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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I walked into work at the beginning of a closing shift on the Friday of a hot, muggy week in the desert.

The past few Fridays had been slow, and my mood was already pensive with a side of rumination, because I’d just seen a woman whom I very much wanted to date at one time—but she was spoken for. I don't tend to walk around with this kind of feeling, but it comes a bit easier for me this time of year.

Summer is a strange time for me. Against all good sense, I wake as early as I can stomach, work out and hike the Bump and Grind trail in Palm Desert five or six days a week. In the summer, if you dislike gyms as much as I do, you simply have to get at it early, for the sake of your safety. For a night person like me, this leads to a mixed sleep schedule that is not exactly conducive to good mental health. I tend to languish and feel lonely. However, the view at the top of the trail, mindfulness meditation and a bit of beer help me at such times.

So far on this Friday, the first two had let me down. I was reserving the third option until later.

The taproom was relatively busy when I arrived, only to quickly clear out within the first 20 minutes of my shift. I thought I was in for a long night of crossword puzzles, finding new blends among the numerous beers on tap and—if my mindfulness wasn't on guard—lamenting the current state of my love life.

After about an hour, fellow “beertender” Kris decided it was probably best for him to call it a shift early and get on with his night. It was around this time I began to notice the temperature climbing in the taproom. My concern rose, because a series of triple-digit weather days combined with unseasonable humidity can overburden air conditioning systems.

But I could not dwell upon my fortune for long: The taproom saw a rush of people, and I found myself not only hustling to get people their beer flights (it's always flights when I'm alone!), but also relaying food orders to Marcel, who runs a very fine pop-up catering company called Gabino's Creperie that has been doing weekend stints at the taproom as of late. I'm always glad to do this, because his twist on crepes is unique and delicious—and most importantly, he hooks me up! But remembering multiple crepe orders along with beer orders is apparently a challenging task for this simple cicerone, and I soon fell behind.

Whenever rushes like this occur, I have a simple mantra: What's next? This is my best approximation of a Zen attitude: I want to just keep moving and slowly ticking things off of the constantly updating list of things I need to do. I also think of the tips. I wish I could say I was navigating around the taproom and the extra taps in the brewhouse with the mindset of a man tending a Japanese garden, but thinking of the extra pot of gold at the end of the sweaty rainbow helps me when "What's next?" fails.

When the little rush was over, I had time to think about the still-rising temperature. Maybe the A/C had just had it. The thermostat read 81. As I looked the thermostat, I heard a strange ambient noise down the hall: Our head brewer had left one of the doors to the brewhouse open, and all of the moisture-laden, oven-like air had been flowing freely into the taproom for two hours. I muttered a few general obscenities (which I also find helpful in stressful situations) and shut the door.

Also, I thought of poor Marcel: He was hustling to get his crepes made out there!

Throughout the evening, Marcel and I enjoyed the sweet, sweet refuge of one of the walk-in coolers in back. Despite all of the heat that comes with enduring the summers in our arid portion of Southern California, I would never trade it for the bitter, numbing cold that others in our country deal with in the winter. For a minute at a time, however, it is heaven and provides me with a welcome respite from my little whirlwind of a night.

Thirty minutes before closing time, and with the taproom climate beginning to return to something approaching comfortable, every customer had cleared out, leaving me to begin my closing duties. I realized that I hadn't thought for hours about the aforementioned woman (not counting that moment, of course). I took this as a victory.

Under the wire, a couple walked in and asked if it wasn't too late. I was in a relatively good mood, and they expressed how they’d raced in from Long Beach to enjoy our beer, so I couldn't deny them. I even gave them access to our exclusive “members only” taplist which includes an incredible non-barrel-aged version of our Black Widow Imperial Stout with vanilla and coconut, called "German Chocolate Cake." Yes, it is as good as it sounds. They were a lovely married couple, and we talked about the state of beer in Long Beach and the Coachella Valley. They thoroughly enjoyed their beer flights, picked up some special bottles to go, and graciously left a generous tip while thanking me profusely. Needless to say, it's hard to remain in your own shit mentally when this happens.

