I’ve had to make a couple of exceptions to my iron-clad rule against reviewing any brewery that’s even obliquely affiliated with Anheuser Busch. It wasn’t prompted by any sort of softening of my stance about the heinous history of this avaricious pack of shit-weasels. They are still among the most amoral, vicious, and unprincipled thugs ever to occupy any business category in US history but I’m all for great independent breweries using them as they use so many, many people and situations and two breweries in particular have managed to sing on with AB and use their massive distribution system to their advantage, while otherwise telling the consultants and “efficiency experts” from the Brazil/Belgium mothership to go f**k themselves – politely, of course.
Those two breweries are Widmer, of Portland, Oregon, and Pyramid Brewing, based right here in my back yard in Sea-patch, Washington. Pyramid was originally founded as Hart Brewing, a seminal craft brewery based in Kalama, WA. Later, the name was changed to Pyramid, after the Hart’s flagship beer, Pyramid Pale Ale. In 2004, Pyramid bought out Portland Brewing, makers of the MacTarnahan’s brand, and the joint company was purchased, in 2008, by a wildly-litigious brewery from Vermont, whose name I never repeat here. This new venture was later bought out by North American Breweries of Rochester, New York, which was loosely affiliated with AB/InBev, the company formed when Anheuser Busch sold out to InBev, a Belgian/Brazilian conglomerate that is the world’s largest “brewing concern”, to put it delicately. In December 2012, the parent company was purchased by Cerveceria Costa Rica, a unit of the Costa Rican company Florida Ice & Farm Co., which returned control of the brewing and marketing to Pyramid’s own management and rinsed off most of the stink of their AB association.
I ignored Pyramid, here, for the better part of a decade, all because of their affiliations with that bunch in Vermont and AB. But I drank the beers. They turn out a lively, refreshing Blonde Ale, named “Curveball”, taken from their Seattle headquarters’ location, literally right across First Avenue South from the Seattle Mariners’ stadium, SafeCo Field. Curveball is a perfect beer for a baseball game, leaving room for dogs and garlic fries, and as cooling and light as a breath of fresh air, and is happily on tap at almost all Mariners games. Their Apricot Ale was easily the best fruit-infused ale in the west for several years, before the start of the sour/brett movement unseated it. Their Pyramid Hefeweizen, a lovely, lightly-filtered Hef that has been irrationally second to Widmer’s fat milkshake-ish concoction that was America’s first mass-appeal Hefeweizen. Their regular rotation Imperial IPA, “Thunderhead”, is a bright, smooth, compulsively drinkable IIPA that serves as the Hop Newbie’s ideal gateway pour in exploring Double IPAs. And their winter seasonal, Snow Cap, is a genuine Northwest icon; a deadly-authentic English-style Strong Ale that never disappoints and always warms and satisfies. Beyond those standouts lies a rock-solid, across-the-board roster of ales and lagers that many may take for granted but most will drink in a heartbeat.
What has made me have to change my mind about Pyramid and Widmer, ultimately, is that they kept working at it, exploring, innovating, and refused the usual, tired AB ploy that we’ve now seen dominate those breweries AB has bought out and that they’ve even tried with the ones, like Pyramid, with which they’re just an exclusive distributor: pouring massive promotional dollars into their most simple and undistinguished beers – like Goose Island’s pablum-ish Honkers and 312 series and Goose Island Pilsner and the new Preseason Pale Lager. While both Widmer and Pyramid both still cash in on their Hefs and Pales, both have kept resolutely shoving hard at The Envelope, which has resulted in two beers that I am DELIGHTED to be able to tell you about.
