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.

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

The Session #123: Simply Cutting Through the Beer Noise

“It’s been my policy to view the Internet not as an “information highway,” but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.”

Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote those words way back in 1996 not long before he died. If he were alive today, he’d probably say the same thing. Plenty agree with Royko, both then and now. It’s with this perspective as I consider Josh Weikert’s question of “Is the Internet helping or hurting craft beer?”.  Josh wants us to keep it simple. I’ll try.

Dipsite all the noise, the Internet is clearly helping craft beer, or breweries and beer drinkers wouldn’t use it. Everyone has their reasons. Breweries talk about connecting with customers. Beer geek swap opinions and arrange beer trades in ways that would be virtually impossible without the Internet. I have no idea how I could fully understand, appreciate and write about beer without the Internet so I’m grateful for it’s existence. The Internet dramatically reduced the cost and increased the speed in communication, so there’s no way we could be as knowledgeable about beer, or anything else, without it.

The great thing about the Internet is it gives everyone a voice.  The bad thing about the Internet is that you can hear everyone’s voice. Which means unless you have an infinite amount of time to kill on the Internet, you better develop some good filters to extract the few nuggets of good information from all the noise out there.  And if you want to get heard, you want to impose that filter on yourself and make sure when you grab the Internet mic to talk to the world, you really have something good to say. Otherwise, you’ll just get filtered out. It becomes even more important to find your unique voice, because otherwise you’re just like millions of other ones out there.

I get a lot of great information from breweries that get this.  Other breweries don’t and deliver things like breathless announcements about expanding distribution into South Dakota or a steady drumbeat of Chicken Wing Specials at the brewpub. These breweries get closed from my social media feeds pretty darn quick. Jeff Alworth had some great ideas for breweries trying to find their voice in social media.

This may be obvious, but from the looks of things on the Internet these days, it bares repeating: If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to.

Is that simple enough?

 

 

 

The Session #122: Imported Hazards

For this month’s Session, Christopher Barnes at “I Think About Beer” asks American bloggers: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?”

Hmmmm….I’m not sure what to do with this question. There are plenty of imported beers that aren’t from Europe, and a decent number of imported beers from Europe really can’t be described as “traditional European”. And of course, we could be here all night just debating what the “craft beer market” is.

Anyway, let’s just say I like imported beers. Mexican food is better with Pacifico Classico. Ditto for Sapporo with sushi. Imported beers add that extra note to authenticate these cultural experiences. Unfortunately for beer importers, this often creates a rather limited market. Sapporo released their Premium Black Lager last fall in part to extend their reach in the United States beyond sushi bars, going so far as to tout their beer as “well suited for pairing with a variety of hearty and spicy dishes from around the world, including traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines.”  I learned about Sapporo Premium Black recently from a Sapporo representative pitching Sapporo Premium Black as an alternative to drinking Stout on St. Patrick’s day. Marketing a Japanese beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or to enjoy with Wienerschnitzel seems incredibly desperate. You’d think they’d have a lot more success saying “Sapporo tastes great with burgers” and leaving it there.

As he tends to do with all things these days, President Trump threatens to turn this whole imported beer thing upside down as he contemplates import tariffs. I would not want to be the Director of US Sales for say, a Chinese or Mexican brewery right now. It’s probably not easy being a European importer either.

As for traditional European imports it looks like our host wants us to talk about, they are a great avenue to learn beer’s long European history. I just wish they weren’t so damn expensive. Which underlies another problem with imports. Beer is relatively heavy and often sold in breakable glass bottles, neither of which make the product cost effective to ship long distances. Living in Northern California, I can find lots of great beers from local breweries at lower prices. Why buy imports?  

Well, I learned to really appreciate how America transformed English Ales once I started sampling a few English imports. Then again, I could also learn to appreciate English Ales by taking a short drive to Freewheel Brewing in Redwood City, CA which specializes in cask-conditioned English-style Ales. I’ve sampled imports from other European countries and think I understand how they taste in their homeland.  I use the word “think” because I often wonder how fresh the product is, travelling all that way and sitting on the shelf until the day I buy it. More than I few times I’ve been intrigued enough to consider buying an import, only to look closer, notice dust all over the bottle and move on. No point in spending a lot of money on what might be old stale beer.

