Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Brett Newton

I have been writing this column for more than three years now—and I know that because I have a nearly useless habit of numbering each column as I write it. OK, it was an entirely useless habit—until this month.

This is my 40th column. (My editor has a slightly different count, but I stand by my math.) While I usually refrain from celebrating numbered things, the number 40 pertains to beer in a very real way: This is the notorious number of ounces in large bottles of malt liquor, something that has somehow become a cultural icon—a “meme,” before the term was created in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, almost as an afterthought at the end of his influential book The Selfish Gene (though it meant something different in his original definition).

What is malt liquor? If you’ve tried it, you know it resembles beers brewed by the large breweries around the world that make pale lagers. Well, malt liquor is simply beer made with a much-larger amount of adjuncts such as corn, rice or dextrose, plus the addition of certain enzymes in order to create a strong, inexpensive-to-produce alcoholic beverage. Its creation in the late 1930s was in response to post-Prohibition drinkers with a tight budget who craved beer with more oomph.

Years later, in the ’60s, the 40-ounce bottle seems to have made its debut. Beer was often sold in quarts (32 ounces) and even half-gallon (64 ounces) sizes for the purpose of serving at parties—but as weird as 40 ounces sounds as a package, it’s simply a 25 percent increase from the quart. It was meant to allow the purchaser to save money while serving “friends” at a soirée (presumably “friends” the purchaser disliked). It was often sold based on its resemblance to champagne. This was in reaction to the lower beer consumption in the U.S. at the time, and malt liquor was meant to compete with wine and cocktails.

That marketing ultimately failed—and it was eventually discovered that inner-city minorities were often the actual consumers. This shifted the marketing and set malt liquor down the cultural path by which we know it today. Fast forward to the ’80s, where we find actor Billy Dee Williams, fresh off of his role in The Empire Strikes Back as the smoothest space pirate in the galaxy, becoming the face of Colt 45’s product with the dubious tagline, “It works every time.” As he chimed in the original 1984 commercial: “Rule No. 1: Never run out of Colt 45. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No 1.”

This marketing stroke worked—but it eventually led to ad men getting carried away, and by the 1990s, we saw rapper Ice Cube doing a commercial for St. Ides malt liquor and saying these words: “Get your girl in the mood quicker, make your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor.”

The “40” had found a home in hip-hop culture. While its original intended audience had been people serving party-goers, it became something you sipped straight out of the bottle, almost as a rite of passage. And it resembled many cultural rites of passage throughout history in that it was a painful undertaking.

This is normally the point at which I would talk about the notes of the product—the package, the aroma, the taste. You will have to forgive me for not doing so here. I remember a friend and I each surreptitiously drinking a 40 of Olde English 800 Malt Liquor when I was 16 or 17. I also remember vomiting in the side yard a couple of hours later. I have had a few 12-ounce bottles of Mickey’s “Big Mouth” since then and found it to be similarly regrettable.

I last drank a 40 more than 15 years ago, at a strange motel in Van Nuys one night. (I was staying there due to a malfunctioning sewer pipe in front of my rental … I’d rather not talk about it.) Steel Reserve had come along with slicker packaging and an 8 percent alcohol-by-volume malt liquor—and the liquor store next to the hotel was clearly not new to the malt-liquor game. I had never seen a 40-ounce bottle of the stuff before (nor have I since), but the neighboring rooms were emanating smells of illicit drugs, and I was a relatively poor musician, so I decided I needed something cheap and nasty. Not my finest moment, but it got me through the night. I suspect this is the key to the success that malt liquor has achieved in the adult-beverage industry.

None of what has been said here so far addresses the cynical nature of the marketing of malt liquor—and its repercussions. Well, I’m not going near that; who needs a white dude in the beer industry pontificating on racial issues? I know I don’t. However, I will point you toward a write-up on the history of malt liquor titled “A Story Without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor” by a writer named Kihm Winship, if you want to dive all the way into the subject. The article is a more-in-depth summary of malt liquor than I could ever fit in one column (or that I would ever have enough patience to research for myself), and it is extremely well-sourced. A little bit of what you read above was certainly pulled from it.

Malt liquor is definitely still out there, despite declining sales and lawsuits in recent years. Breweries simply can’t give up making the stuff. It sits in every fridge in every convenience store that is allowed to carry it, and most of us pass by it without giving it a single thought. Still, it remains a part of American culture, for better or for worse, kept alive by hip-hop-culture-worshiping suburban kids who—like kids in generations before—want to find a way to get drunk cheaply. Some of the latest versions of these drinks are energy-drink hybrids, meant to create some sort of super hangover juice. (See the infamous Four Loko; a whole column could be written on the popularization of these types of drinks and the mayhem its drinkers caused before manufacturers were forced to remove the caffeine.)

