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Previous Pint Pleasures - December 1998

Guinness Eileen

Pyramid Alehouse and Brewery, 1201 First Avenue South, SoDo

It was a windy night when we visited the Pyramid Alehouse. The streets were pretty much deserted except for migrant leaves and bits of litter hitching rides on the gusts. There was even plenty of parking available in the pub's parking lot. I'm not used to seeing Pyramid so quiet and unattended, seeing as how it's situated kitty-corner from the King Dome and directly across the street from the new Safeco Field. This convenient location makes it a popular watering hole for baseball and football fans -- the ones who prefer decent beer, that is.

But I suppose when there are no sporting events the neighborhood is pretty quiet. Located at the north end of SoDo -- a name referring to the area South of the [King] Dome) -- Pyramid is a bit of a walk from the nightly throbbing core of Pioneer Square pub hoppers and beer guzzlers. And this was a Monday night, too, although it's technically the Sunday night of my weekend. But it's still a Monday night for most people.

This Seattle brewpub was originally called Hart Brewing when it opened in 1995. The first Pyramid beer, Pale Ale, was brewed at the original Hart Brewing in Kalama in 1984. In 1992 Hart purchased the Thomas Kemper Brewing Company in Poulsbo and then opened the Seattle brewery three years later. In 1996 Hart Brewing changed its name to Pyramid. In 1997 they opened a second brewery and alehouse in Berkeley on Gilman Street near the UC Berkeley campus. A 45-minute brewery tour, which includes tastings, is available every afternoon at both breweries.

Pyramid offers a Hefeweizen (5.1% ABV), Nitro-conditioned "Irish style" DPA (5.1%), Apricot Ale (5.1%), Best Brown Ale (5.1%), Alehouse ESB (5.6%), Espresso Stout (5.6%), Wheaten Ale (5.1%), Pale Ale (5.1%), and IPA (6.7%). I remember having a pint or two of Espresso Stout at this year's Folklife Festival. It's a good beer for waking you up as well as relaxing you, which may sound confusing and oxymoronic but really isn't. (In reality no coffee is used in the brewing of Espresso Stout; it's the combination of 2-row Pale, Caramel, Munich, Roasted, and Black malts along with Nugget & Liberty hops which gives it that rich, dark espresso character.)

On this particularly windy evening I decided to start with a pint of their winter beer, Snow Cap Ale (6.9%), available from the end of September through the end of January. The previous two years proved Snow Cap to be an excellent, full-bodied beer. This particular pint, however, seemed different: it was so smooth it almost had the presence of liquor in a Zombie, i.e. furtive and dangerously secretive. What's so different about this year versus the past two years? Is it just tonight in Seattle, with a storm with 60-mph winds due any minute?

Actually, this year's Snow Cape Ale seems much like a porter: dry and smooth. It's not particularly malty or hoppy, although it's reportedly brewed with three different malts, Nugget and Imported English Fuggles hops, and two types of specially-roasted barley. I suppose it's not too smooth for a Christmas beer; it's not exactly sleek and devoid of character, like a freshly-poured sidewalk. Instead it brings to mind an asphalt driveway, clear of ice and snow, no hail, no debris. But winter's almost here, isn't it? So where's the ice and snow?

Pyramid's other seasonal beers include springtime's Scotch Ale (6.0%) and summer's Sun Fest Pilsner (4.7%). They also serve Thomas Kemper German-style beers which include Geyser Golden Lager (5.0%), Iron Tub Porter (5.2%), Auction Block Amber (5.3%), Weizen Berry (5.2%), Half Ton Hefeweizen (5.2%), and a winter beer, Happy Cow Winterbräu (6.1%). The food is pretty good, too; I'd recommend the grilled Portobello sandwich with a side of fries.

All day long people were cleaning up Seattle in anticipation of this huge windstorm. Before leaving for the pub Max and I secured our recycling bin with bungee cords so our trash wouldn't end up in the next three states. So now the winds can blow and blow, blowing nothing around on nothing, into nothing, blowing nothing against nothing, because the city's clean as a whistle and there's nothing around to blow. It reminds me of the taste of this Snow Cap Ale. Wait -- is that a tiny drop of bitterness? Oops -- it slipped right off my smooth, clean, storm-prepared tongue.

