Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Only Goal was to Finish

There's been very few races where my only goal was to finish, but I found myself on the starting line with that objective last Thanksgiving morning. I'd like to say I was about to start a marathon, ultra-marathon, or run some obscenely difficult course, but in fact, it was a simple five mile cross-country race in Golden Gate Park. I was pretty sick the day before and while I'm striving to be more descriptive in my writing, you'd probably don't want to read a detailed description of what emerged from my throat and nose over two previous two days. While I had recovered somewhat, certainly not enough to feel optimistic take on the race, even if these holiday races tend to be pretty good natured events.

Why was I even running in the first place rather than stay home? I have this certain ethic, perhaps better described as a stubbornness, to finish something I've started, no matter what. So if I've entered a race and not at death's door, I'm obligated show up on the starting line and give it my best, no excuses. I don't recommend this attitude for everyone but like to think it has served me pretty well. As long as we ignore all those times I've turned a little sickness into a raging fever because I didn't want to take a rest day, or a ended up limping around for a week thinking I could just push through some "little, nagging injury". So flying in the face of most conventional reason, there I was, after a few tepid and lethargic brief warm-up jogs and sucking nonstop on a water bottle all morning to battle a still slightly sore throat, about to give the race a go.

Surprisingly at the start, the slow "just finish the damn race" pace was surprisingly effortless, and I was a bit bewildered at where the sudden energy had come from. I have to say that whenever there's a starting line, a finishing line, and a clock timing how long it takes to run between the two, it just turns on some sort of high energy switch inside of me. But maybe drinking five or six glasses of water, each with a packet of Emergen-Cee dissolved into them the day before, giving me a daily dose of vitamin C good for over 50 people is what gave me the necessary recuperative powers. Or perhaps I was energized by the postcard-picturesque course that twisted and turned through the green rolling hills and coastal forest Golden Gate Park landscape, with the ground perfectly soft from four days of light rain, meticulously marked by tiny bright yellow flags and burnt orange traffic cones so no one would miss every zig and zag only the course.

Whatever the source of unexpected strength, I slowly picked up the pace, and methodically reeled in runner after runner over the first couple miles. And while the urban forest location provided a pleasing background to the race, it also provided some handy underbrush cover required for a little pit stop at about 1 1/2 miles, that was quite necessary from all the extra pre-race hydration. That business taken care of, I just concentrated on keeping good form, maintaining pace, and looking at the back of the runner in front of me, gradually pulling up to them, before concentrating on passing the next person. After five miles of this, I finished with a time and place much higher than I thought I could have realistically hoped for.

One thing running has taught me is there that are no guarantees for success. You can have several excellent weeks or months of training, with a good focused attitude and strong game plan, and things can still blow up in your face on race day for reasons either completely unknown or outside your controll. Thankfully the opposite is also true. Everything can be off or sub-par going into race day, and you can still end up hanging up a performance you think you had no business reaching. Enjoy those days when you can. I know I will.

PS - Considering all the "opps" and "oh shit" moments while home brewing the day after this race, I can only hope to have the same kind of luck with that endeavor once the yeast finishes its thing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pilgrimage to a Craft Brewing Shrine at Sierra Nevada

Maybe there should be some sort of craft beer Mecca, a spiritual journey each individual in the craft beer community must take in their lifetime. And while there are plenty of breweries in Europe that could rightfully lay claim to be the Mecca of craft brewing, it's hard to think of a better Mecca for the US craft brewing revolution than Sierra Nevada's Brewery in Chico, California, which Ken Grossman founded 30 years ago.

I recently travelled to Chico, but it was foot fungus, rather than craft beer that brought me there. I was there on business, helping a customer as they were commercializing a laser based foot fungus treatment. Once that meeting was completed and with no further business to attend at the end of the day, I drove across town to check out the brewery, hoping to have a look before heading home. To my pleasant surprise upon my arrival, there was a brewery tour scheduled to start about ten minutes, and acting fast, I secured a spot on it.

