Portland's great pastimes are beer and music. Even the staunchest teetotaler—let's say John Lithgow in Footloose—or the most righteous anti-dance preacher—okay, Dennis Quaid in the Footloose remake—would have to agree that Portland wouldn't be the city it is today without the traditions of beer from old Henry Weinhard's pre-prohibition days to the craft movement, or independent music from the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" to the current crop of indie favorites.
So why, when you can't swing a lasso in this city without snaring both a brewer and a musician, hadn't anyone dreamed up a music festival to pair breweries and bands? Sure, people have been getting drunk or better at music festivals in Oregon at least since the Grateful Dead played the 1972 Oregon Country Fair. And of course you can have a craft brew at the Waterfront Blues Festival or see your dad's homebrew club jam band play a backyard beer fest in the suburbs. But we're talking about beers brewed specifically to complement the music of the band on stage (and we don't just mean Heineken with some molly in it at a Katy Perry show).
Enter the Malt Ball. For four years running, the Mercury has teamed with the Oregon Brewers Guild to swing that lasso and bring together like-minded bands and breweries for a night of raucous misbehavior, fueled by the best bands Portland can offer and beer specifically tailored to their music. Or, in keeping with the one-too-many-layered name of the festival, just like a pun on the band name or whatever.
This year the fest is split into two six-band, five-hour showcases at the Wonder Ballroom on Saturday, February 28, at 2 pm-7 pm and 8 pm-1 am. Each showcase comes with five taster tickets for $15, but $25 gets you into both showcases for nearly 12 hours of music and beer and (hopefully) best to second-best behavior.
Onto the details you actually care about! Band and beer pairings are what makes the Malt Ball the Malt Ball. At time of press, most of these beers were unavailable for tasting. So these descriptions are largely based on the brewers' hopes and dreams—and expertise, of course.
FIRST SHOWCASE, 2 pm-7 pm
Levon's Helmet and Base Camp Brewing's Dirty Dirty Clean Black Session IPA
Levon's Helmet makes anthems out of everything, a habit epitomized in "Awkward's" hollered apology, "I'm sorry that I'm so fucking awkward . . . If only there weren't so many drinks on the table, I wouldn't have said all those things I didn't mean to say." Not surprisingly, band member Jason Oppat is a longtime friend of a local brewer! Who'd have guessed? Oppat and Base Camp's Joseph Dallas jumped at the chance to brew together after years of presumably drunken friendship. The group wanted to make a beer that got at the roughshod angularity of Levon's Helmet: somehow blending loudmouthed punk and anthemic pop into something totally charming, in a borderline cult-of-personality way. As Dallas puts it, the band is "Two votes for bourbon, one vote for margaritas; two top-five LP lists full of esoterica, one that's unabashedly the-Clash-because-fuck-you." The best match for that kind of perfect contradiction is the oxymoronically named Dirty Dirty Clean Black IPA: dark, full bodied but bright and crushably hoppy.
Fog Father and Claim 52 Brewing's Razzle Dazzle Gose
Fog Father and Claim 52 were strangers when paired up for the Malt Ball, but they've become fast friends through mutual loves—namely, the last half-century of music and brewing beer. That's right, surprise surprise, Fog Father has a few homebrewers in its ranks. Like the team at Claim 52, Fog Father likes to mix it up with historical styles and new sounds, from the synth squeaks and classic psychedelia of their music to the shivers of lactic sour and salt in a centuries-old German beer style called Gose (goes-uh), which they brewed with Claim 52. To bring it into the 21st century, the team hopped their Gose with New Zealand Pacifica hops to add some bright fruity aromas to the otherwise historically accurate brew.
Pinehurst Kids and Lompoc Brewing's Pinehurst Kick Axe
Pinehurst Kids' keening honesty and jangly, urgent (don't call it emo) punk tunes are pure Portland, just like Lompoc Brewing. Both have kept churning out the purest goods even as they age into OG status, and see their city tear them down and build them back up. Lompoc recently lost its beautiful NW 23rd patio when a stack of condos was built on top of it, but they turned right around and started busting out beers on the sidewalk and street in front of the bars. It's fitting that Lompoc offers a Pinehurst Kids version of Kick Axe, a classic Portland pale ale, double dry hopped with Cascades but with some stature from a coppery malt body. This beer will always be Portland, just like Pinehurst Kids. (We'll forgive their Idahoan band name.)
