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.

wolfbackridge
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.

 

 

Rambling Reviews 2.10.2016: New beers from 21st Amendment, 10 Barrel and Sierra Nevada

Time once again to ramble on a few new beers that crossed my path.  Here in the dead of a San Jose “winter”, these new brews are decided on the lighter side.

Such as El Sully, described as a Mexican-style lager from 21st Amendment. Presumably named after 21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, it’s a damn good lager. New I realize most of you are probably not breathlessly awaiting the next new lager, but if you ask me, the simplicity of a well executed lager is a thing of beauty.  El Sully’s decent malt heft, effervescent crispness with a light grassy hop bite is sometimes exactly what’s needed in a beer, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a flavor explosion, but give me a basket of chips, a good salsa and a pint of El Sully and I’d be pretty happy.

Next up, Riding Solo Pale Ale from 10 Barrel Brewing, a single hop beer made with Comet hops which 10 Barrel sent me to sample. Riding Solo is the brain child of “Benny” who, according to a 10 Barrel press release was on the fast track working for a large brewery, and then it all came crashing down. He made a bad choice, climbed the wrong building in Bend and found himself in the clink without a job.”  Hmmmm…am I the only one finding the “large brewery” word choice rather ironic given 10 Barrel is part of A-B InBev’s global beer empire? At any rate, we’ll assume Benny paid his debt to society and is working hard to turn his life around. If he comes up with more beers like this, it won’t take him too long. I enjoyed the unique flavor of this Pale Ale, with a subdued bitter grapefruit peel character with a herbal character similar to mint. It’s one nice little Pale Ale.

Finally, we come to Otra Vez, a Gose with prickly pear cactus and grapefruit, released with much fanfare from Sierra Nevada. The Gose has emerged from near extinction to become the fastest growing craft beer style and this addition to Sierra Nevada’s year ’round line-up has cemented the Gose’s status status in the craft beer industry. Having enjoyed many a recent Gose, when I saw a six-pack of this in my local bottle shop, I snapped it up. Unfortunately, it left me wishing Sierra Nevada just brewed a regular old Gose without dumping a bunch of exotic fruit into it and dialing back the sourness. A more traditional Gose is a study of yin-yang balance between the interplay of salt and sour in a light wheat ale. Otra Vez is basically a light fruit ale with a little salt and nary any sourness. It’s reasonably enjoyable but comes across as a missed opportunity, the fruit becoming a distraction rather than an enhancement of the Gose style. I’ll even go so far as to say if there was ever such a thing as a mass market Gose, a profit driven modification of the style to better conform to more general tastes, it would taste something like this. Sorry, Otra Vez just isn’t my idea of a Gose and I just wasn’t turned on with what really was just a light fruity ale.

Beer of the Month: Fireside Chat by 21st Amendment

Why has it taken so long for something from 21st Amendment to earn this blogs “Beer of the Month”?  I’ve long been a fan of this brewery, so one of life’s minor mysteries has been rectified as 21st Amendment’s Fireside Chat takes this month’s honors.

What can I say about this beer?  First, you got to love the can art which depicts FDR sitting by the fireplace chatting jovially with a holiday elf.  The beer itself has this great ruby brown color and sturdy, sticky head to it, hitting most of the visually aesthetic points if you’re in to that sort of thing.  But my favorite attribute about this beer is that it tastes “wintery” in an obvious, yet undefinable way.
At least what I taste is a strong, slightly nutty ale with cinnamon, some nutmeg, and some other spices.  21st Amendment uses cocoa nibbs which I didn’t pick up at first taste, but I believe provides the earthy, nutty note to the brew.  Magnum and Goldings hops give it 45 ibu’s, but it just doesn’t seem that bitter, with the hefty amount of malt seeming keeping it in check.   At 7.9% abv, it’s more drinkable than of lot of winter warmers, almost quasi-sessional in a “have a couple in an evening and still be standing upright” sort of way.

Which I think is the best thing about Fireside Chat.  Do we need another monster Holiday Ale, checking in at 12% abv, brewed with Frankincense, Candy Cane Sugar, and Reindeer Must?  I think not.

Yes We Can!

This article, co-written with Pete Gauvin originally appeared in Adventure Sports Journal.

Something new is showing up in backpacks, in mountain streams, on rafts, and even on the beach. It’s beer in cans brewed by local and regional craft breweries.

