Archive for the ‘Stuff about beer’ Category

Today’s the day that New Belgium Brewing Co. releases its Fat Tire Amber and six other beers in the VA/DC/MD market. To say that this has been one of the most-hyped beer introductions in recent memory would be a disservice to the efforts put forth by New Belgium and their distribution partners. “Hype” only scratches the surface.

Despite a few bumps along the way (I particularly enjoyed placards distributed throughout Northern Virginia imploring aficionados to visit http://www.newbelbium.com), the release of Fat Tire and friends has been a wonder to behold. And yet …

Whither the NBBC products themselves? I count myself among the puzzled few who just don’t “get” the flagship Fat Tire brew. For years, I’ve had people ask me where they can get this golden elixir that they first had while living out West or skiing at Vail or had smuggled in by a friend. (This reminds me of stories I heard from my dad about Coors Banquet Beer back in the early 1970s.) When, oh when, would this precious brew find its way East?

When I’ve found it available during my travels, I would partake of a pint of Fat Tire just to see if its appeal would finally reveal itself to me. But, if anything, I’ve found this slightly too-sweet, somewhat too-lagery-tasting brew to be less interesting with each subsequent tasting. Yet people continue to tell me that Fat (or as many would say, “Flat”) Tire is the Best. Beer. Ever.

Well, OK, if you think so, then I guess it is for you. Ever the Beermudgeon, I still try not to be a Beer Snob or a Beer Nerd. I’m fascinated to try to understand why many feel Fat Tire is the Holy Grail. Perhaps these are the people who are weaning from Miller Lite, Bud Light Lime and Yeungling. If so, it’s a step forward, I’ll grant you that. But I wouldn’t even place it among the best US craft ambers, such as North Coast Red Seal, New Holland Sundog and Breckenridge Avalanche, to name a few.

Despite all this, there are many NBBC brews I have enjoyed, including their ambitious La Folie sour ale. When trying a sample of their first batch (I believe)at a Smithsonian Associates tasting at DC’s RFD in 2002, I told New Belgium’s husband/wife brewing team that it would be a great component of a unique vinaigrette dressing to rather cold stares. I meant it as a compliment, though I doubt it was received as such.

Anyway, here we are nearly a decade later. Fat Tire and friends have arrived in the DC area, while I am sitting on the beach of an inland Michigan lake sipping a Bell’s Oberon, to be followed by a Founders Centennial IPA, a Two Hearted Ale or a North Peak Diabolical IPA.

Am I missing anything?

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This afternoon, I ran across this YouTube posting from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based think tank with a decidedly free-market, somewhat Libertarian bent. Using New Holland Brewing Co. President Brett VanderKamp as its main source, it attempts to make a case against the so-called “Three-Tier System” of alcohol distribution, particularly as it is exercised in the state of Michigan.

As a Virginia retailer and a proud seller of New Holland’s products from Michigan, I’m not sure this explains the problems of the three-tier system very adequately, nor does it address how individual breweries would distribute their products if they were free of the three-tier system. OK, we get the problem of the brewery that wants to sell its products to the store across the street but has to feed them through a system that requires the beer to travel 100 miles to make the across-the-street trip. But that’s apocryphal. Or at least the exception.

For every store “across the street” from the brewery, there are literally hundreds that aren’t. Yes, “literally.” I don’t mean “figuratively” here. How would New Holland propose getting its beers to stores that aren’t across the street? How would they get to Grand Rapids or Detroit or Cleveland or Philadelphia or my store in Alexandria, Va.? Would New Holland and every other brewery each take orders from the hundreds of stores across the country that want their products? Would they employ their own fleet of trucks to deliver directly to each store?

Great. That means that instead of having to place and receive an already-unwieldy 7-10 orders and deliveries a week, I’d be looking at dozens, if not scores, of orders and deliveries from each individual brewery that I carry. Would cost be any cheaper? Would breweries be any more profitable? Would retailers make more money? Would the consumer pay less or get more variety? My guess is that if the three-tier system was smashed, it would quickly re-form like the amorphous blob it is. Like-minded breweries would for distribution systems, or they would hire new (or old) distributors whose expertise is … distribution.

I’m no great fan of the current three-tier system and the 51-or-so different iterations of it that exist in the U.S. I’m open to hearing alternatives. But just trashing the system without offering alternatives isn’t helpful. It makes as much sense as suggesting that taxes are too high and if we just cut them everything would be great. Pay no attention to that elephant in the corner telling us that fewer taxes means less funding, which means fewer government programs and necessary cuts. It’s just dishonest.

