Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rambling Reviews 6.30.2015: Summer Beers from Anchor, Gordon Biersch and Santa Clara Valley

Summer is now officially upon us, so time to ramble about some of the lighter brews especially great for this time of year.  Good summer beers are underrated, possessing enough complexity and depth to draw you in if you care to, which can be easily ignored if all you want to do is cool off.

First up, Anchor Brewing Summer Wheat.  In the past, I was never a fan of this beer. That's changed now that Anchor's tweaked the recipe. The earlier version was a little bland for my taste, a pretty one-note wheat beer with nothing particularly to recommend about it. Anchor's now jazzed it up with some subtle hop additions, including dry-hopping it with Simcoe. The result is a crisp, dry beer with some tartness from the wheat and citrus, lemony character from the additional hops giving the beer some extra depth. Now I'm a fan.

Next up is Gordon Biersch Sommerbrau, a Kolsch.  Their are plenty of Kolch's out there, some rather light and ordinary.  As Gordon Biersch brewmaster says in a press release, "Kolsch is such a unique style and is so challenging to brew." No place to hide any off flavors in a Kolsch.  The surprisingly sturdy underlying malt with some wheat tanginess finishes a little earthy.  Lot's of subtle things going on here, and I like the little extra malt omph you don't always see in this style.

Finally, when Santa Clara Valley Brewing's tap room opened, I high-tailed it down there the first chance I got and tried, among other things, their Little Orchard Saison.  Lot's of spice gives it some zip with some yeasty undertones for balance.  Not a deep review, but I liked it so much, I was just enjoying it rather than scribbling down a bunch of tasting notes, OK?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

10 Barrel Brewing's SF Bay Area Roll-out and acquisition by Anheuser-Busch: A chat with brewery co-founder Chris Cox

10 Barrel co-founders Chris Cox, Garret Wales, and Jeremy Cox
(10 Barrel Brewing photo)
Their beer won awards and plenty of raves on websites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. But the biggest news 10 Barrel Brewing made was being acquired by Anheuser-Busch (A-B) last November.  Now this Bend, OR brewery is rolling out their beer into the San Francisco Bay Area. That's right, technically the same outfit, A-B InBev, that brought you Lime-a-Rita now brings a brewery known for eclectic experimental beers to the Bay Area.  Let that sink in for a moment.

So what sort of beers can we expect from 10 Barrel here in Northern California? And how has the A-B acquisition factored into all of this?  I spent a few minutes chatting with 10 Barrel co-founder Chris Cox about these and other questions and here's what he had to say.

Tell us about your Northern California Roll Out.  What beers will we see?
We’ve been planning to move into Northern California for two years. We came down June 9th to San Francisco to introduce our beers to the area and are excited about the next time we can come down to the Bay Area and have some fun. There will be four beers to start with in the Bay Area.  First, will be our flagship Apocalypse IPA. You can also find our Joe IPA and DUB, a Double IPA, and Cucumber Crush, part of our Crush series. We’re coming down to the Bay Area with our best.

Cucumber Crush sounds interesting.  How did that happen?  What motivated you to think "cucumber" and "sour" together and say “Let’s go for it?”
The credit goes to our brewers. Tonya Corbett runs our Sour program and we have a “Crush” series where we continually add fruit additions to the barrel during the fermentation.  For this one, we started with a Berliner Wiesse and added cucumber to it. It has a really refreshingly light sourness, and definitely a good "after work out" beer.

How did the A-B acquisition affect your plans to distribute into the Bay Area?
It didn’t affect the roll-out. Actually, the acquisition probably set it back a couple months since a lot of things were put on hold initially once the deal closed. We really like the Bay Area and we’re looking forward to coming down often. It gives us the chance to eat some really good food and drink some of the other great beers brewed in the Bay Area.

What does 10 Barrel have to offer to Northern California that already has plenty of good breweries?
We think we have great beer, too. We’re just looking to come down, sell some beer and have some fun. What’s fun for us is to get involved in communities where there’s a lot of good craft beer.  We just started distribution in Colorado for the same reason. That’s fine with our parent A-B, as they haven’t given us any sales targets.

