Rambling Reviews 12.26.2017: Beers from Strike Brewing, Ale Industries, and Bear Republic

For the last Rambling Reviews for 2017, I’ll start with Splash Hit, a Helles Lager from Strike Brewing made with California malt from Admiral Maltings, the Bay Area malt house I wrote about for Edible East Bay. Local malt gets me excited, and it should excite everyone if it leads to beers as good as Splash Hit. There’s a rich, wonderful complexity to this brew that’s arresting and I’m finding difficult to characterize. There’s a slight caramel note, a bit of a woody character, and this certain “fullness” of character that really go my attention. (Yes, truly I am struggling for words to adequately describe this beer.) The folks at Strike wisely used only a smattering of hops so the malt really sings. My first taste of a beer made with Admiral Maltings malt and I’ll definitely be on the hunt for more. Will Admiral Maltings become the “Intel Inside” of California beer?  Don’t bet against it.

Ryed PiperSpeaking of malt, next up is a brew the skillfully utilizes malty goodness that’s long been a favorite of mine, Ryed Piper from Ale Industries. It’s really well balanced, with the peppery rye malt working well with earthy fruity hops. Just a great blend of flavors make this a nifty beer.

Finally, we’ll end with Sonoma Pride from Bear Republic. As you might guess from the name, Bear Republic will direct the sales proceeds from this release to benefit victims of the recent Sonoma county wildfires.  It’s a hoppy Blonde Ale, with a soft malt undertone that seems a bit dominated by the earthy, herbal and slightly citrus hops. To my taste, I found it unbalanced, the hops overwhelming the delicate malt. My wife, who’s much more of a hop head than I, really liked it. Needless to say, we’ve argued over plenty of other stuff besides how much is too much hops in a Blonde Ale. So buy a bottle of Sonoma Pride, share it with your friends, and discuss whether or not the hops overwhelm the underlying Blonde Ale. It’ll help solve the burning issue of just how many hops can you add to a Blonde Ale and help victims of the Sonoma County Wildfires at the some time.

Sonoma Pride


Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon: (sigh)

This beer at Beer Republic’s Brewpub was badly needed
after the Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Running is a cruel mistress. That opening line is probably all you need to know how the Healdsburg Wine Country Half-Marathon went yesterday. Things were looking up 10 weeks into my training. I was shaking things up a bit, trying some new workouts, going for more medium efforts 3-4 times a week rather than a couple of killer workouts twice a week. That seemed to be working, and I was staying healthy and really enjoying the new approach. Then, a week before the half-marathon, my right hip started acting up and despite a lot of rest, never fully recovered by race day.

Still, I thought I had a chance to run a decent race, and I have this runner’s ethic thingy about finishing was I start, come hell, high water, or a sore right hip. Sometimes, that instinct has served me well as soreness sometimes mysteriously goes away on race day and I go on to run well. So with as much cautious optimism as I could muster, I took off with about 1,000 other runners on a cool, drizzly Saturday morning in Healdsburg.  A lot of thoughts went through my mind as I clicked through the miles during half-marathon, let me share some of them with you.

Mile 1: Hey, that first hill didn’t seem so bad, and my hip feels OK.
Mile 2: Still feeling good, hey things might turn out well, just keep moving!
Mile 3: Um….right hip starting to tighten up, maybe back off a bit.
Mile 4: Things not going too well, just try to finish.
Mile 5: When is this damn race over?
Mile 6: When is this damn race over?
Mile 7: When is this damn race over?

I think you’re getting the idea.

My goal evolved to just getting back to the finish line with enough energy left to taste some fine Sonoma wines at the finish line and enjoy a beer or two at Beer Republic’s brewpub in Healdsburg. My more modest mission accomplished.

That’s enough about that.

Beer of the Month: Apex IPA from Bear Republic

After cooing over the subtleties and nuances of a couple of pale yellow brews for the last Beers of the Month, it’s high time I choose one that will put some hair on your chest.  So this time around, I’m going with Bear Republic’s Apex IPA.  Apex IPA is a testament to both Bear Republic’s hop alchemy and truth in advertising, as Apex does indeed reach the ultimate height the West Coast IPA can possibly reach.

I knew this was going to be good the nanosecond all those wonderful grapefruit aromas hit my nose. Behind all those aromas were flavors of great depth and brightness of grapefruit and floral notes produced by a blend of Cascade, Columbus, Centennial, Cinook, Mosaic and (whew!) Citra hops. Underneath all those hops is a dry, hefty neutral malt backbone fully supporting all those hops while letting all their flavor notes shine through.  At 8.95% abv, it’s either a strong IPA or a light Imperial IPA.  You decide.

