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 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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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Introducing the second annual Pfiff! beer and food tasting - The Italian Modernists

It was last August when we found ourselves sitting around the patio table, weighed down in our seats by the twin burdens of good food and good drink, when the topic of conversation turned to what unifying themes we could explore in subsequent gatherings. But while there's no end to which we enjoy our fill of barrel-aged imperial thises and thats and peculiarly spiced holiday ales and unclassifiable Belgian nanobrewery miscellany, none of the ideas bandied about managed to spark the dim light of inspiration we needed. It just so happens that we're lucky to exist in a time and place where stylistic panel tastings aren't terribly difficult to come by, thanks to some pretty fine watering holes and the odd renegade social group. Putting on a tasting for a tasting's sake seemed arbitrary and redundant. Not to mention, as it turned out, the greatest pleasure we gleaned from the event came from the challenge of pairing each beer with foods that presented them in their best light, seeing as we were pouring some that were potentially challenging to unaccustomed taste buds. It was obvious that whatever guiding principle the next tasting would be focused upon, the food would play an important, if not more elevated role.

But it wasn't more than a few months after we'd closed the books on that day's affairs that the next subject we'd be attracted to became more apparent. If there's one thing that was made terribly clear at Slow Food Nation, it's that beer is taken very seriously as a part of its ethos. Its interesting to note, though, that despite the attention it lavishes on finely crafted beer, the Slow Food movement has its origins in the loosely populated agricultural heart of Piemonte, an area dominated by wine grapes within a country that's perhaps only second to France in having globally established wine as the cultivated palate's beverage of choice, particularly in consideration when pairing with fine foods. But things appear to be changing. Where the Slow movement has taken root, brewers with similar philosophies are beginning to flourish. In a place that's devoted to celebrating their regional specialties, beers are being designed with ingredients true to their own "Ark of Taste", and envisioned in terms of being enjoyed in tandem with the cuisine as an equal partner in the gustatory experience. Hence this year's event: The Italian Modernists.

Like last year, the event will take place in San Francisco, and will be a small, informal affair with the goal of tasting a wide variety of rare beers alongside some tasty nibbles. Festivities will take place on Saturday, August 15, at 3:00 p.m. Seats for this year's dinner are $45. For questions, or to reserve your place at the table, you can either email me at or leave a comment on this post with information about how I can get back in touch (and as I'm generally able to reply to emails within the day, if you haven't heard back from me, it's a good sign your message has been relegated to my junk mail folder, in which case you might want to tap me a second time). I'm also happy to announce that Healthy Spirits will be officially providing all of our beers this year, which helps guarantee you've got a local resource to stock up on any of the beers we'll be pouring, and we'll have the pleasure of their beer manager, Dave Hauslein, also in attendance. If last year was any indication, it'll be a fun, long afternoon of relaxed tasting, and we hope to see some new faces at this one!

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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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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Belgium comes to 94117

Just over a week ago, on a clear and cool Sunday morning, I slipped into the pre-dawn air armed with a freshly sharpened chef's blade and a fully fueled butane torch, cruised quickly along the empty trellis roads that connect the scattered hamlets of central Marin, and scaled the Waldo Grade only to quietly descend into a still-slumbering and peculiarly vacant Lower Haight, through those fabled Dutch doors, to receive word of my next instructions. After having harvested one of the meal's ingredients the day before, my last directives had been simple: pack a nice blade and get a good night's rest. And thus it began.
Holding the key to my cheese n' beer loving heart.
To backtrack a little... It's Belgian beer month, which means the taps at Toronado are currently loaded with things like, oh Cantillon Grand Cru, Ellezelloise Hercule, and Struise Tsjeeses. It was but a year ago when, in assuming that we'd be the early birds, first in line to tap a flight of David Keane's annual cornucopia of imported wonderments, Des and I headed down to Toronado at our first free moment only to find it shuttered up, thanks to some mysterious and hitherto unknown special event. But based off the scraps of information we were able to glean from some considerably bent and slurry patrons, who shared lusty tales aside proffered dregs of some truly luminous rarities, it was then that I declared I'd find some way - by whatever means, if you want - to be on the other side of those locked doors when the following March's lambs and lions had marched through: in April of 2009, I was going to somehow be inside that kitchen.
More abbey cheese than you can shake a censer at.

