We’ve had plenty of really good beer lately in the company of so many enthusiastic beer lovers. Let’s cut to the chase, thumb through our tasting notes and have a look at some of our most noteworthy recent encounters.
First stop, Brew Ferment Distill, a home-brewing supply store in Oak Park. We dropped by to taste Annie Johnson’s fresh batch of saison, a Belgian seasonal ale she brewed on site.
When we last saw her a few weeks earlier, Johnson was just starting this beer, and we photographed her in action for a feature story in The Bee. As many of you know by now, Johnson bested thousands of other entries at the National Homebrew Competition to win the title “2013 Homebrewer of the Year.” Her beer, a light lager, was called “Mow the Damn Lawn.”
This time, we were going to taste something entirely different, which I’m unofficially dubbing “Pour the Damn Beer.”
Johnson explained a little about saisons this way: “The farmhands would work in the wheat fields and barley fields in Belgium. They would make a beer, often in the farmhouse, and it would be a warm ferment. They would drink it in the summer after a hard day. Sometimes you’ll get a variation of flavors. Sometimes you’ll get a bit of a wild yeast or a tartness in the finish. It should be something that you can drink on a hot day and it will quench your thirst.”
Johnson’s saison was, indeed, a smooth, thirst-quenching beer with a gentle tartness and a subtle yeast quality. When we noted that this saison wasn’t as spicy and flavor-forward as some recent saisons we’ve tried, Johnson said, “Now, a lot of craft breweries think they need to throw in a lot of spice — some bitter orange peel, maybe some crushed coriander — to get that yeast profile or fruity spiciness. But you should be able to derive that just from the hops and the yeast.”
While at BFD, home-brewer Mike Brennan brought in his newest kolsch, a bright German lager style. It, too, was a winner. Brennan said he used small portions of Hallertauer and Spalt hops for bittering, then Citra hops for aroma. We really liked this beer, too. Why are we telling you this when you can’t buy it retail? Easy. Go to a place like BFD, hang out with people like Johnson and Brennan, learn the ropes and, well, go home and brew your own damn beer.
Johnson, who once won a major brewing award to travel to the Czech Republic and brew for two weeks at the renowned Pilsner Urquell, tipped me off via Twitter that La Trattoria Bohemia in east Sacramento had a great pilsner on draft known as Budvar or, due to trademark disputes with Anheuser-Busch, by its American name, Czechvar. Johnson likes these classic styles because there is nowhere to hide the flaws in the beer. We didn’t hesitate.
This pilsner was crisp, clean, focused and very quaffable on a warm afternoon out on the patio looking out toward J Street. Give this pilsner a try as a benchmark for your palate. It’s $4.75 for a pint ($1 off at happy hour).• We’ve had several really good coffee-related beers. What’s that, you say? Won’t coffee throw the whole potential buzz equation into disarray? Well, no. Just ask my two legs, which temporarily lost all feeling as I sat in the corner at LowBrau and drank a Mikkeller Vanilla Shake ($12). This beautiful, dark, rich and high-octane imperial stout is 13 percent alcohol by volume, with robust coffee and vanilla notes. You get a warm, fuzzy feeling all over after finishing this. Let’s hope they bring it back for the rainy days of February.
On another visit, I also loved the Nogne O Dark Horizon 4th Edition, an imperial coffee stout that’s a whopping 16 percent ABV. You’d think it would torch your palate with those specs, but there is plenty of balance, depth of flavor and finesse in this beer. The best thing? You only need one.
While I have issues with some aspects of LowBrau (i.e. acoustics), there’s no denying the commitment to serious and esoteric beers. Also at an impromptu media gathering, I enjoyed a few beers with Nick Miller, co-editor of the Sacramento News & Review, and Jared Goyette, editor of Sacramento Press. There’s no fighting in this group, especially when Miller comes back from the bar with a 22-ounce bottle of Sour in the Rye by The Bruery. This is a beer that hits the palate in a deep and enduring way. Again, finesse meets full-bore intensity with this one. If you’re agnostic on sours so far, this one might make you a believer.• Finally, I stopped in at New Helvetia Brewing with a couple of serious beer aficionados, Louie Toro and Chris Ithurburnto, to try the new version of Thunderbeast IPA. It’s brewed with locally grown hops, including Brewer’s Gold and Cluster varieties from a hop farm south of the Jackson Highway, and Chinook hops from Shingle Springs. We were pretty much blown away by the unexpected notes of peach, apricot or mango. What a discovery. Toro said it was the best local beer he’s had in recent memory. We agreed it was a little batch of exotic, a noteworthy new beer you just might want to try yourself.