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 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]

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Philly Beer Week: Where Beer Weeks Began

“America’s best beer drinking city” is the tag line on the logo for Philly Beer Week. That partially accounts for the reason I didn’t buy the souvenir t-shirt being sold at the opening event. After all, where would I wear this? We live in a pretty fine beer drinking city ourselves. Kinda reminds me of the bumper stickers, “I’d rather be…(fill in the blank).” My reaction is always, “Then go there or do that.” OK, so I get cranky.  But this got us thinking.

Beer by BART Gail and I made a quick visit from San Francisco to the City of Brotherly Love (and steaming heat), to participate in the celebration of craft beer that gave birth to all the other “Beer Week” celebrations around the country. As with SF Beer Week, the PBW schedule of events was overwhelming. There were close to 1,000 events listed in more than 150 venues, with new events being added every day up to opening day. We located ourselves in Center City, within easy walking distance of several notable craft beer spots and event venues.

On the first day of PBW, we decided to meet the Hammer of Glory (HOG) on its trip around the city. The Hammer is a large wood-handled, engraved metal mallet that would be used to tap the ceremonial first keg of beer at Opening Tap, that evening. We watched the HOG arrive at Nodding Head Brewery on its 10th of 18 stops, across the chest of a “bloodied” Chicago Blackhawk hockey player effigy, acknowledging another big event in town that weekend. The hammer and fake corpse were transported via police escorted hearse. We followed on foot for the next three stops. The HOG went on via a hand truck mounted “keg throne” and then on another leg in the arms of a jogging Rocky look-alike.

hammer of glory

(More images of the HOG relay are at our photo set at Flickr)

The Opening Tap event, held in the Independence Hall visitors center, featured local beers from about forty mostly Philadelphia area breweries. There the Hammer of Glory was accepted by Philadelphia’s Mayor who tapped the first special collaboration keg while local beer writer, Don “Joe Sixpack” Russell, emceed a brief ceremony for the crowd and the TV cameras. Gail and I then turned our attention to tasting local beers. Two of the outstanding beers of the evening were the one-time-only “Pimp My Rye” IPA from Dock St. Brewery (Philadelphia) with specialty rye malts sourced from all around Europe, and a delicious sour apple lambic from Fegley’s Brew Works (Allentown and Bethlehem).

pouring "Pimp my Rye"

Over the course of the next four days we visited the legendary Monk’s Cafe, Nodding Head Brewery, Tria, Varga Bar, Hawthorne’s, South Philly Tap Room, 12 Steps Down, Jose Pistola’s , The Belgian Café, Lucky 7 Tavern, Devil’s Den, The Wishing Well, Brew and out in the suburbs, PJ’s (in Paoli) and Teresa’s Next Door Bar (in Wayne). We met some amazing brewers, and tried some very special brews. With the exception of the release of a luscious Sierra Nevada beer camp collaboration brewed by notable Philly publicans, we concentrated on events featuring beers that we seldom, if ever, see on the west coast. And while we sought out special events for breweries like Cigar City, Bell’s, Terrapin, Left Hand, Drie Fonteinen, Southampton and Voodoo, the ubiquitous presence of solid beers we don’t often see in California, from breweries like Pretty Things, Duck Rabbit, New Holland, Founders, Flying Fish and many smaller Belgian breweries got our attention. These are available in Philly throughout the year alongside the many fine Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and other Mid-Atlantic beers. You will also find some familiar west coast beers.  Any fan of great beer can clearly spend a few joyful days (or more) in Philly outside of festival time, too.

Terrapin Night @ Wishing Well

There does seem to be high concentration of top-notch beer bars, tap houses and cafes, perhaps more than in any other American city we have visited.  All of venues we attended except for Belgian Café and Lucky 7 were within easy walking distance from our location near 11th and Spruce Sts. There is a reasonably effective transit system (SEPTA) that would reach the large number of great beer venues we didn’t get to.  For instance, we never got to the Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods which are home to a number of other noteworthy beer destinations.  And, of note for train travelers, there is even a fine beer bar, Bridgewater’s in the 30th St. Amtrak and Regional Rail Terminal.

