Bend, Oregon…no matter what anyone says, my vote for the mythical (and mostly bogus) title of “Beer City USA” – besides the presumptive winner, San Diego – would have to go to this explosive brewing mecca, out there in the arid middle of Oregon’s High Desert. It is certainly, even including SD, the most per capita great brewery nexus in the country and the only real challenger is the far more tiny Hood River, Oregon, about 150 miles up Oregon Route 97. One quick scan of the breweries located in Bend makes the case eloquently…
Deschutes Brewery…Bend Brewing Co…Worthy Brewing…Boneyard Beer…Crux Fermentation Project…The Ale Apothecary…RiverBend Brewing…Cascade Lakes Brewery…Silver Moon Brewing…GoodLife Brewing…Monkless Belgian Ales Brewery…plus tiny breweries and relative newbies every year, like Spider City and Bevel and Bridge 99 and Immersion and Crooked Jay and the nearby favorites like Mystic Roots, Wild Ride, Porter Brewing, Kobold Brewing, Geist Beerworks, Three Creeks, Initiative Brewing, and Sun River Brewing.
(NOTE: For purposes of accuracy, there is a branch of Anheuser Busch in Bend but, as AB is not a craft beer company, it’s been omitted from this list)
So, it follows that, hunkered down in a bustling desert town, over 100 miles from any other large cities, (it’s 130 miles from Eugene and Salem, 160 from Portland) Bend would be a tad self-reliant and mostly ignore the trends rampant in Portland. Not unaware of trends, mind you, but let’s say more concerned with doing Their Own Thang.
And, ever since Bend became a Brew Town, Their Own Thang has been (mostly) spectacular.
What the Bend breweries have done to a fault is rethink, reimagine, rebuild existing styles and make them “Oregonized” or “Northwestified” or. I dunno, “Bent”(?) maybe?…Whatever silly adjective you can come up with. Or even something else altogether. Bend’s all-time champ beer, Deschutes’ immortal “The Abyss”, involves taking the flavors that can be found in a Stout made according to the traditional yeast/malt/hops beer framework and enhancing them. The Abyss includes infusions of licorice, cherry bark, vanilla beans, chocolate, and different barrels. This all adds up to a towering version of what a regular well-made Stout tastes like but MORESO. Waaaay Moreso. In several years, I’ve called The Abyss “perfect” and given it 100 Points. And yet, Deschutes keeps on tinkering! That idea – that anything can be improved – is at the heart of why visiting Bend and tasting around there is unlike doing the same in ANY other American brew town.
First 2020 case in point: Deschutes “Wowza!” Lo-Cal Hazy Pale Ale…How many American breweries, by now, have tried to make that ultimate hoppy, IPA-ish, low-carb, low alcohol beer – and failed? Most of them, spectacularly. Answer: about 98%. And I’m NOT going to, here, make another one of those bombastic (but true!) claims about this beer or that one being one of the greatest beers ever made by anybody, as I so routinely do when sent a new Deschutes release. I’ve already read, in three different websites, Wowza! referred to as an IPA. As the damned LABEL says (Hello?) Wowza! is a PALE ALE. There it is just above, my website brethren. Read it. READ IT, knobheads. This is not an IPA and is not intended to be…
…and yet, harking back to the Bend The Rules premise of this post, Wowza! works as an IPA a lot better than many of the Session/Summer/LA/LC IPAs on your store shelves. In just the past month, I’ve tasted five of the top six or eight light IPAs currently available and NONE of these worked as beer the way Wowza! does. It is light but ladles out an intensity of flavor more on the order of a full-alcohol IPA. The flavors lean toward the traditional herbs and grapefruit and pine needles but folds in some subtle, flattering tropical fruit, flowers, and tree fruits, too. Those predictable notes of the Hazy IPA are in the background but every sip brings them out and there is also – and this is the fascinating and rule-breaking part – a bright tartness more reminiscent of a Gose or a Berlinerweisse; a dry, crisp, refreshing, subdued sourness that never quite makes it to sour but suggests a bit of lemon rind, which is front ‘n’ center in the flavor profile. It even has a tiny dash of the saline character that makes the Berlinerweisse so compulsively drinkable. I have no idea at all whether Brian Faivre, Veronica Vega, et al, in Deschutes brewing rooms had that idea in mind but this ale, to me, is as artful a conjunction of those two relentlessly refreshing styles of ale as anybody has come up with yet.
