Portland's Cheers to Belgian Beers is both a competition and a beer showcase. Each year, the previous year's winner selects a yeast strain, and in the winter prior to the fest, brewers throw darts to determine which style of beer they will make using that yeast. This gives them just a few months to craft their beers for competition.
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Because of a tie in 2011, two yeasts were selected and the brewers could choose between them. The first, Wyeast 3864, is used by Unibroue in Quebec and known as Canadian/Belgian. The brewers' second option was Wyeast 3763, also known as Roeselare Blend, a lambic blend that produces fruity notes. What was ultimately produced and put on display this past weekend by Portland-area brewers ran the gamut from harsh-smelling concoctions more reminiscent of nail polish remover than beer, to complex, rich, Belgian-inspired masterpieces. A combination of adventurous creativity, resourcefulness, and traditional Belgophilic inspiration seemed to be the keys behind the festival's most successful beers.
Block 15's Hellion Strong Belgian Golden was a crowd favorite due to its surprising drinkability—at 12.5% ABV, you don't really expect such a refreshing beer. Brewer Nick Arzner (2010's fest winner) had initially intended to bottle-condition the beer, but pressure issues required it to be served from a keg. Regardless, the beer presented an amazing balance of tropical fruit from both its hop bill and the esters produced by the 3864 yeast strain. The alcohol was well-masked, and Arzner's artistry was surely on display through this well-crafted offering.
Breakside Brewery's entry, Heet Blonde distinguished itself from the many other golden Belgian ales at the fest through the use of some off-kilter ingredients. Brewer Ben Edmunds used chili peppers (a Breakside staple) and pineapple to enhance the fruity nature of the Unibroue yeast. Few brewers successfully captured the flavor of tropical fruit as well as Edmunds, and the judicious-yet-pronounced heat from the peppers rounded out the beer's unusual profile. The moderate alcohol content made this a great summer session beer, and it was the only beer that felt like an appropriate repeat pour.
Zwarte Nacht from Eugene's Oakshire Brewery offered something a bit darker. Billing itself as a Belgian black ale, the Nacht drank more like a nutty saison and benefitted from the dry nature of the Canadian yeast. The beer contained a healthy dose of orange peels, which brought a bright balance to the earthier, cocoa-tinged body. At 8.5%, this beer was an ideal end-of-fest sipper for enjoying while watching the sun set over the Willamette River.
Only three breweries submitted beers using the Roeselare yeast blend, which typically takes at least a full year of TLC to create a palatable beer. Since the brewers had less than five months to design their festival entries, only those who already had Roeselare beers working were able to enter sour ales using this finicky strain.
The most successful of the three came from a relatively small and new Portland brewery, The Commons. Their beer called Eleanor was presented as a mysterious golden sour brewed with "magic". It offered a layered sour side with hints of tart citrus and farmhouse funk. This beer, if left to mature, should evolve in to a world-class sour ale.
The festival itself is one of Portland's best. The beers on the list were primarily debuted at the event, and for the most part arrived with no pre-formed opinions, previous ratings, or prior stigma attached. For a jaded beer geek, Portland's Cheers to Belgian Beers offered a fresh buzz of excitement and the possibility that the next great undiscovered beer will be unearthed and later held high for the unattending masses to appreciate, like Simba in the Lion King. Though a few of the beers seemed rushed or underattenuated because of the competition's short time frame, the festival brought to light some great new beers that will hopefully find a place in their respective breweries' seasonal lineups.
Addendum: This year's People's Choice winner has been announced. Here is an excerpt from the Oregon Brewers Guild press release: "More than 679 ballots were cast, and fans selected Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales' Cerasus as the "People's Choice" champion. As the winner of the 2012 competition, Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales has earned the right to select the yeast strain for next year's event. This is the second time Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales has tasted "People's Choice" victory; the brewery also took home the coveted prize at the 2011 festival. Other top voter favorites were Block 15 Brewing Company, Occidental Brewing Co., Cascade Brewing Barrel House, The Commons Brewery, Breakside Brewery and Double Mountain Brewery."