Tuesday, February 24, 2015

More Scenes from the Strike Brewing Tap Room

Nothing earth shattering here.  It had just been too long since I've been at the Strike Brewing tap room.  So I stopped by last weekend and sampled a few of their beers including their excellent Imperial Stout.  Snapped a few pictures with my iPhone which I hope you'll enjoy here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Everywhere is a beer destination...even Las Cruces, New Mexico

De La Vega's Pecan Beer hit the spot on an
afternoon at White Sands.
You see people going around, asking all the time. "What's a good beer destination?".  It's even the subject of the next beer blogging session.

Given the pervasiveness of America's brewing revolution, I say "everywhere" is a good beer destination.  OK, maybe I don't have realy high standards.  Anytime I go someplace new and try something I haven't had before, and it's good, I'm pretty happy with that trip from a beer travel point of view.  Case in point, last week on a family trip in Las Cruces, NM, I pick-up a six-pack of De La Vega's Pecan Beer. And yes, it tastes like pecans, which are widely grown in Southeastern New Mexico.  It's apparently brewed with  roasted malts giving it an amber color, which probably contributes to its nuttiness. It's a little sweet and the pecan flavor was strong, but hardly seemed like a gimmicky novelty beer.

I also tried Marble Brewing's IPA from up the road in Albuquerque.  Nice IPA, hitting all the usual citrus and floral notes.

And of course, no trip to Las Cruces is complete without a stop at High Desert Brewing.  I sampled a Rye Pale Ale, the IPA, and Irish Red.  All of them solid.  Sometimes, you have to leave Northern California just to understand what the beer is to the rest of the country.  Las Cruces is as good a place as any for that.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lost Memories at the SF Beer Week Opening Gala

Inside this building the SF Beer Week Opening Gala is about to begin
The train gently rolls to stop, the doors open, and I begin the 3.5 mile journey from the San Francisco CalTrain station to Fort Mason, site of the SF Beer Week Opening Gala.  It's only drizzling outside, the forecast was for heavy rain.  Unable to find an umbrella when I left home, I put on my red Ohio State University for some protection from the elements.  My dad gave me this hat 26 years ago, handing it to me just before I was about to drive myself and all my stuff from their home in suburban Chicago to start graduate school at Ohio State.  I've worn it all through those years, mostly when I go on runs.

I start speed walking through the damp chaos of late afternoon San Francisco.  The drizzle stops and cutting through a residential area, a couple women in their 30's get out of a car. One looks right at me, and says "O-H".  Why is she talking to me?  Suddenly, I realize she's seen my Ohio State hat, and I blurt out "I-O" in response  Seems she went to Ohio State, too.  I press on.  I consider putting in my will to be buried with this OSU hat.   The image of my elderly corpse, lying in a casket with a bright red OSU cap on my head jumps into my mind.

It starts to rain hard, and I duck into a small coffee shop called The Underground to escape the rain, get something to eat, and charge up my phone.  Heading back outside with only a few blocks to go, I remind myself to start by drinking the low abv beers first at the gala, to make sure in I pace myself.   Just like a race.

I take my place in line the winds around the Fort Mason building complex, the line staying close to the buildings so the awnings shelter everyone from the rain.  Everyone around me is talking to each other.  I manage to strike up a conversation with the people behind me without coming across as some weird, lonely guy. I mention my wife back home to help deliver that point.

The line starts moving forward and I'm in!  I grab my tasting glass, walk around and see Peter Estaniel in front of the Hermitage Brewing stand.  He talks up their barrel aged Sour Pumpernickel Rye Ale, which sounds kind of weird but I don't resist when he pours a very generous sample into my glass. Wow, it's got everything: sour, spice, some oak, lots of smooth maltiness.  It's also got 11% abv and my low alcohol plans haven't gotten off to a good start.

The folks at Hermitage Brewing
After thanking Peter for the beer and wishing him a successful beer week, I tell him "Time for a session beer" before departing.  I get a small glass of something called Screaming Eagle Lager s from Iron Springs. Nice beer, and the meager 3.9% abv makes it even better.  I begin to check out the rest of the floor.

Bison Brewing is pouring Kermit the Hop, an innovative organic beer I've long wanted to try.   A slender woman with short hair dyed lavender fills my glass, and says "Go Buckeyes! O-H!".  I realize that must be Ashley Routson, aka The Beer Wench who also went to Ohio State. A bit startled, I smile and cheer back "I-O".  After a couple more "Go Buckeyes" between us, I move aside so the person behind me can get his glass filled.  Kermit the Hops has all sorts of wonderful hop flavors, an attribute rarely found in organic beers.  It also has something like 9.5% abv and my "start slow" plans are really starting to go out the window.

