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 6.16.2017: Three New Bay Area Releases

As we enter summer, Bay Area breweries have gotten busy releasing new beers. Allow me to ramble about three of them.

The big early summer release is 21st Amendment’s Watermelon Funk, a riff on their popular Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. With kettle souring being all the rage these days, it seems inevitable 21st Amendment would take this direction with their popular summer seasonal. During a lively release party full featuring 70’s and 80’s funk music and roller-disco dancers, Master Brewer Shaun O’Sullivan took the mike and told the crowd the story about barrel-aging a batch of Watermelon Wheat for a year to transform it into a barrel-aged sour ale to pour at the Toronado ten years ago.  Of course, the only way any self-respecting beer hipster at the Toronado would ever be caught dead with a pint of Watermelon Wheat in his hand would be a barrel-aged sour version of it. (O’Sullivan left that part out.) Anyway, Watermelon Funk has got a lot going on with the lactobacillus and Saison yeast creating a tangy, aromatic and musty flavor that threaten to overwhelm the watermelon, but don’t quite. This funkified version is distinctly more complex and heavier, and 6.7% abv, more potent. I’ve long been a fan of Watermelon Wheat with its refreshing light simplicity with a watermelon twist, and indeed, Watermelon Funk takes the base beer to an impressive new level. But with so much added in, a certain refreshing simplicity has been lost.

Headlands Brewing photo

Next up, Wolfpack Ridge IPA for Headlands Brewing. It’s been awhile since Headlands added any beers to their small line-up, and this one was worth the wait.  Some of my favorite beers are one’s that defy description and this is one of those.  I honestly don’t have the slightest idea how to break it down into flavor components. There’s a little soft spiciness from the rye blending with hops creating this savory herbal character with some light pine.  The hops are prominent but not overwhelming and I’m getting some apricot.  I liked this very much…how’s that for a brilliantly insightful review? Maybe I’ll just quote the press release from Headlands, where Brewmaster Phil Cutti says “It’s a nod towards the West Coast IPA bitterness, but the focus is on the late addition hops for flavor and aroma. The all malt grain bill is layered but light in body; achieving a nice balance point for the hops.” Does that make it clear?

Winning Saison
Winning Saison at the Strike Tap Room

Finally, we get to Winning Saison from Strike Brewing. This is not your father’s Saison. It’s not your mother’s Saison, nor your brother or sister’s Saison either. In fact, the beer-style police would probably say it’s not a Saison at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not really tasty. It’s the first beer from Strike Brewing’s Limited Edition Collaboration Series.  Strike teamed with Marin Brewing to create a pretty unique beer that really defies any standard style characterization. Sure, they start with a typical Saison malt-bill with Belgian yeast, and then add a bunch of late addition Citra and Amarillo hops. To further amp up the fruitiness, the condition the brew one orange zest once the fermentation is complete. It’s a pretty big beer at 7.5% abv and stone and citrus fruits dominate. Despite all that, the brew doesn’t taste cluttered or overdone. I appreciate it when brewers take risks like the ones taken in this beer, and appreciate it even more when those risks pay off.  A “winning” Saison.



Strike Brewing Adds Another Brewer

ben spencer photo
Strike’s Newest Brewer Ben Spencer  (Strike photo)

Today Strike Brewing  announced veteran brewer Ben Spencer joined their company as Director of Brewing Operations & Brewmaster.

As detailed in a press release, Spence was previously the Head Brewer at Magnolia Brewing in San Francisco for 11 years and prior to that a Production Brewer at Colorado-based Rockies Brewing Company  (now known as Boulder Beer) & Oskar Blues.  Ben brings over 20 years experience in not only brewing but facility management as well. Ben is an award-winning brewer, holding three medals from the Great American Beer Festival (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze).

“Now wait a minute,” you might be asking, “Isn’t Strike co-founder Drew Erhlich the Brewmaster at Strike? Well, at least I was wondering how that was going to work out and so I e-mailed Strike CEO Jenny Lewis, who quickly responded.   “Drew was actually instrumental in bringing him in,” she explained.  “They will both carry the title of Brewmaster and work closely together in creating new recipes and help fuel our growth.  We are super excited!”

It’s hard to beat a pedigree that includes Magnolia, Boulder Beer, and Oskar Blues and those breweries clearly mesh with what Strike has accomplished so far, so it looks like a good fit. So yeah, I’m pretty super excited about Ben and Drew’s upcoming collaborations too!

The Session #87 : Modern History in the Making at Silicon Valley’s Hermitage Brewing

I’m going to start with an editorial comment for this month’s Session, which comes across as a home work assignment from Rueben Gray, who asks us to write about local brewing history, where any brewery within an eight hour drive home is fair game.  What bothers me is his other stipulation:

“The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don’t pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There’s not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years.”

