Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Gods Must Be Crazy

I told you about "The Beer Brotha," the (mostly) beer blog written by a guy in Houston who calls himself "The American Don"...and then the dude promptly takes a month-long vacation from blogging!

He's back, and this post had me giggling. The Beer Brotha is a pisser...and some of the rest of us take ourselves way too serious. Do not MOCK THE GODS!!!!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Dry outfit CAMY in the news: Good News, Bad News

From an Advertising Age story: the Center for Alcohol Marketing & Youth, perhaps better known as CAMY, released yet another "study" on the number of alcohol beverage ads "youths" see. It's some scary stuff, too: "kids" see more and more alcohol beverage ads, according to CAMY, and over that same period, by any measure you look at, underage drinking is down! Oh...wait. CAMY didn't see fit to mention that last part. Kinda funny, huh?

Anyway, that's neither the "good news" nor the "bad news" in the post title; actually, far as I'm concerned, it's not news at all, it's just more poorly constructed, sensationalist blather designed to keep people scared so the grant money continues to roll in. The good/bad news came at the end of the article:
Citing the statistics, CAMY has called for the industry to tighten its own cap for underage viewers to 15% from 30%, but the group won't be around to see out that call.
The center is dissolving itself in response to a federal law that created a government entity charged with tracking youth exposure to alcohol advertising. "We're hoping the government picks up the slack from here," said [CAMY Director] Mr. [David] Jernigan, who added that he will remain involved in issues surrounding youth exposure to alcohol and food marketing.

Well, yay! It's like that wonderful day in 1962 when we were told "You don't have Nixon to kick around any more." CAMY won't be spewing their wildly skewed and twisted views of booze marketing anymore -- good news -- but there's going to be a another federal booze agency that will inevitably be infiltrated and turned by New Drys to turn out taxpayer-funded anti-booze propaganda. Bad news.

Me, I'm going to celebrate the good news and take on the bad news when it comes. CAMY was, with Joe "Crazy for Health" Califano's CASA, one of the most strident New Dry organizations, unconcerned with scientific rigor so long as the anti-alcohol message flooded the media. Ah, it's good to see the back of them. See you, CAMY, don't the screen door hit you in the ass on the way out.

First batch brewed at "new" Boston Beer brewery in Pennsylvania

I just got an e-mail from Boston Beer: there will be a media event this Friday at their new Pennsylvania facility, the former Pabst/former Stroh/former Schaeffer brewery outside of Allentown (the location was variously tagged as Fogelsville, Trexlertown, Allentown, and Lehigh Valley; Boston Beer is referring to it as "upper Macungie Township," a description which would have tickled my late friend and homebrewer extraordinaire, Mark Johnston, a Macungie boy). We're invited to meet with Jim Koch and sample the first batch of Samuel Adams brewed at the plant.

I've said that this is a great move for Boston Beer; it gets them out of the contract brewing business and puts them in control of their destiny. It's also a brewery that was practically designed with Sam Adams in mind -- except for the obvious issue of not being in Boston (which keeps the costs down considerably!), this place is great: equipped for traditional lager brewing with big horizontal lagering tanks, built for the tours a company like Sam Adams would love to do, a display brewery right on I-78 for a company that's proud of its beer, and -- did I mention the I-78 location? -- positioned on two major Interstates (it's about two miles from I-476) and a rail line.

Unfortunately, I can't make the event this Friday; we're going camping with the kids. But I can't tell you how stoked I am to see Boston Beer get a real brewery; to see Jim Koch's plans come together; and to see this great brewery making beer again. Cheers!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Johnstown Brewing Closes

Crap. Just saw on Uncle Jack's blog that Johnstown Brewing has closed; there's more here. Sounds like they had business issues when the road they're located on closed for an extended period due to rockslides. Tough thing to deal with, and I don't know what to say.

Johnstown Brewing had become a good place, a real outpost. We had some good times there, and some excellent food and beer. This is just bad news.

Join Me For A Firkin of Farmhouse!

There's a nice old place not far from me, the Hulmeville Inn, that has been steadily improving their beer selection. I mean, a lot. Like, right now, they've got Southampton Secret, Weyerbacher Double Simcoe, Bell's Oberon, River Horse Double White (which I really shoulda told you about after trying it at the Iron Hill Media festival; the hit beer of the fest for me), and some other cool stuff coming up.

One of the cool things is a firkin of specially-hopped Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale that they're going to be tapping this Thursday, June 26th, at 7 PM. I'm going to be there hosting it, and we can talk Flying Fish, New Jersey beer, Philly beer, cask beer, whatever you want to yak about. I'll be there from 7 to 9, and I'll bet we can kick that firkin before the time's up.

Come on out and join us for this kickoff of Hulmeville Inn's summer cask program!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Charter 101

I was in Kentucky earlier in the week, and as I always do when in Bardstown, I stopped by Toddy's Liquors to pick up stuff I can't get in Pennsylvania. I got a standard bottling of Four Roses (my favorite hot weather, throw in a handful of ice, sip and smile, bourbon), a bottle of Jim Beam Rye (last batch with the old sunflower yellow label, the clerk said; "You might not want to drink that one." As if.), some Russell's Reserve Rye, a Very Old Barton and a Heaven Hill bottled in bond (for my buddy Sam Komlenic), and a bottle of a new bourbon, Charter 101.

A confession: I've been delinquent on what we'll call...legacy bottlings and labels. Old Charter, I.W. Harper, J.W. Dant, T.W. Samuels....I haven't had many of them. I'm trying to remedy that, though, and when I saw the bottle of 101, it was a weird way of doing new and old at the same time: this is a new release, at a new proof. Besides, I'd just been at Buffalo Trace the day before, talking about Charter with the folks there, and I wanted to see if it really was good or if they were just talking (mind, I really like the whiskeys from the Trace).

