Monday, December 22, 2014

Scenes from in and around Half Moon Bay Brewing

I'd like to thank the folks at Half Moon Bay Brewing for inviting me to their brewpub last month. Brewmaster James Costa spent a few minutes to discuss brewing the Maverick's line of beers that I used in my last post about Mavericks.  General Manager Nate Rey gave me a personal tour of the brew house.  Afterwards, I took a walk around the bay before heading home.  Here are some pictures from that afternoon.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Can Mavericks Brewing Ride the Wave of Low-Alcohol Craft Beer?

The Mavericks "brew trust" of James Costa (l) and Shane Aldrich (r)
(photo by Kristen Loken)
It’s been two years since Mavericks Brewing paddled out into the turbulent sea of craft brewing with the idea to brew low alcohol craft beer. Now they’ve selected their wave and are paddling hard to position themselves to ride the wave of low alcohol beer that’s been quietly rising in the craft beer industry.

The Mavericks Story

Mavericks came from idea brewing industry veteran Pete Slosberg, best known as the Pete of Pete’s Wicked Ales, had at the end of a long bike ride.  “I would go on 25-40 mile bike trips, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually stop at the Marin Brewing brewpub in Larkspur," he explained to me a couple years ago when we first talked about Mavericks. “Problem was, after stopping there for a beer or two, I didn’t feel steady enough to get back on my bike and head home.  Instead, I’d take the ferry.” And with that, he realized the potential market for low alcohol, yet flavorful beer for people with active lifestyles who wanted to rehydrate with a cold one or two, but not get slowed down by the alcohol. 

At the time, Slosberg’s idea for Mavericks was bucking a trend.  “All the new breweries were coming out with extreme this and extreme that.   There’s a time and a place for that, but we wanted to do something different, and more like something I’d rather drink.” Slosberg partnered with Half Moon Bay Brewing to launch the Mavericks line of low alcohol beers, naming the brewery after the huge waves crashing off the coast of Half Moon Bay that test the world’s greatest surfers. Today, Slosberg remains a trusted advisor and partner to Mavericks Brewing having passed the baton to others after the project got up running. 

The Brew House at Half Moon Bay
Mavericks has three beers in their line-up checking in at a low 3.75% abv, a Belgian Wit, a Porter, and Rye Pale Ale. Then there’s the wildcard of the line-up, Tunnel Vision IPA at 6.8% abv and 100+ ibu.  Tunnel Vision seems like an anomaly in the low alcohol line, but more on this later. All are sold in cans, more portable than bottles and more easily taken to places where bottles can’t or shouldn’t go, such as into backpacks or to the beach.     

The brewing team at Mavericks includes Shane Aldrich, Head Brewmaster at Mavericks who’s brewed at Lagunitas, Marin County Brewing and Devil’s Canyon, winning a few Great American Beer Festival Awards along the way. He’s joined by James Costa, Brewmaster at Half Moon Bay Brewing, who started as the first assistant brewer at Bear Republic and aided in the development of their iconic Racer 5 IPA before various stops at Sonoma and Marin County breweries. He came to Mavericks as a consulting brewer two years ago and now works full time. 

Brewing low-alcohol beers people find enjoyable is a far more complex brewing feat than just tossing less grain in the brew kettle. There are a number of challenges in brewing these beers, which James Costa took a few minutes out of his busy day to discuss during an afternoon visit I made to Half Moon Bay's brewpub. “One of the biggest challenges were the brewing systems we used were not suited to brew these beers,” recalls Costa of his early days at Mavericks. “The thermometers were too high for the amount of mash in the brew kettle.” Half Moon Bay Brewing has a 15 barrel brewhouse, too small for any significant distribution, so Mavericks brews under contract at nearby Devil’s Canyon in nearby Belmont and Uncommon Brewers down the coast in Santa Cruz. 

It was not easy finding the right recipe. “It took quite a few recipes to dial it in”, explained Costa.  The difficulty in finding the right recipe involved “consistency, adjusting the recipes to get more body to the beer, more residual sweetness so they have a lot of flavor to them, but they’re still low in the alcohol”.

Costa is especially enthusiastic about Tunnel Vision. “It started as a special release to celebrate the opening of the tunnels at the Devil’s Slide,” referring the Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in March of 2013 to bypass a treacherous portion of Highway 1. “We had a big party at the brewpub and everybody thought it was great.   We blew right through it.”

An Industry Veteran with Big Plans

For Mavericks CEO Steve Morgan, cans are the way to go
(photo by Becky Ruppel)
CEO Steve Morgan started at Mavericks just this past spring and is pretty bullish on Mavericks as it ramps up distribution.  When I ask why he decided to lead Mavericks, he jumps at the question. “I think the high flavor-low alcohol concept is really good, there’s lot of growth in lower alcohol craft beer.” Prior to joining Mavericks, Morgan  spent five years as the President of Napa Smith Brewery and Winery. He knows a thing or two about drinking beer after a workout as an avid open water swimmer who’s completed the Golden Gate Swim and the Alcatraz Swim multiple times. Morgan also runs and lifts weights when he isn’t swimming.

Morgan declares “If you look at the ten fastest growing craft beers nationally, two of them are low alcohol. Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA and Founders All Day IPA. There are plenty of times and places where craft beer drinkers want to drink something with lower alcohol.”

