Eighty Beers Remembered: Part Two
In 1964, I moved from Seattle to Portland to try my hand as a photographer in business there with a friend. I had long been a student of photography and it seemed like a good opportunity to change careers at that time: after all, I could always go back to swim pool management and teaching swimming. Seattle was getting far too large and Portland seemed to be just the right size for a new beginning.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 alerted me to the possibility of nuclear war and I considered what useful occupation I might pursue in the wake of such a dreadful conflagration. I remembered our Marine Mess Sergeant was the most beloved of all people on Okinawa. He was a distiller of genuine 190 proof rotgut of the lowest possible quality. Nevertheless, his reputation was untarnished. I realized that when the stuff hits the fan, brewers, distillers and winemakers would always be welcome in any postwar civilization. Not so photographers and swim teachers. I soon began to make wine at home, while my business partner settled into the depths of alcoholism and business thinned considerably.
I turned to photographing bar interiors for the state license requirements for new pubs (lucrative). I began to switch from winemaking to homebrewing with the application of proven winemaking techniques to home beermaking. That proved to be a great success, and the proprietors at the Wine Art store in Portland welcomed my first homebrew (1969). They hired me, part-time, and persuaded me to write a small book, A Treatise on Lager Beer, (1969) which eventually sold 110,000 copies and convinced many homebrewers that they could brew some pretty good lagers at home.
From Grim to Grand
In the late 1970s I drank a lot of really gruesome beer. I remember reading an article in that era from a wine critic, who was complaining about how he had to drink a lot of bad and boring wine. That guy should have counted his blessings: the poor beer critic of that era had to drink gallons of truly blah beers, each one amazingly similar to the last. I wrote in my journal “I wouldn’t mind all beers tasting alike if they actually had any taste at all.”
During that era (1972), on a trip to San Francisco, I discovered Anchor Steam Beer and Dark Steam Beer at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I met Fritz Maytag, America’s first true craft brewer, on my first visit to the brewery located under the Freeway at Eighth street. It was love at first sight, and I took a large number of photos there to produce a small slide show on homebrewing comparing it to brewing at the country’s smallest brewery (500bbl annually). Later, Maytag went on to develop two of America’s finest ever beers. These were the unforgettable Liberty Ale, and our nation’s first barleywine, Old Foghorn. Maytag revived the wonderful Christmas beer tradition with his Our Special Ale series of annual beers.
In 1976, Jack McAuliffe left the US Navy to open America’s first “micro” brewery (72 bbl annually). The tiny New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, CA, made wonderful New Albion Ale, Stout and Porter; refreshing alternatives to what American beer was becoming. By 1978, Charlie Papazian had started the American Homebrewer’s Association (AHA) in Boulder, CO, which in turn encouraged many homebrewers to start “micro” brewing.
In 1981, I traveled to Boulder to speak at, and judge homebrew for, the AHA. I met Michael Jackson, whose new book, The World Guide to Beer (1976), was making the rounds of beer lovers across the English-speaking world. I also tasted Papazian’s homebrew, some of which was canned by the Budweiser company at a special meeting later (1984). There, too, I had my first taste of new micro-brewed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stout and Porter (from Chico, CA), along with Boulder Extra Pale, Porter and Stout. I had the good fortune to meet homebrewers and beer lovers from across the country.
The next year, also in Boulder, I surfed the first Great American Beer Festival (AAB March 2006, 28:1). Boulder Brewing’s remarkable 1982 GABF Festival Ale (Longmont, CO) was clearly the class of that year, but Davis (CA) brewed River City Dark and Gold were very well received.
I did find it very disturbing that the taste of almost all of the mainline American brewers’ beers were becoming even more like each other. Indeed, industry analysts were telling us, with great authority, that by 1990 there’d be only ten brewing companies remaining in business. That seemed to little hope for the U.S. brewing industry.
Beer Blooms in the Northwest
It was in 1980 that the Pacific Northwest’s first micro began operations. Charles Coury, a former Oregon winemaker, opened a small brewery on Portland’s east side, where he began making his flagship Cartwright Portland Beer. He was attempting to compete with the city’s mega-brewer: Blitz-Weinhard, a Portland fixture since the late 19th century, by brewing a British style “mild.” If so, it was an excessively ordinary mild, with nothing special to recommend it. At the end of 1981, the brewery was closed for failure to pay taxes. Their last beer was memorable, but by accident: Coury’s Salvation Ale had become infected with a rather interesting, almost Belgian, bacterial strain. It was auctioned off at $1 the 24-bottle case!