I finished my closing chores with the help of our English style pale ale, locked up and walked out to my car. It was close to midnight, and my car's thermometer read 98. I cursed the ridiculous amount of golf courses in the area for holding this heat in the valley this late at night. My car's climate control was quickly set to 65, and I drove home thinking about my miniature roller coaster ride of a night.

As soon as I peeled off my work clothes and threw water on my face, I went to my fridge and grab a Gravity Check Session IPA from Kern River Brewing to wash the whole day down.

And this is where I found you, dear reader.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

I am a craft-beer lover who doesn’t just like hazy IPAs or pastry-inspired stouts, so I revel in being introduced to new flavors and flavor combinations when I can. However, this has both good and bad consequences.

Every so often, I try a beer that transcends all of its flavors and becomes a kind of liquid symphony. Then there are times when I can’t believe the brewery allowed the beer I’m tasting to ever leave its doors.

I need to be careful here and state the obvious: If you love a beer, that’s great. Continue doing so, and don’t let anything I say—or anything anyone says—rob you of that love. You might like it because of its flaws, or perhaps you didn’t perceive them as such.

However, if you would like to train your palate to be a more-reliable detector of off-flavors in beer, follow me, and see what you can pick up next time you’re at your local brewery. I’ll break down some common off-flavors by their descriptors and then explain why it might be there. I will attempt to do this without being too dry or pedantic. Wish me luck!

Butterscotch or buttered popcorn: This is my old nemesis diacetyl. This is a byproduct of fermentation initially before it goes into a secondary phase where the yeast cleans it up. Certain English styles allow for low levels of this, and it can sometimes be pleasant (or so I’m told—I despise this off-flavor wherever I come across it), but for the most part, it means a full, healthy fermentation did not occur. Occasionally, this flavor can arise alongside a vinegar-like flavor to indicate a possible infection in the beer line. When at high levels, diacetyl will also cause the beer to have a slicker mouthfeel. As much as I dislike this flavor when I encounter it in beer, I have seen it put to good use in a beer by Southern Tier Brewing Company called Creme Brulee. This beer is a great example of the sum being more than the sum of the parts.

Green apple or rotting apple: Similar to diacetyl, acetaldehyde is a byproduct of primary fermentation and gets cleaned up as long as the yeast is given enough time. Can I interest you in a nice, dry cider instead?

Vegetal, cooked cabbage or cooked corn: Dimethyl sulfide (or DMS, because that is way easier to say) is as gross as the descriptors sound. Not that cabbage or corn is disgusting—but would you drink juice made from them? This can have a number of causes, but I find it most often in hoppy beers. It makes the beer an instant drain-pour for me.

Paint thinner or nail-polish remover: Oh, yes. Over-stressed yeast (usually at higher-than-normal fermentation temperatures combined with oxidation) can cause a beer to become solvent-like. There’s no getting around it, either; you can’t cover this one up. It just sits there like an 800-pound gorilla and dares you to drink more. Be wary of the gorilla, folks.

Skunk: The first sip of beer I can remember was of my Canadian dad’s Moosehead Lager. I remember it pretty clearly—because it tasted like fizzy skunk spray. For good reason, too; the compound causing that flavor is called mercaptan and is the chemical in skunk spray. Light is beer’s enemy; UV light rays react with compounds in the hops and create that distinctive off-flavor. If a beer is sitting on a shelf in clear, green or blue bottles … keep walking. Even with brown bottles, after a while, that beer is destined to become light-struck. This is one reason why the market is being flooded with canned craft beers, and I don’t see that trend slowing at all. At one point, international beer brands like the aforementioned Moosehead, Heineken and Amstel were bottling their beers in green bottles to the point where people thought mercaptan was just an acceptable beer flavor. It is not, and I implore you to discourage this by not buying any beer in a clear, blue or green bottle.

