The Session #132: A rambling home brew conversation

For the 132nd edition of The Session, Jon Arbernathy  over at The Brew Site wants us to start a home brewing conversation. OK, let me ramble a bit about home brewing.

Home brewing is a lot like golf. Most people who home brew a lot are either people with plenty of free time like 20-somethings and retirees, or else they’re really hard-core enthusiasts of all ages. I’m neither. I’m the duffer who pulls out his bag of golf clubs buried deeply back in the closet once or twice a year. I’ve put together my own little 2-gallon system so I could brew all-grain recipes in my kitchen, so while pulling out the various stock pots and gadgets out of my garage, I’m usually asking myself “How does all this work, again?”.

kitchen homebrew
Brewing a 2-gallon batch in my kitchen

I strongly believe if you’re going to write knowledgeably about beer, you have to brew at least a little. I’ve had a lot of great conversations with brewers and there’s no way I could appreciate their insights without the understanding and experience of actually brewing myself. Of course, I shamelessly steal these brewer’s secrets and use them for my next brew. Brewing also helps me appreciate the beer in my glass. Hazy IPAs with a bunch of crud floating around in the beer that muddies the taste may taste juicy and have low bitterness, but I know you can brew juicy, low bitterness IPAs using late hop additions without using hazy flotsam, because I’ve brewed juicy, non-hazy IPAs myself.

In my opinion, trying to become a mini-brewery kills all the fun of home brewing.  I once talked to a brewer who encouraged me establish metrics to refine my process. I just smiled and nodded as he gave his well meaning advice, which I totally ignored. I spend all day at work gathering metrics to refine processes. That’s the last thing I want to do when I’m at home doing a hobby. I’m not particularly interested in clone brews, either. Sure, it might be interesting to see if I could make a brew that tasted like Racer 5 or Black Butte Porter. But of course, whatever I brewed would almost certainly taste worse and I don’t quite see the point of brewing a beer I could just pick up at the grocery store. A lot of the fun of home brewing is playing around and experimenting. I brew beers I’d like to drink that few, if any breweries have in their regular line-up.  It might be Stouts with molasses and spices, Red Ales with late hop additions, Brown Ales with maple syrup,  or single hop Belgian IPAs.

All the cleaning and sterilizing required for a good home brew nearly takes all the fun out of it. ‘Nuff said.

Any idiot can brew a great beer once, it’s damn difficult to brew the same recipe repeatedly and get the exact same result each time.  I’ve had some dumb luck on home brew afternoons where I went around yelling “Oh, shit!” every 15 minutes or so as some kettle nearly boiled over or some other mini-catastrophe unfolded and yet the final product was pretty damn good. I’ve had other brewing afternoons where I thought “I’m nailing this” only to produce a lack luster product. Now of course, I could heed the advice of that helpful brewer and “refine my process” and brew more consistently, but that would take the suspense out of the whole thing. That said, brewing beer makes me appreciate the difficult job professional brewers have in achieving batch to batch consistency, where a lack of control over the tiniest thing could send a beer right off the rails.

I love all my home brews, even when they suck.  Perhaps because I only brew once or twice a year, when I brew beer, it’s something special. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but I always learn something. My latest home brew, which I made January 1st to start off 2018 was a bit of an historical experiment. I decided to make a California Common with a simple grain bill of two-row and some 40L malt, brown sugar, Northern Brewer hops, and California Lager yeast. To replicate how Steam Beer was reportedly brewed on the roofs of San Francisco buildings in the late 1800’s, I kept the two 1-gallon fermentation jugs in my garage where the temperature fluctuated between 40-65 degrees F over the course of each Northern California winter day. I was curious how these temperature fluctuations would affect the flavor profile as yeasts did their thing, just as those Steam Beers must have exposed to similar conditions way back when. Did the Steam Beers of yesteryear posses some wonderful complexity, a delightful atmospheric terroir? Unfortunately all I got was a murky muddled brew with a slight sour taste, suggesting an infection.  Given the rustic frontier reputation of those early Steam Beers, I suspect my attempt at historical recreation was all too successful. And you know what, bad beer and all, creating an underwhelming Steam beer was still a journey worth taking.

Cali Common Homebrew
My California Common home brew in all its glory

The Session #131: EMERGENCY 1-2-3!

The Beer Blogging Session lives on, thanks to Jay Brooks! In an emergency last minute Session post, Jay asks us three questions about our beer preferences. I’ll jump right in.

