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Friday, March 30, 2007

Joe Sixpack salutes The Dude

Philly beer writer and colleague Don Russell has a real nice salute in his Joe Sixpack column today to Scott "The Dude" Morrison, one of the area's best, and kindest, brewers. If you can get to Sly Fox tonight for The Dude In Exile, I would urge you to do so. And drink my share: my daughter's school musical is tonight, so I'll be there in spirit only. Hope Scott finds a position in the area real soon...tip to any breweries looking for a dedicated brewing star!

Joe Sixpack A tip of the pint to Scott 'The Dude' Morrison Daily News 03/30/2007

Thursday, March 29, 2007

“I’m with the Bushmills party.” The Colum Egan Interview, Part I

As I mentioned a bit ago, I got an invitation to have lunch with Colum Egan, the master distiller for Bushmills Irish Whiskey. That's him, raising a glass of Bushmills Original at a corner table at Tír na nÓg in Philly (16th & Arch), where we met two weeks ago.

A quick background: Bushmills was recently bought from French booze company Pernod-Ricard by English booze giant Diageo as part of Pernod's hugely complex buy-out of booze company Allied Domecq. Pernod owned both Bushmills and Jameson/Midleton, and sold off Bushmills, much the smaller of the two, to their rival, Diageo.

If that all seems pretty much is, and you need a constant newsfeed to keep up with who owns who in the booze field these days. But what it comes down to is that Diageo has decided that Bushmills is a valuable property, and they're revving it up for a serious tilt at the world market. Hence Colum's visit to the U.S. for St. Patrick's week.

It was a beautiful day, not at all presaging the horrible sleety disaster we'd be experiencing just two days later, and I was actually ahead of schedule, arriving in Center City at 11:45 for our noon lunch date. Half an hour later, I had to call my Diageo contact, Laura Peet, to let her know that after having driven fruitlessly through two parking garages only to find no open spaces (I despise this process in Center City; just one more thing Philly has to solve), I was still on the streets.

Yes, mass transit fans, I know that Suburban Station is 20 yards from Tír na nÓg; but if there had been parking available, it would have been 30 minutes from my door to the bar, compared to 80 minutes by choo-choo, and I was jamming on a tight deadline day already. There is no good solution.

Laura called me back in two minutes; the Phoenix Building, where Tír na nÓg is located, has valet parking. I rushed over, stepped down the sidewalk, and entered Tír na nÓg.

"Can I help you, sir?"

“Yes, I’m with the Bushmills party.” What a fine, fine thing to say in an Irish pub!

As mentioned above, Colum was sitting with Laura in the corner in a very busy, happily noisy part of the bar (truth to tell, it was all like that; busy place). I only had 30 minutes to do an hour interview, so we skipped lunch, ordered a round of whiskeys (“What will you have?” asked Colum – first test – and I laughed. “You’re the master distiller: you order, I’ll drink!” He ordered two glasses of Black Bush with a bit of ice), and got right into the interview.

What is it that makes Irish whiskey Irish whiskey?

It is quite different. The whole history of Irish whiskey is unique. If you go back even as recent as 120 years ago, there would have been as many as 140 distilleries open in Ireland, making whiskey. Today there are only three. [Since then, just last week, actually, the Kilbeggan distillery began production again…so four distilleries. ] A very short timespan in the history of whiskey-making.

One of the main reasons for that was actually Prohibition. A lot of distilleries in Ireland at the time were independently-owned and quite small, and their biggest market, or perhaps their only market, was the States. Almost overnight, that market was closed to them. Of course, when you’re making whiskey today, you’re putting it in an oak barrel to sell it in another three to five years. A lot of distilleries just stopped making whiskey. Then they were not able to sell, so they didn’t make any money, so they just simply had to close.

Coming up to today, one of my main jobs is to keep that tradition and that heritage going. There’s a little saying there that goes: Bushmills isn’t good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good. It’s a nice simple way of putting it. We’ve come through a lot of adversity and hard times. Hopefully, at the moment, things seem to be prospering for us after all that time. I like to think that the quality of our whiskey, the taste of our whiskey is contributing a lot to that.

What makes Bushmills whiskey different from other whiskeys of the world is the smoothness of the character. We distill the whiskey three times. When you distill a whiskey three times, you get this lovely, light, fruity whiskey with nice spicy, flowery notes.

We pay very particular attention to how we age the whiskey. We age the whiskey in different types of barrels. By law, in Ireland, for whiskey to be called Irish whiskey, it must be distilled in Ireland, matured in an oak barrel for a minimum of three years – and Bushmills is actually a minimum of five years – and made from a cereal, like barley, or wheat, or corn.

So what gives Bushmills its great taste is the triple distillation, but we also put it into these very high-quality oak barrels. I can get a [bourbon] barrel from Kentucky delivered to us at the distillery for about $50 a barrel; if I have to go to Spain [for sherry barrels], it costs me $750 a barrel.

That was one of the questions I had: where are you getting all the sherry barrels? They’re not easy to come by any more, are they?

Some sherry barrels are easy to come by; they’re very low quality! When it comes to Bushmills, when it comes to me, actually, I demand something very different, something very high quality. The reason for that, we have a great relationship with a family in Jerez, in Spain, in the sherry producing region. They cooper the barrels for us, to our specifications. Then they will put our lots of sherry into our oak barrels for two years. The sherry actually seasons the wood. They’ll take our lots of sherry out, they’ll send the barrels back to the distillery, and we’ll actually fill them within two weeks of receiving them.

They’re your barrels?

We pay for the wood, we pay the cooper, so we know exactly where the wood’s from, we know exactly who’s coopered them, and we know exactly what kind of wine’s been in there. One of the really tough jobs at the distillery is actually going to Spain and tasting some of the wine that’s coming out of there…

Do you reject any because of the quality of the wine coming out?

Aaaa, no, we’ve got such a good relationship with the cooper that there are very, very few casks that end up being a problem. It’s just fascinating over there, really. I thought that my grammy was the only one still drinking sherry, but when you’re out there, you really get the degree of passion they have for sherry.

We do a similar thing in Portugal with Sandeman. They will put tawny port in our oak barrels. We go to Sandeman every year and inspect our barrels. We go to Madeira Island, a small Portuguese island in the Atlantic, where they make Madeira wine, and that’s how we finish the 21 Year Old.

Another key difference between Irish and other whiskeys, I suppose, is that we don’t smoke our barley. There’s a complete absence of any smoky, peaty aroma.

[An interjection: Note that the definition of Irish whiskey is quite muddled by now, which is hardly Colum’s fault! To wit: Cooley is definitely Irish whiskey – it’s whiskey made in Ireland, after all – but it’s only twice-distilled, and their Connemara whiskey is peated. The triple-distillation’s not unique anyway: both Auchentoshan (Scotch single malt whisky) and Woodford Reserve (bourbon) are also triple-distilled. Then there’s the “pure pot still” vs. “malt whiskey” issue: Midleton, where they distill Jameson’s – which is definitely Irish whiskey – makes “pure pot still whiskey” with a mashbill of barley malt and unmalted raw barley. Bushmills is an all-malt whiskey.

What does all this mean? Well, as John Hansell told me recently while we were discussing this issue: “Irish whiskey is whiskey that’s made in Ireland.” That’s as close as you’re going to get to a rock-solid definition that’s going to hold off challenges. Now…do I think that’s the whole story? No. I think Colum’s original statement is actually pretty damned close, in a subjective sense: “…lovely, light, fruity whiskey with nice spicy, flowery notes.” There are still exceptions, but if “Irish whiskey” has a character, that’s it. In My Humble Opinion, of course. On with the interview.]

Can we back up a bit? You said that once the sherry cask gets back to the distillery, it’s usually filled within two weeks?

Yeah. We get the casks over to the distillery. You need to fill them as soon as possible: wood dries out, and then if you were to put something in the cask, it would just pour out through the staves. We try to do it in two weeks; it can take longer.

[Our whiskeys arrived at this point.]

You find with Black Bush, I really do, the sensation that, it’s so soft, it just floats on my tongue, it never really touches my tongue, just floats down, it’s like velvet down the back of your throat.

It was the first Irish whiskey I had that I liked.

It’s a great introduction. You have to be very careful when you use sherry casks. You don’t want to overdo it. I’m not trying to make a sherry, I’m not trying to make a port, I’m not trying to make a bourbon, I’m trying to get some notes from each of those cask types that will contribute to the basic spirit I’m making at the distillery.

[That's the end of Part I. More to come soon, now that I've finally got the hang of transcribing from my new digital voice recorder!]

Kilbeggan Distillery restarts Irish whiskey production

The Kilbeggan Distillery restarted whiskey production after 50 years of closure last Monday, March 19. Kilbeggan is run by the same Irish company that owns and operates the Cooley Distillery near Drogheda, northeast of Dublin. Kilbeggan is in County Westmeath, near the center of Ireland, not far from the old (and not currently operating) Tullamore Dew distillery.

Distillery chairman Jack Teeling said the whiskey from Kilbeggan (where Cooley has been aging whiskey for some years) will not be ready for release until 2014. Save your money.

