Friday, May 31, 2013

Beer Tripping Volume III: The Neighbors - Smog City and Monkish

Malt Mecca 

It's no secret that Southern California - especially San Diego - is a mecca of the craft beer world. Plugging in "craft brewery" into Google Maps while you're in the area is a great way to turn the map into a pincushion - to say there's a ton is a bit of an understatement, and if you ever have the pleasure of being in the area, you owe it to yourself to pick one or two (or three or four...) breweries to seek out.

They have a guild. Does your Guild have beer?

What you might not know, however, is that a short trip north (about two hours by car...and on a separate occasion, please, I don't think "I'm studying craft beers!" will hold up against a DUI charge) will put you in Torrance, a beer-fertile region, ripe with brewery-friendly industrial parks, that is sprouting up baby-breweries and quickly becoming a more local bastion of surprisingly talented brewers peddling their wares. From Strand to Dudes to the two we'll discuss in a bit, the area seems to have ambitions of becoming a sort of Mini Diego, a treasure trove of "little guys," and a much more local option for the Los Angeles beerheads like myself. It's going to be a place to watch in the upcoming years.

The notion of the craft brewing phenomenon (a term that is well earned and well suited by now, I think) is indeed a romantic one; a bunch of lil' brewery Davids beating their little hydrometers on the massive leg of InBev and the other Goliaths. But, as much as we want all of those little guys to stick it to the man and end the reign of, as Stone calls it "Fizzy Yellow Beer," the harsh truth is that a lot of the little guys just can't make reliably good beer (yet).

As a humble blogger (with a phenomenal beer pallet and nearly unrivaled penchant for the written word and other such skills you should be jealous of), I don't think I'm in a position to give a bulleted list of breweries that aren't quite there. A homebrewer myself, I cannot imagine the difficulties of translating your little homebrew recipe that you've toiled over and multiplying it to a degree that makes it viable for distribution, so I do think that some patience is required - I'm not so arrogant to assume that just because I didn't care for a beer or two the brewery is doomed. I genuinely believe that any hiccups in the brewpot can be sorted out, and besides, even a bad craft beer is leaps and bounds better than the uninspired stuff being sold by the truckload (literally) by those Goliaths. But still, the concern remains; just because you want to open a brewery (and it does indeed seem to be a popular dream) doesn't mean you should. Lots of those aforementioned "little guys" get caught up in the dream, and their plans spiral into the impractical and poorly realized.

That said, the breweries you're going to experience in Torrance do not seem to have fallen victim to any such kinks in the line. Especially these two:

The Neighbors

It's common for breweries to be a stone's throw away from one another; it's what makes brew tour buses so feasible in San Diego. But for breweries to be literal neighbors is practically unheard of. And yet, Torrance start-ups Monkish and newbie Smog City are walking distance from one another, and make for a wonderful afternoon of some truly inspired beers.

Smog City Brewing

The newest brewery in a town of old friends, Smog City represents the efforts of Jonathan and Laurie Porter (talk about destiny), a talented couple that just seems to be excited about being a craft brewery. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for their tasting room's grand opening earlier this month, and it was one of my favorite beer memories. They seemed to be overwhelmed by the turnout - but responded not with panic, but rather gracious smiles. It was abundantly clear they were having the time of their lives.

Before the rush began, the brew room was quiet . Too quiet. 
"We sometimes feel like we're working in a bubble," says Laurie, "and don't see the buzz surrounding our work/beers." That ethic is noble (and palatable, but we'll get to that in a moment), but the bubble was certainly burst: after that Saturday, it was undeniable that Smog City was onto something great. But even better, Laurie managed to stay entirely likeable, excited and humble about the whole thing, even as people downed samples and pints with supreme gusto.

Given that it was the grand opening, the line twisted around the entire tasting area. The wait was notable, but as Laurie noted, no one seemed to mind the wait, especially when there was handcrafted beer waiting on the other side.

