Satori Award 2010: Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter

The Satori Award
In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its fifith year, honors the beer that in a single instant allows the drinker to realize brewing magnificence. It is that moment when the sheer force of tastiness produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. The inaugural winner was Ninkasi Believer followed by Full Sail Lupulin (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008), and Upright Four (2009).


Trying to name a single best beer has been brutal the last few years. I have had to leave Deschutes Dissident, Double Mountain (pick one: IRA, Kolsh, Kriek, Vaporizor), and Hair of the Dog Blue Dot on the table--among many other good and great beers. This year it was a little different. I tried no beer that could compete with those beers or past winners. There just weren't many beers released. Many of the new beers came from new breweries, and new breweries rarely debut with world-class beers.

I did admire several beers quite a lot. The People's Choice winner, Deschutes Hop in the Dark, was the first CDA I actually enjoyed. Ninkasi's Maiden the Shade didn't revolutionize anything, but it was a really nice summer IPA. My local brewpub, Coalition, debuted with a nice red and an even nicer Loving Cup Maple Porter--a beer I've had a lot of pleasure drinking this fall and winter. Rogue made their best beer in years with Single Malt, an ale so mild it got little attention--but which perfectly showcased the brewery's new homegrown malt and hops. Block 15's first bottled release, Figgy Pudding, was a great effort at reproducing a strong English ale (call it an old ale or barleywine as you wish). And finally, nano-brewing Beetje impressed me with an elegant, understated saison called variously Urban Farmhouse or B-Side.

The next cut were those I actively considered for the Satori--my short list. I oscillated among each of these beers and I could make the case for each of them, but of course there can be only one. So first, the two that just missed the cut.

Cascade Noyeaux
First, a guy who might as well pitch a tent on the short list--Ron Gansberg. He constantly has something new in the hopper, but a few of his experiments grow to become regulars in his ever-expanding line-up. Noyeaux is effectively a sister beer to the '08 Satori winner Cascade Apricot Ale. It's made on a similar base of port-aged, strong blond ales (blended, as are all the Cascade sours) and includes the kiss of raspberries. The key ingredient, however, comes from the pits left over from the Apricot Ale.

I learned about the special ingredient a year ago when I visited the brewery. Ron showed me how he was repurposing the discarded pits. Employing a high-tech process, Ron removes the meat from inside the pits and adds it to the Noyeaux. (Actually, the process involves a hinged lever device and a lot of grunting, and then results in an explosion of pit-shrapnel.) That meat, later toasted, tastes like almonds, however (it's even used in amaretto syrups), and so does the resulting Noyeaux. Cascade's most-coveted beers are aged on bourbon casks, but I like the ones that come off wine and port barrels. The flavors meld more naturally with fruits and nuts and allow the sour to wash over them. You can take the Vlad; leave me the Noyeaux.

Oakshire Well-Mannered Gnome
By all rights, I should elevate this extremely tasty small beer to the Satori as a matter of advocacy. Everyone should drink small beers! It's certainly a worthy choice. Made in the small-beer manner, off the second runnings of the massive Very Ill-Tempered Gnome, the Well-Mannered Gnome has as its grist six malts as well as infusions of Nugget, Centennial, Willamette, and Crystal hops--including dry hops. The result is as complex and lush as it is svelte (just 3.8%). It was dry and spicy--though not husky, as is sometimes the case with small beers. (Harsher notes can apparently be pulled out in the second run.) It was pouring when Patrick and I visited a few weeks back, and I think it may have been my favorite beer of the visit. And this is exactly the thing about low-alcohol beers: they're not just good for small beers, they're good, period. I confirmed from brewer Matt Van Wyk that they'd continue to make this, and next year I'd put it on your "must try" list.

Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter
The final beer, and the Satori winner, is from one of those new breweries--Prodigal Son, from that increasingly beer-rich region of Northeast Oregon. This beer didn't do too well in People's Choice polling, and I'm not surprised. Just 17,000 people live in the home of the Round-Up, and probably not many read beer blogs. They are fortunate indeed to have brewer Brian Harder, a Seibel-grad and Rogue alum, as a prodigal son who so kindly returned with the bounty of his beer knowledge. In Prodigal Son they have one of Oregon's best brewpubs, both in terms of ambiance as well as beer.

One of the themes that's come up a lot lately in the beerosphere is novelty-fatigue. While it's very cool to live in a moment of such experimentation, one also hankers for a familiar style done really well. When I visited the brewery, all the beers were well-made, and with the exception of the hefeweizen--an offering to lite drinkers--each was well-executed, distinctive, and tasty. Among these was a porter that I didn't realize until later was 7.5% because it was so balanced and approachable. I wrote this about it:
A robust beer that conceals its strength in velvety-soft folds of chocolate. Roast notes balance the beer, but they play a minor role. It was a hot summer day when we visited, and I could easily have downed an imperial pint of this dark nectar.
Sometimes I know the second I drink a beer that it's special, and sometimes I know it because I keep wanting another one days after I tried it. I thought Bruce/Lee was special the first time I had it, but over time, as I pined for it, I knew how special it was. It's a bit big to call a simple porter, but that's how it tasted: nothing gaudy or ornamental about it, just pure pleasure. I expect to see good things from Prodigal Son over the years, and I'll try to make it out there from time to time. You should, too.