Giddy with the excitement of a five year old on Christmas morning, I went to the very front of the line as we marched around the brewery, and enthusiastically raised my hand every time our guide asked audience participation questions like "Does anyone know what wort tastes like?". As brewery tours go, it's one of the better ones, as our guide was pretty knowledgeable, and well trained to show people around the place.

The most impressive fact I learned is that Sierra Nevada generates 85% of the energy to run their brewery either with solar cells, or natural gas based fuel cells which have a low carbon footprint. Imagine the impact if every factory in the United States, if not the world, made even half this commitment to more sustainable sources of energy that Sierra Nevada has. The brewery has all sorts of little flourishes with frescos and etched tiles on the walls depicting the history of brewing.

I do not claim to be much of a photographer, but gave my best for these pictures to give this shrine of craft beer the reverence it deserves.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beer of the Month: Hops on Rye from Firehouse Brewery

Firehouse Brewery's Hops on Rye earns the title of Beer of the Month for November. This Rye IPA is one of those unique beers that defy simple description. It's got a hefty amount of malt, with caramel and rye flavors up front, and a little sweetness. The malt balances well with all the hops that give the beer a piney and slightly menthol-like finish. Not only is it a great beer, it's the first time Firehouse has ever bottled one of their beers. Since Firehouse has won medals at the Great American Beer Festival each of the last three years, you might say it's about time their beers got more exposure. You can find it at Bay Area BevMo! and Whole Foods locations, as well at K&L Liquors in Redwood City. Renowned bottle shops City Beer and Beer Revolution also should have it before too long.

Firehouse Brewmaster Steve Donohue graciously provided a couple bottles at a recent meeting of the Bay Area Beer Bloggers held at Firehouse, where Devon, John Heylin, Brian Stechschulte, Peter Estaniel, Jen Buck McDaniel, Rich, David Jensen, and myself attended. It was a fun, enthusiastic, and vibrant bunch and I immensely enjoyed being a part of it. It was also rather interesting matching the real life personalities with each individual writing style.

So what actually happens at a Bay Area Beer Bloggers meeting anyway? You'll be shocked to discover it basically involves a bunch of people chatting about beer and blogging while they sit around a table and drink beer. As a special bonus at the end of the evening, Steve Donohue took us into his brewery and showed us around the place he's brewed those award winning beers.

But the beer blogging meeting was not all just about fun and beer. It served as a launch pad of scietific inquiry as Peter Estaniel, John Heylin, Steve Donohue and I contemplated the effect of dissolving Xenon gas into beer rather than the traditional Carbon Dioxide. And beer blogging proved to be an unstoppable force for peace and brotherhood, as Bruce Stechschulte, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and I, a graduate of their hated rival Ohio State University, still had an amicable discussion over a couple of pints, despite the fact that I'm a pretty fanatical Buckeye fan. One can imagine from this example how much destructive carnage and bloodshed could have been averted if only George W. Bush and Suddam Hussien had been beer bloggers.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nifty Session Beers and Rumbling Trains at Social Kitchen and Brewery

Brewmaster Rich Higgins of Social Kitchen and Brewery is probably thankful I'm finally paying him for his beer. I've sampled it at a recent beer festivals, at which he likely provided gratis. And while I've given him genuine compliments of it at those festivals which he likely appreciates, when it's time for him to pay his employees or the loans on his brewing equipment, kind words uttered in his direction are not going to do him much good. Linda and I have been meaning to go to Social Kitchen for some time since it opened earlier this year, and we finally got a chance to visit on a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon.

Located just south of Golden Gate Park on 9th street, it's at the former site of defunct Wunder Beer. I've heard talk that this slightly snake-bitten location is not a good one for a brewpub. But maybe because that's because the area feels like an actual San Francisco neighborhood, rather than the contrived tourist attractions where many of San Francisco brewpubs are found. The periodic rumbling from the Muni trains rolling down 9th street gave the place an authentic urban feel, an acoustic connection to the surrounding city. Dark brown wooden panelling gives the place a somewhat sophisticated look, with the otherwise light and airy interior providing a welcoming feel.

