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Portland Brewing, Portland, Oregon

by Markian Gooley

I've been concentrating on beers from the Pacific Northwest because many are available here (Montana, home of lunatics and _ad hoc_ speed limits) and many of those are new to me. I was able to find Haystack Black on tap in a local bar a few weeks ago along with a dozen other small regional brews, and turned up a 22-ounce "bomber" bottle without difficulty the other day.

This is a dark beer with a thick initial head and the stickiness of dextrins, unfermentable bits of starches half-digested in malting and mashing. The label calls it "dark and rich with a substantial malt body...truly a landmark beer." Hyperbole, but that's common enough on beer bottles: perhaps the people who write the texts for their labels have just drunk too much of the potential contents. (That would explain the encomium incorporated in the Budweiser logo, and the brazen lies on Sam Adams products.) To me this is simply a good rich stout, not in the Guinness mode but not sharply different from a host of other good stouts brewed in the West. It reminds me more of what I'd get in a brewpub that what I usually get in a small- brewery bottle: various minor flaws, or endearing quirks.

The burnt-malt flavor of stout is there, particularly in the aftertaste. The body, stickiness, mouth-feel (if you will) of those unfermentables are perhaps a bit much. They're almost balanced by the hop flavor and bitterness, but not quite, though the burnt flavor takes up most of the slack. There's almost no hop aroma, but enough for the style. This whole package does offset the taste of alcohol, giving the sort of balance one gets in an Imperial Stout: sweetness against alcoholic bite. It's as if Portland Brewing set out to compete with Grant's excellent Imperial Stout but lost nerve and watered the wort. Once I home-brewed a stout (dubbed "Stout Cortez") with rather too much wildflower honey as an adjunct. My effort had so much alcoholic bite that I could barely drink it; here the alcohol has only a slight edge -- if I'm not just imagining that after a bottle of beer with dinner and most of a bomber of this Haystack Black -- and it's not offensive.

Imagine buying a loaf of bread at a grocery and getting something that resembled imperfect but tasty home-baked bread: that sums up this beer. Well worth a try: not exceptional but not exceptionable either.

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