Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pride

I just wanted to let you know that the reason I left all the comments on the last post unmoderated over the weekend is that we went to see my son compete in the state-level forensics tournament at Susquehanna University. Thomas, a sophomore, made the finals round in Persuasive Speaking, which we arrived in time to watch, and "scored big points with the judges" (a quote from his speech) with his original presentation, "An Abridged Speech." He took first place, which was actually the first competition he'd won this year; good time to shine. He's also qualified for nationals in the Catholic Forensics League, and he's first alternate (third place in PA) for nationals in the National Forensics League. We're very proud of him.

We celebrated with lunch at Selin's Grove, a very convenient four-minute drive away. I got a glass of cask-conditioned Organic Baltic Porter, perhaps excessively estery, but delicious nonetheless, and got some local cheese, too -- the Monterey Jack was outstanding. We made much of Thomas; well-deserved!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Time to retire "Beer Geek"?

Is it time to stop calling each other "beer geek"?

"Beer geek" goes back a loooong way. I did a quick 'n' dirty Google search, and the earliest reference I found was 1992. That might surprise some of you -- some may think it's not that old, and some -- like me -- may be shocked to think that's the earliest reference. I'm suspicious of it, myself. There are references in USENET newsgroups and Homebrew Digest that make it plain that the term had been in use earlier; it was familiar to at least some of the people discussing it. Some of you remember Barleycorn, the first mid-Atlantic beerpaper: they had an "Ask the Beer Geek" column back as early as 1993, which argues an earlier familiarity.

"Geek," as numerous incensed beer...lovers have pointed out, is not exactly a term with a great history. Here's what the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) has to say.

1. a. A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
b. A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
2. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.
[Perhaps alteration of dialectal geck, fool, from Low German gek, from Middle Low German.]

Hey, great, that's what I wanna be. Some "geeks" don't mind, they 'embrace their geek' and flaunt it. Some people who I think are completely comfortable socially will declare themselves "beer geeks" and don't give a hoot. I don't mind it myself. I've called myself a beer geek. (There are all sorts of 'geeks' these days, though it was kind of unsettling to find out that the Wikipedia entry on geek doesn't make any mention of "beer geeks." Why is that unsettling? Damn...) No big deal.

Maybe. Maybe it is a problem, though. It is an inherently denigrating term, given its history (though some have argued that, like "gay," the word has changed so thoroughly that it has left its origins behind. I don't agree), and it has that air of annoying dipshit about it, the kind of beer drinker who obsesses over note-taking and rarity and process to the point of missing the whole reason that the beer is in their glass. As one whisky-maker brilliantly commented to a rabid collector: "We make the stuff to drink, you know."

The term does damage to us. It separates us from a growing number of craft beer drinkers who just like to drink the stuff -- and, I believe, many of us mainly like to drink the stuff. We talk about it, here and other places, but I can't pretend that most of us do that because it's our job: the number of amateur sites by far out-numbers sites of guys like me and Stan and Jack and Stephen and Jay and Don and so on, who do this for a living, let alone all the brewers who have blogs and often think deeply about beer. There are enthusiasts who do that, who know the minutiae of beer, who travel constantly for new beers, who take their beer very damned seriously. Rightly so, for while beer isn't as important as world peace or economic recovery, it's certainly as worthy of one's time as watching sports or following bands.

I don't think they should be branded as "geeks" because of that. I know some of these people, and they are intelligent, personable, warm and friendly, good friends. But there is a class of these people -- most of you reading this blog belong to it -- and I often find myself looking for a label for that group, so I can refer to them briefly as a group. I don't want it to be too general -- "beer drinkers" -- or branded -- "BeerAdvocates" -- or inherently denigrating -- "beer geeks."

We don't have a good term, and that's why we're still using "beer geek." There have been suggestions: beer snob, beer aficionado, beer connoisseur, beer enthusiast, ale conner, beer lover, beer guy. All of them fail on various points: snob is no better than geek, connoisseur and aficionado are considered "hoity-toity" by many (and can be a bitch to spell for some), enthusiast is too dry, ale conner is too arcane, beer lover is too stupid, and beer guy, well, it doesn't do much for the women who like beer, does it?

I'm open to suggestions, although I'm not optimistic. Names thought up by committee rarely work too well. Please, no acronyms. It's got to be something that you wouldn't hesitate to anoint yourself with, something that doesn't denigrate, and something that doesn't need to be explained. Tall order, which is, of course, why we don't already have it. I just hope we're not stuck with "beer geek" the rest of our lives.

I'll throw out the first one: beer fan. It's an Americanism, "fan," originating in baseball, short for "fanatic." It's mellowed a bit over the years, to the point where a fanatic is referred to as "a true fan." Science fiction has fandom, the truly devoted, there are music fans, fans of television shows. What do you think?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy New Beer's Day!

