I’ll admit it: between some family demands and the election, (and the thousand cuts that age visits upon the bones) I’ve neglected The Pour Fool for a while. Happily, what this also does is help me build up a backlog of stuff that you REALLY should know about…and my humblest apologies if you already do…
Deschutes takes Chances. That capital “C” is quite deliberate. Most breweries would produce a beer like The Abyss or The Dissident or Hop Trip or ________ (pick one or two of your own) and then labor like Sisyphus to just reproduce it exactly the same way, forever and ever, amen. Not The Gang from Simpson Street. ALL of these beers are subtly different every time they make them and it is NOT by accident or from the vagaries of annual crops or technique or human error. They keep on trying to perfect their beers…and, most of all, they never stop trying to find that Next Big Thing.
This fall, they have found the Next Thing – twice. Hopzeit, which I have already addressed here, and the GLORIOUS, different, even revelatory creation which is Sagefight Imperial IPA.
I’ve seen a lot of breweries putting stuff which makes the average person’s brain hurt into beers. One classic example is the ill-advised Seattle brewer who insisted that shiitake mushrooms in a farmhouse ale would be a good thing. (It wasn’t) And, of course, I’m somewhat guilty of helping Wynkoop Brewing of Denver popularize their immortal Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, as their primary national shipper, while working at LetsPour.com. “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, for those who have led a sheltered existence, are steer testicles and, yes, Wynkoop actually did strip, slice, roast, and infuse those big, whoppin’ pearls of bovine manhood into a nice, fat Imperial Stout. I’ve also tasted beers fermented with saliva, a coffee stout made using beans that had been eaten and shat out by a civet cat, and a famous pale ale infused with chopped up baseball bats. I cheer for these people and their weird notions as though I had a tiny skirt and pom-poms. Boundaries, to me, are made to be shoved – not just pushed – HARD and often.
In brewing Sagefight, Veronica Vega and her crew took a couple of flavors that are more often associated with your Thanksgiving poultry and making gin or mulled cider and balanced them like ancient Scots marking their trails by stacking vertiginous piles of stones one atop another, in seeming defiance of gravity and logic. This ale falls loosely into the aesthetic of the “Beers Made By Walking” project, as Oregon’s High Desert, of which Bend is the jewel, is crawlin’ with fresh juniper and sage and was the source of what’s in this very bottle. I’ve actually, as a chef, had sage and juniper berries in the same pan, once, in making pork medallions Piedmontese. But that was with a Port wine reduction and fresh figs and a cinnamon stick and a lot of black pepper. Putting those two in a beer? Never once occurred to me…which is why Veronica and those folks make beer and I…do not.
So, they take these wildly aromatic, sharp-tasing little berries, a little bitter and sort of piney on their own, and balance that – the main flavor in gin, by the by – with Millennium, Bravo, Amarillo, and Centennial hops. That bedrock basement thus laid, Deschutes mellows it a bit with Pale, Crystal, and Munich malts, and layers in some fresh, vigorous sage, the main flavoring in…your breakfast sausage. Sage is a savory herb with a nice edge of sweetness and a similarly resin-ish character, so the combination, when you think about it, makes better sense that you’d immediately think.
The trick is to think that way…and not every brewery can do it.
Sagefight is warm and caramelly and carries a lovely aromatic herbal edge that’s quite unlike what comes from the hops. The sage is subtle but definite and lights up the whole flavor profile. The juniper turns the same trick it does in botanical gins: it hums along underneath, uplifting the whole profile. The beer would taste nothing like it does without it but it lays back a bit and just subtly nudges this gorgeous ale into its final form. Sagefight sparkles with tiny, explosive grace notes: tropical fruits, pink grapefruit, apricots, graham crackers, pineapple, and faint pepper. This ale reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Imperial IPAs, for its complexity and broad-spectrum expression of hops, Ninkasi’s “Tricerahops” and in a choice between those two, I’d have to compromise and say “Both, please, just not in the same glass!” Yeah, yeah, I’ve said this before and doubtless will again, unless everybody at Deschutes suddenly hits themselves in the medulla oblongata with a tack hammer: This is another Deschutes masterpiece. Really. 98 Points
In the same box with Sagefight was this years iteration of one of Deschutes’ real stealth-bomber ales, “Armory XPA Experimental Pale Ale“. Armory is a annual experiment in which Deschutes works with their Willamette and Yakima Valley hops producers to test drive some new hybrid creation that really hasn’t been in a large production beer yet. In this years, that little beast is Hopsteiner of Yakima’s Experimental #07270, a gusher of pineapple and mango and peaches and tangerine and subtle spices. It’s a cross of Apollo and Wye Target and is still under review at Hopsteiner but busts out the high-end brilliance here, playing off the Nugget, Northern Brewer, the workhorse Cascade, and Centennial hops like a colt among stallions. The malts are restrained but firm, with Pale and Crystal adding just enough backbone to keep this ale out of sinus-clearing territory. At 55 IBUs, this is definitely a new-style hops-forward Pale Ale but is approachable enough even for craft newbies to enjoy. Armory XPA is like Batchelor Bitter and Green Lakes Organic Ale: an overlooked, underappreciated gem among the annual Deschutes avalanche of delights. If you’ve never tried Armory, it becomes more and more of a loss to your beer aesthetic with each passing version. This one is maybe the best yet and that, Bubba, is Sayin’ Something. 95 Points
Chasin’ Freshies Fresh Hop IPA is such a PNW favorite that there is almost no chance that you’re reading about it here for the first time. But, just in case: Freshies is a light, madly refreshing, beautifully resiny miracle, easily the most purely friendly and drinkable fresh-wet hop ale made in the West and probably anywhere else, too. It erupts with lemons and apricots and tangerines and lime peel and pink grapefruit and subtle notes of caramel and toasted bread and sugar cookies and then delivers the herbs and florals on the finish, powerfully, like a genuine high-octane IPA. This is one of the West’s most complex ales, for those who value such attributes, and is also, unlike many wet hop ales that are presented as almost art pieces, fun to drink. This is a beer that you could sit and have two or three of in an evening and never get tired of. At 7.2% ABV, though, you still want to approach with caution because this stuff is compulsively, dangerously drinkable. Calling this a masterpiece is old news. I’ve said it and others have, too. And we are all right. 97 Points
Deschutes does occasionally pay some attention to what I have to say but it is by no means a slam dunk that they’re going to let me influence anything they do. (And no, I am not, despite about f0rty+ emails on the subject, going to go into the textbook example of that.) But I hope Gary Fish and Veronica Vega, et al, are reading this now: PLEASE, for the love of God!, do not just make Sagefight a one-off experiment. And do, whatever else you do, never surrender that tweaking and tinkering and searching for perfection. It’s what makes Deschutes great and leads to people ragging me constantly about the Deschutes Love. Which is a very small price to pay.