Weekend at Yosemite…with pictures

Half Dome Through the Mist from Glacier Point

Last weekend was the family trip with some friends to Yosemite National Park.  I did no running, but drank some fine Mammoth Brewing beers.  Saturday, the whole family made it all the way up the John Muir Trail to Nevada Falls.  If recovering from a long hike with a Mammoth Brewing Double Nut Brown Porter isn’t bliss, I don’t know what is.

Not much else to say, but I took some nice pictures, so hope you’ll enjoy them!

Nevada Falls 
Liberty Cap…Nevada Falls can be seen just off to its right if you look close

The drought left only a trickle of water over Nevada Falls

The family on the Nevada Falls bridge

Mammoth Double Nut Brown Porter is mighty
tasty after a hike.

Beer of the Month: 395 IPA from Mammoth Brewing

For October, the title of Beer of the Month is bestowed onto 395 IPA from Mammoth Brewing, which I picked up on a trip to Yosemite National Park the weekend of September 28-29th.   Mammoth intentionally keeps their operation small, and you can’t get their beer outside of their small distribution region in and around the Yosemite Valley, so tasting some Mammoth brews unavailable back home was a nice little side benefit of the trip. This beer, named after a road running by the National Park, has long been a favorite beer of mine.  It’s one of the more unique IPA’s you’ll find, brewed with mountain desert sage and mountain juniper berries.    There’s a light toastiness from the malt, a noticeable gin note from the juniper berries, and dominant citrus flavor from the hops.  It’s a dry IPA that lets of that complexity flow, and tastes smooth despite a strong hop whollop.

I make an annual trip to Yosemite with friends and family to experience the surreal scenery, full of shear cliffs, dramatic waterfalls, and towering peaks.  I’m especially proud of my ten year old daughter and twelve year old autistic son who tackled a six mile hike through steep, rocky to Vernal Falls high above the valley with my wife and I.  It was great family experience exploring one of America’s revered places and learning a lot about ourselves.  We finished this trip in the nick of time because shortly after that, the Washington dysfunction all too common these days shut the Federal Government down and Yosemite National Forest with it.

You’re probably as sick of this shut-down mess as I am, and it’s doubtful anything I write here is going to change your mind or break the gridlock in Washington.  I avoid delving into politics on my blog as beer and running draw people in from all walks of life and all are welcome on the open roads or to share a pint.  I’m one of those damn liberals, so you can probably figure out where I stand.

So I’d like to make this gentle reminder that Yosemite was long ago preserved by far-sighted minds in our Federal Government who saw a problem and addressed it, and pretty much everyone thinks they did a good job about it.  While rewarding family vacations are important, what’s more important are our livelihoods which require a functional Federal Government.   An unintended consequence of the shutdown is that we all gained a new appreciation of what the Federal Government does for us every day, even if we don’t like paying our taxes or dealing with rules. 

So I’m optimistic that a year from now when our family comes back to Yosemite, saner heads will prevail and our country will be both better and wiser from our collective experience, as contentious and destructive as things are right now.  I’ll drink a 395 IPA to that.

This land was made for you and me.

Beer of the Month: Ahwahnee Amber Ale from Mammoth Brewing

It’s no puzzle that Ahwahnee Amber and
Yosmite National Park are interlocking.

The sheer cliffs, the towering water falls, and the overall surrealistic landscape of Yosemite all speak to us.  For some, Yosemite declares the overwhelming power and beauty of nature.  For others, it reminds us of a need to preserve our environmental treasures for future generations.  But for me, the grandeur of Yosemite whispers “Hey, there’s a Mammoth Brewing brewski just around the corner with your name on it!”

So our Beer of the Month is one enjoyed on a recent weekend trip to Yosemite, Ahwahnee Amber Ale from Mammoth Brewing.  (Outside of the National Park, it’s known as Real McCoy Amber.)  Now Mammoth makes a couple of pretty good IPA’s (Epic and 395) and their Hair of the Bear Dopplebock is one of the best Dopplebock’s I’ve had.  But the day I spent long five miles and 2,000 vertical feet hiking of The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, and then up to Nevada falls, the Ahwahnee Amber at the bottom tasted like sweet nectar.

There’s really nothing fancy about this beer, and that’s what’s so good about it.  Just lots of toasty malt, with a little nuttiness, and a smattering of earthy hops combine to create a smooth, drinkable pleasure.  Ever since I discovered Mammoth Brewing 2 1/2 years ago on my last tip to Yosemite, the brewery and it’s iconic landscape have become intractably linked.  And I just can’t leave without showing you a few more Yosemite pictures.  Hope you enjoy.

