Roll out the Barrel-Aged Brews

thumb_IMG_3269_1024I often take for granted that people are familiar with different beer styles, given the rapid explosion of the craft beer industry. But many of my peers’ beer drinking days ended shortly after their college years, and their idea of beer remains Coors or Bud.

Most people are familiar with today’s IPAs and other popular craft beer styles. But I’m certain it comes as a surprise to know that there are as many as 120 different beer categories and subcategories, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program.

One of the most popular styles right now is barrel-aged beer. Not fashioned for the casual beer drinker expecting a light and refreshing thirst-quencher, these brews are for sipping slowly.thumb_IMG_3268_1024

Technically, a barrel-aged beer is any style of beer that has been aged in a wooden barrel. The contact with the wood or with wood chips brings out unique flavor characteristics specific to that kind of wood (mostly oak), or from what was previously stored in the barrel. In many cases, that was bourbon, rye, rum, brandy, port wine or other spirits. The liquor-soaked wood influences the taste and aroma of the beer, adding unique and delicious flavors such as vanilla or spices. Depending on the barrel and the time the beer has been aged (typically six to 18 months), it also adds distinct boozy qualities and increases the beer’s alcohol level.

thumb_IMG_3633_1024The process tends to enhance the beer to a complexity more commonly found in wine. These strong brews are best sipped from a brandy snifter glass rather than a pilsner glass.

Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company released its first Bourbon County Stout in 1992, and today the annual “Black Friday” release brings long lines to liquor stores nationally. The style has become so popular that almost all craft breweries have at least experimented with putting beers in barrels – most to great fanfare and success. Some have become quite proficient, including Simon Brown and Brian Seffer at Claremont Craft Ales, where there are almost always one or two delicious barrel-aged brews on tap. Hangar 24 in Redlands offers its incredible “Barrel Roll” series with special seasonal releases. And while barrel-aged bottles may not always be readily available at grocery stores, reputable liquor stores may carry as many as two-dozen varieties.

Noted beer makers like Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos and Patrick Rue from The Bruery in Placentia have gained international fame for their barrel-aging genius. Upon recently sipping a bourbon-barrel-aged Deliverance Ale, one out-of-town visitor to Port/Lost Abbey exclaimed, “This is Christmas in my mouth!”IMG_0935

Brewery Special Releases and Anniversaries

12339414_10100582973778029_5829703369428039815_oThe line stood more than 100 people deep as it wrapped past the dumpster and around the corner. As the clock ticked toward the magical hour on a cool sunny mid-December day, a somewhat startled Josh Hamilton peeked his head out the door to the delight of those waiting outside.

No, Hamilton isn’t a famous celebrity or the Major League Baseball player with the same name, but to those who waited he was a rock star. His Hamilton Family Brewery was releasing its Big Night Oil bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout. With fewer than 200 of the $19 bottles available to purchase, and only a small amount on tap at the Rancho Cucamonga brewery, you were left out if you didn’t plan ahead.12360408_10100582973877829_4040009132784299317_n

Such is the case with special craft beer releases. Many coincide with brewery anniversary celebrations, while others are timed with first-time or exclusive once-a-year seasonal offerings. Dale Bros. introduced a new beer for its Brews and Bros festival in January, and Claremont Craft Ales has tapped special brews at each of its three anniversary events. Such occasions are definitely cause for celebration – and a new highly anticipated beer.

Of course, the introduction of a new beverage could be cause enough for festivities. Rök House in Upland recently celebrated the draft release of its new Sledge Hammer quadruple IPA with the bottle release of its Hammer of Thor IPA.12650954_528264124019740_4805205808284948777_n

Most craft beer makers also limit the number of bottles of a special brew they’ll sell to each customer, in part to slow potential secondary market sales. Resale, trade and the collection of highly desirable craft beer is not unlike buying sporting event or concert tickets from a scalper – it will cost you.

The fall and winter months bring a lot of barrel-aged releases. Goose Island’s famed Bourbon County stouts are traditionally released on Black Friday after Thanksgiving. Hangar 24 in Redlands hosted its annual Barrel Roll series release in December, with bottles sold online in advance of an afternoon bottle “pick up” event in which new and past Barrel Roll brews were offered on tap. Not surprisingly, the bottles sold quickly and the kegs emptied rapidly.

12301746_10153777106032162_3002814223613011929_nThe Lost Abbey/Port Brewing in San Marcos released its “My Black Parade” in October, and despite its $41 per 750 ml bottle price tag, it sold out within minutes. I’ve since seen it listed by after-market sellers for upwards of $200.

