Rambling Reviews 1.23.2018: The Sierra Nevada Hop Edition

Welcome to this special installment of Rambling Reviews, covering three recent hop-driven releases from Sierra Nevada. One of the earliest pioneers of craft brewing from the early 80’s, Sierra Nevada has evolved into a multi-billion dollar company while still remaining at or near the forefront of brewing trends normally driven by smaller, nimbler breweries.

If you don’t that’s impressive, consider both of Sierra Nevada’s early craft brewing counterparts, Anchor Brewing and Boston Beer (Sam Adams). Anchor Brewing is still a respected name, but their recent releases have been hit or miss, suggesting more of a game of catch-up. It’s also worth noting Anchor was recently bought by Japanese brewery Sapporo and is considerably smaller than Sierra Nevada, which is still owned by founder Ken Grossman who shows few signs of slowing down. Boston Beer is basically a messy corporation fighting declining stock prices, distracted from their brewing operations as they pump out uninspired ciders and alcopops with seemingly no real idea where to go beyond their flagship Sam Adam’s Vienna Lager released decades ago.SN Hazy IPA

OK, on to the reviews. With considerable fanfare, Sierra Nevada has jumped into hazy IPA race with its new national year-around release, Hazy Little Thing.  Given the notoriously short shelf life of hazy IPAs, it’s pretty ambitious national roll-out fraught with risks.  (It’s worth noting the much maligned Boston Beer is also rolling out a hazy IPA .) As you may know, when it comes to hazy IPAs, I generally hate those things. My take on Hazy Little Thing is….well, it’s OK. It definitely has the orange juice thing going, with a pith note on the aftertaste in otherwise, simple uncluttered brew. I’ve done some soul searching as to why I rarely like the hazy IPAs others adore. I can deal with hazy but huge amounts of detritus in suspension is pretty off-putting. I also miss the bright, sharp hop flavors that get muddled in the haze, and besides, late hop additions create juicy flavors just fine without all the floating crap. I’m not really the right guy to be reviewing this, but I suppose if I find any hazy IPA to be OK, that’s a ringing endorsement. So if you like beer with a bunch of crud floating in it that tastes like muddy orange juice, you’re going to love Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing.

A far more successful release in my never humble opinion is Sierra Nevada’s new spring seasonal Hop Bullet Double IPA. Now this is an IPA, and without that hazy shit. There’s some sweetness to it, with light citrus and soft pine that harmonizes effortlessly, the neutral malt quietly supporting it all in the background. In Hop Bullet, Sierra Nevada uses plenty of Magnum, which are overlooked, underrated hop that really shine in this brew. At 8.0% abv, it’s not one of those booze-bombs Double IPAs, it’s just a very solid beer, well put together.

IMG-4918We finally come to my favorite of the trio, Sierra Nevada 2017 Estate Ale, an IPA made with both Estate-grown hops and barley. Beer terroir is nebulous, emerging concept given that most beers throughout the United States are brewed with barley and hops coming from the same place:  The barley from the high plains of central North American and hops from the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Nevada’s Estate IPA, made with ingredients grown in Northern California, has flavors all of its own. It’s a very balanced brew, with  black current dominating with a gentle piney background, a slight caramel note from the toasted malt, with a touch of resin emerging at the finish. A unique combination of flavors that suggests a lot of great opportunities are in store as new regions for barely and hop growing start flourishing.


Rambling Reviews 12.26.2017: Beers from Strike Brewing, Ale Industries, and Bear Republic

For the last Rambling Reviews for 2017, I’ll start with Splash Hit, a Helles Lager from Strike Brewing made with California malt from Admiral Maltings, the Bay Area malt house I wrote about for Edible East Bay. Local malt gets me excited, and it should excite everyone if it leads to beers as good as Splash Hit. There’s a rich, wonderful complexity to this brew that’s arresting and I’m finding difficult to characterize. There’s a slight caramel note, a bit of a woody character, and this certain “fullness” of character that really go my attention. (Yes, truly I am struggling for words to adequately describe this beer.) The folks at Strike wisely used only a smattering of hops so the malt really sings. My first taste of a beer made with Admiral Maltings malt and I’ll definitely be on the hunt for more. Will Admiral Maltings become the “Intel Inside” of California beer?  Don’t bet against it.

Ryed PiperSpeaking of malt, next up is a brew the skillfully utilizes malty goodness that’s long been a favorite of mine, Ryed Piper from Ale Industries. It’s really well balanced, with the peppery rye malt working well with earthy fruity hops. Just a great blend of flavors make this a nifty beer.

Finally, we’ll end with Sonoma Pride from Bear Republic. As you might guess from the name, Bear Republic will direct the sales proceeds from this release to benefit victims of the recent Sonoma county wildfires.  It’s a hoppy Blonde Ale, with a soft malt undertone that seems a bit dominated by the earthy, herbal and slightly citrus hops. To my taste, I found it unbalanced, the hops overwhelming the delicate malt. My wife, who’s much more of a hop head than I, really liked it. Needless to say, we’ve argued over plenty of other stuff besides how much is too much hops in a Blonde Ale. So buy a bottle of Sonoma Pride, share it with your friends, and discuss whether or not the hops overwhelm the underlying Blonde Ale. It’ll help solve the burning issue of just how many hops can you add to a Blonde Ale and help victims of the Sonoma County Wildfires at the some time.

