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Friday, June 29, 2007

Triumph piece in Bucks County Magazine

I've got a piece in Bucks County Magazine on the three Triumph brewpubs, just came out. Take a look; (click here, and then jump to page 110) the layout's pretty nice, and there's a good shot of the brewers. Might be a couple things you don't know about the brewing experience on that team, too.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

One Guy update

Guy Hagner tells me that he's got federal approval to brew, just waiting on local and state approval to become Berwick's first brewery in modern times. In fact, he did say that he's realizing that there's just not that much more to do before he's ready to rock. Just needs those approvals and some electrical work (of course, that's where some brewers have been...for months).

People are getting excited about this, and I have to say, with one of the beers planned as a session-strength Czech-style lager called Lew's All-Saaz Saaz-All (a generous thank-you for one day of demolition), I'm pretty excited too.

By the way, you may be seeing more of Guy here. I got him going on the pros and cons of decoction mashing a while back, and suggested that he do a once-a-month short "fundamentals of brewing" post here. He's thinking about it. I'm leaning on him. We'll see what happens.

Steg 150

Sorry about the delay on this one. I've had the new Steg 150 from The Lion for a couple weeks now, and I've had two of them, but I was waiting for the right time to sit down and spend some time with it. After working my ass off over the weekend (stained the picnic table and then put two coats of spar varnish on it, put a new faucet on the kitchen sink, fixed the wiring on the attic fan -- damn, it was hot up there! -- built two kit bookshelf units for Nora's room, grilled dinner (Münchener bratwurst, fingerling spuds, zucchini and mushrooms) for six Saturday night, and wrote my next column), I figured I'd earned one.

And it's working. This all-malt Vienna lager-type has a beautiful color, a ruddy copper-brown, light creamy head. Big malty nose, clean and juicy-sweet. Great body, just on the low side of medium -- quaffing territory -- and the flavor is like malt-stream, a smooth, clear running brook of beer. This is a dangerously drinkable beer; wonder what the ABV is? It's evaporating from my glass, just the thing after a day like this.

Steg 150 is the celebration of 150 years of Stegmaier, the big Wilkes-Barre brewery that went under and had their brands bought by The Lion (the big old beautiful brewery building still stands, about a mile from The Lion -- saved from the wrecker's ball at the last hour). But it's no anniversary one-shot: it's going year-round.

Rumor is, not confirmed but pretty solid, that it's replacing the Stegmaier 1857 (anniversarily appropriate, really), which is great news. I thought the 1857 had gotten a bit harsh in recent years, which may have had something to do with the lack of Lion in Wilkes-Barre (see a lengthy discussion of this here). Maybe a smooth beauty like this will get some street cred for this game old brewery. (Shhhh...don't tell anyone, but I was told some big things were coming from The Lion. Don't know what they are, but I'll be sure to pass it on when I find out.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The New Gig

After years of wanting to hit the big time, after many submissions sent with no answer whatsoever (even "Piss off!" would have been nice), today I made the mainstream.

Today is my debut as the beer columnist for Conde Nast Portfolio's content website. (Portfolio is Conde Nast's new business publication, a magazine intended to compete with Fortune and Forbes.) I took over the First Draft column from Ken Wells, who wrote Travels with Barley and wrote frequently about beer for the Wall Street Journal before joining Portfolio as a senior editor last year. Ken decided he had too much on his plate to do the bi-weekly column, and was gracious enough to recommend me as a replacement.

I have to thank Ken for the recommendation, but we all owe him some thanks for this accomplishment: Conde Nast Portfolio is one of the few major publications in America that has a regular beer column...and no wine column. I like that. Kind of starts to even things up a bit.

Anyway, today's column is about the influx of fast money that helped frag the craft beer segment in the late 1990s...and may soon endanger it again. A cautionary tale. I'm going to have some fun with this. Stay tuned. (Do I really look like that picture?)

What is craft beer?

The discussion on whether Anheuser-Busch Beach Bum Blonde Ale was 'craft beer' or not completely overwhelmed the tasting note. So I decided to shift it as neatly as I could here. Most of the comments are about that debate, I had to bring the tasting note comments along; best I could do.

So now the question of the hour: what is craft beer?
My issue: give me a good definition of craft beer, one that really addresses characteristics that you can see, taste, and smell in the glass. I haven't seen one that fits the bill yet.

Game on, geeks. I'm with you.

Heinnieweisse: alone

I promised way back at the end of April that at some time (I believe then I said "tomorrow." Heh.) I would give Butternuts Beer & Ale Heinnieweisse a second shot on its own, not side-by-side with a strongly traditional hefe like Sly Fox Royal Weiss.

Time came last night. Cathy came home from a business trip to Atlanta, I was a bit burned out from working hard for three days on a couple of stories, and I started throwing stuff on the grill: some fresh kielbasa, some pork kabobs, and some teriyaki-marinated chicken breasts. Cathy was making a big salad, the kids were setting the table. So I got out a glass and poured the Heinnie.

It's pale, but carries a good head. It's got the German nose, the banana and clove thing. It drinks light and refreshing. But it has that weird ending thing going that I called mineraly when I put it against the Sly Fox, and now I'm thinking that it's might actually be hops. This is reminding me of the Schneider Edelweiss, the hoppy weiss. I got over the oddness, and started enjoying it. It cleans up the ending rather nicely.

Final call? Probably not a first choice, but a pretty good weiss for a really hot day.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A-B Beach Bum Blonde Ale

(This is the original post that turned into a discussion over the definition of craft I gutted that one, brought the beer review over here, and shifted the discussion and comments to the new post.)

Another Anheuser-Busch seasonal specialty is out: Beach Bum Blonde Ale. It's a repeat from last year, but this is tasting better to me than the ones I tasted in Idaho last summer; more hop, more overall flavor, but still crisp, light, and drinkable: just what you'd want from a summer beer. The ones in Idaho may have suffered from the bigger beer company they were keeping, I dunno: I'm talking to an A-B brewer tomorrow, if I remember, I'll ask him. (I forgot; I'll try to follow up.)

