Conspiracy Under the Tarps: We Dig into the Origins of Barrelworks

The Best of the U.S. Meets the Best of Belgium
Firestone Walker’s David Walker (L) and Matt Brynildson (center)  share a lambic with Cantillon Brewer, Jean Van Roy (R)

It started with a chance encounter at Cantillon in May 2011.  Steve Shapiro (one of the two of us responsible for Beer By BART) visited the famed Brussels lambic brewery.  And he was delighted to run into Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and a tall companion with a British accent.  Steve remembers that Jean Van Roy was astonished that he and Matt knew each other. That encounter was, however, Steve’s first introduction to Firestone Walker Brewing’s co-founder, David Walker. Steve remembers Matt whispering about Walker sipping one of the complex, acidic Cantillon beers. “Look, he’s smiling!”

Steve snapped a photo (above) as the three brewing legends enjoyed another lambic creation together.

Not long afterward, we ran into David Walker at San Francisco’s City Beer Store.  Curiously, he implied that he was the one interested in starting a sour program but facing resistance. It caught our attention. A few very nice sour “wood aged” beers from the brewery had already showed up here and there. What was going on?

David Walker, Jeffers Richardson, Jim Crooks
David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks at the Firestone Walker Invitational beer fest, after the launch of Barrelworks

But eventually all was moot. We were delighted when we heard of plans for a sour fermentation facility called Barrelworks in Buellton, an hour and a half south of the main Firestone Walker location in Paso Robles, way down on the Central Coast.

We got to know Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson, the two who anchor the program, each with his own complicated and engrossing back story at Firestone Walker.  Still, the more we heard about their own stories and about Barrelworks, the more puzzled we were.  Had it really been a forbidden project when Walker sipped at Cantillon? The website hinted of drama, but was that just marketing hype? What was true?

So last summer we decided to track this down and take whatever time the story required.  The idea was that we would get the versions of the origin tale from various protagonists and show how differently they saw things.  We were delighted when Beer Advocate Magazine took our project on, and we dug in.

Curiously, each thing we looked into was deeper and more complex than the last. The secrets behind Barrelworks went all the way back to the unusual origins of Firestone Walker itself.  Matt Brynildson, Jim Crooks, Jeffers Richardson, Adam Firestone and David Walker all gave generously of their time and did deep dives into all kinds of tales that we reluctantly left aside as we sharpened our focus and fought to stay within the word count.  Our respect, friendship and appreciation for the people at Firestone Walker grew over the course of our investigation.

The story’s up now on the Beer Advocate website, and we hope you enjoy all of it.

“The problem was that it was getting harder and harder for Crooks to keep the burgeoning project secret. “It was like, this is Jim’s deal, and it was like, don’t tell Adam,” Firestone sighs, recalling his brewers’ increasingly ridiculous attempts to keep him in the dark. “‘Guys, I can see the barrels! They’re dribbling all over the floor. They smell like hell!’”

Alas, some of the weirdly wonderful or disputed details ended up on the cutting room floor as we trimmed the story down to article length. Thanks to Tom Griffin, who told about bringing the first second-hand bourbon barrels out to California, thus getting Matt Brynildson into the incredibly delicious Anniversary beer tradition that recently resulted in another must-not-miss example.  We hope to tell those tales another time.  Mike Hoffman told us how he lost the SLO production brewery, with many details that were eye-opening and fascinating but would have taken us far outside the original focus of the story.  Thanks to Ryan Sweeney from LA’s Surly Goat and related beer bars who told us about arriving at the Paso Robles pub one day and having a draft beer from that sour program that did not exist. There it was, on tap! We dropped another thread of the story that had to do with the unforeseen demand for 805, the popular mainstream blonde ale.   The rise of the Barrelworks program was mentioned as a soul-saving counterbalance to the monotony of producing so much 805. We kept scrapping quotes packed with astonishing insights in order to get the bones of the story in.

And we are excited for the next chapters and new beers coming from Firestone Walker. We’ll be bugging them about the progress of the Belgian sour project mentioned in the beginning of the article, and following their beers.

