Rambling Reviews 8.19.2016: Dry Hopped Steam from Anchor, 10 Barrel’s Cucumber Crush, and JC Flyer IPA from Iron Springs

Once again it’s time to ramble about three notable beers I’ve tried over the past couple weeks.

We’ll start out with Anchor’s great twist on their iconic flagship. I’m talking about Anchor Dry Hopped Steam Beer. There’s a little more to Dry Hopped Steam than just the dry hopping as Anchor Brewmaster Scott Ungermann also lightened the traditional Anchor Steam recipe for the dry hopped version. “We took our most popular, classic beer and gave it a contemporary twist by introducing a lighter body and an elevated, dynamic hop profile using new and classic hop varieties,” states Ungermann in a press release. The dry hopped version is lighter and brighter than traditional Anchor Steam, with the floral hop aromas you’d expect from a dry hopped brew. It’s still got the classic complex roasty and slightly woody character, it’s just dialed down a bit to let the floral hops through. What’s interesting is drinking the dry hopped version and the traditional one side by side to contrast the deeper, richer flavors of Achor’s traditional Steam with the new, more contemporary version These days, a lot of the older craft breweries like Anchor struggle a bit to remain relevant in the fast moving brewing industry. Dry Hopped Steam shows Anchor has effortlessly overcome this challenge.

Next beer up is Cucumber Crush Sour from 10 Barrel Brewing. 10 Barrel takes a lot of flack from selling to corporate beer giant AB InBev , which reminds me of the time I was at an small coffee shop across the street from a Starbucks. On the coffee shop wall, there were all sorts of signs saying things like “Corporate coffee was evil”, “Starbuck Sucks”, and various other derision thrown at the Starbucks across the street. There was just one small problem: Their coffee was noticeably inferior to Starbucks. Say what you want about the evil diabolical plans of AB InBev, and while I likely agree with you, 10 Barrel is demonstrably one of America’s better breweries, still going strong since the acquisition. Cucumber Crush is yet another example. There’s light flavors of cucumber with a fruity, strawberry-like clean tartness. That’s it.  Yet, this simple, straightforward uncluttered combination is just ridiculously refreshing.

Finally, we come to JC Flyer IPA from Iron Springs Brewing in Marin County’s Fairfax. With family in Marin County, I drop by the Iron Springs Brewpub every so often and have enjoyed this West Coast style IPA. It’s citrusy, with tangerine flavors dominating, with some piney notes and a little resiny stickiness. The malt basically stays out of the way. Just another in the long line of solid-to-great IPA’s you find all over the place in California.

Anchor’s New Brewmaster Scott Ungermann Talks about Brewing, Go West! IPA and other new Anchor Beers

The classic copper brew kettles at Anchor

Anchor Brewmaster Scott Ungermann has a tough act to follow. His predecessor, Mark Carpenter is a legend in American brewing, having been at Anchor’s since the early 70’s. Carpenter had been the longtime Assistant Brewmaster until Fritz Maytag sold the brewery in 2010.  Then, Carpenter was promoted to Brewmaster. While Carpenter was at Anchor, he was highly instrumental establishing beer styles like the American IPA, the American Barleywines, and the Winter Seasonal. And of course, there was always Anchor Steam.

The iconic brewery promoted Scott Ungermann to Brewmaster at the start of this year, with Carpenter becoming Brewmaster Emeritus. Ungermann arrived at Anchor in mid 2014, from of all places A-B InBev, and started as Anchor’s Production Director. Ungermann’s first major release is GoWest!, Anchor’s version of the West Coast IPA. Anchor graciously provided an opportunity to interview Ungermann about his life in brewing, the development of Go West! and what else is in store at Anchor, which was conducted via e-mail.

Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you get into brewing?

