Monday, December 30, 2013

Returning to the Source: 2nd Pilgrimage to Sierra Nevada

It's not just a brewery, to me it's the Mecca of craft beer.  Maybe because it's so far away, yet within a day trip where I live, is why I find visiting Sierra Nevada to be a pilgrimage.   It's like going to the source of where the craft beer revolution started.  And yes, you could really argue the Mecca of craft beer is Anchor's brewery.   Except its current location is not where Fritz Maytag transformed a dying brewery into one the transformed the American brewing landscape.  But then, you can also say that about the current Sierra Nevada brewery location and Ken Grossman's pioneering work.  Maybe because Anchor's Brewery is a short trip for me to San Francisco that makes it seem more accessible, and therefore seemingly less mystical.

I'm rambling.  I do that when attempting to be profound about something I feel reverent about. Somehow, Sierra Nevada feels like where the craft beer revolution all started, even though logically, you could argue Anchor is the place.   I just can't quite express why into words.    So I'll stop rambling and just show you a bunch of pictures I snapped on the Sierra Nevada brewery tour.  It's been over three years since I first made this pilgrimage.  I just hope I don't have to wait another three years to come back.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Before I sign out for a few days for the holidays, wanted to share this picture I recently took at Sierra Nevada.   I wish you the best for the holidays and look forward to seeing you again in 2014!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jay Brooks is your guide in "California Breweries North"

If there was an exercise in hitting a moving target, it's capturing the fast moving brewing scene of Northern California.  At least a couple new breweries are popping up each month, with hundreds of new beers being released annually, and many breweries are upgrading their facilities to include tasting rooms and brewery tours.   If there's anyone up to this task, it's Jay Brooks who's been part of the Northern California brewing community since the mid-80's.  The result is the book, "California Breweries North" a compendium of 161 of the regions breweries as well as a few extra tidbits of Northern California brewing history and lore.

Books like these can be as tedious to read as a phone book, but that isn't the case here due to Brooks's intimate knowledge and obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter.  Brooks introduces each brewery with a summary of it's history and shares his experiences of what each place is like to visit.  He lists each breweries beer line-up and tells us his favorite from each brewery. Also included are facts like the name of the owners, brewing system, annual output, hours, amenities and tour information making it a great resource book on the Northern California craft beer industry.   I have no idea how many miles were logged in the writing of this book, but it's clear Brooks has personally visited virtually all of them and quite a few several times.

Something tells me Brooks would have travelled to all these breweries even if he never got paid for it.  As he relates in the introduction, "I love the simple pleasure of visiting a brewery and drinking its beer, listening to the brewer talking reverently about how and why he made each beer.  There's nothing quite like sampling beer at the source, seeing the gleaming copper and stainless steel brewing equipment."  Brooks encourages you to take the same pilgrimages to these places and share the same experiences.

So how effectively does he do this?  Looking up the entries of places I'm familiar with like Half Moon Bay Brewing, Rock Bottom-Campbell, Los Gatos Brewing Company, El Toro, and Dustbowl Brewing, I found Brook's accurate descriptions and careful observations brought me back to each place.  I also appreciated learning more about the history of these places.  So I expect to carrying a well worn copy of "California Breweries North" in my travels discovering more of the great  breweries of Northern California.  Anyone who wanted to further explore the Northern California brewing scene, or simply learn about all the great breweries here, would greatly benefit by picking up a copy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beer of the Month: Buckwheat Ale from Dust Bowl Brewing

Buckwheat Ale on the bar at Dust Bowl Brewing
Our Beer of the Month is from a brewery I've been trying to get to for a long time.  It's Dust Bowl Brewing in Turlock, CA.  Turlock, located 10 miles south of Modesto in California's Central Valley, is not a place most people go.  In fact, it's doubtful I'd ever stop there except my ex-wife moved to Modesto a couple years ago and I've gone there many times to spend time with my kids ever since.  I've heard a lot of good things about Dust Bowl Brewing from people like Beer Samizdat and Brewtographer and have long wanted to go there.  I've also enjoyed a couple bottles of their flagship Hops of Wrath, a nice balanced IPA with plenty of complex hop character.  But when I'm spending time with my kids I don't see often enough, I don't go beer hunting, so never made it to the brewery. 

The good news is that I recent finally found some extra time to get to Dust Bowl on my own and I'm pleased to say, the beers live up to the hype. I quickly made up for lost time and ordered a sampler of five of their beers to go with a club sandwich.  All of their beers were good, and some quite good.  Brewmaster Dan Oliver is quoted on the website as saying, "We love those layers. You’ll never find our brews to have a singular flavor.”  Which pretty accurately sums up his beers in my opinion.  There was a lot going on in each glass and it was all well balanced.

One of their more interesting ones was called "German IPA".  I liked the flavorful combination of the crisp, light dry malt, with a restrained use floral and light citrus hops.  If the IPA style had originated in Germany, I think it would taste something like this. 

But my favorite Dust Bowl beer was their Buckwheat Ale, made with no less than five malts, including 15% buckwheat in the grain bill.  It's malty, smooth, dry, slightly tangy brew with an earthy buckwheat character.  It's got only 25 IPU's and an abv of 5.9% if you're in to those sort of numbers.  Rarely do brewers use buckwheat, but a lot more would if they tasted this.   With so many of California's breweries trying to one up each other with wild and crazy uses of hops, it's refreshing to see a brewery going a different directions, getting creative with malt and coming up with something unique, flavorful and drinkable.

So let's raise a Buckwheat Ale and celebrate the fact that often great beer come from unexpected places and ingredients.