Back in Adventure Sports Journal

I would like to think Adventure Sports Journal rejected the last couple articles I submitted to them due to artistic differences.  But the unfortunate truth is these last couple articles, to put it into literary terms, sucked.

Of course, the editor of Adventure Sports Journal was way to kind to tell me my articles sucked.  Instead responding with comments like “doesn’t hang together” or “reads like a Wikipedia article” or the ultimate kiss of death “I’m sure there’s a few people who would find this interesting”.  I suppose real writers actually use a more descriptive vocabulary to describe bad writing simply responding “this sucks”.

But I appreciated the continued encouragement from the folks at Adventure Sports Journal, and published some short beer reviews of mine in the back of the magazine.   I kept plugging away.  And they liked my interview with Sean Turner of Mammoth Brewing posted earlier on this blog and decided to run it, which you can read it here.

Drinking Local on the High Sierras: Mammoth Brewing

Inside Mammath Brewing’s Tap Room (photo from Sean Turner)

Hearing the words “head for the mountains” brings back awkward college memories of swilling cheap Busch beer in college back in the 80’s. Thankfully in our more enlightened times, heading for California’s Sierra Mountains won’t lead you to a skunky brew, but the fine beers of Mammoth Brewing.

Located in Mammoth Lakes on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Forest, the brewery was founded by Sam Walker in 1995, who sold it to current owner Sean Turner in 2006. Turner explains that what makes his beer unique is that at 8,000 feet, water boils at 198 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than 212 degrees at sea level, resulting in a softer flavor profile in the brewing process.    He also adds that a 8,000 feet, the mountain water they use is the purest being furthest upstream.  Mammoth is known for their Golden Trout Pilsner, Epic IPA, IPA 395,  Double Nut Brown, and Hair of the Bear Doppelbck among their more popular beers.  They’ve won a slew of awards at the California State Fair and other beer competitions, so they must be doing a lot right.

I can personally vouch for IPA 395, named after the main highway through the Eastern Sierras. Mammoth Brewing uses locally grown hops with dessert sage and mountain juniper to create one of the more unique and memorable California IPA’s you’ll find.  If hoppy beers aren’t your thing, then give Mammoth’s Hair of the Bear Doppelbock a try.   It tastes like liquid banana bread with it’s banana-like fruity esters melding seamlessly with the highly roasted malts.  

In addition to innovative brewing, Mammoth Brewing was one of the first craft breweries to distribute beer in cans. “Putting in a canning line was one of the first things I did at Mammoth, before the sale was even completed,” recalls Turner. “We sell most of our beer around Yosemite and putting beer into cans made it much easier for hikers to carry into the forest. We’ve increased our output by a factor of three since 2006, and going to cans was a big part of that.” The second largest region for Mammoth is the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, as the beer is also popular with skiers.

Mammoth Lakes is also the home of the mighty Mammoth Track Club which includes many of  elite runners, including United States Olympic Marathoners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi. These athletes are seen all over town but apparently are focused more on running fast and winning races than drinking beer, as they rarely venture into Mammoth Brewing’s tap room.  Turner remembers his first encounter with Meb Keflezighi when “Meb approached me about a deal to wear a cap with our logo on it for a couple hundred dollars. I barely knew who he was and I had just started running the brewery to get the brewery, so decided to pass on the idea.    Next thing you know, he wins the New York Marathon and becomes famous.”

In early November, Mammoth will release its Owen’s Valley Wet Harvest Ale, brewed using organically grown hops from a local hop farmer transported straight from the hop fields into the brew kettle.  Mammoth Brewing purchases these hops to support agriculture in Owen’s Valley, a battle ground of California water rights where much of the local water has been diverted to Los Angeles.

To find Mammoth Beers, you literally need to head for the mountains as Mammoth Brewing distributes only from Truckee down to Kern County along the High Sierras.  You can also stop by Mammoth’s Tap room open daily from 10am-6pm at 94 Berner Street in Mammoth Lakes. Two ounce tasting samples are free.

Yes We Can!

This article, co-written with Pete Gauvin originally appeared in Adventure Sports Journal.

Something new is showing up in backpacks, in mountain streams, on rafts, and even on the beach. It’s beer in cans brewed by local and regional craft breweries.

