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Sunday, January 31, 2010

California Wine is Upside-Down

I'm looking at a story in the LA Times about California's wine sales for 2009. Take a look. I've excerpted some of the pertinent bits (I'm snipping quite a bit here, but not to shift the context! Do go read the full story):

California's wine industry saw its shipments fall in 2009 -- for the first time in 16 years.
Consumption of wine is up 2.1% nationally, but...the American public was opting for cheaper bulk wine imports from overseas winemakers.
Last year, the state's seven largest producers saw sales overall grow by nearly 7 million cases.
But...overall...California wine shipments fell almost 4%, or by nearly 4 million cases of wine...
Nationwide, the domestic wine market dropped by 3 million cases compared with a year earlier. (Restaurant sales were sluggish too: Wine sales dropped as much as 10% at restaurants across the country.)
Wines from countries such as Argentina, Chile and Australia...bubbled up 87% last year, cornering about 32% of the U.S. market.
I find it fascinating that wine's experience is just about the exact opposite of beer in this economy. Small, high-end brewers are booming, and the big guys are sucking wind. Those high-end beers are selling in more restaurants than ever, including national chains, like Ruby Tuesdays and ESPN Zone. Sales of imported mainstream lagers are generally declining.
What's that mean? Well, for one thing, maybe brewers should be careful about following wine too closely. I've encouraged many craft brewers to read Paul Lukacs's American Vintage to see the blueprint of American wine's success -- focus on quality, talk to chefs rather than managers, develop a language of flavor -- and I still think it's a good idea, but I'm reminded of something Benton Fraser said in Due South: "Never follow a man over a cliff." California specialty/boutique winemakers may have focused too closely on the high end to survive a slowdown, a cautionary tale for some brewers.

Stop making pricey beers? No, absolutely not: it's working...for now, and the money's good. But should you think about adding other strings to your bow? Definitely. The little mammals beat the dinosaurs, you bet. But you don't see mammoths, sabretooth tigers, and giant beavers around any more, do you?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Growing up

I dropped Thomas off at school this morning; he had to take his suit along to change into for a mock trial event this evening. It was a clean, wet, cool morning, brightly sunny, full of promise. He stepped out of the car, got the suit out of the back, and paused. I looked back, and he was calling greetings to friends in the parking lot. Then he ducked his head in, said "Thanks, Dad. See you later," and closed the door. As I pulled away, I saw him in the mirror: tall, slim, smiling, holding his suit in one hand, backpack slung over the other shoulder, dressed in a light tan sport jacket and a pink tie. He looked...ready, ready to run with the advantages I now realize that Cathy's planning and pushing have offered him.

I drove away, musing that his four years at Holy Ghost Prep really have seemed to fly by, just as everyone told us they would at the beginning of his freshman year. I remember that first year, when Thomas matured so quickly; he became more responsible about his schoolwork, he showed signs of the strong ethical character that he would develop, and he became more engaged in dinnertime conversation.

I remember his sophomore year, when victory and tragedy struck his life. He won the state championship in his division in forensics (original oratory) in his first real year of competition, and he showed the cheerful nonchalance that's become a signature for his success. Then during a forensics tournament in Boston, his teammate and classmate, Yuriy Tutko, died suddenly in his hotel room. The team came home together, on the train, and we met them at Trenton. The memorial service at the school was tearful and dignified; students from ten schools came to honor Yuriy. Thomas was a pallbearer at the funeral. I saw the man my son was becoming, and felt his grief, and wept with my own confused mix of emotions.

I remember junior year, as the run to college began, and Thomas struggled with school and with forensics. He would finally beat his academic problems into submission and score well on his SATs, and placed in the quarter-finals in a national forensics tournament. Cathy and I stayed at her mother's home near Poughkeepsie and drove two hours at the crack of dawn -- twice -- to watch him compete. He dated, he went to parties, and really became a teenager. Yes, that means he started to develop the independence that's necessary to develop as a person, but no, that's not a codeword for "sullen and contrary." He remained a good kid; more so, if anything.

I don't remember his senior year; he's in it, and the fall is too close for me to think of it as memories. It's yesterday. I do remember our vacation in August, when we toured colleges in New England and tried to have some fun as well. I remember Thomas at Point Judith, Rhode Island, down on the beach, looking at the rocks and shells on the shore, and looking out across the water for a long time. I'd watched him do that in Bar Harbor two years before, and one of our favorite pictures of him, when he was 12, is the boy framed in trees at the edge of Lake Durant in the Adirondacks, stopped in apprehensive wonder as he looks across the lake at the mountains beyond, limned in the light of early morning. A parent often wonders what their child is thinking; it's those moments when Thomas is looking across the water to the horizon that I find that wonder grips me most strongly.