You can't go wrong with any Dust Bowl beer.  Beer of the Month
Buckwheat Ale is in the middle.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Talking with the Folks at Deschutes about their Winter Releases

Hop Henge is one of Deschutes many releases this winter.
Like that neighbor down the street that starts in early November covering their home with Christmas lights,  Deschutes Brewery goes all out for the holidays, with a whole slew winter releases.  What's the motivation and story behind these beers?  I had a chance to talk to a few of the folks at Deschutes about this.  Well OK, I e-mailed them questions which they were kind enough to answer, here's a wrap up of what they had to say about the key beers in their winter line-up.
light show together,

 Jubelale Winter Ale

As Jason Randles, Deschutes PR/Social Media Director describes it, “Jubelale is a beer we have brewed for over 25 years and the first beer we ever bottled. The brewery started off as a brew pub in downtown Bend in July of 1988. We brewed Jubelale for our first holiday season and hand bottled it for patrons in 750 mL wine bottles. Deschutes began by brewing traditional English style beers when first opening so Jubelale was the natural choice of winter beers to brew, being that it is winter warmer/strong ale, typically brewed for the holidays. If you look closely at this year’s packaging, that first bottle is hidden in the artwork.” 

 Co-brewmaster Cam O' Connor added, “We don’t change the Jubelale recipe despite the rumors that we do. The raw materials vary from year to year so there are some slight changes in flavor because of that. We do select a different artist each year to create a unique piece of art that we then use to create the packaging."

And indeed, Jubelale is the traditional, malt forward, dark roasted and spice winter ale which I've enjoyed a few times this winter.  Be sure to check out it's extensive history and artwork over the years on the Deschutes website here.  It's available in Northern California now through December.

Chasin' Freshies

Fresh hop flavors and aromas are a big part of Deschutes beers, so it's no surprise that one of their big winter releases is a big hop forward IPA.  As Cam O' Conner describes it, "Jubelale is our “winter/holiday” beer that fits the traditional style of a heartier, winter style beer. Chasin’ Freshies is a fresh hop beer that can only be brewed in September when the hops are harvested fresh from the field. The snow on the Chasin’ Freshies label is a reference to its namesake and practice of chasing the fresh powder that falls on our nearby ski hill, Mt. Bachelor.

Deschutes changes the fresh hop variety from year to year.  Last year, Cam O' Conner tells me they used Heirloom Cascade hops, while this year's version feature fresh Amarillos.

Red Chair North West Pale Ale

They call this a Pale Ale up in Oregon, but in most other places it would be considered an IPA.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, especially since this truly is one of the Pale Ales I seek out when it's released in December.  The good news is that it's available through May.  As Adam Birdwell, Sales Account Specialist at Deschutes describes it,  "This beer boasts a hop bill flirting in IPA territory but uses 7 select malts to smooth it down. A personal favorite of mine but also the judges at the World Beer Awards: Red Chair won best beer in the world in both 2010 and 2012."

Hop Henge Experimental IPA
Like any good brewery sales rep, Adam Birdwell urged me to "look for our Hop Henge Experimental Imperial IPA. This beer changes year-to-year as the brewers experiment with different hops and hop combinations. It is truly a massive hop bomb but stays true to our style with solid malt presence to balance the beer."

I picked up a bottle this year and this year's version is a grapefruit peel monster.  The slightly sweet malt backbone does it's best to balance with all those hops, but all in vain.  An excellent example of the classic West Coast IPA.

The Abyss
Of course, winter is the time where Deschutes releases The Abyss, a Oak Barrel Aged Imperial Stout that need no introduction to beer geeks.  Pick up a bottle if you can find and enjoy, or let it age if you can resist the temptation to open it up.

If you haven't noticed, I'm a pretty big Deschutes fan. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Winter Brews....latest article in Adventure Sports Journal

Hope you all enjoy the holidays, and are enjoying all the winter releases this season.  I did a short write-up on some of the notable winter releases you can find in Northern California and you can read it here in Adventure Sport Journal.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Have a Great "Sierra Nevada / Stella Artois / Random Aging Barleywines" Kind of Thanksgiving!

I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  My parents, sister and brother-in-law will be flying in from the Midwest joining my wife and our kids in Campbell for the Thanksgiving weekend.   It's the first time we've all gotten together for Thanksgiving so it's going to be special.

Rarely does Stella Artois grace my fridge since I don't much like it.   But it's Mom's favorite beer, and there's a six-pack of it waiting for her.  I'm using a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for the Garlic and Pale Ale Whipped Potatoes, a recipe I got out of the excellent Craft Beer Cook Book I recently reviewed.  A few bottles of barley wine are aging away in my "cellar", and it seems like this will be perfect time to open at least a couple of them.  Of course, this Thanksgiving will be about family, not beer, but beer helps facilitate this in it's own unique way.

So I'm going to sign out for a few days, but not before wishing you all the best this Thanksgiving.  May you all have an enjoyable holiday however you plan to give thanks.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reflections on "Beyond the Pale" by Ken Grossman

When we think of California entrepreneurs, most think of people like David Packard, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk.  Should we add Ken Grossman to this select group?  Foodies swoon over Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, but have they really had a bigger impact over our national cuisine and food culture than Ken Grossman?

These questions are ones I hadn't considered until reading the Grossman's long awaited autobiography of Beyond the Pale.  It's a fascinating study of someone who over thirty years ago literally built a brewery out of little more than discarded scraps salvaged from junk yards.  Back in those days, distribution meant Grossman delivering beer to the few places that would sell it in his pickup truck.  His typical 12+ hour days were spent restoring antique bottling lines to functionality, repairing refrigeration equipment, or welding together discarded dairy equipment into a brewing system, things today's craft brewers rarely ever do.  Supplies were hard to come by in those times, so Grossman even found a way to incorporate unwanted hop samples larger breweries had no use for into some of his early brews.  Grossman's problem solving skills, creative force, and seemingly unstoppable energy jumps out through the dense prose on nearly every page.   At times, I found it exhausting just reading about the shear number of projects and challenges he tirelessly took upon himself to build up a brewery from scratch. 

Each chapter is an education onto itself.  Whether talking about the brewing process, creating a business in a time where small breweries were virtually non-existent, discussing legal and business wrangling that occupied much of his energy in the 90's, or espousing his personal environmental and management policies, there is plenty to learn on each page and Grossman shares plenty of great insights.

