Taking a page from the Bay Area wine scene, a new wave of connoisseurs is lifting East Bay beer to new gourmet heights.
Photography by Annabelle Breakey
Beer expert Nicole Erny’s selection of six craft beers brewed right here in the East Bay.
When you try it, you’ll notice the taste goes from bready to citrusy to a little bit of coriander. Then, there’s a nice floral finish.”
No, Stephen Lopas is not talking about an exotic Chardonnay or Cabernet. The cofounder of Ale Industries is waxing poetic about Orange Shush, a “hybrid whit” beer that the Concord brewery makes with organic orange peel, coriander, and chamomile.
Lopas, along with Morgan Cox, are former brewers for E. J. Phair, a restaurant/brewpub that made a splash on the East Bay scene when it opened in 2005 in Concord. They left E. J. Phair and essentially sold everything they owned to start the year-old Ale Industries and take advantage of the enthusiastic market for craft beer, which is bubbling with a foodie fervor previously reserved for that most gourmet of beverages: wine.
“In terms of its distinction, character, flavor, beer is no longer just an MGD, Budweiser, Coors situation like it used to be: That’s a far cry from what beer is today,” says Cox. “It’s equal with wine when it comes to flavor profiles and pairings with food.”
Jesse Sarinana from Berkeley’s Triple Rock Brewery, one of the first brewpubs to open in the nation 25 years ago, concurs. “The level of education is growing, and people are defining their own palates and making informed decisions about the beer they buy.”
From exotic Belgian imports at the corner store to locally brewed double-hopped IPAs on tap at the neighborhood bar or restaurant, these are not your grandfather’s suds. One obvious example of the upscale transformation is the appearance of cicerones, the beer version of wine sommeliers. The cicerone program started in Chicago three years ago to create a standardized test and certification system for beer experts. “It was born out of necessity,” says Adam Lamoreaux, who opened Linden Street Brewery last year near Jack London Square. “Especially with these more exotic beers, you need qualified servers who know how to translate that to the customers.”
The Trappist in Oakland has a cicerone, Nicole Erny, on staff, who not only helps customers but also conducts periodic beer education classes. Oakland’s Beer Revolution will also offer a “beer school,” likely starting early next year. Triple Rock’s Sarinana says restaurants have even started to bring in expert consultants to help create menus of unique craft beers to offer customers, similar to custom wine lists. “That’s something no one, including myself, would have ever predicted would happen,” he marvels.
Besides refining a restaurant’s beer list, high-end chefs are increasingly trying their hands at beer and food pairings, à la wine. Last year, The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller held his first beer dinner at his Per Se restaurant, and Mario Batali announced plans to create a new gourmet brewpub on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Locally, beer dinners are held at The Trappist, the Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco, and even Lafayette Park Hotel’s Duck Club restaurant, which puts on four such dinners every year. “I’ve seen beer become much more accepted as far as fine dining and pairing,” says Duck Club executive chef Chuck Courtney, adding that hotel guests often ask about locally produced beers.
Guests are getting more and more local options to choose from. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that craft beer has been experiencing an East Bay renaissance, what Sarinana describes as “100 percent the most exciting time in craft-brewing history.” In just the past year, the East Bay has seen the opening of Ale Industries and Linden Street in Oakland, E. J. Phair’s new brewery and restaurant in Pittsburg, and brewpubs Jack’s in San Ramon and BJ’s in the Sunvalley Shopping Center, plus Beer Revolution, the specialty beer bar in Jack London Square that carries nearly 1,000 different bottles and 25 rotating craft beers on tap. The movement mirrors a national trend, in which small craft breweries have grown in number and market share, compared to megaproducers like Anheuser-Busch, even as overall consumption of beer has declined.
In many ways, the local craft beer movement is related to the rise of the Bay Area food ethos. The concept previously applied mostly to food and wine, but as more breweries spring up, restaurants and consumers realize that they can support a Bay Area brewery the same way they do a local creamery or winery. Similarly, the philosophy behind the local and sustainable food movement has influenced the brewing community. Linden Street’s Lamoreaux hopes to buy a 30-acre farm to grow his own hops, and Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. in San Francisco just came out with a Locavore Ale, whose ingredients are all local and organic.
“The quality of ingredients is going up and up and up,” says Chris Graham, a member of the board of directors of the Brewer’s Association and co-owner of Beer Beer and More Beer, a brewing supply store in Concord.
Perhaps the best example of beer’s gourmet aspirations is the hot trend of barrel aging. More and more brewers are experimenting with aging their beers in different kinds of barrels for different lengths of time to tease out new flavors and characteristics: Drake’s even has plans for a Barrel House tasting room at its San Leandro brewery. Sound familiar?
“Talk about blurring the lines between winemaking and beer-making,” says Graham. “All the different styles and qualities of beer out there now are unbelievable. It’s becoming much more accepted as a high-end beverage.”
Many in the industry have been working toward this shift in attitude for a long time. Still, all these upscale changes are enough to give even a veteran brewer pause.
