Beer, Camera Stuff and San Francisco
In the beginning, the traditional India Pale Ales were made with hops, lots of hops, to help the beer flavor last while at sea for months at a time. These IPAs had a hop profile that was heavy with pine and herbal notes. When settlers started making it out to the west coast, and of course started brewing beer, things started to change for the IPA. The west coast is now becoming known for IPA's with fruity notes such as orange and grapefruit, and the number of craft breweries making these delicious beers has been growing quite quickly in recent years. San Francisco is an iconic west coast city known for its creativity and diversity, and Anchor Brewery Is California's oldest brewery, located where? You guessed it. We headed to the big city where it all began to see how the San Francisco beer market has evolved into the IPA capital of California.
Since I can't seem to go anywhere or do anything without a camera welded to my palm I decided to use the San Francisco trip to compare something else that might parallel our old-versus-new IPA quest. I am a proud Canon shooter, and for the past couple of years I have been using the piss out of a 5d Mark 2. This fall it seemed it was finally on its last legs, retiring with a shutter count of 270k after 2 short years. Since it was time for a new camera I decided it was also time for a major upgrade. I recently acquired a lightly used 1Dx Mark 1 instead of the freshly released Mark 2. Besides saving a few thousand dollars on my purchase, I felt that in this case there was a strong possibility that newer might not always mean better. Yes, the new version has a slightly higher resolution sensor, and yeah slightly higher image quality, and 4k video shooting and touch screen controls yada yada yada. But is it twice-the-price better, or can the old dog still hang with the new dog?
Along with the camera, I brought a couple of lenses that you could also consider oldies but goodies. With me was a 16-35mm L f/2.8 mark 1 and the ever so popular portrait lens the 135mm L f/2. The 16-35mm is on its third iteration now, but Canon has yet to come up with an updated design for the 135mm. So is newer really better? Better enough to justify the new 16-35 L being $1800 ($1200 more than my version 1 cost in the current market) or the new 1Dx mark 2 being $6000 ($3000 more than I spent to get my hands on a mark 1)? We attempted to find out if these old dog lenses and camera can still keep up in today's fast and demanding modern world. To add a degree of difficulty to the test we planned on getting to the city well after dark, we didn't bring any flash equipment, and we used only available lighting both inside the bars and out on the streets.
San Francisco is known for being one of the best craft brew cities in the country. Having well over 100 breweries, with almost every brewery making their own spin on the now trendy India Pale Ale, which one is the best? And is this new fruity style better and more refreshing than the old school taste? With me was my good friend, an old band mate from the glory days, Jordan Shippy. He is a Sacramento bar tender and has been to several tasting and serving classes from local craft and micro breweries and has become known as a local know-it-all for beers of all colors and craft. He has dedicated the last few years of his life working on his Masters in Percussion Performance from CSUS with an interest in world music. Another big interest has been getting to know the ins and outs of beer, from the time its thrown together as a mix of raw ingredients to the time it hits the glass as a finished frothy product. He considers himself a darker beer guy, but in recent years I've been able to persuade him into the hoppier varieties. His musicianship wouldn't be necessary for the trip, but he did agreed to take a night off from playing to be my beer expert and provide some detailed tasting notes. Together we came up with a 5 point beer rating system for measuring the beer's malt and hop flavors and presence, the overall brew quality, drinkability of the brew and an overall impression of the beer itself, all scaled 1-10. We set out together to find some bars with large assortments of local beers on tap and taste a few for ourselves, as well as talk to some of the locals for their take.
Monk's Kettle, 3141 16th st
First stop, Monks Kettle. Its known as a local favorite and has up to 28 beers on tap at a given time. We decided to pop in to talk to the bartender and try a few recommendations. As we stepped in I snapped a wide angle of the bar and was pleasantly surprised at the detail rendered at such high ISO. The old 5D mk2 wasn't much use after ISO 6400, but this image at 16,000 still renders a significant amount of detail despite the level of grain that is present.
