The Session #97: Yes, the Silicon Valley is an up and coming beer destination

There was a time in the United States one had to travel great distances to find good beer. Thankfully, those days seem to be behind us.  I’ve found plenty of examples of local and regional brewing excellence in places like Logan, UT, Modesto, CA, Las Cruces, NM, and Fort Myers, FL. None of these places would be one anyone’s list of beer destinations. Yet, the beers at these places all have their unique identity, whether brewed with local ingredients or with some unique twist.

So when Our Tasty Travels asks us to list our up-and-coming beer destinations, I’m tempted to answer by jumping up and screaming “EVERYWHERE!”  Instead, I hope you’ll forgive me as I talk up the place where I live, the Silicon Valley, as a beer destination you should check out.

It’s not as if there haven’t been any good breweries here. Places like the Tied House, Faultline Brewing, Los Gatos Brewing Company, and El Toro have all been cranking out good stuff for over a couple decades.  Gordon-Biersch, the ubiquitous  chain of brew pubs and beer originated Palo Alto in 1988, the same place Hewlett Parkard started from a garage in the 1930’s.   The Gordon-Biersch production brewery is located smack dab in the middle of San Jose. Other breweries like Rock Bottom Brewery, Campbell Brewing, Firehouse Grill & Brewery joined the fray a years later winning awards and a few Great American Beer Festival (GABF) medals along the way.

Still, the Silicon Valley long suffered comparisons to the thriving San Francisco and Oakland area brewing scenes.  Even as little a seven years ago, the place to go for the best beer selection in the Silicon Valley was arguably a wine bar called “Wine Affairs”.

But that’s changing.  In just the past few years plenty of bars and restaurants have emerged to serve a wide variety of brews to meet eclectic tastes.  I’m talking about places like Original Gravity, Harry’s Hofbrau, Good Karma, Liquid Bread, and Spread which have either recently emerged, or transformed themselves into places to go to find great beer. I’m sure I’ve left out a few other places.

However, the most encouraging trend is that by mid-2015, four new Silicon Valley breweries will have opened tap rooms in the last two years in the same gritty industrial section just south of downtown San Jose. All four of those breweries has it’s own to tie to the Silicon Valley’s unique culture.

Hermitage Brewing’s Tap Room

The first to build and brewery and tap room was Hermitage Brewing, a production brewing venture of Mountain View’s Tied House in the summer of 2013.  In addition to producing many fine brews of their own, Hermitage stealthily brews beers for several breweries under contract.  You might say Hermitage is the Flextronics of Northern California brewing, the contract manufacturer that builds many of the world’s fancy electronic gadgets. The most interesting Hermitage brews, at least to me, are in their single-hop IPA series.  Every two or three months, Hermitage releases a single-hop IPA, often brewed with some hard to find varietal of hops.  Each beer is brewed the same way, the only thing that changes is that hops.  It’s a great way to directly taste all the latest innovations in hop cultivation.

Strike Brewmaster Drew Erhlich and CEO Jenny Lewis

Then in early 2014, next brewery to settle in the area was Strike Brewing with their no-frills, yet well executed
brews.  Strike goes for the sessionability and drinkable side of the brewing spectrum, yet they still won awards with their Imperial Red and do a dynamite Imperial Stout.   You will not find a more ambitious business person in Silicon Valley than Strike CEO Jenny Lewis who has clear expansion plans well beyond Northern California.  Yet, Strike constantly supports the local community in various fundraisers.

Next up was Clandestine Brewing, which opened a tap room last May.   It’s always fun to see what they have on their 12 taps, because it always changes and there’s always something new. You’d expect that from a brewery founded by four homebrewers who brew only on the weekends.  That’s because their weekdays are spent writing code for various Silicon Valley software companies.

Rob Conticello and Colin Kelly of Clandestine Brewing

And in the middle of this year, Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB) will open their own brewery and tap room.  Everybody knows SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue, who won four GABF medals during his time at Firehouse Grill and Brewery.  When Firehouse made a curious business decision de-emphasize its beer and transform itself into a Hooter’s knock-off, featuring nubile waitresses scantily dressed in tight t-shirts and short kilts for the sports bar crowd, Steve decided to leave after a couple years of that.   Soon after, he formed SCVB with Apple Computer executive Tom Clark.   SCVB quickly established their tropical Electric Tower IPA as their flagship beer, and Electric Tower tap handles started popping up all over the San Francisco Bay Area.