Whether in original form, a new form, or a yet-to-be-invented form, malt liquor is here to stay—and will likely be around for a long, long time.

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..

We are more than seven months into lockdown—and my job in the taproom has changed considerably.

My asthmatic taproom manager wisely self-quarantined immediately—what a strange twist of fate that I can say "self-quarantined" and have it be an unremarkable phrase—while all taproom events and parties ceased to exist. Therefore, I am often by myself behind the bar.

I'm not sure how common my experience is, but my work has changed—and I want to talk about it.

After Gov. Newsom's stay-at-home announcement in mid-March, the taproom changed drastically. With my taproom manager out and my cohort behind the bar, Mikki, in her own self-quarantine due to her husband having been potentially exposed at his workplace, it was up to me for a couple of weeks to hold down the fort. Beer was only available to-go at that time, so my job mainly consisted of alternately filling crowlers (to-go 32-ounce cans filled from the tap and sealed on site) and sitting down, listening to the music I wanted to, and reading a lot. It also consisted of worrying about every single interaction I had with every customer, concern over every surface they touched, and making a game plan in case any anti-science imbeciles waltzed into the place looking for beer—and probably trouble. It also fell to me to deliver any orders called in to local residents.

I will not lie: It was a stressful time for me. There were many hospitality workers who felt the same way—and many who continue to feel the same way. (Never mind nurses and doctors on the front lines.)

In order to provide a good picture of what my job turned into, I have to try and convey what my job was before. That is to say, it was pretty fun as jobs go. Not that it didn't have trying moments, but I once worked on a roof in Palm Desert when the temperature was 128 degrees in July. I ran around the greater Los Angeles area setting up bouncy houses for a few months. I played jazz guitar for hungry country-club people, and I delivered liquor and sandwiches in Hollywood (yes, I met celebrities often; they are mostly tiny people), among other weird jobs. So being a Cicerone at a brewery taproom has been near the top of the "fun” job list.

Alas, much of what made it fun has disappeared for the moment, to varying degrees. I have no idea when it will be busy, for example. This creates a strange semi-anxious feeling, because it can go from dead to me being absolutely buried. This would be mitigated by having co-workers, but outside of a half-hour each week, I have no co-workers upon which to lean.

Another less-than-stellar aspect is the needlessly awkward state regulation that a meal must be on the same ticket as any beer consumed on premise. This often disappoints customers who are unfamiliar with this—which is a large portion of them—and it leaves me having to explain the situation many, many times a shift. I say "needlessly awkward," because the customer can order food through the delivery system we have set up with a local restaurant and, theoretically, throw it in the trash in order to drink beer in-house. There are only so many times I can repeat the same spiel about how it works and why before I tune out—or worse, I grow disdainful for the task.

All of this sits on top of the underlying realization that we are still neck-deep in a pandemic that has the very real potential to end lives. Yes, the state has eased the lockdown a little, but recent statistics indicate that we are heading for another reversal—as soon as next week, perhaps. Combine that with the influx of tourists (whose mask-less visages I've encountered regularly on the local Bump and Grind trail in Palm Desert), some of whom are from places that never took the virus seriously, and you may begin to see where I'm coming from in all of this. My tolerance of anti-science conspiracy mindsets, and just plain absentmindedness when it comes to protecting those around us, was low to begin with and has now reached what I assume is its ultimate nadir for me. Unfortunately, if social media has taught me anything, it's that there's always another nadir.

Please don't get me wrong here: I'm awfully grateful to be employed (albeit part-time with the kindness of tips and partial unemployment), and I know many people are facing a far worse fate than I. It's also nice to see the faces of regulars and visitors who are just grateful to be out of the house. I also have to mention that I've only had to bounce one older couple, because the woman refused to put her mask back on while she was trying to figure out our food service. (I felt sorry for her husband who was super-apologetic.) Therefore, my fears of dealing with misinformed Facebook-group-addicted ignoramuses have largely been for naught. But the truth is that COVID numbers are climbing again, and when I see recent pictures of a full stadium in New Zealand, or read news reports on how places like Tokyo—the most populous city in the entire world—are containing it far better than we are, I become indignant that we have turned some ridiculous corner in this country where caring for your fellow citizens by wearing a mask and social distancing is a bridge too far for too many Americans. No matter how much some of us have sacrificed, it is made meaningless again and again, thanks to the selfish babies whose battle cry is, "MUH FREEDOM!" It’s like in school, when the entire class is punished because of one idiot's misdeeds. We seem to be doomed to go back to square one, over and over, until we've either all caught the virus, or there is an effective vaccine (and that's assuming there will not be a swath of anti-vaccine morons to ruin it for the severely immunocompromised among us who can't take the vaccine—a rather large assumption).

