Recap: Portland Fruit Beer Festival 2012

This time last year, I was a day removed from hand surgery when Dave’s all-day bachelor party arrived. The plan included breakfast at the Screen Door, an urban scavenger hunt, and a Portland Timbers match. Somewhere in there, we were to partake at the inaugural Portland Fruit Beer Festival.

I was determined to indulge, even if it felt like a baker was constantly kneading a loaf of bread in my left arm. But by midday, the pain was too much, and the painkillers were doing too little. I went home and missed out on the bulk of the day’s activities.

Oddly enough, that didn’t include the beer festival. The guys had showed up not long after I left, but they were greeted by a line that wrapped around the block and thought better of it. Still, I had been intrigued and resolved to revisit the festival this summer — when I had two good hands again.

I entered a giveaway for a festival admission package from Portland Pipeline and was lucky enough to be selected from a pool of about 200 entrants. (Read my winning entry here; the journalist in me still blushes at the date mix-up.) Two good friends — Meredith and Janae — agreed to join me, and we headed over on Sunday morning.

Sure, some beer festivals take place in a zoo. But the Portland Fruit Beer Festival might be one of the most unique beer fests in the Metro area. For starters, cheap fruit extracts have long given a bad name to the concept of fruit beers, so a festival dedicated solely to the craft stands out. Beyond that, we saw more young children and strollers than we might have at Chuck E. Cheese’s. It was a truly family-friendly beer festival.

What about the beers themselves?

I would have purchased very few in six-pack form; the taste of each was defined more or less by the fruit content, which led to some very strong tastes, for better and worse. But the novelty and uniqueness factors were high; the beers on tap were brewed with a wide variety of fruits, including strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apricots, raspberries, huckleberries, papaya, yuzu fruit, and so on. Each pour was an adventure and offered quite a few flavors to unpack. The “craft” aspect of “craft brewing” was clearly on display, leading Janae to remark, “It’s where nerds and beer come together.”

I sampled 13 different brews and sipped another 2-3. A few in particular stood out:

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie (from Breakside Brewery): The brew fest brochure sums it up perfectly: “A malty golden ale made with whole strawberry rhubarb pies (crust included) in the mash, kettle, and fermentor.” It was a refreshing summer brew and wasn’t too fruity; the rhubarb overshadowed the strawberry a bit, but it found a nice balance. Besides, how often can you say you drank pie beer?

Huckleberry Hound (from Alameda Brewing Co.): I wasn’t too sure about this, mostly because I’m indifferent (at best) to IPAs. But I couldn’t resist sampling an IPA brewed with huckleberries. The taste of berries was faint at best, but it offset the bitterness that shows up in most IPAs.

Red Light District (from Burnside Brewing): Again, the brochure sums it up nicely: “An imperial stout brewed with 44 pounds of Belgian chocolate and 400 pounds of strawberries aged in Pacific Rum barrels.” The dark chocolate was the first, second, and third flavor I noticed, and only a faint strawberry flavor lingered afterward.

Belgian What Up Apple-Weizen (from Hopworks Urban Brewery): The hefeweizen was crisp and refreshing — the absolutely perfect summer beer. The apple flavor was pronounced but not overwhelming.

Cherry Bourbon Renewale Porter (from Ninkasi Brewing Co.): From the brochure: “Robust Porter that has been aged in Heaven Hills Bourbon Barrels with cherries. The bourbon barrels bring out vanilla and a hint of coconut while the cherries bring fruit to the nose and a subtle tartness.” This one hit like a porter — it was very chocolaty and heavy, but there was a sudden shift to the tartness of the cherries almost immediately. And it warmed up the chest, like any beer aged in bourbon barrels should. Definitely an odd juxtaposition.

Marionberry Hibiscus Gose (from Widemer Brothers Brewing): Widmer Brothers was my gateway drug into the world of craft beer, so I try to keep up with their offerings at festivals. But this particular beer didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was tart, sweet, and sour, creating an unsettling contrast of flavors.

The Bad Apple (from 2 Towns Ciderhouse): I’ve never indulged in many ciders, and the 2 Towns entrant at today’s festival made me regret that a bit. I felt like I should have been drinking it through a bendy straw and out of a silver juice pouch. It tasted just like apple juice, with nary a hint of alcohol — a dangerous (but fun!) combination.

Blueberry Hibiscus Wheat (from Short Snout Brewing): We were all enthusiastic in our praise for this particular beer. It was sweet and fruity; the berry notes were strong enough for us to take notice, but the wheat kept it from tasting too juice-like.

As the temperatures rose and our ticket stock fell, we walked over to the Fifty Licks truck for a scoop of maple bacon ice cream. And that wrapped up our first voyage to the Portland Fruit Beer Festival. All in all, I couldn’t have had more fun. Each of the fruity beers offered a distinct and unique flavor. The very nature of most of these brews challenged my perceptions of what craft brewing can be and what it can offer. The flavorful pairings were inventive, and I was thrilled to try such a wide selection with two great friends — all in the midst of a beautiful day, to boot.

Summer in Portland … you can’t beat it.

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