As we edge out of Colorado and cross into the middle of Utah, this RV has traveled some 3500 miles. By the time we reach San Diego, two of our original crew members will have been on the road for a week straight. We’ve filled up gas close to twenty times. When we finally arrive in Rancho Bernardo, we will have clocked over 4,600 miles. We’re aware that SD beer week starts in just two days and nothing will keep us from getting the special beer to you. But when you think of all the set-backs: getting pulled over, parking tickets, getting stuck in between cars in tiny parking spaces; was it worth it? Was it worth the tired eyes and the noxious RV interior and the overnight drives and for a large handful of rare kegs and bottles of beer?
Contrary to social media and its insatiable appetite for quantity, I never intended this use this string of blog posts to brag about the rare beer we’d be drinking. Whether you like it or not, much of social media is intended to make you feel bad for not being there. You’re left out if you’re not constantly tapping into whats new and present. Photos are taken, comments are made–why aren’t you here now and always? Of course, we couldn’t invite the public on this crazy little trip of ours, but we can share what we’ve found and it has been my intention to tell a little story, too. We took the trip to create long lasting memories for us as a business. We think beer week is a wonderful community event worth delving hard into. There’s a certain spirit and celebration to it all, when you can walk into a bar on a sleepy Tuesday night and find almost a hundred people drinking the same few, incredible things. Last year was the first year that I realized that we may be reaching a glut of beer week events around town. Urge was doing good things, but could we do even more?
While I’m nervous to overstate the important of this all, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that craft beer has all made us better people. Visiting a brewery and seeing the stainless steel tanks and smelling malt doesn’t mean you’re going to be a better person. But being behind the bar has leant me a chance to drink what people care about so very much about. When I see Perennial Artisan Ale’s buying up an abandoned brick building in the south side of St. Louis and building a reputable brewhouse with a handful of ideas (and then succeeding), I see promise and longevity in this industry. While we left town to improve upon the stash, San Diego still has a great thing going for it. We can only hope to be apart of that and make it better.
The beer run has been intense and fun and long. Tonight we drive to Vegas and and try to have a few more laughs. When I look back on this trip, I’ll think about Nate driving at 7,000 feet altitude across the slick and icy roads of tiny two-lane highway with a sagging RV stocked of icy cold Bourbon County Stout. I’ll think how inviting and classy Boulevard brewing was, with its dedication to serving Kansas City while not competing with its own local restaurants. I think about how dark and empty Kansas is at night. There are plenty more stories; the beer is just the beginning.
As I write this, we ride across west Missouri towards Kansas City, Kansas. It’s grey, wet, and a persistent layer of fog surrounds the horizon. Our spirits are quite high, however; no doubt we’ve been tasting some fantastic beer and the hospitality has been wonderful. The mid-west is flat, but the people are kind and warm and we’ve been receiving enthusiastic reactions to this crazy little run of ours. Longer hours on the road are ahead. The drive from Kansas to Colorado won’t be pretty. I’ve evaded my driving shift thus far, but I know its coming very soon.
We slept in St. Louis for a mere four hours. We did have a place to park and eat and sleep via an old college friend of Grants’. By 9am, we arrived at a two-year old brewery called ‘Perennial’. A Berlinerweisse brewed with peaches kind of captivated us from the beginning. Perhaps this is the beer you drink in the early morning after glutting yourself with imperial stouts for days. Anyhow, the beer tasted nice and we took a small tour of the grounds and chatted with the small staff starting their day. Overall, Perennial seems to use a long list of ingredients, ranging from fresh harvested fruit to a range of spices and herbs. It was an earnest set-up, a nice addition to a quiet area in south St. Louis We’ll be sharing our finds shortly.
We then headed to Schlafly in downtown St.Louis for lunch and brief tour of their operations. The majority of the brewery was below ground in the ‘cellar.’ It opened up quite a bit down there, and for as much equipment they had tucked away, it was nicely managed.
We now look forward to Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City. I’ve been promised traditional BBQ. After dinner, we’ll hit the road to Colorado overnight (we’ll see how far we make it through. As of now, we intend to drive completely through the evening.) I’ll post some photos soon. Continue to wish us luck.
When my GM called me earlier this month about a potential beer run to Illinois and back, I was, without a question, completely fond of the idea. Let’s pick up an RV, visit some breweries, and buy some rare and impressive beer to bring back to Urge. That sentiment was sustained over the last three weeks until this very morning. Dehydrated and sleep deprived, some of us made our way to Goose Island for the kickoff to our beer run. Their brewing facility was tucked away in an anonymous part of town, and we arrived red-eyed but eager to get our day going. Meanwhile, two team members were stuck with our RV (that was sandwiched in a parking lot, unable to make a clean turn out of its stall between two cars). It was then that we fully realized that the main character in our beer run may not even be available to take us where we wanted that afternoon; our beer run wasn’t looking so glamorous.