After all Helles broke lose (Haha!..Hop puns)

Offering both a selection of dependable standbys (Penumbra Stout and their IPA, Sabertooth Squirrel- seriously) and oddities (Quercus and the aptly named Weird Beer), the gamut present is unexpectedly excellent. They don't appear to have a clear-cut inspiration, opting to instead pick and choose their favorite influences from throughout the industry or, better yet, whatever they feel like doing. Here's a quick breakdown of some of the excellent brews on showcase at Smog City's tasting room debut:

Tell me this wouldn't look good framed above their bar. THANKS ART SCHOOL. 

  • Groundworks Coffee Porter - Coffee and beer isn't a particularly new concept, but it does have the unfortunate potential to come off as sort of gimmicky ("You got coffee in my beer! No, you got beer in my coffee!"), but if done well, the natural roast flavors of both unite to make a wonderful concoction. Groundworks, for the un-caffeinated (and the East Coasters), is my favorite local coffee chain, so putting it in beer is is sort of awesome by default, and was innately tempting. The distinctly rich flavor Groundworks coffee is on the pedestal here, and is full-bodied but surprisingly light and crisp. Potentially could replace your morning cup, if you seek two sorts of buzz at once (and I, for one, wouldn't judge you for an instant). 
  • Quercus Circus - Smog's funky beer evokes those crazy sours that are so en vogue right now. Cidery with a touch of that oaky and acidic goodness. Fun and approachable, it may not impress those who prefer their beers pucker-worthy, but Quercus is, well, quirky enough to warrant a taste. 
  • Sabre-toothed Squirrel - Their entry in the obligatory "We're From California So Let's Make Something Obnoxiously Hoppy" category, this squirrel has quite the bite (hehe). It's undeniably hop-forward and should please the hopheads in search of the next tongue-scraping experience.
  • Weird Beer - As advertised, this beer has a unique pedigree that made me think my Christmas had crashed into my summertime. Vanilla, cinnamon,  spiciness, lemon - it sort of reminded me of a lighter, more drinkable version of The Bruery's 5 Golden Rings (that Christmas beer I loved so much; needless to say I dug this one quite a bit). 
  • Penumbra Stout - By the books stout, with no frills (or thrills, really). Solid, but the least memorable of what I tried. 
  • Bourbon Red - For me, the crown jewel of the whole lineup was this beautiful ruby-colored goblet of burning love. Tremendously oaky with a wonderful collection of robust aged flavors, the smoothness of this one belies its strength. Very excellent. 
If you've had the pleasure of drinking extensively with me (it's awesome and highly recommended), you know I have a bit of a bone to pick with the craft industry: as craft beer finds its place grow in the market, so too do the egos of many of the brewmasters, who consider their work to be godlike, as though beer has suddenly transcended the bar and bottle and has become the burden of some deity ("Solve overpopulation strain" is right up there with "brew a killer stout using cumin," as it were). I don't decry a sense of adventure, but I do grow weary of snobby beer bars and craft elitism (a recent encounter at work told me that  he "doesn't drink hoppy beers that aren't refrigerated." I'm still trying to find my eyeballs after they rolled out of my head). 

Which is why I'm a fan of the Davids out there, the Davids like Smog City. It's an excellent and wonderfully welcome place that I genuinely wish great things for. They're not bottling, yet. That'll supposedly happen before the end of the year, and it'll be considerably longer still for their saturation to increase, but I'm tellin' ya (and you should listen to me because of my many, many books), Smog City is going places. They're just, you know, starting in Torrance. 

Monkish Brewing

A few uncoordinated stumbles to the left will put you at Monkish, a homebrew-turned-brewery with a decidedly Belgian influence and a veritable pantry's worth of unique and unexpected spices. Like the beers brewed by the brewery's namesake, all of the offerings are yeasty and malty, but make use of interesting ingredients that add a level of fascination to each brew.

Trade tokens for different tasters of Monkish's impressive lineup. 

Crux, a Beglian style single with elderflowers, and Feminist, a Trippel with hibiscus, were born of small batches before being joined alongside the likes of Lumen and Vigil as the brewery grew. Pink peppercorns, rose hips and thyme are just a few of the unique ingredients that have found their way into the beers, and the brewers claim that they have a dozen more in their back pocket for future adventures.

