In Collaborator program, creativity goes straight to the tap

Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
by: ©2006 DAVID PLECHL, Jamie Dull (middle) samples Widmer’s version of his home-brewed Ember Ale. Rob Widmer (above) also has a sip of the beer, which will be a pro-am competitor at the Great American Beer Festival.

When a band puts out a new album, it throws a CD release party. Friends of the band are joined by scouts looking for the next big thing. There are congratulations all around. And in Portland, I find, the unveiling of a new beer gets the same celebratory treatment.

Last week, beer-lovers and well-wishers gathered at the Widmer Gasthaus for the release of Ember Ale. The beer was formulated by home brewer Jamie Dull and brewed at the Widmer brewery through the Collaborator program.

Like the television show 'Rock Star,' Collaborator is a competition between talented up-and-comers, and the prize is the opportunity to work with the pros.

Dull's creation is dark but not too heavy; if Black Butte Porter is espresso, this is a nice cup of coffee. It's got a warm brown color and a unique, smoky taste reminiscent of scotch.

'The style is a robust porter, which is an English-style ale,' Dull explains. 'What makes it different is I added some hand-smoked malts to it.' Using his wood-pellet grill and smoker, he smoked about two pounds of malt before adding them to his porter recipe.

It's an unusual but not unheard-of style of beer. There's a traditional German beer called rauchbier that uses smoked malt and dates back to the time when the only way to dry barley was over a wood fire.

Dull, who makes a living installing high-end home theaters and sound systems, has only been a home brewer for three years.

Brew gets coming-out party

The finished product tastes very much like his original batch, Dull says: 'It's turned out fantastic, I think. I'm real pleased with it.'

Rob Widmer, sitting nearby, agrees: 'I think it's great, it's awesome,' he says, adding, however: 'It's not a beer for the masses … it's going to be a bit of an acquired taste.' Meanwhile, pitchers of the mahogany-colored ale have arrived, and everyone is passing around small tasting cups.

Before brothers Rob and Kurt Widmer opened one of Portland's first microbreweries back in 1984, they were members of the Oregon Brew Crew, one of the oldest beer clubs in the country. At the time, home brewers had a hard time getting quality yeast.

Later, once their business was well-established, the Widmers began making their yeast available to members of the club. Rob Widmer says, 'The stipulation was that they give us some of the beer that resulted.' Some of what they got was so good, they wanted to do something with it, and the Collaborator project was born.

Though Collaborator batches are huge by home-brewing standards, they're very small by commercial standards. Ember Ale is available on tap at the Widmer Gasthaus, and will appear in a few other pubs around town before it's gone.

The release party has drawn some interesting characters. There's a man who introduces himself, 'I'm Mitch 'Bockmeister' Scheele - semifamous in my own mind.' Scheele is a home brewer, writes a column for Northwest Brew News, and is the author of Brew Ha Ha, a comic strip. 'It had Fred in it,' he says, pointing to the man sitting next to us, whose striking white mustache is curled up at the tips.

As always, luck helps

The man is Fred Eckhardt, a legendary figure in the Portland beer community. Hair of the Dog Brewing's strong golden ale, called Fred, is named after him, and Rogue Ales recently threw him an 80th birthday party.

A beer writer, historian and aficionado, Eckhardt pronounces Ember Ale 'a big, comfortable beer.' The smoky notes, he says, would make it go well with ham, barbecue, baked beans or bacon.

'We have an incredible number of really good beers being brewed in this town,' Eckhardt says, 'and we also have a fantastic number of breweries inside the city limits. No other city on the planet is even close to us.'

I ask him why. Do we have special talents? More discerning tastes? 'I don't know that we have better taste,' he answers. 'What we have is better luck.'

We're wishing Dull luck tonight, as well. The Widmers have submitted Ember Ale for competition in the Great American Beer Festival, held at the end of September in Denver. A new pro-am category means that Ember Ale qualifies for the prestigious beer industry competition - it could reach rock star status in no time.

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