Beer 511

Exploring Craft Beer and Homebrew in Peru (Country Code 51) and the USA (Country Code 1)

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Two and half months into the shutdown …

Recently I came across a blog post which mentioned that Mexico’s Grupo Modelo and Heineken, who has stopped brewing on March 30th, were saying that, with Mexican federal guidelines coming out,  they were now ready to resume production as soon as June 1st.

Naturally, the brewing shut down in Mexico has hurt all sectors of Mexico’s beer industry. 

Despite some local booms in demand and price for craft brews, as the stock of Big Beer dwindled, it has been estimated that the crisis could cost Mexico 50% of its craft breweries.

The beer shut down in Mexico -just talking now about the big industrial sector- has also had significant effects upstream and downstream.  Downstream, there are the 600.000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to industrial beer, including those at countless bars and restaurants for whom beer sales accounted for 40% or more of their income.   Upstream, there are some 4.000 farmers who produce the barley.

And those ripples extend surprisingly far afield: Upwards of 75% of Idaho’s barley crop is destined to be malted, and most of that is destined for breweries in Mexico.  Breweries which are currently paralyzed.

With barley backed up on the farms and dropping in price, and uncertainty for what’s coming, it is likely that Idaho barley farming acreage will go down this year and next.  According to the Idaho Barley Commission, Idaho’s overall agricultural sector -potatoes included- could take “up to two years” to recover.

And, Idaho farmers are not alone in their predicament.  Southern Montana and Northern Wyoming’s barley producers have been informed by Briess Malt that it can guarantee purchase of only 50% of what it had contracted. 

And, of course, the worldwide slow-down has effects on other areas that are of concern to us a beer fans and brewers.

The NW hop sector had been planning on increasing acreage this year. Instead, Southwestern Idaho and Southeastern Oregon hop growers plan to cut back by 5% to 20% from a year ago, depending on the varieties.

And, we have yet to see what effect the economic downturn, cooling relations with China, and the slowdown in global shipping will have on equipment price and availability.  The brewing industry uses a lot of stainless steel, for example. The last time there a big trade dispute with China something as basic as a keg became pricey and hard to get.

The good news is that, bit by bit, the US economy is starting to reopen. 

One may feel that it is too fast or too slow, but for a lot of brewers it certainly can’t come soon enough.

Recall that at the end of March the Brewers Association surveyed US craft brewers and about six in 10 said that a 3-month closure could well drive them out of business.

We’re heading into that 3rd month. 

Even with to-go and mail orders helping out, most craft breweries have still seen drops of 60-90% in revenue.

And it’s crunch time in other ways too.

For example, many breweries are sitting on hundreds or thousands, of gallons of beer that has been aging for a month or two, or longer. They can package that beer and sell it, but they can’t be as confident of the shelf-life and sustained quality of that beer.  

The BA suggests monitoring the stock daily and pulling it if starts to taste off, and adjusting the best-by date on packaging to account for the time that the beer has already aged. It’s simple and reasonable advice, but it covers what could be some difficult choices for brewers:

Can they afford to invest in canning and selling beer that may be OK, but no longer tasting “on-brand”, that no longer represents what they’re about?

On the other hand, can a small brewery already facing financial hardship afford to dump all that beer, knowing that that may mean no product available to sell for a month, just when the economy is starting to reopen?

Of course, we -as consumers and beer supporters- don’t have to wait until the “Opening”, with a capital O, we can help right now by continuing to support our local and regional breweries and taprooms.

And don’t forget to tip the staff.

Spencer Trappist Ale

Today, I am writing about Spencer Trappist Ale, a beer that I had been curious to try since I first learned about it four years ago.

Spencer Trappist Ale is brewed by the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachussetts. The brothers of St. Joseph’s follow the Rule of St. Benedict and are part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, otherwise known as the Trappist Order. The Spencer Brewery is the only certified Trappist brewery outside of Europe, and the Spencer family of beers the only certified Trappist beers produced within the United States.

Spencer Trappist Ale was the first beer released by Spencer Brewery and is the monastery’s flagship beer. It was inspired by the refectory ales or patersbiers, the table beers historically brewed for consumption by monks at meals. However, at 6.5% abv it is a tad stronger than the usual refectory ales which tend to fall in the 3.5-5.5% range.

Spencer Trappist Ale is a deep golden ale, tending toward orange, mildly hazy in appearance. Upon pouring it presented a moderate white head, that didn’t rise particularly high and very subsided, but didn’t disappear entirely.

