Best Fest in the West

Every year in June, brewmasters, brewery owners, and beer geeks descend on Paso Robles, California for about five hours of tasting beer out of a little three ounce snifter glass. The beer geeks pay almost a hundred dollars for this experience, but the brewers get invited. After all, they don’t call this event the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival for nothing. This year, I went for the first time and the experience lived up to the hype as the beer festival to rule them all, at least on the west coast. I was lucky enough to get a ticket in the 30 seconds or so that they weren’t sold out and went with my brother Kyle and friend Brennan, who was visiting from Portland. Officially, the festival lasts five hours, or six if you buy a VIP pass, but it is actually a weekend-long event, full of special release beers, bottle shares, and brewery visits.


Flavor overload!

Like virtually all festival goers, I don’t live in Paso Robles and had to head up to the Central Coast from Long Beach for the weekend, which was convenient because that meant I had to drive through Buellton—home of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks—to get there. Barrelworks specializes in barrel-aged beers, divided into the categories Wild Ales and Strong Ales, and with the festival that weekend, they put some of their finest offerings on draft. I started with the fruited sour beers I’d yet to experience: the newly-released Peachy Bones and Champs de Fraises, the plum sour Drupē Bones, and Violet Underground, the collaboration beer with raspberries and candied violet petals brewed with the UK’s Wild Beer Co. All four were outstanding, with Peachy Bones showcasing ripe peach flavor over a nuanced, slightly sour saison base and Champs de Fraises erupting with strawberry aroma out of the taster glass. The other two were arguably better, but I’d say it’s as close as the eternal contest between pizza and tacos. Drupē Bones is fermented with plums from Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s orchard and Violet Underground had the most acidity and intense flavor of the bunch (and I should add it’s the only one I got a second taster of). After these, I had a trio of strong ales—PNC Imperial Buckwheat Stout, Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, and Rufus Single Barrel Imperial Continental Amber Ale— that were good but meant to be enjoyed more slowly, as I was running out of time before last call. The Rufus Single Barrel #95 was the standout of the three, displaying a fine balance of malt sweetness, alcohol, and barrel character. At this point, the weekend already seemed like a success but the next day had much, much more in store.

The following morning before the festival started, my group expanded to include my friends Ryan and Stephanie, who shared a bottle of DeGarde’s The Purple, a black and red raspberry sour with more red wine character (Pinot Noir, specifically) than any beer in memory, including wine/beer hybrids from Barrelworks and The Bruery. Thirty minutes later, we were all inside the fairgrounds, which looked a little like Knott’s Berry Farm or Frontierland at Disneyland, with the same excitement of any child visiting one of those theme parks. Our plan was to visit Side Project Brewing’s tent first, but overhearing everyone else, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones. The hour-plus long line for the Missouri standout brewery confirmed it and we headed to Jester King instead, where I ended up having a delicious beer called Intersection of Species that happened to be a collaboration with Side Project anyway. For most of the afternoon, one of us would wait in a long line while the others filled glasses at brewery tents with lines that were more manageable, and often those beers were just as good. The whole affair was a wonderful chaotic symphony of flavors, aromas, and heat, that involved as much complex planning as impromptu decisions and thrusting glassware forward, not sure of the beer that would fill it.

Before I continue with the standout beers from the event, I’d be remiss not to comment on the outstanding food they provided. Offerings came from food trucks, restaurants, and caterers, and everything I tried was the perfect complement to drinking beer in 94 degree heat. Firestone’s own Taproom restaurant had a watermelon gazpacho that had to be one of the most refreshing foods I’ve ever had. Some other favorites were chicken and waffle bites from The Pairing Knife and Jeffry’s Catering’s irresistible chili. Later on in the day, I also put down about fifteen pretzel bites from Rooney’s Irish Pub—to soak up the alcohol, of course. To cap the food experience, our whole group roasted individual s’mores with beer-infused chocolate and marshmallows from Brandy’s Sweet Temptations.

But we were there for the beer, so allow me to point out some favorites: Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose, Crooked Stave’s Petit Sour Blueberry, Kern River’s Long Swim IPA, The Rare Barrel’s Emerald Vision (a cucumber mint sour), Odell’s Piña Agria pineapple sour, Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout from 2013, The Garage Project’s The Amazing Hop-Boy IPA with 63 hop varieties, and Beavertown Barrel Aged Sour Power. While that seems like a long list, it’s probably only about 20 percent of the beers I had that day. These were all amazing, but a pair of Southeast breweries were the only ones that made me get right back in line after a single sip of beer. Wicked Weed from North Carolina poured a double raspberry sour called Red Angel (double because after refermenting on raspberries for nine months in wine barrels, they blend that on more fresh raspberries for two additional months before bottling) and a Sherry-barrel aged raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, and blackberry dark sour called Angel of Darkness that was the most deceptive 11% ABV beer in recent memory.

