The Session #142: One Last Toast to The Session

It’s time. Jay and Stan have decided to wind down The Session.  What an amazing run it had since March 2, 2007. An awful lot has changed in the world of beer over that time, but I think more significantly for The Session, things like Twitter, Podcasts, and apps like Untapped which were either non-existent or in their infancy in 2007 have become major platforms for beer discussion. Blogs still have their place, but that place is becoming increasingly smaller. Frankly, the writing has been on the wall for The Session for a couple years before they finally pulled the plug.

I was an enthusiastic Session contributor in the early days, starting with the 28th Session. So many new and interesting things were happening about beer and it was fascinating reading all the different perspectives from bloggers who ranged from industry professionals to hard core homebrewers to people who just liked to write about beer in their spare time. In fact, ten years ago beer blogs were more interesting to read than a lot of what I found in traditional media, where there were too many articles by people who were either good at writing and knew little about beer, or knew a lot about beer but couldn’t write very well. (Beer writing has improved a lot since.) Blogs seemed to capture the pioneering spirit that pervaded craft beer at the time in a way conventional media couldn’t. Craft brewing was effortlessly enjoying 10-15% growth with new breweries joining the community every day. Beer was fun and The Session expressed the enthusiasm of those days.

But over time, The Session started to become more like a  homework assignment. Topics, just like the times beer found itself in, became increasingly complicated. And as far as craft beer in the United States is concerned, the party is definitely over. Growth in craft beer has significantly declined, new health concerns about moderate levels of alcohol have arisen, and it’s becoming clear brewing beer is a tough way to make a living.  Large corporations started getting into the act, and brewing is longer about welcoming the new kids, but being a business again. I recently decided to retire from beer blogging a couple months ago as part of an overall effort to reduce my alcohol intake and also because I found my interests drifting elsewhere. Blogging about beer became akin to writing for a stodgy trade magazine, instead of bearing witness to a historic cultural and economic revolution.

Stan has asked us to “Pick a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship”.  It’s a hard question. Like most things about beer, the answer is both personal and highly contextual. Is it the death of a life long friend or someone I never met? Is it a tough day, or one of the greatest days of my life?  Is it a holiday feast or late night take out? Am I drinking to remember, or to forget? To think about the question is to contemplate the endless possibilities of what beer is and can become. That’s why beer remains special.el sully

But Stan asked us to make a choice, so I will. I’ll toast the end of The Session with one of my favorite local go-to beers, El Sully Mexican Lager from 21st Amendment, as it epitomizes a lot of the changes in brewing over the life of The Session.  Who would have thought in 2007, when beer bloggers were all raging against Lagers, that Lagers would become a bit vogue in the world of craft beer? El Sully is sold retail in cans, a rarity for craft beer back in 2007 but pretty common now. 21st Amendment emerged as a major regional/national brand over the past ten years from its days as a San Francisco brewpub. Maybe just a good Lager seems the appropriate, low-key sort of way to toast the quiet ending to The Session.

The Session was a great ride reflecting a unique time in beer’s history. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the chance to experience it.

The Session #138: The Personality of Wooden Barrels

Almanac Beer co-founders Damian Fagan (l) and Jesse Friedman (r)

For this month’s Session, Jack Perdue at Deep Beer asks us to explore the relationship between wood and beer.

For this, I turn to a recent discussion I had with Jesse Friedman, one of the co-founders of Almanac Beer, a San Francisco Bay Area brewery that brews all kinds of beers, but are best known for their barrel-aged sour ales. As you might expect, Jesse knows a lot about the intersection of wood and beer.

I was there to research a story on Almanac for the upcoming issue of Edible East Bay (forgive the shameless plug) and found talking with him for over an hour at Almanac’s new brewery in Alameda, CA to be a clinic on sour ale brewing. Of the many insights he shared over that afternoon, one that stuck with me that most is how he described variations between the wooden barrels he uses.  As Friedman puts it:

“What we find with barrel-aging is that each barrel takes on its own personality.  Different barrels will have different biomes in them, yeast and bacteria inside..bugs we call them. Barrels will also have different physical characteristics, so this barrel lets in more oxygen while this other one lets in less oxygen and they take on their own personality so that’s where the blending process comes in for us.  Everything gets tasted individually and then we create blends from there and the blend is a really really important step of the sour beer process…..we taste and we blend to create the beer we’re trying to put together and that’s really important part of the barrel aging.”

Wooden barrels with different personalities? Not something you’d find with metal kegs.


