Local winter brews

The North County Times offers a roundup of the local beer scene, with many of our best brewers offering up specials for the short and chilly (by local standards) days of winter.

I have a fascination with fruit beers, as long as they don’t come out tasting more like pop than beer. I had long imagined that persimmons could be used in making a good beer. Now I know it is true. As noted in the article, Back Street Brewery (Ladera Frutal’s closest) has come up with Santa’s Little Fella, which “uses 70 pounds of locally grown persimmons and wildflower honey.” I can’t say for sure that I taste persimmon, specifically. But I sure taste the hops! It is one fine brew, and the hops and the sweeter ingredients certainly provide for a nice balance.

Czech beer is phenomenal

So says Evan Rail the author of the new Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic. ((And he has a blog about Czech beer. Both these links I owe to A Good Beer Blog.))

And, of course, he is right.

It is very encouraging to know that, after an initial phase of brewery closures after the communist regime fell, the number has been trending upwards again. Proof that the market works after all!

And future travel note:

There was one beer I found in Pribor, which is Sigmund Freud’s home town, and they call it Freudovo pivo. You can only find it in that town, it’s a 13-degree dark beer, and it’s rich and chocolaty and malty – it’s more like a desert than or a Sacher-torte than it is a beer itself.

The stuff of dreams, for sure.

On the impact of tourism on the variety and quality of beers:

It’s definitely helped and I encourage every tourist to do his or her part. Please drink as many beers as you can and try as widely as you can to drink beers from different places.

Words to travel by!

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m feeling rather thirsty.

Beer is food

Inspired by the obituaries on Michael Jackson that I have just been reading, I was thinking about some of the great marriages of beer and food I have experienced. (Thinking about the great beers would occupy me for far too long!) Here are my top 3 meals (not necessarily in any meaningful order) cooked with beer from our travels, right off the top of the head:

    The salmon poached in witbier at In’t Spinnekopke in Brussels.

    The gueze sauce at 3 Fonteinen in Beersel. (No, I do not remember what was cooked in the sauce–it hardly mattered–and yes, there really is a place in Belgium called Beersel.)

    The Vepřové smes porter (Baltic porter that is) from Pivovar Pernstejn in Pardubice, Czech Republic. ((An image of this amazing brew comes up on the website. And, no, I do not eat vepřové anymore, but I am sure glad I did back then!))

I owe entirely to Mr Jackson that I found the first two places. I am very proud to say that I found the third on my own, and as far as I know, he never wrote about that place. If only he had had more time…

I stole the “beer is food” line from a young bartender who served my wife and me many a glass of Termanli Desert ((A weird name, yes, but I have the glass to verify the name. It is from LaÅ¡ko, which does not show such a brew anymore, though it could be the Temno, as that looks like it would be the word for dark. And, how ghastly that this fine brewery now produces a Bandidos Tequila malt pop. Ugh, but if it keeps them in business to make great beer…)) in Ljubljana in 1992 on our honeymoon. (Speaking of great marriages…)

More MJ

I noted with sadness last week the passing of “beer hunter” Michael Jackson, whose writings had a tremendous impact on my appreciation of great beer–at home and in travels in Europe.

The obituary in Tuesday’s Guardian by Roger Protz is nicely done. Some excerpts (though I am leaving out a lot of good stuff!):

The enduring legacy of Michael Jackson, who has died aged 65, will be that he elevated beer from the belief that it is a simple refresher to its true status as one of the world’s great alcoholic drinks, with a long tradition and deep roots in the history and culture of many societies… He showed … that beer comes in many styles and is often made with the addition of fruit, herbs and spices alongside malt and hops. […]

Jackson was born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, and he remained proud of his Yorkshire stock, though it was a stock that had a major input from the Jewish community of Lithuania. His grandfather, Chaim Jakowitz, had emigrated to Yorkshire from Kaunas. His son, Isaac, married a gentile, Margaret, from Redcar, and they had twin sons – Michael’s brother died shortly after birth – and a daughter, Heather. Isaac Jakowitz anglicised his name to Jack Jackson […]

The young Michael quickly developed a taste for rich home cooking, inspired by Jewish and eastern European traditions. […]

