California Love (Part 1)

Yeah, that’s how we’re starting this week.

I just got back from a vacation visiting my best friend in Los Angeles. Our trip just happened (I swear this is true) to coincide with Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party–my friend’s brother lives near Stone’s location in the Northern part of San Diego County, and we were thinking about going to see the brewery and its vaunted World Bistro and Gardens anyway, so we decided to just go for it.

Rather than simply open the Bistro and have a celebration of all things Stone and only Stone, the Anniversary Party is basically an all-day beer festival split into two sessions; one earlier in the afternoon and one later. Some sixty breweries were featured, with well over 100 beers available for sampling. Tickets weren’t exactly cheap ($45—and yes, I paid for them), but the price ensured a crowd of die-hard craft beer enthusiasts. The crowd was as big as you’d expect considering Stone’s popularity, but not so big that I had any difficulty getting around the San Marcos campus of California State University, where the Party was held. Also, I should compliment everyone involved in setting up and running the Anniversary Party; I can’t remember ever attending such a well-organized beer fest, completely lacking in the B.S. that usually makes me avoid beer fests.

Make no mistake, though: it was a big crowd, and some breweries attracted a lot of attention.

IMG_2061

This was the line to sample what The Bruery brought (their tent is the one straight ahead in the picture)

And the line for Russian River sampling was twice as long, but the pourers worked efficiently and lines progressed smoothly. Overall, very well done.

After the Anniversary Party on Saturday, we were treated to spots in a tour of the Stone brewery on Sunday, along with reservations at the Bistro (those I’ll thank Stone for). The brewery tour itself is…well, it’s a brewery tour—they’re all fairly similar:

“These are tanks!”

“These are tanks!”

 

"MOAR TANKS"

“MOAR TANKS”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

I always enjoy brewery tours though, and at Stone I appreciated not only our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, but the carefully selected samples poured for those on the tour immediately afterwards in the Stone Company Store. Not to mention the well-stocked refrigerator (note the presence of 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, 14th Anniversary Emperial IPA, the new 18th Anniversary Golden Brown IPA, Enjoy By 9.20.14., sixers of Coffee Milk Stout, and not pictured are the bottles of Bastard In The Rye that I couldn’t stop myself from snagging one of):

"Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT."

“Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT.”

There were a couple noteworthy items during the tour: The first, on the heels of my last ArlNow.com column (about the issues California breweries are having with the state’s ongoing drought) was that Escondido—the North County area in San Diego where Stone is located—was under a boil alert the weekend we were there. Testing that Friday the 15th showed the presence of coliform bacteria, so the first thing we saw when parking at Stone on Sunday was a very large truck outside pumping clean water in. By Monday the 18th, the alert had been lifted for all but around 60 of the reported 6,300 water customers in Escondido. While this issue in Escondido wasn’t drought-related, it was interesting to see how an operation their size had to scramble to handle a temporary water emergency.

The other thing that came up on our tour was the news, released the day before the Anniversary Party, that Stone has narrowed the potential locations for its East Coast brewery to three finalist cities: Richmond, Norfolk, and…Columbus, Ohio? Ok, then—I’m still rooting for Virginia to get the nod (and rumors are flying about large spaces in both Virginia cities that could potentially work for Stone), and it sounds like we won’t have to wait much longer to find out for sure.

 

The Bistro

The Bistro

The Bistro is everything you’ve heard about it: a bit pricey but the food is delicious, with carefully chosen ingredients prepared very well. The draft and bottle beer lists are exceptional, featuring more than a few Bistro exclusives by Stone, along with cool unexpected Belgian selections and brews from Evil Twin and Mikkeller. My advice if you’re visiting? Grab a snack and a couple pints and enjoy a walk around the lovely outdoor area; I can imagine that as a really nice way to spend an afternoon.

Getting back to the Stone 18th Anniversary Party, here are some highlights from the beers I tasted there:

Stone Brewing Company stuff: Of course, there were a lot of Stone beers at the Party. I started the day with their 18th Anniversary Ale, which is just arriving in Virginia this week. A ‘Golden Brown IPA’, the malts make a nice counterpoint to the all El Dorado-hopped IPA. I’m partial to El Dorado right now; it always brings a nice, minty feel of freshness and a restrained amount of the citrusy/piney hop character that can be overdone in too many beers. Something I didn’t expect to see was Enjoy By 9.20.14., but it’s always appreciated. This batch won’t be hitting Virginia or DC, but if you need your fix it is available in Maryland. One I’d never heard of was Tiger Cub, a Saison in this case aged in white wine barrels with sour cherries. As you’d expect, opinions varied but I thought it was lovely. The new Coffee Milk Stout was great; not too strong, not overtly sweet, and if the six-packs ever get out here I’ll be stocking up on it for sure. My wife didn’t like the recently released W00tstout 2.0 as much as last year’s, but I found it to be just as punchy, rich, and enjoyable as before.