We were told that most every new restaurant that opens in Philly includes at least a decent beer list and several we visited had superb beer offerings. We clearly could have stayed in another neighborhood and had dozens of choices of events at venues within walking distance there, too. Some of the suburbs are stepping up as well. Beer blogger Brian Kolesar pointed out that a commuter train pub crawl can now be a worthwhile adventure.

My favorite example of the respect with which the people of Philadelphia treat beer is the relatively new Tria Cafe, serving good food, wine and fine beer in two locations and offering classes at their Fermentation School. The servers and cooks continue to study the production, serving and food pairings of wine, cheese and beer, the three fermented comestibles that they champion. The staff receives two hours of “schooling” weekly. Their knowledge is easily apparent when you talk with them about the items on their menu. Perhaps most exciting, Tria also routinely uses their school to teach the public about all three fermentation traditions. We were too late to sign up for the Cantillon fermentation class during PBW, which was a huge hit. Thankfully there were dozens of other tempting events going on at the same time, proving that PBW is a festival that is worth your travel time and dollar.

So, about Philly’s claim of being “America’s Best Beer Drinking City?” OK, I have to admit it. I bought the hat.

– Steve

BEER WEEK - Philly's Best City shirt
(A local believer wearing her Philly Beer Week shirt to the opening, laughing at our skepticism.)

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Katrina has left craft beer in its wake

While in New Orleans in April 2010, BeerByBART talked with Polly Watts, the owner of Avenue Pub, NOLA’s newest craft beer spot… see below!

New Orleans. The mention of this city elicits powerful feelings for the people who live there and for those who’ve visited. For us, New Orleans has been a city of musical riches, friendly people and creative food adventures since we started visiting in the early 90s. This spring we were fortunate to spend a little time back in the Big Easy. The current oil slick in the Gulf — which has everybody heartsick — had not bloomed yet, so our visit was a rich music and seafood extravaganza.

Bland macrobrewed beers and sticky cocktails — available 24/7 in “go cups” for drinking on the way to the next place to drink — can distract some tourists (and locals) from any thoughts of top notch beers.  Until recently, those of us who look forward to discovering distinctive regional craft beers that are not available to us at home had to put that quest on the back burner when we headed to New Orleans. Change is coming, however.

Jazzfest goer in a Dogfish shirt, having to settle for a Coors

In the past several years, at least four regionally breweries have opened: Lazy Magnolia, in southern Mississippi, Heiner Brau across Lake Ponchartrain in Covington, Louisiana, Bayou Tech (currently contract brewing at Lazy Magnolia) and NOLA (New Orleans Lagers and Ales) Brewing Company in New Orleans.

While the sheer number of beer-serving establishments has never been a problem in New Orleans, most serve only light macros. An occasional Abita tap handle may also be found. There are, however, several bars serving a nice selection of craft beers. The old standby, DBA, in the Fauborg Marigny neighborhood has been the standard-bearer for years. Their 20 taps feature local, regional and national crafts and imports. They also have an extensive bottle list. Located in the heart of the Frenchman Street music scene, walking distance from the French Quarter, DBA has live local bands every night.

Cooter Brown’s Tavern, located in the Riverbend section of the Uptown neighborhood (#32 bus or stop #43 on the St. Charles Street Car line), offers 45 taps macros, imports and craft beers to enjoy with raw oysters and grilled foods. For an intriguing bottle selection, Dan Stein of Stein’s Jewish & Italian Deli in the Garden District (#11 Magazine bus) features U.S. and imported craft brews to take away, but not to sip on the premises. He makes great deli sandwiches to go with the beers, and has also produced periodic tasting events.