Despite the fact that higher alcohol IPAs, Double IPAs and Imperial Stouts dominate the beer rating sites, Morgan identifies low-alcohol beers as quietly becoming popular craft beers. “IPAs are the large piece of the craft beer market.  But look at all these introductions of lower alcohol IPA’s like Stone Brewing’s Go To IPA, Founders All Day IPA, Lagunitas DayTime IPA, Sierra Nevada Nooner IPA and a few others.  All of these products were introduced in the last couple years. It’s a smaller category, but growing much faster.” 

What about Tunnel Vision? Doesn't brewing a 6.8% abv IPA run counter to this low-alcohol strategy? Morgan explains that’s where the idea of Mavericks comes in. “A Maverick is an innovator, a risk taker, unwilling to compromise. So we weren’t going to limit ourselves to a single alcohol level or type of beer. Most IPA’s have about 60 ibu.  It isn’t until you get to Double IPA’s, which have about 7-10% abv that you’ll find beers with 100 ibu. With Tunnel Vision, by using a lot of newer hops and innovative dry hopping, we achieve over 100 ibu at 6.8% abv and it still tastes in balance. We see Tunnel Vision as blurring the line between a single and double IPA.”

Morgan also thinks selling Mavericks in cans is also a big part of the key for success. “A big part of Maverick’s is that the beer is in a can.  You can take it to the beach, take it on the trail, or take them where ever you want to go. Besides, take a look at the artwork on the Tunnel Vision can. You can’t do that with a bottle.” Morgan also notes that canned beer is one of the fastest growing sectors of craft beer. “If you look at the Nielsen ratings of craft beer sold in cans, it was up 54% last year.  For the first six months of this year, nationally craft beer has been up by 21%, and the canned segment of that is up 79%. And cans provide fresher beer with a lower environmental impact.”

If that weren’t enough to guarantee Mavericks success, Morgan also raves about the skill of his brewers. “Shane Aldrich and James Costa have 32 years of experience in the craft brewing industry.  It’s rare to find that much experience at a craft brewery. What I’m continually impressed by since I came here this spring is their use of hops in beers that taste balanced. That takes real talent and is hard to do. Not to give away tricks but one of the keys is to create mouthfeel. With the Belgian style wit, there’s a lot of yeast left in the beer and we use coriander and orange peel to give it body. In the Rye Pale Ale, the rye creates the mouthfeel and we use a lot of dry hopping that gives the flavor sensation. At 53 ibus, it’s higher than most Pale Ales, but even at 3.75%, it tastes balanced.”

How successful will Mavericks become?  We’re all about to find out. Prior to June of this year, Half Moon Bay Brewing self-distributed Mavericks and struggled to gain traction. One of the first things Morgan initiated was a distribution program that includes BevMo!s, Costplus, Total Wine, and Lunardi’s in Northern California. You can even find Mavericks beers at San Jose’s SAP Pavilion. 

Tasting the Beers

Mavericks may have a hit on their
hands with Tunnel Vision
As for tasting the Maverick’s beers, the flavors are there, but despite their best efforts, I still find them a bit thin. The Belgian Wit is rather light, with the requisite coriander, orange peel and a noticeable tang from the wheat. I can see this being rather refreshing after a run.  The Porter is rather dry, with a direct, uncluttered taste of bitter chocolate.  Then there is the intriguing Rye Pale Ale. At 3.75% abv and 53 ibu, you’d think it taste like undrinkable hop water.  Instead, it’s a rather lively brew. The peppery character of the rye melds nicely with the floral and citrus flavors from a blend of four different hops. As much as I like the Rye Pale Ale, it leaves me wondering if it would taste even better if they just jacked up the malt a little bit to say, 4.0 or 4.5% abv to support more bolder flavors.   

Then there’s Tunnel Vision. I can see why everyone at Mavericks is pretty excited about it. I don’t have a strong nose, yet still picked up lots of great floral aromas as it poured into a glass. Tunnel Vision has this great big tropical hop punch, with flavors of mango, and some floral character. It’s amazingly smooth drinking for all of its 100+ ibu. If you ask me, it stands up to the best West Coast IPAs.

An Uncertain Future?

Numerous new craft breweries are popping everywhere, but most of them fit neatly into two groups. First, there’s the small niche’, lifestyle breweries. These are usually some brewpub or a taproom producing at low volume, which have a loyal local following but no grand plans beyond a passion to make great beer and make some money at it. Thousands of small new breweries like this all over the United States can peacefully coexist. 

Then there are new breweries like Mavericks led by those equally passionate about beer, but with clear ambitions of growth. I think these types of breweries are more fun to watch, because while the craft brewing industry can sustain its remarkable 15% growth for at least another 4-5 years, pretty soon all these breweries with ambitious plans are going to start thumping into each other. And of course, the major players like Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and New Belgium are all growing too, leaving less room for upstarts.

What does that means for Mavericks?  We'll just have to see. They've picked out a wave, maneuvered into position and getting up into a crouch on their board. Ought to be an interesting ride to watch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Anderson Valley's Hightway 128 Gose Better with Blood Orange?

One of my favorite new beers this year was Anderson Valley's Highway 128 Gose, a nifty session beer (4.0-4.5% abv) with a slightly bracing sour tang, some lemon citrus character and a pronounced salty finish.  (OK, its real name is
"The Kimmie, The Ying and The Holy Gose" but most people I know call it Highway 128 Gose.)  It's a little hard to find around here so I pick up a six-pack nearly every time I see it.  Now Anderson Valley has added some tangy blood orange to the mix.  Does it work?