And as it so happens, with the rusty tubes of my waking synapses gradually flickering to life as the caffeine made its steady course into my consciousness, that was the spot I found myself: Inside a bar still resonating from the nightlife that had only just departed scant hours before, alongside some familar and equally tired faces, with the unprecedented (and encore) privilege of joining Mr. Sean Z. Paxton for what was to be the culinary equivalent of the Ring cycle, a six-hour long gustatory bonanza nearly a year in the making (that is, since the last one).
Stinky gnomes and Westvleteren. As it should be.

Sean, as a man considered by many to be the premiere visionary in the realm of marrying beer with modern haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy,  is no stranger to the spotlight in the foodie-beerie circles. A well-known mercenary chef-for-hire, regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine, a speaker at the National Homebrewers Conference, and one who's consulted regularly by publications looking to get edubacted in the art of cuisine à la bière and beer and food pairing, his moniker of "The Homebrew Chef" alludes to his simultaneous passions of brewing, cooking, and finding harmonious inroads between the two. Here, under the auspices of Toronado's Belgian beer month, he's made it his mission to pull out all the stops. In a way, it's his tribute to Dave Keane's fearless ambassadorship of the challenging, palate-expanding beers of Belgium, aside from being a chance to flex some creative muscle for patrons who like having their culinary horizons broadened.
I imagine he's still airing out the suitcase all this arrived in.

First, the beer: Not only were there twenty beers with which to pair, but another twenty beers with which all the courses were prepared. And lest you think we're talking beercan chicken here, note that some of the world's most highly regarded and sought-after beers - Scaldis Noel, Fantome La Dalmatienne, De Ranke Pere Noel, Halve Maan Brugse Zot - never even made it to the table for folks to taste, only existing as ingredients within each of the twelve courses. Lest anyone be concerned that the day's events were going to be a retread of the classics, though, the day began with the first public West Coast tapping of a keg of Duvel Green, the new filtered, non-refermented, draft version of the quintessential Belgian strong golden ale. The next five hours saw a parade of Belgium's rainbow of beer diversity make its way to the tables, from the light and hoppy to the dark and strong through all iterations between, with the closing bookend on the day the 2007 Saucerful of Secrets that Sean brewed himself with Firestone Walker.
Well, that's certainly a lot of caviar. Or is it?

And then, the food: One course which I got to have my hand in (hence the freshly sharpened knife) was the cheese course, consisting entirely of Belgian, mostly abbey cheeses hand-carried by Sean himself in a single, 60 lb. suitcase just days prior to the event. And thanks to the beauty of sous vide cooking techniques, much of the actual cooking had already been taken care of, with curing, infusing, marinading, and pickling all having been done in sealed plastic bags, which was a comforting convenience as Toronado, in case you'd never noticed, doesn't actually have a kitchen.
My, my, what are you going to do with all those black truffles?

Ah, but of course.

That's correct. Somehow, some way, the entire twelve-course meal for seventy-odd diners with prepared with nothing more than an immersion heater and a couple of propane burners. And if there's a real bit of artistry at work in a dinner like this that needs to be spotlit, I think it has to be the orchestration of such a massive culinary undertaking with such limited resources. Sure, there was the "wort honey", a batch of pre-hopped homebrewed beer that Sean made, reduced to a caramel-like consistency, and blended with a local honey. And sure, there was the homemade pork pate and duck rillettes. And yeah, there was the aforementioned Cantillon Iris and bone marrow gastrique. But seriously, managing to supervise an amateur staff in a room primarily designed for drinking, coordinating the delivery of the equivilant of 900 dishes of five-star cuisine via a space the Toronado staff lovingly refer to as "the birth canal", and singlehandedly bringing this menu to life with not much more than a pot of hot water, a couple tanks of propane, a crack torch and a syringe?

Now that, my friends, is kitchen professionalism.

