Review: Rogue Santa’s Private Reserve

This is the story of one beer and 28,000 feet of iconic airport carpet. The Santa’s Private Reserve from Rogue turned out to be my farewell-to-Portland beer, which I drank during a rather solemn morning. I waved goodbye to Mt. Hood, illuminated by the beautiful morning sun, and retrieved my suitcase from James’ truck. It was time to go home.

And though I missed my birds terribly, I was heartbroken to have to leave a city and friends that had been so kind to me. All the same, my Portland vacation was over. I had to return home to a divorce settlement and a move to a new apartment in the following weeks. Perhaps I just didn’t want to go home to so much stress.

Anyway. Beer.

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I decided to relax before my flight with a classy 10am airport beer, as one does. I popped into the Rogue bar and restaurant that was near my gate and browsed the beer list. To be honest, at the end of a Pacific Northwest trip, I was kind of IPA-ed out. The double-hopped red ale called Santa’s Private Reserve sounded like a winner.

It was a draft beer poured into a 16oz pint glass. A beautiful, deep amber color, Santa’s Private Reserve featured a pale, off-white head that melted away and left a little lacing behind. The nose was faintly grainy. The mouthfeel was very dry to me. It was not sweet at all at first, but there was a hint of malty sweetness on the finish.

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It tasted not quite green, but hoppy and fresh in a way. At 65 IBUs (International Bitter Unit), it was a little bitter on the palate. There was something about it that was dank and resiny, but in a pleasant and not-overwhelming way. I’ve had some dank beers that taste like you’re licking the floor of a pine forest; this was not one of those at all. It featured relatively low carbonation and was very drinkable as long as you’re not expecting a sweet holiday red (the title can be deceiving).

After my beer, I trudged back to my gate and stared at the carpet for a while. It’s famous, you see, among the hipster crowd, but not for a good reason. In 2013, the previous carpet was set to be replaced with an updated look – and that look is kitschy in the not-so-charming way. The old carpet, however, was delightfully dated and kind of fun. And it’s a huge hit with hipsters and Portland natives alike. The old carpet pattern has been rebranded and put on beer labels, shoes, leggings, shirts, and even tattoos.

The changing of the carpet reflects the changing face of Portland. It’s a growing city and a lot of the neighborhoods are changing (hello, gentrification) and some residents would argue that Portland is dying. But it’s all just the nature of expanding urban landscapes. That’s reality right now. Just as the two generations before ours fled the cities to take up residence in the suburbs, so does our generation flee the dying suburbs to live in the cities.

The new, ugly carpet also hits me at a time of big changes in my life. I’m leaving a bad marriage behind and striking out on my own, living alone for the first time in my life. In a year, I hope to be trekking across the country and moving to, well, Portland. It calls to me. I think I could be happy there. And no matter what some hipsters say, I think being happy is important and not just good for an ironic laugh.

Beer 101: Hops

You’re going to hear me talk about a hops a lot in this blog. Partly because they’re a huge part of what makes beer, well… beer. But also because my tastes run toward IPAs right now and those tend to be hoppy by nature.

This first post in my Beer 101 series will take a look at what hops are, how they are used in the brewing process, and the effects they have on the flavor profile of a finished beer.

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Hops are one of the key pieces of beer brewing (the others being water, grains, and yeast) and are the flower of the female hops plant, Humulus lupus, which is related to the hemp family. Hops contain an essential oil that the tongue reads as being very bitter. This dry, bitterness can be used to balance out the sweetness that the malts in a beer create. Hops also act as a natural preservative and have antibacterial properties.

A beer made without hops can exist, but it would be cloyingly sweet and very one-note. Hops aren’t the only plant that can be used to flavor beer. Spruce, herbs, flowers and more can be used. But hops are the go-to if the brewer isn’t making anything too out there.

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Let us turn our attention to this helpful graphic! The parts of the hops flower are easily labelled here. The entire flower can be used as-is, though compressed pellets of hops exist and are used by some brewers to flavor their beer. Deep inside of these buds are little packets of resins and oils that lend that bitter flavor profile to beer.

Hops are actually kind of a newcomer in beer brewing, when you consider that beer has been made for around 9,000 years. Beer’s origins are more closely linked to the malt ingredients in the brew and were made with grains and yeast from bread making in its early years. Hops were first used in beer around 822 AD and even then, somewhat sparsely. Before the use of hops, beers were flavored and preserved using a mix of spices and fruits called “gruit” or “grut.”It’s really only in the last 200 years that hops have had their day.

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There are several steps in the brewing of beer and hops can be added into the mix at almost any of them, depending on what the flavor profile goal is. Hops can be added before or during the first boil of the beer, in the mash tun, or during tank or barrel conditioning. Each of these choices will affect the final beer product’s taste.

