Rambling Reviews 6.16.2017: Three New Bay Area Releases

As we enter summer, Bay Area breweries have gotten busy releasing new beers. Allow me to ramble about three of them.

The big early summer release is 21st Amendment’s Watermelon Funk, a riff on their popular Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. With kettle souring being all the rage these days, it seems inevitable 21st Amendment would take this direction with their popular summer seasonal. During a lively release party full featuring 70’s and 80’s funk music and roller-disco dancers, Master Brewer Shaun O’Sullivan took the mike and told the crowd the story about barrel-aging a batch of Watermelon Wheat for a year to transform it into a barrel-aged sour ale to pour at the Toronado ten years ago.  Of course, the only way any self-respecting beer hipster at the Toronado would ever be caught dead with a pint of Watermelon Wheat in his hand would be a barrel-aged sour version of it. (O’Sullivan left that part out.) Anyway, Watermelon Funk has got a lot going on with the lactobacillus and Saison yeast creating a tangy, aromatic and musty flavor that threaten to overwhelm the watermelon, but don’t quite. This funkified version is distinctly more complex and heavier, and 6.7% abv, more potent. I’ve long been a fan of Watermelon Wheat with its refreshing light simplicity with a watermelon twist, and indeed, Watermelon Funk takes the base beer to an impressive new level. But with so much added in, a certain refreshing simplicity has been lost.

Headlands Brewing photo

Next up, Wolfpack Ridge IPA for Headlands Brewing. It’s been awhile since Headlands added any beers to their small line-up, and this one was worth the wait.  Some of my favorite beers are one’s that defy description and this is one of those.  I honestly don’t have the slightest idea how to break it down into flavor components. There’s a little soft spiciness from the rye blending with hops creating this savory herbal character with some light pine.  The hops are prominent but not overwhelming and I’m getting some apricot.  I liked this very much…how’s that for a brilliantly insightful review? Maybe I’ll just quote the press release from Headlands, where Brewmaster Phil Cutti says “It’s a nod towards the West Coast IPA bitterness, but the focus is on the late addition hops for flavor and aroma. The all malt grain bill is layered but light in body; achieving a nice balance point for the hops.” Does that make it clear?

Winning Saison
Winning Saison at the Strike Tap Room

Finally, we get to Winning Saison from Strike Brewing. This is not your father’s Saison. It’s not your mother’s Saison, nor your brother or sister’s Saison either. In fact, the beer-style police would probably say it’s not a Saison at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not really tasty. It’s the first beer from Strike Brewing’s Limited Edition Collaboration Series.  Strike teamed with Marin Brewing to create a pretty unique beer that really defies any standard style characterization. Sure, they start with a typical Saison malt-bill with Belgian yeast, and then add a bunch of late addition Citra and Amarillo hops. To further amp up the fruitiness, the condition the brew one orange zest once the fermentation is complete. It’s a pretty big beer at 7.5% abv and stone and citrus fruits dominate. Despite all that, the brew doesn’t taste cluttered or overdone. I appreciate it when brewers take risks like the ones taken in this beer, and appreciate it even more when those risks pay off.  A “winning” Saison.



Does the SF Bay Area Economy Encourage the Use of Artisanal Malt?

I spent the early morning of Memorial Day on an hour long listening to an interesting Beervana podcast on Mecca Grade Estate Malt, an artisanal malt house in Central Oregon. What really got my attention was towards the end of the podcast, beer writer Jeff Alworth and Oregon State Economics Professor Patrick Emerson noted that much of the malt created in Oregon wasn’t being used by local breweries, but was shipped down to Southern California where beer prices are generally higher. Mecca Grade’s malt was more expensive than mass produced malt, adding about 15 more cents per pint to the ingredients cost of brewing a pint of beer. Both Emerson and Alworth noted beer prices per pint on draft in Oregon is typically around $5.50 a pint, where in Southern California, a pint of beer usually costs more than than that. Apparently, the higher beer prices in Southern California support the use of more expensive malt.

This got me thinking about Admiral Malting’s, a malt house scheduled to begin production this summer. Will the local Bay Area brewing economy support the effort? Or all that malt also go to Southern California or elsewhere?

It’s a good bet there will be local demand for the malt. Around here, pints of beer on tap typically go for $7-$8 per pint which ought to be conducive for local brewers to use more expensive malts . I’m not an economist, so I can’t really go into a deep economic analysis of the cost of brewing beer and how the Bay Area economy affects beer pricing. However, doing some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, we can make some reasonable estimates of the cost of malts in brewing beer and what affects the price of a pint of beer. Then, we can make some reasonable assumptions to see if it’s reasonable to expect people to pay more for beer made with artisanal malt from Admiral Malting, or any other supplier.

