Getting Euro-Trashed: Your March Brewdiligence

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With Strong Beer Month and SF Beer Week now behind me, I am moving on to an new theme. With St. Patrick’s day coming, March is a good time to focus on European beers. Doing just Irish beers, however, seemed a little too on the nose. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of Guinness on the 17th, but to spend a whole month on beers from the Emerald Isle would also be very limiting; there is more to Irish brewing than just Guinness, but the amount of it accessible to me is, in all likelihood, relatively small. Moreover, I’ve had the ones that are easily found. Murphy’s, Beamish, Smithwick’s, etc. All fine beers, but the overwhelming goal of this is to experience as many new beers/styles as I can. Going back to revisit those might be fun, but the thought of it is not one I welcome as much as searching out the unknown.

To ensure a broader array of beers is available to me, March had to be opened up to the greater European continent. Doing so significantly increases the odds I’ll discover something new. Beyond Irish beers I hope to get my hands on some English Ales, German lagers, and whatever oddball selections I might come across. I suspect, however, that most of what I drink will hale from Belgium, or at least contain Belgian yeast. I’ve had a contentious relationship with that strain and its confounding esters for some time now. Our day of reckoning has come.

There was a time when spending a month on the hunt for European import beers would have been something of a luxury. Years ago, when American macros ruled the roost, buying a few cans of Guinness or a sixer of Heineken was to treat oneself; if it wasn’t American it was good. Whether or not this was ever really the case is debatable, but in the current market, it’s the furthest thing from the truth. Fans of American Craft Beer have been spoiled rotten in the last decade as store shelves everywhere are hemorrhaging with well made product. Good beer, often made locally, is just not hard to find.

One problem I’ll be confronted with is an issue of freshness. A few styles and high ABV stuff aside, most beer should be consumed as quickly as possible. It does not take long for flavors to fade, or worse, morph into something undesirable. The time it takes to ship a beer from a brewery across the Atlantic, get it on to store shelves, and then into the customers hands, is quite often, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. And that is if the beer is purchased immediately, never mind time spent languishing in a retail outlet waiting for some adventurous soul to scoop it up. So in addition looking for styles and breweries I am unfamiliar with, I run the risk of getting a product that is beyond the peak of its flavor, and not a good representation of the beer in question.

Another potential hurdle will be availability. As stated previously, quality craft beer of the domestic variety is no rare commodity. I can walk to any number of stores and get a reliably good six pack of something. Even the Safeway nearest me, dumpster fire that it is, has a robust selection. This isn’t the case with imports; beyond all those green bottles that used to indicate quality, there is a serious disparity in international beer representation. Names like Chimay and Duvel are everywhere, but outside of specialty shops I’m not likely to find much else. And at over $12 a bomber, there is likely to be some adjusting to the price as well.

Perhaps more than anything, I’ll have to negotiate the fact I’m a big, stupid American accustomed to drinking big, stupid American beers. State-side we scream for hops. For higher ABV. Making a coffee stout? It’d better be stronger than my morning java. This is not to say subtlety is completely lost here, but as is generally the case in everything American, even in beer more is better. The Old World is typically…European on that account. Their beer is more subdued, more respect given to tradition. My taste buds have been ravished by the huge character found in most American craft beer. Finding flavor in the more understated European beers will be my biggest test.

Brewdiligence is a fraught business to be in. For those who take up the challenge, glory is fleeting, evanescent as the head on a well poured pint. Few people will herald the effort, even fewer will answer the call. Anyone on this journey with me knows there is no prize at the end of the line. In fact, there is no end of the line at. There is only the journey and the places you allow it to take you.

Ferment Drink Repeat: Brewing Beer and Community

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“How do you make a small fortune in brewing?” It’s early on a Saturday afternoon and Kevin Inglin, brewer of San Francisco’s Ferment Drink Repeat is holding court over a small crowd of people gathered for his Beer Appreciation class, part of SF Beer Week. Inglin looks around the room for a moment, eyes wide, and cracks a friendly grin before answering his own question. “You start with a large fortune.”

Over the next 90 minutes, Inglin, who owns the brewery along with his wife Shae, will take students on a journey through the world of beer, covering the basics of its history, its ingredients, the process of making beer, beer judging, and more. All this, in addition to sampling nine of FDR’s signature brews. It’s part education, part inebriation, and all centered around building a more knowledgeable community of beer drinkers.

Those in attendance agree with a woman, who, when asked why she attended a Beer Appreciation course replied, “the crowds at educational events tend to be less…drunk.” Inglin’s class consists of home brewers, staff from local bars, curious beer-geek types, and local residents. What they will all know after completing the course—in addition to the difference between lager and ale yeasts— is that a visit to Ferment Drink Repeat is an essential stop on the city’s brewery circuit.

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Even if it’s beer school, it’s still school. I came prepared.

Located in San Francisco’s Portola District, on the northern most stretch of San Bruno Avenue, FDR opened last June as part of a diverse, often overlooked neighborhood; it lacks the tech-money cool of SOMA, or the tech-money, warehouse-turned-shabby-chic-eatery-industrial vibe of the Dogpatch. In spite of that, foot traffic is plentiful this sunny Saturday. The sidewalks are alive with people shopping in local produce markets, or looking for something exotic from a spice wholesaler. Others out for an early lunch can choose from cuisines of all stripes: Chinese, Vietnamese, traditional southern food, American, Mexican, and more. Though craft breweries are no longer a rare find, the inclusion of one in this neighborhood comes as a welcome bit of depth to the already mixed enclave.

The people you’ll find drinking in Ferment Drink Repeat’s taproom often live within a few minutes of its doors You’ll not find only bearded guys in Ommegang hats and Insert Brewery Name Here Hoodies who’ve come to the hip part of town, amped to line up for an IPA  can release. The Inglins have forged a community based not on the quest for hops and barrel aged sours, but based on proximity. They’re a local brewery serving those most local to the brewery.

