Recollections on the quake, a year after the shaking

This little house suffered extensive damage in the quake, and remains damaged and abandoned a year later.

This little house suffered extensive damage in the quake, and remains damaged and abandoned a year later.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Aug. 24 earthquake in Napa. Several local and regional news outlets covered the anniversary with articles that described the repair of damaged buildings downtown and how the wine industry largely shrugged off the damage as a whole.

That’s definitely the big story; Napa has moved on in the year since the earthquake. But I still come upon reminders of the quake that trigger feelings in me that are almost similar to the cracks in the pavement, tilted houses or missing chimneys.

The physical wounds of the earthquake are healed and are being removed, but the emotional or mental are not. I’m not being sentimental, these “emotional wounds” in no way have a profound depth of feeling, but they are still scars in my consciousness. Perhaps scars is too strong of a word, but “impressions” is far too weak to express how much of an impact the event had on our life, even if Christine and I had it fairly easy.

I was in a deep sleep when the earthquake struck just after 3 a.m. There had been a much smaller earthquake about a week earlier so I had recently been reacquainted with the sensation of an earthquake and expected it to come to an end quickly. The shaking, however, didn’t end and only grew more and more violent. I vaguely remember Christine grabbing on to me, but my memory of the actual earthquake is one of just feeling completely powerless. The true and literal powerlessness of being subjected to a force on which you have no control. I imagine it would be similar to falling off a cliff and the few seconds of being aware of plummeting to a fast approaching ground. It was terrifying.

All of the plants, picture frames and some furniture in our room had been knocked askew or toppled completely. The potting soil from the plants had been spilled across the white carpet in our room. I was starring at that dirt, which was illuminated by my flashlight and had been ground into the carpet and thinking how much of a nuisance it would be to clean up, when I heard Christine from our kitchen exclaim: “Oh my God”

A crack from the earthquake runs from the sidewalk up in to the stone porch of the Napa Grapegrowers' office building.

A crack from the earthquake runs from the sidewalk up in to the stone porch of the Napa Grapegrowers’ office building.

As I walked over to that part of the house I heard her repeating “Oh my God,” at increasing levels of anxiety and dismay that sounded like an approaching panic. When I stepped into our kitchen and saw the chaos I understood why. I told her to stop, breathe and compose herself. We were physically unharmed, but overwhelmed by the mess at that moment.

I could feel shards of glass beneath my feet, and did get a small cut in the cleanup. Every cabinet had been flung open and the contents strewn on the floor or on the countertops. Wherever we pointed the beams of our flashlights shattered glass glinted back at us, and our dog’s eyes shined at us from beneath the kitchen table where he lay cowering. I wonder still how his small animal brain processed the noise and violence of that morning. He did the smart thing though, got beneath the table and stayed there.

I thought to myself if it’s this bad here in Napa the earthquake could have been localized or it may have been an even bigger earthquake centered elsewhere in the Bay Area. For all I knew, standing there in my wrecked kitchen in the dark hours before dawn, San Francisco could be destroyed.

As Christine began to sweep up broken glass, I dug up our small battery powered radio in our garage. I spun the little tuner wheel on the radio, desperate to get a sense of how big the quake was, because I knew if it had been the “Big One” I’d have to figure out how we’d survive for three to five days as the regional authorities coped with a disaster of Katrina proportions. Thankfully I did find a station just in time to hear a DJ report a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Napa. The news gave me a strong sense of relief as I knew damage from the quake would be localized to just our area. (I realized later I could have found the answer by checking my phone, but I was a bit rattled by the quake and I am a child of the ‘80s.)

We then spent about two to three hours cleaning up the glass setting furniture back in place and taking stock of what had been damaged all in the dark with only our flashlights because the power was out. Thankfully the “museum glue” I had used to secure the crystal decanters from my father’s collection onto shelves did an excellent job. Some of these decanters are exquisite antiques from the 18th and 19th century and they made it through the quake just fine. One actually rode a heavy bookcase that ripped out its anchor bolts from the wall as it “walked” about two feet during the shaking. The decanter, affixed to the top, stayed secure and the bolts prevented the bookcase from topping.

After getting the broken glass up off the floor, I texted my family to let them know we were OK and texted my friends in American Canyon because I’d learned by then that the epicenter had been near there. Despite being so close to the center, American Canyon fared quite well. Because of different soils and geo-dynamics the waves of seismic energy traveled up through Napa Valley on the west side of the river. That’s why the warehouses in American Canyon had little to no damage while the Hess Collection winery far up in the west hills of Napa suffered millions of dollars in damage.

