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’…
I’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!
Well, 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.
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.
I 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 Brewerya 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.
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).
Canada 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.
Ireland 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.
England 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!
If 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.
But 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.
September for the beer nerd may herald the welcome return of fresh festbiers and pumpkin beers (presuming you weren’t already tripping over them in the shops in July or August), but for me, it just means one thing: it’s Dogfish Dash time.
Now in its tenth year, the event has grown from a casual, friendly run around a portion of the Junction-Breakwater trail and a stop in Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach brewpub afterward, to quite a competitive event beginning and ending at the brewery in Milton – and the competition starts with simply scoring a bib. I ran my first Dogfish Dash in its second year, and will be back this time for my eighth; I had to break my nearly-perfect streak last year as I was Far Too Pregnant to run. Despite missing a year, I seem to have amassed a larger-than-expected collection of Dogfish Dash ephemera: not just t-shirts and race bibs, but semi-forgotten unredeemed coupons, water bottles and the odd blog post (or two, or three).
It seems strange to think now that it was possible to fit most of the runners and their friends and family into the brewpub, with (relatively) minimal waits for beer, but as the Dogfish Dash has grown, the art of getting an ever-increasing number of runners to their beers has evolved and improved over time. Yes, some years had very long lines, but that’s simply incentive to try to finish in good time, and it’s clear that lessons are learned and applied to line management the following year. The other advantage of staging the race in Milton is the opportunity to tour the brewery; it seems there’s an entirely new portion each time, and the organization of the mini-tours has been top-notch. My now-10 year old looks forward to the race every year just for the tour; while he’s probably toured more breweries around the world than most adults, Dogfish Head is the one he sees annually, so he enjoys noting the changes (and donning the safety goggles). The staff members do an amazing job of moving large groups of people safely through the brewery, and the volunteers keep the beer flowing outside with plenty of enthusiasm. It’s also great to see the returning runners, both before and after the race: there are regular groups of costumed teams who seem to have better beer-related themes each time out.
I’ve developed my own strategies around registration and packet pickup over the years – though it’s worth noting that while it seems it was ever thus, there was no great rush to sign up for the first few years; you could take your time and see how you felt a few weeks out. It’s true you do need to schedule yourself to register and collect your bib and other goodies, but given the popularity of the race, it’s to be expected. That said, it’s quite reasonable to cap the number of runners, even with a race for charity; anyone who has ever run in a huge event like the Broad Street Run or one of the many Rock & Roll half-marathons knows that a huge wall of people in front of you, fast or slow, isn’t the most inspiring running experience. And given that the race goes through Milton, which no one would accuse of being a large town (though it is a town of considerable architectural interest), there’s only so much room on the course. And I hear rumors that the backlog at the bridge – a familiar, if minor, issue for anyone who has run this race in the past – won’t be an issue this year with the change in distance and route.
That brings us to another point; when those changes were first announced, there was the expected grumbling on Twitter about the loss of the 10K, while others lamented the lack of a 5K – it was too short for some, while too long for others who had hoped to make it their first race. For both, I’ll offer my perspective: the Dogfish Dash is what made me become a ‘real’ runner, and it can do the same for you. Prior to my first Dogfish Dash, I was a novice runner who could barely manage a few yards without stopping, though I was a keen and seasoned beer drinker. But after that first race, it became an annual part of my calendar, and I began signing up for other, longer races, just to be ready to run a ‘good’ (by my standards) Dogfish Dash – anything that would make my wait in the beer line shorter. I began doing all sorts of other fitness-related things that would have shocked and horrified my teenage self, but it has always paid off – I’ve exceeded my 10K PR each year in the Dogfish Dash, and I can’t avoid setting a PR (personal record, for all you couldn’t-care-less-about-weird-runner-jargon folk) for this new, ‘off-centered’ distance. And while I’m still not back to my pre-this-baby speed, and I realize that calling what I do ‘speedy’ would inspire laughter with certain stripes of runners who take things a bit too seriously, my prep races have convinced me it’s returning. So whether it’s a stretch for someone who is just starting out as a runner (welcome – there’s beer at the end!) or a shorter race that a distance runner can use to push their pace, it’s good, well-organized fun for all.
