Farewell, Santa Barbara

Word has begun to spread already, so for many of Santa Barbara Beer’s readers this may be old news, but this will be likely the last post for this blog. It’s been a fun couple of years, but I’m moving out of the area and it wouldn’t make much sense to write about Santa Barbara beer and brewing when I live and work elsewhere.

There are plenty of projects ahead in the future, and those details when come out when they do, but for the moment let’s take a look to reflect on the past and current state of beer in Santa Barbara.

When this blog began in March of 2013, beer in the American Riviera was just beginning to take roots. Telegraph Brewing Company was in the process of expanding into its new and current location, Pure Order Brewing Company was still trying to get up and running and Island Brewing Company was the only option for beer in Carpinteria. Oh yeah, and no portion of Firestone Walker was owned by Duvel.

Two years later and not only was Pure Order up and brewing, but it is doing quite well. Telegraph continued its expansion and joined the contemporary beer scene with an IPA that stands along the best examples of the style in town. Not only does Island Brewing have some company in Carpinteria now, but it brewLAB and Rincon have proved to be impressive in their own right. As far as Island goes, the competition has seemingly only made the product coming out of the local area’s oldest production brewery that much better. Goleta’s Captain Fatty’s has become a family-friendly option in the area while Hollister Brewing Company continues to churn out Eric Rose’s typically impressive beer.

But not all developments have been unicorns and rainbows. Santa Barbara Brewing Company’s reviver, Kevin Pratt, said farewell to pursue other avenues. So too did Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s AJ Stoll, who is now back in the United States and plying his trade in Florida’s up-and-coming Funky Buddha. Oh yeah, and Firestone Walker “combined forces” with Duvel-Moortgat.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what that last sentence even means. A quick text conversation with David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks confirmed that Duvel didn’t “buy out” Firestone Walker, but is definitely involved. To me, this sounds as though Duvel only bought a portion of the company — and not a controlling portion. All indications point to complete autonomy for Firestone Walker, but I’m sure as a major shareholder Duvel will want to ensure that the company remains profitable. Still, Ommegang and Boulevard have thrived under Duvel ownership, and I can’t imagine that Firestone Walker will be negatively impacted from its new partnership with the Devil.

If anything, I’m curious to see what Firestone Walker does with its new influx of cash. Along with the possibility of tapping into a larger distribution network, a deal of this type will likely provide the Paso Robles-based brewery with funds to take on new projects. The canning facility at the Paso campus is already a thing of beauty, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more beer come out in cans. Or perhaps some of the funding will go toward speeding up progress at the upcoming Venice location. This is all pure speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Firestone Walker increase its national footprint the same way we have seen Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, Lagunitas, New Belgium and a handful of others open new plants in other regions of the country. Or perhaps Firestone may take a similar route as Figueroa Mountain and open up smaller tasting or tap rooms in various locations. Maybe Barrelworks will get its own wort production equipment as well. Who knows? The point is that this new partnership should only bring positives for Firestone Walker and beer fans across the country — perhaps across the world. Duvel has proven it has the ability to invest in craft brands without tainting the product or the spirit of the company with its efforts with Ommegang and Boulevard, and it seems likely that Firestone Walker and its customers will only benefit from this new partnership.

I’m sad to leave Santa Barbara with its perfect weather and its rapidly expanding beer scene. I wish that I would have the opportunity to report on the openings of M Special in Goleta and Third Window in Santa Barbara. My departure from the community won’t slow down the growth that we’ve already seen, and I imagine the small void I leave will be filled soon by someone else.

It’s been a fun journey. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Meet Mike Hastings, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s new director of brewing operations.

 

photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

It’s old news by now, but Figueroa Mountain’s award-winning brewmaster, A.J. Stoll, has departed for Ireland. Of course, Fig Mountain still goes on — and has no intention of taking a step back.

There’s no denying that Stoll was a great brewer. His collection of medals and well-crafted beers speak for themselves. And while the 30-year-old Stoll was a relatively young face in the brewing scene, Fig Mountain’s new lead guy, Mike Hastings, is a longtime brewing veteran.

Hastings began his career at Humboldt Brewing Company in 1989, and has spent the past 25 years brewing beer in California and Pennsylvania. He first arrived at Figueroa Mountain as the head brewer in December of 2011 — making this month the mark of his third year with the Buellton-based brewery.

