Scenes from the 9th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival in San Jose

As someone who writes about beer in my spare time, beer festivals like the “Meet the Brewers” festival held yesterday at San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing is basically research. Seriously. Where else are you going to find a bunch of brewers gathered together you can talk to? And with so many breweries popping up everywhere, beer festivals are a quick way to find out who is new and whether or not they’re any good. True, walking around drinking beer and chatting with people isn’t exactly like spending an afternoon in the library pouring over dusty tomes, but there’s always a pursuit of information element whenever I go to a beer festival. And besides, there’s a reason I write about beer and instead of something like tax policy.

So what did I learn? A few nuggets and opinions.

Freewheel Brewing has a new Head Brewer: Orion Lakota is his name, and he served up a stellar Brown Ale fortified with Chestnuts.

South Bay Brewco (SOBA) is looking to open up a brewery/tap room in Campbell or Los Gatos this year: These guys were pouring a dynamite hoppy Saison, which they call “West Coast Saison” which they contract brew at Hermitage. As a resident of Campbell, I can only hop they find a location as close to my house as possible.

Hermitage Brewing doesn’t get enough respect for their sours: All right, so that’s my South Bay-biased opinion but you never hear Hermitage’s name in the discussion of breweries earning cult-like status for their Sour Ales. Hermitage was pouring two Sour Ales yesterday which were among the finest I’ve ever tasted.  A Cherry Rocinante Flemish-Red style where the flavors really popped and a Peach-Cranberry Sour, where two fruits you wouldn’t think could play nice with each other harmonized perfectly.

Clandestine Brewing had a real hit with Milky Way Stout: OK, so maybe that’s not news but Clandestine was pouring a few different versions of their flagship Milky Way Stout yesterday. I had the Vanilla and Hazelnut versions, and they both took what was already a really good Stout to higher level. The Barrel-aged Brett Tripel they poured was one of those rare beers that made me think “Wow” when it touched my tongue.

Around here, Sours seem to be up and IPAs seem to be down: Quite a number of breweries poured some version of a sour ale, certainly more than last year. Surprisingly and refreshingly, many breweries were not pouring an IPA. I like a good IPA but it gets a bit tiresome going to beer festivals dominated by IPAs. I cannot remember a beer festival I’ve been to featuring a greater diversity of styles and flavors, and that’s an encouraging development. I’ll leave you with some photos of that Saturday afternoon.

Highwater Meet the BrewersFreewheel Meet the Brewers

Nubo Meet the BrewersLoma Meet the BrewersClandestine Meet the BrewersBeard Meet the BrewersBeer King Meet the Brewers

Hermitage Meet the BrewersCherry Sour Meet the Brewers

Lost Memories at the SF Beer Week Opening Gala

Inside this building the SF Beer Week Opening Gala is about to begin

The train gently rolls to stop, the doors open, and I begin the 3.5 mile journey from the San Francisco CalTrain station to Fort Mason, site of the SF Beer Week Opening Gala.  It’s only drizzling outside, the forecast was for heavy rain.  Unable to find an umbrella when I left home, I put on my red Ohio State University for some protection from the elements.  My dad gave me this hat 26 years ago, handing it to me just before I was about to drive myself and all my stuff from their home in suburban Chicago to start graduate school at Ohio State.  I’ve worn it all through those years, mostly when I go on runs.

I start speed walking through the damp chaos of late afternoon San Francisco.  The drizzle stops and cutting through a residential area, a couple women in their 30’s get out of a car. One looks right at me, and says “O-H”.  Why is she talking to me?  Suddenly, I realize she’s seen my Ohio State hat, and I blurt out “I-O” in response  Seems she went to Ohio State, too.  I press on.  I consider putting in my will to be buried with this OSU hat.   The image of my elderly corpse, lying in a casket with a bright red OSU cap on my head jumps into my mind.

It starts to rain hard, and I duck into a small coffee shop called The Underground to escape the rain, get something to eat, and charge up my phone.  Heading back outside with only a few blocks to go, I remind myself to start by drinking the low abv beers first at the gala, to make sure in I pace myself.   Just like a race.

I take my place in line the winds around the Fort Mason building complex, the line staying close to the buildings so the awnings shelter everyone from the rain.  Everyone around me is talking to each other.  I manage to strike up a conversation with the people behind me without coming across as some weird, lonely guy. I mention my wife back home to help deliver that point.

