As the kids used to say, Full Sail is Da Shizz…and they’re hitting a whole new gear, right now.
One of the lesser known facts about yours truly is that, for several years, I worked as an ad agency creative director back in North and South Carolina (I have an online portfolio, if anyone’s curious…and, if you are, seek professional help) doing primarily copy but also a LOT of design. I don’t do it much anymore and I don’t broadcast the fact but I still do the occasional piece of design, mostly for Washington wineries. But that experience has forever made me a HUGE fan of great design work and I’ve been known to be nosy enough to drop an email to a winery or brewery that’s suffering from an especially bad label and say, “Uh, dude, your graphics need some help.”
Graphics say a lot about a business – any business. And one that’s primarily centered on aesthetics, like beverage makers, has a real NEED for some design that speaks about the products and the people. Last week, I got a beautiful box from my pals at Full Sail Brewing. It was simultaneously a glimpse at their all new, gorgeous packages and a retake on the line of their core beers.
Unlike some breweries – most notably Red Hook, which underwent a bottle and label redesign, all in keeping with the time-honored Anheuser Busch axiom, “If you can’t get ’em with the beer, just change your marketing” – Full Sail’s redesign was not driven by some misguided notion that consumers are such sheep that you can give them a shiny new bauble and pretty colors and then sell them the Same Old Same Old. For FS, this redo was a little celebration; a milepost marking the changes the brewery has gone through in the recent past, with employee ownership and then new ownership of Encore Consumer Capital, and their startling aptitude with lagers (In the Pacific Northwest, in lager-crafting, there’s Chuckanut Brewing, Heater-Allen Brewing, Full Sail…and then Everybody Else…and NOT in that order) and their amazing success in unexpected areas like the Session line-up and Wheatwine and their eclectic Brewmaster Series. Full Sail was simply ready to put on their fancy duds and Go Dancin’ and, thanks to the amazing new package redesign by TWEEQim creativeLab’s Miq and wife THuy3 Wilmott, they’re spiffy as a new prom date and just flat damned…Cool.
Cool?…Full Sail is…Cool?!?
One of our worst traits in the craft beer culture is our trendiness. Everything new is always more celebrated than anything that’s been around a while. People go all wet ‘n’ runny over the Hot New Brewery, where all the hipsters go to be seen, and pass up breweries that are actually hitting their stride, figuring out how to make truly great beers, every damned release. Social media is now driving ratings, so we have the specter of two newer breweries here in Washington, that did year-long run-ups to their actual openings, which are now thought of as among the best in the state – without having the beers to back it up. Both make the odd classic but have little or no consistency. And this actually lowers the standard because when gangs of people are drinking mediocre beer and then telling everybody how great it is just because it’s trendy, great breweries suffer because their splendid beers don’t taste like the Hipsters’ Choice.
That’s the story with Full Sail and I’m going to tell you, flat-out and right here, that there’s a very good chance that what’s coming out of that big ol’ warehousey place in downtown Hood River may just be, in a blind tasting, something that will beat the livin’ hell outta whatever your fave beer of that style is from Hot New Brewing LLC.
As part of this box, Full Sail sent along some toys. I don’t know what practical purpose a couple of them may have, mainly because they’re such freakin’ beautiful pieces of art/craft that I can’t see setting beer bottles or glasses in ’em and mucking ’em up. The six-pack carrier and coaster in the photo are laser-etched wood. They’re dazzling pieces of art, in and of themselves, and show Miq Wilmott’s genius work to its best advantage. I would no more set a sweaty glass on that coaster than I would wipe up a spill with my copy of “Shoeless Joe”, and the carrier is in zero danger of being pressed into service as a condiment caddy or picnic tote. The bottle opener, though, is so damned cool and functional that I now use it habitually and my step-daughter actually asked if she could have one of the two they sent. You’re going to find the cardboard versions of these carriers on shelves and I urge you, if you like great design, to actually sit down and check out all the fine details in them. There has to be an award or twelve in these carriers and labels and the continuity of them for TWEEQim and I was so impressed that I actually searched the ‘net for a phone number for Wilmott, so that I could make one of the five fan calls I’ve made to designers, over the years. I struck out but, Miq, if you’re reading this…YOU…ARE…THE…MAN.
