Friday, 24 February 2012


Our trip to San Francisco is over now, but I wanted to blog about our trip to Oakland on Saturday night after the Barleywine Festival. You would have thought that 20+ barleywines would have been enough, but after a pint of mild at Magnolia (albeit one that was served carbonated and icy cold – I let it warm up a bit before I got into it) and a nap back in the hotel room, we were ready to go again.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland sit on opposite sides of the Bay, linked together by the Bay Bridge (a much longer and more impressive structure than the Golden Gate, I reckon – after all, it just seems to link the city to some fishing villages in the North Bay… great.). You can drive between Oakland and San Francisco by land, via San Jose, but it takes a long time. The reason for that long-winded lesson is that as it was President’s Day, the Bay Bridge was closed for repair, so the trip to Oakland was either a long drive or another ride on the BART. We chose the latter.

Oakland is a big city in its own right – less glamorous and affluent than SF, and we were warned that it was a bit edgier at night too, which was borne out by a loud and aggressive argument that seemed to be raging across the road when we got out of the BART station. Just to be on the safe side, we kept our heads down and walked quickly.

We were headed for Beer Revolution - ten blocks from the BART, on the other side of the freeway and next door to, of all things, a vegan soul food restaurant. Of all the bars I’ve been to on the trip, Beer Revolution felt the most instantly familiar – busy and bustling atmosphere, a terrace for al fresco drinking, fridges full of bottles that you can browse like the Cask Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico… There was even an absolutely hammered patron doing her best to annoy her fellow drinkers (at one point she told me I wasn’t the King in Oakland, which was at least accurate) – just like home!

Part of the charm of the place is its idiosyncratic nature. When they first opened, they started with four taps, but with time and success they’ve added new lines all over the place – as a result, you can never tell where your beer’s going to be poured from, with taps on the side of the bar, the front, the back – everywhere. Tonight’s beers were billed as an ‘LA Tap Takeover’, with a few kegs left over from their Bruery showcase on the Friday night. I’ve tried The Bruery’s tasty Saison Rue before and liked it, so I went for their Burly Gourd – billed on the boards as a milk stout with spices. What I got was a slightly peppery, cinnamon flavour and an oddly syrupy character instead of the smooth sweetness that you usually get from a milk stout. I’ve subsequently looked on their site and they refer to it as more of a pumpkin beer… I’d go along with that – it’s definitely nothing like any milk stout I’ve ever drunk!

The incredible tap selection at Beer Revolution - spot the piecemeal-added taps!
When you come to a place with more than 40 beers on tap and hundreds of possibilities in the fridges, the temptation is often to stick with breweries you know or to work through countless tasters before you settle on something. So for the next beer, I took a recommendation and ended up with a pint of Golden Road’s Point the Way IPA. I’d never seen their beers anywhere before, but was really impressed by the subtlety of this. It had the big citrussy hop aroma that you would expect from a Californian IPA, along with a little bit of blackcurrant, but it was much lighter in body and with a slightly creamy roundness to the bitterness at the end - not so much as to make it all too bland though. The Golden Road website claims that ‘New Zealand hops’ are the key – I’d guess at Nelson Sauvin in the pint I had – and I would happily drink this again. I think sometimes the temptation for brewers is to go more extreme with IPAs – massive bitterness, double IPAs, triple IPAs, round after round of dry-hopping – but in this case, to use a cliché, a little bit less gives you more.

After an hour or so of debating what to take from Beer Revolution’s fridges, I settled on a bottle of Evil Twin’s Biscotti Break – a porter made with coffee, vanilla and almonds. And yes, I am aware that it was brewed in Scandinavia, but I’ve never seen it in London and I love his beer. Mel gifted me one of the craziest things I’ve seen all week – Oskar Blues Ten Fidy, a 10.5% imperial stout sold in a can. Even writing that makes my mind bend. I look forward to cracking them back in London.

Finally, Mel’s friend Andrei shared the night’s piece de resistance with us – a Swiss sour called Abbeye de Saint Bon Chien 2010. As I’ve mentioned previously, my knowledge of sours could fit onto a postage stamp, but this was wonderful – bit of a funky aroma, slightly dry, clean gooseberry-type flavour, and very refreshing. As close to, say, an Austrian Gruner Veltliner wine as I’ve tasted in a beer. I must drink more sours in the coming year if they’re as good as this.

