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What do beer people really want to read about?

Michael Jackson and Blue Moon.

Those were the most popular search terms that brought readers here in 2007. Looking at lists of the best read posts at several blogs I read got me poking around the stats at Appellation Beer, to see what you were reading and to try to guess why.

I was surprised this final post of the year will be the 299th, more than double 2006 and a lot more than I expect in 2008. An explanation about why week after next, when we’re back from an Internetless shakeout cruise that’s practice for a trip we expect to occupy much of 2008 and 2009.

Anyway, I won’t be finishing 2007 with a list of “top beer stories” (we already know the biggest one is also the one that still makes us terribly sad). I do recommend Don Russell’s look back with some make-you-smile predictions.

And I can tell you that the search terms that are trending up are Firestone, beer sommelier and Michelada.

Make of that what you will, as well as this list of the best read stories here during 2007:

1- Michael Jackson: Journalist
2- Russian River Brewing expansion update
3 – Blue Moon: Peter, Paul & Mary or Trini Lopez?
4 – 10 Beers that changed America
5 – New Beer Rule #2: IBUs and IQs
6 – And now . . . Imperial Hefeweizen
7 – Firestone 11 and a ‘Tale of Two Matts’
8 – Globalization versus local versus variety
9 – Fantasy Beer Dinner #1: Neal Stewart
10 – A million dollars worth of beer?

See you next week in time for The Session #11.

Russian River Brewing expansion update

Vinnie CilurzoOne unusual day last fall, Vinnie Cilurzo – owner, brewer and sometimes forklift operator at Russian River Brewing Co.wasn’t brewing.

He climbed on his forklift when a truck driver showed up with much-needed growlers, took phone calls, planned out the next week of brewing and bottling, and set out tasks for his assistants. All before lunch, so that in the afternoon he could work on a business plan for separate production brewery.

At one point he grabbed a 6-gallon carboy in his left hand hand and a hose in the other, quickly rinsing the glass container and dumping out the water. He swirled his right hand about the brewery, his index finger extended.

“I don’t want to give this up,” he said. “This is the thing I can contribute the most to this company.

“I don’t think I’ll ever give up brewing,” he said. “I’ve had other brewers and brewery owners tell me that eventually I’ll have to.”

He shook his head.

No.

He’s about to find out how easy it will be to run and brew at a production brewery.

He expects the brewery, also located in Santa Rosa, Calif., to be up and running in January. He talked about progress last month after making a presentation at the National Homebrewers Conference in Denver.

He and his wife and co-owner, Natalie, struck a deal in April to buy a 50-barrel brewhouse from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. They’ve acquired property not far from the brewpub and financing, and now are working their way through permitting and construction.

Not surprisingly for those who know the Cilurzos – “We’re conservative,” Vinnie said – they have a well thought out plan. A few of the basics:

Production – The goal is 6,000 barrels in 2008 and 7,000-8,000 in the next few years. “The max would be 12-to- 15,0000 barrels,” Cilurzo said. “I don’t want to get any bigger.”

The hoppy beers – Pliny the Elder (an Imperial/Double IPA) and Blind Pig IPA will be bottled for the first time. “But I don’t know how much Elder we’ll ship in bottles.”

Pliny the Younger (a triple IPA) will be brewed once a year and in 2008 will be draft only.

Cilurzo hasn’t settled on a bottle size for Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder, but is determined not to sell his beers in six packs. He prefers a 750ml-capped bottle or a 16-ounce bottle for those beers.

The non-barrel ‘-tion’ beers – Redemption (a monks’ strength beer at 4.8% abv), Perdition (a Belgian-inspired pale ale) and Salvation (dark and strong) should all be nearly as easy to find as the flagship Damnation (strong and golden). Cilurzo particularly wants to promote Redemption. “It’s everything I believe in, that we need more lower alcohol Belgian-style beers,” he said. “It is something we do at the pub.”

The brewery will us increase production of Santification, a beer 100 percent fermented with Brettanomyces.

All of those are sold in corked and caged 750ml bottles.

The barrel beers (also ‘-tion’) – The barrel room will have the a capacity to produce 560-plus beer barrels (31 gallons each) per year. Cilurzo recently picked up additional used Pinot Noir barrels (for Supplication) and 100 used Cabernet Sauvignon barrels (American oak). He hasn’t decided what fruit he will blend with a base beer (and of course wild yeast) in those barrels. Affordable used Chardonnay barrels are getting harder to find, so there may be less Temptation in the future.

