Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tasting notes - Judgment Day


In 1988, the year that Basquiat died, the year that the last state in the US succumbed to the pressure of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, near the end of a decade thrust through time via the unforeseen propulsion of forced-air induction, a new chapter in what we can now look back at fondly as the re-birth of America's current craft beer movement had begun. As a development within the West Coast craft brewing movement that could be traced back to a pint of steam beer that Fritz Maytag enjoyed with his lunch back in 1965, the brewpub boom was a huge shift in the culture of craft beer. Sitting down with a list of the iconic breweries of the genre, one quickly finds the vast majority of them had their roots not as bottlers or draught distributors, but as public houses, taverns, and saloons that offered a community gathering place, served food, and brewed their own beer on the premises: think Hopland's Mendocino Brewing Company, Ashland's Rogue Ales pub, and the Buckhorn Saloon of the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. At that time, a simple business plan would show that the profit margins on the beer sold on the premises paid off the cost of the customers' food, even, a profit margin that - while it likely doesn't exist anymore - offered these companies the resources to expand into bottling, kegging, and distributing their wares off premises.

And the flagship wares brewed by these fine folks are an exemplary reflection of what most people today would identify with as the trademark distinctions of American craft beer: ales with a British pedgiree, brewed with a certain frontier, buckaroo styling. Pale ales, stouts, IPAs, porters, amber ales, mostly, ramped up in both the bitterness and alcohol departments, and watermarked with the unique traits of the locally grown, citrusy, piney hops. Wonderful tipples, for the most part, these beers are, especially when admired within the context of their creation, in a pub with some locals, enjoying a burger with a game on the toob, brushing the workday dust off your shoulder.

Fast forward to the present. The Hopland, Ashland, and Anderson Valley brewpubs have all been outgrown by their previous inhabitants, but their presence as "regulars" in retail and restaurants would seem pretty solid. Likewise all over the country, beer makers that had initially been tied to brewpubs as the anchor of their identity have spread their wings, flexed their marketing muscle, and grown beyond anyone's expectations.

Those that weathered the microbrewery boom of the 90's ("micro" being the "turbo" of the nineties) formed the old guard of the current revolution, making solid West Coast ales that pair damned well with hot wings and a Raiders game. But anon, lucky us, we appear to be potential witnesses to the birth of a new chapter, a chapter which is underway right now and could quite possibly be summed up by the bottle you see pictured at the head of this post. For if you were to head south to sunny Solana Beach, you'd come across a pretty great little pizza joint called Pizza Port that happens to serve some darned fine beers on tap (mostly like the ones I've described above, in fact) but look in the cooler case by the front door, and you'll see something wholly different - a set of nice 750 mL bottles with not the Port Brewing logo on them, but Lost Abbey.

Lost Abbey is a page turn in this craft beer story we're all enjoying, in that it's more a name and a logo for a branded, thematic collection of cork-finished, wire-caged bottles - a "vision" of sorts concocted by Tomme Arthur - than it is a "brewery" in the traditional sense. It's only one step ahead of a shift we've all seen in Russian River over the years. More on that later (since I did say this was a tasting notes column, after all).

If you've ever had the pleasure of enjoying a Ritter Sport Rum Raisin & Hazelnut bar, you've pretty much had the solid, non-alcoholic version of Judgment Day (and around here, that's a huge compliment). Pouring a stark, shiny black, looking like perfectly tempered dark chocolate, it delivers a likewise bittersweet note when it first hits the tongue. The raisins make their appearance through the aroma coming off the glass, but the remains in the taste have been converted to a rummy, boozy finish that lingers for ages once you get through the immense nutty, chocolaty body. It's devoid of that cloying, caramel stickiness that's so pervasive in Belgian quads, but with a dense viscosity that makes Gulden Draak seem like a total lightweight.

How does the fortuitous arrival of this wonderous bottle of ale translate to a new chapter in the craft beer Renaissance, though? Certainly, brewpubs have long had specialty ales that veered from their regular spectrum of styles, perhaps to allow the brewer to have a little fun, perhaps as an experiment, perhaps in honor of a special occasion. Certainly, I didn't even blush when Rogue teamed up with Morimoto to start producing specialty beers intended to pair uniquely with foods. Nor did I blink when Anderson Valley decided to plop a cowl on David Keene's noggin and start bottling the most dastardly childproof, molten glue gun sealed (it's supposed to look like wax, see?) Belgian specialty ales under the Brother David subtitle. Simply put, once these brewers had the resources and the green light, they started to branch out, which hardly constitutes a shift worth noting.