4 Hands Prussia Passion Fruit: I’d heard next to nothing about St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing before going to San Diego, but now I’m obsessed and it’s solely because of this Berlinerweisse with passion fruit added to it. It’s 3.5% ABV, tart as all get out, and the passion fruit just worked so well in the style. I must have it.

Russian River Compunction: Sure, most folks were waiting in the absurd Russian River line for Pliny The Elder, but many of us were intrigued by Compunction, a Sour Ale of theirs that I personally wasn’t familiar with at all. Turns out to be a Sour Blonde with pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid). I was looking for more fruit character, but Compunction does not disappoint—it’s a Russian River Sour, after all.

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin is about as perfectly-made as West Coast IPAs get; this variant with grapefruit added is just a little more perfect. If we don’t get bottles (or cans? Please?) of this in Virginia it’ll be a travesty. Ok, that’s a bit strong, but I really would like to have some to sell. In the meantime, I’ve heard of bottles popping up in DC, so keep an eye out.

The Lost Abbey Fuzzy Angel’s Share: I’ve only had Angel’s Share once or twice, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but this was wonderful. This version of Angel’s Share was made especially for the 18th Anniversary Party, adding black tea and stone fruit to the 12.5% ABV Brandy-barrel Strong Ale. Heady (especially as it was my last beer of the party), but so complex and just packed with flavor.

Modern Times Black House: Tasty Oatmeal Stout, under 6% ABV, in a can? Yes, please. Clean, smooth on the palate, delightful beer.

Beechwood Alpha Master Pale Ale: “Simcoe, Centennial, and Columbus hops in the kettle. It’s then generously dry hopped for two weeks with Simcoe and Centennial…” yeah yeah yeah, I know, another over-hopped West Coast beer–but wait. This is a 5.6% ABV Pale Ale, clocking in at 80 IBU but not enamel-shredding by nature. The kind of beer I wish more West Coast breweries aimed to make (more on that in a couple weeks).

Port Brewing ChronicAle: This wasn’t at the Anniversary Party (at least I didn’t see it there), but I picked this up the night we landed in L.A. during a BevMo run. ChronicAle, in its canned form, is a 4.9% ABV hoppy Amber Ale that can function as a hoppy Session Beer. The malt works really well here, shouldering the burden of the hops to carry the beer, and adding to the ‘Sessionable’ feel. The best part? ChronicAle comes in six-packs of tallboys, and cost $9.99 at BevMo. This was the first moment I thought to myself “Nick, have we landed in The Promised Land? Yes, Other Nick, we sure have.”

More travelogue next week, along with an awesome visit to The Bruery. See you then!

Gotta Get Back in Time: A Trip Through a 2005 Distributor Catalog

Yes, it’s now gonna be stuck in your head just like it’s stuck in mine.

Welcome to those of you who found your way here via this week’s ArlNow.com column. For those who didn’t, go check it out for an analysis of how pricing of beer has (and in a surprising number of cases hasn’t) changed over the years.

Over the weekend, my wife and I were cleaning out some stuff around the house. Among these items I found an old backpack of mine from the days when I’d haul my notebooks, distributor catalogs, and CDs (ask your parents, kids) to work with me in one. The contents of the backpack were pretty unremarkable save for a nice note I found from my mom and a vintage 2005 catalog/price book from Hop & Wine Beverage. Flipping through it was like living that West Wing episode where everyone’s reading the book about what life was like 100 years ago:

"Josh, it says here 100 years ago (in 2005) no one gave a shit about Lager and some asshole named Nick in VA was drinking 90 Minute as his 'Session Ale'."

“Josh, it says here 100 years ago (in 2005) no one gave a shit about Lager and some asshole named Nick in VA was drinking 90 Minute as his ‘Session Ale’.”

For those not familiar with the area, Hop & Wine is one of the bigger beer distributors in the state, with a focus on craft beer that was years ahead of the curve. This is a copy of their catalog from 2005:

I'm not an expert, but I'd say CGC would grade that somewhere in the 2.5-3.5 range. I'll brook no offer under $5,000.

I’m not an expert, but I’d say CGC would grade that somewhere in the 2.5-3.5 range. I’ll brook no offer under $5,000.

Like I said, for deeper analysis check out the 7.11.14 edition of my ArlNow.com column. In the meantime, here’s some fun stuff I found floating around in here:

Michigan? Where’s that? A grand total of zero Michigan breweries are listed at this point in 2005. That stands in stark contrast to now, as Hop & Wine currently represents Founders, New Holland, Jolly Pumpkin (in DC only–don’t get excited, VA people…), and someone else…

…oh yeah–Bell’s. No Bell’s in VA back in ’05. I remember the days when I sold beer and didn’t have to think about dealing with HopSlam; the memory feels like a brand new pillow that is just firm enough. /sigh

<David Lee Roth voice>Wish they all could be California brews</David Lee Roth voice>: Even at this point in the rise of the ‘craft beer’ scene, there was still a heavy bias toward California breweries. This 2005 Hop & Wine book offers 13 Cali breweries alone; the next highest number goes to Pennsylvania with…3. In fact, there are more Californian breweries in this book than there are for those from any other country, save for–wait for this–England, with 14. England. That’s pretty incredible considering the ‘DGAF’ I get from the market today when it comes to British beers without heavy metal band mascots on their labels.

