Rambling Reviews 9.27.2017: Brews from Lagunitas, Allagash, and Dust Bowl

It’s been three months since I last rambled on about various beers encountered in my travels and after literally millions of letters, e-mails, phone calls and tweets from readers demanding I revive the series, here’s a couple rambles on recent releases.Sakitumi

We’ll start with Sakitumi from Lagunitas. Lagunitas made news recently when international mega-brewery Heineken acquired the remaining 50% stake in Lagunitas it didn’t already own. For those worried a fully corporate owned Lagunitas would start playing it safe, this ale brewed with Sake yeast and rice malt shoots that theory down. A curious balance of lightly sweetness and complex-earthiness, that’s sort of half-way between beer and sake, it’s one of those beers that’s hard to describe that isn’t easily deconstructed in the typical tasting notes. While it might not be for everyone I found it a pretty mind-expanding combination of beer and sake with a novel mix of flavors and at 9.0% abv, rather potent.

Next up, Brett IPA, a limited release from Allagash Brewing brewed with Brettanomyces yeast. It’s a beer of Asian-style balance of sweet, sour, and bitterness. Just below the surface is a mustiness, with strong citrus and tropical fruit flavors bringing the whole brew together. A study of composition and balance in a bottle. One of those beers you can get lost concentrating to seriously on what’s glass, rather than just enjoying it.

For those not interested in subtle flavor balances and just want to be socked in the mouth with some hops, I give you Son of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing. It hits all the West Coast flavor markers, and looking back over my notes, I described it as a well controlled hop explosion. That ought be good enough for most people.

Dust Bowl Son of Wrath

Rambling Reviews 12.21.2016: Review of Brews from Camino Beer Company, Lagunitas and Hangar 24

As we wrap up 2016, I’ve got one last rambling on three beers to close out this extraordinary year.

Let’s start with a newcomer to San Jose’s beer scene, Camino Beer Company and their Imperial Rye IPA they call “The James Starr”.  It’s the most malt forward Imperial IPA I can remember, and that’s not a bad thing. The malt flavors really sing here, dominated by toffee and accented with a peppery spiciness from the rye. The hops are there, just barely. There’s a little tea-like character on the finish, and if you concentrate hard, you’ll detect a little pine and citrus. Few California breweries would brew an Imperial IPA this way, which is one of the reasons I can rally around The James Starr. But the strong malt flavors that really popped won the day, and while the style purists would likely declare this a Barleywine, I’d prefer not to enter into these debates. It’s a damn good, eye-opening sipping beer, that’s what it is.
Speaking of beers and breweries that defy neat and tidy definitions, our next brew is Aunt Sally from Lagunitas. According to the Lagunitas website, it was released in March of this year, but I haven’t seen it around until recently. If you feared Lagunitas would start becoming more commercial and mainstream after Heineken took a 50% stake in the brewery last year, Aunt Sally should help put your mind to rest. Lagunitas describes Aunt Sally as a “dry-hopped sweet tart sour mash ale”, and it’s a weird and wonderful combination of sour, bitter, a little sweetness and some musty funkiness. Surprisingly drinkable and further proof that while Lagunitas remains a relentless capitalist machine, they continue to take daring risks. Like many of these moves, it pays off.
Finally, we come to Hangar 24’s Chocolate Bomber, a Porter brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla. Hardly anyone just brews a porter these days. They’re usually adding something like coffee or chocolate or hazelnuts or bourbon into it. That’s probably because these additions to a base Porter really amped up the flavors.  Like they do in this brew.  What can say, Chocolate Bomber is rich, slightly sweet and complex with lots of bitter chocolate flavors. 
That wraps up the rambling for the year.  All the best for the holidays!

Rambling Reviews: 7.15.2015: Fruit Beers from Anchor, Lagunitas and Altamont Beer Works

More rambling reviews for the second time this week. This time, the theme is beers with fruit in them.

First up, Anchor Brewing Zymaster Series No. 8. Luxardo Cherry Ale.  Anchor took a base amber ale and aged in a bed of Luxardo Marischino Cherries, which accorrding to Anchor, aren’t those bright, artificially colored fruit-like things that top sundaes but are instead some sort of heirloom cherry. Whatever these cherries are in real life, they make this beer really work. The toasty and smokey flavors from the base amber blend really well with the cherries, all the flavors well balanced. I’m not usually one to get into beer and food pairings but I could see this beer really working well with certain desserts, or the cherry flavors playing off various meats. One of those beers to carefully sip to fully appreciate.
A far less successful example of using a fruit additions is Lagunitas Citrusinensis Pale Ale. Lagunitas took their Dog Town Pale Ale, tweaked the recipe to add more wheat into the grain bill, then added blood orange juice into the mix. The blood orange addition is too heavy handed, dominating the brew rather than creating an interesting twist. The tangy blood orange flavors battles the bitter hoppiness of the underlying Pale Ale and things aren’t pretty. Flavors clash and muddle, and when the dust clears, there’s this chalky flavor. And what are these weird precipitates collecting at the bottom of the pint glass? An interesting beer, but not in a good way. Big misfire.