There are also a wide variety of hops available, each bringing its own unique flavor profile to the mix. There are several Continental or Noble Hops, which originated in central Europe and have a mild bitterness and spicy/floral aromas: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. English hops, which are herbal, grassy, and fruity: East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Challenger, Target, and Progress. Bright, fruity, and resinous American hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo.

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Photo from menuinprogress.com

The above list is far from comprehensive. There are a large number of hops that I didn’t name in those little lists, many of which are American hops that are being hybridized, grown, studied, and analyzed even by Universities. There have been exciting new hops making their way into the market over the last decade.

So while hops aren’t truly necessary to brewing beer, what we think of as modern beer just wouldn’t be the same without them. So the next time you hear some know-it-all like me talking about “hoppiness” or “a hop-forward beer,” you can understand that I’m trying to find a way to describe the aromatic and bitter flavor profile that these plants bring to beer.

Review: Stormbreaker Mississippi Red

With a name like “Mississippi Red,” you’d think that this beer would have been brewed in the south somewhere, offering up a salute to the famous river. You would, it seems, be wrong. I sure was. Stormbreaker Brewing is located in my west coast base of operations: Portland, Oregon. Mississippi, it turns out, is the name of the street that the brewery calls home.

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This beer describes itself as a “dry hopped red ale” so I was expecting a decent hop wallop from it. In that category, it disappointed me. It was not terribly hoppy. It was not as hoppy as I expected. It was not as hoppy as many other reds that I’ve had. And it was not as hoppy as many dry-hopped beers I’ve had.

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Poured into a pint glass from a 22oz bomber bottle, this beer poured a deep red-brown. It smelled a little like an IPA, hoppy and maybe a little herbaceous with lots of brown ale notes (not brown sugar, though). At the first sip, it was perhaps a little sweet and not really hoppy at all. I was surprised. After a few more tastes, it seemed like a very well-balanced beer. Perhaps it was a touch sweet (though not much compared to, say, a dopplebock).

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I’ve got to say, I was kind of disappointed. It underwhelmed me. It wasn’t really a brown ale, nor was it really a hoppy red. It was a bit neutral and somewhat unimpressive overall. Maybe it was trying too hard to be too many thing.

If someone offered it to me, I’d definitely drink it again, but I don’t think it’s a beer I’ll ever buy another time. I’m still willing to give Stormbreaker more chances the next time I’m out in Portland.

Review: BTU Brewery and Brasserie in Portland, OR

I’ll admit that I, personally, wouldn’t have thought to pair Chinese food with a brewery, but BTU proved to me that this is a concept that really works. Located in the Rose City Park area of Portland, BTU Brasserie and Brewery is next to a Thai restaurant by a fairly residential neighborhood. Its interior is set up, seating-wise, more like a bar that happens to serve food than it is like a restaurant, and so I couldn’t help but worry that the food would be mediocre fare, sacrificed to make the beer shine. Myself and two friends, S and J, grabbed a corner booth and got cozy with the menu.

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Photo by Rafael G via Yelp

There were eight beers on the menu at the time: the Brumanator (a strong, dark ale brewed with rye and blood orange), the Jade Tiger IPA (an American-style IPA), the BTU Lager, the Horned Hand (a dopplebock), the Imperial Red, the Wet Tiger IPA (their Jade Tiger, brewed with mosaic hops), the Ghostman White Lager, and the Buttah-Nut Gose (a tart ale made with butternut squash and sea salt).

As a team, the three of us ordered 5 of these selections and I stole a sip from each of them to taste. We also ordered a selection of food (not as much as we would have liked, which would have been all of the food on the entire menu). As a table, we shared Sichuan chicken (delightfully spicy at medium level heat), Copper Well Noodles with chicken (tofu was another option), Pork Bao Buns (like make-your-own little tacos!), and Garlic Chive Dumplings (amazing, savory, meaty, with a great dipping sauce). Most of the dishes are or could be made vegan, which is definitely a must in Portland.

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Bao Buns with Pork

The Wet Tiger IPA was my first beer of the night. An IPA brewed with mosaic hops (one of my favorite varietals), it was very refreshing and leaned toward sweet and lightly citrusy. It was maybe a little dry on the back end of the taste. A green-tasting, fresh sort of beer. I also had the Horned Hand myself, which was their higher ABV Dopplebock (8.5%, I think), and stood up well to the spicy Sichuan Chicken that we had tucked into by that point. It maybe grew a little sweet to for my palate once the food was done.

