Thursday, September 25, 2014

Brew It and They Will Come – The Karl Strauss Story

Karl Strauss Brewery Tasting Room
The Karl Strauss brewery tasting room.
Sometimes it’s easy to take things for granted.  For instance, I have lived in San Diego my entire life, so I sometimes forget how lucky I am to live in America’s Finest City.  While San Diegan beer lovers can’t be accused of taking the San Diego craft beer scene for granted, I don’t know if we always remember to be grateful for San Diego’s craft beer roots.  After all, if it weren’t for Karl Strauss, there might not even be a San Diego craft beer scene.  Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner, founders of San Diego's Karl Strauss brewery, truly are the pioneers of the San Diego craft beer industry.

Chris Cramer, CEO and Co-Founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company
Chris Cramer telling the Karl Strauss brewery story.
I recently attended the Beer Bloggers Conference in San Diego, and one of the evening events was hosted by the Karl Strauss Brewing Company.  Chris Cramer, CEO and Co-Founder of Karl Strauss brewery, spoke at the event and shared with us the story behind Karl Strauss.

Stanford Beginnings

Chris Cramer’s journey in the craft beer industry started when he was a freshman at Stanford University in 1980.  He saw an ad in the Stanford Daily for a bartending class.  He thought bartending would be a great job because he could work at night, make some money, learn some skills, and it wouldn’t hurt with the women either.  Learning about what made alcoholic beverages taste really good started a spark for Cramer.

During his next year at Stanford Cramer studied in England for a quarter, at the same time the campaign for real ale was taking off.  He found real ale was very different from the beers he knew as a kid growing up in San Diego, mostly Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Light.  Cramer also spent time that semester traveling around Europe by train, which gave him the opportunity to visit Munich and drink really good German beer.  During this time a light bulb when off in his head and he thought, “Damn, there is a lot better stuff out there than what most kids and undergraduates at Stanford are drinking.” 

Karl Strauss Brewery Tasting Room Beers
Karl Strauss brews better beers than had ever been tasted in San Diego previously.
When Cramer returned from Europe he saw another ad in the Stanford Daily for bartenders, which turned out to be a job for a small bartending business that provided bartending for the conference office and alumni association of Stanford.  Cramer ended up buying the business.  Soon thereafter Cramer met Matt Rattner, who is now the President and Co-Founder of Karl Strauss Brewing Company.  Rattner joined the bartending class and then worked with Cramer to organize the little bartending business into one that ended up providing all alcoholic beverage catering in Stanford.  Along with bartending Stanford events came the responsibility to cater to the tastes of the international clientele coming to Stanford.  Cramer and Rattner had to start learning about better beers, better wines, and better spirits.  Tough job, right?  They were learning about better beers like Anchor Steam and Palo Alto Brewing Company’s real ale.

An Epiphany in Fremantle Australia

Cramer and Rattner decided they wanted to start some kind of business somewhere, but they didn’t know what or where.  After graduating with his MBA, and while Rattner was still in business school, Cramer took some time to put a backpack on his back and go traveling the world.  Cramer went to Fremantle, Australia for the America’s Cup.  Cramer was always on the lookout for areas where they were making better beers, wines, and spirits when traveling.  In Fremantle he plopped down at the bar of an establishment called the Sail and Anchor and ordered a pint of bitters.  The bartender brought him a glass of beer that changed his life.  He took one sip and was so surprised because it was so different from any of the other beers he had ever had.  He called the bartender over and asked what kind of beer it was.  He learned it was made right on the premises and the bartender took him around the side of the building to show him the little microbrewery.  This was the first time Cramer had ever seen a microbrewery.  He had always thought of microbreweries as large, unattainable productions like Anchor Brewing Company.  But here was something small enough that he thought this was something he could do.  In Cramer’s words, “I thought to myself, okay, here is the place in the entire world more like San Diego than any other place that I’ve ever been.  Here’s beer that’s differentiated from and better than any beer that I’ve ever had.”  This is when the idea of the Karl Strauss brewery was born.

