Thursday, September 29, 2011

Beer of the Month: Stone Brewing's 15th Anniversary Black Imperial IPA

For the month of September, I bestow the title of Beer of the Month to Stone Brewing's Imperial Black IPA.  Perhaps I award them this month's title because I've found Stone's last couple anniversary ales to be pretty underwhelming.  They were full of strong aggressive flavors you expect from Stone, but instead of being bold and arresting, the resulting brew was harsh, over done, unbalanced, and just plain difficult to drink.

That's not the case for this years version.  There's plenty of big, bold flavors in there, but they somehow remain smooth and balanced.  The first thing that hits you when you open the bottle is the aroma of whole bunch of hops.  Lot's of piney, resiny hops.  The beer itself has plenty of rich, malty bitter chocolate flavors and that some how melds seemlessly with all those hops. It's just this big brew full of roasty malty hoppy flavors that somehow come together and create something unique.  Actually describing the flavor is a challenge and one of the signs of a great beer is that it has a uniqueness that cannot be simply summed up by ticking off flavor components or referencing other beers. So I'll just say that, rather tick off a flavor profile full of wild guesses.

Beware, as this warms up, the flavors start to get out of whack, the alcohol get more pronounced and the beer goes from sublime to barely drinkable in seconds flat.  When that happened, I just put it back in the freezer for a few minutes to bring the flavors to balance.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Eat Real Festival: The Food Trucks Take Over

The Eat Real Festival used to be one of my favorite beer festivals. It claimed to have a wider mission of highlighting enivronmetally sustainable street food, but its first edition in 2009 could be best described as a great beer festival in Oakland's Jack London Square with a bunch of funky taco trucks parked around it. The beer shed would always be chock full of all sorts of special brews from Northern California's finest breweries, and every hour on the hour, a different brewer would be on hand at the Meet the Brewers Table to pour his beer and chat away about it. It was a great way to connect the beer you were drinking from where it came from and how it was made.

So perhaps it is a sign of the festival's success that this year's Eat Real Festival was no longer a great beer festival with a lot of interesting food, but a great food festival where you can still get a pretty good beer. The beer shed was still there pouring plenty of good selections from area breweries but ones most beer geeks are quite familiar with, and there seemed to be fewer specials and hard to find brews compared to years past. The Meet the Brewers Table was an unfortunate casulty of this new emphasis.
So the rightful stars of this years Eat Real Festival all the brightly colored food trucks. For five bucks, you could get a decent bite of street food inspired by the cuisines of The Philippines, The African Continent, India, Korea, Viet Nam, Argentina, Mexico, and good ol' American Barbecue. I tried lots of it, and am not a food critic, so don't expect any culinary insights, but let's just say all the unique street foods tasted good. Especially with a good local beer.

We all know about the modern American beer resolution, but is there anything more American than the food truck revolution? It's a revolution of small scale entrepreneurs serving up food from America's melting pot as they quickly maneuver their mobile restaurants to follow the ever changing mob of customers, all the while broadcasting their location to the world via the Internet so just in case they happen to be just down the street, you can run down and get a delicious Chorizo Egg Roll.

So I can't wait until next year's Eat Real Festival, even if the beer part of it won't be what it used to be. But can we get the Meet the Brewers Table back?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Eat Real Festival this Weekend

The East Real Festival has always been one of the more novel ones. You never know exactly what you'll find there, and I'll never forget the time a couple years ago when I saw a huge tattoo of a beet on a man's muscular arm, which pretty much sums up the overall spirit of the festival.

There seems to be less of an emphasis on local breweries this year, with no mention of the "Meet the Brewer" table where brewers told turns pouring their beers at a table for an hour at a time, answering questions and chatting away about there beers, or whatever. There's still going to be an impressive list of breweries. My weekend plans are still a little up in the air, but hope to see you there.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Biketoberfest Marin Returns to Fairfax

I'm not a cyclist, but figure there's a few cyclists our there that read this who would be interested in the Biketoberfest Marin. Excellent list of brewers. Have to say it look's so good, I might get myself a bike just so I can participate.