For example, on the United State's three-tiered distribution system, often vilified in the craft beer industry as stifling competition in favor of large brewing corporations, Grossman writes, "Collectively, this complex web of seemingly arcane state and federal laws has done a lot to allow the craft movement to flourish.  Many other countries don't have a prohibition against the vertical integration of manufacturer and retailer, which has generally stymied the growth of small and independent brewers.  For example in England breweries had a long history of owning pubs, and through consolidation a handful of brewers controlled tens of thousands of pubs that sold only their own brands, making it nearly impossible for start-up breweries to get their beer in front of consumers....In other part of Europe and the world, it's common practice for breweries or distributors to cut exclusive deals with bars and exchange for exclusivity in the brands the retailer sells.  These market driven systems may be aligned with some people's notion of free enterprise, but they limit choice and independence, favoring a consolidated industry in which a large supplier that can provide beer, spirits, winder, soda and so on has a significant upper hand that eliminates a level playing field for competition."

These type of comprehensive, insightful, and at times a little long winded, explanations on all things craft beer are peppered throughout the book.  Grossman wrote Beyond the Pale during a time of ambitious and time consuming plans for a second brewery.  As he put it, "The last thing I needed on my plate was writing a book, so a dragged my feet for several months until one day I had an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and finally caved."  This hardly seems like the making of a great book, but it's yet a further insight on Grossman's incredible stamina, experience, and brewing knowledge.  Of course, it also explains why the last few chapters are a bit meandering and at times have the feel of being written by committee.  Despite Grossman's candid admission to his readers from the very beginning that the book they are about to read was a distraction, he comes through for his readers with a thoughtful, insightful, and comprehensive story about how Sierra Nevada came to be.  That says an awful lot about Ken Grossman in itself.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hermitage Scores with their Latest Winter Releases

Hermitage's Chinook Single Hop IPA
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Hermitage Brewing constantly innovates and pushes the envelope.  Their latest winter beers, released last Thursday at their South San Jose brewery, is just the latest example of this.  I stopped by the brewery that evening and here's what's new from Hermitage.

Chinook Single Hop IPA
The latest in the popular series from Hermitage where a single hop variety is showcased in all its glory.  Brewers typically blend hops to generate a depth and complexity of flavor in their brews, which Hermitage does as well in beers like Hoptopia and Ale of the Imp.  However, some hops really stand out on their own, but only a small fraction of breweries make any beer with just one hop.   Hermitage takes this rare practice a step further with an entire series of single hop IPAs.  This popular series has emerged over past couple of years as a interesting and tasty exploration of the ever growing world of hops.

Hermitage's Barrel-aged Ryetopia
Chinook hops are commonly used in some of the most popular and revered West Coast IPAs.  I found Chinook Single Hop to have a bitterness dominated by a resiny character, rounded out with some tropical fruit flavors and a peppery spiciness.  As Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel explained that evening, "It's got a very clean bitterness as opposed to other hops where the bitterness is more muddled."  It worked well for me as a fresh, arousing IPA and I'm looking forward to seeing what hop Hermitage tries next in the series.

Ryetopia Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine
The real star of the night was Hermitage's Barrel Aged Barleywine, Ryetopia.   Lead brewer Greg Filipi described the creation of Ryetopia in a press release stating, "We started with a big bodied barleywine style ale then beefed it up with a healthy does of rye malt and crystal rye (about 16% of the total grist).  Rye is known for its dry, slightly spicy flavor in beer  Crystal rye goes through a different malting process which converts some of the starches in the grain into simpler sugars before we add it to our mash.  This results in a sweeter flavor, adding hints of licorice and toffee to the finished beer."

I found it to be a rich, complex, and noticeably sweet brew.  After fourteen months in bourbon barrels it emerged with noticeable bourbon flavors, a little smokiness, notes of pepper and a slight boozy alcohol burn.  As for the "hints of licorice and toffee", let me say Ryetopia had it's own, unique flavor and the best beers are the ones often perceived differently, resisting any attempts to be easily deconstructed into tidy flavor components.  Barrel aged beer can be a risky swing for the fences that don't always work, but Hermitage hit a home run here.  I found this to be a great late night sipping beer and enjoyed mine very slowly.

Maybe I'm biased in supporting one of my local breweries.  I'm just pleased Hermitage continues to help forge a South Bay brewing identity.
Where the Hermitage magic happens.

What's going on inside these barrels?



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Big Sur Monterey Half-Marathon: The Privilege of Being a Runner

The Start of the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon
(Photon from Big Sure International Events)
I'll do my best not to be one of those runners that bore you with all their training and race performances.  Yesterday, I ran the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon, and let's just say I ran pretty well.  I've been running for over 30 years and at age 46, I can still compete in events like the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon which are every bit as competitive as any race I ran in high school or college.  How many high school or collegiate athletes, outside of runners, can say that?

I finished in 1:25:57 and according to my Garmin watch, the "half-marathon" course was 13.3 miles, so this roughly translated to a 1:24:40 half-marathon.  The weather was ideal, the scenery along the Monterey Peninsula Cost was spectacular.    I finished in the top 100 and fifth in my 46-49 age group.   Hope you'll forgive the bragging, but it's nice to know at my age, I'm not too old for this shit.  It's days like these that remind me I hope to be running until the day I die.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Beer of the Month: Ghost Rider White IPA from Wasatch Brewing

A couple times a year I travel to Utah on business and you know one of the best things about Utah?  The beer.  Yes, the beer.  In a state known for nagging, annoying and bewildering beer regulations, somehow brewing has flourished in this state.  There's no better example than our Beer of the Month, Ghost Rider White IPA from Wasatch Brewing.

This brew combines tanginess from the wheat with floral notes from the hops and a little spiciness from coriander to create a distinctive, complex yet balanced brew.  White IPA's are sort of the rage these days, with lots of brewers taking a riff on the popular IPA style by taking a wit beer (also a popular style) and adding a bunch of hops to it.  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't.   Beers like Ghost Rider prove that when brewers continue to push the envelope, good things happen even in places like Utah where the deck is stacked against them.

Maybe it's the dramatic, wide open skies of Utah that inspire all those great Utah breweries.

