Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for March, 2008

Why do most Americans drink bland lager?

Do you ever get off the craft beer train and talk about average swill — like beers for baseball, or Asian beers?

This question from someone I work with has bugged me for the last three days. Best word I can find to describe my condition is “flummoxed”. My first thought was, “Sure, and let’s get our wine columnist to write about the “best of Gallo and other ‘great’ jug wines.”

Why is it that tWilliam Brand and Brother David’s Tripelhe idea of a wine columnist writing about jug wines seems utterly absurd, while a beer columnist writing about crappy beer seem normal and appropriate.

Damn you Budweiser, Coors and Miller and all the rest of you corporate lager-sellers and your funny, sexy commercials. You’ve stolen the soul of beer.

After an initial burst of sarcasm and consternation, I got serious. If the beer we like is so good, then why are American beer drinkers still imbibing cheap lager?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m asking all of you reading this to tell me what you think. Post a comment here or shoot me an email at

For research, I turned to one of my kids, who is grown, teaches film at an Oregon university and has traveled the world and is very sophisticated.

Basic answer: Alcohol delivery vehicle in an unobjectionable format. He admitted to drinking 10 beers this past Saturday night out with his friends: 2 Japanese 22-ouncers (equals nearly 4 beers) plus, 6 or so Coronas. I guess when you’re fairly young, are 6-1 and weigh 240, 10 beers is nothing.

But, I persisted, why not drink something decent?

He thought about it for a minute. “I don’t like dark beer,” he said. “I really like Corona, because -” he thought for a minute – “it doesn’t leave a bad taste. It’s not bitter.”

Whew. What can you expect from someone raised on Slurpies.

I gave that some thought.

I believe we can expect a lot, but until very recently, we’ve left the discovery of good beer to chance. That’s why craft beer and other good beer has somewhere between 4 and 10 perrcent of the total beer market and swill lager has the rest.

I grew up much like him, drinking sodas. I hated beer. CoorsWurzburger, the modern version tasted like water and Budweiser tasted bitter; it burned my tongue. I went into the Navy right out of high school and did my share of under-age beer drinking, but like our kid, it was just being social. The beer — all bland lagers — was tasteless.

My epiphany came at a German restaurant in Washington, D.C. when I was 19. I got served a glass of Wurzburger, a Bavarian lager. Still remember it: rich, golden, silky malt that flowed across my tongue and just a bit of spicy tingle from what I now know were Hallertau hops. I became a convert. I realized there was beer and there was real beer.

It was pure chance.
The waiter might not have served me, I could have decided not to go into downtown Washington that Saturday. We need to stand up and shout about good beer, I think. The way it’s going is way too slow.

What do you think? Opinions anyone…

Posted on Monday, March 31st, 2008
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Try a flight at Franklin Square Wine Bar

chateau musar

Jenny and I finally hit Franklin Square, the wine bar across the street from Luka’s Taproom and Lounge in downtown Oakland. The space is airy, small and simple, with a similar vibe to Zza’s Enoteca across town on Grand Avenue.

It was about 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and we grabbed the only two seats available at the bar. Despite Franklin Square’s impressive Wine By The Glass program (15 whites available by half glass, whole glass and carafe; the same for 18 reds; and one rose), we went with the intriguing flights written up on the chalkboard. We couldn’t resist.

As long as no one has cooties (rare in this super-virus season), Jenny and I always try to share a red and white flight because it exposes both people to a whopping six wines. To start, we went with the Unusual White Flight ($10) and fell hard for the beguiling aromatic nose of the 2005 Goldmuskateller from Thurnhof in the Alto Adige of Italy.

The 2006 Irsai Oliver from Szoke Matyas & Zoltan in Matrai, Hungary introduced us to a new white wine from a region we’re both intrigued by. Our knowledge of Hungarian wines is limited to Tokaji, but not anymore. This gorgeous white has insane acidity and went really well with our goat cheese and quince paste. The 2006 Aligote from Patrick Size in the Cote Chalonnaise never really blossomed, perhaps too cold or just too closed for us.

For reds, we went with the flight of Chateau Musar ($17), the Lebanese producer from the Bekaa Valley that makes one of my favorite and balanced medium-bodied value wines, the 2004 Cuvee Rouge. Last place I saw it was Wine Mine for about $12. We found the white flight to be both a good value and a great learning experience. But the Musar was a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, the 2004 was showing well. It always does.

