At various points during this exhausting fall into winter, packages would arrive via FedEx from a fella named Brett Counsellor at Deschutes Brewery. Yeah, yeah, I’m the country’s biggest Deschutes ass-kisser, stipulated. Never made any secret of it. I pucked up because they make…great…beer. Period. I have been disappointed ONCE – out of maybe fifty, sixty different beers I’ve tasted from these guys – and that was a pub-only experiment which I didn’t like only because I thought they named it wrong. They called it a Hefeweizen and I thought it tasted more like an Abbey ale. It was a spiced ale, quite good on its own merits, but a bit too much spice for me, which may well be the single largest category of beers in the world: Beers Too Spiced For Steve.
Other than that one aesthetic disagreement, I’ve tasted absolutely nothing from The Folks on Simpson that I thought was any less than excellent and that was ONE beer, a newish one that has been wildly successful, so what do I know?
But this last quarter…Holy Goldilocks on a Hobby Horse, what a freakin’ bonanza!
First up was that Lazarus of PNW Amber/Red ales, my dearly beloved “Cinder Cone Red”, one of the nation’s truly exceptional Reds, a virtual how-to guide for brewing the potentially snore-inducing Amber/Red and making it vibrant and alive and almost addictive. First, you take a gaggle of creamy, welcoming grain malts and saturate the brew with these until it reaches a red-mahogany visual that puts you in mind of chocolate-covered cherries and a comfy chair by a fire…and then you counter that comfort aspect by adding zingy Tettnang, Bravo, Cascade, and glorious, festive Amarillo hops until the whole both lulls you comfortably and then slaps you awake. The bitterness of this landmark ale, while topping out at just 55 IBUs, is absolutely delicious as a complement and contrast to the voluptuous malts. Deschutes briefly discontinued production of Cinder Cone a few years back but was pestered by die-hards like me until they relented and resumed with, dare I say it, an even better recipe. I defy anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Red/Amber style continuum to tell me that don’t like Cinder Cone. If you love beer at all, this puppy is a slam dunk. (And I apologize for that goofy metaphor. No puppies were harmed in the making of this review.)
Deschutes “Red Chair NWPA” is…well, it’s been called The Best Beer In The World by no less an authority on “Things We Pour Into The Piehole That Contain Alcohol” than The Australian International Beer Awards…and, in 2015, The International Brewing Awards gave it a Gold Medal, so it’s obviously just getting better. Red Chair was, in fact, the beer that initially displaced Cinder Cone in the Deschutes bottled line-up, which meant that it had to dig itself out of huge hole of resentment and whiny displeasure at my house. It took precisely ONE sip to accomplish this. Again, as with Cinder, this is the template for whatever this still-evolving style – the Northwest Pale Ale – will eventually come to be. To nutshell it as best I can, an “NWPA” is an American-style Pale ale with “more hops“. If that seems nebulous, that’s because it is. Like the Supreme Court once said when trying to define pornography, “I know it when I see it.” There have now been hundreds, possibly thousands, of attempts at this style and it’s still very much a work in progress but Red Chair remains a firm Numero Uno. Out of all those beers which brewers have dared to step up and say, “Yes, this is my Northwest Pale Ale“, NONE has really even come close to the acclaim and stunning drinkability of this little brainstorm. There is an immediate and compelling aura about this beer, from the very first sip, of Occasion. I have yet, after maybe forty bottles in at least two dozen different settings, to sip this beer and not feel the way I do when I crack open a 1990 Perrier Jouet or a ’95 Peter Lehmann “Stonewell”…which, for something that is not particularly scarce and can be found on shelves of most supermarkets, is nothing short of miraculous. The flavors start with a sweet intimation of baking spices, Red Vines, and dark caramels on the tip of the tongue, followed instantly by a pleasing bitterness that centers on pine/spruce resins, wildflowers, citrus (especially pink grapefruit) and sweet herbs that mingle with notes of brown sugar, herb tea, whole-grain toast, and bran flakes. In this 2015 edition, there seems to have been some of Deschutes’ hallmark tweaking done and it’s more robust, a tad less overtly sweet, and more hoppy than previous versions. It’s intoxicating in ways that have nothing at all to do with its 6.2% ABV; one of the world’s truly great ideas and an even better ale.
