Thirsty Bear takes on the challenge of the lamb

Taking on an entire four-legged herbivore, nose to tail, breaking it down and creating a seven-dish menu is a daunting proposition for any chef. More so if that animal is a lamb, with a distinctive flavor profile that could easily seem repetitive after a while. Then, just for the hell of it, pair the all-lamb menu with all of the beers on the tap list. Thirsty Bear Organic Brewery Chef Rob McCarthy was up to the task, and along the way he discovered some dishes that we hope will find a permanent place on the brewpub’s small plates menu.

Thirsty Bear was one of four American restaurants chosen to participate in this week’s “Brews, Ewe’s, and BBQ’s,” sponsored by the American Lamb Board to highlight a meat that is popular around the world but somewhat underappreciated in the United States.

McCarthy included beer in several of his recipes and paired Thirsty Bear’s beers not so much with the meat as with the overall flavors of the dishes. Although the menu listed beer pairing suggestions, we ordered a tasting flight of all of Thirsty Bear’s regular beers, as well as a couple of new IPAs, to experiment with our own combinations.

Right off the bat, McCarthy knocked it out of the park with an ambitious Merguez Sausage dish that included grilled octopus, potato and lemon, pimenton aioli and pea sprouts. McCarthy made the sausage himself (although casings were not provided with the lamb) and slow cooked, then grilled the octopus so that it was tender with an endearing smoky flavor. It all came together with the aioli and lemon. Although the menu suggested pairing the dish with Polar Beer Pilsner, we liked it even better with the Valencia Wheat, which seemed to pick up on the citrus flavors while complementing the Merguez sausage and balancing the grilled flavor of the octopus. McCarthy said he wants to keep this one on the menu, and we heartily agree.
Lamb Belly Pastrami was another standout. Nicely poached asparagus and eggy sauce gribiche accentuated the many flavors of the deftly cured lamb belly. Grilled Lamb T-bone consisted of a small, thick, flavorful chop that we preferred medium rare rather than the suggested medium. The T-bone was accompanied by a lemon-mint gremolata and marinated fava beans. It paired nicely with the Citra Double Down IPA, brewed for last week’s IPA Day. 
In another dish, a pair of Piquillo Peppers were stuffed with ground lamb and rice and bathed in a sherry tomato cream sauce. Thirsty Bear was right to suggest pairing those hearty, delicate flavors with their Meyer ESB.
McCarthy was clearly stoked by the lamb challenge, and he didn’t forget the offal, either. Lambs Head Cheese was served almost like a pate, with Challenger Hop Mustard, atop grilled bread. We thought that toast or something crispier would have stood up better to the headcheese. Lamb Sweetbreads came fried and puffy with heirloom tomatoes and tiny flavorful padron peppers. You’ll either love them or hate them.
Thirsty Bear will be serving the seven-dish beer-pairing menu all week, and if we’re lucky we’ll see at least a few of the dishes on the restaurant’s regular small plate menu.

Thirsty Bear Organic Brewing
661 Howard St
San Francisco, CA 94105 

(415) 974-0905

Beer and games in the Castro

As craft beer asserts itself as part of the mainstream, it is becoming a necessary part of trendy new pubs and bars.
About 10 years ago, Paul Kermizian, who directed the 2002 craft beer documentary, American Beer, and a few of his friends bet they could make a business out of two of their favorite pastimes: playing classic video games and drinking good beer. In 2004, they opened their first Barcade in an old metal shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Four more followed, including two in New York in 2014. Beer and arcade-themed pubs have since sprung up in Chicago, Omaha and Indianapolis, and now in San Francisco.
Brewcade on Market Street offers an intriguing prospect to grizzled 80s arcade veterans and retro-chic millennials alike: The opportunity to wrap their itchy trigger fingers around a breed of uniquely satisfying video games sadly on the verge of extinction. The beer is the easy part. Success will require Brewcade owners Shawn Vergara and Tiffny Vergara Chung to invest as much care and creativity in the quality of the games as they do in the taps and bottles, if not more.

