I did NOT get into a Twitter Fight With Total Wine

Really, I didn’t. I swear.

Where it all started today was with this post from @BeerInBaltimore, who’d spied this sign at a Total Wine location for American Craft Beer Week:

Needless to say, the fires got lit and a conversation ensued. A lot of stuff got brought up, from the nature of what ‘craft’ is to the merits of undercover macros like Shock Top and Blue Moon as ‘gateway beers’ for those unfamiliar to craft beer to the nature of large versus small retailers and their role in the movement. Here’s a quick (by my standards) recap of what I think are the important things to take away from this:

As far as the ‘gateway beer’ concept goes; the gang at Total and I have different opinions. I don’t consider Blue Moon or Shock Top a gateway to anything but more profit and shelf space for the macro producers who put them out, and many of those chiming in today seem to agree. At one point I mentioned Port City’s excellent Optimal Wit as something I’d consider a gateway; I’ve sold Victory’s Prima Pils for YEARS as THE gateway beer for those who thought craft beer too haughty or exclusive. There are too many great craft options available these days–and local ones at that no matter where you are–to say that the best gateways for new beer enthusiasts are made by the two biggest corporations in the industry, who by the day appear to be headed down the path toward being the SINGLE biggest corporation in the industry. Maybe Blue Moon sends someone down a path that leads to further exploration, but let’s not make things out to be more than they are.

The big point about today’s discussion in my opinion is this: Beer Geeks of the world–what did you expect? I know how this is going to sound for the next few sentences, but I’ll just say it for the sake of saying it; we’re talking about Total Wine here. Not exactly Indie, right? Who else is going to have the scratch to create a banner like the one above and who else is gonna hang it up? The big supermarket chains are only just dipping their toes in the craft beer ocean; like it or not, this is what Total is.

Here’s the important part: There’s nothing wrong with that. Total is a fantastic resource for beer and wine fans alike; they’re convenient and usually well-stocked and if you get lucky you can meet a specialist there and develop a relationship over time that can expand your knowledge and enjoyment of whatever booze you have a taste for. But if you think they’re keeping all the lights on only by way of the craftiest craft that ever crafted, you’re just being naive. About six years ago I left the wine/beer biz and went to work at a small guitar shop here in town. We were right down the road from a Guitar Center location. Customers liked to play it up as if there was some big rivalry; like we were fighting The Man all day everyday, and to tell the truth it’s fun to think that you are. Except the reality is that one day you’re a nice specialty shop with cool stuff and the next day you have to find a niche and step up your game because the Big Box down the road knows how cool people think you are. It’s not fighting The Man; it’s fighting for survival. That little shop I worked at is thriving now; in the time since I left it’s found its groove and become so good at what it does that most of us in the area who play find it irreplaceable. That’s how you survive in business; you make yourself irreplaceable.

But that’s just business. Guitar Center has not only gotten by selling the biggest brands; while they make the vast majority of their money off of them they’ve also gone out of their way to respond to the high-end and independent market by ordering in on small house luthiers, amp builders, and effects producers, which allows those small guys to grow and thrive. Total’s the same way. So don’t light your torches over them hanging an InBev banner for ACBW; if you must, have your little chuckle at Shock Top being craft’s representative and move on (which for the record was all I was originally doing on Twitter today). When 7-11 or CVS hangs that banner, light ‘em up.

The only real bone I had to pick today was with this tweet from the @TotalWine account:

“Hear U, but folks, let it go…advocate BEER: bring ppl 2 Craft”

That’s just some cognitive dissonance there. You got called out by Beer Geeks for touting Shock Top for ACBW–I say own it. Don’t tell us we’re the problem after you hang that thing up when it could just as easily be a print-out or chalkboard with a Dogfish Head, Stone, Victory, New Belgium, Sierra, Sam, or Lagunitas logo up there, or any one of hundreds of craft breweries spearheading an exciting new era in the beer business. Total is putting on great tastings all over the country this week to celebrate ACBW for sure, but the average consumer–the one that doesn’t know anything about anything past Blue Moon or Shock Top–doesn’t need to see those logos on banners this week. All it does is legitimize the ‘macromicros’ at the expense of everyone else.

But even in this I see little to get worked up about. Total’s ACBW tasting are going to bring new people into the fold, and their buying power will make the difference between life and death for more than a few emerging craft brewers this year alone I’m sure. They do what they do; I do what I do. We’re all raising the level of awareness for craft beer and in the end that’s a good thing.

This whole post was inspired by my texting my wife earlier today. I said: “Today’s been interesting. Check my Twitter feed.” She wrote back: “Damn Nicky, you got in a Twitter fight with Total?” Well no, actually I didn’t though I know more than a few of you would have enjoyed the entertainment value if I had. Hell, just a couple years ago I would have too, and gone scorched earth about this. But I’m at a place now where I know better what to take personally and what to get upset about. This is simply a matter of perspective. If it means that much to you, just don’t shop at Total. Easy as that. If you don’t like that I don’t have some of the beers you expect to see on my shelves, don’t shop with me. Believe me, I get as many eye rolls and sighs of disappointment every week as I do thank you’s and smiles. And I send a ton of people to Total as a reliable source of beer and wine that my employer either doesn’t stock or can’t get for someone when they absolutely need it. As Beer Geeks, we’ve helped spur a real revolution within an industry that had never really had one here in America, but our blog posts and Tweets and Facebook groups don’t add up to the impact of one person making one purchasing decision. Under all the passion and debate and history, this is a business. Never forget that. Keep it in mind at all times, then make your choice.

Until next time.

 

p.s. I’ve known a number of Total employees over the years, and they’ve been great folks who have a genuine love for beer and wine and look to help their customers every bit as much as I do. If Total Wine takes offense to anything I’ve written here it certainly is not intended and I’m available to chat in any venue if further discussion is warranted. As always, my views are my own and do not reflect those of Arrowine nor any of the breweries I mentioned in support of.

Serenity Now: Stillwater Debutante, The Beermonger Review

This may not completely come through to those of you who have met me, but I try to live pretty ‘Zen’.

