Brews and View in Portland

Certain places just get it. Oregon is one of those places. I spent three days there over the extended New Year’s weekend and was constantly reminded of how well food and drink is done in the Beaver State. Every year, my girlfriend Victoria and I travel for New Year’s Eve and our anniversary four days later. Last year, we went to Cornwall, London, and Brighton and this year, with very little planning, we ended up in Portland.

The Stars of the Show

Our friends Brennan and Garrett were gracious enough to let us stay in their house in Southeast Portland while they were in Orange County and Dubai, respectively. Instead of heading straight there from the airport, however, we beelined for Great Notion Brewing in northeast Portland, luggage and all. Great Notion is finally getting recognized on a wider scale and for good reason: they make magnificent beer across a wide spectrum of styles. I first tried their beer last year when friends brought back Crowlers (32 ounce growler cans) of Juicebox Double IPA and their Blueberry Muffin sour beer. These, and the news they had collaborated with Alpine and Abnormal Beer Company on a vanilla stout, were enough to convince me it should be our first stop in a place saturated with great beer. All the beers I tried were excellent, but the two that really stuck out were Peanut Brother, a milk stout aged on fresh chocolate and handmade peanut butter, and Over-Ripe IPA, which had the best nose of any beer I smelled in 2016. With no added fruit or experimental hops, Over-Ripe smelled just like cantaloupe and honeydew. It was as uncanny as it was delicious.

The following morning, Victoria and I went to a cornerstone of the breakfast scene in the Rose City: Pine State Biscuits. I ordered the signature sandwich, the Reggie Deluxe, which slides a fried chicken breast, cheese, an egg, and sausage gravy all between their namesake crumbly biscuits. It looked massive and probably was, but I ate every last scrap and loved it. The sandwich was rich and savory, with creamy gravy and a crispy, juicy piece of chicken, but didn’t feel heavy at all–maybe it was because I was on vacation. Victoria’s vegetarian shiitake mushroom gravy was equally good with an understandable but unique earthiness you don’t often find in breakfast food.

 

Ave. No. 2 and “Elements”

With full bellies and warm hearts, we set out for the coast, traveling across a snowy pass to the tune of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, which is truly great. After winding through a white-flecked evergreen forest for nearly an hour, we descended into Tillamook, Oregon and were greeted with a beautiful, verdant vista of farmland with the coast looming a few miles towards the horizon. The green pastures are not only home to fantastic dairy farms, but also a sour beer brewery amongst the best in the world. De Garde, like so many breweries of the third wave of the craft beer movement, occupies a space in an unassuming industrial park. Were it not for the half-dozen barrels strewn about its front and back entrances, you could mistake it for screen printer, auto body shop, or a private accounting firm. Luckily, De Garde is none of these things, but rather a beery wonderland of spontaneously-fermented ales and deliciously fruited sour beers. Their beers are not one-dimensionally sour, but demonstrate layers of complexity akin to the beers made at Sante Adairius and Jester King. Clearly the brewers at these places recognized a kindred spirit in De Garde, because they teamed up for Elements of Composition, a blend made from components offered by each brewery. I thought the beer, which I poured from the bottle, did a fine job of balancing bright acidity with some earthy undertones. While delicious fresh, it was clear that this beer would develop with age and I’ve stashed a bottle away for that purpose. The other beers I tasted were the Avenue No. 2 (a wild farmhouse ale with marionberries), Alt Bu Weisse (an aged Imperial Berliner Weisse), and a guest tap offering of Jester King’s Detritivore, which is a beer I’d been wanting to try for some time. I purchased to-go bottles of what would realistically fit in our luggage home and then set off toward the coast.

We turned north once we hit the main coastal drag and it wasn’t long before we saw a sign that read “Brie cheese tasting. 1 mi.” We pulled into the gravel lot of a building that could have been an inn, but now housed a wayfarer’s station of gift shop kitsch that can only be described as folksy. Blue Heron was the type of place where you can not only sample brie, but also wine taste and dip pretzel rods in eighteen different mayonnaise-based dips (which we did), and buy kitchen gadgets and Oregon-themed linens (which we did not). From here, our travels took us up the coast to Rockaway Beach, where we tested the water temperature with tentative fingers and did our best to avoid the rain.

