Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Mavericks Brewing Ride the Wave of Low-Alcohol Craft Beer?

The Mavericks "brew trust" of James Costa (l) and Shane Aldrich (r)
(photo by Kristen Loken)
It’s been two years since Maverick’s Brewing paddled out into the turbulent sea of craft brewing with the idea to brew low alcohol craft beer.  But now, they’ve selected their wave and are paddling hard to position themselves to ride the wave of low alcohol beer that’s been quietly rising in the craft beer industry.

The Mavericks Story

Mavericks started as the brain child of brewing industry veteran Pete Slosberg, best known as the Pete of Pete’s Wicked Ales, who first recognized a need for low alcohol craft beer on his bike rides from San Francisco.    “I would go on 25-40 mile bike trips, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually stop at the Marin Brewing brewpub in Larkspur," he explained to me a couple years ago when we first talked about Mavericks.    “Problem was, after stopping there for a beer or two, I didn’t feel steady enough to get back on my bike and head home.  Instead, I’d take the ferry.”    And with that, he realized the potential market for low alcohol, yet flavorful beer for people with active lifestyles who wanted to rehydrate with a cold one or two, but not get slowed down by the alcohol. 

At the time, Slosberg’s idea for Mavericks was bucking a trend.   “All the new breweries were coming out with extreme this and extreme that.   There’s a time and a place for that, but we wanted to do something different, and more like something I’d rather drink.”  Slosberg partnered with Half Moon Bay Brewing to launch the Mavericks line of low alcohol beers, naming the brewery after the huge waves crashing off the coast of Half Moon Bay that test the world’s greatest surfers.   Today, Slosberg remains a trusted advisor and partner to Mavericks Brewing having, in his own words,  “passed the baton after the project got up running to others”. 

The Brew House at Half Moon Bay
Mavericks has three beers in their line-up checking in at a low 3.75% abv, a Belgian Wit, a Porter, and Rye Pale Ale.  Then there’s the wildcard of the line-up, Tunnel Vision IPA at 6.8% abv and 100+ ibu.  Tunnel Vision seems like an anomaly in the low alcohol line, but more on this later.   All are sold in cans rather than bottles.  Cans are more portable and more easily taken to places where bottles can’t or shouldn’t go, such as into backpacks or to the beach.     

The brewing team at Mavericks includes Shane Aldrich, Head Brewmaster at Mavericks who’s brewed at Lagunitas, Marin County Brewing and Devil’s Canyon, winning a few Great American Beer Festival Awards along the way. He’s joined by James Costa, Brewmaster at Half Moon Bay Brewing, who started as the first assistant brewer at Bear Republic and aided in the development of their iconic Racer 5 IPA before various stops at Sonoma and Marin County breweries. He came to Mavericks as a consulting brewer two years ago and now works full time. 

Brewing low-alcohol beers people find enjoyable is a far more complex brewing feat than just tossing less grain in the brew kettle.  There are a number of challenges in brewing these beers, which James Costa took a few minutes out of his busy day to discuss during an afternoon visit I made to Half Moon Bay's brewpub.  “One of the biggest challenges were the brewing systems we used were not suited to brew these beers,” recalls Costa of his early days at Mavericks.   “The thermometers were too high for the amount of mash in the brew kettle.”  Half Moon Bay Brewing has a 15 barrel brewhouse, too small for any significant distribution, so Mavericks brews under contract at nearby Devil’s Canyon in nearby Belmont and Uncommon Brewers down the coast in Santa Cruz. 

It was not easy finding the right recipe.  “It took quite a few recipes to dial it in”, explained Costa.  The difficulty in finding the right recipe involves   “Consistency, adjusting the recipes to get more body to the beer, more residual sweetness so they have a lot of flavor to them, but they’re still low in the alcohol”.

Costa is especially enthusiastic about Tunnel Vision.   “It started as a special release to celebrate the opening of the tunnels at the Devil’s Slide,” referring the Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in March of 2013 to bypass a treacherous portion of Highway 1.  “We had a big party at the brewpub and everybody thought it was great.   We blew right through it.”

