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.

IMG_4458
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