CVIndependent

Sun03292020

Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Brett Newton

I have avoided them successfully for so long, but they have found a way into my home. Now I must brace myself, confront them—and hope for the best.

No, I am not talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am talking about the trend known as hard seltzer.

Last year, we saw the apotheosis of these low/no-carb alcoholic beverages marketed toward people with an “active lifestyle,” which—and I must apologize for this beforehand—I always took as meaning “upper middle-class yuppies.” The brewery for which I work gave in and made one, so I felt like the time was right for me to delve into subject. But before we do so, we need to take a look at what these drinks actually are.

First: They are not seltzers. “Seltzer” is a term I heard on the East Coast (or from one of its transplants) as a term for carbonated water, aka club soda. My great-grandmother (RIP Bubbe Celia!) in the Bronx used to have a bottle of it in her fridge that she would flavor with grenadine for the little ones. But I digress. Most of these hard seltzers are variants of beverages made with grains—often gluten-free ones like millet—which can be flavored and sweetened, then fermented to create something around 5 percent alcohol by volume that you would swear is almost healthy if you believed much of the advertising. Cheaper versions are often made using corn sugar and/or rice, and one line of seltzers made by Crook and Marker boasts of including “organic alcohol derived from ancient grains and tropical roots.” Never before have I felt like shotgunning a can and summarily burping out the word namaste.

Second: These drinks are not really new. Zima existed in the mid-’90s. It was made by Coors and aggressively marketed toward women—which was ultimately its downfall. (It finally stopped getting made in 2008, believe it or not, before having a brief comeback in 2017-2018.) Zima became ubiquitous virtually overnight, and you felt as though you had to try it. Unlike hard seltzers now, they weren’t flavored outside of the strange, malty taste that was the result of the process of making them. I wish I had more of a description, but they were wholly unremarkable to drink. After all, why would they have bombarded the public with marketing if the taste could sell you on its own? That marketing mostly consisted of replacing the “s” in words with a “z.” If they had bullshitted us at the right moment in time, to everyone, like they’re doing with seltzers now, that reality might have been totally unrecognizable from our current one.

While many people may have first noticed these drinks in the beverage aisles of their local liquor or grocery stores, I was forced to take notice due to the viral videos of (let’s just call them) intellectuals with pistols point-blank shooting off the top of their cans of White Claw or Truly seltzer and chugging the remains. An internet denizen who goes by the name of Worst Beer Blog documented this in a thread showcasing these videos that you can see here. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people who strive to create a whole new category for the prestigious Darwin Awards, but this meme got out of hand really quickly. (See what I did there?) Comedian Trevor Wallace seemingly launched his career by creating a series of videos depicting himself as man who magically morphs into a douchebag after just one hard-seltzer sip, proclaiming things like, “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws!” and, “It’s basically just a vegan Four Loko.”

By the way, Four Loko has a Seltzer Sour line that weighs in at a classy 14 percent ABV, just in case you thought they wouldn’t get in on this act.

My absolute favorite thing that has emerged from this has been the series of commercials for Bud Light Seltzer in which the spokesman makes certain, almost pleading, that it contains no actual Bud Light. I am sure the marketing ploy used here was intended to be ironic, but it comes across as an acknowledgement by its makers that Bud Light tastes terrible. So … why did they use Bud Light in the name? Did they want to have their cake (positive brand recognition) and eat it, too? I’d like to suggest an alternative angle for them, free of charge: “A forgettable beverage that you’ll probably regret buying, but is DEFINITELY NOT like another beverage we make with the same name. Now in blue raspberry flavor!”

You may have realized by now that I chose this topic mostly so I can cram in as many jokes as possible. And you would be absolutely correct. But I also want to convey my frustrations with the beverage itself: At their best, they are OK, but even then, the finish bores me and leaves little to no impression on my palate or my mind. At the taproom, we have a coconut-lime seltzer, and it’s well-made. The first thing I thought upon trying some was, “This would have made a great beer.”

But I get it … you might not find beer palatable, or you may have some physical ailment that prevents you from enjoying anything with gluten. Might I do something that my Independent wine counterpart, Katie Finn, would almost certainly approve of, and suggest a dry wine? There’s no gluten; they’re lower in calories than most beers; and they’re definitely miles above any seltzer you will ever encounter when it comes to flavor.

You are worth it. Unless you shoot the top of a wine bottle off and chug it. Then you aren’t at all worth it, and you deserve what you get.

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..

This month, I want to take a look at what has been officially dubbed the "New England IPA," but is otherwise known as the hazy IPA.

If you are a craft-beer nerd, you may be thinking, "Aren't you, like, years late to this party?" While I don't get many questions about hazy IPAs at my taproom, I know people are still learning about them—and I also know there’s a small universe of things still being learned, either about these beers or about the ingredients used in making these beers.

What I'm trying to say in a roundabout fashion is this: Whether you're new to this topic or the haziest of "haze bros," read on—because there may very well be something you can discover about this young style of IPA.

Let's start with the facts (as far as I can ascertain them), shall we? The Alchemist, a brewery with a very cool name in the town of Stowe, Vt., opened in 2003 and brewed a somewhat murky double IPA called Heady Topper as an occasional release. Founder and head brewer John Kimmich chose to emphasize, rather than considerable bitterness, the flavor and aroma aspects that hops add. The huge additions of hops—along with an English yeast strain that produces fruity esters and doesn't "finish out" (a brewing term meaning that the sugars are not as fully converted into alcohol) like a typical West Coast IPA yeast strain—left the beer a little sweeter. All of that, along with the massive amount of proteins and polyphenols from the malts and hops used, created the haze that has become the de facto name of the style. The resulting beer had an impression of juiciness: It was citrusy and tropical, yet not cloying in its sweetness.

