In this era of crowd funding, corporate investment in craft breweries and ready-made brewing equipment, it’s refreshing to find a brewery like Brewery Twenty Five down in San Juan Bautista, CA. The small brewery is a bit of a throw-back to the earliest days of craft beer, when people like Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman used their own money to patch together breweries from discarded junk and used dairy equipment. The brewery itself is located in a large shed on a steep hill top behind the home of owners Fran and Sean Fitzharris on the outskirts of town.
I spent an afternoon with Fran and Sean checking out their brewery and tasting a few of their creations. We ended the day at Bear’s Hideaway in downtown San Juan Bautista, just chatting away about beer and enjoying their fresh, vibrant Fuzzy Jules Apricot Wheat Beer. The next big step for Brewery Twenty Five? They’ll be opening up a tasting room in downtown San Juan Bautista later this year as their small brewery continues to expand its roots. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from the afternoon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been three months since I last rambled on about various beers encountered in my travels and after literally millions of letters, e-mails, phone calls and tweets from readers demanding I revive the series, here’s a couple rambles on recent releases.
We’ll start with Sakitumi from Lagunitas. Lagunitas made news recently when international mega-brewery Heineken acquired the remaining 50% stake in Lagunitas it didn’t already own. For those worried a fully corporate owned Lagunitas would start playing it safe, this ale brewed with Sake yeast and rice malt shoots that theory down. A curious balance of lightly sweetness and complex-earthiness, that’s sort of half-way between beer and sake, it’s one of those beers that’s hard to describe that isn’t easily deconstructed in the typical tasting notes. While it might not be for everyone I found it a pretty mind-expanding combination of beer and sake with a novel mix of flavors and at 9.0% abv, rather potent.
Next up, Brett IPA, a limited release from Allagash Brewing brewed with Brettanomyces yeast. It’s a beer of Asian-style balance of sweet, sour, and bitterness. Just below the surface is a mustiness, with strong citrus and tropical fruit flavors bringing the whole brew together. A study of composition and balance in a bottle. One of those beers you can get lost concentrating to seriously on what’s glass, rather than just enjoying it.
For those not interested in subtle flavor balances and just want to be socked in the mouth with some hops, I give you Son of Wrath from Dust Bowl Brewing. It hits all the West Coast flavor markers, and looking back over my notes, I described it as a well controlled hop explosion. That ought be good enough for most people.
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.
A road trip to Bend, OR to visit friends is becoming a tradition as my wife and I have done so for the past three years. As we did last year, it included a stop along the way at Crater Lake, one of the more picturesque spots in the country.
You can’t quite tell from the pictures but it was a hazy afternoon at the lake from all the wild fires in the area. Crater Lake itself was formed 8,000 years ago when a volcanic mountain estimated at 14,000 feet above sea level blew up one day, leaving a huge hole behind which eventually filled up with water. Large swaths of the surrounding forest are still barren of any life due to that brief moment where the things went totally out of balance at that spot in the earth’s crust.
All the forest fires ravaging central Oregon that Labor Day weekend made a day outside akin to smoking a couple packs of cigarettes. Two “once in a life-time hurricanes” Harvey and Irma striking the country within a couple weeks have only created the impression that something isn’t quite right with the world. The scientific fact that human activity is changing the atmosphere and with it, our weather and the environment shouldn’t be a political, but unfortunately it is.
Places like Crater Lake can help us try and forget these problems in the world, if only for a couple hours. Unfortunately, as we left Crater Lake from the north rim, a fire raged only a quarter mile from the only road out of the park, bringing the destructive force of nature back into focus.
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.
When Japanese brewing conglomerate Sapporo recently bought craft beer icon Anchor Brewing, it was big news, and rightfully so. But a week earlier and with a lot less fanfare, Brooklyn Brewing announced a partnership with the Bay Area’s 21st Amendment Brewing and Colorado’s Funkwerks Brewing Company, investing in the two breweries to create “innovative new shared platform for sales and distribution nationwide”. Which means Brooklyn Brewing’s beers are coming to the Bay Area and 21st Amendment’s beer will be found in the Southeastern United States, according to the Brooklyn Brewing press release. I wouldn’t be surprised if all three brands eventually go national.
And now San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing has announced they’re opening a new location in Nebraska thought buying the Ploughshare Brewing Company facility, that became available when Ploughsare went out of business this summer. Green Flash already has facilities in their home town of San Diego and also have one inVirginia Beach, VA. While “craft” brewery acquisitions by large corporations like Constellation Brands, Sapporo, Molsen Coors and AB InBev make all the headlines, smaller regional breweries are responding either banding together or slowly expanding into small national brands. I cite just two examples here, but similar arrangements have made news last year, such as the merger of Southern Tier and Victory Brewing and Fireman Capital’s Oskar Blues purchasing Tampa Bay’s Cigar City Brewing. It’s beginning to look a bit like a game of musical chairs, to see which breweries either get acquired or partner with others, with those left out to go it alone. While economies of scale are big in the brewing business, it remains to be seen which strategy works best, and it’s quite possible different business structures can co-exist.
Beer in America is increasingly dominated both by national conglomerates and small tap rooms. Unaligned mid-sized breweries that need to rely on at least some high volume retail sales are find themselves squeezed both by large corporations that have invested into craft, as well as “independent” craft brewery alliances. How well mid-sized breweries can operate in a business climate increasingly turning against them remains an open question.