“Dear Belgium: You’re Welcome. From: America”: Speaking of imports–I remember so many more Belgian beers being around back in ’05, but there are only 8 listed in this Hop & Wine book. Bear in mind that Hop & Wine is the distribution arm of Wetten Importers, which is responsible for introducing much of the American beer-drinking public to beers like Delirium Tremens, Gouden Carolus, and these days Halve Maan and Beersel. I remember the explosion of Belgian-style beers from American breweries that occurred after the travels of the Brett Pack; I hadn’t considered lately what kind of impact the popularity of those beers would have on the interest level of American beer geeks for Belgian breweries themselves. So not only did we let Belgium by in this year’s World Cup, but we also brought untold millions to its beer industry. That’s American Exceptionalism, my friends. (/sarcasm) (kind of)

“This was back in dicktey-five. We had to say ‘dickety’ because the KAISER has stolen our word ‘two-thousand’…”: Yes, this is the ‘Abe Simpson’ segment of the post.

Pictured: the author.

Pictured: the author.

In my day…

Dogfish Head still packaged Chicory Stout, Raison d’Etre, and f’ing Pangea. Also, 120 came out 3 times per year like clockwork, and I could order as much as I wanted. WorldWide Stout? Every year; none of this ‘every other year’ stuff. Raison d’Extra hadn’t even been released to the public yet; now it’s slated to return after a nearly six-year absence that should’ve only lasted closer to three. Great Divide was available in ’05, and there were only two Yetis in the catalog. Two! What did they do with all that free time? Dogfish Head and North Coast were the only American breweries in the catalog doing four-packs; even stuff like Weyerbacher Quad and Victory Storm King were still in six-packs.

Speaking of six-packs: here are the ones you could get in Virginia in 2005 from these now big-names:

Stone: IPA. That’s it.

Lagunitas: Censored (yes, it’d already been censored), IPA, Pils.

Bear Republic: …..

He’brew: Genesis Ale, Messiah Bold (also, Schmaltz is listed as a California brewery at this point).

Pour one out for–wait, wait, don’t actually pour it out! Oh no…: You knew it was coming; the part where we get to the beers and breweries listed as available at the time but no longer with us. Everyone take a deep breath. Ready? Ok.

De Proef: Technically still available here in VA with another distributor, but the selection is pared down to essentially nothing–which is a shame, as I’m a huge fan. In 2005, there was even less De Proef to go around; only one beer, Flemish Primitive (which we know now as Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale), is listed.

Burgerbrau: I used to enjoy occasionally stocking a random Czech Lager, and Burgerbrau was nice.

Gale’s Prize Old Ale, Harvey & Son of Lewes, Ruddles: You know, any or all of these may well still be available here (I suspect Ruddles can be had, at any rate). But such is the state of British beer in this area right now that I have no earthly idea.

Shenandoah Brewing Company: I wasn’t the biggest fan of Shenandoah, the ‘brewery in Alexandria’ before Port City opened up shop. But they held the distinction of being the only Virginia brewery in this Hop & Wine 2005 book. Thinking about it now, I don’t remember for sure if breweries like Old Dominion, Starr Hill, and St. George were being distributed at the time. To imagine so few breweries in the state as compared to now is stunning.

I am Trying to Break Your Heart: This is the part that’s going to hurt. Let’s start with this:

Hop and Wine 05 Book 3

FANTOME. And CANTILLON. Yes, it was by special order and there were no guarantees, but lord almighty do I miss even the possibility of getting any of this stuff. And last but not least…

 

le sigh

le sigh

I remember in the 2007-2008 area being able to get a case or two or three of Damnation every now and then. I’ve talked to folks at Hop & Wine in the past and have been told that Damnation was the only Russian River beer sent to Virginia. My theory is plans were in place to carry the others, but it never came to pass as I’ve never spoken to anyone who had ever bought any in-state. In any event, I just had Supplication again this past weekend and I need a goddamn permanent IV drip of it–and when you need something, that’s a responsibility.

You're damn right it is

I learned that from this guy

See you next time!

 

We Are All Beer Geeks Now

Squirrel In Cider

There will never be a greater image on this blog. Never.

