AT PLAY IN THE FIELD OF THE IPA
Creative brewing at West Berkeley’s Fieldwork
By Derrick Peterman
How did an old cabinet factory in West Berkeley become both a popular neighborhood hangout and one of California’s most acclaimed breweries in just over a year?
The story of Fieldwork Brewing Company began five years ago in San Diego when Barry Braden and Alex Tweet met at a bottle share, a gathering of like-minded beer enthusiasts swapping beer samples. At 30, Tweet was a passionate home brewer who had just joined the brewing team at San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewery. Braden, 45, was running an organic food restaurant known for its extensive craft beer selection. The two became fast friends.
During his year at Ballast Point, Tweet made the daring move of adding grapefruit to the brewery’s famed Sculpin IPA. His Grapefruit Sculpin became one of the most coveted and highly ranked IPAs in the country. Not ready to settle down, Tweet did a two-year stint at San Diego’s Modern Times Beer, which was seeing its status on beer-rating websites rise during Tweet’s tenure. Witnessing his friend’s success, Braden suggested it was time for Alex to go solo. He pitched the idea of partnering in a new brewpub where Alex would be brewmaster.
“I pushed back for 24 hours,” recalls Tweet, chuckling. Their shortlist of places to open the brewpub included Berkeley, which may seem like a long way to go from San Diego, but both men had plenty of ties to the Bay Area. They found exactly what they needed in the city’s mixed residential and industrial flatlands to the west.
“Who could say no to this building,” declares Tweet, marveling at how the high ceiling in the brown wooden frame of the old cabinet factory accommodates the tall brewing tanks.
“We saw promise in the location, but we weren’t sure people would come out here to West Berkley to try us,” adds Braden, whose fear was doused as word of the place spread quickly and Fieldwork became a hot neighborhood gathering place. Bucking the trend of using large-screen TVs to mesmerize patrons, the guys stocked up on books and board games. “We both loathe TVs,” says Tweet. “We wanted to create a vibe of families and friends getting together. The game playing, the conversation doesn’t happen when you’re around a bunch of screens. And we want people to focus on the beer.”
And, of course, people come back for the beer. Perhaps the best way to describe Fieldwork’s brewing style is “seriously playful.” Even Braden has been impressed by the diversity of styles in the over 70 different beers they’ve brewed. Adds Tweet, “We have our whimsical beers, beers meant to be fun, tasting like things such as coconut milk or chocolate milk.”
Coconut Milk Double India Pale Ale (IPA) is one of those quirky sounding ideas that somehow totally works in the execution. It takes all day to toast the 100 pounds of coconut in Fieldwork’s convection ovens. Lactose sugar, which imparts a milky quality to the brew, is added along with the toasted coconut to create the signature coconut milk character. Tweet adds most of his hops toward the end of the boil to extract the fruity flavors that the flowers of the Humulus lupulus can convey while avoiding some of their bitterness. The result is a wonderfully tropical-tasting brew that completely expands the idea of the IPA.
Another popular beer in Fieldwork’s lineup is Sea Farmer IPA. Brewed with sea salt and grapefruit, it has a briny, fruity quality that’s wonderfully oceanic. And where did Alex Tweet get this idea? You’ll never guess . . .
“Sea Farmer was inspired by a cologne I like,” the brewer explains. It’s perhaps the only beer in the world inspired by a perfume.
What you won’t find at Fieldwork is the light, simplified beer most local breweries feel they need to have on their tap list to comfort those who still cleave to mass-produced lagers. “I think people immediately recognize something that’s good,” explains Tweet of this decision. “It’s insulting to give them something lesser. I would like to get people in front of our beers and allow them to decide what they like.”
For those who say they don’t like IPA, Fieldwork is a great place to re-evaluate this bias, since Tweet’s non-traditional, flavorful, and non-bitter versions provide a different experience. “If you talk about flavors in an IPA, like grapefruit, mango, orange, most people like them,” explains Tweet. “People might not like IPAs because they may have tried ones that are bitter or astringent. But when they try ours, they taste the citrus, the tropical flavors, and realize hoppiness doesn’t mean bitterness.”
To illustrate his point, Tweet pours three different IPAs into glasses and sets them down. “Rye is an interesting grain to use,” he says, pointing to the first, which contains a generous taste of his Sawhorse Rye IPA. “We use hops that are more piney and floral, which accentuates the rye rather than covering it up.” It’s a lively tasting brew, piney and floral, as promised, as well as a little nutty.
In the next glass is a cloudy yellow brew called Pulp Free IPA, a brewing argument in liquid form. “It’s my rebuttal to the trend in the Northeast United States to brew a very opaque beer full of yeast to make it ‘juicier.’ Science shows yeast is far more detrimental to finished beer than it is beneficial, so we created an IPA using all of the techniques common in the Northeast but took that finished product and made sure to leave behind as much yeast as possible.” Tropical melon flavors with lots of floral aromatics dominate this brew.
The light orange brew in the third glass is called Misfit Stream IPA. “This is the classic West Coast–style IPA, so it’s a little more bitter than the other two, with flavors of apricot, peach, pear, and orange,” Tweet explains.
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on the blog “Ramblings of a Beer Runner” at beer-runner.blogspot.com.