Shae Inglin can most often be found behind the bar pouring beers for thirsty customers, many of whom she knows by name. She engages with patrons comfortably and with the familiarity of an old friend. The atmosphere she fosters is convivial and charming. People bring in food from one of the many neighborhood restaurants to enjoy with their beers. Other sit at the bar playing cards or boardgames over a couple pints. Whether your first time or fiftieth, to walk in the doors of FDR is to join a family.

This welcoming, communal culture is woven into the very fabric of Ferment Drink Repeat. Not having one of those large fortunes Kevin joked about to bankroll opening a brewery, the Inglins chose to crowd-source funds for their venture, utilizing crowbrewed.com., a website much like GoFundMe but dedicated to helping fledgling beer companies get off the ground. By pledging a certain amount of money, investors could get various rewards, from t-shirts and home brewing classes, to free beer for life, or the ultimate prize: being allowed to create and brew a batch of beer at FDR.

Not only did this crowd sourcing provide an immediate sense of connection for those who contributed to the successful campaign, but it has resulted in some of FDR’s tastiest beers, like El Unicorno Mexican White Stout. When a CrowdBrewed supporter came and suggested something resembling a pumpkin spiced beer, Kevin rejected the idea, not wanting brew something so common place. Working together, the two created a recipe that satisfied the patron’s desire for a spiced beer, while avoiding autumn seasonal-beer cliches. The resulting beverage is a wonder; light in color like a pale ale, but with the dark, warm flavors of a stout. Subtle hints of chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, and chiles run throughout but do not overwhelm.

Running a small brewery gives Ferment Drink Repeat the latitude to experiment with flavors and ingredients. Where larger production facilities need to play it safe lest they lose money on a bad batch of new beer, the Inglins are not so heavily restrained; their seven barrel brewing system cuts the potential for loss. With that fear allayed, creativity can flourish. A smoked imperial lager for instance, or a hibiscus tea flavored saison are two more of the unique creations collaborations with financial backers have yielded.

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Brewer and Owner Kevin Inglin leading a tour of the brewhouse at Ferment Drink Repeat.

Not everything, however, is a far flung flavor experiment. Plenty of well balanced, true to style beers can be found on tap, from IPAs and pilsners, to stouts and porters, FDR has beer to accommodate everyone. Their Portola Pilsner is a great bridge for people new to craft beer. It has the familiarity of classic American macro-brews, but with elevated flavors that should intrigue and entice even the most dyed in the wool Budweiser fan.

For those who’ve developed at taste for craft beer, either by way of time bellied-up to the bar or via Kevin’s Beer Appreciation class, Ferment Drink Repeat is also a home-brew supply shop. Their roots being in home-brewing, the Inglins are committed to helping the next generation by stocking their store with everything aspiring brewers might need to try their hand a creating fermentable magic at home.

FDR the president is quoted as saying, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.” FDR the brewery echoes that sentiment. The Inglins haven’t gone about their business in a traditional way, nor are they attempting to take over the industry. But they have built a community to be proud of, while being to be true to themselves and their neighborhood, letting principles lead the way, and guiding customers along a similar path.

A Closer Look at TUF 25: Redmption

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The latest season of The Ultimate Fighter show is underway in Las Vegas.  The 25th  installment will pit bantamweight champion Cody Garbrant against former champion and ex-teammate TJ Dillishaw, in a coaching match-up that will likely garner as many on screen dramatics as their July title tilt promises.

The full roster was released earlier this week. Titled “Redmption,” the cast is made up of TUF veterans, including two former winners, and one who is currently on the UFC roster.

The fighters are a rangy lot in terms of experience, success, and size. Jesse Taylor and Joe “Big Daddy” Stevenson each have nearly 50 professional bouts to their name and have competed for world titles. Hader Hassan comes with just 9 fights under his belt and losses in both of his UFC appearances. Ditto for Mehdi Bahgdad.

Big Daddy Stevenson also highlights the size disparity we will witness in TUF 25. The show is slated to take place at 170 pounds, but Stevenson, who won the show at that weight, has competed as low was featherweight. Hector Urbina has fought as high as 205, as has former TUF winner Eddie “Truck” Gordon. One has to immediately wonder if making weight will be an issue for the larger fighters, while dealing with the size of some opponents will be an issue for the smaller cast members.

Age and mileage might also play a factor this season as well. The theme of redemption eliminates the TUF’s normal search for young, unknown talent, but at an average age of nearly 32 years old, some of these fighters are a bit long in the tooth. Age is not kind to fighters, and outside of the renaissance we’ve seen in some heavyweights careers recently, mid-tier middleweights don’t often find that same kind of second wind. Skill sets can see improvement well beyond an athlete’s physical prime, but we need to maintain realistic expectations for the show’s victor.

TUF has witnessed its share of long-shot winners, but as usual, the playing field can be narrowed down to a few likely candidates. Whatever the outcome, light beer and hollow-core doors should tread carefully for the next little while. Neither has ever been safe when the ultimate prize  is on the line. For now, let’s take a look at the contestants.

Jesse Taylor- (30-15) Age: 33

Taylor has gone 24-12 since lone UFC appearance. Had he not fought a limousine window right after leaving the TUF house and lost his spot in the finale, Taylor had a strong chance at winning the show. He has been active since then, facing notable competition in the likes of Luke Rockhold, Jay Hieron, and David Branch, and has wins over TUF season three winner Kendall Grove as well as current UFC middleweight Chris Camozzi. A true middleweight, at 6’1” Taylor will be one of the bigger competitors, which should give him an advantage. But with 14 of his 15 losses coming by submission, one has to wonder if he can make it through the tournament without getting caught.   

