New Brewery Calicraft Celebrates The Golden State

Have you seen a bear clutching a barrel? If so, either you’re way too drunk or you’ve spotted bottles from Calicraft Brewing Company, one of the latest players in the Bay Area’s explosion of new breweries.

Calicraft was officially launched in May 2012 by Blaine Landberg, a veteran homebrewer, Walnut Creek family man, and founding employee of Honest Tea. I first met this ambitious but approachable entrepreneur after midnight at a brewers’ conference where, despite the late hour, he exuded enthusiasm, local pride, and love of beer. It’s easy to get caught up in his excitement, particularly when he talks about his commitment to using California ingredients when possible. Even Calicraft t-shirts will be made in-state, not in China.

The fledgling brewery came out of the gate strong with three beers: the refreshing Cali Colsch, the hoppy Oaktown Brown, and Buzzerkeley, a honey-accented Belgian/American mashup that’s already getting plenty of…well, buzz. (Sorry.) I predict Calicraft will have a substantial following by the time it opens its Walnut Creek tasting room.

Landberg took some time away from brewing, beer delivery, and his general daily hustle to answer some questions via email. An edited version of our exchange is below.

You talked about wanting to start a brewery since you were 14. Most 14 year olds are not drinking anything inspiring. How did you get a goal like that at that age?

Living right outside Chico in Willows, CA, the success of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was a sense of regional pride. As I was growing up I saw that sense of pride as something that I wanted to create…but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just trying to recreate Sierra but start a new movement like Sierra did in the ‘80’s

I come from a family of homebrewers. I remember the moment I realized I wanted to be a brewer, when my uncle brought a beer he made to a family function. It was called Bell and Bear Brew – Hopping Good From Down Under and the label had a kangaroo peeing in a bucket. As a teenager this was hilarious. At our family holiday functions it was always a treat to see who would bring the most interesting craft brewed beer to the party. Though I couldn’t partake, maybe a sip here and there, I loved what it stood for. A symbol for a social gathering, a form of expression, and a sense of family and friends…to me these are the core values and reasons craft beer and craft products in general are so meaningful and why I’ve chosen to pursue them as my life’s work.

When/where did you brew your first batch of beer? What was it?

I brewed my first batch of beer in the kitchen of the dorms in Unit 1 at UC Berkeley. It was an extract brewed pale ale. I added honey to it and called it Buzzerkeley Brewing Virgin Ale. I was only able to brew down there twice before it got out that a 19-year-old was brewing beer, not good. I took a hiatus for about two years and started heavily brewing when I got an apartment with my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. I cobbled together five pots and pans and started brewing extract beer. I made pretty much everything under the sun and I constantly tried to experiment with beers using honey, spices, fruits, and woods. After about two years of fairly consistent extract brewing I started to all-grain brew and that is when my hobby became an obsession.

Do you still homebrew?

I definitely still homebrew. I think that is the foundation of craft brewing. Especially at the stage where I am, it’s important to keep creative and constantly try to improve on concepts and new products. Homebrewing is the best avenue for this.

Since you have beers named in honor of Berkeley and Oakland, can you talk a bit more about your connection to these cities?

I went to school at Berkeley and started brewing in Berkeley. The initial name I thought of for the brewery was Buzzerkeley. I liked that it was a play on Berzerkeley and with the use of honey in some of the beers the play on words was perfect.

While living in Oakland in our little Rockridge apartment I came up with the basics of Oaktown Brown. The idea came to me as I was training for a half marathon and running about Lake Merritt. I would try to daydream about brewing to take my mind off the pain. At that time I was frequenting Barclays, Ben and Nick’s, and Cato’s where I grew a strong appreciation for hoppy beers but also loved a good brown, porter or dark lager. I also felt like there wasn’t a consistent beer on the market that used oak in balance with hops and brown and I loved the double meaning of “Oaktown.”

Can you talk briefly about your other experience in the workforce, including what (if anything) tea taught you about selling beer?

