This year, on that mid-February weekend that’s been, well, illuminated for the past four years, I just could…not…do it.
I attend ONE beer festival, in the course of each year. One. Carefully selected, pushing all my buttons, done better than any other beer event – of any size and any type – that I ever attended, back when I was doing such things. And something which fills a cranky old hillbilly like me with almost agitated excitement and anticipation. And I had to say, “Pass“.
The Festival of Dark Arts – presented on the third weekend of February each year, at Fort George Brewing of Astoria, Oregon – is pretty much universally recognized as Deal Done Right. It’s expansive and intelligently laid out, but surprisingly compact and intimate. FGB owns most of a whole city block, right there in the heart of downtown Astoria, and they’re constantly devising ways of expanding and maximizing that available acreage, not only for running FoDA but just for daily operations, which are…well, booming doesn’t quite cover it.
But, this year, we decided early that we just could not go back. It was too soon and too painful. In 2017, we had our lovely old cat of 21 years, Bonnie, die of old age the day before traveling down for the festival. My beautiful old Boxer dog, Edgar, seemed to go into a funk, after she died, and became lethargic and listless. But we figured he’d rebound and we needed, frankly, to get away, so we drove to Astoria, checked into our hotel, and went out for dinner. Later that evening, I took Edgar out for a walk and he uncharacteristically just moped through it, glancing at me occasionally as if to say, “Do we have to do this?“, something he had never done.
The next morning, we bundled both dogs up in blankets and went to the festival. We came out about two hours later and I tried to walk Edgar and he was stumbling and disoriented. I told Judye. We called a local vet and they agreed to see us in one hour. I tried several times to get Edgar to eat, which he showed no interest in. Now, I was freaked. He always ate and avidly, almost rabidly. The vet spent about twenty minutes with him and told me to get back to Tacoma and take him immediately to his vet.
That evening, we drove home and took the dogs into the house…and Edgar couldn’t walk. I called his vet. Answering machine. I called an emergency vet and they said to bring him in. I figured he had caught a bug or something, clearly in denial in my desire to pretend that this wasn’t serious. I got to the emergency clinic at 9:45.
At 1:45, the vet gave Edgar a shot…which stopped his huge, loving, gentle, wide-open heart. He had a mass in that heart that was choking off its ability to function. I asked, barely able to get my breath, if surgery would fix it. The vet gently said no; asked what I wanted to do. Well, what I wanted to do was take my best friend and constant companion home and watch him bound across our backyard. I wanted to lie in bed and feel him climb up and nuzzle me and wait for me to scratch his impossibly soft, floppy, sweet old ears and be normal Steve ‘n’ Edgar again.
But, looking at him there on the examination table, hooked up to IVs, barely breathing, I just could not put my selfish insecurity ahead of what would be his absolute hatred of being less than he always had been. And I held him in my arms, kissed his head, and felt the life go out of his body.
I’ve had my mother and father both die, within the past ten years. I’ve lost five family members in the past three. I have lost a small army of friends, over the years.
Nothing has ever hurt worse than that moment.
So…Astoria? Just…too soon. Too many ghosts. Too much real, raw pain.
(I had to stop writing this for about fifteen minutes because I could no longer see the keyboard…)
I told Brad Blaser, at Fort George, back in January that we weren’t coming and told him why. He understood and said they’d just look forward to my next visit.
Shortly after that email, we found out that Judye’s employer was sending her to Pleasanton, California, for training on the new payroll and benefits system that her company is adopting. We decided that, rather than fly and put up with the airport crowds and renting cars and the ongoing freak show that is the gestapo-like Transportation Safety Administration, we’d just make a road trip out of it…on the same weekend as FoDA.
On our way back from a hectic but fascinating week in the San Francisco ‘burbs, we decided to swing by Astoria and break up a trip which had become a real hardship. We pulled into Astoria at 8:30 on Saturday evening, checked into our hotel, and went down to Fort George for dinner and beers. We drove into town from the opposite direction, stayed at an entirely different hotel from where we had traditionally bunked up, and had no festival masses to contend with. We were exhausted and desperate to stop and I kept waiting to be freaked out and sad…but it didn’t happen. Fort George is frantically busy on a Saturday night, but nothing like FoDA. We settled in, ordered food, and ordered a tasting flight…and then the magic began.