The wide open morning skies of Logan, UT

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Las Vegas - Salt Lake City Airport Conundrum

The wide open skies of Utah create a haven
 for craft beer at its major airport

I travel to Utah at least a couple times a year on business and there's one thing I've noticed about Salt Lake City's airport.  Slowly and steadily, it's getting to be a pretty decent place to find craft beer.  Yes, the land with all sorts of bewildering alcohol regulations clearly designed for no other reason than to make it a pain to just have a beer has somehow emerged with an airport that's not a bad place to actually enjoy one.   Squatter's Brewpub has been there for a few years, Cat Cora's Kitchen started pouring selections from Uinta Brewing, and Gordon Biersch has opened a location in the terminal as well.   If I was trapped in Utah's airport for a few days, there's enough good beer there that I wouldn't go crazy.

One the way to Utah for my latest trip, I had long layovers both ways in Las Vegas.  Certainly the airport where the good times roll would be fine spot to find a tasty brew.  Nope!  The place seems to suffocating in an AB InBev death grip.  Walking around, all I saw were tap handles of  Shocktop, Stella Artois, and the ever popular Budweiser everywhere.  I finally noticed this place called "Irish Pub" or whatever.  Intrigued, I looked in only to find Guinness and Harp added to the Shocktop/Stella/Budweiser troika.  Not much better.

So tell me this.  Why does beer flourish a place in a land where beer is literally religiously opposed by many of its citizen and languish in a place where anything goes?  Does that make any sense?

(Note to one of my loyal readers:  Sorry Mom, I know you like Stella and there will be six pack of it waiting for you in the fridge when you're over for Thanksgiving.)

The good times do not roll here if you're looking for craft beer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Craft Beer Cookbook: The Recipes are the Real Deal

Let me get this out of the way:  I haven't been much of a fan of all those "cooking with beer" recipes.  They strike me as either hopelessly gimmicky or generic.    Some seem to be taken from some high end gastropub and call for some nearly impossible to find beer, without suggesting any substitutes to use if you can't find the beer specified.   Others simply list "beer" as an ingredient, presumably some light lager which offers little flavor in whatever form it takes.  Many are so complex that only a restaurant kitchen could really produce them, while others involve routine pub fare with just some beer dumped in for good measure.    Rarely do I find any of these recipes particularly interesting or suited for the home kitchen.

Which makes The Craft Beer Cookbook different.   Not only are the recipes accessible, author Jacquelyn Dodd specifies particular beer styles for each recipe, but instead of specifying a particular beer, provides flavor profile guidelines for best results.  Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising since Dodd has been at this for a while on her website The Beeroness.  She writes in a readable, conversational style and leads off with an introduction sharing her wisdom on adding beer to existing recipe while still maintaining a good balance of fats and flavors.  She also finds ways to introduce craft beer into any dish or concoction imaginable, from baked goods, to appetizers, sauces, seafood, main courses, desserts, and even breakfast.  Dodd's also a food photographer, so took all the colorful pictures throughout the book.

Roasted Mushroom and Brown Ale Soup
(Photo from The Craft Beer Cookbook)
Of course, cook books the are easy to read and have lots of nifty pictures are nice, but cook books ultimately succeed or fail on the strength of their recipes.   So one night, I cooked a dinner of "Roasted Mushroom and Brown Ale Soup" and "Stout and Pomegranate-Glazed Chicken Wings".  Dodd recommended using a nutty brown ale for the mushroom soup, so I used Strike Brown Ale, and for the wing glaze I went with good old Guinness Extra Stout.  The soup had a great depth of warm, earthly flavors although it was hard to pick up the brown ale.   The roastiness of the Guinness Stout paired well with pomegranate flavors in a chicken wing glaze.  It was a great dinner with both dishes working well.    Later that week,  I whipped up a batch of Dodd's "IPA Honey Mustard Vinaigrette"  using Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.   It turned out to be a unique vinaigrette with a strong citrus punch and a great balance of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors giving a surprisingly Asian character to salads. 

Chocolate Chip and Smoked Porter Pancakes
(Photo from Craft Beer Cookbook)

As successful as these recipes were, my favorite was "Chocolate Chip and Smoked Porter Pancakes", which I  made with one of my all favorites, Stone Smoked Porter.   I was a little worried these pancakes would turn into something sickening sweet you might have at IHOP.  Instead, these fluffy pancakes had a great complex chocolate flavors with a smokiness from the porter that were a hit for all ages at the family breakfast table.   My 10 year old daughter remarked, "The beer gives it a nice flavor," despite her unfamiliarity (thankfully!) with Stone Smoked Porter and asked, "Can you make this again?".  My twelve year old son has autism so is a man of few words but declared them simply "Good".   And lest you think I served alcohol to my kids for breakfast, Dodd illustrates that for most recipes, a majority of the alcohol cooks away.

Some may call this book yet another gateway for people to enjoy craft beer.   Others may point to this book as further proof that beer is the new wine.  Without getting get into some deep culinary discussion here, I'll just say that years from now, I'm sure my copy of The Craft Beer Cookbook is going to have lots of well worn pages with food stains all over them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The "Let's Go 510k": No More Horsing Around with a Toe Injury

And they're off at the Let's Go 510!  Look closely and you can
see me in the middle with the grey singlet
(Photon from Brazen Racing)
I found myself walking up to the starting line of the Let's Go 510 10k thinking, "Just try to finish".  If I ever went to the starting line in any race with the goal to simply finish in any race in my 30+ years of running, I can't remember.  Of course, finishing any distance race is an accomplishment in itself, but I've been fortunate to complete all but one of the nearly thousand races I've ever entered.

The source of my concern wasn't my fitness, the race distance, the course, or the weather conditions.  It was my little left index toe.

