The 200 Breweries Before Your 5th Birthday Club

Five years ago when I started the journey of fatherhood, like all first-time fathers I had no clue what I was in store for. In part, I liked my life the way it was and didn’t know if this mini-me alien was gonna ruin that. Leading a beer-rich, travel-heavy lifestyle seems incongruous to raising an infant turned baby turned toddler. But if there’s one thing I learned about parenting, it’s that you gotta make your kids adaptable, that it’s only 98% all about them and the people who go the full 100 are ruining it for themselves (and their little ones).

From the day I uploaded my kid’s first picture of us at a brewerry–true story, I claim it was Thirsty Bear Brewing in San Francisco even though it was actually Philadelphia’s Steaks & Hoagies before they added the 13 Virtues part in the Sellwood neighborhood but we didn’t snap a picture and as we all know in this era, “Picture or it doesn’t count,” which is also why Block 15 Brewing does not appear on I.P.Yae’s official list–I added it to a Facebook album I offhandedly titled “Irresponsible Photos of My Baby at Breweries.” I didn’t really think I was being irresponsible, but I know how society thinks (sometimes). I had no way of knowing what a full-blown mission it’d turn into.

Rather than posting pictures of Izzy Parker Yaeger (hence his initials I.P.Yae) at monuments and roadside attractions (which I reckon is also fun and I semi-maintain an album of him in front of beautiful murals), this project turned into a way to document both his brewery visits and our travels. Not too shabby that this pisher’s gotten to breweries in 13 states as well as 13 countries thus ushering him into the 200 Breweries Before Your 5th Birthday Club (suspected global membership: 1). Hope you enjoy this little video I made. To keep it under 5 minutes, it’s a compendium.

If you’ve got an additional 6 minutes, here’s the one I made over 2 years ago as a comprehensive anthology of the first 100.

Now that he’s 5, I recognize that it’s a little less cute and that we’ve got bigger fish to go after than ratcheting up his brewery count, so the Irresponsible album is going into semi-retirement. It’s not that we won’t keep exploring the world and doing so through local beer-makers, it’s just that we’re going to make even more time for parks and non sudsy curios.

May we all do impressive &/or ridiculous things on our journeys.

Portraits of Dead Soldiers Left in the Yard: Bad Hombres Edition

Three and a half years ago, evidently, I was inspired to write a series of blog posts inspired by a particular type of infuriating litter I’m always finding in our flower boxes or somewhere near the front yard: dead soldiers. Empty beer bottles and cans. Click here to see the entire “series” (2 posts: BridgePort IPA and Sparks: Blackberry) from my old Beer Odyssey blog. I pick up so many recyclables–both craft and macro–that I’m occasionally inspired to kickstart it back up. But today’s discovery made it imperative.

Some of you know of one of my beery obsessions: nips. Fun fact: a story I wrote about tiny bottles appears as a reference on Wikipedia! And in fact, they were the subject of yet a different blog: Welovenips. That one I evidently pulled the plug on two years ago. It still lives on in Twitter form. (Follow @welovenips for a bimonthly tweet.) So imagine my delight and horror–equal parts–when I discovered these three amigos in said planters.

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This tears me apart. I love cuartitos or chicos, but Corona is my absolute least favorite Mexican lager.  I’m not sure if these bad hombres were smuggled over our open borders or were simply bought at Freddy’s across the street, but clearly someone was thirsty enough for 14 oz but not for 21. Oh, I confess I was tempted to crack open that third one and write a review of a lightstruck Coronita, but I was afraid Dia de los Muertos might arrive 11 days early.

These planters are for succulents. Not sucky beer.

The Rural Brewer Spotlight: Siuslaw in Alsea

Alsea is the smallest town in all of Oregon with a brewery. Give or take, 164 people call it home. When I wrote the Oregon Breweries guidebook, I made it to each and every brewery in operation across the state. Several have opened since it was published and it burns me that I haven’t made it to all of those, as well, but, let’s face it, for city folk like me in Portland, it’s not often I find myself in Alsea. Truth of the matter is, I’d never heard of Alsea (named for the Alsea River and/or the Alsea tribe of Native Americans) until Siuslaw BrewingSiuslaw field (named, presumably, for the Siuslaw National Forest that occupies a tiny part of Alsea’s Benton County) put it on my map.