Had some over the weekend (as noted in the Father's Day post), and it was fairly popular with folks. Noticeable hop character, a quick release on the finish, but a lingering bitterness. Good stuff. I think the name and the graphics are silly, but I'm 48 and ornery, so take that with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Props to a beer pioneer

Someone posted on BeerAdvocate today that they'd found a copy of Beer Philadelphia, Jim Anderson's irregular bi-monthly beer publication, from 1995. It took me back, and I realized that although Jim and I had not parted on the best of terms -- I'm still not sure why -- I owed him a lot...and so does Philadelphia's beer culture. More than almost anyone, the exceptions being Tom Peters of Monk's Cafe, beer wholesalers Eddie Friedland and Nima Hadian, and perhaps Walter Staib at City Tavern (a criminally overlooked figure in Philly's beer story), Jim Anderson is responsible for Philadelphia's status as one of the pre-eminent beer towns on this continent. Jim laid the groundwork for a lot of what is happening today, and most younger beer enthusiasts have no idea who he is. I thought that should change. Here, revised and expanded, is what I said in response. Hail, Jim.

Let's talk about Jim Anderson.

You may have heard Philadelphia referred to as the "Fertile Crescent of beer." Jim Anderson coined the phrase.

You've heard of and been to Friday the Firkinteenth, you may have heard of or even been to the Real Ale Festival in Chicago. Jim Anderson's Real Ale Rendezvous pre-dated both of them, and saw some truly amazing cask beers.

Jim Anderson created and ran Split Thy Skull, which was, I believe, the East Coast's first all barleywine/big beer event. He also convinced Young's to condition a cask of Old Nick to send to the event (something we were told that Young's had never done before); I can still picture the mad venting, beer hitting the ceiling and splattering all over Eddie Friedland. And that beer remains one of the best I've ever tasted; I recall saying "I wish this was about 3.7% so I could drink it all day long."

You may have seen the "downdraft" system at Bridgid's, an innovative gravity-flow tapping system that brings cask ale down from the floor above, a U-boat periscope of beer. Jim Anderson invented it.

Most beer festivals in this area continue to be run at the brewers' expense: beer is "donated." Back in 1996, Jim Anderson made it a policy to always pay for the beer at the events he promoted and ran, and to note that on the festival program.

Don Russell's writing a bar guide to Philly and the surrounding area -- an excellent project, and I'm gonna get me one when it comes out. Jim Anderson (and his then-wife Lisa) wrote one in 1992; I bought a copy at one of the first Michael Jackson mass-tastings. It was quirkily beer-centric.

Beer Philadelphia was around for three years (and yes, I think I have a number of old copies), broke a number of stories and stirred up a number of controversies (including Jim's flat-out hatred of draft Guinness) in Philly's beer community, which Anderson had a large hand in bringing together. (Ol' Jack sez it was more like six years...glad someone reads this.)

Jim Anderson ran a weekly radio program -- an hour long -- on beer on an AM station, paying for the time himself. It was a fun show, if a bit unfocused at times. I was on one morning: we talked, we drank, we had some laughs, and people called in.

Jim Anderson hosted a number of beer events -- always hugely entertaining -- and tended bar one night a week at Tavern on Green; I regret that I never got there when he was behind the stick, because I'm sure it would have been a fun night.

For ten years, if beer got into the mainstream press in Philly, it was because Jim Anderson put it there. (Well, except for one time when this guy got a piece in, and even he wound up mentioning Jim within a few paragraphs of starting).

Then Jim, weeks before another Split Thy Skull, with hardly any warning, split for Scotland, where he took over a hotel and restaurant, and became a local champion of cask ale -- his true love, I think -- and evidently a fair success. Friends have been there, and say Jim's the same as always, and the beer's magnificent: no Guinness, of course.

I suspect that if he moved back tomorrow he would slot right into the Philly beer scene and be moving and shaking once again.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It's just my life...

Not really anything about beer, or whiskey, or even drinking here, though it's going to turn into that... Apparently a deer got into our backyard sometime last night and crapped all over the place. And didn't Penderyn find it, and delightedly roll himself all through it. He smelled so bad and was so proud...
Nora held him and I scrubbed, and the pup got his first bath (Corgis shed so much they don't need bathed very often), and went right out and tried to do it again! So I got a little hand harrow and a trowel, and went around the yard and picked up about a pound and a half of deer scat. Great way to interrupt an afternoon. So I am ready for a beer!

Walking and Drinking in Old City

A long time ago, in a life that seems far, far away, I worked in Ft. Washington, PA, as a corporate librarian and IS Director. Really. The company fell apart just about three weeks after I sold my first beer piece (for $25), and I left libraries behind and started writing as a career.

I still stay in touch with some of the folks from the old company; they're the core of The Hunt, I see them at the Grey Lodge, we get together for beers sometimes during the year. So when I got my new gig (I'll be talking more about that soon), one of them, Les Gibbs, suggested we go out and celebrate. Always a good idea!

Accordingly, I met Les at Triumph Old City last Tuesday. It was an ugly drive down: 110 minutes to make what should be a 35 minute drive, thanks to some wicked thunderstorms that had knocked down trees and totally snarled traffic on I-95. But on-street meter parking salved that irritation somewhat, and Triumph's solid pilsner did the rest of it.

I filled Les in on the details, we clinked glasses (Saison, now, that first Pilsner just kind of evaporated in a really welcome way, and the Saison was tasting great: just a bit over 5%, not overdone in the spice department, and more complex than a wit -- get down to Triumph and have some), and relaxed.

Nice bar at Triumph: the bar itself has two levels, the main bar and a little elevated section right in front of the whiskey. You can also look up to the 2nd floor bar -- some kind of event going on up there with a lot of very attractive women -- and the brewery, and across the open barrier into the downstairs dining room -- which is where I spotted brewer Patrick Jones.

Hey! I waved, and he came over. That's him on the right, Les on the left. Not much pilsner left, he said (it's probably gone now), but the Saison had just come on a week ago and he was justly proud of it. The barrel program is progressing; Triumph is going to have some seriously interesting specialty releases by this time next year, and it's only going to get better from then on.