I was one of the first people to join the team at Honest Tea. I started as an intern in 1999, the second year of Honest. I started selling Honest out of the back of my car, similar to what I’m doing now with Calicraft. I purposely chose working for a start-up in the beverage industry because the fundamentals of brand building through distribution and retail are the same. In fact, up until 2008 we mostly worked with Miller and Bud distribution houses in the West. From my car to the end of 2008 we put together a network of over 50 beer distributors in the West and covered all 13 states.

Please describe each of your beers, including any ingredients you’re willing to divulge.

Cali Colsch: We use California-grown base malt from the Klammoth basin by the base of Mt. Shasta. We blend it with some European Pilsner malts to form a base that is clean, smooth, subtly grainy and bright. We then use a blend of American and German hops to bring out noble spicy and fruity characteristics while giving the beer a hint of American hop flavor at the end. The Kolsch yeast we use adds complexity through notes of peach and pear. It finishes bright, playful and clean. Our goal is to not push this beer out of style, but push the beer to the edge of the style, keeping it drinkable and balance.

Oaktown Brown: Redefining traditional brown ale, this is a hoppy, malty, deep and soulful brown ale. We use California-grown organic Cascade hops that give this beer a flavor reminiscent of an IPA. The California grown hops express flavors of orange and marmalade vs. pine and grapefruit from the Pacific Northwest. We then ferment the beer with a blend of three oaks with the foundation of the oaks being American. The beer starts bitter and roasty with subtle smoke. As it warms, layers of chocolate, toffee and caramel begin to shine. The use of oak during fermentation gives this beer structure that lays in your mouth similar to a great cab or zin.

Buzzerkley: Blurring the lines between beer and wine, Buzzerkeley is beverage unto itself. Fermentation with Champagne yeast adds a subtle tartness to the finish. Our combination of pure California starthistle and a blend of Belgian and American malts support the spicy fruity esters of the yeast. The honey sugars are almost completely fermented, drying out the beer similar to a Belgian golden strong or dry champagne. Its best drank cold and in a tight narrow glass.

Where are the beers brewed now and what are your plans to open your own brewery?

Currently we brew our beers in San Jose at Hermitage. We subscribe to the tenant brewer philosophy: much like you would become a tenant at an apartment and make it your home, this is the way we view our relationship with Hermitage. The people at Hermitage have been incredible to work with and are solid partners in business.

In the next 12-24 months we will be building a small 10-15 barrel production system in Walnut Creek. We are currently working with the city to get the area known as the Shadelands rezoned for food production. We will run the brewery much more like an experimental winery with a tasting room than a traditional brewery. You’ll be able to get small batched limited produced beers using local partnerships. A few restaurant or beer-centric bars will get some of the products coming out of Walnut Creek.

In the short term, where can people find your beers?

Bottled beers are available at Berkeley Bowl, Ledgers Liquors in Berkeley, Whole Foods, Jackson’s Liquors in Lafayette and other independent grocery stores. On tap we’ll be rotating at local beer bars and restaurants in the area including Gather and Revival in Berkeley, Handles in Pleasanton, Beer Revolution in Oakland, Tender Greens and ØL in Walnut Creek, and Pete’s Brass Rail and Chow in Danville. If we’re not on draft, ask :)

Bay Area Breweries Collect Over One Hundred Fifty State Fair Awards

For some Californians, summer doesn’t truly arrive until the onset of the State Fair in Sacramento, where thousands of people flock to the Magical Midway, Livestock Pavilion, Giant Slide and drool over sugar laden elephant ears. While these visitors are getting an overdose of fatty food and carnival rides, some people are in the throws of serious competition. There are animals, art and technology exhibits, just to name a few, being judged and awarded.

Breweries from around the state also vie for awards and bragging rights during the commercial craft brew competition, which takes place before the Tilt-A-Whirl’s inaugural spin. Brewers send in their best samples to be judged in numerous categories according to the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines. The results were recently announced and Bay Area breweries collectively received 162 awards. That’s quite an accomplishment and some people might be surprised by the results.

It should be noted that some breweries don’t participate and the number of sample submissions varies greatly between brewers. As for specifics, unfortunately the number of submission and participating breweries isn’t available. A wine competition press release was issued, but not for beer (Grrrr…).

