There are two tiny towns in the Pacific Northwest that have, for YEARS, been just killin’ it in beer. Poulsbo, Washington, and Hood River, Oregon, are roughly the same size. Hood River is about 7,700 souls and Poulsbo, which seems smaller that its Columbia Gorge counterpart, is actually about 3,000 larger, at 10,800.
If you draw a five-mile circle around Poulsbo, there are eleven breweries, most absolutely superb and some, frankly, under-performing. Doing the same with Hood River shows six but they’re all but one ridiculously excellent.
What ties these two spots together for me, today, is the stunning tasting I had two nights ago of two of the first NW Brut ales to get everything right, note perfect, right down to the bubbles.
I first tasted the new Brut style – exceptionally dry, complex, crisp, and about as far as one can get from today’s wave of gratuitous milkshake and pastry and fruit beers – at the place where they were invented, The Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco, during a trip down there last February. Kim Sturdavant, the Social’s brewmaster, invented this amylase-infused style as an experiment and his customers drained the tanks like they had ruptured from an artillery shell. Word got out, as word is inclined to do, and suddenly a LOT of people were making Brut…most pretty badly. The first seven Bruts I tasted from WA breweries missed the mark entirely; some even showing off-notes. It was a classic case of enthusiasm running ahead of expertise and many of those brewers have since figured it out, I’m happy to report.
But in purely qualitative terms, the first one I tasted that came really close to The Social’s template was actually at WestFax Brewing, in Denver, back in late September.
Just this week, I got samples from two exceptional PNW brewers whom I would have probably chosen if someone had come to me and said, “Name a brewery in each state that you would bet money on making a great Brut.” They did NOT disappoint.
The first was from my pals, Mark Hood and Brad Ginn, at Sound Brewery in Poulsbo, who have totally reversed the paradigm for the Brut ale in The Evergreen State.
The approximate blueprint for the Brut is Lindeman’s immortal “Cuvée Rene”, a style that is called “Champagne beer” by many beer geeks. In fact, Rene is a site more tart and austere than the American Brut but exists on roughly the same dryness plateau as this new style, so the comparison is apt. Sound’s Brut is achingly crisp, complex as a road map of Calcutta, and if it were any dryer, you’d have to add water. For all that, it shows distinctive florals and citrus notes, just on a scale that almost mocks today’s bombastic milkshake/NEIPA beers. I’m not saying this style is a Statement on our current excesses – many of which I like a lot (see Great Notion Brewing and Skookum Brewing) – but it could easily serve as one, in the hands of some unscrupulous so ‘n’ so like me. It certainly is the total Other Side Of The Coin in today’s beer culture and it warms my old cockles to see this style emerge.
The flavors in the Sound Brut run to subtle lemons and melons, with warm wafer notes and a melting stratum of lots of grace notes: beeswax, kiwi, honeysuckle, wheat straw, mint, and flinty minerals. It’s a staggeringly refreshing beer, one that almost grabs you by the tongue and says, “You WILL have another!” Kim Sturdavant described the ideal Brut as, “It needs to be very dry … knock it below 1˚ Plato” and get it as close to zero as possible.”
Sound’s comes in at -.5º Plato – dryer than water.
If you happen to be driving anywhere near Poulsbo, GO to Sound – QUICKLY! – before this is all gone. I don’t know if Mark and Brad are going to make this again but I plan to wheedle and beg, so who knows? 99 Points
Double Mountain Brewing has produced some of my very favorite ales, over the eleven years they’ve been producing such in downtown Hood River. Their “Vaporizer’ Dry-Hopped Pale is in my fridge frequently but never for very long and their “Pale Death” Belgian IPA scratches an itch that needs attention rather a lot, lately. So, when thinking of a brewer who might handle a Brut with craft and attention and THOUGHT, I figured Double Mountain’s brewmaster, Matt Swihart’s, oft-stated Cantillon fetish would give him the necessary wonkiness to pull off a killer Brut.
And I was right.
Double Mountain Brut is shamelessly presented in a Champagne-style package, complete with foil cap, and a yellow label that seems somehow…familiar. Inside the bottle is a sumptuous little feast of biscuits and honey and subtle malt and baked apples and Asian pears and mild florals and a near-solid layer of mixed citrus, all whispered rather than shouted. If this one is a bit more effusive than Sound’s, rest assured that it works, like a team of stevedores on time-and-a-half. This is delicious stuff. It has a bit more body than The Social’s and is suggestive of a lot of what we all like best about Pilsners but always wish was More. Here’s that More. The resins are front ‘n’ center and the bracing crispness is wildly compelling. I could drink this stuff daily, for a week…and I just might. 98 Points
I had an idea that, after a bit of time and reflection and studying up on what constitutes a great Brut ale, Northwest brewers would latch on and start to make among the best of the style anywhere. Brewing Brut on the order of Kim Sturdavant’s original is almost the opposite of making most other beers; a situation in which less really is more, at least in the finished product. Here are two great opening salvos. I’m hoping for more out of these two crazy-fine breweries and more from many others – soon.