The great outdoors is often enjoyed with beer in a can, since cans are lighter than bottles, shattered glass is not a hazard, and empties can be crushed for easy transport out of the woods. Moreover, bottles are often prohibited at many outdoor locations. Plus, canned beer submerged in a cold mountain stream cools down much faster than bottles.

So craft beer in cans is good news for outdoor enthusiasts, an independent-minded crowd that generally appreciates quality local and regional brews with character over the mass-market swill from corporate breweries that sink more of their budgets into advertising than their product.

Craft brewers themselves are also enthusiastic about cans. Check out their websites and you’ll find plenty of feel-good statements about how cans are better for both the beer and the environment. Cans protect beer from oxygen and sunlight better than bottles, and are a more earth-friendly package because they are significantly lighter than glass (35% of the weight of a bottle of beer is the bottle itself), stack easily with less packaging, require less energy to transport, and are more efficiently recycled.

“I absolutely love the package. They’re like mini-kegs,“ gushes Sean Turner, owner of Mammoth Brewing Company in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes. The Eastern Sierra brewery, founded in 1995, started selling beer in cans four years ago, one of the first craft breweries to do so. “Everything out here is so outdoor oriented. We sell beer in cans to hikers, fishermen, boaters, and golfers,” says Turner, whose brewery cans three of its brews to satisfy a wide range of taste buds: Epic IPA, Golden Trout Pilsner, and Real McCoy Amber Ale.

North of San Francisco in Mendocino County there’s a similar new-found enthusiasm for aluminum pop-tops at Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville. Brewmaster Fal Allen is encouraged by the new sales growth spurred by last year’s decision to release three of Anderson Valley’s more popular beers in cans: Boont Amber, Hop Ottin’ IPA and Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema.

“Canned beer is about 8% of our business and growing fast,” says Allen. “It used to be our canning line would run once or twice a week. Now it runs pretty much every day.”
While it turned out to be a good business decision, Anderson Valley Brewing, which generates 40% of its electricity from solar panels atop its brewery, was also highly motivated by the environmental benefits of cans. Cans are nearly 40% lighter to ship than bottles, greatly reducing fuel costs and their carbon footprint.

It’s been less than 10 years since Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery became the first U.S. craft brewery to can its product when it started hand-canning its Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002 — a hoppy, strong (6.5% ABV) and critically- acclaimed brew that no doubt shocked a few unsuspecting palates weaned on limp, watered-down, mass-market lagers.

Today, there are 117 craft breweries in the U.S. offering premium beer in cans, according to the Canned Beer Database at CraftCans.com. And more are hopping on the can wagon every month.

The First Canned-Beer Revolution

Of course, canned beer has been around for decades. The first canned beer was sold in 1935 by the Krueger Brewing Company of New Jersey, which canned Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer for distribution in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. By the end of 1935, 36 breweries were using cans — which, interestingly, included Pabst Brewing, whose “PBR” in recent years has established itself as the unofficial value beer among the outdoor set.

The first cans were made from heavy- gauge steel. Aluminum cans didn’t debut until 1958.
Sounds pretty good. But such regional breweries like Krueger’s (sold in 1961) wouldn’t last in the face of competition from national breweries like Schlitz and Anheuser- Busch.

In following decades, corporate breweries with high-speed canning machines began to dominate the American beer market. Creativity, quality and distinctiveness suffered in the battle for market share and profits. In most cases, the resulting product from these corporate breweries was a thin, fizzy, watery brew with a slightly metallic taste.

As tastes evolved with the resurgence of American craft breweries in the ‘80s and ‘90s, canned beer was derided by beer enthusiasts as cheap, tasteless and decidedly low-brow. But for cans, it was guilt by association. They were unfairly judged for the character of their contents, rather than the quality of the container. And such perceptions die hard.

Indeed, for the craft-brewing community devoted to flavorful hand-crafted beers brewed in small batches, canned beer epitomized everything that was wrong with American brewing. Even when an inert water-based lining for aluminum cans was developed in the 1980s to help protect the contents from ever touching metal, canned beer could not shed its cheap and inferior reputation. The stigma persisted and was only enhanced as “micro-brewed beer” became widely available, all in bottles, initially.

Clearing the Bottleneck

So how did canned beer mature to become the new darling of craft brewers?
The unlikely transition was spurred by a micro brewery in Canada’s Yukon Territory and a small Canadian manufacturing company which stumbled onto canning beer like a bear on a backcountry campsite.

