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


The Session #117: That barley malt IPA with Pacific Northwest hops is so 21st Century.

It’s another crystal ball gazing Session, this time Csasaba Babek at Beer Means Business asking us to predict the one thing we will see more of in beer’s future.

I’m going to resist the temptation to write about industry consolidation coupled with the proliferation of very small, neighborhood breweries. I do expect to see more of that, but at this point in my not very humble opinion, that’s not really a prediction but an observation. The economic wheels of beer are turning firmly turning in this direction for all to see.

But that more competitive landscape will be a driver for a lot more diversity of beer ingredients, where breweries strive for innovation and distinctiveness to separate themselves in a crowded industry.

I don’t think I need to tell you that new hop varietals with unique and  unprecedented flavors are being cultivated each year.  But in my mind, a more interesting development are the nascent hop growing regions in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, California and Colorado taking root, establishing their own identities and quite possibly their own flavors and character. It’s still an open question as to how successful these efforts will be, and if the average beer drinker will really tell the difference between Yakima Valley, Michigan, and New York Cascade hops. Will there be a day where bar patrons sip different IPAs from a series tiny glasses, comparing and contrasting the character of different regional hop varieties? This may be a dystopian future for certain people, but no longer seems far-fetched.

On the fermentables side, barley and wheat currently dominate in addition to corn and rice, which are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as cheap fillers. Rye and oats pop up here and there. Historically, it wasn’t always that way. For centuries, beer has been brewed with fermentables like millet, sorghum, yams, buckwheat, grapes, apples, cranberries, molasses, honey and whatever else might be lying around. I’ve noticed breweries slowly re-discovering these other sources or starches and sugar, and the results have been unexpected pleasures. Brown rice added a light, nutty flavor to a light ale, while buckwheat imparted a rich heartiness to a brew roasted barley malt can’t possibly replicate. Portland’s Hopworks Urban Brewery is playing around with Kernza, a rare grain which most likely had never been cultivated for human consumption, which imparts a light spiciness to the brew. And is it just me, or are rye beers becoming more common, as brewers play around with the interplay of grain and hops. I’m just going more with my gut here, and say brewers moving forward are going to start throwing different stuff into their mash tuns.

Will our barley malt IPA’s brewed with Pacific Northwest hops some day look as monochromatic as the industrial light lagers of the 20th Century?  Let’s hope so!

The Session #116 Round-up

Despite only five participants in this month’s Session on the Gose style, the discussion was lively. I led things off with a critique of sorts of what American brewers are doing to the Gose. While I’ve enjoyed a few modern examples of the style, I’m just not a fan of most of the untraditional fruit additions and extra hopping American brewers are injecting into their Goses.

It seems I’ve found a kindred spirit with Alan McCleod, who isn’t a big fan of what brewers are doing with the Gose these days, either. With his typical biting wit, he decries the worst examples of the style as “Gatorade alcopop” or “salty SunnyD” and notes that what’s called a “Gose” these days has little resemblance to the original examples of the style. But it’s not all bad, as Alan states, “In the hands of a thoughtful brewer with a sense of tradition there is a memorable play of wheat, salt and herb that satisfies.”

On the other side of the pond, Boak and Bailey largely disagree. While conceding “a few more straight Goses without fruit and other sprinkles would be nice”, they prefer having a few non-traditional Goses to none at all. They particularly like “Salty Kiss” from UK Brewer Magic Rock, brewed with sea buckthorn, rosehips and English gooseberries.  Describing the contemporary Gose style, they declare, “…in general, what German Gose isn’t in the 21st Century is a deeply profound, complex, challenging beer: it’s a fun refresher, no more tangy than a can of Fanta, no saltier than a Jacob’s cream cracker, and with coriander present but hardly obtrusive.”

Josh Hubner over at Lost Lagers muses on the style’s history and how modern brewers are experimenting with the Gose without taking any sides. He notes, “…there is something about a gose that makes it the perfect summer beer, and maybe that’s why it’s found a foothold here in the U.S. It is simultaneously tart, refreshing, light, and – hopefully – just a tad bit salty. Add some fruit to the mix, as is common among craft brewers, and also traditionally (mit schuss, as is also common with Berliner Weisse), and you have the perfect beer for a hot, sunny day.”

Finally, the Beer Nut will have none of this debate.  He’s just enjoying a “This Gose” brewed with lemongrass from Fyne Ales, which sent him a sample of along with a smoked salmon as a food pairing. The heavily smoked salad overpowered the Gose, so he found the pairing didn’t work, though the Beer Nut seems to have enjoyed lemon grass addition, which created “…an out-of -character lemon flavour, like lemon meringue pie…..It sits rather oddly next to the other savoury elements of the flavour, but not at all unpleasantly.”

