Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Beer for Wine Lovers

Advance warning: This post is pretty unpolished and was born out of a casual email to a friend last night. I plan to update it over time (and will need to, because some of these beers are temporary and I'd like to keep it topical), and I'm rushing to Ohio in 24 hours, so this is the amount of polish I've been able to put on it so far.

My friend and fellow beer blogger Jeff forwarded me an email last night asking for beer recommendations for wine people. I happen to know a lot of wine lovers, and so does Jeff, and their beer tastes are so varied that this is a particularly stumping question. I also think it's a really great question - some people like pairing food, I like pairing wine and beer. Jeff gave some suggestions and copied me in on the email, and I hit the ground running. I am by no means an expert, so take these with a grain of salt and please feel free to disagree in the comments. Also, the brand suggestions are specific to San Francisco distribution, but many of these beers can be snagged nationwide.

My very first suggestion for a hardcore wine drinker is this year's Stone Vertical Epic (10.10.10). The whole concept of these beers is that they should be aged for a full vertical drinking (or, drinking every year's in succession to see how they compare to one another as they've aged), but I think it's particularly lovely right now. At approximately $6 for a 22 oz. bottle, you can afford to buy a few to try and buy a few to stash away, if that's your thing. Muscat, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer grapes are added in secondary fermentation to a beer that starts off as a Belgian strong brewed with pale malt. Wine drinkers will most likely pick up on this. It's simultaneously a little challenging and terribly drinkable and hits the top of my suggestions list for anyone.

I recommend nearly everything from The Bruery. Orchard White may be the greatest for non-beer drinkers - it's carbonated, it's light, it's sweet without being syrupy. I have never poured it for someone and had them dislike it - caveat here being that it may be hard to get ahold of this time of year. (It's year-round, but they make so many incredible beers that your local stores may pass it over in colder weather.) Jeff's suggestion in a similar category is the Allagash White, which I would second. The Allagash is a little too full in the mouth for me, but I know a ton of people like it. The Bruery also makes a couple of saisons, and as always, I think the Odonata Saison is one of the greatest beers available in Northern California. (North Coast's Le Merle is also not a bad choice.) It would go incredibly well with Christmassy food. Saison Dupont is lighter and more dry than your American saisons and could resonate with wine drinkers used to lighter, less sweet wines. Brasserie Dupont also makes a seasonal beer, Avec Les Bons Voeux. If you can find it, it's fantastic. The 2009 is good; I think I actually prefer the 2010.

A big question is "What kind of wine do they prefer", but on the off chance that you don't know or that they're like me and the very irritating answer is "all of it", let's keep going.

Orval is by and large one of the greatest beers ever. It is not cheap, it is not always easy to find. It is lovely. A very light Belgian with brett added - not enough brett to pucker your mouth by any means, but the right amount to dry out the sweetness of the yeast. Stunning, and my regular replacement in champagne-worthy settings. (At a fraction of the cost, despite me claiming it's expensive.) Warning - the brett that exists in this beer, and any brett-based beers that I may mention, is that brett in wine is a VERY BAD THING. So if you bring something sour or bretty, please god mention that in beer, brett can be a really great thing. (I'm big into stories when I bring a new beer somewhere, so if you bring Orval, you should read Jesse's really great writeup at Beer & Nosh.)

A gueuze - Lindeman's Cuvee Rene, which is probably located close to their lambics - is also a champagney choice. Much more dry, but I've seen it win over champagne drinkers.

I've never poured a Delirium Tremens for someone and received a turned-up nose in return. The same goes for Dogfish Head Festina Peche, which is unfortunately near impossible to find during the holidays, but is a perfect Easter beer. (People drink beer on Easter, right?)

I would love for a bottle of the Goose Island Bourbon County stout - this year's, or any year past if you can find it - to be on every table in America. It is one of the most challenging but pseudo-widely available beers during the holidays and it's perfect as an after-dinner drink. This is not for your light and fizzy friends, this one is for the port drinkers. The bourbon shines through without being overwhelming. Note, though, that it's incredibly thick and heavy. It'll pour with barely any head whatsoever. At 13%, pour it into small snifters and share it between a few of you. It's a little expensive (in San Francisco it's not uncommon to see around $7 for a 12 oz.), but with the small quantities you'll drink it in, it's well worth it.

If you've got gin drinkers, seek out a beer brewed with juniper berries. My favorite right now is St. Amand. You can find it at quite a few places in San Francisco (Shotwell's, Pi, Rosamunde, and I know I've seen it at the Whole Foods on Potrero). It's a Belgian single brewed with juniper berries and it's really, really great. Light and drinkable, with a very forward juniper taste that's far less earthy than what you'll get from gin. The Dogfish Head Sah'Tea is also brewed with juniper, but it's got a chai tea finish that gives it a totally different profile.

For wine drinkers accustomed to a smokier red - syrah and the like - you might be able to push the Alaskan Smoked Porter. The smoke flavor is a pretty acquired taste, but it's dark and rich without being heavy. Might go over well. Stone also makes a smoked porter, but I really prefer the Alaskan. Previous years will have a slightly different character as they age, but the 2010 is great right out of the bottle. Allow me to also suggest the humble Anchor Christmas, which I really like this year. It's spicy in all the right ways. An open-minded red drinker might dig it.

The Chimay family is always a good choice. I know beer nerds are sometimes sort of past the Chimay stage, but every time I have Chimay Red I'm struck by how much I really like it. The red is my personal preference, but your mileage may vary. Bringing one of each and having everyone try a little is a fun conversation starter. At around $9-10 per 750mL bottle, they won't break your boozy pocketbook, either.

I honestly believe there are beers out there beyond the occasional ciders for non-beer drinkers, and wine lovers might be one of my favorite groups. If we all approach one another with an open mind and stay away from the "mine is better" mentality, we probably stand to learn a lot from one another. Read your beer labels, find out what's in there that you really like (i.e. the juniper berries from above), and you might be surprised at how that carries across drink categories.

As of tomorrow, I'm hopping across the country for the next two weeks. I'll hopefully be drinking a Bell's Two Hearted when I get off the plane in 36 hours, and six days after that I'll be drinking Boulevard's Bourbon Barrel Quad. It's not a rough life I lead. Looking forward to catch up with all of them, and all of you, in the new year. Cheers!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On taste, why I don't judge your music, and good beer

It's time to talk about my favorite thing in the whole wide world: Taste. Specifically, why your tastes are so important.

You remember college? Oh, college. College, the land where an unnecessarily common icebreaker is "So, what kind of music do you like to listen to?" One of my very favorite things in the world is to see whether the answerer comes up with a specific genre or replies "Oh, you know, a little of everything", as well as which answer will make the asker scoff in response. Friends of mine who would happily describe themselves as music snobs would scoff at college girls that said "everything", assuming they meant "everything currently playing in this college bar". Friends who were into specific genres of music would turn their noses up at people who said the wrong genre. Occasionally funk nerds would find other funk nerds and then only be capable of communicating with one another for the rest of the night. So it goes.

Me? Here's where it starts to sound really hip and obnoxious, but I think I fall into a sort of weird camp. I generally like just about anything. I'm also generally really boring. When a new Girl Talk album comes out, I probably loop it mindlessly for at least six months. When I drove, I would keep the same CD spinning in my car for easily a year until someone else pointed it out. My home Pandora station is based on "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers. My favorite album in college - in the mid-2000s, mind you - was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's E. 1999 Eternal. I don't know how to answer the question; most importantly, I really don't care about your answer to the question.