However far he travelled, he always waxed lyrical about the pleasures of a pint of Taylor’s Landlord or other good Yorkshire brews. [Yummmmm—MSS…]

As a beer writer, his aim was to encourage people to treat it as being as worthy of attention as wine. In arguably his greatest book, the Beer Companion (1991), he wrote: “No one goes into a restaurant and requests ‘a plate of food, please’. People do not simply ask for ‘a glass of wine’, without specifying, at the very least, whether they fancy red or white, dry or sweet, perhaps sparkling or still … when their mood switches from the grape to the grain, these same discerning people folk often ask simply for ‘a beer’, or perhaps name a brand, without thinking of its suitability for the mood or the moment … beer is by far the more extensively consumed, but less adequately honoured. In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice.”

He certainly did succeed in that. And, I never knew of his descent from either Yorkshire or Jewish stock, but both facts sure make a lot of sense.

Also recommended, the thoughts of Lew Bryson, who notes, “it was Michael’s sense of place that really made his writing so important to me. When MJ wrote about a beer, he wrote about where it was brewed and where people drank it, the look of the walls and the lay of the land, why the town was there and who the brewer’s father was.”

Lew further notes that Jackson believed it was “crucial to go to the place where beer or whisky is made to understand it.” Having gone to many places where beer is brewed–always with one or more of his books in hand–I most certainly agree.

RIP, Michael Jackson

The beer hunter will hunt no more.

I have used his fantastic guidebooks and other writings for years to explore great beers on my travels. I always considered it a real badge of personal honor when I found something world class that he hadn’t written about. That did not happen very often.

Mr Jackson taught us what a rich, complex, and varied drink the fermented malt beverage can be. And he got paid to drink the greatest beers in the world. I’d call that living a good life. But, at 65, it ended too soon.

Plzen wooden fermenters

It’s been hot at Ladera Frutal, and I sure could refresh myself in the underground cellars of the original Plzen (Pilsen) brewery and with a glass of their lager fermented in these wooden barrels.

This photo is from our tour of the Pilsner Urquell brewery in the summer of 2005. I could not even begin to describe the flavor and texture of this really original pilsner, except to say that it was complex and creamy.

I am not aware of any craft brewers who condition pilsner in this way, unfortunately. And even Pilsner Urquell does not make this brew available anywhere but on the tour. At one time, this was how all lagers were brewed, but now you have to take the tour.

I am something of an aficionado of open-fermented beers. There are so few, but I have toured at least four breweries that specialize in open fermentation: Black Sheep (which still uses Yorkshire squares to open-ferment some of its products), Cantillon (a true lambic brewer that has its fermenters up in the cobwebs of its attic), 3 Fonteinen (see my previous fawning over their lambics), and Plzner Urquell’s tour samples. As a natural and local-character product as much as wine or cheese, beer was meant to be fermented in this manner, but so few carry on the rich tradition of real wild beer.

Just to get a small sample of this amazing brew is worth the price of admission to the brewery (which is interesting in its own right). Come to think of, just to taste this amazing brew is worth the price of the airfare, too.

Going wild

What is a “wild” crop? One that is not cultivated, correct? That certainly is my understanding of the word, wild. As far as I know there is no labeling standard for the various products that are called “wild,” and thus cultivated fruits can be in processed foods that are labeled wild.

Now, what if a beer is called Wild Hop Lager and bears the USDA seal that it is organic? As far as I know, there are no hops growing in the wild that are used by brewers anywhere, but you might assume that, even if the hops in this beer were cultivated, they at least would have been cultivated organically. Reasonable assumption, no? Uh, no. The hops in question are grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Of course, if you noticed that that Wild Hop Lager was produced by mega-factory brewer Anheuser Busch, you might be less surprised at the misleading labeling. The USDA has interpreted the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990 as allowing various ingredients that constitute a stipulated maximum percentage of the total product to be produced non-organically without disqualifying the product itself from bearing the USDA organic seal. And that list is about to be expanded, and the percentage of allowable non-organic ingredients in a product is about to be increased (to 5%).

