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.

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………….

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.

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.

Pints For (insert your cause)

I’ve long held the theory that beer is a common denominator for people all over the world. It brings us together. It transcends politics, religion, race, social status, creed or gender. Dear reader, I may not have a single thing in common with you except for love of craft beer, and that is why you are reading this blog. We may be polar opposites on an issue –and not like each other for it– but we can sit at a table, sip the same beer, respect each others opinions about it and repeat the process or part company on better terms. I daresay beer could solve all our problems.

This week saw two charity events hosted by Mad River Brewing Company’s tap room. Craft beer providers do this type of thing all the time for various causes. These two just happened to take place close together and I attended both, so this topic is on my mind. (read: I am a MRB fanboy, just trying not to make it so obvious) June 2nd was “Pints for Tracy”, and June 6th was “Pints for Non-Profits” benefiting the local chapter of Engineers Without Boarders in their efforts at Camoapa, Nicaragua. Each get $1 donated by the brewery for every pint sold but they are two very different causes. One, a small group, the other, a very large group. One effort staying local, the other effort thousands of miles away. But who cares? People everywhere need help for various reasons. Charity should be a regular part of our lives. Where am I going with this? Enjoying craft beer for a cause should be a very easy thing to do!

Tracy Collins is a humble man. An every day man. He has a heart of gold, which is what gave him a bit of trouble in May. I’m not going to get any farther into his situation because that’s not respectful to him and not what this blog post is about. But Tracy and his family were dealt an unexpected crisis away from home and their friends and community rallied together for support.

Knowing what Tracy had gone through, I was absolutely astonished to see him there. I asked him how he was doing. “Still pretty sore”, he acknowledged. Then he commented on the event, stating it was overwhelming. See, humble. You don’t have to be superman for people to look up to you. Perhaps he knows that now.

From left to right, Wendy Collins, John Onstine and Tracy Collins.

There was the typical “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you” being offered and those go a long way. The thing that brought the community together, the thing that got people to stop what they were doing, the thing that was easy for them, was craft beer. I know this for a cold, hard fact because my own wife was there drinking a beer and she hates beer. It was a pink beer, though –Flor De Jamaica– so baby steps. (I’m expecting a plague of locusts and frogs falling from the sky any day now) In attendance were people very young and very old, people of different walks of life, people who may not have liked the band and people who don’t even know Tracy. And that’s what made it a beautiful thing.

Tracy is a member of the Humboldt Homebrewers and a volunteer with the Blue Lake Fire Department. Blue Lake itself is a pretty tight knit community and the fire department is at its core. This effort was headed up by the BLVFD and a group of the firefighters spouses. Being Blue Lake, and being a volunteer organization, this came together naturally. Although its not set in stone as of yet, I believe there is another craft beer related benefit in the works for the Collins family. Tracy was key in the Humboldt Homebrewers holiday party held at BLVFD. I knew I liked Tracy a whole heck of a lot when he spent most of his time entertaining the kids in attendance and showing them the fire trucks rather than enjoying the festivities.

June 6th received a visit by the folks from Engineers Without Borders.  This group was the local chapter of a much larger organization and they are also responsible for the Humboldt Homebrew Festival held in April.  As mentioned before, their work is focused on a city in Nicaragua which is the sister city to Arcata.  Their most recent efforts are on improving the water supply.  After their first trip, they showed the Humboldt Homebrewers a presentation highlighting what they did and what their ongoing project is.  The thing that strikes you the most is we take clean and readily available water for granted.  The people of Camoapa must bring large jugs of water in by truck.

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Pints for Non-Profits events seem to be happening every week at various breweries and craft beer providers.  Most breweries don’t hesitate to donate beer to charity events.   Yes, its a tax write-off for them, but they do it because it is a small community here.  If Humboltians weren’t community minded, we wouldn’t get anything accomplished.  So enjoy your “craft beer for a cause” as often as you can!

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, I received a press release from Mad River Brewing Co.  This is beer karma for sure.

Mad River Brewing Company Wins Bronze Medal in International Beer Competition

Blue Lake, CA • 6/5/12 — Mad River Brewing Company recently claimed a bronze medal at the 2012 World
Beer Cup®, a global beer competition presented by the Brewers Association (BA) that evaluates beers from
around the world and recognizes the most outstanding brewers and their beers.  Awards in the competition’s 95 beer-style categories were presented May 5, 2012 during the World Beer Cup Gala Awards Dinner at the Town and Country Resort in San Diego, California.

Mad River Brewing Company was awarded a bronze in the Golden and Blonde Ale beer style category for its
flagship Steelhead Extra Pale Ale, a bright golden hued ale of medium body with a spicy floral hop character
and mild bitterness.

