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Sunday, January 15, 2017

How Would You Choose the Four Best Breweries in Portland?

This coming weekend, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia will be gathering in Portland for its 2017 Digital Conference. One of the events of the conference is the "best brewery tour" hosted by Willamette Week's Martin Cizmar. When I got the email, I clicked on the link to see which breweries would be on the tour. Turns out there are four of them, and you can find Martin's choices at the link.

Over the past year, I welcomed a dozen or so people from other parts of the country and globe who came in part or entirely to tour Portland breweries. The question of "best" was a discussion with each one of them. There are probably thirty or so breweries that might regularly appear on the average Portlander's best of list, so choosing four is fool's errand. Even when those visitors arrived with more the four slots on their dance card, the process was one of winnowing, always tinged (in my case) by regret. I doubt I ever recommended the same breweries twice.

The question is not even so much as which breweries to put on the list as how you go about your own winnowing. What criteria do you use? How do you make sure the person leaves with a sense of the city's diversity and quality? There is no right answer to the question--nor which breweries are "best." Still, these are questions I bet you all wrestle with and I'm curious--what is your thought process?

(Now back to this excruciating Green Bay/Dallas game, in which my beloved Packers are slowly, inexorably--and inevitably?--giving away the game.)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Lupulin Powder--the Next Big Thing?

A tipster pointed me to a new hop product that debuted (quietly, it seems) last fall: lupulin powder.
Lupulin powder – a purified concentration of the resin compounds and aromatic oils in whole hop flowers – is being test-marketed by Yakima-based YCH Hops (Yakima Chief-Hopunion).... YCH uses a proprietary cryogenic process to separate the powder from the leafy part of the hop cone. That’s also being sold separately as debittered hop leaf, to provide pure aroma along the lines of European noble hops.
Breweries that have tried it seem psyched. They're using the powder to dry hop the beers, and the saturation of aroma is apparently intense. One of the big downsides to dry-hopping (putting hops in the beer during or after fermentation) is loss; the hops function sort of like a sponge, and brewers lose substantial amounts of beer that gets trapped in the left-over hop slurry. This product vastly reduces the lost beer, so even if the sensory quality was the same as whole hops, it would be a big improvement.

Ben Edmunds was apparently onto something when he used his liquid nitrogen-shattering technique for fresh hops; apparently that's how the powder is extracted. I don't have a ton of info on these; except for fragmentary mention by a few breweries online, there doesn't seem to be any info out there. My tipster, who wanted to remain anonymous, did offer two intriguing rumors that I'll pass along in the absence of actual data. These are only rumors. 1) Lupulin powder is getting a ton of attention in New England (this is somewhat bolstered by the reference on Trillium's website). 2) The quality of aromatics, while intense, my be very short-lived. Like two weeks before a big fade kicks in--which is reminiscent of the evanescence of fresh hops if true.

Do ping me if you have info.

Source: Barley Brown's


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Vignette #10: Steve Barrett (Samuel Smith's)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

“It’s a very flocculent yeast and it has a natural tendency to float to the surface of the beer. That can be a mixed blessing during the fermentation, because the yeast is so flocculent it does want to do that at a fairly early stage in fermentation. So the approach taken to encourage it to ferment right to the end is to carry out rousing. The rousing effectively means that we pump from the bottom of the tank up and around this circular [inaudible]--a fishtail/fan arrangement that screws onto the pipe and that throws out a fan of recirculated beer into the top--and that pushes the yeast back down and it keeps the whole thing in a dynamic state.”

“It’s quite unusual to do that during fermentation. You wouldn’t expect to be throwing your yeast through the air. Now this whole thing produces CO2 during fermentation, so for the most part there is protection by natural CO2.  It’s absolutely relevant to the beers we’re producing that whatever’s happening to the yeast in the process is having an impact on the flavors we’re getting. Typically, a very robust, complex, full-flavored beers.”

“It’s tradition. The brewery’s been here since 1758 at least and it’s still owned by the Smith family and they’re really, really heavily keen on maintaining traditions in everything. Traditional hand-crafted beer, and deliveries, the cooper making wooden barrels.  It’s very much about history and tradition, really.”