Really? Corporations always have goals and sales targets. A-B really doesn’t give you sales targets for these roll-outs?
A-B works with us as advisers and they help support us a lot with distribution. As regards to goals and sales, we do the same things today we did last year. We’re actually less aggressive at sales than we were a year ago and just as focused on the beer and really ingraining ourselves in each market. All the decisions remain here in Bend and its business as usual. They’ve gotten involved in a number of critical business matters than don’t have a lot to do with actually brewing the beer. It’s given our team the opportunity to really focus on the beer and not on things like accounting or buying glass in volume quantities. The A-B acquisition allows us to focus more on the things that got us started brewing beer in the first place.
Inside 10 Barrel's Bend Brewery
(10 Barrel Brewing photo)

Now that it’s been over six months since A-B acquired 10 Barrel, how else have things changed? Any surprises?
Well, I do attend more meetings and participate in more conference calls than I used to. There's that.

One great thing is it allows us to source raw materials that we couldn’t get before. We used to brew Joe IPA only in small quantities at our brewpub in Boise because we couldn’t get enough hops for larger production batches. A-B helped us get the quantities of hops we needed so we could brew in larger volumes so more people can drink it. Joe IPA has gone on to win Gold in the American India Pale Ale category at the North American Beer Awards and fourth in the National Beer Championships this year.

Any beers besides the four you mentioned we’ll see in Bay Area you can talk about?
There are three or four other beers we’re trying to get approved for sale down here. One of them you’ll certainly see in the Bay Area is Pub Beer, an American Craft Lager. You can see we give our beers really imaginative names.

Chris Cox is clearly enjoying this honeymoon period with A-B, sounding relaxed and very confident over the phone during the interview. While "selling some beer and having fun" may be sufficient to A-B management for now, there will likely come a day when A-B's investors start asking tough questions about the 10 Barrel acquisition to A-B executives. Answers like "Well, they're selling some beer and having fun" probably aren't going to go over too well on Wall Street.  But it's important to realize the size of the 10 Barrel acquisition is basically a rounding error on A-B's spreadsheets, with A-B having far less to gain by squeezing a few extra dollars out of 10 Barrel through heavy handed management tactics then they would lose from the negative fall-out from very public acquisition failure. With that in mind, A-B's hands off approach makes a lot of sense.

There's so much historic fear and loathing directed toward A-B in the craft brewing community the automatic reaction to this and other similar A-B acquisitions was that A-B would simply gut the brewery and dumb down the beer. Few considered the opposite outcome, where A-B would provide resources otherwise unavailable to the smaller brewery to allow it to really prosper. Whether the former or the latter happens with 10 Barrel is still an open question.  The good news for the Bay Area beer community is that we get to try some new highly acclaimed beers and ultimately get to vote on the success or failure of A-B's acquisition of 10 Barrel with our pint glasses.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Santa Clara Valley Brewing Tap Room Opens

It's a development that's starting to get routine, yet hardly anyone is tired of.  Another South Bay brewery, Santa Clara Valley Brewing  has opened a tap room in the same South San Jose industrial region where Strike Brewing and Hermitage Brewing have theres, and Clandestine Brewing came and went.  (We all hope Clandestine re-opens in San Jose, but that is another story.)  Does this mean San Jose has reached "tap room critical mass" to become a beer destination?  Perhaps.  At any rate, there's another place to go in the city for good local beer in the South Bay, and that's good enough for me.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A lot more than 21st Amendment's Brewery is launching in San Leandro

21st Amendment's Shaun O'Sullivan and Nico Freccia cheer
the opening of their new brewery
Honestly, from the outside it doesn't look like much.  21st Amendment's new brewery in San Leandro is one of the most forgettable, drab buildings in a dusty industrial region full of them A pair of white grain silos is the only outside evidence beer is brewed within.  Located just south of the Oakland Airport in non-descript San Leandro, the place once housed a Kellogg factory pumping out boxes of Pop-Tarts and Raisin Bran for years until closing in 1997. After that, it was used periodically for warehouse space. That's until 21st Amendment came by and decided this was the place they'd locate their main production brewery as part of their expansion plans, and on June 11, 2015 they dedicated the new brewery with a big ribbon cutting ceremony.

San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter gave a speech, as did brewery co-founders Nico Freccia and Shaun O'Sullivan.  Then, hoisting over-sized scissors and posing for the cameras, Freccia and O'Sullivan cut the ceremonial ribbon to hearty cheers and loud toasts with multicolored cans of 21st Amendment favorites "Brew Free or Die", "Down to Earth" and "Watermelon Wheat" held high in the air.

San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter says a few words
Speeches at events like these are often cliche'd and forgettable. That wasn't the case here. Shaun and Nico talked how pre-Prohibition breweries were hubs of social and cultural life in San Francisco until Prohibition wiped that out.  To signify their goal of creating a brewery that would become part of the community structure as those early breweries were, they named their brewery after the Constitutional Amendment that effectively repealed prohibition, the 21st.  And indeed, the 21st Amendment Brewpub achieved this goal in San Francisco for the nearly two decades of its existence.  Now they're considerably raising these stakes with their second and much larger brewery in San Leandro, where brewing beer is just part of the plan.