I grew up in the Bay Area and always had a deep respect for Anchor Brewing. I first toured the brewery as a senior at Cal in 1987 and fell in love with the brewery and the beers – especially Anchor Steam. I was an English major at Cal, and just saw brewing as a hobby. My buddy Darryl and I bought our first home brew kit at The Oak Barrel in Berkeley in 1988, not long after we toured the brewery.  After graduation when I was teaching high school in Southern California, my Mom sent me an article on the Brewing program at UC Davis with a note that said “this might be interesting . . . “  My wife had recently graduated from UC Davis, and we quickly decided to move back up North to pursue this dream. I studied Brewing science and got an MS in Food Science from UC Davis in 1995. Shortly after graduating, we moved to New Jersey for her job and I took a job with Anheuser-Busch at the Newark Brewery as a Brewing Supervisor. This led to an 18 year career that took us from New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio and then St. Louis, ultimately leading to a position as Brewmaster at the Fairfield brewery back in Northern California. When I heard about an opening to come to Anchor in 2014, I jumped at the opportunity to come here and make great beers in the brewery that inspired me in the first place.

I see from your LinkedIn profile you’ve worked for a long time at different Anheuser-Busch facilities before coming to Anchor in 2014.  How has that transition been like?  What do you hope to accomplish at Anchor?

The transition has been amazing. This is a wonderful brewery to work at with a great group of people. I get to be a lot more involved in every aspect of innovation and new beer development. Although very challenging, it has also been a lot of fun.  Being appointed Brewmaster this year, I knew I had big shoes to fill. Having Mark Carpenter stay on board as Brewmaster Emeritus is definitely helping the transition and he will continue to be a valued resource. With Anchor,  I’m looking forward to bringing new and different beers to the growing portfolio and pushing the brewing boundaries a bit with new methods. We most recently did that by utilizing a completely new dry hopping technique that I helped design, used to create Go West! IPA. We will, of course, still continue to honor our traditional brewing methods by using our all copper Brewhouse, open fermentation vessels, and the hands-on attention that we give to each brew.

Scott Ungermann during his days at A-B InBev in
promotional photo during that period

OK, let’s talk about Go West!  Why did Anchor decide to release this beer?

We knew that beer drinkers were craving a more hop-forward beer from Anchor, and we wanted to create something was a nod to our California roots.  IPAs were enjoyed as early as 1849 during the California Gold Rush. Anchor has a long history in the Golden State, and Go West! IPA is another way we honor that heritage. The end result is a complex brew with aromas of citrus, pine and the tropics with a crisp bitterness and clean finish.

Can you go through the process of developing the recipe and nailing down the brewing process.

Developing any new beer is a high-wire act. We try to balance the desired outcome with the practicalities of brewing in our very unique brewery.  The first thing to do is taste many other existing beers as well as all of our available ingredients.  In designing Go West! IPA we knew that we wanted a golden color, not too malt forward, a pleasant hop bitterness and a bold hoppy aroma with fresh notes of pine and citrus as well as some tropical fruit aroma. We brewed many single hop brews on our pilot system to evaluate different hop varieties, we varied our mashing schemes, and we tasted everything – as a panel. This can’t be done alone. It took months of brewing and re-brewing and tasting and re-tasting. The hops that we selected from these trials were Calypso, Citra, Equinox and Eureka. We also decided that we needed to try a different method of dry-hopping rather than the bags of hop cones that we have been using for years in Liberty Ale and our other dry-hopped beers. We worked with Mueller to design a tank that we could flow-through to get the freshest possible dry-hop aroma. We call this tank the Odeprot. We then began large scale brewing trials that we released down at our beer garden at The Yard. This gave us the practical experience of releasing our new IPA in a place where we could get direct feedback from our beer drinkers. Eventually we arrived at a final recipe and began brewing this new beer!

Were there any particular IPA’s that inspired you for Go West!?  Any particular favorite IPA’s from other breweries you’re willing to share?

We tasted many IPAs as panel. We did this tasting blind so as not to skew any data based on bias. This is always tricky. We worked very hard to arrive at an original recipe without attempting to replicate any other beers – we wanted something that was fresh and new, but also that was true to Anchor roots. There are many excellent IPAs being made by many other breweries throughout California and across the country. It wouldn’t be fair to single out one or two above the rest, but we have a deep respect for the many other Northern California breweries that are making excellent beers of all styles.