Lest you think I'm trying to turn this into a music blog - which I hope the previous paragraph proves that I shouldn't - I promise I'm getting somewhere. As I was growing out of the phase in my life where I wanted to listen to every kind of music ever so that I could be happy with almost whatever music is on wherever I am (and get a little education along the way, because learning is super fun), I started to transition into the type of person who wanted to know a whole lot about beer. Just as it makes me cringe how much good hip-hop I was missing in the late 90s because I was too busy obsessing over musical theatre, it drives me crazy now to think about the five years I spent in college drinking a whole lot of Miller Lite and Blue Moon in the face of really, really good beer bars.

I'm regularly asked by people who don't know much about beer what the "best" beer is wherever we are. This question is simultaneously endearing and infuriating. There isn't an answer. There are good beers. There are better beers. There are rare beers. That doesn't mean I'm going to recommend a single thing you'll like, unless you tell me what you're into.

The evolution of a beer drinker is always fascinating to me. How did you get here? Some people use the phrase "craft beer epiphany", and I think that's fairly accurate. Here's mine: My freshman year of college, we drank a lot of Blue Moon. You can put fruit in it! Cool! It was our "better beer" to Miller Lite, which cost about $5 for a six pack and was found at every single corner store ever. (Also, I was 18, and people bought my beer for me. Don't judge.) Every once in awhile someone would bring over a fancy six pack of Blue Moon. It was... well, it was different. It didn't taste "like beer", which is to say it doesn't taste much like Miller or Bud or any variation thereof.

Fast forward a little to sophomore year, when I was about to turn twenty years old, and a professor of mine sent us off to spring break with one request: Drink a Paulaner Hefe-Weizen. Pour it into a glass. Look at the gorgeous orange color. Smell it first. Then drink it and come back in two weeks to report your findings. (Professor's name purposely omitted in order to protect smart professors who give advice about booze to 19 year old students.)

So, I did. I drove down to a liquor store, found this weird beer he was talking about, and drank it as instructed. And I'll be damned if it wasn't fantastic. It was like Blue Moon, but it was... better. Would you believe it didn't even need fruit? For the next year of my life, it was all hefeweizen, all the time. This is a pretty common thread among newer beer drinkers - they're not offensive, the more common among them aren't that challenging, they lack the hoppy bitterness that you get from a whole lot of common beers, and they're easy to come across.

Fast forward to living in New York, where I visit my first bar that doesn't have a hefeweizen on tap. I'm instructed that Hoegaarden is pretty similar to a hefeweizen, so I should probably try that. It occurs to me at this point that this sweetness is pretty great. It takes far longer to occur to me that this is an indicator of what Belgian yeast tastes like.

And I hit the ground running. I spent the last part of college back in Ohio, in Bell's country. Oberon (Bell's wheat beer) was easy; Two Hearted was more challenging. Sierra Celebration was too much. Christian Moerlein's 5th & Vine came out and it was my go-to for a summer. It was everything I could find, all the time, with few reservations.

I don't think I would have gotten into craft beer if my professor had recommended picking up a 22 oz. bottle of Double Daddy. I don't think Pliny the Elder could have been my first beer. I don't think a bottle of Bourbon County would have done it either. You have to start somewhere. I drank exclusively sweet white wines until I was pushing 23, and now I want them as bracingly red as possible. Palates are like that - and I swear to you, that's okay.

What is important is to realize that food, wine, beer, even music are all the same. There was a time in my life where I could not stomach mushrooms, IPAs, or bluegrass - it takes time. Your tastes change, and it has far less to do with age than it does with education. You might try a stout and think it's gross, but what if you try thirty stouts? You'll start to notice their nuances. All beers are not created equal. Over time, those nuances start to mean something, but if you have no way to identify what they are, you're going to have a hard time figuring out what you like.

I am awful at talking to mechanics about cars. (There is a laundry list of reasons why I don't drive; this is among them.) When presented with a funny noise coming from anywhere in the car, it could just as easily be a fan belt as low tire pressure. I don't even bother trying to tell a mechanic that it's making a ca-CHUNK-a noise, I just hand over the keys and hope I'm right on whether it's the front or the back of the car. I'm hopeless. But I'm hopeless mostly because I've never really been a driver. I don't know how to work on cars. I bet you, though, if I took the time to understand an internal combustion engine, looked under the hood a few times, and listened to the mechanic when he rattled off what was wrong so that I could correlate it to that specific ca-chunk-a, I'd be able to talk about it more eloquently.

It's so important to keep trying. That's not to say you'll like everything you try, because you probably won't. There are good beers and there are better beers, and maybe the better beers won't even impress you. Just because a beer is popular and you don't like it doesn't mean that you're wrong OR that it's a bad beer; it means there is something about it that doesn't resonate with you. I don't like Guinness or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, two beers that are commonly distributed and widely accepted. I just don't. It isn't that I don't like stouts or pale ales. It's that as a stout, I find Guinness to be lacking in flavor and consistency and making up with it in a roasty way that I don't care for, and I think Sierra relies too heavily on bittering hops without enough aroma and sweetness to balance it out. That's okay. They're not bad beers. They don't keep me from drinking pale ales or stouts.

This is where the "better beer" comes in. If you're not a beer drinker, you probably can't describe the effect that a specific yeast strain has on a beer, nor what hop character is, or what carbonation level is appropriate for a specific style, or how malty a beer should be. If you're on your journey toward being a beer drinker, all of that comes naturally, and over time you expect to go through phases. For being a person who rarely gravitated toward hops, I went through a very serious IPA phase this year. I probably drank my weight in saison. Last year was for stouts and porters, this year was for hops and floral. I am constantly flirting with Brett. I'll be in the midwest for two weeks very soon, so I expect all sorts of new things to be on my mind once I get back to San Francisco. It's when you start to know the how and why of what makes your beer so enjoyable that the world opens up to you, and when it does, it's unbelievably exciting.

It breaks my heart a little when people don't like beer, because I promise they do. Exceptions to every rule, of course, but it honestly makes me a little sad when someone walks into a beer bar, finds that they don't serve liquor, and walks right back out - or orders a cider because it's what they've learned to drink when their beer-drinking friends want to go to a beer bar. Or orders PBR because everything on the menu is named weird things that they've never heard of and it's easier to do that than ask the bartender what a beer is like. Don't do that. On a packed Saturday night, I might not be able to take you through an hour-long tasting lecture, but I bet if you tell me what kind of liquor you like, I can find you a beer to start with.

My mother is my very favorite person to drink beer with, because she hates it. She loves Bud Light - I come from a family of domestic beer drinkers. She knows how much beer means to me, however, so she always tastes whatever I'm drinking. Of course, she always hates it - but she tries. Good for her. This summer, when we were visiting family out east, they bought a six-pack of Anchor Summer to make me feel a little more at home. I handed my bottle to her and my jaw completely hit the floor when she took a second sip. She drank Anchor Summer all week - it was her first craft beer. When asked to describe why this one, of all beers, was acceptable, her answer? "It tastes like normal beer."

It would be so easy to laugh; to judge. It would also be easy to forget that's exactly how I started - Blue Moon tasted like normal beer, but it was just a little different. Not so different as to go from Miller Lite to something that clocks in at 100 IBU, just different enough to be enjoyable and palatable. Blue Moon to Paulaner to Hoegaarden to Oberon to Two Hearted to everything. What a fun experiment.