The Beer
The beer list is promising, though a little unfocused. Thats to be expected as the brand new pub finds its footing with its video gamer customers. For now, the 25 taps and numerous bottles tick most of the boxes that beer drinkers have come to expect: usual suspects like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam and Racer 5, along with some unexpected pleasures, such as Fort Point Kolsch, Heretic Shallow Grave Porter, Henhouses Honest Days Pay Tart Saison and on nitro, Ryrish Dry Irish Stout from Mountain Toad Brewing. Adjusting the taps to suit the clientele shouldnt be too difficult, though dedicated craft beer drinkers might still prefer the classic pub ambience of Lucky 13 down the block.

The Games
As most local arcade goers know, you'd be hard-pressed to find a real video arcade anywhere in the Bay Area. The economy hasn't been kind to any establishment trying to make a buck off arcade cabs. Most have closed down and their games languish in storage.

Walking into Brewcade, I was happily greeted with the familiar blend of arcade sounds and fuzzy 80s monitor glow. A well-used Neo Geo cab hummed away up front, and it was nice to see a Paperboy cab complete with bicycle handle controller and  Centipede. A panel TV was showing a movie with the sound off and the juke box rumbled loudly against the din of the machines.

I usually gravitate toward shooting games like R-Type II and the 19xx series. One of the nicest aspects of arcades is how social they can be, with onlookers clustering around more experienced players to see how its done and to pick up new strategies against some of the seemingly impossible stages of games.

For arcade game newbies, these games are real quarter-munchers. I'm sure that having a few too many beers only adds to the hilarity of Game Overs! leading to even more coins spent out of frustration. (Arcade etiquette demands that you put your quarters on the cabinet or screen of the machine as your place in line. Don't just feed the machine until you run out of money.) 

I liked the way the arcade cabinets were spaced out, and the cup-holders by each game were an excellent touch. Overall I really like the idea of a bar and an arcade, and think it's a perfect marriage of two wonderful things. However, there are a few questions/suggestions I'd like to address.

Whats up with the games?
Are there more?
The Neo Geo cabinet, for instance, is a cartridge based game system built with swapping in mind. Could players like my friend Myung Kim and myself request game board changes in some of the cabinets? Swapping out boards could be an attractive option for people who want to play different games.
If the owners offered this to their gamer customers, they'd have a grateful and loyal following for the rest of their days.

Smooth buttons and joysticks, please

The game cabs could badly use some TLC. Nothing crazyjust a little maintenance on the buttons and joysticks.
Also the coin slots are in dire need of fixing. They ate at least a dollars worth of my quarters and I know I'm not the only one. And I wasn't please that my button jammed the entire duration of my game.

These are good machines; they just need regular maintenance to function properly. Most of them carry inexpensive American Happ parts, which are cheap to swap out.

To sum up:

1) Recap and retune the screens
2) Replace the buttons (some of the sticks on the older games are harder to get new, but all the buttons are standard happ parts you can get for cheap)
3) Repair the coin mechs (they eat too many coins)
4) Replace the blue elf and pandora boards with original hardware and cycle through the games more

(Special thanks to Myung Kim for his input and expertise on this matter)

The gamer in me really hopes arcades will make a comeback, but if my only alternative was a beer and Puzzle Bobble, I'd say Brewcade was doing it right.