First, let’s look at the cost. A recent Huffington post article suggests the typical local independent brewer pays a little less than 1 cent for the malt to brew an ounce of beer. This probably varies a lot by style, but let’s go with a 1 cent per ounce figure, which means a 16 ounce pint requires 16 cents of malt to brew.  It’s not too far-fetched to expect artisanal malt from a floor house malting facility to cost twice as much as malt produced in a modern high-volume malt house, so the extra cost 15 cents per pint when brewed with artisanal malt seems valid.

The next question is, why does beer cost so much in the San Francisco Bay Area and could that change? There are lots of factors that go into the cost of beer pricing, such as taxes, competition between breweries, labor costs. But the high cost of Bay Area real estate is a big factor, arguably the biggest and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. When you buy a beer at a restaurant or bar, you really aren’t paying much for the ingredients used to brew it. You’re paying a significant amount for the establishment to pay for the space you’re sitting in and have someone serve you a beer.  High Bay Area real estate prices, and the labor costs associated with the high cost of living in the Bay Area inflate beer prices. Fifteen extra cents per pint is pretty small in the context of the $7-$8 pints, and if fifteen extra cents of artisanal malt adds an extra dollar in value to a pint of beer that legions of beer aficionados will pay for, using artisanal malt for specialty beers is easily justified.

Most likely you’ll see beers brewed with specialty malt in places specializing in craft beer full of patrons willing to spend more for local malt, rather than at your local Safeway or liquor store, which rely on a high volume/low margin business that more expensive artisanal malt will disrupt. Since the ingredient cost of hops is roughly the same as malt, we’ve already seen exotic hops, which can often costs 2-3 times more than conventional hops, in plenty of tap rooms and speciality beer establishments, but rarely elsewhere. We can expect about the same with artisanal malt, especially since the increased cost per pint is similar.

You might be asking yourself, if the Bay Area is so conducive to artisanal malt, why is Mecca Grade selling malt into Southern California instead of the Bay Area, which is closer? I dunno, maybe a brewery in Southern California caught wind of Mecca Grade, while Bay Area breweries are waiting for Admiral Maltings to go online.  And trust me, plenty of brewers are looking forward to Admiral Maltings to go online.

Expensive Bay Area beer has a silver lining, as long as there’s plenty of people willing to pay high end pricing for beers brewed with novel ingredients.



Anheuser-Busch is making a mistake by hiding its role behind The High End brands

While Anheuser-Busch (AB) made a lot of headlines acquiring small independent breweries into its High End portfolio, it has very conspicuously avoided any association with those brands. A recent 10 Barrel 10th Anniversary celebration made no mention of AB’s ownership of 10 Barrel, which it acquired in late 2014. A controversial plan for AB’s Golden Road Brewing to open a brewpub in Oakland led to the jaw-dropping whopper from Golden Road’s Meg Gill, as reported in East Bay Express, who told “…a group of  (Oakland) residents on Wednesday that “non-factual opinion columns” are trying to paint Golden Road as part of Anheuser-Busch, and that such reports are — her words — “fake news”

Whether or not you think this is all an evil corporate cover-up by AB to masquerade as a local brewery, I think this is a bad idea from the standpoint of pure capitalism. That’s right, even from a perspective driven by naked greed, I think AB would be more successful with their High End if they disclosed their ownership in their craft beer brands like 10 Barrel and Golden Road. Sure, people care a lot more about where their beer is made than they do their toothpaste, so I understand the logic behind it. I just think it’s the wrong approach.

I write this as someone who spent the last 20 years selling technical equipment to companies for measuring things like the power of a laser beam. You may think selling equipment like that is a lot different than selling beer, and you’d be right. But there is a common ground in sales, whatever is being sold, which applies to both power meters and beer. I certainly realize AB InBev has plenty of smart, experienced sales and marketing folks, but there’s plenty of cases where smart, experienced marketing folks made bad decisions. I think this is one of them. Besides, lacking relevant experience on a subject has rarely stopped any blogger from spouting off their opinions on something and it’s not going to stop me either. So allow me to explain why it’s in AB’s best interest to disclose their ownership in their High End brands with consumers.

Point 1: It’s a lot harder to hide the truth in the information age

It’s rather futile for AB to hid their ownership of breweries in The High End portfolio when a simple Google search of terms like “Golden Road Brewing”, “10 Barrel Brewing”, “Elysian Brewing”  generates links to news stories of these breweries acquisition by AB on the first page of results. You don’t have to be a brewery obsessed beer wonk to learn those Golden Road brews you liked at your friends party are in fact, from the same company that produces Budweiser and Bud Light. A big problem with AB’s approach in hiding the ownership of their High End brands is that people are going to very find out the truth very easily sooner or later.

Point 2: “The High End” should become the AB InBev “Seal of Approval” in an Era of more suspect beer.