I came home Wednesday, worked Thursday and Friday, and knocked off about 6:15 Friday. Went and picked up some hoagies for me and the kids (Cathy was out with some friends), lit a fire out back, and thought of the Charter. I popped three cubes of crisply cold ice in that glass, poured in about an inch and a half of liquor, and got down to it, right there on the deck.

No need for more suspense: this is good bourbon. I liked it from the first sweet, mellow sip, a rich taste of barrel-enhanced corn, just a hint of wood spice, and rolling vanilla. There's nothing terribly complex about it, no notes of blackberries or mint or leather, and a very simple label (with no age statement). This is not a contemplative bourbon, and I wouldn't hesitate to use it in a cocktail or a highball. I don't know that I'd reach for it in the heat, but on a cool June evening, it sure hit me in a real good place. I found myself thinking of what Angela Traver at Buffalo Trace had said Tuesday afternoon as we were gossiping about bourbon stuff: "I'm just drinking a lot of Charter 101 lately. It's what I pick up." Yup.

Even if I can't find it at Toddy's price of $19.99 for this 101 proof 750 ml, I can see I'm going to have to find another -- closer -- source for more of this. I sense Christmas present purchases coming on; wonder what kind of price I can get on a case?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Penderyn gets into his food

I did say I was going to post more gratuitous pix of my dog this year... Last night we introduced him to Chinese takeout.

(That's just steamed white rice in the box, about a tablespoon and a half, and he ate about half of it, so don't freak out.)

New Poll, New Reason at PLCB blog

I've got a new poll up at "Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished," asking you how you feel about the fact -- fact! -- the State Stores have a better selection than the average liquor store in other states. There's also a new Reason why the PLCB should be abolished: their nebulous rules on growlers. A small Reason, but an interesting one.

Excellent piece on underage drinking

Time magazine's website has this article on the consequences of draconian underage drinking laws, the "murky" science behind the New Dry's squealing about alcohol's effect on the "teen-age brain," and the promise of drinking with your kids. Really. A very well-done piece, and quite an example of the new, thoughtful wave of articles on underage drinking that are, I believe, being encouraged by the appearance of groups like Choose Responsibility.

Great piece. Go read. Spread it around.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Memorials: work to be done

We need to get to work.

Beer writers need to get a Michael Jackson memorial scholarship put together. We have several ideas; let's settle on one and implement.

The loss of Jay Misson is still raw, but we should grab things now and create his brewing memorial. Jay taught a huge number of people how to brew (and how to work, and how to play, and how to live): why not a lager brewing scholarship? Probably under way, but if not...let's coalesce, people.

Friday, June 13, 2008

New poll at Why The PLCB Should Be Abolished

There's a new poll up on my blog about abolishing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. This one's about the rather serious issue of what to do with all the employees of the State Store system when booze sales in Pennsylvania are inevitably privatized. I am not in favor of simply showing them the door; that strikes me as mean-spirited and shoddy. I'd rather see a solution that creates value for the taxpayer while subtracting substantially from the State payroll.

Take a look, vote.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ithaca Beer, welcome to Philly!

I've been drinking Ithaca Beer Company beers since before I started the research for New York Breweries, back in 2001. They started off with some fairly standard offerings, including the Apricot Wheat that's their best-seller (approximately 45% of total sales), but they've turned it up; Flower Power IPA is a blossoming beauty of hop flavor and aroma (and way too drinkable at 8% ABV), and their Excelsior series is awesome: White Gold, a slightly funky ("Ithaca wild yeast," executive brewer Jeff O'Neil told me, from a small pilot batch that was being carefully blended in) big spiced wheat ale; Caffeinator, a coffee doppelbock; and TEN, a massively whomped-up version of their Cascazilla red ale that took first place at the TAPNY festival tasting this year, propelling Ithaca into the New York State championship, winning the F.X. Matt Memorial Cup.

So it's not surprising that after a successful foray into the hot beer market of Pittsburgh, Ithaca decided to test the waters in Philly. They launched Tuesday night at McGillin's Olde Ale House, and I drove down to Standard Tap, unloaded my bike (free parking in NoLibs, baby), and rode down to have a taste. I was sweating in the 97° heat, but you know, there were a lot more bikes on the streets than the last time I did this. Interesting.

Anyway, it was cool in McGillin's, and though I was early, Jeff was good enough to hammer home the tap in a pin of Flower Power. It was a beautiful pour, a healthy billowing flower of foam over a cool apricot-hued beer. The aroma was mighty and wonderful, hop-twisted and estery, and deep under it was a beer that was West Coast-hoppy but East Coast-balanced. "I'm not so much on bitter," said O'Neil, "but I love hop flavor. Sorry it's not as "session" as you'd like, though." I managed to choke it down, quite quickly, and ask for a half-glass more.

I asked owner Dan Mitchell, why Philly? "We've done very well in Pittsburgh," he said. "We started talking to people (wholesalers) in Philly about two months ago...the guys at Penn (Distributers) seemed to get our beer the best." That's who they went with, and Penn was out in force at this launch. Dan was particularly impressed by the way Philly folks already were aware of Ithaca's beers, thanks largely to beer-trading efforts engendered by beer websites.

The market's ready to show some love to Ithaca's bigger beers, it appears, and we'll be getting regular -- small, but regular -- shipments of cask ale as well, starting with another pin of Flower Power and an Oak-aged Nut Brown (that Jeff says is spectacular) that will be at Friday the Firkinteenth tomorrow (only one in 2008, weather's looking good, whoo-hoo!!!).

I think that Ithaca may actually find a solid market for the Apricot here as well. Philly is well-known as a hot-spot for Belgian-type beers, and a love for lagers, but we don't have a regular fruit beer...and I don't think it's because there's not a market for it. I just think no one's offered it year-round. Apricot may go big here, in which case I suspect you'll see some local brewers bending to the buck and sniffing around the fruit. Could happen.

