Autumn Brews: A New Season Means New Beers in Santa Barbara

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on September 29, 2011)

Brewer Brian Thompson wants to bring seasonality back to making beer.

“It’s something that’s kind of lost these days in industrial beer production,” he says, as he stands among several fermentation tanks inside his Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara’s eastside.  “Whether it’s a Beaujolais Nouveau wine, or tomatoes or peaches – or beer – there are flavors and tastes associated with special times of the year, and it can be very comforting and rewarding.”

So Thompson is excited about what autumn will add to his portfolio: two new brews, including a rye extra pale ale set for release this weekend and crafted with special colleagues in mind.  “Winemakers want a light refreshing beer to drink during harvest,” he says.  And this one’s light, refreshing with a clean hoppy bite.  “It’s under five percent alcohol, so you can have a few at the end of a long shift of picking grapes and still walk out of the winery,” he adds with a chuckle.

This beer’s official designation is XPA – for extra pale ale.

Thompson is also making an oatmeal stout this season; it’s a light but rich and hearty beer made with real oats for a velvety, smooth mouth feel.  It’ll be publically released during the Santa Barbara Beer Festival at Elings Park on October 15th.  Both beers will then be available on tap at the brewery only, and in take-home growlers.

Thompson’s brews celebrate the fall season, but it’s also good marketing.  “It does give people more reason to keep coming back to us as opposed to have the same four or five beers year round,” he adds.

At least two local brew masters are taking the harvest concept of beer making to heart this autumn.  Both Paul Wright at Carpinteria’s Island Brewing Company and Pete Johnson at The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara are releasing beers made from fresh hops, as opposed to the regular dried hops.  “You can only make a harvest beer at this time of year, as soon as the hops are harvested,” Wright says. ”Otherwise they’ll begin to dry or spoil.”  Wright made about 450 barrels of his harvest beer this year, using what some call “wet” hops overnighted to him from Yakima, Washington.  He is specific about the property that grew them – BT Loftus Ranches – because “it make the beer more special, like a wine made with grapes from a specific vineyard.”  And he admits that the flavor of a harvest beer may take some getting used to.  “A little bit of pine scent, and some citrus flavor,” he says.  “Very interesting.”

Wright is releasing his harvest beer – along with a second autumn-specific brew made using avocados from Carpinteria and honey from Fillmore – during this year’s California Avocado Festival, taking place the second weekend in October in downtown Carpinteria.

While Wright is now importing the fresh hops for his annual harvest brew (until last year, he was sourcing them from a private grower in Goleta whose output, alas, started coming in too small), the Brewhouse’s Johnson is able to make his from estate hops.  Using plants that have been growing in the downtown brewery’s backyard for the last decade or so, his production is smaller – about a quarter what Wright makes – but the flavor profile is similar.  “The wet hops give it an earthier, grassier flavor,” he says of his red-hued, draught-only concoction.  And while it enjoys a dedicated following, Johnson still admits that getting consumers to understand its season-specific timing continues to be a challenge.  “Some people don’t get it,” he says in his characteristically husky tone.  “They’ll ask me in the spring, ‘Hey, when are you releasing the harvest ale?’  And I’m like, ‘What part of this process have I not explained to you?”

Johnson will be harvesting his home hops in about a week and releasing his harvest beer in early November.  But the Brewhouse is already serving up Johnson’s other fall beer from on tap: his annual Oktoberfest brew, a smooth but malty homage to the annual suds carnival in Munich, Germany, which typically draws some six million thirsty partygoers (and which is going on now through October 6th).

At Firestone-Walker Brewing Company, brew master Matt Brynildson also uses Oktoberfest for yearly inspiration.  This year’s very traditional version, available in both bottle and on tap at the company’s popular namesake restaurant in Buellton, came out in late August.  It was crafted using the famous Augustiner yeast from Germany, imported malts and hops sourced from Bavarian fields just north of Munich.

A second autumn beer is set for release in the next few days.  Inspired by the Walker member of the brewery’s founding team, The Velvet Merlin is a traditional English oatmeal stout.  Rich, dark and creamy – dark chocolate and coffee notes have a starring role – this beer was partially aged in bourbon barrels and was inspired by a recipe Brynildson first devised as a burgeoning brewer in college.  (Deep in local brewing circles, the beer is actually known but its original name, which rhymes with “Merlin,” but which denotes something that’s arguably way too bawdy for mass marketing.)

The most momentous release of the fall season for Brynildson, though, may well be the XV, or Fifteen, which will celebrates the company’s fifteenth year in business when it’s released the first week in November.  This special brew has been a fall-only production ever since the brewery turned 10; it’s part of Firestone-Walker’s “Proprietors Reserve” series and one of close to 20 beers that Brynildson makes every year at the company’s Paso Robles facility.

“Beer is steeped deep in our local wine community, so what’s special with this beer is that we invite local winemakers to make it,” says Brynildson, who asked 16 Central Coast wine producers to come up with their own beer blend using higher-alcohol brews that had been barrel-aged for at least a year.  “We numbered each blend, got behind closed doors and had a blind elimination competition.”  The winning meritage, which was concocted by the winemaking team at Paso Robles’ acclaimed Saxum Winery (these are the folks whose 2007 James Berry red blend got the “Best Wine of 2010” nod from Wine Spectator earlier this year), clocks in at 12.5% alcohol and will be sold in 22-ounce bottles “that are really meant for sharing,” Brynildson suggests.

Ultimately, flavor is what mostly inspires many local brewers to make beer in the fall.  Flavors synonymous with a season defined by cooler, darker days and that are rarely found at their peak outside the post-summer months.  For brewer Eric Rose at Hollister Brewing Company in Goleta, which offers more than a dozen draught beers throughout the year, that includes local lemon; his annual Belgian-inspired, low-alcohol brew of lemongrass, ginger, lemon rind and lemon juice will be premiered at the annual California Lemon Festival in Goleta the third weekend in October.

And it includes local pumpkin.   Rose used more than 80 pounds of the gourd, grown at Goleta’s Lane Farms, to make his (almost) annual pumpkin beer, which is set for release next week.  “Nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves give most of the predominant flavors,” says Rose.  “The pumpkin creates more of that viscosity in the mouth feel.”  And although he’ll offer it on tap until it’s gone, “it usually sells best in October and November.”


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