Finally, I really dug Berry White, a cream ale with raspberry and cranberry additions from Altamont Beer Works which was pouring on Nitro at San Jose’s Original Gravity. Great name, it’s almost as smooth and luscious as a Barry White ballad. The raspberry and cranberry work well together creating a nicely rounded berry flavor with a pleasant tartness. Nice off-beat summer beer I found to be a guilty pleasure. Can’t get enough of your love, baby!

A couple of awesome autism events coming up

April is Autism Awareness Month and there’s a couple of great looking beer related fundraisers coming up for to support those with autism.

Lagunitas Craft Beer Tasting and Beer Writer’s Summit for #BeerAutismHope
This April 16th, join beer historian with autism Lance Rice, Lance’s Brewery Tour and some of California’s best beer writers at Lagunitas Brewing Co for an exclusive night of celebrating craft beer and #BeerAutismHope! 

Lance and Lance’s Brewery Tour director Aaron Rice will be speaking withKim’s Bay Brews, Jay Brooks and other notable beer writers at Lagunitas in a one-of-a-kind craft beer lover’s event. The event will include and bottomless beer tasting, hors d’ oeuvres and raffles for incredible #beer prizes. 

You can buy tickets at this link.

3rd Annual Ales For Autism Summer Beer Release Party
WhenSaturday, April 26 from 1:00pm-4:00pm
Where: Pyramid Alehouse, 901 Gilman Street, Berkeley, CA.
What: April is Autism Awareness Month and Pyramid is releasing several new brews so we are throwing a party to fundraise and celebrate. One hundred percent of the event ticket sales benefit Ales for Autism, a local North Bay organization supporting autism research.

·         Tickets are $20 in advance and include: Five beers for unlimited tasting during the event, food pairings by our chef, live music from the Smokin’ J’s, a photobooth & more.  You can buy tickets here.
·         Beers being released: Curve Ball Blonde Ale, Pyramid Wheaten Ale, Oregon Honey Beer, Imperial Mac’s Amber Ale, H7 Imperial IPA, and India Pale Lager. *
·         Sample food pairings: *
Sesame crusted ahi tuna, avocado, sprouts, scallion oil paired with Curve Ball
Spinach and goat cheese frittata paired with Wheaten Ale

Bananas Flambe paired with Oregon Honey Beer

Tony Magee vs. Sam Adams’s Rebel IPA : Much Ado about Something

Sam Adams’s has just entered the IPA race and Lagunitas’s Tony Magee isn’t happy about it.  Magee thinks Sam Adams’s is directly targeting his brewery.  Sam Adams describes their Rebel IPA as a “West Coast Style IPA, brewed for the revolution” and it certainly does sound like they intend to compete with all the great IPAs out here on the West Coast, including Lagunatis’s flagship IPA.

Magee started things out with a series of tweets accusing Sam Adams’s of specifically targeting Lagunitas and other breweries.   His first couple missives are below.

I find Magee’s comments on Twitter are best viewed as fascinating performance theater rather than any meaningful form of commentary.  Those outside the chummy craft brewing industry must certainly be puzzled by accusations of one brewery having audacity to actually compete with another one.  Of course, the outspoken Magee has plenty of people in his verbal cross-hairs .  Usually, it’s mega-breweries like InBev AB, Molson Coors, or authorities such as the Federal Alcohol Beverage Control.   Magee has even taken on other craft brewers on Twitter.

Tony MaGee with his breweries flagship IPA
(Used with permission from Paige Green Photography)

Such as Magee’s tiff with Knee Deep Brewing in November of 2012.  Knee Deep started bottling their IPA in 12 ounce bottles with labels resembling Lagunitas’s flagship IPA.  Privately and quietly pursuing resolution through normal legal channels just isn’t Magee’s style, so instead he took to Twitter with his grievances.  The matter was settled,  but since Lagunitas is several times the size of tiny Knee Deep Brewing, many people, including myself, found Magee’s heavy handed tactics amounted to bullying around the much smaller Knee Deep. Magee seemed to just shrug and move on.