Pyramid “Railroad Avenue” Brewer’s Reserve Porter is a rich, creamy, solidly medium-bodied Porter that’s been artfully infused with vanilla, cinnamon, and dark grown sugar, which wasn’t used to sweeten the beer but to provide its mellow, burnt-caramel character to the finished product. It’s gorgeously malty and produces a velvety mousse and explodes on the taste buds with chewy, malty goodness and an off-the-charts creaminess from a staunch amount of oats in the grain bill. The net effect of the infusions is beautifully restrained and even a tad elegant and adds up to what we all like to think a Porter should taste like, much as a carefully “enhanced” Stout fulfills our private fantasy of the term “Stout”. Railroad Avenue is named for the old street that used to run just behind Pyramid’s brewery on the Seattle waterfront but was supplanted by the current massive reworking of all the streets in the area, in preparation for the new tunnel being bored under nearby Alaskan Way. It’s a tribute to days gone by; to Porters that used to taste like this but got a bit lost in the mad scramble to create attention-grabbing Stouts and CDAs. Pyramid has come up with a rib-sticking, utterly satisfying dark ale that was beautiful out of my sample bottle and promises to reach the borders of “heavenly” when poured from a tap. Just fabulous stuff. 95 Points
Pyramid “Triangulate” Citrus Pale Ale is another whole beast. I’ll say this right here and make it as clear as possible…
“Triangulate” is THE best beer I have ever tasted from Pyramid, in a history of drinking their stuff that stretches back to the early 90s.
I’ve often repeated, here, that my favorite NW Imperial IPA is Ninkasi “Tricerahops”, and, in eight years, I’ve tasted some that were as good but none that caused me to rethink that at all. If you took the wild complexity of Tricerahops and squeezed it down slightly into a size that would fit behind the label of Pale Ale, Triangulate is what would result. I don’t think for a second that Pyramid set out to make a Tricerahops clone but in making something that you’d call a “citrus Pale Ale”, you’re already halfway there, as the ideal would go. Something that emphasizes mixed citrus flavors? Check. Gloriously bitter but not overwhelming or gratuitous? Check. The full panorama of flavors that Northwest can express – the florals and resins and herbs and spices – all held in lovely balance, singing deft back-up to those citrus peels? CHECK. Perfect balance and creamy background malts?Oh, hell, yes! This arrived to me in a 22 oz. bottle and I always spilt those with my Significant Other, a woman who is quite frank and assertive about ales and who sometimes, disagrees with me completely. She has catalogued a very small list of things she calls “Oh, Wow!” beers; the ones for which she turns to me and smiles and says, “Oh, WOW!“. There are maybe six names on that list. Now, there is one more.
Triangulate is a masterpiece of Northwest brewing and stands among the best Pale Ales ever made in this part of the country. Its mind-boggling complexity is what makes it SO compelling and engrossing and, I believe, will make it a beer that will bear up to repeated tastings for virtually as long as it remains on the market. The flavors lead off with that wicked citrus, right from te first sip: oranges and tangerines and lemons and limes and pink grapefruit strut onto the tongue like a juice-drippin’ conga line. Following closely is a firm array of tree fruit – apples and peaches and apricots – all underpinned with jasmine and honeysuckle and sweet, fresh herbs. Spruce and pine resins and hints of subdued baking spices lead to a finish that is dry and crisp and as clean as an entire chorus of whistles. It’s shockingly refreshing, for a genuinely hoppy beer and, were it not a spring seasonal, would become my house summer ale, without question…and I may just put a case away and damn the “freshness” of the hops. The way this is built, they’re going to be there when warm weather hits.
I haven’t discussed Pyramid a lot with my small but intense network of fellow beer wonks from around the country and Canada but the two I queried about this brewery held a radically different view of Pyramid from what we locals usually feel. For us – as with Hale’s and Red Hook and Maritime Pacific and even, to a degree, Harmon, in nearby Tacoma – we harbor the idea of “been there, done that” whenever the name is mentioned, as though Pyramid has been just grinding out the same ol’ stuff for the past two decades. One trip into their taproom in Seattle’s SODO District is enough to bury that notion but most people never get there and can still see good ol’ familiar Pyramid as Yesterday’s News. Any brewery and brewers who can come up with this glorious bottle of Earthly Delights is nobody’s Old News. 98 Points
I’m going to urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to rethink the image of Pyramid Brewing that’s some residue of the 90s and early ’00s. This bunch is stripped of all the mass-producer BS and free to create and are turning out beers that turn heads and win hearts. Pyramid may well have been off the map for a while but, today, It’s Back and it’s making its considerable bones all over again.