Monday, April 17, 2017

This blog has moved! Please reset your readers to its new site

Hello all....after several years on blogspot, I've gotten my own domain and moved to Word Press where I'm continuing to ramble on.

Hope to see you over at the new site, and think you'll find it to be a better reading experience.  Please point your readers to:

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Session #122: Imported Hazards

Programming Note: This blog has moved and this will be the last post at this location. Please point your blog readers to the new site:

For this month's Session, Christopher Barnes at "I Think About Beer" asks American bloggers: "What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?"

Hmmmm....I'm not quite sure what this Session is supposed to be about. There are plenty of imported beers that aren't from Europe, and a decent number of imported beers from Europe really can't be described as "traditional European". And of course, we could be here all night just debating what the "craft beer market" is.

Anyway, I like imported beers. Mexican food is better with Pacifico Classico. Sapporo is meant for sushi. Imported beers add an extra note to authenticate these cultural experiences. Unfortunately for beer importers, this often creates a rather limited market. Sapporo released their Premium Black Lager last fall in part to extend their reach in the United States beyond sushi bars, going so far as to tout their beer as "well suited for pairing with a variety of hearty and spicy dishes from around the world, including traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines."  I learned about Sapporo Premium Black recently from a Sapporo representative pitching Sapporo Premium Black as an alternative to drinking Stout on St. Patrick's day. Marketing a Japanese beer to celebrate St. Patrick's Day or to enjoy with Wienerschnitzel seems incredibly desperate. You'd think they'd have a lot more success saying "Sapporo tastes great with burgers" and leaving it there.

As he tends to do with all things these days, President Trump threatens to turn this whole imported beer thing upside down as he contemplates import tariffs. I would not want to be the Director of US Sales for say, a Chinese or Mexican brewery right now. It's probably not easy being a European importer either.

As for traditional European imports our host wants us to talk about, my opinion is they provide a great avenue to learn beer's long European history. I just wish they weren't so damn expensive. Which underlies another problem with imports. Beer is relatively heavy and often sold in breakable glass bottles, neither of which make the product cost effective to ship long distances. Living in Northern California, I can find lots of great beers from local breweries at lower prices. Why buy imports?  

Well, I learned to appreciate how America transformed English Ales by sampling a few English imports. I also learned to appreciate English Ale by taking a short drive to Freewheel Brewing in Redwood City, CA which specializes in cask-conditioned English-style Ales. I've sampled imports from other European countries and think I understand how they taste in their homeland.  I use the word "think" because I often wonder how fresh the product is, travelling all that way and sitting on the shelf until the day I buy it. More than I few times I've been intrigued enough to consider buying an import, only to look closer, notice dust all over the bottle and move on. No point in spending a lot of money on what might be old stale beer.

Our Session host is an import beer manager at a speciality beer distributor. He has a hard job.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

This blog has moved to a new domain

I'll make this short and sweet.  I've gotten my own domain and have moved from Blogger to WordPress.  You'll now find all my ramblings here:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AB InBev's Golden Road to Open a Brewery in Oakland - Can they successfully transplant into the Bay Area?

The East Bay Express article seemed ominous enough. Under the headline "Corporate Beer Overlords AB InBev to Open Golden Road 'Craft' Beer Garden in North Oakland", readers were warned  Golden Road Brewing filed permits with the city of Oakland to open a beer garden on 40th Street between Broadway and Manila Avenue. Golden Road became part of the growing empire of A-B InBev brands late 2015 when they were acquired by the multi-national brewing giant.  The short article ends with a quote from Tom McCormick of the California Craft Brewers Association claiming A-B InBev's takeover of breweries like Golden Road is the biggest threat to the craft beer industry. The article seems little more than a call to arms to be spread on social media to rally the masses against big evil corporate beer.

Fair enough. People should be informed what companies are behind beer brands like Golden Road to make informed choices. But the "big beer evil, local beer good" vibe to the article seems rather dated, especially given the tremendous transformation in the brewing industry in just the past few years and the triumphs of "craft" over large corporate breweries. Still, the message still has a lot of resonance given AB InBev is no longer a lumbering giant resorting to using talking frogs to sell tasteless lagers. In just the past couple years, AB InBev co-opted the craft beer playbook, buying up craft breweries to create a local presence in major markets, acquiring Seattle's Elysian, Oregon's 10 Barrel, and LA's Golden Road as part of that strategy on the West Coast.

Notice there are no Northern California breweries on that list. Over the past couple years, Elysian, 10 Barrel and Golden Road six-packs and tap handles popped up all over the Bay Area, and AB InBev has demonstrably built up a following in the Bay Area with their craft brands. But what's going on in Oakland is a step further than that. By building an actual Golden Road brewery in the Oakland, AB InBev is effectively attempting to establish themselves as a local Bay Area brewery, a plan as diabolical as it is smart. Of course, most people are in favor of things like new beer gardens to go to and new businesses which increase employment, raising these sort of positives about AB InBev's investment in Oakland makes sense, but seems like missing the point.

