Rambling Reviews 6.2.2015: Hermitage Equinox, Boulevard’s The Dark Truth and Alpine’s Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale

Equinox Single Hop IPA in all its glory in
the Hermitage Brewing tap room

Once again, time to ramble on about some beers I’ve tried lately.

Let’s start with Hermitage Brewing’s Equinox Single Hop IPA.  And just like 072770, the last hop featured in Hermitage’s single hop IPA series, Equinox hop delivers plenty depth and complexity all by itself.   It starts off with flavors of lemon peel with some other light fruity flavors I found pleasing but hard to identify, then finishing rather resiny.  I’ve said before the Hermitage Single Hop Series showcase hops that generate interesting flavors but don’t always work all by themselves, but if Hermitage keeps finding hops like 07270 and Equinox, I’m going to have to stop saying that.

Next up is The Dark Truth Imperial Stout from one of my favorite breweries from the Midwest, Boulevard Brewing Company. The dark truth about the Dark Truth is that its got some good things going on but all the different component never quite click together. There’s lots of good bitter chocolate flavors, a little raisin and a very light sweetness but the graininess and a slight alcohol burn make this beer a bit rough around the edges.  It works as a sipping beer, but left me longing for something a bit smoother and coherent.

Finally, there’s Alpine Beer Company’s Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale that I enjoyed in the recently revamped Campbell Brewing Company in downtown Campbell.  And yes, big surprise, it’s really hoppy.  The fresh, pungent piney hops dominate with a little resin thrown in for good measure really work in this very straightforward, direct brew.  This really is an IPA, not a Pale Ale, but I’m not going to get too distracted by stuff like his. One of the more arresting, “Wow!” factor beers I’ve had in a while.

Alpine’s Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale at
Campbell Brewing Company

Rambling Reviews 5.7.2015: Hermitage 07270 Single Hop IPA, Sierra Nevada’s Idaho 7 Single Hop IPA, and Gordon Biersch Zwickel Pils

Time once more to delve into some new brews, this time the theme is beers brewed with only one or two different hops.

Let’s start with Hermitage Brewing’s  07270 Single Hop IPA.  The beers in the Hermitage single hop IPA series are great way to learn a lot about all the different hops and their flavor characteristics.  But truth be told, after trying a lot of them, I’m left thinking “Hmmm….that’s interesting” instead of “I’ll have another”.  While each beer in the series showcases each unique hop flavor profile, it also proves that brewers are wise to use blends of hops, rather than a single hop, to generate more complex and well rounded flavors.  The beers in Hermitage Single Hop IPAs certainly taste good, but often seem to be lack a certain something, coming across as tasting unbalanced or incomplete, and ultimately seem like well executed brewing experimenst.

That’s absolutely not the case with  Hermitage’s 07270 Single Hop IPA, as the 07270 hop really works well on its own here.  The strong tropical mango flavors that really pop with an earthy, resiny finish. It’s every bit as good as Hermitage’s Citra IPA, the only single hop IPA that’s made it into their year round line-up.

And what’s 07270 hop anyway?   It’s a recently bred hop variety from Hopsteiner, a hop supplier from the Pacific Northwest, which apparently hasn’t given it a more evocative, hop appropriate name like “Calypso” or “Galaxy” yet.  A name like “07270” sounds like a piece of computer equipment but whatever they want to call it, I just hope Hermitage decides to brew this year ’round.

Speaking of single hop IPAs, there’s Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Single Hop IPA – Idaho 7.  Apparently they grow more in Idaho besides potatoes, since as you might have guessed, the hop in this brew is from Idaho. It’s another hop that works pretty well all by itself.  There is a noticeable progression of taste with each sip, as the initial bright grapefruit flavors give way to a fruity apricot character that eventually subsides to a resiny finish. Another great exploration into the seemingly endless hop flavor frontier, but I’m left with the nagging feeling if just seemed if a little extra depth from some other hop was brought into this beer, it would really sing.

And finally, there’s Gorden Biesrch Zwickel Pils, an unfiltered Pilsner made with not one but two hops, Hallertau and Tettnang.  Man, did those two hops work well together.  Beers like this are a reminder that amazing things can be accomplished by “just” using top ingredients coupled technically sound brewing techniques.  This beer is just classic, with a robust clear malt with the slightest bit of sweetness driven with sharp, crisp grassy and slight spicy hops. Makes most other lager style beers seem mediocre and demonstrates a lot of great hop flavors can be achieved at just 30 ibu.

