Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben talks about his beers coming to the San Francisco Bay Area

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Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben
(Moody Tongue photo)

Yet another brewery is rolling into the Bay Area, this time it's Chicago's Moody Tongue Brewing Company. New breweries arrive in the Bay Area all the time. Sometimes, it's the result of some corporate acquisition and expansion. Others follow the usual "home brewer turns his passion into his business" story. Moody Tongue is a little different. While Moody Tongue Brewmaster and Founder Jared Rouben is a home brewer, he approaches brewing from high-end restaurant perspective.  He graduated from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America  before a ten year career at the Michelin-starred "Martini House" in St. Helena, CA and Thomas Keller's "Per Se" before starting Moody Tongue in 2014. So when Jared declares his brewery takes a culinary approach to brewing, it isn't just a marketing gimmick. I caught up with Jared last week on the phone to discuss his unique brewing style.

The first thing I noticed about Jared was his amiable inquisitiveness. Most brewers can't wait to talk about their beer in phone interviews. Instead, Jared started asking me a bunch of questions, like "Why did you get involved in writing about beer?" in a calm, relaxed voice. As soon I as I answered, he followed up with "How does running figure into that?". After this kept going for a few minutes, I realized Jared wasn't going to tire from asking questions, which wasn't going to give me much material. So I politely but firmly broke in with "How did you get involved with brewing?"

Jared recalled his time as a student at Washington University in St. Louis when he'd go to the Schnuck's grocery store and saw all the different craft beers from places like Schlafly and Boulevard Brewing. "I'd see all the different labels and wanted to experience the different tastes." Coincidentally,  I also attended Washington University in St. Louis about a decade before Jared did, and an awful lot changed about beer over that time.  Back in the late 80's, buying beer at Schnuck's, or just about anyplace else in St. Louis came down to basically three choices: Bud, Busch, and Bud Light. Sometimes we wanted wanted to the good stuff, we'd splurge on Michelob.

In his last year at Washington University, he took a food journalism course.  "That's when I met a lot of people interested in different tastes, and a found many of them interested in beer." From there, Jared decided to research culinary schools and enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Beer played big role in his education there. "I founded the CIA beer club which still exists today." He learned to use beer in traditional cooking techniques like brining pork butts or braising sausages. "Then, I began asking myself why beer didn’t have stronger representation in restaurants and on menus.  Brewing and cooking are about manipulating raw ingredients with time and temperature. When you use beer, you intoxicate people which I believe is every chef’s dream."

After culinary school, Jared worked at the Martini House in Napa Valley, where he had his "a-ha!" moment with using produce in beer. "They sent me to the farmer's market every Wednesday to pick up produce for the restaurant. I also picked some up for my home brews and people started liking them a lot more." His Pluot Pale Ale was a particular hit from those days in Napa Valley. After a decade of cooking at some of the finest kitchens in the country, he turned in his apron and started Moody Tongue.

"We like to define our beers in the same way what a chef tries to achieve in the kitchen," explains Jared.  "We use the absolute best ingredients.  It's hard to make something great if you start with something that's just good. And we incorporate the ingredients at the right time in the liquid.

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(Moody Tongue photo)

For example, for Moody Tongue's Sliced Nectarine IPA, the nectarines are sourced from Klug Farms, an organic farm in Western Michigan. "Nectarines are a very delicate fruit, you don't want to subject them to high temperatures. They work best under 40 degrees so I use them post-fermentation." For those used to West Coast IPA's crammed full pine, citrus, dankness and alcohol, Sliced Nectarine IPA requires a palate re-calibration to fully appreciate. There's nectarine skin on the nose, with nectarine flash on the tongue, and a bitter finish of tangerine peel. At 6.9% abv, you can have another one with dinner if you'd like. It's a restrained, yet lively composition of flavors.

The same can be said of the other three beers on Moody Tongue's permanent line-up. The Applewood Gold is well balanced, the smoked malt adding a subtle depth to the light ale. The Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saisson is...well, very lemony. The Caramelize Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter sounds like an over the top, everything and the kitchen sink concoction, but the caramel and chocolate worked well in harmony with the underlying, slightly sweet Baltic Porter. I can see this working as a sophisticated dessert beer. For the most part, the flavors of the Moody Tongue beers work well together in balanced, contrasting with a lot of West Coast beers full of big slamming flavors. One way to compare the two is to consider California and French wines. California wines tend to full of big flavors that score well in tasting competitions, but the more restrained French wines tend to pair better with food. Or something like that. Long time readers all know that if you're looking for deep culinary analysis and commentary, you'll need to go to a different blog.

