Beer Review: Oyster Stout from HenHouse Brewing

Photo © Dave McAvoy

One of the best aspects of Bay Area beer culture is that there are so many new breweries starting up, that it’s almost a full time job trying to keep track of them. Not that I am going to complain, since that also means that shelves of good craft beer stores will constantly have new and different beers to try.

One region of the Bay Area that seems to be exploding is the North Bay. Home to heavyweight Lagunitas, Petaluma is not new to the beer world, but there are some new kids on the block. HenHouse Brewing Company opened its doors fairly recently and three of their beers are being distributed around the North Bay, as well as San Francisco and Oakland. One of them is Oyster Stout.

Oysters and Stouts are a historic food and beer pairing, but using oysters in the brewing process only stretches back to the middle of the last century. For those who are intimidated by the thought of oysters in their beer, rest assured. Most Oyster Stouts only use the oyster shells and none of the meat makes it into the beer. Even if the meat is used, the vast majority of the shellfish flavor will be lost in the boil during the brewing process.

Starting off with a quick look at the bottle, the HenHouse labels are clean and attractive. The logo is simple and the label design is fairly minimal, which makes it easy to spot on the shelf.

The beer pours a very dark black color with a finger of frothy chocolate colored head forming atop. The head fades down fairly slowly leaving a nice ring of lace behind. The aroma is a mix of roasted milk chocolate with some light coffee and minerals. It is a fairly simple nose, but it’s clean and very appetizing.

The flavor starts off with some roasted chocolate malts, coffee and a bit of a mineral flavor. I should mention that mineral flavor is often considered an off-flavor in beer, but for this style it’s accepted and comes from the oyster shells, which add depth and a bit of body to the beer.

Through the middle, some sweeter milk chocolate flavors come through, with even a touch of lactose, and a bit more roastiness. The finish is a mix of roasted milk chocolate, light coffee, and a hint of dark fruit. The beer feels medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It is remarkably smooth and sessionable, and has a wonderful dry and roasty finish.

Weighing in at around 4.9% ABV, this is a stout that I could drink quite a bit of. The overall beer does not hit the palate too hard, but is very clean and has a great balance of flavors. Beyond Oysters, this could be paired with many other foods and works equally well as a great end of the day beer that will not leave you hung-over the next morning.

This is without a doubt a good start for HenHouse Brewing Company, and I highly recommend you give them a shot if you are lucky enough to come across their brews in your area.


Beer Review: Alpha Session from Drake’s Brewing

Photo © Dave McAvoy

Until recently, the craft beer world was involved in a friendly war to one-up each other by creating bigger, bolder, and more extreme beer. Breweries like Samuel Adams and BrewDog produced beers in excess of 25% ABV, which really pushed the limits of beer. Other brewers focused on making the most sour, hoppy or spicy beer possible. Most of them are well suited for sipping or should be shared with others, not for throwing back in succession.

This trend is beginning to change. More breweries are focusing on the lower end of ABV spectrum and are redefining the “session ale,” including Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro. Their Alpha Session, a “Nor Cal Bitter Ale” as they describe it, weighs in at 50 IBUs (similar to many IPAs), but comes in a lighter at 3.8% ABV. Drake’s recently released Alpha Session in bottles around the Bay Area, so I thought it would be fitting to share my thoughts about the beer so you can determine whether or not you should take a few home to enjoy.

The beer pours a clear golden color with a finger of frothy white head forming atop. The head recedes slowly leaving some lace clinging to the sides of the glass. The aroma is full of West Coast hops, with hints of pine, grapefruit and citrus tickling the nose. There’s also an ample malt backbone, which gives the beer some balance. It’s surprising how full the aroma is considering its below 4% ABV.

The taste follows the nose closely in many ways. The first flavors to hit the tongue are a mix of grapefruit, pineapple, and other citrus and tropical hops, with some mild bitterness alongside the caramel and English biscuit malts. Through the middle, the pine and grassy hops jump out, bringing with them a stronger bitterness and a touch of resin. The finish continues the hop forward trend, with more tropical and piney flavors, some good bitterness, and some sweet malts lingering on the tongue. The beer feels a bit lighter than medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It feels smooth and incredibly refreshing with a nice dry and bitter feeling left afterwards.

Bringing the English-style bitter and session ales to forefront of craft beer in America is a trend that I can really get behind, and the Alpha Session is a great example. There is no longer a compromise between having a full flavored beer and something that you can drink all evening long. I really enjoy how much hop flavor and bitterness is jammed into this beer, without cutting down on the smoothness and session-ability one bit. One word of warning though, this beer has a habit of disappearing from your glass quite quickly, only to find out that you’ve had enough beer that catches up with you.

