The phenomenon of Deschutes releasing a new beer is certainly nothing new. Hell, if beer releases were, as one Seattle wag once put it, childbirth, Deschutes would make the OctoMom look celibate.
But three at once is, even for the Beast of Simpson Avenue, a spasm of profligate bounty that makes many other breweries look as if they’re working part-time. In the case of this 2014 Spring debut, though, the process was really more about bottling than creation. The resurrection of one of my (and thousands of other folks’) Deschutes fave, Cinder Cone Red Ale, is clearly the Main Event in this lovely little troika of beerly goodness and that’s as it should be. The brewery’s abrupt decision to stop bottling those handy six-packs of CCRA, three and a half years ago, was greeted with howls of indignation – or, in my case, whining and bitching – from all over the West, where CC was, in fact, so solidly popular as a seasonal ale that it spawned the only fan club for a single NW beer that I have ever heard of: PFYRCC: People For Year-Round Cinder Cone. I was a member; had my secret decoder ring and everything. And suddenly – poof! – GONE. No mo’ Cinder Cone for you, you whiny hillbilly bastard! I thought it was a reckless decision and said so…BUT, CC was removed from the bottling roster to make way for…drumroll…Red Chair NWPA. And who in their right mind would argue that what has come to be called, by several awards committees and major publications, the “Best Beer In The World”, was not a suitable replacement?
But, as though Christmas had come in April, here it is again and I gotta tell ya, my geeky friends, it tastes MIGHTY fine and not one molecule different. As American Red Ales go, this was once and now is again, the Rolls Royce. This is what a great Red should taste like: BIG, hearty flavors of black cherries, biscuits ‘n’ honey, caramel, cinnamon and hints of other sweet spices, treacle, red currants, subtle and sweet/savory herbs, and, as its Northwest pedigree dictates, an amazing, lusty hops presence that shows firm citrus, floral hints, and spruce resins so fresh that it’s like eating a fresh spruce tip right off the tree. That first sip from my properly chilled bomber was like a hug from a life-long friend after far too long an absence..and I plan to have that embrace several dozen times while the supply lasts. 96 Points
Deschutes Pine Mountain Pilsner is…well, it’s a Pilsner and, give or take a few favorite Germans, Victory Prima PIls, and Upright Engelberg Pilsner, I rarely touch the stuff. With very few exceptions, the flavor profile is just too narrow and – I admit readily to this shameful Americanism – too restrained for me to drink and enjoy. A couple of Full Sail’s LTD Series Pils have given me cause to reconsider that view, along with the aforementioned, but neither my Darlin’ Domestic Partner nor I ever really approach a Pils with any real enthusiasm and this did, after all, arrive in the same box with Cinder Cone, inviting a very unflattering comparison. Pine Mountain is, all that said, a fine and very flavorful Pils. I don’t know that those tiresome German purist geeks wouldn’t just snort derisively at it but I actually…rather enjoyed it. The palate is noticeably broader and more substantial than a run ‘o’ the mill Pils, with an intriguing, elusive note on the mid-palate of something like – and I’ve done this – drinking a Pilsner through a mouthful of almonds and roasted chicken. Both of those flavors were very subtle but were there and they complemented the Usual Suspects – lemon zest, biscuits, waffle cone, scalded cream, cereal, and a dash of spices – very nicely. Being from Deschutes, also, this Pils carries a definite and very uplifting hops presence that’s forthright, unapologetic, and wildly unauthentic…which I loved a lot. I find – in general and in wine, beer, and spirits – the ones I wind up remembering and enjoying most are the ones that toss Mr. Conventional out the door on his withered little butt. Pine Mountain will probably horrify the folks who drone on and on about the glories of German beer (many, many of which ARE really glorious) and I wish I was there to watch those sniffy little tantrums. They’re always good for a giggle and don’t threaten the beer supply for the rest of us unwashed Yankees. 90 Points
The real surprise in this unholy triad was, for me and the DP, Deschutes Armory XPA, what Deschutes calls a “Experimental Pale Ale”. It says so right there on the label. Okay, damnit, I’m blowin’ the whistle, here: back in 2011, I was invited down to PDX to be one of the “celebrity” judges (was the term “celebrity” ever more misapplied? I bet reality TV stars all over the country feel vindicated, now) for Deschutes amazing Chef’s Challenge, an evening in which six Portland chefs invade the Deschutes kitchen and create small wonders to pair up with the Deschutes beers, a nearly unlimited canvas for any good chef. As I walked in the door that evening, I was steered to the bar, where a lovely young lady handed me a tall, cool glass of something amber-colored and said, “Try our Armory Extra Pale Ale! It’s the first beer we ever created right here in the Portland Brewpub!” (You could actually hear the exclamation points.) I looked at her and then looked at the glass. “It’s…uh…not Pale,” I replied, “Are you sure this is the right beer?” She eyed me with the same undisguised empathetic tolerance my granddaughters show when explaining to me what’s so great about Selena Gomez and replied, “Well, it’s not quite Pale but it tastes that way.” Oh, okay, I thought. To me, it quite clearly didn’t taste pale at all. It was vibrant, fresh, intense, and hoppier than a yard full of rabbits. Had substantial body, too, along with a monumental, slap yo’ mama crispness that made the finish absolutely sing.
