October is the month of beer festivals. Inspired by the season, my Beer Experimenter husband, Mike, has declared October the Month of Beer. Although I’m no beer aficionado I am an experimenter, so I have been tagging along to learn with him.
Learning about the botany of beer (and much more)
Our first stop on this frothy tour was a class at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix called Brewing and Botany. It was taught by award-winning home brewer, Danny Foley. This class helped our knowledge of beer to expand from novice to true hobbyist. We learned the underpinnings for the variety of beers–why stouts have a coffee-like flavor, why IPAs are so bitter (it all has to do with the sweetness or roast of malts and the bitterness of citrusy hops). We learned a bit about the history of beer and how the different varieties got their starts (different grains and hops grow differently around the world, and some beers simply do better in different climates). It was a fast-paced class, complete with seven different tastings, and lots of information crammed into two hours. We’re thinking of attending it again in the Spring to catch what we might have missed before.
Next stop: Tour of Stone Brewery
This class was a great way to start the Month of Beer because our next jaunt took us to Stone Brewery in Escondido, California where we had a private tour with Justin Holmes, one of their Indoctrination Specialists.
Mr. Holmes was the perfect guide for this involved tour. He deems himself a beer geek and says that his love of all things history comes into play as he keeps track of all that’s involved in making beer–everything from the history of it, to the types of grains involved in each kind, to where the hops come from.
Because it was just the two of us, we were able to go up on the catwalk to take a look into the vats of hops that were cooking. The vats are completely closed but we could peek into the glass portholes on the top. For me, it wasn’t so much a visual experience as an aromatic one. Throughout our tour, I kept smelling things like oatmeal, toast, and baking bread. The vats of hops had a warm, nose-filling scent, almost like fresh-cut grass, but different.
Mr. Holmes also took us into the hops storage room where we learned more about these bitter preserving agents which, for Stone Brewery and many brewers around North America, come from the Pacific Northwest.
Mike and I were both impressed with the beauty and citrusy smell of the hop plants. We had never seen one in person and always thought they would be harder in texture, like artichokes. Instead, they are more feathery, with layers of delicate leaves dripping down the head of the hop, protecting the gooey substance inside, which is what gives the hop its flavor and preserves the beer.
Mr. Holmes told us then that the hop is related to cannibis which is why, he said, we get a little dreamy standing in the hop room. And we did. It was so pleasant. He said hops are so well known as a calming agent that there are even pillows made out of them!
But back to the beer.
Stone Brewery uses wooden casks to store and age some of their brews. It was fascinating to learn the origins of some of the barrels. Some come from wineries and red wine was originally stored in the barrels. Some come from whiskey makers, where scotch or brandy was stored. Even though the barrels are given a thorough scrub down after arriving at Stone, those flavors of scotch or red wine, along with the flavors from the wood barrel itself, get imparted into the flavor of the beer stored in it.
When our tour was all done, we were led back into the main shop where we were able to do some tastings of some of the beers we learned about on our tour.
Private tours at Stone Brewery are $5 per guest, with a minimum charge of $50. They can do groups up to 35 people, but if you only have two people like we did, you pay $50 total. That includes the tour we did, along with samples of four beers at the bar, and a shot glass to take home for each person in your group.
Public tours are $3 per person and are available every day of the week. You must be over 21 to participate in the tasting, so bring your photo ID. For more information, and to see their schedule, visit Stone Brewery’s website.
Where to buy beer in San Diego
Before we left our tour, Mr. Holmes gave us a tip. To buy unique beers, go to Holiday Wine Cellar in Escondido. Not only do they have a massive selection of California and other beers, they ship! The only states they are not allowed to ship alcoholic beverages to are Texas, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Their online catalog, as well as the selection in their store, is extensive. They boast over 900 different domestic, import, and specialty beers. Mike found at least 12 different varieties of beers he wanted to try and they were all local to California!
Our Month of Beer is not over yet, but since Hubby bought enough beer in California to last the rest of the month, I would say our beer shopping is done for a while. He’s not sure if he’s happy or sad about that. Either way, the experiments are sure to continue, so stay tuned!