This version isn't quite as bracing in its sourness, more fruity, the saltiness doesn't come through as much.  The flavors are little more complex, but each component is a little more muddled.    Is it better?  I keep leaning one way or another but never make up my mind which one I like more.  What do you think?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Sneak Peek at Hermitage's Barrel-aged Boysenberry Sour

One the reasons I like to check out brewery tap rooms is that they often have little specials or little sneak peeks of upcoming attractions. Such was the case last Friday when I dropped by the Hermitage tap room.  Their Barrel-Aged Boysenberry Sour Ale will be released this coming Wednesday, December 17th and they're having a big shindig in the tap room that evening to celebrate.  They've already bottled and kegged most of it. One bottle had a cosmetic flaw with the wax seal making it unfit for retail, so they were pouring a few samples around the tap room out if it and I snagged one.

Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel gave me the low down on how it was made.  "We brewed with 40% wheat, and aged it red and white wine barrels for about 6 months.  Both Lactobacillus and Brett (Brettanomyces) were introduced into the barrels, and the boysenberry fruit was added late in fermentation."  Peter went on to tell me there's plenty of excitement around the brewery on how it turned out.

After taking a sampling, I understand the excitement.  It's got a bright, balanced complexity that isn't muddled, and is an enjoyable sipper.  It's not one of those bracing, puckering sours and the dank, barn-yard funkiness one normally gets with the Brett is way in the background which if you ask me is a good thing.  There's a little wheat tang, a little oak in the mix that works well with the tart boysenberries.

If sours aren't your thing, there's plenty of other good brews at the Hermitage tap room right now. Such as Hermitage's Cascade Type 45 Single Hop IPA, part of Hermitage's single hop series.  The Cascade hops give this IPA plenty of piney characters with a little lemon, and I also picked up some tangerine.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Programming Note: Those "Beer of the Month" posts are history

Back in July or 2010, it seemed like a good idea to start posting a "Beer of the Month" review of various beers discovered in my travels.  Beers that either had the "Wow!" factor or were noteworthy in some other unique way.  And it was a good idea, pushing me to find new and interesting beers and tell the stories behind them.  Problem was, the idea got a little too structured and got to be a chore. Some months, it was a struggle to find a "Beer of the Month", other times, I had to pick between a few good candidates.  So I've decided to abandon this structure and just post reviews whenever.  In addition, I'll be focusing my reviews largely on San Francisco Bay Area breweries, and South San Francisco Bay Breweries in general.

I always wanted this blog to be more than a bunch of beer reviews, but talking about different beers and sharing new finds is part of the craft beer conversation  So I'll be doing that in a more locally focused and unstructured manner in this little corner of cyberspace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reviewing "World Bottled Beers: 50 Classic Brews"

The first thing to notice about this book is it's unique beer bottle shape.  But I guess that's the point, as part of this idea is that it slips easily into Christmas stocking, since this book is targeted for the holidays.  Inside, you'll find fifty breezy, yet informative beer reviews from accomplished beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on some of the world's finest beers.  Tierney-Jones reviews American beers like Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA and Victory Brewing's Prima Pils, while including beers from overseas like St. Bernardus Abt 12 and Fuller's Vintage Ale.  Most  beer geeks will be familiar to many of these beers, although I discovered a few intriguing selections from overseas on its pages. Given that, this book will be best appreciated by those who've come to enjoy craft beer and are looking to broaden their beery horizons.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Talking with three brewmasters about their Winter Brews in Adventure Sports Journal

Ah, the winter brew round-up article.  True, it's not the most original idea in beer writing. so I tried to tell a little story behind each beer's creation.  I picked three of my favorite winter beers and interviewed Gordon Biesch's Dan Gordon, 21st Amendment's Shaun O'Sullivan and Ninkasi Brewing;s Jamie Floyd their take on how these beers came about. You can read it all in the latest issue of Adventure Sports Journal.  Hope you like reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Session #94: The Half-Life of Beer Blogs

When Adrian Dingle proposed this month's Session topic, I was in the midst of reading The Half-Life of Facts, a fun book by Samuel Arbesman who takes the reader on a historical tour on how our understanding of facts changes over time and shows everything we know has an expiration date.  In his book, Arbesman demonstrates the growth in scientific publications follows a steeply upward exponential curve. Thus, it becomes harder and harder to come up with revolutionary scientific theories or discoveries due to the increasing volume of research being performed by more and more scientists.

In their day, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein working alone revolutionized physics.  In today's "physics scene" they would be certainly be noteworthy scientists but most likely rather anonymous ones. Fundamental physics is now carried out by large teams involving hundreds of collaborators working hard to push our understanding of physics incrementally forward.  A lone physicist simply cannot be revolutionary the way Newton or Einstein were anymore.

In the same way, what's happened in the beer scene in the past thirty years has echoed the physics scene of the last 125 years.   There are just too many breweries to keep track of, too many beers to possibly drink, and too many events and happenings to follow them all.  Michael Jackson is very much the Albert Einstein of beer writers, but if a young Michael Jackson started a blog today he'd be one of hundreds of people worldwide chronicling all things beer.  I have no doubt this hypothetical young Michael Jackson would emerge as an important and influential beer writer, but it's unlikely he'd define beer writing the way the real Michael Jackson did.  Much of Michael Jackson's groundbreaking subject matter in his day is fairly well worn beer writing territory these days.