Not only will 21st Amendment eventually brew 75,000 barrels annually at this facility, they'll open both a tap room, a restaurant, and even a community meeting center.  Plenty of breweries have drawn people into industrial spaces they would never otherwise venture into for pints of well crafted beer, including Drake's Brewing, located just a block away in San Leandro.  21st Amendment's ambitious plans greatly eclipse this tried and true "brewery and a tap room" model.

Needless to say, San Leandro public officials were far more excited about the potential of 21st Amendment's brewery than they would be for the opening of a dry wall warehouse.  I struck up a conversation with San Leandro Vice Mayor Jim Prola who couldn't contain his enthusiasm for how he felt this brewery would support an ongoing San Leandro waterfront development and the prospect 21st Amendment supporting of local charities and non-profits with "pint nights", as Drake's already does.  Of course, he must also like all the jobs and tax dollars the brewery will generate.

Can 21st Amendment successfully create an even bigger community meeting place in this tired looking industrial park than they did in cosmopolitan San Francisco?   It's very possible their grand dreams may not be fully realized.   But I'll say this:  Beer has long been proven as a powerful social force.

I'll leave you with a few pictures from the festivities.

From the outside, the brewery has a rather drab and unexciting look

In the not too distant future, this will be a tap room

Some impressive looking brewing equipment

Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan showing off the new
brewery to guests

More of the same

A maze of metal

More shiny, brand spanking new brewing equipment

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Session Beer Stories in Adventure Sports Journal

One of the things I like most about talking with brewers about is most of their beers have a good story behind them.  That was the case the article on session beer in the current version of Adventure Sports Journal that's out now.  I spoke with Anderson Valley's Fal Allen, Strike Brewing's Drew Ehrlich, and 21st Amendment's Shaun O'Sullivan about how their session beers came to be.  You can read the online version here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Tour of the Anchor Brewery from Brewmaster Mark Carpenter

Getting a tour from Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter is not unlike getting a tour of a modern automobile factory from Henry Ford.  So much has changed in American brewing since Fritz Maytag hired Mark Carpenter in 1971, and yet the beers are every bit as relevant today as they were then.  With no prior brewing experience, Carpenter went on to help develop and brew beers like Anchor Liberty Ale, Anchor's Our Christmas Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine and of course, the iconic Anchor Steam. I find it amazing how forty years later how these influential beers changed a brewing industry, yet still hold up to the very best of what today's multitude of highly skilled brewers have to offer.

I spent a recent evening on an tour with a number of bloggers, tweeters Instagrammers, and other social media types evidently invited help to create more awareness for Anchor.  While some hovered around the hors d'oeurves, angling for a dramatic photograph of a plate of mushroom sushi or stared intently into their phones, Mark Carpenter grabbed most everyone's precious and limited attention just talking about the early days at Anchor.  Back then, Anchor used food coloring as part of the legacy recipe Maytag inherited with the brewery.  If some customers thought it wasn't dark enough, they'd just pour more food coloring in. To learn actual traditional brewing techniques, Mark Carpenter took trips with Fritz Maytag to Europe to visit breweries. Today, Carpenter proudly told the audience Europeans regularly pass through the Anchor Brewery to visit one of the sources of America's brewing revolution.

Carpenter had no shortage of entertaining answers to questions with his refreshing "I'm too old to give a damn what people think" attitude. When did he realize craft beer had a future?  "Not at first, our beer was only sold in counter-culture bars," recalled Carpenter. "Then, I went to this fancy place called Henry Denton's in the 80's that was blowing through kegs of Anchor Steam.  That's when I realized this beer had a wider audience." What does he think about taking test batches of beer to beer festivals to try new recipes?  "People are tasting your beer right in front of you so they always say nice things.  You don't learn much."  How about getting ideas from distributors?  "All distributors care about is what's hot.  They just want you to brew something to follow the current hot trend." What about all the new breweries coming online?  "We had to distribute widely just to find a market. Today, breweries don't have to do that, they can find a large enough market locally." I just stood there trying to absorb it all, although I did take a moment to lobby Mark about reviving the discontinued Anchor Bock.

