Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Seriously Sour: The Rare Barrel

Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of Berkeley's newest craft beer destinations, the Rare Barrel.  Slated to open in November 2013, the Rare Barrel is a self-proclaimed "Sour Beer Company," and the brewery will focus entirely on producing world-class sour beers.

The Rare Barrel produces barrel-aged, sour beers.
The Berkeley location.

The Rare Barrel is the creation of two former homebrewing friends, Jay Goodwin and Alex Wallash.  Jay is a proven and accomplished brewer who brings his experience at The Bruery to the project, whereas Alex is involved with designing the look, the feel, and the soul of the Rare Barrel.  The Berkeley location will feature a modern, comfortable tasting room, and it will be a fantastic space for tasting what I can only assume will be some incredibly flavorful and complex sour beers.  Jay and Alex place an emphasis on attention to the details, and each aspect of the Rare Barrel is a deliberate decision calculated toward creating the best sour beer experience possible.

Raw space at the Rare Barrel.
Fermentation tanks at the Rare Barrel.

The Rare Barrel brewed batch number 1 in late February 2013, and the beer has been souring and aging in the brewery ever since.  During my visit, batch number 12 was vigorously fermenting away in one of the three fermentation tanks.  The Rare Barrel does not brew on-site, instead producing wort at another local brewery and then adding the bugs and kicking off beer production in the Rare Barrel's tanks.  The beer is then moved to the barrels, where Jay will use wild yeast strains--brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus--in order to continue to ferment and sour the beers.  Expect to see lambics, krieks, fruited lambics (e.g., framboise, peche, etc.), and even a gueze (in a few years time).

Jay (left) discusses wild yeast fermentation
with Doug Constantiner of Societe Brewing Company.
Jay talks about Batch 1.

We tasted through the barrels, and Jay explained the subtle differences between the batch and base beers in each barrel, the variations of yeast strains used, and whether or not fruit had been added into the barrel.  Jay is extraordinarily passionate about the process of souring and aging beer, and he talked at length about the science and the processes involved.  He is clearly excited about the next challenge that awaits the Rare Barrel -- blending the barrels, finishing, and bottling the beers.  Look for bottles and draft beer around the Bay Area this fall.

Check out the Rare Barrel on the web, and follow the guys on twitter for updates on the brewery's progress...

Live the craft. Cheers.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Laurelwood Public House & Brewing Company: A Portland Workhorse

Laurelwood Public House & Brewing Company 

Laurelwood tap handles.
Upon arriving home from my first (of what I anticipate will be many) trips to Portland, Oregon, I am faced with the considerable task of revisiting and recounting all of the incredible experiences that I enjoyed.  For me, the first Portland brewery of the visit was the Laurelwood Public House and Brewery, specifically the NE Portland location.  After traveling to Laurelwood's flagship location in Portland's Hollywood district via a borrowed bicycle--a harrowing and daunting journey for this two-wheel challenged, clumsy individual--I was lucky enough to meet with Mike De Kalb, the owner and operator of the family of Laurelwood locations that are scattered throughout the greater Portland area.

Mike was gracious enough to sit down with me and discuss how his extensive experience in the hospitality industry came together with a fantastic opportunity to acquire a brew system, the equipment, and the location, and Laurelwood was born.  Mike and his wife purchased a defunct brewpub with a seven barrel brewery, and they focused immediately on creating a welcoming and friendly pub atmosphere.  Admittedly, Mike did not have a wealth of brewing background knowledge to draw from, but he was wise enough to bring in phenomenal brewers who simply brew great beer, such as Christian Ettinger, Chad Kennedy, and the current Brewmaster, Vasili Gletos.  There has always been a profound emphasis on making clean, flavorful beers, and Laurelwood is currently building out its lab and quality control center with the help of a young and eager intern from a local brewery/microbiology educational program.