The great outdoors is often enjoyed with beer in a can, since cans are lighter than bottles, shattered glass is not a hazard, and empties can be crushed for easy transport out of the woods. Moreover, bottles are often prohibited at many outdoor locations. Plus, canned beer submerged in a cold mountain stream cools down much faster than bottles.

So craft beer in cans is good news for outdoor enthusiasts, an independent-minded crowd that generally appreciates quality local and regional brews with character over the mass-market swill from corporate breweries that sink more of their budgets into advertising than their product.

Craft brewers themselves are also enthusiastic about cans. Check out their websites and you’ll find plenty of feel-good statements about how cans are better for both the beer and the environment. Cans protect beer from oxygen and sunlight better than bottles, and are a more earth-friendly package because they are significantly lighter than glass (35% of the weight of a bottle of beer is the bottle itself), stack easily with less packaging, require less energy to transport, and are more efficiently recycled.

“I absolutely love the package. They’re like mini-kegs,“ gushes Sean Turner, owner of Mammoth Brewing Company in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. The Eastern Sierra brewery, founded in 1995, started selling beer in cans four years ago, one of the first craft breweries to do so. “Everything out here is so outdoor oriented. We sell beer in cans to hikers, fishermen, boaters, and golfers,” says Turner, whose brewery cans three of its brews to satisfy a wide range of taste buds: Epic IPA, Golden Trout Pilsner, and Real McCoy Amber Ale.

North of San Francisco in Mendocino County there’s a similar new-found enthusiasm for aluminum pop-tops at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville. Brewmaster Fal Allen is encouraged by the new sales growth spurred by last year’s decision to release three of Anderson Valley’s more popular beers in cans: Boont Amber, Hop Ottin’ IPA and Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema.

“Canned beer is about 8% of our business and growing fast,” says Allen. “It used to be our canning line would run once or twice a week. Now it runs pretty much every day.”
While it turned out to be a good business decision, Anderson Valley Brewing, which generates 40% of its electricity from solar panels atop its brewery, was also highly motivated by the environmental benefits of cans. Cans are nearly 40% lighter to ship than bottles, greatly reducing fuel costs and their carbon footprint.

It’s been less than 10 years since Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery became the first U.S. craft brewery to can its product when it started hand-canning its Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002 — a hoppy, strong (6.5% ABV) and critically- acclaimed brew that no doubt shocked a few unsuspecting palates weaned on limp, watered-down, mass-market lagers.

Today, there are 117 craft breweries in the U.S. offering premium beer in cans, according to the Canned Beer Database at CraftCans.com. And more are hopping on the can wagon every month.

The First Canned-Beer Revolution

Of course, canned beer has been around for decades. The first canned beer was sold in 1935 by the Krueger Brewing Company of New Jersey, which canned Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer for distribution in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. By the end of 1935, 36 breweries were using cans — which, interestingly, included Pabst Brewing, whose “PBR” in recent years has established itself as the unofficial value beer among the outdoor set.

The first cans were made from heavy- gauge steel. Aluminum cans didn’t debut until 1958.
Sounds pretty good. But such regional breweries like Krueger’s (sold in 1961) wouldn’t last in the face of competition from national breweries like Schlitz and Anheuser- Busch.

In following decades, corporate breweries with high-speed canning machines began to dominate the American beer market. Creativity, quality and distinctiveness suffered in the battle for market share and profits. In most cases, the resulting product from these corporate breweries was a thin, fizzy, watery brew with a slightly metallic taste.

As tastes evolved with the resurgence of American craft breweries in the ‘80s and ‘90s, canned beer was derided by beer enthusiasts as cheap, tasteless and decidedly low-brow. But for cans, it was guilt by association. They were unfairly judged for the character of their contents, rather than the quality of the container. And such perceptions die hard.

Indeed, for the craft-brewing community devoted to flavorful hand-crafted beers brewed in small batches, canned beer epitomized everything that was wrong with American brewing. Even when an inert water-based lining for aluminum cans was developed in the 1980s to help protect the contents from ever touching metal, canned beer could not shed its cheap and inferior reputation. The stigma persisted and was only enhanced as “micro-brewed beer” became widely available, all in bottles, initially.

Clearing the Bottleneck

So how did canned beer mature to become the new darling of craft brewers?
The unlikely transition was spurred by a micro brewery in Canada’s Yukon Territory and a small Canadian manufacturing company which stumbled onto canning beer like a bear on a backcountry campsite.