Kilbeggan was licensed in the 1750s, which is bound to set off at least a small argument with Bushmills fans over which distillery is "actually" the oldest; more details on that coming up in my interview with Bushmills master distiller Colum Egan, which I hope to have up here later today.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

SBP #6: A-B Spring Heat Spiced Wheat

I talked to Anheuser-Busch brewer Florian Kuplent (that's him on the right) a couple weeks ago about A-B’s Spring Heat Spiced Wheat seasonal (that's him on the left). They’re doing a set of seasonals, and this one’s in the style of a Belgian witbier. The beer comes in at 5.2%, so it qualifies under the SBP rules. I've got a short interview with Florian for you, then I'll do some tasting notes and comments.

I met Florian last August, when A-B flew some writers out to their hop farm in Idaho for harvest time. He’s young, German, and quite articulate about brewing, so I was looking forward to the interview.

I had a few "techie stuff" questions I wanted to ask him. Here’s how that went (please note that Florian’s answers as set out below may not be exactly verbatim; I was typing as he spoke and doing the best I could to maintain his phrasing and content).

How different was it to mash with wheat?

Before we release beers, we always brew test batches. We use about 30-35% wheat malt in the beer. We tried raw wheat, but the malt was preferred. It’s made from white winter wheat. The mashing was not really a problem, it didn’t get sticky, not even in the lautering. It took a little longer, but not a problem.

What kind of yeast did you use?

That’s proprietary, unfortunately. We have our own yeast bank. We have hundreds of different yeasts: lager, ales, wheat beers, and so on. We send the Budweiser lager strain out to the other breweries weekly from St. Louis.

What kind of spices did you use? And I understand you used lime and lemon zest as well as the traditional orange peel; why those?

We used coriander for spice. The orange is traditional, the lime and the lemon was a tweak to give it a lemony aroma, a lime and lemon touch. We played around with that in the test brewery.
We probably do five to ten test batches, depending on what you’re doing. It may go more with a new ingredient. For a pilsner style beer, probably less, we’re more familiar with those.

Who’s this aimed at?

I’m hoping everybody will like it! It’s very drinkable and refreshing, a lot of people have tried it and liked it. The craft beer drinkers, we hope. The taphandle is designed to catch attention, to get people to try the beer and get hooked by the taste.

What seasonal is next?

Beach Bum Blonde Ale. Our American-style blonde ale, it’s dry-hopped w/domestic Hallertauer, Cascades, and Alsatian Strisselspalt (A-B buys almost the entire crop of this very nice French hop). They’re also used in the kettle. It’s got some bitterness, but it’s a nice beer for an introduction to craft beer. It’s going to be available in bottles [unlike?] last year, 12 oz. and 22 oz. It’s a nice serving size for sharing. Beer goes great with food, and that bottle size is great to share with dinner. It reinforces that idea.

Thanks, Florian. So how was it? It sure pours like a witbier: orange-gold, heavily hazy with protein and yeast, and a fluffy white head. The aroma was much more citrus than coriander, though that spicy edge was there. The beer itself? Good, fresh, and refreshing, but balanced too much on the citrus side for my tastes. I'm looking for a drier witbier, more on the brisk wheat tang and coriander twist side, something like Allagash. And it could have a bit more complexity, although it is supposed to be a refresher: hard to keep in mind when you're "tasting" and not "quaffing."

The citrus thing is the same issue I have with Blue Moon Belgian White, and maybe that's why; given the booming sales of Blue Moon, it's entirely possible that A-B would aim more towards that end. After all, as Willie Sutton was supposed to have said about why he robbed banks: That's where the money is. On the other hand, maybe that's just how they wanted the beer to taste; after all, they did add the lemon and lime, which I kind of admire for the innovative thought involved, a very Belgian way to do things, actually.

Would I get one? Depends on the choices open to me. Hot day, this or Yuengling or Guinness? Yeah, I'd get this. Hot day, this or Allagash? Allagash. Hot day, this or Blue Moon? Might have to go with this for that lemony thing. But overall, not a bad outdoor beer at all, definitely worth a taste.

Tanks arrive for Allentown Brew Works

There's a brief report at the WFMZ TV website on the arrival of the brewhouse and unitanks at the site of the soon-to-open Allentown Brew Works at 812 Hamilton St. in Allentown here. The opening is now scheduled for May...I can't recall how many years that is past the first prediction! Hey, that's the brew biz.

Hot Dope from Weyerbacher

Got a call from Dan Weirback yesterday. Dan and I go way back, he's one of my best friends in the business, and I've always been a fan of most of his beers. We talk, but it's usually gossip about the rest of the biz! So yesterday we talked about Weyerbacher, and how things are going for them.

Mostly, they're pretty damned good! "Sales are up 51% in the first quarter over the same period last year," Dan said, "and the only new territory is Maine, which we just added two weeks ago."

Last year was great for the little guys in Easton. "Volume was up 19.5% last year, dollar sales were up 23%," Dan continued. "I would project 35% growth for this year, with what we’re seeing. Our draft sales are way up, and we’ve never pushed that. We did 4,002 barrels last year. I’m expecting to pass 5,000 this year. You know what we’ve been through: it feels great!"

Dan confirmed what a number of small brewers have been telling me about capital being easier to secure as the category gets a more stable reputation and as brewers show long-term stability (Weyerbacher's in their 12th year now). "This is the third year we’ve been able to get a Small Business Administration loan through the bank, and they’re going to roll it into a single conventional loan at a lower rate at the end of this year. That’s the way things are going."

What's the loan for? Big iron! "We've got two more 40 bbls. fermenters going on line, and a 48 bbl. bright tank was put in last week in. And we've ordered a 72 bbl. kettle, steam-jacketed with an internal calandria, from Bavarian Brewing Technologies. I should call it a 40 bbl. yield kettle, that would be better. We’re also getting an additional 48 bbl. bright tank."

Why all the tanks and capacity? Weyerbacher's getting on the front side of their growth curve. They've realized the costs of missed sales opportunities. For example, Dan says, "We’ve seen opportunities come and go. We know we could have sold triple the amount of Imperial Pumpkin Ale last year. We did triple the amount last year, and we still could have sold more. Those pumpkin beers are a solid niche, people like them. It puts you in a celebratory mood. It’s got substance, it’s got flavor."

Like Jason Ebel, Dan had to take a shot at me for the Session Beer Project. "The big beers have garnered us a lot of attention, and not just from the media. It’s gotten us attention with the drinkers. They’re still drinking session beers, but the big beers get the word of mouth going. It’s set a fire in the 20-somethings. They added to our core audience, and they spread the word with the big beers. It fits my needs well. It’s a good promotional force for your brewery and for the industry. It’s gotten a whole bunch more people thinking about beer."

Speaking of thinking about beer, Dan let out a few new projects. "You know about Blasphemy: the bourbon barrel-aged Quad. We’ve also got a farmhouse saison coming out in May, called Muse. It's spicy, but it's spicy from the yeast, there's no added spices. It's at 6.2% ABV, unfiltered, and we'll have it in all packages, 12 oz., 22s, and draft. We'll have the 12th Anniversary beer in July, not sure what it’s going to be yet. I'm pretty sure, but we're not certain yet. The Double Simcoe IPA went year-round as of last week. We had so many people ask, how can you not do it?"

I asked him if he was worried about getting enough hops for it; there have been some shortages predicted (I'm starting to feel like the farm reporter at WKRP...). "We’re covered on Simcoe," he said, "there’s plenty of those coming."

Then there was something really different for Weyerbacher: "We're playing with some brett beers," Dan said. "We've got a strong ale, about 11.5%, and a 7% raspberry beer. Tart, but not extremely so. We’ve got a barrel of each aging with a brett culture, and we’re going to fill several more barrels of each shortly. But it won’t be out till January of next year, probably, and then only about 50 cases. You just don’t know the results for 8 months sometimes, so it could take a while to ramp up. I’d like to see us do a thousand cases as a seasonal eventually. I think there’s a sizeable market for it. And again, it gains attention, and interests the fans."

Finally, Dan said they're "doing a partnership with the local Wegman’s. They sent five chefs down to taste beers. They’re doing a cheddar ale soup with the Hops Infusion at the Easton store. That’s another nice thing for us. They want to play up the Weyerbacher aspect, a nice little thing." Watch for more Weyerbacher-ingredient dishes at the food area there, too: Dan told me a bunch more, but I just couldn't type fast enough.

Thanks for the update, Dan.

SBP and STAG get another plug

Don Cazentre, who covers the beer beat for the Syracuse Post-Standard (covers it well, too), picked up the Session Beer beat for his latest piece, and gives the blog a real nice plug:

Session beers: Not bland, not too bold

A few tastes:

"...whatever happened to high-quality, full-flavor beers that aren't extreme and taste like, well, beer?They're still around, but they get lost in all the buzz about bigger, bolder brews. Yet there are beers out there that you can enjoy, and even have a few of, without feeling like an anvil fell on your head."


"For Middle Ages brewer Marc Rubenstein, all this makes sense. Session beers are what he likes to drink. "I enjoy beers that I can have a couple of while watching a game," he said. "Beers that are not in your face but still have lots of flavor." "

SBP rolls on...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bock Chicken recipe

Loren Verkovod posted a comment to the Spring Session entry that was just a bit long for comments, so for esthetic reasons, I pulled it out and made a separate entry of it. The recipe sounded too good to waste.