After a short talk with the bartender we were then handed two beers by a local brewery Cellarmaker Brewing Company. The bartender informed us that Cellarmaker had quickly become a local favorite among the San Francisco bar crowd. Not indicated by the lighter exposure in the photograph of our two beers, the bar was very dimly lit, almost as if illuminated only by candle light. The 1Dx had a slight issue focusing here, but we were still able to capture a proper image with the 16-35mm wide open at 2.8. The center focus point on the 1Dx's system is the strongest out of its 61 point spread and, with a very careful focus-recompose approach, it handled the darkness well.
In the image of the two beer glasses, the beer on the left was named Fort Simcoe IPA with a sturdy 7% abv, and to the right was a beer called Underneath the Pine Pale Ale at an easy 5.9% abv. In my experience, beers that are unfiltered tend to be a bit more on the wild side, however here it seemed the roles were reversed as Underneath the Pine had a thicker, less transparent quality than the Fort Simcoe. we were informed that these two beers were the top selling beers at Monk's Kettle, which made us quite excited to give them a try. Jordan's expert beer tasting notes are as follows:
Fort Simcoe IPA Notes:
Citrus hop flavor initially, long decay as the malty finish comes in lightly at the end. Strong fruit hop smell, sweet with citrus.
Malt Profile: 4.5
Hop Profile: 7.5
Brew Quality: 9
Overall Impression: 8.6 out of 10. Good citrusy IPA, reminiscent of the northwest Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. Would recommend in the Bay Area strongly.
Underneath the Pine Pale Ale Notes:
Similar to monkey knife fight, this beer has a really nice balance of malty body and tasty hop flavors.
Initial taste is inviting, mild burst of hops with a quick decay leading to a smooth malty finish to round it out.
Malt Profile: 5.5
Hop Profile: 4.5
Brew Quality: 9
Overall Impression: 7.8 out of 10. A very drinkable, very balanced and refreshing beer that lacks the floral punch of a good pale ale. Technically a pale ale shouldn't be compared to IPAs, but it doesn't make quite the statement we were hoping for. Given some other choices on a menu this beer might not be a first round pick, but still a very good beer.
Jordan also wanted to add that both beers cascaded properly, evidence of a well made beer and a good bartender with proper pouring technique. Both are essential in a tasting experience, its in the details.
Toronado Bar, 547 height st
The Canon 1Dx is a great camera, but the one issue is the weight. This thing is a beast, with its rugged magnesium body and weather sealing it comes in at just under 3lbs without a lens. I took this opportunity to switch to the 135mm and see how it would handle a few quick street shots and some impromptu pictures or Jordan (one of which is featured above, image 2) and I was not dissapointed. This camera and lens combo delivered some great images while walking and shooting on the dimly lit streets of San Francisco with ease. Eventually we arrived at Toronado Bar on Height street, which was tucked between a few businesses and we actually walked past it at first without realizing. This bar has a large selection with up to 45 beers on tap and should have proven to be a great place to sample some other local favorites. We were disappointed to hear that this bar currently didn't have much of a selection from the local IPA scene, but did have a beer from Anchor Brewing. Curious to try a beer from the oldest brewery in the state, we asked for a couple pints and found a table.
Liberty Ale Notes:
The first impression gives a very malty flavor, the specific malt forward taste that is a defining characteristic of Anchor Brewing. The hop flavor comes in two waves: first a hop biter taste that eases into a full bodied malt, after which slowly transitions into a taste of not the bitters of the hops but the actual flavor of the hops. We decided it could be seen as a combination of pine hop flavor but maybe lightly citrus in the bitter front of the first sip. We also agreed that it would go great with a burger or a side of fries. Or pizza. Or hot wings. Definitely a BBQ beer as well. This is a very drinkable and tasty beer that just goes down easy.
Malt Profile: 6
Hop Profile: 5 and 6 (initial hop flavor and last, respectively)
Brew Quality: 8
Overall Impression: 8.4. Don't like the front hop and back hop experience as much, keep the hops together. Not liking the hop finish, would prefer the malt to finish the beer instead. But flavor profile is well balanced and it offers enough of a hoppy profile to entice most IPA enthusiasts despite being less hoppy than others, with just enough malt balance for enjoyment and easy on the pallet for almost any beer enthusiast. It lacks the cascading froth, but not surprising from a mass-produced beer. It has the flavor but lacks the hand made touches of some of the smaller breweries (possibly not poured with enough foam head). Mass-produced, nonetheless still kicks the pants off the Undernieth the Pine pale ale but not quite as good as Fort Simcoe.