Of course, the big questions are: "Can AB InBev pull this off?" and "Could they be planning to create breweries in other Bay Area neighborhoods?"  Well, looking at some of the social media comments on the East Bay Express article, success for AB InBev seems like a good bet. While there's plenty of dissent like "Nope, not stepping foot on the premises", I noticed a surprisingly number of counterpoints. "I agree that this seems a great development for North Oakland" wrote one commentor.  AB InBev is muscling into the Bay Area to become a "local" brewery under their craft brand Golden Road, and the questions is not so much can they pull off this audacious feat, but how successful they'll be at it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Rambling Reviews 3.27.2017: New releases from Magnolia, Sapporo, and Alpine

Enjoying a can of Kalifornia Kolsch
on my back patio
This edition of Rambling Reviews features beers from three breweries who successfully persuaded me to sing the praises of their beer to the millions of readers of this blog tuning in breathlessly to learn what beers they should be drinking. That's right, today's reviews are all about free beers sent to me in hopes I would write nice things about them.

We'll start with long time San Francisco brewery Magnolia Brewing, who want you to know their Kalifornia Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA can now be bought in cans, as they roll out their distribution in the San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles areas. That's right, no longer do you need to venture into the Upper Haight neighborhood full of stores selling bongs and Grateful Dead T-shirts to get a fresh pint of Magnolia. I've enjoyed a few pints of Kalifornia Kolsch and rather than go into a detailed flavor decomposition of the brew, let me just tell you this: It's a damn good Kolsch. As for Proving Ground IPA, Brewmaster Dave McLean describes it in a press release as "showcasing a hybrid approach to IPA, marrying an aggressive, American hop profile with an English malt backbone built around our favorite malt, Marris Otter." And indeed this brew has the wonderful solid biscuit-like malt and subdued, leafy, grass hop character one finds in a good English IPA, with some citrus in the background to remind you it comes from California. Magnolia's website claims this IPA checks in at 100 ibu's, but it seems more like 60 in this refreshingly well balanced brew. At any rate, it's not the usual West Coast hops and alcohol explosion. Instead, Proving Ground is a creative yet traditional dimension to the IPA style.

Then there's Sapporo Premium Black Lager. Now I've enjoyed Sapporo's regular Lager with sushi a few times, but it's never really been one of my "go-to" beers. Unfortunately, lot's of other people feel the same way about Sapporo, and they've faced declining sales in the US as the brand is largely limited to Asian restaurants. Sapporo Black Lager, released last fall, is an effort to reverse that trend, which explains in part why Sapporo touts their Black Lager for pairing with "traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines and crème brûlée". One thing going for it is lots of nice chocolate aromas. It's crisp with very deep roasted flavors on a broad spectrum from a little toasty up until the point burnt notes are detectable.  This good news it's mostly bitter chocolate flavors that dominate in the light brew. Nice beer, but will people choose to drink Sapporo Premium Black Lager with Wienerschnitzel or enchiladas? That seems like kind of a stretch.

Finally, we end with Alpine Beer Company's Windows Up IPA, which debuted just this year.  "I am especially excited for our newest IPA addition, Windows Up, to hit the market," excudes Alpine Head Brewer Shawn McIlhenny in a press release.  "It's got big hop aromatic and a really bold flavor profile with very little bitterness; this beer is a home run." Given that Alpine has made their reputation on big hoppy beers, it's no surprise this one is a real dank monster. The good news is there's plenty of complexity and depth to round out all danky, cannabis-ness character, with as some fruity apricot, light tart cherries and piney finish also in the mix. All those big flavors get plenty of support on a solid malt substrate. It's not just a beer crammed with a bunch of big flavors, it's an impressive composition of all those flavors.  Yes, I do believe Alpine hit one out of the park.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Update on Speakeasy: Back up and running but on life support

March 10th, Speakeasy Brewing stunned the Bay Area brewing world by abruptly announcing they were ceasing operations due insolvency. A week later, Speakeasy announced some good news for those rooting for brewery's rebirth when the brewery declared they were resuming operations under receivership. Earlier today, Speakeasy proudly tweeted out they were brewing up a batch of Big Daddy IPA.

I'm not a bankruptcy lawyer, but what I understand receivership to mean is that Speakeasy is allowed to continue to operate under the ownership of their creditor. That most likely is Union Bank, which funded an ambitious and apparently failed expansion to the tune of 7.5 million dollars in 2015. So while Speakeasy is back to brewing beer, their future is no longer in the hands of CEO and co-founder Forest Gray. Instead, it's largely up to whatever Union Bank thinks is the best way to recover due to them for their unpaid loan. So for the near term, Speakeasy will be running again as Union Bank allows the company to continue to brew again to help pay off their debts. 

But in the long term, I envision three likely scenarios, and two of them aren't going to make most Speakeasy fans happy.

1) Union Bank decides to shut down Speakeasy, and sells off all assets of Speakeasy (the brewing equipment, the tap room) to recover what they're owed on the loan. Speakeasy dies.

2) Union Bank decides to sell Speakeasy to a private investment group, mostly likely one that invests in breweries, wineries, and/or distilleries. This investment group takes over the brewery and gets it up and running again to get the best return on their investment.  Yay! Speakeasy lives!

3) Union Bank decides to sell Speakeasy to a large industrial brewery like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and some other large brewing concern eager to to pick up a strong Bay Area brand at a fire sale price. Speakeasy lives, but it becomes part of big, corporate industrial beer. I suspect for a lot of Speakeasy fans, becoming part of big beer is a decidedly unappealing outcome.

For those of you thinking "No way would Speakeasy ever sell out to Anheuser-Busch!", I'm afraid it's highly unlikely that Speakeasy has much say in the matter. Notice I started each possible scenario above with "Union Bank decides...". Assuming they are the major creditor, they effectively operate Speakeasy now and their priority is finding the best way to get the money Speakeasy owes them.

