Q&A with Bay Area Ex-Pat and Homebrew Competitor Dwight Mulcahy

Dwight-Mulcahy-Portrait

In his nearly five years in the Bay Area Dwight Mulcahy discovered homebrewing, entered dozens of brewing competitions and brought home quite a few ribbons for his collection. In December, however, this “intensely competitive” homebrewer left the Bay for San Antonio, Texas. Now, nearly 6 months away from the place where he learned to love brewing and competing, Mulcahy talked to BACB about the Bay Area homebrew community, competitions and how he’s come to further appreciate the Bay Area beer scene after being away.

How long have you been brewing?

I’ve been brewing for 6 years now thankfully most of it in the Bay Area so I learned a lot.  I find myself brewing about every 2 weeks now.  I give away more beer then I drink!

What is the benefit for a homebrewer to compete?

Several.  If you are new to homebrewing it gives you an idea of how well you are able to brew the style in question.  If you are a seasoned homebrewer it gives you a measurement against your fellow peers, especially in the Bay Area.  The level of competition in the Bay Area is world class.

Why do you compete?

In the beginning I had challenged myself to create and design recipes that would win medals.  It has also been great to get the kudos from some of the county’s top BJCP Master level judges. I originally started because my club was having a “HomeBrewer of the Year” competition, which I won. I’m increadibly competitive, and it has since become an addiction.

Could you say a little about the culture of craft beer and homebrewing in the area?

The amount of world-class craft beer available in the Bay Area is only topped by a couple of areas in the country.  The availability of craft beer from Russian River, Moylan’s, Firehouse, Anchor, and many more help drive the creativity of homebrewing in the Bay Area.

The level of competitors in the Bay Area is unheard of: Jamil, Tasty McDole, Mike Riddle, Nathan Smith, Aryln Jones, etc.  You have to bring out your best to get any ribbons against these guys.  Although the level of competition is fierce, the respect, sharing and help any competitor will anyone is one of the driving forces in giving more people “the competition bug.”

What is one of your favorite homebrewing competitions in the area?

World Cup is fun because it is one of the first competitions of the year, and everyone comes out beers a blazing!  They have a party over at Trumer Pils after the judging with food and music on site.  They announce the awards there and give out a lot of swag for the winners.  It’s a great way to spend a day with your homebrew friends.

The CA State Competition is also close to my heart. The competition is tough here since this is one of the last comps of the year and everyone has fine-tuned their beers.  The final judging is done at Stern Grove in San Francisco, so again the best of the best get together to party, talk beer and congratulate the winners.  They also give mugs if you get a first in your category.  I love all the ones I have.

What’s one of the most useful things you’ve learned about brewing from going to competitions?

How to make better beer.  Not from the competitions itself, but from discussing with my competitors on how to brew better beer.  I would typically get in touch with winners of the styles that I’m interested in and discuss how they did it. More often then not they would be forthcoming with suggestions on what they believe helped them win.  I mean really, as a homebrewer all we really want to do is talk about beer while drinking a well-made beer.

How does San Antonio’s beer scene compare to the Bay Area?

In San Antonio there are only three breweries/brewpubs within city limits:  Blue Star, Ranger Creek and FreeTail.

Blue Star has been around since 1996.

Ranger Creek is the only Brewery in San Antonio, but they are doing some exciting things.  They also are doing distilling on site.

FreeTail has recently opened in the past two years, and their flavor and charm comes from their Head Brewer Jason Davis.  He worked as a brewer for Celis till they closed.  You can see the influence in the experimental beers they brew.

Also, there are only two BJCP certified judges here in San Antonio (you read that right).  Luckily when an event needs judging there are some more in Austin and Houston area but they still typically only have one BJCP judge per table, it makes for interesting score sheets.

There are only about eight competitions during the year it doesn’t give you the same level of competition.  I have only personally entered four competitions this year, at this point last year I was probably at about 10-12.

How do you handle the big change?

Lucky for me, the Bay Area’s beers are just one shipment away (don’t tell!).

