Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for January, 2007

Au Bon Climat

I had a great pinot noir last night at downtown, the tapas and jazz spot on Shattuck in Berkeley, that I hadn’t tasted since my days living on the Central Coast. Actually, it was my date’s wine but I kept snagging swigs. If this Au Bon Climat (Santa Barbara County) had been in our blind tasting on Saturday, I think it would’ve beat out Clos Du Val for the top spot. I’d forgotten how heavenly it is. Velvety like a Cab, and rather medium-bodied too, so those who like thin pinots probably would rather stick to ordering a Cab. But unlike the big bomb Cabs I usually like to drink this was so smooth, like liquid potpurri, and the finish just went on and on. Tasted like a marriage between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux. I’ve seen this bottle for anywhere between $25 and $35. downtown charged about $9 a glass. Order it next time you’re there and look for it and any other Santa Barbara pinot next time you’re face to face with a list. You won’t be sorry.

Posted on Wednesday, January 31st, 2007
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Letters: Open Dating, Bigfoot, Grimbergen, Ace Cider


Bill, About Bigfoot, do you know any place around the Bay Area that may have 2006 BigFoot left in stock? Could you also send me your retailer list that you have mentioned in your blog?

David, Bigfoot is coming out in a week. And you can most likely still find last year’s at stores with good beer stocks. Sometimes, there’s even 2005 and 2004 around. Depends on the store. One thing about Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale from Sierra Nevada, it’s so strong that even if it’s been sitting on a warm shelf for a year or two, it might be OK.

It’s easy to tell the year, it’s on the bottle cap like the one above. (By the way, Danielle Ash took the photo of the Bigfoot bottle cap. She has a website devoted to beer bottle caps, fascinating stuff:

William, A friend of my told me about this beer – Grimbergen Optimo Bruno – that he had while he was stationed in England. Do you know if it’s available in the Bay Area?
Ann

Hi Ann. I’ve e-mailed the importer, but it doesn’t look like he brings it in. He does bring in Grimbergen Double and Tripel, but they’re apparently only a pale shadow of the 10 percent Optimo Bruno. Something similar and perhaps even better, which is available here is Abbaye Des Rocs, a strong, 9 percent beer, and Abbaye Des Rocs Speciale Noel, which is 10 percent.

Also, several of the beers made in Belgium at Trappist monasteries are similar. In fact, Grimbergen, made by Alken Maes,is a copy of a Trappist beer. The most easily obtainable in California is Rochefort 10. I believe it’s sold at Beverages and More stores. Also, you have two great shops on the Peninsula: Draeger’s and Beltramos. Best.b.

Hi Bill, Scottish and Newcastle now own Alken Maes Brewery and import Grimbergen Double and Triple but I don’t believe that they import the Optimo Bruno. Jeffrey House, Ace Cider, Sebastopol, CA.

Note: Jeffrey operates the only cider pub in California, if not America. He serves all his Ace ciders, including my fav, Ace Pear. The pub’s at 3100 Gravenstein Hwy North. The phone number is (707) 829-1101. He’s long been an importer of good beer, English and Belgian. All his beers are on tap including two new Belgians, which I haven’t had a chance to try yet: Abbey D’Aulne Belgin Double and Triples.

Posted on Tuesday, January 30th, 2007
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First wine club: 2004 Pinot Noir

Michaela, Jenny and I have long talked about starting a wine group, and we finally had our first get together this Saturday night. We invited our friend Christina, who works in the industry, and about six others. Eight to 10 people is the ideal number for a tasting club because one bottle serves them perfectly. Here’s how ours worked:

Jenny hosted the first one and thus got to pick the theme (2004 Pinot Noir) and provide most of the snacks. She sent an email out weeks in advance so we all knew what wine to buy. Couples brought one bottle, so we had five bottles total. There was no price point requirement, which I think is a good idea, because that way you can really explore the range of a varietal’s quality, not just it’s varying expressions.

We covered the bottles with bags and assigned each bag a letter, A through F. Then we got to tasting. Tasting and scribbling on our tasting sheets that Jenny had printed out in advance. It was good that we had some foods ideal for Pinot, like stuffed mushrooms. We discussed some of our impressions then eventually revealed the favorites. Here they are:

FIRST PLACE: Not surprisingly, was Clos Du Val ($24). Michaela said we must have a French palate but I beg to differ — I think this wine is smooth without being boring. It has a nice finish for how young it is and actually tastes more like an 02. It has and probably will continue to be one of me and Jenny’s favorite wines. We’re hoping to serve it at her bridal shower in April. Eeee!