Virtually all beer in cans sold by craft breweries in North America is canned by equipment manufactured by Cask Brewing Systems out of Calgary. The company got its start selling on-premise brewing systems to small brew-it-yourself operations that allowed home brewers to come in and use the facilities to brew their own beer.

Problem was, these brewing hobbyists often poured their beer into used and poorly cleaned bottles, with the beer degrading quickly thereafter. So in 1999, Cask developed a simple manual canning system so all that homebrew didn’t get poured down the drain.

Shortly thereafter, the owners of Yukon Brewing, a craft brewery in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital and largest city (pop. 20,500) …… a brewery “conceived like many Yukon babies — around a campfire on a canoe trip” …… recognized that about 60% of beer in the Yukon was sold in cans and wondered how they might be able to squeeze into that market.

As they looked around for canning equipment, everything they found was for large scale brewing operations dealing with far greater volumes than they could possibly brew and priced far higher than they could afford. Then they tripped upon Cask Brewing’s manual canning equipment and gave them a call.

“That’s when all the light bulbs went on around here,” recalls Jamie Gordon, a technical sales rep for Cask who’s been with the company for over 25 years. In 2001, Yukon Brewing bought Cask’s manual canning system and became the first North American small-scale brewery to sell beer in cans.

Seeing a market for small canning systems for the hundreds of small breweries then in existence, Cask Brewing Systems decided to market their system at the 2002 Craft Brewing Conference in Cleveland, hoping to make a big splash. The response went over like warm beer on a summer day.

“Everyone looked at us like we were crazy,” remembers Gordon, as negative perceptions of canned beer remained high. “One guy walked up, shook his head, and told us it was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen …… I’d like to know where that guy is now.” As the saying goes, all it takes is one — and others will follow. Perhaps no one knows this better than beer drinkers.

In this case, Oskar Blues from tiny Lyons, Colo., was looking for a way to distinguish itself from the numerous craft breweries dotting the Rocky Mountain landscape like 14,000-foot peaks, and was willing to make the leap. “We thought the idea of our big, luscious pale ale in a can was hilarious,” recalls founder Dale Katechis on the Oskar Blues website. “And it made our beer immensely portable for outdoor enjoyment.”

Only later would he and his crew discover the benefits of cans — such as better beer preservation, a lighter environmental footprint and lower shipping costs. Already a successful brewpub, Oskar Blues was mainly looking for a way to sell some extra beer. But so many campers bought Dale’s Pale Ale on their way to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park they soon automated their canning system to keep up with the unexpected demand.

Colorado’s dynamic craft brewing scene couldn’t help notice Oskar Blues’ success.
The market for canned beer for the active, outdoor-oriented consumer was no longer a secret. Coors Light wasn’t going to be the first option any more.

Fermenting Acceptance

Yet negative perceptions of canned beer continued to be hard to settle, even as more and more small breweries started selling beer in cans. In 2005 when San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery decided to start selling beer to take home from their brewpub, Shaun O’Sullivan suggested to co-founder Nico Freccia to package it in cans.

“It seemed like the stupidest thing I ever heard of,” remembers Freccia, “until Shaun started explaining all the benefits of canning, and then it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Another regional brewery that rolled straight into cans is Reno’s Buckbean Brewing Company, started in 2008, which cans its Black Noddy Lager, Orange Blossom Ale and Tule Duck Red Ale.
Things really started to change when the major craft breweries got into the canning act.

In 2008, New Belgium Brewing released their nationally popular Fat Tire Amber Ale in cans. “Fat Tire in a can really validated everything we were doing,” says Mammoth Brewing’s Turner. “The negative perceptions are no longer an issue,” agrees 21st Amendment’s Freccia.

And if that validation isn’t enough to pop your bottle cap, word comes down the canning line that the most prominent and influential craft brewery in California, if not the nation, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, plans to release its iconic Pale Ale and Torpedo India Pale Ale in cans by the end of the year.

“The number one reason we decided to do this was cans go where bottles can’t, especially on hiking trails, rafting, and other places people want to take them outdoors,” explains Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada’s spokesperson. “I’m really excited our beers are coming out in cans this year.”

One of the reasons Sierra Nevada — which founder Ken Grossman named after his favorite hiking destination — hasn’t joined the canned beer frenzy sooner is that they’ve been searching for a plastic lining for their cans that won’t absorb hop compounds over time, says Manley, which they believe they’ve now found.

