Thursday, January 21, 2010

High Altitude Training and Carbo Loading in Yosemite

Sometimes, you just have to break the monotonous routines of life, to refresh by experiencing new things and breaking routines. And so was glad I recently spent a long weekend with some friends at a cabin inside Yosemite National Park. In addition to seeing friends I haven't seen in a while we were also celebrating my girlfriend Linda's birthday.

And while I've found it's important to establish a training routine for running success, breaking this routine once in a while is always helpful. Races often create some unexpected adversity, so dealing with new and different barriers in training from time to time helps to prepare for whatever the race throws at you. So I appreciated getting a couple good high altitude runs in through the trails in and around the town of Wawona inside the park, which seemed to rejuvenate my legs a bit, having gotten into a little running rut.

Of course during the weekend, we spent a day in the Yosemite Valley, taking in the surreal, iconic landscape that's inspired generations. As I stood amongst the majestic pine trees, with the Merced River rushing by, and gazed upwards at the famous cascading waterfalls shooting down the shear cliffs thousands of feet above me, one question immediately jumped into my mind: What's the beer like around here?

Fortunately, I did not have to wait long for an answer, as we took a break at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel and enjoyed an Ahwahnee Amber Ale from Mammoth Brewing. Amber Ale is a often a rather uninspiring style, but maybe that's because few Amber Ales are as good as this one. We all enjoyed the rich, lightly roasted malt flavors that gave way to a slightly, astringent hop bitterness. Well composed, balanced beers like this are a wonderful thing. I honestly can't remember a better amber ale than this. (This beer is normally sold as The Real McCoy Amber Ale.)

Later in the Ahwahnee Hotel gift shop, I picked up a six-pack of Yosemite Falls Pale Ale from Snowshoe Brewing in nearby Arnold, CA. Back in the cabin, I found this to be a rather malt forward pale ale, with lots of bread-like character to go with a light orange peel bitterness. I wasn't blown away by this one, but it did start to grow on me after the third bottle over the course of the weekend. (This beer is usually sold as Snowshoe's Thompson Pale Ale.)

After poking around the Yosemite Village Store, and a little gift shop and grocery store in Wowona, I picked up a few other offerings from Mammoth Brewing. Their Epic IPA could have passed for a slightly hoppy pale ale, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. This brew had the malty backbone of a well done biscuit, which blended well its light citrus and floral hop character. Not what I expected for an IPA, but really nice combination of flavors. And I found Mammoth Brewing's High Country Pilsner to have a minerally character, with a slight tartness, and subdued hop finish. While not the classic pilsner flavor profile, Linda and I found it quite refreshing. Both the Mammoth's IPA and Pilsner were unlike the classic styles, yet both were quite unique, memorable, and enjoyable. Wasn't I talking about virtues of breaking routine and predictability just a few paragraphs ago?

There were some nearby breweries I wanted to visit, but just couldn't find the time. Of course, when your girlfriend is celebrating one of life's milestones with her closest friends, and you're out and about, searching for beer, well, women get emotional about stuff like that. But I'm a pretty lucky guy hanging around a closet hop-head, and we've shared many tender moments that often involve me asking about her feelings as I pointed to a beer, with her responding with a heartfelt "Go for it!".

Babe, here's to celebrating lots more birthdays with you!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Brewing Network Hosts First Annual Winter Brews Festival

As sort of a warm up to San Francisco Beer Week, the Brewing Network is hosting it's First Annual Winter Brews Festival this January 30th at the Linden Street Brewery.

From the online press release the event:

will feature a wide variety of winter warmers and unique innovations from some of the best brewers in the Bay Area and beyond.

Partnering with Linden St. Brewery in Oakland, this festival combines the love of seasonal beers with the enthusiasm of the local craft beer scene. With barrels from breweries such as Russian River, Firestone Walker, the 21st Amendment, Speakeasy, Linden St., Moonlight Brewing, Magnolia, and many more, this Winter Brews Fest promises to provide big, malty beers to ignite the taste buds of beer lovers, new and experienced.

Hot food and live music will round out the festival, which will run from 1pm to 8pm. Tickets will be sold at the door.

Where: Linden St. Brewery, 95 Linden St. Suite 7/8, Oakland CA. 94607

When: Saturday, January 30th, 1 - 8pm

Looks pretty interesting, and there's a decent chance Linda and I can make it. Hope to meet all four of you there!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Southern Tier in My Hotel Room, and More Civilized Places

It's something I look for whenever my travels take me eastward. I never know quite where to find it, but with a little diligence, I usually locate it. I'm talking about the many excellent beers from Southern Tier Brewing. And yes, drinking it from a plastic cup in a hotel room does not seem to be giving this beer the respect it deserves. But sometimes when travelling, I just have to improvise. It's also difficult to hold off opening the beer until I bring it home.

Southern Tier was founded by Phineas DeMink and Allen ("Skip") Yahn, who purchased the defunct Old Saddleback Brewing Co. in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 2003. All the equipment was removed, brought back to Lakewood, NY, located in the far west corner of New York state. (It's close to Jamestown, NY, where 10,000 Maniacs are from.) The Brewery began distributing regionally in February 2004. Southern Tier has grown steadily since then, and according to their website, distributes to over 34% of the United States. (Sadly, California does not seem to be part of that 34%.) The good news for Southern Tier fans is that they are currently moving to a larger brewery.

