Monday, March 5, 2012

SF Beer Week Small Batch / Big Thirst Event in Review

We had an excellent time at the SF Beer Week Small Batch Big Thirst event. In addition to some well known local craft breweries, there was a great turn-out of nanobreweries taking part in an AHA competition. This year, eleven home brewers offered tastings of 40 beers and eight licensed brewers had 12 beers to share.

The Crowd was great - people enjoyed the beer and judging the competition. We entered a peach porter, which was both our first fruit beer (we swore we'd never do it) and a great success. Several people asked where they could pick up a six-pack. It was a great exercise in having a set policy and then changing it when it makes sense to do something different.

Lots of old friends, including Regan and Sarah from Local Brewing Co.

New faces on the scene, husband and wife team JB and Rachel Zorn, of Zorn Brewing out of Monterey. I really enjoyed their Hefeweizen.

We're always impressed by the beer and the people at Bosworth Brewery, we adore them.

Brian, of Pacific Brewing Laboratories, now a licensed professional brewing operation.

Inside the Brewtruc - cozy and luxurious.

 And so we continue on our journey to being a licensed brewery, one day at a time.

Find Van Houten Brewing on Facebook for events and other updates

Thursday, November 17, 2011

West Coast Craft Beer Tour in Review - Day 3: Edgefield, Dick's Brewing, Big Horn

West Coast Craft Beer Tour - Day 3: Edgefield, Dick's Brewing, Big Horn

After a night with a friend in Portland, we drove just 15 miles to another of the McMeniman's locations, Edgefield, in Troutdale, Oregon. Edgefield is one of the crown jewels in the McMeniman's world. The original site was built in 1911, a county run poor farm that was active for 70 years. Now, the 76 acre spread houses an almost inconceivable variety of crafts, all done extremely well.

We wandered through the herb garden with its handmade branch trellises and billowing pillows of comfrey and found ourselves in front of a set of art studios, including a glass blower and his apprentice sweating over molten swirls of glass.

Walking past the tea house, the spa, the winery, and found ourselves at the cafe - this one a larger version of the Roseburg Station McMenimans, but with the same feeling of old world coziness complete with vintage signs and lamp posts. They have achieved a perfect balance of comfort and history - instilling a sense of time and Oregonness without going overboard. It's easy to want to fake antiques and it's easy to be zany. 

We did the full sampler again, which - which was the same as Roseburg Station, with the Hammerhead American Pale Ale (5.9%); Sunflower IPA (6.7%); Hillsdale Porter (5.6%); Terminator Stout (6.5%) and the Ruby Ale - a light rasberry ale (4.4%).

This is a good time to talk about naming conventions - McMeniman's has great art and is using several of the most popular naming conventions we saw:

Beer Naming Conventions:
  • Local Place Names
  • Hyper Masculine Bro Names (Terminator, Dominator, Kick-You-in-the-Face with Hops or ABV)
  • Beer as Person (often ladies or famous people, or obscure people)
  • Style Name - keep it simple
Here we see a sampling of "Beer as Person":

a touch of Bro naming (McMenimans also has a Hammerhead Ale)

and some local naming:

 In addition to the sampler, we enjoyed - hands down - the best Mediterranean plate I've ever had. The pita bread was fresh made and tasted like it was grilled in a brick oven, served with hummus, fresh tzatziki and an olive tapenade, and olives proper. The charcuterie skills are also in abundance - a selection of cured meats and pickled vegetables served with flat bread was a perfect mix of tang and spice and savory. With the beer - it was perfection. We were happy to see this type of comfort food that is a successful alternative to the straight pub menu. There is certainly a time and place for a burger, but the showcase of fresh local awesome was equally satisfying but much more interesting. We also left feeling refreshed and ready for whatever came next.

Walking outside, we spotted the brewhouse, and peeked in the window. Christina, the head brewer, invited us in for a tour. She was friendly and did not hesitate to show us around. This brewhouse was quite a bit larger, filled with dented grundies and beautiful semi secret murals. She chuckled about the grundies, saying they'd make the change eventually. This brewhouse was significantly larger than the Roseburg Station, McMenimans seems to have a network of brewers and there is a lot of brewing for onsite as well as some sharing between locations. The photo below is crummy, but you can see the brewhouse hard at work.

There is also a winery and distillery - the graphic sensibility is sheer delight. We left with appropriate samples of White Dog Whiskey, Herbal Liqeuer, and Gin.