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.

A Sneak Peek at Hermitage’s Barrel-aged Boysenberry Sour

One the reasons I like to check out brewery tap rooms is that they often have little specials or little sneak peeks of upcoming attractions. Such was the case last Friday when I dropped by the Hermitage tap room.  Their Barrel-Aged Boysenberry Sour Ale will be released this coming Wednesday, December 17th and they’re having a big shindig in the tap room that evening to celebrate.  They’ve already bottled and kegged most of it. One bottle had a cosmetic flaw with the wax seal making it unfit for retail, so they were pouring a few samples around the tap room out if it and I snagged one.

Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel gave me the low down on how it was made.  “We brewed with 40% wheat, and aged it red and white wine barrels for about 6 months.  Both Lactobacillus and Brett (Brettanomyces) were introduced into the barrels, and the boysenberry fruit was added late in fermentation.”  Peter went on to tell me there’s plenty of excitement around the brewery on how it turned out.

After taking a sampling, I understand the excitement.  It’s got a bright, balanced complexity that isn’t muddled, and is an enjoyable sipper.  It’s not one of those bracing, puckering sours and the dank, barn-yard funkiness one normally gets with the Brett is way in the background which if you ask me is a good thing.  There’s a little wheat tang, a little oak in the mix that works well with the tart boysenberries.

If sours aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other good brews at the Hermitage tap room right now. Such as Hermitage’s Cascade Type 45 Single Hop IPA, part of Hermitage’s single hop series.  The Cascade hops give this IPA plenty of piney characters with a little lemon, and I also picked up some tangerine.

The Session #87 : Modern History in the Making at Silicon Valley’s Hermitage Brewing

I’m going to start with an editorial comment for this month’s Session, which comes across as a home work assignment from Rueben Gray, who asks us to write about local brewing history, where any brewery within an eight hour drive home is fair game.  What bothers me is his other stipulation:

“The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don’t pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There’s not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years.”

I appreciate our host’s desire to exclude breweries that, in his opinion, have little established history as well as what seems to be good intentions to nudge us out of our comfort zones. Generally, I would not consider a 2-3 year brewery “historic” either but don’t agree with the arbitrary time cut-off.  Would anyone seriously suggest the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, the “Arab Spring”, or the emergence of the Internet as global communication medium are not events worthy for a discussion of world history simply because they occurred less than twenty years ago?

I’ll point out that here in Northern California, this twenty year cut-off means breweries clearly influential to the history and trajectory of craft beer both in Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States like Bear Republic, Russian River Brewing, and 21st Amendment are effectively deemed “not historical enough” and excluded from the discussion.  In addition, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head, both integral to craft brewing’s short history are also excluded, as they were founded in 1996 and 1995, respectively   In their place are plenty of brewpubs and regional breweries that have made fine beer and done enough things right to hang around for 20 years.   But with all due respect, many of these brewery’s histories are rather ordinary, and no more remarkable than the story of some hot shot homebrewer deciding to turn pro and starting a brewery within the last couple years.  Age does not necessarily correlate to historical relevance.

Some of the equipment inside San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing

I’m a firm believer about going into the distant past to understand the present and future, but also believe more is learned from the extraordinary rather than ordinary. What makes brewing’s present so unique and exciting in beer’s 6,000 year history is the beverage continues to redefine itself. Arguably beer is being transformed more than in any time during its history, bringing fascinating economic forces into play, as small breweries challenge larger, more established breweries, which are using economies of scale to consolidate  remain profitable.

So I’ve figured work-around for this month’s Session. I’m going to talk about San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing, founded in 2009, which was established by Tied House Brewing.   Tied House was one of the earliest breweries in the Bay Area, founded in 1988 by Lou Jemison and Ron Manabe in Mountain View, CA.  For years, they brewed a number of fine beers and opened up a second location about 20 miles east in downtown San Jose, CA.  Unfortunately, the last United State recession hit the San Jose location hard and it closed down in May 2009.

