‘The Kerning…ing': An Amateur’s Look at the Lagunitas vs. Sierra Nevada Complaint

So are you saying all IPAs look alike?

Updated 1/14/15: Late in the evening of 1/13, Tony Magee took to Twitter to announce that Lagunitas would not continue its legal proceedings against Sierra Nevada. For whatever I thought of Magee’s tone in public statements related to the suit, I am a fan of his and Lagunitas (as well as a longtime Sierra Nevada fan) and I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness to read his statement that 1/13 was “the worst day ever in 23 years of growing my brewery.” 

Discussing the merits of the case seems moot now that it’s not going forward, but there’s a very good analysis offered here. Regardless, I think the precedent set may have been a dangerous one: as fans and enthusiasts, we simply don’t see the business aspects of the industry in rational terms. I respect Magee’s decision to drop the case (and thank him for the nice note he dropped in my Twitter account’s DM box that I can’t reply to), but hope the decision doesn’t come back to bite him later on. 

For now, we’re left to take away whatever conclusions we see fit and move on to the next thing. I wish all the best for both breweries, and encourage everyone to listen to this podcast interview with Magee from December–with his perspective on the state of the industry, and how he sees the role of breweries like Lagunitas and Sierra Nevada going forward as the industry grows. It’s worth a listen.

Now, the original post from 1/13/15/. –Nick 

————————————————

So, this happened. A quick heads up: those looking for HOT TAEKS just move along now, as this post is basically going to take many words to say what Hipster Brewfus said here (albeit in a slightly less contentious manner).

It’s easy to be cynical about the Lagunitas complaint filed against Sierra Nevada over the labeling of its new Hop Hunter IPA; there are times when it seems there is nothing beer fans enjoy more than getting pissed off at brewers/breweries/retailers/distributors/each other. Lines are drawn; sides are taken. Nothing is accomplished save for online chest-puffery and desperate attempts at getting the last word.

I’m not going to take sides; I don’t think there’s any real basis for doing so here outside of one’s own personal biases/opinions. Outside of a small group of enthusiasts, no one will likely ever hear much about this no matter the outcome; at heart, this is an ‘inside baseball’ story that is only interesting in that it represents a look into the future of a growing industry. So let’s break it down:

What We Know

For good, more in-depth analysis of the complaint, check out Brendan Palfreyman’s Twitter timeline.  I’ve had the chance to read through the complaint myself; I’m not even close to a lawyer so I’m not going to make any declarations to that end, but it is an interesting document nonetheless. Here are some takeaways:

-“When Lagunitas began selling its now iconic IPA beer in 1995, there existed only a handful of other brewers who produced an India Pale Ale, and, on information and belief, no other company had marketed or sold its India Pale Ale using the acronym ‘IPA.'” Forgetting the first half of that statement, it’s the second part that is interesting here. I was a high school freshman/sophomore in 1995, so I missed a lot of the establishment of what today are the ‘bigger’ names in so-called ‘craft’ beer. The idea of Lagunitas specifically staking a claim to something like “the acronym IPA” had never even entered my mind until this morning.

-“…Lagunitas IPA has become the Company’s flagship beer. It is available year-round and has been the top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade—and one of the best-selling India Pale Ales in the nation.” Not a lawyer alert: I don’t know what kind of legal threshold a document like this has to clear, but I’d love to see the numbers on that “top-selling India Pale Ale in California for the past decade” claim. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d just never heard any similar claim and wonder what that list looks like.

-“While other brewers have adopted the shorthand parlance of “IPA” to market their India Pale Ales, only Lagunitas is identified with the large, bold, black, centralized “IPA” lettering…In addition to its distinguishable IPA beer, much of the success of the Lagunitas IPA can be attributed to its iconic “IPA” family of trademarks.” Again, something I guess I’ve just always taken for granted given the ubiquity and history of Lagunitas in my home market, but when I think about it…I can’t argue with that.

-“Lagunitas is well-known for using its distinctive “IPA” lettering in a manner that it is the center and focal point of the overall design. The unique “IPA” lettering used in the Lagunitas “IPA” Family of Trademarks has a distinctive serif font, distinctive kerning (or letter spacing), between the “P” and the “A”, slightly aged or weathered look, with uneven areas on each of the letters, and the elimination of any periods between the letters. These elements together are unique to the iconic design of the Lagunitas IPA.” Here we have the beating heart of Lagunitas’ argument. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

-This isn’t the first time Lagunitas has shut down someone’s “IPA” label: In November 2012, Tony Magee of Lagunitas took issue with Knee Deep’s IPA label, saying it was a little too close to his own. The Knee Deep case was a little more cut-and-dry perhaps, but still–we know Lagunitas will go to bat for what it perceives as its most important symbol.

-Intellectual Property (IP) law is insane and needs reforming–Not a lawyer alert (again): As I understand it, the way things are now, if you have a trademark and there’s any chance of another company infringing upon it, you have to make a case out of it. If you don’t protect your trademarks, you leave yourself open to abuse by any number of competitors. We’ll get back to this later in terms of public perception.

What We Can Infer (aka What We’ll be Arguing About Online)

-Tony takes this stuff personally: If you’re into beer at all, you know either from hanging out on forums or by following him on Twitter just how personally Tony Magee takes his business. That bleeds into the complaint in passages like these:

“The founder and current Chief Executive Officer of Lagunitas, Tony Magee, followed a different path for the Company’s flagship beer and designed the labels to prominently feature the acronym ‘IPA.'”

“Indeed, Lagunitas has invested substantial amounts of time and millions of dollars in promoting the Lagunitas IPA with the Lagunitas “IPA” family of trademarks. Lagunitas is unique among many of its competitors in that the Company’s founder, Tony Magee, still designs the beer labels and strives to instill personality into each of the beer recipes and the corresponding labels and packaging the Company makes.” 

