Beer And Frothing
A soggy mission in search of Brewmasters beers in the heart of Monterey.
Thursday, July 2, 1998
We were a motley crew on Alvarado Street last Thursday. The weight of our mission was great, our thirst was greater and freedom from the office corroded any sense of discipline. In short, we needed beer.
Not just any beer. The microbrews that are going to be on display at KAZU''s California Brewmasters Classic this Friday night at the Doubletree. It seemed like a simple thing.
(But then we thought it would be simple to call the breweries in advance, tell ''em to send us free beer. Then we''d drink it and write about it. If we could find our keyboards. Only three breweries responded to our request for beer samples--hardly enough to fill out the menu for a professional beer bust. So there we were, wandering the streets of Monterey, trying to find someplace that could respond to our terrible need.)
By the time we ducked into port and cast our anchor alongside a treasured aisle in one of the few places that could begin to satisfy our beer lust, the crew--a Publisher, an Editor and Writers One, Two and Three--was in a surly mood. Impatient, demanding and overflowing with invective.
"For the love of God," I hissed as we settled into our booth, "don''t tell them we''re with a newspaper." The public, engorged with barely concealed hatred for the press, is waiting for the chance to mutilate journalists careening drunkenly toward the next millennium.
The Publisher nodded his head gravely, spying my thoughts. "Bring us five beers and one glass," he told the waiter, who was already eyeing us nervously.
"Wait," I cautioned. "We can''t rush these things. We must pick the right beer. One that''s on the list." Writer Two began fumbling through a folder full of press releases, note-filled napkins and the other detritus that coagulates around every working journalist.
Writer One jumped to his feet and challenged the waiter. "We''re from a newspaper and we''re writing a story about beer," his voice a mixture of petulance and belligerence.
"That''s right," said the Publisher. "Bring us five glasses and five beers."
Writer Three murmured, "A method. We need a method..."
"You''re right, we need one beer and five glasses," said the Publisher.
By this time, the waiter was making secret hand signals, alerting his backup that serious trouble was brewing.
"Look," I said. "If everyone just remains calm, we can walk out of here with our lives. Number Two, where''s that list?" She was way ahead of me (of course), she had compiled a list of three beers served by the tavern that are also on the Brewmasters'' list: Coast Range Blonde, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Gordon Biersch Marzen.
"But I want a Jack Russell Brown Ale," whined Writer Three. "I don''t care if it''s on the list. They''re such cute dogs."
There was deadly finality in the waiter''s eyes as he repeated the order back to us and turned on his heel. Within minutes he was back with the four brews. And five glasses.
"Perhaps," I suggested, "we should start with the Sierra Nevada."
"Good idea," replied the Publisher, pouring himself three fingers of the Coast Range.
And so, finally, it began with the Coast Range Blonde.
Learned beer-tasters have their own lexicon for describing beer; it''s a language which means something to the cognoscenti but to those of us who count ourselves among the great unwashed, simple words that cut to the heart of the taste carry more weight. Here are our impressions of the Coast Range Blonde: "looks like honey in the glass; kind of fruity; kind of hoppy; kind of coats your tongue; almost like Miller, but with a squeeze of lemon." None of us were terribly impressed.
Our tongues reveled, however, as they bathed in the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: "Well balanced from start to finish; more malty; leaves the tongue quicker--the aftertaste is at the top of the throat instead of the tongue; I could drink this all night long."
"I have drunk it all night long," trumpeted Writer One. Writer Three barely restrained him from standing on the table to declaim his expertise in the matter.
There was a "smooth burn" to the Gordon Biersch Marzen. "Tangy; it grabs the front of the tongue and drags it toward the back of the throat; gets the side of the tongue then becomes invisible."
The less said about the Jack Russell Brown Ale the better; we strayed from the list and we paid the price. It was "sour; smoky; like a home-brew experiment that went bad." And it left a lingering aftertaste "like the neighbor who wouldn''t go home."
Although the Jack Russell left our taste buds feeling like they had received a beating from a particularly ill-tempered horde of Scottish soccer fans, we were in a mellower mood as we made our way down to Peter B''s, the site of Monterey''s only true brew-pub.
The beer at Peter B''s for the last couple of years has been made by the Carmel Brewing Company. This year, however, Carmel Brewing was bought by Mendocino Brewing Co. (the folks who bring you Red Tail Ale, amongst others). The beer is still brewed on the premises, and a couple of them are on the menu for the Brewmasters. So, we reasoned, it would be in the best interests of everyone if we wobbled down to Peter B''s.
Writer One announced our entrance with a bellicose sneer, "We''re writers and we write about beer and so," he stopped for a minute, waiting for sodden synapses to fire, "we want some beer."
We were greeted cautiously and ushered into a relatively secluded booth where we could neither harm nor be harmed by other patrons of the establishment. That we were considered a threat was apparent when the overlords assigned the mysterious Thomas to our table. There was something too smooth about the way he kept his head, while all about him we were losing ours. And there were other things about Thomas that made us believe he was more than he seemed.
"Bring us five pizzas and a glass..." started the Publisher.
"Why don''t I just bring you the sampler tray?" Thomas replied, apparently telepathic. His psychic powers didn''t fool us; we were aware of whispered conversations into walkie-talkies up and down Alvarado as we advanced on his outpost. Perhaps we were merely pawns in Thomas'' grand design: We were meant to be there.
The sampler tray, of course, was just what we needed. The standard tray has a selection of five or six beers, and Thomas, anticipating our need, provided samples of several more.
Our cloudy brains communicated specific comments through numbing mouths and loosened tongues about the two beers being featured at the Brewmasters--the Amber Ale and the Wheat Hefe-weizen.
We had divided opinions about the Amber Ale. On the one hand we thought it was "smooth, complex from beginning to end; it''s like a beautiful sunrise." We were becoming poets. On the other hand, "it''s not challenging; it''s too glitzy, like a bit of Broadway; few people will love it, but a lot of people will like it." But we agreed that it was a beer with a sharp, distinct taste that didn''t linger around to foul the next swallow, and that we could easily drink lots of it.
None of us were wild about the Wheat Hefe-weizen but wheat beer is an acquired taste. Writer One, eyes rolling in his skull, professed knowledge of wheats and said "this is not a complex beer--and that''s a fault." The rest of us could only weigh-in with descriptions like: "lemony; smells like bread; grainy--like wheat and like sand."
Feeling we had a sacred responsibility to taste as many beers as possible, we pressed on through the tasters. And found several to comment about.
We thought the India Pale Ale tasted like it had "more alcohol than it does; it explodes in your mouth then leaves." "It''s like an alarm clock in your mouth," said Writer Three. "Yeah? I prefer waking up to a full-body massage," replied the Publisher, menacingly ambiguous.
The Barley Wine, which is brewed like beer but uses wine yeast, "kicks in the door; the difference between this and beer, is the difference between Old Granddad and Laphroiag." Definitely an acquired taste.
Most of all, we liked the 7-Malt Stout. If a lager is the perfect beer for barbecue, then this is the perfect beer for drinking in a study, late at night, while reading a good book. "Chocolatey," we said, "with a dark finish, thick, mouthy."
By this time, signs of fatigue were beginning to set in: Debates were raging about the superiority of Jitterbug Perfume over Still Life With Woodpecker. We were grinning like sated jackals after a feast.
The last thing I remember was the Publisher saying, "Bring us three tabs and two...uh..."
And Thomas knew what he meant. cw
The Brewmasters Classic is held on Friday, at the Doubletree Hotel. See Hot Picks, page 18, for details.