Joe Stevenson- (33-16) Age: 34

Every good story has an emotional center, and Stevenson is likely to be it for TUF 25. Winner of  season two and long time fan favorite, Big Daddy saw his best days as a lightweight where he challenged BJ Penn for the 155 pound strap. He is 2-2 since last fighting for the UFC in 2011 and has only two fights after a three year lay off. His opponents in those have a combined record of 23-45, making an assessment of his current fighting abilities difficult. A dominant grapplers whose hands never really caught up with the rest of his skills, Stevenson is a natural lightweight and will suffer a significant size disadvantage if not given the right match-ups. Fighting a bigger man is nothing new to him, having started taking professional fights while still a teenager, but the game has changed; skill used to make up a size deficit, but the playing field has evened out and size does matter. Given his experience, it would not be a surprise to see him get through a fight or two if pitted against the other smaller fighters, but he’ll likely run into a wall with the bigger men. 

Gilbert Smith- (12-6) Age: 35

Smith is 7-4 since losing his one proper bout in the UFC and currently on a two fight skid. “Chocolate Thunder” or “Midnight Madness” (depending on which website you consult) is a tough grappler, and as I recall from his original run on TUF, an all around good guy. Unfortunately Smith has never been able to string enough wins together over quality opposition to make a serious run an breaking back in to the ranks of the UFC, though he did hold an RFA belt for a time. He may not go far on the show, but look for him to be the voice of reason in the house and a team leader.

Julian Lane- (11-6) Age: 29

“Let me bang Bro! Let me Bang!” The drunk cry heard ‘round the MMA world. Lane’s antics on season 16 have become the stuff of legend, second only to Junie Browning lunacy. One would almost feel sorry for him had he not shown up looking like a caricature of an MMA fighter, compete with bad tattoos, pink mohawk, and sunglasses worn inside. He’s gone 7-5-1 since TUF 16, and lost to the only real name fighter he faced in Paul Felder. Lane has also struggled against bigger men, a fact that will limit his success in this run. Redemption won’t come for him by way of winning the show, but with a solid performance or two, and by avoiding any of the craziness that plagued him last time out, Lane has a shot to come away redeemed.

Eddie Gordon- (8-4) Age: 33

TUF Season 19 winner, Gordon dropped three straight after being victorious on the finale. Those included a highlight reel head kick KO to a resurgent Josh Samman, a split decision loss, and a submission at the hands BJJ World Champion Antonio Carlos Jr. Dropping a trifecta of fights is almost always a precursor to walking papers, but Gordon shouldn’t be judged too harshly. People get caught, with both strikes and submissions. At total of twelve fights, Gordon is relatively green for this group, but the lack of mileage might play into his favor, as should his size and strength. The Truck won his lone fight since leaving the UFC and though there are no guarantees, Gordon should go into the show a favorite, potentially becoming the first two-time TUF winner.

Dhiego Lima- (12-5) Age: 28

Lima is a well rounded fighter, but has not found the level of success that has graced his brother Douglas. He is 2-1 since leaving the UFC, dropping his most recent fight via TKO. Lima made it to the final of season 19, doing so at 185 pounds when he is a natural welterweight. That experience against larger opponents, combined with the fact he won’t have to manage his weight so carefully as others, could play into Lima’s favor this time around. Making it through at least the first round of competition is a good possibility, and the prospect of another Lima vs. Gordon finale would be very fitting given the theme of redemption.

James Krause- (23-7) Age: 30

Krause’s inclusion here is odd, given the fact he is already on the UFC roster, is 4-3 in the promotion, and has won his last two fights. Though the TUF Live alumnus has not stepped in the cage since February of 2016, one has to wonder what his existing contract is like for Krause to put himself in the TUF grinder again, and at a weight class above where he usually fights. 30 fights gives Krause plenty of experience, and he should have a sizable bag of tricks to pull from, but his chances here aren’t great. Come what may, Krause should get more fights in the promotion beyond this show.

Mehdi Baghdad- (11-5) Age: 31

Another natural lightweight who as fought as low as 145 pounds, The Sultan’s prospects here are not kingly. Baghdad dropped both of his UFC bouts after his appearance on TUF 22 and  was dropped from the promotion after pulling out of a fight in October 2016 with an injury. Another fighter whose size will be a liability, Baghdad’s inclusion seems to be almost an apology from the typically cold-blooded UFC for cutting him when he was injured.

Justin Edwards- (8-5) Age: 34

After losing his lone fight on TUF 13, Edwards managed to stick around the ranks of the UFC for four years. He wasn’t the most active fighter on the roster in that time, averaging just one fight a year before losing three in a row and being cut. The majority of his fights have come at welterweight, so he should be comfortable there, but his loss to 170 pound monsters like Brandon Thatch speak once again to the difficulty in overcoming a size deficit. He dropped two subsequent fights at lightweight, including one to TUF 25 cast-mate Ramsey Nijem (there’s that potential redemption again), and has not taken a fight since June of 2015. Inactivity and being paired against more skilled fighters should create an early exit for Edwards.

Seth Baczynsky- (19-14) Age: 35

At 35 years old and with 34 fights behind him, The Polish Pistol’s odds of winning the show are narrowed by his mileage. He had notable wins over the likes of Tim Means, Matt Brown, and Neil Magney, but lost a very close decision to Thiago Alves, and came up short in his next two outings before being cut. That said, Baczynsky is a gamer and will be on the bigger side of the competitors, two things that should make him a factor on the show. He is 1-1 since leaving the UFC in 2015, the loss coming to Jesse Taylor. Once more redemption rears its head.

Hector Urbina- (17-10) Age: 29

Urbina turned pro at just 19 years of age and wasted no time stepping into the deep end of the pool, facing the likes of Tim Kennedy, Mayhem Miller, and Lyman Good. If you can say anything about El Toro, it’s that he will take on all comers. Sadly, that’s maybe the best that can be said about Urbina. His willingness to trade and get in wild exchanges leave him susceptible to getting knocked out; his fight with Bartosz Fabinski demonstrated an inability to negate superior wrestling skills. Though it’s not for lack of heart, Urbina’s chances of winning the competition are slim.