Uncle Karl

Cramer had an ace up his sleeve.  He was related to Karl Strauss, a world famous brewer.  Karl Strauss was born in Minden, Germany in 1912.  Karl Strauss grew up inside his father’s brewery and had the opportunity to get involved in all the brewery operations.  The only thing he ever wanted to do was become a brewer.  Karl Strauss attended university in Munich and graduated in 1933 with a degree in the science and practice of malting and brewing.  He left Germany in March of 1939 and came to the United States.  On his way to California he stopped in Milwaukee to visit some friends from his hometown.  His friends took him to a local beer festival where he saw lots of Germans drinking good lager beer and decided he didn’t need to go to California, as there was good beer in Milwaukee.  His friends told him there was an opening at Pabst Brewing, so Karl Strauss went the next day and applied for a position in the bottling plant.  After one look at his resume they hired him on the spot.  Here was a real brewer from Germany at a time after the repeal of prohibition when they couldn’t get German brewers into the United States.  Karl Strauss quickly moved out of bottling and up through the ranks of brewers until he ultimately became vice president of productions and master brewer for all of Pabst Brewing operations.  Karl Strauss worked at Pabst Brewing for a total of 44 years, the last 25 of which he ran five major breweries across the United States.  Karl Strauss was considered one of the three most famous brewers in the world, was the past president of the Master Brewers Association of The Americas, and was the only person ever to have won the association’s three highest honors.  Karl Strauss was also co-author of The Practical Brewer and an active member of the American Society of Brewing Chemists up until the day he died at the age of 94 in December of 2006. 

Karl Strauss Brewery and Tasting Room
Karl Strauss appears on the brewery wall and every bottle of the original Karl Strauss Amber.
Cramer’s trip to Fremantle started him thinking, “Gosh, if it worked down in Freemantle, which is so like San Diego, why can’t we have good beer here in San Diego too?  Why do we have to drink all of this nondescript beer rather than these really interesting beers that I would pay a lot more money for?”  So when Cramer returned from Australia, he cornered Uncle Karl at a family party and started asking him about the microbrewing concept he had seen in Fremantle and asked him if he would be interested in doing a project with him.  Karl Strauss stopped, thought for a second, and responded, “You know Chris, I think this could be the wave of the future!”  Cramer was the first person in the family who had ever expressed an interest in Karl Strauss’s craft, and Strauss was delighted.  With Karl Strauss’s brewing expertise and Cramer’s and Rattner’s business training, they set out on an odyssey together to start the first new brewery in the city of San Diego in more than 50 years. 

Creating the First Karl Strauss Brewery

Cramer and Rattner discussed how they could succeed, as nobody in San Diego had ever had a craft beer or anything remotely like craft beer.  They wondered how they could get San Diegans to be interested in such a thing, how they could create bridges from what people knew and were happy with to things that were unknown to them and get them to take a chance.  They thought about examples that had already happened, how Californians had gone down a path towards better wine, better coffee, better cheeses, and better food.  They decided they needed to create an environment where they could get people to come in and try these styles of beers in a comfortable setting, explain what made Karl Strauss’s beers so exceptional and different, and then hopefully convert them and create raving fans for these new styles of beers. 

Karl Strauss Brewery Lineup of Beers
From a dream to a laundry list of craft beers.
Cramer and Rattner wrote a business plan for what they called the Neighborhood Brewing Company.  They sent out an executive summary to family and friends who were interested in investing.  Once they had backers they needed to build both a biological manufacturing process, a brewery, and conjoin it with a successful restaurant operation.  They knew it would have to be in a place that would give them access to the influence leaders in the community.  They chose a location in downtown San Diego, on the corner of Columbia and B Street, in an old mechanics bay that had been converted into an architect’s office.  Disaster almost hit when it was time to obtain an ABC license.  California at the time was not able to allow people to get an ABC license until the brewery was installed and operational.  One morning Cramer got a telephone call stating that because of a loophole in the law, the license would not be issued.  Cramer could see his dream turning into bankruptcy.  He spent the next month in hell, running around the state of California all the way up to the director of the entire ABC and convincing him they had relied upon the representations of the ABC to make the investment.  The director ended up freezing every other license in process in the state until the legislature changed the law and closed the loophole.