Patrick got back to work, and we went back to...not work. I had a Maibock (which was not in the same league as the pils and the Saison, unfortunately; still good, but not stellar), and we ordered food. There was some great salmon on Brussel sprouts and mushrooms (I think they were mushrooms, the light was kind of bad); small triangles of thin-crust broccoli rabe pizza (real good, and understated in a beautifully Italian way), and fish and chips: all that small plate stuff Triumph Old City's doing.

We finished up and decided to head across the street to Eulogy for one more; Les had never been. We sat at the downstairs bar and split a bottle of Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux, the Christmas-season super-saison from Belgium's Dupont brewery. I love this beer, it's sparky and spicy, but smooth and sophisticated. Les really liked Eulogy, and was impressed with the beer list. Hell, it is impressive! So's the service: I've always had informed and personal service at the downstairs bar.

I offered to give Les a lift rather than train out to his place, so we walked up 2nd Street...and there was Cuba Libre, just looking fine and inviting in the light rain. "Nightcap?" I asked. Sure, and I was soon enthralled with the choices of rums at the bar. (That's the bartender at Cuba Libre in the top picture, by the way.) I finally settled on a 10 Cane, a new luxury light rum from LVMH that I'd been hearing about but hadn't had a chance to try. I like these white sugar cane rums, rhum agricole (although I understand 10 Cane is not technically rhum agricole because it is double distilled to a higher proof, according to Ed Hamilton, who surely should know), and 10 Cane didn't disappoint: silky smooth, sure-handed cane flavor, and vaporously aromatic. A delicious way to end a celebratory evening.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Happy Father's Day

We celebrated Father's Day today with my parents and John and Edith Lelak, the retired couple who provided childcare to our kids when they were babies (and have become very close friends of our family). I grilled like mad: smoked pork chops from Rieker's Meats (highly recommended; thanks again to George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg of Home Sweet Homebrew for turning me on to this great German deli in Northeast Philly), tiny Yukon Gold spuds (shaken in olive oil, coarse salt and pepper), slices of Vidalia onion (prepped the same way), and over a pound of Baby Bella mushrooms. We had chilled shrimp and smoked salmon for appetizers, on some classic German rye bread I got at Rieker's.

The shrooms and spuds were done in a thing Cathy got me that I at first didn't see much use for: a pan for doing beer can chicken without the can. It was a round metal pan, with handles, holes in the pan, and a well in the middle for liquid. I have yet to do a chicken on it, but it's great for vegetables: oil 'em up, season them, and drop the whole thing on the grill.

We popped a few beers (A-B Beach Bum Blonde that I intend to review real soon, some Tupper's Hop Pocket Keller Pils, and the new Shiner 98, a "Bavarian amber" that tasted pretty damned great (reviewing that one real soon, too!)), I had a tall iced glass of Fresca Citrus Peach with a big chunk of VOX vodka in it while I was grilling, and I had a nostalgic beer dessert: a Perkuno's Hammer float with locally-made raspberry ice cream. Dang, it was good, although the first bottle of my remaining stash I opened was a lactic gusher. (BTW, heard from Victory: the new-make Hammer is looking good, tasting good, and on-track for a late July release! Still no word on the new name; apparently the same problems are still haunting it.)
And then I just relaxed on my new hammock with my new dog. A pretty great afternoon with the folks and the kids and the wife. And the little dog. Cheers to all the fathers!

Franziskaner Weissbier

The good folks at Spaten North America sent me a sample of Franziskaner Weissbier that I received yesterday -- very nice presentation: a bottle with the new graphic, an opener, a coaster, and Franziskaner glass. The new graphics were apparently the reason for the mailing, but what the hell, I haven't really thought about Franzi for years, just enjoyed it. Might as well drink thoughtfully...since my daughter dropped the beer while rummaging in the fridge for lunch, and wheat beer sprayed all over the kitchen floor, and I quickly grabbed it and poured it in a glass.

So. The aroma is mostly plummy and fruity, with just a bit of clove, and a background of ripe banana. The flavor is not as sweet as the aroma would lead you to believe; there's a nice rim of tartness to the beer, the classic wheat beer tang, that keeps it refreshing. The carbonation and fuller body make for a creamy texture that goes down very smoothly. A nice little reflection on why weissbier is such a great summertime thirst-quencher. Thanks, Franzi!

First Day at Allentown Brew Works

Friday was the first 'official' day that Allentown Brew Works opened. There have been some soft opening days in the past week, and a media event Thursday night, but Friday was the day they opened the doors and let anyone and everyone in...even me and the kids.

Nora's last day of school was Thursday, and both kids did very well this year; they always do well, and I'm proud of them. Nora got Distinguished Honors, Thomas got First Honors, so I took them up to the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem (which claims to be the world's oldest bookseller, since 1745), gave them each some cash and told them to go nuts. After the book-buying frenzy subsided, we got in the Passat and drove over to Allentown for lunch at the new Brew Works.

It's a big place, very open, and less industrial than the Bethlehem store: a lot of light wood and dark metal, high ceilings, nice lighting, and a less prominent bar area. We were seated upstairs, and quickly ordered drinks; sodas for the kids, and a sampler for me, six 5.5 oz. beers for $8.50, not a bad deal. The beers were pleasing. I'll run them for you. Berliner Weiss was refreshing, lightly cloudy, and although it could have been a bit more piercingly sour, I liked it, and it was SBP-approved at 3.0% ABV. The Steelgaarden Wit might have been the best beer on tap that day, quite damned good, delicious, brisk, maybe a bit heavy on the coriander side, but a very nice example of the style. The Pawn Shop Porter was also good, pintable but with a nice rich side to it (the first one I finished, and that almost immediately; it just kind of evaporated...). The Pig Pen Pilsner was by far the weakest of the lot, muddled, with notes of ashes and diacetyl (and if I'm getting D, it's got a lot; I have a high threshold), just not pilsner-crisp at all. Might have needed more tank-time. The Copper Kettle Pale Ale was a good standard Cascade-hopped APA, clean, no problems. And the big boy, the Hop Explosion, teetered on the edge of DIPA: lots of Tomahawk hops, solid malt body, great fruity ale nose, and just tons of grapefruit hop aroma, a solid beer of the style. Fix up the pilsner, and this is a real good slate of beers.

