Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Pliny Bites at Russian River Brewing

A word of advice. If you go to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA, don't order the Pliny Bites. It's this typical pub appetizer they serve, sliced toasty bread with melted cheese and jalapenos on it. Lots of jalapenos. Linda and I picked off about a 2-3 hand fulls of sliced jalapenos from our basket of Pliny Bites after realizing we weren't going to taste anything else for the afternoon besides jalapenos unless we pulled them all off. We don't shy away from spicy foods, but there's a difference between adding a spicy kick to a dish and having absolutely no restraint what so ever with the jalapenos, and this definitely fell in the latter category. While no culinary expert, I have to question the wisdom of an appetizer that effectively kills the taste buds for the rest of the day.

Fortunately, the Perdition Ale I ordered was brought out before the Pliny Bites. My dictionary defines the word "Perdition" as "a total loss". Well, it wasn't that bad. There just wasn't too much to the beer, which Russian River describes as a Biere de Sonoma, but might be more directly described as a brown ale made with Belgian yeast. It had a little malty, nutty character, a slight aromatic spice note, and a slightly astringent finish, but as a whole, I found it not particularly special. The good news is that things got a lot better from here.

Next up was the Russian River Porter, checking in a 5.7% abv and 41 BU, hefty numbers for the porter style. I doused my tongue with as much water as possible in hopes of tasting something. There's plenty of rich coffee and chocolate malt flavors, and a surprising citrus-like finish to it. At least that's what I think I tasted trying to push it's way past the overwhelming jalapeno burn in my mouth. I also gave the OVL Stout a try. It's a great bitter roasted malt coffee bomb, very dry and astringent, and at only 4.0% abv. Always great to find find another flavorful session beer, but then actually handling 2-3 pints of all that roasted bitterness in an evening would be a challenge for most. Russian River made their claim to fame on Belgian beers, special barrel aged releases, and of course, the cult status of hop monsters like their Blind Pig IPA and Pliny the Elder Imperial IPA, but they do traditional English malt forward styles quite well. Linda, ever the hop head decided for the Russian River IPA and Pliny the Elder. Finally, after lots of water and a tasty vegetarian pizza, we could finally taste something other than jalapenos.

So Linda and I decided to share a 10 ounce glass of Temptation. Now we're talking. This Belgian Ale, aged in chardonnay barrels had lots of great, intense flavors, yet remained smooth. It starts our with an intense sourness, oak, tropical fruit flavors and a slightly buttery chardonnay in the mix. Just a great beer drinking experience that we savored slowly, and the week after we shared it, it won a sliver medal at this year's Great American Beer Festival.

I probably don't need to tell you they have some great beers at Russian River, but eat the Pliny Bites at your own risk.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Beer of the Month: 3-Way by Anderson Valley Brewing

Today, I grant Anderson Valley Brewing's 3-Way the title of Beer of the Month. 3-Way is a hybrid beer concocted from Anderson Valley's ESB aged two years in whisky barrels, their 20th Anniversary Imperial IPA, and their Imperial Amber. It's got this great warm, smokey, nutty, malty flavor with a very slight resiny hop finish. Give them credit for creating something unique, greater than the sum of it's parts. I'm afraid it's only available at the Tasting Room next to the brewery in Boonville, which Linda and I enjoyed on our honeymoon.

Of course, bringing up the subject of a 3-Way during a honeymoon is particularly dangerous. When I noticed this selection at the Anderson Valley Tasting Room, it seemed wise not to bring it up. Of course, I could only restrain myself for about five seconds before turning to Linda and asking, with a sly confidence, "Linda, would you be interested in a 3-Way on our honeymoon?"

"Why sure," Linda replied, batting her eyelashes,"if Sting would join us, I'd be up for it."