“…what one word, or phrase, do you think should be used to describe beer that you’d like to drink. Craft beer seems to be the most agreed upon currently used term, but many people think it’s losing its usefulness or accuracy in describing it. What should we call it, do you think?”

Oh dear, could this be a reprise of the dreaded “What is craft” question? Recently, it’s morphed into “Maybe craft beer lost its meaning, so should we call it indie?” question. I’m not going into that toxonometric morass. Most beer I like is from small breweries dotted about the San Francisco Bay Area. I also like plenty of beers from independently owned national brands like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes, not to mention others from other breweries with corporate ownership like 10 Barrel, Boulevard Brewing, Saint Archer and Lagunitas. And there are even those rare moments when a nice cold Budweiser is perfect.

I like beer, dammit. Next question.

“…what two breweries do you think are very underrated? Name any two places that don’t get much attention but are quietly brewing great beer day in and day out. And not just one shining example, but everything they brew should be spot on. And ideally, they have a great tap room, good food, or other stellar amenities of some kind. But for whatever reason, they’ve been mostly overlooked. Maybe 2018 should be the year they hit it big. Who are they?”

I used to think Dust Bowl Brewing  was badly underrated, until their Public Enemy Baltic Porter won Gold at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. They’ve quietly worked their way into the San Francisco Bay Area from their base in the sleepy Central Valley farm town of Turlock, CA. After a couple trips to their Turlock brewpub, I knew they were pretty special, starting from their excellent flagship IPA, Hops of Wrath. From Lagers to Porters to their various hop-bombs, they just do everything really well.

Then there is Kobold Brewing in Redmond, OR which I discovered over the past Labor Day weekend. I was out with friends on a day the air was choked with soot from nearby forest fires. We were just holed up in the store front tap room, drinking beer and eating tacos from a food truck out back, wondering what we were going to do for the rest of the day when simply walking outside was hazardous to your health. Thankfully, we just enjoyed one spot on beer after another. When people talk about go-to breweries in Central Oregon, Kobold Brewing, which is short 20 minute drive north of Bend, rarely makes it into the discussion. That needs to be corrected.

Final question:

“For our third question of the new year, name three kinds of beer you’d like to see more of….What three types of beer do you think deserve more attention or at least should be more available for you to enjoy? They can be anything except IPAs, or the other extreme beers. I mean, they could be, I suppose, but I’m hoping for beers that we don’t hear much about or that fewer and fewer breweries are making. What styles should return, re-emerge or be resurrected in 2018?”

When the Gose re-emerged a few years ago, they were wonderful studies of yin-yang balance between salt and sour. As brewers tend to do, they started playing around with the style and added various fruit additions to their Gose offerings, which for a while was interesting. Unfortunately, what started happening is the sour and salt got dialed down to better accommodate the fruit, and way too many beers called “Gose” were not really Goses, but uninteresting fruity wheat beers with barely any of the salt and sour character that makes the Gose so interesting. So one beer I’d like to see more of are Gose beers which are, like you know, actually a Gose.

Secondly, I’d like to see more Milds, or at least malt-driven session beers.

Finally, Scotch Ales are few and far between but ones are out there are usually dynamite. More Scotch Ales, please.

Long live The Session!




The Session #130: It’s my beer festival and I can make up crazy rules for it if I want to

The Session #122: Imported HazardsThis month’s Beer Blogging Session, Bryan Yaeger asks us to create our own beerfest. (What’s a Beer Blogging Session you ask?  Find out here.)  I must admit I don’t go to beer festivals as much as I used to. I might go to one or two a year these days.  Back around 2010, I probably peaked out at around five annually. With the growing pervasiveness of growing beer selections in every nook and cranny of society, there’s less of a need to seek out beers and breweries at beer festivals as the become more accessible. But I still think beer festivals play a crucial role of bringing breweries and people together, so in that spirit, here’s the low-down and how I would set up my beer festival in the spirit of bringing together two tribes that don’t talk with each other all that much. Whether or not this festival would be logistically possible or even if anyone actually would actually want to attend it are minor details I won’t trifle with.

The Location: We’d host it in my hometown at Campbell Park,  in my hometown of Campbell, which sits on the west border of San Jose, CA. In addition to hosting the festival in this small outdoor setting, the park is within short walking distance to public transportation.

The Breweries: Without further ado, here’s the brewery list, organized into three categories.