The food was mostly good, although the nachos were a disappointment. There were a lot of very salty chips, mostly dry, not a lot of cheese (we did eventually find some more that had gone to the bottom, but it didn't seem likely that it was the promised 3/4 lb.), none of the sour cream and salsa promised in the menu, and they weren't hot. I was apprehensive about the meal after the nacho experience, but they were an anomaly. I had the bratwurst sandwich, a good locally-made brat with good kraut, tasty and crisp fries (although I'd ordered cole slaw...see below). Thomas had meatloaf, which was maybe a bit soft in texture, but delicious, and the garlic mashed spuds and fresh vegetables (broccoli, snap peas, and carrots, none of it over-cooked) were both excellent. Nora got the hoagie, which was good, and not skimpy, but it was a bit simplistic: stuff stacked on a ciabatta roll. Kinda boring, needed something to jazz it up. Overall, I'd say 3 points out of 5 on the food. The check wasn't bad for three lunches, though I doubt it's the cheapest place in Allentown (and why should it be?).

On the downside, the service was distinctly sub-par. To begin with, the place was fairly noisy, which wouldn't have been a problem, except that our waitress was extremely soft-spoken; we had trouble figuring out what she was saying. Then the beers on the sampler were not in the right order (in a big way: only one was in the right place), the sampler tray was dripping heavily with beer (and we couldn't get more napkins), my lunch order got screwed up twice, the meals came about three minutes after the large plate of nachos came out, we didn't get the "Is everything okay?" check-up till we were done eating, and the wait for the check was too long...but it was the first day. It's going to get better, and I wasn't really that concerned.

The only thing that did bother me...the head waitress came over, apologized, and told me that while the sampler was six beers, they had seven on, and which one did I not want? Okay, I said quickly, not a problem, drop the Amber Lager...and she argued with me. She wanted me to drop the pilsner instead, "It's really the lightest." What the hell? "Is the Amber Lager on tap?" I asked. Yes, she said, apprehensively. "Then that's the one I don't want." She nodded and retreated. Don't ask a customer to make a decision and then argue that decision!

Would I go back? You bet. Parking was...well, kind of weird, and if Allentown wants more people in their downtown, they've got to make it easier to find (wouldn't hurt if people learned how to parallel park, either; some cars were almost two feet from the curb on Hamilton Ave.). But the place is great, the beer's good, the food's probably going to shape up quite nicely (the nachos have been better at Bethlehem, and I'm sure they'll be better in Allentown soon), and service is just a matter of more days open. I don't usually like to write about brewpubs until they've been open for a few months, but I'd say these guys were ready to roll now. Give a visit!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Dogfish Head Festina Pêche

Dogfish Head Festina Pêche is described by the brewery as "a Neo-Berliner Weisse." I just love that kind of post-Schultheiss deconstructionist sub-text bullshit, so I'm looking forward to popping the top on this determinedly understated bottle; after the half-porn skin skin (yes, that's a deliberate double) of Chateau Jiahu, a couple of peach trees seem almost proto-folksy.

Hmmm...the head is brisk, bright-white, and dissolving rapidly. The smell is like a light peach sour. The beer is a slightly hazy light yellow. Wow! That's sour, all right, and the peach is not overwhelming or fakey. It's just this side of puckery, doesn't cling at all, and it's very refreshing. I'm saving the rest of this for a hotter day (it's an unseasonably cool night right now) for relaxing in the shade on my new Father's Day hammock (it came early, and well, y'know, no sense in leaving it in the box...). Best of all, it's SBP-approved at 4.5% ABV. Go get you some. "Neo-Berliner Weisse" indeed; forsooth, it's good!

Maui Brewing CoCoNut Porter

I don't like coconut. Thought you should know that right off the bat before I even open this can of Maui Brewing CoCoNut Porter (I don't like embedded caps, either, but that's another story). Still, I have no idea what toasted coconut in a beer's going to taste like, so we'll give it a run, eh?

The beer pours with a voluminous head, looking rich before I even taste it. There's a hint of coconut in the aroma, but even more, there are notes of chocolate and lush ripe fruit. The coconut's coming through more as the head settles. Well...the taste's not bad. The chocolate really comes through, like a good milk chocolate, and the coconut is only there as a rim about that. much less than in a coconut candy (you know what they are, right? They're the candies you find half of in the Whitman Sampler, because just about everyone takes a bite, realizes it's coconut, spits out the bite, and then puts the half back in as if that didn't count as their "piece." It counts, pal). The coconut is interesting, in that it makes the beer seem richer and fuller than it is, but doesn't linger and stick in the mouth. Nice effect. Good, but I'm not sure if I'd want more than two. Might try it with tomorrow's pork dinner. It's all good with pork chops, man.

Maui Brewing has been a pretty good experience overall through the three beers they sent me to sample. I still think the Bikini Blonde's too sweet, but the other two definitely make the cut. Cheers!

Shipyard Brewing Chamberlain Pale Ale

I got some good news recently: Shipyard's Chamberlain Pale Ale is no longer a Maine-only, 22 oz. and draft-only release. Shipyard, based in Portland, Me., first brewed Chamberlain in 1995, and I'd been grabbing 22s of it whenever I visited Maine. But last month Shipyard sent me a sixer with a press release: the rest of the country was now getting this Brit-type pale ale named for the hero of Gettysburg and governor of Maine.

That calls for a celebration, and me and my opener are going to start one. I smell hops and esters as soon as I open the bottle: lively number. Mmmm...the nutty malts and Ringwood character, the firm bitterness of tri-traditional hops (Cascades, Fuggles, and Tettnang), smells like ale. I like Sierra Nevada and its cleanly-fermented descendants, but I've always loved English ale yeasts. It's flavorsome, it's distinctive. I know there are plenty of hardcore beer geeks who hate Ringwood yeast and Shipyard, the brewery run by Ringwood's chief advocate in the U.S., Alan Pugsley. But Shipyard sells a lot of beer, and there are still plenty of successful breweries using Ringwood yeast.

Eh, no need for debate. I'm enjoying my beer. Welcome back to Pennsylvania, General Chamberlain!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Cartoons" are Totally Flippin' Dangerous!!!

