Thursday, December 16, 2010

Merry (Monk's Cafe) Christmas (Dinner)!

I haven't been to a Monk's Cafe dinner in a while, so when the invite came, I shuffled my schedule (more about that shortly) and said yes! I was not disappointed. I left home Tuesday night in a blowing snow shower -- I'd driven out of it within ten minutes and only had the cold wind to contend with. I stopped on the way at the Grey Lodge Pub; that was the schedule I had to shuffle. Scoats had put together a 'holiday mix,' 24 cases of Christmas/holiday/winter beers, 24 people, mixing cases so we each got one of the 24 beers (hey, it's a Pennsylvania thing!)...and I had picked up Cape Anne Navigator (a holiday doublebock) and Wachusett Winter (an ESB, this year) when I was in Massachusetts last month, so I had to drop them off to be mixed. I headed on down to Monk's from there, figuring to leave the dinner a bit early to get back for the mix.

Traffic was bloody awful -- I hate the lights on the Boulevard -- so by the time I got the beers dropped off and got parked in Center City, I was at Monk's ten minutes late. No big deal, they were just serving the warm-up beer, De Ranke Pere Noel. I saw there was bouillabaisse coming, so decided to hold off on the De Ranke, and got a glass of Tripel Karmeliet to tide me over. Saw friends and said hi to Bryan Kolesar, Jeff Linkous, and my NJ Breweries co-author Mark Haynie (congrats on upcoming retirement, and happy birthday!), then sat down with George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg at the back bar to get ready for fun.

The promised bouillabaisse was -- hey, it's Monk's -- crazy. Big shrimp hanging over the side, lots of creamy-textured fish inside, and a toasty crust with cheese jammed in there. The De Ranke was...okay. Good beer, dry, tasty, but not sure about how it worked with the feesh. The next pairing more than made up for that (and the best was yet to come): Lost Abbey Gift of the Magi and a rabbit terrine (What's the diff twixt terrine and pate, I asked George. 'The shape?' he speculated, and looking at the goopy goodness I assumed was an additional small portion of pate on my plate, I guessed he was right.) The beer, tasty and yet restrained, was the perfect foil for the rich bunny meat, easily matching and mediating the delicious fattiness.

Next up was the Mikeller Red/White Christmas. Good beer, but I'll admit: I pretty much forgot the beer when I tasted the next course: pork loin stuffed with pancetta on apple sauerkraut, with a nice knob of roquefort on the side and sweet potato straws on the top. That was delicious. Then came another Scandinavian beer: Nøgne Ø Holiday Ale. It was a seriously spiced beer, with sage and juniper, and I didn't know what they were going to pair this one with to make it sing...because honestly, it was a bit overpowering.

The pairing was genius. Butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter, topped with fried sage leaves. This is what beer pairing is about: the two together changed each other. The ravioli came alive, and the beer mellowed into spicy richness. I exclaimed out loud (no, really, I did), and enjoyed this one terrifically. Unfortunately, I had to leave at that point to get to the Grey Lodge, and there were three courses yet to come! (Cassoulete w/Corsendonk Christmas, cheeses with T'sjeeses Reserva, and the traditional buche de noel with 2009 Port Brewing Santa's Little Helper and a jeroboam of Mad Elf). Thanks, Tom Peters: he made me up a take-home plate of the cassoulete!

Up the road to the Lodge, where I stayed till 11 PM, talking with old friends, and drinking a glass of Sly Fox Rauchbier, and a sample of this year's Philly Brewing Winter Wunder (nicely done, guys). A very nice night indeed.

Thanks to Bryan Kolesar for scanning the menu and sending it to me: I left mine on the bar!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rumors of an Iron Chestnut...

There are rumors on PhiladelphiaSpeaks about a new Iron Hill slated for Chestnut Hill. Before you get all excited and start blogging... I contacted the folks at Iron Hill, and got this response: no comment. No surprise, Iron Hill never makes comment until things are signed and sealed, and there have been possibles in the past that never happened. Doesn't mean this one won't, but...that's about all it means. Keep waiting: Iron Hill still has money in the bank, and they're not done growing.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001

Heaven Hill filled their six millionth barrel of whiskey today, on the 75th anniversary of the very day they filled their first barrel of whiskey, way back in 1935. Congratulations to my good friends at Heaven Hill -- the largest independent, family-owned distiller in America -- on this landmark accomplishment, and on this auspicious anniversary. I have to say that Heaven Hill is doing great: their other spirits brands are selling well (and get excellent reviews on quality and value, a Heaven Hill hallmark), and their whiskey is getting more well-deserved attention than ever.

