Second in the series

 

Ken Mee plants beer flag in heart of Napa

 

Along Highway 29 just north of St. Helena sits an unassuming little brewery. Amidst premium Napa County vineyard land, and situated in one of the area’s older buildings (1895) at the historic Freemark Abbey Winery complex, it has enough charm to turn all thoughts of Cabernet to IPA.

A more attractive spot is had to imagine. The beautiful, rustic stone building; bordered by colorful flower gardens; shaded by arching trees. A question pops into your mind: Who was lucky enough and/or smart enough to put a brewery here?
The answer is Ken Mee.

Napa Valley native Mee is co-proprietor and head brewer at Silverado Brewing Company. He has the perfect location and temperament to succeed as a brewer in wine country. Just sitting and talking with this easy-going guy is relaxing and puts you in the mood to sample another of his tasty brews.

Like quite a few other successful craft brewers, Mee is a graduate of the American Brewers Guild training program. In talking with him one quickly learns that he knows his stuff. But Mee didn’t start out to be a brewer. In fact, he started out in the wine industry.

“I was with Sutter Home for 15 years before taking my homebrewing hobby up a couple of levels,” he recounts with a smile as he talks with Wine Country Beer editor Charles Bockway. “One of the main things that drew me into brewing was that I can brew beer any day I want; whereas you’re limited to a certain time of year with wine.”

Being a professional brewer in a vast sea of wines, including many considered to be among the world’s best, might be a bit intimidating to some, but not to Mee.

“I look at it as I’ve got hundreds of friends out there,” he explains.”Since I used to work in the wine industry, I’ve got a lot of friends making wine, working in the tasting rooms, and out there selling the wine.

“There’s really not a lot of beer here (in Napa County). In any given day here you’ll find tables full of people all employed at wineries. It’s great to see these people coming in and appreciating the beer.”

A sea of great palates

In the Napa Valley you’re also immersed in a sea of people with great palates—not only winemakers, but also restaurateurs, foodies, and wine tourists—people who have a passion for taste, and you’re the local brewery. Mee thinks Silverado benefits.

“We’re something different,” he says. “It gets them out of that realm and into something else.

“You’ll get people walking in here who say, ‘I’m wined out. I need a beer.’  They’re very excited to find that we make beer here.

“One cannot drink wine all day long, and the same goes for beer. In moderation, both can be enjoyed.”

He also believes winemakers are great craft beer customers because of their kinship with brewers.

“They are our fermentation brothers, or cousins,” Mee explains. “They may not know everything involved in how to make beer, but they understand that there are some similarities, and they have very good palates.

“Besides, on a hot fall afternoon, after putting in many hours making wine, what better way to kick back and relax than to have a nice, fresh beer.

A unity of beer, food and wine

Napa County is nothing if it is not all about fantastic food and beverage. Silverado Brewing Company understands that well. Mee and his partner Michael Fradelizio, who takes charge of the restaurant side, team to produce not only great beer, but also great food. Since opening in July 2000, they have produced a winning combination.  

Mee stresses that Silverado maintains a lot of solid relationships with area wineries.

“We feature local wines on our wine list, and for our wine-by-the-glass program, we buy a whole barrel of wine that my partner (Fradelizio) gets to put his input into the final blend.”

Beer Eureka Moment

One of the fun things about running a brewery in wine country is getting to experience first-hand the excitement of wine drinkers who have their moment of craft beer enlightenment. Mee recounts an enlightenment moment that occurred at one of their special Brewers’ Dinners. He says that these particular customers “hadn’t really been exposed to the possibilities of matching or pairing beer with food. When they had the dessert, a chocolate porter cake, matched with our St. Euphorius, a Belgian-style Dubbel, they were totally blown away.”

He also finds it rather amusing when a person who is supposedly very much into the whole fine wine and food thing ends up selecting a mass-produced beer.

“I want to say, ‘Dude, don’t abuse your palate with that; get a craft beer.’”

Mee thinks beer education is important to getting people to understand craft beer. He works hard at encouraging people to try new beers and learn more about them.

“We do very well with our tasters,” he says. ”It’s a four-ounce pour of our four regular beers plus the two seasonal beers. There’s a taster sheet that has a description of each beer and a suggested tasting order.”

Brewing philosophy: Sip and appreciate

Mee has a definite brewing philosophy that shows through the body of his work.

“I prefer making a beer you can sit down, sip and appreciate,” he says, “rather than one you see how fast you can get down.


