Road Trip: An Afternoon with Barrel Aging Pioneer Todd Ashman

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains through Donner Pass on Interstate 80 you can find Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, CA. By my standards it’s the middle of nowhere, especially when gas stations become few and far between.  This small brewery with a big reputation sits a mile outside of town near the Truckee-Tahoe airport.  You might think you’re lost when seeking it out (I certainly did and Google didn’t help much), but just keep going down the road and you’ll see a big grain silo on the left emblazoned with the Fifty Fifty logo.  I arrived after a light snowfall and being unaccustomed to snow, thought a foot-long icicle hanging from the brewery was going to break off and kill me.

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

The inside of the brewery’s restaurant was all hustle and bustle.  The recent snowfall attracted a large winter sports crowd, surprising the staff, which had to work at full tilt in a packed house.  Seventy percent of Fifty Fifty’s revenue comes from the busy winter season when people are looking for calorie-heavy pub food and a strong ale to relax their bones after a long day on the slopes.  Calling it pub food might actually be a disservice though, it’s not often you see steamed mussels in the high Sierras.


Despite the madness of the crowd and his busy schedule, Brewmaster Todd Ashman found the time to talk to me a little bit about his career and the brewery.  He was leaving for Germany two days later to accept a Silver medal at the European Beer Star competition for his barrel aged Eclipse, but acted as if he had all the time in the world to chat.


The first thing I asked Todd was how he got started and ended up in Truckee. Of course it all began with a passion for homebrewing out of college, which led to a stint with the Sonoma County Beerocrats and then enrollment in the UC Davis Extension Program for brewing. Since then he’s worked at Bison Brewing, Kegs Brewery in New Mexico, Flossmoor Station in Chicago (where he became a pioneer in bourbon barrel-aging), Titletown Brewing in Green Bay, the Brewers Supply Group and now Fifty Fifty.


He took the job at Fifty Fifty Brewing when it opened in 2007 itching to explore new recipes and push barrel aging even further. Since then he’s garnered even more awards and accolades, primarily for his Eclipse Imperial Stout series, which has become a must try before you die.  If didn’t sign up for futures this year you could always check eBay for a “collector bottle” from years past, but be prepared to pay.

It turns out Todd is actually in favor of rare beers being sold on eBay.  His reasoning, which like an idiot had never occurred to me, was that if a beer cannot be found at retail then it does have some extra value to consumers.  If people are going to pay for it, then there must be demand.  My own feeling is more like “don’t be the wine industry,” but it makes sense that someone who’s been aging a beer, of which only a few exist in the world, could command a higher price.  That’s just simple business.  As for people selling beer online for crazy prices, which can be found at retail, he’s dead set against that.  All in all, I have to agree with his philosophy.


While we were talking I also inquired about his decision to sell Eclipse futures this year. Last April, Fifty Fifty sold out of its entire “planned production.” The concept was the brainchild of brewery owner Andy Barr, which took a few people by surprise. There were even some complaints, but once you see how that money was applied, you can’t help but think it was a great idea.


Once we finished talking over a few beers, Todd gave me a tour of the brewery, which is the size of a postage stamp.  I’m not kidding.  I don’t know how he produces so much beer. Their entire brewing system could fit in my living room with room to spare. The gap between fermenters can be measured in microns and stacks of Eclipse barrels sit in the restaurant. Unfortunately, drunk people sometimes pull out the bungs and ruin an entire barrel.


Due to the space crunch, proceeds from the Eclipse futures was invested in four rental properties around Truckee for barrel aging.  You’d think there would be just one big warehouse they could rent and cram everything into, but then you wouldn’t be in Truckee.  I don’t even want to know how they plan on cramming in the new bottling line they’re getting for the Eclipse release on December 8th.


I followed Todd by car to one of the barrel rooms located in a seemingly abandoned retail area and every foot was taken over by barrels, each containing $6,000 in Eclipse beer. The drinking devil inside me wanted to invest in a crow bar and rent a semi-trailer. The number of barrels blew me away and my head was spinning at the thought of more locations around town.  The resin was slowly seeping from the oak, forming solid teardrops that I had to suck on like candy just for the heck of it.  Seriously, try it.

