The Session #126: Hazy, Cloudy, Juice IPAs

sessionWhen I first started beer blogging, I was an avid Sessioner. Alack, I’ve been remiss of late and see that I participated once a year since 2013. That ends now. I’m recommitting myself (even if a few days late). And happily that means jumping back in as my friends Gail Williams and Steve Shapiro up at Beer By BART ask us to sniff on this:

(The) still-emerging – though no longer new – unofficial beer style. This kind of beer has gotten so much buzz (and some mocking) in the last decade and a half that it’s surprising it has not come up on The Session yet.  New England, Vermont-inspired, Northeastern, Hazy, Juicy or whatever you like to call these low-bitterness, hop flavorful beers, they are being made everywhere now and people are definitely buying them. So fire up your keyboard – let’s hear about your own encounters with these strange IPAs.

I like beer, all kinds of it in fact. And I certainly care more about the end result—its overall pleasantness as a factor of aroma, texture, and flavor—than I do about what style the brewer calls it or if it’s the “right” beer to be drinking either in terms of popularity or seasonal appropriateness. As such, when half the beer lovers I know are enamored of New England IPAs and the other half abhor the idea of opaque IPAs, I guess I’m firmly in the camp of take it or leave it.

I do faintly recall my first Heady Topper. It garnered a live-action Meh emoji. At the time, living in close proximity to Russian River and ergo fresh Pliny the Elder, I just figured the can I’d been handed (unsure how long it had been in transit) was the East Coast’s best stab at a bold IPA. It didn’t pop the way PtE does. Maybe I’d have dubbed it Pliny the Middle-aged. By the time I had it a second time, I was actually in the state of Vermont where the can at the Burlington airport failed to meet the tastiness of even the other Vermont-style IPAs I’d naturally sampled at breweries like Prohibition Pig (established in the same space where the Alchemist Pub suffered its fateful flood), FOAM, and one a bit less off the hype-grid, 14th Star Brewing up in St. Alban (where Verizon charged me as if I was in Quebec because it’s so close to the border). Their B-72 Double IPA, I got the sense, was brewed begrudgingly for tourists clamoring for this marketing terroir, but it really was hazy/juicy/smooth and I’d happily drink it again if I’m in Vermont. Because when in Rome.

There are signs NEIPA is in full-fledged fad mode, and it’s fast-tracking all the fads IPA itself has gone through. We’ve seen NEB(lack)IPA (or as I’d prefer to call it: a New England Cascadian Dark Ale—a hilarious oxymoron given that it’s both New England and Pacific Northwest in origin and would probably be brewed out of the Midwest). Oh, and we’ve seen the Citrus-infused NECDA!

 

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An afternoon visit to M Special Brewing in Goleta, CA. What’s in that snifter above?

Oh, and speaking of NEIPAs from Cascadia, back in Portland—which I already miss greatly—the first brewery to jump on the Vermont wagon was Great Notion Brewing. Their Juice Box (8.2%) and Juice, Jr. (6%) set the tone for PDX’s race to out-NE everyone, wherein even early poo-pooers are now hazing to the max. Among Great Notion’s litany of beers with the word “Ripe” in the name and “New England” in the description, there was one called Orange Creamsicle IPA. I’d never had Tree House’s infamous Julius—nor have I had it yet—but my first sip of Orange Creamsicle, made with both orange and vanilla flavors—instantly brought me back to my childhood spent at Orange Julius. And I think that’s why some adult beer drinkers slag these adult-beverages that sorta-somehwat appeal to more juvenile palates. They are fruity and juicy and sweet and, well, nostalgic. But hey, it’s not like the industry doesn’t have its share of famous beers that famously taste like Mexican chocolate cake or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so there’s no reason to get sanctimonious about what other people enjoy in their glass of beer.

