For this, I turn to a recent discussion I had with Jesse Friedman, one of the co-founders of Almanac Beer, a San Francisco Bay Area brewery that brews all kinds of beers, but are best known for their barrel-aged sour ales. As you might expect, Jesse knows a lot about the intersection of wood and beer.
I was there to research a story on Almanac for the upcoming issue of Edible East Bay (forgive the shameless plug) and found talking with him for over an hour at Almanac’s new brewery in Alameda, CA to be a clinic on sour ale brewing. Of the many insights he shared over that afternoon, one that stuck with me that most is how he described variations between the wooden barrels he uses. As Friedman puts it:
“What we find with barrel-aging is that each barrel takes on its own personality. Different barrels will have different biomes in them, yeast and bacteria inside..bugs we call them. Barrels will also have different physical characteristics, so this barrel lets in more oxygen while this other one lets in less oxygen and they take on their own personality so that’s where the blending process comes in for us. Everything gets tasted individually and then we create blends from there and the blend is a really really important step of the sour beer process…..we taste and we blend to create the beer we’re trying to put together and that’s really important part of the barrel aging.”
Wooden barrels with different personalities? Not something you’d find with metal kegs.
(More shameless plugging: You can find the rest of the story about Almanac Beer and how their new brewery in Alameda, CA will allow them to take their beer to new levels will be posted in a few days at Edible East Bay and this blog will have a link to it.)
Warming up for this morning’s Wharf to Wharf race, I took note how little nervous or pumped up I was for the race. It’s not like I was just going through the motions, but well I found myself struck how nonchalant my approach was minutes away from start time. Not knowing if that was a good thing or a bad thing, I just reminded myself of the game plan: Go out in 6:25-6:30 per mile pace for the first few miles and go from there.
Last year, I ran the six mile run smart and well paced and completed it in about 39:30. This year, I figured I could do a minute faster so the goal was sub-39 minutes. The plan looked good from the opening gun. First, I had to negotiate the usually crowded, chaotic start, dodging around a couple runners who crashed to the ground. Looking at my GPS watch after what I felt was a pretty relaxed half mile and saw I was around 6:10 pace. I slowed it down slightly, coming across the first mile around 6:20.
From there, I felt reasonably comfortable covering the next few miles in 6:25-ish miles until I started running out of gas around mile four. But I held on, and while I didn’t have that much left on the 600 meter downhill finish where I usually catch a bunch of people, I came through in 38:26, good for 6:24 per mile pace, which is a sub-40 minute 10k pace if you think the Wharf to Wharf course is accurate. (I think it’s a little short.) Any how, another nice finish for me and the moral of the story is, if you don’t feel all that inspired at the start of the race, make sure you have a plan and stick to it at the beginning. The heat of the battle will often give you the motivation you need.
You hear a lot about Brut IPAs these days. The wonderfully clear, bone dry brews that let all those great hop flavors shine with little of the bitterness. Pioneered by Kim Sturdavant of San Francisco’s Social Kitchen Brewing late last year, they’ve attracted a lot of attention. If Google searches are any indication, it isn’t just your imagination that the Brut IPA has taken off.
After a few blips during it’s inception, then some more small blips the beginning of this year, Brut IPAs started to take off in April.
A geographical breakdown of searches for “Brut IPA” from different metro regions shows it’s popular in many parts of the country outside its San Francisco homeland. The top five leading metro areas for “Brut IPA” searches are, in descending order, Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, Portland, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Denver, and Los Angeles. That’s good news for Brut IPA fans, suggesting this riff on the IPA style has staying power with more and more brewing communities adopting them. However, there isn’t much appreciable interest on the East Coast so far. Only the Chicago area shows any significant interest in Brut IPAs east of the Mississippi.
Speaking of Hazy IPAs, let’s compare the Google search popularity of “Brut
IPA” to searches for “Hazy IPA”, “New England IPA”, and “NEIPA” and graph the result.
Brut IPAs still lag well behind the combined searches for all the hazy stuff, although they have grown to become on par with searches for “NEIPA”. Notice that while combined searches for “Hazy IPA”, “New England IPA”, and “NEIPA” have increased over the past twelve months, lately they have flattened out from a slight peak that occurred early spring of this year. I think it’s too early to say searches for these IPAs have peaked yet, but it does look like they are losing momentum.
