Constructive Criticism: Lucky Lab

About a month ago, I resolved to begin to write about problematic beer. Too often, all we ever do is gush over beers we love and never delve into beer that was uninspiring, badly-made, contained off-flavors, or was ill-conceived. I'm not about to turn into Frank Rich, though; it's not really useful to harsh on breweries just to harsh on them. Rather, it's an opportunity to do what we always do--discuss beer, why we didn't like it, and perhaps offer thoughts about improvement.

First up is a brewery, and one I have long adored: the Lucky Lab. Launched twenty-three years ago in a vast hall that, from 1922 to the Lab's opening in '94 served as a roofing and sheet metal warehouse, it pulled together several threads of Portland culture and instantly became an icon. The Lab reflects Portland's working history, its blue-collar aesthetic, it's laid-back personality, and its love of furry friends. At the time, Lucky Lab's beer was also very Portland. They were ahead of the curve in their adoption of hops, and they offered a string of assertive hop bombs in a time when many other breweries were still trying to move wheat beers and amber ales. They had a patio in which four-legged friends were encouraged, and everyone of a certain age will have spent the better part of the 90s there.

The thing is, it's not 1998 anymore. And by that I mean two things. First and most importantly, our palates have changed. Even if a drinker doesn't know the first thing about how beer is made, she knows that modern beer has moved away from intensity and toward balance. The second piece is that we've learned a lot about other beer styles in the last twenty years, and now we expect variety and even daring. We enjoy finding new, interesting, even trendy things. The range at Lucky Lab deviates only on the margins from the kind of beers it started out making. And even when an unusual style name appears, the beer itself tends to taste Lab-ish.

As a contrast, take Deschutes, another "legacy" brewery that has a porter and pale as its venerable flagships. Drop into the Portland brewery and you're going to find a gin-botanical beer (gin is very trendy right now), a beer made with wild yeast from Oregon fruit, a weird, barrel-aged dunkel (???--we may have to revisit that for a later post in this series), a fruit IPA, session sour, a biere de garde, and a schwarzbier. Most breweries in Portland offer a similiarly wide range of stuff. (Here's Baerlic, Ex Novo, Widmer, and Stormbreaker to take random examples that came to mind.) Ditto for pubs and alehouses.

No complaints about the glassware, either; Lucky Lab has always had honest pints.

With the Lab, it's not just variety; there's also an issue of execution. The beers have a consistent quality that drags them down--a sharp, biting bitterness at the back-end of many of the beers. This is not alpha-acid bitterness, itself a house preference and fine as far as it goes (Ecliptic also has lots of bitter beers). It's pervasive, and not dependent on whether the beer in question is particularly hop-bitter. During a recent visit, the Stumptown Porter had this in spades. It had pretty nice upfront flavors, with caramel and chocolate and an unexpected (but pleasant) blueberry note balanced by a light roast. Stumptown (which way predates the coffee) is a sweet porter and finishes with an old-school heaviness, but then there's that astringent note, tannic or weed-like, that pops you right at the end. The entire presentation of the beer is changed because of it.

I also had a pint of Overlook Pilsner. I couldn't actually tell if it was a lager. It was gently sweet, with a honey note at the front, and, while it lacked the crispness I wanted from a pilsner, wasn't a catastrophe or anything--except right there at the end, even in a beer with very low hop bitterness, was that sharp bite. I'm not great with the source of off-flavors. The only thing that comes to mind is a problem with the sparge that is pulling off tannins during the mashing.

I spend a night each week flying my nerd flag (and rolling dice) with a group of friends, and when no one is able to host, we often end up at the Lab. It's a great environment for groups, and we are almost never the only party there rolling dice. It remains one of the best places to drink a beer in the city. I just wish someone would update the recipes, figure out that sharp note in the beer, and begin to add a few new types of beers. There's nothing wrong with a pub that serves mainly IPAs, pales, and porters, but even these styles need to be updated and kept fresh. Our palates have evolved, and I'd like to see the beers come with us.

However, because when we take away, we must also give, I do have one very positive review to offer. As usual, there were several IPAs on offer at my last visit to the Lab. But wait!--for the first time in memory, there was a very modern, very tasty version called Wag IPA. It had a dank, peppery nose that was rich and aromatic--far more than most Lab IPAs. Bucking current trends, the brewer(s) had gone for a spicy hop profile rather than fruit juice. I found subtle fruit notes buried deep within, but it was fundamentally spicy. There was a decent backbone of bitterness, but much lower and more harmonious than the usual Lab beer, and very much in keeping with modern IPAs; hop flavors and aromas drove the beer. That it was peppery rather than fruity made it seem even more innovative and interesting--it wasn't the 393rd NE IPA of the year.

I took this picture of it after badly pouring out a measure from a pitcher. (Oh yeah, the Luckly Lab has pitchers, which gets them further kudos.)

The Lucky Lab should be a hometown favorite, and with just a little tuning up, it could be again. And perhaps Wag IPA shows that it's already happening.