Craft Beer Country A tour of the best brews on the West Coast. Wed, 31 May 2017 23:42:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hitting the Jackpot at Brasserie St. James in Reno, Nevada Mon, 29 May 2017 18:45:38 +0000 View Article]]> Someone recently tried to tell me that craft beer would never make it in Reno, Nevada because everyone in town is into the big brands like Coors and Bud. Statements like that make me immediately doubt the credibility of the source and call “bullshit”. Just the week before, I visited Brasserie St. James in downtown Reno (walkable from the Peppermill Casino), a little brewery that is thriving in the shadow of the city’s casinos. In fact, this little high desert gem won an award for Best Mid-size Brewpub at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. Brewmaster Josh Watterson and sidekick Madison Gurries are making European-style beers that don’t require an overnight flight to Belgium to enjoy. In the historic Crystal Springs Ice and Water building, I met the brewery’s “Red Headed Stranger”, a toasted-toffee, lightly spiced ruby red ale that was hard to put down. But as beguiling as she was, I fell harder for “Daily Wages” a smooth 6.7 ABV, 24 IBU Farmhand Saison. RateBeer scores this hazy golden liquid cornucopia (my tasting notes mention that it’s brewed with three yeasts) a 97 overall. OMG, but it was good! As I finished a tulip of the wonderful Saison, a large party rolled out to the brewery’s patio and filled most of the tables. So if I had a lesson to share, it’s don’t listen to jokers who try to convince you that craft beer will never make it in a particular region or city. Want proof? The next time you are in “The Biggest Little City in the World”, be sure to roll the dice and visit Brasserie St. James… it’s a winner!

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Paradise by the Pint: Maui Brewing Company, Maui, Hawaii (Partial Chapter) Sun, 22 May 2016 18:26:39 +0000 View Article]]> Approximately 2,513 miles northeast of Kihei, Maui in frigid Albany, Oregon, I excitedly unwrap a hefty-sized gift on Christmas morning. By its shape and weight, I boldly predict that I’m the newest member of some beer of the month club. But as I tear away the festive paper, what greets me exceeds my expectations. My “wahine (Hawaiian for wife)” has transported me back to the sunny shores of Hawaii in the dead cold Northwest winter. At the foot of the tree before me glow 24 golden Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde Lagers.

Five months earlier, we sat on the brewery’s sun-drenched patio on the western slope of 10,023-ft Mount Haleakalā. Up the incline to the left, the cone of the dormant volcano disappeared above low-lying ring of foamy clouds. To the right beyond a few swaying palms, the island dropped away into Pacific waters so dazzlingly blue that only a soft-blonde pint of nice cold beer could distract me from the view.

Bikini Blonde, a well-shaped Munich Helles Lager brewed with floral hops and Pilsner and Munich malts, is a nice, easy-going complement to a hot July afternoon. Checking in at a mellow 21 IBUs, this malty craft beer leaves a slightly sweet biscuity flavor on my taste buds that I’d wager even the mainstream beer crowd would appreciate. I make a mental note to test its flavor again offset with a nice, juicy, lightly seasoned steak complemented by a south pacific sunset.

In the meantime, we’re forced to pause from drinking and daydreaming to head inside for a behind-the-scenes tour with Maui Brewing founder Garrett Marrero.

Back in January 2005, Marrero and his wife, Melanie, opened the brewery on a tight budget and a lot of faith. Looking at their thriving craft beer business today, it’s hard to guess that the Marreros haven’t always led a charmed life. “We slept on the floor of a really shitty apartment for several weeks, because we couldn’t afford a mattress,” confides Marrero. “The first mattress we bought was used. We carried it out of a crack house ‒ I’m not kidding you! Sleeping on that floor helped build character. We ran on a shoestring, and we still do. We looked at pennies, not just dimes, to be competitive here. To brew in Hawaii and to manufacture locally, all those things cost a lot more than they do on the mainland. You’d be shocked at what the cost of production here is compared to the mainland.”

