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All Hail Ninkasi, Goddess of Brewing…or Something Like That

Reading Time: 7 minutes read

 

“…I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work…Nothing is fun when you have to do it—over & over, again & again—or else you’ll be evicted, and that gets old.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Good ol’ HST, the only damned doctor of journalism that I can think of—yes, there must be more, but I probably don’t read them—was right on the money. Long before I decided to become a writer, which is to say, learn it as a trade, rather than an academic subject of hobby, I was doing it for fun, and swearing that it wouldn’t be any fun if I had to do it. And it’s not, or at least, not always. But I don’t have to write about beer; I do it because it is fun. Not quite as much as drinking the stuff, but still a pretty good marriage of the things I’m most interested in.

Existential rambling aside, we’re here to talk about beer. And about places and people. Because people make beer in places, and those elements shape the drink’s character as much as water chemistry and the choice of hops, barley, and yeast. Don’t believe me? Drink a Guinness in Ireland, and a Guinness in New York, and tell me they’re the same fecking beer.

May 18, 2015

ninkasiglass-1It’s our last day in Oregon before heading back the corner of the country we temporarily call home, and the state that is somewhat famous for its rain has decided to bless us with a perfect specimen of a spring day. Sunshine, light breeze, birdsong, temps in the high 60s to low 70s; the works. We’d planned to take the train back up to Portland, but at nearly the last minute made arrangements to road trip it instead.

If you’ve never taken the drive from Klamath Falls to Portland via 97 North, 58 West, and I-5 North, you’re missing out. The route spans nearly the length of the state, and affords an excellent opportunity to experience three or four of Oregon’s several climates/geographic areas. From high desert, where tall, spare, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees keep company with sage and some wildflowers, and the underbrush is fairly minimal, through the densely forested Willamette Pass, crossing several rivers along the way, down into the Willamette Valley, which is densely populated with rye grass fields, sheep, cows, and yes, hops.

To say that the scenery is beautiful is an understatement of criminal proportions. But in the interest of time, it’s a crime I’m going to commit.

ninlamp-1Oh yeah, the Willamette Valley’s got towns, too. Most of the state’s biggest ones are there, probably owing to the area’s suitability for settlement and many opportunities for industry.

A bit before noon, maybe eleven-thirty or so, we pull into Eugene and start contemplating lunch. Ben, whose Google-Fu is strong, does a quick search for nearby brewpubs and realizes that we’re very near Ninkasi. Naturally, we must visit and pay homage to the ancient goddess of brewing.

I’ve never spent much time in Eugene, other than to visit its shopping malls. The Whiteaker neighborhood is home to Ninkasi Brewing and a whole bunch of relatively new businesses, including the Pizza Research Institute, at least another brewery or two, a pub called Izakaya Meiji, and directly across the street from the Ninkasi tasting room, more of the brewery, with a food truck and several umbrella-ed tables out front.

Whiteaker, or “The Whit” as it’s affectionately termed, has a history as varied and eclectic as its current denizens. Apparently, it used to be something of a hub for anarchists, had a seedy reputation for a while, and has more recently been described as “alternative,” “artsy,” and “eccentric.” From what I saw on my brief visit, all of the above are accurate.

Dominated by the Ninkasi Brewing Company, Van Buren is a pleasant, tree-lined street that could belong anywhere in American suburbia, except for the bright paint and artwork adorning most of the buildings, and a certain bohemian vibe (not in the Bohemian Pilsner kind of way, but the more common usage) that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Not even Portland, which takes its weirdness seriously.

A cluster of three or four buildings surrounded by a low brick wall with several small gates bearing the company’s sunburst logo, the Ninkasi brewery manages to be both very industrial, and quite inviting. This latter impression is reinforced by an array of picnic tables and umbrellas in the courtyard. Upon entering the tasting room, our party of three—myself, Ben, and my mom, who, along with her vehicle, is making the day’s road trip possible—are greeted by a woman and a man behind the bar. Both appear to be in their early to mid-twenties.

nink-1We learn that the day’s first tour is already full, and we don’t have time to wait for the next one, so I order a tasting flight and settle in with my notebook. Mom declines to drink, citing the fact that she’s the driver, but contributes olfactory observations. To my delight, each beer has an accompanying trading card with a brief description, tasting notes, food pairing suggestions, and stats on the brew. I’ve got seven; it’ll take more visits to collect the whole set.

Lux Helles Lager

Clean, pleasant example of the style, with perhaps a bit more hops than are traditional. Not that I mind; the hops add an extra refreshing element to a style whose American interpretations are often boring. My mom picks up on the scent of the lager yeast, versus the ale fermented beers she’s more used to.