Anyway, I thanked Dan and Jeff for coming down and for the invite to the launch, strapped on my Camelbak (with two Excelsior bottles stuffed in there, Old Habit Rye and TEN, thanks again, guys!) and helmet, saddled up and headed north, eyeing the ominous clouds. They weren't quite ominous enough to stop me from nipping into Standard Tap for a quick cold pint of Kenzinger (and it was quick, I'm telling you, after that hot ride; it barely touched the sides on the way down) before strapping the bike to the back of the Passat and heading home. I beat the rain by about ten minutes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Jay Misson Memorial Toast at GB SF

I know most of the readers of this blog are in the eastern part of the U.S., but Jay's life touched people across the country, so when I got the following e-mail, well, sure I decided to put it up.

Dear Lew,

My name is John Tucci and I am the head brewer at Gordon Biersch San Francisco. I worked with Jay for several years at Gordon Biersch and remember him fondly.

I am planning a west coast get together at Gordon Biersch San Francisco in honor of Jay Misson. A bunch of us are getting together Saturday June 14th at 4pm to toast him and remember old times.

I'll be emailing the event details to all the friends in the area here I know that knew him, and will direct them to your blog for more info.

Gordon Biersch San Francisco
2 Harrison St. San Francisco, CA
June 14, 4:00 p.m.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mainers take beer tax increase to the polls

Maine's legislature recently raised the state tax on beer and wine, and added a "soda tax" on soda syrup and bottled soda. They were looking for funding for the Dirigo Health Program, a medical coverage plan for Maine's uninsured. They ran into problems raising the tax on cigarettes and putting taxes on snacks, so lumped the whole thing on beverages.

Now they've got a tax revolt on their hands. Mainers are going to the polls today and are faced with petitions to put voter initiatives on next year's ballot. Among the eleven facing them is one to repeal the drinks tax increase. Opponents are painting the petition as kicking the uninsured out of hospitals into the street, all for a cheaper glass of beer. They're also crying because the beverage tax petition makes no proposals for replacing the tax revenue.

Let's leave the controversy over Dirigo out of this; I'll just mention that there is controversy, and that, well, it's Maine and I don't fully understand it. Let's say Dirigo is indeed a good idea, which helping poor people in desperate need for health care usually is. If it's such a good idea, why couldn't the Maine legislature summon up the political support for a broader-based tax to fund it? A bump in the state sales or income tax? Why put it on the back of beer and wine drinkers, soda drinkers?

Why, because everyone knows that the folks who drink booze are all alcoholics and a drain on the state's medical resources. And everyone knows that soda-drinking leads to obesity and a drain on the state's medical resources. Why does everyone know this? Because the people who make a living off screaming about this have told them. Not that they'd be biased, or maybe present things in a slanted way to support their case...

Here's my view, the same as always. If Dirigo is a good idea for Maine, for all of Maine, then all of Maine should help pay for it. If the anti-tax petition makes no proposals for that, well, don't blame them, blame the legislature for using excise taxes when they should know better. Excise taxes on anything suck. They are inherently unfair. If I'm going to be taxed, it's only fair that I know everyone is being taxed; not at the same rate, but taxed.

So I'd tell Mainers to sign the anti-tax petition, then go home and write their legislators. Tell them that if they want Dirigo funded, man up and put it on the backs of all of Maine. Not just the people who like a drink.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Jay Misson

I just learned that Jay Misson, head brewer for the Triumph brewpubs, died this morning. I'm terribly saddened and diminished by this, as is the beer community in Philly and New Jersey.

The beer community may not realize just how diminished they are. Jay was a thread running back to the very beginning of craft brewing in this area, and typically, it was a lager thread. After learning homebrewing as a high school science project in 1978, Misson came home from college and answered an ad for a brewer at Vernon Valley, the pioneering brewery within Action Park waterpark in northern New Jersey. Here's what I wrote about that in an Ale Street News profile of Jay:
Misson started working for German brewmaster Stefan Muhs, who had managed to install a classically traditional German lager brewhouse in the Action Park waterpark in Vernon Valley, a strange marriage of teenage thrills and thoroughly sophisticated beer. "We were putting out half-liter swingtops of unfiltered, organic-ingredient lagers, brewed to strict Reinheitsgebot standards," Misson recalled. It was a 30 hectoliter brewhouse, with open wooden fermenters, wooden casks, and an open, tower-style wort chiller.

"Everything was done the hard way, the Reinheitsgebot way," Misson said with a wry grin. "It was a great place to learn, because you HAD to be clean, especially with that open chiller. We grew up all our yeast from slants, we even made our own culture medium, and we cultured lactic acid to acidify the malt."
I tasted those beers twice: once at an early Brickskeller tasting of American craft beers with Michael Jackson, who lavished praise on them, and once at Action Park in the late 1980s. Both times I was impressed, though the Action Park beers were served ice-cold, something Jay was never happy about.

Jay remained a lager chauvinist, and wound up at Gordon-Biersch, training brewers. That's where he met Patrick Jones, who he would bring along back to New Jersey to brew for Triumph, first in New Hope and now in Philly.

Jay was always quick to pour a beer, quick to rhapsodize about a German style, and quick to quash any talk of lager being in any way inferior to or less complex than ale. He also loved having a good time, a big man, outsized in humor, knowledge, and passion. As I said to his wife Kelly today (they married in October of 2005; Misson got a call at the wedding to let him know Triumph had won four GABF medals), Jay was just such a big guy, it was like he didn't fit into this life.

Kelly said he'd had a great day yesterday, caught an enormous bluefish. If he had some good lager beer with it, and been with her, I can't think of any way Jay would have enjoyed his last day on earth any better. Oh, damn, but I am going to miss the man. Lift many beers to him, because that's how he would have wanted it. But please...lagers:

I told Jay about something (Hyde Park Brewing's) John Eccles told me once. "Ales!" John said. "I could teach a chimp to make ales. You have to know what you’re doing to make lagers." I asked Misson if John had heard him say that (when Jay was training him at Mountain Valley brewpub).
"No, he didn’t get that quote from me," Misson laughed, a big laugh. Then he smiled. "But the attitude – yeah, that he got from me."
Attitude, and lagers. One more quote:

I was relaxing after the meal with head brewer Jay Misson and part-owner Brian Fitting; Fitting was telling me how they kept getting inquiries about bottling their beer. “They just don’t get it,” said Misson, waving a dismissive hand. “It’s a brewpub. We make beer here, people drink it here. That’s what we do. That’s all we do.
Passionate to the last. Fare well, Jay, auf wiederseh'n.