Magee’s been very vocal in the past about breweries encroaching on what he sees as ‘his’ turf–the American IPA. Whether he’s right to see it that way or not is, of course, a matter of perspective.

-The Hop Hunter label is a departure from the regular Sierra Nevada branding: I’d only taken a passing notice of Hop Hunter’s label when I first read about it a couple weeks ago. I was more excited by the prospect of a potentially game-changing year-round ‘Wet Hop’ IPA–I think all of us were. In Lagunitas’ complaint, however, it is noted just how much different Hop Hunter’s packaging looks compared to other Sierra Nevada IPAs:

One of these things is definitely not like the others, but does that mean anything?

In and of itself, that drew a big “who cares?” from many–myself included. What I hadn’t thought of was the similarity between Hop Hunter’s label and the Sierra Nevada ‘Beer Camp’ collaboration labels:

hmmm…

“Particularly given this reputation for collaboration with other brewers, and based upon the obvious similarities to the Lagunitas ‘IPA’ Family of Trademarks, there exists a great likelihood that consumers mistakenly will believe that the ‘Hop Hunter IPA’ is a collaboration with Lagunitas, and, thereby, sponsored or approved by Lagunitas. This creates a consumer-perceived connection between the two breweries, thus providing Sierra Nevada with a shortcut to consumer acceptance of their India Pale Ale offering.”  I’m not sure I ever would’ve seen it if they didn’t call it out, but now that you mention it…

So What Does this Mean, if Anything? 

Like I said earlier, I’m not here to take sides or blast anyone. I will say for those out there who dismiss the complaint out-of-hand because ‘they don’t look that much alike’ to look at the image up top again and bear this in mind from a retailer with over 10 years in this business: people don’t read.

I’ll say it again: people don’t read. I write a weekly newsletter letting consumers who signed up for it know what new arrivals we’re getting in our shop that week, along with a listing of what beers I’ll be sampling that weekend. With the new arrivals, I include pricing, what day the beer will arrive, and if there are any purchasing limits applicable. I then immediately start getting phone calls or email replies asking how much something costs, or if a beer is coming in that day or the next, or how many bottles they can buy, or what I’m sampling that Saturday. We’re all busy; we all don’t have the time to parse over every newsletter or offering we get in our inboxes. We see what we want to see then move along to the next thing we have to do.

A co-worker saw me looking over a story about the complaint and scoffed “Oh GOD–beer people are so bad.” Then I showed them the picture of the sixers up top and they said “You know, at first glance I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.” Substitute the average consumer at their local grocery store or independent retailer for my co-worker and you see why Tony Magee and Lagunitas filed this complaint; if there’s even a chance that a competitor’s packaging can be seen as infringing upon your trademark, you have to do something.

That said, Magee does Lagunitas no favors when he takes to Twitter to throw stuff like this out (stitched together from his timeline during the day on 1/13/15):

“Trademarks r a big part of what craft brewers do…like a cattle brand or aboriginal peeps tattoo. The 1st TM was Bass Ale’s ‘red triangle’. It represents an awful lot. It’s how u know us as individuals. Maker’s-marks were like that in medieval craft guilds. Identity is subtle biz…We TM’d our IPA as a ‘design mark’. Can’t claim the letters. 1000’s of us make IPAs. Most have found their own cool way t say it w/strength. That work is a genuine tribute to the forces of creativity present in CraftBrewing today. That voice of the individual brewer is very pure. Finding a uniquely individual voice is hard in life&even harder in design: a visual language w/o words. Archetypes. Symbols. Cypheric memes. When doin sumpin new its best to build fr the ground up. It’s time-consuming. Easier to use a sky-hook and lever up on someone else’s works. But there’s a certain cheapness to that & u don’t own the ground you stand on, cuz there is no ground. But it’s easier. And it’s cheaper. Can you imagine what would happen if I used a crown logo or a golden scroll or a red star or a red triangle or a harp on my own label?There would be hell to pay and we’d have it coming…This is a course of action I did not want to take- I tried to work w Ken (Grossman of Sierra Nevada) without succes. Deeply saddened and & I wish it was otherwise.” 

All Magee needed to say was the last sentence of that, along with something to the effect of “If you don’t protect your trademarks against EVERY perceived infringement, they mean nothing. It will be resolved in time.” For its part, Sierra Nevada released a terse statement essentially saying “We’ve been making IPAs since ’81, and put it in big letters on the label so folks know they’re getting an IPA because kidz today like teh IPAs.” (Not a knock; I actually enjoyed the brevity of the statement and suspect brevity was the point.)

These are two of the breweries that got me into beer. I’ve never had anything but great interactions with the folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with from both breweries over the years. I like to think Sierra Nevada designed Hop Hunter’s packaging to stand out in its lineup because as a new year-round beer there’s a lot riding on it (if it’s as good as I’ve heard, they’ve got a winner on their hands) and they wanted to brand it strongly, rather than specifically targeting Lagunitas IPA. I like to think Magee reached out to Grossman early enough that there was a genuine opportunity for Sierra to redo the label if it so chose, rather than spring a complaint against them and their potentially ‘game-changing’ beer at the last-minute.

As usual you’re right, Dwayne.

Fair enough. Here’s what I know: while this case isn’t interesting in-and-of itself, it merits watching because with the growth of ‘craft’, ‘crafty’, ‘artisanal’ beer or whatever you want to call it, this is far from the last time two big players have at each other–and as the business gets bigger, the fights will get uglier.

The future is bright, but it’s far from clean.

Until next time.