Drake’s Brewing Company is Big on Giving Back

Whether it is because, as the drink of the everyman, beer inspires giving back to one’s fellow man, because the tight-knit feeling of community in the Bay Area’s beer scene prompts giving back to the community at large, or because good beer simply causes feelings of happiness and generosity, there is no question that charitable giving is a big item on many Bay Area breweries’ and beer hubs’ agendas.

Drake’s Brewing Company in San Leandro, in particular, is one brewery that has had a longstanding and substantial commitment to giving back to the Bay and especially its hometown. Their main event is “First Fridays” which, until its barrel house opened this past week, were some of the few days Drake’s opened their doors to the public. The first Friday of each month the brewery holds a party and gives the proceeds to a different local charity, often one located in San Leandro itself.

Brittany Dern, sales and marketing spokesperson for Drake’s, explained, “when the First Friday events started, they (Drake’s owners, John Martin and Roy Kirkorian) thought it was a good way to give back to San Leandro, to the community, for supporting Drakes.”

At First Fridays guests are asked to give a $5 donation at the gate, and then they may either bring their own Drake’s glass or purchase one at the brewery. To get a pint, guests then purchase beer tokens. From there, the beer stays flowing into the evening, and all the profits go to the sponsored charity for the night.

This format has caught on too. Devil’s Canyon Brewery in Belmont implemented a similar monthly charitable facet called Cheers for Charity this past May at their monthly Beer Friday events on the last Friday of each month.

But the First Fridays are just beginning for Drake’s charitable arm.  Their event calendar consistently has one or two events on tap that focus on giving back–  even infiltrating some events that you may not have expected to see craft beer before.

Last Thursday, Drake’s represented craft beer at the posh Union Square restaurant Postrio for an event with a few local wineries for the CASA organization of Contra Costa County. CASA, a national organization with several local chapters, provides volunteer mentors or CASAs to help guide particularly vulnerable children in the foster care system. There, roughly 120 guests for $75 a head tasted wine, munched on smoked salmon and mushroom and garlic confit pizzas and drank Drake’s beer.

Drakes Brewing-Guests-at-the-Postrio-Event

Guests at the Postrio event listen to Charles Mead, CASA’s executive director between glasses of wine and Drake’s beer.

At the event, women and men clearly more accustomed to a Napa pinot noir than an IPA, cautiously approached Drake’s representative Jeremy Wanamaker with his long hair and lumberjack-esque beard and build to ask about the brews available. One woman, casually holding a Coach handbag in one immaculately manicured hand, sipped on Drake’s hefeweizen cautiously and declared, somewhat surprised, “I like it!.”

Drakes-Brewing-Jeremy-Wanamker

Jeremy Wanamaker explains the beer selection to one guest at the Postrio Micro Beer and Wine Summer Solstice event.

“You worry at these events that people might be, you know, standoffish,” Dern said, “this has been great because people have been very interested.”

According to Dern, the exposure for the beer is admittedly huge perk of doing charitable events. At Postrio, it was quite evident that few of the guests in attendance had never heard of Drake’s before, but several mentioned that they were new fans after trying the beer.

While the event was somewhat an oddity for the Drake’s crew, their participation like most of their charitable giving still stemmed from a close community affiliation. Dern’s father, John Dern, owns Postrio, and his sister has been a volunteer with the CASA organization in San Jose for years.

“If someone in the brewery has their own special project,” Dern said, “they are more than welcome to pitch it.”

Which is exactly what Dern and her father did, and thus was born what could the first of many pizza, beer and wine events Postrio hosts in the future, according to Mr. Dern.  Drake’s, therefore, may make further inroads into the Postrio set than they imagined.

But for Drake’s, spreading the love around is just what they do. This weekend the brewery will be holding their First Friday for the Boys and Girls Club of San Leandro on Friday and then participating along with other local breweries in “Breastfest” at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on Saturday to support, you guessed it, breast cancer research.

In the end, all the giving and exposure seems to have been a win-win for Drake’s and the organizations they support. Drake’s is one of the faster growing breweries in the area. According to Dern, Drake’s output was just over 6,000 barrels last year, and they expect to hit around 8,000 this year. The brewery also recently opened a taproom at the brewery that will serve Drake’s beer to the public every Wednesday through Sunday.