All this growth does not surprise me at all, as I read a lot of god things about their beers, and of the few I've tried, not one was worse than excellent. Here's a brief run down of those I've tried and have notes for.

Raspberry Porter
The bitter chocolate flavors from the roasted malt blend well with the tart, raspberry fruit, with no real sweetness to speak of. Porters are one of my favorite styles and this is nice little twist on the style without seeming gimmicky.

Creme Brulee Imperial Stout
This reconstruction of Creme Brulee in an Imperial Stout was one of my 2009 Bay Area Beer Runner Award Winners for "Best Desert Beer" . 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.

Mokah Imperial Stout
Mokah is another great dessert beer from Southern Tier. It comes across as a sweet, creamy beer milk shake with plenty of rich and well blended chocolate and coffee flavors.

Imperial Cherry Saison
Very restrained cherry tartness and a light woody flavor from the oak barrel aging really add a lot of depth to the strong, zippy, yeasty spiciness going on here. Very smooth for all those strong flavors, and just seems so artfully blended.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surprising Results of Northern California Brewing Geography from a Simple Analysis

I always wondered how brewing activity is tied to geography. So to understand this more, I rather naively started looking at some of the data on beer brewing licenses by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control for each county to see what I might discover. And if I say so myself, a very simple, straightforward analysis does indicate some general truths, and also raises good questions to pursue for further analysis.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control produces a report of the number of alcohol licenses per county. So simply looking up the number Type 1 (Brewery), Type 23 (Small Brewery) and Type 75 (Brewpub) licenses issued to each county, a rough idea of the brewing activity of the county can be determined. This may not be your ideal gauge of brewing activity per county, and it isn't mine either. It doesn't take into account quantity, where data is harder to find, or quality of the beer, which is rather subjective. But simply taking a count of the number of brewing locations within a county and a good starting point for "back of the envelope" calculations. So I started by looking at nine California counties that border the San Francisco Bay (San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo), added a couple nearby ones with demonstrable brewing activity (Santa Cruz, Mendocino), and threw in San Diego county just for grins, seeing how an California county everyone would agrees has plenty of breweries in it, would stack up against the others. (For those unfamiliar with these California counties, here's a handy map.)

After determining the Type 1, Type 23, and Type 75 licenses issued by the State of California, I took the sum of these numbers, and then divided the population of each county by the total number of brewing licenses in it, and rounded to resulting county residents per brewery to the closest thousand. After each county residents per brewery is listed, I've put the number of Type 1, Type 23, Type 75, and county population in parenthesis in the following format: (Type 1 / Type 23 / Type 75 / County Population). In order of fewest residents per brewery, here is what I found:

Medocino (17,000...( 2 / 3 / 0 / 86,221)
Napa 22,000...( 0 / 1 / 5 / 133,433)
Sonoma 29,000...( 0 / 14 / 2 / 466,741)
Santa Cruz 51,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 253,137)
Marin 62,000...( 0 / 3 / 1 / 248,794)
San Diego 79,000...( 0 / 24 / 14 / 3,001,072)
San Francisco 81,000...( 1 / 5 / 4 / 808,976)
Alameda 134,000...( 1 / 10 / 0 / 1,474,368)
Santa Clara 136,000...( 2 / 7 / 4 / 1,764,499)
San Mateo 142,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 712,690)
Solano 204,000...( 1 / 1 / 0 / 407,515)
Contra Costa 206,000...( 0 / 5 / 0 / 1,029,703)

Let's consider that 20,000-30,000 people per brewery figure for a moment. That's one brewery for each small city in the county. And how many of you honest expected Napa County to rank second on this list? Three things seemed to jump out of the numbers, at least to me.

Three Distinct Groups of Counties
It was surprising to me to see the counties neatly organize themselves into three groups. There is the group of Lower Density Counties, that includes
Medocino, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, and Marin Counties. All of these counties have a fair amount of wine making activity as well. Next are the two High Density Urban Counties of San Francisco and San Diego, which surprisingly have almost the exact same density of breweries. The last group of counties, bringing up the rear are Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Solano, and Contra Costa counties, which are the Largely Suburban Bay Area Counties.

Outside San Francisco, the Number of Residents per Brewery is Surprisingly Uniform
I didn't really expect this, thinking there would be more concentration around San Francisco and Oakland, but that wasn't the case.

The South Bay Isn't Quite the Beer Desert Everyone Says It Is
I've suspected this for a few months now, and it was part of my motivation for doing the analysis. Compared to most counties in the Bay Area, Santa Clara holds it's own, thank you very much. If there is any beer desert in Northern California, it is the Northeastern Counties of Solano and Contra Costa.

I'm encouraged these results suggest a number of questions to delve further, which are:

  1. Does this rather simple approach work as we expand to other regions? I really didn't expect such a nice, neat arrangement of counties. What refinements can we make for it to be more reliable?

  2. Is there a relation between wine making and brewing? If we look at other California counties with a lot of wine making activity, would we see similar results in brewing activity? What about wine making regions of Oregon, Washington and New York states?

  3. Can we look at other urban areas in the United States and compare the residents per brewery in these area, and see what cities emerge as particularly active brewing cities. Of course, cities like San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston have reputations as brewing meccas. How do these reputations square with the data?
I'm looking forward to seeing conclusions we can make about brewing and geography and if this kind of stuff interests you, then stay tuned. And of course, if anyone has any comment, questions or sugestions, I look forward to hearing them.