Laurelwood has seen its share of successes, and the beer has been recognized through the receipt of numerous awards (the latest including an award for  Laurelwood's double IPA "Megafauna," the winner of the 2013 National Imperial IPA Championship).  Laurelwood has also been well received as far as production, sales, and distribution of its beer, with the brewery maxed out at capacity, and with plans to partner brew its flagship beers Workhorse IPA and Free Range Red in six-packs.  The brewery intends to partner with the Craft Brew Alliance (with members such as Portland's "big" brewery, Widmer Brothers) to achieve national distribution and production volumes of nearly 15,000 barrels a year.  Mike also spoke about his beliefs concerning organic and sustainable food and beer, and he passionately described his desire to use organic and sustainable ingredients and processes as much as possible.  Although the pricing and difficulty of acquiring organic hops is a challenge for producing hoppy organic beers at a larger scale, Mike noted that he will always be pouring an Organic Tree Hugger Porter, and he strives to keep his Free Range Red an entirely organic beer whenever possible.

We took a quick tour of the brewpub facility, where smaller conical tanks were being used to grow and harvest yeast for shipment to Laurelwood's partner brewery, where the "house" yeast will be used for the beer being brewed for the expansion, in order to maintain consistency and quality across all the beer that Laurelwood sells.  Mike and I also tasted the latest release (#17) of the Portland Pale Project, a series of one-off batch beers that focuses on using a unique hop varietal to produce a distinctly Northwestern American Pale Ale.  This particular batch used experimental Hop 05256, a new hop that combines spicy, peppery flavor characteristics with a dank, resinous aroma.  The end beer (using a combination of two row, Crystal, Rye, and Wheat malts) was an excellent beer to kick-off my visit to Portland.  Release #18 will feature the Zythos hop, and that beer should be ready to drink soon.  Mike was a generous host, and he made my visit to Laurelwood one that I will not soon forget.

Fittingly, Laurelwood has a location at the Portland International Airport where you can buy bottles of Laurelwood's beers, or even pick up a growler-fill prior to boarding your flight.  United Airlines was kind enough to locate my gate right next to their Concourse E location, so happily, Laurelwood served as the bookend brewery for what was truly an outstanding vacation to the Pacific Northwest.

The Board at Laurelwood Public House.

Workhorse IPA
This American IPA was recommended to me by several individuals prior to my visit to Portland, so I was eager to seek it out.  7.5% ABV, with 80 IBUs.

Aroma:  Extremely aromatic, with a citrusy character that is derivative of the hops used in this beer.  Clear use of techniques that target the aromatic qualities of the hops, with likely multiple dry-hop additions and the use of a hop back during the overall process.

Appearance:  Dark orange and copper in color, brilliantly clear, with a nice tight and off-white foamy head.

Flavor:  A hop-driven IPA that is balanced nicely with the malt profile you might expect from a Pacific NW IPA.  Not overly grassy, but surprisingly citrusy and balanced.  Drinks more like a true West Coast IPA, as opposed to the types of IPAs that I expect to see out of the Pacific Northwest.  Not assaultingly bitter, but still enough hop presence to provide the hop characteristics that I expect and want out of an IPA.

Mouthfeel:  A smooth, medium-light bodied mouthfeel without any hop astringency.  A little less carbonated than I would prefer, but still an extremely drinkable IPA that finishes dry and leaves you wanting another taste.

Overall Impression: Looking forward to enjoying this beer again the next time that I make it up to Portland.

Ingredients: Great Western two row, Crystal and Dextrin malts; Simcoe, Amarillo, Cascade, Columbus, and Nugget hops.

Overall, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit Laurelwood Public House and Brewing Company during my visit.  This will be a brewery that I will certainly be returning to on a future visit, and I hope to have a chance to eat dinner and enjoy a pint at the Public House during a Timbers or Blazers game.

Check out Laurelwood on the web, or stop by and say hello if you happen to be in Portland.

Live the craft.  Cheers.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Raising a Fiddle and Brew to Another Year at Societe Brewing Company

This past weekend, Societe Brewing Company celebrated its inaugural year, hosting four separate celebratory sipping sessions on Saturday and Sunday.  The celebration was held at Societe's production brewery and tasting room location in Kerny Mesa (that is now, finally, adorned with a handsome new sign), and the entire weekend was a showcase for Societe's beers. The Anniversary Party served as an exposition of Societe's current brewing operations, and it provided an allusion to the future of the brewery.

