Friday, July 30, 2010

More Handmade Weblog Craftmanship From the Online Artisan.

Pretension and craft beer. That's what's bothering me these days, as we toddle from coast to coast. And suddenly, it seems, even the word craft is too low-brow for some folks. Now it's all artisanal. I guess the difference is that artisanal beers are made by artisans instead of craftspeople. Got it?

By the way, it's a word used by one of the better up-and-coming brewers in the country, Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Baltimore. I guess that makes Brian an artisan. Anyway, his Stateside Saison is over there in that far, tiny, excellent corner of the bell curve when it comes to American-made interpretations of the style. It avoids excessive spiciness while going hoppy, dry and unique. So he gets to use whatever word he wants.

The Stateside was half of our favorite pairing during a five-course tasting dinner the Missus and I inhaled at Birch & Barley last week in DC. The other half of the pairing was corn-stuffed tortellini with crab. (Another winner was the goat's milk cheesecake with tart Ommegang Zuur, which is something like a Duvel-revived Liefman's old brown sold via Cooperstown.)

Anyway. Crab. The other great feast of the week was decidedly low-brow, but no less fun. All-we-could-eat crustaceans at Ernie's Original Crab House in Alexandria, Va. Knives and hammers and lots of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which was the only craft option there. Something about that zesty Cascade aroma made for a perfect union with the Old Bay... Lots and lots of salty Old Bay, which days later still coarses through my blood stream and is stuck in my nostrils.

I can't say the saison-tortellini pairing was any better than Sierra Nevada and Old Bay crabs. It wasn't any worse either. There are lots of ways to have fun. It's nice to have options.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Farm Beers and Hard Workers.

After two weeks of education in the DC area, we're back in our home state of Missouri. We're awash in homebrew and Boulevard while hitting an unplanned series of cookouts. Or so it seems.

Favorite (new to us) tipples so far: light but crisp and serious Boulevard Pilsner, the aromatic-but-not-stupidly-resinous Ranger IPA from New Belgium, the Brewclub Brown Ale from the Riverfront Homebrewing Club of New Haven, Mo., my brother's homemade double chocolate stout with fiery chiles -- which shouldn't be drinkable, but is -- and finally, the excellent Boulevard Tank 7 farm beer. The best American-made Belgian-style beer I've had since Boulevard's own Saison with Brett.

Farm beer! There's one I've been meaning to run past you. It comes from my newswire-bred appetite for brevity and accuracy. Saison in French or "farmhouse ale" in English are both a bit more than we need in American. "Farm beer" gets the spirit across. Has a nice ring to it. And it doesn't shut out lagers (or other non-ales).

I've got lots more in my pocket for you, and more to come. For now have a look at the cellar of Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Salute to general manager Casey Hard for allowing the peek. There are 102 taps in there, and they're working nearly as hard as the staff.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When Does a Beer List Become Beer Porn?

I have a confession to make: I've been reading the draft list of Churchkey in DC almost daily for a few weeks now. I can't stop. It's just so... lurid.

And it doesn't even have any of those flowery, often inaccurate descriptors that plague the menus so many other haunts. There is only beer director Greg Engert's system of categorizing his offerings by broad yet useful profile: Crisp. Hop. Smoke. Cask. Malt. Roast. Fruit & Spice. Tart & Funky. Two pages, front and back, showing off a potent combination of quality, quantity and diversity distributed across 52 taps.

It's not the genres that turn me on, though. It's the actresses. Uerige Alt. Zinnebir. Bell's Cherry Stout on cask. Oliver's Bulldog Bitter, also on cask. Palo Santo Marron from a four-ounce snifter, which is frankly all you need. And these little starlets change every day.

What makes something pornography, anyway? To paraphrase an old Supreme Court ruling/joke, "I don't know, but I know it when I see it." Probably arousal is prerequisite then. I think this counts.

I haven't even told you about the food yet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In The Future, All Food Will Be Bacon Lollipops.

There are certain items on menus that I will never be able to resist. Many of them involve pork. I'm weak. I'm a hillbilly from Missouri. And I don't know what to say, except there was never a chance that I wasn't going to order the bacon lollipops at Founding Farmers last night in downtown DC, near the IMF headquarters.

Thick smoked bacon in a cinnamon and brown sugar glaze. The sweetness was actually fairly understated, letting the salt and smoke take the driver's seat. I guess the sticks were just to make it seem like you're not just, you know, eating bacon.

The beer list is reasonably serious at Founding Farmers. It's the kind of place that might have only had the odd pale ale if it existed five or 10 years ago, but these days carries nearly 20 craft options. I'm seeing that in lots of places now. Forgive me for being slow. I'm an unfrozen caveman blogger.

