THERE ARE TWO new brewpub kitchen re-launches, both located on the northern side of Portland. One, Ex Novo Brewing, altered its original course by veering into familiar territory. Meanwhile, Culmination Brewing maintained its original and less-traveled path. Robert Frost wasn’t a brewpub chef deciding whether or not to put a burger on his menu, nor was he a brewmaster choosing if he’d make an IPA or not. But when such folks are faced with these two divergent roads, the path that lies before them is almost assuredly: DUH! Everyone wants a meat-juicy burger washed down with a hop-juicy IPA.
You can’t have a brewery without an IPA, you say. Yet holdouts exist, such as Belgian-leaning the Commons and German-inspired Occidental. Brewpub kitchen-wise, the same goes for hamburgers. The Commons and Occidental, again, have chosen to abstain. At the former, Steve Jones’ cheese wizardry pines for a glass of Urban Farmhouse saison, while at the latter, Urban German’s wurst offerings demand an Occidental Pilsner. Then there are upscale menus such as Hair of the Dog—brewmaster Alan Sprints comes from a culinary background, so unsurprisingly, the richness of their duck confit or pastrami matches divinely with a glass of smoky Fred—or even ultra-casual sammiches like Lucky Lab’s that beg for a pint of Hawthorne’s Best Bitter. Not everyone is eager to burger.
BTU Brasserie doesn’t sling a burger, since their menu is Chinese inspired. But that doesn’t stop guests from ordering the General Tso’s Chicken “Burger” (quotations mine) served on bao-as-bun that BTU chef Chris Bogart created for Burger Week 2016. Perhaps similarly minded, Culmination’s new chef, CJ Mueller, will only create a burger for patrons come Burger Week 2017. (Seven Portland breweries participated this year.) Until then: No burger for you!
Mueller’s predecessor had built up a reputation for his brisket tacos, which have become the bane of Mueller’s tiny kitchen. He does a lot with the space, though Culmination plans to install a wood-burning oven. As I watch Mueller prepare a baking tray full of broccoli florets that he’ll serve with sharp cheddar and peppery togarashi, he says, “I don’t believe in signature dishes.... I intend to give the beer community another option other than standard pub food. Belgian monks weren’t eating cheeseburgers or pizza.”
In addition to pointing out monastic drinking habits, he brings up Japanese izakayas.
“We don’t have a drinking-food culture in America,” he says. “We’re at a point where there’s so much cool shit happening.”
And for Mueller, that starts with the broccoli. And mashed root vegetables. And pork that’s been weaned on Culmination’s spent grains, which makes his pulled pork sandwich marry perfectly with the Kerns Red Ale.
Having said that, in the opposite corner we have Ex Novo. For its first two years, the nonprofit brewery didn’t offer hamburgers. But to sate the whopper crowd that converges before Blazers home games, there’s now a grill and a brewburger. It’s a big, fat patty on a brioche bun that’s immensely satisfying. One order, along with the thick-yet-crispy quasi-steak fries, may mean you won’t have room for the fried chicken slider served on a halved maple glazed doughnut (courtesy of Delicious Donuts). The pièce de résistance of this brewburger may be the charred red onion, served in rings cut so thick they retain some crunch. And if not that, it’s the pint of Eliot IPA, Ex Novo’s staple with a corpulent malt body that somehow feels chewier than their Dynamic Duo Imperial IPA.
IPAs are virtually every brewery’s best-selling beer, sometimes accounting for as much as 70 percent of production. And sometimes the house burger is the hottest plate coming out of the kitchen. While we still lament the loss of Burnside Brewing’s original duck-fat-seared burger, the Burnside Burger (all-beef patty, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a sesame seed bun) is an all-American classic that goes with their wide-ranging styles of beers. As does the Ecliptic Burger, made with pancetta and Gruyère. Nearby on Mississippi, StormBreaker’s Twin Cities-inspired Jucy Lucy (the cheese in the middle oozes out) is a destination-worthy burger that goes magically with their dry-hopped Mississippi Red ale.
The moral: If there’s a burger on the menu, we have the choice to order it or not. If not, we can step outside our comfort zones.