Devil’s Canyon in Edible Silicon Valley

Devil’s Canyon Brewing was ahead of its time in opening up its brewery to the public, providing the connection between beer and the community that so many breweries establish today with their tap rooms and brew pubs. Devil’s Canyon Beer Friday events have always been much more family friendly than most breweries, their Root Beer playing a significant role in that.  I tried to capture Devil’s Canyon pioneering ideas in the latest issue of Edible Silicon Valley (ESY) which is out now both in print form and online.  I’d like to thank the ESY editors at who were pretty enthusiastic about the story and provided some interesting and helpful  “non-beer geek” perspective for the piece.  You can read the online version here:

Devils’ Canyon Brewery: Beer for All 

Returning to Devil’s Canyon

For a couple years, I lived in Belmont on the San Francisco Peninsula. Devil’s Canyon was my home town brewery and on the last Friday of each month, they’d hold an open house simply called Beer Friday. I remember the first time I went. I expected just a few like-minded beer geeks to show up with maybe a few other curious onlookers. As I drove that night into the small industrial park where Devil’s Canyon was located, the large crowds walking by quickly changed that notion. They had a band, a food truck, it was just a big fun casual neighborhood party. That evening, I realized people want to connect with their local brewery, even if they have only a passing interest in beer.

I moved away from Belmont in 2012 to Campbell in Bay Area’s Silicon Valley and never went back to Devil’s Canyon until last Friday. Devil’s Canyon also moved south, to San Carlos in 2013. I was there to do research for a story in the upcoming issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I won’t give up too much about the story for the next issue, but suffice to say, it has something to do with the way Devil’s Canyon was well ahead of its time in drawing people into their brewery, connecting people with the place their beer comes from.

I’d been away from Devil’s Canyon for too long. The Deadicated Amber I sampled fresh from the brewery really popped with toasted malt flavors. Deadicated Amber was my regular beer on “burrito nights” in Belmont when my wife and I would walk down to our local taqueria for dinner to recover on long work days when we were both too tired to cook. I always enjoyed Deadicated Amber on those burrito nights, but drinking it straight from the brewery was even more special on at least a couple different levels.

I’d like give special thanks to Devil’s Canyon’s Rebekah Atwell who showed me around the San Carlos facility and told me all about the Devil’s Canyon beers. Rebekah handles marketing and customer relations for Devil’s Canyon, though her official title at Devil’s Canyon is “Herself”. Her title seems like clever way of confronting conflict of identity versus categorizing people into traditional roles, but perhaps I’m just over thinking things here. Anyway, thanks to Rebekah and everyone else at Devil’s Canyon who helped with the story and looking forward to when it’s published in the next issue of Edible Silicon Valley. I’ll leave you with some pictures taken during the visit.



The Session #68: When Does Novelty Cease?

For this month’s Session, Tiffany at 99Pours asks us to write about novelty beers.   Here are my riffs on the subject.

In the 50’s, Elvis Presley introduced novel innovations in music to the world.  About the same time, Alvin and the Chipmonks released records using novel recording techniques.  Both Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmonks won multiple Grammy Awards.  Elvis is still Elvis.   Alvin and the Chipmonks are still unlistenable to anyone over the age of seven.  Somewhere between Elvis Presley and Alvin and the Chipmonks lies the interface between timeless innovation and perpetual novelty.

Beer is no different.  Chile beer is one novelty beer that many feel has not only overstayed its welcome, but should never have come over in the first place.  And yes, chile beer is often a stale lager with a jalapeno pepper thoughtlessly dunked into it, a beer gimmick resulting in an overpowering and undrinkable mess.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  One of my favorite beers is Devil’s Canyon’s Hades Habanero, where a deft touch of the habenero’s transforms an earthy underlying amber ale into a lively concoction.  And this year I experienced the pleasure of Green Chile Ale from De La Vega’s Pecan Grill & Brewery in Las Cruces, NM, a beer where local green chiles are carefully put on a pedestal of light malt to be celebrated in all their glory.  I also experienced a beer brewed with fennel of all things, Almanac’s Spring 2012 Bière de Mars, and found it sensational.   Somehow, these beers made with habaneros, green chiles, or fennel  don’t seem like novelty beers, but examples of innovative brewing with unusual and local ingredients.

Of course, there was a time when the ubiquitous IPA was a novelty beer.  Just a few decades ago, an IPA in America was either a rare British import, or was handed to you by a shaggy homebrewer with a devilish glint in his eye.  And as IPA’s caught on and became ordinary, the new novel became uber-hoppy double, triple, and even quadrupal IPA’s, as brewers engaged in a hop-driven arms race.  Until there was nowhere else to go and a few breweries got the bright idea to release Gruits, beers without any hops, but often flavored instead with spices and other exotic additions.  And it was novel.