But who wants to drink something smooth and clean on a stormy night? I want to taste something interesting, bittersweet, full of character, sarcastic, witty, charming...that's what a proper dose of hops can do, balanced well against the malt. So call me a hophead, or perhaps I'm just hopping mad...

Just like the brewpub's music selection surprised me, segueing from rather vapid Steely Dan and Van Morrison into the blues-rich Dinah Washington/Billie Holiday vein, the half pint of IPA I tried next surprised me with its hoppiness, imparted by a liberal use of Nugget Columbus hops: very spicy, like marbles clattering on that wet windy driveway, the reflections of lightning and wavering city lights in the raindrops sparkling against the liquid crystal clatter of the glass marbles of the, um, hops on my tongue. My, my, I do tend to wax poetic for somebody who generally has no patience for poetry. I guess that's what a pleasantly hoppy surprise does for me. Yes, the IPA definitely shows that hop-heavy Bay Area influence, possibly from Pyramid's Berkeley brewpub.

What is it about hops, anyway? Just what are hops? And why are there so many different kinds? I thought I'd research these matters online; unfortunately there are about 50 bajillion different web pages devoted to the subject of hops, so this took a bit of distilling. (Or filtering, I should say -- after all, this is a beer column, not a whiskey column.) If you're interested in learning more, be sure and check out some of the links below.

Basically, the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, is a temperate-growing vine which is a member of the nettle family and a close relative of marijuana. Hops are derived from the flower cone of the female plant.

Along with water, malt, and yeast, hops are an essential ingredient in any beer. They provide much of the characteristic bitter taste of beer which helps to balance the sweetness imparted by the malt. They can also lend a spicy or flowery character and aroma as well. And they act as a preservative in the brewing process, which was their original role in the days before refrigeration, imparting bacteriostatic properties and preventing spoilage during shipment. Most brewers use a blend of hops, sometimes of as many as 12 to 15 different varieties.

There are two basic categories of hops, flavoring and bittering. In bittering hops, high alpha acid levels from the resins produce the bitter characteristic associated with bitter beers. In flavor hops, the beta acids and aromatic oils are important, making the hops less bitter and more aromatic. Each type of hops is added to the developing beer at a different point. The flavoring hops are added at the start of the boiling step; the process of boiling isomerizes their bittering properties and flavors the brew. These hops also bind up extra proteins that would throw a haze in the final product. The finishing or aromatic hops, whose compounds are more delicate than those of flavoring hops, are added to the wort near the end of the boiling because the volatile odorants will escape into the air if boiled too long. Some brewers add a third round of aroma hops after the brew is fermented to dryness. In this technique, called "dry hopping", the hops aren't heated, thus imparting a more intense aromatic character to the finished brew.

Although hops have been used to preserve beer for a long time, their use as a flavoring agent has been widespread only in the last few centuries. Before then beers were flavored with herbs, spices, berries, and other flowers. The first recorded evidence of hops being grown is in 736 AD in Bavaria. By 1516 AD, when the German Purity Law was implemented, hops were required in the production of beer. Since then they have been overwhelmingly preferred as the main flavoring agent of beer.

Besides Germany the five main hop-growing regions of the world include Bohemia in the Czech Republic, Kent in England, Tasmania, and the Yakima Valley in Washington State. Hops are also grown to some extent in Yugoslavia, Poland, Australia, and the state of Idaho. There are many varieties of hops, each having a different mixture of resins and oils and each with different types of flavor and aromatic characteristics. Some -- such as Brewer's Gold (England), Chinook (US), Cluster (US), and Galena -- work best as bittering hops; others -- such as Hallertau (Germany), Tettnanger (Germany), Cascade (US), Goldings (UK), Mount Hood (US), and Spalt (Germany) -- are used as aroma hops. Still other varieties -- such as Fuggles (UK), Saaz (Czech Republic), Northern Brewer (UK), Willamette (US), Lublin (Poland), Pride o' Ringworld (Australia), and Styrian Goldings (UK) -- can be used as either.

There are quite a few lists online which describe in detail the various hops and their flavor characteristics. If you're really serious about your hops knowledge, you can gradually discover what types are used in your favorite beers and seek out other beers which utilize the same hops. But this is only if you've got a lot of time and anal-retentiveness on your hands. If you're a typically busy modern beer drinker like myself, just sit back and enjoy the brews you like, regularly explore that vast world of beers you haven't tried yet, and continue to marvel at the amazing variety of tastes and subtle characters available to today's beer lover.