Virtually all beer in cans sold by craft breweries in North America is canned by equipment manufactured by Cask Brewing Systems out of Calgary. The company got its start selling on-premise brewing systems to small brew-it-yourself operations that allowed home brewers to come in and use the facilities to brew their own beer.

Problem was, these brewing hobbyists often poured their beer into used and poorly cleaned bottles, with the beer degrading quickly thereafter. So in 1999, Cask developed a simple manual canning system so all that homebrew didn’t get poured down the drain.

Shortly thereafter, the owners of Yukon Brewing, a craft brewery in Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital and largest city (pop. 20,500) …… a brewery “conceived like many Yukon babies — around a campfire on a canoe trip” …… recognized that about 60% of beer in the Yukon was sold in cans and wondered how they might be able to squeeze into that market.

As they looked around for canning equipment, everything they found was for large scale brewing operations dealing with far greater volumes than they could possibly brew and priced far higher than they could afford. Then they tripped upon Cask Brewing’s manual canning equipment and gave them a call.

“That’s when all the light bulbs went on around here,” recalls Jamie Gordon, a technical sales rep for Cask who’s been with the company for over 25 years. In 2001, Yukon Brewing bought Cask’s manual canning system and became the first North American small-scale brewery to sell beer in cans.

Seeing a market for small canning systems for the hundreds of small breweries then in existence, Cask Brewing Systems decided to market their system at the 2002 Craft Brewing Conference in Cleveland, hoping to make a big splash. The response went over like warm beer on a summer day.

“Everyone looked at us like we were crazy,” remembers Gordon, as negative perceptions of canned beer remained high. “One guy walked up, shook his head, and told us it was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen …… I’d like to know where that guy is now.” As the saying goes, all it takes is one — and others will follow. Perhaps no one knows this better than beer drinkers.

In this case, Oskar Blues from tiny Lyons, Colo., was looking for a way to distinguish itself from the numerous craft breweries dotting the Rocky Mountain landscape like 14,000-foot peaks, and was willing to make the leap. “We thought the idea of our big, luscious pale ale in a can was hilarious,” recalls founder Dale Katechis on the Oskar Blues website. “And it made our beer immensely portable for outdoor enjoyment.”

Only later would he and his crew discover the benefits of cans — such as better beer preservation, a lighter environmental footprint and lower shipping costs. Already a successful brewpub, Oskar Blues was mainly looking for a way to sell some extra beer. But so many campers bought Dale’s Pale Ale on their way to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park they soon automated their canning system to keep up with the unexpected demand.

Colorado’s dynamic craft brewing scene couldn’t help notice Oskar Blues’ success.
The market for canned beer for the active, outdoor-oriented consumer was no longer a secret. Coors Light wasn’t going to be the first option any more.

Fermenting Acceptance

Yet negative perceptions of canned beer continued to be hard to settle, even as more and more small breweries started selling beer in cans. In 2005 when San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery decided to start selling beer to take home from their brewpub, Shaun O’Sullivan suggested to co-founder Nico Freccia to package it in cans.

“It seemed like the stupidest thing I ever heard of,” remembers Freccia, “until Shaun started explaining all the benefits of canning, and then it seemed like a no-brainer.”
Another regional brewery that rolled straight into cans is Reno’s Buckbean Brewing Company, started in 2008, which cans its Black Noddy Lager, Orange Blossom Ale and Tule Duck Red Ale.
Things really started to change when the major craft breweries got into the canning act.

In 2008, New Belgium Brewing released their nationally popular Fat Tire Amber Ale in cans. “Fat Tire in a can really validated everything we were doing,” says Mammoth Brewing’s Turner. “The negative perceptions are no longer an issue,” agrees 21st Amendment’s Freccia.

And if that validation isn’t enough to pop your bottle cap, word comes down the canning line that the most prominent and influential craft brewery in California, if not the nation, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, plans to release its iconic Pale Ale and Torpedo India Pale Ale in cans by the end of the year.

“The number one reason we decided to do this was cans go where bottles can’t, especially on hiking trails, rafting, and other places people want to take them outdoors,” explains Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada’s spokesperson. “I’m really excited our beers are coming out in cans this year.”

One of the reasons Sierra Nevada — which founder Ken Grossman named after his favorite hiking destination — hasn’t joined the canned beer frenzy sooner is that they’ve been searching for a plastic lining for their cans that won’t absorb hop compounds over time, says Manley, which they believe they’ve now found.