So as we ponder our place and existence in the beer scene, we must confront the uncomfortable truth the beer scene is expanding more rapidly than we can possibly keep up with and our blogs become increasingly irrelevant as compared to the whole.  I look at blogs that have gone silent in the past five years as their author moved on to others things and see quaint electronic relics of a some bygone era.  A time when 15 tap handles was a huge number for beer bar, pairing beer with dessert was a novel idea or a beer dinner at some upscale restaurant was cause for celebration.  I imagine most of us continuing to blog feel an increasing challenge to keep up with the rapidly expanding beer scene, lest we fall into a similar obscurity.

But of course, as the beer scene becomes ever larger, there are far more interesting places to explore within it, so that's what I do.   The South San Francisco Bay Area where I live has long been considered a beer wasteland, but a few new breweries are starting to change that, and I often write about this exciting transformation.  There's more beers and breweries out there which means there is another new story behind each one.   So when I discover a particularly interesting one of these stories, I figure others would also be interested so I write about them.  Along the way, I've met a lot of great people and had a lot of good times.  Even though I quietly realize this blog is a somewhat futile effort against the tide of increasing beery irrelevancy, I'm having such a good time, so who cares?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Hangar 24's Joe Wells Talks About the Science Behind Sours

Barrel-aged sour beers are all the rage these days.  Of course, sour beers have been around for centuries, long been brewed using traditional European techniques. But today, craft breweries are turning to scientific instruments to help them brew barrel-aged sours.  How have these new analytics changed the way these beers are brewed?  Is the art of brewing being replaced with technical data?  To explore how science is changing the way barrel-aged sours are brewed, I spoke with Joe Wells, who runs Hangar 24 Brewing's Quality Assurance and Quality Control Laboratory.

Joe Wells attended Evergreen College where he used both a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of different beers. Evergreen College allows students to develop their own major.  While many claim to have majored in "Beer" during their college days, Joe Wells is one the few who's actually done so.  After graduating with his self-designed Brewing Science major and a brief stint at a pharmaceutical firm, he was hired at Hangar 24 to run the brewery's laboratory.

One of his latest projects involves Chandelle, a barrel-aged sour Hangar 24 just released.   "Sour beer is what made me want to work in a brewery," says Wells.  "Creating a balanced and drinkable sour beer is equal parts art and science."  Chandelle starts as blond ale brewed with malted and unmalted wheat, infused with 850 pounds of Golden Sweet apricots and poured into freshly used Sauvignon Blanc wine barrels.   The base beer is designed to have a large amount of very specific fermentable sugars to be consumed by an assortment of wild yeasts and bacteria added into the barrel. These organisms living inside the barrel slowly create their own signature flavor, producing acidity, funk, fruitiness and tart, sour flavors that give these beers their wonderfully unique and complex flavors.

For barrel-aged beers, Wells analyzes the pH and specific gravity.  "We check pH as well as measuring titratable acidity to get a better idea of acidic flavor," he explains.  "We monitor gravity of the beer using a digital density meter, finding the maximum attenuation the wild biota will accomplish."

Is there a particular reading he's looking for? Not exactly.  The beer is brewed with a final pH and specific gravity in mind and then the brewery "lets time do what it does".  The main thing Wells is looking for is a stable pH and specific gravity over a 1-2 month period.  "Wild yeast can stop for a period and then restart", says Wells.  Bottling the beer too early can lead to over carbonated bottles or undeveloped flavors.  While Hangar 24 depends on critical measurements on their barrel-aged beers to help them determine when they are ready, there's still no replacement for the brewer's taste buds.  "Our most accurate, complex, and delicate analytic instrument is contained in our heads, and we sample and taste the beer as we go until it tells us what it wants to be," states Wells. "Instrumentation won't really tell you what it tastes like, or how it feels on your palate."

Joe Wells also discussed with me the current cutting edge of brewing science, where breweries are delving deeper to analyze the biota within the barrel through recent developments in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technologies.  PCR equipment is perhaps best known for being used in crime labs to amplify a few strands of DNA to identify suspects.   As the technology has matured, PCR instrumentation which once cost a few hundred thousands dollars is now available for a tenth of that cost, putting it within the price range of the largest craft breweries. In the hands of a brewer, PCR determines what yeasts are active inside the barrel or what bacteria are present. The processes that create sour ales, mysterious unseen forces to brewers centuries ago are now captured in digital readouts giving further insight into what the final product might taste like.  Large craft breweries using PCR to track their brewing process include New Belgium, Boulevard Brewing, and Allagash. Given the substantial investment in Goose Island's barrel-aging program since being acquired by Anheuser-Busch, it's a pretty safe bet Goose Island uses PCR as well.

Given all the technological developments to analyze beer aging away in the barrel, will the day come when brewers simply rely on a bunch of sensors to determine when the beer is ready?  "I sure hope not," laughed Wells when I asked him that.  "That would remove all the fun from this.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bombas Athletic Socks: Buy one pair, and another pair goes to the homeless

Bombas has a mission to help those who need socks the most.  Socks are the most requested item at homeless shelter so for every sock Bombas sells, Bombas donates another pair to a homeless shelter.  So far, Bombas has denoted over 150,000 pairs of socks to people in need.

