Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Time of the saison for loving

A few years ago, it seemed poised to become a permanent fixture within the standard brewpub repertoire. And while that hasn't quite happened (although I never thought I'd see the day when one would win a "best beer in the world" competition), it's certainly established itself among the seasonal varieties that even the most cookie-cutter of craft breweries have on the back side of their menus, alongside the summer hefewiezen, the autumn Oktoberfest, and the winter doppelbock. And that's all and good, because you know what? It's spring now. And I'm pretty amenable to the idea of taking these three months to give homage to that salt-of-the-earth, farmhouse funky, rustic piece of folk brewing art: the saison*.

An excellent guide for saison appreciation, Phil Markowski's Farmhouse Ales, distinguishes saison as one of the two major subsets of of north European rustic ales, the other being the French bière de garde, a distinction that oenophiles would appreciate as it's based almost primarily on terroir, being a style that's inherently married to the land. The big downer though, for those of us who have a romantic penchant for seasonal, hand-crafted, mutable and airily shifting farmhouse creations that bend to the will of the harvest and to the experimental nature of the brewer, is that what used to be a truly rustic, wild-as-you-want style has been all but pigeonholed into a very specific set of guidelines. Granted, those guidelines are awfully fun to explore within - the archetype of the modern style, Saison Dupont is quite extraordinary - but isn't it fun to color outside the lines once in a while? What were those pre-WWII saisons of the Wallonian countryside like when the "market" for these recipes were the families, friends and odd visitors to the farms on which they were brewed?

Enter wild nonconformist Dany Prignon and his equally wild and nonconforming Fantôme brewery from Soy, Belgium. With recipes that change like the wind blows and a smirkingly secretive approach to unorthodox brewing ingredients, there aren't too many brewers out there whose work captures the "seasonal-ness" of saison like Fantôme (even were you to exclude the series of beers they actually name after the four seasons). A good way to gauge the inconsistency between batches of his beers, you have only to try to read through the reviews posted on a ratings site like BeerAdvocate or Rate Beer, wherein you'll find out that the particular beer pictured above, La Dalmatienne (labeled a "blonde" on the bottle) is overtly malty and sweet, yet really dry, funky and tart, deep brown and simultaneously light golden, tasting like an orange, or a lemon, or like apples, or maybe even like dirt. And those tasting notes are probably all right on the nose, as over the years, I'm sure it's been all of these things. [This bottle, in case you were wondering, was just right! Seriously, though...] What would be seen as a terminal flaw at any major brewery is here considered a charming personality trait - it's Mr. Prignon's unpredictability and ceaseless creativity that's earned him his enviable reputation.

Within the somewhat more straight-laced vein of saison brewing, though, there are many quite nice and far more available options. But maybe as springtime is a time of change, revelation and splendor, maybe it is the season in which to experience something virtually unanticipatable:
A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown,
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole experiment of green,
As if it were his own!

- Emily Dickenson

*Bruce Paton has a nice piece about saison as the beer for summer, so rather than split hairs, why don't we just call it the beer from March to September?


Monday, April 28, 2008

Weizen-wit wonderwort

Anyone who knows even the slightest bit about me could have guessed how this was going to end up. In the tail end of my post on a brewing technique by which we sometimes strive to create two completely different beers out of a single brewing session, I wrote:
Or! I'll give in to my slothful nature because it's in the 80's out and I've had a hard week, and I'll just toss all the grains together, boil the whole stinkin' lot in one batch and let the fates sort it out in the carboys (and try to make amends later with dry hop and spice tincture additions) while I work on my tan and soak my feet in the kiddie pool.
The ultra-observant amongst you will note there are what appear to be oats and flaked barley mashed in with the rest of the grains in the above image. It was 89 degrees yesterday. There was only one brewpot. All the ingredients went into it. And my tan looks fantastic.

For those of you keeping score at home, here's the lowdown:

The following grain bill was tossed together and mashed in some good old-fashioned Marin County tap water:
9.00 lbs. Wheat Malt
5.00 lbs. Belgian Pale Malt(2-row)
5.00 lbs. German Pilsener
1.00 lbs. Cara-Pils
1.00 lbs. Flaked Oats
1.00 lbs. Flaked Soft White Wheat
After dough-in, we mashed at 148 for about 50 minutes before starting a continuous sparge (I still can't comfortable with the waste of batch sparging), running the lot into a single (lazy!) kettle. The kettle was hopped with (organic!) Hallertauer Mittelfruh. After boil, the remaining 10 gallons were split into two fermenters. One had a an ounce of East Kent Goldings in it, and the other some more Mittelfruh, the former receiving a dose of Belgian witbier yeast and the latter some Bavarian hefeweizen yeast (to be followed by a hit of German lager yeast before it goes in the fridge). The carboy with the witbier yeast will be getting a nice dose of coriander, lemon peel and grains of paradise when we rack it over to the secondary. It's already exploded nicely all over the basement in what can only be construed as a good omen.

But will either of them taste any good? Most likely, they'll be okay. More interesting to see will be how different from each other they'll really taste, considering the only true difference between them is the yeast. We shall see...