Our tour of Goose Island, however, was excellent. Led by Andrew Osterman and Ken Stout, we were led through their two immense barrel rooms. One room was dedicated to sours, belgians, and experimental ales, the other was all bourbon barrels. The two rooms were opposite in ambience. The bourbon room was dark, cold, and damp. The other was full of light: clean, cathedral like. We drank and chatted and the slow time afforded us some recovery from a long night out in Chicago. After our barrel room vists, we had lunch at the original Goose Island brewpub in Lincoln Park. Everyone on the Goose Island team was gracious and enthusiastic about our beer run. We were even lucky enough to meet the original brewer and founder of Goose Island, John Hall. The brewery is a great reflection of the employees that work there, and we extend our thanks to them for getting us off to a great start.
The beer run has started, albeit with some early bumps and bruises. As I write this, we’re headed to St. Louis via the dark highways of who-knows-where Illinois. Our RV, so laden with kegs of beer, is riding heavy and low. The ride is noisy, bumpy, and cramped. And yet we’re having a blast drinking cans of Sculpin and bottles of mid-west beer, nothing but a few appointments at future breweries ahead of us. To get you thirsty, behind me sits many bottles of Three Floyd’s, a keg of BCS 2012, Juliet, Lolita, Jillian, Halia, Nightstalker. I’ll be updating soon.
When I was twenty-one, drinking 3.2% ABV Budweiser with my Uncle in Utah, we’d play scrabble and drink for hours deep into the night. Inevitably, we ran out of beer. And so, my Uncle taught me a little jingle, and I still sing it often.
B-double E double R U-N beer run B-double E double R U-N beer run all we need is a ten and five-er, a car and key and a sober driver. B-double E double R U-N beer run
Last fall, while preparing for San Diego beer week and all its inherent complexities, someone on staff mentioned how seldom Goose Island’s Bourbon Country Stout was available in town. Wouldn’t it be nice to have it on tap for the great beer seeking people of San Diego? Well, when we first opened in 2010, we received a case of BCS, not really knowing how rare and sought after the beer was. It took three whole years to finally receive one keg of it (and to put things in perspective, we’ve had Pliny the Younger on tap twice, 120 minute IPA three times) We ended up tapping that little five gallon keg for our third year anniversary, emptying it by the early evening. This didn’t end our desire to have it again, and so for the 2013 edition of San Diego Beer Week, we’re going to go get Bourbon County Stour ourselves. It’s the ultimate beer run, one covering multiple states and counties, in search for the best beer in all of middle America.
Late Thursday evening, three Urge staff members rented an RV and hit the road to Chicago. They made incredible time, hitting Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, Mn by Saturday morning and making their way to Chicago by nightfall. We’ll all come together in Chicago tonight, visiting Goose Island Monday morning and touring their facilities and tasting one-off versions of BCS. From there, we hit the road to Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and back home to California. The itinerary isn’t set in stone, but our hope is buy some incredible beer for us to tap and serve right at Urge, focusing on the best beer the Mid-west has to offer (and Brothers Provisions will get some, too). In the current saturated environment of San Diego beer events, we hope you’ll come check out some of the very rare, un-distributed beers at the restaurant. We love our home town staples, but all beer-lovers look outward–towards the next best thing they can get their hands on. We hope you’ll admire the gesture. After all, we’re driving a clumsy RV across the country and back just to pick up the stuff ourselves, handpicking and sourcing the rarest beer we can get our hands on. It should not overshadow the line-up we have planned already, but only emphasize our desire to serve the best possible.
Our only mission is to drink great beer and to bring all of it home. There will be nothing we drink that won’t be shared. This is our unique way of kicking off beer week, one that celebrates all that is good about San Diego while emphasizing the great beer elsewhere. Everyone knows about Dogfish head, Allagash, and Deschutes. What about Three Floyds, New Glarus, Boulevard, and Crooked Stave? These are the undiscovered gems waiting to be shared–breweries we are excited to experience for ourselves. And so, in anticipation of San Diego Beer Week 2013, we raise a glass to our friends out east; join us for the ride these next four days. Keep checking back, I’ll be updating early and often.
Since passing the Certified Cicerone exam this past Spring, and subsequently writing about my experience studying and taking the exam in a previous post, I’ve received numerous emails from potential test-takers. What part of the exam should I focus most on? Does it matter if I haven’t worked closely with draft systems behind the bar before? Are there any surprises I can prepare myself for? (strange question) No matter, all these emails have been sent in earnest, and I will expound on the anxious question people are truly asking: what can I really expect?
