Alec in Wonderland
Opening of Half Moon Bay Brewing Company
by Bob Coleman
Annemarie, a friend from Dijon, France, that even my wife admits is model-gorgeous, had already toured San Francisco and the wine country, but her fantasies of coastal California had not yet been satisfied. I was her ecstatic accidental host, but despite her good humor I could sense that she had been underwhelmed by my tour.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]On the day before she was to return to her hillside home in Burgundy, I asked Annemarie (in halting French) whether she wished to see a fishing village on the Pacific. "J'adore la plage," she replied; she loved the Brittany coast in France. So we headed south from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The half-hour drive was promisingly beautiful. The road wound down from suburban hills into that magical Northern California combination of ocean, cliffs, beaches, farms, birds and surfers. Amidst cooling fog and brisk saline breezes lie coastal farms (and their roadside stands) famed for artichokes, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, berries and flowers.
We ended up at the new Half Moon Bay Brewing Company in Princeton-by-the-Sea. I had heard that the opening of this brewery was a dream come true for veteran brewer Alec Moss, and that the fishing village at Princeton's Pillar Point Harbor still retained its authentic maritime character. On that beautiful shoreline, I wondered, could fantasies actually be fulfilled?
At the marina pier at Princeton, independent fishermen unloaded their daily catch and worked on their boats. Locally regulated prices made shiny Chinook salmon (the wild, healthy kind) and luscious Dungeness crabs bargains, with the lack of negotiation adding to the pleasurable serenity. We were delighted to find many of these local specialties on the menu at Half Moon Bay Brewing.
The brewpub, occupying the former Shore Bird restaurant, is built in the shingled Nantucket style. So is "Alec's House," the newly added brewery. County permits for the brewery took about two years. A supportive local clientele favors the heated ocean-view patio. The brewpub also has a fireplace in the bar, comfortable dining rooms, and live music and dancing on Sunday afternoons.
Brewer Alec Moss is a brewer's brewer, gentle and unpretentious though impressively skillful. One of the many local brewers with homebrew club beginnings with the San Andreas Malts (and Steve Norris's homebrew shop), Alec first professionally brewed with Allan Paul at San Francisco Brewing Company in 1988. Head brewer jobs followed at Golden Pacific in Berkeley and Redbird in San Mateo. Alec's 15-barrel Pub Brewing system from the late Redbird (aka Barley & Hopps) produced many award-winners; now it's happily back at work in the new digs.
Alec generously serves the industry as a beer judge at major competitions. "It's easy service because I get to be with my friends," he said modestly. His pleasing personality, excellent palate and brewing knowledge have engendered admiration from around the world; Alec was the sole U.S. judge at 2001's Great British Beer Festival in London.
Though a fan of Belgian beer styles with a West Coast perspective, Moss favors malt-focused "finesse" beers with hearty flavors in harmonious balance. Fans of English ale styles will feel at home at Half Moon Bay Brewing, as will lovers of German-style hefeweizen. Request unchilled glassware and a delicious house character reminiscent of Britain's seaside Adnams Brewery emerges. Beer writer Roger Protz has identified a briny tang to Adnams beers and has speculated that its source is the ambient salt air on the British coast. Here at Half Moon Bay, a similar refreshing hint of the sea combines with notes of black pepper in the finish of the beers. With their gentle strengths, it's easy to enjoy an extended session.
Sandy Beach Blonde Hefeweizen (4.9% abv) is a Bavarian-style unfiltered wheat beer with 40% barley malt and characteristic banana-clove esters. Harbor Light Ale (5.2% abv), hopped with Hallertauer and Saaz, is crisp and "melt down your throat" light. Pillar Point Pale Ale (4.6%) has good malt and hop character and a long finish enhanced by Challenger and Northdown (or sometimes East Kent Goldings) hops. Mavericks Amber Ale is named after nearby Mavericks Beach, the legendary monster-wave surfing paradise; it is a creamy 4.8% abv with a touch of chocolate malt for added interest. Bootlegger Brown (4% abv) is one of Alec's finest recipes, a malt-accented brown with a gravity that approaches a mild.
The first seasonal is Old Soul-Stice Winter Ale (6.7% abv), which employs American, English and Belgian malts in an unusual English strong ale with an extra bit of spice in the finish from German and Czech hops. Smuggler's Stout (5.2% abv) is hugely aromatic, even from a yard away, and its waves of chocolate and coffee flavors are enormous. Settle in with this one as a fog-cutter.
According to the owners, this is the first legal brewery on the Half Moon Bay coast since a brewery with the same name operated in 1873. Today's ownership group is fun-loving and accomplished, with significant beer heritage and heart. Lenny Mendonca's grandfather Caetano came from the Azores and was a local rum-runner during Prohibition, an era when millions of dollars from smuggling poured into the area. Lenny and his wife, Christine, are both partners, along with Jan and Mark Stegmaier, Vicki and Mike Laffen, John Dicker and other locals. Mark Stegmaier is part of Pennsylvania's Stegmaier brewing family and is a passionate lover of beer. Mike Laffen lived in Bavaria in the 1980s, where he was bitten by the beer bug. John Dicker is English-born, sharing with Alec Moss a love of Adnams beer and the Holly Bush pub in Hampstead north of London. Rounding out the team are Bill Gillespie (marketing), Glenn Mannina (bar manager) and Chef John Brown. Brown, Maine-born and fish-savvy, was a culinary instructor in Ireland and is working with Alec on an expanding repertoire of beer cuisine for the menu.
When I took Annemarie to the airport that evening for her flight back to France, she smiled broadly as she said good-bye. "Au revoir, cher Bob," she purred, giving me a friendly Gallic kiss on each cheek that I shall not soon forget. I could smell a subtle ocean scent coming from her hair. The trip to Half Moon Bay Brewing Company had been a huge success. If only we had started there!
Half Moon Bay Brewing Co.
390 Capistrano Rd.
Princeton-by-the-Sea, CA 94019
Bob Coleman is writing a book on father-son bonding and beer. He can be e-mailed at RColemanSF@aol.com.
Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!
February/March 2003 Home
Issues Online -