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Weekend update - "spring hops eternal"

Granted, Adam's kicking my ass, but that can't stem my urge to continue the traditional of annual posts shamelessly flauting near-pornographic images of my ne'er-to-bloom hop plants (coincidentally always around the last weekend of April). This time around, a pair of shots of our poor, weedy-looking, neglected Santiam shoots and quixotically determined Willamette:

The ever-vigilant early riser, our Willamette.

The spindly and decidedly less robust Santiam.

Don't worry, I have loads more photos I could share. Believe you me. But it's getting late, so y'all will have to wait to see just how far the East Kent Goldings have gotten...


Friday, April 25, 2008

7-10 split brewing

Some homebrewers have, for whatever reason, a lot of time available to devote to their hobby, while others, like myself, have to carve into the 4th dimension in order to extract enough of the highly prized space-time material needed to construct a fully functional (yet still entirely abstract) mechanism known in these parts as a "free afternoon." But oh, the fun we have when February 30th rolls around! One of the amusing experiments I've concocted in the quest for maximizing the efficient use of such a precious resource is a little thing I call 7-10 split brewing, whereby we save some time by trying to brew separate, distinct batches simultaneously out of the same brewpot, a name derived from the perceived impossibility of hitting two discrete targets with a single trajectory. Anyone who's brewed in batches 10 gallons or larger who still ferments in 5-gallon carboys can relate to the allure of tinkering with the wort a little when it's broken into several smaller containers, especially considering that even if you tried your hardest, two identically fermented but separate batches of homebrew are likely going to taste a little different from each other, anyway.

In some ways, it's sort of a sister concept to partigyle brewing, a historically-minded technique where a brewer breaks a large mash into different runnings, each weaker than the next, in order to make strong ales and small beers from the same tun of grains. But the way we do it is a little more Dr. Moreau than Dr. Villa in the unorthodoxy of its approach.

The victims of this month's experiment: a singly mashed wheat beer which will be cruelly divorced into a Bavarian hefeweizen and a Belgian witbier. Here's the plan:

We're gonna stuff our Rubbermaid bucket with 8 lbs of wheat malt, 4 lbs of pale malt, 4 lbs of pilsner malt, 1 lb of Carapils, and some rice hulls, do a dough-in and strike the mash at 148° F. Meanwhile! I'll be conducting a little mini-mash on the side consisting of 1 lb wheat malt, 1 lb pale malt, 1 lb pilsner malt, 1 lb flaked wheat, and 1 lb flaked oats. When we mash out, I'll do some fancypants arithmetic to ensure that the gravity of wort A (mostly the early runnings from the lauter tun) will be similar to the gravity of wort B (later runnings blended with the mini-mash). Then I can do two side-by-side boils with separate hop and spice additions.

Or! I'll give in to my slothful nature because it's in the 80's out and I've had a hard week, and I'll just toss all the grains together, boil the whole stinkin' lot in one batch and let the fates sort it out in the carboys (and try to make amends later with dry hop and spice tincture additions) while I work on my tan and soak my feet in the kiddie pool.

Regardless of how we do it, it'll be fun, right? After the (explosive!) dust has settled, I'll try to post some details in a more recipe-friendly presentation. Enjoy your weekends, all!

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Can the circle be unbroken?

It was bound to happen at some point: A photo by a beer blogger of another beer blogger who happens to be taking a photo (of beer!) while sitting next to yet another drink blogger, only to be published on (you guessed it!) another beer blog.

From Bill Brand's What's On Tap site, I give you the following ghostly image:

It's an uncanny apparition in reference to the piece I wrote about that stellar evening, and how it spawned a discussion regarding beer writing in the context of the direction of this particular blog. (Also note Des' sneaky move on the cheese plate while I was distracted by the panoply of beer glasses in front of me.) If there isn't a better portrayal of the little conundrum I find tickling away in the back of my mind about the increasingly crowded field of beer writing, Pfiff!'s role within that community, and the "inside baseball" nature of this chosen hobby, I haven't yet seen it.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogfish Head to Toronado

There will doubtless be a dozen-odd posts over the next week about the day Sam Calagione showed up in San Francisco to deliver buckets upon buckets of his truly divine elixirs down the throats of a previously Dogfish Head-less town. And while I failed yet again to catch the attention of either Jay or Bill to ask, "Hey, is there anything about tonight that you're not going to talk about, or any photos from this event that you're not going to post?", the fact that I even had the urge to approach them like that (yes, Jay, that was me tapping you on the back while you were trying to scoot out; yes, Bill, that was me trying to introduce myself while you were taking my picture) speaks to the inner conversation I've been having lately, pretty much ever since I relit all the burners on this blog earlier this year after a bit of a hiatus, a conversation that could be summed up thusly: "What exactly am I writing about, again?"

The online beer writing scene has never felt as crowded as it does now, reminiscent in some ways to the sweaty wall of bodies three-deep at the bar last night*, of and while I recently posited that I'd lost my touch, I'm now prepared to consider that there was never much of a touch to misplace. What scared me was when I noticed that a blog I started under the pretense of having a place to post quick thoughts on beer and brewing and links to fun articles in the interest of reducing the amount of spammy instant messages I was sending to my friends was veering dangerously into the beerblog infested waters of an ocean of news-ish sites, trigger-happy with the ctrl+c ctrl+v , press releases at the ready, daily updates on current events, etc. etc. - stuff you can literally read on a million or so websites at this point - and that's only if you're too lazy to subscribe to the email announcement lists that generate all the content in the first place. It's time to pull this ship starboard and head for less crowded waters, methinks...