I guess what I'm trying to say is, "Welcome to the taproom. If you'd like to drink on site, you have to order food …"

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..

Let me tell you about a drink—a wine, technically—that is older than our species. It’s not made from grapes, and the bulk of the work to make it isn’t even done by humans, but by honey bees.

Yes, I am talking about mead.

The honey bee separated from its parent species around a million years ago. Worker honey bees collect pollen and, more importantly, nectar. Nectar is a sugary substance that fuels the bees, with the surplus being converted into honey via osmosis, to store and feed the entire colony. While yeast is omnipresent in the environment and is as hungry for that sugar as the bees are, the osmotic pressure of honey makes fermentation by yeasts and bacteria almost impossible: Think of honey as a desert for yeast cells. This, combined with smaller contributing factors, makes sealed honey immortal—it can be safely consumed thousands of years after it was made.

But evolution has a funny way of finding niches in what evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett has termed Design Space, often in the form of an "arms race." While doing my research, I came across this fascinating tidbit: Some yeasts evolved to become osmotolerant. This means that the yeast can perform in environments that are high in sugars and low in water. I bring this up, because it seems that these osmotolerant yeasts became the yeasts that humans eventually unwittingly (because yeast wasn't identified until the 19th century) harnessed to make beer and wine

The first humans to stumble across mead would have likely done it by accident. An essay on the website of Medovina Meadery in Colorado (authored with the help of Dr. Garth Cambray, founder of Makana Meadery in South Africa) suggests an interesting scenario: "The origins of mead can be traced back to the African bush more than 20,000 years ago. Feral bees were well established; elephants roamed the continent, and weather patterns were seasonal. … (These weather patterns) would eventually cause hollows to rot out the crown of the Baobab and Miombo trees, where the elephant had broken branches. During the dry season, the bees would nest in these hollows, and during the wet season, the hollows would fill with water. Water, honey, osmotolerant yeast, and time, and voila—a mead is born."

As nomadic tribes spread out of Africa and into the Mediterranean, they took bees with them, and mead would become a conscious (and treasured) process. The first known recipe for beer is the Hymn to Ninkasi in ancient Sumer, and it includes honey—likely because unmalted grain is not as efficient for brewing, and the sucrose and fructose in honey would work just fine for those purposes. Ancient Greece referred to it as ambrosia, "the nectar of the gods." It's referenced in ancient Chinese, Indian and Egyptian documents, some of which date back 4,000 years. Norse mythology and culture is littered with its mention. Think Beowulf and the slaying of Grendel inside Heorot, the great mead hall of King Hrothgar. Yes, mead was a very big deal for a very long time.

Sugar cane was brought back to Europe by Marco Polo, and honey became less and less of a source for sugars (outside of the monasteries that required beeswax and used the honey to make mead as a by-process). Then came industrialization. The Medovina essay says: "Prior to the mechanized extraction of honey, the honeycombs were simply crushed to remove the honey. This left loads of honey-laden, crushed beeswax which could most easily be processed by rinsing the honey out of the wax with warm water. And what became of the honey water? Mead, of course. Mechanized extraction meant less left over comb and less honey water for mead-making, and a general decline in the craft." Mead has become a highly artisan concern ever since.

This would be a very sad column if it ended there. Thankfully, mead is in the midst of a comeback, of sorts. Homebrewers have led this charge, thanks to their curiosity about all things fermentable.

My first mead experience was the serviceable Chaucer’s Mead (out of Santa Cruz) I picked up in the wine aisle at a grocery story. Some of my more mind-blowing experiences with mead have come thanks to my oft-cited friend and brewer, Chris Anderson.

"For me, mead-making was merely the next natural evolution in fermentation exploration,” he says. “It came after 20 years of beer-making, and at a point where I was feeling like I had tried just about everything in brewing. It’s extremely easy to make mead, but it does require a bit of patience for the lengthy aging process, which can take a year or more."

Anderson’s tropical mead was my favorite—and he went all out on it.

"It was kind of a joke, but it was special," he explains. "I opted for Christmas Berry and Lehua honey, both from Hawaii, and Miele Amaro (bitter honey) from Sardinia. The fruits that I employed were all grown on our property on Oahu: passion fruit, papaya, mango and pink guava. This was by far the best mead that I have ever made, and it garnered gold in the few competitions that I entered it in."

If you have not experienced meads, it is a bit easier to do than it was even a couple of years ago. Locally, Golden Coast Mead in Oceanside is a couple of hours away from the Coachella Valley (and a great place to go to escape the last gasps of summer here). Moonlight Meadery out of New Hampshire has been making wonderful meads for years, which can be found on select craft-beer shop shelves and purchased via their site for shipping.

