Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Gift Guide For the Beer Geek

I originally wrote a post on Holiday gifts for beer drinkers in 2011.  I am updating it to reflect the current beer environment.  

1.  Don't Give Beer.  Unless you know beer and know the taste of who you are buying for, or have been given a specific beer request, avoid direct beer gifts.   The beer geek is at heart a snob and if you don't know the beer you are giving, the chances of choosing a beer the geek will like is slim.  Stella Artois and Newcastle Brown Ale are not special, and neither are Cost Plus' Beers-of-the World twelve packs.

2.  Beer Store / Brewery / Tasting Room Gift Certificates.  If you are set on giving beer, a gift certificate to a good beer store or grocery store with wide beer selection is a better gift idea than randomly trying to choose strange beers.  Over the past three years, a number of satellite tasting rooms have opened providing more opportunity to buy gift certificates, and they also offer clothes and other beer-related items.

3.  Generic Growler.  This is a new entry and is essential for a beer drinker.  California law now allows breweries to fill unlabeled growlers, and most, but not all breweries will fill an unlabeled growler.  With the growth in the number of tasting rooms, a generic growler not only saves the growler owner's wallet, but also storage space.  I bought my logo-free growler at Modern Times Beer, and you can also order from Amazon.

4. Glassware.  Quality beer glassware makes a great gift.  Decent glassware was hard to find a few years ago, and still is at major department stores and home retailers.  Breweries are now an excellent source for glassware.  The Stone Company Stores, for example, have a number of glassware options.  Avoid the ubiquitous Shaker-style pint glasses, tall pilsner glasses or any glasses with handles, unless its dimpled imperial pint glasses.  If you are giving glasses, give at least two. 

5.  Beer Books.   Most professional beer writing is tedious, so be careful with selecting beer books.  Beer books range from glossy, coffee table books to technical brewing books.  Stores like the Stone Stores and Ballast Point's Homebrew Mart are excellent sources for beer books. 

6.  Bottle Opener.  It sounds simple, but a good bottle opener is a must for any beer geek, and an overlooked tool for the drinking trade.  Choose an opener that has heft and leverage, as it will be required to open wine bottle-size beer bottles.  Local breweries and a quality beer or liquor store are sources for openers, but other cooking stores should carry suitable ones, too.  I get far more use out of my two dollar Ballast Point key chain bottle opener than I ever thought I would.

Keep your beer gift search simple.  Beer does not lend itself to over thinking.  The beer geek is typically an appreciative person, despite the snooty attitude towards beer, and will enjoy any extra effort to indulge their habit.

Monday, December 15, 2014

An Arched London Beer Quest

One of my goals on a trip to London last summer was to visit a craft brewery - in an arch.  I wanted to either hit Partizan Brewing or The Kernel Brewery, which are located close to each other in Victorian-era railroad archs in the Bermondsey area of London  Breweries in London are typically only open for select hours on Saturday, which limits visiting options.   I left my family along the Thames and pledged to be back from my brewery tour in an hour.  By the time I started walking southeast from London's Tate Modern, Kernel had closed so I knew my destination was Partizan.  I soon realized it was a much longer walk to Partizan than it looked like on Apple and Google maps, and that to maximize my short hour I had to catch a cab.  I was already in a non-touristy section of London, so it took me a few minutes before I was able to find a cab.

I gave the cabby Partizan's address, 8 Almond Road.  He did not know it and he proceeded to drive off in the opposite direction from which I was walking.  I was aware of the "Knowledge," the four-year, on average, test process to become a London cabby, which requires memorization of nearly all London streets, alleys, parks, theaters, clubs, hotels, restaurants, basically any where someone would want to go - but I had studied Partizan's location and knew he going the wrong way.  I waited a few blocks before speaking up in the hope he was going to make a quick turn or knew some secret cabby short cut, but that was not happening.  He was incredulous, but agreed to reverse course.  I told him 8 Almond Road housed a new craft brewery, and it was located in a railway arch.  This news perked him up and he started the quest for Partizan in earnest.  He said he liked the "new" beers, they were what he drank, so it gave him a new sense of determination to find Almond Road.  I told him I was not going to be the only American seeking these "new" breweries squeezed into railway arches.