Brasserie Franches-Montagnes' Abbey de Saint Bon Chien 2010

I’m glad we went to the trouble of coming all the way over to the East Bay – the chance to sample a new brewery’s drinks should always be taken - I’ll be looking out for more from Golden Road in the future. If you ever happen to be in the Oakland area, give Beer Revolution a visit.

Monday, 20 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Toronado Barley Wine Festival

On my flight to San Francisco on Monday, I was flicking through the current edition of Beer Magazine, the succinctly titled CAMRA quarterly, and came across an article entitled ‘Does Barley Wine Even Exist?’ The style is almost entirely invisible in English pubs and off-licences these days – I think the only examples I’ve had back home in the past couple of years are Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot (of which more later), and the Brewdog and Three Floyds’ collaboration Bitch Please, which is hardly mainstream stuff in name or flavour. The article’s author, Graham Holter, makes the point that barley wine is experiencing a renaissance in America, and San Francisco’s Beer Week culminates in possibly the largest celebration of the style in the world.

As a result of the scarceness of barley wine in the UK, I was preparing for the Toronado Barley Wine Festival without a clear idea of what one is. It should be high in alcohol – a minimum of 8.5% - with a malty, ‘sticky’ mouthfeel and a brown, rather than black colour, to differentiate it from an imperial stout. It should have some hops, but if it is too hopped, then it can start to veer into the double/triple IPA territory that some SF brewers have explored. I’ve just looked on Wikipedia for their BW ‘style statistics’, with original gravities and SRM colours and so forth, and my preconceptions aren’t too far off.

I hadn’t realized quite how big a deal the Barley Wine Festival is. A pub or bar in London running an event like this might expect to start to fill up at about 4-5pm. Factor in that most of the beers on offer are well into double-figure ABV, and perhaps the event wouldn’t even be that packed. Well, out on Haight St, the first people started queuing up at around 7am, with doors due to open at 11.30. Special pre-festival brunches are on offer nearby – the Magnolia pub further down the street was even promoting a selection of milds and session ales as a contrast.

Once we’d filled up with a big breakfast, we headed down to Toronado for 12 noon to find that the place was packed – although not, according to our friends Mel and Andrei, as busy as at the same time last year (thankfully, in my opinion). On coming through the door, you pick up a sheet of the barley wines on offer – 52 in total, with 46 kegs being poured in the front bar and an extra six in an auxiliary bar in a side room. Beers are served in either small (3oz) or medium (6.5oz) measures – half or full glasses, essentially, although my experience was that the half-glasses  were pretty generous…! Every table I could see was already covered in glasses – with the numbers of the beers written on the coasters underneath to keep track of what was in the glasses.

(I'd never seen anything like this before. Note the papers under the glasses with numbered circles)

As with my first time at Toronado, the ordering system is strictly by number only. Given that the queues at the bar are so big and it takes so long to get served, the savvy drinker selects six that they want to try from the list, bring along a cardboard six-pack holder, shout out your numbers at the bar like a bingo caller (remembering to say small or medium), carefully stack the glasses into the carrier, then take them back to your spot and try to unload them. If this all sounds like an enormous hassle, then you’re forgetting the most important part of the day – we now had six unique barley wines to taste and compare before we had to go through it all again.

All but one of the beers on offer were from American brewers – the sole exception being Emelisse from the Netherlands. There were a few verticals on offer (the same beer but from different years, so you can taste the ageing), as well as some special barrel-aged versions. There were some that were blends of different barrel versions, and even a barley wine blended with an imperial stout (which I’ll get to later).

(Thirty-five of the beers on offer - it continued overleaf, but you get the picture)

As Mel and Andrei knew what they were doing, they picked the first six, which were: Ninkasi Brewing’s Critical Hit 2010, Alaskan brewer Midnight Sun’s Arctic Devil, North Coast’s Old Stock 2008, Rogue’s Old Crustacean 2009, Ballast Point’s Three Sheets (Rum Barrel) and Anderson Valley’s Horn of the Beer. We all agreed that the Arctic Devil was our favourite of the six – the highest ABV of the festival at 13.2%, but super-smooth vanilla oak tones. I found the Three Sheets too sweet (rum barrel ageing suits a darker beer, in my opinion c.f. Lost Abbey/Brewdog’s Lost Dog), but I loved the prominent hops in the Critical Hit 2010. You’ll remember we tried Old Stock 2009 earlier in the week, and the 2008 was a maltier version that perhaps wasn’t quite as good. I don’t remember much of the Horn of the Beer – for the rest of the blog I’ll simply gloss over my poor note-taking! – and Rogue’s Old Crustacean had a sweet, apricot jam flavour that I could imagine being too cloying if we’d had larger pours.