Historic Summit Showcases Hundreds of California Craft Beers

Tom McCormick isn’t getting much sleep these days. In just a couple of weeks, the executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) will welcome some 150 craft breweries, along with home brewers, retailers, wholesalers, beer enthusiasts and others to celebrate the state where craft beer was born. “It’s an event that’s never been done in the craft brewing industry anywhere in the country,” said McCormick.
The two-day California Craft Beer Summit and Brewers Showcase, which will be held Sept. 11 and 12 at the Sacramento Convention Center and on Capitol Mall, respectively, will be unlike any other beer event. The Summit on Friday and Saturday will feature exhibitors and tap talks on the convention floor, as well as chefs demonstrating how to pair beer with food and how to cook with beer. The Summit will also include interactive discussions about the four primary ingredients in beer: hops, water, barley and yeast. Tasting stations will offer an array of beers, including some new releases.
Speakers represent a who’s-who of California craft beer, from pioneers like Fritz Maytag and Mark Carpenter of Anchor Brewing and Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada to David Walker and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing, Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Tony Magee of Lagunitas and Steve Wagner and Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing, to name a few.
“We intentionally picked topics that we thought will be of interest to the broad spectrum of people attending, but also compelling topics such as, what’s the potential for the industry looking into the future?” said McCormick. “Is there a bubble? Will it continue to grow? And for the Sacramento brewers panel: What can we expect in Sacramento? How many new breweries can open up?”
McCormick added: “We’re offering demos, educational seminars and exhibits specific to each of the individual groups attending the event. But we feel we all have something to learn from each other. For example, the brewers are really excited that we’re going to have three or four home brewing demos going on. Home-brewing clubs are bringing the latest and greatest equipment in home brewing. The brewers are excited to see what the home brewers are up to. Likewise, vendors for the professional brewery are exhibiting equipment, and the home brewers are excited about that. The retailers have a lot to learn from the consumers and the wholesalers have a lot to learn from the retailers.”
The Craft Beer Summit will shine a light on the unusual synergy among consumers, home brewers and professional breweries. “It’s a unique industry in that the consumer is really connected with the manufacturer, in this case the craft brewery. You don’t see that in many consumer products,” McCormick said. “The roots of craft brewing are absolutely in home brewing. So many of the current craft brewers come from a home brewing background originally.”
It’s a sure bet that some of the consumers attending the Sacramento event will become home brewers and some of the home brewers will open their own breweries. It’s already happening. “There are hundreds of what we call ‘breweries in planning’ on our database list. A lot of consumers are thinking about it and a lot of the people who are coming to this event are actively in the process of starting a brewery,” McCormick said.

Brewers Showcase

The beer drinking will commence in earnest on Saturday afternoon after the Summit, a few blocks away on Capitol Mall. The Brewers Showcase will offer a unique opportunity to sample beers from all over the state side-by-side, especially beers from Southern California that usually don’t make it outside their local markets. “That was a big part of our goal, and it wasn’t easy,” McCormick said. “A lot of the (Southern California) breweries that will be at the Brewers Showcase would not typically go to a beer festival in Sacramento or even Northern California because they’re so small and a lot of them are already selling as much beer as they can make anyway.”
To make it easier for SoCal breweries to bring their beers to Sacramento, the CCBA set up a logistical system of drop-off points in San Diego and Los Angeles where the breweries can drop off their beers and equipment. “It’s great, because some of these tiny breweries are able to just drop their beer off and then hop on a plane or drive their car up rather than their van full of beer. Then we’re taking all of their empty kegs and jockey boxes and whatever they want to put in there and are shipping it back to them,” McCormick said.
At the Brewers Showcase, each of the 150 breweries will bring two kegs and as many bottles as they want. One of the requirements for the event is that someone from each of the breweries will be pouring at their booth. “We’ve told the breweries that this event is for them, so bring some special beers,” said McCormick. “We anticipate some very special beers and we’re starting to see some specific products as the breweries fill out their sheets. There are definitely going to be some unique beers poured that breweries are bringing out of the aging rooms and cellars because it is a special event.”
The Craft Beer Summit and Brewers Showcase is an ambitious maiden voyage for an organization known mostly for its advocacy for craft beer legislation, such as lobbying the state legislature to allow craft beer to be poured at farmer’s markets. “Although we’ve done a lot of events over the years, the association has never done a consumer event before,” said McCormick, whose background is in the beer industry and not events. “We’re all entrepreneurs. You have to be a pretty crazy entrepreneur to get into this business. You don’t get into this business for the money. You get into it because you love it and you’re passionate and creative. We wanted to do something different, and I think we are.”
Happily, this year’s Summit and Showcase won’t be a one-off. “We have a five-year strategic plan, and this event signals that the association wants to further promote craft beer both as a product and as an industry,” McCormick said.
“Our vision is for this to be an annual event and ultimately not just a regional event. Our vision is that this will be a showcase event for the craft brewing industry that people from all over the country come to California to see and do, similar to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.”
For more details about this historic event, including how to get tickets, go here.
Use this code for a discount: CAcraftbeer10