I sometimes miss the little boy I loved 15 years ago, 12 years ago, 10 years ago. He was sweet, and he sat in my lap and would hold my earlobe as he snuggled up and fell asleep. He would listen intently as I read to him. He held my hand when we walked, he hugged me all the time (he still does, a lot, and that's good). I'm sad, sometimes, to think that I will never, ever see that little boy I loved so much again.

But I would not trade him -- not for a day! -- for the man he has become. The man I saw this morning, standing tall, smiling and confident, in the bright January morning.

Forgive a father's ramblings. If you came here this morning looking for beer or whiskey news, or rantings and ravings, I'm sorry; come back soon, because I've got some good stuff coming about the surprising beer scene in northeast Pennsylvania. But I had to write this today, because sometimes a writer has something inside them that they just have to get out. I understand if it's not your cup of tea.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Like a 5,000 pound pig getting slaughtered...

I was down at Yards about 11 AM today, getting ready to interview Tom Kehoe and Steve Mashington for PA Breweries 4, when there was a hell of a noise that stopped conversation dead in its tracks. It sounded like a gigantic animal screaming, a horrifying sound. We all looked to the brewery -- well, "we", Tom and Mash were already gone, running down the stairs. We would later agree that our first thought had been that a tank had somehow collapsed.

But it was two windows that had blown out. These are the windows around the brewery walls, about eight feet high: two sections blew out, one about 12 feet, the other about 18. The local storm was about at its peak at the time (it had almost wrenched the car door out of my hand when I arrived), and we figured it blew in the window you see in the second picture (the glass was inside), and then the shift in pressure as the wind then blew into the brewery blew the second window out. There was an icestorm of glass on the back street behind the brewery...but no one was rushing to clean it up, because the window next to it was bowed out at the bottom.

I had thought these "windows" were rippled plexi, but as you can see in the third picture, they're glass, almost half an inch thick, and wire-mesh reinforced ("The most brutal glass I've ever seen," Tom said, recalling when they had to cut a hole in one of them).

But there was almost no slack in work. The bottling plant on the other side of the building continued to clatter along. Guys grabbed palletjacks and moved some barrels and kegs that were getting rained on, and calls were made to insurers and contractors and "glass guys"... And a soaking wet Mashington sat me down at the bar (of the new tasting area, very nice, very casual), and said, "Let's do the interview." So we did. Life -- and beer -- goes on.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

4 hours in Pittsburgh, and many miles to run

Work on Pennsylvania Breweries 4 continues, and I wrapped up western PA last, the week before last. Sorry, this took a while to find the time to write. Briefly, here's what happened.

I left the house early Wednesday morning, the 13th, running down the Turnpike with the dawn at my back. 300-some miles later, I pulled into the snowy parking lot at Penn Brewery. That's right, Penn, the place I wrote this obituary for in November. What a spring I had in my step as I walked down Vinial Street to the offices, and what a pleasure it was to have former -- and current -- marketing manager Eric Heinauer open the door. Tom Pastorius came down the stairs and the first thing I said to him was "Congratulations." I met the three investors -- Linda Nyman, Sandy Cindrich, and Corey Little -- some very talented and experienced people who are bringing a lot to the table, and was introduced to brewmaster Andy Rich...again. Er, I, um, think I met you at the bock tapping in 2008, but, um, I was pretty banged up by then. "Hey, it's okay, so was I. It was a good one."

Tom showed me around the brewery. The kegging line was sold, the bottling line was sold, and the furnace is broken: so no kegs, no bottles, and no restaurant. But...the new kegging line is shipping from Germany, new bottlling line will be in soon, and they plan to have their beer back on the market shortly (bottles by the end of January, kegs sooner -- maybe now?). The restaurant? Early April. It's been rough -- "The first few weeks," Tom said, "all I did was write checks and apologize to suppliers." -- and yes, they did break down and brew a pale ale to have beer ready in time for a sneak preview on December 30th, but Penn is back. And it's damned good to have them. I bid them farewell and took off.

