I bow to no man (or woman or any other sentient being in the universe who’s capable of operating a computer) at taking an idea that can be expressed in 500 words and giving you 3,000. That’s The Pour Fool: more words for your cranky internet beverage writer dollars!
But, just in the last ten days, I received THREE – count ’em, THREE! – new releases from Deschutes Brewery of Bend. Oregon, a firm whose products I’ve covered for the entire time I’ve been writing this fecund little bloglet. Seldom is heard a discouraging word about the Deschutesers in this space and I’m still – after seven years of patiently explaining, “No, Ricky from Paducah, I am NOT on the payroll of Deschutes Brewery” – accused of taking some wort of moist payola. The short explanation of why you read about every time Deschutes breaks wind in this blog is a simple two-parter: 1) They send me samples of almost every new release, and 2) they’re really, REALLY good.
And. today, none of that is going to change here.
Deschutes “Red Chair” NWPA (Northwest Pale Ale) has been called, by no less an authority than The World Beer Awards, ‘The World’s Best Beer”. No qualifiers, no hedging, unequivocal: “The World’s BEST Beer“.
I don’t know about the absolute best; I suspect that it a judgment that really cannot be made, but I have a very hard time finding anything about that statement to dispute, in a general sense, and this 2014 version of the stuff maybe even pushes the envelope a bit further. Let’s take my description of the 2013 – ” huge floral/citrus/resin hops, core of roasted grains, caramel, waffle cone, honey, red berries, subtle baking spices, orange peel, lime leaf, dried cranberries, and a hint of black cherries. It’s impossibly smooth, delightfully – not combatively – hoppy, and has a wildly compulsive drinkability that cannot be denied and does not, in any way, exclude craft beer newbies who still struggle with hops.” To that banquet, let me add, for 2014, dark honey, Red Vines, teaberry, and a tart apple suggestion, coupled with a hedonistic texture that makes it slide down so wickedly easy that it takes real will power not to drink three or four. In the year since that review, I actually did try it on several craft beer newbies and then was treated to a chorus of groans when I told them it ‘s a seasonal and will be gone in about six weeks. I’m telling you that, now. If you are a beer fan at all, and not just a BudMillerCoorsPabst addict, you will love this beer. It’s the biggest slam dunk in craft beer since Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. “Flawless” was the description I used in 2013. I don’t know what’s beyond that but, whatever is the better term up the Scale of Satisfaction, that is what Red Chair is. 99 Points
Deschutes “Hop Henge” Experimental IPA is The Brewery on Simpson’s yearly experiment in making a full-frontal IPA that’s also wildly drinkable and this 2014, IMHO, is the best Henge yet. Their PR sheet says that the brewers used “Millennium hops at the front end of the brew, adding in Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook at the back end. They promise that this year’s version will have a ‘s*%tload of hops’ that results in a massive nose and a beautiful bouquet of flavors.” Done and done. This one feels noticably more full-bodied than any of the past Henges; a silken, near-viscous quality that’s brought about by a malt backbone that imparts a chewy, caramel-drenched mellowness to the cloudburst of resins that follow…which is also the best edition of hoppiness I’ve tasted yet. Lovely, almost delicate notes of wildflowers, pink grapefruit, tangerines, and lemon peel gild a massive wallop of pine and spruce resins and wild citrus, with hints of pineapple, apricot, and quince. Just…magical. It’s not, very much to Deschutes’ credit, built like one of those “test of manhood” extreme IPAs that simply hammer home the bitter. This huge floral/citrus/resin hops, core of roasted grains, caramel, waffle cone, honey, red berries, subtle baking spices, orange peel, lime leaf, dried cranberries, and a hint of black cherries. It’s impossibly smooth, delightfully – not combatively – hoppy, and has a wildly compulsive drinkability that cannot be denied and does not, in any way, exclude craft beer newbies who still struggle with hops. Henge is layered, complex, composed; more like Ninkasi “Tricerahops” than any other beer I could compare it to and anyone who’s read The Pour Fool for any length of time knows that I consider that one of the best Double/Imperial IPAs ever created…and Hop Henge may just be even better. THAT level of quality, concept, and amazing drinkability is what you have in the 2014 “Hop Henge”. 98 Points