Any new beers in the works you can talk about?

We currently have an interesting series of beers called the Pacific Siren Series we are releasing. These are lighter sessionable beers flavored with natural fruits. Meyer Lemon Lager is a crisp refreshing Lager brewed with Meyer Lemon juice, lemon peels and lightly dry-hopped with a hop variety called Lemondrop.  This is a zesty, citrusy beer with a nice dry finish that is very drinkable and balanced. The second beer in this series is Mango Wheat.  It is a light refreshing wheat beer with a beautiful Mango aroma that comes from aging the beer on Mangos.  We are also releasing a new beer that is a collaboration with the SF Giants called Orange Splash Lager.  This is a very exciting beer for us as we are all huge Giants fans and have a great partnership with them.  The beer is a refreshing Orange Lager that is brewed with orange peels, Mandarin orange juice and a specialty malt that brings a nice orange hue to the beer. This beer has a zesty Orange aroma, but finishes crisp and is a very nice drinkable Lager for the ballpark. Last – we are continuing to release special “one-off” beers at the Anchor Beer Garden at the Yard that include full-size brews that will be available all season as well as some special Firkins that are available on a very limited basis.  The first Yard Series beer of this year is called Opening Day IPA and will be released prior to the beginning of the season. It is a sessionable IPA at 4.98% ABV and 45 IBUs, brewed with 100% pale 2-row for a bright, golden color.  We hopped it generously with Nelson Sauvin in the brewkettle and then dry-hopped with Cascade, El Dorado and the Haas experimental hop 431 in the Odeprot at nearly 2 lbs per barrel.  The result is a nice crisp IPA that is bursting with lush tropical and citrus hop aromas.  And of course there’s always the next big thing . . .

It still amazes me today that Anchor beers from the 70’s like Liberty Ale, Old Foghorn Barleywine, Christmas Ale and Anchor Steam still remain highly relevant forty years later, coming from a totally different era of American brewing. Yet, despite this history, the brewery never seems tired or out of date. We look forward to Anchor’s next big things.

Anchor Brewmaster Emeritus Mark Carpenter

Rambling Reviews 3.14.2016: Anchor Brewing’s Go West!, Off Color Brewing’s Le Wolf, and Almanac Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry

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.

Rambling Reviews 12.7.2015 : Anchor Barrel Ale, Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat, and New Belgium/Ben and Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brownie Ale

It’s that time again! More ramblings about some new and unique beers I’ve imbibed lately for your reading pleasure.

First up, Anchor Brewing’s Barrel Ale, a new release that’s part of Anchor’s Argonaut Series. In a press release, Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter described how they made it. “We took four well-loved Anchor beers and aged them separately in our used Old Potrero® Whiskey barrels. The beers don¹t undergo fermentation, though, so the aging process focuses on picking up flavors and aromas from the barrels. Next we blended the aged beers in a cellar tank with charred barrel staves for a secondary fermentation, allowing the beer to naturally carbonate, pick up characteristics from the staves, and let the flavors marry.”  

What’s impressive here is that it’s very balanced despite all the strong flavors of charred oak, whiskey, some vanilla, dark caramel and toffee. Nothing dominates, the flavors melding effortlessly to create one nice harmonious brew. It’s one of those beers where new flavors reveal themselves as you slowly sip through it. I also totally appreciate a dark, complex sipping beer that isn’t an alcohol bomb at 7.5% abv. Just a delight to drink.

And then there was Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat. Shock Top is a Anheuser-Busch brand that’s fascinated me for some time. Shock Top offered me a sample of this special release, and I jumped at the chance. It’s drinkable…but I didn’t find it particular convincing as a pretzel inspired beer. It’s not bad, but Twisted Pretzel Wheat suffers from a disconnect between its created expectations and what it actually delivers. It pours a reddish brown, without bready or toasty flavors one would expect from the color.  There’s an artificial butter flavor that threatens to overwhelm the brew. And where’s the salt? I found the lack of any discernible salt took away from the pretzel experience. I can see how Shock Top fans would find this to be a delightful twist on the Shock Top line. For me, it was an interesting experiment, unoffensive enough to drink, but the flavors really never came together to create something very enjoyable, never really succeeding in what it set out to do.

