Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Canned!": A Colorful, Comprehensive Look at Craft Beer Art

(photo Schiffer Publishing)
Not only has American brewing revolution brought new and distinctive new flavors to a new generation, it's brought new art as well.  Numerous breweries striving to create own identity have commissioned artists to convey their own personality, as well as create memorable images for each beer in their line-ups.  There's no better compilation of this staggering amount of artwork than the new book "Canned!:  The Artwork of the Modern American Beer Can".

Virtually every American craft beer sold in cans is displayed, along with short comments about the artwork or the beer itself.  A few short years ago, this would've been a pretty slim volume since few craft beers were sold in cans.  As the public has readily adapted to the concept that high quality beer can indeed be sold in cans, the craft beer industry has transitioned to release more and more of their product in cans.  While a lot of this has to do with the convenience of the packaging and because cans preserve beer better than traditionally used bottles, the fact that cans provide an ideal canvas for branding artwork is certainly part of that motivation.

Author Russ Phillips has been chronicling this phenomenon on his website and the depth of his knowledge shows in "Canned!" his first book.  The book is organized into sections based on US brewery geography, which a short history canned beer and a forward by Dale Katechis, the founder of Oskar Blues Brewery.

"Canned!" one of those books you can start in the middle someplace and lose yourself while effortlessly leafing through the pages, discovering new beers and learning about new breweries while gazing at all the colorful artwork.  "Canned!" is nothing less than an engaging document of an emerging and colorful part of craft beer culture.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Talking with Brewmaster Steve Donohue about Santa Clara Valley Brewing's First Year

Brewmaster Steve Donohue enjoying a pint at
Little Lou's Barbecue
It’s been a little over a year since Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s (SCVB)  Electric Tower IPA first arrived.  Since then, Electric Tower tap handles started sprouting up all over the South Bay and SCVB's subsequent releases of Peralta Porter and New Almaden Imperial Red have also been successful.  It’s not surprising, given that SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue won four Great American Beer Festival medals in just six years at Fire House Grill and Brewery before starting SCVB with Apple Executive Tom Clark.

I spent some time talking with Steve Donohue about his first year of SCVB and the brewery's plans for the future over a couple New Almaden Imperial Red Ales at Campbell's Little Lou’s Barbecue.    As he sat down, Donohue reminisced,  “We tapped our first keg of Electric Tower First May 10th just last year.  That in and of itself is hard to believe.  It’s gone fast.  It’s been a wild ride so far that has exceeded expectations.”

Looking back at his years at Firehouse, Steve had only positive things to say.  “The six years I had there were great.  I couldn’t have had a more valuable experience and came into my own as a brewer.  I’d reached the pinnacle doing everything I could do for the business.  It was just time to move on.”

So he did.  It happened when Apple executive and long time home brewer Tom Clark was looking to start a brewery in the South Bay.  Clark spoke with some of his contacts in Santa Rosa, and they suggested giving Steve a call.  Together they formed Santa Clara Valley Brewing.

Their first beer was Electric Tower IPA.  Tom and Steve discussed the qualities they wanted their first beer to have, and then Steve put the recipe together.  “Recipes aren’t that hard for me, I guess,” says Steve matter of factly.  “To make what we wanted, I knew certain malts would take me here, “ gesturing with his hands, “these hops would take me here, and the yeast would take me here.  When we tried the first batch, it was pretty much where we wanted to be.”

As for new beers in the works, Steve is working on a barrel-aged wheat beer brewed with 100%  Brettanomyces yeast with sour cherries.  As Steve describes it, “It won’t be a Sour per se, but will have some tartness.  I’ve been tasting it out of the barrels and it’s about where it should be.”  Further pondering his next move, he mused  "I'm thinking about doing a barrel-aged stout.   Then, a lot of people do barrel-aged stouts, so maybe I’ll do an Old Ale instead.  I haven’t decided which one yet.”

