Cheers to Belgian Beers: The Westmalle Edition
Cheers to Belgian Beers
Saturday April 30th, Noon-9pm
Metalcraft Fabrication, 723 N Tillamook St.
$15 for five drink tickets and a stemmed tasting glass, which is required to taste. Additional tastes are $1 and can be purchased at the festival entrance. No kids at this one.
One of the signature events on the beer calender happens on or around May Day: Portland Cheers to Belgian Beers. Now in its fifth year, the event has grown from ten breweries to 32--and from ten beers to 37 beers. The conceit is simple: everyone uses the same Belgian yeast, people come and taste the results, vote, and crown a best beer. The brewer of that beer selects the yeast for the next year and round we go again. Because Block 15 won last year--shattering forever the "Portland" in the name, a final part of the rules has been rewritten: in past years, the winner got to host the event the next year. The Brewers Guild, which now oversees Cheers, decided to keep it in Portland, robbing Corvallis of their festival. (For shame!)
Block 15 did, however, get to select the yeast, and Nick Arzner chose the strain from Westmalle--a classic. (Stan Hieronymus, who wrote the book on abbey ales, says Westvleteren and Achel use it, too.) Many Belgian strains lack versatility--or at least are finicky enough that breweries need to have lots of practice to produce a wide range. Westmalle's (Wyeast 3787) is versatile, though, producing the signature tripel as well as a much smaller, 5.3% beer the monks also brew called Extra. It is highly attenuative, and its tolerance for different temps means brewers can tweak the esters or produce a phenolic (clovey) character. It will produce both isoamyl acetate and the phenol 4-vinyl guaiacol, so maybe you could even try to coax a weizen out of it. In short, brewers should be able to do what they want.
If you wanted to chart the changes in brewing over the years, you could use Cheers to Belgian Beers as one metric. In the first three years, most of the beer was single-strain, tank-aged beer. Last year we saw a bit of barrel-aging and some funk. This year the trend continues. I have my eye on the sour from Big Horse (because last year Jason Kahler really rocked it) and also the one from Coalition (because I think it's their first sour). Dave Logsdon debuts his Seizoen Bretta, soured with brettanomyces (though perhaps not made with the Westmalle yeast). Beyond sours, I like the cut of Lucky Lab's jib--a wee 3.2% table beer (because it's the Lucky Lab, it's a "Belgian-style Norse-American" table beer). Burnside is also doing a table beer, but in the Northwest "small" style--4.7%
Lots of breweries are using spices (Caldera and Oakshire look promising), Double Mountain has a barrel-aged version of their tripel, Widmer's coming strong with figs and plums, and the defending champ seems intent on keeping the crown (an unprecedented feat) with what will certainly be a crowd-pleasing dark chocolate beer. The beers of other breweries, whose names reveal little, will surely have some surprises, too.
The beers haven't always been uniformly good (years two and three were rough), but I have high hopes that this yeast will treat people right. The breweries seem to have really embraced the event and the beer list looks fantastic. Unfortunately, I'm going to be out of town and I'll miss the show. This is rather crushing, and I intend to read the chatter and try to follow up with some of these breweries on my own. If it weren't for Cascade's Saison Festival the following weekend, I might die of envy for all of you who can go. As it is, I may pull through. Don't let me down, though. Go bird dog this thing so I can track down the winners.