Scenes from the 9th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival in San Jose

As someone who writes about beer in my spare time, beer festivals like the “Meet the Brewers” festival held yesterday at San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing is basically research. Seriously. Where else are you going to find a bunch of brewers gathered together you can talk to? And with so many breweries popping up everywhere, beer festivals are a quick way to find out who is new and whether or not they’re any good. True, walking around drinking beer and chatting with people isn’t exactly like spending an afternoon in the library pouring over dusty tomes, but there’s always a pursuit of information element whenever I go to a beer festival. And besides, there’s a reason I write about beer and instead of something like tax policy.

So what did I learn? A few nuggets and opinions.

Freewheel Brewing has a new Head Brewer: Orion Lakota is his name, and he served up a stellar Brown Ale fortified with Chestnuts.

South Bay Brewco (SOBA) is looking to open up a brewery/tap room in Campbell or Los Gatos this year: These guys were pouring a dynamite hoppy Saison, which they call “West Coast Saison” which they contract brew at Hermitage. As a resident of Campbell, I can only hop they find a location as close to my house as possible.

Hermitage Brewing doesn’t get enough respect for their sours: All right, so that’s my South Bay-biased opinion but you never hear Hermitage’s name in the discussion of breweries earning cult-like status for their Sour Ales. Hermitage was pouring two Sour Ales yesterday which were among the finest I’ve ever tasted.  A Cherry Rocinante Flemish-Red style where the flavors really popped and a Peach-Cranberry Sour, where two fruits you wouldn’t think could play nice with each other harmonized perfectly.

Clandestine Brewing had a real hit with Milky Way Stout: OK, so maybe that’s not news but Clandestine was pouring a few different versions of their flagship Milky Way Stout yesterday. I had the Vanilla and Hazelnut versions, and they both took what was already a really good Stout to higher level. The Barrel-aged Brett Tripel they poured was one of those rare beers that made me think “Wow” when it touched my tongue.

Around here, Sours seem to be up and IPAs seem to be down: Quite a number of breweries poured some version of a sour ale, certainly more than last year. Surprisingly and refreshingly, many breweries were not pouring an IPA. I like a good IPA but it gets a bit tiresome going to beer festivals dominated by IPAs. I cannot remember a beer festival I’ve been to featuring a greater diversity of styles and flavors, and that’s an encouraging development. I’ll leave you with some photos of that Saturday afternoon.

Highwater Meet the BrewersFreewheel Meet the Brewers

Nubo Meet the BrewersLoma Meet the BrewersClandestine Meet the BrewersBeard Meet the BrewersBeer King Meet the Brewers

Hermitage Meet the BrewersCherry Sour Meet the Brewers

Book Review: The Scratch and Sniff Guide to Beer by Justin Kennedy

scatch and sniffBeer needs a lot less introduction that it did ten years ago, as small breweries and numerous beers styles have flourished. So it stands to reason books intended to introduce readers to the world of beer have gotten more clever and sophisticated over that time, unlike some of the text-book like tomes of the past. Case in point is The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer from Justin Kennedy.

A book like this is a bit of a balancing act. Beer is full of rich subject matter encompassing history, economics, chemistry, and culinary knowledge in addition to being a lot of fun to drink. How deep do you go into each subject to make them meaningful without getting into tedious detail or upsetting that delicate balance while keeping it engaging. Kennedy finds the right touch, explaining beer styles without becoming boringly pedantic or describing the brewing process without it seeming like a science class. Yet, there is plenty of substance to his writing and most readers will feel like they learned something.

I say most readers, because most of the material was not new to me, but I had fun reading The Scratch & Sniff Guide anyway. Each subject or beer style is covered in a couple bite sized pages before going onto the next page, with plenty of lively images and illustrations. Kennedy’s amiable writing style makes it a quick page turner.

In addition to reviewing the basic beer styles and explaining how beer is made, Kennedy takes a few additional excursions, such as gently shutting down the myth the India Pale Ales got their name by brewed with lots of hops and alcohol to survive shipment from the England to India, and sharing a few tasty looking beer recipes. There’s a section on pairing beer with food, where he takes a somewhat controversial position that IPAs do not belong at the dinner table since they don’t pair well with most foods. I’m sure plenty will disagree, but I think he’s basically right: IPAs either overwhelm and badly clash with most food. Kennedy also acts as a beer tourist guide, providing a beer tours up the West Coast of the United States as well as in Germany and Belgium.  I have to think his travel advice is pretty sound, given that his recommendations for San Francisco and Bend, OR, two beer cities I know well, are pretty spot on.

