The Full Bar - all my pages

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Michael Jackson

I just learned that Michael Jackson has died.

Jackson was immensely influential on all of us: drinkers, brewers, distillers, and of course, writers. (He could be almost too influential; I remember one writer telling me that he didn't read Jackson's work at all any more, because he didn't want to sound too much like Jackson.) His books were bibles for beer and Scotch whisky drinkers -- moreso here than in the UK, perhaps -- and his tutored tastings were ground-breaking. Jackson was the first rock star of beer, drawing crowds of admiring fans whenever he appeared.

I was one of them. I met Michael in the men's room at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, during one of his mass tastings that was part of The Book & The Cook. It was before I even knew what TB&TC was; Michael Jackson was in town doing a beer tasting, what else did I need to know? After the tasting (yes, I took notes, and still have them), Jackson was signing books and I overheard someone asking him a question about "stock ale," in the context of the Samuel Adams Boston Ale, then sub-labeled as a stock ale. MJ gave a somewhat circuitous answer that left me still curious (At a TB&TC press breakfast years later, I told him I admired how he took questions, any question, from a beer audience and answered in detail. "It's simple," he told me. "If I don't know the answer, I take a sentence or two to speculate, another sentence to note what other subject that brings up, and then I just answer the question I want to answer.").

I was a long time in the line for the bathroom afterwards, and just as I stepped up to the urinal, I heard some commotion behind me: "Pass him up! Oh, please, Mr. Jackson, go ahead! After you!" The next thing I knew, there was MJ at the porcelian appliance next to me. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, declined an offer to shake hands, and asked him "So the stock ale: is that really a style, like a New England biere de garde, or just an extra-aged ale?" He eyed me, still working, and said, "Well, more age, more hops. It was made, but I don't know if I'd call it a style." I thanked him, we washed up, and then shook hands. I'd met Michael Jackson.

Working with John Hansell at Malt Advocate gave me a lot more chances to talk to Michael; he and John were good friends. Eventually I would wind up editing his column for the magazine. It was not something I looked forward to; Michael was a bit of a sloppy writer at times, largely because of the rush he was always in. MJ always had numerous pots boiling at the same time, a project here, a project there, trips, visits, lectures, editing, writing. He was immensely productive: multiple columns in print and on-line, books on beer and whisky, feature articles, video series, CDs. If it was about beer or whisky, he did it.

But it was Michael's sense of place that really made his writing so important to me. When MJ wrote about a beer, he wrote about where it was brewed and where people drank it, the look of the walls and the lay of the land, why the town was there and who the brewer's father was.

I remember driving Michael around on a tour of area breweries, a day that turned into a travel disaster. He was two and a half hours late leaving New York, thanks to some skinny git who was trying and never did open a brewpub in NYC, but still managed to hold MJ's attention all morning; I suspect he simply refused to take him to Tony Forder's house until he'd said all he had to say. We had to cancel the appointment at Yards and drive on to Brandywine Brewing near Wilmington in heavy rain.

Yet when Michael got there, he calmly pulled out his notebook, tasted beer, and started asking questions...about the rug in front of the fireplace. "Now why is that rug there? It doesn't look like the right place, it doesn't really fit with the rest of the room. Is there a spot on the floor? Why that rug?" I was baffled and a bit annoyed; I brought him all this way to find out about a cheap little imitation oriental rug? Dave Dietz shrugged and said "It's just a rug."

But as we slowly, slowly made our way up through heavy rain and ridiculous traffic to the Stoudt's Fest, arriving an hour before it ended (MJ made a quick tour of the floor, and then locked himself in Carol's office with a bottle of Triple), I realized that he was right. The rug didn't fit on the wide expanse of blonde wood floor. Except it was a touch of softness in an open space, something interesting. Whether he ever wrote about it or not (and I never saw anything about it), it was a memory key, a small something that would bring back the whole feel of the place. I learned that trick, and use it myself.

Maybe the most valuable thing I learned from Michael Jackson was that importance of place. I learned it second-hand, because it was actually something he told John Hansell, and John's hammered it home to me: you can't write about a place if you haven't been there. Seems simple, obvious, yet I see writers crossing it every week. I did. I'm working to overcome that, and to go to the places I write about.

What Michael meant is that it's crucial to go to the place where beer or whisky is made to understand it. I finally went to Scotland for the first time just last month, and Scotch whisky makes much more sense to me, even though I've been drinking it for years. I went to Köln and Düsseldorf in January to get my own personal understanding of kölsch and altbier. I've been to Kentucky a number of times, including 12-hour helldrives to save money. I went to Bamberg, I went to Aying, I went to Andechs. I'm planning a trip to Ireland, and a trip to Belgium. And it's all because of Michael Jackson.

What I do, every day I write, is all because of Michael Jackson. If MJ hadn't been there to fire my interest, to show me a path that could be taken, I'd still be a librarian. I might be happy with that, but I wouldn't have had the fun, the late nights with great people, the satisfaction of a well-written piece or the satisfaction of opening someone's eyes to a great beer, if not for Michael Jackson.

It's hard to believe he's gone. We all knew he was sick, he had been staring down Parkinson's for years. When I came across him walking to his Monk's dinner with Carolyn Smagalski this past spring, he seemed cheery, lucid, and not so weak as he had been. We greeted each other gladly, and walked on to Monk's -- that's the picture above. He did a great presentation, good stories, much less meandering than usual. It was the last time I'll see him.

Michael Jackson has died. I'll miss the man, the writer, the friend.

All About Beer has published MJ's last column for them on the web. Go read it; Michael had come to grips with his disease -- and death -- in his own singular way. I'm still holding off tears -- for a very Jacksonian reason; I have a story to complete -- but reading this almost broke me.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Jersey Breweries

New Jersey Breweries
on the way!