We saw a group of men walking and the cabby pulled over and asked them if they knew of Partizan.  They said they were looking for it, too, but were not sure of its location.  A solidarity in purpose but not much help with directions, so we drove on.   At the next stop sign I recognized a downtrodden pub I had seen on Google Street View that was near the entrance to Almond Road.  Eureka!  Like solving a puzzle, all the pieces fell into place:  the high street, the pub, the elevated brick railroad with its arches, and finally the road that ran parallel to the tracks - Almond Road (picture above).

That part of London did not look like it saw too much cab traffic, so I asked the cabby as he was dropping my off if he could come back in about thirty minutes.  He scoffed, telling me he could be anywhere in the city in thirty minutes.  He said I should not have any problem getting a cab, of which I was doubtful, and was on his way.   

Almond Road is about one hundred yards long- really just a driveway or service road - not a proper road - which parallels the elevated train tracks.   At the end of truncated Almond Road I saw a familiar crowd - mainly young men, many with beards, a disproportionate number of flannel shirts for an August afternoon, along with a few old guys and several women - the unmistakable, international signs of a craft brewery.  It was a quiet, eclectic crowd, nearly all standing as the few tables and benches were full.  The line for beer was consistently long, and the Partizan employees were doing their best to keep the line moving.

The guys the cabby asked for directions showed up shortly after I arrived and joined the queue for beer behind me.    I ordered a black saison with Saaz hops, and bought two bottles, an IPA and another saison, this one more traditional, both of which I've yet to drink.  The black saison was fine, a welcome reward after the stress of finding Partizan, but I don't know why I ordered a black saison.  In a rush, any "black" beer to me tastes of nothing but the dark roasted malt.  My allotted beer time was running short, and finding the brewery and the slow beer line had eliminated any time to enjoy the nuances the English craft saison.  

I was nearly done with beer and trying to decide whether it made more sense to try and hail a cab or find a Tube station, when I looked back down Almond Road and saw the cabby coming to the see brewery.  I was confused, and went up to him and asked if he was off work and coming to try the "new" beer.  He said he didn't drink while working, and had come to get me and see what the crowd was about.  That was good news for me, but I think he really wanted to investigate Partizan and I gave him that excuse.  I finished the last of my beer and we were off.

The cabby had parked off the high street, a few blocks from Almond Road, and as we left the confines of Almond Road, the cabby gave a nervous look around.   He said in a low voice that we were in Millwall Football Club area, and asked if I knew of Millwall.  I said I thought I had heard they were football hooligans (remembering reading this story from 2013).  He said "Yeah, their motto is 'No one likes us, we don't care.'"  He seemed relieved when we finished the hooligan-free walk to his cab.  As a recent convert to the English Premier League, I asked him his club and he replied West Ham, which I've since discovered is Millwall's traditional rival and probably the source of his trepidation.  He must be enjoying West Ham's performance this year.

It was a more relaxed cab ride back to the Tate Modern.  I, an American, had shown him, a London cabby, a sliver of his city he did not know existed.  Now it was his turn to return the favor and he became a super tour guide.  He told me that the Bermondsey part of London was historically industrial, known for big breweries and tanneries and their stench, and he drove me past an old pub called Simon the Tanner, which still celebrated the once-local trade, and verified Bermondsey's industrial past. (If you check it's website, Simon the Tanner has a solid beer list including a standing tap devoted to Kernel).  He pointed out a nondescript grassy area near an ugly low rise housing complex that he said was the former site of an inn that served as the starting point for the pilgrimage that inspired Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  His final bit of trivia as we drove up to the Tate Modern was that Londoners call the Millennium Bridge the Wibbley-Wobbly Bridge.  The beer karma shown by the cab driver was just one of several I experienced last summer in London, and I appreciated it.

