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.

Bavaria Brez’n Creates Authentic Pretzels for Bay Area Beer Fans

The history of American beer is primarily an immigrant’s story. Sure, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson made a few ales, but brewing really took off when guys like Eberhard Anheuser, Adolph Coors, Frederick Pabst and Joseph Schlitz arrived in the 19th century. They built their breweries around homesick immigrants who wanted lager with their schnitzel, bratwurst and pretzels.

This story has continued with every wave of immigrants. If they can’t find what mom or dad use to make in the Old Country, they perfect it themselves. That’s the case with Alan Zweig and Reinhard Breuning. After working all day as contractors, they’re turning a passion into a small business, making traditional Bavarian pretzels for restaurants, brewpubs and bars.

Reinhard Breuning and Alan Zweig

Breuning emigrated from Munich, Germany, in 1984, the heart of Bavaria, where pretzels can be served at any meal or special occasion. When he was sick as a child he fondly remembers his mom giving him pretzels in bed. Zweig was raised in a German household by parents who arrived after World War II. Together they would travel weekly to a German deli and bakery in Tacoma, WA, and back to Europe once a year where his uncle ran a gasthaus.

The two men recently crossed paths, in of all places, a meeting of alcoholics anonymous. According to Zweig, “We were both functioning alcoholics, but you get to a certain age where you can’t do what you use to do. Getting sober actually helped us achieve our goals.”

During that time they quickly bonded over heritage. One day Reinhard told Zweig about his authentic Bavarian pretzel recipe and they started making them for fun. Once they fine-tuned the ingredients and slowly perfected the process over 6 to 9 months, they started sharing the results with family and friends. Reinhard’s sister, who happened to be visiting from Germany, was shocked by the authenticity of the pretzels. She thought they tasted better than what she could find in Munich.

Positive reactions like that one piled up, which made them think about a greater goal. Zweig said, “People were telling us that it was the best pretzel they’ve ever had. During the wintertime it’s our off-season for carpentry and you sit around the campfire on a rainy day saying, ‘Maybe we should do something with the pretzels?’ I come from a business and sales background and told Reinhard, ‘Let’s take this to the street.’” This past winter they formed Bavaria Brez’n.

Bavarian pretzels are a far cry from the soft doughy versions you find at a ballpark or buy in a bag at a grocery store. They’re typically no larger than six inches, have a reddish orange color, a thin crunchy crust, and a flavorful nutritious interior. The shape is also very important. It can’t be oval or square, and the double twist of the dough has to be just right. For serious pretzel makers, aesthetics are critical.

As for the ingredients, the list is very straightforward: flour, water, yeast, salt and a little bit of butter. Once it’s all mixed into a blob of dough, the yeast starts to slowly rise and needs to rest several times between cutting, shaping, and placing the pretzels on non-stick perforated baking sheets.

Before baking they cool down in the fridge anywhere between 2 to 24 hours. This allows the dough to obtain a particular firmness so they can be dipped in a liquid containing 5% lye and 95% water, before salting and baking. The lye gives the pretzel its distinct color and crusty exterior. It becomes inert during the baking process.

Lye wasn’t always used in Germany to make pretzels. It came about in the 19th century during what you might call, a happy accident. According to historians, a bakery assistant accidentally dipped the pretzels into a cleaning solution containing lye. The pretzels were already in the oven when the mistake was discovered, so the head baker decided to wait and see what happened. Needless to say, they were pleased with the results.

Bruening and Zweig are faithful to this process and create their pretzels almost entirely by hand. The only exception is their use of an industrial mixer, which saves time, energy, and ensures everything coalesced in the dough. They work at small bakery in downtown San Anselmo in the evening, since they both work day jobs. While it’s convenient for their schedules and this stage of the business, it keeps them from working with clients who want early morning deliveries, like Andronico’s.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are a product that should be ideally consumed within four to seven hours after baking. If pretzels sit around too long, they lose their crispy crust and the salt begins to melt. They still taste great, but it’s not optimal. Therefore, Bruening and Zweig are marketing their pretzels to the happy hour crowd at bars and restaurants. They get baked just after 4pm, and then get promptly delivered.