The business side of things is starting to grow.  SCVB produced a mere 200 barrels in 2013, but is on target to brew about 800 barrels in 2014.  Tom Clark’s wife Colleen has taken over the bookkeeping duties. Peralta Porter is now pouring at San Jose Giants games and Electric Tower IPA is selling well in San Diego, a fact that’s both surprising and highly encouraging,  given the number of excellent IPA’s brewed in and around San Diego.  SCVB hired their first dedicated sales person last month, Stephanie Santolo.  “She’s just killing it,” enthused Steve about Santolo's performance.  “She just got us into Lunardi’s.  I had begun talking with them, but she closed the deal.  I didn’t even realize she was talking to them until it happened.”   Given Lunardi’s operates eight high-end grocery stores throughout the South Bay and  Peninsula, it’s a big win for a brewery of SCVB’s size.

All of which will be important SCVB’s next step.  Currently, their beer is brewed under contract at Hermitage Brewing but that will change in the not too distant future as SCVB is in the process of building their own brewery.  “We’re still keeping it close to the vest, “ Steve explained.  “We’ve leased a building, but we’re not ready to make a big announcement.  Hopefully, we’ll start construction within the next couple of months.” It took about four months to find the right location for the brewery, which will be located across the street from Southern Lumber just south of downtown San Jose.  As for a time table as when it will open, Steve was reluctant to provide an estimate.

But it’s a good bet that a year from now, the gritty industrial park just south of downtown San Jose full of construction suppliers and auto salvage yards will also be known for beer as at least four craft breweries will call the place home.   There’s Hermitage Brewing, which started it all and opened up a tap room last yearStrike Brewing is set to open their brewery and tap room this summer after brewing under contract for a couple years at Hermitage.  Then there’s Clandestine Brewing, about to reveal itself with a brewery and tasting room this summer.  There’s even talk of a shuttle picking up passengers from the San Jose Cal Train station with stops at the four breweries, and possibly some downtown beer locations as well.

Whether or not San Jose becomes a beer destination, it’s exciting to think about it.  Whatever happens in the South Bay Brewing scene, Santa Clara Valley Brewing is going to be a big part of it.  It figures Santa Clara Valley Brewing's second year is going to be every bit as eventful as their first.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pints for Paws this June 7th in Berkeley to benefit Berkeley Humane

Pints for Paws, a beer festival to support of Berkeley Humane on June 7th isn't your typical beer festival.  Oh sure, they'll be over twenty of some of the finest Bay Area breweries pouring, local food and live music like most beer festivals.  Unlike most beer festivals, 100% of the proceeds go directly to the charity.

Most people aren't aware that few charity beer festivals operate this way.  Most pay a portion of their revenue to a professional organizer once all the expenses to run the festival are paid. An organizer usually takes 5-10% of the festival revenue, but sometimes the percentage can be as high as 35%.

Pints for Paws festival organizer Ashley Routson wanted to do  things differently.  Routson, also known as The Beer Wench, has been enthusiastically bouncing around the Bay Area brewing scene for many years in many roles and is currently the Director of Awesomeness for Bison Brewing.   She also owns a rescue dog and is passionate about the Humane Society's mission to provide care for homeless animals. Since every thousand dollars Berkeley Human raises allows them to save an additional homeless animal, she wanted to make sure the festival proceeds would save as many animals as possible rather than ending up in an organizer's pocket.

As Routson explains, "With this particular event, the charity is the only one touching the money. And Berkeley Humane is very transparent with how that money will be used. The math is simple, the message is simple. $1,000 = 1 animal life. Drink Beer. Save Animals." 

So go to Pints for Paws this June 7th, enjoy some great beers, and be confident knowing all the proceeds are going directly to Berkeley Humane.