But first, a diversion of sorts:

Before anything else, I want to say a quick something about this guy, a man who I've sort of pseudo-idolized, teased, and made the subject of a faux brewer-man-crush over the past couple of years: Dude's for real. Not only would the brewer who's almost single-handedly responsible for the current level of respect this country's culinary critics have levied on craft brewing pose with a crazed, multi-grinned weirdo like myself for a photo (Des nudged me, "Tell him you have a beer blog so he doesn't think you're a complete lunatic," likely noticing I was reeking of eau de crazy stalker guy) - amidst his biggest debutante ball on the West Coast nonetheless - but never even flinched when I kept returning to tap him on the shoulder to ask the *stupidest* questions ("What the hell is in this?") throughout the evening like a preschooler needing to go to the bathroom, each time graciously replying with a smile and complete attention, regardless. So thanks, Sam, for being such a gracious host, even on the tail end of a whirlwind of a week. (David even had him running around the bar serving the cheeses, for chrissakes.)

While I'm at it, releasing myself from the dirty job of responsible beer blogging, I'll let Alex over at Drink A Week handle the mouth-watering poetic details, and simply list the initial reactions to last night's draft list by memory (mostly thanks to Des and her golden sniffer):

2006 Chateau Jiahu - A truly exciting historical recreation that makes you reflect on just how narrow our currently defined expectations of beer really are. Fruity, grape-y, with hints of sweet sake and wheat, it was again surprisingly balanced and easily drinkable, a trait that seems to be high on the list of Sam's philosophical priorities. These are "extreme" beers in a sense that doesn't allude to them being punishing to the senses, but in that they stretch all the boundaries of the brewing lexicon. Truly eye-opening.

2007 Olde School Barleywine - Again, they've pulled off a real high-wire act and a feat in balance - a balance that doesn't just line up equal amounts of malt and hops side-by-side, but a balance that's fully three-dimensional in the marriage of the sweetness and bitterness. I would've guessed this to be a well-aged example purely based off it's mellowness, but alas. Built on elements of bourbon and cognac, cherries, white sugar, and with a slightly boozy aroma, Alex and I compared it to a nice old fashioned.

2007 Immort Ale -This one was a challenge, a complex barleywine-style ale skeleton clothed in the most elusive taste components and with a uniquely resinous mouthfeel. Des pegged it right off the bat: moldy cheese. Gorgonzola. It was as if they put together one of my favorite pairings together in a glass.

Midas Touch Golden Elixir - Just barely effervescent, the archetype of the historical recreation brewing movement was very sweet and fruity, with a beguiling aroma with hints of both jasmine and marzipan. Not nearly as funky as I was expecting (not funky at all, actually), but very wine-y and pleasant.

90 Minute IPA - The fabled "continuously hopped" India pale ale, one for which I'd prepared my palate by warning it ahead of time about its IBU level hovering near the human threshold for bitterness. The real shock to the palate, though, was how stunningly balanced it actually was, with a malt backbone that perfectly meshed with the hops so that the end result was nothing shy of ambrosial, the floral quality of the hops blending with the sweetness of the grain to create the effect of warm, fragrant honeysuckle.

Palo Santo Marron - Their newest release was the least uniquely individual and stand-out of the bunch, surprisingly, this dark brown ale aged on palo santo wood was more one-dimensional than the others - big roasted barley taste, smooth and surprisingly light in character and body. In any other line-up, it would surely shine, I'm sure, but its older siblings here raised the stakes just a *little* too high.

Put those beers together with some nice cheeses, a hugely enthusiastic crowd, and - of course - sausages, and you've pretty much put Rob in heaven. There are details of the event that I imagine will be left out by all the other writers in their haste to pound out the definitive wrap-up piece, but rather than sniff out those crumbs, I'll just end transmission here.

Back on Earth, the nagging beer-blogging question remains. Whither Pfiff!? If you want the local inside scoop with great photo galleries, you've got Brookston's bulletin, if you want stomach-growl-inducing event write-ups, head over to Jessica's Thirsty Hopster site, and if you want the best tap list and store shelf updates, subscribe to Bill's blog over at Inside Bay Area**.

But, perhaps, just maybe, if you're looking for vignettes like this -
"God, we're only halfway down the street and I can already smell the Toronado vomit smell."

"I know! Isn't it great!"
- you might consider adding Pfiff! to your newsfeed. I share because I care. I expect the tone of the site will probably be changing over the next few weeks while searching out that niche to which this little Pfiff! of mine is best suited to attend. Thanks to all the great beer writers out there who continue to raise the bar and make all this readin', writin' and imbibin' so very much fun to do.

* A sweaty wall of bodies three-deep who could also all speak intelligently on the topic of craft beer, which is something out of a mind-bending alternate universe I never thought could exist.

