Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Riding the Wave at Karl Strauss with Chris Cramer and Paul Segura or, What’s He Building In There?

SAN DIEGO, CA. A few years ago I bellied up to the bar at a swanky wedding reception at a glass and steel museum in downtown Portland. My hard-nosed buddy Jim Solberg had just tied the knot with the lovely Anca , ending years of speculation that Jim was destined to spin out his days puttering in his hermit-ically sealed woodshop. The crowd was up – this was our Super Bowl. Amidst the rockets bursting in air, we were tensely awaiting the opening kick-off, coiled to spring headlong into what man or beast got in our pay. In short, we were ready to party, and party hard.

Next to me at the bar was a double-kegger of a man dressed comfortably in a body that seemed carved out of a towering platter of German pilsner soaked brats. I’d heard him speak at the wedding and knew he could handle an audience, and his alcohol. Charming, full-throated, appropriately reverent -- your standard-issue Stanford brainiac with the beer belly to match. He had just delivered a rousing toast tinged with humor and affection, and his mouth was dry. Pustules of dried spittle had gathered at the edges and I feared those enormous lips locked in a knowing grin would soon crack.

I’d heard that this patron of jolliness was in the beer business. I deduced from the Zen like way in which he carried himself that he knew things – important things-- the rest of us didn’t, so I waited for him to place his order. “I’ll have the Karl Strauss Amber Lager,” he casually beckoned, as if any other choice would have been uncivilized. It struck me, the way the four-letters (Karl *Strauss*Amber*Lager) rolled off his tongue as if it were one incantation, and the recital of same itself was an expression of piety . He was, by any account, the quintessential proud Papa, serenely privileged to share his pride and joy with the rest of us.

I had known of Karl Strauss. I’d tasted their beer and had bought a few cases in my time. Smooth, drinkable, festively carbonated. But I’d never held it up as the Golden Doubloon of fermented malted beverages. Now, standing their awe-struck next to this adoring tippler, my interest had been piqued. What does he know that we don’t? What’s he hiding in there? More critically, how could I tap into it? He exuded a confidence that hinted at owning a secret recipe for untapped greatness and limitless wealth.

The man’s name? Chris Cramer. Co-owner of Karl Strauss Brewing and classmate of Jim Solberg’s down at the Farm. A true believer. At the time, Karl Strauss was offering about 3 bottled beers, generally aimed at the growing legions of industrial lager drinkers who were just dissatisfied enough to be curious about dabbling in craft. What Chris Cramer knew that we didn’t was that Karl Strauss was busting to break out. They’d invested in a brew house and were primed to up their game, expand their repertoire, and experiment like crazy with heavily hopped brews, despite the edict of Uncle Karl who decreed in his day that Americans would never take to a beer whose bitterness crossed the 45 IBU Rubicon.

Today, the new and hopped-up Karl Strauss proudly offers 14 bottled beers and over 22 styles, plus a bevy of oddball but ambitious seasonal and drafts. They use over 25 varieties of hops. The other night I cracked a 22 oz bottle of a Belgian ale that had been aged in a bourbon cask. A few months earlier, Cramer had presented the bottle to me solemnly, as it were a rare loaded gun. Normally ,I enjoy sharing new grogs with my Lovely, but not this beauty. Within a few sips, my mind had begun to secrete from my body. A pint later, I was floating inside a cave pub in Salzburg, my back up against the ceiling, splayed out like a starfish, smiling down on all the wonderful good times seekers below. Easily the most deliriously delicious brew that had ever touched my soul.

We know today that Karl Strauss has arrived, thanks in large part to the workmanlike execution of Chris Cramer’s carefully crafted vision by brewmaster Paul Segura. Segura, who joined KS in 2001, is unafraid. Built like a butterflier with the wingspan of a California condor, the towering brewer never met a beer style that stared him down or left him weak. Belgians, pales, imperial pils, imperial IPAs, Black IPAs, hefeweizens, whateveryougot – bring it on. Seasonals and draughts galore. KS recently brewed up a Rye IPA for their pubs using generous amounts of our Cascade hop pellets. The verdict, per Paul: “Everybody loved it!” KS, to the delight of this proud papa, plans to brew up more.

Recently KS has earned attention for its flagship Red Trolley Ale, a heavily malted, copper colored, toffee flavored, hearty but drinkable ale. Red Trolley, which began as a holiday beer back in 1989, this year pulled off a brewer’s Olympics dream, taking back-to-back gold medals at the World Beer Cup in Chicago and the GABF in Denver. Not a bad year.

Paul admits to being surprised. They entered the “Irish Style Red Ale” category with modest expectations, pulling the beer from a batch headed for their bottling line. “We were elated,” Paul recalls. “The gold at GABF confirmed that our Gold at the World Beer Cup was no fluke.”

Although Paul wouldn’t dream of tweaking the Red Trolley recipe, which relies on oodles of Willamette hops for its aroma, he’s constantly tweaking the panoply of new styles KS has been introducing to its San Diego faithful the past few years. “We’ll continue to push the envelope, including more oak aged beers and more sour beers,” promises Paul, whose learned to thrive on little sleep.

In 2009, KS ranked 40th among crafties in terms of volumes, an 11% uptick from 2008 that coincides with KS’ bold mission to take on more styles. Not bad, especially when you consider KS had not aggressively marketed their brews outside of San Diego County.

When it comes to hops, Paul continues to follow his nose. He happened upon Nelson Sauvin hops a few years ago and was so impressed several of his brews feature the aromatic New Zealand hop. He’s also fired up to try Crystal, Chinook and Liberty hops from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In fact, the wheels are in motion for collaboration with a Portland, Oregon brewer on a brew that features 100% Oregon grown ingredients.

Little did I know four years ago when I gazed upon that ruddy-cheeked beer buddha that one day I’d be privileged to aid and abet his pursuit of enlightened beers. Today, a few pounds of Cascades for your Rye IPA. Tomorrow, the whole hop and caboodle. We are poised to feed the beast.

Roger Worthington

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