Later in the evening, it was one of the featured beers, paired with Deschutes Chef Jeff Usinowicz’s Dry Aged Baby Back Ribs with Tart Cherry BBQ Sauce, and not only stood up to that onslaught of smoky intensity, the dish and beer won the damned competition!
What’s in this bottle, 3+ years later, is tweaked just a bit but still the same mouth-festival of mixed citrus peels, caramel, sugar cookies, apricots, lemongrass, almonds, wildflower honey, subtle herbs, and fat, resiny hops notes that show as pink grapefruit, jasmine, dill, and pine sap. I remembered liking it in P’town but, sitting on my patio on the first really warm, sunny day of ’14, I got it. This is quite simply one of the best and most flavorful warm-weather ales I’ve ever found from a NW producer; really, from almost any producer. The refreshment quotient is all the way off the charts. It finished clean and uncloying and practically compels the next sip. My DP, who usually looks askance at anything that shows up labeled as a “Pale Ale” and doesn’t have an “India” appended to the front, went all groupie over it, threatening to drink it all summer, if not prevented. I had much the same reaction. At 5.9% ABV, it doesn’t come in under that mythical wire that the “session beer” goobers insist makes a beer “sessionable” but who the hell cares? For the sake of less than 1% alcohol, who would drink a less desirable beer, just to maintain their “session” cred? I prefer the phrase, “having more than two beers” to “sessioning”, mainly because it’s more honest, so here it is: If you’re staying in one place, having lunch or dinner, not driving anywhere afterwards, and want a beer that delivers hops intensity, malt balance for days, refreshment, and memorable beer quality, Armory XPA is one of the best choices you will ever find for having several in the course of a single day. I promise you, getting tired of it just ain’t gonna happen.
Now…as to the name…In the P-I version of this bloglet, I once observed that Deschutes seems to have no idea what the term “Pale” really means. (What I actually said was, upon going back and reading it, “Deschutes sucks at ‘Pale’ “) For most of us, “pale” means that what’s in the glass is a color somewhere between yellowish water and filtered apple juice. “Pale” has fairly universal connotations. All is relative, of course. Compared to my Indian friend, Raghav, I am pale. Compared to Johnny Winter, I’m downright tropical. And this beer was originally presented to me as an “Extra Pale Ale”, which, from most brewers, is usually something that looks like a glass of water. To your left is a photo of this ale. Maybe as compared to The Abyss or Black Butte Porter, that’s “Pale”, but as compared to most Pale Ales, it’s practically an Amber. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only crank who ever pointed this out to the folks at Deschutes and I suspect that Gary Fish and company are tired of hearing it. So, changing the name to “Experimental Pale Ale” is a pretty damned clever move, Who, after all, can argue with “experimental”? And what other name gives the brewery the “X” that allows it to remain “Armory XPA” better than that? (Exponential? Execrable? Existential?…wait: that might work!) I leave you to your own conclusion. But what I can tell you, with utter certainty, is that the best way to pass the time while reaching that conclusion is to sit in the tepid Northwest sunshine and sip meditatively at an Armory XPA. It will, I gar-on-tee, be the best way to start your spring-to-summer that you will ever find. 97 Points
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