This January marks an unusual milestone for Sunriver Brewing Company. Prior to 2014, all of Sunriver’s beers had been contract-brewed with the now-defunct Phat Matt’s Brewing, based in Redmond. When head brewer Brett Thomas was hired in mid-2013, he began the build-out of the new brewery to bring the production of the beers in-house. On Jan. 1, 2014 he brewed the first beer on the new system.
Fast forward three years, and Sunriver brewing operations under the helm of Thomas have greatly expanded capacity, added a sour barrel program and racked up a number of awards for several of its beers, notably Fuzztail Hefeweizen and Rippin Northwest Ale.
There are no plans to commemorate the January brewing anniversary, but the Sunriver team hasn’t been resting on their laurels. “We’re channeling the bulk of our energy into the expansion and growth of the production brewery,” Thomas said. That means adding tanks and building out the brewery footprint, allowing them to augment their range while maintaining quality across the core brands.
Vicious Mosquito IPA leads the company’s year-round lineup, and while it’s a standout example of the style in a field full of India pale ales, their other two non-IPA year-round beers are gaining attention lately. Those beers, Fuzztail and Rippin, earned a combined total of six awards in 2015, and were the first beers to be packaged in cans.
“Fuzztail Hefeweizen started as a summer 2014 seasonal,” said Thomas. “(Sunriver distributor) Bigfoot had demand for it, and asked for it year-round.”
In mid-2015, Thomas overhauled the recipe, “wholesale changes” designed to improve drinkability and streamline the brewing process. “It’s the most work we’ve put into any of our brands,” he said.
Fuzztail is classified as an American-style wheat ale, in the vein of Widmer Hefeweizen which many consider the standards bearer for the style. Unlike German-style hefeweizens (translated roughly to “wheat with yeast”), which emphasize phenolic aromas and flavors reminiscent of banana, bubblegum and cloves, Fuzztail is mellow and bready with a subtle note of spicy citrus-zest hops. The hazy appearance is due to suspended yeast which contributes a fresh-baked bread character.
As a long-time fan of Widmer Hefeweizen, Fuzztail hits all the right notes for me. It’s crisp and clean with toasted wheat and bread crust flavors, a light rye-like spiciness, with a refreshing and appetizing finish. If you prefer German accented wheat ales then you may not be excited about this ale; however, it did win a gold medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup — no small feat for an international competition featuring over 6,000 beers.
For Rippin, introduced early last year, the brewery’s goal was to brew a beer with the “amazing dank hop flavor of an IPA, but the easy drinking nature of a pale ale.”
Thomas is a bit more direct: “Rippin was purpose-built to the American-style strong pale guidelines,” he said. Originally conceived of as a session IPA, the recipe evolved in response to market demands to fit that strong pale niche: stronger than a traditional pale ale but lighter than an India pale ale, and packed with hop character.
Calling it a “Northwest Ale” rather than “pale” was an intentional choice as well.
“It fits with our lifestyle and what we wanted to represent with this beer,” Thomas said. It was also a savvy marketing move, as traditional pale ales and even session IPAs simply do not sell as well in the retail market.
Judging by the four awards the beer won in 2016, including a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in the third most-entered category (American Strong Pale Ale), Sunriver hit the target.
The first thing you notice is the aroma — Rippin is brightly hoppy and full of citrus and tropical fruits such as pineapple and tangerines, with a touch of tobacco. A gentle, lightly toasty maltiness provides the platform to allow the hops to shine.
That fruit salad character extends into the taste, with bursts of honeydew melon and pineapple tempered by the peppery spiciness of dandelion greens. The malt bill is deceptively simple yet clean, grainy, and softly biscuit-like. The beer is amply hoppy, though minimizes the bitterness in favor of the more complex, juicy flavors. A crisp finish leaves a thirst-quenching impression which entices you to sip more.
Both Fuzztail and Rippin are excellent beers, flavorful, drinkable and sessionable — qualities that are well-suited to canning, which has become an increasingly popular packaging option among Northwest craft brewers. And the good news is they are great year-round — whether camping at the lake or after shoveling snow.
—Jon Abernathy is a local beer blogger and brew aficionado. His column appears every other week in GO!