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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Friday, July 18, 2008

Brewmaster profile - Michael Altman


Today marks the inaugural celebration of International Brewers Day, a holiday of sorts inspired by the graphic that greets you as you enter San Francisco's 21st Amendment brewpub, a logo that asks: Have you hugged a brewmaster today? Conceived by local beer writer Jay Brooks to coincide with the feast of the brewer's patron saint, St. Arnold, the idea is to simply take a day to give credit where credit is due: "celebrating the contributions to society of the men and women who brew beer." In honor of the occasion, I thought it would be fun to participate by profiling our friend, fellow Fairfaxian, and local publican, the inimitable Mike Altman.

However, not only have I not indulged in a straight up Q&A interview since 1997 (having then proven quite conclusively that it's not a strong point of mine), we also decided to eschew the typical format as he's been the subject of similar interviews by the local press in recent years. Something besides beer that Mike and I have in common, however, is a love of music. Mike hosts free live music at the pub at least once, if not twice a week, has named his brews after local musical luminaries, and has decorated the pub with various musicalia. For those reasons, it seemed like a strangely appropriate idea to have this profile revolve around music by stealing recontextualizing the format popularized by The A.V. Club in their Random Rules feature. Simply put, we sat down with Mike's iPod, hit shuffle, and chatted about the tunes that came up - while drinking beer, of course. (An Altman's alt, to be exact.)

The Freight Hoppers, "Trouble"









Rob: So, this makes it easy to start talking about bluegrass, eh? Did you pick up on your love for
bluegrass when you were working in Colorado?
Mike Altman: The last year I was in Portland, there was a guy that I was working with who was really into bluegrass, got me into Bill Monroe, and then when I got to Colorado that's when it really exploded, I started playing banjo...
R:And when you went to Colorado, you went to brew for...
MA: Actually, when we'd gone out there, it was for Rockygrass, just going out for the festival. I'd just made the call, gotten all the passes and everything for the festival, put the phone down, and then like fifteen minutes later, I got a call about some guys out in Boulder looking for a brewer, and I thought, that's funny, I'm headed out there next week for a bluesgrass festival. I wasn't planning on going to Boulder, but decided to go out for an interview, the best interview of my life, and got the job at Mountain Sun. There was a really strong tie between Mountain Sun and Planet Bluegrass, their office used to be right next door in downtown Boulder, and it was a connection I really jumped into and took to another level. The last two years I was there we were doing all the backstage catering for them.
R: So what was it about bluegrass that got you so into it?
MA: The fun, the rhythm, the music. It's just good, good dance music.

Paul Simon, "Crazy Love, Vol. II"









MA:
That's a good story. I was the private chef for Paul Simon's record producer, Phil Ramone. And Simon and Garfunkel, I was listening to them when I was like four or five years old. Bridge over Troubled Water, he had the 8-track.
R: It's pretty obvious you've taken music from when you were growing up and still play it in the pub, follow the musicians... Was there anything like that for you with beer, anything you've brought with you from growing up?
MA: Actually, no. All my friends who've known me since high school think it's hysterical that I became a brewer. I was always the first one out in quarters games, throwing up, the one who couldn't really handle his beer.
R: So when did it happen, then?
MA: When I moved from New York, I was a private chef, we moved to Portland. I was going to school, I was going to be a teacher. McMenamins was just getting off the ground, just as Edgefield was getting built...
R: You were going to be a teacher? Is that why you do so much here at the pub for YES?
MA: Oh, absolutely. It's a profession that's so crucial, yet they get paid nothing. And teachers get so little recognition.
R: What did you want to teach?
MA: 4th and 5th grade. 6th grade at the latest, before they start hitting puberty. So I was going to school, working as a chef, and I started getting into the brewing world. I had so many credits to go, having gone to cooking school and then needing the undergraduates degree and the teaching degree, I just didn't have the patience.


Ozomatli, "Super Bowl Sundae"







MA: Hey, this is a good mix.
R: I need a refresher on this one. This is an interesting one to show up on here, because for me, Ozomatli always walked the line between being a band that was really trendy and one that was going to fall into the jam band circuit.
MA: They're kinda like the Beastie Boys, mixing a lot of different genres, being very salsa, Latin-based, with rap, and hip hop, and rock to create a fun, eclectic music. Sublime is like that, too. I got to see them up last year at the Mystic, whenever they come around I try to see them.
R: What kind of live music do you like to see the most?
MA: It varies, it depends. We're going up tonight to see David Bromberg. We get to go out so rarely.* I'm sort of done with the jam band thing, there's just not a band out there that really excites me in that genre right now. But I like to go out to see this kind of thing, really upbeat, good dancing music.