Ramsey Nijem- (9-6) Age: 29

Fighting out of John Hacklmans’ The Pit, Nijem is a strong grappler who found some measure of success in the UFC after losing his TUF finale bout to Tony Ferguson. Ramsey was able to stick around the UFC for a few years afterwards, putting three wins together to begin his run, before the slide that led to him being cut in 2015. He is still young and has not accrued the amount of damage that other contestants have. The time off since being cut might have done him some good and helped him shore up holes in his game. At at 5’11”, the 170 weight limit should also suit him better than some of the others who usually compete at lightweight. Not a favorite by any means, but if there is a dark horse pick, I think Nijem is it.

Hayder Hassan- (6-3) Age: 34

A big puncher who rightly earned his nickname “The Hulk” on TUF by fighting three times in 17 days, leaving no question about his heart or his desire to get in the cage and mix it up. Hassan was picked to fight in the camp vs. camp finale, losing by second round submission. HIs next bout, a rematch against Vicente Luque who he was victorious against on the show also ended via submission and he has not fought since. His power and willingness to engage make him a dangerous opponent, but unless his submission defense has tightened up in the time away,  Hassan’s shot at making the final isn’t good.

Tom Gallicchio- (19-9) Age: 30

The hirsute Gallicchio is dangerous on the ground, with 13 of his 19 career victories coming by submission. The veteran grappler, however, lost his only fight in the TUF house and also dropped his lone fight since then, via TKO. Though tough as thy come, one has to wonder what kind of redemption Gallichio’s inclusion in the show offers, save for another shot at a dream for a hard-nosed, likable guy.

SF Beer Week Opening Gala Recap

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Friday night’s SF Beer Week Opening Gala hosted an impressive crowd. From causal beer drinkers and professional level connoisseurs, to Mom-and-Dad-on-a-date and monied tech-workers, a wide swath of the city’s thirstiest came out to Pier 48 where over 120 breweries were pouring some of the best beer around.

As doors opened at 5 o’clock, the rather substantial VIP line moved in unison, like a flock of birds, and re-formed in front of the Russian River pouring station. In spite of the growing backlash against manufactured scarcity and people’s willingness to queue up for absurd lengths of time, the allure of their triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, does not seem to have waned. Within minutes there was a couple hundred people, five ounce commemorative glasses in hand, eagerly awaiting a taste of the rarified brew. Things looked to be moving quickly enough, and with just a little more patience I could have sampled the Sonoma brewery’s standout offering, but I had my sights set elsewhere and elected to forego the ancient Roman’s namesake beverage.

After receiving my own glass, and deciding to skip the Pliny, I made my way towards the back of the hangar-like space, wanting to get the lay of the land, but not before grabbing a sample of Moonlight Brewing’s Legal Tender Ale, one of my personal must-trys. This, I think, was a mistake; I was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the building and struggling to take it in. I’d hoped to speak with someone from Mooonlight and ask a few questions about their un-hopped creation, but the moment got the better of me.

My hopes for a discussion about herbal ales vs. gruits dashed, I wolfed down my sample without giving it the consideration I’d intended. This turned out to be a prescient moment; as the night wore on there would be less room to move, and little solace from the din of the crowd. Reflecting on whatever I’d been served became increasingly difficult. This lead to me jotting down confident and nuanced tasting notes like, “Maybe the best smoked beer I’ve ever had?” or “Holy Crap!” Not to say that even under the best of circumstances I’d have penned Master Cicerone style profiles, but I realized early in the evening that given the magnitude of the event, sensory overload would be an issue. It wasn’t long before I abandoned note taking altogether.

I walked the length of the pier, stopping for a sip of Speakeasy’s Popgun Pilsner (oaked and unfiltered for the special occasion) and arrived at the SF Brewer’s Guild booth where they were pouring this year’s collaboration brew, New Frontier, a Kolsch style ale with satsuma and Douglas Fir tips. It was crisp and fruit forward but not cloying, and the evergreen flavors from the fir tips gave it a wonderful finish. It was an early stand out and easily one of the best beers I had all night. New Frontier will be on tap at select locations throughout Beer Week, and is being sold at local Whole Food stores in the bay area. I’m hoping to get my hands on some more before it’s gone forever.

Still shy of six o’clock, I continued surveying the area. Water stations were large and plentiful; food vendors lined an entire wall, and several food trucks were parked just outside on the patio. 4505 Meats was handing out free pork rinds. Best of all, portable toilets occupied a very large space in the back of the building. Fear of breaking the seal and being stuck in line to relieve oneself was not an issue, something I’m told had been a problem in years gone by.

I also spotted San Francisco mayor Ed Lee preparing to give his opening remarks to the swelling crowd. I don’t follow local politics, but from what I gather, his petite, toadstool-esque physique is a rather fitting reflection of his political undertakings. Rather than subject myself to what would likely be inane platitudes about community and such, I moved on to my next taste.

Armed with my list of beers to seek out, I began the processing of crossing off as many as I could. Hop Dogma’s Ol’ Keller, Moylan’s Haze Craze IPA, both went down easy, as I recall. Local Brewing’s Macaroon Pale Ale was good, but ultimately suffered from my own high expectations of a cookie-flavored coconut bomb.

Another standout came early on from New Bohemia Brewing Company out of Santa Cruz in their Light my Fire Smoked Helles. Smoked beers aren’t favored by all, and quite often those who make them tend towards a lighter smoke flavor. Not this one; intense smoke coated everything the way hours sitting next to a camp fire does, yet somehow finished clean. This isn’t a beer for everyone, but fortune favors the bold as they say, and if you like smoked beer, this is a bold one indeed.