But how are their socks?  Bombas claims to have come up with no fewer than seven innovations to the design, look and feel of traditional athletic socks.  The folks at Bombas let me try a couple pairs of their socks out.  I put one on before a ten mile run and they felt pretty comfy.  Five miles into the run, it started raining but my feet still felt pretty dry. That seems like a pretty good test to me.  So Bombas gets my thumbs up both on their socks and for the way they do business.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Brew Day! Brewing up Brandon's Maple Brown Ale

Rather than fight the crowds and chase bargains on Black Friday, I decided to stay home and brew beer.  I'm now on the third iteration of Brandon's Maple Brown Ale, a tribute to my 13-year old son. Brandon has autism, so he's a little different and I've always wanted this beer to be a little different, while still being tasty.  I've never felt like I've got this beer right and once, this brew has unfortunately reflected Brandon's autism all too accurately.  I'm optimistic the third time's a charm for this brew, since the wort had the caramel flavors I was shooting for to blend with the maple syrup added to the boil just before flameout. It'll be a few weeks before I learn how it turns out and I'll let you know here.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with a few pictures from the day of brewing.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks....Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

The starting line at this morning's Applied Materials
Silicon Valley Turkey Trot
As we spend today giving thanks for all the important things in our lives, let me share a few things I'm thankful for.  I'm thankful for great moments with my kids, like last evening's walk where I discussed plate tectonics with my 11-year old daughter who seemed genuinely interested as my autistic son gleefully swatted away flies that would have frightened him only a few months ago.  I'm thankful for Turkey Trots, like the Applied Materials Silicon Valley Turkey Trot I ran this morning.  These are always great races since everyone is in a festive holiday mood.  After a bit of a downer half-marathon in Monterey, I bounced back to run a pretty good 10k if I say so myself.  I'm also thankful for my great wife who also ran a great 10k for herself wearing a tutu, reminding me not to take life so seriously.

Here's hoping you all have plenty to be thankful for, and I wish you all the best for Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Big Sur Half-Marathon at Monterey Bay: Not exactly what I had in mind

My running stuff ready to go Sunday morning
Well, it's over.  After twelve weeks of work directed towards this race, it came and went in just under and hour and a half.  I could give you a blow by blow of how the race went, but I doubt you'd want to read it, and I can remember too much about it anyway.  I vaguely remember something about going out in 6:15-6:20 per mile pace for the first few mile as planned.  Then, around mile 8 on the rolling hills and fighting the slight breeze off the ocean, I seem to recall slowing to 6:30 pace and then it started getting worse.  I dragged my butt through the last couple miles to finish 1:26:11 which isn't really that bad a time, since I finished 1:25:57 last year.  But obviously, I would have run a faster time with a slightly slower start and better pacing and

For the past couple years, I been training pretty seriously for a spring half-marathon and then a fall half-marathon and I'm ready for a break.  I'll still be running, but I'm looking forward to running a few shorter races rather than one big one.

No more big deep thoughts today, I'm still pretty tired.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Beer of the Month: Hops of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing

The Beer is of the Month is Hops of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing.   I've enjoyed a few over the past three years while visiting my kids since the time my ex-wife took the kids to Modesto.

When that happened, I wanted to hate Modesto. Before then, I lived on the San Francisco Peninsula and the kids were only a short five minute drive away. When I started seeking ways to spend additional time with my kids, my ex-wife resisted, so I started pursuing legal channels.   Shortly thereafter, my ex-wife announced her husband just got a job near Modesto and she was taking the kids with her.  That seemed too much of a coincidence to me.  It is not wise to discuss these things in great detail on blogs but let's just say things got pretty messy and some lawyers made good money over the deal.  In the end, an independent arbitrator allowed my ex-wife to take the kids to Modesto, but also allowed me to spend more time with them.

Part of that additional time was spending Wednesday evening in Modesto with my kids. Having never been there before, I figured Modesto was some dusty Central Valley town out in the middle of nowhere.  And indeed, I discovered Modesto to be this dusty Central Valley town out in the middle of nowhere.  But somehow, the place grew on me.  Modesto has this unassuming humbleness and unstated pride in its normalcy, an exotic ordinariness few places posses. Everyone seems to like being in Modesto a lot more than they have any reason to.

Or maybe Modesto simply represents an important time and place where festering family discord finally healed and the kids and I had some great times.   Helping my kids with their homework in Modesto's library, going on a stroll with them through Scenic Oaks Park, and taking the kids bowling at McHenry Bowl are some of the many great memories I'll take away from Modesto. Sometimes when we'd go out to dinner, I'd enjoy a Pint of Hops of Wrath.  A couple times we even made it to Dust Bowl Brewing's brew pub just down the road in Turlock.

When people talk about the great California IPA's, Hops of Wrath usually isn't in the discussion.  It ought to be, standing up to the best California IPA's from far sexier places like San Francisco, Santa Rosa or San Diego.  Its hop flavors are sharp, clear, and very directed with lots of pine and grapefruit peel character.   It's a pretty dry IPA with a little caramel malt to round out the flavors, resulting in a rather unbalanced IPA, which in this case is a very good thing.  More than a beer, Hops of Wrath represents the fact that good things happen in unlikely places.