I got a link to this article about an extremely dangerous purple platypus from the Brewers Association Forum digest today. I read the piece, and it's all about this stupid-angry 'they're marketing booze to kids!!!' Joe Camel bullshit, and I got all enraged and was going to rant and shout about how moronic and insulting that is.

But then I took a quick Google at things, and saw that Jay Brooks had already covered it. So just go read his piece, and imagine me being that angry (especially about the "as if comics were only for kids" part: I bought about $50 worth of comics for myself today, including my first look at Greg Rucka's excellent Queen & Country. Just for kids...insulting!). Thanks, Jay.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Pennsylvania Beer Action Alert, Take Two

PA Senate Bill 674 has made it out of the Law & Justice Committee!

According to my source, the "six-pack bill" was aided by the desire of Senator Rafferty (my old buddy from when I testified against keg registration) to "do something for the PA consumer." Hey, thanks, Senator.

I called my state Senator's local office -- Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson -- and asked them. (Senator Tomlinson did eventually get back to me, by the way, and confirmed that the bill was in the Law & Justice committee and he would consider its merits once it came up for a vote: fair enough.) The bill is out on the floor, ready for consideration, but I've been told that there's a good chance that won't happen until September.

(Some folks in comments have said they were told this bill will allow supermarket beer sales. Sure doesn't look that way to me, but here's the current text of the bill; take a look yourself (and note how this bill sidesteps the "Case Law" by redefining a "case" as a sixpack!))

Bug your Pennsylvania senator about this bill.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cracking: The Whip

We took my mother out for dinner at The Whip yesterday. It was a belated Mother's Day dinner, and we wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere we hadn't been before. We almost went here a couple months ago, when I was looking for someplace to meet Mum and my sister for lunch after brewing Perkuno's Hammer at Victory, but the schedule of the day fell apart. I got recommendations on The Whip from some of the folks on BeerAdvocate, and it sounded good; the menu on their website sounded very good.

I'm here to tell you: it is good, damned good. Wish I'd thought to take the camera, though, because the setting is great. The Whip sits on a corner out in horse country in Chester County, south of Coatesville, and looks like a country tavern, inside and out. It's quite informal, despite the high-end menu, and...the booze is beer-only. That's great, because it forces them to focus on their beer, and I liked it.

The taps are not incredible (I'll probably take crap from Stonch for this, but I had two pints of Tetley's, and it was good (and they were real imperial pints in nonick glasses, too)), but they're a notch above the usual and well-kept. The bottles are more impressive, and include a selection of seasonal bottle specials that change with the season; that's where Cathy's Sly Fox Royal Weisse was listed. The Grozet Gooseberry was there, too: someone's got a taste for the more adventurous.

The food is a mix of British pub classics -- bubble & squeak, bangers & mash, fish & chips, Scotch eggs (good, if not great, but served with Coleman's mustard (came with a small spoon and a warning: "Are you familiar with Coleman's, sir?" which was excellent; I groove on good mustard, and Coleman's is sharpish, the warning was well-taken and a good sign of intelligence)), shepherd's pie, mushy peas, and sticky toffee pudding.

Nora and Thomas each got the Elkins burger, an 8 oz. organically-raised beef burger that was delicious (Thomas ate his fries with malt vinegar ("alegar," actually, but I struggle against ignorance)); I got the bangers and mash (very nice, but the only thing the waiter fell down on was getting me info on where they got the sausage; he was real good). Cathy got some delicious broiled sea scallops, and my mother had bubble & squeak (delicious, full of leeks) and bangers & mash, my dad had the shepherd's pie. He also got the vanilla bean cheesecake, which I saw and had to try. I'm not big on cheesecake, but if they all tasted like that, I would be. Cathy got the sticky toffee, and it was good, but wow, was it sweet! Coffee for me: very good cup.

A very good time at The Whip. It's kind of out there in the sticks, but it was a pleasant ride, a relaxed dinner, and delicious beer. It wasn't cheap, but I've spent less and felt cheated; this was worth it.

Friday, June 8, 2007

SBP: Session Beer Goes to School

I just set a date with Jon Myerow at Tria to do a Tria Fermentation School session on session beers. I'll be at the School on July 24th, with at least six session beers, some good snacks, and everything I know about these low-alcohol beauties. We're going to aim low, too: we want to try to keep it under 4.5% ABV. I'll post more when we have the beers picked out.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Stout vs. Porter (U.S. vs. U.K.)

Stonch is stirring the pot with a post labeled: "Debunking beer myths #1 - Stout is Irish, and evolved from Porter." He's done some fairly easy research, and concludes that Guinness was not the first brewer of stout, that it was first brewed in London, and that porter evolved from stout, not vice versa. He's got backup from Dr. Michael Lewis and Ron Pattinson (who, if you don't know, you oughta).

Pretty bold stuff, and it only gets better in the comments, where a fellow signing himself John Brewer says (among other things):
But my main point is that we must take ANY beer style info from the USA with a large pinch of salt. The Americans abolutely LOVE to categorise beer - 'porter MUST be different from stout because it has a different name, therefore let's make some neat categories and specify in what ways it is different'. They rewrite history for the sake of convenience.

I agree, to some extent, because I think the whole discussion is very revealing about the differences between American and English beer geeks. Stonch's main points seem to stem from finding the word "stout" in brewing records prior to Arthur Guinness's claim of inventing stout porter in the mid-1700s. But I wonder, as I did in a comment on Stonch's blog, whether "stout" in 1650 meant "bitter black beer" or just "stronger beer."

Stonch also rightly points out how bizarre it is to call Guinness and a sweet stout by the same name -- stout -- when they are so wildly different. He doesn't even bring up imperial stout. Look at the beers called "stout": dry stout, export stout, foreign stout, imperial stout, American-style imperial stout (the GABF just added this one), milk stout, American stout, sweet stout, oatmeal stout, cream stout, chocolate stout, fruit stout (okay, those last two are just stouts with stuff in 'em)...

