Raccoon Lodge: Brussels on the West Side?
7424 S.W. Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy
Yeast: the final frontier.
Oregon has long been on the cutting edge of brewing innovation, turning hops into something almost alchemical, pushing the boundary with adjuncts, and leading the way on organics. But only recently have breweries really started to mess around with yeast, and it's that dimension I believe the next great wave of improvisation will follow. We have seen the first signs from breweries like Double Mountain and Roots, but a series of experiments being overseen by brewer Ron Gansberg at the Raccoon Lodge are by far the most extensive in the state (and country?).
I spent an evening touring the brewery last week, and I have almost too much to report back on. He's brewing tripels, quadrupels, and sour beers ranging from lambic-style fruit beers to red ales (though none use brettanomyces, which Gansberg seems a little spooked about--based on my own experimentations, probably wisely so). Almost all of them are aged in oak for months to over a year, and many are double- or triple-fermented. It's an amazing range for a brewery that produces fewer than 1,500 barrels a year.
We started out with his newest releases--blackberry, cherry, and apricot ales. The process for the blackberry and cherry is similar. He begins with a base beer that starts with an abbey-style yeast (the house variant he's cultivating he calls "Abbey N'Ormal"). It's a relatively low-gravity beer. Those finish in stainless in about three weeks before being transferred to oak, where they are inoculated with the lactobacillus. They rest there for 6-8 months (in the video below, you can see them bubbling away) before Gansberg adds the fruit. The beer sits on the fruit for another three months before racking, and then sits a period of weeks to clear before bottling.
The first beer we tried was the blackberry, which was surprisingly astringent and dry. Turns out it was a bad year for blackberries, and they had substantially less sugar than usual. I would describe the beer as aggressively sour, with very little sweetness. I suspect it will age nicely and the acidity will become more sherry-like, but for now, only the hearty sour-lovers need apply (I, of course, enjoyed it a great deal).
Next was the Kriek, which in '07 was made with Bing, sour pie, and Sweetheart cherries--though Gansberg will probably fiddle with the recipe this year. It was a more nuanced beer, and as it warmed, opened up delightfully. The cherries were far sweeter and contributed enough to make the finished version more than a percentage point higher in alcohol than the blackberry. It is, at this stage, more balanced, too. The cherry flavor is richer, and the sweet and sour qualities commingle beautifully. As it warmed, I got a deep chocolate note along with the roastiness of the malt.
Based on these two beers, I was completely unprepared for the apricot ale, which was not made with the lower-gravity base beer of the other two, but Gansberg's tripel. It has the aroma not only of fresh apricots, but that intense scent fresh fruit, warmed by the summer sun, vents off. The palate is also infused with this fresh apricot. It is warmly sweet, sensual. The body is deceptively delicate and I was shocked to learn it was a tripel. An amazing beer, both approachable yet complex.
We went there into a phantasmagoria of beers, and my perception began to dull: Gansberg brews a dry, very tart Flanders red, an approachable tripel and a complex, rich, dry quad. His "Baltic porter" is also very tart, and in one batch he uses star anise, which produces a medicinal, minty flavor that almost seems to anesthetize the tongue. For the Cheers to Belgian Beers showdown, he's brewing a batch that includes sweet orange and cardamom. And if that's not enough, he's got a Cuvee that includes mixtures of many of these beers (plus who knows what else).
This review could go on for paragraphs, and I know that will produce diminishing returns--a person can only take in so much. There are a couple things I'd like to highlight, though. First is the sheer audacity of this experiment. Brewers feel increasingly less comfortable the more variables are thrown into the mix. Gansberg is so far out there he should be a wreck--he's got multiple yeast strains in wooden vessels (which harbor funk), he's got fruit, which behaves idiosyncratically year to year, and he's got months and months invested in each batch. As a homebrewer, if I have to wait three months, I'm dying by the end. The one lambic I've brewed I thought would never be done. So imagine what it's like to have 30 casks bubbling away, possibly all going sideways on you. Gansberg mitigates the variability by blending batches, but this is still a huge gamble.
The second thing is that he's out there in Raleigh Hills where gastronomy isn't quite as ... adventuresome as it is on the Eastside (would Le Pigeon be able to sell pigs feet for $11 as an appetiser on the Beaverton Hillsdale Highway?). In order to make this huge gamble pay off, Gansberg is depending on people to drive out there and drop $15 on a bottle of crazy-ass sour beer. (You can also get it at Belmont Station, eastsiders, as well as John's Market.) But those are the realities of brewing this kind of beer--it's just not possible to spend a year handcrafting this kind of product and sell it for less. I wish him well and I hope everyone who reads this goes out and supports his cause--if for no other reason than to support his further experimentations, which are unique in the state.
He offered me some beer as I was leaving, and as a blogger, I have no morals about that kind of thing (the pay being so bad). But I didn't take the Apricot Ale. It was literally one of the best beers I've ever tasted. I was reminded of my experience drinking John Harris's Lupulin last year--it was such a shock to the senses. Sadly, the apricots were hard to filter out, and he lost a fair amount of that batch. I felt it was just too good to give away. That's one more bottle one of you can enjoy, and fifteen bucks is a steal. So act quick and you may still find that bottle.
Pick up some of his other beers while you're at it--
[Update: Just got this from Ron: "Could you include info on a tasting? We are doing a free tasting of the Blackberry, Kriek and Apricot, including previewing the Cuvee du Jongleur on Saturday, March 8th in the Den at Raccoon Lodge from 12:00 to 4:00 pm." Yes, I think I could do that.]