Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scenes from the 2015 Bay to Breakers Race

The most striking thing to me about a race like Bay to Breakers is the huge flow of humanity cascading from start to finish.  I'm afraid the iPhone camera I carried during the race really couldn't capture the immense mass of nearly 30,000 people celebrating the event in their own way over the 12 kilometers.   It's a race the city of San Francisco has embraced, that probably couldn't exist anywhere else in this country.  These photos don't give the Bay to Breakers experience justice, but hope you will enjoy them all the same.  One of them has been slightly altered for reasons that should be obvious.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

First look at Santa Clara Valley Brewing's new brewery

It's big news for South San Francisco Bay beer aficionados that Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) recently completed their brewery in South San Jose and has even started brewing a few batches. I got a chance to check the place out for myself and spent few minutes chatting with Brewmaster Steve Donohue.   As you might expect, Steve doesn't have a heck of a lot of time to chat with anyone while he's getting the brewery up and running.  Steve tells me to expect a couple new brews from SCVB, a Pale Ale, and a Session IPA.  For those expecting the Session IPA to be a dialed down version of their popular flagship Electric Tower IPA, Steve enthusiastically assured me the Session IPA would have its own unique character unlike Electric Tower.  The tap room in the front is still under construction and could likely open in as soon as a couple weeks, but the actual date will depend on when the necessary permit approvals and completed. As for getting the whole place up and running, Steve shook his head as he told me "I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, but it's been fun so far."

I'll leave you with some pictures of the brewery.  The tap room was still under construction so I won't post pictures of it, but when finished, I think it's going to look pretty sharp.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rambling Reviews 5.7.2015: Hermitage 07270 Single Hop IPA, Sierra Nevada's Idaho 7 Single Hop IPA, and Gordon Biersch Zwickel Pils

Time once more to delve into some new brews, this time the theme is beers brewed with only one or two different hops.

Let's start with Hermitage Brewing's  07270 Single Hop IPA.  The beers in the Hermitage single hop IPA series are great way to learn a lot about all the different hops and their flavor characteristics.  But truth be told, after trying a lot of them, I'm left thinking "Hmmm....that's interesting" instead of "I'll have another".  While each beer in the series showcases each unique hop flavor profile, it also proves that brewers are wise to use blends of hops, rather than a single hop, to generate more complex and well rounded flavors.  The beers in Hermitage Single Hop IPAs certainly taste good, but often seem to be lack a certain something, coming across as tasting unbalanced or incomplete, and ultimately seem like well executed brewing experimenst.

That's absolutely not the case with  Hermitage's 07270 Single Hop IPA, as the 07270 hop really works well on its own here.  The strong tropical mango flavors that really pop with an earthy, resiny finish. It's every bit as good as Hermitage's Citra IPA, the only single hop IPA that's made it into their year round line-up.

And what's 07270 hop anyway?   It's a recently bred hop variety from Hopsteiner, a hop supplier from the Pacific Northwest, which apparently hasn't given it a more evocative, hop appropriate name like "Calypso" or "Galaxy" yet.  A name like "07270" sounds like a piece of computer equipment but whatever they want to call it, I just hope Hermitage decides to brew this year 'round.

Speaking of single hop IPAs, there's Sierra Nevada's Harvest Single Hop IPA - Idaho 7.  Apparently they grow more in Idaho besides potatoes, since as you might have guessed, the hop in this brew is from Idaho. It's another hop that works pretty well all by itself.  There is a noticeable progression of taste with each sip, as the initial bright grapefruit flavors give way to a fruity apricot character that eventually subsides to a resiny finish. Another great exploration into the seemingly endless hop flavor frontier, but I'm left with the nagging feeling if just seemed if a little extra depth from some other hop was brought into this beer, it would really sing.

And finally, there's Gorden Biesrch Zwickel Pils, an unfiltered Pilsner made with not one but two hops, Hallertau and Tettnang.  Man, did those two hops work well together.  Beers like this are a reminder that amazing things can be accomplished by "just" using top ingredients coupled technically sound brewing techniques.  This beer is just classic, with a robust clear malt with the slightest bit of sweetness driven with sharp, crisp grassy and slight spicy hops. Makes most other lager style beers seem mediocre and demonstrates a lot of great hop flavors can be achieved at just 30 ibu.