Oxidation: I use the term instead of the descriptor, because this one has a lot of range. Mostly, an oxidized beer will give off flavors and aromas of paper or wet cardboard—associated with stale beer. It can even resemble decaying vegetables. A well-aged beer, however, can have very pleasant oxidized notes of honey or sherry. Brewers go to great lengths to package their beer with as little free oxygen inside as possible, but it’s always there, and you run the risk of it overtaking your bottled or canned beer the longer you take to enjoy it. Lower temperatures and darkness slow this process down, so age your beer accordingly.

Medicinal, smoky or plastic: Yeast is such an interesting life form. It’s ubiquitous in our environment and is highly survivable and adaptable. Brewing yeast strains are no different. Whole dissertations have been written on fermentation. Some of the more enjoyable compounds that emerge in varying degrees from fermentation are esters and phenols. If you’ve had Belgian ales or perhaps a German hefeweizen, you are already familiar with them. Esters can produce a wide range of fruity flavors such as banana, bubblegum, citrus or pomegranate. Phenols have their own range that includes clove and white pepper—but this is the light side of phenols. The dark side can come out when the yeast is in a more-stressful environment and throws out highly medicinal (think “bandage”), smoky or plasticky aromas and flavors. They are definitely unpleasant.

Astringency: This is a sensation more than a flavor, but it’s often indicative of a flawed process. Overly steeped or milled grains are a common culprit, as is over-hopping. If you’ve ever had a red wine or tea that was steeped too long, and it seemed to suck all the moisture out of your tongue as it passed over, you’ve experienced astringency. Tannins (usually from the husks of grain) and polyphenols (usually from hops) should be mitigated as much as possible so that your beer is refreshing and doesn’t require you to alternate sips of water to compensate.

There are more off-flavors (grassy, yeasty and sulfuric being among them), but you can search for yourself and dive deep.

Lest you think these don’t show up very often, I’ve experienced each one of these at least once in the past three months. Here’s a tip for tasting that can help you discern subtle flavors in anything: After you swallow the beer, exhale through your nose with your mouth closed. You have a separate olfactory sense called the retronasal system, and it can pick up things your orthonasal system (your nostrils and mouth) might have missed.

Yeah, you’re right, I just got dry and pedantic. How to fix that?

WHO WANTS TO SHOTGUN A BEER?!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

One of the skills I had to acquire before becoming a certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a sommelier, more or less) was pairing beer with food. In other words, the IPA I was ordering with my hamburger was research! Works for me.

You may be familiar with the idea of wine dinners, but you might not know that when it comes to pairing foods with beverages, beer wipes the floor with wine. Yeah, I included that sentence to provoke a reaction with wine-lovers. The thing is … it happens to be true!

Just think about how beer is made for a moment: The grains are prepared in various ways (malting, kilning and/or roasting), then steeped in the mashing process (much like hot cereal); the sugars are then boiled, with ingredients added at any number of points during the end of the boil and fermentation.

With wine? There are grapes. Maybe some will be blended together. Ergo beer > wine.

I know I'm short-changing wine here, but I bristle at the assumed superiority of wine to beer. Wine struggles where beer breezes in and amazes. Spicy foods, desserts, complex or simple entrées, among all cultures and preparations—beer has it covered, usually from multiple angles. Do you think wine and cheese is dreamy? Beer and cheese will wake you up and make you praise the day. The Belgians have known this for a long time, and has Cuisine à la Biere, which uses the country's delicious beers in the preparation of dishes such as mussels sautéed in a tripel or gueuze, or carbonnade flamande, a beef and onion stew using Flanders red ale instead of water or broth.

Yes, you, too, can pair beer and food. There are a few principles to keep in mind when planning an individual pairing or a multi-course beer dinner:

Match intensities: This is a fairly simple idea: If you have a pairing in which either the beer or the food overwhelms, you might as well have had water rather than beer with your food. When a meal has numerous courses, this is even more important. If you can raise the intensity of the pairings along the way, you can leave your dinner guests blissfully sated. Keep in mind the beer’s strength, as well as how hoppy, roasty, smoky, bitter, etc., it is, and then arrange the dinner courses accordingly.

