Monday, February 20, 2017

Scenes for the 8th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival

The 8th Annual Meet the Brewers Festival last Saturday was the usual of mostly South San Francisco Bay breweries.  Held on the grounds of San Jose's Hermitage Brewing, the usual suspects like Strike Brewing, Santa Clara Valley BrewingAlmanac Beer, Hermitage Brewing, Freewheel Brewing, Discretion Brewing, Red Branch Cidery and New Bohemia  were all pouring some fine brews.  Notable newcomers showcasing their latest concoctions include Steel Bonnet, Geartooth Alewerks,  Brewery Twenty Five, and Golden State Brewery. If I didn't give a brewery a mention, it was because I just didn't get around to their stand. Breweries typically bring their A-game to any beer festival, but usually there's always a misfire or two.  Not Saturday.  Everything my wife and I sampled was solid to excellent.  Biggest surprise?  Strike Brewing, long known for straightforward Session Ales was pouring "Stand Up Triple IPA", a dynamite Triple IPA. Sorry, no fancy tasting notes, I was just enjoying the brews and community.  I'll leave you with a few snapshots from the afternoon.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Scenes from the Grand Opening of Blue Oak Brewing

Another day, another brewery opens in the Bay Area. This times it's Blue Oak Brewing, tucked away in a little industrial park in San Carlos, just off Highway 101 which hosted its Grand Opening last Saturday. A small crowd of maybe thirty people crammed into the small tap room Blue Oak shares with Redwood Coast Cider to enjoy brews such as their herbaceous Hoppy Pale Ale, and well as their aromatic Belgian Golden and Strong Ales. Once again, no detailed tasting notes here, my wife and I we're just enjoying the beer and the random company of some of the people we shared a table with. I'll leave you with some pictures from the afternoon.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A quick look at Hapa's Brewing, San Jose's newest brewery

Hapa's Brewing, which opened up a mere two weeks ago, has already carved out its unique identity at a location lacking one. It's a little too west to be considered part of downtown San Jose, a little too north to be part of the Willow Glen neighborhood, and a bit too east of Burbank, sitting a nowhere's-ville surrounded by drab industrial buildings. It's organic warehouse space quickly filled up during last Friday afternoon when I stopped by, the place already developing a local following in its brief existence.

Judging the beer from any brewery that's just opened is a bit dicey. Talented brewers usually need a few batches under their belt to fully understand their new brewing equipment works, and bad brewers can get lucky and brew great beer right off the bat, but fail to repeat their success. As far as Hapa's goes, so far, so good. My favorite Hapa's brew was their Little Angel Mocha Porter. If they had added just a smidgen more coffee to the brew, it would have too much. Instead, the dominant coffee flavors really shine with a light bitter chocolate undertone, with a light body and sweetness. Very nice.  Their Barbie's Blonde Ale, with its light earthy and minerally character looked to be a popular after work refreshment, judging from all the pints of it pouring in the tap room, and gets my thumbs up.

The story behind Hapa's is one you've heard a thousand times already: A couple home brewers following their brewing passions and create a business. Yet emerging from this tired cliche' is breath of fresh air to forgotten corner of San Jose. That's why I never tire of discovering new breweries.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Session #120 : Intersections with Brown Ales

For this month's Session, Joe Tindall over at The Fatal Glass of Beer admits Brown Ale has a bit of an image problem. While the color brown often conveys comfort and relaxed earthiness, it also signals something worn, tired, and faded. There are also brown things that....well, you probably don't want to think about while drinking beer. So it's not too surprising that Brown Ales are some of the least sexy styles of beer. That's too bad, since I like a good Brown and when I look back on my relationship with Brown Ales, they've been there along the way as I've made new discoveries in beer.

