There are breweries out there, in that ever-expanding ocean that is American Indie Brewing, that are quite content to make a core of maybe eight or ten – sometimes even fewer! – beers and call it good. And if those six, eight, fourteen beers are good enough and their clientele is rut-inclined and undemanding, those producers can survive and even prosper.
But some, Thank God(!), are never satisfied and it’s in that stratum that we find the great breweries and the truly great beers.
Fort George Brewing of Astoria, Oregon, is very much in that school of Never Satisfied and it’s what made me a fan in the first place and what allows me to stay interested in and a devoted purchaser of their beers to this day. While FGB is more in the vein of the British Tradition ales that still account for the balance of the thousands of PNW beers brewed every year, within that stylistic niche, nobody has been more scholarly and more edgy in reinterpreting the entire range of UK styles than owners Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill. They brew a local Astoria-sourced gruit, (“Surf Pine Heather“) for God’s Sake, and it’s a damned lovely version of that ancient, weird-ass Scottish style.
A few years back, they conceived an idea that has quickly become a true Pacific Northwest beer Event. 3-Way IPA is an annual collaboration between FGB and two other NW breweries, chosen on a rotating basis. The inaugural edition, in 2013, was with two other Oregon breweries, Gigantic Brewing and Lompoc Brewing, both located in Portland. The follow-up in 2014 was again all-Oregon, with Boneyard, of Bend, and Block 15 of Corvallis. The 2015 was the first to feature a Washington brewery, Georgetown Brewing of Seattle, along with Hood River, Oregon’s brilliant pFriem Family Brewers. In 2016, Wyoming entered the mix with Barley Brown’s Brewing of tiny Baker City, OR, and Melvin Brewing, from Alpine, Wyoming. ALL were gorgeous beers that delivered something different and wildly appealing and the collabs resonated powerfully with PNW beer freaks who travel frequently, here in this magnificent corner of America, and who generally know these breweries and beers. I drank and enjoyed every “vintage” and would have been hard-pressed to say which one I liked best, although, by a scant whisker, I might have to choose the 2016.
Here in 2017, my favorite is no longer in doubt.
You take three breweries that are exploring new territories in NW beer and whose aesthetics VERY much embrace an homage to established styles but with zero qualms about tweaking them, and you can expect something quirky and wonderful and delicious. But I don’t think anyone was expecting what happened when Fort George’s Uber-Tweak aesthetic collided with Reuben’s Brews mind-boggling range and flawless execution and the edgy, outta-da-box character that marks everything on tap at Portland’s ground-breaking new-ish behemoth, Great Notion Brewing.
The 2017 version of 3-Way IPA may just be one of the two or three best IPAs, of any style, ever made in the US. Hyperbole, you say? To which I just say, “Taste it!” I knew, knowing two of these breweries very well and having just done my first tasting at the third, that this beer would be different. I didn’t know just how different and had no clue that any of the three would outdo nearly everything they’ve done individually and produce something completely out of character, not only for this series of ales but for this region.
Generally and somewhat inaccurately speaking, 3-Way ’17 is a hazy IPA. That style has come to be known as a “NorthEastern IPA”, never mind the well-established fact that hazy beers, including IPAs, have been produced in this region for almost twenty years. And, more to the point, EVERYTHING about this beer screams “Pacific Northwest”. The hops used are NW varieties and are grown right in our immediate area. The malt bill is classic Northwest and the intensity, the seamlessness of it are emblematic of all three breweries. The style may, indeed, be a nod to – as Fort George’s website says – “a smooth, electric gold riff on a Vermont style“, but in flavor and structure, this ale is Pure Essence of the Northwest.
This is a beer made by people of immense skill and creativity and it absolutely shows, from the first sip. The texture of it is similar to other hazy beers but, in retaining that haze, the constant challenge is in not winding up with a passel of off-notes. In tasting many of the current spate of hazy IPAs that cross my radar, I find notable metallic notes, vegetal taint, an underlying “dirtiness” that’s hard to describe but impossible to miss. There is none of that here. The resins are edgy and emphatic, leaning strongly spruce tips with a solid backbone of pine and grapefruit. Tropical notes run rampant and there is a lovely, upfront flavor of mango that’s enough to make me weak-kneed. The complexity is startling. Literally dozens of grace notes surface in each sip.
In terms of its flavor profile, it has more in common with Ninkai’s immortal “Tricerahops” than with any of the current hazy IPAs, with its vivid citrus and floral notes but with more of a silken texture than that remarkable beer. It reminds me of what I’ve always fantasized would happen in I poured unfiltered samples of Tricerahops and Deschutes “Fresh-Squeezed” and a Stone “Delicious” into one BIG glass and just embraced my bliss.
I’ve been saying, for a while now, that the best new-style IPA I’ve tasted from the PNW was Fort George’s own “The Optimist”. Any comparison of the two would be apples/oranges, of course, but this one is SO freakishly outstanding that I can’t even find one reservation to note here and I can’t even remember the last beer, wine, or whiskey that I could make that statement about. This is simply one of the best beers from anywhere in the US that I’ve tasted in a solid fifteen years and an absolute Achievement in cross-cultural brewing in America. 100 Points