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Since 1998, the Oregon Brew Crew and Widmer Brothers Brewing have hosted an annual homebrew competition where winning homebrew recipes are selected to be brewed at our brewery in Portland.  These limited Collaborator beers are available in small batches, only available locally in the Portland area, and are usually only available on draught.  Today, we announced the release of the latest Collaborator Project beer, Steel Bridge Porter, created by Collaborator winner and homebrewer, Noel Blake.

Today, we sit down with Noel Blake and Rob Widmer to learn more about the Oregon Brew Crew, Collaborator, and Steel Bridge Porter.

1. What about Steel Bridge Porter made it a winner?

Noel Blake, OBC Board Member: Steel Bridge Porter is an amalgamation of the simple and the complex.  On the surface, it is a straightforward chocolaty porter.  Underneath, it reveals a surprising interplay between the dominant chocolate character with toast, coffee, and orange notes.  The mouthfeel is rich, yet the bitterness just assertive enough to lead the finish to the dry side.  It tastes like one of those Starbuck’s beverages that you can’t put down, only with a bit of alcohol.  What’s not to like about that?!

2. How many beers did Steel Bridge Porter beat out to get selected?  And how many beers typically get submitted?

Noel: This beer was first selected in 2000.  We had three different categories that year: “Big Malty”, “Big Hoppy”, and “Big Roasty”.  Each category had about 15 beers and one winner.  In our current format, we have open competitions (no style categories) and about 40 beers with usually 2-4 winners, total.

3. What about this release is historically significant to the OBC and the Collaborator Project?

Noel: Porter has long been an underrepresented styles in the craft beer scene.  One of the original ideas of Collaborator was to push innovation and promote diversity of styles.  This release showed that the OBC was all about the beer and that the Collaborator Project supported that.
Rob: Other than Snow Plow, which was inspired by the very first Collaborator Beer (Milk Stout), Steel Bridge Porter is the first bottled Collaborator beer.

4. How did the Steel Bridge Porter recipe have to change for a professional brewing system?  How has this conversion from homebrew to professional brew usually worked in the past?

Noel: The two ingredients essential to this beer, and without which there would be no Steel Bridge Porter, are Kilncoffee malt and Amarillo hops.  There have been a few minor changes along the way to the base malt and the ratio of some of the ingredients.  This latest version increases the ratio of chocolate malt, which reduces the acidity for a softer mouthfeel.

Rob and Noel

5. What are some other notable beers to come out of the Collaborator Project?  Other bottled winners?

Noel: Some are notable because they were successful in the marketplace, or ahead of their time, or just because I like them.  My favorites are: Hopgnosis, Pre-prohibition Lager, Continuum Brown Ale, CXI Pumpernickle Ale, the first rebrew of the Belgian Dubbel*, Sledcrasher*, Siason Cristophe, and Hallucinator Old Ale. [Disclaimer: * recipes that Noel contributed].  Milk Stout was the first Collaborator beer released and was subsequently produced in bottles as a winter seasonal (Snow Plow), but under the Widmer label and not as a Collaborator.

Rob: Milk Stout will always be one of my favorites – it is delicious and was the first of the project.  The Sour Pale was probably one of the most challenging from a technical brewing standpoint.  It also ushered in sour beer brewing at Widmer.  Other than specific recipes, Collaborator has introduced us to brewing techniques and ingredients that we may not have used otherwise.  Among these: milk sugar, lacto baccilus, and pumpernickel rye bread mentioned below, the ‘Cascadian Dark’ style, and several Belgian styles were also new to us at the time the Collaborator Project introduced them.

6. Why as the Collaborator Project started?  How has its purpose and results evolved over the years, if at all?

Noel: The Collaborator Project was started on a dare by the late Bob McCracken, president of the Oregon Brew Crew, and Rob Widmer.  Bob wondered what homebrewers could do with Widmer’s house yeast and it evolved into a full-scale partnership beginning in 1998.