Karl Strauss Brewery Restaurant Downtown San Diego
The original Karl Strauss brewery restaurant.
The last preopening party occurred on February 1, 1989.  It was the night before they were going to open up to the public and all the media and VIPs in San Diego were there.  After the party, Cramer and Rattner looked at each other as they walked out the door, turning off the lights, turning on the alarm system, knowing that the next day if people did not come immediately, if they didn’t spend money, they were going to go bankrupt and lose everything.  They stopped at the front door and said to each other, “Will people come?”  Fortunately the next day came and people were lined up around the block.  The restaurant started off doing 100% more sales volume than the kitchen was ever designed to do at the Karl Strauss downtown location, which was a problem.  But fortunately, from day one the beer was right.  Karl Strauss’s beers were phenomenal.  People would come in, taste the beers, and almost universally say the same thing, that it was the best beer they’d ever tasted. 

Karl Strauss Today

Karl Strauss Brewery Awards
Some of the many awards won by Karl Strauss beer.
The rest is history.  Karl Strauss brewery is now the 41st largest craft brewer in the entire United States.  In addition to the distributing brewery operations they have eight Karl Strauss brewery restaurants in Southern California.  Karl Strauss is the featured beer of the Disney Resort in Anaheim and one of the most award winning brewing companies in the world in the last five years.  In the last four years alone they have won 64 major medals in competitions and Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale is arguably one of the most, if not the most, awarded beer in the world, having won the gold medal at the World Beer Cup two out of the last three World Beer Cups and two out of the last four GABFs as the best Irish Red in the world. 

Peter Rowe, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, recently said that Karl Strauss not only launched the craft beer industry in San Diego, but also taught consumers that beer can be consistently good when crafted locally.  Above and beyond that, he said Karl Strauss inspired the revolution.  The DNA of Karl Strauss brewery runs throughout the San Diego brewing industry.  When Karl Strauss opened on February 2, 1989, Gina Marsaglia was a cocktail waitress.  She since started Port Brewing Company/The Lost Abbey.  On the other side of the bar was bartender Scott Stamp.  Scott Stamp later started San Diego Brewing Company.  The tour guide on opening day was Jack White who later went on to start Ballast Point Brewing Company. 

So now as I sit here writing this, drinking a Karl Strauss Amber, San Diego’s original session beer, I am grateful for what Karl Strauss did for the San Diego craft beer industry.  And while we will continue to be excited for every new craft brewery that pops up in the city, we should always remember that without Karl Strauss, San Diego’s craft brewing industry may have never existed.

Thank you to the Beer Bloggers Conference and Karl Strauss Brewing Company for making this post possible.  Disclosure: I received a discounted rate to attend the Beer Bloggers Conference in exchange for writing two posts inspired in some way by the conference.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Happily (Almost) Drown in a Sea of Red Wine in Italy's Piedmont Region

Guest Post by Aimee Cebulski

Piedmont Wine Region Italy

For red wine lovers, the Piedmont region tucked in Italy's northwest corner beckons longingly.  Home to some of the country's best wines made from hearty Barolo, Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes, the country rolls endlessly through shades of green, gold and all manners of red when grapes are on the vine.

Encompassing more than 25,000 square kilometers and featuring fantastic foodie towns like Alba (home of the Slow Food Movement) and Turin, Piedmont is everything people come to Italy for.  Countless charming communities fill the landscape, almost forming a “connect the dots” type experience as you travel on winding country roads from town to town.

Bordered on three sides by the Alps, this part of Italy is a feast for the senses and the wine does not disappoint.

One of the best ways to experience the local wine is to stay on an “agritourismo.”  These bed and breakfasts are situated on working wineries where guests are treated to a first-hand look at the operational effort required to produce a great bottle of wine.  Depending on the facility, guests can participate in harvest activities, talk with support staff and of course partake in any number of tastings!

