Here I am at the mid-point of my grand adventure into the seething heart of Oregon craft beer. Could I say that I am like Conrad’s Marlow, steaming slowly up a river of local brew to find and capture a mystery? Not Mistah Kurtz (he dead), but a more profound mystery: The mystery of how a climate and a people could converge in this wooded northwest region to create a thriving industry with nothing more than water, grain, yeast and malt. And once I’ve found that mystery, haven’t I really found myself?
Yes, I could say that. But then I’d have to deal with the repercussions of realizing I’m a pompous, overeducated, ne’er do well who thinks way to highly of himself. And those are the kinds of realizations that I seek to smother with beer. So, you can see my problem here.
My, this post got off to a shaky start. Let’s try again.
Things I’ve Learned Thus Far, Some of which May Be Wrong (in no particular order of importance):
1. There are Lagers and there are Ales. Most styles of beer fall into these two categories. In general lagers tend to be more stylistically similar with a fuller, rounder flavor. They are called lagers because the bottom fermenting yeast used to make them takes more time to feed and produce alcohol, requiring the beer to be put aside as it develops, or lagered, hopefully some place cool… Like a cave, ideally… With goats, if you’re making a Bock.
Ales, on the other hand, use top fermenting yeast that is speedier and enjoys warmer temperatures. There is a huge variety of ale styles and, flavor-wise, they run the gamut. They are preferred by craft brewers because they require less space and time to develop. All of this is not to say that ale can’t be lagered, or lager use top fermenting yeast.
2. Brewers are a wily bunch who enjoy breaking the rules of beer; like poets seeking out a new way to use language, or social anarchists. Either characterization works for me.
3. IBU stands for International Bittering Unit and is used to indicate how bitter the beer will be, which is often a reflection of its hops content.
4. A high IBU does not necessarily indicate that a beer will be more bitter on the palate. As I’ve learned, there are some high IBU brews that have a more subtle bitterness than beers with a lower IBU. The key is in how the bitterness is balanced with other flavors from malt and grain.
5. For the last ten years I’ve been foolishly thinking that I’m not an IPA fan. I just didn’t know how or what I was drinking. Let’s not say anything more about that and just move on.
6. There is more flavor in Ale and Lager, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your oenophilosophy. Not only am I making up words, but I’m pissing off wine lovers, and Shakespeare scholars alike! Look, I dig a good pinot gris, and I’m a big fan of sangiovese, but the idea that beer cannot offer the kind of dynamic tasting experience that is found with wine is patently false. I’m picking up stuff in the brews I taste that I would have never imagined. Also, wine lovers, you gotta stop spitting. Beer lovers know not to spit when they taste. You could learn a thing or two. Also, I’m totally open to a month of Oregon wine. See you at harvest?
7. Frozen pint glasses are only good for cheap American lagers that you absolutely do NOT want to taste. If you would like to taste your beer it’s essential to let it warm slightly, allowing molecules and chemical reactions to become more active, thus giving up more aroma and flavor. At least, that’s what the armchair scientist inside of me is saying.
8. Tasting more than five beers in any sitting is not advisable: (a) you’ll get fucked up, (b) your palate will be shot, (c) your guests will want to stop being so thoughtful about beer and actually really drink some, and (d) so will you.
9. Being thoughtful about beer is hard work, but enjoyable.
10. I actually drink less when I drink thoughtfully.
11. Sometimes, when you’re having trouble with a beer, you just need to sit quietly and talk it out until the beer gives up the goods.
Case in point, today’s tasting notes. Almost a week ago, after we’d finished the BBQ tasting I decided I’d crank open a Lompoc Centennial IPA strictly for pleasure. We were already feeling… ummmm… joyful… And I’ll be damned if I didn’t think the Lompoc was one of the better beers of the night. I did make a half-hearted attempt to take notes, but they consisted of only two words, “lime pith.”
Last night I decide I’d try the Centennial again, but this time be more thoughtful about it. So, I drew a bath and drank it naked. Sorry… I didn’t mean to give you that image.
Anyway, the beer poured quite dark with a nice full head that dissipated fairly quickly. The aroma was nice and malty with a bit of strawberry and chocolate. I didn’t get any of the hoppy lime pith noted in my previous notes.
I took a sip and was absolutely flabbergasted. The beer that I had so loved, less than a week before, tasted like frozen peas. Another sip. Yep, frozen peas. What the fuck was happening here?
I sat for a bit and sipped again. Okay, less frozen peas, more malt, but still. I glowered at the pint glass as I finished my bath and then carried the pint with me to bed, muttering. I drank some water, washed my mouth out. Could it be due to the capers salad I’d just eaten? Or the tuna sandwich with capers? The pint glass wasn’t frozen, that’s for damn sure.
I sat down in bed with the pint, sniffed again and sipped. Okay. Now things were happening. There was a chocolaty malt tone up front. Then, a bit of strawberry… mmm hmmm… bring it… melon… nice! All of this came with a drying astringency from the hops that brightened everything on the finish which had… lime pith. Ah! So I’d written lime pith to mark the finish, not the nose!
In the end, the Centennial was as enjoyable as I’d remembered it. However, it could be a beer that starts out like frozen peas and then gets all pretty and shit. I’m not sure, I drank ever bottle of it that I had.
I appreciate it if you’ve been reading these posts. I’d feel awfully silly if I was throwing this party and no-one came by. Let me know what kind of lessons you’ve learned about beer. I’d love to add to my short list.