Restaurant News & Reviews

Oyster stout and other strange brews from Aslan, Atwood, North Fork

Have you ever been to Electric Berryland, by way of North Fork Brewery? Note the carbonation bubbles jumping above the glass.
Have you ever been to Electric Berryland, by way of North Fork Brewery? Note the carbonation bubbles jumping above the glass. Bellingham Herald

Strange beers have a kind of magnetism I’m powerless against. That’s because a huge part of the fun in craft beer is exploring new stuff, and thanks to inventive brewers and a growing consumer demand, we have access to wilder, crazier stuff all the time.

A decade ago, you would struggle to find a seven-malt, nine-hop, 125 IBU IPA. Or an oak-aged peach beer with Brett. Or a saison with flaked wheat, golden naked oats, spelt, de-bittered black malt, Vienna malt, pumpkin, brown sugar, garam masala, ground mace, fresh ginger, coriander, graham crackers, Madagascar vanilla beans and hazelnuts.

Now, we can gamble our hard-earned $5, or $10, or $30 on beers such as this. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.

Here in Bellingham, every now and then, our brewers put out a beer that makes me wonder, ‘How are they going to pull that off?’

This month, I rounded up some local beers that are a little out there: a farmhouse IPA from Aslan Brewing, an oyster stout from Atwood Ales and a double barrel-aged raspberry sour from North Fork.

Aslan French India Farmhouse Ale. I’ve heard reasonable people say (read: complain) that with craft beer, everything is an IPA. We have India red ales, India pale lagers, imperial Belgian IPAs, black IPAs, sour IPAs, triple IPAs. It’s exhausting.

Yet some hopped-up hybrids actually work well, such as this farmhouse IPA from Aslan. The stat sheet says it’s 6.2 percent alcohol, 55 IBUs, five hops: Bravo, Cascade, Jarrylo (a new high-alpha hop), Mosaic and Sterling. A finger of crisp white head is slow to fade on a glowing cloudy gold body. Viscosity is a little thick, for the style, while it’s peppery up front and spicy on the back end.

Throughout is a tasteful spectrum of citrus hop flavor – lemon rind, grapefruit, pine resin. The trick seems to be packing in all of that without overbittering and without clashing with the farmhouse funk. For a beer with so much going on, this is impressively drinkable. B+

Atwood Ales Dark Harbor Oyster Stout. A bittersweet aroma of chocolate and cold-brew coffee comes first, with mellow roasted malts on the palate. A thin tan head recedes to a lacing, without much retention. The body calls to mind the consistency of a Guinness Extra Stout, a little thin on first impression but about right for a 5 percent stout. It’s not near as inky as, say, the oyster stout from Iwate Kura of Japan. And it’s not near as briny as a Briny Deep by Mollusk Brewing in Seattle.

Tasting blind, you wouldn’t know oysters played any part of this until someone said something. A second bottle seemed to benefit greatly from even two months of age. This is a beer that, I imagine, would go well with oysters. So Drayton Harbor Oyster Co., which supplies the bivalves, might be on to something when they started serving this beer at their oyster bar. Come to think of it, it would be a great complement to many foods. On its own, it’s not too explosive. Dark malt subtleties give it just enough character to make things interesting. C+

North Fork Electric Berryland (2015). Wine people won’t flinch at a $25 price tag, but with beer, that bottle better be special. Here, the process could make Rube Goldberg blush: two sour beers, one red, one blonde; aged in zinfandel barrels; blended; aged again in a second red wine barrel; fermented with local raspberries, 2 pounds per gallon; bottled, caged and corked. So that’s special.

Last month, a server told me they were sold out of this one, but I guess they found some in the back a few weeks later. “Two, please.” I chilled one bottle for a day, and the other sat in the fridge for a week. Popping the cork releases a burbling haze, like dry ice. A pour into a pint glass left almost no head, while tiny bubbles jumped into the air an inch above the rim. I’ve never seen that level of activity in beer – not like that.

Hues of deep purple and scarlet, like crushed raspberries, glow when it’s held to the light. The aroma is surprisingly close to regular cranberry-raspberry juice. Pouring the bottom half into a snifter left fewer bubbles and a soft pinkish head. (The second bottle poured much more evenly, with looser bubbles of pink head from start to finish.) An aggressively acidic raspberry tang melds with deep, beautiful, understated Brett flavor. Separate, those elements would be pretty dang good; together, they’re like jigsaw pieces, bringing a full broad picture into focus. What I love most about North Fork beer is a feeling of the human touch, and this one feels especially nurtured. A-

In other brews …

A while back I gave Aslan’s Disco Lemonade, a Berliner Weisse, a rough review in this column. This month I gave it another shot, and without a doubt, it has come a long way. So if you’re in the neighborhood and haven’t been to Aslan in a while, give it another chance. Atwood Ales released Mos Saison, a dry-hopped farmhouse ale with a tenth of its barley grown straight off the family farm on Sweet Road.

Meanwhile, a Pilsner on tap at Boundary Bay uses 100 percent malts from Skagit County. It’s not a brewery per se, but man, the Copper Hog recently landed some great Belgian beers, stuff you’d struggle to find fresh on tap here – or anywhere on the West Coast. Take a look.

Construction on Chuckanut’s new campus, South Nut, has made huge strides in Skagit County. It looks almost done! Speaking of satellites, have you been to Kulshan’s K2 lately? So much good stuff on tap: a Maibock, an ESB, a Belgian wit, a dry stout on nitro, and so on. North Fork will likely have a revamped beer menu by the time this goes to press.

Stones Throw brewed up a beer for the city’s energy prize. Structures Brewing splurged on 500 pounds of fresh raspberries and 250 pounds of blackberries, so keep an eye out for some fruit beers. Wander Brewing put out a new IPA, CoSMos, that uses Comet, Simcoe and Mosaic hops.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276,