As for the beer, you have salute a place where session beers figure prominently the beer line-up. Social Kitchen didn't have an Imperial-anything on their tap list that day, and we didn't miss them at all. One of my favorites is their L'Enfant Terrible, described as a Belgian table beer which has a nice mix of chocolate and roasted malt, with a little fig and a little spicy zip to it. I also enjoyed the Old Time Alt, a robust alt-style beer with a decent amount of rich, roasted malt with a woody character to it.

Of course, Social Kitchen does more than just drinkable session beers. Leave it to a California brewery to call an IPA with 65 IBU, their Easy IPA, which they describe "your friendly, neighborhood IPA". There's not much heft to the malt to balance of that floral hop goodness, but the lack of balance works in favor of this brew, which really has a intense, very flavorful floral vibe. Lots of California brewers try to make beers like this, but end up simply socking you in the taste buds with simple, non-descript hop bitterness.

As for the food, I am no food critic and will do my best and try not to pretend to be one here. Linda and I enjoyed the whimsical Brussels Sprout Chips appetizer. It sounds like a kids worst nightmare, but the lightly fried, salted thinly sliced Brussels sprouts was almost as addictive as popcorn. Almost. As for the menu, it's a notch above simple brewpub fare, but otherwise is pretty accessible and straightforward. Linda and I found our food to be well executed, and really liked the warm neighborhood feel to the place. Call Social Kitchen and Brewery your friendly neighborhood gastro pub.

Finally, for "dessert", we tried the Dapple Dandy Grand Cru. Made from their Raspcallion Belgian Ale, with a little red ale, and lots of Dapple Dandy pluots, I'm finding it elusive to describe. I appreciate the light touch with the fruit, as the fruit flavors blended with a light clove spiciness, a little sweetness, and a tannic-like bitter finish. I'm not sure this beer totally worked, but give them credit for something creative, complex, and interesting.

I'll pay Social Kitchen and Brewery perhaps the highest possible compliment by saying I really wish it was in my neighborhood.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Slightly Encouraging Sign at Mayfield Brewing

There's a slightly encouraging sign at Mayfield Brewing since my post ten days ago where I suggested things were not looking good for Mayfield's future. During my morning run through the Belmont, CA industrial park that's home to Devils' Canyon and Mayfield's breweries, I noticed an official sign posted at Mayfield's location by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that was not there two weeks ago. The notice, dated October 29, indicates the owner has applied for a premises to premises transfer of their Category 23 - Small Brewery License. This could mean a lot of things, but it's encouraging there's some small sign of life there.

Still, it makes no sense that if this was an orderly and planned move by Mayfield, why they wouldn't simply announce they were moving. Their website still says "Under Construction". What ever's going on, I hope they are successful.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Session #45 : Wheat Beer Love and Money

Nemsis of Beer Taster has decided to take us back closer to the original roots of The Session, and asks us to write about Wheat Beers.

While Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing is about 1,500 miles away from my home, it's one of my favorite breweries. I've enjoyed several of their beers, such as their Single Wide IPA, their Bully Porter, and sampled a few releases of their acclaimed Smokestack Series. However, the most unquestionably important beer in Boulevard's line-up is a beer I've never tried. It's their humble Unfiltered Wheat Beer, which comprises about 70% of their sales. Four days out of each five-day work week, Boulevard's brewery is bottling or kegging this brew. I'm not alone in ignoring Boulevard's Unfiltered Wheat Beer. Check out Boulevard's Beer Advocate profile , and you'll find a mere 5-10% of the total Boulevard Brewing beer reviews are of its Unfiltered Wheat

I must confess to not finding many Wheat Beers, at least those brewed in the United States, all that exciting, and many other beer geeks seem to share this opinion. Wheat beers appear on a lot of brewery's beer line-ups seemingly as "transition beers", for that guy who faithfully drinks Budweiser who got dragged into the brewpub one night by his friends. Or even more derisively as "chick beers" especially when fruit is added to it, since wheat beers do provide a good base for flavor experimentation. But the dirty secret is that most of the non-beer geek population, as well as a few beer geeks hiding in the closet, generally prefer to drink something light and refreshing with good flavors going in it, rather than dealing with an onslaught of bitter hops or roasted malt. And selling "chick beer" or "transition beers" is good big business, as MolsonCoors will attest with their successful Blue Moon Belgian wheat beer brand.