Many things bother me and if I’m not careful I’m far too easily bothered. From my teens I’ve set as a goal for myself to reduce the number of things that I allow to get to me, which coincided with the Comparative Religions class I took in high school when I was first introduced to many of the principles of the great Asian religions. In my typical American fashion, I found aspects of many religions and philosophies that tweaked something in me and found myself focusing more and more on patience, acceptance, and letting go (I particularly recommend The Analects of Confucius and Budoshoshinshu). This has served me well over the years, personally and professionally. Today I feel like I’m in a good place, like I’ve found and don’t stray too far from my center.

I told you all of this to set up this story: Last night I’m at home and realizing I had the next day off, figured I’d open an extra bottle of beer for the hell of it. My wife and I had some good stuff we’d been sessioning over the past week or so (Abita Mardi Gras Bock, Bell’s Oarsman Ale) but I wanted something a little…more. I found myself staring into the fridge trying to decide between Stone’s 11.11.11. Vertical Epic and the Stillwater Ales Debutante which arrived late last week. As much as I dig the Vertical, I went for the Debutante.

Why? Well, it spoke perfectly to my mood. I felt balanced that night–serene–and the Vertical just seemed too brash for my mood. As soon as I got that first sip, I knew I’d made the right choice. I first tried Stillwater’s beers a couple years ago when my wife stuffed my stocking with a bottle of his American Farmhouse Ale. I was immediately struck by the combination of balance, innovation, and singularity of flavors in Brian Strumke’s work. The Debutante is no different in this: from a humble Saison yeast there comes something so rich, delicate, and unique that it is unrecognizable as a Farmhouse Ale yet could not be anything else.

Debutante first twists the Farmhouse tradition by including spelt and rye malts, which add a rustic, bready tone that plays incredibly well off of the spicy, fruity Belgian yeast. Going a step further, Debutante features heather, hyssop, and honeysuckle. These add beautiful aromatics and on the palate take this beer to another level. With all of this and a smooth mouthfeel with fine carbonation, Debutante has officially joined my list of “happy place” beers.

When I was a boy one of my favorite things about spring and summer was honeysuckle in bloom. You can just grab a flower and get right at the nectar, and it just screamed warmth and joy to me. I’ve of course romanticized it in the years since, but thinking back on all the bullshit that was going on in my life when I was a small child, the things I found happiness in particularly stand out, and honeysuckle is one of them. The tiny, subtle hint of the honeysuckle that comes through in Debutante is enough to make me think of those little moments of solace, and at the risk of being completely blinded by sentiment it really puts the beer over the top for me.

I’m not sure what else to say about Debutante. If you enjoy Farmhouse Ales, this merits an immediate buy. In many ways the Stillwater lineup is a harbinger of a coming wave of craft beers, which aren’t so much dedicated to style as they are explorations of ideas; flights of fancy. I’ve got a whole post coming up dedicated to this and I don’t want to throw a bunch of stuff out there just to repeat it later so I’ll just say if you can find Debutante get a couple and enjoy. If you can’t, look for any of the Stillwater Ales line as they are all excellent and a glimpse of where beer is going.

Stay centered, folks.

Link: My Guest Post at Yours For Good Fermentables

My friend Tom Cizauskas over at the excellent Yours For Good Fermentables blog asked me to weigh in on Wine Enthusiast’s Top 25 beers of the year. The post is a look at the wine palate’s perspective and how that can influence their outlook on beer. Check it out here. Thanks again, Tom!

-Beermonger

Thursday Tasting Notes; 12.1.11

Every now and then, I get to try a bunch of stuff out at once. I don’t take notes nearly as often as I used to (or should, for that matter) so it felt like a good enough excuse to post some thoughts as I tried things out tonight. Let’s get going, eh?

Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale (BrownShugga’ Replacement)

We all by now have heard the story of how the gang in Petaluma just plain ran out of capacity to brew the ever-popular BrownShugga’ seasonal this year. In its stead we get this IPA that I swear to Flying Spaghetti Monster is a repackaged version of their Kill Ugly Radio release from a few years ago. Not a compliant, mind you; I loved that beer and I love this one too. Aromas are sharp and spicy–black pepper spicy rather than coriander spicy. The palate is a quick rush of tropical fruits with a firm hop backbone establishing itself and carrying through the finish. I got a feeling we’re going to sell through a ton of this (in fact, we went through about 1/2 the 5 cases we got just today).

Le Bilboquet Mackroken Flower Scotch Ale

Now this is some serious cool. The nose alone, with with its sweet toffee malts and hint of honey, is worth the price of admission. The palate is a real treat, though; amid the sweetness of the honey and malt there’s a restrained roastyness that too many breweries tend to dismiss these days. It’s a beautiful thing when done right, and it’s done way right here. Imagine a richer, more robust Scotch de Silly and you’re starting to get the level of craftsmanship and enjoyment Mackroken Flower brings to bear.

Le Bilboquet La Corriveau Oat Stout

These guys in Quebec know what they’re doing: the La Corriveau is a complex, subtle Stout. With some of the nutty notes that I usually associate with aged Barleywines, Corriveau starts off on the palate a bit confusing. A few revisits reveals a mix of grains, chocolate (with a hint of dark chocolate ‘tang’ contributing to the feel–nice touch), and super-subtle hoppiness building to a rich finish. Between the two, I much prefer the Mackroken personally but I think La Corriveau may end up proving the more popular of the two.

Sierra Nevada Ovila Quad

Before I get to the beer itself: good lord I’ve never fought so hard with a cork in my life. No lie; not in a still wine, sparkling, dessert–nothing was like trying to pry the cork from this monster. Something to keep an eye out for if you pick one of these up.

But should you pick one of these up? I…don’t know. There are many different way too look at this beer, and almost all of them lead to different conclusions about it. As a Belgian Quad, Ovila’s a bit tame and thin; the aroma has a fair amount of the medicinal sweetness expected in the style but on the palate it feels lacking, and that medicinal quality goes almost vegetal on the back palate. The finish dissipates all too quickly. As a beer it’s enjoyable enough, but doesn’t stand out among the vast array of great Belgian options out there. Even as a Sierra Nevada beer, it doesn’t offer anything to the drinker that Life & Limb hasn’t already done (and done much better at that).