Don’t let all the goofy stoner and anti-establishment humor surrounding Lagunitas’s fool you.   It’s one of the largest and fastest growing craft breweries in America and they’re marching into plenty of other brewery’s turf. Lagunitas will open a second brewery and tap room in Chicago this year as part of their growth strategy. The whole craft beer pie is growing, but it’s simply not plausible to assume that Lagunitas’s tremendous growth hasn’t come at the expense of other craft brewers and is a direct result of Magee aggressive expansion plans.

When Sam Adams, one of the few breweries in America larger than Lagunitas, launched Rebel IPA, it seemed natural for Magee to go on Twitter to confront Sam Adams.  After all, the face of Sam Adam’s is billionaire Jim Koch, who founded the Sam Admas after leaving a large corporate consulting firm.  Koch is just the kind of guy Magee typically thumbs his nose at.

In a BeerAdvocate discussion forum, Magee further clarified his rambling Twitter accusations in a long rambling post which included:

“Here’s the way I see the scenario: This particular thing is really more about Craft brew marketing and it’s future than it is about me or Lagunitas… One of our largest distributors (in fact ABI’s 3rd largest) on the east coast was told directly by Jim’s senior-enough marketing people (they sell both of our brands) that the roll-out of their IPA was going to target our draught IPA business for replacement. This ‘program’ would roll westward over time. Some here said that ‘everybody does this’. 

That’s not true. 

A perfect example was how Torpedo (an IPA brewed by Sierra Nevada) and Ranger (New Belgium’s IPA) went to market to be alongside other IPA’s… and then you, the beer lover, could decide which stays and which goes, if either. THAT is very constructive and makes us all amp up our game. Targeting for replacement is precisely what ABI/MC/Etc do when they go to market. The thinking being that that retailer will sell whatever is on tap and NOT SELL things that are not on tap. This approach sees beer as a commodity, which it sort’a used to be, before Craft.” 

Sam Adams’s Jim Koch
(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Jim Koch’s responded on the same BeerAdvocate discussion forum, writing :

“……at Boston Beer, we compete against ourselves and our own ideal – to brew the best beer we can. We don’t target other craft brewers. When we walk into a bar or restaurant for a sales call, we ask questions so we can get a better understanding of what beers are selling and what’s moving more slowly. With that in mind, we hope retailers will make decisions that benefit their business and their drinkers and hope they pick the best beer. Ultimately, it’s the retailer who makes the final decision on what beers to serve on draft. Distributors also make their own decisions as we saw in the memo from the Lagunitas distributor going after Sam Adams. It makes sense that a good distributor would work hard to sell beer. It’s their job to try and replace competing brands.”

Usually when these skirmishes arise, which are becoming more commonplace in the industry, somebody raises their hand and asks, “Isn’t this supposed to be about the beer?”  On that score, Magee is the hands done winner.

As IPA’s go, I found Rebel IPA to be surprisingly tepid and punchless, lacking the fruity, floral characteristics and aromatics of the best West Coast IPA.   Lagunitas’s brews a real West Coast IPA, while Rebel IPA comes across as a soulless product, deliberately toned down for mass market appeal. In the unlikely event Budweiser decided to release an IPA, it might taste something like “Rebel IPA”. Looks like Tony Magee may once again have the last laugh.

Touring Four Innovative California Breweries

(An edited version of this post was published in the Oct/Nov 2012 issue of Adventure Sports Journal.)

This isn’t a museum.  It’s Anchor’s Historic Brewhouse
(Photon courtesy of Anchor Brewing)

There’s revolution going on in this country, born largely in California that has nothing to do with music, politics, or some insanely great gadget.  It’s a revolution in beer, a beverage that’s existed for over 5,000 years of human history that continues to be reinvented to this day.    Large breweries run by multinational corporations producing unoriginal light, flat tasting yellow lagers are dramatically losing market share to a growing fleet of smaller independent breweries concocting a wide variety of rich, flavorful, and unique brews.   People are enjoying the endless flavor combinations and possibilities of beer and becoming more aware about where their beer comes from.  California breweries are major pioneers of this movement.

Unlike most businesses with tightly protected company secrets, many breweries happily throw open their doors to let you experience their sights, sounds, and tastes.    You can tour four of California’s leading breweries changing the way our nation experiences beer, and here’s what you’ll find.

Go to Anchor Brewing and you’ll see a piece of San Francisco history.   The brewery is housed in a four story Depression-era brick building in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.  Visitors meet in brewery’s tap room, with its classic carved wooden interior and old brewery photographs, which include Janis Joplin happily enjoying an Anchor Steam.    The brewery itself, with its old copper kettles and brick interior, looks like something out of a museum, but is where all of Anchor’s beer is brewed today.

