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.

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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.

My 2017 Beer-Year Schedule

I recently discovered a file on my computer called “Master Beer List.” It was my attempt circa 2010 to compile a record of the different beers I tried. More recently Untapped became the means by which myself and many a beer geek maintained a similar list.  More recently Instagram has taken over these duties, my feed giving now revolving almost entirely around beer. The point I am getting at that a part of my enthusiasm for beer is curating the personal collection that grows with each new brew tasted. As a historian I have long been enamored by such things;  maintenance of factoids and information, research and investigation of random topics of inquiry. Those predilections have carried over to craft beer nicely.

In an effort to further cultivate this, and to obfuscate the fact I’m a total booze-bag with something I can refer to as “research,” I have created a beer schedule for 2017. Each month I will drink only beers selected from a preset category. The word only is used loosely here. I’ll not turn down a beer given to me by someone because it doesn’t fit within the monthly scheme I’ve set up, nor will I be so stringent as to pass on something I’m not likely to see again, or that promises to be exemplary. The themes are meant to direct my consumption, with the goal of better understanding some aspect of beer as a result; my adherence to them will be strict, but reasonable. It should also be noted that the twelve themes here are intended to be loose. While an overarching principle will shepherd me, there is no telling what each month may bring in terms of trends, availability, and the like. The end result might be wildly different than what I have laid out here. I encourage everyone who reads this to plan their own Beer-Year schedule, or at he very least put in some effort to better educate yourself on beer in whatever ways you can.

January – Research Month

Rather than kick things off by restricting myself to a specific beer, my intent for the New Year is to begin by doing as much research as I can. Read, read, read. In the interest of breadth over depth, I anticipate utilizing mostly magazine articles and journals  rather than books, and hope to leave a small synopsis of everything I read, or a proper citation at the very least so that others might find the same articles. No specific beer will be assigned to the month, instead I will stick to the theme of research by trying only beers that are new to me.

February – All Beer Week Related Beers and Activities

This one is based on two presumptions: that I will still be living in San Francisco through February of 2017 (SF Beer Week runs from the 10th to the 19th) and that enough beer will be made for that event that I’ll be able to find it all month. Both are good possibilities. A move might come more suddenly that I can account for, but my experience with SF Beer Week is that there is often enough beer in the form of specialty brews, one-offs, and collaborations, that it can still be had in the weeks following the event.

March – All European Beers

My knowledge of European beers has been hampered by the American Craft Beer movement. There is simply too much good beer being made domestically to spend time on imports. This will be the month I try to find a global beer balance. I’d initially thought to do all Irish beers in honor of St. Patrick’s day, but realized it might prove too limiting and expanded to include the whole continent.

April – No IPA April

This should be simultaneously the easiest and most difficult month to get through. Finding a place with something other than IPAs on the menu is going to be easy. Not ordering one, either out of habit or desire is going to the be the hard part. I love IPAs like everyone else, but they have become my default beer. Too often I’ll give a draft list a cursory glance, spot the IPA, and make my order. They’ve become too easy. Last July I did 31 Days With No IPA on a whim and inspired this while mess I’m concocting now. I changed to to April or two reasons. Firstly, going one month without an IPA is a cruel joke of a kind, making April an appropriate time to do so. Second No IPApril has a nice ring to it and, frankly, will make a great hashtag.

May – Saisons, Sours, Wild Ales, Brets, etc.

By May we should be opening up the summer beer season, so it seemed a likely time to get in touch with saisons. My fear, however, is that on top of being slightly less available than other styles, I’ll get completely sick of them after a couple of weeks. Because of this, I’ve added sours, wild ales, and brets to the theme for May. Sweet, sour, and funky flavors will rule the month.

June – All Local Beers

For June the goal is to drink only beers produced within 25 mile radius of where I live,  expanding that boundary should I exhaust everything in that range. This will also be a good change to visit and tour the few breweries near me that I’ve not had a chance to, and to spend money only within my community, a goal I would like to work towards in more aspects of my life than just beer, but isn’t always so easily achievable.

July – All Lagers and Pilsners

With summer in full swing, lagers and pilsners are in order to beat the heat. I plan on revisiting the standard American lagers we all cut our teeth on, like Budweiser and Coors, but also seeking out the many versions of these styles being produced by the craft world.

August – All SMASH, Single Hop, and Summer Beers

I’m a big fan of SMASH and single hop beers. Though I harbor very few delusions about ever having such a refined palate that I’ll have the ability to confidently pick out a particular malt or hop variety from a given brew, I do enjoy the process of trying to get to that place, and spending time with a beer I know has specific ingredients to consider. Though increasingly popular, these might prove hard to find with regularity, so I’ve also added anything that bills itself as a summer beer to my options for the month.

September – Amber and Red Ales

Moving into the fall, this month is good to turn towards dark beer. I want to pivot out of lighter summer beers gently, so amber ales make the most sense. Nothing lighter in color than copper shall pass my lips in September. Ambers and Reds are both styles that I generally ignore, not because I dislike them, but because I find others tastier and more interesting.

October – Anti-Pumkin Spice Month and Oktoberfest

I never cared for pumpkin spice beers to begin with, but in the last few years they’ve become shamefully overblown. This October will be about seeking out anything that is characterized as being a fall beer and that is not fouled with pumpkin spices. Oktoberfest beers should be plentiful then, too, offering some more variety. Should I run out of options, there is the possibility of steering into the pumpkin spice craze; maybe by embracing it I will come to understand, or even like it, though the later is doubtful.

November – Aged Beers and Strong Ales

I’ll have to tread lightly this month, and try not to drink myself blind on the oldest, strongest beers I can find, with the aim of consuming nothing under 8% ABV. Given the time of year and the availability of high alcohol brews I don’t see this theme being a problem.

December – Winter Warmers and Dark Beers

I’m not the biggest fan of winter warmer beers, but this is the year I change that. I’ll seek out winter warmers and drink them until I love them (or make myself sick trying). Should I find myself in a place where none are found, I’ll substitute a warmer for the darkest thing on tap. This seems like a good compromise and a fine way to continue beating the December cold.

As stated above, the themes presented here will remain loose. They are not meant to be too proscriptive, but intended to guide my hand through the myriad beers available to me, to ensure I keep trying to new things, and most importantly to make sure I am thinking about what I drink rather than mindlessly guzzling it down. I’m certain that some of these will change in some small part, if not entirely as the year unfolds; there will be times I break my self-imposed rules (I’ll likely have an IPA in April). But I am also certain that at the end of each month I’l have discovered something previously unknown to me; some subtly, some nuance, or some bit of information that I’d never have discovered otherwise, making me a more knowledgable and better educated beer drinker, which is something we should all strive for.