Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for December, 2004

Hanging Out With North Coast’s Champs

I’ve been traveling a bit in the last few weeks. First, I visited North Coast Brewing in beautiful, almost isolated Fort Bragg, CA. Next, I went with my son (and designated driver) Zach to Santa Cruz and stopped in at Seabright.

Both visits proved once again that the brewpub concept is here to stay, but it takes work. Also note: an ordinary place, serving ordinary food and ordinary beer is in trouble.

Who wants to go somewhere and eat an $8.95 hamburger – with meat patties and buns from the local supermarket, piped in music and beer with a deadly sameness?

Neither North Coast nor Seabright are ordinary.
More about Seabright next time. Let’s talk about North Coast now.

North Coast Brewing Co. winner of dozens of Great American Beer Festival medals – was founded by three partners, led by marine biologist turned brewer Mark Ruedrich, in 1988. Fort Bragg is a small town on the Pacific 10 miles north of touristy Mendocino, 150 miles north of San Francisco.
It’s literally on the edge of nowhere. Go north on Highway 1 from Fort Bragg and there’s nothing but pounding surf, isolated beaches, redwood stumps and a few wanderers.

That’s cool and why Ruedrich and his partners, thought of a brewpub – a block from the ocean – as a way to stay on the edge of all that lonely splendor.
But Fort Bragg, a former lumber town (lots of stumps), is tiny by urban standards – 5,000 people. So, the partners scraped the cash together and built a new brewery across the street. North Coast beer in bottles and kegs can be found throughout the West and in many states in the interior. (The interior: Hah! I’ve always wanted to use that term. Left Coast, my arse. Eat your hearts out East Coasters.)

The pub, meanwhile, has become a town gathering place; I don’t know if there’s another brewpub in America that hosts a Rotary Club each week. North Coast keeps pouring out pints – and serves some of the best food I’ve ever found in a brewpub.

On a visit last month, I had North Coast Cioppino, a medley of snapper, shrimp, scallops and clams in a tomato basil broth, $17.95: not a rubber band scallop in the lot. Everything was fresh, perfectly prepared.

My wife ordered Cuban Hanger Stake, $16.95 – beef steeped in a citrus and Caribbean spice marinade. Just excellent; the meat was perfectly cooked; the spices gave it a special note.

Over a long day, I sampled seven North Coast beers – all available on draft in the tap room and the adjacent restaurant:

– Blue Star Wheat****, a 5 percent, crisp, unfiltered wheat with a thick, creamy head. Notes of lemon and clove. Taste was clean and dry with a tart finish and a fading hint of malt sweetness. What a beer for a summer day.

– Scrimshaw Pilsner Style **, made with Hallertau and Tettnang hops and pale and Munich malt had a pleasant dry finish. A clean, well-made pils.

– PranQster *** is much more interesting. It’s a Belgian-style golden ale – 7.6 percent alcohol by volume . Mark says it’s made “with a mixed culture of antique yeasts.” Powerful nose: ripe fruit, maybe currants. Take a sip and there’s a spicy hint, then sweet malt with a teasing sour note. Interesting, different beer.

– Red Seal Ale ****. Let’s face it: I love this beer, always have, always will. This is a beer with perfect balance between malts and hops. It accounts for well over 50 percent of North Coast’s national sales.
If you’re a homebrewer, have you ever stood in your kitchen with a glass of the best beer you ever made in your hand. Mark Ruedrich, like so many homebrewers, did that. And somehow, he managed to bring that very excellent glass of beer with him into the commercial market. It’s Red Seal Ale.
The day I visited North Coast had cask Red Seal on a handpump: Brilliant copper; lovely hoppy nose, a bit of citrus. The taste is almost silky, just enough malt, just enough hops and a dry, thirst-quenching finish. It’s 5.5 percent ABV, about 45 IBU. By comparison, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale has 37 IBU. But Sierra Nevada’s signature Cascade hops stand out; they’re there in Red Seal too – but in nearly perfect balance with the malt.
Red Seal is not extreme beer. It’s beer with perfect balance between malts and hops – a kind of brewer’s nirvana.
– Acme IPA*** had an agreeable, hoppy tang, with a hop follow through. Acme Brown Ale *** is meant to be a session beer, American style, brown malt, Tettnang hops, clean, malty nose, delicious malty taste, but lots of hops in the follow.
North Coast bought the Acme label a few years ago. Acme once was one of California’s most famous brewers, but it was eclipsed and buried by the national beer movement in the 1950s.
After dinner, I tried three North Coast champions:
– Old No. 38 Stout***, named for a steam engine that ran for years on an old lumber route, Fort Bragg to Willits in the northern Sacramento Valley, is a 5.6 percent dark beauty, made in the dry stout style: roast malt nose, lots of hops and roast malt in the mouth and in the follow. Perfect beer for a rainy night on the north coast.
– Old Stock Ale ****. This sample was fresh from the brewery, so it only earns four stars. Come back in three years and you’ve got a world classic in your hand. This is a beer meant to lay down and age. Fresh there’s a ripe fruit nose, figs perhaps, a hint of the tremendous hit of alcohol within – 11.4 percent ABV. It’s smooth and malty, a candy sugar note – just like a Belgian strong ale. Great tonight. Greater things ahead.
– Old Rasputin****. This is a killer stout or rather a Russian Imperial Stout – the style of strong stout perfected by London brewers meant to be shipped to the Russian nobility. It’s named for Gregory Efimovich Rasputin, a legendary 19th Century Russian Orthodox monk – thought to be a mystic with incredible powers.
Well, Old Rasputin, the imperial stout, certainly has power: At 8.9 percent and 75 IBU (Guinness has about 60 IBU, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, tops 80.) Old Rasputin has a creamy head, black and roast malt nose. Can a stout have flavor complexity – levels of intensity? Yes. This is an intricate, intoxicating champion of a beer. If you like dark and roast malts and a hoppy wham, Old Rasputin’s the beer. Salud for tonight. – William Brand.