Steve Barrett retired shortly after I visited and was replaced by Colin Carbert in 2012.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Here Comes "Mass Market Craft"


Bryan Roth, beer's Nate Silver, has applied some data journalism to the idea that rare beers dominate "best of" lists--and beer geeks' hearts. Riffing on that, he wondered about causality: do we just happen to like rare beers, or do we like them because they're rare?
"It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves."
Fair enough--there are scads of scientific studies out there showing how susceptible we are to influence when we think something's special. But what does this phenomenon look like when you flip it around and instead examine those large regional or national brands? Here, I would argue, is the real story. Within the craft segment (however you define it), there are emerging sub-segments. The vast majority of craft beer is still just a few brands--Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Blue Moon and so on.

There are millions of barrels of interest in what beer geeks now deem boring beer. If a brewery wants to appeal to this, ahem, mass market within the craft segment, they can't hope to do it with a brett-aged saison. Indeed, the opposite is happening. As big money flows into the craft segment, it's looking to find stable, large chunks of customers for its products. Buoyed by Heineken money, Lagunitas shipped nearly a million barrels of beer in 2016, 60% of it IPA. Goose Island IPA is actually growing faster than Lagunitas IPA and poised to overtake it. Constellation is pushing tons of Ballast Point Sculpin in all the colors of the fruit bowl. None of these brands is younger than a decade old.

In order to capture that mass market, other breweries are far from "innovating." As one example, everyone is trying to recreate Sculpin's fruit-IPA success. Sierra Nevada has a fruit-infused pale and an IPA that tastes like fruit (Tropical Torpedo). Kona has a passionfruit, orange, and guava IPA. Dogfish Head has Flesh and Blood, a ... fruit IPA. Full Sail's got one with papaya just coming out. New Belgium has Citradelic. And on and on. (It's actually entertaining to visit the website of one of the larger craft breweries and see that they all have one.) Or take Firestone Walker, which scored an unexpected, massive hit with 805, a golden ale. Guess what style we're starting to see the big breweries brew now?

Of course, most of those breweries are also putting out the rare beers Bryan mentions. They have barrel programs or specialty lines, and they make the kinds of beers that make geeks' hearts sing. What this signals is that the market is in the midst of a stratification, and we're seeing breweries attend to both "specialty craft" and "mass market craft" sub-segments. (No doubt drinkers pass back and forth between the categories, as they do between craft and mass market lagers. These are not separate populations of drinkers, but they are separate sub-sectors.)

By chance, I was perusing this page by the consumer research company Mintel and discovered that they were already out in front of me. They distinguish between "true-craft" and "mass-craft." For the moment, they use the dichotomy to honor the Brewers Association's definition of "craft," but that is a dying (or perhaps dead) distinction. There is a real market difference, both in type and price, between the specialty and mass craft segments. And it is only going to widen. Once you introduce the idea of "mass-craft," there's no going back.

So to return to Bryan's thinking. What I'd say is that it's the upper end that's abandoning the aficionado. They're no longer competing to make the most distinctive, interesting beers for the large regional and national markets. They're looking to put out products that capture a large portion of the audience, for however long that beer can keep their attention. Beers like Citradelic and IPApaya were not designed to be workhorse brands that will take breweries into the next decade. They're quick, trendy, and disposable (and of course, occasionally very good). We fall in love with the rare beers because we're not meant to fall in love with these. They're like some of my filler blog posts.* A few clicks/bucks and everybody's happy. You'll know when I put out the good stuff.*

I have a hunch this will hasten the tide of rising cynicism among some beer drinkers, but it's not the breweries' fault; people are going crazy right now for fruit IPAs and golden ales, and so that's what they have to brew. I'm sure your local brewer would rather drink a saison, too, but there's just not enough interest to push one to a national market. Welcome to the era of mass-craft.

*Ha, ha, kidding. Of course none of my blog posts are filler. They're all carefully considered and reported and run through my team of editors.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Just to Clarify

I've gotten a few odd reactions to the announcement that I'll be working on a biography of Kurt and Rob Widmer for CBA last Friday. Just to be perfectly clear: if I do my job properly, you should notice absolutely no difference here at the blog. I anticipate continuing on as I have the last 11 years, providing you all the quality and objectivity you've come to expect*.

That is all.

*Which is to say, idiosyncratic and/or poor.