An Industry Veteran with Big Plans

For Mavericks CEO Steve Morgan, cans are the way to go
(photo by Becky Ruppel)
CEO Steve Morgan started at Mavericks just this past spring and is pretty bullish on Mavericks as it ramps up distribution.  When I ask why he decided to lead Mavericks, he jumps at the question.  “I think the high flavor-low alcohol concept is really good, there’s lot of growth in lower alcohol craft beer.”   Prior to joining Mavericks, Morgan  spent five years as the President of Napa Smith Brewery and Winery.   He knows a thing or two about drinking beer after a workout as an avid open water swimmer who’s completed the Golden Gate Swim and the Alcatraz Swim multiple times.  Morgan also runs and lifts weights when he isn’t swimming.

Morgan declares “If you look at the ten fastest growing craft beers nationally, two of them are low alcohol.  Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA and Founders All Day IPA.  There are plenty of times and places where craft beer drinkers want to drink something with lower alcohol.”

Despite the fact that higher alcohol IPAs, Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts dominate the beer rating sites, Morgan identifies low-alcohol beers as quietly becoming popular craft beers.  “IPAs are the large piece of the craft beer market.  But look at all these introductions of lower alcohol IPA’s like Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA, Founders All Day IPA, Lagunitas DayTime IPA, Sierra Nevada Nooner IPA and a few others.  All of these products were introduced in the last couple years.  It’s a smaller category, but growing much faster.” 

What about Tunnel Vision?  Doesn't brewing a 6.8% abv IPA run counter to this low-alcohol strategy?   As Morgan explains, that’s where the idea of Mavericks comes in.  “A Maverick is innovative, a risk taker, unwilling to compromise.  So we weren’t going to limit ourselves to a single alcohol level or type of beer.  Most IPA’s have about 60 ibu.  It isn’t until you get to Double IPA’s, which have about 7-10% abv that you’ll find beers with 100 ibu.  With Tunnel Vision, by using a lot of newer hops and innovative dry hopping, we achieve over 100 ibu at 6.8% abv and it still tastes in balance.  We see Tunnel Vision as blurring the line between a single and double IPA.”

Morgan also thinks selling Mavericks in cans is also a big part of the key for success.  “A big part of Maverick’s is that the beer is in a can.  You can take it to the beach, take it on the trail, or take them where ever you want to go.  Besides, take a look at the artwork on the Tunnel Vision can.  You can’t do that with a bottle.”  Morgan also notes that canned beer is one of the fastest growing sectors of craft beer.  “If you look at the Nielsen ratings of craft beer sold in cans, it was up 54% last year.  For the first six months of this year, nationally craft beer has been up by 21%, and the canned segment of that is up 79%.  And cans provide fresher beer with a lower environmental impact.”

And if that weren’t enough to guarantee Mavericks success, Morgan also raves about the skill of his brewers. “Shane Aldrich and James Costa have 32 years of experience in the craft brewing industry.  It’s rare to find that much experience at a craft brewery.  What I’m continually impressed by since I came here this spring is their use of hops in beers that taste balanced.  That takes real talent and is hard to do.  Not to give away tricks but one of the keys is to create mouthfeel.  With the Belgian style wit, there’s a lot of yeast left in the beer and we use coriander and orange peel to give it body.  In the Rye Pale Ale, the rye creates the mouthfeel and we use a lot of dry hopping that gives the flavor sensation.  At 53 ibus, it’s higher than most Pale Ales, but even at 3.75%, it tastes balanced.”

How successful will Mavericks become?  We’re all about to find out.  Prior to June of this year, Half Moon Bay Brewing self-distributed Mavericks and struggled to gain traction.  One of the first things Morgan initiated was a distribution program that includes BevMo!s, Costplus, Total Wine, and Lunardi’s in Northern California.  You can even find Mavericks beers at San Jose’s SAP Pavilion. 

Tasting the Beers

Mavericks may have a hit on their
hands with Tunnel Vision
As for tasting the Maverick’s beers, the flavors are there, but despite their best efforts, I still find them a bit thin.  The Belgian Wit is rather light, with the requisite coriander, orange peel and a noticeable tang from the wheat.  I can see this being rather refreshing after a run.  The Porter is rather dry, with a direct, uncluttered taste of bitter chocolate.  Then there is the intriguing Rye Pale Ale.   At 3.75% abv and 53 ibu, you’d think it taste like undrinkable hop water.  Instead, it’s a rather lively brew.  The peppery character of the rye melds nicely with the floral and citrus flavors from a blend of four different hops.  As much as I like the Rye Pale Ale, it leaves me wondering if it would taste even better if they just jacked up the malt a little bit to say, 4.0 or 4.5% abv to support more bolder flavors.   