Complement, contrast and combine: These are the three ways you can approach a pairing. Finding a beer that resembles or includes ingredients contained within the food should be obvious—a citrusy, herbal American pale ale with tacos, for example, or a toasty, nutty English Brown ale with a sharp cheddar. (You will think you're having a grilled cheese sandwich!)

Contrast is another way of approaching a pairing. This is a little more difficult, but a simple way of doing it is using a beer's carbonation and bitterness to "cut" through the food and refresh the palate when necessary. Contrasting flavors can also be done in so many ways that it would be impossible for me to convey even the basics without boring you to death. This is where playing around with pairings is very fun and educational. Good examples of this are pairing a fruited lambic (Belgian sour ale) with a chocolate cake, where the sour, fruity and spritzy beer contrasts with the rich and sweet flavors of the cake. A roasty, creamy stout like Guinness with oysters is a classic pairing. I've had much success combining hoppy beers with chocolates as well (although one could say that eating chocolate and drinking beer simultaneously is a success in and of itself, regardless of how they pair up).

Finally, combining flavors in beer and food to leave the impression of something else altogether can be a great way to conduct whole beer dinners. Themes are another good idea: You can use a single beer style with different courses, or pair beers with a particular cuisine, or develop any kind of theme that unites both.

Pitfalls: I've mentioned some "home run" combinations, but there are also potential duds. For example, hoppy beers make oily fish (sardines, anchovies, etc.) taste harshly metallic. Gross. Hops and alcohol accentuate capsaicin in spicy foods. This isn't necessarily a bad thing if you're a spice junkie like me. Malt-ier beers will soothe that heat, alternately.

I've paired food from the highly talented Jeshua Garza of Kuma Catering with then-head brewer Chris Anderson's beers at Coachella Valley Brewing for some private dinners. Here is the menu from one of my favorites.

Amuse bouche: Crab arancini with shaved parmesan, paired with Oasis Apple Ale, an American wheat ale with fresh-pressed McIntosh apples. The carbonation in the beer cuts through the fried rice ball and lifts it off the palate, while the slightly tart apple notes contrast the savory crab and cheese.

First Course: Citrus-cured salmon puntarelle, anchovy dressing, radish, lemon aioli, grapefruit and breadcrumbs, paired with Desert Swarm, a Belgian-style honey double witbier with kumquats and coriander. Again, carbonation helps clear the palate for the next bite, while the citrus in the beer and in the food complement each other. The banana yeast esters and coriander in the beer add an extra dimension.

Second course: Sous vide herb chicken, curried sun-choke puree, crispy Brussels sprouts and orange almond pistou, paired with Big Cat Tart Farmhouse Style Ale, containing desert sage, rosemary and grains of paradise. This was the highlight of the dinner: Tartness meets tartness, and citrus in the food plays well off of the curried puree and Brussels sprouts. Then the herbs and spices in the beer cling to the tender chicken perfectly.

Third course: Lamb leg, smoked yogurt, chili baby turnips, roasted persimmons and pork jus, paired with Dubbel Date, a Belgian dubbel with dates. This is a great example of both types of contrast mentioned previously. Belgian beers are typically highly carbonated and dry, and contain fruity, sweet (but not cloying) flavors. This helps the savory, smoky, roasty, fatty goodness of the lamb slide on down and adds sweetness to get you reaching for that next bite.

Fourth course: Caramelized pear tart, toasted coriander ice cream, mint and meyer lemon syrup, paired with Super Swarm on Brett, a variation of a stronger version of Desert Swarm aged in whiskey barrels with pomegranate molasses. This has complement (sweetness, breadiness, citrus and coriander), contrast (a higher alcohol by volume and carbonation against buttery, sweet flavors) and combination (it tasted like having Froot Loops cereal with some banana added alongside a nip of bourbon), all in one dish. I was lucky that this beer was on tap for this dinner, as only a limited amount was produced. 

I hope this whets your appetite. If in doubt … just go for it, and see what happens. If you find some interesting, delicious and/or unexpected pairings, please send them my way and share them so that we may all enjoy them.