Somewhere along the way, this style of IPA caught on in the northeastern U.S., and then spread westward; a craze resulted. I can't say for sure when it reached our coast, but I tried my first Heady Topper in 2011, and I didn't start seeing breweries in Southern California making the style for a few more years after. Instead, West Coast IPAs reigned supreme here, with breweries like Stone at the forefront, making 100-plus IBU hop bombs. Much like the excesses in music in the late ’80s and early ’90s led to grunge music, people who were fed up with the bitterness arms race among brewers—people who formerly couldn't stand IPAs—could now begin to enjoy the myriad beguiling flavors that hops provided.

When the trend first made it here, all of the varieties I tried seemed quite similar to each other in flavor; they were very citrusy and juicy. As with any industry's trend, many people then stepped into the hazy arena, resulting in all kinds of tomfoolery—from hazing up regular IPAs with various ploys such as the use of flour and apple sauce (I know of a case of this firsthand, and the results were wretched), to creations of just-plain-terrible beer that happened to be anything from lightly hazy to near-muddy or even "green," with the flavor of hop matter not yet having settled out of the beer.

Some breweries even responded by completely changing up what they brewed. When they did, lines would spring up at their doors on the beer's release date. I've heard stories of surrogates hired to wait in line, sometimes early in the morning, to get whatever hazy liquid was being sold. Monkish Brewing in Torrance is a prime example of this phenomenon: The brewery went from Belgian styles almost exclusively to being the coolest kid on the block when they switched their emphasis to N.E. IPAs and "pastry stouts." Please don't mistake my reference to Monkish as a slight: They do what they do well, and their success is well-deserved. (They also make other styles that they put on in their taproom, including a great Belgian-style tripel with hibiscus called the Feminist that they’ve brewed from the beginning.)

I have since come to enjoy these IPAs, as they have evolved a bit since their early days. Hops strains have played a role in this. There are too many hop strains to keep up with; there are strains that give off flavors of virtually any fruit you can imagine—and the same goes with various herbs. Sabro hops are particularly interesting, as they can give off flavors and aromas of pineapple and coconut. I had a hazy IPA from Brouwerij West out of San Pedro using the hop, and I'll be damned if it didn't taste like a piña colada beer—without a single fruit addition!

There’s also been a welcome upshot of this style's rise to prominence: a lowering of bitterness in regular old West Coast IPAs, allowing consumers' palates to survive more than one IPA in a sitting without fatiguing to the point of confusion.

A pseudo side effect has been an increased interest in research conducted on hop oils, and the hottest of industry terms at the moment: biotransformation. These subjects are far too dense to get into here (and largely above my current pay grade), but to paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are more things in IPAs than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Thomas Shellhammer and his group of researchers at Oregon State University are leading the way on this front, and you'd better believe the Germans are looking deeply into the matter at the Hop Research Center in Bavaria.

If any of this is interesting to you, stay tuned in the upcoming decade. When I said there was a small universe of things contained within hops, their growth and their use in beer, I probably wildly understated things.

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..

Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the local craft-beer scene is … puzzling.

I've racked my brain for ways that I can approach this topic, and I’ve decided to just write what comes to mind. I wonder if it will get me in as much trouble as last year's version of this column did. (Caring if it gets me in trouble, however, is something I cannot bring myself to do.) I've done something unusual for me and made a resolution for the new year: I’m trying a more Buddhist approach, to not let what could or should be happening (in my opinion, of course) cause me to suffer over what actually is happening. I don’t want my hopes for the craft-beer scene to overshadow what good exists here.

With that ominous foreword, let's get this show on the road.

There have been some positive changes over the last year. Before I began writing this, Will Sperling at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club announced a barrel-aged beer festival, also featuring ciders and meads, coming in March. Some of the participants should include De Garde, Mumford, Bottle Logic, Bagby Beer Company and Superstition Meadery (which makes world-class meads like the Peanut Butter Jelly Crime, which is life-altering in its deliciousness). This is, by far, the best news for the valley's beer scene, as we were deprived of the Rhythm, Wine and Brews festival last year (for a laughable reason). However, the RWB, Props and Hops, and Brew in LQ festivals are really just get-togethers that also include some craft beer, if I'm being honest.

This past year has seen an influx of some great breweries' beers ending up in stores and on tap in select places. I've noticed expanded lists of beer—like some of Bottle Logic's barrel-aged releases—at places like Whole Foods, which stocks all of the beer cold. I cannot stress how important that last point is. I just wish the Tap-In Taproom inside the Whole Foods would get beer on draft that’s half as good as what's on the shelves.

(Remember, Brett: Concentrate on what is and not what should be.)

In other news, there was a somewhat comical game of musical chairs in the local brewery world. This is the spot where I should note that I work for one of the local breweries, and I don't like to mention names when discussing them in this column due to a possible appearance of bias. I feel like I'm just as hard—if not harder—on my own brewery than the others, but I'd rather just avoid the whole issue. That being said, strap in for this roller coaster: A long-time head brewer went over to another local brewery. The former brewery then promoted someone with minimal experience to the position of head brewer, and then proceeded to hire a head brewer from a different local brewery to be the assistant brewer. I wish I were making this up as some sort of Twilight Zone episode for my own amusement, but I am not. I hope it somehow leads to better beer from all the parties involved (and it tentatively seems to have done so for one of the parties). Stay tuned and decide for yourself; you'll just have to forgive my skepticism in this regard.

