Almanac Beer Company is the new kid on the block, a partnership between Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan. “Farm to Barrel” is more than just a motto for Almanac Beer Company, it’s a mission statement setting the tone for all future releases. Friedman and Fagan plan to collaborate with “select Northern California sustainable farms” to produce all their beers. While seasonality plays an important part of many a brewery’s production schedule, it is even more important to Almanac Beer Company as all their beers will feature fruits harvested only in the seasons they are grown, and then aging the resultant beers in various barrels.
While I haven’t personally met Damian Fagan, I’ve known Jesse Friedman for several years through his blog Beer and Nosh. Friedman is a staple in the San Francisco “foodie” scene but I’m more familiar with his work supporting craft beer. I’ve always been a great admirer of this photography and respect his views on both craft beer and food. A homebrewer as well, Friedman always had fantastic ideas for beers so it’s not a great surprise that he decided to eschew corporate life to follow his passion for great beer, food and sodas.
Summer 2010, Almanac Beer Company, 8% ABV
This beer pours out a hazy gold/dark gold color with a white head. The aroma is slightly sweet, fruity, oaky, tart and, strangely enough, crayon. The flavor slightly sweet, fruity, hints of oak, with a noticeable citra hop flavor and a very light yeast quality. The hop bitterness, medium-low/medium in strength, dissipates quickly from the palette. There’s also a slight alcohol flavor in the finish but it’s not harsh. Body is medium-low with a prickly carbonation and a dry finish.
For a freshman endeavor, this is a fantastic beer! There’s a lot going on but nothing is overwhelming, everything is in balance. This is also surprisingly refreshing for an 8% beer. The boys at Almanac have set the bar very high for themselves.
A graphic designer by training, I always pay attention to a brewery’s branding. It’s just something I do. The 3-color, die-cut label of Almanac’s Summer 2010 Vintage is a work of art unto itself. I really love the detail in the tree while the “Almanac” name, reminiscent of the gothic calligraphy that graced many illustrated manuscripts, has a strong, hand-created quality about it.
Many labels are filled with a lot of mandatory information such as beer name, strength and states you can recycle the bottle in. The Almanac label manages to fit in all that information, plus more, without feeling crowded or forced in. Even the paper the label is printed on looks and feels more like parchment paper with it’s texture and off-white color. As a nod to the technically savvy, there’s a QR code printed on the bottle that allows smartphone users to access more information on the Almanac Beer Company website. Great way to integrate packaging, technology and their website.
What’s in a Name?
As you may have noticed Almanac is a beer company and not a brewing company. The distinction is important as it defines who they are. Almanac cannot legally call themselves a “brewery” or “brewing company” because they don’t make the beer themselves. Instead, Almanac contracts their beers out to other breweries to make the beers to their specifications. Both Friedman and Fagan are on hand during the brewing process but in the case of their Summer 2010 Vintage, Almanac contracted Drake’s Brewing out of San Leandro to make this inaugural beer.
Brewing is not a poor man’s game. Most modern breweries cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars to open up, if not millions. Developing a recipe and having another brewery craft up the beer to your specifications is a cost-effective way to get into the brewing game. I’m sure had Friedman and Fagan had the capital to open up their own brewery right off the bat, they would have. In the meantime, they will continue to contract out their beers. We all have to start someplace.
A Big Enough Sandbox?
As I finish up this blog post, I am reminded of a conversation I had earlier during the Belgian Beer Dinner at BJs with another blogger regarding Almanac Beer Company. On both our parts, there was never any question regarding the quality of the beer. We both thought the Summer 2010 Vintage was a fantastic beer, complex, layered and balanced. But what my fellow blogger pointed out was that the beer is on the pricey side. And he wondered if there would be a strong enough demand for the product.
I argued that Almanac Beer Company has an unusual brewing model. I feel that their product is a high concept beer born from a love of very fine things produced in the San Francisco Bay Area. Elitist? Possibly. Crafty? Definitely. Realistic? Yeah, I think so. If craft beer is a niche of the overall beer industry, then barrel-aged fruit beers are a niche within a niche. I also argued that the craft beer “sandbox” is big enough that there can be successful players at all levels, at each end of the price spectrum and everything in between. Ultimately, the only thing that counts is the quality of the beer and I find Almanac’s Summer Vintage 2010 to be a very good beer. What do you all think?
Craft beer, despite the leaps and bounds it makes every year, is still a niche industry. The business model that Almanac Beer Company has developed and decided to follow is unique in that there is a strong reliance on factors outside of their immediate control. It’s difficult enough to make great beer using the 4 cardinal brewing ingredients of malted barley, hops, water and yeast, yet Almanac Beer Company increases the level of difficulty through the use of seasonal fruit and barrel aging. The fact that Summer 2010 Vintage turned out as well as it did is a testament to Friedman’s recipe formulation skills as well as the sound brewing abilities of the brew crew at Drake’s Brewing Company. Kudos to all around!
If you haven’t had a chance to try this beer yet, I suggest you do your best to do so as the Summer 2010 Vintage is completely sold out. Almanac will not be bottling any more because there is no more left to bottle. This is by design on their part to emphasize the seasonality of their beers. I managed to pick up a pair of bottles at a Whole Foods. If you’ve tasted this beer, I’d love to know what you though of it in the comments section.