Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Barrelworks at Firestone Walker

Last summer I received a letter from Frontier Airlines warning that our frequent flier miles were about to expire.  Since Frontier pulled out of Billings we have had little reason to use them anymore.  But Joycelyn had an idea to put our miles to use and take a long weekend trip to Santa Barbara California.  For years we've talked about visiting her cousin and his wife there, so this was a perfect opportunity to take a quick trip to see family and visit some new breweries.

Firestone Walker Brewing

Whenever I travel to a new location I do some searching for breweries in the area.  I knew the Firestone Walker Brewing Company was based in southern California, but did not realize how close they were to Santa Barbara.

I first discovered Firestone Walker beers on a trip to Northern California about six years ago.  Since that time their bottles have become readily available in Colorado.  I really enjoy this brewery because their staples are excellent examples of traditional British Ales.

Firestone Walker was founded in 1996 and has grown rapidly ever since - racking up much praise along the way.  Their accolades include individual & overall brewery awards from The World Beer Cup, the Brewers Association, and the GABF.  It is also worth noting that Firestone Walker is very unique in their production process.  They are one of only two breweries that still employ the famous Burton Union System (from Burton upon Trent north of London) - a barrel fermentation and blow off system that recirculates wort.

Santa Ynez Valley

A short drive from Santa Barbara is the town of Buellton where the Firestone Walker Brewery is located.  (They also have a facility in Paso Robles)  To get there follow highway 154 and climb north out of Santa Barbara up into the mountains.  You will ultimately drop into the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley.

The unique geography of Santa Ynez is created by the only significant stretch of east-west Pacific Ocean coastline between Alaska and Mexico.  This anomaly contributes to the valley's Mediterranean climate.  The rolling hills, orchards, flora and even soil reminded me of the Tuscany region of Italy.

There are a number of quaint villages in the valley.  After you pass the boutique wine tasting rooms in Los Olivos stop in the beautiful Danish community of Solvang and grab a plate of Aebleskiver.  There you can also visit the historic Santa Ines Mission.  But you will eventually make your way to Buellton for a visit of the Firestone Walker Brewery.  The movie Sideways popularized this area for wine lovers, now the rapid rise of FW is doing the same for beer.

The Barrelworks

Firestone Walker's brewery is a large building right off of Highway 101.  You can't miss it.  The facility serves as both a brewery and a restaurant.  When we arrived the place was buzzing with families out for an early evening dinner.  There were numerous kids running around.  This is an ideal spot for locals to sit down with some good food and enjoy fresh, craft beer.

But there was another section of the building walled off from the restaurant called the "Barrelworks." Having an inside tip we passed the main bar and headed right for this not-so-well-marked enclosure.  The Barrelworks offers $3 three ounce samples of a number of special FW offerings.  And it does so in a spectacular setting.

The quaint area is walled off from the restaurant and provides a close up view of FW's barrel storage facility.  There are a number of barrels of different shapes, sizes and origins... even a large foudre.  (I've seen these in wineries near Napa.  Redwood?)  The stainless steel bar and towering wood vessels create the perfect setting to sample some very special ales.

There were about 20 different beers on tap the day we visited.  They were split into two categories: "Wild Ales" and "Strong Ales."  Every beer served had spent at least one year in wood.  In addition, the Barrelworks offered a few verticals allowing the drinker to see how a specific style of beer matured over one, three, or more years.

It was obvious that Firestone Walker takes a lot of pride in this bar.  They had every detail covered down to extensive notes on each beer served.  And the servers were all required to have Cicerone certifications.

There was one thing that surprised me.  It was "happy hour" time on a Friday afternoon, and we were the only patrons in the room.  I was shocked.  This was a beer lover's dream come true and it was like the clientele in the restaurant didn't even know this area of the brewery existed.  Buellton is a small town which may explain the lack of interest in the "beer geek" area.  I thought to myself, if this place was in LoDo Denver, or Santa Barbara's Funk Zone, it would be too packed to get a seat.

Lil Opal 2014

I got the chance to sample four beers in the Barrelworks: the 2013 vintage of their American Wild Red (Agrestic), the Sucaba Barleywine, their XVI Strong Ale, and finally a 2014 Saison called Lil Opal.  I'll share the tasting notes I jotted down on the Saison.

