On the bucket list for quite some time – basically not long after I got to Portland – Fort George Brewing sits in historic Astoria just a few feet from the old site that Is said to have been the original ground of the first ‘European’ settlers to the area in…some far distant past. I’ll be honest, the details aren’t my thing, but the gist is that there’ve been white-ish settlers in the area for 300-ish years now.
I bring up the history only because this entire area exists with one foot in the past and one in the not-too-distant-past. A small town that lives off of tourists and coastal travelers, just a few miles from the mouth of the Columbia where it dumps into the Pacific…
And now, A Loooooong interlude….
I didn’t get much written during my visit at Fort George.. I’d had a strange day – more fogged window thoughts and a growler of Rogue’s finest NW IPA had left me with a mid-day hangover that even a nap couldn’t dispel. I was working my way through a pint of dubel – a challenge if you’re not 100% on the day. It’s not exactly a palate-quencher and I didn’t have any food to pair it with. So there I was, sitting at a table in the open brewing area when some ladies walked past looking for a place to sit. I’ve been working hard at engaging with people in a positive fashion lately – there’s not enough of that going on these days – and so I flagged them down and offered them the bench across from me.
We ended up talking for quite some time, and they were great company. We, or I, really, talked about beer and Astoria and changing cultures and all sorts of topics that I wouldn’t have immediately expected to engage in based on appearance alone. It’s something I’ve come to cherish about the brew scene, the ability to walk into a craft beer spot and strike up a conversation with total strangers about a shared hobby. I’ve got a couple thousand words down already about past experiences like this, and why it ‘s more likely to happen over craft beer than most other forms of social activity. Given my relative newness to the area I don’t really have any friends out here on the coast but I’ve been single for quite some time and I’m starting to wonder if there’s someone out there for a guy like me…It should go without saying that an appreciation for beer would be required to get along with me…
Anyways, it’s a complicated topic and I hope I can unravel some of it eventually but for now I’ll have to back out of this little moment and get back to the beer. Jen and Sara, if you read this, it was nice meeting you 😉
So this history of Astoria… I think I was just making shit up as I went. I’ve been learning bits and bobs, but the things that stick out are pretty funky; Astoria has burnt down almost completely at least twice, and the piers that dominated that waterfront were rebuilt and then abandoned as the canning industry died out here. It’s got that supreme rugged outdoorsman fisher vibe, and when the tide rolls in you can smell the saltwater and funky sea fog. – I think I just named the next popular hazy NW IPA right there. I get a cut.
There are a ton of reasons to set up a business here, and Fort George is one of them. I became aware of Vortex pretty early on, it was on tap at a few places with $3 pint happy hours (expect some thoughts on pint pricing soon). It wasn’t my favorite example of IPA from the region but the quality was apparent. Cavatica stout was available in cans at the local plaid pantry a few blocks from my house, and I’d see Matryoshka and 1001 years of silence placed prominently in local bottle shops. When I found out that they throw an annual celebration of dark, thick-ass beers called the Festival of the Dark Arts (tickets go on sale this coming Friday) it climbed up the list significantly.
The problem was that, when I first arrived in Portland, I didn’t have a car. Life in beervana is easily managed on bicycle, and I actually endorse cycling while beering in Portland up to a reasonable point…but you can’t get out here without a car. Astoria is a solid 100 mile drive due W/NW, and it’s not really on the way to anywhere else unless you’re traveling up the coast. There is a miles-long bridge connecting Oregon and Washington here, so there’s a lot of traffic, commercial trucks and RV’s and travelers on vacation heading to beach houses and gorgeous sunsets…
Fort George is will situated to take advantage of all these travelers. Spread out over two-ish city blocks on a hill, the two-story restaurant portion and adjoining subterranean brewery room are warm and open with a worn-in vibe and plenty of seating options. The ladies from my very pleasant interlude mentioned that they couldn’t really find a decent spot in the main area, not a huge surprise on a Saturday night just before thanksgiving. The Lovell Taproom is in the basement area, a small and very cozy little space with room for about 6 at the bar and another dozen plus at tables. I’d been sitting in the more open brewing room, at a picnic table overlooking the stainless fermenters and a giant red tank made up to look like a pig.
It’s apparent Fort George is pushing out a lot of product – the canning line takes up a sizeable amount of space next to the fermenters, and there doesn’t seem to be much unused real-estate aside from the setback for the taproom area (I’d be willing to bet there’s some resentment there, since you could probably stuff a few more fermenters in the space where I was sitting). It had all the right smells and you can feel the energy being spent making beer in the air. Or maybe it was the CO2 bubbling up from the nearby overflow airlock. Knowing nothing else about craft beer, you’d still have to be impressed with the place – there’s no denying effort here. That they are consistently busy and selling tourist-priced food is a testament to where they’re headed as a company. Someday these reviews might include details about volume and numbers, but for now I’m just sticking with my instinct. Get at me in the comments.
I started with that dubbel, ‘A little dab will dubbel’, a’ traditional’ style brown ale originally developed in Germany (as I get better at this I’ll drop region info but I don’t have my ‘Beer Bible’ handy so deal with it!).