For “malt forward” beers such as Fat Tire Amber Ale, which generates most of its flavor from roasted malts, absorption of hop compounds has little consequence. For Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA, with their distinctive hop flavors and aromas, preservation of the beer’s hop character is more essential.

Though it is now the sixth largest brewing company of any stripe in the U.S., Sierra Nevada remains an environmentally conscious, independently owned business. The brewery is powered by solar energy, operates its own water treatment plant, and is the largest buyer of organic hops in the U.S. For these reasons and others, it won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Green Business of the Year” award in 2010. But it wasn’t going to jump into the canned beer fray just because cans are an arguably greener option without first assuring that its first priority, the quality of its beer, would not be compromised.

Just as with bottles, craft brewers realize that canned beers are only as good as the beer inside. The last thing they want is someone carrying a couple cans 10 miles into the backcountry only to be disappointed. For one, that person could be Ken Grossman.

Secondly, how far behind can freeze-dried beer be? Just tear open the foil pouch and add water. Suddenly hiking the PCT for weeks on end would appeal to a much wider audience, I’m guessing. Or perhaps not.

For the foreseeable future, though, it appears craft brewers will no longer be kicking the can down the road.

Advice to California Brewers: Get Your Beer into a California Cafe Beer Dinner

Anyone who’s tasted my homebrews lately knows I have little advice to give to California Brewers, so I just have one thing to say them: Give California Cafe in Palo Alto a call. They’ll further elevate your beer by creating a great dinner out of it. Last nights beer dinner featuring Drake’s Brewing was yet another hit in their recent series of dinners.

I’ve been to other beer dinners held at California Cafe, but just haven’t written much about them. I rarely write about beer from a culinary angle since I generally don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Of course, ignorance rarely stops most people from talking authoritatively about things and that’s not going to stop me here either. So here’s a brief recap of last night’s event.

As in the usual format, California Cafe’s Executive Chef Mark Pettyjohn created a four course menu with a dessert, each course pairing with one of Drake’s Beers for about 35 of us that evening. Dow Tunis, Drake’s Sales Manager and twenty-five year veteran of the Bay Area craft brewing scene, talked about each beer, drifting around to each table over the course of the evening to chat, answer questions and hear what we all had to say about his beers. Turns out Dale used to hang out at one of my favorite watering holes on the Peninsula, Marvin Gardens, an unassuming little shack next to the train tracks in the industrial part of Belmont that always has a nifty little tap list.

Anyway, back to the dinner. Since I saw Peter Estaniel of the BetterBeerBlog across the room furiously scribbling down notes and taking a bunch of pictures with his phone, it’s a good bet a full deconstruction and in-depth analysis of the evening on his blog is imminent, so if you want to get the culinary low-down from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, check out his blog.

I’ll just rave a little about the lively course of Pan Seared Alaskan Cod, pancetta and fingerling potato ragout, and a sweet corn-port sauce served with the unlikely pairing of Drake’s super intense Denogginizer Double IPA.
I expected the Double IPA to totally blow away a light fish like cod. Somehow, that didn’t happen. Instead, the sweetness from creamy corn-port sauce, the saltiness from the pancetta, and the hoppy bitterness from the Denogginizer all were highlighted by the mildness of the cod, creating an energetic mix where each bite tasted differently and all the different flavors found a way to get along.

The following course took a completely opposite approach. A House Cured and Smoked Pork Loin with coffee risotto and spiced cherry sauce was full of smokey, earthy flavors, and blended seamlessly with the roasty coffee flavors of Drake’s Drakonic Imperial Stout. What a great warm and cozy course this turned out to be.
True to the name of California Cafe, only breweries from California are celebrated in this dinner series. Next up is 21st Amendment on August 25th. I’ll see you there.

The Session #51: Stumbling Through the Session Beer and Cheese Pair-Off

For this month’s Session, Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame has asked us to find our best beer pairings for three different cheeses in the great Session beer and cheese pair-off.

Asking my opinion about beer and cheese pairings is like asking a blind man about sculpture. I just don’t have the senses and faculties to describe the complete artistic experience, only bits and pieces of it. Beer has never really interested me for its culinary value. Instead, it’s the history, economics, geography, and sociology surrounding beer drives me to write about it, not to mention I like to drink it. But of course, plenty of people write authoritatively on stuff like history or economics despite barely understanding those subjects, so I probably shouldn’t hesitate to write about beer and cheese pairings, even while hardly knowing what the hell I’m doing. And this Session seems to embody the egalitarian nature of beer, where everyone can contribute and there’s none of the negative elitism that seems to surround other beverages, most notably wine. (Which I also like to drink.)