My ex-wife and I get along a lot better these days and she just moved back into the Bay Area to San Rafael.  My kids are closer now so I'm pretty happy about this, but it means I won't be going to Modesto anymore.  I'm going to miss that place.

PS - I won't be going to Modesto but maybe I won't have to get Hops of Wrath.  Dust Bowl Brewing recently announced a major brewery expansion.  Here's hoping Hops of Wrath and some of the other excellent Dust Bowl brews start showing up in the Bay Area.

The Modesto Arch.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Six days to the Big Sur Monterey Bay Half-Marathon

"I've had as many doubts as everyone else.  Standing on the starting line, we're all cowards."

-Alberto Salazar, three-time New York City Marathon Champion

Every run I've done since August was motivated primarily for the race this coming Sunday, the Big Sur Half-Marathon in Monterey Bay. Despite eleven solid weeks of training with thankfully no injuries along the way, there will certainly be some doubt in my mind as I stand on the finish line.

However, doubt and confidence are not completely mutually exclusive.  I've put in a lot of work, and know I'm definitely ready to take on the 13.1 miles and run a faster pace than last year, when I ran 1:25:57.  Of course, in the final week before a half-marathon, there's nothing you can do to make you faster, you can only screw things up.  This is the week for "active rest", a tenuous balance between easy running to let the legs recover while avoiding taking so much rest that you lose your fitness.   Many weeks of hard training have been undermined by an ill-advised "one last hard workout" that saps all your energy just before the race when you need it most.  It's a also a good time to watch my food intake and yes, go easy on the beer, as it can be easy to quickly pick up five pounds of "dead weight" this week from the reduced activity.

Even if I find the perfect taper, twelve weeks of hard work can go right down the drain on race day by simply tripping over a rock, getting sick the night before, tangling up with another runner at the starting line or some other random event.    You can be diligent and careful to avoid this stuff, but sometimes bad luck still finds you.  There's no guarantees in running, just like with everything else. But most of the time, running rewards preparation.   Understanding this is the partial antidote to doubt.

The original goal when I started last August was to finish just under 1:22, which is 6:15 per mile pace.  I thought that would be possible thought pretty challenging when I first set this goal. Evaluating all my training since then, I still going to be pretty challenging, but possible.  So the plan is to go out the first four miles in 6:15-6:20 per mile per pace.  Faster than that and there becomes a real risk of crashing and burning, turning the last miles into a death march.  If everything comes together and that pace feels ridiculously easy, I can start pushing the pace in the middle miles. Otherwise, I'll just hang onto that pace.  Sub-6:20 pace (which equates to a sub-1:23 half-marathon) would still be a pretty good performance.

Who knows what will happen on race day?  Finding out is the fun part, even if it is a little scary.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Session #93: Why are we drawn to where beer is made?

Opening my refrigerator and looking around inside, I have no idea where most of the food come from. A gallon of milk most likely comes for California dairy farms from thousands of square miles from California's Central Valley. On the door rack are condiments, pickles, salad dressings and sauces from anonymous factories scattered all over the globe.  The lunch meat could be from, well anywhere.  The orange juice from someplace in Southern California or Mexico but it might have come all the way from Florida.  Even the fresh, locally grown organic strawberries come from a wide swatch of land covering thousands of acres.  But the Sierra Nevada Coffee Stout or the Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale?  I know where these beers came from to almost the exact foot.

So when Brian and Maria at the Roaming Pint ask why we are drawn to visit breweries for this month's Session, I'd have to say a big part of this attraction is because beer is one of the few things we ingest where we know almost exactly where it comes from.  Beer is rare, coming from somewhere rather being from "out there".  So given beer's unique attribute, it's not surprising we take advantage to connect with beer by visiting the exact location where it's from.  At the brewery, you can often see the beer being made right there, transforming you from a passive drinker to an actual participant in the entire brewing process.  At least that's the way I feel whenever I'm at a brewery, even though I'm not actually shoveling hops into the brew kettle.

I know where the stuff on the right comes from,
but not the stuff on the left
Are there other reasons we visit breweries?  I think so.  For the past forty years, beer has been the focus of a cultural war between deeply entrenched, corporate near-monopolies producing high volume mass market product and smaller, regional entrepreneurs forging their own unique brewing identities. While this war has been fought in the shelves of liquor and grocery stores, and in bars and restaurants, it's the breweries which has become the virtual battlefields of this struggle.

A trip to Sierra Nevada or Anchor Brewing has become a pilgrimage to a craft beer mecca, a place where key events occurred to launch the craft brewing revolution in the United States. Never mind that the current locations of both these breweries aren't the actual places where Fritz Maytag and Ken Grossman first transformed beer. These new brewery locations still somehow hold onto those symbolic distinctions from the past.

At least that's the way I see it.  Do we really know why we're drawn to breweries?  I suppose we can make some good guesses, but sooner or later we find ourselves again at a brewery, whether or not we understand why.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Photographic Ode to the Los Gatos Creek Trail

It's just a thin ribbon of asphalt running up from Los Gatos, winding through Campbell and San Jose for eight miles before ending abruptly in a random location in San Jose's classy Willow Glen neighborhood. I spend of my mornings either leisurely striding upon it or pounding out mile after hard fought mile upon it, joining other runners, bikers, dog walkers and a few of the areas homeless in our morning rituals.  It's a refuge from the South Bay's urban landscape and a place for recreation. It's also glorified drainage ditch and a patch work of civil engineering projects.  It's peaceful, picturesque, gritty and industrial.  It's the Los Creek Trail and I leave a piece of myself out there almost every day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is Craft Beer Coming to a Farmer's Market near you?

