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Local new media producer Justin Whitaker is an avid homebrewer and part of the husband and wife team behind Powell Avenue Brew. When he’s not putting in hours at the day job, he spends his free time making wonderfully crafted videos that usually document his brew days. He recently turned his camera in a new direction by visiting his neighbor Kevin McGee at Healdsburg Beer Company.
The video is a great behind the scenes look at McGee’s nanobrewery operation. The film follows McGee through a typical brew day while he talks about his process, beer lineup and aspirations. Check it out.
Jenny Lewis & Drew Erhlich / Photo © Brian Stechschulte
Office cubicles are a daydream incubator. The drab interior, droning computer fan and annoying neighbors can suck the life out of any man or woman. With a little forethought and diligent planning anyone can break down the walls of corporate fatigue. Jenny Lewis and Drew Ehrlich started assembling their escape plan three years ago. Both were spending hours of free time over the homebrew kettle and decided it would be a more fulfilling career in spite of the risk.
Not long after the plan was hatched, Lewis went to business school at Rice University where she spent two years writing the business plan, researching the industry and getting advice from anyone she could, while Ehrlich was fine tuning recipes at home. The day after graduation capital razing commenced and permit applications were filed so Strike Brewing could call the South Bay home. Lewis, 27, will fill the CEO position and Ehrlich, 29, is the brewmaster.
Their first three batches were contract brewed earlier this month over at Hermitage Brewing. According to Lewis “we wanted to get the product out as soon as we could and start establishing accounts, while still raising capital. We plan on opening our own facility in the spring or summer of 2012. It will be a fifteen to twenty barrel production and warehouse facility with a tasting room in the front, which we would like to locate within walking distance of downtown Campbell or Los Gatos.”
On December 15th, kegs and six packs of Strike Brewing Blonde, Porter and Brown will start turning up in bars and stores in the South Bay, which are part of their Session Series. “Right now we want to offer people beers they can have a couple of with friends. Eventually we’ll turn things up a notch with an IPA and a few seasonals in 2012,” said Ehrlich.
The series also ties into their active lifestyle-marketing plan, which Lewis explained is targeted towards a wide range of individuals who walk the dog or run a marathon. “In Northern California people are doing every sport you can imagine. We want to reach out to people that may be conscious of calories and give them an alternative to Bud Light. For us it’s more about full flavor and modest alcohol.”
The effort will extend even further as they attempt to build an athletic community around the brand, which will start with a free running club and extend to sponsorship of marathons and other sporting events. “We want to have a community that can identify with Strike. We both love sports and we know and understand the market” said Lewis, who’s been competing in triathlons since being a collegiate swimmer. Ehrlich retired from a career in professional baseball.
By now you’ve probably made a connection between the brewery’s name and their fondness for sports, but it wasn’t meant to be a clear correlation. They simply wanted a one-syllable name that was easy to spell, could convey a variety of different meanings and be memorable. As for the Phoenix on the logo, it doesn’t contain any personal significance, but it’s hard to ignore the symbolism of the mythical bird. Starting any business is a trial by fire that can lead to rebirth or reinvention. For Lewis and Ehrlich, this could be the beginning of a craft beer transformation.
Last December a bourbon barrel arrived at the doorstep of Healthy Spirits in San Francisco. It wasn’t a newly purchased prop for the store. Owner Rami Barqawi, beer manager Dave Hauslein and bourbon buyer Nate Breed were about to launch the second part of their new project. The barrels contents had already been turned into an exclusive line of bourbon for the shop. They planned on filling it with beer and contacted Denise Jones at Moylan’s Brewery who topped it off with Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout.
Eleven months later you can buy a bottle of the very limited results this Friday, December 16, at 6pm. How limited? Only twenty cases off 22oz bottles were produced. Customers will be limited to two per purchase.
I got a sneak peek of the beer last night and it’s wonderfully balanced. The nose is full of bourbon, but it doesn’t overwhelm the flavor, which contains hints of dark chocolate, toffee and maybe a bit of dark fruit.
This beer is just the beginning of a more extensive barrel aging program Healthy Spirits has embarked on with local breweries. Dave Hauslein provided a few more details about the beer and their plans for the project over email via Q&A.
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When did you decide to launch the program?
We began the process of starting a barrel program about 2 years ago. The selection of the first barrel happened in 2010. We selected our Eagle Rare barrel from over a dozen samples and the bourbon was exclusively bottled for sale at the store. The barrel was delivered freshly emptied and given to Moylan’s, who filled it with a fresh batch of Ryan Sullivan’s. It stayed in the barrel approximately 10 months.
Could you give me some insight into how you’re choosing barrels with the beer or partner breweries in mind?
Since we are taking the bourbon for sale in the store, quality is the primary consideration. The employees make scorecards that list various tasting criteria and we compare our scores. After tasting through all the samples multiple times, we decide on a barrel and it is bottled for us. Usually the distilleries sell the barrels themselves or find other uses for them, but we found out most will give you the barrel if you commit to buying the contents. Once we have the whisky, I contact breweries to see who is interested and what styles they could do. We decide which one to go with based on which beer/bourbon combination seems most harmonious.
Why did you choose Moylan’s to partner with first?
We have known Arne Johnson at Marin Brewing Company for a long time and I’ve always enjoyed the beers of Marin and Moylan’s. They tend to be well made examples of classic styles that are accessible without dumbing it down. More than a few customers have told me that Marin and Moylan’s were their first introduction to craft beer. Also, they’re local and we had a relationship with them. As we go on with the program we’ll inevitably work with some non-local brewers, but for the most part I’m choosing small local producers.
