6th Annual Strange Brew Fest pushes envelopes of what beer can be as more than 30 Northwest microbreweries concoct some daring, eccentric, and capricious brews.
Being a Northwest beer geek, one can get a little jaded by the “run-of-the-mill” double dry-hopped India Pale Ale or bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout. For anyone, like us who craves innovation and enjoys treading into uncharted territory when it comes to recipe formulation with fermentables, Strange Brew Fest is a must.
Hosted by Water Street Brewing in historical and picturesque Port Townsend, Washington, the two-day winter event is a showcase in deviance from any archetypical extreme beer festival. Where most thematic beer fests involve high alcohol and barrel-aged brews, Strange Brew delineates itself with a truly outré melange of beers that simultaneously capture the imagination and leave you scratching your head. Never having been to this festival before, we had no idea what we were in for. We suspected a few spiced beers, some fruit beers, but nothing like what unfolded.
Our friends Dave and Arlene Nunez of By the Bottle in Vancouver, Washington invited us along for the journey three-and-a-half hours north into the winding expanse of the Eastern Olympic Peninsula into an area that perfectly exemplified the Pacific Northwest. Through this green wintry overcast world we made our way past the Hood River Watershed of the Puget Sound toward the northeastern tip of the great Peninsula. To the east you can see Whidbey Island just north of Seattle; to the north you can see Victory, British Columbia, Canada. Preserved Victorian architecture tells a story of the city’s vibrant past where logging, fishing, and both port and railway trade made it a destination for people from around the world. Unlike other Northwest seaport towns like Astoria, Oregon, Port Townsend has been spared of devastating fire and flood that leveled many settlements during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In fact, the building where Water Street Brewing resides dominates the skyline as you drive into town from the south, entering the US Historic Landmark District.
Scene at Strange Brew
We’d been to Port Townsend before, but has never seen the town so filled with tourists. The main street around the front of the brewery was alive with people from the Pacific Northwest and beyond here to experience this zany festival. Lots of costumes and kooky headwear were on display. And, as peculiar as all the get-ups were, they paled in comparison to the beers themselves. The brewpub was packed with folks enjoying a wonderful mix of food, beer, and live music, while out back amidst a heated deck and tent canopies, an elbow-to-elbow, jam-packed crowd of craft beer zealots and party-goers muscled their way interpolated with countless “excuse me”s, “I’m sorry”s, and “pardon me”s.
The Strange Brews
As mentioned, more than 30 breweries were on hand with some weird and whimsical one-offs. Upon entering the lunacy, we were handed a small glass taster cup and an assortment of seemingly random token–some fake gold coins, some nondescript plastic chips. Also, a small paper slip with a list of participating breweries (no description of the beers) was available for folks to vote for their favorite breweries.
Where to begin? Where to start? There was an indication of some sensory overload from the anticipation and the long car ride preceding. Randomness was our method. Whatever we could get our paws on that sounded good, we’d get a pour. Here’s what we had:
Big Al’s Sour Watermelon: Hell yeah! Where’s Ron Gansberg (Cascade Brewing) when you need him? This beer was not overpowering with watermelon, but very assertive with it’s sourness. One of my favorite beers of the day was this mouthwatering treat. It paired wonderfully with the watermelon Jolly Ranchers available at the front of the line.
Elysian Hibiscus Sour: Since Elysian has been in cahoots with New Belgium Brewing, their knack for delectable sours has become more evident. The wonderful citrus and floweriness of this brew matched exquisitely. Not as sour as Big Al’s watermelon treat, but with a supreme balance and complexity. Where’s Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing) when you need him?
Big Al’s Wintermint: One of at least three mint beers that were on hand for Strange Brew, this was by far the most balanced and drinkable. Hard to believe it was 7.5% ABV, this brew was like a nice Girl Scout cookie in a glass.
192 Degrees ??: It’s always a treat to experience the handiwork a brewery you’ve never heard of before. This Kenmore, Washington brewhouse came up with a deep caramel, malty, hoppy brew that was not so strange as extreme, hence the name. Very nice and clean.
Laht Neppur Booted Rear: While waiting in line for the port-a-potty, we literally bumped into Laht Neppur founder and brewer Court Ruppenthal who informed us about his 10% ABV Root Beer known as Booted Rear. Three of us made this our next choice. Holy good God! The brewery’s sole offering at the event, this oddball possessed a nose just like a root beer soda. The flavor was intense, cutting. The addition of wormwood, one of the bitterest plants known to humankind gave this a long, intense palate erasing finish. Uber-medicinal, and Jager-like, the better portion of this beer wound up on the ground as we searched to recover our lost taste buds.
Grove Street Smoked Merlot Porter: Another brewery we’d never heard of before. The upstart operation was represented by brewer Adam Orrick and his friends Sharon Donaldson and Jason Dose. We really enjoyed meeting these people who made the trek from Shelton, Washington, near Olympia. The Smoked Merlot Porter was a well balanced wine barrel-aged imperial porter with a healthy, but not overwhelming presence of peat malt. They also let us try their Peppermint IPA, in which Orrick melded the mint earlier that day with his floral house IPA. Not my bag, but like he said “this isn’t about ‘best’, it’s about ‘strange’.” Hard to argue with that. We plan on making a visit to Grove Street in the near future and expect big things from them.
