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Tuesday, 24 October 2017 19:01

Do Sumpin’ for Puerto Rico

By Dan Clarke

It’s known that beer has been the inspiration for more than a few good ideas. Such was the case earlier this month in Sacramento.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012 12:17

An Afternoon at The Shack

by Dan Clarke

The sign out front reads “100 beers.” I've never made it an issue to demand a count. To me it doesn't matter as The Shack easily has the best selection of beers in town. It also has the most knowledgeable clientele.

It's an unpretentious establishment, but not as down-market as the name might imply. Under an earlier ownership, it was known as “the Sub Shack,” so the current identity is an evolution. Friends who attended nearby Kit Carson Junior High in the 1950's remember hanging out at this same spot, though their drinks were likely root beers. Doc's Hot Dogs, as the place was known in those days, already had a long history in East Sacramento. It's reputed when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, California Governor “Sunny Jim” Rolph had his first legal glass of beer at Doc's.

Gary Sleppy at Shack Patio SMALL P3240129Gary Sleppy of The Shack

The patio has a beer garden atmosphere, though in a decidedly family and pet-friendly style. The servers are an agile lot, often stepping over and around kids and dogs. Younger children are offered pails of chalk and invited to indulge their artistic instincts on the concrete. Owner Gary Sleppy, a culinary school graduate, provides water bowls for his four-legged visitors and actually bakes dog biscuits for them. Really. I've seen him do it.

Having some history as a wine and food writer, doesn't confer expertise in all beverages. I once sold specialty beers and imports to restaurants, but that world is much more complex now. When I drop in to The Shack I usually learn something. Sometimes from the boss and his staff. Sometimes from the servers or other customers.

A few days ago I asked Gary if he would help me taste some beers. He and a few late-afternoon customers were seated on the patio. Of course I knew Gary and I also recognized Sean Montgomery, a home brewer, but wasn't familiar with any of the others at the big table.

The beers are from Deschutes Brewery. My experience with them isn't extensive, but it does go back a while--about 15 years ago I enjoyed a couple of pints and a burger at their brewpub in Bend, Oregon. Since that time, the operation has grown and has enough distribution in California that all of my just-convened tasting panel are familiar with their products.

Two of the beers are new--or at least recent--releases, Hop in the Dark and Twilight Summer Ale. Two others, a Hop Henge and a Stoic, had been plucked from the office wine rack and added to the canvas carrier I would take down to The Shack.


Twilight Summer Ale 12 oz Bottle SMALL Twilight Summer Ale

Approaching our samples in a lighter-to-heavier sequence, we first pour tastes of Twilight Summer Ale. Its main label indicated contents are at 5% Alcohol by Volume (ABV). It also reads, “Down goes another brewing dogma. Select malts and a heavy dose of bold Amarillo hops deliver full-on flavor and crafted nuance in a spry summer style. Enjoy chilled as the days linger.” The neck label adds, “Grills on. Shoes off. Summer has its own rules. As luck would have it, it also has its own beer. Enjoy.” If these words are more hyperbolic than substantive, so be it. Anyway, the verbiage pales compared to the balderdash written on many wine labels. No harm done and, and always, the proof will be in the tasting.

The Shack's proprietor Gary Sleppy pronounces the Twilight Ale “delicious and aromatic.” I second that opinion, reverting to winespeak by suggesting that it is “subtlely floral, like a Riesling or Gewürztraminer.” Eben Weisberg, Northern California manager for the Colorado brewery Oskar Blues, declares it “right on point for a summer beer. Not too much flavor, but not lacking either.” He adds that it has a “soft mouth feel.” Sean Montgomery calls it, “A wonderful summer beer. It's light . . .it's 'sessionable'. ”


Hop Henge

After a splendid start we move on to the Hop Henge I had grabbed before leaving the office. The tasters are silent for a couple of moments and I notice wrinkled noses on some faces. Gary says it has “a really weird malt profile. It's not my favorite.” Sean believes there is “a strong malt profile.” I look to the label and find that it is 8.5% ABV and “best by 4/25/12.” Well, we've missed its sell-by date by nearly a month and I not sure about the storage conditions. How much might these factors have affected the product? Well, we don't know for sure. Eben explains—mostly for my benefit, I suspect—that hops “can get lost. They don't age well. (Hop-based) beers are best fresh.” Since several of the tasters agreed earlier that they have enjoyed every different beer that they'd tasted from the brewery, we figure our Hop Henge experience is an aberration and that the product has likely suffered due to age or questionable storage conditions.


