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Friday, December 6, 2013

Yelp Crusade: you're Funny!

I make no excuses: I use Yelp. I don't use it as a noob, I have developed Yelp-reading skills -- Yelp Fu, to use the parlance -- and do pretty well with it as a guide. It works best if there are at least twelve reviews to look at, and usually what I do is go to the lowest reviews. Check them for commonality, check them for obvious bias, check them for the kind of idiocy we're here to talk about (see below), and then weigh that against the good reviews. If there are a lot of low reviews, that's not good...unless the place is exactly what you're looking for. Not everyone's looking for the same thing.

Still, we all know that there are douchebag reviews on Yelp. You know what I'm talking about: the vegetarian that gives a 1-star review to a BBQ place, the guy who's obviously dissing the place because his ex-GF is a waitress there, the overachiever who's down on everything from their hometown, anyone who talks about what "the hubby/wifey" likes, the ding-dong who's pissed because the place won't let their 18-month-old sit at the bar, the "I'm an expert on (insert ethnicity here) food, and this was (and sometimes they end there, but more often they add ) not authentic," and so on. And usually I look at those, and think, bullshit, you tiny little person, and ignore them. But Yelp doesn't let you actually say that to them, much as I'd like to.

So I'm starting a new thing. Any time I see one of their stupid reviews, ESPECIALLY the ones that are oh-so-serious or angry? I'm marking it as "Funny." I encourage you to join me...assuming you ever get within sniffing distance of Yelp.We can make it our signal to each other: determinedly serious review ("These people know nothing about canine health if they expected my dog to eat leftovers that weren't refrigerated") with a "Funny" vote? That's a "PSSSST! This guy's fulla crap, pass it on!"

See you in the Funny papers.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Prohibition: deader than the Dinosaurs? Not quite...but we're working on it

Let me just blow the cobwebs off, and...

Hey! I am still alive after all. Most blogs don't come back after three months dead time, but this is not most blogs! And while it's "just" an infographic, this is more important than most infographics, because it's packed with real facts, not guesses and BS. It came from my friends at DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.

This is about REPEAL! When Prohibition was smacked back into a deep dark Cave O' Shame for all the lies it told, damage it caused, and joy it prevented...and it's never come back out, because Prohibition just doesn't work. This "great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose," was tested on the whole country, as if we were lab rats in some Skinner Box, so the bluenoses could prove to us that booze was the source of all evil. They were wrong, and once the good people of America realized it, they righted the wrong, and Happy Days Were Here Again.

So on December 5th, we're gonna party like it's 1933. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Government Shutdown's odd effects on booze

Now that the blog's back to looking normal...

Just a couple quick notes on the government shutdown. The shutdown is affecting the ATTTB, the licensing agency that covers beer, wine, and spirits: inspections and label approvals being part of that. That's affecting booze, and how we get it.

First, it's stopping new labels/brands from being approved. In specific cases, not good; brewers and distillers need to get their new products on the market. In general? It's kinda nice to have a little breathing room as a reviewer.

Second, it's stopping new brewers and distillers from getting their inspections and opening. Not good.

But the shutdown is also causing people to consider: nonessential workers are furloughed? Why do we have nonessential workers at all? I kid, somewhat, as it's all down to individual definitions of "nonessential." And "essential" is different from "desirable," "helpful," or even "necessary." So, it's a charged discussion.

Okay, back to work!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Moving On

There is going to be a major change in this blog.

I'm going to stop writing it...mostly.

I have accepted a full-time position as managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine, which starts today. Part of the terms of employment were that my writing is to be exclusive to the magazine, so I agreed to stop writing further about beer and whiskey on this blog.

I will still be writing occasionally about personal travel, and since I'm still very much a beer and whiskey drinker, there will be talk about that. But I'll be writing tasting notes and trend analysis elsewhere. An exception was made for the Session Beer Project blog, and it will continue, so there's that.

It's been fun. It's been an education. I thank you all for reading, and I hope some of you will stick around for the next chapter. I'll have some information for you next year about a project I'm currently wrapping up: my first whiskey book, titled Tasting Whiskey, from Storey Publishing, due out next year about this time.

Quick nap before continuing to write more Tasting Whiskey...

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Parker's Heritage Collection 2013, J. Walker Platinum, and some Monkey Shoulder

Got a sample of the latest Parker's Heritage Collection, the Promise of Hope single barrel bottling. 10 years old, 96 proof, top floors of Rickhouse EE (Parker's favorite), no barrel number. And I gotta say...just smelling this after having some Elijah Craig 21 last night (a pretty good night; more on that shortly) reminds me that I just plain like bourbon under 15 years old better than the older stuff everyone's peeing themselves over these days.

If you're expecting tasting notes... I'm minded not to say. Parker told me once that he doesn't understand how people can taste things like mangoes, or leather in whiskey; 'I only put two things in it,' he said, 'corn and oak. I taste corn, and oak.'

Cheers, Parker. I taste corn. And oak. It's made them taste so damned good!

Now, about last night... I got a sample of Johnnie Walker Platinum, too. But they wouldn't ship it to Pennsylvania because of our stoopid liquor laws, so my friend Jim Carlucci agreed to receive it across the river at his home in Trenton, and that's where I went to pick it up, and, you know, have a dram with my man Jim!

I don't usually include schwag shots, but this is just too cool; they sent the bottle (and a flydrive with pix and descriptions, and a coaster) in an aluminum briefcase. Nora's lusting after it, I think.