Whether someone like Anheuser-Busch would want to buy Speakeasy at this point is rather interesting to consider for brewing industry wonks like myself.  For what it's worth, Anheuser-Busch seems to have the West Coast covered pretty well with their acquisitions of Oregon's 10 Barrel, Seattle's Elysian, and Los Angeles's Golden Road. Do they think a Bay Area brewery will significantly improve their West Coast market share? In addition, Anheuser-Busch's parent company, ABInBev's recent acquisition attention seems to be overseas with recent brewery acquisitions in Europe. My guess is that Anheuser-Busch takes a pass on Speakeasy, a strong brand in Northern California, but comparatively unknown elsewhere. 

At any rate, I hope Speakeasy finds a way to survive and I continue to root for them.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Thoughts on the closure of Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

In a time when hundreds of new breweries open each year, long-time San Francisco brewery Speakeasy Ales and Lagers has abruptly announced its closure.

On their website and in social media, Speakeasy declared they were ceasing operations due to insolvency, stating "Difficulty securing capital investment and outstanding debt obligations led to this difficult and painful decision."  Speakeasy founder and CEO, Forest Gray, further elaborated, explaining "The brewery has worked with multiple investment banking groups and have had numerous meetings. One fact has become central to the process, and that is the company is financially insolvent and requires new capital to move forward. Whether that will happen is unclear, but I do hope the brewery and brand will persist."

Now back what seems eons ago, circa 2008, Speakeasy was one of about six breweries in San Francisco, and one of the most prominent members of the San Francisco Brewers Guild. Founded in 1997, six-packs and tap handles featuring Speakeasy's Roaring 20's Mafia-themed branding with its piercing eyes was pretty ubiquitous wherever beer was sold in the Bay Area.  Their beer, while not always excellent, was pretty solid, and Bay Area beer geeks have plenty of fond memories surrounding Speakeasy. I was a fan of their Prohibition Ale (a 2013 GABF medal winner) and their Payback Porter ranked as one of all time best porters I've ever had. Given all the changes in beer over the last decade, Speakeasy was a rock of a brewery in Northern California and its apparent passing is a real death in the Bay Area beer family.

It's unlikely Speakeasy's downfall was about the beer. As Jeff Alworth noted on his Beervana blog, Speakeasy embarked on an ambitious expansion in 2015, to increase their capacity five fold from 15,000 to 95,000 barrels a year, at an estimated cost of 7.5 million dollars. It's a pretty safe bet those plans didn't go well. And looking back, given such an increasingly crowded and competitive beer market, it's a little hard to figure out why Speakeasy thought they could simply march into new territories and unload tens of thousands of barrels of beer in already saturated craft beer markets full of strong breweries. More than one brewery has told me finding new markets is getting to be a real challenge.

Now virtually every brewery I've been in contact with in one form or another is investing in some level of expansion. Usually it's something like a new 7 or 10 barrel system, expansion plans into an adjoining county, or embarking on a modest packaging operation to expand their distribution footprint.  Whatever their plans entail, they might result in doubling annual beer sales in a year or two if successful. Speakeasy comparatively went "all in" on their expansion and appears to have paid the price.

Does the closure of Speakeasy signal an ominous trend in the industry? It's a bad idea to predict a trend on a single data point, so I won't do that. What I will say is this is what a market correction looks like. Multiple firms in the same industry all expand at the same time to capture a growing market which cannot grow fast enough to absorb all the excess inventory. Weaker or poorly positioned firms are unable to sell enough to pay off their loans, and go out of business. Only time will tell if Speakeasy is an outlier that just poorly executed their expansion or is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Could an investor or another brewery come to Speakeasy's rescue?  Hard to tell, since we don't know what the problems actually are. Given that craft beer enjoys a pretty hot investment climate and they still couldn't do a deal behind closed doors, it's not looking good that Speakeasy is going to find a good suitor.  Especially now after they've told the world how desperate they are.

But enough about the beer industry crystal ball gazing. Speakeasy looks to be leaving us and I'm sad to see them go.

This may have been my last taste of
Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Small victory at the San Jose 408k

The year 2016 was memorable for so many reasons. Running-wise, it was a year I hit some running highs, but plenty of running lows in the form of injuries. As soon as my injured left hip recovered, my right hip would start hurting. For 2017, I've battled the flu a couple times, but simply running around relatively pain free has been a victory in itself.  The San Jose 408k, held last Sunday, was a chance to start the year to see just where I was at.

Named for San Jose's area code and 8 kilometers long, the point to point course starts at the SAP Center just west of downtown San Jose and finishes at the upscale Santana Row mall. A heavy overnight rain threatened to last into the morning and drench the race, but it died down once the sun came out, leaving the course under undercast skies and ideal running conditions. My modest goal entering the race was to hit 7:00 per mile pace, or 35:00 for the 4.97 mile course.

This goal was complicated by the fact that my GPS watch had some problem, or wasn't charged right, or something. It had trouble reaching the satellites and started flashing all sorts of warning lights and messages which I could read with my feeble eyes as I desperately stared down at it standing at the starting line. Whatever problems my watch was having, never worked them out by the time the race started and so I race the whole race having no idea of my time until the finish.

