Monday, July 29, 2013

The Audacity of "The Audacity of Hops"

Reading books like this make me feel like I'm an expert.  Of course, it's author Tom Acitelli who's the expert on the history of America's craft beer revolution, not me.  But he tells the story with such clarity and detail in this incredibly researched book that any reader will feel like an expert on the America's craft beer revolution after reading his new book, The Audacity of Hops.

Acitelli pulls off this audacious plan to include so many different actors and stories of craft beer's origins and weave them into a engaging and sweeping narrative using a concise, yet conversational tone providing just enough detail to keep everything connected together.  This book could have easily degenerated into a tedious, linear "checklist" of people and events, collapsing under the shear weight of Acitelli's research.  Instead, Acitelli integrates numerous short, bite-sized chapters into a mosaic from which the story of craft beer emerges, a story where just a couple breweries in the 70's and a few scattered homebrew clubs to somehow coalesced into the 10 billion dollar industry craft beer is today.

Of the many insights I gained from this book, four really stand out.

1) The craft beer industry has always been a chummy collaborative industry
I've always been struck by how chummy "competitive" craft breweries always are.  Arguably, that was integrated into the industry's DNA from the beginning since the late 70's, an example being Anchor's Fritz Maytag letting New Albion's Jack McAuliffe drive his pick-up from Sonoma County to Anchor's Brewery to fill it up with as much malt as he could load in the flatbed.   There was no other way McAuliffe could obtain malt in the low quantities his small brewery could afford, and without Maytag's assistance, New Albion would have ceased operations much sooner than it did.

2) Contract brewing and gypsy brewers are nothing new
From almost the very beginning, new breweries used the trick of short circuiting the need for enormous capital investments to build a brewery by finding breweries to make their beer under contract. Plenty of breweries with excess capacity were only happy to oblige back in the 80's, as they do today.

3) The IPA craze is a pretty recent development
Fritz Maytag's main beer was a Steam, Jack McAuliffe's New Albion Brewery made Stouts, Porters and Pale Ales, Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman claim to fame was a Pale Ale (albeit a hoppy one), Jim Koch's Boston Beer brewed a Lager, New Belgium and Pete Slosberg's made their names with Amber Ales. The IPA really doesn't arrive on the scene in a big way until the last decade.

4) The craft brewing bubble of the late 90's was mostly fueled by investors seeking to go public or get rich quickly
It's an open question whether we're entering a craft brewing bubble with all the new breweries being founded and increasing capacity of existing breweries.   Most of these recent new breweries are in the classical tradition of home brewers turned businessmen, turning their passion for brewing into their livelihoods.   Whatever happens, it will certainly have a different character than the bubble in the late 90's where a lot of outside investors looking to get rich quickly with public offerings got burned, a product of those go-go times.

Interestingly enough, I started reading "The Audacity of Hops" a few days after finishing "Bitter Brew", William Knoedelseder's  excellent book about the rise and fall of Anhueser-Busch.  From afar, Anhueser-Busch looked like a mighty fortress.   But within, this company run as a virtual Busch-family monarchy struggled mightily since the 70's due to unchecked power and privilege of wealthy Busch family members who became increasingly out of touch and unfit to run the company.    Bitter Brew was a fascinating contrast to the story of people like Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman who built up their empires from virtually nothing through shear hard work and innovation. 

Which underlies the point that the American craft brewing revolution is about a lot more than simply great beer.  It's very much about the triumph of American entrepreneurial capitalism over stodgy cronyism

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Discretion the better part of valor at Wharf to Wharf

Finishers at the 2013 Wharf to Whaft
On a cool, overcast morning on the Santa Cruz coast watching the long parade of runners finishing the Wharf to Wharf race, I was glad to be on the sidelines.  Despite the festive atmosphere, I've always found Wharf to Wharf to be an intense race.  A loud canon "boom!" releases the runners from the starting line and a clawing mass of 15,000 runners wind through six miles over the streets of Santa Cruz to the music of the punk, classic rock, folk and heavy metal bands assembled along the course.  I'm coming back from a heel injury and taking a bit of running layoff, and just didn't feel ready to take on that challenge. But my wife and her friend had a different point of view, which is why I was there to cheer them on at the finish.