He also notes: " I heard the Anchor Bock is just a spice stripped Our Special Ale? Tastes like it to me. Regardless, it's a nice offering. Though not quite a true to form Bock tasting version."

Dunno, Loren, could be. I'll try to remember to ask an Anchorite at WhiskyFest Chicago. Meantime, here's the recipe he sent along.

Serves 4
5 to 6 chicken leg quarters
2 tablespoons Jamaican jerk seasoning
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups parboiled rice
1 bottle (12 ounces) bock beer
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 can (16 ounces) red or pink beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
Coat chicken all over with jerk seasoning. In a large pan with lid, warm oil over medium heat.

Cook chicken in two batches, turning frequently until well-browned, about 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Remove chicken to plate. Pour out all but two tablespoons of pan drippings.

Add onion, chiles, ginger, garlic and salt to remaining drippings in pan. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes until onion is lightly browned. Stir in rice and cook for 1 more minute. Add beer, coconut milk, beans and half of cilantro. Return chicken to pot along with any accumulated juices.

Bring chicken mixture to boil, cover pot and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 30 to 35 minutes or until liquid is absorbed, rice is tender and chicken is cooked through. Stir in remaining cilantro.

Salute to Spring Seasonals a Success

As mentioned -- okay, as plugged here earlier, I hosted a tasting of Spring session beers at Ortino's Northside this past Sunday. Things went well, and a large part of that is due to both John Ortino and his new events brain, Dan "The Big One" Bengel. Here's how it went.

I left early, just in case any hitches came up in this first-of-a-series event. I strolled up the Northeast Extension in the Passat, slipping off at the Lansdale exit and cross-countrying up Rt. 63 and across by the Spring Mountain ski area into Zieglerville, getting a nifty 43 mpg in the process. It was a gorgeous Spring day, about 63 degrees and sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky. I met Dan in the parking lot, we had a quick strategy session out by Ortino's smoker ("We serve 'em beer, and I talk about it, right?" "Yup."), and then went in to look at the menu and work out the pairings.

See, right there was the first improvement for next time. We're going to get better planned out. No fault on this one, though: we threw this event together very quickly, and wound up changing beers at the last minute anyway. We've got more time to plan the next one, and Dan's already on it. Wait till you hear (it's further down, if you want to skip ahead).

After planning, we fiddled with the taps -- Ortino's had a brand-new tap system, which I thought was boldly gutsy to do just before a beer event! Folks started arriving -- including most of the usual suspects, Dan's friends and family, some BeerAdvocates, brewers (Tim Ohst and Brian O'Reilly from Sly Fox, Bill Moore from Lancaster), and Uncle Jack and Mid-Atlantic Brewing News's Dale Van Wieren (who's retiring from his MABN column in the fall to work on a new edition of his thoroughly detailed listing of historical American breweries).

Just before we started, I stepped out in the parking lot for some fresh air, and that's when O'Reilly pulled up, black car, dark black shades, and says, "Where's your car? I got something for you." Made me nervous, I gotta tell you, but here's what he had, a sixer of the brand-new little beauties. Oh, and a big bottle of Instigator, too. Nice guy!

The dinner! We started with a toast to Spring, celebrated with Redhook Copperhook. Nice beer, a bit strong for 'session' at 5.7%, even by my definition, but Dan and John and I had agreed that the "seasonal" part was as important as the "session" part, so we slipped it in. Copperhook was a good, smooth opener, with enough hops to be interesting. Made for a nice intro to my idea that session beers should not interrupt conversation!

First course was house-made potato chips (nice, and done just right) with a lemon-leek dip that was very popular. We served it with Anchor Bock, a right tasty version of the type, and sessiony at 5.5%. Consensus was that they're using that workhorse steam beer yeast, and that it's not a bad idea.

Why Anchor Bock with the chips and dip? be honest, I had planned to put the Sunshine Pils here, but we screwed up (my fault as much as anyone's). It worked out okay, though, because the rich bockness floated the salt and lemon real nice, and the dip wasn't so overly rich as to make it a heavy pairing.

Next up was one of the very first kegs of this year's Tröegs Sunshine Pils, served with a cheese plate of a soft brie-like cow's milk cheese, a small wedge of Parmesano Reggiano (ahh...), and a very nice local cheese, the Telford Tommy from Hendricks Farms and Dairy, just down the road from Ortino's. I've got to get out there and get some more of that. The Pils was, well, like Sunshine Pils always is: excellent, crisp, hoppy, balanced, and exceptionally drinkable. And, didja know? 4.5% ABV. How 'bout dat? That's liter beer, boys and girls.

The reason we mixed up the Pils and the Bock was here: Pils would have worked fine with either the chips or the cheese, and this pairing did fine, for me. You've got that crisp carbonation and bitter kiss of hops scrubbing and sharpening the tongue for the rich, fatty cheese. Pils works well with a number of cheeses for this reason; not all cheeses, but it worked with these.

We followed that with a particularly delicious course of food: mixed grilled vegetables in a balsamic dressing with some delicious beer-simmered-and-grilled bratwurst from Illg's. We got into a nice sausage discussion at this point; folks wanted to know just what bratwurst is. The beer was a luscious keg of Penn Märzen, tasting very round and smooth and malty. I would be remiss, though, if I didn't mention how damnably good the vegetables were, really one of the high points of the meal: snow peas, green and yellow squash, and eggplant. Very fresh, done just right: all praise to the Ortino's kitchen on that one. The Illg's brats were, of course, perfect; you can't go wrong with Ernst's wursts.

Why Märzen? The sausage pairing's obvious, no? You've got a fairly mild grilled sausage that is caressed by that malty caramel, and the sweetness of the malt slides against the tangy mustard. The grilled vegetables have that same sweetness, enhanced by a little cut from the balsamic, and the malty Märzen picked it all up. This one was the first match-up I made, and probably the easiest.

Then it was time for the main course, a fresh-smoked (as in "right out back") ham sandwich, served open-faced on some crunchy sourdough bread, topped with two slices of smoked gouda, and accompanied by a nice helping of scalloped potatoes and coleslaw. That went with a Victory Donnybrook Stout, which at 3.7% was about as sessiony as you could want. Good eats, but maybe a bit on the heavy side, to be honest, by the time the scalloped spuds were in there.

The pairing idea was that the smoky/burnt character of the dry stout would complement the smoked ham. It should have worked, but...unfortunately, the tapping of the Victory was off. It was too cold and under-carbo/nitrogenated (still adjusting to new tapping arrangements, I'm afraid). Unfortunately, most people didn't get a very good impression of this new Victory beer, which is a damned shame. I'd urge anyone to give it another shot sometime soon.

Dessert was a spicy ginger cake done by John's wife Linda -- and a very nice job, too, with a toothsomely dense cake topped by a sweet glaze that was a reduction of Lagunitas Brown Shugga Ale -- and a dollop of chocolate (beer) sorbet done up by Big Dan himself -- also quite tasty, and who knew that a skinny rail like him was an ice cream fanatic?

The beer? Our big boy of the day, Stegmaier Brewhouse Bock. With the bock at 6.5% and deliciously malty-sweet, well, pairing it with this dessert was pretty much a cruise-control pick that even a sommelier could have figured out. The beer was especially good with the cake's spicy notes.

The dinner went over well, with an enthusiastic crowd by evening's end. Lessons learned? More planning means we can do a printed menu, something folks were asking for. We were also having a more philosophical discussion about the best format for a session beer event, with O'Reilly and Uncle Jack pushing for less of a dinner and more of a...well, a session.

I think they've got a good idea, and I can see several different ways to pull that off. So we're going to try a few of them at the next Session event, something Dan's already calling The Session of Love, a three-day session of session beers, to be held May 24-26, starting with a dinner Thursday night (maybe more in a buffet style), a mini-fest Friday night (with maybe some participatory entertainment), and a straight-up fest atmosphere Saturday, hopefully outside on the patio. The kicker? An ABV limit of 5.5% on all beers served...and Dan says if we can get enough participants, we'll take it down to 5.0%. How's that sound? I want to hear from brewers: if you're interested in participating with one or more appropriate beers, give me a yell!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider

I got an e-mail from a fella back in February, saying he'd seen my writing, and wondered if I'd be interested in trying some very special ciders from New Hampshire: Farnum Hill Ciders. I was, and said that if he sent them, I'd have a taste.

I'm kinda picky about cider. I'm not a big fan of the mass-market stuff; Woodchuck Dark & Dry's okay, and Magner's a decent thirst-quencher, but even they just seem like apple sodas with booze-o in 'em. What I do like is the Norman cidres, like these from Etienne Dupont and Christian Drouin, and the Aspall cyders of the UK, also made in the Norman style. They're dry, almost austere, and don't shy away from the tannins in more bitter varieties of apples. I also like Bellwether Cider, from Trumansburg, NY, but it's really hard to find.