Well, sort of.  For the first 5,000 years of brewing history, the Gruit ruled, as hops first started showing up in beer around 1400 AD.  Seems like as long as beer is continually reinvented, there will always be novelty beers.  They just may be standard beers from our past, or of the future.

California Cafe’ Brewmasters’ Dinners Remain in Good Hands

Dessert of Glazed Plums, Pine Nut-Prune Chutney, Honey-Cinnamon Sabayon
paired with Firehouse’s  Hardly Thomas Barley Wine

When I heard Chef Todd Yamanaka was replacing departing Chef Mark Pettyjohn at Palo Alto’s California Cafe’, that proverbial sound of a needle scratching across a vinyl record echod in my mind.  After all, Mark Pettyjohn was clearly a driving force behind the California Cafe’s Brewmaster series, with his enthusiasm for both the breweries and pairing their beers with creative plates.  In fact, Yamanaka only assumed his post as Executive Chef at California Cafe’s Palo Alto location barely one week.  If that wasn’t enough, things fell through with the previously scheduled brewery for April, and so Steve Donohue of Firehouse Brewing came in to pinch hit with just a couple weeks notice before the next dinner held this past April 26th.   Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into these things, sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

Except it didn’t.  Sure, for some of the courses, I’d have to admit some of the beer and food pairings were not as cohesively integrated as in dinners past.   But there was this comfortable spontaneity  and “let’s just try this” to the whole affair, both in the food and in Donohue’s brews, especially his experimental Barley Wine and Sour Ale, that couldn’t be duplicated with the weeks of preparation Pettyjohn usually took.  I should add the penultimate course of Coffee Crusted Angus Ribeye and Wild Mushroom Risotto paired with the uber coffee roastiness of Firehouse’s Brendan’s Irish Stout hit it out of the park with its warm, earthy comforting character.  Otherwise, I’m not going to go into a culinary breakdown of the evening, since I’m not good at that stuff, especially since my esteemed beer blogging colleague Peter Estaniel was there that evening, and he is good at that stuff, and I expect he’ll post something soon.

Yamanaka may not be a hard core beer geek, but in talking with him he clearly appreciates beer, and the man can clearly cook.  With all the announcements of $100 plate beer dinners in out of the way places in San Francisco, Sonoma and Napa Counties, and it’s reassuring for rest of us that one at half the cost can be found in Palo Alto and it’s future looks at lot stronger than it did a week ago.

Next up, Devil’s Canyon Brewing from my home town of Belmont May 31st.   By then, Chef Yamanaka will have time to breathe, get his sea legs, and whatever other cliches you want to add by then.  It ought to be interesting. 

The Session #61: Of Course Local is Better. But Where and Why?

For this month’s Session Matt Robinson of Hoosier Beer Geek  asks us what makes the local beer tastes better.  I don’t have a clue what the answer is, which didn’t stop me from writing.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “Support your local brewer”? Seems like it’s been a while.

Of course, your “local brewer” has changed over the years. Growing up in Bowling Green, OH in the 70’s, my dad drank Rolling Rock because it was from the local brewery, a mere 300 miles away in Latrobe, PA. By the 90’s when I was a graduate student at Ohio State, the city of Columbus finally had its own brewery, but you couldn’t find their beer at campus bars, so going out with friends and having a few “Rocks” was still drinking local. Rolling Rock just had that unique flavor you couldn’t find with other beers, which I suppose was why we preferred it. Never mind that unique flavor in each bottle of Rolling Rock was from massive amounts of dimethyl sulfide, widely considered a brewing defect.

With so many new breweries popping up today blanketing the landscape, it’s hard to say which ones are actually local. This was apparent the day I attended a beer dinner in Los Gatos a couple years ago featuring a San Francisco Bay area brewery located about 40 miles away. The brewery’s representative exhorted the crowd to drink his beer because it was from their local brewer. He was seemingly unaware that he was standing about a block away from Los Gatos Brewing Company, which would probably beg to differ as to who the local brewer in Los Gatos was. In fact, I counted at least six breweries closer to where he was standing, proclaiming himself as our local brewer, than where his brewery was actually located. And yet, despite this apparent contradiction in brewing geography, his claim to be our local brewer somehow seemed genuine. Maybe that’s because his beer was better than most of the beers from the technically more local” breweries.

One by-product of the commercial success of craft beer is that through inevitable industry consolidation and increased distribution, craft beer is becoming more national and less regional.  We’re losing something in that.

My local brewer happens to be Devil’s Canyon in my home town of Belmont, CA. I’ve had so many pints of Silicon Blonde, Deadicated Amber, and Full Boar Scotch Ale there’s a warm familiarity each time I have one. The beers from my local brewer have a unique character, nuance, and flavor profile which make them unmistakably local.  I’ve had beers from far away lands like Kenya and Thailand which have a unique character, nuance, and flavor profile which make them unmistakably foreign. Drinking a pint of Deadicated Amber is like being out with an old friend. Drinking a pint of beer from a distant brewery is like meeting a new friend.

