Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Today's column

Here's today's column, also available at The Star's Web site.

Pitcher This: What's brewing in the kitchen?


Praising the cook after a sublime dining experience is common enough to have become cliché — "compliments to the chef."

But it's not often one gets to pay the same respects to a brewer after downing a fine pint during a meal out. At least, not in Alabama, though beer lovers here are (slowly) getting more options to drink beer brewed beneath the same roof where-under their steaks are grilled and salads tossed.

Brewpubs, commonplace across the country, have emerged slowly in the Heart of Dixie since the Legislature 15 years ago made it legal to brew beer in the same restaurants where it's served.

Brewpubs have helped to fuel the growing craft beer movement in the United States since first popping up on the west coast in the early 1980s. They were actually a re-emergence of an old tradition. In the 19th century and before, most beer would have been brewed in the inns and taverns where it was served.

The modern brewpub was an outgrowth of demand for styles beyond the typical pale lagers made by the ever-larger breweries that had come to dominate American beer.

Part of the reason for their rarity here is the strict limits the Alabama Brewpub Act of 1992 places on their operation. Brewpubs may only open in buildings eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places or in federally recognized historic districts. They also must be able to seat at least 80 people at a time. The beer may be sold only for consumption in the restaurant, not packaged for retail sale.

But the most limiting part of the law says brewpubs may open only in counties where beer was brewed for public consumption prior to Prohibition in 1919. That knocks out whole swaths of the state where there once weren't enough people to justify having a brewery to sell it.

Does that include Calhoun County? No one seems to know for sure. There are now brewpubs in Montgomery, Auburn and Mobile, and a new one is on the way to Birmingham. Only history knows if a brewpub could be in the Anniston area's future. There were saloons in Jacksonville and Oxford before Calhoun County went dry in 1883, but someone would need to prove they served beer to make restaurant brewing legal here. That could be as simple as poring through old newspapers looking for an ad peddling beer. To date, no one seems to have been interested to do that research.

And they could be forgiven for that. Non-chain restaurants of any stripe are risky ventures. Throw in the specialized art of brewing, and there's every reason to fear failure. Those who've done it say you can't cut any corners. The beer must be top-notch, says Daryl Cargile, who opened the Olde Auburn Ale House seven years ago. But so must the food.

"You're not going to make it on beer only," he says.

Of course, until someone decides to give it a go here, we'll have to reserve our compliments for the chef.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Yesterday's column

Sorry folks, the holiday schedule kept me from getting this posted on Wednesday. Hope it's not too late for you to take the advice of three experts on what to serve with your feast today. Cheers, and happy Thanksgiving! -Ben

Pitcher This: A cornucopia of beer suggestions
Ben Cunningham
Metro Editor
The Anniston Star

For many it’s almost second nature. If they’re including an adult beverage in their holiday table setting, it’ll be a bottle of wine, perhaps served in the good crystal that only comes out once or twice a year.

Beer? That’s served at the recliner, straight from the can during the football games you’ll watch over the extra-long weekend, right?

Maybe, but with the range of beer styles available today there’s more than a few brews that could be welcome at the grown-ups’ table at even the fanciest holiday feast.

As beer continues to move “up-market” and consumers become more familiar with finely crafted American and exotic beers, they may be discovering sophisticated flavors that fit right in with Grandma’s carefully honed recipes.

Now the only problem is convincing Grandma to let you have beer at the Thanksgiving table.
OK, one more problem … with so many choices, what to serve?

With all the types of food that wind up on holiday tables, there are just as many beers to pair with the grub. For the record, yes, pairing beer with food is just as much an art as matching wine. Just one more problem: there are just as many approaches to beer-food pairing as there are beer styles.

Ask three beer connoisseurs what to serve with your feast, and you’ll likely get (at least) three different approaches. Jerry Hartley owns the J. Clyde restaurant in Birmingham’s Southside, known for its wide beer selection. Stuart Carter is a beer lover who leads monthly beer dinners at the J. Clyde. And Danner Kline is president of Free the Hops, a group of beer enthusiasts trying to reform Alabama’s restrictive alcohol laws. When asked for Thanksgiving beer suggestions, all three came forward like Squanto showing the Pilgrims how to grow corn.

Hartley starts things off proper, with a green salad. He suggested wheat-based beers, like a Belgian-style wit or a German hefeweizen, with their citrus hints would work well. He suggested the Witte from New York’s Brewery Ommegang. Lacking that, look for Hoegaarden or perhaps the ubiquitous Blue Moon from Coors since we’re short on Ommegang in eastern Alabama. If you’re using a creamier dressing like bleu cheese or ranch, Hartley suggests blonde or golden ales, such as Terrapin Golden Ale or Atlanta Brewing Company’s Red Brick Blonde.

For turkey and all those brown-sugar-encrusted sweet-potato dishes, Kline and Carter both went for brown ales. Both recommended Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. Carter pointed to the richer Tilburg’s Dutch Brown Ale if you prefer the dark meat.

Finally, there’s desert. For the obligatory pumpkin pie, Hartley suggests stouts and porters such as Guinness, Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, or Anchor Porter. Kline calls Samuel Adams’ cinnamon-flavored Old Fezziwig paired with pumpkin pie “a real match made in heaven.”

Whatever you’re drinking Thursday, don’t forget to raise a toast to Grandma for making a place at the table for your beer … and for all that wonderful food.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Breaking beer news: Lazy Magnolia in Calhoun County

Got word from a friend a couple weeks ago this was coming, and it finally arrived yesterday. Lazy Magnolia's Southern Pecan is now available on tap at Cooter Brown's Rib Shack in Jacksonville. I had two pints last night, and it was worth the wait.

A quick check of Lazy Magnolia's Web site reveals that it's also available at the 19th Hole, the club restaurant at McClellan's Cane Creek golf course in Anniston. That makes me wonder if it also may be down at the Mellow Mushroom in Oxford. Any alert Pitcher This readers been to the 'Shroom lately? Add a comment by clicking below to let us all know.

Lazy Magnolia was one of three Southern microbrewers mentioned in my most recent column in The Star. I first came across them at the Magic City Brewfest in Birmingham back in June, and fell in love at first sip.

As good as the above info is, even better is the news that Lazy Magnolia will soon be distributing bottles for the first time. Folks at the brewery in Kiln, Miss., say to look for it on shelves in December. I'll keep my eyes peeled and post here if I spot any in Calhoun County.

Friday, November 9, 2007

WaPo: Superlative brewing

Boston Beer Co., maker of Samuel Adams, has become known for exploring the limits of beer, including its flavor, alcohol content and last but most certainly not least, price.

The latest product of Sam Adams' extreme-brewing arm is the 2007 version of its Utopia. It's got the highest alcohol content ever recorded in a beer, at 27 percent by volume, according to this story from The Washington Post earlier in the week. It's also pretty darn pricey, starting at $120 for a 24-ounce bottle. That's assuming you can find one. The brew can't be sold in 14 states (including Alabama, of course) because of the high alcohol content (despite the fact that it equates to about 54 proof, much less than many liquors very legal in those states).

Boston Beer recommends serving Utopia in two-ounce pours, according to the story. That would equate to about $10 a serving.


Thursday, November 8, 2007


For all you Corona fans out there: There was an interesting story in Tuesday's New York Times about a bar in the Big Apple getting cited by health inspectors for bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat food. The culprit: a bartender who twisted the lime into a bottle of Corona. Yikes.

The reporter had a little fun with the story, going pub-to-pub and asking barkeeps to get the citrus in without using their bare hands. Everybody seemed to get the hang of tongs after a try or two.

