certainly left off quite a few excellent beers and breweries that I hope to re-visit in 2017 (looking at you, Salish Sea Brewing Company, Seapine Brewing Company and Stones Throw Brewery), but it’s clear my theme for the year was one of Great Normal Beers, because I’m at the top of the craft beer cycle again – or maybe it’s because 2016 decided to bring the weird in so many other ways that I simply needed beer to trend in the opposite direction. Regardless of the reason, I’m looking forward to exciting new beer experiences in 2017; farewell, 2016!

In Praise of the Pale Ale

Boneyard Bone-A-FideIf the ignored press releases in my inbox are to be believed, we seem to have reached Peak IPA, at least in the US, and while there are certainly many fine IPAs available nationwide, it can be increasingly difficult to find other styles, whether at a bar or restaurant that is known for their great beer lineup or at your local dive, which nowadays is likely to have at least one local (or not so local) IPA on tap. Indeed, it can seem that the more ‘curated’ selections are nothing but a mix of high-octane IPAs and whatever variety of ‘sour’ is popular this week. Simply finding a well-crafted beer that is neither a high-ABV hop bomb nor something peculiar – lovely as those are when the mood strikes – can be something of a chore.

Given that context, I am cheered by a little-heralded trend (microtrend? Local trend?) that seems to be emerging in my (still new-to-me) surroundings here in Seattle – a good availability of excellent pale ales. I have long been a fan of classic British pale ales like Timothy Taylor Landlord, and I had essentially resigned myself to only getting anything similar on business trips to Europe, or visits back to the east coast; the left coast is certainly much better-known for its experimental IPAs than for its mellow, malt-forward beers.

R2-Beer2But having been pleasantly surprised by the quality of local pale ales, I hope to shine a spotlight on a few that don’t receive the digital column inches and Untappd love often reserved for their IPA relations. Starting with the veteran offering, Manny’s Pale Ale, I can happily report that ubiquity does not negate quality – this has become my go-to beer, and it’s always a welcome treat, whether it’s at a Mexican restaurant where the options are Manny’s or Negra Modelo, re-fueling after finishing running 200ish miles with your colleagues or being served by R2-Beer2 (a real thing that happened at work the other week – the perks of tech nerdery are many and varied).

And there are more than a few that are truly outstanding. Special mention must go to Boneyard Bone-A-Fide, Cloudburst Unreliable Narrator and Stoup Fist Bump – a collaboration with Cloudburst, though their standard Mosaic Pale Ale is also excellent. While these do bend toward the hoppier side of the pale ale continuum, their shared feature is a clean, fresh biscuit-y backbone – thoroughly approachable and enjoyable. Boneyard and Cloudburst are more likely better-known for their top-quality IPAs, but these beers are not just scaled-down versions of those; they are well-crafted and deserve to be sought out in their own right.

Other fine examples of Pacific Northwest pale ales I’ve recently enjoyed are Seapine Mosaic Pale Ale, Reuben’s Daily Pale and Lowercase American Pale Ale – all hitting the mark for quality and flavor. And it’s not exclusive to Seattle area; I recently had many cans of Toppling Goliath’s PseudoSue appear in my refrigerator, and it’s just as good as advertised, though I would argue the Boneyard, Cloudburst and Stoup beers are quite easily in the same class. If real or engineered rarity adds to perceived beer quality (it shouldn’t, but it often does), Cloudburst beats Toppling Goliath – at present, they are only available on tap in the immediate area, and they are delicious.

My hope is that if People Who Like Beer actually seek out some of these fabulous pale ales, as well as others available in their local areas, we can drop the ‘session IPA’ nonsense (let’s be honest – good ones are re-branded pale ales, bad ones taste like hop tea) and breweries can properly embrace ‘pale ale’ as a marketable term once more.

That said, if someone invents a made-up style term that makes great ESBs more widely available, I will happily take one for Team Pedantry if it means I can find them more easily.

Consider the challenge issued.