Such as the time back in my graduate school days at The Ohio State University in the early 90's, roaming the aisles at the Big Bear grocery store, I spied bottles of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale high up on the beer shelf. Back then, my experience with any beer that wasn't a straw yellow Lager was pretty much limited to Michelob Dark. I couldn't help notice that one bottle of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale cost about as much as a six-pack of Bud and was imported from some historic looking brewery from the UK, so I figured it must be good. In that time of great exploration in my life, I picked up a bottle. Trying it later one night in my dorm room, I found it, well, different. It was not some secret ambrosia and with my palate molded by light Lagers, it took effort to finish. Later on, I'd take a bottle or two to poker games to look cool and sophisticated as my friends sucked down cans of Natty Light. I was a bit of twit back then, and probably only grudgingly shared my Nut Brown Ale with anyone who asked to try it. Another Samuel, Samuel Adams, started showing up on beer shelves, which had a distinct advantage over Samuel Smith in that it was significantly cheaper, very important in those days when instant ramen noodles with frozen vegetables was my usual dinner.

Fast forward twenty years and 2,000 miles westward. I've been living in and around San Jose, California for ten years. By then, I'd discovered discovered so many great breweries in Northern California, although most of them are concentrated around the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, or bucolic places like Mendocino County or Santa Rosa. San Jose and it's Silicon Valley surroundings was considered a brewery backwater. Then one day, I discovered a new brewery in San Jose called Strike Brewing and one of their first beers was simply called "Brown".  (They now call it "Lumberbuster Brown").  Light, tight, and a little nutty, I found it to be a refreshing Brown from a brewery specializing in sessionable ales. Strike's no-nonsense straightforward style was equally refreshing at that time in Northern California, full of big booming IPA's and Imperial everythings. Strike Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich was a minor baseball pitcher before co-founding Strike and his beers suggest he threw batters nothing but a steady diet of solid fastballs. Strike was one of the earliest entrants into San Jose's small but growing brewing scene, a group of breweries which reflects Silicon Valley's tradition of both innovation and laser-focus on process. Being a Silicon Valley techie, it is with pride that I can now enjoy hometown brews from Strike and plenty of other new local breweries.

Five years later, late last summer, I'm chatting which Calicraft's Brewmaster Blaine Landberg in the back of his newly opened taproom. I'm interviewing him for an article in a local food magazine, and he's eagerly handing me sample after sample of each of his beers, telling me all about them like they're his kids. It was not wise to interview him on an empty stomach. He gets to Calicraft's Oaktown Brown which at 6.7% abv, 70 ibu, which is not your traditional Brown Ale, and tastes far more balanced and composed than those numbers suggest. We both lament that Brown Ales are underappreciated. Landberg's idea behind Oaktown Brown was to give the style the royal treatment, adding oak at fermentation and plenty of Cascade hops, creating a woody, vanilla, and slightly red wine character to the big roasty flavors. I don't know how he keeps all those big flavors at the right volumes but he does it this complex brew I find myself sipping effortlessly.

One could derisively call Brown Ales the cockroaches of beer, continuing to persist despite commercially eradicative indifference. The thing about Brown Ales are, whether in traditional form, modern renditions, or contemporary reworkings, they have their passionate believers.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Rambling Reviews 1.30.2017: Guinness Nitro IPA and Sierra Nevada's Tropical Torpedo

Just a quick editorial announcement: Moving forward, these "Rambling Reviews" posts will not be limited to a review of three beers. I expect to be posting review in the neighborhood of 1-4 brews at a time. I won't bore you with the reason for this, other than to say that three was never really a magic number, and reviewing three beers at a turned out to bit limiting.

OK, now that's out of way, I have a couple new IPAs to ramble about.

Some of the most most fun I've have drinking an IPA in a long time comes from Guinness in their recently released Nitro IPA in a can. Long synonymous with their iconic Stout, they just couldn't resist the temptation to release an IPA that are all the rage these days. It's brewed in the traditional English style, which I found to be a breath of fresh air compared to all the big, bombing California IPA's I'm used to. It's got that nitro do-hicky thing to create the cascading tiny bubbles. The hop character is rather leafy and tea-like, and there's this wonderful interplay between the caramel malt, velvety carbonation, and subdued hops. At 5.8% abv at 40 ibus, less is definitely more. I'm a fan, and beers like this help me understand why some are aghast at what Americans did to the classic English IPA.