Ah, Repeal.

We're celebrating 75 years since the return of sanity in America this year, and it starts on April 7: New Beer's Day. Beer got a jump on the actual repeal of the 18th Amendment, which didn't happen until 8 months later: Congress, with the willing blessing of FDR, jiggered the Volstead Act to classify 3.2% ABW beer as non-intoxicating, making it legal for sale, and the nation -- well, 20 forward-looking states and the District -- whooped it up accordingly.

The folks at Tröegs have made an occasion of it, and they are doing it up right: beer, beer, and more beer -- some of it under the 3.2 limit, oh sweet Session Beer -- and they've asked me to come up and open the celebration with a short lecture on how we got into the whole Prohibition mess, and how we got out of it.

It's at the brewery on Friday, April 11, beginning at 7:30. Tickets are $25 in advance, $40 after April 8 (and at the door), and all proceeds benefit the Historical Society of Dauphin County. (The cost of the ticket covers the food, entertainment, and the benefit: beers are $3 for the regular Tröegs lineup and $5 for the specialty beers; more details here.)

Come on up and join me in a toast to the moderate, healthy, wonderful joys of beer!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter!

Whew. It's been a long busy week of singing and work. I had a rehearsal with my church choir Tuesday night that went exceptionally well, we sang Holy Thursday, I sang late prayer with the choir director Thursday night at 11 (all a capella, almost entirely dark in the church, and I volunteered to do it again next year), sang an all a capella Good Friday service with our small chamber choir, Easter Vigil last night (big service, and I carried the five-foot Paschal candle into the church), then 10:30 mass this morning... I'm bushed, but spiritually charged.

Workwise, I did my next Portfolio column (beer festivals) and the final edits on the one that's up now on Düsseldorf and Köln and three short pieces for a new project you'll hear about soon. Then Wednesday I had to run upstate to take back the kegs from the Upstate Beer event at the Grey Lodge two weeks ago. A weird day, weatherwise, with rain, and a bit of snow, fog, cold and wind, but things went like clockwork -- "One" Guy Hagner was nice enough to meet me right off an exit on I-80 and saved me the climb over the ridge in Berwick, I got a quick "hey, I'm here" call from Mike "Bavarian Barbarian" Hiller at the last minute before leaving the Bullfrog, where Terry had graciously agreed to hold Mike's keg for him (and we'd sampled Terry's delicious "Unique", a singel that was excellent, and a 'kegs gone wild' sour apricot that rocked) -- and I was an hour ahead of schedule when I came zipping over the ridge into Millheim to return the last keg to Elk Creek.

Tim Bowser wasn't in, but he'd told me to get a sample of the Trout Stout they'd debuted on St. Pat's. I walked in, and saw two guys I'd met when I picked up the keg -- the assistant brewer and a friend of Tim's (and I obviously missed both their names, and I do apologize!) -- having lunch: a couple chunks of cheese, a loaf of fresh bread, a rough-looking ring bologna, and two pints of stout. What a great-looking lunch. I was handed a pint of stout -- excellent: bitter, refreshing, and tasty, hope it joins the lineup -- and we talked about how things had been pretty damned busy on St. Pat's. I finally had to ask: is that a local ring bologna? Yes, it was, from the meat market down the street, they made their own bologna, jerky (got some of that, too!), hams...yum. I got a ring, jerky, fresh-roasted peanuts, and a drink, and headed on down the road.

I was going to stop at Russell's in Bloomsburg for lunch, but when I called to make sure they were open, I was told that they were closed till 4:00...the place was being sold, and they were in closing; they would re-open at 4 with new owners. Yow! Hope it stays largely the same. I wound up stopping in Lewisburg at the Towne Tavern for a chili cheeseburger and a Sam Adams Lager. There were Landshark Lager signs everywhere. Kinda odd; we don't see any of that down here around Philly. Interesting. Good burger, but far from phenomenal; the onion rings were pretty great, though.

Anyway, Friday dawned and Cathy finally gave in and realized that ham was the way to go for Easter. Bang! I got right on the phone and reserved one at Rieker's Meats (thanks again, George and Nancy). I donated platelets (and actually did; I've been having a bad string of failed donations, bad sticks, etc., glad we snapped that), and whipped over to Rieker's: what a beautiful ham! Went home, got a really interesting interview with Jon Myerow of Tria, did the Good Friday service, and then had a great fast-breaking dinner with the family at Florentino's in Newtown (eggplant parm that was more like an eggplant Napoleon: no breading on the eggplant, and it was sliced thin and piled high); split an excellent $15 bottle of red Zin with Cathy. I even finally got on my regular Friday night chat with some old beer buddies for our annual "Good Friday Catlick Beer Night" and drank a 750 of Church Brew Works Triple 2000 and a Rochefort 10.