Platinum is an 18 year old blend, and has a suggested retail of $110...roughly halfway between Black and Blue, so to speak. Jim's not a big Scotch drinker, but he was eager to try it; score one for the metal briefcase and the sharp-looking bottle. I poured two drams. Sherried malt, toffee, fresh fruit pie, and a sophisticatedly reserved smoke. An elegant dram on the palate, as the malt and toffee/fudge comes out more, and that smoke curls around at the back. Could be just the right drink at some moments; probably quite good with cheese and nuts. Only thing is...I kind of have the sneaking suspicion that Platinum is for people who can afford but just don't understand Blue. Maybe I'm wrong, but it tweaks at the back of my mind. Not going to stop me from finishing the dram, though (I've poured another tonight...)

Next we had Grant's Monkey Shoulder, a blend of their three malts: Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Kininvie. I tweeted on this: "Fruit, spice, baked desserts, dry malt." I'll add that it had a very pleasingly full mouthfeel, a real roll-around-the-palate sensation. An enjoyable dram indeed, and Jim was smacking his lips; hey, maybe I do like Scotch! It's like beer: if you think you don't like it, here, try this...

Then I hit him blindside: Danfields 21, a delicious bottling from Black Velvet that doesn't come to the U.S. market, and man, that's a shame. Luscious, sweet, with a spicy soupçon of rye; when we toured Black Velvet back in June, and went out for dinner with the distillery staff, we tore into doubles of this at dinner, and just loved it. If you see it at Duty Free, get it, or get a Canadian friend to mule some in.

We wound up the night with the Elijah Craig 21 I mentioned above (Barrel 41). I've never been a huge fan of the EC 18 year old; I'm unabashedly in love with the EC 12, and have said so frequently. This 21 year old reminded me why. Good, but...strong oak in the nose, pinching wood on the palate. The broadness of it saves it, but it's not one I'd reach I will for that Parker's Heritage 10 year old. I've gone back to that, and I'm drinking it now. I do like that.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Trends, and the Trendy People Who Are Trending Them

A rare cross-posting from my Session Beer Project blog, because there's more here than just session beer. 

"Not Even Justin Timberlake Can Save Bud Light Platinum"
You know how I know session beer is the smart new trend for craft brewers?

Because the big brewers are making higher ABV beers.

Check out this story in Ad Age. ABInBev and Miller Coors are betting big on boozier beers.

That appears to be part of the playbook for MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev, which have turned to pricier, higher-alcohol line extensions to recapture share from growing liquor brands. The latest entry: Miller Fortune, which will debut next year at 6.9% alcohol by volume with a marketing strategy aimed at luring millennial males during nighttime drinking occasions.

The brew, in the works for months, follows A-B InBev's recent launches of Bud Light Platinum and Budweiser Black Crown, which both check in at 6% ABV, compared with 4.2% for most light beers. The goal for brewers is to reach variety-seeking drinkers whose habits lead them to the liquor shelf and away from beers their fathers drank. 
(Can anyone tell me what the latest sales curves are like on Platinum? Thought I heard they sucked. Oh, here it is: "Not Even Justin Timberlake Can Save Bud Light Platinum")

Guys, guys, guys...People don't want beer with more alcohol. They want beer with more flavor. And Bud Light Platinum doesn't have beer flavor, it has added flavor, artificial flavor. Session beers have real flavor, and that's what people want. Good luck with the big beers; you're only about eight years behind the curve.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Will it fall? YES, it will

Joe Stange has a great piece in DRAFT magazine, called "Will it fall?" about the current boom in craft beer and craft brewery construction. Go read it, and then let's think about it.

I've got two things to say about this, and I'll save the important one for last. But first, this quote bothered me: 
“What the industry is afraid of is low quality, and that will taint the quality of craft beer overall,” says Jeff Schrag, owner of Mother’s Brewing, a regional microbrewery that opened in 2011 in Springfield, Mo. “But I don’t know,” he adds, looking thoughtful. “There’s a lot of beer now that’s tainting the image of craft beer.”
Really? "a lot"? I am coming across more poorly-made beers than I have in quite a while -- after running into them all-too-often in the mid-1990s -- but it's still a very small amount, a small percentage compared to what I was getting back then (and I have to lay some of them off -- still -- to bad tap maintenance at bars, though that's better also). So I'm wondering if what we're talking about here is more about "beer that doesn't live up to the wild expectations of alpha beer geeks." Big difference.

I'm thinking about that a lot, especially after a tweetstream I was involved in yesterday about the definition of "craft beer." At one point, people started talking about "gateway" beers, because we were talking about Blue Moon, and I had said that no matter whether you thought it was "craft" or "crafty" (the Brewers Association's cute term for beers that come from breweries they don't like), it was introducing a LOT of people to the wider world of beer, and they often went on to other crafts from there. So, said one person, it's a gateway beer. 

I have a problem with that term. Are all witbiers gateway beers? And American wheat, and hellesbier, and blonde ale, and kölsch, and pilsner, and (insert the beer you think isn't as good as IPA or imperial stout or Belgian strong or sour ale here), and -- of course -- Fat Tire and Boston Lager, are they all just gateway beers? If you say it that way, "Oh, they're gateway beers," aren't you essentially saying that they don't measure up?

We're getting too wrapped up in this whole what is/what isn't thing. Step back. Stop telling people that the beer they're drinking is the wrong beer, stop insisting that they drink what you want them to drink. That's the same shit you all got pissed off about when the big brewers did it. When I was a IT buyer for a pharmaceutical 20 years ago, if a supplier started bad-mouthing another vendor, I showed them the door. Tell me about your products. Don't shit on the other guy's. Let's stay focused on the positive.

