Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Couple More from Mammoth Brewing

Last month during a trip to Yosemite National Park, I discovered a few brews from Mammoth Brewing, and brought a few home. Mammoth Lakes does not seem to distribute into the San Francisco Bay area, so I'm glad had a few to enjoy over the past month. You can read about a few of their beers on a post from last month, and wanted to add a couple more to list of their beers worth seeking out.

Hair of the Bear Doppel Bock
Tastes like liquid banana bread! Plenty of banana-like fruity esters, lots of roasted malt and maybe a slight taste of bitter chocolate in their. Feather like quality on the tongue and finishes very smoothly. The 9% abv isn't noticeable with all those great flavors blended together.

395 Double IPA
Named after the highway through the Eastern Sierras, Mammoth Brewing uses local grown hops, dessert sage, and mountain juniper to create a unique, very savory, slightly earthy and somewhat herbal double IPA. There's a good dose of slightly toasty malt to balance all the hop and herbal goodness. I just found this to be a very creative and memorable brew.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sensory Overload at The Toronado Barley Wine Festival

With the Beer Run over, I wanted to catch some of the action at the Barley Wine Festival being held at the The Toronado. Of course, there was no place to shower before heading over there, but I was able to dry myself off a little and change clothes in my car so I didn't smell too funky. Of course, if you're put off by a little body odor, you're probably not setting foot inside The Toronado.

Not wanting to go in on an empty stomach, I first stopped at Memphis Minnie's , which is located just across the street from The Toronado. How good is the barbecue there? Well, let me put it this way. When barbecue aficionado's from Red States like Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee rave about a place smack dab in the middle of Nancy Pelosi's district, you know it's pretty damn good. Since there was no seating available inside, I figured I'd just sit outside on the sidewalk and enjoy my pulled pork sandwich with collard greens. Memphis Minnie's deliberately avoids drowning their meat in barbecue sauce, a common mistake of lesser establishments. Memphis Minnie's knows how to smoke dead animals to perfection, and are happy to show off their skills without any sauce getting in the way, even though their peppery red and mustard sauces are as good as any you'll find.

With that taken care of, it was time to head across the street. I figured the crowd would be small on a Saturday afternoon. In relative terms, that was certainly true as I could just walk into the place, without waiting in the long lines that ran for nearly a block which would develop later in the day. That said, The Toronado was pretty packed inside for the Barley Wine Festival.

The Barley Wine Festival is held over the last weekend of SF Beer Week, and over 40 different Barley Wines are served and judged, with the winners announced Saturday evening. The judging does not actually take place at The Toronado, but next door at Noc Noc, since beer judges are a bit of a sensitive breed, and when contemplating the nuances and subtle differences of barley wines, generally do not believe a loud bar, crammed fall of people, with punk rock blaring out of the speakers is a particularly good place to do this.

I joined the polite rugby scrum around the bar and made my way towards the front at a speed of roughly one inch per minute. At the epicenter behind the bar was a well built man with a white muscle shirt showing off his brightly colored tattoos covering his arms and torso, and a woman with thick rimmed glasses who could pass for a school teacher, gliding around behind the bar filling everyone's orders. After making it to the front in about 30 minutes, I shout out my selections to the woman in the thick rimmed glasses, ordering two barley wines to avoid having to get fight my way through the rugby scrum again. She hands over my selections and I find a less crowded area, near the front where I have a grand total of six inches of personal space.

Barley wine is a style I definitely enjoy in its many forms, although I notice many brewers, especially on the West Coast, using hefty doses of hops, going for big flavors, but often creating something I find a bit harsh and almost painfully astringent. That was the unfortunate case of my first selection, which I simply didn't like very much for that reason. My second choice, Pizza Port's Farley Barley Wine, aged in bourbon barrels, was way more to my liking. The bourbon barrel aging gave it a smooth, very easy drinking character with vanilla and bourbon notes with a slight woodiness in the background. It was just very enjoyable and the hefty 13% abv is barely detectable.

