Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Session #35 : The First Annual Bay Area Beer Runner Awards for 2009

The year kicks off with The Session hosted by Christina Perozzi and Hallie Beaune of Beer for Chicks who ask "So we want to know what was your best and worst of beer for 2009? What beer mistakes did you make? What beer resolutions do you have for 2010? What are your beer regrets and embarrassing moments? What are you hoping to change about your beer experience in 2010?"

2009 is the year I started both blogging and homebrewing, becoming less of a beer spectator and more of a participant. Both were great journeys, bringing me to plenty of interesting people and places, with a few frustrating and awkward moments any new activity invariably brings. But besides a bottle of beer popping open in my luggage, no real disasters. I'll continue down that path in 2010 con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed so many great beers in 2009, I simply cannot limit myself to picking just one as the best, so I'll mention a few memorable ones. And yes, there were some bad beers out there, and while I normally don't pick on a small craft brewer who had a bad day, or go after the obvious targets from the big, inter-galactic mega-breweries, I do have a couple dishonorable mentions. So without further ado, here's the First Annual Bay Area Beer Runner Awards for 2009.

The Award Winners

Best Zen-like Beer Drinking Experience: "Hitachano Nest Red Rice Ale" by Kuichi Brewery
It's pink and fizzy like Budweiser Chelada. It has strong notes of strawberry, an odd flavor for beer. Rice used in the brewing process is typically not a good sign. There's a sourness to the brew that suggests a Belgian, or at least European origin, but it's from Japan. Yet, all these unlikely elements add up together for an amazingly pleasurable and memorable beer drinking experience. Give it a one-handed round of applause.

Best Inaccurately Named Beer: "Terrible" by Unibrou
It comes in a big, black bottle with only the word "Terrible" on it in big, bold letters, daring you to drink it. Go ahead, and you'll be rewarded with flavors of raisin, dried fruits, anise, along with a nice toasty and slightly spicy yeast character. Despite all that subtle complexity, you won't notice the 10.5% abv. It's fantastic.

Best Chick Beer: "Raspberry Wheat" by El Toro Brewing
This category was chosen in honor of our hosts. I hope they see it that way. Plenty of brewers cannot resist the temptation to release "chick beers", light beers flavored with fruit. They're often either cloyingly sweet, or highly disjointed with fruit flavors sitting clumsily on top of the underlying beer. El Toro uses a fine touch to harmonize and blend raspberry into the slight tartness of their wheat beer creating something special. I'm not secure enough in my manhood to order this when I'm at El Toro, but have found stealing a sip or two from my girlfriend's glass to be a guilty pleasure. And if you're OK with the concept of fruit in beer, El Toro's aromatic and complex Peach and Blackberry Ales will open you to possibilities of fruit in beer you may thought had never existed.

Best Beer for Dessert: "Creme Brulee" by Southern Tier Brewing
An amazing and faithful reconstruction of Creme Brulee in an Imperial Stout. It starts out with a strong vanilla flavor with lactose sugar providing a custard-like character, roasted malt playing the role of the caramelized sugar, and just a whisper of Columbus and Horizon hops giving it balance. You know it's going to be good just from the aroma, and it just goes down silky smooth. This could have been easily been sickening sweet, but hits all the right notes for just an excellent beer drinking experience. And just behind Creme Brulee in the Beer for Dessert category is Southern Tier's "Mokah".

Best Beer That Makes Me Damn Proud to be Raised in the Midwest: "Blue Sky Rye" by Free State Brewing
I lived in the Midwest between the ages of three and thirty-three before moving to the California Bay Area ten years ago, so I have an affinity for great Midwestern beers. As you might expect from a brewery located in Kansas, Free State Brewing shows great respect for grain in their beers, and their Blue Sky Rye is my favorite example. Free State combines two types of rye with English Pale Ale malt and dark crystal malt, and balance it out with Styrian Golding and Crystal hops. The subtle rye flavors really add dimension to this brew, and it has a wonderful honey like sweetness to go with all those great fresh malty flavors.

Best Beer Tribute: "Bill Brand Brown" by Triple Rock Brewing
I enjoyed this special release at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland this year. Triple Rock used cocoa nibs to add an extra layer of bitter flavor to the rich, roasty, and slightly nutty malt goodness in this brew, elevating a humble brown ale into something very unique and memorable. I'm all for big flavors in a session beer, and have to think Bill would have heartily approved of this one. It's a great tribute.

Best Beer That Renewed My Faith in Lagers: "Premium Lager" from Creemore Springs Brewery
I don't know why people are so dismissive of the lager style simply because there are so many horrible ones. During a trip to Ottawa, Canada last May, I was fortunate to have a couple pints of this lager from Creemore Springs. Nothing complex here, just sharp, fresh, simple flavors of slightly toasty malt with a crisp, bitter hop finish. Great lagers are one of life's simple and overlooked pleasures.