 

Beers of the Year 2014, Full Edition

Note: I’d written a last-minute addition for this week’s ArlNow column, but sent it in too late. Here’s the full list. –Nick 

Saving me from finding one more angle for a Christmas-themed column, I realized that the 26th will mark the last “Your Beermonger” of 2014—which means it’s once again time for my little-anticipated, completely unscientific Beers of the Year column. As always, this is a list of seven (the list is seven this year, because reasons) beers that I wouldn’t necessarily say were the “best” of 2014, but those new/new to me that I enjoyed the most and/or made the biggest impression. Ok, onto the fun:

 

  1. Abita Bourbon St. Imperial Stout: A chocolate-toned, boozy bit of decadent fun that over-delivered in every aspect. There were some criticisms that Bourbon St. was a little ‘thin’, but amid a sea of unbalanced, milkshake-y, rich for the sake of richness Imperial Stouts, even if Bourbon St. seemed light by comparison (I personally didn’t find it so) that isn’t necessarily a knock on it. In any event, Bourbon St. was an important shot across the bow of the beer world from Abita: the Louisiana brewery hasn’t been around for over 30 years by accident, and still has some tricks up its sleeve.

 

  1. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin may not be the perfect beer, but it’s certainly a perfect beer—representing the best in West Coast hop-obsession in an IPA that doesn’t overwhelm in terms of bitterness or ABV. Sculpin wants for nothing, and yet the addition of grapefruit rind does something magical to this beer. The grapefruit doesn’t necessarily make Sculpin better; it’s just more wonderful, more fun, more lighthearted. After trying Grapefruit Sculpin at Stone’s Anniversary Party this summer, I worried we’d never see it in Virginia. A late-December shipment barely qualifies as a cameo in terms of sating demand, but here’s hoping it’s just the first of many runs we’ll see of this delightful beer.

 

  1. Sixpoint Sensi Harvest: 2014 was a big year for Sixpoint; a repackaging/rebranding effort saw its core beers move from tallboy can 4-packs to 6-packs of the sleek 12oz cans previously only used for bigger beers like Resin or 3 Beans. The new Sixpoint sixers were arriving much fresher than before, which paid off in a big way when it introduced Sensi Harvest Ale. Back in October I wrote about my love for Fresh Hop and Wet Hop beers, and it didn’t take long for Sensi to become by go-to Harvest Ale. I appreciated its combination of its 4.7% ABV with an intense clarity of hop character. It’s too late to catch Sensi Harvest Ale but the current Sixpoint seasonal, Global Warmer, is highly recommended.

 

  1. Anderson Valley Blood Orange Gose: This summer’s release of Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie, The Yink, And The Holy Gose delivered an unexpected hit from the stalwart California brewery. As the summer ended, I figured that was that and we’d have to wait until next year for more—and then the brewery posted a picture of Gose cans ready to be filled, with the words “Blood Orange” added to the labeling. The Blood Orange variant of Anderson Valley Gose isn’t just a tart, light, addictively easy-drinking Session Ale; it’s become the palate-cleanser beer of choice for bottle-shares all-around. A recently-arrived batch of the standard Gose has ignited hopes that one or both beers may go year-round; we can only hope.

 

  1. Three Brothers Drift: I only had a couple of issues with Drift: one was that it was labeled as a “Session IPA”, and at 5% ABV it was neither. The much bigger issue I had was that it was only produced for a few months—immediately after trying it for the first time back in July, I emailed Adam Shifflett of Three Brothers to shamelessly plead for it to become a year-round offering. There wasn’t a better Pale Ale introduced in our market this year than Drift. Easy-going and balanced, but not with so much malt as to diminish its bright hop character, Drift became a regular tenant in my refrigerator along with many of my customers. The Harrisonburg-based brewery did extent the production run of Drift into early fall, but Drift won’t be year-round just yet. Look for some last (still tasty) 4-packs on shelves now, or when it returns this summer.

 

  1. The Bruery Black Tuesday (2014): Here’s where I admit to the arbitrary nature of my Beers of the Year list: Black Tuesday is exactly the kind of over-the-top, ultra-boozy Stout I was talking about when writing about Abita’s Bourbon St. above. Also, were this purely a “Best Beers of the Year” list, Black Tuesday would have been my number one pick in a landslide. The formula is deceptively simple: Black Tuesday is a Bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout, released on the last Tuesday of October every year. The reality, as it is so often with beers from The Bruery, is something else entirely: varying between 18-19.7% ABV in different vintages, Black Tuesday showcases a depth of flavor rather than overwhelming the palate. It has a balanced structure (as much as a beer can and still hover just beneath 20% ABV, anyway) rather than burdening the tongue with sweetness or alcoholic heat. Every element, from the chocolate and roasty notes in the malts to the spicy Bourbon tones, is layered just so—if the overall impression of the beer weren’t so massive, I’d dare call it harmonious. TL; DR—sometimes the hype is real. This was one of those times.

 

  1. Hardywood Pils: I tried, and greatly enjoyed, the draft-only Bohemian Pilsner Hardywood released this past summer. I was slightly dismayed when word got out that the Richmond brewery would be opting to bottle a German-style Pilsner instead to add to its year-round offerings, but I should have known better. To a beer, Hardywood’s offerings have been impeccably crafted, and Pils is no exception. In fact, I think in some ways Pils may prove to be Hardywood’s most important beer in years to come. The hype surrounding its Gingerbread Stout (and subsequent variants) may have gotten people to line up in droves for limited draft pours and bottle sales, but quietly Pils has become one of my best-selling beers in a very short period of time. Hardywood Pils is everything you want from a German-style Pilsner: refreshingly crisp, flavorful, drier than the Czech-styles on the market, and at 5.2% ABV it’s not overbearing while avoiding coming across as too light. It’s become a go-to beer with a constant presence in my refrigerator; an excellent interpretation of an Old World style that any of my friends can grab a bottle of, understand, and enjoy—distinctly American but with respect for the traditions of the style. Call the segment of the market we work or share an interest in “craft” beer, or “artisan”, or “small” or “independent”—whatever it is, we need more beers like Hardywood Pils to bring more folks into the fold. If you don’t love Lager, you don’t love beer: Hardywood Pils is a great Lager.

