34th Annual San Francisco International Beer Fest Recap

I wrote a recap of the 34th Annual San Francisco International Beer Festival for TheFullPint.com

Go check it out here.

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NoIPApril: 30 Days With No IPAs

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This month I am encouraging everyone to join me in 30 days of IPA-free drinking. Let all those who see my words heed the call and take part in the first annual NoIPApril. Want to participate? It’s easy. Simply drink other styles of beer for the entirety of April.*

Why? IPAs have simply become too easy. They’re easy to find, they’re easy to drink, they’re easy to select. Walk into any bar, brewery, or taproom and you are sure to find one; more often than not you’l have several iterations to choose from. For general purposes I take no issue with this. They’re big and tasty and can encompass a wide range of flavor profiles. But they have also become the de facto choice for craft beer enthusiast across the country. While I celebrate the search for a beer containing enough hops to pull the teeth out of your head, a month off will be a marvelous thing.

Moreover, it will reaffirm why you started drinking craft beer in the first place: the choices. After cutting your teeth on fizzy yellow lawnmower beers, the craft beer movement showed that you can get a buzz on and discover something completely new. Realizing beer could taste like something other than Budweiser was profound and it drove the hunt for evermore new taste sensations. So this month, rather than scanning menus and boards for the IPA with the highest ABV or a clever name, eschew them altogether. Pick a style you normally wouldn’t. Branch the fuck out. Give your overwhelmed palate a break and use this opportunity to embrace subtlety and nuance. Seek out some Old World Styles. Try that blonde you’ve been ignoring. Delve into different yeast strains and get into Belgians, Bretts or some kind of mixed fermentation brews. There is so much beer out there that isn’t loaded with lupulin, and every bit as delicious. You just have to open yourself up to it.

Times might get tough during NoIPApril and you’ll likely find yourself needing a piney, resinous hit of the good stuff. Fear not! This doesn’t require you to forsake hops altogether, merely one particular vehicle for them. Need to feed that IBU addicted monkey on your back? Get a hop-forward pale ale. A hoppy wheat. A hoppy red, a hoppy amber, and so on. Hops are plentiful in enough other styles of beer that even in IPA’s absence you can get your fix.

Think you like IPAs now? Wait until you’ve given them up for thirty days. Come May 1 you’ll find yourself embraced in their loving, bitter arms once again, and your relationship will be that much stronger as a result. That time you bought a shelf-turd with faded, muddied flavors? All in the past! Remember when you opened that ill-advised 11% triple IPA bomber at the end of the night and woke up wanting to die? Forgotten! The two of you now have the rest of the year to become reacquainted and grow to love each other even more. If you love something, let it go they say, despite the uncertainty of its return. No worries here. You know exactly when IPAs will be back.

We all love IPAs. It is the craft beer style of choice and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. And I’m not here to encourage such a thing. But the other shoe is always waiting to drop. Tastes will change, styles will come in and out of favor. Sooner or later brewers will move on and something else will occupy 8 out of 12 taps you have to choose from. Start preparing now. Open your heart and mouth to something new. The possibilities are endless, but to experience them you might need to close the door on something else, if only for a month.

So join me, friends, and say no to IPAs. The sacrifice will be great and so to will the rewards.

*As with any rule, there are exceptions. If you need to taste IPAs for work, go right ahead. If you are at a festival, indulge. Come across something rare? Don’t pass on the opportunity to try it. If someone who doesn’t know about NoIPApril buys you a nice hoppy DIPA, drink it; good brewdiligence doesn’t mean you have be to rude. Beyond those circumstances, however, once you’ve read this you are bound by blood to comply with the month’s restrictions. Harsh penalties will be levied on anyone found in violation of the rules.

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.

More Bad Beer History

Yesterday this nonsense was posted on a beer-related Instgram account that nearly18,000 people follow: “The word ‘toast,’ meaning a wish of good health, started in ancient Rome, where a piece of toasted bread was dropped into wine.” What a load of tripe.

While there might be an etymological connection from the latin torrere, to parch, there is no clear connection between a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine and the word “toast” being used in the afore mentioned way.

Bread and wine were staple foods in the ancient world and as such, likely made for decent bed fellows. There is no fundamental objection to saying the two went together in some combination. However, Romans added a lot of things to their wine: water, honey, various herbs and spices. Bread was likely among that list of things, but if you do any amount of reading on the subject you’ll find numerous additives far more common than bread.

What little substantiation there is to be found on the matter indicates that the charcoal on toasted bread was a means of dulling off flavors in wine, like some kind of pre-modern Brita Filter, or that it was meant to cut wine’s acidity. Neither claim about bread’s ability to perform those tasks can be rejected out of hand, but the addition of water was a more likely way of cutting acidity, as was honey and herbs to cover off flavors. Moreover, any historical precedent given as evidence for this to be true cites customs from the 1700s rather than those from classical antiquity.

The word toast (both the food and the action) might well be derived from the original latin verb. But to indicate there is a straight line between that word, and a Roman tradition of adding bread to wine becoming a metonym for honoring someone or something before a drink is a gross oversimplification of things. Rarely is history so linear.

If that were the case, wedding speeches would all started something like this: “I’d like to propose a combination of water and honey and maybe a few herbs? Is that coriander or hyssop? I can’t tell. Anyway, I’ve known Jim for a long time now…”

Here’s to keeping bad history out of beer.

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.

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.