The Ultimate Beer Geek's Guide to the OBF
If you're reading this blog, though, it's because you're interested in the beer, not the boozy primal-screaming aspects of the fest--you know your saison from your session and your Chinook from your Centennial. You will be examining your program with the knowledge that stomach space limits you to a dozen or so of the 84 beers in a session. In past years, I've offered guesses at the beers I thought would be tasty and batted about .300--fine for a major leaguer, not so great for a beer drinker. So instead, I have sifted through the beers and organized them by elements interesting to the beer geek. Beers like Full Sail Session Black--a mainstay in the Alworth home--get no attention. You know Full Sail Session Black.
What follows is essentially my own organization, broken down into categories that I'll be thinking about as I'm wandering the grounds tomorrow. I hope you'll find it useful, too. I've mentioned forty beers, but you'll know how to navigate through the categories. Note that all listed breweries contain the location by trailer (1-12) at the fest so you can easily locate them.
There are a lot of changes at this year's OBF. Two of the biggies: it begins tomorrow, Wednesday the 24th, not Thursday as in recent years; those iconic opaque, chunky mugs are gone. For the first time, the OBF will have glasses, and also for the first time, the pours will be just three ounces. (As recently as 2003, they were twice that.) Another loss--reportedly temporary--is the buzz tent, which contained curated rarities and vintage pours. Don't spend a lot of time wandering around looking for it.
Apparently they've also rearranged things so that on the south end, the beer will be on the river side of the park, allowing for seating under the trees on the city side. [Edit. Or not. The industrious Chris Crabb contradicts Art on this point.] And while I can't find it on the website, host Art Larrance has described a sobering-up station somewhere on the grounds should you find that you've gotten out over your skis booze-wise. Finally, props to Art and the crew for limiting each brewery to a single beer (Cascade and the Rac Lodge; Rogue and Buckman).
All right, now to the main event...
Hops For the Discerning Palate
You will not strain yourselves to locate hoppy beers at the Fest. Although they are less prolific at this year's fest, they still amount to more than one in four of OBF's offerings. As such, you may wish to prioritize. I offer these suggestions.
- Bravo hops. Boundary Bay (6) has a single-hopped beer made with Bravo, a high-alpha variety released just a few years back. Bravo has Zeus and Nugget parentage, and is described as earthy/spicy but with a tangerine chaser.
- M hops. Mosaic and Meridian are having quite a moment. Should you wish to check out the buzz, BridgePort's Long Ball Ale (10) has Meridian while Stone's Delicious IPA (9) uses Mosaic (and El Dorado--see below)--though at 116 IBUs, it may not have the subtlety to reveal any hop character.
- El Dorado. Another interesting new-hop beer comes from Speakeasy (8). Bittered with Columbus, but finished and dry-hopped with El Dorado, Tallulah should be an interesting experience. Surly's OverRated (2) IPA also has a touch of El Dorado, though they may be overwhelmed by Centennial and Chinook.
- Cluster hops. The old man of American hopping, Clusters were once pretty much the only game in town. If you want to taste their rough, American character, Double Mountain's (7) single hopped Clusterf#ck is the beer to try.
- Hoppy lagers. One of the most interesting developments at this year's fest is hoppy lagers, including a troika that will be high on my list: Epic Hop Syndrome (7) uses Calypso, Crystal, and French Aramis hops while Cornelius Pass Roadhouse's Silvercone (9) goes for traditional NW hops, and Base Camp's (6) flagship In-Tents Lager uses American hops and wood-aging.
GinBeer and juice. Two years ago, Alameda and Breakside made a splash at the fruit beer fest when they added fruit juice to IPAs. It's a surprisingly winning combination. At this Fest, Gigantic's & Juice (5) combines grapefruit, pineapple, and tangerine to pop the citrus.
One of the coolest things is seeing real fidelity to the German tradition--German malts and hops, rational hop levels--and this year's Fest has an impressive selection.
- Dortmund Export. Not one, not two, but three exports will be pouring. This once-obscure style was once the king of Germany. In its heyday, export had two-thirds of the market share in Germany, and as recently as the sixties had half of it. They were more more robust than hellesbiers, fuller-bodied than pilsners, and had hopping levels about midway between those styles. You may try examples by Breakside (6), Occidental (5), and Old Town (1)--and you should try them all!
