Alt.beer

North Bay brewers think outside the hops

I like a cold, bitter IPA as much as the next guy, but the ascendancy of aggressively hopped beers has shoved many other respectable styles to the side. In this year’s annual beer issue, we take a look at a few alternatives to the hoppy hegemony of IPA. In the pages below, our writers look at unhopped brews, the boozy, malty power of barleywine and even—gasp!—non-alcoholic beer. Elsewhere in this beery issue, we look at gluten-free beers, Lagunitas’ live music offerings and what brewers do with
all that grain when they’re done brewing. That’s a six-pack of crisp and
refreshing content. Cheers! —Stett Holbrook

BREAKING THE HOPOPOLY

What’s the wildest, craziest kind of beer out there? Here’s one hint, because you won’t guess by scoping a shelf of today’s hopped-up ales with amped-up labels glorying in ruination, damnation and evil: it’s not IPA. Want a wild and crazy party? Stock the ice chest with gruit.

“Hops weren’t always the darling we think of them as today,” says Moonlight Brewing’s Brian Hunt. “There are a bazillion alternatives.”

Hunt, whose 1,000-barrel microbrewery has an avid following in the North Bay, is himself an avid follower of brewing history. Beer was once used the way herbal tea is today, he says. Dozens of herbs were brewed in beer, or a fermented grain beverage made without hops called “gruit,” for medicinal purposes, as well as to enhance storage life—a property that hops hold no monopoly on.

Hops are light-green, papery little pillows packed with resin that the vine Humulus lupulus sprouts with abandon. When added to beer (often processed into pelletized form that resembles animal feed or fertilizer) during its boiling, fermentation or aging step, hops contribute floral, fruity aromas and a dry, bittering quality that counterbalances beer’s malty sweetness on the palate.

But through the Middle Ages, it was one of dozens of popular additives—some of which are mildly psychoactive—and was perhaps better known as a mild sedative. Hops became the fashion around the time of Martin Luther, says Hunt. It was “especially in fashion because a lot of the herbs used in brewing tended to make wilder and crazier inebriated people.”

Martin Luther had no gripe with beer, Hunt says, but had a notable beef with the Catholic Church, whose monastic orders had a lock on the production of herb-brewed gruit. Reformation-era German beer laws favoring hops were, the argument goes, partly a bid to curtail the Church’s power, with the benefit of promoting a more sedated, “civilized” populace less likely to seek its services. “Maybe uncivil behavior led to more repentance and more babies? Who knows,” Hunt speculates.

In 16th-century England, hops were denounced as “immoral and unpatriotic,” although a distinction was made between English ale and beer for some time. Industrialization following the world wars finally swept away the holdouts, as manufacturers sought to appeal to the broadest possible segment of the population—resulting in the blandest possible beers.

Enter the craft-beer scene, in most respects wild, free and full of creativity. Except for a one-dimensional emphasis on hops—double hops, triple hops and more hops—that Hunt is emphatic about calling out.

“It’s not that I have some horrible aversion to hops; it’s just that they are being horribly overused,” Hunt says, admitting he’s getting a little burned out on the trend. “Imagine: there are 50 herbs that have historically been used in beers—and commonly! There’s such diversity of beers right now, instead of using one species of hops, what if we delved into the other 50 choices? We haven’t scratched the surface of what our options are. Isn’t that crazy?”

Most Moonlight beers are made in the traditional style with hops—but maybe that’s a problematic term, in context. “It’s very traditional in Norway to use juniper,” Hunt discovered. “A lot of my heritage is Scandinavian, and it’s very traditional in all of Scandinavia to use spruce tips.”

Inspired, Hunt looked around for a locally sourced equivalent, and found redwood trees growing right outside the brewery. He can’t brew enough of Working for Tips to meet demand, but only releases it once a year when the tips of the redwood branches grow just right.

Anderson Valley Brewing also brews its Boont Oude Bruijn with redwood tips—but that’s “a nice ‘tip’ we picked up from Brian Hunt,” says brewmaster Fal Allen. He also uses spices such as ginger, star anise and lemon grass in seasonal releases, while Marin Brewing’s Chi Tonic contains medicinal herbs.