Future plans for the brewery include expansion, but Truckee’s water constraints could be a problem.  The town has a small treatment facility that’s been struggling to keep up with the population boom over the last few years.  Factor in how much water is actually used in the brewing process (yes, all those “save water, drink beer” t-shirts are lying) and you get one stressed out water department.  Performing their own water treatment doesn’t make sense for such a small brewery and it will be interesting to see if they limit growth or contract brew somewhere else.

Despite their small size, Fifty Fifty has made a big impact on the craft beer industry and culture. Todd’s successful barrel-aged beers have inspired many other brewers and the style sector is getting much bigger.  I just hope that Fifty Fifty can find a way around their water issue and crank up production of their wax-sealed goodness (yes, some bottles have pink wax, get over it) so more people can have access to what they are doing.  In the meantime, buy futures.

 

Walnut Creek Welcomes the ØL Beercafe & Bottle Shop

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

“Walnut Creek has been screaming for a place like this.” – Anonymous ØL Beercafe Patron

Chuck Stilphen must have heard that sentiment echoing through the East Bay hills when he set out to open the ØL Beercafe & Bottle Shop in Walnut Creek. As co-owner of the successful Trappist bar in Oakland, he already has a pulse on craft beer’s surging popularity. His five-week-old venue fills a void in a thirsty and growing community.

According to Stilphen “the Walnut Creek area seemed to be lacking in any quality beer places. Created with the spirit of The Trappist, we developed a plan to create a hybrid bottle shop and beer cafe, roughly using the business model of a few places in Portland and City Beer Store in San Francisco, but taken up a notch in design and comfort.

ØL Beercafe is located on a quiet downtown street just a half mile from the Walnut Creek BART station. In case you’re wondering, ØL is Danish for beer and there’s plenty to choose from. Eighteen taps sit behind the bar located in the back of the establishment. Nearby, a six door cooler and small room enclosed by windows offers over 100 bottles to choose from that are priced to go, or you can pay a corkage fee ranging between $1 to $5 to drink them on-site.

Stilphen plans on extending the beer options to over 300 and explained that “whenever possible we try to duplicate our bottle selection to match the draft choices, so if you taste something you like you can bring some bottles home as well.“

At first glance the selection appears primarily Belgian oriented, but a healthy dose of craft beer styles from around the country are also available. Don’t worry hopheads, you’ll feel right at home with Sculpin and Pliny at your fingertips. You’ll also be happy to know they serve each beer in appropriate glassware and the staff is knowledgeable, polite and helpful with suggestions. They won’t hesitate to offer you a sample if you’re torn between two options.

Other then six bar stools, seating is primarily located just inside the entrance where brewery photos line the walls of the lofty yet cozy interior.  Every design element was thoughtfully considered from the vintage lighting to the rustic wooden tables, chairs, bar and doors that give the space an old European feel. Capacity is set at 50, which has been maxed out so far on Friday and Saturday evenings.

If you get hungry while your there a small snack menu is available, which includes a rotating selection of artisan cheeses, Fatted Calf sausage, jerky, olives and almonds. Need something a little more substantial? No worries, you’re allowed to bring in food from the outside. Stilphen is also negotiating with nearby Skipolini’s Pizza to make their pies easily available to customers.

ØL Beercafe is currently open from noon to 11pm daily and expect them to host a steady stream of special events. On Saturday, October 29th, it’s Meet the Brewer night with Ale Industries, who will be featuring their new Pumpkin Ale, East Bay IPA and a rare barrel aged beer.

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.

Practice, Determination and a Little Luck Sets Beltane Brewing Apart

Alan-Atha-Beltane-Brewing-Focused

At the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Novato sits a garage with a split personality. Cars aren’t welcome on most days, pushed out by exercise weights, bicycles, carboys, steam and water that trickles down the driveway. The space is the center of Alan Atha’s creative universe, where he either molds athletes or coaxes barley and yeast into Beltane Brewing beer.