So…how great IS Wowza? FOR ME, this is not “great” on the order of Pinedrops, Handup, Only Slightly Exaggerated, Hopzeit, or even the old standby, Inversion. It is certainly not, as you might expect, a legit comparison to Fresh Squeezed or Chasin’ Freshies, the two tropical tinged Deschutes IPAs that have gotten the most buzz. But that’s not what it’s for. Deschutes identified a niche, painfully under-addressed, for an ultra-light, low-cal, low alcohol, hoppy ale that they can sell year-round and can become a habitual, go-to ale for those who do not embrace The Dark Side. In that sense, by that definition, it absolutely IS the single best example of that idea that I’ve tasted yet. It is, in a modest sense, an almost hedonistically complete ale; an HO gauge, IPA-ish, crazy drinkable quaffer that will allow those who feel they MUST knock back five or six beers to be satisfied a chance to do that, enjoy every second, and not wind up so hammered that they get arrested for running naked down I-5 at 2 a.m. Assuming realistic expectations, this IS a genuinely great can o’ suds and one that, I’m betting, will become one of your favorite new Thangs of 2020. 95 Points
(NOTE: In this same week, I also tasted Firestone Walker’s new “Flyjack” Lo-Cal Hazy IPA, a nearly identical idea to Wowza! but more of a deliberate attempt at an IPA. Flyjack is a tremendous beer; for me, nearly as good as Wowza! but ultimately not quite the fully-realized Thang as Wowza! If you happen to be in one of those increasingly-rare areas where Deschutes is not available, Flyjack will be a slam-dunk alternative…until you CAN find Wowza! and drink ’em BOTH!)
No less a unicorn is Crux Fermentation Project‘s towering “Ribbon of Darkness” Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter. While it IS roughly an analog to Deschutes’ classic Black Butte anniversary series mega-Porter, it takes on that rather daunting comparison and actually, for me, tackles it nicely, winding up in at least a dead heat with any of the Black Buttes. Ribbon is massive; a dense, viscous, almost chewy mouthful of chocolate and boozy wood notes and molasses and fruit leathers and cocoa and black currants and saddle leather and a suggestion of smoke that lingers on the finish. If this sounds like a big Imperial Stout, don’t worry about it. In the US, as opposed to many other countries, we have almost no regulations about what beers or wines or even liquors are called. “Reserve” and “Imperial” and “Winemaker’s Selection” and even the more specific “Meritage” really have no legal meaning beyond what some offended winery or association might want to pursue in court. “Porter” and “Stout” are routinely used as almost interchangeable terms and certainly Ribbon of Darkness is, for all intents and purposes, a big Imperial Stout…and yet it isn’t because, also in the US, what the brewer says the beer is? That’s what it IS. Crux calls this a Porter and I am not about to argue, even if every beer that comes to mind when I drink it is a Stout.
In true Bend It fashion, this could be the best Porter you ever drank in your beery little life or the best Stout. You decide.
