Thursday, October 14, 2010

Beer on the Pacific

The Oregon Coast is less well-known than Southern California's, but it has it charms: gray and dark blue, wind-bent trees, a sense of power welling deep within the world's largest body of water. The ocean typically is too cold to swim in, but a few brave souls slip into wetsuits and surf.

The coast is also home to some of Oregon's best breweries. Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City has a beachfront view of Haystack Rock. The scenery is breathtaking and has helped Pelican become a popular tourist destination.

This little brewery has repeatedly cleaned up at the Great American Beer Festival. Pelican won the Large Brewpub of the Year award in 2006. The brewery has accumulated an astonishing 28 GABF medals since 1998, including three this year.

After a long and beautiful drive from the Willamette Valley, my buddy and I sat down at a window seat to watch the waves roll in, eat lunch and drink beer.

I first ordered a Kiwanda Cream Ale (5.1 percent ABV, 25 IBUs), one of Pelican's mainline brews. Kiwanda beat out 54 other beers to win the gold medal in the Golden or Blonde Ale category at this year's GABF.

It pours a golden honey color with a decent head. The carbonation makes the flavor pop. Kiwanda certainly does taste of cream, reminiscent of a cream soda. The light ale body holds the beer together superbly. Kiwanda uses two-row malt, flaked barley and light hopping with Mt. Hood hops to achieve a perfect balance.

Next I tried Pelican's fresh-hop beer, Elemental Ale (6.5 percent ABV, 75 IBUs). This one uses big quantities of Sterling hops. It's worth reading Pelican's description of the beer:

Brewed only once a year at peak hop season, this beer is made with 400 pounds of freshly picked, "wet" Sterling hops from Goschie Farms in Silverton, OR. The hops were only three hours from the vine when they went into the kettle. The mash tun was also used as a hop back, holding 300 pounds of hops! This beer features a huge floral, spicy, grassy aroma with a firm malt background and a huge, snappy hop finish.

Fresh-hop beers have become de rigeur for ambitious breweries, particularly in Oregon, home to a substantial percentage of the world's hop production. It's also caught on in Colorado, where Ska, Steamworks and Pagosa all brewed fresh-hop beers this season.

To my taste, Elemental Ale was a little over-hopped. I enjoy the floral, citrus and grassy qualities in hops, but at 75 IBUs, the subtleties are overwhelmed by bitterness. Additionally, Sterlings, a close relative of Saaz, aren't my favorite hops for the sort of starring role played in a fresh-hop beer.

Pelican does a great job with their beer and food (my shrimp pizza was delicious). I still have two significant nits to pick:

1. Price. Lunch for two with three beers between us ran almost $50. Pelican puts out a good product, but they make you pay for it.

2. Service. The restaurant was understaffed, and our server obviously had as many tables as she could handle. Beers were slow in coming, I didn't have utensils for about 20 minutes after I sat down and when she finally took my debit card, the receipt came back without a pen with which to sign it (I had to track down one at the bar). The staff were friendly but either overworked or inattentive, a common problem at tourist restaurants.

After leaving Pelican, we drove south on Highway 101 along the ocean until we pulled into Rogue Ales' headquarters, spotted beautifully in Yaquina Bay at Newport.

I ordered a snifter of John John Hazelnut, a version of Hazelnut Brown Nectar that has been aged in rum barrels. (It's actually a collaboration between Rogue's head brewer and its head distiller). It would make an impressive winter warmer, but I found the rum note a bit over-the-top, smothering the tasty hazelnut flavor of the base beer. The liquor taste could be welcome in some situations, but I just wasn't feeling it.

Much better was a sampler highlighted by a dry-hopped Saint Rogue Red Ale that expressed its Chinook and Centennial hops very favorably.

A taste of Rogue's Double Chocolate Stout proved that Young's version isn't the only game in town. The bittersweet chocolate taste was deep and inviting.

After driving back to the valley, I'm comforted that where the Pacific meets North America, brewers are practicing their craft with skill and conscience.

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