Snapshot – Beer Styles

The BAY AREA and BEER STYLE INNOVATION

San Francisco is America’s first craft brewing region. Craft beer—along with its runaway international hit, American IPA—was born of the Bay Area’s spirit of innovation

anchor_liberty-ale-lab_fmt Access to the unique century-old amber Steam beer, itself spawned by California ingenuity, motivated Fritz Maytag’s impromptu purchase of SF’s Anchor Brewing Co. in 1965. Ten years later, his breakaway Anchor Liberty Ale—the crisp, dry-hopped ale that foreshadowed the modern American IPA—created a flavor benchmark for the growing ranks of underground homebrewers, when the hobby was still illegal. Liberty Ale, inspired by a British IPA but not labeled as such, departed from tradition by using a new American hop called Cascade.

Next the short-lived New Albion Brewing Co. and, soon after, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. would embrace that Cascade flavor and aroma, tinkering to create the iconic American Pale Ale style. By the early 1990s, a handful of microbreweries began formulating stronger versions of hoppy Pales—distinctly American IPAs.

And then they took it higher. Vinnie Cilurzo relocated to the greater Bay Area in 1997, but not before reaching the next level of hoppiness with the world’s first Double IPA, brewed at his Blind Pig Brewing Co. in Temecula, Calif. An invitation from Vic Kralj of The Bistro in Hayward, Calif., motivated Cilurzo to refine the style he’d inaugurated. So he created Russian River Brewing Co.’s acclaimed Pliny the Elder for what was to be the world’s first Double IPA festival. Back in 2001, only a handful of breweries made a beer to enter. [The 16th Annual Double IPA Festival returns Feb. 11.]

Clusters of Cascade hops in cold storage at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico

Clusters of Cascade hops in cold storage at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, CA

Four years later, Cilurzo premiered the prototypical Triple IPA, Pliny the Younger, at the same growing festival. With an elevated hop flavor intensity and alcohol content—yet without heavy malt sweetness or an intensely bitter finish—the beer was unique. Eventually word got out, attracting a vast annual beer pilgrimage starting in 2010. “Younger” was, and remains, one of most anticipated seasonal beer releases around the globe. Now dozens of local brewers execute versions of the difficult, ingredient-intensive Triple IPA style each February, often with stunning success.

Northern California brewers are proud of their regional heritage but not insular. They not only forge new paths, but adopt new approaches and, like jazz impresarios, constantly riff and refine.

The explosion of beer substyles on tap during SF Beer Week will attest to that exchange. The array of IPAs alone will span hazy and clear, single-hopped, dry-hopped, juicy, dank, citrusy, dry, tropical, salted, fruit-infused, tart and beyond—exploiting contemporary hops with modern methods that maximize previously masked flavors and aromas. At the other end of this spectrum will be the gruits, brewed with culinary or foraged herbs in place of hops, imparting entirely different flavor profiles.

Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s popular Dobis Plus cloudy IPA

Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s popular Dobis Plus cloudy IPA

As with IPAs, evolving approaches to sour beer are taking this once-esoteric trend in all kinds of directions. Subtly tart, salty Goses—like their cousin, Berliner weisse—get acidity from a culture like the one that gives us sourdough bread. They can be made quickly or allowed to sour and condition over several months. Goses have burst into the limelight infused with untraditional fruits and spices. Barrel-aged Belgian-inspired wild and sour ales take longer—sometimes two or more years—to ferment and transform. Long-term mixed fermentations, marked by a series of microscopic organisms that take their turns transforming flavors, are much less predictable than the yeasts that give us traditional ales or lagers.

Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo was again a local pioneer, this time on the sour side, sharing fermentation bacteria and advice with a generation of experimental brewers. The Bay Area now boasts several inventive sour-making operations, including The Rare Barrel Sour Beer Co. in Berkeley and Almanac Beer Co., which specialize in fermenting and finishing sours—purchasing customized, unfermented brews from nearby brewers to patiently usher through a longer barrel fermentation process.

These wood-aged beverages bring the funk, the oak, bright or gentle acidity, perhaps hints of balsamic, of leather, a rainbow of fruit—and an enduring mystery.

And we haven’t even mentioned the impact of specialty ingredients on all kinds of beers—nor of artful aging in elite spirits barrels.

Beer purists need not fear: In February, this explosion of experimentation will dance alongside well-loved favorites and insightful fresh takes on classic European styles, as the region’s craft beer community delivers the full spectrum of beer flavors and styles. (Proof provided by 2015 and 2016 Great American Beer Fest winners 21st Amendment Brewery, Headlands Brewing Co., Social Kitchen & Brewery, Fort Point Beer Co., Barebottle Brewing Co., Marin Brewing Co., Almanac Beer Co., The Rare Barrel, Fieldwork Brewing Co., Drakes Brewing Co., and others around the region.)

KEEPING AN EYE ON STYLE

How are beers evolving? Here are some tips for field research to quench your curiosity:

  • Ask an expert at the Opening Gala on February 10th. Most breweries send experienced staff to pour at the main event, so why not ask while they pour. What is this beer and how does it compare with others of that style? Conversation enhances festivals!
  • Follow the evolution of the Double and Triple IPA at The Bistro’s famous fest. Hayward, Calif. is just a hop, skip and a BART ride away from most of the area. This festival includes a blind-judged competition, so you can compare your favorites with the consensus of trained tasters.
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  • Sip rustic and think sour. The original Sour Sunday event at Berkeley’s Triple Rock Brewing Co. has spawned dozens of sour beer events around the region, pouring the puckery rainbow from the Belgian classics to experimental American wild ales. For a deeper dive into sour watch for local practitioners such as Almanac Beer Co. and The Rare Barrel—and for rustic farmhouse or saison exploration think Sante Adairius Rustic Ales and Henhouse Brewing Co.
  • Check out the traditionalists on their own turf. Look for events with classic style specialists — such as San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing Co. with its acclaimed English-style bitters, dark milds and porters, Berkeley’s Trumer Brauerie, with its Austrian interpretation of old world pilsner, and Anchor Brewing Co., with its famous subtle amber Steam Beer that defines the gold rush innovation of the California Common style.
  • Embrace the dark side. Look for events themed around the toasty side of beer, from brown ales and dark lagers to imperial stouts, sometimes aged in spirits barrels, or skillfully seasoned with custom-roast coffees or single-source cacao nibs.
  • Raise a glass to beer style education! SF Beer Week educational events often explore tasting by style. Guided sensory explorations hone your knowledge and enjoyment of beer style—sharpening your appreciation of new variations and tangents as well. Hands-on learning begins at sfbeerweek.org.

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