Seinfeld as urban prophet? Larry David as Nostradamus?
Maybe. Most of us remember the episode in which all the Seinfeld characters express their love for The Drake. It was clever and catchy and at least three people I know with the surname of Drake ran that joke all the way into the ground, so far that they wound up speaking Chinese.
Now, The Drake is making beer. Not really, but if I could make that a fact, I’d do it in a hot minute. Not being a Republican, I’m unable to decide things are facts just because I say they are. So, I have to bend to the unshakable Truth that Drake’s Brewing of San Leandro, California, had already been in business for five years by the time Jerry and Elaine and George and Cosmo Kramer first debated the merits of The Drake and was, by that time, the virtual T-Rex of that prehistoric Oakland/Bay Area brewing scene. Not that we here in the Pacific Northwest or most of the rest of America ever got any first-hand proof of The Drake’s greatness. Here we are, 31 fuggen years after Roger Lind and John Martin opened the doors of their converted Chrysler/Dodge factory, and Drake’s just now showed up in this Soggy Corner of America…but I have to say, they have arrived, now, in a YUGE way.
With over 5K breweries in operation today, it’s become damned near a unicorn search to find any one brewery that’s working primarily in the British ale tradition and doing anything at all distinctive with it. Take 5,000 breweries in operation, most of them doing at least five IPAs and you come up with twenty-five thousand “different” examples of one beer style. How genuinely different can any of them be? And yet, Drake’s has managed to turn out an entire series of 2016/17 IPAs that just, well, don’t taste like anybody else’s, really. They’re suggestive of other IPAs but always a little twisted, tweaked, shifted just slightly off their axis, and all to the good. They express whatever repressed uber-weirdness lurks in their little black hearts with a series called “The Oak Project”, in which their core beers are mega-tweaked and new creations emerge, as from the forehead of Zeus. The names are definitely part of their charm (more on this later) in shameless wordplay like “Brette Davis Eyes”, “Mission Kriek” (from “Mission Creep” for the culturally slow), “Bourbon Drakonic”, and the mouthful (in every sense) that is “Oaklanderweisse”.
Which brings us to Drake’s “Foraging Raccoon” IPA…I don’t really need to explain why I love that name so much, do I? Really? Because I do love that name. I opened the box, read it, and plopped down in my chair, laughing. It was explained by a shaggy-dog story, there on the label, about a camping trip and a hungry ‘coon, which just made it, for me, even more funny. Then I tasted it and “funny” became just the underpinning for the immense pleasure of tasting one of that endless parade of IPAs, that I get from my FedEx Beer Pimp, that actually has Something Goin’ On in the glass and in my piehole.
This Raccoon has foraged up some VERY interesting, dank (hate that term), and resiny hops. Then, it found a pokeful of very rich and nutty malts and dragged all of that back to San Leandro and dutifully dropped the whole sack in front of brewmaster John Gilooly and head brewer Chris Dunstan and said “Eeeerkzzzkt!” (translation: “Do it!”). Foraging Raccoon is beautifully balanced; just about the polar opposite of the one-note, herbs ‘n’ grapefruit Monster IPAs that have plagued American brewing for the past fifteen years. The malt backbone is firm and smooth and caramel-tinged and frames a pantload of pine/spruce, pepper, tangerine and Lemonheads, sweet herbs, flowers ‘n’ spice hops edginess that yanks the whole thing back from any accusations of sweetness. I want more of this beer and I want it quick, damnit, and I cannot find it anywhere in our local beer shops, which aggravates me no end. That crafty hops blend – Hallertau Mandarina, Idaho #7, Lemondrop, Equinox, and El Dorado – harmonizes better with the 2-Row malted barley, Toasted Rice Flakes, and Golden Naked Oats (and I like my oats naked, when at all possible) than Pentatonix doing a Gregorian Chant. This Raccoon is bitter but nutty-drinkable and doesn’t taste like anything else. 96 Points
The first Drake’s beer that I found in a shop, here in the PNW, was Drake’s 1500 Dry-Hopped Pale Ale. 1500 refers to this being Drake’s 1500th batch brewed and they decided to commemorate this milestone by tackling the always-tricky (and usually awful) hoppy low-alcohol ale. This was the first bottle I saw around here but the reason I snapped it up instantly was that it features prominently my two favorite hops in tandem – Amarillo and Simcoe – as its dry-hop addition, with some Cascade as moderator and a judicious dose of Warriors for bittering. The result is strongly reminiscent of a West Coast IPA but less assertive and certainly lighter, somewhat suggestive of the NorthWest Pale Ale style like Deschutes “Red Chair” or Fort George’s landmark “Sunrise” OPA. 1500 falls somewhere comfortably in between those two icons; just a hair more bitter than Red Chair but less overtly herbal/grapefruit than Sunrise. Sunrise, in fact, is even a tad tough going for some NW beer fans, who find it too aggressively bitter for a Pale, and it made a visiting Eastern guest of mine literally sputter and go google-eyed. To me, Sunrise is pretty much perfect, as Red Chair absolutely is, and 1500 fits neatly into a slot between the two like a tine on a three-pronged fork. The brewing skill of this Bay Area landmark brewery literally drips out of the bottle and 1500 should be the ideal gateway beer for those Indie Beer newbies who are making that rocky transition from Pale Preferer to IPA Freak. However you want to frame it, this is a FINE bottle of malts, hops, flavor, and elevated Skills. 95 Points
