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Brewery Review
Pacific Coast Brewing Company — 19th Tasting of Holiday Beers
Traditions abound during the holiday season. Every town has a tree-lighting ceremony, many cities close the streets for a parade with floats and huge cartoon balloons, and every retail store is draped in holiday splendor. Although we don’t get snow here in the San Francisco Bay Area with our mild winters, we still get that hankering for winter’s special beers.

Pacific Coast Brewing Company in Oakland has hosted the best Bay Area beer tradition for 19 years now with its Tasting of Holiday Beers. This event competes with shopping malls and office parties and still sells out each year. Pacific Coast owners Don Gortemiller and Steve Wolff act as guides, directing their guests through a grand series of palate-warming flavors for an afternoon of fine food paired with Christmas spirits past and present.

The first beer of the day is always Anchor’s Our Special Ale, a spiced dark brown malt feast (spiced this year with hints of juniper, nutmeg and allspice, to the best of my guesses, but let me know if you taste something different). Don began the afternoon with suggestions on scoring. Each patron was provided with a score sheet for judging each brew based on a 20-point system “that I found at a sampling I went to years ago,” said Don. It’s a good way for folks to get used to discerning flavor, aroma and appearance. “I don’t think any of these beers are fairly evaluated by tasting a couple of sips,” Don continued, “but it’s a good start.”

The Anchor beer paired well with a pasta and shrimp dish, and we were off to the next beer, Pacific Coast’s own Paul’s Leg Warmer. Bartender Paul Winchelman is the “official homebrewer” of the event, and he has brewed 10-gallon batches of one of his brews for the past several years’ tastings. This time, Don decided to brew a full batch of one of Paul’s recipes on the PCB in-house system. The malty-sweet winter warmer they settled on was brewed with French oak chips and vanilla. “It tastes very British,” said bar mate and former San Francisco Giants announcer Gary Park. Paul wandered through the crowd pouring tastes of his prior years’ cellared bottles, dusted off for the occasion.

Gortemiller and Wolff guide their guests through a grand series of palate-warming flavors.

Bartender Tony Patterson has a good palate and good ears and is one of my favorite guys at PCB to bounce opinions off. After pouring the third beer, Avery Brewing of Colorado’s winter warmer, Old Jubilation, Tony commented that it “tastes like tea brewed with pennies,” describing the slight copper-metallic tang on the tongue. I got malty with a touch of cherry.

Shmaltz Brewing’s strong winter warmer, He’Brew ’06 Monumental Jewbelation, a 10% abv monster, was brewed with 10 malts and 10 hops to commemorate the company’s 10th anniversary last year.

The complex, malty and slightly fruity ale with a hop slide on the tongue caught the interest of Anderson Valley brewery representative Ed Chainey: “This is my favorite so far.” The second of the strong winter warmers, Drake’s Jolly Rodger, has graced the winter season for many years in many different incarnations. Last year’s brew was a double — maybe triple — IPA, but this year’s batch tended more toward older versions with more dark malt presence, “bordering on an imperial stout or porter,” as described by Don. The rich chocolate malty flavors faded as the beer warmed and the hops shone through.

On we moved, with BBQ pork sandwiches in hand, to the IPA selections. The first, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, is “synonymous with the holiday season,” according to Don. This is a BIMC (beer in my cellar), a brew I buy to hold for weeks or months to taste its changes over time. This year’s batch sampled just fine as it stood: lots of floral hops in the bouquet, well conditioned, with a steady head and a piney-sharp, grapefruity finish. “Hoppy and refreshing,” said Gary Park — a real keeper, short or long term.

The lone double IPA entry, Mendocino’s Imperial IPA, proved to be clear, clean and balanced. “Mendo makes a hop statement,” said Don. One of our mates at the bar, David Mendlowitz, originally from a Pittsburgh, Pa., suburb and a self-proclaimed corporate drone who brews his own for sanity’s sake, said, “It tastes grassy.” I followed his meaning; it indeed had a grassy hop presence.

The last of the IPAs, if this creature hasn’t created its own category (it was in fact labeled “Experimental IPA” on the judging sheet), was Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, reported by the jokers at the brewery at 9000 IBUs derived solely from hop extracts. The lacy head and oily hop nose finished with a citrusy tang. Hop stupid! “What did you call me?” asked Ed.
By now we were ready for something smooth. Pacific Coast’s 19th annual Belgian-Style Anniversary Ale fit the bill nicely. Fruity, with a hint of clove, raisin and maybe apricot, and with lots of tiny bubbles running up the glass, this baby was it. Ed solemnly stated, “I like Don’s beer.” We nodded while wiping the foam from our lips.

Barley wines finished the day. The first was Samichlaus 2005, at 14% abv, the reigning Guinness Book of World Records’ strongest lager. The two-year-old version had aged nicely but could take even more time to create its own complexities. It grew on me as it warmed, starting a bit “sweet and syrupy,” as described by David, and “medicinal and chemical,” as Gary put it, and progressing to a warming glow when the head died and the beer relaxed in the glass. This one needs some patience to appreciate.

The Firestone Parabola imperial chocolate stout did not pour well, and we couldn’t accurately judge it, but the pungent chocolate aroma and strong bourbon bite made me want to try it again under better circumstances.

I first sampled Drake’s Rye Wine out of the conditioning tank at the brewery a couple of months before. It tasted like I remembered it. “Another mild little beer at 14% abv,” said deadpan Don. The rye was prevalent, and the beer probably should have been served from a beer engine, because it needed the aeration for proper presentation.

The last beer on the list, and one of my BIMC faves, was North Coast’s Old Stock Ale 2005. I always have a bottle or three of different years safely cellared. This particular version was not the best of the past several incarnations, but it has aged well. “You can’t expect a big one to be as good the first year or two,” Don explained. I expect next year we’ll be sampling an even better version of this brew.

In the meantime, the judging is complete, and the results may be viewed at Thanks to my bar mates for their quotes, and let’s all convene same time next year for the 20th Pacific Coast Tasting of Holiday Beers. Order your tickets early and start your own tradition.

Pacific Coast Brewing Co.
906 Washington St.
Oakland, CA 94607



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