Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's Not Looking Good for Mayfield Brewing

I can now admit to having a bit of sick feeling while writing a recent post on Mayfield Brewing for The Session. This sickness was due to a nagging suspicion the brewery was going out of business. The week before I posted the article, I wanted to do some extra research for the article at Mayfield's usual open house, held monthly on the last Friday of the month concurrently with Devil's Canyon Brewing's much larger Beer Friday just across the alley of the small industrial park in Belmont, CA both breweries call home. Everyone was having at good time over at Devil's Canyon, but Mayfield was all closed up, with a new "For Lease" sign covered the top of Mayfield's building. Now this sign could have been intended for any of the units in that industrial park, but it did looked a little ominous up there over Mayfield's loading dock. I sent Mayfield owner John Alderete an e-mail asking "What's up?" and didn't get a response. Hmmmmm.

So I thought maybe he was just on vacation that month. Alderete had talked to me the previous open house about transitioning to a "Wine Club" business model, and so I rationalized this this might have been part of that transition. But now their website has nothing but a boiler plate "Under Construction" graphic and Alderete hasn't responded to another e-mail about what's going on, and it's pretty hard to come to any other conclusion than Mayfield Brewing is in pretty serious financial difficulty, if it hasn't completely gone out of business. I certainly hope to be wrong.

You never want to see anyone fail, and Alderete clearly had the passion for beer everyone in the craft beer community shares. The ever present elephant in the room at Mayfield was the very high price of their premium beers, aged for several months in used wine barrels. Their $30-$45 price for 750 ml bottles was way above what most breweries charge for similarly barrel-aged and special releases, and I'm afraid not everyone who tried his beers felt the taste justified this pricing.

Now I gladly paid $30 for a recent vintage of Mayfield's Noctura Imperial stout, a sensational brew with wine, vanilla, smokey notes mingling with the ale's very rich, complex roasted malt. But I didn't feel the same way about Mayfield's IPA and Alt-style offerings, nor was I alone. Aged in red wine barrels, the resulting flavors seemed to clash more than they complimented. An interesting, complex, thought provoking, but not necessarily delicious beer is not something most people will pay $45 a bottle for, especially in the Bay Area's floundering economy. The fact that the Bay Area has many excellent barrel-aged beers, such as Russian River's Temptation, that taste sensational, are hardly "acquired tastes", and cost about half of what a typical bottle of Mayfield was going for indicates how out of whack Mayfield's pricing seemed to be.

Of course, this is my outsider's view. Who really knows the complex set of issues facing this business? A lesson I learned from running that has served me well in professional life is that when setting goals, one can sit down and formulate an intelligent, reasonable, and well conceived plan to reach them. And then you follow that plan with great effort, dedication, and focus. And even after all that hard work and well directed effort, failure is still very much an option.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Nanny State Does All Right at the Logan Utah State Liquor Store

I do not profess to fully understand Utah's complex alcohol regulations, but from my vague understanding, you can actually by a six-pack, or a 22 ounce bottle of beer from a supermarket or other private retail location, as long as it doesn't exceed 4.0% abv. Otherwise, you have to go to a one of the Utah State Liquor Stores operated by the Utah Division of Alcohol Control. And trust me, if you're in Utah on business learning SAP installation and implementation, like I was last week, you definitely will need a beer. Or two. Or three. Maybe a lot more than that.

So last week, I was glad to get away for a few minutes during a business trip in Logan, UT to stop by the town's state liquor store. Surprisingly, this government run relic of prohibition actually had a pretty decent beer selection at reasonable prices. I found stuff like Anderson Valley Brewing, Rogue Ales, and tried and true imports like Samuel Smiths or Gulden Draak. I can get that back in the Bay Area, so my main interest was brews from the Utah Brewers Cooperative and Uinta Brewing. And since beers are sold by the individual bottle, assembling your own "sampler six-pack" is not only possible, it's almost encouraged.

According to the Utah Division of Alcohol Control website, liquor sales provided a major source of income to the state's general fund,with gross sales totaling $267 million in 2009, resulting in a net profit of $59 million for the state. Utah state laws restrict the density of state liquor stores to 1 per 48,000 residents, so looks like the state of Utah is leaving some beer money on the table, so to speak. As a Left Coast Liberal from California, I wish they would unshackle the brewing industry from big government regulation, and let free enterprise thrive, but that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. The State of Utah is one of the least likely organizations you'd expect to run a decent liquor store, but give them credit for doing exactly that.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Someone other than my sister is reading this

Having heard that Wikio recently started keeping rankings of beer blogs, I couldn't help looking to see what the their top rated ones were. Listed as 10th is "Bay Area Beer Runner", what this one used to be called.

