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.