 

All kidding or ribbing aside, I just enjoyed a few beers at one of my new local breweries, M Special in Goleta, where I got a beer they honestly dubbed an NEIPL. And you all remember how much you scoffed the first time you saw the IPL acronym. Back to my original point, I only care if the beer I’m drinking is good, not if it’s a good style. And it had all the attributes those five letters denote: it was certainly citrus and tropical fruit forward, more sweet/less bitter, and some of the clean, crisp expression of lagering over top/warm fermenting you’d look for in a lager and before you get all bunched up that lagers are ultra clear, then you need to have a kellerbier my friend. I think even some progressive German brewers could clearly see their way to appreciating an NEIPL or NEIPA, even if they can’t see through it clearly.

Breaking News/Broken Hearts: Tugboat is Sinking

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If this isn’t a familiar sight, you’ve been drinking beer wrong. (Photo: Brian Yaeger)

It’s probably fair to say that out of all the Portland beer geeks, no one loved the Tug more than I. And now, as of earlier this month, I’m not even a Portland resident and as of next month, Tugboat Brewing is, reportedly and most likely, closing.

This morning, my friend and long-time Tugboat bartender Linsel Greene, posted on his Facebook wall:

“It’s kinda out of the bag, so I think I’m clear to inform the public that Tugboat Brewing Co will stop pouring beers on August 30th. The bar is being forced to close and leave its location on Ankeny St. The ancient fleabag Stewart Hotel, which sits above the bar, suffered structural damage during a fire earlier this year. The Bureau of Buildings has stepped in and demanded an evacuation of all Hotel tenants. The company that insures the bar claims that the business is uninsurable in this location, and so the bar is going to close.”

Tellingly, Linsel refers to it as a “bar” and that it’ll stop “pouring beers.” That’s because, to most of its patrons, it’s a beer bar and not really a brewery tasting room. There are 18 taps and at best, house brewed beer springs from maybe four of them. In some people’s opinions, “at best” would mean none of them flow with house beer. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a shining beacon of award-winning brewing as far as recipes, technique, craftsmanship, cleanliness, stewardship, innovation, or flavor. And yet… it was my favorite Portland brewery for one reason. Well, for one and a half reasons. No brewery holds a candle to it for sheer ambiance. And that matters. It’s an aspect that most of today’s watering holes overlook. A few various IPAs and some reclaimed wood and some growlers converted to lighting covers (or Edison bulbs) are not tantamount to ambiance. Corn hole and a cheese board does not a brewpub make.

Tugboat (their comically official website is at www.d2m.com/Tugwebsite/ and for my first review, click here) effortlessly exuded a comfortable and convivial atmosphere with shelves aplenty of old books, well-worn board games, and always the cool jazz raining down from the speakers. Moreover, as a patron you could always, always find good conversations whether your fellow barflies were out-of-towners who only found the joint because they were staying at a nearby hotel or after-work types. And these would be conversations about interesting topics, not about beer. If you want to discuss the beer in your glass, you go across the street (that feels more like an alley) to Bailey’s Taproom or its even geekier upstairs bar, the Upper Lip. Don’t get me wrong. I love drinking beer in both of those rooms, too, and not just because the taplists are always infinitely better than Tugboat’s. But Tugboat co-owner Megan McEnroe-Nelson had a name for those customers: “Beer sniffers.” It’s true. They almost all sniff their beers quite a bit before they drink them. And likely Instagram them, too.

I’ll get back to Megan in a moment, but what of this Mr. Greene? In Oregon Breweries, I referred to him as “patron-turned-bartender, the Goldendoodle of beer slingers.” The dude really aims to please the customers. I don’t know where he’ll work next, but if it’s at a bar, the patrons there will be lucky to have him. Just don’t try to ask him what kind of hops went into that IPA you’re sniffing or what his favorite NEIPA is at the moment.

After operating for 24 years, owners Megan and her husband Terry, who’s also the brewer with no formal training, are powering down. Megan is an absolute doll. Her brunette bob belies her age; she’s 43 years old. I’m 43 years old. When I was 19, I was drinking Natty Light through a straw on Halloween because for my Papa Smurf costume, I’d made a beard out of cotton balls and didn’t think about how to drink through it. When Megan was 19, she helped launch one of the first of Portland’s second-wave of breweries. The Nelsons actually already worked at the shop at 711 SW Ankeny. First it was called Time For Fun where Terry restored watches. Then they converted it to Café Omega, y’know, for all your watch repair and cocktail drinking needs. That’s when they added the four-barrel brewing system. It was legal since her husband was over 21. That brings me back to Linsel’s post.