A personal favorite that I have not yet had a chance to visit resides in Arizona, Superstition Meadery. They make an incredible mead called Peanut Butter Jelly Crime, and yes, it tastes like the liquid version of the best PB&J you've ever had. They've gotten into hazy hopped meads recently, and the results are delicious.

However you can find it, mead is worth trying out—and hopefully, it will be made more interesting with the knowledge I've imparted here.

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..

Ours is the only language you can drink! —translated German saying about Kölsch

One of the beautiful things about the American craft-beer movement over the last four decades is the reviving and re-imagining of what we refer to here as “Old World styles.”

This has led to things like the now-ubiquitous American IPA, inspired by the English version that had been almost entirely ignored in its homeland, and the gose—a light, kettle-soured ale with salt and coriander added—from a town in Germany near Leipzig. The former underwent a major transformation; the latter seems to have hewed more closely to the original style (though often seeing fruit additions, among other things; for a treat, check out Modern Times’ latest version called Laser Rain, with guava, cucumber and lime).

The style I want to discuss has seen fewer alterations than most, but is often difficult to re-create due to its subtleties: Kölsch. The quote that heads this column refers to a bit of German wordplay: Köln is what the Germans call the city of Cologne, and the dialect of the language they speak is also called Kölsch. While Germany is known for its rich tradition of impeccable lagers (lagern being the German word meaning “to store”), the Kölsch (along with its cousin from Düsseldorf, the altbier) is from a time before lagering was the order of the day. While it is an ale, it disguises itself as a lager. This means an ale yeast is used for fermentation, but the beer typically receives the lager treatment, being stored at lower temperatures (45-55 degrees Fahrenheit) at some point during fermentation. This leads to a smoother, more-subtle taste experience which, unlike lagers, often includes a fruity note from the esters the ale yeast produces. Cologne’s website describes the beer as “a top-fermented, light-colored, clear, highly fermented, hopsy (sic) full ale and is brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516.”

Now that we have that out of the way, you may be wondering how it tastes. This is the best part about discovering or revisiting beer styles: The best way to do it is by drinking them. Thankfully, it is not as difficult of a style to find as it was even several years ago. I’ve bought cans of Reissdorf Kölsch at our Total Wine and More (and have even had it on tap at The Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs), and it is a widely celebrated example of the style. Bready from its pilsner malt, light and crisp at 4.8 percent alcohol by volume, floral, herbal, and/or spicy in its hop profile—with enough of a bitter backbone to balance it with the malt—it’s a perfect summer beer when you want lightness without having to sacrifice flavor. The Germans have perfected “summer sippers,” and they have the added benefit of going well with barbecued foods, not so coincidentally. Especially if you do it the German way: If your meal includes wurst, potato salad (not the nasty, swimming-in-mayonnaise version we do here in the United States; German potato salad is a revelation) and an accompanying bread, a Kölsch has your taste buds’ back.

From all I’ve heard and researched, the typical beer-drinking experience in Cologne is interesting and a little quirky. A Colognian (or, as referenced earlier, a Kölsch) person or visitor would enter a brauhaus (beer house, literally) and find a place with a surface. The server, called a köbes, stands in front of a tapped barrel of Kölsch ready to pour it into a 0.2 liter (a little less than 7 ounces) glass called a stange. The köbes will then continually bring you full glasses until you indicate you are done by placing a coaster over the empty glass. People who are familiar with Brazilian-barbecue restaurants will understand this process—except, instead of a seemingly endless selection of grilled meats, you get one style of beer, often from only one specific Kölsch brewery. Want an altbier? Forget it. You will deeply offend your hosts if you ask for one, as it comes from their rival city.

As mentioned, American brewers, both professionals and hobbyists, have taken this style and run with it. One of the benefits of the style is that the above-mentioned lager treatment (or “cold conditioning”) can take less time than a traditional lager. Less time in tanks equals more beer that can be made by a brewery. Having said that, not all American versions are created equal. Some examples I have had make it painfully obvious that the brewer has never had an authentic Kölsch and has simply copy and pasted a recipe. Others are just as sublime as their traditional counterparts (sorry, German friends) and, happily, are readily available to the interested consumer.

During the summer, Trader Joe’s Summer Brew, from their line of JosephsBrau brand beers (brewed by Gordon Biersch, a northern California brewery started by Dan Gordon, who received his training in Chicago at the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology, whose namesake was a German immigrant chemist), is a Kölsch-style ale for around $6 per six-pack. The reason I don’t say it is a Kölsch is that the designation of “Kölsch” can only be applied to breweries from Cologne, much like any sparkling wine outside of the Champagne region of France cannot be called “champagne.” But I promise you: The soft malt body and lightly herbal, floral hop bite will quench your thirst just the same. The brewery I work for has made a Kölsch-style ale since its inception called Kölschella, if you’re interested in supporting a local brewery and trying a drier, more-hop-forward version of the style.

