Beer/No Beer: A Curmudgeon at the Oregon Brewers Festival

The hop-garlanded OBF cask with beer this year from
BridgePort.  (Blueberry, natch.)
There are some absolutely spectacular beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival this year.  I started out with a pour of Kaiser Pilsener, the special beer Jürgen Knöller brewed up to celebrate Bayern's 25th anniversary last year.  An intense blast of noble hops with a polished malt base--and we're off.  Upright's impressive Kolsch followed and then the smoked helles from Widmer and the Collaborator project, another really impressive effort (and the prettiest beer at the fest).  A little later the twin Dortmund exports from trailer 5, Occidental and Breakside.  The former was more a helles, emphasizing grainy malts, while Breakside's was a good example of what I imagine enthralled Germans half a century ago.  It was a truly spectacular beer and my fave of the beers I tried.

You can see the theme there: I was going for the low- and mid-alcohol, low-impact German beers to get started.  I was there with a clutch of friends, and we had staked out a prime table in the shade of a large tree by the river.  For the most part, my friends had taken a different approach and were going for the exotica.  I was cradling my precious Breakside when one of the friends handed me a pour of Peaches and Cream by Fearless.  The aroma: pure peach.  The flavor?  Even peachier.  I detected nothing in the liquid that betrayed the art of zymurgy.  Sort of off-handedly, I declared it "not beer."

This is an old dispute.  The nature of beer is change.  One generation's abomination is another generation's cherished tradition.  Indeed, in some countries, the cherished traditional beer from the neighboring country is an abomination.  It's almost impossible to defend the idea of a fixed identity for "beer" when you have styles as divergent as pilsners, porters, and lambics.  We're well into the realm of subjectivity here, right?--so I should get with the program and just enjoy the damn beer. 

A circus of the bizarre continued parading across my tongue: spicy gazpachos like Elysian's and Dunedin's; Gigantic's literal juicy IPA (Old Town's Bolt Minister: "It takes like a Christmas Tree, with juice"); Laht Neppur's peach entry; (weirdly) innumerable blueberry beers (though props to Boulder for a very nice, beery take); Oakshire's crazy 26-ingredient beer that included Oregon grape*; Widmer's Thai-spiced lager.  They were so weird that we continued my game.  With each new specimen, we sniffed and sipped and rendered a judgment: beer/no beer. 

I am no longer going to stand on my porch and shake my fist at you damn kids to get off the lawn.  Put whole pies in the beer, whip up meat stouts, shave the dog and harvest the yeast from his fur: it's all good.  When you read medieval accounts of beer, you realize this is a time-honored practice.  The ancients liked to brew with beans and bark, eggs, hallucinogens, and the residue of coal seam fires. I am in no position to call BS. 

And yet, and yet.

There is something illuminating about tasting a beer like Breakside's or Bayern's and comparing it to one of the cold soups on offer.  I like beer.  The flavors that come from the fermentation of malt and hops are pleasant to me.  It's hard to make them harmonize perfectly and when a brewery manages the trick, it's like watching a crisply-executed give-and-go.  A fundamental play in basketball, but not so easy to pull off and very satisfying when done properly.  When you start dumping random flavors into beer (and I use the word "random" advisedly), you start to obscure the beer. Maybe a fermented peach drink is heavenly, but it doesn't taste anything like beer. You may call it pleasant, but I call it "no beer."  Hand me the export, please.

*Not a grape.