Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Black Crater

If you’re looking for a moderately challenging hike that’s both kid- and dog-friendly with sweeping views of the Cascades and Central Oregon, then the trail up Black Crater may be the ticket. Located east of the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass, the massive cider cone tops out at 7,250 feet above sea level.

The 3.7-mile trail gains 2,500 feet from trailhead to summit, and though it's listed as “difficult” in William Sullivan’s 101 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades, we encountered numerous frisky canines and young teenagers easily navigating the mostly forested trail to the old lookout site on the summit of Black Crater.

The trail provides a constant climb and gains elevation quickly, while keeping hikers cool through groves of mountain hemlocks, Pacific silver firs and whitebark pines. About halfway up, the trail crests a ridge through a glacier-carved valley to another ridge shoulder into open alpine country. On this day, not a mosquito was in sight.

After several switchbacks through dwarf, weather-beaten pines known as “krummholz” (crooked wood) in German, the trail follows a path through red cinders to a 30-foot chimney at the summit. For those who perservere, the views are rewarding, from Broken Top and The Three Sisters in the south to Mt. Hood in the north.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Floydian Flashback

Cover bands have become a staple of the music world: in rock, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are among the most popular. Having already seen numerous Pink Floyd cover bands, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see Brit Floyd, the self-proclaimed “greatest Pink Floyd band in the world,” on July 13.

When “The Floyd” first hit the scene in 1967, I paid only scant attention. As lead guitar player David Gilmour noted in an interview: early on, the band was more about “psychedelic noodling” than any attempt to write pop songs. That changed in 1973, when they released their seminal album: “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

The album spent a record 917 weeks on the Billboard 100, nearly three times the number of its nearest competitor, “Legend: Bob Marley.” Paradoxically, despite the record’s phenomenal success, Pink Floyd remained a rather anonymous supergroup whose members blended into the shadows -- faceless and amorphous (below).

Like stepping into a time machine, songs from the past can propel us back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, stirring powerful emotions. Psychologists describe the phenomenon as “the reminiscence bump,” an anomaly prompting memories and sentiments -- and the feeling as if you’re actually there in that time and space.

Hearing “Money,” “The Great Gig In The Sky,” “Us And Them” and other epic tunes from “The Dark Side of the Moon” whisked me back to my summer as a tour guide at Crater Lake National Park. As I pondered these reflections during the concert, the memories were vivid, unleashing a flood of remembrances and emotions.

Brit Floyd pretty much nailed it, from “The Dark Side” to “The Division Bell” and all points in between. Yes, music evokes something far more realistic and compelling -- a sensation that simply cannot be reduced to wistful thinking. Indeed, the experience is a dynamic venture that far transcends mere nostalgia.

Friday, July 8, 2016

A (Brief) History Of Bier

Considering my nearly lifelong affinity for that “nectar of the gods” known as beer, I thought it would be a fun and interesting project to review the long history of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage. However, this will not be an unabridged history of beer: more like “the history of beer, according to Gonzo.”

No, instead of a comprehensive review of the third most widely consumed liquid (behind water and tea), this post will provide a personal perspective on the subject -- from the streets of Portland to the bier halls of Munich -- prefaced by a brief overview of beer through the ages. Where to start, but in the beginning?

Imagine, if you will, this scenario: a band of primeval humans, at the end of a long day of hunting and gathering, huddled around a communal fire sharing…beer? Don’t laugh; based on archeological evidence, beer has been part of the human existence since the dawn of humankind, playing a significant role in virtually every culture.

The brewing and consumption of beer dates back several millennia to ancient Babylon, Egypt and Mesopotamia at a time when humans began to settle down, according to anthropological studies. The advent of grain-based alcohol coincided with cultivating cereal grains such as wheat and barley to make bread and beer for sustenance.

With safe, sanitary water largely nonexistent, beer provided both essential nutrients for maintaining health and also antiseptic qualities from the alcohol. Legend has it that soggy grain had accidentally fermented after coming into contact with wild yeast. Some claim the intoxicating mix inspired ancient humans to begin farming.

However, beer as a business didn’t develop until the sixth century when brewing technology and science evolved rapidly thanks to Christian monks who learned to develop high quality beer and closely guarded the secrets of their craft. During medieval times, as many as 500 monastic breweries existed in Germany alone.

Monks ultimately controlled the commercial brewing industry for a time and they excelled at experimenting with ingredients. Some historians credit the monks as the first to introduce hops, recognizing its preservative qualities, as an ingredient in beer, essentially extending the life of the brew.

By the 12th century, feudal lords had noticed the popularity of ales and the profitability of brewing. Soon, they created laws granting themselves exclusive brewing privileges, giving them full command of the industry. In 1447, ordinances were established in Munich requiring brewers to use only barley, hops and water for their beers.

In 1516, the powers-that-be in Bavaria issued the Purity Order (known as “Reinheitsgebot”), effectively taking the lead in regulating ingredients, processes and the quality of beer sold to the public. Many brewers still subscribe to the antiquated law as a marketing tool against mass-produced competitors.

