Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ramblings Reveiws 4.28.2015: Thump Keg's Rye IPA, Guinness Blonde American Lager and Firestone Walker 805

Time again one again to elucidate on the various beers I've sampled lately.  For his installment of Rambling Reviews, I'll look at three brews from breweries hoping to make a big sales volume splash this summer.

First up, Thump Keg Rye IPA.  What's Thump Keg Brewing you ask?    Go to the Thump Keg website and you'll read about their brewmasters moonlighting from their day jobs, suggesting some stealthy nanobrewery.  However, since Thump Keg is actually part of multi-national beverage corporation Diageo's beer portfolio, one suspects the true story is the brewery is a lot less humble involving a more sizeable brewery.  However, the nice Thump Keg PR lady offered me to try a sample Thump Key Rye IPA and free beer is something I rarely turn down.  As for the beer itself, the rye is noticeable, but not prevalent. The brew has a little sweetness and the resiny hops are there but seem a little dialed down which you might expect in a more mass market beer. There's a little vanilla note that seems out of place   Still, the flavors still come together all right but it lacks a certain punch one often gets from this style.  Still, the overall composition works and I enjoyed this.   I'd have another.

Included with Thump Keg's Rye IPA was a couple bottles of Guinness Blonde American Lager, which Guinness released late last year.  I'm not one of those marketing wizards, but when I think of Guinness, a light lager doesn't exactly pop into my mind.  Furthermore, the world seems to have more than enough macro light lagers with most of those are losing their market share.   One wonders why Guinness decided to jump into this crowded and declining market.   Those business questions aside, it's actually a nice beer.  It's got a hefty malt, a slight noticeable apricot fruitiness, a light hop bitterness. Style purists can pick nits that it isn't quite to the lager style, but it worked for me. So what if a Blonde Lager from Guinness goes against expectations?

Speaking of beers going against expectation, what's with Firestone Walker 805?  I see all these impressive looking displays of black cases of beer at my local Safeway and plenty of other places where beer is sold and wonder what's up. Firestone Walker does some amazing things with hops and barrel-aging and so for their big summer marketing push, they hawk a light Blonde Ale?   And it's OK, a nice bready malt with a little fruity ester or slight yeast background.  That's it, there's almost zero hops presence.  The beer seems is much as a let down coming from Firestone Walker as Guinness Blonde American Lager was a pleasant surprise, the Guinness offering having more complexity and depth.  If you ask me, Firestone Walker brewing up a light, neutral Blonde Ale is a lot like Budweiser releasing a barrel-aged Stout.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Strike's Drew Ehrlich Talks about Strike Blonde

Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich
(Photo from Strike Brewing) 
As brewers continue to push the envelope with barrel-aging, spices, new hop varietals, exotic spices and weird ingredients like oysters or their own beard yeast, it only makes beers like Strike Brewing's Blonde seem brilliantly unique in their simplicity.   Strike Blonde is part of Strike Brewing's focus on session beers and its minimalist combination of light malt with a little hops is actually what I find most appealing about it.   I spent some time talking with Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich about his Blonde. It turns out to be one of his originals, going way back to his home brewing days.

"I had a bunch of friends into the light lager craze, and I wanted to brew something that wasn’t going to scare them away," explains Ehrlich of how he came up with the recipe.  "So I used pretty simple malt and added a little hops at the end to give them a little something extra they weren’t getting from what they usually drank." 

What I find makes Strike Blonde work is the light earthy bitterness at the finish. Ehrlich accomplishes this with Cascade hops he adds midway through the boil. "It’s pretty standard brewing practice that adding hops at the beginning of the boil adds bitterness, adding them midway through the boil adds flavor and towards the end of the boil adds aroma," explains Ehrlich.  "So midway and towards the end of the boil I add Cascade hops to give it a bitterness you might not have with a super light beer."