As the title implies, throughout the book are scratch and sniff stickers related to various beers discussed on the pages. For example a pine sticker is used to flesh out pine scents often found in West Coast IPAs while a cedar wood sticker is used to show the character of Northern Brewer hops used in California Commons. The stickers are a clever idea to engage readers through their sense of smell, but are arguably the least successful part of the book. Some scents are barely detectable and testing them out with my wife, who has a far better sense of smell than I do, often elicited “if you say so” response when I told her what she was supposed to be smelling. The scratch and sniff stickers were a great idea and sometimes worked, but overall, the execution had something to be desired.

That issue aside, The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Beer is a great introduction to the world of beer for the curious and those who know the subject well will likely enjoy the refresher course.

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

Rambling Reviews 1.23.2018: The Sierra Nevada Hop Edition

Welcome to this special installment of Rambling Reviews, covering three recent hop-driven releases from Sierra Nevada. One of the earliest pioneers of craft brewing from the early 80’s, Sierra Nevada has evolved into a multi-billion dollar company while still remaining at or near the forefront of brewing trends normally driven by smaller, nimbler breweries.

If you don’t that’s impressive, consider both of Sierra Nevada’s early craft brewing counterparts, Anchor Brewing and Boston Beer (Sam Adams). Anchor Brewing is still a respected name, but their recent releases have been hit or miss, suggesting more of a game of catch-up. It’s also worth noting Anchor was recently bought by Japanese brewery Sapporo and is considerably smaller than Sierra Nevada, which is still owned by founder Ken Grossman who shows few signs of slowing down. Boston Beer is basically a messy corporation fighting declining stock prices, distracted from their brewing operations as they pump out uninspired ciders and alcopops with seemingly no real idea where to go beyond their flagship Sam Adam’s Vienna Lager released decades ago.SN Hazy IPA

OK, on to the reviews. With considerable fanfare, Sierra Nevada has jumped into hazy IPA race with its new national year-around release, Hazy Little Thing.  Given the notoriously short shelf life of hazy IPAs, it’s pretty ambitious national roll-out fraught with risks.  (It’s worth noting the much maligned Boston Beer is also rolling out a hazy IPA .) As you may know, when it comes to hazy IPAs, I generally hate those things. My take on Hazy Little Thing is….well, it’s OK. It definitely has the orange juice thing going, with a pith note on the aftertaste in otherwise, simple uncluttered brew. I’ve done some soul searching as to why I rarely like the hazy IPAs others adore. I can deal with hazy but huge amounts of detritus in suspension is pretty off-putting. I also miss the bright, sharp hop flavors that get muddled in the haze, and besides, late hop additions create juicy flavors just fine without all the floating crap. I’m not really the right guy to be reviewing this, but I suppose if I find any hazy IPA to be OK, that’s a ringing endorsement. So if you like beer with a bunch of crud floating in it that tastes like muddy orange juice, you’re going to love Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing.

A far more successful release in my never humble opinion is Sierra Nevada’s new spring seasonal Hop Bullet Double IPA. Now this is an IPA, and without that hazy shit. There’s some sweetness to it, with light citrus and soft pine that harmonizes effortlessly, the neutral malt quietly supporting it all in the background. In Hop Bullet, Sierra Nevada uses plenty of Magnum, which are overlooked, underrated hop that really shine in this brew. At 8.0% abv, it’s not one of those booze-bombs Double IPAs, it’s just a very solid beer, well put together.

IMG-4918We finally come to my favorite of the trio, Sierra Nevada 2017 Estate Ale, an IPA made with both Estate-grown hops and barley. Beer terroir is nebulous, emerging concept given that most beers throughout the United States are brewed with barley and hops coming from the same place:  The barley from the high plains of central North American and hops from the Pacific Northwest. Sierra Nevada’s Estate IPA, made with ingredients grown in Northern California, has flavors all of its own. It’s a very balanced brew, with  black current dominating with a gentle piney background, a slight caramel note from the toasted malt, with a touch of resin emerging at the finish. A unique combination of flavors that suggests a lot of great opportunities are in store as new regions for barely and hop growing start flourishing.


