A First Look at Level Beer (Sherpa Alert!)

Grand Opening Celebration
Saturday, November 4th, 11 am to 10 pm
Live Music, special beers, activities for kids
5211 NE 148th Avenue
Shuttle from Bailey's Taproom and NePo (see schedule)

Every city has certain pockets, usually containing warehouses, factories, or office parks, that few people visit. They are ringed by four-lane roads that whisk cars past their hidden recesses, effectively binding them off as effectively as a tourniquet. For obvious reasons, these are not choice locations for retail traffic. Recently, however, a brewery did choose one of these neighborhoods. It's in a stretch of no-man's-land in the far east of the city, between Airport Way and the Columbia. This does make it a convenient for day-trippers heading back into town from a hike in the Gorge, which is precisely the circumstance that led me to Level Beer a week ago.

Like Gigantic, Level is something of a brewing supergroup. It combines the talents of Geoff Phillips, who pioneered the craft beer pub in Portland with Bailey’s Taproom, along with brewers Jason Barbee (Ex Novo, Deschutes PDX), and Shane Watterson (Laurelwood). It's always even money that a brewery eventually turns into an IPA house, but for the moment, the men of Level are following their own interests in sessionable, balanced, European-inspired ales and lagers.

Someone at Level like entendres--double, triple, however many they can lard into a name. The first entendre of Level points to that balance they're shooting for in their beers (motto: "brewed with balance"). But it also serves as the organizing theme for the brand, a nerdily hip focus on games and movies of the 80s. Beers have names like Ready Player One and Let's Play that evoke arcade games or Gold Leader and Get to the Chopper that reference classic 70s and 80s movies. (Or not classic. A little Googling and I discovered "get to the chopper" was a line from Predator.) It works well with the suburban location and gives them endless fodder for naming.


In what appears to be a taplist custom-designed to appeal to my tastes, Level is currently offering an IPA (obviously), a saison, a mild, and two pilsners (dry-hopped and Czech), among others. I was very excited to see a mild; Barbee made one at Ex Novo that garnered a Sherpa last summer. This one was, unfortunately, not quite as good as Ex Novo's. It's difficult to make such a small beer hearty, and And the Crowd Goes Mild (great name!) was in fact slightly thin and a bit metallic--perhaps from roast malt. My second beer was Gold Leader, an English summer ale and again, despite towering expectations--well, as towering as they can get for an English summer ale--I again found the beer a bit faceless. Little beers have the capacity to express wonderful subtlety, but they can also just fade into nothingness.

Fortunately, Sally was drinking along with me, and she was picking the winners. Czech Sheet Lager is called a Czech pils, but it's not, really. I was pretty sure I tasted the signature graininess of Weyermann pilsner malt, and the hopping was delicate and herbal, but not tangy in the manner of a full-bore blast of Saaz. It was on its own merits a delightful pilsner, though, whatever its provenance. I wouldn't be surprised to see it evolve with time. The chassis is perfectly dialed in, and a slight tweak to the hops would make it more distinctive. Sally's second pour was Ready Player One, a dry-hopped saison that was to that point the day's best beer. It has an herbal, minty aroma with a touch of elderflower. The body has a slate-like dryness that contrasts nicely with the expressive nose. A lot going on, but gently.

For my third pour (I was drinking halves) I had ... Wait, we interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog post with an important Sherpa anouncement!

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Get to the Chopper (Vienna lager)

It would have been almost impossible to envision a Sherpa-worthy Vienna before tasting Chopper. Back in the 19th century, Anton Dreher's original may have been packed with flavor, but modern Viennas are almost uniformly dull affairs--caramel-colored mass market lagers. Level's interpretation hews to the vibe of the modern style, which is to say a very low-intensity beer engineered for chugging. Yet it was so much more. It was what I wanted the mild to be--a full-bodied, malty delight with tons of moreishness. In the Vienna's case, that malt was full and toasty warm. That autumnal warmth carries through to the finish, where it just snaps off, inclining the drinker to another quick swig. It is no sensory tour de force, but it is a perfectly realized example of a beer I didn't know could be perfectly realized.

Our final beer was a fresh-hop version of the dry hop pilsner, Let's Play. The aromatics were amazing. Imagine flowery gardenia, pineapple, and the tiniest hint of cilantro. It was cloudy and had a rusticity that reminded me of the helles beers you find in Franconia. Those hops were vibrant but not intense, and the whole thing came together wonderfully. It was a close second to the Vienna lager.

The pub itself was once a produce market abutted by a greenhouse. The market building is now the brewery and small pub, and the greenhouse is serving as the much larger seating area. It was exposed to the elements when we visited, but they plan to pub walls up and run gas heaters during the imminent cold months. (Actually, I guess we're there already; we arrived on one of the last summery days of fall.) During all the hours the brewery is open, three food carts (Mexican, burgers, barbecue/meat) serve as the kitchen. It's a family-friendly place with a play area for the kids. Dogs are welcome, too, and several were frolicking around during our visit.

I do think the beers are works in progress, which is saying something given the batting average they've already managed. It is curious to the casual fan, but these delicate beers are harder to make than booming IPAs. Getting everything in harmony takes more than one batch. I expect the beers to improve by increments until they're all really impressive. The location may always be a challenge, but it has its virtues. It is quiet and remote, which creates a relaxed mood perfect for taking in a pint or three. Definitely one to put on your to-do list.