Golden Memories from the Book & Beer Tour to the USA

Golden Memories from the Book & Beer Tour to the USA

When I signed a publishing deal with Chicago Review Press for Viking Age Brew the editor laid down a condition: I should do a book marketing trip to the USA. I have always wanted to travel to the west coast USA and I instantly thought it’s now or never. The trip to Oregon and Washington came true on July 2019 and I’ll now recap the highlights.

Luckily at the same time, American beer writer Jereme Zimmerman was planning a book tour to the west coast. Jereme was about to market his latest book Brew Beer Like a Yeti that deals with traditional brewing techniques. His earlier book Make Mead Like a Viking wasn’t far off from my work either. Gradually we matched our timetables and we ended up traveling together for two and half weeks along the route Seattle – Bend – Portland – Williamette Valley – Cannon Beach – Astoria – Seattle. This route took us through lively cities, mountains, deserts, fertile valleys all the way to shores of the Pacific Ocean. The featured image of this post show us enjoying the awesome ales of the Ale Apothecary at their tasting room in Bend, OR.

The Book Events

We did together four book events targeted for homebrewers, beer enthusiasts and fans of Nordic culture. The events were at Nordic Museum (Seattle), Base Camp Brewing (Portland, in collaboration with F. H. Steinbart homebrew store), Belmont Station (Portland, in collaboration with the Ale Apothecary) and Skål Beer Hall. The details for these events are given at my Events page.

Each event had around 30–40 participants. The events at the Nordic Museum and Skål Beer Hall were especially popular, likely because they were in Ballard district of Seattle known for its Nordic heritage. At all the events, people in the audience had Nordic ancestors.

Homebrewers brought me some samples of their sahti to evaluate because they didn’t know what sahti is supposed to taste like. These beers were already in the right direction but I guided them to bump up the gravity. Norwegian farmhouse yeast kveik was a hot topic and I donated dried flakes of kveik (Sigmund’s) for both commercial and homebrewers.

Talk on sahti at Nordic Museum in Seattle
The hall of Nordic Museum was a great place to talk about Nordic culture and Nordic farmhouse beer. They even had a hollowed-out sahti kuurna (lauter tun) that has been used at the museum’s sahti brewing courses.
I brought a traditional wooden sahti drinking vessel haarikka for Jereme. Drinking beer out of haarikka became a popular sideshow at the events.

The Highlights

It was an awesome road trip. In addition to the book events, we visited around 20 breweries and chatted with dozens of brewers. Visits also included a malthouse, distillery, cheese farm, and a beer festival. The highlights of the trip were: 

  • Sahti collaboration brew at the Ale Apothecary in Bend, OR. 
  • Mecca Grade Malthouse in Madras, OR. 
  • Upright Brewing in Portland, OR.
  • Hair of the Dog Brewing in Portland, OR. 
  • The brewery tour at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, OR.
  • Lively high-beer-quality brewpubs everywhere: Base Camp, Black Raven, Boneyard, Breakside, Buoy, Cascade, Cloudburst, Crux Fermentation, Culmination, Fremont, Machine house, Reuben’s, Stoup
  • Food trucks along with the pubs. 
  • Oregon Brewers Festival. 
Seth Klann (middle) showed us around the Mecca Grade Estate Malt. This malthouse has the most impressive malting machine I have ever seen. Grain steeping, germination, and drying are done inside the machine shown on the left. The malt is made from the estate’s own grains.
Because speaking about Nordic farmhouse ales is difficult without samples to taste, I definitely wanted to brew sahti at a local commercial brewery. Luckily the Ale Apothecary in Bend, OR accepted my collaboration invitation. The photo shows Seth Klann (left) from Mecca Grade, Paul Arney (middle) of Ale Apothecary and Jereme Zimmerman (right).
We brewed Nordic-Oregonian raw ale (devoid of wort boiling) from Mecca Grade Malt, Bluegrass hay from Mecca, Fir from the brewery’s property, Finnish Dark rye malt (Tuoppi) and Norwegian farmhouse yeast (Sigmund’s kveik).
Sahti brewed at the Ale Apothecary was served one week later at Belmont Station in Portland and 12 days later at Skål Beer Hall in Seattle. That’s very fresh beer! Normally Ale Apothecary ages their beers for one to two years. I was very pleased with the flavor: smooth but robust raw ale with fresh cereals and nice fruitiness.
Measured in production volumes, Deschutes in Bend, OR is among the Top 20 breweries in the USA. It also measures high in quality and their Black Butte, for example, is a world-class porter. The brewery tour going through an actively working plant was superb, as if the brewery had been designed for a pretty walk through the production. In this photo, a brewer is adding hops to the Mirror Pond Pale Ale.
I had the pleasure of meeting great philosophers of brewing. These people know the craft but are also willing to re-think every aspect of brewing to get unique results. One of them, Alex Ganum of Portland-based Upright Brewing is shown on the photo. Paul Arney of the Ale Apothecary is certainly a great brewing philosopher too.
When I started sampling American craft beer in the early 2000s, Hair of the Dog’s Fred was an amazing flavor bomb that stood out. In July I sampled this beer again at the brewpub in Portland and it was still an amazing beer. I also had the pleasure to chat with the founder Alan Sprints about the brewery and Portland’s beer scene.
Oregon Brewers Festival was an unusual beer festival for me. Instead of brewery staff the beer was poured by an army of volunteers. There were around one hundred taps, one tap per brewery or a cider maker. The festival looked more like a park picnic rather than the usual beer geekdom. Most were there just to enjoy beer, and this created a very relaxed atmosphere.
Oregon and Washington have an amazing array of excellent brewpubs. Most of them concentrate on making well the basic beer styles. Good fresh solid beer instead of gimmicks. Often IPA was a flagship and hoppy pilsner was popular too. Several of them combined the brew and the pub intimately, like this Cloudburst in Downtown Seattle.
A food truck along with a brewpub is a great combo. For example, Stoup Brewing (Ballard, Seattle) shown in the photo gets a different food truck three times a week. In Europe, American food is often a label for boring cliches of burgers and Tex-Mex, but on the US west coast pubs greasy American street food is natural: it pairs extremely well with American pale ale and IPA. We ended up eating plenty of burritos, tacos, and other Mexican style food.
Astoria was a picturesque small town on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The town had two (at least) superb brewpubs, Buoy and Fort George. This photo is from the terrace of Buoy where you can watch ships and sea lions while sipping excellent beer.