**There are plentiful others (see that blogroll on the right?) that I'm probably going to regret not name-checking in this post.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gold, platinum and Iron Springs

Here's starting the post-Craft Brewers Conference week with two news niblets regarding our hometown public house, one yippie-yay goodgood happyhappy, and one not so much:

The Gold:
A product of Fairfax's lone brewpub (not to mention our only "place to just hang out"*), Iron Springs' Sless' Stimulating Stout took home a gold medal in the Oatmeal Stout category at this past week's World Beer Cup. Named for local hotshot steel player Barry Sless, it's deserved of its win, as a truly well-crafted iteration of the style. To see the 94930 representin' down in San Diego this year for what could very well have been the first time ever is quite the treat, too. Described as a "symphony of grains creating a deep rich stout infused with a tincture of passionate herbs" from a town that's quite well associated with being "passionate" about "herb", it's certainly a beer that reflects the character and philosophy of its brewer, the inimitable Mike Altman. I'm sure he's having quite the happy 4/20 in celebration.

The Platinum: What better precious metal to represent the incredibly dear cost of doing business in our lovely town, in a story that's still dragging out in arbitration, than the king of credit cards? As mentioned in previous posts, Iron Springs is embroiled in a little bit of a rent tussle with their landlords, a tussle that could see us ramping up the homebrew production to cover our beer consumption quotas as early as this August. The story linked above in our local fireplace-friendly Ross Valley Reporter (which I embarrassingly read cover-to-cover on a weekly basis) is typical local journalism in that it mainly quotes a third party in no way involved with the story at hand, in this case a gentleman most recently noted for ramming some kids in his truck. I do love this town...

* Yup, that's an actual quote, from our very own mayor, nonetheless.

[photo courtesy Raw Energy Biofuel Systems, creators of the Iron Springs Ambrewlance]

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Bear flag domination at World Beer Cup

Okay, the hyperbole is fun and all, but here's the winner's list, for kicks:

AleSmith Brewing Co., Vintage AleSmith Old Numbskull, Aged Beer (Ale or Lager), Gold
AleSmith Brewing Co., AleSmith Decadence, Old Ale, Gold
Alpine Beer Co., Ichabod, Experimental Beer (Lager or Ale), Gold
Alpine Beer Co., McIlhenney's Irish Red, Irish-Style Red Ale, Silver
Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Brother David's Double, Belgian-Style Dark Strong Ale, Bronze
Black Diamond Brewing Co., Belgian Blonde, Belgian-Style Pale Ale, Silver
Elk Grove Brewery and Restaurant, Bock Lager, Traditional German-Style Bock, Gold
Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Firestone Extra Pale Ale, Other Low Strength Ale or Lager, Gold
Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Nectar IPA, American-Style Strong Pale Ale, Silver
Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Union Jack IPA, American-Style India Pale Ale, Silver
Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Velvet Merkin, Oatmeal Stout, Bronze
Green Flash Brewing Co., Hop Head Red, American-Style Amber/Red Ale, Gold
Iron Springs Pub & Brewery, Sless' Stimulating Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Gold
Marin Brewing Co., San Quentin's Breakout Stout, Foreign (Export)-Style Stout, Silver
Marin Brewing Co., Tiburon Blonde, Belgian- and French-Style Ale, Bronze
Marin Brewing Co., Star Brew, American-Style Wheat Wine Ale, Bronze
Newport Beach Brewing Co., Elmer's Reserve, Wood- and Barrel-aged Strong Beer, Silver
Oggi's Pizza & Brewing Co. - San Clemente, McGarveys Scottish Ale, Scottish-Style Ale, Gold
Pizza Port - Carlsbad, Poor Man's IPA, Imperial or Double India Pale Ale, Silver
Pizza Port - Carlsbad, Sticky Stout, American-Style Stout, Bronze
Pizza Port - Carlsbad, Night Rider Imperial Stout, American-Style Imperial Stout, Bronze
Port Brewing Co. and The Lost Abbey, Cuvee de Tomme, Wood- and Barrel-aged Sour Beer, Gold
Port Brewing Co. and The Lost Abbey, Red Poppy, Belgian-Style Flanders/Oud Bruin or Oud Red Ale, Silver
Port Brewing Co. and The Lost Abbey, Brouwer's Imagination Series Saison, Other International Ale, Bronze
Port Brewing Co. and The Lost Abbey, Veritas 002, Experimental Beer (Lager or Ale), Bronze
Rubicon Brewing Co., Winter Wheatwine, American-Style Wheat Wine Ale, Gold
Russian River Brewing Co., Salvation, Belgian-Style Dark Strong Ale, Gold
Russian River Brewing Co., Temptation, Wood- and Barrel-aged Sour Beer, Silver
Sacramento Brewing Co., Red Horse Ale, American-Style Amber/Red Ale, Bronze
San Diego Brewing Co., Hopnotic IPA, Imperial or Double India Pale Ale, Gold
Schooner's Grille & Brewery, Old Diablo, Barley Wine-Style Ale, Gold
Schooner's Grille & Brewery, Irish Stout, Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout, Bronze
Stone Brewing Co., Stone Pale Ale, Extra Special Bitter or Strong Bitter, Bronze
Third Street AleWorks, Blarney Sisters Dry Irish Stout, Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout, Gold
Trumer Brauerei Berkeley, Trumer Pils, German-Style Pilsener, Gold

Links and commentary to come, after I've had a cup of coffee...