Yesterday was spent shopping, getting haircuts, doing interview prep for my upcoming work week, and cleaning. Today after mass I made up a glaze for the ham with brown sugar, apple cider, dry mustard, ground Valencia orange peel, and ground cloves. Cathy made scalloped potatoes and roasted cauliflower, and family came for lunch. The ham was magnificent. The Rieker's ham cost about twice as much as the plastic-wrapped, perfectly edible hams from the supermarket, and it was fully worth it. Wow, what a good ham. I can't remember the last time I saw my dad eat so much meat. I'm really looking forward to ham sandwiches. I had my last bottle of Tröegs Scratch #6 (the 'Dortmunder'), a Reading with my mom, and a Sea Hag IPA. Now I'm getting ready to have...something. Not sure what. Might go with whiskey, I've got the bottle of Weller Antique out, and it seems a shame to put it away without having some...

Happy Easter, folks. Sorry I've been away so long.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"It Drink Pretty Good, Don't It?"

Look. I don't like to ridicule people. We all do what we do, we try, and all that, and well, I wouldn't want to be ridiculed for something nutty I said.

But this is just beyond the pale. This is audio clips of the Alabama House debate on the "free the hops" bill, legislation to lift the cap on beer from 6% to 13.9% ABV, supported by the Free The Hops Foundation, beer lovers like you and me. Some of the comments are offensive (like Rep. Richard Laird, who says the bill is just sponsored by some people who want to "get rich off alcoholic beverages"), some of them are uninformed, but one of them is just insane.

That's Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery. He starts at 5:33 on the clip, and he's... Oh, hell, I'll quote: "Yeah, what's wrong wit de beer we got? I mean, the beer we got drink pretty good, don't it? Now, I ain't never heard nobody complain about the beer we have. It drink pretty good. Budweiser... What's the name of some of them other beers? Budweiser and what else? Miller? Coors, huh? It drink pretty good, don't it?"

I would submit to you, folks, that this kind of ignorant crap is downright unAmerican. In a land dedicated to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and the by God freedom of the press...we damn sure ought not to have the government denying us freedom of choice. And certainly not when the government is such a freakin' dope. I mean, dude, get some elocution lessons!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Philly Beer Week: the Fork brunch

More a quick note than anything else... The dim sum brunch I hosted at Fork was a very good time. We sold out (43 guests in the private back room), and, well, somewhere along the way, things changed, and beer was included in the price.

We all sat at long, communal tables, the food was on large plates we served ourselves from, and the beers were all set in the middle of the table. I encouraged folks to try anything they wanted with anything they wanted, and to pass the word on good and bad pairings. My first discovery: Weyerbacher Merry Monks Ale went very well with the pickled soy sprouts, it really picked up the sweetness in the vinegar-laced greens. Tröegs Nut Brown Ale, as suspected, was beautiful with the braised ribs (and the braised chicken feet as well).

We had two pitchers of draft: PBC Kenzinger and Dock Street Rye IPA were both quite well-received by the diners. The surprise hit was a late addition: Reading Premium! Their Bucks County distributor, Banko, dropped off a case at Centre Beer in Newtown, I picked it up and hand-carried it to Fork because I thought there might be some less beer-savvy folks at the brunch who might appreciate something that wasn't quite as assertive, and I like the stuff, it's a well-made American lager with some guts to it. They loved it! And it went really well with the Chinese Broccoli and Oyster Sauce.

The food was exciting, plentiful, and delicious. Well...okay, the tripe was maybe a little too exciting for me. I was iffy on the tripe. But the rest of it: velvety fish congee, silky rice noodles with shrimp, the puffy chicken buns, braised ribs, pickled soy sprouts, crispy Shanghai spring rolls... excellent, and plenty to eat. Working with Ellen Yin was a delight, an energetic and cheerful woman who had a beautiful rapport with her customers.

Good time had by all, I think I can say. There were a lot of nice compliments from the guests (which included Scott Bowser and his wife, the man who owns and runs Swashbuckler Brewing at the PA RenFaire, which I understand he also now owns...I think I got that right...I'll be doing beer presentations for them at a food event they're doing at the Faire Memorial Day weekend; more on that soon). And I did walk over to the Real Ale Festival at Triumph afterwards, which was excellent.

Philly Beer Week: After-action report

I'd like to know: what is your evaluation of Philly Beer Week?
Were there enough events? Too many events? Did you expect events that you didn't see: maybe breweries or venues missing, types of events, pet ideas you have?

How about event pricing: too high, about right? Did you prefer ticketed events so you know how much you were spending going in, or the pay-as-you-go events?