Session beers like blonde ales are actually difficult to brew, as there's no place to hide any brewing flaw in a light ale.  As for Strike Blonde, Ehrlich doesn't quite see it that way.  "I wouldn’t say it’s simple to brew, I wouldn’t say it’s hard, either.  I had to adjust the recipe twice, the first time when I started brewing it at Hermitage Brewing when Strike was first started contract brewing there.  When we at Strike opened our own brewery, I had to tweak it again.  All brewing systems have their own quirks and I had to adjust the way I brew on each system to what was originally envisioned."

Session beers are becoming more popular these days, but Strike Brewing was into session beers from the very beginning way back in 2010 when the brewery first started.  "We really enjoy session beers, great for drinking a few with your friends without getting wasted and we love session beers for that," says Ehrlich.   "They’re great for people who are active or working out, who want a beer at the end.   Session beers give them lots of flavor without all the alcohol.  Session beers are good social beers, that’s why we strive to have a lot of good session beer available at any given time."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clandestine Brewing in Edible Silicon Valley

Clandestine Brewing
posed one of the more challenging breweries to write about. Most breweries have just one brewmaster, a standard line-up of maybe 5-6 beers, and it's own history.  Clandestine has four brewers, numerous beers in a constantly changing line-up, and it's own intriguing history. Add that all four brewers bring their unique stamp to the place and that Clandenstine is part of the recently developing South Bay Brewing scene and it was particularly difficult to parse all that rich material into something under 1,000 words.  The result, which I'm proud of, but doesn't due the brewery justice, is in the current print version of Edible Silicon Valley, and here is a link to the online version. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Springing forward into the racing thing again

After the Big Sur Half-Marathon in Monterrey last November, I found myself pretty burned out from racing.   But thankfully not from running.   In the five months since that race,I've rediscovered that running without some impending race hanging over my head is rather enjoyable.  If I have a good run, that's nice, and if I have a bad run, oh well, there's always tomorrow.  I've done some hard workouts over the past couple months, but with no race on the horizon, it was never critical to run them fast, even though they all went pretty well.  Surprisingly, the best part about all this was that on the easy days, it wasn't critical to ensure I'd recover for the next hard workout.  Easy days, were well, easy days.

But of course, the racing bug hit finally hit and now well into 2015, it was time to lace up the racing flats and jump into the Spring Forward 10k, a little charity race held yesterday in Mountain View. Having already signed up for San Francisco's Bay to Breakers next month and Wharf to Wharf held in Santa Cruz this July, it seemed time to get myself into a tune-up race and get back into the flow of racing again. The first race of each year always has a built in inherent optimism to it  If the race goes well, it's reassuring to think, "Yep, everything's on track for a good year".   If things don't go so well, then there's always the reassurance that it's just the first race, and there's plenty of time to get better.

As for yesterday, I'm glad I ran it for no other reason that it provided a necessary relearning experience.  For some reason, I wore my standard stop-watch rather than my GPS watch which tells me pretty accurately how far and fast I'm running at any given moment.  That proved to be a bit of a mistake as many of the mile markers were clearly not accurate.  I went out easy for the first mile, but it's hard to believe I covered the first mile in 7:19 pace.   More likely, I was at least a minute faster than that.  Even more unlikely that I blitzed a 5:10 mile between miles 3 and 4.   

My shoe came untied about 1 1/2 miles into the race, which caused me to lose 15-20 seconds retying it.   Still, I fought the good fight and held pace pretty well throughout the whole course and even had a decent kick at the end.  Looks like some of those track workouts I've been doing are starting to pay off.

I was hoping to finish under 39 minutes and crossing the finish line and looking down at my stop watch and seeing 38:35 was initially pretty satisfying.  But then, the guy ahead of me told me the course was at least 0.1 of a mile short according to his GPS watch, and most likely that 38:35 was more like a 39:00+ 10 k.  That's OK, there's plenty of time to get better before Bay to Breakers next month.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rambling Recommendations 4.17.2105: St. Archers, 21st Amendment's Down to Earth and a Ninkasi-Devil's Backbone Collaboration

Time again for more ramblings on some new beers I recently tried.

