Shady Oak Beer is Barrelicious

Santa Rosa native Steve Doty made a very specific decision when he opened Shady Oak Barrel House in 2014. His craft brewery is 100% committed to barrel aging and wild yeast.

That dedication to an all barrel program from day one almost always goes hand in hand with a super passionate brewer. A brewer who wants to push the flavor and complexity boundaries of what beer is –  and that is exactly the kind of person I met when Steve and I sat down to talk about Shady Oak Barrel House craft brewery.

The idea of opening a new brewery can be daunting. It is a very expensive initial capital investment and cash flow can be a problem as you are scaling up recipes, figuring out a new brew house and not selling any beer. A lot of small craft breweries around the country have figured out coping mechanisms such as putting in a small tap room to sell fresh beer and contract brewing with other small breweries to essentially rent their brewhouse equipment for a day and then brewing and shipping their own recipes back to their own facility where fermentation and everything else takes place. This practice is referred to as gypsy brewing.

Shady Oak has made a conscious decision to invest its money in barrels and gypsy brewing has allowed Steve to invest in barrels and a barrel aging program that would allow Shady Oak to fulfill Steve’s vision of an all wild yeast barrel house.

Most breweries that open nowadays will try to supplement their barrel habit by brewing a damn good IPA, selling a lot of that IPA and then slowly scaling up their barrel program. Not Steve. Steve has no brew system, no tap room, just his wort and his barrels. The beer in those bottles he sells need a minimum of 6 months in the barrel before Steve will start to blend them in a way that suits his vision and that particular brettanomyces strain and the bacteria that is being produced. This is about as inefficient a way to open a brewery that you could imagine, but it was the only way Steve felt it could be done correctly for him, and it seems to be paying off:

See impressive Rate Beer Review here.

Shady Oak Barrel House was founded on the idea of embracing wild yeast and barrels as the primary way of inoculating his beers. Most of the great craft beers that we have come to know and love have relied heavily on different varieties of hops in their recipes as the primary driver of flavor. The practice of adding lots of hops has certainly become an entry point for many beer drinkers to become craft beer drinkers.

But now young brewers raised on those beautifully hoppy beers are discovering the wonderful world of wild yeast and what an amazing array of flavors that can be achieved.

An all barrel program like Shady Oak indicates a few things to me. Primarily, it is going to take a deep commitment to time and mother nature to get this project off of the ground. The shortest period of time Steve has from brewing to release is six months. A lot of his beers are a year or longer and up to 2 years. So you have inventory that cannot be sold (keep in mind a lot of the beers you see on shelves have turnaround times of about three weeks from brew day to bottling day). Also, each barrel has to be meticulously cared for and thought about in terms of extracting flavors and keeping balance. This level of thoughtfulness will almost automatically insure that a beer released from a program like this will be good, or at the very least very interesting.

It also tells me that Steve is committed to wild yeast. It is a particular mind set that ferments beer with wild yeast. Usually a mind set that is very passionate about fermentation and the almost limitless array of flavors that can be achieved with wild yeast if used correctly. This is a time and care issue. It takes time to corral a yeast strain and balance it out to how you see fit. Then you have to figure out what kind of beer will work congruently with a particular wild yeast strain. The only thing above time in this equation is thoughtfulness, and it is the thoughtfulness that goes into each barrel, each blend and each beer that makes a brewery like Steve’s so special.

Wild yeast strains are around all of us at all times. Yeast attaches itself to things like fruit skins and sourdough starters and the syrup like teas that brewers call wort. Yeast is always looking for a source of sugar to feed upon and propagate itself and it finds a mutually beneficial relationship in the aforementioned wort, because when yeast eats those sugars in wort it turns them into alcohol and creates beer.

Almost all brewers use commercial yeast instead of relying on spontaneous fermentation (wild yeast) because the commercial yeast strains have been sorted in labs to ensure the upmost quality in providing the exact yeast strain that a brewer wants to use. This is an awesome thing because it allows brewers to produce consistent, predictable results and provides people with the same tasting beer every time it is ordered. Everybody wins. I, the consumer, can have confidence that what I am buying is in fact what I am expecting.

However, as craft brewing is exploding, brewers are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and stand out in a crowded market place. Embracing and learning how to use wild yeast is a way to do it. When considering beers available on the shelves, things like wild yeast and barrel programs will usually indicate that even if you’ve never heard of the brewery or style of beer, it is worth taking a chance on because you can be assured that the beer was made with passion and dedication. In other words, in all likeliness, it will be delicious.

Pints With Pedigree

To say that Kevin Robinson is qualified to join the illustrious ranks of Santa Rosa’s brewing scene would be an understatement.

UC Davis, Lagunitas, Speakeasy Ales and Lagers, Russian River Brewery and a couple of years making wine in Napa (to learn about barrels) makes for an impressive resume to bring to his own brewery.

20150806_182945-01Hell, even his new brewhouse system has a pedigree. Originally purchased by Sam Calagione from the famous Dogfish Head Brewery, Sam sold the brewhouse system to Vinnie Cilurzo​at at Russian River Brewery when he grew capacity a few years back.

In turn, Vinnie sold the brewhouse system to Kevin at Plow this year, and the cycle of magic that turns out some of the best beer in the world continues.

20150806_183852-01The whole system should be in the beer brewer’s hall of fame with a track record like that. But here it is in Santa Rosa with Kevin – the mechanics behind his two new projects, Divine and Plow.

Originally from the San Diego area, you can say that Kevin didn’t choose Santa Rosa as much as Santa Rosa chose him. It seems that Santa Rosa has a way of attracting the best and brightest flavor-oriented people and keeping them here. The beaches, the woods, the wineries, the biking, and the list goes on.  It’s no wonder things keep getting more and more interesting in Santa Rosa, with master artisans like Kevin continuing to add to the mix.

