Monday, February 08, 2010

SFBW'10 - Funky Fairfax

One of the more popular bumper stickers of the "local pride" variety refers to Fairfax as "Mayberry on acid". It's a town that prides itself on waving its freak flag high, and, to the extent that it's possible in a place like Marin county, being a funky little joint.

How appropriate then, that today, the first Monday of SF Beer Week 2010, marks the release of Iron Springs' first foray into the funky and freaky world of brettanomyces-influenced beer, with a somewhat unexpected choice from the house line-up as the guinea pig: their Chazz Cat Rye, an amber, mildly spicy rye beer that's been a mainstay on the draught list since the pub's inception. Dubbed "Rye the Funk Not", the name nicely sums up the degree of experimentalism the brewers invoked in putting this batch together. Head brewer Christian Kazakoff explained it thusly:
I was impressed with the flavor of a Rye beer I did in a firkin with oak chips soaked in Chardonnay; so, I decided to purchase a Zinfandel barrel from a local winery in Oakland and fill it with a new Rye beer I brewed that was in the pre-chill conditioning stage. It took a little over two barrels of Rye to fill the barrel. I inoculated the beer with some brettanomyces and buried it in "The Brett Farm" at Drakes brewery in San Leandro for seven months. When the secondary funk fermentation finished out in October, Persimmons were just being harvested and I love Persimmons. I added twenty pounds of chopped Fuyu Persimmons to the barrel and let it stand for another three months.
He describes the result as a pale, 7% alcohol, oaky beer, with rye spice contrasting with a slight sourness, and a lingering sweetness from the fruit. Besides the limited run RTFN will have on tap at the pub as part of their barrel-aged beer month, there are a dozen or so cases of 750ml bottles that were hand-corked and caged in the Belgian style which are conditioning with champagne yeast and awaiting label artwork for a small release in another month or so. Compared to its second cousin twice removed, it's drier, fairly stronger, and plays its hops much further in the background, letting each of its unique qualities come out to play in distinct order: a spicy, leathery aroma leads into an initial taste of old barrel, ceding to hints of the rye and West Coast hops before the fruity persimmon finish (which I wouldn't have been able to distinguish if it hadn't been for the multiple sessions of a friend's persimmon wine I've had the joy to experience over the past year) cleans up the palate, dryly, with that slight sourness that stirs the appetite and warrants a second taste.

It's warming to see experimentation such as this taking place so close to home (even if the intentional "infection" occurred in Contra Costa), and with today's news that Mill Valley Beerworks got their brewer's notice from the TTB, it might not be long before we're seeing the first spontaneously brewed Marin beer. Perhaps I'm fantasizing a little. But it's a fun fantasy to harbor when enjoying something as wickedly complex and time-consuming yet blithely titled Rye the Funk Not.

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SFBW'10 - The Younger and the rest of us

The sign says it all.

"I can't imagine getting in line for a beer," came one slightly tongue-in-cheek comment from the small assemblage of local beer writers huddled beside a table overflowing with Ryan Farr's chicharrones, as we discussed the completely unforeseen mad dash that had occurred earlier in the day up at Russian River, where demand for their annual February release* had formed, to say the very least, a "line". Even Natalie Cilurzo's own estimates on the lifespan of this year's batch of Pliny the Younger ("I don’t know how long it will be available at the pub. However, I venture to guess less than one week and more than one day!") turned out to be quite generous, as by 6pm Friday afternoon, after about 7 hours of being poured, the 600 gallons on tap at the Santa Rosa pub had already dried up. Even Mario, a Santa Rosa native and stalwart supporter of all things Russian River chimed in to say (unbeknownst to all of us that just as we were making the rounds at the SF Beer Week gala, the atmosphere up in Sonoma had already turned somewhat grim) had he would have been happy to wait until Saturday to get his share, had he been able to foresee the unprecedented crowds that had appeared well before the door's had even been opened. After all, last year there'd been no crowds at all, no lines, not the slightest bit of fuss - that easy, relaxed Sonoma pace had been shattered this time around, the pub apparently having fallen victim to its own success, the obsessive completists monitoring the ubiquitous top ten lists, and the ease with which social networking tools can amass armies of beer fanatics like blinkered, hops-driven flash mobs.

Not that it mattered entirely on my part, thanks to Mario having stashed my very own growler of the stuff by the gala entrance. And as we departed into the early evening, someone perched outside the event noticed the bottle I was casually swinging from my pinkie and called out, "Hey, is that Younger?", forcing me to glance over my shoulder the whole way back to the parking garage in fear that we were being followed...

Despite all the hype and a reputation it couldn't possibly live up to, it remains a wonderful treat of a beer, and one for which I'm happy to say that I didn't have to stand in line. A fortuitous way to begin SF Beer Week 2010, indeed. Expect it to make some further, albeit brief appearances over the course of the week, in your finer Bay Area drinking establishments.

* And as for that other February special release, the darling Valentines' Day black Belgian ale dubbed "Rejection", expect that one to make an appearance at Toronado tomorrow night.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Greater than the sum of its parts

"Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming at something else, they find happiness by the way.

Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."
- John Stuart Mill

Bookshelves are put to second best use at the new Gestalt Haus.

For the better part of the year, Fairfax locals had been teased with the promise of the impending opening of an outpost of San Francisco's Gestalt Haus, a venue that's but a smudge on the map in the SF beer scene but one that had the potential for making a big mark in our little burg. For months, the little ex-furniture shop on Bolinas Avenue sat unchanged, wrapped in the same secretive butcher paper and adorned with a coming soon sign that indicated, curiously, that despite the name, our local version of this popular little bike-friendly sausage-and-a-pint shack was, for better or worse, entirely unaffiliated with the SF joint of the same name.

Hofbräu dunkel is as dark as it gets here.

Then, back in September, thanks to messages out of the blue posted both on the forums and Twitter, we discovered they'd be hosting a quick and dirty open house. Turns out they'd gotten their liquor license squared away, yet were still tied up in logistical wrangling with the health department, so they'd planned on pouring a fresh keg of Hofbräu lager for suggested donations of $2 a cup while showing off their nearly completed digs. A ton of obvious work had gone into the place, most notably the 14' redwood bar at the center of the action, adorned with two gleaming towers promising some fine German draught choices and some equally fine local selections. The jukebox was loaded with the appropriate amount of Fugazi, the tables were set, the bike racks were loaded in, and things looked ready to go, simply waiting for the green light to finish the kitchen, and they'd be open in two weeks.

Two weeks passed quickly, without any news, and then it was October, and the still unchanged storefront facade caused me to wonder if I'd imagined the whole thing, riding down the hill through the late summer's breeze on that fine September evening, filling up on an honest pint of Munich's finest while gamely chatting up the obviously excited, if not slightly terrified, proprietors of our town's newest watering hole. And with the annual hubs n' hops Biketoberfest fast approaching, it was starting to become a bit of a concern, how the place would survive having missed, in its construction phase, all the year's big crowd draws, all the events that actually get folks to take that wrong, long left turn and wind up here on the dark side of Mt. Tamalpais, before the winter sets in and the rain cloud obscures our existence from the rest of the world until May.

And so, then, the day before the festival, something very strange happened.

They moved.

Apparently, things with the health department weren't progressing as quickly as the Haus folks would've liked, so when a nearby bookstore that happened to already have both a liquor license and a fully functioning kitchen abruptly closed its doors, Gestalt Haus just as abruptly moved in and made themselves at home. And with untold back-breaking hours building a plywood bar from scratch and moving the keg coolers and draught towers and picnic tables and glassware, they opened their doors just in time to see the largest parade of pedal-pushing beer drinkers of the season ride past, and stop in.

Half liter, liter, or keg: you choose.

And it may just be the "how much weight will this support?" feeling one experiences when bellying up to grab another Maß from the bar that lends the place's name such appropriateness. While the original's tagline - beer, brats, and bikes - was supposed to convey its gestalt, whole experience being greater than the sum of its parts, the gestalt at our own, potentially short-term bar (because they do still hold the lease up the street, and aren't pinning themselves down just yet) is quite different, and pretty endearing. The parts here - communal seating with a real Stammtisch feel, excellent, simple beers in proper glassware, great natural lighting and a quiet, relaxed vibe - add up to a gestalt that virtually defines "session". Not much worth commenting on by themselves, but put together, it adds up to something of real worth, and in a place that's better for it.

And did I mention they have bacon potato chips?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What next?