For the past couple weeks, I've felt great in my half-marathon training leading up to the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon in November, but my little index toe on my left foot had other ideas.  A couple weeks ago, I'd notice it would be sore at the end of runs.  Then, a few days later, the pain would start to flare up 5-6 miles into a run.    I never gave it too much mind and really didn't do things like ice it down like you're supposed to do to keep it from getting worse.   Before I knew it, it would start hurting after a mile of running and the pain during a simple 6 or 8 mile run would require me to stop every 2-3 miles to flex my toe and let the pain subside a bit so I could manage to get home.  Some time off and sort runs of 2-4 miles helped but it was still hurting. There I was at the starting line of a race I signed up for weeks ago as a tune-up four weeks before the Monterey Half-Marathon.  The idea when I signed up for this race weeks ago was this 10k was be a test of my fitness with four weeks to go before the half-marathon.   Instead, it turned out to be a wake up call on just how bad my toe had gotten and how little I had really done to treat the injury. .  "If you can't run a 10k now, how are you going to do a half-marathon in four weeks?" I was asking myself sitting in my car putting on my racing flats, fifteen minutes before the start.

The crowd was excited enough from the fun atmosphere surrounding Berkeley's Golden Gate Fields horse race track where the race stared and finished.  "Here's goes nothing," I thought as the starting gun went.   I felt OK through the first mile, with just a dull ache in my toe and came through the first mile in 6:03.  A little too fast, but I concentrated on maintaining 6:10 pace as we ran alongside the Berkeley Marina and into Cesar Chavez Park, coming through mile 2 in an encouraging 6:07, the toe increasingly feeling more sore.   A guy in the East Bay spirit of things wearing an Oakland Raiders t-shirt pulled up to me and we battled through the slightly uphill third mile in 6:22, the toe feeling worse but still bearable.  I was actually more concerned with my faltering pace and holding off the Oakland Raiders guy than my toe at that pint and pulled away from him around mile 4, coming through in 6:10.  Not only was I pulling away from that guy, but my toe was actually feeling a little better and I'm thinking, "Hey, I'm going to finish this thing."

That's me on the Golden Gate Field Horse Track.
I'm going to finish!  (Photon from Brazen Racing)

Unfortunately, my reduced fitness due to backing off with the injury showed in the last couple miles, as Oakland Raiders caught and passed me big time just before mile 5, and I struggled through the last mile, slogging to the finish on the Golden Gate Fields Horse Track in 39:01.  But h, that still took 11th overall and first place for the old guys 46-49 age group, and that's still pretty good.

The rest of day I got serious about icing my toe every couple hours and also started applying Zim's Max Freeze, this gel I got as a free sample a fews months ago from the Zim's Max Freeze folks in hopes I would promote it on this blog which I never got around to really testing.  The day after the race, the toe handled an 8 mile training run OK so it looks like I've turned the corner with the toe injury and more diligence, I should get to the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon starting line OK.  And since Max Freeze seems to be part of the solution, I'll say "Thanks Max Freeze".

So time to get this toe thing straightened out and bring on the Monterey Bay Half-Marathon!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Strike CEO Jenny Lewis and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich Talk About Their New Brewery

Drew Ehrlich and Jenny Lewis at a recent beer festival
It's been a busy year for the South Bay's Strike Brewing.   In addition to the busy day to day operations of growing their two year old business, they won gold at the U.S. Open Beer Championships with their Imperial Red and expanded their distribution into Southern California.  On the personal side, CEO Jenny Lewis had a baby and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich got married.  And now just this past week, they've announced the opening of their own brewery in the first quarter of 2014

Over the past two years, Strike has been contract brewing at the Hermitage Brewing facility just south of downtown San Jose.  Strike has now leased approximately 5800 square feet at 2099 South 10th St., San Jose, where they will begin building their brewery located barely a 10 minute walk from the Hermitage facility. 

I caught up with Jenny and Drew last Friday as they emerged from a brewery planning meeting.   They took a few minutes out of their busy time to talk about the new brewery in the works.

Q: What was the process like?
Jenny: It was very long and we had to be very patient.  It had always been our goal to move into a brewery when we started and we’ve been looking at buildings for two years.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle?
Jenny:  Capital has always been the biggest hurdle and that’s true for most businesses.  Of course, we also needed to find a building with the right utilities and layout where we could build the brewery.

Q: What made the deal happen?
Jenny:  We found the building a long time ago.  What made it happen now was a combination of raising money from a group of angel investors and an SBA loan.  A big part of my role since we launched in December 2011 has been raising our Series A round.

Q: What will you be able to do with your own brewery you couldn’t do as a contract brewer?
Jenny:  This will really help us control our brewing schedule and manage our own inventory in ways we couldn’t before.  Hermitage has been a great launching point, but contract brewing put us under certain constraints.  Drew’s always wanted to brew more interesting beers which he can now do at our new brewery.
Drew: There are a lot of beers I’ve wanted to make, like sour beers and barrel-aging some of the current beers in our line-up.  I’ve wanted to try some lagers and Jenny’s been bugging me to do a fruit beer.

Q: With Hermitage’s Brewery only a short walk away, do you think the South San Jose industrial park you’re locating in can become a beer destination?
Drew:   We certainly hope so. One of the impetuses for creating Strike is that we didn’t see the San Jose area as a great destination for beer lovers, such as San Francisco, Portland or San Diego.    We thought we could help fill an unmet demand here.
Jenny: We wanted to be near the sporting arenas in the area, like the San Jose Giants Stadium, Sharks Ice, the Fairgrounds and (San Jose State’s) Spartan stadium where there are a lot of potential partnership opportunities.
Q: Any developments you can share when the brewery opens?  When will the tap room open?
Jenny:  We don’t want to put exact dates on things based on the uncertainty of the permit and build out process.  We hope to be brewing by the beginning of next year and open the tap room as soon as possible after that.  Being up and running by SF Beer Week is our goal.

Q: What sort of risk are you taking on by this move?
 Drew:  Luckily we’ve gotten our beer out there and won some awards, so there is not as much of a risk as when we first entered the market.  It gives us the opportunity to maintain our flavor profile, and brew really consistent high quality beers.  Right now, Lagunitas is building a new brewery in the Chicago area and they’re going to have to make sure the beer coming out of that brewery tastes the same as before.  We’ll be going through that same process and we have to do it quickly.