Are we really supposed to keep a straight face while saying these are all variations on a theme? These are all dark ales. But "stouts"? That's like saying the beers in Germany and eastern Europe are all lagers: dry lager, dark lager, export lager (whoops, there is one called that), strong lager, bitter lager, strong sweet lager, really strong ice lager, and dark strong roasted lager. Oh, yawn-ho. How much help is that? Even the Germans would object to that much objectivity.

I appreciate the need for categories (more than most of the Brits, much less than most Americans): they give a framework for the brewer, they give a welcome guide to the consumer for finding beers they like. But they are meant to be a framework, not a rack, a Procrustean bed forcing all beers into strait confines.

Yes, I know, stop me now, you've heard all this before and it's not an issue, American brewers are innovative blahblahblah. Yeah. Well, maybe we should take a look back past all the stuff we think we know about beer styles, the stuff we've read in the popular beer books and the back-labels of beer bottles and the brewery websites, past all the beer dogma, as a brewer friend of mine puts it. Maybe we should take a look at how there were no carefully delineated beer styles until the 1970s, which, I might remind you, was hardly a golden frickin' age of brewing.

And then maybe we could take a look at the prestigious and respected Brewing Industry International Awards, a British brewing competition that's been going on for over 110 years. Beers in this competition are put in nine categories: canned or bottled lagers and ales; draught lagers, ales, and cask ales; non- and low-alcohol beers; strong beers (7+%); dark milds, stouts and porters; and specialty beers. The categories are then split up into "bands" of alcohol content, or, in the case of the specialty beers, fruit, wheat, and other, and the strong beers into lager, ale, and dark.

I've talked to people who think this is ridiculous, pitting non-similar beers against each other, and I've talked to people who think it's brilliant, because it puts beers of similar drinking patterns together...and after all, they brew the stuff to drink, not to be judged.

Compare it to the 75 carefully delineated categories of the GABF.

And that's pretty much my point. We see things differently in the U.S. and the U.K., and stout is just the tip of the eisbock, as it were. Some things are not going to make sense, some things are not going to produce fruitful discussion, though it may be fun.

In the end, though, we can still all sit down and have a pint. Just don't serve Stonch a Guinness.

Teresa's Next Door: a pre-opening report

I got invited to the pre-opening shakedown for Teresa's Next Door, the new beer destination in Wayne that's had everyone buzzing for months now. You can get most of the details from Uncle Jack here. I'd only argue with Jack that any menu that sports four kinds of mussels, steak-frites, waterzooi, and frequent sides of stoemp is bound to be considered Belgian-influenced, Joe Sixpack or not. The beer...well, it's hard to get away from Belgian beer in a high-end Philly beer bar (though Standard Tap manages it pretty well). was all-draft last night at Teresa's Next Door, apparently because the computer POS system wasn't up and running yet, but all-draft was fine. The list was a solid middle-of-the-road offering, which doesn't do it justice only because the pre-opening expectations were so high. It was a solid craft/import list, with very few surprises, and one of those was an almost retro option: Kwak, which Cathy opted for: "Long time since I had one of these," she said when the proper tube-and-bulb glass arrived in its wooden holder. I grabbed another pleasant surprise: Charles Wells Bombardier, a nice edging-up-on-ESB British ale that I'd only ever had in bottle before. (Kind of speaking of which: I did spy bottles of Fuller's 1845 in the cooler, and I'm sure going to be back for some of that.)

This place is very nice, the decor and woodwork is -- well, the word that comes to mind is exquisite. There were no TVs, and I don't know if the sound system (a nice one) was on or not; the conversation created a dull roar, the kind of noise I love to hear when people are enjoying food and beer and each others' company.

The restrooms are unisex, like Monk's Cafe, and have dark gray fixtures (at least the one I was in) including a flat, square sink that really needs to be seen, probably before some drunk stumbles into it and breaks it off the wall... They do need one thing: easier locks on the doors. As someone said, the door's too far from the toilet; if someone starts coming in while you're enthroned, you've got no way to stop them, and no one wants to be seen in that position!

It kind of reminded me of Capital Ale House in Richmond, done on a much smaller scale with better-trained staff. The coolers are stuffed with great beers; I can already see that I'm going to have a better time with the bottle menu than the draft, although Matt Guyer promised a constant run of rare kegs (they were holding back during this pre-opening fine tuning, and I can't blame them). As Jack mentioned in the report linked above, the cellar's been dug out (they may have the deepest cellar in Wayne, which, along with the licensing wrangle, was some of the reason this has taken so long), and God bless them for the short taplines it gave them: that leads to easier cleaning and better pressure control: good things.

The service was ready for prime-time, although we didn't really press them too hard. The food I'll talk about after I go back again in a month, once the kinks are shaken out. Suffice it to say that Andy Dickerson really wanted to hear what we didn't care for, and seemed ready to tinker with what needed tinkering...and already knew about one major problem. Good signs.

After the Bombardier, by the way, I had two Rodenbachs (both just dandy, and good with the carbonades I had for dinner) and a cask Tröegs Nugget Nectar (perfect condition; was it really cask? Not so sure), and a very good cup of coffee with dessert, a ridiculously good chocolate torte/ganache/fudgey thing.

We'll be back; you should go too, ASAP. There is definitely a new beer bar in southeast PA, one that has easily vaulted directly into the second-tier, and may yet challenge for a top-ten spot.

P.S. Check out some pictures (and additional details) over here at the Brew Lounge, including one of that funky gray sink; glad someone remembered to bring a camera!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Lobbying at ABC

I got invited to a meet-n-greet the Pennsylvania Brewers Guild (I'm not going to link that, the site's two years out of date. Guys!!!) held at Appalachian Brewing's Harrisburg location to get the attention of state legislators and PLCB members. I was honored to be invited as a non-brewer, but I was leery of going, if only because of the logistics.

The event was Monday night in Harrisburg, and I already had a commitment to do a tasting and talk for the American Industrial Hygiene Association's convention at the Convention Center in Philadelphia. (Believe me, it came as a suprise to me, too: thanks to Jon Myerow at Tria for dropping my name to them.) The problem was that the AIHA tasting was over at 5:30, in Center City, and the thing in Harrisburg started about 7. I told Sean Casey (owner of Church Brew Works) that I'd just have to see how traffic went.