After a month in the making, our Italian Modernists dinner is in the books. And while the jury's still out as to whether or not we'll have an official wrap-up of the event posted here, it would be unfair to go too long without publicly thanking the folks who made it the success it turned out to be. It's no small feat to collect nine relatively obscure beers in quantities to serve fourteen diners, nor is it terribly easy to convince those fourteen diners that an afternoon of Italian beer could be all that enticing (especially when up against the likes of Stumptown and the Toronado anniversary party), to say nothing of assembling and executing a equally lengthy pairing menu.

On the topic of the menu, here it is.

The first order of thanks has to go to our ably dexterous mate in the galley, Mr. Alex of Drink A Week, here caught childishly trying his hand at the delicate art of beer blogging*, who not only kept the food train running for the five hours that we were serving, but managed to keep a live microblog feed of the event running simultaneously for his dozen or so followers. If there's a kitchen assistant who can handle a bigger heap of verbal and physical abuse during an event than Alex can, I'd be shocked (and if you know of one, please let me know as I could probably use them next year).

Second in line for kudos is Dave Hauslein, the beer manager for Healthy Spirits, without whose help the wicked variety of beers we had chance to sample would not have materialized (here seen apparently doubling up on his portion of the polenta and sopressata). Dave goes way out on a limb to provide an unmatched service to local weird beer lovers, not only stocking the big name trends of the day, but allowing space for bottles that may sit a little while just waiting to be united with a certain taster with an adventurous palate.

(And on the topic of thanks, while I know Des is listed as a contributor on the masthead here, that's really just a formality that allows her to pop into any of my published posts and clear up any unbearably unsightly editing errors, and as such it would be completely uncouth for me not to publicly thank her for the enormous contributions, in cooking, hospitality, and the immense clean up effort, that she donated to what is truly my singleminded obsession of hosting this annual affair.)

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't thank our guests for not only taking a chance in coming in blind to our little experiment, but also for doing my job for me in taking some great pictures, bringing along extra delicious beverages, and even lending a hand in the kitchen when our pacing dragged a little. As taxing as these events can be, the guests make them completely worthwhile, placing you in the odd position of being simultaneously exhausted and eager to get the next event scheduled on the calendar, whatever it may be. So, until then...

* Yes, the Peroni made multiple appearances, and yes, it's intended as humorous irony.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A new Marin beer destination in the Works

As anyone who balances a 9-5 with a handful of obsessive hobbies can attest, it doesn't take much motivation to find oneself daydreaming, entertaining notions of transforming the "fun" part of the workweek into the "business" part, until the original "business" part becomes utterly eclipsed by non-stop, buck-the-system, financially-gratifying "fun". But in terms of brewing beer, while many homebrewers would find the offer to swap their daily grind with a good pair of boots and a mash paddle deliriously enticing, such (often psychoactively enhanced) delusions of crossing the great divide between 5 gallons and 5 barrels are often met headlong by sobering apprehension over reams of legal paperwork, sparse sources for funding, and the uncertainty whether you've got a clear vision of your business and your market beyond getting compliments at your buddy's BBQ when you show up with the free keg. Despite how much homebrewers may adore their hobby, the vast majority of them will never dare try to parlay it into a living.

Two young brothers from Mill Valley, however, are taking the plunge with Beerworks. And "plunge", at this stage of their start up, probably feels like an accurate descriptor to Justin and Tyler Catalana, considering that what they foresaw as one of their biggest hurdles - getting the town council to approve their bid to open up a brewery and on-premises beer bar in a small storefront at the edge of the downtown square - passed by with hardly a blip of resistance. In fact, the first I'd heard about their proposal was the day they brought it to the council meeting, and watched as they proceeded to update their website three times with 12 hours, from "we're heading to the meeting, would love some support", to "council said they'll review", to "council has approved". Thank our cruddy economy for removing the typical barrier of neo-prohibitionist, NIMBY neighbors: In times like this, a town's desperation for tax revenue and desire to add foot traffic to a quiet edge of downtown's retail area trumps all others.

When asked about their inspiration, the brothers point to their recent travels in Asia as a turning point in both the nature of their relationship with beer, and also in determining the direction they wanted to take in starting a business. They might even argue that it all hinged around one particular beverage they experienced in Vietnam, the "morning brew" known as bia hoi. "They see it as nutritional, as a cereal beverage", says Justin. "What breweries are doing around here, especially in California and down the West Coast, is such a small window of what you can do with grains." And one look at their anticipated bottle list (which they quickly concede is a "work in progress") demonstrates a fondness for otherness, with Danish, Italian, Norwegian and Japanese craft beers, many with strong local flavor, dominating the board.

And while they admittedly also want to feature local beers, Tyler going out of his way to mention that one of his favorite recent beers has been Lagunitas' Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale, while also heaping praise on Berkeley's Trumer Pils, the modus operandi behind Mill Valley BeerWorks is clear:

"We want people to try new things," Justin asserts.

Tyler concurs, ""We're trying to set up a business model where people aren't coming to us for consistency." And certainly, showing people the extent of what's possible in beermaking, keeping things fresh and somewhat unexpected, appears to be a core concept of their vision. They talk in terms of art galleries and theaters when referring to what they plan to offer their community, places one goes for pleasure without having a concrete idea of what the end experience will entail. It's a artful move that dissipates one of the cornerstones of Big Brewing, wherein the promise to the consumer is the unwavering assuredness that all preconceived notions will be fulfilled the same way, unvaryingly, endlessly.

"We're going to have a heavy emphasis on outside beers, which is really nice because it means we can be more experimental with the beer that we're brewing, as we're not relying solely on the sales of our own beers." It's obviously attractive to any brewer, being given the space to fiddle around with recipes without fearing the repercussions of not churning out a predictable product. As Justin says, "We want it to be a sort of studio for us. We'll probably have a beer or two that we always have on tap, but other than that..."

Tyler interjects, "We want to be experimental, but not in a way that's just for experimental's sake." I wondered if their enthusiasm to stretch themselves so thin across the plane of what's possible in brewing would dilute their brand, but it's clear that they both see it the opposite way, as a trademark value of their brewing. As Tyler sums it up, "Something for me, a connection between each thing we brew, beers that have some sort of - and I don't want to say we just want to brew uncommon beers - but like that Vietnamese beer, making people aware of these things out there that are really unique."

They then relay the story of recently asking a local storeowner for their impression of one of the beers they were selling, Baladin's Nora, and being told that while the storeowner enjoyed it, he sternly assured them it technically wasn't a beer. "People can have a narrow view here about what beer is. And people’s bad experiences with fruit beers, when they’ve never had a good kriek? We want to show people what’s out there."

In looking for a word that sums up an admittedly ambitious beverage-making wishlist that included side discussions about such things as Russian rye bread beer, African-inspired beers fermented with Schizosaccharomyces pombe, and kombucha, "unique" seems fairly apt. Which is not to say that they want to be entirely defined by being obtuse, but rather as they put it, by taking the chance in "re-popularizing beers that other breweries might not be doing because their brewing systems can't."

"We both like cooking, and it's been a large part of our upbringing, being part Sicilian, and knowing the way cooking works definitely affects our brewing. There's thought behind it, you can change the process, knowing why things are doing what they're doing."

And their desire to have the flexibility to produce a broad spectrum of beers, from sessionable cask ales to heady eisbocks, is driving the size and design of their brewing system (not to mention designing it to share a space just a hair over 1,100 square feet). So rather than it being a hindrance, their experience with tinkering in the homebrewing realm will serve them well, as the 3-barrel system that's being designed for them will be in essence a blown-up homebrewing rig, capable of being switched around and reconfigured to handle a wide variety of mashing and fermentation techniques. They anticipate that those beers will be delivered via ten taps alongside a few handpumps, with the odd bottle conditioned beer coming out of the cellar now and then. And while they won't be serving food, they're eager to connect with local businesses in the same way City Beer and Toronado have, welcoming people to bring in food to enjoy with their drink.

And connecting with local businesses, particularly in the community of Mill Valley, seems like an essential goal of these two locals. "I like Mill Valley," Tyler says, "and there’s a lot that’s cool about Mill Valley." When I comment on how my brief habituation in the town that we lovingly referred to as Ewok Village was marked by a nightlife that shut down around eight o'clock, he reminds me that I probably wasn't the only one wishing there was something more up my alley (literally) to occupy my time with. "There's a lot of people in the woodwork who regret having to go into the City every Friday or to just stay at home."

