Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deschutes Brewery, Portland: Review: Bigger isn't Always Better

A very popular, high-volume watering hole and restaurant, Deschutes Brewery is bound to let a lot of details slip through the cracks. As an allergic eater, this should be a red flag, or at the very least, a yellow one. I have been to Deschutes several times now, and my overall take is--meh. 

I first discovered Deschutes Brewery by mistake. David and I stopped into the Pearl District location on July 4th of last year (me with two slices of Udi's gluten-free bread stuffed into my purse, planning to order a glass of wine and a burger--no cheese, no bun--like I always do.) The place was swarming with beer drinkers and buzzing with anticipation for late evening fireworks. Normally, David and I would leave a restaurant so teaming with bodies and with so few seats, but we were lucky enough to slip into two bar seats while a young couple got up to leave. 

And then the inevitable happened. While scanning the beer menu, the words "gluten-free" caught my eye. Joy swelled within me, until I was radiating pure excitement at the thought of sipping a beer for the first time in years. I placed my order with a very rude female bartender, but an untouchable elation had already spread across my face, and I beamed at her scowl with unwavering glee, which probably annoyed her even more. But I didn't care.

Half-pint of the gluten-free IPA (photo taken in March of 2012).

She returned with a caramel colored, frothy headed brew in a glass that had a thick rubber band wrapped around it. This is how the staff distinguishes regular beer from the single gluten-free option, which changes every few weeks. The rubber band was clever, yes, but part of me felt exposed. Anyone who understood the system would know that I was the gluten-free person in the restaurant. On the other hand, I also found camaraderie with the people who were drinking out of rubber banded glasses, and we toasted one another for finding a frothy oasis in a long-time beerless desert.

My first gluten-free beer, after the beerless years, was a fragrant, well-balanced pale ale with a rich body. Naturally, I wondered why I hadn't heard about Deschutes's gluten-free option before.

The pager went off, meaning our table became available, and soon we were ushered to the main attraction: dinner. Our server was energetic, organized, and well-educated. Noticing the rubber band around my glass, he set a gluten-friendly menu down on the table and then explained that the kitchen had a separate fryer and preparation area set aside for gluten-friendly food assembly. But they were not a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, so risk of mild contamination still existed. Unhindered, I ordered the elk burger without the cheese.

Gluten-friendly Elk Burger with fries (photo taken in March of 2012).

The elk burger comes on a house-made gluten-free focaccia. The first night I had it, the bread was fresh-baked. It was spongy and moist, and it held together, even after it absorbed the juice from the meat. The burger was juicy, full-flavored, mouthwatering deliciousness. I ate the whole thing and let David eat most of my fries.

I was in allergy-friendly heaven that night. My eyes sparkled for days beyond. I couldn't stop thinking about Deschutes's gluten-free beer, and I started making excuses to go there. All my excuses were refuted by David, who didn't want to spoil the awesomeness by burning ourselves out on the Deschutes experience. I went away telling all my gluten-free friends to go to there.

Since then, I have wished I could repeat this happy story again and again. Unfortunately, my first night at Deschutes was the pinnacle experience. It slid steeply downhill from there.


The second time I noshed at Deschutes, I came away half-hearted. The same rude female bartender poured my my first beer, which was a satisfyingly malty, gluten-free amber brew. I shared the burger with a friend, thinking that it was going to make a believer out of him. The bread was old, and its ingredients tasted imbalanced. The burger was over cooked. The best way to describe it--our burger was a tool used to soak up some of the booze from our systems.


I tried it again, this time craving the beer, but not feeling excited about the burger. We met friends, and I ordered an amazingly crisp, golden ale, similar to a wheat beer. By this time, I had learned to order the half pints, because the high alcohol content really goes to my head. Like always, I ordered the elk burger. Sadly, it was so rare and bloody that I had to send it back. I told the server not to worry about having them make me a new one. "Tell them to slap it on the grill for a few seconds and call it good," I said.

They made me a new one, and it came out in less than a minute. I thought they sent me somebody else's burger on the fly. There's no way they could have grilled me a medium-rare burger in less than sixty seconds. Knowing a little about meat (thanks to my Chef husband, David), I let it rest for a few minutes before cutting in. It was just as rare and bloody as before, literally bleeding out onto my plate.

Very apologetic, I sent the second one back.

This time, they sent the same burger back (cut in half), way overcooked. Stabbed with toothpicks, my two halves lay between the same two slices of bread I sent back, now dried out and crumbly. I would have been cool with that, but my pathetically overcooked burger came to me on a small plate with no accompaniments whatsoever. It was an obvious F-You to the picky eater in the restaurant. My server, horrified, ran to the kitchen, grabbed a fresh plate of lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce, along with a fresh plate of fries, and came running back to the table apologizing emphatically. I told her it wasn't her fault, but I made sure to let her know that I read (loud and clear) the kitchen's response to its own mistake--made twice!

