Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thirsty Pilgrimage to Budapest?

Where should you be on September 24 and 25? In Budapest, that's where.

Didn't see that one coming, did you?

What might very well be Hungary's first microbrew fest is happening then and there, at the intersection of Nagymező and Király. There will be 10 craft brewers from various parts of the country, many of them serving up unfiltered, unpasteurized versions of their lagers. According to the info sent to me by Daniel Bart, there will also be beer-inspired food and pairings. Tabányi Mihály, 90-year-old living legend and Hungarian accordion king, will be among those providing live music.

In the days before and after the fest, some of the better local beer pubs will be serving the microbrews from their own taps. Call it Hungary's very own Craft Beer Week. As we know: excellent ideas ignore national boundaries.

For more details contact Mr. Bart at tonycaviar AT gmail DOT com.

Meanwhile: Wish we were in Brussels this weekend. An incredible lineup of taps from our old friends at Moeder Lambic Fontainas.

I'll let the accordion king take you out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Walking the Dog Up the Street.

Just the thing when hung over after a bender in Bend: a little hair of the dog at Hair of the Dog.

Tim Webb had a phrase for the Bruxellensis festival that never unstuck from my brain: garage chic. It's just as apt for the Hair of the Dog's new digs at 61 SE Yamhill in Portland. The place has only been open a couple of weeks. In an industrial part of town it is a big, clean garage with tables, chairs, schwag, cheese plates and tulip glasses.

The specialty here is big, strong barley wines much sought after in the world of beer geekery. Those geeks may be interested to know that the Doggie Claws barley wine and dark, rich, contemplative Fred from the Wood were both on draft yesterday.

More than enough to take the edge off.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Digging Corned Beef in Track Town, USA.

I'm not a reuben aficionado or anything, but I've eaten my share of them. I can't remember eating better than the one I had yesterday at the Cornucopia in Eugene, Oregon. Loads of corned beef and sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island on grilled, marbled rye. Washed down with a pint of Eugene's own Ninkasi Believer, dangerously crisp and drinkable for its strength.

The Thursday special: Reuben, fries and a micro draft for $10. In retrospect it might have been worth twice that.

The Cornucopia has nine or 10 taps with emphasis on local and regional brews, loads and loads of bottles, sidewalk tables, and a popular back terrace. It's at 295 West 17th Street or, downtown, at 207 East 5th Street. A must-do if you're checking out Eugene and well worth the detour if you're cruising down I-5.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thirsty Pilgrim Travel Tip No. 270.

And this might be the best one yet.

At Crater Lake Lodge, on the rim of the caldera, there is a veranda. All along the veranda are rocking chairs in which you can sit and admire one of the most incredible vistas you'll ever see in your life. Behind the veranda is the dining room. Inside the dining room you can order, among other things, a glass of Oregon-made wine or beer. The beers are made by Deschutes of Bend or Standing Stone of Ashland. Then you can bring your glass of IPA or Pinot Noir or whatever you fancy back to the veranda, claim your chair, and take your time.

You'll thank me.

Note: The photo's not mine, since my camera broke on the way to the lake yesterday. Anyway I have yet to see a photo that does the sight justice. And there are some really good ones out there.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Slow Down, Friends and Neighbors. That's the Message.

I've been scribbling lots of notes, snapping lots of photos, but this trip is moving faster than I can blog at the moment. Making memories and adventures and bonding with family and chasing down the toddler... those are the priorities for now and they crowd out the sitting down and the typing. Its supposed to be a vacation after all. And sleep is too scarce and precious to give up at the moment.

So WHOA, as they say in Wyoming. Maybe they say it in other places too. But in the Jackson Hole area, for us last week, it was just plain old good advice. Big family in a big house and we all like to eat and drink and there's only so much you can eat and drink and you've got to do other things too. Like hike. And see chipmunks, pikas, ravens, deer, elk, moose and buffalo. And eat buffalo too.

Best meal of the week was at the Gun Barrel in Jackson. Medium rare buffalo prime rib, sweet potato with maple butter, and a Zonker Stout from Snake River. I gather that the Gun Barrel's a touristy place and that the food and service can be hit or miss. I get that. Maybe we caught it on a good night. But we all ate game and were happy. The buffalo was as well prepared as any beef prime rib I've eaten, and I've eaten some good ones, friends and neighbors. Maybe someday I'll tell you about the Shady Inn.

So now I'm sitting in the Cypress Room at the McMenamins Kennedy School in northeast Portland. This place is a living work of art and I'll tell you more about it later. Today it has been our hotel and our bar and our restaurant and our swimming pool and our museum. Right now it's my office. On a Friday night. And I need sleep.

Maybe you're feeling rushed too. Whoa there, pard.