For Drake’s it seems, some seriously good karma is certainly paying off.

Beer Mom Kristiann Garrett

Kristiann Garrett

Photos by Kelsey Williams

About four and a half years ago, Kristiann Garrett, co-owner of Devil’s Canyon Brewery with her husband Chris, was at the brewery finding it a bit more difficult to get through the day than normal. Sudden sharp pains had woken her early that morning and kept interrupting her daily activities at increasingly frequent intervals. By 3 p.m. she finally took a rare moment to lie down and grab a nap on the brewery couch, but was woken to help sell a gift card to a waiting customer.

At 6 pm, she looked at Chris. It was time to go to the hospital; their daughter was definitely on the way. Five days later, Millie Garrett, made her debut appearance at the brewery.

In some ways, it’s not surprising that Garrett would almost give birth in a brewery. Beer is in her blood, literally. Her maiden name, Dienstbier, means “beer service” in Czech, and her great-grandfather once worked in the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

“He didn’t know much English,” recalls Garrett, “but what he did know was, ‘I need my medicine,’ and what he meant was beer.” Chuckling she adds, “And he lived until he was 98-years-old, so…”

Like her great-grandfather, Garrett has always had a respect for the healing powers of good beer. “Beer is food,” she says, “it has all sorts of nutrients in it”

As a former personal trainer, Garrett said, “My clients would ask me, ‘do I have to give up beer?’” “It’s about balance,” she added, “Have a beer, walk around the track.”

Still, with her love of beer, she said she never expected to get into the brewing business.

As a child, Garrett grew up just down the road in Cupertino, and moved to Vancouver at 16. Her 18 years of ballet when she was younger, while seemingly a lifetime ago for her she says, still shows its mark in her strong, slender posture.

She attended the University of Portland, where she graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and Social Studies. After college, a one-month fellowship teaching English as a foreign language, finally took her to Prague, the land of her great-grandfather, where the national beverage happens to be beer. One month turned into two and a half years of managing a sports bar and teaching English.

Just before she left for Prague, however, Kristiann Dienstbier did run into her older brother’s college roommate, Chris Garrett, at the time a homebrewer that picked up the skill in college because, as Kristiann puts it, “it was cheaper to make good beer himself.”

According to Chris, that was the moment he knew there was something special about this girl, for Kristiann, it seems it took a little longer.

From Prague, Garrett agreed to move to Costa Rica, where for six month she helped a friend open a bar, until a few weddings finally brought her back to the Bay Area. Little did she know at the time that her own relationship and wedding would keep her there.

Garrett’s bartending and managing days are evident when she maneuvers a tap. With Millie perched on her hip, Garret grabs a pint glass in her free hand, deftly angles it under the tap, and pours herself a little of Devil’s Canyon’s newest special brew, a classic Saison. Now at 38, her movements are deliberate and graceful, but her style is casual. Her uniform today consists of jeans, white Adidas sneakers, and a zip-up jacket with a pink collar—functional and well-suited to keeping up with a brewery business and an energetic four year old.

“Is it Beer Friday,” Millie asks.

“Yeah, bud, It is Beer Friday,” Garrett responds with a smile.

It’s the monthly event put on by the brewery in what amounts to the backyard of their warehouse space in the back of a business park. Everyone was busy setting up the two bars; the caterers were prepping their food; and the band was arriving to set up inside.

Garrett, still with Millie on her hip managed to knock out a few managing details—helping the bartender figure out how to keep track of the beer club members, joking with the guitar player about his new rose embroidered cowboy shirt, and making sure the reporter got to try their Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ale that Garrett had mentioned earlier as being “probably the best beer she’s ever had.”

Garrett then gathered up Millie to take her home to the sitter, although Millie would have hardly been the only preschooler to stick around at Beer Friday. As the people started to show around 6 p.m., strollers and baby backpacks were not uncommon accessories.

Early on in Beer Fridays, Garrett said, “It really is families; you get kids dancing to the band, you get everybody.” Later on, she said, the crowd shifts over as the kids leave and the younger adults move in, but in the early hours, Beer Friday appears much like a community block party.