Which seems like a good excuse to crack open this fresh bottle of the new Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2001 they sent me and have a taste. It will be out on the market in January, at a suggested retail of $26 (see what I mean about value?). Let's get at it.

First I had to wait for the whiskey to warm up -- I'm a cheap bastard when it comes to heating the home, and when it's just me here in the house during a working day, I keep the thermostat at 62 or lower. Not a great temp for tasting bourbon! So, warmed in my hands, the EWSB is starting to express itself. It's a markedly sweet nose, almost candy-like and tinged with vanilla, with a hint of wood spice, a touch of cedar, and real Heaven Hill/Parker Beam character. It's creamy on the tongue, like hot oil, and definite with corn, with a strong flip of spice on the end. This is not a cloying bourbon, not a lush one; the wood takes a firm hand. But it's not drying and astringent, either.

There's a very nice balance here between these two major bourbon components. There's a tendency among crazed bourbon aficionados to get 'Scotch envy' and go for the older, woodier bourbons; the Japanese, apparently, take that to an extreme. I've had some excellent older bourbons and ryes, but...there's a sweet spot here around 8 to 12 years that I'm really getting to like, though I'll happily admit that I love the Van Winkle 15, too. At 9 years old, this vintage, single barrel whiskey is hitting it right between the eyes.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Finally someone does a beer breakfast in the area

Sly Fox has been celebrating their anniversary with crazy releases of multiple single-hop IPAs and pale ales for years now -- I blame O'Reilly -- and it always falls either on my anniversary or the day of my church Christmas concert, and I have to go at lunchtime, before it gets all fun and crazy, and then leave by 3, before it gets all fun and crazy...

Well, this year, it's happened again, their 15th anniversary -- congratulations! -- falls on Friday the 10th, and our concert is that night (St. Andrew's Church, Newtown, come on out, be glad to see you), but I'll be getting to Sly Fox Phoenixville even earlier this year...for the Brewmaster's Breakfast! I'm sorry to say it's sold out already (yeah, really: a beer breakfast, on a weekday, sold out), but take a look at this menu created by guest chef Andrew Deery of Majolica...and seriously think about taking the whole day off next year...

  • Fresh Donuts - Paired with Kimberton Coffee Porter
  • Potato and Leek Veloute, Smoked Salmon Croque Monsieur - Paired with Saison Vos
  • Truffled White Sausage, Mashed Celery Root - Paired with Royal Weisse
  • Maine Peekytoe Crab Benedict, Wilted Spinach. Sauce Choron - Paired with Odyssey Imperial IPA
  • Spiced Pumpkin Biscuit, Cinnamon Ice Cream - Paired with 2010 Christmas Ale
Featuring the debut of Succubus and Majolica Blend Coffee Porter!

I'm looking forward to leaving at lunchtime...when it's going to be all fun and crazy. 

I'm on the TeeVee again...

Pennsylvania Breweries 4th edition is the topic on PCN's "PA Books" this Sunday night at 9 PM! I did an hour interview with host Brian Lockman yesterday, our third over the years, and he beat me up a little this time: why so friendly to all the breweries, do you ever pan beers, all that stuff folks ask me to needle me. No sweat, it's good to clear the air on that (you wanna know the answers, watch the show). He also pinned me with his now-traditional final question: pick a desert island sixpack of Pennsylvania beers...oof! I should have known that one was coming and been ready! Check it out, we had a great time.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Just In Time For Christmas!

My last Pennsylvania Breweries book tour of the season is set! I'm calling it the "Just In Time For Christmas" tour, and it's going to take me up the Susquehanna into the heart of central Pennsylvania, the hottest spot in Pennsylvania brewing right now. Here's some holiday shopping advice you'll appreciate: if you want to get a copy of the latest Pennsylvania Breweries for your favorite beer drinkers, put it off to the last minute, along with some of your other shopping, and take this opportunity to get a signed copy, a good beer, and some very cool local shopping.

We start on December 18th at noon to 2:15 at Elk Creek Cafe and Ale Works in Millheim. If you haven't been to Elk Creek yet, you're missing a great experience in local food and drink, in a sweet little town in the middle of the beautiful Penns Valley. Stop in for a beer, a book, and a bite to eat, check out the brewpub merch (glasses, shirts, the usual, only cooler) AND the other stuff they sell, like Tait Farms fruit shrubs (a deliciously tart fruit addition to sparkling water) and Ken Hull's book going LOCAL! Shopping? Check out Penns Valley Jewelry and Cottage Rose Interiors (both at 110 E. St.). A bit unorthodox for Christmas shopping, but...a favorite stop of mine in Millheim is Penns Valley Meat Market (112 East Main Street); not much to look at, but their house-cured meats -- jerky, smoked and fresh sausage, hams -- are delicious and reasonable (fresh-roasted peanuts, too). A little farther (and I do mean a little) is Aaronsburg Pottery where you can get some of Scot Paterson's beautiful and functional stoneware.

