Dawes and Anchor Steam

It’s difficult to talk about California musical tradition without acknowledging Laurel Canyon, the secluded Hollywood Hills neighborhood that once housed a countercultural music community often compared to the Greenwich Village scene.

Laurel Canyon had previously been a sort of getaway destination for silent movie stars. Later, in the mid-1960s, it became known for the abundance of rock and folk songwriters who either lived in the Canyon or were associated with somebody who did. (Think: Frank Zappa. The Doors. The Byrds. Joni Mitchell. The Mamas and the Papas. Jackson Browne. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The Eagles. Carole King. James Taylor.)

Laurel Canyon essentially became a creative hub for late-1960s and early-1970s musicians in the newly minted folk rock canon. According to producer Lou Adler, it’s where rock made its transition from cool to mellow. Vanity Fair, in a video that’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek, suggests Carole King’s album art for Tapestry embodies the spirit of Laurel Canyon: pop’s natural woman, in her Laurel Canyon home on Wonderland Avenue, sitting beside her cat, Telemachus, who is sitting on an exotically upholstered pillow. (Compare this to the Greenwich Village scene’s album art paragon, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reflects a more urban and arguably less mellow bohemianism.)

As Laurel Canyon mellowed out, many of its artists gradually fell out of vogue while hard rock took over elsewhere. While the canyon itself isn’t a nexus of folk rock today, a number of artists have recently emerged that draw influence from what has been called the Laurel Canyon sound.

Nobody has captured this sound with as much purity as Dawes, who debuted in 2009 with the appropriately Angeleno album title North Hills. Dawes, whose lyrics routinely acknowledge their “Californian side,” are a quintessential contemporary example of Californian folk rock. To hear Jackson Browne’s influence in Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting would be perfectly astute: early in their career, Dawes supported him on tour, and he sang backing vocals on their song “Fire Away,” which would be perfectly in place on Browne’s 1977 album Running On Empty.

 

I wanted to find a somewhat approachable beer that reflects Angeleno brewing as well as Dawes embodies the city’s musical tradition. This, it turns out, isn’t an easy task.

According to an article by KCET in Los Angeles, beginning in the 1880s, several factors converged that shaped L.A.’s pre-prohibition beer economy. The arrival of German immigrants brought skilled brewers into the area while advancements in transportation and refrigeration allowed those brewers to make lagers–bottom-fermenting beers which require colder fermentation temperatures. Lagers, which are largely associated with German brewing, were popular in the American Northeast but previously difficult to brew somewhere with a consistently warm climate like L.A.’s.

Elsewhere in the United States in the 19th century, brewing was dominated by top-fermenting ales. This is can be attributed to a lack of refrigeration, limited access to ice (which at that point had to be imported from Canada in massive blocks), and preferences for beer inherited from the ale-loving British. Thus, it was unusual (and perhaps a product of the later settlement of the American West) that L.A.’s early brewing scene would be dominated by lagers. (Although it is conceivable that Angelenos, of whatever descent, would prefer the light, refreshing qualities associated with lagers.)

Joseph Maier and George Zobelein were among the city’s first wave of brewers. The two partnered in 1882 but eventually parted ways and oversaw Maier Brewing Company and Los Angeles Brewing Company respectively. For years, these breweries dominated L.A.’s young market, but, like all of the nation’s breweries, they were stymied by prohibition. Maier Brewing Company in particular was devastated: federal agents seized the brewery’s equipment after it was found to be operating illegally, selling beer containing alcohol well above the 0.5% cap imposed by the Volstead Act (possibly against then-owner Edward Maier’s knowledge). It took Edward Maier another seven years after prohibition ended to regain control of his company.

After the ratification of the 21st amendment formally ended prohibition, both Maier and Los Angeles Brewing Company prospered. This continued through the end of World War II, but in the post-war period both companies faced insurmountable competition from national brands. Maier was acquired and relocated by a San Francisco businessman, who continued to produce its flagship beer for another fourteen years. Los Angeles Brewing Company was purchased by Pabst, who rebranded its Eastside beer as a cheaper alternative to Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 1979, out-competed by Anheuser-Busch and Miller, Pabst ceased its L.A. operations and discontinued the Eastside brand.

Despite the craft beer revival of the 1990s and 2000s, L.A. was slow to open new breweries. (According to an LA Times article on the resurgence of microbrewing in the city, Eagle Rock Brewery, which opened in 2009, was the first brewery to open in L.A. since the 1950s.) That being the case, no contemporary beer nor brewery has emerged that strikes me as quintessentially Angeleno. Even while a recent handful of breweries have opened, none are especially recognized for brewing the lagers for which L.A. was once known.

Instead, I want to suggest a beer that isn’t produced in L.A. In fact, Anchor Steam is produced a few hundred miles north in San Francisco but shares some similarities with the earliest beers produced in L.A.

A German immigrant named Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and promptly established a brewery, which was soon purchased by another German brewer, Ernst Baruth, and his son-in-law, Otto Schnikel, Jr. They renamed the brewery Anchor in 1896.