My accelerated trip to locate a craft brewery in an arch had been a success.  I had found Partizan Brewery, tried a beer and bought some beer to go.  But like what happens frequently in a beer quest, whether I'm looking for a brewery or particular beer, the quest exceeded the beer.  Partizan's black saison was fine, but I would have liked to have lingered at Partizan and enjoyed the beer, rather than to have powered through it just to say I drank a craft beer brewed in a railroad arch.  I still have the two beers I bought at Partizan that I plan to enjoy at relaxed pace. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


I don't like taking a month off from posting.  I have not really been tweeting, either.  I have a number of posts in the works, including a long one on a craft beer adventure last summer in London.  Another reason I have had few posts, and really, the main delay, is that since Culture Brewing opened its Ocean Beach tasting room at the start of San Diego Beer Week in early November, my beer drinking has essentially been growler fills of Culture's pale ale and and Mosaic IPA.  Both are outstanding beers, and the convenience of Culture makes filling growlers too easy.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Green Flash Buys Alpine Beer Co.

Green Flash Brewing has agreed to purchase Alpine Beer CoBrandon Hernandez has the details here.  The Union Tribune's Peter Rowe's article is here.  Green Flash agreed last year to allow Alpine to produce some of its beers at Green Flash's Mira Mesa Blvd facility, so the transaction is not unexpected.  I suspect Alpine's Nelson IPA will see increased production, which is good, because it has become so rare that it's now a cult beer and sells out as fast as the once-a-year release of Pliny the Younger.  My main concern on the merger is whether Alpine's Pat McIlhenny will continue to send out his brilliant, periodic emails. 

Welcome to the Neighborhood - Culture Brewing Opens OB Tasting

Culture Brewing opened its Ocean Beach satellite tasting room on Saturday, November 8, 2014.  I did not make opening day, but made it a point to stop in last night to try a beer.  Culture's spartan tasting room feels like a clean, spacious garage.  The Newport Avenue entrance is open across the entire storefront.   The interior, which is open to the roof, contains a big bar, a few wood barrels that function as tables, and not much more.   Culture fills blank growlers, and I had mine filled with a Mosaic-hopped IPA.   I had never tried a beer from Culture, so an IPA initiation was essential.  It is my simple opinion that if a brewer can make a decent IPA, especially when stacked against other San Diego IPAs, than its other beers will likely be solid, too.  Culture's Mosaic IPA was fantastic (more formal review in another post).  I am looking forward to proving my theory and putting my unlabeled growler to heavy-duty use.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Coronado Karma

Last Friday, on Halloween, I went into Coronado Brewing's Linda Vista brewery and tasting room looking for a bottle of Coronado's Punk'in Drublic pumpkin ale.  There were no bottles of it in the tasting room's fridges, and I asked a woman working at the brewery if there were any more bottles available.  She checked with several people and then told me that the beer was sold out at that location, and that a barrel-aged beer version of Punk'in Drublic would be available during San Diego Beer Week.  Disappointed, I decided to get a taster of Punk'in Drublic to see what I was missing while I thought of where else I could buy a bottle.  (It's good; a dark, chewy ale.)

While I was waiting for my taster, the same employee came up to holding three bombers of Punk'in Drublic, and said the owner had kept three bottles for himself, but wanted me buy them.  I bought two, not wanting to seem greedy.   I was impressed by Coronado's  effort - from employee to owner - to help me, just a random customer.   Respect.

I will write up my review of Punk'in Drublic in a separate post.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

By Halloween I had already seen a number of Holiday or winter seasonal beers on store shelves.  Sierra Nevada's Celebration Ale, Stone's Double Bastard, The Bruery's Seven Swans A Swimming, and Deschutes' Jubelale, with its annual Oregon art label, were out before the trick-or-treaters.  When it comes to special release beers, I'm ok with early Christmas commercialization.  Bring 'em on, the more the merrier!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Glaring "Best Of" Omission

I wrote yesterday about a new list of the twelve best breweries in San Diego, and the limits of any "best of" list.  Then last night in the Financial Times' Weekend edition I see it has an article on the five best* craft beer outlets in San Francisco.  I have no problem with the five breweries in the story:  21st Amendment, Anchor Brewing, Almanac Beer Co., Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, and Magnolia Pub & Brewery.  But any "best of" list of San Francisco craft brewers that excludes Cellarmaker Brewing invalidates the entire list.  The two authors clearly did not fully research San Francisco's craft brewers.

* The print edition states that the list is the "five best," while the on-line headline states that the list is "five of the best," giving the authors some flexibility.

