Constructive Criticism: Pelican Sun Flare
A brief update for those of you wondering what's happening on the forest fire front. Portland is still shrouded in a thick, smoky haze, and fires still roar up and down the state--as they will for weeks. But it looks like the Gorge, despite some burned patches, is not entirely lost. The lodge at Multnomah Falls was saved, and there is still much green intact. The air temperature have come back down, the winds are shifting, and firefighters have started to get the flames under control.
There are a lot of ways a beer can go sideways, and the most difficult to discuss is when it happens as a function of poor recipe design. If a beer is well-made and clearly reflects a brewery's intention, can it be said to be bad or wrong? Isn't this just a matter of taste and preference? On one level, it is; much of this discussion happens in the realm of the subjective. But much that is subjective--all of art, for example--exists in an objective context. There can be reasons to dislike something beyond mere preference. This was one dimension of the Constructive Criticism series I wanted to get into, and the perfect test case presented itself to me on Monday, when I sat down behind a Pelican Sun Flare pale ale.
It's partly a good test case because there are few breweries out there more intentional than Pelican, owner of forty-three GABF medals over the past 19 years. Plus, I had Sun Flare at the new site in Cannon Beach, so it was served in the fresh fettle the brewery intended. I have no doubt that if Darron Welch or whomever brewed this walked up to me and sampled it, he'd feel it was tasting exactly as the beer was intended to taste. As the medals attest, it's long been one of Oregon's most consistent and best breweries.
So, Sun Flare. It is described as a "dry-hopped pale ale," and it's made with a potpourri of my favorite hops--El Dorado, Meridian, and Santiam--for what one would expect to be tropical juice delight. It's nothing of the sort. it's got 45 IBUs, and you taste every one; it is bitter. There are extremely light aromatics, even once I let it warm up, and they are fairly generic, along with a faint black tea/boiled vegetable note that hints at the bitterness to come. The juiciness is absent from the palate, as well. What this beer offers is a bracing smack of hop bitterness and not much else.
And here's the weird thing. It doesn't even taste like a pale ale. It's extremely thin, reminiscent of a low-ABV session IPA. I did the math based on the numbers the brewery provides (11.5P and 5.1%), which puts the finishing gravity at a saison-dry 1.007/1.8P. American pales are round, soft, and medium-bodied. I wouldn't say it's mandatory, but caramel-malt sweetness is the classic presentation. Sun Flare has no sweetness, no caramel flavor, and no body. And no juiciness.
Part of the failure is one of communication. This isn't a pale, and if it's dry-hopped, I missed it. Upended expectations aren't always a great thing. But there's a more fundamental problem with the beer. It just isn't very interesting or tasty. A beer this bitter needs to be balanced either by some malt sweetness or a healthy dose of juiciness. Both would be best. It's too dry, even for someone like me who loves a good, dusty beer. It also strikes me--and here I acknowledge I've slipped into preference--that a beer like this tastes dated. When you see a beer advertised as hoppy, particularly one that highlights its dry-hopping, you think of intense flavors and aromas. They don't have to be juicy; pine is fine, as are sticky dankness or a noble floweriness. But it's 2017, and so we've come to expect certain things.
Sun Flare has not a single flaw of brewing or handling that I could detect. But it lacked balance, had a lackluster aroma, and was so dry it was hard to drink easily (what's the opposite of moreish?). It's a great example of a beer that just doesn't come together properly, no matter how intentionally it was brewed.