So, if there’s a moral to the story, it’s that beer is good for you, and makes you a fitter, faster runner. I’m living proof.
I’ve been to a post-punk postcard fair, in my Joy Division oven gloves
– Half Man Half Biscuit, 2005
Throughout college and grad school, it seemed everything was post-something. As a student of archaeology, that meant for me, largely post-structuralist, post-feminist, post-processural and the like; fast-forward 20 years, and Jeff Pickthall muses about whether he might be ‘post-craft’ when it comes to beer. It’s a perspective I’ve been wondering about of late, albeit without a clever title – while the explosion of an amazing array of breweries and styles has largely been a positive thing, there is more than a whiff of Shiny Object Syndrome in the beer world. While previously it seemed every brewery had a double IPA (or something else pushing the ABV and IBU envelopes), the current trend for ‘weird’ beers can be a bit wearying, and I say that as someone who loves them.
First, though, let’s put some boundaries around what ‘weird’ is for the purposes of this discussion. Some of it is reviving (or simply re-discovering) historical and regional styles like Kentucky Common or Gose (now NEW YORK TIMES APPROVED), and that’s great, though I’d love to see more done with the rigor employed by Ron Pattinson’s work with primary sources – there’s clearly a lot of room for variety in those historical styles, often much more than one would assume, and it’s fabulous to see (drink) the results of that kind of work. But there’s also a tendency to ‘modernize’ them – making a 12% barrel-aged Berliner Weisse comes to mind – in ways that aren’t just historically inaccurate, but simply don’t appeal to anyone beyond a particular kind of fanboy/girl who may simply be in it for the bragging rights. It’s perfectly fine to make things that aren’t for everyone, but if it’s something even that narrow audience professes to enjoy simply because they feel they ought to, there’s something missing.
There’s another branch of ‘weird’ that uses unexpected ingredients, and that can work extremely well, but that doesn’t mean that it will. It could be a huge failure. Or, perhaps even worse by some standards, it could just be thoroughly mediocre. And it’s fair to say that a wider acceptance of ‘weird’ also leads to more room for error – maybe that infected beer that cost a lot to make is just a new kind of ‘sour’ (which now seems to cover a very wide stylistic range indeed), and it can be repackaged or rebranded as such. That’s where things start getting sloppy, and over time, people notice.
That’s not to say there aren’t breweries doing weird beers extremely well; I’m very fortunate to live a short walk from Tired Hands Brewing Company, and they have yet to turn out a dud, but their smaller-batch model is perfectly designed for that sort of experimentation by highly-skilled brewers. And Tired Hands has also made great milds, a fabulous bitter, wonderful IPAs – it’s just that for them, those are the rarities. And because the quality and consistency is there, it works. Mikkeller has a similar, if somewhat more scattershot approach, likely a necessity given their peripatetic brewing model, but I did find it very interesting that their pub in Copenhagen had a great mix of traditional styles, both their own beers and those of their friends and neighbors, as well as the more outlandish beers they tend to sell abroad. Given that ‘weird’ seems to sell, it’s a smart approach – keep a hand in with high-quality basics, but send the ‘extreme’ things to the markets that crave them (though I’d personally love to have some of their beers that I tried in Denmark in the US – do I get any pull as a member of the Mikkeller Running Club? No? That’s OK). There are other breweries I’ll not name that desperately want to be ‘weird’ and to that end, only brew beers with, say, vegan bacon as a key ingredient, but they don’t seem to have mastered the basics. Those are the breweries that look uncannily like those that didn’t survive The Great Microbrew Bubble in the 1990s.
There are certainly times when I really want to try the Shiny New Thing – but equally, there are times when I wish I could find more great, well-brewed ‘normal’ beers – especially with a lower ABV (hey, I’m only small, and having one child who is under a year old means I’m a long way off from having any alcohol tolerance back). But instead of ‘session IPAs’ – the best I’ve had have been perfectly well-crafted and re-branded pale ales, with the worst tasting rather like hop tea – can we not enjoy a range of other styles? I have been thrilled to discover Conshohocken Brewing Company’s Puddlers Row Bitter; it’s perfectly done, and a great go-to beer.