We had taken up a convenient position in an alcove by the auxiliary bar,  which not only gave us one of the few places in any of the rooms with space to set our glasses down, but also easy access to the six beers available on the taps there. We chose number 47 – Alesmith’s Old Numbskull; 49 – Drake’s Frankenwine (a blend of their barley wines); 51 – Pizza Port Carlsbad’s Farley (aged in bourbon barrels) and, just to make up the numbers, 52 – Beachwood’s Annihilator. The latter was awful – an odour of soap and washing-up liquid, followed by the taste of bubblegum and a touch of pine disinfectant. Not very pleasant! The Drake’s Frankenwine was fairly indifferent – a mish-mash of different flavours that blended into nothing much at all, which seems like a waste of all the effort put into the individual barley wines. Thankfully, the other two were better - Old Numbskull was an American-style well-hopped barley wine, with a finish like candied grapefruit peel, while Pizza Port’s Farley was bourbon-barrel perfection. You could smell the barrel as soon as you put your nose in, full of that delicious rich, chocolate-vanilla scent, and it was so smooth and easy to drink. The tastiness, along with our proximity to the keg, meant that this was the only brew we ordered twice. Or three times, as it turned out.

 (The highest ABV drip tray in the world? The auxiliary bar in action)

At about this point, the realisation kicked in that we’d split about 65ozs of 10+% ABV beer between four of us, and it wasn’t yet 1.30pm. The pros that were queuing in the early morning sun had come prepared with lunches and snacks that you are allowed to bring in to eat with your beer, but we were still running on our big breakfast. Our next six included a classic example of the style, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot 2009. I find the taste of their Pale Ale so distinctive that I could identify it blind, and the Bigfoot takes that base and turns the dial up on everything especially the malt. Apparently collecting Bigfoot is a big thing here - Andrei was telling us about tasting a 16-year-old bottle from a 'Bigfoot Chaser's collection, which must have been incredible.

High Water’s Old & In The Way is billed as ‘English Style’, which means the malt should dominate the palate, and sure enough, it did – like drinking a liquid Highland Toffee bar, but with a burn at the end. The aforementioned blend of barley wine and imperial stout was 50-50’s BART (Barrel Aged Really Tasty), and my notes simply say ‘Accurately named’. The description makes clear that it had been aged in a Jack Daniels barrel, and you could taste the distinctive Jack flavour through this. We also tried Marin’s Old Dipsea 2011, Bear Republic’s Old Scoutter’s and Triple Rock’s Dragonaut – which we only had because the bartender misheard Mel ask for #35 and served her #25 instead - in this bar run.

(Ordinarily I'd list the beers - the centre right beer is Pizza Port's Farley, but not sure about the others...!)

With the time ticking into early afternoon, the bar was pretty much at capacity now, with our well-guarded spot by the second bar being encroached upon and a line outside to get in. A few beers had started to run out, too -  Farley went quite early, along with the Arctic Devil and the Three Sheets (to my surprise). We decided to pick a final six beers and then make our escape before we all passed out. We finally did get the #35 we wanted – Schmaltz’s He’Brew Genesis 15:15. Coincidentally, as we tried this, the brewer walked past us – one of a number of brewers of the beer we were drinking that had come along to enjoy the festival. Genesis 15:15 stood out on the menu as an interesting beer – brewed with dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates, then aged in rye whiskey barrels. This was a glorious, sticky, fruity confection, and I could taste the pomegranate juice in the palate. The barrel had less of an influence here than with other beers we tried, but I’ll put that down to the sheer weight of other flavours going on in there. Disappointment of the day was Deschutes’ Mirror Mirror (2011), a beer that Mel and Andrei assured me was very good when they’ve had it from bottle, but which had an unpleasant acetone/nail polish aromas and a slightly astringent flavour. We reckoned it might be infected.