(More shameless plugging: You can find the rest of the  story about Almanac Beer and how their new brewery in Alameda, CA will allow them to take their beer to new levels will be posted in a few days at Edible East Bay and this blog will have a link to it.)

almanac barrelhouse
Almanac Beer’s Almaden Brewery, Barrel House, and Tap Room

The Session #137: Where I try to figure out what happened to German Wheat Beers in Northern California

For this month’s Beer Blogging Session, Roger Mueller of Roger’s Beers…and Other Drinks asks us to write about German Wheat Beers in some way or another.  (Don’t know what the Beer Blogging Session is?  Then check out this.) I have to confess not knowing a lot about German Wheat Beers. The last time I was in Germany was in Munich in 2005, where I was travelling on business to the Laser Munich Trade Show, as the Germans are every bit as talented at building lasers as they are brewing beer. That was a couple years before I had any real appreciation for beer, German or otherwise.

I rarely drink German imports, but spent the last couple weeks sampling a limited selection of a few German Hefeweizens found in my local grocery store as “research” for this post. I found it interesting how each different brewery had their own small, but significant riff on the style. Other than that, I really don’t think I can say a lot about authentic German Wheat Beers. While ignorance on a subject is hardly a reason for a blogger not to write about it, I’m going to go in a slightly direction. Since plenty of Northern California brewers release Wheat Beers which they claim are brewed in the German-style, I can drink those Northern California variants and write about them.

SCVB HefeHefeweizens are hard to find around here, and sometimes are a bit underwhelming.  One I like is Alviso Mills Hefeweizen from San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Brewing (SCVB). On the can, SCVB states it’s brewed in the Bavarian-style. It’s got a tingly carbonation, a dry but substantial malt heft, a little wheat tang, and noticeable banana and clove esters to round out the flavor, hitting the usual Hefeweizen notes. Nice beer.

Of course, if I’m going to talk about German Wheat beers brewed in Northern California, Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen has to be in the conversation.  Gordon Biersch Brewmaster Dan Gordon studied brewing at the Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany, so you have to figure he knows a thing or two about German Wheat Beer. As for Gordon’s Hefeweizen, it’s got a light pillow-like mouthfeel with a noticeable tartness from the wheat. It’s medium dry and I found the spicy clove character dominant over the banana. One of those beers that is pretty refreshing if that’s all you’re looking for, but interesting enough if you want to pay closer attention.

Dan Gordon, the Gordon of Gordon Biersch

Briney Melon GoseLet’s move to the Gose style. When Northern California brewers discovered this style a few years ago, each had their delightful play on the yin-yang balance of salt and sourness, with each brewery offering up their interpretation of the style.  But after maybe six months of that, brewers around here grew impatient and couldn’t resist the temptation to “innovate”, breaking out the guava paste or the blood orange concentrate and dumping that in the brew.  The Goses in Northern California no longer became interesting studies of balance, but tired fruit-infused Wheat Beers. A notable exception, in my opinion, is Briny Melon Gose from Anderson Valley Brewing.  I like the deep, pucking sourness matched with a light funk, a little saltiness and coriander spice, with the melon adding depth and bringing everything together.

Finally, there’s North Coast Tart Cherry Berliner Wiesse. It’s more sweet than sour, with a fizzy carbonation and the cherries just take over everything. Frankly, it tastes like a sophisticated alcopop. I get that the Berline Wiesse is usually served with sweet syrup in its homeland and this is an attempt at replicating that. Maybe this beer is true to the way a Berliner Wiesse is served in its homeland. I just don’t think it worked particularly well.NC BW

After sampling these and many other German-style Wheat Beers in Northern California, I’m struck with how poorly the German styles have translated here compared to English-styles (Stouts, Pale Ales, and of course, IPAs). Northern California brewers also seem much more comfortable looking to Belgium for inspiration. German brewing, with it’s focus on tradition and strict technique, just doesn’t seem to fit with the more freewheeling Northern California culture. It’s our loss.



The Session #134: Scenes from My Beer Garden

For this months Beer Blogging Session, Tom Cizauskas at “Yours for Good Fermentables” asks us to ponder what is, isn’t, should be, or where is a beer garden.

I never realized my back patio could be considered a beer garden until reading Tom’s Session announcement. I’ve savored many a beer on this small island of concrete, wedged in between my back door and garage, surrounded by a pair of hibiscus bushes, a lemon tree, potted herbs and succulents, and a small garden of chard, tomato and zucchini plants. On warm days, which is pretty much the norm in Northern California, I’ll take 20-30 minutes out of my day to stop and quietly sip a beer out there. Sometimes my wife will join me and we’ll chat a bit. Other times it’s just me.

I may be back on the patio just enjoying the weekend. Other times, it’s a place to recover from a hard day at work. Whatever the reason, the greenery poking up from the ground in my concrete urban world is the place to contemplate, or escape, life’s drama, with beer as the catalyst.

I’ll leave you with a few images of the place.


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.