Pinching pennies while avoiding the constant lure of the nearby surf in lieu of backbreaking work, the Marreros persevered. They eventually outgrew the company’s increasingly cramped 13,000-foot Lahaina facility. “From very meager beginnings, this was blood, sweat, tears and a lot of hard work on both my wife’s part and mine… and our entire team,” reflects Garrett. “We grew from 20 employees to about 90 now, and we’re continuing to grow. But I keep pointing back to the fact that we had these visions, these dreams for the company of what we wanted to be. We never deviated from our founding principles, and I think that’s what’s allowed us to become who we are today. We’re very proud that we remain an authentic Hawaiian craft beer.”

Making those uniquely local ales, lagers, and porters isn’t as easy as picking pineapples from a local plantation and tossing them into a kettle with a little malt, hops, and yeast. A lot goes into the process that produces consistently good craft beer. Marrero led us on a tour of the 42,000-square foot production facility that he opened in October 2014. He guesstimated that his company could brew 60,000 barrels of beer in the 50- and 25-barrel brew systems by 2017.

After inspecting the facility’s water filtration system that removes chlorides, fluorides and particulate, including fine pieces of lava (remember, the brewery is built on a volcano), we get a peek at the brewery laboratory. The scientist who helps solve those kinds of problems just walked in the door. Marrero introduces us to “Dr. Dre”, who runs the company’s state-of-the-art laboratory.

There is a shaker table microscope, some water baths, a centrifuge, a laminar hood, an aerobic incubator, autoclave, and other gadgets in the room. “We can measure just about everything,” says the boss, turning to Dre: “Kirk was asking earlier how we have 100-plus IBU on the Double Overhead, but technically you can’t really taste above 100.” We debate humans’ ability to detect exceedingly bitter flavors like Dogfish Head’s hopped up 658 IBU Hoo Lawd IPA. “Does a swig make your face shrivel up and turn to dust?” I ask, half seriously.

Although talking about IBUs, ABVs and other numbers is great fun, we get back to the business at hand. “The beer might start in the brew house, but if this isn’t right here, then you’re not making great beer,” emphasizes Marrero. “At the end of the day, the ROI on the lab is that there is nothing to worry about, and that means the lab is doing a really good job.” In fact, the alchemists on the production floor depend on it. “With Dr. Dre looking at the yeast and doing cell counts and viability, that tells them how much yeast to pitch into the beer that they’re brewing.” It’s time to leave the scientist to her devices, so that the microscopic critters and other ingredients continue to behave as expected.

A short stroll from the laboratory, and we find ourselves in front of a massive stainless steel vessel. “This is our coconut tank,” announces Marrero. “There’s 500 pounds of coconut sitting in there that are re-circulating in beer right now.” If we had X-ray eyes, we could watch the process that infuses the unmistakable flavor of dried white palm seed flesh into one of the most distinctive porters in the world. Marrero reports his brewery’s demand for coconut actually exceeds what the local supply chain can provide. “We go through about 15,000 pounds a quarter,” he reports. “There’s not enough coconut here, so we have to bring it in from Guam and the Philippines.”

I’m not enough of a purest to fuss about such a technicality, and most palates won’t be able to identify the island of the coconuts’ origin. In my mind, discovering Maui’s CoCoNut PorTeR, a World Beer Cup Gold Award Winner, is like being marooned on a desert island, only to learn that it’s actually a tropical paradise where palm fruit is filled with a nutty brown 6% ABV liquid. No ka ‘oi!

“The coconut porter is our top selling beer on the mainland and in most of our markets,” confirms Garrett. “That was the one that first put us on the map. It’s a robust porter, brewed with hand-toasted coconut. We do an imperial version aged in rum barrels, and we do one aged in bourbon barrels. We are the coconut porter guys.”

“Oh yes you are,” I think. “Can we just stop the tour right here and pause for another pint to confirm that?”

