Monday, July 16, 2007

FiftyFifty and Playing With Loaded Dice

I had hoped to have this carried, at least in part, by a more local publication. I see now that ain't happening, so here you go. Sorry it is late.

FYI - There is an interview with Alicia Bar, the owner of Fifty Fifty at the bottom of the story, in case you are interested.

Recently I found my way up to Truckee's newest brewery, Fifty Fifty Brewing Company. The place was packed with people enjoying themselves and the new beers on tap. To try and describe the energy in the place would be like describing energy - you just can't do it. But trust me, it was electric. People meeting people, sharing stories, thanking the brewer and owners (repeatedly) and savoring the night they'd been anticipating for so long.

We arrived a bit late for dinner and, for as busy as it was, had little trouble getting a table and getting our food order in. While waiting for the appetizers the first rounds of samplers showed up, four beers ranging from the pale straw color to the deep liquidy black oatmeal stout. In the future, when all seven beers are on tap, they'll offer a seven-sample beer platter for those who want to try them all and still be able to walk out.

Our table sampled the beers together, the four of us who ourselves were catching up and soaking in the energy of the night. Up first was the Golden Ale, a session beer that comes in with a very low bittering and light alcohol (4.9%). The beer went down as easily as you'd expect and before solid notes could be taken, the samples around the table were all gone - a good sign.

Our second sample of the night was their Pale Ale, which came in a shade darker in color, displaying good clarity and a beautiful white frothy head. The flavor up front was exactly what you'd expect in an American Pale Ale - bready sweet balanced perfectly with a mild hop bitterness. What was surprising here was the hop flavor - big and bold, showcasing the citrus character you want in an American ale. Finishes clean with a wonderful hopped aftertaste and leaving a very good overall impression.

The IPA was next and, like the Golden Ale, seemed to go down quicker than my notes. Clearly this beer was a hop display, showing off the strong American hop character in an unmistakable fashion. The initial sweetness was wonderful, a burnt sugar/caramel character that quickly would give way to that main hop attraction. I think it's safe to say I enjoyed this beer - so much so that after the sampling three pints of this would be consumed once my pen and paper were safely tucked away. I do need to mention, there is something strange about this beer - something about it I couldn't put my finger on. At first, this oddity distracted me to the point I wasn't sure I liked the beer, but then I realized I'd consumed two pints rather quickly so that thought went away. Mike confirmed this sentiment, suggesting perhaps it was the water. I know this, I'll be back to try and nail this down.

Final sample of the night was their Oatmeal Stout, a favorite style of mine. Of course the beer was black as night, yet not thick or viscous as some west coast stouts are. At 6.0% this wasn't a monster beer, nor was it ever intended to be, but it was full in flavor. A wonderful, rich, creamy chocolate bitterness shone through in a powerful way, the creamy body making it very drinkable. Yet again, sample seemed to disappear into the thin high-altitude air.

After the samples I had the great pleasure of meeting the brewmaster for FiftyFifty, Todd Ashman. With the legend that proceeded the man, I was delighted to learn how approachable, kind and generous he was with his time, thoughts and beer. After only a couple of minutes in conversation Todd invited me back to the brewery, a clean brewery with room to move, but not a lot of room to grow. Todd brought me back to share a couple beers that weren't quite finished, beers that needed a few more days in the tanks before they could be dispensed at the bar. First up was the Tripel, brewed with Palm Sugar and Sage Honey. For an 'unfinished' beer, let me tell you it was brilliant! The adjuncts complimenting the style in a way that I couldn't imagine - soft, yet full of flavor and very light in color. Todd went on to tell me his passion for brewing with unique ingredients and seemed to suggest patrons to FiftyFifty could expect a lot more of this kind of stuff in the years to come.

My final sample of the night my have been my favorite beer overall, the Porter. While it too was unfinished, the flavors in this were incredible: deeply toasted malt, hints of hops and a body that begged to be shown off. For a region seemingly obsessed with IPAs and the uber-hopped beers we love, a beer like this porter was refreshing, soothing and welcome.