Jim-and-Foudres
Jim Crooks and one of his talented wooden foudres in the wood cellar at Barrelworks

So please check out our Feral Ones story in BeerAdvocate magazine.  And, as our editor Ben Keene reminds us, if you subscribe to BeerAdvocate, not only do you support beer journalism, but next time we write something there you will see it all gloriously laid out in a real glossy magazine you can touch, (perhaps with something akin to this issue’s historic Area 51 brewing images from Jeffers), a month before it ever goes up online.

– Gail and Steve

[photos by Steve Shapiro and/or Gail Ann Williams]



Explore beer destinations by Bay Area Rapid Transit

Don’t Miss the Pink Boots beers!

The month of March has special significance for beer, arising from March eighth, traditionally International Women’s Day. On or around that date, all over the world, brewers now host women from their own companies and colleagues invited from their local brewing communities in an onsite day devoted to creating a charity beer.

These beers — the result of the Big Boots international brewing effort — are perhaps the most visible manifestation of the Pink Boots Society, a group that has formed to raise funds for scholarships for women working in the brewing industry. The premise is that while the industry skews male, employers are looking for people with education and experience. Many brewers, distributors and service staff are essentially self-taught until they get to learn collaboratively on the job.  So, on the production side, just to get your resume looked at despite your feminine name you had best have formal beer education among your qualifications.

    This year some fine Bay Area brews are on the way! Freewheel Brewing, Laughing Monk Brewing, The Rare Barrel and Seabright Brewery all did group Pink Boots big brew days earlier in the month. 

Freewheel has released their version — “Herstoric Alewife’s Golden Ale” is on at the brewery and will soon be at select taps around town.

Seabright Brewing is now pouring “Nectar of Ishtar” honey wheat ale near the Santa Cruz boardwalk, meant to be a pleasant pairing with BBQ shrimp as well as a subtle nod to the sacred brewing traditions of ancient cultures.

“Pink Boots Prophetess” is the release from Laughing Monk.  It’s coming up on Friday March 31 in SF.  The concept of Lady Grey Tea led to bags of loose tea and orange peels in an ale that just may be your cuppa tea.

The Rare Barrel’s Pink Boots Collaboration, “Solidarity Forever,” is to be released on Friday as well, in Berkeley. The process (including all the microbes that had done the heavy lifting of the beer making to create the blending beers) is described in the excellent blog post by Danielle Byers, who organized a notably democratic process for a large group to discuss and rank choices at several stages. Ad hoc teams creatively dosed small samples with drops of custom herbal tinctures to envision a blend. (The winning combo would later be executed by placing herbs and flowers directly into sour beer and given some time to infuse.)

Zeitgeist in SF will be doing an event with as many of the Big Boots brews as they can bring in. (Watch their announcements.)  Look for more beer bars to jump in.

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[Blending day at The Rare Barrel in Berkeley involved well-organized tasting and comparing, finally followed by a full glass of beer to simply enjoy.]

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[Seabright Brewery’s Pink Boots brew in Santa Cruz, Ca. Brewmaster Cat Wiest front right.]

    Usually the Pink Boots group takes part in an early formulation discussion. Next, somebody at the host brewery finalizes a recipe so that the ingredients can be ordered on time.  After that, the collaboration day can take many forms.

    Some Pink Boots beer making days — like the sour blending session held at The Rare Barrel — are refreshingly educational and participatory.   Others are more of a brew day observation experience. Just witnessing a professional brew can be a valuable experience for sales people and front of house staffers in many cases, though it may not be as useful for most practicing or aspiring pro brewers.
     There are beer sampling opportunities and photo ops at all of these events, but the most memorable and inspirational collaborations take it further, with hands-on interactions and discussion of the engineering and the effects of that particular brew deck. (Or sour beer blending procedure, in the case of The Rare Barrel.) Doing tasks rather than simply watching them becomes a key part of the group day.  Even attaching an unfamiliar type of hose connector, ceremonially adding a handful of hops to the kettle or recording the temperature on a brew log as a guest brewer brings the group together while the others snap pictures.
    Whatever the level of involvement in the actual beer making processes, the primary goals of meeting the other local women in the industry and raising funds to educate women in the brewing world are first and foremost.

