- Oct 26 '16
Escondido, California based Stone Brewing Company is one of the most groundbreaking pioneers in craft beer history, responsible to a great degree for the introduction and popularity of heavily hopped ales and IPAs now known as west coast style craft beers. Michael has known Stone’s legendary co-founder Greg Koch for a couple of decades and his visit to the brewery was a very happy reunion.
Michael was actually on site at Stone when their first 30-barrel brewing system was installed way back when. Since then, Greg has upgraded to two 120-barrel systems running in tandem. The setup is big, impressive, and not what many people think of when they think of craft beer. But as Greg and Michael discussed, craft beer is defined not by equipment, but to a great extent by hands-on attention, whether the brewer is pulling a lever or clicking ‘run’ on a computer screen. In fact, Greg said he thinks the hi-tech system has given him and his brewers even more control to make even better beer.
And Michael helped make one of those beers, with a key member of Greg’s team, Brewmaster Mitch Steele. It’s a take on Stone’s fabulous Imperial Russian Stout – this time flavored with espresso. First, they milled and mashed in black malt and American two-row, along with an amber malt (although rarely used today, this malt was common several hundred years ago in England, before the invention of crystal malt). Contrary to its name, the Russian stout was actually an 18th century British invention, which is why many of the ingredients used are from England. Roasted barley was also thrown in to give the stout its dark, rich color and astringent flavor.
Stone is famous for its aggressive use of hops. So Michael was looking forward to a visit to the hop room, which was filled with various varieties, including a highly unusual type Mitch had selected for this beer - warrior hops. With a sky-high alpha acid level of 20.2%, they are some of the bitterest hops in existence. Only a small amount was added to the boil, for clean, intense bitterness without overshadowing the other flavors of the beer.
Then, it was back to the hops room, where Mitch was keeping the ground espresso beans. Michael filled cheesecloth bags with 100 pounds of the espresso, then dropped them into the whirlpool. After fermentation, the final result will be a big, dark, bold beer with heavy malt and espresso flavors and perfectly balanced hops.
This visit was like old home day for Michael. In addition to Greg, Michael has known Mitch for years. And yet another key player here as well, the man they call Dr. Bill. He’s not really a doctor, but Bill Sysak is one of the world’s foremost authorities on beer. For the past five years, he has been Stone’s Craft Beer Ambassador. When Michael visited, Dr. Bill was running an event called “12 Brewers, 12 Casks, 12 Mallets,” pitting twelve Stone Brewers head to head in creating unique twists on Stone beers. The occasion was all about experimentation, fun, and (of course) enjoying unique one-off beers, such as Stone’s Cali-Belgique (a Belgian IPA) with black lime and vanilla beans added, Ruination IPA with mangoes and white habanero peppers added, and Sublimely Self-Righteous Black IPA brewed with dried cherries and cinnamon sticks and described by Michael as “liquid cherry pie with a cinnamon crust.”
Dr. Bill is also one of the world’s leading authorities on pairing beer and food, which was a big part of Michael’s visit. First, at Stone’s restaurant, Michael helped Stone’s “Chief Culinary Philosopher,” chef Alex Carballo make Stone Levitation BBQ Duck Tacos. Michael and the chef made duck confit, cooking the meat in its own fat after curing it with spices and herbs. Then, the duck was smothered in BBQ sauce made with 22 different ingredients, notably the Levitation Ale, featuring citrusy notes and a rich malt flavor. The hops of the beer and the spices from the duck complemented each other perfectly, coming together to create layers of tangy, citrusy, malty flavor.
When everyone sat down to eat, Dr. Bill, paired the duck dish with Sublimely Self-Righteous Black IPA (with pine and fruit aromas as well as a refined malty flavor) to create a complex blend of sweetness and spice. The already-layered flavors of the dish were fully enhanced by the top-off layer of the IPA.
Dr. Bill paired Parmesan-topped Stone Pale Ale Brussels sprouts with the Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale, an American strong ale with heavy oak and malt flavors. The bitterness of the brussels sprouts was complemented by the bitterness of the hops, as was the Parmesan. Cheese in general pairs perfectly with beer and as Greg Koch pointed out, the oaked version of the classic brew “subdues the Arrogant Bastard ale with a big oak bat.”
Quail with Korean BBQ sauce was matched with Stone’s Smoked Porter (think smoky chocolate and coffee malt flavors), handling the sweetness of the BBQ sauce with grace and calming the spicy tanginess of the food.
While salad isn’t commonly thought of as something to pair with beer, Dr. Bill was very happy to go there. He paired the salad - featuring avocado, citrus fruit, pistachios, cilantro, bacon and vinaigrette - with the Cali-Belgique, an IPA with the added funk of Belgian yeast. They worked perfectly in combination.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit to a craft brewing pioneer that continues to push the envelope. As Greg Koch told Michael, it takes both knowledge and passion to create perfection.