The Session #142: One Last Toast to The Session

It’s time. Jay and Stan have decided to wind down The Session.  What an amazing run it had since March 2, 2007. An awful lot has changed in the world of beer over that time, but I think more significantly for The Session, things like Twitter, Podcasts, and apps like Untapped which were either non-existent or in their infancy in 2007 have become major platforms for beer discussion. Blogs still have their place, but that place is becoming increasingly smaller. Frankly, the writing has been on the wall for The Session for a couple years before they finally pulled the plug.

I was an enthusiastic Session contributor in the early days, starting with the 28th Session. So many new and interesting things were happening about beer and it was fascinating reading all the different perspectives from bloggers who ranged from industry professionals to hard core homebrewers to people who just liked to write about beer in their spare time. In fact, ten years ago beer blogs were more interesting to read than a lot of what I found in traditional media, where there were too many articles by people who were either good at writing and knew little about beer, or knew a lot about beer but couldn’t write very well. (Beer writing has improved a lot since.) Blogs seemed to capture the pioneering spirit that pervaded craft beer at the time in a way conventional media couldn’t. Craft brewing was effortlessly enjoying 10-15% growth with new breweries joining the community every day. Beer was fun and The Session expressed the enthusiasm of those days.

But over time, The Session started to become more like a  homework assignment. Topics, just like the times beer found itself in, became increasingly complicated. And as far as craft beer in the United States is concerned, the party is definitely over. Growth in craft beer has significantly declined, new health concerns about moderate levels of alcohol have arisen, and it’s becoming clear brewing beer is a tough way to make a living.  Large corporations started getting into the act, and brewing is longer about welcoming the new kids, but being a business again. I recently decided to retire from beer blogging a couple months ago as part of an overall effort to reduce my alcohol intake and also because I found my interests drifting elsewhere. Blogging about beer became akin to writing for a stodgy trade magazine, instead of bearing witness to a historic cultural and economic revolution.

Stan has asked us to “Pick a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship”.  It’s a hard question. Like most things about beer, the answer is both personal and highly contextual. Is it the death of a life long friend or someone I never met? Is it a tough day, or one of the greatest days of my life?  Is it a holiday feast or late night take out? Am I drinking to remember, or to forget? To think about the question is to contemplate the endless possibilities of what beer is and can become. That’s why beer remains special.el sully

But Stan asked us to make a choice, so I will. I’ll toast the end of The Session with one of my favorite local go-to beers, El Sully Mexican Lager from 21st Amendment, as it epitomizes a lot of the changes in brewing over the life of The Session.  Who would have thought in 2007, when beer bloggers were all raging against Lagers, that Lagers would become a bit vogue in the world of craft beer? El Sully is sold retail in cans, a rarity for craft beer back in 2007 but pretty common now. 21st Amendment emerged as a major regional/national brand over the past ten years from its days as a San Francisco brewpub. Maybe just a good Lager seems the appropriate, low-key sort of way to toast the quiet ending to The Session.

The Session was a great ride reflecting a unique time in beer’s history. I’ll be forever grateful to have had the chance to experience it.

Good-bye to “Ramblings of a Beer Runner”

I knew the day would come when I’d decide to stop writing “Ramblings of a Beer Runner”, I just didn’t know when. It became increasing clear that time is now.

It’s a bittersweet moment. This blog gave me great joy. I’m proud of virtually everything I’ve written here, as well as the few related articles I wrote for Bay Area publications. Those few posts that make me cringe today were done in a spirit I was trying to capture, even if the execution was lacking. I’ve met so many people through 9 1/2 years of writing “Ramblings of a Beer Runner”, some of them becoming good friends. It’s tough to walk away and have been wrestling with this decision for weeks.

The beginning of the end started in January, when I decided to spend 2018 drinking less beer, but take the effort to appreciate each one more. Then a couple major studies came out this year, including one by The Lancet declaring there was no safe level of alcohol, and consuming a couple beers a day can still cause a measurable reduction in life expectancy. While The Lancet study was arguably overblown, this caused me  to further reevaluate my alcohol intake.