Winner-Take-All Markets

One of the pleasures of doing a podcast with an economist is that occasionally he surprises you. We have long planned to do an episode on the the value of superstar brewers--those folks who have created some of the indelible beers that sell hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer each year. We used local legend John Harris as our example, who brewed some of the first beers at the McMenamins empire, then the classic line at Deschutes, went on to elevate Full Sail, and finally founded his own brewery Ecliptic. How would we calculate his value?

That's an interesting question on its face, but Patrick introduced me to a fascinating concept through which to look at this question: winner-take-all markets. These are situations in which the money flows disproportionately to the winners. Patrick gave a couple of examples, starting with sports. You have thousands of exceptional athletes playing at the collegiate level, but only several hundred playing in the NBA. The talent difference between an excellent college player and a great is slight, but the rewards are gigantic. In music we see a similar phenomenon; artists like Adele earn tens of millions while working bands have to drag their equipment around the countryside to scrape out a living.

In beer, there's a similar phenomenon. Even within craft, the top six percent of breweries make 84% of the beer (The overall beer market is even more top-heavy.)  So the question: is beer a winner-take-all-market? The question of the brewer's value is a subsequent one, and also fascinating. I didn't have a whole lot to do with making this conversation interesting, but interesting it was. To learn the answers, of course, you have to listen to the pod (find on iTunes and Google Play as well). We also do a bit of year-end wrap-up and start-of-the-year forecasting.

Incidentally, we refer to a video clip in the podcast in which John recounts his start as a brewer. It was filmed at the celebration of his 30 years as a brewer last spring, and if you freeze frame the picture during the cheers at the end, you'll see some of the working brewers John inspired. And as a charming bonus, the young woman behind him is his daughter.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The New Project

It has taken months of planning and then legal review, but I'm finally able to discuss my newest big project. It is--well, let's back up. Probably time to do a full overview of my activities and give you an update on my full disclosures.

I'm just beginning year eight of full-time writing, and the project of supporting myself remains a work in progress. Writing itself pays crap, as most people are no doubt aware. There is a tier of professional nonfiction writing that is very lucrative (your Ta Nahisi Coates, Michael Lewises, and Malcolm Gladwells). Somewhere below that tier is the one I'm on--where it's possible to publish books and articles to your heart's content and still not make enough to live on. The entire enterprise of publishing--newspapers, magazines, books, online--has been hemorrhaging money for years, and there's less and less of it to go around.

So we do things like find sponsors for our blogs, as I began doing last year.  Another thing we can do is consulting, which I also started to do, more slowly and with spottier success, last year. The idea I pursued actually came from Sally, in a discussion over beers (naturally). One of my skills is being able to see a narrative arc amid the riot of activities that constitute a brewery. This is something, by and large, that breweries themselves aren't great at, so they don't often do a great job of 1) understanding their own stories, nor 2) communicating it well to their partners (distributors, retailers) or the public.

So I drew up a list of breweries I admired whom I thought could use some help in that capacity and offered to help them tell their stories. Some turned me down (The Commons, pFriem, Breakside, Ninkasi) and some took me up on the offer (Ft. George, Pints, Block 15, Ninkasi--after reconsidering their earlier rejection). To be clear, this wasn't ongoing marketing or brand consultation--I was contracted to deliver a story for the brewery in much the way I would deliver a story for All About Beer.

As a matter of ethics, I think that last distinction is highly relevant. Being employed by or having ongoing relationships with breweries creates a conflict of interest when you're writing about them. Even this level of involvement requires, at a minimum, full disclosure so you can judge for yourself whether I'm in the tank for one of these breweries. These breweries understand that there is no ongoing relationship, and I will continue to cover them independently. (They also understand that I may be doing similar work for their competitors.) As always, you as the reader will render the final judgment. I also know hive mind is not silent with its opinions.

All of which gets us back to the point of this post. The one big project that did emerge from this is one I'm pretty excited about: I'll be writing a book-length biography of Rob and Kurt Widmer for the brewery. They are interested in an accurate, complete history of the founding era while most of the major players are still around to tell it. Kurt has already retired, and Rob will someday, too. If Craft Brewers Alliance survives for decades, as many breweries have, it will be an invaluable resource to have a biography of the founders to guide the company. (I was surprised by how vividly the presence of Arthur Guinness remains at St. James Gate; the way people speak of him, you half expect him to walk through the door. Breweries continue to live their legacy long after the founders are gone.)