I’ve read that the syllabus for the exam changed a few months ago. I don’t know how this has affected the test or its requirements. All I know is that I would still lean on three valuable educational resources: the BJCP guide, brewing with an established professional (for the visual learner: don’t study with a home brewer, you’ll want to see something on a larger system), and using the off-flavor kit from the Siebel institute.
For the BJCP guide, I recommend reading a handful of specific beer styles every day over a cup of coffee and reciting pertinent facts throughout the day to yourself. At the end of the day, drink one or two beers from the style(s) you have studied. Do this to solidify the characteristics you have read about earlier in the day. Of course, choose a beer as suggested by the BCJP guide as good commercial example (note: be wary, some breweries market beers as being a certain style when they are, in fact, another style) Also, remember ABV% and SRM’s ranges as much as ingredients and history. In the end, all these points matter. I created a large series of flash cards for all components of the exam. Once I read through the raw material for a study resources (say from ‘Tasting Beer’) I would create a flash card for each idea and constantly look back on the information almost every other. The sheer volume of material the Cicerone exam requires of you is the most daunting force against you passing. The test is honest, but it spreads you thin by the sheer volume of what it asks you to know.
Even after tending bar for two and a half years and studying for the exam for 7 weeks, I found the exam to be challenging. I remember sitting down to the written portion of the exam and thinking that the allotted four hours to complete it was an absurd amount of time. What would I do with the time in between? I was wrong. I wrote until the last minute possible, looking back on questions and even catching a few mistakes on my essays and fill-in-the-blank questions. I also knew that I was not a very good test taker (I never was very good in High School or College), so over preparing was critical for me. The portion of the exam I was most confident in was was the tasting portion. My years behind the bar gave me a good shot at examining off-flavors and style. Organize blind tastings constantly (get traditional styles. IE: German Pils/Czech pils, Saison/Tripel, ESB/American Pale Ale, etc. Compare and contrast. Know the differences and memorize the significance of each. Color, alcohol, clarity, big flavor differences, etc.) Lastly, the tasting portion of the exam is not trying to trick you. Go with your gut, trust your palate. Move on as soon as you’re confident. Sniffing, tasting, deliberating will not bode well for your answering. Beer doesn’t act like fine aged wine. The Siebel institute kit is a big component of your potential to pass the tasting exam. You must know the off-flavor characteristics inside and out! Buy a kit with some colleagues (split the cost, or get your bar or restaurant to pay for it and do it together). When you first sit down with the kit, have someone control the tasting and do it blind, then discuss your answers together. Off flavors are pretty straightforward, but can trick you without a fundamental understanding. So, delve deep into the information before using the kit. In the end, using the off-flavor kit was probably the most enjoyable part of studying for the test.
In the end, know that my advice is here wholly anecdotal. Study by doing, not just by reading. If you don’t work behind for a bar or restaurant, befriend a bartender or bar owner and let them show you their draft system for 10-15 minutes. Ask the hard questions, don’t just re-affirm what you already know. Seeing things up close will loosen the abstractions created by reading dense educational material. For the essay portion of the exam, expect there to be questions on the bigger ideas, not the small ones. I strongly doubt there will be an essay on hop farming. An essay or short answer section on one particular beer style? Very likely. Brewing procedures? Likely. The difference between a tropical/export stout and a dry stout? Not too much to say there.
No matter how you preform on the test, remember you can re-take portions of the exam at little cost. Take solace in that fact. I do wish you luck.
If there is an axiom in the craft beer industry, it is this: buzz means everything. Buzz is a perennial element of the industry and rightfully so, as evidenced by some of the following: trendy beer styles, bottles vs. cans, new hybrid styles, collaborations, hop choices, barreling, revival of old world brewing techniques and ingredients, etc. It all amounts to good marketing and a young industry finding success in the varying tastes of the public. We all benefit from the fluctuations, for better or worse.
And yet, most everyone who knows great West Coast beer has tried Pliny the Elder/Younger duo. But most West Coasters don’t know the East Coast equivalent to the best-IPA-in America debate (and yes, I do feel that is a moot question to begin with) For those of you who don’t know, the East Coast answer to Pliny is the Alchemist’s “Heady Topper,” an 8% abv double IPA made in very small batches and released only in the state of Vermont. As of this writing, it is rated as the top beer in the world by Beer Advocate, with over four thousand reviews submitted.
This past Spring, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a 16oz. can of “Heady Topper.” At that point, I heard the small buzz surrounding its very limited accessibility. ‘It was the best beer in the East Coast, if not the entire country.’ ‘Have you heard of The Alchemist, in the little town of Waterbury?’ When I booked a trip out to New England earlier this year, I had to make the voyage through Vermont to see this little brewery.