The 2nd The Rural Brewer Fest will be my first time trying their beer. It sounds pretty bad-ass since, get this, Duane and Jesse (the brewer) Miller grow their own hops. OK, a few other breweries do that, too. But they also grow some of their own barley and malt it themselves.

The farmhouse brewery—or rather, forest-house brewery—in Alsea is located in Benton County about halfway between I-5 and the coast 30 miles southwest of Corvallis. As such, its nearest breweries are ones like Block 15 and Flat Tail, but keep going and then the next closest ones are 45 miles farther including Yachats Brewing and Wolf Tree Brewing. Yeah, those are so rural they’re also featured at The Rural Brewer fest (as returnees!)

Wanna see it for yourself? As Miller said via FB DM, “We have a beautiful piece of property on the Alsea River and welcome all who want to stop by and see what we are doing. We brew many styles and continue to perfect our recipes. Hopefully we will meet up sometime!”

Those styles include an IPA and a Double Black IPA. A Blonde Belgian and a Strawberry Rhubarb Ale. There’s a wide range but as for what they’re bringing up to Portland, Grass Clippings is a cream ale brewed with barley grown on the farm (and again, malted there too), using a method that retains the fresh barley flavor.

 

German Reinheitsgebot’s Living, Tasty History

Drinking a maß of Märzen or sipping a stange of Kölsch is okay as far as trying to celebrate the Reinheitsgebot and Germany’s 500-year-old beer purity law, but when I was invited to head to the land of lagers and weisses to see how this tradition is holding up, I found two things: braumeisters who are, admittedly, a bit jealous of the creativity that modern craft (or privatebraueries) allow, but also people who take great pride in making the beers that their customers love and feel very passion about as being real bier! Southern Germany is postcard picture beautiful at nearly every turn. Prost!

Firestone Walker Invitational Bassoon Festival

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Adam Firestone, 2005. Photo: Yours truly

Today, I’m heading down to Paso Robles, California for the 5th Annual Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival where more than 50 breweries (and thousands of beer nerds) across California, the country, and indeed the world will gather once again to become engrossed in beer (and beer culture). Yesterday, while listening to my iTunes on random-play as I worked, rather than a song a spoken word track started to play. My own voice. I was dictating notes to myself about afterthoughts from my 2005 interview with Adam Firestone.

I wasn’t a beer writer then. I was an aspiring one. I wasn’t drinking much in the way of bourbon-aged strong ales back then. But that’s OK because Firestone Walker wasn’t making them yet. Part of my notes-to-self was about the impending release of “Firestone Ten.” XX will be released later this year. So bear in mind—Firestone pun intended—that they brewery was working solidly in the pale ale realm still. No wild ales like SLOambic. No Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA. Not even Union Jack. That’s right. They hadn’t even unleashed their now-flagship IPA brand. Today, they’re still all about their Burton Union, er, Firestone Union method of fermentation that’s prime for making British-style pale ales that co-founder and Adam’s brother-in-law David Walker still prefers. (In a phone interview with David this past April he said of Double Barrel Ale, a British Pale, “I drink DBA every opportunity I can. It’s my favorite style.”)

As I sat there listening to the track, it was telling that Adam, when talking about not aging but fermenting beer in wood, told me that any brewer worth his salt would know better than to do that. Or at least challenge that, which is what Matt Brynildson did when he joined the brewery. Tangent: I’d also interviewed Matt in October of 2005. He discussed having brewed for SLO Brewing where he didn’t like having to make their Blueberry Ale not because it was fruity but because it wasn’t made with real fruit, just flavor additive. I attended UC Santa Barbara nearby—graduating months before Firestone Walker launched—and recall drinking and, dare I say, enjoying said Blueberry Ale (as a 21-year-old whose friends only drank beer that came in $35 kegs or 36-can suitcases). Matt also said back then that Oak is a flavor so it’s really beer’s “fifth ingredient.”

Back to the track. Adam likened their method of brewing to “being in the bassoon business.” I’m paraphrasing: “Not everyone plays bassoon, but if that’s what you do, and it’s a wonderful instrument, you really gotta throw yourself into making a good bassoon.” I loved that analogy. (And lemme tell you something. Those double-reeded woodwinds can run up to 30 grand, but you’re not getting out for under five thou because you’re not some podunk oboe player amirite?) What Adam meant—and the sentiment was echoed during my in-person interviews with David and Matt, too—is that Firestone Walker doesn’t make beer for everyone. Anyone can play the kazoo. They make the bassoons of beer. Elegant. Rich. Unique.