Like these, New Belgium’s Lips of Faith gruit contains at least some hops in addition to horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow and wormwood; otherwise, it cannot legally remain in the beer category. San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing makes Scottish-style Weekapaug Gruit, while in Scotland, Williams Bros. Brewing’s Fraoch is made with heather, following ancient recipes. In Kentucky, says Hunt, brewers are experimenting with bald cypress, which reputedly contains 20 cancer-fighting compounds.

“How many people would like to have a beer like that? So it’s not, ‘Why is this Brian guy putting this crazy stuff in this beer?'” says Hunt. “It’s, ‘Why isn’t everybody putting other things in their beer?'”—James Knight

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STRANGE BREWS

About 200 years ago, brewers in England discovered a way to make beer stronger and last longer in bottles. They called the style “barley wine” for its depth of flavor and high alcohol content, but the dark, aged, fermented liquid served in a snifter glass is still very much a beer; it’s just a little more grownup than those cans overflowing from the frat house recycling bin.

America, still catching up with our grandfathers across the pond, only started making barleywine in 1976, when craft-brew pioneer Fritz Maytag sought out a new style for his Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco. Marin Brewing was also one of the first microbrews in the state to make it, brewing its inaugural batch in 1989.

“The English have a couple hundred years on us,” says Marin Brewing master brewer Arne Johnson, who has been making beer there for 19 years.

Though American barleywine (the combining of the two words into one was seen as a necessity by Maytag to assure state regulators that this was indeed beer and not wine) is generally hoppier than its British counterpart, it’s also generally higher in alcohol. These beers range from 7 to 13 percent ABV on average, and some, like Sam Adams’ Utopias, can reach the
20 percent range.

“It’s one of those perennial styles,” says Ken Weaver, editor of RateBeer.com and author of the Northern California Craft Beer Guide. “Even in the early days of craft beer, it was one of those styles that stood out, one that you could age, and it stayed pretty popular.”

No, “aged” beer isn’t just a fancy way of saying “old” beer. Barleywine changes over time, and American styles can be stored for up to seven years before they start to go south. “If it’s well packaged and well kept, it’ll develop other flavors,” says Johnson. The aggressive hoppiness tends to mellow out, and the caramelized malt comes through with a touch of honey flavor.

Lagunitas Brewery, which started making its barleywine (which it named “GnarlyWine”) in the early 2000s, hasn’t made the style since 2011 due to the increased time and storage it demands. Brewer Mark Hughes says it might come back this year, though, now that the brewery has expanded its capacity. That doesn’t mean the flavor was absent from the brewery’s lineup, though.

“Brown Shugga—yeah, I’d consider it a barleywine,” says brewer Mike Hewitt of the seasonal Lagunitas beer that has a similar ABV, depth of flavor and tendency to mellow out with aging. “The sugar kind of throws off the barley part, though.”

A vertical tasting of 2008 and 2010 GnarlyWines showed the difference aging can make.
The 2010 has a higher ABV,
10.9 percent, and is lighter than the 2008, which is 9.7 percent and has a good amount of sediment in the pour. The older beer is more malty and visually darker, with a pronounced syrupy mouthfeel. Both have subtle hop notes, are not as bitter as expected, and the characteristic sweetness of the style has mellowed. There were no changes in the recipe, Hughes says. A slight variance in ingredients from year to year and the aging process is what changes the flavor.

Barleywine is usually aged in bottles, but what happens when it’s aged in barrels? And, because this is beer, we aren’t talking about Pinot—try bourbon barrels.

Marin Brewing is releasing its barrel-aged barleywine in about a month.

“It’s a pretty stellar version,” says Johnson, who says the brewery will sell wax-dipped bottles for aging at the release party in Novato. The Old Dipsea Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine is ranked in the top 20 (out of hundreds) on RateBeer.com, with reviews describing it having flavors like bourbon, vanilla, toffee, oak, stone fruits and even Nilla Wafers.