I strongly considered never going again. But Eating Friendly hadn't written an article about Deschutes. (I kept forgetting to bring my camera to dinner.) There would be another visit, of course, but it would take me a while to return without resentment.


David and I met a friend at Deschutes at the end of March, 2012. I gave the gluten-free beer and elk burger one more try. For the first time, the beer was the disappointment. It was a lovelessly crafted, flat, heavy, imbalanced IPA that tasted a little like sausage. Having no other choice, unless I wanted to switch to wine, I stuck with it.

The burger, on the other hand, was just fine. It wasn't amazing, like I'd had it the first time; and it wasn't bland, like the second; and it wasn't inedible, like the third. The bread was aged, but reheated, and it was nicely textured and flavored. It stayed together, like before. The elk was cooked through, but juicy. (I learned to go for medium and hope for the best.) All-in-all, I came away feeling mildly satisfied, but certainly not dazzled.

My overall take on Deschutes:

Deschutes is a huge restaurant with a high employee turnover rate. The service staff in general comes and goes like the tide. I assume the kitchen staff waxes and wanes in the same way. The original chef, who enjoyed the challenge of cooking for allergic eaters, is probably gone by now. This makes for inconsistent service and product quality, which can be very good at times, but also, very disappointing.

If that isn't enough to conjure doubt, this might: rude service staff won't care about the consequences of celiacs ingesting a mislabeled beer. Rude kitchen staff will obviously retaliate when under pressure, and the results for highly sensitive types could be devastating.

While I would like to believe that Deschutes is a safe environment for sensitive consumers, for my own reasons, I have to tell you that you should partake with a strong degree of caution. If you go there, keep yourself safe by communicating your level of sensitivity ahead of time, and by asking for the most experienced server's section. Try to be nice about it, but don't expect niceness in return from anyone but the person who's counting on receiving your tip.

As always, my friends, be well and enjoy Eating Friendly.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Harvester Brewing: Review: Local, Dedicated, Gluten-Free

James Neumeister (Left) & John Dugan (Right)

When I first heard about Harvester Brewing, the pioneer brewmasters who started the first dedicated gluten-free (GF) beer brewery in Portland, my cheek muscles nearly seized from the sudden grin blossoming on my face. I've combed the GF beer aisles of Whole Foods and New Seasons before, and I've tried several damn good GF beers from other parts of the world. But you must know this: Portlanders have a thing for local, and I am right there with them. I am proud to know that our beermongering city has come of age and joined the GF movement grown-up style.

Harvester had a tasting last night at Belmont Station--part beer retailer, part beer bar that boasts of having over 1,200 beers in circulation. I was happy to see that our new beer makers were getting a lot of attention from GF and Non-GF drinkers alike. Harvester featured three beers: Pale Ale, Dark Ale, and Experiment Red Ale. Each beer is made of the same ingredients: chestnuts, GF oats, sorghum, cane sugar, hops, and yeast. The chestnuts are roasted to varying darknesses, which changes the consistency, color, and flavor of the beer. When asked if he planned to use other grains, head brewmaster, James Neumeister, said they were willing to experiment with other grains, including buckwheat, something I've always wanted to taste in a GF beer.

I was told that the GF oats are grown in Montana on an isolated farm. That means their are no gluten-containing grain farms in the vicinity. If that isn't enough, the GF oats are sent to a facility in Seattle for testing before making their way to Harvester Brewing. That tells you how serious these guys are about keeping customers safe.

Harvester is a two-man operation. It was started by James Neumeister in 2009, and he was joined by his partner, John Dugan, in May of 2011. Together they are creating a variety of beers that make taste buds, and sensitive tummies, very happy.

Here's the thing. These guys are just getting started. Their beers are good, but they will improve as the company and its brew masters mature with time. We need to keep our eyes on these guys, and support them by buying their products, and by asking our local beer retailers and restaurants to carry their products. If we do this for them, we will have delicious, dedicated, GF beer flowing copiously throughout our lovely river city. And people like us will be able to order a GF beer at any location we damn-well please, thank you very much!

The following are my tasting notes for each beer:

Experiment Red: An intense ale with dark, smoky, and bitter notes, with a hint of molasses in the mouth. The beer was not well balanced or very complex, and it left a bit of an aftertaste, but it had a lot of potential. I expect this one to mature as they master their technique.

