Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for September, 2006

Can I be an Aussie too?

I’ve got Australia on the brain. And wine not? They are the number two supplier of imported wines to the US. Their wines are complex without being over-the-top. You can always spot a Barossa Valley Shiraz for its velvet luxury. Aussies make the best sparkling roses and their Reislings are dry enough to pass for Sauvingnon Blanc. An Aussie’s wit is even drier. They’ve never taken themselves too seriously. And they keep their prices just as accessible as their wines. Here are some of my favorites:

Yellowglen "Yellow" or "Pink" Southeastern Australian Sparkling NV. Get it at BevMo for around $10.

Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Rose NV. Have it with salmon or  something garlicky.

Hardy’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz NV. Deep purple and berry delicious. Usually runs under $20.

Cullen Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2003. Big enough to be a Shiraz but smooth enough to be an aged California Cabernet. A really unbelievable wine.

Posted on Thursday, September 14th, 2006
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Judging Sam Adams Homebrew Contest

Also…A visit to Sam Adams barrel room…
And A Taste of S.A. Late Harvest Imperial Pilsner

Back to the Blog…

I never drink beer at 10 o’clock in the morning – even when I was a thirsty swabbie in the U.S. Navy. But there I was this morning, sitting in the tasting room at the Sam Adams brewery in Boston, Mass., drinking beer.

Hey, I admit. It was fun. Jim Koch, Boston Brewing’s founder and CEO, invited four of us, myself, Tony Fordor,editor of the Ale Street News, the New Jersey-based beer publication, Todd Alstrom of the Beer Advocate, the web based beer database and beer rating Web site and Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association to join him to select the winners of their Longshot national homebrew contest.

Here’s the disclaimer: Boston Brewing paid our airfare and one night in a Boston hotel. But we were under no pressure to choose a particular beer. In fact, the one that Jim Koch (and I) liked, got voted down.

Judges Todd Alstrom, Tony Fordor, Gary Glass with a sampling of Utopias 2003.

The Sam Adams contest drew 1,512 entries in every conceivable style from across the United States, plus another 1,000 or so from eight foreign countries. There were 202 entries from the San Francisco Bay Area north and another 175 from southern California and neighboring states. Beer in the Bay Area was handled by Beer, Beer & More Beer in Concord. Local clubs in each region chose regional winners.

Our job was to chose two winners from the five regional finalists. Boston Brewing will bring in the two winners, then duplicate the beers, first in their test brewery in Boston, then in quantity for national distribution next February as a four-pack.
All five were excellent, homebrews any professional brewer could be proud of – and we can’t say a word about the beers until Koch makes the announcement at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver at the end of September.

Personally, I can’t wait to try the two again.

But the highlight of the trip for all of us, I believe, was an opportunity to sample a number of barrel aged beers from the barrels in the Boston Brewing warehouse with head brewer Grant Wood.
The highlight for all of us was their 2003 Utopias. They make this amazing beer almost every year, blend a bit of old Utopias with the new in the Belgian fashion.
When it came out in 2003, at 24 percent alcohol by volume, it was the world’s strongest beer. It may still be – or maybe Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout, which was 23 percent has been upped a notch.

That’s just drek for the publicity mill. Lots of things went into this beer; it was a 10-year project and I’ve posted an old column before this blog item for background.

The amazing thing is what the beer tastes like today after three more years of aging. Wow, this is a real aperitif, I said. “You mean digestif,” Tony Fordor corrected me.

“Yeah, like a fine brandy, for sipping on a cold evening.”

I didn’t take notes, but it was wild, Cognac nose. Definitely a beer, but so, so mellow and smooth. Lots of oak, but not too much.

We tasted several others from barrels, a Millennium, the 21 percenter brewed in 2000 was mellow. But paled if it’s possible for a 21 percent beer to pale before the Utopias.

Another unusual sample that stood out was something labeled “2003 Gueze.” Grant Wood said they brewed a wort, using ingredients that were around the brewery. Then they put it in a stainless steel container, took it to an apple orchard in, I think, New Hampshire, where they get the apples for the hard cider they make.

They left the bung hole open and let it sit in the orchard for a few days to let the wild yeast and whatever else was floating around in the orchard in. Finally, they closed it up and brought it back to Boston, put it in an old whiskey barrel, or rather several whiskey barrels.

Fermentation didn’t seem to be happening, so they added a bit of English ale yeast and the fermentation took off.

And there it sits.

Grant said that at one point the taste was so rugged, sour and off-putting that they thought they had created a disaster.

But now it’s quite mellow. Nearly a fine Lambic-style beer, perhaps a bit thin – compared to the best Belgian Lambic, but definitely sour with a delicate, delicious, thirst-quenching quality.