When the oddly-shaped "-tion" beers from Russian River started making appearances, however, there was cause to perk up and pay attention. For here we had not just one or two bottled oddities, but an entire range, within a specifically American-Belgo tradition, branded together by images of sadistic looking farming implements, that had seemingly nothing to do with the delightful little taproom/pizza joint where those brett-y barrels were doing their thang in downtown Santa Rosa. Visiting the pub shortly after I'd discovered Temptation and Supplication, I found myself the only one in the place looking for these sour beauties, the tables adorned almost exclusively by the likes of (the incredible, yet pronouncedly "West Coast") Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig. It was as if there were two separate breweries working out of the same space, with the same name, almost...*

The fact is, it's arguable that these specialty beers are, unlike all the beers hereto produced by the same brewers within their brewpub confines, not intended to be enjoyed at their respective establishments, but out in the world, nudging wine bottles off the table when nobody's looking, taking up precious cellar space in restaurants and basements and trying just a little to distance themselves from the pubs from whence they came. The brewpub culture that founded our current enviable position of enjoying quality, locally made, handcrafted beers appears to be shifting gears as the pressures of the brewing-restaurant business only get more intense: the rising cost of restaurant labor, rising costs of food and brewing ingredients, effects of a recession on the frequency on which folks eat out, the increasing distance between homes and pubs with a general lack of quality public transportation combined with increasingly stringent and heavily enforced drinking & driving laws, just to name a few.

Could it be that a generation of experimental brewers, flush with innovation and access to good distribution, are going to tap into America's current war and recession-fueled nesting phase by extroverting their efforts even more? When I go to my local bottled beer heaven, I have access to more brewpub-derived options than ever before, from all over the country - Dogfish Head, most recently - and am curious to see where this is going to take off to next. Will the brewpubs all end up like the one in Hopland, more of a historical remnant kept open by the company for image's sake than anything else, like the wine tasting rooms of the valley that surrounds it?

One thing's certain: As these brewers are allowed to expand their craft beyond what's expected in your local alehouse, the next phase of our brewing Renaissance is bound to be loaded with trophies like Port Brewing/Lost Abbey's singularly phenomenal Judgment Day. And that's just such a pleasant conclusion to come to, I won't even end with a tastelessly punny Biblical aside about how rapturous it all is.

Oh, who am I kidding?


* And when pressed to choose a beer that goes well with a spicy pizza, I'm not likely to grab a bottle of Supplication off the shelf. Nor would I anticipate that next time I visit Santa Rosa, will I be met with a Belgian-style cuisine à la bière restaurant in place of RRBC.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Boontling for bloochin' harpers


The next notable brewfest of Northern California, the Boonville Beer Festival, is nearly upon us, which is good enough reason to comment briefly (and shaggishly) on the near-extinct dialect of the region, the somewhat disputed* language of Boontling. If you're a come-on boy looking to barney an apple-head while tasting aplenty bahl steinber horn come this May, it would pay to bone up on your Boont yebbelow lest you want to look like a real tally-whacker.

The Anderson Valley, a bucolic, pastoral appellation that runs east to west through southern Mendocino county near the coast, was historically isolated enough that it harbored its own unique character, as well as a contact language that's been described as a pidgin-English reputedly borrowing from Scottish Gaelic and Irish, and some Pomoan and Spanish. The irony won't be lost on devotees of Hop Ottin' IPA that some believe this language developed likely while locals did business with the Native Americans and other European settlers while establishing their hops farming industry. The other (and probably more plausible) origin story of Boontling ascertains that it was a sort of pig Latin for the kids of the area, a highly stylized slang used to speak in code around adults (ignited by a dude named Squirrel, nonetheless). This would explain both the short lifespan of the language as well as its popularity amongst the contemporary anti-establishment counterculture that pervades this part of the world.