Now, the second thing... "Will it fall?" Yes, most definitely. Allow me to explain, though it should be obvious. Back in April, I visited the Glenlivet distillery, and walked around it with their "Guardian of Malt," the wonderfully affable Ian Logan. We talked about the boom in Scotch whisky.

"The last downturn was in the mid-1980s," he said. "[Glenlivet's parent company] Chivas just kept turning out spirit, right through the downturn, and now Glenlivet is set with ample supplies of aged whisky." Unlike most of their competitors, he was too kind to add.

"It will turn down again," he then added, matter-of-factly. "It always does. These things are all cyclical, and there are limiting factors on how big it can get." We talked about those limiting factors, but they're really whisky-oriented, and not relevant here...except for capital. Capital is always a limiting factor; how much money can you borrow, at what rate? Capital's been relatively cheap for quite a while, and that's starting to change.

But take it from an industry that has a much longer perspective on this than craft brewing; yes, craft brewing will eventually take a downturn. It's inevitable. Light beer did, and as recently as 2003, that still looked unstoppable. Vodka will. No, really, it will, eventually. And so will craft beer. Now, it may take ten years, it may take twenty, and some brewers will be hit harder than others, will happen. Tastes change, perceptions change, economies change.

Should you plan for it? As a drinker, certainly not. We older farts survived years in a craft beer wasteland; we can teach you the skills you'll need when it happens. But don't live that way now! As Crocodile Dundee said of desert fare; "You can live on it, but it tastes like shit." Live for the moment!

Should brewers, bars, wholesalers plan for it? Well, some. Think harder about expansion plans, and debt in general. But...we had plenty of warning signs the last time around. Keep your ears and eyes open, and take off the rose-colored glasses. This will not last forever...but it may easily last through your next expansion cycle. Pay attention, and you should be okay.

And remember: when I say "fall," I'm talking about retrenchment, a dip, not a disappearance. The few-and-far-between days of breweries we knew back in the 80s and early 90s? That's not going to happen again in our lifetimes. 

But yeah. It will fall. Breweries will close. People will drink something else. YOU might even drink something else, hard as that is to believe now. 15% growth just can't go on forever. Happens to everything.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Session No. 78: Your Elevator Pitch For Beer

The Session is a monthly event for the beer blogging community, started by Stan Hieronymus of the Appellation Beer blog. This is how it works: on the first Friday of each month, beer bloggers write about a predetermined topic. A different blog is chosen to host each round of The Session. The host blog selects a topic, and then posts a roundup of all the responses received. For all you need to know about this beer blogging concept, including the upcoming topics, check out the Brookston Beer Bulletin’s blog page about The Session. 

I haven't done the Session for a LONG time, but this one caught my eye. It's hosted by James at Beer Bar Band. Topic: Your elevator pitch for beer.
"You walk into an elevator and hit the button for your destination level. Already in the elevator is someone holding a beer…and it’s a beer that annoys you because, in your view, it represents all that is bad with the current state of beer.
You can’t help but say something, so you confront your lift passenger with the reason why their beer choice is bad."

I decided that a person's beer choice isn't bad; I like the way things are going with the current state of beer. But solitary drinking...drinking with someone else is a lot more fun.

Hey, I see you have a [whatever beer; it really doesn't matter]. Did you get that down in the bar? Yeah? So...if I can ask, why are you taking it back to your room? Seems so lonely.

Bar's full of losers, hey? I hear you...that's pretty much why I'm headed back to my room, but that beer idea, that's a good one.

Tell you what. Beer's such a social beverage, and you seem like a sociable type; I kinda hate to see that go to waste. How about we go back down to the bar, and we can talk for a while over some beers. I'll get the next round.

It would be a relief to talk to someone other than my phone for a bit, right? Oh, we can talk about whatever, I just like conversation with my beer. Politics, sports, your mother-in-law, whatever.

When I go to Europe, I love the way people in bars will just strike up a conversation with you, sit right down at your table, and talk.

Here in the States, folks will go into a bar, watch the TV, and never say a word to each other. Seems like a waste of the centuries of effort that went into making beer the perfect drink for solving the world's problems for an hour or two.

This is your floor? about that beer?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Victory to open a second brewpub (in addition to their second brewery)

Just got news confirming the rumors that Victory will be opening a second brewpub in Kennett Square "in the 2nd quarter of 2014." That's in addition to the large second production facility scheduled to open this fall in Parkesburg, PA. Here's the press release:

Victory in Kennett: Downingtown–based Brewery Announces Second Brewpub Location in Kennett Square, Pa 
DOWNINGTOWN, PA – Victory® Brewing Company (Victory) is pleased to announce that it will extend its craft beer experience in Chester County, signing a lease with Kennett Square Realty and committing to develop an upscale brewpub, with on-premise brewing and a takeout beer component, in Kennett Square, Pa.
“The announcement is a culmination of nearly a year’s worth of planning and effort, and we couldn’t be more excited than we are today to finally confirm for our excited fans, who have been asking, that yes we are in fact headed to Kennett!” said Matthew Krueger, Vice President of Retail Operations.
The nation’s 26th largest craft brewery, Victory’s second brewpub location will occupy all 8,234 square feet of the bottom floor of a four-story, luxury apartment building in Kennett Realty Group’s latest upscale townhome, apartment and retail community, Magnolia Place.  Kennett Realty is owned and operated by the Pia Group, who also own Kaolin Mushroom Farms Inc. and South Mill Mushroom Sales.
Magnolia Place as it will look in a post-Victory world.
“We could not have found a better partner than the Pia family, a group that shared—and are now helping us realize—our vision to bring Victory to Kennett,” Krueger continued, a sentiment echoed by Mike Pia, Jr., developer with the Kennett Realty Group.
“Victory’s mission to provide high quality food, a family-friendly environment, and of course, delicious craft beer, all with a focus on community, ethics and environmental stewardship, made them an ideal partner for this project,” said Pia.  “We’re looking forward to the exceptional experience they’ll bring to the community of Magnolia Place and the greater Kennett Square area.”
Called Victory at Magnolia, the location will accommodate a 250-seat restaurant with space for outdoor dining, and boast a chef inspired menu, featuring some of the company’s signature dishes, including their Hand Tossed Pretzel and Wings of Victory.  The space also will be equipped with a five-barrel brew house to keep new, site-specific brews—along with Victory’s existing lineup of world-class ales and lagers—flowing.
Victory at Magnolia is targeted to open in the second quarter, 2014.  The brewery also is finishing construction on its second production brewery in Parkesburg, Pa., expected to be operational this fall.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Drink Me at Tired Hands...but Be Nice

I found out yesterday that my face -- okay, an interpretation of my face -- is currently adorning the "new beer window" at Tired Hands Brewing in Ardmore, PA. Jean Broillet IV, the owner/brewer, inspired by...something, named his latest beer, a session IPA (Jean makes a lot of hoppy beers (really wonderfully aromatically hoppy beers), a lot of session beers, and a lot of funky beers), Be Nice. It clocks in at 4.2%, and he describes it as a reddish session IPA. When someone -- rightly -- asked if that wasn't the same thing as a pale ale, he responded that it drinks like a DIPA, and he didn't think anyone would guess that it was as low in ABV as it is.

I guess I'm going to have to make the trip out to Ardmore and try this one. I mean, I don't see any way I can not have one (or four) of these, right?! Thanks, Jean, pretty cool!

(A rare cross-posting from The Session Beer Project blog; been doing a lot more posting there these days, you should have a look.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

RIP: Elmer T. Lee

Very sad to have to pass this along from Mark Brown at Buffalo Trace/Sazerac.

July 16, 2013
Dear Friends,
It is with a very heavy heart that I share with you that our beloved Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T. Lee, 93, passed away today, July 16, 2013 after a short illness.
In the world of making really fine whiskey the role of Master Distiller is pivotal, but Elmer's meaning to those he met, came to know, and worked with closely extended far beyond that of a Master Distiller. Elmer defined, in the simplest terms, what it means to be a great American - hard working, self-made, courageous, honest, kind, humble, and humorous.
Elmer was born in 1919 on a tobacco farm near Peaks Mill in Franklin County, Ky. He graduated from Frankfort County High School in 1936 and worked for Jarman Shoe Company until December 1941. He then served with the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II as a radar bombardier on a B-29. After flying missions against Japan through 1945, Elmer was honorably discharged in January 1946. He returned home and studied engineering at the University of Kentucky, where he graduated with honors in 1949.
In September 1949 Elmer began working in the engineering department of the George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort. In 1966, Elmer was promoted to plant superintendent, responsible for all plant operations and reporting to the plant manager. 1n 1969, he became plant manager.
But it was in 1984 that Elmer's contribution to the bourbon industry gained him the most notoriety, when he introduced Blanton's, the world's first Single Barrel Bourbon.  Elmer retired in 1985 but continued to serve as an ambassador for Buffalo Trace, and in 1986 he was honored with his very own single barrel bourbon, Elmer T. Lee. Of course, for those of us who knew Elmer, he never really retired. Every Tuesday we could see Elmer making his rounds at the Distillery in his trademark cap, signing bottles, posters, and other memorabilia at the Gift Shop, visiting his friends in Blanton's Bottling Hall, and tasting bourbons (for quality control purposes!) in the lab.
Elmer was always ready to offer advice, and was a wealth of information that many of us relied on, myself included. Harlen Wheatley would inquire with Elmer when stuck on a mechanical problem, and any historical questions about the Distillery always went to Elmer, who, with his razor sharp memory, could invariably answer.  To all of us, Elmer was a friend, a mentor, and a trusted advisor.
Elmer was known through the bourbon industry for his expertise and knowledge about bourbon whiskey and he received numerous awards and recognition, including induction into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Whisky Advocate in 2002, and the Lifetime Achievement Award and Hall of Fame induction from Whisky Magazine in 2012. 
We have lost a wonderful friend today, and he will be missed terribly. 
Services for Elmer T. Lee are pending and will be announced shortly.
Mark Brown

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Deschutes Rolls Out in Philly!

Today is Deschutes 25th anniversary, and they've chosen to celebrate it by doing their official launch in Philadelphia, their first East Coast market! I have to congratulate them on their perspicacity: this IS the best, most mature market on the East Coast. It is, after all, America's Best Beer Drinking City. This is a fantastic, red-letter day. I know, I know, I've bitched about carpetbagging west coast brewers before, but damn it, I will have no truck with a foolish consistency: this is Deschutes, baby, that changes the rules!

I'm obviously out of my mind and incoherent, so here's the press release. Read it and weep for joy. Oh, and HAPPY 25TH, DESCHUTES!