Jenny:  There’s always a financial risk in business and it can come from anywhere.  It is scary going out on our own and starting something from scratch, trying to pay salaries to support families and grow a business.  But it's also rewarding seeing this goal finally realized after five years of planning.  I’m excited to see what the next few years bring.
Q: Over those last five years, there have been a lot of new breweries.  I can go to my local Safeway or Costco and now find bottles of Strike, but I can also find bottles of other beers from breweries I never used to see there.  Do you have any concerns about the increasingly crowded craft beer marketplace moving forward?
Drew:  Not really.  There was a study done by the Brewer’s Association and they concluded the market was not yet saturated.  It also compared the beer market in the US to other the beer markets in other countries which indicated there’s room for more breweries here.
Jenny:  There are a lot of breweries coming online, including nano breweries, contract brewers and brewpubs.   Hopefully we’ve done a good job differentiating our niche so far, and I think moving into our own space will only help that.
Drew:  Plus we don’t mind other breweries in the area.  The nature of the craft beer enthusiast is to try a lot of things.  So even if they drink something from another brewery around here, they’ll get drawn into trying something else and eventually they’ll try something from Strike.  There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between breweries in the same geographical area, to a point.

I found talking with to Jenny and Drew during the interview was like talking with a couple kids who couldn't wait to move out of their parents house.  It's just beer, but moments like this remind us lots of hopes and dreams revolve around it.  The South Bay brewing scene just got a lot more interesting.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Beer of the Month: 395 IPA from Mammoth Brewing

For October, the title of Beer of the Month is bestowed onto 395 IPA from Mammoth Brewing, which I picked up on a trip to Yosemite National Park the weekend of September 28-29th.   Mammoth intentionally keeps their operation small, and you can't get their beer outside of their small distribution region in and around the Yosemite Valley, so tasting some Mammoth brews unavailable back home was a nice little side benefit of the trip. This beer, named after a road running by the National Park, has long been a favorite beer of mine.  It's one of the more unique IPA's you'll find, brewed with mountain desert sage and mountain juniper berries.    There's a light toastiness from the malt, a noticeable gin note from the juniper berries, and dominant citrus flavor from the hops.  It's a dry IPA that lets of that complexity flow, and tastes smooth despite a strong hop whollop.

I make an annual trip to Yosemite with friends and family to experience the surreal scenery, full of shear cliffs, dramatic waterfalls, and towering peaks.  I'm especially proud of my ten year old daughter and twelve year old autistic son who tackled a six mile hike through steep, rocky to Vernal Falls high above the valley with my wife and I.  It was great family experience exploring one of America's revered places and learning a lot about ourselves.  We finished this trip in the nick of time because shortly after that, the Washington dysfunction all too common these days shut the Federal Government down and Yosemite National Forest with it.

You're probably as sick of this shut-down mess as I am, and it's doubtful anything I write here is going to change your mind or break the gridlock in Washington.  I avoid delving into politics on my blog as beer and running draw people in from all walks of life and all are welcome on the open roads or to share a pint.  I'm one of those damn liberals, so you can probably figure out where I stand.

So I'd like to make this gentle reminder that Yosemite was long ago preserved by far-sighted minds in our Federal Government who saw a problem and addressed it, and pretty much everyone thinks they did a good job about it.  While rewarding family vacations are important, what's more important are our livelihoods which require a functional Federal Government.   An unintended consequence of the shutdown is that we all gained a new appreciation of what the Federal Government does for us every day, even if we don't like paying our taxes or dealing with rules. 

So I'm optimistic that a year from now when our family comes back to Yosemite, saner heads will prevail and our country will be both better and wiser from our collective experience, as contentious and destructive as things are right now.  I'll drink a 395 IPA to that.
This land was made for you and me.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Rambles: Checking out some new fall beer releases

In additional to the fall season bringing great running weather, there's plenty of new fall beer releases.  I've been checking out the various "macro-craft" breweries fall releases, and here's a little round-up of what I've tried.

Sierra Nevada Flipside Red IPA 
Leave it to Sierra Nevada to produce a hoppy fall release.  It's brewed with red caramel malt which blends which blends with the citrus and tropical hop flavor and a soft resin-like finish.  I found this one pretty satisfying.

Anchor Brewing Bigleaf Maple Autum Red 
Brewed with maple syrup, I found this one woody, a little grainy and lightly earthy with toasted malt flavors.   I've long been an Anchor fan, but I didn't find all the flavors to work for me in this particular execution.

Uinta Punk'n
From Utah's Unita Brewing, it's a dry beer  with amber malt, the slightest hint of pumpkin, a little nutmeg and virtually no hops presence.  If you don't like beers that taste like pumpkin pie, this is the one for you.

Anderson Valley Fall Hornin' 
What's great about this one is that it tastes just like a big ol' pumpkin pie, with lots of pumpkin, nutmeg and other aromatic spices sitting atop plenty of lightly sweet, toasted malt.  Another reason to be a Anderson Valley fan.

Sudwerk Harvest Lager
OK, let's get this out of the way.   Sudwerk out of Davis, CA makes pretty straightforward traditional German beers, and rarely delves into any particular creative or original.  That didn't stop me from trying their Harvest Lager, a light, clear, dry and fresh with a little toasty malt character.  No, beers like this aren't very sexy but a well executed lager like this one is an underrated simple pleasure.

Guinness Red Harvest Stout
Beer Geeks who sneer at this brew are ignorant
of beer snob history
Even Guinness is getting in the seasonal fall beer act.  These days, beer geeks tend to sneer at Guinness as a multi-national macro beer.  There was a time, maybe 20 years ago back when craft beer was a lot harder to find and ordering a Guinness Stout conveyed a certain beer sophistication, since most everyone else in the bar thought it tasted like mud.  As you might have guessed, I enjoyed many a Guinness back in the day, high on my horse and content I was in the know enjoying the good stuff, while the rest of the unwashed was wallowing in light lagers.  So for you beer geeks who insist on sneering at Guinness, please learn your beer snob history.  As for their Red Harvest Stout, it's a surprising light beer, with the classic Guinness roastiness and a touch of caramel malt, and works for me as a refreshing fall session beer. 