It was one of those run where I fought pretty hard to keep pace, but could never find a higher gear.  I just kept working over the course, until I turned down to down the Santana Row mall way, looked up and saw the clock ticking away at 33 minutes and something. Finishing with whatever sprint I could muster, I crossed the finish line at 34:13, way under my goal, or so I thought. Runners finishing next to me remarked their GPS watches had the race distance at 4.9 miles. Uh-oh. GPS watches typically overestimate distance by about 2% meaning the course was short. I'll just say I met my goal of 35:00 for just under 5 miles, and leave it there.

Next race is The Great Race in Los Gatos April 30th.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Rambling Reviews 3.7.2017 : Brews from Santa Clara Valley, Left Coast, and Karl Stauss

Saratoga Gap Scotch Ale at Taplands
It's been awhile since I last rambled on beers. A bunch of busy work weeks will do that. Still, I've been able to squeeze in a few beers along the way, so let's ramble about three of them.

I was able drop by Santa Clara's Taplands hosting a Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) tap take-over as part of SF Beer Week. There I enjoyed SCVB's Saratoga Gap Scotch Ale, full of toffee, some smokiness, and a little sweetness. There's also some noticeable fruit character to the brew, and SCVB Brand Manager Peter Estaniel was on hand for the evening and as we chatted about the beer, he pointed out some of it's similarities to SCVB's fine New Almaden Imperial Red Ale. All the flavors come together rather nicely and at 9.6% abv, you'll want to sip it slowly.
Left Coast's Voodoo Stout on the floor
of an LED Lighting trade show

After that evening at Taplands, work started getting pretty intense and blogging came to pretty much a complete stand still. At an LED Lighting Trade Show at the Anaheim Convention Center, I enjoyed a Voodoo Stout from San Clemente's Left Coast Brewing, albeit in a plastic cup, poured at the late hour of the trade show. It's a rather full bodied stout with a creamy consistency with some sweetness and lots of milk chocolate character. Nice way to end a
trade show and I can only imagine how much better it would taste with a proper glass.

Trudging back to the hotel after a long day at the trade show, I made my way to the empty hotel bar. For a cheap hotel mostly catering to tourists going to Disneyland, they actually had a pretty decent selection for the eight taps they had set up. I went with Queen of Tarts from Karl Strauss and what a great choice that turned out to be. Aged in wood with Michigan tart cherries, the cherries and light sourness played well off the underlying brown ale. A pretty amazing beer to find in an dingy, empty hotel bar. Further proof that you can find great beer anywhere.
Karl Strauss Queen of Tarts, all alone in
quiet hotel bar in Anaheim

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Session #121: A Brief Ode to Bocks, Past and Present

This month's Session, host by John Abernathy over at The Brew Site is on Bock styles, which seems appropriate for March when Bock beers had traditionally rolled out.

In fact, Bock is the very first beer style I became aware of back when I grew up in the small Ohio town of Bowling Green in the 70's. When March rolled around, my dad would eagerly bring home a six-pack of Rolling Rock Bock, a departure his usual Rolling Rock's flagship Lager. Except back then, it wasn't called a Lager, it was just "beer". One time I asked him "What's Bock beer?" Dad went into this explanation about breweries traditionally cleaning their tanks in the spring and brewing Bock beer to celebrate the occasion. I suspect Rolling Rock Bock was basically the flagship Lager with the grain bill tweaked a bit and some caramel coloring added. That was Bock beer in America just before the brewing revolution started taking off in the 80's.

A Vintage Rolling Rock Bock Neon Sign

Thirty years later, I discovered craft beer. One of my favorite spring seasonals was Anchor Brewing's Bock.  Maybe I liked the deep roasted chocolate and caramel flavors, or maybe it reminded me of those simpler times in the 70's, learning about the mysterious Rolling Rock Bock. Then, in 2014, Anchor decided it would no longer release their Bock each spring, instead focusing on the more popular IPA's and Saisson styles. A year later after that announcement, I caught up with long-time Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter at a brewery event and we reminisced about Anchor Bock. I jokingly tried to talk him into bringing back the Bock. I got the distinct feeling Carpenter didn't miss it all that much. At any rate, it was clear I shouldn't get my hopes up that Anchor Bock was coming back.  And it hasn't.

Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter
I guess Bock beers are pretty old school these days. In an era where "craft beer" and "IPA's" are becoming synonymous the way "beer" and "light Lager" once was, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm from most breweries to brew Bocks. Maybe that's why one of my favorite go-to beers is Blonde Bock from Gordon-Biersch, a brewery that's been a long time rock in an ever changing beer landscape. Brewmaster Dan Gordon learned to brew at the Technical University in Munich in the 80's and the brewery focuses solely on Germanic styles. Their Blonde Bock is one of those highly underrated beers, a light thirst-quenching brew with some character to it, with it's bready, yeasty character with very faint citrus notes and a good dose of sweetness. No, this isn't my father's Bock Beer. But thankfully, it should be around for a good long time.

Stacks and stacks of Gordon-Biersch Blonde Bock, ready to ship

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Daniel Del Grande of Bison Brewing builds supply and demand for in Edible East Bay

Bison Brewing's Dan Del Grande
(photo from Edible East Bay)
If you ask me, Bison Brewing's Daniel Del Grande is one of the sharpest environment activists in the brewing business, with a keen sense on how to use capitalism to further a pro-environmental agenda. Which made for a good article in the latest issue of Edible East Bay, which you can read at the link below.