Finally, there is a new star rising in the Crescent City: Avenue Pub, in the Lower Garden District. The new owner, Polly Watts, inherited a twenty four hour dive bar from her father four years ago, a year after Katrina. She knew nothing at all about craft beer and not much about anything having to do with the beer, all macros, that were served by her father.

“I would have sold the bar if there was a market for it,” Watts said. “But Katrina took care of that.” The Tulane graduate did know business, however. She quickly discovered that she was actually losing money on draft beer. She began calling people in the industry to solicit opinions about why this was and what to do about it. She got suggestions ranging from expensive fixes like a installing a new glycol system or replacing her refrigeration system. The true problem, as pointed out to her by a knowledgeable beer distributor rep, was beer lines that hadn’t been cleaned for a very long time. “When he showed me a line I saw the thick clump of black stuff, it was gross. I was sick that we were serving the public anything that had passed through this,” Watts said.

Soon, with new beer lines and some renovations to the historic building, clean beers were flowing again at her pub.

Avenue Pub, early in the day

With the ability to taste the beer properly again, Polly began learning more about beer. With the encouragement of friends and colleagues in the industry, she became familiar with craft beer. She experimented by putting on a keg of Racer 5, and according to Polly, “It flew out of here, and new people came in the door.” Being the savvy businessperson she is, she saw a new business plan emerging.

One year ago, encouraged by the owner of NOLA Brewing, Polly decided to convert virtually all of her 40+ taps to craft beer overnight.

St. Charles Street Car; trees adorned with Mardi Gras beads

Eschewing suggestions to phase in the change, Polly went all-in. And it has paid off. She has now installed a second draft system upstairs so patrons can enjoy craft beers on the large balcony overlooking the historic St. Charles street cars.

Perhaps the best news for all current and future craft beer appreciators is that Polly is not stopping with the Avenue Pub conversion. “We need to expand the whole craft beer market in New Orleans,” says an enthusiastic Watts. She is spearheading area-wide events for New Orleans’ celebration of American Craft Beer Week (May 17-23), hosting 17 events including the finale at Avenue Pub where an all day event will feature about 50 drafts and casks plus 50 more bottles — some making their Louisiana debuts — including beers from Brooklyn, Harpoon and Rogue.

What’s coming for New Orleans beer appreciators? For one thing, some restaurants are getting interested in beer. Ray Daniels will be coming to town with his Cicerone exams late this summer to help raise the level of beer education among local servers and beer professionals. Maintaining draft lines that are free from infection is a core element in his curriculum, of course.

While we were there, Avenue Pub had a special event with Stone Brewery. According to Watts, it was Stone’s idea. So it seems that if craft breweries were looking for a way to establish a market in the Louisiana and Mississippi area, they now have a ready, capable and enthusiastic ally in New Orleans.

P.S. We should mention that Avenue also has a full bar and serves food, prepared in-house by well regarded local restaurant, J’Anita’s.

Post by Steve and Gail

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Sharing SF Beer Week pictures and videos

While we make up our list for what to do at the unbelievable embarrassment of riches that is SF Beer Week, including two events we’re helping with, beer judging and tasting 101 classes on the 7th, and a gathering of women in beer on the 13th at the new Beer Revolution in Oakland, one thing we’re doing is getting ready to capture a little corner of this chapter of our local beer history in pix and little videos.

Sam at Beer Week kickoff

Please join us in this community collaboration by putting your photos into the SF BEER WEEK pool at Flickr. Flickr has a lot of features, but you will only need to use a few of them. (Make a simple free account, join the pool there, then upload or email pix to your Flickrstream, and “send” your best beerweek photos into the group pool for community appreciation.)

You’ll see some great community shots from various people from last year, further back in that pool too.

What about moving pix? Steve has been doing some little preview and promo videos, such as this one:

and more of them can be seen on the SF Beer Week gallery pages, or here in the SFBW Video feed.

We’ll see you at Beer Week.  Don’t forget your camera.

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

Will Travel for Beer

One of the great attributes of craft beer is that it continues to be primarily a local phenomenon. Travel for beer – or even just travel with hunting beer as a major component – is a pastime that won’t quit.