Funny thing was, as I started having fewer beers, I realized I wasn’t missing any of them. I lost some weight.  My training for November’s Big Sur Half-Marathon is going pretty well, attributable in part to less alcohol intake, as alcohol slows muscle recovery. There’s other things in life besides beer and I started getting a little more in tune with those things. I began to read more, and found myself skipping past beer articles and delving into things like politics and technology. As one of those damn liberals, it’s hard to get worked up over scourge of Hazy IPAs in the era of Trump.

Without boring you too much with my personal life, ending this blog represents a modest reorganization my priorities. But to quote a certain Supreme Court Justice, “I still like beer.” In fact, I had a very wonderful Coffee Porter last Friday after work. Even better, I didn’t feel the need to take a picture of it, or think about whether I wanted to review it, or deconstruct the taste into flavor components, or take note of the brewery that made it. It was a relief to just enjoy it.

It’s been a great ride, but it’s time for it to end. Thanks for joining it with me, and hope you got a lot out of it, too.

PS – I’ll still keep the blog up for the time being, so you can still read the articles if you’d like.





Scenes from around Pinecrest, California

Last weekend was the annual fall camping trip to the California Sierras I take with my family each year. In years past, we went to Yosemite which is a great place to visit, but sometimes it’s good to check out the lesser known places.  Especially since sometimes the lesser known places are a little more practical for a family trip. So we found ourselves in the small town of Pinecrest this year.  The small town and the surrounding area has more than its fair share of scenery which I hope I captured these photos.


Brewers, especially those at small breweries, are paid less than comparable professions

Most brewers will tell you they chose their career because of a passion for brewing and the enjoyment they get from making great beer. That’s a good thing, because they aren’t getting rich doing it.

A recent survey of brewer compensation by Jeff Alworth showed all brewers typically make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. At larger breweries above 10,000 barrels, Alworth found Brewmasters and Head Brewers making considerably more, $70,000-$80,000, with brewers with less seniority still earning under $50,000. These figures are comparable to other brewer compensation reported by employment websites Glassdoor and Payscale, and the Houston Chronicle. While Alworth pointed out most brewers make a living wage, which he explained as enough to cover their minimum basic needs ranging from $22,000 per year in a small town to $28,000 in a large city. However, many brewers make little more than that. Alworth also found that brewers often received little in additional benefits like health care, vacation time, and retirement.

This compares unfavorably to winemaker salaries, which range from $60,000-$90,000 according to Glassdoor, while Payscale indicates the middle 50% of winemakers earn between $45,000 and $76,000 annually. The Houston Chronicle reports that Senior Winemakers routinely earn over $100,000. These numbers are probably elevated somewhat since many winemakers live in California coastal areas where wages are higher, but are still well above what brewers earn.

Since breweries are essentially beer factories, let’s compare brewer salaries to leadership positions in food manufacturing.  Look there and you’ll find Production Supervisors, Quality Assurance Managers, Production and Plant Manager in food manufacturing make between $45,000-$100,000.

Think brewers are like chefs?  Head Chef salaries range from $30,000-$60,000. But chefs at high end restaurants can earn between $70,000 to over $100,000, depending on the type of restaurant and location.

While brewer compensation depends on things like brewery size, location, and years of experience, it’s a good bet in any city, a skilled Brewmaster at a small brewery makes considerably less than the Head Winemaker at a nearby winery, less than the Head Chefs at the city’s better restaurants, and less than those in leadership positions at food and beverage factories.

Part of the allure of America’s brewing revolution is that legions of self taught home brewers without any formal brewing education turned their hobbies into a business, but that might be why so many brewers earn less than their counterparts in similar industries. Alworth noted that education and experience played a significant role in how much a brewer earns.  Head and Master Brewers running larger breweries pumping out over 10,000 barrels a year often requires a college degree, completion of a brewing certification program, or at least several years experience at a production brewery. In that respect, these positions at large breweries are similar to running factories, which usually require college degrees and at least a few years experience, and the pay is comparable.

One of the great things about craft brewing is that it’s open anyone, regardless of background or experience, as long as you make good beer. But for many, there just isn’t a lot of money in it.