First up, Saint Archer Pale Ale.  San Diego's Saint Archer Brewery has been making a might big push to invade on Northern California turf.  They must have spent a pretty penny with their large display at this year's SF Beer Week opening gala and their beer has been showing up all over Northern California. You see more and more breweries riding the big craft brewing wave with pretty aggressive expansion plans and Saint Archer is definitely one of those. Yes, I feel a little NorCal vs.SoCal animosity at play when some big time interloper from San Diego starts muscling into the Bay Area, but figured it was time to finally break down and actually try one of their beers. The Pale Ale seemed to be the best place to start. All I can say is "Wow! That's a mighty good Pale Ale."    It's almost IPA-like, but its solid, neutral malt foundation still balances the generous additions of hops.  The hops do all the heavy lifting in the flavor department with some pineyness, fresh flavors of grapefruit peel with a little wet washcloth dankness to bring it all together. Complex, yet drinkable, it's beers like this give me plenty of faith for the future of Pale Ales.

Next is Down to Earth which 21st Amendment launched to a some fanfare. Unable to resist the temptation of brewing a Session IPA, 21st Amendment apparently replaced a long time favorite of mine, Bitter American, with Down to Earth as the session beer in their line-up.  (At least I can no longer find Bitter American listed on the 21st Amendment website.)  It seems the monkey trapped up in a spaceship on the Bitter American label art has landed on some peaceful island and is shown happily relaxing in a hammock on the can of Down to Earth.   I wouldn't say the progression of Bitter American has the same dramatic improvement as the monkey's wel being, but Down to Earth has an awful lot going for it. For starters, there were lots of great tropical aromas when I opened the can. It's got a grassy undertone and flavors of mango and grapefruit peel that threaten to overwhelm the malt, but don't quite do so. I'm going to miss Bitter American if it's gone for good. As for "Down to Earth", let's just say I'm a fan.

Finally, we come to "The Devil Went Down to Oregon", quite possibly the greatest beer named after a horrendously overplayed country song from the 80's.  It's a collaboration brew between Oregon's Ninkasi Brewing and Virginia's Devil's Backbone Brewing Companies.  Collaboration beers often become the product of a couple excited brewers running amok at the brew kettle to create a "can you top this" beer. This is no different.  According to the press release, this beer is brewed in the Roggenbier style, a old, largely forgotten German style brewed with West Coast ingredients.  On the bottle, it says "Imperial Dark Rye Ale".  Whatever it is, all the different flavors find a way to play nice and it all really comes together.   The malt is creamy, with a little sweetness, some nuttiness and pepperiness, with deep earthy, chocolate flavors with a grassy hop finish.  I'm not sure what's more impressive, how it tastes or how all those ingredients harmonize together.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Anderson Valley's Fal Allen Talks About Highway 128 Gose

Fal Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing
(photo from Anderson Valley Brewing)
One of the more unexpected brewing success stories of the past year was the unlikely popularity of Anderson Valley Brewing's "The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose", released last year for package sale as part of their Highway 128 Session Series.  If it wasn't surprising enough that a Gose, a nearly extinct German style would be a hit, its odd combination of sour and salty flavors is also not something that immediately sounds like a winning combination. Yet, somehow, the light malt, sour and salty flavors coupled with a low 4.2% alcohol by volume all came together to create a novel and highly refreshing brew. A little later, Anderson Valley added blood orange to the mix and scored another hit with their Blood Orange Gose.

So why did Anderson Valley even think about brewing the obscure Gose style in the first place? How was unlikely flavor combination of sour, salty, and blood orange discovered?  Are there more riffs on the Gose style in the works?  I spoke for a few minutes with Anderson Valley's Head Brewmaster Fal Allen to discuss both the genesis and future directions of Anderson Valley's Gose.

