Brewing has been a Thing in the Pacific Northwest for long enough, now, that some breweries have become maybe too familiar, so that people think they know their whole story. Bad Idea. Full Sail, if you haven’t tried them lately, is going to come as a Major Shock.
Seven years ago, I would have taken a Full Sail beer if one was handed to me but the name was not at all in the front of my mind. I had tasted everything and it was all enjoyable but none of it – except for that majestic barrel-aged Imperial Stout – moved my meter much at all.
Funny how times change.
Let’s just get this out there: Full Sail Brewing, of Hood River, Oregon IS…KILLIN‘…IT.
And they’re not just doing it once in a while. They send me a box of beers to review and I have to bust out my aluminum yardstick to measure just exactly how far my jaw drops with each beer. Lots of people here in the PNW felt like I did and many of them still do. They THINK they’ve seen and tasted it all from Full Sail and, in fact, I get emails from saying things like, “Full Sail? REALLY? You havin’ a slow month or what?” That used to irritate me…
Now, I just feel sorry for them.
This…evolution started, for me, with their LTD Series, an ongoing Lager experiment that completely turned my head around on what an American-made Lager CAN be. Now, dozens of breweries on the West Coast are not only brewing Lagers but many even specialize in them. Full Sail was honing their Lager chops before most of these breweries were even in business.
After that came a barrage of gorgeous ales, each one better and more experimental than the last. And a couple of weeks back, a box showed up here and I found my new favorite Full Sail ale yet and one of the best examples of this style of beer from anybody, anywhere.
You are probably not going to be able to find Full Sail “Kentucky Cream”Bourbon Barrel-Aged Pale Ale. They didn’t make whole ton of it and what has been shipped to distributors already is vanishing like snowflakes in the Sahara. But if you can find a bottle of this little miracle, BUY IT. Clean out the store shelf. Kentucky Cream is a big, generous Pale that gets its “cream” moniker from a substantial addition of oats to the grain bill and “Kentucky” from the lovely, WET Bourbon barrels used to age this quiet gem. The result is SO far ahead of any other barrel-aged Pale that I’ve tried that it really should have its own category. It’s satiny and beautifully boozy, with a Bourbon character that’s usually only achieved by taking a shot glass and submerging it in a beer stein. But it’s the balance of the elements that drags it miles above the classic boilermaker. This is a beer…with a measured, appropriate dose of Bourbon and woodsy oak. As opposed to some beers that are so overdosed with whiskey that they cease to show beery traits, this is a GREAT Oatmeal Pale Ale with Bourbon – ale FIRST. The rich caramels, roasted nuts, fruit leathers, fruitcake, baked apple, and sinus-tickling alcohol notes elevate this beer’s profile past those made by people with less skill. The only other Bourbon barreled ale I’ve tasted lately that rivals the balance and seamlessness of this was brewed by folks who sit less than a quarter-mile from Full Sail’s door: pFriemFamily Brewers’ Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout.
Apparently, Full Sail brewed a small batch of this to see what would happen. Well, this sort of astounded blithering is what happened. I plan to beg and plead for another, larger batch of this stuff, with the hope that you can eventually taste it and see that, yes, Full Sail definitely deserves to be taken as seriously as your new Flavor of The Month brewery. 98 Points
In this box, too, was a new IPA that, quite honestly, sounded like a gimmick. I was totally ready to try this and think, “Yeah, nice but no cigar.” Full Sail “Hop Shooter” Brewmaster’s Reserve Series IPA gets a whole box of cigars. Without geeking out completely, here, pelletized hops are blown into the tank by a sort of hydraulic gun apparatus, from thirty-five feet overhead. What blasting these into the beer is supposed to do is beyond me but a little googling will probably answer your questions…although the information was notably scant. What resulted, however, was a beautiful, floral/citrus, slightly herbal, firmly tropical, grapefruity IPA that’s almost operating-room clean, which earns FS big ups from me for not succumbing to the hazy IPA craze and its ever-widening rabbit hole and thereby screwing up a great ale. Hop Shooter is crisp and nicely malty and dripping resins like a spile in a maple tree. The gripping edge of crazy hoppiness is driven by its primary (out of four) flowers, the venerable Chinook, a 1985 hybrid from Washington State University that has not been beaten to death with overuse. The dank, piney character of this classic hop caroms around your taste buds like a golf ball in a tile shower and follows with more subtle jasmine, lime leaf, Granny Smith apple, spice, rosemary, and honeydew melon. This beer is relentlessly refreshing and at just 6.7% ABV, is not so strong that enjoying it on a hot day turns into an IPA Freak’s act of defiance.