But in the current environment, I’m sometimes told the ‘normal’ beers aren’t selling; I was pleased to discover my local beer shop had begun to stock some Hobson’s beers, but then crestfallen to hear they were selling them all cheaply because ‘they didn’t move.’ There can be any number of reasons for this, but given that I was actively keeping an eye out for those beers and didn’t know they were there, I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone who hadn’t heard of the brand to discover them. A small brewery that happens to make great beers isn’t memeworthy; after all, many beer snobs don’t want to drink ‘tired’ styles they associate with the Newcastle Brown they thought was pretty fantastic as underage drinkers. There’s no push within most of the craft beer-centric media (at least in the US) to talk about great ‘ordinary’ beers – novelty is what gets press.
These things are cyclical, but they have a real impact on what’s available, and I suspect there is an audience that simply isn’t catered to: they don’t feel the need to identify as a ‘craft beer person,’ but they’d like to try something new that isn’t too far from their comfort zone. On the other side of that coin, there are more and more craft beer nerds who know the value of a great ‘normal’ beer and wish there were more of them about.
So perhaps it’s not that I’m post-craft, but that I’m at a different phase in my personal craft beer cycle, which seems to run a bit like the image above. There are a few sub-processes and tangential directions left off, ranging from ‘I don’t drink contract-brewed beer’ to ‘I only drink beers for which I need to buy tickets and/or stand in line for hours’ on one side of the circle, with the other turning toward ‘I drink anything that’s free at a tailgate.’ It’s OK to have gone around the cycle a few times. It’s OK to go back and forth on different points on the cycle, or to decide you’re quite happy in one particular phase.
It’s a fabulous thing that I can walk a few blocks to have a great beer whenever the mood strikes me (provided I’m not at work, too tired, that both the big kid – who is something of a brewery tour snob – and the baby are both fed and watered, or that cats aren’t sitting on me). I’m thrilled that I can always find something unexpected and well-made, but sometimes I’d just like (the equivalent of) a pint of Theakston’s Best.
Perhaps the pendulum will soon swing the other way; with the hipsterization of brands like Narragansett as the ‘new PBR,’ we may soon see traditional brewing styles and breweries positioned as edgy retro options (and priced accordingly). Given the (often rather inward-looking) media noise and sales trends, I’m reminded that we’ve been here before – a long time before:
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.
This month’s Session – or, Beer Blogging Friday – asks us to identify those under-the-radar locations that are about to become the next big thing on the beer scene. This presents an ideal opportunity to finally blog about our trip to Copenhagen in 2013; yes, this blog post is nearly two years late, but better late than never, and a wider audience should be aware of the wonders of the Danish capital’s beer scene, both old and new.
When considering Copenhagen, most beer nerds immediately think of Mikkeller, and with good reason – Mikkel Borg Bjergsø’s steady march to beer omnipresence, with bars and tasting rooms from San Francisco to Bangkok, and a global distribution network that some brewers with a permanent facility can only image, has been remarkable. And their original Copenhagen locations do not disappoint: especially at Mikkeller & Friends, in the Nørrebro neighborhood, you’ll find a warm welcome, and an ever-changing lineup for 40 taps. I would love to see more American breweries follow their ‘and Friends’ approach, which they take very seriously, highlighting not only Mikkeller beers, but also those of like-minded breweries from near and far. When we visited, we enjoyed having the opportunity to sample the wares of To Øl,Herslev Bryghus and Bryggeriet Refsvindinge, among others. And, this being Denmark, having a well-behaved child in tow was not frowned upon; quite the contrary. The bottle shop attached to the bar had an enormous crate of Westvleteren XII sitting in the corner – as you do – and a very interesting selection beyond that. Nørrebro is also home to Nørrebro Bryghus, whose beers are available across Copenhagen, from restaurants to tourist attractions. It was an especially welcome discovery at the National Aquarium of Denmark, Den Blå Planet: you can enjoy a beer or two while taking in the view of the Øresund. Amager Bryghus beers are also widely available around the city, and Brewpub København was worth a quick visit.