The following list is organized alphabetically by brewery. If you would like to see the results in their entirety, head over to the California State Fair website.

Congratulations to the winners!

 

21st Amendment Brewery

  • 2nd, Gold, Drunken Monk, Belgian Strong Light Color
  • Silver, Mr.Poom’s Thai’d House Ale, Spice Herb Vegetable/Winter Beer
  • Silver, Red Giant, Wood Aged Beer
  • Silver, Amber Waves, American Pale Ale
  • Silver, Gigantes IPA, American IPA
  • Bronze, Hendrick’s Imperial Stout, Russian Imperial Stout

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Bear Republic Brewing Company

  • Gold, Hop Rod Rye, Specialty Beers
  • 3rd, Silver, XP Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Silver, Red Rocket Ale, American Amber Ale
  • Silver, Peter Brown Tribute Ale, American Brown Ale
  • Silver, Racer 5 IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Racer X Double IPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Big Bear Black Stout, Stout – Dry, Sweet, Foreign & American

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Blue Frog Grog & Grill

  • Gold, Blonde, Blonde Ale
  • Silver, DIPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, IPA, American IPA

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Devil’s Canyon Brewing Company

  • Gold, Silicon Blonde Ale, Blonde Ale
  • Honorable Mention, Gold, Deadicated Amber Ale, American Amber Ale
  • 2nd, Silver, Full Boar Scotch Ale, Scottish Ales
  • Silver, California Sunshine Rye IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Lager Diabla, Light Lagers
  • Bronze, Kaleidoscope Black Ale, Specialty Beers

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Drake’s Brewing Company

  • Honorable Mention, Best of Show, Gold, Drakonic, Russian Imperial Stout
  • 1st, Gold, Drakonic, Russian Imperial Stout
  • 3rd, Gold, Denogginizer, Imperial IPA
  • Gold, Drake’s IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Drake’s 1500, American Pale Ale

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El Toro Brewing Company

  • 2nd, Gold, El Toro Yo Barleywine, Barleywine
  • 3rd, Silver, El Toro Poppy Jasper Amber Ale, English Brown Ale
  • Silver, El Toro India Pale Ale, American IPA
  • Silver, El Toro Deuce Imperial IPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, El Toro Oro Golden Ale, English Pale Ale
  • Bronze, El Toro Negro Oatmeal Stout, Stout – Oatmeal

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Faultline Brewing Company

  • 1st, Gold, Stout, Stout – Oatmeal
  • 2nd, Silver, Kolsch, Kolsch & Cream Ale
  • 2nd, Silver, Hefeweizen, German Wheat & Rye
  • 2nd, Silver, Oktoberfest, Euro Amber Lager
  • 2nd, Silver, Doppelbock, Bock
  • 2nd, Silver, Belgian Blonde, Belgian Strong Light Color
  • Silver, Best Bitter, English Pale Ale
  • Silver, Dunkleweizen, German Wheat & Rye
  • Silver, Pale Ale, English Pale Ale
  • Silver, India Pale Ale, American IPA
  • Silver, Belgian Abbey, Belgian Strong Dark Color
  • Silver, Irish Red, Irish Red Ale
  • Bronze, Golden, Blonde Ale
  • Bronze, London Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • Bronze, Belgian Tripel, Belgian Strong Light Color

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Heretic Brewing Company

  • Honorable Mention, Best of Show, Gold, One Nut In The Grave, Specialty Beers
  • 1st, Gold, One Nut In The Grave, Specialty Beers
  • Gold, Evil Cousin, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Worry, Wood Aged Beer
  • Silver, Evil Twin, American Amber Ale
  • Silver, Shallow Grave, Porter – Robust/Baltic

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Hermitage Brewing Company

  • Gold, Citra Single Hop IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Maltopia, Scottish Ales
  • Silver, Hoptopia, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Ahtanum Single Hop IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Coastal Fog IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, One Door Sour Ale, Sour Beers
  • Bronze, Ale of the 2Tun, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Bronze, Ale of the Imp, Imperial IPA
  • Bronze, Coastal Fog Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Bronze, Coastal Fog Amber Ale, American Brown Ale
  • Bronze, Ale des Dieux, Belgian & French Ale