Lil Opal is a brett accented Saison aged for over a year in 75% French / 25% American oak.  It weighs in at a respectable 5.9% abv.  It poured a cloudy pumpkin orange with a tight off-white cap.  The aroma was dominated by fresh oak with a slight pineapple tartness.  The flavor was much more subtle than the nose would suggest.  Lil Opal had a mild, fruity flavor with perhaps a touch of golden syrup character that propped up the body.  It finished quite dry which is to be expected from any beer fermented (wholly or in part) by brettanomyces.  Overall this was an excellent Farmhouse Ale with a distinct cellar character.

The other beers I sampled were equally as impressive.  If you love barrel aged strong and/or sour beers, do not pass by pass this part of California without a visit to FW's Barrelworks!

Figueroa Mountain Brewery

For those that did not get their fill visiting Firestone Walker, there is another brewery in this small town.  Figueroa Mountain is short drive across the 101 located in a light industrial neighborhood.  They make the most of their asphalt and concrete setting.  Inside, at the foot of massive fermenting vessels, they have a small bar and tasting room with about 20 beers on tap.  And on nice days the beer garden outside is a great place to enjoy a sampler or couple of pints.  Their beers range from lagers and Kölsch to wheat beers, and a number of ales - from Pale Ale to Brown.  As the brewery moniker suggests their beers are named after local landmarks.

Figueroa Mountain also has a satellite pub in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone not far off the beach.  They offer a similar selection as the brewery.  Show up early if you want to get a seat however!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

16 Beer Misconceptions (Part 2 of 2)

In my travels and discussions over the years with other beer lovers I've stumbled across some perceptions that are a bit off.   They are all basically harmless, but nonetheless it doesn't hurt to point them out.  Some of the topics on the list are general, some are specific, and others quite random.

This blog takes a look at 16 common beer-related misunderstandings relating to our favorite drink.  I've split this into two posts.  This second entry will discuss the final eight. 

Click here to read Part  1 of 2.

I'm sure I missed dozens.  Do you have any to add?  Feedback is always welcome!

To continue...

9)  All Trappist Ales come from Belgium.  When I think Trappist, I think Belgium.  But not all Trappist beers are from there.  Koningshoeven is brewed north of the border in the Netherlands.  And two years ago a new player entered the market - Stift Engelszell from Austria.  Out of the eight Trappist breweries, the remaining six are indeed from Belgium - three from the French speaking south (OrvalChimay, and Rochefort) and three from the Flemish north (AchelWestmalle, and Westvleteren).  For more about Trappist breweries please reference my blog post from last year.  

(After posting this I was notified by Jim E. that St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts also joined the list.  I knew they were coming, but didn't realize their Spencer Trappist Ale was out yet.  Good catch Jim!  And we can all welcome the USA into the Trappist ranks.)

10)  Wine is harder to make than beer.  I'm not out to start a fight here.  Nor am I saying beer is better than wine.  Nor am I saying fine wine is easy to make.  But fundamentally, wine is fairly simple.  Grapes already contain sugar, and the skins are covered with yeast.  (I know, maybe not the yeast you want, but…)  Press the grapes, and let it ferment!

Beer is produced by the fermentation of sugars derived from starch-based material.  Typically barley, but also wheat, rye, and to a lesser extent other grains.  In other words, a seed needs to be malted and mashed in order to get to the sugars that wine makers start with from nature.  Malt production and mashing take precise conditions such as moisture content, pH and temperature.  It is a fairly complex and scientific process to perfect the production of a good wort.  

Beer may be a commoner's drink, and wine may have an air of nobility, but in reality your Pilsner may have taken more skill to produce than your Pinot. 

11)  Germans drink their beer warm.  The British are famous for drinking "warm and flat" Ales, but the Germans don't drink their beer warm.  I would call it cold/cool.  Not ice cold beer out of a cooler like Americans drink at a tailgate, but definitely not warm.

12)  Brettanomyces is bacteria.  Actually brett is a form of super-attenuating wild yeast.  It is not uncommon for brettanomyces to end up in beers that are also partially fermented by bacteria, so some mistakenly think it falls into this group.  Styles such as Lambic and Sour Red Ales are examples of beers fermented with "traditional" brewers yeast, brettanomyces and acid producing bacteria.  

If you want to learn more about this much loved bug, read my November 2012 entry on Anchorage Brewing and brettanomyces.