Another beer attempting replicate something else is the collaboration brew between New Belgium and Ben and Jerry’s, Salted Caramel Brownie Brown Ale. True the progressive politics of the collaborators, proceeds from the sales of this beer go to Protect our Winters, a group devoted to fighting climate change. It’s got something in common with Shock Top Twisted Pretzel Wheat in that I wasn’t getting any salt here either, although I suppose they put some in there. There’s some nice caramel and dark chocolate flavors, but thankfully those flavors don’t feel heavy and there’s very little sweetness. It’s a humble brown ale jazzed up a little to be caramel brownie-like, creating a decadent drinkability. Well done.

The Session #106: Anchor Brewing’s Mark Carpenter Talks about the Transformation of the Anchor Christmas Beer

This month’s Session on Holiday Beers got me thinking about the early holiday beers in the United States. While plenty of pre-prohibition holiday ales existed in the United States, the first modern holiday beer is widely credited to Anchor Brewing’s Christmas Ale, released in 1975. This beer was based heavily on Anchor’s Liberty Ale, a hop-monster by 1970’s standards that bears little resemblance to Anchor’s Christmas Ale today. Arguably the next significant holiday beer release was Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, an IPA Sierra Nevada still brews to this day.

Given the first two major modern holiday beer releases in the United State were IPA’s, why aren’t most American holiday beers hop-forward IPAs?  Why are dark, roasty, malt-dominated spiced ales largely dominate America’s holiday beer landscape? And how did the iconic Anchor Christmas Ale transform from a ground breaking hop monster to the rich, roasty, spiced ale that in many ways has defined the modern version of this tradition?

Seeking answers to these questions, I recently spoke with Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who’s been brewing at Anchor at 1973 about the transformation of Anchor’s Christmas Ale from a minor variation of the hoppy Libery Ale to it’s current form today.

Recalling Anchor’s initial Christmas beer in 1975, Mark explained, “Fritz (Maytag) though it would be fun to brew a Christmas beer. We’re thinking, we’re a tiny brewery, so we’ll brew 400-500 cases, mostly for gifts. We were just trying something and see how it would work out.”

Anchor Brewing’s Mark Carpenter 

Then in 1983, things changed.  “We finally had enough ale brewing capacity to brew Liberty Ale all year around,” explained Carpenter. (Anchor’s flagship Steam Beer is cold fermented.) So with Liberty Ale added to the line-up, Anchor decided to brew something different for the holidays. “We asked ourselves what our Christmas beer would be,” explained Carpenter. “We had all traveled to England to research breweries, so a few of us wanted to brew a brown ale since we really liked the brown ales we had there. So we brewed a brown ale for the Christmas Ale, and modified it each year for three years.”

Then came that fateful Christmas of 1987 when Anchor’s Christmas Ale transformed into what we recognize it today.  “That year, we decided to do a Wassail, a traditionally spiced beer for the holidays. Traditionally, the spices are added to the beer either at people’s homes or in the pubs, but we added to the beer as it was brewed. I thought we’d do that for maybe a year or two.”

Of course, that’s not what happened.  “Once you start putting spices in beer, it opens up a whole new world and we never went back. We could do all kinds of things. Everyone had all kinds of ideas and it really gave us a lot of opportunities to do a lot of spiced ales.” As it does to this day, Anchor changes up the spice mix and recipe for each year’s Christmas Ale.

I asked Mark if he was surprised that many craft breweries holiday beers resemble the dark roasted spiced ales that Anchor’s Christmas Ale became rather than the IPA’s of Anchor’s Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration which initially started the trend.  Laughing, he answered “It doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but so many breweries just copied what we were doing.”