For me though, one brewery really took the cake as the best in show, blue ribbon, gold medal winning top banana. Creature Comforts of Athens, Georgia is totally deserving of the superlatives I’ve just heaped on. They brought four beers that all exceeded my expectations and represented a wide range of brewing skill. First, I had Titronia, a cucumber and lime gose that was perfect on a hot day—drinkable, refreshing, pleasantly tart, and just salty enough to complement the cucumber and lime. Next, I tried their Tropicália IPA, whose name holds no irony—its aroma was reminiscent of a tropical fruit smoothie and the taste was as juicy as IPAs can get. I walked directly to the back of the line once I’d had my first taste, and in my next go-round, I got a glass of Emergence, an extremely well balanced blonde sour and See the Stars, an Imperial Stout aged in maple bourbon barrels, à la Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, which was super drinkable for a high-alcohol stout. I’m not saying I would go to Georgia just to drink their beer, but I do know where my first stop will be if I do find myself in the Peach State.


The Lion himself!

At 4:00, all pours of beer stopped unless they were near the main stage, so we went by there to soak up the last hour of the festival. This area contained Firestone Walker’s own beer booths as well as those of a few other large craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. I opted to get some refreshing Bretta Rosé, Barrelworks’ raspberry sour, and was surprised to find that David Walker (the Walker half of Firestone Walker) was the one pouring it. I got super excited and took a photo with a big, cheesy smile on my face and realized right away that I had to end my day on that high note. The experience of the whirlwind day will linger in my memory for years to come and the best lesson I learned was the importance of going with friends. Sure, that allows you to get more beer, but it also reminds you that drinking should be a fun, social activity with people capable of sharing your joy. I can’t wait till next year!


Did you go to the Invitational? Want to go next year? Let me know!

How It’s Made: Beer!

It’s a lot easier to appreciate something if you know how it works. To me, learning the process by which something is made is the key to understanding how or why it works. This is true across the spectrum of both consumable and durable goods, from croissants to construction cranes. Once you’ve seen what it takes to create something, you stop seeing it as an object but rather the final outcome of a long chain of events. That’s why it’s so fascinating to watch GIFs of factories for everyday things: if you’ve seen how paper clips are bent or Pop Tarts are filled, you change your way of thinking about that paper clip or Pop Tart. Such is my aim with this article: to inform you of the steps it takes to brew beer so you have a better appreciation for the final product. The process is not all that complicated: boil water, add malt, add hops, cool it down, add yeast, and wait. Since that explanation gives you hardly any idea of what’s actually going on, I’m going get a bit more in-depth. Beer only has four ingredients. Or rather, beer only needs four ingredients. Water, malt, hops, and yeast combine to form the ales and lagers of the world, so let’s dive into each and see what it means to beer.

Water. Plain old dihydrogen monoxide covers the 70% of the Earth, fills 60% of our bodies, and burns up at least one of the aliens from Signs. It also comprises about 90-95% of the beer you drink, unless barleywine is your sole poison, in which case you’re probably too drunk to read this. Depending on where you are, water can taste quite different, due to a number of factors including the source, municipal water treatment plants, and the pipes it runs through. Often, these are too many variables for a professional brewery to deal with and they build their own water by filtering out things like chlorine and sodium through reverse osmosis, then adding back any minerals they may want. Historically, breweries picked their location based on the quality and taste of water in local rivers and streams, and the mineral content of famous rivers is regularly emulated when water is built. For homebrewing, the focus of this article because it’s what I have actual experience with, I’ve used tap water and a blend of distilled and spring waters without too much of a discernible difference. Where I live in Long Beach has slightly above average tap water that works fine for brewing. A typical homebrew batch starts with a little over five gallons of water for a five gallon batch of beer, as some will boil off or be spilled. The first real step in brewing is to put some water in a pot and start heating it.