Standing there sipping the barley wines all by myself, it was fun looking at all the beer memorabilia and reading all the beer bumper stickers plastered to the walls. Several times I was inadvertently jostled by others trying to get their barley wine fix, and was asked about five times "How do you order in here?" as if there could be possibly any order to the chaos. It was all very stimulating at first with all the noise, pungent tastes and aromas of the barley wines, taking in all the sights, and constant brushing contact with those around me, but after about an hour of this, my senses were pretty maxed out, and with barley wines consumed, I had about enough. Maybe I'm just getting too old, but needed to seek the refuge of Haight Street.

I made my way back to Magnolia and ordered their Let It Rauch! Smoked Strong Ale. One of the many things I love about craft beer is that even after tasting hundreds of beers from so many creative brewers, there are still plenty of beers that make me sit up and say "Wow!". This was definitely one of them. Lightly smokey and sweet, very smooth drinking with some background flavor like rum or butterscotch I struggled to identify, it was just a joy to drink.

Craft beer is part discovery, and whether participating in a small informal event like the Beer Run, the intensity of The Toronado Barley Wine Festival, or just a quiet moment at Magnolia, it had definitely been an afternoon of discovery.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Video of the Beer Run

A short video of the Beer Run and Toronado Barleywine Festival can be found here. I assume the mantle of the strong silent type, wisely letting Brian Yaeger do all the talking, and believe it or not, was having a much better time than it looked.

Monday, February 15, 2010

San Francisco Beer Week Beer Run: And we have lift off.....

A couple weeks ago, I get this e-mail from Brian Yaeger who tells me of his plans with Philadelphia beer blogger Bryan Kolesar of Brewlounge to organize a beer run during San Francisco Beer Week, and asking me what I thought about it. I tend to initially react to things in "worst case scenario" mode, and my initial reaction is the thought of hundreds of runners clogging the streets of San Francisco and somebody getting hit by a car. After further and more rational contemplation, it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen is that just the three of us would show up. That seemed pretty good, so told Brian to count me in. After hashing out plans over e-mail between San Francisco, San Jose, and Philadelphia for a few days, lo and behold, we put together a little three mile fun run that started and finished at Magnolia Pub and Brewery on Saturday, February 13th, with the course running around the Golden Gate Park pan handle, and the into Golden Gate park itself, with the turn-around point at the Conservatory of Flowers.
Now the question was, with announcements on the San Francisco Beer Week website, Brewlounge, this blog, and some grass roots marketing by Brian Yaeger just a week before the run, who was going to show up? As the days passed by, a couple RSVP's trickled in, giving us confidence that we wouldn't be doing this all by ourselves. Unfortunately, the huge Mid-Atlantic blizzard that week grounded so many flights that Bryan Kolesar simply couldn't make it to San Francisco Beer Week at all.

So I'm standing on the corner of Masonic and Haight in front of Magnolia about ten minutes before the 11 am start, and look around for anyone else who looks like they're there for the run. A couple minutes later, this guy in a green Singha Beer T-shirt and baggy shorts comes bounding down Haight Street. I figure its Brian Yaeger, and as he gets closer, I see his socks are pulled up nearly to his knees and have the word "BEER" on them, and there's no further doubt that it's Brian.

My craft beer epiphany started less than three years ago, and the geographical nature of craft beer was one of it attractions. So reading Brian's entertaining book, Red, White and Brew about his road trip to explore breweries all over the United States was a milestone on my craft beer journey, and it was indeed a privilege to meet him. We shook hands and Brian shows me the bottle caps with the words "Beer Run" on the underside to serve as tokens to get a discounted pint at Magnolia. Magnolia Head Brewmaster Dave McClean graciously helped support the run, since Dave certainly didn't need any further distractions like a bunch of sweaty runners further clogging up the packed brunch crowd with a busy brewpub to manage.

By the 11 am starting time we're joined by five others from the surrounding neighborhood: Calvin, Trey, Nicole, Devin and Sophie. (If I got a name wrong or left someone out, sorry, and don't hesitate to correct me here.) So how did it go? Well, seven people who were mostly strangers became less of strangers. We all got our recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise. And at the end, we all got to support one of our local brewers. Brian quietly bought beers for everyone, so the run was good for his Karma. And the spirit of Bryan Kolesar was with us as he wouldn't let a little snow stop him from doing his own beer run. The Beer Run turned out to be one of those small events that make the world a little better place.

