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.
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.
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.
“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.
For a couple years, I lived in Belmont on the San Francisco Peninsula. Devil’s Canyon was my home town brewery and on the last Friday of each month, they’d hold an open house simply called Beer Friday. I remember the first time I went. I expected just a few like-minded beer geeks to show up with maybe a few other curious onlookers. As I drove that night into the small industrial park where Devil’s Canyon was located, the large crowds walking by quickly changed that notion. They had a band, a food truck, it was just a big fun casual neighborhood party. That evening, I realized people want to connect with their local brewery, even if they have only a passing interest in beer.
I moved away from Belmont in 2012 to Campbell in Bay Area’s Silicon Valley and never went back to Devil’s Canyon until last Friday. Devil’s Canyon also moved south, to San Carlos in 2013. I was there to do research for a story in the upcoming issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I won’t give up too much about the story for the next issue, but suffice to say, it has something to do with the way Devil’s Canyon was well ahead of its time in drawing people into their brewery, connecting people with the place their beer comes from.
I’d been away from Devil’s Canyon for too long. The Deadicated Amber I sampled fresh from the brewery really popped with toasted malt flavors. Deadicated Amber was my regular beer on “burrito nights” in Belmont when my wife and I would walk down to our local taqueria for dinner to recover on long work days when we were both too tired to cook. I always enjoyed Deadicated Amber on those burrito nights, but drinking it straight from the brewery was even more special on at least a couple different levels.
I’d like give special thanks to Devil’s Canyon’s Rebekah Atwell who showed me around the San Carlos facility and told me all about the Devil’s Canyon beers. Rebekah handles marketing and customer relations for Devil’s Canyon, though her official title at Devil’s Canyon is “Herself”. Her title seems like clever way of confronting conflict of identity versus categorizing people into traditional roles, but perhaps I’m just over thinking things here. Anyway, thanks to Rebekah and everyone else at Devil’s Canyon who helped with the story and looking forward to when it’s published in the next issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I’ll leave you with some pictures taken during the visit.
Today Strike Brewing announced veteran brewer Ben Spencer joined their company as Director of Brewing Operations & Brewmaster.
As detailed in a press release, Spence was previously the Head Brewer at Magnolia Brewing in San Francisco for 11 years and prior to that a Production Brewer at Colorado-based Rockies Brewing Company (now known as Boulder Beer) & Oskar Blues. Ben brings over 20 years experience in not only brewing but facility management as well. Ben is an award-winning brewer, holding three medals from the Great American Beer Festival (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze).
“Now wait a minute,” you might be asking, “Isn’t Strike co-founder Drew Erhlich the Brewmaster at Strike? Well, at least I was wondering how that was going to work out and so I e-mailed Strike CEO Jenny Lewis, who quickly responded. “Drew was actually instrumental in bringing him in,” she explained. “They will both carry the title of Brewmaster and work closely together in creating new recipes and help fuel our growth. We are super excited!”
It’s hard to beat a pedigree that includes Magnolia, Boulder Beer, and Oskar Blues and those breweries clearly mesh with what Strike has accomplished so far, so it looks like a good fit. So yeah, I’m pretty super excited about Ben and Drew’s upcoming collaborations too!
Last Monday, I rambled about craft breweries finding commercial success with some of the lighter beer styles. Now the craft brewing revolution would definitely be over if small breweries started pumping out bland and tasteless light ales and lagers chasing the almighty dollar. Thankfully, there’s plenty of great beers on the lighter side from small breweries proving these styles that are still interesting and flavorful when done right.
We’ll start with the weirdly wonderful G&T Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing. The first weirdly wonderful thing about this Gose is that it tastes absolutely nothing like a Gin and Tonic. Sure, there’s a lemon-lime thing going on, with some saltiness, a slight funkiness and a barely noticeable sourness. It’s really more like a Margarita, if anything, than a Gin and Tonic. The thing is, this unexpected combination is fun, refreshing and somehow works. I’ve gone on the record as not particularly liking Gose beers with all sorts of non-traditional additions that would make old world German brewmeisters spin in their graves but I really enjoyed this one.
Next, we go to a beer I discovered last week on vacation in the Chicago area where I grew up. It’s Prairie Path Golden Ale from Two Brothers Brewing. Described as “crafted to remove gluten but not flavor”, I was pleasantly surprised how lively and complex it turned out to be. It’s solid bready malt base with some light yeasty aromatics balanced with an earthy hop bitterness created a very pleasing composition of flavors. Walks the fine line between effortlessly drinkable without being boring.
Finally, there’s is Tooth & Claw Dry Hopped Lager from Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, a beer inspired by Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex skeleton.in the world Sue is prominently displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History where the wife and I took the kids last week. It’s a cracker crisp Lager with a sharp, grassy T-Rex sized hop bite. In my book, lagers are defined by how well they hit these notes without extraneous and off flavor and Off Color just hits things right on the head with this one. I just loved the well executed simplicity.