Their first client is Leopold’s in San Francisco, which brands itself as a traditional gasthaus serving food from the Alpine regions of Northern Italy, Austria and Bavaria. According to Zweig, “They immediately recognized the flavor as authentic and unique. They knew right away what we had. That initial enthusiasm really got us excited as we went to our next accounts.”

The duo has been primarily pitching to German restaurants and breweries throughout San Francisco and Marin. It was a logical first step, but they’re considering other venues as they carefully grow. Zweig said, “We did the math and figured out how many pretzels we would need to make. The business can run profitably at two to three hundred pretzels per day with employees, but we need to know the inside and out before we teach anyone.”

As their list of clients expand and they make more money during the evening shift, then they can start weaning themselves off their day jobs. Right now they’re letting the business slowly unfold and are cherishing the process. Zweig said, “The experimental aspect of developing and growing a cottage business is a great distraction from the regular daily rigors. My wife keeps asking me, ‘So when are you going to give this thing up?’ I’m not, this is my hobby and it’s also a second passion.”

If you would like to learn more about Bavaria Brez’n or acquire some pretzels, contact Alan Zweig at azweig1 (at) mac.com

First Look at Abbot’s Cellar, Food, Beer & Interior Photos

Last night Abbot’s Cellar opened it’s doors in San Francisco to the media and a select group of industry friends to try the food and experience the new space. The beer was flowing and Chef Adam Dulye was serving up small bite pairings. Everything seemed to be on point and ready for their long-awaited public opening next Wednesday, July 25. In the meantime, here’s a large dose of photos for your first mouth-watering impression.

 

The Space

 

The Details

 

The Food & Beer

Chef Adam Dulye

Beer Review: Oyster Stout from HenHouse Brewing

Photo © Dave McAvoy

One of the best aspects of Bay Area beer culture is that there are so many new breweries starting up, that it’s almost a full time job trying to keep track of them. Not that I am going to complain, since that also means that shelves of good craft beer stores will constantly have new and different beers to try.

One region of the Bay Area that seems to be exploding is the North Bay. Home to heavyweight Lagunitas, Petaluma is not new to the beer world, but there are some new kids on the block. HenHouse Brewing Company opened its doors fairly recently and three of their beers are being distributed around the North Bay, as well as San Francisco and Oakland. One of them is Oyster Stout.

Oysters and Stouts are a historic food and beer pairing, but using oysters in the brewing process only stretches back to the middle of the last century. For those who are intimidated by the thought of oysters in their beer, rest assured. Most Oyster Stouts only use the oyster shells and none of the meat makes it into the beer. Even if the meat is used, the vast majority of the shellfish flavor will be lost in the boil during the brewing process.

Starting off with a quick look at the bottle, the HenHouse labels are clean and attractive. The logo is simple and the label design is fairly minimal, which makes it easy to spot on the shelf.

The beer pours a very dark black color with a finger of frothy chocolate colored head forming atop. The head fades down fairly slowly leaving a nice ring of lace behind. The aroma is a mix of roasted milk chocolate with some light coffee and minerals. It is a fairly simple nose, but it’s clean and very appetizing.

The flavor starts off with some roasted chocolate malts, coffee and a bit of a mineral flavor. I should mention that mineral flavor is often considered an off-flavor in beer, but for this style it’s accepted and comes from the oyster shells, which add depth and a bit of body to the beer.

Through the middle, some sweeter milk chocolate flavors come through, with even a touch of lactose, and a bit more roastiness. The finish is a mix of roasted milk chocolate, light coffee, and a hint of dark fruit. The beer feels medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It is remarkably smooth and sessionable, and has a wonderful dry and roasty finish.