Then there’s Tunnel Vision.  I can see why everyone at Mavericks is pretty excited about it.  I don’t have a strong nose, yet still picked up lots of great floral aromas as it poured into a glass.  Tunnel Vision has this great big tropical hop punch, with flavors of mango, and some floral character.  It’s amazingly smooth drinking for all of its 100+ ibu. If you ask me, it stands up to the best West Coast IPAs.

An Uncertain Future?

Numerous new craft breweries are popping everywhere, but most of them fit neatly into two groups. First, there’s the small niche’, lifestyle breweries.   These are usually some brewpub or a taproom producing at low volume, which have a loyal local following but no grand plans beyond a passion to make great beer and make some money at it.  Thousands of small new breweries like this all over the United States can peacefully coexist. 

Then there are new breweries like Mavericks led by those equally passionate about beer, but with clear ambitions of growth.  I think these types of breweries are more fun to watch, because while the craft brewing industry can sustain its remarkable 15% growth for at least another 4-5 years, pretty soon all these breweries with ambitious plans are going to start thumping into each other.  And of course, the major players like Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and New Belgium are all growing too, leaving less room for upstarts.

What does that means for Mavericks?   We'll just have to see.  They've picked out a wave, maneuvered into position and getting up into a crouch on their board.  Ought to be an interesting ride to watch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Anderson Valley's Hightway 128 Gose Better with Blood Orange?

One of my favorite new beers this year was Anderson Valley's Highway 128 Gose, a nifty session beer (4.0-4.5% abv) with a slightly bracing sour tang, some lemon citrus character and a pronounced salty finish.  (OK, its real name is
"The Kimmie, The Ying and The Holy Gose" but most people I know call it Highway 128 Gose.)  It's a little hard to find around here so I pick up a six-pack nearly every time I see it.  Now Anderson Valley has added some tangy blood orange to the mix.  Does it work?

This version isn't quite as bracing in its sourness, more fruity, the saltiness doesn't come through as much.  The flavors are little more complex, but each component is a little more muddled.    Is it better?  I keep leaning one way or another but never make up my mind which one I like more.  What do you think?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Sneak Peek at Hermitage's Barrel-aged Boysenberry Sour

One the reasons I like to check out brewery tap rooms is that they often have little specials or little sneak peeks of upcoming attractions. Such was the case last Friday when I dropped by the Hermitage tap room.  Their Barrel-Aged Boysenberry Sour Ale will be released this coming Wednesday, December 17th and they're having a big shindig in the tap room that evening to celebrate.  They've already bottled and kegged most of it. One bottle had a cosmetic flaw with the wax seal making it unfit for retail, so they were pouring a few samples around the tap room out if it and I snagged one.

Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel gave me the low down on how it was made.  "We brewed with 40% wheat, and aged it red and white wine barrels for about 6 months.  Both Lactobacillus and Brett (Brettanomyces) were introduced into the barrels, and the boysenberry fruit was added late in fermentation."  Peter went on to tell me there's plenty of excitement around the brewery on how it turned out.

After taking a sampling, I understand the excitement.  It's got a bright, balanced complexity that isn't muddled, and is an enjoyable sipper.  It's not one of those bracing, puckering sours and the dank, barn-yard funkiness one normally gets with the Brett is way in the background which if you ask me is a good thing.  There's a little wheat tang, a little oak in the mix that works well with the tart boysenberries.

If sours aren't your thing, there's plenty of other good brews at the Hermitage tap room right now. Such as Hermitage's Cascade Type 45 Single Hop IPA, part of Hermitage's single hop series.  The Cascade hops give this IPA plenty of piney characters with a little lemon, and I also picked up some tangerine.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Programming Note: Those "Beer of the Month" posts are history

Back in July or 2010, it seemed like a good idea to start posting a "Beer of the Month" review of various beers discovered in my travels.  Beers that either had the "Wow!" factor or were noteworthy in some other unique way.  And it was a good idea, pushing me to find new and interesting beers and tell the stories behind them.  Problem was, the idea got a little too structured and got to be a chore. Some months, it was a struggle to find a "Beer of the Month", other times, I had to pick between a few good candidates.  So I've decided to abandon this structure and just post reviews whenever.  In addition, I'll be focusing my reviews largely on San Francisco Bay Area breweries, and South San Francisco Bay Breweries in general.

