2017 Festival of Dark Arts

I thought I had done a review of this last year, but apparently I didn’t.  This is the second year my wife and I have attended this festival, which is based around only stouts.  Fort George Brewery in Astoria has declared February as Stout Month and hosts this festival every year in the middle of the month.  Last year it was Valentines weekend, this year it was slightly later.  Unfortunately it always seems to fall on Zwicklemania weekend, which means missing that event.

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Last year’s festival happened during a torrential downpour and we got soaked walking from our hotel to the festival.  This year the weather was much nicer, but the downside to that meant it was a lot more crowded.  They rearranged some of the tap locations in an effort to manage the crowds better, but I feel like they went the wrong way and made it worse instead of better.  But besides the crushing crowds and the too loud music (which we just come to expect at an event like this) everything else was top notch as usual.  And of course, we’re all there for the beer!

I don’t take detailed tasting notes at an event like this, but there were quite a few that stuck out as far superior than the rest.  Between my wife and I we tasted 26 of the stouts that were there.  That’s only a third or so of the 63 total available.  Several of the more rare ones run out fast, some we never even saw, and sadly my wife had the dubious honor of blowing two kegs.  She just missed out on the Firestone Walker Parabajava and the Smog City The Nothing.  I was a few people short of The Breury’s So Happens it’s Tuesday, which I knew would go fast.

Quite a lot of the beers at the Festival are barrel aged and double digit alcohol level.  This is one of the few fests where I’m thankful for a 3 ounce pour, because most of these beers it would be hard to drink much more than that.  Thick, rich, boozy, heavily flavored, just a “taste” is perfect.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but there were a handful of beers that shone above the rest.  The Lagunitas Willett Whiskey Aged Stout was phenomenal, as was the Ecliptic Bourbon Barrel Aged Oort Imperial Stout.  It’s a coin flip between those two for best of the fest.  Also great was the 2013 Walking Man Bourbon Barrel Jaywalker, the Alesong Rhino Suit, Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal, the Stoup Rye Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and the Mill City Brew Werks Raspberry Tripwire.

When I’m at a festival like this, I tend to gravitate to beers I’ve never had before and beers that I can’t usually get in this area.  Nothing against Boneyard’s Suge Knight or pFriem’s BA Imperial Stout, but I’ve had them before and I know they are good.  This also means I didn’t try a lot of the Fort George beers, since I’ve had them before or know I can get them pretty much any time.  Coffee Girl, Kentucky Girl, and Tuesday’s Lunch I know I’ve had, and the rest didn’t really look appealing.  Nothing wrong with weird flavors, but I’m not sure about a stout with Candy Cap mushrooms (Subtle Hyperole) or black tea and plums (Kaiju Stout).

The exception to this was Fort George’s new Matryoshka series.  Named after Russian nesting dolls, the base is a Barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout.  A small batch of that was aged with cocoa nibs, and then an even smaller batch of that was aged with cocoa nibs and raspberries.  A stout, within a stout, within a stout.  I had a bottle of the base beer here at the house, and my wife got a taster of the cocoa version while I got a taster of the cocoa/raspberry version and they were both phenomenal.  The day after the festival we went back to Fort George for lunch and also a bottle release of the Matryoshkas.  I picked up a bottle of the cocoa nib and the cocoa nib/raspberry to complete the set.

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Fort George sure knows how to throw a party! We have to leftover tokens to kick start us for next year.  See you in 2018!

Into the Woods Part 2

My recent infatuation with barrel aged beers has continued.  The season of dark beers is almost over, but February in Oregon is Stout Month and that includes the Festival of Dark Arts this weekend at Fort George in Astoria.  My wife and I went last year and declared we would return every year.  Whether that holds true or not remains to be seen, but we are going this year.  There’s a lot of barrel aged beers on the menu for the fest this weekend, but until then, here’s a couple more I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of months.

Payette Brewing Hoop and Stave 3 (2014): Imperial Rye Ale aged in Whiskey barrels with cherries.  So, this was a very interesting beer.  I read several check-in’s on Untappd claiming the beer was infected.  It was a bit sour, I believe possibly from the cherries and may have picked up some natural bacteria as well.  Personally, it tasted like a Kriek (cherry lambic) and I really liked it, but it may not have been what the brewers intended.  Your mileage may vary.  (4 stars)

pFriem 2016 Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout: As soon as I heard about this beer I had to find a bottle of it. Dark black with a coffee colored head, dark fruit and strong oak aroma.  The bourbon really bursts in the flavor plus vanilla and coconut flavors from the oak.  Dark roast in the aftertaste.  Very smooth.  Very dangerous at 11.5% (4.5 stars)

New Holland Dragons Milk: I’ve read that this is the only barrel aged stout that is part of a year round lineup rather than a special seasonal.  New Holland recently started to distribute to Oregon, so when I saw it I had to grab a bottle.  Dark fruit and strong bourbon aroma.  Slightly sweet with a chocolate and whiskey flavor.  Not roasty, very smooth.  Thick mouthfeel that lingers long on the palate.  I remember this beer being very intense, almost too much so.  Certainly could have shared the 12 oz bottle.  (4.25 stars).

