Sampling Hangar 24 Brews and a Chat with Owner Ben Cook

Ben Cook working the brewery bottling line
(Photo from Hangar 24)

There’s literally zillions of breweries you can chose from these days in the Bay Area these days. And now, along comes Hangar 24 from Redlands, California, which started distributing into the Bay Area earlier this year. You’ve got to wonder what yet another brewery could bring to the Bay Area beer scene.   But after sampling some of their beers they sent my way, let’s just say I think you’ll be doing yourself a favor trying them as well.  I was also fortunate to get a few minutes to talk with Hangar 24 owner Ben Cook about his brewery and his beers.

So what’s with this name, Hangar 24, anyway?  As Ben Cook explains, “A bunch of us would meet at Hangar 24 at Redlands Airport.  Some of us would fly around in our planes and afterwards, we drink craft beer or some of my homebrew.   I wanted our corporate and brewing culture to be like those times when I started the brewery in 2008.”  Now that we have that out of the way, let’s try some of Ben’s beers.

The first one I tried was their Double IPA.  Now you might think, as I did, that the Bay Area needs another Double IPA like a hole in the head.  But I tried Hangar 24’s version, and it’s different than any I’ve tasted before.  This was a real fresh, tasty citrus bomb, very dry, without any of the mouth puckering bitterness or sweetness of typical Double IPAs.  “We wanted to make something easy drinking, full of hop flavors, yet smooth,” as Ben described.  “It was one of our Head Brewer Kevin Wright’s first recipes that went commercial.” 

Moving along, let’s check out their California Spring Beer.  As Ben Cook recounted,  “We wanted to create nice floral aromas in our spring beer and ended up with two we equally liked.”  So they did the most logical thing and mixed the two together.  “When we blended the two, we ended up with a really great beer.”  This one was unique, a slightly tangy wheat beer made with both American and Belgian yeasts, with floral aromatic notes both from the hops and the Belgian yeast.  I also picked up a nice herbal finish with the character of fresh cut grass.

Bottling the the beer at Hangar 24
(Photo from Hangar 24)

Let’s go on to the others.  The Alt-Bier was a nice composition of caramel, woody, and earthy malt flavors.   Pale Ales can sometimes be a tired style, but Hangar 24’s Amarillo Pale Ale was a nice change of pace with it’s healthy dose citrus-like Amarillo hops.   The fresh flavors of their cloudy Orange Wheat really popped, when fresh orange flavors from locally grown oranges well balanced with the underlying wheat beer.  And to finish it off, Chocolate Porter, a silky smooth Imperial Porter with a light sweetness with cocoa nibs and vanilla giving it great depth.  This would make a great desser beer.  Virtually every single one of Hangar 24’s beer made me sit up and go “Mmmmm!” or “Wow” when I tried them.  Of course since I like beer, so this happens frequently, but very few breweries create this wow-factor on such a consistent basis.

So how does Hangar 24 do it?  How do they distinguish themselves from all the other breweries out there?    “We wanted to become a brewery that represents our local geography, using local ingredients and brewing beer that people in our area like to drink.  That’s means beer that’s drier, and more sessionable ” explains Ben Cook, who describes his local geography as “Inland Southern California”.  Lots of breweries talk about being local, but at Hangar 24 it’s more than just talk.  They prominantly feature a Local Field Series using locally grown ingredients. 

For those of you in the Bay Area who want to check out Hangar 24’s beers for yourself, you’ll find them using this handy dandy beer finder on their website.

California Winter Seasonal Beer Round-up in Adventure Sports Journal

If I learned one thing from the write-up on Winter Seasonal beers from California Breweries I wrote for Adventure Sports Journal, it’s that a surprisingly number of them are complex and flavorful, yet quite drinkable.  I really thought it would be difficult to find a bunch of winter seasonals that weren’t heavy malt bombs or high alcohol flavor explosions that are quite frankly the last thing I’d want after a trail run.  Further proof that the vibrant California brewing community cannot be easily pigeon-holed.   You can read the round-up here.

New Discoveries from Pyramid Brewing at the latest Ales for Autism Event

Last Saturday, Pyramid Brewing teamed up with Ales for Autism to highlight some of their new releases and reoccurring seasonals to help raise money to support families struggling to raise children on the autistic spectrum.  The concept was simple.  For a mere 20 bucks, all of it going to Ales for Autism, you got to enter a loft space in Pyramid’s Brewpub where they had a bunch of their new beers on tap, each paired with an hors d’oeuvre or dessert item.  So you just go around and taste all the new beers, and snack on the pairings, until you’re done.  (To check out the full details, go here.) 

