Brew Day at Beer Camp

The second batch...

We were back at the brewery at 8am on Friday for brew day. We actually had the option to show up at 6am to help get the first batch started but only one intrepid camper, Bruce, took advantage of that opportunity.

The pilot brewery mimics the big brewhouses, just on a smaller scale. In our case, two 10 barrel batches were going to be combined into a 20 barrel fermenter. When we arrived at quarter past eight, the first batch was being sparged. Scott Jennings immediately put us to work.

Selecting only the finest Hallertau Magnums

The first task was to run the specialty malts for batch #2 through the malt mill. This involved emptying 55lb bags of Pilsner and Munich malt into what was basically a giant vacuum that sucked the grain into the mill. After hydrating and crushing, the malt was sucked up into the mash tun.

About that same time, batch #1 was almost ready for the hops. We quickly dashed off to the hop storage room to weigh out our hops for both batches. In our meeting the previous day, we decided on two varieties of hops for the brew kettle. The first, as an homage to Sierra Nevada, was Cascade. The second was Hallertau Magnums, a variety that had special significance to Merideth and me. When we were in the Hallertau this past September we saw Magnums being harvested. It was cool to think that MAYBE hops we saw harvested in September were actually going into our brew.

Adding the second dose of hops to the brew

Once everything was weighed out and batch #2 was in the mash tun, we sat around and waited until it was time to add hops to the brew kettle.

Nuthin’ in Common was quadruple hopped with the Cascades and Magnums.  I know that sounds crazy since Miller Lite is triple hopped, but we had to up the ante.

On top of that, Sierra Nevada also employs a hopback, something we had never seen before. A hopback is a chamber that is loaded with hops. The wort passes through it before being chilled. Our brew was dosed with more Cascades and Magnums on its way to the fermenter. By mid afternoon, batch #2 was being transferred to the fermenter.

Sierra Nevada's rail spur

With  Nuthin’ in Common safely in the fermenter and the yeast pitched, it was time for a field trip to Sierra Nevada’s rail spur (think of a spur as a railroad station for rail cars). To save on grain transportation costs, Sierra Nevada built a rail spur, the first in Northern California since the 1950s, a few miles from the brewery. Instead of being trucked up from Stockton, their malt arrives on rail cars which are left at the spur.  From the spur, the malt is trucked to the brewery on a daily basis.

The just harvested barley field

A side benefit of the rail spur project was that Sierra Nevada ended up with a large piece of land to grow barley. If I remember the figure correctly, they planted 23 acres. Unfortunately, the barley was harvested the week before Beer Camp, so we missed the acres of grain waving in the breeze.

As a fan of Sierra Nevada’s estate beers, I am really looking forward to their first 100% estate harvest this coming fall; a first for the craft brewing industry.

Except for dinner at the brewery pub and hitting downtown Chico on Friday night, Beer Camp was pretty much over.  We went into Beer Camp Sierra Nevada fans. There was no need to convert us. Even so, we were impressed by what we saw and learned. It was an amazing experience. Thanks go out to all of our fellow campers and the Sierra Nevada staff that took time with us. You helped make it a memorable two days.

Nuthin' in Common is ready for the fermenter

Dry-hopping of Nuthin’ In Common began  several days after the beer went in the fermenters. For that, we chose Southern Cross, a New Zealand variety used in Sierra Nevada’s Southern Hemisphere Harvest and Hop 393, an experimental hop that was also used by a previous Beer Camp. We will be pouring Nuthin’ in Common at Ol’ Factory Cafe in Sand City, City Beer in San Francisco and Sacramento Brewing sometime this summer. We hope you come by and try it.

Our Kind of Camping

200 Barrel Brewhouse

Beer Camp… What a concept.  Sierra Nevada Brewery launched “Beer Camp” in May 2008. The idea was to invite key accounts to Northern California for an in depth look at the brewery, exposing participants to the beer, philosophy and culture of Sierra Nevada. The culmination of the two-day experience is a chance to create and brew a beer on the brewery’s 10 barrel pilot system.

Over time, the type of participant has expanded to include brewers such as Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey/Port and beer media types such as Rick Sellers of Draft magazine and ourselves.

As huge fans of Sierra Nevada, Beer Camp was something we really wanted to do. Our local Sierra rep, Quinn, had been trying to get us scheduled since last fall but the dates never worked for us. We were either traveling or the dates too closely surrounded a trip. Finally, the June 2009 dates matched our schedule and last week we headed to Chico.

Looking sex in the safety goggles...

Beer camp #8 began bright and early on Thursday morning… 8am to be exact. Meeting in a conference room lovingly referred to as the “fish bowl”, we met our fellow campers for the first time. Our group of eight was probably pretty typical of other beer camps; two were involved in retail while the other four had bars or pubs. Our host was Steve Grossman, Brewery Ambassador and brother of brewery founder Ken Grossman.

