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These last few weeks have gone by waaay too fast, but I’m getting back on the horse for another post.   The beginning of May saw Kayla and I visit Farm Sanctuary up in Orland for their Spring Ho-down, which was an absolute blast.   Highlights included meeting lots of cool animals, listening to some great speakers including Biz Stone from twitter, (I finally get it) and super fresh Sierra Nevada Summerfest to go with an awesome vegan dinner including two awesome cole slaws (I’m a bit of a slaw-whore).   As fate would have it, Orland is a short drive west of Chico, and we had no problem deciding to hit up Sierra Nevada for lunch and a tour heading back to the Bay Area on Sunday.

Sierra Nevada is an absolutely stunning place to visit.   From the 9 acre organic hop yard, to the immaculate 200 barrel copper brewhouse and bustling brewpub, we were really wowed by the experience.   I’ll be honest and admit that the tour was not the most informative.   The guide worked in the restaurant and did not know many details of their brewing process, but I guess that not many tour takers are interested in the mashing program for Pale Ale.   Just walking over the brewhouse and checking out the massive 800 barrel fermenters was enough for me though.   The display case of every bottled release by vintage of Sierra Nevada beers was a great piece of craft brewing history to check out, and they also had many cool bottles from bast breweries.

Hellraiser Chocolate Chili Imperial Stout. Delicious.

The restaurant was relatively typical for a brewpub (whatever that means), but definitely brought it in the beer department with 16 Sierra Nevada selections, many of which are only available on tap.   The brewpub is the only place in the world that serves the bottled Pale Ale recipe on tap (the draught Pale Ale is actually a different beer; a touch lower in alcohol and less hoppy) and I seized the unique opportunity to try it.   It’s safe to say that it was the best Pale Ale that I have ever had on tap; a true classic of American brewing that any beer lover should make an effort to try at least once.   I was also able to try their Crystal Wheat, which is a delicate American wheat style beer.    It’s appearance is more like a blond ale as they filter it for clarity, but it has a nice snappy wheat malt flavor.   It’ll be coming out in bottles for the first time this month, though only for the local market in Chico.   It’s a near flawless, dry, gently hopped wheat beer with a clean yeast profile and nice bready malt character, but I’m not crying that bottles won’t make it down here.   The highlight of lunch (besides the rocking lentil burger and trio of Sierra Nevada mustards that they serve with it) was the new Hellraiser Chocolate Chili Imperial Stout.   I’ve honestly been getting bored with the imperial stout style as of late, but Hellraiser really made me sit up and take notice.   The chipotle chilis gave it an awesome savory, smokey quality that went perfectly with the rich cocoa and roasty malt flavors.   Unlike many pepper beers, it only had a hint of spice to balance the malt sweetness.   I heard that it was a Beer Camp beer that won’t be seeing much distribution, but definitely try it if you see it on tap anywhere.   After hitting up the gift shop for an awesome Pale Bock shirt with a goat on it and a couple of their imperial pint “Hop Glasses,” we hit the highway.   I learned a couple things on the drive home: there is actually a pretty good vegetarian sushi restaurant in Berkeley (weird concept, right?) which also happens to be a couple blocks up the street from Triple Rock.   Never having been to Triple Rock, we had to stop in for a beer and to check the place out.   Triple Rock is one of the oldest brewpubs in the country and the brew system looks the part.   The whole place feels like it has a lot of history, and I liked the atmosphere.   I got to try their Demolition Ale, which they call a “Norcal bitter.”   It’s sort of a cross between a west coast IPA and English session bitter, combining low alcohol and lighter body with a ton of hop aroma and flavor.   I like the concept and the execution on this one.   I would love to brew a session beer like this soon.

Mothers day weekend came and went with my dad insisting that we get a beer at BJ’s in Newark after a random pit-stop on the way home from the normal family party at my great aunts house.   Dear BJ’s, your seasonal beer was an amber ale and it was out.   Try harder.   I also finished Brewing With Wheat by Stan Hieronymus, which is a must read for all brewers.   This shouldn’t have come as any surprise after his stellar Brew Like A Monk, but I’m really looking at wheat beers in a whole new light after reading this book.   Any homebrewer that is feeling like they are in a rut has just found their prescription.   Go brew yourself a Berliner weisse, Gose, or wit.   This book will show you the way.

Coinciding perfectly with finishing Brewing With Wheat, I brewed my first Berliner weisse a couple saturdays ago with my friend Mike.   If you’ve never had one, Berliner weisse is a low-alcohol wheat beer with a refreshing tartness imparted by lactic fermentation.   It’s the traditional wheat beer style from Berlin and was called the “champaign of the north” by Napoleon’s soldiers.   We did a pretty typical half pale/half wheat malt grain bill, mashed at 150F, and boiled for 15 minutes with an ounce of German Saphir hops to impart a scant 5 bitterness units.   We decided to pitch a Wyeast lactobacillus culture first, and waited until the next day to pitch Wyeast’s European ale yeast, which should give the beer a high level of acidity when all is said and done.   It’s fermenting away right now, and I can’t wait to see how we did.

