The Holiday season is crazy, and things get lost in the shuffle. This beer blog was one of them. Without further ado – here’s my December Column as it originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press. Happy New Beer everyone.
December 5, 2013 7:24 AM
AJ Stoll is a talented brewer, and he has the recent hardware from the Great American Beer Festival to prove it. But in late November, AJ looked just as at ease among the trappings of the wine trade.
In a cooler lined with metal beer kegs, the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. brewmaster dipped a wine thief into a wine barrel and pulled out a sample of midnight-black liquid.
Don’t worry. The GABF award winner isn’t going to the grape side. He’s just doing what so many other great brewers are doing these days – he’s experimenting. The beer he pulled out of the wine thief was Fig Mountain’s Magpie Porter aged in syrah barrels.
The beer-wine hybrid was slightly chocolaty with distinct hints of, well, wine. Lingering notes of dark plums and a tart, astringent quality played alongside the smoky and sweet flavors of the porter. The syrah-porter was aged in barrels after the wine and the beer fermented independently and were then blended together – with lots more beer than wine going into the blend.
But mostly, this was an opportunity for AJ to have some fun and come up with something new.
“The wine stuff, most of my friends and colleagues work in the wine industry since there aren’t a lot of breweries out here and there are a lot of wineries,” AJ explained. “There’s just been a lot of general discussion between them and myself.
“It finally got to a point where it had been kicking around in my head so much I came up with the idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it – like the cold aging instead of cellar temperature. Then blending independently fermented wine must with the beer wort instead of making fruit beer – just little things like that. I felt really strongly that that would make a difference and do something different than what other breweries were doing.”
The beer, which is on tap now at both the Buellton and Santa Barbara Fig Mountain locations, is not AJ’s first dabbling with beer and wine – and it’s one of several recent experiments he has concocted.
There’s also the impressive Fig Mountain 3rd Anniversary beer. It is essentially a doubled-up recipe of the brewery’s Stagecoach Stout, and is a strong and delicious imperial oatmeal stout with the slightest hints of black licorice. He aged a portion of it in whiskey barrels from Santa Barbara’s own distillery, Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, and then blended the two batches.
Just about a mile and a half from the Fig Mountain brewery in Buellton, Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson are a pair of mad brewing scientists for Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks program.
Their laboratory looks like a cross between a cathedral and a wine cellar, with stacks of barrels and large wooden vats called foeders stretching to the high ceiling of the dimly lit facility. Inside the barrels, beer brewed at Firestone Walker’s Paso Robles brewery ages on the oak, but usually with a little something extra.
Many of the beers receive an inoculation of brettanomyces, a strain of yeast that adds a flavor profile best described as “funky,” and lactobacillus, a bacterium that produces a sour tartness. Others are blended with fruit or wine.
There are barrels filled with a blend of chenin blanc juice and, essentially, Barrelworks’ Brettaweiss beer (a blonde ale fermented with the blend of brettanomyces and lactobacillus) that has a sweet and fruity, almost spritzer-like taste. There is a beer aging on top of plums grown on brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s Paso Robles estate, and there is an incredibly potent beer that was blended with juice from orange muscat grapes that has slight notes of orange and a syrupy sweetness that disguised the impressive 15 percent ABV.
But unlike AJ’s experimentations, these beers aren’t just a fun side project.
“We’re past experimentation,” Jeffers said. “We’re into rollout.”
While Firestone Walker may have the edge in terms of distribution power and production capability, it is just another part of a brewing community in the region that is proving that the possibilities for beer are only beginning to be explored.
So forget what you thought you knew about how beer should taste, and forget any notions of competition between beer and wine. In Santa Barbara County, brewers are proving that grapes and grains can play nicely together, and the result is some pretty interesting beer.
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.