“The owners haven’t told me any plans to do something else with the name, and I don’t think there’s much likelihood that they’ll open another bar. I think Terry might be done moving kegs, and I can’t say I blame him.”

 

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I mean, does YOUR favorite beertender don a tophat? (Photo: Brian Yaeger)

So it’s not 100% confirmed that the Tug is closing, but the writing’s on the Facebook wall. In my book, I referred to it as “the most mysterious, misunderstood, and maligned brewery in Beervana.” Everyone knows where Bailey’s is and also where Mary’s (Bridgetown’s first all-nude club) but most folks don’t know about the brewery betwixt them. And the beer nerds who’ve been (many years ago and no sooner, no doubt, save for a few folks I’ve dragged there or were assigned to go for a blurb in WW’s Beer Guide) rarely find it as charming as I did. In a town that’s still very much all about IPA or newfangled, cockamamie ingredients, they didn’t realize that the best Double-Russian-Imperial Stout—Chernobyl—was right under their sniffers. It lumbers in at 14% ABV and exploded with tobacco and leather, immune to the flaws that a less cumbersome beer might incur. Because of its strength, they only serve it in half pints, hence why I said it’s the best brewery for one-and-a-half reasons.

 

To the fine folks of Beervana. You have 35 days left to enjoy your first half-pint in years or possibly ever. PLEASE enjoy an extra half pint for me!! I’m incredibly sorry that my plan to make it in before we moved at the beginning of July didn’t pan out. But I’m not going to get the last word in about Tugboat. I’ll use Megan’s words when she agreed to an incredibly rare interview since she’s quite averse to participating in the Portland beer scene since it has shown the Tug so little love. They don’t even participate in the Portland Craft Beer Festival and, to make this pill even more bitter to swallow, Megan had actually agreed to sell me a keg for Baker’s Dozen Festival last March which was going to be a coffee infused Chernobyl Stout, which would’ve made it the first-ever keg of Tugboat sold for off-premise but Terry injured his back during The Freeze last winter and didn’t get to brewing in time. Anyway, here’s what she about why they called their dinky little brewery about the boats that assist larger ships down the Columbia and out to sea.

“Like us, they’re not very fancy. They’re small, powerful, and hardworking. And a little bit salty.”
 

The 200 Breweries Before Your 5th Birthday Club

Five years ago when I started the journey of fatherhood, like all first-time fathers I had no clue what I was in store for. In part, I liked my life the way it was and didn’t know if this mini-me alien was gonna ruin that. Leading a beer-rich, travel-heavy lifestyle seems incongruous to raising an infant turned baby turned toddler. But if there’s one thing I learned about parenting, it’s that you gotta make your kids adaptable, that it’s only 98% all about them and the people who go the full 100 are ruining it for themselves (and their little ones).

From the day I uploaded my kid’s first picture of us at a brewerry–true story, I claim it was Thirsty Bear Brewing in San Francisco even though it was actually Philadelphia’s Steaks & Hoagies before they added the 13 Virtues part in the Sellwood neighborhood but we didn’t snap a picture and as we all know in this era, “Picture or it doesn’t count,” which is also why Block 15 Brewing does not appear on I.P.Yae’s official list–I added it to a Facebook album I offhandedly titled “Irresponsible Photos of My Baby at Breweries.” I didn’t really think I was being irresponsible, but I know how society thinks (sometimes). I had no way of knowing what a full-blown mission it’d turn into.

Rather than posting pictures of Izzy Parker Yaeger (hence his initials I.P.Yae) at monuments and roadside attractions (which I reckon is also fun and I semi-maintain an album of him in front of beautiful murals), this project turned into a way to document both his brewery visits and our travels. Not too shabby that this pisher’s gotten to breweries in 13 states as well as 13 countries thus ushering him into the 200 Breweries Before Your 5th Birthday Club (suspected global membership: 1). Hope you enjoy this little video I made. To keep it under 5 minutes, it’s a compendium.