New Jersey Breweries delivery date

I just heard from my editor at Stackpole Books: New Jersey Breweries arrives in their warehouses on July 25th. Mark and I will have it shortly after that, as will book stores. I've contacted Mark, and we're going to be deciding where to have launch parties at New Jersey breweries, brewpubs, and beer bars the following weekend, August 1-3. I'll keep you apprised on where you can find us. (If you're a New Jersey brewery, brewpub, or beer bar, and you're interested, drop me a line!)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Memphis Again

Cathy's away at an all-day meeting, and the first hot day of the summer's upon us. Thomas mowed the lawn yesterday, and we're pretty well caught up on chores, so I took the kids down to Memphis Taproom for lunch. We went there because Spanky was tapping a firkin of Sprecher Black Bavarian at noon. The food -- we all got cheeseburgers -- was good as always, the beer was excellent (perfect condition/carbonation, deeply malty, but with that roasty/dark malt edge, and eminently drinkable), and I ran into an old colleague and friend, Craig Sheffler-Collins, who I have not seen since 1994. Great to cross paths.

Spanky waxed philosophical. He's not simply trying to have different beers than other folks in the city, he said, he's following his passion for beer. That is not, as a look at past tappings will show, the same ExTRemE! beer passion so many others have hared off after. He told me he's looking for brewers that are making good beer that don't market it that well. Penn Kaiser Pils would be an excellent example, he noted, and he'd have it if the supply were steady. I like the way he thinks. I get really bored seeing the same great beers everywhere I go.

Top Ten: breakfast places

As I told you, I forced Uncle Jack to go to the Miss Albany Diner on the way up to Montreal -- which he admitted was a damned fine place, quite an admission for a guy who's an avowed "two over easy, sausage, and dry toast" breakfast eater -- and then I mentioned, as we drove past the Keene Valley exit on the way back through the Adirondacks, that there was another of my "top ten breakfast places" just up that road. Jack made fun -- as he's wont to do -- and then said I should do a top ten list every month, my favorite places for everything. He was jerking my chain, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like fun. So, for as long as it's fun, I'm going to do it. I make no claims for completeness, I do this in the sense of sharing, and if you've got suggestions, well, make them: because it struck me that one of the best reasons to do this is that folks may come up with new places for me to go. Yum. Thanks, Jack.

Lew's Top Ten Places for Breakfast (unranked)

1. The Roadhouse, Belchertown, MA. We found the Roadhouse early one morning back in 1989, just cruising around New England, and there was this place: rustic, kind of hand-made in appearance, and promising. We went in, and since then I've been detouring 50 miles out of my way to have breakfast here. Why? I've already said.





2. Moody's Diner, Damariscotta, ME. Plenty of folks have told me that Moody's is not really that great, or not what it used to be, or has lousy service. I'm sorry they feel that way. I haven't been going forever, just since 1986, but it's certainly held up over that time. Moody's is solid, real, and serves breakfast the way I like it: well-made, with both traditional and special breakfasts. I'll be stopping in every time I'm nearby.

3. Noon Mark Diner, Keene Valley, NY. Pleasantly eccentric, but in an old-fashioned, genuine way, not an art-school working-at-it way. This is one of the few places I'll eat pie for breakfast, because the pies (and the coffee) are so good. Worth the trip just for the scenery...but eat.

4. Miss Albany Diner, Albany, NY. Yum. Very creative breakfast specials -- when was the last time you had duck sausage with your diner breakfast? -- genuine Rhode Island coffee milk, some of the very best service you'll ever get, a pleasantly curmudgeonly owner, all in a beautifully-maintained Silk City diner, and only 5 minutes off the I-787 expressway (and only a 5 minute walk from the Pump House brewpub!).

5. Blue Moon Cafe, Baltimore, MD. The coffee alone is worth the trip, but the food I've had here has been top-notch, and the service is personal and friendly, if occasionally quirky. A great place after a long Fells Point night.

6. Dottie's True Blue Cafe, San Francisco, CA. Cathy and I found Dottie's on the last day of San Francisco WhiskyFest. It's small, busy, dedicated to local, hand-made food, and serves delicious breakfasts. A must-stop; we'll be there in October again.

7. Lawrence Park Dinor, Lawrence Park, PA. Long may it wave. I've pretty much said it all here; don't know if George has found a buyer yet.






8. Littleton Diner, Littleton, NH. I stumbled on this place during "The Beerhunt of the Last Free Man," a short rip through beery New England the weekend before I got married. I'd go just for the house-made corned beef hash, but everything else -- including the grilled blueberry muffins -- is great, too. They've got a wonderful attitude about small-town business; bless 'em.


9. Lynn's Paradise Cafe, Louisville, KY. Lynn's has booze, Lynn's has...stuff all over (and you can buy a lot of it in the gift shop, including the spark-spitting, wind-up nun seen at the top of this post), Lynn's is artsy and colorful and fun...but you know what? That's all well and good, but it's the excellent, outstanding food that brings me back every time I go to Louisville (and I might just squeeze in a trip when I go to Bardstown in a couple weeks). Delicious, on both the traditional and the innovative. Go out of your way to get here.

10. Hot Metal Diner, West Mifflin, PA. I've actually never been to the Hot Metal Diner...yet. I'm planning on correcting that in about 10 days. But I've been to Wendy Betten's previous diner, BOBS, a number of times, and I have no doubts that the breakfasts at the HMD are the equal of the fantastic breakfasts I've had (and led people to) at BOBS. Looking forward to making this official. (Ahhh...no longer true, I have been to the HMD, and things are just fine: attitude? Check. Woman power? Check. Great value for excellent food? Check. Massive breakfasts? Check. Go hungry, and with tongue in cheek.)