Monday, November 3, 2014

San Diego Beer Week

The ten-day, two weekend San Diego Beer Week starts Friday, November 7, 2014, and runs through November 16, 2014.  There are too many events to list on this website.  The essential San Diego Beer Week website lists all the events here.  Looking at the list of events, there are some on November 6th, so it looks like eleven days of beer-filled fun.  The beer events range from big to small, so pick your event and try some interesting beers!

San Diego's Best Breweries?

The San Diego Reader has produced a list of San Diego's top twelve breweries*.  In the article, the breweries are listed in alphabetic order:

AleSmith Brewing
Alpine Beer Company
Amplified Ale Works
Ballast Point Brewery and Spirits
Benchmark Brewing
Green Flash Brewing Company
Monkey Paw Pub and Brewery
New English Brewing
Pizza Port
Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey
Rip Current
Societe Brewing

"Best of" lists are fun, but frivolous.  Sure, I read the articles touting the 100 greatest movies of all-time, or the ten best books of the year, or the top fifty beers to drink before you die, but there is bias and personal preference in any 'best of" list, which make them more opinion than fact.  Some of my favorite movies are not going to show up on any "greatest" list, just like some of my favorite beers won't be on a "best of" list.  I'm sure the publication of the supposed twelve best breweries in San Diego corresponds with San Diego Beer Week (SDBW).  I would not argue against any of the breweries on the list, but there are plenty of good breweries in San Diego not on the list, so don't limit yourself to just a handful of breweries. SDBW is a great opportunity to sample the best from many different breweries.

*  Brandon Hernandez who wrote the article for San Diego Reader also works for Stone Brewing, so Stone was excluded from the list.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

CAPT. Sacramento

Black IPAs are the commodity of craft beers in their bland, roasted lack of distinction.   Ruhstaller's  CAPT. Sacramento Black IPA shows that a black IPA can be an interesting beer, separating itself from the generic pack.   CAPT was roasted and not overly bitter, similar to other black IPAs, but it had a spicy characteristic I have not noticed in other black IPAs, and this spiciness gave the beer its personality.  It was rich like a porter (7.6% abv), not thin, a flaw suffered by some black IPAs.  CAPT. is dark mahogany, not black, again more porter-like.  The beer's hop bitterness occurred in mid-taste, and gave way to a soothing sweetness.  Spices and roasted flavors lingered long into the finish.

I have found Ruhstaller beers as far south as Central California, but Ruhstaller's website lists where its beers are available in San Diego:

Best Damn Beer Shop (San Diego)
Bine and Vine (North Park)
Holiday Wine Cellar (Escondido)
K N B Wine Cellars
Major Market (Escondido)
Major Market (Fallbrook)
Specialty Produce
Texas Liquors (Carlsbad)
Valley Farm Markets (Spring Valley)
Whole Foods (San Diego) – Hillcrest
Windmill Farms Market (San Diego)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Double Shot of Modern Times

Modern Times Beer is in the midst of its second year, and is maturing into an iconoclastic, risk-taking brewer.  Its rye IPA, Aurora, is excellent and shows Modern Times' brewing skill.  Aurora is bitter and complex, with the spicy, front-of-the-tongue zip you expect from a well-made rye IPA.  It is smoother than many rye IPAs, which makes it enjoyable to drink, but it has enough kick so you don't forget about it.  Not all brewers handle rye properly, but Modern Times mastered this prickly grain in Aurora.  Aurora is available in draft and in 22 oz bottles.

Modern Times' new saison, Universal Friend, is on draft at its brewery.  It was brewed with must from Pinot Grigio grapes.  Universal Friend has a bit of funk, giving it a slight farmhouse ale quality.  It is a sweet saison, and the Pinot Grigio must brings in a level of sophistication, which smooths out the beer.  Modern Times' core saison, Lomaland, is a classic saison, and while Universal Friend is brewed with the same yeast, it is a more adventurous beer that remains approachable and drinkable

One of the things I like most about Modern Times is that I don't like all its beers.  I have not cared for most of its IPAs and some of its other beers, but I will keep trying Modern Times' IPAs in anticipation of finding a winner like Aurora.  Modern Times is not afraid to try new hop varietals or unusual ingredients like grape must, to make its beers unique.  I'd much rather visit a brewery that can create beers I find personally polarizing than a brewery producing safe, mediocre beers that inspire nothing but ambivalence.