A series of small samples can help you find the perfect pint.
“You can find a couple of Deschutes offerings at various spots, and times, around the area, but having the opportunity to choose among six or seven of their beers [on tap] was a big draw,” says Bill Bailey, who attended last week's Deschutes tap takeover at Craftsman Table and Tap in Middleton.
Deschutes, the Bend, Oregon-based brewery, just started distribution in Wisconsin last summer. Wisconsin was the 26th state for Deschutes, says Pat Bohn, who handles the brewery’s Wisconsin marketing.
There was a packed house at Craftsman, with everyone eager to experience the range of what the brewery has to offer. Not only standard brews, but also highly sought-after limited-releases and brand-new beers were on tap. Trying them all was a great opportunity to determine if Deschutes, currently the sixth-largest brewery in the country, lives up to the hype.
A six-beer Deschutes sampler at Craftsman.
Deschutes’ line-up at Craftsman shaped up like this:
Black Butte Porter (5.2% ABV): This is considered the brewery’s flagship. It has been offered by the brewery since it opened. It’s been a personal favorite for more than 20 years. Black Butte is a porter that stands as a reference beer for the style. Nearly perfect scores, even 100s, from Internet ratings sites BeerAdvocate and RateBeer also offer evidence that this beer lives up to the hype and then some. It is coal black, with rich, smooth, sweet chocolate maltiness and lots of body. Few Wisconsin Porters stack up to it.
Every June, Deschutes releases a special anniversary version of Black Butte; last year’s 26th birthday was barrel-aged with pomegranate molasses and cocoa nibs. A few of Madison’s specialty beer stores still have it. I found bomber bottles on the shelf at the Jenifer Street Market selling for $17 each. Rarely would I recommend paying that much for a single beer, but Black Butte’s anniversary editions are special and they are meant to be cellared.
Zarabanda (6.5% ABV): Named after a Spanish dance, this saison is a potpourri of spicy pepper, yeast esters and citrus, from additions of pink peppercorn, sumac, lemon verbena and dried lime. I enjoyed the dryness of Czech Saaz hops and French saison yeast. But in the end, this is a saison with a lot going on, perhaps a little too much for a light farmhouse ale.
Red Chair North West Pale Ale (6.2% ABV): An American Pale Ale named after the chair lift on central Oregon’s Mount Bachelor. It’s a blend of Cascade and Centennial hops, along with six different malts for balance. This is a solid pale ale. I've traveled the Pacific Northwest seeking out beers with the region’s distinctive hop character, and this strikes me as a little tame. There’s firm grapefruit bitterness, but it seems subdued by all the malts. Local beers with Cascade-character like Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious are worthy competitors.
Obsidian Stout (6.4% ABV): This full-bodied, robust stout was served on nitrogen at Craftsman’s tap takeover, and wow, was it smooth. You can find it locally in a six-pack for around $10 (standard for most of Deschutes beers in this market), but this is a great beer on nitrogen for its silky smooth body. It has roasted chocolate up front, with hints of espresso and dryness in the finish. This beer was named best American Stout in the 2014 World Beer Awards. I enjoyed this beer a lot, but it was quickly overshadowed by...
The Abyss (11% ABV): The Abyss has an interesting Wisconsin connection. It’s among the brewery’s limited barrel-aged reserve series overseen by Brookfield native and assistant brewmaster Ryan Schmiege, who's been with Deschutes for the past 11 years.
The Abyss was the one beer that brought most Deschutes fans to the event at Craftsman. It lasted about an hour before it was tapped-out.
This is an imperial stout made with blackstrap molasses, Italian licorice, vanilla beans and cherry bark. The beer is aged for six months in a combination of bourbon and Oregon wine barrels. It has a complex flavor with lots of roasted malt and a medicinal spicy warmth from all that alcohol. If you like big beers, this is one to try — at the very least so you’ll have a reference point for bold and assertive. I made sure I finished my evening with a full tulip glass of this thick, chewy, sweet molasses and licorice elixir.
Fresh Squeezed IPA (6.4%): After Abyss, this was the most talked about and ordered beer of the night. It’s an IPA with juicy tropic bitterness of orange and grapefruit that comes from copious amounts of Citra and Mosaic hops. It’s a beer that's rapidly becoming a favorite.
I heard comparisons to Karben4’s Fantasy Factory and even more to 3 Floyd’s Zombie Dust, a hoppy Indiana beer that has an intense, almost cult-like, following.
“IPAs are on fire nationwide. It’s a beer that wherever we have distribution, we gain more distribution with Fresh Squeezed,” says Bohn. He estimates that by the end of the year it will overtake Black Butte Porter as Wisconsin’s favorite Deschutes beer.
And Deschutes will continue to expand its offerings in Wisconsin. This summer among the beers it plans to release here are the golden-blonde Twilight Summer Ale and a Belgian IPA called Foray.