Despite the apparent ease that they had in getting the town's approval, Tyler admits, "It was hard convincing the town that we're not going to be just a rowdy bar, because we have this emphasis on beer. But we don't want to promote the status quo of current American beer culture, we want to help in changing that, to enjoying beer, versus beer as an auxiliary to various activities." And one of the ways they intend on changing public perceptions of beer is through transparency and inclusion, hosting monthly brewing classes, setting up a few homebrew kits so that people can brew their own beers while the brothers brew adjacently on their system.

As if to dispel any hovering concerns about being accessible, Tyler adds, "We want to have some very cheap beers, like a $2 pint all the time. You're always skating a weird line, people thinking it's 'cheap' because of the price, but it's literally so cheap for us to make it, the mark-up just seems unfair. But for me, when I go to the place where they make the product, I expect the product to be cheaper." They talk about how they ensured their licenses would allow people to bring their kids in, how they intend on always having a low alcohol session beer on tap for folks who're just looking to relax with their laptop, and how they picture the interior being run with communal tables that invite the friendly, sociable attitude that they are fond of in places they themselves frequent.

When asked for the single biggest piece of advice they would share with any other would be entrepreneurs, the reply comes swiftly: "Find your money first." While they do have some major investors lined up, they were blindsided by how quickly they got approval to open shop, and admit that they had expected to use the time waiting for the council's approval to secure their funding. They're also in the process of developing a way for small investors to help get them off the ground. When asked about the "adopt a bottle" section of their website, Justin explains, "What we want to do is be able to people the chance to buy a bottle for $5,000, and that will pay back at a certain percent over three years." While they're currently hammering out the details with their lawyer (they won't be actual "shares" of the company, nor will it be open to buyers outside of California), they're hoping it will provide some help on a local level, and increase the buy-in from the community.

Other than the financial hurdle, though, as far as a pair of enterprising homebrewers go, these two bring some unique experience to the table that may give them edge they need to be truly successful. Tyler's experience in architecture has paid off not only in drafting plans, but also in handling the requisite presentations and being mentally prepared for all the bureaucracy. "There is lots of paperwork," he concurs, "which is intimidating, but not impossible. All the information you'll ever need is on the internet."

Justin points out that while his dad is a contractor, the two brothers grew up in a very "hands-on" environment, a quality they suggest is one of their strong points. Knowing how to do metal fabrication, electrical engineering, and, as he puts it, "being comfortable manipulating things in the physical realm" all contribute to what they envision as being successful in building up their own brewery and bar from scratch. It certainly doesn't hurt that he also studied fermentation science and spent some time at Chris White's yeast lab in San Diego.

They recognize it's an uphill battle, but one that they appear to be masochistically enjoying, recognizing that the act of being good beer ambassadors has begun far before they open their doors, as they try to explain to investors why they decided not to get licensed to sell wine ("What are the women going to drink?") and why don't intend on being open past 10:00 p.m. They're clearly taking pleasure out of dispelling the myths of what enjoying good beer responsibly is all about, and hopefully that positive attitude will serve them well as they encounter the unforeseen but inevitable impediments down the road.

"And don't forget to put in there that we're looking for money," a smiling Tyler reminds me. It's a running theme. "While we've been cautious at every step, we've been lucky." With the big obstacles seemingly melting away (the town's approval, a rental space with an agreeable landlord), and brimming with creative ideas, it looks like the only thing that could stop them from being Marin's newest brewery is if the dollars dry up. Otherwise, it looks like all signs are pointing to us having a unique new place to savor a thoughtfully handcrafted beer amongst the redwoods.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reminders - Italian Modernists & Fermentation Friday

When Jay Brooks went to witness Italian brewer Agostino Arioli brew a batch of La Fleurette with Vinnie Cilurzo and the Russian River Brewing team in Santa Rosa, he summed up the origin of this uniquely peculiar beer quite nicely:
How Agostino’s La Fleurette came about is a romantic tale. Seven years ago, he met a girl and fell in love. Awash with the emotions of new love, he set out to create something that would be “a celebration beer of personal happiness.” So he started experimenting and after a year of trial and error was satisfied with the beer and released it commercially as La Fleurette. To the kettle he adds turbinado raw sugar and orange blossom honey, but he also adds black pepper because, as Agostino puts it, “love is also spicy.” At the end of the boil he dry hops, or rather dry-flowers, the beer with both roses and violets.
This is precisely the vein of artistic spirit running through the current generation of Italian brewers that inspired us to want to host an event celebrating their individuality. Whereas it's arguable that American craft brewing boom was borne of a Wild West approach to re-imagining the ales of the British Isles, there doesn't appear (beyond the slightest Belgian whiff) to be a similar obvious precedent for what the Italians are doing right now. That's not to say that their approach is recklessly improvised: Despite an apparent lack of stylistic benchmarks, the Italian beers we're seeing come stateside have poetic roots, such as beers made with carob and chestnut in memory of the scarcity of food and sweets during World War II, beers modeled after the brewers' lovers, and recipes designed to evoke memories of the exotic foods the brewer had experienced in travels to India and Nepal. Combine that level of soul with with oddball techniques (only adding hops in the last 10 minutes of the boil?), odder ingredients (farro? wormwood? myrrh?) and the Italians' much romanticized love for food, and you have something truly unique emerging out of an area that has never been (and most likely never will be) known for its beer.

That's a rather lengthy way of reminding you that if you're in the SF Bay Area and want to try some of these exceptional creations at a centrally-located, public transit-friendly, private venue alongside some equally tasty food with a lively group of beer enthusiasts, you're in luck, as we've still got a handful of seats free for our dinner on Saturday, August 15. There's more information at the original post here.

On a similar topic, as our Fermentation Friday post will hinge on an inimitably Italian beer, let this also serve as a reminder that we're proudly hosting June's edition this Friday, so if you're a homebrewing blogger or a blogging homebrewer, you owe it to yourself to read the original announcement and get ready to join us on the 31st.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Little update from Big Sky

the land of ubiquitous carved bear sculptures and no recycling
The biggest news from our recent foray into the land of shining mountains actually came as a rumor before we'd even gotten on the plane, that Flathead Lake Brewing, a topic of minor previous discussion here, had shuttered its doors for good, the owner having set off for presumably greener pastures, rumored to be a new venture in the sprawling metropolis of Columbia Falls. It was a tale that proved true, as it turns out we passed the closed doors a mere ten days after they'd ceased operations, a tale made even sadder as I was regaled with a story (one filled with disgusted and puckering facial expressions) from my father-in-law about how they'd attempted to foist some new, weirdly sour, vinegary concoction on him, one he deemed so wretched, he sent it back, professing to me that if that's what they thought good beer was, he wasn't surprised they'd closed down. From the sounds of it, the Flanders brewing techniques they'd started experimenting with last year, starting with a pretty delightful oud bruin, had been well in the works, but we'll apparently be waiting a while longer before wild ales establish themselves in the Wild West.

Tons of great, un-recyclable canned craft beer in Montana
On the more positive side, though, was an unexpected proliferation of locally brewed beers being stocked in grocery stores, more often than not in cans, laying claim to the treasured square footage that had not long before been the sole domain of the majors. Even Glacier has gotten on the bottling bandwagon (sadly lacking their much touted IPA), alongside the newly-in-cans Big Sky heavyweight Moose Drool, Bayern, Harvest Moon, and the standout new favorite, Kettlehouse IPA and scotch ale, both packaged in lovely pint cans.
Because some occasions demand an icy pilsner
Seeing a resurgence of locally crafted beers in an area that has long been lacking, despite the area having an agricultural history closely tied to the brewing industry, is a heartening development, and as our growler-filling visits to Glacier proved, these breweries aren't just riding on the coattails of lakeside tourism to pay their bills, with the taproom consistently hosting a roundtable of regulars, either fresh off their bikes for a pint and a glimpse of the Tour, or catching up on local gossip while getting their cooler of growlers filled for the back of their pickup.
Oh whiskey barrels, what secrets do you hold?
A final stop worth noting was this newer addition to the Flathead brewing community, Lakeside's Tamarack Brewing company, a seriously impressive two year-old brewpub situated creekside at the base of the Blacktail Mountain ski area, housed in a building whose architecture is a twisted amalgamation of alpine ski lodge and urban warehouse brewery aesthetic. And while we were off-season for the "Old 'Stache" whiskey barrel aged porter, their year round stout was an acceptable consolation prize, giving us a reason to add yet another bottle to our growing Montana growler collection.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Local brewery (temporarily) expands

Optimistic bottles: Not half empty, but half filled...