Next stop: Old Forge Brewing in Danville, where I'll be signing books from 3:30 to 5:30. Old Forge really takes you back to the good old days of the first brewpubs: small brewery shoehorned into the front of the bar, little kitchen cranking out great locally-sourced foods (don't miss the soft pretzels; to groan for), funky decor (check out the hand-done mugs; you'll want to move to Danville so you can join the club!), and delish beer: Damien's alt is exquisitely accurate.

And yes, there's great local shopping here, too. You'll want to get to City Girl Bakery Market (252 Mill St.) before the signing; they close at 3, and it would be a shame to miss their fresh-baked sourdough breads (they bake for Old Forge, too), croissants, and pastries; you can pick up a pound of Counter Culture fair trade coffee for your favorite java-lover's stocking, too (I stop here every time I'm in town; real nice people).

Got kids? Get them happy before stopping at the brewpub: Santa Claus and his reindeer will be downtown, next to the Boro Hall/Municipal Building, from noon to 3 pm. Right beside Old Forge is T and J Train Junction (290 Mill Street), where they have a great selection of model railroad equipment, including a small operating layout; a fun place to browse with your kids. They're part of Collectibles Unlimited, right next door, fun stuff there, too. There is a really nice gift/retail shop called Lemon A'peel (298 Mill St), and Beiter's Department Store (255 Mill St.), which is like an old five and dime but nicer. Want some clothes for your spouse or the kids? Try D's Clothier (226 Mill St) and the Kiddie Korner (335 Mill St.).

Long day, but it's not over yet: I'll be hanging out at Bavarian Barbarian in Williamsport with owner/brewer Mike Hiller from 7 to 9 Saturday night. Come on over, join us for a couple beers, get your book signed, and relax: either after a long day of shopping or before you go out for the night.

Sunday is only one stop, but it's a doozey: I'll be at the Jazz Brunch at the Bullfrog Brewery from noon to 4, a swinging good time with live jazz, great brunch chow for a lazy Sunday, and Terry Hawbaker's wild selection of beers. The shopping's a bit sparse on Sunday, but it's hardly non-existent: again, Bullfrog's got some great merch, and there's the Otto Bookstore (107 W. 4th), a family-owned independent bookstore since 1841, one of the five oldest booksellers in the country. When you're done browsing, if you still have room, check out one of my faves in town, Franco's Lounge (12 W. 4th), for an excellent dinner -- and if you don't have room, stop in for a beer and pick up some jars of their excellent house-made red sauce (I think they have other stuff as well, and their beer selection is a great excuse to find out if I'm right).

Monday, I'll be doing some reconnaissance in Bloomsburg and Lewisburg during the day; new brewpubs open and opening there! Monday evening though, I'm heading downriver to Appalachian Brewing in Harrisburg, where I'll be signing from 5 to 8 in their big, solid, beautiful brewpub (and probably sipping a glass of Broad Street Barleywine).

Tuesday means more recon, but it's also the winter solstice, and I hope you know what that means: the Selin's Grove 14th anniversary!I've been there before, and try to make it when I can; this is one of the days that should be on your Pennsylvania beer calendar every year, a real special night. I'll be there at 3 when they tap the firkin, and I'm staying till 9 PM...and that's the end of the tour. (Though I will be at Bethlehem Brew Works on December 23rd for lunch with the kids, andif you happen to catch me, I'm sure I'll have some books with me, if you really want to wait till the last minute!)

Western PA, Day 2

Yes, I'm still here, just got really busy with book signing and family life.

To pick up where I left off... I got up the next day, Sunday, then went to get breakfast. Sigh. Cranberry Township is a lot of things, but there aren't a lot of independent diners around. So, oddly, despite having gone to grad school at CMU back in the 1980s, and having been back to Pittsburgh on an almost annual basis ever since, I went to an Eat'n Park for the first time ever. Hey, at least it's a locally-based chain, okay? And the blueberry pancakes were pretty good.