I’ve had a thought festering in my head for some time now, but hadn’t been able to crystallize it until a conversation I had with my wife recently. We were talking about Vintage Ads; a livejournal that makes for a great addition to your RSS feed (if you use a reader). Vintage Ads is exactly what you think it is: a repository for images and videos of classic advertisements from yesteryear. My favorite posts on Vintage Ads are often the food-related ones; they tell the tale of American food appreciation from the earnestness (and casual racism) of the early 20th Century to the “Science is improving all of our lives!” spirit (and casual racism) of the 1930s (“Tingling Buoyancy!“; “Sunshine Vitamin D!…mellowed to ripe perfection under PRECISE ENZYME CONTROL; “The acid of the orange aids digestion…the fruit to eat with rich repasts“; “Lively flavor and goodness“), to the war effort/rationing (and overt racism) of the WWII-era and beyond.

My wife was pointing out how in the span of a few decades, Americans went from Hot Buttered Cheerios, Squirrel-in-Cider, gelatin-molded veg-all ‘pie-plate salads’, Impossible Cheeseburger Pie (pies are generally a source of nightmare fuel on Vintage Ads, btw), and frosted ham to a nation of organic, biodynamic, locavore, gluten-free, non-GMO, traditionally-styled/fusion/niche cuisine-craving foodies. That’s when the thought finally came together in my head, as we both realized that beer has taken a very similar path–

We are all Beer Geeks now.

Follow me for a moment: A media star rises, suddenly opening the eyes of an American audience to the history, culture and possibility of their consumables. Most importantly, Americans learn that doing it themselves is easier than they think–and it sparks a revolution. Other celebrities follow, and within a couple of decades an entire industry comes alive, spurred on by those who were inspired by that first exposure, and an American public newly awakened and curious about what it’s been missing out on.

Of course I’m thinking of Julia Child, but I could just as easily be writing about the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson. In the wake of The French Chef, America discovered more culinary guides: Jacques Pepin, Graham Kerr, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain…hell, throw in Rachel Ray, Paula Deen, and Martha Stewart–it’s a big tent, after all, with room for all tastes and interests. Millions were inspired to start cooking for themselves at home; a small percentage of those went on to careers in the restaurant/food industry. Just like that, you have a revolution in food culture in the United States.

Jackson brought history, context, and a nobility to beer that largely had not been considered by America before him. With President Carter’s passage of H.R. 1337 in 1978, Americans began making their own beer in greater numbers than ever before; within a few short years many of the pioneering craft breweries were already up-and-running. People like Fritz Maytag (Anchor), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Larry Bell (Bell’s), and Jim Koch (Boston Beer) began to stake out territory for a fledgling industry still seen as a curiosity by much of the country.

(Note: I realize this is an unbelieveably truncated version of the beginnings of the craft beer movement in America, but I only have so much time. Don’t be pedantic, and don’t be a dick. Don’t be a pedandick.)

Their work found an audience thirsty for world-class American beer, and as they say, nothing succeeds like success. The beers of one generation of craft brewers inspired the next to not only push the envelope in terms of flavor, but in the ambitions they had for the reach of their breweries and their corporate philosophies. Sam Calagione spreads the gospel of beer while encouraging beer drinkers to explore the history of the beverage and to try new and different (sometimes very different) things; Greg Koch has built a national brand while adhering to an overtly political stance regarding Big Beer, corporations, etc., and Lagunitas’ Tony Magee brings a musician’s perspective to the beer business, simultaneously attempting to achieve a purity of expression in his beers while constantly fighting to preserve the ‘artisan’ aspect of brewing as the industry grows. The similarities between the evolution of the food and beer industries are stunning when you start noticing them, and it’s hard to avoid a simple truth–this has all happened before, and it will happen again.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin' toasters.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin’ toasters.

For all of the talk of various trends and fads, the overall arc of American interest in food has been a continually rising one. The ‘foodie’ phenomenon has grown to the point where now fast food restaurants are offering ‘healthy’ alternatives and are racing to out-do each other with artisanal-sounding ingredients. Neighborhood grocery stores now stock organic, sustainable, gluten-free items–stuff you had to search far and wide for 10-15 years ago. You can buy organic eggs at the 711 on Washington Boulevard in Arlington now. The foodies have won. There’s no going back; this is the new normal.

The same thing is happening with beer right now. Blue Moon was the first sign that the tide had turned; Shock Top, the brewery buyouts, Budweiser Select, Budweiser Black Crown, Miller Fortune and the like all followed–the big guys chasing an audience that was suddenly demanding more. What’s most important here, however, isn’t how BMC has handled the rise of the ‘craft beer movement’; it’s how ‘craft beer’ has grown its audience to the point where it’s no longer a niche product. ‘Craft beer’ is in our grocery stores, our 711s, gas stations, neighborhood bars–like I said last week:

“I don’t get pissed off because Stone, Dogfish, Bell’s, Lagunitas and the like are available at the Giant across the street from me–them being there means we’re winning”

We are all Beer Geeks now.