Whether you believe Carpenter that Anchor’s Christmas Ale of 1987 was widely copied, it’s worth noting that two other influential Holiday Beers, Deschutes’s Jubelale and Full Sail’s Wassail, were first released within a couple years of the ground breaking 1987 Anchor version, and both are dark roasted spiced ales similar to Anchor’s. So it seems fair to say that the transformation of Anchor’s Christmas Beer through the 1980’s still strongly reverberates today in craft breweries releases all over the United States.

Mark Carpenter wanted to include one final comment.  “Fritz always insisted having “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” on the labels. It shortens the selling time and our distributors wanted us to change it for that reason, but I think it’s a great tradition.  The new owners of Anchor insist on this as well.”

Rambling Reviews: 7.15.2015: Fruit Beers from Anchor, Lagunitas and Altamont Beer Works

More rambling reviews for the second time this week. This time, the theme is beers with fruit in them.

First up, Anchor Brewing Zymaster Series No. 8. Luxardo Cherry Ale.  Anchor took a base amber ale and aged in a bed of Luxardo Marischino Cherries, which accorrding to Anchor, aren’t those bright, artificially colored fruit-like things that top sundaes but are instead some sort of heirloom cherry. Whatever these cherries are in real life, they make this beer really work. The toasty and smokey flavors from the base amber blend really well with the cherries, all the flavors well balanced. I’m not usually one to get into beer and food pairings but I could see this beer really working well with certain desserts, or the cherry flavors playing off various meats. One of those beers to carefully sip to fully appreciate.
A far less successful example of using a fruit additions is Lagunitas Citrusinensis Pale Ale. Lagunitas took their Dog Town Pale Ale, tweaked the recipe to add more wheat into the grain bill, then added blood orange juice into the mix. The blood orange addition is too heavy handed, dominating the brew rather than creating an interesting twist. The tangy blood orange flavors battles the bitter hoppiness of the underlying Pale Ale and things aren’t pretty. Flavors clash and muddle, and when the dust clears, there’s this chalky flavor. And what are these weird precipitates collecting at the bottom of the pint glass? An interesting beer, but not in a good way. Big misfire.

Finally, I really dug Berry White, a cream ale with raspberry and cranberry additions from Altamont Beer Works which was pouring on Nitro at San Jose’s Original Gravity. Great name, it’s almost as smooth and luscious as a Barry White ballad. The raspberry and cranberry work well together creating a nicely rounded berry flavor with a pleasant tartness. Nice off-beat summer beer I found to be a guilty pleasure. Can’t get enough of your love, baby!

Rambling Reviews 6.30.2015: Summer Beers from Anchor, Gordon Biersch and Santa Clara Valley

Summer is now officially upon us, so time to ramble about some of the lighter brews especially great for this time of year.  Good summer beers are underrated, possessing enough complexity and depth to draw you in if you care to, which can be easily ignored if all you want to do is cool off.

First up, Anchor Brewing Summer Wheat.  In the past, I was never a fan of this beer. That’s changed now that Anchor’s tweaked the recipe. The earlier version was a little bland for my taste, a pretty one-note wheat beer with nothing particularly to recommend about it. Anchor’s now jazzed it up with some subtle hop additions, including dry-hopping it with Simcoe. The result is a crisp, dry beer with some tartness from the wheat and citrus, lemony character from the additional hops giving the beer some extra depth. Now I’m a fan.

Next up is Gordon Biersch Sommerbrau, a Kolsch.  Their are plenty of Kolch’s out there, some rather light and ordinary.  As Gordon Biersch brewmaster says in a press release, “Kolsch is such a unique style and is so challenging to brew.” No place to hide any off flavors in a Kolsch.  The surprisingly sturdy underlying malt with some wheat tanginess finishes a little earthy.  Lot’s of subtle things going on here, and I like the little extra malt omph you don’t always see in this style.

Finally, when Santa Clara Valley Brewing’s tap room opened, I high-tailed it down there the first chance I got and tried, among other things, their Little Orchard Saison.  Lot’s of spice gives it some zip with some yeasty undertones for balance.  Not a deep review, but I liked it so much, I was just enjoying it rather than scribbling down a bunch of tasting notes, OK?