I tooled down to South Side to the Hofbräuhaus and my meeting with brewer Eckhard Kurbjuhn. That went well, lubricated by a half liter of the new hellerbock -- so smooth, malty and solid, good eating. We talked about the place, he was quite forthcoming, and they're doing well. The place was almost empty -- and when a place that size is empty, it is EMP-TEE -- but it was an early weekday afternoon in January, eh? We took a look at the kitchen (Huge!), the dining room (nice), and the brewery...which is right out there in the open anyway. A good time, an affable guy, and I moved on.

I cut across the Hot Metal Bridge, cut across town, and was soon churning up the long hill out of town on I-279, windows open and music blaring (it was up to 34 degrees!). Got into Slippery Rock and walked into North Country. Love that place, with all the amazing woodwork and the determinedly populist feel to it (er, and the really good beer may have something to do with it), and it was starting to roll at 4:30 in the afternoon. I saw Bob McCafferty at the bar, so I walked up, we bullshit each other a bit, and then Sean McIntyre grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, and we all went upstairs (which is open now, I hadn't known!) to have some beers. He had one on, the Honey Bear Brown that was simply unique, I'd never tasted anything like it: a beer made with honey and brown malt that just kind of expanded in my mouth. I got a growler of that to take home.

I would have loved to stay a lot longer, but I had one more stop that day: Voodoo Brewery, in Meadville. Matt Allyn wasn't there -- more about that to come -- but brewer Justin Dudek was in the house (I'd met him back in November) and we drank a bit and talked a bit. Voodoo's got beer in the tanks, but things are kind of juggling right now, with Matt Allyn's attention split between Voodoo, Blue Canoe, and that new project I hinted about...oh, hell, you probably all know anyway: Matt's brewing at Straub now. So what's going to happen with these other two projects is not something that's pinned down certain. Justin is certainly capable of doing the brewing, but Matt was doing a lot of traveling promoting Voodoo. We'll see. The beer's excellent, I'll tell you that.

On Justin's suggestion, I ate dinner at Chovy's in Meadville, right across the street from my motel (cheap, clean, America's Best Value Inn, good basic room). It was good! I had a spinach and feta thing on pasta, and it was delish with the glass of Italian white I got. Had a good time talking to the folks at the bar, and then went back to my room, read a bit, did some e-mailing, and went to bed. It was really cold, and I snugged down.

Next morning, I got up fairly early, headed up the road, and took Minerva's suggestion for a bagel breakfast in Edinboro. As you can see, it was pretty damned cold. In fact, while there was snow all along here, driving down the hill into Edinboro added almost a foot to what was on the ground. They apparently have their own little microclimate, and extra snow is not uncommon. It was awesome.

On up the road to BrewErie, where I was meeting owner Chris Siriani and brewer Gary Burleigh at 9. I parked, crunched my way over the snowpack to the door, and got there just as Gary was opening the door. He looked at me, very seriously, and said, "You didn't leave your dad in the car again, did you?" NO, I assured him quickly -- Gary recalled that my father usually went along on these trips as backup driver (and fulltime tourist) -- and I told him about my father's health (which is actually holding up pretty well lately; he's eating well, and sounds just like the old Sir on the phone, even looks good), but said that it's almost like he's still with me: he's calling or texting me every two hours! (And I'm glad you do, Sir, keep it up.)

We had coffee, and talked about how the BrewErie had come together in this big space that was the original home to Erie Brewing (as Hoppers), then a fine dining restaurant with beer called Porters, and then the brewpub. I tasted beers (safe to say Gary's not a hophead, but he does keep an IPA on that satisfies "the most finicky drinkers," he said with a wry grin. He also had a Girl Stout Cookie, a chocolate peppermint stout that was surprisingly accurate. I like it when brewers fool around like that.

A short run down to Erie Brewing was next, and Jim Hicks gave me the lowdown on the new owners and the new direction. The new direction? Bold. Erie's doing casks regularly, they've got a whole -bender line now -- Railbender, Ryebender, Smokebender, and Oakbender -- twisted off their flagship Railbender Scottish ale, they're messing with Ol' Red, too...and Jim is pushing hard for some sour beers. They're doing well: like I just saw in the Wyoming Valley, craft beer acceptance has come to Erie. There are a lot of places putting crafts on, and Erie Brewing's picking up a lot of that. They're looking at the in-house tasting room thing (a lot of brewers I've talked to for this said "That thing Tröegs did"), with a small menu and pint sales. Erie's got money, they've got direction, and they've got Jim.

I got out, had to get down to Straub for my next to last stop of what was already a long day. I left Erie about 1:00, and it was warm, up to 42! Sunny, fresh, music, air, and man, I got east of town, and it got cold again! It was a chilly but pretty run across the southwest corner of New York and then south to St. Marys through the Allegheny National Forest. I love this part of the state (except for the traffic lights in the small towns), and the Jetta just purred.

