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Ben Franklin in the Bay Area

For the 300th Anniversary of the birth of Ben Franklin, which was January 17, the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary teamed up with the Brewers Association to create a special beer to honor the occasion called “Poor Richard’s Ale.” A contest was held to choose a winning recipe. The winner was Tony Simmons of Brick Oven Brewing in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The style was roughly that of an Old Ale or a Strong Scotch Ale. The recipe was then given out to all the Association members. Sadly, only 99 brewers made the beer, which I actually thought was a nifty little idea. That’s less than two breweries per state or about 7% of the estimated 1,368 American breweries currently operating today. Oh, well. Happily, four of those are in the Bay Area and they all got together at Half Moon Bay Brewing yesterday to taste their efforts.

The four brewers (from left to right) were Dave McLean, of Magnolia, Shaun O’Sullivan, of 21st Amendment, Emil Caluori, of Steelhead’s Burlingame brewery, and Alec Moss, of Half Moon Bay Brewing.

All four more or less followed the recipe but each deviated slightly due generally to necessity or availability of ingredients. Because of that, it was quite surprising how differently the four beers tasted given such small variations in ingredients. Even their color and head retention varied widely, as you can see below.

From left, Poor Richard’s Ale as imagined by Steelhead, 21st Amendment, Magnolia and Half Moon Bay.

The beers’ alcohol content came out pretty close with a range of 6.6-7% abv, with one each at the outside range and the other two at 6.8%. It appeared that Emil followed the recipe the closest and his at least resembled what I pictured a beer of the late 1700s to look like, cloudy and dully colored. Shaun did not use molasses and Dave used a roasted malt rather than Special Roast or Black Patent and Alec substituted Special B for the Special Roast. He also only used about half the corn the recipe called for.

Steelhead: Emil’s had that wonderful cloudy appearance with the dull brown ruddy complexion with dry malt aromas. It had very mild flavors with discernable sweet molasses, great mouthfeel, and a clean finish that boasted just a kiss of the hops at the end. This was a very drinkable beer, thirst-quenching and made it easy to imagine drinking tankards of this brew sitting outside at a wooden table on a cobblestone street in colonial Philly.

21st Amendment: Despite the forgotten molasses, Shaun’s version had a sharply sweet nose and bright golden amber color. It had crisp, clean flavors with some hoppy bitterness and a lingering finish. Also a very mild-bodied ale, it had just a touch of dry sourness lying pleasantly underneath and nipping at your taste buds. Also an excellent beer, it nonethless felt like it would be more at home in modern Philadelphia.

Magnolia: Dave’s use of roasted malt gave his beer the darkest complexion of the four. It was the black of a starless night sky with a thickly rich tan head. It also had a roasted nose with sweet aromas (the molasses?). Mild and silky smooth flavors with lactic chocolate and coffee notes from the roasted malt that would have reminded Franklin of the local milk maid, I imagine. After all, he was fond of the ladies. The finish is mostly clean with hints of the roastiness staying behind to taunt you.

Half Moon Bay: Alec’s take had dark brown color that was streaked with bright red wherever the light hit it. The nose was sharp and clean, with hints of peppery spices. Also boasting excellent mild flavors and a clean finish, this too felt like a modern interpretation.

None of the beers hinted at their above average alcohol content and could be enjoyed by the tankard or pitcher. And while there were similarities — all were mild, for example — what distinguished them was their differences. I might have expected those differences to be more subtle but in the end that would have been disappointing. As it was, it was more like great jazz bands doing their own arrangement of a old standard. Nobody wants to hear Woody Herman, Stan Kenton or Duke Ellington’s versions of “Take the A Train” all sound the same. What makes them magical is their differences. This was a great deal of fun and my only regret is that there weren’t more brewers who made their interpretation of Poor Richard’s Ale.

After the tasting, we hung out for a little while longer, enjoying a pint of this and that. It was a beautiful day on the coast with cool breezes and a warming sun that seemed more like spring than January. So with the doors wide open, we enjoyed the day as Ben Frankin might have: with good company, good conversation and a good ale.

Alec, and the rest of, listen as Shaun tells a story about the good old days on radio during a visit to see Alec’s brewhouse.

Sharing stories over a pint in the brewhouse. Form left, Alec’s assistant brewer, Dave McLean, Shaun O’Sullivan, Alec Moss and Emil Caluori.

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