Farnum Hill, as you can see if you take a look at the site, is serious about their cider and apples. So I opened up a bottle of their Semi-Dry and tried it. The interesting cover letter from Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer includes this: "Kindly note that the term "extra dry" on a Farnum, Hill label means literally what it says: genuinely, even radically dry. Similarly, our use of the term "semi-dry" means: not very sweet at all."

Well, they were right. I was expecting a cider that was still fairly sweet, having been rooked by various small Pennsylvania and New Jersey vineyards that make their living off fruity, sweet wines, and throw in a "semi-dry" in an attempt to make you think "semi-dry" doesn't actually mean "mostly sweet" as opposed to their other wines, which would be best described as "mawkishly sweet." I was wrong, should've believed the letter.

The Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider was not up to the best Norman ciders I've had, but it was definitely in the room. It was indeed dry, the apple flavor was not buried in sweet juice (many cider makers use table apples like Red Delicious -- I'm not sure if this is because they're cheaper, or because reading "Red Delicious" on the label increases some consumers' comfort level at making such a radical choice as buying cider...yes, I'm being sarcastic), and the tannin was plainly evident, and welcome in the nicely astringent finish. It reminded me somewhat of a steely-firm gueuze, kind of the tang without the fuzzy edges of funk.

I started out drinking the Semi-Dry with some Prima Donna, which went nicely if not famously. But I wound up finishing the bottle simply standing out on the deck in the cool evening air, satisfied with the stuff head-to-head, just me and the cider. I'd still like more from this cider, more depth, and maybe I'll find that in the Extra Dry.

I'm looking forward to the others; I've got an Extra Dry and and Extra-Dry Still left (I had another, a Farmhouse, but...someone drank it. 'Nuff said). I'll let you know how that goes.

Four New Places

Cathy gives me a pubcrawl for my birthday, and we finally got around to it on Saturday. I wanted to hit some places I'd been hearing about but had not been able to visit yet. We got to all four, and it was a great day...for a while.

First stop was Capone's in Norristown. There's been a huge buzz building about this place, a restaurant along Germantown Pike in northern Norristown. The buzz is right: very impressive beer list! For one thing, there were about five Great Lakes beers on tap, left over from a Great Lakes event earlier in the week. That's devotion: Great Lakes isn't available from wholesalers in eastern PA, so Matt Capone drove out to western PA to get these kegs. My Edmund Fitzgerald Porter was excellent -- as it always is -- and the sample of Blackout Stout was great: big, but very drinkable.

After we finished our lunch (nice cup of chili and a fine, fresh Caesar salad for me) we went back to the bottleshop, and wow, what a selection of bottled Belgians. Cathy picked out one bottle, I picked another (Lost Abbey Red Barn), and then we gave in and got a third for fun. Very nice stop, and Matt Capone was fun to talk to. We'll certainly have to be back.

We drove further out into the country to get to Brother Paul's in Eagleville. This is the old Eagleville Hotel, and from what I've heard, they've put a lot of money into restoring it. The place was classic PA hotel bar, brought up to modern standards: big and relaxed barroom, some smaller dining rooms out front, and a loose crowd enjoying the afternoon. The beer selection was a letdown after Capone's, but Lord, most places would be. As it was, I got a nice glass of Stella Artois, mainly because the glassware looked so cool. Cathy got a Pilsner Urquell, and also got some fancy glassware.

We were surprised to find that the Stella was tasting better than the PU. The big Czech tasted kind of husky, dusty, and astringent, while the Stella was smoothly malty with a well-balanced hoppy character. I did talk to someone the next day at Ortino's who said they'd tasted some odd stuff on Brother Paul's draftlines, but not what I was describing in the PU (and the Stella tasted plenty fresh). Not sure what's up there. Anyway, I'd stop in again if I were passing by.

Next was down to Paoli, where Uncle Jack had recently rapturated about TJ's Everyday. Well, folks, Uncle Jack was right on the money. TJ's, just a joint in a strip plaza by the Paoli train station, was every bit of all right. A real nice beer selection (I had a Caracole Nostradamus that tasted beautifully estery and rich), an excellent bartender (wish I'd gotten her name, she was probably the best we had all day), and comfortable surroundings: TJ's won big on the major counts.

We moved on to our next stop, the Flying Pig in Malvern, only about a mile away. The Flying Pig is a place Bill Covaleski at Victory's been telling me about for years, and I was happy to finally get there. It's not much to look at, a bit rough, but friendly and unassuming. I can't complain about the beer at all. I started with a big pint of Russian River Pliny The Younger which was just rippingly hoppy and tasty and wow and such...and that's when things started to unwind. The alcohol was catching up with me.

Someone else caught up with me about this time: Bryan Kolesar, of the Brew Lounge blog. You may have seen his name wrapped up with an apparent death threat on Uncle Jack's page, so I welcomed him and the two female assassins with him to our table, figured we'd hash things out, or at least make an offer to outbid Jack on the contract. All went well, except for the Lenny's RIPA (dashingly hopped and crisp with the rye), Saranac Imperial IPA (yes, very big, but with a distinctively British cant to the hops, the first IIPA I've had with that earthy/nutty thing going, and I liked it), North Coast Old Stock (2004, I think, and beautiful with it), and...well, Bryan says there was a bottle of Allagash 11th Anniversary involved. My uncertainty about whether or not he was right should tell you about my condition.

Folks, I had too much to drink. I apologize to anyone I may have offended, most sincerely. All I can say in my defense is that I did have a driver (Cathy had gone to club soda after Brother Paul's). I just wish we hadn't gone on to stop in at my good friend Matt Guyer's Beer Yard, because now Matt has plenty of gossip to tell Uncle Jack. On the other hand, the case of Tupper's Keller Pils we bought should go a long way towards making me feel better.

Not that I felt that bad, physically. I drank a bunch of water, hit the sack, got up the next morning, and sang 10:30 mass. In good voice, too. And then went out and did our first Seasonal Session at Ortino's Northside...but we'll talk about that somewhere else. Later.

Todd Ashman: Not done with big beers!

Folks, I've got to make a retraction here, or at least a clarification. There's a piece of mine on session beers up on the BeverAge site this month in which I quote Todd Ashman, the legendary brewer who made Flossmoor Station, a south Chicagoland brewpub, a destination for beerlovers, with beers like "Trainwreck o' Flavors."

I talked to Todd extensively for my piece in the recent BeerAdvocate magazine 'extreme beer' issue, and, well, I evidently got an impression from him that was not quite accurate. I used material from that interview in the BeverAge piece (not recycled; I always have way too much stuff to use, and the BeerAdvocate extreme beer interviews produced tons more good material than I was able to use). Here's what I wrote in BeverAge:

Todd Ashman made a name for himself in the late 199Os at Flossmoor Station, a south Chicago brewpub. Ashman was one of the pioneers of barrel-aged beers, brews with huge flavor profiles derived from a varied program of wood-aging. I talked to him recently; he's getting ready to open 5O/5O Brewing in Truckee, California, where he'll be brewing mostly session-strength lagers. "I enjoyed doing that kind of stuff," he told me, "but when I left Flossmoor Station, I got a fair amount of it out of my system."

Some of the reason big beers are out of Ashman's system is that it's just not as much fun now. "It became more mainstream," he admitted. "People are buying them and drinking them, and if it's accepted, well, you're not really pushing the envelope so you've got to go on to something else. These [extreme brewers] are trying to find the next great thing. The doubling and 'imperializing,' the super-sizing of beers: something's going to catch on, but I've found that we're losing focus on what we're trying to do here."

Todd e-mailed me last week, concerned about this piece, and rightly so. Maybe he'd over-stated how much session-strength stuff he was doing at 50/50, and maybe I was hearing what I wanted to hear for the story I was doing, but Todd's message was clear: "I don't recall saying that I'd abandon brewing big beers, though I would start to brew more session style beers. Kellerbier, Zwickel, Landbier in particular."

I was shocked, and immediately scrambled back to my notes. First thing I checked was the two paragraphs above, what I'd actually written. I did overstate the brewing regimen of 50/50: Todd wants to work in more of those session-strength lagers, but said it would be mostly ales. My mistake, and I do apologize. The "abandon brewing big beers" concern is more open to interpretation; I probably could have phrased that better.

Like I said, could be me, could have been him, but I'd like to clear up any possible misunderstanding: Todd Ashman has not hung up his big beer-making boots. And wherever you fall on the session v. extreme question, I think you've got to be glad about that. Cheers, Todd: sorry to have concerned you, glad we could work it out.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Proud Dad

My daughter Nora made the local paper today. She was one of one hundred Pennsylvania students who advanced to the state finals of the Reader's Digest Word Power competition. She didn't win, but we were very proud of her; this is the second time she's made it to the state finals. Her older brother Thomas made it twice also. As a writer, I'm naturally pretty tickled by this. So... I blogged it.

Competition worth a thousand words ( Courier Times

Rex! Speak! Good boy.

Got an e-mail from Michael Naessens, self-styled "King of Philadelphia Craft Beer." Seems he's laboring under some misapprehensions about what a blog is, even though he writes one himself at myspace (no, I'm not going to link to it; Google it, like I did):
" should have contacted me first to explain if you took issue by the way. I believe as a reporter that is proper technique, but we all make mistakes, the important thing is craft beer thrives."