[Two kinds of honey and huge mesh bags full of tea leaves figured into the brew day at Laughing Monk Brewing, SF.]

I asked some of the women at the Laughing Monk event what it all means to them:
Amelia Franklin, Laughing Monk, sales:
  • The Pink Boots Society is really important for recognizing the contributions of women in all aspects of the field.  Hopefully also encouraging more women to participate when they see the industry is a little more diverse than they thought.
  • I have a lot of communication with the brewer in my role.
  • The beer we brewed today is my concept. I like how much you get to think!

Robin Knight, Laughing Monk, marketing and event planning:

  • PBS Big Boots brew puts the focus on women and gives us a chance to get a little more woman power into the brewery.
  • My take away from today is that brewing is physically hard work and that there’s a lot of waiting, so you really have to love it to do it.
Ashley Meredith, Harry’s Hofbrau, bartender:
  • Seeing inside other work spaces and how they are functioning has been the most eye-opening aspect [of these brew days] for me.
  • Today I’ve enjoyed learning about the development of Laughing Monk, from their opening til now, and about their future expansion, not knowing as much about the opening a business side of beer as I do about the brewing side of beer.

Erica DeAnda, Freewheel Brewing, assistant brewer:

  • Honestly, just coming together meeting so many women from all different aspects of the beer industry means we can all learn from each other. Whether you’re in sales, a brewer, a bartender — we can all come together to empower each other.
  • Freewheel is so English, so cask focused. The techniques used here today were different. Putting the lactose in was interesting. We don’t deal with that a lot!

Jaime Zlamal, Speakeasy, QA lab director/brewer:

  • I think Pink Boots as an organization is super-rad. Through networking, we can help each other to go where we want, whether it’s by sharing our experiences or our connections.
  • The brew day also involves all of us in something that’s creative and fun.
Jen Jordan, Anchor Brewing, brewer:
  • Sometimes it’s hard to take a class, due to production schedules. The Pink Boots Society manages to carve out these one day educational opportunities, and the industry sees value in the scholarship program.
  • It’s really enjoyable, just on a process side, to see how many ways there are to make beer well. It’s social learning: I learn so much about the bigger picture of the industry.
  • I never would have thought about brewing with tea, but it’s a no brainer.
pbs-trb-2017-listening.jpg
[Pink Boots participants learning about the blending philosophy at The Rare Barrel]
And there were more breweries making charity beers during these March brew days, around the state and around the world, most of which should be pouring now or soon.  To see world-wide Big Boots brew day images:   https://twitter.com/hashtag/bigbootsbrew2017
Words & pix by Gail Ann Williams

Farewell to Barclays, Welcome to The Cooler

One of the first places we sought out to explore interesting beers was a little restaurant and beer bar below grade off College Avenue in Oakland’s Rockridge area.  Over the years, we dropped by, took pictures like the one below, hung out with friends and eventually tried dozens of beers. One visit to Barclays using BART gave us the idea to list craft beer destinations near BART stations, leading to the Beer By BART website, and many adventures including writing for The Celebrator and other publications.

There wasn’t anyplace quite like Barclay’s, though it seemed as if there should have been. The food was pretty much straight-ahead pub fare.  Many a plate of fish and chips or a burger satisfied kids and adults between dart games and perusal of the deep beer list.   Plaques and mugs hung on the walls to honor regulars past and present.  Now and then a special meal by nearby resident Bruce Paton raised the culinary game.

The last special dinner was last weekend. The establishment was a casualty of rising rents.  Tonight the word is that people will hang out together until the beer is gone.  And then, the community that found home there will evaporate into the night.

Barclays2012

Barclay's 1
Barclay's 3a

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, Barclays.Barclay's 2a

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cooler Way to Go

There are many new venues opening, and perhaps, if we are lucky, some of them may come to provide the kind of home Barclays created for regulars and visitors.  One new gathering place that deserves a visit is The Cooler, the new project in San Leandro’s downtown, on East 14th Street.  It’s an easy, flat walk from BART, under half a mile and under ten minutes for most on foot.  We wrote up a description of The Cooler here.

arne-coolerIndustry veteran Jeff Botz, Marin Brewing Company Brewmaster Arne Johnson, and their partner, Eric Keyes, have got The Cooler up and running as a comfortable destination with a fine array of beers you can see on their website.