One of the beers I’d most anticipated was Laughing Monk’s Peach Pulpit. Unfortunately a line in their jockey box was fouled and they weren’t pouring it when I got to their station. I settled for Coffee and Cream, which turned out to be delicious, and stepped outside for some air. The patio had filled, as had the previously empty picnic tables. Throngs of people were enjoying tacos, burgers, and BBQ. What I couldn’t imagine anyone was enjoying was the line for Pliny the Younger, which now snaked its way outside and more than half way down the length of the pier.

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The P-line-y.

It was after 7 by then, and though there was still plenty of time left in the evening, I did not understand why people were willing to give up so much time for a taster size sample of one beer. There is simply no way to be satisfied with the return on that investment. I’ve had Pliny the Younger and it is very good. But it is not life changing. The skies will not part at first sip, nor will boozy angels sing. Several world class breweries were in attendance, as were dozens and dozens of up-and-comers, pouring a universe of IPA variations: Single, double, and triple. They had dry hops, wet hops, hole cone and cryo-hops. Cascade, Columbus, Simcoe, Citra. Old World, New World, experimental, and noble. Hallertau, Hollerback, added in the boil, added in the keg, pushed through a Randall, and down our greedy throats (I might have made one of those up). What I am trying to say is that if delicious hop bitterness and aroma were what a person sought, it was there for the taking, and without a line. 

Sours also played a prominent role that evening, giving the almighty IPA a run for its money as the most represented style. Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel had a consistent but manageable line that depleted their resources quickly, leaving kegs empty and their station unmanned before the clock struck 8. Firestone Walker served two special sours that also garnered a short wait, as did San Francisco’s Thirsty bear, all of which were tart and tasty.

For my money, San Leandro’s Cleophus Quealy ruled both the sours and the night, serving up a beast of a beer in their gin barrel aged Aviato, with cherries, lemons, and violet. It had a complexity unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, but without overwhelming my brutish, untrained palate. I went back for it three times and was no less impressed after every pour. Just dazzling stuff. A trip to their tap room is in short order, and if the work they put on display Friday is indication of the product they are turning out, Cleophus Quealy could be giving The Rare Barrel a run for their money in the East Bay sour game very soon.

All told, the Opening Gala was a tremendous success. Though the crowd was thick, it remained manageable, the atmosphere convivial. I chatted with people, got recommendations about what to try and gave my own in kind. Though walking around with my notepad in hand did garner some curious looks, it gave me direction and prevented aimless wandering; the two days spent studying the list of beers on tap proved well worth my time. I left the event happily buzzed, feeling oddly accomplished, and looking forward to what the rest of SF Beer Week might have to offer.

San Francisco Beer Week Opening Gala: My Five Must-Try Beers

It looks as though I’ll be going to the SF Beer Week Opening Gala after all.* Though I still thoroughly anticipate an event that will try my patience for crowds, and which will be comprised largely of hop-seeking dunderheads, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to get my hands on a ticket and to drink what will surely be some outstanding beers.

In keeping with my year long theme of structured consumption, I’ve set two ground rules for myself. Foremost among them, is no beer that is available year-round shall pass my lips. If it’s not a one-off or special release of some kind, why bother? The point of the whole event is to get beers you can’t find in other places. Second, with a few exceptions, I’ll not drink any IPAs, especially of the double or triple variety. One could spend the evening drinking those alone, but that’s a one-way ticket to oblivion. Tasting 25 XXXIPAs sounds good until you have to get home on the bus, shit-faced and ready to piss yourself. I’m sure the latter will be unavoidable; the former I can likely work around. The notable exception to the IPA proscription is Russian River’s Pliny the Younger; unlike most places pouring it, the line will be short and I’ve not had it in a few years now.

At over 120 breweries strong, the list of beers being tapped this Friday is deep. I’ve spent the last few days combing over it, making list of just under 30 beers to hunt for. To get even that may would be a chore. I’ve narrowed that down further to come up with my top five must-try brews. In no particular order they are as follows:

  • Ale Industries, Raw Ale. An ale featuring gin influenced botanicals, including bay, rosemary, cardamon, and juniper. Moreover, it’s unboiled (hence the raw part) and has no hops. None. I’ve been studying up on medieval gruits and herbal ales, so this one is of particular interest. As a side note, Ale Industries is a place I’d like to see figure more prominently in the coming year. Nothing is quite true to style, but everything they make is good. On top of that, they’re committed to sourcing materials ethically, and being environmentally sound. Stop by their tap room next time you are in Oakland.
  • Bear Republic, Tatare Rouge. An American Wild Ale, spontaneously fermented with airborne wild yeast. There is something I love about the idea of literally throwing caution to the wind, and letting nature do what it may. It’s gutsy, it’s different, and it sounds delicious.
  • Firestone Walker, Agrestic. Another Wild Ale that started its life as FW’s delicious Double Barrel Ale gets transformed by some yeasty magic into something else entirely.
  • Laughing Monk, Barrel Aged Peach Pulpit. I don’t go in for Belgian beer too much, nor do I really like Chardonnay. But Something about this beer has really caught my eye; a Belgian tripel aged in Wente Vineyard Chardonnay Barrels with peaches. That’s one I have to try.
  • Moonlight Brewing, Legal Tender Herbal Ale. Another hop-less beer. Though it might seem like I’m waging a personal war on lupulin here, I love hoppy beers as much as anyone. As previously stated though, I’ve been up to my neck in gruit research the last week and really want to see that style realized as best I can. No list of herbs is given for this one, but I’m hoping for bog myrtle to be in the mix.

Other beers that fell short of must-haves, but that I’ll certainly get to include, Eight Bridge’s One Box IPA, Local Brewing’s Macaroon Coconut Oatmeal Pale Ale, Old Bus Tavern’s Wookie’s Delight, Speakeasy’s unfiltered Pop Gun Pilsner, Hop Dogma’s Ol’ Keller, and Moylan’s Haze Craze IPA.