“Our brewing team works around the clock crafting our fine ales. It is a great honor for all of our crew to have our
Steelhead Extra Pale Ale recognized as among the best in the world, at the top competition in the world.”” said Dylan Schatz, Brew Master at Mad River Brewing Company.

World Beer Cup winners were selected by an international panel of 211 beer judges from 27 countries. The competition—referred to as the “Olympics of Beer Competition”—saw an impressive field of 3,921 entries from 799 breweries in 54 countries. The 2012 competition drew the largest, most international field of entrants in the history of the World Beer Cup.

Farm Fresh… Beer?

We are fortunate in Humboldt County to have a plethora of locally grown and manufactured products to choose from. I have lived in and visited quite a few different places in my life and have seldom seen as many local farms, farmers markets and locally owned, family run businesses as can be found here. We are also blessed with a lot of local craft breweries. But have you ever seen or tasted a commercial craft beer that was 100% Humboldt County local? I don’t just mean that it was produced locally, I mean a beer made from barley and hops that were planted, harvested and processed by the same person brewing it. Well if the answer is no, worry not, because soon you will have a chance to find out exactly what that is like, thanks to the man behind Humboldt Regeneration, Jacob Pressey. Jacob spent 7 1/2 years brewing at Eel River Brewery and has studied soils and alternative agriculture at HSU to prepare him for the task. If everything goes as planned his community supported brewery and farm will be selling growlers of his farm fresh beer out of his McKinleyville brewery this summer.

Jacob Pressey, owner, farmer and brewer at Humboldt Regeneration

The farm where Jacob is growing 2-row malting barley and hops is just south of Fortuna in the Vanduzen River Valley. He will be floor malting and kilning the harvested barleycorns to prepare them for the brewing process at his brewery located in a warehouse space in McKinleyville. His brewing equipment consists of 1/2 barrel (15.5 gallon) commercial kegs that have been cut and welded back together to give him the capacity to brew 1 barrel at a time. His shiny stainless steel fermenters and bright tanks were purchased in Oregon. While I was there I noticed some oak barrels in the back corner which will be used to barrel age some special releases.

Humboldt Regeneration will be modeled after a CSA farm (community supported agriculture) and will give customers the opportunity to participate in a growler exchange. For a monthly fee you can periodically come to the brewery and have your growler filled with the latest offering. For those interested in some special releases there may be an option to pay for multiple months in advance. If you were lucky enough to attend the Humboldt Homebrewers Festival in April, you may have tasted some of Jacobs tasty Blasphemy Brew. If not, support your local beer farmer and sign up for his growler exchange. Visit the website for contact details. http://humboldtregeneration.com/

Saison Du Humboldt Release

May 14th was a highly anticipated day for me and 4:00 couldn’t come soon enough. It was the earliest date and time to get a taste of Saison Du Humboldt and the only place to get it was Humboldt Brews.

I staked my real estate claim at the bar just before 4PM and asked for a pint of Saison Du Humboldt. I was expecting to be told no because it wasn’t time yet. But the bartender happily obliged and the gentleman next to me, who I quickly named “Stranger #1” in my head, followed suit. Both were delivered at the same time and Stranger #1 asked, “Are you waiting until four?” I replied, “Hell no!” then we clinked glasses and drank.

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The keg had just arrived and didn’t have time to settle.  So the pour was from a pitcher because it was too foamy.  It was cloudy, and Saisons should be cloudy, but this was really cloudy, again due to the recent transport.  The aroma I got was estery orange, some clove and a little banana.  That’s all typical and it was what I was hoping for.  There was a lot to think about in the taste.  It was bright and lemony and a spice I couldn’t quite put my finger on but I learned later what that was.

Saison, or farmhouse ale, has its origins in French Belgium and is meant to be brewed in such a way that it could last the warm summer months.  This is all before common refrigeration and there was nothing special about it that “made it last” through the summer months –there were no more preservative ingredients than any other beer– but the typical ingredients found in a Saison gave some abilities in covering up some of the funk and twang that can come with an old beer that has been stored too warm for too long.  (funny, we aim for that now with many styles!)  Common Saison can have spices, acid malt, be phenolic and estery and are hopped a little bit more than usual in a Belgian beer.  And all that varied based on the farmhouse.  Each could bring not only their own recipe, but their own regional funk and method.  So if all that geek speak goes over your head, just remember in the end its meant to be a refreshing quaff on a hot day and that’s all you need to know!

Curious about the ABV, I asked the bartender if she could tell me anything about it.  (this episode, and others like it are a continuing inquiry of mine and will be a later blog post)  She couldn’t, but I don’t blame her for not being informed because it probably wasn’t shared.  Her answer to my question was to pull off a piece of paper from the wall and hand it to me.  “This is a write up”, she said and I was looking at my blog post that originally announced Saison Du Humboldt.  And in all fairness, that was just a press release so I cheated on that one.

