Portland, Oregon, is practically drowning in craft beer. With more than 45 brewers in the city and more bottle shops and beer bars than any one city should have, creating beer that stands “head and shoulders” above the rest is a near-herculean feat.
Founded in 1988, Cascade Brewing certainly ranked as one of the city’s top contenders, but when founder Art Larrance and brewmaster Ron Gansberg decided to branch out into barrel-aging, they set the brewery on the path toward true greatness.
Slightly worn out by the hop “space race” that dominated much of the Pacific Northwest craft brew scene in the mid-2000s, they yearned to find a different way to create powerful tastes beyond ramping up a beer’s IBUs. Easy access to used barrels from the Portland area’s wine industry, paired with the region’s copious fruit orchards, made wood-aged fruit-based sour beers a natural choice.
Yet unlike other barrel-aging breweries, they decided not to follow the Belgian tradition, the country most associated with sours. Instead, they avoided using Brett and concentrated their efforts on Lactobacillus, a wild bacterium that adds a gloriously tart taste to whatever it encounters, resulting in what they soon dubbed the new Northwest-style sour beer.
The first ales hit the barrels in 2005, and the project has since evolved into a massive operation with more than 500 French oak and Kentucky bourbon barrels stored in their 7,100-square-foot brewery that’s housed in a former produce warehouse in southeast Portland. The space also includes a 2,100-square-foot brewpub with 18 taps of their signature beers—all sour, with styles that vary from porters to quads to blondes—along with four “blender” taps, an expansive patio, and an impressive food menu. And each Tuesday at 6pm they crack open a new barrel.
But their beer itself is the real draw. They use an insane amount of locally-sourced fruit—as much as 4,500 pounds of Bing and sour cherries for the Kreik, Sang Royale, and San Noir beers alone. And everything they serve spends time aging in the wood.
Of the vast quantity of beer available, definitely target the Apricot Sour Ale, one of the first recipes they produced. Don’t expect an explosion of fruit here; the beer pours a smooth orange, but the presence of apricots remains subtle within the overall-bracing, pucker. The beverage highlights all that’s wonderful about sour beers. And the Kreik, a more intense, bracing brew made with cherries and aged in oak, shouldn’t be missed.
In many ways barrel-aging is a risky business proposition. The “live” nature of the beer, whose flavors evolve in largely unpredictable ways, belies the standard strive for product consistency. Yet this unpredictability works in Cascade’s favor: you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know it’s going to be interesting, and the brewers’ vast experience dictates that it’ll probably be really damn good.
You can find their 750ML bottles in Oregon, Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York. And if you’re not lucky enough to live in one of those states, you can order bottles directly from the brewery via their online store trend we welcome other craft brewers to adopt.