Anchor, or the brewery that would become Anchor, produced a style of lager known as steam beer, which was common across California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially, steam beers were lagers brewed without refrigeration. This was necessary to keep the beer inexpensive: at the time, mechanical refrigeration wasn’t widespread, and ice wasn’t produced locally.

While there are conflicting explanations for the origin of the term “steam beer,” it is likely derived from steam created by the unconventional methods by which brewers were forced to chill the beer. Without access to ice or mechanical refrigeration, brewers still needed a way to chill the wort quickly after boiling. Anchor’s solution involved pumping the hot wort to the brewery’s roof. There, it would sit in a shallow, open top bin called a coolship (which was traditionally used by Belgian lambic brewers) where it would be chilled by the cool Pacific air. As the wort chilled, steam would rise from its surface and therefore appear to rise from the roof of the brewery.

Anchor was beset by a number of tragedies and inconveniences in the early 20th century (including the San Francisco earthquake, prohibition, and a fire) and later struggled to compete with larger national brands. That said, despite several moves and a short closure, it remains open today and is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest breweries and in modern times as one of the nation’s first craft breweries.

Anchor holds a trademark on “Steam” beer, but that trademark is more reflective of the brand than the style. Today’s Anchor Steam isn’t a traditional steam beer at all (that style being effectively extinct due to the advent of mechanical refrigeration) but is instead a style known as California common beer. The California common style resembles, in some ways, steam beer for a modern palate: it essentially incorporates hops more prominently and is fermented by a special lager yeast that performs well at slightly higher temperatures. Essentially, it’s a controlled way of producing a good lager at a warm temperature.

In many ways Anchor Steam is a fresh and novel product of California’s sesquicentennial brewing history. Steam, and the California Common style of beer, are distinctly Californian. In that way, Anchor Steam strikes me as a suitable companion to Dawes. I suggest enjoying it with either of the band’s first two albums, North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong.

Caffeine’s Misconceptions

Caffeine is at times the most divisive but least understood topic in coffee. I’m frequently asked how roasting temperatures, brewing methods, and even things like the country of origin affect a coffee’s caffeine content. A lot of beliefs fall somewhere between speculation and junk science.

The truth is that roasting doesn’t affect caffeine content in any dramatic way. Even then, brewing practices are far too inconsistent to communicate anything meaningful to an average consumer.

Almost all coffee is caffeinated. Caffeine is a stimulant alkaloid occurring naturally in dozens of species of plants, acting primarily as a defense against certain insects. Different species of coffee exist, and some have do have a high or low caffeine content in comparison with one another. Most coffee belongs either to the prized Coffea arabica or the hardier, but generally lower quality, Coffea canephora (robusta). Arabica, comprising almost all specialty coffee, contains in each seed (“bean,” although that’s a misnomer) about 1-1.5% caffeine. Robusta’s caffeine content is roughly double that.

Some varieties are naturally low in caffeine, such as the Laurina variety of Arabica, but so far, none of these low-caffeine varieties are widely available commercially. If a coffee is decaffeinated, that happens post-harvest, usually in a processing facility far away from the country of origin. Decaffeination processes use a solvent such as water to remove everything soluble from a batch of unroasted “green” coffee. The caffeine is removed from that slurry, then the decaffeinated slurry is reintroduced to the seeds (or the cellulose structures that were once seeds).

Coffee doesn’t undergo a significant thermal decomposition before it reaches 460 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it isn’t significantly affected by typical roasting temperatures. Only the absolute darkest roasts every approach that temperature, and those that do can afford to spend very little time in that zone. Most coffees never will.

But roasting does affect other physical properties of coffee including its density. As coffee roasts, it loses moisture and weight in a predictable manner while its seeds expand in size. These changes are more pronounced in longer and hotter (“darker”) roasts.

So a batch’s caffeine content is not affected, but the size and weight of its individual seeds are. Unfortunately, this presents a brewing conundrum. Without distinguishing between volume (scoops/tablespoons) and weight (grams/ounces), a darker roast could mean less caffeine per scoop but more per unit of weight.

(Why? Let’s say for simple math that a coffee seed contains maybe 1% caffeine. If we prep a 50lb batch of coffee, that’s a net of 8 ounces (.5lb) of caffeine. Let’s roast that batch. We can expect it to expand in volume and to lose perhaps 15% of its original weight. Our roasted batch now needs a larger container, but only weighs 42.5lb. Because all of the caffeine survives the roasting process intact, our larger in volume but less heavy batch still contains its original 8 ounces of caffeine.)

But any predictability this offers gets thrown out the window when we introduce other variables, such as differences from coffee to coffee where the typical caffeine content might not be precisely known, or differences in the serving size of drinks from one cafe to another, or the exact dose of coffee in a given drink, and whether it is adhered to consistently. (These issues are compounded with cold brew, which is somewhat more tolerant of inconsistent brewing, and thus is often victim to hasty or lazy preparation.) Caffeine is highly, rapidly soluble in water, so regardless of the brewing method, it’s correct to assume all of the available caffeine makes its way into the cup.