SCVB Brewmaster Steve Donohue

One thing the Silicon Valley is not, is San Francisco.  San Francisco is a beer destination which needs no introduction with it’s undeniable vibrant brewing culture.  Just don’t go there if you want a simple wheat beer or brown ale.  The must be some law that states any wheat beer in San Francisco must have some unusual fruit like guava or olallieberry in it. Any brewer up there who can be bothered to brew a brown ale can’t resist adding Peruvian cocoa nibs to it.  Thermo-nuclear IPA’s and Belgian-style alcohol bombs take up 85% of any given tap list.  But then, San Francisco has never been about restraint.

The Silicon Valley has long been about execution, collaboration, and innovation driven by logic. You’ll find that in our beer.

The Session #38: You Ought to Know about El Toro!

For this month’s Session, Beer Search Party asks “what beer have you tasted recently (say, the last six months or so) that is worthy of their own day in the media sun?”.

The small California town of Morgan Hill, located just fifteen miles south of San Jose is remarkable by just how unremarkable it is. I hear it’s a good place to live, and plenty of people move there to escape the chaos of the San Francisco Bay Area. But for most people, it’s a small town they whiz by driving down Highway 101 on the way to someplace else.

It’s not the place you’d expect to find one of the best breweries in the Northern California. And Morgan Hill’s El Toro doesn’t make a lot of people lists of the top breweries in Northern California, but it ought to. El Toro normally has twenty four of their house beers on tap. Now most brewpubs have fewer than that, realizing that quality is more important than quantity. I’m fine with that, but the thing is, any random beer on tap at El Toro is way better than most brewery’s flagship. I have to believe if El Toro was in San Francisco, everyone would be talking about it. But being way down in Morgan Hill, not too many people venture out to it. Especially since there’s not a lot else in Morgan Hill to see, and trust me, I’ve looked hard.

It’s not like the place is completely unknown. Geno and Cindy Acevedo started the place in March of 1994, so it’s been around a while. And they’ve won a few awards, including two Great American Beer Festival medals, so other people have come to realize how good their beer is. But for this months session, I decided that my favorite Bay Area brewery was that deserved its day in the media sun. Yes, I know, we’re supposed to write about one beer for this session instead of a whole brewery. Well, just take your pick from one of my favorite El Toro beers described below.

Poppy Jasper Amber Ale
One of their flagship beers, named after a type of quartz found only around the Morgan Hill area. Just a great combination of flavors, as it’s a little roasty, a little nutty, with a slight apricot fruity note, and a nice earthy hop finish. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts as it all adds up to something unique and memorable. Winner of the 1995 California Beer Festival Gold Medal; 1996 Great American Beer Festival Silver Medal.

Awesome IPA
Here’s to truth in advertising. El Toro uses Columbus, Centennial, Cascade and Amarillo hops to give this the classic citrus, slightly floral West Coast IPA style. The slight sweetness in what little malt there is works well here.

Duece Double IPA
A very citrusy double IPA, with a strong aroma of tangerine. The brew itself tastes of tangerine and grapefruit, with a little bit of sweetness and decent malt heft, and finishes with a grapefruit peel-like astringency.

Black Raspberry Ale
This ain’t no chick beer. Instead, this aromatic brew has none of the cloying sweetness found in most fruit beers, and the black raspberry melds seemlessly into the underlying dark ale. Well crafted and composed beer has a nice, earthy hop finish. One of the many things El Toro does a great job at is infusing fruit into their beers, as their lighter Peach Ale has many of the same great aromatic qualities as this one. Speaking of El Toro fruit beers, you might want to try….

Raspberry Wheat
OK, it’s a chick beer. And as such, I am not secure enough in my manhood to order it when I’m at El Toro. But I will steal sips of it from my fiance’ Linda when she isn’t looking. Once again, a skillful blend of the raspberry harmonizing with the slight tartness of underlying wheat beer. Actually gives chick beers a good name.

El Conejo Red IPA
Not your usual IPA. There’s a little sweetness in this red IPA, and plenty of roasted malt. Centennial and Amarillo hops give it a tropical fruit, pineapple character to it. The bitterness of the roasted malt coupled with a healthy dose of hops gives this brew a very strong bitterness and astringency. Unique and different, there’s just a little too much bitterness for my taste, but my fiance’ Linda, a true hop-head, can’t get enough of this.

El Negro Oatmeal Stout
This jet black brew pours with a sturdy brown head you could almost walk across. It’s a very rich oatmeal stout, with plenty of roasted malt goodness, with a little chocolate note and a noticeable oat character. For all that roasted malt, it’s quite smooth and not all that bitter, creating a highly drinkable, yet substantial stout.

So many great beers, I can’t wait to see what El Toro does next.

