I’ve said this a lot and I plan to keep saying it until enough people get it:
Full Sail is a spectacular brewery.
I don’t get shocked a lot, in this business.
I get surprised quite a bit; happily surprised. “Desperately bummed“, occasionally, and those, for reasons of taste and philosophy, just go unmentioned. But actual shock, of the kind that literally makes your eyes pop open like window shades, is rare. VERY rare.
I recently got a box of beers from Full Sail, a brewery that’s been around forever. They are, in fact, whether younger beer knobs want to admit it or not, a pivotal Icon in Northwest brewing. I’ve gotten an increasing number of those pleasant surprises, lately. but no real shocks. In this box, I got full-frontaled, along with a Major Shock…but more on that later.
The first can I encountered was their new(ish) Full Sail Blood Orange Wheat Ale, which I originally reviewed in May of 2016, thusly: “…a deadly-authentic bitter-ish blood orange character that tastes like drinking a really fine wheat ale through a mouthful of orange peel. It’s relentlessly fresh but not too dandified. There are some clouds in this beer and that’s just flavor, folks, and ratchets up the intensity to a point at which it balances so perfectly with some lovely, subtle hops that they mesh with the rind to produce a very grown-up bitterness, striking a smooth balance with the slight sweetness….this is a damned fine take on that minor NW tradition. 95 Points“…There’s not much to add to that, here two years along, except that the malt profile seems to be a bit more caramel-ish and the balance, which was near-perfect anyway, nudges even closer to perfection. I don’t know exactly how many units of this ale were consumed in the summers of 2016 and 2017 but I do know that – given the trendiness of the beer culture which dictates that older, established, accomplished breweries are routinely neglected in favor of The Flavor Of The Week – it was nowhere at all in proportion to the quality of this beer. Blood Orange ales are not rare, anymore, but damned few that reach my tongue have been even 75% as rounded, complete, and flat-out delicious as Full Sail’s. And that original 95 Points? Let’s make that a tish better: 96 Points
Full Sail “Airstream” IPA Unfiltered is exactly what the name says, an unfiltered basic IPA that IS, by any definition, the perfect type of summer-camping IPA to take along in your cooler which is, after all, one of the prime – and MANY – virtues of beer in cans. If I called for a show of hands of those who have never had a beer or soda bottle break in their cooler, I guarantee that there wouldn’t be many hands showing. We started using cans on our camping trips back when there were not all that many things available in them. Our first camping beer was 21st Amendment’s classic “Brew Free or Die!” IPA and three sixers of those puppies made a slammin’ base layer for our mega-cooler, with no worries at all about breakage. This summer, I suspect that we’ll be adding some Airstream to that mix. This is a rock-solid summer-weight IPA that packs a LOT of flavor and lovely grace notes into 4.8% ABV and 35 IBUs. The melange of citrus fruits, apples, peaches, and herbs is deftly balanced out by a subtle, resiny bitterness that’s scaled for everyone from devout IPA fans to totally green newbies. To me, the little (expanding) universe of summer/session IPAs is a very dismal fuggen place, brightened only occasionally by brewers with a vision of what the style COULD be. The real test is this: “Would I drink this if it wasn’t summer and I wasn’t holding down the alcohol and hops?” With Airstream, my answer is a resounding, “Hell, yeah!” 92 Points
The #2 revelation in this box is the Full Sail “Citrus Maxima” Citrus Pale Ale. I hadn’t tasted this before and the name – the scientific name for the pomelo, a sweeter, less-tart version of your standard grapefruit – gave away their intentions, Their PR materials described a blend of standard White grapefruit with pomelo rinds, so I went in expecting something like a Frankenstein shotgun marriage of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and 7-Up. Could not have been more wrong. The grapefruit character is there, certainly, but it was far more the muted tartness of the pomelo, balanced adriotly with a pleasing finishing bitterness and a lovely handful of grace notes like Lemonheads, tangerine, guava, and lime leaf. The “unfiltered” here should not be taken to mean that this is yet another knee-jerk Hazy. It’s Partly Cloudy, at most, but bustin’ with big, forward, juicy fruit flavors and a fine edge of hoppy herbs and resins on the finish (this IS a Pale Ale, after all, NOT an IPA). The Citra hops that figure into the style are front ‘n’ center and give this a lusty, mouth-filling completeness and heft. What Full Sail always manages when they straddle a stylistic border like this is to Not Pander. And for all those of us who know damned well that “juicy” is not the sole province of the momentarily ubiquitous Hazy/NEIPA, this ale is a breath of that old Fresh Air that simply unfiltered ales have always been. 95 Points
Full Sail is putting some money and effort into reintroducing their classic Full Sail Amber in this handsome can and why would they not? Those of us here in the Pacific Northwest know full well that anyone making an Amber is going to be standing in the titanic shadow of Mac & Jack’s “African Amber”, the craft beer that helped introduce the original mania for unfiltered ales and one of the two or three most cloned beers within the American homebrewer continuum. In Washington especially, Mac & Jack’s is the craft beer that proved that craft beers could actually whack huge chunks off the BudMillerCoorsPabst demand in taverns. South of the WA/OR border, Full Sail Amber has had much the same effect. This is a FINE Amber ale, that unchallenging, user-friendilest off-shoot of the standard English Pale Ale, and while it SEEMS to be breaking no new ground, remember that it already did.