Bear Republic has been brewing Apex for a few years and even won Silver at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival but this is the first year they started bottling it.  This is seriously the West Coast IPA all other West Coast IPA’s should aspire to.  So, if you ever meet one of those jaded beer hipsters that tell you “Pliny the Younger isn’t that good”, you’ll know they’ve had an Apex.  Or at least they should have.

California’s Drought hasn’t affected its breweries…..at least not yet

This water percolation pond near my home replenishes the
underwater aquifer.  It’s  normally full this time of year

Listening to all the news about California’s drought, most people aren’t thinking about beer.  Perhaps they should.  It takes a lot of water to brew beer.  To produce each pint of beer, a typical brewery consumes five pints of water, used mostly to clean and sanitize the brewing equipment.  Factor in the water required to grow the barley and hops and somewhere between 8 and 24 gallons of water is required to produce a single pint of beer, depending on what part of the world the barley and hops originates.   So it stands to reason that California’s breweries could be greatly affected by California’s current drought.

Beer Might Start Tasting Funny
There is concern at Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewery that Sonoma County may switch its water supply from the Russian River to more mineral heavy ground water from wells.  “It would be like brewing with Alka-Selzer,” says Jeremy Marshall, head brewer at Lagunitas describing this to NPR News recently.    The mineral composition of water can have a dramatic effect on the taste of the beer.  Historically, most traditional European regional styles were partly a function of the flavor profile imparted from region’s unique water mineral content.    Today, most modern breweries carefully monitor and sometimes modify their water to better control the flavors imparted by the hops, malt, and yeast.
For breweries that normally rely on surface water, a switch to ground water due to the limited water supply may result in a decidedly different flavored brew.   Some breweries simply don’t have the resources to modify hard well water, resulting in possible off-flavors in their beer.  So if beer from your favorite brewery start tasting a little funny this year, it may be from the water.  Of course, given that drought leads to widespread starvation and disease in other parts of the world, funny tasting beer is a decidedly “first world” problem. 
Water Conversation Efforts
Like many breweries, Sierra Nevada is actively finding ways to reduce their water footprint in light of the current drought.  “You’d be surprised how much water we save with automatic shut-off controls that turn off the hoses when they aren’t being used,” remarks Cheri Chastain, Sustainability Manager at Sierra Nevada.    Other efforts involve modifying the chemistry of their cleaning systems to reduce water usage and removing lawns around the brewery and non-drought resistant plants on the brewery grounds.  In one initiative, water used in Sierra Nevada’s bottling line to rinse the bottles was recycled used to cool the vacuum pumps dispensing beer into the bottles, saving an estimated 2 million gallons a year.  “We’ve seen a 10% drop in our water consumption as a result of these efforts,” explains Chastain.
Since Sierra Nevada relies on ground water rather than surface water, their operations have not been interrupted.   Some breweries that use surface water may face either voluntary or mandatory reductions of their water usage by as much as 25%.     This may not be a problem for the craft brewing industry since Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Breweries Association recently told Craft Brewing Daily that “Most brewers feel that they can cut back 20 to 25 percent of water use without dramatically affecting operations or cutting back on production.”
Sierra Nevada has not experienced any disruptions in their supply of hops and barley malt, since more than 90% of their hops is supplied from farms in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, states that have experienced relatively normal weather patterns.   Most of the barley that’s malted to brew beer at Sierra Nevada is grown in Eastern Montana and North Dakota, which have also experienced normal weather.  Most breweries source hops and malted grain from these same locations.
So the good news is that while it’s possible some beer might start tasting a little different, there’s not going to be any shortage of it. 
California Hop Farmer Marty Kuchinski
(photo from Ruhstaller)

A California Hop Farmer Keeps It’s Fingers Crossed

Marty Kuchinski is one of the few hop farmers in California.  His farm is located near Mount Konocti in  California’s Lake County, where the volcanic soils provide an ideal location for his 200 acres of organic hops to grow.   Marty’s customer list reads like a who’s who of California brewers, and includes Russian River, Bear Republic, Speakeasy Brewing, and Ruhlstaller.   “I’m just hoping my ground water doesn’t run out,” he confides.  While he confidently sees his crop size remaining on target, he concedes that this growing season will be uncharted territory.  “Everyone seems to be hanging in there….so far”, summing up the feelings of area farmers.