The “summer/session IPA” was invented as a scrambling response to the old notion that one should not drink very hoppy, high-octane ales in summer,along with the mulish refusal of many American trendies to drink outside their IPA fixation. I don’t know where this absurd idea got started because people have always told me the same thing about Imperial Stouts and I drink those all summer long and haven’t grown a second head yet. But it became “the conventional wisdom” and that took root, so breweries started messing about with ways to pack in bitterness and/or IBUs. Initially, about 87% of them failed horribly. I tasted some of the worst, most muddled and unbalanced ales I have ever come across in 45+ years as a beer critic when the “Session” or “Summer” IPA started showing up in stores, some even from great, reputable breweries who should have known better. But every brewer in the world knew damned well that this was possible, if they just kept whacking at it and the handful of beers like Drake’s “Kick Back” Session IPA prove that low-ABV, hops-forward ales are possible and that they can offer a level of hoppiness that’s delicious and dank enough for even the staunchest HopHead freakazoid. “Kick Back” shovels out the citrus, herbs, and subtle hints of flowers and spices in a nicely balanced brew that kicks up buttery malts for texture, perfectly complementing and enhancing the edgy assault of its Cascade, Chinook, Mosaic, Simcoe, El Dorado, and Warrior hops. At a shocking 4.3%(!) ABV, this is an ale that lets you have your IPA and sunbathe, too. Of all the beers mentioned here, Kick Back may just be the best evidence of Drake’s experience, judgment, and shit-hot brewing Chops. 95 Points
Arguably, Drake’s most celebrated beers are its nuclear-grade array of IPAs and the one that seems to generate the most buzz out of those would be either “Aroma Coma”or “Hopocalypse”. Having so far been unable to find “Aroma”, I “settled” for “Hopocalypse”, although I don’t think that having your paradigm forcibly shifted can really be called “settling”. Drake’s “Hopocalypse” Double IPA, along with only Ninkasi’s iconic “Tricerahops”, is maybe the most approachable 100+ IBU ale you’re gonna find in this IPA-drenched wasteland we call American Indie Brewing 2017. Dry-hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Simcoe, Mosaic, and El Dorado, and augmented with the under-appreciated Jarrylo and Polaris in the whirlpool and Warriors for buttering, this yardstick ale explodes with complex resins and the smooth, sweet-ish undertone of its 2-Row Barley, Patagonia Crystal 15, and Rahr White Wheat malt bill. The flavors are almost shocking: every freakin’ citrus flavor you can imagine and some you won’t (yuzu, anyone?), spruce tips, jasmine, honeysuckle, herb tea, rosemary, teaberry gum, and cedar are just a few and the mild spiciness runs the gamut from baking to Asian and back. I happened to find this on draft, in an airport bar, while traveling, and it yanked my head around a full 360. I’ve evidently just missed it in a few Seattle-ish beer shops and I can understand why. If I found it first, some other poor sap would be hearing, “Sorry. but…” This is a hallmark West Coast DIPA an deserves to be. 98 Points
Now…that “charm” thing…What is every bit as refreshing about Drake’s as their beers, here in this age of Taking Yourself Too Seriously, is the names and labels of what Drake’s sends to the marketplace. The labels, I suspect, were not actually hand-drawn by one of the owners’ kids but those gawky, off-kilter letters, while a bit hard to decipher, sometimes, express their beers as well as any brewery’s I have ever seen. The names, aside from the ones already mentioned, include…
War Pigeon…Woody Barrelson…Pretend We’re Dead…Macho Man Razzy Savage…Lawd Willin’…Hop Salad and Hop Sandwich…Go Dumb…Get Stupid…Dropsy…and, of course, showing that their ears are properly affixed to the rail, “Covfefe” Double IPA, the only tangible benefit to come out of a senile horse ass’ 2 a.m. Twitter nod-off. The main reason I started writing about beer in this blog – which was originally supposed to be a wine blog – was that beer is FUN, while wine has a big telephone pole up its collective kiester, though that is being forcibly changed by wineries like Sleight of Hand, K Vintners, and Purple Hands. Drake’s has turned the rare trick of getting to be almost thirty years in business with winding up with that wineish pole up its posterior and I just dearly love the look on my wife’s face when she asks, “Whatcha reviewing, Hon?” and I get to say, “Foraging Raccoon IPA, baby.” Priceless…
Drake’s sent me two of these beers and for that I thank them profusely. If they send more, I’ll trust anything that says “Drake’s” on the label but I’m gonna find them somewhere, even if I have to do it on our October trip to Arizona. Drake’s may be a bit late to the beer bash that is the Pacific Northwest but they are absolutely worth waiting for. You taste these and you won’t even have to ask: We definitely Love The Drake’s.