(Just to be clear, when brewers refer to barrels they mean a measure of 31 gallons. Most wine barrels hold 225 liters, a little less than 60 gallons.)

Then there’s Beatification. Once barrels give up their wine character they’ll be used to age Beatification, which is spontaneously fermented using native yeast from within the brewery. Instead of calling it a Lambic, Cilurzo has dubbed it a Sonamic. A single batch may take two years to produce, and multiple batches may be blended for a bottling.

The standard size for the barrel beers is 375ml (again corked).

Distribution – Currently, Russian River sells beer only in California and Pennsylvania. Virginia and the District of Columbia will soon receive beer along with Pennsylvania (Masschusetts would likely be the next state added in the East). In the West, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington will be the first markets.

One final quick prediction: None will get as much Russian River beer as they want.

Trendspotting: Barrel-aged beers

Barrel-aged beer

It’s one line in a two-page spread – so the impact won’t be the same as if Oprah were to declare her love for IPAs (headlines across the the country scream, “Hops Sales Soar Through The Ozone Layer”) – but the current BusinessWeek reports on The Food and Wine Classic in Apsen, Colo., calling it a leading indicator of food trends.

And those trends would be?

“We’ll be hearing a lot more about Spanish and Greek wine, unusual pairings such as wine with chocolate, hand-cured meats, and barrel-aged beer.”

Before you get too excited, let’s consider how much more – oh, just for instance – Miller Chill there is out there for us to buy than there is barrel-aged beer. Give your favorite better beer store a call. I’ll wait. And they had? Maybe some Rodenbach Grand Cru if you’re lucky. Perhaps Jolly Pumpkin La Roja? Less likely.

The Angel’s Share from Lost Abbey? They had that and you didn’t hang up the phone and get immediately in the car? Shame on you.

So where are these beers going to come from?

You read about barrel-aged beers, but how often do you see them? There were 87 entries in the wood- and barrel-aged categories at the Great American Beer Festival, and some other wood-aged beers entries in other categories (Belgian sour beers in particular).

One of the medalists was Wooden Hell from Flossmoor Station in Illinois. That’s brewer Matt Van Wyk up above. The photo is courtesy of Todd Ashman, formerly of Flossmoor Station and now at Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, Calif., who collected barrel shots from across the nation for a talk he gave last year at the National Hombrewers Conference. This one came from Flossmoor assistant brewer Andrew Mason.

You’ll notice his “barrel room” is on the small side. The city of Rio Rancho, N.M., will go through more Blue Moon White this weekend than those barrels would hold.

With four 60- and six 130-hectoliter foders New Belgium Brewing must have the largest wood capacity in the country. To the best of my knowledge, Lost Abbey Brewing in California is the next largest with 130 wine and spirits barrels, and many of those are waiting for beer. Brewery Tomme Arthur recently authored a delightful blog post about barrel filling season.

(A little background: Most wine barrels hold 225 liters, a little less than 60 gallons. A barrel of beer, the measure we use most often, equals 31 gallons. A barrel of beer will produce about 13.8 cases of 12-ounce bottles, or two kegs. A barrel of wine yields 25 cases of 750ml bottles – but of course that’s almost two barrels of beer.)

When Russian River Brewing’s production plant is up and running (yes, I need to write more about that) the barrel room will hold more than 325 wine barrels so RR could produce 560-plus beer barrels (31 gallons) a year. Given that some beers will age longer, keeping barrels filled takes times, and still other reasons, 400 to 500 barrels a year seems more likely. That’s half the production of your average brewpub – and we won’t see any of it until 2009.

So back to all those GABF entries. Brewers are interested. Heck, New Holland Brewing in Michigan has 50 wood barrels at work right now, and the barrel display at Upstream Brewing in Omaha will take your breath away.

The list goes on. Flossmoor is up to 12 barrels, Jolly Pumpkin continues to add barrels, Cambridge Brewing outside of Boston has a captivating barrel cellar. Maybe I should just post a bunch more barrel-room photos.