In this picture, taken just before the opening, Arne is fitting out the draft systems at The Cooler with easy connectors he cleverly customized, so that changing kegs in their roomy cold box area will be simple and swift.

Here’s to new places, new ideas and to remembering the pioneers and the places we first encountered the craft beer community.

Cheers.

 

Winter Fest becomes Spring Brews Festival

The Brewing Network, the podcasters who had the mojo to become publicans, were slapped with the same dilemma all of us in the SF Bay Area had with the Super Bowl in the winter months. It messed up our winter beer schedules, moving SF Beer Week back onto the new Rate Beer Best celebrations, and making the venerable BN’s January Winter festival simply too schedule-conflicted to make any sense.  The solution?

April of course, and a name change to the Spring Brews Festival 2016. And no foolish messing with the first, this festival comes to town on the second, Saturday 4/2. As always the list of brewers pouring is delightful, but just as important, the BN’s fest brings together old friends along with new faces in a delightful park, Concord’s Todos Santos Plaza, easy walking distance from BART in front of their popular pub, the Hop Grenade. This festival has been better run and more fun each year, and is especially appreciated for Tasty’s Tasting Room, one of the best ways to try top quality homebrewed beers from talented local DIY home brewmasters. From the start, brewing demos were part of the fun, along with seeing our beer community hanging out together.

Looking forward to a verdant vernal version of the now-classic annual festival! It’s been a blast every year.

2010-wfest-mbeer-demo2011-wfest-tasty-brian2013-tastysmenu2014-bn-hug2015-3some2015-BN-stevesteve2015-gabloydrand2015-smiths

Grab your tickets and check out the list of brewers. We’ll see you there, if not on BART on the way out!

BARTing to SF Beer Week, an update

First, the Beer By BART update.  We added sixteen New beer destinations to the Beer By BART home page since last beer week.  Even though this is a personal, non-sponsored, non-commercial list, we are finding that after coming up with the fifty-odd super-obvious candidates for visiting and telling your out of town friends about, it is getting harder to decide which additional places to include or exclude from the long list. We now list about 90 destinations not far off BART (or off major MUNI lines in SF).  And there could be more, to be honest.  When we started this site nine years ago with about 20 entries, we were actively considering any place that included IPAs on tap and kept the beer serving lines clean.

We have loved doing this project.  It started us doing freelance writing for Celebrator Beer News, and other outlets.  We have met people, helped people with vacations and pub crawls, gotten into wonderful converations about the growth of the wonderful community, the creative industry and the growing market segment… and are they the same? Sometimes?  What an adventure the rebirth of good beer as turned out to be for California and especially for the people in the BART counties.  Thank you for subscribing (here or at FB or Twitter) and encouraging us! 

Next, about Beer Week.  OK, Gail here. I’m a football hater, so don’t listen to me about that, but it is seriously disruptive in a negative sense to have to move SFBW from February, as the beer goddesses and spirits intended, up into January.  Like, um, today!   But it had to be.  If you doubted, look at the traffic disruptions the Superbowl will cause starting tomorrow. Not after beer week, but on the first Saturday.

Here’s the official page for MUNI stop changes  They say it could get worse, “With set-up and take-down, transportation impacts may extend from January 23 – February 12, with these dates subject to change.” Some sites are saying to avoid Embaradero BART Station until February 12th.  I hope that’s ridiculous, but you may want to change from BART onto MUNI at Mongomery Station instead.

Looking backwards, in 2009 our blogging about the first SF Beer Week was mainly about getting a lovely seat at the Barleywine Fest, now part of craft beer history. Here’s to all the new, exciting traditions we’ll be looking to repeat next year.

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The pleasure of tasting with friends endures. Happy SFBW 2016.  See you around the bay!

