Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan were covered in strawberries when we recently met in the parking lot of Hermitage Brewing in San Jose. The two founders of Almanac Beer were plugging 1500 pounds of fruit into 16 wine barrels under a blazing sun. Skin block and baseball caps were in full effect, as they shuffled around the crusty blacktop. With a little elbow grease and twelve months in barrels, a strawberry lambic will be born. The process is no easy task even in the best conditions, but they seemed to cherish the work, driven by excitement for what’s to come.
Almanac Beer is about to hit a growth spurt. After one year of business filled with four seasonal releases to date, the duo is unveiling a new line of California Table Beers on August 31, which will be available year-round. Billed as a more casual offering, the series will include two beers. A Honey Saison made with Marshall Farms honey, fresh local ginger, that was aged on French Oak, and a Extra Pale Ale made with Mandarin oranges from Blossom Bluff Farms aged on American oak, that was dry-hopped with Cascade and Columbus hops. Both beers were made with 100% California malt.
In addition to the new series, Almanac is also ramping up their barrel program. By the end of the year they hope to have 250 barrels in stock, filled with a vast assortment of beer, fruit and wild bugs. It’s an ambitious plan, which Hermitage Brewing is backing up with a capital investment. They’re currently building a cool space just for them. In case you don’t know, Almanac doesn’t have it’s own brewery yet, so they work at Hermitage’s facility on a contract basis.
After a year of business and so much going on, it seemed like a good time to hear how they’re doing. Between scoops of strawberries we talked about their barrel program, approach to making fruit beer, and what stresses them out in the professional brewing ranks.
So what types of fruit are currently aging in your barrels?
Jesse: We have a bunch of one-off barrels. It’s a mix of oranges, Meyer lemons, Buddha’s Hand, plums, persimmons, pumpkins, ginger, and maybe one or two others.
Damian: Even amongst those, we have three different kinds of oranges, a few different types of pumpkins that we actually roasted, all 250 pounds. There’s just a huge array of stuff in there. Then we have a couple that are plain sour.
Jesse: Yeah, there are a fair number of those too, which are for blending options down the road.
Will the beer mostly be kegged at this point, or will it go in bottles?
Jesse: No, we definitely want to bottle it eventually, and we’re working on putting that together right now.
Where did the fruit come from for the strawberry lambic?
Jesse: It’s all from Swanton Berry Farm, which is down in the Watsonville area. It’s a small family run farm and we were able to buy direct from them. In this case we purchased it and had the fruit frozen, which allowed us to really get the absolute peak of season fruit. The freezing and unfreezing process makes it a little bit more accessible to the yeast.
Could you talk a little about your approach to making fruit beer and the unpredictable nature of the barrel-aging process?
Jesse: I think there are a lot of different approaches. We’re really trying to use fruit as a seasonal component. That’s really where our focus is. We’re really looking at how the fruit ties into a sense of time and a sense of place. Right now, it’s the height of summer strawberry season and these beers are going to taste like it when they’re done. For us, the fruit gives us a direct through line for connecting to the farms. There’s flavor, mouthfeel and a color, all of those concerns, but really so that the beer creates a sense of time and place. It also creates a sense of terroir where the fruit is from. As for the barrel aging process, in many ways were just a steward of the yeast, bugs and fruit. We just sort of put it all together and set it loose.
Damian: That’s exactly right. Brewing tends to be a more controlled exercise when you’re making what I would call a conventional beer. I mean, look at what we’re doing right now. We’re out here in 80-degree weather filling old wine barrels full of unpasteurized fruit. Then we’re going to pour a bunch of wild yeast and bacteria into it, and just kind of cross our fingers and hope that it turns into something special.
Are there any beers out there that really get you excited about making fruit beer?
Damian: That’s a great question. Well I think one of my favorites right now, and I’ve had it many times, is the New Glarus cherry beer. That’s a great beer and I hate to say it, but when I first got into craft beer a long time ago, I use to appreciate the sweet Belgian lambics. Back then I thought they were really interesting. Now I find them way too sweet and sort of syrupy. They taste a little synthetic. Epic makes Brainless on Peaches, which I also currently like.
Jesse: Cascade as well. They’re doing a ton of really fruit focused stuff. They’re doing all lacto, which is really interesting. They’re hitting the nail on the head with all their fruit integration.
Are you concerned with distinguishing yourself at all during this industry wide barrel-aging fever, or do you just concentrate on making the beer and not worry too much about that?
Jesse: I think it’s a matter of priorities, in that we’re out here with 1500 pounds of fruit, that’s come direct from the farm and picked at the height of the season. That’s really going to come through. I think with a lot of this stuff, breweries are more in competition with themselves than anything else, it’s like being a restaurant. We’re making all these barrels in such limited quantities, that in order to sell out, it’s a very small amount of beer in the larger scheme of things. So for us it’s less about what the other guys is doing, and more about how we’re doing. It’s your own yardstick.
Is there any fruit that you guys haven’t used that you’re dying to try?
Jesse: All the other ones (laughs). What’s really exciting about what we’re doing, especially with some of these barrels, is we have the ability to experiment and try new things. We can start some one-off barrels, and come back around and expand on different fruits as we work on them. The barreling process is so complex and there’s so much that changes. It’s really exciting to see what comes out of these programs and what flavors are being generated by the different barrels.
What do the farmers you’ve worked with think about the process and resulting beer?
Damian: I think the initial reaction is “What? You want to do what with the fruit?” It’s pretty clear they haven’t been approached for the type of quantity we’re looking for. When you come back and hand them a few bottles of the beer, a finished product, it all sort of comes together and they say “Ahhhhhh.”
Jesse: Especially after the check clears! I think that’s exactly right. A lot of these farmers, they sort of send their food item to restaurants that they’ve never been too, much less eaten at. What’s great with the beer is that we make a real point of making sure we get some good beer back to those farmers and they love it every time, because for them, it’s something they can share with friends and family, and literally taste what they put into it.
Damian: It’s fun too, when you give them the finished product. We highlight each farm on the labels, so it’s great when they get excited seeing the front of the bottle and the name of their farm. It’s a nice way to give them credit for what they deserve, what they’re doing and putting out there, that we have access too.
When I’ve talked to you guys in the past, you’ve said the most stressful part of being a hombrewer was worrying about carbonation. Now that you’ve gone pro, what do you guys stress out about now?
Jesse: Carbonation. It’s those little tiny things at the very end. We get all the barrels. We get all the fruit. We let it mature for eighteen months and then you package it all together, but if it’s flat, all of it’s sort of for not. So it’s really every little detail that matters when it comes down to the end, because from consumers point of view the story’s great, but it has to be delicious.
Damian: I think that’s right. There’s the technical aspects of beer making that you never stop worrying about, whether that’s carbonation, a barrel going rancid, or even finding a barrel that you can’t blend because it’s gone really funky. Those are all things that we worry about from a technical aspect, and then at the end of the day, when all of this is done, you’re still running a business. You still need to make sure that you’re putting a product out there that people enjoy. In our case, I think it’s important that people kind of know what we’re doing, because of how small we are and the way we’re making beer. We kind of have to ask for a little more money for our product, and if you can’t justify that either through the message of the story and the quality of the product itself, then you’ve really got a problem. So far so good though. The response to what we’re doing has been pretty phenomenal, and we’re only a year old now, but we’ll see what the future holds. We’re really excited about it.