After chatting a bit more it was clear that Todd had been at work for a long time that opening day, his mind clearly engaged in all that was happening, his body clearly needing some much earned rest. So, without a lot of fanfare he quietly called it night. It was a telling story watching the patrons at the bar watch Todd as he shut the lights off behind him and closed the door to the brewery - the looks that seemed to say "thank you" as they all tried not to notice. It was a beautiful night and this is a beautiful bar. I don't think it's a long shot to say that Alicia, Andy and Todd are just at the beginning of a wonderful journey, and although their name and proximity to Reno conjur images of a gamble, I think these guys are all playing with a stacked deck - and they're about to hit it big.

While there I had a great time with owners, Alicia and Andy Barr, and the brewer, Todd Ashman. Following the night I was able to ask a few random questions of Alicia about this new brewery, below are the highlights of that interview.

PBN - "The name. Hopefully you have a wrote answer for what the name means - as I know more than a few people last night wondered the same thing."
Alicia Barr (Owner) - "“FiftyFifty” to us is a broad term for balance. A big part of why we moved up here [to Truckee] to start this venture was to achieve a better work/life balance, something we used to hear preached a lot, but rarely saw practiced. Our work is our life now because it is something we are so passionate about. There is also the balance between beer and food, hops and barley, etc. Everyone has their own personal balance, which is why our motto is Find Your Balance. Then there is always the joke that if everything goes to hell, we’ll just split it up fifty-fifty."

- "Seasonal beers, will you have them?"
Alicia - "We will absolutely have Seasonal Beers! The Trifecta [Belgian Tripel] and the Roundabout [Oatmeal Stout] are our first real seasonals. We plan on rotating in different styles of stout throughout the year, and will definitely do several other seasonals as well."

PBN - "Who are the owners? I know you are an owner - wasn't sure who all was listed as such."
Alicia - "My husband Andy and I are the owners. We have some private investors that are friends or family, but Andy and I own about 90%. This is a true “Mom and Pop” operation."

PBN - "Why did you all decide to open a brewery? Previous experience?"
Alicia - "Why we did this… Well, given that both of us have masters degrees in engineering, it seemed the obvious choice to open a brewery and restaurant. The truth is, there is a combination of factors that led us here. (1) We both always knew that we wanted to own our own business, and we were ready to try something other than engineering – something with more direct people/customer interaction. (2) We had been vacationing in Truckee for years, and absolutely love it here, so wanted to make it our permanent home. (3) We love beer and food – I’m a homebrewer and Andy is a fantastic chef. Given those three things, and the fact that there was no brewpub in all of North Tahoe – we ended up here. Neither of us has any personal experience in the restaurant industry, so we hired two experts in our GM and Brewmaster. They are also invested in the company and the four of us make up the core team that runs the show."

PBN - "How'd you get Todd? That's a major part of this story, his being here."
Alicia - "Todd was a HUGE find for us. We posted a job listing to the Brewer’s Association email forum last summer for a start-up brewery in Truckee. Within 2 days we had 15 resumes. Todd was one of the first to respond as he had been out of brewing for a couple years and missed it dearly (as it missed him). We actually had a lot of excellent brewers apply as start-ups had not been all that frequent. However, it was pretty obvious from the get-go that Todd was the brewer for us."

PBN - "Future plans - will you hope to distribute locally or have taps in regional restaurants? Will you be part of the NorCal Brewers Guild? Will you have special events, like beer appreciation nights? Will you have guest taps, how many?"
Alicia - "Future Plans: We hope to start distributing to local draft accounts in about 6 months – probably a couple of key locations in Kings Beach and Tahoe City to start off with. From there we definitely plan on bottling, but it will probably take us about a year until we’re ready. Right now we are targeting the Manifesto Pale Ale and the Donner Party Porter for distribution. However, once we get enough capital to expand, we will also consider the Base Camp Golden Ale as well. We will absolutely be part of the NorCal Brewers Guild, as well as the California Small Brewers Association. We’re working on a lot of special events down the road, including a BrewMaster’s Dinner, Special Tasting nights when a new seasonal is tapped, and some other beer appreciation events."