In other words, it’s reasonable to say you can’t make predictions about caffeine content in the context of a shop’s resources and workflow. Just enjoy what you drink: it’s caffeinated.

*This is a revision of an earlier piece on the same subject.

Claude Debussy and Madrugada Obscura

“Clair de lune” is the third and penultimate movement in French composer Claude Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque.” It’s beautiful and delicate but also deeply evocative, which I learned has something to do with its inspiration, a poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine. From Verlaine Debussy borrowed the title of the movement and that of the suite itself.

 

Verlaine, a contemporary of Debussy, belonged to a literary and artistic movement known as symbolism. Symbolists rejected realism, believing that artistic statements ought to be made indirectly. Using metaphor and suggestion, symbolists hoped to imply absolute truths that they believed were impossible to capture in a literal account of reality.

Verlaine’s own “Clair de lune” articulates this attitude well. The title is French for “moonlight,” literally “light of the moon.” Appropriately, moonlight isn’t the moon’s own light, but light perceived because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Illuminated by that indirect light source, Verlaine describes masked figures singing and dancing bergamasque, a dance that William Shakespeare had called “clumsy” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Moonlight

Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

Paul Verlaine, 1869

Verlaine’s poem suggests that these figures don’t believe in their own elation and fantasy, singing triumphant love songs in minor keys, being outwardly happy and festive yet simultaneously deeply sad, illuminated by the solemn glow of the moon.

Verlaine’s poem and Debussy’s piano suite remind me of a lovely and deeply evocative Spanish word. La madrugada translates approximately to “dawn” or “predawn,” but I’m not aware of any English translation that captures what it seems to mean in a single word. As I understand it, la madrugada is that dark, quiet time of night that’s beyond midnight but well before sunrise. Think pitch blackness, but a pitch blackness that hides the dew already collecting on the grass and the birds beginning to sing. In Frank Sinatra’s words, it’s “the wee small hours of the morning.”

Finding an appropriately evocative English equivalent calls to mind the slam poet Rives and his suspicions about 4am, “the one time you’re either up too late or gotten up too early.”

Later than the latest of late night talk shows yet hours ahead of Good Morning America, 4am has become a meme, says Rives, representing the darkest depths of night that exist just before the earliest indications of dawn appear. I think the mysterious 4am hour that he describes can be thought of as la madrugada as it is represented in English-speaking pop culture.

Fittingly, I’ve chosen to pair Debussy’s “Clair de lune” with a beer brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales called Madrugada Obscura, which they’ve labelled a “dark dawn stout.” It has some characteristics you’d expect of a barrel-aged stout: roasted malt, oak, coffee, and chocolate bass tones that confirm the darkness the name suggests. However, and with no surprise to anyone familiar with Jolly Pumpkin’s beers, these darker notes give way to a not-so-subtle sourness that suggests tart cherries, lemon, and green apple.

Sour stouts like Madrugada Obscura remain relatively hard to find and were very hard to find until relatively recently when sour beers started to gain popularity in the United States. Sourness has long been present in old world styles; Belgium and parts of Germany are known for their sour beers, and it is believed that beer was historically somewhat tart due to the tendencies of wild fermentation (a brewer’s best option before culturing familiar yeast strains became a feasible practice). Only recently, however, have sour stouts garnered significant interest from the craft beer community. (NB: there are other good examples of this style that are regionally available, some of which I personally prefer to Madrugada Obscura.. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness is less roasty and more tart, and Birds Fly South’s False Face exhibits a wonderful balance of stout and sour characteristics.)

I think a fair comparison can be made between “Clair de lune” and Madrugada Obscura. Nominally speaking, “Clair de lune” evokes a brightness and serenity, but sonically and contextually carries a dark solemnity that underlies that brightness. Madrugada Obscura does the inverse, evoking a darkness of flavor that it succeeds in providing, but not without a surprising, contrasting, (deliciously) conceptually conflicting brightness and pucker you rightfully wouldn’t anticipate in an imperial stout. In both cases, it’s a beautifully evocative case of darkness among brightness.

I’ve paired this odd duo to reflect two ongoing goals of mine: to explore why we pair things and to expand our understanding of what a good pairing can resemble.

Traditionally speaking, we seem to pair things like food and wine to achieve complementary tasting experiences. We want harmony between one bite and the following sip, which means amplifying desirable qualities without creating or calling attention to undesirable qualities.

I think there’s much more to be said about pairing, and delightfully weirder things at that, especially if we open our minds to more abstract combinations. In pairing food and drinks, we are limited to flavors that cooperate with each other, either in a complementary or a delightfully contrasting way. But, when we expand pairing possibilities, I believe we open up new opportunities for two seemingly unrelated things to teach us about each other. In that sense, I think, the point of a pairing is not just to bring harmony to the palate but also to inform and illuminate.