Friday, August 14, 2009

King of Brew Pubs

I have mixed emotions about my first trip to McMenamins, the Pacific Northwest’s premier chain of brew pubs. The McMenamins kingdom is unlike any other—at least that I’m aware of—with 55 locations throughout Oregon and Washington, many of them serving multiple purposes beyond what most of us normally think of in brew pubs. Our visit last night was to Edgefield, in the Portland suburb of Troutdale, one of their oldest and largest locations.

The place and the atmosphere were magnificent. We didn’t even take the time to explore the entire grounds, but there’s a hotel, spa, par-three golf course, movie theater, distillery, winery, several pubs and restaurants, and a music venue. In fact, next Thursday the Flaming Lips and Built to Spill are playing, so our timing was just a little off. Even without such a draw, the grounds were hopping—so to speak—with hoards of people walking around with plastic cups filled with pale and amber colored malt beverages. We all know how much I love that concept.

The second Thursday of each month is kind of a special event at Edgefield, a limited-edition beer release party, at which they routinely offer a tasting of a potential new brew. $3 pints are served for as long as the batch lasts, which was only a couple hours on this particular evening. The events take place at the distillery, which is also the club house for the golf course, so it’s an interesting atmosphere indeed.

Last night’s feature was called Poor Farm Pale Ale, which I was disappointed to learn is only a slightly different version of one of their prior IPA offerings, aged two weeks longer and a little less hoppy. I was hoping for something a little more experimental, but it’s a solid brew nevertheless. It has a really nice malty aroma—which pleasantly reminded me of the smell of the home brewing process—and follows that up with plenty of full-bodied flavor, but is lacking on the other side of the balance equation, with no pronounced hop aftertaste.

Unfortunately, solid is pretty much the best I can say about any of McMenamins’ beers, with the exception of Terminator Stout. Smooth and creamy, with a pleasant coffee-like flavor, it was one of the better examples of the style I’ve had in quite some time. Sunflower IPA and Hammerhead were pretty good, but nothing to write home about, despite the fact that the latter is their top selling beer.

On the down side, the food was mediocre. Although their wings were better than one would expect to get on the west coast, the mac ‘n’ cheese was pretty unremarkable. Additionally, the service was so-so at best. I’d like to cut them some slack for the fact that the place was very busy, but I have a feeling they’re used to that. Besides, being busy isn’t really an excuse for the fact that they estimated we’d be seated in 15-20 minutes and it ended up taking over an hour, or for delivering food without silverware and napkins.

The most inexcusable sin they commit, though, is that they serve Budweiser and Coors Light. I understand the temptation to cover their bases by catering to the non-beer drinker in every crowd, especially considering they operate hotels as well, but it is one that every brew pub should resist.

I must say that, after 3 1/2 pints of ales that were all in the 6-7% ABV range, I'm feeling a bit sluggish as I write this. Admittedly, I'm rather fond of that quality in a beer. That is, that its alcoholic content kind of sneaks up on you, even if I'm not crazy about the feeling of paying for it the next day.

Overall, McMenamins gets a thumbs up from me. Regardless of the indiscretion of serving the self-described “King of Beers”, or the fact that their beers didn't overwhelm me, McMenamins—from my brief experience of witnessing how they dominate the market in the region where brew pubs are most prevalent—still seems worthy of the distinction of “King of Brew Pubs”.

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