A Wake Up Call for Climate Change
While it’s likely California’s brewing industry will survive the current drought largely unscathed, it’s definitely a wake-up call.  Breweries are realizing water is more precious, turning to water conservation efforts or working with local officials to ensure a reliable water supply. 
For example, Bear Republic recently paid the City of Cloverdale a half-million dollars to fund drilling of two new wells so that it could expand their brewery to meet increased sales demand.  Otherwise, Bear Republic would have to leave the city in order to meet their expansion plans due to the limited water resources available.    As Bear Republic owner Richard Norgrove Sr. declared in a press release, “We have to be good stewards of what we are attempting to do. We aren’t trying to take water from anyone else, we are willing to pay for it.”
The decline in California’s Central Valley Water Table
as shown in a USGS report.

While this encouraging, we cannot simply drill our way out of this problem over the long term.  According to a recent US Geological Survey, since 1960 the ground waterstorage of the California’s Central Valley has declined by nearly 60 millionacre-feet, enough water to supply every resident in the state of California for eight years.   In some places in the Central Valley, the ground drops by a foot each year due to the drop in the ground water table. Couple this with anticipated warming temperatures due to human activity and the problem multiplies.    “Ground water is recharged by the snowpack, and the snow pack will be decreasing,” as Sierra Nevada’s Cheri Chastain explains a consequence of climate change.  “We realize we all need to prepare for that.” 

The Power of Pace on a Beer Run in Sonoma Wine Country

The big question in last weekend’s Water to Wine Half Marathon held in Healdsburg, CA is “Was it worth it for Alderbrook Winery?”. That’s because Alderbrook hosted the post-race festivities which included free wine tasting, presumably to encourage many of the runners to actually purchase some of their wine. Perhaps this is news to Alder Brook, but most half-marathon finishers are fighting dehydration, have at least one body part hurting pretty bad, and often feel like puking. This is not an ideal time to be sipping a Chardonnay and appreciating its various subtle nuances and complexities, so you have to wonder how successful this little marketing idea was.

But hey, I’ve got to hand it to Alder Brook for putting on a good post-race show, with some tasty rice and beans on hand and a reggae singer so cool, polished and smooth, he could probably turn a Megadeath cover into a feel-good song you could grove to. And since my wife Linda and I wanted to help a race sponsor out and we liked Alderbrook’s wines, we picked up three bottles the day before the race with our race packets. (I must admit to having an alter-ego that likes a good glass of wine from time to time.)

As for the race, it started at the base of Lake Sonoma dam and wound through picturesque country roads over gently rolling hills past several vineyards and wineries before finishing at Alderbrook just outside of Healdsburg, with a net elevation drop of 100 feet. After recovering from a bout with bursitis in April that knocked me out of the Santa Cruz Half Marathon, then going through a personally stressful period in June and July that affected my training. Having completed a number of runs of 7-12 miles around 7:00-7:10 minute per mile pace that were pretty challenging, I was just hoping to break 1:30, about 6:52 per mile pace.

The correct pace for a half-marathon based on fitness level is a deceptively comfortable one, and my biggest fear going into the race was going out at “only 6:40” pace, and then staggering in the last few miles. So the day before, I drove over my local high school track, and ran a 6:48 to get a get a good feel for target pace. At one point, I ever close my eyes while running, just to focus on rhythm and cadence. Then, I also did a few 40 yard stride-outs in my bare feet, which as I found out in a recent tempo work-out helped focus to form and kept my feet feeling fresh.

And wouldn’t you know on race day, every time I looked down at my watch at each mile marker, I had just knocked out the last mile in 6:45-6:50 pace. By mile four, it was a little unreal, and I wondered if the mile markers were somehow wrong. No big hills certainly helped for uniform pacing, and I slowly marched through the field through miles 2 through 7, but after passing a guy struggling up a small incline, I could see no one ahead of me. I blitzed through downhill ninth mile in 6:36, but otherwise kept ticking off each mile in 6:45-6:50 even with no one in sight to run with. But since the course always went one way or another, or gradually up or down, the course itself gave me something to focus on.

I finally saw a couple runners way ahead of me at mile 11, and was reeling them in, but not fast enough before the race ended. I crossed the finish line in 1:28:41, which is 6:46 pace. One of the best paced races in my life and also one of the best times relative to my fitness. It’s not a coincidence.

But the really big news was that Linda set her PR in 2:16:49, just under 10:30 mile pace, a pace not too long ago she couldn’t maintain for a 10k. Was her PR due to good pacing as well? We’ll never know for sure, since she can’t exactly recall her mile split times, but she remembers her early miles just under 10:30 which is right where she should be. She undeniably earned her PR for all the hard work she put in weeks before the race, and she should be proud of what she accomplished, even if she keeps saying she runs like a turtle.

And with all due respect to all the excellent wineries in the area, the only proper way to celebrate Linda’s half-marathon PR was with a few good beers. So we headed on over to Healdsburg’s Bear Republic Brewing.