"We didn’t really set out to brew this beer in the first place, " explained Allen.  "At the time, we were experimenting with a sour mash and someone suggested we try brewing a Gose.  Only a couple breweries in Germany were brewing this style at the time.  So we tried that and we all liked it."  Of course, with most beers, there's a process to tweaking the recipe to get the final brew.  "It took us about 4 or 5 months and 4 or 5 test batches to finally get the recipe," recalls Allen.  "It wasn’t too difficult figuring out the grain bill and hops for the beer.  The bigger challenge was determining how sour or salty to make it, and what level of “funkiness” it should have."

Fal Allen takes a highly democratic approach in the development of all Anderson Valley beers, soliciting input from all of his brewers to determine the final recipe.  "I find it important in getting all the different points of view so the resulting beer appeals to wide spectrum," explained Allen.  "If it were just me doing the tasting, I’d end up brewing beers I like, but maybe not a lot of other people would."

The Gose gets is light sour taste from lactic acid bacteria, which is not something a brewery would usually want in its brewhouse infecting all the other beers.  So Allen is careful to create the sour flavor in the brew kettle using a long, eight hour process and then thoroughly boiling the wort to ensure all that bacteria is killed off.

As for how blood orange found its way into Anderson Valley's Gose, with the success of the original Gose, Allen started experimenting with other additions.   He tried different spices, and had high hopes for a tamarind Gose, which turned out to be a disaster.  "Tamarind is also sour, and sour on sour is just too much."  He also tried tangerine and grapefruit, but found blood orange created better flavors and aromas.  And as Allen enthusiastically added, "It gives the beer a cool name!" In case you were wondering, Anderson Valley does indeed have another version of Gose in the works to be released within a year from now. They just aren't ready to talk any more about it yet.

One of more exciting revelations from America's recent brewing revolution is that the seemingly simple beverage of beer has been taken new and unexpected direction.  Anderson Valley's Gose and Blood Orange Gose are simply recent proof of that.

(It should be noted the author enjoyed an Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose while writing this article.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Session #98: Are Bottles or Cans Better for the Environment?

For this month's Session, Nathan Pierce at Micro Brewr asks us to give our preferences on either Bottles or Cans from our particular point of view. As far as I'm concerned, plenty of beers come and go,  but we've just got one planet. So the question for me boils down to whether bottles or cans are better for the environment?

Like with many questions, the answer turns out to be complicated. Many breweries trumpet their beers packaged in cans as better for the environment than bottles. However, this is based on the simplistic argument that since cans are lighter, they require less energy to transport. While true, this overlooks the fact that it takes about twice as much energy to manufacture a can as it does a bottle. In addition, the bauxite mining required to produce aluminum involves a number of toxic chemicals while glass manufacturing is comparatively cleaner.  The environmental scales tip back towards aluminum due to the fact that the average aluminum can contains roughly 40% recycled content while for bottles, it's between 20-30%.

So which is better for the environment?  No one really knows.  New Belgium Brewery devotes considerable efforts towards environmental sustainability in their business, and they declare no winner in this debate.  An interesting article I found online quoting David Allaway, a solid waste policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, doubts the energy savings of transporting cans offset the additional energy required to produce them.   In the article, Allaway asserts  "The environmental impact is dominated by what it takes to make it in the first place.  When you recycle the aluminum you significantly reduce the impact of making it.  But that doesn't mean the aluminum can you're buying is made from 100 percent recycled aluminum.  Most of the damage is done once you buy a product.  To really understand the environmental impacts you have to look upstream.  Only then can you have a decent understanding of what's the better choice."

