On the Joys of Beerhunting

Written by Tom Becham for Professor Goodales

Courtesy pencilandspoon.com

There is really no definition of the word “beerhunting” (other than a truly lame one on Urban Dictionary).  Nor is there one of “beerhunter”, though renowned beer author Michael Jackson was known by that name.

I choose to define beerhunting as the pursuit of new, different, unique and tasty fermented grain beverages.
Simply ticking names off of a list is hardly the point of beerhunting, and misses a lot of the allure of it for me.  To me, it is about the pursuit of knowledge and hedonistic enjoyment.
This includes seeking and purchasing many different kinds of bottled offerings, to be sure.  But the best and most enjoyable feature of beerhunting, is going to brewery tasting rooms and brewpubs.
I have a couple of reasons for feeling this way. First, it is an old aphorism that beer is best when consumed fresh and near the brewery.  Setting aside for a moment the exceptions like bottle-conditioned and deliberately aged offerings, that statement is largely true.

Secondly, you will find beers at breweries and brewpubs that don’t ever make it to the wider retail market.  There are a couple reasons for this.  Brewers have a love affair with the hop.  They would make certain brews as intensely hoppy as they could if they could afford to buy the hops, and if they thought their creations would sell on the larger market.  So going to where small-batch beers are made is heaven for the hop-head.  And besides the hoppy brews, other different kinds of small-batch and/or experimental beers will only be offered in the pub or tasting room, either as “test marketing” or simply for the brewer’s own satisfaction.
A recent trip I took to San Diego (heaven for beerhunting, as it has the largest number of breweries of any city in America) can amply illustrate my points.
One of our stops in San Diego was at the Karl Strauss brewpub in downtown.  I’ve written about this place before, and anyone who has read that article knows both my wife and I love the food there, too.  It also seems that Strauss has gained much skill with the more unusual styles of beer over the past two years. We enjoyed a Flemish Sour Ale which they called (you Simpson’s fans will love this one) Flan-diddly-anders Red. It was a milder sour, in what is called an Oud Bruin style – sweeter, more mellow, with somewhat less acidic bite – and has its parallels in products from Monk’s Cafe and Petrus.  Strauss does not sell this one outside their own brewpubs, so if I simply purchased their bottled products I would have missed this one entirely. The second unusual offering we sampled at the Strauss brewpub was a brew called Fullsuit Belgian Brown Ale.  This was a truly delicious beer that seemed a cross between a fuller-bodied English Brown Ale and an Abbey Dubbel.  It’s also one that can’t be found too far from the confines of a Strauss brewpub.

Our second stop was a revelation.  I’d always wanted to stop at the Alesmith tasting room since first sampling their bottled beers several years ago.  Alesmith tends to make very high-gravity Belgian and British styles, with an occasional very well-crafted English session ale thrown in.  Their Speedway Stout is generally on most lists of Top 20 Beers in the World.

Alesmith’s tasting room, was, to put it politely, a hole in the wall.  Like many craft breweries, Alesmith is located in an industrial park storefront.  The tasting room was not only very small with a direct view of brewing and bottling machinery, it didn’t even have chairs!  Only the odd barrel – serving as a table – punctuated the otherwise empty floor space of Alesmith’s tasting room.  And they served their samples in PLASTIC CUPS!  But oh, what they served!
The most notable beers we tried at Alesmith include their English-style Wee Heavy and their Double Dead Red.
Let me explain.  Alesmith makes a Scottish Wee Heavy which they bottle and sell on the retail market.  As an experiment, they also made the same beer, but with an English ale yeast rather than a Scottish one.  These two styles, tasted side-by-side, were a clinic in the importance of yeast in brewing.  While the regular Wee Heavy had a slightly oily, chewy, almost “beefy” mouthfeel, the English version of same was thinner bodied and somewhat sweeter.  The English version seemed more like a Barley Wine or Belgian Strong Dark.  Both were excellent, but very different beers, and that only due to the yeast strains.
Alesmith also makes a beer around autumn every year that they call Evil Dead Red.  It is a highly hopped red ale that they bill as being 6.66% ABV.  Evil Dead Red is not one of my favorite beers, but it must have its following, else Alesmith wouldn’t keep making it.  The Double Dead Red was an experiment is making an extra-strong Evil Dead (about 11% ABV) and aging it in bourbon barrels.  Where this brew suffered a flaw was in the unintentional infection ofthe barrels by lactobacillus.  Yep, Alesmith unintentionally made a sour ale of their Double Dead Red!  It turns out that this was a happy accident indeed, as the resultant brew had qualities that were redolent of the hops, the sourness from the lacto, with hints of oak, bourbon and vanilla from the barrel-aging. Naturally, since the folks at Alemsith know their craft, they had to dispose of the barrels after producing this beer, as EVERY beer made in them forever after would be a sour style, whether they wished it or not.  Further is the problem that those few barrels could infect ALL of Alesmith’s brewing equipment with lactobacillus.  And not all the resulting beer would be as pleasant as the Double Dead.
In any case, my point is that Double Dead Red is/was truly a one-of-a-kind beer that couldn’t be enjoyed anywhere outside of the Alesmith tasting room, and once gone, it is gone forever.
And that is why I am a beerhunter.
Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.net.