Hey: We had dinner at the Concordia Ale House just up the road here. A fun draft list heavy on Oregon beers, but the best of all had to be Taras Boulba. Only $8 for a 12 oz. glass. Yikes. Whoa. Instead I went with a bourbon-barrel aged Mogli Porter from Caldera of Ashland, Oregon. Under abv the draft list just put a question mark. It was something like carbonated dark chocolate pudding doused in whiskey. Whoa.

Monday, August 16, 2010

One Thing That Stables and Breweries Have In Common Is that People Always Say They 'Smell Like Money.'

This impressive chandelier hangs over an equally impressive bar -- the sort of carved wooden beauty that can still be found in many St. Louis pubs -- at the Stable, just south of AB InBev HQ. In fact the Stable's restored home is where the Lemp Brewery's draft horses once were kept. There is a distinct turn-of-the-century feel to the place. I love to think about that period in the middle to late 1800s when German-run lager breweries would have dotted the city. Here it takes less imagination.

The Stable's brewery operation is called Amalgamated and concentrates on full-flavored German-style lagers. Having a Helles on the list did not surprise me. A Zoigl, on the other hand... bready and zesty and disappearing from my glass far too quickly. Best of all, truly sessionable at 4.4% abv. Another surprise nominee for Perfect American Beer According to Me.

There is also a micro-distillery operation here but it was so damn hot that day I think a taste of hard liquor never even crossed our minds. Especially when faced with an interesting list of 36 taps featuring a summery emphasis on IPAs. I can't recommend the food but the ambiance, suds and vintage pinball games... big thumbs up. If you're on a beer trip to St. Louis then visit here in the afternoon before going to eat at the Bridge or Schlafly Tap Room.

Moving on: We've left the Gateway to the West and are just plain old West now. As I write this I'm looking out a picture window at the Grand Tetons. Jackson Hole. Totally impressed by Snake River Brewing, by the way. More on all that later. Tomorrow we're in Yellowstone watching for those telltale clumps of tourists pulled by the side of the road, signifying wildlife photo opportunity. Thirsty work, I expect.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fancy Doodads and Fancy Bottles.

Emptying the notebook: Check out the serve-yourself tap at Meridian Pint, a new beer-centric pub in DC. No need to flag down a waiter; the electronic tap handle tallies up your bill by counting ounces poured and fractions thereof. Really nifty if you're in a hurry to drink. There are two of them at booths in the downstairs bar. They were occupied when we arrived. I'm not sure we'd have done it anyway. The only options on the tap were Ommegang and Samuel Adams... Fine, but the full draft beer list was much more fun.

Our undisputed winner that night was the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter from Great Lakes. Killer combination of deep roasted character and easy drinkability. Considering its richness the 5.8% strength is more than reasonable. It's another nominee for Perfect American Beer According to Me, barely edging out the same brewery's also-excellent Burning River Pale Ale. (The popular Cleveland-based brewery must have been making a distribution push lately, because I'm seeing its beers in states where I didn't see them last year.)

Finally: Like Alan, I'm tired of expensive corked bottles. We're paying a lot extra for that nonsense. That's all fine and good for really special beers, when you want a bit of a show, but we're losing out on more drinkable beers. Alan's example is Allagash Special; I could point toward the sadly retired Boulevard Saison, which has made way for the more alcoholic but less impressive Tank 7.

If the Saison didn't sell so well in the 75cl bottles, maybe Boulevard should revive it in packaging we can afford. Then watch what happens.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lecture From a Self-Proclaimed Expert on What a Saison Should Really Be Like. By Joe Stange.

It's hard to find a good American-made saison. For that matter, it's hard to find a good Belgian one, but already I digress.

I'm not an expert in many things... Brussels cafés, sure. Star Wars trivia, yes. The limits of my wife's patience, no. Quality saisons, yes. And by quality, naturally, I mean those I like.

And so: Too many saisons I've tried hither and yon are too sweet, too spicy--whether from warmly fermented yeast or actual spices--too alcoholic, and really not hoppy at all. Are they still saisons? Sure. If you say so. I don't care what you call them. The important question is, are they any good? No. They are not. More to the point: They're not drinkable.

Why drinkability matters to a saison, if the word "saison" means anything at all: The only thing that really ties saisons together is their mythology--even, as I said in a recent article for DRAFT, if that mythology is true. That myth is that back in the day Wallonian farmers made light beers to rehydrate and reward their workers. They were low in alcohol. They were, ideally, refreshing.

You can argue that modern saisons are different. They are stonger now, blahbbedy blah. Again, I don't care. Call them whatever you want. We don't have to drink them.

Now, finally, I get to tell you about a really good one I found in an unlikely place. We had about 20 minutes left in Columbia, Missouri, when I snuck in the back door of the Broadway Brewery, which did not open for another two hours or so. Luckily there was a friendly barlady there. I explained that I had to leave town but I would like to pay to taste a few beers if they'd oblige me. She refused to sell me anything but let me taste a few -- including a gorgeous saison.

"It's our lightest beer," she said.

"That's a good sign," I said.