The San Francisco Beer Week video crew happened to be at Magnolia when we finished, and were quite intrigued by the concept of beer run as a San Francisco Beer Week event. They shot a brief video interviewing Brian and myself. I'm glad Brian did most of the talking, since he's clearly a natural and articulate speaker, and I barely had the foggiest idea of what to say when put on the spot like that. Inside Magnolia, we met Chris and Merideth of The Beer Geek , who were also pretty interested in the concept of a beer run, and told us they'd like to participate next year, even with little or no prior running experience. At the end, Brian and I figured we probably get 40-50 people for a SF Beer Week Beer Run with a just few more weeks of advance preparation and promotion, as the Beer Run idea clearly resonates with the craft brewing community. Even for a runner like myself who enjoys craft beer, I couldn't help asking myself why.

There's the obvious connection that beer is simply great to drink after a run, since it cools you down, and provides well needed hydration and carbohydrates. A Wine Run, Whisky Run, or Cocktail Run seems rather contrived, and quite frankly, a bit ridiculous. A Beer Run just seems natural for some reason. But I think there is a deeper connection between beer and running, which has to do with the egalitarian nature of both the sport and the beverage.

One of my favorite running quotes is from an old Nike commercial: "There are clubs you can't belong to, neighborhoods you can't live in, schools you can't get into, but the roads are always open." Virtually all running clubs and races are open to anyone young or old, big or small, and do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, origin or talent. The stop watch never plays favorites, and running is an affordable activity to all but the very lowest income levels.

The worlds finest beers are still an affordable luxury to most, and beer has a long history as the People's Beverage. Whether used as payment to workers building The Pyramids, or used as an equalizer to help ease the racial tensions in the high profile Beer Summit, beer has a long history of shedding elitism and breaking class barriers, bringing wide cross sections of society together. I find it interesting that a good pair of running shoes, running shorts, socks, and a T-shirt costs about the same as the typical home brew starter kit.

Well, enough attempts at deep thoughts for one day. I'm already getting hyped for next year's SF Beer Week's Beer Run!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Beer and Cheese at Firehouse Grill and Brewery

They call it San Francisco Beer Week, but we do drink craft beer down here in the South Bay. So Linda and I really appreciated last Wednesday night's Beer and Cheese pairing at Firehouse Grill and Brewery in Sunnyvale held as part of San Francisco Beer Week. Firehouse Brewing, Milk Pail and South Bay Craft Beer Activist and Blogger Peter Estaniel got together to bring this all together.

The format was pretty simple. Upstairs at the brewpub, six tables were set up with 2-3 different cheeses and beers placed at each table. You simply pick up a flute glass, and start walking around, and popping cheeses into your mouth and washing them down with the different beers, chatting with everyone there, until you get tired of doing that. Needless to say, it took most people the entire evening to complete this mission.

There was an interesting and varied mix of beers to try, with plenty of Belgian Ales, whether stately, sour, or funky, four or five selections from FireHouse, a couple of hop monsters, and a barley wine thrown in for good measure. But the real star of the evening was the cheese.

And did they have cheese. Cheese with funny looking fern-thingies on top. Stinky cheese. Runny cheese. Firm cheese. Crumbly cheese. Cheese infused with truffles. Cheese with spices mixed in. Cheese studded with wine grapes. Cheese with barnyard hay on top. I couldn't correctly pronounce the names of most of the cheeses, but that didn't stop me from trying them all. It's a good thing I have a few fat-burning long distance runs in my training schedule over the next few days.

My favorite cheese, hands down, was the smooth, slightly sweet, and caramelly Gjetost (pronounced: yay-toast). I could have this for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. I also enjoyed the Horseradish Havarti which had crunchy mustard seeds mixed into it. I could talk about all the cheeses, but really don't know all that much about cheese, let alone a good way to describe how they taste. And while ignorance hardly stops most people from writing on a topic, if you really want to know what some of the cheeses were like, head on over to this post at Peter's blog.

