Monthly Beer Mailbag: A Gordon Biersch Birthday, SweetWater Turns Pils Pusher

PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) — After the beer industry has placed all of its seasonal summer beers on shelves and reminded Memorial Day shoppers that summer is nearly upon them, things typically settle down in beer world a bit.

Not this year.

Small brewers are not only cranking out seasonal releases as the temperatures rise, but they're putting out variations on summery styles and producing special editions of old favorites. This not only builds their portfolios, but gives them a little more room on beer shelves and bar tap handles during the busiest segment of the beer calendar.

After sending a flood of summer beers in May's mailbag, the breweries switched it up a bit by mixing in their seasonals with some summer standards such as Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen and some mellow pilsner. This month's bag is low on offbeat, big-bottle releases and heavy on everyday drinkers that would be at home in even the most conservative of summer beer coolers. Let's stop blabbing and get to the good stuff:

Happy anniversary, everyone!

A couple of small breweries across the country are making milestone birthdays this year, and we've spoken to a couple of them about how times have changed since they brewed their first batch. It's been a long trip for most of them, but few took a more circuitous route than San Jose's Gordon Biersch.

The brewery is celebrating 25 years in the business, a span that saw it spawn and sell off a chain of nearly 40 brewpub restaurants in 19 states and Taiwan, sell a huge share of the brewery to the owners of Ultimate Fighting Championship, brewed private-label beer for Costco and Trader Joe's and become nearly as famous for serving garlic fries at San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers games as it is for brewing beer. During that span, however, Gordon Biersch stuck to the simple German and Czech recipes that made it famous in the first place. Its Hefeweizen, Marzen, Blonde Bock, Czech Pils, spring Maibock, summer Kolsch and other seasonal and limited releases have kept the label's beer nice and accessible.

For its anniversary year, however, Gordon Biersch is going all the way back into its vaults and pulling out Dunkles — the Dunkelweizen that was the only beer on tap when GB opened its first restaurant in Palo Alto. A Dunkelweizen looks dark and heavy, but it's basically a light summer Hefeweizen with a darker tint. At 5.4% alcohol by volume, it's an easier drinker than its 750-milliliter flip-top wine bottle would suggest. Still, it's an understandably tough fit for the beer cooler.

A long way north on I-5, BridgePort Brewing in Portland, Ore., is still celebrating its 30th anniversary with a spate of summer releases that brewmaster Jeff Edgerton tipped us off to back in March. The first, the latest incarnation of its Stumptown Tart fruit beer series, was being made when we visited the brewery in winter and required brewers to commandeer some equipment from the brewpub kitchen just to blend the beer's cranberries and Oregon blueberries. The juice and skins of each give Stumptown Tart a flavor more akin to a fruit wine, while its 7.8% ABV pushes it toward the higher end of beer's potency range. It's a tart, complex one-off that doesn't make it too tough to enjoy more than one.

But it was just the centerpiece of a big shipment that included two of the brewery's newest IPAs: No. 2 in its Trilogy series and a Topaz hop variant on its Hop Czar line. The latest Trilogy offering was brewed by Edgerton and Phil Sexton, the Australian brewer who created BridgePort's original IPA in the mid-'90s, and returns BridgePort to the more balanced IPA of nearly two decades ago. Using a mix of Centennial and Chinook hops from the Willamette Valley and Galaxy and Ella hops from Australia, Trilogy No. 2 evens out the bitterness with a solid malt backbone that makes it a bit easier to sip than more forceful, hop-forward IPAs. This isn't about scraping your tongue with hop cones and resin, but giving you an easy-drinking summer IPA that's neither too bitter (at a middling 55 international bitterness units) or too powerful (5.8% ABV).

We guess Sexton's influence lingered a bit, as even the heavily bitter Hop Czar toned itself down for a Topaz Copper IPA iteration. BridgePort bills this beer as a celebration of fruity, grassy Topaz hops and the Bravo hops that give them just a little extra boost, but the real story of this beer is in the Copper. At 6.5% ABV and 70 IBUs, it clocks in just slightly less powerful than a standard-issue Hop Czar IPA, but the malts behind that copper hue mask all of that residual bitterness and heft to yield a hoppy yet humble brew that won't beat summer drinkers away with its hops. When compared with another Hop Czar variety using Citra hops, the Topaz Copper seems far more subdued compared with the bold grapefruit bitterness of the Citra.

Topaz Copper is the rare IPA that you won't have to hide in the back of the fridge or bottom of the cooler when summer company comes around. It's one even a skeptical pilsner drinker can put away without worry.

Speaking of pilsner...

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a great lager or pilsner. The style has developed a bad reputation as the pale, yellow destroyer of all things great about beer, but the watering down of the style by numerous offending brewers shouldn't obscure the fact that it's still one of the greatest summer beers a beer drinker can enjoy.

It's subtle, it's relatively low octane and it's refreshing. When it's made well consistently, it's one of the best beers in the summer stable. Craft brewers are just starting to come around to this, as evidenced by the New Belgium Summer Helles that fell into our mailbag tasting like an awfully familiar, if slightly more flavorful, lager of yore.

The folks at SweetWater in Atlanta have been dabbling with lager and came up with a fairly faithful incarnation in its spring and summer Road Trip seasonal that we wrote about in April. Since then, they've decided to take that line of thinking year-round by placing their new Take Two Pils into the regular rotation. A standard Czech Pilsner that uses understated Golding and Saaz hops to put a little bite at the end of a light, smooth sip, this is simply a faithful version of the Czech standard. It's a scant 5% ABV, it's as light as a summer lawnmower beer should be and it's even sneaked its way into SweetWater's summer variety packs.