Our Session host is an import beer manager at a speciality beer distributor. He has a hard job.

The Session #121: A Brief Ode to Bocks, Past and Present

This month’s Session, host by John Abernathy over at The Brew Site is on Bock styles, which seems appropriate for March when Bock beers had traditionally rolled out.

In fact, Bock is the very first beer style I became aware of back when I grew up in the small Ohio town of Bowling Green in the 70’s. When March rolled around, my dad would eagerly bring home a six-pack of Rolling Rock Bock, a departure his usual Rolling Rock’s flagship Lager. Except back then, it wasn’t called a Lager, it was just “beer”. One time I asked him “What’s Bock beer?” Dad went into this explanation about breweries traditionally cleaning their tanks in the spring and brewing Bock beer to celebrate the occasion. I suspect Rolling Rock Bock was basically the flagship Lager with the grain bill tweaked a bit and some caramel coloring added. That was Bock beer in America just before the brewing revolution started taking off in the 80’s.

A Vintage Rolling Rock Bock Neon Sign

Thirty years later, I discovered craft beer. One of my favorite spring seasonals was Anchor Brewing’s Bock.  Maybe I liked the deep roasted chocolate and caramel flavors, or maybe it reminded me of those simpler times in the 70’s, learning about the mysterious Rolling Rock Bock. Then, in 2014, Anchor decided it would no longer release their Bock each spring, instead focusing on the more popular IPA’s and Saisson styles. A year later after that announcement, I caught up with long-time Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter at a brewery event and we reminisced about Anchor Bock. I jokingly tried to talk him into bringing back the Bock. I got the distinct feeling Carpenter didn’t miss it all that much. At any rate, it was clear I shouldn’t get my hopes up that Anchor Bock was coming back.  And it hasn’t.

Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter

I guess Bock beers are pretty old school these days. In an era where “craft beer” and “IPA’s” are becoming synonymous the way “beer” and “light Lager” once was, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm from most breweries to brew Bocks. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite go-to beers is Blonde Bock from Gordon-Biersch, a brewery that’s been a long time rock in an ever changing beer landscape. Brewmaster Dan Gordon learned to brew at the Technical University in Munich in the 80’s and the brewery focuses solely on Germanic styles. Their Blonde Bock is one of those highly underrated beers, a light thirst-quenching brew with some character to it, with it’s bready, yeasty character with very faint citrus notes and a good dose of sweetness. No, this isn’t my father’s Bock Beer. But thankfully, it should be around for a good long time.

Stacks and stacks of Gordon-Biersch Blonde Bock, ready to ship

The Session #120 : Intersections with Brown Ales

For this month’s Session, Joe Tindall over at The Fatal Glass of Beer admits Brown Ale has a bit of an image problem. While the color brown often conveys comfort and relaxed earthiness, it also signals something worn, tired, and faded. There are also brown things that….well, you probably don’t want to think about while drinking beer. So it’s not too surprising that Brown Ales are some of the least sexy styles of beer. That’s too bad, since I like a good Brown and when I look back on my relationship with Brown Ales, they’ve been there along the way as I’ve made new discoveries in beer.

Such as the time back in my graduate school days at The Ohio State University in the early 90’s, roaming the aisles at the Big Bear grocery store, I spied bottles of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale high up on the beer shelf. Back then, my experience with any beer that wasn’t a straw yellow Lager was pretty much limited to Michelob Dark. I couldn’t help notice that one bottle of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale cost about as much as a six-pack of Bud and was imported from some historic looking brewery from the UK, so I figured it must be good. In that time of great exploration in my life, I picked up a bottle. Trying it later one night in my dorm room, I found it, well, different. It was not some secret ambrosia and with my palate molded by light Lagers, it took effort to finish. Later on, I’d take a bottle or two to poker games to look cool and sophisticated as my friends sucked down cans of Natty Light. I was a bit of twit back then, and probably only grudgingly shared my Nut Brown Ale with anyone who asked to try it. Another Samuel, Samuel Adams, started showing up on beer shelves, which had a distinct advantage over Samuel Smith in that it was significantly cheaper, very important in those days when instant ramen noodles with frozen vegetables was my usual dinner.