I am seldom late for work, even by the obligatory rive minutes; I live far to close to the office to ever establish a genuinely feasible excuse. But, then again, I also seldom find my (albeit unlawful) bike route through town obstructed by a fully operational industrial beer bottling operation, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, noisily huffing through cases of bombers, which is exactly what I encountered yesterday. And but oh, what a brilliant scheme it is. For those of you who have ever wondered, how exactly does a modestly sized brewpub manage to dispatch bottles of four of their releases to accounts far and wide without painstakingly doing it by hand well past the 25th hour of the day, or by utilizing a contract brewer, here's your answer: a door-to-door bottling line:

No bikes or skateboards, fancy mobile bottling machines a-ok

That's right: The whole kit and caboodle rolls right off the back of a truck, plugs in to the tank line, and away it goes. Place labels on roll, empty bottles on the one end, caps on the crimper, and some waiting arms and empty cases on the other end, and you're off. Plenty of folks have seen what a bottling line looks like, but encountering a system like this running at full tilt in the middle of the street is nothing short of a spectacle.
Lining them up while the Altman crew looks on

Of the many good things Christian Kazakoff has brought to Iron Springs, it would seem his dedication to a bottling program has had the greatest apparent impact. Hard at work well before most folks were even up, he, Phil and Mike were already well on their way to filling the 200 cases of empty bottles that had arrived that morning, and by the time I rode past on my way home, there was nary a trace anything fishy had taken place, all the gear packed back up onto the truck, cases put away, but for a stray bottle here and there.
Bottle labels boasting a beer's water source have a long tradition

It's a beautifully reasonable solution, too, one that allows a brewery to flexibly make decisions about expansion without levying the enormous risk inherent in moving beyond "being a brewpub" and "getting on shelves". If it turns out to be a successful venture, you can always stage an encore performance with higher case numbers, and if it ends up applying too much pressure to your bottom line, you can simply write it off as an experiment to revisit later on. There's no equipment to learn, maintain, and pay for, no space to rent, and no fear of outgrowing the scale of your operations. At the end of the day, it's back to business as usual.
One down, 199 cases to go...

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Fog's a-brewin'

I've mentioned here recently that we've got a budding shutterbug in the house these days, a pint-size paparazza of sorts who's made her dad's Elph somewhat of a treasured playtime gadget. Here we have one of more recent works, entitled "Yeast". I resisted correcting her, in that it was actually a 2000mL "yeast starter", suspended in a simple wort of dry malt extract and nutrients, as she's likely approaching her subject from an artistic vantage point and not a purely scientific one.

For those of you who don't completely geek out on homebrewing, a 2000mL slurry of yeast starter is more than ample if you're only planning on brewing five gallons of beer. Most folks are content tossing the contents of a pitchable vial of liquid yeast (if not just a packet of the dry stuff) into their beer-in-waiting and letting nature take its delicious course. Why would I bother to waste some valuable wall-staring time with yet another routine of cooking, sanitizing, and nail-biting?

Why? Well, these are the silly types of things you do in preparation for brewing a 14% 12% alcohol by volume* batch of beer.

That beer is the topic of today's experiment: Tokyo Fog
...comes on little cat feet
It's oddly addictive, this reverse engineering technique of formulating recipes, attempting to deconstruct the hidden successes encoded in the interplay between ingredients in culinary masterpieces, reimagining them as distilled, ghostly incarnations within this wholly other medium of brewing. One such masterpiece, legendary in its time, without comparison, is the mighty Tokyo Fog. This Atomic Age bachelor pad tour de force, as inimitably described in loving detail by a man who was there to witness its resurrection on a windless July afternoon, is nothing shy of a symphony in three movements, those movements being: Coffee, Ice Cream, and Bourbon.

And what a name! Fog, particularly the coastal fog that's often referenced symbolically around here, develops over the course of the summer months, when the cool, wet air pushed eastward over the Pacific collides with warm, dry air from the inland valleys, accumulating in such bulk over specific spots in the Bay Area that they suffer through far colder summers than the other three months. It boxes and isolates, like acoustic baffling, creating a theatricality in each little space it carves out, making soundstages out of corner cafes, beach boardwalks, sage-ridden headlands, and steep, lamplit streets. Cars pass by as if entering and exiting a frame, existance beyond which nothing more than a muffled world of guesses, creating at once a heightened state of focus - conversations seem close, clear, undisputed for attention - while at the same time lending to a disorientation and sense of waywardness, what without a sun, sky, or horizon to guide you, along with that unsettling enigmatic curiosity about what lies beyond your crippled scope of sight and sound.  What better metaphor for the experience of enjoying this unholy assemblage of post-war American pantry staples? And Tokyo? I have no idea. It just adds to the mystique.

But let's return, as we always should, to beer. With a mindset similar to some of our other recent experiments, it seemed high time to attempt to isolate and translate the essence of this iconic, nostalgic treat into beer form. High time, that is, considering that a beverage of this strength and potential complexity could need up to a year to fully complete. No point in waiting any longer that we have to, right? That said, let's cut to the nitty gritty, what makes this kid tick. It's actually rather simple:
See, it's sweating because it knows what's in store for it.
Coffee: There's a nearly inescapable DIY trajectory leading homebrewers to become home coffee roasters. And as an unrepentant shill for the folks at Sweet Maria's, I'd be remiss if I didn't pimp the full city roast Guatemala El Injerto Estate 100% Bourbon beans that made their way into this batch. Taking a cue from  - where else? - Randy Mosher's oft-cited manifesto on breaking traditional brewing boundaries - we ground up some fresh-roasted beans, poured some cold water over them in a French press, and let them sit in the fridge for a few days leading up to brew day. The resulting coffee was hugely aromatic, but almost completely devoid of roast bitterness. It found its way into the kettle just about five minutes from the end of the boil. Alongside some appropriately dark specialty grains, it ought to allow for a notable but unpunishing impression of coffee.

Vanilla ice cream: This one poses a bit more of a conundrum, as I'm loathe to add any vanilla directly into a beer. To date, my tasting experiences regarding vanilla flavor as it manifests itself in beer are akin to those with chocolate, in that my personal preference leans towards the impression of those ingredients through brewing slight-of-hand (special grains, fancy fermentation methods, and the like) rather than via stubborn attempts to cram some hunks of semisweet or a few pods of Madagascar bean into the fermenters for effect. For creaminess, though, we thought the judicious use of oats and chocolate wheat malt would help offer that impression through body and mouthfeel, and knowing full well that the preposterously huge amount of malt would lead to an inevitable hit of residual sweetness, we shied away from the too-obvious addition that gives modern-day "cream" stouts their name, that unfermentable loser named lactose. As far as vanilla was concerned, though, we hoped that we could pull some of that off in concurrence with the closing, keystone element of the trinity...
Prepping the potpourri in a lake of liquid love
Bourbon: The key player in Tokyo Fog is the fine oak-aged corn whiskey, "America's Native Spirit", as it were. I've waxed poetic on the joys of bourbon and the myriad joys of marrying it with beer in the past, and to be totally honest, its use in mainstream craft brewing over the past few years has ballooned to a nearly obnoxious scale. Nevertheless, in capturing the spirit of its namesake, that icy treat made permanently slushy by said bourbon, getting some of that liquid fire in there was absolutely essential. As before, we went the Brewcraft route, this time watching nearly a fifth disappear into the oak within just a few days. Seeing as how vanillin is a well-known compound that finds its way into wines thanks to oak barrel conditioning, our plan is to not only take advantage of the "bourbon extract" we'll be generating, but also allow the beer to rest on the physical oak for a while (considering we're looking at aging this for nine months, we've got plenty of time) in hopes that it pulls through and completes the picture we're trying to draw.

Go ahead and click on the carboy geyser for the recipe, if you dare:

If there's a more satisfying image in all of homebrewing than one of a fermentation gone comically, explosively awry, I haven't seen it, and frankly, I've come to acknowledge these perilously violent emissions as harbingers of good luck, as there's seemingly been a consistent messiness-to-deliciousness ratio at work in our kitchen. The results of such havoc? You'll just have to stick around. (For about 6 months or so, unless I weaken and sneak an early sip. Or two.)