Coury’s loss was complementary to the real beginnings of northwest ale brewing. Paul Shipman’s RedHook Ale and BlackHook Porter, a strange and oddly delicious pair of brews, were the first issues from what had been a transmission shop in Seattle’s Ballard district. This was followed shortly by Bert Grant, a hop expert, whose Grant’s Real Ale set the standard for high quality authentic ales from his brewery in Yakima, WA. Grant is credited with opening America’s first modern brewpub in Yakima
Later, down in Kalama, WA (28 miles north of Portland), Tom Baune began brewing some of the best beers out of that era, notably with his great Pyramid Pale Ale in September, 1984, and later the first American wheat beer, Pyramid Wheaton. Early in 1985, BridgePort Ale, Portland’s first successful microbrewed beer, appeared. It was sired by Dick Ponzi, another winemaker. His motto was “It takes a lot of good beer to make a good wine.” A few months later, the Widmer brothers, Kurt and Rob, brought forth what is still one of the northwest’s best (but vastly unappreciated) brews, Widmer Alt, followed sometime later by the nation’s most successful unfiltered wheat beer, Widmer Hefeweizen, in the American style rather than Bavarian with its special yeast requirement.
It must have been 1985, on one of my annual trips into British Columbia, Canada, that I was able to sample beer at that country’s first micro. Horseshoe Bay Ale, was a memorable brew from Horseshoe Bay, BC, and also Canada’s first brewpub (1982).
At the 1984 Great American Beer Festival, I sampled beers of an entirely different category: contract brewing. There, I found Jim Koch’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager to be one of the best beers around. Whenever I have been in communities where beer choice is lacking, I have always looked for that beer, and it has always been good. Koch’s landmark beers have also included several exceedingly strong brews including SA Triple Bock and Utopias MMII, the latter at 25% ABV—and $200 the 750ml bottle!
By 1985, Seattle-based Merchant du Vin, under the leadership of Charles Finkel, was importing some of the beers that Michael Jackson had written about. I drooled in anticipation of tasting Belgian brewed Trappist Orval, still one of my favorites. Two Lindeman beers gave most Americans their first taste of Belgian lambics: the Framboise and Kriek are still quite popular and now there is also a Peche and a Pomme to round out the series.
Nineteen-eighty-five was indeed a banner year, with the introduction of Bert Grant’s Yakima-brewed landmark Russian Imperial Stout and Sierra Nevada Big Foot Barleywine Ale.
It was the spring of 1989 that I traveled to Munich and the Salvator Festival, to drink far too much of the lovely Paulaner Salvator doppelbock. Along in that same period I began my yearly pilgrimages to Houston, TX, to do tastings at the Foam Ranger’s Dixie Cup homebrew festival. The beer that I always remember from there is Houston’s ever delightful St. Arnold Amber, and this year they sent me an even better brew to help me get past my birthday.
I’m not sure when I tasted Chicago’s famous Goose Island Bourbon Stout, but that beer is certain to remain one of my all-time favorites. Moreover, there are beers that I seem to gravitate towards on a regular basis, these include Rogue Brutal Bitter (OR), McMenamins Hammerhead (OR), Russian River Pliny the Elder (CA), Terminal Gravity IPA (OR), North Coast Pranqster Ale (CA), and finally, Michigan’s Bell’s Expedition Stout. I dare not fail to mention two Hair of the Dog beers: Adam and Fred. The first, a homebrew I designed and the beer that company brewed to start its heavy brewing beer business, for which they have become justly famous. The second, a beer they brewed to honor me. I am indeed honored, and I should mention the 11th BridgePort Old Knuckelhead was also named after me. Aw gee, what can I say. Thanks, guys.
This year, at my birthday party, I sampled several extra special brews from many Oregon brewers. Unfortunately, there is no way I can recall all of them. Sorry there. But the beers were all extra special.
Fred Eckhardt lives and writes in Portland, OR, where he drinks just about any alcohol libation in his hand, and still, after 34 years, brews his excellent saké at home.