A Bear Republic IPA was just what I needed after a long, hot walk. It went well with the bacon lollis... but then again, what wouldn't?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another Day, Another Bitter.

I'm putting up a second nominee for Perfect American Craft Beer According to Me. Oddly enough it's another bitter.

That would be the crisply hopped Bulldog Bitter from Oliver Breweries, a.k.a. the Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore. I've consulted with the judges, and we have agreed to overlook the fact that the beer is rather British and was even made by a British person (brewer Steve Jones). After all the beer was born on American soil and our country has a constitutional tradition of jus soli. It was born here, so it's American. Much like Steve's own baby all of two weeks ago. So go and congratulate him by spending money in his pub.

We've also agreed to overlook the fact that the beer was a special recipe made for the World Cup, when hundreds of American fans came to pack his pub and drink casks of the stuff dry. Because we hold out hope on behalf of the locals that the Bulldog will become a regular. At 4.3% abv it's at least as tasty as the Best Bitter (4.8%) and approximately 0.5% more useful. You can't argue with numbers.

You also can't argue with the sign on the door to the firkin cellar: ONLY STEVE GOES IN HERE, NO EXCEPTIONS. That is quality control, people.

Also very, very good: the Dark Horse mild on cask. Roast and toast and easy-drinking, ducking sweetness altogether. Lots of character packed into 4% abv.

More Baltimore stuff coming soon. Or when I have time. Many thanks to Brad and Steve and Brian and Casey for their insight and guidance. And especially to friend and colleague Chuck Cook for arranging the tour.

Monday, July 19, 2010

In The Future, Maybe, All Food Will Be Smoked Pork Belly, and All Beer Will Be Cask Porter.

Last week was the Mad Fox Brewing Company's first in action, and on Wednesday we slid into one of its booths after a hot and steamy mile-long hike from the Metro station. Well, it should have been a mile long. Our navigator's wrong turn made it more like two miles. Oh, sweet air conditioning. We love you almost as much as we love cold beer.

And any fool who says beer should never be served cold has never been in DC in July. But I digress.

The pub's atmosphere was just fine. Still feels and smells a bit new. Faux-English style, with wood paneling and bonus points for cushioned stools all around the long bar. They are the sort of stools you could sit in for a very long time.

Winners from brewer Bill Madden: the (chilled) Kolsch, the Scotch ale, and the porter - those last two being especially fine from the cask. All showed a willingness to be bitter without losing balance. (Loser for me: the saison. Too sweet and yeasty-spicy and lacking the bitterness that made the others beers stand out. Sadly I've had many American-made saisons with similar problems, but that's a post for another day.)

Like any other reasonable men, we were completely unable to resist ordering the small slab of smoked pork belly. (Good luck finding a beer that wouldn't pair well with that.) I stuck with a barbecue theme and advanced to the brisket sandwich. My choices were correct.

Meanwhile that cask porter is still lingering in my mind a few days later. Velvety smooth and chocolaty rich, it should not have tasted as fine as it did after that walk through the Inferno. We were told there are many more beers on the way. It was only the first week and all. Many good things to come from 444 West Broad Street in Falls Church, Virginia. One to watch, as they say.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The First Nominee, According to Me.

We're only three days into qualifying here at Thirsty Pilgrim Mobile Headquarters, but there's already an early candidate for Perfect American Craft Beer: the Bitter American from San Francisco-based 21st Amendment.

Full of zesty hop flavor and aroma, dry and sessionable, with enough malt backbone for balance but checking in at a svelte 3.6 percent strength. Inspiring, nearly perfect, and handpicked by 1-year-olds everywhere for thirsty dads. Especially those throwing down sausage-and-peppers pies at Pizzeria Paradiso on this sultry DC afternoon.

I get to drink the beer, and the boy gets to eat the pizza crusts. That's the deal, and it's a fair one.

Wow, this city is a swamp. And I submit to you that the work of pushing a baby stroller is nearly identical to that of a lawnmower. Although they each have their on unique challenges.

It really is an outstanding beer. On a list full of really interesting options, I had to order a second one and skip all the rest. One knock against it is that it's summer seasonal only. With luck and sales maybe it will go year-round.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Twelve-Ounce Measures of Success in America.

Right next to the Thai restaurant was a popular dive with a few interesting craft selections. My wife wanted Thai food, so I lost the vote.

Then the 1-year-old rescued me. With a knowing wink, Thirsty Jr. dropped his little baby spoon on the floor. It was while walking back to the men's room to clean the spoon that I saw the tall, distinctive beer tap behind the counter. Emblazoned on it were three magical letters: I, P and A.