The 2015 “Chasin’ Freshies Fresh-Hopped IPA“, like its stable-mate, the immortal “Hop Trip”, is a resin-dripping, sinus-clearing, palate-washing masterpiece, a veritable Fat Tuesday In The Mouth of tropical fruit, flowers, apricots, pine sap, spruce tips, mixed citrus, jasmine, ginger, and intimations of a dozen other flavors that I eventually lost in the sheer, sensual pleasure of having the stuff on my tongue. The shocking immediacy of fresh/wet-hopped ales make this style one of my two or three favorite to just sit and drink for my own enjoyment and, lately, everybody and his uncle and brothers and bastard cousin is making one. Deschutes still makes the two best, really approached by only Victory Brewing’s “Harvest” and the towering Sierra Nevada “Celebration”. Chasing Freshies is all about that fruit ‘n’ resin action, Boss, and my one serious question about it is WHY, Deschutesers, is this damned beer not available in SUMMER?!? Chasin’ Freshies is clearly marked, in my press release, as “October until it’s gone“. (This review is, therefore, not doing Deschutes ANY good in selling it but I strongly suspect that it didn’t need my help.) The crispness, lightness, affinity for chilling, and bracing finish practically BEG to be drunk in those late August into September Dog Days and I want to firmly suggest that maybe we could think about an earlier release date for 2016? (Like I’m gonna tell Deschutes their business.) Well…one can hope.
The aforementioned “Hop Trip Pale Ale” and its muscular brother “Hop Henge” are, as I’ve said repeatedly, the two best examples of their styles I’ve ever tasted. Period. “Hop Trip” is to 99% of all other wet-hopped ales what a Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” is to a digital copy of the same. Both are a joy to look at but the original just has more life, more color, more depth…more. That quick harvest at Doug Winters’ farm outside Salem, Oregon, the truck trip over Oregon Routes 22 and 20 to Bend, and the immediate dumping into a brew tank constitute the freshest fresh-hop process used by any prominent brewery in the United States, other than maybe Bale Breaker Brewing of Yakima, which sits in the middle of a hop field. This ale is a July Fourth fireworks show of resins; a nicely (if modestly) balanced explosion of hops bitterness that’s barely countered by judicious malts to result in THE single most outright user-friendly fresh-hopped ale I’ve ever found. Fresh/Wet ales are an acquired taste for a lot of even the most veteran beer fans and Hop Trip is easily the most readily appealing of the lot. There’s a lot of lemon and tangerine and sugar cookies and citrus lurking about in the many and varied layers of this beer and the sense of discovery is a joy in itself.
By contrast, “Hop Henge Experimental IPA” is more about straight-ahead, full-frontal Hops Aggression. The hops used here are listed as “Millennium, Mandarina Bavaria, and “Experimental“… and it’s in that last that the annual miracle lies. We have NO idea what Veronica Vega and her crew might have found from Hop Union or HopSteiner or any of the other Yakima and Willamette Valley hops farms from which Deschutes sources, or what new hybrids may have been developed lately. Many of those get their first use in a commercial setting in this very ale. (As the Deschutes bottle caps frequently read: “Bravely Done”.) The resins in Hop Henge land on your tongue like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist and they expand as it crosses the palate. There is a lovely but muted malt element that gives it considerable out-front drinkability but this an ale that unabashedly celebrates our NW hops dominance and it struts from first sip to last.
“The Dissident” is an Oud Bruin-style ale that’s infused with tart Oregon cherries and then sentenced to 18 months in solitary confinement in Cabernet and Pinot Noir barrels (where would they find Pinot barrels in Oregon, do ya think?). The barrel time works woodsy, wine-ish, vanilla-tinged wonders on the flavor profile and prevents their very assertive brettanomyces strain from infecting every other beer in the joint. It was being released only in even-numbered years, but this batch was ready in ’15, so they went for it. This baby is still on shelves, as I saw yesterday, and is just sitting there, patiently waiting your gentle touch…and getting better. I’ve laid down a couple of bottles of this ale in its previous incarnations and the changes over the period of a year have been staggering. For those not current on Obscure Belgian/Flanders beer styles, an “Oud Bruin” is a sour brown ale and, in that regard, Dissident hits the style dead-on but pushes the color suggestion past what “brown” will normally mean. In the glass, this is brown the same way that the hot girl’s auburn hair would be described as brown, the same way that “brown” might apply to a ruddy varnish on a mahogany table. It’s brown but it’s also red and neither truly dominates. This ale is NOT for the faint of heart and not at all for those just discovering the joys of sour beers. This baby is Sour, with a capital S; an ale that makes all us sour/brett fans go a tad moist in our panties. The tart cherry flavor is spectacular and dominates the whole flavor profile. Behind that is the cavalcade of malts (Pilsner Malt, Munich, Bohemian Pilsner, Acidulated Malt, Crystal 20, Dark Crystal, Special B, for you geeky types) that give it a chewy, meaty Substance, all countered beautifully by three different Euro-hop varieties (Czech Saaz, Hallertauer Hersbrucker, Hallertauer Hallertauer) and that glorious, puckery (and puckish) Brett sour. “Mouth-watering” is more than a descriptor with The Dissident. Your mouth literally and involuntarily waters when drinking this, giving it an inspired juiciness and refreshment quotient that are both off the charts. Just…dazzling.