Well, it wasn't too bad. I was in the Passat and rolling at 5:32, which helped. The Schuylkill was a mess, according to KYW's traffic reports, so I decided to slip down the river on the north side, pick up the Lincoln Drive out to Mt. Airy, and take Germantown Pike out to the PA Turnpike. And you know, there were a couple of slow spots, but I made it in about 50 minutes, which seemed to have been pretty good time. So I headed west to Harrisburg and threw the coal to it.

Things had just gotten underway when I got up to the second floor at ABC (they were running late), so I grabbed an Iron Hill IPA (and a Nodding Head IPA; I was thirsty), ran back through the gauntlet of brewers and legislators, and got some brisket and wild game galantine (really, it was quite the spread) on my plate before I made a fool out of myself drinking on a substantially empty and caffeine-ravaged stomach.

After that I looked around. Wow, good turnout! Western PA in particular showed up well: Erie, Straub, Sprague Farm (Minnie Sprague came up behind me and startled the life out of me), and a seriously wired Matt Allyn who'd just gotten his approvals and printed off some quick ink-jets of his newly approved labels and was really excited to be there, legal and all (and the Wynona's Big Brown...Ale was great). Out front it was ABC (duh...), Tröegs, Victory, Stoudt's, Iron Hill, Yards, Lancaster, Barley Creek, Church, and The Lion (if I missed you, let me know, I'll edit you in!). Artie Tafoya (of ABC) and Sean Casey were grinning like demons; they were pretty happy about the whole thing.

It seemed pretty good to me, too. Hell, I met my new state rep, Chris King, over a couple beers at the Lion booth (I got the new Steg 150, an anniversary beer, a kind of crisper Vienna lager: full review coming soon). The folks who did show up were pretty well-disposed to beer, of course, and were listening to what the brewers had to say. I liked what they were saying, too, only disagreeing with them on a couple points as a consumer. But it certainly did spark a lively discourse of ideas, which is no small thing: at least someone was there saying it, and people were listening.

I hope the Brewers Guild grows, and continues this sort of thing: they have to, it's a matter of survival (hope they update their website, too). It's good for everyone. And guys...we, the beer-loving public, can help. Just tell us what letters to write. Another good reason to update the website!

SBP: Session Summer of Love Wrap-up

Thanks to Victory for the banner!

Yes, the Session Summer of Love was almost two weeks ago, and I'm just getting to writing about it now. I've been busy, you'll read about it soon. So here we go.

Three days of session-strength beer and picnic/patio food, up the pike in Zieglerville at Ortino's Northside. A theory of session beers that we tested to destruction (and then stood around, kicking at the shards). Let's have a look.

Thursday's dinner was disappointing in turnout (twenty, if you counted me, and Dan, and the waitresses), but we had a real good time. When beer dinners go small for whatever reason, I like to embrace the smallness and work it as intimacy, and that's just what we did. We all sat in the middle of the new outdoor dining area and bar (and a nice place it is, too: nice tent roof overhead, plenty of shade and breeze, the trees all around and the farmland across the road, and the gentle tang of the smoker) and talked beer while eating really great fresh-made picnic-style food.

That was actually my second trip up to Ortino's that day. In the morning, I ran down to Yards Brewing to pick up a sixtel of Philadelphia Pale Ale for the Saturday event, and Nancy Barton gave me a sample sixer of Sexy Sister while I was there. I dropped off the sixtel, and John Ortino stood me lunch at his original place, down in Schwenksville, where I was joined by Iron Hill North Wales brewer Larry Horwitz, who was in town for the same reason: dropping off beer at Northside.

Anyway, I took some of the Sexy Sister along, and some bottles of Shipyard Chamberlain Pale Ale I'd just gotten as well; a beer I've always liked, but rarely got a chance to drink because of Maine-only distribution. Shipyard's taking it national (or at least regional), and I thought folks might want to try it. One guy promptly tagged it as his fave of the evening; I liked it too. All too soon, after a delicious dessert of berry nachos (fresh berries on whipped cream and sugared flour tortillas), the evening came to an end, and I headed down Rt. 29 to Collegeville and home.

Friday night, Cask Night, Cathy came along, and we had a real nice dinner there at Northside; she had crabcakes, I had the Chicken Italiano special with a pint of Victory Sapphire Bock, the special-edition bock they made to showcase the Bavarian Saphir hop. Good stuff, but hardly session beer, so we went over to the bar to get stuck into the evening's offerings. The Legacy hadn't arrived yet, so I started with a pint of Larry's cask of Belgian Pale Ale he'd brought up the day before. Quite nice, tasty, drinkable, under 4.5%. Then two Nodding Heads: All Night Ale, a dark mild infused with espresso (had a kind of funky smell to it, but tasted malty and good, with a highliner zing of espresso flavor), and my fave of the night, Prudence Pale Ale, which I believe was all of 3.8%. The Prudence was quaffable but flavorful, hoppy on top and just out and out tasty. So I had another. I finished up the night with a glass of East End Wheat Hop from the night before (well, just what you'd expect: American wheat with big hop presence, a kind of manically-balanced wonder).

So...after some water, I'd had six pints of beer in about 2 1/2 hours. We walked out to the car, fired up the breathalyzer, and I blew...a 0.03 BAC. I love session beers. I was plenty legal under PA law, and so I then put away the breathalyzer and fired up the Passat, and we drove home the long way through Quakertown, and racked up 46 mpg by the trip computer. I love my diesel, too!

I was late to Saturday's session. I had to sing a wedding in Newtown. I did that, no problems, came home, changed, grabbed Cathy, and we went up to Zieglerville one more time...and had a nice time out on that outdoor patio-deck-bar with Uncle Jack, much of the crew of renegade regulars from Sly Fox, Scott Baver and his girlfriend from Legacy (Scott had brought his smoker to have a barbecue duel with John; we had to leave before the meat came out, dammit), Bryan from the BrewLounge (Adam had been there Friday night, and Bryan had joined us for the dinner on Thursday, too), and One Guy Brewing guy Guy Hagner. (Guy's also a serious barbecue hound, so he was all a-twitch waiting for the meat to come out.)