Scenes from Brewery Twenty Five

About a year ago, I ventured south to a small brewery outside of San Juan Bautista that I barely knew called Brewery Twenty Five. I was there to write a story on the brewery for Edible Monterey Bay magazine. Finding the brewery was a bit of a challenge. After driving around the narrow streets in the rugged farmland just west of town trying to find the place, I finally had to pull over to the side of the road and call for directions. Turns out I was pretty close and as I turned around a corner, at the top of a steep hill, I spied owners Fran and Sean Fitzharris standing in front of their bright yellow house, waving both hands in the air to get my attention.

At the time, their tap room was just an empty room and a plan. As they showed me the space at the southern end of downtown San Juan Bautista, they pointed out where everything would go in the small set of adjoining rooms. They were certain the place would open before the end of 2017.

It didn’t quite work out that way as the tap room didn’t open until mid-2018.  When I visited this past Labor Day weekend, it was a bit of a thrill to see the placed looked pretty much how Fran and Sean said it would. The highlight for me were the autographed growlers in the back room signed by craft brewing legends like Ken Grossman, Kim Jordan, and Matt Brynildson. And yes, it was a bit of an ego boost to see the Edible Monterey Bay article I wrote hanging on the wall. I always try to tell an objective story of each brewery, and it’s satisfying to see that story integrated into a brewery’s tap room.

As for the beer, my wife and I decided to just get four ounce pours of all six beers they had on tap and we enjoyed every one of them. My favorite was a copper-colored Double IPA called “Garza”, brewed in the classic West Coast tradition with a great blend of Cascade, Centennial, CTZ, Simcoe and Amarilo hops. Another brew I enjoyed was, believe it or not, their Hazy IPA called “25 ‘Til Infinity”. Out of the roughly twenty Hazy IPAs I’ve had, I liked maybe five of them. This one worked because the orange citrus flavors were particularly bright and vibrant, not getting muddled in the haze which sinks so many of these beers for me. We both enjoyed New Moon and Coconut Moon Oatmeal Stouts, the latter made with coconut and vanilla beams. Both had lots of complex, roasty and chocolate flavors with a moderate sweetness, yet remained light and smooth tasting with all that going on at a strong 7.7% abv.

Definitely worth the drive from South Bay and we’ll certainly be back. I’ll leave you with a few images from that afternoon.

Me at Brewery 25
Yours truly enjoying a Brewery Twenty Five brew while checking out the taproom
Brewery Twenty Five’s collection of autographed growlers
Sierra Nevada growler autographed by Ken Grossman
Oatie, the dog Brewery Twenty Five’s Oatie Oats IPA is named after
Yes, it is satisfying to see this article hanging on the tap room wall
A look at downtown San Juan Bautista
The San Juan Bautista Mission where filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo took place

Hermitage Brewing: Now in Edible Silicon Valley

Hermitage Brewing is one of those “under the radar” breweries that Silicon Valley beer drinkers have plenty to be thankful for with their experimental single hop IPA series and some really wonderful barrel aged sour ales.  Their Stouts, Lagers, Porters, and other brews are all pretty solid for good measure.  They opened the first tap room in San Jose in the summer 2013. While they didn’t have high expectations for it at the time, they discovered people would venture into the industrial region just south of downtown to enjoy local brews, paving the way for other breweries that followed. Today, this 5 square mile area is home to four additional brewery tap rooms.

You can read about this and other Hermitage matters in the story I wrote in the Fall Edition of Edible Silicon Valley which you can find right here:  Master Brew Revival: Hermitage Brewing

Google Trends: The Brut IPA continues its march westward across the United States

Back in early July, I looked into Google searches for “Brut IPA” and found this new riff on the IPA style was clearly gaining in popularity in West Coast regions outside its origin in San Francisco.  On July 8th, here was a geographical breakdown of metro areas of the frequency of “Brut IPA” searches on Google for the proceeding twelve months.