After years of people asking "When are you going to do New Jersey Breweries?", and jokes about a pamphlet or a slip-in addition to Pennsylvania Breweries 4th edition, I am pleased to announce that New Jersey Breweries is underway. I have signed a contract with Stackpole Books to do the book, along with my co-author for this project, Mark Haynie.

I'm sure many of you know Mark Haynie. Mark is a New Jersey native and well-known beer-lover who has had his writing published in many of the same publications I've been in. Like me, Mark is a founding member of the New Jersey Association of Beerwriters, and knows one hell of a lot more about the Garden State than I do.

We're faced with a problem on the book, of course: there are only about 20 breweries in New Jersey. Not to worry: we've come up with plenty of ways to give you your money's worth, including a couple of real surprises. Every book in this series has been an improvement on the preceeding books, and this will be no exception. Look for it in the fall of 2008...I think. Scheduling is always a bit iffy!

Joe Chiodo: 1918 -- 2007

Joe Chiodo died Sunday night. Those of you who have read my PA Breweries book know that Joe's bar in Homestead, Chiodo's Tavern, was one of my favorite in all the world. Joe was iconic, the barman who was always there (all 5 feet of him), always ready to talk, always quick with a smile -- actually, that's not quite true; if you were out of line, Joe had no room in his bar for you, and you went out, a firmness I admired more and more as I matured.

A guy named Jay Harper took me to Chiodo's my first time. Jay was another CMU grad student, a buddy I hung around with when I was living in Da Burgh while doing my History master's. He dragged me down to Homestead one night -- said there was this bar we had to go to. I have no idea how Harpo found it, he was like that; he talked me into going to see Jerry Garcia's band, another thing I'd have never done on my own, and another thing that's one of my best memories (so Jay, if you ever read this: thanks, man). We went down there and got caught up in a bachelorette party and some of Joe's good beer and fresh-cut fries, and Chiodo's became a part of my life.

I won't hash over the stuff that's in the obituary. I'll just say that Joe Chiodo had the kind of show-up-every-day responsibility and love of his business that makes a great bar. Chiodo's Tavern was a treasure, a place that was always comfortable, never unfamiliar, a place where I once sat with two Homestead guys and helped design a better mousetrap, a place where Uncle Jack had his first Edmund Fitz Porter, a place I always made time to visit when I was in Pittsburgh, a place I truly miss. I'm gonna miss Joe Chiodo.

SBP: Session beers alive & well in Ontario

Despite some kvetching by a certain Toronto-based beer-writing friend of mine about Ontario microbrewers focusing on session-strength beers to the exclusion of other types, it still did my heart good to see this story on Alan McLeod's A Good Beer Blog. Alan visited Grand River Brewing in Cambridge, Ontario, and found a brewery with four beers, all under 4.7%. He particularly liked the Mill Race Mild: "At 3.5%, it had plenty of grainy and nutty texture and, frankly, it was as big in body than most micros made in Ontario of any style."

The Session Beer Project is not on hiatus or on hold or forgotten, BTW. Like everything else in my life that's not driven by a deadline (and yes, dear editors, even some of the things that are), I'll get to it when I can.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sam Adams Hallertau Imperial Pilsner

Wow. I don't believe I remember a beer that reminded me more of sticking my nose right in a fresh handful of crushed hops. Have you ever been to hop harvest, grabbed a handful of fresh-picked hops, rubbed them together in your hands, and shoved your nose right in there and snuffed up hop? That's what this beer is like. The bitterness is there, it's huge and follows in on the gale of hop aroma and flavor, but it's the aroma. It's intense, it's full, it's full-body contact.

Is it a pilsner? No. And to tell the truth, the whole "this is an imperial pilsner" thing kind of doesn't do it for me, kind of pisses me off. But...if you're not going to call it an imperial pilsner, not going to call it a "double-hopped maibock," not going to call it a lager-brewed double IPA...what are you going to call it? I'm at a loss, and "imperial pilsner" fills that gap.

Can I drink more than one? Not on this 97 degree day at my bro-in-law's house in Virginia, no. Not most days, to be honest. But am I really rocking, really enjoying this one beer shoved frickin' full of noble hops? Hell yeah! Cheers, Jim Koch!

Hey, an interesting follow-up. The second bottle we opened got shared with some of the devoted wine drinkers at the party...and they liked it. "Complex, floral, fruity, very deep," comments like that. And I always thought that wine-drinkers didn't get hops. Maybe it's the Noble hops that did it. Have to look into this.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thunder Time! Perkuno lives!

Just got the word from Victory:

Perkuno's Hammer

is now

Baltic Thunder.

Release date is October 15.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world! Crack nature's moulds, and germens spill at once, That make ingrateful man!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I tried to get to the new Dock Street today, after reading how apparently everyone was there on Monday when I was slaving away writing about 3,800 words for Malt Advocate and Portfolio. (Hey, when you click over to Uncle Jack's site, he's got some good scoopage (and bald speculation) on the Yards situation and the tentative Victory operation in Easton.) I packed the kids in the new Rabbit (Cathy's commuter car, and a slick little 5-speed -- good to be driving a manual again; she had the Passat today to fill up on cheap NJ diesel) and we drove down to Philly, only to find a handwritten sign on the door: "Wed-Fri opening at 4:00. Thanks!" Yeah, you're welcome.

I backtracked a bit and headed out Lancaster Ave. to Bryn Mawr, headed for a comics shop the kids like (okay, I bought three more collected Queen & Country, a brilliant bit of espionage story-telling), but we were all getting hungry. I tried to stop at a local pizza place (under construction), a local pub (out of business), and a deli (didn't do sandwiches between 2 and 5!), but finally wound up at a Bertucci's. All was not chain-lost, though: Bertucci's carries Harpoon IPA.