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Congratulations, Vinnie!

In a bit of Bay Area craft brewing news, local boy Vinnie Cilurzo was awarded the “Russell Schehrer Award For Innovation In Craft Brewing” at the World Beer Cup in San Diego today. All the more reason to celebrate tonight with a bottle of Temptation (if you haven't drank your allotted single bottle already, that is). All hail the supremacy of the Bay Area craft brewing movement!

PS - And what? A Toronado in San Diego? Hwa?

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Bilocation Monday

Not to give too much of a Catholic slant to today's posts, but there's no way I'm going the cheesy pop music reference on this one. This coming weekend is the annual fabled Cathedral Hill beer dinner, which means that the City will be crawling with some of our country's finest brewers over the next few days as they bask in the glow of getting the gourmet food pairing treatment they richly deserve, one that's characteristically reserved for vintners. The upshot for folks like me who neglected to get tickets to the quickly sold-out dinner is that we'll be treated to some other events while they recuperate around the Bay Area on Monday. Of course, that also means you have to somehow be in two places at once, if you want to hit the two best parties.

In this corner! Rob Tod, brewer for the consistently outstanding Allagash brewery in Portland, Maine, is hosting a (sold out?) tasting at the Trappist in Oakland, featuring the following libations:

Barrel-Aged - Musette
Barrel-Aged - Odyssey
Série d'Origine - Interlude

...in addition to:

- Allagash White
- Allagash Curieux (served with eggplant and goat cheese focaccia & turkey and gouda cream biscuit)
- Black (served with Fleur Verte herbed goat cheese plate & almond fig cake)
- Allagash ?? Tripel aged in oak with the Rosalaere culture (unnamed unreleased beer)
(served with a Roth Kase Braukase Trappist Style cheese plate)
- Allagash Four (served with a flourless chocolate tort)

And in the other corner! Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Brewing's founder, will be loading the jukebox at Toronado with NWOBHM before pulling out some Olde Beer & Moldy Cheese at 6:00 p.m. to celebrate DFH finally making its way into Bay Area taprooms. It's not sold out, but just because they're not selling tickets, making for a mosh pit of a tasting, for sure. Featuring nothing less than:

- 2007 Olde School Barleywine with Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar
- 2007 Immort Ale with Isle of Mull Cheddar
- 2006 Chateau Jiahu with Berkswell

And while it's not quite the litany of beverages you'd get to sample with Mr. Tod, the fact that you couldn't even get your hands on these wickedly rare beers in San Francisco unless you agreed to sell your soul (and a bottle of Temptation) on a beer trading site is why we're going to be suggesting Motörhead and the boar sausage instead of hitting the Maze on April 21st. A recap, complete with photos of me licking Sam Calagione's beautiful face, are certain to follow.

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A -tion by any other name

Likely to be followed by Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function Belgian Ale, today's spotlight is on a beer that was damned impossible to be as tasty in the glass as it is in theory. Not that it isn't very good - it is. Marred only by a slight metallic aftertaste (that could very well have been storage fault), it's a dubbel-esque amber ale with rich, deep complexity, light-bodied and effervescent yet with a raisin sweetness and a big fruity punch from the yeasts that only grew in intensity as it opened up in the glass. Fellow Aleuminati member Meat described it as the beer "responsible for turning me on to micro-brewed beers and getting me to travel down the road of different beer tasting." But the story behind this brew, alas, is even tastier. Let's test the old eyesight on some superfine side label print:
Salvation. The name of two intricate Belgian-style ales, created by us, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing. After becoming friends a few years ago, we realized we both had a Salvation in our lineups. Was it going to be a problem? Should one of us relinquish the name rights? "Hell, no!" we said. In fact, it was quickly decided that we should blend the brews to catch the best qualities of each and create an even more complex and rich libation. In April 2004, in a top secret meeting at Russian River Brewing (well, actually it was packed in the pub and many were looking over our shoulders wondering what the hell was going on), we came up with the perfect blend of the two Salvations. Natalie, Vinnie's much more significant other, exclaimed, "We should call this Collaboration, not Litigation Ale!" "Perfect," we shouted!* We celebrated deep into the night (or is that morning?). Fast forward to November 14, 2006. After talking about it for over two years, we finally decided to pull the trigger and Vinnie made the journey to Avery Brewing to brew his Salvation exactly as he does in his brewery. This was blended with Avery's Salvation on December 11, 2006 creating Batch #1 - here is Batch #2. We hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed brewing and blending it. All profits from this joint venture will fund a return educational trip to Belgium with our bros Tomme (Port Brewing), Sam (Dogfish Head Brewing) and Rob (Allagash Brewing). This pilgrimage will enable us to learn even more about traditional brewing techniques to combine with our already strange and unique styles here in America. Gezondheit!
No, really, that's all on the side label. On one hand, this whole endeavor seems ripe for this discussion on craft beer marketing's effect on its perceived cultural status, but the lingering results are much more positive, reinforcing some of the greatest (and most marketable) tenets of craft brewing: It's made by hand, by real, visionary individuals, within a convivial atmosphere, that has a laudable, respectable history and artistry, and is a shared product of passion and love. And for that reason alone, it's the best use of fine print on a beer label since Lagunitas' Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale.