13)  Light lagers are not good beers.  I am not the biggest fan of mass-produced light lagers.  (Though I don't object.  My father grows 2-row barley for Coors.)  Light lagers, whether mass produced or brewed by your local craft brewer, are in my opinion the most difficult beers to perfect.  

Think of a delicate Helles, or brilliantly fresh Pilsner.  Those beers need to be clean to allow the yeast to get out of the way and showcase the malt and hops.  Any minor flaw will jump out in these beers.  Dark ales and hoppy beers on the other hand are more forgiving.  Fermentation flaws often get buried underneath stronger flavors.  When is the last time you had a "flawed" Porter?  
Kloster Mülln (Monastery) in Austria

I'm not saying it doesn't take skill to make that over-the-top IPA, I'm just saying light lagers are the most challenging beers to brew.  That is my opinion anyway.

14)  Beer and religion don't mix.  I think this perception comes from religious teetotalers.  We all know one.  But I completely object to this generalization.  If not for the church beer would definitely not be what it is today.  Monks were of the few learned people of their times, and their science, experimentation and documentation helped perfect brewing practices.  We owe our great ales & lagers largely to their effort, trials and tribulations.  And think of the most sought after beers today.  Tops on that list has to be Westvleteren - brewed by monks.

Additionally, religion would not be as strong as it is without beer.  The church (often intertwined with the ruling powers) controlled beer production and distribution in much of the old world.  This strengthened their establishment.  

Throughout history religion and beer have gone hand in hand.

15)  Bock beer comes from the bottom of the barrel.  I've even read this in reputable bar guides.  I don't even really know what it means.  Is the thought that the stronger/thicker beer settles to the bottom?  

Bock beers are simply stronger, higher gravity beers.  They are brewed like any other beer.  (By German law to be classified as a Bock the wort requires a minimun starting gravity of 1.064, and 1.072 for a Doppelbock.)  

The only other explanation for this misnomer that I can think of is that most Bock beers are lagers.  (though there are Weizenbocks)  Germans call lagers untergärig, which means "bottom fermented."  This simply refers to the slow, cool fermentation carried out by yeast that have settled.  In the old days I suppose
"Funky" Cantillon Lambic in Belgium
this would mean settled to the bottom of the barrel.  But the bock beer we drink is racked off this yeast before packaging, just like any other beer.

16)  All sour beers are awesome!  Just because a beer is funky or sour does not mean it is good.  Just like hoppy beers, sour beers still require balance.  And some beer souring bacteria (like enterobacter) are down right sickening.  

Some of the world's greatest beers make use of spontaneous fermentation and/or barrel aging.  These practices lead to inoculation by brettanomyces and other souring microorganisms.  But funk alone does not guarantee greatness - or even drinkability.  Sour beer brewers should prepare to get an ear full if you want a Belgian lambic brewer to critique your beer!

Well that concludes my list of 16.  Did I miss any?  I'm sure you have some to add… please comment!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

16 Beer Misconceptions (Part 1 of 2)

In my travels and discussions over the years with other beer lovers I've stumbled across some perceptions that are a bit off.   They are all basically harmless, but nonetheless it doesn't hurt to point them out.  Some of the topics on the list are general, some are specific, and others quite random.

This blog takes a look at 16 common beer-related misunderstandings linked to our favorite drink.  I've split this list into two posts.  This first entry will discuss one through eight, and in two weeks I will finish off nine through 16.  

I'm sure I missed dozens.  Do you have any to add?  Feedback is always welcome!

Here we go...

1)  Fresh beer is better.  Anheuser Busch has spent millions of dollars drilling this into our heads.  Why?  Partly because for beer, being like bread, this theory is typically correct.  But mostly because their beer turns over so fast they don't need to worry about anyone buying an old Budweiser.  Imports, on the other hand, are often three months old before they get to the US.  It is a smooth way to get consumers to favor their product.

As a rule of thumb, filtered, light (in alcohol) beers are best fresh.  But many bottle conditioned, strong beers are worth laying down and will build character - some improving for several years.

2)  Fruit and honey make beer sweet.  This misconception probably stems from the fact that many fruit and/or honey beers are sweet.  But that sweetness typically comes from artificial flavoring or added sugars.  