What a shame that the USDA is allowing such debasing of the value of the organic label that products can have significant non-organic ingredients. Certainly hops are a significant ingredient in beer, even if a little goes a long way. (Well, not for me, but then I am hophead. I could eat them raw and have been known to enjoy a cup of hop tea now and then.)

I remember some years ago when there were discussions among organic producers about the mixed blessing of the then-budding mass interest in organic products. Of course, those of us who grow and consume organic products want the concept to spread–for both our own interests and those of the planet. But we knew it was inevitable that government agencies would begin to relax standards at the behest of the big-time processors and retailers, who can hire better-connected lobbyists than the committed organic growers can. An article from earlier this month in the LA Times, from which the not-wild, not-organic hop lager story comes, suggest that this relaxation of standards is very much underway.

My own advice is not only to look for the “organic” label, but to favor relatively smaller producers who specialize in organic whenever possible. If it is local, even better.

Karl Strauss, bearer of German-Jewish brewing tradition?

A pioneer of what has become one of the nation’s greatest centers of microbrewing here in the San Diego area has died, at 94. The obituary indicates that donations in honor of Karl Strauss may be made to the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego. The Karl Strauss brewpubs always touted his Bavarian brewing heritage (he trained at the famous Weihenstephan academy), but never did I have an inkling that he might be Jewish. And, his official biography is ambiguous, noting:

I came to the United States on March 3, 1939.

Actually, it became obvious in 1938 – the crisis of ’38 – that war was unavoidable. When Mr. Chamberlain went to Munich with his umbrella and proclaimed “Peace in our Times” and all that, everybody with any brains who lived in Germany at the time knew he was blowing smoke.

This got me wondering, to what extent is there a tradition of Jewish brewers?* Beerhistory.com claims that King David himself might have been a brewer. However, the brewer’s hexagram (still seen on at least one lambic label that I know of) almost certainly originated separately from the Magen David (which itself may have had its earliest formal usage by a Jewish community in Prague–speaking of great potential for brewing connections!). I can say that, whatever the tradition might be, one of my wife’s cousins is carrying it on as a brewer at a microbrewery in Portland–obviously a source of considerable family pride!

The obituary on Strauss also indicates that he worked for macrobrewer Pabst for 44 years before setting up the breweries under his name in partnership with one of his cousins and another founder. Strauss had an interesting comment on his beers, compared to those that have made several of San Diego’s micorobreweries award-winners, as quoted in the obituary:

His goal, he noted, was “not to make a bland beer – but not one so distinctive that only 5 percent of the people drink it.”

I am certainly in that 5%, but there are several excellent beers on the regular Strauss rotation, especially the Red Trolley Ale and several of his Bavarian-style lagers, notably his Amber and Oktoberfest.

To the memory of Karl Strauss: Prost, l’chaim, and alav hashalom.

* Some Google results:

Support beerodiversity

I can drink to this: Throughout human history–the diversity of local brewing traditions has sustained local economies and supported female labor-market participation, but it is under threat from globalization (especially in the developing world).

The ties between brewing and civilzation go at least as far back as the Code of Hammurabi, “which dealt specifically with matters regarding beer (and the agriculture that made it possible)” and the Egyptian pyramids, which were “essentially vast beer storerooms.”

History has never made so much sense as it does now, thanks to Chris O’Brien, author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World. Yes, I can drink to that!

As always, support sustainability. Drink local, wherever you may be.

Sam Adams Black Lager

I am a big fan of schwarzbier, but there are relatively few on the market. The most common one is Köstritzer, a beer from the former East Germany that has become widely available since the brewery was purchased by Bittburger.

Sam Adams now has a Black Lager. I have not had a Köstritzer in some time, so it is hard to compare them (note to self: buy some Köstritzer and arrange for a taste test). My immediate reaction to the Sam Adams was that it is probably better, and that is saying something. Very rich malt, perfectly black color (some alleged shwarzbiers don’t quite live up to the name), and just enough hoppiness to balance the malt. (This is a style that should not be particularly hoppy.)