Christine and I fell into our guest bed, we had decided to confront the mess in our bedroom in daylight, and had a fretful hour of sleep until the sun rose.

The news helicopters arrived just after sunrise and the noise from the rotors drove us from bed. I stepped out onto our front porch and despite the helicopters found it to be an oddly quiet morning. The power was still out and there was little traffic noise. Napa was just waking up and still in shock. A mobile home park was on fire not too far away and an acrid, burnt-plastic smell hung in the air. A few of my neighbors were chatting in the street, it was a surreal scene, an unsettling scene.

In the light of day I did another full check of the house and was happy to again find no major, structural damage. I didn’t smell any gas so I kept our gas on, and not knowing when power or water would return I filled up a five-gallon bucket from my homebrew kit to at least have some water for miscellaneous uses and for the dog to drink. We were lucky because our power returned fairly early in the morning at around 7:45 a.m. Christine and I then were able to see some of the devastation downtown. We thought about riding our bikes there to gawp at the collapsed walls and other damage, but it seemed a bit ghoulish to us.

Even a year later, when I recount this experience with other people who live in Napa they have quite similar experiences that they share with an equal amount of intensity. I’ve had such encounters with winemakers, winery executives and other friends in Napa. Discussing the earthquake is an intense, shared experience that left an indelible mark on almost everyone who lived in the city.

Arthur’s Fifth Annual IPA Tasting

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The last time I was brewing up a batch of homebrew, my neighbor Arthur crossed the street and invited me to an IPA tasting at his place. I was in the middle of sanitizing something or prepping the yeast so I was a bit distracted but said, “Hell yeah I’d be down to taste through a dozen or so IPAs.”

The day of the tasting I made a stop at Whole Foods, which has the best beer selection in Napa and picked up some cured sausage, marinated olives and checked with the cheese guys for what pairs well with IPA. Provisions in hand, I then headed over to the beer section and quizzed the beer guy on what IPAs he had just stocked in the hopes I could find a few that Arthur wouldn’t have when he collected his beers for the tasting. I chose the Stone Japanese Green Tea IPA and the Pirrat Tripple Dry Hop. The Pirrat was a new one and looked like an attempt by the Belgian brewery to tap in on the success of hoppy American beers. I thought the beers would be unique and complement the line up.

When I showed up at 5:40, the tasting was already getting started and the crowd was perking up their palates with a bottle of Deschutes’s Chasin’ Freshies IPA. Arthur put a print out of the line up in my hands I was pretty impressed. He seemed to appreciate my additions and said he’d mix them into the night’s festivities. The tasting was segmented into three flights, the first would be served with appetizers then we’d pause for dinner before moving onto the second. The third flight would be preceded by dessert.

Arthur had given each flight its own name, the meaning of which he kept to himself. All the beers came from California or Oregon, except the one Belgian I brought with me.

Flight One: Dreaming in Real Time
1. IPA, Tap it Brewing, San Luis Obispo, Calif.
2. Alpha Centauri Binary IPA, Hopvalley Brewing, Eugene, Ore.
3. Hop Stoopid, Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma, Calif.
4. Widowmaker, Fall River Brewing, Redding, Calif.
5. Enjoy by Dec. 26, 2014 IPA, Stone Brewing, Escondido, Calif.
6. Japanese Green Tea IPA, Stone Brewing

Flight Two: Stars Come Out, While Winds Whisper
7. Frankenlou IPA, Seven Brides, Silverton, Ore.
8. Talon Double IPA, Mendocino Brewing, Ukiah, Calif.
9. Beer Camp West Coast Double IPA, Sierra Nevada, Chico, Calif.
10. Volcanic Double IPA, Lassen Ale Works, Susanville, Calif.
11. Green Bullet Triple IPA, Green Flash, San Diego, Calif.
12. Hopsicle, Moylans Novato, Calif.

Flight Three: Swaying Trees and Icy Waters
13. Pirrat Tripple Dry Hopped
14. Evil Cousin Double IPA, Heretic Brewing, Fairfield, Calif.
15. Hopageddon Imperial IPA, NapaSmith, Napa, Calif.
16. Sasquatch Double IPA, Six Rivers Brewery McKinleyville, Calif.
17. Hophash, Cauldera, Ashland, Ore.
18. Hop Henge, IPA, Deschutes Brewery, Bend Ore.
19. Hophead, Bend Brewing, Bend Ore.
20. Black IPA, Stone Brewing
21. Double IPA, BoatSwain Brewing, Concord, Calif.