It’s not bad. It’s just not outstanding, and to make a mark for itself the Ovila beers need to kick the living hell out of expectations. My advice? Wait for the Brandy barrel aged version coming in 2012. That should be interesting.

Avery Rumpkin

*cracks knuckles*

Ok, let’s do this. How do I start to explain this thing? Let’s try…

Hmm. Good, but not quite it. How about…

Yeah; going with that. It’s got funk, dirt, sweet spice. Boozy as all hell. Will get you completely twisted if you aren’t careful. Rumpkin is freakin’ Go-Go made into a beer.

On the first sniff of Rumpkin, I wondered if something was wrong with it. Where was the spice, the gourd, the Rum? All I got off it was dirt-dog earthiness and nose-twitching heat. So I gave it a couple minutes.

(If you don’t think this isn’t turning into an excuse to post random Go-Go classics, just walk away now ’cause it is on over here.)

So, with a few minutes to air out and warm up a bit Rumpkin lets a bit more of the spice and pumpkin loose. The first taste is where Rumpkin gets you loose; it’s sweet without cloying and the rum barrel makes all kinds of sense in all the right/wrong ways. Beware: Rumpkin doesn’t feel 15.9% ABV and that only encourages you to roll with it. The lack of sweetness and overwhelming alcohol feel lets you enjoy Rumpkin for the great Pumpkin Ale it is. If you can snag some of this, do it.

I’m genuinely stunned at how much I dig this beer. I was expecting an over-the-top booze/sugar bomb with some pumpkin and spice thrown in to justify its existence–and I would’ve been down with that, if not totally enamored. But this is a legit creation with nuance and soul.

And it’ll make you want to get up and shake your ass. Can I just say, in summation: Goddamn I love the Northeast Groovers. ‘Til next time.

Cheers!

-Beermonger

Hype and Hope

(The Biggie video is unrelated except I originally was going to start this post asking: “What Is Hype?” and this got stuck in my head).

With the debacle that was the release of Founder’s Canadian Breakfast Stout back in October the long-running debates over allocations to retailers, the doling out to customers of rare beers and the pricing of said beers flamed up once again. One aspect of these debates that I believe never gets enough attention is the idea of Hype; that a breweries’ excitement over a product, along with the public’s rabid want of said product, creates an environment where the ideal is impossible and even the reasonable is less than likely. Here then, is one retailer’s take on Limited Beer Hype, and in a better world, where that hype would direct itself.

I should start by saying I don’t mean to pound Founder’s or their distributors by using CBS as the example of Beer Hype gone amok. It’s just that the CBS release is the latest and in many ways the best example of issues within the Craft Beer community and business when it comes to releases like these. In my area (DC Metro; Northern VA, NoVA, the DMV) there were just under 60 cases of CBS to be doled out among hundreds of retailers and restaurants. From what intel I could gather, no one in the area got more than one case of CBS. Speaking only for myself this is a tough spot to be put in; my stores’ newsletter goes to thousands of customers every week, and here I am with 12 bottles to sell. It’s inherently going to be unfair to most people who want the beer. Some guys I know went to a lottery system to create a random chance for customers to get the beer. I like that idea; it’s a great way to not only be able to take a customer’s name (which gives them a tangible feeling that they may get their hands on something) but it eliminates the assumption many have that we as retailers hand out rarities to specific customers–a Beer Illuminati, if you will. Everyone thinks we do this, but the truth is not nearly as sinister. Speaking for myself, I can tell you that with quantities as low as they were with CBS and other beers of its type there is no Secret Society that just gets whatever comes in. It doesn’t hurt to know your beer guy, though–I did pull and hold one bottle of CBS, for a good customer who was out of town. Even then, I only did because he was coming back to town the day after the beer arrived, and I wanted to do him a solid. My solution, rather than a lottery (which I may go to in the future) was and usually is to simply say “First Come, First Served”. It’s fair but also proactive; how much do you really want that beer? Also, it brings people into the store and creates an environment where Beer Geeks get a chance to hang out and get to know their own kind. The day CBS arrived I had nearly a dozen guys hanging out in the store, having great conversations about beer that we frankly don’t get to have as often as we should. A lot of folks hate my use of First Come First Served, but I enjoy the environment it creates when a group of Beer Geeks come by to hang out so please forgive my little bit of social engineering.

The point I was going to get to is that, using CBS as an example, Hype can and usually does create an environment where virtually no one is going to be left happy. Founder’s was justifiably excited over their beer–hell, they had a whole day-long event at their brewery the day it was released. On forums all over the internet, there was chatter and building excitement over the release–I had customers asking me about CBS back in July; well before I’d even gotten a tentative release date from Founder’s. Beer Advocate and RateBeer (even Untappd, which I enjoy thoroughly) ratings and reviews hold beers such as CBS out as Geek Bait, creating a myth and cultivating the idea of Craft Beer as Status Symbol.

Founder’s reportedly made ~10,000 bottles of CBS. Mass disappointment was inevitable. So was retailers in some states gouging customers with the knowledge of CBS’s rarity (for the record, no one in VA that I know of did anything like that–there’s so little to go around that there was no point in gouging). The only thing Founder’s could have done, in my opinion, is release more to the greater U.S. rather than keep so much in Michigan. Then again, I’ve heard wildly varying accounts of how much CBS stayed in Founder’s home state, and even if they sent more out it would never be enough to even fractionally satisfy demand. A better example of this might be Bell’s HopSlam. Bell’s has admirably made more HopSlam available to us with every passing year, but the beer simply flies off of shelves. I appreciate the recognition of NoVA as a important market for HopSlam, but every year I hear about stores in Michigan buying huge quantities of it and even hoarding it to sell throughout the year–which goes against the entire idea of the beer as a “drink now while the hop is fresh” IPA. The bottom line is, while many limited releases will never be made in enough quantity to get into all of the hands that want them, a little extra would go a long way toward establishing faith in a brewery’s commitment to a market. Especially one as important as ours (shameless lobbying, I know–get over it; it’s my blog after all…).

