Genre-bending jazz god Charles Mingus famously said: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”
Head brewer and owner Alex Ganum had Mingus in mind when he formed Upright Brewing Company—named in reference to the virtuoso’s standing bass—in Portland, Ore. Faced with an increasingly cumbersome homebrewing passion, Ganum took the next logical step in 2009 and began professional operations from a modest basement space. Six years later, Upright produces 1,200 barrels of beer annually.
With a focus on Belgian and French farmhouse styles, Upright’s deceptively simple rustic beers quickly made a unique impact on Portland’s fiercely competitive craft scene. (You can count roughly on one hand the number of India Pale Ale batches they’ve produced since opening, for example. Most emerging breweries consider an IPA to be a near prerequisite for success.) To avoid any brewing ennui, the Upright team often experiments with small, mostly barrel-aged batches of beer under their continuing “Sole Composition” label, with releases sold only at the brewery and sometimes yielding fewer than 50 bottles. If a Sole Composition proves to be particularly exciting, it has a chance of being added to their seasonal lineup in the future.
One such example is their Special Herbs, which began life as a 166-bottle Sole Comp release in 2010. Named after a series of instrumental records by underground rap legend MF Doom, the beer starts out as their Reggae Junkie Gruit. (A gruit is a mostly forgotten style of beer with miscellaneous herbs used in place of hops—Upright’s take utilizes lemongrass, hyssop, bitter orange peel, and Sichuan peppercorns.) For the herbaceous elixir to then become Special Herbs, it is transferred into second-use oak barrels that previously housed gin. That aging adds “incredible aromatics,” says Ganum. “Very bright but without being too pungent. Just plain attractive, really.” After an approximately yearlong maturation, the resulting beer is akin to a gin and tonic, with the botanical nature of the residual spirit complementing the acidity and woody funk the aged beer develops, along with an unusually slick mouthfeel.
Now around 80 cases of this oddity are produced each year. For the 2013 release, Ganum and crew added, in addition to the gin barrels, two third-use wine casks into the mix, boosting Special Herbs’ stone fruit profile. For last year’s release, a splash of unaged beer was added to the blend just before bottling, further punching up the concoction’s brightness. “Right now we're producing the beer very similar to the [2014 release],” Ganum says. “But we're always open to change down the road.”
There are levels to this delicious beverage—yet somehow on the palate the various layers come together into something "simple," in the Mingus-sense. And it’s safe to say Special Herbs is also one beer the rapper MF Doom would get a kick out of.