Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tasting notes - Judgment Day

In 1988, the year that Basquiat died, the year that the last state in the US succumbed to the pressure of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, near the end of a decade thrust through time via the unforeseen propulsion of forced-air induction, a new chapter in what we can now look back at fondly as the re-birth of America's current craft beer movement had begun. As a development within the West Coast craft brewing movement that could be traced back to a pint of steam beer that Fritz Maytag enjoyed with his lunch back in 1965, the brewpub boom was a huge shift in the culture of craft beer. Sitting down with a list of the iconic breweries of the genre, one quickly finds the vast majority of them had their roots not as bottlers or draught distributors, but as public houses, taverns, and saloons that offered a community gathering place, served food, and brewed their own beer on the premises: think Hopland's Mendocino Brewing Company, Ashland's Rogue Ales pub, and the Buckhorn Saloon of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. At that time, a simple business plan would show that the profit margins on the beer sold on the premises paid off the cost of the customers' food, even, a profit margin that - while it likely doesn't exist anymore - offered these companies the resources to expand into bottling, kegging, and distributing their wares off premises.

And the flagship wares brewed by these fine folks are an exemplary reflection of what most people today would identify with as the trademark distinctions of American craft beer: ales with a British pedgiree, brewed with a certain frontier, buckaroo styling. Pale ales, stouts, IPAs, porters, amber ales, mostly, ramped up in both the bitterness and alcohol departments, and watermarked with the unique traits of the locally grown, citrusy, piney hops. Wonderful tipples, for the most part, these beers are, especially when admired within the context of their creation, in a pub with some locals, enjoying a burger with a game on the toob, brushing the workday dust off your shoulder.

Fast forward to the present. The Hopland, Ashland, and Anderson Valley brewpubs have all been outgrown by their previous inhabitants, but their presence as "regulars" in retail and restaurants would seem pretty solid. Likewise all over the country, beer makers that had initially been tied to brewpubs as the anchor of their identity have spread their wings, flexed their marketing muscle, and grown beyond anyone's expectations.

Those that weathered the microbrewery boom of the 90's ("micro" being the "turbo" of the nineties) formed the old guard of the current revolution, making solid West Coast ales that pair damned well with hot wings and a Raiders game. But anon, lucky us, we appear to be potential witnesses to the birth of a new chapter, a chapter which is underway right now and could quite possibly be summed up by the bottle you see pictured at the head of this post. For if you were to head south to sunny Solana Beach, you'd come across a pretty great little pizza joint called Pizza Port that happens to serve some darned fine beers on tap (mostly like the ones I've described above, in fact) but look in the cooler case by the front door, and you'll see something wholly different - a set of nice 750 mL bottles with not the Port Brewing logo on them, but Lost Abbey.

Lost Abbey is a page turn in this craft beer story we're all enjoying, in that it's more a name and a logo for a branded, thematic collection of cork-finished, wire-caged bottles - a "vision" of sorts concocted by Tomme Arthur - than it is a "brewery" in the traditional sense. It's only one step ahead of a shift we've all seen in Russian River over the years. More on that later (since I did say this was a tasting notes column, after all).

If you've ever had the pleasure of enjoying a Ritter Sport Rum Raisin & Hazelnut bar, you've pretty much had the solid, non-alcoholic version of Judgment Day (and around here, that's a huge compliment). Pouring a stark, shiny black, looking like perfectly tempered dark chocolate, it delivers a likewise bittersweet note when it first hits the tongue. The raisins make their appearance through the aroma coming off the glass, but the remains in the taste have been converted to a rummy, boozy finish that lingers for ages once you get through the immense nutty, chocolaty body. It's devoid of that cloying, caramel stickiness that's so pervasive in Belgian quads, but with a dense viscosity that makes Gulden Draak seem like a total lightweight.