It has a moderately hoppy nose, with notes of citrus. In the mouth, it came across as effervescent sip after sip, and quite refreshing. It had notes malt notes, a little biscuity flavor. (I mean that not in the sense of American biscuits, the breakfast item, but of imported tinned biscuits. Maybe shortbread might be a better referent.) It also has pleasantly floral notes, with light citrus and pine at the back end.

It’s a nice beer. Too bad it’s not distributed more widely.

When faced with COVID-19, craft beer community steps up

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads across the globe, people are being forced to alter their lifestyles as governments scramble to devise appropriate responses.

Here in the United States, as has been amply discussed in the media, the Federal government has been slow to address the pandemic, leaving state and local governments, and individual businesses, institutions, and persons to figure out what steps to take to mitigate the spread of the infection.

Displaying the solidarious and community-oriented spirit that epitomizes it, the craft beer community quickly stepped up to the plate and got creative. For example, Rolling Rock brewing in Berkeley announced last week that they were stopping the filling of growlers brought in by customers. All to-go beer would be packaged in a crowler or require the purchase of a new growler. Danville Brewing has worked with the City of Danville to establish curbside pick-up of brews and food from their restaurant. Monk’s Kettle restaurant in San Francisco reportedly has been working on a similar arrangement. Brewpubs and taprooms everywhere have stepped up sanitizing routines, shortened hours of operation, or moved to a to-go only model.

Heeding calls for social-isolation, others have voluntarily shut down operations altogether. One of the first to take such measures was Maryland’s Flying Dog, which closed it beer hall and airport taprooms, and cancelled all events at its brewery as early as March 11th. New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and others followed suit in the following days. Just this morning, San Francisco’s Fort Point Brewery announced it would be closing its taprooms and restaurants until further notice. They did so just hours ahead of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s call for bars, wineries, and brewpubs to close.

Spring is also festival season, and events cancellations are rolling in like falling dominoes. Bay Area events such as Concord’s Spring Brews Fest and Martinez’s California Craft Beer Festival have been cancelled, as has Firestone Walker’s Invitational Beer Fest in Paso Robles.

On the 12th, the Brewers Association announced the cancellation of the Craft Brewers Conference, on of the largest industry events, which was to have been held in April. At the same time, the Brewers Association cancelled the World Beer Cup competition. Even the American Homebrewers Association pulled the plug on the nation’s largest homebrew competition just hours ahead of when judges and stewards in various regions were to start gathering to judge the first round of entries.

While Big Beer will weather this just fine, small brewers, pubs, taprooms and shops in the craft and homebrew world will have to make further sacrifices that will be undeniably painful. Many businesses, already feeling the pinch from decreased attendance, will undoubtedly incur severe losses in the weeks-long closures to come. For some businesses, sadly, these will be fatal. Even at those that make it through, idled hourly employees will face financial hardships. Many will lose their jobs.

In the meantime, those of us who support those breweries, bars, and shops struggle between the urge to help out our neighborhood businesses weather the crisis by patronizing them before they have to shut down, and heeding the call to stay home and self-isolate.

Finishing Beer Week with PTY

After sampling some lovely offerings from breweries around the area, I finished out my SF Beer Week experience by making the pilgrimage to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa from some of the celebrated Pliny the Younger.

First brewed in 2005, Pliny the Younger triple IPA has been released for two weeks only each year, in the month of February. People come for it from around the country, and further afield, and lines often snake around the block.

This year two developments conspired to make me decide to bite the bullet and make the trip for the first time: one, the opening last year of the larger production brewery and pub in Windsor, has reduced waiting times overall (even though they could still be ridiculously long!); and, secondly, that for the first time ever, Russian River had decided to bottle Pliny the Younger and each patron was entitled to purchase up to two bottles per visit.

The prospect of having one to take home, to extend the experience, and -more importantly- one to send to my daughter and son-in-law, beer lovers both, tipped the scales. So, off I went, to downtown Santa Rosa on Sunday evening of Presidents Day weekend.

The line was, to my relief, not too long. I got in line at 5:25 pm, and an hour and a half later, I was close enough to reach out and touch Russian River’s building. It took another hour and half to get in the door, though. More than I had hopped for, but three hours is generally regarded as a tolerable wait, indeed as a relatively short one–and besides, after a while one has put in enough minutes that one feels committed to seeing it through!