But the 2001 Hochar Pere et Fils was brown around the rim, and tasted offensive. Our wine steward agreed it was most likely oxidized or corked and opened a new bottle for us immediately. On second try, the offensive taste was gone, of course, but the color and clarity of the wine was still off to me, especially for a bottle that retails for almost $100. The 1995 Chateau Musar, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault, was closer to a Bordeaux, but a bit lackluster. The finish was flat for me but I enjoyed the focused nose and strong acidity. I expected more from these bottlings.

All in all a great experience, though. The duck was gorgeous with the 2004 Cuvee Rouge.

Posted on Monday, March 31st, 2008
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Five Guys and a Barrel: A Bruce Paton beer dinner not to miss

It may be too late, but probably there’s still time to sign up for what promises to be a magnificent beer dinner at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco.

The host, Beer Chef Bruce Paton calls this Dinner With the Brewmasters: Five Guys and a Barrel. It might be called From hops to Belgium and back.

Consider the five guys: Rod Todd, Allagash, Portland, ME; Adam Avery, Avery Brewing, Boulder, CO.; Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head, Milton, DE; Tomme Arthur, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey, San Marcos, CA.; and Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River, Santa Rosa, CA.

The date is Sunday, April 20, 6:30 p.m. Cost $95. For reservations, go to Hint: Do it now. This baby’s gonna’ sell out.

Here’s the menu:

Bruce Paton logo

Dinner with the Brewmasters
Sunday April 20, 2008
The Cathedral Hill Hotel
Five Guys and a Barrel
Allagash, Avery, Dogfish Head, Lost Abbey and Russian River

6:30 PM
Beer Chef’s Hors D’Oeuvre Selection

Allagash White and Russian River Blind Pig


First Course
Citrus Cured Curraun Blue Sea Trout with Accoutrements

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA and Avery The Maharaja

Second Course
Selection of Artisanal Cheeses with House Made Condiments

Allagash Interlude and Russian River Supplication

Third Course
A Study in Duck

Port Brewing Cuvee de Tomme and Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

Fourth Course
Warm Chocolate Mocha Cake with Blood Orange Sabayon and Fig Syrup

Avery The Beast Grand Cru and Lost Abbey Older Viscosity

Isabelle Proximus

$95 per Person Inclusive of Tax and Gratuity
Please Make Reservations by April 10, 2008
Bruce D. Paton CEC
Executive Chef

Posted on Sunday, March 30th, 2008
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Stone brews an Arrogant Bastard real ale in the UK

What’s new in beer and brewing…Among other beer blogs I read regularly is Pete Brown’s Blog. He’s English and something of an adventurer. He recently took a cask of India Pale Ale from Burton on Trent to India on a sailboat, replicating the original journey of this now famous beer style.

Today, he’s blogging about an International Real Ale festial at the J.D. Wetherspoon pub chain. Part of what made it an international fest was the presence of Stone head brewer Mitch Steele ( who used to be the head of Anheuser-Busch specialty beer section) and another brewer from Stone. Brewing, Escondido, CA. Together, they made a beer for the fest….Here’s the nut graph of Pete Brown’s post…

J.D. Wetherspoon International Real Ale Festival

I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.

Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.

The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale. READ MORE....

Cask Stone. Now I’d drink that.

Posted on Sunday, March 30th, 2008
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E-mails: Wunder Brewing, Finding Old Viscosity, French beer

Wunder BrewingHi Bill, Have you been out to Wunder Brewing in San Francisco ? Barry and I went to Wunder Brewing at 9th and Irving yesterday. Beer is much improved from the Old Eldos. Very clean, good session beers. The brewer John Wonder knows what he is doing, since he made an excellent Pilsner.

Food is good too, great garlic string beans It is easy to get to, just get off BART at Embarcadero and get on the MUNI undergroung and take the N Judah line. It will take you right to their doorstep. Get off at Ninth Ave stop at Irving. Got to love the place, they advertise on KPIG. Cheers, Paul

Hi Paul. No I haven’t been out there. But I talked to John Wonder on the phone and I got to try their beer at a Commonwealth Club beer event in San Francisco in February. I agree. It was excellent. I also wrote about Wunder Brewing late last year. Find that report here.

Bill-– Avery Mephistopheles’ Stout is out of season a bit (website says made in November) but I was just recently able to find it at Total Wine & More (this store in Roseville has a nice beer selection and they let you buy singles instead of a whole six pack).