Deschutes “Dissident” Reserve 2014 is yet another chapter in the growing legend of a great regional brewery which has reached so shockingly far beyond its Brit-tradition roots that it seems like the work of two or three really fine breweries. Basically an Oud Bruin, or Flanders-style sour Brown Ale, Dissident is, to me, the second best American Our Bruin-style ale ever made…and the best was made by the same guy who originally formulated this one. Larry Sidor, former Deschutes Head Beer Wrangler, came up with the template for this ale and took his inspiration on to his own brewery, Crux Fermentation Project, where his “Banished Edition ‘Freakcake’ ” reigns as the single best American version of this ale ever. But what Brian Favre and the recently-departed co-brewmaster Cam O’Connor (now with Larry at Crux) have done with 2014 is a massive and soulful infusion of tart Oregon Montmorency cherries, aging in wet Pinot Noir barrels, and enough time in the cellar to allow the Lacto to get nicely started. Emphatic flavors of those maddening, tart/sour cherries(!), Brandied currants, raspberry compote, dried cranberries, Balsamic, toffee, and fruit leathers slam prettily into your palate and the aromas pouring out of the glass are almost hypnotic. No, Dissident is not for everybody. Those who love Flanders-style ales will swoon instantly and sour beer fans will find this a near-perfect, uber-sophisticated quaffer. As fate would have it, I had just had a bottle of Petrus Aged Red, an actual Flanders Our Bruin with cherries, the day before tasting this and Dissident, to me, was better in every dimension. This is an American version of a Euro classic that any Flanders/Belgian brewery would LOVE to have under their label and a stunning testament to the atmosphere of wide-open creativity and artistic freedom that Gary Fish has fostered ever since he started Deschutes. Several of his employees have referred to the place, in private conversations with me, as “Happy Valley” and their record of innovation and accomplishment bears that out. Dissident 2014 is a profoundly good and surprisingly approachable ale. 99 Points
Okay, let the questions about payoffs begin. These three from, Deschutes are all the evidence anybody should need that this Bend icon lays definite claim to the title of one of America’s Top Five Breweries.
Yay, a conversation on Pour Fool!
Steve, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply on aging. This inspired me to take a hard look at my collection and commit to opening and enjoying more aged beer in 2015, as well as putting more away for future comparison. Scarcity is a real thing for the common consumer though, and if I get just one or two bottles of something precious, it’s hard to crack it open and not wonder what a year in the dark would do. I think the Dissident will sit for awhile. I did very recently open a 5+ year old bottle of The Stoic and found it to be simply remarkable – but wish I had a reference point as it HAD to be a very different brew when fresher.
WCBG, talking about pricing for Deschutes makes me laugh. When I lived in Seattle I gorged on tap Abyss and giggled like a little girl when I cleared out the local QFC of all. the bottles. they had. Now that I live in CA, I start bugging the local Total Wines and my very special bottle shop WEEKS in advance to see when Abyss will arrive so I can be get my fix. I beg and plead but rarely can get more than a single bottle at a time. It is always gone in a day. This year I got my paws on four bottles and was a little teary over my good fortune. Two were $17.99 and two were $18.99. You know what? That was the most satisfying, worthy, gleeful 75 bucks I will spend all year. Every sip of every bottle will give me more satisfaction and enjoyment than anything a hundred times the cost. We live in staggeringly good beer times.
Some pretty darn good beers out there for half the cost, I see lots of bottles of their Black Butte XXVI sitting on the shelves still and in some places the Abyss isn’t flying off the shelves either. It’s an interesting pricing strategy that is about to get way more competitive in the next few years.
I got my one and only Dissident last weekend at my local bottle shop. I asked my favorite clerk about a sour to drink now and he pointed me to… the same Petrus! Looking forward to both, but I am curious – how do you feel about reviewing bottles now that specifically recommend a year or more in the cellar? Are you tasting the intent of the brewmaster by drinking a style like this so soon after release? Does cellaring make enough of a difference in your opinion to even bother with?