Talkative and Laurelwood Brewing's Conversationale
Talkative's fuzzed-out backyard rock could soundtrack a pretty epic beach trip. (Heavy on the trip, duh.) Jangly guitars and surf-chant vocals echo around and around the swirly dregs of beer in a knocked over party cup. With that feeling in mind, the band and Laurelwood brewmaster Shane Watterson cooked up a bright golden ale with a load of fruity aromatic hops. Between the Mosaic, Galaxy, Amarillo, and CTZ hops, the tropical flower and fruit characteristics of this beer will mix with heady dank aromas to recall Talkative's 2014 album (and perfect food pairing for the beer) Hot Fruit Barbecue. Also, it's called Conversationale, which will only get funnier the more of it you drink.
Big Haunt and Burnside Brewing
Big Haunt and Burnside Brewing must have had some interesting conversations coming up with the recipe for this beer. Big Haunt are well known for quietly rolling tunes that tread the line between folk and pop and hide lyrics darker even than implied by track titles like "Blood on the Breeze" and "Burn Me Up." There's only one way to immortalize in beer the black hearts of the band that once told us they're "more interested in people getting murdered and drowned and eaten alive by monsters than people canning beans and churning butter," and that's by adding literal black hearts to the mix, preferably hearts from an international symbol of innocence. That, of course, would be crazy, so it's just what Burnside Brewing did, boiling 12 pounds of charred lamb hearts with this Irish-style dry stout. Do with that information what you will, and vegetarians, steer clear of this one.
Blue Skies for Black Hearts and McMenamins Crystal Ballroom Brewery's Blue Skies for Black IPA
Blue Skies for Black Hearts has become a mainstay in the Portland pop scene, churning out consistently beautiful pop jams that sit just between punk and pop, rain and sunshine, always clear-eyed but leaning out on the precipice of a scuzzy rock-out power-pop jam session. With that in mind, the band wanted a beer with that kind of power, but reined in and with some body to it. The answer was a black IPA full of Northwest hops like Meridian and Chinook, kept to 7.5 percent ABV so you can have a couple and don't have to get too rowdy.
SECOND SHOWCASE, 8 pm-1 am
The Fourth Wall and Coalition Brewing's Hawaii Five-0-3
Pretty much everybody in Portland has a neighborhood brewery, and the guys in the Fourth Wall are no exception. Most of them seem to live a stone's throw from Coalition Brewing, so teaming up was an obvious choice. (You want to be able to stumble home from the brewery after a taxing day of drinking brewing.) The Fourth Wall started out in Hawaii but decided to bring their tight, polished blend of slightly bent pop jams to Portland, and along with Elan Walsky at Coalition, they wanted their beer to reflect their island roots but also embrace the Portland scene. How better to do that than a NW IPA with fresh pineapple, toasted coconut, and even passion fruit in the dry hop? Both the beer and the music blend the beauty of white sand beaches and majesty of Mount Hood on the horizon.
MÁscaras and Solera Brewery's Devil's Mask India Session Ale
Máscaras is a fairly new and underheard band, so it's fitting that Solera, one of the Gorge's best kept beer secrets, is paired with them. Both are small, well-loved in cult circles, and offer wide views. While Máscaras offers a decidedly inward view—their "indigenous psych rock" unrolls virgin vistas in your mind then rocks the fuck out in them—while Solera's Parkdale patio offers certainly the best and most expansive view of Mount Hood you can get with a great beer in your hand. Solera's Jason Kahler has done some tests to make sure the beer lives up to the band: "Like Máscaras, this beer will help you find spiritual enlightenment through your senses. I've found in my clinical trials that drinking the Devil's Mask blindfolded while listening to Máscaras at 11 will induce a mind altering state of euphoria. Nine out of 10 subjects reported meeting their spirit animal around the third or fourth pint/song. Interesting side note: The most common spirit animals were described as some sort of chupacabra-type creature."
Lubec and Ecliptic Brewing's Lubec Poppy Pale Ale
Lubec is a band named for the easternmost city in the US, at the tip of Maine. That feeling of being out there on the edge, barely tethered to the familiar and facing what's new head-on, is a clear through-line in their music, which is deeply anchored in '90s indie, but embraces exploratory complexity and deep, layered noise. Kinda spacy and known for pushing the limits of style? Sounds right up the alley of John Harris' Ecliptic Brewing. For Lubec, Harris brewed an open, approachable pale ale with a complex hop profile and a bolt of Riesling juice to keep it bracingly dry. Wide eyed with a wild side, just like Lubec.