Societe Brewing Company has quickly become one of my absolute favorite breweries in San Diego, if not the United States.  This has clearly been driven by the beers that owners and brewers Doug Constantiner and Travis Smith have created.  Societe focuses on West Coast IPAs and Belgian-inspired beers, and each beer is a deliberate and conscious effort to create a distinct, delicately flavorful, and profoundly drinkable beer.  It is no surprise that each beer features its own malt-bill, hop profile, and water treatment - the focus on the raw ingredients, and the attention to detail in extracting flavor from the brewing processes and from Societe's brewhouse, makes each hoppy beer unique and different from any other IPA you will find on the West Coast.  Similarly, each Belgium beer is representative of the style, yet each Societe beer has a subtle and deliberate twist to capture the same house characteristics that epitomize Societe's beers.

The Anniversary Party was an excellent opportunity to taste the wide-range of beers that Societe is producing, as the brewery was pouring twelve of the fifteen beers that Societe released during its first year of operation.  Old favorites included The Apprentice and The Pupil (two of the best IPAs available today), The Harlot (a crisp, yet hoppy Belgian ale), and The Widow (a twist on a Belgian Strong Dark Ale).  New (to me) beers included The Scrapper, a "SD Dark IPA" that pours an astonishingly gorgeous brown and amber hue, and tasted crisp and hoppy with some intense roast characteristics.  The Pugilist was also new to me, an Irish Dry Stout with a thin-body that was easy to enjoy, yet still flavorful and delicious.  The Anniversary Party also featured two of Societe's most acclaimed beers, The Roustabout and The Butcher.  The Roustabout is a massive double IPA, extremely smooth and creamy to drink, fiercely aromatic, and simply delicious.  The Butcher is an Imperial Stout that is dark, viscous, and lusciously flavorful with roast and chocolate. All-in-all, I enjoyed a taste of each of the twelve beers, and came away thoroughly impressed with the amount of attention placed on each.  There was also a marked improvement, as I noticed that each beer that I was revisiting seemed better now than the first time I tried them (I first visited Societe in June 2012) - evidently, Societe is dialing in their system and starting to hit their stride.

Although the entire brewery is on display from Societe Brewing's eloquent tasting room,  we had the opportunity to tour the whole facility.  Just as Doug and Travis are deliberately conscious in selecting the ingredients, recipe, and processes for each beer, they were deliberate in choosing the space and designing and setting up the brewery for planned growth.  The space meets the needs of the brewery now, but is also set up to expand with Societe in the next few years, as the brewery intends to focus on producing more beer for the San Diego market that has evidently embraced Societe as a standout.  The tour also featured a visit to Societe's barrel room, where the focus of the barrel program is on sour and funky beers.  Six different base beers presently sit in neutral oak barrels, each having received a different treatment of "wild" yeast.  Look for 750ml cork and cage bottles to be released at some point during Societe's second year of operation (beer geeks everywhere await with baited breath).

Owner and Brewer Doug Constantiner talks about his passion for blending Sour ales.
Travis Smith, formerly of Russian River, talks about Societe's approach to souring and blending beer.

Overall, the Anniversary Party was a tremendously successful event.  Societe organized the party perfectly - there were no long lines in order to get a pour of beer, there was a festive, turn-of-the-century theme (many attendees dressed in costumed garb), and everyone was clearly enjoying themselves responsibly.  The event was a fitting tribute to a nascent, yet successful brewery - I tip my bowler hat to everyone at Societe Brewing Company, and I am looking forward to visiting again as much as possible during Societe's second year of operation.

Be sure to visit Societe's website, or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

Live the craft.  Cheers.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Brewing A Passion for Craft Beer in Wine-Country

Firestone Walker Brewing Company

Paso Robles is probably best known for its numerous wineries, however anyone who enjoys craft beer these days assuredly knows that Paso Robles is also home to the Firestone Walker production brewing facility.  Over the last few years, Firestone Walker has been the winner of an astonishingly high number of medals at both the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.  Most well known for the Double Barrel Ale (DBA) and Pale 31 pale ale, Firestone also produces some fantastic bigger beers like Parabola (an Imperial Stout), Abacus (an English Barleywine), and its Anniversary series (each year, a unique blend of several different beers and beer styles).  One of my favorites is the newly bottled and released Pivo Pils, a hoppy Americanized Pilsner that is dry-hopped with a "new" hop varietal, German Saphir - the hop adds a citrus and lemongrass bite to a clean, light-bodied lager.  Firestone Walker's beers are fairly well-distributed to most of the country, and the beers are generally readily available.