SECOND PLACE: Sterling. Only 14 bucks and so delicious. Especially with salmon, I’d imagine. A great buy.

THIRD PLACE: My wine. Gundlach Bundschu’s Rhinefarm Vineyard from Sonoma Valley ($32). I liked the overall Burgundian flavors, it was silky and had lovely dried rose aromas. I ranked this one third on my list.

FOURTH PLACE: Bouchaine from Carneros. Around $24. Too much cherry for me.

FIFTH PLACE: Concannon. It was only $9, but we could’ve lived without it. Almost had a cooked fruit flavor to it. More like a zinfandel, too sweet, than a Pinot Noir.

An Alameda couple in the group is set to host next month. I’ll share our findings with you and maybe even post photos if we get their permission. Future themes include unoaked or naked chardonnay, reislings and sparklings.

Posted on Monday, January 29th, 2007
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No Watered Beer in Fremont, Open Beer Dates at Speakeasy

Did you read our report two days ago on watered Anchor Steam at a pizza place in Fremont, CA. Anchor Brewing’s East Bay distributor, Bay Area Beverage, sent a draft expert to the place, which we did not publish.

All was in order and the beer coming out of the taps was indeed Anchor, the company said. My guess: The owner figured it out and corrected the problem before Bay Area showed up. Whatever.

Also…This late note on dating beer from Speakeasy. Steve Bruce says all their bottled beers are open dated, but the dating is on the four-packs, not on the bottle.

“It’s a `born on’ date,” Bruce says.

By the way, this San Francisco craft brewer _ they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary this year – has just released an imperial India Pale Ale in 22 oz. bombers. It’s Double Daddy Imperial IPA, a modest (gasp) 9.5 percent alcohol by volume. Can’t wait to try it.  They have a reputation for powerful, chewy beer, the kind that warms my used-to-be-a-homebrewrer soul.

Posted on Friday, January 26th, 2007
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We Help Playboy Pick the Best Beers in America

Well, I’ve made Playboy.com. But don’t look for me or any of the beer experts in the panel with our shorts off or admiring buxom playgirls. Playboy asked us to pick the best 10 beers in America. We each submitted a list and they chose the top 10…Here’s the top of their story:

“Playboy.com’s panel of beer experts told us their favorite American microbrews.

Here are 10 worth savoring.

Men often view beer the same way they view sex: As long as you’re getting as much as you want, everything is okay. But what’s the point of a large quantity of anything if you’re not also getting high quality? Fine beers, like gorgeous women, should be savored and enjoyed for their unique characteristics.

In the spirit of searching out something more sophisticated to drink, we polled some of the nation’s beer experts to come up with a list of the 10 best microbrews in America. While it’s an impossible task to list all the deserving beers being made today in the thousands of small breweries spread across America, this inventory of distinctive brews should provide you with a good starting point. Unlike gorgeous women, no good brew is ever out of your league…”

Here’s Playboy’s Top 10:

1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
2. (Victory Brewing, Downingtown, PA.) Prima Pils
3. (Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY) Ommegang Abbey Ale
4. (Anderson Valley, Boonville, CA) Boont Amber Ale
5. Sierra Nevada Porter
6. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
7. (Tröegs Brewing., Harrisburg, PA.) Tröegenator Double Bock
8. (Sam Adams) Utopias
9. (Alaskan, Juno, AK.) Smoked Porter
10. (Deschutes, Bend OR) Mirror Pond Pale Ale

You can read the whole story here.

And furthermore…It was a quite distinguished panel with some real experts. They asked us to select our top three favorites in a variety of styles. The only caveat was the beer had to be bottled and available for sale somewhere in the U.S.

Here’s the list I submitted. I made one error: Pliny, from Russian River’s not bottled. A shame.

Pale Ales
1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA.
2. Ruth, Hair of the Dog, Portland, OR.
3. Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Deschutes, Bend, OR

IPA
1. Racer 5, Bear Republic, Healdsburg, CA.
2. 21st Amendment IPA (San Francisco, available in cans)

3.Anchor Liberty Ale, Anchor, San Francisco, CA.

STOUTS
1. Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, North Coast, Fort Bragg, CA.
2. Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, Three Floyds, Munster, IN.
3. Bourbon County Stout, Goose Island, Chicago, IL.