Whiskey Dinner

We had some friends over for a whiskey dinner last night. Two couples, friends of ours, came over to have some drinks and dinner, and learn something about this wonderful booze. I ran around getting goodies at the local farmers' market and grocery store, the kids and I cleaned the house, and when Cathy got home, she made up a delicious salad from the bounty of lettuce we got from our CSA last Saturday. I had just showered and dressed when the guests arrived, and offered them a drink; two of them (and myself) started with rye presbyterians (generous pour of Pikesville Rye in a lowball glass full of ice, top with ginger ale, add slice of fresh lemon).

We set out smoked salmon with capers and onions, olives and cornichons with wheat crackers, and two nice cheese plates one couple had brought (which included the delicious fig preserves that have been showing up around here lately), and got started. I poured samples of Powers Irish whiskey and passed them around, and explained what a blended whiskey was, then explained how Midleton makes their whiskey (that David Quinn interview is coming, I promise).

To back that up, I then poured Jameson 18 Year Old, a balanced beauty that is simply one of my favorite whiskeys of any type. To my delight, Doug picked it up right away: "There's something different here, some note towards the end that's really nice." That's the potstilled Irish, with the lovely floral notes, and the 18's got plenty of it. I was going to get the Redbreast out and expand on that, but...it was almost 8:00 and I hadn't even started the pork chops yet.

We moved on to bourbon. I poured a little tot of white dog for folks to pass around and sip, then poured Jim Beam, the standard white label bottling. While folks were tasting, I got the pork chops going on the grill -- fresh-cut, 1" thick, brushed with olive oil, coarse salt, fresh-cracked pepper, and some Penzey's Pork Chop Seasoning, on medium flame. Just as they were done, I offered up a prayer to Booker Noe and doused them with Basil Hayden: flames shot up as I slammed down the cover, held it for five seconds, then pulled the whiskey-scented chops off the fire.

We served the chops with a couple mustards; sweet potatoes whipped with bourbon (more Basil Hayden's), brown sugar, and pumpkin pie spices; and the three-lettuce salad Cathy'd made, alongside Jim Beam Black, the 8 year old version that I think is one of the best deals out there. The chops were delicious, and Eileen liked the sweet potatoes so much we let her take the leftovers home.

I'd planned to serve Elijah Craig 12 Year Old during clean-up, but it was getting late and we hadn't even got to Scotch whisky yet. So we all jumped in, cleared the table and stuffed the dishwasher full for a quick run, and put the leftovers in the fridge. Eileen set out the very nice assortment of locally-made chocolates she'd bought, we brought the cheeses back for another appearance, and I poured The Glenlivet 15 Year Old French Oak Reserve, a very nice, soft and malty whisky with added wood/spice complexity.

That got some oohs and ahhs, and went well with the chocolates. But the surprise hit of the night was a bottle of Ardbeg 17 Year Old that Cathy agreed to pour -- that one is her bottle, and unfortunately no longer available, so hats off to my generous wife. Peat filled the air as I opened the bottle and poured, and people smiled and eyebrows raised. "Now," I said... "Try that with the chocolate." I wish I'd thought to pop out some straight-up 70% cacao dark, because that's the kind of thing that really sings with a peaty whisky, but the truffles were plenty good enough. Dark chocolate and peaty whisky works really well, surprisingly well.

A great conclusion to a good night of whiskey, and we all agreed we should do it again. I'm looking forward to that, and I'm already thinking about new choices...

Friday, June 6, 2008

My Last Portfolio Column is Up

As you likely know, I've been writing a bi-weekly beer column for Portfolio.com, the content website for Conde Nast Portfolio. It's been fun, I've learned a lot about business writing, and I made some good coin.

But, all good things come to an end. I had a year contract, and it's up, and it wasn't renewed. Not because of me, they assured me, but they're re-focusing the magazine. Well, "Beer" always seemed a weird fit anyway, and I figured it was there mostly because senior editor (and good beer convert) Ken Wells wanted it there.

So I've got an open-ended freelancer contract they sent me, and an encouragement to do some features, which I'll probably take advantage of. Meantime, here's my last column, a piece on the politics of "energy beers." And in the only real complaint I've had all year...they did take out my sharpest bit of politics. But we'll let it stand.

Brewers Deserve to Get Paid -- and they are

I posted this back in January, complaining that brewers should be paid for beer at festivals. I won't repeat the reasons, go read them.

Apparently, it's working. I got an e-mail from a local fest organizer recently, telling me that they were getting a poor brewer response for their fest, and asking me if I could help. Yeah, I said, I can help: pay for the beer. You should, it's the right thing to do. Then tell the brewers you're paying for beer; I'll bet you get some immediate responses when they find out you're showing them some respect.

I figured I'd never hear from them again, but lo and behold, I get an e-mail the next day: the guy took my e-mail to a committee meeting that night, read it to them, explained the problem, and they voted to raise the ticket price $5 and pay the brewers a "beer honorarium" that should cover their wholesale cost. All right!

Then I just found out Wednesday that another local fest is now paying for beer. And I got two e-mails from brewers thanking me for talking the first fest into paying for beer. As Hannibal Smith (George Peppard) used to say on The A-Team, "I love it when a plan comes together."

The Session #16 -- Beer Festivals

It's The Session, beer blogging on a common topic, and this month it's "beer festivals." See all the links soon here.

I just told someone last week that beer festivals are pretty much work for me anymore. I was at the Mondial in Montreal, and while it was enjoyable, and the weather was great, and there were plenty of good beers -- new beers! -- and brewers -- new brewers, to me, anyway -- and pretty girls and grilled and smoked meat and all dat... I left before the session was over, and I only went back for an hour or so the next day. I would never have done that in the past. What happened? What stole my fun?

