Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Commonwealth Club Discovers Beer

By William Brand
Thursday, May 19th, 2005 at 11:23 pm in Uncategorized.

SAN FRANCISCO – It’s true. The august Commonwealth Club – which regularly hosts the famous and almost famous at its famous events (Condoleeza Rice is scheduled next week) – devoted an entire evening to beer.

And what a time it was. The evening began with an hour long panel discussion, moderated by Celebrator Beer News publisher Tom Dalldorf, whose Hayward publication has become the nation’s craft beer bible.

The evening ended with tasting of a half-dozen of America’s best beers, including Anchor Bock, the august brewery’s first new beer in several years. (It was dry and delicious and coming to a store or pub near you in the next couple of weeks, read on or go to this link.)

To match these perfect beers, the club brought in Sonoma cheese maven Sheana Davis, of the Epicurean Connection. She produced an assortment of Sonoma farm-cheeses with each beer. (You can find her matches here.).

Panelists were: Mark Carpenter, assistant brewmaster, Anchor Brewing, San Francisco; Shaun O’Sullivan, brewer-co-founder of 21st Amendment Brewery, San Francisco, Homer Smith, Jr., manager Oak Barrel Winecraft, Berkeley, CA and Vinnie Cilurzo, co-founder-brewer, Russian River Brewing Co., Santa Rosa, CA.

The club’s Blue Room was nearly full and fully casual. The only guy in the room wearing a tie who I saw was the gentlemanly Mark Carpenter. I counted 75 people at the beginning, but as the tasting neared, the crowd grew. Surprise.

Carpenter explained how Fritz Maytag, great grandson of the Maytag washing machine company founder, discovered Anchor Steam and how he saved the brewery. It’s a great tale, and like the best of tales, it’s true. A Stanford graduate student, Maytag became a regular at the Old Spaghetti Factory Caffe, the famous beatnik-era spot in San Francisco’s North Beach founded by Freddie Kuh.

A 19th century sign advertising “steam beer.” Here’s what Anchor says about it: `Anchor Brewery inherited a long tradition of brewing what had come to be known as steam beer, one of the quaint old nicknames for beer brewed along the West Coast under primitive conditions and without ice. Today “steam” is a trademark of Anchor Brewing.’

I’ve eaten the spaghetti at the Spaghetti Factory and well, it was OK. But the fun part was the eclectic people who frequented the place, the musicians Freddie brought in and the beer: He served Anchor Steam. Through Freddie, he found out that the pioneer era Anchor brewery was dying. Fritz paid a visit and bought the place, saved Anchor, made it one of the world’s best breweries making classic beer and inspired the craft beer movement.

The best quote of the evening came from the always erudite Dalldorf, who said bluntly the reason that newspapers have wine pages, but not beer pages is simple: “We’re 20 years behind wine,” he said.

American wine hasn’t always had the cache it now has. Dalldorf msaid he could recall the day that American wine meant jug wine. You could buy wine for a dollar, you brought your own jug, he said. Dalldorf recalled the first American craft beer since Anchor was New Albion, which opened in 1976.

“If you could get it fresh, it was magnificent. It came in wooden boxes with a $4 deposit,” he said.

Named in recognition and memory of Sonoma’s New Albion Brewing Co. which opened in 1976 and was the first commercial micro-brewery since prohibition (5.0% alcohol by volume).

(Dipping back into my files – thanks to Apple’s sexy new OSX 10.4 search engine – I found this:

“John McAuliffe discovered good beer while stationed aboard a U.S. submarine tender, homeported in Scotland. Back home, he started homebrewing; friends liked his homebrew so much, he founded the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma on May 16, 1976. I still remember his burlap-covered, 22 oz., homebrew-style bottles.

After McAuliffe closed the brewery in 1982, two of his homebrewer helpers, Don Barkley and Michael Lovett, salvaged his equipment and helped found world-famous Mendocino Brewing in Hopland.”

At the Commonwealth Club, Dalldorf said that when he opened a wine bar cafÇ in downtown Hayward in 1980, he stocked a lot of micros (beers), New Albion, DeBakker, Thousand Oaks, London Real Ale from Palo Alto. They’re all gone today. It’s the pioneers who catch the arrows,” he said.

But there are survivors too – Anchor, Sierra Nevada. Widmer Brothers and BridgePort in Portland celebrate their 20th anniversary this month. But we have some time to go before beer is considered as sophisticated as wine,” Dalldorf said.