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Jack’s Brewing Company 

  • 2nd, Gold, Jack’s Double IPA, Imperial IPA
  • 2nd, Gold, Hardwood Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Gold, Jack’s IPA, American IPA
  • 3rd, Silver, Boys of Summer Wheat, Kolsch/Cream Ale
  • Silver, Jack’s Hefeweizen, German Wheat & Rye
  • Silver, Penalty Shot Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • Bronze, Grid Iron Amber, Amber Hybrids
  • Bronze, Anniversary Ale, Bock

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Magnolia Brewery

  • 1st, Gold, Blue Bell Bitter, English Pale Ale
  • 2nd, Silver, Sara’s Ruby Mild, English Brown Ale
  • Silver, Weekapaug Gruit, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer
  • Bronze, Prescription Pale, American IPA
  • Bronze, Big Cypress Brown, English Brown Ale

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Marin Brewing Company

  • Honorable Mention, Best of Show, Gold, Pt Reyes Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • 1st, Gold, Pt Reyes Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • 1st, Gold, Cuvee Roge’, Sour Beers
  • 2nd, Gold, Hoppy Holidaze, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer
  • 3rd, Gold, Quad, Belgian Strong Light Color
  • 3rd, Gold, Airporter Chocolate Porter, Specialty Beers
  • 2nd, Silver, Orange & Black, Fruit Beer
  • Silver, San Quentin’s Breakout Stout, Stout – Dry, Sweet,Foreign & American
  • Silver, White Knuckle Double IPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Old Dipsea Barleywine, Barleywine
  • Silver, Bourbon Barrel Old Dipsea Barleywine, Wood Aged Beer
  • Silver, Marin IPA, American IPA
  • Bronze, Marin Hefeweiss, American Wheat/Rye
  • Silver, Marin Abbey Special, Belgian Strong Dark Color
  • Bronze, Mt Tam Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Bronze, Tiburon Blonde, Belgian & French Ale
  • Bronze, Tripel Dipsea, Belgian Strong Light Color
  • Bronze, Saison De Revolution, Belgian & French Ale
  • Bronze, 21 Year Old Ale, Od Ale
  • Bronze, E.S.Chi, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer

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Moylan’s Brewing

  • 1st, Gold, Hell’s Export Lager, Light Lagers
  • 1st, Gold, Hopcrak XXXIPA, Imperial IPA
  • 3rd,Silver, Moylan’s Wheat Ale, American Wheat/Rye
  • 3rd, Gold, NDR CAL IPA, American IPA
  • Honorable Mention, Best of Show, Gold, Hopcrak XXXIPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Wet Hopsickle, Wood Aged Beer
  • Silver, Moylander XXIPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Hopgarten Pilsner, Pilsner
  • Silver, Chelsea Moylan’s Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • Silver, Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Silver, Moylan’s Chocolate Porter, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer
  • Silver, Dragoons Dry Irish Stout, Stout – Dry, Sweet,Foreign & American
  • Silver, Octoberfest Marzen, Euro Amber Lager
  • Silver, Hopsickle Imperial XXXIPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, White Christmas Winter Beer, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer
  • Silver, Orange & Black Congrats Ale, Fruit Beer
  • Silver, Moylan’s Special Bitter, English Pale Ale
  • Silver, Celts Golden Ale, Blonde Ale
  • Silver, Old Blaney Barleywine, Barleywine
  • Silver, Tipperary Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Bronze, Danny’s Irish Red Ale, Irish Red Ale
  • Bronze, Pommegranate Wheat Ale, Fruit Beer
  • Bronze, Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale, Scottish Ales

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Pizza Orgasmica & Brewing Co.