20150806_184858-01A trend that is repeating itself over and over in the craft brewing industry, but might not be familiar to everyone, is the opening of tasting/tap rooms in industrial sections of cities. For me, eschewing the typical idea of a brewery opening near well-established restaurant areas, and seeking out the new in non-traditional places adds to the fun of trying all of these new beers.

Plow and Divine fall into this area of warehouse tap room, and I would encourage people to seek them out. Think of it as an adventure into the unknown where you approach a nameless/faceless industrial park and then open the door into a wonderful world of beer and friendly faces. Like-minded people after the same ideas and sharing the history, flavors and craft that makes beers and breweries so much fun.

From day one Kevin has taken a lesson from the wine industry in serving up to different labels under the same roof.

20150806_184848-01Devine is the sophisticated, more experimental, older brother of Plow. Devine does special edition beers that are a bit more refined than your basic everyday brews. A label for a special occasions.

Plow is the label that turns out your daily drinking beer. The Steel Share IPA and OX IIPA (double IPA) beer are brewed with the everyday drinker in mind. More refreshing and approachable than Divine, Plow is intended to be consumed today and make you happy now.

20150806_184632-01When you come to visit Santa Rosa, put Plow on your list of places to try. There’s something to delight every beer lover’s palate.

Public Display of Deliciousness

Heritage Public House’s menu is a testimony to the state of California’s craft beer business.

IMG_0057Roman D​’Argenzio is an imposing figure. The beard. The ink. The leather. At a glance you’d be more likely to take him for the leader of a biker gang than the GM of a gastro pub. But this is Santa Rosa and around here out there is the norm. So Dino (as his friends call Roman) seems perfectly suited behind the bar at Heritage Public House, the drinking/dining establishment he established on Mendocino Ave. in downtown SR.

IMG_0188-2Eat well. Drink up. Those are the words you pass under on the way in. And, while there’s an eclectic selection of pub food on the menu, it’s the beer list that draws crowds here, and rightfully so. Deep and ever changing, it’s a veritable who’s who of California’s best brews.

IMG_0046As Dino tells it, there are lots of great beers made in the world. But the beers of California are good enough, diverse enough, and endlessly interesting enough to warrant a place of their own. He created Heritage Public House to be that place.

IMG_0178As much creative director as general manager, Dino deliberated over every last detail. From the light fixtures to the artist-painted walls. From the pop-up art shows he puts together to his dabbling in brewing his own beer under the guidance of a classically and internationally trained brew master.

IMG_0125Heritage Public House is the kind of place that could only come from the imagination, passion and calloused hands of a Santa Rosa native like Dino. So take our recommendation and swing by. Eat well. And drink up.

Battle of The Brews

Since moving to Santa Rosa last year I have been constantly amazed by this city’s love affair with craft beer.

IMG_1174Like a lot of people who didn’t grow up here in Sonoma County I always just assumed that the drink of choice would be wine. How wrong I was. From the 12 hour lines to sip Pliney the Younger once a year to the explosive growth of Lagunitas, it is safe to say that Sonoma County is in the midst of a beer revolution, and Santa Rosa is in the center of it all.

IMG_1293Case in point, Santa Rosa’s 19th Annual Battle of the Brews took place on March 28th to an absolutely packed house at Sonoma County Fairgrounds Grace Pavillion. Over 70 professional brewers, homebrewers, cideries and dozens of restaurants showed up to donate their time and wares to do some fundraising for the Active 2030 Club of Santa Rosa #50.

IMG_1078According to Brian Sosnochi, Battle of the brews Director, “I was overwhelmingly impressed with this year’s turnout, and I am convinced that Saturday’s event will be the most successful Battle of the Brews in our 19 year history. Five years ago, we had a vision to completely overhaul the event. Today, we have breweries and guests that come from Santa Rosa, the Bay Area, San Diego, and out of state.”

IMG_1218Craft Cup Commercial Beer Competition Winners:

  • Best European/American Light – Ninkasi Brewing, Lux
  • Best American Ale – Fall River Brewing Company, Pacific Crest Ale
  • Best European/British Ale – Fall River Brewing Company, Kilty Pleasure
  • Best Stout – 101 North Brewing Company , Naughtyaud
  • Best American IPA – 101 North Brewing Company, Heroine
  • Best Imperial IPA – Fall River Brewing Company, Widowmaker
  • Best Standard Cider – Angry Orchard , Crisp Apple
  • Best Specialty Cider – FoxCraft Hard Cider , Pear Cider
  • Best Specialty Ale – Ironfire Brewing Company , Collateral Damage
  • Best of Show, Ciders – FoxCraft Hard Cider, Pear Cider
  • Best of Show, Craft Beer – 101 North Brewing Co, Naughtyaud

IMG_1074‘Wich Hunt Gourmet Sandwich Competition Winners:

  • Best Hot Sandwich – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille
  • Best Cold Sandwich – Fogbelt Brewing Company
  • Most Creative – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Most MeatTastic – Fig & Vine Catering
  • Best of Show, Runner Up – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Best of Show – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille

IMG_1063People’s Choice Winners:

  • Craft Cup, People’s Choice, Food – Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co.
  • Craft Cup, People’s Choice, Beer – Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery
  • Main Event, People’s Choice, Food – La Rosa Tequileria & Grille
  • Main Event, People’s Choice, Beer – Crooked Goat Brewing

And in the category of best t-shirt puns:IMG_1108IMG_1313 IMG_1310