Perhaps the big argument with the three-tier system (at least as I understand it) is that most states require breweries to shackle themselves to one distributor in a given jurisdiction, then giving the distributors total control over distribution of that brewery’s products with little or no recourse for the brewery if the distributor doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Witness what Larry Bell and the Kalamazoo Brewing Co./Bell’s Brewery went through a few years ago when they had a disagreement with their Chicagoland distributor. His solution was unique, to say the least. But while it’s probably not feasible for every wronged brewery to do what Bell did, it points out the flaws that need to be fixed.

Non-alcoholic food stuffs can have multiple distributors in a given area. Different distributors give different levels of service, different pricing structures and other issues that give both suppliers and retailers options. Suppliers can (I assume) move from distributor to distributor more freely than can breweries under current rules. Retailer can choose which distributors give them the best deals for their circumstances. Understandably, distributors would want more stable relationships than to allow breweries to break allegiances on a whim, but that could be handled contractually rather than allowing local law to give distributors an iron-clad upper hand.

The endgame, I would hope, is to provide breweries, retailers and, ultimately, consumers, more choices as better prices, while still having robust avenues of distribution. The three-tier system doesn’t need to be eradicated, but it needs to be made fairer for everyone involved.

So, they tell us that this week is American Craft Beer WeekWe think American Craft Beer is great and  certainly worth celebrating, but we’re not sure that we need a Congressionally declared period of time to acknowledge it. After all, Congress has lots of so-called commemorative days, weeks, months and even years for all sorts of worthy and silly things. But what the hey. Let’s celebrate.

The Beermudgeon truly believes that this is the Golden Era of craft brewing in America. One needs look no farther than his own area in Metropolitan Washington D.C. to see the boom, with Port City Brewing up and running in Alexandria, DC Brau just out of the starting blocks in the District and DC’s Chocolate City and Ashburn’s Lost Rhino just around the corner, plus establishment players such as Flying Dog (Frederick, Md.), Heavy Seas (née Clipper City, Baltimore), Blue & Gray (Fredericksburg, Va.) and Legend (Richmond, Md.). Not to mention fantastic brewpubs such as Mad Fox (Falls Church, Va.), Sweetwater Tavern (three Virginia locations), Franklin’s (Hyattsville, Md.), DuClaw (four Maryland locations) … you get the picture.

In just the last couple months,  the Beermudgeon has been happy to meet with recent startup American brewers Evolution Craft Brewing Co. (2 years old, Delmar, Del.), Epic Brewing Co. (1 year old, Salt Lake City, Utah) and the aforementioned newbie Port City, not to mention a stalwart of 15 years, Victory Brewing Co. (Downingtown, Pa.). In just a couple weeks, I’m hoping to meet with many, many more at the 2011 edition of SAVOR in Washington, D.C. But, suffice it to say, love of brewing and the American entrepreneurial spirit are alive and well.

Let’s all raise a glass in honor of American Craft Beer Week, but let’s not stop there. As far as the Beermudgeon is concerned, every week is American Craft Beer Week!

Cheers!

Do you know who Pierre Celis is?

Pierre Celis (1925 - 2011)

If you are a serious beer lover, you should.

Pierre Celis was born in the Belgo/Dutch region of Flanders near the town of Hoegaarden in 1925. As a young adult, he became a dairy farmer, likely following in the footsteps of previous generations of Celises. But, as a schoolboy, he also helped out at one of the local breweries where the favorite local style was the witbier (or “white beer” in the local Dutch dialect), an unfiltered, spiced, wheat-based beer since the 14th century (or was it the 1400s? Sources differ.). During and especially following World War II, most of the local breweries closed or began making more-popular styles such as light lagers or pilsners, gradually doing away with the local fave entirely by the 1950s.

In 1966, Celis — prodded by his friends who were reminiscing about their favorite by-gone beers — decided to revive the style and opened his own brewery,

Bottle and glass of Hoegaarden witbier, originally created by Pierre Celis.

Hoegaarden, to brew his interpretation with a wheat-malt base and flavored with coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel. Was this the historically accurate recipe? We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly became the standard recipe from 1966 forward.

In 1985, just as Hoegaarden started exporting to the U.S., the brewery suffered a catastrophic fire. Although the beer was popular, Celis was severely under-insured, forcing him to accept a merger with Belgian brewing giant Stella Artois to generate the capital needed to reopen the brewery. The merged company became known as Interbrew, whose first two letters of their name you may recognize today. (InBev, anyone?)

Soon, “the bankers” (as Celis put it) were asking Celis to make the beer more profitable with cheaper and, in his mind, inferior ingredients. Rather than compromise his standards, he sold the brewery outright and “retired.” But owing to the American market’s interest in Hoegaarden, Celis decided to move to Austin, Texas, where he opened his own Celis Brewery, where his flagship

Label from Celis White brewed in Austin, Texas.