Sadly, the most thorough chronicler of the language may have taken the unpublished secrets of Boontling with her to the grave, as Myrtle Rawles passed away in 1988, and her husband, Austin, a noted source for her book on the subject, died in 1969, just three years after Boontling: The Strange Boonville Language ($42, anyone?) was published. Thankfully, copies of her writings still exist, and the Anderson Valley Museum and Anderson Valley Brewing (not to mention Mendocino Middle School!) are doing their part to ensure that we pickem ups can sharpen our noch harpin'.

Here's wishing you all a slow lope'n a beeson tree Friday!

* The whole "beer" thing is a total prank, though.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

In defense of the radler and adulterated beers


On days like today, when the weather permits, my body agrees, and I know I'll pretty much have the place to myself to stink up the joint once I arrive here, I love to ride my bike to work. It's certainly something I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about as a kid, but like the never-abating amplification of my fondness for beer and sausages, it must be a result of German aging genetics along the same lines as my receding hairline that I now get so much enjoyment out of it.

Of course, as an occasional radler myself, I also tend to enjoy the occasional radler as well, as the close connection between biking and beer is a storied one. But, as a beersnob of the highest order, I'm also acutely aware of a certain level of disgust that pervades the aficionado circles when anything other than beer is poured into a beer glass.

Some of this I can understand, certainly. There are times when I find myself staring at an unwanted slice of lemon floating in a hefeweizen, or joking about how even the addition of lime only barely makes Corona palatable, or dealing with the shame of sitting in front of a pink Berliner Weisse. Mostly, though, I think the "if the brewers had wanted X in there, they would have added X to it themselves" argument is missing out on the final link in the chain that begins as barley and ends up in my belly: Once that bottle is in my hand, it's in my hand to do what I want with it. The brewer, once that bottle is filled and capped and on the truck, must let it go forth into the world to live its own life. And if that life consists of being cut 50% with lemonade, so be it.

Folks who dabble in cocktails could teach beer drinkers how to be more comfortable with the idea of adulterating their drinks for alternative experiences, for one. There's a very protective air that surrounds the craft brewing scene that perhaps lingers from the days when we all thought that craft and microbrewed beer was in threat of having a temporary existence, one that could be snuffed out at a moments' notice by ImBev or A-B or some other giant corporate entity eager to force feed us sheeple more of the same pale, watery lager. This sacred attitude about our burgeoning craft beer scene's products may be the root of the disgust I gather from other beer geeks, and wonder if with time, the attitudes will relax once we all agree that copious amounts of amazingly crafted beer are all around us, and not going away any time soon - so let's have a little fun, while we're at it.

And while there is loads of anecdotal evidence about the history of adding flavorings to beer after it's "done", from table-side spice tinctures in Belgian bars, to wassail and mulled beers, to cocktails like the Picon bière, there's at least one completely practical reason to do it: sugar. The balance of fermentable and unfermentable sugars in a beer is what allows for the sensation of "sweetness" or maltiness, and fruit sugars are very easily fermentable. Why, then, are all those creepy fruity lambics that you see at the supermarket so very, very sweet, you ask? Well, because if they haven't pasteurized the beer, they're adding a sweetener like saccharine, which is not fermentable, to the beer. Yummy, no? Hard apple ciders around these parts are traditionally semi-sweet, so either they halt the fermentation process when the sugar readings are right, or they pasteurize the finished cider and blend it with unfermented apple juice. All this is well and good, but we craft beer nerds like our beer like we like our women: alive. So, if you wanted to add some sweetness to your fine, bottle conditioned beer (for whatever reason, no judgment here), you'd best be doing it right before you drink it, lest you want some wild and crazy super-dry and explosive beer/wine frankenbooze on your hands.

Lots of pontificating just to get a splash of lemonade in my pilsner, I know, but it's on the sidelines of the larger "ethical treatment of beer" (I myself a card-carrying member of PETOB) debate regarding additives, flavorings, and post-bottling adulterations we silly experimenters seem to fancy. Try it yourself and see if you can admit there's some joy to be had in doing things your own way. One thing's for sure: It's unquestionably easier to tackle the last stretch of your ride when you're doing it on radler power...