If you’re tired of the grabbing the same old lager when you’re barbecuing (I sadly typed “going to a barbecue at a friend’s house” and then deleted it when I thought of our current situation), try finding some Kölsch to take with you. I love that these beers are as easy-drinking as generic lagers can be, but have more character to stand up against some of the stronger grill flavors

Germans take this stuff very seriously and are very proud of their brewing traditions. While I don’t want all of that seriousness to be transplanted into our craft-beer culture, we can certainly benefit more from taking what’s good in the beer world—past and present—and putting our unique spin on it. Prost!

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 year, I dedicated an entire column to information and etiquette for people visiting taprooms. Part of my motivation was selfish—I work at a taproom myself, specifically the Coachella Valley Brewing taproom in Thousand Palms—but I also wanted to help people who have little to no experience in the taproom world, and might feel intimidated by it.

I was not intending to follow it up at the time—but things have changed dramatically since those, dare I say, innocent times of late 2019. I want to give you the perspective of someone who is back behind the bar and happy to see his regulars back—while fully understanding that this pandemic is far from over. This brings some new things to consider when visiting your favorite brewery taproom—if it’s one of the few that remains open—and I hope this perspective can help you should you decide you absolutely have to go out for a pint or two, be it now or a little later when more taprooms can reopen again.

There is nowhere to start other than to state the obvious: Bring and wear a mask. This is required in "common and public space, and outdoors when distancing is not possible," according to the California state mandate. Thankfully, I have not had very many customers who felt put out by being required to wear one to order or while walking around—but we’ve all seen the videos of the Karens out there who insist that wearing a mask is a most serious infringement upon their civil rights, and who feel they are the Rosa Parks of the movement. (Is "movement" even the word for this?)

This also assumes you know how to wear a mask properly: It needs to cover your nose and mouth. I've seen a small minority of people whose facial coverings either droop down or just expose their noses outright. "But it's harder to breathe," said one customer to me when I pointed this out to him. Seriously, people: Suck it up. Thankfully, I have all the power in my situation—you have to go through me to get beer, and you’d better believe I am not backing down. When you are at your table or leave the taproom property, you are free to take the mask off and breathe as freely as you wish. Meanwhile, I deeply appreciate you wearing that mask when ordering or walking around the taproom, for my sake—just as I'm wearing my mask for yours.

As of this writing, bars, taprooms and restaurants have had to close their indoor operations, and bars and taprooms can only be open for outdoor service if there is a "bona fide meal provider" (AKA catering service or food truck). This is easier for some places to accomplish than others, but even when taprooms make an effort, this is the time of year when you just don't want to spend much time outside at all—and this doesn't even take into count the toll alcoholic beverages can have on you when it's that hot outside; you have to drink a lot of water to counterbalance its diuretic effect. I have seen some diehards come and have beer (with food) at the taproom, but I would most certainly not do the same, so I understand why I see more people looking to purchase beer to go. This mandate was needed because some businesses were not enforcing social-distancing and/or mask-wearing, and because an increasing amount of science shows that the coronavirus spreads easier indoors than outdoors. Anyway, to summarize: If there is a meal for each person drinking on the tab, and they cover their faces when appropriate, and they sit outside, they can have beer.

It can often feel like there is nothing but bad news out there, especially if you watch cable news or pay attention to social media, but I am happy to say that this is not the case: I have personally been the beneficiary of the generosity of many people who have stopped in to get something to go or have something onsite—and it has been extremely heart-warming. My mother has said that, when I was very young, I used to get overwhelmed to the point of tears when I would get a certain number of Christmas or birthday presents. Some of that emotion has stuck with me to this day—buried deep inside my calloused soul—and I've felt it well up a number of times during the past few months. There have been fewer customers, fewer fun shifts with my co-workers, and lots of moments of worry—but the vast majority of the patrons have been understanding and magnanimous with their tips. I cannot properly express my gratitude for this, but I'm going to try anyway: Thank you. It has meant a lot to me to so far not have to worry about my financial situation on top of all that there is to worry about, and that would not have been possible if it weren't for you. The brewery I work for feels the same way in that we have been able to keep the doors open despite the madness that has befallen us.

I just want us to be able to get to the other side of the pandemic, where we might be able to enjoy some high-fives and hugs again—without having to think about potentially serious lung damage or death. Which means that I hope you stay safe until then.