Luckily, I had a wonderful excuse to make the trip and to pass through. There was a wedding and a good route on the way to upstate New York. The leaves were beginning to change color and it seemed like a wonderful reason to make the long drive (we were coming from Maine, after all) The Alchemist is a tiny brewery in North Central Vermont, about 45 minutes from Burlington, and it currently produces one beer to near perfection. We stopped in Stowe, Vermont, a ski town and the home of many Maple Tree farms, and immediately found a couple restaurants that served it as we dined. It was served in a can only, and it tasted wonderful. Bright, bitter, creamy, very long lasting bitterness; the beer drank cold and balanced, even with its 8% alcohol level. It lacked the dry character associated with Pliny the Elder and many other West Coast IPA’s. Overall, I loved its complex bitterness and easy drinking quality. The next morning, we drove to the brewery and immediately bought two cases of it (one case per person, twenty-four cans per case). They don’t serve pints of it inside the brewery. It literally is only a ‘tasting’ room, the employees offering three-ish ounce pours to everyone. I’m not one to be totally enamored with a single particular beer. In the end, there is so much good stuff around, especially in San Diego, that I wouldn’t make such a long trip to drink one single beer. But it was well worth it; to see upstate Vermont, to buy a case to take home to friends, I would gladly stop by again for such a remarkable little trip. Vermont has a significant and established craft beer scene to show for. I felt at home.
There is something charming when you see the actual place where something is made, by the people who make–framed by the philosophy surrounding the owner. Seeing it for yourself is an added layer, one worth discovering for oneself. This is the inherent charm of craft beer and the people who work toward its future; it is why this industry is special.
(Outside the Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt. I hear that the line wraps around this building often)
I am often asked: ‘what’s good in the bottle?’ Currently, we have 100+ bottles/cans to choose from behind the bar, and if I had to pick only one of those bottles right now, it would be the Stone/Green Flash/Port Highway 78 barrel-aged Scotch Ale (batch #1, Chuck/Jeff/Mitch collaboration ). We had the original version of this beer on tap almost two years ago, and I can’t quite remember whether it was favorable beer or not. This rendition, however, is lovely. Dry malt, peat moss, complex booze, and a long lasting dark fruit and smokey finish dominate the flavor profile of this aged beer. The guys blended this beer in several different liquor barrels and aged it for sixteen months–resulting in a very clean tasting Scotch ale that clocks in at large 12.5% ABV. You don’t really taste any ethyl-like harshness, it leaves the palate clean and without the sugary resolve of many barrel aged beers. One of the more impressive collobrations I’ve seen as-of-late, especially from someone who doesn’t always like beer manipulated by barrels. A bottle goes for $25 at Urge, and it should pair beautifully with our BBQ bacon burger or Steak Frites and a friend. Me? I’ll get a bottle and have a nice little cigar and have one this weekend at our anniversary.
We used a few different bittering hops; these are Pacific Jade, I believe
With an ever increasing brewery count here in San Diego (especially over the two years), it’s been hard to keep up with all the new names in town. A few months ago, I was lucky enough to take an afternoon off and receive some tickets to the annual CityBeat beer fest in North Park and catch up on some of the new guys. The verdict, mostly: Ballast Point, Alesmith, Stone continue to excel and impress, even after heightened expansion these past few years. But when looking around town for new and exceptional talent, there are two standouts: Societe and Rip Current. As everyone well knows, Societe has been around for almost a year now (their anniversary party celebration occurs July 13th, 14th). We believe they are making some of the best IPA’s around–not only San Diego, but in all of the state. Their tasting room is an excellent space to wind down the day and we couldn’t be happier with the simplicity of their brewing philosophy and the consistency of their product. Societe will have lasting power inside the brewing community and although there are some perennial brewing powerhouses in this state, I think their beer will get even better.
Guy Shobe, brewer/co-owner of Rip Current
Rip Current Brewing, in San Marcos, opened mid-December and has started. too. Founded by Guy Shobe and Paul Sangster (multi-award winning Home Brewers) Rip Current has been finding their footing by making a lot of different styles so far (west coast Wheat Ale, Scottish 80, Imperial Red, etc) They are navigating their new system well and I had the honor of joining them for a brew session two weeks ago. In short, some of us bartenders wanted a dry, fresh, hoppy summer ale without all the booze. We wanted 4% ABV or lower. This has been done very well by a few breweries lately (Green Flash Citra Session and Drakes Alpha Session) and the guys at Rip Current were enthused about the prospect of such a collaboration beer. So, the official release of this beer will happen at Urge on July 3rd in the evening (it will be kegged the day before!) Along with a showcasing of Rip Current beers in our restaurant (seven on tap, keep-the-pint night, too), we will be having a five-course private meal to go along with it at 6:30pm in our private room. I developed the entire menu myself, creating the beer and food pairings from my knowledge as a newly minted certified Cicerone. I am quite excited to share the meal with you guys out there, as it is my goal to have each and every person leave the meal feeling ‘light.’ I created a menu that essentially will allow you to drink more beer and feel less full (there are a lot of light, semi-highly carbonated selections on the menu that will naturally fill you up more easily) Anyhow, you can see the menu and buy tickets here. Treat yourself to a little outing the day before our Independence is celebrated: surgeingcurrents.brownpapertickets.com
We get the glamorous job of adding hops. George demonstrates here.