As for the beer, my favorites were a couple of the Firehouse brews. I had previously enjoyed their rich and refined One Tun Imperial Stout, which has a great bitter chocolate vibe, but it seemed especially good that evening. And I also appreciated the Bill Brand Imperial Red, where lots of hefty, toasty malt holds its own against hefty amounts of hops, resulting in a lively, strong yet balanced Imperial Red. As for Linda, her favorites were the Belgian Ales, which evoked carefree weeks of self-discovery spent many years ago in Belgium.

I leave you with this lasting haunting and surrealistic image of that memorable evening. There are people, who do not share my artistic vision, that will simplistically claim this shot is blurry and badly out of focus.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

SF Beer Week Beer Run

I'll be joining Brian Yaeger of Beer Odyssey, and Bryan Kolesar of Brewlounge for a Beer Run February 13th at 11 am.

The course is about three miles and starts and finishes at Magnolia Brewery. We'll run around a bit in The Haight and the go through Golden Gate Park before returning to Magnolia. Afterward, there will be good drinks for "proper rehydration" and planning for remaining SF Beer Week festivities for the rest of the weekend. Hope you can make it, and if you can, please RSVP to the "official" website, or just post a comment to this post. We take off at 11 am, rain or shine, except in the case of extreme weather.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Session #36: One Lonely Night, Away from Home

For this month's Session on Cask Ales, Tom Cizauskus of Yours for Good Fermentables gives us many suggestions and passionately encourages us to "Make it a sad story. Make it a love story. But ... make it!"

I look back on my first cask ale rather wistfully. I was all alone, away from home, in a San Diego beer bar called The Neighborhood. Peering at me from behind the bar, its tap hiding only slightly so I would notice without it seeming obvious, was the lone cask ale selection, a special release of Stone Brewing's Pale Ale with coriander. Feeling awkward, but intrigued, I signaled my interest to the bar tender. When the beer came over, I didn't quite know where to begin or what to say, but understood this beer had been in this situation many times before, and knew exactly what to do.

I knew of Stone's careful balance of aggressive flavors in their beers, so was expecting it to be assertive and aggressive. So was taken by surprise how the cask conditioning created a lightness and subtly to its caress, of how willing it was to please. With its slight floral nature and savory character, it performed tirelessly in so many different ways, never losing its balance or place. After what seemed like hours, the hops finally kicked in, bringing the taste to an amazing climax well beyond what I ever imagined possible.

I've picked up a few other cask ales on lonely nights since then, but for some reason, none has equaled the first one. I've tried in vain to look up my first cask ale, but alas, it is nowhere to be found.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lager Mind Expansion at the Coney Island Freak Show

Lagers get a bad rap. There's just so many of them, and most of them are pretty much the same, and rather forgettable, and as a result, many beer geeks are rather dismissive of the style. There are some good ones if you look hard, and I've long thought the best ones have pretty straightforward, simple, sharp flavors that work well together. But recently, I discovered even this point of view was pretty limiting when I tried four lagers from Shmaltz Brewing's Coney Island Lager Series.

In each beer of the series, Schmaltz uses complex combinations of malt and hops, and in one case spices, to create pretty unique lagers. At first, I was questioning whether they could even be called lagers, until I looked up the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines. Sure enough, there's plenty of different lager styles out there that we rarely see, and thanks to Shmaltz, we can experience some examples of them.

The label art for each beer in the series is based on traditional Coney Island side show art, and in addition to preserving the visual look of Coney Island, a percentage of the sales of these beers goes to Coney Island USA, Coney Island's resident not-for-profit art association.

OK, well that's nice. So what are the beers like?

Coney Island Lager
The base beer in the series, it has a rather sturdy, biscuit like malt with a straightforward bitterness. Not so much a lawnmower-type beer one thinks of a lager, its more malty than the usual lager and more substantial.