A series of beer dinners happened courtesy of the Juniper Table at the Kimpton Rowan in Palm Springs. I helped with one over the summer, and the food was fantastic. However, they made the common mistake of just picking some beers they liked and somewhat blindly pairing them with these amazing dishes. Overall, it turned out fine, but as far as beer-pairings go, it was less than ideal. This is a point I wish I could get to every chef who wants to put on a beer dinner: There is more to pairing beer with food than picking a beer, using it in the dish, and then pairing said beer with that course. I've been to events where the beer and the food was really well-paired, and it's a magical experience for which every chef and beer-lover should strive. The best part is that there are so many right answers to the question of what to pair with any given dish; the only limits are beer availability and one’s imagination. The desert really has some amazing restaurants of all stripes, and I would love to see a proper beer dinner in the near future. In fact, if I have my way, there may be one soon enough.

My last compliment and criticism is aimed at Eureka! Burger in Indian Wells. Last year, they changed some of the (in my opinion, far too many) "permanent" taps, and it resulted in the appearance of some beauties such as Modern Times' Black House coffee stout, Beachwood's Citraholic IPA, and Melvin's 2x4 double IPA. They then proceeded to put the permanent beers they replaced on their rotating taps and sell them on their "Steal the Glass" nights for months afterward.

As I've stated before, Eureka! is a place I frequent; I love the staff, the food, the whiskey, the cocktails and sometimes the beer that is on tap. However, I don't think they prioritize craft beer very highly (and I'm fairly certain it's not their leading moneymaker), and I don't think the people making the decisions on which beers to purchase know much about the subject. Despite all of this, it is still a place I recommend, and I hope they will eventually "get it." We now have considerable resources for bars here to have a killer craft lineup. The Amigo Room at the aforementioned Ace Hotel is leading the way in this respect.

I still have hope for our beer scene. It has grown a bit in the past year, including the opening of two small breweries, Desert Beer Company and Las Palmas Brewing. I have also seen some plans for another, larger brewery that I hope will happen sooner rather than later—but that is all I can say about that here. I bring it up only to say there is more change on the horizon, and I want to help build our craft-beer scene into something special and worthy of being in the shadow of the neighboring giants in Southern California. Higher standards, hard work, some imagination, some time and a bit of luck, perhaps, is all we need to get there.

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..

My regular readers (yes, some people tell me they are regular readers, without any prompting on my part—and yes, one of them is my mother; hi, Mom!) know I try to shy away from clichés in my column.

However, this month, I’m feeling the Christmas spirit, and I want to help those who are not as deep into craft beer find legitimately great gifts for the zythophile in their lives … so it’s time for a cliché: The Holiday Gift List.

I will limit this list to things I have experienced, either by myself or through friends, so I don’t lead anyone too far astray:

The Cap Zappa Beer Cap Launcher: I first saw this being used on a YouTube channel and immediately knew I needed to have one. It was surprisingly hard to track down a couple of years ago when I got mine, but now you can find many different kinds of fun, cap-shooting openers. My friend’s wife gave me a pistol-shaped version, which is now being employed at my taproom. They are simple but they bring a disproportionate amount of joy for the money.

Growlerwerks Carbonated Growlers: A growler, for the uninitiated, is a to-go container for beer on tap. I have a love/hate relationship with growlers—and by “love/hate,” I primarily mean “hate.” They’re not a great medium for beer—but they are a great way for a brewery taproom to make money. Even assuming the growlers are properly cleaned and carbon-dioxide-purged before being filled with beer, that beer really should be consumed the same day you open the growler. What if you just wanted a pint? Well, Growlerwerks provides the solution with the use of a replaceable carbon dioxide cartridge housed under the cap, with a dial above it to regulate the pressure. The upshot of all this: You’ll have a 64- or 128-ounce miniature keg sitting in your fridge with a spigot at the bottom. Plus, they look really sharp. I’ve never not seen one start a conversation at the taproom when they are brought in to be filled. For about $150-$200, you can seriously impress the beer-lover in your life.

The Rare Beer Club: I wish I could say that my experience with this club comes through my own subscription, but alas, this is a little too expensive for my budget. A friend of mine has a wife who was loving enough to get this for him, and I’ve benefited from rummaging through the built-up collection of bottles from the club. My verdict? It’s fantastic. Some of the beers are true rarities that I will probably never get my hands on again—some because they are incredibly hard to acquire, and others because they were one-offs, never to be brewed again. Like the Biere De Goord from Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales; it’s a saison-style ale with kale, pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, green tea and peppercorns. Does that sound weird? Yes. Did it taste good? Hell yes—and I’ve never had another beer like it. The best part is that, if you loved one of the beers you were sent that month (and that’s two, four or six bottles of each, depending on the subscription level) and absolutely need more, you can buy more. This is just the tip of the iceberg for customization, too. You can replace upcoming beers with ones you loved in the past, if available, or add more of any beer to the next shipment. As I write this, I’m pondering what I need to cut out of my life financially in order to accommodate one of these memberships. Beer is technically food, right?

Brewery memberships: Some breweries offer yearly memberships that include discounts, exclusives and beer allocations. The terms obviously vary from brewery to brewery, but the gist is that you sign up; pay the requisite fee; and reap the benefits. There are breweries that offer little more than special glassware for you to use while at the taproom, plus a discount. Others offer first cracks at the latest beer releases, discounts, member parties and more. The Bruery in Orange County is the first brewery I can remember doing this, more than a decade ago, and now that brewery offers many tiers of membership that can be paid for in myriad ways. The Bruery went through a lot of growing pains while ironing out flaws in the membership models—and other breweries have learned by example when it comes to making their clubs.

But let me repeat myself: Not all brewery memberships are created equal. I’ve even seen breweries sell memberships to people before opening their doors. This is as pure of an example of caveat emptor as you are going to find, and I wish you luck and success if you decide to do this. My recommendation is to partake in the clubs of established breweries; if possible, speak with current members of the club to gauge worthiness.

