Here’s the thing about the craft beer “scene” in the United States in 2013. You can walk into any moderately curated beer section, even grocery stores with well-run liquor departments, and find really good beers that you had not heard of until that day.
Take Deschutes Brewery out of Bend, Oregon. Until I walked into HyVee and saw a monster display of six-packs I had never heard of the brewery that I could remember. Beer festivals do not count because by hour three of samples a lot of the breweries begin to meld into one amorphous picture due to the quantity of breweries and brews.
I took a flyer on four six-packs because I hate friends coming over and my latest two batches of homebrew—a Lefse Blonde and Fat Tire clone—are not done bottle conditioning. It also helped that the six-packs were a manager’s special for the Fuel Saver program. Each six-pack got me 10 cents off per gallon at my next fill up. Yeah, I got marketed.
Started in 1988, so this is the twenty fifth year of brewing, Deschutes Brewery is actually one of the major players in the craft beer scene. According to some estimates it is the fifth largest craft brewer and the eleventh largest brewery in the U.S. Okay, my source was Wikipedia. Busted.
I walked out of the store with a six-pack of Chainbreaker White IPA, Twilight Summer Ale, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and Black Butte Porter. Let’s talk about them in that order starting with the Chainbreaker White IPA:
First off, I am a sucker for any beer that references bicycles. It’s something in the DNA of anyone who spends a lot of time on a bike that they will also probably love beer. Spend some time around the moving carnival that is RAGBRAI and you will understand that there is some connection. Thousands of people on bikes in the height of an Iowa summer fueled on little more than fried food and cold beer. I digress.
In general white or wit beers are not synonymous with the characteristics on an India Pale Ale (IPA). The white beers are known for clean profiles and citrus/spice notes while an IPA is known for body and hops. Mixing the two styles is a really interesting idea that works pretty well. I would have classified this beer as a hopped up white beer rather than an IPA, as the name indicates, because the body of the beer just screams white ale. Even though there are some pretty strong hop aromas and flavors, the light body does not allow them to linger very long so the effect is somewhat transitory. For that reason the beer drinks a lot lighter than its alcohol (5.6% ABV) and bitterness (55 IBU) might suggest.
Chainbreaker White uses four different hop varieties, but the one that has me the most intrigued is Citra. This particular variety has been showing up in a lot of craft beers and homebrews. The last two times I have tried to order recipe kits using the hop it has been backordered. A trip north to Minneapolis may be required so that I can get my hands on some to experiment.
Twilight Summer Ale is also a kind of hybrid:
Craft beers brewed for the summer season are truly something that is very welcome. At the start of the craft beer renaissance, it was like people expected you to drink heavily hopped and malted beers even in the heat of a Midwestern summer. Sorry guys, but something lighter is appreciated. Over the past few years brewmasters have really obliged our summer palates.
If Chainbreaker White IPA had an ensemble cast of hops than I guess Twilight Summer Ale is working from the Robert Altman script by including Northern Brewer, Amarillo, Cascade, Tettnang, and Brambling Cross. Even though it is only one of the five varieties used, you can really taste the inclusion of Amarillo. Like Simcoe, Amarillo is a variety whose flavor and aroma can cut through even the heaviest hand elsewhere in the brew. At times this can be a detriment to the beer because it overwhelms subtler notes, but not with Twilight Summer Ale. The inclusion of Amarillo brings hop aroma and flavor to the beer without imparting too much bitterness and making you feel like there is a Lucky Strike stuck in the back of your throat.
Surprisingly, Mirror Pond Pale Ale does the opposite of Chainbreaker White IPA and Twilight Summer Ale:
This beer drinks heavier than its alcohol (5% ABV) and bitterness (40 IBU) suggests. If you put both Chainbreaker White and Mirror Pond in paper bags to sample I am sure that most people would point to Mirror Pond as the “heavier” beer.
Maybe it is on account of Mirror Pond relying solely on Cascade hops rather than a mix of four hop varieties. I have found that single hop beers tend to really accentuate the “hoppiness” of that particular variety in a manner that is outsized compared to its stated bitterness. It is like the undercurrents in aroma and flavor that might get lost in an ensemble shine through like a saxophone solo.
The other culprit is probably the malt. Pale malt is heavier in body than either pilsner or wheat malt so Mirror Pond is going to have a heavier body, which may confuse the palate as to which beer is bringing the hops to the party.
Nonetheless, Mirror Pond is a very successful take on the classic American Pacific Northwest pale ale. This style of beer, along with amber ale, are the standard bearers for the American craft beer renaissance.
Black Butte Porter is not a summer beer:
Obviously, as a porter this is a dark beer. It is also a heavy beer, more so than its alcohol (5.2% ABV) and bitterness (30 IBU) would dictate. It is nice to see a porter not be overly bitter because it allows for the roasted and chocolate flavors of the malt to really shine. I think a lot of porters and stouts are given a healthy dose of hops to mask the bitter flavors from roasted malts. It takes a deft and delicate hand to get the right amount of flavor from roasted malts without making the beer reminiscent of burnt marshmallows around the campfire.
What is really nice about moderately bitter porters is that the beers are allowed to be creamy and even “bready.” It’s an odd adjective “bready,” but I think that it describes the near chewiness from heavy bodied beers that do have a correspondingly heavy bitterness. Maybe there is a reason a lot of beer champions refer to the product as “liquid bread.”
It is fairly obvious from my comments above that I came away impressed with the work that Deschutes Brewery is doing. As the fifth largest craft brewer in the United States, it’s also apparent that a lot of other beer drinkers are thinking the same thing. Go out and give them a try.