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.”