Again, Hop Shooter deserves to be an annual addition to Full Sail’s line-up and, happily, that appears to be the case. It’s available from May to September, so grab some for your hot-weather drinking pleasure and have a real IPA that doesn’t take the summer off and doesn’t shrink in scale like most Summer/Session IPAs. 96 Points
Full Sail’s newest addition to their inspired Session series is a real problem for me. I am a Southerner by birth but a fairly bad one. As my Uncle Jerry used to say, “Boy, I can understand your not liking tomatoes and maybe even that you don’t like NASCAR…but you don’t like WATERMELON? That’s just…weird.” Fate and a merciful Providence conspired to pair me up with the one woman I’ve met in my adult life who also doesn’t get all warm and runny when someone cuts open a cool, ripe watermelon. Her dislike of the things is maybe even a little more aggressive than mine. I tasted Session Watermelon Wheat Ale. She flatly refused. I couldn’t justify not trying it, as I had already caved and tasted my friend Shaun O’Sullivan’s 21st Amendment “Hell or High Watermelon” Wheat Ale and was shocked to find that I could actually drink it and not get the bends. What made that one palatable for a gourd-resistent type like me was that it didn’t taste a lot like watermelon. It had a touch of it, just simmering behind a really exceptional Wheat Ale and, I’m happy to report, that is also the case with this Session release and maybe even moreso. Session Watermelon Wheat is drier, just slightly sweet, and suggests watermelon, rather than screaming it, as with the other two watermelon atrocities I’ve tasted besides these two. This is a crisp, light, slightly herbal ale that shows its constituent grains and that beautiful yeast-driven spiciness of a classic German weissebier. Again, the draw here is subtlety and if you’re a person who really digs and grubs on Citrullus lanatus, neither this nor the 21st Amendment is going to scratch your itch. If you’re just normally fond of melons and VERY fond of a light, refreshing, low-alcohol summery ale, this is YOUR beer for hot weather 2017 and Full Sail has made ample quantities. 92 Points
The last thing in that dispatch from the wilds of Hood River was an unassuming Blonde ale that celebrates its Northwest/Columbia River Valley roots by sourcing all its ingredients – Yakima and Willamette Valley hops, NW rye malt and barley, and glacier-fed spring water from Full Sail’s source on the slopes of Mount Hood. This was the biggest shock in the box, for me. Blonde ales – as opposed to Belgian/Flanders Blondes, which are a whole other story – are currently suffering from a sameness that grows from the style’s American interpretations. Blonde has become nearly generic; mild, inoffensive ale in a bottle or can, end of story. Named for the primary Hood River exit off Interstate 84, Full Sail “Exit 63” Blonde Ale translates, too, as “close to home”. 63 takes the usual Blonde cliché and injects edgy, resiny Cascade, Mt. Hood, and Glacier hops, floating these pine-spruce flowers on a bed of pale and blonde malts and filtering judiciously. Despite the near-constant questions I get about what weird and experimental beers I drink for summer, I’m out there just like everybody else, in search of a great, flavorful, balanced beer that wears well and offers up uncompromised refreshment. This year, in addition to Fort George “The Optimist” and Reuben’s Brews “Daily Pale” and Sound Brewery’s “Monk’s Indiscretion”, and a small handful of Goses like Holy Mountain and Anderson Valley and Reuben’s, I’ll be adding Full Sail “Exit 63”. It’s THAT good, that refreshing, and that beautifully made. 95 Points