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..

All right, that’s it. I’ve had enough. I have to break free.

No, you’ll still find me wearing a mask when I’m out; I am merely talking about finding things to write about related to the lockdown. I need to talk about something else—while simultaneously looking forward to the future. What better way to do that than talk about where I would love to travel when everything has settled down?

Of course, beer is going to play an important part in deciding which places I choose—and I am accepting no limit to our imaginations. So grab your travel-size toiletries and your most-easily removable shoes, and come with me.

I’ll begin with the country whose beers changed my perception of what beer could be: Belgium. If you haven’t experienced Belgian beer outside of the parody of it called Stella Artois, I almost envy you in a strange way. For centuries, Trappist monks toiled to craft some of the most-refined ales in existence—and to this day, some of them still do. Saint-Sixtus of Westvleteren is an abbey that is widely considered to brew some of the finest beer on the planet. You can go to their visitor center and sample some beer, but most people pre-order it and pick up their limited supply in person. The Westvleteren 12 is their most-lauded ale. The 12 is Westvleteren’s quadrupel ale known as the “Belgian Burgundy,” and I’ve been lucky enough to sample it a handful of times. It is truly a work of art in a glass, and this would be toward the top of my wish list for visiting while there.

Then there is Brussels, where the beer cafés have shockingly good beer selections (both on tap and especially in bottles), with knowledgeable staff—and cuisine made with the beer itself. There’s also one of my favorite breweries on the planet located there: Brasserie Cantillon. Jean Van Roy is the brewer, and he creates some of the finest lambics (spontaneously fermented and often sour ales); they are incredibly difficult to get a hold of.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Podge’s Belgian Beer Tours, founded by a man (dubbed Podge, of course) from the United Kingdom and run currently by his wife, Siobhan McGinn, who is uniquely qualified to lead tours in Belgium.

“My late husband, Podge, and I wrote the definitive book on Belgian lambic beer Lambicland, and we are seen as experts on spontaneously fermented beer,” says McGinn.

There’s still another layer to this onion: “The other popular tours are Beer and Battlefields tours in Flanders, as I have a master’s degree in British First World War studies and my dissertation was on ‘Alcohol, Morale and Discipline in the British Army in Flanders in the First World War.’” As much as I adore lambics, I would have a very difficult time not going on one of the battlefield tours first. There are other tours as well. (“All our tours are individually designed and no two are exactly the same, but most popular is the LambicLand Revisted/Tour de Geuze tour every two years in May to coincide with the Tour de Geuze,” McGinn adds.)

Now that I’ve spent most of my column singing the praises of Belgium, I have the difficult task of listing some more places. At the risk of rankling ancient ire on many sides, I will combine Ireland and the United Kingdom for my next trip. I have long wanted to do a complete tour of the isles centered on beer, and there’s never been a better time. Both countries have been touched by the craft-beer movement, but my love for beer was kindled in part due to the old styles: the Irish dry stouts and reds, the various malty Scottish ales, and the highly drinkable cask ales and rich, aged barley wines of England. As much as possible, I would love to have a true pub experience that just cannot be had here in the States. It is worth mentioning that the newer craft breweries in both nations are making some brilliant beer as well—Porterhouse Brewing in Dublin and Beavertown Brewery in London are two whose quality for which I can vouch—but if I can get at some Samuel Smith on tap, I will be a happy boy.

Of course, there are many areas in North America where one can devote a whole visit to craft beer. San Diego is obvious and close, and has many areas within its county limits where one could devote a single trip. Portland, Ore., is equally obvious and packed with food and beer experiences to delight even the snobbiest of beer lovers. There are also Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, Tijuana, New York and Boston … and this fails to mention all of the jaunts that can be made to the breweries on the outskirts of major cities that have amazing rewards for those who make the effort.

I can easily go on, but I have reached the point where I am merely torturing myself by thinking of all the possibilities. I’ve described in past columns my two-month stay in Bavaria more than 20 years ago, and I would love another chance to visit and revisit some places not only in Bavaria, but throughout Germany—with a glass of Kölsch in Cologne, some Altbier in Frankfurt, and Rauchbier in Bamberg. One could also explore recent trends in craft beer in Berlin—and more.

Czechia would certainly fit into this picture, and then there are places with burgeoning craft-beer scenes like Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Australia … it’s all too much to type this out without going mad wishing I were there and not in my room.

One day, when I’m reveling in my luck that I reached any of these places, I will look back to this and smile, thinking, “It was all worth the wait.” Until then, I sign off from the safety of my computer desk—and hope to see it all on the other side of this ugly moment in history.

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..

In these strange times, the last thing you might be pondering is: "How do I get my craft beer, though?"