Now feel free to cut and paste this list into your letter to Santa … and let’s hope he brings me that Rare Beer Club membership rather than the coal I probably deserve.

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..

The influx of clueless drivers with Washington-state license plates indicates we are nearing the tourist season here in the desert. (Side note to those drivers: If you miss a turn, that's your problem and no one else's. Take the loss, and find a safe place to turn around.)

Seeing as I work at a brewery taproom, this column is a somewhat selfish endeavor: It’s a brewery-goers’ guide to taproom etiquette. This isn't coming from an angry place—at least not totally. I would like to arm the consumer with useful advice that could enhance the experience without much effort. Let's jump right in:

• "Is (NAME OF BEER) good?" or, alternately, "What's good?" I happen to be honest to the point of being too blunt sometimes, but this question is weird: I work for the brewery. What do you think I am going to say to this? I will often sarcastically respond with, "No, they're all bad, in fact," before trying to ascertain what the customer's preferences are. Do yourself a favor, and ask for a sample. Most places will be happy to give you a splash so you can decide for yourself. Don't be afraid to set it aside and ask for a sample of something else if you didn't enjoy it.

• "What's new?" Despite my massive intellect and faultless memory, I can't remember the last time you visited the brewery. Please feel free to do that work for me, and I will be glad to help you out accordingly.

• “What's the hoppiest beer you have?" I dedicated a whole column to IBUs (international bitterness units) and why they're IBUseless to the consumer. (Get it? I've been waiting to use that one.) The "hoppiest beer" question is loaded and not easy to answer. Hoppiness can include flavor, bitterness and/or aroma. Do you want an old-school West Coast hop bomb with a bitter underbelly, or do you want a double-dry-hopped, super-fragrant hazy IPA that has a much more restrained bitter finish? Huge imperial stouts are often very hoppy, but that's not the first thing you take away when tasting one. I'll do my best here, but I need you to meet me halfway if you want your needs properly fulfilled.

• "(Looks at the beer list, which does not include a particular style.) Do you have (that particular style)?" This is pretty self-explanatory: If it ain't on the board, it ain't available. At my taproom, there are 20 beers on tap. Is that not enough? Instead, tell me what you like, and I will help you find something similar. Also: If you have a sight issue, feel free to let your beertender know, and we'll happily be your eyes.

• "Do you have wine/cider/etc.?" I personally don't mind this question much (although, to repeat—if it's not on the board, it's not available), but I do find it amusing when people get indignant that the taproom I work at doesn't have these things. Who's surprised when they go to a brewery that we only have beer? The answer, sadly, is a non-zero number. If licensing were simpler, we might actually serve those other things, too. Can you tell this is getting cathartic for me?

• Wearing cologne/perfume/heavy scents. This might be the rudest thing you can do when visiting any place where you are drinking or eating. A large part of our olfactory experience is determined by our noses. We all have different thresholds for different aromas, but bathing in patchouli (which is ALWAYS gross, incidentally) is just rude when you're in a confined space attempting to enjoy craft beer. Some of those perfume scents can crawl up one’s nose and heavily affect one’s taste experience. You would be equally vexed by someone smoking or vaping nearby while you were trying to enjoy beer. Trust me: The people around you will appreciate the lack of perfume in general if you dial it back, or get rid of it all together. (I personally think most perfumes smell like what the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would spit out if asked to produce a perfume.) This goes doubly for body odor. This should go without saying, but your commitment to not wearing deodorant should not be anyone else's problem. And patchouli doesn't cover that up, either (and its association with body odor probably turned me sour on that scent to begin with).

• Dirty growlers: Most breweries offer to-go containers of various sizes, called growlers, that can be filled and refilled with beer. I can’t believe I need to say this … but you should clean them when you're done. Yes. That might be the most absurdly obvious thing I've ever written. Beer left sitting in a container can quickly become a robust environment for bacteria and mold. We do clean and sanitize the growlers we're about to fill, as it's in the brewery's best interest to not give out tainted beer, but if I see mold, I'm sending that growler back empty. There is no way I'm going to chance infecting a sanitized beer line with that. This isn't a labor-intensive process: All you need to do is give a growler a very good rinse with water when you have finished the beer, and either wash it out with scentless dish soap, or stick it in the dishwasher for a simple hot rinse, before letting it dry out completely. I used to have a half-joking, half-morbid curiosity for the scents that could emanate from growlers, but I have since been cured of that. Leaving a dirty growler in a car in the desert summer heat makes it less of a container for beer and more of a small microbiome.

While some might view this list as snobbery, much of this is just common sense. Taproom employees should be able to guide the uninitiated beer-drinker to a pleasant experience, although I understand that not all breweries are created equal. It would be helpful to keep these things in mind so that you can have knowledge at your disposal—and enjoy your time at any taproom as fully as possible.

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..

When my wine counterpart in these pages, Katie Finn, suggested that we pull a beverage version of Trading Places—where she curated a list of wines for me to taste while I returned the favor with a list of beers—my first thought was, “I’m clearly the Eddie Murphy in this movie analogy, right?”

And then I thought it would be a wonderful way for me—a wine-eschewing philistine who thinks beer is far more exciting—to expand my horizons and sample a wine list curated by a sommelier. After months of trying to coordinate my weird schedule with hers, we finally got together at the house of a mutual friend. We also invited some of our friends to help (and in my case, unload some of their awesome beer cellars for the occasion)—and then we proceeded to try to impress each other.

When putting together my list for Katie, I wanted to showcase one of beer’s greatest strengths: its diversity of styles and flavors. This is trickier than it may seem to those who know how vast beer’s flavor spectrum can be. What I didn’t know is that she had the same thing in mind for me.