 

 

Celebrator Beer News covers SF doings

The Travel Issue of the Celebrator Beer News, (August and September 2015), is now available free at many brewpubs, breweries and home-brew shops.  Look for our stories and photos. On page 5, Steve tells of his trip to Victoria Beer Week, on page 3 find a Thirsty Bear photo, and on page 12, enjoy our regular San Francisco column, featuring the opening of Local Brewing Company and the expansion of Speakeasy.

Plus, you’ll find intriguing articles by our colleagues about interesting beer destinations around the world. The Celebrator can also be read online at http://www.fricke-parks.com/CBN_Aug_sept_15/

Some of our favorite photos that didn’t run this time:

photo Co-founder Regan Long and head brewer Patrick Murphy at Local Brewing Co.
Co-founder Regan Long and head brewer Patrick Murphy at Local Brewing Co., San Francisco, just before opening in early Summer.
Shaun O Sullivan shows off his wandering barrel, filled and then left to age at the new 21A Facilities in San Leandro during the entire construction.  A liquid time capsule
Shaun O Sullivan shows off his wandering barrel, filled and then left to age at the new 21A San Leandro during the entire construction.
San Leandro brewers
A San Leandro collaboration brew is plotted by Drakes, 21A, and Cleophus-Quealy

Kushel Hall
Brewmaster Bushel shows off the new controls in his upgraded brewhouse
Speakeasy
Expansion at Speakeasy — these barrels are getting evicted — Brian Stechschulte, Forest Gray, and Kushel Hall.

Sought-after 10% B.A.R.T. beer has BART (the transit agency) crying trademark “dilution”

Our local regional transit agency is trying to block a California brewery’s US trademark application for a respected and highly rated barrel-aged beer called “B.A.R.T.”

According to Eater, Bay Area Rapid Transit has protested FiftyFifty Brewing Company’s attempts to register B.A.R.T. as the name of this 7+ year old brand. This bourbon-barrel-aged blended whale of an ale is a variation on the acclaimed barrel-aged imperial stouts made by the brewery in Truckee, California. FiftyFifty has long been saying that the name stands for “Barrel Aged, Really Tasty,” and that it was an encoded tribute to a beloved dog, Bart, that had died recently back when the brew was first created.

image of fifty-fifty brewer/blender
Rockstar bourbon-barrel beer blender Todd Ashman and his dad, at a FiftyFifty event in 2013

FiftyFifty recently applied for a federal trademark on this beer in order to start selling B.A.R.T. out of state as well as here. No wineries or other beverages seem to pose confusion in branding, and so one might expect the trademark to be granted.

BART (the transit agency) has turned their legal representatives on the mountain brewery, filing a protest with the feds that says granting a federal trademark is “likely to cause and will cause dilution of the distinctive quality of [BART’s] Marks.” It’s easy to be cynical and attribute this to a legal staff that is looking for billable hours, but there could be other forces at play.

To be fair, let’s keep an open mind.
 
Perhaps this action explains the old mystery of why the transit system closes early, before bar time, “for maintenance purposes.” Perhaps BART (the transit agency) is planning to make strong, barrel aged beers of their own. Perhaps barrels are being aged in the tube, under the Bay. There are walkway corridors that are nearly never needed, and the temperature would stay quite cool. It explains why the trains don’t run all night, so that sampling and barrel-tending can go on. The maintenance is on the brews!

If this is so, then the objection that was filed could make sense. We hereby apologize for complaining about the train schedules, if we can attend the release party.
 
Do you have a better theory of what went wrong? Please do tell. Let’s get to the bottom of this!

—- yours truly, beerbybart ™

(There are admittedly some similarities between BART and a bottle of B.A.R.T. Neither have reliable elevators, for example. Neither is a light lager, either. You can’t pour yourself a glass of regional commuter bureaucracy, but racing to sign up for a limited release of FiftyFifty bottle futures online is a lot like that midnight race to get into the station before the last train arrives.)

Explore Beer By BART: Use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

Our Beer Week Event: Beer From The Other Side

This year, we are going back to our Beer By BART roots with an event that is about trying local beers, hanging out with interesting beer drinkers and planning local beer travel: Beer From The Other Side.