Deschutes Brewery Celebrates 25th Anniversary with First Distribution on the East Coast
Bend, Oregon brewery partners with Muller, Inc. in Philadelphia following the 2013 Philly Beer Week
Bend, Oregon – June 27, 2013 – Today is Deschutes Brewery’s silver anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than with the long-awaited announcement that their beers will now be available year-round in the greater Philadelphia area? For the past four years, the Oregon brewery has fulfilled the thirst of Philly beer fanatics during one spectacular week, Philly Beer Week. Now, the brewery will be shipping beers all year to the six-county area served by Muller, Inc. Fans there will be now be able to enjoy Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Black Butte Porter, and Chainbreaker White IPA on draft and in bottles. As a special treat, Philadelphia will be getting bottles of the brand-new Fresh Squeezed IPA, part of the brewery’s experimental Bond Street Series, plus bottles of Deschutes River Ale (Nice session ale!) and Inversion IPA.
John Houck, vice president of sales for Muller, Inc. said, “The Philadelphia craft consumer today has extremely sophisticated taste buds and demands the best brews in the world. We couldn't be more proud and honored to represent Deschutes Brewery and bring these world class brews to the best beer city in the USA!”
Deschutes Brewery began in 1988 as a brew pub in downtown Bend, Oregon – launching with and building a reputation around Black Butte Porter at a time when dark beer was not popular. This beer went on to become the number one selling craft porter in the United States despite only being available in a limited amount of states. It is in this spirit of experimentation and risk-taking that Deschutes Brewery has continued to grow, and it is now ranked as the fifth largest craft brewery in the nation. 
With this new launch, fans living in the greater Philadelphia area will not only have ready access to Black Butte Porter, but also to Mirror Pond Pale Ale, the quintessential, deftly balanced pale ale. In addition, the number one selling new craft brand in 2012 is coming: the hop-forward, citrus-packed, unmistakably smooth Chainbreaker White IPA. So popular in the brewery’s Oregon brewpubs that it made its way into bottles, the new Fresh Squeezed IPA is mouthwateringly delicious. Available only in bottles prior to this launch, these beers, along with some other popular and hard-to-find brews from Deschutes Brewery’s portfolio, will now also be available in draft. 
“Philadelphia is a craft savvy market that gives us a perfect launch pad for our first distribution area on the east coast,” said Michael LaLonde, president of Deschutes Brewery. “We’re excited to be working with Muller on a full-time basis and being able to fill the demand that the past years of participating in Philly Beer Week have created for our beers.”
The gang from Deschutes Brewery, including a brewer, will be celebrating the launch with a week-long series of tastings and events in and around Philadelphia in early November. Look for more details in late summer on

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA

I got the official word today that Deschutes is finally in Pennsylvania to stay, after teasing us with touch-and-go supply during the last four Philly Beer Weeks, and let me tell you...I'm a huge supporter of drinking your local breweries (easy for me to say, since my local brewers are incredible), and get annoyed by people who always want to drink beers "from away," but...damn me, I am so stoked about this! The idea of being able to buy a CASE of Twilight or Black Butte or Red Chair or Mirror Pond and just drink it without having to wonder when I might see the next one is just delirious-making. I love these guys forever, and have never ever regretted going way out of my way to visit them back in the 90s. So good.

So when I opened up a sample of their new Fresh Squeezed IPA, it was with no trepidation whatsoever...other than the usual "oh damn, only one bottle" kind. And I was right: blossoming citrus aroma came pouring out of the glass to greet me (odd how aromatic it was, considering I was using one of those horrible sleeve pint glasses...), followed by a sip of deliciously citrusy/pithy hop-flavored beer that didn't crush my palate with bitterness, but just tasted awesome, and went on and on. Heh. Had a Twitter follower note to me that there have been complaints about this beer's "sweetness." As he said, "That's called 'balance.'" Right! It wasn't heavy, or cloying; it wasn't hop-tea astringent; it wasn't hugely alcoholic: it was a beer that I found very easy to drink the entire 22 oz. bottle of in one sitting, boom boom.

Okay, Deschutes. You're in Pennsylvania, and welcome! Start sending more of the Good Stuff!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hala Kahiki

Love the Rivertowne Fish!

I'm a crazy man: when was the last time I popped two posts in one day? What can I say, the possibility of privatization of the liquor stores -- and the end of the Case Law! -- has me giddy. So I did the weirdest thing I could: I popped this can of Rivertowne Hala Kahiki pineapple beer that was in the fridge (a sample, a freebie).

What the hell! Hey, I had a grapefruit radler last week that was strangely appealing, so who knows? First thing to know: I really like fresh pineapple, one of my favorite things to eat. Second thing to know: I really like Rivertowne, these are cool people.

How is it? Well...I'm gonna finish it, because it's not's not sucky sweet, and it does taste like pineapple, but there's a nice light ale finish...but I don't think I'd order it at a bar. It's just not beery enough; more fruit than fruit beer. was hot, and I was in the mood for a tiki drink, in which case, this would be perfect. Because that's the third thing you need to know: I have a secret lust for good tiki drinks. That's me, at the Cotton Blossom Lounge, in Lethbridge, Alberta, sipping a concoction of rum, blue curacao (forgive me), pineapple juice, and apricot brandy. It's southern Alberta's best indoor patio; trust me.


