California: Beer's Promised Land is Calling

January 23, 2017
 
You should drink more California-brewed beer. The craft beer revolution started in California with Anchor, New Albion and Sierra Nevada. The Golden State has more breweries than any other state in the country, three times as many as Pennsylvania. There are outstanding breweries like Sierra Nevada, Stone and Firestone Walker (which is in the process of a huge brewery upgrade right now, by the way); there are little wonders like Russian River and there are breweries with astounding barrel programs, like Lost Abbey. And there are SO MANY BEERS-
 
No, you know what? The real reason you should drink more California beer? Look out the window. I love Philly and the Delaware Valley as much as anyone – anyone! – but chances are, you’re seeing the same thing I’m seeing as I write this: bare trees, cold rain. All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray...
 
California Dreamin’, right? Look at the pictures on these pages: warm, bright & sunny and nice, juicy, fresh IPAs and sours. That’s why you need you some California beers: mental health in the middle of another Northeast winter – holidays done and just that long stretch of gray till the ground thaws out, the shad start to run and the Phillies hit the field. Vicarious pleasure, my friends; you can sip that pint of beauty, close your eyes and be in the Promised Land.
 
But there’s more to it than that. California sets trends for the nation. It’s huge, it’s forwardlooking, it’s full of busy, pleasure-seeking people and it has a climate that tends to pull that kind of people to it. It’s no coincidence that craft brewing, craft distilling, boutique wineries and the locavore movement all started in California, nor is it a surprise that Silicon Valley is here, or the heart of the aerospace industry, or some of the most specialized agriculture sectors. Add in Hollywood and the music industry, and it’s clear that there’s a lot of great stuff rolling east. 
 
How is that reflected in the beer? Just look at the variety. You may be thinking, yeah, variety of IPAs, but there’s so much more. Stone and Green Flash, both known and noted for their hopsmashing beers, frequently play in the Belgian style playground, and they helped create the style-crossing “Belgian IPA” with its fruity, aromatic bitterness and quirky, funky character. 21st Amendment kicks the IPA gong around, but are maybe best known for their fun and quenching Hell or High Watermelon, and they crashed the session beer gate with Bitter American (now “evolved” as their Down to Earth session IPA). Lagunitas throws a 1-2-3 combo of IPA, Pils, and sour with Aunt Sally right across the plate — er, palate. Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson is equally adept at crafting Pivo, a pitch-perfect pilsner, and Parabola, the profound perennial Imperial stout.
 
So to say California beer is all about one thing – hops – is every bit as ridiculous as not acknowledging how many outstanding IPA types the state produces: Stone Ruination, Green Flash West Coast, Coronado Idiot, 21st Amendment Blah Blah Blah, Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Port Brewing Hop 15, Alpine Duet and Russian River Pliny the Elder, the beer that started the whole double IPA thing in the first place... all excellent, and barely a start on what you can find in the way of IPAs here in the land of Alpha Acid. Ah, the blazing greenness of it, it’s making me forget that bleak view already!
 
The beautiful thing about that variety is what you can do with it: match the endless bounty of food that California is famous for. It’s all great, and it’s all there for a foodie: fresh diver abalone and IPA, a wedge of Humboldt Fog cheese with sourdough bread and porter, just-picked steamed Castroville artichokes with a dry witbier, a classic grilled tri-tip with a pilsner. California food is so famous, so defining, you have to ask: did California food culture create a receptive cradle for craft beer? Given that the breweries that got things started were either in prime agricultural areas or in San Francisco – a brilliant culinary town for well over 100 years – it certainly seems likely.
 
It’s as good a reason as any to pull together a collection of California beers and create a warm and inviting atmosphere for a California dinner. Go authentic with recipes from two of my favorite cookbooks, ones that remind me of the food I enjoyed when I lived in California: The Fog City Diner Cookbook, and Terra: Cooking from the Heart of the Napa Valley. Of course, many nights I just had a bottle of Sierra Nevada Porter, still-warm sourdough, some Monterey Jack and a big salad of fresh, local greens and tomatoes. The simple life, and a meal that still takes me back.
 
When I lived there, all the California breweries that were open were tiny, even Sierra Nevada, which I visited back when they were still in a steel building beside a used farm machinery business. There was a growing excitement in brewing and in other fields like wine, and chocolate, and cheese, all bubbling around the idea of handmade, locally-sourced products. These products were special, not just because of where they were made, but because of how they were made, and because they were different in flavor, style and maybe most importantly, different in intent.
 
Back in the 1980s, California brewers made beers that were meant to show off the bold flavors of particular hops, or types of malt, beers that were maybe going to shock most people, but that would absolutely delight a small number of others. Today they still do. They may not be as small as they once were, but with people like Tomme Arthur (Lost Abbey), Matt Brynildson (Firestone Walker), Ryan Brooks (Coronado) and Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River) still very much out in front of the California brewing scene – which means, de facto, out in front of brewing pretty much anywhere – they are every bit as exciting, as pioneering, as... Californian as they ever were.
 
So maybe draw the blinds. Put on some classic Cali tunes: the Beach Boys, or Tupac, or the Grateful Dead. Pour the beers, slice the cheese and sourdough, toss the salad, and serve up some fish tacos, or heck, a freshly-made cheeseburger! Forget the cold, gray Philly winter, and step into the Promised Land, if only for as long as it takes to share a six pack. There’ll be plenty of time for other beers (and cheesesteaks) come springtime. You’ve earned some California-brewed Dreamin’.
 
 
By Lew Bryson
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