If pressed, I’ll usually tell people my favorite single beer that I return to time and time again is North Coast Brewing Company’s Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout.
For several years, my best friend and I would get up at 6 a.m. on Sunday mornings and prepare a huge breakfast for 60 + people. We’d peel potatoes, brew coffee, slice up breakfasts steaks or unpack bacon and sausage. Then we’d load everything up in a big trailer and head down to the Marion Street Bridge in Salem, Oregon. We’d unpack several large camp stoves and some big boilers and start making breakfast as a bunch of hungry homeless guys stood nearby and warmed there hands over frying bacon.
It started as a mere curiosity, a question really. Can you feed 60 + homeless guys every week on a portion of the tips you make serving at a bar? My best friend since childhood asked himself that question and decided to challenge himself to the task. But it was no ordinary breakfast. Just a block away from the bridge, the Union Gospel Mission feeds sober men a diet rich in sweet carbohydrates if they’ll sit and listen to a sermon first. The breakfast Jason created, “Sunday Morning Breakfast,” would feature proteins, specifically in the form of eggs, bacon, sausage, and when we could afford it, breakfast steak. And there was no sermon. As Jason put it, “food is a basic right. You can’t dangle it as a carrot for other things.” And to Jason, good food was more than a right, it was an expression of care that gave value to people that society considers trash.
Jason roped me in early, and we combined our tips to buy large, inexpensive roasts that we cut up on the slicer at the brew pub we both worked at during those years. Our main goal was to give these guys something special, something many probably hadn’t had in years. And over the course of our two-year experiment, we saw that number rise from 60 to close to 200. People would come from as far as Los Angeles and tell us they’d heard about “The Sunday Morning Breakfast.”
Our combined tips were about $60 to $70 at the time. As our needs grew, people would pitch in a new stove or a big boiler, a few bucks here and there, maybe a box of onions from their farm. In two years we never had to reach much deeper than our original $30 each. The needs were always met, and we made fast friends with a bunch of guys, including women and children, who the world would normally cast off.
It would be easy to say the reward in our labors was the smile on their faces and the huge grins when a toothless man would look longingly at a breakfast steak, and Jason’s wife, Erika, would cut it up into tiny pieces he could gnaw on. Of course those were the rewards, how could they not be?
But every Sunday, we’d drive the dirty pots and pans back to Jason’s house and spread them out on the front lawn, where we’d set up an impromptu dish washing station. And as we finished and let the big pots dry in the sun, we’d crack open a bottle of Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout and sit down with our legs in the grass and talk about what the world would be like if everyone knew how easy an economical it was to help others and give them value. It was over those big, roasted malts and that tangy, dry hopped bitterness in that huge beer that we formed some of the thoughts that would drive us both to go to college in our late 20s and early 30s to pursue degrees that we felt could help inform the world about social injustice. Jason studied art and now runs his own design studio, and I pursued journalism and communication. But our conversations over beer in a veritable outdoor kitchen drying on the lawn before us really shaped who we’d eventually become.
We both went our separate ways, he to Portland, Oregon and bigger challenges with a huge homeless population and I to Montana and a whole different notion of wealth and poverty.
Sadly, when we tried to get a few others to take over “Sunday Morning Breakfast,” we found no takers. Despite the $60-a-week cost, no one wanted to take on the vision Jason had several years before. And so we disbanded it, and the men and woman under the Marion Street Bridge are eating day-old donuts and crusty bread leftover from bakeries and listening to sermons to get a hot cup of soup on a cold afternoon again.
Occasionally Jason and I will get together and pick up a few Old Rasputins and relive the “Sunday Morning Breakfast.”
There are a few beers out there that are permanently stuck to memories for me. Old Rasputin brings back one of my favorite memories.
And today, when I saw that Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout X Anniversary Edition scored 100 on www.ratebeer.com, it brought back a flood of memories.
That means that I need to go in search of one of these anniversary beers, set up a video chat with Jason and plan the next version of “Sunday Morning Breakfast.”
Here’s the description from Great Northern Brewing Company.
