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What Is the Northern California Style?

March 01, 2017

By Eno Sarris, March 01, 2017

It’s a wonder that any city has its own style, if you think about it. All those people coming and going, all those different trends, all those neighborhoods, all those strings pulling in different directions – how could one overarching narrative tie each mess into a bow? And yet, somehow, you can close your eyes and imagine a street in San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Austin… somehow a single thread emerges.

Beer is a product of its culture. So even though it seems like folly to try and pin down what separates Northern California’s beer from the rest of America’s beer… it might be possible. The Bay Area has its own weather, landscape, and collective history – these things should show in the beer.

Speaking to the brewers that gathered from all over Northern California for San Francisco Beer Week’s Opening Gala earlier this month, a few historical poles emerged. Russian River Brewing, Anchor Brewing, San Francisco Brewcraft, and UC Davis: two historic breweries with different approaches, a home brew store in San Francisco, and the brewing science program at one school that have shaped the beers we drink in NoCal today.

It's a bit chicken and egg, but let's take a look at the styles that drinkers north of the 36.5 degree latitude line prefer. Here are the top ten beer styles NoCal drinkers drank more often than the national average. Look at the third and fourth entries – both sours. Those are the 29th and 41st most preferred styles nationally, but NoCal is drinking them more often.

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting. Data: Eno Sarris / BeerGraphsThe styles checked into on social media app Untappd more often in Northern California than the national average.

You can thank Russian River for that love of the sour, maybe, since their Consecration, Supplication, and Sanctification sours are world class. Alex Wallash, co-founder of Rare Barrel, a sour brewery in Oakland, said that Russian River “is amongst the small group of brewers in the U.S. that pioneered sour beers – to some extent we’re riding on the coattails of what they’ve done. They’ve given the bay area a head start on the sour scene.”

Proximity to Napa is also a benefit. The wineries there provide easy access to the fresh barrels so crucial to sour-making, a fact that Wallash and his co-founders took “loosely” into consideration. “There is definitely a benefit to being close to Napa,” Wallash admitted, “and we’re trying to use that benefit more, by getting barrels straight from the winery the same day they were used and getting a beer into them right away.”

But the main reasons for Rare Barrel being in Northern California are more simple. For one, Wallash and co-founder Jay Goodwin are from the Bay Area. More importantly, maybe, was the weather, though.

“The weather in the Bay Area is so well-suited for barrel aging beer,” Wallash pointed out. “If we started in San Diego we’d probably need a temperature-controlled HVAC system. Here in Berkeley, the temperature ranges from 50-70 degrees year-round.” Cold weather just slows down the production, but Southern California’s heat, anything 80 degrees or more for more than a week, would create “serious off-flavor production.” In Berkeley, they’re set. “The only form we have for temperature control is opening up the roll up doors or closing them,” Wallash laughed.

Justin TungDemand far outpaces supply for those gorgeous Rare Barrel sours in a bucket.

It’s not just proximity Napa, either. There’s a lot of great fruit being grown close to Northern California, something that wasn’t lost on Almanac’s co-founder Jesse Friedman. “We started making sours for two main reasons: we love them. We also thought fruited sours were one of the best expressions of local fruit, and a key part of Almanac’s goal to express local terroir and seasonality in our beers. Using local fruit, aged in barrels with sour beers is an amazing expression of California’s agriculture.”

Still… Rare Barrel gets many of their barrels from the Central Coast of California, a region centered around Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. That fruit Almanac uses is available pretty close to Southern California as well as Northern California. And without all that, Oregon has their own sour brewery standouts in DeGarde and Cascade. Even though they’re drinking more sours north of Santa Cruz, those styles still only make up just over 7% of the beers on Untappd in the region, too.

Lagers and stouts get less love than sours. Lagers are probably replaced by the California Common, a beer pioneered by Anchor, which once used a process that could maybe only work in San Francisco’s steady, cool environment. They used to pump their beer to open fermenters called coolships on the roof of their brewery.

That style might be tough to pull off in cooler or warmer environments, but Windsor’s St. Florian’s Brewery counts the common as one of their flagships – surprisingly, as co-founder and head brewer Aron Levin said that it was “not something we thought we were going to brew” – and they don’t pump it in open fermenters on their roof or anything.

NorCal is not a malty beer market, the big heavy beers sit.”

What about the stouts? “NorCal is not a malty beer market, the big heavy beers sit,” said John Gillooly of Drake’s brewing. Maybe there’s an asterisk for barrel aged stouts – “Everything over 10% has an automatic audience” –  but their barrel-aged session porter came out at 4.5% alcohol by volume and doesn’t do as well in the taprooms, even though it won a medal at GABF.

Is there a standout barrel aged stout or porter north of the 36.5 degree latitude line? North Coast’s Old Rasputin comes to mind, Sierra Nevada's Narwhal… and then others struggled to think of any as reputable as the stable coming from Oregon and Washington and Chicago and so on. There surely isn't a release on the level of a Three Floyd's Dark Lord or Cigar City Hunahpu's. 

Before you think of Firestone Walker’s excellent suite of barrel aged beers, know that they count as Southern California, at least for the purposes of this article, because Paso Robles is below the 36.5 degree latitude that runs south of Santa Cruz and north of Fresno.

In fact, it looks like Southern California is the driving force for Imperial Stout quality… in all of America. Using BeerGraphs’ Beers Above Replacement, which is a counting stat that combines quantity and quality, we can see that SoCal dwarves its northern sibling in the darkest of styles.

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting. Data: Eno Sarris / BeerGraphsIn terms of collective quality of imperial stouts, Southern California reigns supreme.