Was there enough publicity, early enough to plan your trip, or was it hard to find out what was going on?

Did any of you travel more than 50 miles? Did you stay over? Would you do it again next year?

Did Philly show you a good time? Were people friendly, was the food good, was the beer excellent?

What can we do better next year? What should we drop, and not do next year?

Please feel free to either comment or e-mail me with responses.

Thanks to everyone who came out for these events, and who helped make this very first Philly Beer Week such a success!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Philly Beer Week: One for the books

Philly Beer Week 2008 is over, and by almost every measure it was a success. A surprisingly solid success, actually; most of the people involved who I talked to were surprised at just how well it did go. Events were largely sold out: there were people standing in line at the Grey Lodge wheat beer brunch, my Tria tasting -- all the Tria tastings sold out, the Italian/French beer dinner I hosted at Chick's Cafe Monday night was all but sold out, and my brunch at Fork today sold out (thanks to everyone who came to my events). Even the events that didn't sell out did well. I only heard of two or three events that largely crashed out, but with the number of events that took place, that's not too surprising.

There's obviously room for improvement. We're hoping to see more folks from farther out of town next year (and planning how to do that). We'd like to see a bit more planning on participation with brewers/importers and venues. We hope to get more partnerships with larger groups and sponsors. It would be good to get more press, further in advance (which was tough, admittedly, given no track record and people not even being sure what PBW would look like).

But everyone was impressed, and the city's beer credibility has sky-rocketed. As one brewery rep from New York (who will remain nameless to protect what's left of his reputation) put it, "Beer has one name on the East Coast: Philadelphia!"

Friday, March 14, 2008

I hear St. Patrick's Day is coming soon...

Earlier this week I was talking to a Philadelphia bar owner. We were both in the midst of Philly Beer Week, and it was pretty crazy, and pretty great, and the guy turns to me and says, "You know, I just realized that it's St. Patrick's Day next Monday, and I haven't done a damned thing to get ready." Philly Beer Week has kinda taken things over here.

But in the rest of the country, we're in countdown frenzy. I did two pieces for Massachusetts Beverage Business for March, one on Irish beer, one on Irish spirits. I'd like to make a correction right here on the spirits piece: I said that Jameson/Midleton uses bourbon barrels to age their whiskey. They do, but they also use sherry casks. My error, I was writing too fast, and I apologize.

There's also another error in that piece, but it's an editing issue: there's some bitched type in the opening, which is too bad, I really liked it. So...here's how it was supposed to be (mainly because it's right out of the research for New Jersey Breweries):
I was recently out on the road visiting bars in, of all places, central New Jersey, for a drinking book I'm working on. I drive on these trips, but I drink a lot of water, and I usually only drink about a third of the lower alcohol session beers I order. I also keep a personal breathalyzer in the car. I'm careful and responsible. I take it easy.

Then I walked into a bar called Tierney's, in Montclair: not an "Irish pub," but a workaday neighborhood bar. The quick mid-day conversation reminded me so much of the craic in Irish pubs, and the worn but clean look of the place was just so true, that when the bartender asked me, with a bit of the smiling Irish lilt itself, what I was having, my drinking brain shoved my writing brain out of the way and blurted out, "Guinness and a shot of Powers, please."

As I shook my head in wry self-amusement, sipping a measure of the warm, sweet glow of the Powers followed by its dark countryman, I thought about the strength of the Irish mystique, the Irish 'brand.' There was no Irish music playing in Tierney's, no "Erin Go Bragh" or "Cead Mille Failte" signs,none of the bric-a-brac that says "You're in an Irish place now, boyo," be it authentic or bought out of a catalog to "theme" the place.

But when I settled in at the bar and right away felt at home, the first thing that came to mind was how good a glass of Irish whiskey would taste.

And away I went from there. I am loving some Irish whiskey lately; shared some Jameson 18 out of my flask with a bunch of folks at the Lager Gala at Triumph last night, and made some serious friends for that beautiful drop.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Me and Sam Adams: looking good

Thanks to Stan Hieronymus, who sent me this link to a Reuters report on how Boston Beer blew away analysts' predictions for profits last quarter.

He sent me the link because of this piece I wrote for Portfolio, in which I took a look at Boston Beer's prospects and concluded that "Boston Beer looks pretty good." The market, I said, had it all wrong. Today, looking at that Reuters story, I'm feeling pretty good. Validated. Probably not as good as Jim Koch feels, though.

Go Get Don's Book

"Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." -- Gore Vidal

Well, screw him. I'm very happy for Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell and the success of his brand-new book, Joe Sixpack's Philly Beer Guide: a Reporter's Notes on the Best Beer-Drinking City in America. It's well-deserved, because this book is packed with great stuff about drinking in Philly and the surrounding area. After reading it for a while, I almost expected to see bits of notes and napkins sticking out of it on the sides; useful information bulges out of this book.