The details for  Pints for Paws 

When:  Saturday, June 7th, 2:00-5:00 pm
Where:  1050 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets:  $35 in advance, $40 at the door
For more information and to buy tickets, go to
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Bay to Breakers: I can't beat 'em so I'll join 'em

Trying to hold it together at the half-way point at Bay to Breakers
I'm the guy on the far left (Photo by Leigh-Ann Wendling)
In the past, I have not had the kindest things to say about the Bay to Beakers race held each May in San Francisco.  From afar, Bay to Breakers always seemed like some huge mob scene,  a mass of San Francisco style exhibitionism that had over taken an event which once upon a time had been a running race. But as I often say, "Don't criticize what you don't understand".   So when a friend asked my wife and I to join her for the 2014 running of Bay to Breakers, I agreed.  I figured I should at least try to understand this race for myself so decided to finally experience it once and for all.

And yes, I had a blast.  The crowds were full of an enthusiastic energy all the runners easily fed off of. It certainly got me going, as I "high fived" a few spectators along the way.   Bay to Breakers actually felt like a race, not some big crazy party drowning out the running part.   There's something special and hallowed about running the historic race course that's been run since 1912, which has emerged as the site of one of San Francisco's major cultural events. Whatever Bay to Breakers was going to throw at me, I was going to do my best to simply embrace that moment.

As for the course itself, it was an interesting challenge.  The first 2 1/2 miles were mostly flat before hitting the Hayes Street Hill, a series of steep uphills for a few blocks before the course meanders downhill for the last 4 1/2 miles, finishing at the western edge of Golden Gate Park.  My goal was to hit 6:10-6:15 pace and to take it easy for the first couple miles to save something for Hayes Street Hill, and then attack on the downhill.

Of course, you know how that first "conservative mile" went.  I busted it out at 5:55.  Putting on the brakes bit over the second mile, I struggled up the Hayes Street Hill and was getting pretty worried I was in a lot of trouble as I slowly worked it up the hill as other runners moved past me.  But I pulled myself together, got a good pace going through Golden Gate Park working the downhills and finished in 47:09 over the 12 kilometer distance (6:20 per mile pace), good for 199th overall and 9th in the 45-49 male age group.

If you ask me, that calls for a post-race beer.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beer of the Month : Golden Gate Gose from Almanac Beer

Almanac's Golden Gate Gose at Liquid Bread.
Beer of the Month for this May comes from Almanac Beer, known mainly for strong barrel-aged ales with unusual organic heirloom ingredients like strawberries and even fennel.  While I've enjoyed many of these Almanac creations, the latest that caught my fancy was something enjoyed while whiling away a warm spring afternoon reading a book at Campbell's Liquid Bread.

It's Golden Gate Gose, a soft, lovely example of a style rarely brewed in the United States.  The Gose style originates from the Northern Germany town of Goslar.  It's a top fermented sour beer traditionally brewed with at least 50% wheat malt, coriander, salt.

Golden Gate Gose is a little soapy, salty, and lightly sour and as you can see, has a fluffy, pillowy head.   It's the uncluttered, balanced, and restrained composition of just a few flavor notes that really makes "triple G" really work.  Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise from Almanac, since for all their wild ingredients and barrel aging, the solid and technically well executed beer underlying all the unique flavors is what makes their beers work so well..

If you ask me, beers embracing simplicity and balance which quietly attract your attention are rare and under appreciated.  So let's raise a glass to Almanac for celebrating old, nearly forgotten style with quiet fan fare.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chatting with Shock Top Head Brewmaster Jill Vaughn about Twisted Pretzel Wheat and her other Shock Top Beers

Shocktop Brewmaster Jill Vaughn 
Give Shock Top credit for having the audacity to actually talk about their beer.

It hasn't always been that way with Anheuser-Busch, (A-B), the parent owner of Shocktop.  A-B is long known for selling beer using animated frogs, simply showing people having good times at parties holding drinking their beer and most recently using an absurd stunt featuring a ping-pong playing Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It made sense not to bring up the actual beer they were selling because when you got right down to it, it was pretty bland, watery and uninspiring.