See, Michael, I'm not reporting. It's a blog. I'm making comments on what I see around me, what I hear, what I taste. If I wanted to get your spin on it, I would have contacted you. But the whole idea of a blog is to put out my spin on things.

Michael's interesting spin on things is that "King of Philadelphia Craft Beer" actually means something more like "champion," as in someone who champions craft beer in Philadelphia. You know...if he'd said that, I would have found it much less ludicrous, so much so that I probably wouldn't have written anything. But..."king?"

Still, he did say further along that he would "not respond ever again to negative actions with a negative response, no matter what happens." So we've got that to look forward to.

Which is actually a pretty great thing, if he's serious. Because Eulogy is a cool place, and has a lot of very good beer that Naessens has introduced to a whole new crowd of drinkers, not "the usual suspects." I think Beneluxx Broad Axe will probably be pretty neat, too. And if Naessens could just take that coolness, and neatness, and thriving business, and be happy with it, the craft beer scene in Philadelphia would be better off for it. We don't need the constant snarky comparisons with Monk's. Get on with your business, make with the coolness, serve good beer and enjoy life.

Michael, if you're reading (and now I know you are...), that's called praise. Here's more, from my January "Best of 2006" Buzz on my website:
Most surprising Philly area bar I was in this year: Eulogy. After giving Eulogy the shit for years -- and from my experiences, they deserved it -- I had a great time there this year, on three different occasions. Good beer selection, reasonable prices, great service, and yes, excellent frites. Impressive. With Triumph opening across the street in early spring, and a local constellation of beer spots that includes the Khyber, Brownie's, Race Street Cafe, City Tavern, and the Society Hill might even be worth parking in Old City. Cheers, Michael!

Like the man said: the important thing is craft beer thrives. At every establishment.

Bud Select on Life Support?

Miller Brewing has a "blog", called Brew Blog, that carries industry news. Not surprisingly, the news is often bad news for Anheuser-Busch and good news for Miller, but as I explained elsewhere, that's what a blog is about: the blogger's thoughts and opinions. Besides, Brew Blog just reports stories that are found elsewhere.

For instance, they reported a story in Advertising Age that questioned the continued health of Bud Select, a brand that has puzzled me since its release. Is it a light beer? Say so. Is it a Bud Ultra? Say so. Is it a shot at an upscale light beer? Price it so, because Bud Select runs about the same price as Bud and Bud what's the point?

Here's the Blog:

Advertising Age noted that the [Bud Select] brand has declined at a double-digit rate in supermarkets so far this year, following 2006 performance in which sales fell by 7.6 percent. This is posing a major challenge for A-B, which has invested $170 million in marketing – and the name of its flagship – in the brand.

Bud Select was a topic at A-B’s recent wholesaler meeting. From the Ad Age report: "A-B … [drew] parallels between the early struggles of Select and Bud Light (now the largest beer brand in the world) and vowing to keep media spending constant with the past two years. They did acknowledge, however, that the brand's marketing has fallen prey to the same vague positioning that felled past brand extensions Bud Dry and Bud Ice, a pitfall A-B execs earlier vowed to avoid."

Looks like they broke their vows. And parallels with Bud Light? Bud Light has been a huge success, but let's be honest. Bud Light was also a "me too" knock-off of a beer that jump-started a category and was a huge success: Miller Lite. Bud Select is building on the success of what? Anyone? Corona Light, Amstel Light, even Sam Adams Light, are all -- like Bud Light -- light versions of a strong "regular calorie" beer. What's Bud Select? I've never really gotten a good answer that makes sense to me on that one.

It almost seems that Bud Select is A-B's Miller Clear: the triumph of marketing hubris over common sense. How long will they push this cart before admitting that the horse is dead?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sadness: Smuttynose's Old Brown Dog Dies

I just learned that Olive, the "Old Brown Dog" of Smuttynose Brewing's brown ale fame, died last week at the age of 16. My sympathies to those at the brewery.

Friday, March 16, 2007

"What the Hell is Scratch Beer?"

"What the Hell is Scratch Beer?" is the provocative teaser in the latest Tröegs Tales, the Harrisburg craft brewer's e-letter. "We can’t tell you yet, but it is part of our 10th Anniversary Celebration and you will be able to experience it exclusively at Tröegs Brewery."

No more least not official ones. But I heard around the backdoor of the brewery from a wholly unreliable source that the Scratch Beers will be a series of very small one-off batches, based on recipes from ten years ago, beer ideas that John & Chris had before the brewery opened, but didn't quite make the cut for those first beers. Now's their chance. They will be bottle-only, and only available in the brewery giftshop; there won't even be enough made to put out in normal channels.

Of course, that's just what I heard... If you want the solid facts, as soon as they come out, with a list of the actual beers (which should be released all through the summer...I hear), you oughta subscribe to Tröegs Tales: the full story comes out next month.


Got an e-mail from Tom Pastorius out at the Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh. Tom's an old friend, and I am a solid fan of his beers, loved them for years. Tom was yanking my chain (and sounding like he was channelling Dan Bengel):

I know, you writers love the new stuff, very strong and very bitter. It gives you something new to write about. But we make smooth, drinkable beer. Beer that you can drink a lot of. And that is lager beer.

So you want something new from us to write about? We’re not just the same old, same old. We make new beers too sometimes, but German style of course. I’ve heard it rumored that Penn Brewery is putting out a Mayday alert. Something went crazy in the brewhouse (must have been one of those new brewers) and a super beer emerged. It has put our whole company in a state of pandemonium.

We don’t know what to do. A strong beer from Penn Brewery??

Hell, let’s just go with it. We’ll call it Penndemonium, to be introduced on Mayday in draft and 22 oz. bottles. (This is our first 22 oz. product, We put in a new filler.) You can try it here at the Penn Brewery Restaurant on May 1st or come to the Pennsylvania Microbrewers Fest on June 2nd and try it.

You know...the whole Extreme Beer Massacree Feenomuhnon might have been worth it, just to get a "super beer" from Penn Brewing. I gotta try this stuff.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Philadelphia Weekly is boarding the beer train

There's a piece by Kirsten Henri in the new Philadelphia Weekly that recognizes that Philadelphia is never going to be a great wine town as long as the LCB cripples restaurants' and consumers' choice and purchasing options.

For all the good that came from the stewardship of former chairman Jonathan Newman (the darling of the cork-dork set for both his Chairman’s Select program and his redesign of state stores), the PLCB remains a state monopoly that, based on my experiences buying wine, doesn’t make customer service or salesmanship a priority.

Thank you, Kirsten. It wouldn't have hurt to point out that Newman did next to nothing for the Commonwealth's beer drinkers, or that the same complaints that apply to wine apply to spirits, but I'll take this, and smile.

She then gives us the obvious corollary: "Let's embrace local craft beer instead."

Now...I could be bitchy, and pillory Henri and PW for taking so long to come to the dance. That would be the easy, ranty thing to do.

But it's pointless, and geeky. My only complaint is that you won't see this kind of honesty in the Inky, where they're still in love with wine, and the only beers that ever get serious attention (outside of the Business pages, which do a pretty good job on local brewers) are big-bottle Belgians.

Seeing this kind of piece written by someone who's not in The Tribe Of Beerwriters does my heart good, even though I have to admit that I'd rather have been paid to write it myself. A small thing, though, and overall, this is great to see. I hope Henri doesn't just let it drop, but carries on with it.

After all, as the caption of the shot of three craft taps says: "The time for pretending that wine is as subtle or as sophisticated as beer is over." Wow. What craft beer mole at PW wrote that, eh?!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Beer list for the first Bryson Session at Ortino's

We have the beer list for the first "Bryson Session" at Ortino's Northside (March 25th). These tend toward the higher end of session, but they're all under 5.5% except the last one, the "stinger," as we've been calling it.

Anchor Bock
Zum Uerige Classic Alt
Penn Marzen
Victory Donnybrook Stout
Troegs Sunshine Pils
And the stinger: Stegmaier Brewhouse Bock

Four Pennsylvania beers: not bad, eh? Dan promises food with each beer, but the main chunk is an open face sandwich of ham smoked in Ortino's own smoker out back (I'm gonna see if they can smoke some of my home-made sausage, too).

When it Rains, it Pours

Nice boosts for STAG today. First there was this,

A nice write-up of the Session Beer Project and STAG in Eric Asimov's "The Pour" blog at the New York Times. He likes session beer too.

Then there was this:

An enthusiastic endorsement of Philadelphia Beer Week from Philadelphia Weekly's "Philadelphia Will Do" blog, even though they apparently didn't read the whole thing and missed the fact that PBW wasn't all my idea at all. I stand on the shoulders of...a bunch of shaky drunks, I guess.

And..."the Norman Mailer of beer writing, Lew Bryson"? I'm really not sure how to take that. I've been called the Studs Terkel of beer writing before. Why doesn't anyone ever call me the Robert Penn Warren of beer writing? Or call someone else the Lew Bryson of wine writing?

Er...for other than the obvious reasons...

"Aren't you the guy who wrote that piece about extreme beers being boring?"