This is an incredibly smart move. Just consider that MolsonCoors/SABMiller's Miller Coors and Anheuser-Busch InBev still sell about 75% of the beer this nation drinks. Consider further that Corona and Heineken make up roughly another 10% of that market. Throw Pabst, Modelo and newly craft brewer Yuengling into the equation and 18 of the 20 best-selling beers in the U.S. are some form of either lager or pilsner.

It's tough to woo those drinkers away with an IPA or imperial stout, but it's really easy to throw them a pilsner that's in a variety pack with a pale ale, an IPA or even a blueberry wheat beer and get them to taste what else you're offering.

But what about fans of that 19th beer in the Top 20: Blue Moon? SweetWater has them covered, too. Their new Waterkeeper Hefeweizen has all the spice, lemon and unfiltered yellow of a witbier, but some slight banana undertones that have been the mark of a great German wheat beer for generations. At 5.7% ABV, it's worth enjoying in tall summer wheat beer glasses, especially when proceeds go toward the Waterkeeper Alliance and its efforts to keep lakes and rivers in the southeast clean and clear.

Random beer of the month

For apparently no reason, we got a full six-pack of Audible Ale from the folks at the Craft Beer Alliance's Redhook Brewery in Woodinville, Wash.

It's been around for more than a year and is a branding partnership with former ESPN SportsCenter anchor and current Fox Sports Radio host Dan Patrick. Much like SweetWater with its lagers and pilsners, Redhook has been pushing its way into corners of the beer market that craft has been loath to touch. It's been going after sports fans, targeting its home state's new marijuana economy with hemp beer and getting itself onto tap handles at Buffalo Wild Wings.

The geeks may not like it, but boy is it working. A 6.5% increase in production in 2012 turned into a 13.6% jump last year. Though still lagging behind both the Kona and Widmer Brothers brands in the CBA portfolio, Redhook pushed shipments over 200,000 barrels last year to nearly 217,000 and is CBA's second-fastest-growing brand behind Kona.

How? Because of beers such as Audible Ale. It's a standard pale ale that's not going to blow any minds with its hop profile or floor anyone with its 4.7% ABV, but it has just enough hop aroma and malt flavor to get a skeptical fan from the first taste to the third. It's a beer for drinkers who want more than one, but who want more than a light lager is offering. Craft brewers used to call them gateway beers, but for Redhook it's a welcome return to basics.

Ending with a cider

This cider portion has become a fine little mailbag tradition that the folks at Boston Beer's Angry Orchard brand were more than happy to keep going with their latest special release.

Since Angry Orchard began releasing its wine-style Cider House Collection last year, it's been trying to fill a spectrum. On one end, you have its Strawman cider that drinks like a dry European white or riesling and seems to be waiting for a cheese plate to snuggle up to. On the other is Iceman, a sweet blend modeled after Quebec ice ciders and a comfortable fit in a cabinet alongside dessert wines.

What it didn't have was some bubbly. Cider seems like a natural choice for poaching drinkers who'd ordinarily be attracted to Prosecco, Cava, Moscato, Asti and other sparkling wines. Small, independent cider houses will often bottle sparkling ciders and sell it to a more wine-focused visitor, but the big, beer-influenced cidermakers have thus far steered clear of that approach.

Enter Muse. Modeled after a semi-sweet, demi-sec sparkling wine, Muse is made with Italian apples, aged on French oak staves to create the illusion of spice and then topped off with juice from Franch apples. It's a whole lot of effort to undertake for a 7.7% ABV cider that's far less powerful than the wines it is trying to emulate, but it's hitting the right marks. Muse has a sweetness throughout that never quite settles into the drier depths of a demi-sec.

By aiming for the sweet, somewhat cheap low-end bubblies, Muse may succeed in carving a niche for itself among buyers who seldom stray from the beer aisle. It's a tough cognitive leap — especially when muse and other specialty ciders are flanked by 22-ounce bottle of beer — but a pour of Muse into a wine glass separate from the bottle suggest that it would be a welcome addition to dinner tables with less discriminating palates.

A final word on swag

When we say swag we're not referring to its modern association with swagger, but its far more dated use as a description of promotional items. In this case, that fading relevance seems awfully appropriate.

We can't imagine what portion of small brewers' marketing budgets go toward cheap throw-in items to send out with their samples, but we can't imagine it's wholly necessary. Mailing out samples not only requires willing partners in UPS and FedEx, but also packaging, shipping fees and a modest portion of the brewer's wares.

It's tough enough getting the beer from place to place in one piece — we had one bottle reach us shattered this month, which is still pretty good — but getting it there with fragile giveaways is much tougher. Gordon Biersch, for example, packed their bottle of Dunkles with a custom-made Weizen glass. While glassware is always easily the most useful throw-in, it's also by far the most delicate. This one, however, reached us in one piece.

BridgePort, meanwhile, sent a tasting board with its first Trilogy shipment and a second tasting glass with Trilogy 2. It's probably handy around the brewpub, but is somewhat less so around the office or household beyond functioning as a bartop votive holder. Its purpose is to keep the product fresh in a writer or editor's memory, but it's the kind of item that typically collects dust in a cubicle until long after that beer is out of circulation.

Sometimes, it's just the only way to get the most out of your pun. SweetWater paired its bottles of Take Two Pils with a plastic, SweetWater-branded pill case complete with two Tic-Tacs — or what we're assuming are Tic-Tacs. While we acknowledge the effort, we can't on good conscience advise washing down the contents of that case — whatever they may be — with 12 ounces of pilsner.

— By Jason Notte

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