Once in a while, when the stars align in our busy schedules at Urge, we are lucky enough to hit the road and visit a brewery or two on a mutual day off. Sometimes this means we head to a new brewery we’ve been curious about, sometimes we see an old friend close by. Two weeks ago, however, we were able to leave the city and visit some breweries in Orange County/Los Angeles area and spend an entire day driving around to drink and eat at these esteemed places (it will require a full tank of gas roundtrip, undoubtably, with the utmost patience and planning for traffic. Even better, I suggest a weekday visit or a train fare and public transportation) So, with planning, the trip can be rewarding and act as a fresh and brief getaway while still remaining close to home. Though the overall beer culture and product is more obvious and exciting in S.D. than L.A., there are some great people producing delicious beer up north. We can’t help it–we wanted to take a closer look.
First, we visited ‘Noble Ale Works’ in Anaheim. Just off the i-5 and conveniently located a mile off the Amtrak train station, Noble Aleworks is an impressive, clean little set up, producing straightforward beers and some interesting varied styles (I think the Earl Grey Ordinary Bitter, etc). Currently, it produces one of the most enigmatic, delicious, and wonderful beers in all of California. ‘Naughty Sauce,’ a golden coffee cream stout, is the richest, smoothest, most vibrant coffee beer I’ve ever tasted, without an overpowering ABV, acidity, or roastiness. It is novel among all the coffee beers around and the brewmaster, Evan Price, took time out of his busy schedule to explain his beer and underlying philosophy at Noble. Taking the time to visit any brewery is always a true reminder of the patience, cost, and diligence put into craft beer, and Noble Ale works is a small and worthwhile place to see. There’s really nothing better than going to a brewery and having the freshest available product at your whim. We were lucky enough to have fresh ‘Naughty Sauce’ out of the brite tank (it was hours away from being kegged) It was, hands down, the best beer we had all day.
Afterwards, we moved down the long highway to Craftsman brewery, out of Pasadena. Opposite Noble’s nascent brewing operations, Craftsman has been around for nearly twenty years and operates on a small, meticulous and yet experimental level. After all these years, it doesn’t even have a tasting room. Herein lies the benefit of being in the industry. The owner and brewmaster was generous enough to give us a tour of his space and we were able to taste some his in-transition, barrel aged beers (only one sat in a whiskey barrel). Those beers needed time, but it was pleasant to hear such honest, tentative talk from a brewmaster. The barrel is not as forgiving as one would like, and it takes great care to cultivate well-made barrel aged beers. I was reminded of my time touring wineries, and learning how much the barrel can manipulate the product away from its original idea, for better or worse. I’m looking forward to their Berlinerweisse release, whenever it may come.
One of our former bartenders, Jason, moved up the road to Golden Road brewery in Glendale last year. We paid him a visit and got a close view of their large operation. I enjoyed the easy going feel of GR and we eventually ran into the owner, head brewer, and all sorts of staff on the front and back end of operations. Since they’ve hired their new head brewer, the beers have been better, more flavorful, and they’ve certainly stepped up production and distribution. They can a lot of their core selections, and I see these guys doing good things over the next few years (their Wolf Among Weeds DIPA is easy drinking and I never pass up their Lemon accented Berliner Weisse) I recommend a late lunch out front along with some ping pong on a slow L.A. evening when the air is still warm. The highlight of our tasting was having Kolsch right out of the tank. It was clean, cold and ready. Fresh beer seems to always come out late during the tour.
Finally, on the way home and through a strange rainstorm, we stopped by the Bruery, in Placentia (Orange County). The tasting room was packed, and we ended with the stiffest night cap you could imagine: Chocolate Rain. I’m not a fan. Huge booze, coffee, chocolate, dark syrup, it was by far the strongest beer of our trip. The patrons, however, seemed to love it, and in a way, the Bruery is hugely successful through its rare release program. In fact, might I remind you that Urge gastropub will be brewing with the Bruery for our upcoming anniversary beer (end of July!) Though the style is still uncertain, we are looking forward exhibiting this non-SD anniversary beer. Surely, we will come up with something a tad more sessionable than 18% ABV. After a few sips of other selections, we drove home with full stomachs and tired eyes.