- Helles. I would nominate this as the most obscure style in American brewing. It's really hard to find a helles of any kind. The soft, grainy pale lager is religion in Bavaria, and I encourage you to taste the sacraments from Montana's Wildwood (7) and the Collaborator Project (2). The latter is an example of a Bamberg smoked helles. (No idea if it is the yeast alone, as in Schlenkerla's version, that adds smoke.)
- Kölsches. Cascade Lakes (10), Upright (9), and Wild River (2) are bringing kölsches--but I'd put special attention on Upright's. This is a pretty common style in the US now--weirdly--but it's also a perfect summer beer, so don't overlook Köln's finest.
- Pilsner. Okay, this is a Czech style, but I'm shoehorning it in. There are some very tasty offerings in this batch. First, from Bavarian Jurgen Knoller's kettle comes the burly 40 BU, decoction-mashed Bayern Kaiser Pilsener (7). Second is Hop Valley's Czech Your Head (4), a spectacular beer I've been enjoying this summer. (Bonus props for the Beastie Boys allusion.) Ninkasi (5) rounds out the offering with Bohemian Pils--not Sterling Pils that has been in stores recently--a pretty straightforward 12 Plato beer with Hallertau and Saaz.
Amber Waves of Grain
An amazing fact: there are nearly twice as many wheat beers at this year's fest (16) as IPAs (9). I wouldn't over-interpret this fact: IPAs are not about to enter a decline. Breweries have started to realize that they have a hard time standing out in a category that includes twenty or thirty beers, and also that hot summer days aren't the best way to showcase boozy, hoppy ales. Light wheaten ales are far better matches for the weather.
- Tart wheats. One of the most intriguing selections in this year's fest comes from Old Market--Dilution of Grandeur (6). It's described as a "spontaneously-fermented" beer--though that can mean many things. It's also got four different types of fruit. Although I have my doubts, it will be well worth a token to find out what they've come up with. More reliable is Burnside Marionberry Berliner Weisse (5), a perfect summer beer.
- Fruit wheats. There are a ton of these, but some are old standbys. I have my eye on Boulder's (9) made-for-the-OBF Pump Up the Jam, using Oregon blueberries. Ice Harbor (3) has blended Bavarian and American yeast strains in a tangerine beer. I'm not actually sure if Hopworks Two Tickets to Pearadise (9) is made with wheat, but it also looks intriguing. (The 'Couv's West Highland  also has a Mango beer with no wheat.)
- Witbiers. Wits are so last decade, and yet the two offerings stand out. First is pFriem's (8), in case you haven't had the chance to try it, and next is Dogfish Head Namaste (10), made with orange slices. Finally, you could give the cherry wit from 13 Virtues (1)--née Philadelphia's--a look just to see if the new facility is making cleaner beer.
One of the slight disappointments is how few Belgian-style beers there are this year. Of interest are a couple of interesting saisons: Prodigal Son's (1), which uses a blend of yeasts as well as long pepper, and Maui Brewing's (8), which uses lemongrass. Also, Deschutes (9) has a Belgian IPA for your inspection. Aside from the wits, that's really it.
And then we have the oddballs. Trend-spotters will note that out-of-category beers have become the bread and butter of craft brewing. Some work, some don't, but very often even those that don't work are worth trying for forensic purposes. A few of the most exotic:
- Oakshire 26 (4) gets the gold star for ambition. Brewed with 26 ingredients, including herbs, spices, and honey, it is liable to have plenty of flavor. Not bitterness, though--it was of course brewed to just 26 IBUs.
- Dunedin (2), all the way from Florida, brings a rustic beer made with pepper, grapefruit peel, and coconut. I have great confidence those selections were intentional.
- Elysian Oddland (10) is aptly named: pear, cardamom, and cumin are added to a pretty hoppy beer that the brewery describes as "spicy sweet." All right then.
- Mt Shasta Skip and Go Naked (6) is made with sun-dried strawberries and ginger. Strawberries have so much water they often don't add a lot to beer; I'll be interested to see what happens when they've been sun-dried first.
- Natian Erbal Tenacious (3) has the spice bill of a gruit--with 36 IBUs of hops to boot. Elderflower, grains of paradise, lemon myrtle and lemon balm are the botanicals.
- Widmer Eye of the Thaiger (2) continues the brewery's exploration of nonstandard lagers. Thaiger is essentially a helles (pilsner and Munich malts, Hallertauer hops, 22 BUs) spiced with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and ginger.
- Rogue's (10) beard beer also makes an appearance--if you can get over the ewww factor. (The yeast purportedly comes from brewer John Maier's beard.)