Fast forward twenty years and 2,000 miles westward. I’ve been living in and around San Jose, California for ten years. By then, I’d discovered discovered so many great breweries in Northern California, although most of them are concentrated around the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, or bucolic places like Mendocino County or Santa Rosa. San Jose and it’s Silicon Valley surroundings was considered a brewery backwater. Then one day, I discovered a new brewery in San Jose called Strike Brewing and one of their first beers was simply called “Brown”.  (They now call it “Lumberbuster Brown”).  Light, tight, and a little nutty, I found it to be a refreshing Brown from a brewery specializing in sessionable ales. Strike’s no-nonsense straightforward style was equally refreshing at that time in Northern California, full of big booming IPA’s and Imperial everythings. Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich was a minor baseball pitcher before co-founding Strike and his beers suggest he threw batters nothing but a steady diet of solid fastballs. Strike was one of the earliest entrants into San Jose’s small but growing brewing scene, a group of breweries which reflects Silicon Valley’s tradition of both innovation and laser-focus on process. Being a Silicon Valley techie, it is with pride that I can now enjoy hometown brews from Strike and plenty of other new local breweries.

Five years later, late last summer, I’m chatting which Calicraft’s Brewmaster Blaine Landberg in the back of his newly opened taproom. I’m interviewing him for an article in a local food magazine, and he’s eagerly handing me sample after sample of each of his beers, telling me all about them like they’re his kids. It was not wise to interview him on an empty stomach. He gets to Calicraft’s Oaktown Brown which at 6.7% abv, 70 ibu, which is not your traditional Brown Ale, and tastes far more balanced and composed than those numbers suggest. We both lament that Brown Ales are underappreciated. Landberg’s idea behind Oaktown Brown was to give the style the royal treatment, adding oak at fermentation and plenty of Cascade hops, creating a woody, vanilla, and slightly red wine character to the big roasty flavors. I don’t know how he keeps all those big flavors at the right volumes but he does it this complex brew I find myself sipping effortlessly.

One could derisively call Brown Ales the cockroaches of beer, continuing to persist despite commercially eradicative indifference. The thing about Brown Ales are, whether in traditional form, modern renditions, or contemporary reworkings, they have their passionate believers.

The Session #119: Dealing with Discomfort

For this month’s Session, Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer asks us to write about “discomfort beers”, beers that took us out of our comfort zone and “beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like or whether you just needed to adjust to.”

As a runner, I know a few things about discomfort. Runners purposely and willingly subject ourselves to all kinds of discomfort, and often have a good time doing it. Yes, runners are a little weird. Of course, it’s the mental and physical development created in adapting to discomfort which runners seek. In the same way, going outside of our beery comfort zones develops both the palate and the mind to appreciate beer’s full potential.

As for us brewing enthusiasts, we’re often going about, trying new beers from different breweries. That’s how we learn about beer, and it describes how I started my journey to discover beer ten years ago. I just started picking up six-packs from different breweries sitting there in the grocery store cooler, taking them home, and seeing if I liked them. Most of the time I did. I started venturing online to learn more about the different beers out there, creating this positive feedback loop, where I read what others were raving about and then confidently striding into bottle shops and bars seeking them out, repeating with increasing frequency.

Some beers took longer than others to get used to. I remember my first sips of Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, finding it to be completely unbearably bitter. It was like chewing on an old bicycle tire. Over time after sampling other hop driven beers, I cautiously came back to Racer 5. To my surprise, I liked it on the second go around, apparently developing a taste for IPAs.  Or perhaps I developed a taste for old bicycle tires.

One beer style I found discomforting early on were American Barleywines. The massive amount of sweet malt, supposedly balanced with lots of hops in the American style, tasted like a syrupy, chalky mess. As I’ve learned more about beer and expanded my palate, I’ve come back to try a few American Barleywines. They still taste like a syrupy chalky mess. I’m fine with Barleywines brewed in the English style. Somehow, American’s have taken a perfectly good style and made of mess of it with too many hops.