PORTERS

1. Anchor Porter , Anchor, San Francisco, CO.
2. Flying Dog Road Dog Scottish Porter, Flying Dog, Denver, CO
3. Alaskan Smoked Porter, Alaskan Brewing, Juno, AK.

BELGIAN-STYLE

1. Damnation Belgian Style Ale, Russian River Brewing, Santa Rosa, CA.
2. Trippel Belgian-Style Ale, New Belgium, Fort Collins, CO.
3. Ommegang, Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY

STRONG
1. Pliny the Elder (Russian River, Santa Rosa, CA)
2. Eye of the Hawk, Mendocino Brewing, Hopland, Ukiah, CA.
3. Arrogant Bastard, (Stone, Escondido, CA)

AMERICAN AMBER ALE

1. Boont Amber, Anderson Valley, Boonville, CA
2. Red Seal Ale, North Coast Brewing, Fort Bragg, CA
3. Censored, Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma, CA.

WEIZEN/WHEAT
1. Pyramid Hefeweizen, Pyramid Brewing, Seattle, WA., Berkeley, CA.
2.Farmhouse Saison, Coast Range Brewing, Gilroy, CA
3 Wild Dog Colorado Saison, Flying Dog,. Denver, CO>.


LAGER BEERS

PILSNERS
1. Trumer Pils (Berkeley, CA)
2. Lagunitas Pils, Czech Style Pilsner, Lagunitas, Petaluma, CA.
3. Prima Pils, Victory Brewing Co., Downingtown, PA

Light
1. NO CHOICES. SORRY. How about a Diet Coke or maybe Pabst Blue Ribbon
2.
3.

MARZEN
1. Sam Adams Oktoberfest, Boston Brewing, Cincinnati, OH
2. EJ Phair Marzen, EJ Phair, Concord, CA.
3. Marzen, Privatbrauerei Sudwerk Hubsch, Davis, CA.

BOCK
1. Gordon Biersch Blonde Bock
2. Dead Guy Ale, Rogue, Newport, OR (Actually, an American maibock))
3. Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock, Boston Brewing, Cincinnati, OH,

SPECIALTIES
1.Hop Rod Rye, Bear Republic, Healdsburg, CA.
2. Butte Creek 10th Anniversary Double IPA, Butte Creek, Chico, CA.
3. Hopsickle, Moylan’s, Novato, CA.
4. Utopias, Sam Adams.

Posted on Thursday, January 25th, 2007
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Schramsberg tour and tasting

I did the Schramsberg tour over the weekend in Calistoga (after Frog’s Leap) and it’s totally
worth the $25, if you haven’t done it. Since I’m not a huge fan of the aromas in Champagne,
Schramsberg is my favorite sparkling, along with Veuve Clicquot and Gloria Ferrer.

On to the tour and tasting. Besides the five premium wines you get to taste (including the
much-hyped J. Davies 2003 Diamond Mountain District Cabarnet ($70) and the 1999 J. Schram
sparkling ($90)) you learn a tremendous deal about the history of the winery (the second oldest
in the Valley) and the pioneering spirit (J. Schram came to Napa as a barber in 1858) to create
sparklings — using method champenoise — that was as good as those made by the French (better,
in my opinion). Best of all, you tour the 1/2 mile long caves dug out by Chinese immigrants with
shovels and learn about how virtually everything is done by hand. Schramsberg hand-riddles
their bottles instead of leaving it to a machine to manipulate the movement of the yeast. They
have one riddler (he has two apprentices) and his hands move like a concert pianist’s turning
something like 40,000 bottles a day. The frog sculpture you see in the pond near the tasting room
holding his flute to the moonlight is an homage to the riddler. There are 2.2 million bottles in the
caves and walls that are 92-bottles deep. Yes, avalanches have occurred, so be careful. They’ve
lost millions of dollars in the past. The creepy stuff hanging from the ceiling and walls of the
cave is actually lichen, a combination of algae and fungus that is natural and provides necessary
humidity to the caves. Year after year, Schramsberg beats out Dom and Cristal in blind tastings.
In 2003, the 1996 J. Schram won Best Overall Wine at the Syndney International Wine
Competition. It was the first time an American wine won this honor. Their sparklings have been
served at dozens of White House dinners. Their legacy is something to really be proud of.

