Northwest Brewing News Readers Poll 2012 – Humboldt Well Represented

Saturday, December 1st, I was at Humboldt Beer Works schlepping homebrew supplies and I received a phone call. I don’t even know who it was, I didn’t recognize the name. “I’m reading in an email that you won ‘Best Northern California Homebrew Supply Shop’ in the Northwest Brewing News Reader Poll.”

Silence. Processing. “Uh, what?” was my dumbfounded reply, still trying to figure out who I was speaking to. I obtained an email address of the editor of the Northwest Brewing News, Alan Moen, and fired off a query.

Yes, sure enough, we won. As did the Local Beer Bar for Best Nor Cal Alehouse/Pub and Best Nor Cal Beer Store and Redwood Curtain Brewing Company for Best Nor Cal Nano Brewery. I know what you are thinking on that last one.
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Humboldt Beer Works spent most of this voting year in a small space that was less than 300 square feet. But by golly, we packed that place with everything you needed to brew. Our goal was to move into a bigger space within a year, and we did it in the 10th month of operations. We quadrupled our size and expanded our offerings and couldn’t have done that without all of you and many of you voted. Thank you.

The Local Beer Bar opened in March of 2012 and instantly, owner Darren Cartledge put himself on the map as a beer destination. He cut his teeth at Blondie’s Food And Drink in Arcata and hit the ground running with The Local. One of the great reasons to visit The Local is that you can go two days in a row and the beer menu won’t be the same. There is never a shortage of interesting beers at The Local, both tap and bottle. This award is well deserved.

Another well deserved award, albeit misguided, is for Redwood Curtain Brewing Company. But lets make this clear, Redwood Curtain is not a nano brewery. Not even close. So you have heard the 2012 story of Humboldt Beer Works and The Local Beer Bar, now hear Redwood Curtains 2012 story.

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Actually no, the ugly part doesn’t need to be retold. The brewery operated previously as a partnership in the beginning of the year and in August, a sea change forced owner Drake Mollberg to take the helm. But that wasn’t all. This sudden transformation punched Drake right in the face during a brewery expansion and the impending birth of his child. All at once, his life got very multi-faceted. Not only did he become sole owner, but he took on all the brewing duties.

So I hereby rename Redwood Curtain’s award to Best NorCal Brewery Owner, because Drake truly deserves it.

I’ve been singing this song for a year. Humboldt County is a craft beer destination in the making. Here’s proof.

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The Great Yeast Experiment

It was one of those ideas that a homebrew club lives for.  But it was certainly not a new concept for homebrewers.   We hatched a plan to brew up a bunch of beer, in this case 20 gallons, and dose each gallon with a different yeast.  We didn’t make it to 20 different yeasts but enough to make it interesting.  And in January, we plan on getting together and tasting them all.  One of the primary goals of a homebrew club should be education and this was great education in yeast and how important of a role it plays in beer.

10 brave souls with 13 different yeasts in hand endured one of the worst days of weather in Humboldt in 2012.   But no matter, the testing ground was Heatherdowns Brewery — uber geeky homebrewery approaching nanobrewery owned by uber geeky homebrewer approaching nanobrewer, Jere Cox.

Jere is one of those guys who became introduced into homebrewing with a gift from his wife for Christmas years ago.  Little did she know that he would go nuts and fill their garage with a monster stainless 20 gallon system and externally heated/cooled conical fermenter.  We are ever in her debt for that wonderful gift.

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Over the course of a few weeks, interest spread and people signed up to take part.  Here is a rundown of all the yeasts that were used:

Mad River house yeast (American Ale)
Wyeast 1028 London Ale
Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale
Wyeast 1450 Dennys Favorite 50
Wyeast 3725 Biere De Garde
Wyeast 3763 Roselare
Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison
Wyeast 1099 Whitbread
Wyeast 2007 Pilsen Lager
Wyeast 2565 Kolsch
Wyeast 1728 Scottish Ale
Wyeast 3711 French Saison
Wyeast 3538 Leuven Pale Ale

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The base beer was a simple blank slate, which was important in this experiment.  100% pilsener malt, Magnum, Santiam and Tettnanger hops bittered to about 25 IBU’s and an anticipated ABV at just over 5% — but that will vary based on the yeast and fermentation handling by each participant.   The baseline beer was going to be Jere’s made with Mad River Brewing’s house strain which lends itself to crisp and clean finishes.   All other strains will be compared to this.  Each participant agreed to maintain the proper fermentation temperatures to the best of their ability.   Yeasts were pretty well matched to their handlers — from the most demanding yeast going to the most experienced brewer and the most forgiving yeast going to the newest brewer.  Late fall/early winter brings the mildest of mild temperatures to Humboldt, so the timing was well chosen.
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Is your mouth watering in anticipation?  It should be!  Side by side comparisons of one beer with only one variable changed is one of the best ways to train your palate.  It doesn’t matter if you want to be a better brewer or a better taster, this is an experiment for you.  How can one taste them all?  It would be easy to tell you when and where.  Instead, I will send you in the direction of the Humboldt Homebrewers — let your adventure begin there.