 

Honorable Mentions: Hardywood RVA IPA; LoverBeer Nebulin-a; Ninkasi Tricerahops; Stone Enjoy By IPA (all of them, I don’t care if you thought the February batch wasn’t as good as the April but better than July—they’re all good); Parkway Majestic Mullet Kolsch; Port City Ways & Means; Mikkeller Better Half IPA; Devils Backbone Wood-Aged Kilt Flasher; Stillwater/Westbrook Gose Gone Wild; The Alchemist Focal Banger; Stone Coffee Milk Stout; Robinson’s The Trooper; The Bruery Atomic Kangarue, and too many others to list.

 

The joy of being a beer geek is being able to try new things, and discover a new appreciation for the art of brewing. I hope, in some small way, that I’ve been able to contribute to your beer geekery this year, and look forward to better year ahead in 2015. Have a wonderful New Year’s. Until next time.

Changing Tastes: A Quick Reasoning of Why ZZ Top is the Best ‘Band’ Ever

If you’d asked me when I was 10, I’d have said the Stones; at 13 it was Primus (for a long time it was Primus). I can (and probably have) made arguments for Led Zepplin, The Beatles, The Who, Van Halen, Motorhead, Metallica, and many more. But right now, if you asked me who the best band of all time is, I’d say ZZ Top.

What?

Let me put it this way: there are bands that have more artistic merit. There are bands that are more technically talented. But at this point in my life, I’m a full-on boring-ass grown up and I know what a band’s job is–you hire a band as entertainment for your bar/club/roadhouse. You hire a band to get people to dance, and drink, and drink more, and dance, and make questionable ‘relationship’ decisions after a sufficient number of drinks.

Go listen to a few ZZ Top records–go on, just let ‘em play through. Is there any other band you’d hire over them? Van Halen gets close; Aerosmith has it’s moments. Mick’s obsession with being taken as an artist dragged the Stones too far away too many times, otherwise they’d be a shoo-in. ZZ Top swings; they’re understated until they’re not (the end of Nationwide is pure badassery). They can provide the soundtrack for a whole evening of stiff drinks and bad decisions. You can’t do that. If  could do that, I’d have never ended up working in wine/beer stores. It’s a gift.

Best band ever. Until I realize someone else is.

 

ArlNow Column 10.17.14. Supplemental

Song of the Week: Born to Hula, Queens of the Stone Age. Just ’cause.

A quick post today, with some additional thoughts related to my ArlNow column as I’ve instituted a word count on myself there…

“What came out was, frankly, depressing; no one here wants to read about me being a sad panda.” I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated the first pass at this week’s column. It wasn’t so much bad as it was unfocused; a total slog to get through reading. Also, by the time I was done I realized what I’d written wasn’t really how I felt about the matter–a valuable lesson for the writers out there: recognize when you’re onto something and when you’re just getting your thoughts sorted out.

“More people with less experience in and knowledge of the industry, and of beer itself are going to be weighing in.” From local morning shows to mainstream websites/magazines, you’ll be seeing lots of “Hey, look–there’s more than just Bud Light out there!” kind of bullshit over the next few years. Set your Hack Filter to ‘Kill’.

“…it’s about good beer made by good people who give a damn.” That’s not to say that there aren’t good beers being made at the ‘macro’ level, or that there aren’t highly-skilled, wonderful people making them. Of course there are. Word count demand cut the qualifier; I just wish I didn’t have to feel like I had to do one at all.

“There’s no point in getting worked up about the opinions and speculation of people who weren’t with beer as it was starting out, and won’t stick around when/if the industry ever hits a slide..”  I do want to expand on this a bit. I didn’t mean this as a dig on Chang–as I say earlier in the column, he’s not ignorant of the ‘craft’ beer scene, only expressing his own personal opinion. That line is more about the coming wave of media coverage the beer industry is going to be caught up in.

As beer geeks, we’re gonna have to be a bit more selective over what we get worked up about. There’s gonna be a lot of misinformed articles, TV features, etc., but it’s important to bear in mind that most of it will be essentially harmless. The fact that we’ve all spent the week going back-and-forth about the personal opinion of one chef rather than refocusing on the inevitable AB/InBev/SABMiller merger with the Times weighing in is troubling to me. Like I said on Twitter, there are real issues that can/will impact the growing ‘craft’/independent beer industry; celebrity chefs liking Bud Light ain’t one of them.

Though if you’re looking for someone to do the ‘takedown’ piece, Garrett Oliver pretty much nails it here. There’s a reason I really like that guy. Also, Jeppe from Evil Twin has a great ‘rebuttal’ on his Tumblr.

Next week: I (most likely) dig into my cellar a bit, and get to try my first batch of homebrew!

California Love, Part 3: The Good, The Bad, & The Hoppy

Yeah, that’s one from the ol’ wayback machine there. Nice.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve recapped visits to two Southern California breweries–Stone and The Bruery–that I made during my recent vacation. Today, to wrap everything up in a nice little bow, I’d like to talk about some of the things I noticed during my too-brief stay out West:

Good–L.A.’s beer scene: I expected to find all kinds of good beer in San Diego, and was not disappointed. What did surprise me was how many breweries are up and running in L.A. itself. During an afternoon trip to the beach at Santa Monica, my wife and I ducked into The Commons Ale House, a small beer bar just off the beach focusing on craft beer with some great local options on tap. Over games of Connect Four, we got to try Angel City‘s Eureaka! Wit (4.9% and made with Nelson Sauvin? Yes, please!) and El Segundo Brewery‘s Blue House Mosaic Pale Ale. El Segundo makes a handful of Blue House Pales featuring different hops. I noticed some Blue House Citra at a Whole Foods near my friend’s house later on in the week, along with a number of other L.A.-based brewery selections. Reading a Brewing News-style periodical about the L.A. beer scene, it appears that there are more breweries are coming online across the city; always a good sign.