Posted on Thursday, January 25th, 2007
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Charles Shaw

My colleague Blanca Torres did a story on Trader Joe’s on Sunday, and some readers are posting to her blog about Charles Shaw wine. Two readers said that they pour the stuff into more expensive bottles of wine and serve it at parties, unbeknowst to their guests. One of the readers called the more expensive labels ‘rip-off’ wines. My comments, if you will:

- Don’t mislead your guests. There are vessels to pour wine in to prior to serving it. They even have a chemical function. Decanters and carafes not only help the wines open up and improve the taste, but they are a classy, incognito way of serving your wine.

- Decanting a wine can actually make a $2 wine taste like an $8-$10 bottle. It’s a great secret among sommeliers. Try it.

- Calling a more expensive wine a rip off is just silly. Wines that cost more, by and large, are made by smaller operations and in smaller production quantities. The grapes cost more and the wines are typically of more premium quality.

- If you increased your wine budget by even a $1 or $2, you’d be surprised what better bargains abound down the aisle from Two Buck Chuck. Trader Joe’s sells excellent sparklings from Germany (great with brunch) for $3.99. Their private label wines, most run under $6, are impressive too. That’s practically all my parents drink.

- Lastly, Charles Shaw is not an illegitimate product. They have a fully functioning winery in the Napa Valley but keep their costs down by not operating a tasting room or public space.

Posted on Wednesday, January 24th, 2007
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Watered Beer in Fremont, CA.


Bill, Have you ever suspected a restaurant or bar of watering down their beer?
We just ate at this pizza place in Fremont. The pizza (deep dish style) wasn’t bad, but..

We ordered an Anchor Steam and sent it back. I thought the waitress poured the wrong beer. The color was too light and the flavor was definitely wrong (very “thin” tasting). Then, we got a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale instead and…same thing! It tasted like Sierra Nevada “Lite”.

Is it possible for a place to add water to the kegs to stretch their profits?

Do you know of any recourse for the consumer if one suspects this ill. Please feel free to post this. I would like to know it other people have had a similar experience. By the way, I am one of the Friday night regulars at Drake’s Brewing (San Leandro). I feel that I have a rather discriminating palate when it comes to beer. I definitely know what Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada should look and taste like.

Cheers, Steve Thanks, Steve. Wow . That’s wild. Adding water to a keg would be very difficult. You’d have to pound out the tap, really wouldn’t be worth it. Also, it would take a lot of water to change the taste.

More likely they’ve got all the lines hooked up to Bud Lite or some cheap kind of light beer and don’t realize that people can tell the difference. Sounds like that’s a pizza parlor to skip.

I’ve been places where the beer was old. There’s a restaurant in Berkeley that has always had Pilsner Urquell, the Czech beer. Not many people order it and it’s always stale. But watered down?? Hmmm.

Another problem can be dirty glasses, glasses with soap residue. Soap can kill the taste of beer. But you mention the color.

I hope you didn’t pay for the beer. With your permission, I’ll post this without naming the place. (Don’t want to get sued. ). Also, I’m calling the Anchor and Sierra Nevada distributors. b.

Posted on Wednesday, January 24th, 2007
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Anheuser-Busch Again: Fruit Beers This Time

Would you believe this? A fruit beer from Anheuser-Busch, Brew Blog, a blog published daily be an advertising agency working for Miller Brewing has a fixation on A-B. Today, they’re reporting that the jolly big Bud has received federal label aproval for three fruit beers: Lime Cactus; Tuscan Orange Grapefruit; and Pomegranate Raspberry.

Miller says they’re supposed to be “pilsner beers with fruit flavoring.” Nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Problem is, according to Miller, the underlying pilsner beer is Michelob Ultra, a low-carb beer first released in 2002, which Miller claims has declining sales.

Problem with Ultra is it has almost zero flavor. If they’d beef it up, then add fruit, it might make an excellent beer. Let’s see, then toss it an old wine barrel, let the bacteria in the barrel create a bit of a sour, lactic note…and. Hell, I’d have nothing to bitch about.

If you like the idea of fruit beer, but want some substance, try Pyramid Apricot Weizen or Hefeweizen. Or, look to the Lambic beers of Belgium: For sweet, go with Lindemans Frambois or Kriek. For bone dry, Frank Boon Kriek.

Posted on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
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Letters: Brew Dates for Old Foghorn, Bigfoot


Hi Bill,

First of all thanks for your writings and information – I really enjoy your blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/beer/ and your other postings at http://www.insidebayarea.com/food.

