Beer: Sang Noir Brewery: Cascade Brewing Style: American WIld Ale ABV: 9.5 percent
Whoever said "It's about the journey, not the destination," was A) Probably a dirty, baked-out hippie, and B) Full of it. The journey is filed with long lines, crying babies and handsy TSA employees; the destination has beer. Destination obviously wins.
When I travel, every vacation becomes a beer vacation by default, and a point is made to visit as many local breweries as possible. Beer establishments are windows to the culture of an area; you can learn as much about a town from its beers as you can from its museums.
Take, for example, Portland's Cascade Brewing. Founded in 1998 by Art Larrance (who also established the Oregon Brewers Festival, one of the country's largest craft beer fests), Cascade focuses on oak-aged sour ales. Though originally housed in the Raccoon Lodge and Brewpub -- a family restaurant-cum-brewery named for the critters that once roamed the property -- Cascade recently found a home for its inventory of 400-plus oak barrels in a 7,100 square-foot warehouse in Southeast Portland. About a third of the barrel house was converted into a pub, where the highlights are the two giant oak barrels sticking right through the wall. A patron is chosen to tap one of these casks with a hammer every Tuesday, and the shower of beer that washes over the bar after a missed strike is always a highlight.
Sang Noir is one of Cascade's best brews -- a blend of red ales aged in oak and bourbon barrels for a year before sitting on fresh Bing and sour pie cherries for six months. The beer's name translates to "black blood" -- an appropriate moniker when the brew's deep, almost-opaque maroon hue is taken into account.
Poured into a tulip, burnt orange edges lead into a quarter-inch head the color of brown sugar. Sweet stuff hits the nose first: Caramel, cola, cherry syrup. Tart cherries, sour green apple and lesser amounts of balsamic and oak mingle in the background.
Sang Noir's flavor hits a sour slap to the dome, blending complex tartness with disparate food characters. At once, brown sugar, green apple, balsamic vinegar and milk chocolate can be detected. Swirling the medium-bodied brew about the mouth activates both moderate fizziness and high acidity, with the sharp bacteria gripping the tongue like tiny rock climbers. The swallow brings the oak -- a huge, vinous blast peppered with sour cherry, lemon and vinegar. Granny Smith apple peel and Bing cherries blend in the finish.
With the rising popularity of craft beer, the variety of cans and bottles available in shops flung far from their origin is better than ever (you can actually purchase Sang Noir direct from the brewery online). But craft beer is never better than when enjoyed in the community it's brewed and around the people who brewed it. It's a destination, not a journey, hippie.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.