A Tale of Brew Cities – California Brewing (Part 1, NoCal)

California is a world all its own. An economy that is the 8th largest in the world, a multicultural population of some 35 million, the same as our whole nation (or the city of Tokyo), an ideal climate and a penchant for kicking back and enjoying life. It was a great way to spend two weeks this Spring, while our northern lands slowly thawed from one of the worst winters in memory, work took me to sunny California. We started in San Jose, the gateway to Silicon Valley at the south end of the Bay.


The San Pedro Market is the center of downtown social life in San Jose, with a number of great bars and restaurants running around this large city block with a huge open courtyard hidden in the middle. By day  its fast food vendors, stand up stalls and an always changing menu of good beers. At night, the more upscale restaurants open or the more boisterous pubs for those inclined. The San Jose Square Market Bar was serving Allagash Saison (6%) from the other Portland, in Maine, a lovely, understated funky brew, refreshing and alluring, a good breakfast beer, then Lagunitas Under Cover Investigation Shut Down Ale (9.7%), a limited release, a very heady brew of character and strength. There is a story here, but I haven’t found it yet. Also on tap, Windansea Wheat Ale from Karl Strauss in San Diego, a weizen style with minimal spicing, cloudy pale yellow,refreshing with an understated, tartiness.ladShut winfsea

The Farmer’s Union is on the main drag, 30+ beers on tap, many more in bottles, great menu. Dog Fish Head 90 Minute IPA (9%) is only one of the many excellent IPAs available, alongside the ubiquitous Lagunitas IPA (6.2%) from Petaluma, a great session brew. It seems you can always find this great beer anywhere you go in California. Most of the restaurants and many of the bars close at midnight in the Market area, but a few late night places can be found that stay open late.

At O’Flaherty’s, one of the few open late places, tucked in off the main drag, where the karaoke is loud, but the beer selection is proud and they had…

Heretic Evil Cousin (8lost abbey%) from Fairfield, a pale coloured imperial IPA, hits you with hop bitterness right from the start, through the palate to the long, dry finish, good solid malt core, perfect carbonation, aggressive, yet somehow easy to drink!

Lost Abbey Judgement Day (10.5%) is a gigantic beer from San Marcos, a quadrupel in style, bonafide Belgian credentials, massive monkiness at work here, opaque brown, dried fruitiness, notes of raisin, molasses, chocolate, candi sugar, malt over hop in balance, complex, some spicy  sweetness, long and smooth.

The San Jose Bar & Grill is around the corner and up the street, more down home and game themed, this sports bar has a few things on tap. Speakeasy Prohibition Ale (6.1%) from San Francisco hits the mark, citrus hops in nose and palate, dollops of caramel malt, big American red ale aromas, yeasty, bready, looks & tastes great, carbonation to lacing.

Of course, it’s only an hour to San Francisco by Caltrain, a $20 round trip, and a day off meant pounding the sidewalks in San Fran’s hilly hoods checking out the NoCal beer scene.

gary loves AllagashCity Beer Store was a great spot to start my first, short beer trek of San Francisco. It’s a bar and a store with a large selection of bottles (some refrigerated) for take home purchase or sit at the bar and enjoy the choice of 16 taps, always rotating, there’s even some local charcuterie available to munch on. This is a place, I’m told, where many local brewers hang out to see how their new beers go down. They even have a one way mirror room where they can observe unobserved.
Epic Hopulent Nitro IPA (8.5%) beautifully creamy, hop dominated but balanced, pale gold, slight haze, fresh nose, good lacing, dry finish from Salt Lake City.
Golden Road Berliner Weisse (3.3%) nice light sour nose/palate, pale cloudy straw, lovely session LA brew, a stylcity beere I’m glad to see emerging in North America.
Russian River Damnation (7%) Gary loved this beer, on tap it’s so fresh for a Belgian strong, creamy, golden, fruity and opulent, complex but yielding, so drinkable, from Santa Rosa.
Alpine Nelson IPA (7%) recommended by Jerad, our local beer informant at the bar.
Big citric aromatics, fruity palate (tangerine), cloudy unfiltered, super balanced, bright, easy to drink, lovely brew from Alpine, CA.