The line starts moving forward and I’m in!  I grab my tasting glass, walk around and see Peter Estaniel in front of the Hermitage Brewing stand.  He talks up their barrel aged Sour Pumpernickel Rye Ale, which sounds kind of weird but I don’t resist when he pours a very generous sample into my glass. Wow, it’s got everything: sour, spice, some oak, lots of smooth maltiness.  It’s also got 11% abv and my low alcohol plans haven’t gotten off to a good start.

The folks at Hermitage Brewing

After thanking Peter for the beer and wishing him a successful beer week, I tell him “Time for a session beer” before departing.  I get a small glass of something called Screaming Eagle Lager s from Iron Springs. Nice beer, and the meager 3.9% abv makes it even better.  I begin to check out the rest of the floor.

Bison Brewing is pouring Kermit the Hop, an innovative organic beer I’ve long wanted to try.   A slender woman with short hair dyed lavender fills my glass, and says “Go Buckeyes! O-H!”.  I realize that must be Ashley Routson, aka The Beer Wench who also went to Ohio State. A bit startled, I smile and cheer back “I-O”.  After a couple more “Go Buckeyes” between us, I move aside so the person behind me can get his glass filled.  Kermit the Hops has all sorts of wonderful hop flavors, an attribute rarely found in organic beers.  It also has something like 9.5% abv and my “start slow” plans are really starting to go out the window.

I drop by Half Moon Bay Brewing’s stand and find Maverick’s CEO Steve Morgan, and introduce myself.  A consummate Northern California net worker, he wants to introduce me to a couple people, but none of them are around.  He’s quite gracious about a couple of recent articles on Maverick’s I wrote, and raves about Half Moon Bay’s new Imperial IPA, which has something like 139 ibus, and of course, encourages me to try some.  It’s an amazing feat of brewing, very drinkable and in balance with it’s own hop character. Some how all that bitterness doesn’t come across as aggressive, and at something like 8% abv, doesn’t seem very boozy either.

Steve introduces me to the Brewmaster of Hop Dogma, which has a small tap room in Half Moon Bay, at the next door stand.  His name is a Dan something-or-rather and Steve urges me to try his Imperial Stout that won some big award at a beer competition in Bend, OR.  I can see why it won, it’s a great Imperial Stout.  It checks in a 10.4% abv and my “start slow” plan is officially dead.  I tell Dan I’ll need to check out their small tap room in Half Moon Bay and move on.

Steve Donohue of Santa Clara Valley Brewing is holding court nearby.  Everyone knows Steve.  I ask him how his brewery construction and, responding like every brewer I ask this question to, he takes a deep breath and starts muttering about permits.  He tells me “You ought to swing by the place sometime.”  I think I will before not too long.

Berkeley’s Rare Barrel is pouring some Raspberry Sour that sounds delicious.  At 6.5% abv, it seems like a good direction to go.  It’s excellent.

Next up, Discretion Brewing in Santa Cruz.  (OK,it’s actually located in Soquel, close enough.)  With my low alcohol strategy officially blown, I ask for the Wheat Wine, a smooth wheat ale at 9-10% abv.  I ask the guy filling my glass, “When can I get bottles of your stuff in San Jose.”  He shrugs and says, “Well, right now, we’re planning to distribute just in Santa Cruz.  I don’t know when we’d get to San Jose.”  I get the feeling it will be a long while before Discretion ever shows up in San Jose.

Moseying around the hall, enjoying the Wheat Wine, I’m startled to see fellow beer runner Brian Yaeger down from Portland.  We chat for a few minutes.  He can’t get over how many new breweries are in the hall he’s never even heard of.  We talk less about beer, and more about our families before moving on our separate ways.

The inevitable time to use the restroom has arrived,  Walking to the back of the hall, a couple sees me and whoops “Go Buckeyes, National Champions!”.  Turns out they went to OSU and we talk about beating Oregon in the National Championship Game.

Bladder depleted, the next beer is something from Wood Brewing.  On a hand written index cards, are tap listings like a Pale Ale and IPA.  Then, I spot a tap labelled “Honey with locally foraged herbs”. Intrigued, I ask for that.  I joke with the lady pouring it, “Did you just walk into Golden Gate Park and grab a bunch of herbs off the ground?”  Her non-answer to the question suggests that’s exactly what happened.  Then, she sees my Ohio State cap and says, “Oh, I lived a year in Columbus.”  As for the beer itself, it’s light with a very menthol character.  No abv is listed. I just hope it is low.