There are other styles I often find discomforting.  Like our Session host, I wasn’t a fan of my first Black IPA. Black IPA’s require a careful and delicate balance of aggressive flavors, and not every brewer can pull off. Some Black IPA’s are wonderful. A fair share of Black IPA’s can be diplomatically described as out of control monstrosities. Session IPA’s are sort of my anti-discomfort beer. I really liked the first few I tried, but now I’ve grown to sour a bit to the style. It’s really tricky to balance the high hop content with a whisper of malt, and I’m afraid a few Session IPA’s come across as little more than fizzy hop water.

Now if I were a beer industry professional, it would be my job to choke down these discomfort beers to do my best to appreciate the full scope of brewing. But beer is just my hobby. I see little point in forcing myself to appreciate beers I don’t particularly like and probably never will. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay to explore areas that might not seem to be the most fruitful for discovery.

Like the past summer, when I made a point of seeking out Lagers and Pilsners from various breweries. I’ve never been a big fan of these much maligned styles associated with big multi-national corporations. Now sitting around, drinking Lagers isn’t exactly my idea of discomfort.  But it was rather eye-opening discovering Lagers from small California brewers of subtle, satisfying depth in a thirst-quenching beverage. I also gained a new appreciation for Pilsners after sampling many examples of the style. To my surprise, some of my favorite California brewers whiffed on the Pilsner style, despite having a number of successful flavorful ales in their line-up. And wouldn’t you know, some Pilsners from mega corporations aren’t half bad. This summertime experiment went to show how just how challenging the Pilsner style is to brew.

I suppose if I were really hard-core about beer, I’d spend a summer drinking American Barleywines. Whether running, drinking beer, or anything else, how much discomfort you’re willing to embrace says a lot.

The Session #118: Who’s Coming to My Ultimate Fantasy Beer Dinner?

This month’s Session topic from Stan Hieronymus is a fiendishly clever idea to get us to think about how beer relates to our personal lives through the simple question:

If you could invite four people dead or live to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?

Which four people would I invite to spend the evening over a beer dinner? Well, I could invite four very talented, accomplished brewers, but a couple hours into a wonkish evening devoted to the fine details brewing techniques, I’d start looking at my watch. Talking endlessly into the night with a bunch of beer writers and historians would be an evening well spent, but I could think of better ways. The four people who I’d  want to spend the evening mean a lot to me in some way, and all undeniably understood the power of beer. So without further ado, let me roll out the guest and beer list for my ultimate fantasy beer dinner.

Mike Royko
(AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

1) Mike Royko, Writer (1932-1997)
Every morning growing up in suburban Chicago, I’d start my day reading Mike Royko’s column on page 2 of the newspaper. Sadly, writers like Royko no longer exist. His crusty, hard-boiled prose covered politics, sports, food, culture, music, and whatever else might be on his mind, an unthinkable breadth in today’s modern hyper-segmented media. Some of his best columns captured the hopeful futility of Cubs fans, and with all the retrospective Cubs lore surrounding their run to capture their first World Series in 108 years, surprisingly Royko has been left out of that conversation.

What few realize what that Royko was one of the earliest American crusaders for better beer. Writing for the Chicago Daily News in 1973, Royko declared “America’s beer tastes as if it were brewed through a horse”. Backing up his assertion, he organized what was quite possibly the first blind beer tasting competition in the United States between twenty-two National brands, imports, and a smattering of small Midwestern regional breweries that existed at the time. Despite taking a lot of heat for slamming America’s national breweries, the results supported Royko, as no national brewery finished in the top five. The winner was an imported West German Pilsner followed by England’s Bass Ale. The leading American beer was Point Special from Point Brewery, a small brewery in nearby Steven’s Point Wisconsin which you can still purchase today.

Royko never lived to see his beloved Cubs win the World Series and American brewing hadn’t yet shifted into overdrive when he passed away in 1997. I can only imagine what he’d think about Cubs finally winning the World Series or how America’s brewers have transformed beer. I suspect he might not a fan of uber-hoppy IPA’s and he’d have plenty of snarky and deadly accurate things to say about craft beer’s hipsters and pretentiousness. It’s too bad we’ll never get to read them.

The Beer: 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.  The antithesis of beers Royko railed against, yet old school enough to warrant his approval.