My wife and I found it to be one of those low key casual events, highly underrated if you ask us, where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the strangers sitting next to us, and the beers can be enjoyed and savored without loud interference from the crowd.  So what’s new from Pyramid?  Plenty judging for the event.  Here were our favorites:

McTarnahan’s Full Bloom Lager From Pyramid’s McTanahan’s label based in Portland.  We loved this unique off-beat lager with highly floral hop profile, with a sturdy, bready malt backbone. 

Little mini-velvet cakes awaiting to be eaten with McTarnahan’s Full Bloom Lager

Wheaten IPA The controversial beer of the afternoon.  Wheat IPA’s are an up and coming style, but I have to admit I just don’t get these beers.  They taste like over-hopped wheat beers, and I find the underlying wheat tartness clashes with the hops.  For what it’s worth, I found this to be one of the better ones.  Linda, a much bigger hop-head than I, really enjoyed all hop aromas and really liked how the wheat malt gave this IPA an extra dimension.

And while it wasn’t poured at this event, you should check out Pyramid’s Thunderhead IPA, a very drinkable and balanced IPA, that celebrates the hops without hitting you over the head with them.

Uproar Imperial Red Our favorite of the afternoon, full of lots of roasty flavors with a nice herbal, earthly hop finish.  Very smooth and drinkable for an Imperial Red.

Pyramid stepped up to the plate to help support families raising children with autism, with Ales for Autism raising $2,400 from the event.   As the father of an autistic child, that means I’m going to buy more Pyramid beer, and hope you will too.

A Safe Haven from the Liquid Giants of Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay on the California coastline 20 miles south of San Francisco is a unique combination of a tourist town, farming village, and fishing port. North of the city, just off the Pacific Coast Highway next to a medium sized boat harbor, lies Half Moon Bay Brewing. I’ve been always meaning to got to this out of the way destination and so on an overcast Saturday, with few weekend visitors around, finally got the chance to check the place out.

As you might expect for a brew pub on the Pacific Coast, the menu was dominated by fresh seafood dishes. So it wasn’t too surprising to find the beer brewed so it paired well with the local catches. For example, the Pillar Point Pale Ale had light nutty maltiness to go with its restrained leafy and herbal bitter hop finish. The Princeton-by-the-Sea IPA was your typical West Coast IPA, with just a whisper of malt to hold back the floral and grassy hop onslaught, except that hop character was decidedly less intense than one usually finds in California. Taking notes on the various brews I tasted, the words “light” and “slightly” come up a lot. My favorite selections with the sweet, milk chocolaty Paddle Out Stout, and Moonglow Barleywine, a highly malt-forward barley wine with plenty of sweet toffee flavors with slight citrus under tone.

The brewpub itself sits in an area protected by a long rocky jetty, creating a calm, almost serene ocean side setting. But venture out along the rocky coastline of nearby Pillar Point, beyond the jetty, and the atmosphere abruptly changes. Here is where the Pacific Ocean is at its most ferocious.

High winds, sea currents, and an ocean floor that rises quickly from great depths as it approaches the coast combine to create huge waves just beyond Pillar Point. Once a year if all the conditions are right, a bunch of big wave surfers gather together on 24 hours notice for famed Mavericks Surfing Contest, to see who’s the best at riding waves the size of a small office buildings. The winner is often recognized as the best big wave surfer in the world, and simply just riding a few of these waves earns adulation within the tight-knit surfing community. Every so often, someone trying to tame these waves dies.

You need a jet-ski to get close these liquid giants, and not having one, or willing to risk the turbulent surf even if I did, got as close as possible on land before retreating back to the safety behind the rocky jetty to the quiescence of the inner shoreline.

Nifty Session Beers and Rumbling Trains at Social Kitchen and Brewery

Brewmaster Rich Higgins of Social Kitchen and Brewery is probably thankful I’m finally paying him for his beer. I’ve sampled it at a recent beer festivals, at which he likely provided gratis. And while I’ve given him genuine compliments of it at those festivals which he likely appreciates, when it’s time for him to pay his employees or the loans on his brewing equipment, kind words uttered in his direction are not going to do him much good. Linda and I have been meaning to go to Social Kitchen for some time since it opened earlier this year, and we finally got a chance to visit on a crisp, sunny Saturday afternoon.

Located just south of Golden Gate Park on 9th street, it’s at the former site of defunct Wunder Beer. I’ve heard talk that this slightly snake-bitten location is not a good one for a brewpub. But maybe because that’s because the area feels like an actual San Francisco neighborhood, rather than the contrived tourist attractions where many of San Francisco brewpubs are found. The periodic rumbling from the Muni trains rolling down 9th street gave the place an authentic urban feel, an acoustic connection to the surrounding city. Dark brown wooden panelling gives the place a somewhat sophisticated look, with the otherwise light and airy interior providing a welcoming feel.