Sonoma Pride


Rambling Reviews 11.6.2017: Beers from Headlands Brewing, Hop Dogma and Strike Brewing

Time again to ramble on about a three new brews. We’ll start with Cloudview, a holiday ale from Headlands Brewing in collaboration with Whole Foods Markets.  I don’t know about you, but when I think “holiday ale”, a dry-hopped Belgian-style Wit doesn’t immediately come to mind. But the few twists on the Wit-style, from the citrus aromas from the dry-hopping, the light sweetness with a stronger than usual Wit (6.5% abv), and the airy, pillow-like mouth feel work well with the traditional orange peel and coriander create a unique beer, that says “holidays” in a fresh, harmonious way . It’s another impressive effort for Headlands Brewer Phil Cutti, fresh off his second GABF medal, which he won this year with Wolfpack Ridge IPA.  Cloudview is only available at Bay Area Whole Foods Markets, which provided a sample for this review.

Next up,  Alpha Dankopotamus, an IPA from Hop Dogma Brewing. With a name like Alpha Dankopotamus, you know this isn’t going to be a study in subtlety. And it isn’t, especially when its says “Exquisitely Unbalanced” on the side of the can. I nervously knew I was about to sip a serious monstrosity when I opened this can, and it ended up leaving a big smile on my face. It’s just dank. Really dank. You know that herbal cannabis-like hop character no one can quite describe, so they call it dank? It’s a whole lot of that. The beer works because the underlying malt base is pretty clear and dry, supporting but otherwise getting out of the way of the fresh hop blitzkrieg. Lots a hop bombs fall short due to off-flavors, chalky tastes, or just too much astringency. Hop Dogma finds a way to avoid this. Impressive in its cleans execution of over-the-topness.

Hop Dogma Speaking of hop bombs, we’ll end with Triple Play Triple IPA from Strike Brewing. I found it to be a throw-back to the big, sweet, sticky citrus hop bombs that were all the rage nearly 7-8 years ago. Pine and orange notes emerge from the strong, fresh hop flavors, with everything in balance and no off-flavors. Again, if nuance and subtlety is what you are looking for, you’ll want to go elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an invigorating hop blast, this is your ticket.




Triple Play IPA Strike
Triple Play IPA after a particularly foamy pour at the Strike Brewing taproom

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 6.27.2017 : Session IPA’s from Drakes, New Bohemia and Deschutes

When Session IPA’s first hit the scene a few years ago, I was a little indifferent to them. Some of them, like Lagunitas Day Time, were a breath of fresh air at a time when everyone was brewing Imperial This and That. Unfortunately, the trick of combining lower alcohol beer with less malt with high rates of hopping eluded more than a few brewers, creating beers that I found tasted either chalky or tasting like hop water. Given quite a few misses on this style came from breweries I hold in high regard, I generally avoided this style. But with summer’s heat coming on, I’ve discovered three of them that made for great summer sipping on my back patio.

Let’s start with Kick Back IPA, which the fine folks at Drake’s Brewing sent me a sample of.  It’s thin in the body with light carbonation, with the Mosaic, Simcoe, and El Dorado hops creating great mango and other tropical fruit flavors up front with some grassiness towards the ending finish. Despite the low malt heft and 4.3% abv, all the flavors seem in balance and it’s quite refreshing. The Kick Back name comes from the fact a portion of the proceeds of Kick Back goes to the East Bay Regional Park District. Last year, Kick Back earned $10,000 for the park district and Drakes is hoping to exceed that donation this year.

I recently enjoyed this pint of Old Cabin Classic at Spread in downtown Campbell

Next up, Old Cabin Classic IPA from New Bohemia.  Named after a Santa Cruz Mountain Bike race, I find this nifty brew checking in a 4.8% abv to be full of fresh tropical flavors and with a slightly piney finish. End of story.  Sorry, no detailed tasting notes, this was just hoppy freshness in a glass from a brewery that’s been doing plenty of solid, no nonsense excellence for the past couple years.hop slice

Finally, we get to Hop Slice Summer Ale from Deschutes, which isn’t really a Session IPA, but it’s awfully close to being one at 5.0% abv and only 35 ibus, but it’s my blog, and I’ll make arbitrary beer style classifications if I want to. Deschutes uses Lemondrop hops in this one, creating plenty of lemony citrus and lemon peel flavors. Once it warms up after a few minutes sitting in the glass, the other hops open up and tropical and  floral flavors start joining the party. Don’t let the 35 ibu’s fool you, this is a highly hop driven brew but a great example of hops creating wonderfully accessible flavors that you don’t have to be a hop-head to appreciate.

