BEER NERDERY is one thing. You see it in snaking lines around seasonal ale festivals—bearded, in Dogfish Head T-shirts, arguing about the merits of Cascade and Golding hops. You see it at bottle shops and tap houses, someone holding court about their planned pilgrimage to Brasserie de Rochefort, or the case of Pliny the Elder they have stashed in their basement.
I'd be tempted to call what I witnessed in Burnside Brewing's facilities nerddom, but that's like calling Mark Zuckerberg a computer geek. We're not just talking about unbridled enthusiasm—it's something like visionary obsession.
I'd had a couple great meals and more than a couple great beers at Burnside Brewing before I wrote Adam Cassie, who recently opened the brewery along with Jason McAdam (formerly of Roots) and Jay Gilbert (formerly at Full Sail), and asked to talk about their operation. When I showed up, McAdam told me that I'd picked a good day to stop by, that they were experimenting with a few new ideas.
We walked back into the warehouse space next to the restaurant, where the team brews all of the beer. Two men were hunched over a piece of equipment like something from an organic chemistry lab. One of the men, chef Ronnie Vance, was stuffing chopped leeks into a glass thimble while his associate explained that the Soxhlet extractor would use heat and alcohol to distill the leeks' oils and essentially capture their flavors. They bandied ideas back and forth like mad, slightly soused scientists.
The goal of all this tinkering and molecular gastronomy (as far as I was able keep up) was to find new ways of pairing beer with food, of encapsulating the essence of, say, duck fat or bacon and infusing the beer with hints of that aroma. They're working on a system that would introduce new flavors to a beer by pumping CO2 through a chamber containing that essence on the way to the tap. They've created "beer caviar," a solid, gelatinous version of their beverages that looks uncannily like fish eggs; it can be eaten alongside the beer, or you can make your own little grown-up bubble tea.
If all of this sounds like some kind of gimcrackery, you've obviously yet to try Burnside's offerings. Maybe the characteristic that best defines their beer is subtlety; it's interesting without busting your palate, big in the mouth without creeping up toward 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume. These beers are just immensely drinkable.
My favorite so far—though it's not currently on the menu—has been the grätzer, a smoked wheat beer native to Poland. It's a little bit cloudy and a little bit sweet, and the smoky flavor enhances the beer instead of overwhelming it. I'm similarly enamored with the oatmeal pale ale. It's lightly hoppy, but the oats give the beer an incredibly big body. I've never had a pale like it.
Soon, Burnside will be releasing a variation on German Berliner Weisse (with their own spin on the fruit flavoring), an imperial IPA, and an oyster ale (I've never seen oyster used in anything but stout).
The DIY spirit extends to the kitchen as well. They're currently waiting on HACCP certification for meat curing, so you'll be able to gaze through a window in the dining room to see your salami in progress. It seems that Vance is pickling and fermenting anything he can get his hands on—pig feet were recently included on the house pickle plate. Bacterially processed foods are a natural match with beer, and the salt will keep you guzzling.
An important thing to keep in mind is that Burnside isn't setting out to do typical pub grub (they're also not courting vegetarians... if you're not a meat eater, grab a beer then go across the street to the Farm). You're going to pay slightly more than you're used to at Lompoc or Hopworks, but the care and attention given to the food is immediately apparent. The brewery burger ($10), is Kobe beef seared in duck fat, with grilled onions, pickles, and housemade ketchup, served on a hop-studded potato roll. The fries are shoestring style, heavily seasoned, and piled high. The steak frites ($14) is tender and flavorful, well worth the cost, and the spicy pickled pork ($10) is unrecognizable from your standard pulled-pork sandwich—pork confit, pickled jalapeño, and fennel, served over a glaze of spicy tomato sauce.
I can't speak highly enough about the happy hour menu—imperial pints go for $3.50 and food's $3-6. (Tuesday through Thursday 3-6 pm, and all day Sunday).
I have a feeling that a lot of craft breweries are going to be keeping an eye on Burnside, watching them take chances and push the envelope, before falling in line. I'll certainly be watching, probably from a barstool.