If you’ve got an additional 6 minutes, here’s the one I made over 2 years ago as a comprehensive anthology of the first 100.

Now that he’s 5, I recognize that it’s a little less cute and that we’ve got bigger fish to go after than ratcheting up his brewery count, so the Irresponsible album is going into semi-retirement. It’s not that we won’t keep exploring the world and doing so through local beer-makers, it’s just that we’re going to make even more time for parks and non sudsy curios.

May we all do impressive &/or ridiculous things on our journeys.

Portraits of Dead Soldiers Left in the Yard: Bad Hombres Edition

Three and a half years ago, evidently, I was inspired to write a series of blog posts inspired by a particular type of infuriating litter I’m always finding in our flower boxes or somewhere near the front yard: dead soldiers. Empty beer bottles and cans. Click here to see the entire “series” (2 posts: BridgePort IPA and Sparks: Blackberry) from my old Beer Odyssey blog. I pick up so many recyclables–both craft and macro–that I’m occasionally inspired to kickstart it back up. But today’s discovery made it imperative.

Some of you know of one of my beery obsessions: nips. Fun fact: a story I wrote about tiny bottles appears as a reference on Wikipedia! And in fact, they were the subject of yet a different blog: Welovenips. That one I evidently pulled the plug on two years ago. It still lives on in Twitter form. (Follow @welovenips for a bimonthly tweet.) So imagine my delight and horror–equal parts–when I discovered these three amigos in said planters.

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This tears me apart. I love cuartitos or chicos, but Corona is my absolute least favorite Mexican lager.  I’m not sure if these bad hombres were smuggled over our open borders or were simply bought at Freddy’s across the street, but clearly someone was thirsty enough for 14 oz but not for 21. Oh, I confess I was tempted to crack open that third one and write a review of a lightstruck Coronita, but I was afraid Dia de los Muertos might arrive 11 days early.

These planters are for succulents. Not sucky beer.

The Rural Brewer Spotlight: Siuslaw in Alsea

Alsea is the smallest town in all of Oregon with a brewery. Give or take, 164 people call it home. When I wrote the Oregon Breweries guidebook, I made it to each and every brewery in operation across the state. Several have opened since it was published and it burns me that I haven’t made it to all of those, as well, but, let’s face it, for city folk like me in Portland, it’s not often I find myself in Alsea. Truth of the matter is, I’d never heard of Alsea (named for the Alsea River and/or the Alsea tribe of Native Americans) until Siuslaw BrewingSiuslaw field (named, presumably, for the Siuslaw National Forest that occupies a tiny part of Alsea’s Benton County) put it on my map.

The 2nd The Rural Brewer Fest will be my first time trying their beer. It sounds pretty bad-ass since, get this, Duane and Jesse (the brewer) Miller grow their own hops. OK, a few other breweries do that, too. But they also grow some of their own barley and malt it themselves.

The farmhouse brewery—or rather, forest-house brewery—in Alsea is located in Benton County about halfway between I-5 and the coast 30 miles southwest of Corvallis. As such, its nearest breweries are ones like Block 15 and Flat Tail, but keep going and then the next closest ones are 45 miles farther including Yachats Brewing and Wolf Tree Brewing. Yeah, those are so rural they’re also featured at The Rural Brewer fest (as returnees!)

Wanna see it for yourself? As Miller said via FB DM, “We have a beautiful piece of property on the Alsea River and welcome all who want to stop by and see what we are doing. We brew many styles and continue to perfect our recipes. Hopefully we will meet up sometime!”

Those styles include an IPA and a Double Black IPA. A Blonde Belgian and a Strawberry Rhubarb Ale. There’s a wide range but as for what they’re bringing up to Portland, Grass Clippings is a cream ale brewed with barley grown on the farm (and again, malted there too), using a method that retains the fresh barley flavor.