Everyone who works at Devil’s Canyon is used to kids though. Since she was five days old Millie has been a fixture in the place. As a baby her crib sat just behind the desks in the only office, Garrett said. Now, in Garrett’s own office– they had a wall installed– the room is covered with Disney princesses, there is a play kitchen, several boxes of blocks and toys, and Millie’s own computer. With Garrett’s work computer and Millie’s computer side by side, it looks like Devil’s Canyon’s Brew Mom has a very small assistant.

“Everyone knows,” Garrett said smiling, “language, curb it.”

Garrett explained that she has even become a bit of a mom to everyone in the brewery. She said she advocates for everyone to quit smoking, take breaks on long days, and get a good night’s sleep as opposed to a good night of drinking in if she knows they have a busy day following.

“One of our employees calls me Mama K, and he calls Chris, Papa C,” Garrett said chuckling. “We are all a little family; we have to be,” she adds, “We’re all sharing space and it is small so we all really need to get along.”

Garrett’s duties at the brewery, however, extend beyond mommying the brewers, she is responsible for taking care of tax paperwork, licensing, dealing with other brewers that use their equipment, event planning, the brewery’s charitable donations, as well as picking up any extra slack. For a while, she was the brewery’s “Root Beer Queen” brewing batches of Devil’s Canyon’s now extremely popular kid-friendly product.

In the early days, Garrett said, she would help out with the brewing, move kegs, and work behind the bar with Millie in one arm, pouring beer with the other. Now, nearing the brewery’s ten-year anniversary, Garrett is still a “woman of many hats” as she puts it and running the business is still a seven day a week job. Still, she explained, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before they decided to open Devil’s Canyon, Garrett had been working as a U.S. history teacher at Woodside High School and Chris had been working in the tech industry in the valley. Originally the brewery, was a very small operation, more of an elaborate hobby, but with the “dotbomb,” Garrett said, “We were like, ‘ok, here we go; full steam ahead in the beer business.”

“I thank god for beer because, teaching high school was not easy,” Garrett laughs.

Now, as one of a growing number of women, getting into the craft beer business, Garrett said she doesn’t really see herself as a woman in the beer industry but as a woman in the Devil’s Canyon industry.

While she said that she is encouraged by the rise of women in brewing she would like to see less of the more chauvinistic beer labels in the male centric beer universe.  Her view of craft beer, she says is more centered on her own Devil’s Canyon family and community.

“It’s just beer and good people, and it’s an amazing crowd we’ve pulled together here.”

Hoppy Ending & Barely Legal Coming to Whole Foods

For those out there who have tried and enjoyed Palo Alto Brewing Company’s signature beers the Hoppy Ending Pale Ale and the Barely Legal Coconut Porter, they will soon be available in the bottle at Whole Foods Markets.

According to Kasim Syed, the brewer, sales representative, delivery guy, for the company, which is owned by his parents, all the approvals have gone through. Within a couple of weeks, he believes people will be able to find the company’s brews in several Whole Foods stores in the Peninsula including Palo Alto, San Jose, and Santa Rosa.

However, that doesn’t mean fans of the beers have to wait a couple of weeks to grab a six-pack. The company’s distinctive labels have made into about 30 stores in the past two months Syed said including Mollie Stone’s markets, Piazza’s Fine Foods, City Beer Store and the East Bay’s Beer Revolution.

Back in February Palo Alto Brewing Co. hit a milestone in its year-long effort to expand beyond the confines of its two to three regular taps at Palo Alto’s local beer pub the Rose and Crown when it received its license to sell its beers by the bottle at retail stores.

Syed, who owns and manages the Rose and Crown said, “We sell so much here; they’re in our top-sellers, and people started to ask where else they can get it.”

Despite the relative success the company has had at smaller craft stores, getting the beers into larger more mainstream outlets has proven more difficult.

“If you’re not talking to a craft beer place then they want to keep with the same stuff they’ve always had,” Syed said.

Getting the beers into Whole Foods, for example, Syed said, meant talking to about seven to eight beer buyers in different stores throughout the region, and convincing them to say to the regional beer manager that they want to stock the product.