One of the most lovely in the region is located in Serralunga d'Alba – Cascina Meriame, home to the Paolo Manzone winery.  This five-room house offers cheery, bright and spacious rooms, each decorated with a different theme and color palette, all with views over the central courtyard.  Out the window are miles of all shades of green and a castle on the hill across the way (it seems as if each small town in this region comes with either a castle or some sort of large tower).  Look to one side and you can see workers heading out on tractors for the day; you might even catch the winemaker himself heading out to battle recently sprouted weeds.

The climate and soil here facilitates varieties not found anywhere else in Italy such as the Nebbiolo, Barbera and Barolo, yielding bold, juicy reds that linger long after the conclusion of the meal.  This unique clay-limestone soil, which is actually poor for growing other things, is a perfect fit for these vines and vineyards are often planted in an amphitheater shape, which attracts, concentrates and maintains heat.  This perfect combination allows a total exploitation of the area's sunlight, but also protects the vines from wind and prevents any sudden temperature drops.

Piedmont Region Wine Amphitheater Italy

Of course you need some hearty and fresh meals to balance the large amount of wine available all throughout Piedmont.  One great tip is trying a different trattoria each day for lunch.  After an afternoon siesta back at your agritourismo, head out to one of the countless Osterias (more traditional sit-down restaurants) where you will enjoy multi-course family style meals, more likely surrounded by tables of locals celebrating a birthday than tourists.

A yummy choice in the Piedmont region is Osteria da Gemma in Roddino.  This unassuming stone building sits tucked back in a maze of the cobblestone streets, not on the main square . . . if you park by the main square, seek out a small walkway to the right and find the entrance marked by a wooden sign.  If you get lost, follow the locals or your nose!

Each harvest, Piedmont produces a bumper crop of grapes producing delicious wines that often cost three or more times the price in the United States.  If your time in Italy allows it, a detour to this little slice of heaven will yield rich rewards for your palate and leave you happily (almost) drowning in a sea of red!


Contributor Aimee Cebulski has been furiously catching up on lost time as a traveler after a five-year battle with fear of flying grounded her dreams of visiting far-flung destinations in her mid-20s.  Now, she’s proud to have 52 stamps in her passport and considers each new one a triumph over fear.  She’s worked as a freelance writer and photographer for almost 15 years and currently calls San Diego, California home. Her work has been featured in a number of travel, business and lifestyle magazines, websites and photo galleries.  She recently combined her love of travel, new cultures and writing with the release of The Finding 40 Project, a book about women turning 40-years-old around the world.

Twitter: @Finding40Book

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brewing Innovation at Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg, Virginia


Just west of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia sits Montpelier, home to the 4th president and father of the constitution James Madison. Madison has been linked to erroneous stories about creating a “National Brewery” and Secretary of Beer which has once and for all been properly debunked. As people around the world continue to enjoy the new creations from American craft brewers, we can all be glad James Madison did not take up this request.

Harrisonburg, Virginia

45 minutes from that historic site sits Harrisonburg, Virginia, home to the university that bears James Madison’s name. Harrisonburg lies on the eastern slope of the Shenandoah National Park. This midsize college town is situated 2 hours from both Washington, DC and Richmond in the Shenandoah Valley. With mountains to the east and west, Harrisonburg is a great spot to make your base as you hike off to wilderness adventures.

Harrisonburg also has a great mix of restaurants and shops in its retro revitalized downtown area where you can sample many local eateries using only the finest locally sourced ingredients. If you are a food truck person Harrisonburg has you covered as well boasting one of the finest grilled cheese food trucks out there. But I’m not here to talk about food trucks or wood fire pizza, I come forth to tell you that Harrisonburg has wonderfully hand crafted beer that, paired with outdoor and even cavern adventures, makes this part of Virginia a real gem to travel to.

Virginia craft beer is for lovers
Brothers Craft Brewing

The craft beer industry in Virginia has taken off over the last few years. Though they may not be California type numbers, Virginia boasts 60 craft breweries right now with more getting ready to open their doors. In 2012 the state of Virginia tagged August as Virginia Craft Beer month, and in that same year Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg cranked out their first brews.