Early Spring Optimism

There’s something about a sense of optimism surrounding the first race of the year. You have some idea what kind of shape you’re in, but until tested by the unforgiving stop watch, you never quite know. If you’re faster than you expect, you’re off to a good start. If you’re slower than you expect, you learned something valuable and there’s still plenty of time to catch up in your training if need be. But of course, it’s just great to be out there running with lots of other folks again.

And so it was with Linda and I running the Going Green St. Patrick’s Day 10 k Run last Sunday. For a first time race, it was pretty successful and everyone seem to have a good time, even if the mile markers were a bit off. I just hope the course was long, judging by my time. It was a good tune up for the Santa Cruz Half-Marathon next April, and good to know your fitness level four weeks before the race, rather than finding out the hard way at mile seven of a half marathon.

While January is often the traditional time to make plans for the upcoming year, it’s people often early spring when people look hard at what they want to accomplish for the year. Whether family, career, money, or fitness and recreational goals, early spring is often when we look at what we want to accomplish for the year with a sense of optimism.

So after battling injuries and dealing with the associated frustration for nearly two years before getting things literally straightened out with a chiropractor, I’ve set very general goals for the year of to run with less pain and work on needed core strength, balance and flexibility to make this happen. My 42 year old body does not take as pounding around the track for the morning interval workouts, and so will focus less on finishing time and place than in years past. Given that there’s a lot I’d like to accomplish outside of running this year that will require time, effort, and mental focus, this seems to be the way to go.

I’ll take a similar attitude with home brewing. There was a time late last year I was all gung ho about getting into homebrewing competitions. Then, I began to realize there was this small issue that I barely had the foggiest idea about how to take care of yeast, impart the hop flavors into the brew, get rid of off flavors, and the other “little” things required to make a good brew. So I’m going to take the time to learn some of these things while making enjoying the brewing process and the results. And I’ll be homebrewing with a friend of mine I don’t see often enough this year who’s been looking to get back into home brewing again.

That evening, Linda and I went to our favorite brewpub El Toro, a small celebration of sorts for a job reasonably well done that morning at the races. We have a lot of plans for the year together and there’s lots of hard work to be done after a tough 2009, but we’re looking forward to the upcoming year. These are good times.

The Session #33: Framed by 33

This month’s Session, by Andrew Couch, of I’ll Have a Beer is on framing beers, with the topic loosely summed up as “write about how the context the beer is presented affects the drinking experience”.

Psychologists have long known that our choices are biased by the way each choice is framed. To illustrate this, suppose you are the head of a disease control agency, and are presented with two options to combat a disease which is expected to kill six hundred people unless something is done to stop it. A team of doctors have determined the outcomes of two possible options.

Option A: 200 people will be saved.

Option B: There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What do you do?

In a psychological experiment where subjects were presented with these options, 72% choose Option A. In the same experiment, subjects were also presented with the same options, simply worded differently.

Option C: 400 people will die.

Option D: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

When presented with the same options framed differently, the same participants who picked Option A 72% of the time, instead choose Option D 78% of the time. Of course, we would rather save people than let them die, and so the options framed positively are favored over those framed negatively, known as positive frame bias. (1)

Psychologists have found numerous other framing effects, which I won’t go into here. But clearly, the beer we chose and our experience drinking it is framed by things like the beer label, word of mouth, the advertising, the reputation of the brewer, and numerous other sensory inputs that are quite difficult to separate from the actual liquid in the glass. Beer judges have known this for years as most beer competitions are judged blind, where beer is presented to judges in unmarked glasses, and judges are not allowed to influence each other.

I find myself struggling with framing effects explaining craft beer to family and friends who are not craft beer drinkers. Often, they actually would like to drink something from their local brewer, but their perception of craft beer is that it is “too strong”, overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable to them to drink. Beer names like “Arrogant Bastard”, “Damnation” or “Hop Stoopid” tend to reinforce this notion. I’ve responded telling them that many craft brewers release lighter styles they might find more enjoyable. More than once, I been told, “Well, I really enjoy Blue Moon, from some small brewery in Colorado”. They are usually pretty disappointed to learn that Blue Moon is actually made by Coors, a massive industrial brewery. Coors sells Blue Moon by framing it as a product of some quaint Colorado brewery, and the fact that once people get past the deception, they often lose interest in the beer seems to validate this strategy.

One brewery it took a while to warm up to was Flying Dog Brewery. So many times in a bottle shop, gazing at a wide array of beers in from of me, I simply moved past the frenzied, graffiti-style art Flying Dog uses on their label, and picked up something from a different brewery. In this Session, we’ve been asked to try beers we wouldn’t normally drink, so I decided to try a couple Flying Dog brews, just to see what the beer is like.