Just got off the phone with Jason Ebel, one of the two brothers at Two Brothers Brewing (Warrenville, IL, if you get a chance, drink it, great beers). And we're talking, we've talked before, and I say, so, you had a pretty good year last year. Do you do any extreme beers, are they a sideline, or a cornerstone?

Jason laughs, and says, "Aren't you the guy who wrote that piece about extreme beers being boring?"

Ah, yeah, that was me...

"Probably the biggest help to our brand was extreme beers," he said. "We launched a line of 22 oz. bombers of big beers. Not only were they wildly popular, they hyped awareness of all our other beers. People tried the big beers, said wow, and wanted to try the six-pack beers, and suddenly didn't mind paying 8 or 9 bucks for the six-pack."

Really? Well, good for you! Always glad to hear about a brewer doing well...guess there might be something to Sam C's theory about extreme beer driving session beer sales. Takes all kinds.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Penderyn Puppy

My dog's famous. Well...a little famous. Kind of. But he sure as hell is cute.

Penderyn Distillery - The Penderyn Puppy

After naming him for the whisky, I had to let them know at the distillery. And I do love sending pictures of him. And the whisky is, by the way, pretty damned good stuff.

Want a biscuit?

King of the Philadelphia Craft Beer Scene

Did you read that title? Let me say it again:

"King of the Philadelphia Craft Beer Scene"

Seems like it should be someone pretty significant. Probably someone who has the admiration of their peers. Got any guesses?

Well, it's evidently Michael Naessens, owner of Eulogy Belgian Tavern. That's what a Eulogy ad in a City Paper ad insert for the recent Philadelphia Craft Beer Festival says. "Michael Naessens may only be a Belgian Knight or [sic] the Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs in Belgium, BUT he is the King of the Philadelphia Craft Beer Scene." No kidding.

I like Eulogy. It's a nice place, and I got great service and beer the last couple of times I was there. I recommend it to friends headed for Old City, and likely will continue to do so.

But "King of Philadelphia Craft Beer Scene"? In a city like this, full of excellent bars with great beer selections and microbreweries with delicious fresh local favorites...I don't think there can be one king. It might be well for Naessens to recall that Philly is where Americans decided that they had no use for a king...and where Tom Paine argued that monarchy was a fraud.

Eulogy might be better served by less grandiloquent claims. But given that the same ad claims that Naessens himself, clad "in a knight's outfit," appears in a photo of what is obviously a desk ornament-sized suit of armor on a wooden base...that doesn't seem likely.

Triumph Philly: a pre-opening visit

I stopped in the Triumph site on Chestnut Street last night on my way to the Michael Jackson dinner at Monk's Cafe; Jay Misson told me to drop by and see the place. I found free on-street parking on 2nd St. -- Hooray for Sunday! -- and walked on up to the unlocked door. Plenty of construction clutter, and a stairwell full of scaffolding...

"Jay!" I bellowed, "It's Lew Bryson!"

"Come on up," said a voice from overhead, "we're drunk!"

Jay was exaggerating, but they -- himself, two particularly motivated staffers (top pic, flanked by the two staffers), and brewer Patrick Jones (that's him in the picture below, in front of the brewery) -- were drinking, the lucky boogers: Bengal IPA, Oatmeal Stout, and Kellerbier (the beer must have come in from New Hope: brewing at the Center City site is still waiting on gov't approval). Jay fixed me up with a delish IPA right away, and we took a look around.

If you've seen the other two Triumphs in Princeton and New Hope, there's a definite similarity...but there's a definite difference, too. Triumph Center City is more industrial/tech look, but with the familiar vertical spaces and curves. I think the upstairs lounge is going to be my pick, assuming it's not stuffed with hipsters.

He took me down and showed me the draught system: wow. Extremely flexible and advanced, allowing for quick keg-off when the tanks get low. There's a couple spaces in the back bar for casks to go on dispense (lager and ale, I strongly suspect), and a finely designed malt handling system. Lots of thought went into this place.

Jay's still saying end of the month for a soft opening. I asked him how he was handling the pressure of opening across Chestnut St. from the self-proclaimed "King" of Philadelphia craft beer (see above). He didn't seem to be overly concerned.

Now...I did hear a rumor at the Monk's dinner that Triumph is already looking at another site closer to Center City Philly, three or four blocks east of Monk's. Interesting...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Philly Beer Week 2008

I promised you the unveiling of a huge Philly beer event today, and here it is:

Philly Beer Week® 2008

Imagine beer events taking over this city -- this entire area -- for an entire week (a 10 day week at that) next year -- tentatively scheduled for March 7th through the 16th.

We kick things off with a Friday night "simul-tap" across southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, with the mayor of Philadelphia (assuming the new mayor of Philadelphia isn't a teetotaler like John Street) tapping a symbolic firkin in the courtyard in City Hall as breweries in Harrisburg, Princeton, Allentown, Easton, Wilmington, Lancaster, and across the five-county area all tap up at the same time.

The first weekend is anchored by the familiar Michael Jackson dinner and mass tasting at the University of Pennsylvania Museum on Saturday, and a big real ale festival on Sunday. I'll also be running the annual Golden Age of Philly Beer pub crawl tour with Rich Pawlak on Saturday.

Through the week we'll have five to ten events a night. We're thinking about a Belgian trolley night, with a trolley running a circuit among Philly's best Belgian beer selections, and a craft trolley night, the same thing for American micro taps. There'll be beer dinners, tastings, and "meet and greets" where you can meet brewers from across the area, the country, and the world. Guest brewers will be brewing in local breweries a month before to release special beers during the Week, more will brew during the Week in brewery open houses. We hope to have sponsorship connections with mass transit to make getting around easier and safer.

Then the final weekend will feature the return of this year's Philly Craft Beer Festival on Saturday [Update: unfortunately, the timing is not working out on this at this point. The Philly Craft Beer Festival will be on March 1. We'll see what else we can swing. -- Lew], and Pawlak and the vans and I will head west for the Great Western Suburbs Beer Hunt, a swing through Chester and Montgomery County brewpubs and bars we've been longing to do. We're hoping to line up one more big beer event on Sunday, and yes, that's actually ten days, not a week.

This is going to be big, folks. Events all week, all over the area. We want to tie in places as far away as the Lehigh Valley, the Brandywine Valley, Rehoboth Beach, and all points in between. You'll have so many options you will not be able to get to them all. You'll cry for joy.

This is not just me (and a good thing, too). This is conceived and backed by a combination of people who've been making beer happen in this area for years. Tom Peters of Monk's Cafe. Bruce Nichols of UPenn Museum Catering. Curt Decker of Nodding Head. George Hummel of Home Sweet Homebrew. Mark Edelson of Iron Hill. Chris Depepe of the Philly Craft Beer Festival. Tom Kehoe of Yards. Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell. Matt Guyer of the Beer Yard. Gene Muller of Flying Fish. Bill Covaleski of Victory. Carol & Ed Stoudt. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head.

We'll have a website up soon. With people like this behind it, I guarantee you: it may not go off exactly like I've just laid it out -- one or two events may change -- but something big and long and beery and beautiful is going to happen in Philadelphia next year. Count on it.

Philly Beer Week® Mission Statement

The mission of Philly Beer Week® is:

► To create a nationally unique 10 day event drawing attention to our region’s vibrant beer culture and craft brewing accomplishments.

► To provide a late winter Philadelphia tourism opportunity in March, focused on hotel, restaurant, brewery, tour, and event bookings from guests eager to enjoy regional and international craft beers.

► To draw attention to the variety of outstanding combinations of beer and food offered today in the Delaware Valley.

► To honor the accomplishments of regional craft brewers and others who have contributed to craft brewing.

► To promote knowledge of beer and beer history through electronic media and the written word.

► To encourage the appreciation of locally brewed and international craft beers—in other words, to enjoy beer!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Another Teaser

On the eve of revealing what the big Teaser is, here's another one for a smaller event, one I'm involved in more directly. The Bryson Sessions at Ortino's Northside, just announced four days ago, are already half sold-out, and that success has led to an expanded event. All I can say for now, but I'll have more for you shortly.

In the meantime...don't make plans for Memorial Day weekend.

SBP: Are session beers the LCD?

Are session beers the Lowest Common Denominator? Can they only aspire to quench thirst? Are they the Norman Rockwell to extreme beer's Jackson Pollock, just "illustration" compared to "avant-garde art," unable to "generate excitement, spawn creativity or lead us to new ground"?

Don Russell defends "extreme beers" in his Joe Sixpack column today with just this phrasing. I suppose I should be mildly honored; the column was apparently inspired by my recent BeerAdvocate magazine article "Extremely Boring?" (not my suggested title, BTW), which was a little 1500-word contrarian counter-weight to an entire issue that fawned over extreme beers and their brewers. It must have been one hell of an article: folks like Tomme Arthur and Sam Calagione were scrambling to refute it before it even came out, before they'd even read it.

Don at least got the point of that piece: that extreme beers get all the attention of press and geek, that the session beers that most breweries are making -- and making well -- are getting the back of their hand. Even Stan Hieronymus (and to say "Even Stan" does him a serious disservice, but let it stand for now) recently noted the ridiculous dissonance: "The 25th highest-rated Imperial/Double IPA at gets a 3.96. The top-rated Dortmunder/Helles gets a 3.71." 'Nuff said.