We tasted through each, taking notes and making comments as we went through. The group of about 15 people shared one 22-ounce bottle, making for about 1 to 2 ounce tastes for each. The evening definitely grew more convivial over time, but did not get out of hand.

The best three beers from each flight as picked by the group, plus my notes.

Flight One: Widowmaker: Layered hop aromas marked by citrus and pine with a well-integrated malt body that finished with a slight caramel sweetness.

Flight Two: Green Bullet: Exceptionally balanced, a big beer that manages to stay light and refreshing.

Flight Three: Hop Henge: High toned citrus notes followed by a relatively light body with a refreshing finish.

Best of Show: Widowmaker. This beer is one of the best big IPAs I’ve had in a long time. I’d never heard of the brewery until the tasting and unfortunately it’s a pretty small operation with limited distribution.

Now, the worst of the evening.
Third Worst: Greet Tea IPA, this may not be that fair because this is such a unique beer, but it didn’t have much appeal beyond the first taste that’s redolent of green tea. As one in the group said, it made him think of what it would be like to lick the blades of his lawnmower.

Second Worst: Volcanic Double IPA, just a mess of sickly sweet malt and out of control hops that didn’t mesh well at all. A prime example of big IPAs gone bad and the type of beer that is giving the style a bad reputation.

Worst of Show: Sasquatch Double IPA, universally panned as the single worst beer of the night and one of the worst beers I’ve had in years. I remarked the funky, dirt and dank flavors reminded me of the taste you get in your mouth when you pass out by the campfire on a drunken camping trip.

Despite the unwelcome appearance of a few stinkers, the evening on the whole provided excellent beers, lively conversation and a wonderful opportunity to taste through one of my favorite beer styles.

The old and modern art of the cooper

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We’ve just put together our annual barrel edition at the magazine and that meant I’ve been getting in touch with several different coopers, talking about the barrel market and also digging through my cooperages photos. If you’re curious about the wine barrel market, some interesting trends I reported on is that American oak barrels are getting much more expensive because of the surging popularity of Bourbon and other whiskeys that age in American oak barrels. This is quite a change for the wine industry as American oak barrels have traditionally always been a cheaper alternative to French oak barrels.

In going over some of my photos I’m reminded how cool it is to visit a cooperage. After entering the workshop, the first thing you’ll notice is the wonderful smell of toasty smoke that’s tinged with scents of vanilla, a bit of baked bread and whiskey. While there are several areas of the production process that have been modernized with machinery, many elements of barrel making require the work of skilled craftsmen. There are tools and tasks of a modern barrel workshop that are the same as they were 300 or 400 years ago.

Last year I had a chance to tour the Nadalie USA cooperage in Calistoga. It’s one of several cooperages I’ve visited, and it’s a good example of how barrel making is still in many places a combination of machine precision and craftsmanship.

Continue reading →

Legal spat over ‘IPA’

beerfight-600x276 Breaking today is an interesting story I saw first reported on sfgate.com about how Lagunitas is suing Sierra Nevada over the latter’s new Hop Hunter IPA. You can find far more details on the Chronicle’s website as well as some interesting reader comments, many of which are highly critical of Lagunitas.

The suit is largely based on Sierra’s use of IPA in big, black lettering displayed prominently on the side of the six pack carton and label.

This type of spat seems to me more as having to do with the expanding craft beer market nationwide rather than the local market. Most consumers here in California, and especially the North Coast know the difference between a new Sierra IPA and the classic Lagunitas IPA.

However for the Bud Lite crowd in the rest of the United States, the idea of an IPA is still somewhat of a novel concept. From the Lagunitas point of view I could imagine they feel Sierra is trying to get its brand equated with IPAs in general and possibly even piggy-back on the success of Lagunitas’ iconic IPA. For the newbie beer fan who knows they just like an IPA, they likely would just reach for anything with IPA on the package. Lagunitas is therefore probably worried Sierra is trying to get its brand synonymous with the letters and beer style IPA.

I was invited by Sierra Nevada to its Hop Hunter launch party later this month at the Torpedo Room in Berkley but I can’t make it because I’ll be at the major Unified wine industry trade show in Sacramento. I’d love to try the new beer, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until it shows up in the Napa market.