I bump into fellow South Bay beer writer Andy Lee and chat about our favorite beers of the evening so far. We exchange telephone numbers and talk about meeting up some place for a pint or two.   As is often the case, we cheerfully acknowledge it might be another year before this happens despite our initial enthusiasm.

There were a few other beer samples that evening, but I honestly don’t remember too much about them.  I look down at my watch and see it’s 9 o’clock.  My head is starting to hurt, another beer sounds like the worst thing in the world and even if I tried to choke one down, my heavily coated tongue wouldn’t detect a single flavor.  I fill my glass up with water and stand in a corner to recharge my phone so it still has some life.

A large room filled with 2,000 people drinking beer for three hours becomes a very interesting place. People start bumping into each other much more often.  Others quietly retreat to the back, sitting quietly in heavy silence trying to recover.  The ambient festival noise and background music is increasingly punctuated with goofy laughter and loud high fives.  Glasses begin falling out people’s hands, smashing on the floor, eliciting boisterous cheers from the crowd.  It doesn’t always look accidental.  It’s 9:20, and now seems like a good time to get out.

Walking outside for a cab back to get back to the train station, none is in sight.  I ask the security guy about a cab, and he says they start showing up at ten.  I walk through the parking lot, looking for a cab.  I raise my hand to hail an empty one, but it just continues to drive by.  I keep walking and by this time I think “Screw the cab, I can make it to the station and catch the 10:40 train if I walk fast.”

Walking hard through the damp dark yet lively streets of San Francisco the drizzle turns off and on to rain.   I keep checking my watch and a mapping app on my phone, making sure I’m on course and still on time to catch the train.  As I near the station, the winds start to really gust at times, and I grab my OSU cap to keep it from blowing off my head.

Making it to the station with 10 minutes to spare, I duck into the restroom, clutching the OSU hat in my hand before getting on the train.  I text my wife about making the 10:40 train, settle into my chair, and shortly after the train rolls out into the night, fall asleep.

Waking up, I look outside and see we’re Redwood City, half way home.  Jolted, I put my hand on top of my head, and realize I’m not wearing my OSU hat.  I stand up, look on the floor, the seat in front me,the seat behind me, and check my pockets a couple times.  Not willing to accept the obvious reality, I check the floor and seats around me again a third time. My OSU hat is gone.

Scenes from a Beer Walk

Give credit San Jose’s Willow Glen Business Association for coming up with a bright idea, the Downtown Willow Glen Beer Walk.  For thirty-five bucks, they give you a tasting glass and map of downtown Willow Glen indicating where no fewer than 26 business were pouring various beers to taste between 2 and 6 pm last Saturday afternoon.  The idea of course, is to get new customers to walk into stores they might not otherwise go into in search of beer.   And just maybe as each beer walker contemplates the malt-hop balance of the latest California IPA amidst shelves of, say beauty products, they might see something they like and buy it.

And I have to say it worked.  My wife and I ventured into plenty of new stores during the Beer Walk and let’s just say we bought a few things.   And while each pouring location is indicated and the entire brewery list is provided, the actual location were each brewery is pouring is cleverly left to be discovered by each participant on the beer walk.  So it was with great suspense as we entered a Hair Salon or Clothing Boutique, looking to see what beer awaited us. I often exclaimed things like “Cool!  They’re pouring Firestone-Walker here!” as we walked into realty office once the mystery beer became apparent.  We found this unlikely beer festival to be a blast, arguably the most fun we’ve ever had at a tasting event due to its off-beat and unpredictable nature.

And while this may have been a good marketing idea for Downtown Willow Glen, I suspect a number of proprietors hadn’t figured on a bunch of very tipsy beer walkers clogging their stores during the last hour of the beer walk, stumbling around with little interest in buying merchandise to the chagrin of the non-beer walking customers who probably wished they had chosen a different time to do their shopping.   As you can see from the photos, I had plenty of goofy fun with my iPhone taking pictures of my tasting glass in unlikely locations.  Hope you enjoy my photographic artistry!


Thank Goodness for the Breast Fest

The teaming crowds enjoying The Breast Fest inside
San Francisco’s Fort Mason Festival

No, the The Breast Fest isn’t a porn movie, but an annual beer festival to raise money for the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic, held last Saturday at the Fort Mason event center my wife and I attended.  The Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic is a California state licensed clinic which provides complementary alternative treatment for low income women suffering from breast cancer.