Brewer with a Cause: Bison Brewing's Daniel Del Grande builds supply and demand for organics

Monday, February 20, 2017

Scenes for the 8th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival

The 8th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival last Saturday was the usual of mostly South San Francisco Bay breweries.  Held on the grounds of San Jose's Hermitage Brewing, the usual suspects like Strike Brewing, Santa Clara Valley BrewingAlmanac Beer, Hermitage Brewing, Freewheel Brewing, Discretion Brewing, Red Branch Cidery and New Bohemia  were all pouring some fine brews.  Notable newcomers showcasing their latest concoctions include Steel Bonnet, Geartooth Alewerks,  Brewery Twenty Five, and Golden State Brewery. If I didn't give a brewery a mention, it was because I just didn't get around to their stand. Breweries typically bring their A-game to any beer festival, but usually there's always a misfire or two.  Not Saturday.  Everything my wife and I sampled was solid to excellent.  Biggest surprise?  Strike Brewing, long known for straightforward Session Ales was pouring "Stand Up Triple IPA", a dynamite Triple IPA. Sorry, no fancy tasting notes, I was just enjoying the brews and community.  I'll leave you with a few snapshots from the afternoon.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Scenes from the Grand Opening of Blue Oak Brewing

Another day, another brewery opens in the Bay Area. This times it's Blue Oak Brewing, tucked away in a little industrial park in San Carlos, just off Highway 101 which hosted its Grand Opening last Saturday. A small crowd of maybe thirty people crammed into the small tap room Blue Oak shares with Redwood Coast Cider to enjoy brews such as their herbaceous Hoppy Pale Ale, and well as their aromatic Belgian Golden and Strong Ales. Once again, no detailed tasting notes here, my wife and I we're just enjoying the beer and the random company of some of the people we shared a table with. I'll leave you with some pictures from the afternoon.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A quick look at Hapa's Brewing, San Jose's newest brewery

Hapa's Brewing, which opened up a mere two weeks ago, has already carved out its unique identity at a location lacking one. It's a little too west to be considered part of downtown San Jose, a little too north to be part of the Willow Glen neighborhood, and a bit too east of Burbank, sitting a nowhere's-ville surrounded by drab industrial buildings. It's organic warehouse space quickly filled up during last Friday afternoon when I stopped by, the place already developing a local following in its brief existence.

Judging the beer from any brewery that's just opened is a bit dicey. Talented brewers usually need a few batches under their belt to fully understand their new brewing equipment works, and bad brewers can get lucky and brew great beer right off the bat, but fail to repeat their success. As far as Hapa's goes, so far, so good. My favorite Hapa's brew was their Little Angel Mocha Porter. If they had added just a smidgen more coffee to the brew, it would have too much. Instead, the dominant coffee flavors really shine with a light bitter chocolate undertone, with a light body and sweetness. Very nice.  Their Barbie's Blonde Ale, with its light earthy and minerally character looked to be a popular after work refreshment, judging from all the pints of it pouring in the tap room, and gets my thumbs up.

The story behind Hapa's is one you've heard a thousand times already: A couple home brewers following their brewing passions and create a business. Yet emerging from this tired cliche' is breath of fresh air to forgotten corner of San Jose. That's why I never tire of discovering new breweries.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Session #120 : Intersections with Brown Ales

For this month's Session, Joe Tindall over at The Fatal Glass of Beer admits Brown Ale has a bit of an image problem. While the color brown often conveys comfort and relaxed earthiness, it also signals something worn, tired, and faded. There are also brown things that....well, you probably don't want to think about while drinking beer. So it's not too surprising that Brown Ales are some of the least sexy styles of beer. That's too bad, since I like a good Brown and when I look back on my relationship with Brown Ales, they've been there along the way as I've made new discoveries in beer.

Such as the time back in my graduate school days at The Ohio State University in the early 90's, roaming the aisles at the Big Bear grocery store, I spied bottles of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale high up on the beer shelf. Back then, my experience with any beer that wasn't a straw yellow Lager was pretty much limited to Michelob Dark. I couldn't help notice that one bottle of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale cost about as much as a six-pack of Bud and was imported from some historic looking brewery from the UK, so I figured it must be good. In that time of great exploration in my life, I picked up a bottle. Trying it later one night in my dorm room, I found it, well, different. It was not some secret ambrosia and with my palate molded by light Lagers, it took effort to finish. Later on, I'd take a bottle or two to poker games to look cool and sophisticated as my friends sucked down cans of Natty Light. I was a bit of twit back then, and probably only grudgingly shared my Nut Brown Ale with anyone who asked to try it. Another Samuel, Samuel Adams, started showing up on beer shelves, which had a distinct advantage over Samuel Smith in that it was significantly cheaper, very important in those days when instant ramen noodles with frozen vegetables was my usual dinner.

Fast forward twenty years and 2,000 miles westward. I've been living in and around San Jose, California for ten years. By then, I'd discovered discovered so many great breweries in Northern California, although most of them are concentrated around the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, or bucolic places like Mendocino County or Santa Rosa. San Jose and it's Silicon Valley surroundings was considered a brewery backwater. Then one day, I discovered a new brewery in San Jose called Strike Brewing and one of their first beers was simply called "Brown".  (They now call it "Lumberbuster Brown").  Light, tight, and a little nutty, I found it to be a refreshing Brown from a brewery specializing in sessionable ales. Strike's no-nonsense straightforward style was equally refreshing at that time in Northern California, full of big booming IPA's and Imperial everythings. Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich was a minor baseball pitcher before co-founding Strike and his beers suggest he threw batters nothing but a steady diet of solid fastballs. Strike was one of the earliest entrants into San Jose's small but growing brewing scene, a group of breweries which reflects Silicon Valley's tradition of both innovation and laser-focus on process. Being a Silicon Valley techie, it is with pride that I can now enjoy hometown brews from Strike and plenty of other new local breweries.

