Rambling Reviews 3.19.2018: The Sour Edition

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.

hermitage flower sourMoving 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.


almanc farmers reserve blueberry

Take aways from the 2017 Hop Growers of America Statistical Report

I must admit, my idea of a good time is looking at hop statistics. The 2017 Hop Growers of America Statistical Report has been released and I’ve been pouring over the numbers recently.  Here are a few of my take aways from after looking over the numbers.

The growth of hop acreage has slowed. In the 2016 report, overall hop acreage growth was up 17.9%, compared to 2017, with a reported growth of a more modest 5.3%. Since 2012, US hop acreage has increased 79.5% but that looks to be slowing down considerably.

Hop yields have increased as well as the price per pound. Good news for hop farmers as yields improved from 1,710 pounds per acre in 2016 to 1,960 last year. The report attributes this to less “baby” or newly planted hops in the field and better weather conditions in 2017.  (It takes generally three years for a hop plant to fully mature and deliver maximum yield.) In addition to getting more hops per acre, hop farmers are getting more money for their hops, at $5.92 per pound in 2017 compared to $5.72 in 2016. I should note that different hop varieties will fetch different prices, so averaging this out is a little problematical, and some farms certainly made out better than others. The average revenue per acre jumped to $11,600  in 2017 from $9,800 the previous year, which the Hop Growers of American estimate that each acre of hops gained a profit of $785 per acre when an estimated $10,810 per acre of production costs are factored in. So hop farmers did well in 2017.

Now what’s good for hop farmers is often bad for brewers and consumers, since if the price of hops go up, breweries have to pay more for them and often pass those costs on to consumers in terms of higher prices. But considering the modest price growth, it’s doubtful this would create a disruptive shock that would affect a breweries ability to brew certain beers, or result in sudden pricing increase to consumers. A thriving network of hop growers allows for innovation and greater willingness to take risks on exotic hops that might product the next killer IPA or be a dud. So in general, I think these numbers are sign of a healthy hop market that should also be good for both breweries and consumers.

Hop growing outside the Pacific Northwest has really slowed. The Pacific Northwest (Washington / Idaho / Oregon) accounted for 95.5% of the total hop acreage in the United States, so contributions from other states are tiny to the overall market. But for people like me, eager to see breweries across the country source local hops, and the potential for different hop growing regions to express their unique terroir, it’s something I pay attention to.

In 2016, hop acreage outside the Pacific Northwest grew at a gaudy 64.9% clip. In 2017, this growth still outpaced the overall hop industry, but was way down from 2016, at 18.9%. A few states outside the Pacific Northwest that had small but booming hop farming activity screeched to a halt in 2017.  This includes my home state of California, which had zero growth in 2017 despite growing at about 50% each of the previous two years, and Colorado which also showed zero growth in 2017 despite nearly doubling hop acreage in 2016.  California and Colorado accounted for 130 and 200 acres respectively, which isn’t very much.  But for people hoping to see new hop growing regions emerging, it was disappointing to see a couple of promising hop growing regions stalling out.

Michigan may become next significant hop growing region. The one bright spot outside the Pacific Northwest is the state of Michigan, which now totals 810 acres of hops under cultivation, a 24.6% increase over last year. This is significant as it appears Michigan’s hop industry is gaining critical mass.  As Bart Watson, Chief Economist explained in an e-mail, a big issue facing farmers outside the Pacific Northwest is “…a lack of processing infrastructure, which is really expensive, and limits the scale they can get to. Michigan looks like it’s largely overcome that threshold.”

I’ll mention the states of New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota also continued to show strong growth, but at acreages of 400, 297, and 120 respectively, it will take a while before they show the same promise seen in Michigan.

It ought to be interesting to see what developments occur 2018.

(Hop photo from Wikipedia Commons)


Women in Beer in Edible Silicon Valley

Jenny Lewis, CEO of Strike Brewing (photo by Yvonne Cornell) 


It seemed like an easy idea at the time, write about two women in leadership positions in the Silicon Valley Brewing community. It turned out a lot harder than that. I certainly wanted to avoid a patronizing “see, women can brew beer, too!” kind of article, because, well you know, they can. And I wanted to avoid muck raising if there was no muck to be raised. Sure, many women face a lot of discrimination, but I wanted to tell the stories of how Strike Brewing’s CEO Jenny Lewis and Freewheel Brewing’s Alicia Blue got to where they were. Both told me they pretty went about their business finding a career in beer without having to deal with a lot of sexism.

The female editors at Edible Silicon Valley were enthusiastic about the story, which is always good, but sometimes I felt they wanted it to go in a different direction than the material dictated. At times, I felt some pressure to produce a story about the freewheeling, sassy barrier busting women of Silicon Valley Beer about subjects that were more subdued and technical. It didn’t help my first draft was a little tentative and lacking some punch. Good collaborative efforts often involve tension, as this one did, and I certainly appreciate the editors comments even though at times I wasn’t too thrilled to hear them.