Trigger warning: What I’m about to do with these descriptions might make wine connoisseurs cringe. I ask for your forgiveness in advance.

Birichino Malvasia 2018 Bianca: This is a white from Monterey County. Once I got over my usual reaction to white wine (“uh, yeah ... smells like white wine!”), I started picking up on a mild spiced-pineapple aroma. Following that down the gullet (offended yet, wine people?) were floral aromas like rose and jasmine. What I really appreciated about the experience was the acidic, dry finish. I’m not a fan of sweeter wines or ciders; I always enjoy the ones that jump off the palate and don’t cloy in the aftertaste. The touch of warmth in the back of it all didn’t hurt, either. We were off to a decent start.

Forge Cellars 2015 Les Alliés Dry Riesling: I know Riesling is a German grape that makes a white wine, but my knowledge essentially ends there. What I learned from this one, out of the Finger Lakes in New York, was that wines from this grape can be very pleasant—with oak, citrus, orange blossom and another dry, acidic finish.

Sans Liege Groundwork Grenache Blanc: Paso Robles is no stranger to me, because of Firestone Walker’s magnificent brewery and invitational festival that I attend every year. (See my column about my trip last year for more on that.) But Paso Robles is primarily a wine region, even if I’ve successfully (and unconsciously) ignored any of its products until now. This had a floral, alcohol aroma up front with a warming, sweet vanilla finish. It was slightly acidic at the end. It was not my jam.

B Vintners Black Bream Pinot Noir: Now to the color of wine I’ve enjoyed the most when I’ve experienced wine: red. This South African pinot had aromas and flavors of oak and blackberry cheesecake, along with a slight smokiness, a dry finish and some tannic astringency (a drying sensation on the palate). I can only imagine this would pair very well with a cheesecake, but I will defer to Mrs. Finn on that.

Tommasi Rafael 2016 Valpolicella Classico Superiore: As a side note, if beer names ever get this protracted, I’m going to switch professions. As for the wine: This was an Italian dark fruit bomb, with prunes, plums, a hint of cherries—and a dry finish. It’s almost as if she deliberately picked drier wines in anticipation of my aversion to sweet drinks.

Bodegas Atalaya Alaya Tierra 2015: This was the show-stopper for me and my friend Jose. I’ll just show you what I wrote down as I tasted it, verbatim: “Jammy nose. Blackberry and currant. But the first taste is sweet. Then wood. Then hugely herbal. Big sage flavor. Tobacco. I would almost guess this was not oak, but some more exotic Brazilian wood instead.” I was floored—and kind of sad—that no one had showed me a wine with this much character and range before now. Katie generously gave me the remainder of the bottle to take home—and you’d better believe I finished it.

We also covered an “orange” wine, and I took notes regarding the reason it is called that. (It’s white wine, but the skins are kept in during fermentation, like with reds or rosés … but why have a beer guy explain this when you can read Katie’s illuminating column on this subject instead?) Unfortunately, I apparently neglected to make any notes of the bottle that she opened. Hey, I was drinking wine AND beer. What do you want from me? Professionalism?

My main takeaways from this experience were: If you ever get a chance to have a talented and thoughtful sommelier choose a wine flight for you, definitely step on board, even if you’re normally not a wine-drinker; and wine is not a restricted by its limited ingredients, as I mistakenly thought. The Alaya Tierra proved that to me, and I’ll be interested to see what more wine can accomplish as it strikes out into uncharted and nontraditional areas more and more. Who knows? One day, you may find me writing a wine column. But it won’t be this day.

Thanks, Katie! Let’s do this again.

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..

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came

In 2008, I was in the midst of a major life transition. I was a musician who had retreated from the wasteland that was the Los Angeles music scene a year previous, and was I wondering what my next move would be. Beer had always been a love of mine, so I found myself alongside my cousin Josh, attempting to brew it at home.

Our first beer was an IPA, and while it turned out drinkable, it wasn't great. I needed help, and deep within the recesses of Yahoo! Groups, I found the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club. I contacted the club's founder and was invited to a bar in Palm Desert for the award ceremony of a local homebrew competition run by the bar's proprietor.

That proprietor's name is Brent Schmidman, and his bar was Schmidy's Tavern.

Schmidy (this is, after all, how we refer to the man) hails from Nebraska, and in his words, he was fortunate enough to spend a little time as a Marine stationed in San Diego at Camp Pendleton when not in Asia. It was then he fell in love with Southern California.

"I loved the weather, and coming from the Midwest, this was perfect year-round," he said.

He found himself starting a maintenance business in Orange County, where the stress of the job eventually got to him—so he sold it and moved to the Coachella Valley. Why the desert? "I had been coming out here so I could get back down to earth … being from the Midwest and not used to Orange County craziness."

He decided to take some previous experience with the hospitality and beverage industries into a sales position with a local drinks distributor, where he developed a love for "microbrew." After eight successful years with the distribution company, Schmidy was ready to move on.

"I decided I would open a place that would focus on the locals, and because of my passion, craft beer had to be a part of that," he said.

He emphasized his desire to concentrate on the year-round desert residents. "The premise was to focus on locals. Of course, tourists were welcome, too, but really, (it was) for the community to have a place to go—kind of like a modern-day Cheers," he explained. After some searching, he found a location in Palm Desert that would be the home of Schmidy's Tavern, beginning in 2008.

Then in 2010 came Jonas Wilby, the Stone Brewing Company bartender-turned-local representative for Stone Distributing Company.

"They presented an offer to me to move out there and launch Stone Distributing,” Wilby said. “I would be the everyday distribution rep and work alongside all the customers in all facets: stores, chains, restaurants and bars."

