Session Beer Stories in Adventure Sports Journal

One of the things I like most about talking with brewers about is most of their beers have a good story behind them.  That was the case the article on session beer in the current version of Adventure Sports Journal that’s out now.  I spoke with Anderson Valley’s Fal Allen, Strike Brewing’s Drew Ehrlich, and 21st Amendment’s Shaun O’Sullivan about how their session beers came to be.  You can read the online version here.

Anderson Valley’s Fal Allen Talks About Highway 128 Gose

Fal Allen of Anderson Valley Brewing
(photo from Anderson Valley Brewing)

One of the more unexpected brewing success stories of the past year was the unlikely popularity of Anderson Valley Brewing’s “The Kimmie, the Yink, and the Holy Gose”, released last year for package sale as part of their Highway 128 Session Series.  If it wasn’t surprising enough that a Gose, a nearly extinct German style would be a hit, its odd combination of sour and salty flavors is also not something that immediately sounds like a winning combination. Yet, somehow, the light malt, sour and salty flavors coupled with a low 4.2% alcohol by volume all came together to create a novel and highly refreshing brew. A little later, Anderson Valley added blood orange to the mix and scored another hit with their Blood Orange Gose.

So why did Anderson Valley even think about brewing the obscure Gose style in the first place? How was unlikely flavor combination of sour, salty, and blood orange discovered?  Are there more riffs on the Gose style in the works?  I spoke for a few minutes with Anderson Valley’s Head Brewmaster Fal Allen to discuss both the genesis and future directions of Anderson Valley’s Gose.

“We didn’t really set out to brew this beer in the first place, ” explained Allen.  “At the time, we were experimenting with a sour mash and someone suggested we try brewing a Gose.  Only a couple breweries in Germany were brewing this style at the time.  So we tried that and we all liked it.”  Of course, with most beers, there’s a process to tweaking the recipe to get the final brew.  “It took us about 4 or 5 months and 4 or 5 test batches to finally get the recipe,” recalls Allen.  “It wasn’t too difficult figuring out the grain bill and hops for the beer.  The bigger challenge was determining how sour or salty to make it, and what level of “funkiness” it should have.”

Fal Allen takes a highly democratic approach in the development of all Anderson Valley beers, soliciting input from all of his brewers to determine the final recipe.  “I find it important in getting all the different points of view so the resulting beer appeals to wide spectrum,” explained Allen.  “If it were just me doing the tasting, I’d end up brewing beers I like, but maybe not a lot of other people would.”

The Gose gets is light sour taste from lactic acid bacteria, which is not something a brewery would usually want in its brewhouse infecting all the other beers.  So Allen is careful to create the sour flavor in the brew kettle using a long, eight hour process and then thoroughly boiling the wort to ensure all that bacteria is killed off.

As for how blood orange found its way into Anderson Valley’s Gose, with the success of the original Gose, Allen started experimenting with other additions.   He tried different spices, and had high hopes for a tamarind Gose, which turned out to be a disaster.  “Tamarind is also sour, and sour on sour is just too much.”  He also tried tangerine and grapefruit, but found blood orange created better flavors and aromas.  And as Allen enthusiastically added, “It gives the beer a cool name!” In case you were wondering, Anderson Valley does indeed have another version of Gose in the works to be released within a year from now. They just aren’t ready to talk any more about it yet.

One of more exciting revelations from America’s recent brewing revolution is that the seemingly simple beverage of beer has been taken new and unexpected direction.  Anderson Valley’s Gose and Blood Orange Gose are simply recent proof of that.

(It should be noted the author enjoyed an Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose while writing this article.)

Beer of the Month: Drake’s Alpha Session Ale

Our Beer of the Month highlights a refreshing trend in brewing, the Session Beer.  What’s a Session Beer you ask?  Well, Lew Bryson, who has championed the concept and is considered the authority on the subject, defines Session Beers using a bunch of subjective statements like “favorable enough to be interesting” and “conductive to conversation”, and one highly unsubjective one, “under 4.5% alcohol by volume (abv)”.   I like to think of a Session Beer as a beer you can just kick back with and enjoy a couple tasty pints with friends and not have to worry object standing upright when it’s over.