In San Francisco. For San Franciscans and SF visitors. Lovely pours from that other side of the Bay, that area you probably don’t get to all that often. Since we live in SF, we understand. We know it can sometimes be hard to venture out of the City. There’s delicious beer made right here in town, and fine beer shipped in, after all. But in our neighboring counties, we have an amazing chance for local beer tourism. We think that after you taste some of these beers, and learn a bit about the people who make them, you’ll be Bay-hopping to get out there and visit these places in the future.

Join us on Monday, February 9, from 5pm onward at The Beer Hall, #1 Polk St. at Market, SF. We’ll be there personally until about 9:00pm or so, and the beers will be poured until they’re gone.

We’ll be enjoying beers from The Rare Barrel, Faction, Triple Rock, Linden Street, Drake’s and WOODS Bar and Brewery. We asked these fine breweries to send us beers that will represent! (Two of the beers that will be on tap, Shadows Of Their Eyes from Rare Barrel and Puddy Porter from Faction, won Bronze Medals in the 2014 World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festivals respectively. They are two of the seldom-seen in SF beers that will be poured.)

The venue is the convivial Beer Hall, just off Market Street at the foot of Polk. That’s a couple of blocks from Civic Center BART, and close to the Van Ness MUNI stop, so cars are not required.

In past years, we’ve enjoyed co-creating beer week adventures from assisting with a BJCP tasting and judging class and convening a community toast to women in beer, to collaborating on special beers. (We made “My Funky Valentine” dark sour with Bison, and last year we got to create “Carob Calloway,” a dark carob ale at Cerveceria de Mataveza.)

This year, Drew Hall was gracious enough to allow us to collaborate in getting an array of select East Bay beers lined up for you at his bar, thereby giving us a transit-friendly place where we can hang out and see some of our friends who are in town. (The rest of the week we’ll be running around crazy, so please drop by to say hi if you can.)

beer-at-the-beer-hall
Just sipping along at The Beer Hall
Last SFBW, at The Beer Hall
Last SFBW, at The Beer Hall

Tell your SF pals who seldom get outta town that we are here for them. Monday evening is all about kickstarting their beer adventure selves. Maybe you, too.

Or just hang out and sip beers you may never taste again. It’s Beer Week! What’s not to be excited about?

……….

Explore Beer By BART: Use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

Happy Anniversary, Hog’s Apothecary

2013 was sure a banner year for new beer venues around the Bay Area, many of which were instant classics.  Among these worthy destinations is Hog’s Apothecary in Oakland, a special place for beers and for dishes made from pigs.

Surprisingly, HA is a year old today.  Like several of its “classmates” from last year, including CellarMaker, Faction and The Rare Barrel, it seems both newer and older than a year old.

The beer program at Hog’s is the work of the passionate beer program director Sayre Piotrkowski, whose earlier influence can still be felt at Monk’s Kettle and St. Vincent’s in San Francisco.  
Hog's
Sayre seems to have embraced Hog’s and Oakland as much as he has embraced the select beers and brewers he brings into HA.  It’s gratifying to see that Sayre is celebrating with a collaboration beer made with Craftsman Brewing Company of Pasedena.   Late Sumac Summer Ale, a sour beer made with sumac spice, will be around for at least a little while.  Homebrew hop expert Nathan Smith did an innovative collaboration kolsch with Marin Brewing’s Arne Johnson to look out for, too.

This evening HA is closed for a private birthday party, but there will be plenty of time during the week to drop by and celebrate their milestone.  Hog’s is not a beer-hall with extensive snacks, but a restaurant built around great beers.

The sausages and meat dishes at Hog’s have many fans.  (It’s not an easy place for a vegetarian to find a full meal, but eating nearby and then dropping by for beer will usually work nicely, which is a good thing, because HA has become a must-visit Bay Area beer destination.)

Happy anniversary, Hog’s.

-Gail

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

 

In the aftermath of IPA day

Last night I listed to a brand-new podcast, the Beer Curmudgeons Pilot episode. Sayre Piotrkowski, Certified Cicerone and publican now pouring his heart and soul into the delightful Hog’s Apothecary in Oakland, teamed up with the articulate and passionate Collin McDonnell, founder-brewer up the highway at HenHouse Brewing for a conversation about IPA day and related concerns in the evolution of American Craft Beer.