(Note to readers: this is an abbreviated version of the full book chapter on Maui Brewing. I just cobbled together some of its highlights and stopped short of sharing one of Garrett’s favorite recipes.)


Father-son Team Put Walkabout Brewery on the Craft Beer Tour Map Mon, 29 Feb 2016 01:13:37 +0000 View Article]]> Ross Litton, Founder of Walkabout Brewing, is about as far from his hometown of Perth, Australia as one could get. His wasn’t a little jaunt into the Australian Outback; in the early 1990s, Litton’s own walkabout took him 9187 miles to Medford, Oregon. He has called the area home ever since.

Back in 1997, the jovial Aussie opened Walkabout Brewing in his garage. Today, he and son Cameron run their little craft beer oasis in an industrial section of Medford, gasp, across the street from a Budweiser Distributor that is probably large enough to fit Walkabout in its cooler. Not to worry mate. The Littons are on such good terms with the distributor that they borrow a forklift from time to time. That’s not a big surprise once you have had a chance to meet the friendly father-son team (Ross is hilarious, and has plenty of stories to share). Folks come from far and wide to hang out and drink well-made ales in the shady patio area or on the sunny backyard.

Speaking of the real star of the show, the beer is worth the few minutes it takes to get to slightly off-the-beaten path location. Young master Cameron poured me a nice cold flight of craft beers, and we sat on the patio and shot the breeze on sunny southern Oregon afternoon. By the time the restless Ross joined us, I was relishing the last drops of my tasting tray. That session included noteworthy Point the Bone IPA, Worker’s Pale Ale, and my favorite, Jabberwocky Ale, an English Strong Ale weighing in at a healthy (depending on how you look at it) 7.0 ABV. Asked why he named it Jabberwocky, Ross says, with a wry smile, “Because if you drink too much of it, you start to jabber.” Beer Advocate rates it a good solid 82. But I’ll tell you, the more I drink, the higher my own taste buds score it. Down under the bubbly head, this copper-colored ale, brewed with Cascade, Perle, Willamette, and Chinook hops, slides down smooth and easy and beckons you back for more. If that’s not appealing, the Littons have plenty of other choices on tap, even (dare I say it) a gluten-free beer for those with certain sensitivities.

I highly recommend a stop at Walkabout during any journey through Jackson County. If you are really lucky, the jolly ol’ Aussie himself will be back in town from one of his own walkabouts and share a pint as well as a few laughs with you. G’day mate!

Ross and Cameron

Ross and Cameron Litton, Walkabout Brewing


Societe Brewing’s Belgian Extra, The Harlot, Borders on Irresistible! Thu, 24 Dec 2015 21:40:22 +0000 View Article]]> San Diego has become a mecca for craft beer lovers, and there are too many good options to explore over a weekend visit. One of my favorite stops during a recent trip was Societe Brewing Company on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard (highly recommended by a fellow brewer in North County). Brewmaster Travis Smith and Co-owner/brewer Doug Constantiner shared samples of beer with me in the brewery tasting room on moderately busy Monday afternoon. My humorous hosts poured a variety of beers, including the appropriately named Widow, a spicy dark Belgian Strong Ale with a whopping 9.0 ABV (bring a designated driver if you dare to drink this dark beauty). I was seduced by the “caramely” undertones of the coffee-black Widow, but like most of the brewery’s staff, I also fall for The Harlot, a light and dry Belgian Extra. My hosts explain that their irresistible floral-flavored favorite is a lightly malted beer that they ferment with a “house” Belgian ale yeast strain. Ever the comedian, Doug adds, “The Harlot is brewed in the tradition of a lost style of beer typical in the border region between Belgium and the Czech Republic” (consult Google Maps if you don’t get it). Although I’ll share more of the partners’ humor and a few secrets in the book, you might want to explore the brew pub firsthand. You’ll discover plenty of good humor and even better beer!