I wonder ... how many of you out there are actually bothered by the thought of a bartender's hands touching the lime in you beer? One would think the alcohol might kill off any germs. I tend to get annoyed when I'm served a beer with fruit I didn't ask for (I tend to order Dos Equis in Mexican restaurants, and I think the lime screws it up ... but on the rare occasion I have a Corona, I think the beer needs the lime to make it drinkable).

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

(Sorta) Local beer from (very) local ingredients

Bob Townsend's Beer Town column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week has a bit of local interest for readers of The Star. Townsend was at Five Seasons Brewing Co. in Alpharetta, Ga. (on Halloween?) for the unveiling of the brewpub's Great Pumpkin Ale. According to the column, it was made with 100 pounds of organic Sweet Sugar pumpkins from Moore Farms in Woodland. Good free publicity for Will & Laurie Moore!

Laurie Moore tells Star reporter Andy Johns (he picked up the phone as soon as I mentioned the AJC column to him) the brewpub uses their pumpkins for deserts as well as the beer. The farm follows all-organic practices, though they're not USDA-certified organic. Most of the Moores' produce goes to Atlanta-area restaurants such as Five Seasons.

Fifteen gallons of the Great Pumpkin Ale, by the way, was poured into a hollowed-out 300-pound pumpkin from another farm. After unveiling the pumpkin (they really did cover it with a sheet and pull it away ... ta-da!), they pounded a cask-ale-style tap into the gourd and served the brew straight from the squash. There's an excellent picture at the AJC's site.

Today's column

Pitcher This: The South will rise … for first time


Renewal after a fall is an essential theme in Southern identity.

The image of rebirth from figurative flames is powerful in a region that still remembers actual flames, and that image is applied to everything from city seals to literature.

Of course, to get to that image of rebirth, a thing has to be born for the first time.

That may be what’s happening across the South now in craft brewing as the drive for quality, locally produced beer that’s swept much of the nation finally gathers steam here. Three Deep South breweries hope they can enjoy the rise, and maybe just skip the bit about a fall and subsequent rise from the ashes.

All three of these breweries — Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Brewing, Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Co. and Huntsville’s Olde Towne Brewing — have been founded in the last five years and are on the leading edge of what could become a surge in Southern brewing.

Sadly, Olde Towne will have to make a real rise from the ashes. The brewery, founded in 2004, burned in July, halting production. Don Alan Hankins, founder and brewmaster, says the company has decided to build anew and hopes to be brewing again by June.

New equipment, Hankins says, will give him more control over the quality of his bottled beer — perhaps making it taste more like the draft product — and allow the company to fill 90 bottles per minute over the previous 20. That should help Olde Towne fill more orders, putting more Alabama-made beer on store shelves throughout the region.

Lazy Magnolia also hopes to get more from its Kiln, Miss., plant on the Gulf Coast. Brewery boss Leslie Henderson says a new bottling line could have the first Mississippi-made six-packs on shelves by Christmas. Since its 2004 founding, the company has produced only kegs and 2.25-gallon jugs of its beers, including its signature Southern Pecan, which is flavored with the staple nut.

Henderson says she believes Southern brewers are feeding off each others’ success.

“The South is about to turn into the great haven of microbrews,” she says. “Once you see one brewery achieve success in an area, it gives you courage and a model to go after.”

Athens, Ga.-based Terrapin, founded in 2002, also is counting on new equipment to build on the early success of its Rye Pale Ale. President John Cochran said the company is now moving into a brand-new brewery, Terrapin’s first. The South has lagged behind the rest of the country in beer culture, Cochran says. But that’s starting to change.

“I’d like to think beer’s finally going to be accepted in the Southeast,” he says. “This year, craft beer seems to have really turned the corner.”

Hankins, like his peers in Georgia and Mississippi, doesn’t see the other brewers as competition. The more choices there are on the shelf, the more likely consumers will be to try something new, he says.

“And eventually somebody’s going to pick up our beer,” he says. “The more beer the better.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

New Olde Towne to rise soon

The last time we mentioned Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co. here, founder Don Alan Hankins said he hoped the company would be producing beer again by the holidays. The brewery was destroyed by fire in July. The bad news is that date has been pushed back to June. The good news is that work is expected to begin in January on an all-new facility being built from the ground up.

The Huntsville Times reported the news last week in this story. Hankins told the paper he continues to be overwhelmed by the support the company has received from the public. From the story:
"I think these people not only care about me," he said," but a lot of people feel Olde Towne is a good addition to the community."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

WaPo defies grape expectations

The Washington Post this week printed a great travel guide to one of the best craft-beer producing regions around: California's Napa Valley wine country. From Joe Heim's piece:
Well, surprise, surprise: Turns out if you want great beers, the towns plopped deep in California wine country offer some of the best craft brews being made in America today. In fact, the area has a craft-beer pedigree like no other. The first microbrewery in America after the end of Prohibition was the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma. Founded in 1976, the brewery lasted just six years, but it spirited a national craft beer renaissance that gained steam in the '80s and '90s and is now at its all-time peak.

Monday, October 29, 2007

World Series of Beer: Home brew

This one's coming in late, as I was on the road much of yesterday and left with little time to blog last night. But I did want to make sure we got in the final innings of our showdown between Massachusetts brewing and Colorado brewing, timed to coincide with the World Series between the Red Sox & the Rockies.

Colorado's game-four beer is straight from the source: Blue Moon Belgian-style Wheat Ale was cooked up by the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field. Coors opened this brewpub when the park opened for the Rockies' first game in 1995. Just as the team has quickly risen to prominence, Blue Moon quickly climbed the ranks from brewpub special to national distribution and commercial success.

Coors may have a reputation with beer snobs as a producer of boring, light-weight light lagers, but their Sandlot operation, by all accounts is a good place to get great beer. And Blue Moon is a pretty good imitation of the Belgian wit style, with citrus and coriander flavor. If nothing else, its broad distribution and the marketing support provided by Coors have helped to broaden the average consumer's beer experience, opening millions of peoples' minds to different styles and flavors.

While the home team did not emerge victorious last night (the Rockies lost 4-3 to give the Sox a four-game sweep and the World Series title), at least they and their fans have some good beer to cry into.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

World Series of Beer: rounding third

As the World Series moves to the Mile-High City, we'll shift our focus to Colorado-brewed beer. This state has a deep brewing bench, so no matter how the baseball series turns out, I've gotta say I favor the Rockies for beer.

First up for Colorado is Flying Dog Ales' Road Dog Scottish Porter. Flying Dog has been around since 1990, brewing a slew of beers and slinging attitude at the same time. Their porter has a deep, rich taste, and the dark color matches the Rockies' jersey's well.

As I write this, the Red Sox are up 9-5 in the eighth. The way things are going, tomorrow night's could be our last beer of the series. Let's hope not; there's still a lot of great beer from both states left to cover.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A home for good beer in B'ham

The Birmingham News today reports that a pair of beer lovers in that city are planning to open a brewpub downtown, in the former site of the Jimmie Hale Mission homeless shelter at Third Avenue North and 24th Street.

Retired economics professor Gary Dale and a former student, Brian McMillian, say Birmingham sorely lacks a spot for handcrafted, locally brewed beer. They hope the New Vulcan Ale House will fill that void.

New Vulcan will join the Olde Auburn Ale House and the Montgomery Brewing Co. in crafting beer for on-site consumption in Alabama. I look forward to raising a locally brewed glass in Birmingham soon.

World Series of Beer: Late run

Sorry, folks, I was away from my computer last night, which kept me from bringing yesterday's entry in our match-up of beers from the host state of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies.

Batting second for Massachusetts is Harpoon Brewery's UFO Hefeweizen. Boston's Harpoon named this beer as its "UnFiltered Offering," with yeast left in the brew as per the custom with this venerable German style.

Like most wheat beers, UFO is light-bodied and crisp, with background citrus and other fruit flavors. It is available in Alabama, along with many of Harpoon's other offerings. There's also a raspberry-flavored version of the UFO.