I convinced our American friends to try Emelisse’s Dutch take on the style, although they weren’t impressed with the upfront hops in there. Uinta’s Anniversary was next, and very tasty – although I did point out that, as the beer was made in teetotal Utah, my expectations were quite low. Next was Speakeasy’s Old Godfather, which was fairly unremarkable, before we completed our vertical of North Coast’s Old Stock with the 2010 version (I think my favourite was the 2009).

With our veins flowing with barley wine, we wandered out into the warm afternoon sun. As we walked up Haight, debating our favourites, what struck me was the sheer variation in flavour across the beers we’d tried – from the dark, rich Farley through to the vibrant, fruity Genesis 15:15 to the big hops of Critical Hit 2010. With such a wide definition of the style to play with, there is so much scope for brewers to play with the style to brew something tasty and different. I understand that a selection of medals are handed at the end of the day – personally, if I had to choose a favourite, I think the Arctic Devil or the Farley would win. The most interesting was the Genesis 15:15, although I don’t know how much of that I could drink – or how often!

After all that strong, strong beer, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else in the whole world. We walked up the hill to Magnolia for a good, old-fashioned pint of mild.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Friday

The shadow of Saturday hangs over the last weekday of our San Francisco Beer Week adventure. There are some big beer events, like the Barley Wine Festival, so Friday was our chance to do some sightseeing, dabble in some fringe events, check our San Fran’s other beer outlets and prepare for tomorrow.

After a bit of classic tourist-ing down by Fisherman’s Wharf, I insisted that we take a detour via Whole Foods. The ‘virtuous’ grocery vendor is much, much bigger in the US than in England (they only have a handful of stores in England), and their stores here stock an incredible array of craft beer.

Walking into a Whole Foods in California is like entering a dream for a London-based beer drinker. Six-packs from the likes of Stone and Lagunitas are available for under $8, a bomber of Port Brewing’s sublime Old Viscosity is $6.99 (I think the Euston Tap relieved us of the equivalent of $20 last time we had one there), and one-of-a-kind limited-edition brews sit alongside core releases at regular prices.

I picked up the seasonal special Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout for $4.99, and the staff were just putting out the boxed, limited release Firestone Walker Sucaba (which we enjoyed on tap earlier in the week). The latter will come back to London with me to be aged, while the former was cracked and enjoyed back at the hotel – a light brown porter-style pour, which was surprising, but with a big, big coffee flavour and aroma, and a well-hidden alcohol warmth worthy of the name ‘stout’.

We stopped in at the City Beer Store after that to see what was on – Stillwater’s Folklore was on in two versions, original and Red Wine Barrel-Aged, so we tried them both. They were both deep and dark brews, the original a little smoky, roasty and darkly bitter – quite good, but unremarkable compared to some of the things we’ve drunk this week. The BA version was immediately more interesting, with a dark cacao and vine fruit aroma. I was expecting something akin to Mikkeller’s Black Hole (Red Wine Barrel Edition), where the red wine cuts through the finish, but the Folklore was immediately vinous, with an acidic cherry twang like a liquid Black Forest Gateau. It was a little too much for me, but it was very interesting. We also tried High Water’s No Boundary IPA - big hop aroma, but then the Belgian yeast scythes through the malt to make it a little too dry for be able to carry the big bittering hops.
(left - Stillwater Artisanal Ales' Folklore; right - Stillwater Artisanal Ales' Folklore (Red Wine Barrel)

For the evening’s drinking, Mel took us over to San Francisco’s newest brewpub, belonging to the Southern Pacific Brewing Company. They only held their grand opening about three weeks ago, but clearly word was out, as the huge warehouse space was full of Friday night drinkers. It’s probably the biggest bar we’ve drunk in all week., and certainly the biggest crowd we’ve drunk with to date. Seven of Southern Pacific’s brews were on tap, from the standards like an IPA and a Porter through to a Wit aged in a Chardonnay Barrel. Their guest drafts also included a beer I’ve been waiting all week to try, the SF Strong Ale, brewed by the SF Brewers’ Guild specially for Beer Week. You can read a blog about its creation – including the official use of one of Anchor’s in-house yeast strains in a third-party beer for the first time, which is quite a big deal apparently.