Celis White was an immediate hit.  Unfortunately, his American investors, too, wanted a quicker return on their money and he sold an interest in the company to Miller Brewing Co., which repeated the experience of cheapening the beer and eventually closing the Austin brewery as Pierre exited the scene once again. Miller ultimately sold the Celis name to the

Label from Celis White brewed by Michigan Brewing Co., Webberville, Michigan.

Michigan Brewing Co. in Webberville, Mich., (you knew there had to be a Michigan connection, didn’t you?) which continues to brew the Celis line of beers to this day, apparently with Celis’ blessing, if not his involvement.

Meanwhile, Celis’ style took the beer and brewing world by storm and today, hundred of versions and variations of the recipe are crafted by breweries around the world. Sadly, Pierre Celis died last Saturday (April 9) at the age of  86. The Beermudgeon hopes you will honor a man who singlehandedly rescued and resurrected a style of beer that is loved around the world today by raising a glass of your favorite witbier/white ale/Belgian white in his memory.

A sample of witbiers from around the world:

  • Hoegaarden (Belgium)
  • Celis White (Michigan)
  • Victory Whirlwind Wit (Pennsylvania)
  • Hitachino Nest White Ale (Japan)
  • St. Bernardus Wit (Belgium)
  • Long Trail Belgian White (Vermont)
  • Allagash White (Maine)
  • Southhampton Double White (New York)
  • Ommegang Witte (New York)
  • Port City Optimal Wit (Virginia)
  • Unibroue Blanche de Chambly (Quebec)
  • Estrella Damm Inedit (Spain)
  • The Bruery Orchard White (California)
  • Avery White Rascal (Colorado)
  • New Belgium Mothership Wit (Colorado)
  • OH, OK … Blue Moon (Coors Brewing Co., Golden Colo.)

Beermudgeon’s Note: Sorry that I’ve been away a while. Trying to get better at that. Let’s go …

So, since I haven’t written in a while, I feel a bit like Ernie Souchak after he returned from his sojourn to the Rockies (anyone remember Belushi in Continental Divide?). Lots of stuff to write about bouncing in my head, but let’s start with the impending demise of the venerated Brickskeller here in my hometown of Washington, D.C.

News that Dave and Diane Alexander, after more than 50 years of operating the Brickskeller (well, first Diane’s parents and grandparents, then Dave and Diane) would be selling their 22nd Street NW location to a hotelier couple was met first with disbelief and disdain from its longtime supporters and muffled “huzzahs” from its detractors. Supporters claimed they wouldn’t believe it until Dave told them directly and browbeat anyone who would dare even suggest such a travesty. People on the other side of the coin practically said “good riddance,” while apparently forgetting, ignoring, or simply not knowing the important place in beer history The Brick holds both locally and worldwide.

Nevertheless, it was officially revealed on Dec. 7 that the Brickskeller — as it exists at the former Marifex Hotel west of Dupont Circle — would officially close somewhere between Dec. 18 and 23. The new owners reportedly will spiff the place up a bit and reopened on Dec. 31 and continue to same sort of operation as usual, although their first decision — to rename the bar “Rock Creek” — crashed and burned because apparently they had no idea there was already two restaurants of the same name in Bethesda and Friendship Heights. Oops. The second — and operating — name, “Bier Baron,” hardly reinstills confidence. (Especially since they didn’t co-opt Homer Simpson for their logo.) We’ll see.

One of the more interesting comments I saw about all this from from Dave Alexander himself, when he was still not ready to publicly admit that the Brick was for sale or that he even had an interest in selling it. “No one will ever operate the Brickskeller that isn’t named Alexander,” said he. Interesting bit of wordplay, that. Of course, the Brickskeller name didn’t transfer to the new owners. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the old girl’s offspring, Regional Food & Drink, a.k.a. RFD, in Chinatown to be rechristened with the Brickskeller moniker in the next few months. Perhaps in time for DC Beer Week or SAVOR 2011?

Commenting on my last visit to the old Brick would churlish and probably seem mean-spirited, so I will decline. But let’s just say that we hope the Alexanders apply some lessons learned to RFD, including sprucing the place up and improving the menu. Brickskeller RFD can still be a destination spot for the DC beer world, but standing pat seems likely to doom the joint to the sidelines as other beer-centric places in the Metro area pass it by. Given its location, there is little doubt here that it will be profitable, but we hope for more.

Cheers!

After reading about and hearing the crosstalk about Scottish brewer BrewDog‘s newest “beer,” The End of History, the Beermudgeon has decided it’s time to toss in his two cents on this matter and BrewDog’s publicity hounding ploys.