Rambling Reviews 4.19.2017: Explorations on the Lighter Side

Last Monday, I rambled about craft breweries finding commercial success with some of the lighter beer styles. Now the craft brewing revolution would definitely be over if small breweries started pumping out bland and tasteless light ales and lagers chasing the almighty dollar. Thankfully, there’s plenty of great beers on the lighter side from small breweries proving these styles that are still interesting and flavorful when done right.

We’ll start with the weirdly wonderful G&T Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing. The first weirdly wonderful thing about this Gose is that it tastes absolutely nothing like a Gin and Tonic. Sure, there’s a lemon-lime thing going on, with some saltiness, a slight funkiness and a barely noticeable sourness. It’s really more like a Margarita, if anything, than a Gin and Tonic. The thing is, this unexpected combination is fun, refreshing and somehow works. I’ve gone on the record as not particularly liking Gose beers with all sorts of non-traditional additions that would make old world German brewmeisters spin in their graves but I really enjoyed this one.

Two brothers Golden AleNext, we go to a beer I discovered last week on vacation in the Chicago area where I grew up. It’s Prairie Path Golden Ale from Two Brothers Brewing. Described as “crafted to remove gluten but not flavor”, I was pleasantly surprised how lively and complex it turned out to be. It’s solid bready malt base with some light yeasty aromatics balanced with an earthy hop bitterness created a very pleasing composition of flavors. Walks the fine line between effortlessly drinkable without being boring.


Tooth and Claw Off Color


Finally, there’s is Tooth & Claw Dry Hopped Lager from Chicago’s Off Color Brewing, a beer inspired by Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex skeleton.in the world Sue is prominently displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History where the wife and I took the kids last week. It’s a cracker crisp Lager with a sharp, grassy T-Rex sized hop bite. In my book, lagers are defined by how well they hit these notes without extraneous and off flavor and Off Color just hits things right on the head with this one. I just loved the well executed simplicity.


Sue, the T-Rex at Chicago’s Field Museum (photo credit)

Rambling Reviews 3.27.2017: New releases from Magnolia, Sapporo, and Alpine

Enjoying a can of Kalifornia Kolsch
on my back patio

This edition of Rambling Reviews features beers from three breweries who successfully persuaded me to sing the praises of their beer to the millions of readers of this blog tuning in breathlessly to learn what beers they should be drinking. That’s right, today’s reviews are all about free beers sent to me in hopes I would write nice things about them.

We’ll start with long time San Francisco brewery Magnolia Brewing, who want you to know their Kalifornia Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA can now be bought in cans, as they roll out their distribution in the San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles areas. That’s right, no longer do you need to venture into the Upper Haight neighborhood full of stores selling bongs and Grateful Dead T-shirts to get a fresh pint of Magnolia. I’ve enjoyed a few pints of Kalifornia Kolsch and rather than go into a detailed flavor decomposition of the brew, let me just tell you this: It’s a damn good Kolsch. As for Proving Ground IPA, Brewmaster Dave McLean describes it in a press release as “showcasing a hybrid approach to IPA, marrying an aggressive, American hop profile with an English malt backbone built around our favorite malt, Marris Otter.” And indeed this brew has the wonderful solid biscuit-like malt and subdued, leafy, grass hop character one finds in a good English IPA, with some citrus in the background to remind you it comes from California. Magnolia’s website claims this IPA checks in at 100 ibu’s, but it seems more like 60 in this refreshingly well balanced brew. At any rate, it’s not the usual West Coast hops and alcohol explosion. Instead, Proving Ground is a creative yet traditional dimension to the IPA style.

Then there’s Sapporo Premium Black Lager. Now I’ve enjoyed Sapporo’s regular Lager with sushi a few times, but it’s never really been one of my “go-to” beers. Unfortunately, lot’s of other people feel the same way about Sapporo, and they’ve faced declining sales in the US as the brand is largely limited to Asian restaurants. Sapporo Black Lager, released last fall, is an effort to reverse that trend, which explains in part why Sapporo touts their Black Lager for pairing with “traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines and crème brûlée”. One thing going for it is lots of nice chocolate aromas. It’s crisp with very deep roasted flavors on a broad spectrum from a little toasty up until the point burnt notes are detectable.  This good news it’s mostly bitter chocolate flavors that dominate in the light brew. Nice beer, but will people choose to drink Sapporo Premium Black Lager with Wienerschnitzel or enchiladas? That seems like kind of a stretch.

Finally, we end with Alpine Beer Company’s Windows Up IPA, which debuted just this year.  “I am especially excited for our newest IPA addition, Windows Up, to hit the market,” excudes Alpine Head Brewer Shawn McIlhenny in a press release.  “It’s got big hop aromatic and a really bold flavor profile with very little bitterness; this beer is a home run.” Given that Alpine has made their reputation on big hoppy beers, it’s no surprise this one is a real dank monster. The good news is there’s plenty of complexity and depth to round out all danky, cannabis-ness character, with as some fruity apricot, light tart cherries and piney finish also in the mix. All those big flavors get plenty of support on a solid malt substrate. It’s not just a beer crammed with a bunch of big flavors, it’s an impressive composition of all those flavors.  Yes, I do believe Alpine hit one out of the park.