I watched the leaders gliding to the finish line, followed by the next hundred or so stern looking athletes chugging home.  Every so often, a runner would give a thumbs up sign to the photographers taking race pictures.  More and more runners begin mugging for the cameras until virtually every runner passing by raised their arms in victory before bringing it home for the last 200 meters.  It made me realize for the overwhelming majority of runners, Wharf to Wharf is a celebration, not necessarily a challenge.  So while I'm glad I sat this one out, I'm planning to run Wharf to Wharf next year.  I may not be up for the challenge of pushing myself hard for six miles, but I'd like to join the celebration again

And what better way to celebrate a race than with a beer.  Discretion Brewing is the newest brewery in Santa Cruz's burgeoning brewing scene and their Soquel tap room is only 2-3 miles from the Wharf to Wharf finish line.  Their First Conversation Sesion won Silver at the California State Fair, so I figured they must be doing something right.
Yours truly and my wife about to enjoy a sample flight
at Discretion Brewing

My wife and I enjoyed a sample flight of five beers and enjoyed one well crafted selection after another.  Discretion uses only organic ingredients, so the yeast and malt tends to do more of the talking in their beers.  I like the way Discretion creates beers that a complex and flavorful without hitting you over the head with strong flavors.  Among the four of us, I'd have to say the favorite was their Third Conversation, an amber session where the lightly toasty malt combines wonderfully with a light touch of orange and coriander.  At 4.3% abv, it's a session beer that makes you briefly say "wow" before getting back to the conversation at hand.   All I can say is you're going to read more about Discretion here.

Discretion is further proof that beer, just like running, can be enjoyed in many forms.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Beer of the Month: Strike Brewing Blonde

There are some breweries that need no introduction.  The South Bay's Strike Brewing isn't one of those breweries, but they need a lot less of an introduction than they did less than two years ago when they first started out.  I used to hunt down Strike in better bottle shops or high end boutique grocery stores.  Now, I can walk a block to my neighborhood Safeway in Campbell and pick up their beer.  And they've emerged from the Bay Area to start distribution in Southern California.  For those wanting the details on this brewery formed by three collegiate athletes, check out this interview back when they were first starting out.

With all the summer heat, my desire for massively hopped IPA's or heavy imperial stouts has plummeted.   I've been drinking more of the lighter beers of summer and recently rediscovered Strike Blonde, one I've enjoyed for what seems like a very long time.   The beer has a crisp malt with this great grassy, slightly earthy vibe.  That's it.  It's simplicity works to it's advantage.  Simple yet flavorful beers are underrated, and harder to brew than the big stouts or IPA's that get all the beer geek buzz, since the brewing flaws have nowhere to hide.

There's a reason it's easier to find Strike these days.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

San Jose now has a tap room at Hermitage Brewing

Within a gritty industrial district south of downtown San Jose, a tap room has emerged at Hermitage Brewing this past weekend.  Coils of barbed sitting atop the chain link fence around the brewery create an imposing look. It's a place one would expect to find construction supplies or a good auto body shop, not one where some of the finest beers of Northern California flow.

In addition brewing Hermitage Beers, a number of other beers are brewed under contract at the brewery.  This includes the beers of Strike Brewing, Santa Clara Valley Brewing, and a couple others I'm probably not supposed to name.  Almanac Brewing, who tout their heirloom Sonoma County ingredients and farm to bottle ethic also brew most of their beers at this industrial park location.  The new tap room is a place to drop by and enjoy the Hermitage beers on tap, bringing people to the brewery where it all happens.

Of course, getting beer to the masses is a lot easier than getting the masses to the beer.  How does Hermitage plan to draw people to a place where even Hermitage Brand Manager Carolyn Hopkins-Vasquez admits is "not in a area where people would normally pass through"?  With San Jose State University's football stadium and the San Jose Giant's Municipal Stadium a short walk away, one way is to coordinate tap room events with football and baseball games.  Another plan in the works is tap take-over events for the different contract brewers.

Investing in a tap room in the middle of an unglamorous industrial zone may seem like a risky proposition, but it's actually a tried and true formula.  Lagunitas, Devil's Canyon, and Drake's are three nearby breweries that created vibrant social scenes within similarly drab industrial locations.  As Carolyn Hopkins-Vasquez puts it, "The area needs this." Beer has the power to connect people to places they otherwise wouldn't connect to.  I'm eager to see what Hermitage will accomplish with their new tap room. 