I hadn't had a 'Poon IPA in years. Bring a pint! I was just reading Eric Asimov's piece on Belgian pale ales in the Times (registration required) this morning: "Not content with a sturdy ale awash in refreshing bitterness, many brewers are making their I.P.A.’s stronger and stronger, with a hop bitterness so aggressive it will knock anybody out of her hammock." I thought of that quote as I took a pull on the 'Poon: this was an IPA from back in the day, drinkable but zesty. Harpoon IPA has a solid malt base and a firm hop flavor and bitterness. It was smooth, tasty, and wonderfully drinkable. Lucky Boston. If I hadn't been driving with the kids in the new car, I'd have had another.

Is it an IPA? Who watches the watchmen, who makes the call? The guys who have been guilty of stuffing in the hops with the safety valve tied down? Hell with that. I don't know why we should let a bunch of guys with scar tissue all over their taste buds tell us what we're drinking.

Peanuts and Salmon...and may God help us all

My August Buzz was an open letter to Norman "Couch Slouch" Chad, a nationally syndicated sports columnist who had asked his readers to recommend a new beer. I urged him to open up to the idea of many beers, trying what the local fare provided, be it micro or macro.

Never got a response. But his readers responded, and Couch Slouch has picked his new beer.

Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Norm, you trend-setter.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Miller Chill: someone else's beer

Well, I figured I should try the other 'Latinized' beer on the market, the one in national distribution: Miller Chill. Chill is doing very well, blew through trial runs and went national with a promotional budget that should be in the $50 million range according to what I was told. So when I stopped for ice in Portland last month and saw a bottle in the cooler, I figured I should try one.

You'll notice it's been a month, and I haven't done that until now.

I've been putting it off, and the only reason I drank it tonight is because I'm doing a piece on these beers and had to talk about it. I mean, a light beer with lime and salt? Yeah, well, I was right. It's not even a crisp, sharp lime flavor, and I didn't really taste any salt at all. It tasted like light beer with a small dose of 7-Up. I tried eating a pretzel with it, but it didn't help much. If you're looking for something really different, this isn't it. It's kinda different, but mostly it's not my kind of beer. It's someone else's beer.

MADD strikes back

MADD is not going to take the open debate on the possibility of lowering the legal drinking age lying down. Despite polls that show over 3/4 of Americans are against lowering the legal drinking age, MADD is doing what they can to make sure it stays tamped down and under control. Part of that campaign is a new blog, "Why 21?"

The blog, so far, is mostly "hey look, lowering the drinking age doesn't work, told ya!" kind of stuff, the same kind of anecdotal, half-science/half-threat stuff the anti-alcohol squeaks have relied on for years -- Actually, you know what? I just made up my mind: I'm going nomenclature on their ass. I hereby decide to refer to these people as what they are: the New Drys. Call 'em as I see 'em, and make no mistake -- these people are the direct descendants of Wayne Wheeler and Carrie Nation. From now on, that's what I'm calling them.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes, the MADD blog. The thing that's amazing, is that so far, they have allowed comments on their posts. You can't sign in anonymously, but they don't moderate, otherwise. I've posted what I've thought of their stuff, and it's still there. I don't know if they're forthright or just stupid, but my hat's off to them for that. And of course, I'd encourage you to go have a look and leave whatever civil comments you think of as you read. It reads like a bunch of weakly correlated suppostion to me, but I admit I may have my own slant on things.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

One More One Guy Post

You'll notice I said in Guy Talk below that the first batch was brewed at Guy Hagner's One Guy Brewing. Guy just sent proof, with this comment: "I've always said "It's not a brewery until the malt hits the water." Well, this is what happened yesterday. There's one fermenter full of beer (2 barrels), so it's official."
Congratulations, Mr. Hagner. Looking forward to the drive to Berwick sometime soon.

Guy Talk: an Introduction

I've talked about Guy Hagner, the fellow who's close to opening One Guy Brewing in Berwick, PA. I've known Guy for a number of years, bought beer from him during the short life of Franconia Brewing, ate his own excellent pizza at his home, and ate more excellent pizza with him in Düsseldorf last January in between stops at the altbier brewpubs in town. That's him, on the left, at Zum Uerige with Tom Baker and Nick Bruels and I; not a great picture, which doesn't show you how big the man is, but the best one I have. Come to think of it, it's hardly a great picture of me either, is it! (And yes, it was taken the same day as the picture at the top left of the blog homepage, in fact, Nick took that picture.)

I interviewed him for a couple technical brewing pieces I did last year, and liked the contrarian answers I got from him so much that I asked him if he would mind doing a monthly piece on beer and brewing for me. He was pretty busy at the time, but things have evened out a bit with One Guy about to open (the first batch has been brewed, BTW...but he wants to have plenty in the cold room before opening, so don't get eager!), and he finally got back to me. He thought it might be best to set his bona fides before making pronouncements, so here they are, the first installment of a regular feature here that I'm going to call Guy Talk.

In the famous words of a former vice-presidential candidate: Who am I? Why am I here?

To answer the second question first, Lew was kind enough to offer me this forum to answer technical brewing questions. My idea is to do it with a slant--looking at the brewing process in a different way while challenging some accepted facts and opinions. Possible future topics might include: You’d be surprised how hard yeast works for you; Is it all about decoction—why is it so hard to capture the elusive German malt flavor?; Is this sour beer spoiled, or is it worth $15 a bottle? I’d love to receive any brewing-related questions, just don’t be surprised if you get a different answer than you might expect.

As to who I am, I began homebrewing in 1978 - the absolute low point of the US brewing industry. Two years later I spent a life-changing 6 months traveling Europe--15 countries but mostly in Germany (Franconia) and Austria. My travel guide was Michael Jackson’s first edition World Guide to Beer, undoubtedly the greatest beer book ever written.