Stone 17th Anniversary Gotterdammerung IPA - OK, it's not a technically a "fall beer", but I loved the anniversary release from Stone.  And let's just say I've found their annual anniversary releases to be very much a hit or miss proposition.    This one has got lot's of biscuity malt, with strong spicy grapefruity punch of hops.  I like it!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"The Breweries of Santa Cruz County" now in ASJ

Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz
The latest issue of Adventure Sports Journal has hit the streets and includes my write up of Santa Cruz Breweries.  The title "The Breweries of Santa Cruz County" is a slight play on the novel title "The Bridges of Madison County" but unlike the male lead character in that book, I didn't have an affair.  Indeed, my wife and I really enjoyed spending a couple weekend days in Santa Cruz to do research for the article, and yes, I use the term "research lightly". 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Talking with Phil Cutti and Patrick Horn about the new Headlands Brews

Phil Cutti (left) and Patrick Horn, co-founders of Headlands Brewing
There's so many new breweries these days, it's hard to keep track of them all.  One that's definitely been on my radar screen is Headland's Brewing.  Co-founder Patrick Horn was part of San Francisco's legendary Pacific Brewing Laboratories, sort of an underground brewery/large scale home brewing operation run out of a San Francisco garage producing an eclectic and tasty mix of brews of every possible description.  Horn has recently left Pacific Brewing Laboratories to start Headland's Brewing three months ago with Phil Cutti, head brewer at Southpaw Barbecue.  Phil is also an endurance swimmer and former exercise physiologist at Stanford Sports Medicine.

The brewery is named after the Marin Headlands, and they are currently seeking a permanent brewery and tap room location in either Marin County or San Francisco, which is where most of their beer is distributed.  For now, they are brewing under contract at various Bay Area breweries, and as far as the South Bay goes, the only place you can find Headlands is at Campbell's Spread and Liquid Bread.

I caught up with Phil and Patrick at Campbell's Spread last week where they graciously introduced me to their beers.  Somehow, they've developed the unique and all too rare talent to put subtle twists on traditional beer styles in such effective and effortless ways, you end up wondering why brewers haven't been doing it that way all along.  So without further ado, let's delve into the beers of Headlands.

Point Bonita Rustic Lager (6.2% abv, 40 ibu)
Lager's are decidedly unsexy in the craft beer world, the style suffering from guilt by association with tasteless lagers from soulless multinational corporations.  Beers like Point Bonita go a long way in changing that perception.  It has a substantial, almost creamy mouth feel and 17% of rye malt in the grain bill gives it a peppery character that melds nicely with the Liberty, Crystal, and spicy Saaz hops.  Quite possibly my favorite Headlands Beer.  If it's possible for a brewery to make a sexy lager, Headlands has done it.

Groupe G Belgian RyPA (7.6% abv, 65 ibu)
Rye makes another appearance in this riff of the IPA style, and Belgian yeast lends it usual aromatic qualities.  A unique blend of Mosiac, Warrior, Glacier and Ahtanum hops impart a tropical and slightly floral character to the brew.  There's a lot of flavors going on there which isn't always a good thing, but here, they all come together really well.

Hill 88 Double IPA (8.8% abv, 90 ibu)
As Patrick Horn poured this one, he declared, " Lots of breweries make double IPAs by cramming as much hops as they can into them.  There's a time and a place for that, but it's not what we wanted to do here."  True, any new craft brewery is almost obligated to release a double IPA and there's effectively an ibu arms race going on amongst a lot of craft breweries which thankfully Headlands has declined to participate in.  Believe it or not, at 90 ibu's, this one comes seems quite balanced.    A malt bill including Crystal, Victory,  and Carapils    results in a pretty dry double IPA, and the blend Summit, Chinook, Centennial and Ahtanum hops shine through without becoming overwhelming.

Those three beers comprise Headlands' current line-up available in both cans and on draught.  Now we get to the really good stuff, the special releases Headlands has available only on draught.

Bay Trip Triple
This Belgian Triple is brewed with coconut and demerara sugar.  As Patrick Horn explains, "Coconut sugar has a high level of unfermentable content, so it leaves behind of a lot of coconut character."  The result is a coconutty, tropical flavored Belgian triple.   Just when I thought I've tasted pretty much everything, Headlands comes up with something totally new and original, at least to me.  Absolutely delightful.

Liver Let Die Smoked Black IPA
The name is an odd homage to boxing great Smokin' Joe Frazier who passed away due to liver cancer last year.   Black IPA's are always a difficult balancing act between the strong roasted malt flavors and bitter hop flavors.  Headland's ups the degree of difficulty by adding yet another strong flavor to balance with 4.7% peak smoked malt added to the mix.  And it's smoky!  The malt also lends a strong chocolaty character which the Simcoe and Centennial hops match in their intensity.  Quite a balancing act and they pull it off.

What's next for Headland's as far as the beer is concerned?  They have a Fall Saison in the works, brewed with green peppercorns and fresh chanterelles to give it an earthy character.  Phil Cutti has brewed with chanterelles many times before but admits, "I've never brewed with them as large as this one, so ramping up will bit of a crapshoot".  Considering the various risks they've pulled off in their other brews, I wouldn't bet against him.

While they clearly know brewing, Cutti and Horn have a strong business sense as well.  I asked them point blank, "With all the new breweries and the market in danger of over saturation, are you concerned?".  Patrick Horn conceded, "I think we're going to see a consolidation.  But we're smart enough to navigate through that."  Horn went on to say, "We have hop contracts in place which is important.  Hops are a big expense in making beer and a lot of new breweries don't have hop contracts, and either unable to get them, or have to pay high prices for them when there's a shortage."    Phil Cutti added, "We have investors who know our business well, have dealt with things like market bubbles before, and they give us a lot of good direction."  Headlands has also recently hired Inna Volynskaya to handle the finances.  Volynskaya brings an MBA from Presidio Graduate School and supply chain experience from Lagunitas to Headlands and as Horn casually explains "she yells at us when we're being idiots."