He quickly paid a visit to Stone's only IPA tap handle in the valley—at Schmidy's Tavern—only to find it wasn't on tap anymore. "I was like, ‘God dang! We lost this handle!’" Jonas said. "I eventually got a chance to sit down (with Schmidman) and … we talked about the different brands in our portfolio, about cold storage and cold delivery. And we could guarantee to have super-fresh inventory." This, combined with the amount of driving this would save Schmidman, led to an important partnership.

Shortly thereafter, Schmidy had an idea: "I said to Jonas, 'I want to build the craft-beer scene, and I want you to help me. … I'm going to pay for the beers, and we will give free samples. I just want to educate people.' We started it once a week. The first weeks we did it, we couldn't give it away!"

Added Wilby: “There were people sitting at the bar, drinking a Bud Light, saying, 'No, I'm good. I don't want to try that,' like I was trying to poison them.”

But with persistence, Beer School, as Schmidy dubbed it, started to gain momentum and eventually boomed. The last Wednesday of every month, for $20, you'd get four-ounce pours of four beers, alongside four courses of food—and at the end, a specially made cask that Schmidy acquired for the occasion would be tapped, and everyone would get a pour. Soon enough, Schmidy's had to turn people away.

Before founding Coachella Valley Brewing Co. in 2013, Chris Anderson used his culinary background to help Schmidy with the dinner menus.

"(Schmidman) and I really had an ability to create some unique, innovative and often incredibly well-thought-out beer and food pairings together. They were often beers and foods that you probably wouldn't see normally in the valley," Anderson said.

Said Schmidman: "We got real creative about it and thought outside the box and did crazy stuff. That was what it was about: to create an experience with beer that would be memorable. Then people realize beer is not just something you guzzle down while you're mowing the lawn."

Beer School became a "tent pole" event, even bringing in industry people to help out on occasion. 

"Because we had a set time, and it was an event,” Wilby said, “I was able to go out when I was talking to other accounts, even if it was a new account, and I'd be like, 'Hey, you gotta come out to Beer School to see what the desert beer scene is really like.'"

A group of beer-lovers were working at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club at the time, including chef Jennifer Town, who would later be the guest chef at multiple Beer Schools.

In 2013, Schmidman sold the tavern, and Beer School eventually fizzled out. Schmidy’s Tavern itself closed in 2016, after the landlord significantly raised the rent on the space.

"I don’t think you will find another person as passionate, driven and hungry as … Brent,” Anderson said. “He put in the time and effort to make that place a beer destination. He knew that it was going to be a big effort, and it worked. I often would see him in the morning, and he would still be there in the office working well into the night.”

There has not been a local craft-beer bar like Schmidy's Tavern since.

"What was in my head throughout this whole time was spreading the love for craft beer and spreading the culture, one beer at a time," Schmidy said. "I'm proud of what we did … I don't know if it would be the same now or not."

I'd like to raise a toast to Schmidy's Tavern. Here's to hoping we get something as good back here in the desert soon.

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..

Last month, I said my next column would be about a “craft-beer institution from the past that still has not been matched in this valley”—and it seems I lied. I will bring that to you soon, but I want to make sure I take the time necessary to do it well.

To make up for it, I’m writing about a place—and its beer festival earlier this month—which is vying to become the aforementioned institution’s long-awaited successor.

The Ace Hotel and Swim Club Palm Springs opened in 2009. The Ace folks renovated “a mid-century desert modern former Westward Ho with a Denny’s” into a hipster paradise. The hotel bar, the Amigo Room, includes many craft-beer taps. In the early years, the Ace and the Amigo had a great rag-tag staff of people who cared about craft beer and strove to put the best beers they could get on tap. From this, the Craft Beer Weekend emerged. As small as it has been in square footage, Craft Beer Weekend has consistently been one of the better beer festivals in the Coachella Valley.

The cherry on top? It’s in the dead of summer.

Will Sperling was recently hired as the food and beverage manager for the Ace Hotel from his former position as general manager at Mikkeller DTLA, a juggernaut of a craft-beer bar. It was subsequently announced that this year’s Craft Beer Weekend, which took place Aug. 3 and 4, would be two beer festivals on two consecutive weekend days, with a brewery list that would make even people who live in beer meccas turn their heads. When I saw the name De Garde Brewing on the list, I took notice, as it is perhaps my favorite sour-ale brewery in the country right now, and the beer is very hard to get hold of without trekking to the taproom in Tillamook, Ore. (yes, the place with the cheese). I reached out to Sperling to get his thoughts on the festival and the future of craft beer—not only at the Ace, but in the Coachella Valley overall.

“One of the main things I want to do is bring out a bunch of new breweries to the desert,” Sperling told me during an interview at the King’s Highway diner inside the Ace. “And it’s easy. I don’t know why people haven’t done it already. Los Angeles is right there.”

He listed additional breweries he wanted to bring out for the festival that just couldn’t make it, like Highland Park Brewery in L.A., and 3 Floyds Brewing in Indiana. To my knowledge, these two breweries’ beers have never been served here in the desert. He had to “settle” for the likes of Bottle Logic Brewing, Horus Aged Ales, Pizza Port Brewing and Mumford Brewing, among others. Many of these breweries had their head brewers pouring at the festival.

I met Jeff Bagby, former director of brewing operations at Pizza Port—and San Diego brewing royalty—at the festival pouring Bagby Beer Company’s true-to-style and gorgeous beers.

“Last year’s festival, there were 40 or so breweries here,” Sperling said. “This year, there were less than 30. … I’ve cut out all the filler—not necessarily bad beer, but I don’t want any beer that you can find in local grocery stores. It defeats the purpose of putting on a beer festival. I want to bring beer that no one has ever seen before. And the cool thing is that I’ve ordered multiple kegs for the event that will be on in the Amigo Room for a little while after the event, so people can come and enjoy them … in normal-sized glasses.” (The last part of that quote will be understood by people who read last month’s column.)