Magnificat was the leftover Christmas offering from Monkish, a delicious and warming ginger-wrapped brew that rocketed me straight into December. Anomaly was also another favorite, a rich and silky dark Belgian strong ale with tremendous yeast and caramel character. I was so taken with this one that I walked away with a growler's worth. It was gone within a day. 

Monkish is a bit closer to being ready to bottle and distribute, and the head brewer claims they should be up and running in about a month or two. Naturally, I asked if collaborations were imminent with their new neighbor. They seemed to think that was certainly the case, and were excited to have the company. 


Go to Torrance, if you happen to be driving between two of the big southern cities in California, or even if your Saturdays need some variety. It's a goldmine of fantastic David breweries and should certainly be experienced, if only to gain some hipster points. 

Just remember, I liked them before you ever heard of them.

Quick Plug

Oh...! Plug for beer friends that I made at Smog City! Please check out Girls Who Like Beer for a wonderful look at one girl's LA Beer Adventures, and follow @TheHoppyBeer for another's IPA fascination.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Beer Tripping Volume 2: The Bruery

Depending on where you live, it should absolutely be a priority to dedicate a weekend to taking a trek to whatever local brewery might be around. In fact...if you dig around just a little bit, you might discover a hidden treasure that you didn't even know about. Expand your beer horizons - any brewery of a sizable scale will probably offer some sort of a tour. Worst case, there's probably a tasting room where you can get affordable pints and tasters right from the source (or at least nearby - some tasting rooms are at satellite locations that should be fairly close by).

Or, you could do what I did - work at a retail liquor store and convince local breweries that a private tour would absolutely, totally spur sales of their beers. I don't necessarily recommend it. Customer interaction is soul-crushing.

But somewhere between restocking the cold case and picking up the fractured tatters of your spirit there are occasional perks involved, like when your manager comes and mentions that he managed to secure a private tour of The Bruery, one of your favorite breweries.

The Bruery At-A-Glance
Location: Placentia, CA
Founded: 2008 by Patrick Rue
Production: Around 3000 US Barrels

The Bruery, specializing in wonderful beer and soft focus since 2008.

If you haven't procured a bottle of anything from The Bruery, I highly recommend you do - their distribution is actually incredibly impressive given the relative small-scale nature of their operation.

Founded in 2008 (by Patrick Rue - hence Bruery), the young brewery specializes in the sophisticated and elegant, taking the Belgian tradition and running away with it in a wayward but suave manner (picture a symphony orchestra running a marathon, maybe). Fiercely experimental, The Bruery uses a tremendous variety of ingredients - from Thai basil to what is essentially blueberry oatmeal - most would never consider putting near their brew pot. And their entire lineup is available only in 22 oz bottles, where their beer does much of the conditioning. That means no six packs - though they do the occasional keg.

Their year-round staples, including Hummulusan Imperial Pale Lager, and Saison Rue, a Belgian farmhouse ale, are wonderful pairing or special occasion beers, and their seasonal and occasional stuff is the stuff beer nuts totally geek out over (go ahead...mention Black Tuesday to a beer geek and watch their equivalent of a beer O-Face). You might recall 5 Golden Rings from my 12 Beers of Christmas - that was from The Bruery, and was undoubtedly one of my favorite beers of 2012. They've made so many its a challenge to keep track of them all.

The Bruery also features its own "Reserve Society" - a sort of high-class "Beer Club" that allows access to the Provision Series - a collection of "small batch beers that will only be made once." The whole thing might come off as a bit "hoity-toity" but the brewery actually manages to remain very humble and down-to-earth, which is refreshing in an age where beer-snobbery is at all time high. Falling well short of snobby, the exclusive club comes across more as, well, special, and seems to be a celebration of beer and beer sophistication more than themselves.

Featuring more aging barrels than any other craft brewery (excepting Goose Island), The Bruery is fond of aging its collection, meaning its beer does an awful lot of waiting around before it reaches you, allowing the wonderful pallet of robust flavors to fully mature (think of that terrible Cheezit commercial).


Furthermore, you might say they're leading the pack with the American wild and sour beer phenomenon that has been picking up steam as of late - Sour in the Rye, Rueze, Tart of Darkness, Sans Pagaie... if you're a Sour Seeker (and I know there's an increasing number of you out there), Bruery is absolutely one to follow.