Local independents: Strike Brewing (San Jose), Santa Clara Valley Brewing (San Jose), Hermitage Brewing (San Jose), Clandestine Brewing (San Jose), Freewheel Brewing (Redwood City, CA), Fieldwork (Berkeley, CA), Discretion Brewing (Soquel, CA), Sante Adairius (Capitola, CA), Brewery Twenty Five (San Juan Bautista, CA), El Toro (Morgan Hill, CA), Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (Santa Cruz, CA), Crux Fermantation Project (Bend, OR), Hopworks Urban Project (Portland, OR), Cleophus Quealy (San Leandro, CA), Headlands Brewing (Marin. CA), Dust Bowl Brewing (Turlock, CA), Anderson Valley Brewing (Boonville, CA), Calicraft (Walnut Creek, CA), Cellar Maker (San Francisco)

So-called crafty breweries: Boulevard Brewing (Kansas City), 10 Barrel Brewing (Bend, OR), Lagunitas (Petaluma, CA). Anchor Brewing (San Francisco), Saint Archer (San Diego)

Overseas breweries: Brasserie de Rochefort (Belgium), Samuel Smiths (UK)

There is a method to this madness. The first group are hometown favorites, or otherwise small breweries I have a personal affinity for that do great stuff that I want everyone to try.  The next group are breweries I also like, but aren’t considered independent by the Brewers Association.  Brasserie de Rochefort and Samuel Smiths are there because they’re great breweries giving the festival an international flair.

It all adds up to 26 breweries. I think that’s a good number for a beer festival.

Attendees: OK, here’s where it starts to get a little weird. I’m limiting the attendees to 500 people.  In addition, these 500 are split into two groups of 250 people: Hard core beer-geeks and people with a passing interest in beer. (People self identify themselves into either group.)  Each group wears different colored wrist-bands to identify themselves.

Activities: Also attendees are required to have two 3-minute conversations about the last beer they had with a member in the opposite category before they can have another pour.  Each conversation has to be with someone different.  Yes, I do want hard-core beer geeks to understand how the other 99% of the population view beer, and expose those with a passing interest in beer that there’s a whole great big  beery world out there.

In addition, all attendees are required to drink two beers from the “so-called crafty” breweries. That means any hard-core beer geeks pontificating about why independence matters and why the brewers at, say 10 Barrel are evil sell-outs to those with a just passing interest in beer will mostly likely get confused stares and inconvenient questions. Those with a passing interest in beer will learn there’s a lot more to beer than just what’s in the glass. Hopefully, those in both groups will learn a little more about what matters, and what might not matter as much as they think it matters, in beer.

Internet jamming: In the spirit of having people talk with people around them instead of having their heads glued to their phones, the festival will employ a fancy electronic device that will jam internet communications.  This device will be turned off for five minutes on the hour for quick internet breaks, because as much as I decry it, I’m a slave to the internet as much as anyone else is.

Food: For me, food at a beer festival serves to clear the palate, sop up some alcohol in the my belly, and keep me from going hungry.  So there will be plenty of light crackers, cheeses and healthy vegetable options.  Food trucks are welcome, but I’ll mention when my taste buds are reeling after tasting five IPA’s, a barbecue sandwich or spicy taco pretty much kills whatever sense of taste I have left.

Pour size: This seems to be a slightly controversial point. No I don’t think 2 ounces of a beers is enough to fully appreciate it. Yes, it often takes a pint or two fully appreciate a beer. But given the goal of everyone trying a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and talking to other people about it, this festival serves 4 ounce pours so people can do that without falling down drunk half-way through.

Booth personnel: As much as I appreciate all the hard working volunteers at beer festivals, they’re usually at a loss to say much about whatever beer they’ve been assigned to pour. That’s why each booth must have at least one brewery representative who can speak knowledgeably about the beers they pour.

Yes, this festival would take me and a lot of other people out of their comfort zones, and being taking out of one’s comfort zone is often the opposite of what people look for in a beer festival. I get that forcing people to talk to with one another comes across as some sort of high school orientation exercise or some dreaded corporate “team building” activity. That said, when it was over, I think I would take away a lot from the festival and I believe others would, too.  Of course, there’s no way to actually prove this, because I can’t imagine in anyone’s wildest dreams this beer festival ever happening.

The Session #128 : Why Royal Liquors is one of the best damn bottle shops around

Jack Perdue asking us to weigh in our opinions on bottle shops for this month’s Beer Blogger Session, a good opportunity to give a shout out to my neighborhood bottle shop, Royal Liquors in San Jose, CA.  It may not have a big time reputation as other places in the San Francisco Bay Area and since it’s just a couple miles from my home, you could say I’m a little biased. It’s still one of the best damn bottle shops around, so let me tell you why.