People used to ask me, back in the days before The Great Craft Rationalization®*, 'Lew, why don't you ever write about the regular beers? Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Light; you know, the beers everyone really drinks?!' And although I did write about beers like that sometimes -- more in a business mode, but I did write for trade journals, so you do; hell, I wrote two vodka pieces! -- and I made my mark writing about Yuengling, my response was usually something like, "Well, what can you say about them? 'Damn, this Budweiser tastes just like the last 100 Buds I've ever had!' They don't change, there's never anything new, and even the people who love them have nothing to say about the flavor past "crisp," "clean," and "great taste, less filling." There's just not a lot to work with there."

We are, after all, ultimately in the story business. Hats off to A-B, who did try to engage us by flying groups of beer writers to their hop farm and maltings in Idaho...but then that turned into a circular firing squad of mutual ethics accusations and just got ugly. And mostly, beer writers didn't write about mainstream beer.

Well...MillerCoors is changing all that! I've been seeing the teaser billboards on I-95 in Philly (one of the big Lite markets) for months now, and the new Miller Lite bottle is finally here! That's right, a NEW BOTTLE! Hot damn!

Yeah. A new bottle. And they're telling us amazing things about it (add your own excited exclamation points, I already took out most of the capital letters):

Consumers Overwhelmingly Prefer The New Bottle 2:1

We Win With Occasional Drinkers Who Preferred The New Bottle By Over 3:1 

We Win With All Ages (21-34, 35-40) Both Groups Prefer The New Bottle To Current (Younger By 19 Points, Older By 23 

We Win With Hispanics: Hispanics Prefer The New Bottle To Current By 20 Points 

Advantages Of The New Bottle Also Place Us In A Stronger Competitive Standing Relative To Bud Light

WOW! I guess all the beer geeks who say the different glassware really makes a difference may have a point, and Miller Lite is keying on it.

I'm yanking Miller's chain, but come on, guys... A new bottle? You already did that! Remember the Vortex bottle, back in 2010? Had a set of spiral grooves on the inside of the neck? Jay Brooks summed that up pretty well here, I mean, what's the point of swirling Miller Lite as it comes out of the bottle, to stimulate the lack of aroma? Maybe...except I did an interview that year with the folks from Owens-Illinois, who developed the Vortex bottle, that I never found a market for and never released...and it shines a light on things here. Have a look.

Within the consumer package and beer industry, people are looking for something new and different. It's important to differentiate. It brings added value and news to the marketplace. The Miller Lite brand has seen a lot of change and not all of it positive. It's innovation in terms of value and news to the brand.

Internal embossing is a tech that Owens-Illinois brought to the marketplace. It's the most significant change to the long-neck bottle since the twist-off cap. The  Vortex bottle is an example of how we can merge the science of glass with the art of package design to bring something the market hasn't seen before.
It's designed to differentiate the brand on the shelf. You get the decorative look, and a flat panel for the labeling. We're working with the customers and letting them lead with that effort.

Now...did you notice? Nothing about swirling the beer. That all came from craft guys who assumed it had to be for something. As far as O-I was concerned -- and I was talking to their beer marketing manager and the VP of global innovation -- this was about the look of the swirl. Even Miller never specifically said that the vortex was functional. It's about look. It's all about getting you to look at Miller Lite.

No kidding, right? They're just making up news to get themselves noticed! Because there's nothing new about Miller Lite!

But what about the constant stream of one-offs and one-time seasonals from craft beer? It's all about the beer! Is it? Or is it about getting you to notice them, shouting to be heard over the new darlings -- 16 oz. cans, 'slim' cans, open-top cans, nanobreweries, reality-TV breweries, collaborations -- and then moving on and making something else new?

Look, I like new beers. It's how things happen. But they ought to have some kind of intrinsic value. There are an awful lot of "me too" beers out there among all the innovative ones. It's almost reached the point where making a pale ale is innovative, as people run from them to make exotics.

New beer? New bottle? It's all attention for the brand. Miller Lite spins off way too much money to mess with it; you can't make a craft version (they tried that; major fail). But the craft brewers look at big crafts who leaned hard on a flagship -- Sam Adams, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada -- and they see them running into trouble with their street cred, being passed up as not really craft. (Admit it, if you haven't thought that about Boston Lager, Fat Tire, or SNPA, you've heard someone say it.) And we get new beers that are made just to have new beers. Better than a new bottle, but...where's it go? BeerAdvocate? Tickerville? Celebrator?

I dunno. It's how things work, but for what part of the market? Who reacts to this stuff, and is it enough to have a real effect? Is it just a new bottle?

*I just made that up, and you know, I kind of like it: it's when, about five years ago at the beginning of the Great Recession (I didn't make that up, apparently that's what we're calling the Wall Street debacle and the Stimuless® (yeah, made that one up never caught on, but I haven't given up) now), craft beer stepped out of the background and became the superhero of the beer category by blasting through a collapsing market with hops-fueled double-digit growth. It's when the industry finally realized that this wasn't a fad, wasn't going away, and had to be taken seriously...and Blue Moon and Shock Top stopped being redheaded stepchildren at their parent companies.)  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Philly Beer Week 2013 is on its way

America's Best Beer-Drinking Logo
I am so woefully unprepared for Philly Beer Week...and it starts in less than 48 hours!

The fun all starts on Friday at 9:30 AM out in Fox Chase at the Hop Angel, where the Hammer o' Glory begins its amazing route to Opening Tap, all the way down at Independence Mall, where Mayor Michael Nutter will tap the opening keg (no word on whether he'll be charged a 15% by the drink tax). The map below (from Danya Henninger's blog at Zagat), shows all the spots where the HOG will change hands: it travels by roller skaters, cargo bike, kinetic sculpture, through the Free Library of Philadelphia by book cart, horse carriage, wheelbarrow, and whatever insane and personally hazardous conveyance William Reed comes up with at Standard Tap this year. It's a crazy way to start the week, and you're free to join in at any point.

