Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book review - America Walks into a Bar

Every once in a while (usually when I'm flying on a beercation or waiting for the wort to boil), I read a book. Usually, it takes me 3-6 months to finish one, but America Walks Into a Bar took me just a long weekend plus a couple of extra days, for around 280 pages.

Christine Sismond's rollicking little book is basically the history of America, as told from the perspective of the country's taverns, saloons, speakeasies, and bars. To a great extent, America's history is the history of its taverns, saloons, speakeasies, and bars, as well as its brewers, moonshiners, rum-runners, and barstool jockies. Many great events and social movements were planned in bars, and beer, cider, whiskey, and rum are often the lubricants, the context, or the villains of American history.

The final chapters on the alcohol's and bar's roles in the civil rights movements for women, African Americans, and gays go by a little too quickly, and I think that Sismond could've spent a little more time on the events that last couple of decades - the rise of craft brewing, wine, spirits, and cocktails - but overall it was a very fun read.

Event review - Brews on the Bay

Back in 2004, several of the craft breweries and brewpubs in San Francisco formed the San Francisco Brewers Guild, and one of their first events was Brews on the Bay, a beer tasting fundraiser for liberty ships, hosted aboard the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, a liberty ship moored at the Hyde Street Pier, just around the corner from the Barbary Coast Brewery.

This year was the 9th annual Brews on the Bay, but the first time that I've attended. With me were Dr. P, our friends Anna and Aish, their friend Lee visiting from New Zealand, and Dr. P's friend Claire.

Over the years the Guild has expanded; this year, BotB included 15 breweries (including several homebrewers who've made the jump to commercial brewers) serving almost 60 beers, as well as four local food trucks and two bands. The $50 ticket price gets you unlimited tastings; the food is extra.

Overall, I thought this was a good event - we had good weather (which can be dicey in SF in September), the crowds weren't too bad, and the setting of the Jeremiah O'Brien is pretty spectacular, right on the water with great views of the City and the Bay.

I ended up tasting about 20 of the beers. Obviously I can't give you a full review, but believe it or not I did take notes! (Actually, those who know me will probably have little trouble believing this...). I rated each beer 0 (meh), + (good), or ++ (outstanding). Here's what I had, and what I thought of them:

21st Amendment, 21A Saison: ++
21st Amendment, Hop Crisis Imperial IPA: +
Almanac, Honey Saison: +
Almanac, Extra Pale Ale: +
Almanac, Bier de Mars w/ Fennel: +
Beach Chalet, Catcher in the Roggen: 0
Beach Chalet, Harvest Pale Ale: 0
Beach Chalet, Bier de Garde: +
Mateveza, Black Lager: +
Magnolia, Proving Ground IPA: +
Pacific Brewing Laboratory, Squid Ink Black IPA: +
Pizza Orgasmica, IPA: +
Schmaltz, He'Brew Hop Manna IPA: +
Schmaltz, Albino Python: +
Southern Pacific, IPA: +
Southpaw BBQ, Mild at Heart:0
Southpaw BBQ, Matchhead Red: 0
Speakeasy, Scarlett: 0
Thirsty Bear, 2012 Wet Hop Hopmeister:+
Thirsty Bear, Brown Bear (cask conditioned): ++
Triple Voodoo, Grand Cru: 0

Recipe #222 - Rump Umpkin ale

People have always fermented pretty much anything with sugar in it. In colonial America, farmland for barley for beer was scarce, and importing it from England was dear, so colonists found other things to ferment - corn, molasses, apples (cider was actually a much more popular drink in colonial America than beer), and... pumpkins?

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin are all believed to have brewed beer with pumpkins. Beginning with Buffalo Bill's, pumpkin ales have been a fall staple.

But, for homebrewers, pumpkins aren't easy to work with. They're mostly starch, so they need to be roasted, and even then can gum up the works - and, they don't taste like much on their own. When most people think of the pumpkin, what they taste is pumpkin pie, so they the beers usually get a generous portion of spices like cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg, which can be tricky to make balanced and not overpowering.