Check out these stats… This is obviously a huge beer but it is truly great.
It also cost $8 for a single 12 ounce bottle but was worth it. Take it easy, Sean


Bill, I wrote you a while back about Port Brewing Co. Old ViscoscityOld Viscosity Ale. You gave me a copy of the Norcal Retail Beer Store List with a store in Pleasant Hill that may carry it. I will be in Pleasant Hill today and would like to walk in and look around. If you have a minute could you please re-send me the list and let me know which store that was. Neil

HI Neil. It’s Monument Wine & Spirits in Concord, CA. And they had Old Viscosity yesterday. Good hunting. They do have an impressive supply. I always spend too much when I visit, which I did yesterday.

Bill, That place was phenomenal. I had two other “non beer shoppers” with me, and we were late for a dinner party, so I had to get in and get out. But I am already planning a trip back to spend some serious time in there. The beer was just as good as I had remembered it! Cheers, Neil


Bill, I’ve only recently discovered your blog and beer column… There’s a great wine shop I visit periodically on my way from San Francisco to Palo Alto, Weimax. They’re in Burlingame. Anyway, they have a good range of really nice beers and I bought a couple of unusual ones from France the past two visits.

Northmaen french beerOne I called Goat Beer as it’s got a weird label with grain and goats on the bottle. Brasserie Lebbe. The other I just bought is from Normandy and it’s called Northmaen. Odd Viking-like label. Both are imported by Charles Neal Selections out of San Francisco, whose work I know more for good French wines.

If you see these beers in your travels, you might want to check them out. The Lebbe is nicely fruity and the Northmaen has a touch of a grain quality. I’m by no means a beer expert, but I enjoyed these. Dennis

Hi Dennis. Thanks for the note. I know about Weimax, haven’t visited, but lots of friends tell me it’s a great place to find interesting beer. There are a number of new craft breweries in France. I have a friend who lives in the south near Cannes who makes beer. The French beer I’m most familiar with is from the north, near the Belgian border; it’s in a style called Biere de Garde, usually bottled Champagne style: rich, fruity, malty, fairly strong.

Looked up Northmaen. It’s a small craft brewery in Normandy. The Web site is in French. They seem to make a usual assortment, a blonde, a brown etc. One sounded particularly interesting a red (rousse) with chestnuts added. Hmmm.

Which Northmaen did you get? wb

Bill, The Northmaen is a medium-bodied beer…I gather it’s a ‘blonde’. Chestnuts? Sounds curious! I’ll have to ask next time I’m at Weimax.

I’ve tasted some biere de garde and farmhouse brews. I bought a bottle of something called Deus a few months ago. It’s a Belgian beer in a champagne-like bottle. Quite good, but very costly. Oh well…

Dennis, The French beers tend to be somewhat cheaper, but not much, considering the state of the dollar. Look for Jen Lain or 3 Monts or Castelain.

Posted on Friday, March 28th, 2008
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Triple Rock’s Firkin Fest: The Place to Be April 5

Triple Rock Firkin FestivalIf you have even the faintest interest in real ale — that is, beer that is served fresh, unfiltered and non-pastuerized and not pushed by gassy CO2 or nitrogen, then the place to be next Saturday, April 5, is Triple Rock Brewery, 1920 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Doors open at 11 a.m,. and the festival runs into the early evening

The event is the 5th annual Firkin Gravity Festival, which was conceived by Triple Rock head brewer Christian Kazakoff. So far more than 25 craft breweries, are bringing real ales. Cost is $20, which gets you in the door and provides a fest glass and five tasting tickets. Additional tastings are $1 each or six for $5. No reservations. Show up at the door.

The Firkin Fest is a benefit for the Alisa Anne Ruach Burn Foundation. More info here,

What in the hell, you ask, is a firkin. A firkin is/was a small, wooden British ale cask containing 9 imperial gallons (about 10.8 U.S. gallons.) In the UK, firkins are closely associated with real ale. Here in the U.S. we love the term and the chance for alliteration. Great firkin ale!
The American definition of real ale follows the English example. Unfiltered, non-pastuerized beer, allowed to ferment in the cask, or container or keg. It’s also not pushed out by CO2 or nitrogen. The trick is natural flow. The variety at the last Firkin Fests has varied tremendouslym, from chocolate black beers to uber hoppy pale ales.

Posted on Thursday, March 27th, 2008
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The nose knows no value

See below, in case ya’ll didn’t see this AP story last week. It’s about a Dutch winemaker who insured his nose for $8 million, and no longer takes risks, like picking it.