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The First Annual HumbrewNation Awards For The Fifth Annual Strangebrew Beerfest

November 3rd was a great day for craft beer in my little world. The day started off with Learn To Homebrew Day by the Humboldt Homebrewers and hosted by Humboldt Beer Works. About 8 people took the leap in to learning how to brew their own beer at home which is probably one of the most rewarding hobbies there is. They also got a demonstration on how to make a yeast starter, which will be a future post here at HumbrewNation.

Partway through the demonstration, I turned my attention to someone who I perceived as needing help, and he turned out to be one of my supplier reps, Peter Hoey of Brewers Supply Group, formerly of Odonata Brewing and Bison Brewing. Peter was pleased to see us hosting a Learn To Homebrew day, which he claimed was not common at a homebrew supply store.

That evening was Strangebrew Beerfest 5. I met back up with Peter and we had a pre-flight beer at The Local. I sipped on a Heretic Gamarye as he gave me a lesson on commercial apple cider that will have me reading labels the next time I choose a cider. (hint: make your own…you will know what’s in it)

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I’m going to announce my awards in a minute, but first, extra stroke for the Strangebrew folks and their mission. There is nothing better than drinking craft beer for a cause. And this cause is for the restoration of the Eureka Theater and the bigger picture is promoting art and its many forms.

The Eureka Concert & Film Center is dedicated to the education of the general public in film, theatre, music and other art forms, rehabilitating and maintaining its historic facilities for instruction and public performances, displays, exhibits and other events.

They actually manage several events throughout the year. Check out their website.

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(announcer voice) And now….the moment you have all been waiting for….awards that mean absolutely nothing…. based on personal perception and slight bias….accolades that participating breweries will be sure not to brag or even know about….I give you the First Annual HumbrewNation Awards For The Fifth Annual Strangebrew Beerfest! (cymbals crash)

Best Sours: Six Rivers for both the peach and apricot

Best Beer With Wormwood: Humboldt Regeneration with their Absinthe Wheat Wine.

Best Jello Shot: Six Rivers for their Chili Ale Jello Shot (there were no other jello shots, so I can honestly say it was the best)

Best Name for a Beer: Mad River for “Some Dickworthy Shit” (would really like to know the back story to that)

Best Beer That Doesn’t Exist: Marshmallow Kiwi Corn Flake Witbier by….. I forget who.

The “Beer I Really Wish I Had Skipped” Award: Mad River “Return of the Mothership” aka “Funkadelica”

The Palate Wrecker Award: Mad River “Return of the Mothership” aka “Funkadelica”

Best Beer That Wasn’t Beer: Six Rivers for “Norby’s Donkey Punch”

Best Brewery I Didn’t Even Try: Redwood Curtain Brewing Company. (Told ya it was biased)

Beer I Would Like To See Year Round: Mad Rivers “Some Dickworthy Shit” (porter aged in Four Roses barrel)

Best Meat Beer: Mad Rivers “Hawaiian Spamalot” (“dry spammed” in the keg)
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Yes, Mad River is represented very well in the FAHAFTFASB and that’s probably due to the fact that they came with the most variety. Their booth alone probably had almost half of the Strangebrew 5 offerings. You can tell Dylan Schatz and his crew are thinking about Strangebrew all year long. Their Strangebrew beer ranged from fairly normal one-offs, to interesting beers from funkytown all the way to beers with ingredients that had absolutely no business being in beer. But that’s the great thing about beer. You can put almost any consumable product in it and at various stages in the brew process. Some are winners and some are stinkers.

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Rumor has it that Oskar Blues was very interested in coming to Strangebrew and there is a wide ranging interest in it from several out-of-the-area breweries. But the floor of the theater with seats installed is a very small area and it was pretty full as it was. I’m not sure how many breweries it will take (and an increase it ticket sales) before the Strangebrew folks give in and manage a bigger venue and festival.

Thanks to Sonny and the rest of the Strangebrew crew for all their hard work.

And congratulations to the award winners. Please don’t add them to your list of awards you actually brag about.

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Humboldt Beer Week

As September wore on, Humboldt Beer Week approached and in my head, I was thinking of all the blog material I was going to have when the dust had settled.  But when the first beer was poured at F Street Beer Fest, there were some 35 individual events happening in the coming 9 days.  Although it might be possible for someone to attend all or some of the events and blog about it, it certainly wasn’t going to be me.  Then I thought I would blog about events I attend.  No, that’s a bit scattered.  I like to think I know everything going on in Humboldt County beer-land and I want to be there for everything, but my wallet, liver, family and work cannot handle it.  Besides, the timing is just plain bad for me.  I will tell you more about that later.

Yes, I admit, your Humbrew Nation blogger cannot be your reporter on the scene for everything Humboldt Beer Week.  But I want to be.  Dearly.

