Home Cover Behind The Brewer: Almanac Beer Company’s Phillip Emerson Talks Farm To Barrel

Behind The Brewer: Almanac Beer Company’s Phillip Emerson Talks Farm To Barrel

The brewmaster of the Northern California-based brewery recently explained the details behind the process of making award-winning mixed-culture beers.

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Photo Courtesy of Almanac Beer Company

October has been very good to Almanac Beer Company.  Besides announcing several new limited releases, the Northern California-based brewery also took home a coveted silver medal in the Mixed-Culture Brett Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival for Farmer’s Reserve No. 5.  It’s the second GABF medal for the company, with the first coming back in 2016 when White Label took home silver in the very same category, but this time around it meant a little more, proving to be “a humbling and inspiring nod” to the company’s motto: beer is agriculture.

That motto has been the driving force behind all of Almanac’s releases since it was founded back in 2010 and that line of thinking has helped the company continue to evolve into one of the west coast’s premier farm to bottle breweries, focusing heavily on quality ingredients from local farms to create deliciously fresh and complex brews.  While hazy Double IPAs and West Coast IPAs are something the company does well, it’s their various barrel-aged beers that often need the most attention from Brewmaster Phillip Emerson and his crew. Emerson, 32, has seven years of brewing experience, along with a degree in Food Chemistry – which can certainly be beneficial when it comes to providing drinkers with mixed-culture beers.

But the process behind creating award-winning efforts is rooted in the ingredients and settling for anything less than the best fruit for these mixed-culture efforts would create an inferior product.  In order to get the very best ingredients, Almanac has built up a rapport with nearby farms and, when it comes right down to it, seasonal availability is the key. 

“We’ve been working with the same farms for over five years now and we embrace the seasonal abundance or shortage of specific fruits,” Emerson said.  “Most of our specialty beers start on seasonal availability of fruits. We select fruit on quality but, for us, farm to barrel really includes the relationship with the farmers.  We always get quality fruit but some years are more vibrant than others. Harvest and vintage are something we embrace rather than fight.”

Choosing the right farm for a partnership isn’t a quick decision, since Almanac only considers like-minded farms with similar outlooks and goals.  There are several necessary requirements, one of which is that the partner uses organic or sustainable practices when it comes to growing its fruit and another is that the farm also reduces environmental impact, like always maximizing reusable containers for storage and shipping.  Once the partners have been chosen and the ingredients selected, it’s time to brew some beer.

But, with most breweries, typically when the brewing process ends that specific beer is ready to hit the packaging line before distribution – at Almanac, that’s not usually the case.  Emerson and the crew at Almanac create more barrel-aged beers than most typical breweries, which is highlighted by the brewery’s Farm To Barrel Series – close to three dozen beers, over the course of the last several years, that spend months aging in barrels to create a complex taste.  More often than not, these are mixed-culture beers, like Farmer’s Reserve No. 5, and require careful attention to detail, not just in the aging period but also when selecting the right barrel.

Much like when selecting the fruit and other ingredients, the barrels heavily impact the finished product, so choosing the right barrel to use is imperative.  All of the beer is aged on site, at their facility, with most of their mixed-culture beers brewed in foeders, or large format barrels. These barrels often come either used from Northern California wineries or brand new from Missouri and can offer a variety of flavors based on previous contents, or even the wood. Once the beer is added, Emerson waits.

Photo Courtesy of Almanac Beer Company

“Typically, the beer will age between three months and year, depending on the desired outcome,” Emerson added.  “Often, the added ingredient is only patience. Sometimes, the direction of the beer is linear and a release can be anticipated, however sometimes the beer speaks and we let it decide on which direction to take it.”

Almanac doesn’t run on a pilot system, which allows brewers to test out a small amount before making a larger batch, sometimes making the process a little more stressful.  The minimum production is 20 barrels on the brewhouse but Emerson admits that Almanac will often package similar releases, even single barrel releases, for research and development, in the hopes of finding the next beer.  There’s always something in the pipeline, either being brainstormed or currently aging in the foeders, and Emerson isn’t afraid to make a more traditional Belgian beer – or to just test the limits of Almanac’s current beers.

“We’re excited to release beers that are more traditional to Belgium, whether they are inspired by lambic producers or Trappist breweries.  We are also inspired to continuously test the limits of the beers we already produce. More aroma, more fruit, more impact!”