Then we checked out the inside of the historic hotel, with 100 rooms covered with a random and whimsical assortment of art.

 Art is everywhere - whimsical, mystical murals cover many surfaces, but somehow not overdone. The mix of art nouveau and earthy cosmic art provides an endless landscape for the eye without taking itself seriously.

The fire extinguisher cover:

A wall in the ladies lounge:

  • Beyond Burgers: Fresh Comfort Food
  • Brewery as Experience: Full Synergy of Brewing Philosophy, Place, Community
  • Vertical Integration - they do most everything themselves, really well
We eventually got ourselves back on the road and using the Northwest Brewing News Map. We had most of the day to explore until arriving at a friend's house in Seattle, and aimed ourselves at a small operation a few miles off of Hwy 5 in Centralia, Washington, called Northwest Sausage & Deli, affiliated with Dick's Brewing & Sausage. The wonders of smart phones coupled with the sometimes unobvious details of reality always makes for an adventure. 

 We eventually pulled into a rather abandoned looking stripmall and came to understand that this was the sausage factory and the brewery was in another location. The staff was super friendly and we ordered a few sticks of very delicious jerkey and a couple of schooners - again we always appreciate when smaller glasses are available.  Dick's Brewing opened in 1994, and now distributes bottles throughout Washington. Dick recently passed away, but the team is still producing more than 2500 BBLs per year. The sampler had 11 choices, and the total repertoire includes almost 20 beers - honestly, we did have to drive again, so we opted for a couple of half pints:

Dick's flagship beer, is the Dick's Danger Ale, a 4.5% described as "Our flagship beer. A large percentage of black malt give this distinctive ale its dark brown/black color and that slightly roasted flavor. Magnum hops provide a backbone of bitterness and large additions of Mt. Hood hops later in the boil come right through in the finish. The result is a highly drinkable dark ale which bridges the gap between pale and porter."

We also tried the IPA, a super hoppy 5%. I'm not a super hops lover, and this West Coast trend is alive and well at Dick's.  I like that the style descriptions are less floral and more about the brewing process: "A pale ale hopped to the extreme! This beer starts out as a nice pale ale until it reaches the kettle. Throughout the course of the 90 minute boil four massive hop additions are made which transform this beer into a hop-head's dream come true. Both Chinook and Tomahawk hops from the Yakima valley are added in extreme quantities for the maximum bitterness, flavor and aroma. Fermentation is conducted as usual with our house ale yeast at higher temperatures to produce more fruity esters which complement the hoppiness. Just to be sure, we add even more hops to the beer when it is transferred from the fermenter to the bright beer tank (dry hopping), and allow the beer to rest on these hops until all of their character is absorbed before kegging and bottling."

We filled up a six-pack for future research purposes.

To me - the more openness a brewery has about its recipe and technique, the more confidence I have in their beer and philosophy - Go Dick's!

At the same time, as a woman and a beer drinker, I will say that the hyper-masculine naming and branding conventions are a real turn off. While I liked the operation, the beer and the sausage, I found the "Chick's love Dick's" bumpersticker did not make me want to drink a glass of beer.  Take a moment about the images that run through your head when you say "Chick's love Dick's." Fresh, local, honest glass of beer, anyone? I don't want to be dominated or terminated by my beer. To be honest, I am not even interested in layers of personality or place or hyperbolic descriptive adjectives. I like the simple, local concept of style. You go to your local pub and see what styles are on tap. Let the beer speak for itself. 

  • Beer & Sausage Model
  • Hyper Male Naming & Marketing Conventions
  • Lots of Varieties - A few flagships and lots of rotation
Now, keep in mind, that our goal for this adventure is a survey of as much of craft beer culture as we can. The different waves and styles of establishment are beginning to shake out into pretty clear categories. So, our next stop the Ram, might surprise some of the die-hard craft beer purists, but the 1990s sports bar niche is certainly part of the craft beer world.

While Big Horn Brewing, located in Lacey, Washington, is firmly in the BJs realm of sports bar, the place was full of families and all sorts of more mainstream beer drinkers drinking beer brewed in that very restaurant, albeit served in extremely frozen chilled glasses. The menu was a typical pre-frozen jalapeno poppers and burgers, but we'd like to think that any expansion of local and regional craft beer production and consumption, is a pretty good thing. These guys also continue to win awards at GABF and other venues, this year picking up 3 Golds at the Great American Beer Festival, including for the Big Horn Blonde.