Although the basis of this blog is “This happened here, and I drank this beer, it was good, and this is something you may not know”, I will do that and have, but I have to mix it up from time to time.   So I decided to bring you the story of Humboldt Beer Week, it’s inception, its effort, where its going and where it should be headed.

Humboldt Beer Week isn’t so much about one event or one effort behind one event (say like Hops in Humboldt) but more about coordinating the local breweries and craft beer providers to doing special events at one time.  They can be, as you have found out, festivals, special beer releases, food and beer pairings, pints for non-profits, and themed beer nights.  It is simply people asking these places to have special events during Beer Week.  That’s it.   Oh, we have meetings and we all have our tasks and chores to do so there is more to it than that.  But at its core,  it is “who knows who”, some e-mails and knowing who to talk to.

Humboldt Beer Week had its first effort in 2011.  It had little planning behind it, about a month and mostly just a couple of people doing the work.  I remember seeing the 2011 website after beer week had happened and not knowing anything about it until then.   I said it before, and I’ll say it again; the first annual anything isn’t going to be this awesome mega-thing.  Like everything else, it starts small and builds itself.

Fast forward to April 2012.  Saison Du Humboldt hits and I think it’s just about the coolest thing since malted barley.  While interviewing Dylan Schatz, head brewer at Mad River, about the collaborative brew, he mentions maybe doing it again for Humboldt Beer Week.  That, unfortunately, didn’t happen, but I diverted from the interview and asked Dylan who was it who was behind Beer Week.  I had been trying to figure out who the brains was behind the project for a while, and Dylan gave me the name of Andy Ardell, proprietor of Humboldt Brews.  I filed that away for future use.

Fast forward again.  At a midsummer meeting of the Humboldt Homebrewers, the upcoming Humboldt Beer Week was mentioned.  I was chosen as liaison to contact the Beer Week people and see how the homebrewers can be involved.

I contacted Andy and told him I was interested in having the homebrewers be involved somehow in Beer Week.  He told me that “we” were starting planning meetings soon and I was free to join them.  “We” turned out to be mostly Andy and Victor “Vico” Hernandez and a couple other folks that have planned things with Andy in the past.  By the end of the meeting, I realized that I was no longer homebrewer liaison, I was a member of the planning committee.

That did not rankle this blogger like it could have to some.  However, it settled in with me quite nicely.  As a side observation of myself for the reader, I have come to a point in my life where community service is something I enjoy.  I have many outlets for this, but one involving craft beer had yet to come around.  (I even have one community service project rolling around in my head that could put Humboldt on the map for something very cool…but cost around a million dollars — baby steps)

Up to this point — and I think I have mentioned it in this blog before — I have held a belief that Humboldt County is a craft beer destination, we just haven’t embraced the idea enough or utilized this asset in the way it can be.  Take a look at the Mendocino/Sonoma craft beer scene.  They own the mid west-coast title of craft beer destination.  If one was on a brewery tour from San Diego to Seattle, Mendocino/Sonoma would be a natural midway stop.  I think Humboldt can take that title away.  And we need to.  Humboldt cannot rely only on its natural beauty to bring in tourists and boost the economy.  We must do things like this to sustain us.  And Humboldt Beer Week is not so much about one small period in the year, but about bringing craft beer tourists here year round.  So that idea plugged into Beer Week naturally.  In a perfect world, there would be a “Humboldt Brewers Association” and Humboldt Beer Week would be their project.  The brewers all do know each other and help each other out, but nothing on the official organization level.  Hint, hint, wink, wink to all you pro-brewers in Humboldt.  But that doesn’t exist, so a few of us on the outer circles took on the project.

That first meeting was a whirlwind.  F Street Beer Fest was in its planning phases already but with a date two weeks prior to Beer Week.

“Let me talk to Darren at The Local and see if he is willing to push it back.”

“I know the Hoptoberfest people, I’ll talk to them about some cross promotion.”

“We are planning something special every night that week.”

“I’ll get the posters printed up and order the t-shirts and glasses.”

“Mad River has an anniversary that week, I’ll talk to them.”

“I’ll email Six Rivers and Eel River.  Lost Coast already has one event planned.”

“We need more sponsors, I can pick up one or two and I’m in for sponsorship myself.”

And that’s it.  A group of people that know people.

Then an entirely unplanned event happened that made Beer Week much more interesting –and stressful– for yours truly.  Anyone who had been in Humboldt Beer Works knows one thing: its small.  We had almost everything a homebrewer needed and we utilized every square inch of that place.  It was always our goal to move within a year, and opportunity literally came knocking on our door in month 8.   A property owner who had experience in selling homebrew supplies came to us and offered us a space he owned for rent.  A much bigger space.  We couldn’t pass it up.  The only problem was the timing made the move on the cusp of beer week.  But with crisis, comes opportunity.  “Crisitunity”, Homer Simpson once claimed.  Suddenly, Humboldt Beer Works became part of Beer Week with three events.