I hope they release this one some day.

Others we sampled included their Cherry Chocolate Lambic and another one still fermenting – the weird Brettanymices yeast particles clinging in inch-long, rod-like clumps, to the sampling tool. A fascinating tour.

Finished off the day with a sample of the new 8 percent Sam Adams Imperial Pilsner. The bad news for us is that it won’t be bottled, will only be available in cask in New England. That’s indeed bad news. The 2005, made with fresh German Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops and a complex malt blend was spectacular.

So was this one, perhaps a bit deeper copper color with hops so fragrant that right now, three hours after I sampled the beer, I can still taste the hops.
Koch explains that they decided to do the whole beer in a day, from the minute the German farmer picked the hops until the beer was ready for the fermenter.

The farmer went out to the hop farm just after midnight, picked two bales, they flew the hops out immediately afterwards, somehow clearing both German and U.S. customs and into the boil before midnight.

Barnam & Bailey have nothing on Jim Koch. The guy’s a showman and it’s not smoke and mirrors either. The beer is very fine. Salud. William Brand.

Posted on Wednesday, September 13th, 2006
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Background On Sam Adams Utopias

NOTE: This column was published May 21, 2003. I’m posting it as background on Utopias, which I talk about in the blog above.

Sam Adams Utopias 2003.

By William Brand
Oakland Tribune
Jim Koch _the guy who created Samuel Adams Boston Lager nearly two decades ago and helped fire up the craft brewing movement in America _ has done it again.

In one week he has introduced what is arguably the world’s best light beer on draft and the world’s strongest beer.

The light beer is Samuel Adams Light _ which weighs in at 120 calories _about halfway between Bud Light and Michelob Light, and tastes a lot better, Koch says.

It’s been available in bottles since 1999. Now, it’s on tap at bars in the Bay Area and two other places in America, (Orlando, FL and Phoenix, AZ) as an experiment to see how it does against the champs of draft beer, Bud Light and Miller Lite.

The beer at the other end of the spectrum is Samuel Adams Utopias, which Koch _ always the showman _ bills as the world’s strongest beer.

Remember, your average Bud has 5 percent alcohol by volume and most strong beers top out around 11 percent. But SA Utopias has an amazing 24 percent alcohol by volume and edges out Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout, which tests at 23 percent alcohol by volume. I’ve never seen Worldwide Stout from the Milton, Delaware craft brewer _but Jim Koch assures us that bottles of SA Utopias will be in good beer stores here in the Bay Area in time for Father’s Day.

There’s a catch, of course. The beer comes in a special 750 ml bottle shaped like a copper brew kettle and will sell for a breathtaking $100 per bottle.

It was brewed with three malts, noble German and Czech hops and four different yeasts needed to obtain such high alcohol. A touch of maple syrup was added to give the yeast enough fermentable material to continue working and produce more alcohol.

A 10-year project, the beer was aged in port, Scotch and Cognac barrels before bottling.
It follows on the heels of Sam Adams Millennium, a 21 percent beer produced to mark the new century and S.A. Triple Bock, released in 1999, which set a record at that time at 17.5

Triple Bock was huge and sweet. It tasted a bit like raisins and I put my bottle aside to taste in 10 years. Millennium was more like a fine port, still sweet, like a vintage port.

Koch, in a phone interview the other day, said S.A. Utopias has some sweetness, with Cognac notes and an herbal spicy background with hints of vanilla and cinnamon.

Sounds intriguing.

Extreme beer. Koch loves the sound of it. He didn’t volunteer it _ but I asked him what his advice is to craft brewers around the country. “You’ve got to continue to push the envelope,’’ he said. “The world doesn’tneed one more pale ale or more good porter or hefeweizen. There’s enough of that.

“Craft brewers have to continue to brew unique, distinctive, even surprising beers.’’
With guys like Jim Koch egging us on, I’m not too worried about the future.

Posted on Wednesday, September 13th, 2006
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A wine lover’s salad dressing

Don’t know about you, but I always struggle to make my dressings a little fruity or nutty to pair well with wines. Guess what? The Culinary Institute of America has developed a lemony vinaigrette that works really well with dry whites like white Burgundy and California Sauvingon Blanc. Here it is:

Whisk together: one egg yolk (or egg yolk substitute), two tablespoons lemon juice, one cup extra virgin olive oil (I’d probably do a bit less, that’s a lot of oil), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. Drizzle over butter lettuce, roasted root veggies ro even grilled or sauteed fish. YUM.

Posted on Wednesday, September 13th, 2006
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High school winemakers

Did you know the Aussies start their winemakers early? Since 1992, students at Nuriootpa High School in the Barossa Valley have been making and bottling a shiraz and a chardonnay, designing the wine labels and developing sales and marketing strategies. The only thing we made in high school was posters.