Hog heaven: Heritage BBQ chefs compete for best pork plate

Five pigs, five chefs, five wineries and one brewer.
On Sunday, Sept. 13, five top chefs will square off at Smokestack Barbecue in Dogpatch in a friendly competition that challenges them to prepare six dishes from one whole, family farm-raised heritage pig.
Cochon555 founder Brady Lowe started Heritage BBQ in 2012 to educate chefs and restaurants about responsibly raised animals and to help stimulate a market for heritage breed meat and sustainable methods. This is the first year in San Francisco for Cochon’s Heritage BBQ competition and the timing is perfect, said Magnolia Brewing and Alembic owner Dave McLean, who opened Smokestack Barbecue in the spring of 2014. McLean said Lowe’s values at Cochon555 align with what he is doing at his restaurants. “At Smokestack we buy whole animals from our local rancher and break down the whole pig and find ways to use everything,” McLean said.
 “Barbecue seems to be having a moment in San Francisco. There are great things that you can do with barbecue that are consistent with food values in terms of local sourcing and sustainability,” he said.
McLean, who has poured his beer at  other Cochon555 events, said even though Heritage BBQ is a friendly competition, everyone gets amped up for it. “All the chefs work hard to beat the other four chefs.”
The chefs have seven days to prepare a Judge’s Plate consisting of six dishes, which will be scored on utilization, global influences, cooking techniques and overall flavor. The dishes will be judged by a panel and by the diners.
Chefs accepting the challenge are:
• Dennis Lee of Smokestack/Namu Gaji,
• Geoff Davis from The Dock,
• Michael Rafidi of RN74,
• Nicolai Lipscomb of The Battery and
• John Madriaga from Spruce.
In addition, 10 chefs will prepare a dish from their favorite BBQ culture. Grilling styles include Hibachi, Korean BBQ, Asador, Braai from Africa, Char Siu, Caja China, Churrasco and Barbacoa, as well as regional American BBQ styles.
Even though Cochon555’s events are wine oriented, McLean said diners gravitate to Magnolia’s beer booth because beer tastes so good with pork.

Why do beer and pork pair so well?
“It works in a couple of ways,” McLean said. “There are some flavors in pork that show themselves whether its cured, charcuterie, slow roasted in the oven or grilled. Caramel notes and the caramelization of some of the meat flavors dovetail perfectly with some of the malt notes in a lot of beer. On top of that harmonic flavor match, pork can be fatty and rich, so you simultaneously have the scrubbing bubbles effect of the carbonation that cuts through the fat, resets the palate and makes it enjoyable to keep eating that dish.”
Barbecue amplifies those flavors, said McLean. Slow cooking over low temperatures for long periods of time brings out deep caramelization in an even more intense way. “On top of that, some of the smoke complexity that gets picked up by the meat in the barbecue also seems to dovetail with both the malt and hoppiness in beer. It all comes together in a way that just works.”   
McLean’s beer palate gravitates toward malt-forward English ales: bitters, milds and pale ales, and darker brown ales and porters. “I particularly love what some of the midrange color malts do in the beer and how they pair with a variety pork dishes,” he said. “There’s a residual sweetness that comes through in the beer from some of the unfermentable sugar and the crystal and caramel malts, as well as the actual caramel flavor that comes through from those malts. The caramelization comes together in the beer and the food really shines. That’s like THE pairing in my mind with a smoked pork chop or pork ribs.”
The best complementary pairings can create a sort of gastronomic epiphany. “A lot of things go pretty well with each other, and that’s delicious and you can have a really enjoyable experience,” said McLean. “But sometimes you land on a pairing where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The two things make each other taste better. Those are the ones you really fall in love with.”

Sunday, Sept. 13
4 p.m., VIP; 5 p.m., regular admission
What: Cochon555 Heritage BBQ competition
Where: Smokestack Barbecue at Magnolia Brewing Co.
2505 3rd Street
San Francisco
For tickets, go here.