Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My jaunt to three Northern California breweries

You may have noticed that there hasn’t been a lot of original content on this blog in a while. It’s not because I’ve slacked off or lost interest, it’s because I was laid off from my day job about a month ago and most of my time has been spent looking for work. Obviously, beer blogging has been a low priority for me and will be until I’m employed again (note: I went to TAP New York beer fest because I got in for free as a member of the media).

Being unemployed sucks, but it does afford me some opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise; namely – applying and interviewing for jobs in the brewing industry. Though I’m not a professional brewer by trade, I do have a lot of experience as a homebrewer, plus I’m pretty familiar with the industry through over seven years of beer blogging. I’ve made a lot of connections and I’m taking advantage of them now. Many breweries of various sizes have been interested in me, including North Coast Brewing Company all the way out in Fort Bragg, California. North Coast is best known for their famous Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (which is featured in my book The Handbook of Porters & Stouts). I had recently interviewed with the head brewer via Skype and it went so well that they flew me out to the West Coast to meet with the executive staff, tour the brewery, and explore their seaside town.

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Note: I’m not going to get into the details of the business discussions and whatnot. I just wanted to tell you about my trip.

First of all, I had no idea most of Northern California (between Sacramento and Oregon) is essentially a large void of nothing. It’s either flat like Texas or Florida, or a heavily wooded mountainous area. In fact, I drove through many different terrains over the course of four hours from the airport to Fort Bragg (imagine if the closest commercial airport to Albany was Rochester and the only way to get there was via Route 20). I will say I’m glad I was able to upgrade to a BMW 528i apparently for free (it was only $85 for three days!). That V6 and navigation system really helped when going through the redwood forests and all those roads on the face of cliffs and ravines. I can’t recall an area that’s both so beautiful and terrifying to drive through. I did video some of my drive to give you an idea of what it looks like, though I don’t think this really does the experience justice:


Anyway, let’s talk about the three breweries I visited.

northern california 019North Coast Brewing Company

This company started out as an ordinary brewpub way back in the 1990s and eventually expanded to a 50BBL brew house across the street. The brewery isn’t open to the public for tours, which is understandable because it’s one of the tightest, most cramped breweries I’ve ever seen. They did just do a major upgrade to their system which will make them more productive. They told me they’re hoping to build a brand new facility from the ground up; I can definitely understand why.

I didn’t take any pictures inside the brewery, since I was there on business, not as a tourist. However, they did take me out to dinner at their brewpub across the street – twice. They have a cool dozen beers on tap and one cask. I’m not going to review them all, but I will mention some of the more notable items:

iphone 023Old Rasputin (on nitro): Drinking this beer on nitro instead of conventional CO2 is a completely different experience. It almost seems like a chocolate stout, comparable to Southern Tier Choklat. I was told that this beer is only intended to be served on nitro when on draught – any bar that puts it on an ordinary tap line is doing the beer an injustice. I was able to taste a fresh bottle (they literally handed me a four-pack right off the bottling line) and it was surprisingly hoppy and very roasty, but more noticeably boozy than I remember. If you ever see this on nitro I highly recommend buying a glass of it.

Old Stock Ale: A huge barleywine/old ale at over 11% ABV. Very sweet and fruity – similar to the palette of sangria wine, interestingly enough. They gave me a bottle of a 2013 vintage which I will be reviewing soon.

Le Merle, Pranqster, and Brother Thelonious: A saison, Belgian Strong Pale Ale and Belgian Abbey-style Dubbel, respectfully. We can actually get these bottles here in Albany, but I’ve never seen any that were remotely fresh. They’re not bottle-conditioned, so I’m not sure aging them would be wise. All were solid and pretty much on-point as far as traditional specifications go.

Puck – The Beer: At only 4% ABV, this by far North Coast’s lightest beer and most eccentric brew. It’s the equivalent of a Session Saison as it has all the flavor of the real deal but without the heavy body. Pairs well with everything on their menu, speaking of which…

I got the “Brew House Burger” on Wednesday and did a make-your-own pizza on Thursday. Both were absolutely delicious. If you’re ever at this brewpub, I highly recommend either for dinner (or lunch).


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LOCAL CONNECTION: Brewery owner Mark Ruedrich is originally from the Poughkeepsie area.