However, there are options for California craft-beer aficionados. In fact, the pandemic has made it easier than ever to get one’s hands on the best beer across the state—without having to go to a single brewery. A group of friends and I have been enjoying some of these benefits, and my fridge has seen some amazing beers that I didn't get to previously enjoy very often.

Let's begin locally. As far as I know, every brewery in the Coachella Valley is doing to-go orders, and some are offering rotating deals. The best way to find out about these details is social media—as much as I despise Facebook and its ilk, as I think it has made the world a demonstrably worse place. Anyway, the brewery where I work has been offering limited delivery on any order more than $20, for a $5 delivery fee. At least two other breweries in town are doing similar things. I won’t be too specific as this is all subject to change, but all of this information is incredibly easy to look up; it took me about five clicks to verify what breweries are delivering versus offering only pickup, at least as of this writing. Also, use one of those searches to figure out each brewery’s hours. Most places of business are not operating on their usual schedules (as you might imagine), and breweries are no exception. Of course, with bars and taprooms closed, many of these breweries are hurting right now—so if you can swing a purchase or two, now is most definitely the time to support these local businesses.

Expanding our circle of concern out a bit: The Craft Lounge in Beaumont is definitely worth a look; you can order online and pick up your beer at their curb. Recently, the store had a special crowler (sort of like a growler, but not refillable) sale of Bottle Logic Brewing beers. If you're unfamiliar, Bottle Logic's beers are highly sought after (especially their barrel-aged stout releases), and the brewery has had to institute a whole separate pickup system for their bottle releases due to insane lines. Craft Lounge is also selling cans and bottles of some great beers, albeit at pretty steep prices. I will say this, however: Many of those cans and bottles are impossible to find here in the desert, so you pay for the privilege.

That brings us to the state level: Some heralded breweries have quickly pivoted to the shipping game—many of which were not offering beer for shipping previously. I will throw out some names, and apologies to the breweries I've left out: Cellarmaker Brewing (whose beer I've had the joy of getting in on thanks to some of their recent sales; it’s absolutely brilliant all around), Burgeon Beer Company, Kern River Brewing, Beachwood Brewing, Societe Brewing, North Coast Brewing—and the list goes on. That short list covers much of California geographically … and here's the kicker: Much of this shipping-within-the-state stuff is likely to continue once we get back to some semblance of normalcy.

"It is legal to ship beer in California," says Shelby Swensen, tasting room manager at the aforementioned Burgeon Beer Company, in Carlsbad. (If you forced me to say what my favorite brewery is, this would be the answer.) "Due to the constant high demand in the tasting room, as well as our accounts, we didn't allocate any beer for shipping. Now, with the times changing due to COVID-19, we have found that it is beneficial to both parties to ship beer. Now that we have the system in place, we will continue to ship our beer."

In addition to cases of cans, Burgeon is also shipping one-use, recyclable kegs of most of their beers. What a strange and wonderful time for craft beer consumers.

I know what you might be thinking: "This has to be wildly expensive." While the prices of the beers themselves vary, I've found the cost of shopping—which usually takes a week or less—to be incredibly reasonable. After all, shipping companies have a robust network set up for other purposes, though some breweries have been using them in varying degrees for years now. Shelby at Burgeon gave me a little insight regarding what they do.

"Once an order is placed, depending on when you place the order, it will be shipped cold within 24 hours. This allows customers to get our beer fresh."

Be wary of any brewery that does not ensure cold shipment. Heat is the enemy of beer—especially now that it's warming up here in the desert.

Of course, many breweries are in danger if they can't shift to this new paradigm—and some are imperiled regardless. But the fact that some breweries have shifted so quickly—with a few thriving, even—is definitely a light in the current darkness. While we’re still in the midst of this pandemic, we beer-lovers can at least look forward to a world with more access to the beer we love without having to travel for it. That may not be much in the overall scheme of things, but it's something—and I don't know about you, dear reader, but something is definitely good enough for me right now.

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..

As this Horseman of the Apocalypse continues his world tour, some of us are handling isolation poorly. Well, I'm here with a helpful suggestion if you have some time on your hands and have a little extra money lying around: Make your own beer.

If your first reaction to this suggestion is to scoff, please read on—and see that the prospect of brewing beer at home is not as difficult as you might think.

I’ve been interested in beer for decades and learned how it was made early on in my readings about the subject (Beer for Dummies was really a great introduction), but I didn't feel the urge to brew my own until a little more than a decade ago. At the time, I was doing a podcast on beer with my cousin Josh, and it just seemed silly to not try our hand at brewing. We ordered the basics we needed to do this at Josh's home—a 6-gallon kettle; a glass carboy to hold the wort as it ferments into beer; a stirring spoon; some grain and hop bags; and a bunch of 22-ounce bottles for when it was finished.