So, if we’re going to find the signature Northern California style, we’re going to have to tackle the pale ales. Kim Sturdavant, the brewmaster at Social Kitchen, voiced what others echoed when he placed NoCal between Portland and San Diego on an ideological scale: “Northwest style is fuller bodied malty beers. If you go all the way down to Southern California, the beer is really crisp and dry and pale colored beer. But before all of that came around, there was NoCal beer, which to me is the perfect balance.”

Since he brought up San Diego and Southern California, it’s worth looking at the business side to see how distinct these regions are. It looks like NoCal has the larger breweries, and more volume, but it gets more equal as you look at smaller breweries. 

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting. Data: Bart Watson / Brewer's AssociationNorthern California dominates in volume when you count the big boys.

This suggests that there’s an old guard up North, representing what we might have traditionally thought of the NoCal IPA: Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Russian River, and Anchor make the state top-heavy in volume and history, and they deserve to be part of any definition. They were routinely pointed to as inspirational and definitional by all the brewers we talked to for this article, too. 

When you look at raw numbers of breweries, things change, though. Sourthern California has more breweries, period. You can maybe see what Robin Smith, a tasting room server from Rare Barrel, meant when he said “our scene hasn’t moved as quickly as LA or San Diego’s beer scene.”

Those big breweries may have been the source of the West Coast IPA (version 1.0), or at least it sounds that way sometimes. Shaun O’Sullivan, Brewmaster and Co-Founder of 21st Amendment in San Francisco, talked about the NoCal IPA when he first arrived: “When I was learning how to make an IPA back in the day, it was all about pale malt, munich malt, which is a light pale malt, and a touch of really light crystal. East coast versions were brought over from England, a lot of crystal malt and a lot malts that were sweeter, so you had a competition that happened in your mouth with East Coast IPA, where it was the sweetness and the malt and the hops. Over here, the West Coast style the malt acted as a backbone, to support the bitterness and the malts.”

Others referenced the West Coast IPA 1.0 and 2.0 as well. Laine Ruona, a sales rep from Rubicon Brewing said everyone needs to have “a Cascade-hopped Sierra Nevada style pale ale that is clean and balanced” where they’re from (Sacramento). San Diego always rears its head, though, and may have ben the source of West Coast 2.0, traditonally thought of as a fruitier vesion of the first. From Berryessa to Rubicon, brewers had to admit that they loved Alpine Nelson, a legendary San Diego brew that has inspired many a Californian brewer to update their local style with fruitier hops.

Justin TungCellarmaker's juice bombs bring all the lines to the yard.

Innovation spreads. “People get on airplanes,” said O’Sullivan. “When you’re a brewer and you go from one job at one brewery to another brewery, you learn a third opinion about brewing. You learn one way of doing it, and then you learn another way, and because of process and how we learn about things, you learn your own, third way.”

“As my friend Jean would say, all ideas are universal these days,” laughed Tim Sciascia from Cellarmaker. He admitted that the work of Jean Broillet IV at Tired Hands had inspired his own beers. “We try to hybridize the styles,” Sciascia said of Broliet's North East style IPAs and the (North) West Coast IPA. “We still use clean neutral yeast, once in awhile we will use an expressive English ale yeast for some of the hoppier beers, but we’re trying to find a happy medium between clean, West Coast IPA, with softer bitterness, drier, juicy without going overboard.”

There might be a new Northern California version of the NEIPA, actually. Todd Erm at Half Moon Bay Brewing had his own hazy, juicy, soft Lost in the Fog IPA available at the opening gala. It could have called Massachusetts its home, except it was a little different at the end. “I love the beers,” Erm said of NEIPAs, “but I don’t like that there’s often no bitterness because they’re great up front but then you drink it and it’s gone. My perfect beer would be New England style but a little bit of bitterness so that it lingers in the mouth.”

“We have a little more bitterness than the average Tree House or Trillium, but we want that,” said Andrew Rose at Alvarado Street. “We get that smoother body from the yeast in suspension but also the dextrin-heavy protein-heavy malts.” Basically, the Monterey brewery asks: “How much hop can we pack in the beer?” as Rose put it. “And keep it fucking yellow!” comes an interjection.

We aren’t really defined by anything, maybe that makes the Bay Area unique.”

That might describe Cellarmaker’s difference, too. At its best, Sciascia’s beer starts with “making some west coast IPAs,”  and “not intentionally trying to make it opaque,” all while “finding our way to mouthfeel.”  

Zig Zag IPA, from Temescal, followed a similar process. Kai Villegas, Head of Distribution at Temescal, pointed out that their brewer came from Hill Farmstead and focused on “balanced, low bitterness, very dry, with great aroma” IPAs, but also admitted that Northern California NEIPAs may focus a little bit more on west coast hops. He said that Temescal is “using a west coast IPA Yeast strain” when they make beers like Zig Zag.

But there’s always something else completely going on. Cleophus Quealy brought a juniper sahti – an old Finnish style that's traditionally brewed without hops – to a Beer Week event, and that brewery doesn’t make a single IPA. “Experimentation but with an eye for the historical” is what Jessica Clare at Quealy saw in her constituents, and there is a diversity in the Bay Area and all points north that more than a few brewers and drinkers referenced.

So of course there’s no Northern California style. “We aren’t really defined by anything, maybe that makes the Bay Area unique,” said Rare Barrel’s Smith. There’s not enough homogeneity to say something monolithic. People and beer aren’t one thing above the 36.5 degrees latitude parallel and one thing below.

And yet you keep hearing these words: balance, bitter. So there it is: if there is a Northern California style, it’s more likely to be a sour than a stout, and if it’s a pale, it’s not as chewy as the darker beers that reside on the northwest coast, and not as clear and bright and bitter as the beers that reside on the southwest coast. It’s innovative and inclusive, but when it follows a trend, it’ll put its own spin on the thing.

That’s what the Northern California style is. If there’s even one at all.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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