The tour starts with recounting of the tumultuous history of Anchor Brewing.  It’s one of the oldest breweries in the United States, dating back to the Gold Rush-era in San Francisco.  It survived the 1906 Earthquake and Prohibition, but nearly went out bankrupt in 1965 before Fritz Maytag, a recent Stanford graduate from a Midwestern family of prominent dairy farmers (think “Maytag Blue Cheese”)  learned of the imminent demise of his favorite beer and purchased 51% of the business.

While saving the brewery, Maytag carefully studied brewing methods from the brewery’s earliest period, when San Francisco breweries were known for their “Steam Beer” fermented in open vats often on roof tops with the cool San Francisco climate providing natural refrigeration.  It’s a brewing practice that had long been abandoned, most likely due to the likelihood of wild yeasts and other airborne microbes ruining a batch. 

Maytag developed a system of open shallow vats in a more controlled environment to replicate brewing technique, and today every drop of Anchor Steam slowly ferments in these vats.   A highlight of the tour is catching a glimpse of these vats, which had long been a brewery secret.     As brewery spokes person Candice Uyloan describes, “These fermenters are an important part of our unique brewing history and represent a marked difference from the vertical tanks found in other breweries. Except for the occasional hot day, we still simply use the naturally cool air from San Francisco’s foggy coastal climate.”

After viewing the brewing equipment and bottling line, the tour concludes back in the brewery tap room where visitor can taste between 6-8 Anchor Beers, depending on the season.   Uyloan adds “We would like visitors to leave knowing that every Anchor beer comes from the hands of people who love and are dedicated to what they do.”

Tour Information

The brewery offers two tours a day on Weekdays.  Tour reservations are taken up to six months in advance and dates fill up quickly, often weeks in advance.  Call 415-863-8350 for more information and to make reservations.  Admission is free.


Tiny, rustic Booneville, with its 1,000 residents, looks like a typical small town, but is like no place on earth.  It’s home to an eclectic group of artists and some of the finest Pinot Noir growing land in all of California.   It’s also the source of Boontling, a quirky, folk language of the region that sprang up in the late 1800’s.  Boontling is largely defunct, save for a few dedicated local practitioners keeping the language alive.  This includes Anderson Valley Brewing, located on the Southern edge of town, which names their beers after Boontling phrases and place names. 
Don’t let all those controls in the Anderson Valley Brewhouse fool you,
none of them actually work.

 Anderson Valley’s current brewery went online in 2000 after outgrowing its previous location in central Booneville.  The open 30-acre brewery grounds also include a Frisbee golf course, a tap room, a field of hops growing up a series of a vertical support lines, and eight goats used to “mow” part of the grounds.

The Anderson Valley Brewery tour meets in the tap room and proceeds into the Brew House, where the first thing you’ll see are three gleaming copper brew kettles recovered from a defunct German brewery.  There’s an equally impressive looking old world control panel that looks like something Captain Nemo used to pilot the Nautilus, but if you look carefully, a smaller, more modern electronic controller is actually used to control the brewing equipment.

“We like to educate people on the brewing process,” explains Rebecah Toohey, Anderson Valley’s Tap Room Manager.  “During the tour, we go over the history of the brewery, as well of each step we take to brew our beer.”   This includes a trip to the hop freezer.   There’s nothing more stimulating the walking into the cold air of the hop freezer and deeply inhaling all the fresh, piny hops Anderson Valley uses for beers such as their Hop Ottin’ IPA and Poleeko Pale Ale.  Visitors also get to go up on the brewery roof and see the solar panels which generate about 40% of the breweries electricity, while learning about the many other environmental initiatives that are part of Anderson Valley’s commitment to its unique region.

 Tour Information

Tours start Daily at 1:30 and 3:00 pm, except between January and March, when they only run Thursday-Monday.    The tour costs $5, and include two beer samples from the tap room, and a $5 coupon for any purchase over $10 in the brewery gift shop.  Call (707) 895-BEER for more information.

Lagunitas is first and foremost about having a good time.  And everyone working at Lagunitas seems to be having one, as all the staff at the Lagunitas Tap Room and Beer Sanctuary has an genuine, infectious  enthusiasm for the place.  The Tap Room and Beer Sanctuary serves food and often features live music.  Tours guides announce the start of each tour by clanging a bell and waving a small, crudely written card board sign above their head.  Anyone who wants to join simply follows them out into the brewery.
Ryan Tamborski discussing Lagunitas’s Barrel-aged Brews

Brewery tours typically have the aura of a high school science field trip, but as tour guide Ryan Tamborski tells the story of Lagunitas founder Tony Magee, he works the room like a stand-up comic.  “In the early days, there was a problem when Tony Magee flushed yeast into the community septic tank.  Does anyone know what you get when you flush yeast into septic tank?  Coors Light!”  Indeed, there’s plenty of entertaining stories behind many Lagunitas beers, and most involve either marijuana or owner Tony Magee thumbing his nose at various authorities.   The tour guides are master story tellers, and the Lagunitas Brewery tour is the most entertaining hour I’ve ever spent at a brewery.