Due to my own doing, I actually participated very little in Beer Week.  But business comes first sometimes.  And we try to fit as much fun in our business as possible.  Thursday, we hosted the Humboldt Homebrwers monthly meeting.  It was probably one of the better, most well attended monthly meetings we have ever had.  The next day, Friday, we had our ribbon cutting with the Eureka Chamber of Commerce.  Saturday, we had our grand re-opening, but tied it into Arts Alive.

Humboldt Beer Week will happen again.  And again and again.  It will be back in 2013 bigger than ever, unless the world ends in December.  I would like to thank Andy Ardell and Vico Hernandez for a great ride.  And a raise of the glass and big thank you to Meredith and Talia at Six Rivers Brewery, Julie and Tera at Mad River Brewing Co., Drake at Redwood Curtain Brewing Company and Jere with Lagunitas for the Arts Alive donations.  You guys and gals are the best.

Over 200 different beers, 36 events, 9 days, 9 venues, 2 festivals.  And one hell of a week.

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Hops In Humboldt 2012

Something that I’m starting to enjoy is becoming a volunteer for Hops In Humboldt. Unless I have a ride, I don’t really like going to festivals and having too much beer. I like to enjoy the whole aspect of the festival, which is a celebration of beer. This year was an experience like no other at Hops In Humboldt and it gave me a full immersion into the experience I was looking for. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, I’d like to take time out and thank the entire Hops in Humboldt team for putting this together every year. Having dabbled in a few similar things, I can say that its not easy pulling off something like this. Thank you to Woody, John, Tina, Jere and everyone else that I can’t name right now. They received Fortuna’s “Non-Profit of the Year” award, and they deserve it. This years event was probably one of the best I’ve seen. Years past see some long lines, probably due to small glasses and unexpected high attendance, and booths running out of beer early. There are probably people more in tune to the inner workings of the event than me, but from my perspective, this year was fairly free of problems. Heck, I didn’t even smell pot smoke once.

At 11:30, I got in line with the rest of the volunteers and was quickly flagged down by a fellow homebrewer. Jay was running the judging and someone failed to show up. “You want to to be a beer judge?” he yelled over the sound check music. “What do I have to do?” I inquire. “Taste everything!” he says with a wide grin. To tell you the truth, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to taste everything, I wanted to just hang out and pour, but I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

After orientation, I was relieved to find out that I would be able to taste ahead of time before the main crowd and would have to be done by 3 PM. I have balked at these types of things in the past because when I hear the term “beer judge”, I instantly polarize myself to the BJCP standard, to which I am not qualified to do. But this was something different entirely, as you will see.

I was assigned to the “Best of Hops” group of judges and the criteria went way beyond just the beer. “Best of Hops” has to take into consideration number of beers offered, quality of beer, decoration of the booth, energy, “hotties” (both male and female), “X-factor” (like cask beers, randalls, etc.) and a couple of other criteria that I’m not going to divulge, because I don’t want to have to fight for the opportunity to be a judge next year!

If you want a good example of how to win this award, just take a look at the booths from Six Rivers Brewery and 21st Amendment, who ultimately split the Hops in Humboldt awards. For all intents and purposes, these booths were mini-parties. For those of you reading this who may be a participating brewery or brewer, the key to this award is to turn your booth into a high energy magnet. Bring lots of beer, your brewers, decorations, extras, schwag and beer karma and you will do well. So with all apologies to Six Rivers and 21st Amendment, the purpose of that statement is to get you more competition for Hops in Humboldt 2013 or more accurately, a much more fun filled festival at every booth!
I started my lap around the festival at the Gordon Biersch booth and was very surprised to be met by Dan Gordon himself.

Now stop for a minute and digest that. The head brewer was at the festival pouring his own beer. (Bonus points on the judging sheet, by the way — having a brewer pour me their own beer makes me giddy as a school girl, I will admit it) This was not an isolated incident. Other breweries like North Coast and 21st Amendment had their brewers there as well. Yeah the locals did too, but the point is these guys, who are surely very busy, took the time to come to Hops in Humboldt from many miles away and represent their brewery. So that should give you an idea on how peers in the brewing world are viewing Hops in Humboldt. Gordon Biersch produces 3.1 million gallons of beer annually and Dan Gordon took the time to attend. Very cool.

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Dan poured me a blonde bock from a barrel (X-factor) and he spotted my Maple Leafs hat and we chatted hockey for a bit. I could have ended my day right there and been pleased as punch, but I had a job to do.
I’m certainly not going to detail every beer and every booth, but I will touch upon some more personal highlights.

