Kevin Martin from Cascade Barrel House graciously took the time to answer some questions I thought up to prep everyone for the Tap it Tuesday event The Field Guide team will be attending on June 30th.
OP: Cascade is known as the “House of Sour” and sour beers are certainly your specialty. Can you explain a little about the sour beer process and what makes it different from the regular brewing process? What makes Cascade’s brews NW Sours rather than traditional sours?
KM: While traditional, non-sour beers are made with conventional brewers yeasts, which produce alcohol and CO2 primarily, sour beers are made with a wide range of bacteria that produce acids, which give the beer its sourness. This bacterial fermentation is often much slower than yeast, and generally requires long-term maturation in oak barrels or tanks, where the beer may pick up greater flavor complexity from the vessel itself or from the addition of fruits or spices.
We apply the term NW Style Sour Ales to our beers as a way of defining our product outside the parameters of the common preset categories of beer that may otherwise limit creativity and innovation. These NW sour ales feature a clean, lactic acid profile produced by our own house culture of lactobacillus bacteria, and frequently rely on the use of fresh ingredients grown exclusively in the Pacific Northwest, such as cherries, apricots, berries and grapes. In part, however, the term NW Style Sour should always maintain a certain lack of definition that allows us the creative space to constantly approach our beers in new ways.
OP: I’ve heard sour beers referred to as the “original beer,” as historically all beers were sour due to pre-modern sanitation and poorly understood, often naturally occurring bacteria. Where was the transition from beers being sour because natural bacteria were at work versus brewers deliberately making sour beers?
KM: It's difficult to pinpoint one moment in brewing history where souring transitioned from accidental to deliberate, especially when looking at countries like Belgium where there are breweries that have consistently been creating sour beers for centuries—these brewers of bygone eras were intelligent, resourceful people who knew how to deliberately manipulate their processes to achieve a desired outcome, even if they didn't fully understand the science behind it. In the craft brewing industry in the United States, however, the deliberate souring of beers really began to take off in the mid-2000s. In retrospect, this makes sense in an industry where people are continually pushing the limits to create a new (to the US market) and unique beer, but at the time, there were very few brewers willing to venture into the unknown world of using what have traditionally been considered "spoilage" bacteria. Since a vast amount of the brewing science research available to craft brewers was conducted by giant macro-breweries who were adamantly opposed to the presence of acid-producing bacteria, many craft brewers had no reference point on how to successfully make a sour beer, and so let it lie. Once craft brewers had a couple decades of experience, practice, and innovation under their belt, more and more seemed willing to dabble in sour production, and by the early-to-mid 2000s, a handful of breweries (including Cascade Brewing) began dedicating a large percentage of their production strictly to sour beer. As more consumers acquired a taste for these brews, yeast culturing laboratories began making acid-producing bacteria cultures commercially available to brewers, who were, in turn, making more sour beers. We are only now beginning to see sour beers grow from a tiny niche market to one of more popular demands in the US, though this transition back to sour beer production must seem fickle to some brewers in the historical brewing regions of the world where sour beers have consistently been a staple in their beer culture.
OP: The different flavors in sour beers can work really well with food pairings; any go-to pairing suggestions for folks just starting out on the sour beer journey?
KM: Sour beers are incredibly compatible with food, and the combinations of food and sour beer are absolutely endless. The components of sour beer—acidity, carbonation, alcohol, and a wide range from dry to sweet—all make it extraordinarily food friendly. Try our Gose with light, refreshing foods such as salads or sushi—the wheat malts and sea salt offer another layer of refreshment and help cleanse the palate between bites without overwhelming the delicate flavors of the dish. If you're having steak for dinner, pair with our Sang Royal—a blend of red ales aged with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The tannins from the grapes help cut through the fat of the steak while the roasted malt character of the red ale complements the flavors of the meat. When looking to pair with dessert, try our Bourbonic Plague— a robust double porter aged in Bourbon barrels with dates, cinnamon, vanilla and other spices. The intense, deep flavors and residual sweetness in the beer can stand up to most chocolate-based desserts while the acidity of the beer brings a welcome brightness to a rich dish. There are endless ways to approach sour beer and food pairings—try a beer that complements your dish next to one that contrasts with it—you may be surprised at how a well-selected sour beer pairing can bring an entirely new depth and complexity to your meal.
OP: The Craft Beer market in Portland is pretty big. How does Cascade stand out from the crowd? Can travelers find Cascade Beers outside of Oregon?
KM: We are very fortunate to be a part of such a vibrant beer culture here in Portland. With so many breweries focusing on hop-centric styles like IPAs, we've carved out a really unique niche in the Portland beer scene with our wide selection of barrel-aged sour beers as well as many unique non-sour projects throughout the year. We are continually creating new blends and playing with a wide variety of ingredients that attract beer enthusiasts from all over the world.
Bottles of our beers can be found all along the west coast from British Colombia to San Diego. We also have distribution on the east coast in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and North Carolina as well as in Nevada and Hawaii. We hope to continue to expand into new markets in the coming months.
A live barrel tapping at Cascade
OP: Tap it Tuesday is a pretty big deal to Portland beer lovers (as well as for ultimate beer geeks all over the place) and I know the list for tappers and holders can get booked up fairly far out. For anyone who hasn’t been to a tapping event at Cascade can you give them a summary of what to expect?
KM: Tap it Tuesday has really become a beloved weekly ritual among Cascade staff and supporters alike. We release a unique, single-barrel project every Tuesday at 6:00pm that will only be available for two weeks, so sour fans who visit our Barrel House will have something new to taste virtually every time they visit. Right at 6:00pm members of our brew staff will ring the bell and tell our customers about the new beer, then hand the show over to that week’s tappers. Every barrel is “tapped” by two people who have signed up in advance on our website—one person holds the tap, while the other swings the mallet and drives the brass tap directly into the oak barrel from which the beer is poured. In most cases, there just a little spritz of beer, though on occasion we’ll see the dreaded “sour shower” (incidents of which can be seen on YouTube) where things get more than a little messy. These “live barrels” are the closest you can get to drinking beer directly out of the barrels in our cellar and make for a truly unique drinking experience.
OP: My personal favorite is the Sang Noir. I think I can safely say that it converted me to sour beers and changed my beer drinking habits. What are some of the most exciting beers Cascade has had on tap recently and what should we all be looking for in the next few months?
KM: We recently released our 2014 Kriek and offered a four-year vertical tasting to celebrate the new blend (a vertical tasting consists of four taster glasses of Kriek from four different vintages—2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014). We also recently released our 2014 Strawberry blend, 2013 Sang Rouge and will soon be releasing our 2015 Blackcap Raspberry in bottle and draft. Our Barrel House pub has also started featuring releases of rare “vintage” beers from our extensive aging library nearly every Wednesday. We’ve also been working on some very exciting collaboration projects with other breweries such as El Segundo Brewing (Los Angeles, CA), The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA) and Wicked Weed Brewing (Asheville, NC) to name a few. With a new live barrel every week, vintage keg and bottles releases, collaborations, seasonal non-sour beers and a steady release of new sour blends, we offer an ever-changing menu of incredibly diverse and interesting beers.