Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Brew U. - Davis CA, USA

Everyone has those days when you are fully into whatever it is you do for a living, yet there you are dreaming of doing something else.  Maybe it's doing what you do already but for yourself instead of someone else. Possibly you want to just take a break and visit that far away place you have only seen in pictures. I suppose some are just waiting on winning the lotto and quitting all together. A lot of successful businesses arise from hobbyists "going pro".  Such is the case with many home brewers.  This is where the craft brewing movement sprouted from a few decades ago. I was one of those people trying to find happiness by doing what I love for work. The problem was I was nervous about investing (or in my case, borrowing) the huge sums of money involved in starting a proper brewery, only to have it fail. One way to shore up your brewing knowledge is going through one of the many brewing courses or books available, or for the lucky ones with the time and money to spend, attend one of the brewing schools sprinkled throughout the world. The two most respected in the US are the Master Brewers Program at the University of California at Davis' Extension (classes full until 2015!) and the Siebel Institute in Chicago (also fills up way in advance but has smaller courses available). My first online course was through UC Davis and it was on my cross country to do list to drop in and see the place in person. 

Welcome to Sudwerks... much more than meets the eye!
Sudwerks beautiful brewhouse that specializes in German style brews
Just outside of Sacramento, Davis is a progressive University town.  The brewing school provides instruction from respected brewing minds, Charles Bamforth, PhD, and Michael Lewis ,PhD.  The students learn the science and technology of brewing in classes and then apply their skills on the brewing systems at Sudwerk Privatbrauerei Hubsch, which is a brewpub and distributing brewery in Davis.  
Beers during class break
 Luckily Sacramento and Davis are on the drive between San Luis Obispo and Lake Tahoe and I called up the University office to see if I could sit in on a class.  Melissa was very helpful and as an online alumni they were happy to let me check it out.  The day's topic was packaging and what types of cardboard and aluminium were used for beer thoughout the years and what emerging packages might be encountered in the future.  A topic about as satisfying as a heavily oxidized brew. (one beer geek point if you got the beer pun) And even though Charlie and Michael were not teaching that
Beers after class
day Professor John Krochta was a good host with plenty of knowledge to share. On the upside, being a Friday it was also one of the days the students set up a portable bar in the shipping dock and try out all the experimental batches they have been brewing the last few weeks. It's know as the "Dock Store" and locals can check it out too, Thurs-Sat. Check out the times here: Sudwerk Dock Store. It was a cool but sunny day as we sampled what might be the beginnings of the next creative beers from some of America's emerging brewing talent.  I felt pretty special to be there that day. Another neat thing was the collection of craft beer shirts on the group of students. Some from back home in New York where I started my journey, some from places I had been the last few weeks driving across the US, and others from overseas and far away.  Craft beer is definitely a male dominated field, so it was nice to see two females in the class of 30. There was also a small international contingent, mostly from far flung Heineken breweries in Panama and Russia.  Everyone was warm and welcoming, even though I was a complete stranger just dropping into class... as such things go when you are a traveler and a craft beer fan.

Hidden gem: Sudwerk's Dock Store!
Another pleasent surprise for me was that Sudwerks also distributes beer. They are not just a brewpub as I had thought in the past. Brennen, one of the brewers, walked me through a few of the beers. Trent gave me a tour of the facility which is a full blown brewery with ongoing expansion just like most craft breweries across the country. Add Davis to the growing list of places I need to spend more time in on my next visit.

Sudwerk Dock Store Brews
Marzen - Dry, Semi sweet
33rd St Friends - Vanilla Dunkel, just like it sounds, yum!

Sudwerks Brewhouse
Sudwerks Bottling Line
Unitanks at Sudwerks

Friday, June 8, 2012

San Luis Obispo - It takes a lot of beer to make good wine!

Daou Vineyards

Enjoying the views at sunset with vinyard manager Michael Accurso at Daou Vinyards outside San Luis Obispo

Time to fine tune the wine pallete!
As I headed out the door from Aunt Carol and Uncle Brian's to drive north Aunt Carol slipped me $40, "to buy yourself a bottle at the vineyard". Now what is The Beer Less Traveled doing at a vineyard you might ask?! Well as the old saying goes, "it takes a lot of beer to make good wine" so naturally I was going to find some good beer here.  I also should note I don't discriminate too much when it comes to wine... every 20th drink or so ends up being a glass of fermented grape juice and I enjoy the artisanship that goes into wine making. I've even made a few batches of fruit wine from our family acres in Upstate New York. I also can not resist the opportunity to stay on the vineyard overnight with the workers and see how it's all made.  Luckily my cousin BJ worked at Daou Vineyards over the past year and hooked me up with Michael Accurso the vineyard manager and Amy Kolberg who works in the lab at the winery. They opened the doors and showed me around and taught me a little more about the world of wine.  The newly expanded tasting room is gorgeous and is only rivaled by the views. Thanks to Jill in the tasting room for the wine tour as well. ...and Aunt Carol, your $40 was well spent on a bottle of Celestus!

