10 November 2016

Points north

I mentioned in Tuesday's post the single Portland brewery that was on Jeff's must-see list. There was only one on mine too: Upright Brewing. This was partly because I'd read good things about it, though also because its opening times meant there was only a small window of opportunity to visit. It's in a north-eastern neighbourhood of the city and we were able to take in a couple of nearby breweries as part of the excursion.

First call, then, was Culmination. This place only opened last year but has already made an impact on Portland and picked up a few awards. I met their marketing guy Steven at the Mt Tabor event and he suggested I drop by: how's that for direct marketing? It's based in a small business centre with several other craftsy start-ups. The bar is quite small but there's a lovely sunny terrace. Let's get the IPAs in.

I opened with their flagship, Phaedrus, a 6.7% ABV number mixing up classical tropical fruit with a bit of a savoury turn and some oily pine resins: all of the new world IPA food groups in a single nutritious serving. As it settles on the palate the peach flavour comes to the fore, while there's a brief flash of bitterness on the end before it all finishes quickly and neatly. Very easy drinking, overall, and pleasant with it.

My wife opted for Translator IPA, brewed by Ruse, a client brewer which uses the Culmination kit to create beers for the local art community and its events. How very Portland. This one is 6.6% ABV and a slightly darker orange than Phaedrus. I got a bit of worrying stickiness on the nose, but thankfully that ended right there. There's a touch of aspirin dryness and it's spicy rather than fruity: a mild sweetness present but under control. This is another decent, easy going IPA, though rather less complex than its cousin.

For the next round I couldn't resist the beer called Sour Flower Power Hour: not an easy phrase with my accent but I did manage to get served. It arrived a clear and pale yellow, tasting of lemon sherbet with just a very light tartness and no weight from its substantial 5.5% ABV. I was reminded a little of White Hag's The Púca, though it's not quite as full-on. The finish is dry and chalky, and haunted by a slightly out of place acrid sharpness which I suspect might be oxidation, but there wasn't enough of it to be sure. The beer still works as a refreshing thirst-quencher.

And lastly Choco Mountain Stout. The name had me expecting a major sugar rush from this 5.8%-er, but that's not what happened. Instead, the aroma opens on a huge kick of dryly roasted grains. The texture is appropriately smooth and creamy while coffee is at the centre of the flavour, though milk chocolate puts in an understated cameo appearance. A slightly severe burnt edge on the finish prevents it from getting sweet and cloying. This is all rather classic and elegant, and not the breakfast cereal disaster implied by its name.

It was a solid half-hour walk to Upright from here. The brewery is notoriously hard to find, buried deep in the bowels of the nondescript Leftbank Project building, another artsy business hub. Down the twisty stairs and winding corridors one eventually arrives in a starkly lit concrete bunker with a handful of folding tables scattered around the tanks and an array of taps bolted to the coldroom wall.

A flight for starters. Beginning on the left of the picture below, that's Four, a 4.5% ABV saison which looks a lot like a witbier to me, and has a very similar gentle orange and dry wheat flavour profile. Stylistic qualms aside, it's a simple quaffable session beer, not about to set the world alight, but not meant to either.

Beside it is Five, another saison, up an ABV notch to 5.5% and this time a clear dark gold colour. This time the style it reminded me of was German bock: that mix of heavy grain and green bitterness. There's also a Belgian estery quality on the periphery of the flavour and just enough saison pepper to be on style. This is another decent but unexciting beer.

Next along is Green Hour, a fresh hop saison at 6.1% ABV. Fuggles from day one of the harvest went into the boil and a month later -- two weeks before drinking -- it was dry hopped with the last of the year's Liberty. It's heavily textured and quite flat. The union of fresh hop fruitiness with saison ester fruitiness gives it an appley quality, a cider tang which felt a little out of place but tasted gorgeous: proper wholesome autumnal refreshment. I've no idea if that was the intention but it worked.

And on the end there is Donuts, based on a recipe from Oedipus Brewery in Amsterdam and intended to taste like donuts. It doesn't. This 4.9% ABV is extremely dry and has a major musty husky cereal component in the taste, a cobwebby burlap staleness. There's just a hint of candied orange sweetness, but it's really quite harsh and difficult beyond that. Certainly a long way from any circular cakey treats.

Moving on to pints, a barrel-aged mixed-fermentation cherry-infused special version of Four, called Four Play. It's a masterpiece of balance, holding all of the many competing elements in check while exploiting them to the full, for the drinker's benefit. There's a bricky nitre dryness that's different to the sort you get in quality Belgian kriek, but just as enjoyable. The dark cherry adds a gentle Black Forest sweetness while the oak gives it a classy smoothness of the sort you normally find in old vintage wines. The combination of sharp, smooth and sweet, seasoned with a dusting of Brettanomyces funk, is absolutely sublime. And all at just 5% ABV. I could have drunk a lot of this guy, always finding something new in it.

Supercool IPA looks remarkably similar to it, but is a very different beer. The aim here is to produce a classic American IPA flavour profile except, in keeping with the house predilections, using a saison yeast. I didn't see which hops were used but I got a major central European vibe off it: lots of sharply bitter damp grass, in  both the aroma and flavour. Saison + IPA = Pilsner? Appropriately for the 6.5% ABV, it's thickly textured, with a kind of oily, greasy feel for which I don't know whether the yeast or hops were responsible. The white pepper bite it delivers is very much saison thing, I'd say. Once you get used to the odd texture and flavours it's quite a decent beer: smooth and well-integrated. The guy who only drinks IPA and picked this as a distress purchase will get a shock, but maybe that's no harm.

Alongside The Commons (mentioned yesterday), Upright is definitely on my top recommendations list for visitors to Portland. Both are having tremendous fun with the highly-attentuated family of Belgian styles, and the ones that don't taste great are at least interesting.

The final brewery for this trek was just a couple of blocks further north: Ex Novo. The company started in 2014 and, uniquely, funnels 100% of its profits to good causes. It was getting late and this place -- another one of those ex garage/workshop spaces -- was already busy but we got a table outside.

I opted for Cactus Wins The Lottery, a prickly pear flavoured Berliner weisse which, understandably, bears a significant resemblance to Sierra Nevada's Otra Vez gose. It has that same slightly sticky pink cactus fruit flavour but nicely balanced by a crisp and sharp tartness. After these two elements spark off each other on the palate it settles back into plain wheat, much like standard unadorned Berliner weisse tends to. It's fun, but doesn't offer much different to a million other flavoured versions of the style.

The session IPA is a 4.5% ABV one called Casual Ex. I got a big hit of caramel from the aroma here, and then wrong-footed completely by a flavour full of watermelons. There's a proper bitterness and a nicely full body, so while it's not the hop rocket I was expecting it is a fun few minutes of drinking.

And there was a rauchbier too: Rauch Paper Scissors, a 5.3% ABV dark lager which would not be at all out of place in Bamberg. It hits the sweet spot of rich hammy smoke against a sparkling clean lager base absolutely perfectly, for properly satisfying down-the-hatch quaffing.

At this point, coming to the end of our last evening in Portland, Jeff had joined us again. And there was another brewery, not far away, he thought we should see.

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