Five years later, late last summer, I'm chatting which Calicraft's Brewmaster Blaine Landberg in the back of his newly opened taproom. I'm interviewing him for an article in a local food magazine, and he's eagerly handing me sample after sample of each of his beers, telling me all about them like they're his kids. It was not wise to interview him on an empty stomach. He gets to Calicraft's Oaktown Brown which at 6.7% abv, 70 ibu, which is not your traditional Brown Ale, and tastes far more balanced and composed than those numbers suggest. We both lament that Brown Ales are underappreciated. Landberg's idea behind Oaktown Brown was to give the style the royal treatment, adding oak at fermentation and plenty of Cascade hops, creating a woody, vanilla, and slightly red wine character to the big roasty flavors. I don't know how he keeps all those big flavors at the right volumes but he does it this complex brew I find myself sipping effortlessly.

One could derisively call Brown Ales the cockroaches of beer, continuing to persist despite commercially eradicative indifference. The thing about Brown Ales are, whether in traditional form, modern renditions, or contemporary reworkings, they have their passionate believers.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Rambling Reviews 1.30.2017: Guinness Nitro IPA and Sierra Nevada's Tropical Torpedo

Just a quick editorial announcement: Moving forward, these "Rambling Reviews" posts will not be limited to a review of three beers. I expect to be posting review in the neighborhood of 1-4 brews at a time. I won't bore you with the reason for this, other than to say that three was never really a magic number, and reviewing three beers at a turned out to bit limiting.

OK, now that's out of way, I have a couple new IPAs to ramble about.

Some of the most most fun I've have drinking an IPA in a long time comes from Guinness in their recently released Nitro IPA in a can. Long synonymous with their iconic Stout, they just couldn't resist the temptation to release an IPA that are all the rage these days. It's brewed in the traditional English style, which I found to be a breath of fresh air compared to all the big, bombing California IPA's I'm used to. It's got that nitro do-hicky thing to create the cascading tiny bubbles. The hop character is rather leafy and tea-like, and there's this wonderful interplay between the caramel malt, velvety carbonation, and subdued hops. At 5.8% abv at 40 ibus, less is definitely more. I'm a fan, and beers like this help me understand why some are aghast at what Americans did to the classic English IPA.

Those who prefer the American version of the IPA will find themselves on familiar territory with Sierra Nevada's latest gem, Tropical Torpedo. It's very tropical. Mango and pineapple dominate the flavor profile bursting of fruit.  The malt is left to be a neutral substrate supporting all those hop flavors.  Not much more to say, and really no surprises here coming from Sierra Nevada. The Chico brewery may be a craft beer dinosaur, but they still find multiple ways to be at, or at least near, the cutting edge of American brewing. Impressive.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Developing Grilling Technique Keeps Me Sane In These Times

Yogurt marinated chicken breasts and fennel
grilled in the gloom of night time.
If you're like me, you probably feel like you've been living in a dystopian novel since November 8th when Donald Trump won the Presidential Election. For me, this moment actually came a little sooner as my beloved Cubs won the World Series the week before. The win was thrilling, but also ominous. It seemed to signal something critical in the very fabric of space-time had torn and some serious shit was starting to go down. Life seems rather surreal these days. Sure, I'm one of those damn liberals, but a lot of people who either voted for Trump or really didn't like Hillary are rather apprehensive right now. The whole nation seems to be holding its breath.


Writing on things like beer, running, and grilling seems so trivial in times like these. But yet, these activities can be very critical to keeping one's sanity, and take on a new-found importance. So I've found a certain solace in slowly developing new grilling techniques on my back patio. Grill masters may brag about secret ingredients and killer recipes, but it's really technique that separates the good from the great. It's about understanding how heat circulates on the grill, how marinades interact with the meat or vegetables, and developing the timing to remove the food from the grill at the correct time to achieve the best flavor. I've been experimenting around with yogurt based marinades on shrimp and chicken, two proteins which can easily dry out from the high heat on the grill. The yogurt helps keep the moisture in, and I'm finding it's ridiculously easy to make something good on the grill using a decent yogurt marinade.  Achieving greatness with a yogurt marinade is something I'm still working on.

I'm going to share this Tandoori Marinade from the book Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauces. If we can heal our country's divisions over plates of grilled food, I'm all for it.

Tandoori Marinade

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 peanut oil
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh gingerroot
2 tablespoons curry powder
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine all of the ingredients in a nonreactive bowl, and blend until smooth. Use immediately.

Marinate pieces of chicken for kabobs for 1 to 2 hours, chicken parts for 2 to 4 hours. Fish can be marinated for about 1 hour.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben talks about his beers coming to the San Francisco Bay Area

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, indoor
Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben
(Moody Tongue photo)

Yet another brewery is rolling into the Bay Area, this time it's Chicago's Moody Tongue Brewing Company. New breweries arrive in the Bay Area all the time. Sometimes, it's the result of some corporate acquisition and expansion. Others follow the usual "home brewer turns his passion into his business" story. Moody Tongue is a little different. While Moody Tongue Brewmaster and Founder Jared Rouben is a home brewer, he approaches brewing from high-end restaurant perspective.  He graduated from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America  before a ten year career at the Michelin-starred "Martini House" in St. Helena, CA and Thomas Keller's "Per Se" before starting Moody Tongue in 2014. So when Jared declares his brewery takes a culinary approach to brewing, it isn't just a marketing gimmick. I caught up with Jared last week on the phone to discuss his unique brewing style.