A final brew that bears mentioning is the collaboration done by the San Francisco Brewer’s Guild; a post-modern Kolsch style ale with satsuma and evergreen. Not only does the guild put this whole thing on, but they’re contributing what promises to be one of the more interesting beers served. I can’t wait to try it.

*Special thanks to  the amazing Franny Fullpint for the ticket. I don’t deserve such generosity and cannot thank her enough.

Strong Beer Month and SF Beer Week: a Personal Primer for February Brewdiligence

It’s Fe-Brew-ary! At long last that phonetic convention we all use to remember the proper spelling of February has come in handy to make a creampuff of a joke. In addition to facile word play, the second month of the year means two things: strong beer month and the annual San Francisco Beer Week. It’s 28 days of high octane brews with a week of unmitigated celebrating for all things beer thrown in for good measure.

From the 10th through the 19th, SF Beer Week will run beautifully amok, featuring tap-takeovers, unlimited pours, food pairings and dinners, special releases, meet-the-brewer, educational events, and more. In terms of total area, San Francisco is a diminutive city, but within its relatively petite confines you’ll find a densely packed collection of venues to host the afore mentioned festivities. That, coupled with severely inflated tech salaries that give people the financial leeway to guiltlessly drop money on such things, creates a dizzying array of beer-bashes to choose from. Things could get real ugly given a full 31 days. Even a leap-year might get sideways enough to crash Twitter for a few hours.

For my money (what little there is), I tend towards anything with an educational bent, or the what I feel like I can skew in that direction on my own. Mostly I do this because it’s just the way my brain is wired; research, writing, the curating of facts, and what to others seem insufferable and inconsequential minutiae, are what I love most. I’ve been this way my whole life. Anything I have ever taken an interest in has become an object of study. By turning this attitude on Beer Week, and beer drinking in general, I can curb my tendencies towards excess, and avoid fellow beer lovers who strive for it. I would love to hit every all-you-can-drink party throughout the week, but I’ve matured (somewhat lamentably) enough to know that of the 50 plus beers I might be able to try in one place, I’ll stop remembering them at about 15. What’s more, I won’t get bombed enough to think it’s a good idea to start yanking pretzels off the necklaces of strangers who just want to collect commemorative glasses and funnel as many double IPAs as they can. I don’t judge or begrudge that as a Beer Week endgame, but if I go to a talk on sours that is accompanied by a few tastes, odds are strong I’ll meet some like-minded people, learn a little something, and leave reasonably buzzed.

That said, the marquee events that I’ll not be attending without the aid of a benefactor or a press pass both include unlimited pours. Drunken debauchery may be an element at either, but shouldn’t rule the day. A great way to bookend your Beer Week Experience would be to hit these:

  • The Opening Gala at Pier 48. Over 125 breweries are helping to kick things off. This is sure to be equal part shit-show and best-night-ever, but at between $80 and $120 a ticket, I’ll save my money for something a little less raucous and sidestep possibly falling over a railing into the bay.
  • The Celebrator Beer News 29th Anniversary Party and Fund Raiser for the California Craft Brewer’s Association. 30 plus breweries will be pouring their best stuff for a crowd that is heavy on industry insiders. The more modest $60 price tag includes food, making this the event to pull the trigger on if you don’t mind paying for it and commuting to the East Bay. Though it does not have an explicitly educational element to it, this is the kind of event where if you keep your ears open and your mouth shut between sips, you will walk away knowing more about craft beer than you did when you arrived, and having met many of the people who make this whole thing go ‘round.

My other two if-money-were-no-object events of choice would be either of the off-flavor courses being offered. Diacetyl? Solvent-like? Buttery flavors in my beer? These are things I know in name alone. I should be thankful that I am not getting spoiled or poorly made beer regularly enough to be personally acquainted with off-flavors, but in my pursuit to be a more educated beer drinker, they are things I should experience first hand and learn to properly identify. If you are inclined to sleep with the enemy, there are a couple of options: A two day, advanced off-flavor course at The Beer Hall, presented by Master Cicerone Rich Higgins, the other at the Drake’s Dealership in Oakland given by cicerone.org. At $85 and $49 respectively, they’re a lot of money to go willingly go taste bad brews, but for a monied beer geek, either would likely be an eye opening experience.

In thinking about off-flavor courses, I began to wonder how they find all the bad beer. Do they actively seek it out and save it for the occasion? I’ve been imagining cicerones bellying up to the bar, ordering pint before exclaiming, “My God, man! This tastes like shit! Can we buy the keg?” Maybe they walk around in search of unkempt looking beer bars and asking questions like, “What have you got that’s chunky and smells like asparagus?” Are they intentionally making small batches of off flavor beer and letting draft lines foul? My guess is that it’s something else entirely, and one of the first things they address will be where they sourced the study materials.

As for the events I’m choosing to attend, most have the educational element I favor. Some of those will put me in proximity to special releases happening that same day. One is just to see friends that are in town for the week. Some of the following may change. I might have to skip something, I might make an impromptu trip to this place or that. So long as I come away from the week feeling as though I’ve gleaned something new from my experiences and not drank myself into a coma or new pant size I’ll be happy. After all, it’s only beer.

My Beer Week Schedule

Friday, February 10 – Lament the fact that I won’t be at the opening gala. Console myself with a  couple pints of strong beer (can’t let Strong Beer Month slide by the wayside) at the Magnolia Pub, while keeping in mind that crowds the size of the one to be found at Pier 49 that night are dreadful, and that fear of missing out is for people in their twenties.

