Friday, January 30, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Happy brew year

A remembrance of things past...
It's always refreshing to find that you're not the only one out there who takes a certain sick pleasure in pouncing on painfully obvious puns when spinning titles for discussion topics. So it was with a warming tinge of kinship that I read the theme for this month's Fermentation Friday, having hopefully induced a couple dozen groans of my own with the same retarded wordplay back in December in the the Aleuminati forums. If there comes a time in my life when obviously altering text for wincingly comic effect doesn't entertain me, it'll mean that some small part of me, raised on excessive Jumble and crossword exposure from my youth, has died.

Digression aside, today's topic revolves around homebrewing practices and how we resolve to change and improve upon them in the coming year. The timing couldn't be more appropriate, interestingly enough, as this weekend we'll be hosting a bit of a "homebrew inventory reduction initiative" (also known as a "kegger") in order to make a little space for a new year's worth of experimentation. While certainly not indicative of the range of batches we tried to pull off this past year (the bird being long gone, along with that witwheat and various others, long forgotten), there's a certain undeniable trend that cropped up while I was penning the tasting notes for our little soiree. A pattern emerged when I lined up the offerings, one that led me to consider an alteration to our habits, a habit I hadn't really seen spelled out so clearly:

Old Fashioned Ale – 9.0% abv
Black Lav Winter Saison – 9.5% abv
Early Bird Appelwoi – 9.0% abv
X’08 Holiday Ale – 10.0%
Het Mysterie – 7.5%
The Indoctrinator – 7.5%

Turns out we like to churn out stuff that's got a little kick on it, looks like. So, while I already resolved to make a change in my lazy packaging tendencies, another theme has emerged that may end up a dominating guide for 2009's time around the kettle: The Year of the Session. Strong American beers had long been in the minority not because they're any more difficult to produce, unlike what some marketers might want you to believe. They're in the minority because they're expensive to make, and in many places still, illegal to boot. Strong beers require more time, energy, and ingredients, which in turn demands smaller batches at sometimes prohibitively higher retail prices. As the craft beer scene has evolved, however, strong beer has been the battleground where the top producers have been vying for superiority amongst the burgeoning class of beer drinkers with money and the conceit of heightened taste buds, creating a situation where average alcohol levels (and along with them, cost) have been unceasingly building. Reflecting on our own brewing experiences, it's obvious that we're just as guilty.

And while Jay and I were recently joking that the typical 5%, even 6% beers currently labeled as being "session strength" should really be called "re-session strength" [Get it? See? It's that pun thing. I can't get over it], it seems a prudent time for brewers, along with homebrewers, to focus their skills on sub-5% beers that don't sacrifice flavor, proving they can maintain body and retain a geek's attention, worth savoring, warrant excited opinions... and maybe re-root folks to the simple brilliance of a set of styles so transparent and unshielding of their flaws, demanding of respect via the solid obviousness of its craftsmanship. In other words, to tap into something that's been relatively lacking on US soil ever since Prohibition, but something well understood in places like the UK and Germany: moderate-strength beers need not be watery nor bland nor incidental. They can, in fact, be points of pride.

So that's the plan (once the *ahem* imperial pilsner in the fridge is ready). While the next batch we're likely to tackle falls within the "re-session" band of the strength spectrum, it's a step in the right direction. To mild and helles, and beyond.

Many thanks to lootcorp 3.0 for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2. I also promise to cool it on the goofy Lomo photo filter. Next time you see a high contrast vignette on this site, it'll be from our Holga, I swear.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Localize it, pt. 2 - SF Beer Week buddies

Something happened yesterday, something unplanned, unexpected, and for lack of a better description, something completely unintended. This dainty little blog turned four years old. And of the manifold benefits we reaped this past year, persisting to document some sort of beer tasting thought diary experiment, was the explosive array of new acquaintances we made. While we managed a marked return to our homebrewing experimentation (a discussion I'll save for this Friday), and likewise managed to get our hands on some pretty thought-provoking, sought-after bottles as well, but what was truly unique about this past year was the motley collection of wiseacres we came into regular communication with, transforming this formerly insular little notepad into a place where commentary, insight, and interplay came into the game.