Bad–Hop-centric, sometimes to a fault: What I found in SoCal was a dearth of the Lagers, non-hoppy Ales (Kolsch-style, Golden Ales, etc.), Wheat Beers, and mild Belgian styles that are more readily found here on the East Coast. For the most part, I was fine with this–I got into beer as a hophead, and I’m always going to be one. For people like my wife, the emphasis on big hops in nearly everything being put out by craft brewers can be tough to deal with.

My wife, you see, is not a fan of particularly bitter hoppy beers. Over the 10 years we’ve been together, she’s tried more beers than most people in the industry, and she has a great palate–she knows what she likes, and knows what she doesn’t. Too often in California we’d look through a menu at beer lists and there just wouldn’t be much of anything that she could get into.

Good–That may be changing? All that said, I did see some signs that things might be shifting a bit on the West Coast. The aforementioned Angel City Brewery offers their Wit year-round, along with a year-round Pilsner, and seasonals like a Wheat Ale and Oktoberfest. Modern Times offers a Saison and Coffee Stout that, while relatively hoppy for their styles by the numbers (30 and 40 IBU, respectively), aren’t overly aggressive. AleSmith‘s Anvil ESB was a beer we both loved. Even during our Stone visit, my wife found herself enjoying Go-To IPA (no bittering hops; all aroma) and loved the limited-release Sprocketbier from earlier this year. I got to snag a sixer of Firestone Oaktoberfest and was impressed; hopefully production is boosted enough for next year that we see a little on the East Coast.

Good–If you do like hops, though… Oh man, is it fun being a hophead in California. The night we landed, my friend and I went on a BevMo run to stock up his fridge a bit. I decided to buy some ChronicAle from Port Brewing. I’m a fan of Port and hadn’t tried this one before. ChronicAle is a hoppy Session Amber Ale, clocking in at 4.9%, and comes in six-packs of tallboy cans. How cool is that? Also, those sixers of tallboys cost $9.99 at BevMo–this was the first of many moments where I contemplated staying in L.A., and never coming back. Also found and enjoyed while in California: Firestone 805 (in six-pack bottles and 12-pack cans), AleSmith IPA and Pale Ale 394, Stone Bastard In The Rye, Beechwood Alpha Master, Ritual Single Rye IPA…there’s a lot of great beer in SoCal, y’all.

Good (though bad for my waistline)–The four main food groups: Doughnuts, burgers, shakes, and tacos. They’re all everywhere, and of such quality that it’s hard to pass them up. The doughnuts especially; I had no idea that doughnuts were a thing out there, but they are. There’s an outstanding doughnuts shop a couple blocks from my friend’s house–every morning, we found an excuse to stop in for buttermilk doughnuts with maple icing, cronuts (I had to try one–delicious, but in a way that’s a little too much), Thai iced tea, and simple old-school glazed doughnuts that were so good but I can’t explain why–they just were.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

About a mile from where we were staying. Had to.

On the way back from our visit to The Bruery, we stopped at a King Taco location in East L.A., where we destroyed a copious amount of great lengua tacos, sopes, and there was a burrito somewhere in there too (my friend, I think). The fresh cilantro, perfectly done beef tongue, hot sauce, and open-air seating made for one of my favorite L.A. meals.

Put it this way: this was the first vacation I’ve ever gone on that I’ve gained weight during.

Overall, I found many more good than bad things about SoCal. There’s a lot to love (especially the changes of scenery available with a minimum of driving time), but more than anything else I can’t wait to go back. We had a sort of whirlwind tour of the area, barely scratching the surface. I can’t even begin to think about questions like ‘Could I live out there?’–though I am curious. I think I might be able to: it’s not so different from the DC area in that the trick is in finding the part of town that works best for you. I would miss Southern food terribly…

…it would be nice to live in a place like that, though. It’s expansive and mysterious to me. I don’t know L.A. in the slightest: I liked what I saw, thought, and I’m intrigued.

I say stuff like this every time I come back from anywhere else, it seems. Even I’m annoyed with myself at this point. I’ve been thinking a lot about my life lately–what I should be doing, what I might want to do, where I want to live, what’s important to me. Basically, what the hell am I doing with my life?

My wife and I both have obligations that have us tied to the DC Area for the foreseeable future, so even if we found a place we’d want to move to, we wouldn’t be doing it any time soon. I think I keep using the idea of moving to another area as a way to daydream about what I could  be doing, instead of trying to do that here. Instead of having the difficult conversations with myself to figure out exactly what it is I want to be/should be doing.

It’s very early on Friday, September 12th. I am watching a collection of footage from the September 11th, 2001 attacks. It’s a day I remember vividly, but I always watch some of the news reports from that day every year. I don’t know why. A reporter talks as people scramble; in the background is the sound–what I understand to be the sound of sirens of vehicles that were crushed in the collapse–that I’ll never forget. My dog is laying on the floor; he opens his eyes alertly when he hears it, having been drifting in and out of sleep. He was born more than a decade after all of this; he doesn’t know what the sound is.

On 9/11 I was 21 years old. I had recently gone through a break up that would mess with me for some time to come. I sold guitars by day and occasionally played them at night, and had taken to quitting my job every few months when the bullshit of the place got to me. It would be about 4 years before I even took my first job in a wine shop.

I was just beginning to sort myself out back then; but when I think of those days now I look through the lens of the maxim “Do what makes you happy.” Back then I was happy when I was playing–and with one person in particular. No matter the project, or the circumstance, there was a guy who always made it worthwhile for me, who allowed me to be happy. We made no money, and a lot of the time I spent in the band I was in back then was chock full of unnecessary bullshit, but it was all a means to an end, and being on stage led to meaningful moments.

That they were meaningful only to me is irrelevant now; what is relevant is that I’ve rarely felt that sense of meaning since. I love what I do, and it’s amazing to have been witness to so much growth in the industry I’m a part of. But I’m turning 35. I hobble when I get out of bed in the morning. I don’t know what it is I’m working toward, but I know the path I’m on right now isn’t getting me there. I like where I work; I like the people I work with; I love my customers; and I love the spectrum of breweries and beers I get to support in the position I have.