Jerad also mentioned that one of the best ways to get around San Fran and visit many of the city’s beer haunts is by rapid transit, check out Beer By Bart, this website helps you in your beer hunting, listing breweries and beer bars within walking distance of stations. Jerad also sent us to our next stop, up the hill to the famous (or infamous) Toronado Pub on Haight Street, 50+ taps, including one of my perennial faves, Pliny the Elder.

Toronado hand pumpsThe pub is just about full and I don’t think it’s even 2 pm. We find a couple of seats at the bar. I was told to get here before 5 pm or I’d never get in. I can see why. It’s a tiny place with an enormous beer menu. Many diverse revelers in attendance, some with pink bunny bears (it was Good Friday), many locals and a few strangers, like us, checking out the scene. A great scene! I did have more than one Pliny the Elder (8%), a perfectly hopped rare treat to find on tap, but I also had to try one of the 4 cask ales. Moonlight Twist of Fate Bitter (5.6%) both a nod to Bob Dylan and a nostalgic look back to England, from Fulton, California, dead on British style ESB, dark amber, strong head and lacing, malty smooth with nicely paced hopping! Delicious!

churchillsThe Churchill Bar was on our way to Lucky 13, a place recommended by a local at Toronado. It’s a nice large and fairly bright room, a long bar and some street side terrace space. They sport 12 taps, and an eclectic selection at that. Even a couple of sour beers – ooh. Hermitage produced Almanac ‘Foreigners Reserve’ (7%) is aged in wine barrels, has a nice sour palate, hazy pale gold, easy to drink, cloudy, right on in the Lambic department characteristics, funky, horseblanket, tart and refreshing. Also on hand, from Belgium, Cuvée des Jacobins (5.5%) unblended, rouge, aged for 18 months in French oak, a delicately tart and sophisticated Flemish sour red, fruity and balanced.
Marin Brewing’s Mt. Tam Pale Ale (5.5%) from Larkspur, California is an award winning straight up pale ale, medium bodied, fresh and effervescent. Once again the excellent Alagash Saison (6%) makes an appearance. Very popular, seems to be on tap at a lot of places.

Just up thelucky 13 street we find Lucky 13, considered one of San Francisco’s top 5 dive bars, where we are served by a beautiful and well tatooed French Canadian barter tender, with her friendly black lab acting as bouncer. The selection is great and prices are too, $4 to $5 pints, plus happy hour. Admittedly it was getting late in the day at this point. My notes indicate a Drakes from the Ambergris Brewing Company, but that is where the notes end and my memory as well. Maybe someone was telling me about this San Pedro, Belize beer?  I believe there might have been another Pliny for me and perhaps an Allagash for Gary, but after these we stumbled out of the dark bar into the still sunny dusk, grabbed a cab and headed for the train. It was a wonderful day of beer hunting, but our time was too short in this fantastic city of great brews and bars. We never got to Cellarmaker, Monk’s Kettle or Mikkeller. Note to self, “Spend a lot more time in San Francisco in the near future!”


4Xheritage The one brewery to be found near the central area of San Jose is the Hermitage Brewing Company, although two other breweries also list the same address. Turns out that Hermitage not only brews a great line of their own beers, but is also a contract brewer for many companies including Tied House Microbrewery & Cafe, Ass Kisser Ales, Santa Clara Valley Brewing and Almanac to name but a few. It’s a bit of a walk from downtown, but not bad on a sunny day, past the university grounds and through some industrial parkland. You then find a funky little tasting room in one corner of the brewery at the back of their industrial lot address. Joel Wind was on hand on the day of our visit and was happy to give me a quick tour and explain some of the brewery’s history. The current brewery was establbarrelsished in 2009, with their attention focused on the contract brewing business and putting out their own line of beers. One of the more impressive sites in the large warehouse of the brewery are the vast number of barrels. There are red and white wine barrels, whiskey and even tequila barrels, all aging various eclectic and experimental brews for several breweries, as well as themselves.