Back to the room, did a bit of work that was hanging fire, suited up for the day, and I headed into town. It was a gray, raw, rainy day, and when I found a spot by the loading docks at the Strip (just about across from Kaya), I was unloading books in the rain. But it was all worth it: I got into the Pittsburgh Public Market and was knocked out by the great selection of local merchants and shtuff. I hustled down to the far corner where Scott Smith has opened the truly ground-breaking East End Brewing Growler Shop, and dumped my stuff. More about the growler shop shortly -- it was lunchtime. I got a recommendation: "Go up there to Sito's, get the wrap, they put an assload of stuff in there." And they did, and it was awesomely good. I wanted to get that plug in there because it was one tasty sandwich thing.

So, the growler shop. The way Scott explained it, the inkling came from a 2006 inquiry he made with the PLCB on another topic, in which they happened to mention, unprompted, that he would have the same ability to fill and sell growlers at an off-site storage facility that he did at the brewery. Busy as hell just staying afloat at that time, he didn't really think anything of it, but three years later he started thinking about opportunities, and that came to the top. It sounded like the off-site "stores" PA wineries are allowed to have, and that would be great, to get a growler outlet in a more consumer-friendly area than his famously out-of-the-way brewery, a place with more retail traffic.

It would be, but there was a PLCB odyssey to go through first. (Stop me if you've heard that one before...) Scott started going through layers and layers of bureaucrats, all of whom seemed baffled by the idea of an interpretation of the Almighty Liquor Code that actually made things easy for the brewer. "You'll need a license for that," he kept hearing, but like Virgil in Dante's Inferno ("This has been willed where what is willed must be, and is not yours to question.") Scott brandished the letter, saying "But I have a ruling from the Board." Because it was a letter direct from the actual Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, not one of their lawyerminions, Scott won through, and has an off-site storage facility at the Pittsburgh Public Market: a lockable cooler with tap outlets next to a serving area with a ton of East End merch.

And let me tell you, they do a land office business. On a wet, cold Sunday, there were people lined up five-deep happily waiting to get growlers filled, sometimes six at a time. And quite a few of them were interested in books! It kept me pretty busy, and Scott kept me supplied with tasters (can't get enough of the Fat Gary brown ale), but all good things had to come to an end...I packed up, shook hands all round, and made for the door.

It was seriously raining now, and I had to make my to [two of the colleges in town] to pick up [four college students I happen to know]. Yeah, I'm covering up identities here, you'll soon see why. I took the kids to one of my favorite spots (and my late father's very favorite spot) in Pittsburgh: Max's Allegheny. It was hopping, the Steelers were at home that evening, and Max's runs a shuttle to the arena. They managed to stuff us into the basement, where I got me some hassenpfeffer and Kostritzer.

So, why I covered the identities: they filled me in on the Four Loko thang. Yes, everyone drank it (this was pre-ban by about two weeks); it was compact and easy to smuggle in under a jacket, and a can is four 'regular' beers. "Oh, it tastes awful," they freely admitted, but they were equally open about why they were drinking it: for effect. One of the colleges had a no-drinking policy on campus, even for students of legal age, and the effect, they told me, was that no one drank beer, because it was too bulky to smuggle in. Instead, it was 'handles' (1.75 liter bottles) of cheap liquor (rum seemed to be preferred), bags of weed, and Four Loko. Great policy! I tried to set them a good example by praising the taste and low alcohol content of my schwarzbier, but it's truly for naught, given the 21 LDA; Max's was clearly a better environment for drinking (and learning to drink) than a dorm where every drink was contraband, but what's logic in the face of dogma?

I took them back to their campuses, and considered just going to my hotel in Monroeville...but I had gotten a Facebook message from Steve Lander, a true alpha beer geek (and funny SOB to boot), that I should meet him at The Headkeeper in Greensburg. Well, I'd put Headkeeper's into the book on recommendation, so I felt duty-bound to check it out. Glad I went, though I wish I'd et a bit lighter at Max's: Steve was eating, and the food smelled fantastic. He'd been eating his way through the menu over a couple months and said it was almost all outstanding; this from a metro New York guy. The beer...well, no possible argument, the beer selection, draft and bottle, was exceptional. If I hadn't already had a couple, and had a 30 minute drive back to my room... But instead, I hung with Steve and talked geek for a while, and had a Schlenkerla Lager (always welcome), and finally did check into the Holiday Inn Express (I gotta start finding more non-chain motels...). And that was Sunday. Next day: breakfast with an old high school chum, lunch at Rivertowne, a visit to Full Pint (finally!), the Church, and Penn, and the big PA beer dinner at Bocktown... stay tuned.

(I'll get some pix up on this one as soon as my PC stops acting like Betty White; maybe I should try a Snickers...)