That taplist was loaded with stuff I had never tasted; mostly brewery-only ales that never make it into bottles, and plenty of Stouts left over, as it was still, happily, Stout Month at FGB, and there were no less than ten pouring in the three taprooms contained in the Fort George Beer Collective. We read that the list in the Lovell Taproom – located in FGB’s barrelhouse, a separate building across a broad concrete courtyard – was entirely different and made plans to be at the door at noon on Sunday, to sample there, before making the two-hour trek back to Tacoma.
Between the two taplists, this is what we tasted:
- Fields of Green IPA
- Funeral Pyre Smoked Lager
- Aftermath Strong Ale
- White Witch White Stout
- From Astoria with Love Russian Imperial Stout
- Barrel-Aged May the Oats Be With You American Stout
- Reclusa (a blend of various Stouts and their Sweet Virginia series Barleywine)
- Astor Expedition Pale Ale
- Three Wise Men Barrel-Aged Blended Stout
- Matryoshka Imperial Stout
- Matryoshka (aged in bourbon & pinot noir barrels)
- The Optimist IPA
- Vortex IPA
Of this list, I had previously tasted only Vortex, Matryoshka, and The Optimist, one of my beers of the year for 2015, of which I said in the write-up:
“This is an absolute can of Bliss…one of the most purely and compulsively drinkable Northwest IPAs ever made by anybody. It’s the antidote to all those overdone herb-fest IPAs that have become synonymous with the term “Northwest”; a sunny, citrusy, resiny daydream of complex but uncomplicated IPA pleasure. Built along the lines of Stone’s “Delicious”, The Optimist carries that light ‘n’ bright ideal to its logical conclusion. This is the beer that you’d pour for your hard-core Northwesty guests on a warm(ish) Oregon afternoon but also the one you’d serve those visiting Easterners and Midwesterners, so they’re not stunned by our level of hops mania…This is a totally captivating, crowd-pleasing, complete ale that was on my table and in my glass more than any other single beer in 2015.”
It’s been in my glass more often than any other beer ever since then, too, and yet I had never once tasted it on tap, much less right there, at the source. I was determined to taste only the beers I didn’t know but, as my wife said, “Oh, have a friggin’ pint, for God sake! You’re not driving.” (Can’t argue with that logic…or my wife) I had a pint. It was flat-damned glorious.
For reasons of brevity – I’m trying, I swear! – I’m not going to do descriptors for all of these beers. I have to mention my favorite, Reclusa, a breathtaking blended ale, made from a couple of lots of Stouts and their Sweet Virginia Series Barleywine, that was a boozy, malty, hoppy, palate-painting miracle; an inspired wash of fruit leathers, brandied raisins, red currants, molasses, coffee, smoke, and booze-barrel flavors. Funeral Pyre Smoked Lager was every atom the smoky, thoughtful, balanced masterpiece as is the Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen it recalls, like standing next to a campfire and drinking the best lager you ever tasted. Three Wise Men, a full-throttle Imperial Stout blended from Rum, Bourbon, and Tequila barreled ale, was my gorgeous little Wild Thing, and the only 5 ounce taster I just HAD to finish. Matryoshka – in all its incarnations – is simply a NW classic, one of the most supple, deep, playful, soulful Stouts ever brewed in this region; and somehow a full 180 twist from their massive, classic Cavatica Stout. Where Cavatica is DEEP and dry and brooding, Matryoshka is DEEP and vivid and a tad fruity and a bit overtly sweet. It is fully in a league with Stouts like The Abyss and Bourbon County and Abraxas and Hunahpu’s but not as sweet and not as much char and more focused than all but The Abyss.
Of all these, the one that I actually found most jaw-dropping was one that was done as a collaboration between FGB and two other Astoria breweries. Astor Expedition Pale Ale was STUNNING; rich but light, nicely hopped but not challenging, substantial but easy to drink. I was told, in an email (after some head-scratching, as nobody at FGB even remembered it, at first) that it was created as a one-off for a charitable theater prouction in Portland and the keg I was poured from was the last of it. I REALLY hope – hint-hint – that this will not be the last time Astor Expedition Pale is made, as it immediately claimed a spot in my personal list of the best Pales I’ve tasted from this entire region and would rank with the two or three best I’ve tasted from any brewery anywhere. It is an absolutely sublime ale.