The Grateful Dead, "Sugaree"


R: Speaking of jam bands...
MA: But that's a classic. This place is here because of Jerry, I'm here because of Jerry. It's such an obvious connection. He's been such a huge influence on my life. I feel like I missed the boat by just a short time. I can guarantee that if Jerry were still alive, he would have played at this pub at some point or another.
R: Is Jerry one of the reasons you're in Fairfax?
MA: No, that's just random. It goes back to the karma thing. We were meant to be in Fairfax, being in touch with the whole Phil community. It has a lot to do with the Phil circles, very small circles.
R: I keep waiting for the "Phil-named" beer. When you named the beers after Barry and J.C., how did they react to it?
MA: Oh, Barry loved it, they both loved it. Well, it started actually with the Chazz Cats, and everybody then wanted a beer named after them. But when I came out here, one of the first beers I brewed was the Yonder Mountain stout, but it just wasn't fitting, it needed a new name, and Sless was on board.

The Vern Williams Band, "Roll On Buddy"








MA: I think that's a Bill Monroe tune, originally.
R: You like the traditional stuff, don't you? Do you think that's reflected in the way you make your beers? You work within fairly traditional parameters; there's nothing bizarre, experimental, strange stuff coming out of the brewhouse.
MA: That's fairly true. I did lots more experimenting when it was on someone else's nickel and we were going through the beers quicker. We have a bigger system here, producing twenty kegs at a time, that only lends itself to being experimented or taken off the deep end once in a while. And for me, with all my back surgeries, my time hands-on in the brewhouse has been a lot less, where I leave that to the brewer to take charge. That's one of the things about bringing Christian on board, I think he's going to do a lot more experimenting. At the beginning, he just wants to brew the beers we've got here, get ensconced in the system, get comfortable. But one of the reasons we brought him on board is we really want to see him build up the cask program and do some bottle conditioning.
R: So what's your traditional favorite, then? What's your Bill Monroe of the beer world?
MA: Traditional? Well, the Epiphany is probably my all-time favorite drinking beer, but it doesn't really fall within a guideline. It's a beer that I've been making since 1990. It was the Hammerhead at McMenamins and was transferred to Mountain Sun as the Colorado Kind Ale, and here I was, having brewed this beer for 15 years, driving out here, my head's spinning, taking notes while driving, recording notes into a portable recorder about opening up the brewpub because there was so much information, so much information that needed to get absorbed. I had to start my contacts all over again, my purveyors, going into a strange community, essentially. And I was on this tangent, on this beer, somewhere in between Utah and Nevada on this stretch of road, and my head is reeling... I was just like, I'm going to make this beer when we get out there, it's going to be our flagship beer, it's going to need a good name, a really good name. I'm going to need an epiphany to come up with a really good name for our flagship beer. Epiphany? That's a great name... I called Anne right away. "I got a name for our flagship beer. It's called Epiphany." And she says, "I like it."

Happy International Brewers Day!

Mike Altman is the co-proprietor, along with his wife Anne, of the Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax, CA, and not to be confused with the son of film producer Robert Altman, lyricist of the M*A*S*H theme song.

* On top of their full-time careers, Mike and Anne are quite busy raising the next generation Altman brewer, their 16-month old son Joey.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Proof that teh internets loves us and wants us to be happy

For those of you who have long dubbed the online forum, the chat room and the blog as vast wastes of time, those of you who deride others for their instant messaging, Facebooking, MySpacing, Craigslist-missed-connectioning and cat-macroing, those of you who think we all oughta stop with the googlebits and the tubes and the pron and go outside, get some fresh air, lose some weight, maybe kiss a girl... I give you this:



Sure, it's not like we can control the weather or end world hunger or calculate the last digit of pi or find proof of terrestrial visits by aliens, but we can make beer. Or better yet: We can inspire beer. De Regenboog's BBBourgondier is Johan Brandt's commemorative ale (and pretty scarce with a limited production of a mere 50 cases per year) brewed in honor of the Burgundian Babble Belt, the definitive and singular online community of Belgian beer nuts. And it's not the only one: Dany Prignon also once produced a tribute beer under the Fantôme label BBB Babillard. How much input the members of the forum actually had on the recipe is pretty debatable, but one thing's for sure: It's a damn fine beverage and the folks at the BBB are most certainly proud to be associated with it.

A hazy, yeasty, slighty wild concoction, this. Figgy dark fruits, sweetly evident dark sugars, and harboring a slightly yeasty bitterness that gives way to a vinous and dry finish, the Bourgondier is like the farm-raised bastard child of a Belgian strong ale and a British barley wine. Way less effervescent than a typical Belgian, and only truly giving up its secrets once warmed to a good 60 degrees, the caramel layer becomes balanced by a certain herbal brightness which could either be coming from the hops or intriguing addition of valerian root - a not-so-coded reference to this truly being a nightcap of a drink.