“I was brought in to take A.J.’s spot to let him be more creative, go out in the public and do that sort of stuff,” Hastings said. “I was hired to do the day-to-day running of the show, making sure the product was consistent and that sort of stuff.”

As the head brewer, Hastings’ job included running the brewhouse and making sure the brewery’s stocks of hops and grain matched what was necessary for production. Stoll, meanwhile, was free to develop new beers, work on Anniversary Ale projects and do the kind of public relations and quality control jobs that come with the territory at a growing brewery like Fig Mountain.

And while those kind of tasks will fall to Hastings as the new director of brewing operations, the job of creating new beers will be delegated out to the entire brewing team. The brewery held its first “Brewers Roundtable” on Dec. 4*, as the team discussed what Fig should focus on for 2015.

“More heads are better than one. A.J. was an incredible recipe creator and a good leader, that’s for sure, but we might have been a little narrow-minded in terms of flavors we were looking for,” Hastings said. “Whereas if you bring in a broad range of palates, you might get something you never expected. A.J. and I had a little bit palate styles but he and I always came in the middle and said that’s a beautiful, beautiful beer. But nothing’s going to change at Fig, nothing’s going to drift. If anything, they’ll get a little better.”

It should be noted that Hastings’ previous quote was not a criticism of the former brewmaster, just that he believes a collaborative process might lead to more widely appealing beers.

And if you’re worried that Hastings will come in and change up your favorite beers at Fig, rest assured he says that won’t happen. After all, he was often the guy overseeing the production of much of those core beers up in Buellton.

“Those things are kind of set,” Hastings said. “You have to look at our success and what’s going on. Why mess with something that’s good? Hoppy Poppy is really successful, but we might look at modifying our Pale Ale a little bit. Pale Ales are a little blasé right now, so we might be looking to modify that or maybe make a session ale or something along those lines.”

If you’re looking for a beer that has more of Hastings’ stamp on it already, check out the 4th Anniversary beer. It’s a Belgian Quad-style beer brewed with fig extract (get it: quad for four years, figs for, well, Fig Mountain). The beer began with Stoll, but was finished and blended from barrels by Hastings and team.

“This beer had an excellent start,” Hastings said. “It was a great, great beer. The whole idea of our fourth anniversary and all the years of the hard work to bring it up to a high level, why not do a Belgian Quad?”

Hastings said that he’s already excited about beginning work on the 5th Anniversary beer, and suggested that he had some ideas already that he wasn’t ready to discuss. That beer will likely be the first real insight into what Hastings has to offer as the new head man in charge, while Fig fans in the meantime will be happy to know that not much will be changing for their favorite brewery.

Photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

Photo courtesy of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company

 

* In a recent conversation with Fig’s CEO, Jaime Dietenhofer, he mentioned the hiring of several new brewers. Some of them will move into head brewing positions at the brewery’s satellite breweries and tasting rooms in Westlake Village and Arroyo Grande, both scheduled to open soon, as well as a brewer to take over the barrel-aging and mad-science aspects of the Liquamentum project which began under Stoll.

 

 

 

Fig Mountain at Four Years Old

IMG_1825

I’ll admit it, I wasn’t always sold on Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company.

My first experience with the brewery coincided with my first weekend back in Santa Barbara. It was October, 2010, and this upstart brewery had a booth at the annual Santa Barbara Beer Festival at Elings Park. With their Hoppy Poppy IPA and Hurricane Deck Double IPA available, they seemed to me like every new brewery out there — coming in with big, boozy offerings but maybe not with the expertise to make truly impressive beer.

Four years later, I stand corrected.

Fig celebrated its Fourth Anniversary in Buellton on Nov. 27, and over that time span the brewery has emerged as not just one of the better breweries on the Central Coast, but in the country.

With the addition of a couple new tanks recently, Fig is producing beer at a rate of 20,000 barrels per year (big for a local brewery, but still small when you consider that Firestone Walker brews 10 times that amount — and three times that amount of its 805 alone).

“(The growth) was expected, but years from now,” Figueroa Mountain founder and CEO Jaime Dietenhofer said. “I’d be lying to tell you on the business plan — it wasn’t there. The hockey stick growth came sooner than expected.”

It’s hard to separate the growth and success of Fig from its former brewmaster, A.J. Stoll. Stoll was brought in very soon after the brewery opened, and helped develop an award-winning beer portfolio — including 11 medals at the Great American Beer Festival under his watch.

But Stoll is gone, or at least mostly gone as he will still be a part of the brewery’s development in Germany, where it plans to open a taproom. So what exactly does the future look like for Fig?