Here's the press release they sent me:

A highly-anticipated annual festival, Biketoberfest Marin attracts cyclists and West Coast brewers alike in a combined bicycle expo and stellar brewfest! Held in Fairfax—the birthplace of the mountain bike—the event is not only Marin County’s premier bicycle event but is also a fundraiser for and presented by the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) and Access4Bikes (A4B). Last year the event drew over 5,000 cycling and beer enthusiasts from all over Northern California and raised $20,000 for MCBC and A4B. Biketoberfest will feature a celebrity road ride (with "Fast" Freddie Rodriguez) mountain rides, live music, great food, family activities, a Cargo Bike Jubilee, dozens of bicycle, component, nutrition and athletic attire vendors, a women's skills clinic with Pro Catharine Pendrel, and 25 West Coast brewers serving over 40 beers! It’s a great way to have fun while helping a good cause.

WHO: Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) and Access4Bikes (A4B) Present
WHAT: Biketoberfest Marin 2011
WHEN: 11am-6pm, Sunday, September 25, 2011
WHERE: Fair-Anselm Plaza, downtown Fairfax, CA
COST: FREE Admission; brewfest tasting $25 advance, $30 day-of. Proceeds from Biketoberfest benefit bicycle advocacy in Marin County.

Tickets for brewfest:

Biketoberfest Events:
Celebrity Ride with “Fast” Freddie Rodriguez
Cargo Bike Jubilee
Live Music from noon to 6pm: WTJ Squared, Miracle Mule, Beso Negro and Tom Finch Group
Family Activities
Celebrity women’s mountain bike skills clinic with Team LUNA Chix’s Catharine Pendrel

# # #

Full List of Participating Brewers

(as of 8.21.11):

21st Amendment
Anchor Brewing
Anderson Valley Brewing
Bear Republic
Bison Brewing
Broken Drum
Deschutes Brewing
Iron Springs Brewing
Lagunitas Brewing
Luckyhand Brewing Company
Marin Brew Co
Santa Cruz Ale Works
Sierra Nevada
Triple Rock
Weed Ale
Pizza Orgasmica
Moonlight Brewing Company
Petaluma Hills Brewing Co.
Beltane Brewing Company
Van Houten Brewing Company
New Belgium
Pine Street Brewery
Tieton Cider Works
Peloton Cellars (WINE)
Clif Family Winery

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Brews on the Bay 2011: Peace through Beer and Mutual Hatred

There was a feel good San Francisco vibe for those who boarded the good ship Jeramiah O'Brien this September 1oth for the Brews on the Bay festival. The festival is held annually by the San Francisco Brewers Guild on the Jeramiah O'Brien, a World War II era ship docked near San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, providing fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay from it's decks. There isn't a better spot for quaffing some of the finest beers the San Francisco brewing community has to offer.

And there was plenty of great beers to chose from. Perhaps since this festival has been condensed from a two-day to single day event, all the breweries had much larger selections than they have in years past. And it was nice to see Anchor Brewing show up this year. Kudos to Magnolia Pub for rolling out plenty of interesting session beers. Double IPAs and Imperial-styles seem to dominate festivals, but their skillfully brewed milds, bitters, and Kolsch session brews were a breath of fresh air. The worst beers were OK, and the overwhelming majority were good to great. But then, one of the best things about San Francisco is that its breweries always deliver great beer.

And it was a pretty chummy brewing community on the ship, with plenty of brewers hanging out at other brewer's pouring stations chatting away and sampling each other's beer. In fact, this feel good vibe was so infectious I actually had a pleasant conversation with not one, not two, but actually three graduates of the University of Michigan, including craft beer blogger and SF Brewer's Guild social media whiz Brian Stechschulte. This may not seem like a big deal, but as a graduate of The Ohio State University, we're usually more comfortable spewing hatred towards other. That's just the way it is.

Of course, a certain bond is created through rivalry, a respect gained by understanding just how deeply the other side disrespects you. There is a certain release in the controlled bloodlust of the game, but once it is over, most of us realize it is just a game and we're all just people. If we could only overcome our fears and take this same approach over matters like race, religion and sexual orientation.

So as we reflect on ten years after September 11th on the consequences and challenges of hate, I'll give the last word to the Dalai Lama, who said:

“We need to learn from our painful memories of September 11th and become more aware of the destructive consequences that arise when we give in to feelings of hatred. This tragedy in particular has reinforced my belief that fostering a spirit of peaceful co-existence and mutual understanding among the world’s peoples and faith traditions is an urgent matter of importance to us all. We must therefore make every effort to ensure that our various faith traditions contribute to build a more caring, peaceful world.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yes We Can!

This article, co-written with Pete Gauvin originally appeared in Adventure Sports Journal.

Something new is showing up in backpacks, in mountain streams, on rafts, and even on the beach. It’s beer in cans brewed by local and regional craft breweries.