The debate over craft beer being a trend, or ‘craft’ versus ‘crafty’, is done. All that’s really left to argue over are personal preferences and philosophies, which is great because those are all friendly arguments; those are fun. We should be vigilant and keep an eye out for BMC taking over more smaller breweries in an attempt to co-opt the movement of course, but once upon a time ‘craft beer’ was the rallying cry for those who wanted options; now there are more choices available to consumers in more places than I would’ve imagined possible even just ten years ago.

So let’s stop talking about whether Goose Island is ‘craft’ or not anymore, or Ommegang or Boulevard for that matter. There are immensely talented brewers working with pride at breweries of all sizes all over the world–it’s all ‘craft’. Let’s be open and frank about our preferences and let’s be specific about them, too. I’ll start: Back before the ABI buyout I got to try a couple Goose Island beers and thought they were good, but nothing to rave about. Since the buyout, I’ve tried some very good Goose Island beers (Honker’s, Harvest Ale, their new  The Ogden Tripel which is nice but finishes a bit hot for my taste; Pepe Nero), but I still see the takeover as ABI trying to buy itself some ‘street cred’. Between those factors and the only Goose Island beer I get requests for on a regular basis being Bourbon County Stout (which I’m also not crazy about personally), it’s an easy decision for me not to carry it. But you won’t hear me say the brewers of Goose Island aren’t good at what they do; nor will I say that they lack passion for beer or are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of beer drinkers, because they’re not. Everyone is trying to make the best beer possible; everything else is a matter of preference.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

There is still work to be done; still whole swaths of the country where smaller breweries aren’t available. But the tide has turned and it’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The day will come when we start reading people bitching about the dominance of ‘big breweries’ like Dogfish Head, Stone, Lagunitas, New Belgium, and the like–a day I think is coming relatively soon, actually. When it does, I’ll just smile and be happy that these upstarts managed to grow at all–let alone become national names–in the face of an industry that wanted nothing less than to kill a consumer movement before it ever had a chance to grow. Welcome to the club, everybody.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

 

 

 

ArlNow.com Column 6.20.14. (Beer Advertising) Supplemental

(Note: I’m going to start doing these occasionally when there’s a train of thought or a set of ideas that don’t fit into what I’ve written for a particular week’s Your Beermonger column for ArlNow.com. –Nick)

–Stone’ Greg Koch can continue to rail against everything from breweries advertising on TV to ketchup (I swear I’m not making that up); he’s an intelligent, eloquent voice speaking out for those of us who want to take The Man down. Despite Stone’s anti-corporate stance, though, it is undeniably a big business whose beers increasingly are popping up on the shelves of Big Box chain stores and groceries. While Stone continues to rage against the machine, Schlafly’s getting one of those ‘faceless multinationals’ to promote its brewery without the expense of its own national TV campaign. Just something to think about.–

That’s a pretty close approximation of how this week’s ArlNow column was originally going to wrap up. As I was writing, I thought it was needlessly antagonistic toward Stone and Greg Koch personally (who I’m a gigantic fan of), so I scrapped it. But there is a deeper issue for those of us who work with beer and who love beer, and I’d like to delve into that for a moment.

I think Greg speaks for a lot of us with his self-described “screeds”; some of us want our small breweries to take a stand against the corporations whose first commitment isn’t to making the best beer possible, but to increasing the value of its stock. I may take some issue to seeing chains like Total Wine or Whole Foods being allocated so much of Stone’s special releases in light of Koch’s philosopy, or feel an odd ping trying to reconcile Stone’s own corporate ethos and its beers becoming increasingly available in groceries like Giant, Safeway, etc., but there are two important factors to keep in mind here:

1.That beer is being sold by distributors, not Stone. Once the beer is sold to a distributor, breweries have varying degrees of influence as to how its products are sold or to whom they are sold.

2. The beer business is a business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there are real-world issues at play here, and one of them is that Stone is an incredibly popular national name in the beer industry. Any brewers worth a damn is going to want their beers featured in as many supportive markets and retailers withing those markets as possible. There’s a certain extent to which we all need to grow up a little about this.

The achievements of Stone and other top 10 craft brewers (Bell’s, Lagunitas, etc) are remarkable because of the lack of major national ad campaigns involved in their growth. Stone stands out for essentially having a policy of not spending money on advertising. It’s not like Stone doesn’t get into marketing in any way, of course, but it’s still pretty incredible to have the 10th largest craft beer sales by volume without a penny’s worth of bought advertising.

There is room enough in beer for many ideas and approaches, all of which can be correct and all of which can work to the benefit of those implementing them. Even if you’re not politically minded, your decisions as a consumer are inherently political ones: you do in fact vote with your wallet. I do it in my role as a buyer–there are breweries whose items I don’t have an interest in stocking because I don’t want to support their business models. There are brands I won’t carry because I don’t like the imagery of their packaging. That’s my decision to make, just as it’s your decision to think I’m a haughty douchebag for making it, or thinking Greg Koch is an insufferable hipster asshat for not offering you ketchup at the Stone World Bistro and Gardens.

