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.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Strike Brewing Officially Opens its Tap Room

So Strike Brewing opens its tap last Saturday.  I was running a race the next day so went easy on the beer. Nice bumping into a couple friends of mine on the Wolfpack Running Club.  The tap room pours a few beers you can't get anywhere else like a robust Oktoberfest and a Porter, both of which I enjoyed.   A lot of people showed up which was encouraging.  Not a lot to say, just some good beers and good times to spend a couple afternoon hours.  I'll leave you with a few pictures.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Session #92: Is Passion Finding Joy in the Mundane?

For the this month's Session, Jeremy Short at Pintwell asks us to write about how homebrewing impacts our relationship with beer.  I started homebrewing five years ago, making 15-20 batches over that time.   A couple of those brews were awful, most were OK, and maybe three times the malt, hops and yeast combined to somehow create something sublime, causing me to exclaim "Damn, did I just brew this?". As you might expect, homebrewing removed much of the mystery from creating beer.  From homebrewing, I discovered that beer was not created by magic, but by careful treatment of malt, hops, yeast and creating the right conditions to allow them to transform into beer.

I also learned that brewing beer is a royal pain in the ass.  There's always some object, large or small that needs to be sanitized.  I spend long periods blankly staring at a pot of boiling wort and once the beer is brewed and the yeast pitched, I'm left with a messy kitchen to clean up.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy homebrewing. Formulating the recipes, enjoying the final product, and sharing it with others is all fun, and that's what most people enjoy about homebrewing.  But the not-so-fun parts, like all the cleaning and time consuming tediousness of brewing are things I can barely tolerate.   For those reasons, even if I had more time, I wouldn't homebrew that more often.  I'm hardly what you'd call a passionate homebrewer.

Another hobby of mine is running.  Most people say I'm a passionate runner, and they're probably right. Running is often portrayed as basically moving your arms and legs around, feeling great and crossing the finish line with your arms raised in victory.  It really isn't that way at all.  Running involves a lot of long runs, often done in the early morning in solitary anonymity.  It's critical to focus on running form to maintain efficiency and prevent injuries.  One must also venture into lung searing oxygen debt two or three times are week in order to really improve.  Sore feet and tired legs are daily parts of the deal, as well as the occasional unplanned discharged of various bodily fluids.  At lot of people find running tedious, boring and highly uncomfortable.  I love nearly every minute of it.  (OK, maybe not the bodily fluid discharge part.)  I'd have to agree this enjoyment of all things running is not really logical and my brain is uniquely wired such that I can't sit still for five seconds.  Still, there's a lot of people out there just like me.  I get together with like minded individuals Saturday mornings at 7:00 am to run a bunch of laps around a track about as fast as we can go.  It's our idea of a good time. Most people would consider this some type of torture.

Sure, a few brief times a year, there's that thrill at the end of race crossing the finish line.   But this is a small part of running, even if it is the end result of all the hard work.   Of course, sometimes after all that work I have a bad race that produces disappointment rather than elation.   It's nice that running keeps the weight off and is good for my health, but this is just a nice byproduct.  I enjoy the mental discipline of maintaining and concentrating on good form for over an hour at a time.  It's almost meditative and it's hard to explain to those who incredulously ask, "You mean you actually like running?".  As for why I set impossibly high standards for myself and willingly engage in self-abuse, I'd like to keep that between me and my therapist.

This makes me wonder if passionate homebrewers actually enjoy the act of brewing, which when you think about it, is actually about as sexy as cleaning a toilet.  Do passionate homebrewers find staring at the turbulent wort meditative?  Does perpetual cleaning of the equipment create a spiritual feeling of ritual purification for the yeasts to do their thing?  Is the journey of exploring an endless combinations of hops, malt and yeast before finding the exact combination to create the perfect beer the road to homebrewing nirvana?  Or do homebrewing enthusiasts hate all the tedium and cleaning just like me but the thrill of beer creation overrides this in their brains?

Which leads me to wonder:  Does passion for any hobby flow from its pleasures, or does it come from the rare enjoyment of it's most mundane aspects?  You tell me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dan Gordon talks about 25 years at Gordon Biersch in Edible Silicon Valley

One of the many things I did this summer was interview Dan Gordon for an article published in the current issue of Edible Silicon Valley.   I'm especially appreciative of Dan Gordon's time in discussing his 25 years at Gordon Biersch and personally showing me around his brewery.   The result is what I think is one of the best things I've written in my brief part time writing career.  You can read the article online here.