Beer Review: High Water Brewing’s Anniversary Doppelsticke

Photo © Dave McAvoy

High Water Brewing recently celebrated its first birthday. In honor of the occasion, brewer Steve Altimari created the Anniversary Doppelsticke (pronounced “Dopple-shtick-uh”). It’s a beer style that some knowledgeable beer fans may not be familiar with.

Here’s a little background about the style. A good starting point is the German Altbier, which is brown ale. A close cousin of the Altbier is the Sticke Alt, which is a stronger and darker seasonal version that is quite rare. The Doppelsticke is an Imperial version of the Sticke Alt.

High Water’s Anniversary Doppelsticke is a rich, dark copper-brown brew that when poured produces a finger of frothy off-white head. The head slowly fades and leaves behind some spotty lacing clinging to the sides of the glass. If you give the beer a good sniff, sweet toasted caramel malts and brown sugar notes fill the nose, with some noble hops and biscuit playing strong supporting roles. There is also just a touch of sweet dark fruits. I was really impressed with how full the aroma was without being too sharp and strong.

When sipped the beer hits the tongue in a very similar manner to how it struck the nose. There’s a wonderful balance of sweet lightly toasted caramel malts with some brown sugar sweetness and some citrus and noble hops coming through. Through the middle the complexity builds a bit with some biscuit and a touch of hop bitterness. The finish is a mix of toasted biscuit and toffee malts and a hint of dark fruit sweetness. The beer is medium bodied, with moderate carbonation and is extremely smooth with a dry and slightly sweet finish.

I have high expectations when new High Water brews are released and this particular beer was even more surprising in quality and uniqueness. The balance of flavors are fantastic and the beer has an incredible (and almost dangerous) smoothness at 7.5% ABV. I definitely recommend seeking this one out and giving it a shot, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the style.

One Tun Imperial Stout by Firehouse Brewery

There’s a brewery hidden on South Murphy in Sunnyvale that’s truly a real gem and holds its own next to the plethora of big name breweries in the Bay Area. Led by brewer Steve Donohue (interview), Firehouse Brewery doesn’t have a ton of tap space, but the quality of the brews, without a doubt, makes up for it.

In case you’re not convinced, some of their beer gets distributed to the rest of the Bay Area. Bottles of the crowd favorite Hops on Rye IPA can be found in select stores so you can give the Firehouse brews a try for yourself. Recently, a second beer made its way into bottles to satisfy your taste buds. Donohue calls it his One Tun Imperial Stout (nicknamed OTIS) and a small batch of bottles made it out of the brewery.

On first glance the label is very similar to Hops on Rye, it’s simple and recognizable. The fine print also indicates that you’re up against an ABV of 10% for this brew. The beer inside pours a thick, dark black-brown color, with a finger of frothy chocolate head forming atop. The head lingers around for quite some time, finally fading down leaving behind lots of thick lace in the process.

The aroma is full of rich roasted dark chocolate with a bit of sweeter milk chocolate, some roasted coffee, and a bit of earthiness. The high ABV does come through a bit as well. When you open this bottle, let it warm up a bit to the recommended 45 to 50 degrees to really get the most out of the aroma.

When the beer hits the tongue it starts off strong. There’s lots of dark roasted chocolate flavor alongside some licorice and coffee with just a touch of sweet dark fruit flavor as well. Through the middle, some sweeter milk chocolate flavors take over for a bit with some earthy hop flavor.

The finish is a return back to darker bitter chocolate and coffee flavors with a just a touch of warming alcohol coming though. The chocolate flavor really lingers on the tongue for quite some time, but the roasted flavors provide a bit of dryness that keeps you coming back for more. The beer feels rich and full bodied with mild level of carbonation. It feels thick and viscous on the tongue, but still has a smoothness to it keep it drinkable.

OTIS is a savory slow sipper and a fantastic example of great Imperial Stout. So many Imperial Stouts are too big and in the process lose control of their balance, but not this one. The flavors are quite bold and strong, but the body and mouth feel match up, creating a well-balanced beer overall. If you have never had a Firehouse beer (or you’re already a fan of Hops on Rye), I definitely recommend you give it a shot.

Beer Review: Four Bombers from Half Moon Bay Brewing

While the surfing world patiently waits for fifty foot waves in Half Moon Bay for the Maverick’s Surf Competition, we thought the nearby brewery deserved some attention. Half Moon Bay Brewing Company opened its doors in 2000 and although they’re off the beaten beer nerd track, their beer can compete many other brews we know and love. Their hard work and effort has earned a local following and they sit on Travel + Leisure’s list of America’s Best Beach Bars.