My friends ordered the Brumanator dark ale (a hint sweet, didn’t think I’d like it but I did, very dark/roasty/malty), the Buttah-Nut Gose (not overly sour, crisp, well-balanced saltiness), and the Imperial Red (smooth, slightly hoppy, not bitter, great mouthfeel and enough flavor to stand up to the spicy food).

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Photo by Chris B. via Yelp

We went on a Tuesday, which turned out to be all-day happy hour, meaning $5 dim sum dishes and $3 brews. Overall, everything was priced well, even before that discount. Perhaps more expensive than a traditional cart dim sum place, but not by very much. We stayed for two rounds of beer and talked about everything from football to writing to sewing. The restaurant grew busy around us with plenty of families with children filling it up; it grew noisy but never so loud that we couldn’t talk easily.

If I lived in the area (and wasn’t just visiting), I’d probably make BTU Brasserie and Brewery a pretty regular stop for small plates and beer. Especially with the happy hour prices, and all-day happy hour Tuesdays, it’s a wonderful local spot.

 

Review: Grupo Modelo Negra Modelo Lager

Go on, laugh if you’d like, but this particular beer was offered to me by a friend while she was building her annual Dia De Los Metros shrine to honor her grandfather and other friends who have left us. I can’t think of a better reason to accept the gift of beer, especially when it’s one that I’d never tried before in my life.

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As a middle-class white girl of dubious European heritage, I had almost no knowledge about Dia De Los Muertos, other than the translation to “Day of the Dead” and a vague understanding that it was to honor those who had passed on. There’s a lot more to it than that, or than just sugar skulls, flower crowns, and pretty skeleton face paint (we can talk about racism and cultural appropriation more another time – that’s a mighty big idea to conquer in a beer review post).

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Dia De Los Muertos, as it is today, has come from a mix of indigenous Aztec beliefs like the month-long festival of Mictecacihuatl, the tradition of The Lady of the Dead (which corresponds to the modern La Calavera Catrina), and Spanish Conquistadors Catholic traditions of All Souls/All Saints Days. One of the very common ways to observe the Day of the Dead is with an altar that combines both traditional and Catholic imagery, honoring those who have passed through the veil to the other side. It has nothing to do with American/European Halloween traditions.

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Perhaps the most popularized image of Dia De Los Metros is the fancy, painted “sugar skull” image. This originates from the the Calavera Catrina, which, in itself, was actually based in a piece of art by José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican Artist. Posada created the image of a beautiful skeleton woman as a sort of dig at the Europhile Mexican elite class during an era of dictatorship. It became a symbol of the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century.

The Calavera Catrina – the beautiful skeleton – is now a highly commodified and generally misunderstood image that makes companies quite a bit of money at this time of year. Even Starbucks is getting in on the profit-train. It’s not wrong to buy these things, exactly, but it is important to understand their cultural significance.

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Right. So. Beer.

Negra Modelo is technically a Vienna Lager style beer, but it is a darker red-brown color thanks to the roasted malts used to flavor it. It is, as the color suggests, malty and roasty. It’s a well-balanced beer that isn’t sweet and isn’t dry. It falls well into the category of easy-to-drink.

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I drank this one straight from the bottle, forgoing a glass completely. Maybe it was the gold foil over the cap, but the bottle felt sufficiently luxurious to drink from this time. It’s different from what Americans call a cerveza-style beer, even though the Mexican-Spanish word for beer is just straight-up “cerveza.” I enjoyed this beer with friends and a feast of fajita burrito fixings that myself and my friend prepared.

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As for me, I’ll take beer, a cultural lesson, and some burritos any day of the week.

 

Review: Deschutes Hopzeit Autumn IPA

Ahh, another Oregon beer! It’s from Bend again. That town just has its beer culture together, you know? I wish it weren’t quite so middle-of-nowhere or I could see myself living among the mountains and breweries happily. We writers can do well with a lot of solitude but I find that I’m happiest not to far from a small-to-medium-sized city.

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Anyway! Beer! The Hopzeit Autumn IPA!

On another grocery run to pick up  pumpkins to carve and some more dinner-making ingredients (chicken and rice soup this time), I thought I’d grab another six-pack to check out. The words “Autumn IPA” caught my attention – why, those are two of my very favorite things! How did they know? I was amused to see the beer was from Deschutes Brewery.

In addition to being yet another Bend beer, Deschutes might be one of the best-known Oregon breweries in the states. Maybe my idea on that is skewed because of where I’m from, but Deschutes is very easy to get in the Washington, DC area year-round, both in bottles and on tap. Now, we only get a few kinds of their flagship beers (mostly the Black Butte Porter and the Mirror Pond Pale Ale) but they’re available and craft beer fans know that they like it.

