HEADS UP!: Did he just say what I think he said?

Note: This column originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press

Fear not the end of summer.

The glory days of sipping pilsner on the beach and big barbecues with burgers and, well, more pilsner are slipping away.

That’s bad news for the barbecue, but not for the beer.

This month promises to be yet another glorious one for Santa Barbara beer, and not just because of the richer fall seasonals local breweries are already beginning to roll out. September is also a great month to drink beer with friends, as there are plenty of great events celebrating the fall.

The one I’m looking forward to the most is currently bubbling away placidly in my closet. That’s where I’m fermenting five gallons of beer for the second annual Valley Brewers Pro-Am home brewing competition.

The Valley Brewers homebrew supply shop in Solvang holds the competition. Last year’s event had 186 entries, and Valley Brewers proprietor Sandy Harrison hopes to see twice as many in this year’s contest.

Registration for the competition closes on September 28, so there’s just enough time to brew something now. More information about the registration process (it’s cheap and easy) can be found at www.valleybrewers.com.

But the competition is just the first part. The second, and perhaps best part, is the first edition of Figtoberfest. Scheduled for September 28 in Figueroa Mountain’s Santa Barbara location and October 5 in Buellton, the event is the brewery’s first stab at an Oktoberfest celebration.

“This year we wanted to throw a big Oktoberfest this year for a lot of reasons,” Fig Mountain brewmaster AJ Stoll said. “Number one, the (Fig Mountain owners Jim and Jaime) Dietenhofer family is German, that’s where their heritage comes from. I’m German, that’s my heritage. We brew a lot of lagers and love brewing lagers… we just thought it would be awesome to do a lager-forward, German-themed Oktoberfest. I’m going to wear my lederhosen.”

At the Buellton celebration, which takes place the same weekend as The Brewhouse’s always-anticipated Oktoberfest downtown, will also be the site of the Best In Show judging for the Valley Brewers Pro-Am.

For all the well-deserved excitement generated by these events, few things can match the long-awaited release of a Firestone-Walker fan favorite.

Velvet Merkin, a rich Oatmeal Stout aged in bourbon barrels, is finally being released for public sale starting with a release party at Firestone-Walker’s Barrelworks facility in Buellton.

“I think it’s as much a victory to get the name approved and out there as it is to get the wonderful beer out there as well,” Firestone-Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson said. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

Matt isn’t the only one excited about it. He fought off chuckles as he explained the origin of the comically-named beer.

“We always come up with these names, and if I’m the one formulating I’m tasked with coming up with the name,” Matt said. “I came up with this fanciful name, Velvet Merkin. Nobody had a clue what a merkin was and everybody just kind of said it – including Adam (Firestone) and David (Walker), the owners. And I always got a chuckle every time they’d say ‘Wow, this merkin is really good.’ I was like, ‘Ha, you said merkin.’”

However, once the team at Firestone fully grasped what they were saying, they balked at releasing a beer called merkin – velvet or not. The beer became known as Velvet Merlin and was Firestone’s winter seasonal.

In some ways, this was actually a positive thing for the beer. Now Matt, impish as he proved to be already, was allowed to play with the beer a little more. He began experimenting with fermenting it all in oak and aging it in bourbon barrels.

The new product was put on tap in Buellton and at the brewery in Paso Robles under the name Velvet Merkin – and it quickly developed a cult following. That popularity helped persuade Firestone-Walker to give Velvet Merkin its due.

“I’m glad it worked out that way, because the barrel-aged beer is a really special beer,” Matt said. “It has already won back-to-back gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the Oak-Aged Beer category.”

The history of the beer may be a little irreverent, but the product itself is simply delicious.

It’s been a great summer filled with crisp, clean and hoppy beers. But seasons change, and instead of bemoaning the earlier twilight and colder temperatures, I’ll be toasting to my friends with a bottle of Merkin and a homebrew. I hope you do the same.

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and beer writer. His column appears the first Thursday of the month in the Food section. Follow him on twitter @Sean_M_Lewis to see where he’s drinking in Santa Barbara County.



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