Sperling has the bona fides to back up what he says. Before opening Mikkeller DTLA, he headed Lantern Hall in Brooklyn; worked at the famed Gramercy Tavern in New York City; and managed The Craft Beer Company in London, on his home turf of England. What is interesting about this resumé is the timing: Every city he worked in was experiencing a huge upsurge in its local beer scene while he worked there.

I have a habit of asking people who move here from a major city—tongue in cheek, of course—why here? What would bring a boy from Kent in the southeast of England to our neck of the woods?

“I’ve been coming to the desert for a while,” Sperling said. “I used to come to the Ace, in fact, and hang out here if I just had a day off from L.A., and my wife and I could get away for the night. … We were looking to buy somewhere, and we couldn’t afford anything in Los Angeles. We had a little bit of money, and we wanted to invest in something—not necessarily somewhere we’re going to live forever, but something we could do that would give us a little back on an investment. So we bought this little cabin up in Twentynine Palms—an old, derelict cabin in the middle of nowhere, off a dirt road off a dirt road—and for the last two years, we’ve been fixing that up. It’s been a real joy. We go up there, and we don’t see any people.

“I knew a few people who worked here at the hotel, and I saw they had a position open to run the bar here. I thought, ‘Yeah, cool. Let’s get out of L.A. and try something different.’”

Craft-beer lovers will be reaping the benefits of his presence. I was while I was interviewing Will—drinking a pint of English-style pale ale from the unique Yorkshire Square Brewing out of Torrance.

In upcoming months, I’m going to be focusing on craft-beer culture, and how it is grown. You’ll be hearing more from Sperling and others regarding how we can raise the bar in the future. If you’re as interested in making this beautiful place we call home a better destination when it comes to beer … stay tuned.

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..

I occasionally have so much on my mind when it comes to craft beer that I just have to write about it all in one column. I did this last year in what I describe as a less-lazy equivalent of Larry King’s defunct USA Today column.

Rice lagers are all the rage right now for some reason. … What is the deal with those beer multi-packs? … How can Beaumont have a bottle-shop/craft-beer taproom and downtown Palm Springs not?

As repugnant as I find this kind of writing, there is some utility in this scattershot approach in that I get to dump all of my burning thoughts on current topics in the beer world while barely having to do any research. In other words, I get to have my lazy cake and eat it, too. So without further ado, let’s jump right in.

• Eureka! Indian Wells is pretty much my go-to craft-beer watering hole. I like the staff (Ari, you’re still the best!); the food is solid; it’s close to home; and it usually has some of the better beers on tap as compared to other places. It is within that loving context that I state the following to the higher-ups at Eureka!: Get your glassware game together! As I understand the situation: Someone at corporate HQ seems to have decided that the price of any given keg determines the size of the pour you get. This often leads to absurd serving sizes and prices. No pilsner should EVER be served in a 13-ounce tulip glass. Not long ago, they were charging an absurd $15 for a 9-ounce pour of a Modern Times Nova Colony sour ale! This was a 7 percent barrel-aged blend of fruited sours. I don’t care if it was made with water from the Fountain of Youth; there is no way in hell I would consider paying that without at least a 13-ounce pour of it. Why are accountants choosing glassware?! It’s truly maddening, and Eureka! should be ashamed of themselves … but I doubt they can hear this over the piles of money they make on everything else at that place.

• A lot of people, especially brewers, are expressing excitement over craft rice lagers to me. Rice lagers are the Mexican lagers of last summer in that it’s the current "in thing" to say you love. Listen, I know taste is subjective, and a well-made beer is a well-made beer (especially with lager styles like this where there isn’t any place to hide if you botched the brew), but I have to say: Just go drink your Modelo or Budweiser. That’s clearly what you want. I’m going to stick to pilsners to get that full, crisp, unadulterated lager experience. This doesn’t mean I think corn and rice have no place in craft beer—anything is game, but I think we can be more creative than this, can’t we?

• Beer multi-packs suck. I can’t tell you how many of them I have come across that have special, one-off beers that I would love to try, along with one or two common, flagship beers (out of a usual four, that is; these are generally 12-packs that usually include three bottles each of four different beers). Samuel Adams, I can get your Boston Lager EVERYWHERE. I could be in the middle of the Mojave Desert, stumble across a random gas station, and reasonably assume I can get your Boston Lager. Whose idea was this, and why has it proliferated for so long?! I have seen multis with all core brands—that, I can understand. Still … I ask that everyone please join me in not purchasing another multi-pack until breweries stop doing this.

• I am very happy for Beaumont for getting a place like The Craft Lounge where people can buy some nice bottles and try some great beers on tap, all in the same spot. But … how did Beaumont get such a place before Palm Springs did? I’m tempted to leave this at that—the Larry King inside of me wants to (wait, that doesn’t sound right)—but I will add that I wouldn’t be so disappointed by this if it weren’t so typical. Why can’t we have nice things?

I would also like to take this opportunity to get out in front of anyone who is of a like mind: A couple of people confronted me about a recent column regarding the state of the beer scene in the Coachella Valley with the complaint that I should do something about it. Do you honestly think I’m not? One of the main reasons I took on the mantle of beer columnist for the Independent is to try to whip up interest, put spotlights where I think they’re deserved (good or bad), and act as a bit of a lightning rod to push the scene forward.

Do I think this has happened? I honestly cannot say. I feel like I’m shouting into the void about these things at times, while at other times, I feel honored that anyone is reading this and taking anything away from it. In any case, it isn’t all up to just me. Do you have ideas for what can be done here?