I know that this is pretty stream-of-consciousness, and for that I apologize. There's no huge payoff here. It's just so easy to judge other people for their outlook and preferences, and forget that those things come from a place of education, experience or lack of either. I won't link to it here because it irritates me, but if you haven't seen the news clip basically mocking the Rare Goose Island Bourbon County price, you might want to look it up. (Or don't. You won't be a better person for it.) It's awful. Early on, one reporter describes the $45 bottle of beer and suggests to the other to "keep a straight face". The next reporter puts air quotes around "connoisseurs" when he describes who the beer is for. It is at this point that I nearly tried to reach through the computer. John Hall, the president of Goose Island, is then asked if he knows what's happening with the economy, in a hugely reaching attempt to make him feel irresponsible for selling a beer at that price. It's followed by a series of man-on-the-street style interviews with random bar patrons around Chicago paying $3.50 for their beers, and one particularly irate man that suggests if you tried to charge him $45 for a beer that he would tell you to Get The Fuck Out. Later, the first reporter asks if it's kind of Guinness-like.

I have described it well. You don't have to watch it.

It's infuriating, you know? 22 oz. (the size of the Bourbon County bottle) is about 650 mL, slightly smaller than a standard wine bottle, which is 750 mL. Doing some really basic math, let's say that a 750 mL bottle of Bourbon County would run $52. Are news commentators getting up in arms about $60 bottles of wine? No? Are they going into dive bars and asking people how they'd feel if they ordered a glass of wine and were told it was $75? Oh, that didn't run either? Because that's currently the price for the most expensive glass at Charlie Trotter's, one of the most well-known restaurants in Chicago. How about $8,750 for a bottle at the same restaurant? Perhaps a rare bottle of beer isn't quite the same as a 15 year old bottle of fine champagne, but you get my point.

It's time to start educating. It's time to be educated, if you want it. It's at least time to stop judging. I just don't believe in beer snobbery. You can drink your PBR if you want, but you should try something every once in awhile. I'm really glad I started listening to bluegrass. I'm really excited that my mom found a craft beer she likes. And even if it gets its very own four minute segment on a local news affiliate making fun of how irresponsible it is, I'm over the moon that Goose Island cares enough about their product to bother making a bottle that can command a $45 price point, economy or no economy.

Grab a beer, even if it's one you don't like, and figure out what you do and don't like about it. Go from there. I bet you'll learn something, and you might even end up happy. Apologies again for the lack of structure. I'll be drinking a blueberry fruit beer and seeing if I can open my eyes a little.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mission Gastroclub Session 17: Spice

It seems I've been running in to Eric all over the place lately. I first met him at the Simply Beer tasting at Elizabeth Street Brewery. Then I ran into him at Bender's when the twitsphere was competing to see who could kill their surprise keg of Younger. We ran into one another yet again that night at Pi Bar. In that hazy, hazy night (which my friend Jeff would describe the next day as "I don't feel any Younger..."), Eric told us about Mission Gastroclub. A week later, the invite popped up and Harry and I snagged four of the fourteen spots. The other ten were gone within seven minutes of the email going out. Then Jesse posted about them. The invite list is expanding by the day. I'm a little afraid I'll never be able to go to one again.

Mission Gastroclub is the type of place I'll be bragging to other people's grandchildren about fifty years from now when I'm trying to reclaim my youth. They won't understand twitter, and of course we won't have email anymore, but I have a feeling that the concept will still resonate and the kids will think their adopted great aunt was really cool. Eric maintains an email invite list, an email goes out, and you claim your spots. There are 14 seats per dinner, and trust me, they go quickly. A second session of last night's dinner will be happening tomorrow, and those 14 seats were gone within 5 minutes. Dinners are held in Eric's Mission District apartment, an unassuming ground floor space with a kitchen big enough to cook for and seat a large group of people. Dinners are shockingly inexpensive - last night's four paired courses cost $31 each. That's four pints of good (very good) beer and four courses of good (very good) food. I can't come up with this kind of food and beer for this kind of price at home. It's an absolute steal.

Apologies in advance for the cell phone photos - I had decided it would probably be too dark to take photos, and then learned that the light would have been perfect.

The theme for the night was Spice. The first course was a samosa, paired with Death and Taxes. If only all samosas were like this - fresh ingredients tumbling out of a light, flaky dough when you cut into it. Every ingredient stood well on its own, but the combination was lovely. Not terribly spicy, but a good introduction of things to come.

The second course was a small salad of sauteed bok choy with spicy, spicy, spicy squid. Whole thai chiles were abundant, but few people at my table were daring enough to eat them whole. I've been sick for a few days now, so I was grateful for the palate cleanser. The squid was fantastically seasoned.

The third course was the best fried chicken I've ever had, coupled with kimchi and delicata squash. Harry, who doesn't care for squash at all, nearly licked his plate, and while I rarely care for fried chicken, I did the same. This was far and away the best dish of the night for me - filling and balanced. The mildness of the squash offset the spice from the kimchi, and the fried chicken, while not "spicy", was seasoned very well.

It was paired with Eric's imperial red homebrew. My table got very, very excited about this beer. I'm not much for red beers, but imperials are a different story. Full without being heavy, it was a really nice pairing with the chicken in particular.

Smoked Porter. Beautifully smoked porter. I am a huge fan of this style of beer. It's not what I would sit around and drink every day, but sometimes the mood strikes and I have to have one. I love Alaskan's rendition, but it often comes off as too smoky. Eric's version is just right - there's no denying it's a smoked beer, but the smokiness just compliments everything else that's happening rather than knocking you over. Needless to say, I had a second one.

It was paired with a tres leches cake and Mexican chocolate ice cream. I missed a little bit of spice in the ice cream, and I wish the cake had been just a little lighter, but overall I was pleased.

Everyone left full, a little tipsy and happy. This is exactly what I'd like to see more of: events that bring people together (we made quick friends with our tablemates), get people excited about beer, and aren't afraid to try new things. I can't wait to see what this develops into. If it stays as it is, it'll still be just perfect, but I think they've got a concept really worth developing. Hopefully I'll make the five minute invite cutoff to jump in on another session soon!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our homebrew operation

For years, I've flirted with the idea of homebrewing. I'm a pretty serious cook, and I love beer, and it would seem that getting in the kitchen, boiling something up, creating a learning experience and getting rewarded with beer would be right up my alley. Somehow, though, I never got around to it. You can blame my 42 square foot kitchen, you can blame my lack of a car (carrying a glass carboy down Geary on the back of a bicycle is not quite what I have in mind for a fun Saturday), or you can just call me lazy.

Either way, when we moved into this apartment a year ago, we learned that our neighbor right across the hall had just gotten into homebrewing. We've both got 500 square foot apartments, but he lives alone, and in place of my bedroom, he has a full-size kitchen. Over the past year, I've watched him grow as a homebrewer, and have had the pleasure of tasting enough of his beers that I can safely say he's gotten the hang of it. When he invited me to come along to San Francisco Brewcraft with him, I knew it was time to stop talking and start doing.

Plus, we're clearly running out of beer. (Fridges not pictured.)

I won't provide terribly accurate instructions here, for a few reasons. One, I'm not very good at brewing yet. I haven't even tried this one to know if it's a success, and I won't get to for another 54 days or so. Two, the good folks over at Brewcraft are much smarter than me and will provide you with fantastic information on the step-by-step process.

