Healthy Spirits Releasing Results of First Barrel Aging Partnership with Moylan’s Brewery

 

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.

– – – –

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.

 

Brewer Spotlight: Ben Spencer at Magnolia Pub & Brewery

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Since the Summer of Love the Haight-Ashbury has become a hodgepodge of punk rock politics, headstrong hipsters, modern bohemians and tourists searching for remnants of the counter culture movement. Craft beer wasn’t part of this quirky San Francisco neighborhood until 1997, when Dave McLean opened Magnolia Pub and Brewery. Over fourteen years the brewery has garnered a solid reputation and GABF medals for its decidedly British spin on craft beer. McLean guides the ship as Brewmaster, but you should also get to know his talented Head Brewer, Ben Spencer.

Spencer started brewing at Magnolia in 2004 after moving from established breweries in Colorado. He runs Magnolia’s basement brewery and works closely with McLean to develop recipes that achieve a shared vision. I recently sat down with Spencer to learn more about his background, perspective on the craft beer industry, working relationship with Dave McLean, the BRU/SFO Project, and the challenges associated with Magnolia’s impending expansion into San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, which will include a new 30 barrel brewery and restaurant.

– – – –  –

So where did your background in brewing begin? How did you get started?

I moved to Colorado running and screaming from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, when I turned twenty-one. I took a pilgrimage to New Mexico and thought I would want to live there. Turns out, I didn’t. One of the stops along the way was Boulder, which I loved. So I did a u-turn and headed back. I was living in a house with a bunch of random people and I was finding jugs in every little open space with tin foil and a rubber bands on them. One of my roommates was a homebrewer and we would drink mead, talk about beer, and I quickly became interested.

From there on I was enthusiastic about the whole craft. It’s such a cool mixture of being a scientist and artist at the same time. It really appealed to me. I started drinking at a local pub and getting to know the brewers and started sitting in on some brews, started making mead at home, started making homebrew and quickly ran into a pretty vast and tight community of homebrewers in Boulder. The next time I was looking for work I saw the Oasis Brewery had a production facility job for a keg cleaner so I took it.

At twenty-one years old I got to work around beer and at the time I was living up in a cabin in the hills outside of Boulder. It was just the perfect marriage of lifestyle. Living up in the hills and then coming down to make beer, then going back up. It was great. I worked myself through a number of different positions in the brewery in the first year and a half. Then pretty quickly became discouraged by being in a factory setting and got out of it for a couple of years by working with Greenpeace.

Three or four years later decided I didn’t want to do that either. I realized I had it pretty good and needed to get back into the industry. In 2000 or 2001 I started working with Oskar Blues in its original form. It was a five-barrel brew house in the basement, which is now a pinball room in the original Lyons restaurant. I lived across the street and worked in the brewery. I helped them build the twenty barrel, which was their first expansion and from there moved to Boulder Beer Company where we were working overnight stacking palates with six packs that we were sending to our first big contract with Frontier airlines. They would take a palate of canned beer. For a five-barrel brew house to come up with a palate of beer with a two head canning system and one seamer was really quite a challenge.

So that contract was a blessing and curse?

You have to look at growth, opportunity and cost. It was the jumping off point for where they are today, which you couldn’t argue has been anything other then incredibly successful. At that time I got to know more people in the industry. I was working closer with people that were doing what I liked, getting to know the community, and going to GABF every year.

If things were going so well, why did you leave?

I loved it at Boulder Beer, but it was time to move since there wasn’t any forward moving opportunities for me. It felt like the right time to look for a change. I started poking around and one of my friends Mike Altman, now brewmaster and owner of Iron Springs, was forming the idea of building Iron Springs at the time, but was helping Dave McLean out. Dave was going through some staff changing. We started chatting and after a handful of interviews I jumped in my car for California.

What’s your impression of the current craft beer market and where does Magnolia fit in?

For the past five or six years the industry has really moved towards doubling products, doubling ingredients, raising alcohol, raising bitterness, really trying to hit you over the head with flavors, which is great, but its not what we do here, except for six or seven times a year. All of it has it’s place, but I think a lot of people in this industry are either getting older, or realizing that three seven and a half percent beers are going to crush you and want a little bit more flavor, and not just flavor numbing characteristics, like extreme bitterness, extreme hop aroma, extreme alcohol flavors.