Next month’s column will be about a craft-beer institution from the past that still has not been matched in this valley; I’m writing it in the hopes that it can rally people to the cause of creating more of a craft-beer culture. Building a culture can be a slow and arduous task, but being in on the ground floor and looking around to nearby budding cultures is truly exciting. We aren’t even necessarily that far way, yet we seem to be leagues from something substantial nonetheless. It’s going to take some work and some similarly impassioned people to get there.

This is my message in a bottle. It’s just that the bottle has beer in it.

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..

Gather ’round, kids, and I will regale you with a tale of a lion and a bear who came together many years ago for one purpose: making beer.

It all began around 1995. The big microbrewers at the time were Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams, while long-gone up-and-comers like Pete’s Wicked Ale were also making a splash. Most people had no idea what a stout or an IPA was. The aforementioned bear’s name is Adam Firestone, member of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and their vineyards; the lion is his brother-in-law David Walker, an Englishman who wanted a taste of home while living in California. Both were in the wine industry before opening Firestone Walker Brewing Company with a humble 24-barrel system. In 2001, they were able to buy out a professional-size facility from SLO Brewing Company (even though it was actually located in Paso Robles), which had filed for bankruptcy. It is still home to Firestone Walker Brewing Company, but with a wee bit of expansion through the intermittent years.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

On a gorgeous late spring day before the start of the annual Firestone Walker Invitational, I was honored to be escorted throughout the brewery compound by none other than the lion himself, David Walker. He greeted us private-tour recipients individually, introducing himself and then calling for us to walk across the street to the Visitor’s Center to begin the tour. Equipped with safety glasses, we marched upstairs to the top of the newly installed, $15 million brewhouse, with 200-barrel tanks, one of which is solely used to make the best-selling 805 Blonde Ale in 24-hour shifts, and which was under construction when I was there the year before.

After explaining the origins of the brewery and its journey from 24 barrels to what is projected for 2019 to be 500,000 barrels (1 barrel = 31 gallons), he led us down into the belly of the brewery, through a space at the bottom of some of the tanks and into a cold room where a labyrinth of pipes terminates. This is the older part of the brewery; Walker emphasized this by leading us into their old walk-in cooler that they kept in operation to remind them of their humbler origins. These are typically my favorite parts of many brewery tours due to the alluring smell of hop pellets all around—and this was no different.

Onward we trod into the next building in the compound. This one contained the packaging lines where the machinery moved ceaselessly to get the product into bottles, cans and boxes. David walked over to the canning line and grabbed cold cans of the latest in their Luponic Distortion IPA series for everyone in the group. This was great timing, as the beers we’d grabbed before the tour started were gone. (If you’re not envious of me yet, just keep reading.) We met a legendary character of Firestone’s history, Miguel Ibarra. After introducing Miguel (with a wry smile), Walker held up his hands—which had nine digits rather than the usual 10. Miguel joined him in showing the same amount. Everyone was clearly in on the joke, seeing as how Walker spent the next few minutes summarizing the ways in which Miguel operated the earliest incarnation of the brewery virtually on his own, sleeping on location between shifts.

Further back in the same warehouse was a series of barrels interconnected via tubes. This is part of how the DBA (Double Barrel Ale) is made. It takes as its inspiration the tradition English cask ales, and Walker freely admits it was a way he could get the proper experience of his beloved Bass Ale closer to home. Other beers surpassed it in popularity over time, but you can still find it in their taprooms in its unfiltered state if you wish to sample it for yourself.

Next, we bypassed a long row of pallets of empty cans stacked about two stories high and entered the next building in the series, containing finished packages of their beer in various forms. It is here we stumbled across the path of brewmaster Matt Brynildson, who was coincidentally looking in on his Oaktoberfest barrels in the same room. Matt told us how they were doing a traditional lagering of their Märzen over the summer. Happily, he stayed with us through the next processing room and into a truly magical place: The Barrel Room.

A brief word about Firestone’s barrel program, straight from my brain and taste buds: It’s insanely good. From the barrel-selecting progress (overseen by Eric Ponce), to the masterful blending of their vaunted Anniversary ales, and the choices of beers that enter the barrels, it’s no surprise you can easily identify a barrel-aged beer from Firestone by taste alone. I promise you: This is no easy feat, and they are proud of it.

Finally, we walked up a flight of stairs to our tour’s termination. I asked how many actual barrels they had in the room, and Walker replied, "At the moment, about 2,000. But at the most, we’ll have only 3,000 at any given time. Despite our growth, we like to be able to keep a close eye on every barrel we have on hand and its contents." Brynildson then added that no one is allowed to move any barrel unless the aforementioned Miguel Ibarra is informed. It’s no wonder you can taste the character in any of their barrel-aged beers.

The tour ended with the opening of some bottles of their Napa Parabola. It’s a version of their Parabola imperial stout blended together after aging in various red wine barrels. What’s surprising is how much of the chocolate flavor in the beer is brought out despite what I expected to be a wine-dominated flavor.

Finally, Firestone does a collaboration every year to commemorate their incredible Firestone Walker Invitational beer festival. I discussed my 2018 visit in a column last year, and I make it a point to get tickets and go every year. This year’s beer was with Cigar City Brewing out of Tampa, Fla.: Los Leñadores is an imperial brown ale aged in high rye bourbon barrels and infused with African and Brazilian hardwood spirals. It was teeming with almond and pistachio flavors to go with the nutty, chocolate flavors of the beer.

Suffice it to say, I was impressed by the tour and continue to be impressed by Firestone—and that was only the beginning of my festival weekend. I told you the envy was coming.

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..

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