To turn that water into something more delicious, we need to add grains. In almost all cases, that means malted barley. Barley is a fairly hearty grain that has been cultivated for thousands of years for bread and meal, but works best as a component of alcoholic beverages like beer and whiskey, which I’d like to say is a quantifiable fact but is actually still an opinion. There are two main types of barley, two-row and six-row, with the former being lower in protein and better suited for brewing because it yields more fermentable sugar. Earlier I said we need “malt” or “malted barley,” which is a process of moistening and warming the barley until it begins to germinate, then drying it out so it can be stored and used. The most important byproduct of the malting process is that it leaves the barley with even more accessible sugar (which we will later turn into alcohol!). Malted barley can also be kilned, or roasted, to change its properties of taste and color, such as dark stouts with notes of coffee or amber ales with caramel and biscuit flavors. For brewing, there are three ways to add malt to the hot water in order to extract the flavor and sugar it contains. They are, in order of most complicated to easiest, all-grain brewing, partial mash brewing, and extract brewing. All-grain brewing is the most time-consuming because the brewer soaks dried malted barley in hot water in order to extract the sugars from its starches in a process called mashing. It requires more equipment and takes about two hours longer, as there are more things to clean and the spent grains have to be separated from the water. Extract brewing involves never actually touching the grain itself and using pre-mashed barley malt syrup or powder, which dissolve easily in water. Partial mash brewing is a combination of these two methods that involves using extract syrup or powder for most of the grain bill, but steeping specialty grains in warm water before boiling, in order to add the color or flavor of darker malts. Think of partial mash as making a malt-flavored tea before the boil. It’s important to separate any grains that are being steeped or mashed prior to heating the water above 170 degrees or you run the risk of extracting bitter tannins that make the beer undelicious. At this point, unless you are all-grain brewing, you heat your water (or malt-flavored tea) up until it boils and add the rest of the malt.

So now, your brew kettle is nice and bubbly with steam that smells like bread rising out of the top of it and the next step is upon you: adding hops! Technically, hops aren’t crucial to the final product like the other three ingredients are, but without them, the resulting beer would be far too sweet, but not in a good way if you’re thinking that would be awesome. Hops are actually flowers which at the least provide necessary bitterness, and at most can give a beer nearly all of its flavor. The average boil time for a batch of beer is one hour and when you decide to add hops has a distinct impact on the final product. Early hop additions would be considered bittering hops, as the extended time will bring more bitterness than flavor, and later hop additions, especially those in the final fifteen minutes or so of the boil, contribute more to the aroma and flavor of the beer than anything else. There are hundreds of different hop varieties with a wide range of flavors, but they usually have specific qualities based on their area of origin. English and German hops tend to be on the floral, herbaceous, and spicy side of the spectrum, while American hops are piney and citrusy and Southern Hemisphere hops (from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa) are definitely tropical fruit and stone fruit-forward. Choosing which hops to use is the most important part of building a pale ale or IPA recipe, and more often than not, brewers need to use a combination of hops to achieve the desired flavor. The recipe you follow should dictate exactly when to add hops and how many ounces go in at each interval, with the last one coming right as you stop the boil at 60 minutes. As an aside, I’ll tell you that the single greatest olfactory pleasure I’ve experienced is when fresh hops drop into a boiling pot that is already emanating rich, bready aromas. Please make it a point to experience this for yourself some time.

The brew kettle now contains near-boiling sugary, malty, hop-water which we call wort (say “wert,” though most people I know still pronounce it “wart”) and is not quite beer until it contains alcohol, which won’t happen until yeast can feast on the sugars in the liquid. It’s often said that brewers make wort and yeast makes beer, which is entirely true. No matter how hard we try, brewers simply cannot turn sugar into alcohol without the help of yeast. Yeast devours the sugars in wort leaving behind the byproducts of carbon dioxide and alcohol, which explains both why beer is fizzy and intoxicating. Much like hops, there are tons of different yeast strains which behave differently and lead to a wide range of flavors, from “hardly noticeable” to “bubblegum and banana bread.” The two main types of yeast, which in turn differentiate the two main types of beer, are ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeast is bottom-fermenting, which means it hangs out underneath the wort and eats it, and lager yeast is top fermenting, so it floats on top for its sugar buffet. More important than their residence is the fact that ale yeast works quickly at higher temperatures (like 65-80 degrees, depending on the strain) and lager yeast likes things nice and chilly at 58 degrees or lower, which leads to a longer fermentation. In general, lager fermentation leads to a “cleaner” tasting beer with slightly less body than an ale with a similar recipe. In a homebrew setting, you would add (or “pitch”) yeast once you’ve cooled the wort down to the proper temperature and transferred it into a fermentation vessel, like a carboy, which is basically a water cooler jug made out of glass. Once the wort is inside and the yeast is pitched, fermentation can begin! But with the byproduct of carbon dioxide, a relief valve is necessary so that the lid doesn’t blow off the fermenter.