Finally, let’s compare Brut IPA to another big hit in 2018, Glitter Beer! (Remember that?). Glitter Beer came out nowhere last February to become a controversial craft beer hit and lots of people were searching for it on Google back then. Barely six weeks later, Google searches for “glitter beer” mostly died out:
Glitter Beer hasn’t totally died, still being released at tap rooms here and there across the country. This most likely explains the small peaks and valleys over the past couple months in the data.
Time will tell if 2018 is known as the year of the Brut IPA, the year of Glitter Beer, or something else still over the horizon. The good news for Brut IPA fans is that these beers look like they’re going to be with us at least for a while.
I’m old enough to remember when beer brewed by small local breweries was called microbrew. Pretty much everyone calls it “craft beer” these days, in large part to branding efforts by the Brewers Association that started over ten years ago.
It’s worth noting the Brewers Association changed their definition of “craft brewer” in late 2010 and the Brewers Association notorious craft vs. crafty declaration was issued a couple years later. You would have to think these actions at least reinforced this trend that was already set in motion in the late “aughts”. Whatever you want to say about the Brewers Association strategy to label their member breweries “craft breweries” that produce “craft beer”, you have to say they were very successful at creating this linguistic shift.
For this month’s Beer Blogging Session, Roger Mueller of Roger’s Beers…and Other Drinks asks us to write about German Wheat Beers in some way or another. (Don’t know what the Beer Blogging Session is? Then check out this.) I have to confess not knowing a lot about German Wheat Beers. The last time I was in Germany was in Munich in 2005, where I was travelling on business to the Laser Munich Trade Show, as the Germans are every bit as talented at building lasers as they are brewing beer. That was a couple years before I had any real appreciation for beer, German or otherwise.
I rarely drink German imports, but spent the last couple weeks sampling a limited selection of a few German Hefeweizens found in my local grocery store as “research” for this post. I found it interesting how each different brewery had their own small, but significant riff on the style. Other than that, I really don’t think I can say a lot about authentic German Wheat Beers. While ignorance on a subject is hardly a reason for a blogger not to write about it, I’m going to go in a slightly direction. Since plenty of Northern California brewers release Wheat Beers which they claim are brewed in the German-style, I can drink those Northern California variants and write about them.
Hefeweizens are hard to find around here, and sometimes are a bit underwhelming. One I like is Alviso Mills Hefeweizen from San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). On the can, SCVB states it’s brewed in the Bavarian-style. It’s got a tingly carbonation, a dry but substantial malt heft, a little wheat tang, and noticeable banana and clove esters to round out the flavor, hitting the usual Hefeweizen notes. Nice beer.
Of course, if I’m going to talk about German Wheat beers brewed in Northern California, Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen has to be in the conversation. Gordon Biersch Brewmaster Dan Gordon studied brewing at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany, so you have to figure he knows a thing or two about German Wheat Beer. As for Gordon’s Hefeweizen, it’s got a light pillow-like mouthfeel with a noticeable tartness from the wheat. It’s medium dry and I found the spicy clove character dominant over the banana. One of those beers that is pretty refreshing if that’s all you’re looking for, but interesting enough if you want to pay closer attention.
Let’s move to the Gose style. When Northern California brewers discovered this style a few years ago, each had their delightful play on the yin-yang balance of salt and sourness, with each brewery offering up their interpretation of the style. But after maybe six months of that, brewers around here grew impatient and couldn’t resist the temptation to “innovate”, breaking out the guava paste or the blood orange concentrate and dumping that in the brew. The Goses in Northern California no longer became interesting studies of balance, but tired fruit-infused Wheat Beers. A notable exception, in my opinion, is Briny Melon Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing. I like the deep, pucking sourness matched with a light funk, a little saltiness and coriander spice, with the melon adding depth and bringing everything together.
Finally, there’s North Coast Tart Cherry Berliner Wiesse. It’s more sweet than sour, with a fizzy carbonation and the cherries just take over everything. Frankly, it tastes like a sophisticated alcopop. I get that the Berline Wiesse is usually served with sweet syrup in its homeland and this is an attempt at replicating that. Maybe this beer is true to the way a Berliner Wiesse is served in its homeland. I just don’t think it worked particularly well.