Those who prefer the American version of the IPA will find themselves on familiar territory with Sierra Nevada's latest gem, Tropical Torpedo. It's very tropical. Mango and pineapple dominate the flavor profile bursting of fruit.  The malt is left to be a neutral substrate supporting all those hop flavors.  Not much more to say, and really no surprises here coming from Sierra Nevada. The Chico brewery may be a craft beer dinosaur, but they still find multiple ways to be at, or at least near, the cutting edge of American brewing. Impressive.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Developing Grilling Technique Keeps Me Sane In These Times

Yogurt marinated chicken breasts and fennel
grilled in the gloom of night time.
If you're like me, you probably feel like you've been living in a dystopian novel since November 8th when Donald Trump won the Presidential Election. For me, this moment actually came a little sooner as my beloved Cubs won the World Series the week before. The win was thrilling, but also ominous. It seemed to signal something critical in the very fabric of space-time had torn and some serious shit was starting to go down. Life seems rather surreal these days. Sure, I'm one of those damn liberals, but a lot of people who either voted for Trump or really didn't like Hillary are rather apprehensive right now. The whole nation seems to be holding its breath.


Writing on things like beer, running, and grilling seems so trivial in times like these. But yet, these activities can be very critical to keeping one's sanity, and take on a new-found importance. So I've found a certain solace in slowly developing new grilling techniques on my back patio. Grill masters may brag about secret ingredients and killer recipes, but it's really technique that separates the good from the great. It's about understanding how heat circulates on the grill, how marinades interact with the meat or vegetables, and developing the timing to remove the food from the grill at the correct time to achieve the best flavor. I've been experimenting around with yogurt based marinades on shrimp and chicken, two proteins which can easily dry out from the high heat on the grill. The yogurt helps keep the moisture in, and I'm finding it's ridiculously easy to make something good on the grill using a decent yogurt marinade.  Achieving greatness with a yogurt marinade is something I'm still working on.

I'm going to share this Tandoori Marinade from the book Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue Sauces. If we can heal our country's divisions over plates of grilled food, I'm all for it.

Tandoori Marinade

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 peanut oil
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh gingerroot
2 tablespoons curry powder
4 garlic cloves, pressed
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine all of the ingredients in a nonreactive bowl, and blend until smooth. Use immediately.

Marinate pieces of chicken for kabobs for 1 to 2 hours, chicken parts for 2 to 4 hours. Fish can be marinated for about 1 hour.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben talks about his beers coming to the San Francisco Bay Area

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, indoor
Moody Tongue Brewmaster Jared Rouben
(Moody Tongue photo)

Yet another brewery is rolling into the Bay Area, this time it's Chicago's Moody Tongue Brewing Company. New breweries arrive in the Bay Area all the time. Sometimes, it's the result of some corporate acquisition and expansion. Others follow the usual "home brewer turns his passion into his business" story. Moody Tongue is a little different. While Moody Tongue Brewmaster and Founder Jared Rouben is a home brewer, he approaches brewing from high-end restaurant perspective.  He graduated from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America  before a ten year career at the Michelin-starred "Martini House" in St. Helena, CA and Thomas Keller's "Per Se" before starting Moody Tongue in 2014. So when Jared declares his brewery takes a culinary approach to brewing, it isn't just a marketing gimmick. I caught up with Jared last week on the phone to discuss his unique brewing style.

The first thing I noticed about Jared was his amiable inquisitiveness. Most brewers can't wait to talk about their beer in phone interviews. Instead, Jared started asking me a bunch of questions, like "Why did you get involved in writing about beer?" in a calm, relaxed voice. As soon I as I answered, he followed up with "How does running figure into that?". After this kept going for a few minutes, I realized Jared wasn't going to tire from asking questions, which wasn't going to give me much material. So I politely but firmly broke in with "How did you get involved with brewing?"