While it’s great to support this valuable cause, I’m also thankful this event gives me a decent excuse to diverge from writing about beer and running to discuss women’s breasts.  After all, as a heterosexual male with demonstrably active hormones, I’ve been a fan of women’s breasts longer than I’ve been a fan of beer or running.

Escaping the noise inside to enjoy the San Francisco Bay

I also appreciate that my wife understands and supports this enthusiasm for women’s breasts, although strongly prefers this enthusiasm for breasts is primarily directed towards hers.  As we go about town, she will sometimes helpfully point out large, healthy looking breasts on other women (which I’ve already noticed) and asks for my opinions on them, enjoying watching me carefully try to  tactfully escape the mine field she’s just tossed me into.  She lets me read the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue with impunity, although I’ve found it wise to toss this issue in the recycle bin as soon as possible.

But getting back to the beer festival, more than sixty breweries, cideries, and even a couple wineries were on hand to pour their offerings in the open air industrial space on the San Francisco waterfront. The 80’s hair metal cover band Metal Shop played for the crowd, which seemed a logical choice, since hair metal bands have long been energetic proponents of women’s breasts.  It was good bumping into Gabriel Scott and Bryan Kolesar, fellow travelers in the beer running blogosphere.
And while there were plenty of good and interesting beers to be had, here are four I found particularly noteworthy. 

E.S. Chi by Marin Brewing
Nothing says “Marin County” more than a brewery collaboration with noted Chinese herbalist Dr. Yen-Wei Choong of Marin’s Yellow Emperor Healing Institute.  (The Yellow Emperor website even features a pop-up ad for Lexus Automobiles to complete the total Marin experience.)   It was the first beer at The Breast Fest I tried and I’m here to say that Dr. Choong’s herbs melded effortlessly with the lightly toasted malt creating a feel good vibe to start the afternoon.

Ginger Wheat by Napa Smith
I almost didn’t try this, thinking the ginger would create a harsh tasting brew, but my wife talked me into it.  I found Napa Smith’s Master Brewer Don Barkley careful, restrained use of ginger root with the clear wheat beer created a surprisingly bright, refreshing brew.

Ramsgate Rye PA by Social Kitchen & Brewery
I was eager to see how Social Kitchen’s new Brewmaster Kim Sturdavant was doing replacing Rich Higgens, who departed the brewpub last February.  Rye beers are becoming all the rage these days and while I enjoy the peppery flavors rye grain bring, I’ve found more than a few rye beers to be a bit harsh.  Not this one.  I enjoyed the smooth, light peppery character of this beer that would likely go well with a lot of foods.  Sturdavant has big shoes to fill, but there’s been a lot of positive responses to his efforts, and you can add mine to the growing pile.

Duece by El Toro
Morgan Hill’s El Toro Brewpub was one I frequented often back when I lived down in South San Jose.  Their Deuce Double IPA is a classic West Coast concoction, with the clear malt a small distraction to the strong yet smooth floral hop blitzkrieg.  Totally unbalanced the way a Double IPA should be.

Once again, The Breast Fest proves it’s one of the best beer festivals on the increasingly crowded Northern California beer festival calendar. It also provides yet another opportunity for guys to engage in that time honored tradition of swilling beer and fixating on women’s breasts, but at least with a more thoughtful fixation.  It’s a sign of civilization’s progress that a Google search on “Breast Fest” or even “Breast Fest adult film” does not result in a bunch of titillating pornographic content, but several fundraisers all over the country highlighting breast cancer and other women’s health issues.  So let’s thank The Breast Feast and other efforts to support women fighting breast cancer, giving us all the proper perspective on what women’s breasts are all about.

Biketoberfest Marin Returns to Fairfax

I’m not a cyclist, but figure there’s a few cyclists our there that read this who would be interested in the Biketoberfest Marin. Excellent list of brewers. Have to say it look’s so good, I might get myself a bike just so I can participate.

Here’s the press release they sent me:

A highly-anticipated annual festival, Biketoberfest Marin attracts cyclists and West Coast brewers alike in a combined bicycle expo and stellar brewfest! Held in Fairfax—the birthplace of the mountain bike—the event is not only Marin County’s premier bicycle event but is also a fundraiser for and presented by the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) and Access4Bikes (A4B). Last year the event drew over 5,000 cycling and beer enthusiasts from all over Northern California and raised $20,000 for MCBC and A4B. Biketoberfest will feature a celebrity road ride (with “Fast” Freddie Rodriguez) mountain rides, live music, great food, family activities, a Cargo Bike Jubilee, dozens of bicycle, component, nutrition and athletic attire vendors, a women’s skills clinic with Pro Catharine Pendrel, and 25 West Coast brewers serving over 40 beers! It’s a great way to have fun while helping a good cause.