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tasting notes - 1809



Of all the historical styles of beer that seemed doomed to sink into the wort of oblivion, obscured by the barm of time, lost in the trub of moderization, Berliner Weisse has most certainly outlived its expectations, to the point where its novelty and scarcity might soon be its saving grace. Whereas in the 17th century this style was easily the most fashionable and commonplace in the chic urban taverns of one of central Europe's most rapidly populated metropolises (both before and after the 30 Years War - during the war, scarce and valuable wheat was reserved for baking), its quenching, refreshing effects should have by all means been no match for the burgeoning effect of Bavaria's lager explosion and the following KO punch of the Czech pilsener. But, we humans like our underdogs and are prone to the weakness of local pride, reasons alone which probably account for the tenacity of this strangely-brewed, much-maligned, and typically adulterated relic of a brew.

Enter Dr. Fritz Briem, Manager of the Doemens College of Technology, Technology Consulting and Faculty Brewery Technology, and head of the Siebel-Doemens international brewing course, stage right. Apparently, that's what it takes to inject some life into Berlin's namesake beer: a PhD from Weihenstephan and a crack team of German scientists from the highest profile brewing academy on the planet. At least they did a good job of it.

I could go on about what exactly this style is all about, but if you look at the label in the image above, you'll see that the good doctor has all but forsaken art in lieu of a near novella on the subject. Before we go any further, check it out:
Already in the 1600s the Berliner Weisse Style Beer was mentioned in documents by the French Huguenots as they crossed Berlin on their way to Flanders. In 1809, the Emperor Napoleon and his troops celebrated their Prussian victory with it. This Berliner Weisse is brewed with traditional mash hoping [sic] and without wort boiling. This along with a traditional strain of lactic acid bacteria provide a fruity and dry but palateful character. A character that Napoleon and his troops characterized as "lively and elegant."
The is the first of the Historic Signature Series, aka "forgotten styles brewed according to their historic recipes by Dr. Fritz Briem of the Doemens Institute," that I've had the joy to sample, and it really is a joy, as the 1809 is a spot-on mimic of the only other major surviving example as made by Berliner-Kindl, and likely quite similar to the one favored back in the day by Albrecht von Wallenstein. It's got a puckeringly quick, sharp, almost citric sourness, a clean, grassy grain character, and only the slightest hint of hop bitterness in the finish. It actually has a great deal in common to the Belgian sour ales, like gueuze and faro, but without the "wild" cheesy, horsey aromas that can dominate those styles. It's that dominantly rustic quality, the haze from the suspended yeast and unfiltered wheat, and natural carbonation that betrays their family ties. It's lighter in effervescence, however, much lower in alcohol (2.8%!) and much more evocative of the German perfection-in-engineering vibe than the Belgian crazy farmer kitchen sink ethos. There's no spontaneous brettanomyces-driven fermentation here, my friends: No, the good doctor has taken care to bring along his own lactobacillus to this party.

One could almost think of this style as a missing link between the highly evolved Belgian lambic family of beers and the traditional southern Bavarian weizen beers. However it fits in the spectrum of Europe's fringe styles, though, this weirdly deviant (mash hopping? no boiling?) style deserves a bit more of the spotlight, and one could only imagine how it would benefit by some modern craft brewers' interpretations.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Which came first, the chocolate or the beer?


It's a philosophical question I ask myself every evening [F] while resting my dog-tired feet by the fire [T], sitting in my rocking chair by the window [T] enjoying my routine dessert of a glass of Westvleteren 12 [F] and chili-infused certified free trade organic dark chocolate [T]: which invention truly preceded the other, chocolate or beer, and what would the answer say about the base priorities of the human psyche?*

Well, if this were some namby-pamby chocolate lover's blog riddled with Cathy references and blink tags and hot embedded MIDI Steisand action, I'd be referring you now to the latest scientific proof that indicates it was chocolate, not sweet heavenly beer, that was the original South American use for the bean of the cacao tree.

But this is Pfiff!, my friends, so I am proud to refer you to this bit on the recent archaeological findings on how it was beer that the ancient Hondurans were brewing up in those cute little pots since at least 1200 BC.