Our earlier travel adventures that were not primarily for beer, but with good beer quite available and appreciated, included England and Bavaria, both in the 1980s. We didn’t know enough about what we were enjoying to make any notes or seek out anything that didn’t just fall in our laps, but we knew enough to try a variety of offerings and pay attention. It was all part of our gradual beer education, in the context of some walking-centric vacations.

Fragments we remember: While walking on the Coast-to-Coast trail through Northern England, coming off a ridge in the Lake District into some tiny village to the cozy B&B we had booked by phone the day before, we got out of our muddy boots and went over to the town’s only pub for the evening meal and a pint of the invariably delicious local bitter. What the hell was it? Who knows. All we knew was that after the next day’s walk that brew was no longer available and we had another offering in another village. All part of the sense of place.

Another year, we enjoyed a similar experience sight-seeing in several ancient walled towns, while going by rental car from Frankfurt to Munich. Each night we’d have delicious fresh lagers with our meals wherever we were staying, only to learn that the same beers were not available again the next evening in a new town. We quickly learned to revel in the expectation of sampling new and interesting beer each evening, served by publicans who were proud to offer them as their own.

It was on this trip to Germany that we enjoyed our first Monastic beer. Our research told us that a short train ride from Munich would leave us with a nice afternoon’s walk from the the train station to Andechs Monastery and Brewery. After a longer-than-anticipated, hot afternoon walk on country roads we arrived at the Holy Mountain less than one hour before last call. On a summer afternoon, the beer was a minor miracle, to be remembered vividly for years. In fact, Steve would not wait years. He arranged for his train connections 2 weeks later from Prague to leave him with a four-hour layover in Munich which he eagerly used to re-ascend Andechs Mountain and enjoy a more leisurely drinking session. He met a German high school teacher there who was grading papers whilst enjoying some “holy lagers.” The teacher treated Steve to several rounds and bought him a six-pack to take as a house gift for the next stop on his journey.

Almost nine years ago we became acutely aware of the West Coast American IPA revolution, thanks to festivals hosted by The Bistro, one of the East Bay establishments that inspired the creation of our Beer By BART transit guide. The Bistro does an IPA festival in August and Double IPA in February. That year the two of us scouted hoppy beers and compared them intently, trying to cover the major Northern California producers we knew, and some unknowns, too. We took a regional approach, confident that the beers from our area are excellent. They are.

Then the report came back from the judges. The three competition winners that year were all from San Diego county. Huh, what? We scrambled to taste the offerings from some brewery improbably called Pizza Port. This then-new San Diego style was a dry citrus slap in the face — and an elixir of pleasure. Who knew back then? We were fast learners, and immediately started planning a long weekend on the southern border.

San Diego in January
Magic Hour Frolic: San Diego in January

When the time came we checked into a hotel on Pacific Beach — unintentionally but fortuitously setting up only a few blocks from a little tavern called The Liars Club. It turned out that The Liars Club was THE local pub for San Diego craft beer. We made many a return visit in subsequent years. They moved from PB out to the small town of Alpine in 2008 and unfortunately closed earlier this year. We still miss it.

We reveled in the joy of discovering Alesmith, Ballast Point and each of the Pizza Ports one at a time, getting leads from people in each brewery or bar about where to go next. Our first time in San Diego for beer was like no other expedition.

San Diego County is difficult to tour because the good beer places are so spread out, and a designated driver (or a group that can hire a driver and split costs) may be the only good solution. In recent years the two of us have stayed in a different hotel each night to be walking distance from the final round at that night’s brewpub or beer bar. Winter is our favorite time for this excursion, when slightly warmer temperatures than San Francisco means more to us. Jeans and a hoodie on the beach, a January treat.

Brewery tour, at Stone, San Diego county.
Brewery tour, at Stone, San Diego county.