I would have written a company-facing hagiography if that's what CBA wanted, but to my great relief, it's not. We're going to get into the mistakes and controversies. I sat for two hours with Rob and Kurt yesterday afternoon and listened in great detail to the failure of Altbier, the founding product, which almost sunk the brewery before it got started. To their credit, CBA recognizes that success stories are built on mistakes and miscalculations as much as they are on good planning and smart decisions. I'm going to tell the whole story.

Throughout the year, I'll be passing along information I dig up that I find fascinating. (For example, this amazing fact: the Widmers dumped the first ten batches of Altbier before dialing it in to their satisfaction--while, of course, hemorrhaging money.) One element of the project is acting as a bit of an archivist. I'll collect cool photos and documents to reproduce in the book, and I hope to pass some of those along as well.

Everything else around here should look about the same, if a bit more Widmer-ized than usual. (I'll put a notice any time I write about the brewery to alert people to my relationship with them.) Because of the Widmer biography, I don't plan on doing any more consulting this year, but if I do, I'll mention it. I'm also going to add a tab at the top of the page with a list of breweries I've done work for so you will have all the facts.

This is going to be a good and fun year for me--and one not tinged with financial stress, as a few recently have been. I hope you find it interesting, as well--

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Posts of the Year Analyzed

Eventually this picture will make sense, believe me.
Indulge me, if you will, with one last end-of-the-year post. As part of my year-end routine, I went back and looked at the top posts of the year, as measured by the number of direct visits--which basically indicates which posts went viral. When people start sharing my posts on social media, it sends people to direct links, and Google tracks those. Now, of course, there's no arguing that every post on this blog is a delight, so there are no wrong answers here. And yet.

I went back over the 200 posts I wrote in 2016 and came up with the following list of personal favorites. These are articles I put time and thought into, and there was often a visit or actual reporting involved (shocking, I know). Some of them are deeper dives into the way beer is made, some of them are think pieces, and some are tinged by history. Of the "best" posts of the year--subjective, sure--I'd proudly stand behind any day of the year (click through if you missed one):
Now, how does this compare with the posts that received the most traffic? Well, not identically, let's just say that.  Below I'll list the top ten posts by traffic of the year and while some of my faves did make the list, so did some weird stuff. Because people still get linked to posts directly when they do Google searches, none of these are static but as of today, these are the top ten, along with the hits and the date of publication.
(Google doesn't give an average, but eyeballing it, I would guess the average post can expect to welcome around 1800 visitors directly when it goes live. Most of these come from Facebook and Twitter, and some find love on Reddit.)

By far my most-trafficked post this past year was a throwaway piece on the sad end of the Henry Weinhard name inspired by a press release some poor marketing intern had the misfortune to send my way. It took me seven minutes to write, probably, and was four times more popular than the next most-popular post.  (It is currently the fifth article returned when you do a Google search on the product, which surely wasn't what MillerCoors had in mind.)

All of which to say is: no one has any idea which posts are going to go viral. Traffic seems to be as random as the pattern of waves. (I had a few other posts like this that were traffic duds.) I will continue to toss out varied content, hoping people find some of it interesting. No doubt the ones you liked weren't on either of the two lists above. Subjectivity...

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Year in Pictures

A look back at my perambulations over the past year. This may or may not be the final year-end post--even though we're trotting merrily into 2017. (Click any photo to enlarge and get an (uncaptioned) slide show.)

When AAB's John Holl visited last year, we
toured Cascade. Ron Gansberg started pulling
out treasures from the cellar--and even the
brewers were impressed.

A cold, wet night in January--from inside
the warmth of Pints Brewing.

The dog of the pod making a homebrew
appearance. (He's Patrick's.)

Junket #1 in 2016 was a trip to Ireland to meet
Michael Ash, the man who invented
at St. James Gate. (Mr. Ash
died six weeks after this photo was taken.)

One of the many Irish pubs I visited.
Locals call these "boozers."