Another view inside Hermitage

That’s when the fun at Hermitage began.  Tied House moved the brewing equipment from their failed San Jose location into a dusty, gritty industrial park south of downtown San Jose and established Hermitage Brewing.  Hermitage brews beer for Tied House brewpub as well as their own line of beers for packaged retail sale.    In one of their early experiments, Hermitage brewed a single hop IPA using Columbus hops.  It didn’t sell very well.  Then they tried an IPA using just Amarillo hops.  Again, it sold poorly.  Undaunted, Hermitage tried again with an IPA brewed with nothing but Citra hops.   The third time proved to be a charm as it became a big hit and Citra Hop IPA is now a fixture in Hermitage’s year ’round line-up.

Many breweries brew a single hop IPA.  Due to their success with Citra Hop IPA, Hermitage is perhaps the only brewery to a have a regular series of single hop IPA releases.  It’s an innovative series where hops typically used for bittering, such as Magnum are brewed into an IPA.  Or sometimes, Hermitage uses a hop grown at only a couple farms in the entire world, like El Dorado.  Despite sounding like an ongoing experiment only a home brewing geek could love, their single hop IPA series has become a popular line of beers for Hermitage.  

But it’s not their fine beers which makes Hermitage notable.  It’s Hermitage’s thriving contract brewing business.  Only about 15% of Hermitage’s capacity is devoted to their own beers.   It sells as much as the remaining capacity it can to several small, newly formed breweries that cannot afford the substantial capital investments to bring their beers to fruition.  I count at least nine Northern California breweries that quietly call Hermitage their home.  Most of these breweries are not known to the general drinking public, and these breweries often claim a Bay Area locality other than San Jose.  I don’t want to betray any confidences by naming them all here, but I’d like to briefly mention two.

The first is San Francisco’s Almanac Beer, founded only three years ago by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagen.  Almanac Brewing sells their beer is rustic looking bottles touting a “Farm to Bottle” ethic.   Almanac highlights so many heirloom organic ingredients and slow barrel aging, you’d think their beers were brewed in some barn in Sonoma County.  I find it rather ironic that most of their beer is instead brewed in an urban industrial park.  Since there’s always a big stack of boxes of Almanac Beer sitting around the Hermitage tap room for everyone to see, I have to think this is no longer a big secret.

Then there’s Strike Brewing, which has brewed their beer at Hermitage for all 2 1/2 years of their existence. That’s about to change as Strike is about to open their own brewery, about a half mile away from Hermitage’s Brewery.  With Hermitage’s tap room and Strike’s soon to be completed tap room within a ten minute walk, it’s enough to speculate as to whether San Jose, long considered a barren wasteland in the San Francisco Bay Area brewing scene, could possibly transform into a beer destination. 

With so many brewers coming and going at Hermitage, it’s become a brewing incubator for small, up and coming Bay Area breweries.  It’s not uncommon to find brewers from supposed “rival” companies chatting away over a pint, bouncing off ideas and sharing experiences within the chummy brewing fraternity.  It’s not unlike the Silicon Valley start-up community, where smart young entrepreneurs swap ideas and established CEO’s somehow find the time to mentor them.   

What’s happening at Hermitage reflects the culture of Silicon Valley that’s created long time tech business stalwarts Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and Intel, as well as a few other companies formed in the last twenty years you may have heard about, like Google, eBay, and Facebook.  That’s why Hermitage is making Silicon Valley brewing history. 

Most of the beer aging in these barrels belongs to a
brewery other than Hermitage

Hermitage Scores with their Latest Winter Releases

Hermitage’s Chinook Single Hop IPA

Like many Silicon Valley companies, Hermitage Brewing constantly innovates and pushes the envelope.  Their latest winter beers, released last Thursday at their South San Jose brewery, is just the latest example of this.  I stopped by the brewery that evening and here’s what’s new from Hermitage.

Chinook Single Hop IPA
The latest in the popular series from Hermitage where a single hop variety is showcased in all its glory.  Brewers typically blend hops to generate a depth and complexity of flavor in their brews, which Hermitage does as well in beers like Hoptopia and Ale of the Imp.  However, some hops really stand out on their own, but only a small fraction of breweries make any beer with just one hop.   Hermitage takes this rare practice a step further with an entire series of single hop IPAs.  This popular series has emerged over past couple of years as a interesting and tasty exploration of the ever growing world of hops.