All of the beers were virtually crystal clear as well, indicating the use of plate filters.  The question of filtering, taste and clarity are rather fascinating to us. It seems to be some combination of taste preference, convention, official style definitions. Over the course of our tour, we definitely saw a mix of plate filters, as well as the use of irish moss, isinglass, along with whirlpooling and other methods of pulling out the larger chunks, while leaving the complex of minerals and vitamins that give unfiltered beer it's freshness. There is lots of debate and preference about filtration methods and the value of final clarity. Keep in mind, we're not talking about chunky beer, when done well, you can get a pretty darn clear beer. Filtering played a historical role in bottling (read Maureen Ogle's book, Ambitious Brew if you haven't!) helping to make the beer durable and stable for shipping. We find it heartening to see a growing number of craft brewers using alternatives to plate filtering resulting in some amazingly fresh, subtle and complex flavors - and some B vitamins to ward off hangovers!

  • 1990s Brewpub, with a mainstream sport's bar leaning
  • Hyper Male Naming & Marketing Conventions  
  • Plate filtering - crystal clear beer

Stay tuned for Day 4:
Hales Ales, Seattle, WA
Stellar Pizza & Ale House, Seattle, WA
Georgetown Brewing, Seattle, WA
Two Beers Brewing, Seattle, WA
Schooner Exact, Seattle, WA 

Find Van Houten Brewing on Facebook for events and other updates

Friday, November 11, 2011

West Coast Craft Beer Tour: Day 2 Wild River, McMenamins, Amnesia

Our West Coast Craft Brewery tour continued after a cozy evening in Mt. Shasta and a clear and glorious morning under the colossal presence of the towering peak. On our way out of town, we stopped at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company in Weed, but since it was 10am, we decided to visit on the way back.

The Beer Mapping Project, as well as Northwest Brewing News - both super helpful in scouting out places to stop. It's interesting to see the brewery density in the Pacific Northwest - I've taken out the regular bars and bottle shops, but here is some west coast urban brewery and brewpub density comparison.

Here's a Portland area map:

And Seattle:

Here's a map of Bay Area breweries for comparison. Despite high real estate costs, the numbers are slowly growing in the Bay Area as well...

Back to the tour....
A short 2 hours later, we arrived in Grants Pass, Oregon at Wild River. Again, we were lucky enough to run into the brewer, who invited us back into the brewhouse for a tour with Scott, the head brewer. Wild River is in the category for us of the 1990s brewpub, often serving pizza and catering to families, locals, mainstream and sports lovers as well as craft beer folks. Though these spots aren't cozy dens of hipsterdom, these guys paved the way in the brewpub movement of the 1980s and 1990s. The establishments that survived should be celebrated.

Scott was awesome, and showed us the steam-fired boiler, I think it was a 15 or 20BBL with 3 fermenters. They're doing some collective brewing with the Cave Junction location to supply 5 Wild River restaurants in Oregon. It was interesting to learn that they liked the direct fire system for some of the more caramelized flavors in several of the recipes.

Another thing that surfaced in our conversation with Scott that would come up again and again, was the open and sharing nature of the craft brewer community. In addition to supporting a homebrew buyers collective, which provides access to affordable grain for local homebrewers while reducing brewery grain costs. He also talked about the development or proprietary yeasts used in Wild River beers.

We did the sampler and again saw a collection of low gravity beers which included a clean Kolsch, a Bohemian Pilsner all in the 4%, a 3% BitterNut Brown Ale. The higher gravity beers were the Imperial Stout (6%) and an IPA (7%).

  • Low Gravity Beers
  • Involvement with Local Homebrew Community
  • Proprietary Yeast Strains
  • 1990s Brewpub Niche
After a bowl of soup and a lunch salad, we drove less than an hour and a half to McMenamins Pub in Roseburg, Oregon, and quite frankly entered another world. The McMenamin Brothers have created a humble empire of pubs, most of which are in historical buildings from train stations to school houses. The brothers, Mike and Brian, have been at it since 1974, and captured their approach quite well in the brochure that that they are wary of "things too formal, too complicated, and too shiny." A 1985 Oregon Law allowed breweries to brew and sell on site, starting a flurry of microbrewery activity.

Though we'd enjoyed each establishment thus far, the authentic old world charm and unapologetic coziness at the Roseburg Station enveloped us completely. Perhaps because we both have a history in documentary radio (I at KZSC in Santa Cruz, and Johnny at KUSP and Free Radio Santa Cruz), and perhaps because our own house is filled with Dutch antiques - but we LOVED it. From the collection of old European ceiling lamps, the old Dutch street signs, and scores of historical local photographs, (complete with 10-page key explaining the contents of each one), each detail was complete and beautifully restored but lovingly worn.