If you haven't already, go ahead and mark off April 4, 2010 on your calendar, as you've now got plans that day.
Because if you were duck fat aioli, you'd be smiling, too.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

18 Reasons and at least as many homebrews

Before we finally get around to completing the now nearly two-week old saga of the Toronado Belgian beer dinner, a quick interlude of the homebrew variety: This Thursday evening, we'll be joining a few other local recreational fermentation enthusiasts for a tasting at 18 Reasons, an arty foodie non-profit space in the Mission as part of the monthly SF Beer & Cheese group we've been semi-regularly attending. Jesse, whose brett-spiked witbier I had the unexpected pleasure of sampling this past weekend, will be pouring some of his wares alongside David, the SFB&C co-founder who introduced me to the group at last year's wild ale tasting, who will have his robust porter to sample, and a couple other brewers bringing the likes of a Belgian dubbel, saison, Simcoe IPA, and a Belgian strong dark ale aged with prunes.

But what are we bringing? In the spirit of Choose Your Own Adventure, I'd like that to be a decision best left to others besides the authors. Like chance music for the belly, the whim of teh internets will dictate what'll be crawling up from the cellar Thursday night. I've embedded a little poll below in which you can vote for as few or as many as you'd like on exhibit. Here's a quick reference guide to the options:

Imperial Pilsner - Just seeming to hit its stride now, a 9% lager based off a strict pilsner malt base and with a fresh bit of dry hopping in the keg. Pictured above with its little hoppy friend.

Black Lav - Definitely further up the dark end of the experimental alley. It's a saison. But it's black! There's some history behind this one here.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie - The most recent of our "tastes like" explorations, this one's finishing up as this is written, and is a but of a wild card in terms of what it'd taste like as young and green as it is. Details on its origin story can be read here.

X'07 - Our annual holiday ale, this Belgian-inspired dark one from the winter of 2007, which Jesse referenced in his post about last weekend's debauchery, amazingly hasn't all been emptied yet. We wrote a little bit about it back in August.

X'08 - Same idea, different beer. This past season's batch.

The Indoctrinator - Before the Inoculator (the last of which disappeared into the sun-warmed gullets of this past Sunday's Golden Gate Park denizens), there was the Indoctrinator. I bottled a couple magnums when we finished this Belgian-style dubbel back in October and have been sitting on them waiting for the right occasion. Is this it?

Old Ale - Nearly guaranteed to be nasty, it's a two (three?) year (m)old stock ale aged on oak that's seen some serious and strange refermentation in the bottle. Will probably explode. I still have some left.

Appelwoi - A cider. This one. Not beer, but not water either!

Go on, now. Vote!

And sure, it's just 48 hours away, but mark your calendars!

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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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Monday, August 18, 2008

And on the seventh day, there was Brett

And a lot of Brett, to be quite clear. Yesterday, we hosted the first ever Pfiff! beer and food tasting, a five-hour session of "The New American Mavericks", a collection of American wild ales paired with fine nibbles held on a marginally summerish San Francisco afternoon in the garden with eleven very enthusiastic guinea pigs. Luckily, the convergence of some great beers, the luck of being in the midst of a bountiful harvest season, the advice of some generous and open brewers, and a wonderfully warm group chemistry, it was an almost completely injury-free (sorry Kris!) success.

The inspiration for the tasting resided in a pair of magnums that had been collecting dust in the cellar for a few years now: both from Vinnie Cilurzo's maiden voyage into wild brewing, batch 001 bottles of both Temptation and Supplication that were just demanding to be enjoyed with a crowd.

And enjoyed they were. In fact, if I may be so bold, my assertion that these beers and their ilk are easily loveable by a wide range of palates when in the presence of complementary foods (most of which were based off suggestions made by the remarkably accessible brewers themselves) proved itself repeatedly throughout the tasting. Unfortunately, my capacity for inspired insight has been hamstrung by the crippling exhaustion begat by pulling this event off only to turn around and hit the ground running with a brutal day at work. Summer is officially over, as it were. My brain is mush.

