HEADS UP: Fall flavors in a pint

Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 4 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press. I’ve been avoiding posting my monthly columns on here because many of the recent ones were timely and irrelevant by the time the rights reverted back to me. This one is less constrained in that regard.

Today’s brewers operate under an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats. In other words, the majority of modern beer companies would rather collaborate with their competitors than, well, compete.

Whether this is a good thing for craft brewers as the market segment continues to grow remains to be seen. For the consumer, however, it’s all good.

Take, for example, two breweries in our own backyard — Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and Firestone Walker Brewing Co. In many respects, Fig Mountain is a David to Firestone’s Goliath, except without the slingshot. Firestone Walker is distributed on both coasts, while Fig Mountain is shipped only as far away as Sacramento. Yet both breweries owe much of their success to the Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura county markets.

Fortunately, the decision-makers at each brewery have come to realize that there’s plenty of room for both to grow. As long as consumers are willing to snag a Bud Light off the shelf of the grocery store, Firestone Walker and Fig Mountain can continue to coexist.

And as luck would have it, each brewery is celebrating the release of new beers in September.

First up is Fig Mountain, where brewmaster A.J. Stoll is debuting Ole Mole, an amber ale spiced with chilies that give it a distinctive mole flavor. Mr. Stoll refers to it as “liquid taco,” and it’s an apt description, both in flavor and aroma.

“It tastes like fruity chilies and chocolate and coffee. We added organic cumin, cinnamon and coriander to make it more authentic. It’s basically like Grandma’s mole recipe in beer.”

It is on tap now at Fig Mountain’s tap rooms in the Funk Zone, Buellton and Los Olivos. It joins a list of exciting new beers that includes the McKinley Peak Milk Stout. Served on nitrogen (the same system that gives Guinness its distinctive creamy texture), the beer is slightly sweet and is virtually a dessert in a glass.

Neither, though, can match the hype building for the release of Fig Mountain’s Liquementum brand. The side label is a pet project of Mr. Stoll’s that draws heavily on the influence of winemakers, and features barrel-aged beers. Up first will be Double Down Davy Brown and Hell’s Half Acre Barleywine. The two are strong beers that have been aging in whiskey barrels, and will be previewed at the Buellton brewery’s Sept. 27 “Figtoberfest” Oktoberfest celebration.

Fig Mountain will also have an Oktoberfest party at its Funk Zone spot on Sept. 20 — the same day that Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks project releases its latest creation, Feral Vinefera, upon the world. I have yet to try this beer as a finished product, but I did taste some of the components several months ago as they were aging. The sour ale was co-fermented alongside juice from wine grapes picked from brewery owner David Walker’s property and fermented in French oak barrels with a blend of wild yeasts. Then those barrels were blended together with the assistance of winemaker Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards. Blends of beers made with sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and orange muscat juice were then combined with Barrelworks’ Bretta Weisse to create the finished product.

Barrelworks will also release Agrestic, a sour ale that has long been a favorite of beer geeks in the area.

In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the great beers already available in town. That includes the Handlebar Abbey Ale at Telegraph Brewing Co. Brewed with coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters in Santa Barbara, it’s the perfect beer to drink while dreaming about all the amazing beer you’re going to be drinking this month.

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and beer writer. His book, “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press), will be released Sept. 23. His column appears the first Thursday of the month in the Food section. Follow him on twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.



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