Almanac brings California beer terroir to Alameda
By Derrick Peterman
Soon after they met at a home brewing club in San Francisco, Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagan discovered they shared a novel approach to brewing: Both were experimenting with ingredients from the farmers’ market.
“We tried lots of different fruits, and in some cases we were actually trying to use vegetables and really just having a lot of fun,” says Fagan. “It dawned on us one day that the kind of farm-to-table ethos we’ve all become accustomed to here in Northern California simply didn’t exist in the beer world at all.”
In 2010, the pair officially joined forces to found Almanac Beer Co., naming their brewing operation after the Farmers’ Almanac and elevating their concept of sourcing locally grown, high-quality ingredients for their barrel-aged sour ales. Friedman focused on the day-to-day brewing while Fagan handled the business end.
As is typical with many brewing start-ups, Almanac looked to established breweries to produce and package their beers on contract. However, as their unorthodox ales quickly became a hit with beer geeks, both local and across the nation, the duo found it difficult to stay tied to other people’s schedules and staffing. Friedman notes that to make world-class beer, it’s important to control the entire process end-to-end, which simply wasn’t possible brewing under contract. Realizing they needed to make the leap, Friedman and Fagan started looking for a place to build their own brewery.
As anyone who has shopped for real estate in the Bay Area will appreciate, the first six months of Fagan and Friedman’s search for a 20,000-square-foot space led to a number of disappointments at places well out of their price range. Then serendipity stepped in with a call from Ron Silberstein. The founder of San Francisco’s ThirstyBear Brewing Company was looking for space to build a malt house to supply California-grown barley malt to local breweries. He had found a 50,000-square-foot building in Alameda but needed less than half of that space. Might a partnership be the answer?
Meeting Silberstein and the building’s landlord outside an abandoned World War II–era Navy warehouse on Alameda’s gritty industrial west side, Fagan and Friedman ventured inside to inspect the lofty space with its intricate redwood rafters. “I’d say inside of 15 minutes we were basically in lock-step agreement that we had to make it happen,” says Fagan.
They closed the deal and made extensive renovations to the property. Silberstein opened Admiral Maltings in the summer of 2017 and Almanac’s brewery, barrelhouse, and taproom opened in February 2018 on the opposite end of the building. The setup is ideal for Almanac, since they use Admiral Maltings’ product extensively in their brews. “It’s like, ‘Hey neighbor, can we borrow a cup of sugar?’” jokes Friedman.
Complete Control and a Sense of Place
Although Almanac’s approach could be described as freewheeling and experimental, having their own brewery also allows for the opposite: “complete control from top to bottom, literally from grain to glass,” according to Fagan. One example is Friedman’s use of a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to sequence the DNA in the brewery’s yeast strains. It ensures the highest level of purity, which helps them run clear of spoiler agents. Friedman is particularly proud to be using the technique since his dad runs a criminal
Most beer is made with a single strain of brewer’s yeast, but Friedman makes sour beer with a diverse cocktail of yeasts—both tame and wild—plus a menagerie of bacteria. “These are creating funky, tropical, horsey, farmhouse-y flavors,” the brewer says.
The sour beers are fermented with this yeast cocktail for about two weeks in stainless steel tanks, then transferred into used wine barrels or the enormous oak barrels called foeders, where the brew ages and ferments for six weeks to a full year. “The oak is really important to that maturation process,” says Friedman. “A little bit of oxygen combined with that oak flavor and previous[ly] held wine … that’s where the
Fruit is added near the end of the process, since too much fermentation drives away its characteristic aromas. And while most brewers would be paranoid about bringing in microbes from outside the brewery, Friedman laughs, saying, “Whatever yeast comes in on that fruit is welcome to the party.”
Friedman tastes everything individually before carefully blending the diverse contents of each barrel back together. “Different barrels will have different biomes in them. All of our barrels are vintaged, so the idea is that this year’s blackberry release is [not] the same as last year’s blackberry release.”
Farmers’ Favorite Fruits
Almanac’s idea of bringing California terroir—that sense of place—into the brewing process starts with using local malt and local hops, but goes a step further in the collaborations with local fruit farmers. Almanac sources from Blossom Bluff Orchards, K&J Orchards, and others, selecting fruits the farmers are most excited about. “The fruit becomes the inspiration for the beer,” says Friedman.
Some recent creations include Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry, bursting with blueberry flavor plus vanilla and a touch of lavender; Peach Galaxy, combining fruit and hops; and Valley of the Heart’s Delight, inspired by the agriculture of the Silicon Valley and this year packed with apricot and cherry.
“So much of beer is about context and community and being tied in directly to the ingredients,” says Friedman. Fagan explains that Almanac’s substantial scaling up means they can buy 6,000 pounds of strawberries instead of the 200 pounds they bought in the past, for example. “We like to pay our farmers a living wage, too,” says Friedman. “I want that farmer to still be in business next year.” Fagan says they’re able to offer a price that a wholesaler would never be able or willing to pay. “We’re really proud of the fact that we’re able to help out the small producers in a small way.”
The Almanac Experience
Friedman and Fagan are quite enthusiastic about the brewery taproom, where beer drinkers can sample Almanac’s fruit-forward barrel-aged sour ales, as well as their pilsners, lagers, IPAs, pale ales, and stouts, while appreciating an interior that celebrates the building’s heritage. “We’re in this unbelievably historic building, and we just wanted to make it feel like all of this was always here,” Friedman says.
“It’s a big, beautiful, 3,000 square-foot taproom, and you can come in and feel immersed in the Almanac vibe,” says Fagan. “We like to think of it as an immersive beer experience. It’s a new thing for us and something we’re really excited about.” ♦
Note: Jesse Friedman is no longer handling the day-to-day brewing, but he remains on the board of directors and has taken a strategic role with Almanac, according to Damian Fagan. Phillip Emerson is now managing the daily brewing operations.
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on his blog, ramblings-of-a-beer-runner.blog.