So while I can’t speak to the beer, I will say that I think Lagunitas and its founder Tony Magee are stretching it a bit with this lawsuit. You can’t trademark IPA, and while there are certain design elements similar in both packaging it’s not so similar that I think a consumer (even a Bud Lite drinking moron) would think it’s the same beer or a collaboration between the two breweries. Magee is also mentioned in the great article I blogged about last week as arguing Boston Beer Company’s new IPAs were a threat to his business. The sensitivity and litigiousness exhibited by Magee are at odds to my perception of a very successful and independent-minded brewer.

UPDATE Jan. 14: In the Santa Rosa, Calif. The Press Democrat today is a report that Magee is already backing off of the lawsuit because he quickly discovered he had already come close to losing the case in the court of public opinion.

Sam Adams? Meh since about 1999

Excellent piece of journalism by Andy Crouch on the Boston magazine website about the Boston Beer Company, its founder Jim Koch and his struggle to keep the iconic Sam Adams brand of beer relevant in the new world of U.S. craft beer. Crouch does an excellent job painting a detailed picture of Koch and how he created the myth of Sam Adams beer.

To a large degree I wholeheartedly agree with Crouch’s assessment that Koch and Sam Adams have largely been left behind by the world of craft beer.

“So why does Koch get so upset when upscale bars such as Row 34 don’t serve his beer? It might be because he’s worried that those establishments could be the canary in the craft-beer coal mine. The tastes of today’s drinkers and brewers are changing—and, unexpectedly, Boston Beer Company has been forced to play catch-up in the industry it helped to create.”

While I think Fritz Maytag’s revitalization of Anchor Steam did more to energize beer culture in the United States, the impact of Koch and Sam Adams is indisputable. I definitely agree with the analysis of Crouch’s piece, I also think it’s more than 10 years too late, especially from the West Coast perspective. The beer never had as much relevance, even in the late 90s, when one could just as easily buy Sierra Nevada or Red Tail. To me Sam Adams has always just been a bridge for Bud Lite drinkers to try new beers. In the comments on Crouch’s article, Sam Adams is accurately described as the “bunny hill” of American craft beer.

There’s elements of the Great American Beer Revival that are somewhat troubling; too much hops, flawed beers that are rushed on to the market and this disturbing sour beer trend that I hope goes away sometime soon, but I personally see it as a positive sign that a mediocre beer like Sam Adams is no longer the standard bearer for good beer.

Breaking into All Grain, Brew Day

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Sparge selfie, you can see the hot liquor tank on top of the ladder flowing to the mash tun and then to the boil kettle at the bottom.

Like a kid on Christmas I tore into my new brew setup after getting it home to give all the stainless steel valves, washers, rubber gaskets and miscellaneous fittings a good sanitizing cleaning. After getting everything broken down, I realized I hadn’t paid too close attention to how everything fit back together and then spent several hours sorting through it like building a LEGO model without the directions.

A standard all-grain kit is comprised of three vessels: the “hot liquor” tank, mash tun and boil kettle. I always had been intimidated by all-grain brewing until I figured it’s pretty much just like making oatmeal. Instead of making a paste, you heat and mix the grains with hot water and then drain that water off after letting the grains mix for about a hour. Getting the water to mix with the grains at the right temp and then drain it off is the extra challenge to all-grain brewing.

For my set-up I have two 10-gallon water coolers from Home Depot and a stainless steel 10-gallon brew bot. I use gravity to facilitate the movement of liquid, so I rigged my hot liquor tank to the top of a four-foot step ladder above the mash tun set on a table. I place my boil kettle on a propane burner below the mash tun. The propane burner is my main source of heat leading to the big drawback of a gravity-fed system, one has to move large amounts of very hot water.

Here’s my set up, which I bought from J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato:

Hot liquor (water) tank: 10-gallon cooler equipped with a stainless ball valve and silicone hose.

Mash tun (tank): 10-gallon cooler with a stainless steel “false bottom,” which is a circular screen that prevents the grain from flowing into the brew kettle. The screen is connected to a stainless-steel ball valve with a small bit of silicone hose.

Boil kettle: 10-gallon stainless steel pot that I customized with a thermometer and ball valve. (As you can see when all these fittings were jumbled up together for that initial cleaning, I was faced with quite the brain puzzler to put them all back together.)

The most expensive items are the ball valves, false bottom and thermometer set up for the boil kettle.

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Checking the temperature of the mash regularly is critical to keeping your grains at the conversion sweet spot.