It's refreshing, too, considering the spate of beer-related groups cropping up all over the net now, seeing as it's become de rigueur for folks to build their own topic-specific social networks via sites like Ning. Two newer ones in specific - Democracy's Drink and The Aleuminati - both have professional and home brewers, BJCP judges and PBR acolytes, published beer writers and *ahem* paltry beer bloggers counted amidst their ranks. And when I find myself feeling a little guilty about taking a minute to check on the forum discussions or upload some ridiculously dorky photo of a nice-looking pour, I just have to tell myself: Hey, maybe there is a greater symbiotic relationship between brewer and taster than ever before. And who knows? It's not distributed computing by any means, but if the lowly discussion forum can create give rise to the Bourgondier, anything is possible.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A completely hopless situation

Ah, the good old days.
My good friend Christopher - a dedicated habitué of hops, baron of bitterness, cuckoo for beaucoup IBU - is feeling the pinch this season as our good friend humulus lupulus is in short and desperate supply. Still brewing his stable of homebrew favorites but having to substitute AAs from lesser gods of the hop pantheon with previously unknown varieties, he's feeling the pinch like the rest of us. Gone are the Fuggles, the Willamette, the Hallertauer and Hersbrucker, the Cascade and Chinook, the Saaz and Tetnang; in their place one finds Simcoe and Sorachi Ace, Cluster and Centennial, Millenium and Magnum. If they're green and bitter, we're resignedly throwing them in our kettles - even if they do sound like they were manufactured by Monsanto.

So what's the enterprising yet frugal brewer to do? Well, one option is to take a stroll in The Man's Garden and examine some bittering and flavoring options often overlooked in deference to the Reinheitsgebot that most homebrewers feel some sort of weird allegiance towards. If you're the type of homebrewer that decided to first start making a mess of your kitchen for reasons that had nothing to do with the gist of an antiquated set of laws designed to protect the use of winter wheat for use in bread-making, you've probably got a touch of the aleatoric in you. With the global harvest situation looking dire and prices climbing exponentially, it may just be the right time to let your freak flag fly.

There's plenty of reading material out there to get yourself started, too. To get started, The Homebrewer's Garden has an entire section devoted to alternative bittering and aroma herbs. You can also see this as an opportunity to try your hand at some historical styles, like gruit (yes, the beer that supposedly increases sexual drive - enjoy).

If, on the other hand, you're a more risk-averse brewer, you may just want to check what's coming down the pike from your local craft breweries to see if there's a style you'd like to emulate. (I'd bet good money that we're all going to see more low- or no-hop beers on store shelves sooner rather than later, while everyone tries to figure out some slick marketing trick that will allow them to pass the 100% increase in production costs on to us consumers.) The exceptional Williams Brothers brewery in Scotland makes a full roster of delectable historic ales (again with stimulated "animal instincts"!) the that use little or no hops. And big man on campus Sam Calagione has built almost his entire reputation upon some of Dogfish Head's crazy (yet scientifically crazy!) interpretations of ancient beers.

Meanwhile, it might be worth your while to rekindle those friendships of yours that may garner access to their sun-drenched backyards. Perhaps you could even send them a fun, conversation-starting present...

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Event - The San Francisco Beer Story

For those of you who've always wanted to ask your friends if they'd like to accompany you to the Commonwealth Club for a discussion forum but were afraid they wouldn't have beer, here's your chance. And no, I'm not referring to either "Conscious Capitalism: Resolving the Conflict Between Consumerism and Progressive Innovation" or "Gratitude: The Science and Spirit of Emotional Prosperity", but rather this:

The San Francisco Beer Story: History, Culture, Taste, Cuisine
The American craft beer explosion currently enlivening the gastronomic scene has long had its epicenter in San Francisco, where brewing traditions and techniques have been thriving since before the Gold Rush. Join the San Francisco Brewers Guild and a panel of industry experts to learn about beer pairings with a variety of cuisine and explore the colorful history and culture of the area's brewing scene. The program will conclude with a tasting of exquisite artisan cheese paired with delicious beers from these brewers: 21st Amendment, Anchor Brewing Co., Beach Chalet/Park Chalet, Gordon Biersch, Magnolia, San Francisco Brewing Company, Speakeasy Ales and Lagers, ThirstyBear Restaurant and Brewery, and Wunder Brewing Co.

Friday, January 25th - 5:30 p.m., Check-in | 6:00 p.m., Program | 7:00 p.m., Tasting | Club office, 595 Market St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco | $12 for Members, $18 for Non-Member

Tickets available here.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

There can’t be good living where there is not good drinking.

So sayeth big Ben. Happy President's Day, everyone. Just one more day of vacation, I promise. It's been a wild ride the past month or so, but there hasn't been any shortage beery goodness of which to speak.
In the meantime, a little article on the true architectural grandeur of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello - the brewery!
(via beertown.org)

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