I got to Straub right on time: 3:30. And there was Matt Allyn waiting at the office door, starting to wonder where I was. We went right in to the Eternal Tap (as I said on Facebook: Many things change. Some are Eternal.) and got some beers. Pretty soon we were joined by Dan Straub and Bill Brock. Bill (also a family member; his mother is a Straub) is the new CEO. There have been some big changes at Straub, and Bill's one of them. He's the first CEO not to come up from the floor. And Matt, who is "interim brewmaster" -- yes, Tom Straub has left the company -- is the first brewmaster not to come up from the floor. "It's culture shock," Bill admitted.

They stressed, however, that there was no intention to change the beer. Matt's working on the process, but the recipe, the formulation stays the same. "50% of what's done here," said Matt, "is standard German lager technique. About 30% is modern techniques. And about 20% is "we do it because it works." We're re-evaluating everything. Most of it we'll keep, some of it we'll change." It sounded like most of what they were looking to improve was the shelf-life, and what was, in the opinion of most of the people in western PA I talked to about this, a persistent problem with diacetyl. I can't speak to that: I have learned that I have a very high sensory threshold for diacetyl, and just don't -- can't, actually -- smell it until it's overwhelming. That's one thing they're working on, anyway.

Another thing is a line of craft lagers. "Not a lot, not too much," said Brock. "We don't want to re-invent ourselves, or re-introduce ourselves. we don't want to do ales. We don't do ales. We're Straub. We've got all this modern equipment now, and we're looking at it, and thinking, "What would Peter Straub do?"" And Matt said, "I think he'd spend about half an hour looking at everything, and marveling at it, and then he'd say, "Let's brew, let's get to work."" I like to think he's right. When will we see this stuff? This year, maybe by September. Should be fun.

Then we went back to the Eternal Tap, and had a couple beers. It was great hanging out with these guys, and listening to Dan and Bill tell brewery and family stories. But...I had to go, because I had to get home. I did, however, stop on the way at Olde New York in State College, which I'd heard about many times: it's owned by the folks who ran the late, beloved Schnitzel's in Bellefonte. Well...the atmosphere isn't Schnitzel's, nothing is, but the beer and the food was pretty damned good. I was there to meet my buddy Sam Komlenic, because I had something for him: a bottle of George T. Stagg I got for him because his State Store had none (I got it at my State Store, so don't go thinking I went out-of-state and got illegal or something). It was a pleasant dinner -- always is with Sam -- and then...I drove three hours back home. All done with western PA. A week later, I'd be done with the northeast. The book's continuing...

Bad news, Good news

Bad news first: Michael Klein says the "brewpub" in negotiations at Liberty Place is a chimera.
A "brewpub" coming to Liberty Place's food court? Not so. Insiders say that the only alcohol-based tenant negotiating a lease is Vintage Irving, the NYC wine bar I told you about last week.
Damn. He also says that Stephen Starr's beer garden, planned to be across from Johnny Brenda's, will be outdoor-only in its first summer, and will not be named "Bier Garten," as rumored in Phoodie (I'd put the link up, but Phoodie appears to be down right now...) Which is a relief. (BTW: my insiders say that a beer hall/garden may be coming to Philly in a big way. When I get more, I'll spill, but you're gonna squeal with delight.)

Good news: Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell reports that Yards' tasting room opened Friday night, serving Yards beers (duh), PA wine, and a full menu of chili and grilled cheese sandwiches. Reminds me of the old days at Legend, in Richmond, when you could get chili, omelettes, or chili omelettes.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stone Video; just a great time

I've known Greg Koch for a while now, and done questionable things with him. Now that he's an international man of mystery, he's doing even more questionable stuff (questions like "Why didn't I think of that?" and "How cool is that?"), and just to tease me, sent me a sneak preview link to a video about the trip he and Stone brewer Mitch Steele (...more questionable things) took to Norway and Scotland to brew with the folks at Nøgne Ø and BrewDog. I was skeptical -- come on, another beer porn video? -- and wary -- I think I may have been the only person who ultimately didn't like Greg's "I Am A Craft Brewer" video -- but damned if I didn't enjoy watching this one.

You can too, tomorrow. The first installment will be up on Stone's blog here at 1 PM PST. Have a look. The scenery alone, and the hard ass-pounding Greg takes on the way to lighthouse, is worth your time.