Another obstacle, besides jumping through larger corporate hoops with the big chains, has been a moderate amount of balking by mainstream stores, most notably BevMo, at the beers’ edgy labels and names. The Hoppy Ending features a long-haired buxom cartoon woman massaging a very content looking cartoon hop, and the Barely Legal Coconut Porter cartoon girl mirrors the Britney spears Catholic school girl look- bare-midriff, cleavage, pigtails, and all.

Syed isn’t too concerned though. “Our target age is 21 and over,” he said with a little chuckle, “We like to have a sense of humor.” One concession the company has had to make recently, however, was agreeing to change the name of the Barely Legal to the “Barley Legal” Coconut Porter.

Palo Alto Brewing Co. also has an IPA, a bourbon barrel aged version of its coconut porter, and a barley wine, but for now only the Hoppy Ending and the original Coconut Porter will be sold in bottles. That way, Syed said, they can keep brewing in small batches and make sure that the bottled beer stays fresh. The rest of the beers will be available from time to time in the Rose and Crown and possibly on tap at other specialty brew pubs.

An Evening with the Silicon Valley Sudzers

Photos by Kelsey Williams

“Everyone, we’re goin’ to the barrel. She needs to be initiated.”

Mildly nervous and extremely curious, I allow myself to be led into the deepest depths of the Los Altos Hills house, tasting glass in hand. At the bottom of the stairs, in a bare concrete room sits a lone barrel. Its true contents, I’m told, are not describable using mere words; I would have to taste.

I take my portion and step out of the way to let the rest of the group have their turn at the barrel. As everybody else fills his or her glass, I carefully put my nose in the glass, trying to gather a clue as to what I’m about to taste.

“Ok, everyone, cheers.” I tip back the glass and the light red brew hits my tongue.  The flavor is on the extreme of sour. I watch the rest of the group laugh and make faces as they try once again this batch of beer crafted by one of their own that has over time become sour enough to make me imagine it would make a pretty good salad dressing… Sudzers sour beer vinaigrette.

The Silicon Valley Sudzers, a local homebrew club of roughly 25-30 intrepid homebrewers meets the first Friday of every month to share a common love of do-it-yourself beer geekery. This was my first meeting, and I needed to be initiated.

Silicon Valley Sudzers Group Shop

The group is diverse.  Young and old, men and women, experienced brewers and newbies, come together to share their techniques and drink homebrewed beer.

With the initiation over, everyone troops back upstairs to cleanse their palettes with some of the homebrewed beers that turned out better than the sour concoction in the basement. Gary’s high gravity IPA is on tap and a collection of growlers litters the bar filled with myriad different styles from Keith‘s Cascadian Dark Ale to Doug’s classic farmhouse saison.

Each person has his or her own preferences. Robin just made her first brew, a dry cranberry mead, Nathan has brought his latest IPA or “concentrated hope juice”, and Nick offers his general opinion that every beer could use more Simcoe hops, the varietal that gives Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder, its distinctive crisp, bitter hop flavor.

At one point in the evening, someone proposes they make Sudzer t-shirts playing off the old SNL cowbell skit. On the front, “You know what that beer needs…” On the back: “More Simcoe”

Each month the group gathers to discuss their latest batches, but the discussions go beyond just drinking. This month they held a workshop on pint glass etching. In the corner sits a projector and a screen, which is used at many of the meetings for formal presentations on the beer of the month.

Brewer to brewer they will suggest steps in the process for changing a beer’s flavor: longer boiling, dry-hopping, different grains, hop ratios. The give and take brainstorming lasts for about an hour, and you can see the beer recipe cogs turning as they taste and talk.

Hanging with this group is a crash course in beer knowledge down to the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a good beer, and for good reason. The group will often come together for homebrew competitions throughout the area, and the team needs to be well represented.

But even if you have no plans to compete and have trouble following the conversation when it gets into the details of boiling times and yeast fermentation, one thing is for sure: if you love beer and go to a meeting with the Sudzers, you will learn something new and drink some good beers. Just be warned… you just might need to be initiated first.