By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
On Mar. 21, 1986, the brewers at McMenamins Hillsdale in Portland were setting up to brew their 67th batch of beer, simply called “Raspberry.” The 110-gallon batch used 144 pounds of malt extract, two pounds of Cascade boil hops, two pounds of Willamette boil hops, two pounds of Willamette finish hops, and 30 pounds of raspberries. Starting with an original gravity of 1.043, on Mar. 26, with a final gravity of 1.026, the brewers racked the finished beer to seven kegs.
That beer hadn’t been foreseen as something special. Raspberry was just another in a long line of fruit beer experiments for the young brewpub, which prior to the raspberry brew had also fiddled with blackberries, blueberries, pineapples, apples and cherries. It was also another beer built off the company’s first beer, Hillsdale Ale, from which Hammerhead Pale Ale and Terminator Stout also descended. But this beer became more than just another sheet in the brew log. It became McMenamins Ruby Ale, now a flagship beer for the Oregon/Washington chain of more than 50 pubs. In 2015 alone, McMenamins brewed 166,036 gallons (5,356 barrels) of Ruby, in 628 batches (McMenamins Edgefield brewed the most volume — 47,000 gallons). The simple, hazy-pink brew not only remains a top seller. This month it celebrates its 30th anniversary.
At 11:39 a.m., on July 2, 2015, at the Queen Anne Pub in Seattle, McMenamins reached another milestone: racking their millionth keg. The beer that marked their “keg million?” Ruby. The unassuming, slightly tart ale doesn’t have the bitter punch of a DIPA. There’s no barrel-aging. No brett or other fascinating Petri dish of ambient, wild microbes. No “it” hop or spiffed-out, malt-of-the-moment. No bells and whistles whatsoever. Yet in 2014, Ruby was the No. 1 beer in sales for McMenamins, comprising nearly a quarter of the production and output for the entire company. It beat out not only Hammerhead, but the entire category of IPAs and DIPAs.
“Ruby is probably one of my favorite beers in the grand scheme of things,” says Hanns Anderson, head brewer at McMenamins High Street Brewery in Eugene. “It’s very popular, brings people in to try it and also try other things, and it’s pretty straightforward to make.”
Conrad Santos, one of the pioneer brewers for McMenamins, says that early McMenamins brewing philosophy was influenced by Belgian brewing, especially the use of fruit, such as raspberries and cherries, in lambic beers. Ruby became a juggernaut for the young brewpub and helped McMenamins grow and expand their brand. “It is just a huge, huge beer,” says John Richen, former chief brewery administrator for McMenamins. “Not much has changed about the basic recipe specs and flavor profile of the ale since its inception 30 years ago. Ruby is a genuine artifact from our earliest era of brewing.”
That simplicity is what keeps Ruby so popular, says Anderson. “There aren’t any huge flavors competing with each other, it’s just a nice simple base designed to be a raspberry delivery system. Ruby is very approachable.”
It’s also flexible enough to be blended, such as the popular Rubinator, a mix of Ruby and Terminator Stout, or to brew variant beers, such as the seasonal Purple Haze, which is the Ruby recipe brewed with boysenberries instead of raspberries.
Throughout its three decades, the biggest changes to Ruby have been moving from extract brewing to single-infusion, all-grain mashing in 1987, and switching from whole raspberries to puree (42 pounds of Oregon-grown raspberry puree, sourced from Oregon Fruit Products in Salem, go into every batch) during the middle of the last decade. “The aseptic puree allowed us to dial in the consistency and we got much improved color, flavor, and aroma,” explains Graham Brogan, district manager. Other than a brief period in 2008 when a raspberry shortage forced it off the tap list for a while, Ruby has been in constant production.
The enduring popularity also seems to be Ruby’s ability to be an “every beer,” with something to offer any beer fan. Anderson notes that non-hopheads are drawn to its lack of bitterness, and malt fans enjoy the light, refreshing flavor, and how it cleanses the palette.
And, simply, “it’s a joy to brew,” says Anderson. “Low hops and a light malt bill make for an efficient day in the brewhouse, and the low original gravity leaves for a quick turnaround in the fermenters. It’s a good chance to step away from a lot of the bigger, complex beers I brew down here, and hit the reset button once or twice a month.” He smiles. “It reminds me that not every beer needs to be insanely difficult or overly involved.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.