Hop in the Dark

Hop In The Dark 2010 SMALLNext we open Hop in the Dark. If not a brand-new release, it is very recent and we anticipate none of the issues that may have adversely affected the Hop Henge. This Hop in the Dark prompts Gary to comment, “Hops. I get Cascade--100%.” Sean notices coffee-like qualities.

Cary Smith, who sells wine and beer for Wine Warehouse, says there is a clear presence of not just hops, but Cascadian hops, and continues to opine on the “two-parted representation of an IPA” in which “the hops take the forefront, followed by a malty, coffee-like (aspect).” She adds that Hop in the Dark “drinks like a port.” I'm not sure about this last comment, but if it means that this is something rich and worthy of being slowly savored, then I am in agreement. I ask her to clarify the Cascadian hops comment. What is the overriding characteristic that makes them distinguishable from other hops? After just a moment's hesitation she replies that Cascadian hops smell like marijuana. I put my nose back into the glass, then take a sip. Oh, yeah. Does it ever. It brings back pleasant memories, the most recent of which is a visit to a hop farm and dryer in Washington just a year earlier. At that time I had assumed that all varieties of hops had this almost overpowering aroma.

Whatever the properties of this beer, it has inspired Gary to begin thinking of food. The ability to really dial in the pairing of foods with wines or beers, even among professionals, is rarer than you might imagine. Gary is one of those guys who “gets it” and it's fun to play this game with him. The Hop in the Dark has inspired him to suggest grilled flank steak with tomatillos . . . and maybe served with a chimichurri sauce, all of which sounds good to me.

Sean and Cary at Shack Table P1012003Sean pours while Cary checks the nose. 


Another bottle that had been sitting in the office for a while was labeled “Stoic.” No wrinkled noses after we open this one—only smiles.

“Belgian yeast,” observes one taster. “A Belgian-style quad ale—stunning depth and complexity,” comments another. Someone chimes in with “pomegranate.” “Brett?” is offered by somebody else. The comments are coming quickly and from all around the table. I'm having trouble getting accurate attributions for the opinions of my fellow panelists while giving this pour my own due consideration.

Gary gives his benediction (“Even though it's big, it has a delicate nature.”) and ruminates about another pairing; Thresher shark topped with ratatouille might work, and a variation on the theme involving spinach and goat cheese with shark or maybe monkfish placed on top seems to have even more potential.

Someone poses the general question, “If you could have just one beer on a desert island, what would it be.” I begin mulling over some fairly mundane possibilities, but Sean has no hesitation. “The Magic Ghost,” he says. For him, it's the Holy Grail. The Ghost is made sporadically and in small quantities by Fantôme Brewery, which apparently is a one-man operation in Belgium. Sean has tasted it, but for all practical purposes, it's just unavailable.

But what's it like, I ask? He replies that it's brewed “on a green tea base. It's very tart, very carbonated,” concluding “it absolutely has no flaw.” The look on Sean's face as he describes this ephemeral product tells me that if I ever come across it, I should be prepared to pay any price to sample its charms.


And One More Try of the TwilightGreen Curry Mussels SMALL at The Shack photoPlump mussels in green curry sauce.

Two days later I discover one more bottle of the Twilight Summer Ale in my refrigerator and decide to try it in more private and contemplative circumstances. My notes indicate it “has a beautiful golden/amber color and a fruity, floral nose.” There is a long finish, which I find “a pleasant, lingering sensation.” It isn't long before I'm thinking what food I'd like the next time I encounter a bottle of Twilight. Cheeses with nutty flavor (but not added nuts) sounds good—maybe a good dry Swiss cheese would do. The beer is from Oregon, not Belgium, but mussels come to mind. I love mussels and usually prefer simple, traditional preparations, but in this case it's mussels in a green curry sauce that I want. Ryan, chef at The Shack, introduced me to his version on a recent Tuesday night. Yep, that might well be the perfect pairing.


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