The drive back took longer because night was falling as quickly as the snow, but when we made it back into the city, we found ourselves back at Great Notion, where we met some family friends who had moved up to the Oregon coast. We left with a crowler of Peanut Brother, which was not available to-go the night before and set out in search of our final meal of 2016. Many restaurants were fully booked and had special tasting menus that night, but we found one that could seat a party of two. The restaurant, Tusk, was Lebanese cuisine via the Pacific Northwest in a delightfully retro-yet-modern pink pastel setting. The Lebanese flatbread and raw lamb dishes were both outstanding, but I think Victoria’s cocktail stole the show. The Eastern Maid is listed on the menu as “Prairie vodka, celery seed, lemon, rose water, hazelnut, yogurt,” but it is the final ingredient that made it such a standout. It was tangy, floral, slightly sweet, and utterly fantastic.

Latourell Falls

After a quiet New Year’s celebration, we made up our minds to get the tastiest brunch we could and settled on the aptly named Tasty N’ Sons, where we met our friends from the previous night. I was craving chilaquiles and the ones they had were quite good, as was the potato donut appetizer. My mezcal-based Bloody Mary was fine, but didn’t live up to the rest of the meal. Not wanting to miss out on all the natural beauty Oregon offers, Victoria and I drove out to the Columbia Gorge, where we stopped at Latourell Falls and the much more popular but ever-impressive Multnomah Falls. Snow began falling with increasing intensity so after getting the requisite photos of America’s second tallest year-round waterfall, we navigated back onto the 84 West bound for Portland.

Though quite popular, Voodoo Doughnuts no longer carries the appeal it once had (to me, at least) and I was more excited to try Blue Star Donuts when we got back into Portland. They’ve opened up shop in Los Angeles, and although I haven’t been yet, my first bite of the Blueberry Bourbon Basil donut made it pretty clear that I’ll visit the Venice or forthcoming Manhattan Beach location very soon. After satisfying my sweet tooth, I was thirsty again and though many businesses were closed on New Year’s Day, Deschutes’ Portland brewpub welcomed us with open arms. I tried their Peach Vice, an American Wheat Ale brewed with peach-forward aroma hops and Black by Hopular Demand, which I inferred correctly to be a Black IPA. These were both solid beers, but I still prefer their main production and seasonal releases that I can get in Southern California.

Our final stop of the weekend was the Cascade Brewing Barrel House, one of the longest tenured sour breweries in the U.S. (at over a decade old). I’ve enjoyed their beers for some time, and saw them as the forebearers to the clean, lactic-forward style now propagated by the Rare Barrel, among others. The price point for their beers is higher than most, so going to their Barrel House provided a good way to taste many of their beers without paying thirty dollars a bottle. My favorite beer was their Cranberry 2016, which was slightly spiced with orange peel and cinnamon. No trip to Portland would be complete without a stop here, and I’m glad I was finally able to make it.

There were plenty of other places we weren’t able to visit in our two and a half days, such as Pip’s Original Doughnuts, The Commons Brewery, Hopworks Urban Brewery, and a pizza place I like called Oven & Shaker. Luckily, Portland is more accessible than ever now that Southwest Airlines has joined JetBlue in making flights out of Long Beach Airport, which is incredibly close to me. Something tells me I’ll be back sooner rather than later.

Taking the Certified Cicerone Test

About a month ago, I sat through a four hour exam testing virtually everything I’d learned about beer up to that point. The Certified Cicerone® exam covers every aspect of beer with varying degrees of depth, but requires knowledge of the brewing process, beer styles and their history, draft systems and their upkeep, beer and food pairings, proper serving techniques, commercial examples of dozens of beers, and much more. All of that is tested in a three hour written exam, not multiple choice, which includes three in-depth essay questions. This is followed by a tasting exam testing the ability to recognize various off flavors in beer, to identify beer styles given a small sample and two choices, and to make a judgment call on whether a theoretically-returned beer is fit to serve. It sounds like a lot because it is and I’ve been preparing for it, knowingly or not, for my entire beer drinking life.

My path towards taking this test actually started two and a half years ago, in June of 2014, when I created an account on cicerone.org. Seven months later, I took the Certified Beer Server exam, a 60 question online test covering the basics of beer styles and service, and passed with a respectable score. This energized me to study more, taste more critically, and take the beverage I already loved more seriously. From here, I reread Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer twice, studied the Draft Beer Quality Manual to learn all about draft systems, wrote more on this blog (although, I admittedly had a noticeable dead zone the past few months of intense studying), and began tasting the beers I’d often skip when at a bottle shop.

