The Valley of the Heart’s Delight Still Bearing Fruit
This spring, Almanac Beer released Valley of the Heart’s Delight, a barrel-aged sour ale made with apricots, dates and mulberries. Almanac brews in San Jose and has made its sterling reputation among beer aficionados by brewing with fruit from small, independent Northern California farms as part of their “farm-to-barrel” ethos.
As the name implies, the fruit for Valley of the Heart’s Delight was harvested exclusively from San Jose, but didn’t come from any orchard. Instead, it was picked from trees sprinkled throughout San Jose, by a nonprofit devoted to creating a local sustainable food system in Silicon Valley called Garden to Table.
As San Jose’s famous orchards were clear cut to make way for the technology boom, only a small number of trees were spared, mostly for decorative purposes. New trees have been planted since, but one wonders how many fruit trees are now standing in San Jose. That’s a question Zach Lewis, executive director for Garden to Table, pondered a few years ago when he was a graduate student in San Jose State University’s Urban Planning Department.
“We did a survey of a one-mile radius around San Jose State University. After surveying about 50% of the area, we found 3,000 trees.” While extrapolating this small survey to the entire area of San Jose involves a great deal of uncertainty, the most conservative estimate indicates well over 100,000 fruit trees are scattered throughout San Jose, meaning at a minimum 1–2 million pounds of fruit is left to rot on the ground each year.
To reclaim this wasted resource, Garden to Table works with neighborhoods, training team leaders and volunteers to pick the fruit off trees where property owners have granted them permission to do so as part of their harvest program, which started in 2011. Most of the fruit is donated to local food banks.
“The idea actually started with one awesome dude, Graham Stitchman,” says Lewis. “He saw his neighbors throwing away fruit from their trees and started harvesting it himself, then donating that to the local food bank. Without Graham, there would be no harvest program. It’s all built off his effort and initiative.” Stitchman serves on Garden to Table’s board of directors.
The trees are carefully screened to make sure the fruit is safe for consumption. “We ask the tree owner basic care questions before we even approach the tree, and then we follow best management practices to ensure a safe and sanitary harvest,” says Lewis. While reclaiming a local food source is the goal, taste does matter. “We have everyone try the fruit we harvest, and most of the time it’s really good. San Jose is just a great place to grow all kinds of fruit. We have enough chill hours [weather below 45°] to grow stone fruit and enough heat to grow citrus and avocados.”
In a fundraising effort, Lewis reached out to Almanac Beer co-founders Jesse Friedman and Damian Fagen to gauge their interest in buying fruit from Garden to Table for their beer. The three were acquainted from the days they all belonged to the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild. “We thought it sounded great,” says Almanac Brewmaster Jesse Friedman. “I’m always looking for local fruit, a local terroir we can infuse into our beer.”
To brew Valley of the Hearts Delight, Friedman starts with Almanac’s base Sour Blonde Ale. “Then I add our house cocktail of Brettanomyces yeast and Lactobacillus to the ale in previously used neutral red wine barrels.” Brettanomyces—cultivated from wild yeasts—infuses spicy, earthy, fruity flavors during the fermentation process, while Lactobacillus creates an acidic sourness.
“The apricots, dates and mulberries are separated and puréed and then added to the barrels,” says Friedman. “Then it all sits in the barrels for six to 12 months. I taste along the way until each barrel tells me it’s done.” Then the art of blending begins as the barrels are carefully combined. Tasting Valley of the Heart’s Delight, the bright apricot flavors meld with an underlying earthy, fruity complexity that finishes with an arousing sour tang. It’s liquid proof that despite the onslaught of industrial parks and subdivisions, fruit trees in San Jose have re-emerged to become a valued local food source.
Derrick Peterman is a brewing enthusiast who lives in Campbell and is endlessly exploring all the great beers and breweries of Northern California. He writes a blog of his adventures of beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) at Ramblings of a Beer Runner (Beer-Runner.blogspot.com).