It’s basically beer at that point, and after ten days or so, it’s ready to be put into bottles or a keg, and carbonating it will either happen by adding a little sugar to each bottle (to give the yeast one more snack with which to produce some CO2) or forcing compressed carbon dioxide into a keg. If you want a nicely hopped beer, adding some more hops after most of the fermentation has occurred produces great results in a process called dry-hopping. Another way to create a cleaner-tasting beer is to rack (read: transfer) the beer from one fermentation vessel to a new one, leaving behind hop sludge and dead yeast cells called trub in the original vessel. If a beer sits too long on the trub, it can pick up unwanted bitterness. So there you have it: brewing! This is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully you’ve gained an understanding of the process and may be better able to break beer down into its component parts now that you know how they function during the brew. After doing it a few times, it becomes easier to diagnose problems in beer, though hopefully commercially-released brews won’t have any, and tinker with existing recipes in order to create something wholly original.

Did you learn anything? More importantly, did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!


Grand Rapids’ Grand Entrance

Sometimes, craft breweries find success, expand wildly, eventually lose steam, and either sell out or alienate their base of serious enthusiasts and settle for a spot next to Blue Moon’s tap handle at Chili’s. Other times, they keep doing what they’ve always done on an increasingly large, but sensible, scale and bring quality beers to more and more folks across the country. I am quite happy to report that Founders Brewing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan falls into the latter group.

For the past few years, traveling in the U.S. has almost always meant stopping at a bottle shop or Whole Foods store to see what beers are available that I don’t have access to in Southern California. In many cities, from Austin to New Orleans to New York City, this goes hand in hand with buying Founders beer. Their bottles made their way into my suitcase (if they lasted that long) and into my heart. In fact, the first beer trade I ever did came with a bottle of Founders Imperial Stout as an extra. Just last month, I wrote about how excited I was to try Breakfast Stout while I was in London. And now, without any trading or interstate travel, I have access to their magnificent brews right here in Long Beach.

The news came to me at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, where I can be found at least once a week on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, via a flyer showing the month’s events. Down near the bottom was the headline “Founders OC Launch Party” and that was enough to sell me on coming back the following Thursday. It wasn’t until the day of the event that I realized they would have not only Breakfast Stout on tap, but also Kentucky Breakfast Stout (the famed “KBS” as it is known in beer circles) and Blushing Monk, a raspberry bonanza of a beer. That night, I slipped in through the back door to find a packed house in the bar area. Looking at the board of current taps, I saw that nearly half of them were occupied by Grand Rapids’ finest. I couldn’t wait another minute and got myself ten ounces of KBS.

He likes brewing beer and I like drinking it!

Kentucky Breakfast Stout is a bourbon barrel aged version of Breakfast Stout, which includes coffee and chocolate, and it quickly became apparent why this had been hailed as one of the world’s best beers for the last ten years. It’s a decadent and flavorful beer that’s incredibly easy to drink and reminiscent of a dark chocolate lava cake. Less than halfway through my glass, Mike, a representative from Founders who was there for the release, introduced me to their brewmaster, Jeremy. With my small beer notebook in tow, I asked Jeremy all sorts of specific questions about KBS and geeked out at his answers. Did you know KBS is aged in Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Jim Beam barrels that range in age from four to twenty years? You do now! Jeremy then pointed me towards Project Pam, a beer I hadn’t but admittedly should have been familiar with. This Black IPA was aged in bourbon barrels that had most recently held maple syrup from a Michiganian hero who ages maple syrup in bourbon barrels for what I imagine is the single greatest thing that has ever happened to a pancake. The resulting brew is complex without seeming muddled or busy.

You won’t regret either of these purchases.

After a few tastes of beers that were being passed around among friends (Blushing Monk might have come through two or three times because its raspberry goodness is too great not to be shared), I finished the Founders OC Launch Party with a glass of Backwoods Bastard, a bourbon barrel aged edition of their scotch ale. Unsurprisingly, it was another fantastic beer that matches the malt sweetness inherent to the style with the sweetness of bourbon, along with notes of oak and dark fruit. It was an apt finish to a night full of beers that fell on the heavy and sweet side of the spectrum. Overall, I am thrilled that Founders has distribution in Southern California now and have already picked up a six-pack of their Azacca IPA and bottles of Backwoods Bastard and their Imperial Stout to add to my cellar. As you see them creep into stores and onto taplists, make a point to start trying beers from Founders. And when KBS hits shelves in a few weeks, you have my permission to freak out—I know I will.


Have you had Founders in Southern California yet? Lucky to live somewhere that it’s been available for awhile? Let me know!