Though L.A. has a fantastic and enviable restaurant scene, it is not quite as diverse, expansive, and sophisticated as San Diego’s brewing scene. Though GQ magazine was heralding the town in a beer column last year as some kind of champion, it has a long way to go. The ability to drive around 20 square miles (as opposed to very-spread-out-LA/OC) and hit eight-ten fantastic breweries gives this place the upper hand. In the end, it doesn’t matter where the beer comes from. So long as you’re able to get it and appreciate it up close and meet the people behind their product, you’re getting an individual experience you can’t get drinking the mass-produced stuff. We all know the feeling being there; sometimes the good stuff just keeps coming-and-coming.
When I started studying for the certified Cicerone exam this past January, I had a good blueprint for passing. With exactly seven-weeks to prepare, I slowly covered each aspect of the syllabus, as provided by the program itself, by integrating some physical practice of beer making and drinking with equal parts theory. Some of the topics were obvious and overarching, some of them seemed tedious and necessitated some closer investigation. Much of my studying required reading and re-reading of several texts. I came to appreciate the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) style guide more than anything, and coupled that text with the easy-to-absorb “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher and “The Brewmasters Table” by Garrett Oliver. On top of that, I worked my fellow bar manager on the sample 2008 cicerone exam, discussing and debating answers on each and every question. The studying was typical, though long sessions of reading weren’t always as productive as I wanted (it’s hard to absorb more than three or four beer styles at a time. I’m talking about all the required information, from IBU range to history to ingredients). As the exam date grew closer, I began to search online for others past experiences. I read Sam Tierney’s (West Coaster) old blog on how he crammed and took the exam on a whim. I found a small interview from master cicerone, Nicole Erny (her major point, “overstudy!”) largely devoid of any strong advice. Disappointed that there were spare anecdotes, I was determined to write about my own if I passed. So, here I am, having freshly passed the exam myself, to write from my small vantage point. To all potential cicerone exam takers, here is my advice, with respect to the program and its necessary confidentiality.
Those who are deep in the craft beer industry know what the cicerone exam asks of you. Some brewers and industry heads probably find they might not need such a certification. I understand why. Many of us in the trenches of customer interaction, however, want something more formal. We need something precise, respected, and more relative to the in-and-outs of craft beer and the quickly evolving industry. The cicerone program has a definitive pulse on the practical matters involving craft beer. Many of us will never work at the macro breweries brewing the same, mass-produced adjuct lagers and so we rely on our knowledge of a diverse and long heralded tradition of beers (ales and lagers and hybrids) Most importantly, I suppose craft beer is more fragile, obviously more expensive and always subject to more scrutiny (IE, if you’re going to be serving a $6+ pint of beer, you don’t want detectable levels of diacetyl or a sincere lack of carbonation) I knew my beer knowledge had reached a plateau this past summer and so I made the time to sit down and read the material that might help me do my job more soundly. The studying will take some effort, but it will set you free to further educate those who consume. So, I arrived at taking the test for multiple reasons: my larger position behind the bar, pride in the opportunities the industry had granted me, and simply wanting to know more about what I drank so much of.
First off, brewing a real batch of beer was vital (I helped brew a five barrel batch of an American IPA) When I arrived at Monkey Paw, brew master Derek Freese had me loading in and tasting malted barley within the first few minutes. Immediately, I felt much of the same curiosity and intrigue I feel about cooking, and it was there that things accelerated. Smelling wort, adding hops, tasting young green beer all helped the abstractions I had read about come into clearer view. Derek walked me through each stage of the brewing process (much of the action happens within the first two/two-and-a-half hours) and we talked briefly about his experience taking the exam himself. Even after studying at the Siebel institute and having received awards for his home brews, Derek recalled the exam as tough. At that point, over studying seemed untenable but befriending a brewer eventually paid dividends. I think is the major reason I passed. I encourage potential exam takers to know mashing, boiling, stages of fermentation, and the small yet important steps in between. A lot of common off-flavors develop in these early stages and it is illuminating to know why they occur and how brewers try to prevent it; you will realize how easy it can be to impart flaws without proper training and experience.