Rather than try to go into detail while saddled with the writing panache of a court reporter on traffic infraction duty, for now I'll simply leave you with this: A copy of the menu, and a gallery of images taken from the afternoon.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't extend a very special thanks to everyone for their involvement: Alex for *ahem* singlehandedly helping in the galley, Dave for suggesting the Allagash Interlude, JJ for paying her entry with a bottle of Isabelle Proximus, Jesse for taking all the photos, all the others for coming from far and wide to take a chance on an event that was undeniably experimental, and Des for finding the perfect apple tree. As apprehensive as we were going into yesterday, I think the question is not "if" we'll do it again, but "what" and "when".

Update: Peter has gone through the trouble to post a vividly detailed analysis of the proceedings. Thank you!

Update #2: JJ's gone ahead and posted a recap that includes some interesting opinion on the "wild ale" designation (along with the two "unofficial" tastes that concluded the day which were nothing less than spectacular.)

Update #3: Even Alex is getting into the act. Crazy Zen-themed recap action!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Introducing the premiere Pfiff! beer and food tasting: The new American mavericks

In what promises to be the first of many, edutainingly inebriate gatherings of the local beer faithful, we're proud to announce "The new American mavericks", an afternoon of tastings and food pairings based around the subject of American wild ale.

"Maverick" is a term I could be accused of prancing out on stage more often than it's welcome, but in the case of these beers, fermented by blends of microflora outside of the realm of traditional beer yeast, oftentimes in vessels that contribute their own degree of mysterious inoculation, in conditions that, while closely monitored, are subject to enough happenstance to warrant the results as wild, it seems a fitting title. Mr. Samuel Maverick was a Texas rancher whose attitude towards his cattle was particularly lax: the unchecked breeding of his livestock left for a notable concern of unbranded cattle set to pasture around the ranch lands south of San Antonio. Luckily for his descendants, though, his last name dodged the colloquial connotation of "a completely lethargic sloth", and instead got the more positive spin of showing the "independence of thought or action" of "a non-conformist or rebel." And these beers demonstrate, above all else, independence of thought and certainly trebelliousness. Although rooted in Belgian techniques, the results are unmistakably American, and, thanks to the often challenging profile of these beers, require a somewhat independent spirit on the taster's part as well.

Distinguished in part by hand-numbered batches, public brewers' logs with details by vintage, dusty, dank barrel rooms inhabited by all manner of wild yeasty beasties, and dense, funky flavor profiles that take years to develop and are not always fit for the faint of heart, the modern American wild ale is not only deserved of some deeper attention by the beer enthusiast public, but by any who enjoy the interplay between fine food and drink. Let's try some together, shall we?

The tentative date, pending guest availability, is Sunday, August 17, 3:00 p.m., and the location will be in the city of San Francisco. The cost for the tasting will almost certainly be $25, unless something completely spectacular happens and I have to jimmy the price up to $30, at which point it will be totally worth it or I'll give you your $5 back.

If you would like to reserve a spot, or have any questions, please email me at . More details to come in the following weeks...

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

1,016 words

A decadent midweek lunch at Pizzeria Delfina made even more transcendent by an extraordinary off-menu addition.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogfish Head to Toronado

There will doubtless be a dozen-odd posts over the next week about the day Sam Calagione showed up in San Francisco to deliver buckets upon buckets of his truly divine elixirs down the throats of a previously Dogfish Head-less town. And while I failed yet again to catch the attention of either Jay or Bill to ask, "Hey, is there anything about tonight that you're not going to talk about, or any photos from this event that you're not going to post?", the fact that I even had the urge to approach them like that (yes, Jay, that was me tapping you on the back while you were trying to scoot out; yes, Bill, that was me trying to introduce myself while you were taking my picture) speaks to the inner conversation I've been having lately, pretty much ever since I relit all the burners on this blog earlier this year after a bit of a hiatus, a conversation that could be summed up thusly: "What exactly am I writing about, again?"