We'll dedicate this pick to the Red Sox's Manny Ramirez, a bit of a space cadet, who hit a single and scored a run in Boston's 2-1 win over the Rockies last night. The series now moves to Denver, where it'll have beer written all over it at Coors Field.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

World Series of Beer: Top of the order

Here's the first of our spotlights on beer from the states of Massachusetts and Colorado, coinciding with the World Series being played between the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies. Boston is hosting the first game at the legendary Fenway Park, so Massachusetts is up first.

The lead-off hitter for the Bay State is none other than Samuel Adams Boston Lager, brewed by the Boston Beer Co., whose headquarters is just about three miles south of Fenway.

This was the first offering from Boston Beer when it launched in 1985, just as the craft beer movement in the United States was gathering steam. It's still the company's flagship beer, one of dozens of regular, seasonal, premium and "extreme" brews. Most Sam Adams is actually brewed outside Massachusetts, in breweries in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

The beer has a rich, malty character and a nice hops profile that was revolutionary when it was introduced. Now a classic, it holds up well in what's turning out to be a golden age of American beer.

As I write this, it's 3-0 Red Sox in the top of the second inning.

Batter up & bottoms up

With baseball's Colorado Rockies and Boston Red Sox kicking off the World Series tonight, we at Pitcher This thought it would be fun to pit the states of Massachusetts and Colorado against each other in brewing.

Colorado, of course, could be called the capital of American craft brewing, with Denver annually hosting the Great American Beer Festival (held earlier this month). And the Rockies, of course, play at Coors Field.

Boston gets credit for helping to launch the American craft beer movement through the efforts of the Boston Beer Co., makers of the Samuel Adams line of beers. It's also the headquarters of Beer Advocate, a major Web site and magazine for beer enthusiasts.

Check the blog for a profile of a different beer brewed in the home state of the host club each night of the series. The first beer will be up sometime after the first pitch tonight, 7 p.m. Central time.

Today's column

Pitcher This: Hops add bitterness, bite to beer

Microbrewers are piling in the hops during fermentation to boost flavor and aroma to meet the demands of the changing palates of beer drinkers. Photo: Bob Fila/MCT

The forbidden fruit is a flower.

It's a green cone that hangs from the vines on which it grows in fields in Bavaria, rural England, Washington and Oregon.

Once you've tasted it, really tasted it, there's no going back. Call it the Vine of Knowledge of Good and Not As Good Beer.

These flowers, hops, combined with water, yeast and malted grain, gives beer much of its flavor. It adds bitterness, the bite that balances the sweetness of malt.

And once you've acquired a taste for it, nothing else will do.

I realized recently, with some distress, that my wide sampling of new brews over the last year or so has changed my flavor preferences completely.

Once upon a time, as a beer neophyte, the low bitterness of a lightly hopped American lager like Rolling Rock satisfied me. Then I branched out into beers with a sweeter, maltier character. The Texas-brewed Shiner Bock, Coors' George Killian's and the like. Then came Yuengling Lager, with just a touch more hops for a clean, refreshing finish.

But before long I discovered the bread-and-butter of craft brewers, the modern American pale ale. With the piney, citrusy flavors and aromas of hops grown in the Pacific Northwest, the taste is anything but bread-and-butter. A well-hopped pale ale like Sierra Nevada or Sweetwater 420 gives off a buzz on the tongue that's far more satisfying than the buzz that comes from drinking a few. The trick for brewers is balancing the hops with just enough malt to keep you from sipping and spitting it all right back out.

The next step down the road was the India pale ale, and from there to its more extreme cousins, the double and triple IPA, like those brewed by Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery. This is where things started to get difficult. Because many of these heavily-hopped beers also wind up having more alcohol than other styles, many of them aren't available in Alabama, where the law limits beer to 6 percent alcohol by volume. Some IPAs wind up with as much as 9 percent alcohol, and can't be sold here. (That's about a quarter the strength of a standard whiskey, which you'll find in any state-run liquor store.)

That's meant a lot of trips to Georgia to enjoy hoppier beers. Add the cost of gasoline to the fact that these beers are already pricier than what is on the shelf here, and you see the trouble this little green flower can cause.

If you're thinking of taking your taste up a notch, here are a couple of hoppier brews available locally to get you started. But be warned: once you've tasted the forbidden fruit, there's no going back.

Sweetwater 420 — An extra pale ale, the primary offering from the Atlanta brewer mentioned so often in this column. Available on tap in a few places in Calhoun County.

Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale — This is a seasonal IPA released to the public for the first time this summer, brewed to celebrate the California's brewer's founding 27 years ago. I've a six pack or two still on shelves in the area. Grab 'em while you can.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hopping up

The Chicago Tribune in a recent story examined the trend toward heavier hops flavor in American craft beers. Since the craft-brewing market was born in the 1970s, the definition of what's hoppy has changed. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the story notes, was once considered an extremely hops-flavored beer, with an international-bitterness-unit rating of 37. The Tribune had a panel try seven beers for its story, and the least-hoppy, Two Brothers' Heavy Handed IPA, one had an IBU rating of 62 - most were 90 or higher.

For what it's worth, the methods brewers use to get more hops flavor into their beers also wind up increasing the alcohol content too. Unfortunately for us in Alabama, that means the hoppiest beers are illegal here. Of the seven brews mentioned in the Tribune story, only one came in under our state's 6-percent alcohol-by volume cap - Heavy Handed, the least bitter of the bunch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Headed to Chippewa Falls? Pack your passport

It's sorta close to Canada, but come on. In the New York Times' story today on the Miller-Coors merger, Leinenkugel's is referred to as an imported beer. Excerpt below:

Besides cost savings, the merger will create a strong portfolio of brands, from domestic brews like Coors Light and Milwaukee’s Best to import beers like Leinenkugel’s, Peroni and Molson Canadian.

This reminds me of the laughable gaffes I've seen on a few restaurant menus over the years, with the likes of Rolling Rock and Killian's listed as imports. Killian's at least says "Irish" on the label, despite being brewed in the United States by Coors. But Rolling Rock says "Latrobe, Pa." right on the bottle (or at least it used to ... now it says "St. Louis, Mo.").

As for Leinenkugel's, which the company says is America's seventh-oldest brewery? Maybe Wisconsin looks like a foreign country when viewed from Manhattan. But that doesn't make it so.

Today's column

Pitcher This: Big getting bigger


Two of the biggest names in brewing are getting together.

SABMiller, the global beer giant that owns America's Miller Brewing Co., and Molson Coors, which operates Coors Brewing Co., announced Tuesday they would combine their U.S. operations into a joint venture, MillerCoors. The new company would be the second-largest brewer in the United States, after Anheuser-Busch, with $6.6 billion in revenue off sales of 69 million barrels of beer.

So what's that mean for Joe Sixpack?

If you'll pardon the metaphor, I think it'll be a lot like pouring half a Coors Light into half a cup of Miller Lite; you won't really notice.

The new company will likely continue to brew and market all the brands customers are familiar with, including Coors, Coors Light, Miller Lite and Miller High Life.

And the profits will continue to go to the same places: the headquarters of the huge multinational firms that actually own those brands. SABMiller, an amalgamation of the original Miller and South African Breweries, is headquartered in London; MolsonCoors, the product of a merger between a Canadian Molson and the original Coors Brewing, has its headquarters in Denver.

The companies hope to save some money by teaming up on marketing, distribution and brewing operations.

For fans of full-flavored beer diversity, there doesn't seem to be much to toast here, at least on the surface. Swap the labels on either company's main offerings and one might not even notice. And that goes for the new company's main competitor, maker of Budweiser and Bud Light, too.