* Meet L'il Tokyo:
See, math is not my strong suit. Despite my best intentions, I miscalculated the rate of evaporation over the course of the 90-minute boil, not sure if it was the low level of propane in the tank or the brisk Alaskan wind that kept striking out in whiplash bursts from the north, or that simply, I didn't do the 6th grade level multiplication correctly, which meant that we ended up at the end of the evening with a bit more beer (yay!) than we'd expected, but inversely, at a lower gravity, and hence a lower potential final alcohol level (boo!) than we'd anticipated for. And while Li'l Tokyo might feel left out, as the 1600mL of overflow from the kettle forcibly segregated from the bulk in its little flask, we're already devising plans for how to make the little guy feel special. (In the background is a glass with which we toasted the end of a successful evening of brewing, maybe one of the closest things I've had yet to a beer-incarnate Tokyo Fog, North Coast's Old Rasputin XI. They certainly look related, don't they?) Updates on all to come...

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Monday, March 23, 2009

All part of a balanced breakfast ale

Mia prides herself on being a quality helper in the kitchen, especially in regards to the arena of baking. Any opportunity to don her mini-toque and mix, punch, dollop and squash her way through an afternoon of food prep is one she'll gleefully take up, upon realizing that's what's on the agenda quickly running to unseen corners of the house to noisily retrieve her stepping stool and perhaps even her mini-apron, keeping an eye open for a free whisk or spoon, prepared to warn anyone within earshot when the oven is hot. Astoundingly, she'll see a job through to the end, with hardly any little person attention deficit to speak of. What began as a rainy day rescue plan has now become as routine as reading or playing music or piecing together puzzles. For a kid who isn't particularly driven by food, and has even less of a sweet tooth, it's still the first thing she'll want to fill me in on when I step through the front door in the evening. If there's a totemic symbol of all that wholesome home-centric adorable fuzzy awesomeness, an icon that fits conveniently in the palm of your hand that represents the process and the product in the hendiatris of head, heart and hands, it would have to be the oatmeal raisin cookie. And if there is an act more nourishing to the development of the toddler psyche - from it's fine motor skills to its lessons on procedure and cause and effect and collaboration to its establishment of work and reward - than baking oatmeal raisin cookies, I haven't found it yet (with the possible exception of the wholesome family singalong).

Think I'm getting soft in my old age? A whole post about baking cookies with a little kid? Give me a break. Your reward is forthcoming, for having made your way this far. It's still all about the beer. Nourishing, centering, fulfilling, "breakfast for dessert of vice versa" beer.

Beer, in today's case, born with the heart and soul of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Let's make some, shall we?

Because face it: homebrewing is a lot like baking, in many ways moreso that cooking. Ability to follow directions with an underlying understanding about the purpose of each step, the use of time and chemistry as the major catalysts, and the focus on a core set of a few simple ingredients are all hallmarks of baking and brewing. In the interest of putting together a recipe that capitalizes on the highlights of fresh, chewy, pungent, homebaked delightfulness, entrapping all those facets of a child's culinary masterpiece within a prism of their dad's favorite beverage, it makes sense to single out some slightly unorthodox brewing ingredients that could potentially make the difference:

Toasted oats: Well, duh, you say. Oats, in oatmeal cookies? Genius. Sure, but while oats have a celebrated history in brewing, the typical flaked oats that find their way into a brewer's mash tun have a far more neutral character than those that have spent some time sweating it out in a hot oven. Following a tip from Randy Mosher's most excellent Radical Brewing, we took a half pound of hand-picked Grade A local hippie co-op approved bulk oats and spread them out on a baking tray in a 300° F oven until the house was unmistakeably haunted by the ghost of deliciousness. Allowed to rest for a few days in the interest of casting off any harsh residual chemicals conjured up by the toasting action, they were then added in with the remainder of the grist.

Raisin puree: If it weren't enough for us to be "radical", the least we could do would be to include something "extreme". Thanks to Sam Calagione's treatise on that very subject, we experimented with a new approach to freeing up all the trapped fermentable sugars trapped in a half pound of raisins. Simply enough, put the raisins in a blender with a cup of hot wort from the kettle, frappe them beyond recognition, dump the resultant goo into your kettle about ten minutes shy of the end of your boil, and relax.

Candi, candi, candi, I can't let you go.
All my life, you're haunting me. I loved you so!

Homemade candi sugar: The image of oatmeal cookies as the health-conscious option on the bakery shelf is a bit strained, as everyone knows the most important ingredient is still sugar. Sweet sweet sugar. So what better opportunity, then, for us to attempt to knock out some amberescent candi sugar by following these simple instructions? The beauty of doing this yourself, like the toasted oats, is that you're completely in control of yet another deeply flavorful brewing component where you can dial in to whatever nuance you'd like to convey. As the sugar cooks, it gradually darkens in color, slowly developing more deeply toned aromas, going from a spun-sugar cotton candy scent into something more richly toffee-ish, caramel-like. Next time we'll have no choice but to go even darker to see where that takes us...

Chances are, despite the duplication of some key ingredients and the resultant intensely comforting waves of olfactory bliss that permeated the home with window-steaming warmth, the finished product in the glass will likely be as akin to an oatmeal raisin cookie as our Old Fashioned Ale was to its namesake cocktail (as in, "not very"). But was it delicious? Indeed it was. Perhaps we ought to chalk this up to my budding theory on the built-in success of backwards engineered brewing recipes. We shall see.

The recipe is here. (It's no small coincidence that the ingredient menu has an "odds and sods" look to it, smidges of all sorts of character grains and an odd stylistic ambivalence, because that's exactly what it is: a leftovers batch. But what of the beer that warranted all these castoff ingredients? What possible Frankenstein of an experiment could have yielded these scraps? To be revealed in our next episode: Tokyo Fog.)

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Localize it, pt. 4 - Some closing thoughts

The completion of the premiere SF Beer Week seems an opportune time to close the door on our recent ruminations on "local beer" in its many iterations. In many ways, actually, a local theme did emerge throughout the ten days of competitions, dinners, and other festivities, what with a San Francisco brewery taking a medal at Toronado's storied barleywine fest, some of the country's finest chefs a la cuisine a la biere showing off on their home turf, North and East Bay breweries receiving honors at the Bistro Double IPA festival, Anchor revealing their very first barrel aged beer, and local bloggers hosting events to easily rival the pros, all amidst the reemergence of the "official" beer of the week, a historically recreated batch of pale ale hearkening back to the area's distinction as ground zero for the new craft brewing movement. And despite the appearance of some of the industry's highest profile figures, the most exciting "meet the brewer" event featured none other than one of our own.

And arguably, that could be the best lesson learned from our first ever rally for Bay Area beer, that the bash was at its best when it was celebrating hometown successes, be they brewers or bars or chefs or restaurants. In retrospect, some of the activities that would have been unmissable under any other circumstances - visits from brewers from abroad, for example - looked like nothing more than filler. Hopefully next year, the local businesses who strangely opted to sit out this year's beer week will recognize the goldmine of opportunity that they missed out on, and will enter into the fray when February rolls around again, making it an event where one really does "come for the bay, stay for the beer." We'll just have to see, won't we?

And on a side note, I'm still haunted by those growlers, too, the ones we saw getting filled up at Russian River on the day Pliny the Younger was tapped, how wrecked they must have been when they finally made their way into hands over 3,000 miles and who knows how many warm, oxidized, flat UPS-rattled days away. Retelling that horror story to another aficionado, he replied, "that beer doesn't even taste the same once it's been in the glass for five minutes." At Toronado, the bartenders were uncorking the 20th Anniversary ale in front of the buyers to make sure they didn't try to sneak out with them to post on Ebay or worse, which made me wonder how Vinnie and Natalie must feel about having their hard work represented so falsely and sloppily. Brewers care about how their work is perceived, simply. Something that tastes so good because it's fresh, because it's local, it's hard to imagine what those long distance traders look to really get out of the deal other than a fresh tick on their "to have" list.

And lastly, in closing the book on this first experiment in formally saluting the Bay Area's beer scene, it's only fitting to donate a moment of remembrance to William Brand, whose tragic death wove a somber undercurrent beneath the proceedings. Critically injured just two days into the celebration, finally succumbing to his injuries eleven days later, he was such an anticipated presence at so many of the events that his absence was a somewhat strange and chilling entity, despite the nightly toasts held in his honor in dozens of taprooms, restaurants, dining rooms, and brewhouses throughout the region. There's little I can add to the chorus of sympathies being sounded out around both journalistic and beer circles, but he will be sorely missed.

(Image above from SF Beer Week's culminating liverbasher, the Toronado Barleywine Festival: Firestone Walker Abacus Blend, Elysian Old Cyclops, He'Brew Human Blockhead, and Ballast Point Three Sheets.)