But behind the goofy humor, one also witnesses a relentless capitalism. Lagunitas is one of the fastest growing breweries in the United States, available all over the country, and commanding high prices on the black market overseas.   Ryan happily showed off the shiny state-of-the-art equipment Lagunitas recently invested in to meet this exploding demand, and well as telling us Lagunitas’s plans to open a second brewery in Chicago at the end of this year.    Sure, Lagunitas is a place to have a good time, but touring the place also reveals how much hard work and commitment must go into creating the good times.

Tour Information

Mondays-Tuesdays 3:00 pm, Wednesday at 3:00 and 5:00 pm, Saturdays 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 pm 

Call 707-778-8776 for more information

Sierra Nevada is where to go to learn a lot about beer. 

“We have a very technical tour, “explains Marie Gray, Tour Coordinator for Sierra Nevada.  “We get a lot of questions from beer craft drinkers who really want to know more about beer, so we do our best to answer them.  It’s a lot of fun, and we meet a lot of great people out there.”
The dignified splendor of Sierra Nevada’s Brewhouse

The tour takes over an hour and carefully goes over every step of the brewing process.  It starts in the mill room, which prepares the malted barley for brewing.  Next in the Brew House,  large room with impressive copper brewing kettles, visitors can peer into to see the mash through glass windows.  You can actually sample a taste of wort, the liquid full of extracted sugars from malted barley, used in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to understand how the hops and fermentation transforms the sweet liquid into beer.  There is also an invigorating trip to the Sierra Nevada hop freezer room as well as overhead views of the bottling and canning lines.

 In addition to brewing, visitors learn plenty about Sierra Nevada’s legion of environmental practices.  Climbing up to a catwalk above the brewery, you’ll look down on no fewer than 10,763 solar panels adorning the roof.    Guests also discover that hydrogen fuel cells provide approximately 50% of the brewery’s electricity needs and that Sierra Nevada actually paid to extend a railroad line a few miles to so that rail cars could roll right up to the brewery, eliminating the CO2 emissions from trucks transporting supplies those last few miles.

At the end, there’s a tasting of eight samples of different Sierra Nevada beers at the brewery tap room, and even this is used as an opportunity to educate.  “We try to make it an educational tasting, where people learn to enjoy the different aromas and flavors of beer,” explains Marie.  “In the end, our guests walk away with a really good experience.”  

For those more interested in Sierra Nevada’s environmentally sustainable practices, the brewery hosts Sustainable Tours on Fridays, Saturday, and Sunday the focus on Sierra Nevada’s environmental initiatives.  There is also beer tasting at the end of this tour, but is held in an outside garden, weather permitting, and consists of four samples.

Tour Information

Tour Hours:
Monday – Thursday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm 3:00pm & 4:00 pm
Friday and Saturday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 12:30pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 2:30pm 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm, 4:30pm & 5:00 pm
Sunday: 11:00am 12:00 pm, 12:30pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 2:30pm 3:00 pm, 4:00 pm
Phone:  530-899-4776




Beer of the Month: Cappuccino Stout from Lagunitas Brewing

Normally I’d pick a holiday themed beer for the month of December, but the problem was, every holiday themed beer I tried this month was pretty underwhelming.  Not bad, mind you, but nothing to make me sit up and say “That’s the Beer of the Month!”  And I certainly looked around.  So with no holiday beer jumping out at me, I decided to choose a beer that’s long been a favorite of mine each December when Lagunitas Brewing releases it.  I’m talking about their Cappuccino Stout.

The first thing you’ll notice with this beer is a blast of strong coffee aromas hitting your nose.  Taste it, and you’ll discover strong, sharp, roasted flavors of bitter chocolate and (surprise!) coffee.  Coffee beers can sometimes be muddled, dull brews but this has a uniquely crisp and drinkable quality to it.  But be careful, because at 9.2% abv, this one will knock you out in a hurry, all that caffine from the coffee not withstanding. 

Seeing as most of the holidays have past, give this one a try to either break out of the holiday doldrums, or recover from the unsual holiday madness.