The Beer Bible picked up an IACP award
in April. (Yay!)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thirty Years in Portland

My grandparents arrived in Eastern Oregon in the 1930s and raised their two daughters in various farming communities. One of them stayed, married, and has been farming around Vale since the 1950s. But one of them--my mom--decided to head off to the big city to seek her fortune. Thus was I born and raised (mostly) in Boise, Idaho. I made my way back to Oregon to attend college here, arriving when I was just a few years younger than my grandparents had been fifty years before me. That was 1986.

Portrait of the blogger as a
young man (with mother).
Circa 1987.
Portland's transformation in those thirty years (along with a surprising vein of continuity) has been radical. Our minds are built to create sense of disparate inputs, and 2016 Portland seems like an organic result of an unseen trajectory 1986 Portland traveled; when I put my mind back on what the actual town was like then, however, this 2016 seems like a near impossibility.

In the mid-eighties, Portland was a poor, rough town. Portland had 66 murders in 1987--one of the highest rates in the country (the current ten year average is 24, and the city's a good deal larger now). It felt dangerous; there were places you didn't go. It was a visibly racially divided town. A century of racist policies had concentrated black Portlanders into a section of the Northeast, a poor section neglected by the city. Crimes of all kinds routine throughout the city, and petty theft was so common I just started leaving my car unlocked so people wouldn't break the windows to get in and discover there wasn't anything worth stealing. You were lucky indeed if you managed to avoid having your car, apartment, or house broken in to. For many of us, it was a regular experience.

Unlike many larger cities elsewhere in the country, Portland was never an industrial hub, but rather the focal point for the extractive industries that dominated the state's economy until the 1970s (logging, commercial fishing, ranching, and farming). Until a few years after I arrived, you'd still see giant flotillas of Douglas fir being pulled down the river. The reason Kurt Cobain wore flannel was not because it was a proto-lumbersexual moment in music and fashion, but because he came from Aberdeen, the heart of the Washington logging industry. In Portland about half the men wore jeans and flannel, but they were work clothes, not affectations.

Portland's unusual status had positive and negative effects. As early as the 1970s, the qualities that led Portland to become Portlandia were present. It was dirt cheap to live here. A couple years after I arrived, I became a hippie artist at Saturday Market, and I lived in a group house on Clinton Street that had five bedrooms and rented for $495 a month. At one point we had seven people living there and my rent was $80 ($176 in today's dollars). This meant it was a great place to live for the young and broke. I could string beads by day and scrape together enough money to pay rent and buy a half-rack of Rainier pounders every now and again. There wasn't really an upper class in Portland, and there wasn't a restaurant in the city that would have barred someone who was in jeans. (When we'd buy new Levi's, we'd joke they were our "dress jeans.")

Portland also didn't have industrial wealth that cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh had to build symphony halls and theaters. This led to a distinctly DIY approach that has been fundamental to the city's ethos. But it also meant there wasn't a lot of money to improve the city. Small businesses were run on a shoestring in provisional spaces in buildings that hadn't been much improved in 75 years.

Of course, a lot of this affected things like breweries, which required capital startup budgets. Banks wouldn't even look at them. (Karl Ockert, founding brewer at BridgePort, famously reported that one of the banks he went to told him, "Breweries don't open, they shut down.") Fortunately, dairy equipment was cheap and plentiful, and rents were cheap. Entrepreneurs who wanted to start breweries could get off the ground with relatively small investments (usually from personal savings, family and friends). Breweries were, in this way, much like other businesses. They were started by industrious but often cash-poor entrepreneurs who strapped their breweries together with baling wire in less-desirable precincts of the city.

Changing Geography
To get a sense of how much the city's geography has changed, let's start with the warehouse district behind the Henry Weinhard Brewery on Burnside. Immediately adjacent to downtown, it was in the mid-1980s almost vacant. Warehouses filled the blocks, but the streets were empty. It was as if a catastrophe had happened and forced all the people to leave suddenly. This was, predictably, a place of cheap rents, which ultimately led to its revival as artists moved into the warehouse and created lofts. A few galleries followed, and so did a few other businesses--like the three new breweries that opened between 1984-'86.


