Friday, December 2, 2011
Holiday Ale Festival
A generous benefactor (who shall remain nameless but to whom I am indebted) gifted me a VIP ticket to the Holiday Ale Festival going on now at Pioneer Square in Portland, and so I went yesterday to finally check it out. I am slightly ashamed to say that this is the first time I have been but I have to admit that big beers are not my first love and the idea of spending hours sampling big beer after big beer has always been a bit daunting. Plus it is not the cheapest of fests and spending hours under a tent in the cold winter is unappealing. But with the free ticket, a beautiful evening and a few good friends as companions I could not delay another year.
So let's get the preliminaries out of the way: the setting is immensely better than I though it would be - the clear plastic used in much of the roofing keeps the main areas light and airy and the lights of the tall Christmas tree are visible through the roof as well, which adds a nice holiday touch. The tent is heated so it is very comfortable and you can find spots to linger in of varying temperatures to suit your preferences (closer to, or farther from, a tube emitting hot air). There is a lot of stuff inside the tent and it does get a little crowded, but the smell of cinnamon and spices is ever-present and in toto it is a very nice environment indeed.
The beer is, however, big. There was one exception: Breakside's Cranberry Biere de Table which is a very flavorful 3.3% ABV beer. After that, though, you are hard pressed to find a beer under 7% and there are many that hit the double digits. Yikes. There is also an abundance of Bourbon Barrel aged beers. I am not a huge fan of Bourbon beers as I often find the Bourbon overpowering and in conflict with the base flavors of the beer. But I am a minority as far as I can tell and for the Bourbon lovers, you are in luck.
Given my resistance to Bourbon, however, I thought a few of the winners were Bourbon barrel aged beers starting with the Velvet Merkin from Firestone Walker. I didn't expect to like this because of the Bourbon and the fact that I am not a fan of their IPA which I find heavy and over-malty. But this beer is sensational - the Bourbon is almost overwhelming on the nose, but not on the tongue where is its very subtle and gives way to vanilla and has a wonderful creamy mouthfeel. But beware, it is a very drinkable 8.6% ABV.
Another big winner in my book is HUB's Kentucky Christmas which seemed to me a beer that has no right being good: it is, as far as I could tell, a big hoppy NW imperial IPA mixed with Bourbon - ick! But no! It is sensational. I have no idea why, but the citrusy hops dance with the hint of Bourbon in such a way that they are in rhythm and make a nice melody on your tongue. You must try this beer.
Cascade's Sang Noir is great as well and so dry you can blow the dust off the top, but the complex and wonderful sour notes shine though - another Gansberg masterpiece.
Other winners to check out include Oakshire's The Nutcracker, Double Mountain's Chimney Stout and Fort George's Kentucky Girl.
But the champion of the fest for me was Ninkasi's The Little One. When I tasted this after a succession of humongous beers, I said to Jeff "finally, I get to drink some beer!" It is a small beer from the second runnings of their barley wine Critical Hit. It is 5.7% and delightful in every way with a nice Germanic hop note that distinguishes it from their popular IPAs. To me this is a lovely winter beer and I hope that next year they will have some more smaller winter warmers.
But there were some misses as well.
Bear Republic's Old Saint Chongo had an off metallic flavor that went away for me after a couple of sips and revealed a nice beer underneath, but assaulted others. I blamed the equipment, Jeff blamed the beer. Elysian's Bye Bye Frost was one too many byes: at 10.6% it is just stupid-strong. Would have been a great at 7.6%. Lompoc's Cherry Christmas was too much cherry and not enough Christmas. Widmer has been on a roll, but Peppermint Paddy Porter is a mint filled fiasco - think vics vapo rub and you get the idea. Upright's blend of an old ale and Biere de Garde didn't quite work for me but was interesting. And finally stay well away from Rusty Truck - there are off flavors and it is a mess.
So my hope for the next fest is a little less Bourbon and a more lower strength winter warmers. So far the beer I have liked most recently was a fresh Winter Solstice from Anderson Valley - such a lovely and subtle beer with just the right hint of spice. I hope local brewers will back of the big-is-better kick and start to rediscover, once again, the subtle, drinkable winter beer.
Oh and the VIP thing is pretty great, you can walk up to the main area and get any pour you want without waiting (but the same is not true at the smaller bars). Also 20 tickets are enough for about three visits. Worth considering if you are going at the heavy Friday and Saturday night times.
Finally, a word to the wise: even with little tasters, at 7 to 10% ABV, these beers get on you quickly. As the fest is at the heart of the city's public transportation hub, you should not plan on attending the fest and driving home.