Saturday, February 11, 2012

Feb 11 2012 - San Francisco Beer Week - Small Batch:Big Thirst

Chicken Paw, whose unique instruments
are made from animal bones and hides
Every February since 2009, San Francisco Brewers Guild presents SF Beer Week, a celebration of all kinds of beer ranging from Cider to Strong, centering mostly on local smaller breweries in the region. For the past year, I've been looking forward to the second annual Small Batch:Big Thirst event where garage brewers from around the Bay Area (and a few former garage brewers who have moved on to the big time) come together to show off why they've been parking their cars in the street. If you're wondering what beer will taste like in the future, this is your chance to schmooze with the future Fritz Maytags and Jim Kochs. This year, 11 nano-brewers offered tastings of 40 beers and 8 professional (licensed) brewers had 12 beers to share.

To get around the limitation that home brewers can't technically sell their beer without liquor licenses, business licenses, and Health Department checks, they designed a system where patrons make a $20 donation to charity, receive a glass and drink tickets, and are encouraged to taste and judge the brewing competition. This way, we are not paying customers, but benefactors and judges.

Getting the perfect pour at Orange & Black
To level the playing field and make the judging even more interesting, several months ago the nanobrewers got together, probably had one too many drinks, attached a bunch of potential themes to a dart board, and ended up selecting London Ale yeast and "fruit and/or vegetable" as a requirement for at one of the beers each brewers had to present.

Once inside the grounds, mini glass in hand, I got the lay of the land. Two food trucks. Outdoor band stage. Two outdoor areas for Professional and Hobbyist brewers. Big empty warehouse that solely houses a very long line and a few toilets. The warehouse looks like it was abandoned a decade ago and taken over by birds. There are signs around the building which seem to denote it was once a distribution center for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Local Brewing Co.
The band Chicken Paw was playing when I arrived. I can't quite explain what they sound like. The only instrument I recognized was some kind of guitar. Other than that, they had a washboard, metal buckets, something that looked like weightlifting equipment, and other fun goodies. Eclectic local music at its best!

Passing briefly through the professional side of the beergarden, I sampled Speakeasy's Imperial Wheat, which is a Hefeweizen that is very dark and rich like a Porter. Great way to kick off the day!

Filled my tummy with the Veggie Wrap from Eire-Trea, a food truck specializing in Irish-Eritrean food! It was a delightful mixture of yams, potatoes, veggies, and curry in a soft tortilla -- YUM!

    Queued up at the bar on Brewtruc
Now on the nanobrewing side of the rope, I tried a taste of Spinfisch Brewery's Appled Porter. Apples and Porter are two of my favorite things, so I was definitely psyched to try it! It's actually more of a brown ale -- with chunks of apples!! Also I had their Bucky Belgian - the strong taste of coriander is a little unsettling. Gotta give them props for brewing it in their North Beach home.

Next up was Shagbark's Cherry Stout. The cherry is very subtle - you have to catch the glass at the right angle to take it in. They took the keg off ice to let it warm up a little. Brewed in the Richmond neighborhood, with supplies from Brewcraft and hops from More Beer.

Sampled the Black Currant Oak-Age by Orange & Black, run by employees of the Homebrew supply store Brewcraft. It's surprisingly bitter and smoky. Most black currant drinks/snacks are highly sweetened, which tinted my expectations.

    Muddle Puddle pouring outside the Brewtruc
Zorn Brewing is a husband and wife team brewing from their garage in Monterey. Just when you thought Autumn was over, they surprise you with their delicious Pumpkin Porter. The signature pumpkin pie spices underline and compliment the Porter. Great any time of the year.

At this point, I climbed aboard Brewtruc, the centerpiece of the event. They have 6 taps on the outside of the bus and another 6 inside. The old-school school-bus has been gutted and recreated as a lounge slash party bus available for bar hopping and sightseeing. Tried Muddy Puddle Stout, which after my palette got conditioned to fruity beers, smelled better than it tasted. Maybe it was time to clean my glass.

The good folks at Poplar just before finding out they won
Went straight to Muddy Puddle's own booth for a fresh taste of their Tule Fog herbgruit w/ currants brewed in Mill Valley. Gruit is the way beer was brewed in the 15th Century before they replaced spices with hops for their purity and preservative power. The first thing that hits you is its sweetness. Maybe a tinge of honey, reminiscent of Mead. This is a very special drink, taking you back to the old country. I can see why Muddy Puddle has been selected to provide beer full-time for one of the six taps on the Brewtruc.

Poplar Brewing Company consists of a couple buddies brewing deep in the Mission (25th and Valencia). They've been brewing for 5 years, taking an average of 6-8 weeks to brew each beer. Once the first drops of their Irish Rhubarb Red hit my glass, the strawberry essence tickled my nose before I even took the first sip. As I drank it down, the rhubarb kicked in towards the bottom. Strawberry rhubarb pie in liquid form - Delicious!

One last taste of Appled Porter
I mentioned to Poplar's bartender than it seemed like most people aren't taking tickets. "Oh people are taking tickets alright - they grab them from my collection and use them to get beer at other booths."

As I was savoring the last sip of rhubarb goodness, the announcement rung out that Poplar was selected as the best beer of the festival. Suddenly the friendly brewer became an instant superstar and the quiet corner of the beer garden became very crowded. They cater private parties, which sounds like a fun, delicious, and unique way to spice up a gathering.

I couldn't get Spinfisch's Appled Porter out of my mind, so I went back for seconds. Now near the bottom of the keg, it had even more chunks of Golden delicious apples. Yum!!


Spinfisch was the runner-up in my mind
Next up was Van Houten's Peach Porter. I'm not a huge fan of peach, but this is really spectacular. Creek (Mrs. Van Houten) and I recognized each other from last year's event. The San Francisco nanobrewery scene is really phenomental, a community of collaboration not competition.  Johnny Van Houten was responsible for most of the brewing, while Creek was in charge of narrowing down the porter's fruit selection down from blueberry, apricot, and peach. Great choice!

On my way out, I passed through the Professional side to check out the Saison from Pacific Brewing Labs. They represented the nanobrewing community at last year's event, but this past year they got all the proper licenses and started contracting with Devils Canyon Brewery in Belmont to brew using their facilities. Now they sell kegs to 25 bars in SF. After brewing just for fun for 6 years, they say all it took to go pro was $25-50k in startup funds. Hmmmm!!