A Barrel Full of Insights and New Brew from Almanac Beer

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.

Damian Fagan

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.

Jesse Friedman

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.

Almanac Dinner with Ryan Farr Celebrated Pork & Beer for Charity

Left to right: Bryan Hermannsson (Pac Brew Labs), Damian Fagan, Steve Altimari (Highwater Brewing), Jesse Friedman & Ryan Farr / Photos © Brian Stechschulte

Sometimes the best SF Beer Week events aren’t just about beer, but instead highlight what goes well with it at the dinner table. Case in point is Butchers & Beers, which took place on February 13 at The Beast & The Hare in San Francisco’s Mission District. Jessie Friedman and Damian Fagan of Almanac Beer teamed up with butcher extraordinaire Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats for a piggy breakdown lesson, dinner and charity auction.

The first half of the Almanac dinner event was dedicated to Farr’s butchering demo and the guest of honor was splayed out in all its glory in the center of the restaurant. Attendees huddled around the table and were perched on top of chairs to get a glimpse of the action. For forty-five minutes Farr hacked, sawed and sliced his way through each portion of the animal, pointing out tasty sections, telling stories and answering questions.

During the demo appetizers were available in the form of chicharrones, corn dogs, sausage, green beans and sauerkraut. To wash it all down, Almanac served it’s new Winter Wit alongside the Nautilus Saison by Pacific Brewing Laboratories, Speakeasy’s Double Daddy IPA and No Boundary IPA from Highwater Brewing. Representatives from each brewery were on hand to talk about the beer and mingle with guests.

While the lesson was going on attendees could also bid on the various pig parts and take them home at very reasonable prices. All of the proceeds benefited the Food Pantry and according to Almanac, $550 in total was raised during the event.

Once demo was finished, the remaining portion of the evening was dedicated to a feast prepared by Farr and is crew from 4505 Meats. One succulent pig part after another was brought out on a platter, carved and quickly scooped up by the hungry flock of guests.

Overall the evening was fun, informative and delicious. The Almanac duo have been carefully crafting beer dinners since they launched last year and if you get the chance to attend one of their events, do it. Your stomach will thank you.


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.