Rambling Reviews 2.10.2016: New beers from 21st Amendment, 10 Barrel and Sierra Nevada

Time once again to ramble on a few new beers that crossed my path.  Here in the dead of a San Jose “winter”, these new brews are decided on the lighter side.

Such as El Sully, described as a Mexican-style lager from 21st Amendment. Presumably named after 21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, it’s a damn good lager. New I realize most of you are probably not breathlessly awaiting the next new lager, but if you ask me, the simplicity of a well executed lager is a thing of beauty.  El Sully’s decent malt heft, effervescent crispness with a light grassy hop bite is sometimes exactly what’s needed in a beer, nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a flavor explosion, but give me a basket of chips, a good salsa and a pint of El Sully and I’d be pretty happy.

Next up, Riding Solo Pale Ale from 10 Barrel Brewing, a single hop beer made with Comet hops which 10 Barrel sent me to sample. Riding Solo is the brain child of “Benny” who, according to a 10 Barrel press release was on the fast track working for a large brewery, and then it all came crashing down. He made a bad choice, climbed the wrong building in Bend and found himself in the clink without a job.”  Hmmmm…am I the only one finding the “large brewery” word choice rather ironic given 10 Barrel is part of A-B InBev’s global beer empire? At any rate, we’ll assume Benny paid his debt to society and is working hard to turn his life around. If he comes up with more beers like this, it won’t take him too long. I enjoyed the unique flavor of this Pale Ale, with a subdued bitter grapefruit peel character with a herbal character similar to mint. It’s one nice little Pale Ale.

Finally, we come to Otra Vez, a Gose with prickly pear cactus and grapefruit, released with much fanfare from Sierra Nevada. The Gose has emerged from near extinction to become the fastest growing craft beer style and this addition to Sierra Nevada’s year ’round line-up has cemented the Gose’s status status in the craft beer industry. Having enjoyed many a recent Gose, when I saw a six-pack of this in my local bottle shop, I snapped it up. Unfortunately, it left me wishing Sierra Nevada just brewed a regular old Gose without dumping a bunch of exotic fruit into it and dialing back the sourness. A more traditional Gose is a study of yin-yang balance between the interplay of salt and sour in a light wheat ale. Otra Vez is basically a light fruit ale with a little salt and nary any sourness. It’s reasonably enjoyable but comes across as a missed opportunity, the fruit becoming a distraction rather than an enhancement of the Gose style. I’ll even go so far as to say if there was ever such a thing as a mass market Gose, a profit driven modification of the style to better conform to more general tastes, it would taste something like this. Sorry, Otra Vez just isn’t my idea of a Gose and I just wasn’t turned on with what really was just a light fruity ale.

Rambling Reviews 11.17.2015: Sierra Nevada’s Hop Harvest #3, Lucky Buddha, and Half Moon Bay’s Calf-eine

One again, it’s time to ramble on various beers I’ve had lately.

First up, none other than the 3rd batch of Sierra Nevada’s Hop Harvest Series made with newly developed hops. In fact, they’re so new, they’re only known by the numbers 472, 05256, 431, and 06300. Hopefully someone will give these hops some sexy names, as they coalesce to create unique pear-like flavors, with some melon and pine for good measure. It’s a wonderfully soft tasting IPA, which like others in this series, redefine what can be accomplished with hops.

This next review presents a serious challenge to maintaining my beer karma. It’s Lucky Buddha, a beer from China (*) sold in cool looking green bottles shaped like the laughing Buddha. Only recently could you find this beer in the United States. The nice Lucky Buddha PR person offered me a sample for review and I said “yes”. Without going into a long story, this remarkable persistent and determined PR person finally got a six-pack of Lucky Buddha delivered after weeks of effort and when anyone works that hard to get me some free beer, it would seriously damage my beer karma to say anything bad about the beer she represents.

But of course dear reader, it’s also bad beer karma to going around saying great things about a beer just because someone gave me a free six-pack, hence the dilemma. Now it’s a pretty safe bet the small segment of beer geekdom that reads this blog is probably not breathlessly awaiting the next lager from China sold in green bottles. And no, my expectations were not the greatest either. However, both my wife and I liked Lucky Buddha on it’s own terms. Sneer all you want at the rice adjuncts, they gave the beer a clear freshness in between the initial light striked skunkiness and a slightly muddled grassy hop note at the finish. It’s not one of those “nothing” lagers totally devoid of flavors, there’s actually something going on in this brew. It’s an easy drinking beer if I say so myself and works well with Asian food. OK, beer karma remains intact.

