This was my none-too-clever cry of dismay as the half-gallon jar of beer tumbled over in the back seat of the rental car and began spraying in all directions like an enraged sprinkler. I could only watch in horror as my beloved Wakonda Beachcomber Cream Ale lost its precious fizz in front of my teary eyes.
My sincerest Nancy Kerrigan impression erupted as I attempted to reseal the foamy jar and wrap the whole mess in my sweatshirt. I cradled the leaky vessel as if it were a colicky infant, my spirits plunging down the elevator shaft to the next stage of grieving—as per the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross model.
I like to think of myself as a pretty stoic guy (many others do not). But no sooner had I left the Wakonda Brewing tasting room in scenic Florence, Oregon, bearing my growler of beer, than a sharp turn in the road caused my world to implode as I recalled the words of Wakonda brew-mistress Juanita Kirkham: “Once you open it, you’re going to have to drink it all down.”
Instead, I tightened the lid with every last ounce of vein-popping vigor I could summon and sent off a quick prayer to Silenus, the Greek god of beer, that my special little brew would retain the lion’s share of its carbonated zest.
Wakonda Brewing is barely a blip on Oregon’s beer radar. Producing about 350 barrels annually since 2004, it’s about as mom-and-pop as it gets. Co-owner Kirkham, a friendly and garrulous woman of modest ambitions, is usually parked behind the bar of the wee tasting room, located near the Florence airport in a thoroughly unremarkable office park. Yet this anonymity lies in marked contrast to the worship-worthy beers served at the tasting room, which is open Wednesday-Saturday from 5 PM till 10-ish. It’s worth the Google search, believe you me.
The big kahuna of the bunch is the Beachcomber Cream Ale, a velvety butt-kicker that brings perhaps the finest balance of malt, spice, and fruit accents (orange and lemon principally) I’ve tasted in quite some time—hence my Homeric lamentations over the blown growler. Beachcomber saturates the palate in languorous fashion and dries off after a respectable duration. It’s an awesome bear.
The Timber Beast IPA fairly crackles in the mouth with its judicious blend of hops, though Kirkham tells me that this particular batch “is more like an accidental amber ale.” Accidents happen, but rarely are the results so satisfying.
The two people at the bar looked at me as if I’d just beamed down from an intergalactic roller disco after announcing that, no, I’d never had the Sneaker Wave Pilsner. “It’ll sneak up on you alright,” one of them laughed. I was pressed for time so I was only able to entertain a small sample, but it lit up my palate like a 100-watt bulb. Slightly bitter, full-bodied, and lightly spiced, the Sneaker Wave has potentially addictive properties and I’m afraid that an intervention might be in order if I were exposed to its bountiful charms on a regular basis.
I’m not normally a fan of stouts, but Wakonda’s Black Elk is a very drinkable and earthy brew with deep streaks of chocolate and toffee.
Sadly, I had to bid farewell to Kirkham and her little operation. She tells me that the tiny tasting room was only opened to offset their grain storage expenses, but that word of mouth about the beer has resulted in doubling Wakonda’s output.
Now if we can just get us a pipeline to Portland. There is a part of me, however, that revels in Wakonda’s scarcity. Kirkham and her crew make beer that they like to drink and to hell with market research and the latest fleeting trend. And that’s why it’s so damn yummy.
Last night I polished off the entire growler of cream ale. It gently lightened my spirits and cloaked me in a cozy sense of wellbeing that was snug as Grandma’s quilt.
And this morning? Not even the whisper of a hangover. Thank you Silenus. And thank you Wakonda. As a pre-gubernatorial Schwarzenegger once quipped, “I’ll be back.”