All three companies are fighting for a share of the same shrinking market for mass-produced beer. They've been losing ground to wine, liquor and craft beer from smaller, more creative brewers. Consumers, it seems, are getting bored with the same ol' pale lager that has been the staple of American brewing for decades.

But if a more profitable MillerCoors has more money to invest in developing and marketing new products, there's a chance it could mean more interesting stuff on the cooler shelves at your corner store.

Coors has recognized the appeal of craft beer and has been cashing in with its higher-quality Blue Moon line of wheat beers. Miller, meanwhile, has since 1988 owned Wisconsin-based Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., which makes a number of craft beers including Sunset Wheat, available here.

And SABMiller has in its stable of brands a number of European brews such as Pilsner Urquell and Peroni that appeal to those with a more discriminating palate.

If the new company commits more resources to promoting these and other high-quality brands it could go a long way toward improving the diversity of beer for sale, and perhaps brew up some new profits in the process.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

BIG beer merger news

Huge news from the brewing industry today: America's second- and third-largest brewers, Miller and Coors, are merging. The combined company is expected to have about 29 percent of the U.S. beer market, still a distant second to brewing giant Anheuser-Busch's 48 percent share, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Today's column

Here's today's column, also available at The Star's Web site, here.

Pitcher This: Festival walks a stein line to honor beer


As far as I know, there is no one, internationally recognized day to celebrate beer.

Any of the 16-or-so days of Oktoberfest might make a good candidate. But why not celebrate them all?

The two-week-plus festival is a holdover from 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen got hitched and threw a big party on Oct. 12, followed by a horse race on the 17th.

Their subjects had such a good time, they partied again the next year, and the next. By 1819, the town fathers figured they had a good thing on their hands. To make sure it kept happening every year, they took over the organizing, and except for during the occasional world war there's been a party ever since.

Beer entered the picture in 1818, according to the city of Munich, and quickly began competing with the horse race as the main attraction. This is Germany we're talking about, after all.

These days, things get going in late September, and wrap up on the first Sunday in October, so much of Oktoberfest often doesn't actually happen in October. Munich now bills Oktoberfest as the world's largest folk festival, with an estimated 6.5 million visitors in 2006, who drank about 1.8 million gallons of beer.

Meanwhile, cities around the globe have adopted Munich's spirit, throwing Oktoberfests of their own. There are big celebrations in Kitchener, Ontario; Blumenau, Brazil; and in Cincinnati. There are smaller Oktoberfests in towns everywhere, especially where there's a concentration of German-descended residents.

But not here.

Despite the long presence of Fort McClellan, which brought to town many soldiers who'd served in Germany, and perhaps brought brides back with them, we don't have a fall festival to celebrate Bavarian-style.

Sure, you could drive to Huntsville for the Army-sponsored Oktoberfest at Redstone Arsenal, and with that city's most famous resident, German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, lending an air of authenticity, it might be worth it. But their festival this year was held Sept. 13-16. Or you could head to Cullman, founded in 1873 as a colony for German immigrants. The party there begins Sunday and runs through Oct. 7. But this column hesitates to endorse any Oktoberfest in a dry county.

Besides, it would just be nice to enjoy a bright autumn day under a tent, say somewhere on McClellan, with a tall glass of weizenbier in one hand and a bratwurst in the other.

Until that day comes, you might celebrate Oktoberfest at home with one of these admittedly American brews, both available here:

Michelob Marzen — Anheuser-Busch has developed this version of a beer traditionally brewed for Oktoberfest. The style is a sweetly malted lager with a medium body.

Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale — Coors is cashing in on the popularity of its blue-labeled interpretation of a Belgian witbier by introducing a rotation of seasonals, including this autumn version flavored with pumpkin.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Toasting Mr. Jackson

Apparently, people just can't stop talking about noted beer writer Michael Jackson, who died at his London home nearly a month ago.

Now, people who want to honor his memory and support a good cause are organizing a national "Toast to Michael Jackson" as fundraiser for the National Parkinson Foundation. Jackson, I've read, suffered from Parkinson's disease. There's more information at Jackson's Web site, The toast is set for Sept. 30, exactly one month after his death, for 8 p.m. Central Time. Unfortunately for most of us here in Alabama, that's a Sunday, meaning most bars and pubs won't be open, and most restaurants won't be serving alcohol. The J. Clyde restaurant in Birmingham is listed as participating, though.

If you've got a beer at home, or you're drinking at a private club on Sunday, why not raise a glass with the rest of the country to honor a guy who did a lot to bring respectability to quality beer? Couldn't hurt to support a good cause while you're at it. Checks sent to NPF with "Tribute to Michael Jackson" listed in the memo line will be attributed to the event.

Meanwhile, the Brewers Association has a page of e-mail tributes to Jackson posted on its Web site. Check it out here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


In Barry Shlachter's latest "Beer Sphere" column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he touts beer's ability to pair well with just about any food. Lots of folks know pairing wine with a meal is something of an art form, but chefs, foodies and other are becoming more familiar with beer's tremendous variety, and the plethora of pairing options that provides. Some even say beer pairs better than its grape-based cousin. From the column:

Ales and lagers are carbonated, for starters. Beer cuts through fried dishes. And some styles can complement courses that have a sour quality, which is a true challenge with wine.

Shlachter points readers to the Brewers Association Web site for pairing suggestions. That's a fine idea; here a link directly to their pairing guide.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A beer experience I'm not having

I had planned after this weekend to tell you all about the fun and beer I'd had at one of my favorite places, the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Memphis. Jacksonville State (my wife and I are alumni and fans of the Gamecocks) is playing at the Univ. of Memphis tomorrow, and we'd planned to go, combining the trip with a good deal of time in downtown. We decided last night to cancel the trip, though ... been on the road too many Saturdays of late, and we could use a quiet weekend at home.

But I've still gotta tell you about the Flying Saucer. We found it in 2004 when we took a trip to Memphis. Having wandered up and down Beale Street and done about everything there was to do there, we were looking for somewhere different to have lunch. We'd passed the Saucer on the way to and from our hotel, and decided to give it a shot. When I walked through the door and saw the dozens of taps on the wall behind the bar, I knew it would be hard to get me out of there. What I didn't expect was how much my Mrs., who doesn't dig beer, would like the place.

The beer selection was the best I'd seen anywhere up to that point, and the service was excellent. We wound up going back for dinner the next night, and watched a game of the NLCS between St. Louis and Houston. We also went back after a lousy dinner elsewhere later that week, and watched some more baseball. The food was excellent, especially the bratwurst plate I had for dinner, and the meat and cheese snack tray we ate at the bar our second night there. The Mrs. even found a beer she liked (a first), sampling a glass of Abita Purple Haze.

I'm normally a fan of local flavor over chain joints, but while the Saucer is a chain it's not exactly a corporate giant. I won't be drinking there this weekend, but I'm looking forward to my next visit to Memphis, whenever that may be.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Even more Jackson

In his piece today, Atlanta Journal-Constitution beer columnist Bob Townsend provides remembrances of recently-departed beer writer & enthusiast Michael Jackson. He quotes a number of Atlanta-area bar & restaurant owners and beer lovers about their thoughts on the man. The best line, from Andy Klubock, owner of Summits Wayside Taverns:
"It meant a lot to me for him to come and look at what we were doing. He's like the pope of beer. I needed his blessing."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Today's column

Has it been a week already since my last post? Wow, I owe you guys an apology. Here's my latest column, also available at The Star's Web site, here.

Pitcher This: A pint at the museum


You're standing in a large room, surrounded by priceless works of art and rare relics of history.

There's a Winslow Homer watercolor on one wall. Nearby rests a bronze sculpture by the French master Rodin. And scattered about are pistols, combs, silverware and other objects once held by Napoleon and Hitler, men who nearly had all of Europe in their grasp.