As for the beer, you have salute a place where session beers figure prominently the beer line-up. Social Kitchen didn’t have an Imperial-anything on their tap list that day, and we didn’t miss them at all. One of my favorites is their L’Enfant Terrible, described as a Belgian table beer which has a nice mix of chocolate and roasted malt, with a little fig and a little spicy zip to it. I also enjoyed the Old Time Alt, a robust alt-style beer with a decent amount of rich, roasted malt with a woody character to it.

Of course, Social Kitchen does more than just drinkable session beers. Leave it to a California brewery to call an IPA with 65 IBU, their Easy IPA, which they describe “your friendly, neighborhood IPA”. There’s not much heft to the malt to balance of that floral hop goodness, but the lack of balance works in favor of this brew, which really has a intense, very flavorful floral vibe. Lots of California brewers try to make beers like this, but end up simply socking you in the taste buds with simple, non-descript hop bitterness.

As for the food, I am no food critic and will do my best and try not to pretend to be one here. Linda and I enjoyed the whimsical Brussels Sprout Chips appetizer. It sounds like a kids worst nightmare, but the lightly fried, salted thinly sliced Brussels sprouts was almost as addictive as popcorn. Almost. As for the menu, it’s a notch above simple brewpub fare, but otherwise is pretty accessible and straightforward. Linda and I found our food to be well executed, and really liked the warm neighborhood feel to the place. Call Social Kitchen and Brewery your friendly neighborhood gastro pub.

Finally, for “dessert”, we tried the Dapple Dandy Grand Cru. Made from their Raspcallion Belgian Ale, with a little red ale, and lots of Dapple Dandy pluots, I’m finding it elusive to describe. I appreciate the light touch with the fruit, as the fruit flavors blended with a light clove spiciness, a little sweetness, and a tannic-like bitter finish. I’m not sure this beer totally worked, but give them credit for something creative, complex, and interesting.

I’ll pay Social Kitchen and Brewery perhaps the highest possible compliment by saying I really wish it was in my neighborhood.

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.

Knishes, Kung Fu Tacos and Beer at the Eat Real Festival

The Eat Real Festival, in it’s third year, seems to be hitting its stride. It’s a great concept, a celebration of locally produced street food, with a beer shed featuring a good selection of Bay Areas breweries, held every year at Oakland’s Jack London Square. Last year, the festival seemed a bit sparse with few seemingly authentic street food vendors, and a few decidedly non-street food vendors selling things like frilly cupcakes and creme’ brule. This year, the crowds were decidedly bigger, and street food definitely ruled.

It’s was a great opportunity for Linda and I to try some local beers, then go out and try a little of this, a little of that from the bite size servings the various street vendors were serving, before going back and trying another beer. Repeat as desired.

Of course, any taco truck advertising “Kung Fu Tacos”, described as containing the spirit of Bruce Lee, is going to get my attention. While they didn’t cause me to exclaim “waaaaaaaaAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH” and deliver a flying kick, the Asian marinated chicken and Mu Shu vegatables worked pretty well in a taco. And then there were those Philippine pork sliders Linda and I enjoyed. Somehow, this melting pot cuisine where Asian foods are served in Latin and American methods of tacos and sliders seemed natural and unforced.

But let’s talk about the beer. Plenty of Bay Area breweries could be found at the beer shed, which supported no fewer than 40 taps. Every hour, a different Bay Area brewer was on hand to pour their beer and talk about it. I wasn’t able to uncover any profound secrets from any of the brewers, but there’s something about talking directly with the person responsible for the brew. So here’s a few notes of some of the more notable, at least to us, beers we tried.

Rye’d Piper from Ale Industries
This somewhat rich tasting, dark brown colored ale has a strong rye presence. The rye blends well with the roasted malt, and there’s this slightly herbal and astringent finish. Not a lot complexity here, but with a name like “Rye’d Piper”, you would expect big rye flavors, and this beer delivers. Mission accomplished.

L’Enfant Terrible from Social Kitchen
Social Kitchen Brewmaster Rich Higgens describes this as a table Belgian Ale. This was has a light roasted chocolate a fig character, with a little spicy character from the Belgian yeast, and yet this flavorful, complex brew checks in at 4.5% abv. Nothing like finding another nifty session beer.

Saisson from Ondonata
Ondoonata is a Sacremento area brewery that opened last year, and after tasting this effort, it looks like they are going to be around a while. Their Saisson is a little lemony, slightly bready, and a little spicy peppery finish, all adds up to a great, refreshing summer beer.