As I mentioned recently, J and I have been away on a combination vacation and work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. We managed to have some nice adventures in food and drink. I’ll be posting about the former soon, but without further ado, here’s a look at some of the best sipping and quaffing we enjoyed.
Farmers’ Reserve No. 1 from Almanac Beer Company
Friends we were visiting (thanks, E & V!) took us to a fantastic little beer shop in Mountain View, California called Jane’s Beer Store. Although they were all out of the sour beer I was seeking from Russian River Brewing, I did manage to snag another local bottle that I had read about online and was very intrigued by. Almanac Beer Company—founded in 2010 by former homebrewers and dedicated to highlighting local ingredients and making beers that pair well with local, seasonal foods—have a line of “Farm to Barrel” specialty beers. Here’s their description of Farmers’ Reserve No. 1:
Our first California wild ale is brewed with a blend of Cabernet & Muscat Grapes from Alfieri Farms, Concord grapes from Hamada Farms and plums from Twin Girls Farm—all located in the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Aged for over a year in used wine barrels, this sour ale blends rich flavors of the 2011 autumn harvest with farmhouse funk.
It was everything that crazy description promises and more! If you enjoy sour beers and are in the SF Bay Area, seek this one out. For opinions on both sides, check out Jay H.’s takes (both pro and con) at the Beer Samizdat blog.
Calabaza Blanca from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
It took a trip to California (and the helpful staff of Jane’s Beer Store) for me to discover a fine Michigan craft brewer. Here’s how Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales describes their lovely Calabaza Blanca:
Aged in large oak casks and refermented in the bottle, Calabaza Blanca is a Belgian Biere Blanche. Spiced with orange peel and coriander, you’ll find it refreshingly tart, with a wonderfully dry finish.
It was delicious! I can’t wait to seek out their beers here in Madison.
Hell or High Watermelon Wheat from 21st Amendment Brewing
After enjoying our time in Mountain View, J and I spent a day in the city (i.e., San Francisco), which started off with lunch at 21st Amendment Brewing. I didn’t love their veggie burger as much I hoped, but I was very pleasantly surprised by their brilliantly named Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. When beers start to feel gimmicky and in danger of tasting like soda pop, I get wary. But, I decided this was my best chance to give this brew a try, and I’m really glad that I did. It was refreshing and flavorful and shockingly well-balanced—or at least as well-balanced as a beer served with a wedge of watermelon could ever hope to be. I can imagine loving an icy cold one (or more) of these on a hot summer day.
BRUX Domesticated Wild Ale, a Russian River and Sierra Nevada Collaboration
After our California adventures, we headed to Seattle. If it took a trip to California to discover Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin, it apparently took a trip to Washington for me to discover Cali’s BRUX. I splurged ($24 = yikes!) and ordered it during our second trip to The Pine Box (another excellent name; it’s housed in the chapel of a former funeral home). As Natalie reports at Russian River’s blog,
BRUX was brewed in Chico (at Sierra Nevada) and will go through their distribution channels, which will, of course, greatly increase your chances of getting a couple of bottles. BRUX is a “domesticated wild ale”, or an ale fermented with Belgian yeast, finished by a secondary bottle fermentation with Brettanomyces bruxellensis.
Josh Jackson has a nice and spot-on review at Paste; here’s a taste: “The citrus hop profile stands out with a bready richness underneath, meaning you don’t have to appreciate Belgian sours to enjoy this beer…. [It] is a more subtle, well-balanced Belgian-style golden that goes down easy with plenty of flavor and 8.3% ABV.” For a second (also glowing) review, see what Gary Dzen has to say at Boston.com.
Belgian Strong Dark from Pfriem Family Brewers
I’ve so far focused on some of the beers that I discovered during this trip, so I thought that I should close with one that J truly loved. On our last night in Seattle, we stopped by Brouwer’s Cafe for food and drink. Our bartender was great, and when J was ready try another of their 64 (!) tap beers for his second round, he suggested J try the Belgian Strong Dark from Pfriem of Hood River, Oregon. As their website puts it, “you don’t have to speak Flemish to appreciate the bold, complex flavors of fig dipped in dark chocolate, ripe fruit and toffee in this immense Ale.” J’s favorite imported beer is the St. Bernadus Abt 12 (which Brouwer’s also had on tap), but J said he liked this one even better, since the sweetness in the Pfriem was turned down a notch or two compared to the St. Bernardus.
Believe it or not, these have been just some of the highlights of our trip. Others include fine beers from Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery, both in bottles and on tap; lovely craft cocktails—some featuring local spirits and other local ingredients—at Seattle’s Local 360, Knee High Stocking Company, and Skillet Diner; and, as I mentioned yesterday, some fantastic coffee at Seattle Coffee Works. Even though it’s good to be home, this recap already has me jonesin’ to head back to the West coast!