There's been anticipation and questions in the past few days over the passage of AB 2004, a bill recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown, which allows any California brewery to apply for a permit to sell packaged beer at farmers markets starting January 1st, 2015.   Online discussions over the new bill show plenty are eager for the chance to pick up their favorite local craft beers along with locally grown fruits and vegetables. People are asking questions like "Will breweries be giving out samples?" or "Could breweries like Coors and Budweiser muscle their way into farmers markets?"

Being intrigued myself, I called Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) to discuss the details of AB 2004.  "This bill was at least a couple years in the making, with interest at multiple levels," described McCormick of the new legislation.  "We worked with farmers markets and breweries to get this bill passed and seek parity with the wine industry," alluding to the fact that wineries presently are allowed to sell wine at farmers markets.  It's important to note that AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer in the form of bottles, cans, or growlers only.  That means you won't be able to walk up to a brewery stand at a farmers market and get a pint on draft or tasting sample. (Actually, it's possible now for breweries to serve  beer on draft at farmers markets, but involves an elaborate process to get a permit to support a non-profit organization and is rarely done.)  Also, AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer at a farmers market only in the county in which it was brewed or an adjacent county. That means you won't be seeing beer from the likes of Russian River, Sierra Nevada, or Stone Brewing showing up in Bay Area farmer's markets. And yes, since Budweiser is brewed at two breweries in Northern and Southern California, Budweiser could possibly be sold at farmers markets in the areas surrounding these breweries.

While the CCBA has trumpeted this new legislation creating eager anticipation among craft beer drinkers, many craft breweries have responded to this new opportunity with ambivalent shrugs. "Truthfully, there hasn't been much discussion at the brewery regarding the new ruling," was the response from one Bay Area brewery I contacted.  "I haven't really researched the new law yet.  Right now, we don't have any plans to sell at farmers markets", replied another.  Another brewery owner, citing concerns over getting permits, resources required to staff a booth, and the modest volume of typical farmers market sales told me, "it isn't worth the hassle".

In many ways, this response is not surprising.  Despite craft breweries emphasis on "hand crafted beers" and "brewing quality and innovation", craft breweries have a lot in common with Budweiser in that they need to sell in large volume to be profitable.  Of course, not in Budweiser-esque, hundreds of truckloads kind of volumes but even for the smallest craft breweries, their business is a lot about capturing lots of tap handles and plum retail accounts to quickly move product.  The leisurely sales activity at a typical farmers markets makes it hard to justify the use of some of their modest sales resources.  This isn't lost on the CCBA, as Tom McCormick concedes AB 2004 will most likely be used by small or start-up breweries looking for new opportunities and was not intended for larger breweries.  "We didn't want this (AB 2004) to be broadly used to sell a lot of product."

One brewery planning to take advantage of AB 2004 is Bison Brewing, one of the few organic breweries in California.  Daniel Del Grande, owner and brewmaster at Bison first tried to sell beer at farmer's markets back in 2004.  "We were told beer wasn't an agricultural product, so we couldn't get a permit to sell it," he recalls from his earliest attempts.  "The problem with selling at farmers markets is that most people don't want to carry bottles home.  And if two brewers show up at the same market, it ruins things for both of them since they end up splitting the business."  Despite this, Del Grande still plans to move forward.  "My idea is selling growler refills and one-off bottled specialty releases." When I asked about the business justification of being at farmers markets, given the fact that Bison already has higher volume retail outlets at stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts, Del Grande explains, "I look at it as a marketing expense to gain exposure to those who regularly go to farmers markets.  For an organic brewer like me, those are my people."

So if you're expecting to pick up some brews with your organic vegetables at your local farmers market next year, you're likely to be disappointed.   While AB 2004 undeniably is a step forward to give small breweries more opportunities, my take on things is that most likely just a few small and specialty breweries will take advantage of it at scattered farmers markets across California.    

Monday, October 20, 2014

Beer of the Month: Dead Drop from Clandestine Brewing

Our Beer of the Month comes from a relative newcomer to the Bay Area craft brewing scene, San Jose's Clandestine Brewing.  Clandestine is really more of a home brewing collective with a tap room that a commercial brewery, part of the larger trend of nanobrewing within the craft beer revolution. Perhaps my favorite thing about Clandestine Brewing is that unlike other nanobreweries, their tap list isn't dominated with a bunch of wild and crazy thermo-nuclear IPA's. Instead it contains a lot of traditional styles although they Clandestine does make their fair share of interesting experiments. Sure it's great tasting something made with lots of hops, but thankfully, Clandestine hasn't forgotten you can be just as innovative with yeast and malt as you can with hops.  The result is that going to Clandestine is always fun, because you'll find both the familiar and the novel, and there's a lot more to their idea of innovation than just hitting you over the head with a bunch of hops.