As a quick aside: Before you start to blame distributors (and Spaghetti Monster knows I do often and deservedly so), try to appreciate the position they’re in just a tiny bit. These limited run beers are often extremely pricy compared to regular stock; many distributors are still wine-oriented and relatively unfamiliar with Craft Beer so sometimes they shy away from bringing in as much of an item as they maybe should. Also, when they do it’s not unusual to see them selling more than they should to Big Box stores–again, these are businesses and they need to make their money where they can. All you can do, as a customer, is to encourage your local Independent Retailer to kick and scream and fight for every bottle they can get. Trust me, we’re trying: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard of seasonals and limited beers being stacked in chains stores and telling distributors “I could have sold a palette or two of this, if only you’d let me”. Squeaky wheels get greased, folks.

That brings me to us. The Beer Geeks. The people. What can we do about Hype? Well, what we can do is among the most difficult things to do in life; keep perspective. Understand that there are a great many things that are inherently unfair in this world and that being unfair does not necessarily make those things evil. I will use myself as an example: I’ve read about CBS for years. I’m a huge Founder’s fan and in particular the Breakfast Stout and its KBS variant. As a BeerAdvocate member since 2004, I’ve seen the Top 10 list evolve while only having opportunity to try maybe 10-20% of the beers that have made it over the past 7-8 years. I got 12 bottles of CBS into the store that I buy beers for, that I ordered for said store.

And I didn’t get to try it.

I didn’t sneak a bottle for myself. I didn’t get to catch it on tap in the area, or snag a bottle with dinner at one of the bars that had it. The thing is, though; I’m not in any way upset about that. I expected demand to be through the roof and supply to be microscopic. I accepted that I would likely not get enough to justify pulling a bottle for myself and decided it would have to wait for another day. News and rumors are flying about now about Westveleteren finally coming to the States in 2012. While yes, this may indeed signal the End Of Times, it is once again a beer that thousands will want deeply but only a handful will actually end up with. I’ve wanted to try Westy XII for years; to find out if it’s really The Best Beer In The World or just unobtainium in a bottle. But I know and accept that I likely won’t even see it. It’s ok, folks: As a rule, I encourage everyone not to get upset over anything that hasn’t been promised to them.

So what of Hype? Well, I try to focus it on beers that I happen to fall for that I can also reliably stock for my customers. There’s nothing wrong with Hype as a concept: it’s the expression of an excitement for and belief in a beer and the desire for others to enjoy it as you do. I’ve Hyped the hell out of Schlafly since they arrived in the DC area about four years ago; finally this year we’ve seen a flood of new brews from them here and the public response has been excellent. My current obsession is with Sixpoint: I’d heard many things about this brewery from Brooklyn over the past few years and was immediately excited when I heard they’d be arriving in VA this October. I went through the roof, however, when I got to try the beers out. They’re so focused and accessible, I saw a star in the making. Beyond that–tallboys! Who doesn’t like a tallboy can? Even their Cream Ale is outstanding! Sixpoint makes well-priced, complex, yet everyday-drinker-worthy Craft Beer of varying styles; that’s the kind of beer I want to Hype up. That’s the kind of beer that lets me know the Craft Beer Revolution is spreading, and will only gain more support over time as Macro drinkers find more realistic alternatives. Anyone can be excited by CBS, or Westy XII, or Dark Lord. In my world, if you can’t get excited over Sixpoint’s Bengali Tiger or Righteous Ale, or Schlafly’s Kolsch, you’re just looking to show off.

I know I’m thinking a bit too Utopian. I know the Craft Beer scene is not going to suddenly go Zen and accept that which is unchangeable and unfair. I don’t even expect myself to be that way all the time: Who among us doesn’t love trying new things; rare things? There’s a place for all of it is what I’m saying. And what a brewery like Sixpoint can give you with their everyday brilliance is hope–hope for a coming day where all shelves are fresh and local and true. Where there is no longer any misconception about Craft Beer being a luxury. The CBS’s of the world get lots of attention, but they’re not the front line in spreading the word. The Crisp, however, is.

Think it over, and remember: I and every retailer out there (I hope) am here to do everything I can to get my customers what they want. I stand to gain nothing but resentment and loss of business by screwing anyone out of anything. Most often, I’m in the same boat you are as far as wanting something we can’t get or can’t get enough of. Only together can we raise our voices loud enough to be heard, and for us all to someday, finally, be happy.

Good day, and good hunting, everyone.

-Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer

The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA

Also; the Great Hop Debate, and the pitfalls of Fashion

I don’t often write reviews on Beer Advocate anymore. It’s a fantastic resource and community for novice and old-hand beer drinkers alike, but between writing the Arrowine newsletter every week and getting around to the blog now and then, I just don’t feel the need like I did 6-7 years ago.

I say this because back in July I got my first taste of Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA. There seems to have been a great amount of discussion amongst Beer Geeks this summer over hoppy beers; how hoppy was too hoppy? Was there a point to extreme IBU beers? Stuff like that. When Devil Dancer arrived I snagged one for myself to see what the fuss was about. Later I found myself on BA and decided I’d post a review; after typing for a couple minutes though, I stopped and saved part of what I’d written for future use. Here’s what I kept from that abandoned review:

“…this is an exceptional, uniquely flavored beer. The thing is on some level I feel brews like Devil Dancer may be part of the problem rather than a legitimate effort at producing a truly wonderful super-hoppy beer. The aromas are pungent and tropical, promising a world of BIG. The palate is where Devil Dancer both amazed and slightly annoyed me: in some ways it’s an ultimate expression of the hop in modern American beer. The explicitness of the resiny, earthy hop character is a marvel, while the super rich pineapple and melon notes provide a contrast (note I didn’t say balance)…”

I imagine that sentence ended (if it ever did) with something like: “…that astounds but doesn’t save Devil Dancer from being a one-note-wonder.” I think I was going to write a review using terms like “pissing contest” and “style over substance”, possibly while invoking comparisons to a Kardashian or two (flamboyant, pretty but empty and meaningless in all ways that matter). But I didn’t. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I’d soon find out.

