Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a brewery, which shall remain nameless, tasting yet another desultory Brut “IPA” and whining to myself about the seeming inability of Northwest breweries to make one that even remotely measures up to the original, the template, as created at The Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco, by brewmaster Kim Sturdavant. I tasted his two on tap at The Social in February of 2018, and was floored by the almost laughable 180-degree turnabout from the recent trend of milkshake beers and ales infused with all manner of wild adjuncts – gingerbread, marshmallow, pretzels, banana muffins, pancakes, cupcakes, guava, mango, maple syrup, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Lemonheads, slices of actual pumpkin pie, etc…the list goes on and on.
The people you see in the photo above…Are these the staff of the best brewery in America?
If you read this thing, you know that I frequently scoff at the whole idea of “Best“. All those lists of “America’s Best IPA“, “Best Breweries“, “Best Beers“, all, to be diplomatic about it, a load of brainless crap. Why? Because they are NEVER – EVER! – anything but a judging of what’s around on one particular day or whatever breweries, beers, IPAs, etc., that the author or panel of “experts” knows of…and nobody – NO-freakin’-body – knows every brewery, every beer, every IPA in their own region, much less the entire country.
Iron Horse Brewery, located in painfully windy Ellensburg, Washington, brews what is arguably (it keeps winning STATE-WIDE crowd-sourced “best of” contests, pretty much every year) the most undefinable, odd, compelling beer made in the Pacific Northwest. Rivaled only by Sound Brewery’s “Monk’s Indiscretion” for inspired eccentricity, Iron Horse “Quilter’s Irish Death” chuckles – darkly – at the whole idea of “category”. Is it a Stout? Nope, although it may be a bit Stout-ISH. Is it a Wee Heavy. Getting colder? Is it an Irish Dry Stout? Again, NO. It’s a tad lighter in weight and texture than any of those but at 7.8% ABV, it’ll work just fine as a Winter Warmer. So…is it one? NO.
FLAGSHIP FEBRUARY…sounds like just another contrived event, made up to make somebody some quick cash, doesn’t it?
You could not be more wrong.
Flag February was conceived by two guys named Jay R. Brooks and Stephen Beaumont and it addresses one of the things about craft beer and our buzz-seeking culture that has always concerned me the most. We as beer fans are kinda, well, trendy. I’m no better about this than anybody else. New beers get me all atwitter, especially if the “new” part is some emerging style or variation or technical approach that breaks some new ground.
But the downside of that is that true greatness in craft brewing – those beers that set a new milepost and help breweries make their mark in the craft beer culture – often get lost in our communal rush after Buzz and Novelty and staying Hip and Current.
Crux Fermentation Project is one of the three to five best breweries in the United States and they haven’t yet even hit their stride.
Big claim? Totally supported by all available evidence, including that last phrase.
When Larry Sidor left Deschutes Brewery, after an eight years that were arguably the greatest similar period of innovation by any brewer not named Steele or Calagione, Larry left to make his beers; no limits, maximum innovation, barrels, weird yeasts, even down to the water used. Larry had Something different in mind. Not that Deschutes maybe wouldn’t have let him try all that there but…Deschutes was already an economic machine; a virtual printing press for beer revenues and Larry knew that.
Unless you’ve been asleep for the past year or so brutally bummed by the whole Trump Atrocity, as I have been, you’re read/heard/consumed some aspect of this brand new, non-accidental, totally premeditated style of American beer. If you haven’t tasted it, a few facts:
1. It was invented – and not at all by happy accident, as MOST brewing styles have traditionally been – by a hugely crafty guy named Kim Sturdavant, brewmaster at San Francisco’s The Social Kitchen & Brewery, who was seeking some means of removing what he regarded as an excess of sweetness in the traditional IPA.
True Story: In the spring of 1992, my actress girlfriend and I, having worked at all the theaters we could reasonably travel to in the Southeast from our home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, decided to take her sister and brother-in-law up on their kind offer (translation: “constant badgering”) of a temporary place to bunk in if we would move all the way across America to Bainbridge Island, Washington, just across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle. We had pets and two kids and a Toyota Camry and waaaay too much Stuff, so we hitched the car to a 28′ Ryder truck and set off across the map, as she was working at a theater in Mississippi and wouldn’t be able to join us until September.
Before beginning this series, let me offer the only disclaimer that matters at all in reading ANY list:
This is ONE GUY’S OPINIONS.
After ten years of writing this and its precursor in the Seattle P-I, I finally hit the wall this year and decided to stop doing anything called “Best Of”. Two reasons: A) ANY list – EVERY list – is nothing but the individual opinions of one person or an aggregated bunch of opinions from some group. The groups MAY, in what I would have to call rare cases, include people with tremendous acumen and experience. In MOST cases, though, it’s just a bunch of folks with an interest and viewpoints. And B) There is no “best”. Period. And if something does happen to be the best at the given moment, that status is guaranteed to change before the list is even posted, especially in all our distinct and dynamic American beverage cultures. New breweries, wineries, and distilleries are opening almost daily. Established under-performers are beginning to Get It and taking leaps forward.
Learning how to say the word Gueuze is maybe the hardest part of learning about this quirky, exotic style of ale. Broken down into its phonetics, the pronunciation begins with one of those odd, half-swallowed syllables that comes out to “guh-YOOZ-eh”, with just a bare hint of that “eh” on the end, which is the proper Belgian way of saying it. But for purposes of our dumbed-down, non-Euro language facilities, saying “GOOZ-uh” works just fine.
This is probably one of those I probably owe Stone Brewing an apology. This may be too late to do them any good, in terms of immediate sales. Another probability: it’s likely to not matter. This is, after all, STONE Brewing we’re talking about – not to be confused with KeySTONE Light, as the owners of Keystone desperately hope you are – and if they are not, in fact, the nation’s preeminent craft brewery, they are inarguably in the Top Five. I’m going to assume that 90% of this (if not all) is already in America’s bellies. But I fervently hope they’ll make this beer again and, whether you realize it or not..so do you.