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Portland Brewing, Portland, Oregon

by Markian Gooley

A few years ago I drove on the grade of the old railroad between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek in search of really fine (that is, coarse) pegmatites, daydreaming of topaz, zircon, bastnasite, or whatever might turn up. I stopped from time to time to search: nothing of interest. The trail up St. Peter's Dome looked very high and steep for a paunchy nerd carrying a pick-mattock, an engineer's hammer, a few chisels, and a couple liter bottles of water, and I drove on, making a few perfunctory stops. Soon I was in Cripple Creek.

Last I heard, low-stakes gambling -- five dollars is the maximum bet -- is legal in three towns in Colorado. When I saw Cripple Creek it had not been ruined as utterly as the others. It's on open ground, not up a canyon, and dark-yellow piles of tailings don't loom over it and call to mind Tolkien's Mordor. Still, few storefronts downtown were not casinos. The parking lot, the slot machines, and the two-dollar blackjack tables each bled a few dollars from me before I decided to have fun with my money: I went to a casino bar and ordered an Oregon Honey Beer, my first ever. Except for the gasoline that let me see the mountain scenery, it was my best use of money that day. That's not saying much. Still, when I saw this beer at a local grocery I had to try it again. It hasn't changed.

Commercial brewers are stingy. Good barley malt is not cheap. Many beers contain adjuncts, cheaper substitutes for malt that (perhaps with the help of enzymes) will ferment and become alcohol. The trick is to convince the drinker that the adjunct is somehow better than the real thing. Hence in the Corn Belt, Miller has put up billboards with giant pictures of ears of corn: drink Miller and you support the local farmers, not just those guys who grow barley so far away. Honey is touted as natural, healthful -- not as fairly cheap when bought in bulk.

Honey does not make a beer sweet. Unlike malt, it's entirely fermentable: it all goes to alcohol. Unlike most adjuncts, it does not ruin a beer if used in moderation, as homebrewers know. (One can make a good pseudo-Pilsner with lager yeast, Saaz hops, and a little honey added to the malt.) Homebrew with honey ages strangely, though: it may go from palatable to undrinkable to ambrosial to palatable again over the course of a year. Bland honeys like clover or alfalfa, with most of the aroma boiled out of them ruthlessly, make the beer behave better; so might pasteurization, or micro-filtering to remove all yeast dead or alive. (I suspect the latter here.)

Oregon Honey Beer is pale and rather dry. Portland Brewing seems to be afraid that honey lovers, expecting a sweet beer, will think that they've been swindled unless the slight maltiness is overwhelmed by bittering hops and the scent of honey is barely tinged with aroma hops. This beer is palatable but unbalanced. It might be a good introduction to real beer for some poor fool used to the mass-market swill -- that "icky aftertaste" of real malt is not enough to offend -- and it's refreshing on a hot day in a small-time casino or during spring cleaning of a large, messy apartment. Easier on the bittering hops, heavier on the aroma, and this beer could be much better.

AjD, the net net's music reviewer, says that he's been disappointed with every commercial honey beer that he's tried. So have I.

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