But that’s just my opinion. Psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists have struggled to figure out why local seems better for years. Maybe that’s because geographers and economists are still debating what “local” means.

Hit by a Kaleidoscope

I never saw Kaleidoscope coming.

A fleeting photo of a pint of the ellusive Kaleidoscope

It’s Beer Friday at Devil’s Canyon, the neighborhood bash they hold the last Friday of each month, where they open up the brewery, roll in a food truck, and bring in a band or two, and serve beer. If you’re lucky, they’ll pour a special, limited release. With SF Beer Week just ending, they had four, count ’em, four special beers brewed for SF Beer Week left over. Having missed most of SF Beer Week due to work and family committments, I was glad to sample some of these beers before they were gone for good.  By far the most impressive of the bunch was Kaleidoscope, and beer that defies conventional description.

Kaleidoscope was the result of a nine brewery collaboration between (take a deep breath) Devil’s Canyon, Pacific Brewing Laboratories, Triple Voodoo, HighWater Brewing, Golden Mongoose, Phat Matt’s, Two Monkeys, MyBucca, and Red Cup Lager. What’s surprising about this collaboration was how all those guys could actually all fit inside a brewery and create something drinkable, smooth, with a restrained complexity.

There’s a lot of great collaboration brews out there, but they are almost always these big, strong beers full of heavy flavors. Driven by enthusiasm, and quite possibly ego and one upmanship, brewers in these collaborations have produced many memorable, arresting, and unforgetable brews, but sometimes I wish they would just dial these collaboration beers down a little.   A couple collaborations have been as about subtle and enjoyable as getting popped in the mouth with a sledge hammer.  So had I known Kaleidoscope was a nine-brewery collaboration, I would’ve figured it being some obscenely high alcohol over-hopped palate shattering mess and avoided it like the plague

But I’m glad I didn’t. The spicy pork quesadilla I had with this beer made it a little difficult to fully gather in all Kaleidoscope’s flavors, but there were plenty of roasty flavors from the dark malts, a light spiciness that seemed like anise and some subtle aromatic quality I couldn’t put my finger on, and a noticeable  but well balanced grassy and earthy hop finish. It was one of the most unique, indescribable and most importantly, tasty brews I’ve ever had. And only 5% abv, it was arguably sessionable.

How did they actually brew this? According to this press release on Devil’s Canyon website:

“Starting with the general framework of an IPA, the group gravitated toward these malt elements: Pale malt, crystal malts, biscuit malt, oatmeal, roasted wheat, rice and a few other surprises were selected.

To make things really interesting, Green and Black Teas were added to the mash.

For the hop additions, an “inventory clean up” approach was undertaken; a little of this, a little of that. The bitterness levels were kept on the lower side to allow the tea and whirlpool additions to come through.

And speaking of whirlpool additions… dried currant and Grain of Paradise were added to play off the unique flavors contributed from the mash. Throw in some English Yeast and the beer was underway.”

OK, well that explains what they used to brew it.   How they worked together maintaining the skill, restraint and most likely humility required to prevent this beer from turning into a horrible monstrosity is a secret they’ll probably keep to themselves.

A bunch of brewers, throwing a whole lot of ingredients together and producing something smooth, drinkable, complex but restrained and balanced isn’t just impressive. It’s miraculous.

The Session #49: Regularity is Extraordinary

For this month’s Session, Stan Hieronymus of Appellation Beer asks us to write about Regular Beers.

Regularity seems so ordinary and boring, but it’s what we all crave. The mind can handle only so much intense stimulation before it effectively cries “uncle”, while too much passive relaxation renders us paralyzingly numb. A healthy medium of regularity is why none of us make our home on a roller coaster or in a sensory deprivation tank. Indeed, regularity is quite underrated, especially for those who suffer from depression, anxiety, autism, substance addition, mental illness, brain injuries, and other afflictions where “being regular” is either fleeting or impossible. Finding an ordinary regularity is what we do to get through life.

And so about once a week when neither of us feel like making dinner, my wife and I head down to our neighborhood taqueria after we’re both pretty tired and frazzled after a particularly long, stressful day at work. We each get a burrito and a pint of Deadicated Amber Ale from our hometown brewery Devil’s Canyon. The roasty malt flavors, its strong earthy character, and its light grassy hop finish goes great with Mexican food. The simple, yet subtlety complex pleasures of a good beer and a burrito allows us to recharge and rebalance so we so can do it all over again tomorrow.

Beer has long been a regulator in civilization and for that, we are grateful.