A Brewpub in Center City?

Just saw this in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer, in the Business section, in a story about shifting tenancy at the Shops At Liberty Place:
On Feb. 1, Drexel Medicine is opening a medical center - the Drexel Convenient Care Center - at the site of a former cell-phone store. Negotiations are ongoing for several other spaces, including a brewpub, Pollard said.
A brewpub? Anyone have something they want to tell me? Because if there's one thing America's Best Beer-Drinking City™ needs, it is more brewpubs.

Still alive...

If you're wondering why I've been missing...I've been working. I was in western PA last week visiting breweries (and I've got a report on that underway, and good news on Penn), I wrote about 8,000 words over the weekend and Monday, and did more brewery visits yesterday...and I've got more scheduled tomorrow and Friday. Busy, busy, busy, but not much blogging.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Philadelphia Weekly gets on the PLCB Abolishment bus

The cover feature of the new issue of Philadelphia Weekly is "PA's Disgraceful Liquor Laws," a nicely-done exposition on what's wrong with the Almighty Liquor Code and the Board That Time Forgot. My PLCB blog gets some exposure, and I get my usual turn with the loonies in the comments (Ted Winters? Who the hell is Ted Winters?), but the important thing is that more people get a full dose of just what's wrong about the PLCB: everything.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Consolidation Beat goes on, says MarketWatch

Following up on yesterday's post on the Heineken-FEMSA deal, an article from MarketWatch sees more brewery consolidation to come at the top. (I let you down; should have had this for you, because it's all stuff I knew. Sorry.)
Currently, the four top players control about 50% of the global market. And in his remarks, Heineken CEO Francois van Boxmeer said it is likely they will soon gobble up another 25% between them.

It's out there, waiting to be had. FEMSA's Mexican compadre, Grupo Modelo, is already half-owned by ABIB, and there's a good-sized chunk right there.

There are bumps in the road. The remaining breweries are often owned (or partially-owned) by families or foundations, which will present challenges to a quick acquisition...but it's hardly a dealbreaker; A-B was partly family-owned, after all, as is FEMSA (and Heineken, far as that goes).

Will we see 75% of the world's beer market controlled by two to five companies? What effect will that have on beer prices, on brewing commodities? Why isn't this an anti-monopoly issue?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Heineken buys FEMSA's beer business

Heineken announced today that they have agreed to purchase FEMSA's beer business in the Americas. FEMSA ("Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V.") was founded in 1890, and is Mexico's #2 brewer after Corona-maker Grupo Modelo (the two are pretty much the only brewers in the country, other than a handful of microbrewers).  FEMSA as such is largely unknown among American beer drinkers, but is the brewer of beers like Dos Equis and Tecate, and Heineken USA has been their importer lately.

The purchase was an all-stock deal worth $5.5 billion, and leaves FEMSA owning 20% of Heineken. The only other serious bidder was SABMiller, and their stockholders are breathing a sigh of relief that there wasn't a bidding war. It appears to be a much better fit for Heineken anyway, getting them into the Americas in a big way.

What's this mean for you? Mostly nothing. I think it will have a net negative effect on consumers; prices will go up to pay for these purchases, and the closer we move to an oligopoly of beer -- mainstream beer, of course -- the easier it is to bump up prices. The more mainstream prices go up, the more room there is for craft prices to go up. However, SABMiller head Graham Mackay says it's a net positive, because consumers have more choice (a point I still don't get; more choice because more global brands that taste almost exactly alike have come to their country and are busily crushing the regional brewer?) and better quality (okay, that I can go along with in a strict sense). I'll freely admit that Mackay has much more experience in the biz (HA! Yeah, just a bit...) and is, by all evidence, head and shoulders smarter than I am, so he may have something there...but I suspect it's largely a matter of perspective.

Anyway...again, what's this mean for you? Almost nothing, especially in America. Heineken USA was importing the beers, they'll still be importing them; it's just that they'll also be exporting them at the same time. And, of course, the number of big brewers at the top grows smaller. Which is why I predicted in Ale Street News that within ten years ABIB would be spinning off and breaking up. I wasn't wholly serious about that, but to some extent I am. I don't think these behemoths are going to survive. Government anti-trust units should be poking at them (how much of the U.S. market is controlled by ABIB and MillerCoors?), special brewing units should spin off to run on their own in this new market, and eventually the bankers involved at the top will start acquiring other stuff because there are no more breweries to buy, and the company's identity will be lost -- like Bass -- and they'll start thinking about selling off the beer -- like Bass -- to focus on other operations. At least, that's what I think may happen.

