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late 1970s, when he got his start at the New Albion Brewery, the first California brewery to open after prohibition was repealed.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.