Road Trip: “Uncommon” is Putting it Lightly

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

I recently visited Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz, CA, with some fellow beer nerds to find out what they have cooking.  What we were expecting and what we actually learned from the informal tour and tasting were drastically different.

The location of the brewery itself is in a weird office complex that must have been designed by a person who specializes in creating rat mazes.  The entrance is awkwardly positioned near the train tracks and lacks signage, which we desperately needed to find the place.

After looking around at most of the buildings we almost gave up, but a grain silo sticking up like a lighthouse helped guide our way.  Even so, we were still unsure about where to go until brewmaster Alec Stefansky popped his head outside and welcomed us.

Alec Stefansky

Inside we were confronted by a construction war-zone.  Boards were stacked all over, tools were strewn about and sheets of plastic protected all the work site goodies. A taproom is in the works!  It’s always exciting to see a brewery building a taproom.  You can really get to know what kind of people they are simply from the type of wood they use, if they go with an industrial theme, or if it’s all DIY tables and chairs threatening to dump you on the ground.

After tip toeing through the entrance Stefansky took us into the cavernous production area. Short squat tanks with a battle-worn patina lined the walls near stacks of empty cans, a canning line that could fit in a pickup truck, and tall fermenters wrapped in plastic (they’ve been plagued by shoddy equipment and are in the process of returning an entire order of multiple 60bbl tanks, yeesh).

The brewhouse itself was tucked away in the corner like some long-forgotten broom, but man was it beautiful and high tech.  Stefansky can monitor temperatures, switch valves and pump out tanks all from his iPad at home.  Isn’t technology great?

The sheer volume of the tanks was the biggest surprise since finding Uncommon beers on tap or on shelves in the Bay Area is stupidly hard.  Before our tour I was curious about how much beer they were actually selling?  I’ve seen them at festivals handing out samples of their infamous Bacon Brown (bacon-infused brown ale), but otherwise haven’t heard a peep.  As it turns out their beer has been selling very well and not just in California, but in a few other states around the country.

The author John Heylin peeking through the Lauter Ton.

Following the brief tour we tasted a good portion of their lineup, all of which have some quirky little modification that makes the beers very, yeah okay, “uncommon.”  Their Golden State Ale has toasted California Poppy seeds in it. Siamese Twin contains coriander and kaffir lime leaves, and Bacon Brown speaks for itself. I asked Stefansky if the bacon fat reconstitutes in the beer and if its’ chilled to get the floaties out, but with a smirk he very diplomatically stated, “we’ve figured out a way of doing it.”  Their Baltic Porter, which incorporates licorice root and star anise, was my favorite.  I can’t stress enough how much you need to go out and buy a pack.

After trying Uncommon’s standard selection, Stefansky brought out a few cans of a beer he calls American Special Bitter. It’s a thick and roasty beer with a strong licorice flavor that weighs in at a whopping 14.5% ABV.  Now I know what you’re thinking, “Uhh, Uncommon cans with 16oz cans.  If I drink one of those it’ll kill me.”  You’re right. Multiple cans of this beer at that size could send you straight to the drunk tank.  That’s why Stefansky has decided to package the beer in smaller 8oz cans, just like cute little Coke products. He hopes this will minimize how hammered you get drinking just one.  Of course, with my size I’ll probably pop them like shots, but it’s the idea that counts!  I can’t wait to buy a bunch of those suckers for the beach or backpacking.

In regards to aluminum cans, Uncommon Brewers is dead set on using them.  Not only is a pallet of empties easy to move, but they also ship lighter, take up less space (they can be stored on very high shelves without fear of killing anyone in an earthquake), and are more environmentally friendly than bottles.  While I have a few reservations about aluminum due to the horrible mining process, it’s true that a large percentage of it used in the United States is recycled.  The fuel savings alone make it a no-brainer economically.

Uncommon’s desire for a smaller environmental footprint even extends to their kegs, which are made out of cardboard and contain a plastic bladder. According to Stefansky the fittings can sometimes be a pain for pubs, but real kegs are expensive, take up space, and require cleaning.

After trying what we thought were all the beers, Stefansky gave us a devilish grin and beckoned us into a large cooler where he gave us a new brew he’s working on. Gods honest truth, if he hadn’t told us it was non-alcoholic, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Dubbed Scotty K.N.A., in honor of an employee with 22 years of sobriety (way to go Scotty! Bill is proud of you), the beer is fermented for only 24 hours so it falls below the 0.5% ABV needed for a non-alcoholic classification.  The flavor reminds me of a table beer I had this summer that was only 3%, very malty, not much bite, the extra sugars not quite overpowering but they let you know they’re there.  I guess it never occurred to me that the designated driver might want to drink something better then the typical crappy non-alcoholic beer.  Stefansky plans on releasing this beer to the public and I’m eager to see what becomes of this experiment.