In the U.S., ale dominated the market for the first 200 years until German and Dutch immigrants arrived in large numbers and by the Civil War, lager beer was outselling ale with its appeal to increasing numbers of newcomers. These German brewers -- Pabst, Coors and Busch -- would come to monopolize the American market.

Interestingly, Oregon -- with a climate similar to the hop-growing regions of Germany -- would become the top hops producer in America by 1905. The climate and soil in the Willamette Valley were both perfect for growing hops, with wet springs, dry summers and at least one hard freeze in the winter.

The next decade would become a good news/bad news proposition for brewers in Oregon. Because World War I had devastated European agriculture, the state expanded the production of hops to meet global demands, but in 1916, Prohibition came to Oregon and effectively put smaller breweries out of business.

Prohibition for the whole country began it 1919. To survive, Portland’s largest brewery owned by Henry Weinhard, merged with the Portland Brewing Company, owned by Arnold Blitz, becoming Blitz-Weinhard. Hop growers in Oregon leveraged other farming operations but continued to sell hops for medicinal elixirs.

Fast forward to the late 1960s, when I tasted my first beer: though underage, some of us with more mature features and facial hair could hoodwink clerks at neighborhood stores into selling us beer -- sometimes in large quantities. Our choices were limited to Western beers, primarily produced in the Northwest.

Growing up in the City of Roses, grocery outlets typically stocked Blitz-Weinhard (known simply as “Blitz”), Heidelberg (Tacoma), Olympia (Tumwater), Rainier (Seattle) and Lucky Lager (San Francisco). That was it, until we discovered a precious commodity not available locally known as Coors.

Compared to the beers available in Oregon and Washington, Coors -- brewed in Colorado by another German immigrant -- was a pilsner, smoother and more pleasing to our (still developing) palates than other Western beers. But the “banquet beer,” as it was known, was banned in the Northwest in those days.

As young entrepreneurs, a midnight run to either Hilt, California (608 miles round trip) or Ingard, Idaho (725 miles round trip) was not uncommon. There, we would purchase mass quantities of Coors for both consumption and sale back to Portland. At Crater Lake, we often shuttled Coors purchased in Dorris, California to Portland.

Such was the popularity of Coors in those days. Due to an Oregon statute maintained by organized labor (Coors was non-union), only pasteurized malt beverages in brewery-sealed packages could be sold for consumption. Consequently, it was illegal to stock Coors on retail shelves in Oregon, hence its wide acclaim.

While Coors was easier on the pallet, it was only slightly better than its other Western counterparts in hindsight. In an oddly ironic twist, it would be childhood acquaintances of mine who would help Coors ultimately sell its product in Oregon. Good news for Coors, to be sure. That bad news was their names were McMenamin and Widmer.

In college, I drank my first European beer at a frat party, where someone afforded unlimited bottles of Becks for guests. Also known as Brauerei Beck and Co, the German brew was a big improvement over Western beer, I thought. At Lake Wenatchee, I discovered Mexican (Dos Equis) and Australian (Foster’s and KB) beer.

Meanwhile, the McMenamin brothers would open “Produce Row” under the Morrison Bridge in Portland. The unique establishment was an instant hit with beer loving hipsters and yuppies alike. In addition to Becks and Heineken, a popular Dutch brew, the unique pub offered Guinness on tap -- particularly popular on Saint Patrick’s Day.

From that point on, I would not swill mass-produced American beer again. Sold on European beers, particularly those from Northern European countries like Germany, Denmark, Czech Republic, Belgium, England, Ireland and Lithuania, I would not return to the fold until the microbrewery revolution led by the McMenamins and Widmers.

In 1985, two sets of Portland-area brothers, Mike and Brian McMenamin, and Kurt and Rob Widmer, along with other motivated local brewers, helped write a bill that would change the law in Oregon to allow the combination of brewing and retail sales, a critical component that shapes today’s industry.

True, “The Coors Bill” was a good thing for the Colorado brewer, at least initially. But the microbrewery revolution would change the face of beer drinking in this country. My brush with fame: I attended Jesuit High School with Mike McMenamin and the Widmer boys grew up a few blocks from my childhood home on Mt. Tabor.

After Produce Row, the McMenamins opened “The Lighthouse” in Lincoln City near my family’s summer home and “The High Street Café” in Eugene. The Widmers introduced their “hefeweisen” in downtown Portland, a popular blonde wheat beer in the German style. McMenamin’s featured "Hammerhead Ale," among others.

Today, both sets of brothers have numerous brewpubs and commercial sales outlets, having contributed to Portland's growing reputation as the best beer city in America. Oregon has become the vanguard for craft brewing and has one of the few colleges that condones brewing beer as an academic pursuit (Go Beavers!).

In 2011, I traveled to Munich, home of the annual Oktoberfest, and visited the Hofbräuhaus, one of the oldest beer halls in Europe. During the annual beer festival, Munich swells from 2 million people to 8 million. Also toured the Paulaner (est. 1634) and Spaten (est. 1522) breweries, among the oldest in all of Germany.

These days, I still prefer mostly European beer in bottles (Carlsberg Elephant is a favorite), but with so many choices available from among literally hundreds of microbrews from throughout the Pacific Northwest, I find myself staying close to home when it comes to draught beer. Now then, what's your pleasure? Cheers!