America's Best IPA
Lives in a Mason Jar at Fort George Brewery
Two hundreds years ago today, Hawaiian laborers were constructing a smithy, a general store and a warehouse for furs collected by the Pacific Fur Company in the newly established Fort Astoria.
Two years later, British captain William Black would claim what was then a very young settlement, but would come to be known as the oldest town in the Western United States, and renamed Fort Astoria to Fort George. One hundred and ten years later, the more modern city of Astoria would have its downtown burned to the ground, including the structures which existed on the exact location of the original fort.
The building would be resurrected as a mechanic’s garage in the 1920s. By the time Kennedy was President, the Fort George Building would be dubbed a National Historic Landmark. As of March of 2007, 1483 Duane Street is home to the cloudiest, tastiest IPA we’ve yet to run across in our travels.
“The Fort George Building was so named because it is located on the exact spot of the original white settlement established by John Jacob Astor in 1811,” head brewer Jack Harris tells me. “During the War of 1812 the British took command of the Fort and renamed it Fort George after their king,” he continues. “Astoria was known as Fort George well into the mid-1800s.”
Long gone are the pelts of furs ready to be traded back to early East Coast Americans and cannons to keep any natives hostile to the intentions of the white man in the Pacific Northwest. Today, the smell of tuna sandwiches and a slightly sticky, purposely made to look rustic wooden table sit before me and the mother of my children, who only a few short weeks ago bore us a son, Winter Erik, just up the road at Columbia Memorial Hospital. To be pregnant and a beer lover in Oregon is a difficult burden to endure, and it was as quickly as possible that we found our way to this table. I was excited for her to finally try Fort George’s Vortex IPA, and equally anticipatious at the prospect of enjoying one guilt-free myself.
As a wonderfully funky and lovely waitress brought us our beverages and took our order, there they sat, two little mason jar’s worth of sun setting rays through the clouds, all living in the two beers set before us. “Cheers,” and the sound of the glasses clinking rims one to another, then that gorgeously hoppy bite that we had both grown to utterly appreciate in a beer.
The bar wraps long and wide, thick and wooden around shelves full of glasses and over a dozen taps. A chalkboard hangs above the taps touting today’s draught availabilities, mostly directly from the brewery itself but a few guest appearances as well, plus a short list of wines. The chalkboard is completely hand written and hand drawn, a picture of some children holding hands and skipping along, or perhaps they’re Mormon women leading one another down the wall to see what all the fuss is about this side of a barroom window.
“Fort George,” Jack speaking again, “started in the fall of 2005 when Chris Nemlowill asked me to partner with him on a brewpub in Astoria. We found a building to lease—” that being 2900 square feet in the ground floor of the Fort George Building, “—and road-tripped to Virginia for the 8.5 bbl used brewery to make our beer. It took 9 months to open.”
Over twenty five varieties of beers later, and after recently expanding their 2900 square feet to over 40,000—they bought the entire city block the brewery is located on, save a small local park—they obviously spent those first 9 months coming up with a pretty great plan. Or if not the business plan itself, well, at least the ingredients and sheer brewing talent.
“We all have a little say in what gets made. I tend to promote the herbal, fruit and stout beers. Chris likes to see us have a variety of Pale and IPA hop focused beers.”
I make it more than obvious how very much I enjoy my Vortex, at one point even literally dubbing it “simply the best” beer in America. And as far as my tastes are concerned, biased as we are to IPAs around here, I truly mean it.
“You and everyone else seems to be biased toward IPAs,” he assures me, though whether it’s to reinforce my sense of cultural identity with a growing craft brewery audience who are all on a very right track, or to indicate that I’m the reason Fort George isn’t putting out more floral, fruity beers, I can’t be sure. “We created Vortex to be able to stand up to some of the IPAs that were coming into our consciousness back in 2006 and 2007,” and he namedrops some of his favorites like a punk rocker touting the names of his favorite bands which, of course, you’ve likely never heard of. I recognize Arrogant Bastard, my previous contender for best IPA ever before Vortex came dripping into my life. “They were all making double IPAs and just calling them IPA. We wanted ours to be considered in that category, but we didn’t like the intense bitterness some of those stronger IPAs were exhibiting. Our strategy was to not go so hard on the bittering hops and really try to get as much flavor and aroma as we could. I think the whole IPA style has grown increasingly complex and there is a lot of room for interpretation. It is very flattering for you to say it is simply the best, but to be honest we are almost never satisfied with it. Every batch could be made better and it is the first thing we identify on a brew-day, what we are going to improve on and how we are going to do that. The long-term result should be a beer that may eventually be completely different than that first batch of Vortex people fell in love with. It is a beer that will evolve as fast as the beer style has in the last 10 years.”
To be honest, that all makes me a little nervous. What if I don’t get back around in time to taste its evolution, after all, Fort George brews are only available in Oregon and parts of Washington. What if it truly is a different beer the next time I’m on the North Coast? Then I think, hey, these guys were good enough to come up with it in the first place, they’re good enough to likely only improve from here, right? Like your favorite rock band, you hope they’ll just keep changing for the better with every album.
“We do music once a week, Sunday nights, in the pub,” Jack mentions. “There is never a cover. It is our ‘thank you’ to the community for the support they have shown us. We all love music and it is almost always playing in the pub and brewery. All of our walk-in coolers have speakers in them, though,” he deflects the enthusiasm a little, “we have no intention of becoming a music venue as our primary mission is great beer and a great place to eat and enjoy beer with friends.”
Jack tells me a little about Fort George’s distribution strategy. Aside from a public house in one of the aforementioned areas being a wonderful source for finding yourself one of the company’s beverages by the pint, they occasionally sell 22 ounce bottles of specialty brews. But if you want to find Vortex, or a select few of their other beers, regularly, you’ll need to purchase them via six packs of cans.
“The can won us over primarily on the basis that it is better for the beer. I don’t believe anyone can tell if a beer has been in a can or a bottle. You can tell if your beer has been subjected to UV light as it will eventually skunk in even the darkest amber bottle. Bottle caps also do not seal O2 from the beer as well as a properly seamed can lid does. The added environmental advantages to cans such as higher recycling rates, more efficient recycling processes and reduced shipping cost due to weight were all attractive as well. We also recognize that the demographics of the folks who appreciate craft beer also like the outdoors and want to be able to take their beer there.” A river float with a six pack doing the same and right at your side? Sounds like a plan to me.
Jack finishes up detailing the idea behind where you can find Fort George beers and why.
“Our long-term goals include the general area of the Columbia River Watershed. You never really buy a beer, only rent it awhile. Our distribution strategy would have all that beer returning to Astoria, downstream, at some-point.”
I nod my head in earnest agreement, as though to say “I know what you mean.” He doesn’t reply. The interview ends and I’m sitting here, tonight, putting it all together when his meaning comes to me. Here I thought he was elaborating on some great principle of the benefits of recycling or how everything in nature is cyclical. Turns out he was just “taking the piss”, so to speak.