Get the %&# out!

I really can't believe with so many beer blogs out there, this one ranks in the top ten. Of course, it isn't clear how this ranking is actually determined, but I look at the blogs ranked around me, and feel I'm in excellent company, so it has to have some validity.

Thanks so much for reading, and I'll just keep writing as best I can to make it worth your while to drop by.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It's a pain waiting for a dislocated shoulder to heal

There's nothing better than starting the day with a trail run. I've many mornings running the Belmont Open Space Trails, which lead to a great overlook of San Francisco Bay. This great view is the perfect way to start the day, and having to run up a few hills to get there, the best thing is that this view is earned.

Trail running is good for more than great early morning views. The changes in elevation and uneven terrain are great for developing running strength, flexibility, and balance that simply cannot be achieved on flat city sidewalks and streets. But taking more challenging trail workouts also exposes you to more injury, and last week on the trails, I tripped, stumbled, and fell and in the process dislocated my left shoulder.

I knew my shoulder was dislocated almost immediately after I hit the ground. I tried to raise my left arm hoping it might pop back into place, but it was too painful to raise above a 45 degree angle. My hand felt numb, so I started flexing my left arm in hopes it would create some circulation and feeling. A light headed feeling descended upon me, and so I bent over, dangling my left arm to my side and bracing myself with my good right arm, so I wouldn't pass out from shock. Once I gathered myself, there wasn't much more to do than walk out of the woods and go back home so my wife Linda could take me to the hospital.

Luckily, I knew a shortcut through the trails back home, so it only took about a half hour to get home. And Linda works in a hospital as a speech therapist in head injury rehabilitation, so a dislocated shoulder hardly the worst trauma she deals with on a regular basis. She got the kids dressed, and we all went to the hospital to put my left arm back in place.

My doctor just didn't have the strength to do it. It actually felt good as he pulled on my arm, which loosened up a lot of tightness in it, but he couldn't get it back into the socket. Next, he had me lie face down while they attached weights to my left arm dangling off the side of the hospital bed in hopes of fatiguing the arm muscles over time so the arm would pop back into the socket by itself. When that didn't work, they put me under with the same stuff that killed popstar Michael Jackson, and with my body relaxed and mind totally unaware, finally put my left arm back where it belonged.

Yes, dislocating my shoulder hurt, but really not that bad. And after all, running is about managing discomfort effectively to achieve goals, more succinctly and alliteratively phrased as "no pain, no gain", so the pain of a dislocated shoulder is simply part of running. They got me in a sling, and supposedly six weeks from now, my arm will feel back to normal, but my left shoulder will be more prone to dislocations due to the damage. I'm not supposed to lift things with my arm. When I'll be cleared to run, I have no idea.

A dislocated shoulder is painful, but I can handle it. What I can't handle is sitting around doing nothing, especially since there is not much I can do to make it recover. Not running for a while few weeks is something I actually find a little scary. Before started running at the age of twelve, I was this skinny kid with no self-esteem that everyone seemed to pick on. Running gave me the confidence I needed at this fragile age. I kept at it until there came a point during my first marriage where I nearly stopped running all together, gained 60 pounds, and was generally angry and unhappy. Running got my life back on track, but unfortunately not my first marriage. There's this irrational fear that if I stop running, I'm going to become that timid skinny 12-year old, that fat unhappily married guy, or some hideous hybrid of the two.

I was planning to enter a couple races in October and November, and was starting to gear up from them in my training. Since that looks like that's not going to happen, I've started spending mornings walking for 20-40 minutes instead of the usual run. It not much, but it's better than nothing, and one thing I've learned in 30 years of running is that maintaining a routine being consistent to it is important. For now that routine is morning walks, and sometime I'll get in another walk during the day. I'll build from there.

I will get back up those hills and earn some more great views in the morning. But for now, I walk and wait.

Friday, October 8, 2010

New Bay Area Brewery: Old Oak Beer

I've been trying to steal ideas from Jesse Friedman for quite sometime. He'd go to some brewery, take a bunch of great pictures, write no more than three descriptive but highly readable sentences about the place, post it on his site Beer & Nosh, and I'd feel like I'd been there. I tried to do posts like his, but my problem was I talked too much, nor had his eye for photography.

The good news is that I will have less opportunities to steal from him as he's partnered with Damien Fagen to form the Bay Area's newest brewery, Old Oak Beer. Friedman describes the new brewery as "dedicated to producing “Farm to Barrel” artisanal ales inspired by the farms of Northern California".

