08 November 2016

Being thorough

I first encountered beer from Portland's Breakside Brewery quite inadvertently. We had just arrived into town and lacked the energy for any proper exploring so settled for dinner in a decent-but-pricey restaurant near the hotel. The missus picked Breakside's Toro Red from the blackboard beer list and it arrived a clear copper-garnet colour. Toasty caramel is the aroma while the flavour presents a very clean sort of smokiness but not very much else. It struck me as a simple but elegant sort of beer, reminding me a bit of the Schlenkerla range. I've just this minute discovered that it contained chillies as well, but they passed me by completely. On one taste I enjoyed it but didn't immediately put Breakside on my list of Portland essentials.

It's on Jeff Alworth's, though, and he made a point of bringing us out there for an al fresco dinner and a deeper inspection of its wares. The brewery is in a north-western residential district of the city, though typical of the mock industrial style of US brewery restaurants, with those signature pull-up doors allowing the outside into the space, and the tables and chairs to spill outwards in return.

Set up the IPAs! Starting with Breakside IPA, of course: 6.4% ABV and dark amber in colour. There's a sweet and crunchy grain background with the hops all savoury at the front. It maybe veers a little towards oniony but never goes all the way there, staying nicely balanced and drinkable, as a core beer ought to be.

Breakside Passionfruit Sour
Similar savouriness can be found in Wanderlust, which takes a paler approach to the malt selection, coming out a clear bright yellow. It's much drier than the previous one, however, and I think suffers from the lack of malt as the hop bitterness turns a little harsh in the finish. I never thought that the one with the crystal malt would be my favourite out of two IPAs.

Next it's the single-hopped Tall Guy. No lightweight at 6.9% ABV and utilising only Citra: I was expecting a monster, but while it's certainly pungent — roaring with greasy, funky hop volatiles — it's incredibly smooth and easy-drinking. Bitter, yes, but not sharp or harsh: a trick which I'd say is not easy for any brewer to pull off, especially when there's nothing but Citra in your back pocket.

The inevitable double IPA is called Back to the Future. This is a hazy orange colour and is fairly by-the-numbers, being thick and boozy with the hops adding jaffa notes to a full-on biscuity malt base which has moments of being almost chocolate-like. After the super-clean IPAs which preceded it, this felt like a step backwards.

Tired of hops, I went for Breakside Passionfruit Sour as my dessert. It's one of those ones where the fruit forms most of the flavour while the sourness is really just there to provide a sparkling clean surface on which it can shine. This offers a kind of a passionfruit sorbet effect which is extremely cleansing and refreshing.

That was it for the evening, but Jeff had something else up his sleeve for the following day. Mt Tabor Brewing, originally set up on a tiny scale just across the state line in southern Washington, had recently opened a new brewery and taproom in east Portland. They'd arranged for the local beer media to drop by and sample the line-up and Jeff kindly finagled us onto the list.

Here, the production side is very much what the place is about, with just a straightforward bar counter in one corner of the premises which was formerly a printworks. It has a sparseness which reminded me of London's Howling Hops: that slightly transgressive thrill of drinking on a factory floor. In a city where hops are king and breweries are becoming increasingly specialised, Mt Tabor has gone for a rather quaint something-for-everyone approach, with nothing too extreme, though everything well-made, of course. Head brewer Ben came from reliable Portland institution Widmer Brothers and has brought some of their ethos to this 15-barrel microbrewery.

The first sample passed around was Lamp Post, which Ben helpfully described as "My take on a shitty domestic lager." And so it is: crisp, dry and with a teensy touch of sulphur which adds a tiny bit of complexity that's probably not meant to be there but of which I was glad.

Powell Butte
This was followed by Ash Street, the brewery's amber ale. It's less sweet than I was expecting, with just a light toffee note plus quite a strong bitterness, finishing with a hard saccharine tang. I think this recipe could do with a little softening.

Powell Butte (it's an extinct volcano cone in Portland) is Mt. Tabor's pale ale: 5.1% ABV and combining Herkules, Cascade, Chinook, Mosaic and Galaxy hops, though only to 35 IBUs. There's a fantastic hop complexity here, the aroma full of spicy resins while the flavour starts as a delicate citrus sherbet but builds to an earthy, funkier conclusion. This is one of those beers that performs equally well as a quaffer and sipper.

The corresponding IPA, Asylum Avenue, ramps the ABV up to 6.3% and the IBUs to 65. It smells sweeter, with the lurid fruit candy buzz of Skittles, but the flavour is properly biting: harsh resins digging into the palate and refusing to move. After a little while a softer citrus fruitiness creeps in and the aftertaste is a bitter but balanced orange rind effect. This is definitely a lot less ambitious than your typical Portland IPA, but still makes for perfectly pleasant drinking. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than the other IPA they had, Grocery, which had a soapy twang amongst the big orangey flavours which I didn't care for.

Crown Point
And hallelujah, a dark beer! Crown Point Porter made me realise how much I'd missed these fellas. It's a stonking 6% ABV and capitalises well on the strength, the aroma pouring out huge and enticing coffee notes, while the flavour mixes sumptuous dark chocolate into that. It's thick and satisfying, warming yet clean and refreshing too. Much as I love hopped-up versions of this kind of beer I'm glad the temptation was sucessfully resisted here. I could drink a dangerous amount of this in a sitting.

Everyone visiting was very impressed by Cowboy's Lament, a (get this) Mexican-style lager. It's a much-cherished beer style, apparently, and one mustn't mention C****a in its presence. My experience doesn't go much beyond Negro Modelo, and I didn't think much of that. This is fine though: a pale amber colour with an almost altbier-like biscuit aroma and middling-sweet flavour. There's not much to be said about it other than it's a decent malty lager, which is all it's trying to be.

Next to it there is Mt. Tabor's session IPA (or "India session ale", as they more clumsily put it), called Little Dutch Boy. Lots of savoury qualities here: not only garlic which is getting to be par for the course these days, but also an aquavit-like caraway seed taste. It's interesting, but possibly a bit too interesting to be an easy-going session beer.

And sticking with the Low Countries theme, we finish on Oranje Leeuwin, the 6.5% ABV Belgian-style blonde with added orange peel. The classic heavy Belgian fruit esters completely dominate this one and don't leave much room for complexity or nuance. It's the sort of heavy-handed analogue that might stay one's cravings for Belgian beer temporarily but isn't a substitute for the real thing.

I think that's probably enough imposing on Mt Tabor's hospitality. Thanks to Ben, Nicole and Eric for the tasting, and of course to Jeff for getting me in. So, as I briefly mentioned yesterday, we're over on the hip and indie east side of Portland, where one by one the garages and plumbers' merchants are becoming breweries. Let's have a look at who else is out there...


  1. I love that blurry, lens-flared photo of Breakside. Captures a wonderful feel.

    1. I'm partly annoyed that my handful of photos from Breakside are all smudged or out-of-focus, but then happier that this is because I was concentrating on having fun rather than documenting stuff. So unprofessional...