But I’m pretty happy with the final result, which I credit my editors for helping achieve this, and you can read here:

Women in Beer: Meet the Masters

(Top photo of Alicia Blue from Devin Roberts, Freewheel Brewing)

Scenes from The Rake at Admiral Maltings and the Almanac Barrel House Brewery and Taproom

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.


Getting some reading done at The Rake Taproom at Admiral Maltings
This was my view of the malt house floor.
Another view of the malt house floor
In the Almanac Beer tap room, where people like to drink in front of shiny brewing equipment
Nary a seat was to be had at the Almanac Tap Room



How Pleasanton Got Its Hops Back: In Edible East Bay

hops coverSome people know the East Bay town of Pleasanton once was a center of hop farming, but did you know a hundred years ago it supplied around 10% of our countries hops? I learned that and lot of other interesting nuggets along the way while writing about  how Pleasanton got its hops back in the latest issue of Edible East Bay. It’s the story of the death of hop farming a hundred years ago in Pleasanton and its small rebirth recently by some dedicated hop growers which I hope you’ll enjoy. And hey, they even put the hops on the cover in the form of graceful drawings from artist Susan Tibbons. It’s a good issue, hope you check it out!

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

Rambling Reviews 1.23.2018: The Sierra Nevada Hop Edition

Welcome to this special installment of Rambling Reviews, covering three recent hop-driven releases from Sierra Nevada. One of the earliest pioneers of craft brewing from the early 80’s, Sierra Nevada has evolved into a multi-billion dollar company while still remaining at or near the forefront of brewing trends normally driven by smaller, nimbler breweries.

If you don’t that’s impressive, consider both of Sierra Nevada’s early craft brewing counterparts, Anchor Brewing and Boston Beer (Sam Adams). Anchor Brewing is still a respected name, but their recent releases have been hit or miss, suggesting more of a game of catch-up. It’s also worth noting Anchor was recently bought by Japanese brewery Sapporo and is considerably smaller than Sierra Nevada, which is still owned by founder Ken Grossman who shows few signs of slowing down. Boston Beer is basically a messy corporation fighting declining stock prices, distracted from their brewing operations as they pump out uninspired ciders and alcopops with seemingly no real idea where to go beyond their flagship Sam Adam’s Vienna Lager released decades ago.SN Hazy IPA

OK, on to the reviews. With considerable fanfare, Sierra Nevada has jumped into hazy IPA race with its new national year-around release, Hazy Little Thing.  Given the notoriously short shelf life of hazy IPAs, it’s pretty ambitious national roll-out fraught with risks.  (It’s worth noting the much maligned Boston Beer is also rolling out a hazy IPA .) As you may know, when it comes to hazy IPAs, I generally hate those things. My take on Hazy Little Thing is….well, it’s OK. It definitely has the orange juice thing going, with a pith note on the aftertaste in otherwise, simple uncluttered brew. I’ve done some soul searching as to why I rarely like the hazy IPAs others adore. I can deal with hazy but huge amounts of detritus in suspension is pretty off-putting. I also miss the bright, sharp hop flavors that get muddled in the haze, and besides, late hop additions create juicy flavors just fine without all the floating crap. I’m not really the right guy to be reviewing this, but I suppose if I find any hazy IPA to be OK, that’s a ringing endorsement. So if you like beer with a bunch of crud floating in it that tastes like muddy orange juice, you’re going to love Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing.

A far more successful release in my never humble opinion is Sierra Nevada’s new spring seasonal Hop Bullet Double IPA. Now this is an IPA, and without that hazy shit. There’s some sweetness to it, with light citrus and soft pine that harmonizes effortlessly, the neutral malt quietly supporting it all in the background. In Hop Bullet, Sierra Nevada uses plenty of Magnum, which are overlooked, underrated hop that really shine in this brew. At 8.0% abv, it’s not one of those booze-bombs Double IPAs, it’s just a very solid beer, well put together.

IMG-4918We finally come to my favorite of the trio, Sierra Nevada 2017 Estate Ale, an IPA made with both Estate-grown hops and barley. Beer terroir is nebulous, emerging concept given that most beers throughout the United States are brewed with barley and hops coming from the same place:  The barley from the high plains of central North American and hops from the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Nevada’s Estate IPA, made with ingredients grown in Northern California, has flavors all of its own. It’s a very balanced brew, with  black current dominating with a gentle piney background, a slight caramel note from the toasted malt, with a touch of resin emerging at the finish. A unique combination of flavors that suggests a lot of great opportunities are in store as new regions for barely and hop growing start flourishing.