It's encouraging to hear about their solid business foundation because I looking forward to enjoying many a Headlands brew for years to come.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Session #80: More Like a Correction

For this month's SessionDerek Harrison of "It's Not Just the Alcohol Talking" asks us weigh in our opinions on the prospect of a craft beer bubble.  It's a subject I looked at in detail in a previous post, where I came to a somewhat troubling conclusion that in not too distant future, much tougher times were clearly on the way for the craft brewing industry and my best guess was that a few hundred breweries were going to fail or otherwise cease operations.  Rather than just repost it, let me summarize the major points

1) Bubbles occur when there's too much supply and not enough demand for all the supply to be sold profitably.
A bubble is a pretty loose term for large scale market failure.  I've experience bubbles professionally in both fiber optics and solar panels, and in the United States, we all witnessed the "" bubble and the housing bubble.  Lots of people describe bubbles using a bunch of big words and technical jargon that sound deep and insightful, but bubbles really aren't that complicated.   Bubbles occur when too much supply is created in a market where there's not enough demand for all that supply to be sold profitably by most of the firms in the market.  While craft beer is growing fast, many breweries are involved in major expansions and over a thousand new breweries are in the planning stages.  Brewing requires large investments in equipment and material, so most breweries take out large loans to pay for start-up and expansion costs.  If all these breweries have trouble finding distribution channels in an increasingly crowded market to sell their beer, or have to highly discount prices leaving them with little or no profit, they could find themselves unable to pay off the loans and may go out of business. 

2) Everyone focuses on the new breweries but established breweries are about to bring at least an extra 4 million barrels of annual capacity online by 2015.
All the new breweries being formed draw most of the attention when a craft beer bubble is considered, but no one seems to pay too much the large expansions taking place within the industry.   Simply counting from press releases and making reasonable and conservative estimates, I find at least  an additional 4 million barrels of annual capacity is about to come on line.  This includes Lagunitas, Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium building second breweries and major expansions from breweries like Deschutes, Boulevard Brewing, Dogfish Head and Bell's.  There are numerous monthly press releases from various smaller breweries breathlessly announcing expansion plans and major distribution deals. 

So what?  Well, according to the Brewer's Association, craft beer sales for the first half of 2013 were 7.3 million barrels. If we simply double that number, that means at least 14.3 million barrels of craft beer will be sold this year.   If we compound that number for 2014 and 2015 at craft beer's currently astonishing growth rate at 15%, that means there will be an additional 4,700,000 million barrels sound in 2015 over 2013. 

That means the current 1,605 breweries the Brewer's Association says are in the planning stages will be fighting over the sales of the remaining 700,000 barrels of beer, which works out to 436 barrels per brewery, or a little less than the size that a small brewpub.  Which suggests if you plan to open a small brewpub, there will probably be a place for you.  However, any brewery with ambitions of becoming a regional brewery pumping even smallish 1,000-3,000 barrels of beer each year is facing some very long odds.

It's also important to add I haven't included so-called crafty brewers like Goose Island or the Craft Brewers Alliance in this analysis, since they are not included in the statistics of the Brewer's Association.  Needless to say, they make the situation for any aspiring craft brewer worse since Goose Island is in the midst of a nationwide rollout as Anheuser-Busch transitions their Budweiser facilities to produce more Goose Island.  The Craft Brewer's Alliance recently announced a brewery expansion of nearly 150,000 barrels annually as well.

Can this astonishing growth of breweries continue? 

3) If the Growth of Craft Beer Slows to 5% or even 10%, a lot of breweries are going to fail despite this high level of growth.

I have seen and heard numerous comments assuring everyone that craft beer won't experience a bubble because it will continue grow.  While it certainly true that craft beer is growing and is currently humming along at a 15% a year pace, it's an open question if this high growth rate is sustainable for the next 2-3 years at least.  Because if this 15% growth rate is not maintained, a lot of breweries are going to find themselves is seriously difficult position.

To understand this, consider various rates of growth of the craft beer industry from 5-15% over the next two years and how that will affect the demand over the next two years, assuming 14.6 million barrels of craft beer sold in 2013.

Growth rate in      2014                        2015                      Difference between 2013 and 2015  Sales
                                15%                        15%                       4,700,000
                                15%                        10%                       3,900,000
                                15%                          5%                       3,000,000
                                10%                         10%                      3,100,000
                                10%                           5%                      2,300,000
                                  5%                           5%                      1,500,000

Based on at least 4,000,000 barrels of annual capacity coming online during this period from currently existing breweries, we see that only under 15%-15% scenario will this demand exceed what is already coming online by existing breweries.  Under any other growth scenario, it becomes clear that way too many breweries will be producing too much craft beer that can be sold.  Some breweries will muddle through this, others with strained fiances, questionable business strategies, or simply mediocre products will face tough times and likely fail.  In addition, many new breweries are founded by smart, ambitious 20 and 30 somethings that may find eking out a living with a small brewery struggling in a saturated market is not what they signed up for and fold up their operations for greener pastures.

Yes, it is certainly possible that craft beer industry could grow by 20%.  That would be an unprecedented growth rate for a mature product like craft beer, which has been around for decades, and craft beer has never experienced anything close to 20% growth in any year.  It's just not likely to happen.

4) So what do I think will happen?

I see the craft brewing industry going through a similar pattern to bubbles past, with many new entrants and over expansion in a rapidly growing market to the point where it becomes over saturated and only the strongest firms can survive.  But unlike the, fiber optic, or solar panel bubble I'm familiar with,  I don't expect the majority of the businesses to fail.  Established breweries like Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada, or New Belgium should do fine.  The current rate of failures in the craft brewing industry is currently absurdly low,  around 40 a year, or 1-2%.

Talk to people in the craft brewing industry, and you'll find them conceding a shake-out or consolidation is on the horizon. In fact, what I've basically done is express in numbers the gut feeling many in the industry have.  So it's pretty realistic to expect a few hundred breweries failing as the market reaches equilibrium.  There is little doubt in my mind we are headed towards a market correction of this magnitude.