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11 Oct 2018

Desert Cicerone: Semi-Random Thoughts on a Local Blog, the Greatness of Modern Times and Various IPA Sub-Styles

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I have a lot on my mind. However, I will spare you from all but the beer things on my mind. I thought the best way to handle this would be to kinda-sorta do this à la Larry King’s odd USA Today column from some years ago: I’ll just hit on random topics that don’t necessarily have any relation to each other besides the overarching theme of craft beer.

In other words, I was lazy and didn’t come up with a one-topic column idea.

Now that I have raised your expectations to such a soaring height ...

• I want to give a shout-out to Andrew Smith and his Coachella Valley Beer Scene blog and Facebook page.

In 2011, I created the Facebook page, and after mentioning Schmidy’s Tavern (R.I.P. … you are missed), the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club, and Babe’s BBQ and Brewhouse, I quickly ran out of things to post about the beer scene. While there is still a long way to go in our beautiful valley, there is fortunately much more of a beer scene now, and Andrew gets in there and does great write-ups of what he finds. Check him out at cvbeerscene.com and on the aforementioned Facebook page.

• Modern Times Beer is killing it. Not literally, mind you: They’re vegan through and through, as the bottles and cans state.

If you have somehow missed the company’s beer until now, you must have been hiding out. It’s happily in many places in the valley, packaged and on tap. In the past year or so, the people there have opened The Dankness Dojo in Downtown L.A. and The Belmont Fermentorium in Portland. Both places have brewhouses and pump out wonderful beers which end up at the other facilities for you to try. From what I’ve experienced so far, Portland’s strength is in big, dark beers, and the Dojo seems adept at IPAs of all stripes. Another location in Encinitas and a swim club in Anaheim are in the works.

In August, I went to Modern Times’ fourth annual Festival of Dankness. It’s a hoppy beer festival, and notable brewers from all over the country are invited to pour. Situated at Waterfront Park in San Diego with an excellent view of the ocean, Coronado Island and downtown San Diego, the festival has been a wonderful respite from the awful August heat here in the desert. It has gotten better and better every year.

It serves as a reliable measure of what’s trending when it comes to IPAs. This year, sour IPAs made a big showing. Brut IPAs, mentioned in a previous column, popped up at a few booths as well, the most interesting of which was at Brouwerij West out of San Pedro. Of course, hazy IPAs and milkshake IPAs were prevalent. Eugene, Ore.’s Claim 52 Brewing had my favorite with its strawberry milkshake IPA. Strawberries and lactose only added to the hop flavors and didn’t step all over them and become a sweet mess. Cellarmaker Brewing in San Francisco brought a phenomenal hazy IPA called Double Mt. Nelson. This year’s Nelson Sauvin hop harvest seems to have made up for last year’s lackluster version, and the beers that have been popping up using them have been stellar. That includes Modern Times’ own Space Ways. It’s one of the best hazy IPAs I’ve had, period, and it’s still on the shelves in cans here and drinking wonderfully.

With every passing year, Modern Times continues to make me a bigger fan. I recommend them to you wholeheartedly.

• Speaking of IPAs, I want to give my opinion on some of these sub-styles.

Sour IPAs have been kettle-soured similarly to a Berlinerweisse or gose; the tartness and liberal amounts of hops evoke the flavors of fruit juice. The examples I’ve tried so far have been fun, but I am still a bigger fan of dry-hopped kettle sours. It’s a subtle distinction, but it can be encapsulated thusly: The sourness of sour IPAs is there to support the hop flavors, while dry-hopped kettle sours are sour ales with hop aromas and flavors to support it. It’s a distinction without a difference, but my palate can certainly tell. Almanac Brewing and Prairie Artisan Ales make great examples of the latter style.

I have finally tried a few brut IPAs and have not been terribly impressed. I was very excited when I first began hearing about them, but the beers have not met my expectations. It seems like the process that makes these beers so dry also strips away much of the aroma and flavor of a normal IPA. But there is nothing wrong with subtlety, and I will continue to try new examples of the style with an open mind. There is currently a brut IPA on where I work—a shout out to all my co-workers at Coachella Valley Brewing Company … even you, Uncle Ben—and it is honestly the best I’ve tried.

From time to time, I have good ideas. One of my latest was an idea for a coconut bock. I conceived of the recipe (with some serious inspiration from Gordon Biersch’s excellent Heller Bock) with the help of our head brewer, and the team did a brilliant job executing this one. It should be on tap soon if it isn’t already. I’m calling it Coconut Toast, because that is the experience of drinking it. Definitely tell me what you think of my baby when you try it.

• Do you know what English bitter ales are? They’re really not that bitter and lean toward the malty side, but the name has made it extremely difficult for the styles (ordinary, strong, extra strong) to catch on in America. It is a travesty, too, because it’s such a lovely, sessionable style. The same goes for old ale style (though it’s decidedly not sessionable). It is not a great name, but a well-made example is such a thing of beauty. Alesmith, North Coast and Deschutes are the only craft breweries I can think of off the top of my head that regularly make old ales (and they make them well, I would add). Belgian styles seem to have largely fallen out of favor, too, and this might be the biggest tragedy. Some might think Belgian ales are all high ABV affairs, but it’s just not true.

The witbier retains popularity here, with Shock Top and Blue Moon being made by the big breweries. There are incredible versions of this in craft beer. Allagash White and Avery White Rascal are two of the finest, and they’re very true to the classic Belgian counterparts (St. Bernardus Wit being my favorite in the world). The lower-ABV Belgian abbey single style is an absolute gem, and we don’t see much of it here from Belgium, because it doesn’t travel well. The same goes for English bitters. It’s not that brewers won’t make these styles; they just do them in small batches knowing that they won’t sell well. I guess I’ll just need to make more money and travel to these places regularly in order to get my fix.

• While I’m on the subject of styles, I’d like to point out my disappointment in America on this front. No, I’m not saying American beers are largely disappointing. That would be insane (though it is not hard to find breweries making terrible, flawed beer). We are living through a craft beer boom, and it’s so much fun. What I am saying is that whenever there is an “American” version of a European style—be it an IPA, pilsner, stout, porter, barleywine, etc.—it essentially means the ABV and the hops are pumped up to a large degree. There is just no creativity in that.

American barleywine sucks. There, I said it. It is a pale shadow of the rich, complex, malty, delicious English counterpart.

Please, craft brewers of America, I beseech you: STOP OVER-HOPPING THESE STYLES. When I can’t tell the difference between an American Barleywine and an imperial IPA, you have failed.

End of rant.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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