Hermitage Tap Room
1627 South 7th Street
San Jose, CA 95112 

Hours: 4-7 pm Thursday and Friday, noon-5 pm on Saturdays

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Win Tickets to "The Science of Brewing" at the California Acadamy of Sciences, July 25th

You could be here, drinking fine beer, expanding your mind
and relaxing while exotic fish drift by.
What better place to enjoy beer from some of the Bay Area's greatest breweries while expanding your mind than
the California Academy of Sciences.   This coming July 25th, as part of their Thursday Night Life Series comes the "Science of Brewing", featuring Bay Area brewing experts and plenty of tasty beers (more details below).  And you can win two tickets to this evening if you're the first to answer the following trivia question:

"Who was a awarded a lifetime supply of beer for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics?"

Be the first one to e-mail the correct answer to the address: 


and the tickets are yours!  Please note, you must be over 21 to attend Night Life events.

More details on the evening below:

The Science of Brewing Night Life, July 25th from 6:00-10:00 pm.

Delve into the art and science of brewing beer with talks and tastes from some of the Bay Area’s best. Taste your way through a beer hall featuring 21st Amendment Brewery, Almanac Beer Co., Anchor Brewing Company, Calicraft Brewing Company, Drake’s Brewing, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Mad River Brewing Company, Social Kitchen & Brewery, and others.  Glean tips and inspiration during a home brewing talk by San Francisco Brewcraft; learn about the Bay Area’s craft brew scene from the San Francisco Brewers Guild; and see a yeast demonstration by GigaYeast.  Jesse Friedman of Almanac Beer and Kim Sturdavant of Social Kitchen & Brewery will talk about the benefits of drinking locally produced beer and using local ingredients, in a presentation called “The Terrior of Beer." Plus, hear Mark Carpenter, head brewmaster at Anchor Brewing Company since 1971, walk through the company’s effervescent history.  In the planetarium, explore the discoveries of brewer-astronomer Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) at 6:30, followed by two showings of Earthquake.
Tickets are $12 per person ($10 for Academy members); Additional details to be announced at  California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118.
About NightLife:
Every Thursday night, music, creatures and cocktails come together for NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences.  Explore exhibits and aquarium displays while sipping creative cocktails, and let exotic animals from around the world transport you to the tropics, Tibet, and dozens of other remote destinations.  Special planetarium shows will take you even farther afield.   Each week features a live band or DJ, and a unique theme – from salsa dancing to sustainable seafood and beyond. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Rambles: Slowly Reading Through "The Audacity of Hops" and other new happenings

I'm enjoying a slow meander through "The Audacity of Hops" by Tom Acitelli this summer.
  Time being a precious commodity for me this summer, I'm only getting a few minutes here and there for reading.  I've found The Audacity of Hops, Acitelli's  new book on the American Craft Brewing revolution an enriching read, due primarily to the impressive amount of research Acitelli puts forth in an engaging style on each page.  He's really captured the people and events of the movement quite nicely.   Books like this often degenerate into "bus schedule" of one tedious event after another.  Instead, we're given bit sized chapters of a certain place and time in the movement that connect to provide the whole picture.  I'll post full review once I'm finished.

Some Good Beers I've Had Lately
On a recent searing hot day, Bison's Brewing Chocolate Stout was an unlikely choice but it turned out to be good one.  This dry stout has an impressive depth and complexity to its roasty character.  I've also recently enjoyed El Toro's Awesome IPA. It's a little sweet and sticky with plenty of grapefruit peel character in the best tradition of West Coast IPA's.

Headlands Brewing Company Debuts
Headlands Brewing Company, named after the famed Headlands of Marin County, is set to debut in the Bay Area with three beers: Group G Belgian RyePa, Pt. Bonita West Coast Lager and Hill 88 India Pale Ale.  Headlands is co-founded by Patrick Horn of the highly respected Pacific Brewing Laboratories, and Phil Cutti, head brewer at Southpaw BBQ head brewer who is also a well known Bay Area endurance athlete.  (What's this nonsense about "never trust a skinny brewer?")

In a press release announcing their new brewery, Cutti declares "Beer is a social and cultural thing and part of our objective is to bring that concept to life by connecting people and maybe even playing a part in their new adventures. It goes without saying that we also look forward to producing some fantastic and thoughtfully produced beer in the process.”  Patick Horn adds  "We are excited to combine our love for the great outdoors and high quality beers. The craft beer scene has a lot of momentum right now in the Bay Area and we are thrilled to be part of this community."