The online beer writing scene has never felt as crowded as it does now, reminiscent in some ways to the sweaty wall of bodies three-deep at the bar last night*, of and while I recently posited that I'd lost my touch, I'm now prepared to consider that there was never much of a touch to misplace. What scared me was when I noticed that a blog I started under the pretense of having a place to post quick thoughts on beer and brewing and links to fun articles in the interest of reducing the amount of spammy instant messages I was sending to my friends was veering dangerously into the beerblog infested waters of an ocean of news-ish sites, trigger-happy with the ctrl+c ctrl+v , press releases at the ready, daily updates on current events, etc. etc. - stuff you can literally read on a million or so websites at this point - and that's only if you're too lazy to subscribe to the email announcement lists that generate all the content in the first place. It's time to pull this ship starboard and head for less crowded waters, methinks...

But first, a diversion of sorts:

Before anything else, I want to say a quick something about this guy, a man who I've sort of pseudo-idolized, teased, and made the subject of a faux brewer-man-crush over the past couple of years: Dude's for real. Not only would the brewer who's almost single-handedly responsible for the current level of respect this country's culinary critics have levied on craft brewing pose with a crazed, multi-grinned weirdo like myself for a photo (Des nudged me, "Tell him you have a beer blog so he doesn't think you're a complete lunatic," likely noticing I was reeking of eau de crazy stalker guy) - amidst his biggest debutante ball on the West Coast nonetheless - but never even flinched when I kept returning to tap him on the shoulder to ask the *stupidest* questions ("What the hell is in this?") throughout the evening like a preschooler needing to go to the bathroom, each time graciously replying with a smile and complete attention, regardless. So thanks, Sam, for being such a gracious host, even on the tail end of a whirlwind of a week. (David even had him running around the bar serving the cheeses, for chrissakes.)

While I'm at it, releasing myself from the dirty job of responsible beer blogging, I'll let Alex over at Drink A Week handle the mouth-watering poetic details, and simply list the initial reactions to last night's draft list by memory (mostly thanks to Des and her golden sniffer):

2006 Chateau Jiahu - A truly exciting historical recreation that makes you reflect on just how narrow our currently defined expectations of beer really are. Fruity, grape-y, with hints of sweet sake and wheat, it was again surprisingly balanced and easily drinkable, a trait that seems to be high on the list of Sam's philosophical priorities. These are "extreme" beers in a sense that doesn't allude to them being punishing to the senses, but in that they stretch all the boundaries of the brewing lexicon. Truly eye-opening.

2007 Olde School Barleywine - Again, they've pulled off a real high-wire act and a feat in balance - a balance that doesn't just line up equal amounts of malt and hops side-by-side, but a balance that's fully three-dimensional in the marriage of the sweetness and bitterness. I would've guessed this to be a well-aged example purely based off it's mellowness, but alas. Built on elements of bourbon and cognac, cherries, white sugar, and with a slightly boozy aroma, Alex and I compared it to a nice old fashioned.

2007 Immort Ale -This one was a challenge, a complex barleywine-style ale skeleton clothed in the most elusive taste components and with a uniquely resinous mouthfeel. Des pegged it right off the bat: moldy cheese. Gorgonzola. It was as if they put together one of my favorite pairings together in a glass.

Midas Touch Golden Elixir - Just barely effervescent, the archetype of the historical recreation brewing movement was very sweet and fruity, with a beguiling aroma with hints of both jasmine and marzipan. Not nearly as funky as I was expecting (not funky at all, actually), but very wine-y and pleasant.

90 Minute IPA - The fabled "continuously hopped" India pale ale, one for which I'd prepared my palate by warning it ahead of time about its IBU level hovering near the human threshold for bitterness. The real shock to the palate, though, was how stunningly balanced it actually was, with a malt backbone that perfectly meshed with the hops so that the end result was nothing shy of ambrosial, the floral quality of the hops blending with the sweetness of the grain to create the effect of warm, fragrant honeysuckle.

Palo Santo Marron - Their newest release was the least uniquely individual and stand-out of the bunch, surprisingly, this dark brown ale aged on palo santo wood was more one-dimensional than the others - big roasted barley taste, smooth and surprisingly light in character and body. In any other line-up, it would surely shine, I'm sure, but its older siblings here raised the stakes just a *little* too high.