Bear Republic is best known for their Racer 5 IPA, the classic West Coast IPA where the hops dominate with the malt mostly an after thought. But go to the brewpub, and you’ll get a much different appreciation for Bear Republic, where believe or not, the malt often takes center stage.

This was certainly evident in the first beer I tried, the Peter Brown Tribute Ale, named after a former sales manager for the brewery who passed away nine years ago. It was impressively clean and smooth, brewed with molasses and brown sugar that blended seemlessly with the light coffee flavors and nuttiness of the malt. And who says Bear Republic cannot make a balanced IPA, as Linda enjoyed their Endeavor IPA, with “only” 65 IBU’s which had a lovely soft, biscuit-like, and lightly fruity hop character, which Linda and I prefer over Racer 5.

Speaking of Racer 5, they serve a Black IPA version of it here, called Black Racer, where the coffee-like like bitterness of the malt melds with the bitter hops creating a very bitter, yet mellow and easy drinking experience. Finally, Linda and I split a Racer 10, a Imperial IPA version of Racer 5 for “dessert”. I’m beginning to appreciate why so many West Coast style IPA’s taste even better in Imperial form, as the extra malt and associated sweetness just seemed to give the hops an extra juiciness and fullness.

So remember for your next race, conservatively figure out the right pace you should run, keep the mental discipline in the early miles to keep that pace, and fight like hell at the end. The beer will taste even better.

Water to Wine Half Marathon This Weekend

This weekend my wife and I venture into the wine and beer country of Sonoma County to run the Water to Wine Half-Marathon, which starts at Sonoma Lake and finishes in Healdsburg, CA, a net elevation drop of about 100 feet. I’m not in bad shape, I’m not in good shape for it, but since overtraining earlier this year in preparation for the Santa Cruz Half Marathon, my goals for this race are rather modest: Get to the starting line in decent shape, go out in a manageable pace, and leave enough to fight like hell for the last three miles.

I may be older and a lot slower than back in the day, and my goals and motivations for running and racing have changed. But one thing I’ve come to realize is the day I stop getting hyped for a race is the day I die.

And while I appreciate Alderbrook Winery sponsoring this race, I just don’t think I’ll be in the mood to sip a glass of wine after crossing the finish line. Instead there’ll be a Racer 5 from Healdsburg’s Bear Republic Brewing with my name on it.

Running not to the drama, but from it

Most of the time, I need a little more drama. And running is often where I find it. Earlier this year, with my training going well, I started to press harder in my training hoping to pop a good time at the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon. Instead, I popped the bursa sac in my right hip, and watched the race instead. It was frustrating, but I have few regrets. Injuries are an unfortunate part of running, and the high and lows of running provide a certain drama often missing in the humdrum of normal life.

But lately, life has become too dramatic. Let me count the ways. A large public held company announced it will buy the company I work currently for, which last year bought my previous employer. (Are you following this? Sorry, it probably isn’t wise to mention names here.) Days later, several of my co-workers were effectively laid off. Oh, they got offers to relocate hundreds of miles away to new jobs, but I don’t think anyone will take the offer. While my boss assures me that my job is safe and I think he’s right with my position pretty solid, its hard not to go around with my ears wide open listening for the next shoe to drop. My brother-in-law has not been so lucky and lost his job in these difficult and uncertain times.

Adding to that is that I’m involved in a child custody with my first wife. It isn’t wise to discuss these things in detail on the internet, but suffice to say, I wanted more time with our kids, and she opposes that, and she is trying to move the kids significantly further away from me. We aren’t agreeing about any of this, which is why we are in litigation. These things are typically ugly and complicated, and since our ten year old son has autism, that doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve had enough of this drama.

So surprisingly, running has become a source of stability and predictability from all that. The morning routine of going out the door and getting a few miles is a source of solace from all the external stresses outside my control. My wife and I are running the Water to Wine Half-Marathon on August 14th in Healdsburg, an easy course which starts at Lake Sonoma and drops 200 feet with no major hills along the way to finish in Healdsburg, CA, home of Bear Republic Brewery. And while it’s course meant for running fast, I have no ambitions to run the best time possible. Well, at least I’m trying to keep my competitive juices and impatience in check for the race which for me is no small accomplishment. A successful race for me will be just knocking out the first few miles at a very easy pace, maybe picking it up a little in the middle, finish strong, cheering my wife in, and then savoring the moment with a Bear Republic Racer 5.

We all need a little drama, and sometimes running often provides it, sometimes it shelters us from it. Funny thing about drama, it always seems to work out in the end, often in ways we don’t expect.