Monday, May 4, 2015

21st Amendment's Shaun O' Sullivan Talks About the Making of "Down to Earth" and 21st Amendment's Nearly Completed Brewery

21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan
(21st Amendment Brewery photo)
The Session IPA has become all the rage in just a couple short years.  One of first beers that helped create this wave was 21st Amendment's "Bitter American", a hoppy brew with only 4.4% abv, which quickly became popular when it was released in 2011.   Now, 21st Amendment has released "Down to Earth" with much fanfare just a couple weeks ago.  I caught up with 21st Amendment's Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan to ask a few questions about "Down to Earth"  and also talk about the new 21st Amendment Brewery near completion in San Leandro.  Here's what he had to say.

Does “Down to Earth” replaces "Bitter American" in your line-up?
Yes it does. We first brewed Bitter American at our small San Francisco brewpub in 2006 and then canned and distributed it in Spring 2011. At the time it was labeled as a “session ale” but it was always an easy drinking IPA. Back then the style “session IPA” was not part of the craft-brewing world.  When we were designing the Bitter American package we were thinking "Who is the bitterest American?" and after lots of discussion and beers we decided it was Ham the space chimp who was the first American in space back in 1961 as part of the early US space program. Here was a chimpanzee that was plucked from the wilds of Africa and trained to push buttons, strapped to a rocket and hurled into space. Not fun for little Ham and the imagery seemed appropriate for Bitter American with Ham floating in space above the Earth. After a number of years we decided to go back and look at the package and make a couple of adjustments, one being labeling the beer exactly what it is, a “session IPA.” Once we went down that path we thought it would be fun to play with the package design and continue the story of Ham. The new name turned into “Down to Earth” and we brought Ham back home from space to a sunny beach, relaxed and stretched out in his hammock made from his space capsule’s parachute. Down to Earth is, as its predecessor, 4.4% ABV and easy drinking.

Did you modify the Bitter American recipe or start over from scratch?  Can you describe the development process?
The recipe changed but not by much. In "Bitter American" as with "Down to Earth" we use Golden Promise pale malt from Simpson’s Malting out of the UK. Golden Promise gives this lighter beer a supportive malt backbone. Golden Promise malt is used in English session beers to maintain body and still keep the beer lower in alcohol, which can be a challenge as you’re brewing with less malt when there’s the possibility for a thin watery beer. This pale malt provides body, without a lot of sweetness, which I prefer as it avoids the competition between malt and hop flavor and bitterness in your mouth.

For “Down to Earth” I left the upfront bittering hops the same and changed the late or flavor hops as well as the dry hops.  Craft beer drinker’s tastes have evolved and so have mine. I saw "Down to Earth" as an opportunity to mix it up and look into newer hop varieties.  In “Down to Earth” I added a lot more late kettle additions with Cascade and Mosaic hops giving the beer a more chewy citrus flavor and then dry hopped it with Centennial and Mosaic hops adding pine, citrus, mango and tropical aromas.

Mosaic is a relatively new hop and Centennial is an older craft beer workhorse hop.  The combination is great with the marriage of new style and old school hops.

How’s the new brewery going?
What’s exiting about opening our new brewery in San Leandro is that we have the opportunity to really stretch our creative wings and put out more beers and in interesting packages. We are installing a 100 barrel German brewhouse, manufactured in Hudson, Wisconsin. Both my business partner Nico Freccia and I have always had the dream of bringing the beer home to the Bay Area. We’ve been brewing with our partner brewery in Cold Springs, MN since 2008 and that’s been great for us and we’ll continue to brew with them. With the new new brewery we’ll be able to make new beers and delve into different package sizes as well as variety packs. Our San Leandro brewery will be a destination location with a tasting room, outdoor seating and the ability to see and enjoy the entire process from brewhouse to the state of the art canning line. In addition, it’ll allow us to open up new markets. We recently launched in Chicago and we’ll soon be distributing this Summer to Southern California. It’s a great time to be involved in craft beer.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ramblings Reveiws 4.28.2015: Thump Keg's Rye IPA, Guinness Blonde American Lager and Firestone Walker 805

Time again one again to elucidate on the various beers I've sampled lately.  For his installment of Rambling Reviews, I'll look at three brews from breweries hoping to make a big sales volume splash this summer.

First up, Thump Keg Rye IPA.  What's Thump Keg Brewing you ask?    Go to the Thump Keg website and you'll read about their brewmasters moonlighting from their day jobs, suggesting some stealthy nanobrewery.  However, since Thump Keg is actually part of multi-national beverage corporation Diageo's beer portfolio, one suspects the true story is the brewery is a lot less humble involving a more sizeable brewery.  However, the nice Thump Keg PR lady offered me to try a sample Thump Key Rye IPA and free beer is something I rarely turn down.  As for the beer itself, the rye is noticeable, but not prevalent. The brew has a little sweetness and the resiny hops are there but seem a little dialed down which you might expect in a more mass market beer. There's a little vanilla note that seems out of place   Still, the flavors still come together all right but it lacks a certain punch one often gets from this style.  Still, the overall composition works and I enjoyed this.   I'd have another.