Local beer aficionado Bob Grider made the long trek to Truckee, Calif., in December in the snow for this year’s release of the Eclipse Fifty-Fifty barrel-aged imperial stout series. He came home a happy man with new additions to his “Imbibery” collection.

Brewery anniversaries and festivals also are cause for anticipation. Online tickets to this summer’s Firestone-Walker International Beer Festival in Paso Robles began at 10 a.m. on sale Feb. 1 and were completely gone by 10:02.

Beer 101: Picking the Winners

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For years there have been classes and seminars about wine—where it comes from, how to taste it, what food to pair it with and so on. Walk into most major liquor stores on a weekend and there will be small wine-tasting classes. There’s even an educational aspect to tastings at wineries. The Los Angeles County Fair has offered a full schedule of free wine education classes every September in Fairplex Wine, Beer and Spirits Marketplace adjacent to the Flower and Garden building.

With the many lessons about wine, there have been very few opportunities to learn about beer or distilled liquor. For the first time, Fairplex will offer educational sessions about these beverages, in addition to wine classes, at this year’s Fair, which runs from Aug. 29-Sept. 28 in Pomona.

While wine remains the focus of the pavilion, the marketplace has also spotlighted a growing number of spirits and beers in recent years, and this year the list of guest lecturers will offer their insights into distilled liquor, mixology and beer, among other topics.IMG_1048

The expanded educational program is appropriate, given the resurgent popularity of classic cocktails and craft brews, and the continued development of the Los Angeles International Wine, Beer and Spirits competitions. The Fairplex staff was kind enough to allow me to take a look at the process that goes into selecting the award-winners at this year’s commercial beer competition.

While all three competitions rely on the expertise of industry experts, they’re all very different from one another, as documented in this recent piece about the spirits competition. Beer judging much more complex than the process used for wine or spirits, said Curt Dale of Dale Bros. Brewery in Upland, supervisor of the beer competition judges, who are brewmasters, writers, restaurateurs and others with ties to the industry. Most are certified through the Beer Judges Certification Program, and the competition sticks to strict BJCP and Brewers Guild competition guidelines.

Jill Roman, the competition coordinator from Fairplex, said there were nearly 1,000 entries this year, which represented a 46 percent increase over 2013. Not surprisingly, the India Pale Ale (IPA) category drew the most entries, while the largest growth came in the Gluten Free Beer and Fruit Beer categories.

IMG_1047Twenty-seven two-person panels spent the entire day June 7 evaluating hoppy and malty brews, with many of the judges returning the next day to finish the 84 different judging categories before moving on to the Best of Show discussion.

 

Amy Pond-Cirelli, who is attractions and competitions supervisor at Fairplex, noted that wine judging is much faster, and judges may taste 90 to 100 different wines in a day. Spirits judges usually taste more than 50 in a day.

“Beer judges will typically taste just 25-30 beers a day, which is much different from wine or spirits judging,” she said.

“Part of the sensation is actually drinking the beer,” said Dale. “I’m pushing our judges to do 35 in one day.”

Aside from swallowing some of the beer they sample, beer judges are required to do a lot of writing. “Beer judges have to make notes about a variety of categories on all of the beers they taste, said Pond-Cirelli. “It’s a more involved process; it’s important to the entrants to see the judging notes. They want to know what the judges thought about their beer so they can choose to make changes to their recipes if they want.

“With wine, a vintage is based on the grapes and the climate, not so much a formula change that the winemaker makes each year. And you don’t often see any changes with spirits. But craft brewers are always changing their beer recipes, so the judges’ notes are valuable.”

Like the other competitions, this was a “blind judging,” meaning the judges knew the category they were judging, but not the brewery that made it. Big-name macro-breweries compete against small community craft breweries. With so many entries, Dale admitted this format makes it hard for even for the most seasoned of judges to identify specific brewery beers.

Beer judges weigh their scores against the BJCP standards, rather than against other brews. Based on those standards, beer styles are supposed to exhibit specific characteristics in each judging category (aroma, appearance, flavor, fourth/feel and overall impression). A beer may be particularly delicious, but not fit the style description. Judges then move the beer to the proper category, give it lower scores or eliminate it from the competition.

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“We’re looking at a lot of the same things as wine and spirits judges, like aroma, appearance and taste,” said Dale. “But it is different because each beer style is its own. For example, if a beer is supposed to be cloudy and isn’t, then it will be marked down. And if it is not supposed to be cloudy and it is, then that will count against it as well.”