McMenamins has embraced whimsy, combining the artistic aesthetic of the psychadelic mythical forest kingdom with an utterly down to earth local British pub experience. Art is a big part of what they care about, a head to toes empire of awesome expressed through every detail, particularly later when we went to Edgefield in Troutdale, Oregon on Day 3. The food is excellent and comforting.

The image below is from the McMenamins website to provide a taste of the aesthetic:

We sat in at the bar, what used to be the ticket office, and immediately were part of a conversation with the bartender, Breeze, and several friendly locals. Before long, Breeze took us back to meet the head brewer, Tom. Brewing on 6BBL equipment made from dinged-up converted dairy equipment, painted deep night night sky blue with Dr. Seuss-like yellow stars. McMenamins is really part of the first wave of microbrewing establishments in the U.S., and they are still alive and well with a network of nine hotels and more than twenty pubs.

We sampled the Hammerhead American Pale Ale (5.9%); Sunflower IPA (6.7%); Hillsdale Porter (5.6%); Terminator Stout (6.5%) and though neither of us are fruit beer people very often, I can see having a glass of the Ruby Ale - a light rasberry ale (4.4%). (Percentages were given to the hundredth of a percentage, but that seems a tad bit silly.)

It's good to see so many places providing really nice details about what's in the beer. This is where it's interesting to compare the ways wine and craft beer descriptions. We went recently to a really hip Marin wine and beer bar (yes, I know it's billed as a wine bar, but still!!) and though the wine has four lines of information about the grapes and location and variety and year and interpretive descriptive poetry - the beers, though some were local craft beers, just had the name of the beer, sans brewery name, location etc. I think west coast restaurants seeking to cater to craft beer audience is figuring out that we, like wine folks, like to engage and nerd out about the beers we experience. I'm sure there's some variation in what people prefer, but I'd rather know about hops and grain and yeast and ABV than read interpretive sentences about the whispers of autumnal spice that will dance on my tongue.

For example, McMenamins does a really nice job:

Craft beer culture seems to be doing a better and better job of making this improvement on this, like McMenamins, who does not waste time with the autumnal whatnot, and maybe even provided a few too many decimal points, which is better than none at all!

  • 2nd Wave of West Coast Craft Brewers (1980s-90s)
  • Full disclosure/engagement about ingredients
  • Hoppy beers
  • Fruit Beer
Onward! Driving through Jefferson County, we made it to Portland in time to stroll around and absorb some of Portland's awesomeness. As much crap as Portlandia lovingly gets - the food trucks and public spaces and clever architecture and bright colors are nothing but enjoyable.

We saw lots of cool recycled benches and fences....

and the occasional tiny garden gnome kingdom.

We finished off the day with sausage and a pint at Amnesia Brewing, in Portland, Oregon. Though we were there on a Tuesday, the place was full of executive types after work and hip executives and hipsters and everyone in between.

Amnesia Brewing is firmly situated in the recent wave of west coast craft brewing, a simple industrial space combining fresh local brewing with an ultra-simple menu. The setup, complete with group table seating and the simple beer and sausage menu reminded me of a small beer garden I visited along the Rhine River - unapologetic in its simplicity and self service. They also have no website, which is sort of awesome - yelp and twitter seem to suffice. The ultra casual scene works really well.

  • 3rd wave brewery (last 5-7ish years)
  • unapologetically simple menu
  • hip, industrial, urban
  • no website (word of mouth, twitter, yelp etc)
Stay tuned for Day 3:
McMenamins Edgefield, Troutdale, OR
Northwest Sausage & Deli / Dick's Brewing, Centralia, WA
Big Horn Brewing, Lacey, WA

Find Van Houten Brewing on Facebook for events and other updates

Thursday, November 10, 2011

West Coast Craft Beer & Brewery Tour in Review - A Retrospective: Day 1: Sutter Buttes, Western Pacific

We're long overdue for an update - in particular about our tour this summer. Johnny and I (Creek) drove drove from San Francisco to the Olympic Peninsula, stopping at 20 breweries along the way. We sampled beers from tiny nanobreweries and large micropubs, covering the full range of west coast beer culture. Amazingly, we met brewers and got backstage tours at 10 of the 20, and were incredibly impressed by the complete open-door policy and kindness we experienced. We're going to share a bit about what we learned, the beers we drank, and the trends we saw in craft brewing techniques and establishments on the west coast.