Weighing in at around 4.9% ABV, this is a stout that I could drink quite a bit of. The overall beer does not hit the palate too hard, but is very clean and has a great balance of flavors. Beyond Oysters, this could be paired with many other foods and works equally well as a great end of the day beer that will not leave you hung-over the next morning.

This is without a doubt a good start for HenHouse Brewing Company, and I highly recommend you give them a shot if you are lucky enough to come across their brews in your area.

 

Meet the Beer Revolution Curling Team

Photos © Brian Stechschulte

On a recent Friday night, as Beer Revolution was just starting to defuse the work week tension, a handful of patrons were preparing to face-off in a epic match. They talked a little trash, emptied a few pints, and then traveled to downtown Oakland where they spent two hours on a sheet of ice sliding rocks and swinging brooms to score points. Team Beer Revolution squared off against Team Mosswood. The winner would be crowned champion of the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club’s (SFBACC) Friday night league.

After work league sports are an American tradition. They divert our attention from crappy jobs, help us revisit our glorious youth, and might be considered exercise. If you don’t make a post game visit to the bar sponsoring your team.

Bar sponsorship of softball league teams is fairly ubiquitous. For curling it’s comparatively obscure. Americans are slowly gravitating to the game thanks to the Winter Olympics and outreach by curling clubs, but it’s pretty low on the sporting food chain. The SFBACC has been around since 1958 and regularly hosts learn to curl nights.

Curling’s first historical reference dates back to Scotland in 1541, when the game was played on frozen ponds. Game play is fairly straightforward. Four players constitute a team, who take turns sliding eight granite stones down a sheet of ice toward a circular target. Accumulating the most stones near the center of the target scores points.

Curling stones

Sounds simple right? Well, there’s a lot of strategy and technique. Stones can be placed as guards in front of the target to prevent opponents from scoring. They can be delivered with a slight rotation, or “curl,” so they curve around guards, and players use brooms to reduce ice friction so the shot travels further then it normally would.

Curling brooms

The complexity of the game is what attracted John Heylin, who learned to play during the SFBACC’s Friday night practice sessions. After he honed his skills for a few weeks, fellow-curling newbs Melissa Buck and Amy Cohen approached him about forming a team. Heylin agreed and they rounded out the group with Sean Owens, who also started playing at the same time.

From left to right: Sean Owens, Amy Cohen, John Heylin & Melissa Buck

Once the group was formed, the next task was a team name and sponsorship. The Trappist bar in Oakland already sponsored one team, so Heylin, an avid craft beer fan and fellow contributor to this website, thought another bar or brewery might be interested. That’s when nearby Beer Revolution came to mind.

Heylin was a regular customer and decided to approach Beer Revolution co-owner Rebecca Boyles. He said, “She loved the idea of sponsoring a curling team and I don’t think it’s because she’s Canadian, but because it’s such a weird sport for the Bay Area and it seemed like a silly thing to do.”

Boyles allowed the team to modify the Beer Revolution logo, which includes a hand holding a curling stone instead of a beer. It appears on the team’s monogrammed black hooded sweatshirts. She also threw them a fundraiser at the bar to help pay league fees. Each team pays around a $1000 per 10 game season.

The team has now played together for several seasons at the Oakland Ice Center, in the city’s downtown corridor. Two weeks ago they were in the championship match. After a typical warm up session at Beer Revolution, they proceeded to dominate Team Mosswood. The final score was 7 to 1.

You might think such a lopsided score would yield animosity, but the Friday night league is pretty loose and lighthearted. Any disappointment is diluted by two of the most important league rules enforced after a match. The first rule is the winners buy the losers their first beer, and the second rule requires the losers to buy the next round.

If you would like to learn more about curling or participate in one the SFBACC’s learn to curl sessions (there’s one scheduled this coming weekend), head over to their website or contact John Heylin at jheylin (at) gmail.com