According to my dictated notes, Adam went onto say, “You don’t have to be all things to all people.” He divulged that, despite it being the era where Hefeweizens and Witbiers were the big deal in microbrewing (imagine if brewers today were trying to out-wheat each other or tout being the first to use an experimental varietal of grain), he was no fan of wheat. Nor of hemp seeds, which, if you know their history with Humboldt Brewing and Red Nectar Ales, is pretty funny. First met Adam behind the table while pouring at the 2005 GABF.

Beside the bassoon line, I had a compulsory discussion with Adam about his kid brother, Andrew, who’d been the star of an early season of The Bachelor. Yikes! But Adam had a really interesting take. “Just like the 70’s had 8-tracks and the 50’s had hula hoops, we have reality TV shows and those won’t be around in future generations, either. Like TV, previous generations were concerned with who shot J.R.? This generation is concerned with who’s the bachelor going to pick?” He added that the show brought great marketing might to the Firestone Winery. Less to the Firestone Walker Brewery. He also used the word fungible two or three times. Yeah, he dropped it during the course of conversation. I hardly read or hear that word, but when I do, I can’t help but think of Adam.

So that’s it. It’s crazy to think about what has transpired in the decade since, with me, with the beer industry and scene in general, and with this brewery in particular. Firestone Walker has amassed 47 GABF medals since 2002 and hasn’t had a single dry year. David really does all the publicity and public engagements. He’s simply very affable and charming. Of course he is; he’s British. But as Adam copped to me back in 2005, the two of them got along well, which Adam said is a testament to David’s character since he’s aware that he himself is not the easiest person to get along with. “Strong opinions.” So when his brother-in-law began prattling off about starting a “microbrewery,” Adam fortuitously said, “Yep, let’s do this.”

Below is the excerpt from Red, White, & Brew about Firestone Walking Brewing. At the time, they were the one brewery I intended to make a full chapter in the book but did not. The goal was to get the deep, inside story not of every brewery in America, but 1%. That’s why there are 14 chapters in the book. There were 1,400 breweries. I didn’t think there’d be 1,500 by the time the book came out, which, in 2008 had actually climbed to 1,574. If I were to write Red, White, & Brew today using that same approach, I’d have to write 44 chapters! Anyway, it’s not my best writing, but it was my humble start. Check out the part where we learn before Firestone made sessionable pale ales, a Firestone made non-alcoholic beer (from 1986-1990)! And as a bonus, I’ll start with a line not pertaining to Firestone Walker but that leg of my roadtrip around America’s breweries:

…In the Palm Desert it is the Sonny Bono Memorial Highway, in memoriam to the former mayor of Palm Springs who couldn’t ski the forest for the trees…

Months after I graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1996, a new brewery opened up nearby. It belonged to two brothers-in-law, Adam Firestone and David Walker, hence the name Firestone Walker Brewing. The Firestone name, of course, is well known, as tire magnate Harvey S. Firestone was a rubber baron. Harvey’s grandson, Brooks, used his inheritance to start the first estate winery in Central California. In turn, his son, Adam, while already president of the Firestone Vineyard, partnered with David. They have Adam’s sister, and David’s wife, Polly Firestone-Walker, to thank for bringing them together.

I didn’t discover Firestone Walker beer until I went to Denver. At the GABF’s Pacific Region section of the festival, I met Adam, tall and youthful, pouring his beers from behind his table. He told me about his dad’s side venture making, of all things, non-alcoholic beer in the late eighties. While serving as a Marine overseas, Adam pleaded with his dad not to fold the operation. But when brands like Miller Sharps and Coors Cutter were introduced, Brooks pulled the plug.

Soon thereafter, Adam returned, having done a tour in the first Persian Gulf War. After taking over Firestone Estates, he lit out on a scavenger hunt to track down old brewing equipment for his side project. Because it proved to be a success, now he’s got shiny new equipment. If only his kid brother Andrew had revealed as much about the brewery in “The Bachelor” reality series as he did about the winery and his own personal dalliances, the brand might have a broader reputation.

The vineyard, the brewery, and a new brewpub are spread across the Santa Ynez Valley along the Central California coast, 90 miles apart. The latter, the Taproom, is in Buellton, most famous for its split-pea soup—I kid you not. The pub is located near the tree that Thomas Haden Church crashed Paul Giamatti’s Saab into in the movie Sideways. Instead of chasing down wine, my destination was beer. Looping around the off ramp that circles the tree, I made my way off the 101 and into the Taproom.