Here we go!

Day 1:
A scary ice-cream truck is always a good start to a road trip :)

Our first stop was in Yuba City, at Sutter Buttes Brewing. It is a fairly new establishment - a mixture of homey and industrial. It was light, and comfortable, with lots of wood. The beer equipment was visible and the brewing process was a focus.

We were lucky to meet both the owner, Mark, as well as Peter of Odanata Brewing Fame, brewing a triple IPA so hoppy it was green. Both were kind and completely willing to talk with us. They were brewing on an 8.5 BBL copper clad system, with a line of fermenters, which doubled as serving tanks in a line behind a bar. We LOVED the directness of serving from the tanks and no brite tanks. This was one of our favorite, most direct set-ups.

They had a wide selection of beers and a simple, menu of fresh comfort food. The Beale's Best Bitter - a 3.7% British Pale Ale was sheer delight. Most of their beers were under 5%: the Extra Pale, Kolsch, and Brown were 4.5%. We always respect the low gravity brews that still have lots of taste. This is a trend we're really happy to see (perhaps also due to my own personal preferences), but there are plenty of strong beers being made in the craft beer world, so happy to see varieties you can have 2 or 3 of and still feel your lips.

  • Low to mid gravity beers (have another!)
  • Super-Mega-Hoppy
  • Fresh California Comfort Food (best of both worlds)
  • Brewing Process as Feature
We stopped to see some old mining equipment and a random ice cream advertisement still hanging on from another era.

On to the next: Western Pacific in Oroville, California
Later that day, we landed in Oroville, at Western Pacific - built in a train depot. The venue had incredible potential, but felt just a wee bit sprawling. We found the right door and, again had the good fortune of finding the brewer, who showed us the 7BBL used system and cold room, which were impeccably clean. The grain elevator out front was also pleasing to the eye - I love that it is a feature.

They had a nice low gravity extra pale ale that was a 4.5% and an oatmeal stout that was 4.1. The Belgian was 5%. the Pale and Red ales were in the mid to high 5% and the highest was the IPA at 6.5%.

  • Lower Gravity Beers (4-5%)
  • Historical Building or Location
  • Full Transparency about Ingredients

That night, we stayed near Mt. Shasta, which, regardless of your position on the scale of scientific to skeptic to spiritualist, is impressive and colossal. We arrived at night, and woke up to the delightful presence of the mountain, urging us onward, towards more beer...

Stay tuned for a review of Day 2:
Wild River, Grants Pass, Oregon
McMenamins Pub, Roseburg, Oregon
Amnesia, Portland, Oregon

Read about us in a recent addition of the North Bay Bohemian issue on Craft Beer
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Thursday, June 23, 2011

May 14th Van Houten Beer Tasting in Review

Ok - the good news is we have so much going on that getting to the blogosphere has been delayed! Last month we had a successful semi public tasting event in our backyard beer garden. A collection of old friends and new friends from the beer community and twitterland gathered at our house on a Saturday in May to sample six of Johnny's beers.

Johnny outfitted a freezer with built in tap towers and a temperature gauge to transform it into a serious kegerator.

We debated about whether to give folks feedback forms or surveys, and decided to engage folks about what they were tasting. We served our American Amber, California Common, Belgian Brown, Belgian Dubbel, Pilsner, and Northern English Brown. It was a nice opportunity to talk about beer in general and specific, why we're not filtering, why small batches matter, and to enjoy in the convivial spirit of local beer.

We were honored that our fellow-nano brewers Alan, from Beltane Brewing, JJ, from Petaluma Hills, and Cathy a brewer out of Novato joined us, as well as our colleague Brian, from Also a delight to meet a few folks from the twittersphere in person.

People really enjoyed themselves and most found there way to trying all 5 varieties.

Lots of beer gets paired with heavy pub food, which is often a delight, but with three local cheese companies, we wanted to present an overall delight of the senses with local beer, cheese, bread and fruit.

It went over rather well.

At the end of the day, we tallied up the results and found some interesting information - Lots of people who thought they didn't like dark beers, or light beers etc - liked the Van Houten version. The California Common and Belgian Dubbel were the official winners, but most of them were rated quite well.

Next time - and update on our West Coast Brewery Tour - 19 Breweries in 9 Days!

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