Your intrepid reporter did his homework however, and tracked down these stats:

  • O.G. 1.070
  • F.G. 1.012
  • ABV 7.68%
  • IBU 32.5
  • SRM 4

In geek speak translation, the first two numbers you have to know to get the third, which tells us the alcohol content for the beer. The IBU is about what you would find in a pale ale and the last is a measurement on the color, which is very light.  Your lesson is now over, go drink it.

Continuing with an experiment I’ve been doing lately, I struck up a conversation with a total stranger.  I’ve been getting amazing results and this was no different.  Stranger #1 turned out to be Dan, who was the original artist for the Humboldt Brewery logo and artwork.  “You see that?”, he asked, pointing at the artwork on the wall, “The hummingbirds shadow on the rock is in the shape of an eagle.”  There was my first payoff in my conversation with Dan.  That was new to me.

Eel River Brewing’s head brewer, Matt Vivatson arrived and began chatting with who I think was his girlfriend (Stranger #2) and after a while, I rudely butted in to ask him some questions about the beer.  Matt happily obliged to answer some questions.

I began by asking him, “How did you decide on a saison?”

“That was between ‘Los (Carlos Sanchez) and Dylan (Schatz) and Meredith (Ripley), and I think it might have been Meredith who threw out the idea of a saison.  I wasn’t here personally for the meeting that they chose it on.”

“You were there for the brewing, right?”

“Yes.”

“How was it with five of you, it was more like nine really….”

“We took two shifts….the morning shift was myself and the Six Rivers guys and Dylan and the night shift, Lost Coast and Redwood Curtain.”

“So there wasn’t a problem with too many cooks in the kitchen, no disagreements on recipe?”

“No it was fun.  We talked that stuff through at the beginning.  Everybody that was there we’ve known each other for years.  It was more just like hanging out doing the brew.”

“So would you do it again?”

“Collaboration?  Totally, it was fun.”

“Annual for Craft Beer Week?”

“Possibly.  That’s up to everybody.  It was an enjoyable experience.”

The next day I caught up with Dylan Schatz, head brewer at Mad River Brewing Company.   He took a few minutes out of his brew day to sit down and talk with me.

“So how did this all come about?  You and ‘Los did the thing about four or five months ago with the wee heavy and I know that was the impedes of that….”

“That kind of started it.  We did that and it went over well and we were at GABF last fall and we all sat around talking about that and figured we should try and get everybody to do a collaboration.”

“And everybody was really cool with that?”

“Yeah, I mean, we kind of forgot about it for a while (laughs), and actually Meredith was the one who got us all together finally.  It was a couple months ago when we actually sat down.”

“So when did you do the brew?”

“It was about a month ago.  It was four weeks in the tank.”

“How did you guys decide on a saison?”

“When we first got together we just started figuring out what we wanted to do and Redwood Curtain already had that thought in their mind, so did Six Rivers and I said ‘Sure, lets go for it’….that one was easy for us.”

“So can you share the recipe at all?”

“Yeah, it was….pilsner, the rest made up with two row… rye….wheat, Styrian Goldings….. US Goldings….. and Sterling…..   We also threw some spices at it…grains of paradise and curacao orange.”

I asked Dylan if he minded if the recipe went public.  He declined, citing that he was really just one of the collaborators so it wasn’t up to him.  I honored his request and intentionally left out some key information in repeating the recipe here.

“So would you do it again?”

“I would, yeah.”

“Annual Craft Beer Week brew?”

“We were talking about it last night maybe more specifically for Humboldt Beer Week.  It seemed more appropriate.”

So the history making collaborative brew has hit the rough and tumble streets of Humboldt County.  Every participating brewery is serving it, as well as The Local Beer Bar and Blondies Food and Drink.  (as reported by the press release) It has also been learned since then its at Big Petes Pizzeria and they now have $2 pint nights on Wednesday.  Get it while it lasts and start dreaming of the next collaborative brew of the Six Mad Lost Red Eels.

Big Brew Day at Mad River Brewing Company

The fist week of May had some really oddball weather in Blue Lake. It was bi-polar from day to day. But Saturday it was absolutely perfect weather. The beer gods smiled upon us. May 5th wasn’t just Cinco De Mayo, it was National Homebrew Day and there was a celebration to be had in the form of Big Brew. 6 hearty souls producing four beers and 35 gallons hauled their gear to Mad River Brewing Company and set up their breweries next to the beer garden. These were some of the members of the Humboldt Homebrewers; a rag tag group of zymurgists from all walks of life. Three rules were employed at the start of the Humboldt Homebrewers, and are still used today:

  • No discussion of politics or religion.
  • Pay beer karma forward.
  • Always respect other brewers, regardless of skill level. Everyone has something to teach and learn.