So here goes. And I’ve enlisted my wife Linda to help with these pairings who often provides helpful advice when my thoughts go astray. In fact, she often advises me on all sorts of subjects, whether or not I’ve actually asked her for help. So what I did was pick two similar beers to pair with each cheese. I read a little about what the “experts” had to say about what beers pair well with the cheeses Jay selected for the Session. Then I picked a couple beers in the recommended style, and then Linda and I spent three evenings trying each cheese with their respective beer pairings, picking the winning beer in a head to head comparison. Here’s the results.

Maytag Blue: Anchor Brewing Old Foghorn vs. Lagunitas Gnarleywine

The general wisdom seemed to be that blue cheese pairs well with barleywines. So it seemed obvious to pair Maytag Blue Cheese with Anchor Brewing’s Old Foghorn. After all, if there was no Maytag family, there would be no Fritz Maytag, and if there was no Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing would likely be out of business decades ago. And it fairly safe to say if there was no Fritz Maytag to rescue Anchor Brewing, there probably wouldn’t be Lagunitas Brewing either.

I couldn’t taste much of a difference between the two pairings until Linda noticed the Gnarleywine being sweeter, contrasted better with the tang of the blue cheese. Then I began to notice that the more intense tasting Lagunitas barleywine held up better to intense flavors of the Maytag Blue than the Old Foghorn, where both the beer and the cheese just tasted flatter by comparison. So I had to admit my wife had a good point. I just hope that doesn’t go to her head.

The verdict: Lagunitas Gnarleywine

Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA vs. Bear Republic Racer 5

I went to at least five high end grocery stores looking for Widmer One Year Aged Wisconsin Chedder and came up empty, so finally settled for something from my neighborhood grocery store cheese section labelled “Three Year Old Aged Wisconsin Cheddar”. Choosing two beers to pair with an aged Wisconsin cheddar was even a bigger challenge. It only seemed logical to pair a Wisconsin cheese with beer from Wisconsin, but it is not easy to find Wisconsin beers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since the Green Bay Packers won this year’s Super Bowl, I contemplated some sort of football pairing, but really couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Then I figured since Wisconsin is in the center of the United States, it would only be logical to test how cheese from the center of the country would pair from beer on the East and West Coasts. And least logical to me.

Since a few great beer culinary minds suggested IPA’s go well with cheddar cheese, I picked an IPA from each coast. While the IPA is a hoppy beer style, East Coast IPA’s tend to be more balanced, with the malt contributing to the flavor and the beer having a more rounded bitterness, while IPA’s brewed on the West Coast tend to be unbalanced, with less malt and more hops with intense floral and citrus flavors. And thus over time, IPA’s from the East Coast and West Coast gained reputations for their distinctive styles. It’s a lot like East Coast and West Coast rap music, except no brewers have gotten shot over it.

Speaking of rap, Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione is known to grab the mike and bust a few rhymes. And yes, his awkward raps on beer, which take unfunkiness to stratospheric levels are amusing when taken in extremely small doses. Thankfully, he’s a lot better at brewing, and Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is one our favorites, a great example of the East Coast style with rich, slightly sweet maltiness balancing plenty of smooth bitterness. Challenging from the West Coast is Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, brewed with whisper of malt that’s no match for all its piney, grapefruity hoppy goodness. So who wins?

We both found the sweetness of the Dogfish Head IPA contrasted well with the tang of the cheddar cheese, and while the cheese also blended well with the beer’s rich, smooth character. One the other hand, the intense hop character of the Racer 5 clashed against the cheddar’s tanginess, the resulting conbination not working particularly well. The East Coast and bad rap prevails!

The Verdict: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

Cypress Grove Humbolt Fog Goat Cheese: Anderson Valley Brewing Brother David’s Tripel vs. 21st Amendment Monk’s Blood

I suppose Humbolt County should be known for its towering redwoods, breath taking coastal vistas, and vibrant artisan community. But mostly, it’s known as a place that grows some pretty good dope. So it seemed natural to pair cheese from this region with a beer from a place also known for good dope, Mendocino County, and a beer from where a lot of dope is consumed, San Francisco. And since fruity Belgian Ales are often recommended beers to pair with goat cheese, Brother David’s Tripel from Anderson Valley Brewing and 21st Amendment’s Monk’s Blood figured to be good choices.

