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.