And since Boulevard's owner John McDonald is both a businessman and a brewer, I expect he cares rather deeply about his wheat beer, and is quite grateful it pays his bills, giving him the freedom to experiment with all the sexy barrel aged stuff we beer geeks tend to swoon over.

Is Boulevard unique as a craft brewery which relies heavily on wheat beers for their main source of revenue? Well, maybe. But since I am a mere beer blogger hobbyist, and not a paid brewing consultant, I'm not really in a position to do much scientific research on the subject. So instead, I did the next best thing, which is go to a beer festival, drink beer, and shoot the shit with various brewers and brewery staff about their wheat beers.

And so I learned at a recent San Francisco Bay Area beer festival that 21st Amendment sells lots of their refreshing and innovative Hell or High Watermelon Wheat over the summer, especially when the San Francisco Giants are in town, since their brewpub is close to their stadium. Talking to the folks at 21st Amendment about this, nobody could actually say how much of their total revenue was due to Watermelon Wheat, but "lots" , "plenty", or "well over 50% when it's hot" were their best guesses. At the same beer festival, I learned Thirsty Bear's Valencia Wheat, an excellent Belgian Wit Beer with a California twist, is a pretty heavy hitter in their line-up, accounting for about 20-30% of their sales and their third biggest seller.

There was one brewery I spoke with that claimed to make very little money on their wheat beer. It's one of my favorite breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area and they've brewed plenty of well respected beers, but seemed to treat their wheat beer as some sort of bastard child in their line-up. And I found their wheat beer rather uninteresting, like a Saltine cracker without the salt. I can't help wondering if they gave their wheat beer a little more love, attention, and creativity, they'd be a lot more successful with it.

As a craft beer drinker and more than casual observer of the craft beer industry, let me draw on these experience to give this unsolicited advice to craft brewers everywhere: Love your wheat beer, and it will pay you back.

Monday, November 1, 2010

An Early Tasting of Stone's Vertical Epic 10.10.10

I'm not exactly sure what about Stone Brewing's Vertical Epic series excites me. Maybe it's the fact that arrives once a year, with each years release date is on the same numbered day and month of the release year, this year's release falling on October 10, 2010. Maybe it's because for each release, Stone tries brewing something highly original, even by their standards. Maybe I'm just a slave to their particular hype.

Especially since I didn't think the first Vertical Epic I tried, their 8.8.8 was all that special. A solid Belgian Strong Ale to be sure, but nothing really noteworthy, despite their best efforts. However, last year's 9.9.9 was a mighty tasty, roasted Belgian porter with all sorts of lovely flavors and nuances. So with high hopes for this year's version, I bugged my local San Mateo BevMo! for days after October 10th, until their shipment came in. Thankfully, they had stashed a box up front for me and a few other people who had been pestering them about it, and so I picked up three bottles to try every few months as the flavors evolve over time.

Stone's website describes Vertical Epic 10.10.10 as Belgian Strong Pale Ale brewed with pale malt and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye), hopped with German Perle hops, and steeped with chamomile during the whirlpool stage. A juice blend of Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc grape varieties was added in the secondary fermentation.

And give them credit, it's a very unique, memorable, and most of all, delicious brew. I'm sure if it's a good idea to age it that long, since must white wine is typically something not aged for more than 2-3 years, and there weren't really any rough edges in the flavors to mellow out over time. Drinking this is lot easier than describing it, as it has a unique character all to its own. The white wine grapes are pretty up front, complimented by a nice clove spiciness, and a tea-like bitter finish. I also picked up an interesting floral component, which may be from the chamomile.

What is Chamomile? I had to look this up myself and found it is daisy-like flower which traditionally has been used to cure sleeplessness, anxiety, and diarrhea.

Anything that makes you relax and doesn't give you diarrhea is probably a good thing.