Character is that mysterious, hard-to-quantify quality of great beer that moves beyond simple dichotomies of good/bad or flawed/not-flawed and instead asks bigger questions such as “what does this mean to the bigger world of beer?”
Capturing a flavor and a consistent feel that defines a time and a place in brewing history is a goal of La Cumbre’s Jeff Erway, and you can taste it in the award-winning beers he makes, from the light lager BEER to Elevated IPA and Project Dank IPA, and even in his Malpais stout. Here, he recounts six beers of compelling character that have changed how he thinks about brewing.
Pete’s Wicked Ale
(No longer brewed)
“The first time I ever tried a true craft beer was at a Phish show, and it was Pete’s Wicked Ale. It was the first time I had something that made me realize what beer could be. It had brown-sugar notes, and I’m sure if I tried it today, I’d be a little unimpressed, but for the then-solidly-over-21 Jeff Erway who tried that beer, I thought to myself it was compelling.”
“Not too long after that, I tried Trumer Pilsner. I personally feel like that was one of the first great Pilsners made in this country. It was probably the most hops-forward when it came out. I absolutely love that beer. I love its drinkability, and I love how authentic it really tastes. It’s one thing to make a very Americanized version of a German-style Pilsner, but to make something that has all the hops that a lot of craft-beer drinkers want, but still make it in a really traditional way—that beer had a lot of influence on me.”
(San Diego, California)
“In 2003, right after I started homebrewing, I went to AleSmith. I called them at like 10 am, and they weren’t open, but Peter Zien answered the phone and he said, ‘You know, I’m the only one around right now.’ They were still a very small brewery back then, probably a thousand barrels per year. Tiny. But he said ‘Come on by. I’ll show you around.’ He spent two and a half hours showing us around and trying us on everything, and I think the beer that stuck out the most for me was their ESB. That beer, even today, constantly impresses me with the layered malt flavors that it has. And the way that they are able to get so much flavor out of California ale yeast is so inspiring to me and has made me want to do the same thing with that specific yeast—get a ton of flavor out of it.”
North Coast Old Rasputin
(Fort Bragg, California)
“Old Rasputin consistently inspires me because it has everything I could possibly want in that style. I’m a big believer in experiences when you’re drinking beer. Last time I was at the Bavarian at Taos Ski Valley, it was 45 degrees out and sunny, and you could see Wheeler Peak there—you can be damn sure that the Andechs Helles I got there tasted just amazing.
“Likewise, I drove into Fort Bragg on the same trip where I visited AleSmith, and I smelled commercial wort being brewed for the first time, and it just filled the whole town with aroma. I stopped there and got to try Old Rasputin both with CO2 and on nitro, and it had all of the coffee and roasted flavors with the rum raisin and a rich mouthfeel without being cloying.
“That’s the key to me, and that’s why I don’t know that I’ll ever brew a pastry stout because I’m not a sweet tooth. And nobody I know who really loves beer is a sweet tooth. Beer drinkers get an enormous amount of carbohydrates, both simple and complex, from beer. So beer drinkers tend not to be sweet tooths.
“It has everything I want in an imperial stout and nothing that I don’t want.”
Pizza Port Frank
“Once when I was out in San Diego, I stopped by Tom Nickel’s place, and he was tapping a keg of Pizza Port Frank, which I believe was a creation of Kirk McHale, who would later go on to co-found Melvin Brewing (Jackson, Wyoming).
“That beer probably had more influence on me—on what could be done with hops—than any other beer either before or since. It had all of the bitterness that I’m constantly looking for. It had the cleanliness of fermentation that I’m looking for. It had this really rich before-it-was-popular juicy flavor because it was also cask-conditioned. My memory of it, and it’s been more than 15 years now, is that that beer had more pine, grapefruit, and orange aroma than any beer I’ve had before or since.
“The thing I’ve always said I love about the San Diego approach to IPAs, that I appreciated so much when I was learning to brew, was that they not only smelled hoppy and tasted hops-forward and bitter, but they also felt hoppy. Pizza Port’s Frank—you could feel the oil in that beer.”
“Schlenkerla Helles is such a cool beer because it’s a smoked beer with no smoked malts in it. They’re getting all of the smoke simply from the brewhouse—the smoke that is laden in everything at the brewery. But the thing that I like best about that beer is that it’s not just a smoked beer, it’s a world-class Helles that happens to have smoke aromatics to it. The first time I tried it was at Prost, a bar up in Portland, then I got to try it again in Bamberg.
“The thing you notice about the beer is that it does have a distinct smoked malt characteristic, and on first whiff you get the breadcrumb biscuit cracker aromatics of a good Helles. That first sip is smoky, then each sip after that you’re not reminded of the smoke, but you are reminded that this is a completely world-class Helles. It has all of the rich amazing Pilsner malt character that you look for in that style with just a kiss of hops. It’s an epiphany for any lover of pale lagers and any lover of German malts. It’s amazing.”