In any case...Heineken USA is now in the import-export business.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Red Chair Redux Reflux

Not to re-review, but I got some samples of this year's bottling of Deschutes Red Chair...and that's where I have to stop typing. Because last year it was Red Chair IPA, as you can see to the right. And now Deschutes is calling it Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale, as you can see to the left (and bottling in 12 oz.). Well...mostly they're calling it that, as you can see on the label and on their website. But as you can see on their website, they're still calling it Red Chair IPA.

"But Lew," you say, "that's just a blog entry from when they first introduced it, before the shaming of hop-crazed Cascadians forced them to ratchet down the labeling from an IPA because the hop resins contained in this delicious brew didn't leave scar tissue on drinkers' tongues! Don't hold Deschutes responsible!" Okay, maybe that's just a blog entry...but what about this? This is where Deschutes shows their Bond Street Series of "hop-forward ales," and where Red Chair (IPA) is shown as the May to September seasonal. (And don't tell me that's just at the pub, either: it's showing a 22 oz. bottle, instead of the 12 oz., and the NWPA entry shows Red Chair as the January to April seasonal.).

So what's going on? Are the beers different? Did they change Red Chair? Is it...less hoppy? The beers are the same, just a different label. I'm deliberately making a mountain out of a molehill -- come on, we all know it's just that Deschutes hasn't got the kinks of the product switch to 12 oz./name change/portfolio shift out of their website, and who really cares: it's the same beer, and it's available three months earlier, so yay, you know? -- so I get a chance to tell you again...this effin' beer rocks, no matter what it says on the label. I mean, damn, this is some excellent, great-drinking beer, and I wish I had more than one bottle left. I wish really hard. Yum. Thanks, Deschutes. (Is it time for Twilight yet?)

Update: well...I was wrong. It is a different recipe. The "Northwest Pale Ale" is actually hoppier than the IPA version, at least, more IBUs. I did have that last bottle last night, though, and it definitely does taste great.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Drie Fonteinen to stop brewing lambic...but it's not all bad

Joe Stange has a beautiful post at his Thirsty Pilgrim blog about Drie Fonteinen owner Armand Debelder's decision to stop brewing his own lambics. He will, however, continue to blend, which is what 3F was known for originally anyway, and he will also continue to distill. Go read the details, it's a nice story that should bring a smile to your face.

$1 Pilsners in the Lehigh Valley today!

Hey, it snowed! That means dollar draft pilsners at BrewWorks on the Green (3400 W Tilghman St., by the Allentown Golf Course, (484) 223-2020)) all day. The "secret password" is "Pee Wee's Playhouse." Now go get some snowy pilsner delishishness!

By the way...

If any of you are looking for the same flurry of blogging I did the last two Januarys to get to my self-imposed goal of an average of a post a day -- and I'm pretty sure none of you are, because I have more respect for you than that, but still -- it ain't happening this year. I'm already well over the average with 387 posts since last January 31, so I can just blog normally at this point. What a relief!

Back to work...

Jeff Becker

I just got the news that Beer Institute CEO Jeff Becker died at home yesterday after a long fight with cancer. He was a great leader for the industry: he was energetic, optimistic, and not afraid to stand up to New Drys -- just yesterday I came across my notes from a Pennsylvania legislature hearing on underage drinking I attended in 2007; Jeff testified that we didn't need new laws so much as a new way of presenting moderate drinking to young adults, a policy I whole-heartedly agree with. Jeff Becker was smart, engaged, and honest, and he was not owned by any one part of the industry; exactly the kind of person the beer industry needed. He will be missed, greatly, both for his sincerely winning personality and for the good he did the industry.

There's a great interview Andy Crouch did with him here. I join Andy in thinking in sympathy of Jeff's family and friends, and so should we all. We lost one of the good guys.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Old Bart Strikes Again

I hadn't had enough Yards Old Bart New Year's Eve at Dawson Street. But I didn't really want to drive the whole way into Philly again...

Luckily I had another option: Tuesday night, Old Bart Day 6, featured a firkin of the stuff at the Hulmeville Inn, which is cool, the hangout of a bunch of buddies, and ridiculously close to my home. So I rolled down the hill, and found the usual suspects, plus two Yards bigshots, Steve Mashington and Tom Kehoe. And yes, that's a picture of Tom, with a firkin that has a picture of Tom's head attached...along with a wig and a black cape of sorts, and thereby hangs a tale.