New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek (2016): Fruited lambics are my favorite style of sours, particularly cherry lambics (kriek).  This beer is a partnership between NBB and Oud Beersel in Belgium.  The lambic portion was brewed and wood aged in Belgium and then shipped across to NBB where they blended it with a golden lager and their own sour brown ale, Felix, and then aged in the foeders.  I tasted this at the tasting room in Fort Collins, but it is available in 22oz bottles.  Lightly tart, sweet cherry, very refreshing, not overly sour, but just enough pucker. (4.75 stars)

New Belgium 2017 La Folie Sour Brown Ale: I’m pretty sure I would have liked this beer regardless, but I got to taste this in New Belgium’s Foeder Forest as part of the tour.  I know words don’t do it justice but imagine drinking a sour beer, surrounded by the massive barrels it was aged in, in a room that smells like red wine and whiskey.  Got that? Definitely the highlight of the tour.  (4.5 stars)

Diebolt Vladislav Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout (2017): This one might require some travel, since I don’t know if they distribute much outside the Denver area, but it’s worth the trip.  We missed the release by one day while we were in Denver, but when we got there the next day they had the original version plus several variants.  Sweet dark fruit, sherry, chocolate aromas.  Roasty coffee, dark fruit flavor.  Dry finish with lingering bitterness, super smooth. Absolutely blew me away.  Another dangerous one at 11%.  (5 stars)

Diebolt Vladislav BBA RIS Variants, Coffee Chocolate and Vanilla Chai (2017): We tried two variants of the Vladislav while we were there as well.  My wife really enjoyed the coffee chocolate, which was a little coffee heavy for my personal taste, but execution-wise was nearly flawless, very well done. (4.25 stars).  The Vanilla Chai knocked my socks off.  Sweet and spicy with great flavor, certainly hides the alcohol very well.  You could drink a lot of this if you weren’t careful. (5 stars).

Denver Brewery Tour

Earlier this week, my wife and I went to visit friends in Denver, Colorado.  Despite being a beer mecca, we initially planned on picking one or two can’t miss places and not make it all about just beer.  Our friends on the other hand, had other plans.  First, they booked us a spot on the New Belgium brewery tour, which you have to book well in advance.  Then, for Christmas they brought us a Denver Pub Pass, which awards the bearer with a free drink at 20 locations around town.  Knowing full well we couldn’t hit all the places, we planned our adventure for four days to hit the ones that we could and then we left behind the Pub Pass for other friends to take advantage of it.

We managed to hit 15 locations and I logged 87 samples on Untappd.  A full 2/3 (or more) of those were simply a single sip, but that still counts as “tasted”.  I’ll give a brief description of each place and one of the standout beers from the tastings.

Seedstock Brewing (Denver): The first place we went was walking distance from our friends house.  Their new “local” if you will.  A small place, but good beer and a friendly staff.  A very nice start to the trip.
Standout Brew – Barrel aged scotch ale

Black Shirt Brewing (Denver): Another favorite of our friends haunts, this place had a hopping bar with some really interesting artwork.  The staff went out of their way to find a hidden keg of something that was no longer on the menu but still available.
Standout Brew –  Box of Boom Belgian Triple IPA

Crooked Stave @ The Source (Denver): This tap room in a former metal foundry turned restaurant and shopping space had a cool vibe.  Unfortunately, the beer was good but the experience not as good.  The paper menu listed about 20 beers, with a couple stamped as sold out.  But when we got to the bar they only had about 6 things on tap.  The servers were very short with us, telling us we could get what we wanted in a bottle, but we wanted a 3oz taster, not a 750ml bottle.  We speculated they may not have been prepared to be running out of beer on a busy Friday night, so I’ll give them a little benefit of the doubt for being frantic.
Standout Brew – Blueberry Origins (Barrel aged blueberry sour ale).