Say what you want about about craft beer sell-outs, breweries like Golden Road, 10 Barrel, Goose Island, and Elysian brew mighty tasty beer. I’ve had a fair share of beer from  independent breweries that may have been brewed with honesty and integrity, but basically sucked. Small independents brew lots of great beer, but I’ve found the quality can be very uneven at times, especially from new breweries. AB brands don’t have these issues. I’m fine to give my local brewery a mulligan on a lackluster brew full of off-flavors, but the typical beer drinker isn’t that way. Identifying beer as an AB High End brand is a great signal to consumers the beer is going to be good.

Final point: AB has a lot more to gain from loyal Bud drinkers and others ambivalent about “purity of craft beer” than beer geeks that probably wouldn’t drink their beer no matter what

More or less, beer drinkers can be lumped into three categories:

a) Those that drink mass market lagers and might occasionally drink a beer of a different style like a Pale Ale, Saison or IPA.

b) Those that drink a mix of mass market lagers and Pale Ales, Saisons or IPA.

c) Those that drink almost exclusively a wide variety of beer styles, often exclusively from independent breweries.

There’s certainly debate about the size of these groups, but a) and b) put together easily dwarf group c).  Even though c) is certainly getting bigger and a) is getting smaller, group c) consists of maybe 10-20% of the beer drinking population with a) and b) comprising the rest. Those in group a) aren’t going to care all that much that 10 Barrel’s Cucumber Crush comes from the same folks that bring you Budweiser. In fact, they may prefer it comes from a company they are comfortable with than a suspect brewery they never heard of.  Those in group b) also won’t care that much about who owns the brewery either as long as they can be confident in their purchasing decision.  Of course, group c) is full of of beer geeks, many of whom would refuse to drink anything from AB and they’re such information driven consumers, you’ll never fool them into drinking AB.

So when AB goes to great lengths to hide their involvement in their high end brands, they are pursuing a strategy that matters the most to the smallest group of beer drinkers less likely to drink their beer, while failing to leverage and enhance their brand to a much larger group of beer drinkers that would. Not only is it dishonest and raises questions about what AB is trying to hide, it really seems like a lost opportunity for AB to claim a position of superior brewing quality with their brand.

So far, AB is doing fine with their High End portfolio without my advice, but I expect at some point they’ll be more forthcoming. That’s because it’s to their advantage to do so, and even an evil corporation will figure out it’s the right thing to do.



Elysian to be Brewed at AB InBev’s Fairfield, CA Brewery

Ten years ago, the thought of a huge corporate brewery pumping out IPA’s was some people’s idea of utopia. For others, it was the apocalypse.

Whatever you might have thought about that, it’s happening now. In a recent press release, AB Inbev announced a two billion dollar capital investment program that includes “$15 million to begin innovative cross brewing capabilities at the Fairfield brewery through Elysian partnership, including significant updates to brewery infrastructure.”  Elysian Brewing, as you may recall, was acquired by AB InBev in January of 2015 and roughly a year later, six packs, bomber bottles, and tap handles of Elysian IPA’s like Spacedust and DayGlo started showing up all over the Bay Area

It’s not a surprise that AB InBev will migrate some production of Elysian to their Fairfield, CA facility as they continue to expand distribution of their recent acquisitions. In fact, according to a Tweet from Monterey beer writer Leslie Patino, the Fairfield, CA facility was already brewing beer from another AB InBev acquisition, Golden Road Brewing.

It’s worth pointing out that AB InBev’s plans also include “$58 million to improve and increase sustainability at our facilities”. Say what you want about AB InBev’s diabolical plans to grow their business, crush the spirit of craft beer, dupe the masses, ect. they are one of the more environmentally sustainable businesses out there and continues to invest in lowering their environmental footprint.

But let’s get back with the news about the Fairfield brewery.  You’re going to see more AB InBev “craft” brands in the San Francisco Bay Area as they leverage their existing manufacturing facilities to earn better returns on the investments of their brewery acquisitions. Retooling corporate breweries to produce less light lagers and more IPA’s sounds like the march of progress. Economists calmly explain that this is how everyone benefits: AB InBev sells more beer and consumers, who increasingly prefer more flavorful beers like IPA’s over light lager, have better opportunities to buy beers they want.

Most craft beer fanatics would claim this is simply more of AB InBev’s evil corporate plans to crush small breweries, and despite the fanaticism, they have a valid point. Whether or not most consumers care if their beer comes from a local independent brewery or from a major conglomerate, AB InBev is clearly hiding involvement in their craft brands and has long engaged in various anti-competitive practices against smaller breweries. And if you’re a small or mid-size brewer depending on retail sales for a significant portion of your revenue, life is only going to get harder when Elysian comes online at Fairfield.