Bear Republic Renaissance Man Ricardo Norgrove Designs Memorable Ales Wed, 23 Dec 2015 21:07:53 +0000 View Article]]> Rich "Ricardo" Norgrove

Brewer, racer, artist, Renaissance man Rich “Ricardo” Norgrove with one of his sleek race cars. When Rich isn’t designing artwork for his crisp Racer 5 pale ale and other delicious Bear Republic craft beers, you might find him at home welding a roll bar for one of his Nissans. At the brewer’s Healdsburg , California pub, I tasted a flight of 10 beers from an extensive menu of ales, lagers, seasonals, and other specialities. Although it’s hard to pick a favorite, the Peter Brown Tribute Ale was pretty damn good! Named after Norgrove’s longtime friend and Bear Republic Brewing super salesman, the late Peter Brown, this malty American Brown Ale is brewed with molasses and brown sugar, rich flavors balanced with Cascade and Centennial hops. I’ll talk more about Peter, the beer, and how it came to be in the book. Meanwhile, a long stop at Bear Republic’s Healdsburg brewery/pub is well worth the drive to Northern California’s Wine… make that Beer Country.

Russian River Founder’s Favorite Beers Might Surprise You Sun, 13 Dec 2015 02:48:55 +0000 View Article]]> It was a pleasure to sample “piney” Pliny the Elder with Russian River Brewery founder Vinnie Cilurzo in Santa Rosa, California. The world-renowned beer’s sidekick, Pliny the Younger, is only available in February and sells out quickly! Plan to wait in a long line if you visit Russian River’s pub for a taste — it is that popular! By the way, Vinnie confessed that neither of the two wildly popular ales are his favorite beer. As he gets older and wiser/Pliny-like, the thinking man’s brewer finds himself favoring lagers, such as his brewery’s relatively new STS Pils (5.5 ABV). Vinnie adds that he also likes Firestone Walker’s Pivo Hoppy Pils (5.3 ABV). Not being one to argue with an expert, I’ve tried both of these quaffable but strong pilsners and plan to restock their dwindling supply in my refrigerator soon.

Kirk sampling "piney" Pliny the Elder with Russian River Brewery founder Vinnie Cilurzo in Santa Rosa, California. World-renowned Pliny the Younger is only available in February and sells out quickly!

Firestone Walker’s Merlin Makes Magical Nitro Milk Stout Sun, 13 Dec 2015 02:46:37 +0000 View Article]]> Matt Brynildson, longtime Brewmaster at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, pours a cloudy glass of brand new Nitro Milk Stout. "Merlin", as he is sometimes respectfully referred to by the bartenders, has been busy perfecting this creamy Guinness-style concoction. The tasting room was filled during my visit, and samples of the Nitro, Pivo Pils and many other great beers crafted by this brewery's resident magician confirmed why it's so popular!

Matt Brynildson, longtime Brewmaster at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, pours a cloudy glass of brand new Nitro Milk Stout. “Merlin”, as he is sometimes referred to by the bartenders, has been busy perfecting this creamy Guinness-style concoction. The tasting room was wall-to-wall people during my visit, and samples of the Nitro, Pivo Pils, 805 and many other great beers crafted by this brewery’s resident magician confirmed why this place is so popular!

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Bl’oak Puts Upland’s Dale Bros Brewery on My “Must Try” Map Sun, 13 Dec 2015 02:45:47 +0000 View Article]]> With fireman brother-in-law Matt Hoch, I recently visited Dale Bros Brewery in Upland, California on what turned out to be a very busy Tuesday night. In an effort to extinguish our thirst, we first tried the brewery’s flagship beer, Pomona Queen amber lager, which goes down buttery smooth and easy; I could spend the night drinking these gentle lagers and be content. But my favorite at this hopping place in an inconspicuous LA area office park is the Bl’oak, a barrel-aged dark that leaves a hint of slightly sour root beer on the tongue — a lingeringly good, oak-kissed after taste. If you get the chance, stop by Dale Bros and try their craft beers for yourself. Be sure to review your own favorites right here at