Hale’s Bucephalus Barrel-aged Blended Ale: We’d heard that Hales was getting strange with brews of late. A coconut porter was said to be on tap at their tap room recently. Not so strange, but this beer, named for Alexander the Great’s mighty steed, made an appearance at Brouwers’ Big Wood Festival in late ’09. A blend resulting in an Imperial Stout, this buck was a cluster of flavors. Sour and sweet like Duchess while chocolaty and replete with grassy hops. A nice creamy wood flavor rounded off the edges. This beer is one that we will seek out again in the future.
Port Townsend Chamba Green Tea: Amazing how the fusion of drab English ale yeast in a pale can come to life with some unroasted green tea. This beer, for us, was one of the best brews of the fest. Lots of citrus notes from both the hops and the tea (Cascade hops pair perfectly with tea!) and a subtle, rich earthiness that makes me wish I could enjoy at least a few full pints of this. Port Townsend is just down the way from the fest in a boatyard. To our knowledge it is the only other commercial brewery in Port Townsend. PT brought another wonderful beer called Creamsicle de Mars. Unfortunately it’s hard to write tasting notes in a moshpit of beer zealots or to operate from memory when you’ve been introduced to a smorgasbord of mind-bending brews. Sorry, beer judges, we are just going to stick to these descriptors: yummy, tasty, good.
Elysian Toro Oro Yerba Mate Tripel: We do love drinking yerba mate and are big fans of the Mateveza brews. This beer however, didn’t land smoothly. Our feeling was that the Belgian ale yeast was too cloyingly sweet for the soft earthiness of the tea to be highlighted. Elysian doesn’t make a bad beer, and this was no exception, however, when you put a brewery on such a high pedestal as we do with Elysian, it can be hard to sometimes not feel mildly disappointed.
Redhook Imperial Brown with Green Cardamom: It was nice to see that the bigger players at Craft Brewers Alliance were on board with this fun event. Like our man from Grove Street’s reference to the festivals emphasis on odd…yeah…Also known as elettaria, or green cardamom is often from India or Malaysia. A cousin to ginger, a little of the flavor goes a long way.That’s good news because it is one of the most expensive spices in the world by weight. This deeply malted brown base brew with four different types of sugar gets points for strangeness and imagination, but drinkability, not so much.Cardamom, we feel is best when in the background. Here it is steering the ship.
Flyers Coconut Banana Cream Hefeweizen: Not a cream ale, but a creamy ale…unfiltered wheat and unfiltered coconut….We’d driven past Flyers Brewery last time we were in this area. It’s across the Sound from Port Townsend. We took a ferry to Whidbey Island but due to time constraints, we had to drive past. After sampling a few of there beers in the Seattle area previously, we definitely would like to pursue more of their stuff. This beer was a total dessert in a glass. Flyers also added a coconut pulp on top of this beer after pouring it…a nice touch. We wouldn’t be surprise if this got the people’s vote for this year’s fest.
Silver City Punk Rauchin’: After dinner in town, we returned to the festival and noticed a much depleted tap selection. Thankfully, Silver City from down the way was still around. Everything you’d expect from a rauchbier and a pumpkin beer. Subtle on all characteristics, and as expected, it was a well balanced and as drinkable as we’d hoped for.
Elkhead Winter Ale: Hailing from Buckley, Washington, Elkhead Brewing was another microbrewery we’d never heard of until this festival. After the a-bomb that was Booted Rear detonated on our tongues, Elkhead’s seasonal winter ale hit the spot. A-freakin-mazing! According to the server/brewer the beer was made with tangerines, cranberries, fir bows, and aged on toasted tangerine peels. Delightfully citrus and quenching. This beer brought an immediate smile to the faces of all who shared it. It could very well have been the best beer at the fest, while managing to be equally as strange. The woody, piny fir flavors were subtle but noticeable and the fruits danced on the tongue. It was a pleasure to see an alternative to spice-driven holiday brews. Elkhead also brought three other taps including a imperial stout with chocolate and peppermint and our night cap, a dandelion barleywine.
It’s hard to know what our taste buds were telling us after this mad chemistry experiment. However, with all the antioxidants in the brews we tried, it was like we were less intoxicated and more rejuvenated. Lots of pepper beers, mint beers, tea beers, and a few wonderful sours. Some of the most notable oddities included a tuna beer, a bacon beer (“Kevin Bacon”), and a peanut butter beer. The festival was everything you’d hope for from something called “Strange Brew.” Even Chuckanut‘s regular line-up of Reinheitsgebot-friendly lagers seemed strange in comparison to all the other wild recipes on display. The only downside to the whole event was it being far over capacity. Constantly bumping into people and spilling beer is not enjoyable, but in all, Strange Brew is an undertaking that adventurous beer drinkers and those with a palate for free form brewing need to experience. Have you ever been experience? We have.