Chardonnay '10 - 14.5%, 15 months in Oak, not too oaky
Grenache Blanc - 13.9% , Fruitier, a touch sweeter
Chemin de Fleurs '10 - 14.2% "Trail of Flowers" Semi dry, light tropical fruitiness
Celestus '09 - 61% Syrah, 28% Cabernet Savignon, 11% Petit Verdot, My pick!
Cabernet Savingion '07 - 82% Cabernet Savignon, 12% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot 

Awakening to a patchwork of olives and grapevines at Daou Vineyards, hard work and isolation has its rewards
Firestone Walker

Even though Mike makes his living on wine he is also a big beer fan.  Like I said it takes a lot of beer
to make good wine and there is living proof all over wine country.  Luckily for the vintners of
California's Central Coast they have one of America's most respected craft brewers right in their back yard. Being from the east coast Firestone Walker Brewing Co. wasn't really on my beer radar until recently. I had heard them mentioned for winning some medals but that was about it. Then at the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference in Boston I found myself in one of those moments where it felt like I was in the eye of the craft beer storm that had been sweeping America that last couple of decades. I was seated next to Dan Kenary from Harpoon Brewery and Nick Matt from FX Matt/Saranac Brewing (lobbying for Harpoon cans that coming Summer!) The panel was about the future of craft beer and included Larry Bell from Bells, Kim Jordan from New Belgium, Sam Caligione from Dogfish Head and David Walker from Firestone Walker. He was well spoken and I liked his insight and story. Then seeing their beer reach New York soon after they crept onto my must see list. Firestone Walker brewed its first beer in 1996 and hasn't looked back. 
I phoned ahead and set up a tour once I knew my eta. Mike was all in when I asked if he wanted to join me for some samples and a tour of the brewery. We arrived and had a few minutes to kill so we had a few samples while waiting. Laurie took care of us and got us through their session beers which were somewhat new to me since most of the far distributed beers are bigger flavored, higher alcohol brews. I like the fact that they don't try to sell the lighter beers 3,000 miles away as they don't travel as well as barrel aged porters might. Keeping it local and keeping it fresh, gets my vote. As we finished our samples Sara came out and outfitted us with some snazzy eye protection and took us out back for a tour.
Sara, our Cicerone Certified Tour Guide, showing off the kettle
We timed our visit perfectly or awfully depending on your perspective. It was the last day to see the "old" tour room as it was being renovated to make room for the brewery and moving across the street to a new visitors center and restaurant the next day. A week or two later I would have been one of the first to see the new layout but it was nice to see the old one in hopes I can compare it to the new one on my next visit. With the new addition they are hoping to brew 180K barrels in 2012, now that is some serious beer! They also were in the planning stages of a new beer fest. The region is used to seeing many wine festivals but lacks a good old craft beer fest.  Another item to add to my craft beer "to do" list.  

View from old brew house of new brew house at Firestone Walker
Sara was a great guide and as fellow Cicerone (aka Beer Sommelier) we were able to "geek out" as we went through the process and all the equipment.  It was also cool having a winemaker on the tour since Mike's knowledge of fermentation from a different angle brought out new questions on the process. Expansion was in full swing while we were there with the foundation for the new brewhouse being poured that week. I also got a close up of their unique barrel aged fermentation and blending process. Something born out of the Firestone connection with wine and the brewery's location in one of California's bigger wine regions.

Up up and away... running out of room at Firestone Walker 

About 20% of Firestone's DBA is fermented in oak barrels and then blended with the same beer that fermented in stainless steel. These guys focused on mostly one small range of beers when they started allowing them to fine tune their beers.  The payoff was owning that category at beer festivals raking in heeps of rewards. They are branching out these days more but their pale ale and barrel aging roots are well intact. Head brewer Matt Bryndilson has been named America's best brewer twice in a row now, and three times all together. A serious accolade considering the field of talented brewers across the nation and world.

James racking beer out of barrels... part of Firestone's unique brewing process

Hefeweizen - 4.7%, Light and easy drinking. Bavarian yeast lends a bunch of banana and clove flavor
Pale 31 - 4.8%, Fuggle, Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops in great balanced pale, my pick!
DBA - 5%, British Pale style flagship brew, mellow by design w/ Kent and Styrian Goldings with 20% oak barrel and 80% stainless steel fermentation (see photo above)
Union Jack IPA - 7.5%, drier IPA with 6 hop varieties
Double Jack 2xIPA - 9.5%, on the maltier side
Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout - 5.5%, Balance w/ Chocolate and Coffee notes
Velvet Nitro Merlin Oatmeal Stout - 5.5%, same but more velvety mouthfeel
Velvet Merkin - 8.5%, Sweet Vanilla and tropical flavors from barrel aging Merlin
I can't decide if I like the original Merlin or the Merkin better... both fantastic, Pale 31 also got top marks!

Ain't No Party Like a Wine Coast Party

How could a day at a brewery and a winery get any better?  A house party with the winemakers! We ended the evening with some good homemade eats and all sorts of beverages. I shared a few of the beers from my travels and they opened up some wine. I can't say too much as notes are bit thin at this point but I know we cracked open a bunch of beers from my travels including New Belgium's 1554 and a Belgo IPA, a Funkwerks Saison and few others. I also have to look more into Tri-tip cut beef, Nara '05 & '07 wines, Left Coast Cellars, Chateau Margene and The Murder City Devils... there might have been some home brew, champagne and a few shots too! A big thank you to everyone in SLO for hosting and sharing their knowledge and appreciation for wine and beer, I learned a lot. I hope to return someday soon. Cheers! 

Beautiful wine, properly decanted