I was most amazed by learning all the things I didn’t know I didn’t know–the unknown unknowns that surprised me and helped me see the big picture a little clearer. These ranged from the scientific (“oxidized” isn’t a flavor; that papery stale beer taste is actually the organic compound trans-2 nonenal), to the surprising (nitrogenated beer was invented by a Guinness scientist/mathematician named Michael Ash), to the utterly random (the rings on the sides of kegs are called chimes). Tidbits like these deepened my appreciation for beer, which never ceases to demonstrate further layers of complexity. The biggest takeaway from all the studying I did was rediscovering beers I had neglected as I sought bigger, bolder, and more flavor-packed alternatives. I’d forgotten the subtle beauty of Pilsner Urquell and the refreshing zestiness of Hoegaarden, which was the first Belgian beer I ever drank.

So, after ten years of drinking beer, two and a half of studying it, four hours being tested on it, and six weeks of waiting for my results, I’m thrilled to report that I passed the Certified Cicerone® test! My aim in obtaining this certification was never to claim expertise in beer knowledge (as much as I know currently, it’s really just the tip of a rather vast iceberg), but rather to provide an avenue to share with others my appreciation and love of the world’s finest beverage.

Ballast Point Splashes into Long Beach

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Understated with Good Use of Wood. 10 Points to Gryffindor.

When Ballast Point opened its fifth location in Long Beach two weeks ago, I don’t think anybody was prepared for how quickly it was welcomed by the community. I would say it was an overnight success but it didn’t even take one night. I made my visit about three hours after they first opened their doors (which was 11:00 AM on a Thursday) and it was already packed wall to wall. As far as I could tell, the only advertising for the opening was two Facebook posts and word of mouth, but somehow the news quickly reached the entire East Long Beach and Seal Beach communities. When I first walked in, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of the design of the space–it’s open with large windows that look out to Alamitos Bay and the Pacific Ocean. You can see the the water from every table in the building (I checked) and it’s nearly unfathomable to think how much the space has changed since it was Khoury’s Restaurant. While I admit I didn’t come for the design and views, they will be what brings me back in the future, because I’m not confident the beer always will.

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Big Eye IPA accidentally dry-hopped with Sculpin hops. They called it Check the Tank, then Blunder IPA

Since Ballast Point sold the brewery to Constellation Brands, I have been drinking less of their beer for several reasons. The main one is that corporate-owned beer seeks to expand its market share and the only way to do that is to squeeze smaller or up-and-coming breweries off the shelves, which is not a practice I want to regularly support. The second reason is that the direction Ballast Point is taking most of their beer doesn’t jell with my taste. A few years ago, when they added habañero peppers to Sculpin IPA, it was a virtually unheard of move that was so novel it didn’t feel gimmicky. Now each main production beer has at least one fruit and/or pepper variant and they seem to show no signs of slowing. In my few visits, I’ve heard the bartenders pushing beers like Watermelon Dorado and Red Velvet Cake oatmeal stout. At the opening day, I tasted a few sips of Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager and it was clear what their intentions for the beer were. If we rate beer drinkers on a 1-5 scale with one being Bud Light drinkers and 5 being people who won’t imbibe anything that’s not either barrel aged or less than a week old, Ballast Point has shifted their focus from the 4s and 5s to the 2s and 3s. With beers like Orange Vanilla Fathom, they aren’t trying to impress craft beer drinkers with unique twists in familiar beers, they’re trying to convert people who don’t like beer or heretofore did not care about flavor to start drinking Ballast Point beers that taste like Popsicles.

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Their nautical theme is finally fitting!

That probably sounds harsher than my intention really is, and if they’re able to bring macro beer drinkers into the realm of craft, I think that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if people start to identify with the Ballast Point brand specifically instead of craft as a whole, it’s a missed opportunity, because their dollars aren’t going to the craft beer market. Whatever they are doing, it’s working extremely well, at least for now, in their first LA area expansion. I’ve been three times (and attempted to go a fourth but the line to get in was 45 minutes) and both times I’ve seen at least a half dozen people I know. I’ve ran into friends from high school I hadn’t seen in nine years, locals normally seen around Seal Beach, and beer geeks recognizable from beer festivals and special bottle releases. It’s definitely the hottest spot in town right now, filling my Instagram and Snapchat feeds, particularly among my non-beer geek friends. It’s a fun place to hang out and drink a beer, and I imagine the food is good based on my experiences at the Little Italy location. And though people have made this gripe about Sculpin, there seems to have been no perceived dip in quality for Victory at Sea, the Imperial Porter that will always hold a spot on my favorite beers list. So while I won’t be lining up to try the next berry-flavored lager or blonde ale they produce, I’m sure I’ll be back at Ballast Point Long Beach in the future, sipping a Victory at Sea, and enjoying the view–inside and out.