Road Trip: Mad River Brewing is Built On History

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Empty mills, cement pilings in the waterways and inactive chimneys litter the landscape of Humboldt county. The logging industry used to be the lifeblood of the region, which is evident in the town of Blue Lake. Old buildings line the streets and the eastbound freeway almost tries to bypass the town, instead of going through it. It’s a shame really, because unless you know about Mad River Brewing, it’s easy to miss one of the best breweries in the country.

Don’t believe me? In 2010 they won so many awards at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) that I heard one person remark that they should have had a table on the stage to avoid walking up so many times. They brought home gold, silver and bronze medals for their beer along with Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. These are big accomplishments from what I thought was a small brewery in a struggling town. I recently drove all the way up to Blue Lake to find out how much this brewery could blow me away.

I met head brewer Dylan Schatz early in the morning before the pub opened.  A quiet guy with a great smile, Schatz grew up around Blue Lake so I guess it’s only fitting that he looks the part of Paul Bunyan.  He started out on the bottling line in 1999. After working with the brewer and taking a UC Davis course he assumed the duties of head brewer in 2005.  By the way, the bottling line he worked on, which is still in use, goes back to the 1950’s and was owned by Anchor Brewing. Yes, the 50’s, I didn’t screw that up. I’d like to think some of that Anchor spirit rubbed off on him in a good way.

A piece of history, Sierra Nevada’s old brewing equipment.

Speaking of history, Mad River is also using Sierra Nevada’s original mash tun and kettle. It looks like crap from all the welding repairs and paint chips, but this historic piece of equipment is the heart of the Mad River brewery. It’s a 10 barrel system and they have 100 barrel fermenters. As you might expect, they’re brewing like crazy, five batches per day in some instances to supply roughly 29 states and Japan with beer. Maybe it’s because they have to work so damn hard that they keep winning medals.

The pub itself is a must-see. The beautiful bar was made by a company directly across the street that makes bars for places around the world.  Locals fill the place, and where else can you get GABF winning beer for $3.75 a pint.  A pint!  Not a 10oz pour, a pint.  If I had Mad River right down the street from me I’d never leave.

Despite being in Northern California, you might be surprised to know how hard it is to find Mad River beer on tap or in bottles around the Bay Area. The best luck I’ve had is at BevMo! where they usually have their black ale, Serious Madness, and their John Barleycorn Barleywine. Both of those are my favorites. Ask at your local beer store, and if they don’t have it ask them to track it down from a distributor. If not, you can always take a road trip!

Eel River Brewing, It’s Organic, Got a Problem?

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Drive four hours north of San Francisco on the Redwood Highway and you’ll arrive in Humboldt County. It’s a beautiful region of California full of old growth trees, weed gardens and hippies that make Berkeley look like Orange County. Look a little harder and you’ll find a few of the most underrated breweries in the state.

One of those is Eel River Brewing in Fortuna, CA, the first certified organic brewery in the United States. They put a big emphasis on sustainability in addition to making great beer. Spent grain feeds brewery owned cattle, which gets served as organic beef in their tap room, and their production facility in Scotia runs on 100% bio-mass renewable energy. So imagine my surprise when I meet co-owner Ted Vivatson, a 6’4” dude dressed in camouflage pants that looks like he’s about to go wrestle bears, instead of a earth hugging hippie in tie dye.

In my experience I’ve never met anyone like Ted in the brewing world.  He doesn’t mince words or dance around a topic. I wish I had recorded our entire conversation. He could fill a book with awesome craft beer industry quotes, so I’m putting it lightly when I say my tour was exciting and eye opening.

Why organic? You might think Ted has a bleeding heart or believes in the greater good, but he said “I brew organic because it just makes sense.” He sees a world loaded with antibiotics, pesticides and pollution and that makes you wonder, “Why hurt your body with all that crap?” It’s a sentiment that drove him to raise his own cattle. I’ve heard this reasoning a hundred times in the Bay Area, but for some reason when it’s coming from a guy that looks like GI Joe, you tend to see it in a different light.