The great outdoors is often enjoyed with beer in a can, since cans are lighter than bottles, shattered glass is not a hazard, and empties can be crushed for easy transport out of the woods. Moreover, bottles are often prohibited at many outdoor locations. Plus, canned beer submerged in a cold mountain stream cools down much faster than bottles.

So craft beer in cans is good news for outdoor enthusiasts, an independent-minded crowd that generally appreciates quality local and regional brews with character over the mass-market swill from corporate breweries that sink more of their budgets into advertising than their product.

Craft brewers themselves are also enthusiastic about cans. Check out their websites and you’ll find plenty of feel-good statements about how cans are better for both the beer and the environment. Cans protect beer from oxygen and sunlight better than bottles, and are a more earth-friendly package because they are significantly lighter than glass (35% of the weight of a bottle of beer is the bottle itself), stack easily with less packaging, require less energy to transport, and are more efficiently recycled.

“I absolutely love the package. They’re like mini-kegs,“ gushes Sean Turner, owner of Mammoth Brewing Company in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. The Eastern Sierra brewery, founded in 1995, started selling beer in cans four years ago, one of the first craft breweries to do so. “Everything out here is so outdoor oriented. We sell beer in cans to hikers, fishermen, boaters, and golfers,” says Turner, whose brewery cans three of its brews to satisfy a wide range of taste buds: Epic IPA, Golden Trout Pilsner, and Real McCoy Amber Ale.

North of San Francisco in Mendocino County there’s a similar new-found enthusiasm for aluminum pop-tops at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville. Brewmaster Fal Allen is encouraged by the new sales growth spurred by last year’s decision to release three of Anderson Valley’s more popular beers in cans: Boont Amber, Hop Ottin’ IPA and Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema.

“Canned beer is about 8% of our business and growing fast,” says Allen. “It used to be our canning line would run once or twice a week. Now it runs pretty much every day.”
While it turned out to be a good business decision, Anderson Valley Brewing, which generates 40% of its electricity from solar panels atop its brewery, was also highly motivated by the environmental benefits of cans. Cans are nearly 40% lighter to ship than bottles, greatly reducing fuel costs and their carbon footprint.

It’s been less than 10 years since Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery became the first U.S. craft brewery to can its product when it started hand-canning its Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002 — a hoppy, strong (6.5% ABV) and critically- acclaimed brew that no doubt shocked a few unsuspecting palates weaned on limp, watered-down, mass-market lagers.

Today, there are 117 craft breweries in the U.S. offering premium beer in cans, according to the Canned Beer Database at And more are hopping on the can wagon every month.

The First Canned-Beer Revolution

Of course, canned beer has been around for decades. The first canned beer was sold in 1935 by the Krueger Brewing Company of New Jersey, which canned Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer for distribution in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. By the end of 1935, 36 breweries were using cans — which, interestingly, included Pabst Brewing, whose “PBR” in recent years has established itself as the unofficial value beer among the outdoor set.

The first cans were made from heavy- gauge steel. Aluminum cans didn’t debut until 1958.
Sounds pretty good. But such regional breweries like Krueger’s (sold in 1961) wouldn’t last in the face of competition from national breweries like Schlitz and Anheuser- Busch.

In following decades, corporate breweries with high-speed canning machines began to dominate the American beer market. Creativity, quality and distinctiveness suffered in the battle for market share and profits. In most cases, the resulting product from these corporate breweries was a thin, fizzy, watery brew with a slightly metallic taste.

As tastes evolved with the resurgence of American craft breweries in the ‘80s and ‘90s, canned beer was derided by beer enthusiasts as cheap, tasteless and decidedly low-brow. But for cans, it was guilt by association. They were unfairly judged for the character of their contents, rather than the quality of the container. And such perceptions die hard.

Indeed, for the craft-brewing community devoted to flavorful hand-crafted beers brewed in small batches, canned beer epitomized everything that was wrong with American brewing. Even when an inert water-based lining for aluminum cans was developed in the 1980s to help protect the contents from ever touching metal, canned beer could not shed its cheap and inferior reputation. The stigma persisted and was only enhanced as “micro-brewed beer” became widely available, all in bottles, initially.

Clearing the Bottleneck

So how did canned beer mature to become the new darling of craft brewers?
The unlikely transition was spurred by a micro brewery in Canada’s Yukon Territory and a small Canadian manufacturing company which stumbled onto canning beer like a bear on a backcountry campsite.