I work in beer. I’m not trying to change the world–frankly, with my family history, it’s probably for the best for me not to try to change the world. I’ve been looking for the sense of purpose, of meaning: I get some of it from the writing work I do, but it’s fleeting–supplementary income on a subject I enjoy. I’ve been looking for BIG meaning, where instead I just need to remember I was just as happy with those moments doing things that only held meaning for me and a handful of others, at most. I’m looking for what’s next; I’m looking for the point. And it’s so much easier to imagine all the things I could do somewhere else when really I’d just be having the same struggle in a new setting. Most days, I’d say that’s enough of a change to be worth it–but it’s not. It’s not even close.

I’ve been doing my job and trying sort it out, just like I imagine most of you all are, and I’ll continue to do my job the best I can. As I do, I’ll continue visiting new places, and maybe I’ll pass through the right place at the right time and it’ll all come together. Maybe not. I wish I had a conclusion; some kind of epiphany that would make all of my typing a little more relevant. But I don’t.

L.A. was cool; as were Palm Springs and San Diego. I don’t know if any of them are the place for my wife and I. For certain, you can expect me to make at least a few more visits–for research, of course. Until then, we keep going. Best of luck to you all.

Until next time.

 

 

 

California Love Part 2: A Visit to The Bruery

Yeah, we’re just gonna keep with the theme here.

 

Last week I recapped the first weekend of my recent Southern California vacation, which included a trip to San Diego County for Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party and a tour of the brewery itself, along with a great lunch experience at the Stone Bistro and World Gardens. This week I’d like to tell you about the other brewery visit I had while I was staying in Los Angeles—to The Bruery, in Placentia.

Depending on where you’re staying in L.A., you can get to The Bruery’s Orange County location within an hour or two (I was staying near LAX, and the drive took about 50 minutes in late-morning traffic), though with the tasting room opening later in the afternoon most days travel time is subject to the whims of the freeway gods. I mention the tasting room hours because tours of The Bruery are currently on hold; I was lucky enough to be shown around thanks to The Bruery’s Virginia distributor setting me up with Jonas Nemura, Senior Director of Operations and Distribution for The Bruery.

As I mentioned last week, most brewery tours are fairly similar experiences, but what fascinated me at The Bruery was how different their approach was compared to Stone. Both breweries aim for world-class quality and expression of style in their beers, but for all of its experimentation Stone is much more in the ‘traditional’ mold—around half of the production at Stone’s Escondido brewery is dedicated to their IPA, which is their flagship beer. Not only does The Bruery not have a flagship beer, but when one of their recipes began to show signs of becoming a flagship, they stopped making it—such is their dedication to an ever-changing lineup with an emphasis on trying new things and being on the experimental edge of the beer industry (there’s a reason I called The Bruery “fearless” when I wrote a short profile on them back in 2012).

Even as someone who works in the business with an appreciation for what The Bruery does, it can be jarring to hear a business plan that so diverges from the norm. The thing is, it’s working: when I visited, The Bruery was working on yet another expansion, gobbling up even more of the warehouse-like storefronts its complex occupies. In six short years, The Bruery has become a name known to beer lovers worldwide—one synonymous with boldly-flavored, cutting-edge Belgian-style, Sour, and barrel-aged beers. A special treat during our tour of The Bruery was a stop in its barrel-aging warehouse. We were led to a nondescript office building a block away from the main facility, and upon entering the combined aromas of oak, bourbon, and other assorted barrel varieties smacked us in the face. Walking into the warehouse itself was like entering a real-life treasure trove: somewhere between 10-12,000 square feet of space with rack upon rack of wooden barrels. It was like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—except for beer.

Can't lie; it moved.

Can’t lie; it moved.

Mind you, none of these contain The Bruery’s vaunted Sour Ales—those are created and aged in a different facility about three miles away. Part of The Bruery’s evolution involved moving Sour/Wild Ale production; fresh wort is even trucked over to the ‘Sour house’ (my phrase, not theirs) so all fermentation involving Brettanomyces and The Bruery’s souring bacteria can take place away from the regular production line, all part of an effort that should help avoid some of the cross-contamination issues that have occurred with a handful of beers in the past.

I recommend going in a small group like I did (my wife and best friend came with me); The Bruery’s approach is one that involves a lot of styles that aren’t for everyone, occasionally delving into ‘extreme’ beer territory. Unlike other breweries that forge their own path however, The Bruery’s wide-ranging lineup is welcoming to all palates, truly offering something for everyone to enjoy. My best friend is not a Sour Ale fan, and my wife is not into aggressively hoppy beers; all three of us found brews that we enjoyed at the tasting room. Because of the spectrum of beers The Bruery offers, telling your server that you’re not a fan of a particular beer won’t elicit any of the exasperated sighing or beer geeksplaining from the crew there that you might in other places; just suggestions on what you might enjoy trying next.

Much taps; many tastings; wow.

Much taps; many tastings; wow.

And there’s almost always something to try next. A visit to The Bruery’s tasting room involves grabbing a piece of paper and selecting a handful of beers to try (in two-ounce sampler glasses) for a flight—kind of like a sushi place. Once again, thanks to the kindness of Jonas and the crew at The Bruery, we were allowed more than the five samples that come with the typical flight, and we allowed access to beers typically reserved for members of their Preservation Society and Reserve Society.

What I took away from both of my brewery visits was a renewed sense of optimism for the future of beer: as different as Stone and The Bruery are from each other, there is no sense of competition there—no accusations of one or the other doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Both breweries are striving to elevate the standards of the art; both want to use the best ingredients possible to make the best beer possible. Both approaches work for both breweries, as well as their fans. If you can, I highly encourage visiting both.

Now, the tasting notes!!!!!!