The Super Private Awesome Tour 

It was a Tuesday, and I got to go on a field trip. The grown-up kind, where I don't have to wear a name tageand I get to drink samples of awesome beer.

The Bruery tasting room wasn't open yet, and yet three beer enthusiasts were allowed to take a seat at the bar anyway, graciously hosted by Mass Olesh, Bruery's Director of Retail Operations and all-around cool dude. We were poured a small but potent array of the Bruery's new and favorite offerings as he mused about what they were up to these days.

First up was the Saison Tonnellerie, a hoppier, slightly drier Saison with the tiniest touch of sour and brettanoymces disruption. It was positively delicious but will - alas - see only "extremely limited SoCal distribution."

Next was their Loakal Red, a year-round favorite that features well balanced Cascade hops with great oaky, caramel flavors to back it up. We also got the scoop that, while originally only available in Orange County (hence "Loakal"), this tasty beer is going to be seeing CA-wide distribution soon (if not already). After that was its older, burly brother, Imperial Loakal Red, a bully of a beer that featured an definitive "aged" flavor, with mellowed hops and a pleasant burn of alcohol. I picked up a bottle of this for myself before we left.

I was curious about what they were up to, if anything yet, with the next beer in their Christmas-themed lineup, which by lyrical organization would be Six Geese-a-Layin, so I asked what we might expect. Turns out they would, cleverly enough, be using gooseberries, and that they should be doing some test batches pretty soon. I'm excited.

The final tasting we were offered practically had beams of light and angels singing as it was placed in front me - Matt was super awesome enough to let us experience (not merely try, mind you) Chocolate Rain. To put it in perspective, there's only 138 bottles of this stuff, is going for 150 bucks online, and was only available to members of the aforementioned Preservation Society. We felt special. And Great Ninkasi was this beer special.

[Edit: It's special indeed, but as reader Zach has informed me, it's actually relatively easy to nab if you're in Bruery's Reserve Society...for a "normal" price of about 50 bucks. In the "wild" it's considerably more difficult to come by]. 
We are not worthy!

Chalking in at nearly 19% ABV, it drinks very much like a port or sherry, with a decided thickness and a bevy of flavors that hit hard and seemingly in rotation - raisin, chocolate, vanilla. It was syrupy, sweet and was born of a very simple concept - "We thought it sounded good," said Matt. Their vision is flawless. 

From there we descended from our bar stools begrudgingly (and, admittedly, with some difficulty - 19% beers will do that) and were given a taster for the tour - Humulus Rice - a draft only offering that mixed the leftover rice from Tradewinds with Hummlus for a refreshing and coconutty session beer.

From there we got a peak at a few sections that aren't featured on their regular tour - their science lab, where the beer is poked and prodded (with science), looking at all manner of important details, including ABV, yeast strain health and possible taint issues.

...and their barrel aging room (as seen above, in the previous section), where hundreds of barrels lay in wait, their labels dictating what beer is inside and which ingredients have been added. I noticed one Barrel Labeled Smoking Woood (with three o's), and demanded to know if it's a special edition of Smoking Wood. Matt claims that even brewers make typos but I remain suspicious.

From there was the most important part of the tour...the Sticker Room. Spools upon spools of the labels on the Bruery's bottles - even the obnoxiously rare ones- sat there. The design geek that I am (or 25 year old who still plays Pokemon, whichever angle you want to go with here), I simply had to have a sticker. So I giggled joyously and nabbed a Black Tuesday label. It's now on my PC tower. Score.

This was as equally, if not more, tempting as the beer itself

The tour completed at the conditioning room, where the bottled and boxed beer waits for a few extra weeks to finish developing, and one more quick stop at the bar for a taste of Mrs.Stoutfire, a delightfully named rauchbier for those of you who like em' smokey.

I can't recommend The Bruery enough, really. If you live in Southern California, please give them a visit. I can't promise that you'll get the VIP treatment that I, a modest internet beer celebrity (or, you know, retail worker) got, but it's an exceptional tasting room in its own right. And if you're not in SoCal, do yourself a favor and pick up a beer from them anyway. You won't regret it.