Readers of The Pour Fool hardly need to be told of my long-held regard – okay, call it “mania” if you want – for Deschutes Brewery. What may not have been readily apparent to anyone was the underlying Presence that made the whole protracted butt-kissing extravaganza necessary in the first place. To make that clear, let me sum it up in two words…
During the period when Deschutes rose to its current prominence, Larry was brewmaster and created a roster of ales nearly unmatched in the history of American craft brewing: The Stoic, Jubleale 2010, The Dissident, The Abyss, Hop Trip, Hop Henge, Mirror Mirror, Hop in The Dark…well, I could go on but let’s just say that very, very few American brewers ever make one beer like those. Larry did it so often and with such casual brilliance that it looked easy.
But that’s all History. Today, Larry is co-owner and brewmaster at his own shop, The Crux Fermentation Project, a veritable cathedral – albeit a rather slick and funky one – of experimental and historic beer, as well as just slap-damnit fine everyday ales – located in a converted transmission shop in a curiously remote little elbow of downtown Bend that occupies a big right-hand curve in a former industrial area now threatened by creeping gentrification. In this industrial-chic building – constructed mostly from salvaged railroad ties and contractors’ scraps – some of the most significant new ales being made anywhere in the western hemisphere are sleeping in a large collection of well-seasoned barrels…just waiting to overwhelm Fools like me.
It was two+ years ago when Larry and partners Paul Evers and Dave Wilson opened Crux and, when I was there for their grand opening weekend, it was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever endured in my life. Paul, in an email, had already explained what the plan was for Crux: sour, wild, brett, and barrel-aged ales, crafted with an eye toward perfection and not solely about profit. I walked around the handsome space, sipping somebody else’s beer (Crux had nothing at all ready to pour at their own opening!) and looking at those barrels…pondering what must be happening moment by moment inside each of those well-used wooden vessels. The urge to pop out a bung cork and suck out a sample was monstrously strong but, of course, my respect for Larry precluded anything rash…barely.
My first sampling of the aged stuff was laid out in the seattlepi.com edition of The Pour Fool, back in December of 2013, in a post entitled “Crux Fermentation Project: America’s Best New Brewery?” Looking back on that post – for which I took a lot of static from people not familiar with Crux – my only regret is having tacked that question mark onto the end. In that post, I gave Crux “Freakcake”, a big Belgian-Style Dark Strong Ale, one of only four 100 Point scores I have ever, in 40 years as a beverage reviewer, given to any beer, wine, or booze. I couldn’t possibly not give that score. It was better than all but two actual Belgian Dark Strongs I’ve ever tasted; easily the best, most fully-realized and accomplished (not to mention flat-out delicious) American Belgian-Style ale of any type I’ve ever tasted. And it was the first damned barrel-aged ale Crux ever released in a bottle!
Last week, another box from Crux arrived and this one contained Larry’s take on one of the beer styles closest to my heart – the Flanders Red Ale.
Flanders ales are sour; frankly, emphatically sour. They’re usually ridiculously complex from the Flanders tradition of blending older barrel-aged lots (sometimes several of ’em) with a freshly-made batch. The blending is, for an adept brewmaster, like either expressionist painting or conducting a symphony. Tiny tweaks and nudges can be made, moderating the tart crispness of the newer ale with shades of barrel ripeness and a sort of caramelized sweetness that’s usually nudged into the background. May not be everybody’s thing but, for me, these ales are bewitching…and it’s not a bewitchment that goes away.
I suspect, with no proof, that we all have some little thing we do to console/reward/motivate ourselves; something that maybe we don’t even share with our loved ones. For me, for thirty years, that treat has been Flanders red ales. It’s very rare for me to go more than two weeks without popping into some beer purveyor, somewhere, and grabbing a Flanders – or one from somewhere else, in a pinch – tart Red and enjoying it all by myself. Might be a Duchesse de Bourgogne or the main label Verhaeghe, a Petrus, Bachor, Rodenbach, Vichtenaar, a De Proef Zoetzuur, even a Lost Abbey Red Poppy, now and again. I fear those days are over, now…
What Larry and his pals at Crux have done with this ale is nothing short of game-changing. To make an uneducated, hayseed guess about it, I’d say that Crux Fermentation Project “Better Off Red” is a blend of a two-year old batch, a one-year old batch, and a fresh one. It’s part of what Crux calls its “Banished Series“, as in beers “banished” to their barrel room, there to meditate for some serious time on the multitude of sins they plan to commit when they’re finally poured into a glass. The note that came with it just said some older ales were blended with a fresh one, so I came up with that half-baked, three batch surmise. (After some digging, it turns out that the “fresh” batch was 13 months old!) However they did it, this is the sort of Flanders Red that could go into a Belgian bottle, pour blind for five or six Belgian brewmasters, and they’d just think that one of their neighbors had outdone themselves. I guarantee that concepts like “Oregon”, ‘former transmission shop”, and “Larry Sidor” would dawn only slowly, if at all.
The complexity of this stuff is literally (for me, anyway) stunning. Judye watched me take the first sip and asked, semi-seriously, “Are you alright?” I had one of those rare moments when I could find no words. Elements of what I like best about all those I mentioned above flitted across my tongue: the hallmark tartness with a sweet underlying Edge; assertive fruit flavors, leading with TWO cherry impressions, as though you ate some fresh, tart Oregon cherries along with a fat spoonful that had been baked in a pie. Subtle spice notes ran amok: anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, dill, and sage, foremost; a sturdy backbone of caramel, toasted bread, porridge, cocoa powder, huckleberries and dried cranberries; and a creaminess that wasn’t even hinted at in its wine-like aroma and face-slapping, mouth-watering crispness.
I’m getting ready, this very weekend, to ransack several Seattle beer shops to find bottles of this stuff. In aging terms, I have no idea what the full window for this ale might be but I’d hazard a guess that, five years from now, Better Off Red will pour out of the bottle accompanied by an angelic choir and Kate Upton in a Santa Suit.
And, again…(**sputter, sputter**) Crux is just getting started! Good Lord, what’s this brewery going to be like in five years? Ten? Twenty, when Larry’s grandson is brewmaster? I’m not going to say I’m ruined for a bottle o’ Duchesse, Zoetzuur, or Rodenbach…but Better Off Red is a mighty tough act to follow. 100 Points
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