Wild, Wild Beer
“American wild ale” is a terrible classification. It’s easy to understand the sour Belgian beers. They are similar, but each has a unique brewing method and flavor. Lambic is spontaneously fermented. Flanders Oud Bruin is aged in oak. Geueze is a blend of old and new lambics. American wild ale can be made any number of ways, and few of them are really “wild”.
Wild implies some level of nature taking it’s course, like a lambic that is left for the native critters to enjoy. But many — if not most — American style beers are inoculated with domesticated strains of once wild yeast. Brettanomyces can be added for primary fermentation. A beer can be fermented with only brettanomyces, or with a blend of “brett” and bacteria. An American wild ale can be aged in wood or stainless steel. “Brett” can be added for bottling. A beer can be left open to the elements or completely sterilized.
I guess this is all a way of saying, I love a good sour beer, no matter who makes it, but apparently the method is important. Fantasia is a barrel aged sour beer. It spends a year in oak barrels where a mixture of wild and less wild yeasts do their business. Peaches are added and give the beer it’s fruity, juicy flavor. It’s delicious —especially on tap at the brewery. But it’s missing something key.
The yeast that give a lambic from Cantillon its grassy, musty, tangy flavor can’t develop over night, or apparently over a single year. That weird amazing flavor comes from years of maturation and expert blending. Fantasia — and many other equally delicious American wild ales — is a little lacking. It’s not quite sour enough, not quite funky enough. It’s just not finished. I have another bottle in my closet and hopefully with time it will develop a little more, but at the moment it’s just a little too green — just like “wild” American brewing.
Late update! Today was the Fantasia release over at Upright. It was sort of fun. There were lines, but I made it through. Right in time apparently. They sold out shortly after I got my two bottles. Fantasia is a lambic-ish sour ale aged with peaches.
In the tap room I tried both the 2013 and the 2012 versions of Fantasia. The fresh keg was fruitier, and the year old version was balanced and funky. Then I had a taste of borboun aged Rahsaan it was super malty and borboun-y. Really nice.
Upright Brewing’s Late Harvest is a sort of Flanders red-brown style ale. It’s barrel aged with spices and seasonal herbs. It’s a slightly tart ale with fruit and chocolate. Cherries combine with a fruit that’s darker than cherries. Coffee! Coffee is a cherry. Late Harvest tastes like a crazy complex cup of coffee with a wine like finish.
Eyebrows raised as two well-known Oregon breweries appeared to be taking opposing sides of Portland’s heated fluoridation debate. Alex Ganum, owner of Portland’s Upright Brewing Co., has been a vocal supporter of adding fluoride to our municipal water supply, while Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing gave an in-kind donation of $148 to a group opposing the additive. Contacted, Ganum stood his ground, stating that adding fluoride wouldn’t harm residents in any way. “I know for a fact that it would not negatively impact the quality of beer,” he said. “We have some of the best water in the country, but it’s not because it’s not fluoridated.” Ninkasi’s donations manager, Nicole Nelson, said the brewery has “no stance on the issue” but made the donation because the company likes to encourage local activism.
Through the front door, past the empty offices and the closed up cafe, take the elevator to the basement and follow your nose around the corner and down the hall. You’ll see tons of stainless steel equipment and barrels lining the walls. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Take a left and you’ll find the Upright Brewing tasting room, nine taps protrude from the wall next to a menu of five regular beers and a few seasonal trends. That’s it.
The Upright tasting room is the closest you can get to a brewery without mashing grains yourself. We sat next to barrels of Fantasia fermenting away. We took a self guided tour of mashing tuns and cylindroconical fermentation vessels. Sarah pointed out the open top fermenters in the only room you can’t explore. And we drank beers.
I started out with the fresh hop bitter, Kiln ‘Em All. Delicious nutty, malty back bone and a hint of fresh greenness and fruit. The hops are probably more subdued a few weeks later, but delicious. I could definitely have a few pints.
Sarah had the Saison Rahsaan. It’s a deep brown saison that drinks really light. There is no coffee, no chocolate, no roast. It’s yeasty, like fresh, rising bread. Malty but not sweet.
I also tried the Bird Call Brown because I am on a brown binge. A hint of coffee and English hops. Sarah is really starting to figure out that she hates American hops. She can actually stomach more European style hopping. Bird Call is sessionable, but full flavored.
Sarah also tried the hopless Gruit. Gruit is an ancient style of beer from the low countries brewed during the middle ages before hops from England and Germany became standard. Gruit is bittered only with spices and herbs. There is a hint of lavender and lemongrass and tons of coriander. Imagine a Belgian wit without any hops. Sarah got some orange peel. She is getting good at this. Barring Cantillon, Gruit may be the best beer Sarah has ever tasted.
At the end I went back to my favorite, the Five. Imagine a saison, now add an IPA. It’s like that. Fresh, crisp flavors and bright, citrusy and earthy hops. Definitely worth ten bucks for seventy-five centiliters. I could definitely drink a full bottle over dinner.
