Birthplace of several beer styles and breeding ground for quintessential American hops, the Pacific Northwest is home to many iconic brews. I was glad, then, when some buddies and I decided to head to Oregon for our annual football trip, with a stop in Portland before heading down to Eugene. 24 hours is really not enough to devote to all that is Portland, but we made the most of it, taking advantage of the beautiful October weather on sun-dappled patios. After a couple of drafts from the excellent selection at Apex, we ventured a few blocks north to the Cascade Brewing and Barrel House, famous for their sour beers.
The brewpub first made my to-do list after seeing its offerings regularly top lists on Beer Advocate and Untappd for best sour or wild ales, particularly the Sang Noir and its special release cousin Sang Royal. Taking our seats outside, we ordered a first round of drafts featuring a Barrel Aged Bruin, a Summer Gose, and an Elderberry¹. All exhibited that sparkling, champagne-like, cider-vinegar tartness so prized in sour beers, while the ruby-colored Elderberry obviously had an additional pleasant fruitiness and the golden Summer Gose had an almost lemony wheat aspect that called to mind something akin to the Wonder Twins of the beer world: “Shape of: Hefeweizen! Form of: Sour Ale!”
Both the Elderberry and the Gose were well-received by the sour beer tyros at my table; not-so-well received was my Bruin which, though I enjoyed it, tasted to them like leather – “but in a good way” they assured me. Certainly mustier than the other two, it nevertheless displayed a rich oakiness with notes of sherry. Moving on, we then split a 750ml bottle of the highly regarded Sang Noir not available on draft. But first, some notes on sour/wild ales.
Most craft beer aficionados are familiar with lambic from the likes of Cantillon or Lindemans, a type of beer spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts from the environment rather than traditional brewer’s yeast. But pure lambic is very seldom consumed, an acerbic tipple when fresh from the fermenter. Most often it is blended into a geuze, which combines a young (~1 year) lambic with an aged one (~2-3 years) to impart a richer flavor profile and mitigate the bitterness, or into a kriek, which referments the lambic with sour cherries. Other fruits are also used, and provide a French 1 refresher course on your retailer’s shelf: framboise, pêche, cassis, etc. All of these techniques are typically Belgian, and employed in related styles like Flanders Red or Oud Bruin, employing yeasts producing sour lactic acids and red and brown malts respectively.
Sang Noir combines all of the above. It’s a blend of red ales, which is then aged in bourbon and pinot noir barrels consecutively, then blended with Bing² and sour cherries. A sort of Flanders Red Kriek Geuze. In any event, it had the dry, vinous taste of a sour to it with a tart cherry sweetness, mildly fruity on the nose with hints of that oaky bourbon aging process. A truly complex brew with a sweet side that the neophytes enjoyed and a sour funk that was a bit more challenging. I purchased a bottle to bring home and learned from experience (huzzah!) that even a corked bottle (and caged) will survive a flight in checked baggage.
As we closed out, we tried a few samples of Cascade’s live casks. Black Cap Raspberries, predominantly grown locally in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, lend a tart fruitiness that is unlike either blackberries or red raspberries. Sending us off on a high note though was the Noyaux, a blend of blonde ales aged separately with raspberries and apricot kernels (noyaux). Had we not been leaving, we might have each ordered a glass of this individually. Regardless, the entire array of offerings from Cascade Brewing were bracingly bright and refreshing – a perfect embodiment of the cool yet sunny day we enjoyed on the patio in Portland. The afternoon was perhaps best summarized by a buddy new to sour beers: “My mind: consider it blown.” I look forward to popping open that bottle of Sang Noir soon.
¹Your mother was a hamster.