While the Moody Tongue tap room in Chicago features a number of seasonal beers, only Moody Tongue's four beer line-up can be found in the Bay Area. "We'll be focusing on perfecting the technique on our four primary beers like any good kitchen does with its recipes." According to the brewery's press release, "Moody Tongue is available at select retailers such as Berkeley Bowl West, La Riviera Market, and Alchemy Bottle Shop as well as restaurants including The Beer Hall, Imperial Beer Cafe' and the Albany Taproom".

In the Bay Areas deep and crowded beer market, Moody Tongue offer yet another approach to beer and new experiences to its enjoyment.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Session #119: Dealing with Discomfort

For this month's Session, Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer asks us to write about "discomfort beers", beers that took us out of our comfort zone and "beers you weren't sure whether you didn't like or whether you just needed to adjust to."

As a runner, I know a few things about discomfort. Runners purposely and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of discomfort, and often have a good time doing it. Yes, runners are a little weird. Of course, it's the mental and physical development created in adapting to discomfort which runners seek. In the same way, going outside of our beery comfort zones develops both the palate and the mind to appreciate beer's full potential.

As for us brewing enthusiasts, we're often going about, trying new beers from different breweries. That's how we learn about beer, and it describes how I started my journey to discover beer ten years ago. I just started picking up six-packs from different breweries sitting there in the grocery store cooler, taking them home, and seeing if I liked them. Most of the time I did. I started venturing online to learn more about the different beers out there, creating this positive feedback loop, where I read what others were raving about and then confidently striding into bottle shops and bars seeking them out, repeating with increasing frequency.

Some beers took longer than others to get used to. I remember my first sips of Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, finding it to be completely unbearably bitter. It was like chewing on an old bicycle tire. Over time after sampling other hop driven beers, I cautiously came back to Racer 5. To my surprise, I liked it on the second go around, apparently developing a taste for IPAs.  Or perhaps I developed a taste for old bicycle tires.

One beer style I found discomforting early on were American Barleywines. The massive amount of sweet malt, supposedly balanced with lots of hops in the American style, tasted like a syrupy, chalky mess. As I've learned more about beer and expanded my palate, I've come back to try a few American Barleywines. They still taste like a syrupy chalky mess. I'm fine with Barleywines brewed in the English style. Somehow, American's have taken a perfectly good style and made of mess of it with too many hops.

There are other styles I often find discomforting.  Like our Session host, I wasn't a fan of my first Black IPA. Black IPA's require a careful and delicate balance of aggressive flavors, and not every brewer can pull off. Some Black IPA's are wonderful. A fair share of Black IPA's can be diplomatically described as out of control monstrosities. Session IPA's are sort of my anti-discomfort beer. I really liked the first few I tried, but now I've grown to sour a bit to the style. It's really tricky to balance the high hop content with a whisper of malt, and I'm afraid a few Session IPA's come across as little more than fizzy hop water.

Now if I were a beer industry professional, it would be my job to choke down these discomfort beers to do my best to appreciate the full scope of brewing. But beer is just my hobby. I see little point in forcing myself to appreciate beers I don't particularly like and probably never will. That doesn't mean it doesn't pay to explore areas that might not seem to be the most fruitful for discovery.

Like the past summer, when I made a point of seeking out Lagers and Pilsners from various breweries. I've never been a big fan of these much maligned styles associated with big multi-national corporations. Now sitting around, drinking Lagers isn't exactly my idea of discomfort.  But it was rather eye-opening discovering Lagers from small California brewers of subtle, satisfying depth in a thirst-quenching beverage. I also gained a new appreciation for Pilsners after sampling many examples of the style. To my surprise, some of my favorite California brewers whiffed on the Pilsner style, despite having a number of successful flavorful ales in their line-up. And wouldn't you know, some Pilsners from mega corporations aren't half bad. This summertime experiment went to show how just how challenging the Pilsner style is to brew.

I suppose if I were really hard-core about beer, I'd spend a summer drinking American Barleywines. Whether running, drinking beer, or anything else, how much discomfort you're willing to embrace says a lot.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rambling Reviews 1.4.2017: Brews from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Hermitage, and Discretion Brewing

Tasting flight of SCVB's Loma Prieta Oatmeal
Rye Imperial Stout at the SCVB taproom
Let's start off 2017 by rambling on about beers from some local breweries in and around San Jose.