And if you're not in San Francisco, there is so much advice on the internet and in well-written books that I wouldn't possibly want to lead you astray. But if you're looking for a little inspiration and convincing that you can be your own one-person brewery, here we go.

Step one: Boil water. Seen here is about two gallons.

Step two: Add grains. A couple pounds of barley for me.

Step three: Pulling out the grains and letting as much of the remaining liquid as possible drain into your brewpot. Helps to have a buddy, because you will stand there obsessively moving your grains around so you can get the laaaaast bit out of there, and those wet grains get heavy. This justifies the homebrewer skipping the gym and drinking another beer.

Step four: Malt extract. We're a partial mash sort of household for now, though Justin is making some very strong moves to get to all-grain brewing. We're not there yet, so here's my bucket of incredibly sticky malt extract. You will think this looks like caramel and want to stick your fingers in it and eat it. You should probably resist this urge.

Step five: The boil. You'll add your hops according to a schedule (and while this is certainly something you can figure out on your own, the gentlemen at Brewcraft wrote mine for me based on the type of beer I'm striving to make with the hops I've chosen to use), over the course of an hour.

You should probably drink one of these. An hour is a really long time.

When all is said and done, you'll want to cool that puppy down. No pictures of this part, but for us, it involves throwing that big pot into a bathtub filled with water and ice, and me running back and forth between the living room and the bathroom for the next 45 minutes constantly, obsessively checking the temperature.

Now you'll get to the last part that substantially makes a difference in your beer recipe, and happens to be my favorite variable: adding your yeast. Your brew needs to be cool enough to not kill the yeast, which is why the very impatient pot-in-bathtub step is so terribly important. Pour it into your primary fermenter, pour in the yeast, throw an airlock on that little guy, and resist the urge to touch it for 6-7 days or so, even if it stops bubbling and you're getting really worried about it. I promise.

It certainly does help to homebrew with a friend, for no other reason than you will potentially get quite bored, and/or distracted by college football, because it's a fairly lengthy process. All in all it probably takes us around 4 hours to get a beer from water to yeasty. While one of you is stirring and watching the clock (or watching football and letting an iPhone timer go off), though, the other one of you can be handling all of the other in-home brewery operations. And trust me, you want to have other home brewery operations.

It's been such an inspiration over the past two weeks to talk to brewers that started just like this. I'm not sure where we're going yet, and I can't imagine either of us will quit our jobs any time soon, but it does make such a difference in being able to talk to other people about what they're doing. When it's your hands pouring in the grains and sprinkling in the hops and shoveling giant glass jars around, you feel so much more connected to your beer. And, beer-is-love discussion aside, we're about to have five gallons of English IPA in our home for less than $50 total. Cheers to that!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In which this is now a Dogfish Head blog, and I want a Randallizer for my mouth

The last post here was about the Dogfish Head night at Monk's Kettle. It was a month and a half ago. You should rest assured that I have been drinking since then and now, and that I don't discriminate against other breweries, but right now all I can think about is Burton Baton on draft, pulled through a Randallizer with cascade hops and oak chips.

If you weren't there, you missed out.

I'm obsessed with the Randallizer. I am. I have had DFH's 90 Minute IPA through it, and now I have had Burton Baton through it, and right now I am considering what my latte would be like if the Starbucks downstairs had one. I want the curry place across the street to somehow push my chicken tikka through it. Get on it, everyone else.

(I will note that I laughed at the guy standing in front of me at Toronado last night wearing a Pliny the Elder t-shirt that made a crack at their beer being good enough that it doesn't need to be randallized. Pretty funny.)

My need for randallized cake aside, the event at Toronado was lovely. I got there about two hours in and was pleasantly surprised that the bar wasn't completely overrun. The crowd dynamic changed throughout the night, but I never had much of a problem getting through. Bryant greeted me when I walked in, I met Ian (formerly of DBI) for the first time, and got to chat with Wes for a few minutes. Had my phone not been dead, I would have been obsessively texting every single person I know in the Bay Area, because Toronado had Bitches Brew on tap.

(Photo courtesy @dogfishbeer's twitter feed)

In addition, they also had every other thing I love from Dogfish Head. On draft. Between Harry and I, we had every single one. (I probably didn't need that 13 oz. of Palo Santo at the end, but how often am I going to get that opportunity?) The only thing I hadn't had was Bitches Brew, since my bottle is currently sitting at home, so it was the second thing I had after my randallized Burton Baton.

It just breaks my heart that we don't get these on draft more often. Across the board, everything is so very different. And for the most part, "different" really means "mellowed". Mellowed means drinkable; drinkable means I'll be thinking about it for days to come. I love all of Dogfish's beers - though I understand that some people disagree with me - but they're a lot to handle. On tap, all of those in-your-face flavors pull back a little. They're there; they're certainly the same beers, but there is a softness and balance that you don't get when they've had the time to sit in the bottle. They are fantastic.

Special thanks to Bryant for making me feel so welcome, Wes for reassuring me that there would still be beer when I got there (and how!), and Ian for not judging me too hard for The SF Weekly Incident (a link I dug up, incidentally, by googling "SF Weekly Bud Light Lime"), and of course to Toronado for yet another one-of-a-kind event. And, kind readers, I promise I've got something backlogged that won't mention randallizing. You'll just have to trust me for a few days.

(Shameless plug: Since literally every bartender except Dean is in Amsterdam celebrating the 19th anniversary of Tom's 21st birthday, I'm filling in at Shotwell's for the week. Come visit me Friday or Saturday night, or next Tuesday or Thursday for a lighter, more conversation-friendly open.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dogfish Head Dinner at Monk's Kettle

On August 4th, I was privileged to attend the Dogfish Head dinner at Monk's Kettle with three close friends. Apologies in advance for no photos - I decided to just live in the moment and not snap away. And that's honestly too bad, because some of the dishes were absolutely beautiful, and I wish I could take a look at them again.

When my neighbor, an avid home brewer and giant beer geek, invited me to the Dogfish dinner, I snapped it up. Seven courses of beer, five courses of food, and a shot at Randallized 90 minute IPA? Plus, I think Bryant, the local Dogfish rep, is kind of a dreamboat. (I'd get embarrassed and ask you to not tell him, but I'm sure he knows by now.)

Upon entering, we were greeted with the 60 minute IPA on draft. The west coast doesn't get this guy at all. For anyone unfamiliar with the Dogfish Head IPA lineup, they have a 60, 90 and 120 minute IPA. The numbers correspond to the length of time they're continuously hopped. I never realized that it also corresponds to the IBU. As a girl who tends to the smoother and less hoppy, I am completely in love with the 60 minute IPA, and on draft it's just fantastic.

After the 60 minute course, we were on to the food. White peach carpaccio with a peach-creme fraiche vinaigrette, served with Festina Peche. It's an obvious pairing, and they remarked as such, but it was lovely. I've always had a special place in my heart for the Festina Peche - a little dry, a little sweet, and completely refreshing on a warm day. It was a stunner with the peach dish, too. I've never considered it to be all that fruity, but the peach in the dish brought the peach out in a beer in a non-overpowering, but very nice way.

