PORTLAND’S HOLIDAY ALE FESTIVAL ’09 EXCEEDS EXPECTATIONS
By John Fortunato
Featuring vintage versions of so-called Big Beers and boasting the health-conscious slogan, ‘beer is a source of B complex vitamins,’ Portland’s annual Holiday Ale Festival proved to be a fantastic way for a seasoned Jersey swigger to spend a few cold early December days. Held December 2nd to 6th at Pioneer Court House Square in the heart of town, the winter fest (organized by Preston Weesner – pictured below) offered over sixty luxuriously hardy one-time-only winter seasonal beers and ales from the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Ironically, one of the finest and most anticipated libations came from a different Portland cross-country in Maine.
A huge contingent of business professionals, local hippies, football-sized guzzlers, and ‘brew-pies’ (microbrew groupies – see picture of jacketed couple below) gathered under the tents for the festival’s opening day. By nightfall, the canvassed rooms were packed. Happily, getting to the tapped beers was easy, allowing the public to consume $1 four-ounce samplers without waiting on the long lines that often mire overcrowded beerfests. Then again, when word gets out that there’s a barrel of rare aged beer to be tapped, several brew-pies start hovering nearby for a short taste. The obvious thrill is to get a few precious sips of a limited offering before it disappears down someone else’s gullet.
Around 7 PM, several beer geeks and connoisseurs congregated around the far northwest section to try Allagash Curieux, a terrific bourbon-barreled curiosity with Sangria, spiced wine, chai tea, vanilla bean, coconut milk, and white apricot illusions. I’d had it in bottle a year hence, but the tapped version bettered my high expectations. But before our collective thirsts could be quenched, busy events organizer Weesner – in an obvious attempt to consume the bulk – takes a foamy swig, looks down at his cup, and jokingly snickers, “Oh, this is terrible.”
Every beer snob should know Portland, Oregon, is the finest American city for quality brewpubs since there are a baker’s dozen within a five-mile radius. That’s no secret. And many local brewers contributed a fruitful array of Christmas spirits for this merry rendezvous. But I didn’t expect worthy Belgium brews such as sherry-serenaded caramel-candied Dubuisson Freres Scaldi Noel (vintage 2007) and lemon-peppered banana-clove-spiced Saison-styled Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux Saison or fabulous Eggenberg Samichlaus Doppelbock 2005, a cognac-like 14% alcohol doozy crafted at an ancient Austrian castle (consumed within the event’s first hour). These European brews added a certain flare and provided further depth to an already extraordinary lineup on tap ‘til Sunday.
Truth be known, I was in the midst of a Seattle-Tacoma-Portland brewpub tour and only attended the initial Wednesday presentation and the following days’ afternoon session. But I got to explore a wide variety of flavorful elixirs during this winter solstice celebration, trying out several excellent local brewers’ liquid gold for the first time. Inaugural tastings from Oregonian breweries such as Eugene-based Oakshire, Astoria’s Fort George, Silverton’s Seven Brides, Hillsboro’s Vertigo, and Sisters’ Three Creeks proved meritorious.
For starters, Oakshire Very Ill-Tempered Gnome, a gorgeous brown ale-styled barleywine, pleated perfumed nutmeg-cinnamon-gingerbread spices into brown-sugared macadamia and molasses cookie sweetness countering dry walnut bittering. Next up, Fort George North III Belgian Tripel brought honey-malted maple-syrupy sugar plum and dried fig illusions to oak-spiced niceties. Seven Brides Drunkel Strong Ale evenly spread dried fruits above coffee and black chocolate overtones. Vertigo Arctic Blast Vanilla Porter stayed robust as its vanilla-chocolate ice cream frontage crept into sharp hop-spiced toasted coconut illusions. Not to be outdone, Three Creeks Rudolph’s Imperial Red placed cinnamon apple spicing atop sharp-hopped fig-prune illusions and latent bourbon warmth.
State capital, Corvalis, flaunted Block 15 Restaurant & Brewery’s Oaked St. Nick, a bourbon-barreled beauty with dark rum warmth plus wintry cinnamon-nutmeg spicing grazing raisin puree, brown chocolate, vanilla, pecan, and praline illusions. Perfect for any occasion.
What truly sets Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival apart from other more massive brewfests is not only the easy access and reasonable pricing, but also its sheer profundity. There are no weak pilsners or wavering pale ales to be found, just a bunch of shrewdly handcrafted ‘Big Beers’ labeled thusly due to heady alcohol prevalence, robust full-bodied ebullience, and expansive stylistic range.
