In today's edition of our brewer interview series, we're talking to Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan, the founders of San Francisco-based Almanac Brewing Company. The pair have gotten great responses to their small-batch beers, each brewed seasonally in collaboration with a local farmer, since launching in the summer of 2010. We asked them about their early brew experiences, pairing their beers with food, and what we can expect from their next batches.
Name: Jesse Friedman & Damian Fagan
Title: Founders, Almanac Beer Company
Location: San Francisco, CA
How and why did you get into brewing?
Damian: I had the chance to try a few Belgian beers back in the early 90s, when I was in college. Up to that point, beer meant light American lagers to me. I suddenly didn't want to drink them anymore. I haven't since. Fast forward twenty years; I decided to move from homebrewing to professional brewing because although American craft beer has come a long way in those twenty years, I thought there was still something missing.
Jesse: My parents always had good beer around the house when I was a kid in Wisconsin—I specifically remember Sprecher's Special Amber was a favorite, and I remember my dad giving me a taste of an IPA he home-brewed when I was 12 or 13 (at the time I found it undrinkably bitter.) Later in college I became more serious about craft beer, and took an introduction to brewing course at UC Davis with Charlie Bamforth—I was hooked almost immediately.
Tell us about your first brewing experience. Was it a success?
Damian: In 1992 in Lansing, Michigan. I was going to school at Michigan State University—there was a DIY shop in town and I bought a homebrew kit. We brewed an English-style amber ale. It was awful. We called it Death Sauce. Nevertheless, it sparked the fire to keep going with it.
Jesse: My first test batch of homebrew was a disaster. We scorched the grain bag and had to strain out all of the loose, burnt malt kernels. When we bottled, we didn't distribute the priming sugar evenly—half the bottles were flat, half were explosive. It's what you'd call a learning experience. Luckily, the beers we brewed afterwards came out much better.
Why did you decide to expand from homebrewing to a larger operation?
Jesse and Damian: We first met through a San Francisco homebrew club. Jesse picked up a bottle with a gorgeous label and asked what brewery it had come from. Damian explained that he was a professional designer, and he had made the label for the homebrew himself. It was brewer-love at first sight. Jesse was writing the Beer & Nosh blog at the time, but both of us were looking for a way to get into beer professionally. We discussed a bunch of ways to start a business together—a bar, a cafe, a homebrew shop. But it was pretty clear after we started talking that we had to start a brewery; one built on the local, sustainable ideals of the Bay Area food community.
Why did you choose to focus your beers on the seasonal and farm-driven?
Jesse and Damian: It was a natural fit for us. Both of us are big foodies, too—we're at the farmer's markets every week, and Almanac beers are very much a reflection of the beers we brew at home—inspired by those same farmer's markets. We also felt that beer often gets short shrift in restaurants. They'll have a great cocktail program and a really interesting wine list, but only a few perfunctory beer choices. We want beer on the dinner table. If you're eating a great meal made with local ingredients, hand selected by the chef from local farms, shouldn't your beer be made the same way?
We collaborate with many of the same farms that our local restaurants do. We love that you can now go into many restaurants in Northern California and have both a beer and a lamb dish made with fennel from the same local farm.
About that fennel...Tell us about this spring's Biere de Mars.
Jesse and Damian: We're really excited about our new beer. A biere de mars is a classic French farmhouse ale. Ours is light copper in color and brewed with dark Belgian candy sugar (a favorite brewing ingredient of Damian's.) The sugar gives the beer a rich caramel backbone and notes of dried fig and stone fruit.
The fennel we included brings a lot to the beer—it gives it an earthy, herbal aroma, a touch of bitterness and a delicate anise finish. It actually comes off a bit like noble hops, making it a surprise favorite with hoppy beer lovers. Baby fennel has a bit more spiciness than mature fennel. Brewing with a vegetable was definitely a balancing act. It took many rounds of test batches to nail the recipe. Fennel has a very particular flavor, so we wanted to make sure that it was balanced and didn't overwhelm the base beer. We're really happy with how it turned out.
Food pairing is a big part of the Almanac Beer philosophy. What do you pair Biere de Mars with?
Jesse and Damian: This beer is almost savory, with an earthy, herbal character that just loves rich cuts of meat. We like it with lamb, or porchetta rubbed with fennel pollen. Its also killer with grilled asparagus. A light char really brings out the dark caramel notes in the beer.
Tell us about some of your past batches. Your favorites? Customer favorites?
Jesse and Damian: Our first batch was very special. We launched the brewery with a Belgian-style golden ale brewed with blackberries from Sebastopol Berry Farm. We aged the beer in used red wine barrels for 11 months. The result was a wonderfully vinous beer with a great acidic bite and blackberry aroma.
Summer is coming right up. Where are you in the creation process for the next Almanac beer? What can we expect?
Jesse and Damian: First we're working with Blossom Bluff Farms to brew a nectarine-infused Gose. It's a nearly extinct style of tart, German wheat beer brewed with salt. We're using tart, yellow nectarines to give it some bright summer flare, and of course, a touch of San Francisco Bay sea salt.
We're also launching a new line of "California Table Beers." These lower alcohol "everyday" beers will be brewed with the same eye on "farm to bottle" brewing using local agriculture as their foundation. We'll have a Table Saison brewed with ginger, honey, and French oak, and our first hop-forward beer; our Table Pale Ale brewed with mandarins and American oak. The Pale Ale will be dry-hopped with Cascade and Columbus hops. In our test batches, you can't tell where the fruit ends and the hops begin.
Do you plan to expand Almanac beyond the Bay Area? How would that affect your relationships with various local farmers?
Jesse and Damian: We're growing right now, and are tackling those logistics head on. We're building out a long-term brew schedule based around different harvests and expanding our network of farms. We may also make more batches of smaller releases, such as our barrel projects, depending on fruit and farm availability. It's really important to us that was grow in a controlled way, one that lets us keep our ideals intact and allows us to continue providing beer to Northern California. This is our backyard and taking care of our home territory is a priority.
When you're not drinking Almanac, what are some of your favorite beers?
Damian: I pretty much love anything from Moonlight or Highwater. North Coast is such a solid brewery—Pranqster and Old Rasputin are easy favorites. Also a big fan of any of Drake's barrel-aged beers, and love Speakeasy's hoppy brews, like Big Daddy. I've also really enjoyed both beers I've tried from the Pac Brew Labs guys, too.
Jesse: I try to drink local when possible. Some favorites right now include the Alpha Session from Drakes, Highwater's Campfire Stout , a s'mores flavored beer made with real graham crackers. I like the session beers from Dying Vines and the hibiscus infused Saison from Pacific Brewing Laboratories.