Finally, when it comes to beer karma, you can’t go wrong drinking a beer that combats human trafficking. It’s Calf-iene from Half Moon Bay Brewing, sales of which supports Not For Sale a charity fighting human trafficking. Calf-iene is a coffee, milk stout, that tastes like coffee and milk in a stout. Yes, that’s the brilliant culinary commentary you’ve come to know and love from this blog. Seriously, the flavors really come together nicely, with a light sweetness and low level of carbonation. It’s a little grainy going down with just a faint whisper of hops that stays out of the way of those wonderful roasty, creamy flavors. Packs a lot of flavors for just 6.3% abv. Just a really nifty sipping beer.

(*) OK, Lucky Buddha is actually brewed in Australia.

Reflections on "Beyond the Pale" by Ken Grossman

When we think of California entrepreneurs, most think of people like David Packard, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk.  Should we add Ken Grossman to this select group?  Foodies swoon over Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, but have they really had a bigger impact over our national cuisine and food culture than Ken Grossman?

These questions are ones I hadn’t considered until reading the Grossman’s long awaited autobiography of Beyond the Pale.  It’s a fascinating study of someone who over thirty years ago literally built a brewery out of little more than discarded scraps salvaged from junk yards.  Back in those days, distribution meant Grossman delivering beer to the few places that would sell it in his pickup truck.  His typical 12+ hour days were spent restoring antique bottling lines to functionality, repairing refrigeration equipment, or welding together discarded dairy equipment into a brewing system, things today’s craft brewers rarely ever do.  Supplies were hard to come by in those times, so Grossman even found a way to incorporate unwanted hop samples larger breweries had no use for into some of his early brews.  Grossman’s problem solving skills, creative force, and seemingly unstoppable energy jumps out through the dense prose on nearly every page.   At times, I found it exhausting just reading about the shear number of projects and challenges he tirelessly took upon himself to build up a brewery from scratch. 

Each chapter is an education onto itself.  Whether talking about the brewing process, creating a business in a time where small breweries were virtually non-existent, discussing legal and business wrangling that occupied much of his energy in the 90’s, or espousing his personal environmental and management policies, there is plenty to learn on each page and Grossman shares plenty of great insights.

For example, on the United State’s three-tiered distribution system, often vilified in the craft beer industry as stifling competition in favor of large brewing corporations, Grossman writes, “Collectively, this complex web of seemingly arcane state and federal laws has done a lot to allow the craft movement to flourish.  Many other countries don’t have a prohibition against the vertical integration of manufacturer and retailer, which has generally stymied the growth of small and independent brewers.  For example in England breweries had a long history of owning pubs, and through consolidation a handful of brewers controlled tens of thousands of pubs that sold only their own brands, making it nearly impossible for start-up breweries to get their beer in front of consumers….In other part of Europe and the world, it’s common practice for breweries or distributors to cut exclusive deals with bars and restaurants….in exchange for exclusivity in the brands the retailer sells.  These market driven systems may be aligned with some people’s notion of free enterprise, but they limit choice and independence, favoring a consolidated industry in which a large supplier that can provide beer, spirits, winder, soda and so on has a significant upper hand that eliminates a level playing field for competition.”

These type of comprehensive, insightful, and at times a little long winded, explanations on all things craft beer are peppered throughout the book.  Grossman wrote Beyond the Pale during a time of ambitious and time consuming plans for a second brewery.  As he put it, “The last thing I needed on my plate was writing a book, so a dragged my feet for several months until one day I had an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and finally caved.”  This hardly seems like the making of a great book, but it’s yet a further insight on Grossman’s incredible stamina, experience, and brewing knowledge.  Of course, it also explains why the last few chapters are a bit meandering and at times have the feel of being written by committee.  Despite Grossman’s candid admission to his readers from the very beginning that the book they are about to read was a distraction, he comes through for his readers with a thoughtful, insightful, and comprehensive story about how Sierra Nevada came to be.  That says an awful lot about Ken Grossman in itself.

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

 

 

 

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.

Get Ready Sacramento Beer Runners: Blood, Sweat and Beers is On!

On August 16th, Fleet Feet Sacramento is putting on Blood, Sweat and Beers. It’s a trail race starting and finishing at Railhead Park in Auburn, CA along the picturesque American Canyon trails. There are two courses for this race, the short course measuring 5.5 miles, while the long course consists of 9.3 trail miles. Finisher of either race course over the age of 21 earn two complimentary beers, courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing. The field is limited to 750 entries, which the organizers expect to fill before race day. More information and online registration can be found on the race website.