But Don then exaggerated something I gave him as a requested comment. I am quoted in his column:

"You can hide crappy brewing with a ton of hops or a barrel of malt," Bryson explained in an e-mail. Though he said he enjoys well-made extreme beers, [emphasis added] he added, "I also don't think most of them are that innovative. They're just big. That's what I find boring."

And so Don said, "Bryson calls extreme beer "boring.""

I thought it was pretty clear that I was saying that I found beer after beer that just "goes to 11" boring. That's what I said before here, and I would respectfully request that you go read that Buzz from my site, "Just Because You Can...", if you haven't already. I'll wait...

Okay? If you couldn't be bothered to read it, I understand: I've got a busy day ahead, too. So here's the nut:

This is what passes for much of the vaunted "innovation" in American brewing: turning up the volume.... Sorry, that’s not innovation. It’s about as creative as making a burrito with twice the stuff. Sure, you have to use a bigger tortilla, maybe even make them yourself to get them big enough, and you have to put in more spices to balance the additional beans and beef, but…putting more beans in a burrito doesn’t make it something else. It’s just a bigger burrito.

And that's what I find boring. You've got a new beer with a whole lotta hops and massive amounts of malt? That's nice, pal, but it's been done. Don't expect any more attention than, say...another brown ale would get. You put nuoc mam in your beer? That's interesting, but does it work with the beer to make something good to drink? Or is it just a weird ingredient?

I do not find truly innovative extreme beers boring. I loved Tomme Arthur's Lost Abbey beers at a recent Monk's dinner. I thought Sam's Red & White and Black & Blue beers were damned good. I'll even go along with the premise that some beers are coming out today and just getting a nod and a smile that would have been labeled "extreme" three years ago. The envelope's been pushed, no question.

But I don't go along with Sam Calagione's argument that beers we consider session beers today were once extreme beers. Don apparently does. "Twenty years ago, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was extreme beer" he says in today's column.

As it happens, I had my first SNPA just 5 months shy of 20 years ago, in Tahoe City, Nevada. I remember the day clearly, a great day spent with a lifelong best friend, my son's namesake and godfather. I remember it more for the rollicking powerboat and jetski rides on Lake Tahoe (and a warmly welcome dram of Glenlivet afterward) than for the Sierra Nevada. But the beer was great with my lunch, it was fresh and cool, and it quenched my thirst. Pretty sessiony stuff.

As I said, I remember the day clearly. The lake rippling in the breeze like a constantly cracking mirror, flashing bright points of sunlight in a dizzying pattern of chaos. The clouds towering over the mountains that rimmed the valley, tumbling over themselves in billowy hummocks. The crisp scent of the circling pine forest, the crunch of the hot sandy soil underfoot, the chatter of the roadside stream. Most of all, I remember the high-altitude blue sky, pure and clear and amazingly cerulean, sky as sky ought to be.

Session beer, Norman Rockwell? Maybe, which wouldn't even be that bad. If Norman Rockwell was "just an illustrator," the very best beer writer alive should be so creative.

But thinking back on that day in Tahoe, thinking back on that beautifully drinkable -- even then! -- pale ale, I think session beer's more like Maxfield Parrish. Incredibly beautiful and technically accomplished art, with subtleties that mere illustrators can't touch, and wholly, completely, accessible to both the casual observer and the educated critic.

Is extreme beer the avant-garde of brewing, as Don posits? Sure, no question. Is it open to misunderstanding, to ridicule, just as modern art and music has been? You bet, and that can be just as ill-considered.

But here's the thing. It's not about the extreme part: it's about the beer.

As any art historian can tell you, Picasso was a skilled painter before he ever put both eyes on the same side of a nose. It's easy to slap paint randomly on a canvas, to torch random bits out of a piece of steel, and call it art. It's easy to stuff a bunch of hops and malts into a kettle and call it extreme. But if you screw up your hydration, or get sloppy with your fermentation regimen, more hops don't mean a thing.

I'll say it again, and again, and again: well-made extreme beers are great to drink. I enjoy them, I'll continue to enjoy them, and I don't find them at all boring. But a poorly brewed or constructed extreme beer is worse than boring, it's not good beer. And even a well-made copycat, me-too extreme beer, an extreme beer that adds nothing to the discussion, is nothing more than a local brewery's line extension, a recognition that you can get some business by making something like that beer from Colorado/California/Delaware that's been selling so well at the local bar.

Kind of like making something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Yuengling Lager. So are you an artist? Or an illustrator? There are only so many artists. I have no difficulty believing that there are artists making session beers, lavishing love and genius on them, and making them the very best beers they can make, every day. That's exciting to me.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Triumph Philly -- update

Talking to a lot of brewers today... Just got off the phone with Jay Misson, head brewing fella at Triumph. The story on their soon-to-open Philadelphia location on Chestnut St. in Old City: they're waiting on a certificate of occupancy from the city, inspections and that, and they're open. Look for that in late March, early April; better date when I get it. Grand opening is --right now -- scheduled for April 30.

Beers that will be on: Honey Wheat Amber, Bengal Gold IPA. Kellerbier (pils-style, deep gold) Dunkel, Oatmeal Stout, Chico Ale, Porter, Love Potion Belgian Tripel.

"There's parking all around us," Jay said, to quell my suburban driver fears.

How's it look? Well, I hope to get a peek this weekend, but meantime Jay said it's hip, industrial in spots (I thought the other two Triumphs were, too...), and sectioned into smaller areas.

Some cool news for glassware freaks like me: Jay's got a new glass coming from Rastal that actually looks like the glass in the Triumph logo. Hrrmph! About time!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Meet me in Erie: another event plug

I'll be hosting the Erie Micro Brew Fest on April 20 and 21, at the BrewErie at Union Station brewpub in Erie, PA. This is a great chance to sample beers from some of the new breweries in western PA (see below). I'm hosting a beer dinner Friday night and speaking (and signing books) at the two fest sessions the next day. Stop by to say hello and have a beer. The brewpub is a huge place, by the way...plenty of room for a fest!

Current brewers attending:
The Brewerie at Union Station
Church Brew Works
East End Brewing Co.
Ellicottville Brewing Co.
Magic Hat Brewing
The Erie Brewing Co.
Flying Bison Brewing Company
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Hereford & Hops
North Country Brewing Co.
Pearl Street Grill & Brewery
Pennsylvania Brewery
Red Star Brewery & Grille
Southern Tier Brewing Co.
Sprague Farm & Brew Works
Voodoo Brewing Co., LLC
The Buffalo Brew Pub
Put-in-Bay Brewing Company

Union Barrel Works: quick update -- UPDATED

Just talked to Tom Rupp for about a minute: He's got ATTTB approval for Union Barrel Works. "I'm cleaning [cleaning tanks, I assume]. I got BATF approval to move some beer, so I'm making more," he said. Ah, good. Because I'd hate for him to run out...

3/8 -- Just talked to Tom again. He's got all his state and federal approvals. He's got to do some work on his sprinkler system ("It's a meter, because if we have a fire, they want to get paid for their water," Rupp groused, "but they've already metered it when it goes in the tank!"), then get his township code inspections, and he'll be ready to go. The cold-conditioned beers -- Mindblock Maibock, Wobbly Bob Doublebock, Kölsch, and Lager -- are all ready, he's brewing Pale Ale and Honey Nut Oatmeal Stout this weekend. "If I get good news tomorrow, I'll be ready to..." Tom said, and then paused. "Well, I can't legally open for business till I get the pass on the inspections. But I'll be here on St. Patrick's Day, and we'll have a little celebration." Sounds like we're going to get another brewpub in Lancaster County pretty soon.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A-B continues to test the waters...of life

Just got this from Brew Blog, a beer news blog put out by Miller Brewing. Anyone ever had Soju? Is it significantly different from vodka?

A-B Distributing Korean Liquor

Anheuser-Busch last year started distributing Ku Soju, a Korean liquor, in seven test markets, according to the company’s annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The spirit is marketed by California-based Ku Soju Inc.
A-B -- which has expressed concern about beer’s declining share of the alcohol beverage category -- has been dabbling in the spirits space for some time now. It has been testing a liqueur called Jekyll & Hyde, which is now available in 56 test markets.
The distribution deal with Ku Soju appears to be another move.
In a sign of A-B’s push into nonalcohol beverages, the SEC filing noted that A-B is distributing Icelandic Glacial Spring Water (owned by Icelandic Water Holdings) in 16 test markets.
To learn more about soju, a vodka-like spirit, check out this wikipedia definition.

SBP #1 Re-visited: Irish Pub Stout

I'm late with this, but I hope no one minds. The Victory Stout I wrote about earlier has been released as it was meant to be: Irish Pub Stout, the new house beer of Philly's Irish Pub. It went on tap March 1st, and yes, there will be plenty for St. Patrick's Day...if you're so inclined.

Myself, as a drinking pro? I'm going to do the same thing on St. Pat's that I do on New Year's Eve and Mardi Gras: stay home and let you amateurs have fun!