The mission statement of Collaborator is: ‘To involve members of the Oregon Brew Crew in commercial beer production and to introduce new styles of beer to local beer consumers.’ You have to go back to the late 1990s, a time when some crraft breweries were failing or being consolidated.  Consumers themselves were still drinking craft beer, but they were settling in on their favorite beer and not trying new styles.  Some geniuses were predicting that ‘the microbrew fad is over.’  Homebrewers were keeping the flame of innovation alive, and forward-thinking brewers such as the Widmer Brothers were looking for ways to bring that innovation to market.  Don’t forget that Kurt and Rob themselves started as homebrewers.

Now the landscape is completely different.  Former homebrewers have taken over.  The inmates are now running the asylum and innovation is oozing out of brewhouses all across the country.  Ultra-hop beers are now a competitive sport and souring, barrel-aging, hybrid styles, exotic yeasting, and yes, collaboration brews, are demanded by consumers in the leading craft beer markets.  There is also such a passionate embrace of local and innovate products all across the spectrum and consumers are leading the craft beer market in unexplored directions.

So once, homebrewers leanred from German and Belgians, then US brewers learned from homebrewers, and now Germans and Belgians and English and Italians and New Zealanders are learning from US brewers.  What wil they discover before we do?  It’s disruptive and it’s spiraling out of control.  Lucky us.

So where does this leave Collaborator?  We can claim some small measure of credit for all of this, but we are an increasingly minute player.  So for now, let’s just say we are a bunch of dedicated homebrewers living the dream and wearing some very cool jackets.

7. What makes the Oregon homebrewing community special?

Noel: It’s really huge – there are tens of thousands of homebrewers in Oregon.  Congressman Peter DeFazio brews.  You can talk technical brewing jargon to people you have never met and we are so tightly integrated into the local, small-scale industry.  In Oregon, if you say you are a homebrewer, nobody scoffs and thinks about their eccentric uncle’s exploding bottles.  There is a cool factor to being a homebrewer here, even through we really are a bunch of nerds and geeks.

8. How long have you been associated with the Oregon Brew Crew?

Noel: Since 1995.  I have been working with Collaborator from the very beginning.  Bringing Steel Bridge Porter to bottles has been a fantastic project; very gratifying to me and a signature moment for Collaborator.  I cannot thank Widmer and the great crew at the brewery enough for believing in this beer and treating me as an equal.  I will continue to support the project and I cannot wait for other Brew Crewers to have the same experience.

Rob: The early 80′s.  I have memories of a few other peoepl sitting on folding chairs at the original FH Steinbarts.

9. Any cool stories you can share about the OBC and/or the Collaborator Project?

Noel: It’s the quirky homebrewers: Ken Johnson (now of Fearless in Estacada) wanting to set up a bank of small boiling vessels in the Rose Quarter to properly caramelize his Scottish Ale and Bill Schneller schooling us on historical accuracy.  It is Rob Widmer tasting his first properly sour Lambic (sour beer face!).  It is the amazing judging sessions and venues in backyards or in the balcony of the old Rose and Raindrop.

But without a doubt, the most hilarious scene was Michel Brown brewing the Pumpernickel Ale, which in my opinion is the best beer ever produced by Collaborator.  It also will never be brewed again.  In order to make the beer, Widmer had to special order over 100 pounds of pumpernickel bread.  Michel and Ike Manchester had to carve up this dense-as-a-brick bread into bite-sized pieces to feed into the mash.  Meanwhile, Michel was video blogging the whole ordeal.  Michel: if you read this, please share some video!

Rob: Every Collaborator brewer has been like a proud parent and many have said that participating in the project has been the best thing that they have done with beer and brewing.  I can relate.  When you are a homebrewer, to your non-brewer friends you are a hobbyist; an amateur.  But, when you brew for the Project and can take your friends into a pub and order your beer that is being poured right alongside all of the other wonderful ‘pro’ craft beers your friends look at you differently.  Your position as a brewer is certainly elevated in their eyes – a very proud moment!