Great Divide Barrel Room (Denver): One of two locations in town for Great Divide, the Barrel Room is right across the street from the source.  Smallish bar, but nice view of the brewery/barrel storage areas and all kinds of interesting one off beers to try.  Interesting experience of how addition is not always a good thing.  The Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti was quite good, but honestly the regular plain Yeti was better.
Standout Brew – Yeti Imperial Stout

Cerebral Brewing (Denver): The first stop on day two was this geeky science themed brewery.  The taproom is pretty awesome, all the names of the beers are science related, and the beer is pretty good to boot!
Standout Brew – Alternative Facts “0 IBU” Double IPA

Fiction Brewing (Denver): Continuing the geeky themed brewery is this book themed brewery.  A tap room full of books and beer styles (not just names) inspired by famous books.  Ranging from Moby Dick to Harry Potter and everything inbetween.  Great location right on Colfax (one of Denver’s main drags) and great staff.
Standout Brew – Malice and Darkness Russian Imperial stout

Lost Highway Brewing (Denver): Just down Colfax a ways from Fiction is Lost Highway.  I’ve seen their stickers around, so I recognized the logo in the Pub Pass and wanted to give it a try.  Nice spacious taproom with a nicely varied taplist.  Some lagers and lighter beers to balance out the big double IPAs and stouts.
Standout Brew –  Longest, Wickedest Wit

Joyride Brewing (Edgewater): Another one really close to our friends house, they had good beer and a great burger food truck outside, but the taproom was really, really loud.  I had a hard time hearing my wife sitting right next to me and that gets really tiresome really fast.  They allow dogs, and seem very friendly, just maybe visit at a less busy time than Saturday night.
Standout Brew – The Crooked Collusion Imperial Red Ale

Hogshead Brewing (Denver): The final stop of day two, we almost skipped it, but I’m glad we didn’t.  The taproom was very hip and modern for a place that serves older English style beers, but they had a decent list to choose from.  About half on cask and half on carbonation.  This ended up being some of the best beer of the night, so glad we stopped by!
Standout Brew – Double Chin Wag ESB

De Steeg Brewing (Denver): Day three we took it easy, but still managed to hit a couple places.  Tucked away, literally, in a back alley in the Tennyson Street neighborhood this place is eclectic.  Beer styles ranging from Dutch “House beer” and Saison, to American style Black IPA and a brandy barrel aged Belgian Quad that mostly just tasted like brandy (not a bad thing).
Standout Brew – Dry hopped Saison

Call to Arms Brewing (Denver): Just down Tennyson Street from De Steeg, Call to Arms is themed around family crests and Coats of Arms.  Dark wood and metal, tables made out of barrels.  Another place that was hopping on a Sunday afternoon and quite loud, but they had a good selection of beers.
Standout Brew – Amigos Borrachos Vienna Lager

Diebolt Brewing (Denver): The final stop for day three was a place our friends raved about, and with good reason.  Great variety of beers and we happened to be there the day after they released a barrel aged Russian Imperial stout that was incredible!
Standout Brew – Vladislav Barrel Aged RIS (and the Vanilla Chai Variant)

New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins): Day four we ventured up to Fort Collins for the New Belgium tour before we headed back to the airport.  If you haven’t taken the New Belgium Tour I highly recommend it! It’s an awesome, 90 minute tour with 4 free beer samples.  They gave us a taste of La Folie Sour Brown ale in the room with all the foeders that they age the sours in.  That was one of the coolest parts of the tour.  That room smelled like red wine and whiskey.  They have a really impressive facility and a very environmentally conscious and employee well-being focused way of doing business.
Standout Brew – 2016 Transatlantique Kriek (Lips of Faith)

Odell Brewing (Fort Collins): Around the corner from New Belgium is another large player in the beer world, Odell Brewing.  We didn’t have time for another tour but they have an awesome wood and stone taproom and had a food cart outside with brats and sausages from the grill.  They have several different flights available and we tried the Classic flight and the Local flight.
Standout Brew – 90 Shilling Scottish Ale

Left Hand Brewing Co (Longmont): We had time for one more stop between Fort Collins and the airport and Left Hand fit the bill very well.  A very cool taproom space and great selection of beers, including their well known Milk Stout.
Standout Brew – Left Hand Milk Stout

So there you have it, a whirlwind tour of the Denver area beer scene, and we barely made a dent.  I don’t know when and if we’ll make it back to Denver, but there’s always more beer out there to try!

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Best of Craft Beer Awards 2017

Last weekend I had the honor of judging the 2017 Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend, Oregon.  I had been invited last year, but wasn’t able to make it due to a prior commitment (judging another competition actually).  This is the fourth year of the competition, which has steadily grown.  Wanting to recognize craft brewing but use actual blind judging rather than a people’s choice or “best of” list, similar to GABF and World Beer cup, is the goal of the event.  Based on shipping and judging location the contest was heavy with Pacific Northwest and California beers, but there was a good number from the Midwest and East Coast, including a couple from North Carolina.