My standards of the style are U Fleku (available only at the brewpub in Prague), Herold Dark (apparently no longer being imported from the Czech Republic, at least to the West Coast), and Rio Salado Thunderhead (Tempe, Arizona, never sold in California). While I have not tasted U Fleku’s brew in almost exactly a year, or the others in a longer time, I would say that the Sam Adams may be a notch below this trio of stars of the style. But very good.

Oh, no, say it is not so: Rio Salado may have ceased operation. Can anyone confirm, or–please–deny this?

We need more research

We really need to know more about the properties of hops. The following paragraph from the interview with local brewing genius, Jeff Bagby (another section of which I quoted a few days ago), is interesting:

I am a big believer in pushing style guidelines while still making a beer that is drinkable. I am starting to think that it is pretty hard to overhop a beer. There is a lot of stuff that we don’t know about the actual chemical processes and physical possibilities of infusing sugar water with lupulin. There is research that has been done that indicates there are only a certain number of IBUs that you can get into a beer at a certain alcohol level. The amount of IBUs that a beer can hold goes up with the level of alcohol in the beer. Even though a lot of us don’t really know a lot about hop thresholds in beer, we are experimenting with it on an art level. It’s fun but someday somebody will research and publish the science behind it. We’ll probably look back and laugh! There is a lot more experimenting to be done. The possibilities seem to be endless at this point.

The reference to lupulin (which I recognized as related to the specific name of the hop plant) sent me to Drug Digest for:


Scientific Name: Hops
Other Names: Houblon, Humulus lupulus

Who is this for?


In folk medicine, hops is best known for its calming effects. Supposedly, during the Dark Ages or earlier, individuals who worked as hops growers, collectors, or handlers were noticed to be more relaxed — even to the point of fatigue. Hops began to be used as a sedative and sleep aid. Subsequently, hops gained a reputation for being effective in treating anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, and related conditions. It is still used for sedation, often in combination with other sleep-promoting herbals such as valerian; even though little scientific evidence supports this use.

In a few small laboratory studies, chemicals in hops have demonstrated some additional activity. Humulone and lupulone, weak acid components that give hops a bitter taste, also killed bacteria or kept them from spreading. These same chemicals may help to prevent the formation of new blood vessels, potentially giving them anticancer effects. Hops may also have other protective effects against some cancers. In several small studies of laboratory cultures or animals, hops prevented different cancer types from starting, growing, or spreading. Perhaps more significantly, a chemical derived from hops has caused laboratory cultures of leukemia cells to disintegrate. Whether any of these anti-infective and anticancer effects may apply to humans has yet to be determined.

Indeed, the possibilities seem to be endless.

Beer travels: Montreal and Chicago (and San Clemente)

Actually, beer does not travel all that well. It is much better that the drinker do the travelling, in order to sample the best of local flavor. And travel we did, and drink we did–in Montreal, Quebec City, and Chicago from 16 to 21 June (and in San Clemente on our way home from the airport).

In Montreal, we visited two brewpubs, both outstanding.

Dieu du Ciel (29 Laurier Ouest)

This brewery features mostly Belgian-inspired beers, though has other styles as well. We tasted:

    Fumisterie–Rousse Ale Chanvre 5%. The brewmaster’s notes (French only, so I may have missed some subtlety in the description) says this is a mix of British pale and German alt styles. It was very smooth with a good bitter finish. Very well balanced.

    Bière du Mai–Ale aux conifères 5%. It is what its name says: it is brewed in a Belgian May beer style and contains conifers (I assume spruce). You definitely taste the forest. Very long sprucy finish. It may sound weird, and I suppose it was. But I liked it. A lot. I am not sure I would have wanted a full pint, however, but I consider myself very lucky to have tasted such an interesting and innovative blending of Belgian and Canadian flavors.

    Blanche du Paradis 5%. This is a classic Belgian bière blanche, with subtle flavors of curação and coriander. Perfectly balanced. Had a full glass after the taster. Probably the star of the session, at least until we went for the heavy artillery for dessert (wait for it).

    Déesse Nocturne stout 5%. Very coffeeish, perfectly balanced. Stouts hardly can get any better than this.

    Vausseau des Songes IPA 6%. Not bad, not a standout. You have to love a brewery where the worst beer is an IPA that you’d be happy to drink any evening.