I remember my first Anchor Steam twenty-five years ago. I was trying to get back with old girlfriend who introduced me to it at some yuppie fern bar in St. Louis. It struck me at first sip, with its drinkable complexity unlike all the bland light lagers I gulped through college. Things didn't work out with her, but I began a life-long affair with Anchor Steam. All I can say after meeting the man behind the beer is "Mark, thanks for all the great beer, and the memories that went with it."

Monday, June 8, 2015

Campbell Brewing Re-booted: Intriguing, yet incomplete

Campbell Brewing Company had long maintained awkward looking co-existence with The Sonoma Chicken Coop at its Downtown Campbell location.  Tucked back in the corner, it seemed somewhat tacked on to the larger casual chicken and pizza restaurant.  That changed this spring when Campbell Brewing took over the entire Campbell location.  After the place shut down for a couple months for remodeling, it re-opened in late May as a brewpub in its own right.

I was curious to see how Campbell Brewing, free of their Sonoma Chicken Coop committments, would emerge as a free standing brewery.  For years, I found their beers to be pretty hit or miss.  Sure, they won a couple Great American Beer Festival awards, and some of their special releases were excellent.  However, I found most of their standard line-up to be pretty ordinary.  Since it's only a fifteen minute walk from where I live, I was eager to check the place out and see how the brewery would emerge uninhibited from the Sonoma Chicken Coop ownership.

Unfortunately, the emergence of Campbell Brewing is on pause since Brewmaster Jim Turturici has left the company.  So for now, Campbell Brewing is actually not a brewery and is currently looking for a Brewmaster and of the beers pouring right now our guest taps.  On a Sunday evening, two weeks after the place opened, my wife and I found plenty of interesting beers to try, although there was a surprisingly Southern California dominance to the tap list.  But give them credit with coming up with a tap list accessible to the craft beer curious while simultaneously satisfying the hard core beer geek with a number of inspired choices on their list.

As for the food, it's a pretty good barbecue place if you ask me.  An excellent appetizer of fried green tomatoes were crisp on the outside, juicy on the inside and jazzed up with a zippy, spicy dipping sauce.  The barbecue chicken I ordered was pretty solid.  It was served with a barbecue sauce a little sweeter than my taste, but the sauce still hit a lot of good sweet and spicey notes.  Collard greens can be a limp, tasteless side item but by adding some mustard greens, Campbell Brewing turned it into a lively side dish.  I wish I could say the same about the baked beans which were bland and pasty.  That said, it was a pretty good plate of barbecue.
Going for the de-constructed look, Campbell Brewing
serves up a good plate of barbecue

Being open just two weeks, there were some service glitches which the friendly staff resolved quickly and effectively.  Everyone around us seemed to be having a good time and the new interior is airy and more inviting.  I'd have to say the place seems less family friendly than the old Sonoma Chicken Coop but I could still see bringing my 12 and 14 year old kids here.  A couple large "Sonoma Chicken Coop" signs still hanging outside suggest, if only metaphorically, the transition isn't quite finished. I still look forward to the day this place hires a brewer, actually becomes a brewery, and I get to sample some local brews straight from the brewing equipment behind the bar.

The place encouraging, yet incomplete.  That didn't seem to bother the folks around us, and in the bustling restaurant scene in downtown Campbell, a brewpub is a nice fit between the high-brow Liquid Bread gastropub and the very casual Spread sandwich shop.  As of yet, it's fair to say they haven't accomplished what they set out to be yet.  No matter, I'll be rooting for them, and will definitely be back.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Session #100: Why has the Gose re-emerged in United States?

One of the more unexpected developments in America's brewing landscape is the re-emergence of the nearly discontinued Gose style. With its odd sour-salty balance, this obscure German style seems like quaint historical brewing artifact rather than a modern commercial hit.  Yet a few breweries in the United States have found success reviving this style, two of the largest being Northern California's Anderson Valley Brewing and Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing. So when Reuben Gray asked us to write about resurrecting lost beer styles for this month's Session, it got me asking:  Why has the Gose style come back in the United States?

While I'm afraid I can't give a comprehensive answer to the question, I did talk with Anderson Valley Brewing and Boulevard brewing about the origins of their Gose beer and made some interesting discoveries along the way.

I first spoke with Anderson Valley Brewmaster Fal Allen about his brewery's Gose and learned the beer was largely a product of serendipity.  "We really didn't set out to brew this beer in the first place", described Fal Allen of its origins.  "At the time, we were experimenting with a sour mash and someone suggested we try brewing a Gose."  Everyone around the brewery liked it, and after tweaking the recipe four or five times, they released it to much success in 2014.  Anderson Valley has since followed-up their regular Gose with a Blood Orange Gose. Anderson Valley has another Gose with a different spice or fruit addition in the works to be released within the next 12 months which Fal Allen was not ready to talk about it yet.