More information is available on the Headlands website and of course, you can follow them on Twitter.

San Francisco's W. G. Barr Beverage Company Launches T.W. Pitcher's Snake Bite
Formed this year by Wilson Barr and Tommy Hester, San Francisco based W. G. Barr Beverage Company enters the world of beer cocktails with T. W. Pitcher's Snake Bite, based on the traditional British pub mix of lager and cider.  “During my time in the U.K., I saw people at pubs ordering round after round of this mixture of lager and cider called Snake Bite,” says Barr in a press release. “It was flavorful, crisp, and really easy to drink. I quickly realized Snake Bite had the potential to be a successful beverage in the United States.”

An e-mail from W. G. Barr CEO Wilson Barr confirmed Snake Bite is bottled and brewed in the Midwest for eventual distribution on both coasts, adding "Snake Bite is only available in the Bay Area at the moment, and we will focus on building a solid base here in San Francisco before expanding."

Circle the Calendar

The organizers of the 408k Race are expanding into new Bay Area codes beyond the South Bay.  On July 21st is the Marin 415 mile (a five mile race) to benefit Girls on the Run.  And then the series heads to the East Bay for the Let's Go 510k (a 10 k race) October 19th on Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, with the race finishing on the horse race track. 

This year's debut of the Muscle Milk Woodsy trail race series includes a race this September 7th in Oakland's Joaquin Miller.   It's an 8.5 mile trail race, and you can check out the event website for further details and registration.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Session #77: I'm So Bored with the IPA

For this month's Session Justin Mann asks What's the deal with IPA's?   Good question, since I've been asking that myself.

Certainly, if one takes a look at the most popular beers on beer geek hangouts like RateBeer and BeerAdvacate, IPA's and Imperial IPA's dominate the lists.  A list of the best commercial beers recently rated by the American Homebrewers Association is no different.  A lot of this is attributed to a backlash against dull, lifeless light lagers that dominated America's landscape for decades.   Of course, light lagers still completely dominate the world of beer in terms of overall sales, even if the sales of these beers are in slight decline. 

True, sipping palate searing IPA's beats swilling vapid nothingness of industrial lagers, but can't we do a lot better than this?   Doesn't brewing have far more possibilities than simply dumping a bunch of hops in the brew kettle and calling it a day? 

Sure, I like IPA's but there's just too many of them.  Even Costco has an IPA.  (On the west coast, it's brewed by Gordon-Biersch.)  There are times I think world would be a better place if half the IPA's were simply taken out and shot.  It's precisely at these moments when I grudgingly try a new IPA, and discover a uniquely enjoyable twist to the style I didn't think was possible.  It frustrates me to no end.
I recently enjoyed Costco's IPA, bottled under their
Kirkland, brand at a picnic.

So I think that right there explains all the hub-bub about IPA's.  Craft beer is a lot about pushing the limits of beer and in the United States, that usually means bigger is better.  You can do wonderful things with malt, but it's largely limited to  toasting it at differing amounts to draw out varying levels of carmalization.  Yeasts offer plenty of variety, but it's often subtle and nuanced.  If you're looking for big new flavors in beer, hops are the easiest way to go.  Plus plenty of new hop varieties are cultivated each year, so brewers have more and more flavors to play with.

But perhaps this is all a trick question.  Take a look at some the most popular craft beers, at least those brewed by the Brewers Association Top 50 Breweries.  Let's see, there's Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, New Belgium's Fat Tire, Shiner Bock, Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Lagunitas IPA (that's one IPA), Alaskan Amber, Bell's Brewing Two Hearted (that's two IPA's), Boulevard Brewing Unfiltered Wheat, Stone Brewing's Arrogant Bastard,  Anchor Steam and plenty other beers that are decidedly not IPA's.  If you want to include "Crafty" beers into the discussion, that brings beers like Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Widmer Hefeweizen, Redhook ESB and Kona Longboard Lager into the discussion.  And dare I bring up Blue Moon?

I'm sorry, what was this about IPA's being so popular?  Hop-obsessed beer geeks furiously posting reviews on the internet are definitely not the typical craft beer drinker.  At least not yet.