That said, SF Beer Week is nearly upon us, and along with it, as luck would have it, a number of folks I've had the distinct pleasure of getting to know be just happen to be involved in hosting events under auspices of the golden Beer Week banner. Whereas the focus of these events might deviate from "the local", what with Belgian and German beers and whatnot, the sheer number of hardworking individuals - mostly bloggers, no less - organized here in the cause of raising an appreciation of fine beer in the Bay Area speaks volumes about the groundswell influence of local individuals. Where there have been obvious comparisons between SF Beer Week and it's relative Philly Beer Week, one could argue that our East Coast competitor is by the breweries and for the beer, whereas ours is for the people and by the people. In chronological order:

- Mario from Brewed for Thought has organized an Introduction to Belgian Ales at Alpha Sigma Phi on the UC Berkeley campus on Friday, February 5, along with a "meet the brewer" event with Tim Goeppinger of Sonoma Springs Brewing Company on Tuesday, February 10. A fellow member of BABB, Mario's a chatty, knowledgeable guy who fosters a pretention-free appreciation of craft beer, and who would be the perfect guide for someone who'd otherwise be turned off by a snobby introduction to arguably the world's greatest brewing culture.

- Chris and Meredith from have organized a German Beer Tasting at Rosie's Cracker Barrel in Carmel Valley on Saturday, February 7 at 2:00 p.m. Last summer I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the two of them while they were visiting Iron Springs on their way up to the Santa Rosa Brewing Festival. Good folks with a serious appreciation for German beer (which I've always found a little sadly lacking in the craft beer circles), Chris and Meredith are well-traveled and well-versed, certain to use what they've learned in their time in Germany to provide some excellent insight on some overlooked styles. 

- Peter and Sammy from BetterBeerBlog are hosting a Beer & Dessert Tasting Event at Wine Affairs in San Jose on the evening of Monday, February 9. As many folks have been vocal about the decrepit state of craft beer on the Peninsula, this couple has resolved to be a part of the solution, trying to carve out an oasis of brewing appreciation with their beer dinners and pairing adventures. With keen perception on the nuances of beer tasting, they've been boldly creative in finding ways to bring beer to the table alongside all manner of foods. And dessert is, after all, the best course.

- Jesse from Beer & Nosh is presenting a beer dinner benefiting the San Fransisco Food Bank on Wednesday, February 11, hosted by Scala's Bistro. One of the local beer and food documenters that I just happen to run into more often than not, Jesse's a true gourmand of the local scene, and definitely the guy you want with a camera in hand when you're trying to show off. This dinner, subbed "New American Food and New American Beer", with a menu designed and executed by hotshot chef Jen Biesty, looks to be everything you'd want in a presentation that really showcases the elevated status and versatility of the new craft beer scene in this country.

- Sean Paxton is teaming up with Firestone Walker and Toronado for a beer dinner at the Peacock Lounge on Thursday, February 12.

It will be insane.

This last one is of a little more personal importance to me as I'll be donating the services of my delicate, lily-white hands to the man better known as The Homebrew Chef in his kitchen, a position garnered solely through the illusion I've cast as having some idea of how to find my way around a cutting board. We'll just see if I can pull that off. (If you see a bearded, bloodied man running back and forth across Haight Street that evening, there's a one-in-ten chance it's me.) It's a thrilling opportunity to get my hands dirty (after washing them!) in an arena in which we've always itched to dabble.

There ought to be a Pfiff! sponsored event, I suppose. Maybe next year? Or maybe something wild and impromptu will happen on the 8th, with the assistance of my four year-old nephew. On second thought, maybe the 13th would be better. But don't wait up. If you're attending events at this year's Beer Week, make a point of coming to some of these events, as they seem to define, as a group, what beer means to the current indie-by-way-of-foodie generation of the Bay Area.

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Localize it, pt. 1 - Towards a reconnection with beer as a staple

Like bread, milk, eggs... There's no describing the burden of shame and embarrassment that would follow me if I ever bothered to purchase one of those items from a source further afield than I could comfortably drive in a leisurely afternoon outing. But if there's a weakness to be exploited in my professed admiration for all things brewed, it's my relative lack of engagement with the local scene (a weakness I tried valiantly to resolve this past weekend with a glass of Marin Brewing's White Knuckle double IPA, as seen above). Of the breweries represented in the SF Brewers' Guild, I can only genuinely throw my weight behind maybe half of them, for example. But to the extent that my cynical, sarcastic, pessimist attitude allows, I have to concede that some of the core tenets that push the modern foodview (local, sustainable, affordable) are going to be major factors in the beer scene in the coming year. What was beginning to gnaw at me, a flux of super-high cost beers, the elevation of beer to the wine-drinker's table alongside the wine-drinker's price tag, may likely be less of a concern as locals begin to take closer care with their expenses and indulgences. In an area as obsessed with food and dining as San Francisco, though, where neighborhood farmer's markets are the norm, it would seem logical that locally-produced, handcrafted, affordable, fresh beer would edge out the $50 bottles of Brazilian méthode champenoise offerings on the menu. Currently, though, despite how much they may actually sell, and despite their quality, public perception hasn't shifted to acknowledge them as the obvious, socially, politically, environmentally, and health concious choices on the beer menu.