Local ownership

OK, we’ve already gone through the “what’s makes it local” conundrum with breweries, so this potentially opens up another can of worms. Suffice to say, huge big box beverage stores like BevMo are driven by a lot of corporate interests and mass market forces. Smaller bottle shops driven by more local and niche’ preferences tend to have a more eclectic wide ranging selections, which is on full display at Royal Liquors,

Good selection of local, national and imported beers

Walk into Royal Liquors and you’ll find plenty of beers from top breweries all over the country as well as a lot of small breweries only a short drive away with a small distribution footprint. You’ll also find plenty of strong imports. A good mix of beers from both near and far is a sign of a good bottle shop.

Reasonable prices

If I shopped on price alone, I would never set foot in Royal Liquors. They can’t compete solely on price with grocery stores and big box liquor stores selling in much higher volume. That said, pricing at Royal Liquors is typically only a dollar more per six-pack and they always have something good on sale. I don’t mind paying a little extra at places like Royal Liquors to keep them in business. I’ve been to more than a few bottle shops with excellent selections, but with pricing that is just way out of bounds. I usually don’t go back.

Organized, well maintained inventory

A few well regarded bottle shops keep their beer stocked in a manner that could be charitably described as “semi-random”. This may seem charming, but suggests a certainly carelessness with merchandise and does not entirely respect the customer who is left to sift through disorder on the shelves. And sorry, I’m just not going to plunk down ten bucks on some IPA if there’s plenty of dust on the bottle because its been on sitting shelf, unrefridgerated for who knows how long.

I am not a patient man, so greatly appreciate it when the beer is laid out so I can find what I’m looking for with a minimum of effort. Royal Liquors organizes things for me and at least 80% of their inventory is kept refrigerated, so I’m confident whatever I spend my hard earned money on, it’s pretty fresh.

Specials for those “in the know”

There’s a lot of good stuff at Royal Liquors, some of it kept “hidden” in the back. Just ask the guy at the counter if you can go to the back and he’ll say “Sure”. I call this place the “inner sanctum” and you can to find some prize bottles there with a few other selections on sale. I hear you can sometimes find Pliny the Elder back there if you’re lucky.

Royal Liquors Inner Sanctum
The inner sanctum at Royal Liquors

Decent wine selection

In moments of weakness, I will drink wine.

Enthusiastic staff open to everyone’s opinion

There’s fine line between being knowledgeable and being a know-it-all beer snob. While the staff at Royal Liquors know a great deal about beer and are eager to tel you about the beers they like, they seem far more interested in learning from their customers than telling you what to drink. I suspect if I ever walked in and asked “Where can I find Natural Light?” they would kindly guide me over to the right spot in the cooler with the same demeanor as if I asked for Rochefort Trappistes 10 . If I ask for something from a new brewery they’ve never heard of it, they write it down with solemn urgency and look out for it. There’s a decent chance you’ll see it on the shelves next time.

And that my friends, is why Royal Liquors is one of the best damn bottle shops there is.

Royal Liquors Team
The fine folks at Royal Liquors. (This and the cover photo was swiped from their social media.)


The Session #67 Prediction Contest: Declaring the Winners

Five years ago I hosted The Beer Blogger Session  and held a prediction contest to see who could best pick the number of breweries would exist in the United States in September 2017.  Well, it’s September 2017 so the time has come to declare Brian Yaeger  and David Bascombe the winners fortheir predictions that over 5,000 breweries would be in operation in the United States at present day. Yaeger predicted 5,001 breweries and Bascombe predicted “over 5,000” and while I haven’t checked the latest numbers from the Brewers Association, well over 5,000 breweries are in operation in the United States and the next closest prediction was 4,252.  So they both win going away.

For the reward, I promised to buy the winners a beer. Brian Yaeger now lives in Santa Barbara and I’ll be sending him two beers from my hometown of San Jose from two breweries that didn’t exist when he made his winning prediction: New Almaden Imperial Red Ale from Santa Clara Valley Brewing  and Lumber Buster Brown from Strike Brewing. Both Strike and Santa Clara Valley Brewing started up in 2013. Judging from his blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, David Bascombe’s interest in beer has waned somewhat in the past five years and sending him beer to the United Kingdom seems a bit fraught with logistical difficulties.  But if he’s ever in the San Francisco Bay Area or if I ever make it to the UK, I’ll be happy to buy him a pint or two.

