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.

Up-and-coming Beer Destinations: Copenhagen

Mikkeller & Friends, Copenhagen, DenmarkThis 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 nomadic-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.

Carlsberg BreweryBut brewing in Copenhagen isn’t just about nomadic 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.

A Very Brief British Beer Round-up

I could move in here.
The House of the Trembling Madness

While on our recent trip to the UK we did the usual touristy things - took in a play the Globe as groundlings, went dowsing at Avebury, flew the TARDIS (well, one of us did, and yes, it was bigger on the inside) - we also kept a watchful eye out for interesting (mostly) cask ales that do not usually travel to our shores.

Places and beers we particularly enjoyed include:

The Wilmington Arms
69 Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell, London
We went for a very jet-lagged lunch, and it was practically empty, but we were very pleased to find great service, a nice selection of cask ales, all of which we were invited to sample before choosing, and a fantastic jukebox (which was not unlike playing one of my larger Spotify playlists - I cannot complain). The food was good as well.
Best beer enjoyed there: Elgood's Cambridge Bitter

The Fox and Anchor
115 Charterhouse Street, Islington, London
This was expensive even by London standards, but it was very laid-back and quiet for dinner, with outstanding food. We had a number of beers from smaller brewers in somewhat twee-but-fun tankards) and some other smaller producers. It was nice to find a London pub (well, gastropub) that didn't take itself too seriously, and - equally if not more importantly - did not feel that accommodating a well-behaved child was somehow below them (redacted West End pubs, this means you).
Best beer enjoyed here: Colchester Red Diesel

Holborn Whippet
25-29 Sicilian Avenue, Holborn, London
Certainly a destination for the beer nerd set, but not in a snobbish or pedantic way. In addition to a fantastic taplist, it boats friendly barstaff and quite reasonable prices, given its location. There was a nice mix of unusual and harder-to-find beers, like the refreshing unique Black Isle Blond, along with more traditional fare, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Best beer enjoyed here: Buxton Brewery Moor Top

Nicholson's Pubs
The Cross Keys
34 Goodramgate, York
The Punch Bowl
7 Stonegate, York
Somehow I never ran across this chain when I lived in the UK (why was I going to Wetherspoons instead?), but they will certainly be on my radar going forward - not only did they have an excellent selection of guest ales on cask at each of the locations we tried, but they had very reasonable prices, fine food options and were very child-friendly. They also have their own combination pub crawl/ghost walk in York, which is essentially my ideal night out.  We will certainly be seeking them out around the UK on future visits.
Best beer enjoyed here: Thwaites Sunshine and Lollihops

The House of the Trembling Madness
48 Stonegate, York
Another must-visit for beer geeks of all stripes, this bottle shop-cum-medieval pub lives up to its hype. Everything on tap and on cask was outstanding, and the bottled selection was well worth exploring. It would have been easy to spend a whole day here, given the variety and the pleasant surroundings - we started off with Rudgate's Ruby Mild and Durham Brewery's Evensong, and moved on to some very 'American' IPAs from London's Kernal Brewery (and quite tasty they were, too). The food is also tremendous and featured some of the best breads and cheeses I've had (and I am a bread and cheese nerd, in addition to being a beer nerd). Given that I could happily live on good beer and good bread, this ticked every possible box. Also, if you are 7, the fact that the decor includes swords is a bonus point.
Best beer enjoyed here: Ampleforth Abbey Dubbel

Other travel notes: Thwaites brought back Lancaster Bomber, and it's still great! One thing I never noticed when actually living in the UK is that tattoo parlors close well before the pubs do – surely a more symbiotic relationship would improve business?

You Should Try This: The New York Distilling Company

The still at the New York Distilling Company

Over the holidays, we had the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the New York Distilling Company, and it's well worth a trip into the hipster wilds of Williamsburg to get to know this new microdistillery.  For those who have not been paying attention, microdistilling is the Next Big Thing, and if they're all nearly this good, I believe it - but more on that later.  The distillery is the brainchild of Tom Potter (of ex-Brooklyn Brewery fame) and his son Bill; we got the full Potter Family treatment on our visit, as our good friends are their former neighbours (this is one of many, many reasons I often miss living in Brooklyn, but I digress).  Even the many and various children we had with us enjoyed the tour (again, many thanks to Gail Flanery for keeping them occupied!), even if they didn't get to sample the wares at the end like we lucky adults did.