Dale Bros Brewery

Shasta Brewing Offers Cheerful Hospitality, but Just Average Beer Fri, 11 Dec 2015 16:31:24 +0000 View Article]]> Shasta Brewing

The first stop on my Craft Beer Country, In Search for Best in the West journey, was Shasta Brewing in mountain-hugging Weed, California. Friendly, fun people lined up on this mountain brewery’s bar stools, but less-than-inspiring beer streamed from its taps. I worked my way through an entire flight (and I don’t like to view this special project as “work”), desperately searching for something worth writing home about. Instead, I came up empty — all except the stubby glasses, none of which I could manage to polish off. My next time through this beautiful outpost in Craft Beer Country, I might visit the quaint watering hole, but may decide to lift my spirits with a local whiskey rather than another underwhelming ale.

Rogue Farms’ Craft Beers Tap Surrounding Ingredients Tue, 01 Dec 2015 09:08:53 +0000 View Article]]> Left to right: Joby, Jeff, Kirk, and Ryker chilling out (literally) at Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon

Left to right: Joby, Jeff, Kirk, and Ryker chilling out (literally) at Rogue Farms in Independence, Oregon

It’s funny that you can live in an area for more than 20 years and not really know it all that well. This weekend, we visited Rogue Farms, which is a mere 10 miles from our front door, but a hang-out I hadn’t discovered until just last summer. The Independence, Oregon hops farm and “beer shack” features a revolving selection of IPAs and lagers, made with ingredients from its surroundings.

Wife/photographer Lisa and I met up with our friend and fellow craft beer enthusiast Jeff Vandomelen and his dogs Joby and Ryker. The friendly lab-pit bull pups enjoy stealing a taste of ale when Jeff’s not looking, but we kept them at more than tongue’s length away on Sunday.

Lisa hung on tight to her glass of Marionberry Braggot, made with Rogue Farm’s hand-picked marionberries and honey collected from the its bees. She said this ass-kicking 11.4% concoction “tasted a little like rum.” It worked for her!

When Jeff wasn’t wrestling with the dogs, he was lapping up Rogue’s 7 Hop IPA, which made him crack a smile. He thought about it for a few seconds, then pronounced it “smooth, but hoppy and fragrant.”  He also took a taste of the coffee-inspired Fresh Roast, a dark beer that he didn’t expect to like, but was pleasantly surprised by (he handed it back to me quickly before Joby could sneak a lick).

My own favorite at Rogue is Great American Beer Festival gold medal-winning Hazelnut Brown Nectar… but not today. After appreciating a glass of the nutty nectar, I tried Wet Hop IPA, brewed from hops picked in the field just over my shoulder. Michael and Kyle, who poured from the taps and also double as the farm’s tour guides, explained that hops, picked little more than 50 yards from where we sit, are shipped to the Rogue’s facilities in nearby Newport and loaded into a big brew kettle the same day.

The result is a farm-to-table beer that makes one imagine that he or she is biting into a ripe, juicy flavor-packed pint of raw hops. You can taste the greenness of Rogue’s limited-supply Wet Hop IPA as it rolls across the palate. This craft beer is not for everyone, especially those who don’t care for especially hoppy IPAs, but those who do will appreciate the farm-fresh flavor enhanced by the surrounding countryside.

Speaking of which, the next time you are in the vicinity (if you are really lucky, you always have been, but just didn’t know it), pay a visit to Rogue Farms ( It’s even open during the winter months, when the farm hands use space heaters to warm things up for the brave souls shivering outside at picnic tables. For those who want to pair their beer with a bite to eat, Rogue has an abbreviated menu that includes burgers, chicken strips, and that sort of pub fare. But make no mistake, the real stars of this show are the delicious craft beer surprises that Rogue regularly rotates through its cozy little “Chatoa” in the Oregon countryside. Check them out for yourselves!

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