But DO drink this, even if you have to bribe somebody to get it. 99 Points
By now, Bend Brewing “Ching Ching” Sour is old news…and yet it astounds me that so freakin’ many people still have not tried one of the PNW’s first – and almost certainly the best! – kettle sours ever. As a short thumbnail, Ching2 is Wheat and German Pilsner malts, the house strain of Lactobacillus to sour it, and dosed it with orange hibiscus flowers and pomegranate. To my old chef’s palate, this is such a made-in-heaven set of flavors that it makes me wonder why nobody did it sooner. But they didn’t and Ching Ching has cleaned up on beer fest medals the way a Roomba sweeps up your dining room floor. Stylistically, it’s a Berlinerweisse but its fat set of flavors totally dismisses the creeping sameness that has lately begun to pervade the Berliners I try. It is brilliant and stoopid refreshing and as pretty a beer in the glass as you’ll ever see. It’s canned but if you ever see it on tap (somewhere in central to northern Oregon, ’cause BendBrew is NOT widely distributed) just buy some and find out why I’m raving like this, several years after its inception. And if you happen to not like Berlinerweisse, so far, this is probably gonna change your mind. 96 Points
Monkless Belgian Ales‘ brilliant “Pour Pour Pitiful Me” Belgian-style Quadrupel is the beer on this list you’re going to have the most trouble finding but if you like Belgians and have the frequent craving, as I do, for complexity AND a real hair-on-the-chest Strong ale, you SHOULD take on this quest. Courtesy of my homies at Pint Defiance Bottle Shop, here in Tacoma, PPPM has been on tap for the past week and therefore they have had the questionable pleasure of seeing my wizened mug nearly every day. This is GLORIOUS: big, broad, chewy(!), malty AF, perfectly balanced. Not exactly authentic but we Americans have been at this replication of real Belgian ales for long enough, now, that we NEED to stop slavishy evaluating every single one against what an abbey would make. Call it “Belgo-American”, if you like…even though I can scarcely imagine a more clunky term, but whatever it is, this ale makes a Statement about the skill of Monkless and the potential for genuine, across-the-board greatness from this emerging Bend powerhouse. 96 Points
I’m going back to Deschutes for our next one and it’s entirely possible that you will never even find it to get a taste. But it deserves mention: Deschutes “Cultural Diversity” American Sour is a beer that is tricky to pull off because it’s live in the bottle, and, from the Deschutes website, this capsule description of a truly complicated and, may I venture, a somewhat crazed blended ale:
“One the first beers to feature a foeder component to the blend of 4 different base beers. PDX Belgian Blonde, Ages, Cultivatuer, and Cultural Diversity. The blend derives its complex flavors and aromas from four different Saccharomyces strains, 4 different strains of Brettanomyces, and a host of lactic acid bacteria.”
Translation: Bat-shit crazy and the sort of beer that many – by NO means all! – breweries try at one time or another but usually don’t pull off. I talked, just this week, on the phone, with an East Coast newbie beer writer who said that she thought that the whole idea of blended beers was akin to scouring your fridge for a bunch of leftovers and making a “kitchen sink” stew out of ’em. Well…okay, but only to a point. Making one like Cultural Diversity or any one of dozens of the real Belgian/Flanders blends, done with great skill and deliberation, is more like Jacques Pepin ransacking your fridge and making his stew…which is going to be something a whole universe different from your clumsy goulash. This young lady said, and I quote, “Nobody can predict what a bunch of different wild ales, all given a mash-up in a tank, is going to taste like! That’s like saying you know what your baby is gonna look like before it’s born!” Again, that sounds plausible but dismisses one crucial consideration: Brewing Skills. It absolutely IS possible for a gifted brewer to have a fairly accurate general idea of what’s going to result from deliberately mixing four unruly live ales and four yeast cultures and still be ready for a happy accident, a planetary alignment that creates something greater than the sum of its parts. And in this ale, Deschutes’ prodigious collective brewing skills has engineered such an accident and produced one of the most approachable, purely delicious, thoughtful, weird and wonderful mixed culture ales I have ever run across. The sheer complexity of it is OFF. THE. CHARTS. Apricots and strawberries and anise and gooseberries and wet hay and red berries and sultanas and…insanely interesting.
This stuff is just flat-out inspired and shows one of the most balanced, civilized sour/funk flavor profiles of any such ale I’ve come across in a good ten years. Honestly, with as many breweries trying these ales now, especially here in Washington state, and winding up with something that takes either an act of manhood or a ton of rationalizations to drink, this is a genuine revelation.
I have to admit that I, too, have thought, for years, of Deschutes as primarily a brewery that excels at the British ale traditions, while producing the occasional inspired experimental offering that succeeds mostly because of the near-infallible aesthetic that governs everything that they choose to put into containers. I have NO idea how much experimental suds they dump into the Bend sewer system, every year, but I do know that lesser breweries sometimes dump maybe 20% of everything they make (if they don’t actually put it on tap and ask customers to choke it down) . I’m bettin’ Deschutes’ number is nowhere near that. But this stuff strongly suggests – enough to convince me of this, anyway – that if Deschutes ever decided to change horses, mid-stream, they could easily and legitimately compete with the likes of your Jester Kings and Jolly Pumpkins and Tired Handses and Saint Somewheres in the America’s Best Weird-Ass Beers sweepstakes. We have gotten hints and intimations of this potential in past “Dissidents” and “Green Monsters” and “Pinot Suave” and one-offs like “Pear & Bergamot” and “Family Tree” Peach and the immortal and hardly appreciated “Jubel Kriek”, which still sometimes wakes me up out of a deep sleep into a hot sweat. If there is a style that Deschutes has tried and miserably failed at, it’s been very quietly poured down that Bend-ish storm drain, accompanied with shouts of, “Next!!”