Realistically – out of all the beer regions in the US – there is no shortage of breweries in this three-state area that boast across-the-board excellence, so claiming that Fort George is maybe the best brewery in the Pacific Northwest is doable but not very wise. There are, after all, breweries like Deschutes and Reuben’s Brews and Holy Mountain and Sound Brewery and Upright and Cascades and Breakside and Great Notion and Full Sail and Chuckanut and Logsdon and Walking Man and Old Schoolhouse and Engine House No. 9 and maybe the best of all, pFriem Family Brewers. But Fort George absolutely stands toe-to-toe with any on that list, the ONLY disclaimer being that FGB still, after eleven years in business, is firmly committed to its roots in British Traditional ales. On its BeerAdvocate list, I found only six beers that were not from that stylistic groove: one Saison, one Gose, two Tripels, one Schwarzbier, and one Witbier, their year-round, iconic Quick Wit. They have not dived into the sour/brett end of the NW pool and have, to this point, given Belgium only a lick and a promise but the sheer skill and, dare I say it, artistry of what comes out of their dozens of taps promises that Fort George could, in the future, do any damned thing they take a notion to do and do it as well as anyone on the West Coast.
It may seem odd to say that a brewery that’s been as stunningly successful and celebrated and visible and award-winning and benignly self-promoting as Fort George should be just now hitting their stride but I firmly believe that’s exactly the truth. Just in the seven years I’ve been visiting Astoria, their taplist has gone from excellent but occasionally spotty to solid in all aspects to, now, either borderline or outright greatness from every tap, every visit. The progress has – for lack of a better term – a Relentless quality to it, as if they had stuck a pin in a map of their eventual success and marched there through hell, hurricanes, and packs of hungry wolves. Their geographic semi-isolation – they are not, after all, located in either Seattle or Portland, which constitutes some sort of stigma for many Northwest beer fans – probably limits their sales a bit and forces their reputation to carry that grain of salt that’s carried by pFriem and Sound and Logsdon and Walking Man and Pelican and every other brewery not located in the two Epicenters of Tree-Hugger/Post-Grunge Trendiness but I think this may actually help explain their jet-powered ascent to greatness. They’re not burdered with the legions of lolly-gagging beer dilettantes that swamp the Seattle and Portland breweries and divert time and resources into hospitality and crowd control. They have also shown tremendous judgment and deliberation in all of their frequent and consumer-driven expansions. They have a big, glass-walled new dining room off the bar of their formerly cramped Downstairs Pub, a rooftop deck off their upstairs taproom, an access bridge to the upstairs from the upper street, and enough barrel inventory to pack up Northwestern Oregon and move it to Bermuda.
And their food operation has become, finally, nearly the measure of their brewing expertise. We had an amazing dinner, on our evening there, including an absolutely inspired burger creation called “Brie Be Jammin’ “, a thick, juicy patty of perfectly cooked lean beef, with melted Brie, onion jam AND bacon jam. Simple, brilliant, and shockingly flavorful…and with my Funeral Pyre Smoked Lager, just plain Heaven.
Finally, the factor of FGB’s location that also works to their benefit is the same that applies to Logsdon, pFriem, Rogue, Old Schoolhouse, and Pelican’s mothership pub: it’s Out There. Nobody is ever “in the neighborhood” of Astoria unless they’re on a fishing trawler or on the lam from the feds. In my dozen or so previous visits, the crowd has always been composed primarily of locals and of tourists who came there, to the mouth of the mammoth Columbia River, specifically to experience Fort George. They’re a very smart crowd, beer-savvy in spades, and as well-mannered a gaggle of beer geeks as you’ll ever find, anywhere. And that speaks to the aesthetic that Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill and their staff have cultivated: Fort George is about BEER, first, and the peripherals second and thus ever shall it be.
And having said all that, I really do not believe that Fort George has even “arrived” yet. I think we’re all on the verge of watching a busy, focused, ambitious, incredibly hard-working bunch of Oregon flannelheads transform an uber-productive small-town brewery into something legitimately on a par with the Stones and Dogfishes and Deschutes and Rogue and Boulevards of the American craft brewing culture. Fort George is just starting to explore their excellence and, trust me on this, we all want to be watching closely, and with glasses under their taps, as it happens.