The best home brewers are never satisfied with their recipe and processes; they’re always making subtle tweaks and improvements to refine their beers. The best craft breweries operate the same way: shifting, evolving and refining their beers and their brand. San Francisco’s Speakeasy Ales & Lagers is an example of how a veteran brewery can change their image and refine their beers. After 18 years of making craft beer, Speakeasy is hitting a new stride thanks to a big brewery expansion, a steady stream of interesting new beers, and some evocative design.
Speakeasy has been ubiquitous in the Bay Area and throughout California for years, but it’s never been terribly exciting. While their de facto flagship Big Daddy is a fine IPA in the vein of other stalwart classics from the West Coast chock full of the pine-and-citrus notes of Columbus, Cascade and Centennial hops, it was more of a safe-choice than something to get jazzed about seeing on tap. The other brews in the “Usual Suspects” series were similarly solid but forgettable (though to be fair, the newer seasonal releases have been more exciting). But Speakeasy refined their branding in 2011 and just this year fired up a new 60-barrel brewhouse and attendant canning line, and the first wide releases from the new system have sparked a new interest from beer fans.
Baby Daddy Session IPA was the first release from the new line of canned session brews, called the “Session 47 Series,” and Suds Session Ale followed a few weeks later (the third style — Pop Gun Pilsner — was just released this week). All three of these session-friendly, 4.7% alcohol brews get packaged in eye-catching black cans with some slick graphics that really help tell the brand’s story. The pulpy iconography that identifies each style (brass knuckles for Baby Daddy, a cork-firing revolver for Pop Gun, and a hardboiled thug blowing bubbles for Suds) is the kind of fun detail that helps move six packs off the crowded beer shelves. All the neat design in the world, however, won’t be worth the redemption value on the can if the beer inside is forgettable. Fortunately, the copper-hued Suds Session Ale manages to find a marketplace niche that Baby Daddy couldn’t.
The brewery doesn’t mention a specific style anywhere in the packaging or marketing of Suds, but I’d call it a classic pale ale. Not one of the dried-out and hopped-up pale ales that are en vogue currently, but a malt accentuated blend of British and American styles that balances a bready malt character with citrusy and herbaceous hops and a light, drinkable body.
The brilliant coppery beer is topped with a creamy tan head, and initial aromas are of baking bread, pithy hops, and a faint minerality under some subtle fruity notes of grape and pear. On the palate there’s some more caramel and sweet malts that dry out to an earthy, hop bitterness. I was pretty unimpressed with the first third of the glass of Suds, but soon after something clicked and I really began to enjoy the flavors of British specialty malts and understated hop character. Underlining the success of Suds as a session beer, by the end of the glass I was ready to crack another can.
It’s as straight forward a beer as you could ask for. It taste like malt and hops and yeasty esters, which isn’t to say there isn’t complexity there, but that’s not really the point of Suds. The point of Suds is watching it disappear from your glass (preferably pre-prohibition styled beer mug) and then filling it back up for another go around. Just be careful if you’re bringing a six pack to a party or a buddy’s place to watch the game (and this is a great brew to pair with early season football) — the slick can design might mean that everyone else reaches for one before you get a chance to pour your second glass.
Brewery: Speakeasy Ales & Lagers
City: San Francisco
Style: Pale Ale
Availability: Year-round, 14 states, beautiful cans