After brewing (and asking plenty of follow-up questions that emerged afterwards), I purchased an off-flavor tasting kit from the Siebel institute. After going through each off-flavor, I initially thought about ever beer I drank. Each one received short bursts of scrutiny and thought. After I briefly examined the beer, I moved on and enjoyed it without too much after thought. In retrospect, I would have tried to sit down and blindly drank a larger range of beers. Focus on the beers you don’t necessarily like to drink. For me, I don’t gravitate toward the bolder Belgian/Abbey styles. If that same is true for you, focus on your least understood beer styles. Just like an athlete, you have weak spots and you must engineer an understanding of why. Don’t drink mash-up styles like bourbon barrel-aged beers or hyper-hopped IPA’s. Instead, think perennial styles like ESB, Saison, Pale Ale(s), American Wheat, Tripel, etc. After working though the off-flavors and reading more of the BJCP guide (and even teaching my own little class to our restaurant on off-flavor beers), I really began to appreciate the clean, highly refined quality of age-old styles. Preparing for the exam helped tune my palate, and for that reason, I am a more curious and open-minded beer drinker than ever.
The off-flavor kit is a must. Brewing is a must. Memorize the BJCP guide to the best of your knowledge (focus less on appearance—like head color, and more on the elementary parts—like IBU’s, ABV, history). Follow the syllabus closely and use flashcards to remind yourself of easily forgettable facts, not concepts. Be diligent, think critically about the beer you drink and don’t forget your fundamentals behind the bar (yes, beer storage is vital, clean serving and glassware is also important) The Cicerone exam was intimidating at first. A lot of stuff didn’t stick. And then about three-to-four weeks into the process things started adhere. I enjoyed and respected the beer more than ever. I hope the same happens for you.
Is winter really over? We all know Spring is here; the weather has been mild, and our rainy season seems to have quickly departed. Oddly, our craving for imperial stouts and porters seems to diminish with the warmer days and the IPA and session beer’s will begin to dominate the local tap lists. Here’s whats on my mind as March comes to a close.
- Oskar Blue’s has released a little bit of ‘Gubna’ DIPA to us. One of my all time favorites, Gubna is a modestly balanced Double IPA, grassy and piney, with a citrusy and long lasting bitter finish. I see a good amount of variance in Oskar Blue’s beers, as this years Dale’s Pale seemed far less bitter than in years past (it almost drank like an IPA). So, it’s always interesting to compare each new keg we get of theirs for this perceived variance, whether it’s just in-my-head or not.
Monkey Paw Brewpub, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before, is one of my favorite little hideaways in the less-touristy east downtown area. Located on 16th and F, Monkey Paw serves simple satisfying pub food, brews on premises, and is a great place to watch a game and wind down the day. Monkey Paw brewed us one of our second anniversary beers this past year—Waypoint 730, a crisp and dry American Pale Ale with lemongrass—and we were fortunate for their inspiration. Since opening, Derek Freese has cranked out every keg of beer with his small 5-barrel system and serves as brewmaster and bar manager. I was lucky enough to join him this morning for the beginning of a new brewing session. I wanted to tidy up my own knowledge of brewing because too often, we drink too much on brew tours…too much to remember the specific workflow. So, I woke up early and ventured to Monkey Paw completely clearheaded and ready to take some notes. Derek was already at work on his Howler IPA. He let me look at his recipe, pour 2-row malted barley in his mill, stir the mash, and add the initial Meridian hops to the boil for bittering. Along the two-hour process, we talked about the local beer community, symptoms of a more-intelligent beer-drinking demographic, and the learning curve that is running even the smallest brewery.
Happy New Year, Urge faithful! What a start it was to 2013 at the restaurant. The near crushing crowd enveloped our restaurant as we sold over two thousands beers and had our most successful day ever. Thank you for your support and patience during our rowdy and unprecedented event. With the 2nd annual Black Out event on the horizon in just two weeks, we plan on crafting some of the most inventive events in town. From our beer dinners during beer week to our non-profit Stone dinner this past week, people are starting to recognize the quality and generosity of our dinners/events. Keep in touch!
A couple of mixed thoughts, ideas, shout outs for the moment:
Did you get to try all ten V.E. beers? I was lucky enough to taste the 02.02.02 from the bottle. Vertical Epic. 04.04.04 ranked best from a very unscientific poll of drinkers in the bar. I loved the 10.10.10., forgoing the French Oak variation. Stone was visionary in this series of beers, what challenge/novelty comes next for the local craft beer world?
Beer week has come and gone in a flash and here is what we learned: Mother Earth Brewing continues to make delicious, approachable, and well-balanced beer for us here; Societe Brewing is the new darling of the SD craft beer world; long and generous beer dinners on the patio at Urge might be one of the top places to drink craft beer in all of SD; it is remarkably easy to have fifty sophisticated, diverse, and all-San Diego beers over the course of just one weekend. We learned more and are excited to improve upon one of the best weeks at Urge yet. It is wonderful to know things just keep getting better here; I assure you the best is yet to come!