Best Weird Beer : "Siamese Twin" by Uncommon Brewers
If a Belgian Double with coriander, Kafir Lime, and lemongrass sounds weird to you, you're not alone. I picked up a four pack of this last summer, and after finishing the first can, didn't like it. I appreciate being creative and unorthodox, but that does not always equate to being tasty. But by the third can, I'm thinking, "You know, this whole combination works really well". I still don't know how Thai spices take a Belgian Ale to a higher level, but they do. Uncommon Brewers is located in Santa Cruz, CA, where weirdness is a matter of civic pride.

Dishonorable Mentions

Most Ironic Tribute Beer: "Obama Presidential Ale" by Half Moon Bay Brewing
Does it make any sense to commemorate the first African-American President with an extremely light, straw colored ale that produces such a lacy, lily white head? Is a very timid tasting ale, dialed way down in flavor seemingly so as not to offend, really the right beer to honor a President who's called for sweeping, difficult, and uncomfortable change? There's a fine line between celebrating our new President and a desperate attempt to boost sales by simply slapping the popular President's face on a beer label, and I'm afraid if the beer doesn't remotely resemble anything about Obama, you're on the wrong side of that line. (This beer is normally sold as "Harbor Light Ale" by Half Moon Bay Brewing.)

Worst Beer from a Highly Respected Brewery That Beer Geeks Swooned Over, But I Did Not Like Very Much: "Thirteenth Anniversary Ale" by Stone Brewing
Plenty of beer reviewers and beer geeks raved about this one, which I found to be an out-of-control, harsh tasting monstrosity. I just didn't get this beer, where strong flavors of dried fruit, heavily roasted malt, alcohol, and shovels full of hops were kicking and screaming for my attention. It would seem this brew would age well, allowing the flavors to find a way to get along, but the bottle advised to drink it fresh, just another thing I just couldn't figure out about the brew. (Stone's 12th Anniversary aged beautifully after 6-9 months.) I've always thought Stone's strength was not because they use strong, aggressive flavors, but the finesse and balance they use with these flavors. They seemed to have lost their way with this one.

It's been a great year for beer. Look forward to doing it all over again in 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Economic Study Suggests Collectable Beer Release Prices to Continue to Go Up

There's been a fair amount of discussion and hand-wringing about the rising costs of limited release beers. It seems craft breweries are producing more and more special releases, collaborations, and other collectible beers, at prices that seem to be going nowhere but up. I recently found a paper presented at the First Beeronomics Conference held in May of 2009 which suggests this trend will continue.

In his paper entitled "The Price of Unique", economist Phil Armour studied the prices of Stone Brewing's Vertical Epic series on EBay. By correlating the mean winning bids for Vertical Epic bottles transacted on EBay as a function of the volume of each beer produced by Stone Brewing in the series, Armour calculated an economic quantity called the Own Price Elasticity of beer in the Vertical Epic Series, and compared it to data found in rare wine auctions.

Own Price Elasticity describes the change in the price of an item caused by a change of its available quantity. Generally, as more of an item is produced, it's price goes down. What Own Price Elasticity determines is how dependent is the price of the product to its supply. If an item becomes rare, is the price bid up to incredibly high levels by people desperate for it? Or does the higher price quickly drive people out of the bidding? The higher the Own Price Elasticity is, the more likely people will pay high prices for a scarce item. Water is sometimes considered highly price elastic since when it is rare, people will still pay high prices for it to survive, while sugar is considered highly inelastic, since people historically turns to other sweeteners like honey, molasses or corn syrup when the price of sugar increases even marginally.

Armour found that the Price Elasticity of the Vertical Epic Series was higher than in auctions for rare, first growth Bordeaux wines. What this suggests is that in the case of these rare wines auctions, bidders were more likely to decline to bid on as the price increased, and turn to different vintages, while those coveting the Vertical Epic series on EBay decided they had fewer alternatives, and therefore, continued bid up the prices higher.

From my vantage point, it seems that as the craft brewing industry grows, more potential buyers of rare releases enter the market, and thus, more people are available to bid up the prices in the marketplace. Since these special releases sell out quickly, and are often spotted on EBay selling at above the retail price, breweries are simply motivated to brew more of them, and sell them at a higher price, simply because the market allows them to do so. Both anecdotal evidence and Armour's study suggest the market for special collectible beer releases is not saturated, and so we can expect breweries to release more of these special rare brews and command higher prices for them. To my mind, it remains to be seen if and when the craft beer market becomes over saturated with these beers.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New Year's Eve Wine and Beer Pairing at Wine Affairs

You can spend New Year's Eve at Wine Affairs pairing some excellent beers with tasty food, or can instead pair the tasty food with a somewhat one-dimensional beverage. Either way, looks like a good time will be had by all. Here are the details as they rolled into my e-mail a few days ago.