For one, Fig recently opened a taproom in Santa Maria to go with its satellite brewery in Santa Barbara, taproom in Los Olivos and of course the main facility in Buellton. There will also be satellite breweries capable of producing unique beers in Arroyo Grande, Westlake Village and San Luis Obispo in the near future as well.

Anywhere else?

“A taproom on the moon,” Dietenhofer said. “No, the big thing with the taprooms is a regional goal to be able to have a footprint from Paso Robles to Westlake. That was our focus. Our goal is to not continue on the taproom gig. Our goal is to reach a capacity where we can come up with new, compelling beers. There was a time during our growing pains that we couldn’t come up with new beers because we had to focus on our core beers. We want to keep making new beers to stay on the cutting edge.”

As for the brewing side of things, former head brewer Mike Hastings was bumped up to director of brewing operations, and he will oversee a team of brewers that will meet today (Dec. 4) for Fig’s first-ever Brewer’s Round Table — a collaborative session designed to get a mixed range of voices into the brewing process.

“Before A.J. left, the good thing was that we were able to have a lot of good hires,” Dietenhofer said. “Knowing that we were having growth we were able to bring on four or five head brewers that were head brewers at other locations. We built a team rather than having just one person at the top.

“We built a collaborative, and we called it the Brewers’ Round Table. December 4 is our first Brewers’ Round Table where it’s everyone has the ability to add something — whether it’s an anniversary beer, a taproom beer or even taking something to package. Its like we were talking about before taking the best people available like an NBA draft and getting them into our team and seeing what we can do with a team. Two heads are better than one and five heads are better than one. I think that’s going to take us to the next level. A.J. was an amazing part of the team and now we have some guys who can shine now and are ready to.”

From left, samples of Figueroa Mountain's 2nd, 3rd and 4th Anniversary Beers.

From left, samples of Figueroa Mountain’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th Anniversary Beers.

As for the 4th Anniversary beer itself, I’ll let Hastings explain it.

“This beer had an excellent start,” he said. “It was a great, great beer. The whole idea of our fourth anniversary and all the years of the hard work to bring it up to a high level, why not do a Belgian Quad?”

Get it? Four years… Quad — clever.

The beer is a barrel-aged Quad with a slight hint of figs from a locally-produced natural fig extract. It’s a beautiful dark brown with ruby highlights when held up to the light.

To be honest, I’d have liked to see a little more from the beer. Compared to the bourbon-barrel-aged Imperial Oatmeal Stout that was the 3rd Anniversary, this beer is a little pedestrian — if a well-made Quad can be considered such. It’s not that it’s a bad beer, very far from it, but perhaps not as exciting as you might expect for a once-a-year offering. In fact, I enjoyed the cask version available during the anniversary party that was aged on smoked poplar wood, figs and anise better.

Still, I’ve got a bottle in my fridge and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it stands up to the test of time. I wouldn’t mind seeing a version of it, perhaps not barrel-aged for production reasons, available on a more regular basis at Figs’ numerous tap rooms.

It’s been a strong four years for Figueroa Mountain, and I know they’ve won over many of their doubters like myself. I look forward to seeing what the next four (and hopefully more) years bring.

Raise a pint for departing brewers

Note: This column originally appeared in the Nov. 6 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press. For more information, you can check out my farewell Q and A pieces with A.J. Stoll and Kevin Pratt on this site. I recently met with Fig Mountain’s new director of brewing operations, Mike Hastings, and will have more info on him at this space soon.

Santa Barbara’s beer culture stretches back to the late 1990s when brewers like Island Brewing Co.’s Paul Wright, Santa Barbara Brewing Co.’s Eric Rose (now owner of Hollister Brewing Co.) and The Brewhouse’s Pete Johnson were either already brewing great beer or getting close to opening their breweries. Nevermind the budding emergence of Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles.

But in 2010, the local beer scene was bolstered by the arrival of two men — Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.’s A.J. Stoll and Santa Barbara Brewing’s Kevin Pratt.

In Stoll, Fig Mountain had found a young brewer with the chemical and brewing know-how to help the new brewery expand while creating award-winning beers in the process. In Pratt, Brewco brought in an experienced brewer.

Stoll brought acclaim to Fig Mountain, and Pratt restored Brewco’s reputation as more than just a tourist trap.

And now, Santa Barbara is saying farewell to both.

