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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : Microbrewers Use Talent to Tap Into Gustatory Glory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.” Frank Zappa

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For the wine enthusiast, there is an infinite array of Cabernets, Zinfandels, Chardonnays and other varietals to scrutinize and imbibe.

But until recently, the average American beer drinker never had the luxury of such options: A subdued, redundant offering of Budweiser, Coors, Schlitz and the like dominated the market, and thanks to blitzkrieg advertising attacks, our psyches too.

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The tide is changing: David is bearing down on Goliath. Now comes a burgeoning appreciation for handcrafted microbrews, including stouts, porters, wheats and various other ales. We discover that beer, too, can burst with an aromatic bouquet and tease the taste buds with varied flavor.

And after acquiring a taste for a handcrafted brew, quaffing the emaciated concoctions of corporate America just will not do. With the corporate brews, the senses are deprived, cheated. There is no savory aroma. The flavor is lacking: deficient and skimpy. There is no depth, no body, no gustatory glory.

Mind you, this is not about snobbery. This is about preference.

After all, when was tossing back some ale ever supposed to be elitist? We microbrew enthusiasts still gather around the same bowl of beer nuts on Monday night and yell epithets at the TV when the opposing team recovers a fumble. Only now we hoist our mug with a greater appreciation for its contents. Once beer was purchased not for its epicurean possibilities, but for its price. Quality now supplants quantity.

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Handmade beer, says Bob Shields, proprietor of Shields Brewery in Ventura, “is not cookie-cutter stamped.” Handmade beer is a work-in-progress. A little pinch here, a little pinch there. Tweak the flavor with this, add a little of that to enhance the aroma and texture.

Essentially, beer is made from the liquid obtained by extracting sugar from the starch contained in malted grain.

Here’s a brief look at the process: The toasted grain is boiled with water and hops to make a sweet liquid called wort, which is moved to a brew kettle, where more flavor-enhancing hops are added and boiled again.

Once the boiling has ended, still more hops are added for aroma. Then the hot wort is cooled and pumped into fermentation tanks, where malt yeast is added.

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During the fermentation process, the yeast consumes the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The maturation period will depend on the beer variety, but the recipe commonly sits for two to three weeks before making its way to a serving tank.

It is during this process that the brewer sculpts the creation, chooses colors and themes for the mural, hammers out the composition.

These intricacies of brewing and its bountiful possibilities are on display in tasty fashion at Ventura County’s two breweries--the aforementioned Shields and at Joe-Joe’s Brewing Co. & Restaurant in Simi Valley, run by Joe Vogel and Joe Tremonti. Both venues offer a fine assortment of beers.

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A recent outing to Joe-Joe’s found their dark Stoney Mountain Stout to be full-bodied with a smooth, toasty flavor. While stouts can vary in character from bitter through sweet, this one hits a happy medium. Also, look for the duo’s award-winning Simi Valley Red, an amber-hued, full-bodied ale. Others include Carlee’s Special Light, Joe-Joe’s Italian Pale Ale, Hip Hop Wheat and Raspbrewery Madness.

Bob Shields, who also makes a wonderful stout, keeps all his beers mellow and smooth, tailored for the region’s warm climate. Case in point: the crisp Channel Islands Wheat beer. Some wheat beers can have a sour aftertaste, but there is no trace of stringency in this variety.

Shields serves his wheat beer with a thin slice of lemon, which aids in balancing the flavor. Other beers here include the rusty-colored Channel Islands Ale and the golden Gold Coast Beer, which sports a slight malt flavor.

For the newcomer interested in trying handcrafted beer, both Shields and Joe-Joe’s offer sampler specials. At Joe-Joe’s, a sampler glass, containing a few ounces of beer, goes for $1. A regular pint of beer is $3.25.

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Shields offers three-beer ($5), four-beer ($6.50) and five-beer ($8.25) samplers. Each glass is filled with eight ounces of beer. A pint costs $3 to $3.25, depending on the beer.

Microbrewery novices are advised to initiate their taste buds with the lighter ales and work their way up to the heavier, thicker, more robust-flavored dark beers, such as stouts and porters.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Beer Talk: A glossary of terms related to beer-making and microbreweries:

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Ale

A form of beer fermented at relatively warm temperatures. Ales are generally highly hopped, fruity and robust.

All-grain beer

A beer made entirely from malt, as opposed to one made from malt extract and malted barley.

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Barley

A member of a grass family of plants that also includes wheat, rye, oats, maize, rice, millet and sorghum. Barley is the cereal grain preferred for brewing. The essential qualities for the barley used in brewing include a high starch content and its ability to transform starch into sugar. Barley aids in providing body and head retention.

Brew pub

A restaurant-brewery that sells the majority of its beer on site.

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Draft beer

Beer drawn from casks or kegs rather than canned or bottled.

Fermentation

The chemical conversion of fermentable sugars to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.

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Hops

These delicate, vine-grown, parchment-like flowers are added at the beginning of the boiling stage to give the brew its bitter flavor and at the end of the boil to give aroma and character. There are more than 100 varieties of hops cultivated around the world. Those raised domestically are mostly grown in Washington on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range. Hops also inhibit the growth of bacteria in wort and beer.

Lager

A form of beer fermented at relatively cool temperatures. The word lager comes from the German word meaning “to store,” referring to the traditional practice of cold aging before bottling or kegging.

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Malt

Processed barley that has been steeped in water, germinated and later dried in kilns to be used to convert the insoluble starch in barley to the soluble substances and sugars.

Mash

A mixture of crushed malt grains and hot water from which the wort is extracted.

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Microbrewery

A brewery that produces fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer per year.

Oktoberfest

1. A beer festival held annually in Munich for 16 days and nights in late September and early October. 2. A Vienna-style beer originally brewed especially for the Oktoberfest but now available year-round. Oktoberfest beer is copper-colored, malty and sweet.

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Porter

A variety of ale in which roasted malt is used to achieve a dark color. Porter is generally less bitter, lighter in color and has a lower alcohol content than stout.

Stout

A variety of ale brewed from roasted, full-flavored malts and a higher proportion of hops. Stouts have a richer, slightly burnt flavor and are very dark in color.

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Wheat Beer

Beer brewed with both wheat malt and barley malt.

Wort

Pronunciation: wert. The bittersweet sugar solution obtained when “mashing"--or steeping--the barley malt, a process that converts starch into sugar. The wort is drawn off the grain and moved to a brew kettle, where flavor-enhancing hops are added and the mixture boiled again.

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Yeast

The natural fermenting agent which transforms the wort to beer. By its action the sugars of the wort are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide.


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