Useful information for the beer drinker, that is. Don't come here looking for much else: Don's total focus is admirable. There are beer bar walking tours (excellent, with maps), lists of the local breweries, Philly beer and bar history, take-out tips (absolutely necessary in Pennsylvania, a very useful guide to the beers you're most likely to find here (that would be everything), even a welcome chapter on where to find your favorite beer-linked "Amusements" -- darts, pool, shuffleboard, good jukes -- but don't expect to find much in the way of filler on what to go see in Philly. This is about finding your way through the gloriously rich jungle of beer that is Philadelphia.

Actually, there is one bit of extraneous material: Bill Conlin's Top 6 Barroom Brawls. Don has a newsman's nose for a story -- his Daily News column has always been a great read, even back in the early days when he was still getting up to speed on the full breadth of beer -- and Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin had some great stories to tell. I don't give a damn about sports, these stories really have nothing to do with beer -- other than taking place in bars, mostly not in Philly -- and I'm glad Don put them in: they are amusing and solidly real. Kinda what you'd expect from the Daily News.

That's another thing: this book is funny. What else can you say about a chapter titled "Excuses to Drink", featuring festivals, events, ballgames, and "Other Excuses to Drink," which include "Because you need some place to wear your beret" (Ortlieb's Jazzhaus) and "Because you have a bunch of $1 bills in your pocket" (Penn's Port Pub, the Delaware Ave. skin bar that started serving crafts during the 2006 Craft Brewers Conference in Philly, and discovered people liked them).

I also enjoyed this bit:
I've always suspected the microbrewery [at Stoudt's] was a slick business scheme
by Ed and Carol Stoudt to lure reluctant men to their shopping bazaar. Under
more sober circumstances, the typical male head of household might be somewhat
circumspect about carefree spending on junk. But get the old man sauced on
high-octane beer, and next thing you know, you're happily loading a pink
flamingo into the car trunk. I hate to admit this, friends, but Joe Sixpack is
speaking from experience on this one.

That's what makes this book fun as well as extremely useful: Don Russell's been around. He's been writing his column for more than ten years, he's won a number of awards for it -- well-deserved -- and he's been assiduously drinking beer in as many great bars as he could find in Philly and the surrounding area. Take his distilled experience and profit from it. Buy this book.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Who's the Lucky Winner?

Just heard from a brewer about those hops Boston Beer released: they got so many responses -- so far, they've had requests that total 100,000 lbs., for 20,000 lbs. of hops -- that they've decided the only fair way to do it is by lottery. They'll be drawing the winners on March 23.

Philly Beer Week: the "That's Not Belgian!" dinner at Chick's Cafe

Monday of Philly Beer Week saw me getting an early e-mail from Jon at Chick's Cafe: we had a beer change. The Italian chestnut beer we had scheduled for the main course (a wild boar dish on polenta) was not available, we were getting Chocarrubica instead, a chocolate/carob beer. Okay, let's put that with the dessert, and we decided to put the BB10 with the boar instead, a choice that turned out to be brilliant...wish I could say it was my decision, but I think it was Jon's. I spent the day working on my vodka story for Massachusetts Beverage Business, and left for Chick's about 4:30 for our "That's not Belgian!" dinner (which was, I'm gratified to find out, the FooBooz "Beer Week Pick of the Day" yesterday).

Traffic wasn't too bad, and about 5:20, I walked into the bar at Chick's, said hi all round, and went over the menu with Jon one last time. We made a decision to roll the cheese course before the entree; I wanted the BB10 later in the dinner. That done, I sat and awaited developments. Pretty soon Suzanne Woods developed, always a pleasant situation, but she was just stopping in to say hi to Jon and all before heading off to run the Beer Geek Trivia semi-final at Triumph. Not long after she left -- ships passing in the night -- Iron Hill West Chester brewer Chris Lapierre and his assistant showed up. For the dinner. Really? I was honored.

Eventually, closer to 7 than 6:30 (with Jon tossing out a variety of samples of really interesting Italian beers not on the menu to keep folks interested), we got started. The first beer of the night, Sesonetto from Birrificio Piccolo, was perhaps the best beer of the night. It's brewed with juniper, coriander, and chinotto fruit, an Italian bitter orange that is at the heart of many of the Italian amari, the bitter digestif/aperitif drinks that the Italians prize (because they assist in eating more delicious food). The nose was sweet orange, the flavor was dry and bitter...but still wonderfully orange. Great stuff.