We tried most of the SPBC beers between us, and as a result my recollections of each are hazier than they probably should be. I’d been incredibly disciplined about keeping notes up until now, but I’ve let myself down a bit here! I started with the Extra IPA, which was paler and thinner than I was expecting, and lacking the big hop whack that I wanted from something billed as an ‘Extra IPA’. I tried some of Mel’s Black Lager, which was much better – the darker malt character worked perfectly with the subtle hops and a touch of underlying sweetness. G went with the Chardonnay Barrel Wit, which was my personal favourite – off-white in colour, it had the taste of a milk pudding rich with bay and nutmeg. A little bite of acidity but the soft spices dominated the flavour right through until the wine kicked in for a dry finish.

(left to right - SF Strong Ale, Southern Pacific Chardonnay-Barrel Wit, and not sure what the right hand glass is!)

Finally, the SF Strong Ale, which lived up to its name (and is partially responsible for me writing this the following morning) – a big toffee apple of a beer, with a pine forest aroma, a rich and enduring caramel malt body, a touch of fruit esters, enough hops to balance the malt. The alcohol is dangerously well-hidden in there – well, that’s my excuse, anyway. The sparseness of notes is probably a good indicator that we had a great time at Southern Pacific, and if we were staying for longer, I’d definitely head back there for more.

We’re off to the Toronado Barley Wine Festival today, albeit with slightly sorer heads than we should have. This calls for an epic brunch…

Friday, 17 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Thursday

After Wednesday night’s excesses at the Dogfish Head night at Amsterdam Café, we were nursing slightly sore heads this morning. Once we’d managed to drag ourselves up and out of our hotel, the only reasonable thing to do was to go back to Amsterdam for a bacon sandwich and a hair of the dog while we planned our next move.

They were busy loading in kegs and preparing for the night’s Belgian showcase from the US importer Waterloo, but luckily they still had a couple of Dogfish beers on tap from the night before that we hadn’t had the chance to sample. With so many different events each day, often dedicated to particular brewers, a lot of kegs remain unfinished after the event – missing out on a particular brewer’s showcase isn’t the end of the world, as it’s quite possible that you can pop in the following days and find some of their wares still on tap.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, DFH’s main strength is their invention and innovation in their brewing – their continually hopped 60 and 90 Minute IPAs (where the hops are added slowly and gradually over the course of the brew rather than all being dumped in at once) is a good example. However, it can also be a weakness, and I’ve heard a few tales about wacky Dogfish beers that they found borderline undrinkable.

Which brings us to the two beers we had with our brunch. The first was Red and White, a sort-of splicing of red wine and a Belgian wit. The beer is fermented with Pinot Noir grape juice, then once the yeast has done its job, the beer is divided up into three, with one portion being aged on oak and another in red wine barrels. The three parts are then blended together again to make the finished beer. There’s a slightly pinkish hue once it sits in the glass, and it smells more like a rose wine than any beer I’ve had before. There’s some grape must and peaches in there, and you get the same impression when you first taste it – floral and grapey, like an easy drinking summer wine. But then it mutates in the mouth and you realise that it you’re drinking a strong ale, and by the time you swallow you get some hop bitterness to round it off. A compelling beer, even for lunchtime drinking.

(left - Dogfish Head Red and White; right - the disappointing Dogfish Head Pangaea)

As you might guess, the other beer we had was not quite as good. Pangaea has a very gimmicky concept – the name comes from the single supercontinent that made up the Earth millions of years ago, and the beer contains one ingredient from every continent (Australian ginger, Japanese rice, water from Antarctica(!) etc). It sounds interesting, but in reality it was easily the most dull beer we’ve had all week. I couldn’t taste any ginger in there – it’s light, drinkable, some clove-like phenols… but then it becomes a little too sweet and flat. It’s a bad sign when the words ‘Top Deck Shandy’ are included in my notes.

And so to the evening. As we emerge from the BART, San Francisco’s mass transit rail system, at 24th Street Mission station, a busker with an accordion provides us with an appropriately Gallic soundtrack. The palm trees and taquerias that line the street may be more Mexico City than Montreal, but tonight belongs to Quebec. I have to be honest, I don't know very much about the Montreal craft brewing scene, but that seemed all the more reason to come to Rosamunde in the Mission for French-Canadian brews and poutine.