Upright Brewing may be the brewery closest to Brasserie Cantillon I’ve seen. Laid back, industrial, comfortable. I can definitely see coming back for more every weekend.
Upright Brewing makes some great saison style beers. They’re fresh from the Belgian farmhouse, in a basement on Portland’s east side. Flora Rustica is a great example of Upright’s commitment to older Belgian style ales, an ale brewed with flowers. In the kettle they added calendula and yarrow, the same as the Belgians used to do before hops took over. Flora Rustica is a super, super floral beer. The nose explodes with roses and apple blossoms; it smells purple because I say so. The smell is powerful yet delicate. The taste is full, but refreshing, more Spring than Autumn. There is a hint of bitterness and a dry finish. Sarah is actually playing along lately. At Deschutes she had an entire Bier De Garde, a small glass.
I forgot how much I love Upright Brewing’s #6. The rye tanginess melds perfectly with their house yeast’s fruity deliciousness. Over at the Pope House Bourbon Lounge they had a special, #6 and a shot of Wild Turkey Rye. I love the smell of bourbon; I like the taste, but I have no idea what it tastes like a second later, so hot.
On Saturday Sarah and I attended the Portland Fruit Beer Festival at Burnside Brewing with our friend Chelsea. The event was small and relaxed. The crowd got a little heavy after the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade finally ended and the road blacks were cleared. We actually spent twenty minutes trying to drive five minutes from our apartment. The festival was dominated by local breweries and one off, exclusive beers. Some were experimental. Most were interesting, but some missed the mark.
I started out with a bourbon barrel aged RenewALE porter from Ninkasi that had been aged with cherries. It was an interesting beer, all the layers really stood out. The one problem was that all the layers stood out. It was bourbon, cherries, and then some porter. It wasn’t a good marriage of flavors; everything was just layered one on top of the other.
I tried my second Logsdon’s ale: Fruit Melange, a batch of the Seizoen Bretta aged with pears and cherries. The cherries really jumped out, but so did their saison yeast. It wasn’t a brettanomyces flavor I got off it. It was more of a Belgian yeast, all pepper in the finish.
I also tried Ching Ching from Bend Brewing Company — thanks festival guide, I forgot to write that down. Ching Ching is a a Berliner weiss made with pomegranate and hibiscus. Hibiscus was very popular this year. It was super dry and tart with a cranberry sourness. I thought it was more similar to a sour beer than a wheat.
I then went on to one of my favorite breweries, Upright, and had their Levinator. The guide tells us that the Levinator is a bock beer brewed with weisse yeast and matured in wine barrels with black currants. Sarah and I both had tasters of this one. Sarah mentioned a coffee like flavor. I thought there was a hint of oak. There was a hint of sour and a really mellow flavor. It felt big, and boasted 7.2% ABV, but the flavors were very light.
The Huckleberry Hound was the most recognizable beer in the whole line up. Alameda Brewing made an IPA and then added huckleberries. I could smell this beer all day, big piney aroma. The taste was also fantastic, big bitter hops. But then the blueberries hit. It doesn’t make sense at all to have piney hops mixed with blueberries. I can get behind huckleberry and grapefruit. I can get behind huckleberries and whatever, but pine? No.
Deschutes made a very dark stout with raspberries called Extinction. It was like some sort of coffee and chocolate cake covered in raspberry reduction. The only problem was that I smelled wet dog the whole time I was sipping it. Now that probably wasn’t the brewers fault, there were dogs around. But I couldn’t fully appreciate the nose on this one.
There were a few more stand outs that had us waiting in line for seconds, but I’ll get to those later.
More drinks with Sarah’s friends in this dark, dark hotel bar, the Driftwood Room. It was great, but terrible for pictures. I had the daily pint, Project X from Cascade Lakes Brewing. It was Kolsch-like, a little bit bitter, a little bit lemon, and a little bit crackery. Crisp and summery, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was secretly a lager. I followed that up with an Upright #4. I couldn’t enjoy it because my mouth was on fire from a Thai chili pepper hidden in my Thai chili fries. I was a little bit disappointed to find a lemon wedge in my glass but that’s the way it is some times. #4 is a wit beer, but all I could taste was lemon juice. I finished the night with a Lagunitas Pils which was delicious. It’s the fruitiest pilsner I have ever tasted, crisp apples and maybe an orange. Overall a good night in a new bar.
We went to the new pizza place, Oven and Shaker, for dinner. I tried a few new brews, too. I had Boneyard Brewery’s Diablo Rojo and Upright Brewing’s Pilsner. Neither beer really appealed to me. The Rojo tasted like Coke, it’s all bubbles up front with a beer after taste. The Pilsner was tasty, but with a strong bitter after taste that wasn’t very pleasant. Maybe I just don’t like these styles.