One of the many reason why I love her.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A few observations from Brews on the Bay

The Brews on the Bay beer festival, hosted by the San Francisco Brewers Guild is a pretty simple concept. Each member of the guide sets up a few taps along the deck of the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, a World War II era supply ship permanently docked to a pier in San Francisco's Fisherman Wharf. Before you climb the stairs to enter a ship, they give you a plastic cup. For four hours, you walk around to the various brewer stations on the ship's deck, and ask the servers to fill your cup with one of their selections on tap. When you get tired of walking around the ship, drinking beer, and enjoying great views of San Francisco from the ship, you leave. Or, 5 pm rolls around, and they kick you the ship. Oh, and there was a Van Halen cover band this year, if you're in to that sort of thing.

It's a good opportunity to see what the many great San Francisco breweries are up to. And like any good beer festival, there's a few brewers around, most of whom will gladly tell you about there beer, and are also good for picking up a home brewing tip here and there. A while plenty of breweries poured there tried and true brews, there were enough specials and seasonals pouring to make it interesting. Here's a few random observations from that afternoon.

-21st Amendment poured their new Imperial IPA, Hop Crisis. One would think the Bay Area needs another big Imperial IPA like most people need another hole in their head, but if you tasted this one, you'd likely disagree. It's big and powerful, with a strong strong hop vibe, but makes it work is its sturdy malt character that provides a good balance and almost viscous mouth feel to this brew. 21st Amendment plans to release it in four-pack cans this coming spring. I don't know about you, but I'll be looking for it.

-Social Kitchen & Brewery made their Brews on the Bay debut. I was rather fond of their Rapscallion, a pretty intense Belgian Ale with a zippy ginger-like aromatic spiciness and light apricot notes. Their Big Muddy Weizenbock has plenty of roasty malt, some banana-like esters, and a little clove like spicy vibe to it. I need actually go to their brew pub and actually purchase some of their beers.

-Also enjoyed Rum Runner from Thirsty Beer. It's got a lot of molasses in it, as well a 120L Crystal Malt, and British Aromatic Malt. It's lightly sweet, malty and molassessy. (Is "molassessy" a word?) If you ask me, molasses in beer is way under rated, and I've got to love a beer with "Runner" in the title.

Since I'm having some problem with my camera, I decided to use a picture for last year's Brew's on the Bay, just in case anyone would actually notice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Returning to the source at Anderson Valley Brewing

If you want to officially date my craft beer epiphany, it happened over three years ago Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, CA. Linda and I took drove in from nearby Ukiah in hopes we could take the brewery tour. Unfortunately on that week day, we were told the person who normally does the tours "wasn't in", so there were no tours that day. We went into the warehouse-like tasting room and enjoyed a sampler of their many fine beers. I'd enjoyed plenty of craft beers and samplers at brewpubs prior to that, but for some reason, simply drank them didn't pay all that much attention. Things like IPA's, Ambers, Belgian Doubles and Triples were foreign concepts to me, but for some reason, at that place and time, I started really paying attention and realizing what I've been missing. The next day, Linda and I drove up to Fort Bragg to visit North Coast Brewing and we've continued down the road of craft beer discovery ever since.

Having come back to Boonville over three years later, I kept calling Anderson Valley, making doubly and triply sure there I wouldn't miss the tour again. And sure enough there was a tour we when arrived, and I finally got to get inside. Unfortunately, Linda was wearing open toed sandals, and so was not allowed on the tour, since a brewery is a working factory which has strict rules on things like that.

The current brewery is actually only ten years old, with the old copper brewing kettles obtained from a Germany brewery that went out of business. There's a big, impressive control panel full of dials and knobs, but they're just for show. An Allen-Bradley touch-screen mounted into the control panel is actually used to operate the brew kettles. And finally, going onto the roof of the brewery and seeing the actually Anderson Valley landscape used on Anderson Valley's beer label right before my very eyes was a surprising moment that made me utter a quiet "Wow!".

So I leave you with a few sights from the place that's started it all for me with craft beer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Honeymoon in Boonville

Tiny Boonville, in the middle of California's Mendocino County, is not a typical honeymoon destination. But it seemed the natural place for ours, since Linda and I were here on our first vacation together three years ago, and discovered the endless possibilities of craft beer. And slightly more important, we discovered we had something pretty special going on. We came to this realization not because had "the perfect vacation", or one set of amazing experiences after another, but simply how effortlessly enjoyable the whole trip was.