Pete rocked the Coleman for his signature ginger beer, John and Stephen made yet another…brown ale (c’mon, expand guys!), the Humboldt Beer Terroirists made an explosive effort in their saison on the “Ring of Fire” 3-tiered system, and yours truly made a Belgian pale ale. Hot water and cool tunes were graciously provided by the brewery and tap room.

This year saw half the brews of 2011 but gained much more public interest. All day, folks entered the beer garden, walked straight through to the exit on the other side, and made their way to the festivities. They first stopped by the informational table featuring 11 grains to sample, took a beginners informational magazine and observed the equipment starter kit that would be required to brew their own beer. One by one, they made their way down the different breweries, snacked on chips and BBQ, sipped their Mad River beer, asked about a thousand questions and saw the many steps of brewing a beer.

The day wound down with chilling wort and filling carboys and your author, who up to this point was being responsible with the occasional Steelhead XP, finished the day with an “Old School”, which is a Shaun Cordes blend of 3/4 Jamaica Red and 1/4 DIPA.

I regrettably rushed out of the Peaceable Hamlet of Blue Lake to get back to the shop before closing. I could slowly feel my sunburn setting in. After a long winters night, it was a feel good burn and much needed UV. It was kind of like eating some really good hot wings invoking a fifth sense into their enjoyment. It was an absolute perfect day; great weather, great beer, great brewing, great food and friends and when I got home, I had the pleasure of reading that my beloved Steelhead Extra Pale Ale won a bronze medal in the Golden Ale category at the 2012 World Beer Cup. Big Brew Day could not have been any better.

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Six Mad Lost Red Eels Saison Du Humboldt

All Five Humboldt County Breweries Come Together for First-time Beer Collaboration

HUMBOLDT, CA–For the first time, all five Humboldt County breweries recently came together to create a collaborative beer: Saison Du Humboldt. The beer was crafted by brewers from: Eel River Brewing Company, Lost Coast Brewery, Mad River Brewing Company, Redwood Curtain Brewing Company, and Six Rivers Brewery. It will be unveiled at HumBrews in Arcata on Monday, May 14, to celebrate the kick-off of American Craft Beer Week.

The idea for the collaboration was born when Meredith Ripley, co-owner of Six Rivers Brewery, was with Mad River Brewing Company’s Brewmaster, Dylan Schatz, and Sales and Marketing Coordinator, Tera Spohr, at the Great American Beer Festival shortly after the two breweries released Wee Heavy Ale collaboratively, in honor of Mad River Brewing Company’s anniversary.

“We were talking about how fun it would be to get all the breweries together and brew a great beer in honor of American Craft Beer Week, which runs May 14-20. I put the idea out to the rest of the beer gang in Humboldt and everyone quickly agreed,” said Ripley.

Next, all the brewers met to discuss the style of beer to make and formulate a recipe. They decided on Saison Du Humboldt, based on the Saison style of a sometimes slightly sour, refreshing, and somewhat strong summer ale (5 to 8 percent ABV).

“As far as we know, this is the first time such a brew has been collaborated on by five separate breweries. The brew day was quite an event and meeting of the minds among five brewers, each doing their part. I hope it brings the same joy and merriment to all as it did for all of us,” said Carlos Sanchez, brewmaster of Six Rivers Brewery.

The brewing group has fondly dubbed themselves the Six Mad Lost Red Eels to incorporate the name of each brewery and hopes to make the collaboration an annual event.

“I personally would look forward to making a Humboldt Collaboration brew an annual event for American Craft Beer Week, with each edition being a different style every year. This project was great fun and very inspirational to all who participated. We have an amazingly brilliant collection of brewing minds in our area, and it has been a true pleasure to work together with everyone involved,” said Schatz.

Saison Du Humboldt, a one-time edition, limited production run, will be on draught at Humbrews starting Monday, May 14, for the kickoff of American Craft Beer Week which started in 2006 as a national celebration of America’s small and independent craft brewers and their impact on American culture. Saison Du Humboldt will also be available while it lasts at each participating brewery, Blondie’s Food and Drink in Arcata and The Local in Eureka.

PHOTO: The Six Mad Lost Red Eels (L to R): Drake Mollberg (Redwood Curtain), Matt Walsh (Lost Coast), Mike Lisignoli (Six Rivers), Carlos Sanchez (Six Rivers), Dylan Schatz (Mad River), Matt Vivaston (Eel River), Jon Hill (Six Rivers), Briar Bush (Lost Coast).

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