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The Keg vs. The Cork in Sonoma

Chef Sang Yoon will almost always choose ale over Riesling, and he’s happy to battle any sommelier about it. In Sonoma County—where wine geeks rule—he seeks out (and finds) excellent craft beers and creates six beer-friendly recipes.

Sang Yoon is a chef. S ang Yoon is also a Korean-Russian hockey-playing beer provocateur who lives a short drive from his Santa Monica bar and restaurant, Father’s Office. At Father’s Office, Yoon keeps 36 craft beers on tap at all times; as if that weren’t enough, at his house he also has three more beer taps, directly connected to kegs, in his kitchen. When Yoon tells me this, I say something like, "You have beer taps in your kitchen?" and he gives me a look that seems to say, Of course—why wouldn’t I?

"Well, not that many people have kegs in their kitchen," I point out.

"If they want fresh beer they do," Yoon replies firmly. Certainty is not something that Sang Yoon lacks. He is certain about wine: "I’m tired of red wine." He is certain about Texas barbecue: "You take a brisket and dry it out with hot smoke? Come on. Of course it’s going to be terrible." Mostly, though, he is certain about beer: "I’m on a mission. I’m convincing people that beer can be just as contemplative and fascinating as wine, and just as perfectly meshed with food."

I get to know Yoon even better during a daylong beer tour we decide to take through Sonoma County. Yoon, who is opening a new branch of Father’s Office near Culver City this summer, is on the hunt for interesting new beers to add to his list, but the trip is also a pilgrimage of sorts. Sonoma County—despite its tens of thousands of acres of grapevines—is considered by many fans to be the place where American craft brewing got its start, thanks to the work back in the late 1970s and early ’80s of the groundbreaking (and now defunct) New Albion Brewery.

We meet at noon one Thursday at Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, down at the southern end of the county. The brewery is hidden away behind an entirely drab two-story office complex, and it seems perverse to me that it doesn’t have a sign out front—until company cofounder and "head beer weasel" Ron Lindenbusch explains that it was stolen the week before. "For the fourth time," he adds. "It’s kind of like a sport these days. For the next one, we’re going to put it on concrete pillars sunk about five feet into the ground." This explanation can qualify as rule number one regarding the differences between wine people and beer people: Typically, wine aficionados do not rip winery signs out of the ground and transport them back to their homes (or dorm rooms).

Most California craft breweries make beer in a broad range of styles, and Lagunitas is no exception. Some are familiar—including a hoppy, citrusy IPA, or India pale ale, a bitter style originally invented to be sturdy enough to survive the voyage from Britain to India (hops are a natural preservative). Other styles, which tend to be seasonal, are more oddball. A case in point is the Lagunitas Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale, which commemorates the day when undercover agents of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control busted the brewery during one of its Thursday-afternoon parties for, as Lindenbusch says, "what people were smoking in the beer garden out back." The brewery was shut down for 20 days, and the ale created in response is "big, alcoholic and bitter—basically how we felt about the whole thing," Lindenbusch says.

He tells Yoon and me this story in the Lagunitas tasting room while he draws us samples of the brewery’s different beers. Yoon regularly features the Lagunitas IPA at Father’s Office, and he remarks that its pronounced, resinous hoppiness is essentially a West Coast invention. "It sort of exaggerates the traditional IPA style, which is more subtle. But this isn’t as extreme as some of them. With a lot of West Coast IPAs, it’s like, whammo, first sip."

We move on to the Sonoma Farmhouse Saison Style Ale, a light, distinctly spicy summer ale that will later inspire Yoon to create an amazingly delicious double-pork, double-cheese burger to go with it (recipe, p. 192). Finally we try a new anniversary beer, Lucky 13, fresh from the tank. A full-bodied, earthy ale with a ruddy hue, it is extraordinarily well balanced, and Yoon—never one to hesitate—immediately says to Lindenbusch, "I have to get this. I can sell everything you have of this. This is great."

Curiously, Yoon grew up hating beer. What changed his mind was a bottle of Delirium Tremens, generally considered one of the greatest Belgian ales, which he tasted in 1989 while working at Joël Robuchon’s Jamin in Paris—a stage that turned into a paying job (and a coup for someone who was, at the time, a culinary school dropout). After Jamin, Yoon went on to work with Alain Ducasse in Monaco. The conversation on his arrival there, he recalls, went something along the lines of, "You worked at Robuchon’s?" "Yes." "Did they pay you?" "Yes." "Okay, in that case, you’re hired." Throughout this European sojourn, Yoon kept trying different beers, and when he returned to the United States, his newfound fascination came with him.

