Written by Tom Becham
Photos courtesy of Kristin Rea Photography
On Saturday, June 19, 2010, the City of Ventura saw its first (and thankfully not last) Salute! Beer Festival. Salute! was hosted by Joby Yobe and the Ojai Beverage Company, an outlet for fine beer which will have its own article in coming weeks. (I also gather that Joby intended this festival as a sort of reward to his regular customers.)
The festival was held at the Ventura State Beach Park, an ideal location with perfect weather on the day of the event and it drew about 2,500 people.
All proceeds from the festival were donated to FOOD Share, an organization that provides meals to over 50,000 people per month in Ventura County. So, it was not just an event to promote and enjoy great beer and food, but one to help the increasing numbers of the less fortunate in our own community.
Naturally, as can be gleaned from the title of the festival itself, the focus was not just on good beer, but how it complements good food, as well. So, this was not just an Oktoberfest style event with beer and sausages and pretzels (nothing wrong with that, but beer can be so much more.).
Indeed, VIP tickets to the event (as well as press passes, which I was lucky enough to obtain) entitled the bearer to enjoy food and beer pairings of gourmet quality. The very first pairing featured a beer called Saison du Buff, a collaborative effort from Stone Brewing, Victory Brewing and Dogfish Head. A fairly typical Belgian farmhouse-style saison, but spiced with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (insert your own Scarborough Fair joke here). It had the somewhat funky nose of most saisons, but the taste was somewhat like drinking in mouths full of garden herbs, in a good way. The dish paired with this beer was prepared by Ojai Beverage Company’s own chef, Jerret Gilden, and consisted of a seared sea scallop topped with pancetta, and a mushroom ragout in filo dough with feta cheese and spinach, all served over a bed of garlic and basil-spiced red lentils and tomato. Paired with that particular dish, the spices in the beer POPPED, and the beer became spectacular.
Further hammering home the point of joining quality beer with tasty food was the inclusion of Stone Brewing’s Cicerone “Dr.” Bill Sysak as a guest speaker at the event. Mr. Sysak coordinates all the taps and the cellar at the Stone World Garden and Bistro in Escondido, California, and has some renown in the West Coast beer world. I will also be featuring an interview with “Dr.” Bill in coming weeks.
Indeed, many other excellent area restaurants provided samples of some of their signature dishes at the festival. But Professor Good Ales is primarily about beer, so let me tell you about the beer at this festival.
Some of the nationally known companies were present: Alaskan, Deschutes, Dogfish Head, Firestone Walker, Kona, Lagunitas, Mendocino, New Belgium, Pyramid, Red Hook, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Stone and Widmer’s. Also present were some much smaller, but very good craft brewers like Bayhawk, Bootlegger’s, Buckbean, Craftsman, Einhorn, Fireman’s Brew, Island, Karl Strauss, Ladyface Ale Companie, Skyscraper, Sudwerk and Telegraph.
As some readers of my articles might recall, I’ve mentioned Fireman’s Brew and Craftsman before. I actually had the opportunity to speak briefly with Mark Jilg, the founder/brewer of Craftsman. I asked him when his company would be expanding their distribution. He essentially replied that he didn’t think he could continue to make the kind of beer he wanted to make and expand distribution at the same time. So, unfortunately that means a trip to beer bars in Los Angeles or Orange Counties to taste his wonderful brews. Still, he truly IS a Craftsman, and must be respected for that. As a humorous aside, when I commented to one of the Craftsman employees about the sad shape of the company website, he replied, “Yeah, we traded it for a keg of beer.”
Among Craftsman’s offerings at the festival were its Cabernale (made with 1/3 of its weight in cabernet grapes), Braggot, 1903 Lager and Beer Mountain. The Cabernale is just as beguiling as I remembered. The Braggot naturally smells of honey but also has a slight ashy/smoky aroma to go with its complex well-balanced taste. The 1903 Lager is a classic pre-Prohibition style with strong hops and a nice biscuity malt. The Beer Mountain is not the usual variety, but rather a smoked version. Beer Mountain is roughly an English-style old ale, but this time Craftsman had smoked it in a unique manner by injecting the smoke into the boil kettle. This produces a definite smoky flavor, but much subtler and less aggressive than in most smoke beers.
Fireman’s Brew put in an appearance as well. Fortunately, Fireman’s Brew changed their contract brewer, and they now have more consistency in the quality of their Blonde, Brewnette and Redhead. Unfortunately, their beers now have a bit less “edge” to them and are not as distinctive. I understand why they did what they did, but I wonder if the trade-off was absolutely necessary.