Throughout the 1990s, city planners planned, and around the turn of the century it was rebranded "the Pearl District" and soon the wealthy began displacing the artists. In the decade and a half since, it has become the city's wealthiest enclave, a mini-Manhattan home to people with the kind of wealth no one seemed to have in the 1980s.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Satori Award for 2016

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer.  

When we gaze back over 2016, our eyes pass anxiously over stories about "the industry." The chatter is about things like sagging flagship sales, "brand positions," metastasizing breweries and beer,  and excess capacity. The once-DIY flavor of small breweries has become slick and professional. There's no longer a clear line between those small brewers who are authentically excited about the beer first, and those that use "passionate" as a PR term to drum up business. All of which has led to a kind of weary cynicism about everything to do with beer.

Lost in all of this focus on the business is the thing that's really important: the beer itself. And by that metric, 2016 was spectacular. It's true we can't taste all the good beers out there like we once fooled ourselves into thinking we could. But among the beers I tried were a number of truly exceptional offerings. For a graybeard who can remember what passed for "good beer" a quarter century ago, we are truly living in the golden age. We normalize things in our minds, moving the needle on what's considered average without ever realizing we're doing it. Take the average American brewery in 2016 and time-travel it back to 1991 and it would instantly become one of the country's best. And the breweries making the best beer are doing it at a level absolutely no American brewery could touch back then. (Even Sierra Nevada 2016 crushes Sierra Nevada '91.)

The Satori gives me a chance to look back at the year and remind myself just how good it was. The full list of the beers I considered for the award is here, and I could write a separate post on the significance of each beer and why I admired it. We select a "best" as a political move--we choose a particular example of art because it says something about that moment in time. But "best" is a ridiculous designation, as we all know. It's really just an excuse to talk about the things we love. With that in mind, let me point to three other beers that I didn't choose--which were equal in every way to the winner.

Zoiglhaus - North German Pilsner
German beers just do not get the kind of love American, Belgian, or even Czech beers get. They are acts of subtlety and restraint, and as a result, don't dazzle the palate the way vivid saisons, IPAs, or wild ales do. Nevertheless, Alan Taylor's mastery over this oeuvre is worthy of a lot more attention than it gets. The house helles is a masterpiece, the dunkel lager now pouring is the equal of any I found in Bavaria, and his Berliner weisse is literally one of the best examples made in the world. But this summer's North German Pilsner was special because it exemplified not just the brewer's art, but something about the brewer and brewery, too.

No one is as professorial as Alan Taylor. My first introduction to him was on this blog, when I quoted a 1914 German text that used the word "zentner," an obscure term I'd never encountered. Taylor quickly commented on the post, explaining what it was. A bit later on, he was introducing two goses brewed at Widmer, detailing the difference between the Leipziger and Goslar variants. Since then I've turned to him a number of times to explain the arcane or technical to me, and he has always come through. Well, with North German Pilsner, he exposes his customers to this side of his personality. The dry, hoppy, and fairly macho pilsners Taylor loved to drink while living in Berlin get the spotlight this time. They are indeed unusual beers, with less balance, less malt, and a good deal more bitterness than is typical either for German beers or lagers in general. (They're roughly the opposite, within the same style band, of American mass market lagers.) It's an obscure style presented lucidly--a perfect metaphor for everything Taylor does.

Taylor's version smacks you across the mouth like a right cross, and for the first couple swallows you're wondering what's the matter with him. But then your tongue adjusts and a previously hidden layer of malt flavor emerges. The best beers are not just good from a sensory perspective, but from an experiential one. I had my first pint on a hot day in July after riding out to Lents on my bike. I was sweaty and steaming, just like the factory workers who were the original drinkers of these kinds of beers. It enlivened me and slaked my thirst and offered an experience I will never forget.

Agrarian Ales - Field Beer
One of the quiet developments in brewing in the past half-decade is the emergence of true farmhouse brewing. This is happening nationwide. In 2012, for example, New York state introduced a law to encourage farm-based brewing. The South has been on the leading edge of farm brewing, and places like Scratch Brewing in Illinois have gotten attention for their old-world ways.