Yoon’s timing was good. In the ’90s, the craft- and microbrewery movements in America really took off, a momentum fueled by brewers’ interest first in traditional English and German beer styles, and more recently in Belgian ales and lambics (many of which have yeasts left in the bottle to promote a secondary fermentation). "What’s interesting is that now the influence of American brewers is heading back to the Old World," Yoon tells me as we drive to Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company. "Now you find Belgian brewers experimenting with American hops, for instance."

Possibly thanks to Yoon’s Delirium Tremens epiphany, Belgian-style beers, with their complex, exotic palette of flavors, are his real passion. This partly explains why he cites Russian River Brewing Company as his favorite brewery in the region; the other part of the explanation is that Russian River brewer Vinnie Cilurzo makes some beers that are simply outside the realm of what anyone else is doing. Yoon, an extreme-experience kind of guy, loves them.

We gather around an upturned wine cask and taste Cilurzo’s latest experiments. One of the best is Temptation, a Belgian-style blonde ale that spends about 15 months in used Chardonnay barrels. "It’s Meursault-esque," Yoon states. "King crab with this? Mmm. Whole roasted turbot! Dover sole—classic French! I’m ignoring the fact that it’s beer and pretending it’s Meursault," he says, and in fact that is what the beer recalls, with its earthy and bready scent, bright acidity and fruity flavor.

Cilurzo’s wife, Natalie, now joins us. An attractive woman who also happens to have the pitchfork from the label of Russian River’s Damnation ale tattooed between her shoulder blades (a gift for Vinnie), she opens up a few bottles of Supplication for us, saying that it’s her favorite of all the beers Cilurzo has made in the 17 years they’ve been together. A Belgian-style brown ale, Supplication is finished in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries and wild yeasts, including Brettanomyces, the bane of winemakers everywhere (when "Brett" infects barrels, it gives wines a sweaty, musky aroma and taste). "We had some winemakers come into the bar, and I heard one of them tell the others, ’Don’t touch anything in here,’" Natalie says.

The beer is tangy, with bright acidity and a distinct cherry note, and Yoon loves it. "It’s like a version of Rodenbach," he says, referencing a well-known Belgian ale. "Other people have tried to do this and failed miserably. Typically beer is low in acid, but what this does is mimic wine with its brightness and acidity." Finally we try Salvation, a powerful Belgian-style dark ale that’s not aged in barrels and is one of Russian River’s mainstay beers. Yoon looks at the glass with thoughtful respect and says, "I can pair this with stuff that will rock your world. I’m thinking lamb—rack of lamb, definitely, maybe with an arugula pesto."

Next up is Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg. Like Russian River, it is a brewpub as well as a brewery, and with its utilitarian decor, it’s an appealingly low-key alternative to the flashy Napafication that Healdsburg is currently undergoing. (As owner Richard Norgrove points out, "Next door to us, you can get a hotel room for $400 a night; next door the other way, it’ll run you $500 a night. But right here, you can get a great beer for less than five bucks.")

Norgrove’s beers are less outré than Cilurzo’s but very good, particularly the dark, rich Racer 5 IPA, a perennial at Father’s Office. We sample the beers on the brewery’s covered patio, next to plastic trash cans full of malted barley. "The brewer’s breakfast," Norgrove says, explaining that a lot of brewers like to eat straight malted barley with milk and brown sugar. We munch a few of the crunchy, malty grains—very much like less dense Grape-Nuts—then head north out of Sonoma County to our final stop, Anderson Valley Brewing Company.

One of the oldest craft breweries in the region, founded in 1987, Anderson Valley Brewing Company is in Boonville, about an hour north of Healdsburg. It’s nearly five when we pull into the parking lot. We take a quick tour through the brewery, easily the largest one we’ve visited—it’s a warehouse-size building, whereas at Russian River, the tanks are jammed into a space the size of a two-car garage. We dutifully look at the tanks here, too, but at this point, Yoon and I are much more interested in sitting at a cedar table in the beer garden and tasting.

Owner Kenneth Allen sits down with us. Everything is good—one thing I’ve learned on this trip is that compared with wineries, the top craft breweries are remarkably consistent. About Anderson Valley’s Hop Ottin’ IPA, a benchmark for the style, Yoon says, "It’s floral, and the hops’ bitterness is gentle—it eases you into the bitterness. It shows that you can make a big beer subtle. It’s like the sumo wrestler walking the tightrope."

Even so, the standout for both me and Yoon is Anderson Valley’s Poleeko Gold, a beautifully dry, not very bitter pale ale that we both feel is pretty much the ideal summer beer. Yoon mentions pairing it with a grilled striped bass dish he likes to make, and to me—it is getting close to dinnertime, after all—that sounds just about perfect.

Published June 2007
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