One thing I was surprised about was the high number of amber beers being offered. Now I love amber beer, but there isn’t a whole lot you can do with it. There really is no thinking outside of the box when it comes to amber. Nobody has ever said, “That amber is the best beer I’ve ever had.” But I was pleased the festival wasn’t dominated by sours. I was also pleased to see cider well represented. Cider is that kind of bastard child of a beer festival but I think people need to look beyond it as a “girl drink” and appreciate it. A brewer can make a beer consistently batch after batch. Cider is much harder to pull off in that department and is often at the mercy of mother nature and a highly skilled cider maker. My pass through the Ace cider booth was humbling. The sparse booth sported a borrowed purple pop-up from Barefoot Wine and the logo was eventually covered with a hand made sign claiming “NOT WINE”. “We are a company of 12 people,” the rep claimed. “We don’t even have our own pop-up. We had to borrow this one.” But Ace produces a damn fine cider and perry, so give them a try sometime.

My visit to the North Coast Brewing Company booth was another highlight. If I were to judge strictly on the beer, NCBC would have received the highest marks from me. I was treated to Old Stock 2005, and one beer tasted side by side, one aged in bourbon barrels and one in brandy barrels. Brewer Ken and I talked homebrewing for a bit and he says he still brews at home where he is more free to experiment. No doubt, some of those experiments end up in the NCBC brews.

My last leg yielded more surprises. Bacon beer and a watermelon randall was eyebrow raising. My whirlwind experience was punctuated by my visit to the 21st Amendment booth, which was aiming for the full San Francisco experience. I was sat down by brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan and given a full dose of judge-schmoozing. If you go by line length alone, 21A was the place to be. My deadline was almost up, so I couldn’t stay long.

What you should take away from this is a good idea at what it takes to win those awards at Hops in Humboldt. If you are just filling tasting glasses, don’t expect to win the awards. If you are filling glasses with variety, gusto, energy and beer culture, you will do well. I challenge future attending breweries to give Six Rivers and 21st Amendment a run for their money at Hops In Humboldt 2013!

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Take That 1887! Humboldt Regeneration CSB Update

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, beer was the only safe thing to drink.  Almost everyone drank beer in one form or another but they didn’t know why it didn’t make one sick and water did.  The beer was being boiled and that simple step killed the pathogens in the water that made us sick.   It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s when we fist began understanding microbiology.  Pasteurization is just one more gift that beer gave to civilization.  Slowly, water became safer and the number of breweries declined.

This graph was released recently by the Brewers Association and went a little “viral” in beer circles.  As a beer lover, it should bring you joy.

In your face, 1887.  2012 rules.

Prohibition had its impact as represented on the graph.  As a sidebar, one could suggest that based on the graph, prohibition had no long term impact on the number of breweries in the US.  It appears if you connect the dots between 1920 and 1933, the downward trend would have remained constant.

Then enter the dark days of 1978.  I was three years old, so it didn’t bother me too much.  If you lived in the bay area as a craft beer fan back then, you may have survived insanity with Anchor and New Albion — maybe Yuengling got you by in the east and Shiner in Texas.  1978 also saw the “legalization” of homebrewing, so I’m going to credit that to the rebirth of American beer.   Yes, the word “legalization” just got quotes.  Due to a clerical error or omission in the 21st Amendment, home wine making was legalized and home beer making was left out.  I think I’m suggesting that if the lawmakers in 1933 didn’t have their heads placed up their — you know whats, American Craft Beer would have hit its stride years ago.  But then the west coast hop bomb craze may have hit in the 60’s!  We are here now, so hooray beer!

Nationally, 725 breweries were being planned this time last year.  Compare that to 1,252 today and you can see this crazy train isn’t stopping.  One of those 725 from last year was our own Humboldt Regeneration.

“Wait a minute……” you say, and begin counting the Humboldt breweries with your fingers.  “Let’s see here, Mad River, Redwood Curtain, Eel River……..”  Lo and behold, your Humboldt brewery count just went to your second hand.  Six Humboldt breweries now exist.  Six.  That’s one more than five.

Hopefully you have read the previous HumBrewNation post about Humboldt Regeneration CSB and its goal to make a 100% Humboldt ingredient beer.  Since then, HRCSB has become a bona-fide, card carrying, beer making, tap room having brewery.   Brewmaster Jacob Pressey is set to launch his growler exchange program on August 27th.  You can get Humboldt farm fresh beer with a one month share for just over $4 a pint.  Thats $66 for a once a week growler fill for a month.  3 month and 6 month versions are also available.  HRCSB is still working towards that 100% Humboldt ingredient goal and it won’t get there without you.  Get yourself down to the brewery located at 2320 Central Avenue Unit F in McKinleyville on August 27th to help him make this a success.  You don’t have to wait to taste it, you can go enjoy the beers now in the tasting room Sunday through Tuesday, 10:30-6:30.  Jacob is cranking out brews on a 1 bbl nano-brewery system using ingredients grown on a small farm in Alton.  I think we would all like to see it become a microbrewery supporting acres and acres of sustainable farming.  That is something everyone can get behind.  Get all the info about Humboldt Regeneration on their website.

Get ready to count out those breweries on your hands again.  Rumors of #7 are swirling………….

