at the Fifth Floor restaurant, the waitstaff gathered around a long table to discuss the evening’s lineup. I’m leaning in a corner, scribbling notes and trying not to look too much like the wide-eyed fan girl that I totally am when it comes to a tasting menu of this caliber.
There’s talk of black pepper gastrique, of dumplings served with a broth of red curry, and a tender cut of suckling pig in bronzed fennel. And beer. Much of the discussion centers around the beer.
Any wannabe foodie worth her weight in CSA boxes can speak to pairing food with wine. But the menu we’re going over tonight was created for the eighth Almanac Beer Dinner. In addition to showcasing the unique, distinctly Northern California approach to brewing that Almanac has undertaken, the meal is meant to open diners up to the vast possibilities of coupling pints with plates.
Started by Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan, Almanac was founded in 2010, and released their first beer just over a year ago an oak-aged, Belgian-style golden ale. What immediately set them apart from the Northern California brewing community were the blackberries. The beer was brewed with 200 pounds of the stuff from Sebastopol Berry Farm – as well as 50 pounds of ollalie, boysen, and Marions.
The beer, an immediate success among brew wonks and foodies alike, was the first of four created in partnership with various local farms, with each product reflecting the fruits or vegetables in season. As Almanac’s beers began appearing in restaurants, bars, and specialty stores, Jesse and Damian’s emphasis on food pairings became increasingly present. They began holding beer dinners with Incanto and Flour + Water, and they even collaborated with a butchery class from Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats. Almanac is clearly a serious beer that is all about eating and drinking well.
“We’re trying to do beers that elevate their place in the dining room,” Jesse explains, as the servers begin prepping for the dinner. “You go into a lot of restaurants with a phenomenal wine list that changes based on the slightest change in season, and a perfunctory beer list. We want to build and create beers that use the same vocabulary as food.”
For Jesse and Damian, Almanac is all about being hands-on. The two met while participating in the Bay Area Brew Crew Brewer’s Club back in 2009, and immediately connected over a love of experimenting with different brewing techniques.
“We talked for a while about wanting to do a beer-centric business,” Damian tells me. “We talked about opening a bar, a restaurant, a home-brew show, but none of the ideas felt right.” What they really wanted to do was start a brewery. “But that seemed crazy,” Damian says, as we try (and fail) to stay out of the way of the Fifth Floor staff. “How do two guys with limited resources start a brewery?”
Turns out, by bootstrapping the thing. “The ‘gypsy’ model is the nice way of putting it,” Damian says with a roll of his eyes. So, that means an office in Potrero Hill and rented brewery space in San Jose. Driving out to farms and zesting pounds and pounds of oranges by hand. Going to the Ferry Building to scope out the produce for a possible next batch. At the time, Jesse was running SodaCraft along with the food and beer-centric blog Beer & Nosh, while Damian had his own design shop. Both sold their businesses this past January to devote all of their time and energy to Almanac.
Almanac’s farm-to-bottle approach makes perfect sense for Northern California. After all, living here, it’s pretty challenging to not have an appreciation for food. And it’s impossible to ignore our unparalleled access to incredible produce.
After brewing their first batch, close to a year went by while Almanac cut through the seemingly unending red tape to get their license as a brewery. What was a major frustration at the time ended up witha serious silver lining: The delay allowed the beer to age for 11 months, giving it a deep sourness punched up by the tart blackberries. And so, the Summer 2010 Vintage was born.
What followed: The Autumn 2011 Farmhouse Pale, brewed with late season plums from Twin Girls Farm in the San Joaquin Valley; the Winter 2012 Winter Wit, made with blood oranges and cara cara oranges from Hamada Farm; and the Spring 2012 Bière de Mars, brewed with baby fennel form Heirloom Organic Gardens. Most recently, Almanac released a fresh hops beer and two California Table beers, a Honey Saison brewed with Marshall Farms' honey and fresh ginger, and an Extra Pale Ale brewed with mandarin oranges from Blossom Bluff Farms.