I met David, a tall British bloke gracious enough to plunk down in a booth with me and discuss their initial, and failed, idea to make beer in the winery’s spent Chardonnay barrels. Instead, the brewery patented a method of fermenting beer in charred oak barrels. Aging beer in barrels isn’t that uncommon, but these guys are the only ones in America who use them in the fermentation process. Every brewery that uses stainless steel thinks these guys are crazy. But after you taste their Double-Barrel Ale, you’ll be a convert, too.

David slipped behind the bar and pulled me a few tastes including an unfiltered version of Double Barrel. I’m not much for discussing noses, legs, or bouquets, but this beer boasted some serious oakiness. My hat’s off to brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who earned Mid-Size Brewer of the Year honors at last year’s GABF.

 

Beer Birthday: Jay Brooks

Today is the 57th birthday of beer writer Jay Brooks. His guidebook, California Breweries – North (Stackpole Books), came out last year (even though we started our respective tomes around the same time.) Jay is a veteran beer writer (Celebrator Beer News, All About Beer, BeerAdvocate, etcetera etcetera) whose column Brooks on Beer appears in the San Jose Mercury News. He has contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer as well as Playboy Magazine. He is the co-founder of SF Beer Week (and it breaks my heart missing it even if it was because I live in a foreign territory now). To anyone who follows the brewing industry, none of this is news. But for years, a convivial component of his Brookston Beer Blog has been celebrating brewers and those in the beer community on their birthdays. So please…join me in wishing Jay a very happy birthday.

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Outdoor Speakeasy: Me, Brian Lenzo from Blue Palms, Jay Brooks (whose blog I copied this from), and Meg Gill before starting Golden Road Brewing.

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Brewmaster Craig Cauwels, yours truly, the Beer Chef Bruce Patton, the birthday boy

 

Lagunitas, Heineken, and post-craft beer

urlToday’s bombshell news via Beerpulse, that Lagunitas Brewing founder Tony Magee sold half his baby to the Dutch beer conglomerate Heineken rings more like one of Bang Snaps (aka poppers or throw-downs). A bit startling since it landed at our feet, but it’s not like Tony didn’t warn us that he was throwing one our way for the last few weeks (via his Tumblr blog)!

My 2¢ on the matter: Good for you, Tony. Now that you’ve sold 50% of your brewing company, welcome to being semi-retired.

As Mr. Magee put it himself in today’s post that is required reading before anyone says one flipping word about this matter, he’s “55 years old going on 80.” I have a hard enough time going to the market to pick up a roll of paper towels and I’m 14 years younger.

Lagunitas is America’s sixth largest “craft” brewery. It’s reportedly valued at…are you sitting down?… One Billion Dollars. Last year they brewed some 600,000 barrels. Four years ago before the Craft Brewers Conference, Tony told me that the five largest craft brewers rake in 45% of the craft segment of the beer industry. That was before Yuengling’s status was reclassified by the BA’s board members as being “craft” despite the fact that they’ve always upheld the BA’s three pillars of craftdom: being small (only in comparison to the Big Two of ABI and MillerCoors), traditional (hello! America’s Oldest Brewery), and independent (it remains in the hands of the founder’s sixth and seventh generation descendants).

Soon, Lagunitas will have a third brewing facility online in SoCal after the original in NorCal and a second in his native Chicago. And soon, they will be brewing well over a million barrels a year, which is still well below the BA’s definition of small which presently stands at 6 million bbls. However, their definition of independent is no more than 25% ownership by a major brewing concern. Heinie is a major brewing concern.

Ostensibly, this means that the next time the Brewers Association announces craft beer’s market share, the numbers will reflect lower than anticipated numbers. It will be a setback for the goal of 20% market share by 2020 because they just lost the projected million barrels that even the thousand new brewpubs and nanobreweries combined can’t account for. But don’t you dare blame Tony for pursuing the American dream. Love him or hate him–and there are plenty of folks in each camp–dude’s worked his ass off. He deserves this success. And in his astoundingly articulate, erudite, and strategic manner, the Nietzsche-esque stoner “madman” from Petaluma has neither “come too soon” nor too late. His ship arrived at the exact right time. The industry will keep sailing with and without Lagunitas, a subsidiary of Heineken International, as this just further demonstrates that we are drinking in a post-craft beer world.

Feel free to mumble in the comments below.