Saturday, February 11- Go get my learn on with Ferment Drink Repeat. $20 bucks to try eight beers and have owner/brewer and nationally ranked beer judge Kevin Inglin drop some delicious science on those of us thirsting for knowledge and some his exceptional brews. FDR is probably my favorite brewery in the city right now. I could go on at length telling you why, but will save that for another time. Just know this is an essential stop on the San Francisco brewery circuit.

Being at FDR puts me in proximity to Laughing Monk, who are releasing a couple of barrel aged beers that day, including a Belgian Tripel with peaches and aged in Wente Chardonnay barrels (I’m not generally a Belgian guy, but that one has really peaked my interest). Speakeasy isn’t too much farther down the way, and they doing an oak aged, unfiltered version of their Pop Gun Pilsner which also sounds promising. Beyond that I’ll have to resist my urge to push on into the night and catch the bus home to save my energy for Sunday.

Sunday, February 12-  SF Beer Week’s Annual Battle of the Guilds. Brewer’s guilds from San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will come together at Sessions at the Presidio pouring 45 different beers. Guilds are an often overlooked and unheralded part of the craft beer movement; they put together the events we love so much, and generally speaking, work their tails off behind the scenes. I’m particularly excited about this one, knowing I’ll get to see some good friends who are in town for the occasion. The beer could all be garbage (guaranteed it’ll be the farthest thing from it) and I’d still peg this as the likely high point of my Beer Week experience. Most of the time I skulk around the city alone, a half-drunk lone-wolf stalking fermented prey. I’m grateful to know I’ll have some old friends with me on this day.

Monday, February 13- Weekday outings can be rough for a guy with a day job, so I’m doing my best to keep them simple. On this evening I’ll make my way to the Woods Cerveceria on 18th St. They’re doing Medieval Beverages that night, pouring meads and gruits. The food historian in me is properly geeked for this one; I’ll be giving myself a crash course in medieval ales (really focusing on gruits) in the week beforehand, starting with Beer in the MIddle Ages and the Renaissance by Richard W. Unger.

Time permitting, I might stop by the Social Kitchen and Brewery on my way home for their annual Brett Fest, and have them break me off a piece of some of that funky stuff.

Tuesday, February 14- I’ll likely keep it close to home this night and see what’s happening in the Sunset. A quick trip around the corner gets me to the Sunset Reservoir Brewing Company, and little further down the way I expect the Lawton Taproom to have some Seven Stills beer flowing. From there it’ll just be another couple blocks to the newly opened Woods Beer Co. Outbound post, where they’ll have a special Trouble Coffee infused stout and a coconut pale ale going. Having plotted that out, the better move is to start at Woods and work my way closer to home. As in life, flexibility in Beer Week is key.

Wednesday, February 15- Likely a night off, but a great one to hit would be The Bruery’s Wild and Sour Takeover at The Old Bus Tavern. OBT is one of the best places in the city to eat and still highly underrated, and The Bruery, in my experience, just doesn’t know how to make a bad beer. A perfect pairing for a beer and bite. 

Thursday, February 16- The Eagle Rock Brewery takeover at the Social Kitchen and Brewery sounds promising and is close to home, making it the most likely candidate for me. The always awesome Harmonic Brewing is having a band and food pop-up that night in addition to beer specials, and though I probably won’t get there, Old Devil Moon will be pouring the best of breweries from the North Bay.

Friday, February 17- Triple Voodoo Yeast Profile Demonstration. Yeast plays a huge role in beer, yet its nuances remain something of a mystery to most. Save for being able to taste the flavors in Belgian strains, and knowing a bit about the differences between lager and ale yeasts, the little beast that makes beer beer is something I’ve left tragically unexplored.

Using the same base wort, Triple Voodoo is making five different batches with five yeast varieties. What a great opportunity to sit down with a flight and really put some thought into beer’s most crucial ingredient. With the exception of seeing my friends at the Battle of the Guilds, this is the night I’m looking froward to more than any other.

Saturday, February 18- The California Historical Society is showing “Brewers by the Bay” a documentary film about the history of craft beer in San Francisco, followed by a Q&A with director Jared Stutts. This would be a great chance to find some people who share my interest in the historical aspects of this whole endeavor.

All the same, if I haven’t decided to pull the trigger on the Celebrator party by this point, I’ll likely find a place to have a few last day brews and quietly reflect on the week. And by that, I mean I’ll probably put my loftier academic goals aside and get irresponsibly drunk after restraining myself for the previous eight days. There is a ton of good stuff to choose from, like Barrelhead Brewing’s Bacon, Bourbon, and Barleywine pairing, the Woods Beer Bus Tour which will take you to all five Woods locations, and City Beer Store’s Sea of Sours (sours are figuring even more prominently this year than last it seems). Ferment Drink Repeat’s Beers Off the Beaten Path progressive beer and food tasting will take people to four different locations in some of the lesser frequented neighborhoods in San Francisco, offering a different bite paired with an FDR beer at each location.

I don’t know what I’ll be drinking or where I’ll end up, but this will be my day to go big.

Sunday, February 19- Nothing. I’m taking a day of rest as the good Lord intended. There will still be a lot going on, but my liver and wallet will likely be ready to tap out by this point. So will the kegs at The Willows where their kick the keg party will include 50% off full size pours all night. That’s the kind of deal that could bring even the most weary beer drinker out for one more night of indulgence.

Whatever you end up doing, I hope you have fun, drink a lot of good beers while making an effort to learn something, and for Christ’s sake, don’t drive drunk. Lyft is everywhere, the busses cheap. Use them. If you have ideas about places I should hit, things that are not to be missed, or stories about your own Beer Week adventures, I’m all ears.

Cheers.

Brewdiligence: January’s Beer Research

One month in to my year long beer drinking schedule and things are going quite well. January’s research, both scholarly and liquid, went swimmingly. Save for one Saturday that might have gotten out of hand, I made it through without having a single beer that was not new to me. I did allow myself multiple pints of the same beer in one sitting, provided I hadn’t tasted it previously, because going to a bar for one pint is dumb.