Believe me, I still drink those beers and I love them. I love where Vinnie Cilurzo and Tomme Arthur are taking this industry and creating this niche for themselves by going after these enormous beers. More power too them, I’ll be buying them, but that’s not where we fit in. I think what your finding is a shift back towards people wanting the assertive flavors, but not wanting as high of alcohol content. You’re seeing a lot of brewers making more Pale Ales with IPA hoping. Shaun O’Sullivan and Zambo have Bitter American, Roger Davis is doing varietal styles with new hops as they come out. Brewers are doing one hundred percent variety Pale Ales. We have a few varietals that we do here as well. Our Prescription Pale is one hundred percent Cascade. Blue Bell Bitter is one hundred percent East Kent Goldings. These are two of the more traditional, but that’s where we park our car. You’ll find some Nugget, Summit and some Simcoe hops in our more assertive beers, but you’re also going to find Saaz, Hallertau and other Noble hop varieties.

Magnolia’s two latest GABF medals hang above the taps.

When the BRU/SFO Project comes around each year are you itching to make Belgian beers?

Absolutely, it’s exciting. It’s a cool opportunity to break up the doldrums. If we just picked the first beers that people fell in love with and stopped innovating, we would have stopped brewing new beer thirteen years ago. As ingredients and the market change we interpret what’s going on in the industry from both a supply and demand side to figure out where we play a part and how to get everyone excited, while still being able to maintain some tradition. It’s a cool thing and it’s the whole reason BRU/SFO and Strong Beer Month exist.

Long Break Bitter

How do you approach planning for BRU/SFO? Are the beers new every year and how does it compare to Strong Beer Month?

For BRU/SFO we have beers that we’ve repeated each year and we produce some of our favorite Belgians, but with less handcuffs. There’s less history involved with the BRU/SFO Project. Strong Beer Month is a freight train out of control. We have a handful of stables and then we usually throw a couple wild cards in each year. We still like innovating and coming up with new things and using new ingredients, particularly in a format where you can knock people over the head with them. People know what to expect and they expect innovation. Our Barley-wine, Double IPA, Imperial Stout and Tripel are all beers you’re going to see every Strong Beer Month.

Grain Room

Is there any beer your just dyeing to make but you haven’t had the chance yet?

I’ve got along list. It’s more ingredients we want to brew with. We knock them down every year, be it coffee or a culinary kind of ingredient, something we feel has a place in beer, like pumpkins and pumpkin seeds. I have to look at my list! I always get excited by blending up new Bitters, Ordinarys and Best Bitters, which we do pretty frequently.

A few times a year we’ll sit down and talk about a new ingredient or hop we want to showcase, like this Branthill project that we have going now. It’s the only Branthill Malt in North America and we’re doing a line of Bitters with it, that include New Speedway Bitter and Long Break Bitter. The farmer’s son lives around the corner. We’re going to try and step up different variations using the malt as we go along and show people what it can do. It’s really cool to be able to get that malt in this country. It’s not that the Maris Otter we use is anything short of fantastic, but having farm specific coastal Maris Otter is wonderful. Most of what we get is in an area of Yorkshire and just like grapes, malt is going to have a different characteristic where it grows. We want to use this ingredient to stroke your palate, not crush it.

Mash Tun and Kettle

Are there any Bay Area brewers in particular whose beer you get excited about?

Roger Davis over at Triple Rock is doing a fantastic job. Zambo and his first couple years at 21st Amendment is obviously killing it with two GABF gold medals this year. Arne Johnson, one of my best friends up at Marin Brewing, always has a very sharp way of looking at beer, recipes and ingredients. We share a lot of our ideas and trends. I definitely enjoy drinking their beer. Not to take away anything from everyone else making beer in the area. Even the homebrewing community is killing it these days. Everything is hopping. I don’t see an end in sight. I hope not. We’re building a big brewery!

There’s a ton of good beer being made in the Bay Area, which really keeps the pressure on us to continue moving forward. As much as one or two or five brewers can affect the movement of beer and flow of beer in the country, you can’t do it alone. It takes a community of great brewers in the city and Bay Area. We’re friends, we hang out and discuss our trades, which keeps everything moving forward.

Fermenters and Brite Tanks

How has your working relationship with Dave McLean evolved over the years?

