I was asked to author my 10 favorite beers of the year for Bend Source Weekly. My first draft clocked in at 1,500 words because I gave a fair amount of thought (and background info) on each one. But my word count is a firm 700. After a couple rounds of edits, I got it down to 1,050 words, meaning I’d shed 350 but still had 350 to go. While those first 350 are now lost to the ether, I’m re/pre-printing the list here at the mid-way point just so folx could see I didn’t just write 60 words per phenomenal beer.
By my best guesstimate, each of Central Oregon’s 27 breweries released, on average, at least dozen beers in the past year, meaning we had no fewer than 350 local beers to choose from. I confess, nay, lament, I did not try them all. (That said, drinking a new beer each day in 2023 is quite a tempting challenge.) So take this list of my 10 favorite Central Oregon-brewed beers with a grain of salt (that’d be right at home in Spider City’s Kaffir Lime Sea Salt Gose or Cascade Lakes’ Salted Caramel Porter)
- Funky Fauna Artisan Ales, Thought I’d Something More to Say (Wild Saison). While saison is possibly the world’s most elegant beer style—it’s simultaneously rustic and cosmopolitan—the big tent style is woefully overlooked and under-represented among Central Oregon brewers. That was, until this Sisters-based brewery went all-in on them when it launched a year ago. Funky Fauna has released nearly 50 versions of “wild saisons,” meaning they’re fermented with a native cultivated and propagated yeast strain. Some of the beers feature colorful fruit, one even featured butterfly pea flowers that turned it a gorgeous shade of purple, but there’s no beating the delicate complexity of an oaked saison that conjures notes of wild grasses, tangy herbs, and the terroir of locally-grown and malted grains embodied in a beer like …More to Say. It’s only 4.5 percent alcohol yet packs a tremendous amount of flavor that, like many a saison, may be the ideal beverage to pair with gourmet or quotidian meals alike.
- Deschutes Brewery, Experimental 1320 (Fresh Hop IPA). Late summer hop harvest is arguably the best season for beer drinking. It’s not that every fresh hop beer is delicious, but therein lies the beauty and wonderment because they are difficult to hit the bull’s eye but when you do, they’re phantasmagorical. When Source Weekly contributors blind taste tested a slew from this year’s crop, Deschutes Experimental 1320 struck my taste buds as smacking of fresh pineapple veering into POG (pineapple orange guava) territory with that tell-tale freshie finish like chewing on flower stems (in lieu/luau of a tiny parasol.
- Spider City Brewing, Spicy Goat (Serrano-Pineapple IPA). Spider City’s line of hazy IPAs in its “deer” family and clear, West Coast IPAs in its “goat” family are solid hop-delivery vehicles. But Spicy Goat is also a capsicum delivery vehicle courtesy of serrano peppers. It’s spicy but not spiiiicy. To temper the heat, a sweet, juicy wave of piña, which brings out the tropical fruit note from the hops, conveys enough dank and juicy vibes as if swept up in the Pineapple Express current. Chili beers may be a tough sell but IPAs aren’t so this beer was a welcome way to bring the heat to a nice, cold beer.
- Bevel Brewing, Black Ace (Cascadian Dark Ale). Every time I sit around thinking how much I miss Cascadian Dark Ales, locally dubbed CDA and colloquially dubbed Black IPA, I perk myself up with a trip to Bevel. Perk is an apt verb considering CDAs drink like an stout-IPA combo proffering espresso notes from dark roasted malts and piny notes from PNW hops. As Bend’s rare yet typically year-round CDA, Black Ace (7.6 percent) is par for the course.
- Cascade Lakes Brewing, Resurgence (Gin-barrel-aged IPA). Gin barrels are difficult to come by for brewers (because most gins never see the inside of a barrel). Courtesy of Redmond’s gin-centric Gompers Distillery that produces an Old Tom (oaked gin), Cascade Lakes obtained an empty cask and, instead of filling it with a more expected sour ale or imperial stout, ameliorated Revival IPA by maturing it in an Old Tom barrel for seven months that playfully married the gin’s botanical top notes with Centennial and Idaho 7 hops’ resinous flavors for a fascinating result that would be equally welcomed by hop heads and G&T fanatics.
- 10 Barrel Brewing, Gindulgence (sour ale). At brewery behemoth 10 Barrel, the niche imprint TinyHaus serves as a creative output for brewmaster Tonya Cornett. This sour beer was imbued with peach, chamomile tea, and—most critically—gin botanicals (primarily juniper berries) to create a refreshingly complex, slightly sour ale that scratches the itch of a fruit beer, a hard kombucha, and a gin gimlet.
- Van Henion Brewing, Schwarzbier (black lager). Before even turning one, Van Henion illustrates what a wide world of flavors—and colors—Germanic lagers encapsulate. Schwarzbier simply translates to black beer and this sub-five-percenter expertly pulls off boasting a light body while bursting with dry, astringent, dark roasted malts that lend burnt toast notes atop clean, noble hops. It’s a rare sipper that works well in brisk winter or on warm summer days.
- Porter Brewing, Infamous (Extra Special Bitter). The “bitter” family of ales have become endangered, but even its strongest member, ESB, is far less bitter than IPA. At 5.8 percent ABV and 39 IBU (International Bitterness Units), Porter’s Infamous ESB is a delectable platform for English malts and hops. Its malt sweetness and floral bitterness packs toffee bottom notes, woody, floral top notes, and comes wrapped in a warming—but not “warm” cask-conditioned ale.
- Deschutes Brewery, Kanpai Crispy (Rice Lager). Forget the olden days when craft breweries shaded macros for using corn or rice in their lager grist; these adjuncts have gained traction among most breweries and perhaps never showcased better than in Japanese-style rice lagers. This 4.8 beer is dry, refreshing, and crushable AF. I dare say it’s the best beer for floating (and great for aprés ski or, if you’re one of those who can’t wait til you’re off the lift, during).
- Crux Fermentation Project, Yaamco (spiced winter ale). While Crux’s Bochi Bochi vied for my vote as best rice lager, the fermentation project’s 6.7 percent Yaamco—it’s a yam beer brewed in a former Aamco station—ran away with my vote for best winter warmer. Picture a malty brown ale like Crux’s Dark Snap, then augment it with roasted yams (over a pound per barrel), orange peel, and the holy trinity of baking spices: cinnamon, ginger, and clove. Suck it, egg nog, winter has a new snowy sipper.