* This is my favorite misuse of an exclamation point, ever.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

You're never too young...

...to learn how to brew. I think this might be a good way to get Mia started, in fact. Heck, she already knows how to run the keg lines.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Boontling for bloochin' harpers

The next notable brewfest of Northern California, the Boonville Beer Festival, is nearly upon us, which is good enough reason to comment briefly (and shaggishly) on the near-extinct dialect of the region, the somewhat disputed* language of Boontling. If you're a come-on boy looking to barney an apple-head while tasting aplenty bahl steinber horn come this May, it would pay to bone up on your Boont yebbelow lest you want to look like a real tally-whacker.

The Anderson Valley, a bucolic, pastoral appellation that runs east to west through southern Mendocino county near the coast, was historically isolated enough that it harbored its own unique character, as well as a contact language that's been described as a pidgin-English reputedly borrowing from Scottish Gaelic and Irish, and some Pomoan and Spanish. The irony won't be lost on devotees of Hop Ottin' IPA that some believe this language developed likely while locals did business with the Native Americans and other European settlers while establishing their hops farming industry. The other (and probably more plausible) origin story of Boontling ascertains that it was a sort of pig Latin for the kids of the area, a highly stylized slang used to speak in code around adults (ignited by a dude named Squirrel, nonetheless). This would explain both the short lifespan of the language as well as its popularity amongst the contemporary anti-establishment counterculture that pervades this part of the world.

Sadly, the most thorough chronicler of the language may have taken the unpublished secrets of Boontling with her to the grave, as Myrtle Rawles passed away in 1988, and her husband, Austin, a noted source for her book on the subject, died in 1969, just three years after Boontling: The Strange Boonville Language ($42, anyone?) was published. Thankfully, copies of her writings still exist, and the Anderson Valley Museum and Anderson Valley Brewing (not to mention Mendocino Middle School!) are doing their part to ensure that we pickem ups can sharpen our noch harpin'.

Here's wishing you all a slow lope'n a beeson tree Friday!

* The whole "beer" thing is a total prank, though.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

In honor of our beloved brewdogs

In the same way that the lambic brewers of Pajottenland consider the spiders that take care of housekeeping duties in their brewhouses throughout the summer as totemic good luck critters, it could be that in the breweries and wineries of the Pacific coast, it's dogs that deserve that role.

And it's a darn shame that floods and fires (not to mention systemic yuppification) have kept Rogue away from its origins in Ashland, since there's pretty much no way (sorry, Sierra) that I'm driving all the way to Newport to enjoy this brewfest in memorial honor of John Maier's singularly awesome brewdog, Brewer. Check it out:

I didn't even check on the site, but have to imagine that alongside the 50-odd craft beers they'll have on tap (and dog dancing?!) they'll be pouring some of this for our loyal companions.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Dog days for Dogfish?

Amongst the rumors that came out in yesterday's romp was one that should get fellow NorCal craft beer enthusiasts rather excited: Seems like Vinnie from Russian River is planning on singlehandedly taking on distribution of some breweries that we've long been missing out on, with bottles showing up at select fine beer retail establishments this summer. That means we're finally going to get our grubby little hands on the Dogfish Head, Alesmith, and Pizza Port (meaning Lost Abbey) wares that we've long deserved. When I saw him later at Toronado, I could've kissed him (but I had onion breath).

And, in other DFH-related rumorness, word is that Dave just smuggled a case or two of the much-hyped special release Palo Santo Marron into Healthy Spirits, if you're freaky like that. Strong brown ale aged on Paraguayan wood? In the words of Jack Van Impe - it's a great time to be alive, Rexalla!

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Every month is Belgian beer month

But April, especially so... One gets overly, some might say unduly excited at the prospects that Toronado's yearly month of Belgian love could deliver. So it was with great terror that we came across this sign posted to the door yesterday when we arrived to get our fix:

There was a point when I thought that that picture was going to be all I'd be posting this morning. But no! Actually, our timing actually worked out to be somewhat of an advantage, considering when we finally slipped in, we essentially walked in on the tail end of a total (and somewhat secret) lovefest: the annual Toronado Belgian beer and food pairing dinner, whipped up by local beer chef Sean Paxton Bruce Paton (of the infamous Cathedral Hill beer dinners) [thanks, Alan]. Brookston, Vinnie, David - all the local beer cognoscenti were there and particularly chummy having just finished a 12 11 course [thanks again], 15 (!) beer tasting day that had started at 11:30 am. And the beers! Oh the beers. Started with one of my all-time favorites, a draught pour of the Cuvee van der Keizer from Gouden Carolus, a complete stunner of a strong dark Belgian special ale, and it just got better from there.

