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Beer culture is coming of age. At any store, restaurant, bar, or friend's house you can now find at least a few good brews. In fact, there seem to be so many new beers, breweries and bars it's difficult to separate the good, the bad, and the mediocre.

If you're going spend $10 on one beer, what should you buy? If you're going to drive 2 hours to check out a brewery, what's worth your time? If you're going to plan a Friday night, what has a good selection and friendly atmosphere? We're here to help you answer these questions.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mammoth Brewing Company

Over Labor Day weekend, my wife and I visited the taproom for Mammoth Brewing Company located in beautiful Mammoth Lakes, CA. Mammoth promotes itself as California’s “highest” brewery, and sitting at 8,000 feet+ you can see why.

Having been to so many breweries my goal is to find a consistent beer philosophy that leads to uniformly good beers across the spectrum. You find that here at Mammoth, and considering it is located in one of the world’s greatest outdoor playgrounds, this brewery ranks among California’s best breweries to visit.

The first notable feature is the set-up of the taproom itself. No stools, no pints for sale, and located in an industrial shed a few blocks east of the new Village Gondola complex, on Berner Street. That may sound terrible, but trust me, in function it works brilliantly. The closest approximation to it is a wine tasting room but filled with prosperous tourists and ripper locals. And the SAMPLES ARE FREE. Yes, you heard me correctly. You can just roll up and get free beer. (you can stop reading right now and head up the 395, I won’t be offended). All of Mammoth’s brews are available here to sample, with servers who have a good idea about their beers and the process behind them. Once you find the ones you like, you can fill growlers, buy 22 oz. bottles or go whole hog and get a keg.

Mammoth had an excellent selection when I was there (nothing I hate more than a brewery with less than half their beers available) that totaled NINE BEERS (stats available above). Mammoth displayed great breadth in producing everything from a light Pilsner to a complex Saison. The signature feature of their beers I noticed was a crispness. This may be the pure high Sierra water working its magic, but whatever it is, the finish is wonderful. While other beer fans may want a hoppier (see Lagunitas) or a stronger (see Stone) signature flavor, the consistently crisp finish of these beers was a pleasure for me. On the drinkability scale (my most important metric) this place crushes it.

Andrew, our server, started me off with the only Mammoth beer I had already had. Golden Trout Pilsner. As one of their flagship beers, I feel they nailed this one. It has a light hoppy note on the front that I described as “sunny”. This isn’t to say there isn’t a good body, because it has nice creamy middle accented by a nice floral aroma. For traditionalists I would note the Pilsner tart/sour finish is replaced by a crisp dry finish. This makes it drink closer to my beloved Helles than to a Czech beer. I can’t really think of a better beer to enjoy after a long day hiking, mountain biking or skiing. For me this is a “Must Have It”.

Next up was the Paranoid Pale Ale. Again the first notes were easy and not aggressive. It has a light aroma, avoiding the heavy piney notes that some California Pale Ales feel is necessary. My wife said the opposite. The body is crisp and balanced with a light hop finish. This was a generally good beer, but in view of Mammoth’s myriad offerings, it sort of is neither here nor there. It is not strong/malty enough to be in the range of a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale but if you wanted something lighter, maybe go with Golden Trout. Still a good brew, “Try It”.

I moved on to the Real McCoy Amber Ale, named for the founder of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Dave McCoy. I think he would be pleased. The color is a rich clear red that is rather inviting. The aroma and body are both understated, to the point of that being a flaw. This beer has a good malt/hops balance, but it doesn’t allow any one part to shine. The beer isn’t hoppy at the finish so you aren’t left with much to ponder. I put this in the same category as Paranoid, a decent beer, but overshadowed by other offerings. “Try it”.

It is the Lake Tahoe Red Ale that most compares with the Real McCoy, being described as a “beefed up” version of it. The results are great. The body is darker, redder, more interesting. There is a strong body, still well balanced, but now with a stronger hop presence. The middle has a creamy nature to it (definite kudos to consistently good carbonation) but there is a nice roasted finish to it. Even with all that flavor it still finished crisp. I said to my wife “you can drink a lot of this”. With that much character, but still high drinkability, this is a “Must Have It”.

Changing gears, we proceeded with a tasty Double Nut Brown Ale. The beer pours dark, with a big creamy head. There are definite coffee notes and a rich coffee color. And I love coffee. Sadly, I didn’t unreservedly love this beer. It was not as smooth as most Brown Ales and definitely straddles the line toward a Porter style. The roasted malt was light but felt lacking. The crisp finish of Mammoth doesn’t serve this beer well, as you would like something to chew on at the end. As one of their darkest beers this one is trying to fill lots of roles. It does so passibly, but not brilliantly. “Try It” if you have enough time/$, but otherwise “Skip It”.