Bootlegger’s Brewery from Fullerton, CA, is a new one to me. They featured a beer called Wildfire Wheat, which is a smoked wheat beer. Now outside of Germany, one won’t frequently encounter such a thing. This smoked wheat has both smoke and apricot on the nose, and tastes like a faintly apricot-y barbecued banana. Surprisingly, this is much better than it might seem!
Einhorn Beer Company is from San Luis Obispo, CA. Einhorn is fairly unique in brewing to German Reinheitsgebot purity laws. Einhorn’s doppelbock is a tasty, very light rendition of the style. It also emphasizes the nuttier aspects of the flavor profile, with an ashy hop finish. Much lighter in color and flavor, and it would be a maibock.
Green Flash was represented as well. Given the San Diego area is home to Stone, Alesmith and Lost Abbey, Green Flash sometimes gets lost in the crowd. Their beers tend to be hophead’s delights, and their Le Freak is no exception. It is an entry in the Tripel/Double IPA category that seems so popular now. A well-balanced beer, unlike some of their more common brews, it has a strong malt backbone with the citrusy hops.
In the past, Telegraph Brewing from Santa Barbara, CA, has not overly impressed me. I must now change my opinion. We sampled two of their entries; their Robust Ale and their Reserve Wheat. The Robust Ale seems to be a hop-accented version of English old ale, with a grapefruit-bite that lingers awhile. The Reserve Wheat is an attempt to replicate a Berliner Weisse, with spectacular results. It is brewed with brett and lactobacillus and barrel-aged for the funky sourness of a Berliner. To replicate the lemony flavors, lemon verbena is added during the brewing process. It is somewhat shocking to the palate at first, but very refreshing, and something to hoard for a warm summer.
Taking the prize for “Dirtiest Beer Name of the Festival” was The Brewhouse of Santa Barbara with its Big Johnson Barleywine. At 10% ABV, this is a truly massive beer, with heavy malt, and a hop presence that sets the tongue tingling. A bourbon-barrel aged Big Johnson was also present, possessing all the flavor characteristics one would expect from the aging process.
Island Brewing from Carpinteria, CA, tends toward somewhat generic lighter-style beers. But for this festival, they had a truly delicious porter they call Blackbird. I am not what I consider a “style nazi”, but it is a pet-peeve of mine that so many craft brewers don’t seem to understand the difference between porter and stout. Island knows it, and shows it in their Porter, which has the slight sour tang porters should have, and does NOT have the burnt malt taste of a stout, despite a definite smoky quality to the palate.
Firestone offered its usual range of pale ales, along with its elusive Velvet Merkin oatmeal stout. Velvet Merkin is an ingredient in all of Firestone’s anniversary beers, which are blends of many mammoth dark ales. It is one of the most complex beers I’ve ever tasted for one of such average strength. Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to taste it should you get such a chance.
It might seem odd for me to mention Maui Brewing and Buckbean Brewing at the same time, but besides the fact that both came from outside of California (Buckbean is based in Reno, NV), they also can rather than bottle their beers. This does not seem to affect the taste at all, since Maui’s Coconut Porter is nice enough to sip on one of its namesake beaches – and light enough in body to have more than one. Buckbean offered Black Noddy Schwarzbier, a roasty, licorice-laced treat, and Orange Blossom Ale, which had all the flavor and aromatic qualities of orange blossom well in evidence.
Sudwerk, from Davis, CA has been a fixture of craft brewing for some time. They focus on German styles, and with great success. Their lager – a Munich Helles in style – features sharp but subtle hop use over a base of shortbread-tasting malt.
Finally, there was Alaskan Brewing. Alaskan is a fixture on the west coast, but relatively unknown elsewhere. This is too bad, because I have enjoyed all of their products that I have tasted. Their White Ale is no exception. A spot-on rendition of a Belgian witbier, Alaskan White has all the rich refreshing, slightly zippy goodness of any Belgian wit. As well, Alaskan White is comparably priced, made in America, and the profits don’t go to a multinational conglomerate that’s not even based in the U.S. ( Cough, cough – Anheuser-Busch/Inbev – cough, cough.) With Alaskan White available, one need never buy Hoegaarden again.
In all, Salute! was a resounding success. I give my own Salute to Joby Yobe, Ojai Beverage Company, and everyone involved with the staging of this festival. Ventura County now truly has a world-class beer festival, a fact all the more amazing when one realizes that we are simply an overgrown, surburbanized collection of cow-towns between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.org.