Good Medicine Imperial Spring Ale now on tap at the Black Star Draught House. A well balanced malty, hoppy ale with quite a kick… a whopping 8% to be exact. Come enjoy one with us.
Methinks I need to make a trip to Whitefish soon.
And it has my name on it. Well, not really. It has the Grizzly Growler name on it, but since I try to fill those rather tremendous shoes by posting under that name, I’ll count it.
So I was finally able to stop into Bitterroot Brewing to try some samples of all their current Brewer’s Whims. And I was not disappointed in the least. The Imperial IPA is everything you’ve heard it is. With four hops with citrusy characteristics, it’s kind of like the Greyhound of beers. Big, fruity with a lighter body than you might expect in a an Imperial IPA, this beer literally knocks your socks off with hop flavor on a very comfortable base. Big alcohol with a nose like walking into a tropical greenhouse, the hop profile on this bad boy takes you back to the early days of Oregon and Washington when they were perfecting the Northwest-style IPAs. But rest assured, this beer retains those magical Montana qualities that have made Bitterroot Brewing such a destination in this state.
The CollaBeeration Porter, a Baltic-style porter that spent more than a little time on bourbon wood, is a fantastic early winter beer. I can only imagine joining my colleagues at the Ravalli Republic as they plot their next snowboard or back-country ski adventure over a few snifters of this. Chocolaty with some vanilla hints from the bourbon, this beer displays some deeper notes characteristic of dark malts like dried fruit and even some coconut that I thought rounded out the bourbon flavors a bit.
The year-old Barley Wine was phenomenal, as only aged barley wine can be. With honey, straw, whiskey, dried fruit and some Euro-style licorice, this beer is a conucopia of flavors. I can only imagine what it would taste liked aged another year or two. Oh, well, some beers you just have to drink now.
And finally, if you can’t get down to Bitteroot Brewing for their Brewer’s Whims, you should be able to get a hold of their Winter Ale, a very well-balanced dark ale with a hint of spices on a very smooth and drinkable malt base. With an effervescent white-ish head and some healthy hop structure, this winter bear harkens to those favorites like Deschute’s Jubalale, but the hop profile makes this one extra special. If you like those big, dark beers that warm you on cold winter days, this would be one to try.
It’s no secret that my favorite Montana IPA is Blackfoot River Brewing Co.’s Single Malt IPA. I’ll often make the long trek up Snowbowl Road in order to grab a pint of it in summer and winter, being that I don’t exactly have easy access to the killer, newish taproom in Helena.
Since I had to make a road trip to Helena for business purposes, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the taproom, where I was fortunate enough to try a pint of the newish Imperial IPA, Blackfoot’s ode to the passage of HB 400. This nine-percent + ABV monster was the perfect sipper for an hour of high-tech talk and catching up with an old friend.
Two things stand out about this beer. The first is that it’s actually an Imperial IPA, not just a weak, 7.0 ABV wannabe. There is plenty of alcohol on the nose, but the classic floral nose and Blackfoot-malt backbone are balanced behind that nose to give you the quintessential Imperial IPA experience. If you’re going to pay $5.00 per pint, you want to be sure you’re having a legitimate big beer.
The second thing that stands out to me in this beer is the fluid structure of the beer. There is no strange, overpowering flavor as I’ve tried in other big beers. The hoppy exterior on the palate is married to that woodsy graininess inherent in Blackfoot beers as all well-balanced beer should be. If it weren’t for the increased alcohol and the big flavors of a higher-than-normal grain bill, this would be any one of the brewery’s classic, clean beers.
I doubt we’ll get any kegs of this big Montana beer over on our side of the divide any time soon, so if I can encourage you to take one road trip before winter locks us in for the next six months, go to Helena and try an Imperial IPA, so say nothing of their other fantastic selections on their growing beer list.
High-octane beer is rising in popularity due to its ability to age well, carry stronger flavors and provide wine-like experiences. Check out this great article on “Big Beers,” and take a minute to answer today’s beer poll. Vote on one of the answers already given or add your own list of favorites.