I’ve really enjoyed working together with Dave. Magnolia’s office, back before there was a second restaurant (Alembic) and a third in the planning stages, about three or four years ago, was downstairs, so Dave and I were working together day after day. I was doing most of the hands on stuff and we would discuss every little change, how to sharpen our craft together and quickly both decided that two brewers make better beer then one brewer. There’s no ego involved, it’s just how are we going to get the best beer out of this place. Obviously, if he tells me to start making light American lagers tomorrow I’m downstairs ordering six row.

Over the years we’ve developed a respect for each other’s style. We’ve been making great beer together since I got here, but the beer was great when I got here, so it wasn’t like I was the savior. There was nothing here to save. There was already a really good following of people. We had a lot of people coming in, which makes it a lot easier as a brewer because you can turn beer over faster. Fresh beer is better. That’s our whole hook. If you tell customers that fresh beer is better and they don’t sit down to a fresh beer, you’ve lost them. You might as well not even say anything.

In the last eight years the beer environment here in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general has been on a huge incline. People are becoming more aware. People want a fresh product. They want a face on it. They want to sit down for a pint and listen to the guy chat about what they did in the brewery that day. The food and beverage industry are quickly catching on and we’re kind of taking over wine as the food pairing.

Cask Cooler

What excites you the most about the new brewery?

Extending our reach. It’s an opportunity to make our craft more available to a larger number of people. Although we can share our beer with a lot of people here at Magnolia, its limited. Its a small fifty seat restaurant at the corner of Haight and Masonic that doesn’t get the notoriety you get with being able to create more product.

It’s also going to be a huge challenge to maintain this small level of craft quality at a larger scale. It’s keeping us interested. It’s keeping the money flowing. It’s keeping everybody moving forward. One of our big mantras around here is “taking it further.” That’s our intention. It’s like, all right we’re doing it really cool, but as soon as you slow down long enough and pat yourself on the back, someones doing it cooler. This is our career. This is what we do with our lives. Were pushing it here and you have to do that. The food and beverage environment around here is pushing, and as soon as you stop pushing, your part of what was going on last year, not what’s going on next year. So that’s our goal is to continue moving forward.

Will you have more room for experimentation at the new brewery?

Initially were looking for the room for experimentation to come from making some of our bigger selling beers at the new brewery, like Blue Bell, Kolsch and Proving Ground. We’ll quickly stop making those here, which will open up fermenters to start messing with new yeast.

Are you nervous about getting the recipes to translate?

I’m more excited then I am nervous. It’s a big ol’ game. It’s a challenge. No two vessels are going to be the same over there. We’re using the dynamics of the vessels downstairs to decide upon what’s going to be easiest beer to step up, but at the end of the day we’re going to make some of our simple beers and do a lot of record keeping, see what’s working, what’s not, and putting the beers next to each other and making slight changes. So it’s awesome. It’s going to make us twice the brewers that we are currently.

Nobody expects anybody on the planet to be able to reproduce a beer off the top of their head on a different system. It just doesn’t go like that. It’s going to be really cool to see what it takes to make that brewery into what we’ve got going here. Were not at all intimidated by that. We’re looking forward to getting our hands dirty. It’s going to be an opportunity for Dave and I to get our boots wet and figure out how to make these beers over there.

We’ve done some experimentation with two of our contract breweries over the last couple of years, so we’ve translated recipes to larger systems. Drake’s Brewing made Kolsch and Proving Ground for about eighteen months and for about the past eight months we’ve been making our Kolsch and Proving Ground at Hermitage.

Nobody loves contracting out their beer, but we can only do about a thousand barrels here per year. Incorporating some contract work while we’re working on our next project is gonna get us close to two thousand barrels this year. It’s an end to a means. Luckily the brewers we’ve worked with are friends and talented. It wasn’t very hard to translate our recipes to fifteen and now a twenty-five barrel system, which is still smaller then what we’re building. Were building a thirty-barrel system. We started planning a twenty barrel and quickly ran into the idea, slash reality, of it taking about the same amount of energy to do both. For a packaging style facility with a market already established we’d be rebuilding a twenty barrel in five years, which takes so much infrastructure change.

Is there going to be enough room to expand down the line if you want?