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Hopzeit Autumn IPA comes in a bottle (not a can like, say, GoodLife) and I picked up a six-pack of them at a Fred Meyer for about $9. It is described on the packaging as an IPA inspired by a traditional Märzenbier – again, two things that I like. Märzen style beers are often a bit on the malty side and while they are supposed to be crisp and refreshing (like a fall day), they can easily stray into the region of “too sweet.”

Before refrigeration, brewing beer in the summer months was a dangerous business – bacteria would run amok in the heat. Brewing season traditionally ended with the spring and resumed again in the fall. Much of the supply for the summer was brewed in the month of March (in German: Märzen) and kept in cellars for cold storage for a few months’ worth of drinking. The resulting Märzenbier tend to be amber to brown in color and have a rich, toasted malt base. In Bavaria and the rest of Europe, these beers have a higher specific gravity and a moderate alcohol content, while the Americanized versions sometimes rock a higher ABV.

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This Märzenbier/IPA fusion, to me, does the jobs of both beer styles reasonably well. I wouldn’t call it exceptional in either field, but it is an easy beer to drink and enjoy. The featured hops are Herkules, Sterling, and Hull Melon – none of which I am very familiar with, I admit. I poured it from a 12oz brown bottle into a pint glass. It’s a lovely medium amber color with a light tan head (I poured better this time than I did last time with the Descender IPA). The nose is a lot like a brown ale with almost sweet, brown sugary notes in it. Hint: it goes very well with making and eating chicken and rice soup.

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It tastes crisp and light and isn’t very hoppy at all, which I expected it to be with “IPA” in the name. The Hopzeit is smooth and easy-drinking like a Märzen is supposed to be. Again, I drank this maybe slightly warmer than intended but that brought out more of the smell and flavor than I might have otherwise gotten. It’s not at all sweet, in spite of the smell.  Perhaps it’s a little dry in the mouth, but it’s the kind of dry that I like and which is the signature of crisp, autumnal beer styles.

We also carved up our pumpkins that night. Can you tell that maybe, just maybe, this is the nerdy house on the block?

Review: GoodLife Descender IPA

We’re always supposed to try new things, right? Well, I’m in Portland, OR, visiting friends for a while, and I found myself in the store, shopping for dinner ingredients and beer.

“Try something you’re never even heard of!” said the little beer conscience in the back of my head.

And I listened. And I grabbed a six-pack of IPAs from GoodLife Brewing.

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Good Life, it turns out, is fairly local to where I am now. They’re based out of Bend, Oregon, a charming ski-resort town in central Oregon. I actually visited Bend about a year and a half ago, with these same friends, for a brewery-hopping weekend adventure. Maybe that’s why Good Life spoke to me; maybe I did remember hearing of it somewhere in my distant memory.

Bend has a really incredible beer and brewing culture for a relatively small town in the middle of nowhere. There’s a strong drive to brew and drink locally here in Oregon (really, locally grown anything is a big hit here) and Bend makes that easy, with 22 breweries all packed in together. I think we hit seven or eight during our two days there.

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GoodLife Brewing was founded in 2011 near the Deschutes river (yes, Deschutes is also a Bend brewery), making crisp, clean water an easy-to-acquire ingredient for them. They actually can their beer, not bottle it, which is sometimes still a controversial choice in brewing circles. I got my six-pack for about $9 (which is way better than the beer prices back home!).

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I poured from the 12oz can into a pint glass. The color is a pale amber and the head formed nicely (although, in hindsight, I may have been a little overzealous with my pour), with some good lacing to follow. It has a nose of something fresh and bright and green with hints of floral notes. I have drank it from the can as well as from a glass and the scents really open up the open environment of a pint glass, though it tastes just fine from a can as well. It’s better colder, which I learned when I drank my first one after the cans had been in my grocery store and car for a while and had lost their proper chill.

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It’s a very crisp IPA in the NW style. Very West Coast all around. It’s got some hints of citrus but it never crosses into “fruity” territory. It’s not even as floral or green tasting as the nose would suggest. Not that it lacks flavor – it’s balanced well with a little toastiness from the malt (look at that color) and has a slight bitterness from the hops (the varietal(s) don’t seem to be public knowledge) and is well-rounded overall.

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I enjoyed one while prepping and cooking a dinner of soy/honey/red pepper marinated pork chops, roasted brussels sprouts with onions, green beans, roasted carrots, and roasted sweet potatoes.

Look, when it comes to making dinner for friends, I do not mess around. 

I had a second Descender IPA along with dinner and it stood up to the saltiness of the marinated pork chops, so I was pleased (and they were a bit salty – I can admit my faults!). I think that, at this point in my stay here, I only have one of these beers left. I promise that I will cherish it and drink it lovingly and with a pure heart.