The clearest sign that you are at a farmers’ market in California rather than Wisconsin: lots of citrus.
This coming Sunday, The New York Times Magazine will feature its Food & Drink Issue, but you can already sample the contents online. Center-stage you’ll find (who else?) Mark Bittman on a reader-suggested trip to California’s Central Valley:
After reviewing the suggestions, it became clear that readers wanted an article that incorporated big farming, small farming, sustainability, politics, poverty and, of course, truly delicious food — and in the United States, if possible. So I decided to head to the Central Valley, where all of this was already happening. This also happened to satisfy a curiosity of mine. From a desk in New York, it’s impossible to fathom 50 m.p.h. carrots, hills of almonds, acres of basil and millions of tomatoes all ripening at once. How can all of this possibly work?
But I was also inclined to head to the valley because I know that, for the last century or so, we’ve been exploiting — almost without limitation — its water, mineral resources, land, air, people and animals. Mark Arax, a writer who lives in Fresno and has chronicled the region’s past and present, offered his opinion while serving me and a dozen others marinated lamb, a terrific recipe from his Armenian family: “This land and its water have gone mostly to the proposition of making a few men very wealthy and consigning generations of others, especially farmworkers, to lives in the dust.” I’d already seen an example of how wealth has been concentrated and captured in the valley: this summer, Campbell’s bought Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion. Meanwhile, there are thousands of valley farmworkers who are often victims of wage-theft and (illegally) required to supply their own tools.
So for five days I drove through the southern half of the valley. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the agriculture in America’s produce factory; where thoughtful farmers were leading it; and how — if at all — it might become sustainable.
Check out Bittman’s full essay here.
Then, for a closer look at some of the smaller-scale farming that’s happening amidst all the giant agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley—the southern end of the Central Valley, which is where Bittman also spent his time—check out this piece in Gastronomica by Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland):
There is a gritty majesty to San Joaquin, the southern half of California’s Central Valley. Route 99, the freeway that bisects it, thunders with the traffic of tractor-trailers that haul equipment in and agricultural products out 24/7. The geography beside the highway is marked by grain elevators and storage silos that soar like medieval turrets. Enormous piles of almond hulls (sold as cattle feed) rise in conical mounds as tall as five-story buildings. I passed warehouse after warehouse, each big enough to be an airplane hangar. Farm equipment dealerships broke up monotonous gray and whites with the yellow, green, orange, and scarlet hues of tractors, plows, combines, dump trucks, bulldozers, and Rube Goldberg contraptions whose purpose I could only guess, all seemingly designed to be operated by a race of giants.
On the surface, the San Joaquin Valley gives no hints that it is home to some of the most innovative food producers in the country. On a seventy-five-acre “patch,” as [Tom] Willey aptly calls it, T & D Willey Farms [also featured in Bittman’s piece] grows fifty different varieties of produce: “everything from artichokes to zucchinis.” (More typically, his nearest neighbor raises a single variety of wine grape on 750 acres.) “Conventional farming approaches are just too brain-dead for me,” he said, in the cluttered bungalow that serves as his head office. “As an organic farmer, you have to be out ahead of the game. You have to be studying insect ecology and soil microbiology. It’s fascinating, challenging, and intellectually stimulating.”
The governor of the local Slow Food chapter, Willey is a stubborn pioneer among a group of agricultural contrarians who are bucking the cycle of commodity production in the Central Valley—what he calls “producing food widgets.” He ticked off other like-minded mavericks. Hidden in plain sight amidst huge industrial farms, they include a grower of the world’s sweetest apricots; a rancher whose cattle spend their entire lives eating grass on pasture; a third-generation Japanese American rice-producing brother and sister team who still adhere to the standards of quality established by their grandfather; and a born-again factory-scale dairy farmer turned farmstead cheesemaker who has won the highest awards in the world.
Head here for Estabrook’s full article.
Thanks to Civil Eats, I discovered this recent article by Brie Mazurek for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which operates the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. She profiles farmers on the California coast who raise fruits and vegetables without any irrigation, a process known as dry farming. As she writes,
David Little of Little Organic Farm has had to adapt to water scarcity in Marin and Sonoma Counties, where most farmers and ranchers rely on their own reservoirs, wells, and springs, making them particularly vulnerable in years with light rainfall. Through a technique known as dry farming, Little’s potatoes and squash receive no irrigation, getting all of their water from the soil.
Mediterranean grape and olive growers have dry-farmed for thousands of years. The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century. Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit….
Deprived of any surface irrigation besides the coastal fog, dry-farmed plants develop deep, robust roots to seek out and soak up soil moisture. Because they absorb less water than their conventionally irrigated counterparts, dry-farmed crops are characteristically smaller but more nutrient-dense and flavorful.
It’s a fascinating read, and includes some great links and photos, so check out the full piece.