Visitor's Center

Our visit naturally started in the visitor's center, a small gift-store and taproom that sits in the front of the Firestone Walker brewery facility.  The visitor's center is outfitted with fourteen taps featuring Firestone Walker beers, and visiting guests can taste three ounce samples of Firestone's lineup, including beers that you will not find outside of the brewery.  For example, the Taproom Brown was classic representative of the English Brown Ale style, and was definitely crisp, clean, and flavorful -- a standard for all of Firestone Walker's beers.  If you find a beer you like, six ounce or eleven ounce pours are also available.   The visitor's center was also pouring Helldorado, a golden Barleywine featuring El Dorado hops.  This standalone beer is not released, but it serves as a component in the blended beer that was the Sixteenth Anniversary Beer released last year.

The Brewery

The tour was typical of your standard brewery tour.  We were walked through the quality control department (a cool looking lab) and heard a little about the history of Firestone Walker.  The brewdeck is the focus of the brewery, and the ninety-barrel system is set up as a tribute to the water, barley, and the hops that are combined together in this part of the brewing process.  It is impossible not to appreciate the technical beauty of the equipment that Firestone has installed -- the setup is dedicated to producing massive volumes of the highest quality beer using traditional step-infusion processes.  The standout of the tour, and the true differentiators of Firestone Walker from other breweries, is the Union fermentation system that sits oddly placed amongst a forest of stainless steel tanks.  Firestone's flagship beer, Double Barrel Ale (DBA), is produced from a blend of 20% beer that is fermented in the oak barrels of the Union system, and 80% beer fermented in stainless (hence the name, "double" barrel).  In the visitor's center, the unfiltered version of DBA was being pointed on Nitro, and that was a real treat. An incredibly different beer than the standard DBA that you see on tap at countless bars.

The only disappointing aspect of the tour was the fact that both the kegging and bottling lines were up and running, and the noise in the cavernous facility was mildly deafening.  This made the entire tour a bit awkward and it was difficult to ask questions and interact with the tour guide.  And although the tour guide was friendly and energetic, he was not as knowledgeable about some specific information relevant to Firestone Walker and Firestone's beers as he could have been (but, it was only his fifth tour).  The noisy brewery only added to some of the awkwardness of his presentation.  Overall, I have always wanted to see and tour the facility at Firestone Walker, and the tour delivered - truly one of the most impressive production breweries that I have visited.

The Taproom

Following the tour, we headed over to the Taproom for some more beers and some sunshine on the outdoor patio.  The peacefulness and serene atmosphere of a comfortable summer afternoon was a stark contrast to the noise and industrial machine vibe of the brewery and visitor's center.  I enjoyed a Proprietor's Series flight, featuring Wookey Jack, Double Jack, Proprietor's Reserve (a terrific porter), and the DDBA (an imperial version of the DBA, incredibly boozy with immense bourbon characteristics and vanilla undertones).  We then sat down for dinner once the kitchen opened, and I enjoyed a full pour of the Pivo Pils with the grilled salmon.  The food was incredible for a brewery restaurant, probably as good if not better than the food offered at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens.

Firestone Walker was an overall excellent visit.  The brewery is state of the art, the beers are technically perfect, and Firestone offers a diverse range of its take on classic beer styles.  Firestone reinterprets each beer style, making each beer its own, while staying true to traditional and techniques.  The beers are nearly flawless, and I will always be confident in choosing or recommending a Firestone Walker beer.  Even more noticeable than the attention to brewing detail, was the passion for the craft that was exuded by nearly everyone who I interacted with -- from the server's in the visitor center, to the energetic tour guide, to our bar tender in the Taproom.  The people were friendly, knowledgeable, and genuinely cared about Firestone Walker and about craft beer.  I can only foresee continued successes, innovation, and growth from Firestone, especially with Matt Brynildson at the helm of brewing operations, and with David Walker as an active owner who clearly has a passion for the art and science of beer.

Check out the well-done Firestone Walker website or follow-along on Twitter.

Live the craft.  Cheers.