We'll start with Loma Prieta Oatmeal Rye Imperial Stout from Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). The tallest mountain in the Santa Cruz mountain range, Loma Prieta is most associated with the legendary 1989 Northern California earthquake. Loma Prieta means "dark hill" in Spanish. As for the beer, it's a subdued, smokey, smooth, and slightly peppery stout, with the complex roastiness forming a nice substrate for the Bourbon and Rye barrel-aged infusions the folks at SCVB introduced into a couple version of the brew. My early beer blogging inspiration and SCVB Marketing Manager Peter Estaniel invited me over to the brewery for a four-sample tasting flight of Loma Prieta on nitroro, all by itself, and aged for ten months in Rye and Bourbon barrels. I would love to give you detailed tasting notes on all the different nuances and subtleties of Loma Prieta, but after a few sips of Loma Prieta, Peter and I started chatting away on sports and beery subjects that taking tasting notes seemed pointless. Loma Prieta facilitating all that engaging discussion is perhaps the best endorsement I could give.

Next up, Topaz Single Hop IPA from San Jose's Hermitage Brewing. Hermitage's single hop IPA series has long been a great way to experience new hops to understand the unique characteristics they impart into beers. That sounds like something only a hard core homebrewer could love, but strangely enough, hops like Topaz prove many hops work quite well all on their own without the usual blending brewers obsess over.  The high alpha acid content of Topaz makes this a rather straightforwardly bitter IPA, but its light tropical fruit and apricot notes save the day. Nice IPA.

Finally, we end with Uncle Dave's Rye IPA from Discretion Brewing, just over the hill from San Jose in Soquel. I enjoyed one of these last week on a family drive up the Pacific Coast when we stopped at the small seaside town of Davenport for lunch. Having many an IPA chock full of as much dankness, piney-ness, and grapefruity bitterness as the brewer could cram into the beer, it was rather refreshing to enjoy an IPA with some flavor and balance to it. It's light rye peppery flavors work well with the stone fruit flavors in this well composed IPA. There's probably a reason this brew has won a bunch of awards for Discretion including a Bronze medal in Rye Beer Category in the 2016 World Beer Cup. Instead of my usual blurry, out of focus beer picture, I'll leave you with a nice shot from Bonny Doon Beach just south of Davenport.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Don't worry about massive increases in hop prices...they could be a good thing

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released their year end National Hop Report. It's a rather technical document, full of facts and figures but one statistic jumps out. The average cost of US grown hops in 2016  jumped from last year's $4.38 per pound to $5.72, a whopping 30.6% increase. And the $4.38 per pound figure in 2015 was a 19.3% price increase over 2014.  Given these rather startling price increases in a critical beer making ingredient, does this mean we're going to start seeing dramatically higher pricing on beer shelves? Will brewers fall under increasing price pressures due to massive increases in hop pricing?

Probably not. For starters, most breweries invest in hop contracts so already have their pricing for next years brews locked in. It's one of the main reasons hop contracts are essential for breweries. They ensure a reliable delivery of hops without any price surprises. Then there is the matter that the cost of hops usually accounts for less than 5% of the overall cost to produce beer. So even a 30% increase in hop prices will have little effect on the final price of beer.

We can further investigate this with simple back of the envelope calculation. The most heavily hopped IPA's use four pounds of hops per barrel of beer.  One barrel of beer equates to 330 12-ounce servings.  If we take the $1.34 difference per pound between hop prices in 2015 and 2016, multiply that by four, and divide that over 330 servings, we get:  (4 x $1.34) / 330 = 0.016 or 1.6 cents per serving. Suffice to say, consumers will barely notice any overall price increase.

Of course, brewers use different varieties of hops in their beers, each with their own different pricing, so this analysis is a little simplistic. The USDA report made no distinction between the cost of different hop varieties so I went with the overall average. Some rare, hard to get hops are subject to wildly varying prices, and can cost as high as 20 dollars per pound. But since people are often willing to pay extra for these exotic beers, it's likely not going to affect the overall beer market.

What is the most encouraging news from the USDA's report is most certainly that hop farming is becoming more profitable.  The report made no mention of the cost side of hop farming, but it's hard to believe hop farmers are spending 20-30% more to produce the same amount of hops. That's good news from the consumer side, because when hop farmers make good money, they can justify investing in equipment to improve the quality of their product, or can take more risks such as planting more unique hop varieties brewers can use to create new and interesting flavors. So don't worry about the rising hop prices, at least not yet. You'll barely notice it in your wallet, and it allows hop growers to create better brewing ingredients.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rambling Reviews 12.21.2016: Review of Brews from Camino Beer Company, Lagunitas and Hangar 24

As we wrap up 2016, I've got one last rambling on three beers to close out this extraordinary year.