Next was my favorite dish of the night, paired with with might be my new favorite beer. Mediterranean lamb meatballs with a feta cream sauce. The sauce was to die for. Simple, easy dish - but I've been talking about that sauce for days now. Dogfish Head is particularly proud of their ancient ales, and this one truly shines. It's a 9th century Finnish recipe that results in a full-mouth, herbal beer. I've been really getting into the herbal, juniper-focused beers lately, and I'm so pleased to find a domestic alternative to the Belgian Gageleer that I've been loving this summer.

Third course was Pinot Noir smoked King salmon, with a white corn and parmesan polenta and basil beurre blanc. It was served with the incredibly strange Red and White brew. They call it an imperial Belgian-style wit, but it gets its flavor from fermenting with Pinot Noir. The pairing was an obvious one, again, but the smoky flavor of the salmon really complimented the sweetness of the beer. This one is usually a little too much for me - I like wits, and I like Pinot Noir, but the combination has always seemed strange to me. The food really helped out.

Fourth course was a chicken breast flatbread with barbecue sauce, gouda, mozzarella and onions. The flatbread was lovely, but I really have nothing much to say about the course other than this - it was paired with 90 minute IPA from Randal the Enamel Animal. It might be the best beer I've ever tasted. Randal, created by the Dogfish folks themselves, is a transducer. There's a very sciency, very smart explanation for it, but the concise version is that your beer is run through a separate tank, filled with whatever ingredients you want to use to influence the beer. Monk's still has Randal, and is currently running Aprihop through whole hops and fresh apricots. On the dinner night, they were running 90 minute IPA through whole hops - and it was divine. The possibilities for this little guy are endless, and if you ever have an opportunity to taste something from it, jump at that chance.

The final food course was Guittard chocolate and bacon bark with rocky road ice cream. "Bark" is a completely underrated word to describe it - imagine about a half inch of chocolate, surrounding house-cured bacon, served with Palo Santo Marron. The beer is one of my very favorites, and the pairing was lovely. This was our second-highest octane beer of the night at 12%. My comrades, who had taken advantage of the unlimited 60 minute draft earlier in the night, were starting to wane. Thank God I had stuck to one beer in that first round, because it allowed me to completely remember the final beer...

World Wide Stout.

I am entirely too into imperial stouts. Make them darker, make them richer, make them more alcoholic. I want all of it. There is a time in my life where I really want a Festina Peche, and that is at the beginning of an evening when it's hot and I've just hopped off a bicycle. And at the end of the night - though that clearly means I shouldn't be near a bicycle anymore - I want this beer. It is an imperial stout. It is 18%. And it is very, very good. Compared to the only other 18% stout I know, Brew Dog's Tokio, it's not quite as smooth. It's got much more of an alcoholic burn to it. But after five incredible courses of rich food, and six courses of full, rich beer, it is an incredible digestif. The Tokio has always tasted to me like a very drinkable beer, which is terribly dangerous at 18%. (This is not a complaint.) But the World Wide Stout is just the perfect post-dinner beer. Dark. Rich. Very, very roasty. And the perfect finish to a lovely dinner.

A couple of notes that I have nothing to do with the food or the beer:

Harry was working very, very late all week. There was a god-awful project going on at his real life job that kept him at work until 4:45 in the morning the night before. And that day, he was late. He knew he was going to be late, and we thought he was going to entirely miss the dinner. I called ahead of time to ask if they would still let him in late, letting them know that we were happy to pay the whole price, that we knew he would miss out on courses, but we just wanted to see if he could get in the door if he showed up an hour or two late. (It was about a 4.5 hour affair.) The man on the phone, whose name has unfortunately slipped my mind, let me know that he would be welcome, would have an easier chance getting in at the side door, and that we shouldn't worry.

When I walked in, I told them that my partner was going to be late and might not make it at all. The woman checking the list seemed to know exactly who I was - asked if I was the one that called earlier, and assured me that we shouldn't worry. And when he got there, an hour and a half late, they were incredibly kind. Brought him the previous course and the beers, caught him up, and made sure we were all happy and comfortable. I was completely overwhelmed with the strides they took to make sure he was taken care of, even though they absolutely didn't have to. This is the kind of hospitality that has always been extended to me at Monk's, and it is the reason I keep coming back and patronizing their establishment. The beer is great, the food is quite good, but the customer service is always worth talking about. I am so proud to have them in my neighborhood.

Additionally, Sayre and Bryant did an incredible job of making everyone feel welcome. They're funny and knowledgeable, and while I might be a little influenced by my slightly awkward crush on both of them, they just make you feel at home. If you know about the beer and the food, you won't feel like they're rambling on about details that bore you. If you don't know about either, they do a great job of being conversational while they're educating you, without dumbing anything down. We felt like we were hanging out with friends, sharing food and good beer and laughing at everyone's stories. The price of events like this is a little steep, but they made it worth every single penny.

Thanks to Monk's, Dogfish, Bryant and Sayre and the entire staff that helped out with the event. I'm sure I'll be seeing all of you again soon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Blind Tasting

I've been friends with wine nerds for quite a few years now. A few of them have judged wines or done blind tastings and written up their experiences, and I've always found them interesting, but never realized one very important thing: Blind tasting is hard, y'all.

When Brian Yaeger asked me if I'd like to participate in a blind tasting, I jumped at the chance. I am notoriously bad at describing beer, even when I know good and well what I'm drinking. While fellow beer geeks are sitting around discussing notes of vanilla and sage and knowing which moon phase this beer was probably brewed under, I'm best at drawing comparisons. More rich than that, less spicy but more full than something fairly comparable, more boozy but smoother, etc. These things get me pretty far in life.

Where this method gains zero traction is when you are drinking summer fruit beers out of paper bags.

And then you give Bud Light Lime 9/10, and then you rave about it to the esteemed beer geeks around you. If you're lucky, they will be doing the same thing.

I could go on and on about the reasons I totally shouldn't be embarassed, but I will instead just say this: It was legitimately refreshing. Honestly! And of course it is - this is what the big, commercial beers traditionally are. It was unchallenging and a little tart and a breath of fresh air, coming at the end of a string of often heavy, occasionally syrupy, over-the-top fruity beers. If I get my choice, I'm going to go for some crazy high-octane bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout any day, but that's hardly what I want to be drinking on a 95 degree day laying on a raft in a lake. While I'm probably never going to actually purchase a case of it, I can absolutely see why someone might.

If you're able to still trust this beer nerd at this point, and wondering about my actual summer fruit beer preferences, I would go with Dogfish Head's Festina Peche every single time. Lost Coast's Tangerine Wheat is lovely, but much more fruity. And if you're seeking less-summery fruit, please try the Alaskan Raspberry Wheat.

A special thanks to Brian for the invitation, and Tom for not only allowing us to use the bar, but participating in a tasting of a style of beer he traditionally hates. Thanks, guys!

See Brian's writeup at SFoodie here. All images in this post are from Brian's article as well.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Various thoughts on traveling

I'm back in San Francisco, friends, after what turned out to be an insanely long vacation. Haven't touched a computer in 12 days and spent the entire day yesterday sleeping. I did far less drink-related things on my trip than I thought I might, but I do have some photos to throw together over the next few days and turn into some hopefully legitimate content. While I try to get back into the rhythm of a normal life, a couple thoughts:

1. If I get the choice, I will never fly with anyone other than Virgin America. Good lord. If you can think of something that makes your flight a little easier to stomach, they probably provide it. The wi-fi is great. The individual televisions are great. Being able to press one button for 21A beer and another button for candy, then swipe my credit card and tell it to email me my receipt - great. And how is it, in 2010, that every single airline in the world doesn't provide you with regular outlets so you can charge your devices? I don't travel with a computer, but I did use wi-fi on my phone. The HTC Hero, for all its great features, has god-awful battery life, so I figured I'd get about an hour worth of usage. No matter - I could plug it in! I am shocked how happy this made me. Aside from having to wait an obnoxious amount of time to get my checked bag back at SFO, I honestly cannot come up with a single complaint. Baggage claim always sucks, so I'm clearly reaching to find something wrong with them.