As is often the case, stretching my beer horizons was rewarded, as I found the beer to be excellent. The Flying Dog Kerberos Triple had a light toasty yeast flavors with a little apricot, and a clean, clear character to it. Flying Dog’s Double Dog Imperial Pale hooked with a great creamy mouth feel, toffee-like malty flavors coupled with a little tangerine and an orange peel bitterness. I can’t help wondering why was the beer label art, designed to attract me to the beer, was actually pushing me away.

I think the answer to this question originates in the way beer was initially framed to me. I spent my childhood during the 70’s in the small Midwestern college town of Bowling Green, OH, located about 15 miles south of Toledo. My dad exclusively drank “33”, Rolling Rock, and would carefully allow me a sip of his Saturday afternoon beer. My father later told me he did this to prevent me from abusing alcohol, to demystify beer at an early age. These were also early lessons to respect beer, that it wasn’t a beverage to be carelessly guzzled, but to be savored and enjoyed at special times. I also remember Dad proudly informing me Rolling Rock was brewed “in the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe” in Western Pennsylvania. Latrobe is about 300 miles from Bowling Green, but in those days, drinking exclusively Rolling Rock was supporting your local brewer, and from this I learned the place the beer was brewed was just as important as the beer itself. These experiences, burned into the neurons of my young brain, still guide me today.

I find it sad and ironic that InBev bought Rolling Rock, shut down the Latrobe brewery, and moved production to Newark, NJ in a cost cutting move, priming the pump of their plans for world wide beer domination. Yet, InBev still has the audacity to market Rolling Rock with the grammatically deficient slogan “Born Small Town”, trying to sell the beer by framing it as from a tradition bound, small town brewery. I guess the corporate folks at InBev figured out a more accurate grammatically deficient slogan like “Born small town, multi-national corporation bought brewery, laid off workers, bean-counters rule day” would not be a good way to frame Rolling Rock if they wanted to sell lots of it.

But going back to my earliest framing of beer, I believe my earliest experiences of beer explains my initial aversion to Flying Dog beers, framed in chaotic, modern artwork. I’ve come to realize my favorite breweries like Anderson Valley, El Toro, and Deschutes are favorites of mine in part because these breweries evoke their unique local geography into their marketing, and are relatively close to where I live. This new understanding about how my beer preferences are shaped will allow me to make more informed decisions on the beer I choose to drink. There’s nothing wrong with psychological warm fuzziness guiding what we drink. But of course, craft beer drinking is a lot about exploration and expanding beyond your comfort zone. And if you’re going to expand beyond your comfort zone, it’s helpful to know where the discomfort is coming from.

(1) Positive framing example from The Mind of the Market, Micheal Shermer, Henry Holt and Company, copyright 2008, pages 84-85.

It’s About Time I Write About El Toro

El Toro is only my favorite place to get a beer in the Bay Area, so I ought write about it by now. OK, Morgan Hill is not technically the Bay Area, but it’s close. Morgan Hill is not the chic, hip, happening place people want to go to, but if you ask me, that’s part of its charm.

The brewpub opened in 2006, but Geno and Cindy Acevedo of El Toro have been brewing since 1994. They do great standard session beers, and they do great beers with that have their own unique twist on a style, that few other breweries attempt. With about 20 taps, there’s something for everyone. And the food is pretty good, too. Frankly, if this place was in San Francisco, everyone would be talking about it. But it’s not, and too few people have heard about it, or have even been there. Luckily, I live in the South Bay, and El Toro is only a 20 minute drive from where Linda and I live. We were fortunate to spend dinner over the weekend, and enjoy some of their beers. Here’s what we thought of the beers we had.

El Conejo Red IPA
There’s a little sweetness in this red IPA, and plenty of roasted malt. Centennial and Amarillo hops give it a tropical fruit, pineapple character to it. The bitterness of the roasted malt coupled with a healthy dose of hops gives this brew a very strong bitterness and astringency. Unique and different, it’s just a little too much bitterness for my taste, but Linda, the wine loving closet hop-head can’t get enough of this.

El Toro Awesome IPA
Here’s to truth in advertising. El Toro uses Columbus, Centennial, Cascade and Amarillo hops to give this the classic citrus, slightly floral West Coast IPA bitterness, with just a modicum of malt. The slight sweetness what little malt there is works well here.