Atha is one of many homebrewers in the Bay Area with Nanobrewery aspirations, and he’s working hard to make it a reality with only three years of brewing experience. The short time frame may be cause for skepticism, but his beer has garnered several awards and he’ll be competing this fall in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Pro-Am competition.

Alan-Atha-Beltane-Brewing-Garage

Opening a brewery is just one of many different career adventures Atha has pursued since he left the U.S. military years ago. He’s worked as a commercial photographer shooting architecture, raced bicycles, and in the last fourteen years turned to training and coaching fellow riders after moving to Marin. “I needed some work and I also needed to get back into shape since I was taking some time off. I went to the local gym and saw what the trainers were doing, and I said there’s my new job.”

His interest in homebrewing developed alongside his work as a trainer when he realized the two activities were both rooted in science, physiology and creativity. “I’ve always been an artist and an athlete, so combining the two made sense. Now beer is my palate.”

He started out brewing with a friend who also had a passion for Belgian beer. That’s how he learned the basics, but before long struck out on his own and started entering beer into local competitions. According to Atha the feedback was helpful, but he didn’t take it too seriously.

“You look at the score sheet and you either take the criticism or you laugh at it, one of the two. In some competitions you get great tips and other times they’re subjective. You have to piece through it in a lot of ways, and at a certain point, as long as your beer doesn’t have any flaws, go with you heart. That’s what I do.”

Atha currently has six recipes he feels are solid enough for commercial production, a Belgian Pale, Triple, Double, Black IPA, and Double IPA. Clearly he doesn’t shy away from making big beers, but he won’t be pushing some boundaries. “I’m trying to be fairly traditional in my methods and then just tweak a little. I’m probably not going to be the guy that goes pumpkin guava.”

One of his recipes recently caught the attention of Christian Kazakoff, brewmaster at Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax. Kazakoff hosted and judged a competition between members of the Sonoma Beerocrats. Atha is a member and president of the homebrew club. Winning the competition meant Kazakoff would brew the winning recipe and submit it to the GABF Pro-Am competition on behalf of the winning brewer.

According to GABF rules, qualifying entries must have won awards in competitions sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and the beer must be produced and served by the host brewery no later then August 19th.

Luminesce

Working on a short timeline the club entered a bunch of beers into the competition. Atha submitted his Belgian Triple he calls Luminesce, brewed with Belgian pilsner and fed with Westmalle yeast. The finished product stood up to Kazakoff’s standards and now Atha is headed to GABF in Denver where he’ll also be celebrating his birthday when awards are dolled out on October 1.

The beer was produced at Iron Springs on July 21. Atha assisted in the process and the beer will be served to the public at the brewery on August 18, one day before the deadline.

Atha believes his success is due in part to practice, but he also knows serendipity has played a role and he still has a lot to learn. “It’s been part luck and I wouldn’t say that I know everything, but at the same time sometimes the more you learn the stupider you get because you have to ask more questions. That’s how I look at it. I learn something new every day, whether it’s in my training or brewing.”

When Atha isn’t making beer or coaching a would be cyclist, he’s been working his way through the licensing process and searching for place to setup a business. Both tasks have proven difficult. “It’s a crazy process and it sucks, but if I do it right it will work.”

At the moment Atha is wavering between two different business concepts, one geared towards a café and another that’s simply production oriented with retail. He would love to open a beer café serving small bites of Trappist cheese and charcuterie, but it might not be financially in the cards.

As for location, he would like to put down roots in Novato near the 101 freeway, so according to Atha, “Everyone going up to Russian River Brewing can easily hit me on the way up or way back.” Unfortunately, two promising locations have slipped through his fingers for one reason or another. The city council has been helpful and he’ll keep trying, but he may have to move onto a different town.

