Monday, March 10, 2014

Firestone Walker Releases a Saison

Described in the Firestone Walker press release as "a rootsy, rustic dry-hopped saison that merges Belgian tradition with West Coast style," Opal is Firestone Walker's first-ever bottled saison.

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson confesses, "We've been playing around with farmhouse ales for years, exploring and fine tuning all sorts of variations." With this recipe, the Paso Robles brewery finally decided to "make the jump."

This beer style originated in the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, where the beer was brewed in farmhouses during the cooler, less active months of the year, stored, and then served to farm workers throughout the busy summer season.

California, in its third year of drought, has been experiencing summer-like conditions for the past several months (with the exception of one big rainstorm the first weekend in March), so it probably is as good a time as any to release a summer season -- or saison, if you're speaking Walloon or French -- ale.

So Cal Craft Beer frequently recommends saisons to people -- many of whom are women -- who claim to be strictly wine drinkers, declaring that "saison is basically champagne in beer form." This has made converts of a few. According to Firestone Walker, Opal combines "lemongrass and gooseberry," with "peppery spice and fresh grain aromas." The Belgian saison yeast "creates a complex yet dry canvas with splashes of citrus and stone fruit with a bright tropical white wine finish," proving that So Cal Craft Beer is not so far off in our estimations of the style.

Brewmaster Brynildson confides, "We're usually very transparent when it comes to the ingredients of our beers. But Belgian brewers tend to be a bit cagey with the details, and that's what gives a lot of farmhouse ales their mystique." Brynildson claims there's a secret spice in Opal, but he's not divulging what it may be.

If you wanted to compare Opal to several other saisons, just to get the feel of the style, So Cal Craft Beer recommends Duvel and Saison Dupont -- both authentic Belgian saisons -- as well as The Bruery of Orange County's "Saison Rue" and North Coast Brewery's incomparable "Le Merle."

We invite your feedback. Tell us how the tasting went....

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Docking With the California Craft Beer Mothership: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

(Originally posted May 25, 2010)
According to, "An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional." The limit on "small" is less than two million barrels of beer produced a year. With it's name recognition and huge facilities, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company hardly seems small. But a check of the Brewers Association confirms that Sierra Nevada (SNBC) is a member, at the "regional," or 15,000-2,000,000 barrel, level. According to the SNBC website, the brewery produces about 800,000 barrels annually.

Sierra Nevada is located in Northern California,almost two hours north of the State Capitol, in the college town of Chico. Chico is the home of California State University, Chico, founded in 1889, the second oldest campus in the CSU system (after San Jose).

Ken Grossman, founder of SNBC, graduated from Chico State with a degree in chemistry. After perfecting his homebrews, Ken first opened his own store, The Home Brew Shop, in 1976. He then began collecting the odds and ends that would eventually become SNBC, which he opened with co-founder Paul Camusi in 1980.

Charlie Papazian, fellow Beer Examiner and President of the Brewer's Association, dates the renaissance of American craft beer to 1982. In that year, the number of American breweries had fallen from a pre-Prohibition high of 800 to a nadir of less than 50. Today there are close to 1,500. SNBC's flagship beer is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Before such a beer existed, there was nothing in America that tasted quite as hoppy or quite as good.

The first time that the VCBE visited SNBC several years ago, it was a revelation that the brewery offered many other selections. Kellerweis (a frothy delicious hefeweizen) and Best Bitter (a copper-colored English ale) are two perennial favorites from the Taproom. Torpedo is an Extra IPA that hones in on its hop-loving target; and Bigfoot is a barleywine style ale that matches BIG malt flavor with BIG hop flavor.

On the VCBE's recent trip, to celebrate Craft Beer Week (5/17-5/23), three new ales stood out.
  • Harvest, features Yakima Valley hops shipped "wet" and added immediately to the brew kettle "while the oils and resins are still at their peak." 
  • Old Chico Crystal Wheat, brewed with two-thirds wheat malt and one-third barley malt, was surprisingly crisp and clean and refreshing.
  • Chico Estate, one of the world's only estate-made beers, features barley and hops grown entirely AT the brewery in Chico. As the SNBC website puts it, Sierra Nevada is the first brewery to develop its own terroir, which reflects the brewery's uniquely cared-for environment.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company should be at the top of the life list of anyone who cares about craft and beer.