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Gold fashioned

And it's gone. Sitting here with a minute glass of the keg's last sputtering gasp, it's a fair reminder why even the strangest of experimental batches often deserve to be doubled in volume, just in case. The subject in this case is our Old Fashioned ale, five gallons of which has passed on, with another phantom five gallons presumably lurking in a darkened dusty corner of the garage, just waiting for me, ready to appear when I'm at my weakest and say, it wasn't just a dream. Really? You don't remember deciding to make a double batch at the very last minute?

Make no mistake: While excellent, it wasn't by any means a perfect recipe. Of course, an optimist (and as it's an attitude I'm not entirely familiar with, I had to go online to find one to vouch for me) would argue that the success of the first batch only lends to the opportunity for it to be improved upon, a chance to pat oneself on the back with one hand while stirring up a fresh mash in the kettle with the other. Having shared (a tiny amount) with the conspirator who helped me chart out the taxonomy of the classic Old Fashioned cocktail for use as a jig for the composite beer recipe, I was able to wrangle (a tiny amount of) tasting notes from his inital impression: "just slightly sweet, not cloying, with hints of orange in the finish, mingling with spice and a little oakiness".

But did it taste like an Old Fashioned? "Not really."

Oh well. "Inspired by" doesn't necessarily need translate to "unmistakable from", which means we won't be stealing the crown from Southern Tier as the Jones of tastealike brewing expertise. Despite the high level of alcohol, there wasn't nearly the heat one gets from true liquor. Regardless of our bourbon oak aging, there wasn't much by way of toasted char effect as there was the merest hint of vanilla and black pepper. And the cherry came through only in the keg's last few days, as the merest whisper, warning me not to toy too much in the future for fear of creating a potentially horrifying Nyquil-like undertone.

As a cocktail, it was a failure. As a beer, on the other hand, it was a success.

One arena in which that was distinctly true was as a singly-hopped beer, in which just one variety of hops was employed for all the bittering, flavor and aroma, with the organic Belgian Admiral hops we used laying down a distinctive but mellow bitterness on the front end and allowing for some serious marmalade overtones in both the aroma and finish. And as a double IPA (which at its core it really was) it was our most successful attempt yet, sticky and rich with an interplay between bitter and sweet that made it exceptionally drinkable despite what the stats would lead you to believe. Chewy and deep, yet clean on the finish and with a rousing bitterness, the question in my mind now is: What would it have tasted like if we'd skipped out on all the flaming orange and mystery tincture mumbo jumbo? Were those the secret hidden elements that held it all together, or would it have been even brighter, crisper, more satisfying without?

I guess we'll just have to find out, soon. The keg is empty now, remember. So much for the year of the session, eh?

(This post is in part a response to Drew, a commenter who didn't leave any contact info but who cared enough to ask how this recipe came out. For the rest of you, just pretend I wrote it for you because I knew you were so, so curious.)

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Localize it, pt. 3 - The Younger the better

Admittedly, I am not, nor have I ever been, a starry-eyed fanatic of Pliny the Elder. Despite passionate dalliances with the coterie of Russian River's offerings, including an ashamedly fanboy exuberance over any of their Belgian modeled brews, this flagship IPA has always struck a curious chord on my palate. Every year, though, along with the demise of the football season and the emergence of a certain gigantic rodent from the frozen landscape, comes another iteration, one that warrants a quick foray up through the construction equipment rental yards, cow pastures, and dreadfully vacant car dealerships that pave the way through southern Sonoma county: Pliny the Younger. And while I was boggled by the level of delusional clamor I saw - people literally purchasing hundreds of dollars of growlers (as it's on tap, and at the Santa Rosa pub only) with the intent on shipping them to folks outside of driving range - it would be untruthful of me not to admit a newfound fresh, starry-eyed fanaticism that it managed to inspire.

The curious chord at the heart of the Elder, for me, has always been its coldly sharp bitterness, an effect I'm tempted to liken to the experience of a morning gone frost-bitten on a subalpine camping trip, one of those places where despite the promise of a warm afternoon, the summer's heat can't compete with the barren cold that follows a cloudless night, forcing one to wake squiting into the sunrise, in shock. There's a quick, prickly forest bite like pushing past pine and fir, cutting needles unyielding in their harsh, scraping way, a somewhat masochistic thrill of taking a deep, bracing breath, calling it invigorating. It's enjoyable, without question, but for me it's enjoyable in the same doses and frequency as camping is. When my palate needs readjusting (to wit, the lupulin threshold shift), when something brisk and just a tad punishing will settle things, the Elder is as honest, fresh, and distinctively local as beer can get. But the Younger, perhaps thanks to the loads of collateral impact that come along for the ride when you try to amp an all-malt beer up to over 10% alcohol, all those peskily unfermentables, that richly complex malt residue, is a completely different beast, with a glowing core of mandarin orange and a strange insistancy, a strange permanence in the glass that just demanded extra attention and a bit more reflection.

Perhaps it was the way that despite its proximity to the most depressing day of the year, the sun limped along in the sky, hesitatingly keeping things warmer far longer that it should have, lingering stubbornly in a rusty sky instead of plummeting behind Inverness Ridge like it was supposed to. This stranger, stronger sibling seems to be wrought of a deeper, warmer wellspring, an effluent life of depth that's only hinted at beneath the frost of its paler brethren. Like an impossibly warm summer's morning, the prickly edges of those evergreen branches have been softened, revealing a greener, more floral side, dense waves of pollen alongside eager blossoms perfuming the air. It is by no means a "hot" beer, the alcohol level is dangerously well hidden, but has a warmth of balance and a restorative sense to it, a soulfulness. This is Pliny the relaxed, Pliny the assured. Any semblance of shrieking , potentially sharp, spiky edges have been muted and mellowed, peaceably calmed, allowing for a richness of essence that lends itself to the kind of deliriously overwrought elucidation that can only come with long, slow, ruminative tasting.

But there's something Italian here, too, I could swear. A connection to the bold digestifs of the culture that brought us elixirs like Campari and Sanbitter, the bitterness that lingers in the back of the throat made me think of Orangina, of a time before sucrose, a strange sort of parallel of being a child newly introduced to taste in five dimensions, and of being the overstuffed omnivore that I am now, settling back into the rhythms of the evening, full, fat and happy with a glass of something comforting and easing to accompany the darkening of the sky.

And soon it will be gone, fleeting, not worth trying to save and store and cellar (and pity those poor folks in far off lands with flat, lifeless growlers of the stuff trying to figure it all out while pretending to ignore the dent it's made in their credit card bill), but exists truly just an act of local beer done perfectly, in a way that no other I can think of at the moment sums it all up, the life out here, so justly, so well, all of it. A great reminder of how lucky we are, and for what's possible.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Localize it, pt. 2 - SF Beer Week buddies

Something happened yesterday, something unplanned, unexpected, and for lack of a better description, something completely unintended. This dainty little blog turned four years old. And of the manifold benefits we reaped this past year, persisting to document some sort of beer tasting thought diary experiment, was the explosive array of new acquaintances we made. While we managed a marked return to our homebrewing experimentation (a discussion I'll save for this Friday), and likewise managed to get our hands on some pretty thought-provoking, sought-after bottles as well, but what was truly unique about this past year was the motley collection of wiseacres we came into regular communication with, transforming this formerly insular little notepad into a place where commentary, insight, and interplay came into the game.

That said, SF Beer Week is nearly upon us, and along with it, as luck would have it, a number of folks I've had the distinct pleasure of getting to know be just happen to be involved in hosting events under auspices of the golden Beer Week banner. Whereas the focus of these events might deviate from "the local", what with Belgian and German beers and whatnot, the sheer number of hardworking individuals - mostly bloggers, no less - organized here in the cause of raising an appreciation of fine beer in the Bay Area speaks volumes about the groundswell influence of local individuals. Where there have been obvious comparisons between SF Beer Week and it's relative Philly Beer Week, one could argue that our East Coast competitor is by the breweries and for the beer, whereas ours is for the people and by the people. In chronological order:

- Mario from Brewed for Thought has organized an Introduction to Belgian Ales at Alpha Sigma Phi on the UC Berkeley campus on Friday, February 5, along with a "meet the brewer" event with Tim Goeppinger of Sonoma Springs Brewing Company on Tuesday, February 10. A fellow member of BABB, Mario's a chatty, knowledgeable guy who fosters a pretention-free appreciation of craft beer, and who would be the perfect guide for someone who'd otherwise be turned off by a snobby introduction to arguably the world's greatest brewing culture.