The trickiest part of all-grain brewing with a cooler system like mine is maintaining or hitting your mash temperature. I didn’t realize how pivotal the proper temp was to converting grain starches to fermentable sugars. To adjust the temp you need to constantly check add hot water as needed, while mixing the mash to hit and maintain that temp. More sophisticated systems include mash tuns made of stainless steel kettles set on a burner that provides the heat to hit your mash temp spot-on.

After the mash comes the sparge, which is draining off the sweet wort while adding fresh, hot water to flush more wort off the grain. The hot liquor tank, situated above the mash tun, provides a trickle of hot water through silicone hoses. During this stage, one has to match the flow of water entering the mash tun to the flow of wort leaving the tun to try and ensure the sparge takes about a hour. The added expense of the ball valves pays off here because they make it much easier to adjust the flow of the water and wort.

Once I’ve collected enough wort for the boil and fermentation the brew process is just like extract brewing. I’m very happy I made the switch to all-grain though because it’s far more involved, intricate and exciting brew process. I also have the sense of complete control and of truly making something original. This is making a meal from the raw ingredients, not just adding water to a box. (I kinda understand the all-grain elitism now.)

For future upgrades, I think I’m going to get a digital thermometer to quickly know my mash temp as well as a plate chiller to cool my wort. I’ve heard really good things about the Blichmann Therminator. Much further down the road, I also could add a 15-gallon brew kettle to brew up 10-gallon batches of beer. That would enable me to bottle 5 gallons and keg the other five, oh the wondrous possibilities.

Breaking into All Grain

Many of my old posts concerned my homebrew hobby. I think I was always pretty clear I was practicing the “extract” method in which you use dehydrated or dried malt to create the foundation of flavors and fermentable sugars for your beer. It’s a pretty simple method in which you’re basically making soup (add ingredients to water, boil for a hour, cool and ferment) but you’re limited in what you can make and your base base ingredients have already been processed so your quality is compromised to a certain degree. The advantages to extract, however, is that the brewing process is quicker, requires less equipment and it’s easier to make higher-alcohol beers like double IPAs.

But there’s a snotty attitude in the homebrew world for those limited to just extract. I remember when I worked at Starmont and was talking about homebrewing with my colleagues in the lab when a winemaker, who was a home brewer, came in and someone mentioned I also made homebrew. He asked me about my setup and when I said it’s a five-gallon extract system, he wasn’t too impressed. “That sucks,” was all he said and our homebrew conversation was over.

Undeterred I stuck with extract making regular batches and steadily improving my methods and sanitation until I was pretty locked in to making my own beers that conformed to BJCP standards. People generally said my homebrew tasted like “real beer” and there were a few instances when people tried my beer without knowing I had made it at home and wanted to know what the name of the brewery was.

I’d basically met the challenge of making quality beer with extract and needed to upgrade to making beer in the “all-grain” process. This involves more equipment to make beer from simply malted and milled grain, water and hops. But a few years ago I got distracted with making wine, and didn’t have much cash after buying a new house so the brewing hobby fell to the wayside.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

Matt Noble checking on his boil kettle during the all-grain class in St. Helena.

That changed about two months ago when my mom bought me an “expert brewing” class through the Napa Community College culinary facility in St. Helena. Taught by Matt Noble, a brewer at the excellent Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley. Noble proved to be a relaxed, friendly guy who took us through the all-grain process from start to finish answering detailed questions from folks like me who have fermentation experience and other folks who didn’t seem to know what hops are. The class also featured a delicious lunch of Trumer and Anchor Steam beers served by Alsatian choucroute and sausage cooked by the culinary students.

Based on the class and Noble’s advice on a good start-up kit I visited the guys at J&M Brewing Supplies in Novato, which is just a short trip up 101 from my office in San Rafael. I had learned about these guys by doing a profile on them freelance for a special Marin County publication by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was pretty chill to see the cover of that publication framed on the wall behind their register and one of the owners Marty Wall was real helpful in getting me set up.

I opted for a system based on two 10-gallon insulated water coolers and upgraded my 10-gallon boil kettle with a weld-less thermometer and ball valve. I’ve brewed two IPAs with the set-up so far and am very satisfied. I’ll go into the brewing in more detail in a subsequent post.

I felt a little bad letting my brew kettle gather dust for so long, but it was important for me to invest in new equipment to take on new challenges. When you pursue a hobby to create something, one needs to ensure your tools are balanced with your skill to make the investment in time and money worth it. Everybody knows someone with the means who has dumped a bunch of money into a hobby only to produce something mediocre. In fact, I know a few winery owners whose equipment and tasting rooms are more impressive than their products.