Over the past two years, I’ve become something of a beer snob. I’ve tried dozens (if not hundreds) of microbrews, toured a handful of breweries, attended numerous ale festivals, and have even taken a crack at homebrewing.
And almost none of it has been to get drunk. I mean, it’s a nice byproduct on occasion, but it’s not the intent when I take a sip.
That’s a surprisingly common misconception among people who aren’t beer aficionados. But there really is so much more to it than getting tanked.
Most beers you’ve ever had — or ever will have — started with the same four ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water. That’s it. Brewers from all over the world experiment with those ingredients to craft unique brews.
Sometimes, brewers roast the malt or barley, producing a darker stout. A brewer who throws additional hops into the mix creates an IPA. They’re both made with the same basic ingredients, but the end products couldn’t be more different.
Brewers often add other ingredients to their mixtures, as well. Walk down the beer aisle at your grocery store, and you might see brews infused with pumpkin spices, chocolate, strawberries, and so on. That doesn’t even account for the smaller, experimental batches at brewpubs or beer festivals — like Breakside Brewing’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Beer, for instance. (Yes, it was brewed with actual strawberry rhubarb pies.)
Those small changes and additions can produce unique, complex flavors. Some beers are heavy and carry a coffee-like flavor. Others are lighter and taste of tangerine. But no two beers are ever truly alike. I enjoy discovering the complexity, variety, and creativity that goes into different brews. I am by no means an expert on the brewing process, though I’m more knowledgeable than I was six months ago. Nor has my palate fully developed; I still miss flavors here and there and struggle on occasion to articulate what I’m tasting. But it’s a learning process — and a fun one, at that.
So imagine my elation at seeing a brew festival in Astoria, one of my favorite spots in the Pacific Northwest. It might have officially been fall, but the late-September Pacific Northwest Brew Cup was a throwback to the heart of summer — clear skies, cool breeze, and just enough warmth to get sunburned. The festival brought together dozens of brewers from throughout the region, pouring a variety of IPAs, porters, stouts, and so on. I was in beer geek heaven and didn’t quite know where to start.
So I started with lunch — a clam chowder-soaked sourdough bread bowl from Baked Alaska. If there’s a better way to start a beer festival than by eating clam chowder out of a bread bowl … well, there’s no point continuing this train of thought. There is no better way. End of discussion.
Shortly after arriving, I took a seat with a brew and chatted up Stan, a kind Packers fan next to me. While waiting for Blind Pilot, we talked about brewing, Astoria, his family, life in Wisconsin (his home), which beers we had tried, and how lucky we were with the weather. He was relentlessly cheerful in a plain-spoken, Midwestern manner. “Any day I wake up and break my consecutive days streak of being alive is a good day,” he said. “Anything else that happens is great.”
Half of Blind Pilot — dubbed “20-50 Pilot” on this day (get it?) — took the stage at about 12:30 for a 45-minute set. That performance deserves its own blog post, which you can find here. But, for now, a look at some of the beers I tried at the festival:
Fort George Brewery Fresh Hopped Vortex IPA: A fresh-hopped version of Fort George’s most popular brew was served up to festival-goers this weekend. I’m not normally an IPA fan, but my allegiance to Fort George prompted me to try it. I’m glad I did; the Vortex IPA wasn’t too hoppy, went down smooth, had a sweet and malty body, and was refreshingly crisp.
Two Kilts Brewing Scotch Ale: Most Scottish ales I’ve tried have been pretty good, but this was a pleasant surprise. The pouring from Two Kilts was an extremely drinkable beer, with a delightfully sweet, smooth honey finish.
McMenamins Edgefield Oktoberfest: It was an interesting enough Oktoberfest ale, but it finished really dry. The aftertaste was more bitter than any Oktoberfest ale should be. I enjoyed the full-bodied taste and the caramel notes, which added a touch of sweetness. But the dry finish kept me from coming back from more. I guess they can’t all be winners.
Laurelwood Brewing Moose and Squirrel Organic Imperial Stout: I don’t like coffee, but I love the hell out of coffee-infused beers. This one hit hard with a coffee flavor right away but didn’t leave the burnt aftertaste that can cause the downfall of some stouts. A hint of caramel gave it a refreshingly sweet body.
Burnside Brewing S’Mores Porter: Yep, S’Mores Porter. I went back for a second tasting of this particular porter, which truly tasted chocolaty (unlike many other porters, which can taste like burnt coffee). It was also brewed with mallow root and graham cracker spices; the mallow root was lost on me, but I noticed — and appreciated — the faint graham cracker taste. It was a surprisingly complex, full-flavored beer — and it went down smoothly, as well. It was enough to make me pine for the days of sitting around a campfire with good friends.
All in all, my first time at the Pacific Northwest Brew Cup was fantastic. There were no lines to speak of, and while some of the more interesting brews ran out by the time the dinner rush hit, I’d had more than enough time to sample my fair share. (It’s safe to say that festival organizers didn’t anticipate the good weather or record number of attendees.) The food offerings were nice, the acoustic live music was entertaining, the beer selection was top-notch, and the setting — on the shores of the Columbia River — was ideal. It was truly the perfect way to bid summer a fond farewell.