We drank some good beers, East End Fat Gary Brown Ale and General Lafayette Churchill Dark Mild among them. We talked a lot, which is what you're supposed to do during a session. But we didn't get spifflicated, and after about two hours, Cathy and I drove home to have dinner with the kids.

Was the Session Summer of Love a success? Not as big a one as it could have been. Unfortunately, much as I'd like to pin it on people's fear of session beer ("A fest without big beers? What will I taste?"), some of it was undoubtedly the location (Zieglerville is dauntingly hard to find for the average effete citydweller or mall-hopping suburbanite...the first time they go), and some was probably the holiday weekend. It was a gorgeous three days for weather, which couldn't have helped. Will we do it again? Yes. Maybe not at Ortino's, definitely not on a holiday weekend, and probably not over three days of events...but session beer cannot be denied. We will session-fest again.

Pittsburgh Brewing News

Two bits of brewing news from Da Burgh, one great, one not so.

Great news: Rivertowne Pourhouse, the new brewpub in Monroeville, opens on Monday, June 11, according to a reader who I believe preferred to remain nameless. (Read more about the Pourhouse here.)

Not so great news: construction of the Pittsburgh Hofbräuhaus, the Iron City outpost of the Munich powerhouse, has been delayed again. The site is still being prepared; no construction has yet taken place. Bummer.

Voodoo Brewery licensed and rocking

I got the word from Matt Allyn: his Voodoo Brewery in Meadville, PA, is now officially licensed, and "if all goes well we should have product to distributers by the mid of june." Had his beer Monday night at Appalachian in Harrisburg (more on that shortly), and it is just as good as the samples I had back in April...or better. Get ready for some Voodoo, Pittsburgh and western PA!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Homebrewers and DigiCams

Keystone Homebrewing (in Montgomeryville and Bethlehem, PA) has a new contest: Keystone is Everywhere. They want homebrewers (and homevintners) to get pix of themselves in Keystone t-shirts at a variety of places and events or with a variety of people, and I do mean, a variety: Larry Horwitz, the brewer at Iron Hill North Wales is worth 5 points, 10 points in a Keystone Homebrew an additional 5 points if he's got his brewing boots on. The eponymous Crabby Larry of Crabby Larry's brew pub is worth double if you can get him smiling. Michael Jackson ("either one will do") is worth 15 points, 25 with the Keystone t-shirt (good luck on that one), and 10 extra points if he's got his one white glove on. It's 3 points if you get your picture next to the Pennsylvania state flower (mountain laurel) or tree (eastern hemlock); 10 if you get both in one shot. Prizes include gift certs, discounts, and...a free t-shirt (you'll need a replacement after this).

The full list is here. BTW, before anyone shrieks, I'm not getting any kickback for this. I just thought it was funny.

The Session: Support Your Local Brewer

The assignment for The Session this month is to drink local. The host is snekse of the Gastronomic Fight Club, and he laid down the rules:

You can pick anything commercially made within 150 miles of your house, but try to pick the brewery or brewpub closest to your house (NOTE: the average American lives within 10 miles of a craft brewery).

You can select any beer or even a sampler if you want.

If you select a single beer, let us know why you choose this beer (e.g. favorite, seasonal, limited edition, best seller).

Preferably you'll shy away from beers with wide distribution outside your immediate area.

I had planned to go out of one of my local brewpubs (Porterhouse, the Triumphs, Iron Hill North Wales, Manayunk, Nodding Head, Independence). But it turned out to be a wicked hot day, and I've got early commitments this evening (parking attendant at my son's high school's baccalaureate), and I've still got to get some work done, so...I went to the fridge.

And lo and behold, I got to speak. There was a blank-labeled bottle of Yards Sexy Sister in there. This is a one-batch draft-only special brew (I was down at the brewery last week to pick up beer for the Ortino's Summer Session of Love, and got a sixer of sample bottles), so I think I'm hitting all the bases on snekse's requirements. Yards is under 20 miles away (it's not the closest brewery to my house, but thanks to I-95, it's actually the quickest trip by car), I selected a beer I wanted (because it was in my fridge), the beer I selected is both a limited edition and limited distribution (pretty much draft only in Philadelphia County).

So I'm set, let's pour! Sexy Sister is a lightly filtered beer, roughly in the Belgian pale ale style, but not entirely. It's a "sexy sister" to Yards' year-round Saison, without the orange peel, and with a different Belgian yeast. It came out a bit higher in alcohol, according to Yards' John Rehm. "It's about 5.2%," he said.

Interesting beer. It's quite pretty, a translucent coppery-orange with a tenacious skiff of bubbles across the top. The aroma is fresh bread and the coriander, and there is a citrus-like tang to it, despite the lack of peel, but that's probably coming from the yeast. It's quick across the mouth, dry and spicy, on the edge of astringent. Hold on a sec...I want to try something. Ha! Just as you might think, this one tastes real darned good out in the humid heat. Just the thing it needed.

John said they were thinking about tinkering with it, but at this point, it's a one-shot. And that's okay. Regardless of like or not like, it's good to see Yards do things like this: one-shots, you taste them or you miss them, and if you miss them, well, you're that much more likely to get out and try the next one.

Local beer lives and dies on the bar trade, and the bar trade, as I've said elsewhere, is something you should be supporting; for the bar's good and yours. Going out to bars is where you meet people; going to good beer bars and brewpubs is where you meet good people, people like you. "Good people drink good beer. Good beer. No shit." as Hunter S. Thompson put it on the Flying Dog Road Dog label.

So get your local beer drinkin' butts out to where you can find Sexy Sister, and do it tonight or tomorrow: John is pretty sure the following Philly bars still have Sexy Sister -- Johnny Brenda's, McCrossen's, White Dog Cafe, Grace Tavern, Lost Bar, Westbury, and South Philly Tap Room.

Support Your Local Brewer!

The Blind Leading the Blind

I've got the June Buzz up on my main site. It's a piece about the values of blind tasting. Blind tasting is one of the best taste educational methods I know of, and one that requires no special equipment or expense; just an assistant and two rooms (or a divider). But there is no better way to discover how much or how little you know about a style of beer or a type of whiskey.

Take a, have a taste.