Not knowing or caring how Red Hook's Long Hammer found its way into this rather run-of-the-mill Thai place, my wife and I both ordered glasses of the stuff. Partnered like a dream with my drunken noodle pork and her tofu whatever.

And it occurs to me that neighborhood places like this are the real front lines of craft beer. Not the geekery, not the five-course beer dinners, and not the pricey rare releases. Those would be more like the captain's quarters where all the officers are chummy and there's a fellow in the corner playing violin. To carry the metaphor entirely too far.

No, the trenches are in the dives, the airport bars, and the restaurants where the wife and kids want to eat.

And where do you suppose the battles are won and lost?

Friday, July 9, 2010

On a Quest for the Perfect American Craft Beer (According to Me).

We're about to spend more than six weeks in the States after spending four years abroad. We've been back a few times during that period, but this trip is different for a couple of reasons. For one thing it's longer. For another thing it's wider ranging. We'll be in DC at the beginning and Oregon at the end, with a couple of points in the middle. Including our home state of Missouri.

I've got a few questions to ask of American beer. Not of you, but of the beer. It should be a rather long and personal interview. Parts of it will appear here in various forms along the way. But there is one really important question that I've enjoyed thinking about lately: What is American beer doing for us?

I know that brewers have been getting very creative. I know they've been doing some very wild and innovative things. I also know that sometimes these things have been very alcoholic and expensively done and bottled and priced accordingly. And you know what? We're not interested. That's not for us.

I'll be looking for beer with that winning combination of great drinkability and great character. Sessionability is not strictly required but will receive bonus points. Exorbitant prices will not be punished, but simply avoided. I will be grading everything on a very personal, numbers-free hedonistic scale. Qualitative research, let's call it. The ethnography of craft beer.

Or criticism might be another word for it. Perspective. I've got some, you know. Time to make it useful.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

All Things in Moderation, Including Government Reports.

I suspect that most of us think of ourselves as moderate drinkers. Naturally we struggle at times to decide what exactly constitutes moderation. Particularly we Americans who spend the first 21 years of our lives being told that alcohol is flat-out bad for us tend to carry around certain anxieties. It's not easy to let go of them.

Anyway, there is some very thought-provoking stuff here from Jay Brooks, the USDA, and the anti-alcohol Marin Institute. It includes a possible definition of moderate drinking: no more than four drinks daily for men or three daily for women.

Obviously moderation can't be so easily quantified. Drinking all four of those drinks in 15 minutes would not be particularly moderate. And annoyingly, we humans come in all shapes and sizes and tendencies. But it's just a guideline, after all. Not a recommendation.

The rest is up to us.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Belgian Beer, Italian Beer, Italian Food, and Mountains.

In the category of Wish I Could Be There: the Bier Festival Villaggio della Birra is September 11 and 12.

To attend a Belgian beer festival is a thing of good fortune, no matter how you shake it. But for a few years now the really hep kids among the Belgian beer cognoscenti have been getting their kicks in Italy. Think top-flight Belgian brewers hanging with Italy's own cutting edge up in the mountains and feasting on healthy portions of slow food – of which craft beer is naturally a part – and you've got the idea. Cazeau, De Ranke, Glazen Toren and Rulles are among the all-stars. Look here for more info.

Also note the addition of the Session Beer Project logo to the left. We support it, and we serve it.

The Session #41: The Inevitable Invincibility of Ideas.

Inspiration is a fluid yet cyclical thing, and it can't be contained. It flows up out of basements, down throats and across borders, and winds up in far-flung places like Central America. Occasionally it ends up on the market and then drips back down into the basement again, to work its magic on someone else's brew kit.

I might have mentioned that the best beer in Costa Rica is the one in our fridge at the moment. True, we don't have a lot of competition. Also the beer was tailor-made, by my wife and I, to suit our own preferences. So naturally it's the best. It's a barrel of bright, golden pale ale with a big fruity Centennial hop nose, moderate bitterness, and dry finish. It's around 4.5% alcohol, a true session beer according to the Brysonian definition.

It's got German pilsener malt and British and American hops. Certain Belgian and British ales inspired its low alcohol and high drinkability. In its conception it were equal parts Taylor's Landlord, Taras Boulba and Sierra Nevada. I'm fairly confident those were all homebrews at one point in time. You can pick out a style category and cram my beer in there if you want to. I certainly won't. (Such a box wouldn't contain inspiration, anyway. It would flow out through the cracks again.)

Hundreds of people will read this post. A bunch of them will be brewers, whether of the home, office or garden variety. At least one of them will get an idea and employ it. Others will get to drink that idea.

Then what will they do with it?

For more info about the Session, see here and here.