We also brought back great treasures. San Diego beers were a rarity in the Bay Area so we always had unique offerings to bring to dinners and sessions with friends. It was easier to do this, pre-9/11, since carry-on luggage could include bottles of liquid. Now, even though many of those fine breweries distribute at least some of their beers around the state, the trip is still worth it. There are always special releases to try and fellow beer fanatics to meet. The hop shortage helped encourage breweries like Stone, Green Flash and Lost Abbey to experiment more with sour beers just as we are learning to love them courtesy of Russian River, Marin, Drakes, Valley, Moonlight, Schooners and such in our region. A little bit of this new microbial magic makes it to the best bottle shops north of their county, but often a special batch is only poured locally, or at a festival. Something hoppy, puckering or richly malty will warrant wrapping and packing. Bubble wrap never sleeps.

On the San Diego county beer trail
Remote outpost on the San Diego county beer trail

The Session #29 compilation page is now ready, to find more travel posts. Thanks, and happy trails!

Gail & Steve

Announcing Session #29: Will Travel for Beer

Will you travel for beer?

00-thesession150If you just wrote or read about the trek to the furthest brew pub in the last round of the Session, and you immediately thought of other beer destinations near and far, we want to hear all about the good ones that didn’t quite fit the assignment! Tell us about that beer trip.

If you see the words “travel” and “beer” and instead of your best tourist sagas you think of work or logistics, we want to know your tips and strategies on the road. (Perhaps for getting prized bottles home.)

And if you haven’t done much travel for fine beer, either for work or pleasure, but you have a trip you’d love to do, tell us where you’d like to go seeking the experience and the community of beer. Who would you want to meet at your destination, who would your travel-mates be, and what would you most want to taste when you arrived?

Details please, whichever way you take this! You’re welcome to pull out the vacation slide show if you wish. By all means have a beer that reminds you of the trip, and describe it if you wish. This episode of The Session goes up on Friday July 3rd, 2009. Finish early and maybe you can go someplace for the weekend!

-Gail and Steve

Visit Jay’s index to all The Sessions, and enjoy some delicious beer writing. To participate in the next Session, come back here to add a comment with a link to your Will Travel for Beer post on July 3, or email the link to us then at beerbybart [at] Happy trails!

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

The Session #28: The Brewpub at the Edge of Night

The year was 2002. Our summer vacation was to Norway. Much of the country is north of the Arctic Circle, and therefore gets 24 hours of daylight for at least some of the summer. There is a network of hiking cabins you can stay at all over the country. Viking sites and museums. Trains and boats galore. Fjords even!

00-thesession150 Something that challenged us at that time was that Norway was known as a country with nothing more than weak modern international lagers, and huge taxes on beer, wine and alcohol of any kind. The extreme regulation of drink, and the prices charged in Scandinavian countries was something we had not known much about until we were preparing to leave on the trip.

When we got to Oslo, we did what we normally do when in unfamiliar territory, we asked locals where to get the best beer and if there was a brew pub close by. We were sent to several nice and friendly bars and thankfully to one lone brewpub.

The bars were fine, generally friendly and the beer was potable if not notable.

This little brewpub, however, (which we believe was northwest of the Slottsparken and the royal palace) and whose name we don’t remember, featured some tasty British style beers, brewed by an English woman who, unfortunately, we did not get a chance to meet. Our attraction to the pub was one of those “newfound oasis in the Sahara” effects. The place was modern, pleasant and friendly, had tanks in the corner, and it served ales. There is no way to “objectively” evaluate their quality now, from memory, but there wasn’t then either. The flavorful beers called us back again and again. We stayed late, into the couple of hours of deep dusk that was the extent of night at that latitude.

We are not now able to locate the brew pub on a current map nor can we find reference to its name. Does anybody know this place?

The trip was some kind of a turning point for us. The joy of good local beers (and to some extent wines), in their proper surroundings, in prior trips to England, Germany and other places in Europe and North America, was something we’d taken for granted, but not seen as a prerequisite to a great vacation. We hadn’t really understood that our love of good beers had become that important to us.