View Philly Beer Week Hammer of Glory Relay Route in a larger map

Once you've followed the HOG to Opening Tap and hobnobbed with the cream of Philly's beer scene (like Mat Falco, of PhillyBeerScene),where do you go next? Well...damn near anywhere in Philly and the immediate surroundings. Seriously, there is stuff going on almost around the clock; check the website or download the free (and excellent, adaptive, useful, quick, constantly updated) app for iPhone or Android.

Use the app to do things my favorite way: no planning, just head into town, get off the train/bus/trolley/bike/designatedly-driven car/truck/motorcycle, fire up the app, and find out what's going on nearby. I guarantee, you cannot lose. This is not like the other "beer weeks" you'll see elsewhere; this is immense and overflowing, it takes over almost the entire city, and there are not a few events every day...there are an overwhelming number of events every day.

Believe me when I say that Philly Beer Week is too big for any one person to encompass, experience, or comprehend. Kinda like American craft beer, of which it is a great representation: it's diverse, it's fun, it means very different things to different people, and it goes really well with food.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

World Whisky Day tasting at Teresa's in Wayne: join me!

Grueling research in the malt kilns of Bowmore.
No Scottish boat rides are included in this tasting. Sorry.
The gang at Teresa's Next Door contacted me a while ago with a great idea: this new World Whisky Day about you come out to Wayne and we do a whisky tasting? I checked my calendar, May 18 was open, so I said hell yeah, and we started talking whiskies.

Here's what's going to go down. We're going to do the tasting on Saturday afternoon, May 18, from 12:30 to 3:00, so there's plenty of time left in the day to do other things (like get on the train and head into Philly, or just stay right where you are and enjoy the great beers at Teresa's).

What you'll be tasting (and hearing me talk about) is a kind of whisky overview. The idea was something like "Whisky 101 For Beer Geeks" (because I was frankly appalled at the whiskies beer geeks were drinking), so we lined up a variety. Here's the list:

Irish: Redbreast, the mother of Jameson.
Scotch Blend: Compass Box Great King Street, because good Scotch doesn't have to be a single malt.
Sherried Single Malt: Glenfarclas 105, a big ballsy malt.
Peated Single Malt: Lagavulin 16, from the peaty shore of Islay; smoke it if you got it.
Rye: Templeton Rye, small bottler, big flavor.
Bourbon, before and after: Buffalo Trace and Buffalo Trace White Dog, for an inside look at what the barrel does to whiskey.

All that plus Teresa's seriously good eats to go with it (snacks, but good and carefully paired), plus my amazingly interesting insights on just what the hell it is you're drinking...well, it's quite a deal at $45 (and you have to call ahead 610-293-9909, or email before the event to get registered).  Hope you can join us on Wold Whisky Day, May 18th!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Angel's Share -- whisky movie opens in Philly today

Talk "whisky movie" and people turn blank. Maybe Thunder Road, or if they're Scottish, Whisky Galore, or if you're a real film fanatic, the Uruguayan Whisky (which is not actually about whisky...) but whisky has not been a popular topic for films.

Which is why The Angel's Share is such a delight for a whisky drinker. Usually it takes a few failures for filmmakers to get the feel of a genre right (look at how many dopey tries they took at Batman before Heath Ledger licked his lips to perfection), but this? Bang, first pour, right out of the bottle. There's a real distillery (three of them, actually: Balblair, Deanston, and Glengoyne), real whiskies (Robbie, the main character, guesses Glenfarclas on a blind tasting; it's a Cragganmore), real tasting (nosing, Glencairn glasses, picking apart aroma/flavor notes), and a real whisky expert, Charlie MacLean, who does a great job in a supporting role as "Rory McAlister", essentially playing his own affable, greatly knowledgeable self. But the whisky star of the movie is a cask of Malt Mill, a real unicorn of whisky, from an Islay distillery that closed in 1962 and was never bottled as a single malt. If there's anything that would open the eyes of a whisky fancier...that's it.

Charlie MacLean (left) leads a tasting that includes Harry and Robbie (far right).
So, that's the whisky part, which is well-done. The film part that kept my family watching through our preview is a gritty tale of redemption through whisky...and crime. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is a Glasgow scrapper, a vicious street thug, to be honest, but he's charmed Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), a gentler girl who manages to hold him through her pregnancy and presents him with a son. But even in the hospital, he's jumped by old enemies who seem determined to drag him back into the pit with them. He runs, and evades them, and returns to his 300 hours of public service to pay off his crimes.

That's where he's met Harry (John Henshaw), the work trainer who sees the best in his charges. Harry's patience and love for Scotch whisky eventually leads to a weekend trip for Paul and three of his public service mates (Rhino, Albert, and the light-fingered Mo) to visit Deanston distillery for a tour. Robbie discovers he has a nose, and a growing love for the the best of whisky. Harry takes him on, and they go to a tasting hosted by Rory, where the plot suddenly develops: the cask of Malt Mill is to be auctioned off, and Robbie hatches a plot to steal enough to give he and his friends enough to get out of the pit.
Mo, Albert, Robbie, and Rhino: ready for the Highlands

The ensuing caper is grueling (imagine walking miles in a kilt when you're not...pre-chafed), funny (the French tourist letting the young Scotsman know his kilt's on backwards), disgusting (whisky decanted into Irn Bru bottles), and expanding (as the urban Scots encounter the Highlands). But it is Robbie's path to adult responsibility, and his growth into a serious, sober father is charming.