 Rosamunde is, strictly speaking, not a beer bar – it’s a sausage grill, serving gourmet hot dogs with a beer on the side, but it has a bar that would put all put a couple of London’s pubs to shame. A full 24 keg lines, featuring everything from the ubiquitous Stella Artois through to Green Flash’s Double Stout (a rich, dark, malty brew that seems to lose a few of the 8.8% ABV between tap and tastebuds, which makes it very dangerous indeed), and a long list of bottles on top of that. Five of those keg lines had been given over to Unibroue and Brasserie Dieu du Ciel, so we picked one from each brewery.

We gave Unibroue’s (apparently famous) Maudite a miss and instead went for the Trois Pistoles, a dark, malty banana loaf of a beer, with a sort of hot-cross-bun yeast-and-spice character to the palate. A sort of home baking double act in a glass. Rich and sweet, with that familiar banana ester profile, it had a strong but smooth alcohol finish. As nice as that was, I was much more intrigued by Dieu du Ciel’s Route des Epices, which was billed on the menu as a rye beer but which could more accurately be described as a peppercorn red ale. Rye can give a beer a very subtle spiciness, but Dieu du Ciel decided not to leave that element of flavour to chance and threw in green and black peppercorns just to make doubly sure. It smells like freshly ground pepper, tastes like cayenne pepper and then burns down the throat like a chilli pepper. I love spicy food, so I thought it was fantastic, but unfortunately everyone else who tried it made a bit of a face. Philistines.

(The Quebec Night line-up. Unfortunately, we didn't get to try the poutine...)

By the time we’d supped those up, the poutine had already sold out and there was now a queue to get in, so with the Route des Epices firing my appetite for spice, we left San Francisco’s little piece of Quebec and headed for one of those local taquerias. And as if to underline the penetration that craft beer has here, you can grab a hop-laden Lagunitas IPA with your red snapper burrito. Amazing.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Wednesday

If big bourbon barrels defined our Tuesday drinking out here, today was all about huge IPAs. One of the features of the first week of February in California is the release of the almost mythical Pliny the Younger, Russian River's triple IPA that features regularly in may beer aficianodos’ best beer in the world lists. Their double IPA, Pliny the Elder, is available on tap almost year round in California, but Younger, which has an even bigger hop schedule, is only available for the first couple of weeks of February. If you follow any American beer bloggers on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen some kind of acerbic comment about the frenzy that accompanies the release of Younger. e.g. 'what is this 'Younger' and why do we have to queue for him at 7am!?!?'. And so forth.

When we sorted our trip to California, seeking out a taste of the Younger was one of the first things on the agenda. Now that our jet lag had finally worn off, it was out best opportunity. We’d been tipped off that the Toronado would be putting a fresh keg of Younger on every day until the end of Beer Week, but as they open at 11.30am every day, we didn’t want to waste any time, so headed off down Haight St. Drinking a huge IPA before lunchtime might seem insane, but if the alternative was missing out on Younger altogether, then we were game for some early-bird boozing.

When we finally found the Toronado, it was a fantastic sight. A stable door at the entrance, Chimay signs outside, neon signs and paraphernalia for all the great breweries of the world hanging inside, and more than 20 beer lines to deliver an incredible range of beer. I wish I’d taken more photos of the place – when you walk into somewhere like Brewdog Camden and see what they are trying to achieve in their house bar, this must be the sort of place they have in mind. Jukebox in the corner, every seat filled by 12.30 with people drinking double IPAs or Belgian-style quadrupels or imperial stouts… Perfect.

The scoreboard-style list of beers on draught didn’t seem to be up to date, and on approaching the bar they told me to refer to that day’s printed beer menu, and to order by number. Disappointingly, there was no Younger, so I went for a 'number 2' – Pliny the Elder, the little brother of younger, but still an 8% double IPA. While I was waiting for it to be poured, the guy at the bar next to me said ‘You do know they have Younger on, the bigger version of Elder? They just don’t put it on the menu.’ – and so I asked for a Younger to go with its big brother. Clearly, ordering Younger requires a bit of inside knowledge, a secret password, or something similar - but anyway, I was finally in and ready to try some PTY.