I’ve been watching the most recent series of the BBC’s Top Gear. At the start of the second episode, James May reviewed the new Aston Martin Virage and took the opportunity to air a grievance he had with car builders today (relevant bit begins at :52). For those who can’t or don’t have time to access the video, here’s a brief synopsis of what May had to say (from a blog post no longer to be found on the Top Gear site):

“I may be alone in this, but I reckon that a lot of performance cars I drive lack proper feel. I blame the Nürburgring. Being able to claim that your daily driver holds a production car lap record somewhere in Germany is a good boast down the pub for the feeble minded, and the map of the place that Aston Martin embroidered on the center console of the N400 might make its owners feel superior, but it’s all nonsense.”

James essentially saw a culture of track-ready hypercars made to lap the ‘Ring trickling down, making even road-going ‘everyday’ sports cars into harsh-riding, unlivable (to him) absurdities. I realized I thought the same of Devil Dancer when I’d tried it–that I was fed up with the ‘flop it on the table’ contest that IPAs and DIPAs and now TIPAs  had wrought among the everyday Pale Ales and hoppy beers that so many are either just not used to or don’t prefer.

I also thought May should blow it out his ass: the Nurburgring is a temple to all of the things that make driving fast cars dangerously great, and to damn the ‘Ring is to damn us all to a Camry-riddled hell where no one exceeds 55 (intentionally, anyway).

I then realized was wrong as well.

Not long after trying that first Devil Dancer we featured it on the tasting table at Arrowine. The second time around I thought it was a triumph; I wanted to grab a handful and drink them over the next couple of years (it has the potential to go longer, but the hop character may be too well-missed by then) but didn’t–I have customers to sell them too, after all. Or should I say had–our stock sold out well before the tasting ended that evening. That the madmen at Founder’s could craft a brew this hoppy–that they could use the heroic amount of malt necessary to give it any kind of balance and not lose the earthy, rich, juicy mind-meld that makes you One With The Hop is beyond me. Devil Dancer is a beast; a legitimate and welcome addition to the Hop Pantheon.

You may ask: “So what changed, Nick? Was the second bottle just better? Are you a flip-flopping idiot with no clue of what you’re doing?” And I’d say: No, no, and don’t be a dick.

Seriously, don't be one.

Over the years, I’ve become more enamored of styles of beer that aren’t by nature very hoppy. As a consequence I don’t seek out the latest Hop Bomb when it comes out the way I might have 10 years ago. But, like most currently walking the Craft Beer Path, I began a HopHead and will at heart always be one.

Conversations about styles and trends are worth having, of course. But as I’ve discovered over the years (mostly working with wine, actually), there are some days where your palate may just be ‘off’. There may be days where something just strikes you the wrong way. Remaining objective in the face of something you dislike is probably the most important skill you can have in my line of work. While I am the beer buyer at the shop I work at, I don’t see it as my job to be a Tastemaker; folks ask my advice and I provide it. To be a Tastemaker is to enter the realm of Fashion, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about Fashion from years of forced Project Runway viewing it’s that when you follow the path of Fashion, one day you’re in and the next you’re out. Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m not one for Fashion; why would I succumb to it in the world of beer?

Also learned: Heidi Klum is almost always pregnant. I never said I learned much.

Look at that partial review of mine again–doesn’t it sound awful? Jaded? Devoid of joy or context? If I never thought twice about it, I’d have been doing my customers a great disservice by striking a giant red X through a category of beer that has produced some of the best known and loved brews of the past 20-30 years. Beyond that, I was plain wrong. Skepticism can be a great thing; cynicism kills.

That is to say, Devil Dancer is fantastic and Founder’s keeps churning out some of the best made and well-thought ‘Extreme’ beers in the world. So the next time you try a beer or wine and it doesn’t send you over the moon, think twice before writing that scathing review, or tweet, or Facebook post. Be sure of where your palate’s at, and examine why you didn’t like it. Most of all, never be unwilling to try something again. You never know until you know–you know?

Until next time…

Uruguay

Quick note: I finished this in Early April; about a month after we got back. I’ve since changed jobs, computers and all kinds of stuff, hence the delay getting this out. My bad. Enjoy! -Nick

I recently took a vacation with my wife to visit her family in Uruguay. This was my first trip outside the U.S. (we never had much money to travel when I was a kid, and I’m not one for taking vacation time away from work) so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. More than anything else I was simply hoping to relax and get away from my life here in the DC area for a while. What I got was that and so much more. While we were there I started keeping a ‘journal’ of Facebook notes for our friends to read, chronicling the events of our days thousands of miles from home. Here is an essay, for lack of a better word, cobbled together from those notes.

Day 1:

Day 1 involved getting into Montevideo and settled in at my wife’s aunt’s apartment, where we were going to crash as she was out of town. The flight from DC (well, Dulles if you know the area) left very early in the morning. Our trip took us nearly 6,000 miles: From DC to Panama to Lima to Montevideo. The airport in Panama City seems to be very well planned-out in anticipation of the anarchy its people would loose upon it. The highlight of that stop was being given a sample of some kind of Panamanian liquor at the duty-free by an extremely tall, very attractive shop girl whose English was at about the same level as my Spanish. If you put $100 in front of me right now I couldn’t tell you what kind of booze that was supposed to be; it seemed to be some kind of upscale version of Tuaca, but really it just seemed like a cloying brown syrup. But I at least got my first drink in me and that would have to be enough until we got to Peru.

Now, Lima. Lima is a hell of an airport. The duty-free shops aren’t the best, I’ll say that. But what they lack in crap to shamelessly markup they make up for in abundant seating at the gates and some cool places to eat and drink while you wait. My personal favorite was the smoking lounge/bar we found. Before anyone out there gives me hell over this: Yes, it’s a filthy habit. I’m not a pack a day guy, I’m not a 1 or 2 a day guy. I smoke as much or as little as I feel like. I completely understand the aversion to smoking and the people who smoke, I really do. But when I get to an airport with a smoking lounge, a bus station with an area by the platforms, even a smoking car on a train–it feels like finding civilization to me. Even if I don’t feel like having a smoke, it’s just nice to see a place realistic enough to know that people smoke and gives those people a place to go.

So about the smoking lounge. I can’t recommend it enough. Cleverly, they attached the smoking lounge itself to a bar, so you can kick back with a beer and some food and kill the time you have to kill. We got some little fried appetizers stuffed with beef, a couple beers and enjoyed the mountain view (another nice touch).

