(I've organized these into three categories--the sublime, the delightful, and the merely tasty. I personally sampled a dozen beers, and there wasn't a single one I wouldn't recommend.)
Despite the innovation and exotica at this fest, if I were asked to cite a "best in show," I'd go for a beer in one of the most modest of styles: Cascade Lakes Organic Bitter. Brewed for the fest, it is a textbook lesson in making a lot of a little. It has a roasty, almost light-roasted coffee aroma and a biscuity malt backbone. The hopping is crisp and rounded. For a beer that only had 4.5% alcohol and 32 IBUs, it had an amazing depth of flavor. I'll admit to be a little ignorant of Cascade Lakes. No more: they caught my attention with this one.
How's this for a debut? Double Mountain Brewing, the brand-new brewpub in Hood River, brought two beers, and one was so good it blew Friday (Hop Lava). I can't imagine how good it must have been, because the beer left over on Saturday was extraordinary. Dubbed the IRA (I may henceforth call it Ira, because it has nothing to do with IPAs or Red ales), it is brewed with a Belgian yeast strain, which really removes it from the the classic character you'd expect from a muscular IPA. It has a kind of creamy sweetness that bouys the ample hops and simultaneously mellows out the palate. I am reminded of Duvel, which is also a huge, yet deceptively smooth beer. It will be familiar to fans of NW beers, but also quite distinctive.
Here's a brewery to watch: Crannog Ales from Sorrento, BC. Canada's only all-organic brewery also appears to be a spiritual sibling of Roots; not only are they exclusively organic, but they experiment with adjuncts like potatoes (see below), cherries, and flax. But of the two beers pouring, my fave was Backhand of God Stout (I prefer the former name, Black Wolfhound). It is a traditional Irish stout (appropriate for a Gaelic brewery), light, silky, and dry. As with the best Irish ales, the dry, coffeeish note is balanced by a dark-fruit sweetness that is drawn out at the final sip. No sooner is the beer slipping down the back of your throat than your hand is rising, reflexively, for another sip.
There were two buzz beers at the fest, Roots' stout and a saison by McMenamins (see both below). It is a testament to the increasing attention to beer that one of my picks was a different McMenamins' ale, Ryenoceros, from the Kennedy School. Rye is a dangerous grain--it can offer an unpleasant sharpness or a dreary sourness. But used properly, it imparts a spicy quality that is abundant in Ryenoceros. The malts and hops create a kind of continuum, from an earthy spice in the malt out to a more peppery hop finish. Yet I also noted down the word "springwater"--of the quality one finds in a good single malt.
The hosts knew they had to come out with something special, and it is possible that Roots' Habenero Stout is better than I'm giving it credit for. It was the last beer I tried, and due to the vagaries of beer fests, this meant my palate was a little wrecked. I can report that I heard raves about the beer all day long. What I was able to discern were striking contrasts in the beer. Built on a Irish stout base that was both creamy and sweet (they added chocolate nibs to the mash), the "dry hopped" peppers (added during fermentation) mainly add sensation, not flavor. Chocolate and chile is a famous combination, and I believe the Aztecs would have recognized this beer.
I tried Brouwerij 't IJ's Zatte first, and that was lucky--it was a very subtle tripel, and my palate was fresh to appreciate it. Unlike some tripels, this one was characterized by a chardonnay-like dryness of palate. Nevertheless, a rich skiff of head rode the taster through my last sip, despite the 8% alcohol. It was, moreover, surprisingly creamy for such a dry beer. The yeast character was subdued, contributing mainly a kind of cellary earthiness. I imagine it would be an ideal beer with a variety of foods, from the cheese tray through fish entrees. It was one of the few not on tap; my guess is you can find bottles around town.
Good and Tasty (B)
Christian Ettinger made his debut with Hopworks Urban Brewery IPA, a beer I think most people would have rated more highly than I did. When he was brewing at Laurelwood (which shared a booth with Hopworks at the fest), Ettinger made a minor specialty of beers with Amarillo and/or Ahtanum hops--both of which appear in this IPA. Hops react differently on the tongues of different tasters, and on mine, these have a slightly harsh, chemical signature. I believe I'm the exception. Beside this, though, it was an impressive debut: the hops were aggressive without overbearing the malt, which held up its end of the bargain. I would recommend it to anyone who loves Laurelwood's beers.
The McMenamins beer everyone raved about was Saison du Pass. My lovely spouse decried it as "too sweet" and "hollow in the middle." While I won't go that far, I don't think it was quite the buzz beer everyone claimed. It lacked the crispness I would have liked and didn't stand up to the world standard-bearers. On the other hand, it was nicely spicy and refreshing, and an impressive effort coming from the McBrothers. Probably likely to be the best thing on tap at Corneilius Pass, where it was brewed (hence the name).
In the exotica category, another offering came from Bison Brewing in Berkeley: Gingerbread Ale, a hearty sweet porter spiced mildly with ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon (almost below the threshold of taste, though you could pick it up in the aroma). Not an everyday beer, but nice on a chill day. Continuing in the exotic vein, Crannog brought a potato ale called Hell's Kitchen that tasted distinctly (though not unpleasantly) of the common tubers. I occasionally drink a Polish beet drink that had a similar quality. Definitely worth a tipple if you have the chance.
A final curiosity was Mateveza's Yerba Mate Pale Ale. The basic beer was a nice recipe in the classic pale ale style, but the yerba mate added an unmistakeably medicinal note. It actually felt like it was anesthetizing my mouth. From a psychotropic perspective, even the four ounces I had altered the course of the usual narcotic sensation unfolding at the back of my brain. I suspect a pint would be an interesting ride.
Two other beers lost in the shuffle were Roots' East Side Abbey, about which I wrote one word (before, apparently, forgetting to write further notes): "Nice." Also Ukiah Brewing's pilsner, which got similar short shrift in my notes. (I seemed to enjoy it). You're on your own with those two.
Looking over my friend's notes, I find fragmentary documentation: "Ah, hop-o-licious. Big flavors--complex [unreadable] palate!" (Alamedo El Torero IPA) Actually, unreadability seems to be a hallmark. From what I can discern, these were the big winners:
- Butte Creek Revolution X Imperial IPA - "[Wow]!* I'm quite a few in, but this is definitely a big boy."
- Double Mountain Ira - "Damn, this is really good --> very, umm...full-bodied on the tongue."
- Fort George Quick Wit - "I like it."
- Hopworks IPA - "This is awesome, but I love hops."
- Roots Habenero Stout - "Excellent. Habeneros build at the back of your tongue."
And by all means, add your own thoughts in the comments.
Update: John Foyston has pics, and Belmont Station has a review. So does Rooftop Brew. More importantly, Belmont Station is attempting to locate some of the beers that were pouring at the fest, so keep your eyes open.