    Rigor Mortis Blond d’Abbaye 6%. Uh, well, all I wrote down in my notebook was “I’m speechless.” This was simply mind-blowing. I have travelled to Belgium and visited the Westvleteren abbey brewery and this effort would stand up well.

    Rigor Mortis ABT d’Abbaye 10%. Tastes of prunes and toffee. This brewer deserves to be a Companion in the Order of Canada.

    The brewery had a couple of other items that we did not get around to tasting. I mean, the nights are only so long and the walk and metro back to Guy-Concordia is a long trip. They also had an apricot ale from one of my favorite east-coast USA breweries, Dogfish Head (appropriately known as an “extreme brewery“). I am sure it was great–a “fruit beer for hopheads“–but alas I missed out. Dieu du Ciel also has food, supposedly just snacks, but these snacks are hearty enough to serve as a full meal and complement the beer very well. The brewing lineup apparently changes often, as the 21 June listing on the website shows several new offerings that we missed (including the IPA on cask, a sour wheat beer with raspberries, a smoked ale, and a barleywine aged one year in keg, while the Bière du Mai and some others that we tasted are no longer on).

L’Amère à Boire (2049 St-Denis)

    This brewery features mostly Central and Northern European styles, with some British thrown in for good measure. All expertly done, though the porter was a bit disappointing. (But you have to love a brewery where the worst beer is a porter you would be happy to drink on any given evening.)

    The stars of the session (OK, sessions) were their Odense Porter and Imperial Stout. The Odense is a Baltic porter; that is, a dark and intensely malty and somewhat viscous lager. I have never encountered this style at a brewpub before, normally having to content myself to bottled products from Okocim (perhaps the classic Baltic porter for its rather extreme viscosity and chocolate-malt flavor), Zywiec (better balanced than the Okocim, though not necessarily better overall, and apparently no longer brewed), Utenos (an excellent version from Lithuania) and various others from Baltic countries. (In 1994 we encountered Okocim on tap at a place on Krakow’s main square, but in 2005 we could not find it anywhere.) OK, back to Montreal. I take my hat off to any brewer who can master this rare style, and this one can. It was right up there with the best from the Baltic region.

    The imperial stout was one of the very best of the style I have ever had. It was like drinking a rich chocolate dessert, and it was the perfect second dessert after the homemade mango and coconut sorbets at Le Piton de la Fournaise (see our main Montreal trip report).

    L’Amere à Borire also had a Czech dark lager, another variety I have never seen at a North American brewpub that I can recall. It was not exactly U Fleku, but it was excellent.

    The brewery website indicates fourteen styles on a “flavours circle” but there were “only” about half that many when we visited.

Elsewhere, we tasted various Unibroue prodcuts, but all in bottles, and some of which I know are available in some stores near home. (Somewhere in Montreal or Ville Québec there must be Unibroue taps, but on our short visit we did not encounter any.) The most memorable were the Maudite and L’Éphémère au moût de pomme (a saison brewed with Granny Smith apples). We also had a few other Quebecois beers at various places, including a luscious McAuslan St. Ambroise oatmeal stout (with a 100 percentile rating from 444 reviewers at Rate Beer) on tap at St. Alexandre pub in Quebec City and a rich and coffeeish Boréale Noire stout and the same brewery’s strong and caramelish Cuivrée. (The latter two were tasted at Le Fripon on Place Jacques Cartier, the stout on tap and the strong ale in bottle.)

On to Chicago

We did a one-night stopover to see one of Merry’s college friends from their Wayne State days. She now lives and works near O’Hare and was kind enough to pick us up and be our beer chauffeur for the evening.

First stop was Goose Island Wrigleyville. I’ve wanted to go to the Goose for a long time, and while I still have not been to the original on Clybourn, at least I have gotten Goosed now. We tasted:

    World Cup Ale 5.7% on cask. This was probably the star of the session. The brewery describes it as having “a slightly sweet malt character – due in part to the addition of toasted applewood chips in the bright tank.” It is dry-hopped generously with Centennial and could be classified as an IPA.

    Honker’s Ale 4.3%. This is perhaps their signature beer. Very good, not spectacular.