Luckily, the facility that we’re moving into is very modular. Most of the surrounding businesses in the building are light industrial, assembly type stuff, so going up and out is a probability. The owner and all the neighbors are very excited to have us. We’re being very well received and everybody is doing what takes for us to be there. It’s set up for success. Were not forcing it, which is why haven’t done it in the last few years. We’ve been at capacity here for over three years, which is when you either decide that this is enough, or it’s the time to move forward. Neither of us are sitting on a huge stack of money so investment and planning is a huge part of it. Were building a fifty-year business. It takes a lot of foresight. It’s going to be cool.

Last corny question, what’s your desert island beer?

Is supply an issue?

Nope.

Honestly, from being in the Northern California brewing community, I really enjoy my assertively hopped beers. I gotta tell you Blind Pig and Union Jack are two of my favorite beers and if I were stuck on an island, then one of those might be what I drink out there. It’s tough. There are two different moods you’re going to be in. You’re either pissed or you’ve got a big old pile of beer on a desert island and you’re happy. I drink up and down the board here and everywhere I go. In a desert island selection you have to take into account what you’re doing at the time. You know what I mean? If it’s snowing and cold at a pub in England I’m going to order a big Oatmeal Stout, which is the perfect beer for that moment. Every moment of your life has an appropriate beer, but I do find myself reaching for the hops.

North Coast Brewing Releases Grand Cru & Chats with Bay Area Craft Beer

North-Coast-Brewing-Grand-Cru

Photo © Fred Abercrombie

I was lucky enough to not only try the brand-spankin’ new Grand Cru but to talk to North Coast President and Brewmaster himself, Mark E. Ruedrich. Below are highlights about the new agave-tinged release, where they see themselves within the Bay Area craft beer community, and what to expect in the near future. Cheers!

• •

As the first new release from you guys in many moons (barring special vintages of Old Stock Ale) how did you settle on putting out a Grand Cru?

The Grand Cru grew out of our 20th anniversary beer. The genesis of that beer got us intrigued with acidity balancing maltiness … we found that under certain circumstances, these yeast strains produce substantial amounts of acidity. So you get a beer with very low bitterness BUT with a nice acidity balancing things out; like the La Merle with its tangy finish.

What led to agave in the concoction? I’m imagining a wild trip to the border or a stumble home from the taqueria.

Actually the 20th Anniversary Ale had this same agave process and aged in oak. Now on our 23rd year, we don’t have an experimental line of beers or skunkworks. So when we come across something interesting [like this] it’s “duly noted”. The Grand Cru will be an every year release.

Any notes on aging the Grand Cru?

Based on experience with the now 3-yr-old 20th Anniversary Beer, Grand Cru holds up really well. The particular yeast strain [the same Belgian yeast we use to ferment La Merle] creates a very, very stable beer. It holds up really well. You don’t actually get an improvement, per se, but there’s a certain stability there.

Speaking of aging, can we expect another barrel-aged run of Old Rasputin?

Last year we sold so much Rasputin to distribution (we’re growing at 25% clip) they didn’t have any left over to do a barrel age run. But we’ve increased our barrel aging production, so there’ll be more of those releases. Before, the biggest BA run was about 2500-3000 cases, same with this year’s Grand Cru, or 150 barrels. Now we can fit 450 barrels. So this year will be the last small release of Rasputin (it ages for a year in Bourbon, Old Stock ages 18 months).

“More of those releases…”? 

They’re working on a vertical (5 vintages, odd years/ even years) of Old Stock as a gift box for the holidays. Just a couple hundred boxes.

Very cool. One last question. Being nestled up the Mendocino Coast in Fort Bragg, do you guys view yourselves as part of the Bay Area craft beer scene or more just Norther Cal?

We’ve got distribution all over the country but Sonoma and the Bay Area is our home market. You guys are our backyard!

• • 

Look for Grand Cru on shelves around the Bay and beyond.
Visit North Coast online: www.northcoastbrewing.com

 

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!).

Almanac Aims to Elevate the Status of Beer

Most homebrewers dream of running their own brewery, yet few draw up plans. Piles of licensing paperwork, gathering funds and placing beer into stores, bars and restaurants is no easy task. It took Damian Fagan and Jessie Friedman nearly three years to evolve from homebrewers to the proprietors of Almanac Beer. At the end of this month their long awaited Summer 2010 release will grace shelves and tables throughout the Bay Area.