Perhaps the last thing you'd expect to hear the person next to you say is, "Beer me."

OK, so the discourse probably won't be quite so coarse this weekend, but there will be plenty of malted beverages on hand at the Berman Museum of World History.

The museum's hosting its third annual Autumn Suds-Fest on Saturday, from 6-8 p.m.

The event was born when a museum volunteer who'd traveled in Germany wondered if the regular wine-related fundraisers could be translated from grapes to grain, according to Lindie Brown, development director for the Berman and the Anniston Museum of Natural History.

A few grilled bratwurst, some pretzels and many brews later, the Suds-Fest was born.

The idea was conceived as a local version of Oktoberfest, the traditional Bavarian festival in which beer is the star attraction. But the scheduling didn't quite work out for the museum, Brown said, Oktoberfest traditionally taking place as it does for 16 days in September leading up to Oct. 1.

Brown says proceeds from the event in the past have helped pay for renovations to the museum's lobby and elevator. This year, though, the beer should help boost a traveling exhibit headed here in 2009 called "The Working White House." That's another place one wouldn't expect to be asked for a bottle opener.

Two area beer distributors are providing the beer for tasting. Anniston's Hughes Beverage Co. will bring a range of brews including the well-known Dutch lager Grolsch, Anchor Steam Beer from the San Francisco microbrewer of the same name, and Abita Purple Haze, a raspberry-flavored wheat microbrewed product from Louisiana. Bama Budweiser will provide extra special bitter from Seattle-based Redhook Ale Brewery and Michelob Marzen, a big-brewery attempt at a popular Oktoberfest style, among other offerings.

The museum at least won't have to worry about patrons grabbing a rare German stein off the wall to fill it with lager. Collections manager Robert Lindley says there are no beer-related items in the museum's holdings.

But are museum officials worried about their valuable art and artifacts with so many potentially-tipsy patrons on the premises? Brown says participants the last few years have been very well-behaved. Still, she said with a laugh, the galleries will be open for tours before the tasting. Not after.

"We've never had a problem," she said. "But that's why we give them little-bitty beer-tasting cups."

Tickets are $25 for individuals, $45 for couples. Make your reservations in advance by calling the museum at 237-6261.

Pitcher This appears in The Star every two weeks. There's more online at

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Thank Thai food for craft beer?

The Associated press has a story out today (available here at the Detroit Free Press' Web site) that's mostly an interview with Boston Beer Co.'s Jim Koch. It examines the recent rise of craft beer (and the "moving upscale" phenomenon mentioned so many years ago by Michael Jackson, as noted below), and Koch's view of the reasons behind it. One point the AP writer hangs the story on: Americans have developed a taste for the bold, spicy flavors in Asian and African cuisine, making beer a better beverage choice than wine. A Koch quote from the story:

"Your definition of beer and your expectations for beer are too low," he says. "We brewers have not really elevated your expectations for what beer can be. But this now elevates your expectations of what beer can be."

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

More Michael Jackson: "Democratization of Drink"

National Public Radio carried an item on Weekend Edition Sunday this week on recently-departed beer critic and enthusiast Michael Jackson. The piece included excerpts of a 1994 interview the show did with Jackson. Nice to hear his voice. He spoke about beer drinkers and wine enthusiasts beginning to occupy common ground in the marketplace. One quote:
" ... they've met in the middle, or they're in the process of meeting in the middle. So I think we have a democratization of drink"
Listen to the entire piece from Sunday at NPR's site, here.

Just plain beer?

A story in today's Sacremento Bee explores the growing range of extreme styles found in beer these days. An excerpt from the story, by Bee Food Editor Mike Dunne:

Beers are being brewed with such exotic ingredients as chili peppers, wasabi and ginger. They're being aged in used wine barrels. They're being inoculated with a strain of yeast that gives them a pungent horsy or barnyard character, repulsive to some, savored by others. There are gluten-free beers and smoke-flavored beers.

At least one expert quoted in the story says he's not a fan of the diversity. Charles Bamforth, the University of California at Davis' Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science tells Dunne, "I wish brewers would stay with a limited number of beer styles, and make the most of those, like the wine guys have done with their red, white and pink wines. Let's make ales, and then celebrate diversity within the ales, like with different hops. Let's stop looking for the exotic."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Beer Spot No. 1

This is the first in what I hope will be a weekly series on the blog. Each installment of "Beer Spot" will highlight a different establishment and its selection of malted, brewed beverages. Sometimes that'll be a grocery or convenience store, sometimes a restaurant. Sometimes it'll be local, and occasionally it'll be where I shop or eat when I'm traveling. Always, it'll be about the the selection of beer available.

We'll kick it off with the place I believe has has the widest selection of beer available in Calhoun County for off-premises consumption.

Establishment: BP Grub Mart
Type: Convenience store
Location: Jacksonville, Ala.
Address: 420 Pelham Road N. (Corner of Pelham Road & Mountain Street)

Likely owing to the presence of thirsty & enlightened Jacksonville State University (the campus is a block away), there are beers available at this Grub Mart that I've not seen anywhere else in our relatively beer-deprived region. There are two cooler panels devoted almost solely to microbrews and imports, and of course there are all the major-label offerings from the macrobreweries.

Among the brands on hand: four offerings from Abita Brewing Co., two from Terrapin Beer Co., three from Brooklyn Brewery, and three from Flying Dog Brewing. Four of Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams varieties were available when I stopped in this weekend. Despite the cool address, there is no Sweetwater available. I picked up a six of Abita Amber, and another of Flying Dog's Road Dog Porter.

As luck would have it, the Grub Mart is also the closest place to my house to buy beer.

If you've got a suggestion for the Beer Spot feature, let me know with a comment here on the blog, or by e-mail at

Friday, August 31, 2007

More on Mr. Jackson

There's more news available today about the death of beer writer Michael Jackson. It appears he died of a heart attack at his home in west London on Thursday. Oddly, most major newspapers in Jackson's home country seem not to have noted his passing (Did the story break too late? The Morning Advertiser seems to have broken the story at 5 p.m. GMT Thursday).

Fortunately, the Washington Post, and a number of other newspapers carried a story from the Associated Press. There's also an excellent feature obituary from the Philadelphia Daily News, by beer columnist Don Russell. It's there I learned a heartening bit of info: Jackson's first career was in newspapers, and he started writing about beer on the side.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Like Blue Moon? There's more where that came from

Expect more experiments from Coors Brewing Co. The Wall Street Journal says Coors is launching a new subsidiary, AC Golden Brewing Co., to develop more higher-end beers like Blue Moon, the Belgian-style wit that's taken much of the country by storm lately (that's what the girl next to you at the bar is drinking with the big slice of orange in it).

The journal quotes an e-mail from the company to wholesalers, saying the drive stems from former CEO Pete Coors' "passion for great beer and his belief that there had to be a better -- more efficient and effective -- way for major brewers to introduce and build new brands."

This looks to me like a reaction to beer's slipping stance in the marketplace for alcoholic beverages. Craft and higher-end imports are growing, while the rest of the beer segment is losing market share to wine and liquor. All the big brewers are experimenting with new stuff, but this looks like the biggest commitment yet from a macro to higher-quality stuff.

For strength? Look to Africa.

So, here's the weird beer news of the day. Nigerians are now drinking more Guinness than the Irish, according to The Guardian.

The model stout's home country is now its third-largest market, after the U.K. and Nigeria. The United States is the world's fourth-biggest Guinness consumer. The story says sales of Guinness are slipping in both the U.K. and Ireland, but growing everywhere else, especially in Africa (Cameroon is just behind the U.S. as the fifth-largest market).

A last toast to Mr. Jackson

Bad news in the world of good beer today. Michael Jackson, world-renowned author on beer, has died. The news comes from The Morning Advertiser in Britain, Jackson's home country. There are no details in the story. Looks like the news is pretty fresh.