Could we travel to a no-beer destination? Sure. But now that would be a major point of contemplation and discussion.

Another thing that has changed is that less than ten years later, Norway is now known for some fine craft brewers such as Nøgne ø.

Being a beer tourist is a lot of fun and incredibly educational. That reminds us of another story… but that’s what the next Session is about. The wonderful pub that’s not as far, the beer destination that wasn’t a pub, the dream trip you want to get to someday…

You’re invited to July’s Session: Will Travel for Beer.

not sunset, not sunrise:  skylight after midnight!

Midnight in July, 2002, Lofoten Islands, Norway. ( Ok, the brewpub was a little south, in Oslo, where there were a few hours of wimpy night. We don’t have a picture of it, so enjoy part of our outdoor adventure instead. Three shots taken between 11:00pm and 2:00 am, on the gorgeous islands we traveled to, just above the Arctic Circle.)

getting hooked, part 2: midnight sun by zodiak

how i got hooked, #3

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

San Francisco Beer Week

February is all about beer in San Francisco, with the Beerapalooza events loosely coordinated by The Celebrator (our excellent indigenous beer magazine) and the Strong Beer Month events coordinated by S.F. Brewpubs Magnolia, 21st Amendment and some years Thristy Bear. This year, the heart of what a lot of us consider to be Beer Month around here will become S.F. Beer Week, and the world is invited to visit.

Over the summer beer writer Jay Brooks started organizing local bloggers, in part in response to his admiration for the job the city of Philadelphia did with their beer event earlier, as well as meeting with the original Beerapalooza organizers. This morning he posted a SF Beer Week announcement and disclosed that he’s passing out postcards at the sold out and acclaimed Slow Food festival this weekend in San Francisco!

If you're going to San Francisco... be sure to have a beer here
If you're going to San Francisco... be sure to have a beer here. February 6-15 2009

There’s new, simple website up for SF Beer Week where you can sign up for a newsletter. Obviously, in the mean time, there are other ways you can be a part of this. We can all spread the word organically online, emailing pals about possible travel plans, bookmarking the site using such tools as Digg, Delicious, Facebook and the like, by talking about it on our favorite beer forums and our own blogs. Bravo to Jay for his web-community-savvy approach, and for the logo which adds a certain thirsty element to the iconic San Francisco skyline in front of an IPA-colored sunset.

Explore Beer By BART – a list of Bay Area good beer places with transit info, and get out there to enjoy without driving.

Road trip 2008 – part 1 – Mammoth Beers and Bluesapalooza

This August we once again went off beyond the civilized tracks of BART for a mountains and beer festival vacation. One of the pleasures of doing this is in not taking our laptops. It’s great to be unplugged, and based within walking distance of our tasting destinations, renting a room for festival or brewpub evenings, and then driving and camping out in between.

This was our second year visiting Mammoth’s beer and blues festival, Bluesapalooza. This festival has a lot going for it. The location on the eastern side of the high Sierra in the ski resort village of Mammoth is glorious, with brilliant mountain sun, cool breezes and a shaded pine grove setting. This year the area perimeter was increased somewhat, giving participants more room to circulate. The music was solid, and the beer selection offered delicious treats from around the state.

Mammoth beer and bluesapalooa festival
Mammoth beer and Bluesapalooa festival


Water is the great political struggle, historic sore point and source of brews on the Eastern side of the Sierra, so it makes a strong rallying cry. The host brewpub has had something interesting for each of the last two years. This year it was 395 IPA, named for the picturesque highway nearby, made with with local hops, sage brush and mountain juniper. (Steve, always tough on additives and novelty beers, was not so impressed, but Gail thought it was evocative of that rain on the high desert aroma, one of the most primal of Eastern California experiences.)

For those of us in the Northern counties, the chance to try beers from smaller Central and Southern California beers is always delightful. After running to Pizza Port of San Diego when the festival opened, and then making a bee line to Craftsman, we relaxed and took it slow.