Thankfully, it will soon be SF Beer Week, an opportunity to redeem myself somewhat, and an opportunity for local brewers to perhaps reclaim the crown of percieved quality from their brethren from further afield. Amidst the plethora of happenings, too, there are some that hosted by folks I like to consider friends, some smaller events that will arguably pack in more passion about beer, food and the social, communal, convivial attitiude that belongs alongside them than some of the larger events. And all with a local bent, a local point of view. Expect a post about those gatherings in the next day or so.

Here's to reconnecting. Go out and grab something local to enjoy this weekend. And if you can't find anything local that you can enjoy, ask yourself why not? Why hasn't anyone bothered to fill that void, the simple pleasure of a simple beverage brewed well, freshly, for locals? With all the talk of "carbon footprints", fears over tainted food, the push of the organic movement, the current economic crisis, and the emboldened palate of the modern consumer, why wouldn't everyone have access to reasonable, quality, local beer?

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Friday, January 02, 2009

The Session #23 - In with the new

90-Minute IPA became my cooking buddy in 2008
It was recently announced that Dogfish Head and BeerAdvocate had teamed up to collaborate on a special "extreme" beer, to be brewed in preparation for February's Extreme Beer Fest in Boston, MA. In my mind, there's nothing more telling about the state of affairs in the beer world (and as a reflection on all of our situations in general) that this literal icon of extreme-ness-osity, coming from a brewery most famous for it's 20% alcohol (that's 40 proof, and nearly twice as strong as the wine we've got in the fridge) 120-Minute IPA, and a ratings publication with a top 100 list dominated by strong beers, imperial stouts and the like, typically exceeding 10% alcohol, this juggernaut of in-your-face Amerigasm full-throttle brewing ferocity, one spiked with ingredients such as chestnuts, green peppercorns, and Korean corn tea (aka "Oksusu-cha"), is going to rock your extreme socks at the tune of 8% alcohol by volume. Now I'm not saying that abv is the measure of beer extremitude, nor am I saying that this is a harbinger of the "year of the session", but it does hint to the fact that 2009 for everyone, everywhere, with almost everything, will be the year of scaling back.

Here, 2008 was a year of virgin tastings - many, many tastings - of some of the most hyped, expensive, storied, and exciting beers we've had the chance to experience. There was, in no short order, gluttony and excess. No expense was spared in getting sips of some legendary stuff, and for the most part, no expense was spared in keeping the home stocked with so much top shelf ale that each week presented a foray into as yet unexplored tastes. Of course, it didn't hurt that we got some new beers distributed to the area, along with some new places to buy it, and some new friends to share them with. But 2009 promises to be very, very different. Gluttony, for sure, if that's possible to achieve amidst modesty and restraint.

Like I said before, "scaling back" looks to be the big theme for 2009. But that's not really a fair answer to this month's Session, one that asks "what do you expect will excite you most?" Hard to truly muster excitement in the face of the Awesome Depression with a mortgage statement in one hand and a toddler in the other. That said, it's exciting to foresee a return to the simple, earthy, daresay mundane aspects of the beer experience. Reminding oneself that the act of making beer is only one step away from making bread. Homebrewing. Drinking locally, seasonally. Simple pints, well poured. This looks to be a year stepping outside the din of the auditorium of hardcore beer geekdom, buzzing with its one-off specialties from Calvados barrels, heraldry of its curious obscurities from far-off lands, under a blanket of noise from excessive hops, coffee, barrels, spices, and mystery. Once the tinnitus has finally cleared, we'll most certainly be wandering back in.

2009 will be a great year, but a great year tempered by uncomplicated lucidity. Here's hoping I can compose intelligent commentary in the absence of snifters of 22% alcohol, tobacco-infused Italian handcrafted ale. (Just in case, I have, behind a plate of glass marked "in case of emergency", a bottle of Isabelle Proximus. Just in case, like I said.) To what's next, cheers.

The Session is a blog carnival originated by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer. This month's party is being hosted by Beerme at Beer and Firkins. For a summary of the Sessions thus far, check out Brookston's handy guide.