The Hulmeville has a reputation for swarming firkins and draining them in short order. No way that's happening with 10+% Old Bart, says Kehoe! Oh, yeah, it will, says owner Jeff Lavin. By the time the trash-talking was done, a wager was made. If the firkin took more than 45 minutes to drain, Jeff would put all of Yards beers on tap at once, an all-Yards week. But if it took less than that, Kehoe would "dance with the firkin."

No suspense: it took 31 minutes (and I helped!), including the three pints of yeasty mung some brave souls took to help the cause ("Don't get far from the men's room after that," I overheard (Jeff had a reserve pin of Old Bart, and replaced their beer smoothies, no charge)). Kehoe was one hell of a sport: he danced with the firkin, first to "The Time of My Life" and then, quite appropriately, to "Dancin' With Myself."

The beer was great, again. "We're gonna have to bottle this next year," Mash said to me. Well, yeah! And make more of it, too! Enjoy the dance...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cheese, Gromit! At Dawson Street!

The Dawson Street Pub was one of the pioneering beer bars in Philly (as Uncle Jack has told us time after time), but over time, lost a bit of their mojo. I've been stopping in again, and you should know that the mojo has returned, and you ought to stop in and check it out, at Dawson Street Pub: Version 4.0, as Dave Willby calls it these days.
Not only do they have the aforesaid mojo (proof of which you can see here), but they also have cheese, yummy delicious artisan cheese they get from the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop. On Thursdays, they're pairing cheeses with beers, in small flights of each: 1 oz. of cheese, 3 oz. of beer. Here's what's on for tomorrow night, a $12 flight:

Duvel Green and Camembert de Normandie, France (This is an easier-drinking variation of Duvel’s Belgian Golden Ale. Duvel Green is a Blonde Ale that is pale in color, but not in taste. Its aroma is mild, but distinguishable with hints of herbs and hops that will work well with this mature rich cheese. Camembert is a soft, creamy cow’s mild cheese with an earthy nose and salty taste. These characteristics will complement the citrus and sweet malt in the body of the beer.)

La Chouffe Blonde and Brie, France (Unfiltered and fruity, this Blonde Ale will settle nicely with the creaminess of this French Brie. Notice the spice of coriander that will pick up the softness of this cow’s milk cheese. Brie can be complex on its own, but this light hops will complement some of its earthy elements.)

Maredsous 8 and Emmental, Switzerland (The 8 is a rich mahogany-brown Dubbel Ale with hints of dark fruit and chocolate. The sweet nose of this hard cow’s milk cheese, along with its detectable fruity taste, will complete the dry, warm finish of this full-bodied brew.)
A little something different, eh? Now consider that you can, if you'd like, get these cheeses on a juicy Dawson Street burger. And did I mention that they still are running three cask beers at all times? Mojo, baby.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Poll at the PLCB Blog

The PLCB is kind of like the Bermuda Triangle of Harrisburg: things tend to ... disappear around it. Go take the poll on my other blog (Why the PLCB Should be Abolished) on which of those things you miss the most.

Talk about a wild hair...

I admire this. This guy Drew gets a wild hair up on a Friday afternoon, and bolts out of Pittsburgh with his girlfriend, hell-bent for Chicago and beer. On the way they visit Jolly Pumpkin, Dark Horse, Arcadia, Bell's, Hopcat, and Founders, then grabbed a quick one at Goose Island, before getting a deep dish at Lou Malnati's and...getting on the road straight back to Da Burgh.

Look, go read it. My hat's off to these two: this was one balls-out beer trip.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stonch closes the blog

One of the blogs that has been on my blogroll almost from the very first day I started STAG, "Stonch's Beer Blog," (later "Jeffo's Beer Blog") has closed up shop. From January 3, 2007, when he started his blog, Jeff Bell went from being a City lawyer who was grinningly fascinated by beer -- he had a webcam inside a fermenting tub of homebrew at one point -- to being the landlord of The Gunmakers, a London pub with a changing lineup of cask ales, lagers (good ones, because Jeff does love a good lager, bless him), and the occasional cask cider. Quite an evolution, and he took us along for the ride. It was one of only three blogs I followed. And now, on January 3, 2010, he made his last post.

