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Full Sail Brewing Co. refurbished an old fruit cannery and established itself in 1987 as a small indie brewery in Hood River, Ore., the heart of the Northwest's hops-growing region.
Their flagship ale, Full Sail Amber, was initially only available on draft at local taverns and restaurants. They eventually installed a bottling line and started distributing their hoppy menus of pale and dark ales around the region. Critics considered their best-selling ales to be world class. By the late '90s, Full Sail stood out as an award-winning Northwestern standard.
These days, Full Sail remains independent and focused. An employee-owned company since 1999, they've maintained their laid-back Hood River valley attitude and concentrated on crafting mostly traditional English and American style beers with very little deviation.
Earlier this month, thanks to a push from local company Henry J. Lee Distributors, seven varieties of Full Sail landed in the Charleston market for the first time. Six packs of Full Sail's Pale Ale, IPA, Amber, and LTD #2 Pale Lager lined the shelves at the Charleston Beer Exchange. They also stocked packs of the brewery's Session line — including small bottles of the Premium Lager and the Black Lager. The Brewmaster's Reserve Hop Pursuit Extra Pale Ale arrived in 22-ounce bomber bottles.
Unlike so many other new arrivals in the local shops, the Full Sail beers don't stray into high gravity territory at all. Relatively low in alcohol content, but medium bodied and flavorful, each is appropriate for their traditional styles. Full Sail aims for finesse, subtlety, and balance rather than over-the-top accents or extreme flavors.
On the strong end of things is the Hop Pursuit Extra Pale — part of Full Sail's Brewmaster's Reserve seasonal line. Available from March to June, the orange/amber Hop Pursuit (6 percent a.b.v.) lives up to its name with the zesty, grassy, citrusy flavor and aroma of Cascade, Willamette, and Mt. Hood hops. The amber, well-conditioned LTD #2 Pale Lager (6.4 percent a.b.v.) might qualify as a Vienna-style lager with its grainy touches and caramel-wheat finish.
Inspired by classic English ales and more modern Northwestern reinterpretations, Full Sail's Pale Ale (5.4 percent a.b.v.) and IPA (6 percent a.b.v.) are both relatively light in color and body for the styles. On the label, the Pale Ale boasts being a "ridiculously tasty American pale ale," which is a stretch. Pleasantly balanced and drinkable, they're too basic for ridiculousness. The IPA is crisply bitter with a clean finish.
Full Sail's award-winning Amber ale (5.5 percent a.b.v.) is fairly gentle and bright for the style, too. Mild and malty with a pleasingly floral hop aroma and finish, it's the best balanced ale of the bunch.
Surprisingly enough, the most impressive varieties within Full Sail's local roster might be the two Session lagers — both of which come in stout little 11-ounce, Red Stripe-style stubbies. Full Sail markets them as pre-Prohibition style session beers for those in the thirstiest moods.
The red-labeled Session Premium Lager (5.1 percent a.b.v.) is a pale-yellow lager that looks like the usual American-style fare — crystal-clear and fizzy — but packs a jab of grainy malt flavor and a touch of noble hops. It has more in common with the thirst-quenching German specialty styles Kölsch and Export than any mass-produced domestic lager. Even more flavorful, the blue-labeled Session Black Lager (5.4 percent a.b.v.) is reddish-mahogany in color and a little chewier and fruitier than its pale sibling. Smooth and easy, the Black Lager features a nice caramel-raisin finish and very slight roastiness — a great dark beer for those who wince at the idea of drinking dark beers.
If the standard Full Sail ales and lagers catch on with Charleston's beer lovers, the Session lagers might just earn a special place in their hearts.