After sampling these and many other German-style Wheat Beers in Northern California, I’m struck with how poorly the German styles have translated here compared to English-styles (Stouts, Pale Ales, and of course, IPAs). Northern California brewers also seem much more comfortable looking to Belgium for inspiration. German brewing, with it’s focus on tradition and strict technique, just doesn’t seem to fit with the more freewheeling Northern California culture. It’s our loss.
When I decided to run the One Mile Bang, a road mile race in Los Gatos, it was with a fair amount of trepidation. I hadn’t run a one mile race since my high school and college running days in the 80’s. Even though I ran a bunch of mile races, about the only thing I can remember about them is being in heavy oxygen debt the whole way and getting out kicked by a bunch of guys at the finish. So while a one mile road mile seemed like a fun challenge and welcome change to the usual distances I race these days, all I could think about how soon oxygen debt would kick in and how many people would pass me at the finish.
It also didn’t help that I was just recovering from the Across the Bay 12k a couple weeks ago and haven’t been doing any track work, tempo runs, fartlek, or anything else to prepare myself to run fast over a shorter distance. So it was with an attitude of “whatever” that I entered this thing this Sunday morning, my “pizza and beer” socks summing up my general attitude.
Of course, when I get to the line and there’s a bunch of old guys just like myself in the over 50 division race, trying to relive the lost glory or their youth, all revved up ready to blow off the line….well, I started to get pretty serious, too. The gun goes off and a pick off maybe 75 of us charge down University Drive along the western border Vasona Park in Los Gatos.
My plan was to go no faster than 80 seconds for the first quarter, preferably something like 83-84. I look up and see the quarter-mile clock displaying 1:15 and pass the 1st quarter in 77. Too fast! But it didn’t feel that uncomfortable. “Just hold pace,” I told myself, afraid of falling into oxygen debt too early in the race.
I come through the half way point in 2:40, and think, “You know, this really doesn’t all feel that bad,” and started to reel in the runners in front of me. It certainly helped the course was downhill and by the time I got to the 3/4 mile mark, I started picking off a few people crossing the finish line in 5:12, which at least 30 seconds faster than I ever thought I would run. A couple of my training buddies finished ahead of me, but I didn’t expect to get anywhere near them considering they’ve been in a lot better shape than me all year and actually did some track work to prepare. What happened?
Most likely my indifference and lack of preparation played to my advantage. I didn’t get caught up with the pack charging off the starting line. Not saying you shouldn’t train for specific type of races, but I’ve fallen into to traps where I’ve trained hard to meet a certain time and then get carried away at the start, go out too fast, and pay for it. Quite frankly, I think a was a little too scared of the bear jumping on my back that never came and if I had to do it all over again, would have pushed a little harder from the first quarter.
At any rate, I’ll easily take a 5:12 mile, even if it is downhill. Next race up is the Wharf to Wharf next month in Santa Cruz.
We’re coming full circle. Multinational Brewing Corporations like AB-InBev are at trying to transition away from being completely dependent on largely tasteless light lagers, mostly by buying up smaller breweries to expand their portfolio. On the other hand highly respective brewing pioneers like Sierra Nevada are now “innovating” by releasing fairly tasteless brews. That’s my conclusion after drinking BFD, which Sierra Nevada helpfully informs us stands for “Beer for Drinking”.
They say it’s a hoppy Blonde Ale, but I didn’t perceive much hops. Or anything else. There’s nothing really wrong with BFD, just nothing really right with it. It’s just sort of…well, beer. Sierra Nevada can do the “light stuff” well. Kellerweis and Nooner Pilsner are mighty fine brews.
One suspects BFD was largely concocted in a meeting room rather than on a brewery floor. It’s packaging is suspiciously similar to Firestone Walker’s 805, a break-out hit I find equally underwhelming. I guess Sierra Nevada decided to put three big letters on their cans, to differentiate their product from Firestone Walker’s, which has three big numbers. How creative.
Is releasing minimal tasting beer to capture more market share the new thing for breweries like Sierra Nevada? If so, that’s a big fucking deal.