I'm sad to see it go, but as Uncle Jack said, the man went out at the top of his game. He's got other things to do. Good on you, Jeff: cheers!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Jersey, Hunt-style

I've told you about the annual busman's holiday* I do -- The Hunt -- and this year it fell to just Les Gibbs and me. We decided to do something completely different, and headed out -- after a leisurely cup of coffee and a split bottle of Flying Fish Imperial Espresso Porter -- for New Jersey. As you can see by the picture, our first stop wasn't even beer-related, but more about "laying in a base": Calandra's Bakery in Newark, which was, to use a simile that came easily to our Berks County Hunt-trained minds, kind of like a Dietrich's Meats of bread.

It was crazy delicious stuff. We got four loaves of bread, a dozen canoli (which I dutifully took home in their cardboard box lovingly tied with red-and-white string, and of which eight were gone before I even got a shot at them, my family are pigs!), and some eat-on-the-spot goodies: a custard tart for me and and some pignoli sweet bun for Les. The French baguette was still steaming when I ripped it open in the car, gawd, it was good!

From there, we struggled with traffic to the excellent Helmer's Cafe in Hoboken, and managed to find parking pretty quickly. I got some Krusovice Cerne (a dark lager the bartender seemed to think was a spiced holiday beer; I liked it) and sausage-stuffed mushrooms; Les joined me on the Cerne and got a slice of leberkäse, a first for him that he decided was very much to his liking, especially with the German mustard that was served with it. We had a good time, but decided to move on; I could have stayed there for a while.

We struggled with traffic to the Star Bar in Jersey City, only to find that it didn't open till later. Okay...I was about done with the metro area traffic, so we aimed the Passat for Montclair and Tierney's. I found Tierney's when I was working on New Jersey Breweries, and I'd been hankering to go back again. It was a bustling day, the bartender was handling the whole place on his own (and trying to get a late lunch), but he did get us our drinks (I went light with a Guinness, Les had a Cricket Hill American Ale). Tierney's is solid and true, and we hated to leave.

But The Hunt is about moving on, so we headed out for the Stirling Hotel. It was hopping, at least in the bar, and we managed to snag one stool out at the far end. Great taps, good bottles, and I grabbed a Stoudt's Winter, and then went to drinking water. Very knowledgeable staff here, one of the reasons I wanted to return, and this time I got to meet more of the patrons. We had a great time (although the kids who piled into the table behind us were kind of a pain), and I'd be happy to go back again.

Onward! It was getting nasty wicked cold by now, in the low 20s and a whistling wind. When we pulled into the parking lot in front of the Warrenside Tavern, I was ready to sit and warm up for a, and hit the head. I left Les at the bar and went to see a man about a dog. On my way back, I walked by the cooler in the back. The Warrenside's taps hadn't impressed me before, but the bottle selection was pretty damned good. Wow, no longer: huge open spaces in the cooler!

I did spot some Fuller's Porter, though, so that's what I ordered. When the bartender brought it, I asked her: is the beer supply low, or are you cutting back? Cutting back, she said, there's a recession on. Too bad; almost every other bar I know of (like Helmer's, and the Stirling...) has found that craft beers have been the thing that people keep buying. But hey, I'm not a bar owner! It was a nice place to warm up, and the Porter tasted good. But it did hone my hankering for English beer, which made up my mind for the next, last stop...

The Ship Inn was doing a pretty good business, families, folks at the bar. We got glasses of Best Bitter, and tucked into dinner: Shepherd's Pie for Les, a Lancashire Cheese and Onion pie for me, solid and tasty. We ate, we drank, we talked...and then drove home, laughing and talking some more. It was a very good day.

* the link's to an Urban Dictionary definition that -- gasp! -- includes no sex, scatology, repetition, racism, homophobia, or repetition -- will wonders never cease? 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New -- whew, what a beer day!

That's this morning, drinking coffee and eating sticky buns in the kitchen because we had so many people sleeping on the floors we couldn't get at the dining room table. Lots of family over for the holiday!

Didn't get started on beer until about 1:00, but we've caught up fast. So far we've plowed through a big quarter of Pennsylvania brews: Otto's Jolly Roger Impie Stout (not over-hopped, more like that wonderful tarry character of what I think of as classic impies), Voodoo Brewery Wynona's Big Brown Beav -- Brown Ale (quite damned tasty, and a favorite during the Penn State squeaker over LSU in the, um, Capital One Bowl (was that right?)), and a delicious dynamic duo of Weyerbacher QUAD and Fourteen (or XIV, if you prefer, and by the time you're done with'll agree to anything). Woof. Might be time to break out the growler of Angus, the birthing beer for Andrew Maxwell's son (from Rivertowne Pourhouse). And let me tell you: a great day watching the Mummers! Thanks, Comcast!