At the time, my sister lived in San Clemente; when I would visit, I’d usually stop by O'Shea Beer Co. in neighboring Laguna Niguel to collect beers I couldn't get my hands on here in the desert. The store carries supplies for homebrewers as well as a wide array of recipe kits. This is where I purchased the Hop Mothra IPA partial-mash kit—I will get into the terminology in a bit—which we brewed and made a flawed, but successfully drinkable beer.

I was hooked.

My cousin's schedule was not as flexible as mine, so I wound up going at it alone. As I do with everything I love, I did some heavy research. The first edition of How to Brew by John Palmer (still available for free at was my go-to resource, and I would highly recommend it (or the not-as-free fourth edition, if you want to throw the man some financial love).

In homebrewing, you can go one of three ways: You can go all in and do all-grain; do partial mash (as I did throughout my time as a homebrewer); or use extract. All-grain brewing is as it sounds: No extracts are involved. This is the most-involved option; it requires some more equipment, but to many “gatekeeping” homebrewers, this is the only real option. For those who don't want to throw their entire lives into the hobby, however, there are the other two options. Extract brewing utilizes only malt extracts, while partial mash uses milled specialty grains (varying by recipe, of course) to enhance the extracts.

From there, I searched online and was happily surprised to find the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club. I reached out via their Yahoo! Group page; the club's founder and then-president, Micah Stark, invited me to a homebrew competition award ceremony being held at the late, lamented Schmidy's Tavern. Micah and another very capable brewer we called Sarge were there; I sampled an American red and an eisbock collaboration between Sarge and Chris Anderson. Both were impressive. I paid the dues and started sitting in with the brewers with whom I was most impressed. It was pretty easy; at the time, there were only eight members, at the most. This allowed me to tighten up my processes—and I'm happy to say that I pumped out some pretty solid beers as a result.

But that's just my story. There are many paths that lead to brewing at home.

Current CVHBC president Josh Kunkle got started when his local homebrew supply shop threw in a free beer kit along with the equipment he’d bought to make cider.

"On a whim, I followed their directions to the letter and was pleasantly surprised with the results,” Kunkle said. “I would later find that the beer was much more diverse and easy to make by comparison (to cider), and so I stuck with that, although I've since dabbled in more of the fermented arts." He also went with a bare-bones partial-mash setup at first.

The aforementioned Chris Anderson—a former president of the CVHBC, the founding brewer of the Coachella Valley Brewing Company, and an all-around encyclopedia of beer knowledge—found himself intrigued after reading his friend's copy of homebrewing icon Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

"A local homebrew shop sold homebrewing supplies and never cared that I was underage,” Anderson said. “After all, they weren’t selling alcohol, but rather barley, hops and yeast. I started with a carboy, a bottle bucket and a stainless-steel pot. I won a slew of medals with this simple setup. I had the opportunity to get a three-tiered 15-gallon keggle (a keg repurposed as a brew kettle) system a few years later." From there, he was off to the races, with stints in his home state at Midnight Sun Brewing and Alaskan Brewing, before bringing his expertise to the Coachella Valley.

I'm happy to say that the club still exists today; I'd heartily recommend it and/or the Mojave Desert Brewers Guild even if you haven't brewed a single batch yet.

As for your starting setup: The most convenient options are going to be found online. Kunkle recently guest-authored a post on Andrew Smith's Coachella Valley Beer Scene site discussing more of what you can do to get started. While the physical location is closed at the moment, MoreBeer Riverside is a fine homebrew shop that has helped me and many others out of a pinch when our yeast was dead or something broke just before we were attempting a brew. Fortunately, MoreBeer has an online store that should suit your needs. Northern Brewer and Austin Homebrew Supply are other fine online alternatives.

Anderson recommends simple starting equipment: "I suggest reading up on the basics and starting with a (BIAB) brew-in-a-bag setup. More Beer Riverside has all that is needed,” he said. “It’s not very expensive to buy a pot with a thermometer and valve. I always encourage folks to go straight to kegging, which will add a couple hundred bucks. It is just so much easier than bottling.

“There has never been a better time to learn to homebrew since we are all stuck at home with time on our hands. The technology and ingredient availability is pretty incredible. Mostly anything can be mail-ordered."

The one thing I will add to all of this is to be open to constructive criticism. Never expect to be endlessly lauded for your homebrewed beer and have your mistakes covered up for you. Find out why whatever went wrong with your beer happened so that it will never happen again. Yes, this is a hobby, but one whose labors result in beverages for you and your friends—and friends don't let friends drink bad beer, even if it was made at home.

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 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..

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