WHO: Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) and Access4Bikes (A4B) Present
WHAT: Biketoberfest Marin 2011
WHEN: 11am-6pm, Sunday, September 25, 2011
WHERE: Fair-Anselm Plaza, downtown Fairfax, CA
COST: FREE Admission; brewfest tasting $25 advance, $30 day-of. Proceeds from Biketoberfest benefit bicycle advocacy in Marin County.

Tickets for brewfest:

Biketoberfest Events:
Celebrity Ride with “Fast” Freddie Rodriguez
Cargo Bike Jubilee
Live Music from noon to 6pm: WTJ Squared, Miracle Mule, Beso Negro and Tom Finch Group
Family Activities
Celebrity women’s mountain bike skills clinic with Team LUNA Chix’s Catharine Pendrel

# # #

Full List of Participating Brewers

(as of 8.21.11):

21st Amendment
Anchor Brewing
Anderson Valley Brewing
Bear Republic
Bison Brewing
Broken Drum
Deschutes Brewing
Iron Springs Brewing
Lagunitas Brewing
Luckyhand Brewing Company
Marin Brew Co
Santa Cruz Ale Works
Sierra Nevada
Triple Rock
Weed Ale
Pizza Orgasmica
Moonlight Brewing Company
Petaluma Hills Brewing Co.
Beltane Brewing Company
Van Houten Brewing Company
New Belgium
Pine Street Brewery
Tieton Cider Works
Peloton Cellars (WINE)
Clif Family Winery

The Brewing Network’s Winter Brews Festival

The Brewing Network is holding it’s 2nd Annual Winter Brews Festival on January 29th in Berkeley from noon to 4 pm in Berkeley at The Martin Luther King Center in Berkeley. I went to the 1st Winter Brews Festival last year, and for a first time event, I thought they did a great job. So if you want to tune up your beer festival skills before SF Beer Week, or would like to try out some great beers from local breweries, check it out. You can find out more at

A few observations from Brews on the Bay

The Brews on the Bay beer festival, hosted by the San Francisco Brewers Guild is a pretty simple concept. Each member of the guide sets up a few taps along the deck of the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II era supply ship permanently docked to a pier in San Francisco’s Fisherman Wharf. Before you climb the stairs to enter a ship, they give you a plastic cup. For four hours, you walk around to the various brewer stations on the ship’s deck, and ask the servers to fill your cup with one of their selections on tap. When you get tired of walking around the ship, drinking beer, and enjoying great views of San Francisco from the ship, you leave. Or, 5 pm rolls around, and they kick you the ship. Oh, and there was a Van Halen cover band this year, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

It’s a good opportunity to see what the many great San Francisco breweries are up to. And like any good beer festival, there’s a few brewers around, most of whom will gladly tell you about there beer, and are also good for picking up a home brewing tip here and there. A while plenty of breweries poured there tried and true brews, there were enough specials and seasonals pouring to make it interesting. Here’s a few random observations from that afternoon.

21st Amendment poured their new Imperial IPA, Hop Crisis. One would think the Bay Area needs another big Imperial IPA like most people need another hole in their head, but if you tasted this one, you’d likely disagree. It’s big and powerful, with a strong strong hop vibe, but makes it work is its sturdy malt character that provides a good balance and almost viscous mouth feel to this brew. 21st Amendment plans to release it in four-pack cans this coming spring. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be looking for it.

Social Kitchen & Brewery made their Brews on the Bay debut. I was rather fond of their Rapscallion, a pretty intense Belgian Ale with a zippy ginger-like aromatic spiciness and light apricot notes. Their Big Muddy Weizenbock has plenty of roasty malt, some banana-like esters, and a little clove like spicy vibe to it. I need actually go to their brew pub and actually purchase some of their beers.

-Also enjoyed Rum Runner from Thirsty Beer. It’s got a lot of molasses in it, as well a 120L Crystal Malt, and British Aromatic Malt. It’s lightly sweet, malty and molassessy. (Is “molassessy” a word?) If you ask me, molasses in beer is way under rated, and I’ve got to love a beer with “Runner” in the title.

Since I’m having some problem with my camera, I decided to use a picture for last year’s Brew’s on the Bay, just in case anyone would actually notice.