I make mine with canned pumpkin, so that it's already pureed, baked to break down the starches; and with an infusion of spices made with dark rum rather than vodka, to capture the volatile essences of the spices as well as the molasses character of the rum. 


8 lb domestic 2-row
1 lb domestic Munich
1 lb red wheat
0.25 lb Special B
0.25 lb Belgian biscuit
0.25 lb English brown malt

Other fermentables

3 x 15 oz cans pumpkin cooked 45 min @ 350F


1 oz Mt. Hood 5.4% AA @ 60 min
0.5 oz " @ 20 min
0.5 oz " @ 5 min


White Labs California Ale Yeast WLP 001


6 oz gold or dark rum,1 cinnamon stick, 6 allspice berries, 6 cloves, 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger, 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beer Bar Review - Todd English P.U.B.

I recently had the misfortune to have to spend several days in Las Vegas, which in general keeping with its status as the capital of bad taste, is not exactly a powerhouse of craft beer. There are some breweries and brewpubs in the suburbs, if you can get out there, but if you're stuck on the Strip, your options in the casinos and bars are generally limited to macrobrews and the larger craft beer brands. There was a brewpub for a while in the Monte Carlo, but its beers we're pretty mediocre, due, I think, to the high mineral content in Vegas water. (It's now a beer bar with a pretty decent list.) There's also Sin City Brewing in the Venetian (also mediocre) and Triple 7 in the Main Street Casino near Fremont Street (not bad), and that's about all there is for brewpubs on the Strip (I think there might be a Gordon Biersch or BJ's somewhere, but, really, ick.)

Fortunately, I managed to discover the Todd English P.U.B. (Public Urban Bar), in the Crystals Center near the Aria hotel. Created by 3-time James Beard Award-winning chef Todd English, it's not really an English pub so much as a gastropub, featuring high-end food and drink.

It has a food menu of high-end pub grub, and a beer menu of around 60 that spans from pedestrian PBR to limited edition craft brews and foreign rarities. They had a number of beers on cask, which was nice to see, including several from Deschutes  (presumably they have some sort of special relationship).

The downside is that, like anything that's worth anything in Vegas, it's on the pricey side. A 12 oz pour will run you $8-12, depending. The beer menu is a bit confusing, in that they don't organize it by beer style, but in rather arbitrary categories by strength, ingredients, or place of origin.

Dr. P. and I visited the PUB twice, once on our own and once with a larger group. Notable beers included Stone Twilight IPA on cask, which was strong and hoppy but nicely mellowed; St Bernardus ABT, which had good complexity, a taste of coconuts and brandy, and a nice 10.5% ABV warmth; and Uinta Labyrinth (from Utah, of all places), 13.2% ABV, with a delicious flavor of chocolate, whiskey, black licorice, and cream coffee.

The first visit, on a Saturday night, was quite nice, but the second, on a Monday night, wasn't quite as good. It was much busier, and the staff had some issues getting our orders right. Twice I ordered an Innis and Gunn (looking forward to a beer I'd never even heard of), and twice they brought me a Stone Arrogant Bastard (a fine beer, but not what I ordered). On the other hand. They didn't charge me for the beer, so that's something.

So, while the prices are on the high side and the service can be a bit spotty on a game or high tourist traffic night , if you're looking for good food and really good beer in Vegas, Todd English is probably your best bet.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brewpub Review - Cerveseria Mateveza

MateVeza is one of several examples in San Francisco of homebrewers who've made the jump to commercial brewing. They appeared on local shelves a couple of years ago with an organic IPA made with Yerba Mate, a South American caffeinated beverage. Since then, their line has expanded to include two more beers, and more recently, a small cerveceria across the street from Dolores Park, where they're also brewing their beer.

To call it a "brewpub" would be a bit of an exaggeration, since all they serve are empanadas from El PorteƱo. Which, don't get me wrong, are quite tasty! They have 7 taps, which on a recent visit serve one of their own beers, as wells a fridge with about 100 craft brews. I had the St Bernardus Prior 8 Belgian dubbel (delicious), while Dr. P had a Bockor Jacobin Rouge sour (very delicious).