Reaching this point has been a long and arduous process since they met during a local homebrew club meeting. Their friendship developed alongside a number of different business plans; homebrew shop, cafe, bar, restaurant and brewpub. Ultimately they decided to just make beer and had hoped to release their first creation in February 2009. Unfortunately, logistics, a steep learning curve and the bureaucracy of licensing slowed the process down.

Damian Fagan & Jessie Friedman (left to right).

Now that there up and running, one of Almanac’s primary goals is to elevate the status of beer. They believe beer “deserves a place at the dinner table next to wine with great food.” With this in mind they developed an ambitious recipe and barrel aging process for their first brew and placed equal emphasis on presentation.

Summer 2010 is a Belgian Pale made with 260 pounds of Cherokee blackberries that were stuffed into oak barrels for 11 months with a Duvel yeast strain. Last month they blended the contents of those barrels with some fresh Citra hopped beer and are in the process of bottle conditioning 309 cases. Once the bottles have reached optimum carbonation you’ll find them in in select San Francisco stores on June 30 for a suggested retail price of $19.99.

Spotting the beer on the shelf shouldn’t be a problem. Fagan employed his experience as a graphic designer to meld the aesthetics of wine and whiskey bottle labels, specifically 19th century scotch bottles. From the wine finished topper to the sparkling foil, the die cut label is just as lovingly crafted as the beer. It certainly evokes a bygone era, but still appears modern and elegant.

Fagan and Friedman recently hosted a party at Local Mission Eatery for friends, family and members of the thirsty blogosphere to celebrate the beer’s release. Before the event started I had a chance to ask Friedman a few questions about the beer, contract brewing and the future of Almanac Beer.

You first offered the public a taste of this beer during the SF Beer Week Gala in February. How much has it changed since then?

It’s totally different. It’s been blended and now has a fresh hop character. The variations between each aging barrel were phenomenal.  Three of the barrels had no fruit in them and it was amazing to see the difference. Some barrels had a lot of coriander flavor, some were more peppery, another was sweet and one was kind of silky smooth. When everything is blended it kind of homogenizes the flavor and you end up with a more generic oaky kind of character.

Where did you get the barrels?

From a barrel broker. We got mostly American Oak, a couple French Oak and we had a few of the barrels reconditioned. They actually pull the barrel apart, shave them and re-toast them so you get fresh wood. We mostly used Zinfandel barrels.

The beer was supposed to be a fall release correct?

Yeah, we weren’t going to age for as long. We had a lot of delays with licensing, but the extra time in the barrels worked out great. We wanted the barrel character to be present and noticeable, but we also didn’t want it to dominate. At the end of the day for us it has to taste good with dinner.

How was the experience contract brewing at Drake’s Brewery?

It was interesting. Drake’s isn’t really setup or designed for contract brewing, which is sort of good and bad. Since it was our first batch they worked closely with us. At the moment we’re looking for a new brewery. They’re expanding and kicked out all their contract brewers.

Where are you looking to brew next?

We’re looking at a couple places. We’re not really sure yet. We’re going to do a field trip to Hermitage and Tied House.

When we were first looking for a contract brewery they had lot of questions for us, which we now we have answers too. We have plans, off-site storage, all our licensing is done, we own some equipment and we have the recipes. So the experience of interviewing at each place is much different and nicer.

When you contract brew do you do all the brewing yourself?

I’m not a professional brewmaster and have no aspirations to be one. Professional brewmaster is code for being deft at handling a forklift. I look at our role in a similar manner to how I’ve worked with chefs for the dinners I’ve hosted. They bring expertise to the table like the contract brewery, which we rely on to help translate our homebrew-based ideas to a commercial product. Drake’s did a great job with that and as we look for a new brewery were up front with them about where our knowledge starts and stops.

What’s your plan for upcoming beer releases?

We’re trying to schedule out our next beer. We want to do a summer brew as quickly as possible and we’re hoping to bring that to the market at the end of summer. It may include stone fruit and we’re not going to oak age this release. It will be fresh. We’re shooting for about four releases per year.

Your first chance to taste Summer 2010, along with a special sour version, will be at City Beer Store in San Francisco on June 30. Hapa Ramen will be pairing some delicious food with the beer as well.