Homer Smith, who has been a homebrewer for a long time, recalled that in the early 1970s, homebrewing beer was still illegal in the U.S. “People would come in and buy kits to make beer that carried the warning: `Do not add yeast to the malt extract or fermentation may occur.’

“People were buying malt syrup, hops and yeast and putting them togehre. It was beer, but it wasn’t a product like Anchor,” Smith said. “Then, our own senator Alan Cranston carried a bill making homebrewing legal and (President) Jimmy Carter signed it (in 1975).

Smith said that today homebrewers can duplicate any beer, if they pay attention to details and sanitation. He noted both O’Sullivan and Cilcurzo started as homebrewers.

Homer had a great story that relates to all this: How to duplicate legendary Bass Ale. “I tried to duplicate it for years, I got close, but it wasn’t the same.”

Then a professor (who studied yeast) from
England came over to Berkeley. He dropped by Oak Barrel and said he used to work for Bass. He produced a sample of th famous Bass yeast strain. The next batch of mock-Bass tasted great.

Bass Pale Ale is world famous. The Bass & Co Brewery was established by William Bass in 1777 and was one of the first breweries in Burton-upon-Trent. By the 19th century, Bass Pale Ale was imported around the world. The red triangle on the Bass label was Britain’s first registered trademark. It’s been a heavy time for Bass in recent years; the brewery and its beer brands were scooped up by Belgium’s Interbrew in 2000 as part of a huge acquisition. The deal ran afoul of the UK’s monopoly law, so Interbrewn sold some properties to Coors, yes OUR Coors, of Golden, Co. However, Interbrew kept the Bass brand. So until March 2004, Coors made Bass at the former Bass brewery. But late last year, Interbrew, now known as InBev, moved the contract for Bass – which is Britain’s top-selling real ale _ to another famous Burton brewer, Marston’s. Coors, meanwhile, has changed the name of the world famous Bass Museum of Brewing to The Coors Visitor Centre. Got that? There’ll be a test at 9 o’clock.

Moving on, panelists agreed the reason the San Francisco Bay Area became a major launch point for good craft beer was the sophisticated palates of local residents.

Carpenter said the Bay Area has always been unique; it draws people from across the country; it drew Fritz Maytag (from Iowa), Freddie Kuh, for example, he said. Homer Smith said the Bay Area has a diverse population – people from around the world, bringing different tastes and cultures. People here want something different, something unique and revolujtionary.

O’Sullivan said the Bay Area drew him. He said he moved to the Bay Area from Los Angles because he was interested in beer. “I was headed to a career being a lawyer. I ditched it all for rubber boots (of a brewer). Beer saved my life,” he said.

Best quote of the night came from Tom Dalldorf during the Q & A session.

An audience member noted he and his wife traveled in German y and everywhere they went, there was a different beer. “How is it that Budweiser and the makers of bad beer are so extensive here?

Tom: “We don’t say Budweiser is bad beer. It’s just not that interesting. It’s a very high quality, industrial product – and it bores me to tears.”

Shaun: There are no legal reasons why there’s so much Budweiser. But we do have a lot of different beers and breweries. Just because all you see on tv is Bud and Coors, doesn’t mean there aren’t small brewpubs and brewers at the local level making a difference.”

Tom: You go to Bavaria and you see this incredible diversity of beer. But now, there are more breweries in the U.S. than in Germany.

Question: It seems like the big brewers fill their products with cereal grains (Miller: corn, Bud: rice), then market the hell out of it in advertising. What the craft brewers are dong is offering more flavor…

Shaun: I think when you use choice ingredients…you are going to produce a finer project.

HomHom Homer: Some of those adjuncts (corn, rice, etc.) will change a beer in a good way. But when you’re adding corn (to the barley mash) on a regular basis, that’s going to detract from the flavor.

Mark: All beers are very natural products. But beers around the world are becoming lighter and lighter. We are part of the world maket and you’re here because you probably like richer flavors.

Vinnie: Although I do use quality ingredients, I also use a lot of sugar, straight dextrose, added right into the (brew) kettle. I do what the Belgians do. I use coriander and cumin and orange peel, in small amounts.

There was a lot more, but I’ve got to stop. The panel discussion is going to be broadcast on many National Public Radio stations in the next month or so. Check with your local station to find out when. –– William Brand

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