- Chris and Meredith from have organized a German Beer Tasting at Rosie's Cracker Barrel in Carmel Valley on Saturday, February 7 at 2:00 p.m. Last summer I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the two of them while they were visiting Iron Springs on their way up to the Santa Rosa Brewing Festival. Good folks with a serious appreciation for German beer (which I've always found a little sadly lacking in the craft beer circles), Chris and Meredith are well-traveled and well-versed, certain to use what they've learned in their time in Germany to provide some excellent insight on some overlooked styles. 

- Peter and Sammy from BetterBeerBlog are hosting a Beer & Dessert Tasting Event at Wine Affairs in San Jose on the evening of Monday, February 9. As many folks have been vocal about the decrepit state of craft beer on the Peninsula, this couple has resolved to be a part of the solution, trying to carve out an oasis of brewing appreciation with their beer dinners and pairing adventures. With keen perception on the nuances of beer tasting, they've been boldly creative in finding ways to bring beer to the table alongside all manner of foods. And dessert is, after all, the best course.

- Jesse from Beer & Nosh is presenting a beer dinner benefiting the San Fransisco Food Bank on Wednesday, February 11, hosted by Scala's Bistro. One of the local beer and food documenters that I just happen to run into more often than not, Jesse's a true gourmand of the local scene, and definitely the guy you want with a camera in hand when you're trying to show off. This dinner, subbed "New American Food and New American Beer", with a menu designed and executed by hotshot chef Jen Biesty, looks to be everything you'd want in a presentation that really showcases the elevated status and versatility of the new craft beer scene in this country.

- Sean Paxton is teaming up with Firestone Walker and Toronado for a beer dinner at the Peacock Lounge on Thursday, February 12.

It will be insane.

This last one is of a little more personal importance to me as I'll be donating the services of my delicate, lily-white hands to the man better known as The Homebrew Chef in his kitchen, a position garnered solely through the illusion I've cast as having some idea of how to find my way around a cutting board. We'll just see if I can pull that off. (If you see a bearded, bloodied man running back and forth across Haight Street that evening, there's a one-in-ten chance it's me.) It's a thrilling opportunity to get my hands dirty (after washing them!) in an arena in which we've always itched to dabble.

There ought to be a Pfiff! sponsored event, I suppose. Maybe next year? Or maybe something wild and impromptu will happen on the 8th, with the assistance of my four year-old nephew. On second thought, maybe the 13th would be better. But don't wait up. If you're attending events at this year's Beer Week, make a point of coming to some of these events, as they seem to define, as a group, what beer means to the current indie-by-way-of-foodie generation of the Bay Area.

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Localize it, pt. 1 - Towards a reconnection with beer as a staple

Like bread, milk, eggs... There's no describing the burden of shame and embarrassment that would follow me if I ever bothered to purchase one of those items from a source further afield than I could comfortably drive in a leisurely afternoon outing. But if there's a weakness to be exploited in my professed admiration for all things brewed, it's my relative lack of engagement with the local scene (a weakness I tried valiantly to resolve this past weekend with a glass of Marin Brewing's White Knuckle double IPA, as seen above). Of the breweries represented in the SF Brewers' Guild, I can only genuinely throw my weight behind maybe half of them, for example. But to the extent that my cynical, sarcastic, pessimist attitude allows, I have to concede that some of the core tenets that push the modern foodview (local, sustainable, affordable) are going to be major factors in the beer scene in the coming year. What was beginning to gnaw at me, a flux of super-high cost beers, the elevation of beer to the wine-drinker's table alongside the wine-drinker's price tag, may likely be less of a concern as locals begin to take closer care with their expenses and indulgences. In an area as obsessed with food and dining as San Francisco, though, where neighborhood farmer's markets are the norm, it would seem logical that locally-produced, handcrafted, affordable, fresh beer would edge out the $50 bottles of Brazilian méthode champenoise offerings on the menu. Currently, though, despite how much they may actually sell, and despite their quality, public perception hasn't shifted to acknowledge them as the obvious, socially, politically, environmentally, and health concious choices on the beer menu.

Thankfully, it will soon be SF Beer Week, an opportunity to redeem myself somewhat, and an opportunity for local brewers to perhaps reclaim the crown of percieved quality from their brethren from further afield. Amidst the plethora of happenings, too, there are some that hosted by folks I like to consider friends, some smaller events that will arguably pack in more passion about beer, food and the social, communal, convivial attitiude that belongs alongside them than some of the larger events. And all with a local bent, a local point of view. Expect a post about those gatherings in the next day or so.

Here's to reconnecting. Go out and grab something local to enjoy this weekend. And if you can't find anything local that you can enjoy, ask yourself why not? Why hasn't anyone bothered to fill that void, the simple pleasure of a simple beverage brewed well, freshly, for locals? With all the talk of "carbon footprints", fears over tainted food, the push of the organic movement, the current economic crisis, and the emboldened palate of the modern consumer, why wouldn't everyone have access to reasonable, quality, local beer?

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Out with the old...

Not sure what 2009 will bring. Stay tuned?

Happy New Year, folks!


Friday, November 14, 2008

Who's the Healthiest of them all?

There hasn't been much pimping of local beer biz around these parts lately, partially since there hasn't been much pimping of anything, and partly because other local writers have been doing such a proper job of reporting on all beer-related newsiness. One recent development, however, seems to have avoided the warranted blogosphere press: the transformation of Healthy Spirits from a neighborhood shop into an undisputed beer destination, currently boasting the largest bottled beer selection in the Bay Area within a space that can't be more than 600 square feet.

Most fascinating to me is how this has all come about, all within your typical urban corner store, similar to dozens within a mile's radius and amongst hundreds within city limits. Unlike a business that's made it their outright original goal, as part of a model to establish themselves as outright beacons for beer geeks, this little shop that stands within a quick stroll of my childhood home is a sort of accidental mecca for beer hunters. The big question for me, though, is: Do they have the largest selection in the Bay Area? Last I checked, Dave, their beer manager, informed me that they were up to 570 choices with more on the way, with two new shelves being put in since the photo I took last week to corral them (which you can now see here). It says a lot about the management to allow their mom & pop store undergo such a focused transformation, one riding on the somewhat feverish and fantastical vision of a single, beer-obsessed soul.

See this as a shameless plug for an institution I admire or just as a reflection on the curious development in my old stomping grounds, whichever you prefer. Just make sure you stop by if you can, and marvel in its unexpected glory (and pick me up something while you're there).


Friday, November 07, 2008

Brew like a mook

And it smelled like roses
Finally, thanks to the Italians, "beer" can mean whatever you want. There's been a whirlwind of attention lately being given to the Italian brewing scene, and while it's a whirlwind that albeit reeks of "next big thing" trendism and seems eerily connected to an influx of imported Italian beers flooding the market at decidedly prohibitive price points, there appears quite a bit to be excited about. With the culinary ethics of one of the world's deepest, most soulful cuisines, the Italians look to have said "Chi se ne frega?" to staid style and guidelines, and are brewing with their gut. And here, in a country where there remains a certain puritanical view on alcohol enjoyed on its own merits but a near universal acceptance of alcohol as a complement to fine dining, these beers have an excellent chance of taking root.

Our first introduction to this new spectrum of offerings, in fact, was through one such fine dining experience. One of the honestly creative and stunningly flavorful creations made by Le Baladin's Teo Musso, Nora tastes like the eccentric offspring of Dany Prignon and Sam Calagione: a sweet, ephemeral, nectar-like brew that hosts such ingredients as unmalted kamut, ginger, myrrh and orange peel. But what exactly is it? When you look around, you see that folks attempt to use Belgian beer verbiage to walk you through an understanding of what to expect, what with Nora and it's "classic strength of a saison." Maybe it's the cork-finished bottles, or maybe just the simple mystique of continental ales with innovative artisanal flair has been for so long seen as an earmark of Belgianosity that we Americans can't appreciate it through any other filter.

Take the Barley BB Dexi, for example. ("Barley", awesomely enough, is the name of the brewery.) An ale brewed with "sapa of Cannonau grapes" and orange peel, it's a 10% birra artigianale that the brewers from the Associazione Unionbirrai suggest you enjoy at 60° in a Chablis glass. In a beer drinkers game of Balderdash, one could have loads of fun trying to pin this one inside an understood stylistic camp. Is it a barleywine? Certainly doesn't taste like it: Sort of like a wild hybrid of beer, wine and a Negroni, rather. The exception seems to be the norm, when you take into account that this is a tiny niche market that's also home to beers like Birrificio di Como's Malthus Baluba, a dark ale brewed with pineapple, apricot, ginger and rue, and Birra Troll's Palanfrina, a Castagna ale brewed with chestnut flowers, dried chestnuts, chestnut honey and chestnut jam.