I used to enjoy beer festivals, and I'd stay till the last minute. I'd taste everything new that I could safely hold (I used dump buckets, I drank water, I'd eat, anything to try more beers), I'd talk beer, I had a great time. I met John Hansell at a beer festival, which led indirectly to my current position as managing editor for his magazine, Malt Advocate (which in those days was a beer 'magazine,' about 8 pages stapled in the corner). I met any number of brewers, including David Geary, who recently showed me the "business card" I gave him at a Stoudt's festival back in...1994? "I figured you'd be back," he said, "and you were."

It wasn't the working that was the buzzkill, though. I worked fests and still enjoyed them; hell, I even worked taps for brewers on some and had a fun time. I think what killed it for me was the Falling Rock Syndrome. People who go to GABF often enough, serious types (serious about beer, anyway), quickly learn that the Friday and Saturday night sessions are crazy, often given over to drunks. They head out to other, smaller venues, like Denver's beer bar supreme, Falling Rock, or a brewpub, or someone's hotel room.

That's what festivals have become for me: the meeting-up place for the after-party, and it seems like the "after" part gets earlier and earlier. I LIKE going to the after-parties, they're a lot of fun, they're usually people I know or people who know people I know, and it's all very convivial.

And they're not wall-to-wall people, packed in so tight they can't move. Some of the problem is like Yogi Berra said: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded." Blame the festival promoters: stop selling so many tickets. I'd happily pay $10 more if I could move. Turn down the band's amps; I can't tell you how many times I've yelled to someone at a festival "If I'd wanted to hear blues, I'd go to a blues festival: I'm here to talk to brewers and I can't even hear myself think!" Better programs would be great: give me the brewery names, their websites, their addresses, what beers they have, and a little room for notes. Give me food options, give me some education options, give me no smoking and good ventilation, give me a beer garden to sit for a bit. Give me shuttle-to-lodgings/transit options.

I think beer festivals need to be re-worked. For our benefit, the fest-goers, and for the benefit of the brewers. Some of them are better, but craft beer -- and let's be honest, that's really the only kind that generates festival-going interest -- is hot, and people are interested. Give them a good experience. Maybe I'm just a crotchety old bastard. But if I don't think it's that fun anymore, maybe I'm not the only one.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

New poll at PLCB blog

I've finally got a new poll up at "Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished." (Talked to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter recently about the blog, and at the end he asked, "And what's the actual name of the blog?" Why the PLCB Should Be Abolished, I said. Silence. "That's the name?" Yup, figured I might as well be blunt!) It's a poll for the wine lovers in the state. Tell your grape-loving friends!

Fun in Montreal: me and Jack at the Mondial

I took an opportunity to visit the Mondial de la Biere last week, and I traveled there with Uncle Jack Curtin (as Uncle Jack has been recounting -- more or less truthfully -- recently). Credit to UJ, actually, because it was his idea. I called him to see if he wanted to go to Pittsburgh to check out the wonderful new places that have opened there recently (the Rivertowne Pourhouse, Point Brugge (new to me; I keep trying to get in, and keep hitting it when it's closed, terribly frustrating), Bocktown Grill, a new D's, Marzoni's West, the new beer engine at Piper's Pub, and a new breakfast joint run by an old friend of ours, the Hot Metal Diner (most of which I do intend to visit in about 10 days on the way to Kentucky...)). There was a bit of malice in the invite, since Jack was apparently traumatized by our last road trip to Pittsburgh (page down, it's there, and worth a couple chuckles), the great weenie, but I did want to go.

But Jack said, no, what he really wanted to do was go to the Mondial. Good idea! Even better, I had a lecture lined up for Wednesday of that week in New Paltz, with a room and a fee that would easily cover my costs for the trip to Mondial. Perfect became perfecter when Jack found lodgings in Montreal that were a 15 minute walk from the fest, clean, secure, and only $45 a night. (Nice work, Jack.) We were on.

Getting over to the Beer Yard to pick up Jack was a traffic horror, getting through NJ was almost as bad, and when I found myself happy to be paying $4.69 a gallon for diesel, I knew things were screwed. As it turned out, I was wrong. The lecture went smoothly, and we also fit in a quick visit to the Gilded Otter brewpub in New Paltz (excellent alt, as always; a bit overly chocolatey to be classic, but not a problem when it comes to good drinking), the Tuthilltown Spirits distillery (more on that in another post...maybe, because I might be able to sell that one -- meanwhile, that's a picture of the stillhouse on the right.), and an excellent -- huge -- German dinner at the Mountain Brauhaus (highly recommended, great German fare and beers). Things got even better when I forced a visit to the Miss Albany Diner for breakfast, one of my top ten breakfast spots, a classic Silk City diner with house-made sausage and a MAD assortment of specialty omelettes and waffles (the Irish whiskey waffle is just nuts).

Okay, enough prelim. We slid up through the Adirondacks (sedately; I've discovered the zen of mileage, and got 43 mpg over the whole trip (I think Jack was somewhat chagrined by the calmness of my driving)), smoothed down onto the flats outside of Plattsburgh, and just before the border, yes, I did realize that my cell plan was stupid expensive in Canada, and called my family and asked them to only call me for emergencies (something Jack would twist cruelly at every occasion into "He told his family to stop calling him."). Onward to the border, only...

Jack and I got stopped at Customs. We were detained. After a long chat with the woman in the booth, who seemed quite pleasant, she suddenly started asking questions. Did we have any firearms? Did we have any firearms at home? (I do, one antique shotgun that was my grandfather's, but why that's a concern of Canadians -- or any of their business -- is beyond me.) Where else have you lived? (A fairly long list of different states for me.) Do you have any alcohol? (A flask of whiskey for personal use only.) Jack wisely said "No" to most of these questions, but I just couldn't help being truthful.