When this came out, there was a definite lack of Ambers being made in Oregon. As with Oregon producing literal lakes full of Pinot Noir and Washington producing virtually none, the Columbia River Gorge seems to be the stylistic border for Amber ales. Washington brewers almost always, even today, make at least one token Amber. Cross that river and you could die of thirst if you had to drink nothing but and couldn’t find Full Sail. Full Sail Amber is not like Mac & Jack’s but is, in its own way, every bit as good. It’s clean and filtered, to the Mac & Jack’s haze, and is a tad less hoppy. But the core of fat, malty flavors that wrap around piney, resiny hops is maybe even more lush and inviting. My solution has always been an artful compromise: Drink Both. Until very recently, Mac & Jack’s didn’t package their beers at all. So, it was Full Sail at home and Mac & Jack’s in bars and stadiums. That, my friends, is as fine a “win/win” compromise as you will ever need. 96 Points
But the SHOCK In The Box, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, was a beer that I almost didn’t even taste. In with this consumer-available Full Sail “Grab ‘N’ Go” Variety Pack, the four above were the whole story and the other beer seemed to have been shoe-horned into the box as almost an afterthought: “Oh, yeah, and we made this other thing, too.” That other thing was a part of their brilliant Session roster, a new beer that has come out in the wake of the release of the Sesión Cerveza Mexican-Style Lager, reviewed here in May of last year, under the title of “Mexican Lagers: Indie Brewers Go Bi-Lingual“. Lately, as you may know, Mexican lagers are, uh, hot. It’s a style that owes every bit of its American popularity to those watery things like Corona and Modelo and Pacifico and that slight oily smoothness that comes from liberal amounts of corn in the grain bill. It’s not going to stun anyone to understand that, in Mexico, the most corn/maize-intensive country on Earth, brewers might sneak some into lagers that originally arose from the huge numbers of German immigrants who wandered into Mexico after WW2. Inevitably, many of those Germans brewed beer and their light, summery Vienna and Munich lagers got, well, reinterpreted a bit as native brewers jumped onto the massive lager craze. Corn crept in, generations passed, gringo turistas slugged ’em down by the case on the beaches of Baja, and – Voila! – the Mexican Lager Adoration was born.
(My own theory is that Mexican lagers are like Italian wines: tourists drink them in romantic small town ristorantes and in tiny cantinas and on the gorgeous beaches of both countries and the atmosphere momentarily suspends better judgment. They come back to find that neither tastes quite the same when swilled on their own patio. Californians manage to maintain that Mexican Vacation aura but that’s mostly because they almost live there, anyway. But what is the reasoning behind Mexican lagers catching on in the Midwest, South, and Northeast? Answer: if you’re into a light beer as a summer cool-off or simple conversational lubricant, they’re pretty good.)
So, when I tasted the new Sesión Negra Mexican-Style Dark Lager, that was where the shock – let me try that again: the SHOCK!! – came in. Obviously a sort of homage to the uber-popular Negra Modelo, Sesión Negra is actually not much like the Negra Modelo at all. Big Difference: it TASTES GOOD. Let me try that again: it tastes GREAT. Holy Cats, this is a stoopid-fine bottle of dark lager! I took one sip, sorta absently, while making clam chowder, and didn’t realize for a few seconds what sort of paradigm buster was going on in my mouth. I remember bending over, chopping cooked bacon, and suddenly standing bolt upright and saying, “Huh? What the…?” I sat down, turned off the stove burners, and poured more into the glass. Drank it sloooowly. Enjoyed every…fuggen…drop.
It bears observing that, whenever I was more or less forced to drink a Mexican Lager, it was almost always (unless I couldn’t find it) Negra Modelo. Drinking that, I could at least pretend that I was consuming something different, even if I did, EVERY time, have that sad, sinking feeling that it was not even as good as I remembered. This Full Sail version is to Negro Modelo what a Lamborghini is to a ’92 Pinto. This has actual flavors: subtle but emphatic graham crackers and dark honey and cafe au lait and molasses cookies and cocoa powder, knit artfully into a malty, earthy grain character that lets you taste the corn and barley and whatever else is in there with a crystalline clarity. The smoothness that is the main virtue of native Mexican Lagers – that slightly oily, glycerineish glide across the taste buds – tastes like something in this beer. I was fascinated by this. Was this what Negra Modelo might have tasted like if made by a great, deliberate producer of craft Lagers? Duh, YEAH! And I would have probably consumed at least a small swimming pool of it at family picnics and camping trips and summer buffets if it tasted anything like this. Full Sail, it should be noted, is very quietly, almost subversively, among the two or three best and most creative makers of Lagers in the United States. Their LTD Series was one of my rare previous shocks; a series of brilliantly conceived and executed Lagers that found me, a devoted ale fan, standing at store check-outs with two or three six-packs of LTD Series 3 (a fu**ing Pilsner!), 4, 5, or 7 resting in my cart. Full Sail KILLS IT with Lagers and this new Sesión Negra outpaces even its own sister, the original Sesión Cerveza. This stuff is slam-dunk, full-on Delicious and, as a part of the genius Session roster, is as affordable a great beer as you will find all summer. 95 Points
I’ve said this a lot and I plan to keep saying it until enough people start to get it: Full Sail is a spectacular brewery. That “been around forever” thing means that they’re not the New Shiny Bauble, these days, but it also means they’ve had time to polish their skills, show great judgment about what they release, have access to great suppliers and new equipment and techniques, and still, miraculously, operate with an experimental hunger that usually defines a much newer brewery. pFriem Family Brewers, just a couple hundred yards down the hill from Full Sail, is correctly celebrated as one of the Northwest’s greatest breweries. But they are NOT the only great brewery in Hood River. Full Sail has earned all the recognition that comes their way and, if there is any justice, a LOT more of it is coming, as they continue to release great, solid, thoughtful, creative new beers.