Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review of Grossman's "Beyond the Pale" in Adventure Sports Journal

Back in November, I reviewed Ken Grossman's Beyond the Pale, his book about his creation of Sierra Nevada Brewing.   For the current issue of Adventure Sports Journal, I reworked it, giving it a more environmental emphasis, and you can read it here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A couple of awesome autism events coming up

April is Autism Awareness Month and there's a couple of great looking beer related fundraisers coming up for to support those with autism.

Lagunitas Craft Beer Tasting and Beer Writer's Summit for #BeerAutismHope
This April 16th, join beer historian with autism Lance Rice, Lance's Brewery Tour and some of California's best beer writers at Lagunitas Brewing Co for an exclusive night of celebrating craft beer and #BeerAutismHope! 

Lance and Lance's Brewery Tour director Aaron Rice will be speaking withKim's Bay Brews, Jay Brooks and other notable beer writers at Lagunitas in a one-of-a-kind craft beer lover's event. The event will include and bottomless beer tasting, hors d' oeuvres and raffles for incredible #beer prizes. 

You can buy tickets at this link.

3rd Annual Ales For Autism Summer Beer Release Party
WhenSaturday, April 26 from 1:00pm-4:00pm
Where: Pyramid Alehouse, 901 Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA.
What: April is Autism Awareness Month and Pyramid is releasing several new brews so we are throwing a party to fundraise and celebrate. One hundred percent of the event ticket sales benefit Ales for Autism, a local North Bay organization supporting autism research.

·         Tickets are $20 in advance and include: Five beers for unlimited tasting during the event, food pairings by our chef, live music from the Smokin’ J’s, a photobooth & more.  You can buy tickets here.
·         Beers being released: Curve Ball Blonde Ale, Pyramid Wheaten Ale, Oregon Honey Beer, Imperial Mac’s Amber Ale, H7 Imperial IPA, and India Pale Lager. *
·         Sample food pairings: *
Sesame crusted ahi tuna, avocado, sprouts, scallion oil paired with Curve Ball

Spinach and goat cheese frittata paired with Wheaten Ale

Bananas Flambe paired with Oregon Honey Beer

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Checking out Pyramid Brewing's new release IPL and a chat with their head brewer Ryan Pappe

It's no secret craft brewers enjoy playing around with hops and hoppy beers are some the most coveted brews around.  This has led to an effective arms race between brewers, pushing  bitterness levels to extreme heights with massive hop additions to their IPAs, resulting in plenty of hop bombs full of hop flavors and bitterness, with plenty of the malt and associated alcohol required balance all those hops.  Plenty of those brews were amazingly flavorful creations, but more than a few were about as tasty as chewing on an old bicycle tire.  I enjoy a good IPA or Double IPA, but when just looking for a flavorful pint or two to quaff, these heavy, hop and alcohol monsters aren't always a good option.

Thankfully, plenty of breweries these days are doing creative things with hops without engaging on a full frontal assault of beer drinkers' palates.  Pyramid Brewing's IPL, just released by Pyramid, is a good example.  IPL stands for India Pale Lager, a riff on the popular India Pale Ale style.   An IPL uses lager yeast instead of ale yeast, resulting in a less cluttered brew, since lager yeasts produce crisper flavors during fermentation that ale yeasts, which produce more complex flavor esters.   Pyramid contacted me asking if I'd like to sample the beer and also offered the chance to speak with Pyramid Head Brewer Ryan Pappe about this new release.  This seemed like a good opportunity to try another hop innovation and talk with the brewer behind it, so I took Pyramid up on their offer.

The beer itself was quite enjoyable.  It's got a crisp, clean bitterness with a slight floral, citrus and some earthy character that matches nicely with the toasted malts.  Dry hopping with Amarillo, Sterling, and Centennial creates all sorts of pleasant hop aromas.    At 60 ibu's, there's plenty of hop punch in this drinkable brew.   Those who like their hops without all the alcohol buzz will appreciate the 6.0% abv, lower than most India Pale Ales.

After enjoying a few of these, I spoke with Ryan Pappe about his latest creation and what brewers are doing with hops these days.
Pyramid Head Brewer Ryan Pappe with IPL  (Photo courtesy of Pyramid Brewing)

Q:  How did you end up releasing IPL?

A: It evolved after playing around in the brewery.  On the spur of the moment, we decided to add a strain of lager yeast to a portion of wort we set aside.  All the brewers really enjoyed the beer.  Once we knew this experiment tasted good, it eventually evolved into IPL.

Q: Describe the process in coming up with the recipe.

A: It started first as an experimental release.   To brew it all year around, we had to make some changes.   We use our standard lager yeast strain we always have available.  Our team tried the early batches, gave us their feedback and we tweaked the hops and bitterness levels based on what they said to get a beer everyone was happy with.

Q: What’s the difference between an India Pale Lager and a hoppy lager?

A: I don’t know, honestly.  Brewers are brewing more and more hoppy beers and part of the impetus behind this trend is that hoppier beers are more likely to sell and brewers are always pushing the envelope and trying to find something that highlights the hops.  Hops are a new area for brewers to play in.  A hoppy lager is traditionally more of a pilsner.  India Pale Lager suggests more of a Northwestern United States direction with citrusy hops.