I drop by Half Moon Bay Brewing's stand and find Maverick's CEO Steve Morgan, and introduce myself.  A consummate Northern California net worker, he wants to introduce me to a couple people, but none of them are around.  He's quite gracious about a couple of recent articles on Maverick's I wrote, and raves about Half Moon Bay's new Imperial IPA, which has something like 139 ibus, and of course, encourages me to try some.  It's an amazing feat of brewing, very drinkable and in balance with it's own hop character. Some how all that bitterness doesn't come across as aggressive, and at something like 8% abv, doesn't seem very boozy either.

Steve introduces me to the Brewmaster of Hop Dogma, which has a small tap room in Half Moon Bay, at the next door stand.  His name is a Dan something-or-rather and Steve urges me to try his Imperial Stout that won some big award at a beer competition in Bend, OR.  I can see why it won, it's a great Imperial Stout.  It checks in a 10.4% abv and my "start slow" plan is officially dead.  I tell Dan I'll need to check out their small tap room in Half Moon Bay and move on.

Steve Donohue of Santa Clara Valley Brewing is holding court nearby.  Everyone knows Steve.  I ask him how his brewery construction and, responding like every brewer I ask this question to, he takes a deep breath and starts muttering about permits.  He tells me "You ought to swing by the place sometime."  I think I will before not too long.

Berkeley's Rare Barrel is pouring some Raspberry Sour that sounds delicious.  At 6.5% abv, it seems like a good direction to go.  It's excellent.

Next up, Discretion Brewing in Santa Cruz.  (OK,it's actually located in Soquel, close enough.)  With my low alcohol strategy officially blown, I ask for the Wheat Wine, a smooth wheat ale at 9-10% abv.  I ask the guy filling my glass, "When can I get bottles of your stuff in San Jose."  He shrugs and says, "Well, right now, we're planning to distribute just in Santa Cruz.  I don't know when we'd get to San Jose."  I get the feeling it will be a long while before Discretion ever shows up in San Jose.

Moseying around the hall, enjoying the Wheat Wine, I'm startled to see fellow beer runner Brian Yaeger down from Portland.  We chat for a few minutes.  He can't get over how many new breweries are in the hall he's never even heard of.  We talk less about beer, and more about our families before moving on our separate ways.

The inevitable time to use the restroom has arrived,  Walking to the back of the hall, a couple sees me and whoops "Go Buckeyes, National Champions!".  Turns out they went to OSU and we talk about beating Oregon in the National Championship Game.

Bladder depleted, the next beer is something from Wood Brewing.  On a hand written index cards, are tap listings like a Pale Ale and IPA.  Then, I spot a tap labelled "Honey with locally foraged herbs". Intrigued, I ask for that.  I joke with the lady pouring it, "Did you just walk into Golden Gate Park and grab a bunch of herbs off the ground?"  Her non-answer to the question suggests that's exactly what happened.  Then, she sees my Ohio State cap and says, "Oh, I lived a year in Columbus."  As for the beer itself, it's light with a very menthol character.  No abv is listed. I just hope it is low.

I bump into fellow South Bay beer writer Andy Lee and chat about our favorite beers of the evening so far. We exchange telephone numbers and talk about meeting up some place for a pint or two.   As is often the case, we cheerfully acknowledge it might be another year before this happens despite our initial enthusiasm.

There were a few other beer samples that evening, but I honestly don't remember too much about them.  I look down at my watch and see it's 9 o'clock.  My head is starting to hurt, another beer sounds like the worst thing in the world and even if I tried to choke one down, my heavily coated tongue wouldn't detect a single flavor.  I fill my glass up with water and stand in a corner to recharge my phone so it still has some life.

A large room filled with 2,000 people drinking beer for three hours becomes a very interesting place. People start bumping into each other much more often.  Others quietly retreat to the back, sitting quietly in heavy silence trying to recover.  The ambient festival noise and background music is increasingly punctuated with goofy laughter and loud high fives.  Glasses begin falling out people's hands, smashing on the floor, eliciting boisterous cheers from the crowd.  It doesn't always look accidental.  It's 9:20, and now seems like a good time to get out.

Walking outside for a cab back to get back to the train station, none is in sight.  I ask the security guy about a cab, and he says they start showing up at ten.  I walk through the parking lot, looking for a cab.  I raise my hand to hail an empty one, but it just continues to drive by.  I keep walking and by this time I think "Screw the cab, I can make it to the station and catch the 10:40 train if I walk fast."

Walking hard through the damp dark yet lively streets of San Francisco the drizzle turns off and on to rain.   I keep checking my watch and a mapping app on my phone, making sure I'm on course and still on time to catch the train.  As I near the station, the winds start to really gust at times, and I grab my OSU cap to keep it from blowing off my head.