 

German Reinheitsgebot’s Living, Tasty History

Drinking a maß of Märzen or sipping a stange of Kölsch is okay as far as trying to celebrate the Reinheitsgebot and Germany’s 500-year-old beer purity law, but when I was invited to head to the land of lagers and weisses to see how this tradition is holding up, I found two things: braumeisters who are, admittedly, a bit jealous of the creativity that modern craft (or privatebraueries) allow, but also people who take great pride in making the beers that their customers love and feel very passion about as being real bier! Southern Germany is postcard picture beautiful at nearly every turn. Prost!

Firestone Walker Invitational Bassoon Festival

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Adam Firestone, 2005. Photo: Yours truly

Today, I’m heading down to Paso Robles, California for the 5th Annual Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival where more than 50 breweries (and thousands of beer nerds) across California, the country, and indeed the world will gather once again to become engrossed in beer (and beer culture). Yesterday, while listening to my iTunes on random-play as I worked, rather than a song a spoken word track started to play. My own voice. I was dictating notes to myself about afterthoughts from my 2005 interview with Adam Firestone.

I wasn’t a beer writer then. I was an aspiring one. I wasn’t drinking much in the way of bourbon-aged strong ales back then. But that’s OK because Firestone Walker wasn’t making them yet. Part of my notes-to-self was about the impending release of “Firestone Ten.” XX will be released later this year. So bear in mind—Firestone pun intended—that they brewery was working solidly in the pale ale realm still. No wild ales like SLOambic. No Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA. Not even Union Jack. That’s right. They hadn’t even unleashed their now-flagship IPA brand. Today, they’re still all about their Burton Union, er, Firestone Union method of fermentation that’s prime for making British-style pale ales that co-founder and Adam’s brother-in-law David Walker still prefers. (In a phone interview with David this past April he said of Double Barrel Ale, a British Pale, “I drink DBA every opportunity I can. It’s my favorite style.”)

As I sat there listening to the track, it was telling that Adam, when talking about not aging but fermenting beer in wood, told me that any brewer worth his salt would know better than to do that. Or at least challenge that, which is what Matt Brynildson did when he joined the brewery. Tangent: I’d also interviewed Matt in October of 2005. He discussed having brewed for SLO Brewing where he didn’t like having to make their Blueberry Ale not because it was fruity but because it wasn’t made with real fruit, just flavor additive. I attended UC Santa Barbara nearby—graduating months before Firestone Walker launched—and recall drinking and, dare I say, enjoying said Blueberry Ale (as a 21-year-old whose friends only drank beer that came in $35 kegs or 36-can suitcases). Matt also said back then that Oak is a flavor so it’s really beer’s “fifth ingredient.”

Back to the track. Adam likened their method of brewing to “being in the bassoon business.” I’m paraphrasing: “Not everyone plays bassoon, but if that’s what you do, and it’s a wonderful instrument, you really gotta throw yourself into making a good bassoon.” I loved that analogy. (And lemme tell you something. Those double-reeded woodwinds can run up to 30 grand, but you’re not getting out for under five thou because you’re not some podunk oboe player amirite?) What Adam meant—and the sentiment was echoed during my in-person interviews with David and Matt, too—is that Firestone Walker doesn’t make beer for everyone. Anyone can play the kazoo. They make the bassoons of beer. Elegant. Rich. Unique.

According to my dictated notes, Adam went onto say, “You don’t have to be all things to all people.” He divulged that, despite it being the era where Hefeweizens and Witbiers were the big deal in microbrewing (imagine if brewers today were trying to out-wheat each other or tout being the first to use an experimental varietal of grain), he was no fan of wheat. Nor of hemp seeds, which, if you know their history with Humboldt Brewing and Red Nectar Ales, is pretty funny. First met Adam behind the table while pouring at the 2005 GABF.

Beside the bassoon line, I had a compulsory discussion with Adam about his kid brother, Andrew, who’d been the star of an early season of The Bachelor. Yikes! But Adam had a really interesting take. “Just like the 70’s had 8-tracks and the 50’s had hula hoops, we have reality TV shows and those won’t be around in future generations, either. Like TV, previous generations were concerned with who shot J.R.? This generation is concerned with who’s the bachelor going to pick?” He added that the show brought great marketing might to the Firestone Winery. Less to the Firestone Walker Brewery. He also used the word fungible two or three times. Yeah, he dropped it during the course of conversation. I hardly read or hear that word, but when I do, I can’t help but think of Adam.