I couldn't believe how wonderful and interesting the beers were. Bamberg’s Schlenkerla Rauchbier (smoked beer? Are you kidding??), the Pinkus Müller Altbier pub in Münster, Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln of Salzburg, Munich Oktoberfest, I was overwhelmed yet I also felt right at home. Beer culture and great beer were so much a part of the lifestyle, why must we be deprived in the US? I came home convinced that a small, local brewery with great beer could succeed in America.

So I pursued a path into the industry, starting at Pabst in Newark, NJ, as the lowest-paid file clerk in the company. I loved it--I got to learn the inner workings of a brewery and the cooler in the lunchroom was refilled each morning with beer fresh from the bottling line.

After attending brewing school in Chicago and after a brief stay at a long-forgotten micro in Little Rock, I ended up at Dixie Brewery. My 4-1/2 years in New Orleans was my real education. Brewing under adverse conditions with the building and equipment literally falling apart, you learn “practical brewing” in a hurry.

A more stable position as Brewmaster at The Lion in Wilkes-Barre left me longing to pursue the dream of starting my own small brewery. So I jumped feet-first into the fast-money era of the 90s when the sky seemed the limit for craftbrewing. It was a hard lesson. The “easy” money was anything but easy. By the time we got the doors open we had missed our window of opportunity (that was Franconia). Buy me a beer someday and I’ll tell you the whole story.

Now I’m back at the plate for another swing of the bat. This time I’ll be happy to beat out a bunt for a single rather than aim for the fences. Wish me luck and I hope to see you here at Lew’s place each month!

If you've got brewing questions for Guy to consider, something that's been bugging you and you can't find a straight answer for anywhere, send them directly to me (please don't put them in comments, I'll just delete them to keep things uncluttered) and I'll pass them along. And I'll be sure to let you know when One Guy finally opens.

Speaking of vegetables...

We got this goofy-looking eggplant in our CSA box yesterday. It's got a nose on it, kinda looks like Jughead from the Archie comics...only dark purple, of course.

So I shared a picture of Cathy modeling it. Hey, it's summer, it's silly season, and I'm trying to crank out three stories before I leave for a trip to visit A-B's maltings in Idaho Falls and some barley farmers. I just finished one of the stories, and I'm taking a break. Think of it as a promise of better stuff to come.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chelada: Bud Light with Clamato

I got samples of A-B's new michelada pre-mix Chelada on Wednesday, two big 24 0z. cans of Bud Light with Clamato and Budweiser with Clamato. I've been drinking a fair amount of V8 lately, and I do drink the occasional 'red beer,' a mainstreamer with tomato juice, so I thought these might not be bad.

So when Cathy threw together fresh steamed corn on the cob, burgers, and ripe heirloom tomatoes from our CSA tonight, I thought it sounded like a good time to try the stuff out. I grabbed the Bud Light at random and turned it over once, gently, to mix it up, then poured it into a willibecker. It was lighter in color and body than I expected -- pink, really -- and more beer than juice; I usually make mine the other way round. But it was surprisingly good! Sure as hell had a lot more flavor than a Bud Light, wasn't cloying or yucky, and the spices were firm but not overpowering. Best of all, you can obviously doctor it as you see fit, and I'm thinking a good dose of freshly ground pepper might work wonders, and maybe a little horseradish. Went down with the meal right well, although 24 oz. is a lot of it. I was kind of disappointed that there wasn't more clam to the Clamato, but you can't have everything.

Not the kind of thing I'd have often, at all, but with a brunch, or the right meal, or for an early beer (or instead of a Bloody Mary if I wanted something lighter), yeah, this would be okay.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Troubles down on the (organic) farm

My latest Condé Nast Portfolio column is up, a piece on the current controversy in organic brewing.

The problem: hops, which are a booger to grow organically; demand, which is booming, thanks to the overall surge in demand for organic products; and regulatory change, which may make it impossible for brewers to use anything less than all organic hops in beer labeled "organic."

In a nutshell: demand for organic beers is growing much faster than the ability of farmers to grow more organic hops, while a lawsuit brought against the USDA may force the agency to take hops off an exemption list that allows conventionally-grown hops in organic beers under certain circumstances.

The surprise: one of the brewers that have already gone to using all organic Anheuser-Busch. (Yes, there are craft brewers using all organic hops as well.)

Read all about it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Blue Moon as a folk song

No, I'm not talking about a 12-string acoustic version of the 1934 Rodgers and Hart classic (although I really like the "Blue Moon Revisited" version the Cowboy Junkies recorded). I'm talking about a great thought-provoking post that Stan Hieronymus has up over at his Appellation Beer blog (which, by the way, you should read regularly, like I do). Stan's question: if you were to consider Blue Moon White as a 1960s folk artist, would it be Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, or Trini Lopez?

Crazy, yes, but get inside Stan's genuine Old Folky head, and it sounds like this: is Blue Moon about the beer, or about the money and fame and riding a wave? Is it "authentic", which Stan says was the big question about PP&M back in his high school days (Trini Lopez was not, and even I knew it, at the age of 10). Stan says history proved them to be so. They were on the right side of causes for 40 years (Stan's right side, which I don't endorse blindly, but Stan's a good guy), but also:

"They wrote excellent songs of their own, but just as importantly generously helped promote many other songwriters. They sounded prettier than Dylan singing Blowin’ in the Wind, but that allowed them to broadcast a political messages [sic] to far larger audiences than the Weavers every [sic] reached.
And that last is the crux. Molson Coors is one of the biggest pains in my professional ass. I have not been able to build a relationship with them, and I find it hard to warm up to a company that sometimes insists on having a lawyer on the line when they allow an interview. But Blue Moon is doing solid work on wedging open the craft beer niche for literally millions of mainstream beer drinkers, and I just can't see how that's a bad thing.