When these beers first started making an appearance here, the diverse and esoteric nature of their ingredient lists, Dali-esque bottle shapes, and completely cryptic labeling schemes could have lead one to think that we were at the whim of some mad importer's fever dream. Certainly they were only the weirdest of the bunch, picked purely for their novelty, right? But when Stan Hieronymus notes that there are "at least 40 chestnut beers" being brewed in Italy, one gets the impression that what's different is what's normal. And as Stan also points out, in a sentiment that includes at least one interchangeable word, "To understand Italian beer means at least beginning to understand Italian culture."

In the same way that "Va fangul" means a completely, quite importantly different thing to Italians than it does to Italian-Americans, one has to wonder what Italian brewing can mean to us here. Brew with an Italian soul rather than a Belgian one, is my instinctive reaction. When I once poured a glass of our annual holiday ale for a friend, one who happens to be quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about beer, he asked me what it was. I responded that, for lack of a better term, it was in the vein of a Belgian-style Christmas beer, to which he told me he thought it was a little too dark. I had no ready reply, since I didn't know there had been a standard set for what color my beer was supposed to be. It was the color I'd wanted it to be, I knew that much. It's that huge leap in thinking that will make the transition of Italian beers to our concepts of evaluation so abrasive and intriguing. Too dark for what?

As a homebrewer who capitalizes the third letter of his last name, it's been with a certain vested interest that I've been following the whole unfolding saga. How do we brew, from where do we draw our inspiration, and to what standards do we hold ourselves accountable? It's obvious from the stories that are emerging post-Slow Food Salone del Gusto that food is the primary motivator. Not only in the way that the beer pairs with food, either, but brewing the beer itself with a cook's mindset, curiosity for ingredients and eagerness of experimentation. This seems to run parallel to the mindset of many American homebrewers, a bunch that paradoxically gets mocked routinely for it's love of making up rules to follow but at the same time floods the "fruit", "herb/spice/vegetable" and "specialty" beer categories at competition time with all manner of wild, fanciful concepts. Against a backdrop of rule makers and rule breakers, there's a third, quieter subset of rule ignorants, passionately approaching their craft with no other aim than to cast their artistic vision within the vessel of nourishment, capturing something genuine and pure and turning it into an elevated experience. Always with an eye on the food, and on simplicity, and on surroundings. Perhaps it's not a purely Italian endeavor, but it's certainly distinct from the way we've been taught to appreciate the Belgian beer experience from abroad.

And on that note, a quote from Marcella Hazan:
"On an afternoon slowed down by the southern sun, it was one of the best ways to while away the time, watching life dawdle by as you let the granita's crystals melt on the tongue, spoonful by spoonful, until the roof of your mouth felt like an ice cavern pervaded by the aroma of strong coffee."
(Apologies to Stan for mangling his quality book title for my punny abuse.)


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dissidents and dissonance, notes from the underground

If you've noticed a dearth of additions here of late, you're likely alone. That's part of the charm of the way this new media is digested, isn't it? We all subscribe to a gamut of spottily updated resources from around the web, and after a while it becomes a blur of content devoid of the linear narrative you can slip into when you're only following the exploits of a handful of writers.

It's not for lack of liquid material, mind you. But a quiet rule in publishing content here has been to limit myself to commentary that at least carries the veneer of insight. As the past couple weeks have been riddled with sicknesses, stresses, and a shaky return to the full-time grind, my capacity for insight has been duly diminished and the desire to share nonexistent. But rather that let this page languish too long, a little roundup of recent goings-on might be due, a quick gasp of breath before going back underwater.

- What prompted this brief return to soliloquy is the beer pictured above: A very fine, reserve offering from Deschutes in the Flanders brown style, the Dissident inspires a bit of thought on the state of the American craft brewer and their special releases. A deep, ruddy cherry ale that crackles with the sour tang of wild fermentation and the slightest musk of the barrel, it's wholly reminiscent of something you might expect to find in a cafe in Ghent. (Although it could potentially use another year in the cellar, what with a residual sweetness that left it tasting just a tad young, the same impression we recently had while tasting the new Ten Commandments release from Lost Abbey. Are breweries rushing their special releases out onto the market early? The press release said The Dissident had already spent 18 months maturing. But I digress...)

While brewed with cherries from the Northwest, there's nothing "Northwest" of note in the beer, which came as a little bit of a surprise considering how much of an impact Deschutes has had as a flag-bearer for the area's idiosyncratic brewing scene. While Mirror Pond and Black Butte both represent for many folks the ethos of the FNWONWCB (first new wave of Northwest craft brewing, not to be confused with NWOBHM), the only thing that struck me as being particularly American about The Dissident is its alcohol level (9% according to the bottle, versus the 11% it lists on the press release, but still up from the 5-6% you'd find in an oud bruin or Flanders red). Does Rodenbach do this? Do they celebrate their continued success by rewarding their fans with an anniversary California pale ale? It's a testament, perhaps, to what is happening behind the scenes in small brewhouses around the country, where brewers' worldly palates are being greenlit by the company number crunchers and marketing flacks alike, seeing the voracious appetite of the online beer enthusiast community as being recession-proof enough that there's minimal risk (and potentially excellent mark-up potential) in letting the brewers experiment in foreign styles in the cause of expanding their repertoire. It's arguable that the market for Rodenbach would not be so kind to their experimentation, and were the monks of the abbey of St. Sixtus to present the world with a Westvleteren Mandarin Orange Hefeweizen for those hot monastic summer nights, there'd likely be riots.

- Meanwhile, over at the Aleuminati, I've been involved in an open source brewing project of sorts, a groupthink recipe tinkering collective with the ambitious goal of creating a beer that even the most initiate of homebrewers could attempt, while being scalable in scope for the more ambitious of us, designed with the intent of being a good gateway beer to more expansive beer tasting for those looking to hook their unknowing friends into this little cult we call "beer snobbery". It's a little like a dubbel but with a bit of American oomph, and it's entitled The Indoctrinator. While the recipe itself is set (in silly putty, or mud maybe), there's still time to brew your own batch and get in the trading circle. Once everyone's confident their batch is sufficiently conditioned, we'll be shipping samples around to do our own personal horizontal tastings.

The morning after brewing up our version, I found it burbling away with a rhythmic regularity that momentarily entranced me like a Louis Hardin ostinato, and I was thrown: Has a day of listening to 5-year olds hack their way into the canon of Western music distorted my musical perception to the degree that I'm hearing regularity and pulse in the randomness of nature? So of course, I filmed it. See if you think I'm crazy.

(Des, meanwhile, has disavowed any knowledge of this video and will not admit to the possibility that anyone in this household is enough of a dork to have generated it.)

- Speaking of brewing, we also got around to throwing together a kettle of that hereto theoretical lavender-infused black saison on Saturday afternoon, bringing the amount of partially-fermented homestuffs in the basement to an unforeseen 25 gallons, a possible new record. Lord knows what we'll do with all of it. Good thing I've got another batch planned for brewing in the next few days. While it's obviously too early to post tasting notes, the phenomenal sensory overload that arose from adding the hydrosol to the pot was intense enough to make us wonder if we'd come across something wonderful, or terrifying. It'll be ready for Halloween, appropriately.

- Lastly, I'll most likely be AFK for the coming weekend as it's one jam-packed with birthday celebrations in a true Oktoberfest by way of autumnal equinox fashion, but I'd be remiss if there wasn't a nod to the Northern California Homebrewers Festival that will be going on concurrently, most specifically the brewer's dinner that Sean Paxton has planned. Hot diggety delicious dog. Maybe next year that'll be Mia's idea of a good time, camping up in the Sierra foothills with a bunch of homebrewers, but this year we'll stick to a pony ride and a day in the park with cupcakes...

(And thanks to fellow beer blogger Bailey for the Lomo photoshopping trick. Like most hipster grups, there's a Holga in our closet, but we hardly ever take it out. Instead, there's something delightfully ironic about using all of today's most advanced technologies in digital imaging to attempt a recreation of an iconic, singular, and strangely loveable classic. Hey, it's kind of like a storied Oregon brewery aping a historic Flemish beer.)

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