HOPWATER DISTRIBUTION, 850 BUSH ST
Lastly, and quite fittingly, we took an Uber ride across the city to Hopwater Distribution, a bar that boasts another large selection with up to 31 beers on draft, almost all brewed right there in the bay area. The bar staff was very knowledgeable, very professional and had some great recommendations, one of which is featured in the photo to the left. The image to the left is about to the limit of printability for the 1Dx at 25,600 IS0, but for web purposes the grain is way too present. However 25,600 ISO is quite an impressive limit, almost as impressive as the beer selection at Hopwater, from which we were poured pints from Faction, Moylan's and Iron Springs Brewing.
FACTION WINTER IPA NOTES:
(Above) Initial impressions are of a strong, almost smoked west coast hop flavor IPA with strong hop presence. Definite presence of the new California style citrus hop flavors. Smooth but bitter at the same time. Strong front flavor, but backs off to show a balance with the malts that is still heavy weighted on the hop flavors. It also helped that we had a proper pour by the bar tender.
Malt Profile: 4
Hop Profile: 8
Brew Quality: 8
Overall Impression: 8.0 out of 10. Solid beer, good flavor, but it might be too bold for its own good. Trying to compete with the hoppier Double IPAs out there, but didn't match the flavor profiles of other popular brews. Also its not as drinkable as other beers, it takes a little bit to get through a full glass. Not that great paired with our angus burger sliders that we ordered for dinner either. Might be a good end of day relaxation kind of beer, enjoyed on its own while watching the news.
MOYLAN'S HOP CRAIG QUAD IPA NOTES:
Very very hoppy. Off the scale hoppy. As expected. Somehow a chocolate flavor, milk chocolates comes out. Lots of hops. Did we say that?
Malt Profile: 2
Hop Profile: 10(at least)
Brew Quality: 8
Drinkability: 1 (not surprising)
Overall Impression: 8 out of 10. Really intense, the hops never let up. What you'd expect drinking a quad IPA, and you should know what you're getting into before you order it. You probably cant drink more than 1 pint per sitting, and if you can then you're probably an animal.
IRON SPRINGS MAJOR SCIENCE IPA NOTES
Malt profile 3.5
Hop profile. 9
Brew Quality: 7
Overall impression: 7.2 out of 10. not too impressed, has a much happier flavor than others, much stronger hops. Surface flavor. Lot of hops but lower on that alcohol content. Bitter, crisp, but not as drinkable as other options. Also doesn't pair well with food. Not as well crafted as we would expect from a beer of similar attributes, for example fools gold by auburn ale house.
The dimly lit Hopwater Distribution seemed to take my camera to the limit. Out of the many weddings and hundreds of portrait sessions I've shot I've never come across situations this dimly lit. It is comforting to know that the camera will be able to handle such situations well. The 135mm didn't disappoint out on the streets, with its ultra fast focus even under dim street lights helping to render sharp images, and the 16-35mm did its job on the small cramped bar tops. The question we are left asking, lacking the proper equipment for a real comparison, is how much better is the new equipment? How much more capable is it in low light with moving subjects, the situations that really test a camera and lens combo to its limits? The old dog camera equipment seemed to hold its own out in the big city, and I cant imagine that the newer versions are measurably better under these conditions. In a parallel with the Liberty Ale of Anchor Brewing, the old school way works just fine and is quite satisfying, but anyone who is looking for a little extra spice or flavor might need to try something a bit more hardcore. When I say old school, I am still talking equipment that is less than a decade old. Technology moves at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with. All in all however,despite how much i like my current equipment, I have always been partial to that new school west coast IPA style, with Fort Simcoe by Cellarmaker being my favorite of the night. Too bad we left the growler in the car.