As for what’s inside…well, let’s just observe that Full Sail is one of those brave Oregon outfits, like their spiritual cousins, Deschutes, that just never stops trying to Get Better. Best example: their fresh, bracing new IPA, Full Sail “Hop Pursuit”, a beer that I actually tried about a year ago and really didn’t like all that much. I don’t know what, if anything, they may have done to Pursuit between my last tasting and this but I took one small sip of this current version and involuntarily gasped, “Oh, WOW!” Hop Pursuit is vibrant, cool, fresh, resiny as heck, fruity but in a good way, and delightfully chewy for such a light-textured beer. The flavors are immediate and intense and the hops – the Cascade, Mosaic, Equinox, and Simcoe; pretty much my Resin Dream Team – are ridiculously eclectic and colorful, almost joyous, if that makes any sense. I would drink this ale anytime, now, and plan to, all summer long. 96 Points
The Full Sail Classic IPA is just that: textbook Northwest IPA, a bit larger in scale than similar IPAs from brewers in other parts of America and a bit more aggressive than what’s come from FS before. To get real for a moment, here, I find about 90% of all basic IPAs I taste, these days, about as exciting as boiled potatoes with bad margarine. There is a creeping sameness, as all the major tricks begin to be used and overexposed and I now taste most of them quickly, find little or nothing interesting, and move quickly on to anything else. Full Sail appears – and, again, they may well have changed absolutely nothing about any of these beers. All this could well be my different state of mind – to have re-engineered this ale a bit and now has bright citrus and florals popping out of the resins, along with an elusive spiciness that shows on the finish and which I found really appealing. Is this my favorite FS beer? No. But, as an easy and inviting IPA just to drink on the odd occasion, when you just want solid pleasure and no over-thinking, this stands among the top ten to fifteen being made here in the PNW. 92 Points
The real eccentric advancement in this box is the Full Sail Blood Orange Wheat Ale, a bold, spicy wheaten ale with – unlike many wheat ales – some real muscle and depth and a deadly-authentic bitter-ish blood orange character that tastes like drinking a really fine wheat ale through a mouthful of orange peel. It’s relentlessly fresh but not too dandified. There are some clouds in this beer and that’s just flavor, folks, and ratchets up the intensity to a point at which it balances so perfectly with some lovely, subtle hops that they mesh with the rind to produce a very grown-up bitterness, striking a smooth balance with the slight sweetness. Blood Orange beers got started, here in the PNW, (I’m convinced, with no proof) mostly because the name “Blood Orange Wheat” just sounds so damned cool. But it’s something of a cliché, by now, because it’s also just a damned fine idea. And this is a damned fine take on that minor NW tradition. 95 Points
But the stunner in this box is the Full Sail Pilsner…I know, I know: The Pour Fool raving about a Pilsner? I’ve done it before but not often and, frankly, with scaled-down enthusiasm because, for me, the Pilsner is the beer version of Merlot: something so beaten to death and omnipresent and generally uninspired that even a fairly good one, with ANYTHING – Dear God, any freakin’ thing at all! – that sets one apart from the ones next to it practically sends me into the streets to dance naked. (Don’t call the authorities, I won’t.) My own personal pantheon of Pilsner – besides the handful of Euro-Pils like Pinkus and Konig and Efes – includes Victory “Prima”, New Glarus “Two Women”, Airways Brewing “Preflight”, Chuckanut Pilsner, Stoudts Pilsner, Wingman Brewing “Old Plank”, Full Sail’s own LTD Series 3, and my oddball choice, Renegade Brewing’s “Contrarian”. But now, there’s this…this little miracle. Here is a Pilsner that really has almost nothing in common with any other Pilsner I’ve ever tasted. Purists are gonna scream bloody murder about this beer. It has HOPS. They are not masked, muted, or treated like a crazy uncle. These babies are parading around on the tongue just as though a Pilsner was supposed to have hops that get noticed. They’re balanced with malts that you can actually taste and even those are different. There are layers of flavor in this beer. It’s actually – Sweet Jesus, am I really writing this? – complex! A COMPLEX PILSNER! I tasted this in the evening and immediately walked outside to see if there was a blue moon. (The astral object, not the beer) It was…delicious. Flat-damned, juicy, sexy delicious. I’m NOT kidding. I’ll get a flood of emails again, just like a get every time I say anything that’s even remotely disparaging about Pilsners (or any Euro lager) but I’m A) too old and cranky to give a s**t and B) too enthralled with this beer to really dwell on it. I don’t know if it was brewmaster Jamie Emmerson who invented this absolutely startling take on the world’s most boring beer style but whomever did it should get a big bonus and possibly a foot rub. This is, by yards, the most out-of-the-box, flavorful, balanced, sensual, pretty, inviting Pilsner I’ve tasted from any brewery, anywhere. As a tangible testament to this claim, I’ll admit that I have now actually gone out to a store and bought a six-pack of this stuff and plan to again, SOON. If you like lighter beer styles and you don’t try this beer – and don’t have some pole up your posterior about the purity of the German-Czech tradition – you are out of your flippin’ mind. 99 Points
Full Sail Amber was also in this box and it’s an Amber I’d drink any time and have frequently taken to a party or dinner when I didn’t know the beer tastes of other guests, because it is the absolute, crowd-pleasing, standard for Northwest Amber, at least until Mac & Jack’s manages to get any wider distribution of their “African Amber”. No, the Full Sail Amber is not that beer but it’s not more than two hairs behind it and has one very important advantage: you can buy this beer in bottles, which Mac Rankin and Jack Shropp are in no current danger of offering, anywhere outside of the immediate Seattle area. This is a very fine, solid, easy-drinkin’ beer that offends nobody and pleases everybody. And it’s made by the Full Sail standard, which is absurdly high. 91 Points
So, go ahead, Hipster Hoardes: cozy up to the Next Shiny Bauble, the next Hot Brewery, the Newest Sought-After Beer. Be my guest. It leaves so much of this truly excellent beer on shop shelves that I know I can walk in any time, pick up these unmissable new packages, take ’em home, and enjoy a brewery that’s really and truly Figured It Out. As the kids used to say, Full Sail is Da Schizz…and they’re hitting a whole new gear right now.