Scenes from Faction Brewing

I hadn’t been to Alameda in a long time and never on the west side of the island when I ventured there a few days ago. I was there to visit Admiral Maltings to gather research for an article I’m working on for the next issue of Edible East Bay on the malt house. The west side of Alameda is full big old weather-beaten World War II-era buildings from a time when huge flying and floating machines were cutting edge technology. I fell in love with the place immediately.

After spending an hour at Admiral Maltings talking about malt gave me a hankering for a beer, so I headed over to nearby Faction Brewing. The Faction patio has great views of enormous freight barges docked in Oakland’s port and off in the distance, you can see the skyline of San Francisco. Beer is an industrial beverage and has historically thrived among the working class. Faction’s location embraces this history.

As for the beer, I just enjoyed the atmosphere as a worked through a few four-ounce samples. Each brew was just one effortlessly well executed beer after another, the flavors all popping with the right balance. Sorry, no elaborate flavor deconstructions, I was just quietly and slowly enjoying the brews without thinking too hard about them. Like so many breweries I discover, I wish it wasn’t so far away from my home town. I leave you with a few photos from the afternoon.


Scenes from Admiral Maltings

Unfortunately, people just don’t pay a lot of attention to malt, with hops grabbing all the headlines. An exciting new development is happening in Alameda might change that, at least in the Bay Area. It’s Admiral Maltings, which is building their floor malting facility and pub, to be completed this summer. The effort is led by Thirsty Bear’s Ron Silberstein and Magnolia Brewing’s  Dave McLean, with the day to day operations being run by Curtis Davenport, who learned malting techniques at the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Center and North Dakota State University.

There’s plenty of barley grown in California, mostly around the Sacramento area, but nowhere in the state to malt it.  The last malting facility in California closed over 20 years ago, with the last Bay Area malting facility closing in 1982. Admiral Maltings will use traditional floor malting techniques rarely used today rather than the highly automated manufacturing methods used in high volume malt production. Most brewers swear that floor malting produces a better product.

It’s a dirty secret in the craft beer industry that despite all the talk of “buy local”, the ingredients used to brew beer come from several hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Barley malt is mainly sourced from places like North Dakota, Montana, and Canada and even Europe. Admiral Maltings will be a key step in building a Bay Area ecosystem of local ingredients, allowing a California terrior to flourish. And as we strive to lower our carbon footprint in the face of climate change, reducing the distance heavy bags of barley and malt are shipped to Bay Area breweries plays a role in that.

It’s a story I’ll telling in the next issue of Edible East Bay and for research on the story, I met with Admiral Maltings’s Curtis Davenport last week at Admiral Maltings site. The facility is a very active construction zone and I appreciate him taken time out of his day directing forklifts and consulting with plumbers to explain what’s about to happen at Admiral Maltings.

I took a few pictures which I’ll leave you with. Those big gray tanks are the steep tanks used to germinate 20,000 lbs of grain. The smaller silver tank is the water recirculating tank delivers water used in the steeping process.  Those smooth concrete floors?  That’s where the floor malting magic is about to begin.


The Session #123: Simply Cutting Through the Beer Noise

“It’s been my policy to view the Internet not as an “information highway,” but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.”

Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote those words way back in 1996 not long before he died. If he were alive today, he’d probably say the same thing. Plenty agree with Royko, both then and now. It’s with this perspective as I consider Josh Weikert’s question of “Is the Internet helping or hurting craft beer?”.  Josh wants us to keep it simple. I’ll try.

Dipsite all the noise, the Internet is clearly helping craft beer, or breweries and beer drinkers wouldn’t use it. Everyone has their reasons. Breweries talk about connecting with customers. Beer geek swap opinions and arrange beer trades in ways that would be virtually impossible without the Internet. I have no idea how I could fully understand, appreciate and write about beer without the Internet so I’m grateful for it’s existence. The Internet dramatically reduced the cost and increased the speed in communication, so there’s no way we could be as knowledgeable about beer, or anything else, without it.

The great thing about the Internet is it gives everyone a voice.  The bad thing about the Internet is that you can hear everyone’s voice. Which means unless you have an infinite amount of time to kill on the Internet, you better develop some good filters to extract the few nuggets of good information from all the noise out there.  And if you want to get heard, you want to impose that filter on yourself and make sure when you grab the Internet mic to talk to the world, you really have something good to say. Otherwise, you’ll just get filtered out. It becomes even more important to find your unique voice, because otherwise you’re just like millions of other ones out there.

I get a lot of great information from breweries that get this.  Other breweries don’t and deliver things like breathless announcements about expanding distribution into South Dakota or a steady drumbeat of Chicken Wing Specials at the brewpub. These breweries get closed from my social media feeds pretty darn quick. Jeff Alworth had some great ideas for breweries trying to find their voice in social media.

This may be obvious, but from the looks of things on the Internet these days, it bares repeating: If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to.

Is that simple enough?