After a Sierra Nevada history lesson, it was time to put on the safety glasses in preparation for a comprehensive tour of the Sierra Nevada facility. Sierra Nevada Brewer Terrence Sullivan walked and biked us all over the sprawling maze-like facility. I think we saw pretty much everything: grain storage, grist mill, hop storage, brew kettles, tasting labs, fermentation rooms, and the bottling line. The only thing we missed was the POS storage, but stacks of beer coasters didn’t sound too exciting anyway.

We also got to view Sierra’s array of solar panels, the second largest private installation in the country. With their solar panels and fuel cells, Sierra Nevada is producing 90%+ of their own power and has even returned power to the grid several times in the last few months.

Bigfoot vertical: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009

My favorite part of Day One was our visit to the sensory lab. To help us better understand the different flavors that can be present in beer, we had a vertical tasting of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barleywine. We sampled four different Bigfoot years: 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009.  Staring with the hoppy 2009, we tasted down the years with each presenting a different set of taste sensations. 2003 was the expected prunes and raisins, but that flavor gave way to strong cherry overtones in the 2000.

The most important task of Day One was to choose the beer we were going to brew on Day Two. Right after sampling the Bigfoot vertical, we retired to our conference room to hash it out. We were threatened with a quiz if we couldn’t come to a consensus. The person with the highest score would get to decide what beer to brew. None of us had any strong feelings on what beer to make. A Double IPA was suggested, as well as, a malt liquor (I think Dave was joking, but I’m not positive). In the end, it was Steve Grossman who suggested we do a California Common and the group quickly embraced the idea. Fermenting a lager beer at ale temperatures had never been done at Sierra Nevada and we all liked the idea of making history.

It was also quickly decided that our California Common wasn’t going to be like the one from San Francisco. It was not only going to have a higher ABV, but also be aggressively hopped. At this point, Merideth made her brilliant contribution to our brew, the name: Nuthin’ in Common.

Hop 393

All that remained was to hash out the ingredients with Scott Jennings, the pilot brewery’s head brewer. We talked about the types of malts and hops we wanted to use. I think only three of our group had homebrewed before and none of us had formulated a beer recipe. Scott deftly pointed us in the right direction. Wanting a deep amber color, he suggested a combination of malts that would achieve our desired hue. Being much more interested in the hops, we made a pilgrimage down to the hop storage to get to know our hops better. The final  targets were an ABV of 6.5-7% and the IBUs around 55.

Sierra Nevada's hop field

We finished the brewery tour part of our day with a visit to the hop fields that border the eastern end of the property. Recently expanded from three to nine acres, these hops are the cornerstone of the excellent estate beers that Sierra Nevada has been producing for the last few years.

The business end of our day was over. It was off to the Sierra Nevada pub to have a few beers and dinner. The pub was crowded  with customers and employees just off work. The previous beer camp’s brew, a smoked beer made with some rye, debuted on cask that afternoon. We made it an early night because the following day was brew day.

A SLO Saturday

We decided to break from our normal weekend routine and take a little road trip down to San Luis Obispo. Lately, weekends have been about Merideth writing the book and me doing yard work. We needed a little respite.

Our early beer travels mostly involved day trips to nearby cities. We were young and didn’t have money for elaborate trips.  It’s interesting how things come full circle, except we’re not that young anymore.

SLO’s newest beer venture

We left Carmel Valley bright and early on Saturday morning and drove two and a half hours to our first stop, two-month old Creekside Brewing in San Luis Obispo. After Creekside, we planned to head back north, stopping at the string of breweries that were about 10 minutes apart.

Did you know there is a creek that runs through SLO city center? I certainly didn’t. Located a block off of downtown, Creekside Brewing sits right above San Luis Creek in a very pleasant, small-town California setting.

Creekside’s outdoor seating overlooking the creek

There is a cave-like bar downstairs, but on this beautiful Saturday, we sat on their quaint little deck that overlooks the creek and ordered a taster set.

Creekside had five beers available to try; Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, Pale Ale, Stout and a ‘Lite’ beer. Unfortunately, they were out of  IPA which, as a hophead, is my benchmark beer.

All the beers, were well done; the Stout had a nice roast to it; the Hefeweizen was very Bavarian. Even the ‘Lite’ had a bit of oomph for the usually dreaded style.

Summer weather really hit California on Saturday and it was nice to relax with a Hefeweizen and watch the world go by… at least for a hour or so.

Central Coast Brewing

A short drive brought us to our second stop in San Luis Obispo, Central Coast Brewing. It began in 1998 as a brew on premise and, like other BOPs, Central Coast altered their business model as the craze waned.