“It’s definitely eye-opening,” says Ale Industries’ Lopas. “I hope that we don’t lose the playful edge of beer, just being the approachable, everyman beverage. But I’m glad to see it happening, to see beer get more of an adult feel. I wouldn’t want to see it any other way.”
From Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Hayward to Pete’s Brass Rail in Danville to Pyramid Alehouse in Walnut Creek, the East Bay is rich in craft beer history. At diablomag.com/beer, learn more about the area’s biggest beer moments, and check out our guide to exploring the best on tap.
As with classic wine techniques, aging beer in barrels can bring out subtle flavors. Not surprisingly, craft brewers and their customers are hot for the trend. We spoke with Rodger Davis, head brewer at Triple Rock Brewing and a pioneer in barrel brewing.
Why barrel age beer?
Davis: Before stainless steel, beers were typically transported and stored in wood vessels, so barrel aging was more getting back to the roots. There were a few craft brewers in the late ’90s and early 2000s [Goose Island, Russian River, Firestone Walker] that had started to age [or with Firestone, ferment] their beers in wood, and slowly but surely it began to catch on, as people tried and liked them.
How is it different from regular brew?
Barrel aging is unique in so many different ways. It depends what sort of vessel you’re using: Is it a wine, brandy, or bourbon barrel? You get so much flavor out of previous tenants. You also get the oak, depending on the French or American oak—just so many different aromas and tastes. It’s like the winemakers actually do know something, apparently!
Right now, we have some bourbon barrels filled with our 13 percent imperial stout, and it’s amazing how different it is.
Any tips for drinking barrel-aged beer?
The beer should be a little bit on the warmer side, somewhere between 50 and 55 degrees, and put in a snifter. You’re not going to sit down and make some tacos and drink a barrel-aged beer. You want to drink it as you would a brandy or a bourbon—or anything else that’s really good.
Is it worth the wait?
I think so. We’re going to start serving some barrel-aged beers soon, when the winter months come around. People can come by and make their own decisions.
To make the most of the East Bay’s new craft beers, we asked Nicole Erny, a cicerone (certified beer sommelier) at the Trappist in Oakland, to help us out with tasting notes and pairing tips. Remember to drink in moderation!
Characteristics: The major varieties are Bohemian and German, both light, crisp lagers with a pleasant clean bitterness and finish. Bohemian pilsners tend to have more hops, malt, and complexity.
Food pairing: Stick with seafood, such as a spicy shrimp dish or fried calamari.
Local offering: Reality Czeck, a Bohemian pilsner from the North Bay’s Moonlight Brewing Company. Berkeley’s Trumer Pils also makes a popular German-style pilsner.
Characteristics: The classic is German Schwarzbier, which has a light, roasted quality. “A very drinkable, very dry beer,” says Erny.
Food pairing: Anything roasted, like grilled vegetables or tacos.
Local offering: Moonlight’s Death & Taxes is delicious. E. J. Phair also makes a nice seasonal Schwarzbier.
California Common Lager
Characteristics: A hybrid beer made with lager yeast but fermented at a warmer temperature than typical lager.
Food pairing: Erny’s favorite was, believe it or not, a fruit tart at La Farine. “The fruit flavors really paired well.”
Local offering: Try Linden Street Brewery’s excellent Urban Peoples’ Common Lager.
Characteristics: Lots of grapefruit flavor with a pleasant dry malt character.
Food pairing: Hoppy pale ales pair well with citrusy flavors: ceviche or a leafy green salad with citrus dressing.
Local offering: Triple Rock’s Pinnacle is fantastic, but Erny admits her favorite is still the classic Sierra Nevada.
Characteristics: One of the more dynamic, popular styles, India Pale Ale has become drier and less bitter, but is still very hoppy. Look for notes of citrus, pine, or apricot from the American hops.
Food pairing: British-style Indian food, such as chicken tikka masala, or anything spicy, rich, and creamy to go with the hops.
Local offering: Erny recommends Russian River’s Blind Pig and Pliny the Elder. Lagunitas and Bear Republic in the North Bay also do great IPAs.
Amber and Brown Ale
Characteristics: Amber ale has more residual sugar but is still hop forward, while brown ales have richer malts and hints of roast and chocolate.
Food pairing: Because of their sweetness and malt, both work well with food. “They can stand up to all kinds of barbecue and burgers,” says Erny.
Local offering: Triple Rock’s Red Rock has garnered awards. For browns, try Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler Brown—a limited release only available through the fall.
Characteristics: Among the darker beers, they are less bitter and fuller bodied than stout, with more caramel flavors and roasty notes.
Food pairing: Pair with delicately sweet foods like seared scallops.
Local offering: Speakeasy’s Payback Porter is “kick-ass,” says Erny.
Characteristics: Made with unmalted roasted barley, stouts have characteristically good head retention and “that dry roastiness that comes across as coffee, chocolate, and char.”
Food pairing: “Stouts go great with oysters,” says Erny, while stronger ones can be paired with creamy foods, such as a triple cream cheese.
Local offering: Drake’s offers two stouts, a high octane, 8.75-percent ABV Imperial Stout, with bourbon character; and a lower-alcohol dry stout.