Greg: Great question and one that I might not have gotten to if you hadn’t brought it up. The short answer is that everybody – from the brewer to the brewery staff to chemists and right on down to me – are guessing when we say how well a beer will age. But the question of IF they age and sometimes improve has been settled for a hundred years. BEERS AGE – SOME beers. Just as some wines are not built to age – not enough tannic structure, dissolved solids, acids, alcohol, etc. – some beer styles, generally the lighter ones, don’t have the aging potential of darker beers and those with higher terminal gravity. Great traditional Stouts – as opposed to modern Stouts that are made with a huge hops component – can age for years and improve significantly. The Abyss is a perfect example, as is Parabola, Dark Lord, Yeti, Speedway, KBS, and hundreds of others. Ditto and moreso for Barleywines, Strong Ales, Old Ales, and many Belgians. Improvement in aging is caused by the slow ripening and chemical interactions of new organic materials present and this has been done for centuries in wine. It’s beyond debate and SHOULD be beyond debate about beer. And in beers like Dissident, the effect, while sometimes not as long lasting and reaching full effect much sooner, is even more dramatic. Case in point: when I ran LetsPour, a major (for a while) online beer retailer, we had an offer of about fifty cases of Brux, the collabo from Sierra Nevada and Russian River. Brux is a “domesticated wild ale” and is brewed using yeasts that occur naturally and create a sour character. When it came out, many people didn’t like it and thought it had no potential. We immediately sold 28 cases of it before its lukewarm reviews on BA and RB, but it sat at the distributor’s warehouse. We picked up the rest of their stock at a considerable reduction, as I felt that it DID have significant potential to make a beautiful, funky tart ale, given time. We took it off the site and waited, from December to the following June. I retasted it and found it really gorgeous. And we sold out within a week. I’ve been tasting, studying, and writing about beer since 1973 and have cellared a LOT of beers. Some pan out and some don’t. But the catch is, to review them at all, I have to do it when they’re new and stick my neck out a bit. I’ve thought, many times, about going back and reviewing some past “vintages” of The Abyss or some of my long-held Barleywines but, really, what’s the point? They’re SO gone off store shelves that 98% of the people who would read my reviews will never be able to lay hands on a bottle.
I have a 2003 Petrus now, sitting in my cellar and waiting to drink. But you’d never find a bottle, if you got excited by the review. I still have Brux and it just keeps getting better. And you MIGHT find a bottle or two of that. And, if you do hold a Dissident or any young cellarable ale, keep it in a cool, dark place, don’t think that it’ll age forever, ’cause it WON’T, and leave it at least a year, if you want to get the full effect. For a Barleywine, maybe two to three years. But as to whether it’s “worth it” or not, that depends on what you want to experience. I routinely age a LOT of beers that should NOT be aged, like IPAs, simply because I want to find out for myself what happens and I’ve found that, while those beers are almost always NOT anything like what they were intended to be, if you drop your preconceptions and categories and expectations and just focus on what’s in the glass, they can be really surprising. I aged a six pack of 21st Amendment’s “Brew Free or Die” IPA for fourteen months, and opened it in May of 2013. It had lost almost all its hops character but had “grown” flavors of coconut cream pie and caramel and a woodsy kind of mellowness. I enjoyed every can of the stuff, even though I suspect my pal, Shaun O’Sullivan, 21A owner/brewmaster, would be horrified at the thought.
The best way to know how you’ll feel about aging is to try it. I can tell you about aged beers until we’re both bored to death but ONE mouthful of a properly aged beer will explain it much better. Get a couple of bottles of something like The Lost Abbey’s “Angel’s Share”. drink one immediately and then one a year later. Voila!: questions answered.
Interesting commentary about reviewing aged beers, I tend to do it and more so because I enjoy it but I have started to move towards reviewing the beers when they are still on the market. I am curious what you think about the price of Deschutes special releases these days, do you think they will eventually come down (since they seem to be brewing a LOT more these days) or do you think the price will go up?
By the way I love Deschutes Red Chair, what a great beer at an amazing price.
I’ll be glad to pass along your question about pricing to Deschutes and see if anyone there can give me an idea of both their current production runs and future plans but, whether we all like it or not, beer is rising in price, at least for reserve or aged beers. I personally think that $12 for a bottle of The Abyss or Black Butte XXVI is quite reasonable, and Deschutes, like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada and Bridgeport and a Full Sail keeps the prices on their year-round production beers almost crazy cheap. A 22 of Cinder Cone or Mirror Pond is going to run ya around $4, and even the reserve stuff isn’t as expensive as a LOT of other breweries comparable editions. Don’t count on The Abyss coming down much, though. The cost of brewing that stuff is about 3.5 times what brewing anything else they make runs.
It runs for about $23 a bottle in Washington and British Columbia for both The Abyss and Black Butte XXVI, still lots here!
Yet Cinder Cone is $5.09 Canadian, with the exchange about $4 USA.