The name Brothers Craft Brewing is self-explanatory. The brothers who founded the brewery grew up in Harrisonburg, had a dream to brew beer (which should be every brothers dream instead of throwing things at each other..cough…my brother and I), and with the help of family and friends were able to fulfill that dream in their hometown. The brewery and taproom are located in an old soda bottling plant (perfect for bottling beer) with perfect access for those local food trucks.

Different mountains, more great beer
We arrived in Harrisonburg with our children in tow on a whirlwind family style trip. Family style trips with wee ones don’t always lead to a lot of tap room shenanigans (though having little ones should not hold you back). With that in mind I knew that Brothers Craft Brewing was in town and I would have to get my hands on some of it locally before we headed home. One of our mottos around here is "to support local breweries when in their locales". This trip would be no different.

Unfortunately we never made it to the tasting room though, which has been described to me as very unique and a must stop next time we’re in town (accepting free airfare now airlines). I was able to enjoy a few of these fine crafted brews in town though at a few eating establishments. As a native of the Northwoods the first brew that drew my attention was The Great Outdoors, a Virginia Pale Ale (not a huge pale ale fan but it is interesting to see a brewers take on the style).

The Great Outdoors was a wonderful choice on warm humid Virginia day. Unlike other pale ales, the offering from BCB packed some great flavor while remaining light and refreshing. There was a distinct sweetness with enough hops to be bitter, but not overly bitter. As the Great Outdoors was a great start I knew that (beyond wishing we would have had an opportunity to pop into the brewery) I needed to dive into another beer from these brothers.

The next beer on the menu was the Hoptimization American IPA. As described by BCB, this IPA was brewed without the “regular” IPA hops. What the Hoptimization was made with were heavy hitting bitter hops, I’m talking West Coast IPA citrus clean and bitterness. The IPA from BCB was bold, innovative in their choice of hops, and a must try for true East Coast IPAs. I finished that up with some tasty east coast seafood and unfortunately called it a night. The other flavors offered from BCB that I couldn’t taste (but will our next east coast swing) were rum barrel aged blondes and dubbels that sound, like the IPA hops, innovative and noteworthy.

Virginia Caves, optimal for beer storage?

The Shenandoah Valley is one of the prettier areas that I’ve been to in the Eastern US. Between rolling mountains (that I imagine are even more amazing in the fall as the colors change), gigantic natural caverns, and back country hiking trails, this portion of the US is a must stop for adventure seekers and families. When it comes to brewing with big ideas in a laid back locally inspired town, Harrisonburg’s Brothers Craft Brewing are local artisans that deserve your (and your taste bud's) attention when you visit.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Wining and Dining at Baja’s AlXimia and La Terrasse San Roman

Wine Glasses AlXimia and La Terrasse San Roman Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico

I was first introduced to AlXimia wines through the Latin Food Fest in San Diego.  At the time I was able to interview Manuel Alvarez, who is in charge of AlXimia’s sales and marketing and is brother to Alvaro Alvarez, the founder and winemaker.  During our meeting Manuel described the winery as looking like a spaceship and meant to be a cathedral to wine.  On a recent trip to Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe in Baja I had the chance to see the winery for myself, taste some of AlXimia’s wine that aren’t yet available in the United States, and dine at AlXimia’s new restaurant, La Terrasse San Roman.

AlXimia and La Terrasse San Roman Building Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Is that a spaceship . . . of wine?
When we first arrived at AlXimia we were greeted by Manuel and Alvaro and we started our visit with a tour of the winery led by Manuel.  Manuel described the building of the winery, explaining how the arched shape of the roof catches the rain and funnels it into underground tanks, holding up to 50,000 liters.  Part of the outside wall has been left unfinished so visitors can see how the interior of the wall looks like Lincoln logs, made with the dirt dug from the site and stuffed into tubes.  This building method, called superadobe, keeps the hot temperatures out, and the shape of the structure allows for airflow.  There is only one climate controlled room in the winery, which is the room where the delivered grapes are received, because the grapes must be cooled quickly.