Back to lighter beers with Floating Rock Hefeweizen. This beer is a Bavarian style Hef, and pours lightly cloudy as it should but with a stronger yellow color than I am used to (as opposed to a yellow/tan mix). There is a good wheaty front note followed by a finish that is crisper than I am used to in traditional Bayern Hefs. This crisp finish cuts down on the ability of the malt to deliver those rich flavors on the back end, such as banana or spice. Being that this beer doesn’t do the one thing I expect it to (to be fair, this exact flavor is why a lot of people don’t like Hef at all), it is hard to reconcile the overall good flavor with the underwhelming mouth experience. While I enjoy this beer and think it is generally a “Try It” (especially following a day outdoors), overall opinions on it were mixed, and in the category of traditional Bavarian Hefs you should “Skip It” and drink a Schneider Weisse.

Moving towards the finish line we came across Epic IPA. This is their flagship IPA and one of the beers you are most likely to find in your local bar or store. The color is a cloudy orange, rather attractive. There is an initial hop flavor that bursts on your tongue. The hops linger but don’t overpower, and the malt body is well balanced, strong enough but doesn’t coat the tongue. This beer has a relatively crisp finish (for an IPA). I think this beer is high on drinkability (so of course I like it), but may lack a bit in the IPA flavor wars currently raging in America. Thus “Try It”, but IPA-heads be warned it may underwhelm.

Luckily Mammoth knows that some people like very strong IPAs, and for them we have 395 IPA, a beer enthusiasts’ upgrade on the Epic IPA. Our server told us this beer came about in the great hops shortages of a few years ago when American brewers literally couldn’t get enough hops to brew all of their beers. So, turning to their beautiful backyard, Mammoth brewed the 395 with local High Desert Sage and Mountain Juniper. These deliver a strong and unique flavor, and apparently they change as they age making for an ageable ale. Not everyone loves these local brewing additions, and in my experience, the taste differed markedly between bottle and keg. Still, when they were hitting, it was amazing. The body is redder and darker than the Epic, and with a higher alcohol content (8.0abv). Somehow the body has even better balance and the hop and sage/juniper flavors are carefully crafted to add a rich mysterious flavor. With all this flavor, somehow, somehow, it still finishes smoothly (not overpowering, as it might be easy to do with so much flavor). I don’t love IPAs generally, but I loved this beer as it tasted from that tap and in a bottle. It was, at those times, a “Must Have It” and a bit of a revelation.

UPDATE SINCE THE VISIT: I have tried 395 from the keg a couple of times since and not had the same wonderful experience. My friends and I agreed that the sage flavors had taken over, pushing the body out of balance, and pushing the finish into a sharper, more sour note that didn’t sit well. I’m not sure if this is the nature of the aging process or what, but I hope if you try it, you will find the former and not the later. Maybe go with your first 395 out of the bottle. The 395 from the keg was a “Skip It” for true IPA heads, and a “Try It” for those ready to have their tastebuds confused. Brewers comments welcome on this mystery.

My final beer was a Belgian Triple that was brewed in a Saison style. Being a fan of this style I was curious as to how Mammoth’s generally crisp finish would do on such a rich and malty brew. The results were excellent, and this is a “Must Have It”. This special release (geez, hope I can find some, but doubtful) has a nice dull yellow color that reflects its complex body. The carbonation is nice and low (emphasizing the flavors) and the heavy well-brewed aroma is all Belgian. The flavor was smooth but deep, and stayed true to Saison’s rich heritage. Good spice notes, a strong malty body that didn’t overpower you. I don’t think you will stop drinking imports based on this beer, but it is nice to see a domestic brewery produce such a nice special release and one that is rather far from their traditional flavor palate. In this beer I really felt like the people up in Mammoth Lakes know how to brew and love doing it.

Lastly, I had the Root Beer. Wow. This is also a “Must Have It”. Not as sweet as small craft soda brewers, and with a much richer and deeper spice. As I was grabbing up my purchases, I tried to get some bottles of Root Beer ahead of some beers. Let me repeat. This was making me buy soda over beer, at a brewery. It is just that good. Sadly it was only available in growlers (and due to stupid California laws, I avoid growlers from far-flung breweries) and so I had to pass it up. If you have a chance, get yourself some.

Mammoth Brewing Company is doing good work and deserves your support. I met with their owner and head brewer, Sean Turner, at the Sacramento’s Brewers Festival (pictured above). A very nice guy and he seems to have a good team.

In sum MBC is giving California delicious and drinkable beers. While they may not compete head on with some of the super strong flavor beers, I find these more drinkable, and to me and my Bavarian-trained palate, that is what really matters. I can say with great confidence that this is the best California brewery located at least a mile high. I am going to tour the mountain Southwest in the next few weeks and I will try see if I can find a better high altitude brew anywhere in the US. I like challenges.

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