So, while I can't really recommend it as a place with a full menu, they have some tasty beers on tap (and in the fridge), and tasty empanadas for them to wash down. As a place for a quick snack or to pick up some good beers near Dolores Park (or, as Dr. P. tells me, for an impromptu date), it's a great little spot.

Social Kitchen Waterside Porter

While I've got your attention, lemme throw in a review of another Social Kitchen beer, their Waterside Porter. I generally like porters, but a lot of west coast brewers, being hop heads, tend to overtop them, and unfortunately, the tannins in the dark grains that give porters their color and flavor don't play well with hops.

This one, however, is done right. Presumably, they're using carafa malt, which is a dark malt that does play well with hops. It's well-balanced, with good mouthfeel, and not too strong. A very well-done "west coast" porter.

Social Kitchen Waterside Porter, 5.9% ABV, 33 IBU.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Gateway beers

Every once in a while, I run into someone who says they "don't like beer." This simply makes no sense. There's quite a bit of evidence that the Agricultural Revolution, and thus human civilization, were driven by growing cereal grains for beer. (Before he bakers protest, remember, beer and bread both evolved out of a sort of fermented malt mash porridge. Throw it in the fire, and you get bread. Strain it, and you get beer.) So, if you "dislike" beer, you might as well dislike houses, clothing, and a life expectancy greater than 30.

Model of Egyptians making beer
Now, there are legitimate reasons for not drinking alcohol - physical and psychological addiction, lacking the enzymes to break it down, disliking the bloated feeling or flatulence that comes from carbonation or introducing too much yeast to your gut (Dr. P will tell you this bothers me far too little...), the fear that your god will smite you (or at least send you back, and try not to frack it up again this time...). But generally, if I dig a little deeper, the answer is that this person doesn't like the taste of beer.

This, I can understand, since 95%+ of beer consumed around the world is industrial pisswater lager - or, more correctly, industrial pisswater pilsner. Sadly, in some ways we must view this as the ultimate product of "civilization," not to mention colonialism.

Indeed, pilsner itself isn't a bad beer, but what most of the world today knows simply as "beer" is a far cry from the original, cleanly fermented, malty lager with the sparking Saaz hops. But in the brighter corners of 21st century, there's such a dizzying array of different craft beers available, that there's at least one for just about every palate. If you can get your friend to give up their preconceptions and prejudices about what "beer" tastes like, and try them.

To simplify that task, I want to suggest 3 craft beer styles that I think are excellent "gateways" to blow the minds of people who think they don't like beer, expand their consciousness about, and thirst for, beer. One your probably familiar with, but two you probably know only if you're a beer afficianado, and even then one if those may surprise you.


Porter was my gateway beer. Although it was a mainstay of the British working class in the 18th and 19th centuries, it nearly died out in the 20th. It was brewed in New England and Pennsylvania, but was overtaken by pilsner in the US in the mid-19th century.

Porter is a good gateway beer because it's flavor profile matches things that most people enjoy eating, or indeed consider a treat: chocolate, coffee, toast, nuts, caramel, toffee. It's not usually aggressively hopped, for those who complain that "beer" is too bitter.

However, the dark color and rich flavor can lead people to believe that it's high in alcohol (remember that alcohol comes from the *amount* of grain, while color, texture, and flavor come from how the grain is prepared - we'll talk more about this and other beer myths in a future post). This is, sadly, particularly true of women, whom marketing has taught to like light colored/flavored beer (if they drink beer at all - the history of American beer and it's marketing to women will be the subject of another, even more bilious post... And woe is the woman who comes into a beer bar where I'm drinking and orders a glass of Chardonnay...).

Solving this problem brings us to our second gateway beer...


Saison (SAY-sohn, from the French meaning "season;" NOT say-SOHN, the French Post-Impressionist painter) began as Belgian (actually, Walloon) "farmhouse" ale that is, the homebrewed beer that Belgian farmers would serve their field hands along with their traditional meal of fried egg-battered toast and waffles dipped in mayonnaise (yes, that's several obscure cultural jokes rolled into one...).