A true fest favorite was rummy whiskey-bent coffee-roasted espresso-milked Kona Da Grind Buzz Kona Coffee Imperial Stout, a post-noir Hawaiian dessert beer amplified by brown chocolate-y macadamia-hazelnut intrigue, toasted almond-coconut swagger, and sweet vanilla piquancy.
Better still, California’s Bear Republic Barrel Aged Old Baba Yaga Imperial Stout, aged in French oak cabernet barrels, tendered bourbon boozing for smoked chocolate malting, dark-spiced raisin pureed prune souring, and black cherry smear.
Another fave was Walking Man Ho Ho Homo Erectus Imperial Double India Pale Ale (2006) from nearby Stevenson, Washington. Its up-front rum warmth deepened syrupy whiskey malting saddling raisin, prune, bruised banana, and overripe apple tones.
Afterwards, I drove two-hours south to Eugene, America’s most liberal college town, to see who’d win what was defined as the Historic Civil War for the Roses, a back-and-forth gridiron battle between Oregon and Oregon State for Rose Bowl consideration against Ohio State. I also met a few herbal cultivators who’d make my drive back to Seattle that much easier. Remarkably, on the way northward, I stopped at Portland’s Amnesia Brewery and found iconic Rogue brewer John Maier sitting at the bar enjoying a few brews before completing my journey to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Six years earlier, Maier and company put my wife and I up at one of their brewpub loft apartments. He remembered and I thanked him. What a trip!
Here are some more recommended beers, listed alphabetically by brewer, served at Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival – 2009:
Alameda Papa Noel’s Moonlit Reserve (Portland, Oregon) – Oak-aged winter warmer with cinnamon-nutmeg spicing had bittersweet mocha-backed dried fruit enticement.
Bayern Face Plant Doppelweizen (Missoula, Montana) – Another fine Bavarian-styled beer from Big Sky Country brewer, this dark wheat bock kept earthy mineral-watered peat-y funk up-front trailed by mocha-spiced ginger tea illusion.
Black Diamond Winter (Walnut Creek, California) – Candi-sugared Belgian malting upends hop-spiced gingerbread, raisin, plum, prune, and cherry variance.
Cascade Drie Zwarte Pieten Barrel-Aged Sour Ale (Portland, Oregon) – Tart bing cherry-fruited pinot noir-barreled whiskey-bent Flanders-styled Red Ale offers dry-hopped cherry pie theme saddling white wine, vinous cider, and port undertones.
Deschutes Lost Barrels of Mirror Mirror Oak-Aged Barleywine (Bend, Oregon) – Dark-spiced candi-sugared brown chocolate, butterscotch, and crème de cocoa illusions adorn candied apple sweetness.
Firestone Velvet Merken Oatmeal Stout (Paso Robles, California) – Barley-roasted cocoa-buttered black chocolate-y frontage reinforced by chewy caramel malting.
Golden Valley Barrel-Aged Tannen Bomb Winter Warmer (Mc Minnville, Oregon) – Oaken pinot noir-barreled seasonal retains creamy brown-sugared white chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch accord above rummy sugarplum-raisin-date illusions.
Hair Of The Dog Jim -2009 (Portland, Oregon) – Astounding Strong Ale leaves butterscotch, brown chocolate, and cocoa powder traces upon ripe apple-peach-pear-cherry fruiting, cinnamon-spiced raisin puree trail, and dessert-like barleywine finish.
Kona Black Sand Porter (Kona, Hawaii) – Soft-watered bittersweet chocolate dryness capsizes dark-spiced hazelnut-macadamia influence.
Laughing Dog Chocolate Huckleberry Stout (Ponderay, Idaho) – Nutty bitterness pervades chocolate-covered dark-spiced raspberry, blueberry, and huckleberry tones usurping black cherry reminder.
Old Lompoc Brewdolph (Portland, Oregon) – Sugarplum-spiced Belgian-styled Red Ale places ripe cherry above mocha-malted cinnamon-nutmeg-allspice-clove contingent and rummy bruised banana snip.
Widmer Collaborator Sled Crasher Winter Warmer (Portland, Oregon) – Spruce-tipped candi-sugared nutmeg-cinnamon spicing reaches chocolate-covered black cherry midst as macadamia-hazelnut-cola illusions counter peat-y earthiness.