Clandestine Brewing Sneaks Back into San Jose

When Clandestine Brewing opened the spring of 2014, it quickly established itself as one of the Bay Area’s quirkiest breweries. It was really more of a home brewing collective of four brewers selling a sprawling selection of brews out a small, cramped tap room in a   small industrial space in South San Jose. It was always packed. Problem was, there was some weird rift they had with their landlord and  finally a year and a half later, they had to close down, always vowing to reopen. It took about a year, but Clandestine’s second act started last fall, just south of downtown San Jose in a bigger and more comfortable space. I’ve been itching to return to the reborn Clandestine and finally got the chance this past weekend.

Good news, the beer is arguably better than before. I always felt that at the old Clandestine with their rapid tap list turn-over that maybe 50% of their beer was good to great, 30% of it OK, and the remaining 20% were clunkers with noticeably flaws or flavors that just didn’t work. That never bothered me too much, since they were always doing something unique. Even tasting a couple failures, all I could think of was “Well, that was  interesting.” But then, not everyone would be so forgiving if handed  a pint of some hot phenolic mess so I always told people to taste a lot of brews at Clandestine to find something you like.

It’s always a little risky judging a brewery on a single visit but it seems like they’ve really upped their brewing game. Everything I sampled was good to great, and thankfully, the crew hasn’t lost their playful, anything goes attitude, which never degenerates into silly gimmicks or weird homebrewing experiments.

Hands down, my wife and my favorite Clandestine brew that afternoon was their “Roger St. Peppers“, a smoked Pale Ale with Jalapeno. Chile beers are dangerous, but Clandestine found the absolute perfect level of heat, and the Jalapeno slowly picking up steam to become slightly noticeable at the end of each sip. It’s just a lot of fun to drink. I also loved the “Choco-Conaught“, a dark Lager, with liquid chocolate and toasted coconut. That could turn into like some big horrible disaster, but all the flavors were well balanced and worked together well in a wintery Lager. Other notable beers I tried were “M-Rations” IPA, “Hopothetical Idaho 007” Pale Ale, and their popular “Milky Way” Stout that I was always a big fan of.

Clandestine is back, better than ever, and looks like they’re here to stay for a long time.

Checking out the Hop Dogma taproom

Hop Dogma Brewing in many ways fails to deliver on the premise of their name, and for that, we should be grateful.

Merriam-Webster defines “dogma” as “something held as an established opinion; especially a definite authoritative tenet”.  Given the rapidly evolving nature of hops in the brewing industry, one could argue a “hop dogma” in today’s brewing simply doesn’t exist. For a brewery with “Hop” in their name, there were only three IPA’s on the tap from a line-up of more than ten brews the day my the wife and I visited their El Granada tap room on the shore of Half Moon Bay.  Three IPA’s out of 10+ taps is a welcome sight, in my opinion, given that IPA’s often completely dominate selections throughout the Bay Area.  In another refreshing change, they had as many Lager beers as IPA’s available, with plenty of malt forward Stouts and Porters as well. Yes, I’m taking the name way too seriously, but I never figured out the dogma of Hop Dogma.

Oh yeah, how was the beer? Pretty damn good. Sorry, no fancy schmancy tasting notes here from samplers I tried. But starting with “We’re All Going to Helles”, a solid Helles Lager and other excellent brews like “Lean Mean Vanilla Bean Porter”, it was pretty much one impressive beer after another. Now at 8.2% abv, “Lean Mean Vanilla Bean” might not be so lean, but the vanilla level was just where it needed to be noticeable, adding itself to the mix without screaming “I’m HERE!” like many vanilla additions do.  And yes, they do hoppy beers at Hog Dogma, my favorite effort being “Nelson Mosella”, a Double IPA brewed Nelson Sauvin, Mosaic, and Ella hops full of bright tropical character. I also took a couple sips of “Honest Intuition” one of those hazy, New England IPA’s I typically despise and…..must admit it has a few redeeming qualities.  “Le Monk Da Funk”, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale finished with Brettanomyces, was an arresting dry ale with lots of popping yeast-driven flavors. I’ve become a recent fan of Hop Dogma’s gleefully unbalanced IPA Alpha Dankopotamus, even though I kept needing help from the bar tender to correctly pronounce it.

The Hop Dogma tap room is on the ground floor a majestic old wooden house on the corner in El Greneda, giving it a feel like you’re sharing beers in somebody’s living room. The ocean views are nice, too. The cold wet afternoon we stopped by, lots of locals filled the place, chatting away and slowly sipping pints of their favorites. I bet it’s packed on hot summer days.

We’ll be back.

piller point
Strolling on the beach, not too far away from Hog Dogma’s tap room

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!