And she gave us a yellow card and told us to go park in the detainee lot and give our passports to Immigration. This didn't sound good. But it was just hand over the passports, watch the woman we gave them to stand around doing nothing while holding them, and then her calling Jack -- I'm sorry, John Curtin, and who the hell is that? -- up, and giving the passports back, along with a secret code number (*4050, and I'll probably never get into Canada again now) to get out of the parking lot. Stupid silliness; I can't imagine what 'profile' me and Jack Curtin headed to Montreal for two days would fit. It really pisses me off when government folks pull this screwing with you and never saying why crap. Ah, me.

So we headed up the AUT 15 with me in a somewhat foul mood, but the beautiful day soon got me over it. Things are pretty flat in this part of Quebec, which only makes the rearing backdrop of the Mont Royal all the more striking. My GPS was practically useless in Canada, so I'd fired up the laptop with Streets & Trips, and Jack was balancing it on his knee as we tried to figure out where to go.

The expressway part was easy, but once we got onto the surface grid, things were moving too quickly, and the street names on the screen were too small to read fast in the bright sunlight. I beat the directions into some kind of usable thing and found our lodgings...and then took about 10 minutes trying to get pulled over in front of the building so Jack could go in and find out where we were supposed to park (at least Canadians drive on the right side of the road...mostly). We did that, checked in, and headed down the Boulevard René-Lévesque to the Mondial.


It was a breezy mile and a quarter walk, and we bobbled around a bit finding it, but it was quite the thing once we did. It's an indoor-outdoor fest in a large restored train station and the outdoor courtyard. It's big, and fun, and free admission/pay for beer (which got expensive at times and stupid cheap at others: $2 for a big 12 oz. pour of St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout -- yum -- but $3 for a niggardly 4 oz. pour of La Route des Indes IPA from Au Maître-Brasseur that tasted nasty and off). It was a thoroughly enjoyable festival, with cider and cheese and spirits to boot, which of course would be illegal as hell in most of the U.S., God help me.

I'll leave Jack to give the blow-by-blow (except to add my admiration for the drop-dead beauty and friendliness of the Unibroue serving women and their cute as hell lace-up vests) and move on to overall impressions. There were some absolutely outstanding beers at the Mondial, Canadian, French, and the usual American suspects (the "Petit Pub" had a wide assortment of non-represented beers, including some Sly Fox that Jack was quite exercised about). I had my first Unibroue Eau Benite in way too long, and it was exquisite, as were pretty much every beer I had from Dieu du Ciel, (where Jack and I would retire for a long, very enjoyable session that evening), Ferme Brasserie Schoune (where we were led by Tony Forder to meet the brewer and Tom Peters, who was already arranging for them to do a beer dinner at Monk's), and Benelux-Brasserie.

But I was struck by the number of inferior beers I also got. We've pretty much gotten used to the idea that beer festivals in the U.S., craft brewers in the U.S., have reached a certain level of competence. I remember ten years ago sampling beers at fests and remarking to friends that the brewers must not be sampling them, because they were all too obviously flawed and often infected. That's gone away, and I have not had a flawed beer in quite a while at a U.S. fest. I had at least three dumpers at Mondial.

I don't really think this is attributable to anything but the atmosphere and culture. Canadian brewing/drinking seems even more dominated by big breweries -- MolBatt, the Canadian equivalent of American beer geeks' BMC -- than America, and the impediments to cross-provincial beer sales haven't helped. It's not chance that the very best Canadian breweries seem to be either brewpubs, breweries with strong export sales, or new. There is acceptance of craft beer in Canada, but it seems to be behind the curve a bit.

I'd say it's rapidly catching up, though, and the experimental stuff, like the hibiscus amber at Dieu de Ciel, is equivalent to the stuff American brewers are doing, with its own direction. Canadian brewers, and particularly Quebecois brewers, explore things with less fear of having the results labeled as "girly beers," and I think that's a very good thing. There seemed to be less of the embrace of the EXtrEme beer, which I also think is a good thing.

That was about it, except, yes, I did go to Hard Rock Cafe Montreal. I'd never ever been to one, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. To be honest, I still don't know. It was perfunctory service, all MolsonCoors beers (the Molson Export I was served almost brought me to tears: I drank a lot of Ex in the 1980s, and this was a pale, sweet shadow of that beer), and stiff prices ($6.50 for a shaker pint of mass-market beer seemed extreme (please note my stupidity...I've since realized that this was NOT a shaker pint, it was actually a larger beer; my apologies)...especially since Jack and I both left 2/3 of our beers sitting on the bar (he'd got a Rickard's Red, which he repeatedly said was the worst non-infected beer he'd ever had). I guess I just don't understand what most people want from an evening out. Which is okay with me; I know what I want, and usually see that I get it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

David Shipula is bugging me

David Shipula is the current president of the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania. (Disclosure: I was compensated to travel to Pittsburgh and address the MBDAPA several years ago; I do freelance consulting for some members of the Association.) He is also the owner of Beer Super in Wilkes-Barre. He seems to be a good guy, working for the Association.

But he's saying some stuff in the papers lately that bugs me.

In the May 19 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he writes in a piece titled "Keep Beer in Beer Stores," "Now, I can't be the only person who sees a problem with making it easy to buy beer and gasoline in one convenient location."
No, you're not, but just because two people think french-kissing makes girls pregnant doesn't mean we're going to be overrun with babies. People drive to gas stations to buy gas, sure, but they also drive to Beer Super to buy beer. Are the gasoline fumes going to drive them to drink to excess on the way home? There's nothing about buying gas that makes people more likely to drink. Is it the "ice-cold sixpack" "waved in their face" that Shipula brings up that's the problem at the gas station? Funny, because he also lauds people buying six-packs at Pennsylvania's restaurants and bars, most of which they're driving away with, judging by the parking lots at so many of them. I know there's no bar within walking distance of my house. Beer at gas stations driving people to drink is a bogeyman. It makes no sense in the light of day, or reason.