Both brewmasters recently announced that they are departing their breweries this month for new ventures and new opportunities.

Stoll is off to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, where he and his partners are planning on opening Killarney Brewing Co. in a market he thinks is ready to explode in the same way the U.S. market has over the past decade or two.

“I always encouraged my staff to elevate themselves and take on new responsibilities and positions, and so that’s basically the same thing I’m doing,” Stoll told the News-Press. “My goal is to be an international brewery consultant … So in the short term, I’m going to this start-up in Ireland, and in the long term, what I’m going to be is I’ll be all over the shelf.”

Stoll will serve as a consultant for Fig, which is elevating head brewer Mike Hastings to director of brewing operations. Stoll will also help the Buellton-based brewery expand into Germany — a longtime dream of CEO Jaime Dietenhofer.

Pratt isn’t going so far — just up the road to Creekside Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo. Pratt and his partners, under the umbrella of the newly formed Heirloom Brewing Co., are taking over the brewery as the first step toward establishing Heirloom as a production brewery.

Creekside won’t change much immediately but it will eventually serve as a tasting room and experimental facility for the larger production plant.

“We didn’t buy it to turn it into something else,” said Pratt. “We bought it because it was already a functioning brewery and already in the right construct we’re looking for — and a great location.”

The changes forced me to take stock of what we truly have here in Santa Barbara, and I went to visit an old favorite in The Brewhouse. Johnson continues to make high-quality, interesting beers out of his seven-barrel brewhouse. Recently, I sat down with him to taste some of the new beers on tap.

A favorite is the Milkman’s Handshake — a rich milk stout with loads of chocolate and roasted coffee notes to complement the sweetness from the lactose that gives the style its name.

Always a great place for strong beer, The Brewhouse also offers a Russian imperial stout playfully dubbed Crimea River. I also enjoyed the return of Football Saison, a staple for local drinkers every fall. The saison was dry and loaded with beautiful peppery aromas on the back end that you might expect from a saison, but at more than 7 percent alcohol by volume, it packs more of a punch than the typical farmhouse-style ale.

The Brewhouse is also about to release its 11th Harvest Ale. The annual beer utilizes fresh hops grown behind The Brewhouse and is a revelation of hop flavor and aroma.

It’s true that Pratt and Stoll brought great things to the Santa Barbara beer scene, and it will certainly be sad to see them and their talents go. But despair not, for the local community remains alive and well in those who have been around and are staying around.

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and the author of “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press). His column appears the first Thursday of the month. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.

 

Q & A with SB Brewing Company’s outgoing Brewmaster, Kevin Pratt

IMG_0719

Last week I spoke with outgoing Figueroa Mountain brewmaster A.J. Stoll. He’s off to Ireland, but Santa Barbara Brewing Company’s Kevin Pratt is not going quite as far. He and his partners at the newly formed Heirloom Brewing Company, which will operate as a production brewery in the near future, is hoping to close escrow on San Luis Obispo’s Creekside Brewing Company this month.

I sat down with Kevin to discuss his upcoming future and his fleeting time at Brewco.

Kevin opened by discussing his feelings toward leaving Brewco to start his own brewing company.

PRATT: I feel very much the same way that a woman in the late stages of pregnancy must feel where I’ve gone through all the stages where this is what I’m doing and it’s great, I’m happy and everyone is happy for me. Then I educate myself on everything to come and I keep obsessing about it because I want everything to be great, just like a woman wants everything great for her baby. Then it gets to the last few months and it’s like here’s your due date. Then you get past that date and you say, ‘Ok, I’m done. I’m done now. Let’s have this, I’m really done.’ I feel very much like I’m slightly overdue.

Q: So you feel like you’re ready for Heirloom to be born.

A: I’m really ready for this. And I know there will be sleepless nights, and I’m Ok with that.

Q: When it starts, will it start off as Heirloom right away or is there an intermediate step.

A: First off, this project is Creekside Brewing. It’s not Heirloom. Heirloom is the parent company.

Q: Heirloom is the company buying Creekside?

A: Correct.

We’re not going to change Creekside to begin with. We didn’t buy it to turn it into something else. We bought it because it was already a functioning brewery and already in the right construct we’re looking for — and a great location. It just happened to be the right magical combination to make this purpose.

So we didn’t buy it right away saying hey we want to change everything. We could have bought any other bar and done that. It doesn’t work for us to change the name until we have a production brewery to stand behind it and provide more core beers. Hopefully this place will make a lot of experimental beers and fun stuff. It will be a great place to go to have the beers, have great food and a few things that are not on the beer menu.