Then I gave Jeremy Danner over at Boulevard Brewing a call, Jeremy being one of Boulevard's Ambassador Brewers.  He told me Boulevard's Hibiscus Gose started as an employee Christmas present at the end of 2012.  "We usually brew a beer for the employee Christmas present that normally does not have much commercial potential, but something we want to drink," explained Jeremy of this brewery tradition.  Not only was Hibiscus Gose a hit with Boulevard's employees, they took a couple kegs to the brewery tap room and to local beer festivals and discovered it was a big hit there, too.  "We knew we liked it, but it was cool that the public liked it too," exclaimed Jeremy. Boulevard released Hibiscus Gose in 2014 and it's been one of their more successful new releases.

It's only a couple data points, but notice a couple trends.  Both breweries were engaging in an esoteric brewing experiments that seemingly only a brewing wonk could love, yet discovered the general public also enjoyed it.  The other thing to note is that both beers rely on novel, non-traditional ingredients to stand out.  In Boulevard's case, they added Hibiscus to make the beer pink.  Sure, the Hibiscus gives the beer a nice light citrus and cherry character but they wanted to brew a pink beer. Cranberry was considered and discarded because Boulevard had concerns about the sugar content and how it might re-ferment in the bottle.  While Anderson Valley brews a straight Gose, they've gotten a lot of mileage out of their non-traditional Blood Orange variant.  While the Blood Orange adds great flavors and aromas to the beer, Brewmaster Fal Allen wasn't very bashful when he exclaimed "It gives the beer a cool name!"
(Photo from Boulevard Brewing)

My hunch is that we're going to see a lot more long dormant historical beer styles resurrected in the United States for three reasons.  The first reason is none other than most of these old styles taste pretty good in their contemporary revision.  I've sampled all three of these Gose beers as well as other resurrected styles and enjoyed every one of them. All were made by skilled brewers, which certainly helps, but there was a reason why these styles were popular at some point in history, and all these reconstructions made that seem obvious.

The second reason is because information simply travels faster than ever before. In the 19th century, it would take months for a Gose recipe to reach the United States.  In the 20th century, that time reduced to a few days.  Today with a simple mouse click, any enterprising brewer can find a historical recipe in seconds.

Lastly, let's admit that most of the 3,000+ breweries in the United States are looking to do something new and original to stand out from the rest. Only so many beers can be brewed with bull testicles  or smoked goat brains before those gimmicks get pretty stale.  So why not go into the past and find some fresh and original from a centuries old forgotten style?

As the modern brewing revolution continues to push the limits of what beer is, a fortunate by-product is further discovery of what beer was.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Rambling Reviews 6.2.2015: Hermitage Equinox, Boulevard's The Dark Truth and Alpine's Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale

Equinox Single Hop IPA in all its glory in
the Hermitage Brewing tap room
Once again, time to ramble on about some beers I've tried lately.

Let's start with Hermitage Brewing's Equinox Single Hop IPA.  And just like 072770, the last hop featured in Hermitage's single hop IPA series, Equinox hop delivers plenty depth and complexity all by itself.   It starts off with flavors of lemon peel with some other light fruity flavors I found pleasing but hard to identify, then finishing rather resiny.  I've said before the Hermitage Single Hop Series showcase hops that generate interesting flavors but don't always work all by themselves, but if Hermitage keeps finding hops like 07270 and Equinox, I'm going to have to stop saying that.

Next up is The Dark Truth Imperial Stout from one of my favorite breweries from the Midwest, Boulevard Brewing Company. The dark truth about the Dark Truth is that its got some good things going on but all the different component never quite click together. There's lots of good bitter chocolate flavors, a little raisin and a very light sweetness but the graininess and a slight alcohol burn make this beer a bit rough around the edges.  It works as a sipping beer, but left me longing for something a bit smoother and coherent.

Finally, there's Alpine Beer Company's Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale that I enjoyed in the recently revamped Campbell Brewing Company in downtown Campbell.  And yes, big surprise, it's really hoppy.  The fresh, pungent piney hops dominate with a little resin thrown in for good measure really work in this very straightforward, direct brew.  This really is an IPA, not a Pale Ale, but I'm not going to get too distracted by stuff like his. One of the more arresting, "Wow!" factor beers I've had in a while.

Alpine's Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale at
Campbell Brewing Company