One last thing: Make sure you don’t take this too seriously. One of the best things about beer is its accessibility. We don't need the level of snobbery that some wine enthusiasts can manage anywhere near the greatest and oldest alcoholic beverage in the world—beer. Cheers!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer

Today, we’re going to go over some tips on how to buy beer.

Before you throw up your hands and say, “Please … what is there to know about buying beer?! You enter a store that sells it, and you buy it!”—let me explain.

If you drink mass-produced lager and are perfectly happy with that, you don’t need this advice. The one thing the “big boys” in the brewing industry are good at is making their beer exactly the same, every time, and getting it to you as fresh as possible, as often as possible. But if you are like me and love craft beer—in other words, you look forward to having your taste buds challenged and your mind blown—this advice will help.

I have some good and bad news for you. First, the bad: There is bad beer everywhere. The good news: There is excellent beer almost everywhere, and if you follow a few rules, you can greatly increase your chances of finding some great beer.

How am I qualified to tell you, the wise consumer, about this? I am what is called a certified cicerone. Think of it as the equivalent of a sommelier (a wine “expert”) for beer. I spent a year studying (after 23 years of exploring and learning on my own) for a 4 1/2-hour exam that only 33 percent of all test-takers pass. (This is only the second level of a four-level system of certifications, by the way.) In other words, when it comes to the subject of beer, you can go very deep.

Anyway, enough about my bona fides; let’s jump into the rabbit hole.

1. Beer goes bad at varying rates. A can or keg is ideal for protecting beer, because light, oxygen and heat are beer’s worst enemies. The brown bottle offers the next-best protection, followed by green and clear bottles, which provide almost no protection. Also, refrigerated beer is the best to buy. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that beer stored in cold, dark places is preferable.

2. Check the dates. Many craft breweries stamp or print the bottling date somewhere on the packaging.

Hoppy beers are the first to go bad. This is due to the breakdown of the various hop compounds in the beer, as well as possible exposure to UV rays (Ever had skunky beer, anyone?) If that IPA is more than three months old, it probably isn’t what the brewer wanted you to taste—especially if it was not refrigerated or protected from light.

Three to six months is good for most other styles. There are major exceptions to this—for example, many Belgian trappist styles and sour ales last longer, as do stronger ales such as barley wines and imperial stouts—but a good way to look at it is this: The brewer would not have packaged and released the beer if he or she didn’t think it was ready to drink. I have saved enough bottles—and been subsequently disappointed—often enough to now seriously limit the number of beers I cellar.

3. Crowd-sourcing sites like BeerAdvocate are your friends. BeerAdvocate is a website that allows users to add, rate and review beers, as well as breweries and craft-beer bars. If you have any questions or are wondering what the beer you’re looking at in the store is, you can look it up there and get some generally thoughtful reviews.

Many places sell or serve craft with employees who can’t offer you much help—but luckily, you are armed with a powerful pocket computer that can access the vast information resource that is the Internet. Remember to consider the source, however.

4. Don’t be afraid to send that beer back. You might feel odd doing this—but a beer you’ve been served may be flawed. It may be the beer itself is no good and suffers from off-flavors; the keg may be old; or the lines that bring the beer to the tap may need cleaning. You don’t need to pay for a bad drink, and while a truly great beer bar will rarely, if ever, make these mistakes, they’ll gladly make up for it if they do.

And if a business reacts poorly when you send a beer back … be glad: You now know where not to drink in the future.

5. Take a chance. Many of the best beers I’ve ever purchased have been dice rolls when it came down to it. This does not need to happen as much as it did in the 1990s and 2000s—yes, I’m that old—because today, there are so many resources discussing so much beer from so many breweries. However, in some ways, this wealth information can be daunting, and even discouraging. If you’re afraid of looking ignorant … don’t be afraid. We’re all dreadfully ignorant about some things—so much so that there are things that we don’t even know that we don’t know. Do you know what I mean?

Anyway … if you are a curious person with a thirst for knowledge, you can dive in and become less and less ignorant, no matter your interest level in craft beer. Now, start getting that fresh, beautiful beer from that store or bar into your mouth.

Happy hunting!

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Beer