Jackson's "Great Beer Guide" is on my desk here at the office and at home, and is a frequent reference. He helped to educate the world for 30 years (his "World Guide to Beer") on the nature of quality beer, and I imagine his efforts are at least partly responsible for the rise in American craft brewing.

His Web site,, has links to purchase most of his published works, plus reviews of beers and breweries.

Thanks for all you've done for beer, Mr. Jackson. Cheers.

A little of this n' a lambic of that

Bob Townsend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's beer columnist, discusses this week the art of blending Belgian lambics. I envy the experience, and his contacts. Lambics are a world I've only seen the shore of from a distance - I sampled my first at the Magic City Brewfest back in June.

Townsend, on the other hand, hooked up with Don Feinberg, an importer of Belgian beers who had two big casks of rare lambics to share.

Once, all beers were lambics, in a way. It's a style in which the beer ferments spontaneously. Brewers don't add any yeast, they just allow the yeast in the atmosphere to do what it will, the way things were done before anyone knew yeast had anything to do with fermentation. Modern lambics often are flavored with fruit such as raspberry or cherry. The flavors can be very intense, ranging from very sweet to very sour. One type, known as
geuze, involves blending different lambics for flavors unique to each brewer.

Feinberg had Townsend and his other guests blend lambics from each cask, essentially creating their own
geuze. Check out the size of the casks in the AJC's photo.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Today's column: The best beer for your cheer

Few things go together as naturally as beer and football.

Of course, in Alabama, where the premier brand of the game is NCAA-sanctioned, that means having a brew in the stands will get you flagged for at least 10 yards, more likely the distance to the nearest stadium exit.

Since most schools also frown on grills in the bleachers (even the nosebleed seats), beer at least has some edible company in the tailgate territory to which it's banished.

But while Alabama's institutions of higher learning are happy to have acres of RVs parked and tents pitched across campus, fans merrily grilling away, drinking in public is still technically a no-no, near as I can tell.

Both the University of Alabama and Auburn University have exhaustive online guides to the game-day experience, answering fans' pressing questions: How early on Friday can I set up my tent for the game Saturday night? How close to a campus building can I set up my grill without causing an explosion?

Neither school, however, addresses a rather important question: Can I pop a cold one in the parking lot without going to jail? (And if not, will there be a TV in the jail tuned to the game?)

My own alma mater, Jacksonville State University, provides no better guidance on the matter at its Web site. Since my love of Gamecock sports and tailgate parties rivals my passion for good beer, I've often wondered what's really OK.

I'd say the avoidance of the question amounts to a wink and a nod. While the law may prohibit drinking beer on the street, I'm sure there are more than a few cases consumed outside Paul Snow, Bryant-Denney and Jordan-Hare stadiums without interruption from the authorities. Not quite "don't ask, don't tell" but, "have a beer if you like, but get rowdy and we'll haul you off."

Of course, readers shouldn't take my understanding to mean I tailgate with beer, especially those readers who are members of the law enforcement community.

But, seeing as there are people who drink beer at tailgates and since this is a beer column, I'll do my best to offer guidance. Hypothetical guidance.

Craft-beer lovers have it tougher than fans who prefer mass-produced lagers. A lot can go wrong in tailgating, and the dangers are magnified when you've paid up to $10 for a six pack of your favorite brew.

An unwelcome guest might reach into your cooler. An errant Nerf-ball pass could send your triple IPA flying. Should you really pour a high-quality brew into the plastic cups designed to keep police from noticing your beer? And if they do notice, would you want them swiping a cooler you spent $50 to fill?

So don't carry your best stuff to the stadium, but don't turn to the cheapest light lager on the shelf, either. I'd go with a less-expensive choice from an independent brewer like Boston Beer Co. or Yuengling, or one of the higher-quality selections from the American mega-breweries such as Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Amber Bock or Coors' Killian's Irish Red.

If I were having beer, that is.


Link to the column at

Friday, August 24, 2007

My eyes aren't Irish, but they're smiling

I hit the road after work today for the beautiful white beaches of the Gulf Coast. Made it to the shore in time to have dinner in Pensacola at McGuire's Irish Pub & Brewery. Way back in the day when I was stationed at Eglin AFB, I was a regular visitor to McGuire's Destin location. Since the Mrs. and I were just as far from P'cola as Destin on this trip, we decided to head for the original and less familiar location.

I wasn't disappointed. McGuires was one of the places I learned to enjoy hand-crafted beer, and it's just as good drinking on Pensacola Bay as it is on Choctawhachee Bay. This location gets just as much business as Destin's: too much. The place is always packed. This is the first time I've been back to McGuire's since I started the column, so I'm glad to get the chance to share a few words about their brews.

I started with one I'd not tried before, the Old Fashioned Ale. The menu listed it as something found in every pub in Ireland, but I don't know about that. It's a very light-bodied, pale-colored ale. This one certainly doesn't jump out of the glass at you. The flavor is nice and balanced, with just a hint of ale fruitiness and a hint of hops to remind you you're not drinking a mass-market American lager. Not bad, but not why I came.

After that I had a porter. The sweet maltiness was very welcome after the Old Fashioned. Very smooth, and it went well with the massive steak I ordered.

Then came the stout. This is the beer I come to McQuire's for. Pitch-black, creamy, smooth, dry and coffee-ish. Perfect for desert. That's it pictured at right.

White-sand beaches and the green hills of Ireland don't have much to do with eachother, but if you're ever down here on the coast, you'd be doing yourself a disservice to skip a trip to McGuire's.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Free beer? OK, "liberate" it.

Got an unusual fax at the office recently. The Libertarian Party of Alabama wanted us to know that they're all for the efforts of Free the Hops, a group that wants to loosen Alabama's restrictive alcohol laws to allow more beer variety in the state. There's an online version of the press release here.

The Libertatians' support of the effort makes sense. The party's main aim is to reduce government's control over what Libertarians believe should be people's personal choices. Alabama law limits the production and sale of beer containing more than 6 percent alcohol by volume (we're one of three states to do so - as usual keeping company with Mississippi and West Virginia). The law also limits the size of beer containers to no more than 16 ounces. Those rules keep out many craft and imported beer commonly available elsewhere. A bill to increase the alcohol limit to 14.9 percent died in the Legislature last year.

I'm not sure how much the Libertarians' support will help future efforts at reform. A quick look at the rosters of both the Alabama House and Senate confirms my suspicion that there are no Libertarian members in either chamber. No statewide executive offices are held by Libertarians, either.

Still, as a fan of beer variety, I'm happy to see anyone calling for a change in the law.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Slim pickins, but gettin' better

Beer drinkers who like variety might not be satisfied in the Southeast, but distributors and craft brewers looking for growth will find plenty of opportunity here. That's my take on some of the numbers from sales-data presentation I listened to by phone yesterday.

The "Power Hour" presentation was presented by the Brewers Association, a trade group representing craft brewers. The data came from Information Resources Inc., which measured beer sold at U.S. supermarkets nationwide during the last half of 2006 and the first half of 2007. The most interesting part of the presentation, to me, was the regional breakdown. I got a good sense of the South's beer tastes and habits as compared to rest of the country.

For starters, there's not many different labels on our shelves, relatively speaking. There were just 263 craft beer brands for sale in all of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. That might sound like a lot, but it was the smallest selection of any region in the country, well behind the next-lowest place, California (treated as region unto itself), at 317 brands. Every other region boasted at least 340 brands, with customers in the Great Plains states choosing from among 507. Meanwhile, craft beer made up just 2.7 percent of all the beer sold in the Southeast. It was at least 4 percent of the market in every other region, and as high as 12.5 percent of the market in the West.

