Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bound to Cover Just a Little More Ground

And now a word from our Director of Operations, Dean James:

San Francisco makes me happy. Really, it does. Very much. It forces some issues to the surface very easily, takes some of the effort away, if you will, in the best possible way. You want to be the restaurant that sources locally, organically, sustainably, or any other word that ends in –ly. Well, do it. It’s right in front of you. Accessibility like few other places on earth, it seems, a climate that’s favorable to just about anything you want to grow. I’ve been so infatuated with those cities or regions where it’s a lot harder to get the ‘good stuff’ onto a menu, and how much harder they work to get it, and they do get it. It’s brilliant, really, and must make for an amazing amount of self-satisfaction. I’m jealous. Here at the pub, we pick up a phone or drive down the street, we can get it. Whenever. I like that way too.

I simplify the process, of course. Anyway, what is sustainable or organic, after all? It can be quite subjective, as it turns out. Sustainability connects the systems of human economy (production, distribution, etc.) to the systems of human ecology (agriculture, fishing etc.) and measures environmental impact, among other things. Environmental impact, as we know, can be a screwy science, depending on who’s doing the research and who’s paying for the research. And then you inevitably bump up against the fact that 7 billion people on one planet is probably not good, in and of itself not sustainable. Growth rates are spiking dramatically upward, but organic food still accounts for only 2% of all food sales worldwide. Organic certification is a murky process, and varies from country to country. World grain supply is down to some of the lowest levels ever, as demand raises the price of food and for us, beer too. For every new farmer, another one goes down, either permanently or to the all too lucrative cash crop. Just ask
Michael Pollen about corn.  And spinach scared everybody a few years back, and tomatoes have done it again this year. How can you really trust food?

I’m being a total downer, sorry. It’s not all that bad. The individual is starting to care about what goes in his/her mouth. And that is a measure of victory right there. The old manifesto “know your farmer, know your food” is as prescient as ever, and the comforting figure of Alice Waters looms large over the current restaurant industry, connecting the farm to the table with a chain that hopefully never gets broken. And seeing as you are reading this, the message can continue to grow at that exponential rate, everyone plays a part in spreading it. Magnolia acts the message because everyone here believes it, or else it would never work. So in the spirit of things, here’s five things I’m really into right now:

• Slow Food
Those people rock. As Slow Food Nation aims to overtake San Francisco this Labor Day Weekend, do yourself a favor and check out the event itself and the mothership site. As catchphrases go, Good, Clean and Fair is a pretty good one. 

• Heidrun Meadery
Few people seem to love honey more than Gordon Hull, who runs the Heidrun Meadery in Arcata, way up at the top of California. And we love the product here at Magnolia. Mead, or wine made from honey, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, would give beer and wine a run for their money in the which-came-first debate. And the history is not lost on him. Do yourself a favor and
check out his site, and his mead, conveniently available at Magnolia.

• Italian beer
Catching some folks by surprise, the craft beer movement in Italy is alive and kicking, and starting to make it to a supplier near you. And the best part is: it’s not all great! That is, some of it tastes amazing, but it’s rare that you can look at a region and see the growth of the whole group, complete with the almost-there’s and the why-would-you-do-that’s. In Italy, beer inspiration can come from anywhere: Belgium, England, even the USA. Styles vary wildly, ingredients tend to be a good mix of local and carefully sourced, and the brewers themselves are viewed as mavericks, which seems to only harden their resolve to be different. Shameless plug: you can drink some of it at Alembic right now.

• Saba
What is saba, you say? Basically, grape must is the residue that is produced from crushing grapes to make wine. Unfermented, it is cooked down for a near eternity until it is a sticky, honey-like substance that, trust me, will make anything taste great. Brandon has been using it perhaps too sparingly on our Baby Doll watermelon bar snack with a touch of salt. I have been eating whole spoonfuls when no one is looking. Whatever gets you through the night, right?

• The Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market
Kind of a risky venture, I know, as a Saturday at the Ferry building, for those of you who know it, can be either an exercise in patience for your fellow man, or can build an instant desire to do bodily harm to tourists of all persuasions. But, I have staved off the latter impulse on the last few trips through some completely random interactions. I’ve always been excited by the willingness of the farmers to talk shop with you, especially if you arrive early enough, before the masses. And it’s fun to be pushing the big cart around, trying to beat all of the cities chefs and restaurateurs to the perfect heirloom tomato. Good times. But recently, I’ve been engaged in a discussion about someone’s rooftop garden in a high-rise apartment building, a woman who scoured the market for the perfect spearmint( she found it too, I bought some as well. Wow.), and witnessed a gentleman quite patiently extolling the virtues of a good avocado to someone who spoke very little English, but seemed excited nonetheless. So the passion for food is all around, I’ve seen it.

