Friday, June 19, 2015

Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know About Craft Beer*

*(But Probably Should)

Even if you knew some of these things, it always helps to have a refresher.

Pliny the Elder, 23-79 AD
1. Hops have antibiotic properties
The American Botanical Council
affirms that hops have long been known to inhibit the growth of bacteria and keep beer from spoiling. That’s why more hops were used in the pale ale the British shipped to their outposts in India during the Raj, which is where the “I” in IPA comes from.

2. Pliny the Elder didn’t “discover” hops
On his blog, British writer Martyn Cornell provides an excellent discussion about the identification and naming of hops. Cornell says that the Roman author of Naturalis Historia was not the first person to mention hops in his writing, as the Russian River Brewery once claimed as the source of their name for their universally-esteemed double IPA. Cornell does allow that Pliny may have been talking about hops when he described lupus salictarius, or “wolf willow.” We have Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus for the Latin name we know them by today, humulus lupulus. By the way, lupulus doesn’t refer to wolves, but comes from the medieval Latin name for hops.

3. Hops and Cannabis are related.
Popular Science
author Martha Harbison confirms this statement, and provides the chemical formulae to back it up. By the early 2000s, DNA sequencing showed that the two plants were so closely related that they should properly be referred to as Cannabinaceae. And yes, as Lagunitas’ head brewer Jeremy Marshall once told me, “Everyone’s made weed beer at some point in his brewing career.”

4. Some brewers intentionally use bacteria to make “Wild Beer.”
The secret to a lot of Belgian-style beer is a bacteria called Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short. The name means “British fungus,” by the way. It takes a master to brew a good beer using Brett, which is why it took Belgian monks over a thousand years to perfect the process. leads homebrewers through the steps to working successfully with Brett.

5. Stone Brewing also distributes beer.
Like the beer industry itself, beer distribution in the United States was the province of a few giant distribution networks that,
according to Stone, didn’t understand craft beer or how to sell it. Stone stepped into the breach, establishing their own distribution networks and today distributes not just their own beer, but that of many of the great craft breweries we take for granted today.

6. Prohibition had long range effects on the American brewing industry.
Before Prohibition, which lasted from 1920-1933, the United States boasted 1,200 breweries. Until President Jimmy Carter signed the Cranston act in 1978, there were fewer than 200 breweries in our great land. The Cranston act deregulated the beer industry, which allowed craft brewers to flourish, according the
The Economist. Today, there are nearly 3,500 breweries in operation.

7. Brewers don’t have to tell you what they put in their beer. Public health lawyer Michelle Simon says, “Ingredient labeling on food products and non-alcoholic beverages is required by the Food and Drug Administration. But a whole other federal agency regulates beer, and not very well. The Department of Treasury – the same folks who collect your taxes – oversees alcoholic beverages.” So, what’s in your Bud, Miller, Coors, Corona, or Stella Artois? According to, a bunch of genetically modified corn products like high fructose corn syrup as well as GMO rice, caramel coloring, propylene glycol (used in antifreeze), and isinglass (derived from fish bladders).

8. That “craft beer” you’re drinking might not really be a craft beer. Shock Top, Goose Island, and Kona are owned and controlled by Anheuser Busch InBev, and Blue Moon is brewed by MillerCoors, according to Time Magazine.

9. Budweiser doesn’t always come from Budweis in Bohemia. Hamburgers originally came from the German city of Hamburg. Wieners originally came from Wien (Vienna). Pilsener is a lager beer style associated with the Czech city of Plzen. And, by rights, Budweiser should associated with Budweis, aka Budejovice in the Czech Republic. Actually, since 1907, beer brewed in Budweis could not be sold in North America as “Budweiser,” thanks to an agreement between Bohemian brewers and Anheuser Busch. Luckily, a recent court ruling stipulates that Budějovický Budvar, the maker of the Czech Budweiser, has exclusive control of the Budweiser name brand in the European Union.

10. Over 90 beer styles are judged at the Great American Beer Festival. You’ve heard of lager, ale, and stout. How about German altbier, extra special bitter, or Irish red? How about Belgian Dubbel, Tripel, or Quadruple? How about fruit lambic or gueuze?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Everything I Like About Craft Beer

Today I got this press release from Christoper Weir at Firestone Walker Brewing in Paso Robles. I'll reproduce most of the press release below. But first I thought I'd list three things about this release that convinced me that the way La Piccola was made represents everything I like about craft beer. And I haven't even tasted the beer yet!