Loakal Red: This was the lone unanimously loved beer among the three of us. A nod to the mostly hop-driven SoCal beer scene, Loakal Red is a hoppy Amber Ale that wisely sees a quarter of the beer aged in oak before being blended into the final beer. That oak-aged bit is enough to take some edge off the bitterness of the hops, allowing anyone with a taste for beer to get into it. I think there’s a chance we may see this on the East Coast at some point, but The Bruery wouldn’t clue me into that one way or the other.

Shegoat: A riff on German Weizenbock done in a manner only Bruery head Patrick Rue could come up with. Nothing insane happening here; just loads of sweet caramel malts and a ton of old-school banana-like Hefe yeast notes. The result is more Doppelbock than Weizenbock in feel, and is kinda banana bready. Delicious.

Sour In The Rye (w/Pineapple & Coconut): SITR is one of my favorite beers, period–so I jump at any opportunity to try a variant. Predictably, I loved the pineapple and was ‘meh’ on the coconut–but then, I love pineapple and am kinda ‘meh’ on coconut so that makes sense. Still, and overall excellent beer that I’d punch your mom in the face for a bottle of.

Tart Of Darkness (w/Vanilla Bean & Cacao): The combination of being from the 2013 batch of TOD along with the boldness of the vanilla and cacao made this version come off a lot rounder, less intensely acidic than others I’ve had in the past. The bourbon barrel felt a bit more prominent here too, but the vanilla may draw that out more. Very nice.

Atomic Kangarue: This is an insane Reserve Society offering that my wife and I both fell in love with. What’s so insane, you ask? Well, here’s a rundown of what Atomic Kangarue is: “A Belgian-style golden ale, brewed with Semillon and Viognier grapes plus three types of hops, fermented with Brettanomyces Trois as well as our house yeast strain, then blended with a sour blonde ale and finally dry-hopped with Amarillo hops (credit).” I mean, who does that? Madness. IN any event, this was so damn good  and basically steeled my resolve to get into the Reserve (and eventually the Hoarders) Society. Amazing, complex, floral, fruity, acidic yet fleshy on the palate–seriously, track this down.

White Chocolate: I tried White Chocolate for the first time in 2013, at a bottle share. I never would’ve guessed that I’d love a cacao-infused Wheat Wine this much, but it really is something special. Yes, it’s sweet, but there’s a hint of balance in White Chocolate (not to mention enough alcoholic heat) to keep it from going too far.

Oude Tart (w/Plums): I’ll put Oude Tart up against just about any Flemish Red made in the U.S. right now, and the fruit-addition versions (there’s also an Oude Tart with cherries) are really special. Oude Tart spends 18 months in wine barrels, so there’s already a vinous, fruity character in it that plays wonderfully with the plums.

Dad’s Infidelity: A wine barrel-fermented Saison with two Brett strains and blackberries. Delightfully floral wild yeast notes; just enough berry flavor–I want more of this in my life.

BeRazzled: The Bruery does Framboise. BeRazzled pours a color you’d expect from cough syrup, but if you’ve ever had their Gueuze-style Rueuze, you’d know that the sharp acidity of that base beer would cut well through a big fruit addition–and it does just that.

Soroboruo: A Sour Wee Heavy (!) with heather tips. The sour is mild in this one, which is as it should be–with the heather involved and considering the Wee Heavy style, any more sour would’ve been too much. It was a bit much for my friend, who is admittedly not a Sour fan, but it was a nice experience for him nonetheless.

Smoking Wood (Bourbon Barrel-Aged): I LOVE Smoking Wood; a 13% ABV smoked Rye malt Imperial Porter usually aged on Rye Whiskey barrels. This Bourbon barrel version struck me a bit more approachable than the Rye–less Islay Scotch-y. You can find some bottles in the NoVA are right now; recommended.

Sucre (Tawny Port Barrel-Aged): I had this one at the Stone Anniversary Party. The Tawny Port barrels bump ABV to 15.1% in this version of The Bruery’s 6th Anniversary Ale. Essentially an Old Ale done through a Solera system (with previous year’s versions blended into the next year’s), Sucre is a natural fit for fortified wine barrel-aging. Nutty, with a bit of extra sweetness and a subtle raisiny note. Delightful.   

Next week: wrapping up with an East Coast perspective of the California beer scene—the good, the bad, and the hoppy (which can alternately be good and bad). See you then!

California Love (Part 1)

Yeah, that’s how we’re starting this week.

I just got back from a vacation visiting my best friend in Los Angeles. Our trip just happened (I swear this is true) to coincide with Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party–my friend’s brother lives near Stone’s location in the Northern part of San Diego County, and we were thinking about going to see the brewery and its vaunted World Bistro and Gardens anyway, so we decided to just go for it.

Rather than simply open the Bistro and have a celebration of all things Stone and only Stone, the Anniversary Party is basically an all-day beer festival split into two sessions; one earlier in the afternoon and one later. Some sixty breweries were featured, with well over 100 beers available for sampling. Tickets weren’t exactly cheap ($45—and yes, I paid for them), but the price ensured a crowd of die-hard craft beer enthusiasts. The crowd was as big as you’d expect considering Stone’s popularity, but not so big that I had any difficulty getting around the San Marcos campus of California State University, where the Party was held. Also, I should compliment everyone involved in setting up and running the Anniversary Party; I can’t remember ever attending such a well-organized beer fest, completely lacking in the B.S. that usually makes me avoid beer fests.

Make no mistake, though: it was a big crowd, and some breweries attracted a lot of attention.

IMG_2061

This was the line to sample what The Bruery brought (their tent is the one straight ahead in the picture)

And the line for Russian River sampling was twice as long, but the pourers worked efficiently and lines progressed smoothly. Overall, very well done.

After the Anniversary Party on Saturday, we were treated to spots in a tour of the Stone brewery on Sunday, along with reservations at the Bistro (those I’ll thank Stone for). The brewery tour itself is…well, it’s a brewery tour—they’re all fairly similar:

“These are tanks!”