  • Silver, Orgasmica Triple I.P.A., Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Orgasmica I.P.A., American IPA
  • Silver, Orgasmica Chocolate Imperial Stout, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Silver, Orgasmica Kolsch, Kolsch & Cream Ale
  • Silver, Orgasmica Four Grain Hefeweizen, German Wheat & Rye
  • Silver, Orgasmica Pale Ale, American Pale Ale
  • Bronze, Orgasmica Amber Ale, American Amber Ale
  • Bronze, Orgasmica Golden Ale, Blonde Ale
  • Bronze, Orgasmica Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • Bronze, Orgasmica Peach Pale Ale, Fruit Beer

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Pyramid Breweries

  • 1st, Gold, Pyramid Curveball Blonde Ale, Blonde Ale
  • Gold, Pyramid Outburst Imperial IPA, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Pyramid Hefeweizen, American Wheat/Rye
  • Silver, Pryamid Apricot, Fruit Beer

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Ruth McGowan’s Brewpub

  • Honorable Mention, Gold, Citrus Wheat Ale, Spice Herb Vegetable/winter Beer
  • 1st, Gold, Cloverdale Ale, American Amber Ale
  • 2nd, Gold, Monster Brown, American Brown Ale
  • Gold, Floyd IPA, American IPA
  • 3rd, Silver, McGown’s Dry Irish Stout, Stout – Dry, Sweet,Foreign & American
  • Bronze, Caroline’s Blonde, Blonde Ale

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Sonoma Springs Brewing Company

  • 1st, Gold, Uncle Jack’s Kolsch, Kolsch & Cream Ale
  • 3rd, Silver, New Bavaria Roggen, German Wheat & Rye
  • Silver, Daedalus, Wood Aged Beer
  • Bronze, Lil’ Chief, American Pale Ale

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Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

  • Gold, Payback Porter, Porter – Robust/Baltic
  • 3rd, Silver, Scarface Imperial Stout, Russian Imperial Stout
  • Silver, Big Daddy IPA, American IPA
  • Silver, Double Daddy, Imperial IPA
  • Silver, Prohibition Ale, American Amber Ale

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Strike Brewing Company

  • 1st, Gold, Strike Brown, American Brown Ale
  • Silver, Strike Blonde, Blonde Ale
  • Bronze, Strike Porter, Porter – Brown
  • Bronze, Strike Wit, Belgian & French Ale

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Thirsty Bear Brewing Company

  • Honorable Mention, Silver, Weizenbock, German Wheat & Rye
  • 3rd Silver, Broadsword, Scottish Ales
  • 3rd Silver, Cherry Stave, Sour Beers
  • Bronze, Winter Stave, Sour Beers

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Tied House Brewing

  • 1st, Gold, New World Wheat, American Wheat/Rye
  • Silver, Ironwood Dark, English Brown Ale
  • Silver, Alpine Gold, Blonde Ale
  • Bronze, Cascade Amber, American Amber Ale

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Trumer Brauerei

  • 3rd, Silver, Trumer Pils, Pilsner

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John Casey Combines Art and Beer for The Trappist

Photos © Brian Stechschulte / Artwork © John Casey

Every time you walk into a bottle store, beer fights for your attention. Row after row of tasty options entice you with help from label artwork. Sure, you might have a taste for an IPA or the latest must have Imperial Stout, but more than you might want to admit, what’s wrapped around that bottle, has an influence on your buying habits, especially if it’s a new beer. Design and marketing play a key role on labels, t-shirts and any other trinket a brewery or bar decides to sell. Artists play a big role and often don’t get credit beyond a paycheck or free beer.

Shortly after The Trappist opened its doors in Oakland, artist John Casey wandered in and not only discovered the wider world of craft beer, but also developed a creative relationship with the owners, Aaron Porter and Chuck Stilphen. He’s designed several successful t-shirts for the bar and their collaboration beer label for Evil Twin’s Wet Dream.

Casey’s Oakland studio

Casey earned a Bachelors of Fine Art from MassArt in Boston and arrived in the Bay Area with his wife back in 1998 during the dot com bubble. They both worked in the tech industry and Casey’s been exhibiting his artwork around the region and in far-flung cities like Paris. He describes his work as, “Surrealistic, kind of fun and trippy.”

When he met Porter and Stilphen a few years ago, he was getting a little tired of the traditional West Coast IPA. According to Casey, “I was looking for something a little more interesting and malty. I went into The Trappist and started chatting with them about beer and just got more and more interested in what they were serving. After awhile, I gave Aaron and Chuck some stickers and they were intrigued by my work.”