In the end, none of that is as important as recognizing that we can all be right and that when we attack the approaches of well-meaning small breweries, we do the Big Guy’s jobs for them. I don’t get pissed off because Stone, Dogfish, Bell’s, Lagunitas and the like are available at the Giant across the street from me–them being there means we’re winning; that consumers are choosing well-made, interesting, high-quality beer over the stuff that’s been sold to them for decades by, among other methods, gigantic TV ad campaigns.

I’m increasingly becoming fed-up with the term ‘craft beer’, because the point is that there’s nothing ‘special’ about using the highest-quality ingredients to make flavorful, interesting beers–it’s simply doing things the way they should be done. Continuing to say ‘craft beer’ sets us all up to be categorized as just another trend; something for SABInBevMillerCoors to laugh about at their stockholder’s meeting 20 years from now: “Hey remember ‘craft beer’? (everyone erupts in laughter while lighting cigars with Cease & Desist letters and defaulted-upon bank notes)”

History is written by the winners, folks, and as strong as ‘craft beer’ is becoming, it can very easily in-fight itself into ‘passing trend’ status. Stay focused. As the Bard himself said so well:

 

There endeth the lesson.

Tasting Notes: Foggy Ridge Ciders

Foggy Ridge

I’ll admit up front that I’m not much of a cider guy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I do–it’s just been something I’ve had a hard time really getting into the way others do, and especially in my role as a retail buyer. For years I’ve had cider fans asking me to carry more, only to have bottles sit on my shelves when I actually made the effort to bring some in. So forgive me, but my attitude until recently had been “fuck the cider people” when it came to my stocking decisions.

johnny-cash-middle-finger

Yeah, pretty much that.

Not to mention that every cider I bring in is one less beer I can feature, and when shelf space is at a premium like it is in my department at Arrowine, that’s no small matter.

Another part of my cider animosity is the rollercoaster of levels of quality in the ones I’d try. I can’t count the number of times some rep would say to me “this is our dry style cider“, as if simply saying the word “dry” would tickle the wine guy part of my lizard brain and make me buy in immediately. The worst part is that said “dry” ciders would either be blatantly sweet, meaning the cidery either had no palate to speak of or was just plain lying to me, or the cider would be ‘dirty’–packed with Brettanomyces flavors and effects which yes, can include dryness but at the cost of the fruit’s flavor. Not what I’m looking for. I’m not sold on what UC Davis has to say just yet; as my boss likes to say, wine is essentially grape juice–when you point out to me the part of the grape that is supposed to smell or taste like leather, or ‘barnyard’, or mushroomy I might start forgiving Brett. Until then, I’d like my cider to taste like apples if you please. I’ll keep the Brett in the beers it should be in, where I enjoy it.

Horseblanket

Ran a GIS for ‘horseblanket’; not one grape or glass or wine came up. Side note: how badass does this horse look?

All of this is by way of saying that I’m wary of trying ciders, and a bit exasperated with the prospect of finding and stocking new ones. It was with this jaded, downright shitty attitude that I met with my distributor rep for Foggy Ridge Ciders to try their wares.

Foggy Ridge is located in Dugspur, Virginia, southwest of Lynchburg. It would actually make for a good detour on a trip to Asheville, now that I think about it. Cider maker Diane Flynt has built her lineup around the preservation of heirloom varietals, specifically those with the tannin and acid content to make truly dry, structured Hard Cider. I got to try out five of Foggy Ridge’s offerings, representing the bulk of its line. Here’s what I thought:

First Fruit: Once again, I was told that this would be the driest cider of the group, but for once I was told correctly. The early-harvest fruit used in this cider makes for a truly dry, crisp cider with proper fruit character and–wonder of wonders–actual structure! My heart grew three sizes. Aromas are slightly nutty, but the apple comes correct. Also, it’s CLEAN. Love it.

Serious Cider: Serious is made from a mix of traditional English and American varieties. This is where the pleasant surprises really start: after First Fruit, I was expect a head-first dive into syrupy, cloying cider territory, and that is not what I got. The nose on Serious is more mild than First Fruit, but the blend of apples used gives it a green/yellow apple flavor that is all tartness and acidity in all the right ways.

Sweet Stayman: Made mostly from Virginia Stayman apples which apparently ripen later in the season. From the name alone I was expecting dessert, but Sweet Stayman is more ’round’ than it is ‘sweet’. The apple aromas are bolder and more concentrated here, but don’t suggest cloying sweetness. Stayman is  a tick sweeter on the palate, but it isn’t sugary at the expense of the fruit, or done in a way to pander to the ‘American’ palate. The roundness of the Stayman apple makes for a smoother-feeling cider, but one that still carries some sense of structure. Smart stuff.