Looking back on all the predictions, it’s surprising to read a whole bunch of tepid growth predictions from a bunch people otherwise pretty enthusiastic about the future of beer. I was certainly guilty of that as back then, I had plenty of concerns about whether all the growth of new breweries was sustainable. But if you ask me today how many breweries will exist in the United States five years from now in 2022, I’d confidently predict a number well over 8,000, maybe even 10,000 simply because there now seems plenty of room for small breweries.

What I think has happened over the past five years is that the concept of “brewery” has changed from a factory involved in the mass production of beers to more of a restaurant or tavern brewing their own beers on site. Most of the new breweries in America are fairly small 500-5,000 barrel per year operation which a beer market of over 100 million barrels can easily absorb.

And laugh all you want at the 2012 contest predictions of only two or one breweries existing in 2017, these somewhat tongue-in-cheek predictions anticipated the wave of major corporate breweries acquiring smaller local “craft” breweries. As more and more breweries enter the market, the forces corporate consolidation produce their own pressures in the industry.

But enough about that, let’s congratulate the Brian Yaeger and David Blascombe for the most clear headed crystal ball gazing five years ago.

Update (9/19/2017): After posting this, I’ve learned David Bascombe currently lives in Arizona so I will mail him the same beers as well.


Beers to BY



The Session #127: Oktoberfest

For this month’s Beer Blogging Session, Alistair Reese is encouraging everyone to celebrate Oktoberfest in their corner of the Internet. Since I don’t have any lederhosen  or play in an Oompa Band, I’m just going to have to simply share a few thoughts about the beer.

Beer historians have noted the amber lager Oktoberfest is intertwined with the similarly hued Vienna Lager and Marzen styles. Of course, a Vienna Lager in the form of Sam Adams Boston Lager played a big role in America’s craft beer revolution in the 80’s and 90’s. Yet, the amber lager is pretty passe these days with Barrel-aging, Imperial everythings, and beers full of floating crud (known as New England IPAs) dominating the mind share of the American brewing community. But back then, a lager with some actual flavor to it was a big deal and helped opened the door, along with some other beers, to the greater possibilities of American brewing.

This includes the much malligned Pumpkin beers, which start hitting the shelves big time as summer eases into fall. Oktoberfest beers are fewer and far between. A lot of that is because Oktoberfests are harder to brew than most beers. And let’s face it, with breweries chasing fads, amber lagers just aren’t very sexy. But they’ve never gone out of style in 200 years and on a warm September afternoon, a good Oktoberfest with its smooth lightly roasted malted goodness  is nearly perfect.


The Session #125: A Smashing Success?

This month’s Session has Mark Linder at By the Barrel asking us to give our take on SMaSH beers, SMaSH being the acronym for “single malt, single hop”. Can’t say I’ve had too many of these beers. The two or three I’ve had were nice but came across as interesting brewing experiments on the interplay of malt and hops rather than beers I’d drink on a regular basis.

I’ve long been a fan of San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing’s single-hop IPA series, which is a similar concept. The series is a great way to discover the characteristics different hops add to a brew and Hermitage often uses new and experimental hops in their series. While I enjoy sampling these beers and experiencing different hops in isolated form, most of the IPA’s in the series are a bit “one note”, underscoring the fact that the best IPA’s are brewed from a blend of hops to create a real depth of flavor.

Hermitage even brewed a single hop IPA using Magnum hops, normally a bittering hop, resulting in the flavor equivalent of listening to a symphony entirely composed of tubas. It was interesting, and I mean interesting in a good way. But while an entire symphony of tubas sounds pretty fascinating, but most people would tire of that after 15 minutes. Drinking the Magnum Single Hop IPA satisfied my curiosity but that’s about as far as I would take it.

Are two component SMaSH beers the equivalent of a symphony of tubas and trombones? Or maybe more like violins and cellos? Perhaps. Many enjoy stripped down sounds or experiments with simplified combinations so perhaps SMaSH beers will have a highly receptive audience. In the Bay Area, it’s a good bet we’ll start seeing SMaSH brews with the opening of the Admiral Maltings, an artisanal floor malting house which is set to open mid-summer.  I’m pretty enthusiastic about Bay Area brewers getting their hands on California grown malt playing around with it. As brewers learn how these new malts interact with hops, they’ll likely release SMaSH beers in the Bay Area, since there is a logic to starting with simplified SMaSH brews before moving on to more full blown, multi-dimensional efforts.

Will SMaSH beers emerge as a unique brewing art form, or are they destined to be nothing more than interesting brewing experiments? With more and more of them appearing in the marketplace, we shall soon find out.

Curtis Davenport of Admiral Maltings posing in front of the malt house steeping tanks