2) My wife
No one has shaped my appreciation for beer greater than my wife. People talk about their personal craft beer epiphany. My wife had a big hand in mine. We had only been dating a few months when we took a trek to California’s Mendocino County. I was already familiar with a few small breweries, but it wasn’t until we stopped at Anderson Valley Brewing and North Coast Brewing that I began to really appreciate the real possibilities and dimensions of beer. She also introduced me to some fine wines in Anderson Valley, but I don’t hold that against her.

Together we’ve shared and discussed the contents of so many 22 ounce bottles. She’s not only been a great reality check on my taste buds (“Are you tasting apricot?”), but picks up certain characters from a brews that I didn’t quite get the first time around. While we’ve had our share of passionate arguments over stuff other than beer, sharing a good beer is often the best way to diffuse our stresses at the end of a difficult day.

Of course, there’s a whole lot more to her than being my best drinking buddy. She helped me turn around my life ten years ago when it nearly went off the rails, restored a sense of family with my kids I lost with my first wife, still laughs at jokes I’ve told over a thousand times, and does an unbelievable job of putting up with my crap. I love her.

The Beer: Her favorite beers are Belgian Ales and IPA’s, so a good Belgian IPA like Stone’s Cali-Belgique is the choice.

Ken Grossman (photo credit)

3) Ken Grossman, Founder and CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
When new brewers these days call themselves pioneers, I just have to laugh. While there’s nothing simple about building a brewery, today’s brewers can order ready made equipment from any number of suppliers. Grossman had no such luxury back in the day. He literally built his first brewery from discarded junk. New brewers talk about educating themselves to understand the nuances of how beer pairs with food, or how to use new hop varietals. Grossman took welding classes just so he could build a functioning brewery.

Fast forward from those meager scratch beginnings to today and there’s simply no one more experienced or knowledgeable about all thing brewing in America, period.  Whether building a brewery, understanding the business of beer, using barley and hops, or finding more environmentally sustainable ways to brew, Grossman’s the expert. He also knows a lot about pairing beer with stuff like fois gras and using fancy schmancy hops varietals. Oh yeah, he’s also a self-made billionaire.

What I find most impressive about Grossman is that he’s handled his transformation from a humble brewer to a brewing mogul with far great humility and grace than many of his contemporaries. Jim Koch’s still irrationally clings to struggling Sam Adam’s Boston Lager as the savior to his Boston Beer Company, while the company he built pointlessly churns out a steady stream of alcopops. Greg Koch’s edgy aggression deteriorated into clumsy corporate punk posing once Stone Brewing became an international brand. Lagunitas’s Tony Magee has become just like the corporate bullies he’s long railed against. Yet Grossman has remained Grossman: smart, industrious, generous, and knowledgeable. Just like his flagship Pale Ale, even though he hails from craft beers dark ages, Grossman’s arguably more relevant than ever. He’s still ahead of everyone else on the marketing curve with things like Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp. There’s always a seat at my house for Grossman anytime he wants to talk about all things beer.

The Beer: What else? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

4) Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
If you’ve studied how our nation’s Presidents related to beer over the past 100 years, and I have, it’s clear no President has come anywhere close to Barack Obama at elevating the status of beer in our country. Beer was brewed for the first time in the White House under his Presidency. But home brewing in the White House is pretty minor compared to Obama’s Beer Summit, where beer was used for its power as a social lubricant to ease racial tensions. Obama’s done a great job serving two terms as our President and it would be my privilege to buy him a beer as a thank you for everything he’s done for our country.

Yes, I’m one of those damn liberals and I do my best to avoid politics on my blog, but in these turbulent times as we contemplate a Trump Presidency, I’m finding that difficult. Of the many wonderful things about beer, it’s a welcome escape from the critical economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. I’d rather have a hobby writing about something as inconsequential as beer than the stuff that really matters. But given the deep divisions the recent election exposed in our country, often along racial lines, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on beer. They say “Politics divides, beer unites”. For that reason alone, we need “beer” more than ever.

The Beer: I would be honored to brew an all grain version of Ale to the Chief  Honey Brown Ale or Porter to serve our outgoing President.

President Barack Obama using the power of beer to heal racial divisions in the Beer Summit