Virtually all beer in cans sold by craft breweries in North America is canned by equipment manufactured by Cask Brewing Systems out of Calgary. The company got its start selling on-premise brewing systems to small brew-it-yourself operations that allowed home brewers to come in and use the facilities to brew their own beer.

Problem was, these brewing hobbyists often poured their beer into used and poorly cleaned bottles, with the beer degrading quickly thereafter. So in 1999, Cask developed a simple manual canning system so all that homebrew didn’t get poured down the drain.

Shortly thereafter, the owners of Yukon Brewing, a craft brewery in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital and largest city (pop. 20,500) …… a brewery “conceived like many Yukon babies — around a campfire on a canoe trip” …… recognized that about 60% of beer in the Yukon was sold in cans and wondered how they might be able to squeeze into that market.

As they looked around for canning equipment, everything they found was for large scale brewing operations dealing with far greater volumes than they could possibly brew and priced far higher than they could afford. Then they tripped upon Cask Brewing’s manual canning equipment and gave them a call.

“That’s when all the light bulbs went on around here,” recalls Jamie Gordon, a technical sales rep for Cask who’s been with the company for over 25 years. In 2001, Yukon Brewing bought Cask’s manual canning system and became the first North American small-scale brewery to sell beer in cans.

Seeing a market for small canning systems for the hundreds of small breweries then in existence, Cask Brewing Systems decided to market their system at the 2002 Craft Brewing Conference in Cleveland, hoping to make a big splash. The response went over like warm beer on a summer day.

“Everyone looked at us like we were crazy,” remembers Gordon, as negative perceptions of canned beer remained high. “One guy walked up, shook his head, and told us it was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen …… I’d like to know where that guy is now.” As the saying goes, all it takes is one — and others will follow. Perhaps no one knows this better than beer drinkers.

In this case, Oskar Blues from tiny Lyons, Colo., was looking for a way to distinguish itself from the numerous craft breweries dotting the Rocky Mountain landscape like 14,000-foot peaks, and was willing to make the leap. “We thought the idea of our big, luscious pale ale in a can was hilarious,” recalls founder Dale Katechis on the Oskar Blues website. “And it made our beer immensely portable for outdoor enjoyment.”

Only later would he and his crew discover the benefits of cans — such as better beer preservation, a lighter environmental footprint and lower shipping costs. Already a successful brewpub, Oskar Blues was mainly looking for a way to sell some extra beer. But so many campers bought Dale’s Pale Ale on their way to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park they soon automated their canning system to keep up with the unexpected demand.

Colorado’s dynamic craft brewing scene couldn’t help notice Oskar Blues’ success.
The market for canned beer for the active, outdoor-oriented consumer was no longer a secret. Coors Light wasn’t going to be the first option any more.

Fermenting Acceptance

Yet negative perceptions of canned beer continued to be hard to settle, even as more and more small breweries started selling beer in cans. In 2005 when San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery decided to start selling beer to take home from their brewpub, Shaun O’Sullivan suggested to co-founder Nico Freccia to package it in cans.

“It seemed like the stupidest thing I ever heard of,” remembers Freccia, “until Shaun started explaining all the benefits of canning, and then it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Another regional brewery that rolled straight into cans is Reno’s Buckbean Brewing Company, started in 2008, which cans its Black Noddy Lager, Orange Blossom Ale and Tule Duck Red Ale.
Things really started to change when the major craft breweries got into the canning act.

In 2008, New Belgium Brewing released their nationally popular Fat Tire Amber Ale in cans. “Fat Tire in a can really validated everything we were doing,” says Mammoth Brewing’s Turner. “The negative perceptions are no longer an issue,” agrees 21st Amendment’s Freccia.

And if that validation isn’t enough to pop your bottle cap, word comes down the canning line that the most prominent and influential craft brewery in California, if not the nation, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, plans to release its iconic Pale Ale and Torpedo India Pale Ale in cans by the end of the year.

“The number one reason we decided to do this was cans go where bottles can’t, especially on hiking trails, rafting, and other places people want to take them outdoors,” explains Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada’s spokesperson. “I’m really excited our beers are coming out in cans this year.”

One of the reasons Sierra Nevada — which founder Ken Grossman named after his favorite hiking destination — hasn’t joined the canned beer frenzy sooner is that they’ve been searching for a plastic lining for their cans that won’t absorb hop compounds over time, says Manley, which they believe they’ve now found.