  1. Collaboration
    When brewers and breweries put their heads together and decide to create something new and different, everyone benefits. 
  2. Experimentation
    Both Matt Brynildson and Agostino Arioli made their own version of the recipe they collaborated on, and Matt went one step further, eliminating one of the ingredients to create a third version of the beer.
  3. Craftsmanship
    Not only did the pair choose to use the saison yeast that made Firestone Walker's Opal Saison one of the highest quality, most consistently drinkable saisons out there; not only are they skilled enough to brew confidently with wild yeast; but they also employ other craftsmen whose specialty is barrel aging and fermentation.
Okay, here are the highlights from Firestone Walker's press release:
(l. to r.) Adam Firestone, David Walker, Matt Brynildson
(Photo courtesy of the Firestone Walker website)
  • Multiple versions of the same collaborative dark saison wild ale—called La Piccola—will be unveiled at the 2015 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest on May 30, capping off a year of cross-continental brewing hijinks between brewmasters Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Company.
  • “Like many Italians, Agostino is a true gourmet, and he takes a chef’s approach to brewing,” Brynildson said. “He’s really into exotic spices and he wanted to play around with these Sichuan peppercorns, which are really weird and unique. We had to contact a spice hunter in Italy to get our hands on them.”
  • After Brynildson brewed his base version of La Piccola, he sent it down to barrelmeisters Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks at Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks wild ale facility, where they initiated secondary fermentation and maturation for 12 months in French oak barrels.
  • In the end, they decided to create one version with the peppercorns (La Piccola Pepe Di Sichuan) and one without (La Piccola Virtuosa). Meanwhile, Arioli is finishing up his own La Piccola made with the peppercorns. All three beers will be first presented at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest on May 30 in Paso Robles.
  • The base beer was brewed with the same Belgian yeast used to make Firestone Walker’s Opal saison, giving it classic fruit and spice notes. The debittered black malt provided dark color without assertive bitterness. The souring and barrel aging layered in just the right amount of earthy funk. And the peppercorn version presents its own distinctive qualities.

    “The Sichuan peppercorns are pretty intense,” Brynildson said. “If you pop one in your mouth, your face goes numb. In the beer, it adds black pepper and lemon zest notes, and it also gives this subtle tingle on the tongue.”

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tasting craft beer at Napa Smith Brewery with Master Brewer Don Barkley: Part I, Nor Cal Road Trip

(Originally posted August 31, 2010)
Master Brewer Don Barkley in his lab at Napa Smith.
(Photo by SCCB)
So Cal Craft Beer was inspired to re-post this article, which originally appeared in (warning: clicking the link will allow your computer to be taken over by a shameless slew of ads....) because of a piece that ran on National Public Radio yesterday. The piece, "Aspiring Craft Brewers Hit The Books To Pick Up Science Chops," talks about the "trend" among brewers today to master the chemistry behind the beer they make. Don Barkley, profiled in this post, has so far been the only brewer we interviewed to show us his lab, which he said was essential for good brewing practice. Barkley graduated from the prestigious brewing program at the University of California at Davis in the 1970s. Though not mentioned in the NPR piece, Davis offers one of the oldest and most respected brewing degrees in the nation.

Napa Smith Brewery, founded a little over two years ago, is located at the gateway to Napa Valley, at the corner of California Routes 12 and 29. So Cal Craft Beer (SCCB) was recently introduced to Napa Smith's Cool Brew [see Ventura Craft Beer Examiner article on Summer Beer Tasting] and decided a visit to the brewery was a must on a recent craft beer trip to Northern California.

Napa Smith is located in an industrial park, and once SCCB found the front door, no one was home. A sign in front of a little bellhop's bell at the counter inside the nondescript door said to ring for service. Soon after the bell was rung, a bearded man in wire-frame glasses and a long silver ponytail appeared. Within moments SCCB was touring Napa Smith with the man, who turned out to be master brewer Don Barkley. "We're going to open a tasting room one of these days, but it isn't open yet," he apologized.

Barkley got a brewing degree from U.C. Davis and has been making beer since the late 1970s, when he got his start at the New Albion Brewery, the first California brewery to open after prohibition was repealed. New Albion (which is what Sir Francis Drake called California) was resurrected as the nation's first microbrewery in 1976 by craft beer legend Jack McAuliffe. Barkley went on to brew for the Mendocino Brewing Company for many years.

When the Smith Family, which also runs a winery in an adjacent facility in Napa, decided that it was high time for Napa to have its own craft brewery, they approached Barkley, who jokes, "I figured it was time for me to do something completely different, so I agreed to brew for them."

At the end of the tour, Barkley offered SCCB samples of several beers - four on tap in the brewery, and one from a bottle in the offices. The brews sampled on tap were a Pale Ale, the Cool Brew, Lost Dog (a red ale), and a wonderful porter. An Organic IPA, made with German, New Zealand, and Tasmanian organic hops, came out of a bottle.

The malt and hops in each were superbly balanced. The restrained use of hops allowed the character of each style to shine. Like the brass section of a world class orchestra, the hops were definitive, but not overbearing, lending herbal and floral notes in a brilliantly conducted symphony of flavors.