Maybe I shouldn't be writing any "deep thoughts" about relationships. After all, I spent a few thousand bucks and countless hours with a really good therapist during the break up of my first marriage to discover the "profound truth" that seeking out women whom I didn't anything in common with was not a particularly good idea.

Breaking down difficult barriers, taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges, and constantly testing your limits on an almost daily basis to reach fleeting goals, is what running, at least to me, is all about, and has served me well. But trust me, you don't want to be taking on challenges in your close personal relationships, nor be overcoming barriers with people close to you all the time. Life tried to teach me that lesson over and over again, and it took a few hard falls along the way to finally get it.

People ask how married life is treating me. It's very comfortable.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Session #43: The craft brewing industry is indeed welcoming. How long will that last?

For this month's Session, Carla Companion, The Beer Babe has asked us to write about welcoming the new kids, the new breweries, into the craft brewing community. Here's what I have to say about that.

Social Kitchen & Brewery opened in San Francisco this year, and I finally got to sample some of their beer at last weekend's Eat Real Festival in Oakland. Social Kitchen Brewmaster Rich Higgins is well known in the Bay Area, having organized this year's SF Beer Week , and has received plenty of outward support from the close knit Bay Area brewing fraternity. One of the great things about beer festivals is you can actually talk to the brewers about their beer, and Rich Higgins poured some of his L'Enfant Terrible, which he describes as a table Belgian Ale. I found it to be a great mix of slightly chocolaty roasted malt, a little fig, and a clove-like finish. It checks in at only 4.5% abv, proving once again, there's some really flavorful, complex, yet drinkable session beers out there.

How should the craft brewing community welcome Rich Higgins and his brewpub Social Kitchen? I'm afraid I do not have any particular deep insights into that, but a wild guess is that if members of the craft brewing community actually actually purchased Rich Higgins's beer, he'd probably feel pretty welcome.

What strikes me about this month's topic about the craft beer community welcoming new breweries is very much in the spirit of the extremely chummy craft beer industry. In virtually every other industry, new entrants are rarely welcomed, and often scorned. But when new craft breweries open, there's often plenty of support from the regional craft brewing industry, who seemingly do not view this new entrant as a competitor.

There's always room for new players with the craft beer pie growing robustly despite a deep recession and glacial economic recovery. And since the craft beer community seems unified against the global mega brewers, the enemy of my enemy is my friend seems to apply here. But how many new breweries can the industry sustain before the craft brewing fraternity no longer considers the new guy a fellow craft beer evangelist, but another guy trying to take their money?

The success of craft brewing has inevitably and unavoidably created larger and more corporate entities entering into the business, especially as the older brewing pioneers ride off into the sunset of retirement. And while many of these corporation organizations seem committed to continuing the legacy and quality of craft brewing, they do have investors to answer to, who are not as driven by concepts like "support your local brewer", as they are on things like "return on investment", and it's hard not to conclude this warm fuzzy feeling of "we're all in this craft brewing thing together" will invariably end.

When will all these feel good vibes within the craft brewing industry be lost? Who knows. The current levels of growth may be sustainable for a long time to allow new breweries plenty of elbow room. And maybe there is something about brewing great beer that minimizes a sense of cut throat competition. But craft brewing is a business. And there are plenty of brewers who are demonstrably true to their craft, while also being shrewd, ambitious, and in some cases, ego-driven businessmen working hard to grow their small empires, and delivering a few bruises as they fight for tap handles, shelf space, and mindshare comes with that territory. I've already heard of a few grumblings from smaller craft breweries about strong arm sales tactics of the larger craft beer players. Call me a pessimist, but my guess is that 5, 10, or 20 years from now, the craft brewing industry won't be nearly as friendly as it is now.

The craft brewing industry is indeed a welcoming industry. Enjoy it while it lasts.