Hermitage’s Barrel-aged Ryetopia

Chinook hops are commonly used in some of the most popular and revered West Coast IPAs.  I found Chinook Single Hop to have a bitterness dominated by a resiny character, rounded out with some tropical fruit flavors and a peppery spiciness.  As Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel explained that evening, “It’s got a very clean bitterness as opposed to other hops where the bitterness is more muddled.”  It worked well for me as a fresh, arousing IPA and I’m looking forward to seeing what hop Hermitage tries next in the series.

Ryetopia Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine
The real star of the night was Hermitage’s Barrel Aged Barleywine, Ryetopia.   Lead brewer Greg Filipi described the creation of Ryetopia in a press release stating, “We started with a big bodied barleywine style ale then beefed it up with a healthy does of rye malt and crystal rye (about 16% of the total grist).  Rye is known for its dry, slightly spicy flavor in beer  Crystal rye goes through a different malting process which converts some of the starches in the grain into simpler sugars before we add it to our mash.  This results in a sweeter flavor, adding hints of licorice and toffee to the finished beer.”

I found it to be a rich, complex, and noticeably sweet brew.  After fourteen months in bourbon barrels it emerged with noticeable bourbon flavors, a little smokiness, notes of pepper and a slight boozy alcohol burn.  As for the “hints of licorice and toffee”, let me say Ryetopia had it’s own, unique flavor and the best beers are the ones often perceived differently, resisting any attempts to be easily deconstructed into tidy flavor components.  Barrel aged beer can be a risky swing for the fences that don’t always work, but Hermitage hit a home run here.  I found this to be a great late night sipping beer and enjoyed mine very slowly.

Maybe I’m biased in supporting one of my local breweries.  I’m just pleased Hermitage continues to help forge a South Bay brewing identity.

Where the Hermitage magic happens.

What’s going on inside these barrels?



The Hermitage Brewing Fall Beer Trifecta

From left to right Oktoberfest, Burn’s Bitter, and Fruit Crate Pumpkin Ale

Fall is my favorite season, it’s crisp cool days making for perfect running weather.   Fall is also the time most breweries put out their fall beers, traditional malt forward beers with a toasty and caramel flavors and low hop profiles to capture the flavors of the season.   Being a malt forward kind of guy, I tend to be a big fan of fall beers.  Wouldn’t you know, South Bay’s Hermitage Brewing is putting out three new fall beers, and gave me a chance to try them over at their brewery.   I ran into one of my beer blogging inspirations, Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel at the brewery tap room who gave me the low down on the beers.   So without any further ado, let’s delve into these fall offerings.

Burnes’ Bitter
The Burnes’ Bitter, is well, bitter.  It’s got a crisp, clear underlying malt and as Peter explained, “all the hops in this beer come from the UK.”  I found the bitterness more herbal and tea-like as typical in British beers, without the spicy or fruity character other hops might bring to the brew.  At 4.5% abv with it’s palate cleansing bitterness, it worked quite nicely as a session beer.

Traditional Oktoberfest’s are light lagered beers that are a little toasty or caramel with a light hop character specifically designed for large scale consumption in the traditional beer orgy that is Oktoberfest.  This is not your traditional Oktoberfest beer, and that’s a good thing.  Hermitage uses Common Yeast which gives it a musty character, the requisite toasted malt, and healthy doses of hops that lend a fruity character and more bitter finish to the brew that is far bigger, stronger and more complex than a traditional Oktoberfest.  Call it a “West Coast Oktoberfest” and while purists may cringe, enjoyable and memorable brew.

Fruit Crate Pumpkin Ale
And now we get to the star of the show, Fruit Crate Pumpkin Ale.  As Peter described, “we took a bunch of organic heirloom pumpkins grown on a nearby farm, then roasted them at the brewery, then ground them up and added them to the brew kettle.  The yeast ferments out of lot of the sugar so it has a little different taste them people might associate with pumpkin”.    Unlike many other breweries, Hermitage doesn’t add any additional spices to their pumpkin beer.  The base beer is best described as an Imperial Red, very smooth, malty and a little caramelly with low additions of hops to let the pumpkin flavor shine through.  The pumpkin is pretty subtle, and gives the resulting brew a nice twist. Peter found the pumpkin to get the brew a little vegetable like finish, which I also noticed.  At 9% abv, it’s works really well as an fall afternoon or evening sipping beer.

Organic Heirloom Pumpkins for the Fruit Crate
Pumpkin Ale Roasting Away (Photo from Hermitage Brewing)