It's safe to assume that as craft beer emerged as a force that could no longer be countered by slick ad campaigns, A-B finally realized they needed to do something different.  Shock Top has been part of that.  It was formed in 2006 as a seasonal brew called Spring Hill Spiced Wheat.  It won gold in 2006 and silver in 2007 at the North American Beer Awards. That success convinced A-B to brew it year around and they renamed it Shock Top.  Shock Top has gone on to brew various riffs on the tradition Belgian Wheat Beer style, much like Molson Coors's highly successful Blue Moon brand.

As part of this new focus on the beer itself, much of Shock Top's marketing features Jill Vaughn, Shock Top's Head Brewmaster.  You'll find her videos talking about her various brewing creations such as Shock Top's Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat and special release Twisted Pretzel Wheat   Of course, A-B has long used women to promote their beer, but as eye candy in a swimsuit, not as company leaders thoughtfully discussing their creative inspirations.

For all its good intentions Shock Top can't totally escape a certain guilt by association with A-B and is viewed with much wariness and at times, outright derision in the craft beer community. A-B earned a reputation of being the "Evil Empire" from their long history of aggressive sales tactics targeting craft breweries.   It's even more galling now the A-B is seemingly trying to beat craft brewers at their own game with the Shock Top brand.

Pouring Shocktop at a beer festival
(Photo from Shocktop Brewing)
Undaunted, Shock Top keeps reaching out to introduce their beers to the craft beer drinking public. They're embarking on a tour to attend over 400 beer festivals this year and at many of them will be pouring Twisted Pretzel Wheat, which is not available in stores.   As part of this promotion, Shock Top approached me with an opportunity to interview Jill Vaughn about Twisted Pretzel Wheat and her other beers and I took this opportunity to do so.

If Shock Top is part of the evil empire, then Jill Vaughn makes for a terrible Darth Vader. I found her to be engaging, passionate about brewing, with an infectious enthusiasm for creating new beers.  It turns out Jill and I went to school together for three years.  She graduated from The Ohio State University in 1992 with a degree in Food Science, three years after I started graduate school at another department in 1989.  And yes, I've enjoyed a couple of her Shock Top Belgian Wheat's last fall watching Ohio State football games with friends. Let's find out more about the driving brewing force of Shock Top.

Q:  How did you become the Head Brewmaster at Shock Top?

A: A lot of begging, a lot of pleading.  (Laughing).  It took a lot of hard work, and probably took a little bit of luck but I’ve been brewing for a long time, ever since I left college.   I’ve always wanted to do something creative and try new things and jumped at the chance to take this job. 

Q: How long have you been with A-B.

A:  I’m going to date myself.  It’s been twenty-two years this August.

Q: How do you brew a beer that tastes like a pretzel?

A:  Let me tell you the background behind it.  There’s a couple considerations we have for any  Shock Top beer.  We use the best ingredients, and  always brew with wheat malt and some type of citrus.  There’s this place across the street from the brewery that makes these wonderful pretzels.  Pretzels are popular in St. Louis and we wanted to brew something that was part of St. Louis.  Every day when leaving the brewery, you can smell two things: the beer from the brewery and fresh baked pretzels.  We did a lot of experimentation in our pilot brewery with barely malt, wheat malt, citrus and we found a totally cool flavor essence that has all the flavors of a fresh pretzel.  When we tasted the beer, we all found it was exactly what we were looking for.

Q: In addition to the Belgian White, you brewed a ‘smores beer (called Campfire Wheat) that was well received by the judges Draft Magazine, a Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat, Honeycrisp Apple Wheat, Raspberry Wheat, Lemon Shandy. How do you come up with these creations?

A: I’m very fortunate.  I work with a great team of people and we have our own microbrewery we call the Research Pilot Brewery.  It’s like a beer incubator and we do some crazy things.  We’ll brew with virtually anything.  I look to food for a lot of my inspiration.  I love food and get a lot of my ideas from chefs, especially when I travel since I eat out a lot in new places.

The Lemon Shandy makes sense for Shock Top.  People who know a lot about beer are probably familiar with the concept of beer shandy which is beer mixed with a soft drink, often lemonade , but most people don't.  So we put our own twist of the traditional Shandy.

