Events

Best and Worst of the 2014 Holiday Ale Festival

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The 2014 Holiday Ale Festival kicked off in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square yesterday, and The New School was there even before gates opened at 11am almost all the way to closing time (after 9pm) to give you the scoop on the best and worst of this year’s fest. Holiday Ale Festival’s best parts are balanced and boozy big beers served in a festive atmosphere, while the negatives tend towards high prices, crowding. and drunken patrons. This year’s fest had a lot of everything to go around, and The New School has highlighted the Good, the Bad, and the Must Try beers and ciders.

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Bunk Sandwiches festival menu options

The layout of the fest is the same as in recent years, with two different lines of beers on two sides of the main floor, a lounge featuring about four beers on an upstairs mezzanine, and another larger upstairs space with an additional 10 taps and a seating area. The food options seem to be changing from year to year; this year Urban German is serving sausages and pretzels, and the always awesome Bunk Sandwiches features excellent, big, and alcohol-absorbing sandwiches.

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Although every year I hear complaints about the annual cartoon pinup girl for the fest, it’s like the organizers are doubling down on them this year. There were temporary body tattoos of the various vintages of pinups spread around on the tables yesterday. Unfortunately, this year a lot of the beers were multiple tickets per pour and not clearly marked, and this is not counting the special rare tappings, which are always more expensive. Multiple times we found beers that were 2 tickets per pour, and signs pointing generically to the left indicating prices but unclear which beers they referred to. Most confusing was a huge contingent of Bear Republic beers, which highlighted both the best and worst of the fest. There were no fewer than 7 Bear Republic beers on at one time, and only one of them was listed in the festival guide. Many of them special tappings for Wednesday, but this was only evident when looking at the fest’s website, as the program only lists the standard offerings this year. A few of the BR beers up on the mezzanine were fantastic, including the always excellent Tartare Berliner Weiss (which had a heavy ginger flavor this year) and Barrel-Aged Clobberskull, an English Estate Ale brewed with a malt bill that included 10% split peas (you’d NEVER know they were an ingredient).

There were, of course, some great beers and a lot of good beers, some OK beers, but only a few really bad ones. Before we share our picks, please know they come with the caveat that we didn’t have every beer. Over 30 were sampled in the first day, but unfortunately we missed some, like Burnside Brewing’s Jingleberry and Lompoc Brewing’s Cheval de Trait Belge. Still, this may be the most complete sampling review you will find so far.

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Must Try:

Feckin: Top O’ The Feckin’ Mornin’

This Imperial Espresso Milk Porter from Oregon City wows with a delicious cold coffee aroma and all the best qualities of an iced coffee with cream. The vanilla is subtle, and I think it’s even better that way.  • ABV: 8.5% • IBUs: 35

Stone Brewing: New Desecrator (Black Barley Wine)

While black barleywine is an apt description, I could also compare it to an imperial CDA. Full-bodied malt character and tons of Pacific Northwest hops make this a barleywine first and foremost, with a black color and light roast  adding a new level. Like a great barleywine, it’s huge and brings a mouthful of flavor, but is not cloyingly sweet. • ABV: 12.0% • IBUs: 100

McMenamins (Edgefield): Lord of Misrule (Rum Barrel-Aged Mexican Mocha Imperial Stout)

I know, I know, but McMenamins is really stepping up its game these days. This was the 2nd most surprising outstanding beer of the festival. It is a full-bodied but not bitter imperial stout and all that entails, with just hints of rum and a strong chili pepper flavor without heat. ABV: 8.1% • IBUs: 24

Eel River: Gargantua II

A Whisky Barrel-Aged Imperial Strong Ale with vanilla. Full bodied, malt forward, sweet but not cloying, lots of flavors from caramel malts, toasted nuts, whisky, oak, and vanilla, it delivers a flavorful wallop. Possibly the best big beer/dessert beer/winter warmer of the festival. ABV: 11.5% • IBUs: 80

Hopworks Urban Brewery: The Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest

I was afraid an imperial version of Hopworks’s Abominable winter warmer would be too sweet, but I didn’t give Brewmaster Tom Bleigh and his team enough credit. The beer with the longest name at the fest also has one of the more balanced flavor profiles, from toffee-filled malts to a solid hoppy backbone, both bitter and piney. It comes off closest to a more balanced imperial IPA with the barrel-aged character in the background. ABV: 9.0% • IBUs: 100

Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider: Providence

Apparently this is a limited release tapping, but it was on the final jockey box upstairs that had steam coming out of the serving vessel. It’s served hot and mulled and was back-sweetened with some honey and has light spices. It’s a bit sweet, but the way it’s served hot and with some light spicing, it’s quite pleasant and a perfect wassail. • ABV: 10.2%

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Festival organizer Chris Crabb with Old Town Brewing’s Bolt Minister

Good:

Alameda Brewing: Admiration IPA

Just a really good chewy winter IPA with great piney hop flavor and balanced bitterness. Full-flavored with a lasting floral hop bite, not boozy or overly intense like most of these beers. ABV: 6.8% • IBUs: 65