2. Long Island wine country is beautiful. Don't waste your time with going to the South Fork. I only had two days out east and I really wish I would have spent both of them going north. They're packing a ridiculous number of wineries into such a small geographic area. There's literally three or four wineries per mile, and there are really only two roads that go west to east. We traveled on the south one, then wound back by going the north way. I had to drive, so I couldn't do nearly as much tasting as I wanted to, but I truly fell in love with something everywhere I went. The wine is great, the people are lovely, and the country is beautiful. Pictures and a legitimate write-up will come soon.

3. Every single person who drives in New York is a psychopath. I don't mean this in the "People out east are bad drivers" kind of way, I mean it in the way that if you can actually sit in that traffic day after day, there must be a switch that gets flipped in your brain so you don't rip the car apart with your bare hands. I realize I planned a pretty ambitious trip with a lot of driving, but I had no idea that I would literally be stopped for hours at a time. We're talking 5 hours to go 130 miles kind of stopped, and that was actually one of the easier days. Never again.

4. Riding a bicycle along the greenway in NYC is one of the loveliest bike experiences I've ever had. 33 miles in 3 hours, seeing a city I once lived in and loved in a completely different way. It's largely separated (and is completely separated for the entire length of the island on the west side), it's largely flat, and I honestly wish we had a trail like this in SF. I would take every single one of my non-cycling friends on this and they'd probably love it. Oh, and I had to rent a hybrid because they didn't rent road bikes, but it was shockingly lovely experience.

5. I missed San Francisco in a way I never, ever thought I would. New York is great, and I loved the hot weather, but it is so nice to be back home.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hiatus: East Coast Edition

You know what's really, really tacky? Starting a blog, promising to provide regular content, and saying it all while you know you have a 12 day vacation planned.

The good news is that I severely doubt my drinking habits will change, whatsoever, because I am going to New York. I'll be in the city for a day, then taking my mom to Jersey to visit a cousin for a few days, going up north to visit another cousin for a day, and then heading to Long Island to lay on the beach and tour a little bit of wine country. I'll come back to the city for three more days, suck up all the Magic Hat I can find (and probably drink a Yuengling or two, because, COME ON), and will finally pile myself onto a plane at 7 in the morning out of JFK to come back on the 31st.

Also, I'm flying Virgin America nonstop both ways, so I will be drinking 21A's Brew Free or Die for 4.5 hours and watching Sportscenter. Maybe inappropriately messaging other plane members, because I hear you can do that.

I will most likely be completely MIA, but I am staying at a hotel in Riverhead that has a business center. I'll have the Android monster with me at all times as well. I lived in New York for a time, but that means I'll be heading places mostly based on 2006 nostalgia factor. Beer tips? Places I HAVE to visit? Shoot me a line and let me know. Otherwise, I'll be occasionally jumping on twitter to irritate all the west coasters with beer I had completely forgotten about, and I'll see you all in two weeks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

From the other side of the bar

I learned two key things from beertending last Thursday. First of all, serving beer is a whole lot harder than drinking beer. Second? Serving beer is a whole lot of fun.

That being said, I'm a very lucky girl. I got to serve beer in a bar I know and love, surrounded by good friends. I didn't have to do most of the hard work - from mixing drinks (my toughest task was serving sangria) to changing kegs, I got off real easy. I was there to tell people about beer and to suggest some new, crazy things to them.

Easily the best part of the night was getting to see so many people be excited about the things I was giving to them. I'm going to skip as much of the sap factor as I can, but let's just say I don't get many chances to actually make people happy at my day job. Occasionally I'll get a file set up really nicely for the designer that comes after me on a project, or I'll get something delivered on a crazy deadline and a producer will be surprised and excited that it actually happened. While those things are occasional bright moments - and I actually do really like my day job - it turns out that they don't compare to the joy I got out of finding someone a beer that they enjoy.

I'm not here to tell you that beer is going to change the world. (People tried to do that to me in design school, too, and it turns out I'm not really into that kind of philosophy.) I am here, though, to tell you that I think taste is really important. And I'm not going to judge you for yours. When I get off work at the end of the day, and I stop by my favorite corner bar, I want a beer. I do. I want it to be cold and refreshing and a little overwhelming. I want to talk to my nerdy friends about it and I want to lose the world for an hour or so. If your thing is beer, we should hang out. If your thing is food, we should probably hang out too. I get that same joy out of a lot of things - it's why I ride a bicycle home after work every day - but on Thursday night, I got to GIVE that joy to people.

We've done the sappy part. Let's talk about the real stuff.

I think I did a good job. People told me that as well. The thing standing between me and being a great bartender is that I really do not know how to deal with a crowd of people. I don't hear all that well, and I am a people pleaser. I want to give you all of my attention. And when it occurred to me that there were six (a whole SIX, for you actual bartenders out there!) waiting for my attention, it became completely impossible for me to focus on one at a time. Thankfully I had an actual bartender with me that reminded me of two things:

1. They will wait.
2. They will come to you.

The second one is important. My compulsion, as a person who hosts the occasional dinner party, is to always be reaching out. Constantly scanning the crowd to make sure everyone's drink is filled, everyone has enough to eat, everyone is happy. (I am exactly this anal-retentive when I host dinner parties, yes.) So the idea of scaling back my desire to be proactive never, ever occurred to me. Once it did, we were smooth sailing.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough - if you are friends with a bartender, please, drop in on them. All the time. I loved meeting new people and getting an opportunity to chat with them, but what really got me through my grueling 3.5 hour shift was how much support I had from my beer-loving friends. They were great. My friend Jeff was always quick with a Mets joke to distract me from my stress, my friends Rhiannon and Staci iPhone-filmed me pouring my first beer, my real-life co-workers came by to heckle me for apparently being a flirty bartender, Harry's co-workers stopped by and gave me their full trust in what they should drink, my housemates showed up late in the game to say hello - and they were just a small sample of many that came by. I really, really appreciated seeing the smiling faces.

And the beer! I was pleasantly shocked at the beers I was moving. I had a sort of vested interest in this list since a few of them were things I had suggested to David. The Alaskan Raspberry Wheat sold like crazy without me even heavily pushing it. Even though I can't get through a description of it without using the word "weird", a ton of people were willing to take the plunge and order a Gageleer. I found a couple of gin-drinkers that were excited by the St. Amand. Lots of people took kindly to the hop-bomb Green Flash IPA. Even though they're crazy popular, I barely poured any Chimay or Stella.

I've been trying for days to really sum up everything I learned in such a short time and what a great experience it was, and I always know I am going to leave something important out. So, let's wrap up with this blanket: Thank you. Thanks to everyone who came, thanks to everyone who didn't hate me if I poured your beer a little funny, thanks even to the people who weren't able to make it but contacted me in the surrounding days to express your regrets. I love beer, but I almost love our beer community more. (Almost.) If you were a new face, it was a pleasure to meet you. Until next time, you can probably catch me toward the end of the bar, clutching a Payback Porter. Cheers!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shotwell's, tonight: New beer!