I appreciate our host’s desire to exclude breweries that, in his opinion, have little established history as well as what seems to be good intentions to nudge us out of our comfort zones. Generally, I would not consider a 2-3 year brewery “historic” either but don’t agree with the arbitrary time cut-off.  Would anyone seriously suggest the September 11th Terrorist Attacks, the “Arab Spring”, or the emergence of the Internet as global communication medium are not events worthy for a discussion of world history simply because they occurred less than twenty years ago?

I’ll point out that here in Northern California, this twenty year cut-off means breweries clearly influential to the history and trajectory of craft beer both in Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States like Bear Republic, Russian River Brewing, and 21st Amendment are effectively deemed “not historical enough” and excluded from the discussion.  In addition, Stone Brewing and Dogfish Head, both integral to craft brewing’s short history are also excluded, as they were founded in 1996 and 1995, respectively   In their place are plenty of brewpubs and regional breweries that have made fine beer and done enough things right to hang around for 20 years.   But with all due respect, many of these brewery’s histories are rather ordinary, and no more remarkable than the story of some hot shot homebrewer deciding to turn pro and starting a brewery within the last couple years.  Age does not necessarily correlate to historical relevance.

Some of the equipment inside San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing

I’m a firm believer about going into the distant past to understand the present and future, but also believe more is learned from the extraordinary rather than ordinary. What makes brewing’s present so unique and exciting in beer’s 6,000 year history is the beverage continues to redefine itself. Arguably beer is being transformed more than in any time during its history, bringing fascinating economic forces into play, as small breweries challenge larger, more established breweries, which are using economies of scale to consolidate  remain profitable.

So I’ve figured work-around for this month’s Session. I’m going to talk about San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing, founded in 2009, which was established by Tied House Brewing.   Tied House was one of the earliest breweries in the Bay Area, founded in 1988 by Lou Jemison and Ron Manabe in Mountain View, CA.  For years, they brewed a number of fine beers and opened up a second location about 20 miles east in downtown San Jose, CA.  Unfortunately, the last United State recession hit the San Jose location hard and it closed down in May 2009.

Another view inside Hermitage

That’s when the fun at Hermitage began.  Tied House moved the brewing equipment from their failed San Jose location into a dusty, gritty industrial park south of downtown San Jose and established Hermitage Brewing.  Hermitage brews beer for Tied House brewpub as well as their own line of beers for packaged retail sale.    In one of their early experiments, Hermitage brewed a single hop IPA using Columbus hops.  It didn’t sell very well.  Then they tried an IPA using just Amarillo hops.  Again, it sold poorly.  Undaunted, Hermitage tried again with an IPA brewed with nothing but Citra hops.   The third time proved to be a charm as it became a big hit and Citra Hop IPA is now a fixture in Hermitage’s year ’round line-up.

Many breweries brew a single hop IPA.  Due to their success with Citra Hop IPA, Hermitage is perhaps the only brewery to a have a regular series of single hop IPA releases.  It’s an innovative series where hops typically used for bittering, such as Magnum are brewed into an IPA.  Or sometimes, Hermitage uses a hop grown at only a couple farms in the entire world, like El Dorado.  Despite sounding like an ongoing experiment only a home brewing geek could love, their single hop IPA series has become a popular line of beers for Hermitage.  

But it’s not their fine beers which makes Hermitage notable.  It’s Hermitage’s thriving contract brewing business.  Only about 15% of Hermitage’s capacity is devoted to their own beers.   It sells as much as the remaining capacity it can to several small, newly formed breweries that cannot afford the substantial capital investments to bring their beers to fruition.  I count at least nine Northern California breweries that quietly call Hermitage their home.  Most of these breweries are not known to the general drinking public, and these breweries often claim a Bay Area locality other than San Jose.  I don’t want to betray any confidences by naming them all here, but I’d like to briefly mention two.

The first is San Francisco’s Almanac Beer, founded only three years ago by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagen.  Almanac Brewing sells their beer is rustic looking bottles touting a “Farm to Bottle” ethic.   Almanac highlights so many heirloom organic ingredients and slow barrel aging, you’d think their beers were brewed in some barn in Sonoma County.  I find it rather ironic that most of their beer is instead brewed in an urban industrial park.  Since there’s always a big stack of boxes of Almanac Beer sitting around the Hermitage tap room for everyone to see, I have to think this is no longer a big secret.

Then there’s Strike Brewing, which has brewed their beer at Hermitage for all 2 1/2 years of their existence. That’s about to change as Strike is about to open their own brewery, about a half mile away from Hermitage’s Brewery.  With Hermitage’s tap room and Strike’s soon to be completed tap room within a ten minute walk, it’s enough to speculate as to whether San Jose, long considered a barren wasteland in the San Francisco Bay Area brewing scene, could possibly transform into a beer destination. 