Cans or bottles?  My choice is neither.  Kegs are more environmentally sustainable than either of them, especially since they are used multiple times.  Growlers are also a better choice environmentally since they are also reusable.  Single use packaging of bottles or cans is actually recent historical phenomenon.  Before World War II, nearly all beer and soft drinks were sold in refillable bottles.  Today, that number is only 6%, which the state of Massachusetts leading the United States with a rate of 16%.  It is my hope in the not too distant future, beer will be consumed from refillable containers, which are far more environmentally sustainable than the current single use packaging.  Most likely in the future, people will look back on our current cans and bottles as a quaint relics of our unsustainable times.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Greening of Anheuser-Busch

This windmill provides power for the Anheuser-Busch Fairfield Brewery
People say a lot of things about Anheuser-Busch.   Plenty sneer at their products, caling them watery and tasteless but they still sell more beer than any other American brewery. They've gotten a reputation as a big evil corporate Goliath, but there's another side of Anheuser-Busch few know about.

Anheuser-Busch is serious about reducing their impact on the environment.  A lot of this is on display at their brewery in Fairfield, CA which I visited late last year. Intrigued by what I saw, I contacted Anheuser-Busch to learn more.  It took a while, but through an e-mail routed through their media relations department, I posed some questions to Damon Waker, a resident engineer at the Fairfield Brewery about the water reduction and alternative energy generation at this facility, and how this is being extended company wide.  Here's what he had to say.

1) What's your involvement in the various environmental initiatives at the Fairfield brewery?
Part of my role is implementing more efficient ways to make the quality beers our customers expect. This includes the resources required to make beer, a significant one being water use which is very important in California as we continue to face drought conditions. 

2) Can you describe the various efforts at the brewery to reduce water usage?  How much did each save?
The Fairfield brewery has reduced its overall water use by 47 percent since 2007. Employee engagement programs that result in new ideas on how to conserve and use water more efficiently is what drives the greatest progress. We also internally designed and implemented ways to reclaim water used in the brewing process and then re-distribute it in operations areas, such as cooling towers. The brewery also recycles more than 99 percent of the solid waste used in the brewing and packaging processes.

3) Can you describe the efforts for alternative energy sources at the brewery? 
The expansion of alternative energy sourcing is part of Anheuser-Busch’s commitment to environmental stewardship from ‘seed to sip.’

The Fairfield brewery’s total alternative energy generation is 4.1 megawatts, or approximately 30 percent of electricity needs from alternative energy.

The Fairfield brewery is an industry leader in generating self-sustaining energy needs through a 7 acre solar array and now two turbines – one completed in 2011 and the second one being completed now.

4) What we the main motivations of these efforts?
Anheuser-Busch has a long history of environmental stewardship, both inside and outside its breweries. 
Alternative energy sources including seven acres of solar arrays, two wind turbines, bio-energy recovery systems (BERS), recycling and water conservation efforts, contribute to making Anheuser-Busch’s Fairfield brewery one of the greenest breweries in the industry.

Water reclamation equipment at the Fairfield Brewery
We want to increase both efficiency and sustainability wherever possible. This is part of our Seed to Sip environmental platform that focuses on reducing water and energy use while increasing efficiency, recycling and reuse across our supply chain. Like most companies, any project we undertake must present a business case in addition to the environmental benefits.

5) What were the challenges in getting these efforts implemented?
Projects that require external partners, like wind turbines, bring a series of challenges as you develop the size and scope of a project and tackle planning stages.  

6) Are there plans to expand these programs at the Fairfield site to other breweries?  
We are always considering ways to increase sustainability while maintaining the quality of our products. We have water conservation plans being enacted across all our breweries as well as efficiency projects looking at energy, reuse and recycling.

Some may claim this is all largely a big corporation cost reduction strategy masquerading as a feel good environmental program.  And you know what, they could be right. But so what?  Environmentalists have claimed for decades that good business and good environmental practices can co-exist.  At the scale of Anheuser-Busch, some pretty serious environmental change is happening at the scale of tens if not hundreds of craft breweries, and they still do it profitably.  That my friends, is beer brewed the hard way.  

There's a lot of A-B beer fermenting away in there.