No list of Copenhagen tourist attractions would be complete without a mention of Tivoli Gardens, which we found a most pleasant surprise. Having previously only visited rather uninspiring to downright filthy theme parks in the US and UK, I admit I didn’t expect much, but it was in every way delightful – and it has its own small brewery, Bryggeriet Apollo, in the park. While the beer in general is nothing earth-shattering, nor did it have any reason to be, it was certainly well-crafted and offered at a not-unreasonable price, given the surroundings (and the fact that food and drink in Denmark is quite expensive, compared to other major European countries). Modern amusement parks could learn a lot from their 19th century forebear – good food and drink, lovely gardens, fun rides without long lines, and Tycho Brahe as a mascot, rather than cartoon characters – all well worth the price of admission.
Returning to bottle shops, Ølbutikken is a can’t-miss stop; Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø and his staff have a well-curated collection of beers from around the world, though obviously with an emphasis on the owner’s Evil Twin Brewing. And for those wondering whether the purported feud between the rival gypsy-brewer twins is A Real Thing, I can only offer this: Mikkeller & Friends had a number of interesting Evil Twin beers on tap, and Ølbutikken carried a good variety of Mikkeller beers. A little public friction is no doubt good for business, or it may be that Danish practicality overrides any present animosity; one presumes the truth is somewhere in the middle.
But brewing in Copenhagen isn’t just about gypsy brewers and tiny breweries – there’s a good case to be made for saying that this is where modern industrial brewing was born, and that isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing. Emil Hansen first began to culture yeast for Carlsberg in the 1880s, laying the groundwork for brewing as we know it today. And the Carlsberg tour is absolutely a highlight for anyone interested in brewing history, and in considering how huge, multinational brewers can still make ‘good beer.’ Again, children are made to feel very welcome – the tour starts in the stables (or in the shop, depending on your point of view), and petting the Jutland horses, who have been carrying Carlsberg beer for more than 165 years, is encouraged. From there, it’s a whistle-stop tour though the old brewhouse, complete with beautiful tilework and copper kettles galore, to the famous Carlsberg Elephant Gates (with their 1901 swastikas fully explained, for the benefit of any children, or adults who might have missed some art history lessons) and sculpture gardens. And the tour concludes with a mix of old and new, in the Jacobsen Brewhouse, named for J.C. Jacobsen, the founder of Carlsberg. Since 2005, Carlberg has been brewing a range of high-quality beers under the Jacobsen label, and mixing and matching Carlsberg and Jacobsen beers in your post-tour samples is encouraged. There’s no ‘craft vs crafty’ issue here – Jacobsen is very clearly part of the Carlsberg family, and a well-respected one at that – it’s just a great example of how a large brewer can respond to market demand for more flavorful, complex beers, all while keeping their flagship brands in the public consciousness.
There is, of course, much to do in Denmark beyond beer – visiting the Gundestrup Cauldron at the National Museum of Denmark was the achievement of a major life goal for me (this comes of having too many archaeology degrees), and the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde is also a must-see (though it is worth noting that both sites have some of the above-mentioned beers available in their shops and cafes). There are ample opportunities to visit a number of bog bodies across the country, and if you’re traveling with children, your itinerary will almost certainly include a visit to Legoland – which, like Tivoli, albeit with much more plastic, is surprisingly diverting for adults as well.
But if you seek a great beer destination that hasn’t quite been discovered by the hipster masses, head to Copenhagen; its mix of young, independent breweries and historic heft is hard to beat.
The swirl of discussion generated by the recent Boston Magazine article suggesting that Sam Adams and its creator, Jim Koch, have been bypassed by a burgeoning movement within the beer world has been interesting to observe. While there has been more than an element of hipster-bashing (not always unwarranted, but certainly overstated), I’m firmly on the side of Pete Brown in finding the snobbery distasteful. But while it was ever thus – more on that in a moment – we’ve reached something of a tipping point, in that the sheer number of people on the looking for ‘good’ beer is finally making a real impact in the market.
First, though, let’s rewind.
Back in the 1970s, Coors (yes, Coors) was the beer that American beer snobs wanted desperately. Unpasteurized, it was only available in the West, and its relative scarcity made it a hot commodity. Washington, DC’s Brickskeller (now reborn as The Bier Baron) first began to make waves as a ‘beer bar’ by serving Coors when it was still largely unavailable east of Oklahoma. But its rapid rise to ubiquity – not to mention its similarity to the other light lagers on the market – meant that it quickly lost its shiny unicorn status. While I would argue that Boston Lager, the Sam Adams flagship, is still a perfectly fine beer, it has likewise lost its own shiny unicorn status as the market has changed and evolved – but it won’t be the last.