Q: Sam Adams released Double Agent IPL.  Lagunitas had a lot of success with Day Time IPA.  Firestone Walker released the hoppy Pivo Pilsner last summer which was a big seller for them.  I realize you’re a brewer and not always involved in all business decisions but how much of the release of IPL was driven by the success of beers like these?

A: I don’t know how breweries think and make their decisions.  We don’t look at what other breweries are coming out with.   There are so many different breweries and some of them will explore in the the same direction.  If enough breweries seem to head in the same direction, it looks like a trend.

I Googled “India Pale Lager” 2 ½ years ago and a bunch of beers came up so I know we weren’t the first to come up with this by any means.  Trends in some ways are more of a coincidence then everyone moving in the same direction.   As brewers, we don’t want to just copy each other and there’s plenty of variety in what we do.

Q:  What’s been the most surprising reaction to IPL so far?

A: Unfortunately as a brewer, I’m one of the last to hear that stuff.  Sometimes I’ll go on RateBeer and see what people say about it.  From what I see it's been pretty well received.  Some people will say it’s a nice, easy drinking lager.  Then the next person says that since it’s an India Pale Lager, they were expecting a lot more hops and were disappointed.  I’m happy a lot of people thought it was a well-made beer.  I’m optimistic it will stick around for at least another year and if it does, that would be a pretty good success.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: There are a lot of hoppy beers coming out because brewers are trying to find new ways to make hoppy beers.  Brewers get together a lot and bounce ideas off each other and play off each other’s ideas.  That’s the cool thing about it.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Strike Brewery Pitches Local Beer in San Jose" in Edible Silicon Valley

Strike CEO Jenny Lewis and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich in an empty
corner that not too long from now will be their brewery
As the local Silicon Valley foodie culture sits up and takes notice of the small yet thriving craft beer scene in the South Bay, hopefully I've given them a little push with an article I wrote for Edible Silicon Valley on Strike Brewing's pending brewery opening.  The full version is in the print version as well as a digital version on the Edible Silicon Valley website, and a abbreviated can be found here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Session #86: Is it just about beer?

When I began getting seriously drawn into craft beer six or seven years ago, I naturally began reading a lot about it.  The late beer writer Bill Brand was my favorite beer writer, drawing me into this world with his warm, engaging articles on various breweries and beers, sprinkling in stories about the people, economics and political side of the industry. While I recall reading other interesting beer writers during that time, I also remember finding a lot of beer writing disappointing.

Plenty of articles were written in a heavy, plodding style that made high school textbooks seem like page turning novels.   Some writers clearly knew a lot of esoteric stuff about beer but didn't have the foggiest understanding of how businesses actually work or what the typical beer drinker cares about, resulting in maddeningly naive articles on the craft beer industry. A few writers came across as loud angry drunks who were no fun to share a pint with. There were way too many simple minded "craft beer good, mass market lager evil" articles that failed to capture the real fascination of the craft beer revolution, other than to say "Budweiser sucks".  And if I have to read another "Beer is for Sharing" article reducing beer's awesome social lubrication powers down to this tired schmaltzy cliche', I'm going to strangle somebody.

 Bill Brand shortly before being hit by a
street car that ultimately ended his life.
 (Photo by Jesse Friedman )
I actually thought I could write about beer a lot better than a fair amount of the stuff I was reading, which was one of my motivations to start this blog nearly five years ago.  If there was anything I learned over those five years, it's that writing is a lot harder than it looks.  A lot of hard work goes into doing the research, working out the phasing, wording and composition to write even an average article on beer.  So when Heather Vandenengle asks for this month's Session, "What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer?  Are we advocates, critics, or story tellers?" I found myself thinking hard about the question.

For starters, I'm all in favor of deep philosophical analysis and intense intellectual discussion about anything, but let's not too carried away.   We're talking about beer here.  Not politics, economics, health, science, or technology that affect our lives far more deeply.  Bad governments, poor economic times, inadequate health care, and scientific illiteracy are serious problems with catastrophic consequences.  We've had several decades of bad beer and got through it all right.

Beer is worth writing about because business, economics, science, culture and most importantly people all have a connection to that liquid in the glass.  The best beer journalism seeks to describe these connections, whether that be in the form of advocation, criticism or story telling.  I've found this is often difficult to do myself, but it makes writing about beer most relevant.

As for examples of people I think get it right, I found Tom Acitelli's book "The Audacity of Hops" provided a much needed historical perspective on the craft brewing revolution.  I'm a big fan of Stan Hieronymus's blog  "Appellation Beer" as well as Jeff Alworth's "Beervana".  I've also enjoyed  Brian Yeager's enthusiasm for all things and places beer.  I appreciate Jay Brook's tireless efforts chronicling beer's history, as well as his ability to make the San Francisco Bay Area craft beer community he knows so well completely accessible to the general public in his newspaper columns.   Can a great brewer also be a great beer writer?  I don't know how much outside help Ken Grossman had writing his book "Beyond the Pale" but I've found no better source on the history and business of craft beer, as well as what it really takes to build a great brewery.