Jared recalled his time as a student at Washington University in St. Louis when he'd go to the Schnuck's grocery store and saw all the different craft beers from places like Schlafly and Boulevard Brewing. "I'd see all the different labels and wanted to experience the different tastes." Coincidentally,  I also attended Washington University in St. Louis about a decade before Jared did, and an awful lot changed about beer over that time.  Back in the late 80's, buying beer at Schnuck's, or just about anyplace else in St. Louis came down to basically three choices: Bud, Busch, and Bud Light. Sometimes we wanted wanted to the good stuff, we'd splurge on Michelob.

In his last year at Washington University, he took a food journalism course.  "That's when I met a lot of people interested in different tastes, and a found many of them interested in beer." From there, Jared decided to research culinary schools and enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Beer played big role in his education there. "I founded the CIA beer club which still exists today." He learned to use beer in traditional cooking techniques like brining pork butts or braising sausages. "Then, I began asking myself why beer didn’t have stronger representation in restaurants and on menus.  Brewing and cooking are about manipulating raw ingredients with time and temperature. When you use beer, you intoxicate people which I believe is every chef’s dream."

After culinary school, Jared worked at the Martini House in Napa Valley, where he had his "a-ha!" moment with using produce in beer. "They sent me to the farmer's market every Wednesday to pick up produce for the restaurant. I also picked some up for my home brews and people started liking them a lot more." His Pluot Pale Ale was a particular hit from those days in Napa Valley. After a decade of cooking at some of the finest kitchens in the country, he turned in his apron and started Moody Tongue.

"We like to define our beers in the same way what a chef tries to achieve in the kitchen," explains Jared.  "We use the absolute best ingredients.  It's hard to make something great if you start with something that's just good. And we incorporate the ingredients at the right time in the liquid.

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(Moody Tongue photo)

For example, for Moody Tongue's Sliced Nectarine IPA, the nectarines are sourced from Klug Farms, an organic farm in Western Michigan. "Nectarines are a very delicate fruit, you don't want to subject them to high temperatures. They work best under 40 degrees so I use them post-fermentation." For those used to West Coast IPA's crammed full pine, citrus, dankness and alcohol, Sliced Nectarine IPA requires a palate re-calibration to fully appreciate. There's nectarine skin on the nose, with nectarine flash on the tongue, and a bitter finish of tangerine peel. At 6.9% abv, you can have another one with dinner if you'd like. It's a restrained, yet lively composition of flavors.

The same can be said of the other three beers on Moody Tongue's permanent line-up. The Applewood Gold is well balanced, the smoked malt adding a subtle depth to the light ale. The Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saisson is...well, very lemony. The Caramelize Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter sounds like an over the top, everything and the kitchen sink concoction, but the caramel and chocolate worked well in harmony with the underlying, slightly sweet Baltic Porter. I can see this working as a sophisticated dessert beer. For the most part, the flavors of the Moody Tongue beers work well together in balanced, contrasting with a lot of West Coast beers full of big slamming flavors. One way to compare the two is to consider California and French wines. California wines tend to full of big flavors that score well in tasting competitions, but the more restrained French wines tend to pair better with food. Or something like that. Long time readers all know that if you're looking for deep culinary analysis and commentary, you'll need to go to a different blog.

While the Moody Tongue tap room in Chicago features a number of seasonal beers, only Moody Tongue's four beer line-up can be found in the Bay Area. "We'll be focusing on perfecting the technique on our four primary beers like any good kitchen does with its recipes." According to the brewery's press release, "Moody Tongue is available at select retailers such as Berkeley Bowl West, La Riviera Market, and Alchemy Bottle Shop as well as restaurants including The Beer Hall, Imperial Beer Cafe' and the Albany Taproom".

In the Bay Areas deep and crowded beer market, Moody Tongue offer yet another approach to beer and new experiences to its enjoyment.