As the number of breweries has grown, and choice of beer styles has greatly expanded – again, both very good things – an irksome mirror of snobbery that has developed alongside those trends. As a former resident of the Silicon Valley town, I can recall attending the Mountain View Smaller Brewers’ Festival from the late 1990s up through about 2001, and it was not at all difficult to find those attitudes. A casual visitor to the festival favorably compared a (nameless for our purposes) tiny brewery’s very pleasant pale ale to the local ‘big’ craft beer, Sierra Nevada, only to be smirked at and informed that they were entirely wrong to find any similarities between the two – one was made by a large brewery, and therefore simply Not Interesting, while the other was lovingly handcrafted (in this case, by someone just beyond the homebrewing stage – having sampled their other beer on offer, I can attest that they hadn’t quite nailed sanitizing everything), and therefore, Better. Several Comic Book Guy lookalikes (remember, this was Silicon Valley pre-dot-com crash) tittered their agreement with the brewer. You’d see a similar scene replicated throughout the tent, and the same thing is happening across the industry, at least in the social media echo chamber. Now, at least to a certain stripe of drinker, lagers are boring, pale ales are boring, and soon enough, IPAs will also be boring, just because everyone makes one (or, at this point, a double IPA).
Consumer demand for novelty has not been a bad thing; there are a lot of fantastic brewers who are able to push the envelope and deliver consistently wonderful, weird beers; I’m lucky to live a short walk from one of them. But it’s not a model that can be easily replicated, especially on a production scale, and when ‘everyone’ tries to do it, but delivers a product that simply isn’t as good, it drives away potential new ‘converts’ – let’s recall that while ‘our’ numbers are growing, they are still a fraction of the whole.
But the pursuit of novelty often overlooks the achievements of great brewers of ‘normal’ beers, and that’s what I find annoying – I’d love to have more great lagers, especially like Urban Chestnut’s Zwickelbier, or another really excellent English-style stout like Good English, recently enjoyed at the Barren Hill Tavern. Yes, I want more ‘weird stuff’ – but I don’t want ‘normal’ beers to become so rarely-brewed that they become the shiny unicorns in turn.
And if you’re still wondering what this has to do with Sondheim, worry no more. Uncle Stephen solved all of craft beer’s infighting problems back in 1987, when Into the Woods premiered on Broadway. He wrote that:
Witches can be right, Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should go do that – but the point stands. There are huge brewers making good beer – Carlsberg is doing really fun things with their Jacobsen line, and if you’re ever in Copenhagen, you should certainly take their tour; it’s a great beer history lesson, their horses are just as personable as the Clydesdales, and you can try some really good beers at the end, even if their namesake lager isn’t one you’d reach for. There are small brewers I won’t name (we already know the big ones) making some truly appalling beers. There are a lot of big and small brewers making mediocre beers. But the fact that we now have ‘Big Craft’ and can complain about it is a wonderful thing – it means we have a goodly number of small, medium and (relatively) large brewers making excellent beer. It’s driving the even bigger ones to innovate and improve the scope of their offerings. You can get decent beer on many airlines now. It means even your local dive bar will usually have a reasonable IPA on tap, even if you’ve ‘moved on’ (See? More Sondheim!) from IPAs – just hang in there, you may come back to them.
Market maturity, even if recently powered by what seems to be a puerile search for a malted barley cryptoid (I should probably trademark Ittan-momen White Sake-aged Imperial Smoked Gosebefore someone else does), is exciting. If your favorite local brewery one day joins the ranks of Big Craft Beer, enjoy it. If you saw REM play for 30 people in a bar before they got a lot of airplay, you can trot that story out now, but you had less fun if you began ignoring them after Green, simply because everyone else had joined the party. Yes, there were some terrible also-rans when indie went mainstream, but it also meant your favorite formerly-obscure band could afford to tour more often, and produce more records. Success doesn’t have to be inauthentic, nor do corporate trappings negate quality. Like what you like.