Adversity may keep testing his resolve, but Atha appears capable of dodging punches with determination and a good sense of humor. For the time being he’ll keep brewing away in his garage, tweaking recipes and working towards a brewery, that with a little more of Atha’s Celtic luck, you may visit in the very near future.

New Brewpub Set to Open in the East Bay

Elevation 66 Brewing

Photos: Brian Stechschulte

Sixty-six feet above sea level and the fractured geology of the East Bay, the regions newest brewpub, Elevation 66 Brewing Company, is preparing to open its doors in El Cerrito by mid to late August. The project has evolved since 2010 from “wishful thinking” to clearing its final licensing hurdle last week. Soon they’ll be firing up the mash kettle.

“It was a pipe dream at first,” said Brian Kelly, who partnered with Kayvan Sabeghi and Dave Goodstal on the new venture. The three friends are all former employees of Pyramid Brewing in Berkeley. Kelly and Sabeghi spent time as servers behind and in front of the bar, while Goodstal, who did stints at Beermann’s, Sudwerk and Trumer, worked on the brewing team.

Once they mustered up the guts and capital to take the big leap they went shopping for a location. According to Kelly they were welcomed by the city of El Cerrito with open arms and a little funding. “We looked into a lot of places like Berkeley, Oakland, San Raphael and San Francisco, but they seemed to be a lot more expensive and some cities wouldn’t even talk to us. El Cerrito officials definitely wanted us here and did everything they could to help us get in and made sure the bureaucratic stuff went as smooth as possible. It was a blessing.“

Kelly was also encouraged by the changing demographics in the area. “It seems like the average age of El Cerrito’s population is getting younger. People in their mid thirties with families are moving into the neighborhood and don’t have a local bar or brewery to hang out and socialize.”

Elevation-66-Brewing-Bar

The 4,800 square foot brewpub stretches over two floors and is located on San Pablo Avenue next to the historic El Cerrito Theatre and a block from BART. The space use to be a dance studio and art gallery without any infrastructure a brewery or restaurant requires. As a result, larger drains, a full kitchen and cooler had to be installed along with the brewing system that sits behind the bar.

It will smell like a brewery, something Kelly thinks customers will enjoy. “We played around with a lot of different design ideas and having the brewery behind the bar was the most efficient in the end. It’s also cool because people are interested in the process of how it’s being made and can learn a bit by playing twenty questions with the bartender.”

As for the beer coming through that system, six different choices will be on tap at any given time. Four of the beers will be served year round and they’ll rotate two seasonal selections. At the moment their core beer lineup will include an IPA, vanilla stout, light golden ale and amber ale. For the time being they’ll stick to ales so they don’t have a bunch of different yeast strains floating around the new brewery.

Along with their own beer, Elevation 66 will be offering five beers from local microbreweries. Kelly sees it as way to round out the portfolio with beer they’re not going to be brewing in the near future, such as lagers and Belgians. Guest taps may include Trumer Pils, the Belgian Blonde from Black Diamond Brewing and a cider.

Elevation-66-Brewing-2nd-Floor

If you get hungry when you visit a full menu will be prepared by Chef Joel Coleman, a native of Hawaii whose moving from New Mexico to join the operation. All the ingredients will be sourced locally and the menu selection will change according to the seasons. Kelly said “It’s not going to be the greasy, no thought put into it, typical pub food. It will be pub food with a little bit a of a twist and a local flare to it.”

When the doors eventually open, hours are currently pegged at 11:30am to 11pm Sunday to Thursday and 11:30am to 2am Friday and Saturday, but could change depending on traffic flow. They also plan on hosting industry nights, open mic sessions and may offer discounts to customers with BART tickets.

Like any brewpub the group is focusing on quality beer and food to make customers happy, but Kelly has a larger vision in mind. “We just really want this place to be a good community spot where local people can gather with friends and have a good time. We’ll have good music, sports on the television and hope we can become an anchor for this growing neighborhood.”

Update (8/5/11): The address is 10082 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA (map). Thanks Dave!