AlXimia Interior Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
AlXimia's cathedral to wine.
We next followed the path of the wine.  After the intake room the grapes are transferred to the destemmer.  The grapes are slightly pressed before fermenting.  Using gravity, the grapes fall into fermentation tanks on the floor below through larges holes in the floor directly above the fermentation tank openings.  The fermentation tanks are angled rather than the standard cylindrical shape, which allows for better extraction from the grape skins, from which the wine receives its color and tannins.  The tanks are made in Spain and AlXimia’s equipment is a mix of Italian and Spanish.

AlXimia Fermentation Tanks Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
AlXimia uses gravity to transfer grapes into fermentation tanks.
AlXimia tries to make similar wines year after year.  However, Alvaro will not sacrifice the integrity of the wine by using chemicals to alter the wine.  Our tour ended in the floor below the fermentation tanks, where the wine is barreled and aged before bottling.

AlXimia Logo Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
AlXimia's logo in the barrel room.
After our tour of the winery, we sat down to lunch at the outdoor restaurant of La Terrasse San Roman, headed by Chef Martin San Roman.  Diners sit on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyard.  Food is prepared in an open-air kitchen with wood prep counters and a grill.  Meals are served at rustic wood tables.  Even the menus are a crafty touch, made of slabs of wood with menu items burned into the wood.  Since AlXimia’s wines are meant to pair well with food, tasting AlXimia’s wines is best done while eating La Terrasse San Roman’s food.

La Terrasse San Roman Outdoor Kitchen Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Food being prepared in the great outdoors.
La Terrasse San Roman Menu Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
I love these unique menus.
Our meal started with Helios, a Blanc de Noir made with Grenache.  While Helios is made as a white, it is not really a white wine.  Helios maintains some flavors of a red wine and can be paired with meat.  Helios is named for the Greek god of the sun and has the elements of air and fire (light, flavor, and passion).  Helios is cold fermented and is aged in stainless steel rather than oak barrels.  We enjoyed Helios with our appetizers. 

AlXimia Helios Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Helios.
We started with a number of appetizers to try.  The tuna tartar was made with apples for an extra sweetness and crunch and was served alongside a crunchy tostada topped with melted brie cheese and ratatouille.  We also had a fresh roasted beet carpaccio topped with rocket, parmesan, and capers. The most surprising dish of the day was chorizo with grilled cactus, onions, and tomatoes finished with the tart taste of lemon.  I can’t recall ever having cactus before and it was nothing like I imagined.  I expected the inside to be thick and sticky, but instead it was crunchy and absorbed the taste of lemon wonderfully.

La Terrasse San Roman Chorizo, Cactus, Tomato and Onions Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Chorizo, cactus, tomatoes, and onions.
Our next wine was Senda, which means path and exhibits the element of earth.  Senda is a blend of Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tempranillo.  Senda has an earthy, mineral taste, a higher amount of Petite Verdot than the other wines, and a nice structure with less aftertaste. Senda has floral notes of lavender and jasmine.

AlXimia Senda and La Terrasse San Roman Tuna Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Senda and tuna.
My glass of Senda stood up well to our main courses.  We were served a flavorful shredded smoked pork accentuated with a fantastic slightly sweet hibiscus and wine sauce.  We also had perfectly cooked tuna served with lemon aioli.

La Terrasse San Roman Smoked Pork Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Smoked pork with hibiscus and wine sauce.
For dessert we were served Gaia, named for the Greek goddess of earth, made with three parts Cabernet Sauvignon, two parts Tempranillo, and one part Syrah.  Gaia has a minerally taste and is almost a little salty.  Gaia paired well with our tender and delicate macarons and flaky apple filled fried crepes. 

La Terrasse San Roman Macaron and Apple-Filled Crepe Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Macaron and apple-filled crepe.
The Valle de Guadalupe is filled with great wineries elevating the Baja wine scene.  I hope to experience many more in the near future.  But I have now been able to taste AlXimia’s wines twice and there is no question that AlXimia’s wines are worth multiple tastes, the eco-friendly winery worth multiple visits, and La Terrasse San Roman worth multiple dines.

AlXimia Winemaker Alvaro Alvarez Valle de Guadalupe Baja California Mexico
Winemaker Alvaro Alvarez describing his wines for us.
Thank you to AlXimia and La Terrasse San Roman for hosting our visit and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.