By this point, we’d been in the air for a while and still had a few hours layover and one more flight to Uruguay. We were in that place where you just need a beer. The selection wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. That’s how it came to pass that on that day, February 24th of the year 2011,  I finally came to name the ‘any beer is a good beer right now’ phenomenon.  Henceforth I shall refer anyone who brings this state up to the Brahma Law of Beer Truth: That even bad beer, during or after a long day, can touch greatness and refresh like no other beverage on planet Earth.

With plenty of time to kill before the next flight, my wife promptly fell asleep by the gate while I worked on reading the excellent World War Z (highly recommended, by the way). After her 2-3 hour nap, my wife felt hungry again (as did I) so we went back to the lounge. This time we decided to go for sandwiches. Actually, looking back on it now, the theme for Day 1 was ‘sandwiches’ (more on that later). My wife got something with like 3 different types of ham on it; I had a sandwich with turkey, ham, bacon, mayo and bleu cheese on it. Now, I’ve known about pollo a la brasa for years being from the DC area, but this was the work of a truly great culture indeed. Finally it was time for the last flight to Montevideo.

Upon landing, I quickly discovered a couple things about Uruguay–1: Our taxi ride from the airport basically let it be known that if it’s not impossible to get pulled over in Uruguay, it’s at least extremely rare and exceedingly difficult. 2: Every building had those cool old-school elevators where you opened the door, pulled the gate open and shut, etc. It was fantastic. I felt like I was in an old-school detective flick everywhere I went.

"It was a dark night; dark like a bar though the bottom of an empty whiskey glass..."

After spending that first day in Montevideo among the Uruguayans and in particular my wife’s relatives, my wife made much more sense to me. The people  (especially my wife’s family) and the city itself are very Italian. Hanging out with my wife’s cousins, having beers, busting balls; the conversation went by at a great pace and volume. My Spanish is choppy at best but I could pick up enough of the conversation to pretty well follow what people were saying, and whatever I missed my wife would fill me in on. Everyone was really warm and welcoming, taking me in almost immediately and going out of their way to include me. I’m not sure if I ever really found the words to let them know how much that meant to me. It would have been very easy to just let me sit there while they caught up with my wife. It’s something about this place that I can’t quite put my finger on. At once it’s a place that moves at a breakneck pace where you feel you could get lost at any moment but seems to lightly grab you and pull you in. Montevideo wants you to step in and go on the ride with it. It’s a great vibe; people were laid back, casually friendly. No one asked anyone what they did for a living. No one would for the duration of my stay; at least not until getting to a natural part of conversation where you’d ask someone such a thing. It’s obvious I’m not home and that, friends, is a very good thing for Uruguay to be.

The food to that point had been great but I could only speak for the pizza and an outrageously large milaneses sandwich I ended up with at the mall we’d walked through earlier that day. The place we ate at was one of a chain of restaurants down there called La Pasiva. My wife told me they got famous offering good cheap hot dogs and have since expanded their menu. Now you can easily find a La Pasiva when you’re out and about and stop in for some grub and a beer, or wine, or whiskey or Coke out of a glass bottle.  So about that sandwich: This thing had a breaded and fried steak, peppers, cheese, lettuce, mayo and probably about 2-3 eggs on it. I finished half and grudgingly took the rest back to the apartment,  waiting for my first drunken-night-munchie craving of the trip to polish off the rest. I’m shocked at how late I stayed up that first night considering the travel we’d just did, but all the same I laid down and read myself to sleep after a great day feeling like I already belonged here somehow.

Day 2:

The beginning of Day 2 was dedicated to the ‘Vacation’ portion of our stay, involving a lot of catching up on sleep and doing little while awake. I was still not 100% with it sleep-wise (in fact, I’ve been home three weeks at this point and am still not all the way back–springing forward helped a bit as we were three hours ahead of DC), but I’m getting there.

As a bit of a car dork, I had an eye on what people drove  there and fell even more in love. Uruguay is the Land of the Hatchback, specifically the VW Golf. Seriously, if a Golf was made between the late 80’s-early 00’s and you don’t know where it is, it ended up there,  still running and still kicking ass. This country loves a handful of cars in particular, all of which endear it to me more:

1. The aforementioned VW Golf. Specifically the late 80’s-early 90’s 1.6 2-door hatch.

2. Hatchbacks of all makes and number of doors. Citroens,  Renaults, Peugeots…

3. The VW Bus. Not the crappy, blocky 80’s one, either; I mean the full-on Dharma Initiative-style hippie bus. I must have seen at least a couple dozen during our stay.

4. Old VW Beetles and Fiat 500’s (!!!!) everywhere. Plus one SWEET old Mini in racing red with rally lamps I saw driving by our apartment on Day 1.

5. There was an Alfa dealership two blocks from where we were staying. I wanted to kick the door down, test drive a Giulietta and beg them to come back to the States (turns out they just may be–joy).

(You can look at some of the cooler cars I found here.)

Night 2 started with dinner at a neighborhood restaurant with many of my wife’s relatives (and there are many). We all shared various meats, including the best blood sausage I’d ever had (there would be a new ‘best ever’ before the trip was done). There was great steak, chorizo and sweetbreads going around the table as well. After dinner we headed out with a couple of the cousins and their friends in search of a bar. We found one called Utopia a few blocks from our place. Not much by way of beer selection (while what they did have worked like a charm) but a very cool whiskey list, which apparently is very common here. It turns out the beverage of choice for most men in Uruguay at the end of the day isn’t necessarily beer, but whiskey or scotch.

I know, I thought it too: These were my people, and I had at long last found them.

The bar was decorated like it didn’t know if it wanted to be an upscale club or a cocktail bar. The big screen playing a mix of crappy late-90’s/early 00’s pop (with some Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure) didn’t help anything, but like I said the beers were enjoyed in good spirits and to their credit they sent out a plate of the most interesting looking potato skins I’ve ever seen. It looked like a Top Chef Challenge. Overall, a good experience.

