Jesse Friedman shows off Almanac’s beer. Photo courtesy Damian Fagan.
Almanac Beer Company is one of the newest players in the ever-active San Francisco brewing community. Partners Damian Fagan and Jesse Friedman joined together to form the company, which took several years and culminated in a launch brew that was produced in the summer of 2010 and will be available this month. Jesse is known in the food and drink community for his three-year old blog Beer & Nosh, and he is overseeing the beer production. Damian, an accomplished designer and artist, is in charge of day-to-day operations at Almanac. The two met in their home brewing club, recognized each other’s talent, and soon set off on a more serious beer venture.
After a couple years of research and trials, Jesse and Damian settled on what they would like to produce: beers using seasonal ingredients that were local to the Bay Area. “It dawned on us that we should be doing to beer what’s being done to food—particularly in the Bay Area,” says Damian. They wanted to “design a beer that’s on par with the food that we have on our tables.”
Sebastopol Berry Farm blackberries. Photo courtesy Jesse Friedman.
For this first beer, dubbed Summer 2010 Blackberry Ale, Jesse and Damian settled on a Belgian-style golden ale that is barrel-aged with four varieties of Sonoma County blackberries (Cherokee, Marion, Ollalie and Boysenberries). The beer was produced last summer and aged in red wine barrels for 11 months before blending. A team of friends and family bottled the beer in late May 2011—309 cases of 750 milliliter bottles—and it is now finishing up. The first time the public can taste it will be a launch party at City Beer Store on June 30 (details below).
The beer that Almanac has produced is dry, crisp and complex and should appeal to those who would normally avoid beers made with fruit. “It’s not that we’re not fruit beer fans, but we want people to know that it’s not a cloyingly, fruity beer,” says Damian. It has a plush mouth feel, a fruity nose and a punchy, tart flavor, and I was surprised that it was quite apricoty for being billed as having blackberries. Damian explains that the fruit changes on a molecular level during fermentation. “You start with blackberries, but with fermentation and aging the molecules actually change and mutate, which is why you get hints of other flavors. The blackberry notes came out as apricot and mango. That was a really interesting evolution.”
Almanac Summer 2010 Blackberry Ale. Photo by Jennifer Maiser.
The beers are bottle conditioned which means that they go into the bottle uncarbonated, and that natural yeast and sugar is added individually to each bottle, where the final fermentation occurs. Bottle conditioned beers usually have more complexity and can be held on the shelf longer than force-carbonated beers. Bottle conditioned beers also have some variation from bottle to bottle, which means that the beer won’t taste the same way twice—a feature that most beer connoisseurs really enjoy.
Of all the steps that it took to get this beer to market, the bottle conditioning was the most stressful part for Jesse and Damian. “Looking at all the hurdles that we had to cross along the way, the only thing that could have spelled disaster for us had been if the beer didn’t carbonate,” says Damian. The tricky part to bottle conditioning is to be sure that you get carbonation, but not too much. Laughing, Damian said “It was such a sigh of relief when Jesse and I opened the bottles separately and heard the carbonation. And of course, waiting for a few seconds to make sure that the beer didn’t come roaring back out of the bottle.”
Almanac is a “gypsy brewery,” a term that refers to brewers who borrow space or rent at already established breweries to craft their beer. Almanac used space at Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro for the Blackberry Ale. They were able to lean on Steve Altimari of Highwater Brewing for advice on this first brew. Altimari also brews out of Drake’s.
Damian and Jesse aren’t the first Bay Area brewers to attempt a local beer—last year, Thirsty Bear Brewing released a delicious “Locavore Ale” in conjunction with farmer Nigel Walker at Eatwell Farm. They did this using Eatwell’s own malted barley and hops grown by Hops-Meister in Clear Lake, California. That may have been the only batch of Locavore Ale, however. The costs were prohibitive, and it required a huge amount of effort to produce the beer. Systems aren’t set up for some parts of the beer to be created locally at the moment; Eatwell’s barley had to be sent all the way to Colorado to be malted.
Almanac’s beer will be available at several events (see below for information), and at a few places around the Bay Area for sale: City Beer Store, Healthy Spirits, Jug Shop and some Whole Foods locations in San Francisco. It will retail for approximately $20 for a 750 milliliter bottle.
What can we expect next from Almanac? “Stone fruit is in season, and we’re looking to brew in July. It’s looking like it may be a saison with some kind of stone fruit. We both really, really want to brew a saison.”
In addition to Almanac’s beers, be sure to track down Jesse’s delicious, seasonal sodas around San Francisco. You can find them at the Hapa Ramen booth and at the New Taste Market Place. His smoked strawberry vanilla bean soda was one of my favorite sips last month.
Almanac Beer Co. Events