That’s a wrap. At this point, I’d normally direct everyone to the next host for the upcoming Session, but I don’t find one listed. A year ago, Alan McCleod rescued the Session off life support, but with only five contributors this month and no host for next month, it looks like The Session is back in the emergency room. The Session’s had great run, stimulating all sorts of great beer discussion and ideas for years from some of the best beer writers on the planet for years. If this is the end, it was a collective thing of beauty while it lasted.

The Session #116: What happened to the Gose?

When I first discovered the Gose style three years ago, its sour/salty yin-yang balance was a refreshing antidote to the glut of so many IPAs. I knocked back quite a few Anderson Valley’s  “The Kimmie, The Yink, & the Holy Gose” and also became a pretty big fan of the slightly soapy tasting Golden Gate Gose from Almanac Beer. From near extinction in the last century, this quirky sour, salty wheat beer brewed often spiced with coriander, traditionally brewed in and around the German city of Leipzig quickly became an unexpected American brewing success story.

But then, American brewers started doing what they do, fiddling around with other country’s styles. Anderson Valley added blood orange to their Gose.  “It gives the beer a cool name!”, enthused Anderson Valley Brewmaster Fal Allen when I interviewed him about it. Sure enough, blood orange gives Anderson Valley’s Gose an extra dimension, but I’m not sure it was needed or improves upon the original version.  Anderson Valley tried a number of other spice and fruit additions to their Gose. They rejected tamerind, as sour on sour is just too much sour, but in the past year released Briny Melon Gose. I can’t say I’m a fan of it. There’s not much sour, there’s not much salt, with the slightest hint of melon. It’s basically a very light fruit wheat beer.

Sierra Nevada made a big splash this year adding Otra Vez Gose to their year around line-up. Sierra Nevada takes the sour salty mix and adds cactus and then grapefruit, and I taste…..confusion.

Recently, I was talking to Calicraft’s Blaine Landberg about his Citra Gose, brewed with significant and highly untraditional Citra hop additions. Landberg explained his thought process this way: “I asked myself “How do you make a great Margarita?” rather than “How do you make a great Gose?”” As much as I’m a fan of most of Calicraft’s beers, I wish Landberg had simply tried to brew a Gose rather than a Margarita. The Citra hops just clash with everything else in his version.

Now Saint Archer released a Blackberry Gose which I wanted to hate, but couldn’t. Saint Archer always seemed more like a marketing construct than an actual brewery, with their acquisition by MillerCoors not particularly surprising. This unfortunately overshadows the fact that Saint Archer makes some first rate brews. Their Blackberry Gose is one of them, the tartness of the blackberry effortlessly harmonizing with the underlying Gose.

I could go on, but I think you’re getting the idea. Breweries used to brew light wheat beers with fruit additions, often as “gateway” beers for those more comfortable with mass market lagers.  Now, they seem to be brewing the same beers with a whisper of salt, some sourness, a pinch of coriander and viola’, a tired wheat fruit beer becomes a hip and happening Gose. Instead of embracing the sour-salty balance of the Gose, brewing seem to be running away from it. Dead German brewmasters have every right to be spinning in their graves.

Is it too much to ask for breweries to make a good Gose and stop right there?

The Session #116 Announcement : Anything Gose

As the host for the 116th Beer Blogger Session, I’m asking everyone to write about the Gose style, mostly unknown for much of the The Session’s nearly ten year history. In just the past 2-3 years, the Gose has become one of the fastest growing beer styles despite its unusual blend of sour and saltiness. Heady times for the Gose style that not all that long ago was nearly extinct.

Speaking of extinction, I notice there are no volunteers listed to host future Session topics. So if you want to keep this Session thing going, consider hosting one. You can find out how to host a future Session at the bottom of this link.

Back to this month’s Session, I choose the Gose style in particular since it can be approached in so many different ways. Want to talk about the history of the Gose?  How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions?  How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland?  Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity?  (OK, that might not be your opinion of the Black IPA, but you get the idea.) Of course, we’re all on the look-out for a good Gose, so if there are any you particularly like, we’d love to hear about them.

Just post you contribution the first Friday of October, the 7th and leave a link in this post’s comments section. Or you can e-mail the link to me at photon.dpeterman[at]gmail(dot)com.  A few days later, I’ll post the round-up of everyone’s contribution.

And make sure you pronounce “Gose” correctly.