It smells like a blueberry muffin. It even tastes like a blueberry muffin. But Great Notion’s Blueberry Muffin is not, in fact, a blueberry muffin. It’s a beer—specifically a Berliner weisse fermented on fresh local Oregon blueberries—part of a balanced breakfast (for Barney Gumbel, at least).
“We all have a sweet tooth,” says Paul Reiter, who co-founded Great Notion with friends James Dugan and Andy Miller. Aside from Blueberry Muffin, the brewery has cultivated a rabid fan base with its ever-changing selection of culinary-inspired beers which include everything from Key Lime Pie gose, fruit-flavored Mochi IPAs, and Midnight Fluff stout, an homage to s’mores brewed with graham crackers and marshmallows.
When Great Notion began operations in Portland’s Alberta district three years ago, pastry stouts were emerging as the hot new trend in the craft scene—sour and IPA versions would have their day soon enough. While thick, heavy stouts were nothing new, pastry versions differed from their predecessors by offering a sweeter base beer along with a variety of adjuncts—added ingredients such as chocolate, nuts, and chili peppers.
“A pastry stout is basically a canvas or a backbone for you to allow adjuncts to shine,” says Horus Aged Ales founder and head brewer Kyle Harrop who made a name for himself traveling the country and collaborating with breweries that have become synonymous with pastry stouts including Bottle Logic, Weldwerks, and Angry Chair. “It’s kind of like having a cake—being able to determine its flavor profile based on the frosting or sprinkles. That’s so fun as a brewer.”
Harrop fondly remembers tasting his first pastry stout, future collaborator J. Wakefield’s whiskey-barrel aged Desperado. “What stuck out to me was just how balanced that beer was and how it took your palate on a rollercoaster,” he says. “It starts off sweet, then you get that chocolate, the chili peppers and then the finish has that dryness from the cassia bark.”
According to Harrop, the increased popularity in local beer tastings and “sharings” amongst friends played a large part in spreading the pastry gospel. “These beers are more appealing for that because they’re really flavorful,” he says, adding that a 22-ounce bottle can easily be split amongst 10 or 15 people.
Reiter attributes scarcity to the pastry stout’s meteoric rise noting they are often produced in small quantities by breweries that “either do no distribution or only distribute to their small geographic region–their city, their town.”
It didn’t take long for these decadent dessert beers to become the driving force behind the industry’s thriving trade and resale market with some limited-release bottles fetching upwards of a thousand dollars. Yes, a thousand. And yes, U.S. dollars.
Regardless of whether it’s worth dropping four figures on a pastry stout (spoiler alert: it’s not) they can be some of the priciest beers to produced, especially if they’re being brewed at Horus.
“I really focus on pushing boundaries and using ingredients that people have shied away from,” says Harrop who charged a hefty $35 a bottle for Goshawk’s Grasp, his first solo release. He’s quick to note that once you factor in the cost of the adjuncts used in the beer—namely in-house roasted hazelnuts and Geisha beans, a.k.a. the most expensive coffee on earth—the price of admission seems justifiable (spoiler alert: it is). Regardless, it sold out in seconds.
As did its follow-up, the equally bougie Goshawk’s Territory brewed with two different kinds of almonds, two different coffee varietals, and cocoa nibs…from two different regions. “I take each one of these stouts very seriously,” says Harrop.
Great Notion is a bit more liberal when it comes to their pastry beers.
A family trip to Target inspired Reiter to use Boo Berry cereal—crunchy marshmallows and all—for a special Halloween version of Blueberry Muffin. For the record, Boo Berry Muffin currently has an “extraordinary” rating on Beer Advocate.
A Pop Rocks beer, however, proved that pastry beers have limits. “It wasn’t a party in your mouth,” says Reiter. “It was a party in the trash can.”
The people have spoken—so long as you’re brewing something tasty, there’s room for everyone and anything in the ever-expanding pastry brewing landscape. Maybe one day there will even be a beer inspired by iconic Carvel ice cream cake Fudgie the Whale. Oh, wait. That day is now—it’s called Fudgie the Beer and its brewed with actual Carvel chocolate crunchies and fudge. God bless you, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company!
“You’ve seen a lot of established brewers suffer because they’re stuck in their old, predictable ways and they’re not adapting to the times,” says Harrop. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to give people what they want at least some of the time.”
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Header image courtesy of Stone Brewing.