For the most part Casey doesn’t do commercial work, but has made a few exceptions. His first t-shirt design for The Trappist featured a guy on a tricycle with hops bursting out of his head. The t-shirt sold out and the creative relationship continued when Porter and Stilphen asked him to design a label for their 2011 collaboration beer with Evil Twin called Wet Dream. It’s a brown IPA infused with espresso that debuted at the Copenhagen Beer Festival.

Casey’s first t-shirt design for The Trappist

Casey had never designed a beer label before, but was interested in the challenge, especially because he’s given a lot of creative leeway. For the Wet Dream label Casey considered several different options. He said, “I could have used some really obvious image connotations. Some early proofs had some splattering paint, but I decided to lean more towards dream because wet seemed so obvious. The challenge was combining the logos and three distinct fonts, while trying to follow Evil Twin’s previous label format.”

Proofs went back and forth between Casey and Evil Twin’s graphic designer before it was finalized. The label size changed multiple times and a few accommodations were made for the American market. In the end, Casey kept the label artwork and color pretty minimal. The design was featured on a t-shirt and logo glassware that you can still find at the bar.

Casey’s latest project for The Trappist went on sale back in March. It’s another playful t-shirt design featuring a torso less figure with hops flying out of his pants, the bar’s name resting on his forehead and gold teeth that spell Oakland. It’s the perfect representation of the hop crazed beer geek.

Casey’s latest t-shirt design for The Trappist

When asked if he works for free, money or beer, Casey said, “We come to a beer agreement and they’ve always been very good to me. They like the work, they’re pretty open to it, and if I meet them part way, it’s because I do want to promote the beer. It’s not just about the artwork.”

Two recent sculptures

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!

Beer Review: Alpha Session from Drake’s Brewing

Photo © Dave McAvoy

Until recently, the craft beer world was involved in a friendly war to one-up each other by creating bigger, bolder, and more extreme beer. Breweries like Samuel Adams and BrewDog produced beers in excess of 25% ABV, which really pushed the limits of beer. Other brewers focused on making the most sour, hoppy or spicy beer possible. Most of them are well suited for sipping or should be shared with others, not for throwing back in succession.

This trend is beginning to change. More breweries are focusing on the lower end of ABV spectrum and are redefining the “session ale,” including Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro. Their Alpha Session, a “Nor Cal Bitter Ale” as they describe it, weighs in at 50 IBUs (similar to many IPAs), but comes in a lighter at 3.8% ABV. Drake’s recently released Alpha Session in bottles around the Bay Area, so I thought it would be fitting to share my thoughts about the beer so you can determine whether or not you should take a few home to enjoy.

The beer pours a clear golden color with a finger of frothy white head forming atop. The head recedes slowly leaving some lace clinging to the sides of the glass. The aroma is full of West Coast hops, with hints of pine, grapefruit and citrus tickling the nose. There’s also an ample malt backbone, which gives the beer some balance. It’s surprising how full the aroma is considering its below 4% ABV.

The taste follows the nose closely in many ways. The first flavors to hit the tongue are a mix of grapefruit, pineapple, and other citrus and tropical hops, with some mild bitterness alongside the caramel and English biscuit malts. Through the middle, the pine and grassy hops jump out, bringing with them a stronger bitterness and a touch of resin. The finish continues the hop forward trend, with more tropical and piney flavors, some good bitterness, and some sweet malts lingering on the tongue. The beer feels a bit lighter than medium bodied with moderate carbonation. It feels smooth and incredibly refreshing with a nice dry and bitter feeling left afterwards.

Bringing the English-style bitter and session ales to forefront of craft beer in America is a trend that I can really get behind, and the Alpha Session is a great example. There is no longer a compromise between having a full flavored beer and something that you can drink all evening long. I really enjoy how much hop flavor and bitterness is jammed into this beer, without cutting down on the smoothness and session-ability one bit. One word of warning though, this beer has a habit of disappearing from your glass quite quickly, only to find out that you’ve had enough beer that catches up with you.