With this recent emphasis on Session Beers, you might say the brewing pendulum has swung in the opposite direction from a year or two ago, when brewers seemed to devote most of their experimental energy going to absurd lengths with over hopped, barrel aged, exotically spiced,  10+% abv monsters.  Of course, it’s fun to watch and at times, the results are enjoyable to drink, but sometimes all that envelope pushing gets a little tiresome.   Session Beers may not be as sexy, but are a reminder that “less is more” can make for a better beer and is a sign of real brewing skill.
And so we celebrate Drake’s Brewing’s Alpha Session, a great example of the Session Beer in the strictest Brysonian definition, checking in at only 3.8% abv.    The malt is clear and crisp, allowing the Simcoe, Citra and CTZ hops to form a lively combination of sharp piney flavors with some undertones of grapefruit.   Drake’s calls it a NorCal Bitter, their take on the classic British Style and if you’re wondering what the word “Alpha” has to do with all this, its from the Alpha acids that give hops their distinct flavor profiles.    It’s not surprising that Drake’s, well known for their alchemy when it comes to hops, foray into session beers is something extremely hop forward.

So whatever you call it, it’s the Beer of the Month for August.

Beer of the Month: Strike Brewing’s Brown

A shamelessly posed photo of the Beer of the Month with my favorite baseball book

We honor Bay Area newcomer Strike Brewing with their nifty Brown Ale as the Beer of the Month for the February.  You got to love a new Bay Area brewery that makes their debut with session beers. 

Which raises the question: Why is it that so many new breweries start off with their first release being some extreme beer, like a Double IPA brewed with star anise, pomegranate and aged in used horseradish barrels?  Maybe that’s because:

a) Double IPA’s and other extreme beers, no matter how ridiculous or insipid, generate a lot more buzz than any well executed session beer.
b) Any self-respecting rock star brewer wouldn’t waste his time with something like a Brown Ale.
c) It’s easy to cover up brewing flaws by simply dumping shovels full of hops and spices into the brewing kettle.
d) All of the above.

Thankfully, Strike Brewing bucks the typical trend, brewing an excellent, balanced brown with plenty of roasty toasty nutty flavors, and checks in just under 4% abv.  It’s one of those beers that made me sit up and take notice since so few breweries pull off simple pleasures like this skillfully brewed Brown.

Strike Brewing was formed three years ago in San Jose by Jenny and Ben Lewis, with their friend Strike brewmaster Drew Ehrlich.  All three played sports, with Drew Ehrlich playing professionally in the Boston Red Sox farm system, and were looking to brew beers for more active life-styles.  (The Strike name comes from Ehrlich’s baseball roots.)  Hence, Strike’s initially line-up consists of three flavorable session beers, a Blonde, Brown, and Porter, with a Wit on its way this February.   For more on Strike Brewing, check out BetterBeerBlogger Peter Estaniel’s nifty write-up on them last December.

So let’s raise our glasses to craft beer rookie Strike Brewing for doing something extreme: Brewing a well balanced and a flavorful session beer.

The Session #40 Session Beers: It’s About Time We Had This Conversation

For this month’s Session, Erik Myers of Top Fermented asks us to discuss Session Beers.

What a novel idea. Let’s talk about Session beers this month. I consider a Session beer to be any beer around 5% alcohol by volume or less, and has a drinkable character to it so you can have two or three in a social atmosphere and still keep your wits about you, so to speak. I realize that’s a little higher alcohol level than most Session beer definitions. That’s because I attempt to keep a two beer a day limit when in training for a race, so try to get the most bang for the Session beer buck.

Good Session beer is like great background music during an evening out with friends, unlike going to the symphony or the mosh pit, where the music takes center stage . I’m so glad the Beer Blogging Session got around to this topic, since Session beers, by my definition, constitutes well over 95% of the beer consumed all over the world. OK, that includes a lot of industrial mega-brew the general craft brew community might question as “drinkable”. But drinkability is really in the eyes of the beer holder.

So much of the beer blogosphere seems fixated on finding the latest collaboratively brewed, barrel aged quadruple IPA made with black current and licorice, and fermented with Belgian Ale yeast. Most of the world’s population would rather drink something more simple, straightforward, and drinkable, which they can enjoy without thinking too hard about it, thank you very much.

I understand this “beer hunter” mentality, to search for the latest and greatest, as brewers strive to create original, bold, and unexpected beer drinking experiences. Craft beer drinking is a lot about discovery. But it’s always great to rediscover life’s simple pleasures in a well executed Lager, Porter, or Hefeweizen. And it’s a pleasure to find a beer that’s a great composition of simple flavors that really pop, like Mammoth Brewing’s Real McCoy Amber Ale. Or to find something refreshing, yet with all sorts of subtle complexity if one desires to concentrate on the flavors, like El Toro Brewing’s Poppy Jasper. Or encounter a beer with a surprising twist, like Devil’s Canyon Brewing’s Hades Habenero, that gives a much needed dignity to the chile beer style.

It’s great to enjoy the intense experience at the top of the mountain, but there’s plenty of wonder and enjoyment along the trail to the top.