(l-r - Russian River Pliny the Younger, Russian River Pliny the Elder)

When it came – in a miserly 6oz pour – Younger was lighter than I thought it would be, and lighter than Elder in colour. Check the photo to see what I mean. I’m glad I’d ended up ordering the Elder first, as tasting them both side by side showed up how much difference there was between the two. Elder was a classic California double IPA – big on the floral aroma, thick malt backbone, piney bitterness to finish. But Younger was something different – where the hops took it beyond what you’d expect from a beer. Conventionally, you’d think that the more you hop a beer, the more bitter it is and that has to be balanced by more malt. However, at no point while drinking the Younger do you feel that the hops are leading the beer. It is, by all accounts, an insanely hopped beer, with three hop schedules, according to Russian River’s website, but because the balance is so good, you taste an intensity and subtlety of the hops that I’ve never tasted before. All kinds of citrus peel and tropical fruits come to the fore but never dominate. I’m not a good enough writer about beer to really describe it, but I could have drunk it all day. And when dealing with a ‘triple IPA’ with an ABV of 11%, that’s a very dangerous thing to say.

Once the sun had gone down, we headed over to the Amsterdam Café in the Tenderloin (despite instruction from the porter at our hotel never to venture into that area on safety grounds… sorry Johnny). Their line-up of SFBW events is superb – if it hadn’t been for the intervention of our friend Mel, we would almost certainly have given their Mikkeller night a look on Tuesday. Wednesday belonged to Dogfish Head though, with ten different brews on draft and another 8 in bottle, including a few rareties. We had to wait for 10 minutes to get into Amsterdam as the bar was absolutely rammed, but queuing up outside was a small price to pay for what we found once we got in.

(The bar at the Amsterdam Cafe - we'll definitely be back here before we fly home)

As I said in my introduction to the blog, DFH are largely responsible for my conversion to America’s fantastic beers, but because they are so hard to find in the UK, I haven’t touched a Dogfish beer since New Year’s Eve 2010. Walked into a bar where they’re casually tapping 120 Minute IPA is like striking the motherlode, and that’s exactly what they were doing at Amsterdam. I started off with a glass of that, and it was everything I hoped it would be – huge sweetness and bitterness, with a distinct orange marmalade flavour mixed with that classic Scottish liqueur Drambuie. It was brilliant.

To provide a bit of a contrast, we had 16oz of their Chicory Stout, and while DFH are known for their experimental brews, their more conventional beers can still be a knockout. This was full of rich, dark flavour, with a hint of chicory bitterness – although G complained that it was a bit lacking in depth (something I’m going to put down to a couple of days of drinking massive barrel-aged stouts).

Something DFH have been trying over the past few years is to recreate past beers drunk by fallen historical empires, which brings us to Theobroma – recreated after analysing pottery found in Honduras that may once had held a cocoa-based beverage. Dogfish used this analysis to create this beer, bewed with chillies and cacao. I was expecting a dark beer, so when I had a glass of pale ale handed to me, I had to check that it wax definitely what I’d ordered! This reminded me a little of De Molen’s hugely disappointing Bed and Breakfast coffee beer – plenty of bell pepper in the palate (the Bed and Breakfast is dominated by this, in a bad way), before giving way to some coffee and then a mouth-filling chocolate character. There was no chilli flavour, which was disappointing considering that that was what had been billed as the main influence on the beer apart from cacao, but we still enjoyed it nonetheless. It was refereshing and never overwhelming, and I’d love to try this again.

(Dogfish Head's Theobroma aztec cacao beer - not the big dark beer you expect!)

To finish the night, we decided to try Faster, Bigger, Better Bolder, DFH’s collaboration with the Bruery on a Japanese beer, in aid of the victims of the 2011 earthquake that devastated the country. The promise of two kinds of sesame seeds, ginger, cayenne and a sake yeast was clearly a draw for the crowd at Amsterdam, as unfortunately it was sold out when I ordered it. A kind gent next to me at the bar let me have a taste of his bottle, and it was exceptional – slightly savoury, dry, quite thin, a little spicy and undeniably Japanese. In search of something else to drink, we opted for the honey-laced imperial stout Bitches’ Brew, created in honour of the Miles Davis record. Roasty and rich, it was just what we needed to finish our session.