The Honeycrisp Apple Wheat is in the space between cider and beer and then were spice it up with grains of paradise and candi sugar and put our own Shock Top identity to it.

The idea behind the ‘smores beer was to take something familiar that everybody likes brew it in our own Shock Topian way.

Q: Any new beers on the horizon you can talk about?

A: We are constantly playing and experimenting, but I can’t mention any specific beers we’ll be releasing yet.  We should be coming out with another beer in the late summer we’ll be pouring at festivals.  It’s really crazy the kind of stuff we’re come up with and a blast trying all sorts of new things.  It’s really, really fun brewing with anything I can and look forward to experimenting.  It’s just great.

Q: What are the challenges to doing something creative and still needing to brew and sell it at the large volumes required satisfy your corporate ownership?

A: I don’t think it’s any different if you brew with little vessels or with big vessels.  You want to make sure your consumer base is satisfied.  Any brewer needs to know their consumer base and what their customers want.   We know our customers, and want to deliver the best quality beer to them. 

Q: Do you ever read the reviews of Shock Top on sites like RateBeer or BeerAdvocate?

A:  (Pause) I read reviews of all kinds of beers.  Sometimes I’ll take a look at what people are saying on those sites.  I don’t do it very often.

Q: Well, there are certainly some positive reviews of Shock Top on these sites, but there are also some pretty scathing reviews of your beer.  In a lot of craft beer circles, Shock Top with its association with A-B and its larger parent AB InBev is viewed as part of the Evil Empire, a “faux craft brewery”, and there’s a lot of negativity directed at Shock Top and the beers you brew.  What do you think about that?  How does that affect you?

A:  (Deep breath)  Here’s the deal for me.  I’m a brewer and I’ve been brewing beer for twenty-two years.  I don’t quite understand these divisions people make.  I know a lot of brewers and all brewers want to make good beer.  I want to brew good beer and I think I do.  I try not to get too wrapped up in that stuff.
Again, I really don’t understand the division.  Beer is a social beverage bringing people together. I enjoy spending time drinking my beer with other people.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Session #87 : Modern History in the Making at Silicon Valley's Hermitage Brewing

I'm going to start with an editorial comment for this month's Session, which comes across as a home work assignment from Rueben Gray, who asks us to write about local brewing history, where any brewery within an eight hour drive home is fair game.  What bothers me is his other stipulation:

"The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don't pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There's not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years."

I appreciate our host's desire to exclude breweries that, in his opinion, have little established history as well as what seems to be good intentions to nudge us out of our comfort zones. Generally, I would not consider a 2-3 year brewery "historic" either but don't agree with the arbitrary time cut-off.  Would anyone seriously suggest the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, the "Arab Spring", or the emergence of the Internet as global communication medium are not events worthy for a discussion of world history simply because they occurred less than twenty years ago?

I'll point out that here in Northern California, this twenty year cut-off means breweries clearly influential to the history and trajectory of craft beer both in Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States like Bear Republic, Russian River Brewing, and 21st Amendment are effectively deemed "not historical enough" and excluded from the discussion.  In addition, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head, both integral to craft brewing's short history are also excluded, as they were founded in 1996 and 1995, respectively   In their place are plenty of brewpubs and regional breweries that have made fine beer and done enough things right to hang around for 20 years.   But with all due respect, many of these brewery's histories are rather ordinary, and no more remarkable than the story of some hot shot homebrewer deciding to turn pro and starting a brewery within the last couple years.  Age does not necessarily correlate to historical relevance.
Some of the equipment inside San Jose's Hermitage Brewing

I'm a firm believer about going into the distant past to understand the present and future, but also believe more is learned from the extraordinary rather than ordinary. What makes brewing's present so unique and exciting in beer's 6,000 year history is the beverage continues to redefine itself. Arguably beer is being transformed more than in any time during its history, bringing fascinating economic forces into play, as small breweries challenge larger, more established breweries, which are using economies of scale to consolidate  remain profitable.