There are plenty of other writers beyond the world of beer I have long enjoyed and which I hope in some way have inspired my writing on these pages.  These include non-fiction writers Nate SilverJames GleickCarl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell who tell fascinating stories emerging from the data.   I've always been impressed how pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman finds the insights of our culture from its trivial details while being riotously funny at the same time.   When Tony Bourndain isn't causing me to cringe with his aging hipster act, I enjoy his blunt, gritty commentary on food from all over the world, whether five star Michelin restaurants in Europe or some noodle shack on a river bank in Vietnam. Novelist Russell Banks has dazzled me with this flowing, complex descriptive sentences and I've always appreciated the deep, brooding conflicts within Cormac McCarthy's novels as well as the way he creates drama by what is said, as well as what is left unsaid. Growing up in Chicago, I always appreciated the smart, snarky, and sometimes coarse writing of Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. Interestingly enough, Mike Royko was an unlikely early advocate of craft beer.

Reading and learning about things unrelated to beer has helped me be a better writer about beer. If there's one thing I'd like to change about the current state of beer journalism, it would be a better awareness of the world beyond beer.  Beer in itself is a pretty limited topic.  What beer brings to the world is what makes it really worth writing about.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bubble Bursting Numbers from the Brewer's Association

Everyone seems to have an opinion as to whether the craft brewing industry will experience a bubble. Most of this speculation is fueled by the shear growth of so many new breweries.  I've weighed in on the subject myself and I'll spare you the details of pouring through my number heavy analysis if you don't want read through it and just give you the conclusion.   I estimated that given so much new brewing capacity coming on line that the craft brewing industry would have to continue to grow sales volume at an annual rate of 15% for all that beer to be sold.  If the craft brewing industry slowed to a 5% or even 10% percent growth rate over the next couple years, there would be so much excessive capacity coming online the many breweries would have a hard time selling enough beer to meet their financial obligations.   Most have taken on debt to fund their expansions, so if they can't sell enough beer to pay off the debt and operating expenses, they're in a lot of trouble.  Over time, a lot of breweries could end up going out of business and I made a semi-wild guess that two or three hundred breweries could exit the industry in the next couple years, higher than the current 1-2% failure rate of craft breweries.

The good news is that the astonishing recent growth of craft beer sales hasn't slowed, but has inexplicably increased.  A recent press release by the Brewer's Association reports an 18% volume growth and a 20% revenue growth in 2013.  These are just amazing numbers.  Rarely does growth in any industry, let alone a fairly mature one like beer, reach these anything close to these growth levels.  Most businesses are elated whenever they achieve 10% sales increase and seldom does this happen year after year after year.

Bottom line:  As overheated as the craft brewing industry seems right now with so many new breweries and brewery expansions, this industry-wide capacity growth seems sustainable in the near term given the 20% increase in revenue growth in 2013.  With craft beer still occupying only 7.8% of the beer market, it's hardly to the point of saturation.  So a 20% growth rate is still plausible for at least the next two or three years. Maybe the growth will slow, but there's really no compelling reason why.  If the industry ever experiences a shake out with many breweries going out of business, that day of reckoning, if it ever comes, seems further off in the future.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Beer of the Month: New Almaden Imperial Red Ale from Santa Clara Valley Brewing

Our Beer of the Month for March comes from a brewery that seems like it's been around for a couple years, but only started brewing late last spring. It's from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, formed by multi-GABF award winning brewer Steve Donohue and Apple Executive Tom Clark.  Their Electric Tower IPA drew plenty of raves, including one from yours truly, and Electric Tower tap handles have been popping up all over the South Bay.

Their recently released New Almaden Imperial Red proves Santa Clara Valley Brewing is no one hit wonder.    There's plenty of malt, giving it a creamy mouth feel and lots of roasty and earthy flavors but hefty additions hops create citrus flavors pushing through all that malt goodness, resulting in a beer with plenty of bold flavors.  For all its strength and assertiveness, it's also surprisingly smooth.  I hesitate to describe a beer at 10.0% abv as drinkable, but it's certainly an easy sipper.

The name comes from one of my favorite places to the run in the Bay Area.   Reddish, cinnabar mercury ore was mined at New Almaden just south of South Jose starting in the late 1800's  primarily for gold extraction to support the gold discoveries east of Sacramento.  You can find ruins of these mines at Almaden Quicksilver Park, which has numerous trails, rugged hills and spectacular view for excellent trail running.  Every Saturday and Sunday morning, plenty of running groups will gather at the MacAbee Road entrance to "do Quicksilver".  I've also taken the family for hikes there many times as it's a great place to learn our region's history, enjoy nature, take in excellent views of nearby Mount Unumhum and challenge yourself on the trails if you're so inclined.

Turns out, I'm not the only South Bay blogger that enjoys New Almaden Imperial Red and Almaden Quicksilver park.  Check out fellow South Bay Beer Blogger Brian Wimsett's post on True Brew Too-Beer and Friends.

Mount Unumhum as seen from Almaden Quicksilver Park.
(Photo credit)