I always wanted this blog to be more than a bunch of beer reviews, but talking about different beers and sharing new finds is part of the craft beer conversation  So I'll be doing that in a more locally focused and unstructured manner in this little corner of cyberspace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reviewing "World Bottled Beers: 50 Classic Brews"

The first thing to notice about this book is it's unique beer bottle shape.  But I guess that's the point, as part of this idea is that it slips easily into Christmas stocking, since this book is targeted for the holidays.  Inside, you'll find fifty breezy, yet informative beer reviews from accomplished beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on some of the world's finest beers.  Tierney-Jones reviews American beers like Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA and Victory Brewing's Prima Pils, while including beers from overseas like St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Fuller's Vintage Ale.  Most  beer geeks will be familiar to many of these beers, although I discovered a few intriguing selections from overseas on its pages. Given that, this book will be best appreciated by those who've come to enjoy craft beer and are looking to broaden their beery horizons.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Talking with three brewmasters about their Winter Brews in Adventure Sports Journal

Ah, the winter brew round-up article.  True, it's not the most original idea in beer writing. so I tried to tell a little story behind each beer's creation.  I picked three of my favorite winter beers and interviewed Gordon Biesch's Dan Gordon, 21st Amendment's Shaun O'Sullivan and Ninkasi Brewing;s Jamie Floyd their take on how these beers came about. You can read it all in the latest issue of Adventure Sports Journal.  Hope you like reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Session #94: The Half-Life of Beer Blogs

When Adrian Dingle proposed this month's Session topic, I was in the midst of reading The Half-Life of Facts, a fun book by Samuel Arbesman who takes the reader on a historical tour on how our understanding of facts changes over time and shows everything we know has an expiration date.  In his book, Arbesman demonstrates the growth in scientific publications follows a steeply upward exponential curve. Thus, it becomes harder and harder to come up with revolutionary scientific theories or discoveries due to the increasing volume of research being performed by more and more scientists.

In their day, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein working alone revolutionized physics.  In today's "physics scene" they would be certainly be noteworthy scientists but most likely rather anonymous ones. Fundamental physics is now carried out by large teams involving hundreds of collaborators working hard to push our understanding of physics incrementally forward.  A lone physicist simply cannot be revolutionary the way Newton or Einstein were anymore.

In the same way, what's happened in the beer scene in the past thirty years has echoed the physics scene of the last 125 years.   There are just too many breweries to keep track of, too many beers to possibly drink, and too many events and happenings to follow them all.  Michael Jackson is very much the Albert Einstein of beer writers, but if a young Michael Jackson started a blog today he'd be one of hundreds of people worldwide chronicling all things beer.  I have no doubt this hypothetical young Michael Jackson would emerge as an important and influential beer writer, but it's unlikely he'd define beer writing the way the real Michael Jackson did.  Much of Michael Jackson's groundbreaking subject matter in his day is fairly well worn beer writing territory these days.

So as we ponder our place and existence in the beer scene, we must confront the uncomfortable truth the beer scene is expanding more rapidly than we can possibly keep up with and our blogs become increasingly irrelevant as compared to the whole.  I look at blogs that have gone silent in the past five years as their author moved on to others things and see quaint electronic relics of a some bygone era.  A time when 15 tap handles was a huge number for beer bar, pairing beer with dessert was a novel idea or a beer dinner at some upscale restaurant was cause for celebration.  I imagine most of us continuing to blog feel an increasing challenge to keep up with the rapidly expanding beer scene, lest we fall into a similar obscurity.

But of course, as the beer scene becomes ever larger, there are far more interesting places to explore within it, so that's what I do.   The South San Francisco Bay Area where I live has long been considered a beer wasteland, but a few new breweries are starting to change that, and I often write about this exciting transformation.  There's more beers and breweries out there which means there is another new story behind each one.   So when I discover a particularly interesting one of these stories, I figure others would also be interested so I write about them.  Along the way, I've met a lot of great people and had a lot of good times.  Even though I quietly realize this blog is a somewhat futile effort against the tide of increasing beery irrelevancy, I'm having such a good time, so who cares?