If you want to talk history, it gets even more solid. When the big craft boom was going on in the 1990s, all three big brewers jumped in: Anheuser-Busch with their Elk Mountain and American Originals lines and some innovative Michelob specialties; Miller had Miller Reserve, and Coors launched Blue Moon.

When the Great Craft Flatline hit in 1997-98, we saw who was authentic. A-B pulled out. Miller pulled out. Coors kept Blue Moon alive, when it couldn't possibly have made sense for them to do so. Maybe it was inertia, or maybe it was keeping faith with the irrepressible Keith Villa.

But I tasted their Chardonnay grape wheat beer at the GABF judging last year, and pushed it hard for a medal, with no idea it was a Blue Moon/Coors product (who the hell would have thought?), because it was one of the very best fruit beers I'd ever tasted, and the panel agreed. So I think they've still got it in them to make authentic beers. Why not? Keith Villa is 100% authentic, and always has been. And he still works for Coors.

We're not going to settle this question now or any time soon. But with Blue Moon growing at a phenomenal pace -- 79% in 2005, over 100% in 2006, and closing in on SN PA in sales, according to Villa -- history may well overtake us. How will we know? When all those Blue Moon drinkers start branching out and trying something new.

Meanwhile... if those craft beer figures released by the BA included Blue Moon, and Redhook, and Widmer, and Goose Island, and A-B's organic beers and specialty seasonals, and all the non-mainstream beers that aren't BA-approved, or hell, even the non-mainstream imports...What kind of growth would there have been? What kind of volume would there be? What kind of percentage would these non-mainstream beers have of the total beer market? I'm just sayin'...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Craft beer continues to kick ass

Craft beer -- call it what you will -- continues to sell strongly, outpacing the rest of the U.S. beer market. The latest figures from the Brewers Association show mid-year sales growth at 11% over last year on volume, and a dollar sales growth rate of 14%. Craft sales also topped 5% of total beer dollar sales for the first time ever.

If you need the visual, the graph shows what I'm talking about: beer grew 1%, craft grew a whopping 11%. Get it? That's 400,000 barrels more sold in the first half of 2007 than in the first half of 2006.

What's it all mean, other than craft is doing well? It means that craft is sustaining strong, reasonable growth, the kind of growth that took imported beer from 1.5% to 13% of the U.S. beer market in under 20 years. It might give us pause to realize that craft beer's growth, like imports, relies heavily on a few major drivers: Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium. The three of them make up about 3/5 of craft sales. I happen to believe that unlike imports, that dominance will wane, rather than intensify. Craft's appeal continues to be based strongly in variety and local flavor, which argues against market dominance. Time will tell.

By the way, it's also good to keep in mind that these numbers don't include breweries the BA doesn't consider to be 'craft breweries,' like Redhook, Widmer, Goose Island...and a small but significant number of breweries that either don't belong to the BA or who decline (or forget...) to provide production figures.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"I'm still against it"

Beer gardens that cause no problems "send the wrong message"?

The Clark County (Wa.) Fair had a beer garden for the first time this year. There were no problems, no arrests, no drunks molesting farm animals...but that doesn't matter: some local politicians still are hellbent on shutting it down. The following is from the local paper, The Columbian:

A new beer garden at the 2007 Clark County Fair led to no arrests, but that hasn't shaken some elected officials' determination to shut off the taps in 2008.

"I'm still against it," said county Commissioner Marc Boldt, who said he'd visited the garden last week without partaking of its beverages. "I think it's potentially dangerous, and more than that, I think it sends the wrong message."

Sheriff Garry Lucas agreed, saying the lack of incidents at the fair - this was the first in years to see zero arrests - was beside the point.

"My opposition is philosophical, not operational," Lucas said Monday. "I don't think you have to drink beer to have a good time with your family."

Even if the garden were to stay around for five years without trouble, Lucas said he'd still oppose it in the sixth year.

So these two guys just think it should be shut down...because! I have to tell you, I find Lucas's "philosophical" opposition infuriating. You don't have to drink beer to have a good time with your family. What Lucas is really saying is If you're having a good time with your family, you can't be drinking...because I say so. The presence of a beer garden does not force anyone to go in and drink.

The beer garden is "potentially" dangerous (unlike all those fold-up amusement rides that travel around 100s of miles on the back of a truck, no, they're safe as houses!) and "sends the wrong message." What message is that? Let's see...sounds like I'm hearing the message that "Moderate drinking in a family setting is safe and enjoyable for most people." Pretty subversive and radical; just ask the Germans.

River Horse sold

Joe Sixpack scoops again: Don Russell is reporting on his site that River Horse (as rumored earlier this year) has been sold.
River Horse sold -- A Philly investment group has purchased the Lambertville, N.J., brewery from its founders, Tim & Jim Bryan, for an undisclosed figure. The press release promises a major expansion. The Bryans will remain with the company.

Russell's got the beer reporting mojo working; hats off!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Independence: a little more bad news

Uncle Jack (who is dealing with the death of a dog, and my heart goes out to him) has been doing better on the local scene than I have with one metaphorical arm tied behind his back. He 's got some ugly details here on the Independence shutdown. It's not looking good for continuance as a brewpub.

This shouldn't come as a terrible surprise: the plans never allowed it to take off. Red Bell/Jim Bell, who originally planned this thing as a satellite brewpub to their mothership brewery at 31st and Jefferson, never intended to use enough of the expensive floor space for enough brewery to support a place that size. The plan was for specialties to be brewed there, with the bulk of the beer coming from the big brewery. For various reasons (for which you'll have to wait till Jack or Don write a book about it), Bell never opened it, and when it did open, there was no big microbrewery to back it up. It's been a struggle ever since.

Without being privy to any more details than you can read at his site, I think Jack's right. This looks like the end for the brewpub beside the market.