The food was also excellent. After that, we had a smoked mussel tart with goat cheese and green apples (with La Bavaisienne Blonde, quite nice pairing); a selection of Spanish and French cheeses with a Spanish cider (okay, but not great) and La Choulette Framboise (excellent: not syrupy, almost a bitter raspberry; I had Jon re-fill me on this one); and a wild boar and mushroom ragout on polenta that was everything you hope for with 'wild' food: rich and earthy and bold. That was with the BB10, a 10% beer made with Sardinian grapes that was neither overpoweringly strong or more than faintly grapey: it was actually dry and hinted with cocoa. Impressive display of brewing. The chocolate truffle tart for dessert was insanely good (at $9 on the menu, this is one dessert that is perfectly priced and proportioned for sharing), and the Chocarrubica...had brettanomyces character. With chocolate and carob. Still, as I told the diners, I'm not sure if that's intentional or not, but it worked: really dried out the chocolate.

The dinner was a great success. Everyone seemed to have a very good time, we talked, we laughed, we enjoyed the food, the beer, and the pairing. Jon brought out some Haandbryggeriet Norwegian Wood afterwards, made with malt smoked with juniper, and it was striking. There are amazing things going on at microbreweries in Europe, and while I suspect some of them will pass without note, some will become established and spread.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Philly Beer Week: First Report

Philly Beer Week is underway, and by various reports, things are going well. There's some kvetching about too many events, and the inevitable Monday morning quarterbacking (starting already?!), but folks...it's the first year. We take our lumps, and we come back next year with a much-improved event, guaranteed. Okay? Relax, look at the baby, and see the adult.

My experiences: I took Friday off, though I dearly wanted to see Mayor Michael Nutter tap that keg. I had to sing at church, and I wanted to hang out with my daughter -- haven't seen very much of the family lately -- and I had to pick up my son after an evening forensics tournament (he placed 3rd out of 17, quite pleased).

So my first event for Philly Beer Week was the Wheat Beer Brunch at the Grey Lodge. This was a smash hit: at one point, we had ten people lined up on the stairs waiting for tables to partake in the great food. I had the trio pancakes (regular, buckwheat, chocolate chip) with Victory Moonglow reduction syrup, and it was a delicious plate. I had the Walt Wit and Kenzinger I mentioned earlier, a small Moonglow, a Franziskaner Dunkel, and a short snort of Sam Adams Winter Lager. I gave a brief talk on wheat beers -- a palate for brewers to add special yeast, fruit, spices, and lots of head -- that was uproariously received (because I waited till people had enjoyed a few wheats...), and headed home to rest up before the next event.

Next event was a lecture/tasting at Tria on Stouts and Porters, origins and differences, based on personal experience and the work of Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell. Sold out (as all of Tria's events are this week!), and it went very well. We had great fun, I told stories, we learned some stuff, and tasted eight great beers: Geary's London Porter, Guinness Stout, Sinebrychoff Porter, Hercule Stout, Yuengling Porter, Sierra Nevada Porter and Stout, and Bell's Java Stout. I'm glad I kept my notes on this one: it's a lecture worth re-doing, after a bit more fine-tuning (thanks to Jon Myerow of Tria for some good suggestions on that angle).

Sunday it was more singing, helping my son do a video interview, the forensics fund-raiser dinner at Holy Ghost Prep, and then my next event, the Upstate Pennsylvania Beer Thing at the Grey Lodge. This was not as well-attended: we probably changed direction on it too late. The folks who did come had a treat: bison burgers (that were fantastic, Scoats was urged to make them a regular on the menu), apple fritters (the first official dessert offering at the Grey Lodge), four excellent upstate beers, and special guest Guy Hagner, who showed up about 6:30. Again, a short presentation, fun by all, and good, good beers. Cinnamon Boldy was all I remembered, the Bullfrog Winter Warmer won some solid compliments, Bavarian Barbarian's Headbangerz Brown was, I think, a pleasant surprise for most, and the Elk Creek Double Rainbow IPA surprised with its whopping Fuggles signature (not sure the Amarillo keg-hopping was a great idea, to be honest, but the overall was a good thing.

Tonight: Chick's Cafe for the non-Belgian beer dinner. Hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Philadelphia Brewing Co. nails two good ones

A quick note: I haven't written very much at all here about Philadelphia Brewing Co., the new company formed by Bill and Nancy Barton when Tom Kehoe split with the Yards name. That is not because of any reason other than I've just been real busy.

I'm very happy to say that I had my first two official PBC beers today, and they were excellent. Walt Wit, with a very cool pencil taphandle, was dry, bitter, spicy, and a pleasingly distinctive take on the witbier category that's so popular in Philly. It would have been easy to have been just like someone else: Walt Wit's like its namesake, definitely different. Kenzinger, described as a cross between a pilsner and a kölsch, may have strained my belief on the description, but it drank very easy: hoppy, crisp, poundable...this may be my new summertime keg beer, given the still-mourned demise of Steg Summer Stock.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Orval: I've never had this beer before (or maybe I have)

I'm working on some stuff for Ale Street News this morning -- the first entry in my new, as yet untitled column for ASN -- but I wanted to take a moment to talk about one wonderful thing that happened when I was in Belgium. Actually, it happened several times: I finally had Orval.