For “malt forward” beers such as Fat Tire Amber Ale, which generates most of its flavor from roasted malts, absorption of hop compounds has little consequence. For Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA, with their distinctive hop flavors and aromas, preservation of the beer’s hop character is more essential.

Though it is now the sixth largest brewing company of any stripe in the U.S., Sierra Nevada remains an environmentally conscious, independently owned business. The brewery is powered by solar energy, operates its own water treatment plant, and is the largest buyer of organic hops in the U.S. For these reasons and others, it won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Green Business of the Year” award in 2010. But it wasn’t going to jump into the canned beer fray just because cans are an arguably greener option without first assuring that its first priority, the quality of its beer, would not be compromised.

Just as with bottles, craft brewers realize that canned beers are only as good as the beer inside. The last thing they want is someone carrying a couple cans 10 miles into the backcountry only to be disappointed. For one, that person could be Ken Grossman.

Secondly, how far behind can freeze-dried beer be? Just tear open the foil pouch and add water. Suddenly hiking the PCT for weeks on end would appeal to a much wider audience, I’m guessing. Or perhaps not.

For the foreseeable future, though, it appears craft brewers will no longer be kicking the can down the road.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leisurely Labors

I guess there's little point in noting the oxymoron title of Labor Day, since it's a given few people work on it. Or if they do, it's work they've chosen willingly. Like a Labor Day morning 10k run.

If I had to describe how the race felt in a single word, it would be workman-like. (OK, that's two words connected by a hyphen.) World Runners, an organization trying to end world hunger put on the Labor Day race that morning in Sunnyvale Baylands Park was mostly on flat gravel trails, so there were no hills to contend with, but lots of soft crunchy gravel. In those conditions, best just to keep the arms moving, the legs churning, and work right through the course. I kept maintaining a steady pace, and passed a couple people at miles 2 and 3, but by the time I got to mile 4, it was one of those "the guy behind me isn't going to catch me, but the guy in front of me is too far away to get either" deals and so told myself to " just keep working" to get to the finish line. A 39:49 was slower than I expected to run, but then I didn't figure on being second master in the small race, so I guess I'll take that. I've got seven weeks of training to put in before the next race, the Grape Stomp Half-Marathon in Livermore. Not a lot of time, but enough to get some good runs in, get some extra tempo work on the track, and improve upon the Water to Wine Half-Marathon three weeks ago. (Why do I keep doing all these wine themed races?)

Speaking of Labor Day labors, I spent the afternoon brewing a Chile Habenero Stout. Yep, pretty ambitious to brew with chiles, especially since I'm having enough trouble brewing with malt and hops. But to my way of thinking, winging ingredients to come up with a unique, personally designed beer is a lot more fun than trying to perfect a Marzen, or copy beers already commercially available. Especially since the secret to homebrewing is spenign a lot of time cleaning a whole lot of stuff, which quite frankly, isn't a whole lot of fun, so you might as well have fun with flavors.

As for the stout, so far so good. Tasting the wort, the heat level was about where I wanted it, just a little noticeable, but not overpowering. The idea for this beer came from good Mexican chocolate, where there's plenty of flavors going on and little bite of heat at the end. That's what I'm hoping for anyway. Being a lot more confident I killed all the nasty bugs ruining my previous batches and rinsed the cleaning solution off the carboy that muddled the last brew, I'm feeling pretty confident about this one.

Brewing is a lot like running. Put in the well directed hard work and concentration and with a little patience, good things start happening.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Session #55: Telling Us What's Inside

For this month's Session Curtis Taylor of The HopHeadSaid asks us to write about our favorite beer labels.

The humble beer label must deliver so much. In a split second it has to win our attention from all the other labels fighting for it as our eyes quickly scan the shelf. Once the bottle is discarded, the best labels are easily remembered to do this job even more effectively the next time we glance in their direction. And while creating these impulses, the label must somehow visually convey the taste and feel of the beer in our throats.

I have zero artistic talent and know little about psychology, so don't have the foggiest notion of how this works.

But I'll take a stab at it. My favorite labels are not necessarily the most elegant, pleasing, or arresting artistic compositions, but those in their own unique unforgettable style leave me well prepared for what I'm about to drink. Don't ask me how these labels do it, they just do it. Look at two of my favorite recently released beer labels below. Which bottle do you think contains a celebration of bold aggressive flavors balanced on a razor's edge, and which holds a subtly complex combination of flavors mingling together from the farms of Sonoma County? It's obvious from the labels, right?