ROS Party a "moderate success"

We had the ROS Party Saturday. A perfect day, the weather couldn't have been better. Here are some pictures Dan Berger took (thanks, Dan!); I'll write more later -- got work to do!

1st pic: Cathy and I, just happy it's working so well.

2nd pic: Me & Stephen Beaumont, bothering Penderyn.

1st pic: the party, under the maple tree.

2nd pic: Dan "Mr. Northside Entertainment" Bengel, Larry Horwitz, and a somewhat looming Brian O'Reilly enjoy a few beers from the "Raries & Scaries" selection.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Independence brewpub closed

Don Russell is reporting that Independence brewpub in the Reading Terminal building has locked its doors:
Indy shuttered*
Independence Brew Pub in Center City was shut down on Friday (8/10). No details yet, but employees, including brewer Tim Roberts (who was in the middle of a brew at the time), were evicted with no notice. Signs on the door say the closure is temporary. This does not look good.
*Thanks to John Ahrens for this tip.
I'm with Don on this one: this does not look good. Just when brewpubs were starting to rebuild their reputation in Da City O' Brotherly Love, another one falls on its face.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Helsinki Göld

One thing about all this inventorying I'm doing for the ROS Party: I'm coming across beers I meant to review and lost in the shuffle. Like this beer-stop on the Otter Creek 15th Anniversary World Tour of beers: Helsinki Göld, a sahti-inspired beer brewed with juniper and rye. Happily, and appropriately, it's blowing cool through the window, a proper taste of Suomi to set the scene for my enjoyment of this not-quite transparently reddish-gold beer.

It is enjoyable, too. I've seen a number of 6.3% ABV for this beer, and it carries it well, spicy, sharp, but simultaneously creamy and smooth. The rye and juniper make for a pleasingly unfamilar tang, and cleans up the finish nicely: a twangy, gin-like Finnish finish. Heh. Sorry, had to.

I've enjoyed the whole World Tour series, actually, and might just get into another one -- Kilt Tilter -- tonight. Great idea, and great fun: the labels all otter-shtick, with otters placed in situ, a Finnish mama otter with a pitcher of beer in the door of a sauna on this one. Only one disappointment so far: the bottle of Otterbahn weizenbock I got was infected, a true bummer, given how I love that style...but when everything else is so darned good, I can forgive.

Keep an eye out for these babies, and love them while they're here.

“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends It gives a lovely light!" -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

(Oh...this is my 200th post on STAG...yay, me. I guess. Milestones...whatever.)

The Pain and Joys of Hoarding

I realized earlier this year that I literally had too much beer. The Dedicated Beer Fridge was full to bursting, I had almost a case in our regular fridge, there were two cases sitting under the kitchen table, and 14 cases under the basement steps. Some of it was beer that was never meant to age -- I had most of that in the DBF -- some of it was probably over the hill, and I had no good storage space for more beer. Something had to give.

I happened to talk to Scott "The Dude" Morrison about my problem. "Dude, R.O.S.!" he said, with a big Dude grin. R.O.S.? "You need to have a Really Old Shit party! Get it all out and drink it!"

Great idea. So I'm planning an R.O.S. party, and I've been inventorying. It's sick. I've got a case of 24 different American barleywines (only one in multiple years: 5 years of OD MIllennium, the newest from 2002); 20+ Baltic porters (some mid-90s Okocim, Dojlidy, Koff, Baltika, Pripps, OD Winter, and of course The Hammer); 3 cases of Christmas beers dating back to 1998; some precious few bottles of King & Barnes Christmas, one of the very best beers I've ever had; a lot of Anchor OSA, going back to 1986; Samichlaus back to 1992; almost a whole case of SNCA 1996; a bunch of one-off brewpub bottlings; some wonderful anniversary beers; Batch #1 of Immort Ale; some Weyerbacher Triple from about 1998 that's tasting wonderful; and so much more.

I'm inviting a bunch of beer folks over, not allowing anyone to bring beer, and we're gonna drink it. Because I don't want to mis-treat beer like this anymore. Hoarding is a bad thing, folks. Like I keep saying about whiskey: they make this stuff to drink. I apologize to The Great Beer Gods; I humbly abase myself. I offer this R.O.S. party as appeasement.

And I'm going to thaw out all my hoarded home-made sausage and grill it for the party, too. O Great Sausage Gods...

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Knight's Head Pale Ale

What was once a big anniversary now a pale ale. Sic transit lupula mundi (or something like that; it's approxiLatin for "So passes the hoppiness of the world").

Knight's Head Pale Ale is a beer being made under contract by The Lion for Round Table Brewing, and it's essentially the well-remembered Lion Anniversary IPA that shocked and rocked us with its sub-$20 a case intensity. KHPA is different: it's all-malt, which shows in its more supple flow on the palate and smooth character from first swallow, and it's not as crushing in its hop blast, though the follow-thrust is every bit as powerful. This is about where the LAIPA was after five or six months in the bottle: KHPA is pretty damned drinkable right now. Not sure what they're getting for this, but if it's under $25 a case, it's a steal.

National Rum Day

Bourbon may get a month, but even rum gets a day. Thursday, August 16, has been declared -- by someone...does it really matter who when you're looking for an excuse to have a good drink? -- NATIONAL RUM DAY. So get you some good rum, some lime, and maybe some mint, and have you a drink, man. I'll be joining you.

Here's Ed "Ministry of Rum" Hamilton's recipe for 'Ti Punch* (say "tee punch", it's short for 'petit punch') Where you get the sugar cane syrup is up to you; I'd suggest a Caribbean market, if you have one nearby. As for the rum, it's worth it to go out of your way to get rhum agricole; if you haven't enjoyed this luscious stuff, no time like the present to start.