From front to back - Val Dieu Grand Cru, Brasserie Dupont Avec les Bon Voeux, and a spur of Bosteels Kwak. (And yes, that's the cleanest, brightest Toronado you're ever going to see.) Thanks to the kindness of a slightly inebriated stranger, we also got to sample one of Russian River's mostest specialest barrel-aged beers, the Toronado Twentieth Anniversary Ale, as poured from a 3L (!) cork-finished bottle, a truly exceptional, high-octane Flanders red. The cruelest month? Eliot obviously never paired a saison with boar sausage...

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Friday, April 04, 2008

The Session #14 - Griz revisited

Back in late 2006, the online version of the local fish wrap knocked out a quick character study on one Mr. Greg William Miller Stein, in what was intended to be a series of vignettes that exuded a certain provincial vibe, framing a deliberate tableaux comprised of the iconoclast pirates of the Barbary Coast. And sensibly so, as he's a bit of an easy target as a 300-plus pound, 6' 2", mid-60s, dyed-in-the-wool alpha hippie, complete with standard issue Uncle Jesse beard and overalls, not to mention the lone proprietor of a home beer/wine/cider/sake supply shop in the great city and county of San Francisco. Not to mention, he has the habit of churning out gems like this one:
I answered the phone the other day -- and I really was ecstatic about this -- I answered the phone and I couldn't think of what my name was. If I could have totally forgotten about it for a longer than I did, I would have said I'd have made it. I was that close. But it came to me.
And while his wife - always in the store, ready to lend a hand - goes by Barbara, most people know Mr. Stein by his adopted moniker: Griz. And as I'm no better a man than the good local leisure journalists of this fair burg of mine, I'm taking aim on that same easy target today in reply to Stonch's klaxon call to The Session.

Growing up, I always had fond, strange memories about the beer my father made with one of his good friends, a beer that I oddly recall tasting and smelling like a perfect German pilsner, a memory that was surely reformatted, corrupted, and rewritten once again as my senses of taste and smell hooked into that fine convergence of poorly modified continental malts and Hallertauer hops as a young boy visiting his family biyearly in Darmstadt. In my early twenties, I came across a book on my parents' shelf that had to have been their instruction manual, Byron Burch's Quality Brewing, within which, as a bookmark, was the business card for a homebrew supply store on Taraval, way out in the outer Sunset. I visited that store once before heading up to school in Eugene, where I had a fairly unremarkable time assembling my pioneer brewing rig and gathering the makings of what would turn out to be a rather raunchy pale ale, and moved on. There was more homebrewing back up in Oregon, fueled by a growing thirst in turn inspired by the climactic years of a music degree and nightlong, nearly gymnastic sessions of Mortal Kombat. By the time I'd returned to the city I've always been happiest to call home, that store on Taraval had since disappeared. So, I went packing across the park to Brewcraft, recipe sketches in hand, met Griz, and had my entire conceit of brewing turned on its head.

Much has been said about Griz, his philosophizing, typically awesome store soundtrack, sometimes challenging customer service skills, crazy handwriting, and near-boundless enthusiasm for a good chat about anything and everything. People love to comment on the somewhat feral nature of the shop, crammed to the gills with ingredients and gear, dark corners hiding surplus mysteries (and often a small dog), and the incredibly enthusiastic and friendly people he finds to help man the storefront. Lacking from all the Griz-centric discourse, sadly, is his personal approach to homebrewing, and what wisdom he imparts on his budding, impressionable Bay Area zymurgists as they enter his lair in search of knowledge.

In fact, most of the advice he dispenses to the casual beginner is slightly unnerving in its vagueness, its decidedly ambiguous and unscientific nature, a style attributable perhaps to 40-plus years of brewing combined with a Zen-like philosophy of "letting go" formed by the aleatoric beauty of nature found in the I Ching, the post-LSD trippiness of quantum mechanics, and the slacker/drifter mantra of "whatever." When pressed for the exact, precise details of a chemical process, he almost flinches as the duty-bound part of his psyche forces the buried knowledge out into the open like forcing water through stone. You'll get your spot-on answer about Iso-Alpha-Acids and the relation to Isocohumulone to apparent bitterness and hop utilization at varying pH levels, but he'd much rather tell you to just stop worrying, add an ounce of Hallertauer at the end of the boil before moving on to his thoughts on current issues facing the Ute Indians and theories on Inner Richmond architectural styles (the short answer: caffeine). And this was eminently difficult for someone like me, a young wannabe perfectionist who was ready to tap into the databanks of a the local superhomebrewer and who wanted to get everything *just* right.

"Don't ever set out to emulate a beer, because you just can't do it no matter how hard you try." Might as well go out and buy that beer you revere so much while working on making one of your own that you like even better, he might say. Sure, he'd look at the recipe idea you brought into the store and subtly recommend little tweaks here and there. And sure, after he lectures you on the amount of money, number of scientists, loads of high-tech gear and whatnot supporting the major professional brewers in the world in their pursuit of consistency and flawlessness, he'll reply to your request of an Anchor Porter-style recipe with some runic scribbles on a blank sheet and a set of barked orders to whomever's manning the grain bins. But if you really want to see him light up, approach the topic of wild fermentation, when the brewer admits the limitations of his control, and nature takes over, like it does in the naturally fermented apple ciders of Griz's youth. And this, an aesthetic of brewing that takes into account the wilderness factor, the magical, unreliable and oftentimes pleasantly surprising roll of the dice involved in asking a pot of grains to convert their starches into a sugar that some helpful microorganisms can further refine into a psychoactive drug (not in replacement of the hard sciences involved, but of higher priority in the ethos of brewing), is the world into which Griz took my little hobby, and from there it'll never leave.

