The Newest Trend: "Retro Craft?"

Ben Dobler

Last week I was invited to the debut of the newest brewery in that one-mile chunk of Southeast Portland that was once charmingly called the "Beermuda Triangle" because it had three (!) breweries. (It now has ten.) I'd put this patch of land up against all comers in terms of most-beery (it also has two pubs with 40+ taps), and so I was expecting a fairly avant garde offering when I strolled into Mt Tabor Brewing at three o'clock on a sunny afternoon. Instead, this is the lineup owner Eric Surface and brewer Ben Dobler walked us through:
  • Light lager (4%).
  • Amber ale
  • Pale ale
  • Old school IPA
  • Porter
And these weren't winking modern takes on old classics (like a hop-bursted amber with saison yeast or a pale with local barley, peaches, and an experimental hops). No, they were brewed like old classics. The hop profiles are light and tilted toward bitterness rather than flavor and aroma, the malt profiles are caramelly. There is nothing in this group that would have surprised a visitor to a brewpub in the late 1980s (though it was a touch early for IPAs and the light lager would have been a golden ale).

Remarkably, Surface and Dobler report they can't keep their distributor in product, they're selling so well.

I should mention that all the beers are well made, if retro. Ben Dobler worked and brewed at Widmer for twenty years, and he knows precisely how to produce the beers he envisions. My notes as I drank the beers read like this: Lamp Light Lager is crisp, a tiny bit watery, and has extremely delicate American hop character; Ash Street Amber is thick and caramelly with very subdued hops; Powell Butte Pale has a lightly caramel body and smooth but unidentifiable hops; Asylum Avenue IPA has a dank, tannic (black tea) bitterness; and Crown Point Porter is creamy and sweet to start, but nicely attenuated, with black pepper and spice on the finish.

The backstory partly explains this, and there were some more modern beers elsewhere on the taplist. Mt Tabor was originally born as a nano in the neighborhood of the same name and was then relocated to Vancouver, WA, where palates are a bit less experimental. Many of these beers are carry-overs from that era. If you go to Mt Tabor, you'll be able to get more modern IPAs, a session IPA, a wonderful Belgian pale ale, and a really impressive dark Mexican lager (think Negra Modelo), so the retro theme is not absolute.

That retro theme is, however, fascinating, and it makes me wonder if Mt Tabor is on the cutting edge of something. In many ways, they are perfectly consonant with trends in beer right now, which lean toward balance and lower ABV. But the flavors are from another era and may look, to an audience who does not cast back to when they were adults in the 80s and first tried these beers (how the hell did I get so old?). Older millennials well into adulthood will have no memory of the sweet, caramelly flavors that were once the definition of American ales. A whole generation of beer drinkers fell in love with them, so it's not inconceivable that there's a new generation (or a good chunk of one) who will find them equally beguiling.

The "new" trend in craft beer might well be retro craft. And why not? Trends regularly come and go.

As for Mt Tabor, it's a wonderful space, with a cool bar nested in one corner of a working production brewery. Many taprooms feel like provisional spaces adequate for steaming through a flight of beers, but no place you'd like to spend a few hours with friends. Mt Tabor has made a place that feels like a pub, and the feng shui of the experience is enhanced by having the brewery right next to you. It's a bit like the old Commons place, but with chairs. They're going to put up an indoor bike rack, and hope to lure a food truck to come by during taproom hours, which will make it accessible and make longer sessions possible. Given its proximity to other breweries, it'll be easy enough to stop in for an amber and see what you think of this retro craft thing. I will certainly be pondering it, and I'll be on the lookout for further evidence that a trend is developing.

Nicole Kasten and Ben Dobler