I'd imagine that lack of selection stems from the fact that the Southeast is home to two of the three states in the country which still restrict sales of beer to a low -alcohol content - Alabama & Mississippi. And of course, South Carolina raised its 6-percent alcohol-by-volume limit this year. Georgia's was lifted in 2005. And that's where the good news for fans of beer variety comes in.

The Southeast showed the biggest gain in sales of craft beer among all regions, with 33.8 percent growth over the previous year. I figure that's due at least in part to Georgia's decision to lift its alcohol limit, letting in a flood of specialty brews. If Alabama and Georgia ever follow suit, that sort of growth can only continue.

To be sure, there's much more to beer than craft brewing, and IRI's numbers show that. I'll be digging into them further over the next few weeks to bring you whatever interesting nuggets I can find. Meanwhile, feel free to dig through them yourself. They're in PDF format at The Brewers Association Web site.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Home cookin'

Around the time I started writing the Pitcher This column, Star photographer Kevin Qualls got interested in home brewing. Kevin read everything about the craft he could get his hands on, bought the best equipment he could find, and started looking for the best recipes for beginners. For starters, he settled on The Home Brewery's Yellow Dog Pale Ale.

His first batch was ready for consumption late last week, and he brought me a couple of bottles to sample. I uncorked them tonight with dinner. What he labeled "Mr. Q's Nice Try Hop Head" was better than I would have expected for anyone's first attempt at brewing beer in their kitchen. It poured a beautiful, hazy amber-orange with a nice, foamy-white head (pictured at right with Kev's "custom" label). The flavor was outstanding, with a strong hops presence that was rather tasty.

Kevin's second batch is due to be ready to drink soon, and his third is almost ready for bottling. I'll have to show up to help out with the brewing process to see how its done. I look forward to giving you more reports on Mr. Q's brews.

Also, I'm looking for Calhoun County-area homebrewers to talk to for an upcoming column on the craft. Leave a comment below, or e-mail me at if you'd like to help me out.

Athens doesn't dry out

Voters in Athens, Ala., yesterday rejected a move back to city's dry days. A measure to outlaw alcohol sales was soundly rejected, 68 to 32 percent, according to the Associated Press. The city only voted to go wet about four years ago. City officials to the AP the sales had raised city revenue by about $250,000 annually, and others said predicted social problems stemming from alcohol had failed to materialize.

I don't know what the beer selection is like in Athens' stores, but it's a heck of a lot better than it could have been.

Cheers, Athens.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Field trip?

My editor forwarded an interesting e-mail to me the other day. It was from the Brewers' Association, a craft beer industry group. Would we like credentials to cover the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this October, the e-mail asked? Like a bear in the woods needs a roll of Quilted Northern we would.

I'm signed up to attend, but the trip is still in the air. With space reserved on a friend's couch in Denver, it all depends on the price of a plane ticket. While the paper is more than willing to indulge my love of beer with space for a column, I wouldn't expect them to fly me to Colorado to drink beer. My Mrs., thankfully, has been more indulgent. Should airfare prove affordable enough she'll be heading for the mountains with me.

Friday, August 10, 2007

B&W: Blaze & ban make July a bummer

Black & White, an independent weekly newspaper in Birmingham, notes that July stunk for Alabama beer lovers who like their stuff brewed close to home. The story, published in the paper's Aug. 9 edition, cites the July 5 fire that destroyed Huntsville's Olde Towne Brewing Co., and the disappearance of Sweetwater IPA from store shelves in the state. Sweetwater changed its recipe for the IPA after Georgia raised it alcohol-by-volume limit from the 6-percent cap in 2005, according to the story. They kept distributing in Alabama, somehow flying under the radar in a state where the 6-percent rule was still in force. Someone snitched, though, and the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Board brought down the hammer. So who was the snitch? Sweetwater's PR guy Steve Farris told the paper:
“I don’t think that it was just a consumer sitting at home saying, ‘Hey, I drank two of these and I feel funny.’”

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sweet, No. 2

Had ribs tonight with the Mrs. and a friend at Cooter Brown's Rib Shack, and was thrilled to see Sweetwater 420 joining that Atlanta brewery's Blue on the tap row. I had long wondered how Sweetwater's signature ale would pair with the Jacksonville joint's staple dish. (My former favorite to pair with their spicy smoked ribs was Bass, but it's been temporarily removed after a distributor shuffle for the venerable British brew) The answer to my question: Beautifully.

Again, I'm happy to see this great regional brewer popping up in our neck of the woods (see my post below). I was even more pleased to see the bartender fill two pitchers with Blue for a thirsty table, but a gentleman at the table next to us ordered a big jar of the 420. Not only is Sweetwater here, their secret's out, too.

Have you seen Sweetwater anywhere else around town? Or is there another unusual brew that's popped up recently as you quaffed a few?

Friday, August 3, 2007

A little help

Olde Towne Brewing Co. is getting a little help from its friends. The brewery, destroyed by fire July 5 (as discussed in this week's column, below), will be the focus of a benefit concert Aug. 16. The event is being organized by Free The Hops, a group of Alabama beer fans who are working to get the state's laws changed to allow higher-quality brews here. The Olde Towne Revival (info at will feature live music , raffles and , naturally, beer. It's at Crossroads in Huntsville.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Olde Towne looking for new home

Here's this week's column.

Pitcher This: Olde Towne looking for new home


An entire industry nearly vanished from the state of Alabama last month.

The state’s only commercial brewery, Huntsville’s Olde Towne Brewing Co., was destroyed by fire July 5.

Despite the name, Olde Towne’s not been around all that long. And despite the fire, founder and brewmaster Don Alan Hankins says the brewery will be back.

When Olde Towne opened in 2004, the microbrewer became the state’s only commercial beer bottling operation. The fire came just as the company was starting to taste success.

“We had just started to turn the corner,” Hankins said recently from the temporary office where he’s spent the last month pressing insurance claims and scouting property for a new brewery.

Olde Towne’s profile was growing to the point where Alabama beer lovers made a point to look for its products. The company brews a modest range of styles, including a pale ale and an amber that were available in Calhoun County. The amber is the biggest seller, according to Hankins, its “not too malty, not too bitter” flavor appealing to a broad range of tastes.

Hankins’s favorite is Olde Towne’s hefeweizen, the German style of unfiltered wheat beer.

“I’d put our hefeweizen up against anybody’s” he said.

If it’s not already, all the Olde Towne that was brewed by July 5 soon will be gone from store shelves. The company has identified a few sites around Huntsville and Madison County that might become its new home. Hankins hopes to close on one soon and be brewing again by December.

Until then, the only way to get Olde Towne in drinkers’ hands would be contract brewing – turning the recipe and a big chunk of revenue – over to a larger brewery. The company’s not decided yet whether to do it; while it would keep the brand in front of customers, it wouldn’t help financially.

“Contract brewing for us is not a money-making venture,” he said.

His tenure at Olde Towne isn’t the first time Hankins has worked for Alabama’s only brewer.

After graduating from the University of Alabama with a business degree and learning to hate sitting at a desk, he turned a hobby into a profession. He’d been a homebrewer since his youth and college days, and decided to hone his skills at a brewing school in London.

When he returned to the States, he went to work for Birmingham Brewing Co., then the state’s only beer bottler. By the time it closed in the late 1990s, Hankins was gone, working for a company opening a chain of brewpubs around the Southeast. The he got out of the beer business to sell medical implants. But eventually the craft lured him back. He moved back to his native Huntsville, hatched a plan and met his business partner Howard Miller. They opened Olde Towne in 2004.

Now he’ll get to open it again this December, hopefully picking up right where the company left off.

“It was really catching on, he said. “I never knew how many people knew about the brewery until this happened.”