Day 3:

Not the worst place to spend your day

For the first time since arriving we woke up at a human hour and caught a ride just outside town to visit cousins on the dad’s side of my wife’s family (like I said, a lot of relatives). They were a  beautiful, charming family who really could not have been more kind or generous to us. Most of the day was spent eating BBQ pizza (a full 10/10) and drinking whiskey. My first confrontation with the Uruguayan sun left my neck a bit red (make your own jokes here) but the rest of me unscathed. We passed around some mate and got an eyeful of the southern stars as the sun set. They dropped us back at the apartment in time to catch some of the Oscar pre-shows. It seemed odd to see the show starting around 11PM local time, but I hit the fridge for a soda and my leftover sandwich and settled in to watch. The broadcast was in English with a live translator who apparently was providing something like color-commentary on the nominees and winners when they were announced. I’m not sure if there was a moment where I wished my Spanish was better more the whole trip than during that broadcast.

Days 4-7:

Not much to report from Day 4 of our trip. We walked around Pocitos, the neighborhood in Montevideo we were staying in. The ‘highlight’ of our day was the arrival of our ‘roommates’–a pair of curly white-haired dogs of indeterminate pedigree belonging to the Aunt whose place we’re staying in. Their names went right through my head, so I took to calling them Thing 1 and Thing 2. My wife thought Thing 2 was cuter; this is probably true but that’s grading on such a sad curve it’s almost not worth mentioning.

Thing 1

Thing 2

The morning of Day 5 saw us setting off for Punta del Este. For those unfamiliar, Punta del Este is the big getaway in Uruguay. Relatively unknown in America, it’s a haven for tourists from Argentina, Brazil and all over Europe. My wife says it’s very much like being in the south of France. I’m taking her word for that, but there was what I could only imagine was a very Euro vibe about the place.

Punta del Este

After being there about 3 days there were some things I could report about Punta del Este, the foremost being:

1. It’s an obscenely beautiful place. Everything is achingly perfect and everyone just walks around like it’s no big deal.

See? This was the other view from the balcony

2. The sun is INTENSE. I got really sick of repeatedly re-applying sunscreen.

Everything else is happenings and occurrences. It seems odd that it’s so hot near the bottom of the world. The sky during the day is a burst of all shades of blue from the brightest softest Baby to a rich Navy so dark you find yourself searching for stars while lying on the beach. Oh, and when the stars do come out–incredible. Like I said, everything just seems to be effortlessly perfect there.

It’s a port town, a beach town and a resort city all in one. We were eating like royalty thanks to my wife’s Aunt who we stayed with. Being able to walk down to the Marina to do your seafood shopping just puts it all over the top when you get to have homemade mussels Provencal, or the unbelievable-smelling paella we were getting ready to sit down to as I originally wrote this.

Nightlife is just that: Folks don’t seem to sit down to dinner until about 10PM before heading out for the night. One night, for example, my wife and I went out to grab hot dogs at La Pasiva (where we got the epic milanesas sandwiches from Day 1) around 10 and found the place empty. Afterward we walked until we hit the street where most of the bars and clubs are, stopping at the Moby Dick Pub for beers (I picked the Moby Dick because it had the word ‘Pub’ in its name and they were playing George Harrison at the time). We stayed until about 1AM when the night’s band started playing, leading off with an energetic and inspired ‘Message in a Bottle'; as we left the place had just about filled up. It’s all very cool, but there is something that can get in the way of your enjoyment: There’s something about Punta del Este that just makes you want to sleep all the damn time. I swear, I could fall asleep just about any time of day there, for god knows how long, on cue.

Pancetta-wrapped hot dog? Glass-bottle Coke? Why am I back in the States, again?

We half-joked about staying. I know exactly how much I wasn’t joking. Somewhere between beer 4 and 5 at the Moby Dick that night,  my wife tells me I look as happy and relaxed as she’s seen me in years and she’s absolutely right. I was really happy in this country. Then again, I’m happy to be almost anywhere that isn’t home. It’s no secret I hate living in the DC area (well, ‘hate’ is a strong word, but…) and would love to find anywhere else in this world to live. I’m trying not to let myself romanticize Uruguay too much like I do everywhere else I visit. Of course, like everywhere else I visit, I fail miserably.

Day 7’s big happening was bike riding around the town as we picked up ingredients for that paella I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t been on a bike in a VERY long time, but I heard it’s like…well, you know. Anyway, after I’d gotten just a bit used to my huevos bouncing off a very tough bike seat I started seeing the town differently. There’s a difference between walking a place and exploring it with a car, motorcycle or a bike like we did that day. When you walk a place, you get a lay of the land–a sense of what’s where. You browse storefronts and notice flower beds. When you drive or ride a place you become part of it for those moments; you get to be a cell in that city’s bloodstream, careening through arteries and veins and the odd capillary or two. You get inside that place the same way it gets in you. It’s something unique to being in the traffic of a city or town; the confrontation and acceptance, like two dogs passing on the sidewalk. I got to experience it that day in Punta del Este: Riding around the ‘boardwalk’, seeing the different beaches and the different people who frequent them, stopping at the Marina for mussels, shrimp and all kinds of seafood (all of it STUNNING); hitting the grocery store for a couple bottles of wine and just marveling at their meat counters. It all makes you feel like the city’s taken you in, that you’re ok, that you belong in your own weird little way. You can have all of those experiences walking, but they take a hell of a lot longer and don’t give you the same sense of communion that I had riding around town that day. Just something to think about that next time you ‘get lost’ driving around an unfamiliar city or town. Use it as an excuse to explore. You never know when you’ll fall in love with a place, or maybe it with you.

Reppin' w/my Dogfish hat. Ridin' dirty.