I’ll leave it at that for now.
Thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

If you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind

That was one of my first favorite Robert Hunter lyrics, a flowery twist on the old, cautionary "you reap what you sow" saying.  Twenty years after first hearing it, I can't help but notice that it has come to define much of what we do here.  It is an especially apt way to describe our philosophy on sourcing ingredients.  We strive to find the best ingredients for everything we make, whether in the brewery or the kitchen.  Economic reality sometimes dictates that we can't always get what we want, but our decision-making process over potential products always involves a lot of questions about who, where, and how.  Not only do we seek to avoid planting ice, but we ask it of all of those upstream from us.

This process leads to a complex series of victories, compromises, and trade-offs in our quest for both the delicious and the sustainable.  Take our malted barley, for example.  We praise the virtues of local beer, reducing beer and food miles, etc.  But no one grows malting barley anywhere within 500 or maybe even 1000 miles of Haight and Masonic.  Even worse, no one in North America is growing heirloom varieties like Maris Otter or Golden Promise, two of our favorites.  And, even if that weren't the case, there are not, on this continent, any commercial floor malting facilities in which to turn that barley into beautiful malt.

So, we look overseas to the UK, where committed farmers choose to plant lower-yielding, more fragile, heirloom varieties, like Maris Otter.  Some of these farmers sell their barley to one of the five or six remaining commercial floor maltings in Great Britain.  Floor malting is very labor and space intensive compared to modern methods but produces amazing results.  

We buy most of our malt from such a place.  Thomas Fawcett & Son's has been making malt in the same Castleford, Yorkshire location since the 1780's.  It is managed today by the sixth and seventh generation members of the Fawcett family to be involved since operations began.  Though they have modernized over the years, the heart of their operation continues to be a floor facility in which they carefully produce some of the finest Maris Otter malt around.  

We buy this malt, considerably more expensive than mass-produced alternatives, and use it as the base of most of our beers.  We get it through a local wholesaler, Certified Foods, operated by a man named Joe Vanderliet, because he listens to his customers and knows we and a handful of other breweries will deal with rising freight costs, overseas shipping delays, and other frustrations in order to make the kind of beer we love.

These personal connections, with Joe at Certified, with John Fawcett at the maltings, and our trust in John's careful sourcing from farmers near him, add to our satisfaction when using this malt.  To me, these factors mitigate my frustration of having to buy a key ingredient from people 6,000 miles from my brewery.  I recognize that I am still lucky to work with people whose values are so well aligned with mine.

And I can't wait to someday get over to Castleford and visit the place where this special malt is made for us, as well as some of the farmers who grow it.  I visited our previous floor malt supplier, Beeston, of Nottinghamshire, in 2000, and it was an amazing experience to tour the facility, walk on the floor, and have a pint of cask bitter with some of the malting crew in the pub across the street (brewed with Beeston Maris Otter at a nearby brewery).  Sadly, they closed a couple of years later, suffering the fate of many traditional family businesses that can't make ends meet in this modern world.

We continue to look for new ways to develop deeper connections to our ingredients, too.  One of our neighborhood customer's father grows Maris Otter at his farm, Branthill, near Wells-next-to-the-Sea in Norfolk.  He has it malted at one of the other remaining floor maltings 10 miles down the road, and sells it mostly to local breweries.  But the ocean-facing microclimate and loam over chalk soil of this part of northern Norfolk produces some of the best Maris Otter in the UK and we're trying to get our hands on some of it.  Teddy Maufe has visited Magnolia with his son, Zac, and, despite the long journey for his malt, we would be thrilled to be able to turn this personal connection into a good English bitter.

Life might be easier if we could give ourselves some arbitrary rules and guidelines but at the end of the day, the best way to serve our creative muses is to look at everything on a case-by-case basis.  We can't promise to be 100% organic or 100% local or really, 100% anything, because we don't think it's that simple.  This is true in the kitchen, as well, though we are blessed with one of the best food production regions in the world within a 100 mile radius, so Brandon fares much better at sourcing locally.  Freshness, too, dictates that we buy most of our food from closer to home. 

Kitchen or brewery, we get out of this what we put in.  The more attention we pay to who makes our ingredients, the better we can satisfy our vision for quality and character in our food and beer.  And your choice to embrace this philosophy with us and share in its rewards makes it all possible.  So, thanks.