Q: Under the leadership of you and Heirloom, and your partners, what can we expect in the near future at Creekside?

A: It’s always going to be classic beers in the modern world. This is how we’re, we’re always going to be making beers that are the core of beer culture — the best of beer culture. We’re always going to offer food that is the best of going out to a pub and casual dining. You can always expect the highest quality of both. And every now and then, some fun. We want to have some fun while we’re brewing, we want to have fun while we’re cooking and we want to be creative. Beer has been a wonderful set of evolution and creation over time. America is just the latest to enter the particular fray.

Q: What do you feel about your time here in Santa Barbara?

A: I love it. This has been one of the best challenges of my career. It’s been rewarding because I’ve been able to meet that challenge. It’s been rewarding on a business level because I’ve helped my company become something really important. It’s been rewarding because even as I exit, the transition here is about keeping it an important place, keeping the quality up, making sure we hire the right person, making sure that person follows it, and making sure that I’m available if there’s an issue. This is not a just a sudden departure.

Q: Along those lines you’re going to be hiring and training a new brewer to take over before you leave.

A: Hopefully I’m going to be hiring a brewer with a lot of training and skill. Hopefully I’m hiring a brewer that wants to make their own mark. I don’t want a brewer that just wants to take over. At least a third of my job has been being creative, getting new and interesting things going and getting new and interesting thought process among the public about it. The next brewer has to be able to embrace that.

The most important part of this is that the new brewer understands where we’re at and where we need to go. They need to stay on the path of making great classic beers, balanced beers in this market that meet the goals of the restaurant and still allow him or her enough room to play. There’s plenty of room for that. There are only three or four recipes that need to carry on, everything else they can put their own stamp on.

Q: This being your fourth year here, are there any regrets as far as things you didn’t get to accomplish or any things that you would like to change?

A: I really wish I had time to do more collaboration beers. I’m very much going to miss this brewery. I feel like I’ve built a hot rod I learned to drive really well and I’m going to miss not being able to drive that brewery. I’m going to miss some of the mentoring opportunities I’ve had with brewers. I’m going to miss the new breweries that are in town and the growth of that, but I’m also looking forward to basically regaining all of that in San Luis Obispo.

 

— That’s it. And if you’re sad about the departure of Kevin and AJ, fear not — there are plenty of new breweries on the horizon. I’ll be discussing Captain Fatty’s in Goleta and Rincon and BrewLab in Carpinteria in this space soon. Stay tuned.

Liquamentum Preview at Fig Mountain

-3

The rapid growth and quickly expanding popularity of Figueroa Mountain aren’t enough for brewmaster A.J. Stoll. It seems he has to have a little something on the side.

Stoll and Fig Mountain are officially unveiling the brewery’s new label, Liquamentum, this weekend. But those at the Sept. 27 Figtoberfest in Buellton have already had a peak at those beers.

The side project will feature barrel-aged and innovative beers that might not work well for Fig Mountain’s normal line. Right now that’s because the beers are aged for a long time in barrels, but Stoll did not rule out the possibility of brewing sour beers or experimenting with other yeast strains. Beers that have already been on tap at Fig’s tap rooms like Petite Syrah Porter and The Grendel are examples of the kind of beer one can expect from Liquamentum.

I was invited, along with a few other members of the media, to a lunch and tasting of the new line earlier this week. We were fed well by Beto Huizar, the chef of Beto’s Place, which is opening in a space above the brewery as soon as the permits all go through (more on Beto’s place later).

IMG_1595

The first beer on the menu was a familiar one for Whole Foods customer — Biere de Menage.

The beer is a saison aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels and is comprised of a whopping 6% Sauvignon Blanc wine. Stoll and Fig Mountain brought in winemakers to help craft the blend, and Stoll had to make sure that the beer stayed well within the “beer” realm.

“We had some of these blends that were just ‘wow,’ way out there,” Stoll said. “I had to dial it back a bit because I wanted to make sure that these beers are still beer.”

The end result is really lovely and refreshing and the wine elements certainly peak their head out to play with your palate. It’s the lightest in the series, but has a nice body to it and tons of nuances in the nose and flavor.

Next up was Double Down Davy Brown — a double-mashed imperial brown ale aged in bourbon barrels from Cutler’s Distillery in the Funk Zone. Basically, Stoll took the first runnings from two mashes and made one beer — a very strong beer at over 11% ABV.