Oregon's doing all right on this front as well, and Agrarian Ales in the Southern Willamette Valley near Eugene is our local version of Scratch. They use their own farm-grown hops and dose most of their beers with something grown on-site. Appropriately, their line is rustic, whether the beer is a lager, a traditional style, or a farmhouse ale; they are cloudy, yeasty, and full of the flavors of grain and hop (and often beet or sage flower or apples or whatever's on hand). The beer that wowed me, however, was a little 4% saison with no frills. It had a simple grain bill and I think a single hop variety. Despite all this simplicity and its modest strength, the little beer was a mighty mite of flavor. Yeast led the way, with a character similar to Dupont's, with an emphasis on phenolics. It was heavily hopped, giving it a pretty nice bitter punch followed by wildflower aromatics. A spectacular beer, and one that seemed precisely of the place and moment I drank it.

Ex Novo  - Where the Mild Things Are.
Ex Novo is another brewery that had a quietly superb year, and richly deserves more attention. Departing brewer Jason Barbee (who was at Deschutes PDX before Ex Novo) has a feel for the beers of Great Britain, and I've previously extolled the delights of Stiff Upper Lip, a spectacular strong bitter. Brexit Through the Gift Shop, a summer ale, and Most Interesting Lager in the World are another pair of big winners. Barbee and Ex Novo's body of work this year puts them near the top of Portland's breweries.

But nothing was as special as their 3.5% dark mild. If we were to categorize styles by how close to extinction they are, milds would be moving from endangered to critically endangered. Even in the country of their birth they are really rare in the wild. I've been able to drink maybe two dozen separate brands in my day, and I've never let one go by without downing (a pint of) it. That said, Where the Mild Things Are is easily the best mild I've ever tasted. I Sherpa-ed it in July, writing: "It has it all, from a rich, biscuity/nutty malt profile to a sturdy body to a creamy mouthfeel (despite being served on regular draft). And wonder above wonders, it doesn't taste like a low-alcohol beer. You wouldn't mistake it for a double IPA, but neither does it have that hollow spot so often found in weaker beers. It is hearty and satisfying, rich and flavorful, and of course, wonderfully sessionable."

Very rarely do you locate a clear best-in-style beer, so this is a seriously impressive accomplishment. I was this close to choosing Mild Things for the Satori and would have, were it not for the beer I did choose.

Satori Winner: pFriem Sour IPA
For a small brewery that makes so much noise with its barrel-aged selections, it may seem odd to single out a beer that hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and yet here it is, my Satori 2016: pFriem Sour IPA.

So why did this beer go mostly unnoticed? A big part of the problem is a category error: it is neither sour nor an IPA. Putting people in the frame of mind to expect one or the other of these things, I think they missed the genius of this beer. IPA is a category large enough to contain multitudes, but even a term that malleable has certain limits; no beer that's 5% and 15 IBUs will ever meet the expectation of someone looking for an IPA. Nor is it particularly "sour." The brewery uses kettle souring to lower the pH, but only to a level of tartness that harmonizes with lushly tropical dry hopping.

Rather, the idea is to use acidity rather than bitterness to balance the beer and give it structure. American IPAs have been on an inexorable quest to achieve the qualities of fruit juice, going so far as to include fruit juice (and rind) to create the effect. But hop bitterness is not like anything that appears in fruit juice, and always creates some distance. pFriem takes the logical step in eliminating the bitterness and replacing it with acidity--the balance in fruit juice itself.

Rather than chase the IPA trend, though, pFriem has done something more interesting. These light, bright fruit flavors are not consonant with a big, boozy beer. They're like lemonade on a summer day--crisp and refreshing. The aromatics that come from dry-hopping are delicate and complex. When other hopping is used, they accent the flavors and aromas that come along with kettle hopping. When they're floated atop a kettle-soured base, however, they have to stand on their own. That calls for a softer hand.

Sour IPA is a new style altogether. It may be a logical step in American brewing, but it's too far removed either from more familiar kettle-soured beers and from American IPAs to be substyles of either. Josh Pfriem and Co. have a literalist approach to beer names: they call them by their style. (pFriem has a beer called "Flanders Red," which is fine, but compare it to The Commons' Flemish Kiss, a much more evocative moniker.) For the most part, the loss of a resonant hook a good name provides is offset by the sheer virtuosity of the beer inside. But in the case of Sour IPA it is regrettable. The beer itself is at once instantly familiar and completely unusual. It's a new thing in the beer world, a purely American thing, and it's my beer of the year.