The research I did was mostly focused on the ancient world, because that is where my area of expertise as a historian lies, though that article I found most related to my own beer drinking experience was about Colonial America, which I suppose really shouldn’t come as any surprise.

In addition to the articles, I am making my way through Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer: An Insiders Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. It’s a fun, light read, and packed with useful information, not just on tasting beer, but it’s history, the brewing process, glassware, etc. It’s a great place to start a beer education or just have on hand for reference. I’m considering it a primer to Michael Jackson’s epic, The World Guide to Beer. What makes Mosher’s book all the better is his admonition to not even think about reading it without a beer in your hand, and since he is an expert, who am I to say no?

Brewing an Ancient Beer, by Solomon H. Katz, Fritz Maytag, and Miguel Civil. Archaeology, Vol. 44, July/August 1991.

I’ve read, in more than once place now, that beer was the primary reason for domestication of grains. As a food historian I found this claim dubious, but never looked into it further; the times I have run across this it has been in beer-centric publications where one would expect this to be championed as fact. In this article the authors sought to explore the debate about what prompted grain domestication, and to then recreate an ancient beer as best can be expected.

Though the latter half of that might seem passé in the age of Dogfish Head’s  ancient recipe recreations, in 1991 there were significantly less people interested in such a thing. Fritz Maytag, craft beer visionary and former Anchor Brewing owner, helped research and write this article, and bottled the resulting beer. One wonders how well that sold. In today’s market it would likely do well. 1991 might not have been ready for it.

My bigger interest here was the veracity of the beer-before-bread assertion, and unfortunately this article did not shine any new light on the subject. The dispute goes back to the 1950s when Robert Braidwood and Jonathan D. Sauer held a symposium asking the question, “Did Man Live by Bread Alone?” Sauer, the progenitor of the beer-first argument, postulated that the work involved in grain domestication would not have been worth it to hunter-gatherers if the purpose was only food, but provides little evidence other than inconclusive archaeological remains to support such a claim. I read the entirety of the 1953 symposium (where not a single person agreed with him), in addition to numerous other articles, and none of them are able to convincingly argue a case for beer over bread. Maytag’s co-author here, Solomon H. Katz, wrote another article (Beer and Bread: The Early Use of Cereals in the Human Diet) proposing the health benefits of a fermented beverage, along with the social impact of a readily available intoxicant might have motivate grain domestication, but readily admits any such conclusion cannot be definitively supported.

I love beer. You love beer. Beer being a prime mover in bringing wild grain under man’s sway is great fodder for conversation over pints, but until better evidence is presented, this notion should be put to rest. 

Beer and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story. Michael M. Homan. Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 67, June 2004.

An interesting look at the integral role beer played in the ancient Near East and Egypt. Beer was prized at every level of society, being utilized in religious ceremonies, as a form of payment to laborers, and poured for ne’er do wells in taverns and brothels (Another article from 1931 mentioned that harem girls got three quarts of beer a day and  also made the now very politically incorrect assessment that “Evidently the Orientals liked ‘em plump then just as they do now”). Material remains play heavily here, including the discovery of clay stoppers used to control fermentation, which were previously thought to be tools utilized in cloth making. In many depictions of ancient beer consumption people are seen to be drinking beer through straws in order to filter out grain hulls and other detritus (like bugs) left over from the brewing process. These straws were made of long, hollow reeds and capped with tips made of metal or bone, many of which have been found at sites across the region.

Did Ancient Greeks Drink Beer? Max Nelson. Phoenix Vol. 68. Spring/Summer 2014.

Using textual evidence in histories, dramas, comedies, and philosophical works, Nelson makes a sturdy, nuacned case for his argument that beer was most certainly looked down upon by the Greeks. Yes, some Greeks definitely drank beer. But enough evidence exists in literature, either positive or negative, that a strong conclusion can be made beer was almost a non-factor in Greek society, and that wine was the beverage of choice regardless of social status. Beer was a drink used by non-Greeks and became a means of what is referred to as “othering.” In broad terms, othering is a way in which one group delineates itself from another by way of culturally specific criteria. In the case of Greeks and beer, to be a drinker of beer was to announce oneself as not being Greek, and by virtue of that, a lesser person. 

On a related note, the oft seen quote from Plato that says, “He is a wise man who invented beer,” needs to be put to pasture along with the beer before bread argument. Should someone be able to find any text where Plato mentions beer, let alone praises its creator, I would love too see it.

Brewing Beer in the Massachusetts Bay, 1640-1690. James E. Nelson The New England Quertlery , Vol. 71, No.4, December 1998.

A detailed and well researched expert from a larger work on the internal economy of colonial New England. The selection here traces the evolution of brewing from its colonial origins as an activity taking place mostly in private homes to fledgeling industry by the end of the seventeenth century.

One of the more noteworthy aspect of this article, and one which should be of specific interest to today’s beer community, is the presence of women as brewers. It’s a well known fact that women made more beer than men, from antiquity until the time brewing became a real means of financial enterprise, that fact is really brought to life here. Since most early beer making was done at home, and more specifically, in the kitchen, it was a job often included in their may chores. Country records show an inordinate amount of brewing being done by widows, and fathers routinely willed brewing equipment to their daughters.

The tension at play between home and commercial brewers, and the regulations placed upon both might also strike a chord with modern craft beer enthusiasts. Another modern analog to be found is the use of adjunct grains, indian corn specifically. When prices for corn fell below that of wheat, barely, and rye, it wasn’t long before corn played an increasingly large role in some recipes. Then, as now, this was a source of consternation, so much so that legal measures were taken to ensure that good barely was used over corn. In spite of the distance time and modern techniques might seem to wedge between us the beer drinkers of colonial America, it turns out they might have held dear some of the same principles we see in today’s craft beer movement.