Put those beers together with some nice cheeses, a hugely enthusiastic crowd, and - of course - sausages, and you've pretty much put Rob in heaven. There are details of the event that I imagine will be left out by all the other writers in their haste to pound out the definitive wrap-up piece, but rather than sniff out those crumbs, I'll just end transmission here.

Back on Earth, the nagging beer-blogging question remains. Whither Pfiff!? If you want the local inside scoop with great photo galleries, you've got Brookston's bulletin, if you want stomach-growl-inducing event write-ups, head over to Jessica's Thirsty Hopster site, and if you want the best tap list and store shelf updates, subscribe to Bill's blog over at Inside Bay Area**.

But, perhaps, just maybe, if you're looking for vignettes like this -
"God, we're only halfway down the street and I can already smell the Toronado vomit smell."

"I know! Isn't it great!"
- you might consider adding Pfiff! to your newsfeed. I share because I care. I expect the tone of the site will probably be changing over the next few weeks while searching out that niche to which this little Pfiff! of mine is best suited to attend. Thanks to all the great beer writers out there who continue to raise the bar and make all this readin', writin' and imbibin' so very much fun to do.

* A sweaty wall of bodies three-deep who could also all speak intelligently on the topic of craft beer, which is something out of a mind-bending alternate universe I never thought could exist.

**There are plentiful others (see that blogroll on the right?) that I'm probably going to regret not name-checking in this post.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gold, platinum and Iron Springs

Here's starting the post-Craft Brewers Conference week with two news niblets regarding our hometown public house, one yippie-yay goodgood happyhappy, and one not so much:

The Gold:
A product of Fairfax's lone brewpub (not to mention our only "place to just hang out"*), Iron Springs' Sless' Stimulating Stout took home a gold medal in the Oatmeal Stout category at this past week's World Beer Cup. Named for local hotshot steel player Barry Sless, it's deserved of its win, as a truly well-crafted iteration of the style. To see the 94930 representin' down in San Diego this year for what could very well have been the first time ever is quite the treat, too. Described as a "symphony of grains creating a deep rich stout infused with a tincture of passionate herbs" from a town that's quite well associated with being "passionate" about "herb", it's certainly a beer that reflects the character and philosophy of its brewer, the inimitable Mike Altman. I'm sure he's having quite the happy 4/20 in celebration.

The Platinum: What better precious metal to represent the incredibly dear cost of doing business in our lovely town, in a story that's still dragging out in arbitration, than the king of credit cards? As mentioned in previous posts, Iron Springs is embroiled in a little bit of a rent tussle with their landlords, a tussle that could see us ramping up the homebrew production to cover our beer consumption quotas as early as this August. The story linked above in our local fireplace-friendly Ross Valley Reporter (which I embarrassingly read cover-to-cover on a weekly basis) is typical local journalism in that it mainly quotes a third party in no way involved with the story at hand, in this case a gentleman most recently noted for ramming some kids in his truck. I do love this town...

* Yup, that's an actual quote, from our very own mayor, nonetheless.

[photo courtesy Raw Energy Biofuel Systems, creators of the Iron Springs Ambrewlance]

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Congratulations, Vinnie!

In a bit of Bay Area craft brewing news, local boy Vinnie Cilurzo was awarded the “Russell Schehrer Award For Innovation In Craft Brewing” at the World Beer Cup in San Diego today. All the more reason to celebrate tonight with a bottle of Temptation (if you haven't drank your allotted single bottle already, that is). All hail the supremacy of the Bay Area craft brewing movement!

PS - And what? A Toronado in San Diego? Hwa?

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Beer? In Fairfax? Ask the eight ball...