How does the fortuitous arrival of this wonderous bottle of ale translate to a new chapter in the craft beer Renaissance, though? Certainly, brewpubs have long had specialty ales that veered from their regular spectrum of styles, perhaps to allow the brewer to have a little fun, perhaps as an experiment, perhaps in honor of a special occasion. Certainly, I didn't even blush when Rogue teamed up with Morimoto to start producing specialty beers intended to pair uniquely with foods. Nor did I blink when Anderson Valley decided to plop a cowl on David Keene's noggin and start bottling the most dastardly childproof, molten glue gun sealed (it's supposed to look like wax, see?) Belgian specialty ales under the Brother David subtitle. Simply put, once these brewers had the resources and the green light, they started to branch out, which hardly constitutes a shift worth noting.

When the oddly-shaped "-tion" beers from Russian River started making appearances, however, there was cause to perk up and pay attention. For here we had not just one or two bottled oddities, but an entire range, within a specifically American-Belgo tradition, branded together by images of sadistic looking farming implements, that had seemingly nothing to do with the delightful little taproom/pizza joint where those brett-y barrels were doing their thang in downtown Santa Rosa. Visiting the pub shortly after I'd discovered Temptation and Supplication, I found myself the only one in the place looking for these sour beauties, the tables adorned almost exclusively by the likes of (the incredible, yet pronouncedly "West Coast") Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig. It was as if there were two separate breweries working out of the same space, with the same name, almost...*

The fact is, it's arguable that these specialty beers are, unlike all the beers hereto produced by the same brewers within their brewpub confines, not intended to be enjoyed at their respective establishments, but out in the world, nudging wine bottles off the table when nobody's looking, taking up precious cellar space in restaurants and basements and trying just a little to distance themselves from the pubs from whence they came. The brewpub culture that founded our current enviable position of enjoying quality, locally made, handcrafted beers appears to be shifting gears as the pressures of the brewing-restaurant business only get more intense: the rising cost of restaurant labor, rising costs of food and brewing ingredients, effects of a recession on the frequency on which folks eat out, the increasing distance between homes and pubs with a general lack of quality public transportation combined with increasingly stringent and heavily enforced drinking & driving laws, just to name a few.

Could it be that a generation of experimental brewers, flush with innovation and access to good distribution, are going to tap into America's current war and recession-fueled nesting phase by extroverting their efforts even more? When I go to my local bottled beer heaven, I have access to more brewpub-derived options than ever before, from all over the country - Dogfish Head, most recently - and am curious to see where this is going to take off to next. Will the brewpubs all end up like the one in Hopland, more of a historical remnant kept open by the company for image's sake than anything else, like the wine tasting rooms of the valley that surrounds it?

One thing's certain: As these brewers are allowed to expand their craft beyond what's expected in your local alehouse, the next phase of our brewing Renaissance is bound to be loaded with trophies like Port Brewing/Lost Abbey's singularly phenomenal Judgment Day. And that's just such a pleasant conclusion to come to, I won't even end with a tastelessly punny Biblical aside about how rapturous it all is.

Oh, who am I kidding?

* And when pressed to choose a beer that goes well with a spicy pizza, I'm not likely to grab a bottle of Supplication off the shelf. Nor would I anticipate that next time I visit Santa Rosa, will I be met with a Belgian-style cuisine à la bière restaurant in place of RRBC.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Nice post. I haven't had Judgment Day yet, but if you think it makes Gulden Draak taste light, that means I'm going to have to taste it. I had the Avery The Reverend last night and thought it was tasty, but relatively lightweight for a quadrupel. Speaking of Avery & your local bottled beer heaven: Healthy Spirits has a few bottles of Fifteen right now. I got one last night but David said they only got 2 cases in. Might want to book it on over there...

3:52 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Rob, excellently written post as usual ... You're making me thirsty!

7:07 AM  
Blogger drinkaweek said...

More beer for more people is certainly and good thing, but I hope your prediction of anachronistic, marketing prop brewpubs doesn't come anytime soon. I've always thought of brewpubs as being sort of college coffee shops for grownups. I place where you can pop in for a pint, and if you don't run into at least one person you know, you'll likely meet a fellow beer geek on one side of the bar. Then again, perhaps I'm smothered in a nostalgia for a kind of brewpub that doesn't exist - Or maybe even never did.

12:25 PM  

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