Pale Ale: A refreshing, crisp, aromatic beer with a rich, silky texture. A well-balanced brew that is ripe for summer BBQs. I heard that Steve's Cheese will be selling Harvester, and I hope this fine beverage will be on the menu. It will stand up to sharp and pungent cheeses like a champ.

Dark Ale: A delicious, creamy, smoky beer with molasses on the finish. It isn't quite balanced just yet, but it is very drinkable now, and I am confident that the Dark Ale is going to be a future prize contender.

You can find Harvester beers at all New Seasons grocery stores (accept Arbor Lodge, so ask for it) and at Bridgetown Beer House, Saraveza (Yeah!), Food Front Coop, and more. Click here for a complete listing. As of right now, the beers are being sold for $5.99 per bottle. For the GF crowd, you know that's a good price. So go and get you some, and remember to drink responsibly. Make someone else drive.

Click here to "Like" Harvester's Facebook page.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bob's Red Mill: My New Heroes are Bob and Charlee Moore

The store sells every single product Bob's Red Mill produces, and it houses a restaurant that serves many of their products, including gluten-free mixes and baked goods. (The restaurant is not GF certified.)

In the past, whenever I heard the name Bob's Red Mill, I thought of grain products packed in little plastic pouches, a red barn, and paintings of a bearded man who looked a bit like Santa Clause. I knew that Bob's Red Mill was like a grain sanctuary, and that they sold gluten-free grains and mixes as well as many other products. I knew that lovers of Bob's whole grains spanned the U.S., but I didn't know that demands for Bob's quality products come from around the globe, and that their labels are written in other languages, including Arabic.

I certainly didn't know anything about Bob Moore and his amazing wife Charlee, or their story of overcoming tragedy, or their devotion to humanitarianism. On our way to tour Bob's Red Mill, I had it in mind that I would write an article about the Whole Grain Store and the Mill itself, but that changed when I learned about these two pioneers of industry.

Bob surprised us with a visit at the end of our tour. I swear the man just appeared. It was almost like seeing Santa Clause in person. I was star struck, but I think I hid it well. It turns out, I wasn't the only one.

It was a dreary Monday morning drive to the store, and my companions and I had a burning anticipation for a whole grain breakfast and a cup of coffee.

I don't think any of us were prepared for what we saw when we walked through the sliding front doors. Shelves stocked with every Bob's Red Mill product you can think of fanned out across the front of the building. In the back right corner of the building, wooden tables dotted the space. A loft space up above ran almost the entire periphery of the building, and people sat and ate their breakfasts while looking down upon the bustling store. Seriously friends. If you've never been to the Whole Grain Store, you really should go. It's like going back in time, yet modern-day conveniences provide you with creature comforts. And some (but not all) of Bob's products cost a lot less at this store than they do at other grocers, such as Fred Meyer, Whole Foods, and New Seasons.

We ordered breakfast at a counter in the back of Bob's Whole Grain Store, took a number, went to our table, and sipped coffee in anticipation. I ordered the "wheat-free," vegan pancakes--made from the gluten-free pancake mix--and a slice of turkey ham. (The pancake mix is made in Bob's dedicated gluten-free facility, but the restaurant is not certified, so they have to call all their gluten-free products "wheat-free" in the restaurant.) My pancakes were cakey, a little dense, and delicious. They endlessly drank maple syrup like sponges, but they never seemed dry. The turkey ham was good, but the pancakes trumped the ham so I gave it to my neighbor.

Everyone else at the table ordered Bob's Favorite Breakfast: two eggs any style, corn grits, and biscuits. I thought it was weird that everyone ordered the same thing, because the restaurant menu is huge, and it offers a gluten-free and a vegan menu. Plus they had a specials board. Some of my companions ordered cereal and Belgian waffles to go with their meals. They said the waffles were a little chewy, but they said nothing about the cereal, which probably meant it was good. Everyone confirmed that the biscuits (shown above) were more like whole wheat rolls than flakey biscuits, but they said they were good. Judging from what I saw, my order was the better choice.

The dedicated gluten-free mill. 

Arriving at the mill a few minutes late, and stuffed, we were just in time to hear Kristie, our tour guide, explain how Bob recently willed his entire company to his employees. That certainly got my attention. According to Kristie, every employee is eligible to received a gifted share of company profits. It's entirely voluntary. (Who wouldn't volunteer to receive extra income?) Starting this march, they will begin collecting a share of the profits as partial owners. This happens once a year until they either quit or retire from Bob's. Employees have to sell their shares back to the company when they leave Bob's Red Mill.

