Failure In Brewdiligence Leads to Unwitting Patriotism

Depending on how you look at it, March’s Brewdiligence was either a total flop, or a rousing success.

The explicit goal of this year long project was to pick a theme for each month and stick to it as assiduously as possible. March was supposed to be about European beer of all styles. I wanted to explorer the Old World one pint at a time. I knew going in there would be challenges: access, freshness, lack of familiarity, and cost.

How much the place I live would dictate the month’s research was not something I factored in to this. I have lived in San Francisco for going on four years, but by no stretch do I feel myself to be a part of this city. It’s too dense, there is too much going on, and too many people have been here far longer than I. But just because I am not of this place does not mean it hasn’t effected me. Like many here, I tend not to leave my own neighborhood, let alone the city. Driving somewhere is almost a laughable notion at this point.

I could have walked to my neighborhood Safeway, which, in spite of its negligible cleanliness and inept staff, does have a respectable beer selection. Said selection, though, is not what anyone would describe as continental. They have Duvel, Chimay, and some six packs of Pilsner Urquell, but beyond those it’s mostly domestic beer on the shelves. Also within walking distance of my house is a decent bottle shop. Their variety of European beers outshines Safeway’s, but the prices are high, and many of the bottles are discernibly old. I don’t sling that tech-money like so many in San Francisco do, so I can’t afford to roll the dice on a $15 bottle that is past its prime.

What this amounted to was a month long internal conflict where I constantly prodded myself to either drop money I shouldn’t or to get in my car and drive to the BevMo in Daly City. “Do you want to try some German lagers?” I’d ask myself. “ Are you committed to this, ya piece of shit? There aren’t any farmhouse ales on at the pizza place down the street. Get off your ass!” Followed by, “You know that $15 might buy you groceries at the end of the month, right? You know you’ll waste a bunch of gas driving to BevMo and end up buying way too much, right? You know this whole thing is stupid and it’s just beer, right?” It was an ugly cycle that fueled self-loathing and doubt, and one I repeated several times a week.

Needless to say, I didn’t fall in love with Belgian yeast or discover stumble on to an exquisite French sour. And in that respect, my plan to get Eurotrashed was just shy of an abject failure.

The bright side to falling short of my goals was realizing how committed I am to American craft beer. I am a straight up, dyed in the wool, diehard patriot in that regard.: these grains, hops, and yeast don’t run. It became very apparent to me early on in the month that I would much rather go to a local taproom and try some of whatever is fresh, and made by hand of a person in my own community, than I would to seek out some Euro-fetish pub bent on serving a stale version of whatever brew is consumed in the providence they are aping, or be reduced to scouring shelves of dust-crusted imports in hopes of finding that one gem no one outside of Alsace has heard of.

Given this, my mission for the month took something of a turn. Rather than a quest for European beers, I was on the hunt for European inspired beers. I went to my regular stops and ordered the Belgians I typically forego. I drug myself across town to a place I shall not name, that leans heavily on the Old World for its offerings (it also bills itself as being “malt forward”, yet more taps were IPAs than any other style). I forced down dubbels and tripels and golden ales, and let the fruity esters wash over me.

I got deep into the euro-inspiration one Saturday and had a pint of gruit, a traditional herbal ale that doesn’t contain any hops. Gruit is a combination of various herbs; which herbs were found in the mixture is a bit unclear, but from the research I have done, sweet gale/bog myrtle was a constant. Gruits were standard fare in northern Europe before hops became the additive of choice and today they are pretty uncommon. A few places in the Bay Area make something touted as gruit, but without the requisite bog myrtle, I’m calling spice on that. Those are herbal ales, not gruits. This is not a controversy that has the beer community embroiled in some battle over stylistic definitions, but it’s a conversation I’d like to see started. Expect more on gruits in a future article.

As is the case with a lot of life, sometimes in brewdiligence you miss the mark. Though my aim in drinking all European beers for the month of March was off, I hit on a brand of patriotism in American craft beer I didn’t know I had. And that is what this is all about: learning something new, even if by accident, and always with a good beer by my side.

Advertisements

Ferment Drink Repeat: Brewing Beer and Community

img_3756-version-2

“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.

img_3927
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.

img_3931
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.