Old Oak Beer's first release will be a Belgian Golden Strong Ale, which they started with large amounts of Citra hop additions. Then, they added two hundred and fifty pounds of blackberries from a Northern California berry farm, and the mix has been aging in used wine barrels since July. Yes, this summer beer will be released this winter, but Friedman explains this beer is meant to be aged for the flavors to evolve.

The beer will initially be sold at a few San Francisco bottle shops and a restaurants, and to find out where, check out the Buy Local page on the Old Oak Beer website. Let's all wish them luck.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beer of the Month: Anchor Brewing's Humming Ale

For the month of October, I bestow the honor of Beer of the Month of October to Anchor Brewing's Humming Ale, their recently released fall seasonal brew. While Anchor Brewing has long been a craft brewing pioneer since Fritz Maytag rescued the brewery in the 60's, they seemed a bit behind the craft beer curve, with a tried and true beer line-up, but nothing particularly new or original. That's changed in 2010, with an excellent collaborative Imperial Stout with Sierra Nevada, and now Humming Ale, the first seasonal Anchor's released since 2005.

And what a great, easy-drinking yet sophisticated brew this is. It's rather fruity, with apricot and a little pineapple flavors, and then has this herbal, almost savory, slightly astringent hop finish. I found it well balanced, with a great composition of flavors that just seems to hit all the right notes.

Everyone seems to be holding their breath, wondering how the new ownership of Anchor will handle the national craft brewing treasure Fritz Maytag sold them. Seems like everything is working out all right so far.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Session #44: The Drive of a Scientist Brewer at Mayfield

For this month's Session, Ashley Routson asks us to write about"Frankenstein Beers", beers where the brewers are "creating beers that transcend style guidelines. These “Frankenstein Beers” challenge the way people perceive beer. They are freaks of nature — big, bold and intense. The ingredients resemble those of a beer and the brewing process might appear to be normal, but some aspects of the entire experience are experimental, unorthodox and insane."

There are plenty of Frankensein-sque brewers out there, pushing and sometimes breaking the envelope using usual brewing techniques or ingredients. Some cannot resist the temptation to jack up the levels of alcohol or bitterness to obscene levels. Some of it can be attributed simply to a creative drive to do something new and usual, to experiment and take risks, which pay off in the creation of a new and unique beer drinking experience. It's also driven by the desire of to stand-out in an ever more crowded brewing field, where the bar for doing something new and usual get raised higher and higher to absurd, ridiculous levels. And there's no shortage of craft beer drinkers willing to stand in long lines to pay the top dollar prices just to taste them. Why? We all like to take a peek at the monsters.

For this this session on Frankenstein beers, I decided to focus on one of my hometown breweries, Mayfield Brewing, known for their Iconoclast series of beers aged in used wine barrels. Located in Belmont, CA, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, Mayfield Brewing seems ideal for this discussion of mad scientist brewers, since brewer and owner John Alderete actually is a scientist, with a Ph.D. in molecular biology. When I met him at recent brewery open house, he hardly came across as a mad scientist, speaking in a calm, reserved, and logical manner while explaining his barrel-aged beers, making it almost seem like he's not doing anything particularly unusual.

Aldrerete's most celebrated beer is his Iconoclast Nocturna, an Imperial Stout aged in Petite Syrah barrels. And it is excellent. Red wine and chocolate is a natural pairing, and the Syrah and rich chocolate flavors of the Imperial Stout pair effortlessly. There's also smoky and vanilla notes adding to the complexity of this creamy, rich tasting stout, and it truly is a very memorable experience. There's a bottle of it in my refrigerator that I'm saving for a special occasion. Alderete's decision to brew and barrel age an Imperial Stout, a commonly barrel-aged beer and Mayfield's most popular one, was mostly an after thought. He almost seems bored by this beer.

He appears more passionate about his other two beers, the Iconoclast Aurora an Altbier and the Iconoclast Eclat an IPA, which are both aged in Cabernet and Zinfandel barrels. Having tried these beers as well, I can tell you both are quite complex and interesting. Interesting flavors come and go as the beer warms up, the flavor profile changing with every sip. However, the red wine flavors seem to clash with the Altbier and IPA styles and the tastes seems a bit forced, with the end result coming across a bit like a mad scientist's brewing experiment. John readily admits his beers are unusual and often take a while to get used to, also points out that while his IPA is atypical by today's standards, it is in fact more true to the IPA style's origins of travelling long distances by sailing ship inside wooden barrels. I have to say, Alderete seems much more turned on by the challenge of creating a beer of unusual flavor combinations for people to slowly discover for themselves, than putting out something easily and instantly appealing to everyone that's easy to sell.

While I'm not totally sold on John Aldrete's Aurora and Eclat beers, they continue to draw me in every time I drink them, and I look forward to tasting them again. Why? I like to take a peek at his creations.