At first, I found the Brother David’s Tripel to be the better pairing, as its aromatic crispness really seemed to intensify with the goat cheese. But while Linda preferred the Brother David’s Triple over the Monk’s Blood straight up as a beer, so found the Tripel overwhelming the cheese, while the fruitier Monk’s Blood matched the cheese’s intensity, and created the classic fruit and cheese combination. She declared the Monk’s Blood to be the better pairing. And you know, after further consideration, my wife was right. Admitting that in writing can be dangerous.

The Verdict: 21st Amendment’s Monk’s Blood

Even though I barely knew what I was doing, this was a lot of fun. I might even stick around for Session 51.5.

The Session #45 : Wheat Beer Love and Money

Nemsis of Beer Taster has decided to take us back closer to the original roots of The Session, and asks us to write about Wheat Beers.

While Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing is about 1,500 miles away from my home, it’s one of my favorite breweries. I’ve enjoyed several of their beers, such as their Single Wide IPA, their Bully Porter, and sampled a few releases of their acclaimed Smokestack Series. However, the most unquestionably important beer in Boulevard’s line-up is a beer I’ve never tried. It’s their humble Unfiltered Wheat Beer, which comprises about 70% of their sales. Four days out of each five-day work week, Boulevard’s brewery is bottling or kegging this brew. I’m not alone in ignoring Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat Beer. Check out Boulevard’s Beer Advocate profile , and you’ll find a mere 5-10% of the total Boulevard Brewing beer reviews are of its Unfiltered Wheat


I must confess to not finding many Wheat Beers, at least those brewed in the United States, all that exciting, and many other beer geeks seem to share this opinion. Wheat beers appear on a lot of brewery’s beer line-ups seemingly as “transition beers”, for that guy who faithfully drinks Budweiser who got dragged into the brewpub one night by his friends. Or even more derisively as “chick beers” especially when fruit is added to it, since wheat beers do provide a good base for flavor experimentation. But the dirty secret is that most of the non-beer geek population, as well as a few beer geeks hiding in the closet, generally prefer to drink something light and refreshing with good flavors going in it, rather than dealing with an onslaught of bitter hops or roasted malt. And selling “chick beer” or “transition beers” is good big business, as MolsonCoors will attest with their successful Blue Moon Belgian wheat beer brand.

And since Boulevard’s owner John McDonald is both a businessman and a brewer, I expect he cares rather deeply about his wheat beer, and is quite grateful it pays his bills, giving him the freedom to experiment with all the sexy barrel aged stuff we beer geeks tend to swoon over.

Is Boulevard unique as a craft brewery which relies heavily on wheat beers for their main source of revenue? Well, maybe. But since I am a mere beer blogger hobbyist, and not a paid brewing consultant, I’m not really in a position to do much scientific research on the subject. So instead, I did the next best thing, which is go to a beer festival, drink beer, and shoot the shit with various brewers and brewery staff about their wheat beers.

And so I learned at a recent San Francisco Bay Area beer festival that 21st Amendment sells lots of their refreshing and innovative Hell or High Watermelon Wheat over the summer, especially when the San Francisco Giants are in town, since their brewpub is close to their stadium. Talking to the folks at 21st Amendment about this, nobody could actually say how much of their total revenue was due to Watermelon Wheat, but “lots” , “plenty”, or “well over 50% when it’s hot” were their best guesses. At the same beer festival, I learned Thirsty Bear’s Valencia Wheat, an excellent Belgian Wit Beer with a California twist, is a pretty heavy hitter in their line-up, accounting for about 20-30% of their sales and their third biggest seller.

There was one brewery I spoke with that claimed to make very little money on their wheat beer. It’s one of my favorite breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area and they’ve brewed plenty of well respected beers, but seemed to treat their wheat beer as some sort of bastard child in their line-up. And I found their wheat beer rather uninteresting, like a Saltine cracker without the salt. I can’t help wondering if they gave their wheat beer a little more love, attention, and creativity, they’d be a lot more successful with it.

As a craft beer drinker and more than casual observer of the craft beer industry, let me draw on these experience to give this unsolicited advice to craft brewers everywhere: Love your wheat beer, and it will pay you back.