I was recently able to try four of their beers. Two are available year-round, the Amber and IPA, while the other two are seasonal releases, a pumpkin ale and a winter warmer for the fall and winter respectively. Here’s my take on each of these beers.

Mavericks Amber Ale

This one pours a fairly clear red color with a touch of brown. A finger of frothy tan-brown head forms atop and leaves some spots of lace on the glass as it fades down. The aroma is fairly true to style with rich sweet lightly toasted caramel malts and a touch of citrus hops. There is also just a touch of bread lingering in the background. Absent here is common metallic element that sometimes comes with the style.

The beer hits the tongue in a very similar way it hit the nose. It starts off with the toasted caramel malts that are quite sweet and almost border on a bit syrupy. There are a bit of orange and grapefruit flavored hops that provide a touch of bitterness. Through the middle, the orange flavor of the hops comes through a bit more and the syrupy sweetness starts to mellow out. The finish is more of the same, but with a better balance than at the start. The beer feels just a touch thinner than medium bodied with moderate carbonation.

Though I appreciated the absence of the metallic taste that comes along with so many American Amber Ales, I felt that the malt flavor started off a bit too rich and syrupy compared to the body of the beer. A stronger hop presence could have done a lot to balance things out a bit. All in all, the beer is still an above average example of the style that would be a great entry point into craft beer.

Mavericks Princeton By-The-Sea IPA

The IPA pours a cloudy orange-red color with a finger of frothy slightly off-white head atop. The head fades down leaving behind a layer of lace all the way around the glass. The aroma is full of citrus hops that really open up as the beer warms up. There is a sweet caramel malt backbone and just a touch of grassy hop mixed in as well.

The beer starts off with some citrus hops, but not quite as strong as they were in the nose. There is a bit of bitterness and some sweet caramel malt alongside. Through the middle, some pine hop flavor joins in as the grapefruit flavored hops and bitterness grows a bit stronger. The finish is a mix of grapefruit hop flavor with some light grassy hop and bitterness. The beer feels a tad lighter than medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It has a sweet and slightly dry finish.

I really enjoyed the hop profile of this beer, with some really nice grapefruit and citrus flavors coming through. I felt that the rest of the beer did not quite hold up, as the body and malt flavor seemed just a touch light in comparison. However, this is really a light criticism and did not get in the way of my enjoying this very drinkable IPA.

Mavericks Pumpkin Harvest Ale

Half Moon Bay Brewing’s take on a pumpkin ale pours a cloudy red-orange color with a finger of frothy white head atop. The head faded down and left behind only a touch of lace on the glass. The aroma is a nice balance of pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, clove, and brown sugar) and actual pumpkin. There is also a backbone of biscuit malts present as well.

The beer hits the tongue at first with more pumpkin flavor than spices, which is the opposite of many pumpkin beers. There is also the backbone of sweet biscuit malts that was present in the nose. Through the middle, the spices begin to grow a bit with clear cinnamon and brown sugar coming through with a bit more biscuit malt flavor. The beer mellows out as it finishes with a nice balance of all of the flavors. The beer feels a bit lighter than medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It finishes sweet with the spices tickling the tongue a bit.

I found myself quite impressed with this beer. So many pumpkin ales become spice bombs that might as well be called pumpkin pie beers. However, I felt the balance here was much better, and the malt character and pumpkin flavor provides a great balance to the spices present.

Mavericks Old Soulstice Winter Ale

This winter warmer pours a dark brown-red color with a finger of frothy tan-chocolate colored head. The head hangs a round for a bit before fading down leaving behind some lace. The aroma is a mix of sweet lightly roasted caramel malts with some raisin and other dark fruit elements and a bit of earthy hop.

The flavor starts out a bit more dark fruit forward than expected with raisin and date flavors hitting the tongue. There is some sweet caramel malt and a touch of rye spiciness that form a backbone. Through the middle, some earthy hop flavor comes through with a touch of bitterness. As the beer finishes it gains a bit more hop flavor that lingers alongside some more dark fruit sweetness. The beer feels medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It finishes sweet with a touch of earthy spiciness.

Half Moon Bay Brewing’s take on the Winter Warmer style definitely differs a bit from the common American take on the style in that it is more malt and dark fruit driven than spice driven. While I like the focus, I just found that body felt a bit light in contrast to the big malty flavor. That being said, it was still a very enjoyable beer, I just felt it had a bit more potential.

In the end

This taste of Half Moon Bay Brewing beers has definitely piqued my curiosity. They don’t seem afraid of departing from the common take on many of these styles, which in their case is a good thing. I hope I get a chance to check out their brewpub in the not too distant future. In the meantime, their beer in available in some scattered Bay Area retailers, as well as some popular beer bars.

Note: The beers included in this article were provided by Half Moon Bay Brewing Company to the author.