Brut IPA metro areas
Metro area distribution of Google searches for “Brut IPA” as of July 8th, 2018 for the proceeding twelve months

At the time, I noted that with the exception of Chicago, all the hot spots for Brut IPA were west of the Mississippi.  Now take a look at the metro distribution of “Brut IPA” searches as of August 26th, 2018 for the proceeding 30 days:

Brut IPA metro areas 8-26-2018 last 30days
Metro area distribution of Google searches for “Brut IPA” as of August 26th, 2018 for the proceeding 30 days

While West Coast metro areas continue to be leading areas for Brut IPA searches, the Brut IPA has definitely made it to the radar screen of lots of beer drinkers on the East Coast in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Minneapolis in the Upper Midwest has also emerged as a place where the Brut IPA has gained in popularity. Interest in Brut IPAs has clearly migrated eastward across the United States from the West Coast.

Still, most of the rest of the Midwest, outside of Chicago hasn’t registered much interest.  There aren’t many searches for Brut IPAs  in Texas or the Southeastern United States, either. It will be interesting to see whether or not these regions turn on to Brut IPAs interest in the coming months. As it stands, people are increasingly searching for Brut IPAs on Google, as the trend line below shows.

As for someone who prefers their IPA on the dry side, I for one find this encouraging.  Will they continue to spread across the country?  Tune-in back here in another month or two, when I’ll do another update.

Brut IPA last 12 months 8-27-2018
Google search frequency for “Brut IPA” over the past twelve months


Scenes from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing

I passed through Chicago quickly.  A quick stay with my parents and lunch with an old high school friend before turning south to Kansas City to celebrate the 60th birthday of my brother-in-law.  But I had the chance to drop by the brewery tap room of Chicago’s Revolution Brewing on a quiet weekday afternoon and sample a few of their brews. You can tell you’re at good brewery when everything they do, from Lagers to Porters to IPA’s to Saisons are all good to great. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from my phone from that afternoon diversion.


“Almanac Beer Brings a California Terroir to Alameda” in Edible East Bay

Almanac co-founders Damian Fagan (l) and Jesse Friedman

What a couple of interviews I had with Almanac Beer co-founders Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan!  In March, Jesse showed me around the brewery and gave me a clinic on brewing beer the Almanac way. Of course, that mean he spent a lot of time talking about the crafting of sour ales and infusing them with local fruit. I spoke with Damian a couple months later on the phone, who filled me more on the business end and Almanac’s central mission to bring a sense of community to their California tap room and support local farmers who provide the fruit they showcase in their ales.

The article was a few months in the making, and it all came together nicely in the Fall Harvest Issue of Edible East Bay.  You can check it out here:

Almanac Brings Brings a California Terroir to Alameda

The Session #138: The Personality of Wooden Barrels

Almanac Beer co-founders Damian Fagan (l) and Jesse Friedman (r)

For this month’s Session, Jack Perdue at Deep Beer asks us to explore the relationship between wood and beer.

For this, I turn to a recent discussion I had with Jesse Friedman, one of the co-founders of Almanac Beer, a San Francisco Bay Area brewery that brews all kinds of beers, but are best known for their barrel-aged sour ales. As you might expect, Jesse knows a lot about the intersection of wood and beer.

I was there to research a story on Almanac for the upcoming issue of Edible East Bay (forgive the shameless plug) and found talking with him for over an hour at Almanac’s new brewery in Alameda, CA to be a clinic on sour ale brewing. Of the many insights he shared over that afternoon, one that stuck with me that most is how he described variations between the wooden barrels he uses.  As Friedman puts it:

“What we find with barrel-aging is that each barrel takes on its own personality.  Different barrels will have different biomes in them, yeast and bacteria inside..bugs we call them. Barrels will also have different physical characteristics, so this barrel lets in more oxygen while this other one lets in less oxygen and they take on their own personality so that’s where the blending process comes in for us.  Everything gets tasted individually and then we create blends from there and the blend is a really really important step of the sour beer process…..we taste and we blend to create the beer we’re trying to put together and that’s really important part of the barrel aging.”

Wooden barrels with different personalities? Not something you’d find with metal kegs.


(More shameless plugging: You can find the rest of the  story about Almanac Beer and how their new brewery in Alameda, CA will allow them to take their beer to new levels will be posted in a few days at Edible East Bay and this blog will have a link to it.)

almanac barrelhouse
Almanac Beer’s Almaden Brewery, Barrel House, and Tap Room