Restaurant News & Reviews

First Draught: Fresh hop IPAs, Oktoberfest lagers of Bellingham

A glass of Aslan Brewing’s Oktoberfestbier, a 5.4-percent alcohol Märzen beer.
A glass of Aslan Brewing’s Oktoberfestbier, a 5.4-percent alcohol Märzen beer. The Bellingham Herald

October, to me, means two very important things, and both of them are beer.

One is fresh-hopped beer, the mouthwatering fruit of the fall hop harvest, where wet hops are boiled into India Pale Ale wort within hours of being harvested.

The other is Oktoberfest beer, the bright German-style lagers that the beer stein was invented for.

Luckily Bellingham’s breweries make both of these styles in bunches. Here’s a quick tour.

Aslan Oktoberfestbier. On the same day I filled my growler with this beer, I happened to grab a few bottles of Paulaner’s Oktoberfest Märzen. Just for fun I tasted them side by side, and five times out of six, the Paulaner — a smooth but unexciting lager — left a better impression overall. Only by a bit, though. Aslan has the more interesting beer. Their take on this classic German style has a prettier glow, better clarity, and more depth of flavor. Sometimes honeyed sweetness sticks out in the malt profile; often a note uncannily close to toasted pumpkin seeds came forward. On that level, the beer worked. The finish, however, was a weak point: It’s too muddled and harsh for a style where subtleties are key, and on that level, it’s just passable. C

Chuckanut Fest Bier 2015. You might expect something slightly darker because of the Vienna malt in this lager — darker, like, say, Chuckanut’s Vienna lager. Besides, a fest bier, you figure, should have a certain look to it: rich, autumnal, amber. Not here. Instead, we get a clear, bright golden beer, something closer in flavor to Chuckanut’s Kölsch, but a notch snappier, a notch sweeter, and a few notches bigger, with a fresh, clean light hop aroma. Like the best stuff the brewery makes, it’s nuanced if you look for it, but drinkable if that’s all you’re looking for. A-

Kulshan Fresh Hop IPA. We all have those friends who say, “Oh, I don’t really like hoppy beers.” They will not like this. Leave them out of this. This isn’t about them. This IPA is something like Kulshan’s signature Bastard Kat in overdrive, with a more untamed mouth feel, a deeper golden-orange hue and the backbone to match, and a whole lot of wet hop flavor from three mainstays of the Pacific Northwest IPA: Cascade, Centennial (aka “super Cascade”), and Citra. The hops were tossed in the brew kettle within 12 hours of being picked in Yakima, and that extra freshness shows. A brilliant, complex aroma suggests most of those were late-boil additions, and that keeps the body from being too brutal. The label says 57 IBUs. I’d believe 87. Some people love this style because it’s so refreshing. To me, however, Kulshan’s fresh hop has too big of a feel to be especially refreshing. Sometimes you’re not looking for refreshing, though. You’re just looking for fresh. B+

Wander Eldo Fresh Hop IPA. This one packs a front-loaded wallop of fresh, wet, high alpha acid El Dorado hops, hops, hops. Sixty-seven IBUs underestimates the Eldo’s hop-bursting fullness. Out of the tap it pours a cloudy golden orange, with a sticky white head of medium density. Juicy and grassy, in this critic’s opinion, are adjectives that get thrown around too often to describe a fresh-hopped beer. But what other words are there? Grassy, resinous, bitter, juicy, orange-citrus sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly what I’m getting on the palate. Such a dense, point-blank bouquet can grow fuzzy if you don’t take your time with it. Sip slowly. Like Kulshan’s take on a fresh hop ale, I found it too hefty to be as refreshing as I’d hoped, but this one still has a dry, sweet finish that invites you back for more. B

In other brews …

— Bellingham breweries snatched up three hard-earned awards at the Great American Beer Festival. Chuckanut Brewery took home the Gold Medal for their Kölsch, for the second time, and grabbed the Bronze for the brewery’s highly decorated Dunkel. Meanwhile, Wander Brewing won the Gold Medal in the barrel-aged category for their Wild Warehouse, a farmhouse ale aged in local chardonnay barrels. This one’s not for sale at the moment, but sources tell me another batch should be aged and ready to go by spring.

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or