Dubbels are very malt-forward, and this was no exception. It takes a different approach to drinking than an IPA, as I mentioned above. Imagine trying to chug a slice of rye bread – it’s not an easy feat. The character of a dubbel is indeed similar to a dark bread, in this case, with a dark caramel brown color that played with the light. It’s a clear finish, without any noticeable sediment or leftover proteins floating about. The smell is a bit nutty, a bit earthy, a bit dark fruity. The brewer’s description is mostly accurate – I try not to read too much into the menu descriptions until I’ve had a chance to taste a beer ‘blind’, for the sake of my own honesty, but they’re pretty honest here at FtG.
I had thought to start with this beer because it’s fairly light on the ABV but dark enough for the theme of my night – the dark barrel-aged monsters of the Fort. Dubbels don’t really fit this pattern though, not really – they still have a fairly high ABU of 68 (if I recall correctly) and a brisk, lightly bitter, cleaner finish that leaves a hint of the malt body as a reminder of what you just put down. It’s a good beer for colder weather, something that compliments the kinds of food we’re all about to enjoy as the holidays roll through. A guy could put a few pints of this style down while putting away some pumpkin pie and leftover turkey slices, for instance (and in that order). It comes in a 16-oz flared pint glass to showcase the color and body and focus the yeasty quality of the tiny co2 bubbles that dissipated quickly. It’s not a beer that I’d try to push on most people if they weren’t familiar with the style, since you have to know the ‘why’ of a dubbel to really judge an example of it. That said, I ranked it highly, it’s a well-executed beer.
For a follow-up, I went for an 8oz pour of their 2018 Matryoshka BBA with vanilla and blueberry. This heavyweight Russian Imperial Stout was aged in bourbon barrels and clocks in at 12.75ABV. Served in a wide snifter, It sets itself apart immediately with a very active foamy head rising off the inky-black syrup underneath. I’d had a quick taste of Nightfall, their bourbon AND brandy barrel aged dankness, so I was prepared for the blast of booze straight off the top. That first sip of a beer like this is a moment to take in and savor while you’re blasted with the bourbon.
The vanilla rounded out the bourbon sting a bit but it’s not exactly hiding the strength of this beer. I spent some time with it, letting the head fall off in a few minutes and then doing the swirl and sniff tests like the beer snob I am. This beer is dark, it’s a feature of the huge amount of dark malts they used to get the ABV up before the barrel ageing. It took me a minute to pick up on something else, that blueberry on the back end. At first I only noticed it when I exhaled after a sip, some coming off the beer in my mustache (yes it does help me taste beer) and I had to chat with the bartender to figure it out; They’d used fresh blueberries in the barrel, and it’s possible they started to ferment from their own natural yeast. When I went back for another sip, sure enough, it’s almost sour and the flavors became much more clear in my mind.
It’s funny how that sort of thing works out, when you know there’s something going on in a beer but can’t quite place it until you get some scrap of information that unlocks a deeper understanding of the liquid in your glass. That’s one reason I thoroughly enjoy spending time at brewery taps – the chance to bend the ear of a brewer while you digest and examine their work is pretty good, and the rest of the staff is usually much better informed than the folks at even your best non-brewery taproom. That said, taprooms like Loyal Legion and Apex offer an avid consumer the chance to sample beer from multiple breweries at once, so those adventures have a place in my travels as well.
I sampled a few other beers at the Lovell taproom, the one sticking out the most being Nightfall, a bourbon-and-brandy-barrel aged boozy leviathan that curled my nosehairs and actually intimidated me. This is an uncomfortable admission – I used to pride myself in drinking and enjoying big beers. But this was an assault, all I could get off the nose was boooooooze and that was it. When I tossed it around on my tongue it was the same. I’m going to have to go back and face that one, as it’s not a proud moment for me… but I didn’t want to melt my face off while I was talking to my new friends, either.
I was the last person to leave the taproom, having taken my time with some lovely beer, and I headed down the street to a local place called the Capricorn, and bought a can of Crysknife, a hazy-ish IPA that has been available in cans for a couple months now. The name is a reference to a weapon in the movie/book Dune, showing that the powers that be (TPTB for Buffy and Joss Whedon fans) are still grounded enough to play to their customer’s nerdy tendencies in their branding.
Crysknife is a complicated beer, especially out of the can – it’s got the hazy hoppy juicy fruity earthy thing going on, and there’s no real opening for any one quality to be front and center. I think I had it on tap a few weeks ago when I visited Fort George for a job interview, but the memory is just as hazy as the drops on the rim of the can when I was done. I’m not a huge hazy fan but Fort George is one of the pioneers of the style out here in Oregon, working for a few years now with several different breweries on a collaboration called 3-Way IPA. It’s hard to keep track of what they’re up to, if I’m honest, since they do different versions with different breweries and so I can only speak to one or two of the various batches, and not in detail. But I’m told by people with regular access to each release that they’re exceptional, and I don’t disagree. Without getting a sit-down with a brewer or looking at a recipe I can’t say much more than that, but at least I’m honest about it. I’m right about beer, so…deal with it?