Ring in the New Year at Wine Affairs
Join us for a four-course dinner with optional wine or beer pairing

New this year - two seatings
6:00pm and 8:00pm
Live music begins at 9:00pm performed by Kristina Sablan with Darren


Baked Ricotta and Goat Cheese with Toast
Wine Pairing: 2008 Pierre Andre, St Veran, Burgundy, France
Beer Pairing: Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, Germany

Crab Salad in Endive Leaves
Wine Pairing: NV Zonin, Prosecco NL,Vino Spumante di qualità, Italy
Beer Pairing: Schneider Aventinus Doppelbock, Germany

Catalan Bean and Sausage Stew with Mint
Wine Pairing: 2006 Frescobaldi, Remole, Toscana, Italy
Beer Pairing: Duchesse De Bourgogne, Verhaeghe, Belgium

New York Style Cheese Cake
Wine Pairing: 2008 Marcarini, Moscato D'Asti, Italy
Beer Pairing: Smoked Beer - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Maerzen, Germany

Price: Dinner only - $55.00 per person
With Wine Pairing add $25.00 per person; With Beer Pairing add $20 per
Wine Club members: 10% discount applied

Tax and gratuity not included

Call now for reservations. Space is limited. 408-977-0111

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Checking Out The Tap at the Haverhill Brewery

The first thing you need to know about Boston suburb of Haverhill is how to correctly pronounce it. On a recent trip in the Boston area, I was asking around about a place I kept calling "HAVE-er-hill". No wonder all the helpful Bostonians were giving me funny looks. I finally learned that it's actually pronounced something like "HAY-ver-ill". At any rate, once I figured out how to get to the The Tap at the Haverhill Brewery,which lies about 30 miles north of Boston, I navigated through the twists and turns of Interstate 495, before exiting River Street. Heading south of River Street past typically tired suburban strip malls, I finally arrive at a cluster of fortress-like stone buildings which appears to be the heart of the city's downtown business district.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening, and a few of the buildings looked totally closed or under renovation. That said, a few people were out, and a few other restaurants were open. It's hard to pass through a new place in the darkness and draw a whole lot of valid conclusions, but I just getting the sense this part of Haverhill was undergoing a slow urban renewal and the brewpub I was about to enter was a part of this regeneration.

The Tap itself is at the ground floor of one of these buildings, and with it's old wooden floor and bare brick wall interior, blends right in. On the left side of the place is a dining room, where no more than three people were seated that evening, so I head over to the bar on my right. More than a few people turn around to look at me, but once they realize it's nobody they know, they turn back around and go back to their beers. I grab a table, get an order of onion rings, before a dinner of beef short ribs, and start trying out some of their beers. Here's a brief rundown of what I tried.

The 2.9% abv listed should have been a bit of a yellow flag. That's really low, especially for this style, and as one might predict, this was a very thin beer. But when I concentrated hard, there was a light smokiness there with the slightly caramelized malt, and a pleasant earthiness at the finish. Of course, with little malt opposing it, the carbonation was pretty tingly on the tongue. I enjoyed the underlying flavor, and just wish it didn't seem so watered down here.

Swanny Boy Maple Porter
OK, now we're talking. The maple flavor is pronounced, but merges well in the roasty malt goodness of the porter. A very smooth, flavorful, and drinkable session beer.

I just had a sampler tasting of this Belgian Triple, so I didn't take any notes on this one. But I found it rather tasty.

Joshua Norton's Imperial Stout
Rich and complex, with noticeable bitter chocolate flavors and just a little bit of sweetness. Another very smooth drinkable beer and a great beer to end the evening with.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Session #34: Recovering from Family Stumbles at the Sonoma Chicken Coup

The month's Session, "Stumbling Home" by Two Parts Rye, we're asked to write about our experiences at a brew pub or bar within a short distance from our homes.

Learning something the hard way is the often best way to really understand it. Unfortunately, I've learned the hard way that families are fragile things. I went through a divorce five years ago, and now see my six-year daughter Verona and eight-year old son Brandon only about 20% of the time. During these moments, I do what I can to put a few of the pieces of a broken family back together. And while families are often torn apart by unforeseen events and complex psychological forces hardly anyone really understands, it is often the simple things that keep families together. And for this reason, I value the weekends walks my girlfriend Linda and I take with Brandon and Verona to Almaden Lake Park, before we all go to lunch at the Sonoma Chicken Coop. The Sonoma Chicken Coop seems to be best described casual restaurant that brews its own beers than simply a brewpub, and we started frequenting one of its locations near the southwestern edge of the Almaden Lake Park over the past year.