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Exit 6

Early July. A massive heat wave struck seemingly all of the US, except for Humboldt, naturally. Of course, it was the perfect time to schedule a trip to the heat stricken mid-west. I was going there for a work related conference. Aside from that, my agenda was this:

1. Explore some breweries

2. Try some new beers.

Challenge accepted. Target: St. Louis. I had an advance scout, however, in the form of Humboldt Homebrewer, Nathaniel Letcher. Nathaniel moved from Humboldt to St. Louis in 2011 and I met up with him on a Tuesday night. I apologize for diverting from the “Humboldt” theme lately with HumBrewNation. The first thing they teach you in blog school is to write new content on a regular basis and I grab content when I can.

But back up to Sunday morning, where this story gets a little interesting for me. I do a scan of Facebook and notice that the author of Brew California, a blog linked at the bottom of this page, posts that he is at Sacramento airport on his way to St. Louis for work. “Huh”, I think, “That’s a coincidence.” Wheels turn and I click on his profile to learn a little more about him. Sure enough, we work in the same industry. We are going to the same conference. I met Mike Pistoia Tuesday morning and after chatting for a while about craft beer, I invited him to join me that evening and try out a couple of breweries and he happily accepted.

After meeting Nathaniel in front of the hotel we headed to nearby Trailhead Brewing Company for a flight of samplers then made our way to the next stop of our guided tour which was Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Cottleville, a St. Louis suburb. From the outside, it looked more like neighborhood bar than brewery. You may remember my last blog entry about Sonoma Springs. I was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny craft brewery when I was expecting food serving brewpub and crazy things hanging from the wall. I encouraged the reader to support your village brewery, lest it vanish if you don’t drink enough of its brew and then you have nothing to drink. Exit 6, while a larger drinking establishment, was a much smaller brewery, a nano-brewery actually, making craft beer on a 1 1/2 bbl system. For those that don’t know what the heck a “bbl” is, bbl=barrel which is 31 gallons. Common American kegs are half barrels, or 15.5 gallons. Do the math, and a batch of beer at Exit 6 is being brewed on a 46.5 gallon system, plus or minus.

46.5 gallons. Remember that for a minute.

I saddle up to the bar an preview the tap handles and list of beers on the dry erase board. There were familiar names on the list like Lagunitas and Deschutes but I didn’t come all that way to drink beer that I can get anywhere at home. I looked at the man behind the bar, seemingly unapproachable and gruff, and he asked me what I wanted and I stated firmly, “I want some of your beer.” At the time, I didn’t really understand what I was saying but I soon realized I wasn’t talking to the bartender, but the brewer, and he was pouring his own beer.

I was speaking to owner/operator/brewer/bartender Jeff Britton. I was almost ecstatic at the rare opportunity for the brewer to be pouring me a beer. In my quest to find a beer server who actually knows everything about the beer they are serving, I was Captain Ahab, and I found my white whale. Except we weren’t trying to kill each other and Queequeg wasn’t around and– well you know what I mean. I had found what I was looking for. I enjoyed Exit 6 APA, a full bodied quaffing pale ale, a half pint of 2nd Shift Brew Cocky DIPA and Exit 6 Applewood Smoked Blonde. The last was quite a treat, although I wouldn’t want to have several of them in one sitting. Jeff explained he smoked the malt himself and it was like “Drinking a Bud next to a campfire while eating bacon.” If you love smoked beer, this is for you. If you hate smoked beer, you won’t like it. It was so potent, I imagined the draft lines being permanently infused with smoke smell and flavor that would carry to other beers if one were to reuse the lines for a different beer.

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The more I spoke to Jeff and listened to his story, the more I realized he wasn’t unapproachable and gruff, he was burned out and exhausted. Here is his story. Forgive me Jeff, if I don’t get it exactly straight.

Jeff told me that before starting the brewery, which had been opened for about a year, he was a homebrewer and worked in IT for 10 years and “hated 9 1/2 of them.” One day, while in a four lane bumper to bumper interstate parking lot, Jeff decided he was done with the rat race. Right there, he formed an exit plan. And he wanted a better life for his daughter who was 6. Hence, Exit 6. He cashed out his vacation leave and 401(k) and went for it.

I recently penned a yet to be published article for BYO magazine that had this line: “Any homebrewer that becomes engrossed in their hobby will eventually dream of turning it into their career in one way or another. This usually sparks dreams of massive conical fermenters, brewing a DIPA that is hopped in some new or unusual way or naming your brew using the word ‘dog’ somehow. ”

I’m here to tell you, if you want to start a brewery, you either do it with a huge loan or investors, or both, or you begin as a nano-brewery and grind it out. Jeff chose to grind it out. Sam Calagione started Dogfish Head on a 10 gallon system in 1995. On the day of writing this blog post, Dogfish Head accepted delivery of ten more 600 bbl fermenters. “I work 105 hours a week”, Jeff told me and that’s when I pinpointed the look in his eye. It was tired. 46.5 gallons tired. “I get here at about 11 AM and start brewing, then I open up and pour beer until 1:30 AM. Jeff showed me a pre-brewery photo of himself which was a 40 pound heavier version, but it also still had life and spark in his eye. “What about your daughter?” I asked. “Is it better now for her?” He quickly and flatly stated “No.”

