Holiday Ale Fest Final Roundup

Since I've already spent a number of posts talking about the Holiday Ale Fest, I'll try to keep the final roundup short.

The Event, Generally
I had the good fortune to look behind the curtain on Saturday and see some of the machinery that makes this event what it is. While we were off on separate expeditions, Sally ran into Peter Kruger, the head brewer at Bear Republic. (He's a graduate of my alma mater, Lewis and Clark--go Pios! Brewpublic as a nice piece on him, including a video, if you want to see more.) The following discussion was fascinating, as is nearly every discussion I have with a brewer. For example, Peter described how he came by the 100-year-old cognac barrel (the twinkling smile of lady luck, mostly) and how he defeated a knothole to make it usable. Later on, Fest organizer Preston Weesner joined us, and I got to ask a question I was even more interested in: why would Kruger send one of these precious kegs to Oregon?

I learned two parts of the answer. One is the relationship Weesner cultivated with Kruger (which he cultivates with other breweries, too). It is typical for festivals to just put out a call for entries and accept what breweries offer. Weesner actively engages breweries, discusses their beer with them, and, in cases where beer is aged in 100-year-old barrels, lobbies and cajoles. Kruger was clear: that beer wouldn't have gone to another fest. But it's not just Weesner; Kruger was also really impressed with the overall level of beer and the appreciation it received by Portlanders. There are precious few fests like this, and for breweries, they're a lot of fun. That cognac-aged trippel of Bear Republic's spent 14 months aging. It was a special, one-time batch that will never be replicated. When a brewer makes a beer like that, he wants to see it released somewhere it will be appreciated. So in a certain sense, we can thank ourselves, too.

The Beer
As it turned out, I had already had some of the Fest's best beers when I returned on Saturday (reviews here). The one beer that really lept out at me in the second round was Block 15 Oaked St. Nick. This fest featured scads of barrel-aged beers, but mostly they had been aged in casks previously inhabited by wine or liquor. They therefore take on the character of those other potables, and less of the oak. St. Nick is pure beer, though. A lucious, creamy beer with a spicy backbone of hops that were brightened by dry-hopping, it drew vanilla from the oak. In fact, too much vanilla--it got a bit cloying at the end. Still, all the pieces were there to make a spectactular beer. A real head-turner and a wonderful introduction to a brewery about which I am still mostly ignorant.

Others I enjoyed were Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin (a nicely-balanced oatmeal stout), MacTarnahan's Chocolate Imperial Stout (creamy and rich, but not heavy--perhaps better than the much-lauded Firestone Walker), and Oakshire Very Ill Tempered Gnome (a straightforward American barleywine with 47 bales of hops).

When breweries brew one-off, single-batch beers, they don't always hit homers. That was the case in my view with Full Sail Wassail blend (a blend of Wassail and imperial porter that failed to blend), Laughing Dog Chocolate Huckleberry Stout (Sally's analysis: Idaho's where Oregon was when Saxer Lemon Lager was popular; in other words, berry soda), Ninkasi Unconventionale (a bit charred and tannic and with little evidence of the herbal infusions), Upright Holy Herb (a well-made beer that was nevertheless a bit too herbal and sweet for me).

Further Reading
Lots of commentary out there if you want more. The O published a nice piece by John Foyston yesterday. Derek has reviews and pictures. Nate offers reviews at Champagne of Blogs, as does Jared at the Weekly Brew. Oh, and look who came out of a very short retirement to do a run-down (double entendre intended) of the beers.