“These are tanks!”

 

"MOAR TANKS"

“MOAR TANKS”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

I always enjoy brewery tours though, and at Stone I appreciated not only our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, but the carefully selected samples poured for those on the tour immediately afterwards in the Stone Company Store. Not to mention the well-stocked refrigerator (note the presence of 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, 14th Anniversary Emperial IPA, the new 18th Anniversary Golden Brown IPA, Enjoy By 9.20.14., sixers of Coffee Milk Stout, and not pictured are the bottles of Bastard In The Rye that I couldn’t stop myself from snagging one of):

"Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT."

“Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT.”

There were a couple noteworthy items during the tour: The first, on the heels of my last ArlNow.com column (about the issues California breweries are having with the state’s ongoing drought) was that Escondido—the North County area in San Diego where Stone is located—was under a boil alert the weekend we were there. Testing that Friday the 15th showed the presence of coliform bacteria, so the first thing we saw when parking at Stone on Sunday was a very large truck outside pumping clean water in. By Monday the 18th, the alert had been lifted for all but around 60 of the reported 6,300 water customers in Escondido. While this issue in Escondido wasn’t drought-related, it was interesting to see how an operation their size had to scramble to handle a temporary water emergency.

The other thing that came up on our tour was the news, released the day before the Anniversary Party, that Stone has narrowed the potential locations for its East Coast brewery to three finalist cities: Richmond, Norfolk, and…Columbus, Ohio? Ok, then—I’m still rooting for Virginia to get the nod (and rumors are flying about large spaces in both Virginia cities that could potentially work for Stone), and it sounds like we won’t have to wait much longer to find out for sure.

 

The Bistro

The Bistro

The Bistro is everything you’ve heard about it: a bit pricey but the food is delicious, with carefully chosen ingredients prepared very well. The draft and bottle beer lists are exceptional, featuring more than a few Bistro exclusives by Stone, along with cool unexpected Belgian selections and brews from Evil Twin and Mikkeller. My advice if you’re visiting? Grab a snack and a couple pints and enjoy a walk around the lovely outdoor area; I can imagine that as a really nice way to spend an afternoon.

Getting back to the Stone 18th Anniversary Party, here are some highlights from the beers I tasted there:

Stone Brewing Company stuff: Of course, there were a lot of Stone beers at the Party. I started the day with their 18th Anniversary Ale, which is just arriving in Virginia this week. A ‘Golden Brown IPA’, the malts make a nice counterpoint to the all El Dorado-hopped IPA. I’m partial to El Dorado right now; it always brings a nice, minty feel of freshness and a restrained amount of the citrusy/piney hop character that can be overdone in too many beers. Something I didn’t expect to see was Enjoy By 9.20.14., but it’s always appreciated. This batch won’t be hitting Virginia or DC, but if you need your fix it is available in Maryland. One I’d never heard of was Tiger Cub, a Saison in this case aged in white wine barrels with sour cherries. As you’d expect, opinions varied but I thought it was lovely. The new Coffee Milk Stout was great; not too strong, not overtly sweet, and if the six-packs ever get out here I’ll be stocking up on it for sure. My wife didn’t like the recently released W00tstout 2.0 as much as last year’s, but I found it to be just as punchy, rich, and enjoyable as before.

4 Hands Prussia Passion Fruit: I’d heard next to nothing about St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing before going to San Diego, but now I’m obsessed and it’s solely because of this Berlinerweisse with passion fruit added to it. It’s 3.5% ABV, tart as all get out, and the passion fruit just worked so well in the style. I must have it.

Russian River Compunction: Sure, most folks were waiting in the absurd Russian River line for Pliny The Elder, but many of us were intrigued by Compunction, a Sour Ale of theirs that I personally wasn’t familiar with at all. Turns out to be a Sour Blonde with pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid). I was looking for more fruit character, but Compunction does not disappoint—it’s a Russian River Sour, after all.

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin is about as perfectly-made as West Coast IPAs get; this variant with grapefruit added is just a little more perfect. If we don’t get bottles (or cans? Please?) of this in Virginia it’ll be a travesty. Ok, that’s a bit strong, but I really would like to have some to sell. In the meantime, I’ve heard of bottles popping up in DC, so keep an eye out.

The Lost Abbey Fuzzy Angel’s Share: I’ve only had Angel’s Share once or twice, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but this was wonderful. This version of Angel’s Share was made especially for the 18th Anniversary Party, adding black tea and stone fruit to the 12.5% ABV Brandy-barrel Strong Ale. Heady (especially as it was my last beer of the party), but so complex and just packed with flavor.

Modern Times Black House: Tasty Oatmeal Stout, under 6% ABV, in a can? Yes, please. Clean, smooth on the palate, delightful beer.

Beechwood Alpha Master Pale Ale: “Simcoe, Centennial, and Columbus hops in the kettle. It’s then generously dry hopped for two weeks with Simcoe and Centennial…” yeah yeah yeah, I know, another over-hopped West Coast beer–but wait. This is a 5.6% ABV Pale Ale, clocking in at 80 IBU but not enamel-shredding by nature. The kind of beer I wish more West Coast breweries aimed to make (more on that in a couple weeks).

Port Brewing ChronicAle: This wasn’t at the Anniversary Party (at least I didn’t see it there), but I picked this up the night we landed in L.A. during a BevMo run. ChronicAle, in its canned form, is a 4.9% ABV hoppy Amber Ale that can function as a hoppy Session Beer. The malt works really well here, shouldering the burden of the hops to carry the beer, and adding to the ‘Sessionable’ feel. The best part? ChronicAle comes in six-packs of tallboys, and cost $9.99 at BevMo. This was the first moment I thought to myself “Nick, have we landed in The Promised Land? Yes, Other Nick, we sure have.”

More travelogue next week, along with an awesome visit to The Bruery. See you then!