Which brings me to Thursday, January 10th, 2013. Stone will be taking over our entire tap system for their much-heralded vertical epic series. First off, we will not be having a keg of the 2002 epic beer on tap. We will have 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 + variations on a theme (I’ve heard rumors of several barrel aged variations of the earlier vertical epic’s) Our event will be non-ticketed and we will do our absolute best to try and get you as much of this beer as possible. A lot of the beer will be coming in five-gallon kegs, so it will go fast. Come early and be patient as we share the visionary vertical epic series Stone has aged for all of you to share. To think, I was a Junior in High School (and had never had a beer in my life) while 2003 vertical epic was being kegged for this event. Where were you? Certainly most of us were not drinking the quality beer we do now.
December is a fantastic time at the restaurant and I can’t think of a better time to come sit on our newly remodeled patio and sip an imperial stout or a pumpkin ale with family and friends under the RB evening. Obviously, this post denotes the return of the beer blog. A lot of time and travel has passed since my last post and I am eager to return to writing. We are so very grateful for 2012. Onward to 2013!
After all the dust settled over Pliny the Younger, I am happy to announce that Urge will be tapping its own 15.5 gallon keg of the much-hyped, much-anticipated IIIPA. We received our keg a few weeks ago and thoughtfully let everyone else in town tap their kegs early in the month (although I assume we are not the last in town to have it). But we just don’t have Pliny the Younger! I encourge you devout and frantic hopheads to blind taste another IIIPA side-by-side with the Younger. We are taping the very first IIIPA keg from Mother Earth Breweing next Monday and Tuesday and after tasting the beer today, I can reasonably say this is a delicious if not comparable beer. “Big Mother” has intensely pungent and rich hops on the nose and finishes with thick grassy notes. The booze is marginal and I’m impressed how soft and drinkable this beer is.
I usually don’t spend all my days off hanging out at breweries and pubs drinking what I serve all week. Maybe you understand: it’s just too much beer-centric thought for one week. But as of late, I’ve found myself really enjoying Scot Blair’s newest bar, “Monkey Paw,” on slow Sunday nights. If you haven’t heard, Monkey Paw is tucked away near the I-5 freeway in the mostly unincorporated, sleepy East Downtown area. After Monkey Paw’s successful late summer opening, Scott hired David Freese, a seasoned home brewer and started nano-brewing operations. George (one of our managers) and I had the pleasure of talking to David as he was prepping his first batch of “Mighty Joe Young” several months ago. He told us that, quite honestly, he wasn’t sure how his first batch would turn out.
Beer week came with instant fervor and now I am beginning to feel that a good majority of open-minded diners are realizing what a great city San Diego is becoming in the beer world. With events starting at 7AM on Friday and ending in every corner of the city at 2am, it is no surprise what a great boost it is for local commerce. We love serving the craft-masses (if there is such a seemingly contradictory title) and we had a fantastic week at the restaurant. There is no one to thank but you loyal patrons and friends who made it out. I knew several regulars who came every single night of our beer week agenda; Hess, Mother Earth, Alesmith, Sierra Nevada, Bear Republic, Maui, Ballast Point, and Stone all brought out memorable ales I will always keep in my back pocket. Special shout out to Bear Republic and Sierra Nevada who reinvigorated my love of fresh/wet hopped IPA’s.
Couldn’t we all use a little extra beer after that sideways Chargers game on Monday? Lucky for you, we have a lot of beer on the way to ease the (unsurprising) pain of another theatric Chargers loss. We will have little gems like Racer X (Bear Republic), Grazias Vienna Cream Ale (Hess), Imperial Coconut Porter (Maui), and our own potentially delicious Mother Earth commissioned beer release of “Mother’s Milk.” Starting this Friday, we’ll have a special event every day until the 11th featuring limited brews, pint glasses, and discount pour prices. If last year is any indication, it’s going to be a fun and busy week down at Urge. While we love the nature of busy and fast night, us bartenders are very jealous of these tap lists you get to consume and enjoy in front of our eyes. I hope you all have a great time supporting the local breweries and restaurants that make this city more exciting, social, and economically robust. Why not drag an old friend who only drinks wheat beers and pale lagers and introduce him or her to the underrated and underappreciated community of craft breweries?
Details asides, be safe this next week!!! Get your DD, take care of business, and enjoy yourself. I’ll see you on the rail at Urge.
Friday the 11th will feature two events. Starting at 12pm, we’ll have a cask of ‘Peach Love,’ New Belgium’s very limited sour ale with some food pairings. This is a private, small event, so make a point of grabbing a seat if you can. That same day, we’ll start our Stone Brewing event with a remarkable line-up of aged ales and new releases. This will be very pleasing to the obedient and loyal fans of Stone.