The regrettable coda to this little essay is that I haven't had the chance to see master Griz in over a year now, thanks mostly to the ever-increasing challenges on my time presented by work and parenthood, but also a casualty of having moved pretty far from his shop. Place that alongside my eagerness to make my own mistakes now (in no small part due to Griz's own guidance) , and an online shopping habit inspired mainly by laziness, and the main incentives for my hanging around his shop haven't been strong enough to change my current habits. But as a guru, Griz is always calling me back, to introduce my daughter, shoot the breeze (about Jungian analysis or Napoleon's horse, likely), and remind me that while reflecting on the complexities of life, it pays to "relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew."

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Tasting notes - Troubadour Obscura

But first... I'd like to respectfully ask for the attention of the Brewers' Association, all you certified beer judges, the GABF, World Beer Cup, and other friends of finely crafted beerstuffs: I think it's high time we officially recognize Belgian Stout as a uniquely classifiable style. The division to which it currently calls home (#16E Belgian Specialty Ale) has most certainly outlasted its welcome as a vague, catchall net thrown around the staggering variety of "special" ales which happen to be born of the most prodigious brewing nation on Earth. So, for starters, I'd like to propose we begin with cutting these fine and unique stouts from the herd. If there's room enough to include a pigeonhole for Baltic Porter, after all...

Anyway, onward.

Finally. After weeks of devastatingly glorious, distracting weather - weather that impeded my ability to come indoors for anything, be it the Toronado barleywine fest, Beerapalooza or what have you - nature seems to have finally returned to its prescribed course. The mist, fog, wind and cold that belongs on this stretch of the calender has returned along with the promise even colder, wetter days ahead. That gives us just enough of a window to finally clear the fridge of this year's hibernally-appropriate beers, before we make way for the saisons, märzens, gueuzes, and witbiers: and that, my friends, means stouts.

Not just any stouts, though. Belgian stouts.

Cut to the chase: Troubadour Obscura is the relatively scarcer sibling to the Troubadour Blonde that's garnered considerable shelf space in Belgian-friendly outlets, perhaps owing its own uncommonness to a confluence of retail myths: If it's has to be weird and expensive and pitch itself solely off the charm of its label, it needs to at least look nice, light, and drinkable. Honestly, I'm more surprised that our titular singer looks identical on both bottles. An 8.5% pitch black stout would seem more the territory of a Tom Waits or Lordi-styled crooner.

Surprisingly, though, it's an easy sipper. Whereas the imperial stout style has come to be defined by bigger, roastier, more bitter (and naturally, more alcoholic), Obscura follows the cream stout route to its logical continental conclusion. Slightly sweet, toasty (but not acrid), warming, and thick, it also carries a richly complex aroma from the yeast and fermentation that distinguishes itself immediately from its traditional brethren. In other words, this is not the drink you'd match with your finest aran and basket of grilled oysters, but one that you'd pair with dark chocolate, candied ginger, or an dessert plate of fruit and cheese.

Frankly, there's no truth in its status as a fringe category, as there are plenty of commercially available options out there, and the one that got us interested was this one: Van Den Bossche Buffalo Belgian Stout. Whereas I think it was the Wyoming in Des that urged her to pull this one off the shelf to try it (yes, that's a bucking bronco on the label, the most obvious icon for a strong, black, Belgian ale), it paved the way for what she describes now as her favorite style. It shares elements of some of her other favorite beers - Old Rasputin and Barney Flats in particular - in that its typical flavor profile is smooth, round, and balanced, with no jagged edges in terms of bitterness, apparent alcohol, overt sweetness, or hop aroma, but at the same time carries along with it that distinctly Belgian spiciness along with a neatly nuanced dark fruit and clove character and pumped extremely high with carbonation from bottle conditioning. The De Dolle example, a local favorite, is perhaps the most "Belgian" of the bunch, with a sharper, slightly more wild profile, but with enough roastiness, chocolate, and coffee to keep it from veering into black saison territory.

Belgian ales have almost certainly hung their success in the world craft beer market based off two things: the mystique of Trappist and other monastic breweries and their distinct styles, and the strong golden ale as modeled after Duvel. And it's debatable that their successes have something in common with the stratospheric rise of the pilsener: clarity. The strong golden and tripel have subtle differences, and are worlds apart from pilsener, but all can share a brilliant clarity of color that's been an appealing aspect for beer drinkers ever since clear glasses for drinking were invented. Based off that, it's not shocking that Belgian brewers wishing to follow the successes of Westmalle and Duvel would hesitate to delve into the world of dark, obscure brewing. But maybe based off the American craft beer world's insatiable thirst for strong, well-crafted stouts, more Belgians will follow suit and bring this style into the mainstream.

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