Back in the tasting room there were 8 beers on tap and 2 casks, I was in heaven! For my first flight, Joel poured me the maltier side of their products:

hermitageJoelTied House Alpine Gold (4.5%) Straight ahead blond ale, malt forward, light palate, balanced towards easy consumption, a session ale.

Tied House Cascade Amber (5.2%) A darker gold, some aromatics, toasted malts, smooth, balanced, creamy, holds up very well in the bottled version, 650 ml bomber.

Hermitage Maltopia (9%) fruity nose, copper coloured, caramel notes, big malt base, warming, mild bitterness, somewhat hidden, long sweet malt finish.

Hermitage Ale of the 2 Tun (9%) This is a big, black stout, imperial in character, dark roasty grains, hints of chocolate, licorice, coffee, big roasted malt nose. They were also serving a cask version of this ale with cocoa nibs and ancho chillies added, small smoky aromatics, a little spice in the aftertaste,  otherwise subtly conditioned, warming, smooth with an understated sweetness balancing the chillies.amber

The next flight highlighted the hoppier tendencies of the Hermitage Brewery:

Hoptopia IPA (8%) Their flagship brew, award winning amber coloured, aromatic, bold malt, underpinned by good hop values, piney, lemony citric, 65 IBUs
Ale of the Hermit (8%) Another bold IPA, this one aged with oak chips, therefore some oaky nose and palate, slight mint, resiny, great head, good lacing, somewhat creamy, 60 IBUs.
Single Hop Series – Apollo (7%) A seasonal IPA, good hop aromatics, tropical palate, deliciously long. The cask version was basically a bigger beer, much more flavourful, great hop-malt balance, dry finish, 70 IBUs.

Ale of the Imp (8.5%) TIMG_2153his imperial brew is made with 1 pound of hops per gallon. Gary says it smells like trouble. It is pungent, piney, aggressively bitter, not for the light of heart, a very big IIPA, hazy amber colour, citric notes, grapefruit too, solid malt architecture and lots of hops, 99 IBUs.

Another great beer made here is Electric Tower India Pale Ale (7.1%) by Santa Clara Valley Brewing. A fresh brew of abundant hops, from nose to palate, a West Coast style IPA with tropical fruit notes and hints of pine, solid malt base, gold in colour, medium bodied, well balanced, deliciously long, dry finish. Managed to score a couple of bombers of these at the Beer Market to take home, yummy! Also found Simtra Triple India Pale Ale (11.25%) from the Knee Deep Brewing Company in Placer County, CA. Now this is a big brew, pouring a deep orangey gold, malt and leafy aromatics leap right out, an amazingly balanced palate, not overly bitter despite its 131 IBUs, must be the layers of malt holding up this massively fresh and complex IPA, hints of lemon, pineapple, pine, dark caramel, a creamy mouthfeel and a long finish make this an amazing find. The other bottle I have to mention is not from California, but Clown Shoes Space Cake Double IPA (9%) is another great IPA. Out of Massachusetts, this beer is right at home on the hoppy West Coast. Mosaic hops start the story, citric notes with some honey-ish overtones, pours an orange amber, foamy white head that laces thickly, sweet malt balanced against piney bitterness, grapefruit, tangerine, a layer cake of flavours and aromatics with a nice dry finish. Check out this brewery, if you ever come across their beers.

Like many American cities, San Jose is a city surrounded by other cities. Santa Clara is right there, what we might call a suburb,lil sumpin no where to red hookgo without a car, and it’s raining as we arrive, so we look for a the local liquor store for a couple of mix six packs. Unknown to me at the time, but not far away is a BevMo (Beverages & More) a great place to find deals on a wide range of products. Next time.
Still, the selection at Walmart was not bad, perennial California faves Anchor Steam and Lagunitas IPA were in abundance. Seattle’s Red Hook ESB (5.8%) in production since 1987, this is a decent ESB, though not exceptionally bitter, still goes the distance in terms of balance and flavour.
Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Ale (7.5%) a pale wheat beer with big character, fruity initially, the wheat does not seem to play a big part, underlyingly hoppy, Chinook in evidence, balanced complexity, some grapefuit, pine, pours a golden yellow, good head leaves great lacing, 64 IBUs. There was another East Coast treat on the shelves, Sam Adams Belgian Session (4.3%) a lightly spiced Belgian derivative, light in all categories actually, making this a sessionable brew certainly, no hops, some clove, apple, malt sweetness, easy to drink. I guess that’s the point. Enjoyed these in my room on a well deserved afternoon off, listening to the rain fall and planning the rest of this trip.