It’s well worth listening. They talk with Drake’s Brewing Company’s Head Brewer, John Gillooly, who tells about the emergence of American IPA and double IPA, and the challenge of getting those hop aromas into session-strength beers, as well as giving some details from his fascinating career trajectory.

And then Sayre and Collin talk to Ray Daniels, founder of the Cicerone program, the leading private certification exam program in the “Sommelier-for-beer” space, and the author of the incredibly influential “Designing Great Beers.”

So in the second half of the podcast, love of IPA is ridiculed quite a bit. Ray gets me riled up.

Am I a hophead? I had two beers on IPA day, one of my homebrewed sours and a commercial Imperial Stout. So my buy-in to IPA day is modest. But I enjoy many different IPAs, from some of the most malt-balanced or English style to some of the driest, palest San Diego style examples. I also like a few excellent examples of session IPAs, but some seem like hoppy fizz water. (I’d actually love to be able to buy delicately hoppy fizz water with no alcohol at all, like a lemon mineral water but Simcoe, say, but that is a whole other non-beer fantasy.)

But I have a hard time with dissing people for drinking only American IPA. It’s big, bold and flavorful, a way to break with the bland international industrial lagers. It’s the most popular style in terms of craft beer competition entries in recent years, which says to me that breweries are proud of these beers. Many if not most drinkers are less adventurous in their beer tasting than brewers and cicerones and self-described geeks like me, and may stick with a craft beer style just as they stick with a “regular” cocktail that in some way defines them. If people like IPA, and a beer bar is turning over those kegs too fast, why not proudly put on more than one IPA variety? Isn’t that simply allowing people to educate themselves about the style and the joy of all the different hop flavors?

a bunch of hops at Sierra

If we replaced 1950s bars offering a dozen similar macro lagers on tap with current bars offering a dozen similar IPAs on tap, we are decidedly not right back where we started.  Presuming we still are getting these competing IPAs from small and independent companies and brewers instead of multinational concerns, we have come a long way. That’s already good for the soul and economy of the county, and the world. American IPAs are capturing the imaginations of people around the globe.

One analogy made in the podcast was the lack of sophistication in the early days of American wine, where a restaurant would carry two kinds, red and white. Now a good restaurant will stock a plethora of varietals from grapes unheard of by early wine fans.  However, the evolution of the American wine culture went through some fads, where many consumers knew to ask for Chardonnay, but no other white wine, for example. It’s just nice knowing a specific name to ask for. It’s comfortable. Stay there a while, get bored, and go for the next level, learning some new grapes. The sales of Chardonnay funded the planting of other grapes as the customers were ready to try new flavors. And those California Chardonnays made by good vintners also got better over those years. For those who still prefer that particular variety of white wine from that classic grape, there is no shame. Customers evolve, but so does the craft.

But I get it. I too am a beer snob, and a survivor of the peak IBU inflation years. I’m glad to see the hop additions moving later, giving less bitterness and more flavors and aromas to IPAs and their kin.

I just don’t see the beginnings of a mass interest in American IPA, one of the fine innovations in recent beer history, as something to discourage in general. If somebody is not trying craft beers because they dislike IPA, that’s where asking them to taste something new is doing a service for them and for beer. Or surprise them when they are ready to take another step and learn another style name. Otherwise, why mess with their preference and passion?

After all, to be honest, despite how lovely the HenHouse beers are, not all American craft saisons are all that great. Like IPAs, they can be all over the map.

Some great breweries and beer bars will cater to the adventurous and take people out of their comfort zones. But perhaps other less beer-sophisticated places where several IPAs go on tap to keep people happy are just as important in the rebirth of American beer.

Whew. Thanks for reading my counterpoint curmudgeonly rant. I’m looking forward to more from Sayre and Collin, since they bring out the cranky beer opinions in me, too, and that’s kind of fun!

Find the show here: https://soundcloud.com/the_beer_curmudgeons/ And get out there for some great beer, hoppy or otherwise, this weekend.

-Gail

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.