Finally: Whiskey

Just a heads-up: I'm finally bringing some whiskey commentary here, as promised. Next week I'm going to have a chat with Bushmills master distiller Colum Egan when he visits Philly as part of the run-up to St. Pat's. Bushmills was recently bought by Diageo, and the drinks giant appears to be putting some serious money and muscle behind the whiskey -- er, whiskeys. I'm going to ask him about that, and the real differences between Irish and Scotch whisk(e)y, and what he's got coming down the pipeline.

If there's anything you'd like to know about Bushmills or Irish whiskey, leave a comment, and I'll ask him if I get a chance.

Drinking Age debate on Rethinking Drinking

There's a YouTube link up on Rethinking Drinking, the blog for Choose, the new research group that is encouraging public debate on lowering the legal drinking age to 18. Group founder John McCardell and a MADD representative appeared on FoxNews on Feb. 18 to "debate" McCardell's proposal to lower the LDA to 18, in conjunction with a safe drinking education program. Here's the link:

Rethinking Drinking: Drinking Age debate

The video's not exactly electrifying, but it does get the basic stand of both parties out there. McCardell believes -- as do I -- that the 21 LDA drives drinking underground into unsafe, unsupervised territory, and abridges the rights of adults. MADD believes that the 21 LDA has saved over 20,000 lives in 22 years, and quotes "hundereds" of studies to back that up. They also characterize McCardell's proposal as a dangerous gamble with the lives of America's youth.

The debate was too short for any give and take at all; just state initial positions, then a closing statement. McCardell out-pointed the MADD rep -- he'd better have, as a former college president against a 19-year-old -- but didn't get the chance to rip open the soft underbelly of those hundreds of studies, which suffer from a severe lack of cause and effect. I had to giggle when the MADD boy urged us to use science to settle the debate: these folks have their tame research groups -- PIRE, CSPI, CAMY, and a handful of heavily-infiltrated governmental agencies -- but the tide is starting to turn, and McCardell's group is just the latest example. Most anti-alcohol science is crap science; not all, by any means, but most, in the opinion of the few scientists I've shown it to.

The thing is...I do agree with the MADD boy to a degree. This is a gamble with the lives of America's youth. We don't know what will happen if we lower the LDA to 18, not really. My gut feeling is that alcohol-related deaths in the 18-21 cohort will go up, although my gut also says that they'll go down in the 12-17 and 22-30 cohorts. That's the gamble: will we lose more or less?

Face the fact: alcohol is dangerous. You can easily drink too much, which will temporarily impair and change you in ways that can lead to bad decisions, sometimes tragically bad. There is a learning curve associated with the stuff, and we've all stumbled over it.

Which is why McCardell's proposal is something more than just moving the age around. If there's a learning curve, let's flatten it somewhat. That's what McCardell's "drinking license" idea is about. It's a funny sounding idea -- and his group acknowledges that right up-front, by linking to another YouTube video in the same blog post, a pair of stereotyped Southerners yukking it up over the very idea. But at least it's funny and smart, not callous and horrifyingly stupid, like telling kids nothing about alcohol and then pushing them out of the nest at 21 to fall or fly all on their own.

What McCardell and Choose Responsibility is really calling for is open debate. Honest debate. Factual debate. Is that so scary? Bring on the debate, and if one side resorts to emotion and hysteria, call them on it.

Monday, March 5, 2007

SBP: Join Me March 25th for the First "Bryson Sessions"

Talking up session beers has generated some interest in these wonderful drinks, and now we've got some solid action. Ortino's Northside has invited me to host a session beer tasting/dinner on Sunday, March 25th. We've got a great line-up of session beers for you (plus a not-so session beer at the end just to nail things down), some session-type food, and plenty of my entertaining thoughts on beer, or "goat blather," as my dad likes to call it (I know, Sir, but I can't print what you really call it: the grandkids look at the site). I'll have that beerlist for you as soon as we get availability on a couple of them nailed down.

Before I forget: you can make your reservations by calling Ortino's at (610)287-7272. (They're located at 1355 Gravel Pike (Rte 29), Zieglerville, PA.)

This event also marks the graduation of Jack Curtin Posse Member Dan "The Big One" Bengel to event organizer: congratulations, Dan, and welcome to the Job That Never Ends. Here's how The Big One described The Bryson Sessions (yes, we have tentatively planned to have one each come out and support us!):

Did you finally wake up this morning at work, with your head buried in a cup of coffee, and your head and liver screaming no mas? If so, you may have a condition known as "extremebeerism." I know, I have it too. Here at Northside we are running a new program four times a year to help you with this problem. For $40 you can enter the Bryson Sessions, a seasonal look at session beers run by Dr. Lew Bryson.

Though Dr. Bryson is not a medical doctor by trade, he is, however, a beerotologist. He can help you get over that feeling of needing that quadruple IPA, aged and fresh hopped in a whiskey barrel, for your first several beers of every night. Instead, you can have several session beers, and have a conversation, and EVEN REMEMBER IT! So save Sunday, March 25 at 5 p.m. on your calendar and get the help you really need. (Extreme beer will be served after the event to help the weaning process.)

If you'd like to come out to Zieglerville and join the fun, it's not far from the Collegeville exit of Rt. 422 or the Quakertown exit of PA 476 (the Northeast Extension). If you haven't been to Ortino's yet, this will be a great intro to this surprising rural beer bar and restaurant.

I hope to see you there!

Adding Ads

Folks, I've added Google's AdSense to the site. It's a trial thing for me. If it makes some money, great. If it doesn't make enough, I'll take them down.

Remember, I'm in this for a living!

WAIT! I changed my mind. Google apparently lumps alcohol in with drugs, firearms, and porno (are they a government agency already?), and I'm not allowed to put AdSense up on a site that "promotes" booze. See ya, Google Ads! I don't care if I'm "legal" or not, I don't like their attitude.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Session: The Three Faces of Stout

I took the challenge of The Session, to blog about stouts today. We were supposed to do this any way we wanted, so I figured I'd go to three different breweries for three different stouts. I do that a lot, traveling to breweries.

The first stop was Rock Bottom in King of Prussia, Penn., where Brian McConnell had a Mad Cow Milk Stout on. He had it on two ways, actually: nitro tap, and cask, which made me wonder about why it is that The Geekerie loves nitro-tap stouts and shuns other beers, like IPA, on nitro. You'd think that stout was designated by God Almighty as The One True Nitro Beer, but I've had very good nitro dispense of hoppy pale ales. "It just accentuates the malt," Brian agreed, "it's just another way to serve a beer." Funny, but there you are. I had the cask (that's Shawn the bartender pulling the booger), and Brian gave me a sample of the push stout: two very different jars. Neither one sickly sweet, as you might expect from a milk stout, but rather medium-rich, dryly sweet, and damned drinkable. Bill Moore of Lancaster Brewing was also there, it was a pleasant session and we gossiped a bit, but then I had to push on.
Next stop was Sly Fox Phoenixville, where I met up with Jack Curtin. Jack had decided to pass on The Session, he thought the whole idea was "kinda hinky." I told him the last time I'd heard anyone use that word was in The Fugitive, and that characters in the film made fun of the guy who used it then, too. As Jack babbled on, I ordered a pint of O'Reilly's Stout, the delicious Irish dry stout of the house. Corey poured me a beautiful pint -- he's the guy standing behind the beautiful pint. It had plenty of dry roast, lots of flavor, pretty much blows Guinness out of the water without being insistent or strident about it. I love this beer, because it got me through the first five months of Weight Watchers: ounce for ounce, it's the same "points" as light beer.

Guinness is iconic, but there are other stouts just as good. Why do so many folks choose Guinness? Habit, honest preference, lack of experience? There's an "Irish" pub in Philly, McGillin's, that does not serve Guinness for personal reasons. They have several other stouts, and they seem to do a roaring business.

I took the opportunity to sample draft Incubus, Sly Fox's tripel (not, as I originally wrote, the quadrupel; that's Ichor -- sorry), that is only on draft the first Friday of each month: Incubus Friday. It was a new batch, and bursting with fruity esters and rich malt, a delicious aperitif beer, and perfect for the day, a gorgeous preview of Spring I'd been enjoying through the drive.

Last stop: Victory, for a small glass of Storm King Imperial Stout. This was easily the blackest of the three, heavy, rich, aggressive stuff, but not an angry beer, or a forceful beer. Storm King is a hearty beer, full-bodied and certain, not looking to knock you out, but maybe to knock you over. It's hard to pound -- and why would you want to?

Storm King made me look back at the stouts I'd had, and all the stouts that are out there, and the stouts I'd read that other bloggers would be sampling. I realized that this is a continuum, that stout embraces session beers, extreme beers (Dogfish Head World Wide Stout certainly qualifies), dessert beers, hoppy beers (black IPA, anyone?), mild and malty beers... There is no definite "stout," not even Guinness can claim that, with so many different versions of itself around.

I love stouts and porters, in a large part because of this malleability of form. They're dark ales (and sometimes lagers!), yet they have enough in common to be recognizable as brethren. The Brotherhood of Stout (women welcome, too).