Then he says, "They also want the supermarket shopping experience to remain something the entire family can enjoy without giving children - from toddlers to teenagers - the idea that beer is as harmless as, say, a calorie-laden, high-fructose corn syrup-laced soft drink."
Yet it's okay for beer to be sold at a restaurant or deli or pizzeria where the family's getting dinner? What, it's raw food that makes beer scary? Besides, when was the last time you saw "the entire family" enjoy "the supermarket shopping experience"? On an Ozzie & Harriet re-run? This paragraph is so ridiculous it's embarrassing.

In the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat on June 2, he wrote a letter that said "Sheetz has its gas pumps on one property deed and its convenience store on another to skirt the law prohibiting beer sales at gas stations."
What law would that be? I searched the entire PA Liquor Code, and the only mention I saw of gas stations, service stations, or gasoline sales is here, under the rules for who has standing to petition licenses being granted (standing to petition, i.e., those who have half a leg to stand on as opposed to total loonies), where it's noted that the MBDA had standing to petition an "application for a double transfer of an eating place malt beverage license to premises on which a restaurant, convenience store, and gas station would operate", that is, the Sheetz case. There is no such law. Period.

In the Scranton Times-Tribune on April 8, he wrote another letter that said "In fact, the buying power of large supermarket chains like Wegmans makes it very difficult for small food and beverage producers to compete profitably. Shelf space is at such a premium in supermarkets that manufacturers and distributors are forced to pay “slotting allowances” to even get their products displayed on supermarket shelves."
Manufacturers and distributors do pay "slotting allowances," also known as "slotting fees," to get their products on supermarket shelves...except for alcohol beverages. That's illegal, slotting fees for alcohol beverages having been banned by the then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1995, a federal ban. Once again, a bogeyman: grocery wholesalers have to pay slotting fees, beer wholesalers do not. As it happens, Wegmans loves small producers; it gives their stores a competitive advantage. I've been in Wegmans in New York: the beer selection's quite nice.

That's also where he says this: "Individual beer distributors can own one and only one license for retail, off-premises consumption — and then only in quantities of one case or more of beer. Already, Wegmans has been granted six licenses by the Liquor Control Board."
True, but they're not the same kind of license! Wegman's licenses are so-called "deli licenses," which allow only sixpack sales. That's how chains of bars own more than one license, something Shipula doesn't mind. Why doesn't he care that Appleby's, for example, owns multiple licenses that allow retail, off-premises consumption (as all tavern licenses do in PA)? Because Appleby's doesn't sell sixpacks to go. If they aren't competition, he doesn't care. This is all about money and competition.

Shipula admits that, finally, after throwing smoke. He says all he wants is a level playing field. But that's not going to happen with the maze-like provisions of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, where the MBDAPA apparently found reason to argue that if Sheetz doesn't want to sell on-premise, they can't sell off-premise. This ignores Appleby's, of course, which does sell on-premise but chooses not to sell off-premise, as do many, if not the majority of Pennsylvania's restaurants with liquor licenses.

These arguments play on fears -- Beer is dangerous! People will use it irresponsibly at the slightest provocation! -- that it is stunning to hear coming from the head of a beer industry association. They are full of statements and implications that are simply not true. They are worrisome.

I understand that the distributors see supermarket sales as the single greatest threat to their livelihood, and this looks like the wedge to open that up. I think that instead of spending their time and money fighting against something that is simply, clearly legal under the Code as it stands, they should be putting their efforts into changing the laws that govern how all booze is sold in PA. Get rid of the case law and allow six-pack and single sales for distributors ASAP. Get rid of the State Store system and let distributors sell wine and spirits. Get normal.

I am on the side of the beer business. I support them, I work with them, I'm grateful to them. But I am a consumer. I want to buy beer where and how everyone else in the Union does, and I don't see any good reasons why I should not be able to. All I see above are bad reasons. Let's fix this. All of it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

"Bottle shop burning but everyone is ok."

I got a text message from Iron Hill brewer Larry Horwitz while I was in Montreal for the Mondial de la Bière last week (might have something on that for you, might just let Jack tell it and then correct what he gets wrong): "Just talked to keith @ fx matt. Bottle shop burning but everyone is ok." I had my phone turned off, and didn't actually get the message for a while, and what with one thing and another, didn't get the whole story till I got home on Saturday.

I won't re-tell it here, but a fire started in the bottling building. The canning line is destroyed (most of what they do there is Utica Club, but I think they do some contracts, too), the bottling line is down for at least a few weeks...maybe more. The building is old -- though not as old as the main brewery building -- and there was apparently not a sprinkler system. The age of the building kept that from being a problem, but re-construction will have to bring it up to code; much safer, but very expensive, as will be new canning equipment. The company's insurance position was unclear; there has been speculation that the lack of sprinklers probably meant that they were self-insured, but I don't know about that. Lotsa money.

Overall, this sucks. There is, however, some good news. First, the brewery, cellar, and kegging line were not affected, so draft Saranac continues to flow unchecked (get your butts out there and drink it). Second, there has been an outpouring of offers of help from New York's breweries, and it appears that a deal to tanker beer to a relatively nearby canning and bottling facility will be worked out quickly.

This brewery means a lot to me. Saranac 1888 was one of the first 'craft' beers I drank regularly, and I've been a fan ever since. F.X. Matt gave me one of my first significant interviews as a writer, and was always available for an interview, as are Nick and Fred Matt. The folks at Matt have been more than fair to me at all times. I've toured the brewery on many occasions, enjoyed the beer with friends all over the east coast...it's had almost as big a part in my beer-drinking evolution and memory as Yuengling; bigger in some ways. The thought that they might go down was tough to take.

But I should have known they'd survive. I asked F.X. once why he fought to keep the brewery open when the family trust that owned it wanted to sell out in 1989. "I have a stock answer when I’m asked why I fought for the brewery," he told me. "Family pride, stubbornness, and stupidity!" I'm proud to see that the Matt family is still proud, stubborn, and stupid. I would not have it any other way. Cheers, Nick and Fred, best of luck, and we'll keep drinking it as long as you make it.