The scenery in the film is great, the whisky chat is spot-on. The rage and violence in the beginning is shocking (there's a lot of f-bombing, but it wears off quickly), but Robbie's grief when confronted by the results of what he's done is genuine; he's been shocked too. He wants to change, to be a father to his son, a man for his new family...and whisky gives him the opportunity. Worth a look.

The Angel's Share won the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize. It was directed by Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley). And it opens in Philadelphia today, at the Ritz Five.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Double Cross Vodka

I'll quote myself again about vodka: "To call this protean liquor “colorless, odorless, and tasteless” sells it terribly short." I was a serious -- i.e., straight -- vodka drinker years before I got serious about whiskey, and I've been rediscovering the good points of vodka lately.

Like this bottle of Double Cross I was sent a couple years ago when I was working on a vodka story for Mass Beverage Business. It sat on my shelf -- I wasn't reviewing vodkas, just writing about them -- until a few weeks ago, when Cathy and I took her brother Curt out to Uzbekistan (which is just great, BTW, and if you haven't been, go). It's BYO, so we got together a clutch of beers and ciders and two bottles of wine (the chardonnay worked really well; the sauvignon blanc, not so much), and I saw the bottle of Double Cross, and thought, hell, why not? And stuffed it in the freezer around noon to get chilled for the evening.

We started eating. First it was achik-chuck, a delicious traditional tomato salad. Salud! Curt and I had half-ounce shots of vodka. Then the piping hot bread came. Salud! Then some skewers of lamb. Salud! We finished the skewers of lamb. Salud! Cathy's stroganoff came. Salud! Cathy joined us for a shot. Salud! We got pilov -- Salud! -- and more skewers. Salud! We eventually Salud!-ed our way through half the bottle, and Cathy drove home.

And you know? The Double Cross was brilliant. From the very first shot, it was clean, no trace of any nasty solvent flavors; it was well-bodied without being sweet; and it had a faint but distinct graininess to it that was just perfect. Best of all, the little half-ounce shots made an excellent palate refresher between courses. I liked the Double Cross, and after another meal at Uzbekistan, I intend to buy another bottle.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week starts on Friday!

Yet another beer extravaganza I'm really sorry to be missing -- mainly because it's in Pittsburgh -- starts tomorrow: Friday April 19 is the start of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week. Philadelphia may have started this (or maybe not; Philly Beer Week started from a wholly internal idea, but Ohio Brew Week appears to be at least two years older...but whatever), but the idea of two Beer Weeks at either end of the state is pretty damned cool.

Here's the schedule, and here's an article by beer-lovin' Bob Batz about five fantastic collaboration beers brewed for the event. They've got their own superhero, a beer barge tour, and if I know this town, more great fun than you can shake a tap at. Sorry I didn't say anything earlier, but...really, what were you doing this weekend? Go to Pittsburgh!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"India Pale Ale displayed the strongest unit growth in 2012"

It should come to a surprise to no one, but sales tracking company GuestMetrics has released a report showing that IPA kicked ass and took names last year. According to their database (from POS systems in restaurants and bars), IPA showed stronger growth than any other type of beer last year: an amazing 39% year on year. And it's accelerating going into the second quarter of 2013; 1Q 2013 showed 40% growth. 

And who's doing the best? "Based on data from GuestMetrics, the IPA brands with the largest share gains last year were Widmer Broken Halo IPA, Lagunitas India Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, and Ballast Point Sculpin." 

Meanwhile, the flipside -- which might have sent craft beer geeks into spins of delight five years ago, but now only evokes a "damn straight" nod and grin -- is that "pale lager" is sucking wind.  
"Pale Lagers saw unit sales contract by 5% in 2012 compared to the prior year, and as a result, experienced by far the largest share loss at about 170 basis points in 2012," said Peter Reidhead, VP of Strategy and Insights at GuestMetrics.  "Additionally, in analyzing the quarter of 2013, the picture does not appear to be improving for Pale Lagers, with units contracting 6.2% against prior year, and the share loss accelerating slightly to 180 basis points."  Based on data from GuestMetrics, the Pale Lager brands with the largest share loss last year were Miller Lite, Bud Light, and Budweiser.
Like I told someone in an interview the other day, betting against IPA is like betting against vodka: don't do it. This is not a cycle. This is not a trend. It's a straight, upward line. People have been looking for IPA to peak and head back down since 1995, and they've been wasting their time.  

Just look at craft beer branding these days: it's all about different kinds of IPAs! We have black, double, session, rye, red, green, wheat, and white IPAs, and you can bet I missed some that a brewer is concocting even now. Brewers see that putting "IPA" on your label is like rubbing money on it; hops are crack, like Dogfish Head said about 90 Minute IPA, that's the sickness and the cure! 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bourbon, Charity, and Go-go Dancers

The poster pretty much says it all, but let me break it down for you. The Trestle Inn -- which I'm pretty sure you have no idea how much I'm stoked about...but I am -- is sponsoring a bourbon cocktail competition among bartenders from four of the best whiskey bars in the city: Time, Lloyd, The Industry, and themselves. The competition is sponsored by Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. It's a benefit for PAWS, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society. It's a $20 ticket ($25 at the door), and $10 of that goes directly to PAWS, and gets you four tastings of the cocktails. Get your tickets here, and go have some fun! (I'd join you, but I have a rehearsal that night...sigh.)