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.