I have two questions I was hoping you had time to answer. What other blogs, websites, etc… can you recommend to stay on top of the Bay Area beer scene?

Do you or have a way of finding out how to determine the brew date of Foghorn, Grandfather, and Bigfoot? I’d like to know the exact brew date of the bottles I am aging to make sure I will truly be able to conduct vertical tastings. (A related question is do you know the release dates for these three barleywines?

Thanks a lot, David

Hi David
…Let’s see…other blogs. I highly recommend Brookston Beer Bulletin . The author, Jay Brooks, has an inside track on craft brewer comings and goings in the Bay Area. He was formerly the associate editor (I think that was his title) of the Celebrator Beer News, the national beer newspaper, based in Hayward, CA., and before that the beer buyer for Beverages and More, the California liquor store supermarket chain.

Don’t forget the Celebrator, itself. It’s published bi-monthly and can be found online here. Also, Northwest Brew News, based in Seattle. I write about Bay Area craft brewing for it.

Also, two sites not specifically covering the Bay Area, but doing a thorough job reporting on craft beer are:

BeerAdvocate.com, which is is owned and operated by two Boston, Mass. brothers, Jason and Tod Alstrom.

Ratebeer.com, which is owned and operated by a Bay Area resident, Joe Tucker, and a partner, who lives in Canada.

Finally, I also love the Oxford Bottled Beer Data Base. This is English. Most of the world’s great beers and some not so great seem to reach them. They rate them and talk about them and it’s possible to post comments.

About the date of those three beers. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot’s the easiest. It comes out in February each year and the year’s on the bottle cap.

Old Foghorn’s brewed occasionally during each year. Fortunately, Anchor has always been very open about dating. Until the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, they used the front label like a clock face, the year and month were notched. But at the time of the quake, they changed the label, ending notching, which, incidentally, was a system used almost since bottling began.

Presently, there’s a code on the back label of each bottle. It’s very simple. The first digit is always a number and it’s the last number of the year the beer was bottled. This year, it will be a 7. The next digit is the letter of the month it’s bottled. This is a bit tricky. Here’s the scheme from the Anchor website:

January: J, February: F, March: M, April: A, May: Y, June: U, July: L, August: G, September: S, October: O, November: N, December: D.

The next one or two digits in the code is/are the date of bottling.

I’m not familiar with Grandfather. Tell me more.

3,000 (Gasp) Bottles of Beer…

Bill, I can’t find Rogue’s Old Crustacean in San Mateo County. BEVMO does not stock. Any suggestions? Also, please send me your 2007 Bay Area retail beer store list.

Thanks, Brad

Hi Brad…here you are. Two likely places on the Peninsula, Draeger’s, Drager’s, 222 East 4th Ave., (650) 685-3700.and Beltramos, Beltramo’s, 1540 El Camino Real, (650) 325-2806. Good hunting. b

Bill, I enjoy your column, and I especially like to try new beers. I also save one of each new bottle, and now have a collection of about 3000 different bottles from the past 25 years. I also home brew, usually IPA, my favorite.

Your column introduced me to Schooners Grille & Brewery in Antioch (CA.) a couple of years ago, and even though it is a long way from home, we stop there often on our way to the Delta. We may have never found it otherwise. Thanks for the recommendation. — Brad

OK Brad. You’re on the list. 3,000 bottles? That may be a record. What kind of beer? Any rare ones/?

Bill: I’m not sure what is rare. Most are microbrews from around the country. When I travel I check local markets and pack bottles in my socks to survive the flight home. I have an Anchor Potrero Commons I purchased at the brewery in 1990 – I think it was brewed to help fund a local park.

I mentioned Schooners in my earlier email, got thirsty, and we drove to Antioch for lunch. Their Barleywine was excellent. — Brad

Wow Brad. Potrero Commons , released in 1990, was, in my humble opinion, one of the best beers Anchor has ever made. it was what the Brits call a one-off. A one time brew, all proceeds went for a park on Potrero Hill. The name came from the name the original Potrero Hill residents, who were Spanards, to the pasture where everyone turned out their horses and livestock. That one beer might actually be worth a lot.

Also, I’m fairly sure it was the original brown ale recipe for Anchor’s Christmas beers.

Yeah, Schooner’s barleywine is excellent. I have a couple of older bottles in my fridge. They’re barrel aged and very nice. Schooner’s is worth a long drive. b

Posted on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
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