Saison is friendly-looking, but it's almost instantly obvious that something interesting is going on here. It's light colored, but more straw than gold, and may even be a little cloudy if it was bottled conditioned (that is, carbonated with live yeast in the bottle, which settle to the bottom, rather than pasteurized and filtered). Then take a smell - rather than hops - bitter, grassy, or piney - you'll get subtle fruits, perhaps a hint of orange or stone fruit; a little spicy, perhaps cloves or corriander; and perhaps just a hint of soft funkiness, which the modern palate, pasteurized, sanitized, refrigerated, and vacuum-sealed - recalls from another, more home-spun era.

Flemish Sours

OK, this is the one that the beer snobs may question at first. The northern part of Belgium, Flanders, produces an different styles of beer, sour reds and browns. These beers are innoculated with wild Brettanomyces yeast, and/or bacteria like lactobacillus (which sours milk), and turn some of the sugars and alcohols in the beer to lactic acid or acetic acid, producing a tart, pucker sourness, which contrasts to the malty, fruity sweetness of the beer. (Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, CA, makes a wide range of these types of beer.)

Sour beers tend to be the last beers that beer connoisseurs acquire a taste for, and many never do, as their taste is almost completely unlike any other. But, conversely, they make excellent gateway beers for wine drinkers, who will grock their fruitiness, tartness, and barrel-aged funkiness. Sours aren't bitter, aren't too sweet, and usually aren't too bubbly, but instead are the closest beers to wine, and are the most likely to convince wine drinkers that craft beers can, in fact, be complex and worthy of their notice.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Recipe #221 - Zwarte Piet Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout

(First, a quick review. Turns out that there was a second version of Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch, aged in congac barrels rather than calvados barrels. It was also delicious. That is all!)

Yes, it's already time to brew the holiday beer! Well, technically, it was time to start brewing the holiday beer back in June, when I brew my Solstice Celebration barleywine. But now that Fog Season has (hopefully) passed here on the Barbary Coast and Indian Summer has arrived, it's time to gear up for production of our holiday beers, particularly since some, like Zwarte Piet, need several months to mature.

I introduced ZP to my holiday lineup a few years back, and it was an immediate hit. It's my homebrewing attempt to reproduce a bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. In this case, toasted oak chips soaked in rot-gut bourbon (my preferred poison is Ancient Age, or whatever they're selling as their "house" brand at Trader Joe's, at around $10 a fifth) for a week or so and thrown into the fermenter for the secondary fermentation. The results were so good that I started aging other holiday beers on chips soaked in TJ's Charles Shaw (AKA Two-Buck Chuck) Shiraz.

The name stems from an unusual bit of Dutch folklore. Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) travels with a servant, Zwarte Piet, "Black Peter," who was apparently a bound demon servitor (see also the German Krampus), but later morphed into a dark-skinned Moor.

Zwarte Piet's job is to put naughty children in his sack, and take them to Spain. (I should be so lucky, or so naughty...) Zwarte Piet has caused some controversy in recent years, as he's depicted with exaggerated Negro features, or portrayed by Dutchmen in blackface, not exactly politically correct in the generally liberal and tolerant Dutch society.

Zwarte Piet Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout

6 lbs domestic 2-row malt
6 lbs domestic Munich malt
1 lb 60L crystal malt
0.5 lb roasted barley
0.5 lb carafa malt

Other fermentables
1 cup white granulated sugar
0.25 cup blackstrap molasses

1 oz Falconer's Flight* hops @ 11.4% AA 60 min
1 oz Falconer's Flight 20 min
1 oz Falconer's Flight 5 min
*Originally I used Citra, but according to the boys at SFBC, they're no longer available, at least not to homebrewers. This was their suggested substitute.

White Labs Dry English Ale Yeast WLP 007

Soak 0.25 lb medium toast French oak chips in bourbon for 1 week, add to secondary for 8-10 weeks.