After our conversation we took a spin around the original brewery and the taproom in Fortuna, which feels a bit like a hunting lodge. Historic photos and artifacts from bygone logging days adorn the walls and ceiling. Outside their beer garden is the size of two basketball courts. It’s filled with picnic tables, horseshoe tossing pits and old cement slabs that one supported the logging facility that used to be there.

During my visit on Sunday morning the place was packed. Nearby hotels bring in new customers and the RV park down the street provides a steady stream of customers even on slow days. In addition to the beer, a full menu makes it a popular place. I tried the burger and it was delicious (probably because it was made from hippie grass-fed meat).

I didn’t get a chance to check out the production facility in Scotia (located inside an old redwood mill), which was a bummer, but time was dear and maybe that will be something I can check out next time?  If you’re ever headed though the Eureka area of Humboldt, stop by Eel River Brewing for some great organic beer and food. Heck, they’re flanked by two hotels, so if need be, you could safely crawl back to your room.

Old Mining Town Gives Up Gold for Hops

Brewmaster Brian Ford / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Auburn Alehouse is located in, well, Auburn, CA.  An old mining town that has had to re-purpose itself for tourism, Auburn sits so close to I-80 that by the time you get off the exit you’re in the heart of downtown.  The first thing you’ll notice is the town’s strict adherence to the old “mining era” vibe.  The storefronts look like they’re from an old western movie, which made the Hawaiian-themed store all the more silly looking.  Nothing says cold mountain town like Bermuda shorts and t-shirts that a cruise line threw up on.  But enough of that, let’s get to the brewery.

The layout of the Auburn Alehouse is spectacular.  It’s a large building and the owners have been very creative with all the space.  The bar is made from a beautiful piece of wood stretching the length of the restaurant and the brewing area is located behind tall windows at the back of the building.  All the tanks are stacked on steel beams and clean as a whistle.  It’s great when a brewery showcases their tanks. It never feels like a brewery without at least some equipment on display.  Brewers tend to hate being featured like zoo animals in a cage, but it appeals to customers.

After ordering the complete flight of samples I started off with their pilsner and lager.  It’s really hard to find good lagers and pilsners and I didn’t want to blow my taste buds away at first.  Up until then my experience with Auburn Alehouse was limited to their tasty uber-hoppy Gold Digger IPA, so I didn’t expect much from their lagers, but they weren’t just good, they were delicious. Both were crisp, refreshing and so flavorful that after the flight was finished I ordered a pint of each before heading out the door.

Their Gold Digger IPA is a staple of mine, but in all honestly those two beers were my favorite beers of the day.  The Shanghai Stout also stands out as a great beer, but my mind kept wandering back to the lagers whenever I thought about the brewery (the pilsner won Bronze at GABF in 2010).

Brewmaster Brian Ford was there working on his latest batch and took some time out of his day to show me around the brewery and answer questions.  Like many small breweries that produce popular beer, Auburn is running into supply issues and just can’t keep up with demand.  A good problem to have, but also frustrating.  The brewery is nearly maxed out of space and might have to start contract brewing like many popular small breweries.

Altitude also plays a role in the brewing process at Auburn. Higher altitudes means water boils at lower temperatures and it also takes longer to boil (crazy, eh?).  This increases costs a bit. I can’t imagine what breweries in Colorado have to do to make their beer.

Expanding into different styles, Ford just released a barrel-aged version of his Old Prospector Barleywine. He even went the extra mile by wax-sealing the bottles.  He was aiming for that cool Makers Mark drippy wax look to the bottle, but they must use some sort of plastic because I’ve never seen a beer bottle with that drippy look.  By the way, brewers might want to avoid that red appearance since Makers Mark seems to be “sue-happy” about its wax look.  An interesting wax factoid that surprised me, was that dipping bottles in the gooey substance can damage the beer if the heat is too high or it’s exposed for too long. Apparently it’s a very delicate process.

All in all, Auburn Alehouse is a great place to stop and have a pint on your way through town. The beers are fantastic, the vibe is welcoming and if you’re passing through to hit the slopes or are headed to Reno I couldn’t recommend it more.  I just wish they could spare a few more hundred gallons of beer and send it down to the Bay Area.

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.


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.