A good example of this is their Dead Drop Munich Dunkel, a traditional German style.  A Dunkel is best described as a dark lager, and Dead Drop has a nice drinkable depth to it.  It's got a little caramel, a little bitter chocolate and a nice crispness.  It's one of those beers like Anchor Steam, where you can either simply drink it to quench a thirst on a hot day, or contemplate all its subtle complexities.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Discovering a couple barrel aged beers from Scotland's Innis and Gunn

Last time most people were thinking about Scotland on this side of the pond, it was over the Scotland's Independence Referendum last month.  With the votes tallied and the independence movement falling short in their attempt to break from the United Kingdom, we no longer find ourselves asking questions like "What is Scotland's true identity?" or "How would Scotland function economically as an independent country?.  Instead, we can shift our attention more pressing issues, like "What's the beer from Scotland like?"

It's not something I considered much until a press release landed in my inbox touting Scottish brewery Innis & Gunn winning two silver meters in the 2014 U.S. Open Beer Championships.   Innis & Gunn's  Toasted Oak IPA won Silver in the Wood/Barrel Age Pale Beer category, while Innis & Gunn Rum Aged beer also won Silver in the Wood/Barrel Age Dark Beer category.  The e-mail went on to ask if I was interested in sampling these beers for a review.  As you might expect, when someone offers me award winning beer to sample, I usually don't turn them down.

I found both these award winning beers to be quite unlike the barrel aged beers commonly brewed in California,  Innis & Gunn Rum Aged Beer is aged with oak chips.  They package it in a disturbingly clear bottle but I detected none of the skunkiness one usually finds in beer exposed to light.  It's has a lot of toasted oak flavors with a little sweetness and a little rum on a surprisingly thin underlying light amber beer.  A nice changed of pace to most oak aged beer in the US which tend to be high alcohol Imperial malt bombs.

But what really got my attention was the Toasted Oak India Pale Ale.  It's one of those beers that make you sit up and say "Wow!" when it first falls on your tongue.  The oak melded with the hops to give it a unique, hard to define flavor combination.  There taste the oak, some of the hop bitterness and this wonderful orange citrus flavor.  It's all rather subdued in its complexity, with the dryness allowing all the flavors to come through without any sweetness getting in the way.

Innis & Gunn part of the newer wave of craft breweries started on the other side of pond, founded in 2002 and specializing in barrel aged beers.  They're making a push to expand distribution into the United States, which means they're doing things like sending out samples to bloggers, hoping we'll write nice things about their beer.  So yes, I've taken that bait.   But I'm hear to say, if you want to see barrel aged beers taken to different and tasty dimensions to those normally brewed in the United States, these two Innis & Gunn brews are worth seeking out.

Monday, October 13, 2014

"The Evolution of Organic Beer" in Adventure Sports Journal

Bison Brewing's Dan Del Grande
The short 15 year history of organic beer in California is an interesting one.  Bison Brewing's Daniel Del Grande was instrumental in organizing a small band of organic brewers to spark the organic hop growing industry.  I also found it rather eye-opening that a very small shift in organic beer consumption in California could remove tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides from the eco-system.  You can read the story of organic beer for yourself in the current issue of Adventure Sports Journal by following this link.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Five Weeks to the Big Sur Half-Marathon: Time to regroup a little?

The Glide Floss Bridge to Bridge 12k started at San Francisco's
Ferry Building, as this contrived photo indicates
Wait a minute, didn't I say I'd stop doing these posts.  OK, it's five weeks to go before the Big Sur Half-Marathon and hitting a goal of sub 1:22, and like many situations, they could be better, but they could also be worse.

For example, last week, I ran the Glide Floss Bridge to Bridge 12k, which starts from San Francisco's Ferry Building, near the Bay Bridge, and runs along the San Francisco coast to the Golden Gate Bridge, before doubling back and finishing in near Fort Mason.    I was hoping to finish in under 46 minutes, under 6:10 per mile pace for the 7.45 mile race but that just wasn't in the cards. The first couple mile were around 6:10 pace, but a decent headwind off the San Francisco Bay and not feeling quite sharp despite a mini-taper turned things into one of those grind it out sort of races where you just have to keep working hard to maintain pace.  Complicating things was that plenty of Sunday morning runners crowded the running course so it got to be a bit of a challenge dodging all the different runners and figuring who was out for their Sunday morning run and who was racing.

There's no better sight than an empty row of pristine
porta-potties on race morning
Fighting through the last couple miles, I reeled in this young whippersnapper in the 16 and under age group at mile seven, but he wouldn't go away.  Extending a lead of maybe 30 yard, I could hear him charging back in hopes to catch me at the finish. I basically have no speed what so-ever so as he broke into a sprint to catch me, Lumbering towards the finish line a little faster, I just held him off  at the finish line, coming across in 46:52.    I may be 47, but I still have a few bullets left.  (Yeah right.)

The 46:52 time translates to an overall pace was 6:18 per mile for the relatively flat 7.45 mile course, suggesting my goal of 6:15 per mile pace for the 13.1 mile distance at the Big Sur Half-Marathon in six weeks is going to be a challenge.

Overall, the last couple weeks I've felt a bit worn out.  Work has gotten harder lately and a family trip to Yosemite was awesome, was another non-running friendly stress.  So it's time to reevaluate, and maybe back off a little bit over the next four critical weeks of training leading up to the half-marathon.   The good news is that my legs are pretty intact, no soreness or injuries.   You have to work hard to run fast, but it's also important to do all that hard work smartly.  Backing off a little to keep things fresh seems like the right thing to do.