It never ceases to amaze me where microbreweries turn up. You can be in a shithole town in Texas, in the shadow of Miller Brewery's hulking complex in Milwaukee, you can be in Utah, so far off the beaten path that you're wondering if you can even buy beer in the county you're in and wham, turn the corner, and someone's got some kettles and a paddle, churning mash, flinging exotic herbs by the handful down a dark copper hole from which will emerge the king of quenching elixirs. Microbreweries are multiplying in this country like rabbits, making beers faster than we can try them, in places where we least expect them.
Take Mammoth Lakes, CA, where Mammoth Brewing Company got its start in the late 90s, among the Sierra's loftiest spots, at more than 8,000 feet. Outside of ski season this is utterly the middle of nowhere, and it's where I got to taste a flight of beers at a tasting room cruelly open only in daylight hours, the same hours when the slopes are calling.
Sean Turner has owned the brewery since 2007, and is proud to say it's the highest elevation winery on the West Coast — and then will tell you what it's like to work in a place where the guys driving the delivery trucks must sometimes shovel through 4 feet of snow just to reach the cab, or must wait an hour for the gas lines to unfreeze. Or how the water boils at 198 degrees, which presents several problems in the brewing process (removing volatile compounds, for example). The upside? A softer beer style, and of course, beers made with some of the purest water in the world.
Mammoth makes an impressive number of year-round and seasonal beers, a fresh Golden Trout Pilsner, a weighty Double Nut Brown, an ale it calls Paranoids Pale (for the Paranoid Flats ski run at Mammoth), and an amber called Real McCoy. But the brewery's best known beer is the 395 IPA, named for the long, spectacular highway that runs east of the Sierra to provide an unmitigated view of the stark mountain skyline west. Flavored with desert sage and juniper, the ale has a Christmas-ey scent, and flavors dry and hoppy, a dark middle palate of unsweetened cocoa and African coffee, the finish back to piney herbs, like the air you breathe at treeline, stark and bracing, with a foresty perfume.
Mammoth beers aren't currently distributed in Los Angeles, but will be, says Turner. In the meantime, it's the best selling beer in Yosemite Park.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.