Like a Villain and Hopworks Urban Brewery's Circe's Warning Red Braggot
Holland Andrews told the Mercury last year that she's "been sorta witchy for the past three years, or identifying outwardly as a witchy person." It's not rare for her performances to include some amount of burning sage and chanting. Brewer Matt Speckenbach at Hopworks Urban Brewery caught onto the witchy undertones in Andrews' Like a Villain album Bast right away. The layered, powerful vocals and slowly swelling walls of atmospheric sound reminded him of the sirens of The Odyssey. He decided to use honey to mirror the beeswax Odysseus' sailors stopped their ears with, and made a braggot—an ancient Welsh style with connotations of druidism and early fermentation styles. Sounds perfectly paired to an album like Bast, named for an ancient Egyptian goddess.
EDJ and Fort George Brewery's Lay Low Easy Ale
Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats fame) and the team at Fort George Brewery have put together a beer to match EDJ's move to LA's Easy Sound Recording Company label. The Lay Low Easy Ale is a light golden ale with just a touch of spice at the end, as ready for lightly psyched back-porch stargazing as EDJ's slight twang, bright but subtle melodies, and reedy, lazily drifting vocals and occasional harmonica breaths. But be careful, this one might be so easy you'll catch yourself mirroring EDJ's own lyrics, "You're drinking like a veteran drunk, but you're not one..."
Holy Grove and Baerlic Brewing's Hanged Man Cascadian Pale Ale
The crew at Baerlic Brewing have known Trent Jacobs, mind-crushing guitarist for Holy Grove, for over a decade, so it was a "no-brainer" for them to hook up for the Malt Ball. To match the heavy metal sound of Holy Grove, the Baerlic team brewed up a dank "Cascadian" style pale ale, meaning a dark, hoppy session beer. (If dark and pale sounds like an oxymoron, consider the stoney staple of the '70s rock Holy Grove embodies: the black light.) Dry hopped with 6.66 pounds of Columbus hops, the Hanged Man Cascadian Pale Ale (ignore that the acronym is the same as Certified Public Accountant) will have you wailing for more with the ferocity of Holy Grove singer Andrea Vidal. But Ben Parsons of Baerlic put it best when asked how the beer and band pair: "Perfectly. They're both dark and smell like weed."
NON COLLABORATION BONUS BEERS
Widmer Brothers Brewing's Replay IPA
This new session IPA from Widmer is another in a long string of session IPA hits from the crew best known for a summery Hefeweizen. Replay balances hoppiness and a light, bright sweetness on the malt bill that for some reason smells like fresh berry corn muffins. Not complaining.
Portland U-Brew's Funky Monkey
This Belgian Pale Ale from the Milwaukie brewpub and homebrewer hangout zone bring some fruity esters from a strong Belgian yeast blend and zaps it up to PNW standards with a rowdy hop blend.
Portland Brewing's Rose Hip Gold
The classic Portland brewery reminds everybody this is the City of Roses not with a punchy hop profile, but with the subtle spice and floral bite of rose hips added to the kettle.
Gilgamesh Brewing's Mean Eileen
The Radtke boys, three rowdy brothers and their old man, dedicate this beer to Mom Radtke, praising her "grit, resilience, and resolve" with a warm German style Schwarzbier, a smooth drinking black lager.
Full Sail Brewing's Session Export
Full Sail's classic Session series represents at the Malt Ball with their Dortmunder style lager. (That's the one with the blue label, FYI.) The round, smooth, and sweet malt bill is bolstered by noble hops for a great golden Euro lager.
Buoy Beer Company's Raspberry Chocolate Stout
Buoy Beer keeps it real, not forgetting it's winter just because of a few sunny days, and brings a legitimately dark and sensuous beer to the Ball. And if you're still feeling the Valentine's Day mood, this sucker's packed with Oregon red raspberries and Woodblock Chocolate cacao nibs.
Brannon's Pub and Brewery's Aneroid
This Belgian strong pale from Brannon's is the heavy hitter of the Malt Ball, though you may not guess it from looking at its orangey haze in the glass. At 9.8 percent ABV, this one packs a fruity, warming clove-spicy punch, but its traditional abbey yeast keeps it nice and dry.