I instantly related to Jeff. While I will never feel like I have the right to complain about how many hours I work ever again, he and I chose the “start from nothing, build it and persevere” method. The beer tasted even better from that moment on. I bought a T-shirt.

Part two of his story was a bit dumbfounding. He told me about how he tried to establish his brewery (nano-brewery) in a nearby township and it met heavy resistance. This was completely asinine to me because we were in Anheuser Busch HQ, St. Louis, Missouri. Locals rallied to keep his brewery (…..nano-brewery) out of their neighborhood because it was going to be 600 feet from a school. Notwithstanding the three bars within a closer proximity, one nay-sayer claimed it would have given the impressionable kids a poor image to look at on the way to school. Still, while he is telling me this, I’m struggling with the fact that this town was in existence largely due to a brewery. Jeff claimed that the public hearings involving his permitting process were the most well attended civil meetings in that town’s history. He finished his story by telling me the police chief of the Cottleville had followed his struggle in the other town and contacted Jeff and lured him to his town. Its probably safe to say the chief didn’t do it because he is a beer drinker but because he knows that more business is more tax base and a stronger community, which is apparently something the other town didn’t want.

I bring you this story of Exit 6 for a couple of reasons. Starting and operating a brewery or being a brewer is not a glamorous or exciting career choice. It can be fun and often is. Sam Calagione now spends his days tasting and exploring beer and doing the fun things, but it took him 17 years to get there. Jeff will be there too someday, 1 1/2 barrels at a time. His hard work will pay off; earned by his sweat and deserved for his daughter. The other half of this post — and a continuation of the last — is you must support your local brewery. Support craft brew and buy the beer as localized to the brewery as you can, even at the brewery if possible. That stretches their dollar in the best way. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of picking up a case of Steelhead at Costco. Its a darn good price but its really not helping the brewery much. Breweries invest so much money in bottle packaging and distributing it cuts into their bottom line tremendously. The best thing you can do for them is enjoy a draft at their establishment. And the venerable nano-brewery needs this support more than any brewery.

Join me.

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HumBrewNation Road Trip: Napa

My wife and I just returned from a week long anniversary trip in Napa. We travel to Napa a few times a year or swing through on Bay Area trips if we have time. Its usually in and out or just a couple of days. Several times we have said to each other, “We just need to come down for a week sometime”, usually because we run out of time to do the extra things we want to do. One of those things that I wanted to do was visit all the Napa area breweries. And I did. Well, sort of.

A cursory Google search turned up four — Silverado Brewing Co., Napa Smith Brewery, Downtown Joe’s and Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. — but I learned late in the game from a local that there was another, Calistoga Inn and Brewery and I didn’t visit that brewery.

I won’t bore you with details of every visit, so I’m going to talk about the two that I enjoyed the most. Obviously you will be able to figure out the others that I won’t be talking about but don’t let that deter you from ever trying them out. Every Napa brewery is worth a stop and is actually a refreshing break in wine tasting.

I will start out with this observation, which will someday be a blog post in itself. Breweries, please take the time to educate your employees on the beer they are serving. When the simplest of questions get blank stares and “Um….” it’s just awkward for both of us. This epidemic is amplified in the Napa Valley. I can walk into any tasting room of any winery and the tasting room employee can tell me what kind of bird pooped on the vineyard in 2006 or the exact blend percentages of their Zinfandel. The pale ale your brewery has been making since you opened probably hasn’t changed much, or at all, so this seems like an easy task.

You would think it’s tough gig, being a brewery in the middle of wine country. A David vs. Goliath type of thing. But what I found is that most of these breweries are brewing just enough for their own on-site sales, and it seems they want to stay that way. Only one, Napa Smith, is brewing on any sort of distribution scale and can be found at retail outlets outside of Napa. All the other breweries aside from Napa Smith are brewing an 6 to 8 bbl systems, including Calistoga Inn, according to their website. So before you think these guys are attempting a beer revolution in the Napa Valley, think again. There is a very serious movement ensuring that the wine culture is preserved there. That doesn’t mean you can’t start a brewery, it just means that nobody is going to let you take up 10 acres to build a water slide park. Everyone knows what side the bread is buttered on in the Napa Valley. Everywhere you look, you see the riches that wine has brought to the area.

Downtown Joe’s Brewery
Silverado Brewing Co. (behind glass)

Napa Smith is also on the side of respect for the wine industry. Their first incarnation was “Napa Smith Brewery and Winery” and produced three vintages before halting wine operations. It seemed like a nice enterprise to me, at least, because I was thinking of all the things you could do with your beer once you were done with the wine barrels. But as it was explained to me, they just decided to focus their efforts on beer rather than something that has already been perfected and mass produced up-valley.