This journey involves a few rituals. Once we walk out the front door, Verona starts keeping a meticulous running tally of dead snails she finds on the side walks of our condominium complex, proudly announcing "There's another one!" soon as she make yet another of these important finds. Brandon will sometimes say, "Tag, you're it!" and run away for a few yards in hopes that we'll chase him, and sometimes we do. After covering making our about 400 yards to the park entrance, we follow the bike trail running along its eastern edge. When we get to the "balance beam", actually a small barrier fence built out of old telephone pole, the kids will always takes their turns walking down it, refusing to go any further until this is completed. Verona always goes turn first, and then Brandon quietly follows.

We take the bridge over Los Alamitos Creek, which feeds into Almaden Lake in the center of the park, and work our way along the trail along the western edge of the lake until we reach the playground at the park's Northwest corner. It sometimes takes Verona as long as five seconds to meet a new friend once she gets to the playground. She also enjoys testing her climbing skills on the rope jungle gym, and or playing pirate on one of the playground structures designed to look like a ship.

I know Verona enjoys these times, because we about them, and she tells me about the friends she makes. When Brandon hears we're going to the playground and Sonoma Chicken Coop, he'll smile and sometimes bang his wrists together rapidly in excitement, so I know he's excited about going, but otherwise, he hardly talks to me going to the playground besides a simple "yes playground" or "yes Sonoma Chicken Coop". Brandon hardly talks about anything to anyone. You see, Brandon has autism.

Autism is a psychological condition which makes it very difficult for Brandon to organize sensory inputs, and restricted his social and language skills. There is actually a broad spectrum of autistic behaviors, from children who may spend all day silently rocking back and forth, to the high functioning people with Asperger's Syndrome, who may be highly successful in society despite odd, somewhat anti-social and eccentric behaviors. Brandon's pretty much smack dab in the middle of the autistic spectrum of behaviors. The best estimates are that 1 in 150 children are born with autism, so there's a reasonably good chance someone you know is has a family member with autism.

When I first took Brandon to this playground two years ago, he would aimlessly walk around the edges of it, muttering quiet gibberish, often banging his wrists together. Sometimes when highly overstimulated, he would slam his chin with the top of his right wrist over and over again with enough force to producing an audible thud-thud-thud, a slightly mutilating self-stimulating behavior. (When this happens, we divert Brandon to a less dangerous self-stimulating behavior by asking him to "clap hands", which he obediently follows.) After maybe ten or twenty minutes of this, he would develop a comfort level to the sensory overload that a playground full of children would creates, and could be prompted to go over to the swing or go down the slide. On the swing, I would push him a few times on the swing and then stop. As gravity brought Brandon to a stop, we would ask, "Do you want a push, yes or no?" If he said "yes", he got a push. Later, once his language skills improves, we'd require him to use longer sentences like "More swinging" or "Can you push me, please?" in order to get us to give him the desired pushes on the swing. Inducing to use language in this manner involves principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and Brandon has responded quite well to this type of therapy, which has proven to very successful helping many overcome their autistic silence.

Brandon's ABA therapists have worked with him to act more appropriately at play, and he now needs little or no prompting to play on the playground equipment on his own, simply blending in with all the other kids. It is a quiet, reassuring small victory when for a just a few moments, we're no longer battling Brandon's autism and he's simply acting like a normal kid. Verona tells me she hopes Brandon will talk normally when he's ten. Verona is arguably Brandon's best therapist, as she understands him well, and has picked up many speech therapy and ABA strategies and uses them often with Brandon. Linda, who is a professional speech therapist, has been great using her professional training and experience to help Brandon develop his language skills.

Once the kids have worn themselves out on the playground, we all head over to the Sonoma Chicken Coop. Many brew pubs have children's menus, which is reassuring for the future of craft beer. I cannot think of a better way to encourage the next generation to "respect beer" or "support their local brewer" than giving them as many opportunities as possible to watch their parents do just that. Linda and I enjoy the Sonoma Chicken Coop's Kolsch, which is light and refreshing and has a bit of a lemon-pepper zip to it. Their IPA is more balanced than most brewed in Northern California, and has sharp grassy bitterness to it. And they've recently released a Scotch Ale, which has a light smokey flavor and in their with all the caramel malt. The beers are nothing to rave about, but they're solid.

But going to the Sonoma Chicken Coop isn't about the beer. It's about Linda and I enjoying a beer while Verona tells us all about her new friends at school and boasting "I know minuses!". It's about Brandon no longer meekly saying "ketchup" when he wants us to pass him the ketchup for his fries, but know spontaneously asking "Do you have ketchup, please?" when there's no ketchup on the table. These are moments that at one point in my life, I could have totally lost. Knowing too well how families fall apart, I realize it's these times that keep us together.