Let's start with a newcomer to San Jose's beer scene, Camino Beer Company and their Imperial Rye IPA they call "The James Starr".  It's the most malt forward Imperial IPA I can remember, and that's not a bad thing. The malt flavors really sing here, dominated by toffee and accented with a peppery spiciness from the rye. The hops are there, just barely. There's a little tea-like character on the finish, and if you concentrate hard, you'll detect a little pine and citrus. Few California breweries would brew an Imperial IPA this way, which is one of the reasons I can rally around The James Starr. But the strong malt flavors that really popped won the day, and while the style purists would likely declare this a Barleywine, I'd prefer not to enter into these debates. It's a damn good, eye-opening sipping beer, that's what it is.

Speaking of beers and breweries that defy neat and tidy definitions, our next brew is Aunt Sally from Lagunitas. According to the Lagunitas website, it was released in March of this year, but I haven't seen it around until recently. If you feared Lagunitas would start becoming more commercial and mainstream after Heineken took a 50% stake in the brewery last year, Aunt Sally should help put your mind to rest. Lagunitas describes Aunt Sally as a "dry-hopped sweet tart sour mash ale", and it's a weird and wonderful combination of sour, bitter, a little sweetness and some musty funkiness. Surprisingly drinkable and further proof that while Lagunitas remains a relentless capitalist machine, they continue to take daring risks. Like many of these moves, it pays off.

Finally, we come to Hangar 24's Chocolate Bomber, a Porter brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla. Hardly anyone just brews a porter these days. They're usually adding something like coffee or chocolate or hazelnuts or bourbon into it. That's probably because these additions to a base Porter really amped up the flavors.  Like they do in this brew.  What can say, Chocolate Bomber is rich, slightly sweet and complex with lots of bitter chocolate flavors. 

That wraps up the rambling for the year.  All the best for the holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grilled Vegetables Are Easy

A recent plate of grilled veggies looming in the darkness
It's pretty damn difficult to screw up grilled vegetables. That's the only conclusion I can possibly reach after spending a few evenings mucking around on the grill and still serving up good plates of grilled vegetables. In fact, as we head into winter it's been getting so dark during the evening that I can barely see the vegetables I'm grilling and they still come out pretty good.

Grilling vegetables is pretty easy. Take some olive oil, add salt and pepper, throw in some other spices like oregano and hot pepper flakes, brush that on the sliced vegetables and throw them on the grill. Once you have nice grill marks on both sides they're done.

You can buy books on the subject, and they certainly help, but you don't need to. I consult my well worn copy of Steve Raichlen's "How to Grill", on of my earliest grilling inspirations from time to time. And you can get fancy with all sorts of more complicated marinades or rubs and extra ingredients, although it's not really necessary.  Just about whatever you do with grilled vegetables will taste good.

Grilled vegetables are as underrated as they are easy.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A quick take on Freewheel Brewing....and English Session Ales

Recently during during my day job, I finished up with a customer visit at nearly 6:00 pm in Redwood City. With no desire to brave the sluggish highway 101 rush hour traffic on the down the San Francisco Peninsula into the Silicon Valley, I ventured for the first time into Freewheel Brewing. Freewheel takes a decidedly different take on beer than most Bay Area breweries in that they specialize in English-style cask conditioned ales.  With their light, pillowy carbonation, subtle tastes, and generally low alcohol levels, Freewheel beers are diametrically opposed to most of the uber-hoppy, everything but the kitchen sink alcohol bombs served up all over the Bay Area.

I have to admit English-style session ales take a little getting used to in the Bay Area's craft beer environment. My previous experience with Freewheel's brews were at a couple beer festivals, probably the worst way to sample them. Beer festivals are basically beer beauty contests. Everyone wants to stare at the voluptuous supermodels, that plain looking girl sitting in the corner gets ignored. But as we all quietly realize, she's often a lot more fun to spend the evening with than some self-absorbed diva. English-style ales aren't all that sexy but, as I discovered at Freewheel, they make a great evening companion.

I have no idea whether Freewheel's beers are particularly authentic, having never been to England. But then, they don't have to be. As I worked through my tasting flight, it became apparent these beers had a different approach.  I've had plenty of English-style ales like Bitters, Milds, Stouts, and of course IPA's, mostly brewed by American breweries who felt the need to impose their own unique stamp on them. The Freewheel beers seems a bit more dialed down, and in some way, to the right volume. The brews seemed right at home with my plate of fish and chips, not competing for my attention. My surroundings were full of casual chatter in the tightly packed brewpub, the large groups suggesting this was a pretty popular neighborhood hangout.

I have to admit I still don't quite get why the English can be so fanatical about their cask conditioned ales. Freewheel gave me some insight as to why.