Included with Thump Keg's Rye IPA was a couple bottles of Guinness Blonde American Lager, which Guinness released late last year.  I'm not one of those marketing wizards, but when I think of Guinness, a light lager doesn't exactly pop into my mind.  Furthermore, the world seems to have more than enough macro light lagers with most of those are losing their market share.   One wonders why Guinness decided to jump into this crowded and declining market.   Those business questions aside, it's actually a nice beer.  It's got a hefty malt, a slight noticeable apricot fruitiness, a light hop bitterness. Style purists can pick nits that it isn't quite to the lager style, but it worked for me. So what if a Blonde Lager from Guinness goes against expectations?

Speaking of beers going against expectation, what's with Firestone Walker 805?  I see all these impressive looking displays of black cases of beer at my local Safeway and plenty of other places where beer is sold and wonder what's up. Firestone Walker does some amazing things with hops and barrel-aging and so for their big summer marketing push, they hawk a light Blonde Ale?   And it's OK, a nice bready malt with a little fruity ester or slight yeast background.  That's it, there's almost zero hops presence.  The beer seems is much as a let down coming from Firestone Walker as Guinness Blonde American Lager was a pleasant surprise, the Guinness offering having more complexity and depth.  If you ask me, Firestone Walker brewing up a light, neutral Blonde Ale is a lot like Budweiser releasing a barrel-aged Stout.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Strike's Drew Ehrlich Talks about Strike Blonde

Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich
(Photo from Strike Brewing) 
As brewers continue to push the envelope with barrel-aging, spices, new hop varietals, exotic spices and weird ingredients like oysters or their own beard yeast, it only makes beers like Strike Brewing's Blonde seem brilliantly unique in their simplicity.   Strike Blonde is part of Strike Brewing's focus on session beers and its minimalist combination of light malt with a little hops is actually what I find most appealing about it.   I spent some time talking with Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich about his Blonde. It turns out to be one of his originals, going way back to his home brewing days.

"I had a bunch of friends into the light lager craze, and I wanted to brew something that wasn’t going to scare them away," explains Ehrlich of how he came up with the recipe.  "So I used pretty simple malt and added a little hops at the end to give them a little something extra they weren’t getting from what they usually drank." 

What I find makes Strike Blonde work is the light earthy bitterness at the finish. Ehrlich accomplishes this with Cascade hops he adds midway through the boil. "It’s pretty standard brewing practice that adding hops at the beginning of the boil adds bitterness, adding them midway through the boil adds flavor and towards the end of the boil adds aroma," explains Ehrlich.  "So midway and towards the end of the boil I add Cascade hops to give it a bitterness you might not have with a super light beer."

Session beers like blonde ales are actually difficult to brew, as there's no place to hide any brewing flaw in a light ale.  As for Strike Blonde, Ehrlich doesn't quite see it that way.  "I wouldn’t say it’s simple to brew, I wouldn’t say it’s hard, either.  I had to adjust the recipe twice, the first time when I started brewing it at Hermitage Brewing when Strike was first started contract brewing there.  When we at Strike opened our own brewery, I had to tweak it again.  All brewing systems have their own quirks and I had to adjust the way I brew on each system to what was originally envisioned."

Session beers are becoming more popular these days, but Strike Brewing was into session beers from the very beginning way back in 2010 when the brewery first started.  "We really enjoy session beers, great for drinking a few with your friends without getting wasted and we love session beers for that," says Ehrlich.   "They’re great for people who are active or working out, who want a beer at the end.   Session beers give them lots of flavor without all the alcohol.  Session beers are good social beers, that’s why we strive to have a lot of good session beer available at any given time."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clandestine Brewing in Edible Silicon Valley

Clandestine Brewing
posed one of the more challenging breweries to write about. Most breweries have just one brewmaster, a standard line-up of maybe 5-6 beers, and it's own history.  Clandestine has four brewers, numerous beers in a constantly changing line-up, and it's own intriguing history. Add that all four brewers bring their unique stamp to the place and that Clandenstine is part of the recently developing South Bay Brewing scene and it was particularly difficult to parse all that rich material into something under 1,000 words.  The result, which I'm proud of, but doesn't due the brewery justice, is in the current print version of Edible Silicon Valley, and here is a link to the online version.