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13 Nov 2015

The Alchemy of Place and Taste in Santa Barbara Beers

Vox Orbis / 13 Nov 2015 Fermentation

Photo: Calcium carbonate from Santa Barbara's water left after distilling all night. Credit: Benjamin Kinzer/Pete Johnson

Synopsis by Cultural Anthropologist, Chloé Frommer. Fermentation is a cross-cultural, botanical food and beverage-processing technique that facilitates preservation, detoxification, digestion, and taste. With modernization, the visual appearance, aroma and flavor profile of some fermented products have also developed as very particular, stylized registers. But even before style, meaning was always-already invested in the selection of substances, process and consumption. In the case below, the social, geological and climactic features of Santa Barbara and the West Coast, are becoming more apparent in the fermentation of uniquely local variations on older, European beer styles. 

Ted Mills

It starts, like it always does, with hops, those exploded-bulb looking flowers of the trellis-climbing plant with the great name, Humulus lupulus. Add malt. Add yeast. Add technique. Add heat. Add time. And through a science that still feels a bit like alchemy one gets beer, Europe’s most famous fermented invention. Styles of beer display their origins: Belgian style (high in alcohol, malty), English India Pale Ale (more bitter from more hops and more alcohol meant it could survive the journey from England to their occupying troops in India), Kölsh (from Köln, Germany, and which is pale, dry, and bitter).

But as I sit here on a much-too-humid-for-autumn October day in Santa Barbara, keeping it local and drinking a beer from one of our many local breweries, it’s true to say that California has its own style of beer, even when that beer comes in many varieties, from light, refreshing lagers to dark, chocolate-y ports. Up and down the coast--and a little bit inland--California is brewing some very interesting beer, and it has influenced the craft brew scene across the States.

“There’s definitely a West Coast style,” says Josh Ellis, owner and head brewer at M. Special brewery, one of the many new breweries to pop up in Santa Barbara county in the last year. “It would be an IPA that finishes drier, has less of a malt backbone, less of a caramel flavor. it’s really about a beer that profiles hops, beginning, middle, and end.”

Hops--which are in the same plant family of the cannabis plant, and share some of the grassy aromas--give beer its bitter taste. The majority of beers use hops--but California *really* likes them. That hop-dominance on the West Coast comes from the abundance, cheapness, and availability of hops from Washington state, where varietals carry location names like Cascade, Mount Hood, Columbus and Chinook. At the beginning of the micro-brewery revolution in the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s, beer-makers starting with the now-defunct New Albion Brewing Company out of Sonoma and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, the Northern California city north east of the Bay Area, embraced the hop, wanting to put their own spin on things. That’s led to some very strong beers, too, where alcohol content can be twice as much as your average light lager.

California also has a huge amount of breweries--around 550 in total, by Telegraph Brewery’s Brian Thompson’s account--because of the business-friendly environment.

“We don’t have to work with distributors, though we do,” he says. “You can self-distribute. There are fewer restrictions on alcohol limits and marketing.”

Self-distribution has allowed brew-pubs--where beer is brewed on the premises--to be major social gathering places for breweries. You can still grab a Bud Light if you want, but it’s just as easy to try a craft beer.

Pete Johnson, who owns one of Santa Barbara’s oldest brewpubs, The Brewhouse, only sells his beer through his location down near the beach in Santa Barbara. Partly that’s due to owning a different license--self-distributors can’t also sell liquor and cocktails at their bars, which Johnson has always done--and the prohibitive cost of the one that would allow such sales. “Sometimes I feel I’m not part of the brewing community,” he says, noting that when he opened there was only one other brewery in the county--Santa Barbara Brew Co--and now there’s 20.

Though Johnson agrees there’s a hoppyness to California beer, he loves to make all kinds, making small batches of Hefenweizen (a non-filtered beer that contains wheat) or red ales, which gets its color from the kind of malt used and has a sour taste.

Sean Lewis, author of “We Make Beer” a trip across America’s craft beer scene and former Santa Barbara resident, disagrees about how hoppy the Central Coast really is. He says the very hoppy beers are more a San Diego thing, like Stone Brewery.

“Central Coast beer, like Firestone Brewery and Figueroa Mountain Brewery, the things they win medals for, are really traditional style beers like pilsners and lagers.”

There’s also the case of Santa Barbara’s water, which tends to run hard. Brewers like Johnson makes a pilsner-style beer, but holds off from that description because the hard water makes it taste different. With Santa Barbara thinking of water during these years of severe drought, that might be nitpicking. Other brewers never mentioned water when talking brewing.

Photo: Brewhouse's "German Pilsener", in name, process, appearance, and aroma. But lacking the soft water that makes the taste of the original German style. Credit: Ben Kinzer/Pete Johnson

Sean Lewis also thinks that the craft beer revival started on the West Coast because of its geography.

“They were people who were able to go out and see the world a little bit more,” he says. “They were ones who had fallen in love with craft beer overseas so when they came back they started to make it themselves.”

Brewers tend towards the fraternal, and would rather help each other out than try to undercut the competition, which if it exists is healthy. In Santa Barbara most home brewers and owners of breweries are part of the 60-plus member Santa Barbeerians, which shares recipes and makes special beers in small batches for members to try.

Many brewers tend to be or have been engineers and scientists, tinkerers and those who love attention to detail. The Brewhouse’s Pete Johnson was a NASA engineer a long time ago. But he loves his job as a brewer. “

You have to love it otherwise you wouldn’t do it,” he says.

“People’s tastes have changed,” Johnson continues. “When I started out people would say my beer was too hoppy. Now when they taste my beer they say, that’s nice, but do you have something with more hops in it?”