Friday, July 1, 2011

The Session #53: Epiphany Redemption

For this Session, John Holl of Beer Briefing tells of a long, negative experience with a brewery only to find out later in life, the brewery wasn't directly at fault, and actually made some great beer. From this experience he asks us to write about a beer or brewery that in our minds, has some how earned beer redemption.

If pressed to give the time of my craft beer epiphany, I would have to say it was a Memorial Day Weekend trip to Mendocino in 2007 I took it with my girlfriend Linda. She suggested we go to Mendocino County as a compromise of sorts, since it was a good region for wine, her libation of choice, as well as craft beer, which I was starting to discover. We visited Anderson Valley Brewing in Booneville, and then North Coast Brewing up in Fort Bragg the next day, and from then on, I realized beer was not simply some beverage sold by businesses, but it its highest form was a complex concoction brewed in a multitude of styles and a natural extension of the place and people it comes from. From those days onward, the beer really mattered.

That was not the only epiphany that weekend. Linda and I had such an effortlessly enjoyable time on our first vacation that there was obviously something pretty special between us, and today we’re married.

There was yet third epiphany that trip, one I don’t have very good memories about, and it is this: Some craft breweries make bad beer. I’m afraid our visit to Ukiah Brewing that weekend was one downer of the trip, the downer part of the trip that made the rest of it seem so special.

Maybe because the brewpub seemed to try so hard, yet fail so spectacularly was what made the whole experience so memorable. The service was both friendly and forgetful, the food both creative and clunky. As for their organic beers, you could tell they had their heart in the right place, trying to make honest, earth friendly beers from simple organic ingredients, but the best ones were well below average. An organic lager tasted like it was filtered through a bale of hay. The other brews were either watery or had odd tastes, nothing like the wonderful sounding descriptions on the menu.

Since then, I haven’t seen much of Ukiah Brewing, and the place faded into an odd memory of that time, until Linda and I took a day trip to the Santa Rosa Beer Festival a month ago since we wanted to check out some of the great breweries to the north of the San Francisco Bay. As we got into the cramped and maze-like exhibit hall, who should we notice peeking out from one of the out of the way corners but Ukiah Brewing.

I suppose they have been doing something right, or they simply wouldn’t have stayed in business. And since the festival format was one of unlimited pours into our tasting glasses, Linda and I figured we’d give Ukiah another try, at least for nostalgic reasons. If the beer was like we remembered it, we could simply nod, smile, wander away, and once we were out of their eye sight, simply dump the beer into the trash someplace.

We cautiously approached their stand, and asked for the young rustic looking blonde serve for a taste of something called Navarro Yellow, and of course, she just had to ask, “Have you heard of Ukiah Brewing?”

We carefully told her that we had been Ukiah Brewing before, without going into the awkward details, and we started asking questions about her since there wasn’t anyone else in line, hoping to change the subject. Turns out she hadn’t working at Ukiah Brewing that long long, maybe a year after moving to Ukiah from Montana, which was a bit of a relief since she couldn’t have been one of the guilty parties that night.

And then Linda and I both first tasted, if my memory is correct, a gruit of all things called Navarro Yellow. What a wonderful light, refreshing brew with some sort of floral herb in it, a great antidote for all the heavily hopped barrel aged monsters lurking around the festival. Their other sample was a their Doppel Dunkel Weizen, a great blend of roasty, chocolate flavors and banana esters. At least that the way I remembered them, since scribbling down tasting notes would just spoil the moment. Perhaps we are giving them too much benefit of the doubt, but we honestly thought those were two of the best beers of the festival.

Finally, I just had to ask, “Have you gotten new brewer recently?”

“Why yes, we have. He started four months ago and he’s a lot better than our last one.” With that, Linda and I felt comfortable to spill the whole story about the time we went to Ukiah and thought the beers were pretty bad. And as you might expect, she had already heard different variations on our story several times. I should add that our friend from Ukiah (neither Linda or I remember her name) told us the new Ukiah brew master is named Mitch Parent, and either Ukiah Brewing hasn't put his name up on the website, or something else is going on.

At any rate, we chatted for a few minutes long after we finished our beers, and told her as we finally left that we looked forward to visiting the brewpub again. And we actually meant it.

And so for this Session, I ask you to raise a glass to Ukiah Brewing, who has earned some badly needed and well deserved redemption.

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