I'm guest beertending at Shotwell's tonight, so last night, I stopped in to visit David, get an idea of the new stock, and bring him a couple of presents that I really wanted him to try. (For the curious: Drake's 1500, Saison du Buff, Avery Maharaja.) Much to my excitement and surprise, David has amassed such a good list of things for me to sell to the world. Here, for you, the things I am quite excited about for tonight:

Schönramer Festweise - A brand new addition. A beautifully subtle weisse - light and fruity, drinkable for days. This will probably be my beer of choice for the night.

Port Brewing Wipeout IPA - friends of Lost Abbey might get into this guy. A lovely, bright IPA.

Green Flash IPA - on draft, to replace Big Daddy for a night. Super west coast hoppy, with a malty finish. One of my favorites, and I'm so glad David's giving it a try.

St. Amand - last week, when I was bartending, someone asked me for something "weird". I asked if he liked gin, which he did, and so we landed on this guy. For a person that doesn't always have the right palate to pull out flavors, this is SUCH a juniper-forward beer. If you want something weird and your regular drink is a gin and tonic, this is what I will push on you tonight.

Gageleer - a very, very herbal Belgian golden. Earthy and mellow.

Ichtegem's Flemish Red - a very fun little sour. If you're open to sours, this will probably be the one I push on you (though we also have Monk's Cafe and Duchesse, to round out the sour category).

Alaskan Raspberry Wheat - Self-explanatory, but a lovely raspberry wheat from the Alaskan brewery. Dry and subtle.

Abita Amber - Tom and I first tried this at a Wine Warehouse tasting back in May. I'm just in love with everything Abita does. Their amber is so light and crisp and is much more of a light marzen than an actual amber.

Speakeasy Payback Porter - Formerly Hunter's Point Porter. This has always been one of my favorites. Rich, roasty coffee with just the right amount of malt to keep it away from going into stout territory.

Anderson Valley Summer Solstice - My summer beer. Not rare, but an incredibly good beer from Anderson Valley. Described as "cerveza crema", it is honestly the creamiest little summer beer you will ever taste. (If you come over to our house, this is what we will give to you.)

Anchor Humming - Humming is back! Anchor's "special release" from last year is now a regular thing, and we recently got it back on tap. Hoppy, crisp, floral.

I am so excited to share all of these with you tonight. Come visit! 7:00-10:00 at Shotwell's, 20th/Shotwell in the mission. Right in-between the 16th & 24th street BART stations, accessible by countless Muni lines. (Though the 12 Folsom is the closest, the 14, 27 and J are all within a mile.) See you there!

(Also, facebook invite, which may or may not actually work: Here!)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Distribution: Why does my beer cost so much, and why can't I get my favorite beer here?

Next to missing nearly all broadcasts of New York Mets games, the hardest part of being a transplant is that so many of the beers I love so dearly will never see my current coast. Don't get me wrong - I have no shortage of lovely beer out here. Many other people have, but I would never try to draw a comparison between east coast, west coast and midwestern beers. I live less than two miles from Speakeasy and Anchor, four miles from 21st Amendment, Social Brewery and Magnolia Pub, and if I want to grab a Zipcar for a few hours, I am within range of Russian River and Lagunitas.

This is the part where I expect all of you to pull out your teeny, tiny violins.

I originally come from Kansas City, which is Boulevard territory. Even though my tastes range much darker now, I always grab a Boulevard wheat literally the second I get off the plane in KC. (There is a Boulevard bar at the airport that has every single one of their beers on tap. I have absolutely had a Boulevard wheat at 8:30 in the morning.) I went to college in Cincinnati, which is close enough to Bell's country that my heart aches for Two Hearted. One of my very biggest regrets from 2010 is that when I drove across the country last year, I only brought one six pack of Two Hearted and one four pack of Brooklyn Black with me. I am somewhat serious about my non-west coast beer.

Beer distribution was somewhat of a mystery to me as recently as a few months ago. Not so far as to whine about why I can't get endless supplies of Yuengling out here, because I always understood the basics of some beers being distributed in certain states, rather than others. Boulevard, when I was growing up, took pride in the fact that you can only get their beers in a very small radius of the brewery - enough that I can still picture the roadside billboards advertising it.

The slightly more detailed version of "you can't get that beer here" is that your beer goes through a small chain to get to your lips. Distributors, of which there are many, work with either importers or directly with breweries to make certain beers available in your area. They go through all of the awful legal restrictions that are placed on alcohol in order to bring the best products they possibly can from state to state. This, ultimately, is a very good thing, particularly for smaller breweries. Breweries with smaller production scales would have difficulty competing with the big boys, were it not for the distributors that make their living seeking out new beer and figuring out how to get it to you.

Bars and restaurants will strike up a relationship with the distributors in the area. This is the fun part - when a distributor has a new beer that they're excited about, they will often make the rounds and allow bar and restaurant owners to try new things. They also regularly deliver new catalogs. A beer catalog is kind of a beer nerd's dream, but it can also be sort of a nightmare. It's a whole lot of numbers and a whole lot less descriptions of tasty beer. You think you have trouble choosing a beer? The logistics of the level above it are sort of crazy.

I had been speaking to the owners of Shotwell's about potential new beers for quite some time. I move around quite a bit and do my best to try out things I've never heard of. I got in the habit of texting, emailing, or just casually mentioning new things I had tried and was excited about. When David and Tom invited me to make that process a little more formal, David and I sat down with the great big binder of distributor catalogs, and I started to learn just what it means for a bar owner to get excited about a new beer.

My first step was to make a great big list of things I loved. I avoided the things that I had never, ever seen in San Francisco, because if you've never seen it in your area, that probably means there's no distribution for it. Bar owners are not specifically hiding your favorite beers from you. I chose things that I had seen on tap or in bottle around the Bay Area. From there, there are two considerations: size and price.

Size means a couple of things. At Shotwell's, we have 12 taps. We do not have the space for 12 equal size kegs. The coolers are, let's say, cozy. If you've seen a full-size keg before, you should know that the cozy coolers underneath the Shotwell's taps do not have the space to accommodate 12 of them. On top of that, if you're offering a combination of domestic and imported beer, you're going to be dealing with a range of keg sizes. This beer only comes in 5 liter kegs. This one only comes in 30 liter kegs. This one is a 15.5 gallon keg. And of course, those are a range of tall and skinny to short and squat. So if you're in a confined space, no matter how lovely and beautiful that confined space is, you're going to have to consider these things. If you want to replace one beer with another beer that doesn't come in the correct size keg, you have two options: find another beer that DOES come in the correct size, or change the system with another one of the kegs to balance it out. Size can also mean "does this fit in the bottle cooler at all". Two of my very favorite breweries that are distributed in this area are Lost Abbey and The Bruery - both of whom have 750 mL bottles only (with a couple of very small exceptions), and there is absolutely nowhere for them to fit in the cooler without some serious space reconfiguration. This, at the expense of that.

Then comes price. I won't get as wordy about price as I did about space, but the general rule is double markup for bars, triple for restaurants. The restaurant markup ends up being so much different because you're paying for more staff. You've got more overhead in general. Bars have a fair amount of overhead, but might not have to pay cooks, dishwashers, host staff, etc. Bars get it a little easier.