Before you react in astonishment, yes, I've bought and drank bottles of Orval. But after realizing that A)none of them ever tasted even vaguely similar; and B)people I respected told me that it was a completely different beer fresh, I decided that I'd just stop drinking it until I got to Belgium. And I did.

So when Steve and I got to Brussels, the very first beer I bought (not counting the one glass of Hoegaarden at the comped lunch we enjoyed thanks to Flemish Tourism: fantastic mussels, the Hoegaarden was kinda eh) was an Orval at Poechenellekelder. It was a revelation. I wanted to have more, so I did, but just one; we had other places to go.

When I had time to sit and muse (on the last full day of the trip, at Het Waterhuis in Gent), I thought to myself that the thing I came to love about this fresh Orval was its simplicity. It's not a huge beer, or a layered beer, or a rich beer. It's very refreshing, without being light beer insipid: Orval's crispness comes in a much more substantial package than that. It's funky without being off-putting; a subtle brettanomyces character that doesn't insult my intelligence. It is, as Steve said, three things at once: sweet, tart, and dry. It's the combination that is the genius, and I'm afraid, the balance of these three varyingly robust elements is what makes this such a fragile beer. The first bottle I had at the Poechenellekelder was less than five weeks old, and it was nothing short of brilliant. I guess I'll just have to drink more when I go back.

(Is Orval different, has it changed? Many have said so, and decried its loss of character. Steve told me yes, how they make it has changed; certainly so. But I can't judge if it's better or worse, because of my variable at-a-distance experiences; I had my first Orval back in 1989, and it was quite a bit fizzier than this fresh stuff, more bitter, and not as much brett character; I actually remember it distinctly, remember where I bought it, where I drank it and who I was with and what we were eating, and the beer stands clear in my mind: it was not this beer...but what does that mean? All I can say is that I find this Orval very damned nice...and leave it at that.)

Okay, another addition to this. Stan Hieronymus picked up on this and expanded it with something Vinnie Cilurzo told him: go read it there. So... "Orval is best fresh" is personal preference. And the way it tasted differently to me every time I had it...is the way it works. Brett is a many-splendored thing, and it takes a long time to work, and it never sleeps. I should not be surprised when it tastes differently, or disappointed. I'll work on that. (Although I'm still happy to drink it in Belgium, particularly at the price.)

I'm not afraid to admit my ignorance in this. This is why I make these trips, at not-insignificant personal expense, and not always for a particular assignment (although I sold a number of stories on this one, happily). I do it to learn, to fill in the gaps (the same as many of you). With luck, I'll keep learning the rest of my life, and I'll happily share it with you.

The Session: It's not beer, and it's not organic, either

Call me unconventional (please, I love it when you do that), but when I read Chris O'Brien's proposal for The Session this month -- "Simply publish a post related to organic beer. " -- I decided to do just that...by posting about a non-organic vodka.

I did a few stories about organic beers in the past year, and mostly what I found is that there's a ton of disagreement about what "organic" means, as Chris points out:

Only beers verified by independent certifiers as meeting the legal organic standards are allowed to bear the USDA Certified Organic logo... Lots of brewers use Certified Organic malt and/or hops but have not had their facilities and processes certified. Legally and in practical fact these beers are not organic and are prohibited from being marketed as organic. But for this Session, it’s up to you to decide what to count as organic. Feel free to comment on beers that someone just tells you are organic, but be aware that just because someone has good intentions and seems trustworthy doesn’t mean that their beer is in fact organic.

I decided to take Chris at his word and sidestep the whole thing -- even though I have some organic beers available, like Pinkus, and Wolaver's, and Peak, that are eminently drinkable and worthy of praise -- to post about something "related to organic beer," a different concept that's been done rather well by McCormick Distilling, a huge outfit in Missouri that you probably haven't heard of before. The only brands they own that I'm really familiar with are Tequila Rose and Wiser's Canadian. But McCormick Vodka is the third-biggest selling domestic vodka in America...so they're doing something right.

This new brand looks right, too: 360 Vodka. 360 is not organic. It's sustainable, it's eco-friendly, it's really pretty neat. The distilling process uses an advanced still that re-captures much of the waste energy (200% more energy efficiently than conventional stills, they claim). The grain is locally grown to cut down on transport energy use. The labels are made from New Leaf paper: 100% post-consumer recycled waste paper (chlorine-free processing), the bottle is 85% recycled glass, 70% post-consumer, the glue on the label is soy-based. The bottle, as you can see in the picture, is a flip-top...and each bottle comes with an attached postage-paid mailer (attached by biodegradable fiber twine) and instructions on how to remove the bail and cap and send it back to McCormick, where they'll wash and re-use them. The sturdy case is all recycled paperstock, with no glue, and as you can see, it looks like a filebox...which is exactly what they advise you to use it for.