The beers are all remarkably different in character, flavor, and intensity – and don’t necessarily “match” the season in which they’re brewed. The Winter Wit, for example, is a zesty, fresh white ale, perfect for the rare warm San Francisco afternoon.
But this variety of produce makes the assortment of beer a perfect match for a tasting menu. The boldness of the Summer Vintage is a fitting partner for a rich starter, while the plums lend a decidedly vegetal quality in the Farmhouse Pale, working nicely with a fresh salad of cucumbers and briny black olives.
“It’s amazing to do a beer menu and say, ‘No sausage and pretzels!’” Jesse says, laughing. “Though sausage and pretzels and beer is a great pairing – those Germans really know what they’re doing.”
Think back: What was the first thing you had with beer? I’m guessing mine was pizza, probably with a Bud Light or something equally shitty. I remember learning to love beer when I started drinking Hoegaarden. But while I enjoy the taste, thinking about exactly what kind of beer goes with a particular dish is still new territory for me.
So I ask the experts to show me the way – and to make sure I don’t mess up by aping a wine tasting. For beer, you always start with the aroma, Jesse tells me. “Brewers work really hard, and pay a lot of attention to aroma,” he says. Second, definitely don’t spit: Beer has a bitter component that comes in at the end that you may otherwise miss.
Beer also opens up new flavor possibilities that are much different from wine. “Look at the basic fundamentals,” Damian says. “With beer, you have four basic ingredients, versus one or two for wine. A pilsner versus a barley wine begins the same way; think about the difference between those versus a pinot and a cab.”
Jesse chimes in, “There’s this joke, ‘God makes wine and brewers make beer.’ There’s so much room for experimentation – unconventional hops, or a different strain of yeast.”
He takes a sip of a beer cocktail created for the dinner – 8-year-old aged bourbon mixed with eucalyptus syrup and topped off with the Winter Wit. “There are no rules in American brewing right now.”
As I work my way through the five-course dinner, I try to keep the flavors in mind. Yes, the citrus in the Wit is delicious with snappy shrimp, and enhanced by the spicy lemongrass flavors of the curry sauce. I swing by Jesse and Damian’s table, where they’re eating and drinking with their wives, proud that I don’t bump into anything after tasting so many different types of beer.
The guys talk about upcoming plans for the brewery, making it clear that Almanac is living up to, and perhaps exceeding, their hopes. Take their fresh hops beer – as hops are usually immediately dried after harvesting to prevent molding, brewing the beer involved transporting the fresh hops directly from a farm in Clear Lake back to San Jose, where the brewing process had already started. The beer also includes barley grown on the Stanford campus, making it Almanac’s first beer made from 100 percent Northern California ingredients. Then there’s the upcoming line of sour beers – made from 200 barrels currently aging – that will include pumpkins, plums, ginger, persimmons, wine grapes, Buddha’s hand, and Meyer lemons.
And, of course, long term, they’d love to open a brewery space where food would play a major role.
I hurry back to my table, where, as new beers are put in front of me, my notes become noticeably more sparse. A serving of suckling pig and a glass of Bière de Mars is waiting. But, I’m here to experience Almanac Beer as it is meant to be enjoyed, so I force myself to focus.
I think about something Jesse said earlier: that they want to translate the actual experience of the farm to the beer. I take a sniff, and a sip, then a bite, then a sip. Am I skipping through the fields, fronds of fennel in my hands? Am I letting the rich soil run through my fingers? Am I letting my suckling pig get cold pondering these suppositions?
I dive in, eating and drinking and talking, savoring my food and beer in combination. Which is, really, the delicious point Almanac is trying to make.
You can find Almanac Beer at City Beer Store, Healthy Spirits, Fatted Calf, Jug Shop, and any San Francisco Whole Foods, to name a few spots around town.
Bold Italic event: Almanac Beer is a partner in our Photo Safari #4 at the Conservatory of Flowers on Sunday, Oct. 28. Would you like to taste their California Table Beers while shooting plants and flowers using a Polaroid from Photobooth in a special after-hours event? More info here.