Napa Smith resides in an industrial park type area where Highway 12 and 29 meet. Their tap room is situated across the parking lot from the brewery and has only been open a short time. I saddled up to the taps. It was a Friday morning, but I was on vacation and was only having tasters so don’t judge me. It was an awkward moment later when the Untappd beer tracker app posted on my behalf to Facebook the “Top of the Mornin'” badge. “Drink 5 beers before noon” it claims. I ordered the full flight of tasters with ginger wheat, porter and the organic IPA missing on draft at the time. I did leave with bottled examples for later, however. I started my questions with my usual, “What can you tell me about the brewery?” Remarkably, and for the first time since I had been in Napa, the gentleman pouring the beers began rambling history and styles and thoughts on the beer he was serving.

Napa Smith is home to one of the craft beer pioneers, brewmaster Don Barkley. Don’t know Don? He began his brewing career at the legendary New Albion Brewery in 1978, attended the brewing program at UC Davis, then helped found Mendocino Brewing Company, created Red Tail Ale and Eye of the Hawk and was brewmaster there for 25 years. Oh, that Don Barkley.

Napa Smith’s spin is that their beer is meant to be enjoyed with food so they have crafted each brew around that idea. This is another influence of the wine industry. You can’t open a menu in Napa without a suggested wine pairing next to a dish. Something that Napa is not so well known for is the quality of food and exploration of the culinary experience. If you are a foodie, then you surely know this but if not, you may have heard of French Laundry or the Culinary Institute of America. If you click through Napa Smith’s website, each beer description is paired with food suggestions and even recipes.

Napa Smith’s offerings are fairly typical of craft breweries, but in my opinion the standouts are one of the seasonal brews and the Organic IPA. (my only regret in timing of my visit is that “Crush” is a fall seasonal — made with grapes in the brewing process) “Cool Brew” is a copper colored “hop ale”, give late additions of hops to boost aroma but not bitterness and made for summer days and picnic fare. Organic IPA won a silver at last years GABF in the English IPA category.

I also visited Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. in Sonoma.  They focus on west coast and German style beers and recently won two ribbons at the California State Fair. While not technically Napa, I still paid it a visit. I met up with some friends who live a block away and we walked to the brewery. What happened in the next hour is hard to describe, but it was a pleasant surprise.

My first exclamation was, “Is this it?” I thought I had walked up to a hair salon, or it used to be anyway. Its that small and in a building that doesn’t say “brewery”. I fully expected to see an entire eating establishment (I did this with Napa Smith as well for some reason) but I walked inside and it dawned on me that this was a neighborhood or locals brewery. The small bar held 7 or 8 people, there was a standard refrigerator, a desk and the small brewhouse itself.

Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. from the door

I ordered a set of tasters which consisted of Uncle Jack’s Kolsch, NomaWeiss Wheat Ale, Lil’ Chief Pale Ale, and Enchanted Forest Black IPA. All these beers were delicious. A common thread I found through each was they were pushing stylistic boundaries for things like ABV, IBUs and clarity, but then us brewers are a crazy bunch and don’t like to be painted into a corner. Conformity is boring.

There was a brew wrapping up, to which I assumed was typical activity for any given time but I was corrected. I walked up to the brewer who introduced himself as “Sparky”. I asked him how many brews they do in a day. He kind of chuckled and said, “About twice a week!” That’s when I realized I have no fermenters in view, and you can only fill a fermenter that is empty. I crept around the corner to the small back room and saw four very different fermenters of varying styles that were obviously obtained at different stages of growth in the brewery. Holy cow, I thought, this place isn’t much bigger than a nano-brewery.

Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. brewhouse
Sonoma Springs Brewing Co. fermentation room

Right about then is when I realized I was standing in a brewery that was about as true to their roots as you can get. I got the feeling that the regulars at the bar thought they had part ownership in the place and were quaffing beer in fear the brewery was going to stand up and walk away or God forbid, change in any way whatsoever. This was a neighborhood brewery, supported by neighbors and only in existence because of the neighbors. 100+ years ago and most apparent in Germany, you drank the local beer from the village brewery or you didn’t drink at all. That was Sonoma Springs. I felt lucky to have been granted a spot at the bar for the short time I was there. I was leaving soon, but knew I had to support the brewery more than I had, so I bought a t-shirt and sadly left due to the schedule of events planned for the evening. So I can really say, “Sonoma Springs, been there, done that, bought the t-shirt”, but add, “I’ll be back.”

If there is anything to take away its these two points. Not every brewery wants to become Sierra Nevada in scale and distribution as I saw with three of the four breweries. Not a bad goal, but not necessary to be successful or viewed with respect. Lastly, not every craft beer lover is a drinker of wine. If you fall into this category and you are invited to the Napa Valley, you now know its not all about the wine and you can enjoy yourself also.

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