So that’s it. It’s crazy to think about what has transpired in the decade since, with me, with the beer industry and scene in general, and with this brewery in particular. Firestone Walker has amassed 47 GABF medals since 2002 and hasn’t had a single dry year. David really does all the publicity and public engagements. He’s simply very affable and charming. Of course he is; he’s British. But as Adam copped to me back in 2005, the two of them got along well, which Adam said is a testament to David’s character since he’s aware that he himself is not the easiest person to get along with. “Strong opinions.” So when his brother-in-law began prattling off about starting a “microbrewery,” Adam fortuitously said, “Yep, let’s do this.”

Below is the excerpt from Red, White, & Brew about Firestone Walking Brewing. At the time, they were the one brewery I intended to make a full chapter in the book but did not. The goal was to get the deep, inside story not of every brewery in America, but 1%. That’s why there are 14 chapters in the book. There were 1,400 breweries. I didn’t think there’d be 1,500 by the time the book came out, which, in 2008 had actually climbed to 1,574. If I were to write Red, White, & Brew today using that same approach, I’d have to write 44 chapters! Anyway, it’s not my best writing, but it was my humble start. Check out the part where we learn before Firestone made sessionable pale ales, a Firestone made non-alcoholic beer (from 1986-1990)! And as a bonus, I’ll start with a line not pertaining to Firestone Walker but that leg of my roadtrip around America’s breweries:

…In the Palm Desert it is the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway, in memoriam to the former mayor of Palm Springs who couldn’t ski the forest for the trees…

Months after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1996, a new brewery opened up nearby. It belonged to two brothers-in-law, Adam Firestone and David Walker, hence the name Firestone Walker Brewing. The Firestone name, of course, is well known, as tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone was a rubber baron. Harvey’s grandson, Brooks, used his inheritance to start the first estate winery in Central California. In turn, his son, Adam, while already president of the Firestone Vineyard, partnered with David. They have Adam’s sister, and David’s wife, Polly Firestone-Walker, to thank for bringing them together.

I didn’t discover Firestone Walker beer until I went to Denver. At the GABF’s Pacific Region section of the festival, I met Adam, tall and youthful, pouring his beers from behind his table. He told me about his dad’s side venture making, of all things, non-alcoholic beer in the late eighties. While serving as a Marine overseas, Adam pleaded with his dad not to fold the operation. But when brands like Miller Sharps and Coors Cutter were introduced, Brooks pulled the plug.

Soon thereafter, Adam returned, having done a tour in the first Persian Gulf War. After taking over Firestone Estates, he lit out on a scavenger hunt to track down old brewing equipment for his side project. Because it proved to be a success, now he’s got shiny new equipment. If only his kid brother Andrew had revealed as much about the brewery in “The Bachelor” reality series as he did about the winery and his own personal dalliances, the brand might have a broader reputation.

The vineyard, the brewery, and a new brewpub are spread across the Santa Ynez Valley along the Central California coast, 90 miles apart. The latter, the Taproom, is in Buellton, most famous for its split-pea soup—I kid you not. The pub is located near the tree that Thomas Haden Church crashed Paul Giamatti’s Saab into in the movie Sideways. Instead of chasing down wine, my destination was beer. Looping around the off ramp that circles the tree, I made my way off the 101 and into the Taproom.

I met David, a tall British bloke gracious enough to plunk down in a booth with me and discuss their initial, and failed, idea to make beer in the winery’s spent Chardonnay barrels. Instead, the brewery patented a method of fermenting beer in charred oak barrels. Aging beer in barrels isn’t that uncommon, but these guys are the only ones in America who use them in the fermentation process. Every brewery that uses stainless steel thinks these guys are crazy. But after you taste their Double-Barrel Ale, you’ll be a convert, too.

David slipped behind the bar and pulled me a few tastes including an unfiltered version of Double Barrel. I’m not much for discussing noses, legs, or bouquets, but this beer boasted some serious oakiness. My hat’s off to brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who earned Mid-Size Brewer of the Year honors at last year’s GABF.