It's all pretty impressive, and when I talked to McCormick president Ed Pechar a couple weeks ago for a story, he was quite enthusiastic about it. The more they talked about the idea, he said, the more ideas people came up with. He was quite proud of the still, the most advanced technology they could find (something that's getting a lot of attention from distillers and brewers, by the way: energy-efficiency is going to account for a lot of plant upgrades in the next ten years). The buildings that hold the distillery have been designed to have a minimal carbon footprint, the website even runs on wind-generated power.

"It's not organic," Pechar told me, emphatically. "It is green, and sustainable, and local, and low-impact. Those are things we can do something about."

I'm not saying that organic is not obtainable, or a fantasy, or elitist: I'm actually cooking soup with mostly organic ingredients right now, and we get produce from an organic CSA. But low-impact and sustainable production, green production, is another, important angle.

Of course, the drink is important too. 360 has a clean aroma profile (yes, I know: it's vodka, it's supposed to. I'm a pro, and I used to really like sipping vodka: all vodkas are not equal, and they have distinct aromas if you pay attention), without any of the solvent aromas of cheap crap or the sweet tinge of doctored vodka. It sips smooth, no burn, with a nice, plush texture, and no off-flavors or aromas in the finish. This really is nice...for vodka, I mean: it is what it is. But I like this idea, and the execution is nicely done.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

And a Year Later... Here we are

A year ago, I posted this first announcement of Philly Beer Week. Now it's here. And it's a huge success already, before it even starts.

Not everything came together quite as planned. We're not doing a region-wide "simul-tap" to start things; but Mayor Michael Nutter will be tapping the ceremonial first keg at Don Russell's booklaunch/beerfest event tomorrow night: fantastic! The Philly Craft Beer Festival took place last weekend, and the scheduling of the other 'anchor' events worked out differently: but we do have the big Michael Jackson tribute tasting (and dinner), the Brewers Plate, and the Real Ale festival: big guns! We didn't get as many out-of-city brewers as we'd hoped for: but we got a lot. And obviously I'm not doing either of the beer tours...but I've got plenty of other stuff on my plate.

We have put together a week of events solely focused on beer, something no one else has done in the U.S. (the Germans have Oktoberfest, of course). In our first year, we have over 150 events. Philly Beer Week has been mentioned in press reports as far away as New Zealand. We got huge coverage in local press: a special beer issue in the Inky's Food section, and a massive pull-out section in tomorrow's Daily News that Don Russell tells me is the biggest since the 1993 Phillies, and the biggest non-sports pullout ever.

This idea has been huge for Philly beer. Next year will be even better.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Upstate Beer Dinner -- Rightsized

Well, the people have spoken. Seems that not many of you -- except for some "upstaters," a couple locals, and one truly devoted pair from Montreal -- wanted to pay $80 for the Upstate Beer Game Dinner at the Grey Lodge. We don't have enough tickets sold to do the event. Rather than scratch the event, though, Scoats and I decided to downsize it (or "rightsize it", as the current corporate cant goes) to a pay-as-you-go event featuring the four beers promised (I'm heading upstate to pick them up today) and buffalo burgers. If we're lucky, maybe the kitchen can still make those apple fritters...

If you want to try these beers, never before seen in Philly, we'll still have them. And it all starts at 5:00 this Sunday night.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Update to Lager Gala

Two final beers added to the Triumph Lager Gala: a Triumph Dunkel and Blonde Doppelbock. If any of you know Jay Misson, you know the lineage of that last one, which goes back all the way to the fabled lager microbrewery at Vernon Valley, New Jersey. Worth the event, right there.

Another change: Lancaster will be sending Franklinfest, not Gold Star Pilsner...which is actually Philly-er, as Franklinfest was born here, at the old Independence Brewery out on Comly Street.

$4 a half-liter, pay as you go. This event is looking to turn into the after-event party of Philly Beer Week: be there, 6-10.

And I'm home again

Sorry I fell off the face of the earth for a few days. I did intend to blog most of the Belgian trip, but the Wi-Fi got really problematic, and the Euro-keyboards in the Internet cafes were too different for reliable, high-speed typing. So I focused on creating experiences to blog about. Great trip, but it's always good to be home. More to come...slowly. I've got work to catch up on, and Philly Beer Week is about to start, and Holy Week is right after that. STAG is going to take a backseat.