It's a question that could only be answered by the auspicious orb of our communal Ouija-baiting youth and the compositional imperative of Pamela Z. Anyone who's walked the henna-tinted and patchouli-scented lanes of our fair town of late would be sure to notice a certain something, a certain "ghost town" vibe creeping through the vacant storefronts, "For Rent" signs fading in the sun, the je ne ce qua of a depressed business climate in an area that for all intensive reasons ought to be booming. There's a commercial malaise infiltrating our little hamlet, one that doesn't seem to be affecting the belly-dancing costume jewelry shops or the salt crystal lamp Tibetan Buddhist hemp fabric so you can rest medicine outlets (or the 7-11, for that matter), but one that has called for the demise of many locally-owned outfits, including our only CD shop, a bookstore, and a movie rental outfit, which certainly leaves you wondering what weird wind is blowing to cause such a stagnation, and when it will relievedly change direction again.

And in the wicked path of the weird wind might be something a bit more dear: our very own public house. As reported by Brent in our local rag, it looks like there's a little land and lease tussle beneath the green, idyllic pasture of Fair-Anselm Plaza.

From an email by our trusty publican Mike Altman:
"This brewpub has been a long strange amazing trip so far, one we hope to continue for years on out. We want to be able to teach [our son] Joey how to make those fine sudsy elixirs of love & hand crafted sodas you have all come to love and cherish.

Much of this, though, is out of our hands. We have tried since last August to sign a long term deal, so that we may be here for generations to come. All we can do now is continue to bring all our guests that experience we strive so hard at achieving while waiting to see what happens with the building. We will know this month whether the building will change hands, and are hopeful that we will be about to work out a fair long term lease."
The good news at the moment is that it looks like the betters' odds are in favor of the Sacto developers purchasing the land - lock, stock and barrel - and focusing their energy on the wasted lots across the avenue, leaving Mike with a new landlord and a new lease on (his business') life. We shall see in two weeks' time, or thereabouts...

The other good news in local brewing and beer-drinking news (despite the lack of any advertising whatsoever, and the fact that the benefactor of the event - the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce - hasn't even updated their online calendar since 2007 to show that it's actually happening) is that the 13th annual Fairfax Brewfest is on for the Saturday after next, March 15, at the Fairfax Pavilion. It's a great event, with good music, excellent food, and even better beers, probably from the fifteen nearest and dearest breweries, my guess being: Iron Springs, Marin Brewing, Moylan's, Broken Drum, Magnolia, Lagunitas, Drake's, 21st Amendment, Rafters, Beach Chalet, Russian River, Steelhead, SF Brewing, Thirsty Bear, and Wunder Brewing (too tired to link, check here instead).

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Beer alert - Abt 12 on tap

Almost deserving of those high tech little Drudge sirens, new Belgian-inspired beerstaurant in the Mission The Monk's Kettle looks likely to draw a certain breed of drinker purely on this promise alone: They're serving St. Bernardus' awe-inspiring Abt 12 on tap. That's like finding the monks of Westvleteren singing Christmas carols on my doorstep on choral risers made of cases of yellow cap.

Here's a quip from their info page:

We looked around this city recently and saw that the choices for beer were too limited for a city that thrives on good tastes. Plenty of wine bars, yes, but what about the beverage we all love to love? We are in a city saturated with breweries (in California, and up the coast in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska as well), but there is so little in the way of a place to get a quality beer. And so, we are changing that.

Hear, hear! I'll admit I'm a little skeptical, purely based off the shiny-fancy Cigar-Aficionado-color-scheme website. But I'm easy to persuade. Verrrrrrrry easy....

Thanks, Alex, for the tip...

PS - Yes, we're all quite aware that there hasn't been much action lately on the old Pfifferroo, but that's all about to change, what with updating this site being #78 on the new year's resolutions list (#32: design a bottle opener for infants; #29: figure out where all these flies are coming from; #8: learn Uzbek) and a huge deluge of backlogged half-posts and photos and reviews and all sorts of crazy crap. But don't expect much until the holidays are through. Have a crazysafesexybeer holiday, all!

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Another Bay Area beer blog

I have no idea why someone who gets paid to write about beer would look so... disappointed? Miserable? Defeated? Regardless, if you're looking to find what's new in your local grocer's cooler, brewing events around the area, or general industry hullabaloo, feel free to add Bill Brand to your bookmarks.