1/4 tsp of Petite Canne sugar cane syrup
lime juice

Pour a splash of sugar cane syrup in a glass. Squeeze a small slice of lime, cut from the side of the lime, over the cane syrup. Add a measure of Rhum Agricole Blanc. Stir and add ice. Allow the ice to chill the cocktail while the flavor of the rhum, sugar cane syrup and lime blossoms.

*(It's copied from, and I would have just put a link, but...the site tried to bomb my PC with all kinds of pop-ups and crapware, so sorry, guys, I'm copying in courtesy to my readers.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Things are better

My dog's home, and he's fine, happy, and looking good. Thanks, everyone who tried to cheer me up. I feel silly, in retrospect.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Things that suck

Once again, I won't be at the Great British Beer Festival (where Hobson's Mild was just named Champion Beer of Britain...and I won't get any).

I dropped a half-full growler of Victory Kölsch yesterday.

People still drink malternatives.

My dog's away for almost two days, getting snipped and chipped at the vet.

There are no bars within walking distance of my house.

It's hotter than the brass hinges of Hades out there.

Not being at the GBBF sucks so much I have to say it twice.

There is no brewpub in Newtown.

Philly's non-smoking in bars and restaurants, but PA is not.

Stan Rogers is still dead, dammit.

The things that don't suck are not enough to make me happy...right now.

Before anyone gets a bad impression: Hobsons Mild does NOT suck. As far as I know. I've never had any. Which sucks. And reminds me of another: not being able to put captions on graphics in Blogger.

The 21 LDA: has it really saved lives?

Choose Responsibility has really started to ramp up the discussion of the 21 Legal Drinking Age, and their website has started to feature the clear looks at the effects of 21 LDA they promised at the start of their mission.

For example: has the 21 LDA really saved lives on the road? Maybe, but nowhere near the thousands claimed by proponents: have a look (and note that this is not speculation, but reasoned from cited sources).

For example: are young brains really more susceptible to damage by alcohol? The evidence is inconclusive (and like I always say...where's the epidemic of brain damage in countries with lower LDAs?).

Go and take a look. This is not screeching, preaching, or speculation. This is a call for debate on a national issue with deep personal consequences, an issue that is open to debate, that begs open debate.

Drunks Prefer Beer, says scientific study done by scientists

Have you seen this AP story by Mike Stobbe? It's about a study done by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that found binge drinkers are more likely to drink beer than liquor or wine. "The study of adult binge drinkers found that nearly 75 percent mainly or exclusively drank beer, 17 percent focused on liquor, and 9 percent were wine drinkers." When the study looked at people who weren't exclusive in their drinking choices, "bingers who drank a variety of beverages, for example, a few after-work beers, a cocktail before dinner and wine with dinner," the numbers shifted: "beer accounted for 67 percent of binge drinks consumed, liquor for 22 percent and wine for 11 percent."

Keep in mind that if you have two cold beers while grilling the steaks, a third of a bottle of cabernet with dinner, and then sip a dram of single malt while perusing the latest issue of the Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report (the CDC's death journal)'re a binge drinker.

Hmmm... "binge" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "1 a : a drunken revel : SPREE b : an unrestrained and often excessive indulgence (a buying binge) c : an act of excessive or compulsive consumption (as of food) 2 : a social gathering." The etymology: "English dialect binge (to drink heavily)." Does that evening of drinking, eating, and deep mind improvement sound like a drunken revel or an act of excessive or compulsive consumption to you?

In any case, my point here is that I fail to see why this is news. The CDC researchers speculated that beer may be the choice of drunks -- I'm sorry, bingers -- because it is cheaper, more easily available, and more heavily advertised than liquor; speculation which is reported as conclusive fact in some of the local treatments of this AP story.

Folks: beer is the most common choice of all drinkers in the U.S., by a large margin. Admittedly, the margin on these "bingers" is higher; beer sales are closer to two-thirds than three-quarters of the total. But it's no mystery why binge drinkers prefer beer: Americans prefer beer.

Which brings up the other half of this interesting release of information: teen-aged underage drinkers prefer liquor. It's not really surprising. Think about it. Teens have been told that alcohol is a drug. They're told that "hard" liquor has much more alcohol in it. Even the dullest teen knows that the common mainstream lager beers have to be refrigerated to be palatable, while liquor can be kept at room temperature indefinitely, consumed at that temperature, or added to cold soft drinks just before drinking. They know that drinking is a crime for them, that they can't do it in public, and that they often have limited time to get a load on-board.

Well, duh: what's going to be the drink of choice for concealment, speed of effect, and ease of use? Put another way: what's easier to conceal in your jacket pocket or glove compartment, one 500 ml bottle of vodka, or ten 16 oz. cans of beer? Even an anti-alcohol fanatic could figure that one out. It's the Iron Law of Prohibition, the same inevitable reduction that gave us crack cocaine. It's easy enough to understand, which is why the popularity of keg registration laws with anti-alcohol policy wonks is so mystifying. Look for liquor registration laws to be proposed soon...

Oh. No. Wait a minute. Liquor and wine registration laws won't be on the agenda. Some of the policy types drink that stuff.

Snobbishness and class assumptions about beer, wine, and liquor are stupid, offensive, and ill-informed. The real take-home from this piece is that the choices of binge drinkers roughly parallel the choices of moderate drinkers. Drinking one particular type of tonsil-oil doesn't make you better or worse than anyone else.

An end to theory on IPA

Pete Brown (if you don't know the name, go read "Man Walks Into A Pub" right now, and then come back and read this) is one of my favorite beer writers. He might be my favorite if he wrote more. But he's pretty much unaffected by the reams and reams of dogma and "he said it, I said it, it must be so" speculation about beer that the rest of us regularly churn out. He doesn't care. It's just a good drink to him, and God bless him.