Brewbakers of Huntington Beach pouring for thirsty Northerners
Brewbakers of Huntington Beach pouring for those of us of the North

Looking at the Eastern and Southern Californians flocking to Marin, Bear Republic, Rubicon, E.J.Phair, and others from our extended area showed that this festival works both ways. Straddling the divide was Denise Jones, brewer for Moylan’s in the Bay Area, but native to the Bishop area just south of Mammoth. She was profiled in the magazine/program distributed before and at the festival, and we found her pouring at the Moylan’s booth. We had been a fan of her brewing earlier at Third Street Aleworks in Santa Rosa, so we were happy to see her get respect in her home turf.

Savoring the blues with a glass of Blind Pig and matching shirt from Russian River
Savoring the blues with a glass of Blind Pig and matching shirt from Russian River


The Bruery attracted Belgian style brew fans under the pines
The Bruery attracted Belgian style brew fans under the pines

A newcomer (for us anyway) with some nice Belgian inspired beers was The Bruery out of Placentia, with a crisp tasty wit called Orchard White that was getting good festival word of mouth.

Bluesapalooza dancing, sporting the 395 IPA shirt
Bluesapalooza dancing, sporting the 395 IPA shirt

The festival was well-run, with only tiny quibbles. The first night there are no guest beers, just the local brews, which is OK if you are not expecting otherwise. However, they had vegetarian alternatives at the BBQ dinner line this year, which was good to see. Most troubling, the festival seemed to completely run out of water, both in the portapotty hand washing stations and for rinsing and drinking at the beer booths, by mid-day Saturday. At altitude in a dry climate, that’s not a good thing. So there are a few more things to fine-tune. Still, it was a treat to be there, and we’d go again.

Afterwards we headed west. (More to follow!)

Explore Beer By BART – a list of Bay Area good beer places with transit info, and get out there to enjoy without driving.

Beer travel – San Diego brew part 2

The rest of our 2008 San Diego beer tasting weekend commenced with a trip to Stone Brewing and their lovely upscale restaurant on the industrial premises. We had a totally lovely time there, savored an excellent lunch in an impressive setting, and sampled some fine brews. Like the first time we went there, we enjoyed the brewery tour. Stone is in a remote location, with no public transit possibilities, but is worth a visit.

Afterwards we visited Pizza Port in Carlsbad and Solana Beach, two pleasant beach communities. Port is known as one home to many of the great craft brews of San Diego county — and the world — but to local families it’s a big lively loud place to have a pizza and some beer. We revisited some favorites and tried some new concoctions. Fortunately Wipeout and Hop-15 are bottled and distributed, along with the Belgian-style brews under the Lost Abbey label, but each Port locale is still a special destination. Solana and Carlsbad are both on the coast commuter rail line, so there are transit options.

The third day we visited O’Brien’s Pub and Hamilton Tavern, two serious fine beer bars which were each a treat, both for the beer on draft and the conversations to be had with other avid beer fans. The San Diego Brewer’s Guild site is one way to identify destinations for a visit there. The craft brewing community there appears to be intelligent and mutually supportive. Their guild map is the best evidence, and a useful resource.

Just how good a beer town is San Diego?

This was the sight of the weekend for us: a chain drug store on Garnet Avenue, a random stop for us to get some bottled water, revealed this collection:

at the drug store

(Photo by Gail)

That’s six packs from Ballast Point, Firestone Walker, Lagunitas, Alaskan, Stone and other west coast craft beers available when you stock up on sunscreen. Not quite what we picked up at the breweries we visited, but an awfully nice baseline collection. Yes, this is a beer town!

The challenge was how to get the bottles that we’d purchased home safely by air. After some angst based on other trips, we packed the bottles in molded styrofoam wine package inserts wrapped in plastic bags, then placed into
wheel-on luggage. We brought home some fine souvenirs to San Francisco without incident.

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