Their new model has them brewing their own beers under the Central Coast Brewing label as well as making private label brews for local restaurants. On Saturdays, you can still brew your own batch of beer.

Today’s offerings at Central Coast

The couches set in front of the bar area make the tasting room cozy. There is a nice outdoor standing area, as well. Presently, CCB can only serve taster-sized beers. However, in the future they hope to serve full pints. In the time that we were there, a steady stream of customers came through ordering tasters and purchasing bottles to go.

Beers are 5 tasters for $5 from their regular beers, with specialty beer tasters costing $2 each. We had almost nine beers to choose from with the most interesting being a Chai Cream Ale. The second chai-flavored beer we have tried in the last year, I have to say that the Stout we had at Yak & Yeti was a better complimentary style to the chai. As Merideth commented, the light body of the cream ale gave it the flavor of a holiday spiced beer. The Chai Cream Ale will be great to drink in the Fall.

In the end, we weren’t able to spend a lot of time relaxing at Central Coast because our friend JJ called. She was waiting for us at Dunbar Brewing.

Taster set at Dunbar

The newest entry on the Central Coast beer scene is Dunbar Brewing in Santa Margarita, a one road town just north of San Luis Obispo. Located in a small space behind Ancient Peak Winery’s tasting room, Dunbar could be one of the smallest breweries we have ever seen. The kit appeared to be one of those high-end homebrew set ups that I have always dreamed of having (if I ever manage to actually get back into homebrewing). Dunbar Brewing is a one-man operation and Chris was manning the bar as we entered the air-conditioned oasis.

Merideth and JJ

Joining JJ and a bevy of locals at the intimate bar, we ordered our taster set. Chris had five beers available, English Ale (a Bitter), IPA, Scotch Ale, Brown Porter and a Stout. It is always a somewhat dodgy proposition visiting a very new brewery – sometimes things aren’t quite dialed in – but Chris’ beers were quite nice.  The IPA and the Porter were the standouts.

It was great catching up with JJ. Unfortunately, the afternoon was progressing and we had one more stop to make.

Union Jack IPA with it’s 2008 GABF Gold Medal

While we have no plans of moving, if we did, it might be farther south on the Central Coast to be closer to Firestone-Walker. I am a huge fan of their beers and we just don’t get to their tasting room enough.

Besides the regular lineup of beers, there was a Hefeweizen and Lil Opal, a 3.5% session beer made from the second running of their Big Opal Wheat Wine.  Both were very tasty beers. What I really stopped for was a brewery fresh pint of Union Jack, Firestone’s 2008 GABF gold medal winning IPA. Not only did I get a pint, but I was also able to hold Matt’s gold medal.

Our SLO day was over.  A beautiful day, good beer and great people… another satisfying day of beer travel.


An Irish Easter

What an Easter treat!

Easter Sunday was a glorious day in Cork. The sun was shining and the weather warm, maybe the nicest day of the trip.

To be honest, I was a little worried about how to act on such an important religious holiday in a Catholic country. Going to a beer festival seemed a little odd and the last thing I wanted was to be branded a blasphemer on Easter Sunday.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Unlike Good Friday, which was dry, Easter Sunday was wet; very wet indeed as the following day was a bank holiday. Plus, two Heineken Cup quarterfinal rugby matches, one involving the Irish team Munster and the other Leinster, were on tap for the day. The Irish are mad rugby fans and the matches guaranteed a serious party.

It’s true!

Before we headed to the festival, we had a brewery tour. One of the breweries at the festival was the Pilot Research Brewery at University College Cork (UCC). The festival is their one public event of the year. On Saturday, Merideth met and chatted with one of the students, Alex, a PhD candidate in the program. He was kind enough to offer us a tour before the festival on Sunday. We were excited because not only could we add it to the list but we had never been to university research brewery before.

I think it is a 10 barrel brewhouse

What happens at a university research brewery you ask? They really don’t research beer. Rather they study the ingredients that make up beer. Part of the University’s Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, the brewery is a vehicle for analyzing proteins, enzymes, etc. The department has other tools, such as a bakery, where similar type research is being done. Alex went into much more detail, especially about his research, and we did our best to understand.

Chris with Alex, our tour guide.

Alex, like most of the students in the program, is from Germany. And it turns out, he worked with the hop breeder we met on our Hallertau tour in September.

As for the beer, we were able to drink a very nice lager. We also tried two versions of a non-alcoholic drink made from wort. I didn’t quite understand the process of how it was made. A soda-like drink, one was cranberry flavored and the other mandarin orange. Both were quite refreshing and delicious. As for the important question…yes, the program students get to drink their research.

Pouring a pint of Hooker

After the brewery tour, we headed back to the Franciscan Well for day two of the festival. We arrived an hour after opening and the crowd was sparse. Was the small crowd due to Easter? Not at all. Once the rugby matches ended, in which both Irish teams were victorious, the Irish streamed into the Well and the party started in earnest.