The first thing I noticed about Jared was his amiable inquisitiveness. Most brewers can't wait to talk about their beer in phone interviews. Instead, Jared started asking me a bunch of questions, like "Why did you get involved in writing about beer?" in a calm, relaxed voice. As soon I as I answered, he followed up with "How does running figure into that?". After this kept going for a few minutes, I realized Jared wasn't going to tire from asking questions, which wasn't going to give me much material. So I politely but firmly broke in with "How did you get involved with brewing?"

Jared recalled his time as a student at Washington University in St. Louis when he'd go to the Schnuck's grocery store and saw all the different craft beers from places like Schlafly and Boulevard Brewing. "I'd see all the different labels and wanted to experience the different tastes." Coincidentally,  I also attended Washington University in St. Louis about a decade before Jared did, and an awful lot changed about beer over that time.  Back in the late 80's, buying beer at Schnuck's, or just about anyplace else in St. Louis came down to basically three choices: Bud, Busch, and Bud Light. Sometimes we wanted wanted to the good stuff, we'd splurge on Michelob.

In his last year at Washington University, he took a food journalism course.  "That's when I met a lot of people interested in different tastes, and a found many of them interested in beer." From there, Jared decided to research culinary schools and enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Beer played big role in his education there. "I founded the CIA beer club which still exists today." He learned to use beer in traditional cooking techniques like brining pork butts or braising sausages. "Then, I began asking myself why beer didn’t have stronger representation in restaurants and on menus.  Brewing and cooking are about manipulating raw ingredients with time and temperature. When you use beer, you intoxicate people which I believe is every chef’s dream."

After culinary school, Jared worked at the Martini House in Napa Valley, where he had his "a-ha!" moment with using produce in beer. "They sent me to the farmer's market every Wednesday to pick up produce for the restaurant. I also picked some up for my home brews and people started liking them a lot more." His Pluot Pale Ale was a particular hit from those days in Napa Valley. After a decade of cooking at some of the finest kitchens in the country, he turned in his apron and started Moody Tongue.

"We like to define our beers in the same way what a chef tries to achieve in the kitchen," explains Jared.  "We use the absolute best ingredients.  It's hard to make something great if you start with something that's just good. And we incorporate the ingredients at the right time in the liquid.

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(Moody Tongue photo)

For example, for Moody Tongue's Sliced Nectarine IPA, the nectarines are sourced from Klug Farms, an organic farm in Western Michigan. "Nectarines are a very delicate fruit, you don't want to subject them to high temperatures. They work best under 40 degrees so I use them post-fermentation." For those used to West Coast IPA's crammed full pine, citrus, dankness and alcohol, Sliced Nectarine IPA requires a palate re-calibration to fully appreciate. There's nectarine skin on the nose, with nectarine flash on the tongue, and a bitter finish of tangerine peel. At 6.9% abv, you can have another one with dinner if you'd like. It's a restrained, yet lively composition of flavors.

The same can be said of the other three beers on Moody Tongue's permanent line-up. The Applewood Gold is well balanced, the smoked malt adding a subtle depth to the light ale. The Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saisson is...well, very lemony. The Caramelize Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter sounds like an over the top, everything and the kitchen sink concoction, but the caramel and chocolate worked well in harmony with the underlying, slightly sweet Baltic Porter. I can see this working as a sophisticated dessert beer. For the most part, the flavors of the Moody Tongue beers work well together in balanced, contrasting with a lot of West Coast beers full of big slamming flavors. One way to compare the two is to consider California and French wines. California wines tend to full of big flavors that score well in tasting competitions, but the more restrained French wines tend to pair better with food. Or something like that. Long time readers all know that if you're looking for deep culinary analysis and commentary, you'll need to go to a different blog.

While the Moody Tongue tap room in Chicago features a number of seasonal beers, only Moody Tongue's four beer line-up can be found in the Bay Area. "We'll be focusing on perfecting the technique on our four primary beers like any good kitchen does with its recipes." According to the brewery's press release, "Moody Tongue is available at select retailers such as Berkeley Bowl West, La Riviera Market, and Alchemy Bottle Shop as well as restaurants including The Beer Hall, Imperial Beer Cafe' and the Albany Taproom".

In the Bay Areas deep and crowded beer market, Moody Tongue offer yet another approach to beer and new experiences to its enjoyment.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Session #119: Dealing with Discomfort

For this month's Session, Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer asks us to write about "discomfort beers", beers that took us out of our comfort zone and "beers you weren't sure whether you didn't like or whether you just needed to adjust to."

As a runner, I know a few things about discomfort. Runners purposely and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of discomfort, and often have a good time doing it. Yes, runners are a little weird. Of course, it's the mental and physical development created in adapting to discomfort which runners seek. In the same way, going outside of our beery comfort zones develops both the palate and the mind to appreciate beer's full potential.