So I've figured work-around for this month's Session. I'm going to talk about San Jose's Hermitage Brewing, founded in 2009, which was established by Tied House Brewing.   Tied House was one of the earliest breweries in the Bay Area, founded in 1988 by Lou Jemison and Ron Manabe in Mountain View, CA.  For years, they brewed a number of fine beers and opened up a second location about 20 miles east in downtown San Jose, CA.  Unfortunately, the last United State recession hit the San Jose location hard and it closed down in May 2009.

Another view inside Hermitage

That's when the fun at Hermitage began.  Tied House moved the brewing equipment from their failed San Jose location into a dusty, gritty industrial park south of downtown San Jose and established Hermitage Brewing.  Hermitage brews beer for Tied House brewpub as well as their own line of beers for packaged retail sale.    In one of their early experiments, Hermitage brewed a single hop IPA using Columbus hops.  It didn't sell very well.  Then they tried an IPA using just Amarillo hops.  Again, it sold poorly.  Undaunted, Hermitage tried again with an IPA brewed with nothing but Citra hops.   The third time proved to be a charm as it became a big hit and Citra Hop IPA is now a fixture in Hermitage's year 'round line-up.

Many breweries brew a single hop IPA.  Due to their success with Citra Hop IPA, Hermitage is perhaps the only brewery to a have a regular series of single hop IPA releases.  It's an innovative series where hops typically used for bittering, such as Magnum are brewed into an IPA.  Or sometimes, Hermitage uses a hop grown at only a couple farms in the entire world, like El Dorado.  Despite sounding like an ongoing experiment only a home brewing geek could love, their single hop IPA series has become a popular line of beers for Hermitage.  

But it's not their fine beers which makes Hermitage notable.  It's Hermitage's thriving contract brewing business.  Only about 15% of Hermitage's capacity is devoted to their own beers.   It sells as much as the remaining capacity it can to several small, newly formed breweries that cannot afford the substantial capital investments to bring their beers to fruition.  I count at least nine Northern California breweries that quietly call Hermitage their home.  Most of these breweries are not known to the general drinking public, and these breweries often claim a Bay Area locality other than San Jose.  I don't want to betray any confidences by naming them all here, but I'd like to briefly mention two.

The first is San Francisco's Almanac Beer, founded only three years ago by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagen.  Almanac Brewing sells their beer is rustic looking bottles touting a "Farm to Bottle" ethic.   Almanac highlights so many heirloom organic ingredients and slow barrel aging, you'd think their beers were brewed in some barn in Sonoma County.  I find it rather ironic that most of their beer is instead brewed in an urban industrial park.  Since there's always a big stack of boxes of Almanac Beer sitting around the Hermitage tap room for everyone to see, I have to think this is no longer a big secret.

Then there's Strike Brewing, which has brewed their beer at Hermitage for all 2 1/2 years of their existence. That's about to change as Strike is about to open their own brewery, about a half mile away from Hermitage's Brewery.  With Hermitage's tap room and Strike's soon to be completed tap room within a ten minute walk, it's enough to speculate as to whether San Jose, long considered a barren wasteland in the San Francisco Bay Area brewing scene, could possibly transform into a beer destination. 

With so many brewers coming and going at Hermitage, it's become a brewing incubator for small, up and coming Bay Area breweries.  It's not uncommon to find brewers from supposed "rival" companies chatting away over a pint, bouncing off ideas and sharing experiences within the chummy brewing fraternity.  It's not unlike the Silicon Valley start-up community, where smart young entrepreneurs swap ideas and established CEO's somehow find the time to mentor them.   

What's happening at Hermitage reflects the culture of Silicon Valley that's created long time tech business stalwarts Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and Intel, as well as a few other companies formed in the last twenty years you may have heard about, like Google, eBay, and Facebook.  That's why Hermitage is making Silicon Valley brewing history. 

Most of the beer aging in these barrels belongs to a
brewery other than Hermitage