“A lot of the beer geeks seek them out,” Johnson says of the style. “They’re super-rare, and they take a little extra coddling and all that.” And since barleywines are typically released when the weather gets colder, they make great gifts (hint, hint). —Nicolas Grizzle

NO NEAR BEER HERE

The North Bay is craft beer heaven. There are dozens of brewers and brewpubs dotting the lager-friendly landscape, offering lots of creative concoctions, fun names for the beers and interesting labels to round out the crafty picture.

But there’s one glaring absence on the brewpub scene, and that’s the lack of a brewer who kicks out a homegrown non-alcoholic beer.

Help may be on the way for nondrinkers who like the taste of beer and don’t want to order a Coke with dinner. Brendan Moylan, owner of the Novato pub and restaurant Moylan’s, says he’s hard on the case trying to concoct a palatable non-alcoholic beer.

It’s a challenge, he says, but a fun one to tackle. Moylan’s a veteran craft-beer maker; he founded Larkspur’s Marin Brewing Company in 1989.

“I am working on a little bit of a project right now,” says Moylan, who notes that he doesn’t have a name yet for his possible non-alcoholic product.

How does it work? The process, he says, starts with one of his more ferocious ales, the Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale. The ale is run through a still, the still vaporizes the alcohol, the remaining “stillage” is carbonated, and—voilà!—a non-alcoholic beer is born. But is it drinkable?

Moylan may offer the work-in-progress to consumers, and plans a taste test soon to see if there’s interest. But he notes that there’s just not a whole lot of demand for the non-alcoholic stuff. The central coast brewer Firestone tried to market a line of non-alcoholic beers years ago, he recalls, and went nowhere with it.

Now the brewer is only producing brews with the booze in them—a cautionary tale for any North Bay brewer who may think there’s a market to exploit.

Moylan cites two big impediments to making non-alcoholic beers: That extra, labor-intensive step of distilling the liquor out of the beer, and the fact that “people don’t necessarily have a still” (Moylan makes beer schnapps in Novato using the still).

The distillation process is the key step in rendering a boozy beer into a non-alcoholic version—and one of the reasons why nobody else is doing this in the North Bay.

But for Moylan, there’s a sort of built-in business sense to repurposing old beers or surplus suds that aren’t moving in the brewpub—if only there was a market for it.

“If you have too much of a certain beer, or if it’s past its shelf life, you can re-distill it into [non-alcoholic] beer.”

Moylan carries the popular non-alcoholic Clausthaler in the Novato brewpub, but only because there’s a regular customer who likes it: Moylan keeps it on hand for that one guy.

Meanwhile, over at the Lagunitas empire of ales, the word on non-alcoholic beers is: blech. Lagunitas doesn’t make one, they’re not going to be making one, and there’s none of the big-brewer commercial versions available in the bottle at their TapRoom, either.

“Non-alcoholic beers are expensive to make because you need to first brew the beer then de-alcoholize it,” says Lagunitas marketing director Ron Lindenbusch, echoing Moylan.

“On top of that, I have yet to taste one that I would prefer to other [non-alcoholic] options,” says Lindenbusch, more popularly known as the “beer weasel” at the company. “I don’t get it.”

The Lagunitas TapRoom in Petaluma pushes out some non-alcoholic, non-beer product, including Revive Kombucha, characterized as “delicious and practically non-alcoholic” by Lindenbusch.

The folks at Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa are similarly hardcore when it comes to the hops: they don’t make a non-alcoholic beer, and they don’t sell any of the commercial non-alcoholic beers by the bottle. “We just make beer,” says Jasper, the friendly host.

There are a few options at the Third Street Aleworks, just around the block from Russian River in Santa Rosa. Manager Megan Chaney says the brewer has a root beer on tap with the beers, and bottles of non-alcoholic St. Pauli Girl.

“We do not brew a non-alcoholic beer, kind of out of tradition,” says Chaney.

Here’s to new traditions!
Tom Gogola

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