Bridgeport: Smoked Lager

Malty smooth and a good amount of smokiness. Goes a touch beyond a mild smokiness into a medium savory amount that might be too much for newbies, but is delicious for smoked beer fans. ABV: 5.4% • IBUs: 14

Drake’s: Jolly Roger

An Imperial Coffee Stout, everything you want in an imperial with a big full and beefy body, nice roastiness with some bitter hops for a backbone. Pretty balanced, not overly sweet or bitter. ABV: 9% • IBUs: 45

Gigantic Brewing: Red Ryder BB Gun

This is a very slightly tart but very fruity saison with cranberries. I would never have guessed saison, but cranberry and perhaps some orange citrus character come through for a slightly one note–but refreshingly different–offering. ABV: 6.3% • IBUs: 22

Golden Valley Brewery: Pinot Noir Barrel-Aged Tannen Boom

This beer occasionally makes a welcome appearance, and while the tart wine and fruit character contributes to a thinner body than one might expect. I appreciate its charms, especially among all these big and bitter beers. ABV: 8.2% • IBUs: 50

Migration Brewing: Frankie Claus (Imperial Belgian Stout)

Bittersweet Belgian chocolate and candi syrup. ABV: 11.8% • IBUs: 60

Old Town Brewing Co.: Bluth’s Original Chocolate Banana Hefeweizen

One of two chocolate and banana-themed beers, along with one from Stickmen; it seems like these interesting beers always come in twos. Both versions attempt to get the banana character from Bavarian yeast rather than actual banana, and this one is far better than the Stickmen version, though it is light on banana. Old Town’s beer has a super pleasant cocoa nib character that reminds me of hot chocolate, with the banana well in the background. ABV: 5.5% • IBUs: 14

Rogue Ales Brewery: BIG-ASS Barrel-Aged Caramel Porter

This beer tastes just like it sounds. ABV: 7.9% • IBUs: 55

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Bad:

Bear Republic: 2012 Prepare To Be Boarded

I know nothing about this beer except that it was on tap along the main lineup downstairs and was 2 tickets a pour. I also know that this was one of the all-time worst things I have ever tasted. Bear Republic’s Prepare To Be Boarded tasted like a Christmas tree ate a bowl of potpourri and then puked it up. Not for the faint of heart, but I might recommend it to your right wing friend who is protesting the War on Christmas. This beer proves Christmas is flourishing–and can sometimes be sickening.

Fan pic that nonetheless well illustrates the situation

Fan pic that nonetheless well illustrates the situation

Holiday Ale Fest 2014

Pioneer Courthouse Square
701 SW Sixth Ave
Portland, Oregon 97204

$35 entry for a Mug and 12 tickets

  • Wed 12/3: 11am – 10pm
  • Thu 12/4: 11am – 10pm
  • Fri 12/5: 11am – 10pm
  • Sat 12/6: 11am – 10pm
  • Sun 12/7: 11am – 5pm

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

7 Comments

  1. ElGordo

    December 4, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    The Viking braggot was the most interesting thing I tried yesterday. The fir tips and juniper berries added a really savory note that bordered on smoke, but was probably closest to umami. Not necessarily my favorite brew of the day, but it was definitely a revelation in what can be done with spices and honey.

  2. Wolf Linderman

    December 4, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    I so agree about that Bear Republic Prepare to Be Boarded. Indescribably bad! It took a Bunk Cubano to get the taste out of my mouth. Their Rum Barrel Pirate offering had a serious balsamic aftertaste, too. And why so many from Bear Republic?

    That Eel River Gargantua II is my favorite of the fest so far.

  3. Rob

    December 4, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Looks like you missed the fact the brewer from Bear Republic was there, so it was a special Bear Republic tapping day. Today the Deschutes Portland crew and and Eel River crew are there today, so there are multiple of those being poured. Seems pretty reasonable to have multiple of one brewery pouring for a brewer meet-n-greet event. I must have missed the drunks you mentioned as the day seemed very low-key and pleasant.

    • Samurai Artist

      December 4, 2014 at 8:03 pm

      I gathered and heard it was a Bear Republic thing but there should have been details in the guide book. It wasn’t bad with drunks yesterday but it gets worse later in my experience. I did take note of a dude falling on his back at approximately 3pm and he was like a turtle turned over struggling to recover.

  4. Tyler Hurst

    December 4, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    Great to see Rev Nat bringing back Providence this year. Wish he made more, it’s a holiday treat.

  5. Jadd

    December 5, 2014 at 10:19 am

    Feckin… So tasty.

  6. MadCarpenter

    December 5, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    35 bucks for three beers. Ten dollars for a designated driver?

    The Holiday Ale Fest is a jeroboam full of ripoff.

    So you have to gouge us because the venue is too small? Move the event to the Expo Center. Set up your own Xmas tree. MAX access and a zillion parking spaces are already in place.

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