Saturday afternoon brought the main event of the weekend: the Odonata Saison release party at Vino Cruz in downtown Santa Cruz.   I’ve been anticipating the release of Odonata’s flagship Saison ever since I first tried their fantastic wine barrel-aged quadruple, Rorie’a Ale, at the end of last year.   As you might have guessed from my previous style spotlight post on saison, it’s one of my favorite beer styles.   Odonata’s owner/brewmaster  Peter Hoey shares my passion and has gone as far as to make Odonata Saison the flagship beer of his new brewing company.   In the land of hoppy APAs IPAs and DIPAs, it is refreshing to see a brewer taking this direction right now.

I arrived at Vino Cruz around the midway of the party, and there were already quite a few people there considering how small the place is.   Cheers to Vino Cruz for hosting the event and letting beer take over for an afternoon.   I was able to talk to Peter for awhile and have to say that he is one of the most enthusiastic and open brewers that I have met.   Odonata is basically just him and Rick Sellers, who does the sales side of the company.   As of now, they are renting space at a couple different breweries to brew their beers, but they are scouting out a location to build their own brewery and are hoping to get it open within a year.   “But how was the beer!?” you may be asking; well, it was fantastic, living up to all the pressure that I put on it.   Being a wine bar, Vino Cruz has no draught system so Peter was pouring pints through a jockey box set up in the far corner of the room.   And these were some pints–possibly the best looking pint glasses that I have seen.   The Odonata dragonfly gracefully adorns the side of the glass, and it is curved like a slender version of a Guinness glass to try to make some point of reference.   It’s not the typical stemmed Belgian-style glass, but the Saison Dupont glass is sans-stem after all, and this is a great tribute to the session beer roots of the style.   The color was a brilliant glowing orange, with a creamy white head on top.   Peter uses the Dupont yeast strain, which is the classic saison strain, and it is immediately apparent when your nose approaches the glass.   The aroma is big and fruity with a blast of pineapple and tropical fruit.   There is also a nice hop character that is spicy and earthy, but melds well with the yeast profile and isn’t too obvious on its own.   Malt plays the last string in the aroma, but provides a nice sweet bready base for the yeast and hops.   The flavor is a nice mix of juicy topical fruit and candied bready malt up front that quickly gives way to an almost bone dry finish that is made more apparent by the ample carbonation.   Lightly peppery, but a lot of fruit character that dominates the profile. Lovely pineapple and mango notes.   This batch finished at a very respectively (for the style) low gravity of 1.006, but the relatively high percentage of oats in the grist gives it a great creamy texture that allows it to be both refreshing and mouth-filling.   I think the oats are a brilliant touch, and are something that I added to my most recent saison because of how well they work here.   Saisons should ideally finish at a very low gravity, and the oats provide a lush texture that keeps the beer from feeling thin, while still remaining dry.

While Draft Saison is now available around Sacramento and wherever Peter and Rick have been bringing it for release parties, the bottled version is not going to start shipping out until next monday (June 7).   The two versions are actually slightly different recipes in addition to the expected difference of bottle-conditioning versus force-carbonating.   The draught version uses Gambrinus pale malt for its base malt and is brewed to a slightly lower gravity than the bottled version, while the bottled version uses Gambrinus pilsener malt with a munich addition to get the desired color.   Bottles are going to be 6.5%abv, while draught is 6.0%abv (though future batches will target 5.7%abv).   While Peter is a huge fan of the Dupont yeast strain and wants it to drive the character of the beer, it has proven to be a little lazy in the sugar-eating department.   The first batches were all Dupont, but future batches will incorporate 5% wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast, said to come from Brasserie Thiriez.   This will allow for a faster fermentation and bottle-conditioning period.   I guess that the batch one bottles are taking forever to condition, and I’m not sure if it’s batch one or two that is going to be released next week.   Either way I really can’t wait.   Odonata’s Saison is one of the best takes on the style that I have had, period, and the closest American made version to Saison Dupont, which I think Peter would find as high praise indeed.   It’s not a clone by any means, but it manages to nail the vital elements while adding its own unique touches.   In the future, they are planning on doing a number of other takes on the style like a brown saison and table-strength saison.   As long as they keep this level of quality going, I can’t help but see Odonata becoming one of the most respected American brewers of Belgian-style beers.

Like I mentioned above, I was inspired to brew a saison with similar characteristics and ended up going with 28.6% pilsner malt, 28.6% pale malt, 19% wheat malt, 14.3% munich malt, and 9.5% flaked oats.   I’m note sure how close this grain bill is to Odonata’s except that it has oats and wheat in it, but I liked the idea of using a wide variety of paler malts for some complexity.   I hopped it to 43 IBUs (tinseth) with a mix of Amarillo and Saphir, and hit it with 1.5oz at 15 minutes and 2oz at knock out to get some nice hop aroma and flavor.   Original gravity was 1.051 and I just took a gravity sample of 1.005 after 11 days of fermenting with Wyeast 3711 French Saison.   For my next try I might give it a go with the Dupont strain, but 3711 just ferments like a champ…