It’s a deep, dark brown with the slightest whiff of bourbon on the nose. There’s also lots of dark fruit with cherries, plum and raisins coming through. The taste is similar. It’s sweet for a beer, and the high alcohol is hidden very well. The fruit elements add a layer of complexity behind the malt-forward beer.

Finally, we got to Hell’s Half-Acre — a wine barrel-aged barleywine that was bottled more than a year after going into pinot noir barrels from Seasmoke. The beer is dark and strong like Double Davy Brown (stronger in fact at closer to 13% ABV), but when held to the light it shines a brilliant ruby. There are not many hops present in the nose anymore, but the bitterness still exists.

Once again, notes of fruit and oak play behind a complex foreground, but the nuances are different. This beer has more bitterness for balance, and the pinot barrels express themselves differently than the whisky barrels.

But, with all respect to Stoll, the star of the afternoon was Huizar and his food. The former Firestone Walker head chef prepared tri-tip sliders with accouterments, spent-grain pretzel bites with Davy Brown mustard and beer-brined hot wings alongside homemade ranch dressing and fresh carrots and jicama.

It was the perfect base for an afternoon of sipping strong ales, and I’ll be looking forward to the restaurant’s opening in the near future.

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.

 

Figueroa Mountain Brewing collaborates with Ignacio Cervantes

The following is a press release from Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company. Brewers A.J. Stoll for Fig and Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes from Pizza Port, Ocean Beach are collaborating on an Imperial Red Ale at the Santa Barbara location in the Funk Zone.

According to Stoll, the collaboration is part of a sharing spirit at Fig, where they have a dedicated 15-bbl “Short Tank” set aside for collaborations with local homebrewers, winemakers, friends and other commercial brewers. Stoll said via text message, “We do it for fun and because we/I always try to learn one new thing every day.”

He added that “Our colleagues are often our best mentors too.”

photo via Facebook

photo via Facebook

 

Santa Barbara, California— On Thursday, April 17, 2014, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company will host a Q&A event with Head Brewer Ignacio “Nacho” Cervantes from Pizza Port Brewery in Ocean Beach. Starting at 6:00 PM, meet the brewer and taste beer samples from Pizza Port in Fig Mtn Brew’s Santa Barbara Taproom located at 137 Anacapa St., Suite F in the Funk Zone.

Cervantes is in town for a special collaboration with Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s Brewmaster, AJ Stoll. The two will be brewing a hoppy, Imperial Red Ale together in Fig Mtn Brew’s Buellton brewery. Craft beer lovers are encouraged to attend the Q&A on Thursday to learn more about this collaboration brew.

The Imperial Red Ale is set to be released in all three Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company Taprooms (Los Olivos, Buellton and Santa Barbara) in approximately three to four weeks. For more information please visit www.FigMtnBrew.com.

Figueroa Mountain Anniversary Party

fig moutnain

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company will be celebrating the third anniversary of the Buellton brewery on Saturday, November 30.

There’s going to be live music and beer, and even a shuttle from the Santa Barbara location to the main facility to the north, but the real draw will, of course, be the beer. recent GABF champion Brewmaster AJ Stoll and his brewing team have created a gorgeous beer for the occasion that will be available in bottles and on tap at both locations. The beer is a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout that spent time in Cutler Artisan Spirits 33 Whiskey barrels. The beer in the barrels picked up a lovely charred characteristic as well as a distinctly bourbon character (think a touch of alcohol heat, vanilla and just a tiny bit of butterscotch – in a good way).

Fig Mountain brewmaster AJ Stoll checks samples of the 3rd Anniversary beer direct from Cutler's Artisan Spirits barrels.

Fig Mountain brewmaster AJ Stoll checks samples of the 3rd Anniversary beer direct from Cutler’s Artisan Spirits barrels.

The barrel-aged version was then blended with a non barrel-aged version of the same beer to cut back on some of the heat and make it more drinkable (brewmaster AJ Stoll deemed the 100% barrel-aged version to be completely undrinkable, although I thought it was a rather fun beer. Then again, I’m probably not like the average beer drinker). Blending trials resulted in a decision to blend the beer as a 70-30 blend – with 70% of the beer spending time in bourbon barrels (this ratio may have changed after the trials, as Stoll had the final say).

There will be a lot more on this and other exciting projects at Fig Mountain in my December column in the News Press, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.

-Sean Lewis

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.