Tasting four of Bend's most expensive beers is great fun, and it is best done with four of Bend's most active beer geeks. These were not all the expensive beers available in town, nor all the beer geeks, but it proved the perfect balance of strong beer and strong opinion.
Joining me for this tasting were Mark Lindner (aka, The Bend Beer Librarian); Carlos Perez, of Beer Me Bend and Central Oregon Beer Week; and Ryan Sharp, of Central Oregon Beer Week. Armed with five bottles totaling $91 of beer, it was a delicious and vocal Monday evening.
The beers: Ale Apothecary, La Tache aged in rum barrels with white peaches ($30, 750ml); Crux Fermentation Project, Better Off Red ($12, 375ml); Deschutes Brewery, Plante Rouge ($22, 22oz); and Silver Moon Brewing, Bourbon Barrel-Aged Darkside Stout ($15, 22oz).
When beer climbs into that higher price range, there are often common factors: barrel-aging, increased labor, higher alcohol and more expensive packaging. These traits aren't in every example, but it's rare that a high-dollar beer will not carry at least three.
In craft beer, barrel-aging is the new black. Every brewer seems to be working with wood barrels. Retired wine and spirit barrels retain flavors from the previous contents that infuse the beer. Darkside and Better Off Red were shining examples of this. The bourbon flavors from the barrel-aging were intense in the Darkside. Wine barrels were used for Better Off Red, and the fruit characteristics of Oregon pinot noir were bold—mostly cherry and plum.
On the opposite spectrum, neither the La Tache nor Plante Rouge had much barrel flavor. That's not a bad thing, just unexpected. All Ale Apothecary beer spends time in barrels, but neutral barrels that don't contribute significant flavor to the final product.
Barrel costs aren't the only factor in raising the price of these spendy brews. The process of barrel aging increases costs as well. In the case of Better Off Red, Crux maintains about 160 barrels and tastes them quarterly. As time passes, the brewers determine when the beer is ready to bottle. Since each barrel has slightly different flavor profiles, select barrels are blended together to create the best beer possible from the inventory. Extra storage space and time are expensive.
Even large and efficient breweries like Deschutes incur more costs to produce specialty beers. Plante Rouge was brewed with yeasts that could ruin the flavor of its flagship beers. To reduce the risk of infection, it was bottled on special equipment, rather than the main bottling line. Each bottle was also wax dipped—more for looks than function.
Around the table, every geek agreed that these were all good or great beers. The discussion quickly revealed that sometimes, like wine, beer suffers from vanity pricing. In ranking, the most expensive (La Tache) and least expensive (Darkside) beers tied for first place. Better Off Red was very nice, but nobody planned to go buy a bottle afterward. Crux, we agreed, offers more interesting beers for less money. Plante Rouge was delicious, but suffered from vanity pricing. No one at the tasting could justify the price based on flavor alone.
In the end, beer is worth what the consumer will pay for it. These high-dollar choices are not for everybody. These are for beer geeks who like to explore new, interesting flavors—and for an expanding demographic that understands beer is no longer a simple choice between Budweiser pilsners or crafty IPAs, but is beginning to rival wines for their place-of-origin tastes and sophistication. Moreover, these complex beverages make great gifts and spark great conversation.
Loosen up those purse strings, and give these beers a chance.
AN IMPORTANT FOOD EVENT
Jennifer Johns is not a sit-down, polite approach to food.
First inspired as a six-year-old by "We Are The World," the Oakland, Calif., native has since restlessly and relentlessly tried to untie that thorny knot of social justice and food issues by merging music and education. In a region like Central Oregon, such troubles are not uncommon, where one of four children lack nutritional food.
Johns delivers her messages through her booming hip-hop, engaging but unapologetic. She has been part of Food & Freedom Rides, which have crisscrossed the country to bring attention to better conditions for farm workers and increased access to healthy food for low-income families.
6:30 pm Sun, May 4. Tower Theater, 835 NW Wall. $17 – 22.50