The judging was held at the Mt Bachelor Resort in Bend.  The weather was cold, but the hospitality was quite warm.  They fed us breakfast and lunch both days during the judging and took care of pretty much anything else we would need.

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This was my first experience in judging commercial beer and it was both similar and different to judging homebrew.  The first way that it was different was instead of one sample at a time, they brought us flights of ten to twelve all at once.  They also had very short, checklist style scoresheets.  No long winding feedback here, just a few words and on to the next sample.  It was rapid fire judging.  The beers with obvious flaws were weeded out right away and then we would debate amongst the good ones which deserved to move on to the next round.

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The second major way it was different was the sheer number of styles.  The BJCP recently updated their style guidelines up to 32 styles, but this competition uses the Brewers Association styles (same ones GABF uses).  The BA has over 160 styles, which if you’re curious you can find HERE. These guidelines are much more narrow than BJCP, and since this is commerical beer a lot of it is based on alcohol percentage and IBU (bitterness), something that is usually not known for homebrew.  For example, two of the styles I judged were American Style IPA and American Style Strong Pale Ale.  What’s a Strong Pale Ale you ask? Well, that’s a beer with slightly more alcohol and bitterness than a Pale Ale, but not as much as an IPA.  Plus some overlap.  Confused? Without being told, these two styles would be indistinguishable, but Strong Pale Ale ranges from 5.6%-7.0% Alcohol and 40-50 IBU, while American IPA ranges from 6.3%-7.5% alcohol and 50-70 IBU.  Stuff like Pliney the Elder at 8.0% and 100IBU? That’s a different category.

Beyond that it was pretty much just like judging homebrew.  Taste the beer, give it a score, write some feedback, move on.  One of the things several people remarked to me as a similarity to homebrew was that there would be just as much bad beer as good.  Shockingly they were right. It startled me how many of the beers were bad, and I don’t just mean low quality or something I didn’t like.  These beers had serious production flaws that indicated they had been rushed, not given enough time, bottled too soon or crashed (chilled) too soon.  Off flavors like diacetyl and acetaldehyde that the yeast will eventually get rid of but it needs time.  On the first day I judged 49 samples, most of them before lunch.  Thankfully the second day I only judged 16.

After the judging, they brought out the half empty bottles (which would get dumped anyway) so that we could taste some of the samples from categories we hadn’t judged and also see the labels and find out what we had just judged blind.  Some people would match up entry numbers and walk around with a bottle letting people try it and saying “This took first place in stout, you gotta try it!” I took a few sips of things, but realized quickly at the end of the first day that I was “beered-out”.  No matter what bottle I picked they all started tasting the same.  Starting the day on IPAs and finishing with sours, my palate was wrecked.

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Just as a demonstration of the widespread nature of the competition, I went back and looked at my Untappd check-ins over the course of the two days and I logged 25 unique beers from 12 different states.  Representing Wisconsin, Alaska, Mass., Colorado, California, Oregon (of course), Minnesota, Texas, Missouri, Washington, Nevada and North Carolina.  Counting the bottles I took home, you can add Ohio and Alabama to that list as well.

There were at least 12 members of my homebrew club, the Oregon Brew Crew in attendance as judges and stewards so there were plenty of people I knew there.  Other none OBC judges I recognized from other competitions as well.  You start to get to know people when you see them 6-7 times a year.  That’s the fun part of being a judge!

At the end of the event was what had enticed a lot of people to make the trip, the bottle grab!  Commercial breweries often send twice the amount of beer needed for a competition, for fear of breakage, spillage, etc, so there was a lot of unopened bottles left at the end.  Since the beer was donated for samples it can’t be resold and is expensive to ship back, so rather than dump it down the drain, they lay out the boxes and let the judges have at it!

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A lot of people took home three and four boxes worth, but I decided that I didn’t need that much at home, and to try to move it, carry it all wasn’t worth it, so I limited myself to one box and tried to be very particular about what I picked.  I’ve tried about half of them and they’ve all been good. So far all winners.

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My small, but impressive, personal haul.  Beers from all over, including California, North Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Washington and more. The two cork and caged bottles are Sugar Creek from Charlotte.  I visited there on our massive east coast trip a year ago, so I had to grab those when I saw them.  Can’t get those out here normally for sure.  The wax topped bottle is a Bourbon barrel aged Stout, so I managed to snag at least one “fancy” beer as well.

Overall, this was a great event and I had a lot of fun.  The first day felt like “work” based on the sheer number of samples, but otherwise it was OK.  Looking forward to doing it again next year! The 2017 awards results are posted HERE.

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