Making it to the station with 10 minutes to spare, I duck into the restroom, clutching the OSU hat in my hand before getting on the train.  I text my wife about making the 10:40 train, settle into my chair, and shortly after the train rolls out into the night, fall asleep.

Waking up, I look outside and see we're Redwood City, half way home.  Jolted, I put my hand on top of my head, and realize I'm not wearing my OSU hat.  I stand up, look on the floor, the seat in front me,the seat behind me, and check my pockets a couple times.  Not willing to accept the obvious reality, I check the floor and seats around me again a third time. My OSU hat is gone.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Session #96 : Are Beer Festivals Losing Their Relevance?

For this month's Session, Joan Villar-i-Marti of Birraire asks us to weigh in on the role of festivals in our local brewing scene.  Here in the San Francisco Bay area beer festivals remain popular.   But I have to wonder if they aren't losing their relevance, becoming fairly routine marketing events as the number of alternative options to experience beer explodes exponentially.

The SF Beer Week Opening Gala held today (Feb. 6th)  has never been more popular.  In 2013, 24% of the tickets were sold in the first two weeks.  In 2014, 55% of the tickets were sold in that period and the event sold out roughly three weeks before it started.  This year in just the first 10 days, the entire event sold out several weeks in advance.

But of course, craft beer, at least as defined by the Brewer's Association is growing at strong 15-20% clip so it's not surprising that a beer festival of this magnitude in a strong brewing region is an increasingly hot ticket.  However, as numerous Bay Area brewery tap rooms come online, bars routinely hold tap take-overs and "Meet the Brewer" events, and even gas stations start to have decent beer selections, beer festivals seem to be fading into the overall noise of brewing buzz.  There was a time when beer festivals were the only way certain beers saw the light of day, but that time has passed.

If you don't believe me, consider the Bistro Double IPA Festival held this February 7th in Hayward, CA.   This festival started in 2002 to showcase what was at the time, a little known and commercially risky to style to brew, the Double IPA.  Needless to say, the Double IPA no longer needs any introduction.  You can even pick them up at my local Safeway.  If the Bistro Double IPA Festival ceased to exist, brewers would have no problem showcasing these beers elsewhere and hop heads would have no trouble finding them.   There was a time the Bistro Double IPA Festival was a badly needed breath of fresh air on the brewing scene, giving brewers pushing the limits of hops a chance for their beers to be discovered. Suffice to say, those hop monsters have been sighted.  Given the incredible symphony of beer today, the Bistro Double IPA Festival seems incredibly one note.  

Another factor seemingly working against beer festivals are the breweries themselves.  It's not an active undermining of beer festivals, more of a passive indifference.  It's simply that breweries, being businesses after all, would rather sell beer rather than give it away at festivals.  Breweries used to brew special releases specifically for festivals as a form of marketing.   But with the increasing numbers of Bay Area beer bars and gastropubs, this form marketing is increasingly unnecessary and undesirable. Breweries now have far more outlets to simply sell these kegs and make money.  Even better for the bottom line, more breweries are building on site tap rooms, allowing them completely eliminate the middlemen, maximizing their profits. Having talked to a few Bay Area breweries, some have real concerns about the time, money and people tied up in a heavy beer festival schedule, and scaled back their appearances.  

Finally, let's confront an uncomfortable issue about beer festivals:  There's a lot of alcohol involved.   Sampling 8-10 different beers in four ounce servings adds up to 32-40 fluid ounces of beer, a lot of alcohol considering beers in the 6-10% abv range tend to dominate the selection at beer festivals. Given area beer festivals cost over $50, all those beers still end up being mighty expensive.

As I start pushing 50, I find myself seeking alternatives to explore the area brewing landscape without all that alcohol, and don't think I'm alone.   Thankfully, it's not difficult to find bars, liquor stores and brewery tap rooms that didn't exist only two or three years ago to discover beer without all the alcohol and expense.  As the "craft beer generation" continues to get older, breweries will likely become less reliant on marketing themselves in events involving so much alcohol at such high a cost.

Are beer festivals geek gatherings or beer dissemination?  They undeniably remain a great way to meet other like minded individuals on all things beer as well as discovering new beers and breweries. It just that beer festivals in the San Francisco Bay Area seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fleeting Images of Clandestine Brewing

Before sharing a few pictures I took at Clandestine Brewing, I want to thank them all for their time and cooperation for an article I wrote on the past, present and future of the new brewery to be included in the next issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I spent some on Saturday morning with dWiGhT Mulcahy (yes, that's how he capitalizes his first name) as he brewed a Kolsch, and then the next day on Sunday with Rob Conticello and Colin Kelly as they brewed a Belgian Wit. They provided a lot of great material to tell the story of one the Bay Area brewing scene's most intriguing and unique new breweries.