“When we first opened and were talking about the kind of beers we wanted to serve here,” he recalls, “we wanted to appeal to a wide group of people, while still getting to some specialized beers.

“You have to have a yellow beer so we have the Blonde; you have to have a hoppy beer so we have the Pale Ale; you have to have a dark beer so we have the Stout; and you have to have one with body and flavor, so we have the Amber.

Then the rest of the year it’s pretty much up to Mee what they do, though the seasonal beers do seem to roll in on a schedule. Lighter beers in the warm months, stronger beers in the winter.

“The Oktoberfest has its natural time frame,” he says. ”I just wish there were more months between October and February so we had more time to roll out the big beers. That’s when we do the Belgian Dubbel, the Belgian Tripel, a Scotch Ale, and then there’s the Porter, and the Brown Ale. The IPA we do a couple times a year too.”

In the course of a year Silverado will offer about 14 different seasonal beers. And Mee is always looking for a new twist.

”We’re taking a Blonde Ale and adding a pepper flavor to it,” he notes. “It has a green vegetal character from the skin of the pepper and also some heat—but you don’t want to overdo it on that.”

Recommendations for wine lovers

Because they can be quite complex, explaining craft beer flavors to the uninitiated takes some work. Mee sometimes finds it helpful to relate a beers to wines with which the customer may be more familiar. When helping someone decide what kind of beer to get, he may ask what kind of wine the person drinks.  

In general he sees ales as fuller flavored, as are red wines. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc he feels are more like a nice crisp dry lager.

“If someone likes fruity, I might suggest a fruity light ale like the Belgian Wit we do. Our Blonde Ale is fruity as well.


“In the end It all comes down to personal taste, what you like. It’s good to make a suggestion that this will work with that, but try it for yourself so you can make those discoveries on your own.”

Speaking of experimenting

Being located in the middle of winery land seems to tempt brewers to experiment with oak barrels in the brewing process. Mee has certainly given that a try.

“With our space limitations we don’t have room for a whole bunch of barrels but once we did pick up a new lightly-toasted wine barrel, put beer into it and it was fantastic. We’ve also done a bourbon barrel stout that we release at St. Patrick’s Day.”

Last year he aged a Belgian-style Kriek beer in a used wine barrel.

“We brewed a batch of wheat beer, and once the primary fermentation was coming to a close we diverted some of the batch into a used wine barrel, along with about 60 pounds of cherries, and inoculated it with brettanomyces.”

Mee credits having a good assistant brewer, Matt Cromwell, for him getting the opportunity to experiment more.

“It gives me time to put my thinking cap on and do some research and development of new beers,” he relates. “If nothing else, for us back here (in the brewery) doing something new and different is fun and exciting, and they’ll like it out there (in the restaurant) too.

Through the years Mee has been influenced by Belgian beer styles. He’s visited Belgium a few times and toured breweries there. It’s spurred his experimentation back home.

“We often make three Belgian seasonals, the Wit, a Dubbel and a Tripel. With the Kriek that makes four. That’s a high percentage of our seasonals.”

Whether Belgian, German, English or American styles, Mee’s beers are definitely rooted in the local food and beverage culture of the Napa Valley. Trying them fresh at the brewery with some food is a true treat. A stop at Silverado Brewing Company is worthy of anyone’s wine country vacation agenda. Call ahead and reserve a spot in one of their daily brewery tours.

For more information go to: Silverado Brewing Company profile page 

 

PHOTO KEY

Top: Brewery exterior seen from Hwy 29.

2nd Top: Ken Mee at work in the brewhouse.

3rd Top: Flowers along the road in front of brewery.

4th Top: High-end specialty malts from Germany stacked in a brewery hall

5th Top: Some of the premium vineyards that surround the brewery.

6th Top: Today’s beer list is displayed on mirror in entrance.

7th Top: Architectural details of an adjacent building in Freemark Abbey Winery.


Photo Credits

All photos by Charles Bockway for Wine Country Beer.

Ken Mee

KEM MEE’s THOUGHTS on WINE and BEER AFFINITIES

Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon
Amber Ale/Brown Ale
Chardonnay
Blonde Ale/Kolsch
Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Gris
Pale Ale/Wheat Beer
Pinot Noir
Oatmeal Stout/Porter
A big Zinfandel
Oatmeal Stout/Belgian Dubbel

The chart suggests Silverado Brewing Company beers for people who are fans of the listed wine varieties.