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.