How often do you plan on collaborating with other brewers?
There are a few already in the works, two of which we’re planning to release during SF Beer Week. Every time we get a freshly emptied bourbon barrel, it will go to a brewer. This will assure that we always have something in the works and can hopefully have a couple of releases a year. At least that is my hope.
Which beer styles will you focus on?
Imperial Stouts, Barley Wines, and other strong ales for the most part. We may have a sour ale lined up, but you won’t see that for a little while.
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains through Donner Pass on Interstate 80 you can find Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA. By my standards it’s the middle of nowhere, especially when gas stations become few and far between. This small brewery with a big reputation sits a mile outside of town near the Truckee-Tahoe airport. You might think you’re lost when seeking it out (I certainly did and Google didn’t help much), but just keep going down the road and you’ll see a big grain silo on the left emblazoned with the Fifty Fifty logo. I arrived after a light snowfall and being unaccustomed to snow, thought a foot-long icicle hanging from the brewery was going to break off and kill me.
Photos © Brian Stechschulte
The inside of the brewery’s restaurant was all hustle and bustle. The recent snowfall attracted a large winter sports crowd, surprising the staff, which had to work at full tilt in a packed house. Seventy percent of Fifty Fifty’s revenue comes from the busy winter season when people are looking for calorie-heavy pub food and a strong ale to relax their bones after a long day on the slopes. Calling it pub food might actually be a disservice though, it’s not often you see steamed mussels in the high Sierras.
Despite the madness of the crowd and his busy schedule, Brewmaster Todd Ashman found the time to talk to me a little bit about his career and the brewery. He was leaving for Germany two days later to accept a Silver medal at the European Beer Star competition for his barrel aged Eclipse, but acted as if he had all the time in the world to chat.
The first thing I asked Todd was how he got started and ended up in Truckee. Of course it all began with a passion for homebrewing out of college, which led to a stint with the Sonoma County Beerocrats and then enrollment in the UC Davis Extension Program for brewing. Since then he’s worked at Bison Brewing, Kegs Brewery in New Mexico, Flossmoor Station in Chicago (where he became a pioneer in bourbon barrel-aging), Titletown Brewing in Green Bay, the Brewers Supply Group and now Fifty Fifty.
He took the job at Fifty Fifty Brewing when it opened in 2007 itching to explore new recipes and push barrel aging even further. Since then he’s garnered even more awards and accolades, primarily for his Eclipse Imperial Stout series, which has become a must try before you die. If didn’t sign up for futures this year you could always check eBay for a “collector bottle” from years past, but be prepared to pay.
It turns out Todd is actually in favor of rare beers being sold on eBay. His reasoning, which like an idiot had never occurred to me, was that if a beer cannot be found at retail then it does have some extra value to consumers. If people are going to pay for it, then there must be demand. My own feeling is more like “don’t be the wine industry,” but it makes sense that someone who’s been aging a beer, of which only a few exist in the world, could command a higher price. That’s just simple business. As for people selling beer online for crazy prices, which can be found at retail, he’s dead set against that. All in all, I have to agree with his philosophy.
While we were talking I also inquired about his decision to sell Eclipse futures this year. Last April, Fifty Fifty sold out of its entire “planned production.” The concept was the brainchild of brewery owner Andy Barr, which took a few people by surprise. There were even some complaints, but once you see how that money was applied, you can’t help but think it was a great idea.
Once we finished talking over a few beers, Todd gave me a tour of the brewery, which is the size of a postage stamp. I’m not kidding. I don’t know how he produces so much beer. Their entire brewing system could fit in my living room with room to spare. The gap between fermenters can be measured in microns and stacks of Eclipse barrels sit in the restaurant. Unfortunately, drunk people sometimes pull out the bungs and ruin an entire barrel.
Due to the space crunch, proceeds from the Eclipse futures was invested in four rental properties around Truckee for barrel aging. You’d think there would be just one big warehouse they could rent and cram everything into, but then you wouldn’t be in Truckee. I don’t even want to know how they plan on cramming in the new bottling line they’re getting for the Eclipse release on December 8th.
I followed Todd by car to one of the barrel rooms located in a seemingly abandoned retail area and every foot was taken over by barrels, each containing $6,000 in Eclipse beer. The drinking devil inside me wanted to invest in a crow bar and rent a semi-trailer. The number of barrels blew me away and my head was spinning at the thought of more locations around town. The resin was slowly seeping from the oak, forming solid teardrops that I had to suck on like candy just for the heck of it. Seriously, try it.
Future plans for the brewery include expansion, but Truckee’s water constraints could be a problem. The town has a small treatment facility that’s been struggling to keep up with the population boom over the last few years. Factor in how much water is actually used in the brewing process (yes, all those “save water, drink beer” t-shirts are lying) and you get one stressed out water department. Performing their own water treatment doesn’t make sense for such a small brewery and it will be interesting to see if they limit growth or contract brew somewhere else.
Despite their small size, Fifty Fifty has made a big impact on the craft beer industry and culture. Todd’s successful barrel-aged beers have inspired many other brewers and the style sector is getting much bigger. I just hope that Fifty Fifty can find a way around their water issue and crank up production of their wax-sealed goodness (yes, some bottles have pink wax, get over it) so more people can have access to what they are doing. In the meantime, buy futures.