The sugars in honey and fructose from fresh fruit are simple sugars and readily fermentable by brewer's yeast.  They tend to dry beer out, not sweeten it.  (Think of a dry Belgian Triple, typically made candy sugar added to the boiler.)  Honey and fruit may add character, but not body nor sweetness after being fermented out.

3)  Pilsner Urquell is dry hopped.  This Czech lager has a beautiful Saaz noble-hop aroma.  So it must be dry hopped, right?  (Aren't all hoppy beers...)  This is not the case.  Urquell is not even late hopped.  The final of three hop additions comes around 20 minutes before knock out.  This Czech brewery does use a technique known as "first wort hopping."  Hops are added to the thick first runnings before the wort is even boiled.  These running are more acidic, and many attribute that fresh hop flavor to this process.  (Counterintuitive, but it seems to work.)

I've had numerous pilsner clones that are dry hopped, and most of them are good, but they do not taste true to style.  And just because a beer exhibits a great hop aroma and flavor that does not necessarily mean it was dry hopped.

4)  Dark beers are "stronger" than light beers.  In my Beer 101 class I have a quiz question.  Which beer contains more alcohol: a) Miller Lite or b) Guinness Stout?  Lite is 4.3% abv, while Guinness is 4.2%.  Darkness in beer comes from highly kilned malts such as crystal, chocolate, black patent and roasted barley.  It does not take a lot of roasted barley to turn a beer quite dark.

Alcohol comes from the amount of sugar in the wort.  That sugar could be derived from light or darker malts.  Light beers can be quite strong (IPAs, Triples) and dark beers can be quite weak (Mild, standard Stout).

5)  All of Germany is Bavaria.  When most Americans think of Germany they have images of Maß swilling groups of Lederhosen-wearing men in big tents.  And this is what you would see if you were to visit Oktoberfest in Munich.  But wear your Lederhosen up north where Beck's or Wahrsteiner are brewed and you'll get laughed out of town.  

Bavaria is the undisputed beer capital of Germany.  From per capita consumption, number of breweries, festivals, etc.  Bayern is the place to be.  But west and northern Germany also have strong beer traditions (think Pilsner, not Helles), though culturally much different than the stereotypical American image of Bavaria.

6)  Jimmy Carter was a lousy president.  Well, I don't really want to get into politics here.  And trust me, I'm not going to stick up for Carter's record.  But not all four years of his presidency went to waste. In 1978 Jimmy Carter did sign a law that essentially legalized homebrewing at the federal level.  That is why many homebrew shops to this day will have a picture of Jimmy Carter with a halo over his head. 

(On a side note, even after this law passed, many states still barred or limited Homebrewing in one manor or another.  The American Homebrewers Association has lobbied for years to make homebrewing legal throughout the United States.  And last year they finally achieved their goal.  Mississippi and Alabama were the last two states to legalize homebrewing.  The Alabama law went into effect in May of 2013 and the Mississippi law went into effect in July of 2013.  Nice work AHA!)

7)  Winning the Beerdrinker of the Year competition is about how much or how fast one can drink.   Many people have asked me questions like,  "How much did you have to drink?"  For those that have been to the competition, they know chugging beer has nothing to do with the honor.  BDOTY is about passion, knowledge, sensory perception, being an ambassador, and a bit of wit.  I think that sums up the major points.  To give people an idea of what it takes to compete I refer them to my Beer Resume.  

8)  Homebrew is not as good as craft beer.   Not many of the craft brewers in the US are classically trained.  Most graduate from the homebrewer ranks and go pro.  In theory these guys would be the best of the best.  

With that said, home brewers have some advantages over the "big" guys.  Brewing six-gallon batches of beer instead of 600 allows the little guys to experiment more.  In addition, money is no object.  What is another 40% expense in ingredients, when it is still relatively cheap to brew your own, and time is typically the homebrewer's biggest investment.  

Finally, home brewers are not bound by inflexible brewery configurations.  Expensive craft systems are typically of high quality, but also may limit process flexibility.  Homebrewers can step mash, decoction mash, make their own hopbacks, etc.  There is just a lot more options from batch to batch on a home system.

I'd put the best homebrews up against the best craft beers any day.  Are there any judges out there that have worked both the AHA Nationals and the GABF?  I'd like to hear  your comments.

Well, that wraps up my first eight beer-related misconceptions.  Come back in two weeks for the second half of this column.  In the meantime enjoy a nice Maibock to celebrate the break of spring!