As the number of two-person panels dwindled as they finished their work on the second day, one of the morning judges had to leave. Dale asked me to sit in to judge the Robust Porter category, pairing with Christy Elshof, who is a home brewer and president of the California Homebrewers Association. She’s been home brewing since 1996 and judging the Fair’s beer commercial competition since it started. A BJCP Certified Beer Judge since 1999, she’s been judging at competitions since 1996.

Christy provided me with tips on not only how to go about tasting, but what to look for in different styles. For example, the Robust Porter should have a dark appearance and a roasted malty nose. It’s important to have a well-balanced beer that does not have a lingering astringent (dry aftertaste, much like you find in wines from the tannins). The beer should have the right feel in your mouth, meaning it isn’t too thin, but also not too big. It should have a roasted malty flavor and a balance between malt, sweet and a little bitterness.

Because the preliminary portion of the competition was nearing its end, the Robust Porters were actually spread among three panels, meaning the fate of those who entered this category were not determined by a novice judge. Christy and I selected a clear winner from our group. She and another certified judge, Tim Thomas, compared our winner against other top Robust Porters from other groups. Apparently the one we chose was not up to the level of the others.

Judges are allowed to suggest several beers to be put forward to Best of Show consideration. If a beer is recommended by one of the panels and has scored enough points to qualify, it moves into the Best of Show competition. This truly is like trying to compare apples to oranges, because the beers represent a wide range of categories. There were eight gold medal-winning beers that were considered, representing eight different styles: Fruit Beer, Aged Beer, Sweet Stout, German Style Wheat Ale, German Style Hefeweissen, Imperial Red, Specialty Beer and American-Style Ale. Again, the idea is to judge against standards rather than beer vs. beer.

IMG_1052The final judging panel went around and discussed each of the beers, with each speaking about a beer they would eliminate from consideration for Best of Show. Five of the eight were eliminated fairly quickly, and the group agreed on the top three. The official results don’t list all of the beers that advanced to the Best of Show consideration, except the eventual winner, which was the seasonal Signature Quad from Choc Beer Co. in Oklahoma.

One of the judges had saved some beer that he felt was particularly worthy of consideration for Best of Show, but didn’t have the points to advance. One was a barley wine and the other a barrel aged beer (with clearly a high alcohol content). The barrel-aged beer could have easily been the Best of Show, in my opinion.

The list of winners is very diverse, with craft breweries from around the country claiming medals. Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, had the most medals with 13.

Beer aficionados will have the opportunity to sample this year’s medal winners, along with award-winning spirits, wine and olive oils, at the “Cheers!” food and beverage festival at Fairplex on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are available online.

Articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene now appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. An abbreviated version of the above article will appear in the August magazine.

 

Local Craft Breweries are Booming

 

IMG_0547I’m pleased to note that articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene now appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. Highlighted below is the full-length version of the piece from the June magazine…

 

Most people of legal drinking age have had at least some experience with the vast and varied world of adult beverages. Be it a great beer, fine wine or well-crafted cocktail from an appealing distilled spirit, these beverages serve as intriguing and integral complements to our society. This column focuses on the outstanding and unique products, events, places, people, recipes and business aspects that embody the imbibing world. And, as always, we remind you to drink responsibly.

The current boom in the craft brewing industry continues to broaden opportunities for genuine innovative business ventures for local entrepreneurs to express their creativity in a way like never before. New establishments continue to pop up all the time, and it appears that the Inland Empire may be adding more soon. What a wonderful way to make an honest living, while also making a lot of people happy at the same time.CCA 2

“The growth of the industry is good for everybody,” says Andy Dale of Dale Bros. “We’ve got a lot of people in this region, and for a long time it has been a beer desert. But that is changing.”

With Dale Bros. Brewery in Upland, Claremont Craft Ales in Claremont, La Verne Brewing Company in La Verne and Sanctum Brewing Company in Pomona already firmly established, and Rök House Brewing Company scheduled to open Saturday in Upland, beer lovers in and around the local region have a generous choice of nearby craft beer-brewing taverns.

“It definitely seems to be good for everybody,” says Dale. “The analogy that I like to use is, ‘What if Napa Valley only had two wineries that were 40 miles apart? It would still be a pretty place, but there wouldn’t be a lot of wine drinkers going there.’ We help each other.”

The industry growth throughout the nation gives reason to believe that more new breweries will be dotting the local landscape in the months and years ahead. Nationally, craft brewers reached 7.8 percent volume of the total U.S. beer market in 2013, according to the Brewers Association. While that is only a small percentage of the nation’s overall beer sales, it is up from 6.5 percent of national sales in 2012.