It was somewhat lemony, moderately hopped, and golden. Fairly clean without being boring. Refreshing. The sort you'd want to drink after a long day in the fields. After having a couple you'd be unlikely to lop off any limbs with old-school harvesting tools.

There is no secret here. We're talking about what appears to be an above-average brewpub with a technically sound brewer who's making good decisions. I don't even know the guy's name yet. But I will. I suspect a lot of us will, eventually.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Boring Old Dads Blamed for Long Slump in STL Beer Scene.

There have always been a bunch of good places to drink in St. Louis. Like baseball, diner food, and de facto segregation, drinking is just one of those things at which the city excels. It has a certain brewing history, as you might have heard. Its waves of immigrants over the years have included plenty of thirsty Germans, Irish and Czechs, among others. These days microbreweries are popping up like dandelions, and micro-distilleries are increasingly common.

So St. Louis has never lacked for drinking. It's just that, up until a few years ago let's say, it lacked for options. It was more or less a one-brewery town. And these days? Well, it's still pretty much a one-brewery town -- Schlafly is a popular alternative but still holds only a tiny fraction of the market compared to A-B Inbev.

But there are a growing handful of beer-geek haunts, not to mention craft beers creeping rapidly into what used to be Bud-only bars and restaurants.

"There's just a younger generation coming in, saying I don't want to drink what my father drank," said Mike Sweeney, who runs the popular and useful STL Hops website for local enthusiasts.

Meanwhile Dylan Mosley, longtime barman at the beer-savvy 33 Wine Bar, noted that St. Louis was littered with microbreweries more than 100 years ago. "There's kind of this mentality that your dad sucks but your grandpa's awesome."

Now I will stick up for dads. Obviously the lack of options for most of the 20th Century was not really our dads' fault. There are some fun and tasty cultural shifts taking place with food -- or with flavor, let's say -- and craft beer has come along for the ride. The latest numbers say that craft beer sales were up 12 percent the first six months of this year, compared to the same time last year.

And for the record, my dad now keeps a secret stash of Schneider Aventinus in his garage. That only started a few years ago.

Speaking of Aventinus, it was one of the 40 well-chosen beers on draft when we visited the new International Tap House in Soulard. Exactly the sort of place that didn't exist when I lived in that neighborhood 10 years ago. Stay tuned for posts on a few other must-visit spots in town.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting Schooled by the Fish.

From what I can tell, prolific draft and bottle lists are multiplying like bunny rabbits in big American cities these days. Which is cool. But when you find a place like John G's Bier Deck in a town like Washington, Missouri... Well, a man sleeps easier at night. It seems like everyone's well looked-after these days.

At the end of a hot-as-hell summer day it's hard to beat a hoppy glass of gold and a sweeping view of the Missouri River. There are usually 12 draft options and about twice as many bottles, and that's frankly all you need. Especially when there is strength in locally made beers, such as Schlafly of St. Louis and the excellent German-style lagers of Tin Mill in Hermann. Meanwhile John G's is a showcase for the beers of nearby Augusta Brewing, which only makes sense since they're owned by the same folks. More about them pretty soon.

My glass of gold is the Trout Slayer, my next nominee for Perfect American Beer.* It's got enough hop aroma, quaffability, and bright beauty that I can forgive it for being a filtered wheat beer. Like sausage, I don't always want to know how it's made. And at 4.7% strength it's got some usefulness.

You might not think Trout Slayer is a local beer here, and you'd be right. But it's all relative. Lewis and Clark passed right by this spot and went on to meet Indians in the Missoula Valley. Montana is just up the river. Shoot, their trout and ours are probably cousins.

*I've decided that the words "sessionable" and "craft" are implied in the word "perfect" and therefore redundant.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

'Beer is a Good Family Drink. ...'

That's the first sentence of the brief section on beer in the American Frugal Housewife, first published in 1828. You can go straight to Page 86 if you want.

"A handful of hops, to a pailful of water, and a half-pint of molasses, makes good hop beer. ... Boil the ingredients two to three hours, pour in a half-pint of molasses to a pailful, while the beer is scalding hot. Strain the beer, and when about lukewarm, put a pint of lively yeast to a barrel. Leave the bung loose till the beer is done working; you can ascertain this by observing when the froth subsides."

Sal Emma in Brew Your Own magazine mentioned the Frugal Housewife "recipe" about 14 years ago. Sal doesn't clarify the biggest mystery to me: How much was a "pailful"? A gallon? Three? Four?

I found a copy of that book lying around my in-laws house here in eastern Missouri, right next to The Homebrewer's Garden. And to think: They were dedicated Bud Select drinkers a few years ago. The Missus and I, a trip to Belgium, and the local homebrew club are among the forces that converted them. Also they're natural gardeners and farmers. They were goners as soon as they connected better beer with their pre-existing interests. They knew from experience that homegrown lettuce and tomatoes made for better salad.

These days there are hops growing like gangbusters on a trellis out by the pond.