For “malt forward” beers such as Fat Tire Amber Ale, which generates most of its flavor from roasted malts, absorption of hop compounds has little consequence. For Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA, with their distinctive hop flavors and aromas, preservation of the beer’s hop character is more essential.

Though it is now the sixth largest brewing company of any stripe in the U.S., Sierra Nevada remains an environmentally conscious, independently owned business. The brewery is powered by solar energy, operates its own water treatment plant, and is the largest buyer of organic hops in the U.S. For these reasons and others, it won the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Green Business of the Year” award in 2010. But it wasn’t going to jump into the canned beer fray just because cans are an arguably greener option without first assuring that its first priority, the quality of its beer, would not be compromised.

Just as with bottles, craft brewers realize that canned beers are only as good as the beer inside. The last thing they want is someone carrying a couple cans 10 miles into the backcountry only to be disappointed. For one, that person could be Ken Grossman.

Secondly, how far behind can freeze-dried beer be? Just tear open the foil pouch and add water. Suddenly hiking the PCT for weeks on end would appeal to a much wider audience, I’m guessing. Or perhaps not.

For the foreseeable future, though, it appears craft brewers will no longer be kicking the can down the road.

High Altitude Training and Carbo Loading in Yosemite

Sometimes, you just have to break the monotonous routines of life, to refresh by experiencing new things and breaking routines. And so was glad I recently spent a long weekend with some friends at a cabin inside Yosemite National Park. In addition to seeing friends I haven’t seen in a while we were also celebrating my girlfriend Linda’s birthday.

And while I’ve found it’s important to establish a training routine for running success, breaking this routine once in a while is always helpful. Races often create some unexpected adversity, so dealing with new and different barriers in training from time to time helps to prepare for whatever the race throws at you. So I appreciated getting a couple good high altitude runs in through the trails in and around the town of Wawona inside the park, which seemed to rejuvenate my legs a bit, having gotten into a little running rut.

Of course during the weekend, we spent a day in the Yosemite Valley, taking in the surreal, iconic landscape that’s inspired generations. As I stood amongst the majestic pine trees, with the Merced River rushing by, and gazed upwards at the famous cascading waterfalls shooting down the shear cliffs thousands of feet above me, one question immediately jumped into my mind: What’s the beer like around here?

Fortunately, I did not have to wait long for an answer, as we took a break at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel and enjoyed an Ahwahnee Amber Ale from Mammoth Brewing. Amber Ale is a often a rather uninspiring style, but maybe that’s because few Amber Ales are as good as this one. We all enjoyed the rich, lightly roasted malt flavors that gave way to a slightly, astringent hop bitterness. Well composed, balanced beers like this are a wonderful thing. I honestly can’t remember a better amber ale than this. (This beer is normally sold as The Real McCoy Amber Ale.)

Later in the Ahwahnee Hotel gift shop, I picked up a six-pack of Yosemite Falls Pale Ale from Snowshoe Brewing in nearby Arnold, CA. Back in the cabin, I found this to be a rather malt forward pale ale, with lots of bread-like character to go with a light orange peel bitterness. I wasn’t blown away by this one, but it did start to grow on me after the third bottle over the course of the weekend. (This beer is usually sold as Snowshoe’s Thompson Pale Ale.)

After poking around the Yosemite Village Store, and a little gift shop and grocery store in Wowona, I picked up a few other offerings from Mammoth Brewing. Their Epic IPA could have passed for a slightly hoppy pale ale, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This brew had the malty backbone of a well done biscuit, which blended well its light citrus and floral hop character. Not what I expected for an IPA, but really nice combination of flavors. And I found Mammoth Brewing’s High Country Pilsner to have a minerally character, with a slight tartness, and subdued hop finish. While not the classic pilsner flavor profile, Linda and I found it quite refreshing. Both the Mammoth’s IPA and Pilsner were unlike the classic styles, yet both were quite unique, memorable, and enjoyable. Wasn’t I talking about virtues of breaking routine and predictability just a few paragraphs ago?

There were some nearby breweries I wanted to visit, but just couldn’t find the time. Of course, when your girlfriend is celebrating one of life’s milestones with her closest friends, and you’re out and about, searching for beer, well, women get emotional about stuff like that. But I’m a pretty lucky guy hanging around a closet hop-head, and we’ve shared many tender moments that often involve me asking about her feelings as I pointed to a beer, with her responding with a heartfelt “Go for it!”.

Babe, here’s to celebrating lots more birthdays with you!