There were a total of 2,768 craft and small breweries operating in the United States in 2013, an increase of 15 percent over 2012, according to a March report by the Brewers Association, the trade organization representing small and independent American craft brewers. That included 1,237 brewpubs, 1,412 microbreweries and 119 regional craft breweries. Last year alone, 413 new breweries opened in the United States (and 44 closed), and small brewing companies employed 110,273 people in 2013, also an increase over 2012. More than 1,000 breweries are currently in the planning stages across the country.

IMG_0929The movement is really just in its infant stages in the Inland Empire. While Dale Bros. has been pouring and distributing craft beers for more than a decade, most of the brewing operations spread throughout the Inland Empire and eastern San Gabriel Valley are relatively young. Among the others brewing locally are Chino Valley Brewery in Ontario and I & I Brewing in Chino. Extending a little beyond the immediate area, there is Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, Ritual Brewing Co. and Donkey Punch Brewery in Redlands; Brew Rebellion in Yucaipa; Main Street Brewery and TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Corona; Sons of Liberty Ale Works in Norco; Kat Daddy Breweries in Moreno Valley; and Inland Empire Brewing Company,Packinghouse Brewing Company, Wicks Brewing Co., Thompson Brewing Co. and Area 51 Craft Brewery in Riverside.

While this may seem like a lot in a short time, it is nothing compared to the many offerings in San Diego County. There are more than 80 craft breweries in San Diego County alone, which has become what many people are calling the “Napa Valley of craft beer.” The industry has helped boost the image and the economies of their local communities.

Thanks in large part to the widespread overwhelming success of Stone Brewing Co., the region has embraced the San Diego craft beer explosion, and the brewers work and live together in a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, sharing ideas and recipes, collaborating on special releases, and even giving visitors to their tasting rooms recommendations on other breweries to patronize. The area truly has become a renowned beer community.

“You can tell the brewery that’s not going to survive is one that thinks it has secrets,” said Curt Dale, founder of Dale Bros. Brewing Co., explaining that much of the industry growth can be directly attributed to cooperation between breweries. He said that he and his brother Andy have helped several local breweries get off the ground, and the appreciation is reciprocal.IMG_0936

“Claremont Craft Ales even has a sign that says ‘Visit Dale Bros.’ on its tasting room wall,” he said.

A large part of the appeal of craft beer is the creativity that goes into making some the best beer in the world, as is evidenced at San Diego County heavyweights Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Stone in Escondido, Mother Earth in Vista, Ale Smith in San Diego, Pizza Port in several locations, and many others. Brewpubs like Karl Strauss have their restaurants and tasting rooms spread throughout Southern California (and would be an ideal fit in the Inland Empire).

Sid at workMany of these places specialize in what would aptly be described as either “session beers” or “sipping beers.” I find the best way to sample craft beers is much like you would taste wine – in small quantities. Try an assortment of beers in small “taster” glasses, and then enjoy a pint or two after sampling several offerings. Better yet, take home a 22-ounce bottle or a 64-ounce growler to savor later.

Along with the craft breweries where you can test a variety of a single brewery’s production styles, brewpubs, restaurants and bars throughout the country are now offering a wide selection of craft beers. Liquor stores, grocery stores and even big wholesale club stores carry generous collection of beers you’ll never find in a 30-pack carton.

Mother Earth

Mother Earth tasting-roomAlthough I have been an advocate for the many craft breweries in San Diego County, I’ve actually visited just a handful. However, their products have been prominent at tasting events and in retail outlets, so I’ve had no shortage of samplings. Most trips to visit our boys who attend Cal State San Marcos result in a visit to Port Brewing Co./The Lost Abbey, where Sid pours some of the greatest beers in the world, and we enjoy dining at the Karl Strauss brewery/restaurant in Rancho Bernardo, where Sam is a server of their carefully paired food and beer. Along with a few trips over to Stone, the Disneyland of craft breweries, I’ve only been to the nearby Belching Beaver Brewery in Vista. Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to get me away from the Lost Abbey, especially when Sid’s behind the bar. Plus, their beer is almost impossible to beat.

That being said, we’ve added another destination to our list of must-visit craft breweries. On our most recent visit to see our boys, we learned that longtime Port/Lost Abbey tasting room manager Jason Danderand had taken over as the tasting room chief at Mother Earth Brew Co. in Vista. So we paid our friend a visit.

IMG_0790Rather than the typical craft brewery located in an out-of-the-way industrial complex, Mother Earth is situated right on Main Street in Vista. Its spacious taproom opens to the historic downtown street, with both indoor and outdoor seating. It is truly much more accessible and comfortable than many similar places, and it is also dog friendly.