So...he's the perfect guy to take this trip. Pete's taking a pin of IPA from the UK to India, by sea. How's that for balls? I'll be watching his blog to see how it goes.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Get Ready for National Bourbon Heritage Month

National Poetry Month, National Ice Cream Month, National Women's History Month, National Pet Month, National Mentoring Month, National Head Lice Prevention Month... It's about time we got National Bourbon Heritage Month!

Next month, September 2007, has been declared such by unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate, a deliberative body that I suspect is responsible for Washington, DC, being one of the biggest bourbon markets in the country. The federal government declared bourbon to be "America's Native Spirit" back in 1964, and laid down regulations for its definition, a kind of reinheitsgebot for bourbon.

And now we have a national month for bourbon. These "national months" are silly, I confess, but Bourbon Heritage Month will be what we make of it. Myself, I plan to blog from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and get some bourbon tasting notes up here. Let's make this a real thing, at least around here!

Getting closer in Conestoga

I was in southern York County over the weekend, rusticating with the family, my parents, and Uncle Don and Aunt Alice on the Susquehanna River. Saturday morning the menfolk got the hankering to explore, and we hopped into the Passat and cruised the river hills on the Lanco side. It was a trip down memory lane: Don and my dad had family in the area years back, and they talked about how things had changed. The river hills are still pretty rural; dirt roads abound, there are a lot of small stores and woodworking outfits, no grocery stores or malls or convenience stores.

As we got a bit farther north, we started homing in on Conestoga, where Matt Keasey is building his startup micro, Springhouse Brewing. We cruised the main drag, and saw no signs or other evidence... but then I saw a barn with insulation oozing out of the cracks between the planks, and a stainless tank peeking out through the door...Brewery sign.

Sure enough, when I called Matt and asked if he was around, that was the place. He was away, but was in this morning, when my son and I were headed back, so we cruised up twisty River Rd. again, and stopped in for a visit. There were two electricians laying cable, and Matt himself, standing by his JVNW brewkettle.

The system's out of Via Maria in Holland, MI, according to Matt, and maybe out of a place called Black River Brewing in Holland before that...but that wasn't quite clear. What is clear is that there's still some work to do here, probably a month or two of work, but things are coming along.

The solid stuff: It's going to be mostly draft, with one bottled beer (probably 7 Gates Pale Ale). Matt's in the process of deciding what the line-up will be. There's not going to be a pub; strictly production, and pretty local to begin with. "Local" means Lancaster and York, probably; there aren't a lot of liquor licenses in the local area.

The setting is about as southern Lancaster as you can get: just outside a small town, beside a working farm, surrounded by open fields and pasture. The building is an old tobacco barn, insulated with blow-in foam. It's a tight fit, but workable.

With luck, we'll be seeing Spring House beer by November. And yes, there actually is a spring in Matt Keasey's house, next door to the brewery. Here's a picture: it's in the bottom floor of the house (right beside a big dehumidifier!), and yes, those are goldfish in there. Pretty cool barroom springhouse set-up that he may open to the public once things get rolling. Cheers, Matt!

Friday, August 3, 2007

New Beer Blog in NEPA

A new beer blog, On Tap, started yesterday out of Wilkes-Barre, done by two Citizens Voice staffers, Coulter Jones and James Reeser. They're enthusiasts, and they've got two good lists of top five beers, so we'll see what happens. I'm just glad to see a voice for beer out of NorthEast PA. (Note: you do have to register to comment on posts.)

Maine Street: the Portfolio column

It's "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" time on my Condé Nast Portfolio column. It's a piece that looks at the way Maine folks love their local beers, which gobble up an estimated 10% of the market, about three times the national average. Nothing earth-shattering, just a feel-good kinda piece.

By the way, the "friend" who suggested Rollie's to me is Todd Bross ("BuckSpin" on BeerAdvocate, which is where I met him), a PA transplant who is The Beer Guy at McKean & Charles, a wine store right on Rt. 1 in Waldoboro, with a growing whisky selection (biggest in Maine, and it was a nice selection. Todd's got a great beer selection going, too, very impressive, and good links to local Andrew's Brewing: he had beers I didn't see anywhere else in Maine. Some good cheeses and specialty eats, too: pretty cool store.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Old Schaefer Brewery to make beer again: Sam Adams beer

Huge story, IMO: Boston Beer, tired of screwing around with tax incentives and sewer service in Freetown Mass, is in an agreement to buy the big former Pabst/Stroh/Schaefer brewery in Fogelsville, PA, outside Allentown, from Diageo, who is currently using it to manufacture Smirnoff Ice. If all goes correctly, the purchase will take place in Spring, 2008.

I toured this big brewery twice in the early 1990s, and it's a beauty, a showpiece, built to be toured. I've heard it called "the last big brewery built in the United States." I'm just really happy to see it going to guys like Boston Beer.

Will this cause even more grousing about "Boston" Beer Company not being from Boston? Sure. So what? Like I keep saying: I don't drink that. I drink beer. Cheers to Samuel Adams, Jim Koch, and the guys who kept the lights on in Fogelsville (and to Stephen Beaumont, who passed this on to me).

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The August Buzz: Peanuts & Salmon

The new Buzz is up on my site: an open letter to single-source beer drinkers in general, and sportswriter Norman "Couch Slouch" Chad in particular. Chad's looking for a "new beer" to replace the Rolling Rock he drank for over 25 years, and I've got a radical suggestion: how about all of them? Seems obvious to me, but I hope I provide some arguments to crack open some brand prejudices.

Chill, Craft, & Corona: What's Hot

I've got a new BeverAge piece up on "hot beers." It's a trade piece, so it's more about selling, but there's some good stuff on how the beer biz is working, and where it's headed in the near future.

And yes, I'm working on a new Buzz. Should be up later today; I'll let you know. Not much going on in August, travel-wise; I should be able to get some work done, get some blogging in, and get the website book, up-to-date.