As for us brewing enthusiasts, we're often going about, trying new beers from different breweries. That's how we learn about beer, and it describes how I started my journey to discover beer ten years ago. I just started picking up six-packs from different breweries sitting there in the grocery store cooler, taking them home, and seeing if I liked them. Most of the time I did. I started venturing online to learn more about the different beers out there, creating this positive feedback loop, where I read what others were raving about and then confidently striding into bottle shops and bars seeking them out, repeating with increasing frequency.

Some beers took longer than others to get used to. I remember my first sips of Bear Republic's Racer 5 IPA, finding it to be completely unbearably bitter. It was like chewing on an old bicycle tire. Over time after sampling other hop driven beers, I cautiously came back to Racer 5. To my surprise, I liked it on the second go around, apparently developing a taste for IPAs.  Or perhaps I developed a taste for old bicycle tires.

One beer style I found discomforting early on were American Barleywines. The massive amount of sweet malt, supposedly balanced with lots of hops in the American style, tasted like a syrupy, chalky mess. As I've learned more about beer and expanded my palate, I've come back to try a few American Barleywines. They still taste like a syrupy chalky mess. I'm fine with Barleywines brewed in the English style. Somehow, American's have taken a perfectly good style and made of mess of it with too many hops.

There are other styles I often find discomforting.  Like our Session host, I wasn't a fan of my first Black IPA. Black IPA's require a careful and delicate balance of aggressive flavors, and not every brewer can pull off. Some Black IPA's are wonderful. A fair share of Black IPA's can be diplomatically described as out of control monstrosities. Session IPA's are sort of my anti-discomfort beer. I really liked the first few I tried, but now I've grown to sour a bit to the style. It's really tricky to balance the high hop content with a whisper of malt, and I'm afraid a few Session IPA's come across as little more than fizzy hop water.

Now if I were a beer industry professional, it would be my job to choke down these discomfort beers to do my best to appreciate the full scope of brewing. But beer is just my hobby. I see little point in forcing myself to appreciate beers I don't particularly like and probably never will. That doesn't mean it doesn't pay to explore areas that might not seem to be the most fruitful for discovery.

Like the past summer, when I made a point of seeking out Lagers and Pilsners from various breweries. I've never been a big fan of these much maligned styles associated with big multi-national corporations. Now sitting around, drinking Lagers isn't exactly my idea of discomfort.  But it was rather eye-opening discovering Lagers from small California brewers of subtle, satisfying depth in a thirst-quenching beverage. I also gained a new appreciation for Pilsners after sampling many examples of the style. To my surprise, some of my favorite California brewers whiffed on the Pilsner style, despite having a number of successful flavorful ales in their line-up. And wouldn't you know, some Pilsners from mega corporations aren't half bad. This summertime experiment went to show how just how challenging the Pilsner style is to brew.

I suppose if I were really hard-core about beer, I'd spend a summer drinking American Barleywines. Whether running, drinking beer, or anything else, how much discomfort you're willing to embrace says a lot.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rambling Reviews 1.4.2017: Brews from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Hermitage, and Discretion Brewing

Tasting flight of SCVB's Loma Prieta Oatmeal
Rye Imperial Stout at the SCVB taproom
Let's start off 2017 by rambling on about beers from some local breweries in and around San Jose.

We'll start with Loma Prieta Oatmeal Rye Imperial Stout from Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). The tallest mountain in the Santa Cruz mountain range, Loma Prieta is most associated with the legendary 1989 Northern California earthquake. Loma Prieta means "dark hill" in Spanish. As for the beer, it's a subdued, smokey, smooth, and slightly peppery stout, with the complex roastiness forming a nice substrate for the Bourbon and Rye barrel-aged infusions the folks at SCVB introduced into a couple version of the brew. My early beer blogging inspiration and SCVB Marketing Manager Peter Estaniel invited me over to the brewery for a four-sample tasting flight of Loma Prieta on nitroro, all by itself, and aged for ten months in Rye and Bourbon barrels. I would love to give you detailed tasting notes on all the different nuances and subtleties of Loma Prieta, but after a few sips of Loma Prieta, Peter and I started chatting away on sports and beery subjects that taking tasting notes seemed pointless. Loma Prieta facilitating all that engaging discussion is perhaps the best endorsement I could give.

Next up, Topaz Single Hop IPA from San Jose's Hermitage Brewing. Hermitage's single hop IPA series has long been a great way to experience new hops to understand the unique characteristics they impart into beers. That sounds like something only a hard core homebrewer could love, but strangely enough, hops like Topaz prove many hops work quite well all on their own without the usual blending brewers obsess over.  The high alpha acid content of Topaz makes this a rather straightforwardly bitter IPA, but its light tropical fruit and apricot notes save the day. Nice IPA.

Finally, we end with Uncle Dave's Rye IPA from Discretion Brewing, just over the hill from San Jose in Soquel. I enjoyed one of these last week on a family drive up the Pacific Coast when we stopped at the small seaside town of Davenport for lunch. Having many an IPA chock full of as much dankness, piney-ness, and grapefruity bitterness as the brewer could cram into the beer, it was rather refreshing to enjoy an IPA with some flavor and balance to it. It's light rye peppery flavors work well with the stone fruit flavors in this well composed IPA. There's probably a reason this brew has won a bunch of awards for Discretion including a Bronze medal in Rye Beer Category in the 2016 World Beer Cup. Instead of my usual blurry, out of focus beer picture, I'll leave you with a nice shot from Bonny Doon Beach just south of Davenport.