With so many brewers coming and going at Hermitage, it’s become a brewing incubator for small, up and coming Bay Area breweries.  It’s not uncommon to find brewers from supposed “rival” companies chatting away over a pint, bouncing off ideas and sharing experiences within the chummy brewing fraternity.  It’s not unlike the Silicon Valley start-up community, where smart young entrepreneurs swap ideas and established CEO’s somehow find the time to mentor them.   

What’s happening at Hermitage reflects the culture of Silicon Valley that’s created long time tech business stalwarts Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, and Intel, as well as a few other companies formed in the last twenty years you may have heard about, like Google, eBay, and Facebook.  That’s why Hermitage is making Silicon Valley brewing history. 

Most of the beer aging in these barrels belongs to a
brewery other than Hermitage

Is the South Bay Beer Scene Shedding its Inferiority Complex?

Maybe the South Bay is no longer the beer desert it once was

One event I made sure to attend during SF Beer Week was the Hermitage Brewing Beer Dinner at Scott’s Seafood in Mountain View. When I finished the dinner, pushing aside my dessert plate I sat there struggling to figure out just what I should write about it.  Writing about beer dinners seems like an almost pointless task to me.  I just sort of wing it when it comes to food criticism and since few, if any of my readers attended, and the dinner was over, never to be repeated.  The food was good, the Hermitage Beer was definitely good, and my wife and I enjoyed it.  What more is there to say?

Hermitage’s Ale of the 2 Tun Imperial Stout and
Scott’s Seafood’s Molten Lava Cake 

That didn’t stop me from thinking.  Clearly San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing, the featured brewery of the night is putting out plenty of strong beers on the strong side of the ale spectrum after only three years in existence.  The smooth, malty complexity of their Maltopia, the bright tropical flavors of their single hop  Galaxy IPA, and their dry, bitter chocolate bomb of 2 Tun Imperial Stout are as good as any beers you’ll find from the Bay Area.

And Hermitage isn’t the only notable brewery to emerge from the South Bay recently.  While Hermitage strives to make the big beers, Strike Brewing, barely over a year old has gone in the opposite direction with their excellent Session Series.   And of course, in recent years, Steve Donohue won no less than four GABF medals at Sunnyvale’s Firehouse Brewing before leaving late last year to start his own brewery, Santa Clara Valley Brewing which hopefully will come on line before the end of the year. 

With these South Bay breweries come a number of great new venues to enjoy craft beer.  There are gastropubs Liquid Bread in Campbell and Original Gravity in Downtown San Jose, both less than a year old.  In the last three years, California Cafe at both its Palo Alto and Los Gatos locations has established their brewmaster’s dinner series, featuring inspired pairings of food with beer from some of of the finest breweries in California.  Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose, an old school German buffet restaurant is an unlikely place to find a great tap selection and it has been hosting a number special events devoted to craft breweries, a development that’s started there about a year ago.  The Yardhouse the opened a couple years ago in San Jose’s swanky Santana Row Mall, and yes, it’s slick and corporate, but you can get some mighty fine beer there.  And we even have an honest to goodness independent bottle shop now with Jane’s Beer Store in Downtown Mountain that opened last summer.  There’s probably some new place I’m forgetting.

The South Bay has long been consider a weak sister to the nearby craft brewing epicenters of San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and the East Bay, but has anyone noticed this recent acceleration of craft beer culture in the South Bay? 

Well maybe. Five years ago, the  general buzz amidst beer geekdom was “The South Bay Beer Scene sucks”.  None other than the late Bay Area beer writer Bill Brand regretfully declared the South Bay “a beer desert” shortly before he passed away.    Then a couple years ago, you could find grudging admissions that a couple of good beers could be found down here. 

And today?  Maybe it’s just me but you hardly hear anyone complaining about the beer scene in the South Bay anymore. Instead, people are just enjoying it.  Isn’t that the way it should be?

Sausage Fest Run this Sunday at Los Gatos County Park with Strike Brewing

Get ready for the SausageFest 5k this Sunday, which bills itself as “a race for the Men!!” but women are welcome, too. The race starts at 9am at Los Gatos Creek County Park at 1250 Dell Avenue in Campbell.  This Fun Run event benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the post race festival will  include sausage and beer from Strike Brewing. Each participant will receive a tech t-shirt.

As Strike Brewing’s CEO Jenny Lewis exclaimed, “I think it’s a great concept and a great cause – a race for men, benefitting LLS, and there’s beer at the end.  What else could make you want to get up on a Sunday morning and run a 5K?”

To regisister for the SausageFest 5k, follow this link.