First, let it be said that I truly enjoy many of BrewDog‘s brews when they aren’t trying to be cute and overly extreme. 5 A.M. Saint in particular is, IMHO, an excellent beer, and Hardcore IPA is also commendable. Punk IPA, however, was a rather average version of a basic IPA — nothing to recommend it to further drinking. Even Tokio*, an 18.2% ABV cranberry/jasmine flavored imperial stout, was not one of my favorites, but certainly has its share of fans and I can accept it for what it is. Tokio* was the first of what I will call BrewDog‘s “extremist” beers, setting the stage for the insanity that was to come.

BrewDog's The End of History

BrewDog's The End of History

That being said, the course that BrewDog charted after Tokio* has been rather ludicrous and, in some ways, detrimental to the cause of good craft beer in the world at large. First came Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% ABV Imperial Stout created by freezing out some of the water from the original beer and thus concentrating the alcohol to near-liquor levels — 64 proof. Then came Sink the Bismarck!, a 41% ABV (82 proof) IPA created through a similar freeze-distilling process. Finally, we now have the 55% ABV (110 proof) The End of History, a blonde Belgian-style ale flavored with Scottish nettles and fresh juniper berries, accomplished again through the “art” of freeze-concentrating the beer. It costs about US$800 and only 12 bottles were made. Oh, yes, and here’s the kicker — each bottle comes wrapped in a texidermied small animal — a squirrel, shoat or hare. (See below.)

The masterminds, if that’s what you want to call them, of BrewDog, James Watt and Martin Dickie, claim this is the “final installment of our efforts to redefine the limits of contemporary brewing.” Please, let it be so.

If these beers were simply about creating “buzz” and getting BrewDog’s name plastered throughout the planet, congratulations, I guess you’ve achieved your goal. And you’ve even sucked the ol’ Beermudgeon into your game. Thrilled to oblige.

On the other hand, I think the danger — strike that — the downside of what BrewDog has done with this series of beers is trivialized the efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of craft brewers throughout the world who have been trying to show the drinking public that brewing is more than creating the next über-high-alcohol brew that will knock you on your butt, dude. Didn’t we suffer enough with the malt liquor craze of the 1970s and ’80s?

Furthermore, BrewDog‘s methodology in creating these beers is more than a little suspect. I’m no great homebrewer, but I’ve talked with enough accomplished brewers and read comments from even more to know that amping up the alcohol content of a beer by freezing out the water can hardly be called “brewing.” True, an entire style of beer, the German Eisbock, involves this method, but if getting maximum ABV out of the beer were the goal of eisbocks, we would have had a 55% ABV Schneider Aventinus long ago. Give me a basic understanding of the process, the right equipment and a few kegs of Bud, and I’m sure that I could produce the world’s first-ever 75% ABV beechwood-aged American lager. Yippee.

Do we, the beer drinkers of the world, gain anything from the production of these “extremist” beers? At some point, doesn’t the high alcohol just become a hot mess? And extreme-hopped beers — such as BrewDog’s 225 IBU (theoretical) Nanny State — are equally pointless, as the taste experts tell us the average human can’t discern hoppiness above 100 IBUs or so.

How about we make a pact with these obviously gifted brewers: Just give us some great beers to drink, and we’ll buy ’em, drink ’em and enjoy ’em.

BREAKING NEWS FLASH: I guess I should have checked the Virginia ABC website last night before I posted this, but INDEED Founders KBS has received label approval in the Commonwealth, meaning that the distributor, Hop & Wine Beverage, LLC, should be able to start shipping to NoVa retailers within the next day or so.

BTW, the official name of the beer in Virginia is: KBS HIGHLY ACCLAIMED FLAVORED STOUT ALE BREWED WITH CHOCOLATE & COFFEE IN BOURBON BARRELS. Ahhhhh, bureaucracy!

You heard it here first (probably)!

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(The following was originally posted 11:30 p.m., Sunday, June 6, 2010)

Is that light we see at the end of the tunnel concerning the long-awaited release of Founders KBS in Northern Virginia or is it just a steam engine racing toward us to dash our dreams to bits?

A knowledgeable source informed me late last week that officials at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has given the green light to whatever was holding up KBS on their end and that the Virginia ABC officials should be able to take action soon to allow the sale of the Michigan bourbon-barrel-aged, chocolate-oatmeal imperial stout formerly known as “Kentucky Breakfast Stout” in the commonwealth in the very near future.

When will that be, you may ask? Well, the Beermudgeon got out of the prognostication game a long time ago, especially when it deals with predictioning when (or how) a governmental bureaucracy will act. But we’ve got our fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, think of it this way — the beer’s distributor, Hop & Wine Beverage, LLC, is aging the beer for us in their lovely, temperature-controlled warehouse in Sterling, Va., at no added cost (we hope). When we finally get it, it should be quite lovely.