Handmade: The only Foggy Ridge to come in 375mL mini-champagne style bottles (more on this in a bit). Handmade is mostly made from Newton Pippin apples and has aromas that made me think of Vidal white wine. The palate was mild compared to the others, but had an interesting pear-like fruit note (which they even mention on their website, funny enough) and was very nice.

Pippin Gold: A blend of a 100% Pippin cider and apple Brandy–think Pommeau without the extended oak aging. Sweet but appropriate for the style; my issue with Pippin Gold was that I missed the oxidation that comes with the long-term oak aging in Pommeau. Thinking about it now, Pippin Gold would be a nice substitute for a Loupiac, or other inexpensive Sauternes-like dessert wines.

So yeah, I really liked the Foggy Ridge ciders. A lot, in fact. But I won’t be carrying any of them.

Why? Well, the First Fruit, Serious, and Sweet Stayman come in 750mL bottles that would retail in the ~$18 range. The smaller bottle Handmade comes in, used ostensibly to make pricing more attractive to retail and restaurants, would still hit shelves around $12. Pippin Gold (in what I remember being a 500mL) would shake out damn near $25. I just can’t do it. I have world-class beers in those prices that have Yelpers and BA’s pissed at me as it is–I simply can’t put these ciders out there at these prices and expect folks to buy in because they’re from Virginia, or simply because they’re great (which, make no mistake, they are). I just can’t.

A smaller format would still be pricey, but I think doable for the main thrust of Foggy Ridge’s line. Hopefully someday this comes to pass; I really enjoyed the ciders and would love to feature them. Foggy Ridge is doing just about everything I want cider makers to be doing right now. If you get the chance to try their stuff out, do so; you won’t be disappointed. If you have time to make the trip, go visit–I’m sure it’s beautiful out there.

Oh well.

Off-Topic: Nerd Boys, Listen Good…

So, If you haven’t been in the loop, comic book artist Tony Harris stirred up all kinds of shit with these comments on his Facebook page. My wife emailed me about it and I had some things to say. Here’s what I sent back to her, which I felt I should share. Enjoy, or not.

“Wow.

Well, I’d heard great things about Starman and Ex Machina, but I guess I’m never picking those up now.

If we were having a conversation about this, you’d be wondering why I don’t sound more pissed off or surprised. Well, this kind of woman-hating is nothing new in the geek world. It’s not nearly as accepted as it used to be (it seems to have embedded itself in the Gamer community these days), but Harris was born in 1969, meaning he’s of one of the last generations where nerds were treated like, well, nerds growing up.

I saw this with a lot of guys I knew growing up: There’s a weird juxtaposition where they see the ‘jocks’ and ‘cool kids’ getting the hot girls and being angry about it, wishing those girls appreciated them for what they were. Because of this when any girl showed interest in comics, fantasy, scifi, etc., she was immediately looked upon with suspicion. Sad to say, less attractive girls were more likely to get a ‘pass’ because let’s face it, for most of us we dive into solitary hobbies like comics because we’re flat out not athletic or attractive enough to merit any great social attention. But Spaghetti Monster help the poor girl who happened to be moderately or worse extremely attractive who claimed any sort of geek title. Hot nerd girls were an impossible concept back in the day, and were rejected out of hand.

Those poor middling girls, though, took and continue to take the worst of it. Not ‘conventionally pretty’ enough to be ignored, but too pretty not to raise suspicion. Those girls were bait to bring out the worst in young nerd men. That dangerous cocktail of teenage hormones, male privilege, and a propensity for over-compensation due to the pressures from society at large (and usually fathers in particular) to be more ‘manly’ in the face of their lack of physical gifts gets shaken up by a slightly-more-attractive-than-average girl who likes what they like more than just about anything else.

She’s too hot  to really be into comics, but she’s not as hot as the kind of girls they deserve. She’s got big boobs because she’s a little (or a lot, let’s not lie) heavy, not because she has hot big boobs because she’s not that hot why aren’t you hotter?  She can hang with the guys or join in on whatever reindeer game they’re playing, but there’s always a palpable undercurrent of lust, anger, and entitlement. Suffice to say, it usually ended up driving many women away from comics and other forms of nerdery. I always had a soft spot for girls like this; I always tried my best to keep them involved in the group and to keep guys in line. But I was an exception–a young man who had been raised in a house full of women, who was more comfortable (if I’m honest) in the company of women rather than men of any age, and who was athletic and (I guess) good-looking enough not to be ostracized out-of-hand by my peers on sight. I had my own point of privilege, but I did what I could to help my fellow geeks into a greater understanding of what I can only poorly define as feminism.

