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