I had my first taste of Pliny the Younger last year, at an event at The Hop Grenade in Concord (CA), but to have it, fresh from the tap, where it was born, was something else.

Pliny the Younger is not just a triple IPA. It is the first triple IPA. Pliny the Younger is the standard by which the style was defined. Despite the insane amounts of malt that must go into it, it finishes dry, and is so drinkable. It is easily, the most drinkable triple IPA I’ve had.

Among a growing field of impressive triple IPAs -Heretic’s Evil 3, Danville Brewing’s Tres Diablos, Epidemic’s Cataclysm, to name just a few local regional examples- Pliny the Younger continues to stand out.

So, was standing in that line worth it? Yes, definitely. It was.

Would I do it again? I thought not, but yesterday, when I popped open my remaining bottle, my resolve on that kind of quavered …

SF Beer Week Opening Gala

Last Friday I got to attend the SF Beer Week Opening Gala again, courtesy of the SF Bay Area Brewers Guild. Once again, it was a blast; a true showcase of the greater Bay Area’s best brews and breweries, and a testament to why the Bay Area is a leader in the US craft beer scene.

Of course, every participating brewery strives to bring their biggest and best, often SF Beer Week -specific releases. One such is the excellent Tres Diablos triple IPA, from Danville Brewing Company, brewed by my friend Matt Sager.

Another awesome big beer was Cataclysm triple IPA by the good folk at Concord’s Epidemic Ales. The bitterness is balanced by a pleasant sweetness, and a surprising note of strawberry!

Another brewery I was pleased to run into was Ocean View Brew Works from Albany. I met them last year, when they were about to celebrate their first anniversary. Well, on Sunday they celebrated number two with a big party at the brewery. I’m happy to hear that things are going well for them.

As last year, I made an effort to get to know breweries I had not heard of before, and I was not disappointed. I had some lovely beers and met some awesome, passionate, dedicated brewers.

I’m sure that many have heard of East Brother Brewing, Barrel Brothers Brewing, and even of Asian Brothers Brewing. Well, now there is the other brother: Other Brewer Beer Co.! Other Brother is a 15-bbl brewery located in Seaside. They’ve been open just 3 months. They brought All That the Grain Promises (and More…), a tasty 6.8% abv red ale. As they told me, “Hoppy is in our blood!”

Another pleasant encounter was the 1-year old Kelly Brewing Co. from Morgan Hill. They are still relatively small, at 7bbl kettles, but they are putting out some nice beers. I quite liked their Kelly Light, an almost lager-like golden ale that would come really nicely on a warm day.

Since I left Santa Cruz in the mid-1990s, the then incipient craft beer scene has exploded, particularly in recent years. One of the newest additions, I discovered, is to be Woodhouse Blending & Brewing , on River St in downtown. Woodhouse is 10bbl brewery run by Mike Rodriguez, formerly of Lost Abbey Brewing in San Diego. Mike said their tap house is scheduled to open in March and that he is planning on starting a barrel program in the near future.

Not too far away, in Scotts Valley, is Steel Bonnet Brewing Co. They produce, they said, “about half and half” English and American styles. They brought along the tasty, and cleverly-named, Kiss Me, Hardy, a 7.7% English IPA made with malts from Alameda’s Admiral Maltings and, of course, British hops. They told me that though they are currently a 7bbl-capacity brewery, they will soon be expanding to 30bbl.

And, a special treat was hanging out and talking with the guys from Cloverdale’s upcoming Wolf House Brewing. They’ve been brewing quite a a bit, but are in the midst of putting in the hard work of getting their pub into shape for an opening in the next couple of months. Hopefully by the end of March, or April.

When the pub opens, Dwayne Moran, will run the kitchen. Kevin Lovett, who has been in the industry for years, including a stint at the Mendocino Brewing Company, is running the brewhouse and turning out some tasty beer, as evidenced by their Gala offerings.

And, of course, this year there was the added treat of seeing the original Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. brewhouse cobbled together by founders Ken Grosman and Paul Camusi back in 1980. That brewhouse was sold to Mad River Brewing in 1989. In 2018 Grosman bought it back from Mad River, moved it back to Chico, and had it reassembled on a truck bed. Having read Grosman’s book on the history of Sierra Nevada, Beyond the Pale (Wiley, 2013), seeing it was particularly cool.

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