I was most curious to find out if and for how much wine critic Robert Parker insures his schnoz for. If Gort’s is worth eight mil, surely Parker’s is worth double that? All I could find is $1 million, a number I suspect is old considering the ever-increasing value of Parker Points, even in a flailing economy.

Feel free to post if you guys find a more current number on Parker’s nose. And consider the question: If wine tasting is 80 percent smell, then what is your nose worth? Happy sniffing…

Lloyd’s of London insurance market insures Dutch winemaker’s sense of smell for $8 million
By REGAN McTARSNE, Associated Press Writer

   LONDON (AP) — His schnoz is not to be sniffed at.<
A Lloyd’s of London syndicate said Tuesday it is insuring the nose of winemaker Ilja Gort for $8 million.<
The Dutch winemaker and taster took out the policy after hearing about a man who lost his sense of smell in a car accident.<
“I thought it must be a horror to lose your smell,” Gort said. “It would mean that you cannot taste wine anymore. Tasting wine is something you do with your nose, not your mouth.”<
Gort, 47, said his nose is essential for him to produce top quality wines at his Chateau de la Garde vineyard in the Bordeaux region of France.<
The custom policy covers Gort for the loss of either his nose or his sense of smell and has some conditions for protecting his nose. Among other things, he is barred from riding a motorcycle or working as a knife thrower’s assistant or fire-breather.<
And he can’t be a boxer. “I may not fight against Mike Tyson,” Gort said.<
Jonathan Thomas, the lead underwriter for the Watkins Syndicate at the Lloyd’s insurance market, also took note of Gort’s long, curly beard in drafting the policy. A clause requires that the winemaker use only experienced barbers who will keep their razors steady near his nose.<
“These insurance policies, they’re not all dry,” Thomas said. “There’s a bit of fun we can add with them as well.”<
This is one of many Lloyd’s body part insurance policies. Lloyd’s reported movie icon Marlene Dietrich had her legs insured and Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards was paid when he injured his finger on tour in the 1990s.<
America Ferrara, star of the ABC television show “Ugly Betty,” has her smile insured for $10 million, Lloyd’s said.<
“Let’s face it, it’s a Lloyd’s speciality,” Thomas said. “Lloyd’s specializes in unusual risks.”<
Gort wasn’t the first wine tester to get coverage from Thomas. He insured the senses of both taste and smell for wine taster Angela Mount for $20.1 million in 2003 for her bosses at British supermarket chain Somerfield.<

Posted on Wednesday, March 26th, 2008
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Wine tasting vs. spirits tasting

Can a wine drinker successfully navigate flights of vodka, eau de vie and single malt whiskey — all straight up?

I found out this weekend, when I put my palate to the test at St. George Spirits in Alameda. Housed in the old Naval Air Station not from from Rosenblum Cellars and the grounds of the monthly Antiques by the Bay, it’s a fantastic space, a sort of hangar-meets-club warehouse where, even 10 minutes to closing time, the modern rock’s blasting and the clientele’s buzzing.

Joel and I made it there with 19 minutes to spare, and decided to split the $10 tasting of 10-12 spirits. Looking back, neither one of us could’ve imagined doing it alone (and he’s a strapping, 6’1” man!).

The 2-3 ounce pours come in a cute grappa glass that you get to keep, but think about it: while wine pours are the same size, these spirits are as high as 43 percent alcohol! Certainly gives new perspective to a “hot” California Zinfandel clocking in at 16 percent. I took the first sip and let him down the rest.

Here are our standouts from the tasting:

Straight Hangar One Vodka: Made with viognier grapes, this was smooth and silky with a pure, clean finish and suppleness I attribute to viognier. Like no other vodka I’ve tasted. You almost don’t want to add anything to it. This is the one Joel bought.

Single Malt Whiskey: Shudder-free and elegant, this is aged for eight years and has a cocoa finish that goes on and on. I bought this for friend who loves serious scotch.

Hangar One Kaffir Lime Vodka: This woke my mouth up with its kicky, true-to-source kaffir limes (they always use real local fruit in their vodkas). Joel wasn’t wild about it.

We were good and liquored up so we didn’t feel like springing the extra $10 to try the St. George absinthe (I assumed it would be included, what with all the hype). Unfortunately, they weren’t featuring their savory vodkas, like chipotle or wasabi, while we were there. Next time!