Monday, July 30, 2007

While I was out

Faithful readers may have noticed I skipped a week in the column's publication schedule earlier this month. I had a good excuse: I was on vacation ... drinking beer. Well, I didn't drink the entire time. I attended a family reunion in upstate New York. Since there's a brewer in the family who happens to run a brewpub & brewery near where the reunion was held, it was proper to have a pint. Or two. Or three.

I don't feel there's a professional conflict of interest in telling you about my second cousin's business. For one thing, few of my readers in Alabama are likely to trek to New York state to try his stuff. And for another, while I know who he is, I don't think Peter knows who I am, and I wouldn't expect him too. It's a big family and I'd guess he's not as interested in newspapers as I am in beer.

Ellicottville Brewing Co. is the place, and they make some tasty stuff. One of the most interesting offerings is their blueberry. It's got a lot more heft to it than the other blueberry I'm familiar with, Sweetwater Blue. Order EBC Blueberry off the tap in any local establishment, and it comes with a heap of blueberries in the bottom of the glass. You can probably just make them out in my glass in the photo at right. I'm not ordinarily a proponent of actual fruit in beer, but this was nice. Gave me something sweet to chew on while I waited for the next pint. Or two. Or three.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


The Vault Deli & Pub, now open on Jacksonville's historic Public Square (see Matt Kasper's story from Friday's Star) is the latest Calhoun County establishment to offer selections from Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co. I was happy to see their 420 Extra Pale Ale on tap when I first ventured in a week ago. I've now had Sweetwater beers from the tap at Mellow Mushroom in Oxford (420 & Blue), Cooter Brown's Rib Shack in Jacksonville (Blue) and seen it advertised at Milestone Mill in Anniston (Blue). It's great to see this nearby microbrewer starting to make inroads here.

The Vault appears to have made a commitment to offering one of the best quality beer selections in the area. In addition to the Sweetwater, I saw taps for Guinness, Newcastle and Coors' Blue Moon (plus the obligatory Bud Light). The bottle menu includes a good selection of micros and and imports. For Jacksonville, that's pretty good. Here's a toast to a new business that caters to good taste.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Raising a glass

Since we're going digital as much as we can here at The Anniston Star, and since I don't have room for all I want to say about beer in my twice-monthly column, Pitcher This, I figure a blog is the natural way to provide my readers all the beer news they can stomach, with no last call.

It's also a way for you readers to fire back at me. Got your own thoughts on a brew I've mentioned? Think I've had a few too many after reading my thoughts on your favorite ale? Add your own comments after any of my posts. And feel free to e-mail at, anytime.

For starters, here's my most recent column, published on Independence Day, about the Founding Fathers' love of a good pint. Cheers!

Pitcher This: Red, white and brew

Published: July 4, 2007

It is illustrative of the depths of genius possessed by the founders of our great republic to know that many of those great men thought as much about what they drank as they did about the foundations of government. Now to be fair, not everyone who signed the Declaration of Independence was a master brewer. But the man who wrote it certainly knew more than a little about that "pursuit of happiness," as did many of his compatriots.

Stanley Baron's 1962 book Brewed in America: A History of Beer and Ale in the United States contains exhaustive chapters on the founders and their relationship with beer. It's deeper than you might expect.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, after penning the words that formed our nation, then serving as its president and retiring to his estate, Monticello, turned his mind to establishing a stronger domestic brewing industry.

Baron details Jefferson's dealings with Captain Joseph Miller, who helped him start a brewery using native malted corn.

Jefferson's aim in brewing beer, Baron says, was to wean Americans off the hard stuff. "I wish to see this beverage [beer] become common," Jefferson wrote to a friend, "instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families."

George Washington had a thing for beer, too, according to Baron. In addition to fighting for a government that took no orders from Britain, he didn't want any porter coming over the Atlantic.

"We have already been too long subject to British prejudices," Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette in 1789. "I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America."

The first president apparently was fond of porter - a dark brown ale - produced in Philadelphia, the country's first capital.

Another founder, Benjamin Franklin, often is credited with a famous quote calling beer a divine gift. "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

As fun as it is to imagine raising a pint with Franklin - in my estimation the coolest founder by far - it turns out he never said it; or at lest he wasn't talking about beer.

The quote comes from a letter, written in French, by Franklin to an abbot, in 1779, during his time as ambassador to France. Thanks to, a digital archive provided by The American Philosophical Society and Yale University, I've read them myself. And thanks to Google's online translation service, I've understood them:

"Here is water which falls from the skies on our vineyards; there, it enters the roots of the vines to be changed into wine; constant proof that God likes us, and that he likes to see us happy."

So Franklin probably preferred wine to beer. Well, he also wanted the wild turkey to be our national bird in place of the bald eagle.

There's no accounting for taste, they say.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An old column

Added this from The Star's archive and backdated it, since I wanted to refer to it in another post. Enjoy.

Pitcher This: A Rock by any other name ...


People drink beer for lots of reasons, and it’s not always the brew that makes a brand a favorite. That’s how I always saw Rolling Rock.

I just lost credibility with some connoisseurs for typing that. Who needs ’em?

Rolling Rock is not, I’ll admit, a sophisticated brew. It’s a simple American lager, a little sweet and very mild. The unique, blue-and white- painted labels have long carried a message “as a tribute to your good taste” that ends with the cryptic characters “33.”

Rolling Rock was brewed for 67 years at the same brewery in the same small town in Pennsylvania. That town, a Jacksonville-sized place called Latrobe, also birthed golf great Arnold Palmer, plus my neighbor and yours, Fred “Mister” Rogers.

I say “was brewed” because Anheuser-Busch, the global conglomerate responsible for Budweiser, bought the Rolling Rock name last May for $82 million from InBev, a Belgian firm that bought a Canadian company which bought Latrobe Brewing from the Tito family, who first brewed Rock in 1939 in a brewery that dated to 1893.

But AB bought the name — not the brewery. The company moved production of Rolling Rock to a Newark, N.J., plant last summer. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said 200 workers stood to lose their jobs when the Latrobe plant closed. The paper told of families who’d worked there for generations. Stunned, most vowed never to drink a New Jersey-brewed Rock.

And for every brewery worker, there were thousands who’d formed a bond with Rolling Rock despite its uncomplicated flavor. Many must have stories that revolve around the beer in the painted green bottle.

Mine? I remember two buddies in college drinking more of it than they probably should have, the beer fueling vows of eternal friendship. And my three months with the Air Force in Kuwait, where we went beerless in deference to Muslim custom. My friends back at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., sent a care package with a plastic Waffle House menu and a bottle of Rolling Rock — which they’d drained, of course. Jerks.

All that was before another Air Force buddy, who’d been posted to England, introduced me to stouts, ales and Irish reds, my first steps into a broader beer world. But I always had a soft spot for Rolling Rock. And every bottle of it I ever touched — including the one I tossed in a Kuwaiti trash bin in the dead of night, fearing a court martial — rolled out of the same western Pennsylvania town.

Until now.

I’ve got nothing against Anheuser-Busch. Love the commercials. But Rolling Rock’s charm was its story, its tie to a town synonymous with the brew. Painted on the bottles now is, “Latrobe Brewing Co., St. Louis, Mo.” Like the Latrobe workers, I’ve had my last Rock.

So I was thrilled to hear that LaCrosse, Wisc.,-based City Brewing, which bought the Latrobe plant in September, announced a deal last week to brew Samuel Adams there under contract for Boston Beer Co. City expects to have 100 people working in Latrobe by the end of the year, 250 within three years.

Now, Sam Adams has no more to do with Latrobe than Anheuser-Busch. But that beer’s launch in 1985 is at least partly responsible for the revival in regional and craft brewing now sweeping America. I can’t think of a better fit.

The bottle will be brown and the label paper, but I’ll raise a Sam Adams this weekend for the good people of Latrobe.

As a tribute.