Cultural Diversity may never be repeated. It my not even be possible to repeat it, given the vagaries of assembling those same component parts again, but IF you’re able to lay hands on a bottle or two, this is guaranteed to become a definitive primer on what a masterfully made mixed-culture ale CAN be and to give you some pretty damned hedonistic pleasure for the amount of time you can make it last. 98 points
Finally…Silver Moon Brewing? Not the first name you think of in Bend? That’s understandable but not smart. Silver Moon has been quietly cranking out excellent ales for a rather long time, now (they opened in 2000 and have a 20th coming up, like, NOW) and have become THE Bend music mecca and a rock solid pub. I’ve reviewed several of their beers, most recently in 2017, and still drink and enjoy their “Get Sum” Pale and “Crazy Horse” IIPA regularly.
But, just two weeks ago, I was sent a two-can pack of a beer that my intrepid corresepondent knew damned well would light me off like a Roman candle. Silver Moon Barrel-Aged “Xul” Imperial Mexican Stout takes a bunch of usually-conflicting virtues – oak Tequila barrels, hops, cocoa nibs, guajillo and pasilla peppers, Ceylon cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla – and shotgun marries all this inspired excess into one can…somehow hitting every single element in perfect proportion, to create a seamless whole that just completely redefines this odd little genre of “Dark Ales Made in the Style of a Culture That Really Doesn’t Like Stouts”. That seem like a generalization to you? It is, really, because, OF COURSE there are Mexican Stout lovers but generally not that many of them as there are here. Cervecería Insurgente and Border Psycho Brewing have made some inroads into Stout as a style for Mexico but we ain’t a’gonna git us any of that stuff here. I stumbled across the Insurgente while in Cabo San Lucas for our son’s wedding and it was rich and potent and my ONE notable beer experience in what is otherwise a real brewing wasteland. Insurgente is known here at all because of their collaboration with Stone on that behemoth’s classic “Xocoveza” and that beer is maybe still the industry standard for the emerging Mexican-style Stout.
But that MAY be mostly because Stone is vastly larger and better distributed than Silver Moon, keeping Xul (I cannot even write that without hearing Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, saying, “Oh, Xulie, you old nutbag!”)(Sorry) from the widespread adulation it really should receive. I was all ready to hate this stuff. I’ve been through a LOT of this style and most of ’em were Nothing Much, while a few were actively disagreeable, like a bad Stout mixed with a cocktail of Comet and Drano. I like a bit of burn in a Stout (Sound Brewery’s Mortal Combat X – aka, “The Beer That Killed Its Brewery” – still knocks me flat OUT) but I draw a line at being scoured. Not cool. So, when ol’ Xul slid down my gullet and produced nothing but a civilized tingle atop some FAT roasty notes, I sat up and barked. Chocolate for MONTHS, black coffee, a dash of molasses, licorice, bright fruitiness, raisins, forward wood and sinus-tickling veggie Tequila flavors set up a tiny conga line on my tongue and danced like a drunken mariachi band. It was VIVID. And revelatory, in a way. “Huh,” I remember thinking, “This stuff CAN be made in the whitebread Northwest!”
And little ol’ Silver Moon did it. Bravo!…or Ole’…or something. At any rate, couldya, like, make more of this, you whacky Moonies, Please? 94 Points
Bend…for any real brewing geek, this somewhat cloistered little city, straddling the Deschutes River, out in the middle of the Central Oregon High Desert, is to brewing what Rome is to religion and Detroit is to cars and Seattle is to dateless techies: a nexus of serious and scholarly and wildly intuitive, inspired seeking and achievement…for the Next Big Things in modern American Craft beer.