“The Optimist” IPA from Fort George Brewing is…THE…Best…New…IPA in five years, at least out of the thousands I’ve tasted.
I get a LOT of email that says variations on a theme of “Hey, Fool! Why do you hate on IPAs so much?” OR…”You claim to like IPAs but then you rag on ’em all the time. You can’t say you love ’em when you dump on ’em so much!”
Well, of course I can. As I have actually replied a few times, use your head: at one time or another, YOU have criticized your favorite sports team, your workplace, your neighbors, your hometown, and most definitely members of your family. Can you claim to love your family if you get put out with them on occasion? OF COURSE you can. I lived in Chicago and was a Cubs fan during the heart of my formative teen years. I know intimately well how to love something and rag on it mercilessly. My family drives me crazy, a LOT. My dog makes me weep with frustration, sometimes. (Well, not so much anymore. If someone asked me who I love more than that guy, I’d have to think about it.)
And hops… I love hops; always have. Even back in the early 70s, when there were only imports to explore, I fixated on those wonderful German and Brit hops. There are few sensual pleasures, IMHO, that stack up with holding a fresh hop flower in your hand, crushing it, rolling it between your palms, and then taking a deep soulful whiff of it. Next to bread baking and the all-time Aroma Champion – Bacon! – hops are a tiny handful of pleasure. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be abused or used badly and that is what I rag on – NOT the poor, innocent, abused flowers but the doofuses (doofae?) who try tricks they have no business trying or just toss a bunch into a tank and hope for a happy accident. In an irrational attempt to pander to those roaming gangs of hyper-opinionated kids who haunt brewery taprooms in droves, many brewers created IPAs that made no attempt at balance, drinkability, variety, or interest; just pack in as many IBUs as you can and call it good. Consumers drive this, of course. Many brewers made IPAs that did show character and balance and watched their bonehead customers shrug and say, “Not bitter enough!” So, back to the drawing board, avoid the more expressive hops varieties that add complexity, pack in herbs and resins and – Voila! – another dull-ass, stupid, nothin’-but-bitter IPA.
But, mercifully, that trend is changing. Many, many – maybe most – brewers are now starting out to invent an IPA by making a Plan and those plans usually include something different, more drinkable, more user-friendly, and far more expressive than just the pine-spruce resin continuum. That was the impetus behind the brilliant new Stone Brewing “Delicious” IPA, that I reviewed here a couple of months ago, and it is absolutely the working hypothesis in every can and every pint of an uber-brilliant new IPA from one of the true heavyweight breweries of the Pacific Northwest, Fort George Brewing, of Astoria, Oregon.
Fort George “The Optimist” was named for its bright, sunny, forward-thinking character and flavors that conjure up Steve Martin’s famous quip, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo!” One sip of this stunningly user-friendly ale seems to cancel out whatever it was that bugged you two seconds before you tipped the glass. (In my case, that’s a transition akin to suddenly finding that peace has broken out in the Middle East.) The first time I tried it, in fact, was right in the middle of an argument I was having with my gorgeous Domestic Partner. We both paused to taste the beer, both grunted in surprise, and both had trouble getting back to the disagreement. This is an engrossing beer.
The flavors start with a crisp, assertive shot of lemons or, more precisely, lemon verbena; that wonderful lemony bite underpinned with a subtle herbal edge. The malts speak up loudly, with a lovely but restrained hit of fresh caramel and biscuits with honey. Following the lemons are a parade of grace notes: lime leaf, lychi, faint buttermint, a lurking intimation of spices that remains tantalizingly out of reach, complex and, dare I say it, elegant hops presence that shows pretty florals, citrus even beyond lemon and into tangerine and pink grapefruit, and a beautiful gilding of spruce tips and pine needles that lays back on the finish. Wow…just WOW.
The Optimist is only lightly filtered; certainly far less opaque than, say, a Widmer Omnipresent Hefeweizen, which is basically a glass of milk. The Optimist is luminous, cool, inviting, and just effervescent enough to make it relentlessly refreshing and fun to drink. Okay, the Roving Hoardes of Hop Zombies ask, it is BITTER!?! YES, addicted types, it absolutely IS gloriously bitter and that, ultimately, is its primary appeal. As an IPA, after all, it had better be the Main Attraction. The big, happy, Centennial, Simcoe, and Calypso flavors come roaring through all that wonderful malt character and the use of corn in the grain bill gives this beer satisfying, rib-sticking heft and creaminess. Yes, yes, the hyper-opinionated BA Forumites will down-rate it and sneer that it’s not manly enough but for those of us whose palates have matured, this is as close as anybody has come in a long time to a Can’t Miss Beer. 99 Points
Fort George keeps on doing this: making beers that keep on showing up in my fridge the way Dwight Twilley’s “I’m On Fire” keeps popping back into my head: seldom consciously invited (I really TRY not to drink the same beer twice) but always welcome. First it was Sunrise OPA, their hoppy-as-heck Oatmeal Pale. Then it was Cavatica, the big Stout, with its offspring, Rum and Bourbon Barreled Reserves. Then it was Java The Hop, the light-roast coffee IPA that looks like a beer and tastes like cafe au lait. Then it was North and the classic Vortex and XVI Chapel and that astonishing Tender Loving Empire NWPA, which has to rank right up there in any reading of my Top Ten Pale Ales of the 2010s. Maybe it’s the wonderful, friendly, relaxed atmosphere of Astoria or maybe it’s just that there’s not a ton of distraction there or maybe it’s all that s-p-a-c-e they have; literally an entire city block! Whatever it is, Fort George really does take a back seat to no other brewery in the NW in terms of doing what they do with utter craftsmanship, unshakable judgment, and unbridled creativity. Fort George, make no mistake about it, is a superstar American brewery and if you can’t yet find their beers near you, they are well worth the trip out to visit, on your next jaunt to PDX or Seattle.