And if you'd like a hint of what that might have tasted like, who better to turn to that everybody's favorite historical brewing recreationist, Sam Calagione? Granted, I'm sure his Theobroma won't be nearly as vile as the spontaneously fermented chocomuck that they were most certainly whipping up to enjoy with a round of patolli or for sale in the stands at the tlatchtli game (there's a reason there's a tube on the side of the urn, so that you can tilt it and drink the liquid that's trapped underneath the thick skin of yeast and mung). In fact, it'll probably be delicious, as Sam's a freaking pro with or without his Levi's, and good brewers have long recognized the flavor (if not the actual ingredient) of chocolate [sorry, you have to search for it] as an integral component of beer's taste and aroma for ages.

Maybe some other time we'll do a little tasting round up of beers that include chocolate in them (and yes, they all do seem to show up around Valentine's Day, shockingly), as their numbers are rapidly increasing and involve such craft brewing champs as Ommegang, Sam Adams, Young's, and Bison - but we'll sadly have to pull a Maxim and review Dogfish Head's latest like they were the Black Crowes, until we can finally get some of that action around these parts.

A quick side note: Sam - Mr. Calagione - if you're reading this, heed my banshee wail: Northern California needs more than just Dogfish Head ads in Northwest Brewing News, we need to see some actual bottles on actual shelves. The few ales of yours I've had the good fortune of trying while in such exotic locales as Tucson, Arizona (the Raison d'Extra a particularly stunning example) have been nothing short of the finest craft beers I've ever chanced upon. But this "parched market" of the Bay Area foodie Nation would undoubtedly offer good business for your fine creations. And if you doubt the interest here, maybe a quick email to Forrest Allen, the beer buyer for the SOMA Whole Foods would dispel any of your concerns - or I imagine the folks at City Beer and Healthy Spirits would be more than happy to try to persuade you. Certainly you wouldn't want to post the 2008 release calendar online for the whole wwworld to read if you didn't want us to enjoy the fruits of your historically delicious creations, right? And when you come visit, don't forget to bring Randall!

* Answer: It says our psyche likes to party.

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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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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The "lost" year, ep. 3 - newsy linknibbles

From around the web this past year, here's a few things worthy of a click and ctrl+D that never developed into fully-formed posts:

The 2:40 Beer Podcast - Get it? 2:40? The curious world of outsider beer blogging gets serious when WFMU gets in on the act.

New York's Best Beer Bars (courtesy of Gridskipper) - Even old Brew York was once Brew Amsterdam.

The Science of the Cellar
- Why strong beers age so well. Good info if you're the type of person debating whether or not to try brewing something you're infant daughter will be able to enjoy on her 21st birthday (clue: don't bother).

Archaeologists uncover secrets of ancient ale - Either that, or the prehistoric Irish had some pretty big dogs. An especially noteworthy post thanks to its inclusion of a list of watering holes in Middle-earth.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Three years and still pfiffin' on...

Another year, another anniversary of sorts - the leather anniversary, as it were.
According to Blogger's "born on" dating scheme, Pfiff! has surpassed the blog shelf life many times over with us entering our fourth year of half-heartedly stinking up the web with semi-factual ramblings on all this cerevisiae. (Not that you'd know it from looking - entering pfiff into google reminds one that as much as 'net loves itself some good beer, half-nekkid women's what makes the Interwebs™ really hum.) And while it hasn't been the most blogorific year for me - a newer, busier job at which I actually can't even view the site due to being so subversive and naughty naughty, and my adorable little timesink of a daughter being the biggest hurdles to high-quality alco-journalism - it has been a pretty spectacular 12 months in terms of the beverage itself.

More information on Pfiff! can be found on the internet.
So how to we plan to celebrate? Well, considering that Fairfax nearly became an island in the middle of Ross Valley last night, it seems like the perfect time to fire up the kettle and brew up a lazy partial mash Scotch Ale, whilst enjoying the snacks and beverages I plan on commandeering on my trip to Healthy Spirits this afternoon, and quite possibly returning to this here keyboard to start posting the "lost" beer files of 2007 - all the blogworthy items that got waylaid by other various distractions... Needless to say, there's a lot of them! Cheers, all, and thanks for reading these past three years.

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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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