Posted on Thursday, December 23rd, 2004
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The Great American Wet Hop Festival

HAYWARD — Can hops stone you? I didn’t think so – but after an evening in Hayward sampling the hoppiest beers on the West Coast, I’m not so sure.
I certainly got a headful of hops.
Hops have been used to bitter beer and balance the sweetness of malt for at least 1,000 years and are reported to be distantly related to cannabis.
However,naturalists and other experts point out that the relationship is so distant that unlike marijuana buds, the common hop flower has no psychotropic character.
According to herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, (Brewers’ Publications, Boulder, CO, 1998), there were many unhopped beers in Medieval times that were indeed stony – ales made with wormwood, ales with broom tips — a bush with narcotic properties common in England.
Topping that, Buhner says, was gruit ale, made with a psychedelic cocktail of bog myrtle or sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary.
When hops finally made their way out of Eastern Europe and the monasteries of the German kingdoms, there was great resistance. Hops were tagged with all kinds of evil properties. Among other arguments, they didn’t “do anything” to your head.
Wish some of those old gruit-fans could have been with me at the The Bistro Harvest Festival at the Bistro, 1001 B St., in downtown Hayward.
Proprietor Victor Kralj started this festival a couple of years ago to showcase craft beers made with hops from this year’s harvest. But it has evolved, and how — as brewers discovered new and different ways to increase the hoppiness of their beer.
The latest wrinkle is wet hops, that is — hops fresh from the field, the morning dew still on them so to speak.
The Bistro’s festival featured 10 beers made in this manner, using fresh hops, plus seven others, each famous for hop character.
The tasting drew a large crowd and even though a good band set up to play, tasters ignored the music. Finally, the musicians gave up and joined the tasting.
When I walked in the door I had a surreal moment: The first person I met was Mid-Atlantic Brewing News writer Greg Wiggins, who lives on the East Coast. No – he didn’t fly out especially for the wet hop fest. He was visiting in San Francisco, heard about the festival and came over.
“But if I had known about it and was still (home) I would have flown out for it,’’ Greg said.
We tend to take the Bistro for granted. But in the rest of America, Victor’s modest little tavern is famous as a place where some of the most interesting beers in American get their first trial.
Here’s the wet hop list and my tasting notes. However, if you try to find one of these, remember that to balance these extreme hop beers, brewers had to increase the malt bill for balance. So each one was high octane _ well above 7 percent alcohol by volume for most:

— Lagunitas Double Icepa ****,. Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma, CA. This one wasn’t in the wet hop section, but it was a champ. Made like a German ice beer; frozen, then water-ice drained off to make a stronger beer. A deep copper with a hugely hoppy nose, malty, taste with a hit of alcohol, and a dry folo. Wow.
— Bear Republic Grandma’s Harvest ***, Bear Republic, Healdsburg, CA. From the makers of Racy 5: Hops from aromatic s tart to dry finish. Stony stuff.
— Drake’s Imperial Harvest ***, Drake’s Brewing, San Leandro, CA., Brilliant, clean copper, hop aromas pouring from the thick head of tan foam. Tastes full and sweet with hops lingering in a dry follow.http://www.drinkdrakes.com/images/big_drakes_logo.gif
— Russian River Hoptime ***, Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA. Awesome hoppy nose and hops dominated from the first sip to the last. A nice malty taste in the background.
— Widmer 100th Harvest Lager **, Widmer Brothers Brewing, Portland, OR. I’m sure this is a great beer on its own. But paired against this string of extreme-hop ales, even a fine lager like this one, seems restrained. The warmer temperatures of ale brewing brings out a massive fruity quality. There’s a wildness in a big hoppy ale, that a more delicate lager can’t even imitate. They’re different creatures. Both worthy. Note of vanilla in the nose, some malty sweetness.
— Sierra Nevada Harvest **, Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, CA. I never expected to rate a Sierra Nevada beer with just two stars– average. But consider the extreme competition. Medium copper, clean, hoppy nose. An excellent, but not extreme, beer.
— Rogue Hop Heaven ****, Rogue, Newport, OR. For many a year, Rogue brewing genius John Maier was the hop king. He still is. A light copper with a lively head and a bit of malt, along with hops in the nose. This one had a silky, malt complexity that I loved. Hops came on strong in the follow. A real champ. I’d love to have this in my beer refrigerator.
— Bellhaven Harvest **, Bellhaven Brewery, Dunbar, Scotland. Clean, malty nose. Restrained taste, malt and hops in balance.
— Snowshoe Mountain Harvest **, Snowshoe Brewing, Arnold, CA. Hoppy nose, nice balanced taste, but not extreme.
— Steelhead Off the Vine Lager ***, Steelhead at Burlingame Station, Burlingame, CA. Very drinkable; nice hoppy finish.
— Moonlight Home Grown ***, Moonlight Brewing, Sonoma County, CA. Brian Hunt has been at this a long time and he’s a master. This was easily one of the most drinkable beers of the night. Everything in balance, deliciously hoppy aroma, clean malty taste with hops to die for.

Hops forever!

– William Brand, Oakland Tribune, whatsontap@sbcglobal.net

Posted on Thursday, December 2nd, 2004
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