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.)
You might say I’ve been in a sour mood. I’ve been savoring tart brews these days, whether soured by the yeast used to make them or by the fruit added. Let me tell you about three that have particularly caught my fancy.
We’ll start with Rubaeus Raspberry from Founders Brewing. The beer kind of sneaked up on me. At first sip, I’m thinking it’s not very tart, there’s a moderate sweetness and then pow! Lots of fresh raspberry flavors blew through my taste buds, ending with a soft earthy finish. Brewing this with a neutral, light underlying malt was a wise decision by Founders, as it let all those big raspberry flavors shine. One of those rare beers that work both as a thirst quenching lawn mower beer, or something to slowly sip and contemplate.
Moving along, there’s Flower Sour from San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing. Hermitage brewer Greg Filippi ages a blonde ale for up to 24 months in French oak barrels and flavors it with a bunch of flowers including rose, hibiscus, lavender and chamomile. Yep, there’s a real depth of floral character to this moderately sour ale, which reveals a little white winey-ness. Sorry, I can’t really tick off of a bunch of flavor characteristics, I was just enjoying this one too much to get into all that.
We’ll end with the 2017 version of Almanac Beer’s Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry which uses four, count ’em four pounds of blueberries in each and every gallon. So as you might expect, it has a lot of blueberry flavors, rounded out with a little sweetness, a slight tartness, a noticeable peppery spiciness and a barely detectable earthiness. It’s a fascinating composition that screams “blueberry” but it’s all those different, barely noticeable accents surrounding the blueberries that really makes this one work so well.
It’s pretty amazing how much Almanac Beer accomplished as a contract brewery, borrowing brewing equipment at a few locations to create their unique, farm to bottle style. So it’s pretty exciting to see what they’ll accomplish now that they have their own brewery that’s just opened in Alameda in a World War II area warehouse they share with Admiral Maltings.
Perhaps the best thing about writing about beer visiting breweries, talking with brewers and learning their craft. The hour I recently spent with Almanac’s Jesse Friedman was a top notch clinic in that respect. Behind the farm-to-bottle ethos is a lot of careful process coupled with science, and it really pays off in beer infused with all sorts of character from the meticulously sourced ingredients, many from California farms.
You’ll be able to read all about it in an upcoming issue of Edible East Bay. For now, here’s a few shots from inside Almanac’s new brewery.
(The top photo is from Almanac Beer, the ones below are mine.)
In less than a year, a dormant World War II warehouse in the gritty industrial district of western Alameda has been transformed into a hub of activity centered around local brewing. The last time I was at this building was May of last year when it was an active, chaotic construction zone. Admiral Maltings’s Curtis Davenport and I dodged buzzing forklifts as he showed me around the largely empty building, describing all the plans to turn the spaces into a floor malt house and adjoining tap room serving brews that used Admiral’s malt. Last weekend, I finally got to see what could only be conceptualized back then.
There’s something about sitting only three feet away from a bed of malt while sipping away on a beer brewed with barley that had only recently been lying on that very floor. Maybe I’m just a hopeless beer geek, but I found the whole experience magical. Having had over five beers from various breweries using malt from this malt house, there’s something different about it my palate just can’t quite identify. The brews have a depth and complexity despite a simplified malt bill. Only California-grown barley is malted here and only barley from a single farm is used in each batch. I think it’s too early to identify a unique California-malt character but the possibilities are intriguing, and to people like me, exciting.
On the other side of the building, I checked at the recently opened Almanac Barrel House, Brewery and Taproom. Given their heavy emphasis on fruit infused sours, this was more a celebration of yeast and local farming than malt. The place was also a celebration of capitalism as they were selling plenty of beer that afternoon. There’s a much stronger drive to connecting people more directly to the source of their beer than all the feel-good stories and growing awareness of food culture could possibly create due to a simple fact People pay good money to drink beer in rooms full of shiny brewing equipment. That was on full display at the crowded tap room. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from that afternoon.
Running a marathon, plus lots of work and family commitments have slowed down my beery explorations lately. However, I’ve still had time to sample some new brews to ramble about them in my little corner in the online world. So let’s get to it!
We’ll start with Anchor’s new IPA foray, Go West!. Anchor has an interesting history with IPA’s. Anchor arguably launched the whole IPA thing in America with their Liberty Ale. Even though it was released in the 1970’s, Liberty Ale still holds up today as a strong example of the style. A not so strong example of the IPA in my seldom humble opinion is Anchor’s unnamed IPA, which I find rather timid and underwhelming. There’s no such problem here, Go West! hits all the classic West Coast IPA notes, full of punchy grapefruit and pine flavors, and a slightly resinous finish. Presumably, the marketing folks at Anchor hope an exclamation point does a lot more for this beer than it did for Jeb Bush.
Next up, Le Wolf Biere de Garde from Chicago’s Off Color Brewing. I found this toasty, yeasty, estery concoction just a real pleasure to sip. It’s a little on the sweet side, and at 7.3% abv, offers a real kick. Fruity esters dominate. I picked up some apricot and peach, but it was more one unique flavor not easily broken down into components. A few folks on Beer Advocate noticed pear. It’s one of those beers you can analyze for hours, or one you can enjoy without thinking about it at all.
Last, but hardly least is Almanac Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry. Ho hum, Almanac put out another excellent barrel-aged brew. Almanac first brews their house sour ale, and then racks it to a secondary fermentation in wine barrels filled with Northern California blueberries. There it sits for a few months, picking up the blueberry flavors and a nice purply color. Sipping the result, the blueberries served as a light accent to the wine, oak and moderately strong sourness. It’s balanced, all the flavors playing nicely together rather than popping out on their own. What else can I say, it’s another example of the usual Almanac magic.