Anderson Valley Brewing Company

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I had my interview with North Coast first thing Thursday morning and we agreed to meet for dinner that night. Since I had plenty of time to kill I decided to cruise down the coast to Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville. Man, this place really is in the middle of nowhere (if you’ve ever been to Ommegang outside of Cooperstown you’ll have an idea of what I mean). They have a huge tasting room which looks like a beer hall, but it’s not a restaurant – just a bar and gift shop. I was honestly a little disappointed that there were only a few beers on tap that weren’t part of their regular offerings.

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I decided to try a full pint of their experimental watermelon gose. It was good… for a few sips. The watermelon and the sour/tart character pair pretty well. Unfortunately, the salt ruins it and I wasn’t able to get halfway through the pint. I suppose if you like watermelon margarita (if there is such a thing) then you would like this.

northern california 043I also tried The Kimmie, The Yink and the Holy Gose – one of their seasonal goses. I had had this before, but the can I was drinking at the time was old, so it wasn’t very good. Drinking it fresh on tap… it was a similar experience. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone from gose to gose, or maybe I just don’t like this beer.

They offer tours of the brewery only twice a day at designated times and I had arrived just in time to catch one. Their brew house is fairly modern and they derive about half their power from their own solar panels. We got to see their barrel room which smelled absolutely delicious. I finally learned the origin of AVBC’s weird vernacular you see on many of their bottles and cans such as “Bahl Hornin”. It’s a cockney-like dialect that locals used way back in the 19th Century as a way of talking to each other in code. I’ve never quite understood why they use it as part of their marketing since only locals would get that reference – to the rest of us it seems like gibberish. I suppose it’s meant to be funny or cute, but it seems dumb to me.

LOCAL CONNECTION: Did you know Shmaltz Brewing Company (aka He’Brew) was originally contract-brewed by Anderson Valley back in their formative years? Jeremy Cowan wrote about this in his autobiography Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah.

Mendocino Brewing Company

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I really wanted to continue going south down to Santa Rosa and make a pilgrimage to Russian River Brewing (and hopefully score some bottles of Pliny The Elder), but it was just too far away to visit and be back in time for the dinner reservation I had with the guys at North Coast. Interestingly enough, the original West Coast location of Mendocino Brewing was about 20 miles northeast in Ukiah, so I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity to visit it considering their East Coast facility is located right here in Saratoga Springs.

Unfortunately, the brewery itself is not open to the public, nor does it have a tasting room on site. However, they do operate a pub up the road at a little shopping center. It’s surprisingly large and looks like a sports bar; but much like Anderson Valley, it’s just a bar – no food other than a few snacks.

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The vast majority of the beers on tap were the same as those available in Saratoga. The place was pretty well empty (it was the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, after all), and the bartender was a nice guy who seemed fascinated to hear I had come all the way from New York. Unlike the Saratoga taproom, samples were free and unlimited (in 2oz pours). There were only two beers that seemed to be exclusive to the brewpub:

northern california 074Rock Point Session IPA: Standard example of the style with plenty of grassy and herbal hops.

Revolution X Double IPA: Basically, a West Coast interpretation of Heady Topper. Surprisingly good.

I tried a few other samples just to see how they compared to what I’m used to. Their Black IPA wasn’t nearly as good as the brew from New York, though I found their Kingfisher lager to be much sweeter than it is here.

Mendocino of California also owns a brand of organic beers by the name of Butte Creek. This was an independent brewery they acquired back in 2010. I bought a bottle of each of their four offerings and will review them on my blog over the next week or so (I already tried the pilsner and thought it was excellent).

CONCLUSION

I had always wanted to visit California for the beer scene, but I always figured it be down in San Diego. I did have a lot of fun on this trip and it was educational, enlightening and memorable to say the least. I’m not going to discuss my employment status (or lack thereof) until I’m actually doing labor so please don’t ask about that. Once I make a decision (or even decide to stay in the Capital District in the same field I was in) I’ll let everyone know. In the event I do move out of the area, I’ll probably still contribute to this blog, but obviously not from a local perspective (we are looking for a permanent local contributor to this blog, if anyone is interested please let me know).

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The view from my hotel room.