Dawn of the Red

A bit fruitier than usual for an Irish Red Ale, thanks to several varieties of hops that are known for their tropical and citrus fruit character. Me mum gets grapefruit from the nose, despite the lack of Cascade. Ben notes that he always smells lots of grapefruit from Ahtanum. This IRA also has Millennium, Galena, El Dorado, and Mosaic. All that tropical hopping, paired with a reasonable malt backbone makes for a very tasty West Coast take on an IRA.

Rich’s Brew     

Ben orders a whole pint of this one, so I ask for his notes. He can’t find anything bad to say about it, but doesn’t give me much. Little did I know he was hoarding his opinion for his own post. The beer has a restrained Belgian character, as appropriate for a double IPA. I rather like it, and find the hoppiness quite enjoyable. Mom says Rich’s Brew has, “a barrel smell, and almost a berry smell. More of a wildberry, not cultivated.” It does have a fair amount of the fruity esters from the Belgian yeast, combined with citrus notes from the C-hops. Mum also mentions a cotton boll scent, for which neither Ben nor I have any frame of reference.

Tricerahops

A bit of a hop bomb, as you might expect from a Double IPA. When offered a sample, Ben says, “Oh that is hop rich. God, that’s a heavenly smell…mmm…take that away from me.” At 8% ABV, this one is probably in the sweet spot for a DIPA; strong enough to make just about anyone feel fine, but not overwhelmingly alcoholic. There are no off flavors, and as the tasting card says, it has a good amount of body and malt character to balance out its five hops.

Oatis  

“This one smells like a rich coffee…chocolate, coffee, and dry.” This time, I insist that my mom also taste the stuff. It tastes like very bitter cocoa,” she says. This is a quite roasty American oatmeal stout with, as already noted, plenty of chocolate and coffee notes. At 7.2% ABV, this is no session ale, but no one’s asking it to be. And it has enough body to make me happy, which is often my sticking point with stouts.

Maiden the Shade

After Triceratops, this summer IPA seems a bit tamer, but that’s not a bad thing. At 6.8% ABV and 72 IBUs, the hop bitterness is only a bit above the malt, and as Ben notes, it “has that elusive pollen sweetness” that he loves to find in an IPA. Eight hop varieties lend themselves to a complex flavor and aroma, and as the tasting card informs me, flaked barley and a light malt profile keep the whole thing nicely balanced.

nincaustmini-1We’d either just missed Spring Reign or they didn’t have it tap yet. Details like that get fuzzy after a six-beer tasting flight. The pint is, I’ve got a trading card for an American Pale Ale that I didn’t get to try. It’s probably delish, though, judging from the rest of Ninkasi’s brews.

During the course of conversation with the bartender-types—mostly the bearded one named Ben—I learn that Ninkasi has a 60 barrel capacity at the tasting room, and another 90 barrels across the street. They source most of their malt from the Pacific NW, naturally, but they also import some specialty malts. Two large grain silos, visible from the street, stand between the tasting room and the production facility. The silver one holds 60 thousand pounds of 2-row pale malt, while its teal sibling contains 20 thousand pounds of Munch. 2-row makes an appearance on all but one of my seven beer trading cards, so keeping a ton (or thirty) of it around makes perfect sense.

We wrap up our visit with lunch from The Sandwich League, one of a cast of seven food trucks that take turns hanging out at the Ninkasi facility across the street. I was briefly excited to see that they were offering Raven’s Brew coffee for a ridiculously price per cup, then nearly crushed to learn they’d run out of it. But the awesome pulled pork sandwich and fries made me forget about that. By the time we back on the road, I was one happy, if slightly drowsy, customer.

Not a bad introduction to Eugene’s famous (or infamous?) Whiteaker neighborhood.

Photos by Benjamin Wilson

Resources:

About Us.” Ninkasi Brewing. Accessed June 26, 2015.

Burri McDonald, Sherri. “What Makes ‘The Whit’ Tick New Businesses Find the Area’s Odd Mix to Be Fertile Ground.The Register-Guard, November 21, 2011. Accessed June 26, 2015.

Gottberg Anderson, John. “Eugene’s Eccentric Neighborhood.” The Bulletin, November 10, 2013, Lifestyle sec. Accessed June 26, 2015.

Pucci, Carol. “Exploring Eugene, Oregon’s Artsy Whiteaker Neighborhood.” The Seattle Times, August 14, 2010, Travel sec. Accessed June 26, 2015.

Thompson, Hunter S. “Jacket Copy for Fear & Loathing.” In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories. New York: Modern Library, 1996.

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Pacific Northwest expat, travel and craft beverage writer. Exploring the intersections where beer (and coffee and spirits), food, travel and culture meet.

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