We left the brewery pumped up about the beer Uncommon is producing. The hospitality, excellent tasting and exposure to future brews all made for a great time. If you’re going to Santa Cruz, I highly recommend a tasting if arrangements can be made.

So You Want to Have Craft Beer at Your Wedding

Craft-Beer-Wedding-Couple-Emily-Sauter

Illustrations provided by M Sauter, creator of Pints and Panels. See below.

Any beer lover knows, or will find out, that their wedding is going to be the most stressful beer-related activity of their life.  At a typical party or casual beer-tasting people bring six-packs and share. You want to avoid mistakes, like trying some really obscure beer from Niger at a bar that ends up tasting like instant hangover (Biere Niger).  At a wedding you are the sole host and it’s your responsibility.

Think about it.  All your friends who love beer are going to judge your selections and cast an opinion.  “A keg of Supplication?  Awesome!”  On top of this, you have non-beer drinkers and they’ll constitute a huge percentage of the wedding population.  “I like Fat Tire but not much else,” you might hear them say.  Or maybe even “All beer tastes the same to me, I can’t tell the difference.”  I got that one recently and just about shat myself.

So there you go; beer lovers on one hand, potential beer lovers on the other.  What you decide might bring people over to the beer loving side or drive them away forever.  Remember when you had that really crappy IPA as your first IPA and you believed you didn’t like hoppy beers?  Their fate lies in your hands.  Don’t.  Screw.  This.  Up.

What to Choose

I did a pretty extensive beer set-up at my wedding and get asked for selection advice all the time. No matter the weather, I always come up with the same suggestion: get something hoppy and refreshing. For example, a Pale Ale or Lager would be a good choice for the uninitiated and then buy something special for the serious beer drinkers.  Note: That something special shouldn’t be too extreme. The goal is to get the Pale Ale drinkers to try out the other beer and like it.

At my own wedding I had three kegs from Lagunitas Brewing: the Pale Ale, Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Extra and Censored.  I was only serving beer and wine and due to the relatively young age of the 170 attendees, Sumpin’ Sumpin’ was my high-alcohol backup for when the other kegs got drained.  There’s nothing like an 8.8% beer to slow people down a bit.  Oh, and people were camping on site or within a block of the hotel. I don’t recommend this setup for all weddings.

So a nice crisp beer along with a stronger amber beer does the trick.  There’s a reason you don’t see Stouts and Lambics at weddings too much.  The beer has to taste good, but you want to be able to drink at least six of them no problem. If you plan on dancing pretty hard, make it ten. The beer also needs to go with whatever dish you’re serving, so don’t get too crazy or else you’ll end up with half a keg of beer that will probably go to waste.

If you’re on a tight budget, my best advice is to get some coolers, ice, and hit up the local Costco for some cases of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Lagunitas IPA. They’re cheap and bottles can be self-distributed at the wedding. Guests can just reach in and grab one, but you do have a waste issue with all the necessary recycling. Caterers might charge you extra for hauling everything away.

Setup a Draft System

My catering company of choice was going to charge me so I decided to spend half that cost on a tap system in the interest of saving money and the environment. Here’s the setup I built. I bought a CO2 tank (20lb), two taps, all the hoses and regulators, and built my own bar.  The catering company brought beer glasses instead of champagne and it all worked out great.  The person bartending only had to pour wine while everyone gleefully poured his or her own beer right out of the tap.  “Just like at the bar!” some would yell.  It gives your wedding something unique people will remember.

Caution:  Most people don’t know how to pour from a tap. They’ll screw it up and get foam everywhere.  If I could have changed anything I would’ve posted a simple diagram showing how to pour a pint.

I spent about $400 on the whole bar system and kept in the end. When comparing the cost of hiring a bartender, beer, and renting equipment, buying the draft system made more sense. You might as well just buy it yourself.  I mean come on. You were going to get it at some point, right? Right? I purchased everything from Micro Matic.

A Few Parting Words

So remember, get Pale Ale or Lager and something a little stronger for the wedding.  If you go with a Hefeweizen you run the risk people not liking it because it tastes like bananas.  You could go with a cider, but who can really drink more than a few pints of that, especially non-cider drinkers.  Don’t bring out the big guns, but don’t give up and just get Anchor and Trumer. You can do this.  I have faith in you.

If you’re already married and served craft beer, share your selections and advice in the comment area below.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Illustrations for this post were graciously provided by M Sauter, creator of the website Pints and Panels, where she uses her skills as a cartoonist to review beer. Check it out!