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 restaurants....in 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.