    Nut Brown Ale 4.5%. A very good nut brown, though never a favorite style of mine and could not stand up to the session competition.

    Fat Goose 4.8%. Very nice amber.

    Matilda 6.9%. A very serious rival to the World Cup for the honor of best of session. This is a Belgian-style strong ale with a special yeast strain and Styrian Golding and “an abundance of Saaz hops.” A real Belgian strong ale would not be this hoppy. And no, that was not a complaint. You have to love a brewer with this kind of sense of advanture! Matilda is one of a series of specialty seasonal beers that are available at the brewery for purchase in bottles (in addition to their regularly distributed bottled lineup), so I took one home.

Unfortunately, they were out of the Dead Goat Porter, which was brewed to “help break the curse on the Cubs” (apparently without success).

The Map Room (1949 N. Hoyne)

By reputation, this just may be the best place in all of Chicago for the beer lover. (Rated #5 in the country at BA, near in rank to several others I know and love: Toronado, Papago, and O’Brien’s). Reputation deserved. We tasted:

    Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel 9%. Wow, this is one of the most interesting ‘crossover’ beers I have had in a long time. It is what its name says: a mix of Belgian triple and double IPA styles, and while its level of hoppiness was not anywhere near a typical American double IPA, it had all the fruity and complex flavors you would expect from a classic Belgian brewer and much more intense hop character than anything I tasted in Belgium. This was simply a sensational beer, with perfect balance.

    Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (6%) on cask. Oh my!!! I have had the pleaure of this IPA in bottles a few times (not available on the West coast), but it is just mind-blowing under cask-conditioning. Hoppy and smooth. What a combination! The brewery describes the beer as having “an incredible floral hop aroma” and that is no exaggeration. The bartender set it down nearly a foot from where I was standing at the bar and I could immediately smell the hops.

    60 Minute IPA. From the previously mentioned Dogfish Head. Hard though it may be to believe, this was probably the star of the session, and it is not as though it had weak competition.

And the various maps that cover all the walls and the geographic-oriented reading material in the copious bookshelves give this place a nice touch in addition to the beer. (They could perhaps turn down the music just a touch, however.)

Returning home via San Clemente

Surely, you did not think we were done, did you? We arrived back at Orange County airport at around 8:00 p.m. and it just happened to be wing night at Pizza Port San Clemente. And, would you believe it? They had Old Viscosity “black barleywine” on tap!! The link refers to brewer Jeff Bagby of Oggi’s, but he left that establishment some time ago and now brews fulltime for the Ports, though he had already been doing so parttime for a while. You have to love a brewer whose philosophy is “I don’t think there is really anything you can do too much of with hops.” In the interview, from 2004, he says about OV:

We wanted to make it strong (12% or upwards) and make something that wasn’t so much of an imperial stout, but black in color. It had a nice hop aroma and fairly nice hop character, but not a bunch of roasted malt or astringency. I think we did an ok job. I’ve described the beer as a cross between an imperial stout and a barleywine because it has such a high alcohol feel and a barleywine’s mouthfeel and somewhat of a hop character. I wish there was more hop character in that beer. The last bottle I opened was still pretty nice. The beer seems to be different almost every time I taste it. What the hell kind of style it actually is I don’t know. I would love to brew it again.

Fortunately, he did. And he did better than OK.

The top 50 hoppenings

Valuable information here: The top 50 places in America to have a beer.

I have not been to their top 3, but I can’t argue about the Toronado (SF) being no worse than 4th, and Papago (Scottsdale) and O’Brien’s (just down the highway from Ladera Frutal) making the top 10!

But how could Liar’s Club be only no. 30 and Pizza Port (the Carlsbad version) only no. 40? Port Solana comes in at no. 50. Seems I have some research to do in order to validate.

Hard to complain about living in the same county with four of the top 50!

See also the top 50 craft brews in America. (I can’t even begin to accept their no. 1, even if it is very local.) Several SD county brews on the list. I’m always somewhat amazed when I think about it, but San Diego really is one of the four or five best metro areas in the USA for brewing!

Readers are more than welcome to chime in on the quality of locales and products on these lists.