One wouldn't normally associate beer with a library.
But turning that association -- or lack thereof -- on its head is the whole point of Brew University, a beer-education program launched by the city of Palo Alto library system in the summer of 2012.
"This program has spawned into a huge, huge opportunity for us at the library to attract more customers and broaden our scope in terms of programming and thinking of libraries in a different way than just a deposit for books," said Cheryl Lee, Palo Alto's community engagement and outreach librarian.
Brew University is Lee's brainchild, executed with the help of local partners from the beer and library world alike.
The program is a series of free classes that focus on a range of beer-related topics, from the basics of home brewing to "The Techie Side of Beer." Each class begins with an informal lecture portion at Palo Alto's downtown library on Forest Avenue and then moves to Gordon Biersch, about a block away on Emerson Street, for tastings and socializing. Each attendee is given a three-ounce tasting glass and can pour for themselves from bottles placed throughout the restaurant's brewery, amongst giant metal beer-brewing tanks.
At a recent class, "Seasonal Beers From Around the World," Gordon Biersch's brewmaster John Tucci opened the evening, talking to a captive audience of more than 20 people about his definition of "seasonal," the beers he selected for them to taste, quirky beer history and more.
"Seasonal beer styles are a very general term for beer that's typically not made year-round," he said.
These styles are driven by the weather, holidays and other events. Tucci said he avoided bringing in Christmas beers, but instead went with ones whose flavors complement the crisp, somewhat cold weather this time of year, as well as more unusual brews that he thought attendees wouldn't have tasted before.
Among others, he brought in a coconut porter from Palo Alto Brewing, "Old Rasputin," a Russian imperial stout from Fort Bragg-based North Coast Brewery, a saison made by a Belgian brewery with grains of paradise, coriander and orange peel, and a sour blonde ale, aged in oak barrels, that drew particular interest from those who tasted it later in the evening.
"Anybody want to know how beer got sour and who thought of that one?" Tucci asked. He explained that sour beer's tart nature can be attributed to the levels of natural occurring bacteria.
"It's literally spoiled beer," he explained. "And now, today, of course there's levels of the spoil that you can work with and of course you don't want to allow it to go too far. I've created batches of intentionally sour beers that do go too far and there's a tipping point when it becomes unpalatable."
He shared an anecdote about saving a jar of a "horrible" tasting batch of sour beer; three or four years later, he opened it up and found its flavor had morphed into "almost identical to what you would put on fish and chips."
City librarian Lee also brought in Derek Wolfgram, deputy county librarian for the Santa Clara County Library District and home brewer of many years, to lead a past Brew University session on making beer.
"We do an overview of the history of beer and brewing just to put it in context a little bit and then talk about all the different ingredients," Wolfgram said. "We have grains that people can taste and hops that people can smell and talk about the process and the different levels of involvement that you can have."
Wolfgram, of course, suggests a few books to get people started making their own beer at home: "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" by Charlie Papazian and "How to Brew: Everything you need to know to brew beer right the first time" by John Palmer.
The home-brewing sessions inspired one attendee, Palo Alto resident Bruce Kuwano, to pick up the hobby for the first time. At the seasonal beers class, Kuwano was still in the beginning stages of brewing his own beer.
"I was going to ask John (Tucci) actually if it's supposed to look this way, because it looks kind of scary right now," he laughed. "It looks like a pond with a lot of fuzzy stuff on top. I added yeast, so I think that's what it's supposed to look like."
Undeterred, he moved on to taste more of the seasonal beers.
Future Brew University events include "From HomeBrewer to Experienced Brewmaster" on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. Tucci, who is opening his own production brewery in South San Francisco in a few months, will lead the class. Information on the classes can be found on the library's events page.
Lee, Tucci and Wolfgram are also working on hosting a "Brew Day" competition this summer. Similar to reality cooking show Top Chef, four home brewing clubs will be given a mystery basket of ingredients and will have to make a beer on the spot with those ingredients. This will be an all-day event -- beer takes about six hours to brew -- held in the downtown library's outdoor patio.
"We're trying to change the game and broaden what the library means to people," Lee said.