El Toro Blackraspberry Ale
Fruit beers are often dismissively labelled a “chick beers” by card carrying beer geeks. I’m afraid I was not secure enough in my manhood to order this, so left it up to Linda to get this one. We both like the slight tartness and the clear, slightly earth black raspberry fruit notes, without the cloying sweetness that ruins many a fruit beer in my opinion. El Toro also has Peach and Raspberry Ales on tap, and perhaps next time, I’ll have the guts to order one of these brews.

El Toro Negro Oatmeal Stout
Plenty of roasty, coffee-like malt goodness you look for in a stout, but we found it light and smooth, with little or no sweetness, despite the rich flavors. We also picked up some bitter chocolate in there. Very easy drinking and enjoyable.

Can’t wait ’til I get back there.

The Erie Canal Trail and Rohrbach’s in Rochester

This months Session is about the furthest distance travelled to a brewery or brewpub and the best beer found there.

Being a salesman for a small electronics company gives me a number of opportunities to explore new places each year. And while sometimes the schedule is too hectic to do much of anything outside of work, I am fortunate to get some good runs in and try out some local beers and beer establishments. The furthest brewery I’ve been to is Rohrbach’s in Rochester, NY, which is 2,750 miles from my home in San Jose, CA.

I usually stay near the airport. Most people don’t realize it, but the Erie Canal runs near the airport, and there’s a nifty running trail on along its banks. The first time I found it, I stumbled upon it by accident in a rather ordinary industrial area. Turning onto the wooded trail was a welcome change of pace from the industrial surrounding. But soon, it seemed like running through a glorified drainage ditch with not a soul around, and just train tracks to keep me company. Another mile or two down the trail, and it empties into a wooded park area, where people were having picnics, generally having a good time, and yes, a few were out on a run. For about an hour or so, I’m part of the community before turning around and heading back on a great run in that started out as a boring trudge.

The Erie Canal was built in the early 1800’s, an audacious plan at the time to connect the Great Lakes to New York City via the Erie Canal and Hudson River. Far from the expensive failure many predicted, it opened up trade in Western New York and helped create the cities of Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.
So if it weren’t for the Eric Canal, Rohrbach Brewery may never have existed. And wouldn’t you know, John Urlaub, the owner of Rohrbach’s is a runner, too! The brewpub less than a 10 mile drive west of the airport. Like any good brew pub, there’s a neighborhood vibe upon entry. Everyone seems to be from the neighborhood and knows each other, but somehow, you don’t feel like a stranger. I take my seat and once again, for an hour or so, I’m part of the community.

As for the beers, I had a sampler flight, which is what I usually have when at a new brewpub. Rohrbach’s had a number of good to great beers over a range of styles. I always hesitate to pick a “favorite” beer, since I feel that depends a lot on the context the beer is enjoyed in. I really liked the Belgian Blonde, which my old notes say had “caramel malt with some snappy hops”. I also liked their Scotch Ale, which had a “sweet, peat malt taste with some toffee”. But if I had to pick my favorite, it’s their Sam Patch Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and I found this one to have a “strong, bitter, roasted coffee flavor”. These are old notes, and part of this exercise is to either crack open a brew from the brewpub, or crack open something to compare it to. You can’t get Rohrbach’s in San Jose, so it looks like I’m going to find a substitute for Sam Patch Porter. And so to compare the Sam Patch Porter from the brewery I’ve travelled the furthest to visit, I’ll compare it to a brewery close to where I live. And that would be El Toro in Morgan Hill, CA. So it’s off to El Toro with my girlfriend Linda for some of their porter.

Morgan Hill is a small city just south of San Jose, the first place you come to when exiting the San Francisco Bay Area to the south. The place is an airy, two-level pub with a light brown wood interior. Behind the bar is colorful array of about twenty taps offering their very wide varieties of beer. The NHL and NBA playoffs are in full swing on the flat screen TVs scattered about the place. We take a seat, and a young waiter comes over. I ask for the Porter, while Linda is intrigued by the description of their El Canejo IPA, so orders that.

El Toro’s Porter is different than Rorhbach’s . Both have plenty of roasty malt goodness, but El Toro Porter is dominated by bitter chocolate notes with little detectable sweetness, instead of the coffee with some sweetness route of Rohrbach’s. Both are mighty fine porters.

We were also impressed with the El Canejo IPA. It’s highly unique, red IPA with good amount slightly sweet, roasted red malt, and plenty of slightly resinous, astringent hops bitterness. I found it well balanced, and much more so than El Toro’s regular IPA. We order a couple more pints, and looking over the beer list, see plenty others we’d like to try someday.

One of the many great things about beer is that if you go far away or stay close to home, it provides a great opportunity to explore.
(Rohrbach’s logo used with permission.)