(Dogfish pay tribute to Miles Davis with Bithces Brew - big, dark, roasty and tasty)

The day belonged to the big IPAs though, and Younger and 120 Minute IPA are examples of the kind of niche, off-kilter, massive-hop beers that I love to drink. And long may they continue to be brewed (even if I have to travel thousands of miles to drink them).

PS Brewdog have pre-announced a 16.5% triple IPA - Anarchist Alchemist - with a massive hop bill and an extensive dry-hop schedule, which they should be releasing during the spring. So perhaps I won't have to come all the way to the US for my big hop fix in future...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

SF Beer Week: Tuesday

Although the events for SF Beer Week start as early as 11.30am, we were still so jet-lagged that we couldn’t even consider a beverage until after the sun had started going down here. While we originally intended to try to visit as many different beer bars as possible while we was here, we ended up back at City Beer Store for a Firestone Walker night – again, this was the influence of Mel, who told us that they’d be tapping a special keg of a barrel-aged stout called Velvet Merkin. So how could we resist?

I first became aware of Firestone Walker when reading this excellent piece on David Walker, one of the brewery’s co-founders, written by the Independent's Will Hawkes. However, I’ve not had the pleasure of trying any of their beers before, as I’ve not seen them in even the most specialist of beer bars or shops in London. I’ll definitely be looking a lot more closely for them after tonight,

The main attraction was the aforementioned Velvet Merkin (also known, in its non-barrelled version, by the less titillating and entirely inexplicable name Velvet Merlin), an oatmeal stout that enjoys a good long rest in an oak bourbon barrel. If the side-by-side tasting of the BA and non-BA versions of Lost Abbey’s Serpent Stout yesterday was a good example of what bourbon barrels can bring to a beer, this was a bit of a masterclass. I can honestly say that the Merkin was one of the best beers I’ve ever drunk. The barrel aroma is softer and more mellow than most the BA stouts I’ve tried before. The vanilla and wood are still distinct, but you appreciate the subtlety.  Thick and rich on the palate - the result of 15% oats in the grain bill – the flavour profile is milk chocolate, roasted hazelnuts, a touch of coffee, cream, and a very gently bitter finish. At any point when the flavour might pull in one direction or another, it balances itself out – never too sweet, never too rich, a tweak of bitterness on the finish… It’s the best beer I’ve drunk so far in 2012. Sadly, as it’s only available on tap, this is probably the only time I’ll get a taste of it. As a bonus, it was being served with free cupcakes, which was a generous touch.

(On the right, Double Jack. On the left, the Velvet Merkin - cupcake not pictured)

The other FW beers were also very tasty, and only one was a miss. Double Jack, their imperial IPA, was exactly what you’d expect from the style – a floral tropical fruit scent, a big gust of malt through the middle, and a smack of piney hops in the back. Delicious. The miss was Bravo, a barrel-aged brown ale that split us all – Mel loved it, but for me it was too much like a sherry, cloyingly sweet and honeyed, with no real balance until it finished with a sort of acrid bitterness. And you could really taste its 13.5% ABV – some beers can disguise their alcohol quite well, whereas Bravo dresses it up in a sparkly catsuit and sends it out to parade in front of you. This one came with a brownie, which was a bonus.

Finally, Sucaba (the beer formerly known as Abacus, apparently) – a barley wine that, once again, had known the inside of a bourbon barrel. More wood and vanilla on the palate here, but much dryer and less sweet than the Bravo, despite again being a very strong beer (12.5%). With a kick of roasty tones, a bit of cigarette smoke and dark chocolate to round it out, we thought it was very enjoyable. But also at that stage we were starting to feel the effects of those high percentage beers.

(Mel's choice of finisher, the 2009 Cellar Reserve edition of North Coast's Old Stock Ale)

Naturally, we felt we had to have just one more, so Mel picked out a special bottle from the CBS fridges for us – North Coast’s 2009 Cellar Reserve edition of their Old Stock Ale, which was a real treat. I didn’t take notes as we shared it round and sipped it, but from the top of my head, it poured a deep, rich brown, like a cognac. It has a fantastic, mouth-coating creaminess that turned into caramel and then into raisins… and then it was all gone.

And just to complete the theme of the night, I should point out that, of course, it had been aged in a bourbon barrel.