Thursday, March 8, 2012

Cascade Barrel House: A Happenstance Tour

And so somehow it happened: I was caught unprepared for a truly amazing beer experience. Although now, looking back on it, perhaps it is best that I did not have my camera on hand for this. Instead, I was able to become completely absorbed in the experience. And I must say, it came absurdly fast, literally one after another. Despite this being a relatively photo-less post, I felt the need to write about it. First, let me take a step back and tell you when, where and what exactly I am talking about.

The when is simple: a mere two nights ago, Tuesday, the 6th of March 2012, in Portland, Oregon at the Cascade Brewing Barrel House. I suppose I had forgotten how close Portland was to Seattle, how much amazing beer there was in Portland, and how lucky I am to be living in such close proximity. I suppose it is similar to living in Amsterdam and never visiting Brussels (or Flanders for that matter) to experience the vast array of world class beer from the region. There are some 80+ breweries in the Portland Metro area and I have never made the trek south to experience them. Unfortunately I was only allowed one day for beer tasting, but my decision was quick and easy: the Cascade Barrel House. The Cascade Barrel House is the showcase for Cascade Brewing. It's where they do all of their souring, blending, and barrel-aging. Why Cascade? Fair question. There are plenty of other amazing Portland brewers but what drew me to Cascade ultimately is my love for sours. I had previously sampled their Kriek, Apricot, and Razberry Wheat and from these brews I was able to draw my conclusion: they brew great beer.

Taking a seat at the bar top, I was presented with a long list of interesting brews. Some were not sours, in fact Cascade brews many non-barrel aged brews. But let's face it, I was there for one reason and one reason only, so I dove right in and started with tasters of their live cask ales. The first: the Blueberry Bourbonic which sits at 11% abv. A blueberry sour aged in Bourbon barrels. Basically their Bourbonic Plague brew with blueberries. The second: L'agent Orange which was 10.78%. Off-hand I can't remember the exact specifications but I do remember it had a fair amount of fresh orange zest and it was aged in Makers Mark barrels for 16 months. Both of these brews were quite strong and super complex, but I was opting for something less burly and more lip-puckeringly sour. So I moved on and began reading the descriptions of all the various beers. I tried the 2011 Sang Noir. Then the Razberry Wheat. It was only at the end of my tasting experience that I realized what I should have been drinking all along: Pater and Noyeaux (tasting notes and details to come later in the post).

It was at this time my friends and I found ourselves poised in an excellent position to witness the tapping of Cascade's latest live ale, a cherry gose from 2011. If you have never been fortunate enough to witness the tapping of a cask (I have a video at the bottom, albeit horrible quality, but you will be able to see what happens when you attempt to drive a tap handle into something highly pressurized) you should inquire at your local brewpub and find out about cask nights. Many brewpubs will have these weekly. As we're waiting, we're watching them cover the bar with plastic, should anything go awry. Finally the time comes, and the countdown begins: 1, 2, 3! And the first swing of the hammer goes down, first to a nice explosion of cherry gose, and then a second time which sends a wide arc of beer into the air, covering everything within a 15 foot radius. The crowd cheered with delight, myself included. It was a really fun experience. And of course I had to have a sample of the beer that I was myself wearing. Out of curiosity, I asked the bartender who had done the honour of the tapping and he promptly informed me that it was the brewmaster and blender: Ron Gansberg and his brother Jeff. As we prepared to leave I noticed both were sitting behind us. I walked up and congratulated Ron and Jeff on a wonderful tap job. Conversation ensues, I find out it's Jeffs Birthday and the next thing I know, I'm being invited back to the barrel room for a tour and group tasting. This is where the experience takes a turn from great to incredible. The only requirement was our need to have safety glasses (and not the eye protection, the kind you drink out of). Rons humour was apparent throughout the duration of the tour.

The excitement builds as we proceed through the doors to the barrel room. The smell of wooden cask is thick in the air. If I remember correctly, Ron said there were roughly 600 barrels in the room. Also newly installed was their massive stainless steel holding tank. Full of Sang Noir waiting to be bottled. My apologies, but the details of the next hour are hazy at best. It was a lightning fast tour and I can't recall how many beers we were able to sample. But it was a true rollercoaster ride. The two standouts (if it's even possible to pick just two) was the Pater and the Noyeaux. The Pater is aged for 12 - 18 months on oak and cherries. The flavours of this brew blew my mind. It had the proper vinegar-like acidic edge I have come to know and love from the traditional Flemish reds and browns. But also had the sweet tartness and funky barrel-aged characteristics expected from this style. This was probably my favourite beer out of the lot. The Noyeaux is a blend of Belgian style strong blonde ales. The first has been sitting in white port barrels and aged on raspberries. The second portion has been sitting on the meat from the apricot seed (the Noyeaux). These two portions are blended together and what you are left with is something truly wonderful. The aroma will send you into a state of euphoria. The noyeaux lends an incredibly sweet almond-like aroma (you can experience a similar aroma by drinking Amaretto, a liqueur which takes its flavour from the same source). The nose is incredibly misleading. As you breathe deep, your senses are tempted to lead you into thinking you'll be enjoying something sweet and decadent. Instead, as you take your first sip, you are dealt a full-on-all-palate-encompassing-sourness that I have come to know and love. An incredible brew.

Cascade utilizes blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, apricots, currants and cherries (probably more) and will frequently use things like ginger, orange zest, noyeaux, cinnamon, nutmeg, and various other things to flavour their beer further. They will age beer in port, pinot noir, chardonnay, whiskey and bourbon barrels. And the genius behind all of this is Ron Gansberg. To see him at work and his mind running at a million miles an hour is an incredible thing; always stroking his beard, he runs from barrel to barrel with pliers in hand knowing exactly which one was where and at which state the beer inside was in. How he knows all of this is astounding. It is obvious he is passionate about what he does. The best way to enjoy is to hold on for dear life. It's amazing to be running through the barrel room drinking beer from Cascade Brewing with the blender and genius himself. I would equate it to sitting down to dinner with Wolfgang Puck or some other famous chef at his own restaurant. Like the world of cuisine, beer production and more importantly, barrel-aging is an art. And to have the creator guiding you through the entire experience is incredible. I was definitely an evening of sensory overload! Each sequential combination was so different, and so complex it was mind boggling. At the end of the tour, I found myself with Ron and a couple from California who was in Oregon for their 1 year anniversary. We were able to slow down a bit and just talk beer. It was a truly amazing evening and I honestly can't thank Ron enough. Oh and I might need to get back down to Portland ASAP! Thanks so much to everyone at Cascade Barrel House and especially Ron Gansberg for the incredible tour and tasting. Photo credits go to Justin Moulton.

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