Coney Island Sword Swallower
It seemed like they cranked everything up a notch from the Coney Island Lager for this one. It's even more maltier than the Coney Island Lager, with a slight caramel character and a little sweetness. All this malt is well balanced by the straightforward bitterness of the hops, which had no fruity, floral or herbal character one might expect. I'm not a big into food and beer pairings, but this seemed like half a great combination with the right food, or might work well as an aperitif. What that's right food to pair with this? You're asking the wrong guy.

Coney Island Albino Python
A wit lager? It's pretty zippy, with orange zest, ginger and crushed fennel giving way to a smooth herbal finish. A pretty unique beer with flavors that seem in the witbier style. And Schmaltz has picked up some awards with this one, such as the Silver Medal at the Hotoberfast in Atlanta in the Best Brew Competition last October. Albino Python also took 1st Place in the "Other" category at the West Coast Brew Fest in Sacramento, CA held last May.

Coney Island Human Blockhead
A nifty combination of flavors. A little toasty, a little sweet, with a raisin or dried plum character, and a little alcohol heat from the 10% abv, and then the slightly herbal hops smoothly kicked in. What really makes this beer for me is the clear, fresh character it has with all those flavors going on, which could easily get rather muddled. It took Second Place in the "Strong Lager" category at the 2009 Manitou Springs Craft Lager Festival in Manitou Springs, CO last October.

(Shmaltz Brewing provided samples of all of the beers reviewed here, with the exception of Coney Island Lager.)

Back on the Track Again, and the First Annual Brewing Network Winter Brews Festival

Recovering from some hip and knee injuries, it's been months since I hit the Los Gatos High School track for the Saturday morning tempo runs with my usual training group. (Tempo runs are typically 20-25 minute run at comfortably hard pace and are designed to train the body to produce less rubber-leg inducing lactic acid.) It was great to be back, working hard at the track. Everyone was talking about the races they planned to run this year, as Winter is often a time of long term preparation and running optimism, where running plans are laid down for the year. And it felt great to reconnect with the small community of runners I've known for years, which I feel proud to be a part of.

Later that day, I trekked up with my girlfriend Linda to Oakland for the Brewing Network Winter Brews Festival held at the Linden Street Brewery. What was the most memorable about it? Well, despite most of the beers and food running out, plenty of long lines, and porta-potties that made everyone nostalgic for waste management practices of 17th century London, I can't recall a single negative comment, or even the slightest amount of obnoxious drunken behavior from anyone. Everyone was there to have a great time, and no matter what happened, they were bound determined to do so. We were in the company of complete strangers, and yet everyone seemed like old friends. One guy even whipped out a fat joint and seriously offered it to me after overhearing me talk about my lack of marijuana experience. Of course I declined, but you gotta love the gesture. I've been running for 30 years, and my craft beer epiphany occurred less than three years ago, but it's festivals like this that make me proud to be a part of the craft beer community.

Oh yes, what did we think about the beer? Well, my favorite of the evening was "Shorty's Vendetta" by E.J. Phair brewing. Rich, malty session beers are always a favorite of mine, I appreciated its caramel and slightly sweet character, with a slightly astringent bitter hop finish. I don't know why Shorty's on a vendetta, but maybe Shorty just ought to relax and have a couple of these beers.

Linda's favorite was Ninkasi Brewing's Believer Double Red. She let me try it, and by that time, my palate was pretty worn out, so could barely taste it, and didn't take any notes on it. I've learned it's wise to trust her judgement. Also notable was Iron Springs Coffee Porter, which had a strong espresso-like flavors on top of the roasty malt goodness, and that works pretty well for me. Since my next homebrew will be a coffee porter, I had a particular interest in this.

Finally, I eagerly lined up for some Uncommon Brewers Bacon Brown, since they have some top secret process to introduce bacon into the brew. Bacon usually makes things better, but not here. There's a greasy smokiness to this murky tan and muddled brew, and it simply didn't work by any stretch of the imagination. I love Uncommon Brewers Siamese Twin and appreciate pushing the envelope and getting creative, but sorry guys, we just didn't like it.

We're already looking forward to the 2nd Annual Winter Brews Festival.