The 2x markup is fairly standard, with a little variation here or there based on how you want to run things. Shotwell's is a bar only, and keeps a wide range of beer options at about the lowest price they can manage. Our good friend Jen at Pi Bar, a mile or so away, has a slightly different system. She's got a full restaurant, so her markup would naturally be a little higher. She, however, rotates kegs in and out every single day. Every time you walk into Pi Bar, they're going to have a slightly different selection. And rather than pricing per beer and trying to keep all of that straight, it's important to her that all the beers be a flat $5. She keeps this system running by sort of cost-balancing. If she offers Trumer Pils, which she could sell at $4, for $5 instead, it means that she can sell those super special beers that might need to be $6 or $7 for $5 as well. It allows customers to try a wider range of things, and it all ultimately works out in the end.

Shotwell's is the type of bar where you want to keep your prices as low as you can. It's a neighborhood bar where people drink multiple pints. It's not a destination that people flock to. It's also not a huge "scene" that you're paying tons more for the atmosphere. A $10 lager is probably not going to fly here. So there's ultimately a little bit of limitation, mostly with the taps. If you put on a super special beer, there's a small niche that will buy it - but you've got to consider the sales that you might be eliminating at the same time.

Still, there are some surprises. David tried out the Brew Dog Tokio for a week. It was the most expensive beer they've ever sold at $18 for a 12 oz. beer. They could get it from the distributor for $8.60 a bottle, if I remember correctly. $8.60x2, rounded up, goes to $18 a bottle. Did I mention it was an 18% beer and sort of hard to come by? I certainly should have. And while it wasn't a super fast mover, the bar sold out of it pretty quickly. I wasn't sure it would fly, and Shotwell's proved me wrong.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about some of the very special things that we have in store for you at my upcoming guest bartending spot on Thursday, the 15th. I've done all the tasting, and David has been kind enough to help me with the real logistics. I think we've got some really exciting stuff. I'm just jealous that I'll be waiting until much later in the night to try it with all of you!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shotwell's: My Bar.

My very good friend Carla, of Hoperatives fame, came to visit me in June of last year. At the time, Hoperatives was only six or seven months into their launch, and she was still trying to come up with regular features that guest writers could contribute to. The one she pushed to me - and the one that, unfortunately, it took me a whole year to come around to - was a feature on describing "your" bar. It is incredibly appropriate that she introduced this idea to me on the day I took her to Shotwell's.

You see, Shotwell's is my bar. It is a lovely bar full of really exciting history. It's owned by my friends David and Tom, and if you're ever in the San Francisco area, I highly suggest you stop by so you can hear their actual stories. They've owned the bar for about four years. It's named Shotwell's now, but prior to this, they had named it Inner Mission Beer Parlor. That was its name when I came to know it. Prior to that, with the previous owners, it was Two Thieves, and before that, it was Shotwell 59. (Shotwell 59 being the original exchange number for the neighborhood, for those of you who remember how phone numbers used to work years and years ago.)

I met Inner Mission Beer Parlor in November of 2008. I had moved to San Francisco three months earlier. I lived, at this point, around 20th & Valencia, where the bars within a stone's throw aren't worth much. (The Phoenix, I like you well enough, but you weren't what I was looking for.) Thanks to my good friend Yelp, who I have since broken up with, I was drawn to Inner Mission Beer Parlor. It was basically on my street and it sounded like the sort of place I might be willing to visit.

I definitely went a few times by myself, but the first visit that stands out to me was Thanksgiving week, 2008. My mother and my best friend were in town from Kansas, and I deeply wanted to see a particular Kansas basketball game. I took them to visit Inner Mission, and I asked the young man behind the counter if he would be willing to play this game for me a few days in the future. He reassured me that even though they only had two televisions, he would be happy to put it on when I came in and asked nicely. Lo and behold, when I returned at game time, he followed through.

This young man would turn out to be David Hall, who would later turn into one of my very closest friends. He would also turn out to be one of the two owners of the bar. He and his partner, Tom Madonna, will always be in my hearts as the first people in San Francisco who were legitimately kind to me.

Now, it's worth noting at this point that I will be guest bartending at their bar this Thursday. I was approached by Tom and David to take a guest bartending slot because they are interested in what I know about beer and they trust my abilities to talk to people about what they might be interested in. The funny part of all of this is that my love for craft beer really took off thanks to their bar.

I knew I liked beer. I knew I had a few preferences here or there. I knew I didn't have any friends, because I moved to this city sort of blindly. But sure enough, after a few visits, they knew my face. Soon after, they knew my name. I took the opportunity, through their bar, to try every beer they had. (We'll discuss my beer taste progression at a later date.) I tried Belgians. I tried whites, I tried darks, I tried hoppy, I tried amber. I tried all of it. And as soon as I had an introduction from them, I hit the ground running to suck up all of the knowledge I could in this world.

It was to my delight when, about a year and a half into making friends with this bar,Tom and David came to me and asked me for some light advice on how to move forward with their beer selection. I've taken the opportunity to learn all I could about west coast beer over the past year and a half, so I was more than happy to give them some advice on their list. The things I've learned from them, and the process they've gone through to get that lovely little bar to where it is today, will be featured in a post coming up very soon.

I am proud to say that Tom and David are two of my very favorite friends in this city. The bar became re-christened as Shotwell's a little over a year ago, and it will probably be "my bar" for as long as I live in this mixed up little place. Every person that walks into the bar is greeted with a smile. We are happy to see you. If you want a friend, we're probably happy to talk with you. I've met more people and had more interesting conversations with their patrons and friends than I have with anyone else in this city, and I get the feeling that's exactly what they wanted to happen.

Shotwell's has been a lovely little highlight of my life since coming here two years ago. Over the next couple of days, I'm delighted to share more of this tiny corner bar with you. It has held my happiness and sadness, my laughter and my tears. But most of all? It has held my friends, and it provided a jumping-off point for me to turn into the little craft beer nerd I am today.

Welcome, everybody.

My name is Jen. And I drink a lot. And after four years of diving into every craft beer I can find, coast-to-coast, I've decided to start drinking for you.

I care very, very deeply for the future of craft beer. I live in San Francisco, which means I'm one of the lucky ones that's surrounded by it at all times. You might be too - and my plan is to either tell you about what you might be missing, or discuss what you're partaking in with you.

My day job has nothing to do with beer, aside from the fact that my day job is located within walking or cycling distance of some very excellent beer locations. That day job is what's kept me from writing about beer for so very long. If I'm not posting daily, I fear I'm going to lose you - so, here's my warning that I have the type of job that occasionally means 90 hour weeks (and let's face it, motivation to drink more beer), and occasionally means 30 hour weeks. I'll give you as much content as I can force myself to, because this is as much for me as it is for you.

I'm so very excited to talk to you about what I know. I know a lot - but there's a lot out there. This gets to be an educational opportunity for me, and maybe I can even find you some fun things in the process.

We've covered the pints, but what about the pedals?

I know we've decided to retire the phrase "avid cyclist" from our lexicon, so let's just say I ride a bike a lot. I wish you would, too. While this blog probably won't focus too much specifically on bicycles, you'll have to forgive me if I find some way to work them in. They're a giant part of my life, and so they may well become a part of this blog. (They should not, however, become a part of your beer drinking.)

I have big plans for this little guy someday, but all those "big plans" are sort of getting in the way of me actually getting to know you and developing content that I think might get me rolling. So, here's our soft opening.

I'm Jen, and I'm really into beer. It's a pleasure to meet you.