Another satellite city of San Jose is Cupertino, home to Apple. On a street that features different coloured Apple logos on many buildings block after block, we find BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, a chain out of Washington state brewing since 1996. This slightly upscale restaurant features 12 beers on tap, including seasonal specialties. The food was exceptional and the beers not bad…
Light Flight:
Light Switch Lageflight 1r (3.5%)  16 IBUs, light, clear, clean, effervescent, your basic swilling lager, good for the hot weather ahead.
Blonde (4.7%) 15 IBUs, crisp, clean, well carbonated, some malt, a German Kolsch in style, easy to drink, refreshing.
Hefeweizen (4.9%) 15 IBUs, Bavarian style, fresh wheaty nose, cloudy, US style though, light citrus, some lacing, no clove or banana esters, straight up and unfiltered.
Piranha Pale Ale (5.7%) 40 IBUs, basic west coast pale ale, light hop nose, good balance, malt forward, hops underneath, actually went well with my tasty spiced Moroccan salmon & couscous.

mid flightMid Flight: Hop Storm IPA (6.5%) 60 IBUs, this one was I was looking forward to, but is a huge fave of the locals and was unfortunately sold out.

Oasis Amber (4.7%) 19 IBUs, malt nose, malt dominant palate, buried hops,
Jeremiah Irish Red (7.3%) 25 IBUs 25, a good Irish red, malty, lacy, caramel notes
Nutty Brewnette (5.9%) 30 IBU 30s, chocolate notes, nutty hints, decent lacing, malty
PM Porter (6.4%) 25 IBUs, listed as a robust porter, great tan head, deep malt, some malt sweetness in nose and on palate, great lacing, coffee notes, smooth

flight 3Last flight:
Tatonka Imperial Stout (8.5%) 50 IBUs, full bodied, black malts, hidden strength, smooth, tasty, but not overly imperial, dry finish,
Goliath Imperial Red (9%) 60 IBUs, fresh hop nose with malty accents, toffee hints, smooth & balanced
Hoppy Scotsman (6.1%) 45 IBUs, sweet malt, caramel notes, hop is quite buried actually, so not sure about the name, not really very Scottish or hoppy.

Big place, interesting menu, line up out the door after dark, service was not bad, though drinks seemed to take a long time to hit the table, and there seemed to be no bussing, my 12 taster glasses were not cleared until the bill came.

If you still haven’t tried enough great craft beers from the Bay area, then don’t miss SF Uncork’d at San Francisco Airport. They had about 10 beers on tap, as well as an excellent selection of wines. 8 bucks gets you a 3 x 4oz beer flight. Okay, one last flight before my flight…
Speakeasy Witness (5.2%) a Belgian style wheat, filtered, pours golden, some haze, somewhat astringent, no noticeable spicing, pale, not very carbonated, no head, but drinkable, dry finish. This is a San Fran brewery, as is 21st Amendment.
21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA (7%) light amber in colour, slightly floral nose, good hop bSFuncork'ditterness prevails throughout the palate to a dryish finish, decent lacing, pine, grapefruit notes dancing on a good malt base, some caramel malt highlights.
Lagunitas Hairy Eyeball Ale (9.4%) Petaluma’s great brewery is everywhere, this is a dark ruby red, full bodied, raisiny nosed, malt forward brew with 56 IBUs. Some alcohol apparent, caramel notes, toasty, roasty, plums, figs, dark sugars, some sweet malt in the finish, but held in check by good hoppage.

Next stop, Los Angeles.