Finally, well…EHOP Amber Ale. This is such a great story that I just hope I can do it justice here: Deschutes has, for a while now, been a members of a loose association called ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), composed of breweries which have opted to convert to share-owner status for their employees. Harpoon Brewing, a rock-solid operation that’s been ale-ing on the Boston waterfront since 1986, recently shifted to an ESOP plan and was immediately welcomed into that fraternity by the folks at Deschutes. The obvious next step seemed to be a collaboration and EHOP was born. Harpoon brewer Ethan Elston and Deschutes brewer Ryan Schmiege collaborated on both recipes, with a version brewed at each facility. The basic concept: an Amber ale…and not a Red/Amber. Just…Amber. Well, if there is any more overdone, potentially snore-inducing style of ale than a run-of-the-mill Amber, I’ve whiffed on it. Frankly, when I first read about this experiment, I was skeptical. As far as I am concerned, the last word on Amber ales was written twenty-two years ago when Malcolm Rankin and Jack Schropp first brewed Mac & Jack’s African Amber in Jack’s garage in Redmond, Washington. No Amber since has, for me and a LOT of Northwest beer fans, ever come close to the total statement of that seminal unfiltered ale, and most breweries that do make one manage only to do riffs off a style that’s just not all that riffable. What could even the resourceful Deschutes do with that gaping chasm of middle-of-the-road beer complacency?
Lots, as it turns out. In either version, EHOP is a small but significant inspiration, a definite and laser-clear indicator that the Amber actually can be made in ways that can surprise you. Elston and Schmiege came up with a plan to use employee-grown hops, as a celebration of the ESOP club, and infused the weary old beast with sage and thyme, locally sourced and/or grown by employees. I read those infusions and was once again a doubter. Sage and thyme? Great in a turkey or my breakfast sausage but…in a beer? I needn’t have worried. In the Harpoon version, there’s a lovely, lingering sweetness that somehow turns those two herb flavors – which are always described as “pungent” – into a lovely, aromatic, almost spicy background flavor that definitely makes its presence known but in no way suggests any conflict with an Amber’s natural graham cracker/sugar cookie character. It’s a lovely, off-dry, nicely balanced ale that I could drink a LOT of and is undoubtedly gracing a lot of table in New England right now, with what has to be a gripping affinity for roasted chicken, turkey, and grilled salmon. In the Deschutes version, the herbs are moved to the background a bit and a gorgeous, creamy, uber-smooth malt character moves center-stage, braced by a subtle and perfectly integrated suggestion of the herbs and a bright, muscular backbone of edgy Bravo, US Tettnang, Delta, and Saaz hops. It’s a dash smoother than its East Coast cousin and a couple of degrees hoppier but just plain rewrites the book on what can be done with the Amber ale. BTW, my remarks about the tedium of most current Ambers should not be said without this: I dearly LOVE a great Amber ale, and this, along with the aforementioned Mac & Jack’s are simply the two utter best of maybe five that I know of that lean more toward the Amber end of the style continuum rather than its red side. EHOP should, if there were any justice in the universe’s quirky sense of humor, become a year-round selection at both breweries and the experimentation that led to this one should be strongly encouraged to continue. Just my $.02, but I think breathing life into a severely lagging beer style is a pretty noble endeavor and one of which Deschutes AND Harpoon seem eminently capable.
The other beers in this Deschutes explosion of creativity were “The Stoic” and three(?)(!) versions of my all-time favorite beverage, the immortal “The Abyss”. More on that SOON…