Posted on Tuesday, March 25th, 2008
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Swigging Viognier at Lake Merritt

cline cellars viognier

Half bottles are the bomb. Especially when you’re going on a picnic with a boy and forget to pack stemware. Halfway into last week, I knew the weekend was going to offer glorious weather. When Saturday came, I packed the goat cheese, grapes, rosemary crackers, olives and a half bottle of Cline Cellars’ Viognier, with its full body, fragrant nose of stone fruits and bitter butter lettuce finish.

Once we dodged the come hither advances of a homeless man, we found a grassy knoll and popped the cork (the corkscrew, I remembered). We took turns swigging, and as I swirled the wine in my mouth I had an ah-ha moment. I finally realized, without the crutch of a glass, how efficiently one can aerate wine in the mouth. There really is a point to swirling it around in your mouth.

Try it. It requires no sophisticated technique. I make a slight fishy face and swirl the wine while holding it in the front of my mouth. I know supertasters like Wilfred Wong who do what is closer to a side-mouth swirl or gargle. Perhaps we can get the multimedia folks in the office to help me prepare a little podcast on the art of the swirl. Until then, get the Viognier or another half bottle white and find yourself a grassy knoll.

Posted on Monday, March 24th, 2008
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AJ’s Sports Pub in Clayton, CA. moves toward good beer

AJ’s Sports Pub“Hi William, Just wanted to let you know that I like your articles so much that I’m starting to post them on my bulletin board. You’ve actually inspired me to try and educate my Concord customers to some of the finer brews made… and away from the Bud style beers. I’ve got people turned on to Arrogant Bastard and Brother David’s Double and Triple. They are moving slowly, but definitely picking up of late. And if worse comes to worse, I’ve got something good to drink for myself.” Andy Steinberg, Proprietor

With a note like this one, I had to visit. So late Saturday afternoon my daughter, who is 21, and I dropped in. It’s AJ’s Sports Pub & Grill, 4633 Clayton Road, Concord, CA 9521, 925-459-0574

I was hesitant for one reason: Before Andy Steinberg bought the place, it was an established called Mr. Pickwicks, one of those mock English pubs. It had moved here from a spot near I-680 in Pleasant Hill, where it was well-regarded. Well, the Fuller’s ESB on tap had turned. The hot dog was hmm. I left, and never returned.

The place has changed. The hot dog and garlic fries we ordered were first-rate. I asked for Fuller’s ESB. again and was told by the young woman wait staffer that they were “out of ESP. ” Except for Anchor Steam, the rest of the beer list was corporate: Bass, Bud Lite, Boddington’s, Harp, Guinness, Newcastle Brown, plus Lagunitas IPA and Fat Tire.

AJ’s Sports Pub Brother David’s TripleBut my daughter spotted a note that said: “Ask about our seasonal specials” Turned out it was Stone Arrogant Bastard, which was gone. But the young woman said, “There’s one more. Anderson something…” Turned out it was Anderson Valley Brother David’s Triple Abbey-Style Ale. Wow. I ordered small glass, my daughter ordered a pint. It’s 10 percent, I drove home.

Andy Steinberg was there, said he got tired of working for other people and took over the pub 16 months ago; he’s added a dart board – a customer built it for free beer. There’s a pool table in the back room and the local homebrew club – Diablo Order of Zymiracle Enthusiasts – DOZE – meets here monthly.

He has a karoke night, an acoustic music jam night on Wednesdays, live music with lcoal bands on the weekend.

Steinberg admits he’s a wine guy, originally from New York. So he’s getting into good beer cautiously. Bud Light and Bud are big sellers; so is Stella Artois, the Belgian lager from InBev, he said. He replaced Arrogant Bastard with Brother David. My advice: Put ’em both on and four more, let’s see: Maybe Lagunitas Censored, Gordon Biersch Dunkelweizen or Marzen and the IPA from his neighbor EJ Phair Brewing. Dump the slowest moving corporate beers and go for it. The DOZE folks alone will spread the word that there’s good beer on Clayton Road (an official beer desert) and so will I.

One othe note. He got tired of trying to run a pub and a kitchen, so he leased the kitchen to a Peruvian family. They offer a full menu of interesting dishes. Going to go back again and try it.

PHOTOS: Top: The bar at AJ’s Sports Pub & Grill.

Above: Brother David’s translucent copper triple Damn, it’s good.

Posted on Sunday, March 23rd, 2008
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