Sunday was pretty much a repeat of Saturday. We chatted with our brewer friends and ICB friends. We also met some young students at UCC who do beer reviews on Youtube. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the name of their show.

Our beer rotations were also very similar. I stuck with the Galway Hooker IPA, Carlow Druid’s Brew and White Gypsy IPA, while Merideth focused on her Chocolate Truffle Stout from the Porterhouse.

The happy beer travelers on Easter

As the hours passed and nightfall came, it was time to wrap up another chapter of our Ireland adventures. We have been traveling to the Emerald Isle and drinking Irish craft beer for a decade now. We witnessed the ups and downs, seeing breweries, good and bad, come and go. But we left the Easter Beer Festival and Cork with a good feeling. Something special is brewing in Ireland and we have been there to see it.


Celebrating Irish Craft Beer

We finally reached the culmination of our trip, the Easter Beer Festival at Cork’s brewpub, the Franciscan Well. Held on both days of Easter weekend, the fest is the best gathering of Irish brewers and beer.

A nice crowd on Easter Saturday

Ten breweries from both Ireland and Northern Ireland were set up in the Well’s expansive beer garden pouring dozens of beer ranging from Kölsch-style to Imperial Stout. In a country where beer travel can be challenging, it was nice to have most of the country’s breweries gathered in one place.

Arriving at opening time on Saturday afternoon, we were joined by several hundred fellow Irish craft beer fans in savoring the beers.

Northern Ireland was represented by Hilden

Hilden Brewery, from Northern Ireland, had a nice array of handpumps, which immediately caught my eye. I tried their beer for the first time at the beginning of the trip at the Porterhouse’s craft beer festival. I quickly zeroed in on Ireland’s Call, their St. Patrick’s Day brew. At the fest, you can order a pint or half pint. My first inclination, since it was going to be a long day, was a half. But the brewer encouraged me to get a pint and a nice pint it was.

Merideth, of course, bee-lined for her favorite Chocolate Truffle Stout from the Porterhouse. She would go through a few of them over the weekend.

There were plenty of new beers to try and try them we did. Galway Hooker’s Dark Wheat, Franciscan Well’s Phúca (a spiced Christmas Ale), and College Green’s Headless Dog were some of the brews we tasted for the first time.

Ireland’s newest brewery White Gypsy

The newest entries on the Irish craft beer scene were also on hand. White Gypsy, from Templemore in County Tipperary, debuted its beers at the Easter Festival. Started by Cuilan Loughnane, who also brews at Messrs Maguire in Dublin, White Gypsy made quite a splash with a 5.2% ABV India Pale Ale. An English IPA, the brew had quite a hop bite to it; so much so that I swore Cuilan was using American hops. He’s not.

The other newcomer debuting in Cork was Barrelhead Brewery. Based in Dublin, it is presently brewed on White Gypsy’s kit. They brought Bull Island Pale Ale, a solid debut beer. Not currently available for sale, the Pale Ale will be a great addition to the Irish beer scene when it’s available.

Ronan and Aidan of Galway Hooker

At the festival, we met up again with our friend, Beer Nut John and several other members of During the month of March, ICB conducted a poll of its members to vote for their favorite Irish beer. The results of the third annual Irish Craft Brewer Awards were announced at the festival on Saturday.

The Grand Prize winner was Galway Hooker’s Irish Pale Ale, a beer we have been enjoying and plugging for a couple of years now. A well-deserved award, congrats go out to Aidan and Ronan for their wonderful brew.

Best beer at the fest

Also awarded at the festival by ICB was Beer of the Festival, a vote in which we were able to participate. This went to Carlow Brewing’s Druid’s Brew, a ‘Velvet Irish Stout’ on cask. Only available at this festival and Great British Beer Festival, Druid’s Brew was “transcendental”, as a friend would say. Given that we are missing GBBF this year, I made sure I got my share of Druid’s Brew.

As the day evolved into night, my beer rotation became set to my favorites of the festival. Galway Hooker IPA, Carlow’s Druid’s Brew and White Gypsy’s IPA.

dumping a beer on a friend is an Irish tradition

The most humorous event of our Saturday involved Druid’s Brew, Merideth and the clothes John was wearing. I have known Merideth for 26 years and in all those years of drinking beer with her, this was a first.  As we were all chatting, Merideth suddenly had a violent twitch or something and tossed half her beer all over John. She was embarrassed and apologetic. But after the initial shock was over, we all got a good laugh out of the incident.

Dumping a good beer on a good friend is pretty much the signal to wind down an evening. We said our goodbyes and headed back to our hotel to rest up for Easter Sunday when we would do it all again.