Day 8-12, Coming home, Being home:

We hopped the bus back to Montevideo late in the afternoon of Day 8. Arriving back in the city, we couldn’t help but notice how many more buses were in the station than there were when we’d left. We had arrived in the city just in time for the rush of people coming and going to Carnival. My wife and I celebrated by making an effort to have the most quiet, boring Friday night out of anyone in the city. I believe we succeeded. Saturday was all about the evening BBQ with a couple of the cousins. We hit the supermarket (imagine a Target with an ungodly meat counter) and picked out some cuts we wanted and stuff the guys thought I needed to try while I was there. You see, Uruguay is a country of around three million people with about ten million cows. They’ve had time to get creative with the product and find out what really works in a way you don’t see all that often in most parts of the States. Sweetbreads I was familiar with and all too happy to see hitting the grill. What was new to me, however, was chinchulines. If you’ve ever had chitlins, you’re in the ballpark. The difference is that where chitlins are pork intestine, chinchulines are cut from a cow’s small intestine. Also different is that here in the U.S., chitlins in the Soul Food context are usually stewed for many hours with onion and then occasionally (but not always) battered and fried with vinegar and hot sauce on the side. Chinchulines go straight to the grill then to the plate. The only real prep work done is to marinate them in a healthy amount of fresh lemon juice; an occasional squeeze of lemon while grilling is as intense as the cooking gets. They were fantastic, firm, slightly gamey hunks of ‘you don’t know this is fantastic but it is’ goodness. Overall, it was a beautiful, breezy, boozy night and when I finally laid down to sleep, above the whir of the a/c and the music and revelry on the streets below, one thing and one thing alone cut through and kept me staring at the ceiling long past any reasonable hour: The dread in the pit of my gut of going home.

Just another night in heaven

I may be speaking for my wife a bit here, but I think I’m not inaccurate in saying that the last few days in Uruguay were a heady mix of reluctantly preparing for the trip home, finding time to visit family while we could and enjoying what was left of our vacation. Alas, all of these things pulled at each other in a way that was inevitable. That’s not to say those last days weren’t enjoyable: We got to walk the suburb where my wife’s grandmother lived (she passed just after our wedding a couple of years ago) where eucalyptus grew everywhere and stopped for some fantastic ice cream. We got to experience the Uruguayan idea of Mexican cuisine, which while tasty lacked a certain…well, I’ll just say if it says ‘spicy’ on the menu it should make an effort to back that up. We also got to do the ONE thing I knew I wanted to do before we even got to Uruguay.

If you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, you may have seen the episode where he goes to Uruguay. When I saw it, I was blown away by his visit to the Mercado del Puerto, at the port area of Montevideo’s Old City. What he finds there is, well, I’ll let you check it out:

I had to experience it. And so we did. After a fantastic walk through the markets and historic buildings of the Old City with my wife’s cousin and her adorable little girl (who was freaked out by my beard in that cute little-girl way where you’re not insulted) we found our way to a counter at the Mercado. If we’d been there at the same time, you’d have caught me behind Bourdain in those front-on shots in that video. His description is right on: Everything that gets set out in front of you is amazing, the blood sausage took the ‘best ever’ crown and by the end I was certainly sated, but not stuffed. It all just felt right and not like some kind of gluttonous gorging, because it’s not. It’s a lot of meat to be sure, unlike anything you can order at a restaurant here in the U.S. (although if there’s a place you can, please let me know), but everything is of the highest quality and when shared feels like a reasonable if extremely smile-inducing meal.

Oh, yeah. Rejoice, bitches

See this? This is my Happy Meat Face

Here’s a couple notes, should you find yourself at the Mercado del Puerto:

1. It’s not as much meat as it appears. The bulk of the metal ‘bucket’ you see there is for coals off the grill to keep the meat warm during the meal. It’s not a bucket of grilled meat so much as a very deep plate of grilled meat. Don’t let it intimidate you.

2. I can’t stress Bourdain’s rules enough here–no potatoes, no veggies. Not that it’ll come with many; our dish for ‘two’ had a potato sliced in half and some strips of green pepper as a conceit to foods that did not at one time breathe or move of their own accord. Sip your beer, too. A Coke isn’t the worst idea but go with whatever you feel like.

3. They’ll ask if you want sweet or salty blood sausage. The correct answer, of course, is both. This is the one mistake I made at our counter–I thought I had to choose. Don’t listen to those American instincts–get both. It’s not as if they’re running out of cows.

Our last night was spent with one last hang with the cousins, where I got to try my first chivito. I’ll give you a second to let that sink in. Anyway, we got to bed around 2AM and woke up at 5 to head to the airport. The trip back was less than ideal in just about every way. The highlights involved our luggage getting left behind in Peru and a particularly sketchy rain-landing in Dulles. The second we touched down I turned to my wife and said “We should have never left”.

It’s been three weeks now since we returned and my feelings have mellowed a bit. I’d certainly consider going ex-pat someday, but it’s not feasible for us anytime soon. For now I’m trying to hold onto that feeling of happiness and relaxation I had while I was there.

In the final analysis, I think a lot of the reason there are so many interests that I’ve delved so deeply into is a need of mine to find where things fit. From beer to wine to cars and more (music, comics…) I always look at things with a mindset of where its place in the universe is. If I’m having a moment of introspection here (and let’s be honest–this is a blog, everything here is navel-gazing of one form or another) I see everything as a fellow traveler hurtling through space hoping to find a place to fit in. I’m not leaving the DC area anytime soon: My wife’s job has too many potential benefits for ourselves and the child we may decide to have someday. I see everywhere we go as a test of how I feel in a place, if I could see us escaping and setting down roots there. San Francisco/East Bay almost got me, but in the end I just couldn’t see myself staying. We spent a few days in Asheville, NC back in October and that was a winner for sure. Great food, great beer culture, still Mid-Atlantic but in the mountains. I really felt like I could make a home there. Like I could fit in there.

I think what I’m trying to say is that our trip to Uruguay opened my eyes not just to a different country or culture or even a way of life; it made me reconsider and refine what look for in a place. It made me stop and relax without having to slow down or isolate myself. From my American perspective it’s such a beautiful, simple, reasonable place that allows you to live the way you think people should be able to. I found a part of myself I usually only find on drives out to the countryside where my first memories were formed. I also found something new–an adult version of the childhood feeling of home.

I don’t know if I could live so far from everyone I’ve ever known. I don’t know if my Spanish will ever get to the point where I wouldn’t sound like a dumbass to anyone I spoke to. I don’t know if we could make the move work or how we’d get by. All I’m saying is that I would definitely consider trying.

Yup. Definitely considering...

Next time: Something novel like, say, a beer review! ‘Til then.

Beermonger