So do the wines suck? Actually, no. They cost $20-$45 and are so good that The Grateful Palate here in the CA imports the Nurioopta High Wines. The vines used for the Shiraz are the same ones that go into E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, and if you’ve had that you know it’s good. Grateful Palate sends the money from the sales back to the school to help pay for winemaking equpiment. Some seniors may be lucky enough to taste the labor. The drinking age in Australia is 18.

Posted on Tuesday, September 12th, 2006
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Affordable corkage

The next time you want to save some cash on dinner and take your own bottle of wine, go to Postino. Not only is it easily the best restaurant in the county, but their corkage is only $15. So your table of five can enjoy that bottle of Silver Oak from home for about $3 a person.

Posted on Friday, September 8th, 2006
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Art & Wine is upon us!

Okay party people, the 11th annual Lafayette Art & Wine Festival is around the corner — next weekend, Sept. 16 and 17 — and it’s one of my personal faves on the small town festival circuit because my bros from Wine Thieves are in charge. And they don’t mess around. Join me for some fabulous wines and fun in the sun. Parking is free at the Bart lot. Woohoo! For more info, go to 

Posted on Thursday, September 7th, 2006
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Electromechanical sommelier

It took two years, but Japanese scientists have created a robot that identifies wines and cheeses using an infrared spectrometer in its arm. I guess the reflected light is analzyed to determine the chemical composition of the object. It then rattles of notes and flavors and suggests pairings, even nudging its owner that a food may be too fatty or salty for his diet. Watch out, McDonald’s!

Does the robot bear a strange resemblance to Robert Parker, you ask? Not yet. For now, he is green and white with big eyes and a head that swivels. Like Parker’s when he doesn’t get his dose of big fruit.

As for our fabulous human sommeliers, don’t worry about losing your job anytime soon. As of now, the robot costs the same as a car (tho Hyundai or Lexus, I don’t know) and can only store a few dozen wines in its memory banks.

And considering that the chemical composition of a wine begins to transform the minute the cork is popped, I’d imagine the robot job market will plummet faster than it started.

Posted on Wednesday, September 6th, 2006
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Blessing of the grapes

It’s amazing how much wine comes up in religion. As Ecclesiastes said, "Drink your wine with a merry heart…for God has long ago approved what you do."

Last Friday, clergy from several religions came togeher to bless the local 2006 grape harvest at the Martinelli Event Center in Livermore. Yes, a rabbi, a priest and a minister walked into a winery…

Anyway, tomorrow, a similar event will take place at Viano Winery in Martinez. Contra Costa has seen a doubling of its vineyard acreage over the past decade and a more than quadrupling of the value of its wine grape crop. Those grapes frequently find themselves in Cline, Turley and Rosenblum wines. So it’s understandable that a little divine kiss from above can’t hurt those vines, and will surely keep all the powers that be — climate, soil, and a lot of juju — going strong.

Posted on Tuesday, September 5th, 2006
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Harvest Wine Celebration

If you’re thinking of hitting the 25th Annual Harvest Wine Celebration in Livermore today, I went yesterday and can tell you what to try and avoid:

— Drive to the wineries. Don’t take the shuttles provided unless you mind waiting around in line in the sun (without wine) for up to 40 minutes. The event is only five hours, so at that rate you’ll probably see 3 wineries. If that’s ok with you, by all means, take advantage of the transporation.

— Bring cash. There are no ATMS and all the food costs money. That said, the best food is at Garre, try the barbecued oysters with Garre’s dry rose.

— Check out Rios-Lovell. They have a newly constructed cafe and do a mean sparkling, 50/50 cab-merlot and 2001 cab. Their prices are reasonable ($15-$22) and their wines are very well balanced.

— Definitely hit Steven Kent. Bustling with young people. He makes the house wine for the Ritz Carlton Hotels (2004 Ritz Cuvee Cabernet). La Rochelle is based there too, and their Petite Sirah and Pinots are amazing. The Pinot grapes come from San Jose. Few people can make a good Pinot in Livermore. Too hot.

— My favorite spot was probably Tesla. There, you can kick back and try the goods from five wineries: the fabulous almond sparkling from LVC, the just sweet enough Bianca and red blend Melody from The Singling Winemaking and of course all the goodies from the o-chem professor turned winemaker at Fenestra.

— I didn’t have a chance to hit Wente, Retzlaff or Wood, but suggest you do. You can’t go wrong there. My general observation was that the event drew tons of Milennials, the new generation of wine drinkers that are in their 20s and 30s. They probably made up more than half of the audience.


Posted on Monday, September 4th, 2006
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