Kristie then held up a book titled, "People Before Profit." In it, Bob's business (and probably his life-) philosophy are illuminated, a philosophy he and his wife, Charlee, both seem to agree on. I haven't read the book, but I got the impression that it was about using company profits to create a thriving community, starting with employees, and branching out into the local, and perhaps extended, communities to enrich the lives of others. 

Kristie wore a twinkling expression of love an admiration when she spoke about Bob. It was a thought provoking look. I have never once admired nor loved one of my employers, although I've liked one or two. I certainly haven't loved an employer with my heart like Kristie does. I was beginning to think Bob really was Santa Clause.
(I regret not getting a picture of Kristie. Sorry folks.)

The history of Bob's Red Mill goes back to the '60s. Bob, whose DNA is practically fortified with a family line of grain milling, became passionate about milling stones and their reputation for producing quality grain products. He opened his first mill in California with his wife, Charlee. That worked out for a while, but good ol' Oregon was the ultimate destination for Bob's mill.

A picture of Bob sharpening a Mill Stone. Informative pictures like this one decked the walls of the area dedicated to the tour. 

In 1978, Bob bought an old mill in Oregon City, and for years he milled the grain while Charlee ran the store (in pictures, it looked like a quaint Amish store) and did the bookkeeping. People came from miles around to buy Bob's quality grains, until 1988, when the mill burned down in a fire. At 63, Bob had to rebuild their entire operation from scratch. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the new Bob's Red Mill was erected in Milwaukie, OR ten years later. And today the company continues to expand at an approximated 24% annual rate.

Bob posing with the restaurant teams of Park Kitchen and Bent Brick. I tagged along on behalf of Eating Friendly. 

The thing is, I can tell you how clean both the gluten-free and main facilities are. I can tell you that the corn they process is non-GMO, organic, grade-A corn sourced from only two farms in the entire U.S. I can tell you that all their products are superior quality. I can tell you that stone milling keeps the temperature of the grain cool enough for it to retain its vital nutrients. (Anything above a certain temperature (approx. 110 degrees) can chemically alter the grain.) I can tell you that they store their grains in two-ton, one-use bags that have handy ties at the bottom, which allow them to funnel their products into smaller bags at appropriate production times. I can tell you that their process time--from receiving, to processing, to shipping grain products--is about three weeks, which means fresh. I can tell you that they process and sell other products, such as beans and seeds (including chia and flax). I can tell you that they test all their gluten-free grains at regular intervals to provide safe, quality ingredients to sensitive eaters. I can tell you that they have an on-sight kitchen that conducts regular product testing, and that the staff really enjoys participating in quality control, and that the successful recipes make it into a cookbook that is sold at the Whole Grain Store.

But I want to tell you that, in the middle of Bob's mill, next to the break room, sit two upright pianos. Sheet music rests on the lip of each piano. Both instruments are in tune. Kristie told us Bob had been playing when the first of the tour group arrived, and we had just missed it. Apparently Bob has regular play-offs with one of the staff members named Nancy. The pianos are available to anyone who wishes to play during break. I can tell you that Bob seemed like a nice man with a healthy dose of patience. He comes to the mill and the Whole Grain Store just to meet his customers.

I also want to tell you that Bob's sends clean, left-over grains to a shelter that provides homeless people with baked goods. Their two-ton, one-use bags are sold to farmers and similar business owners that need bags for grain storage. According to Kristie, "nothing is wasted" at Bob's Red Mill.

I came away from the tour thinking about Bob and his wife Charlee, two people who followed one man's passion, who opened and ran a humble grain mill and store together, who raised a family on top of all that, who persevered and started over late in life, and who have built a little world of their own in Milwaukie, OR, which behaves like a living time capsule. These two people have touched the lives of many, and they continue to change lives for the better every single day they are alive. I am glad I got to see that the 1% includes goodhearted people like Bob and Charlee Moore.


Find a list of Gluten-free products produced by Bob's Red Mill.

Bob's famous packaging: the four bag box that holds the products upright.

The Gluten-Free Corn Stone Miller. It can detect when a corn grain is too big for packaging. That grain gets picked up and cycled back into the pile with larger kernels. The hulls are collected and sold to farmers for animal feed.

A Stone Mill Wheel. Bob usually sources them from Denmark. He said he has about 100 in use on-site.

An old Stone Mill. You can see the wheels at the bottom. Bob said the wheels never touch, or at least, they're not supposed to. When they do, it ruins the grain. If you're wondering if Bob's wheels have ever touched, the answer is yes, once. He looked regretful but wise from the experience.

These one-use storage bags can hold up to two tons. As you can see here, that's a lot of grain.

Bob had a small collection of old-fashioned mills on the tour.

This is what it looks like today.