Conclusions

Viking Age Brew was published in the USA because it is the biggest market for beer information and the beer trends flow from the USA to the rest of the world. The book sales may not justify the costs of traveling, but I think it was important to meet the biggest audience of my book.

I also wanted to see the regions where the craft beer was virtually born, and from where the most craft breweries around the world pick their model of brewing. In Europe, some beer drinkers moan about the dominance of hoppy IPAs, but on the west coast USA I see no point in moaning. IPA is west coast’s own beer style and people drink it regularly in quantities, much like people in Munich drink Helles. Besides, 75 % of the US hops are grown in Washington.

Interestingly, many brewpubs had pilsner – well made hoppy pilsner in the vein of Northern Germany – as a popular alternative for their IPAs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Belgian influenced beers were relatively rare, apart from saison. Saisons, especially hoppier versions of them, are not too big of a distraction from IPA and pilsner. They seem to fit well to the line up of craft breweries around the world.

Sour beers from breweries dedicated to the craft were outstanding. Access to fine oak barrels from nearby wine counties has created a great symbiosis between winemakers and brewers.

I tasted several kveik-fermented IPAs, but I was surprised how little kveik is used outside the hoppy styles. Brewers seemed to be experimenting with kveik and still working on their comfort zone. I guess it is just a matter of time when brewers find the full potential of these yeasts.

Overall, I think Oregon and Washington showed signs of a mature beer culture: people drink more well-made fresh local beer instead of gimmicks. The high density of breweries and educated beer drinkers have created really skilled brewers. I didn’t see new big trends that would spread from the US to elsewhere, and that’s a good thing. I’d rather drink good solid beer rather than trendy experiments.

I will not be making American style beers soon but this trip reinforced the idea of doing my own thing and occasionally rethink the way I brew.

On our way from Seattle to Bend. We spend a lot of time on the road and sceneries were awesome and highly varied: mountains, desert, seaside, evergreen forests, wine and hop growing valleys.


3 thoughts on “Golden Memories from the Book & Beer Tour to the USA

  • November 3, 2019 at 10:52 am
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    Amazing trip! I’m hoping to visit those areas one day myself to sample the local brews.

    Reply
    • November 3, 2019 at 3:11 pm
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      Yes, it was. The density of good breweries is incredible. Even with 2.5 weeks in the area wasn’t enough to experience all interesting breweries.

      Reply
  • November 4, 2019 at 3:08 pm
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    Great write-up, Mika! You’re really making me miss the West Coast now that I’m back east again. We have access to great beer here but the range and density of excellent beers out that way is astounding. I’ll be sure to raise a glass in memory of our trip the next time I make it out that way. Skal!

    Reply

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