But we have still to go looking. Sprecher Brewing in Wisconsin sells (or sold, they may be gone) a wonderful Dopplebock aged in bourbon barrels, but produced only 389 of the one-liter bottles. New Holland just rolled out Moxie, a sour ale aged in wood and only 424 750ml bottles are available.

The same day that Lost Abbey released Cuvee de Tomme the brewery sold all 480 375ml bottles that will be available until the next bottling (in the fall). Obviously underpriced at $15 apiece.

Cheap by Aspen standards – and heaven forbid Oprah finds out about these barrel-aged beers.

Food & Wine gets it (right)

Russian River Brewing barrel roomThis is beer and food done right, mostly for the food and wine crowd.

Maybe precisely for that crowd since it is in the June issue of Food & Wine magazine (the grilling issue).

In “The Keg vs. the Cork in Sonoma” chef San Yoon of the Father’s Office in Santa Monica, one of Southern California’s first “good beer” bars, takes writer Ray Isle on a tour of Sonoma County breweries.

There are plenty of recipes, attractive photos of beer and food, and inviting descriptions of what the beers taste like. A picture of Yoon sitting on barrels at Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa (rather small if you already clicked on the link above) is a striking full page in the magazine.

(A quick aside. The barrel room at Russian River isn’t quite as sexy as the magazine makes it appear. The photo here is more what it looks like to the human eye on an average day. But barrels sure do give beer some razzmatazz. Imbibe magazine ran just a killer two-page picture of Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries in his barrel room in the its March/April issue. Barrels are suddenly [almost]) as cool as babes in T-shirts.)

Food and Wine even includes an online bonus: An interview with Russian River owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo.

Come on, NY mag, take beer seriously

New York Magazine – high profile in a high impact market – has a story about beer. Before you begin celebrating with hopes another mainstream publication gets it read what Stephen Beaumont has to say at World of Beer. (The magazine piece is online, but you should read his commentary, then use the link he provides to the article.)

Beaumont points out that this is not an altogether terrible story, but that the end result of rounding up what the magazine calls “untrained but enthusiastic drinking aficionados” can frustrate those of us who know something about the beers described. He writes:

Which makes me wonder if these same magazines would assemble a tasting panel to cast judgment on a mix of chardonnays, ports, Champagnes, sherries and first growth Bordeaux. Somehow, I think not.

Bingo. Quite honestly, I think it is easier for somebody to “understand” when they taste a great wine than it may be when they taste a great beer – because beer covers a wider spectrum of flavors. Certainly few magazines are likely to take a couple of chardonnays, a single viognier, a sauvignon blanc and lump them in a group with a catchy name (such as “Ordering in” – one the NY mag uses in “Ales in Comparison”).

I have a category here for beer and wine (and will file this post there), but the comparisons can make me uneasy. There are times when a glass of wine tastes better than a glass of beer (though I could add vice versa). A bottle of wine may have attributes than no bottle of beer shares. That’s why comparing Wine, the category to Beer, the category gives me reason to pause.

Attitudes toward the two, those can be compared, and that’s why Beaumont’s conclusion that “most of those procedural errors could be easily fixed if editors just instructed their staff to treat their beer tastings as seriously as they would a panel assessment of wines” rings so true. Also, if they had to foot the bill for 21 bottles of top-line wine (17 really, plus a few for Yellow Tail and friends) then they might have thought twice.

We just returned from Northern California, where we drank truly wonderful wine and equally wonderful beer. One difference is that the beer was cheaper. We’re not talking $300 and $500 bottles of wine (at the winery – forget the restaurant wine lists) but really good Sonoma County wines that cost $20-$35 a bottle (750ml).

Yet if you are looking for that “something else” in the bottle – could be terroir or whatever reason some people use to justify buying trophy wines – then nuance (or creativity or regard for tradition) is just at prominent in Sonoma Country beers such as Russian River Damnation or Bear Republic Racer 5 as it is in the best wines. Damnation costs $8 for a 750ml bottle, Racer 5 just over $3 for a 22-ounce bottle (and $7.99 for a six-pack).

Those beers should probably cost more, and do by the time they get to New York City. I’m not rooting for them to command wine prices just so they’ll be taken seriously, but it going to take something to keep one from being dismissed because it “looks like road tar.”

The magazine panelists dissed some excellent beers (be sure you read Beaumont’s detailed rebuttal), so it’s not like they weren’t getting the good stuff. That’s the discouraging part.

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