The good news is that screeds like Harris’ are greeted by this generation with the disdain and disgust they deserve. The bad news is that all over the internet you can find comments like Harris’ in forum discussion and find them mild compared to others. Yesterday’s ‘jock’ is today’s ‘alpha’, with the difference being that ‘alpha’ is something to aspire to, and merely an excuse for being a selfish, misogynist asshole. What these boys will never understand in their hearts, and it’s sad to say but 100% true, is that there is a difference between a ‘hot girl’ and an expensive car, or a designer watch, or the hottest shoe on the market. To them, it’s all the same.

Of course there’s a difference between any girl and those things, but from this base lesser attractive girls don’t exist. Baby steps.

Tony Harris and his ilk aren’t pissed because moderately good-looking girls are getting lots of attention at cons; they’re pissed because they’re getting dressed up and coming to cons not for the specific purpose of walking through the doors, dropping to their knees and servicing every ‘deserving’, like-minded nerd like himself who thinks the world owes them something. That’s the part of this whole thing that’s dangerous, and needs to be stated bluntly and fucking stopped.

Fuck him and fuck everyone else who thinks like him. You don’t think the girl that just walked by isn’t ‘hot’ enough to wear that outfit? Who gives a fuck what you think? Move the fuck on–let that girl live her life just like you want the rest of us to let you live yours. Fuck. OFF.

Sorry for the rant, but shit like this just sets me off. Love you.”

You are now free to go about the rest of your day.
–Nick

Pumpkin Beer Thunderdome 2012

Last weekend my wife and I hosted her close friend Chassie for a fall beer tasting for her blog. I wrote my notes up for this week’s ArlNow.com column.

Check out the column here; and keep and eye out for Chassie’s blog post at Chassie’s Food and TV.

TBR: Reader Request–Jester King Farmhouse Black Metal

So,

Friend and noted Beer Trader About Town Matt came into some Jester King stuff lately and brought me a bottle of Farmhouse Black Metal to try. Matt had tried one out and seemed to dig it, but something about the beer seemed to throw him off. In so many words he told me there was a spicy element that jumped out at him and he was curious as to what I would make of it. Well, I just polished my bottle off and here’s my take:

Yes, I’ll be randomly inserting Black Metal vids into this post. Don’t like it? Don’t click ‘play’. Easy enough.

My bottle of Black Metal had been in the fridge for a few days, so I decided to keep an eye (and nose, and palate) on it as it warmed up. Almost immediately after pouring it I picked up something in the nose and was struggling to place it; it seemed almost briny, like Oyster Stout briny. Or mussels? Could this be the note that Matt was talking about? More concerning in that moment was figuring out what it was I was smelling in the glass. I handed it to Mrs. Monger, whose nose and palate are far beyond mine (even if she won’t admit it) and in no less than three seconds she said “It’s olives”.

Dammit. She was right–the unmistakeable scent of Kalamata olives. I would’ve figured it out at some point, but damn if her sensory recall isn’t just that damn good. As the beer warmed up in the first few minutes, the olive note was pretty forceful in Black Metal. I was loving it, but I love the combination of briny and fruity flavors and aromas in olives. Maybe this wasn’t a beer for those looking for a rich, beastly Imperial Stout.

That said, the finish on that cold Black Metal felt and tasted like nice hot chocolate. and the mid-palate was exceptionally easy-going. As it warmed more I started noticing some more spice coming out. Cinnamon? It was faint, but the more the chocolate notes came to the fore the more spice I was noticing too. Ok, then, this wasn’t going to be an easy beer to pin down. Better take it up a notch:

That’s better. Anyhoo, I let it come to temperature and that’s when things just got cool. Like the gigantic dork that I am, I pulled up my Untappd app on my phone to check my beer in like a good nerd. Whomever created the listing for Farmhouse Black Metal in Untappd listed it as a Dry Irish Stout, which isn’t how it’s categorized on Jester King’s site, but it made a lot of things click for me. Now that it was nice and warmed up, the olive note had faded and the malts had asserted themselves, it jumped out at me that the last beer I’d had that it reminded me of was Schalfly’s Irish Stout.

The big difference though, was that at that exact moment it hit me–the spice; what it was that Matt was talking about in the first place. Enough to remind me of the slew of peppery beers that took over my shelves during the past year: Fade To Black, Cocoa Mole, El Mole Ocho, Terrapin/Schmaltz Reunion, etc.

What sets Farmhouse Black Metal apart is the Farmhouse yeast. Having recently tried Boulevard’s Dark Truth Stout, it was fresh in my mind how much any Belgian-style yeast strain can make even the boldest and most intense combination of flavors approachable, and I feel like that’s the case here. Not only does the Farmhouse yeast contribute its own spicy character to the beer, but it helps to round out what could otherwise be seen as just another cartoonishly “BIG FLAVOR” beer.

So Matt, here’s my verdict: Great beer if you dig the spicy stuff. Those not prepared for it or who just aren’t into peppery beers could easily be turned off by its unexpected heat, but I thought it was quite the treat. Thanks for bringing it by.

Until next time, folks.

Cheers!

Ok, one more for the hell of it:

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.