You enter through The Shanty, an industrial-cozy bar (yes, such a thing exists) with gin-inspired light fixtures and a view into the distillery, which at present is essentially a large, industrial space that would certainly be familiar, though not identical, to anyone who has been on a brewery tour.  The difference, of course, is the sparkling new still, custom-made in Germany.  Eventually, rye whiskey will begin here, but in the meantime, there are two varieties of really rather wonderful gin being produced: Perry's Tot and Dorothy Parker.  The former, were it made in Plymouth, would carry that town's name, while the latter is a more 'American' gin, with a few unusual botanicals like hibiscus in the mix (and isn’t it nice to see a drink named after a woman famous for her wit, rather than her other attributes?).  After touring the distilling operation, we repaired back to the bar, where we got to sample both to fine effect, both alone and in some of the unique cocktails developed by the team there. While I'm normally just a beer drinker, gin is one of the few spirits I do enjoy from time to time, and it was certainly a pleasing experience to taste two that really had a definite (and very distinct) flavor and character (especially on the 'botanicals' front).

Future plans include some collaborations with the Brooklyn Brewery (at least insofar as using some of their barrels for aging projects), and the long-term goal, as mentioned above, is whiskey. The gin is certainly much more than a stopgap measure, and while The Shanty is no 30-tap beer bar, it does reserve the beer taps for the good stuff; on our visit, there was a Brooklyn Brewery special release as well as a one-off from a smaller Long Island brewery.

You should most definitely get on the small batch distilling train now, so you can say you liked everything before it went mainstream – and if you’re a cocktail bar, you should be ordering the gin now – it’s tremendous.

Beer Places: ChurchKey, Washington, DC

ChurchKeyAfter previous highly-successful visits to their sister restaurant, Rustico, in Alexandria, VA, we finally managed to fit in a visit to ChurchKey, which opened last year to great acclaim.   Unlike some revered beer destinations that don't quite live up to perhaps unrealistic hype, ChurchKey exceeded all expectations.  The interior is laid-back in design, yet sleek, with tables by the window and cozy raised booths near the fifty-plus tap bar, which is clearly the focal point.

And it's a thoroughly-impressive tap list, helpfully laid out in categories that are equally approachable by hardcore beer geeks as well as the uninitiated (one minor complaint – that list could be updated more frequently on their website).  Information for each beer includes the brewer, style, origin, ABV, ideal serving temperature and usual serving glass, although each item was also available as a 4oz taster (even the five cask ales) - something our party made much use of.   But the bottle list is not to be overlooked - it contains well-curated rarities from around the world as well as traditional favorites; you know it's good when it comes in a binder, and you don't have to go to your fourth pick to actually get something that's in stock.   Given the weather in DC in summer, finding Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse on tap was certainly welcome; having a waiter who understood 'and I'd like the woodruff on the side' was even better; indeed, the service was outstanding throughout our visit (something that isn't always true when you bring a small child with you, even at a quiet lunchtime).

The food is also very tasty and should not be overlooked, but you're no doubt wondering which beers were top of the list on this visit.  Schlafly Pumpkin Ale offered a spicy fall preview, while Ommegang Cup O Kyndnes was an unusual combination of heather, malty and peaty goodness.  Although we tried a wide variety (thanks, again to the handy 4 oz tasters), one of my favorites was Brewster's Brewery Mata Hari - something that will be receiving its own review in the near future.

So while there is not a terribly convenient Metro stop by ChurchKey, you should still seek it out if you happen to be in the District; there's something for every palate or mood, and the friendly, well-trained staff make a visit even more pleasant - it's all rather tremendous.

ChurchKey
1337 14th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20005-3610

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