Along with a full taproom of clearly very popular beers, Mother Earth caters to home brewers, offering a supply store next door with ingredients, equipment and recipes for people who brew their own beer, while presenting a unique tasting environment for those who just want to appreciate great beer. Jason said the place is always lively with activities such as classes for home brewers, bingo, live entertainment, Cask Fridays and special educational events like Thursday’s pre-Valentine’s Day pairing of beer and chocolate in partnership with local chocolatier So Rich Chocolates.

mother earth muralOh, and the beer. Well, we didn’t have the opportunity to sit and enjoy many tasters, because we just wanted to drop in and say hello to Jason (and Michelle, another former Lost Abbey beer server). But the Sin-Tax Imperial Peanut Butter Stout was fantastic (and people who don’t favor dark beers will enjoy this treat). Next time we’ll plan on dedicating the appropriate time to relishing the Mother Earth experience. Too bad we don’t live nearby, or we might not ever leave (I’m beginning to understand your “dilemma,” Paul Compton!).

The Spirits of the Community

I caught up again with Liquorama’s John Solomon to get more of his insights on the beverage industry.  Rather than focus this time on particular spirits, I asked about his store’s position in the community, both as a business and as a contributor to the greater good.liquorama 4

As the region’s top independent family-owned liquor retail store, Liquorama has been an Upland institution since 1978, including the past 15 years under Solomon’s ownership. The store’s top competition comes from the bigger chains BevMo and Total Wines and More, but Liquorama’s status allows Solomon flexibility that the big chains don’t enjoy.

“Being family owned, we are able to make decisions and secure special orders immediately,” he said. “We are able to bring in the newest products instantly without going through corporate channels. We aren’t focused on making some corporate entity happy with the bottom line; our goal is to make our customers happy. We don’t greet you with you a ‘hello,’ we greet you by name.”

Two separate BevMo stores opened in Upland this fall, but John doesn’t seem to be concerned.

“They will only make us look that much better,” Solomon said. “We have a larger selection at better prices, with amazing customer service. We will continue to serve this community as we have for the past 35 years.”liquorama 5

Solomon said that customer service and commitment to the community set Liquorama apart. “Eighty percent of our staff has worked at Liquorama for over 10 years. The knowledge and experience in our store is exceptional.”

Those staff members are the experts at in-store public beer and wine tastings every week. The store recently added a craft beer tasting on the first Friday evening of every month, with staff members picking the selections for each event.

liquorama 2Along with the regular tastings, Liquorama hosts a larger-scale beer tasting twice a year at Imagine That in Upland. It also holds a sidewalk sale every October. The in-store Enomatic wine dispensing system allows store customers to taste wine on their own every day of the week.

Tastings are not the only events where Liquorama personnel connect with the community. “The Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center wine tasting in May is our biggest event each year. We have raised more than $500,000 for the neo-natal unit,” Solomon said. “We also donate a lot of wine to various other causes throughout the community.”

Peter Peter Pumpkin Drinker

Taking advantage of a rare night when both of my boys were home in early November, and in keeping with the spirit of the season, the Robinsons staged our own pumpkin ale tasting (sorry it took so long to post this). It might not have been the most complete sampling of pumpkin-flavored beers, but we did get through three 22-ounce bottles before we agreed that we had enough. I opened the fourth bottle a week later.IMG_0618

All of the brews were fine, but pumpkin beer is like pumpkin pie and pretty much anything else pumpkin – you can only take so much, if any. For Beth Robinson, her sampling ended with just a sip of each.

Epic Brewing’s Imperial Pumpkin Porter had a nice spice flavor, but not much pumpkin to it. Nothing special. The Shipyard Brewing Co. Smashed Pumpkin definitely had more pumpkin to it and was actually a nice, refreshing ale. It was our favorite, but is better suited for sampling than quaffing. That was even more true of the Rogue Farms Pumpkin Patch Ale, which was a bit more earthy and carried more of the vegetable characteristics. It wasn’t bad, but it only confirmed that it was time to change directions.

The Hangar 24 Local Fields “Gourdgeous” Imperial Porter that I opened later might have been the best of the lot, mainly because I have a preference for the darker beers. Nevertheless, it had a ton of spice and was very similar to Stone’s 2012 Vertical Epic 12-12-12 (although I didn’t taste them side by side, that is the comparison that immediately came to mind).

Thanks to Jaclyn Bosson for the idea, and next time I think we’ll try another specialized tasting with beers brewed with a winter holiday theme – as long as none of them taste like pumpkin.